Monday, June 30, 2014

Nature Girl

 Well, I'm done writing about reindeer.  Veni, Vidi, Reliqui, as the saying (almost) goes.  In my mind I've already moved forward into the next year, which will see me in Southeast Asia at Christmas and Greece at Tsaagan Sar.  Today I bought tickets, and that makes everything real.  I'll be home in approximately a week, with a brief layover hanging out with whomever I can scare up in Seoul on a Sunday afternoon.

Countryside?  Bah.  I'm over it.  At least until I go to see the swans in Sukhbaatar with Engrish in October.
However, as mentioned, I did visit Khuvsgul Lake while I was out.  She was Nature in all her beautiful, barfy splendor.  Khuvsgul's the second oldest lake in the world (if you can believe your trusty Lonely Planet), Lake Baikal's very own Babysis. 

Hmmm.  I'm maybe understanding why my students have a hard time figuring out when I'm using sarcasm and when I'm not.

Khuvsgul is beautiful, don't get me wrong.  I went for a cruise around the lake on the boat pictured above, the Sukhbaatar, so that I could really get the scope of the lake's beauty, not to mention her size.  The water was so blue that I couldn't help taking a shload of pictures of the boat's wake, and how the light caught on (and in) the water.  I walked a ways along its shoreline (mostly because I was killing time before the cruise, which was NOT the cruise on Hakone - there was no first class for starters, no coke, and the lady selling khuushuur ran out just as I went to buy one.  My life is tough).  But I was pretty worn down by this point in my trip, and I really couldn't give a flying fig newton.

See, attitude really is everything.
Besides the blueness of the water (you could say it blue itself!) my mind was blown by the size of it.  That kind of indistinct blur above the horizon?  Yeah, that's not the far's the island in the middle.  Khuvsgul isn't Mongolia's largest lake by surface area (that's Uvs, for you trivia fans), but it is biggest by volume, and contains 70% of Mongolia's fresh water.
But the actual highlight of coming to Khatgal (the town on the southern shore of the lake), was staying at Garage 24.  Khatgal used to be - basically - a truck stop on the way to Russia, and this was one of the service stations.  Well, some enterprising genius turned it into a hostel for visitors to the lake, and it is fantastic.  The owner had people ready to answer the phone when my driver pulled into Khatgal at oh-dark-hundred and explain how to get there.  The beds might not have been super soft, but I had a whole room to myself (I was the only person in a dorm made for eight), and the food was like a miracle unfolding in my mouth.  Chili Burrito.  Two words, neither of which implies mutton or noodles.  I ordered them for a late lunch, then woke up later to pay my bill and order them again for dinner.  My only complaint was that their selection of discarded books was lacking a bit - I was initially excited to see Dan Brown's Inferno sitting on the top of their piano, but it was in German, and the few books which were NOT in other languages were snooze worthy.  So maybe when the day comes that I finally leave Mongolia for good I will have to send them my leavings, just because them being there on this trip was amazing.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

People Smell Better Than Reindeer

The problem with pooping outside is not the fact that you are pooping outside.  It has nothing to do with the challenge of balancing long enough to evacuate the waste from your body (rather than daintily perching your ass on a porcelain throne).  It is not that you might get stuck without a supply of toilet paper, or that you're leaving behind a pile of dookie on the ground, rather than cleanly flushing it away, although, of course, all of those things are inconvenient, to say the least.

No.  The problem with pooping outside is the mosquitos, which will find your undefended pale white ass an irresistible target.  However, that's a temporary issue, and if you are lucky enough to be a once-in-three-days sort of regular, you may manage to get away with only a few bites.  On the other hand, a friend who will be unnamed because I'm not sure she would want me to mention this, once got her period while traveling in the Gobi.  Girls, can you imagine having to deal with that when you don't have real toilets or showers?  Or, for example, in an area where you are expected to pack out your own trash and "leave no trace?"  That would be hell, wouldn't it?  I hope you never have to experience it.
You have possibly all seen Frozen a bajillion times by now, so I hope you get the reference to Kristoff and Sven's duet I made in this post's title and the last.  (I like to think I'm clever with my titles.  Most of the time, this probably isn't true).  I thought it was funny, because although my nose seems to be getting more sensitive as I age (which I attribute to the possibility of becoming a werewolf), I didn't notice a strong smell from either the reindeer or their herders.  I did, on the other hand, pick up on the pong radiating from my own body, and if they thought the number of wet wipes I went through washing my hands was funny, they probably would have been even more amused to see me using them to give myself a sponge bath on the second day at camp.  My days-without-a-shower record is 8, by the way, but that was - damn - ten years ago, when I was a young and crazy twenty something working for a month and a half for Anasazi.
The way that the Tsataan live seems so amazing to me.  The kids still have chores (although rounding up the reindeer on reindeer-back seems even cooler than mowing the lawn on my family's riding lawnmower - lucky kids), and can amuse themselves without iPhones or video games.  Hell, I can't even do that, as evidenced by the fact that as soon as I got home I went into full-on internet addiction mode.
And the fact that I dislike cooking, in spite of all the modern conveniences and running water to wash up with, seems really ridiculous when I look at the Tsataan's lifestyle.  They milk the reindeer.  They make cheese, butter, yogurt, and of course, the trademark milk tea with the milk.  Using just a simple stove they make flat noodles and some of the most delicious bread I've ever eaten (seriously!  I could have and actually did live on that bread.  It blew my mind).  They can do so much with so little and it makes me ashamed that I do so little with so much.  Possibly it's time to change that.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Reindeer Are Better Than People

Leaving Tsaagan-Nuur I started to send a text to Blondie, asking if anyone had left their grill out, because I was pretty sure I was going to need to burn some clothes when I got back.  I've been back in the city for going on sixty hours now, and I've only JUST gotten around to my laundry.  See, I used up the last of my detergent before I left, and in spite of the fact that every day I've gone to the store, and every day I've thought, "I need a shitload of detergent to clean this mess up!" I still had to make a special trip out this evening to get it.  So my bag of clothes has sat next to the hallway door til just a few minutes ago, staring balefully at me and not getting any fresher.
Much like this young reindeer...
Sometimes in winter, you'll see reindeer in UB, but the only time I'd seen one before this trip was near Nailakh on our way back from Terelj on Chinggis Day Weekend.  Apparently there are reasons why the Tsataan keep their herds in such a remote place - the reindeer need very specific living conditions to be happy and healthy - and people taking them other places is a bit controversial in the community, to say the least.  As someone with similarly specific needs (such as internet, books, and food that involves something besides mutton and noodles), I can dig that, and didn't really mind going out of my way to see them - whining aside.
As I mentioned on Thursday, I did grow up in the country, and we have a saying dealing with the time when bovine animals make their way to their abodes (yeah.  When the cows come home).  I don't really remember our cows having a curfew, but these reindeer did, and I thought it was pretty interesting.  I'd be sitting in the urtz and hear their distinctive snorting huffs getting closer and closer.
During one evening I was standing in the road as they came past.  One deer walked right up to me - I am guessing he was looking for a treat, and I held out my hand so he could sniff it (I was not quite willing to let him lick it, although he tried).  In exchange, I got to touch his antlers, which were damp with the rain and velvety soft.  Some of the antlers were incredibly big, and made me wonder if they had a hard time keeping their heads up.
Communism is a funny thing.  Kazakh culture in Mongolia is more authentic than in Kazakhstan, largely because it was left alone.  The Tsataan, however, had their culture threatened by the government during those years.  Reindeer herds were taken away from private farmers and kept by the state, and while there were benefits, on the whole I can't imagine having what amounts to my livelihood and my culture taken away from me.  Thankfully, as an international educational mercenary, I'm unlikely to find out.

P.S. That river in the background was my water source for the three days I was at the Tsataan camp.  Shaggy - O Gearmeister Extraordinaire - gave me a fantastic Sawyer Squeeze Water Filtration kit, which meant I got to drink cool clean water instead of having to ask the family to boil water for me.  Imma have to give that brother of mine a big sloppy kiss when I get home!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The World's Most Remote Bronies

Part of what caught my imagination when it came to this trip was a project about remote tribes called "Before They Pass Away."  I'd already been to Bayan-Olgii to see the Kazakh eagle hunters and was hoping to make this trip when I stumbled on Jimmy Nelson's work.  The idea of seeing a culture that might disappear gave me extra desire to make it happen - although actually making it happen was easier said than done.

I was truly hoping to make the trip through the Tsataan Community Visitor's Center.  I wanted to do things the right way, and benefit the people as much as I can.  However, the price tags the tour companies were quoting me seemed ridiculous - one woman said the trip would cost $2500, which is more than I spent on the Tibet part of last summer's adventures.  Luckily for me Engrish has mad connections, and one of them had a Tsataan coworker with whom she'd traveled to the taiga before.  Together they managed to organize things for me.  I did contact the TCVC, both through email and phone, about helping me to organize the actual trek out to the camp, but I never heard back from them.  Maybe it's my lack of Mongolian; I don't know.  I stopped in the Visitor's Center while I was wandering in Tsaagan-Nuur, and made a donation.  Since the total cost of the entire trip (including my flights, the donation, and the non-Tsataan portion) was only a little more than a fifth of that original quote, it probably wasn't enough.  But I did try.
When I got into Tsaagan-Nuur my contact, Darima, gave me the traditional bowl of milk tea and showed me a place to rest before heading out to the camp.  I was a little startled that we'd be leaving for the camp that day.  I thought I had an eight-hour horse trip ahead of me, but in fact I stayed with a family that was a little more than an hour by jeep away from Tsaagan-Nuur.  In spite of my nap, I fell asleep on the ride there, and was only awakened just before getting there by Darima tapping me on the shoulder and directing my attention to the reindeer herd, chilling out on the ice.  Yes, there was still ice on the river at the end of June.  This is Mongolia, bitches.
After another obligatory bowl of tea (this one made with reindeer milk), I was showed to the "hotel," a spare urtz (teepee)...the very one that the reindeer is poking its head into.  I was happy enough with my new digs, but later they decided to move me in with the family, I believe because they thought I would get cold, since the stove in the urtz-buudal wasn't set up.  Or maybe it was because it also served as the garage for their motorcycle.  Whatever the case, sharing space with others isn't always my favorite thing, especially when we don't have a common language between us - it's a little awkward and I miss my privacy - but we got along okay.
My cousin asked me out of the blue this winter what Mongolia was like, and if I thought he'd like it.  It's a hard place, sometimes, but it's beautiful, and the way of life is so low-impact.  But even here on the edge of the taiga the Tsataan have some modern conveniences.  Solar panels collect power for light and even some entertainment.  The second evening I stayed here the two sons of the family powered up a very small portable tv and tuned the satellite dish to watch "My Little Ponies."  The younger boy was maybe four or five, but the other was old enough to be tooling around on the family motorcycle.  Here we were, within spitting distance of the Russian border, as "off the grid" as you can be in this day and age, and I was sacked out watching Rainbow Dash and company with the world's most remote bronies.

Add that one to the "Most Surreal Experiences" list, my friends.  It's gonna be hard to top.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stitch 'n Bitch

There are no words to describe the absolute ecstasy of being at home, in your own shower (that has great water pressure), with a pizza on the way.  Orgasmic?  Oh, buddy, you have no bloody idea.

So I survived my trip to Khuvsgul aimag - the wild northern reaches of the wild northern Mongolia.  I thought I was supposed to come back on Sunday the 29th, then I realized that my ticket said July 3rd.  I'm not sure what I was thinking, but the irony that the destination - Murun, phonetically - is often printed as Mörön is not lost on me, because that's exactly what I was, buying a ticket to the countryside for two weeks.  How do I begin to explain why this was a bad idea?  Let's start with the fact that I'm a city girl, through and through.  I don't know if you've realized this or not, but in spite of coming from the country, there are very few places I've traveled to that neither are city nor have been city.  Before Mongolia, there were a couple of hikes in Korea (and let's face it, so many people hike in Korea that even a mountain counts as a city) and Wadi Rum.  That's about it.  As a result, there's not much to do in the country.  Well, I don't think so - I'm sure there's all sorts of fun survival-ly shit Shaggy could come up with, but as previously mentioned, I'm a city girl.  I like to visit museums and climb over ruins and eat yummy food and take in the arts.  I brought one book with me.  ONE.  I guess I thought this would be a good time to knock that book off my list because I kept getting distracted at home, but without distractions it only lasted me two days into my camp with the Tsataan.  Then there's the fact that I was traveling alone.  Admittedly, that's my thing, but traveling alone when nobody around you speaks English and there's not much to do AND you have finished your ONLY book is a bit problematic.
The drive was another source of consternation for me.  According to the trusty Lonely Planet, it's a 12 hour drive to Tsagaan-nuur from Murun.  I figured that meant we'd drive out in the morning and get there in the evening, because what kind of idiot would drive though "bone-crunching" terrain in the dark?  I'm serious here.  Imagine the worst road you've ever driven on, and then figure out how to make it worse - maybe with some big ass boulders or crossing creeks two and a half feet deep.  Then make that half the trip, sometimes at inclines of 45 degrees or so.  And I had a good seat.  On the way to Tsagaan-nuur I was sitting in the front seat of a Russian van, and in spite of the fact that I had a good collection of knots on my head from bashing it against the metal strip along the edge of the window when the jostling of the van "woke me up," I was relatively comfortable.  On the way back, I rented a driver to take me to Khatgal - figuring a nice comfy jeep leaving at 2pm was much more the way to go.  Well, again, in spite of leaving on Mongolian time (nearly two hours late), I didn't have it too bad, but my "tour operator" decided to come along for the ride, with five of her nearest and dearest.  Yep, that's right - six people were wedged in the back seat of the jeep for that hellish ten and a half hour drive (we obviously made better time on the way back, probably because we didn't stop every half hour for pee/smoke breaks).  And the truly terrible thing is that the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.  Khuvsgul may very well be the best looking province in a country full of beautiful provinces, but much of the drive was in the dark, so you can't even enjoy it.

You may say to yourself, "I thought you were an optimist, oh mighty Great One.  Aren't you always spouting off about looking for rainbows?"  Well, first, no - I'm a cheerful (most of the time) pessimist, not an optimist.  Secondly, I thought about that, the last evening I was at the Tsataan camp.  Where were the rainbows?  I came up with a few, but then the next morning I slipped and came down hard coming back from the river to get water (soaking my boots for the second time that morning and the fifth time in three days), and again later that day (as I was finishing my first shower in four days, and that was a doozy in which I tore or stretched something in my arm that's apparently not supposed to go that way), after which I said, "F*CK THIS SHIT!"  I called AeroMongolia and changed my ticket to come back today.  One week in the wilderness is more than enough for this girl, and now that I've gotten the whining out of the way, hopefully I'll be able to be a little more objective about the experience.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

How to Enjoy an Additional 9 Hours Stuck in Incheon

So, I'm off for the next week to visit the Tsataan reindeer herders northeast of Khuvsgul Lake.  It's a magical place that doesn't have this thing called In Ter Net, which means no blogging.  Alas, I have not left you comfortless.  I've been sitting on this particular post since Christmas (aka, the time of year when I plan how to get home with the maximum hours layed-over in Seoul to catch up with my peeps), because I knew that a time would come when I would need it.  That time is now.

I have waxed ecstatic on multiple occasions about how much I love Korea.  The main international airport, Incheon, is just one of the many, many reasons for that love, but considering how many times I've been through there, it's a big one.  Let's start the "How-do-I-love-thee-let-me-count-the-ways" game with the transportation.  There are fast trains that connect the airport with downtown Seoul.  If you want to go elsewhere and have to make more than one transfer to get there, there are the airport limo buses.  Personally the buses are my favorite way to go, because as often as not I am heading to Bundang to catch up with my Dark Lord and Master, and it takes a little more than an hour, I think.  They're more expensive than taking a train, but they're not called Limousine Buses for nothing - the seats are luxuriously big and comfortable, and I have yet to be on one that was packed, so you should have room to stretch out.  And from there, well, my friends, Seoul is your oyster.

But if you can't be bothered leaving the airport, no matter how hard I sell Korea to you, here are some things you can easily do without walking outside.

1. Pretend to be Kim, Yu-Na (without the whole Russian gold medal scandal):  That, ladies and gentlemen, is an ice skating rink.  Yes, there is an ice rink in Incheon airport.  You'll need to pass through immigration to get there, but the fact remains that you can rent a pair of skates and work on your triple lutzes while you're waiting for your connection.  This picture was taken in January, but it was still up in April, so as far as I know it's a year round thing.

2. Catch a movie:  Again, this is outside the secure area, but I have yet to undergo a full-body search no matter how many times I've been through Seoul.  Oh sure - you may be thinking you just spent 13 hours sitting and watching movies (or are about to - unless you're flying Delta, 'cause I had a trans-Pacific flight with them once that had NO seatback entertainment and let me tell you how much THAT sucked).  However, all those movies are OLD movies.  Also, there's something to be said for watching a movie in Korea.  It's an experience.  You get to choose your seat.  It's about as expensive as a movie back home, but nobody really cares if you bring your own snacks - although I wouldn't flaunt it, since it's been several years since I went to the theater in Korea.  And there are subtitles in Korean, which means that sometimes people talk during the movie - not necessarily a good thing, but one kind of interesting to experience.
3. Take in some art:  Back into the secure area, there's an art gallery.  The last show (possibly the permanent exhibition) was about the art of hangul - the Korean alphabet.  Ask any Korean who their most famous leader was and they will tell you King Sejong Daewon.  He decided that the literacy of his people was more important than written snobbery and invented Korea's alphabet to replace Chinese characters.  As someone who can read Korean but knows only two Chinese characters (love and mountain), I think the man had a point.  This art show is testament to the fact that Koreans generally agree.
4.  Make some art:  There's a couple of Korean culture centers in the airport, and they let you make crafts for free.  Whether or not you feel that you are a budding Picasso, you can't beat the price tag, and it's a nice way to take up a half-hour or so of your layover.  Last time I visited them and made a coffee tumbler that commemorated my visit to Seoul with my girl-crushes, Champ and Little Miss Catwalk.  This lady's doing printmaking, which seriously requires NO artistic talent, and has been an option as long as I can remember.
5.  Try some music that is NOT K-Pop:  The aforementioned culture centers also have music and dance performances, although you'll have to either be lucky or ask when they are happening.  And while you're making art and listening to music, you can admire Korea's traditional dress, the hanbok.
6.  Find out why Korea's internet is world-famous:  Not only is it fast, it's ubiquitous.  Some of the internet providers have even sponsored free internet cafes, so if you used up your battery on your flight and don't have time to wait for your laptop or iPad to power up, you can use one of their devices.  Is that cool or what?
7.  Free shower:  Are there any two sweeter sounding words when you've been on a flight for 13 hours and still have three more to go after your layover?  I think not.  This, good people, is the true genius of Incheon International Airport, and I think a large part of why it is a perennial rival to Hong Kong and Singapore for the World Airport Award.

Although the comfortable digs and plentiful power points don't hurt, either. 

And probably the Starbucks, Burger King, Kraze Burger, etc...the good restaurants might have something to do with it, too.  If you're flying to Mongolia, go through Seoul.  Seriously.  Because if you're going to get stuck, you'll have a much better time here than in Beijing.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Short Circuit

The only phrase I think I use more than, "I really love my students," this spring is, "I can't believe this year is already over."  I used it more than once over this weekend, when the long-awaited trek into east Gobi finally happened.  Blondie's PA, Wild Ass (previously of Tashkent fame), schemed with her to take us out to Sainshand, which just happens to be Engrish's old digs, as well as on my list of places to see thanks to an enthusiastic endorsement by Lit and the fact that it's a Shambhala energy center.
Alright, first thing you need to know is that it's 1:30 in the morning.  I finished procrastinating, finished packing, and I'm now trying to knock this thing out before I leave for Khuvsgul.  So I'm perhaps not at my most witty (am I ever at my most witty when it doesn't involve some sort of phallus-related travel?  Probably not).  Okay, back to Sainshand.  Danzan Ravjaa is the guy to know in town.  He was a 19th century monk/intellectual, and was eventually proclaimed the Fifth Gobi Lord (there's a more technical term for it, but you're getting what you can understand, homeslice). Also, for some reason that I don't care about enough to figure out right now, his wisdom symbol is the scorpion.  Aww, hell - there are scorpions in the Gobi?  Why the hell didn't anyone tell me that before we ran off to the desert???
Khamaryn Khiid was DR's monastery, and before the communist purges, it was probably pretty cool to look at.  Ten years ago, when Engrish (who - true to her identity as a teacher of English - turns out to be a grammar nazi, and probably cringes at least several times during each blog post she reads...anyone want to guess how many mistakes I've made on this go round?) was last here, the stupa-ish building in the middle of the top picture was the only thing they'd rebuilt.  It's come along quite well since then.  I found it highly amusing that the monk had built a monument to his mother's breasts.  Yes, that's exactly what the above picture is of, although I can't tell you if the Stalinists tore these down or not.  They're kind of gross, though, since the offerings one is supposed to splash on the saintly Mrs. Ravjaa's ta-tas are milk (duh) and rice. 
The actual energy center was our next stop on the shambhala circuit - the real reason why people were crazy enough to set up shop out here in the first place.  I've seen photos of it before, and it was very gratifying to figure out what those pictures are of.  What exactly is an "energy center?"  Well, from what I can tell, exactly what it sounds like - a place where there's a strong presence of some sort of earth-based energy.  People were lying down on the ground to soak it in through their whole bodies.  The four of us discussed how long we would need to lie there to store enough energy to get us through the three kid-free wrap up days we had ahead of us, but since we hadn't brought a blanket to lie on, we didn't get to test it and see.
Like most holy sites in Mongolia, offerings are given - in this case, vodka and more rice - and wishes are made.  For the first time in a very long time, I didn't really have anything to wish for...although come to think of it, I still haven't become an elf, although a couple of my darling 9th graders were kind enough to tell me I looked like a character out of Lord of the Rings.  My hair is getting longer, but I'm afraid I still look more like an overfed goblin than an elf.  Probably because I haven't gotten off my lazy ass for much longer than it takes to get a coke out of my fridge and come back for another episode of Fairy Tail.
During the circumnambulation of the energy center, you should be on the lookout for a white stone that is the only stone that could possibly be yours.  When you finish the circuit, there's a pile of stones on which you're supposed to cast yours after speaking your full name and birth date to the stone.  I have no idea why - I'll have to ask Wild Ass for clarification on that one and let you know.
At our penultimate stop I learned that monks are, in essence, just a bunch of good ol boys after all.  That is the only explanation I can come up with for what Wild Ass told me went down around this part of the tour.  In these cliffs are a bunch of caves, and the monks would seal themselves in for three months as a part of their meditations.  For the first month, a bowl of soup was passed through a small hole in the rock.  For the second month, it was only water.  For the third month - nothing.  At the end of the third month, the other monks would come and unseal the cave.  Either the brother who had been meditating would be dead (in which case they sealed up the cave again and it became his tomb), or he would be floating off the ground, in a trance-like state.  It sounds like something the students who tried "Man vs Wild" as a science fair project last year would have come up with, if they were grown-ass monks. 
Moral of the story, because it's creeping up on two now and I want to sleep?  The desert is cool, but what the hell, people?  Out here I had sympathy for the biblical Children of Israel.  If this was the landscape stretching out in front of me, you bet your ass I'd have a whiny word or two to say to my fearless leader (especially if all we had to eat was manna and quail).  Maybe there's something to the whole energy center thing, to keep people out here.  Or maybe it's the fact that Mongolians have khuushuur, a treat I've managed to get Blondie hooked on. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Medieval Munchies

Grub Club is officially disbanded for the summer, but I've got one food post left in me before I head off into the's a little banquet put on by my rival for the 11th graders' affection called the Medieval Feast.  I spent the last month looking forward to it and trying to figure out what I could possibly wear that was sort of medieval.  Luckily one of the girls took my camera and snapped some pictures of the teachers.  I'm the second from the left, and although you can't see my long skirt or the belt that really made the outfit, I think I did pretty well!
Milady the Duchess of Gallifrey's herald...oh yes, we all had names.  I was the Princess Freedom of Justice (because apparently that's what we 'Muricans are known for), and I am happy to report that the only attendant of higher rank than myself was our principal.  The kids did everything - the food, the drinks, the entertainment, and yes, the titles, so I'm taking that to be a mark of their high esteem for me...possibly because I let them get away with murder.  Next year I plan to make them call me Princess.  Anyways, the herald announced each of the guests, who entered the banquet hall to be greeted with bows from the servants - which include a knight templar, a priest, and a serf (sorry, I don't remember the others).
Here you can see the Duchess, her herald, and one of her knights.  The serf was a lot of fun to tease - yea, he was a bit uppity, and I suggested that the Duchess give him a good fifty lashes, or mayhaps demote him to court jester.
I was pretty proud of my medieval dress until I saw what Mad Science came up with.  She was E____ of Arc, accompanied by faithful Patsy (complete with "coconuts") and she actually did it sounded like quite a bit of research into her armor and the undergarments that go with it before making the damn thing.  It made me sick with envy and at the same time gave me some ideas for the Halloween costume I decided to make for later this year.
The Duchess has shown them everything from Monty Python to a Knight's Tale to get them in the right mindset, and although some of the entertainment included traditional readings of Chaucer (including the bit in the Squire's Tale about our favorite pillager, Chinggis Khaan), My favorite was their performance of this courtly dance from Gelderland, accompanied by the mystical troubadour box which played a tune by Sir David of Bowie (oh yes they didst!)
But yea, verily I said this wast a food post, didn't I?  I should have been taking photos from the beginning but I only thought of it while I was working up the courage to try the main course.  Oh, we had a tangy delicious salad to start us off, and while I didn't care much for the soup I found the bread to be delicious.  We drank a sort of tea made from brewed apples, and then the main course came out.  I was pretty sure I knew what it was, but since I had never eaten it before, I figured there was no better time than the present, and with that first bite I knew it was liver.  It tasted exactly like cat food smells.  It didn't activate my gag reflex (which is saying a lot - raw broccoli activates my gag reflex!) but I could not get past that first bite.  It was followed shortly thereafter by an apple tart, though, and that was well worth the wait.

The Duchess was a little nervous - it is not easy to leave something this big completely in the hands of students, but if there were any students I'd give complete control to, it would be these guys (or the ones that have been my students this year, at any rate...they are fantastic).  I'd say I would miss them this summer, but honestly I think the summer will be over before I even fully realize I've left the country, and I BADLY need a break from the ones that I definitely WON'T miss.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Awkwardest Show on Earth

The rest of the school year has gone by more quickly than this week.  Seriously.  I don't know if it's because finals have robbed me of my favorite students or what, but this week couldn't go by any slower.  And at its end?  A graduation that left me utterly cold.  It was a very well-done affair, and went off without a hitch, but I didn't feel connected to it at all.  I taught half the graduates over the last two years, but whether at the actual ceremony or at the dinner, none of them actually had anything to say to me.  A different group of graduates - affectionately known by some of their teachers as "the Shrews" - was warmer than that.  But this was probably my fault - I wasn't on the graduation committee, and it's possible that they felt that all of the hard work I did for the art program this year wasn't for them.  Whatever the case may be, it's over, and in less than two weeks I'll be flying off to Lake Khuvsgul, from whence I will trek out into the Mongolian hinterlands in search of the Tsataan - an ethnic group of reindeer herders living in the taiga on the Russian border.  So roll on, summer.
I've been to the circus in UB six times now, and every show's been different.  But whether it's the presence of animals, the caliber of performers, or the narrative quality of the show (Fire Legend is still my favorite!), there are acts in common.  Contortionism.  Acrobatics.  Clowns.  The usual.  Well, the Little Stars' Miracle circus we saw last week was truly unique.  It was a Russian circus (a fact that Engrish mourned when she figured it out at the show, because she is supposed to be boycotting all things Russian) and all the performers are midgets.  Or, as Blondie likes to call them, "small friends."  And let me tell you, our driver, Enkhaa, got a big laugh out of imagining us two Amazons at a midget circus.
GAME OF THRONES SPOILER ALERT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  In the fifth book, Tyrion gets captured and sold into slavery as a dwarf performer.  If the jousting midgets at his wedding made you uncomfortable, you can probably only imagine how humiliating his life as a performer must have been.  I cringed while I was reading it.  I probably should have realized than an actual dwarf performer circus would be no less awkward, but it took being in the crowd to realize it.  According to InfoMongolia, this is the world's only famous dwarf circus, and they were last here twenty years ago.  According to Engrish, Blondie, and I, these are the same performers.  They were not we've come to expect at the circus.
There were a lot of animal acts in this circus.  I was looking forward to the cat act, because I once saw a really good one on Youtube.  However, most of the stunts the cats did were things cats do naturally, such as weave between your legs while you are walking and climb up and down over things.  The thing that cats do NOT do naturally - jump through flaming hoops - the first cat wouldn't do.  He had a "F#(@ THIS $4!7!!!" look on his face.  The second one went ahead, but by then, the flames were almost out.
The clowns were probably the best act.  I giggled hysterically when one of them brandished a live rat at the audience, stuck it back inside his jacket, and then pulled out a fake one that he threw at the audience.  The most hysterical part though was when they stole Blondie's purse.  They'd done a disappearing act where one clown waved the blue curtain while the other one made balloons "disappear" into his pants.  He then came around the audience to give the balloons away...and stopped in front of Blondie (okay, he actually gave me the eye, but apparently he decided that my backpack was too much trouble).  He gave her his - as Blondie dubbed it, "clown crotch balloon," then snatched her purse and ran back into the ring, where he repeated the trick with her purse.  She may have been a little traumatized, mostly because she knew she couldn't throw her fake leather Target purse into the wash.
And then there was the act that traumatized me - midget belly dancers.  It was a little bit creepy - there was a bit of an ick factor because one of the male performers was wearing a turban and sitting there watching them before putting one of them in a box and sticking swords into her.  It also wasn't very good.  Belly dance no matter what your size is, and perform no matter what your talent may be, but if you're gonna take your show on the road, improve it.  I realize they're circus performers, not professional dancers, but it kind of bothered me that they put on cheap costumes and just shimmied.  Give me something that will dazzle me.

Just like last year's circus for children's day, this year's finale ended with bears.  Blondie and Engrish were a little concerned about our front row seats, envisioning the bears coming past and deciding that some plump, juicy white meat sounded nicer than the snacks that their trainers were handing out, but this didn't happen.  Instead we got to see bears riding bikes.  Bears playing basketball.  Bears proving they are smarter than your kids (yeah - they are).  And...yeah.  This happened.  Bears who get excited about their jobs.  'Nuff said.

I won't say that this was the most surreal night of my life, because I've seen some crazy shit, man, but it's up there.  I think the absolute normalcy that it was presented with is what made it so bizarre.  If they'd played up the weirdness, it wouldn't have been so awkward.  Maybe I'm a terrible person for wanting them to take what they are and run with it, but hell, I want everyone to take what they are and run with it, make it work for them, so I suppose that's not too discriminatory.  At any rate, it was an experience, and one that got a big reaction out of my students when I mentioned it the next day.