Thursday, October 23, 2014

Mongolian Royal

I was born in Kansas City, Missouri.  When I was three, my parents moved my brother and I about an hour away from the city, and although I spent my adolescence in Iowa, I always considered Kansas City my home, and moved back there as soon as I graduated from high school.  I don't consider myself much of an American, but I am Missourian, so it warmed the cockleburrs of my little heart to see the Royals make it to the World Series for the first time since I was an anklebiter.

I am telling you all this because I had an experience over the weekend that brought back other Kansas City childhood memories...of the American Royal, specifically.  My Dad took Shaggy and I at least twice, and I remember the excitement of the rodeo.  When I went back as a college student, it wasn't quite the same, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, so when Engrish told me how she'd seen an advertisement for the Thousand Foal Festival in Altanbulag this past Sunday, I was all for it.
To call this festival a rodeo isn't quite accurate, but there's both ropin' and ridin', so close enough.  The day begins by capturing the young horses and tying them to a picket line.  You can probably imagine that they aren't exactly enthusiastic about this.  I'm not sure how young horses are brought up in other parts of the world, but these foals are a little like first graders...kinda feral.
It took quite a bit of doing to get the SoundCloud track embedded (I forgot how I did it when I came back from Tokyo in April), so I hope you enjoy it.  The real fun begins around 9 seconds, although you can hear the herders on their motorcycles at the beginning.
Well, there's only so long that you can wander up and down the picket lines taking adorable photos before you get hungry.  And fortunately, we tailgate on the steppe, too.  This family was running their khuushuur business out of the back of their van.  The lady in red made balls of dough with meat in the middle, the person inside the van rolled them out flat, and the other man cooked them on a ger stove (remind me to tell you about making ger chili in my next post...amazing...)  The meat was VERY dark.  I think it was actually horse meat, which might have been a little gauche under the circumstances but was also, as Blondie said, damn tasty.
You may be wondering why we drove all the way out into the countryside to see a bunch of baby horses.  The point of the day was that they eventually moved the mares to the other end of the field and raced the baby horses to see who would reach their mother first.  And of course it would be pathetic to have a horse race without betting.  Which brings me to my next point...I am totally going to Hell, because not only did I ditch church on Sunday, I went to a HORSE RACE where I bet on a baby horse.

I have a soul as black as night.  Good thing I'm such a sucker for my kids or I might never redeem myself...
After putting my 5,000T down on number 32, Engrish, Blondie, and I had Enkhaa drive us to the other end of the field, since that seemed like the thing to do.  The "winner's circle" was set up down there, and the herders were showing off their skills. 
One interesting skill they were showing off was picking their "lasso" up off the ground at a gallop.  Some were able to do it...and others weren't.  There was a scary moment when one rider overturned their horse - maybe he was too heavy for the angle required?  I don't know how well you can tell from the photos, but Mongolian horses are quite small, and the rider in question was fairly heavy.
Finally the mares were moved to the other end of the field, and people went to the picket lines so the foals could be released.  This was the moment we'd been waiting for...would number 32 prevail over 84 and 89 (Engrish and Blondie's picks)?
Well, yes.  Actually he did, although I didn't realize it until I went back and looked at the pictures after I'd gotten home.  But he didn't win the race; that honor went to a different foal, number 60, I think.  At least 32 went the right direction, unlike these shmucks. 
The majority of the foals followed their mothers' scent, which led them in a long arc away from us rather than straight across the field, and they needed a little help from the herders to figure out where they were going.  They got there in the end, though.
Where ya goin', Tiny Horse?
The Thousand Foals Festival was a nice trip out of the city (even if I underestimated the cold).  I'm not sure I would go again, if I had the chance, but I'm glad Engrish and Blondie were up for it, and that Enkhaa drove us (in spite of the fact that driving us to Sukhbaatar wrecked his "Land Cruiser").  Not just because it was unique and made a good blog post, but because it answered a very important question in my mind...why Twilight Sparkle and friends are animated running the way they do in My Little Ponies.  Answer: because that's how carefree young fillies actually run. 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Chillin' With Chinggis

I continue to stand by my previous statement that getting there is NOT half the fun.  However, traveling with Engrish does have its charms, and in spite of the decidedly less attractive countryside, I enjoyed this trek a lot more than the one to Khuvsgul in June, largely thanks to her. 

For starters, she knows a helluva lot more Mongolian than I do, but she's even better at talking to people in English than I am.  As we left our luxury digs (that was sarcasm, there) in Baruun-Urt in search of adventure out on the town, we ran into a Peace Corps volunteer.  Pretty much every Peace Corps person I've ever met dresses pretty shabby, and I guess that goes with the territory, but I still thought Heath was just about the cutest thing I've seen all year, so when he invited himself to walk with us (apparently that's what you do when you're one of five English speakers living in a town - well, three times the size of Glenwood) we were happy to oblige him.  We did a pretty good circuit of the town, and he invited us to eat pizza with him and his four friends, but we ended up parting ways when we got back to where we met him.  At that point, a drunk Mongolian guy decided it was time to practice what little English he knew, and Heath tried to distract him as Engrish and I snuck off. 

Sadly, he was not a very good distraction, because the drunk guy kept trying to get our attention, and as a result, Engrish walked into a pole.  It made a nice "DONG!" and I would like to say I didn't laugh, but, well, I don't have an evil streak so much as an occasional good streak.
The most interesting parts of the journey I've already told you about.  After the aimag museum in Baruun-Urt there wasn't much left to do but roll over all the kilometers between us and UB.  We stayed in Khentii's capital the third night, in a ger camp that was actually closed for the season, but Enkhaa can apparently be pretty persuasive when he doesn't want me and Engrish to pay for a separate hotel room for him.  As we were driving out of town to it the sun started going down, and even my college drawing teacher, Gosnell, couldn't argue that this was "the big one."  I strong-armed Enkhaa into driving up to the ovoo on the top of the hill, with the above result.  Sometimes you get lucky and have perfect timing.
The capital used to be called Öndörkhaan, but thanks to Khentii being even more famous as the birthplace of Chinggis Khaan than it is for its bread, it was renamed Chinggis City in his honor.  Which seems like a bunch of dung (an excellent way to heat your ger in Sukhbaatar, by the way...) but it's kind of like Istanbul/'s nobody's business but the Turks.  Or in this case, the Mongols.  At any rate, we stopped by the Chinggis Colossus on our fourth and final day because while Engrish had been there before, after two years here I still hadn't.  If I believed in working for free, my TripAdvisor review would go something like this:

 Chinggis Colossus
Probably not worth driving two hours out of the city for, but an interesting way of breaking up the drive if you're on your way home.  7,000 tugs seems steep unless you desperately need to drop deuce and couldn't do it at the ger camp the night before due to a bird in the outhouse that just about gave you a heart attack (true story).  There's a giant boot inside made from about a billion cowhides, and you know what they say about men with big feet!

In fact, there is a large white statue of the hills somewhere between the statue and Terelj park, but I'm not sure where.  As much as I would love to find it, I've embarrassed Enkhaa enough the two times I made him take us to see the small one in Kharkhorin.  One of these days I may have to rent a car and go looking.  Hopefully Engrish will be up for a wild goose chase...or perhaps I should say a wild swan chase.  As much as I love her, though, I still can't talk anime with her, so it was pointless to compare the blue skies of Mongolia to that of the Seireitei (I've moved on from Fairy Tail to Bleach).  I guess that's still what students are for.  It's nice to have a job I actually look forward to going back to tomorrow.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Jojo's Roadside Cafe

In spite of the grasslands teeming with wildlife, getting bored on a roadtrip - particularly in Mongolia's Kansas - is inevitable.  On our way back from Swan Lake, Enkhaa pulled over and declared we were taking a break.  It is possible Engrish and I need to better explain what Western women need when it comes to answering the call of nature, because we had to walk about five minutes to get far enough away from him and each other to do our business.  That's how flat and bare the land was there.  After taking care of business and eating the last of our sausage and cheese, Enkhaa scattered the crumbs of our now-fragile Khentii bread on the ground, and told us he was marking the spot because Engrish was going to come back and open up a restaurant.  This led to us spending the next fifteen minutes coming up with a business plan for Jojo's Roadside Cafe.
Concept sketch by yours truly, inspired by Rukia Kuchiki
1. She will specialize in chocolate chip cookies.
2. She will sell the Sukhbaatar aimag vodka, in its collectable swan-decorated bottle because she knows her target market.
3. She will get a big ger dog to protect her from her target market.
4. I will purchase some chocolate molds in the shape of swans so she can sell swan chocolates.
5. I'll carve something out of the local volcanic rock...perhaps balbals, so we don't wear out the whole swan theme.
6. She will discount the cookies that get left over - day old, week old...month old...
7. Forget about chocolate chip cookies - we'll make swan-shaped decorated sugar cookies, and after they pass the month-old mark we'll market them as Christmas ornaments.  PURE GENIUS!
Of course, this begs the question of what she'll do for the rest of the year, since the swan migration only takes place in October.  There are only so many times you can bench-press boulders before it gets old.  It's possible that she would just keep the cafe open during the migration and focus on her travel agency - the Jojo and Enkhaa Express - the rest of the year.  As their inaugural customer, here's the review that I can't post on TripAdvisor due to the fact that she's a friend:

The Jojo and Enkhaa Express
I contacted this agency to organize my trip to Sukhbaatar aimag at the beginning of October.  My guide spoke excellent English in spite of the fact that she's Canadian - there was hardly a single sentence that she bastardized into a question by adding, "Eh?" on the end.  She was prepared for every eventuality, and had brought her own bevy of swans* in case the lake was empty.  Enkhaa's Land Cruiser was not exactly the car I was expecting, but since it was white it provided great camouflage and probably let us pass flying swans without them even being aware of our existence.  There was never a dull moment with Enkhaa's exciting driving, and he kept the mood in the car jovial with his witty banter.  On the way back to Ulaanbaatar I protested that I couldn't wait another 2 hours for lunch, and he took us to the best roadside khushuur stand and the mutton wasn't even a little muttony!

Lots of other things happened too.  Engrish is surprised I haven't told you about them yet.  Don't worry, Engrish...I still have at least one blog in me.....

*read: Rubber Duckies.  They weren't painted white, but Engrish and I both have vivid imaginations.  And - now that I'm back in UB - paint.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Sexism on the Steppe

 Mongolian women are the absolute best.  It's not enough that they be gorgeous (and they fact, they may be the most beautiful women in Asia.  As an objective observer with vast experience with aesthetics thanks to my training in the visual arts, I think they are).  They are also smart, and strong, and driven.  It was the women of Chinggis Khaan's family that kept the empire together as long as it was.  When I started teaching, I was disappointed to realize that I actually liked my boys better than my girls, whom I aspired to be a role model for.  In Mongolia, that's not a problem.  My girls are, for the most part, much more interesting and outspoken than my boys, and I love them for restoring my faith in our gender.

That's why I find it baffling that there are places that women can't visit here.  Not like a proper gentleman's club, but shamanist or Buddhist sites where they are not supposed to walk.  
We ran into this in June, when Wild Ass and our driver explained that we couldn't go to the top of Black Mountain, and regaled us with tales of women who had scoffed at this restriction to their regret.  I didn't think too much of it at the time.  As we neared Dariganga on Sunday and Enkhaa pointed out Altan Ovoo and explained that we could walk the kora around the mountain but not hike up it, I found myself a little insulted.
But whatever.  I wasn't that interested in hiking that hill - I needed to save my energy for Shiliin Bogd later that afternoon.  I was a little irked when Enkhaa explained that men who climbed the hill were supposed to leave refreshed, but that it didn't work for women.  However, I've visited the energy center in Sainshand - I didn't need this mountain to "refresh" me, and we were definitely allowed to climb this one. 

I've mentioned this before, but I'm not the fastest hiker; I prefer stopping to smell the roses (or shoot the pictures) to racing up stupid hills.  This is good, considering I am also not the most graceful person in the world and my family might be more than a little put off if I fell off the side of a mountain.  Unfortunately this meant that I was about 20 meters short of the top when some mean old Mongolian fart told Engrish (in perfect English - good for you, asshole) that we were not allowed up there.  He actually shooed us away.  And so now I was pissed.  It's possible that I mouthed off as we started trekking down the hill, about how we didn't need his stinking mountain and that I hoped he fell off the south side into China, f*ck you very much (I didn't realize he spoke English or it's possible I wouldn't have spoken quite so loudly.  Thankfully he never would have heard me over the wind, anyways).  Everyone we spoke to afterwards said that women were allowed on Shiliin Bogd, and that jackass was the only thing keeping us from checking out the view of China 3k away on the other side (it probably wasn't much of a view, but we didn't get the chance to find out).  It wasn't a wasted trip - it was still interesting to see the volcanic craters - but I would have been happy to stay at the nearby tourist camp and go up the next morning instead (for some reason, Enkhaa changed our plan when we got back down).  Engrish and I decided (in our first of many business plans for this trip) to come back and build our own tourist camp.  On another crater.  With the prettiest ovoo in Mongolia.  And only allow women to come.  And since there are so many volcanic craters we should be able to tap a hot spring SOMEWHERE, and that would definitely leave our guests feeling refreshed.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

How We Safari on the Steppe

Sukhbaatar's biggest attraction is probably the swan migration (fascinating aimag museum with the only local examples of Dariganga silverwork notwithstanding)...BUT there's an amazing diversity of wildlife in the province.  This is good, because the topography kinda sucks - it's sort of like driving through Kansas - and watching for animals gives you something to do between napping and hitting your head on the ceiling when you hit one of the ruts in the road a little too hard.
Not - it turns out - the most common wild bird.  That would be the red-billed quelea (#stupidtriviaquestions)

No, I'm not talking about sparrows, although there are plenty of those...this one's for Engrish and one of the last questions from the last terrible quiz at Hennessy's.  Real, honest-to-goodness wildlife - we saw marmots, foxes, hawks, eagles, and even a wolf (which Enkhaa assures us is an auspicious sign - we would have taken it that way anyways, since our school mascot is the wolf).  Sadly, I never managed to get photos of most of them.  :-(
If I was a biology teacher, I'd want to bring my students out here, because you can actually see the food chain in action.  At first I wondered why there were so many birds of prey...there's not exactly an abundance of perches or nesting areas (although maybe I don't exactly understand what eagles look for in their nesting grounds).  Then I realized that there's plenty for them to eat.  They can eat the marmots and the foxes, who also eat the marmots.  The eagles may be the apex predator in this empty land - they could take down a wolf, after all, and since golden eagles can kill small deer, I'm pretty sure they could eat the wolves' main prey as well - gazelle.
Engrish regaled us with stories about her last trip to Sukhbaatar along the way, and one thing she mentioned was the THOUSANDS of gazelle they saw.  Perhaps I thought she was exaggerating.  After all, I recently read an article that said 52% of the earth's animal population has died off since 1970, and even though the gazelle is protected, this sparsely inhabited corner of Mongolia borders China, where they eat anything with four legs but tables and chairs (it's not racist if it's something the Chinese say themselves), and if it has medicinal properties an animal could be driven to extinction.
However, I was pleasantly surprised to see she wasn't far off the mark.  If there weren't a thousand gazelle on the plains of Sukhbaatar, it was damn close.  I saw the first eight.  They were well-camouflaged in the tall grass, and most of the time it was their movement that gave them away.  
They were skittish, and were off like a shot as soon as we got near.  Enkhaa liked to race them, which made it hard to get good photos of them (I was thinking I'd like a macro to be my next lens, but it's possible I need a bigger zoom...)  Sadly it was raining on our way back and we didn't see nearly as many.  Still, with all the animals and the tall grass, it was easy to imagine that we were on our own personal safari.

Swan Song

Lonely Planet wants to know what is the best place to be today.  It's ironic that I'm sitting here writing a blog about seeing the swan migration on Ganga Nuur in Sukhbaatar aimag (province) for their competition, because going to Ganga Nuur was an idea I got out of Lonely Planet.  During our visit to Tsenkher hot spring more than a year ago, I told Engrish that this was one of those things I wanted to do before I left Mongolia, and she said if I stayed another year, she'd go with me.  So here we are.
Mongolia's not the country to go to if you want to see ancient ruins or capital-c Culture, although you'll find both if you look. What it does have, if you are willing to spend the time barreling over rough roads is stunningly beautiful nature. After two years, I've come to appreciate it (although I appreciate that first shower when I get back to the city even more!)
After a long day's drive to Baruun-Urt, the aimag capital, followed by a full morning's ramble over Mongolia's famous dirt tracks, veering into and over each other before stopping halfway for slices of sausage and cheese on Khentii aimag's famous bread, we pulled up to the lake and were hailed by the chatter of a thousand birds' honking and hooting. They were scattered over the surface of the lake, none too close to the shore, some so far away that they were just specks on the water.
The weather here isn't exactly mild, but during this trip it was pretty much perfect. The wind on the lake was pretty stiff, and it was amazing to see how smoothly the swans could fly through it. The wind may have ruined the recording I tried to make of their song, but it added to the immediateness of the experience. We were really there, standing on the banks of Ganga Nuur, hidden between undulating sand dunes.
Of all the places I could be today, I can't imagine any better than this wild land. In a week or two, the swans will all have moved on, the weather will be colder; the lake may be rimed with ice and the drifts may be snow as much as sand. Today, though, we're here.  Between the birds and my bestie, there's no place else I'd rather be.