Monday, February 27, 2017

Nightwalker

I wanted to do all the things, visiting Korea this holiday.  I really did.  I looked up performances I hadn't been to, sights I hadn't seen...but it turns out that what I really want from a visit to Korea is time with my homies, shopping, and walks down memory lane.  Yesterday, for example, I had one definite goal:   to cook Azhaar dinner that night.  (When I mentioned this to my Dark Lord and Master, he asked why.  Considering the number of times I made him dinner when we worked for GDA, he should have already known the answer, but I explained it for him anyways).  Before that, though, I had some free time, so I went back to Dongdaemun to find that fabric I needed.  When I finally located it, I grabbed lunch, and by the time I was finished, I decided that I had neither time to hike Namhansanseong or to go to Heyri Art Valley, so instead I caught a taxi to Itaewon to find ingredients.

So I made burritos, and they turned out well, but I wanted to do a little more with my night, so I told Azhaar that I was off to Siloam Sauna, straightened up my crap, and off I went.  Halfway to the bus stop, though, I started thinking that maybe I should go for a wander.  One of the things that I love about Korea is that you can feel perfectly safe walking around in the wee small hours of the morning, pretty much anywhere.   So when the bus stopped just on the other side of the tunnel, next to Namdaemun Market, I hopped off.
Namdaemun was one of the first places I went in Korea, although at this point I can't explain why.  Besides the shopping in the market itself, there are tons of arcades around the area, selling everything from craft supplies to antiques, and all sorts of cool-looking ties.  During the day it's great, but at night, Seoul really shines (see what I did there?)
Actually a fair number of shops were closed by the time I got there (8:30-ish), but it still had that feeling.  I've read articles about words we don't have in English, such as schadenfreude (taking joy in the misfortune of others), but one word I haven't heard of in any language would deal with a visceral feeling - that doesn't actually align with any of your senses - invoked when standing in a place of your memories. Places like Namdaemun or the fifth floor of the fabric market, have the same feeling to me - a guaranteed hope that you can find anything.The giddy excitement of the hunt.   I'd describe it as the way scents can take you back, except it's not about scent.
It was nice to see Namdaemun's actual gate again, as well.  Namdaemun and Dongdaemun were originally gates on the old Seoul city walls...the south and the east, respectively.  During my last stint in Korea, an old dude burnt Namdaemun down in protest, and I hadn't seen it since it was restored.  
I headed down into the arcade to keep on my way to Seoul Station - there's so much traffic in that area that you can't just walk across the street.  Being from a small, midwestern town, there were many things I hadn't really experienced til I came to Seoul - like Thai food, or homeless people in the subway.  When I used to meet friends to go to Siloam, it seems like they were always lying in the corners of Seoul station.  Last night, though, there was an entire camp in the arcade next to Namdaemun.  And I'm saying this not because I felt unsafe - uncomfortable, yes, but if you don't feel uncomfortable when you are face to face with the imbalance that results in others having very little when you have just about everything you could need, there's something wrong with you - it was one of those little myriad changes I picked up on - overall the topography of the city is the same, it's just the faces of the places that have changed.  Or in this case, I guess the face remains, but the geography has changed slightly.
I passed through Seoul Station, walking by where the Bennigan's we met up in used to be, and came to the top of my stairs.  Almost every time I go to Siloam, ever since the beginning, I've slid down the railing on these stairs.  It is the perfect width, the perfect angle - you can get a pretty good slide going but still have control of your speed.  I love it.  At the bottom, I walked forward a block, crossed over to Siloam, and spent the next several hours casting off my UB grime.  I even slept in the oxygen room.

These may not have been amazing new experiences, but to me it was the perfect way to end the day.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Date with the Devil

I spent all 3 years of my life in Korea living in a bedroom city.  This is basically a city developed as a place for people who commute to, let's say, Gangnam, to sleep.  Bundang was relatively new when I moved there thirteen years ago, and even though I love all that good culture shit and historic stuff, Bundang was a perfect place for me, to the point where I have a hard time imagining a life anywhere else.  

This is part of the reason why I haven't seriously pursued coming back to Korea - no matter how much I loved it, nothing would be the same about another go-round.  Knowing I was going back to Bundang to see my own beloved Dark Lord and Master, I headed down to Butterfinger Pancakes in Jeongja (aka, not the one I took Engrish to) and had breakfast.  Or brunch, because it was 10:30 by the time I had a seat.  I walked over to Sunae from there, stopping in the middle of the bridge over the Tancheon because it had stolen my breath, the memories of walks along the water, and one particular night when we decided at midnight to go play basketball further upstream after several hours drinking at the Family Mart.  In Sunae I got a haircut - not much of one, because I want to keep it as long as I can, but I also want to start getting rid of the damaged hair - before walking on to Samsung Plaza.  Which is now AK Plaza, but like I give a crap who actually owns the shopping center above Seohyeon Station.
This is the area around Samsung Plaza at night.  Although shops and restaurants come and go, to me it looks pretty much the same as it did when I first arrived thirteen years ago.  I approached it through a park that sits between the two stations, where I once partied with the degenerates many, many moons ago, sitting on big, stone balls (again, there's a joke to be made there, but I've still got three days to go).  When I got to the area we hung out in that night, I was a little surprised to realize how close it was to Seohyeon - for some reason, I thought it was in the middle - but everything in our lives gravitated toward this shopping area, so I guess it makes sense.  But when I sat down there yesterday, and looked at the former Samsung Plaza, I was able to see it with new eyes, and realized there are similar shopping districts all over Seoul.  It was the fact that this was ours that made Samsung Plaza special.  My friends that lived in Ilsan or Suji had their own special places...even if they weren't as good.
In Seohyeon I was planning to go to Kyobo Books, but it turned out to be the grand opening of the newly minted YP Books instead.  After close inspection I decided it was same-same, and noticing that it was already 1:30 decided to call up my Dark Lord and Master.  Because he's Korean, you don't invoke him with a pentagram and blood sacrifice...most of the time I use the payphone in the subway.  As I walked down the stairs, I realized how strange that would seem if anyone really looked at it - the same foreigner using the same payphone over the course of nine years to call the same ahjjusshi - like some sort of spy checking in.  The pentagram and blood would probably be less suspect.

As it turned out, he was already at his cafe, so I jumped on the Bundang line and headed back to Jeongja, wending my way across the Tancheon and up a block to Spera.  Where we talked.  And talked.  I brought up the fact that my mom remembers him fondly when I say I'm going to see him, and then laughed because it's essentially his fault that I have been overseas as long as I have.  If I'd gone to a different school, I might not have had as positive an experience, or felt as comfortable going back when poop hit the fan.  His wife and spawn showed up and joined the conversation...I can't believe Michelle has finished her first year of college!  When I first came to GDA, I walked into the staff room one day to see a midget cutting paper.  Being witty, I tried to make a Star Wars reference - Aren't you a little short to be a teacher? - and was informed by one of my coworkers that this was our boss' daughter.  She was in first grade at the time, and already capable of tearing people to shreds with a comment and a shrewd look.

That saying about apples and trees?  It's probably true.  And not just because she's evil too - while I was talking to the two of them they'd do the same dumbass actions in response to any given comment.  It was both endearing and hilarious.
They left to get Michelle a haircut and Evil Incarnate and I continued to talk.  One of the things I love about him is the fact that I can pitch crazy ideas - such as my retirement plan - at him and he talks through them insightfully and seriously.  At least until he realizes exactly what he's hearing.  "I'm sorry, that's hilarious.  You're a white girl from America, sewing plushies in Mongolia, based on Japanese anime characters, and using fabric from Korea.  You realize how messed up that is, right?"*

Eventually, he asked if I wanted to go get dinner, and made the mistake of asking if I wanted Korean or Western.  In the old days, if I was feeling generous, I would have said Western, because even though my Master is Korean, he's a New York boy at heart, and doesn't get to eat Western food much.  Instead, I said Korean without thinking about it, and since he knew where a dalkgalbi place was, it worked out.  I haven't had dalkgalbi - stir-fried spicy chicken - since I lived in Shanghai.  The place my chingus and I always went is long gone, and I haven't put forth the effort to find one since, because I haven't been in Korea long enough on any given trip.  The four of us sat there until we were picking the last remains of the bokkeum-bap - rice stir-fried with the last of the chicken and topped with cheese.  Michelle and I talked about traveling, although I didn't give her much sympathy for not traveling abroad - she's been all over the world, and by the time I was her age I'd only been to Canada.  

Two and a half of my five-days' vacation are over, and I really haven't done anything worth blogging about, but the thing about living in Korea is, it's your friends that really make it.  And I guess that's true wherever you live, but I'll take time with Azhaar and my Dark Lord and Master over wandering new places any day.  Seoul is always here for me.

*(Previously: "I'm watching an American belly dance in Korea at an Egyptian restaurant, who's been taught by an Australian.  I don't know what country I'm in.")

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Happy Hunting Ground

I really, truly hate the phrase, "Getting there is half the fun."  It must be a relic of a bygone era, where travel meant something besides being crammed in with way too many idiots.  Take the journey from UB to Seoul, for instance.  When Enkhaa got me to the airport, the check-in line was probably the longest I've ever seen (in UB, at any rate).  Then the security line was long, and so was immigration...when  I got through I only had 40 minutes til we were scheduled to take off.  Incheon was no picnic, either - Azhaar estimated I was in the immigration line an hour, and THEN I got triggered by a bunch of people who were NOT MOVING to get through customs.  This meant that I didn't get on the train into town until 11:20, and fortunately I was second in line, or I might have spent the following hour on my feet, hating life, because it was packed.  

I hadn't actually thought much about the final leg of the trip - getting to Azhaar's flat - until I wheeled my little carry-on off the elevator above Noksapyeong.  This was when I realized that I'd just assumed I'd be able to find her apartment.  As I mentioned last time, I have a pretty badass memory, but I've only been to her place twice, both times following her up the hills after midnight, and I'd received a message from her while I was waiting in the never-ending immigration line telling me to let myself in because she had a headache and was going to bed.  So even though I'm pretty good at sweet-talking people into loaning me their phones when I can't use mine, I didn't want to wake her up unless I had to.  Well, my memory came through in the end.  At the bottom of Noksapyeong hill, I found my first landmark - kimchi pots - and then got to the noraebang (I thought it was a supermarket, but I recognized it when I saw it), and when I got to the 7-11 where we bought my coke the last time I visited, it became a matter of finding the place I thought was right, and confirming it by checking the wifi names.  Easy cheesy.
This morning Azhaar (in her bedroom) messaged me (in the living room, LOL) wanting to know what I wanted to do today.  #1 on my list was the fabric market (followed closely by a call to my Dark Lord and Master to figure out when I could see hiim).  After a quick shower our consultation led to us scurrying out the door to hit Macca's (I'm reverting to the Aussie slang for everyone's favorite burger joint for the next four years...Ronald &Co. shouldn't suffer the indignity of being associated with a despot) for breakfast before taking line 1 to Dongdaemun station (where we should have taken exit 9, but we got there in the end).  Back in my misspent young adulthood, I spent a lot of time trawling the aisles for the perfect sparkly bits to add to my belly dance cossies.  It's a little slice of paradise - if you know what you're looking for, you'll find it there.  If you don't, you'll find something anyways.
Well, I don't dance much anymore - maybe I'll dust off my bedleh someday - but I'm almost as enthusiastic about my newest hobby: designing and sewing chibi plushies.  This week saw the end of a month-long sewing frenzy brought on by a half-cooked whim regarding a booth at this summer's AnimeIowa (it was a short-lived whim...at some point I realized I probably ought to be able to use a sewing machine before I go into business).  The problem is, I'm no longer satisfied making simple characters with whatever material I have on hand.  When I started thinking of it as a business, I discarded my old personal obsessions and developed new professional ones (well, sort of, anyways.  I'm still only designing characters I like...but now I take into consideration what people might be willing to pay shit tons of money for.  Also, what would look cool AF).  
Azhaar suggested we go to the fifth floor first, and get fabric afterwards.  I thought this was genius, since it meant I wouldn't have to carry tons of fabric around with me while I was trying to squeeze past people who have absolutely no awareness of their surroundings.  Like many markets, you'd best approach DDM with a plan.  When we got to the fifth floor we chose a time-honored strategy - picking a corner and working our way up and down the aisles, stopping to pick up the things on my list:  ribbons, buttons, chain, buckles.  I was looking for very specific things, but as mentioned above, if you know what you want, you can probably find it.  If you're patient enough, anyways.  Raycie LaRaye taught me this strategy,  and it served me well - by 1:30 I'd found everything I needed, and helped Azhaar find a few things she didn't, but since she was having fun I didn't feel too bad.
After sitting down for a few minutes, I decided I wanted to pop down to the cloth floors to look for iridescent fabric...and if they had any colors of fleece I needed, it would probably manage to find its way home with me.  I stuck my LeSport duffel bag in my backpack for this exact purpose, but when I got to the fourth floor most of the stalls had rolled down their shutters.  Between the time we had walked past on our way to the beads and jewelry, it had become a ghost town, so maybe Azhaar's suggestion backfired a little.  An excuse to go back on Monday or Tuesday is not a bad thing.
Shopping doesn't seem like that strenuous activity, but we approached it with killing intent, so we were famished.  While we were at Macca's that morning, I noticed that they were now serving mozzarella cheese sticks.  This food has been haunting me for several months - in Osaka the Kawaii Kingpin suggested we stop into Lotteria for some when we got back to Kyoto, but neither of us actually remembered.  By the time something random dug the thought out of my head, I was back in UB, a million miles from anywhere that would serve them.  Over Christmas break considered trying them at the Lotteria in Incheon, or else possibly at Denny's back home, but neither actually happened, and the ones I found at a restaurant in UB were completely unsatisfying.  So when I pointed out the fact that Macca's had them, and she suggested Lotteria's were actually really awesome, I'd come full circle.  True to both of their words, they were amazing...but I was a little underwhelmed by the serving - two short sticks.  There's surely a joke to be made in there, but I've got four more days to make it, so I'll leave it there for now.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Village Idiots

Just one short day til I return to the land of my one true love...Belynda's cane!  There's really no reason to be as stoked about a short vacation as I am, and yet I am.  Between doing my current job and looking for another one, I'm pretty well past my tolerance for stress.  So tonight, one last flashback to a calmer, simpler time - my second stint in Korea.
It was during that era that Bronte and I became really good friends.  She'd already taught me how to make sundubu and given me a Korean name, but when I came back to pinch hit for five months, we got to know each other as more than just supervisor and staff.  I got to know that she was every bit as badass as I thought and way more goofy than I imagined - as evidenced by her demonstration for the bed-wetting thing that we saw pretty much as soon as we walked into Min-Seok-Cheon, the traditional folk village.  When she found out I'd never been, we decided a visit was in order, even though it was summer and destined to rain.

She, on the other hand, was discovering the depths of depravity a good little Mormon girl was capable of thinking.  Since this isn't a post about going to Seoraksan and the rest stop we visited on the way back, I'll leave it at that.  You've probably read enough of my posts at this point to know what I mean, anyways.

Min-Seok-Cheon is in Yongin-Si - close to Suji if I remember right, but even with my memory I couldn't find my way back there at this point.  Blame it on Bronte taking the lead...normally ten years wouldn't matter, I could do it blindfolded with one arm tied behind my back.  We're now living in the age of Google Maps, anyways, so my abilities aren't as necessary as they once were.

Anyways, we went out to the folk village in spite of rain, because it was the two of us on an adventure, and what's a little rain between friends?  Well, I'll tell you what it is - a terrible time to visit the folk village.  Normally there is all sorts of pageantry and stuff, with people wearing festival-level costumes.  Instead, we mostly had to amuse ourselves.

Which admittedly was not a problem.  We probably got a few dirty looks along the way - I'm not sure that you're actually supposed to climb on the great stone turtle - but I rarely let a little disapproval stop me.

One thing we did get to do was throw a pot.  Korea has a great ceramic tradition, and there was a little studio where you can use a potter's wheel and make a bowl.  Being a certified art teacher and all, I've done that before, and didn't feel like I really needed to do it again, but Bronte hadn't, so she tried it out.  When she was finished, the ahjjushi took it off the wheel and got her address so it could be delivered after it had been fired.  

Besides performances and the pottery, there were traditional houses and displays about traditional Korean life.  There were restaurants, too, but for some reason I don't think we ate there.  We did stop for tea before we left; I may have been getting over a cold, since I seem to think I got a citron tea.  Or maybe it was just because the rainy weather made me want a hot tea.

Walking around a soggy folk village may not seem that dreamy, but it was all about the company, and that was true of so much of my time in Korea.  It seems like there was always something going on in Seoul, but that wasn't what made it the experience that it was for me.  Instead, it was walks down the street and eating at kimbap shops and really, just spending time with friends.  I've got things to do when I'm there over the next five days, but it was those ordinary, everyday moments that made me love living there.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Hitting a Wall


Just three more days til I return to Korea and my one true love...dalkgalbi!

There comes a time in every expat adventure when you feel like you've seen it all.  (This is not to say that it's true...there is still lots more to experience, but the feeling remains.)  When that happens, the time has come to wander a little further afield.  It's been ten years since some of my homegirls and I decided we would hike the walls of Hwaseong, the fortress in Suwon, but I'm pretty sure that was our thought process.  Seoul was played out like snap bracelets, but Suwon had exciting possibilities.  Or at least one exciting possibility.

However, I think it took us two tries to actually do it.  The first time, the three of us came from different directions, and since none of us had been to Suwon before, I set the meeting place at Suwon Station, exit one.  If you're not sure what exit to meet at, I say go for exit 1.  If there are multiple exits, there will definitely be an exit 1, and if not, you'll find each other regardless.  The problem was that Suwon Station had both metro exits and KTX exits, and way back in 2005 the three of us were wandering Korea without cell phones.  People used to do that back then.  I promise.
Anyway, in this case, the second time proved to be the charm, and we met up and found our way to the walls.  Hwaseong is fantastic.  It's historic, but like I give much of a crap about that.  Ringing gigantic bells, on the other hand...  The hike itself is gorgeous, and the company - Heather and Jen - were the kind of friends that I could be myself with and not worry about them thinking that I was going to hell for every other thing that came out of my mouth.

Expat living: it attracts the black sheep.

This is true even amongst Mormons.  Jen and Heather were both church friends (as opposed to my degenerate GDA friends, who were also black sheep, just the kind that needed a few grown-up drinks to hit the noraebang...)  Well, here is a little bit of Mormon trivia for you - we are cheesy as...well, something that's extraordinarily cheesy.  As we passed one of the towers on the wall, one of us noted the similarity to this tower in the Book of Mormon called the rameumpton.  Basically the function of this tower was people would go up on it to pray about how much better they were than everyone else (FYI: these weren't the good guys).  So we decided that this would make an excellent photo op, and being the person who doesn't mind being slightly (or more) blasphemous for the sake of a good picture, I got tapped to climb up the tower and pretend to be a Zoramite.

It was a fairly clear day.  I was pretty sure I wasn't going to get struck by lightning...

On the way to the wall, we passed a variety of vendors and I was happy to find one that had these really cool, fold-up hats.  I bought two of them.  When we met up, it had actually been really sunny, so I was happy when the clouds gathered - I was pretty much as paranoid about skin cancer then as I am now.  I'm pretty sure my friends thought I looked like an idiot (or an ajjumma...possibly both), but they were good sports and had a high tolerance for dorkiness.

We didn't make it all the way around the walls...at some point - I believe around the time we decided to go wading in the stream - we decided we were hot and thirsty and needed melon bars.  We veered away from the wall into a market area, where old men were paying paduk or something, and wandered in and out of shops until we made our way back to the station.

People always ask if I'd go back to Seoul to work.  It's a complicated question.  I was a lot healthier then, and I love the fact that there's always something to do.  I really consider Seoul to be my second home...but like my first home, that life's moved on without me.  Most of the people I loved there are gone, and I don't know if I have the guts to go back to an empty house and build the thing up again.  That didn't stop me from applying to a job there when Belynda told me about an IB school that was advertising for an art teacher - although it did cut the disappointment when they wrote to tell me they'd just offered the job to someone else.  Thus, the search continues.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Take a Hike

Here is a lesson for you all, in a "Give a cat a cupcake" sort of way.  If you give an art teacher a primary lesson to teach on her so-called day of rest, she'll feel a little bitter.  If she feels a little bitter, she'll probably procrastinate actually preparing it.  If she procrastinates, she'll need something to do instead.  She might think about putting her laundry away.  If she looks in her closet, she will probably realize that she HASN'T EVEN STARTED PACKING TO GO TO SEOUL ON FRIDAY!!!*  That, of course, will make her realize she hasn't really thought too much about what she's going to do there (besides catching up with Belynda, her Dark Lord and Master, and shopping at the Dongdaemun Fabric Market).  She'll need to check out Atlas Obscura, since she lived in Seoul for three years already.  This will get her thinking about all the things she did when she lived in Seoul, that she didn't blog about because she didn't have a computer back then.  Knowing she didn't have a computer back then will make her feel lucky to have one now.  And if an art teacher feels lucky, she will probably sit down at her computer and procrastinate planning the primary lesson she's supposed to be teaching.

So a couple of weeks ago, when I, you know, had job prospects, I felt like there was a very real chance that I might be out of Asia next year.  (Now?  Who knows.)  This prompted me to crunch some numbers and decide that I should spend my last Tsagaan Sar not in Mongolia, but in Seoul, so I booked a flight for Friday.  I have waxed poetic on numerous occasions about how much I love Korea, but not actually written about most of the things I enjoyed there.  To get me in shape for the upcoming blog-a-thon, I'm writing about a few of those things this week.
Korea has some great hiking.  I was just about as lazy then as I am now, but the weather was nicer for more of the year, so I actually went on a few more hikes.  Smack dab in the middle of Seoul is a hill called Namsan, and one weekend my friend Anika and I decided we'd meet in Myeongdong and hike it.  Neither of us actually knew what the route was, but we figured if we kept heading uphill we'd get there by and by, and we did. 
It was a bright spring day, and we enjoyed the view at the top of the city.  After some cotton candy in the park around Seoul Tower, we decided to start hiking down the other side.  I loved being able to rely on chance like that when I lived there...just choosing a path and wandering along.  On this particular auspicious day, we ended up at the bottom of the hill where Noksapyeong Station sits, walking past a place called Chili Chili Taco, which stopped us in our tracks.  After our hike, we decided it was a perfect time for some food, and since neither of us had had Mexican in a long time, we stopped in and discovered their burritos, which I still consider to be one of my top five finds during all my years in Korea.
I loved this experience so much that when my mom came to visit me, right before I left Korea for the last time, I decided I would take her up Namsan.  Gracie is NOT much of a hiker, but when Anika and I hiked Namsan, I noticed the cable car, and decided it would be just fine. 

My mom did not agree with my assessment.  See, first you have to walk uphill a little ways to get to the cable car.  Then, of course, you have to ride the cable car up the hill.  Maybe this probably shows the self-centeredness of youth, but I wasn't actually aware that my mom was afraid of heights until she got panicky on the ride.  Oops.  But eventually we made it...to the exit.  Which was not, apparently, on the peak of the hill, so I heard a lot of complaining as we huffed and puffed our way up the last of the steps.  But we finally made it, and Gracie agreed that the view was very nice.

She hasn't visited me overseas since.  I wonder why...

*I've actually given more thought to the perfect wardrobe for me and Five's nerdy-nerdy Japan holiday than packing for Seoul.  It's how I roll.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Buy it Here: Plants

It is tempting to tell you that my students are my pride and joy.  While it is certainly true that I love them dearly - you know this already if you've read my blog for any length of time - there are also days when I want to smack them around a little.  They're kids, after all - they sometimes do dumb things.
My orchid, on the other hand...  I've had my orchid longer than most of my students, and although they are supposed to be persnickety flowers, it's never caused me any problems.  It blooms on and on, and when it loses it's flowers, all I have to do it be patient and water it, and eventually it puts out a new vine and blooms again.  So, it's possible that I might say my orchid is my pride and joy.

I never considered myself to be much of a green thumb.  I like plants and flowers...I've just never been that successful at...you know...keeping them alive. When I was in elementary, I remember my paternal grandmother - who could grow moss on sand, I swear - supplying me with various green things to grow.  I invariably killed them.  In middle school, my dad - an avid gardener, occasionally to my mom's consternation, as she was not an avid canner - let me attempt to plant rose bushes and irises, neither of which ever bloomed.  In high school and college I bought bonsai trees off the back of trucks at gas stations, and regardless of whether or not my cat managed to pee it them, they slowly dried up and died.  In fact, the only plants I recall keeping for any length of time were the lilies that lived in my fishbowl in Shanghai - they had water to drink and fish poop for fertilizer.  I really had nothing to do with them, and even they always kicked the bucket in the end.
So when I "borrowed" one of the ivy plants around the school my first month in Mongolia to put in my window seat, a betting person would have placed odds on it dying.  Certainly I felt a little bad, taking a plant from school knowing it would probably not be alive when it came back.  But four and a half years later, it has managed to grow longer than Rapunzel's hair.  In fact, I've managed to keep quite a few plants alive - not all of them, because I do travel and they get abused quite a bit, especially during the summer.  My first orchid, for that matter, only lasted a year.  However, I've never felt like I needed an air purifier, even in the worst months of UB smoke, because my plants were producing oxygen for me.

So this week I'm bringing you all the information* on growing your own oxygen supply.  The first place I actually found plants for sale was in Builder's Square - my first year Five and I went to the UB Art Fair at the Zanabazar Museum, and while waiting for the museum to open found a variety of tents and greenhouses.  I've seen them up on occasion since then, but not always, so if you're dying for something green at home, this might not be the place to go.
The Flower Center is a UB landmark (or at least, that's what some of the other teachers told me when I came...they may have been full of crap, though, since I've never used it to give directions or to meet up with someone).  Situated at the western intersection of Peace Avenue and Baga Toiruu (and right next to a Burger King, which coincidentally occupies half of the Flower Center's former glory), they mostly sell silk and cut flowers, although they have a few potted plants as well. 
Inside the Flower Center

As always, the State Department Store has a little bit of everything, and plants are no exception.  The vast majority of what they sell is cut flowers, although last summer I picked up pots and soil here, and I've bought plants before as well.  Most everything is on the first floor in the corner by the Cinnabon, although there are more pots upstairs if the ones downstairs don't appeal.
The State Department's flower department

The best place to go, though, is on the opposite corner from the Children's Park, on Narnii Road and Olympic Street.  Nomin Soyolj has potted plants, pots, soil, seeds...everything you need to grow your own rainforest, except possibly the rain.  Sorry, rock fans, I have no pictures because I was lazy yesterday (and, you know, pretty much all winter long...)  If you look it up on Google Maps, it will be the first result, classified as building materials.  Just look for the greenhouses.

Well, that's all for this week - I gotta wrap this up and get downstairs to Dougie-Poo's apartment for dinner.  His lovely wife is making Thai food and we haven't had a good chat in a long time.  Next week will >probably< be the long-awaited art post...we'll see if Five and I come up with something better to do...

*Rough approximation.  Probably not accurate.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mush Ado About Nothing

I've tried out more forms of transportation than the average person.  Hell, just in my trek from Greece to Egypt in 2008 I used planes, trains, cars, buses, trams, a ferry, a camel, a horse, a felucca, and probably one or two that I've forgotten.  One form that has been tempting me for the four years I've lived in Mongolia, though, is dog sledding.  Every winter, Engrish and I talk about wanting to do it, and every winter, we fail to get out acts together and actually go.  Until now.

With Five and I leaving at the end of the year, this was going to have to be the year.  Five took point on this one and contacted one agency - a French guy who does longer treks - only to be told that he was booked solid (for which, in retrospect, I thank all that is good in the world).  She didn't let this stop her, and imposed upon Wild Ass to help her contact some of the Mongolian agencies who offer dogsledding, and eventually Engrish and I were informed that we were ger camping at UB2 this weekend after a delightful dog sledding experience.

Enkhaa drove us up to Terelj, and we set about finding them.  The owner said that it was next to the river, near the bridge at the entrance to the park, but we went there and waited for a while, but didn't see them.  Finally we called again, and again, and again, each time getting a little closer to where we were supposed to be.  Eventually we saw the teams mushing along, and found our way to the meet-up point.
We waited a few minutes while the dogs had a chance to catch their breath, and then we were each told to go get on a sled.  Up until that point, I don't think any of us had really thought too hard about the concept of dog sled, but actually sitting on one, I found myself feeling pretty bad for the dogs.  It was cold out - not the coldest day by far this winter, but still pretty uncomfortable for my toes.  At the starting point the dogs were tethered to a fence, and they were yipping and whining as they waited.  In my mind, I realized they were working dogs, and teams like these have been pulling far more than my weight over greater distances in less hospitable climates, but I still felt like a terrible person.
Finally, the drivers were ready and we set off.  Engrish and Five got off to a good start, but as soon as my lead dog was unclipped they began...champing at the bit?  You probably can't apply horse terms to dog sleds, but regardless, they were raring to go, and my driver couldn't untie the knot at first...he had to re-tether the lead dog and back everyone up before getting us loose.  Finally, we were gliding over the ice, and I found myself torn between continuing to feel sorry for the dogs and fear that the sled would turn over, spilling me onto the hard ice and smashing my precious camera.
There's a saying that unless you're the lead dog, the view never changes, and from my seat on the sled, I realized that this was true.  What the saying does NOT adequately express is that unless you're the lead dog, you also expose yourself to the very real threat of flying turd.  As we followed the trail along the river and then through some trees, the delightful aroma of feces wafted up to me, and I realized why the dog in front of me was running weirdly...someone didn't go before we left the house.  Luckily there were no fatalities.
It was about 30 minutes from start to finish, but my toes were done after five.  They felt like blocks of ice, and when the driver stopped the sled to let me try driving, and I felt bad for the dogs...and Engrish, whose team seemed to have a couple of Dugs in it, wanting to chase after squirrels.  Actually, Engrish could have run faster than the teams, although probably not while she was dragging either me or Five along behind her. As I stood on the back of the sled, I was a little bit terrified.  I'm not exactly the best driver when the vehicle is fully automatic with power steering.  I'd been paying attention during the ride - trying to ignore the pain in my toes - and it seemed like the driver kept the sled balanced by shifting his weight from side to side.  Up til then, I had no clue how the dogs stopped - it seemed to be by telepathy - but it turned out you put your weight on a pedal that brakes the sled.  There was also the fact that there were unfrozen patches of the river along this part of the route, and I now had visions of myself capsizing the sled - you can ask Babysis how good I am at flipping vehicles over sometime - and freezing to death.  But alas, we got back to the starting point safely, and the three of us vowed that we would never do it again.
Don't get me wrong - I feel that there was value in the experience.  I can understand how difficult life was for the teams that helped deliver supplies and news to early Alaskan settlers, and I have more respect for those people who keep the tradition alive by participating in the Iditarod each year.  But once is enough, and I sort of wish I'd known more about the company before we booked it - without going into too much detail about things I don't really understand, I don't think the dogs were treated as well as they should have been.  I wanted to give a big steak to each of my dogs for being such a great team, and let them sleep in our nice warm ger for the night - and if you've been paying attention, you know I'm not a dog person, so this is saying a lot.  Instead we left, with Enkhaa telling us, "I told you so."  We offered to let him try it, too, and he said he didn't want to, that it felt disrespectful to him.

Back at UB2 Enkhaa and Engrish went for a run while Five and I pretended to take naps but actually talked.  I gave up on napping and started sewing, and when Engrish got back she convinced Five to go for a hike.  Later on, after a round of their favorite game, Quiddler, they made the best damn shashlik I've ever had, proving that Engrish is a true ger-camp gourmand.  We talked into the night, having one of the best catch-ups we've had in a while, and not just because we were discussing the interview I'd gotten up at 5 that morning for.  After breakfast we went out for a walk, with Five and I nerding out over our upcoming trip to Japan, especially everything we were going to do in Universal Studios.

It's hard to believe I'll be gone in five months.