Saturday, September 03, 2005

Mongol Fever

Well what would you like to know about Mongolia. My mother’s friend said nobody smiles. Which is sorta true. Walking down the streets early in the morning locals here in Ulaan Baatar scurry along the thin belts of sidewalk not in complete disrepair. Mostly they seem to keep their eyes down and keep to themselves. However as the day wears on and groups of teenagers flood the street, one espies many younger Mongolians laughing into cellphones or giggling with eachother. This is definitely not a city, however, where you smile and say "sano" to people you meet in the street. But despite the lack of western courtesies, Mongolians have many of their own forms of politeness.

Beyond not smiling, Mongolia on the whole seems somewhat unprepared for tourist. Outside the main region surrounding Sukhbaatar Square downtown English is almost unheard, despite recent attempts to make it a standard second language. Many young children, and sometimes older people as well, stare at the site of white people in their midst. Traveling as a large group of white people also, understandably, draws ire from many Mongolian shops and restaurants we visit who have a hard time dealing with such an cumbersome group.

We have learned a bit of Mongolian from our teachers and taxi drivers. On the whole, however, the language seems impossible for our western tongues. Nothing like Chinese, my American accent almost precludes intelligible pronunciation of even the more elementary words. Thankfully patience is more than a virtue for many Mongolians, it’s an absolute necessity. In a town where nothing is on time and urgency is rare, most of the people we’ve meet have been very kind to our difficulties.

Courtesy is very much present in this country, despite the fact almost no car will slow down for anything, vehicle or pedestrian, unless a collision is absolutely unavoidable. In the country, the felt covered gers (or yerts, in Russian) all always open to visitors seeking a cup of tea or a snack. Hitchhiking is also the best way to get anywhere in the city. Despite the poverty and crime, no one seems to feel threatened by the city, unless one runs into an unruly drunk. And apparently, like the American Indians, alcohol is one of the most dangerous things among the Mongolian culture. One of the great khaans of the Mongol Empire died of alcoholism, and today, after years of cheap vodka available through the country’s ties to the Soviet Union alcoholism is truly a great scourge.

So here’s a short list of adventures.

After hearing so much about the crime here directed at westerners, we’ve only had two encounters. John had $10 USD taken from him while talking to a beggar outside the airport. The moral is not to get involved in other people’s problems in strange lands, which I think is a good one for a bunch on culturally illiterate Americans. I also had what could be possibly the worst pick-pocketing attempt in the history of petty theft. This guy, clearly walking diagonally towards me on the sidewalk and making direct eye contact with me, runs into my shoulder as we pass a relatively vacant sidewalk. Really graceful, seriously. And when he did this, he runs his hand across my zipped pocket that I had my arms crossed over. It’s obvious we’re not dealing with professionals here.

Mongolian food is an adventure itself. They seem to have a strange fascination with spicy catsup and lard. Not to be ethnocentric, but I might be sticking with other cuisine. The yogurt here is interesting, though, and has an effervescent quality. Every type of alcohol here taste like cheap Russian vodka, even the whiskey. Thought it is slightly better than Kentucky deluxe.
Julia, Travis and Brianna went to a Mongolian pool hall last night, and ended up witnessing a Mongolian bar fight. The whole ordeal seemed relatively harmless though in retrospect. From their stories it seems the whole thing was a bunch of talking, a little bit of wrestling and one hefty slap. Julia, however, asked to leave after the power and the lights went out, what a sissy.
I’m pretty sure many of us will end up wresting Mongolians before the trip is through, me especially. It is supposed to be the national pastime.

Apart from internet and cell phones, infrastructure here is fun gamble. Last night the hot water went out in our part of the city (or building?) and the sewers backed up into the nearby laundry room. Fortunately, I think ice cold showers are refreshing and an overall good time.

Now I must go to Ich Delguur, which is a local department store, and try and pick up some clothes for our trip into the country tomorrow. I’ll try and post again real soon and will be sure to talk all about how awesome Mongolia is.


Oh and shout outs to Val for being the first to e-mail after I left.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Yes! I am a long way from home.

Just to calm everyone's anxious hearts, I'm letting y'all know yes, I have made it safely to Ulaan Baatar with all my limbs and luggage. We're all getting pretty settled in and have already had a couple adventures in international travel. Here's some things that I've noticed so far:

Mongolia is a weird cross between Russia and the asian neighborhoods in Vancouver. Everything is written in cyrillic or english or randomly in some other scrpit. Soviet style architecture abounds in certain neighborhoods and everybuilding looks as if its falling apart. Even buildings that havn't even finished being built look decripid. Down the street there's an office building that looks like its falling apart and its not even zero days old yet. But everyone, espicially the younger people, dress in very contempory fashionable dress.

Traffic regulation havn't yet been imported to mongolia, I've seen only two stoplights in the entire city (the biggest city in the country!) and traffic pays very little attention to them. Crossing the street is an amazing/breathtaking experience. To deal with this Mongolians honk their horn with a passion most americans only take to football games.

Pickpockets abound, but thankfully so far I have only encountered only the most inept theives in the world.

More on this later, it is getting very dark and word on the street is, don't travel after 10:00 unless you've gotten some mongolian street smarts.... or a ginourmous knife.


Sunday, August 28, 2005

Bad News

It's Officially my last day in the United States. I've had a lot of fun hanging around UPS while everyone was buying books and moving into new houses while I had to do neither. The school is slightly more fun when you don't have any classes, but still, not enough to make me want to forget Asia.

Now, however, the whole trip has been overshadowed by a black cloud as the number of vagabonds in our expedition has now dropped again to 20. Tomorrow all of us will leave, while my good friend Sam C. will remain stateside recovering from a harsh injury sustained from falling from a campus sequoia, forcing him to forgo the trip. Everyone has been sorta bummed about the whole thing, but for the most part we are all releived that Sam is alive, and will probably, hopefully, recover after undergoing surgery to repair the two vertebrae he broke. He is espcially optimistic about his prospects, and has word that he will be up and walking in a few days and possibly well enough to join the trip at Christmas. We all hope so. The trip is going to be a lot less interesting with out him.