Friday, September 23, 2005

Ambient Works

So, some people have asked for more interesting posts, specifically anything including Pac-Rim rommance and arrests. Since most of this blog is dirrected for my family, I should probably now mention that nothing of this sort has really happened, and everyone has been pretty responsible. (Side note to Drew G., if you want some stories about a man named Bolt, Me and Travis's Encounter at the Hungarian Embassey and the first Pac-Rimmer to pick up a Mongolian girlfriend, give me a call.)

Things for me in UB have been pretty tame, so this post is just a general update for all those I'm thinking about back home. So far three people have been knocked out by food poisoning this trip, all of them over the last 10 days. This doesn't include the many who've had colds or general stomach problems. Strangly enough, our health advisor was the first to get sick. I, however, have been relatively free from any sort of ailment, save for a runny nose and cough that comes along from the sheer amount of air pollution in Ulaan Bataar valley.

Things are getting more tense at the hostel we're staying at. Things have always been sort of interesting our residence; for starters, all 10 men on the trip are staying in the same large room, and will stay in this room the entire time in Mongila. We don't really have beds as much as we have 10 mattresses arranged side by side along the walls. We also dont really have free space as much as we have a gigantic pile of everyone's stuff between the two rows of mattresses. Also, we don't really have showers as much as we have a showerhead installed almost directly above the toliet in the bathroom. Despite all this, everyone has been wonderfully adaptive to the whole situation. No one complains about the "Dude Ranch" or "Manwich" as the room has taken to being called, in fact when it was offered to split us up into two different, much smaller rooms we adamently refused. I think the whole situation has pretty much allowed the guys in our group to get closer to eachother and deal with whatever tension might develop early on in the trip. We also have a nicely equiped, though disasterously small, kitchen in the basement that allows us to cook cheap western food whenever we need it. Last night, however, the plumbing and electricity went out in the hostel, the water stopping in the middle of my shower. This has made everyone pretty grumpy and almost all have avoided the hostel today, hence why I'm spending two hours on the internet.

In unrelated news, if anyone was wondering if I would be brave enough to try Airag (or Fermented Mare's Milk) during my stay in Mongolia, the answer is yes. The stuff isn't actually that bad, just likea strangly effervescent milk that oddly enough smells very much like a sweaty horse.

A couple days ago (Wednesday) I got a chance to wander around the North side of the city and wandered around a huge Buddhist complex. The whole site was amazing, many traditional and ornate buildings that have been saved or rebuilt since the communist purges of the late 1930's. Inside the main temple was a 87 foot gilded bronze statue of the bodhisattva Avalokitishavara (we think, the Sanskirt to Tibetan to Mongolian to English translations tend to be dubious). This place has been pretty great for serendipitous tours.

Cheers to all

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Wake Up

It’s Tuesday, so it’s time for some new Adventures.

First, let’s talk about Mongolian wrestling. They’re good at it. They’re built. Fortunately, I’m not the smallest guy and the world and just about every guy in our group has a good six inches on any Mongolian. During our field trip we took many opportunities to test our Mongolian companions and eachother, and thankfully, we were only totally embarrassed by the Mongolians a couple times, and managed to beat them a handful of time. I, however, can’t bring myself to calling it a fair fight seeing as how the match is called and soon as anything other than feet and hands touch the ground while any American knows 80% of wrestling is getting someone pinned once you’re on the ground. However, I might just be grumpy since the knee in one of my pairs of pants got torn in one of the bouts.

Next, let’s talk about Mongolian Horse riding. They’re a lot better at that. During our field trip we planned on riding horses over a mountain pass on the west side of the Darkhul valley to get into the Mongolian Siberia to see the nomadic reindeer herders of Siberia. Well, the problem with nomads is, well, they’re hard to find. Word had it they had already gone north for the fall and were out of our reach. We however, were still up for riding horses so we were able to enjoy a 12 km pleasure ride across the sweeping plains of Mongolia, on an assorted score of horses rounded up from around the country side. Mongolians, as legend has it, have a long tradition of being good with horses, and Mongolian horses are themselves a force to be reckoned with. This country was not built for horses that make lead changes or go around in circles. Miles, who is possibly the tallest Pac-Rim’er ever, made the mistake of wearing a Texas sized belt buckle and was given a horse any Mongolian would be proud to ride. Miles, however, is not as experience as his belt might suggest and within thirty seconds of getting on the horse he was falling off the back with hoofs coming within inches of his chest and face. I too was given a fun horse with two speeds; stop and go. Go proved to be a little too intense for this greenhorn and they switched me off onto another horse, whom I’ll call Clyde, who was very nice and only galloped when I asked him to.

Check back in a few days for more stories about reindeer and the first snow in Mongolia.

Also check out fellow my Pac-Rim’ers’ blog at www.planetranger.com/marisaandjohn

Banquet

Let me take a day to describe Mongolian cuisine. Thoughts of Mongolian Beef from a Chinese restaurant and good yogurt probably come to your mind. Lies. Now keep in the mind I’ve tried really hard to be a culturally sensitive traveler. I try to experience all a country has to offer without the slightest ethnocentrism. Some travelers might describe Mongolian language as sounding like alley cats hissing at each other with marbles in their mouth. Not me. I am open-minded. But I must still come to the inevitable conclusion that evolution and years of harsh nomadic existence have rendered Mongolians without tastebuds. Like mutton? Good, the country will never run out of it. Mutton by itself is not that bad. But the traditional method of serving mutton includes large cuts of fat and gristle with almost no other starch, vegetables, or seasoning. During our field trip we once had mutton 5 meals in a row. That’s right, five. That was lunch and dinner one day, then breakfast lunch and dinner the next day. Mutton does not make the best breakfast food.

The whole thing was an experience, though. At our final destination, the village of Renchinlhumbe we got to witness, among other things, a local family butcher one of its sheep for us. The process is pretty interesting and different from what is done in the west, the sheep is first put down by putting one’s hand through an incision down the chest and pinch off the Aorta to stop blood to the brain. The meat is quartered and the organs removed and saved, like one would expect (though I’ve heard the blood was saved, for what purpose I’m not sure since I’ve never seen or heard of humans drinking the blood around these parts). The stomach was then inflated and stretched to be dried and turned into a bag; the skin was also saved for the leather. What was REALLY interesting, however, was how two hours later we received a mutton stew unlike any other. We only received the most interesting parts of the sheep: The trachea, the bronchi, the liver, kidneys, diaphragm and of course, what Andrea calls blood sausage. Most everything tasted pretty good, but the psychology of eating intestines prevented me from really in any way enjoying the blood sausage the constituted 40% of my meal. Needless to say, the scavenging dogs that are omnipresent even in rural Mongolia ate well that night, and Erik had to sheepishly explain to Sarah, a cook on our trip who spoke very good English, that westerners were not used to eating those parts of the sheep. (If you want a map of Hovsgol Province, where we spent most of our trip, check out http://www.hovsgol.org/mollymapweb.jpg).

So now we’re all back and what do we silly Americans do? We hit up every food store in town. The stores catering especially to western sensibilities, which we carefully avoided before the 12 days of mutton, are now eagerly sought out. Jess knows very well my joy as I found a place that has macaroni and cheese. I even found Coors original longnecks at a store for 2500 Tugrug (~$2.08 US). The best places in Mongolia are Chinese restaurants. We even found a place near the old circus building that serves the French fries that beat McDonalds hands down (by the way, try seasoning your fries with ground pepper, parsley and oregano). Andrea and I had possibly the best adventure, however, as last night we wandered into Korean restaurant on Seoul Ave. The district of town we were in catered mostly to foreigners but unfortunately not necessarily westerners and the menu was hopelessly written in Korean, except for three words in Chinese. Thankfully, I can recognize the Chinese characters for small, medium, and large anywhere, and figured out how to order one of the best Korean grill-it-yourself family style meals I’ve ever had.

Our most shameless adventure, however, took us to Grand Kaahn Irish Pub two nights ago, Sunday night. The Grand Kaahn, as you might guess, is as about as Irish as the Mongolian Grill is authentic Mongolian cuisine. Apparently the place is one of the most gentrified and exspensive bars in Mongolia and is the place where Members of Parliament go to be seen with their attractive dates on Friday nights. Guinness cost about 6000 Tugrug or $5 US, which is amazing if you consider vodka shots cost 700 T, or about 58 American cents. The best part about the night was however, getting to go with Marisa who apparently looks very Mongolian. Everytime our waitress would come up to us, she would talk exclusively to Marisa in soft quick Mongolian. Marisa would laugh, look confused and try to point to herself and say “American, USA, American” while the rest of us ordered. At least now we’re being fed enough and what we want. In Mongolia, even that can feel like a victory.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Pinch Me

Culture shock doesn’t hit you when you get to Ulaan Bataar. If anything, probably, any Asian capitol city will surprise you more for how western everything appears. You can get knock-off frosted flakes or Pringles pretty much anywhere, the people dress more fashionably than you do, and even if you see a Mongolian Lama in the native Dell overcoat, there’s a good chance he’s carrying a cell phone nicer than yours in the front pouch of his flowing robes.

Culture shock isn’t even that bad when you venture out into the rural northern mountain steppe. Really the only thing that really hits you is the lack of barbed wire. The rolling hills and gaping valleys stretch on in a scale hard to discern without even the slightest wire fence breaking up the countryside. Other than that northern Mongolia really just reminds you of Montana. Okay, maybe it reminds you of Montana without plumbing or paved roads. Regardless, the transition isn’t that tough.

The shock really hits you, however, when you get back to Ulaan Bataar; where crossing the street is an adventure, and when you sit down to write your family an e-mail telling them you’re alive, a young Japanese man is checking out porn on the computer next to yours. So much change has rocked our group in the last three weeks that it is starting to really add up. We’ve been pretty much all over upper Mongolia; close enough to Russia so see Siberia in the distance and far away enough from civilization so that at night the sky is littered with shooting stars too faint to see anywhere else.

Our classroom alone is pretty exciting. While we were in UB before our field trip we had most of our classes in the main room of a Mongolian Vadjrayana Buddhist Temple, but have also had a chance to take class trips to natural and national history museums and a Mongolian cultural exhibition that featured throat singing, traditional folk ballads and the ever popular contortionist. On the field trip our class location got a little bit more exciting as we had lectures on beach of Lake Hovsgol, in felt gers (what the Russians call yerts) and one time outside a nomad's corral, close enough to have a couple of young camels come up to say hello before class was over.This morning (sunday) we had our first test in the basement of a temple while a couple score of adherents chanted upstairs.