final post

My going-away present

My time in Mongolia has been phenomenal, and I am immensely lucky to have had this experience.   I came here with an expectation of arriving at the end of the world, and was pleasantly surprised to be wrong.  Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot about this place that is alien and new, but I think there is also a lot that is familiar and comforting.

Anyway, Mongolians are so friendly and welcoming that the culture shock was almost non-existent.  The expat community here is also amazing, another pleasant surprise.  I think it helps that most people come here with a purpose, and that determination lends itself to some great personalities.   There are no beach bums in Mongolia. 🙂

I’m really going to miss this place a lot.  I suppose there is always the chance to return, but the mix of people will be different, and I’m sure, Mongolia will be totally different.  Even in then year I was here, UB changed immensely.  I can only imagine what it will look like in 5 years.

In the meantime, I wish everyone the best here!  Thanks for all the fabulous memories.

I’m traveling for the next few months, and all travel posts will be on my other blog: Paradigm Shifted. In addition, this blog will no longer be updated.  Also check out my other blog, Cereal and Milk.


more things I will miss

The extended list:

  1. Catching a cab.  I love catching a cab in UB – you just hold out your hand, someone rolls up, you hop in, they take you where you want to go.  If you are lucky, they won’t rip you off.  In places where cabs are “official”, the element of the unknown has been removed.  Much less exciting.
  2. Driving in the countryside.  I love how you can just pick a direction and go.  To hell with roads.  It’s all offroading.  Also, the countryside is like one big campground.  So nice to have that kind of freedom!
  3. Korean food.  I mentioned this already.  But it bears repeating.  Not just the restaurants, but also the supermarkets.
  4. The countryside.  I love the Mongolian countryside.  I love the people.  I’m not the biggest fan of the food, but some dishes I’ve grown to appreciate (definitely a fan of noodle soup and mantuu).
  5. Meat.  I eat meat here.  I don’t eat meat back in the US, and I won’t when I return there.  I’ll miss “free-range” everything.
  6. Making things from scratch.  Cooking has been a challenge here, but one I appreciate.  When the pumpkin pie came out of the oven on Thanksgiving, I felt a real sense of accomplishment.  My friend made the crust from scratch, I ground up the spices with a rolling pin.  And of course, the pumpkin was roasted.  Delish.

travel diary: terelj

This travel experience is a bit different.  Previous trips to the countryside entailed hopping in a car and driving for hours…. This time, we eschewed our normal mode of transportation and tried another – dog sled.

Terelj is probably the most visited destination outside of UB, because it’s close to the city, but far enough that, as a national park, it seems like you are in the countryside.  And because of its proximity to the capital, it plays host to a wide range of ger camps, resort facilities, and nomadic families, offering conveniences for every taste.  Surprisingly, I’ve never been to Terelj before, and I do appreciate being able to leave Mongolia haven’t visited at least once.

This time around, we embarked on a trip with a French tour guide who runs the only dog sledding operation in Mongolia.  Joel is originally from France, but has made Mongolia his own, along with his 44 Alaskan huskies.  He’s been dog sledding for a long time, and it was quite a treat to share his love for the sport for even just a weekend.

So early Saturday morning we departed UB and headed to the countryside.  It was nice to escape the pollution and breathe clean air, and I gladly traded my warm apartment for more rustic conditions.  We arrived in Terelj and after suiting up (which included waterproof boots, massive sheepskin mittens, and every layer of clothing I brought with me), we met our team of dogs.

I think the usual team comprises 6-11 dogs, but as beginners, we only had 5.  Enough for me, as my dogs were ready to run, run, run.   We set off almost immediately along the frozen Terelj River, and after maybe 30 minutes of trying to get used to this strange new sensation, we learned to relax and go with the flow.  I think riding the sled must be like skiing – you stand on two planks of wood and adjust with movement of the dogs and the sled.  The key, I guess, is staying loose.

After 3 or so hours (30 kms), we arrived at a family’s hasha, where we would stay the night.  The family was warm and welcoming, and we played Mongolian card games and drank vodka into the late hours, before stoking the fire and heading to bed.  The ger was surprisingly well-insulated, keeping us warm for almost the entire night.

The next day, we hopped back on our sleds and headed out again; this time, though, I managed to wreck my sled almost immediately on a steep decline with rocks.  But the dogs ran on like nothing happened, and I hopped back on and kept going, getting comfortable again after a few minutes or so.   Again, we raced along the frozen river, driving through slush occasionally, which I will confess made me slightly apprehensive.

And at the end, we warmed up in the home ger again, glad to have had this wonderful experience.   I had expected to be very cold, but was surprisingly ok, despite temperatures far below 0 F. The dogs were adorable and fun – each has a name and a distinct personality and it was fun to watch them interact with us and each other.  Definitely a worthwhile experience!

More pictures found here.

things I will miss about Mongolia

I’ve been thinking for the past few days about the things I will miss from Mongolia.  In no particular order:

  1. Beautiful sunny summer.  The weather in Mongolia is really quite fantastic.  In the summer time, it’s mostly sunny and warm, but never humid.  The skies are blue, the grass is green, and even though there is more dust than I would prefer, the scenery is amazing.  The city is a great place is to sit on a patio and drink a beer, and the countryside makes for some great outdoor activities.
  2. Cold, snowy winter.  Don’t get me wrong. It’s cold here.  But it’s also snowy and biting – a real winter.  Everyone dresses in multiple layers, but no one looks frumpy. And there’s something to be said for surviving a Mongolian winter.
  3. Speaking of, I’ll really miss the fashion here.  It’s bold, quirky, and totally Mongol.  The women look amazing. Of course, sometimes, it’s a bit overboard, and could be scaled back a bit, but the love affair with knee-high boots and bright colors will be missed.
  4. The expat community.  It’s a small community here, with everyone knowing everyone.  Because of that, I think it’s easy to make friends, easy to find things to do, and easy to fit in.  And, with some of the friendliest, most amazing people, it’s something I’ll really miss a lot here.
  5. Swine flu.  It was quite exciting this fall, when everything closed down and we couldn’t do anything for about 2 months.  No, really.
  6. Fresh dairy.  I love the dairy in Mongolia.  It tastes like grass.
  7. North Korean food.  Not that it is all that different from South Korean.  There’s just something about eating in a restaurant run by North Koreans that is maybe a little bizarre.  Also, the food is AMAZING.

nine nines of winter

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, it’s really quite cold here.  There are those who insist that it’s colder “back home”, but “back home”, I’ve never put on long underwear just to walk to a friend’s house.  Here, I wear a down-fill jacket fit for arctic temperatures.

The Mongolians know a cold winter.  In fact, they’ve got a system going, lovingly known as “the nine nines of winter” (Yucen Yuc).  Winter begins on the winter solstice (this season, December 22nd), and continues for 81 days, broken down into 9 sets of 9.   Each nine is marked by some action or observance.  Generally, it goes:

  • First nine – shimijn arkhi (mild alcoholic beverage made of milk) freezes
  • Second nine – arkhi (vodka) freezes (second distillation, also sometimes, they say Russian vodka freezes)
  • Third nine – tail of three-year-old yak freezes
  • Fourth – horns of four-year-old yak freeze
  • Fifth nine – boiled rice does not congeal any more
  • Sixth nine – roads blacken (ie, snow melting on blacktop)
  • Seventh nine – hilltops blacken (snow melting on the lower hills)
  • Eighth nine – ground becomes damp (snow melting on grass)
  • Ninth nine – warm days set in

We are in the second of the nines currently, which started on New Year’s Eve.  I’ve got some vodka on my balcony – not yet frozen.  But arkhi has less alcohol than bottled vodka, and I’ve heard some frozen vodka stories from others.  Up next, January 8th, we test some yak tails.

bucket list

So I’m down to the wire, with 2 weeks to go.  Yesterday, someone asked me what I had left to do before I go, which I guess isn’t something you think about with only 2 weeks left, but better now than later.  So, in thinking about my 10 months here, I’ve got myself a bucket list of sorts.  Of course, I’m biased, writing this after spending this time here, but I do have the advantage of actually knowing what’s going on.  So, the list of things I hope to accomplish/experience/obtain in Mongolia:

  1. Go to the Gobi.  Done. 3 times.
  2. See Hovsgol. Done.
  3. Camp in the Orkhon Valley. Done.  One of my favorite experiences.
  4. See the Eagle Festival. Done.
  5. See the Ice Festival. Won’t happen, unfortunately.
  6. Go East and film gazelle migration. Went East, didn’t see any gazelle.
  7. Learn to make Mongolian food – specifically, tsuivan, buuz, and khuushur. Done! Even learned to make mantuu.
  8. Have copious amounts of vodka. Ha. Of course.
  9. Eat horse meat. Yes.  Quite good.
  10. Eat something gross. Horse intestines.  Not so good.
  11. Go to the spa and get a scrub. Done. Many times over. Need one more.
  12. Go dog sledding. This weekend!
  13. Get some amazing pictures. Oh, definitely done.
  14. See Amarbayasgalant temple. Sadly, no.
  15. See wild horses. Another sad no.
  16. Experience a Mongolian winter. Oh, yes.
  17. Buy felt goods. Shoes and jacket and some kitchen goods.  Just need to get more slippers.
  18. Buy calligraphy. Ordered.
  19. Get a tattoo. Not yet, but still thinking.
  20. Go karaoke. Sadly, not yet!
  21. Buy paintings. Not really, but will go see what is available this week.
  22. Buy carvings of animals. Camels.
  23. Buy Kazakh wall hangings. Two, one made before I was born.
  24. Get an in-depth look at agriculture and livelihoods. Really, the main reason I was here.  I know far more about agriculture in Mongolia than anyone really should.
  25. Ride a camel. Overdone.
  26. Drink airag. Yum.
  27. Go ice skating. Still a chance.
  28. Get a picture on Chinggis Khan’s lap. Nope.
  29. Learn Mongolian dance. Nope.
  30. See the Morin Huur Ensemble. Still waiting to find out when they next perform.
  31. See local cultural performances. Done.
  32. Go to Naadam. Done. Twice.
  33. Ride a boat. Done. Russian research vessel on Hovsgol.
  34. Go to the ger districts. Sort of.
  35. See Avatar. This week!

We’ll leave it at 35, for now.   Of the list above, the vast majority can be checked off.

3 weeks to go…

No luck with the Russian visa.  For one, they want 10 business days for processing.  For 2, they close from Jan 1 – Jan 11.  And for three, I don’t have 2 consecutive blank pages in my passport (thank you, US immigration, for the haphazard stamping all over the place).   The universe has decided that the spring of 2010 is not a good time for me to be in Russia…. so I’ll try again some other day.

In the meantime, I’ve booked my flights to/from India, Malaysia and S Korea.  It will be about 3 months of traveling, and it should cure the travel bug for a bit.  I’ll be coming back to UB on April 1 or so, and then heading back to the US for spring in the midwest.

Here in UB, the holiday season is in full swing.  There is a giant Christmas tree on Sukhbaatar Square, lending credence to the idea that Christmas (or at least the tree and gift-giving parts) is not just for Christians anymore. Snow is on the ground, also belying the age-old idea that it can be too cold to snow.

And cold it is.  Hovering around zero today, which an improvement from the negatives we had all last week (double negatives, at times).   While it’s surprisingly bearable, I won’t miss it when I’m yoga-ing on the beach in Kerala.

My work here is mostly wrapped up, and it was mostly a success.  There were some things I wanted to do that I didn’t a get a chance, but overall, I’ve gotten enough data to have a sense of a finished product… assuming I get around to writing.