Archive for September, 2009

snow in the mountains

It didn’t keep snowing overnight, but the mountains this morning were still covered in snow.  Unfortunately, in a couple of days, the snow will be come as the temperatures rise into the pleasant realm again.


more snow

It’s really coming down.  We should see accumulation tomorrow if it keeps going over night.

first snow

After a warm Friday afternoon and balmy evening, we awoke on Saturday morning to snow.   It’s really starting to pick up, and by this evening, there should be accumulation on the ground, cars, and maybe even rooftops.

cultural divides

I’m back in the office again for a few weeks before heading west for the eagle festival.   While in town, I’m working to develop a policy training session that will last 3 days.  The Policy Fellows are heading into the home stretch of their research, having completed almost all of their data collection.  The key now is to focus on turning that data into policy, constructing logical arguments, and generating policy alternatives.  So, for 3 days, we will review the steps of policy analysis and spend some time with some one-on-one work (hopefully outside the city in a national park).

I’m currently working on developing some training exercises for this workshop.  Day 1, we basically modified activities from a training manual created by LGI.  For Day 2, though, we’d like to spend a little more time working on translating data into effective arguments.  I’ve been searching around for some ideas, and have decided to turn one activity into a re-hash of everyone’s favorite exercise – the Analyzing an Argument writing section from the GRE.  It’s a pretty good example of using facts vs assumptions, plus what to do about missing data.   But I’m having one slight issue.

Until you leave the US, you never realize how US-centric we really are.  There is almost nothing universal about American culture, except perhaps that it is so pervasive that people in other countries are already somewhat exposed.  But so many institutionalized cultural elements are taken for granted, and in reviewing the Argument topics on the GRE page, it occurs to me that part of our isolationist attitude is already embedded in our education system.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – obviously, some things are distinctly American and, for example, someone interested in domestic issues benefits greatly from being well-versed in these areas.  But I must have reviewed over 100 topics before I found 3 that I could modify for the Mongolian context.  Foreign students taking the GRE are at a major disadvantage here for applying to American schools.

Would it be difficult to universalize this section of the GRE, and for that matter, any other part of our educational system that creates a distinct advantage or home-grown students?  Would it be useful or beneficial?  Politically expedient? Do we like our uniquely American system?  And how does it work the other way?  Are our students too Americanized?  I find sometimes that Americans have a harder time adjusting here than expats and visitors from other countries.  Is that tied into our education system too?

travel diary: gobi

While I haven’t been everywhere in the world, I have been to the Gobi.  And I firmly believe there is no place on earth like it.  Perhaps the sand dunes look like the Sahara or Arabian Peninsula.  Perhaps the zag makes the landscape look like Moab.  And perhaps the gobi-steppe bears a slight resemblance to the African savannah.  But combined, these landscapes make for a unique environment, and one made even more so by the Bactrian camel, an animal found no where else in the world.

Of all the places I’ve visited in Mongolia, the Gobi is by far my favorite.  Not because it’s any type of vacation, but because its forbidding beauty challenges the imagination, and because the Gobi people are the hardiest, yet friendliest people in the world.  No longer so isolated due to the presence of satellite TV and cheap solar panels, Gobi people used to rely on travelers to bring news of the outside world.  Thus, friendliness is ingrained culturally, and still hasn’t changed.  Even the ones making a business in tourism are still extremely friendly and giving.

I took two trips to the Gobi (three if you count SE Gobi), once to see all the sights, and the second to take an overnight camel trek across the Gobi’s tallest sanddunes.  The Eastern steppe is fairly remote, sparsely-populated place.  The Gobi is even more sparsely populated, and even more strikingly so, as the great majority of people live in or near the aimag capital of Dalanzadgad.  The Lonely Planet estimates the population density to be 0.3 people per square kilometer.  DC’s population density is about 3700 per sq km, about 10000 times as much. The Gobi is on par with Greenland.

My first trip to the Gobi required a 15 hour drive to Dalanzadgad from UB.  It took us 15 hours to get not-that-far, and another 2-3 hours the next morning to go the rest of the way.  But we did have a flat tire, which definitely slowed us some.  After leaving Dalanzadgad, the emptiness of the Gobi became almost entirely apparently.  We passed a few other vehicles, mostly because it was high tourism season, but otherwise saw little of human presence. Our first day in the Gobi was spent at two of the most popular spots (after we found our way) – Yolyn Am and Bayanzag.

Yolyn Am is otherwise known as Vulture’s Valley, though I don’t recall seeing any vultures.  Instead, the big draw is the ice gorge, a sort-of glacier in the middle of the valley that lasts for about 9-10 months of the year and melts for the rest, before refreezing again (I’m not sure if it is dry).  The hike to the ice gorge is beautiful and distinctly un-Gobi-like, and the ice gorge itself is kind of cool in an out-of-place way.

Bayanzag, on the other hand, is one of those places that sounds very cool on paper, and turns out to be much less cool in execution.  It is the location where the first dinosaur eggs were found, and in past years, excavations have still gone on.  Lately though, not much of anything is happening, so aside from some cool red rocks, there isn’t much to see now.

The highlight of the trip though is the Khongoryn Els, the Khongor Sanddunes.  These are Mongolia’s tallest sanddunes, topping 200-300 meters at their tallest point.  On my first trip to the Gobi, we stayed 2 days near the sanddunes, admiring the view and hiking up the dunes, and catching the sunset.

My second trip the Gobi involved going directly to the sanddunes.  It was a much more unpredictable journey, but by the time we made it to the sanddunes, we were able to catch a wonderful sunset, which I had missed the first time around.  The next day, we met our camel guide, a herder who lived on the other side of the sanddunes.  He suggested a 20 km ride, an overnight stay, and then a ride back the next day.  Agreeing, we mounted our camels, and headed on our way.

If you’ve never ridden a camel before, it is, in a way, similar to an elephant, in that you feel very far off the ground.  But, instead of being safe in a little seat, you are riding the camel on a little saddle that vaguely resembles a rug.  Also, there is the same front and back motion as riding a horse, and then maybe some sideways motion too.  Either way, it’s a bit like being in a boat.  So, for 20 km, we rode the camels along the sanddunes until we reached a lower part, where we proceeded to cross.  At some point, however, 20 km turned into 30 km, and our ride became a whole-day affair, until we reached our camel herder’s ger.  For a good 10 km, there was nothing but sand all around, and reaching his ger in the middle of nowhere came as much of a blessed relief.

Overnight at the camel herder’s ger was like being the only people on earth.  The stars were bright with the lack of civilization, and every sound in the night was audible.  I had, unfortunately, been told about wolves, so I slept very little for fear that said wolves would materialize (no, they did not).  The next day we trekked back across the dunes, but this time taking a more direct route.  It shaved 10 km off our trek, but also had us travelling across the tallest points of the dunes.

From the backside, the rise is more gradual, allowing for some gentle up and down on our camels.  At some point though, the rise was too steep and we dismounted and lead our camels up, up, and up, until we reached the peak.  At the top, we tied up the reins and sent them down the other side, following closely behind, a pretty much steep drop to the bottom. Then we brushed off the sand and calmly climbed back on our camels and made the remainder of the way back to our ger camp.

More pictures here and here.

travel diary: eastern steppe

Ah, the Eastern Steppe.  If I were going to pick any part of Mongolia that I would say was distinctly Mongolian, I would go with the steppe.  There is more steppe in the central and west part of the country, but the East has reached almost mythical proportions when thinking about nomads and horses and running wild and free.

Part of that comes from the relatively sparse population – population density is almost as low as the Gobi, and most of the people are concentrated in urban centers, leaving vast open spaces for wildlife and livestock.  Rumor has it, the herds of gazelle number close to 1 million, the largest migration in the world.

We spent a week in the East, but unfortunately missed the famed gazelle, only catching glimpses of a few lone animals here or there.  We did see a number of birds of prey, many of which just sat on the side of the road watching us as we drove past.

Eastern Mongolia is not just steppe, however.  In the southeast, much of the landscape is the Gobi, with the same scrubby flora as is found in the south.  We started in SE Gobi, at the border town of Zamyn-Uud.  From there, we drove to the Energy Center, at Danzanravjaa’s monastery in Khamar.   Danzanravjaa, the Terrible Noble Saint of the Gobi, was a 19th Century monk who established a rather forward-thinking center of learning, Buddhist contemplation, and even performing arts, in the middle of the desert.  As like most Buddhist centers in Mongolia, much of it was destroyed by the Russians a century later, but many parts of the center have been rebuilt.  One attraction in particular is the Energy Center, where it is said a soul can be rejuvenated and made blissful by observing a few rituals.

From the Energy Center, we proceeded northeast, camping over night a few times.  One of the best things about Mongolia is the ability to pitch a tent just about anywhere in the countryside.  There are few places in the world where this is possible.  We headed into Sukhbaatar province, where the gobi turns into volcanic plains before becoming outright steppe.  In Sukhbaatar, at Dariganga, it is possible to see volcanic craters and lakes, as well as underground caves.   The ethnic stock here is different too – the Dariganga people are one of the many minorities in Mongolia.

After a few days exploring, we left Dariganga and began a long drive across the steppe.   The land is flat, much like the central portion of the US.   But unlike the American midwest, this flatness is entirely wild, with no neat rows of corn or soy, and little to no development whatsoever.  We went hours without stumbling across a town, following only some well-worn dirt tracks through the high steppe grass.    Eventually, the steppe turns into more mountainous areas in the north, but for several hundred kilometers, there is nothing to see but the endless blue sky.

More pictures can be found here.

travel diary: buryat

Mongolia has some surprisingly diverse people and landscapes, from the Gobi in the south to the taiga in the north, from the Kazakh eagle hunters in the west to the Buryat farmers in the north east.

I haven’t been west yet, but I’ve been north, and south, and east.  And while the Gobi remains my favorite part of Mongolia, the Buryat people of northeastern Mongolia might be the most charming.

Buryatia is a country in its own right, spun off from the Soviet Union after the collapse.  The majority of the Buryat people live around Baikal and are distinctly russified, even with their Siberian features (former PM of Ukraine is Buryat).  Those who live in Mongolia have mixed in a bit, and are more Mongolian in appearance.  Their language is also very similar to Mongolian, though the accent is distinguishable.

In Mongolia the Buryat community is located in the aimag of Khentii, which also happens to be the birthplace of Chinggis Khan. Khentii is absolutely beautiful, just on the edge of the taiga, with coniferous forests, rivers, and long stretches of mountains (part of the Khentii mountain range). The people are genuinely friendly…. and they make great food.

After a long drive through the eastern steppe, we headed into Khentii aimag during a harrowing drive in the middle of the night.  It was raining and the ground was exceptionally but our driver handled the road with relative ease.  Arriving in Batshireet at 4 am, we crashed out and slept in, before taking a 25 km bumpy ride to, once again, the middle of nowhere – or more precisely, the Onon River valley.

Unlike the rest of Mongolia, the Buryats live in wooden cabins instead of gers.  This makes for a more permanent settlement, meaning most families have both a winter and a summer camp (usually only a few dozen kilometers apart). We stayed with a family at their summer camp, but being as it is fall, the families were making hay and readying the winter camps as well.

They say Temujin was born in the Onon River valley area, and also from this area, he launched the early stages of his empire-building.  Not much has been found of his early life in this area, but The Secret History of the Mongols gives some details about his life in this area.

We spent some time hiking around, playing with the dogs, checking out the livestock.  The Buryat women milk the cows twice a day, often bringing in 100 liters a day.  Of course, that much milk is too much for consumption, so 40 or so liters gets turned into milk cream – basically, the fat skimmed off the milk and rested for 12 hours to become a spreadable cream.  The remainder of the milk is turned into food for the farm animals.  Of the 40 liters, only some 4 liters of milk cream is made, but that is often more than enough.  Milk cream that rests for more than a few days becomes butter.

The Buryats don’t make nearly as many dairy products as most Mongolian herders, but what they do make is delicious.  And they are also known for their bread, which as a slightly sourdough quality to it, with a light airyness that makes you want to eat half the loaf before you even realize you’ve done so.

We spent the second day in the Onon valley riding horses, circling around to the river, watching hay being made, and then stopping at a family’s house for an afternoon snack.  This time, the herder’s wife gave us arkhi, which is a distilled spirit made from boiling already fermented milk.  The taste is akin to rubbing alcohol, but the alcohol content is somewhere around saki or wine.

After racing home on our horses to avoid the coming rainstorm, we lit the fire in our cabin stove and settled in for a night of moshig, a Mongolian card game that is relatively easy to learn and play.  The neighbors, hearing of foreigners in the area, came by in the hopes of picking up a few bucks.  Unfortunately for them, our driver was the best player for miles, and he walked off with several grand.