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merry christmas from the frozen north

It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more. ~Dr. Seuss

Sukhbaatar Square on Christmas Night. A balmy -17 F.

Christmas Day in Mongolia is not unlike Christmas in the US, except that everything is still open.  Nevertheless, we gathered together for lunch and then later for the afternoon, sharing food, playing games, and enjoying each other’s company.  Then we attempted to find a karaoke place, and after an hour of walking around in subzero temperatures and with o luck, called it a night.  But it was a wonderful time.

Merry Christmas!

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how to survive in mongolia

There are mountains back there somewhere....

I’m down to my last month or so in Mongolia and I’m starting to reflect on my time here.  Before coming here, I had this perspective of Mongolia being mysterious and remote and completely different from life in America.

Well, there are definitely some differences, but it’s not nearly so mysterious as it’s made out to be.  One thing I’ve definitely noticed is the tendency of photographers and film makers to focus on some small aspect that is quirky or interesting, and then generalizing this to the rest of the country.

But Ulaanbaatar is a thriving city, much like any other in Central Asia or even the rest of Asia.  The countryside is of course not like rural America, but it’s not like being on the moon (except for this one part in Olgii…).

Anyway, some tips to survive living in and visiting Mongolia:

  1. Spend some time in the city.  A lot of people don’t like UB, but no one can argue that it’s the best place to get anything.  So yeah, maybe you hate cities and want to get to know the “locals”, but sometimes you just want a spinach and feta salad.
  2. Get out of the city.  It’s not beautiful, it has no stunnng architecture, and the traffic is horrendous. Not to mention the pollution.  But the countryside is beautiful, adventure is always to be had, and you will always be welcome at a ger when you get horribly lost.
  3. Embrace the care package.  Sure you can rough it.  Or, you can just enjoy your little pleasures in life.
  4. Learn to cook.  I complained about not having Mexican food.  And then I learned to make it all myself.  When I return to the US, I’m never buying store bought tortillas (or pita or ricotta!) again. Even better, invite some friends over.
  5. Don’t be a jackass.  Look, no one likes an outsider who comes in, throwing their weight around and acting like they own the place.  So don’t.  Just kick back, relax, and learn to embrace tardiness and stonewalling.
  6. Be friendly.  That one really needs no explanation.
  7. It’s not that cold.

There will be more to come, I’m sure!

more than a page

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

~ Saint Augustine

Before my eventual arrival in the US, I am planning on traveling a little.  Right now, the plan is to:

  • Depart UB and fly directly to W India to stay with family for a week or so, then,
  • Take the train to Kerala, then,
  • Wander my way down the coast to Trivandrum, then,
  • Stay at a beach resort with yoga studio attached for a couple of weeks, then,
  • Fly to Sabah, Malaysia, and climb Kinabalu, then,
  • Meet my cousin and family in Sarawak at Mulu Caves, then,
  • Fly to Seoul to hang out with a friend, then,
  • Make my way to Vladivostok to hop on the Trans-Siberian, then,
  • Fly from Moscow/St. Petersburg back to the US.

All very ambitious, so we will see how much of this truly ends up happening.  But for now, this is the plan, and I am hoping to fit it all in!

I’ll be wrapping up on this site soon, and future posts will be on my other site, Paradigm Shifted.

6 weeks to go

I’m nearing the end of my time here, and it’s starting to move a lot faster (though it went plenty fast enough!).   With the holiday season, life is quite busy, and even more so as I plan my next steps.

I’m still exploring the options of what to do next in the long-term, but for the short-term, I think a little travel is in order.  Not sure what exactly just yet, but so far I’m eyeing India, Malaysia, and then either Seoul or perhaps to Vladivostok to hop on the Trans-Siberian home.

In the meantime, there is a lot of wrap-up to be done here, which includes consolidating data and notes that will hopefully turn into a research paper soon.  Then of course, the holiday parties, of which there are many, and some basic holiday gift shopping.

Of course, packing and sorting should be included in there, as well as trip planning and flight/train purchases.  And the last minute rush to visit the tailor, the felt maker, and maybe even a brief dog sledding trip.  6 weeks isn’t much time to fit it all in!

free again

The bans have been lifted, and the kids are back in school.  There is still swine flu, of course, but the infection rate is supposedly slowing down.  This means that we can stay out past 9 pm, though in this cold, I’m not sure that I will always want to.  But just in time for holiday season, at least.

travel diary: kazakh

Early October marks Western Mongolia’s largest event, which is pretty small by global standards, and even Mongolian standards (as compared to Naadam).  Still, the Eagle Festival is a fascinating glimpse of one of Mongolia’s largest ethnic minorities, the Kazakh people.

Kazakhstan is obviously a large country, and just next door, separated by a sliver of Russia.  But Kazakhstan has long since gone Soviet, and the Kazakhs in Mongolia have managed to preserve traditional Kazakh culture to a surprisingly authentic degree.  This is helped by Mongolia’s relaxed policies on integration, allowing Kazakhs to maintain separate schools in their own language.

Unlike the rest of Mongolia’s minority groups, the Kazakhs are distinctly different, in looks, language, religion, food, and culture. They are Muslim, though not often religious (despite preparation of halal meat).  They maintain traditional foods from central Asia, while incorporating some of Mongolia’s most popular dairy items.  And they share Mongolia’s love of horse riding and the wild outdoors.

In the first weekend of October, the Kazakhs of Mongolia display another popular cultural tradition – eagle hunting.  For a while, eagle hunting was on the verge of dying out, until one of Mongolia’s largest tour operators began sponsoring the Golden Eagle Festival.  So, with its origins in attracting tourists, the Eagle Festival is expected to be a glamorous sham of an event.

It was nothing of the sort.  Small and even a bit intimate, the eagle festival was two days of rodeo-style entertainment.  We started in the main square of town for the parade, where the locals dressed in their finery and marched around.  Then we piled into our vehicles and headed out to a small canyon outside of town, where a large ring had been set up for events.

There are three main events at the eagle festival, two of which involve eagles.  The first is a competition in which eagles are launched from a high point on a bearby hillside, and sent to capture a small bit of fox fur that the trainer is dragging on the ground behind his horse.  The second is similar, but this time the eagle is meant to land on the hunter’s arm.  I found the second to be by far the more exciting of the two.

But my favorite activity was the third, in which two men on horses played tug-of-war with a goat skin, pulling each other over and under their horses, often galloping off and in circles before one of them managed to pull the skin away from the other.

The rest of the festival was typical, with vendors set up selling skewered meat, Kazakh embroidered goods, fur hats, and other items.  I even tried a bit of horse intestine, which was disappointing in its almost normalcy (except for the chewiness….).

But the Eagle Festival is not the only attraction of western Mongolia.  The most mountainous region of Mongolia, Olgii and the other western provinces are incredibly beautiful landscapes.   The moutains rise tall and proud, and the lakes are often half-frozen in the fall.  In particular, the salt accumulating along lakeshores reveals a very different view of the Mongolian countryside.

Mongolia’s highest peaks rise in the west, in Altai Tavan Bogd National Park.  And not far from the park’s entrance live Kazakh herders, moving from their summer gers to their winter houses while we were there.  We had the opportunity to hike a bit in the snow of the mountains, while staying overnight with some of the local families, who fed us traditional Kazakh foods like “five fingers”, a delicious dish of salty steamed dough and roasted mutton eaten with both hands and much gusto.

We also had the opportunity to purchase some traditional crafts, and our host told us that much of the old embroidery is difficult to find anymore in Kazakhstan, and becoming more rare in Mongolia itself.  I felt lucky to be able to purchase one, made in 1952, which I hope to restore upon return to the US.

baby it’s cold

We’re in the single digits (Fahrenheit) now during the day, which is a definite subzero overnight.  Rumor has it a cold front is moving in tonight, resulting in some seriously frigid weather for the next few days.  Of course, weather channel says nothing of this, but the Mongolian meteorologists seems to know what’s what.

It is a little unreal to check the weather and see consistently negative temperatures, and “highs” in the teens.  It seems absurdly cold to me, and yet when I go outside (in the daytime), it doesn’t seem too bad.  Of course, it will only get colder.  In two weeks, the “highs” will hover around zero degrees or so.

Times like these, I think that the Soviets weren’t half wrong in putting in centralized heating all over their cities.  Mongolia followed suit, and I’m left with a toasty warm apartment that is often hard to leave.  But the people in the ger districts are off the heating and water grid (though often have electricity), and I can only imagine living in a portable hut with felt walls in this weather.

Worse though, as the people with no dwelling whatsoever.  The homeless of Mongolia have it bad.  In the winter, they often sleep in the sewers and near hot water pipes.  The former is obviously not ideal, and the latter can be dangerous, as the pipes can be scalding hot.  The few unfortunate souls sleeping on the streets are left to fend for themselves and hope not to freeze to death overnight.   These same people are scorned for their excessive drunkenness, but maybe in the bitter bitter cold, half a bottle of vodka can very warming, and maybe the intoxication aspect is of lesser consequence.