Saturday, October 21, 2006
I've been back home for three weeks, although I've been travelling on business for two of those weeks. When I look back at my memories of Mongolia, I'm joyed that I had the opportunity to visit the country. When I told my friends & family where I was going, my statement was often met with questions about where Mongolia was. The second question was: why would I want to go there?
I wanted to go for several reasons. I wanted to escape the hectic work routine for awhile, and I wanted to get away from western culture. My second reason for going was the people; Mongolians are one of the few cultures on Earth that have a pastoral/nomadic lifestyle. I was curious about how they lived, and I wanted to experience it for myself, no matter how uncomfortable it may have been. My first expectation was fulfilled as soon as the plane lifted off the ground in Chicago. I spent almost three weeks without a mobile phone, and I only used the computer to let everyone know that I had arrived safely. I had time to reflect back on my life, and ask myself questions about what I value and where my life was headed. While those questions will never end, I feel that I've made additional progress on sorting the answers.
My second expectation was completely fulfilled. What I found in Mongolia was the most hospitable people that I've ever met. When we visited the local families, we walked right into their ger. You do not knock - you walk in and sit on the ground. They serve you milk and food, sometimes before the conversation even starts. The people who are better off are making about $100USD/month, yet they never hesitate to give you whatever food/drink they have. This isn't limited to visitors, but also travellers - people help one another when their vehicles are broke down on the side of the road - we gave away gas, anti-freeze, and even borrowed someone a tire throughout our trip across the countryside. This culture of giving makes you feel secure - someone will always be there to help you. This fiercely contrasts to my lifestyle back in the US. If a car is broke down on the side of the highway, the last thing that we do is to stop. They could be a kidnapper, or we just don't feel like stopping because we have someplace to go and we're already behind schedule. Who has a better quality of life - the Americans or people in other countries? I'm guilty of the same situation that I describe above. And while I doubt I'm going to change, I do think more about it.
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
I'm back in Beijing. I'm sad that my Mongolian adventure is over; I'd really like to spend some time in the Gobi and in the Altai mountains with the eagle hunters. I'm sitting in a restaurant called Fu Tu; the staff doesn't speak a word of English, and the only Chinese I speak is hello and thank you. It's a swanky place, and I definitely like the atmosphere. I don't see any tourists, so maybe this is more of a local place to eat. The staff are cute - I'm writing in my journal while I wait for my tofu. They are walking by and nonchalantly glancing at what I'm writing. I catch two of them stealing glances and they burst out in giggles.
I didn't have an easy time of finding the hostel once I got downtown. After I left the train station, I ended up walking for an hour until my frustration overwhelmed me. With no roman characters on any of the signs, it was nearly impossible for me to figure out where I was and where I needed to go. I hailed a taxi, thinking that he could get me to my hostel. He nodded in acknowledgement when I showed him the Chinese characters for the hostel. When he dropped me off, he pointed towards the side of the street and said hutong. Great! I thought - it's just down this street. After walking all the way to the lake, I realized that I wasn't in the right place. Someone helped me find a tourist map, and then I realized that bastard had taken me even further south from my destination. After I got my bearing, I went north at a fervent pace. After more than an hour, I happened to glace to my right and there was the hostel! I was so excited that I didn't realize that I almost missed it - I realized how lucky I had been later in the evening.
After dinner, I retired to the hostel to read and I went to sleep early. I was tired from my journey across Mongolia.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
Saturday, September 23, 2006
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
I'm in the middle of nowhere; somehwere between Khatgal and Tsaagan Nuur. Renchen has been looking at the map a lot more than usual - I'm getting kind of worried. We've been driving across the countryside - there are no tarmac or gravel roads. There are ruts where vehicles have previously travelled. Because of the uneven terrain, we've been averaging about 20km per hour. From my American perspective, this seems extremely slow. However if we went any faster, the Russian jeep may have been flipped over or damaged beyond repair. My brain's synapses have been reduced by about 15%, due to all of the rough roads that are jarring my head.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Impossible you say - but I would argue otherwise. Last night we Olongerel, Nansa, and I played poker. After Nansa finished collecting all of our belongings, including my watch, shirt, hat, and beer, we decided to have a disco. The best part about this was that I was still the only tourist at the camp. I was dancing with the staff to various music, including that of the Backstreet Boys. The camp has a generator that they turn on from 9pm - 11pm each night, so we were able to use the cd player. In addition to Backstreet Boys, we also shaked our butts to Black Eyed Peas and 50 Cent. I'm always amazed at how American pop culture has infiltrated foreign countries; especially a northern Asian nation of nomads who are outnumbered by livestock at a ratio of 10:1. Nevertheless, it was nice to hear something familiar, even if it was a crappy boy band.
I think that my body is starting to feast upon itself. The constant supply of grains and milk products have offset any nutrition that still remains in my body. There is one benefit that can come of this - I hope I gain some weight to keep me a bit warmer. My hands and feet have been constantly cold, and a bit of extra blubber would make the temperature more bearable.
Sunday, September 17, 2006
I'm still at Toilogt Camp; and I happen to be the only tourist here. I'm sitting beside a fire in the restaurant, wishing that the sun would poke through the clouds. Through the warped Chinese glass, I can see the white peaks on Lake Khovsgol. It's strange how the color of the lake changes based on the weather. On gray days, the lake takes on a dark gray color; it looks like any body of water back home. Under blue skies, I understand where the lake gets it's name - it's azure as far as the eye can see. I was expecting a land of green; instead my eyes are examining a palette of yellow and orange. The coniferous trees are trying out; the grasses on the steppe have already dried and become brittle. When I return home at the end of my trip, the local plants will begin to die as the landscape continues to frost, in waves of hot & cold, as rhythmic as waves lapping the shore.
On 9/15, Olongerel (my guide), Nansa (Toilogt Camp manager), and I hiked Mt. Hysaa, which is a mountain 10km north of our camp. The hike took about 2.5 hours to reach the summit; and we were rewarded with incredible views of the lake, as well as sweeping vistas of mountains to the west. At the summit, the wind was howling across the rock & scrub but the intensity of the sun kept me warm.
The summit of Mt. Hysaa
I spent the day yesterday visiting a shamanistic place of worship, and I also paddled a kayak around Lake Toilogt for an hour. I think that I'm beginning to learn to slow my pace of life. I don't have any other options; maybe that's why I'm submitting. This has been a marathon of leisure. As much as I may complain about being bored, I am thoroughly enjoying the solitude of Northern Mongolia. There are no vehicles at the camp; I cannot leave unless I set off on foot or by horse. This situation stands in stark contrast to the 2 cars, motorcycle, and 2 bicycles that I have in my garage at home. I do not hear any traffic; I don't hear the faint whir of air conditioning or forced-air heating. I heard a bird fly overhead yesterday; the flffft flffft sound of its wings arcing overhead. I've obviously seen birds fly, but I have never heard them - the experience was amazing.
After the staff completes their chores for the day, they spend the remainder of the day talking. Nothing special, just sitting and talking. I'm jealous of all this conversation, I desire more in my life. My generation is forgetting about personal communication. I do not mean that westerners don't communicate, because I think that computers have exponentially increase the frequency of communication. This is different - I can't describe it, but it seems wholly more satisfying. In the US, we are constantly being entertained, and have various forms of pleasure. I've never thought about this need for entertainment in a personal context - I've always considered myself less needy than those around me. However, since I am removed from my environment, I now realize how I embody all of the traits that I dislike about western culture. The frequency of electronic communication with my friends has increased, while the time spent with one another has been consistently decreasing.
I spent the last two hours reading through my Mongolian phrasebook with Tiitsge; a 19 yr old girl that works at the camp. I never knew that one of my phrasebooks would be so fun. We basically went through the book chapter by chapter, with her helping me with the pronunciation. I was trying to teach her the English equivalent, but she wasn't having it. Tiitsge had a look of enthrallment on her face, and I was having fun with the experience - this memory will stick with me for awhile.
Friday, September 15, 2006
I've been at Toilogt Camp on the shores of Lake Khovsgol for 2 days; the camp has more amenities than what I had expected. There are toilets, sinks, and showers. While these are nice, I get a headache when I wash my face because the water is so cold. As I had expected, the nights are very cold and the days are very warm (as long as you're in the sunlight). I'm not at a very high altitude (4000 ft.), but the sun reminds me of Peru. It's intense enough to give you sunburn, but it's not warm enough to wear shorts and a t-shirt.
I haven't' been able to settle into a rhythm yet; and I'm longing to find it. The days are structured by meals, which have been enjoyable enough. I find myself with a lot of free time to think and relax; something that I'm not used to. My life back in Milwaukee is very busy, and I'm experiencing the exact opposite of that here. Without all of the structure and endless activities to pursue, I feel like I've lost my direction. For example, yesterday we went out on the horses for about 4 hours. The remainder of the day was spent lounging around, taking photos, eating, reading, and writing in my journal.
On the horse trek, we stopped by a small family of reindeer herders. It was great to see reindeer - I had only seen them in movies related to Christmas! The people served us salted reindeer milk tea, which was bland but very warming. We sat outside their tee pee and chatted for a while. Photographs were 3000 togrog (the equivalent of $3USD), which offended me. It made me feel as though I was at Disney World; I was distraught by the idea of paying to take photos of people. I would have been OK with making a donation on my own free will, but they presented the opportunity like a business deal. I've thought alot of this over the past day, and it was stupid of me not to give them money. These people are living on relatively nothing - money is the least that I could offer them.
We climbed a small foothill and stopped for lunch. The food has been how I expected it to be - some meals are good while most are bearable. Breakfast seems to be the best meal of the day, with lunch as runner-up and dinner taking last place. The dinners have consisted of a veggie salad and an entree, followed by fruit that has been soaking in syrup for a few years. My appetite is longing for more vegetables & fruits, and much less grain. The cook seems to favor pickles, as they've crept into every dish that I've eaten - even my pasta. On a good note, I'm eating loganberry jam, which has been wonderful. Rice boiled in milk and slightly sweetened with sugar has also been a favorite of mine.
This country is a land of extremes - the periods bordering the sun are frigid. The cold gnaws are your core bit by bit, until the warmth of the ger has dissipated from your body. The only way to fend off the cold seems to be to wait for the sun. A fire for hot tea will provide warm for a period, but the warmth is quickly fleeting. I have sunburn on my hands, face, and neck. My face has been windburn and I'm starting to develop the rosy cheeks of the Mongolian youth.
While my body has been barraged by cold water, freezing winds, and scorching sun rays, my palate has been a bit refined. My diet has consisted mostly of bread, rice, milk, butter, jam and pasta. I can now taste the subtleties of the milk; I believe it's my tongue longing for some sensation of taste. I haven't had the chance to taste fresh cheese or yogurt, but both of these items are out of season. I also haven't had airag; the local brew made by fermenting mare's milk. I am fervently looking forward to these items, and I want my chance to indulge.
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
I had a good day yesterday - I woke up at 5:30 and headed to the airport. The streets around my hostel were empty at 6am. Street sweepers must come through every night, because there was trash all over the street when I returned last night.
En route to Mongolia, I met some wonderfully gracious people; Enyx & Tosongo. They are returning home from Utah to visit their relatives for a month. We talked the entire flight; and they even offered to help me find accommodation in Ulaanbaatar and a ride to the city. I was relieved, as I was still uncertain about the details surrounding my foray into the countryside. I had originally been working with Hovsgol Travel; but decided against them due to price. I chose to book something through one of the local guesthouses, which turned into an uncomfortable situation. The guesthouse was requiring me to cook all of the food for my guide/driver, as well as go shopping for it. They were going to put me in a tent each night, and we'd drive via Russian jeep by day. The weather in Mongolia starts to turn cold near the end of August, so I was worried about the camping gear from the guesthouse. They assured me that it was warm, although they couldn't provide any information re: the temperature threshold of their sleeping bags. I promptly decided to pay the extra money and go with Hovsgol; they seemed much more organized and keen on my welfare. The problem was I told them about my decision 4 days before I was to arrive in Ulaanbaatar. I didn't receive any communication from them before I landed in Mongolia, so I was unsure whether they could accommodate my last minute request or not.
After I made it through customs, I saw a sign with my name on it. Hovsgol Travel had come to pick me up at the airport! All of the worries about where to stay, how I would fare in the countryside, concerns about not having the correct gear were instantly washed away. Nurka took me to the hotel where I was staying for the first night. I met the manager, my guide, and we immediately set off into the city to visit Bogd Khan's Winter Palace, and the main Buddhist monastery that overlooks the city. Both places were filled with ancient items, from thangkas to temples to old statues.
I've tried not to make a quick judgement about any new situation or experience that I have, so I gave myself the full day to evaluate Ulaanbaatar. After much thought, I've decided that it's a dirty and polluted city. There is definitely a lot of activity throughout the city, but it's not someplace where I'd like to spend a lot of time. The city was very dusty, and the streets were lined with Communist-era apartment blocks. All of the vehicle traffic didn't help much easier; I felt like I was breathing from an exhaust pipe. All of the people that I met were very gracious, which does have to do with the ambiance of a city. I noticed that the citizens were focused on making their lives better; all of the young people that I have met are intent on going to college. To have an opportunity to aspire to economic heights that tower above those of their parents.
After we got back to the hotel, I laid down on my bed to take a nap before dinner. I woke up a bit late for dinner, 2am, so I went back to dreams of what the countryside would look like.
Monday, September 11, 2006
I arrived in Beijing around 11am, and boarded a city bus to get to the central train station. When I sat down next to this guy, he tried to say something to me in Mandarin. I returned his question with a look of ignorance and a hand gesture that said I didn't understand any Chinese. He and his friends, who were sitting behind us, had a good laugh - what was someone who couldn't understand any Chinese doing on a local bus?
I met a woman from Spain on the bus, and our median language was French. She asked me to help her buy a train ticket to Lhasa, since she didn't speak much English. We tried to figure out where the tourist booking office was, but after 1.5 hours of trying to have conversations in a language that the train station employees didn't understand, we accepted defeat. She didn't have a place to stay, and my hostel was within her budget, so she decided to go with me.
The directions to the hostel seemed easy - we took the subway to Tiananmen Square, and proceeded south. We were looking for a main street; it seemed easy. As we were walking, there were many alleyways leading into the hutongs (which is like a small neighborhood made up of small interconnected footpaths). The distance from the train station to the hostel was about 600 meters. 45 minutes later, by employing an interesting mix of approaching someone and saying the street name (da zha lan) and pointing in a direction, coupled with showing the passersby the Chinese characters, we reached the street. No one seemed to know exactly where it was, but by asking about a different person every block, we were proceeding in the correct direction. I couldn't have been happier to drop off my bag; I was getting frustrated and tired of carrying it.
The worst thing about the tourist attractions in Beijing is that they generally close around 4pm. By the time we got to the hostel, it was about 3pm. Since I couldn't see the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, we decided to walk around Tiananmen Square. China reminds me of Vietnam; people conduct most of their lives on the street. There are street stalls everywhere, serving food, selling wares, people offering services such as shoe repair or haircuts. There were the usual hawkers; selling everything from pirated DVDs to fake North Face jackets. The beggars were out in full force too - and they were hardcore. I saw a man with no legs, another man that looked like a lump of taunt and twisted skin (a burn victim perhaps), his face a smear of discolored flesh. If that wasn't enough, he was also missing both arms. The pity for these people, coupled with the desire to look at them makes you feel a bit uncomfortable.
After getting a good feel for Beijing by walking around and hanging out, we headed back to the hostel for dinner. I've read countless posts from other travellers who warned against staying out at night, due to theft or muggings. That's the last way that I want to start my vacation; I haven't even reached Mongolia yet.