Category Archives: Inner Thoughts from Outer Mongolia

Hugging Mongolia Goodbye

Well…it happened. I flew the coop and have spent the past two weeks traveling around the good old US of A, celebrating many joyous reunions with my most favorite people in the world. It has been wonderful to say the least. But before it happened, a departure from Mongolia happened, and some departure it was.

Let’s start with the Thursday before I left: my final pub quiz. You see, pub quiz had become a tradition of ours, a Thursday evening welcome to the weekend tradition. It was always a fun time even when we didn’t win, but it was made better – of course – by the fact that we were good. And we won. More than our fair share.

But anyways, this week it was slightly different because there was a Mongolian film crew at the pub filming scenes for some movie that they had originally filmed in Paris but now needed a few more shots for. That meant that the quiz was a little disjointed and took a bit longer than usual, but the rumor was that we were in the presence of Mongolia’s biggest stars, so really it just meant that it was another one of those all too familiar “only in Mongolia” moments.

If you look behind Chris in this picture, you can kind of see the film crew:

And if you look beside me in this picture, you can see one of Mongolia’s biggest movie stars making his on-screen debut with one of America’s finest: Me.

Bah ha ha! Really. It just so happened that they needed a “European-looking” woman to film a scene with Mongolian movie star guy, and it just so happened that the owner of the bar knew us and liked us and also knew that it was my last pub quiz in Mongolia, so therefore it also just so happened that I got to be the “European-looking” woman (much to the chagrin of the actual European women in the room).

Oh, and the only instructions I received were to make casual conversation (note: Mongolian movie star did not speak English, thereby making said casual conversation slightly more tricky as it revolved around my broken Mongolian), smile a lot, laugh, and sip my wine.

Thankfully I excel at all of those things.

Also thankfully, we won pub quiz that night so the entire evening cost us not a dime. Lovely.

On to Friday, more going away festivities. A big gang of us went out for Korean at our favorite spot, ate lots of kim chi, drank lots of cheap beer, and then went out for more cheap beers. Nothing remarkable, but a glorious evening all the same.

Saturday our friends picked us up bright and early to head to our favorite little spot in Terelj: Bert’s Ger Camp. We arrived just in time for tomato and cheese khushuur (think fried bread stuffed with tomatoes and cheese), eaten outside on a beautifully warm Autumn day. Following a giant lunch, we wandered off into the woods for an afternoon of fishing, walking and – brr! – swimming.

When we could hear the wine bottles calling our names, back to the gers we went, only to find the ger kids ready to play whatever it was we were willing to play. The game of choice? Baseball.

We set up a diamond, found some sticks, borrowed the little sister’s ball, and away we went – baseball in Mongolia, complete with a picture perfect, most idyllic backdrop.

The following day included a lot of hiking, some more swimming, and a journey home to UB. Chris and I intended to spend our final days quietly…just some time to enjoy one another before I headed home. Unfortunately I wound up sick for about a day and a half of those last two days (and left him in Mongolia with the same sickness – boo), but they were nice nonetheless. We didn’t really do anything…I tied up loose ends, went in to meet his classes…we cooked dinner, relaxed…just the usual…but that usual is what I love so much about him and what I miss the most now that we are standing foot to foot with a world between us.

But I won’t talk about that schmoopy poopy stuff now; that’s all a given. What I will talk a little about is Mongolia.

You see, it’s a crazy thing to move your life to the other side of the world, to meet all new friends, join a new culture, live in a land where boiled meat is – so they say – delicious and people live in gers. It’s a crazy thing for Minii to be synonymous with grocery store, Ikh to be the favorite neighborhood pub.

It’s also a crazy thing for people to open their worlds to you, to share their customs and traditions. Sure, there are many things about Mongolia that I will not miss, and, sure, it’s simply glorious to be back in the womb, BUT, there are many things that I will miss…the simplicity of life…the absolute quirkiness of every single day…the countryside…the cows in the city…the Russian vans and jeeps and every other vehicle that breaks down damn near every time you get in it…the juxtaposition of the old with the new.

You see, Mongolia is a quirky place…perhaps the quirkiest in the world…but it is those quirks that give it its soul, and those quirks that make it who it is. It is also those quirks that I hold most dear and those quirks that I will cherish most from my year in the land of Chinggis Khan.

Flipping My World Upside Down

So in the next couple weeks I will – quite literally – flip my world upside down. Really. I’ll be left standing on the soles of Chris’s feet…with a great big world between us.

It has been a while since my last post…partially due to lack of internet at home these days, partially because my life here just feels normal now, and partially because a whole lot of scheming has materialized itself into a new job for me…on the other side of the world.

Right. So the bottom line is that I will now depart from Mongolia on September 28. That’s nine days from now. NINE DAYS. Which is no time at all, but it’s especially no time when it means that in nine days I will leave Chris behind in Mongolia to finish up his contract at Orchlon. He will stay here at least through October, maybe through November, and potentially not arrive home to me until some time in December. DECEMBER?! Yeah.

As I said, nine days is no time at all.

In my final nine days, I’ll be doing a lot of the usual: hanging around on the orange couch with my favorite man, going to work, writing reports, wandering about UB, eating at our favorite Korean restaurant, heading to the hills for a hike…the usual. But somehow now that it is whittled down to nine days, it seems so urgent, so rushed. Everything becomes a last, a final, a memory to be made.

And it all seems so quick.

I suppose it’s human nature to become nostalgic with any big change, and I’ve sure fallen right into line in that regard. I mean, it’s Mongolia. It’s this foreign land where so few foreigners venture once in their life, let alone live there for a year. It’s the daily frustrations, the language barrier, the feeling out of place and oh so different, the crappy food, the stumbling upon something delightful in a shop when you least expect it (ravioli in a can?! oh the wonder of it all!). It’s this crazy, crazy land that I have loved, hated, fought with and embraced for the past year of my life, and it’s damn near time to leave. And that leaves me…nostalgic for the past, excited for the future.

The logistics are fairly simple: I leave here on September 28th to begin my journey home. The new job starts on October 11, so I’ll have some time to enjoy with friends, family, and lettuce before I start the next adventure. Chris will hold down the Mongolian fort for a while, then join me in Boston for our next adventure as a dynamic duo. And that’s that…a new job, a new city, a new adventure. Unfortunately it will be a solo adventure in the beginning, but at the end of that solo time will be a reunion with my favorite man, and I do like having things to look forward to…so all in all it’s not a bad spot to be in.

But how could I not miss this?

As an aside, he’s eating a pine cone. Well, technically not the whole cone, but the nuts inside of it. Who knew pine nuts came from pine cones? Certainly not I. But it turns out they do, and it also turns out that Mongolians love them. The whole city is dotted with people selling the cones or nuts taken out of the cones, and the sidewalks are sprinkled with pine nut shells. It’s like living in a land of chipmunks. And Chris has become one of them. Again, how could I not miss him?

Mongolia by Kayak

With my summer vacation winding down, I had one last adventure planned. My friend Jack had come from Korea to visit. We both moved to Asia last summer and had been conjuring up a big adventure. I wanted to catch a Taimen. Jack loves to kayak and travels the world with his inflatable kayak.Sometime over the winter Jack convinced me to buy an inflatable kayak. I figured it was the best way to get to the truly untouched waters that would hold the biggest fish. So I started planning our trip and brought a cheap kayak back from the states.

When Jack got in we took him to the pub quiz and showed him around town a bit. One or two days was enough of the city, so we got out of town to try out our kayaks. Kara, Jack and I got a bus to Nalax, a town about 45 minutes away, and then we took a taxi to the river. The driver and his wife were fascinated by what we were doing and stayed to watch us blow up and launch the boats. We had a wonderful 22 mile float on the Tuul River back to UB. The boats worked well so all we had to do was get supplies for our trip.

After buying a week’s worth of food and other supplies we set out Monday morning for the bus stand. It was an ominous beginning as while loading our things under the bus I was surrounded by a few guys. I recognized they were trying to pick pocket me and made sure I secured my money. I got on the bus thinking I had averted disaster when I went to text Kara that we on the bus and ready to go… and my phone was gone. It could have just as easily fallen out of my pocket in the cab or been pick pocketed. Regardless we were without a phone heading across Mongolia. Not that big of deal as we would be out of range for almost all of the trip.

After a pleasant nine hour bus ride we arrived in Tsetserleg, one of the prettiest towns in Mongolia. We checked in to a hotel, grabbed some dinner and discussed our plans. The next morning we were off to try to hitchhike to the Chuluut River, about 100 km west of where we were. The Lonely Planet made it sound like hitchhiking with vehicles going that way was cheap and easy. It was not. We drew a lot of interest from locals wanting to make a buck and take us on the back roads in there sedans for $100, but we had trouble finding any vehicles going that way. A guide came up to us and started talking to me in Mongolian. I told him where we wanted to go and he said he was going that way with two other foreigners. We were intrigued, but didn’t want to bust in on someone else’s guided tour without being invited. We started walking to a new location when a Russian jeep with the driver in it and a couple of German tourists. We said hello and made small talk, but they did not offer for us to join. As they drove away the jeep couldn’t make it up a hill to get to the main dirt road and it backed in to a light pole. They continues to have trouble getting up the hill, so Jack and I went back and asked if we could help. Once they got out they offered us a ride. Luckily, we had rope with us so we tied are stuff to the top and were off. A half hour later we were sharing their lunch and three hours later we were being dropped off at the Chuluut River or more precisely the Chuluut Gorge.

Our saviors, who let us share their jeep.

A picnic was included, with some pigs.

What journey would be complete with out a little car trouble.

The beginning of the gorge was a pretty impressive site as the canyon started from nothing on one side of the bridge and cut into a canyon gradually, but impressively. We set up camp and prepared mac and cheese for dinner. There were herds of sheep and goats around and Jack expressed concern about the water we would be drinking. I said the filter work well and we’d be fine. He said we should boil it too. We got into a heated argument as I told him we didn’t have enough propane to boil all the water we needed. We decided that I’d walk back into town in the morning and get some more water to get us by for a couple of days. Problem solved.

The start of the gorge.

Our first camp site.

Our first visitor.

The next morning we blew up our boats and started on this great adventure. The water was definitely moving faster than anything I had done in Mongolia. And it did cross my mind that the word Chuluut means rocks in Mongolian, but I had research the river and knew that there were guided canoe trips. The first day proved to be tougher than I had anticipated. We hit some pretty big rapids, several times I pulled my boat out and Jack and I carried it around waters that I didn’t feel comfortable. The weather was stormy and the kayaking was intense. I was not sure what I had gotten ourselves into. Luckily, Jack is an experienced kayaker, he scouted the rivers and made sure I didn’t do anything I couldn’t handle. We were pretty ambitious with our plans as we needed to make about 30 miles a day to complete the trip in the allotted time. The first day was rough and we made only 10-14 miles. We got through what we thought was the worst of the canyon and sent up camp. Exhausted we set our stuff out to dry. I realized that I should have put my dry foods in the dry bag as everything was soaked, from gorp, to cookies, to mac and cheese. That meant we had to eat that stuff pronto. I also looked around and realized that the water filter was gone. I must have left it behind one of the times we carried the boats. After our big argument and now we would have to boil all our water… that would slow us down.

Just before we launched our boats.

The gorge begins to steepen.

Rapids on the first day.

Lunch on the first day after we carried my boat around some rapids; this is the last place the water filter was seen.

More rough water. I had to pull over frequently to drain my boat; after rapids it was like sitting in a bath tub.

It got hairy enough Jack had to put his helmet on.

Oh well. We broke a bottle of Chingis vodka and had a drink as we cook wet mac and cheese. A local herder showed up and started talking to us. Specifically asking what we had to drink. We were essentially in his back yard so we obliged and shared our vodka. He liked it, maybe a little too much. After several drinks he got up unexpectedly and walked away with his horse. We thought this was odd to leave so abruptly. He bent over, vomited several times and then returned to where we were sitting to drink more vodka. Eventually, he stumbled away and we were left with a quarter bottle of vodka and we only brought two!

Our second night’s camp, after our first day on the river.

Bacon Mac and Cheese. Delicious.

Our friend the puker, he did like our Chingis vodka.

The next day we got an early start as we had some time to make up. We thought we were in for some clear sailing, we were wrong. The river joined another river so there was a lot more water, fewer rocks but not fewer rapids. It was another intense day of kayaking. I was getting better and more familiar with my boat. It tended to fold in half in big waves so I got used to slamming my dry bag down before it hit my face and then having to bail the water out after the rapids were through. Despite the difficult water it was much more fun than the first day. We made 32 miles and felt that we would make it out of here in the time given. We set up camp and I got a bit of time to fish just before dark. The fishing was good. I caught several in a short time, but nothing big. I still had hope for a taimen.

Day three camp.

Day three was more of the same. Not the easy float trip that Kara and I had done several weeks before, but lots of rapids and rock. We had to pay attention the entire time to avoid hazards and take the best path. In the morning we had to contend with some crazy weather; we fought some nasty winds that would push us up river if we stopped paddling. If that wasn’t enough we had to stop and build a fire to boil water. We stopped after 15 miles for lunch and built a fire to boil water. We spent most of the afternoon filling a 5 liter jug with smoky tasting water, fishing and hiding from rain showers. Eventually, the weather and the river calmed down and we pushed on until close to dusk.

As we pulled up to camp we were met by a guy on a horse. He helped us carry our stuff up to dry land. We offered him a sip of vodka for his help and he left us to cook. A few minutes later he was back with his two brothers. They asked if we wanted Mongol ‘aireg,’ fermented and distilled horse milk liquor. We said sure. They took a while and came back with some of the foulest tasting stuff I’ve ever had. Two of them drank it down and got pretty drunk. The sober one sent the drunkest home and finally well after midnight we convinced the others we needed to sleep. Once we in our tent ready for bed we heard them come back. We started to get a but suspicious. I went and talked to them and they said they lost their drunk brother. This freaked me out, but they didn’t seem concerned. Finally, after a bit of searching they returned one final time to say that he was found. I was quite relieved, but Jack and I agreed to get the hell out of here early in the morning.

The guy on the horse who helped us unload our boats.

He returned with his brothers and some nasty horse milk liquor.

We weren’t early enough. They came back to wish us well as we were loading our boats. About a half mile down the river we had to pull over and greet the whole family. We were on our way a bit later than we hoped, but it was smooth sailing from there. The rapids were behind us and we just had to worry about making good time. We were a little put off by the behavior of our visitors the previous night, so after 15 miles when a family waved us over we were a bit hesitant. We went to greet a beautiful family. I explained in Mongolian what we were doing and answered their questions. They wanted us to come to their house to eat some yogurt, we politely declined insisting we had to carry on. About a mile down river the father and his two sons came chasing us on a motorcycle holding a large tin canister full of yogurt. So we stopped and they gave us yogurt, Mongolian liquor, and milk curds. The yogurt was delicious… the rest was terrible. We shared our gorp (nuts, dried fruit and M&Ms mix). The kids loved the dried apples and bananas as they picked around and ate them all. Jack let the kids try on his helmet and life jacket, and he even gave them a ride in his boat. It was refreshing to have such a positive interaction after our previous night’s experience.

Delicious fresh yogurt and horse milk liquor.

 

After another hour or so on the river an old man flagged us down. We figured we could use a rest so we pulled up next to him. Instead of allowing us to get out he tried to jump right in to my boat. Apparently, he needed a ride across the river. I don’t know how long he was waiting or how he got a cross in the first place, but he was eager to get to the other side. It took a while to convince him that I should give my dry bag to Jack so that there was room in the front of the boat for him. Once he was in the boat it turns out he didn’t just want to cross the river, but he wanted a lift about a mile down the river to his buddy who was fixing a motorcycle. When we got there he got out and thanked us and was on his way. We continued to push on until close to dark and set up camp in an unspectacular place, cook some food and hit the sack without a fire or any fanfare.

Me acting as a ferry.

Sunset at our campsite after day 4 of kayaking.

With just three days of kayaking left we had done very little fishing. Our goal today was to push on for about 35 miles to an area called ‘Five Rivers,’ where four separate rivers join together to create a fifth. We had beautiful weather and made great time. We arrived at the confluence of the first two rivers with enough time to fish. It was great to have an evening with time to fish, have a fire and relax. We had no luck fishing, but we enjoyed the last couple sips of our Chingis Vodka and were hanging out next to the fire when our nightly visitor arrived. It was dark and we were about to call it a night when a man crossed the river on horseback and came up to our fire. This had been pretty standard throughout the trip. We told him what we were doing, then he asked what we had to drink. We had finished the vodka, so we offered him the Mongolian liquor, made from horse milk, which our friends from a previous night had given to us. After one sip of that the mysterious visitor mounted his horse and vanished into the night. It was a good lesson for future trips: if you don’t want visitors to hang around give them some of their own drink.

The fishing wasn’t great, but the scenery was.

We got up and tried our hand at fishing again, with no luck. We moved on to the actual ‘Five Rivers’ area. Here I had plenty of luck fishing. I put my mouse fly on in hopes of landing the big one, but all I got were little 3 to six inch fish on the fly behind the mouse. It was good to catch fish, but disappointing realizing that I was not going to catch my taimen. With only two days left to get to our goal, we pushed hoping to make our last day an easy trip. As we got closer to our destination, the river started to split into smaller fast moving braids. We push on until close to dark when we decided we had better set up camp soon. Jack pulled up to one place with the water moving quite fast. He stepped out assuming the water would be only knee or thigh high. It was much deeper. I watched his slowly sink into the water until only his hat was left. His boat started to float away and I moved to chase it, then he popped up and swam after it and jumped right back in. It took us a bit longer to find a place we could both get out, but we did just before dark; it was infested with mosquitoes, but we didn’t care. We cooked noodles and canned veggies and went straight to bed.

The only picture of a fish, the mouse fly is about half the size.

Our last day on the river, and we were grateful for it. We ate the last of our foods a can of tuna mixed with a can of corn or as it is better known ‘atun con maize’ and set off. Early in the day we came to a bridge. This was a first. It was a bridge we would have to get out and walk around as it lay on the water. There were a couple of gers and it looked to be a rest stop. Jack wanted to go check it out; I wanted to push on to our final destination. An old man came over and talked to us that solved the problem. He said he was going to Moron (a town the opposite direction of where we were going) but would be going back to UB tomorrow. We took this as a good sign, but decided to carry on in our boats. Little did we know this was the road back to UB and we might have had an easier time getting back from here.

It was a hot day and by mid afternoon we could see our destination the small town of ‘Ik Uul.’ We took a small branch of the river that headed towards the town. The further up it we got the more it seemed to be a sewage line or maybe it was just filled with animal feces. We got within two miles of the town and decided it would be easier and more pleasant to walk. We got out and started to put our things away. We had several curious visitors, mostly kids who watched us as we cleaned and folded up our boats. We set out in the hot sun on walk to town, it was pretty grueling but we made it to a store in under an hour. We must have been quite a sight as we entered the store asking for cold water, snickers and a phone. I called Kara to tell her we had made it and for her to spread the word to our families. Then we set out to try to find a hotel. It was a bit difficult but we were able to find a nice old women’s hotel or more properly spare room.

Finally, we are off the river for good. We made it.

We dropped our stuff off and set out to find a cold beer and dinner. We met a nice man who was working at a shop. We found out he was studying in Korea. He said he’d help us get to UB, but he said we’d have to go two hours in the wrong direction. I’d come this way in the winter and thought that if we could hitch a ride for four or five hours we could get the night train back and it would be a pleasant journey. Our friend didn’t seem to think we could get a ride there, he said we’d have to take a two hour ride and then take a 18 hour bus to get back. This was not as appealing as the train journey so we thought we’d look around. Without much luck we had dinner and beers and retired to our hotel happy to be sleeping in a bed from the first time in a week.

This was our hotel; the whole top floor was ours.

Then next morning we were eager to get back to civilization: flush toilets, hot water, and good food. We asked around about a ride to Erdenet where we could get the train from, but we had no luck. Apparently, that was the rout in the winter when the rivers were frozen. That is the way I had came in February, but it was not possible in the summer. We’d have to back track and go over the bridge we’d passed the previous day. Our friend from the previous day found us and had arranged a ride to Tosongol, two hours in the wrong direction. We thought he said there’d be plenty of transport from there. After waiting around all morning we got a ride with a mother and her two kids in a nice SUV. It was the best ride you can get in Mongolia, just Jack and I in the back seat; however, our fortunes would change. We got to this town and were essentially dropped off only to find it was more deserted than where we had left. Our spirits sank and we thought we’d be stuck there.

After asking around we deduced that there was a bus coming at five and going to UB; however, there were no seats. Shortly before five a bus completely full of Mongolians and their luggage pulls up. We were going to squeeze on or die trying. We put our back packs under the bus, but were to led to keep our boats to sit on. We the last to board and were seated in the aisle on our deflated boats. This was to be the longest 16 hours of my life. I was essentially sitting in Jack’s lap with his legs around me and there was a woman who slept on me the entire time. She smelled like mutton and wool. I had no back rest and didn’t sleep more than a half hour. We had two more stops where more people crammed on. Luckily, I had a book and my I-Pod, they helped me pass the time. As we got close I had never been so happy to see the power plants and smoke stacks of UB. We got a taxi home to Kara who had home fries cooking for breakfast. It was quite a trip, but the last 24 hours had taken a lot out of me, but it was great to be home. Unfortunately, I had to go to work that day and so my Mongolian summer came to an abrupt end just like this blog.

Looking back: One year in the land of Chinggis

Well, we did it…we made it through a year in Mongolia! Our clothes are a little rattier, my hair is a lot longer, and we’ve both faced our share of challenges in the past year, but for the most part we have come through unscathed…I think? Here’s a look at a few highlights (it’s amazing looking back on it and realizing just how much we have done in a year’s time):

August 11, 2010, we left the womb in Manchester, MA, bright and early.

Only to be swallow by Beijing for 30 hours, then ultimately released. August 14, 2010, to Mongolia we went:

We ate our first meal at our new home, still blind to just how deeply we would grow to love the orange couch:

And won our first pub quiz:

And took our first ger face photos!

We saw our first snow in September…

and learned the wonders of karaoke in Mongolia:

Chris played basketball…

and we enjoyed a delicious Indian food dinner for our Thanksgiving away from home:

That was followed by a beautiful Christmas shared with friends bonding together to create a wonderful meal and a magical day:

We participated in the Mongolian Ryder Cup of Curling 2010 (the Americans took the Cup!):

and went to Thailand!

Only to come back for our first Tsagaan Tsar:

We turned 30!

And froze our butts off at the ice festival:

I went home to meet my beautiful niece and see my wonderful family:

Chris went home for June, and I attended my first VSO Summer Conference in this beautiful place:

And then Chris came back and we went to the Gobi…

And on our first kayaking adventure…

And saw our first Naadam…

And we got engaged!

And trapped on an island, where we re-inflated the boat to bring us to the mainland where we walked down train tracks to get to a train station that we mistook to not be a train station so we kept walking to another town only to walk back to the previous town, but who cares we were happy:

And then we went to a Mongolian Death Metal Festival which was, in a word, weird:

Jack arrived; we went kayaking again:

The boys set off on their trip:

They returned from said trip – a blog is in the works!

And now here we are, one year complete in this crazy, crazy place. Whew!

Old Friends, New Friends, Disappearing Friends

It has been a few weeks since I last wrote…I haven’t been busy with much but somehow the time has gone by and not a post in sight. We spent quite a bit of time recently saying our goodbyes to the new friends we made in the past year (most of whom came on one year contracts), welcoming an old friend for a visit (Chris’s high school friend, Jack, is in town for a while), and watching our friends disappear one by one.

I suppose it’s the nature of the ex-pat beast, but it’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever get used to. I mean, I’m not the type who collects and collects and collects friends. I would rather hang on tight to the ones I’ve got and keep them in my grasp for a long time. That doesn’t work here. It’s a constant cycle of meeting and saying goodbye. There’s always a “leaving do” (what people here call going away parties) or a welcoming party or a last whatever or a first something else. It’s constant. And it wears on me after a while I will freely admit. That said, it has been great having Jack around, as any connection to home feels so warm and welcoming in this foreign land.

Last weekend, we headed off on another kayaking adventure. This one was a quick bus ride then taxi away, and soon enough we found ourselves floating back to UB from Terelj, the National Park I always talk about. Chris figured it would be close to 30 miles floating, and he was just about right (I think we clocked in at just over 26 miles when all was said and done). The scenery was beautiful, the day peaceful and pristine. We managed to hop on a bus about thirty seconds before the sky opened up for an afternoon thunderstorm, so we counted our blessings and decided that the day could not have worked out any better than it did. Here’s a few photos from our journey:

We spent the rest of the weekend collecting supplies for the boys to head off on their grand adventure. They left on Monday morning, bright and early, and I won’t hear from them until the adventure is complete. When all is said and done, they should travel 190 miles(!) in their kayaks, then catch a train back to UB. In theory the first contact will be next Wednesday or Thursday…I hope! It’s lonely being all by myself again, but hopefully they will catch huge fish and have a wonderful trip. We’ll see! Here’s some preparations:

A mouse fly to catch really big fish with!

The food for their journey (to be supplemented with fish caught using mice flies of course).

And taping the map so as to waterproof it (smart boys they are):

And the crappiest part of the last couple weeks was that my favorite Mongolia friend, Becky, hopped on a train on Saturday morning to begin her next adventure: travels through China, Hong Kong and then on to Bali before heading home to the UK. It stunk to say goodbye, mainly because now there is no one left in this city who is willing to dress me up like this (she owns all of those clothes but does not tend to wear them in the same combination as seen below):

Or throw crackers in my face:

Or share cans of beans while traveling in confined places:

Or enjoy the same amount of laughter as me when the Russian van runs out of fuel for the second time in one night (Now, we walk.):

As I said, it stinks saying goodbye to the friends we have made this year, especially to the most wonderful one of all. We have a few more heading out in the coming weeks, and in theory a whole new batch will arrive soon, thereby continuing the cycle of firsts and lasts, old and new.

On a happy note, our one year anniversary of leaving home (August 11) is rapidly approaching, to be followed shortly thereafter by our one year anniversary of arriving in Mongolia (August 14 – remember Beijing swallowed us for about 30 hours on our way here?). It’s crazy to think that we’ve almost made a full trip around the sun…as much as time crept by at times, it really has flown. A full year in the land of Chinggis?! That’s crazy. Crazy but true.

It makes you wonder how we found each other…

Back for part two of this week’s adventures…

So Tuesday morning Chris and I hit the road on a bus to Darkhan, a city about 3.5 hours north of UB. We were headed off on our great kayak adventure, a three day trip that would carry us from Darkhan to Dulankhaan, about 30 miles in total as the crow flies. But in the boat? Ehh, that’s a good question. We weren’t sure just how long it would be…and Google Earth showed us a rather curvy river…but what the heck, why not?

In Darkhan, Saruul, my interpreter, met us at the bus station to bring us to lunch at her family’s home. I hadn’t met her family before, so this was a great little window into her world, and they were wonderfully welcoming people…it was really nice. Initially we intended to take a car from there to the Orkhon River but Saruul’s dad told us that this time of year we would be just fine jumping in the Kharaa River. The Kharaa runs along the edge of Darkhan, so it made for an easy spot to start, though admittedly we didn’t know how much time it would add to our trip (in hindsight: 20 extra miles of paddling).

Anyways, Saruul took us to the river to send us on our way. She hung out while we inflated the boat, drew a crowd, broke our hand pump, fixed said broken hand pump with duct tape, and finally set off on our way.

Here’s Saruul with Chris and his helper:

And part of the crowd we drew (the naked children just loved the weird whities):

Day 1 was fairly uneventful. We passed heaps of Mongolians picnicking by the side of the river, had many photos taken of us (the weirdos in a blow up boat), and paddled along on our way.

One odd thing that we noticed as soon as we left the people behind was that the animals were incredibly curious about us. They stared. Really. One cow strained his neck looking so far over his shoulder at us that he lost his footing and tumbled to the ground. A group of two horses chased us for a few miles down the river, staring as we passed then running to catch up. The goats and sheep looked like they were watching a very slow tennis match as we paddled by: all their little goat and sheep heads followed very very slowly as the fools ambled by.

Keeping a watchful eye:

Happy fools:

The fool’s paddle:

Oh and we caused a stampede! The horses didn’t mind staring at us, but they did not like our yellow monster of a blow up boat floating towards them. So they freaked:

And, finally, on Day 1 we passed lots of poop. I mean, LOTS of poop. All different animal poop varieties floating past us. Gross. The river was our drinking source. So we pretty much clogged our filter on the first pump and were left with a tired filter and hopes of not pooping our pants (as of the time I am writing this, neither one has pooped his/her pants on account of the river water, so I think we’re in the clear – thank you trusty Katadyn Water Filter). But yeah…lots of poop:

And then we camped. We found a lovely little perch full of every type of insect you could ever imagine, and we decided that would be our home for the night. Good thinkers, we are.

Day 2 repeated itself much like Day 1 with the exception being that instead of being on the water for 14 miles, we would spend 32 miles paddling through Mongolia on Day 2. That’s a lot of miles in a blow up boat. But we did it and maintained happy little faces for most of the day. We also managed to paddle through the middle of a herd of cows crossing the river; they didn’t seem to mind, but we surely did when we realized that we had taken half of their flies with us. Dammit. But then we found a wonderfully secluded little spot to camp for the night, pulled up the yacht and pitched the tent. Chris cooked me a gourmet delight of ziti with tomato sauce and half-cooked onions and garlic. I kid you not, it was delicious.

He went off to fish for a bit; I drank my wine, read my book. Sunset rolled around, and that’s where things got fun. All of a sudden he started saying nice things – really nice things – to me, and I thought surely he must have heat exhaustion, but no, the next thing I knew he was standing in front of me saying more nice things, and then he was on one knee in a pile of sand and rocks, and then I thought holy crap! and yep, then we were engaged (duh, I said yes, yahoo, ARE YOU CRAZY, OF COURSE!). And happy. We were happy.

And then we chilled the champagne in the river of shit (the man brought champagne in the blow up boat – yet another reason I love him):

And we popped it:

And drank it:

But really we drank it in the tent because we were, once again, surrounded by so many goddamn bugs and they were NOT going to rain our parade. So into the tent we went, and then we saw the most beautiful full moon followed by a horse fight outside of our tent. Really. Three horses wandered over to the field we camped in, and began to fight. And then they left. And we thought that things couldn’t get weirder.

And then Day 3 rolled around. Up early, we ate some breakfast and hit the river. We weren’t sure how far we had to Dulankhaan (it depended on how curvy the river was), so we figured best to start early. Well long story short, we arrived to Dulankhaan – or at least to as close to Dulankhaan as the river would take us – at around 1 or 1:30. And then we were floating on, moving farther and farther from the town without ever having seen any semblance of a town. Crap. So we found a little beach, pulled up the boat, and decided that everything was great; we would spend the afternoon by the water, then make our way to town just a mere three miles from our beach.

We’re idiots.

We swam, we cooked, we enjoyed a relaxing end to our trip. And we were engaged and in schmoopy love, what the hell, let’s enjoy more time by the river!

Idiots.

So we decided to leave our little spot at 4:30. From what we knew, the train back to UB left Dulankhaan at 8pm at the very earliest, but most likely it was more like 9 or 10. Right, so we’re so smart, we’ll play it safe and leave at 4:30. So we pack up our crap, deflate the boat, and by God we can already taste the cold beer that awaits us in town before the train leaves.

And off we go, me and my Sherpa:

We cross the desert:

Only to discover marsh…and more marsh…and about a hundred bazillion gazillion bugs. More goddamn bugs. And then – AND THEN – we discover that our little idyllic perch on the shore? Yeah, it’s an ISLAND. And we have already deflated our boat. And remember, our pump is broken or if not broken held together by duct tape? Right. So we swore a lot in unison, I refused to help decide how to get ourselves out of this mess (a la “YOU got us into this!”), and ultimately we decided to inflate our boat once again and kiss goodbye any chance that we would make the train that evening.

So inflate the boat we did:

And then we paddled…and found shore that we were certain was on the mainland.

And then we walked down the train tracks until we found town. It was hot, and we were idiots. We had water…some water…but remember the clogged filter? Well it’s really hard to pump, so we had less water than we normally would have, and town was about three miles away. Great. Just great.

Anyways, here we are on the tracks like a couple of hobos:

And then we wind up in Yeroo, a town we didn’t realize we would come to. We ask the train guys if we’re in Dulankhaan, and they say no you’re in Yeroo, keep walking for about a mile. We ask about a train to UB, and then say, again, Dulankhaan is over there. So we buy some water and wander away, but not before we stop to remark that there is a passenger train at the station that seems to be the train that we might want to be on? Surely we’re on the right track (literally)?

Idiots. Really big idiots.

Cold water in hand, we set off for Dulankhaan, about a mile down the road. We get there, ask the train guys at that station if we’re in the correct town and what time the train to UB leaves, and they say, “there’s no train to UB here, you have to go to Yeroo to get a train to UB.” We were JUST THERE. So we don’t believe them because what would people who actually work on the railroad know about trains? We keep walking and finally find someone in the tiny little town who, again, instructs us that we must return to Yeroo to get the train, but we must hurry because it leaves SOON. So we schlep all our crap back to the next town over, back to the same mini market to buy another cold bottle of water, and back to the SAME DAMN TRAIN STATION WE HAD WALKED THROUGH AN HOUR EARLIER. And we ask the same person about a train to UB, and they say, “Of course, that train comes through here; it leaves at 10.”

So at long last, here we are, the weary idiots, waiting to board our train at Yeroo:

We did it. We bought train tickets, ate a can of corn for dinner (really), found our crappy beds on the train, and made it back to UB.

And we were happy.

And we’re getting hitched!

Terelj camping and boy those arts sure are manly

It has been a busy week of vacation from work, so I have much to catch up on…

Last Friday I played a bit of hooky from work, but not really hooky in the sense that everyone I work with is on holiday until at least August 18th, and if my job here is to work with the Mongolians, it made little sense for me to go sit at work to work…with myself. Or at least that’s how I rationalized it.

So anyways, Chris, Becky and I took off Friday morning to head to Terelj, the National Park outside UB. We made good time getting there and were wandering about by the river at around noon. Terelj is a wonderful escape from UB as it is accessible by bus yet still feels a world away. Our afternoon was spent walking around our campsite by the river, fishing, swimming, building piles of rocks, and swatting at bugs (or hiding from them). All in all it was a great little getaway, a perfect hooky day from work.

The next morning we hopped in a microbus to take us back to Terelj. I say “hopped,” but really there is nothing so graceful as a hop in Mongolia, so in reality we crammed ourselves into a micro alongside 22 other people. Right. It was a tight squeeze. Oh, and if you can’t picture a microbus…think 12 passenger van but with less leg room. But off we went, bouncing along until we almost got to Nalaikh, our destination for the afternoon. I say almost because we stopped just outside of town, some business dealings went on, a woman handed a plastic shopping bag out the window and took 10,000 Tugrugs (less than $10) in return, and off we went. And what did she sell? Yeah, about that…she sold a goat pelt and some goat innards. Mmm, mmm, mmm, Mongolia you are a treat.

So our afternoon included a barbeque at our friend’s house, delicious food, good company, a lovely night.

And then next morning? We took in the manly arts. This past week marked Naadam in Mongolia, so each town had its own celebration. In Nalaikh, we were able to see the opening ceremony, some singing and dancing, a helicopter fly-by (turns out they do have helicopters in Mongolia), and lots of manly men wrestling in itty bitty undies. Swoon.

The next day was Naadam in UB, but we didn’t have tickets to the opening ceremony. We went to the stadium nonetheless to enjoy the festivities, drink some airag (fermented mare’s milk, believe it or not it’s tasty), eat some khushuur (fried muttony dumpling things that are the traditional Naadam food), see the archery, and simply enjoy a day of merriment in Mongolia. Oh, and we had some friends from Denver in town for two nights, so Jessica and Maarty joined in the fun. It was SO nice to see familiar faces from home all the way around the world in funny, funny Mongolia. We loved their visit!

And that was that, our Naadam in Nalaikh and UB. Luckily for us, it only marked Sunday and Monday of my week off, so sit tight, there is more – much more – to come…I’ll be back with another post soon!

Reunited and It Feels So Gobi

He’s back, he’s back, he’s baaaaaaaaaaaaaack! Woot woot, yahoo, hip hip hooray!

Right so late Thursday night my knight in shining armor returned to Mongolia after far too long gallivanting around the globe. It was glorious, wonderful, what in the world was he thinking leaving for so long?!

Not being one to ease into things, I had us scheduled to head off to the Gobi Desert early Saturday morning on a train with some friends. The train trek was about ten hours and most of it looked just like this:

We had a nice little area to ourselves, or mostly to ourselves I suppose I should say, as across the way we had the company of a ten year old girl and her five year old brother. No parents in sight, although the ten year old did quite the job of tidying their space, rationing the brother’s allotment of Coca Cola, and slowly but surely easing her way into our dice game (which, admittedly, we were playing for money – though we didn’t charge her to play, how kind we are).

Some others from our journey:

Anyways, ten hours later and right on schedule (that is the first time in eleven months that anything has happened on schedule), we arrived to our destination and were then faced with the task of arranging our driver/ride/place to sleep/entire getaway. It’s how things work here, and shockingly so, I have become used to it…sort of.

Driver procured, off we went for a “15 km” journey to the ger camp where we would spend the night. Well evidently it’s easy to mistake 15 for 50, so our drive took quite a bit longer than we thought it would, but sure enough we arrived at the ger camp and to bed we went. We had an early wake up call ahead of us.

Fast forward to 4:45 AM. RISE AND SHINE, it’s time to see the sunrise.

So rise and shine we did, but we were a bit too slow because we watched the sunrise from the microbus windows, not from the energy center as we should have, but so it goes, such is life. It was a beautiful sunrise nonetheless.

(The Mongolians all greeted the sunrise with their hands outstretched, so of course we did too)

Here’s a beauty: two boobs in front of a couple of giant…

So now it’s just after 5AM, the sun has risen, he we go, let’s seize the day. Right. Away we went, and we accomplished all of this before noon (when we finally let our driver go for the day, and feeling like we had lived three days before noon, we set off for lunch). So here’s a glimpse into our day:

Next stop after sunrise: ring the giant bell…

At the Energy Center…

Getting energy…or so they say:

Standing in line because that’s what everyone else was doing…

Next stop, some caves…

And then, AND THEN, the camels! This was the most magical part of the day, and it took place at around 8:30 in the morning. Camel rides at a local herder’s ger, followed by camel milk (surprisingly delicious, tastes like sour yogurt, thicker than cow milk, maybe some particles floating in there, mmm, mmm, mmm) and bread in the ger.

And that wasn’t all they had to offer. While we sat in the ger with the herders, one of them kept sharpening his knife. Well it turns out he was sharpening his knife in preparation for lunch, so after our milk break we went outside to see them kill lunch. Really. And it looked humane? As one who watches all those gruesome documentaries that chronicle where our food comes from, this was dreamy. American slaughter houses? HORRIBLE. Mongolian sheep killing? Dare I say? Beautiful.

So what they do is flip the sheep over, relax it a bit, and then make a small slit in the belly. The herder then sticks his hand inside the sheep (while it is still alive!) and pinches the aorta long enough that the animal goes to sleep, doesn’t struggle one single bit, not a sound is heard, nor a drop of blood spilled. The animal is then transported inside the ger to be turned into whatever Mongolians turn whole sheep into (that could be a lot of different things). And that’s that.

And that was our entire day, all before noon. Whew.

Anyways, the afternoon was spent in the park waiting for the train station to open in hopes of changing our tickets from a Monday night return to a Sunday night return. At around 4pm, we ventured there and surprisingly enough, it worked! And we were happy:

So back onto the train we went for our overnight journey home from the Gobi. Quick trip, yes, but wonderful, worth it, and EXHAUSTING.

At least I was exhausted. Chris seemed to have other ideas, because not two hours after we got back to our apartment in the morning, he was ready with the kayak to head off on another adventure.

So off we went to Gachuurt, a little town nearby. We arrived around 2pm and spent the rest of the day floating down the river. It was beautiful until the exhaustion and the clouds set in, but luckily we managed to arrive home at 7pm, just before the skies opened up. I say luckily because Christopher would NOT have had a happy lady on his hands had we not. Suffice to say I was tired and the final hour or so of our float involved some boat re-inflating, some walking, some marsh crossing…I was TIRED.

But we did it, and it was fun. And Chris cooked me dinner once we got home. It’s great to have him back.

As for this weekend, tomorrow we’re going camping in Terelj, the National Park just outside UB, then Sunday is Nadaam (the festival of manly arts) in Nalaikh, another neighboring town, then Monday in UB then maybe Tuesday we head off kayaking again. What can I say, I’m a glutton for punishment.

Until then…

What I’m Struggling with Right Now…

So you might think that what I’m struggling with right now is being all by myself on this adventure and missing my Christopher. That’s part of it of course, but there’s more to it than that.

What I’m struggling with right now is giving a damn.

Yesterday I had one of those days. One of those days where I spent more time questioning what in the world I am doing here than I did learning from this foreign land I now call home. I don’t have any photos to go along with these sentiments, nor do I have many concrete examples to share, but I do have one.

So yesterday afternoon I walked to the VSO Office to pick up a package from my parents (wahoo!). It was easily the highlight of my day after spending the morning and early afternoon feeling disenchanted and a bit lost in Mongolia. Unfortunately, my highlight was short-lived.

I took my usual route home, behind the Sail Building, along Peace Avenue, to the Wrestling Palace and back to home sweet home. Peace Avenue is the main road through town…it’s six lanes wide (three going each direction) and has no center median. There are stop lights and crosswalks of course, but the traffic is so wild that you often see people crossing wherever they find an opening. I assume that is what was happening in this instance.

So I heard tires screeching on the road behind me, and, as you do, I turned to see what was happening. Just as my line of sight was behind me, I saw a man hitting the hood of a still moving car. I watched him fly through the air like a rag doll and land in an unconscious heap in front of the car. He was an old man. He carried a rice bag full of empty bottles that he would return for a meager bit of income. He lay motionless on the ground. I gasped at the sight and let out a subconscious Oh God! The driver stopped and got out of his car, I assume to help? And everyone else? Well, the rest of the pedestrians just kept on walking. And the rest of the cars just kept on driving. They didn’t even seem to slow down. It broke my heart.

Not speaking Mongolian and not being a healthcare professional, there was little I could do to help. I walked on, lost in thought.

The rice bag of bottles made one thing clear to me: this man was poor. He collected bottles in an effort to support someone: himself, his family, a habit, who knows? More than likely, this served as his job – his only job. More than likely he cannot afford the healthcare that he will surely need. And more than likely I witnessed one of those events that happen in a person’s life that marks a turning point (as in before I was hit by a car…). And again, it broke my heart.

The discrepancy in UB between the rich and the poor is massive. The rich can afford healthcare and often leave the country to seek adequate, clean, modern services. The poor? Well if this man was taken to a hospital that in any way resembles the one in which I work, bless his heart, he will need luck on his side. That’s assuming that he was taken to a hospital. I’m not sure how it works…he’s a bottle collector and there is some stigma attached to that…what do stigmas do in terms of access to healthcare? Again, I don’t know. And again, broken heart.

As for what caused the accident, well, pardon the language, but Mongolians drive like assholes. I don’t mean that in the sense of people in Massachusetts drive like assholes. No, these folks make Massachusetts drivers look like saints. Absolute saints.

So yeah. I don’t know anything else about what happened after I walked on, but I do know that watching a poor old man get hit by a car for no reason at all (the other lanes were empty, the car was driving way too fast, the usual) makes it really hard to give a damn.

It’s the icing on the cake right now I suppose. We’re finishing up our next set of health volunteer trainings and have had very little support from our Mongolian counterparts on this set. It’s tourist season too, so that means a lot more whities roaming the streets, which in turn means more stupid comments or actions towards the rest of us (it’s a shame there is no way to distinguish between the we live here crowd and the we’re here for two weeks crowd). Yesterday a microbus drove past me on a side street and someone sitting by the window either shot their water gun at me or spit at me…either way I wound up with an ear full of water (I smelled it…it didn’t smell…for my sanity, I assume it was water).

Yesterday was a stellar day.

Right, so I know that I will regain my giving a damn because I always have in the past. It’s just that when you watch a poor old man get hit by some idiot driving their shitty white sedan with blacked out windows way too fast down a busy street, it makes it really hard to give a damn about much else.

Progress, is that you?

Wahoo, our first batch of Community Health Volunteers are trained, inducted and adorned with their new uniforms! They’re ready to take on all the health issues of Bayanzurkh District, which is to say they are in over their heads as there are more health issues than one can count (oh dear, I’m not sure they knew what they were in for when they signed up for this).

But let’s backtrack…

So in April and May we recruited 134 CHVs. Those 134 individuals then attended training at their local clinic to learn about the facility, meet the staff, learn to take blood pressure, all that. Come the beginning of June, those trainings ended (for the most part), and the CHVs were ready for the next part of their training: a six-day course led by a whole slew of people including healthcare professionals from the District Health Unit, me, Jess and Jo (all VSO). Jess’s counterpart arranged the trainings in a ladder-type schedule so that they took place in three different venues but were off by one day in each venue (Day one of training took place Thurs, Fri, Sat of one week all at different venues, and the following 5 days fell in line behind). It seemed like a fairly simply way to train a lot of people in a short amount of time. And it was. Except that Mongolians do not like planning – not one bit – so needless to say Jess, Jo and I had our hands full of the logistics and organization. But we did it (we had to!). In the first group about 75, almost 50 attended enough days to be considered fully trained (read: they only missed two days at most). In terms of Mongolian standards, that’s pretty good.

Have a look:

Learning how to care for a baby:

Jess knows how to work the crowd (giving trainings is fun!):

Our littlest CHV (best to get them early when they’re really impressionable):

And then there was this guy, “sleeping” outside ALL DAY on our first day of training. It was an odd juxtaposition to offer a health training while right outside your window there lies a man passed out from alcohol for literally the entire day (he did shift positions a few times so at least we knew he wasn’t dead):

It’s unfortunate that he chose to pull that stunt on the introduction day of training and not the alcohol awareness day. He would have made a good living model. But anyways.

So following the trainings we scheduled our CHV Induction Ceremony. And by scheduled I mean we pushed and pushed and pushed for our Mongolian counterparts to book a venue, schedule some activities, you know, plan the ceremony, but they simply didn’t want to. Not until the morning of the ceremony of course.

Right, so the day of the event, our manager calls us into her office to inform us that the City Health Department has mandated that each district hold some certain meeting at 2pm on Wednesday, June 15th. And when is our ceremony scheduled? Duh, at 2pm on Wednesday, June 15th.

But fear not, we can hold them both at the same time!

“What a brilliant plan!” they think.

“We can see this going horribly wrong already,” we think.

Ho hum. So yeah, it turned into a bit of a mess, complete with a hail storm and power cut, but all in all the CHVs were happy (once the speeches ended). They received their uniforms, equipment bags and certificates (Mongolians love certificates – and they must be stamped in order to be official).

And here we have them, the Health Promotion Heroes (aka Community Health Volunteers):

This one is with a few of the Social Workers we work with:

CHVs again:

Please note that I am a GIANT. I mean, I’m not simply tall; I am massive. It’s funny. The woman next to me in this next shot actually requested that we take a photo together (just us, she insisted as she pushed the others out of the way) because I’m not sure she had ever met another woman as tall as her. The photo came out a bit blurry, but it was still pretty great.

And one final one of me, Altai, and Saruul. Altai and Saruul are two of our wonderful interpreters without which we would accomplish nothing. We’re in the back of the ambulance on our way back from the ceremony.

Now we’re back at it – trainings begin again on Wednesday. We’ll repeat the same six-day training for another three groups, follow it up with an Induction Ceremony, and then somehow we manage and motivate these people. We’ll figure it out…or at least we better!