Oct 4 2010

Some thoughts on Shanghai, Sightseeing Tunnels, World Expos and Shopping For Bras. (And a few other things, too.)

I believe this section was entitled "Nascent Magma."

-The World Expo. Shanghai is the home to this year’s world expo, a fact not particualrly cared about by anyone other than the Chinese.

The mascot of the Shanghai expo is a small, blue cartoon character who bears a strong resemblance to Gumby. His blueness, though, makes me think of a different pop culture reference. Anyone else remember the episode of 30 Rock where Tracy Jordan keeps hallucinating that there’s a little blue guy following him the set? He should not – I repeat, not – go to Shanghai until the Expo is over. That blue man is everywhere.

Shanghai's little blue man.

Tracy Jordan's little blue man

We’d been warned about the Expo’s lines but decided to take our chances and go anyway. And indeed, at first we were lucky – there was no line to get entrance tickets, but it was clear from the amusement park-esque waiting pens that it could easily have taken several hours. Inside seemed empty, too – though that turned out to be an illusion likely caused by the fact that we entered at the park’s unpopular end, and there was an apocalyptic rain cloud rushing across the city.

As soon as we got over to where the actual country pavillions were located (as opposed to say, pavillions for natural resources and technology companies), we caught our first glimpse of the legendary lines. Japan, for example – a giant purple structure designed to look like a silkworm – had a line so long that, looking down at it from a pedestrian walkway, I had to turn my head to find the end. No way. A family friend had warned us that if there was no line, a pavillion was likely not worth seeing – but we disregarded his advice and escaped the rain by ducking into Iran. Aside from a water feature and multiple photographs of Ahmadinejad, it was pretty empty. North Korea, also no substantial line, was similarly unimpressive, with a fountain decorated with white cherubs (both in color and ethnicity), a video screen of an opera singer and some acrobats, a photograph of what was supposed to be Pyongyang, and a banner that said “Paradise for People.”  (One wonders if sanctions have also been placed on irony.) The best part was the gift shop, which had surreal postcards showing photoshopped cityscapes and larger-than-life seagulls, and a large selection of the works of Kim Jong Il. We also glanced into Iraq, bought chicken birani from Bangladesh, and talked to a puzzle maker in Mongolia.

We thought we should try to see at least one popular pavillion, and after dismissing Japan, decided to try Saudi Arabia, which was housed in an enormous dome with palm trees growing out of it and a ticker running around its top. The line already looked too long for my taste, but we tried to find the end nonetheless. Kept walking. Still a line. Kept walking. More people. Eventually the line disappeared and was replaced by holding pens full of people, each kept separate from the next by a row of policemen. There were easily seven or eight holding pens, all packed with more than 200 people a piece. When we finally found the end of the line – so far away that the giant Saudi Arabia pavillion was no longer visible – I saw a sign on a post indicating how long the wait time was estimated to be. FOUR TO FIVE HOURS. To get into Saudi Arabia. Dude, that’s about half the time it would take to actually get to the REAL Saudi Arabia. I asked a guy on line how long he thought he’d be waiting. He confirmed – fou to five hours – and then proudly announced that he’d waited for a similarly long time to see China’s pavillion, a giant inverted red pyramid that only 1/10th of daily visitors were predicted to actually be able to enter. (The fact that he was already in China seemed not to matter.)

Peter and I looked at each other, confused. What attraction would possibly be worth waiting that long for? What was inside Saudi pavillion? Did you get a free barrel of oil when you walked out?

Just one of the holding pens.

Polite Sharing and No Challenging

-A thought on Chinese toilets: why do they never have toilet paper? I have spent more time than the average person thinking about Chinese restrooms – why women line up for stalls as if they’re checkout counters at a grocery store, for example, why they often don’t bother to close the doors, why even in Beijing, many Chinese women, when encountered by a Western-style toilet, will climb up on the seat as if it’s an elevated squat toilet. But this trip, I’ve been particularly interested in the lack of toilet paper. Why do they not supply it? Is it too large an investment? The reason I keep thinking about this is that every time I use the toilet (my own tissues tucked into my pocket), I end up face-to-face with a toilet paper dispenser hanging empty on the wall. This is not because it ran out; the paper never existed in the first place. (On a recent train ride, for example, the dispenser was empty before our train left the station.) And when you do get toilet paper, say in a hotel, they provide it in miniature rolls, barely enough for two Americans to make it through the day. I suppose their stinginess is probably related to the lack of toilet paper in public restrooms – hotels they gave any more, people would just put it in their purse. But still. I think that given China’s other investments these days, it’d be a worthwhile splurge.

-Lines. This is something I hate about China – no one waits on line. Instead, it is a country of cutters and mobs. If you combine a nonexistent sense of personal space with 1.4 billion people, you create circumstances that make an otherwise kind and relatively gentle American want to punch someone in the face; thisis what I’ve learned. It doesn’t matter where you are. A train station. A grocery checkout line. I even had a woman appear out of nowhere and jump into the squat toilet before me. (More power to her on that one – there was a huge pile of crap on the floor.) In the Shanghai metro, Peter and I watched as a man with a baby stroller positioned himself on the platform in a way that completely blocked the people inside from getting off. Instead of moving to the side, he plowed right through them. (In that case, more power to the baby.) Here’s a scene from our rerouted plane trip from Nanjing to Xining, taken when three flights’ worth of people were put in the same waiting room and then asked to board a bus to the tarmac. (Just before this shot, an irate customer had nearly punched the room’s one and only customer service representative in the face, resulting in an even bigger mob.)

– And lastly, shop clerks. When I first visited China in 1991, there were very few stores open to foreigners. And in those stores, it was nearly impossible to get anyone to help you. You’d have five, maybe seven clerks standing behind a counter, doing nothing, acting like it was a major pain in the ass if anyone actually wanted to buy something.

But capitalism has come to China (in fact, in many ways it’s more capitalistic than America). Now, the problem isn’t getting people to help you; it’s getting them to stop.

This is obvious just when you walk down the street – there are clerks standing outside clothing shops with small megaphones delivering a nonstop, high-pitched monologues extolling the virtues of the store’s, say, flannel shirts. We even saw a woman on the street selling fruit out of a basket who had prerecorded her sales patter and was broadcasting it from a small boombox, both saving her vocal chords and guaranteeing that any potential customers would stay at least 10 feet away.

This is annoying to begin with. But god help you if you step inside. Within seconds, you can have a phalynx of shop clerks descend upon you, occasionally with backup clerks standing several feet away, just in case you manage to escape.

Case in point, a lingerie shop I entered, in search of a replacement bra. It easily had 10 clerks for a one-room storefront. It’s awkward to have people swarm around you when you’re looking for shoes; it’s another thing when you’re shopping for bras.

Once I’d actually made the mistake of touching one (bra, not clerk), a clerk materialized from nowhere with a measuring tape and deftly lassoed me before I knew what was happening. This is an aspect of bra shopping that I hate even in the States – a situation where it is socially acceptable for a stranger to wrap string around your nipples. She plucked the correct size off the rack and continued to trail me as I made my way around the store. A different salesclerk, noticing the two bras that by that point were in my hand, took it upon herself to hand me a third, a lacy, purple number that was far from my style, but which I took from her anyway so that I wouldn’t have to linger.

Then, the dressing room. I had a feeling I wasn’t going to be alone – and I was right. I’d barely gotten the first bra on when I heard a chirpy voice announce in Chinese that she would help me, and my shower curtain was pulled aside.

“It’s too small,” I tried to explain, covering my chest with my hands as she reached for me.

“It’s not too small,” she replied and dove right in, her fingers deftly manipulating the straps.

She helped me out of the bra and into my other choices – all with the shower curtain open, of course; I took a deep breath and tried to adopt the mantra that Peter’s dentist used to say to him, somewhat creepily, whenever he was about to administer a dose of novacaine: “It has to be. It just has to be.”

And, indeed, it ended well. I bought a bra, and bid her farewell with a smile. If only I had the same success on my quest for pajama pants – I was so overwhelmed by would-be helpers that I had to make an evasive manuever around a rack of tops decorated with cartoon sheep.

Oct 1 2010

Beautiful Mongolia

Here are a few more Mongolia pictures we couldn’t fit in our earlier posts:

We DO want to be yours, Mongolia!

This woman was stitching the fabric used for the inside ger walls.

And this man was carving the central hub used at the top of the gers.

Don't be fooled by the happy face -- there's fermented horse milk in that cup.

Ger by night.

Note the heart.

I'll miss you, Mongolia.

Sep 28 2010


It would be impossible to quantify the kindness shown to us by the family of one of Peter’s family friends in Ulan Baatur. From providing a car and driver for us to asking a family friend to take time out of her normal life to act as our guide to – in one of the most memorable experiences of this entire trip – hiring a professional throat singer and dancer to perform for us during lunch, their generosity left us both overwhelmed. So instead, I will focus on only one of their acts of generosity: the sheep.

The night we arrived at the family’s apartment, Otkho, the friend who was acting as our guide, asked if we would be interested in seeing the traditional Mongolian method of preparing sheep meat. “Sure!” we said. One of our goals on this trip has been to take cooking classes in different cultures and, while mutton has never topped my list of favorite foods, we both figured it’d be fun to watch.

“Great,” said Otkho. “We will get a sheep.”

This phrasing — “get a sheep” instead of “buy some sheep meat” — should have set off warning bells in my head. For while it had never seemed likely that we were going to be working with sterilized, plastic-wrapped chunks of supermarket meat, I still hoped that it would at least arrive, well, dead.

It did not.

The next day, we got in the car and drove through a ger district – small patches of land where families had pitched their yurts – to a wooden-framed house surrounded by a rectangular lawn with a ger at one side. The house itself – which belonged to the father of the wife of the brother of the wife of Peter’s father’s colleague (got it?) – had a wood-burning stove of the sort we saw in the nomadic gers and no running water. And in its yard was a sheep.

It was a cute sheep – black muzzle, drooping ears – and in a different life it could have belonged in a petting zoo. But its frightened posture (not to mention the rope tied around its front feet) indicated that that wasn’t what its future held.

“There it is!” said Otkho, happily. Then, in the voice of the sheep: “Peter and Catherine, I am waiting for you!”

Unfortunately for the sheep, it had to wait a little longer – we first gathered in the sister’s ger and sampled tangy, homemade yogurt as we waited for the rest of the family arrived.  When their car pulled into the lawn about a half hour later, the man of the house put down his yogurt bowl and set out in search of his knife.

I didn’t want to see the sheep die, but I also figured that since I had no control over its fate, it would be good to force myself to watch – I’ve never witnessed firsthand where my meat comes from.

Otkho had told me that women didn’t usually watch the moment of the slaughter, so I decided to compromise, standing near the door and peeking out from the frame like a child trying to catch a glimpse of Santa (you have just witnessed the worst analogy I have ever made).  As I watched, the man dragged the sheep to the middle of the yard, plopped it on its butt and sliced through the rope tying its feet together. I wanted to turn away, but didn’t. Peter, meanwhile, was asked to hold one of its back legs.

A scene from later in the process.

With the sheep’s front legs freed, the man began pulling tufts of wool from the sheep’s chest with his free hand, a butcher’s version of a pre-surgery shave, and then picked up the knife. I tensed up. Here’s the thing about Mongolian butchering: unlike other cultures, they want to keep all the blood. None should be wasted. Thus, their method of killing: cut a slit in the sheep’s chest just under the rib cage, stick an arm into the body, and sever the aorta with a finger. The heart, unaware that the aorta’s busted, then pumps the blood out into the chest cavity and the sheep quickly dies.

But I’m making that sound too pleasant. As I watched, the man cut a deep slit into the sheep’s soft underbelly and stuck his entire arm into its still living body. The sheep struggled some, though not as much I would have in similar circumstances. It also was completely silent – I don’t know if its position prevented it from making noise, or if it was just too terrified.

The man fiddled around inside the body for an endless-seeming few seconds, and then yanked out his hand. At that point I was still under the mistaken impression that his goal was actually to pull the heart out of the body, so I was horrified to see him come out empty handed. But I had misunderstood. He was after the aorta, and it had been severed. As he, Peter and the driver continued to restrain the sheep, it took several shuddering breaths – me quietly chanting “Die, die, please die” – and eventually was still. The entire process took a little over a minute and there was no blood anywhere – hardly even on his arm.

I was so relieved that the sheep was no longer suffering that I hardly minded what happened next – an incredibly efficient disassembly, with nothing discarded or wasted but the pancreas, bladder and gall bladder. Every time I asked Otkho about a seemingly unsavory body part – the snout, for example, or the hooves – she would expain how they prepared it (in the case of the hoofs, you burn the fur off, then boil it – kids love them, said Otkho) and then proclaim it to be “delicious.” Hearts, lungs, kidneys, all delicious. Her favorite part was the stomach – I felt like I’d given her a gift when I taught her the English word “tripe.”

After cutting off the feet and skinning the sheep — all with a knife that seemed impossibly small — the man set to work with the actual butchering, ingeniously using the hide as a sort of work surface to keep the meat off the grass. I don’t remember the exact order of organs, but the main highlights included the small intestine – foot upon foot, which the driver flushed out with water using a funnel, and then coiled into a neat bundle and tied with itself, like a climbing rope. The colon was similarly cleaned, and then the three women got buckets of water and set to work cleaning the grass-filled stomach, which was a difficult job, since there were countless tiny nubs all stained green.

Meanwhile the man pulled out the huge liver, the kidneys, and when everything was out of the main internal cavity, he cut away the membrane separating the chest cavity from the abdomen. All the blood that had pooled there suddenly rushed into the abdominal cavity, allowing him to scoop it into a painter’s bucket with a plastic cup. Throughout this, no blood fell on the hide of the sheep or on the ground – it was all in the bucket. (Its use became obvious soon enough.) Heart, lungs, all preserved.

He cut off the meaty legs and cracked the ribs, even setting aside the meaty spine and the fatty flap that had covered its tail. Eventually there was nothing left of the sheep except its hide and head, which the man butchered by pulling open the mouth until the jawbone snapped, revealing two sets of horseshoe-shaped gray teeth and making the splayed head look like a bear trap. It was both gruesome and – now that the sheep was dead – fascinating.  I was truly impressed by how little of the sheep was wasted.

Eating it, however, was a different matter. We sat in the living room as the women set to work cooking the meat and organs in a bowl of water over the wood-burning stove. Eventually, with much fanfare, the first course was served: the liver, wrapped in belly fat. (This is a special kind of fat, almost mesh-like in consistency, that made it look like the liver had been coated in melted cheese. But don’t be fooled.) No salt or spices, just a bowl of fat-wrapped liver. I took a small bite.

Next came the main course: a large bowl of the sheep’s internal organs – stomach, colon, kidneys, lungs – also boiled. It was hard to know where to begin – so many organs to choose from! – but apparently the true deliacies, of which we were served healthy slices, were intestines filled with a combination of cooked blood and folded intestines (intestines in intestines – try saying that fast), and the stomach, which had been filled with blood like a water balloon and then boiled.

Dig in.

The stomach slices were particularly impressive; roughly the diameter of a discus, they almost looked like a dense devil’s food cake. That is, of course, if a devil’s food cake were made of boiled blood.

“Oh,” said Otkho, serving us. “It is very delicious.”


Facing a silver-dollar-sized slice of colon-and-blood-filled colon and slice of coagulated, stomach-wrapped blood the diameter of a grapefruit – and having already sampled bites of kidney and lung – I was very grateful when someone brought out a pickle jar. The good part was that I could mask the taste with pickle brine; the downside is that from here on out, I’ll associate gherkins with sheep intestine. The grandmother, worried we weren’t eating enough, returned to the living room to serve us even larger slices.

In the meantime, someone had arrived with a bowl of Otkho’s favorite: boiled tripe. Having tried it myself, I’m afraid I must respectfully disagree with her on the question of deliciousness. Green and furry, it looked and felt like an unscraped tongue. You know how there are certain people whom you feel – right after meeting them – that you’ve known your whole life? That’s how I felt about the stomach: its flavor was exactly what I’d imagined it would be, as if we’d been introduced before. Unfortunately, however, we didn’t get along.

I was trying my best to be a gracious guest, but it was difficult to control my visceral response, if you will, to the texture of boiled lung. So I was thrilled when we were served bowls of hot, fatty mutton soup.

But just as I raised the bowl to my lips, a family friend stepped in. “Be careful!” he said. “Do not drink too much. It is very strong.”

As opposed to a blood-stuffed colon? I acquiesced, grabbing another pickle. Then, as a sort of palate cleanser, we were served something recognizable to the average American diner: boiled ribs.

If I think about it, it really makes no sense that I should be fine with the taste and texture of cooked animal muscle but not be able to stomach, say, stomach. It makes me wonder if it would be possible, with the right training, to condition someone to be disgusted by a tomato. (Or, with the right spices, to condition a colon to be delicious.) Nonetheless, I found the ribs easier to eat. And I left the table truly impressed by how little of the sheep was wasted, and in admiration of their geniune enjoyment of every part of the sheep. I’d feel a lot better about meat-eating in general if we were to use the animals we kill as thoroughly as the Mongolians do – though it’ll take a lot of work before you see me nibbling on a boiled snout.

Me and Genghis Khan.

Sep 27 2010

Nomadic Homestay, Part V: Mr. Bold

Here are links to parts IIIIII and IV.

Mr. Bold

Our next stop was the ger of Mr. Bold, where we were supposed to learn the art of Mongolian archery. But Mr. Bold was off trying to catch a missing baby horse, which left us with his wife – a perfectly nice woman, who appeared perfectly tired of hosting tourists. (Oh, great — you want to take pictures of yourself in Mongolian outfits next to a ger? How creative.) She made us yet another lunch of fry bread and invited us to relax in a spare ger for a while, which we did before wandering up a big hill nearby and seeking out a stupa we’d seen from the ox cart. When we returned, she took the afternoon’s activities into her own hands and presented us not just with a Mongolian bow and set of arrows, but Mongolian jackets to wear while trying to shoot them. Which we did, with some success. The mother then offered to sell us our jackets. (They were nice, but what am I really going to do at home with a Mongolian archery outfit?)

She warmed up to us after we showed our archery skills.

Having realized that the only distinction between the four and five day ger itineraries was a round of dung collection (“learn how to collect dung in the traditional manner,” said our itinerary), we decided that for the sake of my blood sugar (and for the sake of not spending another afternoon alone in a ger), we would head home the next afternoon. It ended up being a perfect plan. And our last day ended up being far better than anticipated, thanks to the reappearance of Mr. Bold, who had successfully found his baby horse and was helping his wife make morning fry bread.

Mr. Bold, as befits his name, was huge. Not so much in height – though at just under six feet he was taller than most people we met – but in every other dimension. His substantial belly was perhaps the least imperssive of his attributes – I was captivated more by his long and fleshy ears, the width of his face, and his fingers, which were the embodiment of the expression “sausage-like.” Peter put it best when he compared Mr. Bold to a Mongolian George Foreman.

Mrs. Bold seemed much happier in the presence of her husband, who in turn seemed very happy with a tin of hard candies we had left for them, which he had emptied of sweets and filled with tobacco. We shared a breakfast of a fried treat very close to polish chrusciki; Mrs. Bold taught me how to tie a Mongolian button, which I will probably not remember how to do. We retreated to our ger for more sitting, and then were invited back for a lunch of an enormous bowl of noodles mixed with the previous night’s soup. Mr. Bold’s son had come back, a young tall man in a long gray coat tied with a bright yellow sash, who lounged on a bed at the back of the ger.

The younger Mr. Bold, in Peter's glasses. (That's the wind, not his stomach.)

Mrs. Bold had apparently told Mr. Bold of our skill in archery (which must speak very poorly of other tourists’ abilities) and eariler that morning, he had squeezed Peter’s bicep in appreciation. This led to his squeezing my bicep as well, which then led to me and Mr. Bold arm wrestling over a tiny wooden table.

This is just a hunch, but I don’t think. Mr. Bold was really trying. While his wife and son looked on with amusement, he enfolded my hand in his meaty paw, a swollen, cartoon version of a hand, and on the count of three, we began to wrestle. Or at least I began to wrestle. It quickly became obvious that Mr. Bold was pushing back just enough to keep his arm vertical, but not enough to actually beat me. This went on for a bit; he then snapped his wrist forward over mine – indicating that if he wanted to, he could crush me like a grape – and then let me beat him.

This must count as one of my life's most surreal moments.

After sharing a good laugh, we hopped on Mr. Bold’s ox cart – covered not with an oriental blanket, but with a filthy blanket with pictures of roses and the caption “Here You Are”) – and set off on a seemingly endless ride to our final ger, going over bumps so large that in several instances, I actually caught air. I had already suspected this, but our trip with Mr. Bold proved beyond a doubt that there is no comfortable position on an ox-cart.  After about an hour I was longing for my horse, despite the fact that it had rubbed the top of my butt raw.

Also, and I know I’ve brought up the subject of ox poop previously on this blog, Mr. Bold’s ox had a really bad case of diarrhea. I wouldn’t have thought that an ox’s butt would be fodder for nomadic jokes – I mean, it’s the equivalent of — and as commonplace as — a car’s tailpipe (if you will). But Mr. Bold had not lost his youthful sense of fun. Instead, he pointed at the ox’s brown, sticky legs, giggled, and said, “Urum!”

Urum is the cooked, butter-like cream that we had been eating atop our fry bread. It also happens to be the only nomadic dairy product that I liked, since it did not taste like the rear end of the animal from which it was derived. Thank you, Mr. Bold, I thought to myself. Thank you for taking urum away from me.

After what seemed like an endless journey across a flat plain, we eventually arrived at our last ger, the home of Ms. Unanu (sp?) a former food technologist and self-described “inherited sorceress.” She wasn’t doing anything particularly magical when we got there, though.  A large tray of milk curds sat on the top of her ger, drying in the sun; inside, Ms. Unanu was making dumplings in front of a small, orange flat screen TV that was showing a Mongolian-dubbed version of Jim Carey’s The Mask.

There were religious objects at the front of the ger covered with a blanket, plus a small shrine and a wall hanging of animal pelts. But what really set her ger apart from the others we had visited was the presence of a small, gravity-powered sink next to the door, complete with soap. And they used it! Her husband, who had been lounging on the floor watching Jim Carey, carefully scrubbed his hands before helping her with the dumplings. I don’t know if this had anything to do with sorcery, but I appreciated it.

After a lunch of fresh dumplings – by far my favorite food, especially since urum’s fall from grace – we sat around in her ger, the television now tuned to the Home Shopping Network. I wish I could have asked her what she thought of the ads for juicers, a humidifier, and a salad spinner that doubled as a potato peeler. Is this the stuff of nomadic dreams?

We were supposed to learn how to make dairy products with Ms. U, but due to our shortened itinerary, I instead just asked how she made her dried curds. Short answer: boil milk, add a little old yogurt, let dry, cut into pieces, let dry some more. She explained that babies really like to chew on sweetened milk curds when they’re teething – which would make sense, since the curds are the consistency of a dog’s plastic chew toy. Having tried both sweet and salty varieties, I can recommend neither. Both require heavy sucking to soften. The sweet ones look a bit like cheese doodles (hard, desiccated cheese doodles) and taste a bit like spoiled yogurt; the salty taste like parmesan cheese that has done hard time in a barnyard.

At 6pm, Ms. U’s husband went off in search of the engine for our ride home, an ox that was grazing on a nearby hill. And then we were off! Back across the valley. Back past the gers and through the trees. All was going well until we were approached by yet another group of young men on horseback, who appeared to be having trouble transporting their bull (I assume to the slaughterhouse). Could they maybe tie the animal to the back of our ox cart? No problem!

Peter and I then found ourselves literally sitting in the middle of an ox v. bull tug of war. Most of the points went to the ox, which didn’t even glance back at the additional 500-pound weight now resisting it from behind. It just kept on walking as the bull dug in its hooves and refused to move. The rope, easily more than a half inch thick, snapped. Twice.

By the time we got to the river, the situation had become more upsetting than funny; the ox, still proving the truth behind the adage “strong as an ox,” lost its balance and fell forward into the water, as a group of boys came up to the bull from behind and started pelting it with rocks. Eventually our driver gave up trying to help with the bull transport and urged the ox up the bank; the last I saw of the bull, it had collapsed on the edge of the river and was refusing to get up.  It was one of those moments that makes the animal rights activist in you want to cry – but then again, these are nomads. They eat meat. They had to get the bull to move. Still, I didn’t want to watch it.

We got on the bus at the first stop, and had just settled into its only two backwards-facing seats when it pulled into its next stop and we saw a familiar figure lumber on board, wearing a long wool nomadic coat tied with a bright golden sash. Mr. Bold! We waved to him and earned a hearty wave back, establishing our status as the coolest people on the bus – yeah, that’s our nomadic friend. But things took a turn for the worse when Mr. Bold pushed his way to the front of the bus and traded seats with the small woman who’d been sitting next to me. You know how I said previously that his face was wide? So were his shoulders. Despite the fact that the bus was relatively empty (by Mongolian standards), I felt more cramped than I had on our ride there.

Making things worse, if funnier, was that Mr. Bold was something of a one-trick pony, reaching for my arm, miming an arm wrestling match, and giving me a thumbs up, over and over again. (This was very confusing to the people sitting behind us.) After perhaps the 9th round, Peter came to my rescue by challenging Mr. Bold to a thumb-wrestling match, and soon several rows of Mongolians were watching with confused smiles as their thumbs darted and dodged, Mr. Bold complaining that Peter was moving his elbow around too much.

Luckily for us, Mr. Bold got off the bus after about 40 minutes. We arrived, exhausted, into the chaos of Ulan Baatur and checked into Hotel Ulan Baatur, a former luxury (or at least Soviet) hotel that needs some serious renovation work before it can reclaim its supposed glory. But at that point, we didn’t care. Real beds? Soap? A shower with sporadic hot water? Heaven.

Us and the Bolds.

Sep 26 2010

Nomadic Homestay, Part IV

Here are links to parts I, II and III.

Unfortunately for my nomadic escape plan, my polka dotted life raft deflated as soon as I finished blowing it up – it had a loose seam that was not quite ready for someone to lie on it without the buoyant support of water. I left it on the ground as insulation anyway, which was a good idea because it quickly became much colder, and any protection I could get between me and the hard, dung-covered dirt was very welcome. Not that it did that much good. I dress like someone who enjoys camping, but that is actually just because I’m not good at dressing myself. Unlike Peter, I actually hate camping. Hate sleeping in tents. Hate drinking iodine-tinged river water. Hate pooping outdoors, and getting up in the middle of the night to pee. Is it obvious I did not sleep well?  I did not sleep well. In addition to the physical discomfort, there is a lot of action at a Mongolian ger camp that can keep you awake, including barking dogs, packs of galloping horses, and an ox.

Oh, the ox. It was tied to a tree near our tent and spent much of the hours between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. bellowing. There’s really no other verb for it. Loud, pained expulsions of sound spaced out by about seven seconds. It was the first time I’ve slept next to an ox, and I feared it might not be my last.

Once it became obvious that sleep was no longer an option, we joined the family in the main ger for breakfast – day-old fry bread topped with urum, which is a type of butter made from skimming the fat off of boiling cream, and tiny blueberries mashed with sugar – our young female guide from the day before smushed them together in a plastic cup with a spoon and handed them to us to use as a type of jam. Combined with the refreshing addition of regular black tea, I was quite happy – if diabetically challenged.

Our goal that day (as was our goal every day) was to get to the next ger, 24 kilometers away by horseback. The shaved head mother was to be our guide, and she arrived outside the ger on horseback with two other horses behind her. Mongolian horses, it turns out, are much smaller than American horses – and I ended up on the same horse that the two little boys had been galloping on the night before.

We weren’t galloping, though. Instead we were walking, at a pace so slow I worried it might take us all day to get there.But before long I was missing our relaxed walk, when the mother eased her horse into a bone-jolting trot that was too bumpy to sit through, but also too jerky to move with. I tried to get the horse to canter, but it responded by kicking its legs up in a preview of what might happen if it wanted to throw me out of the saddle. The only option left was to clamp my legs around the horse and hold myself suspended above the saddle, which is fine for maybe five minutes, but gets to be a bit tiring when you’re holding it for an hour. Making the situation more challenging, the gray sky suddenly erupted into rain – strong, soak-your-pants-through rain that persisted for the rest of our journey.

A ger on a Mongolian plain is a cozy sight to begin with, but it is even more so when you are soaking wet, with spasms in your legs and areas of your bottom rubbed raw. So I was quite happy when we finally reached our next host family, a young man and woman with a 2-year-old son, easily mistaken for a girl because of his long hair.  (Luckily, our hosts didn’t speak English well enough to notice my incorrect pronouns.) As we sat around the hearth drying out and sipping tea, the boy and his 2-year-old cousin played in front of the bed, pretending to ride each other like horses. At some point, a carrot one of them was nibbling on fell out of their mouth and onto the ger’s filthy floor; both promptly threw themselves face down and began licking the ground, to no comment from any of the adults present. Hygenic standards among nomads are a bit different from in America. And before you start talking about how great that must be for their immune system, let me say that there are high levels of respiratory illness among nomads (not to mention a different, if unrelated, health problem: marmot plague).

This is the little girl.

She liked Peter's hat.

Anyway, the mother prepared us a lunch of fresh frybread – delicious, if again a diabetic disaster – and black tea, which we sipped as she showed us her collection of foreign bills and coins (“My hobby,” she announced preemptively, depleting our list of possible questions to ask her by a third). And then, she did something amazing: she offered to let us stay in their spare ger.

Peter in spare ger.

Oh my goodness, was it cozy. Granted, it had no beds – just a plastic cover on the dirt floor, two small cupboards and a low table. But we didn’t care. Perhaps my standards had been lowered by my time spent on my polka dotted plastic sheet, but as I curled up in my sleeping and extra blankets next to a wood-burning hearth, rain pattering on the fabric overhead, I was the closest I’d been to genuinely content on the homestay thus far. Later that evening, the lady of the, well, ger, came to visit, bringing with her a Mongolian/English dictionary, and we did our best to ask questions and learn more about her life. It turned out she was from a small village between Terelj and Ulan Baatur (when we asked her husband where he was from, he laughed and pointed at the ground). Then she returned to her own ger, leaving behind a bag of anklebones for us to play with. Her husband returned from an unknown destination on motorcycle, their son fast asleep against the handlebars – a feat that seemed near impossible, given the terrain (then the motorcycle tipped over and he cried).

That night was a bit less cozy, since the temperature dropped substantially and our stove went out. Also, previously unnoticed by me, my sleeping bag was unzipping from the bottom up. After rezipping it and adding a few layers I was doing okay until Peter was seized by a 4am urge to rebuild the fire. He did so with gusto, creating a small inferno in the stove several feet from our heads. Half-asleep, I became obsessed with the idea that the exhaust pipe/chimney was going to set the top of the ger on fire, and started creating escape plans (the fact that there was only one door made things easier) and asked Peter, if the ger were to catch on fire, to please try to grab my journals.


The ger did not burn down. Instead we awoke early the next day to the first activity that matched those described on our itinerary: learning to sew a pattern for a national dress (me) and learning to tie a bridle (Peter). For the dress pattern, the woman carefully folded and bent a narrow strip of ribbon onto a geometric pattern she had traced on a scrap of graph paper, then fastened it in place using an iron heated on the stove and chunky, homemade glue stored in a peanut tin and applied with a flat-head screw driver. After it had been properly shaped, she pulled out a foot treadle sewing machine – her grandmother’s, she explained – and sewed it onto a small pouch.

I do not know anything about the bridle.

All of this occurred with a soundtrack of music videos playing from the black and white television behind me, which the mother occasionally sang along to. Her son – whose gender was now obvious, since he wasn’t wearing pants – crouched on the side of the ger, trying to hit a nail into a board with a large hammer (again, he is two). Then, activities successfully completed, the young woman loaded us into her ox cart and we took off across the valley.

Click here for Part V — in which I wrestle with a Mongolian  nomad.

Sep 25 2010

Nomadic Homestay, Part III

Here are the links for part I and part II.

After our brief encounter with Ehud Olmert, we both longed to go back – spending time in a ger with the former prime minister of Israel would have been worth a cup of fermented horse milk – but Maarla had other ideas. She pulled us into a third, sparsely decorated ger with three more beds, a short wooden table, and a lot of flies. The man of the ger appeared and presented Maarla with a large sheep’s leg, skinned but otherwise whole. (Where did it come from? Like most of the meat we ate, I’d prefer not to know.) Setting it on a cutting board, Maarla pulled a cleaver out of the table’s tiny drawer and began hacking off small pieces as flies divebombed the meat.

“At least she washed her hands,” said Peter sarcastically.

Maarla, still on an American music kick, suddenly dropped the cleaver and asked me to help her in the other ger. Once there, she reached into a corner where two car batteries sat on the floor and unhooked her cell phone. Using her bloody fingers, she fiddled around until it started playing Kesha’s “TIK TOK” on speakerphone as we walked back to the previous ger.

Then ensued another incongruous scene: the three of us singing and dancing along to American trashy pop while Maarta butchered a sheep’s leg next to a wood-burning stove.

Tik tok.

Once we’d gone through the cell phone’s two songs – TIK TOK and Shakira’s “Africa,” Maarla decided she was done with the meat and handed the leg to her mother. We walked over to the stream. Sat on the stump again for a while. Watched the small boys – both of them on the horse this time – gallop back and forth in front of us. Just when we were getting settled, Maarla exclaimed, “Mountain?” and started walking toward a dirt road. We meandered down a ditch and to a forested area where some cows stood grazing. Maarla turned on the Kesha song again and sat down on a rock.

Our informational brochure said that we would be invited to adopt the nomadic pace of life – and perhaps that’s what this was, this combination of walking and rock sitting. Peter, unsure of what to do, took out his pocket knife and began whittling a stick. Seeing him, Maarla picked up a stick and tried to whittle it with another stick; when that didn’t work, she gave up and put the twig in her mouth. She looked bored, splinters protruding from her lips, as if someone had forced her to sit there on that rock and eat wood.

Suddenly she brightened. “Goatsheep?” she said, and jumped up from her rock, bits of bark flying from her mouth.

Goatsheep referred, it turned out, to the flocks of animals that were grazing on the steep hills above us. We walked a little further, still listening to TIK TOK and Africa.  Maarla glanced upward. “Goatsheep!” she said triumphantly, pointing toward a distant white animal. Then she sat down on a log.

This time Maarla asked Peter for his knife so she could whittle. Meanwhile a brown cow had begun to approach me, its huge eyes focused so intently on my back that it looked like it was in a trance. Slowly, slowly, the hypnotized cow moved forward – then abruptly snapped out of it, walked over to Peter, and tried to eat his shirt.

Can I help you?

By the time we were on our third rock, I was seriously confused about what was happening. It seemed that we were waiting for something. But what? A person? Godot? Just when I was giving up hope that anything was ever going to happen (or that I was ever going to get Africa out of my head), Maarla let out a much more emphatic “Goatsheep!” and scrambled directly up the hill – quite goat-like, actually – as we struggled up behind her. Moving nimbly, she herded the entire flock of animals across the hill and down toward the ger camp, where they spread across the valley like liquid seeping into cloth. And then? More rock sitting – albeit this time with a view.

Eventually we climbed back down and joined the family in the original ger, where everyone was sitting on the beds eating chicken noodle soup with minced lamb bits and watching black and white TV. No anklebones were to be seen. The mother did, however, come up with a new evening activity: thrusting babies into our arms. “Here!” she said. “Take picture! Your Mongolian baby! You take home with you!”

Hey Mom -- surprise!

After dinner, it was dark out and I assumed the day was over. But instead Maarla brightly said, “Milkingcow?” and, despite the fact that we needed headlamps to see, she led us to a patch of dirt with a small wooden enclosure. The babies were inside, the mothers outside, and the drunk guy – still falling-down drunk, even though we hadn’t seen him take a sip of anything all day – sat precariously perched atop a milking stool. We could hear the babies mooing and the steady squirt of milk into buckets.

Exhausted, we finally explained to Maarla that we’d like to go to bed, and so we set off toward the gers, me, Peter and Maarla arm-in-arm, the drunk guy stumbling beside us, and one of the horse-riding boys running back and forth between us, tickling our backs. I climbed into our tent onto my already deflated pool raft and fell asleep.

This lasted for approximately four seconds, then sprung a leak.

For part IV, click here.

Sep 24 2010

Maarla and Me (Nomadic Homestay, Part II)

For the first installment, click here.

The cart drivers unhooked the ox so that it could drink from the river as we pulled our bags off the cart. Then we stood around for a while, looking at the river, wondering what was supposed to happen next.  Eventually a woman with a shaved head – the matriarch of this particular ger group – invited us inside.

You know how it’s awkward to be invited in for tea by someone you don’t really know? Imagine that instead of a living room, you’re in a Mongolian ger. You don’t speak each other’s languages. There are three beds arranged around the circumference of the room, on which people are lounging, totally silently. There’s a wood-burning stove at the middle of the room, and on it is brewing a large bowl of a milky liquid: Mongolian milk tea. Unlike American or British tea, it’s nearly white, brewed from low quality leaves and stems that don’t impart anything other than a vague hint of the tea,  a fading memory of a cup drunk long-ago. What’s more, instead of sugar, Mongolians use salt.

We’d learned in our orientation session that it is extremely rude to ignore a cup of tea, so we both dutifully sipped it, trying to ignore the slightly gamey flavor of the milk and the beverage’s similarities to a warm saline drip. In retrospect, I don’t think the nomads were bothered by the awkwardness of the situation – our experience over the next few days indicated that they are used to spending a lot of time silently lounging in gers. But we didn’t know this, so Peter pulled out our Ger-to-Ger phrase book and attempted to make small talk.

“So,” he tried. “What is your hobby?” (“Ta yu sonirhdog ve,” says the pronunciation guide in our handbook, which sounds nothing like the actual Mongolian words.)

The Mongolians looked at him, confused.

“Are you having a good summer?” (“Ta saihan zusaj bain u?”)

Eventually we just passed the phrase book to them so that they could read the Mongolian cyrillic and point to an answer.

When that conversational vein had been exhausted, we turned to the small photo album we brought with us. As I watched one of the young women flip through it, I realized that perhaps we should have picked a different selection of photographs to represent our everyday lives. There are number of photos of us wearing climbing helmets, strapped to a rock (taken the only time we’ve ever gone climbing outside) and me dancing with my Oakland over-30 hip hop group (again, not something I do every day). But while perhaps not accurate, they at least proved entertaining; our Mongolian hosts responded by showing us some of their own photographs and trying to explain how everyone was related to one another. Long story short: I still have no idea.

According to our Ger-to-Ger itinerary, we were supposed to spend the afternoon with Mr. Chuluunhuu, the patriarch of this ger. “Mr. Chuluunhuu will help you learn and practice how to saddle a horse and prepare ox cart,” said our booklet. “Afterwards you will be welcomed a nomadic dinner and tea. In the evening you will have great time to play ankle bone game which named Shagai in Mongolian, with family.”

In reality, Mr. Chuluunhuu was spending the day in Ulan Baatur, and hadn’t appointed anyone to teach horse saddling in his absence. So instead we set to work pitching our tent under a nearby tree. While doing so, I noticed that the ground around the ger camp was covered in animal droppings. Not a pile here and there, but an evenly distributed layer of goat pellets, horse chestnuts, and smushed cow patties, as if someone had deliberately applied them to the ground like sprinklings on a cake. This meant there was no non-dung covered area to pitch our tent – but it also made me notice something interesting about the cover of our Lonely Planet guidebook. It’s a beautiful shot of brown horses nibbling grass against a dramatic background of grass-covered hills. I’d looked at it many times. But I’d never noticed that the grass the horses are standing on – which takes up over half of the image – is covered in horse shit. There are turds everywhere. Seriously. At least you can’t accuse them of over romanticizing things.

Anyway, with our tent pitched and no ox-cart preparation in store, we decided to take things into own hands and relax on a stump at the side of the river, Peter reading and me writing in my journal. It sounded – and would indeed have been – quite pleasant. But that was before Maarla found us.

Oh, Maarla. She was one of the young women inside the ger, possibly the mother of a pantsless baby boy who had been sitting on the bed between her and her sister. She was only 16, Maarla, and the suspected father was, unfortunately, the drunk guy (more on him later). But Maarla didn’t let her dubious past get in the way of making new friends.

We’d read about the differences between American and Mongolian definitions of personal space, so I wasn’t too surprised when Maarla took a seat next to me on my stump – which wouldn’t usually have qualified as big enough for two people – and asked for my notebook and pen. She opened it to a blank page and, with great concentration, began drawing Mickey Mouse, tracing and retracing her lines until they had pressed through several pages. I asked her to write her name and she wrote, “Your name is Mickey” and some smiley faces before moving on to a carefully drawn heart.


Suddenly a small boy – young enough that in America he wouldn’t have been allowed to cross the street alone — cantered past us on a horse, bareback. Maarla sighed and put her head on my shoulder. The same horse raced by, this time with an even younger rider.

Snapping out of it, Maarla handed back my notebook and stood up. It was time to go to a different ger. She motioned for us to follow her, then linked her arm in mine as we walked along the river. Earlier in the afternoon Peter and I had claimed that one of our hobbies was music, and Maarla had gotten very excited. Now she began to recite a list of her favorite artists – Shakira, Beyonce, and what I eventually determined was the Pussycat Dolls. We walked between gers as Maarla and I joined together in a heartfelt version of “All the Single Ladies.”

The second ger was much more sparse – three beds with ancient mattresses, a small table and a big blue barrel in the corner that held a beverage beloved by nomads and feared by Western guests: airag. Fermented mare’s milk. An older man – presumably the owner of the ger – ladeled two plastic cups full of the stuff and handed them to us with a smile. We had to take a sip.

How would I describe the flavor? Slighty fizzy, sour, with a strong barnyard flavor that wasn’t specific to horse, but wasn’t unhorselike, either. It also had a chemical aftertaste, possibly from the plastic bucket in which it had been fermenting.

Regardless of its origin, I knew for sure that I couldn’t finish the cup – and had been explicitly warned not to, since it is reputed to be quite hard on the stomach (nomads drink cups of it to clear their systems). It also, as noted above, had come from an unrefrigerated plastic barrel sitting in a ger. I’m not 100% sure on this, but if I had to guess the recipe for airag, it would be as follows:

  1. Put horse milk in bucket.
  2. Let sit.

Luckily for us – though unluckily for Maarla – our airag sampling was interrupted by the arrival of the drunk guy, who attempted to grope Maarla’s chest before falling off his milking stool onto the floor. The older man shooed him outside as Maarla, not one for lingering to begin with, decided it was time to leave. Thanking our host, we stepped out of the ger over the drunk guy, who was now kneeling on the ground cradling a moist cow patty in his palm.

Then things got weird. I’ve noticed that when I encounter something truly bizarre, words fail me; all I can do is repeatedly state what I’m looking at. For example, later in the trip Peter found me staring wide-eyed at a guy on a moped with a white animal on his lap, saying “Sheep on a motorcycle. Sheep on a motorcycle” over and over again.

The scene outside the ger was so discongruous that I didn’t even get that far. As Maarla picked her way over the drunk guy, I noticed several white men walking toward us across the grass, surrounded by beefy-looking Mongolian men in suits with white earpieces in their ears. They were clearly bodyguards – and yet my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the discongruities of the scene. “Bodyguards,” said one part of my mind. “Mongolian ger camp,” said another. (“That airag was disgusting,” insisted a third.)

The white guys interrupted my interior monologue.

“Hello!” said one of them. “Where are you from?”

“America,” Peter said. “You?”

“Israel. What state?”

“California and New York,” said Peter.

“But this is more like Wyoming, no?” the man replied.

We laughed and I smiled at a bodyguard, who did not smile back. The Israeli men joked about how much they enjoyed nomadic bathrooms and invited us to attend services in their ger. Bidding us farewell, they ducked into the ger we had just left, explaining that they really wanted to try some airag. (They weren’t kidding.) As we walked away, I noticed that despite the fact that their entourage was only about five people, they’d arrived in three white Lexus SUVs. Who were these people?

Peter, who has spent several years in the middle east, was wondering the same thing. As we walked back to our original ger, Maarla hanging onto my arm and singing Shakira’s Africa, he turned to me suddenly.

“Holy shit,” he said. “That was Ehud Olmert.”

As in, the former prime minister of Israel. Unbeknownst to us, we’d just experienced the weirdest celebrity sighting of our lives.

Click here for Part III.

Sep 23 2010

Our Nomadic Homestay, Part I

I had read about Ger-to-Ger, a nonprofit organization that arranges homestays with nomadic families, long before we left the United States. It sounded interesting – a chance to experience firsthand what life is like in a culture completely different from what I’m used to. But I had questions. First, are there really still nomads in Mongolia? And second, if there are nomads, how you can stay at their homes? Isn’t “nomadic homestay” an oxymoron?

Let me answer the first question first: yes, there are nomads in Mongolia. A lot of them. They live in gers – which are essentially white, one-room yurts insulated with heavy felt – and they move two or three times a year, depending mostly on the availability of water. Being nomadic, they don’t grow crops; instead, each nomadic family has a herd of animals (usually some combination of horses, sheep, goats and an ox or yak or two) and they survive mostly on meat, dairy products and carbs.

As for the second question, the nomads stay in one spot for a whole season, so you actually can arrange a sleepover. Ger-to-Ger takes care of the logistics of coordinating homestays in a selection of gers and arranging activities for the nomads to teach their hapless visitors, like Mongolian archery, or how to make dried milk curds. In return, the nomads get an additional source of income. It’s a great idea.

When we first arrived at the Ger-to-Ger office in Ulan Baatur, though, my impression was not quite so positive. For while the mission of Ger-to-Ger is very admirable, it hasn’t quite mastered the art of dealing with its actual customers. Like, for example, if your orientation sessions are mandatory — and your customers have already paid for their entire trip — why do you charge an additional $25 per person to attend them? If you list two different types of sleeping bag pads on your list of rental equipment – and if there are indeed sleeping bag pads leaning against the wall in the room where the orientation session is held – why would you say you don’t have any?  And as for the orientation, I appreciate the time we devoted to learning how to correctly receive a snuff-box while making hypothetical small talk about goats and sheep (hypothetical because I’m unlikely to remember how to say “How are your camels?” in a proper Mongolian accent) – but I would have preferred a little more attention to things like, say, how to ask for boiled water, or a bit of background on where nomads poop.

Instead, we got a short introduction to the horse head fiddle and then learned the basic rules of shagai, a traditional game played with a set of sheep ankle bones. We also had a primer in Mongolian, which involved us repeating a list of words and expressions after the teacher. Unfortunately, the phonetic pronunciation guide did not correspond at all to what the words sounded like (Mongolian is a very gutteral language, with sounds that can’t be captured in writing unless you’re already familiar with them). I wished that we had instead focused on memorizing the correct way to pronounce two or three basic sayings we might actualy remember – maybe “Hello,” “What’s your name?” and “What part of the sheep is that?”

The next morning we found our way to the public bus stop indicated in our xeroxed orientation booklet (transportation, it turned out, was not included in our trip). I’d hoped it’d actually be a station, but instead it was simply a stand on the street that half of Mongolia’s buses seem to swing into, usually stopping for no more than 20 seconds at a time. Our mission was to correctly identify the Mongolian cyrillic letters for “Terelj Park” before our bus pulled away. Oh, also, to make sure not to miss it, since it only comes twice a day.  Our booklet claimed this would give us a sense of how “real Mongolians” travel. That it did, and in a different context, I would have indeed chalked it up as an “interesting travel experience” when the bus became so crowded that a young boy actually sat down on Peter’s thigh. But not in this context. In this context, I was just pissy.

Luckily, there were several things fighting against my bad mood – and my overall experience ended up being quite positive. First, the night before, still fuming from the orientation session, we’d gone to the State Department Store to investigate possible sleeping bag pads and I found a substitute so ridiculous that it made both Peter and me laugh out loud: an inflatable pool raft, printed with brightly colored polka dots. When I hesitated – who shows up at a ger with pool toys? — Peter pointed out that the metaphorical significance of bringing my own life raft was worth far more than the $5 price tag.

What are you laughing at?

Second, there was a man sitting across from us on the bus, a short Mongolian guy with a weather-beaten face and a faded baseball cap. His sweatshirt said “Cute Enough to Cuddle.” That alone was almost worth the bus ride.

The thing is, it's true.

We had been told to get off at the last bus stop and look for a man holding a sign that said Ger-to-Ger, who would then check our Ger-to-Ger laminated ID cards before leading us to our first camp. Instead, at what we later learned was the second-to-last bus stop, a thirteen-year-old boy wearing a sun hat and a dirty sweatshirt that said Korea got on the bus and approached Peter. “Ger-to-ger?” he said. Confused, we followed him off the bus. He didn’t introduce himself further, and there was no ID checking. This was either a disorganized system, we decided, or a very clever scam.

Our route description had said we’d be transported to our first ger by ox-cart and, sure enough, there it was: a flat piece of wood resting on two wheels attached to a large brown-and-white spotted ox. On the cart sat our other guide: an eleven-year-old girl in short sweat-shorts,  pink t-shirt, and a white Ger-to-Ger cap. Figuring thtat was a good sign,we tossed our bags on top of the cart and clambered on. The boy perched himself on the edge of the cart and took up the reins, which were attached to a ring that went through the ox’s nose. (In addition to looking quite painful, this made for very sudden, imprecise turns – imagine a boat with its rudder at the front.) Smacking its bottom with a stick, the boy said what we soon learned was the Mongolian word for “giddy-up” – it sounds like “Choo!” – and we were off.

Or, at least, we were moving. Ox carts are not the fastest form of transportation out there; we probably could have walked beside it at roughly the same pace, and saved our spines a lot of pain to boot – ox carts have no shocks. An additional benefit to walking: presumably the person walking in front of us would not defecate in our faces.

The same could not be said of the ox. Its butt was right there, ready to go. And before you think, “Oh, how big of a deal could that be – haven’t you ever taken a carriage ride?” you should recognize that the distance between an ox and its cart is much, much shorter than the distance between a horse and a carriage. That ass is right there, so close that when the ox raised its tail in warning, the driver had to move his legs. There came a time later in the trip, thanks to a gust of wind and a ox with loose bowels, that I had to clean my glasses.

But I digress. The kids took us as far as a candy shop, where they paused to treat themselves to ice cream as we reclined on the cart, Peter taking pictures and me trying to get over my bad mood. (To be fair, this was in large part due to the fact that I hate camping and was nervous about the logistics of the toilet situation.) Eventually the kids delivered us to two older men driving a different ox-cart, the platform of which was covered in a battered and filthy oriental rug (I later saw goats perched on top of it). Once we’d transferred carts, we bounced along through a clear, rock-bottomed stream, the driver smacking the ox’s bottom with a stick, as the ox alternated between a walk and a pissed-off trot. It also kept veering sharply to the left, giving the impression that it was drunk.

After the stream, the landscape opened up into one of the vistas that Mongolia is known for – a wide, flat valley flanked by rolling green hills, white gers mushrooming from the grass. Flocks of livestock stood out against the green, large herds of sheep mixed with goats. The most surprising thing, though, was the horses. Not only were there free-roaming herds of them, but about 20 minutes into our ox-cart journey, we heard a torrent of hooves and looked behind us to see three men galloping toward our cart on horseback. The sight of a young man riding a horse in a traditional Mongolian silk coat, tied with a sash, made me feel like we had suddenly been transported 300 years back in time.

Sadly, this impression was short-lived: unlike the ox, the young men (especially the one in costume) really were drunk, which made their horse-riding all the more impressive, but also made them intimidating. “I hope this isn’t the scene where our ox-cart gets held up by armed bandits,” I said to Peter. But the ox-cart driver and his friend were not concerned. Not only did they know the young men but, as we soon learned, they lived in the adjoining ger. So after some small talk, we simply continued on our way, eventually arriving at two gers pitched near the curve of a small river. Between the gers sat a pickup truck, its cab jackknifed forward with several men working the motor. Our host was nowhere to be seen.

Click here for Part II.

Sep 19 2010

Thoughts from Ulan Ude

This post is out of order — Ulan Ude was our last stop in Siberia before taking the bus to Mongolia. I just didn’t get a chance to post it till now. More on Mongolia soon!

There were several other notable things in Ulan Ude — a city in eastern Siberia — in addition to the giant Lenin head:

1. Our guesthouse was about two blocks away from the train station as the crow flies. However, thanks to a horrible lack of city planning, there is no direct way to get from the train station to the guesthouse – we had to take a ten-minute taxi ride to get there. This wouldn’t be that notable except for the fact that while we couldn’t walk to it, we could hear the train station. Every few minutes, an announcement was broadcast over a very powerful loudspeaker, and each announcement began with a series of tones that sounded exactly like the first line of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” followed by train information in Russian. Making this more disconcerting, the final note of “Christmas” was abruptly cut off, as if a caroler were being strangled.

2. Olga. She is the proprietress of our guesthouse, which is technically her apartment, and both she and it are quite nice. She also happens to be a retired French teacher, which meant that we actually had some chance of understanding her. After greeting us with a hearty “Bonjour!” – and with no questioning of whether we understood French – she moved on to an enthusiastic welcome tour to her apartment. Here was the bathroom. We would be joining her for breakfast at 8:30. She could do laundry for us, but it would cost five dollars a load. It seemed that perhaps we might like to take a nap so she, Olga, would let us relax in this, our lovely room. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

Online reviews of Olga’s raved about the breakfasts, so we woke up the next morning excited about the homemade blini that we expected to find waiting for us at the table. But alas, perhaps Olga felt less inspired by us than by previous guests – our breakfast consisted of a white bread pastry cut into quarters, a bowl of milk candies, pretzels, cheese slices, and a small bowl of cottage cheese-like curds that came from the cows of Lake Baikal, topped with crystalized strawberry jam. It was a diabetic nightmare (though the cheese was quite tasty). Luckily, the food selection was more than made up for by the conversation. Since neither of us speak any Russian, we hadn’t been able to ask anyone questions about the country. Now, with French as a go-between, we could finally get someone’s opinion on how things were. It turned out Olga’s father had been a forestry minister for the Communist party, which explained why her apartment was so nice (it was one of three buildings that had been set aside for government officials back in the day). Her father = not that psyched when the Soviet Union dissolved.  And Olga, for her part = not that psyched about Russia’s current government. Things were better now than under the communists, she told us, but money and power were going to people with connections, and Siberia was at the rough end of an already rough deal. When we asked her if she thought that Medvedev had any real power, she laughed. Then she invited us to bring our families to her dacha on the eastern edge of Lake Baikal, so that we could relax and eat food from her garden. “The next time you’re in Siberia!” she insisted.

Olga, je t'aime!

3. A note on the unexpected kindness of strangers: on our train ride from Irkutsk to Ulan Ude (which included several hours in which the train hugged the coast of Lake Baikal – an unexpected bonus!) we made a brave foray into the dining car in search of the potato pancakes and tea our compartment-mates had eaten for breakfast. As I tried to explain our order – a difficult task, since I didn’t know the Russian word for “potato pancakes” and no one spoke English – I noticed a seemingly drunk young man at the table next to us casting glances my way. Every time I glanced over Peter’s shoulder, I got a smile. At some point he raised his tea cup  (filled with vodka) and offered a toast. Distracted, he then began flirting with the waitress.

We eventually got our pancakes, but the real challenge was tea. After a long process in which I  kept mispronouncing whatever the Russian pronunciation is for “chai” (to the great amusement of the drunk guy) the waitress explained they didn’t have any tea bags available, only boxes. Oh well. We went back to our cabin to read, stretched out on our bunks.

About an hour or so later, I was very surprised to feel someone tickling my foot. Or, rather, grabbing hold of my big toe and squeezing. I looked toward the door. There was my drunken friend, smile on his face. “Shit,” I thought to myself, casting a glance at Peter. What could this guy possibly want? Or, rather, what could he possibly want that I would be willing to give him?

But I had judged the guy too quickly. Instead of moving on to grab other parts of my body, he extended his other hand and presented me with an entire fistful of tea bags. Then, still smiling, he waved and walked away.

I eventually found him again, arms around our waitress, and gave him a postcard of the Empire State Building as a thank you. He seemed very pleased – though then again, he was tipsy enough he probably would have had the same reaction if I’d handed him a tissue. Nonetheless, I appreciated it. I’m not sure if the same can be said of the waitress – she was down a box of tea.

Not a bad view.

How to tell you're in the middle of nowhere.

Sep 16 2010

Q: Why won’t the Mongolian chicken cross the road? A: Because it would die.

Having grown up in Manhattan, I like to think that I am used to – or can at least deal with – a relatively high level of urban chaos. But Ulan Baatur has proved to be a challenging adversary. It is a sprawling, traffic-choked metropolis where cars are valued more than people, and the streets have no name.

In a nod to Ulan Baatur’s unpredictability, let me elaborate on the second point first. Before our arrival, I had read descriptions of Ulan Baatur that claimed that the city, which at just over one million people is home to half of Mongolia’s population, did not have a reliable system of addresses. Locations were identified by landmarks, said my book, and thanks to the city’s rapid rate of development, even those landmarks were changing.

This didn’t make any sense to me. How could you have a city with no addresses? That’s like a culture where people don’t have names. Not only would it deny you the ability way to find places you haven’t found before – which seems kind of existential — but it would leave the mailman with a really tough job.

As Peter and I quickly learned, though, logic has no place in Ulan Baatur’s urban planning – and there really are hardly any addresses. (Even the city’s sightseeing brochure lacks addresses; instead it describes tourist sites in terms of what other sites they’re near.) The morning after our fourteen-hour bus ride, we woke up late and decided to seek out breakfast at a place called Millie’s Cafe, supposedly located just several blocks away in the Marco Polo building (no further information was provided). Our first mistake was to wait until we were both starving before trying to find it. The second was trying to find it in the first place.

With a bit of effort, we found/stumbled upon the city’s biggest landmark, a huge open square with a statue of Genghis Khan, and even managed to start walking in the correct direction. But our success ended there. After risking our lives crossing the street (more on that later), we reached the city’s library, and located the spot right behind the library where, according to the rudimentary map in our guidebook, the Marco Polo building was supposed to be. But there were a lot of buildings nearby, and none said Marco Polo. We tried asking some guards for help. They had no idea. A man on the street. No idea. (He asked someone else for help and returned to tell us that it was very far away and pointed in what would have been the wrong direction.) We asked a woman and her teenage daughter. They didn’t know. Why would they? The buildings were located in clusters, not on streets, and besides, the streets didn’t have signs and the buildings didn’t have numbers.

Peter studies map. First in a series.

By that point we were both disoriented and extremely grumpy. We walked in circles for a while, stopping to stare at the map, hoping that somehow the building would magically appear – as if we were playing a game of Marco Polo with the Marco Polo building and it was just refusing to respond. Eventually we ended up in front of the library again. I wanted to keep circling but Peter, more pragmatic, had caught sight of the Chinggis Khan Irish pub, across the street from us through about six lanes of traffic.

Which brings me to my point about cars. The guy who drove us from the bus station to our hostel had warned us that there were only two things to worry about in Ulan Baatur: pickpockets and traffic. “When there are no police,” he said, “There are no rules.”

He was referring not to thieves, but to the cars. It took one street crossing for us to realize that the most nimble pickpockets of them all have nothing on Ulan Baatur’s drivers. I’ve never seen anything like it. Traffic lights mean nothing. Neither, for that matter, do pedestrians. I remember being scared by the traffic in Rome before I realized that if you just stepped out into the road, cars would stop for you. If you step out into the road in Ulan Baatur, you will get run over. It’s like a game of Frogger. By the end of our time in the city, I was making decisions about our itinerary based on how many streets we would have to cross.

Using a woman with a stroller as cover, we made it to the Irish pub – me insisting the entire way there that it wouldn’t have food – and ate a much needed breakfast. Afterwards, I asked our waitress if she knew where the Marco Polo building was and, after she had incorrectly identified our location on the map, her manager pointed us back toward where we’d been before. Turned out if we’d just gone around the corner, we would have seen a short white building with the words “Marco Polo Building” written on its facade — words that were visible only if you had already located the building.

Peter with map, #2.

I will spare you the details of the many steps it took to find the travel office where we were to pick up our train tickets (it was in the “Hobby Building,” said our instructions). Suffice it to say that it took 45 minutes and involved us interrupting an English language class led by an American guy named Roy Johnston in an unmarked building – he didn’t know where it was, though he gave us firm handshakes – and eventually asking a different travel agent to call our travel agent to find out where her office was located, a conversation that included about two minutes of directions and delivered us to a location completely different from that indicated by Google Maps.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted – and feeling very curious about the state of mind that this type of anarchy requires. Because the thing is, most people in Ulan Baatur seem pretty happy. Not just happy, but calm. It’s like, hey, who cares that visiting any place outside of my daily routine will require at least a half hour of navigation? And why should cars stop for a flashing light? Isn’t that almost stranger than not stopping?

The ticket office was in the "Hobby Building." Obviously.

I wonder if it might have something to do with Mongolia’s nomadic culture, in which the location of your home is temporary to begin with, and the most important thing to know is the orientation of your ger. Perhaps if I stayed here, I might be able to reach that level of equanimity with geographical uncertainty. But for now, I just really want a good map.

The main square -- and our main reference point.