Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Herders Protesting...the view from my balcony

** Note ** this is an update of my earlier posting today...I have real internet again and have been able to add the pics!!  

Talk about surreal!  It is a hot ( hot!) morning here in UB and as I sit here on my balcony, handy dandy little internet stick jammed into the side of my netbook so I can have thumbnail access to the world wide web , I am musing on how the odd corners of life here in Mongolia are folding together. The first, and maybe most noticeable issuse this morninghere at Ix Tenger is the world wide web I was just talking about. In truth, the web is looking very much like not quite world wide.. ..we have no internet..again!!!... I am also thinking that  only eight o'clock a.m., most people do not have as fascinating a scene to watch as I do here.  Today I am baking out on my balcony not just because it is where the little stick gets the best internet, but also because I am witnessing history ..from my balcony. 

 Now, this isn't the kind of historical event that is going to make its way into the history books... not a great and an amazing event (at least, not yet!) but one of those myriad stitches in a tapestry that makes up a country's history.  It is all about location location location.  You see, my balcony overlooks , among other things, the entry and exit to the Mongolian White house, and this morning, on the other side of the twelve foot high iron fence is a group of what I assume to be herders. 

 Carrying a large, colourful  flag,  dressed in traditional clothing, and riding  Mongolian horses  (complete their with glistening, painted wooden saddles!  ) they are  waiting for the President to appear so they can garner a moment of his time and attention to present their cause. I don't know what they are protesting, although , given the number of protests and demonstrations that have been happening around the capital as the election draws nearer, I could make a pretty good guess!  It is just weird from a personal perspective to be able to see the faces of those people who are prostesting, pointed toward the capital building.  It really feels like we should be on the other side of the fence. Historically, I have always been the one waving the flag - not the one being waved at!! I guess it is just another new thing for the second half...a rather unexpected one, I might add.

As I sit here marvelling at the number of surreal things happening all at the same time (including being here behind the army men in full riot gear ) I see one of the local company's expat school bus on its way to the International school, head by the protest...

You have to say, these kids are getting quite the education.  Back to the quantity and variety of police / military out for this little event, I was amazed to discover that even we have some (well) armed guards at the entrance to our apartment driveway.

 From my balcony, it looks like just one lonely military man standing guard with our terrifying (more like terrified!!) dog, Cindy. But...when I got bored with snapping from the balcony and headed out to investigate just a little closer it turned out that we also had ...

....quite the contingent of police and other soldiers as well.  Hmmn..maybe this is more serious than I thought?

On the up side, all seems quiet.  A number of cars have entered and exited from the palace with no disturbance, and other than the occasional barnyard nickering of horses, it could be any other morning in UB. I have to admit to getting a little bit bored snapping pics from the balcony, so I thought I would go out for a little wander to see what I could see. From my slightly better spot outside I managed to get a bit more pictorial info for you all...like I said, seems pretty peaceful....which might have something to do with the enforcement around.  But everyone seemed to be getting along....

So, as the morning winds down, and the protests winds up, the camera crew from the local TV station appears. (Can you call one person a crew?? Maybe his anchorman was off interviewing on the other side...)

I don't know if the herders got their audience with the President.  Some how I don't think so.  But they did speak to a larger and likely more important audience anyway.  The school kids on that bus, ( likely mostly expat kids - they will be talking about this with their teachers and families I'm sure!) the TV audience who are going to be tuning in tonight to find out what was going on, and, of course, YOU.  This blog is read on every continent (ok ok..except Antarctica for you sticklers out there!!) by as  wide a variety of people as you could cobble together in your imagination.  If their purpose was to get the word out - I think they accomplished it ... I just knew which word they wanted put out there so I could help spread the message.  The police wouldn't let me go ask.

So, on to another regular day here at the end of the earth. I told you earlier that I had had no hot water since yesterday noon, no internet and a house FULL of dust  from some recent renovations.  Well, I am happy to report - hot water is back, the internet Gods are smiling on me...but the dust remains... why am I not surprised?

Friday, May 27, 2011

Stuck On The Mongolian Steppe. OR.. Getting More Adventure Than You Bargained For!

You know how sometimes when you have an experience that just goes wrong from beginning to end you can look back and spot the moment where the wheels fell off?  Well, on our trek last week, it turns out that that spot was about 2 hours after we left our friend's ger camp, just as we were about to enter Baganuur - the only decent sized town on our itinerary. So, you ask,  what happened that makes this spot the point at which you could say it was the beginning of the end? Well, like I told you, that's where the wheel fell off.  No seriously, look! The wheel  actually fell off!

Fortunately we were close to both a bathroom ( well, an outhouse really...but we are in Mongolia!) and a construction site where we were able to get some metal to help hold up the car because the driver, welll....

....his original system had the jack balancing on a wrench that was balancing on a hammer...not exactly up to safety standards...but then, we would be seeing a lot of that on this trip! Although, as a disclaimer, let me just say that this guy was amazing!  Almost everything untoward that happened on this trip was no his fault and he did a tremendous job (working long and very strenuous hours!) of getting us through it all and back home again - not without adventures though!
Also, you do have to commend him on stopping the car at exactly the point where the wheel was in the gravel (so we could dig out underneath it to get the new tire on) and the body of the car was still on the pavement so it was possible to pull of the balancing act with the jack!
And as he's working on it we were all thinking the same thing....what is that liquid all over the wheel mechanism?  Is that brake fluid?
It took about an hour but the wheel was back on ...sort of.  We only had 3 bolts left - the other ones having sheered off - so it was limping into town for us to go shopping for parts. Not a whole new assemblage..noo, just the one part that had broken. hmmmn. We went to every Dogui Zacbar...tire shop... in town. Well, technically we only went to five or six before we decided that not only us, but the driver as well would be better served if we were not there to watch him not be able to find the part we needed..less stress all around if we just went and had a drink.

So, just for the record, if anyone is looking for a nice (smoke free!!) restaurant in Baganuur I can tell you where to find one!
...and then afterwards, wandering around and killing time, it was pretty surreal to see some Mormon missionaries out here kind of in the middle of nowhere on their bikes out spreading the word...We were told by our guide that the Mongolian people "don't like this religion."  Again..hmmmn.
We also saw a group of girls playing "store" outside a women's hospital.  I remember playing the same thing when I was a kid and playing it with my kids as well.  Of course, we didn't play it with empty vodka and beer bottles that we picked up from the street!
...and who doesn't love a good game of marbles...Mongolian style. These two were extraordinarily cute and shortly thereafter, having spent 4 hours or so getting the tire repaired we headed off to go find our Ger camp.  Which we did.  At 9:00 at night just as night was falling...turned out we didn't have a reservation, the tour company hadn't been able to let them know we were coming and the camp was not only not open, but the caretakers didn't have a key.  Which is how you end up kicking people out of their ger and moving in for the night... not really cool.  But that is, in fact, part of a whole 'nother blog.  Let's just stick to the car trouble for the moment.
Day two.  Lots and lots and lots of boggy terrain!  It was time to lock the hubs and put it in full time four wheel drive to get through.
A sample of one of the very small rivers / streams / bogs that the Russian jeep got us through!
And here's the one it didn't get us through!
Two hours or so of all hands on deck...well technically all hands in  deck seeing as the deck was a series of small rivers as well as a couple of muddy, swampy areas - all of which simply had to be stepped into in order to implement the fast and furious engineering that was taking place to get us out of the mud! I can tell you though, we were really well and truly STUCK.

Casualties of the day... we all had some..well, except Chelvan who somehow, miraculously, almost managed to keep his feet dry!
Here's hoping the log doesn't slip!  Quite a lot of force on it as we pry up the van!  But look at the progress we have made already - the back wheel is sitting on rocks and logs and whatever bits of solid earth we could find to put under it so that we might have a chance of backing out. And of course, the water level is quite a lot lower thanks to some ingenious damming.

Victory is ours!
And it turns out Jacob and I are fine dam builders!  (which is not the same as damn fine builders)! 
Pushing the van out certainly left a mark....those are Jacob's hand prints after he had been playing in the mud building that excellent dam!
So, we are all tired, dirty and exhausted, but happy.  I mean, really, we have survived both the wheel falling off and the stuck in the mud adventures...what else could go wrong?  Turns out that was a stupid question.

We had quite a few river crossings on this trek...

But only one where the water splashed up high over the engine and killed us.  Dead. In the water. Terrifying and very unsettling feeling  sitting there in the absolute silence of the far away countryside with water seeping into the van while you listen to the lick and splash of of it eddying around the outside . Particularly daunting since we had just spent the afternoon digging ourselves out of the mud and we were all just done in.  In this picture you can see the last bit of the fog on the window.. I was a little slow getting the camera out.  I can tell you from unfortunate experience now that when your  Russian van's engine gets doused with water in, the inside of the van instantly becomes the hottest, foggiest sauna you have ever seen.  Fortunately for us, after the engine died, we had just enough momentum to get slightly onto the uphill side of the bank and ended up  with the engine above the water line.  Soo...after about 5 minutes of waiting  ( in absolute silence I might add.  Nobody said one word) we were able to fire it up again and inch our way out of the river.  Way too much excitement for me!
After that close call, I prayed for no more water crossings...be careful what you ask for !!!  This was the most secure bridge we came across for the rest of the day. Only slightly lacking in safety rails, but it looked mostly secure.  The next two were so scary I couldn't even take pictures (for those of you who don't know how many pictures I take..that is really saying something!)..one was a rickety old unpainted  wooden job that looked like it had been built in  1945.  Falling apart. Huge gaps where the odd  2 x 6 was gone and the rest curled up at each end so it looked like a series of small boats nailed to a frame.

  The next one was merely two sets of 3 logs jammed together into the side of the banks of a small ( but very deep!) crevasse.  Nothing connecting them.  Two strips about a foot wide each.  and we went over that.!!!...my heart pretty much literally stopped as we did..but we made it.  But then, it got dark and we couldn't find the ger camp.  We  were wandering, lost, around the Mongolian steppe and we were all tired, hungry and just a little wee bit over-adventured for the day when we came to our final bridge / river crossing challenge for the day.
The driver actually wanted to go across this one.  Yes, that is a HOLE you see there...some car had already (who knows when!) gone through this bridge and he thought it would be fine to press on.  Not only was our answer no...it was a resounding Hell No!!  He didn't much like the call,and there was a lot of discussion back and forth,  but we weren't budging. Eventually he turned around and  we headed up the river( to be clear...on the steppe beside the river!)  until he found a place with cell service so we could call the ger camp we were looking for.  Very graciously, they fired up their big truck and came to find us ... which they did about half an hour later ( ten thirty or so...)
But there was a beautiful big moon...and a chance to try some hand held shots...
and, for a change, we weren't in imminent danger of death, so it was all O.K. Of course, it did end up meaning that we had to do another water crossing, in the dark...but we had their truck leading us.  If you had asked me 3 hours earlier if I would be THRILLED to be driving through another Mongolian river that day I would have given you a definite and categorical NO.  However, sometimes life does alter your outlook doesn't it?
We came back this way the next day and got the driver to stop so I could get some better pictures of what the bridge had looked like... don't you love the early warning system that there is a HOLE in the bridge?  A pile of rocks... and in the other lane too...crazy!

And this is the exact spot where, the previous evening, the driver jumped up and down repeatedly to 'prove' to us that the bridge was structurally sound enough to carry his fully loaded one ton (?) van.  No really, I mean it, he wanted us to believe it was still structurally sound...which maybe it was ( I mean, he is still with us...) but we weren't taking that chance.  I am pretty sure that watching the driver die (or suffer horrible mutilating injuries?) would have been a really nasty end to the day.  As it turned out, the remainder of the trip was  automobile-ishly uneventful. Thank God.
 Which is not to say that nothing happened...just that nothing else involving the car happened.   As  for the rest of the adventures from the trek....well, as usual, that is another post.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Visiting Chinggis Khan and Making Khorhog...a real Mongolian day!

So, depending on what continent you are on, you are likely sitting down to a lovely warm cup of coffee with toast and eggs or have just finished a delightful supper of roast salmon and fresh greens.  Either way, it is a safe bet that you have either just eaten, or are about to - which is very a propos seeing as the essential topic for today is Khorhog...pronounced whore hog...(seriously, that is how you pronounce it! Kind of funny, but it does make it easy to remember what it is called!)...a traditional Mongolian feast!  This meal is usually only prepared for Naadam, the big national festival held every July, but I was lucky enough last week to have it prepared in a truly authentic fashion by my Mongolian language teacher Saraa.  She has a small ( but extraordinarily beautiful!) ger camp about an hour and a half outside the city. As an added bonus it is  located only about 8 km away from the largest equestrian statue in the world.  Yup, you heard it right...the largest in the world!!  Now, we are in Mongolia, so take one guess who is sitting on that largest horse  in the world... you got it.. Chinggis Khan.  (Genghis Khan for those of you not conversant in Mongolian!)
On the way to the ger camp we made a stop at the statue and took a little hike up into the horse's head along with Saraa's daughter and granddaughter who were acting as our guides to help us find the camp.

It turns out that Peek-A-Boo is more fun with a camera!
This, of course, was her favourite pose! 

 45 meters of stainless steel Mongolian glory to enjoy....and then on to the Mongolian feast!
So, here is a lesson on how to make Khorhog... you start with a wood fire (mandatory!) a big pot (I've seen it done in big metal milk jugs too...) some river rocks, mutton, potatoes, carrots, onions, salt, and you're away!
Mutton is the main and most essential ingredient...preferably with lots of fat on it to keep you healthy- yep, healthy.  ...hey, it's not my recipe, I am only relaying the nutritional benefits as told to me by many many Mongolians.
Oh, and of course, four hours or so before you are going to cook the meal, remember to put the river rocks in the fire and keep the fire stoked.
The rocks do the actual cooking.  Getting them from the fire to the pot when they are red-hot requires a deft hand... 
..and a keen eye seeing as the ger gets completely smoke / steam filled once you start piling the rocks onto the layer of meat in the bottom of the pot. Saraa's husband Baagi did the honours. Once the rocks are in, throw in the rest of the meat and add the vegetables.
Carrots and potatoes and onions are all that's called for - along with a very generous serving of salt, of course.
I love this picture because it really shows the feeling inside the ger as everyone frantically rushes to get everything into the pot without wasting the heat of the stones.  I call this one "Saraa by Smoke Light".  Once the finishing touches are put on the meal, all that remains is to cover it and wait forty minutes or so for the rocks to do their work...and  to cool down a bit - because you will be holding them later! But I am getting ahead of myself !  ( again...what else is new?)

 While the meal was cooking we took advantage of the time to explore her ger camp a litte.  It is situated right beside the beautiful Tuul river - the same river that runs in front of my house coincidentally - where we spent a few minutes skipping stones and enjoying the view...oh and climbing the crag  (cliff?) nearby for the boys.
A quick study this one...learning from the master!

The excuse was to go and check out a cave about a 1/3 of the way up - in the end the lure of the climb to the top was too much to resist and they bounded up the cliff like a couple of mountain goats...
And then back for the unveiling... yumm!

The fellow helping is Ghanax, our driver.  One of the great things about Mongolian culture is how everyone immediately pitches in and helps with everything...except the 'gaadaat hung' ...that would be us - foreigners.  I am almost at the point where I feel like I could help and not get in the way...maybe.

The hot rocks I was telling you about...said to ensure good health when you juggle them from hand to hand right out of the pot.  Well, good reflexes anyway - those stones are HOT!!  Oh, and as an added bonus, covered with mutton grease which unfortunately I can attest to, stains and permanently ruins your clothes when you absent-mindedly rub your greasy hands on your pants to "clean" them...weird lessons you get to learn when you live here!
The rocks are handed from person to person...

..and honoured guests ( read the Veloo clan!) get to pass around a cup ( yes, that is a Mongolian cup - not a bowl!) of the drippings.  Tasted pretty good actually, although a little on the salty side.
Replete and on to the supposed "main event" the horse back ride.  Unfortunately, the Mongolian saddle proved to be in direct conflict with the size of the western backside, so the horse back riding was necessarily cut short.  
Just a couple of Mongolian cowboys heading out from the ger for a day  ( a minute?) of riding the range.

Those of us remaining in camp enjoyed a free open air woodwind concert.  It was beautiful.

The scenery was stunning...and I got a chance to practise my Mongolian as the horses were brothers (awwwww) and seemed inclined to ride touching each other all the way...which wasn't very far because, although I had a lovely western saddle, Jacob had the same problem that his father did - Mongolian saddles are just too tiny ...and they are made of wood which doesn't make them any more comfortable! Unfortunately I didn't get a really good shot of the Mongolian saddle, (I have been here long enough that they look normal to me!) but you can see it on the back horse in this shot...looks comfy no?

Jared took this gorgeous shot. A great look at the vast sweeping expanse that is the Mongolian Steppe.

Saraa and Baagi having some fun in front of the ger...
And then it was time to say good bye and head off for our trek.  It was an absolutely wonderful day - we discovered that we LOVE khorhog (especially our meatatarian Jared!) and really felt like we had an authentic "Mongolian" experience...oh and of course, made some Shin Naiz....(new friends...but that is another blog!). 

So, we were off to discover....
...the great wall of China????
...Just a movie set actually.  They filmed a documentary there a few years ago about the life of ( you guessed it!) Chinggis Khan and this is all that remains of the movie set...kind of surreal to be driving across the steppe , come over the rise and see the Great Wall of China...well, 200 feet or so of it.  But that is the kind of place it is and that is the kind of travel you get here .  You really have to expect the unexpected...as you will see if you read my next few blogs on the rest of our trek.  Actually, I don't think "unexpected" quite covers it...stay tuned!