Archive for the ‘Mongolia’ Category

A Mongolian Life

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I waved goodbye to Matt at Chinggis Khaan International Airport and made my way to the taxi stand downstairs. I was on my own in the middle of Asia in a large, dusty city where my camera had already been stolen and where my friend had been pelted by a chunk of sidewalk. It was a bit nerve-wracking to me. I wasn’t sure how I would do on my own! My confidence returned, however, after wrangling a 5,000 togrok trip back to the city from some taxi drivers who had claimed it was impossible to get me back to the city for anything less than 20,000… then about 5 minutes later, 10,000.

So, for 9 days from August 18-27 I was on my own in the central-Asian nation of Mongolia. I didn’t have a lot of money (I limited myself to $10 a day, $6 of which went for lodging each night I was in Ulaanbataar, leaving 4 for entertainment, travel, and food). I spent some of my timing working on this site cleaning things up and uploading photos. I spent some of it (the daylight hours at least) walking the streets of the city seeing what I could see, from large markets to street-side DVD stands. Ger Restaurants on the sidewalks to road works projects. The city was bustling and I was just another citizen. Unfortunately for me, I was a citizen who looked like a tourist and couldn’t speak the local language. So, that limited my interaction with the real citizens of Ulaanbataar to what we could communicate with sign-language, my extremely limited Russian, and their broken (but better than my Mongolian) English.

It was a relaxed time schedule-wise for me, but a bit stressful as I tried to learn the ropes of a new city by myself. Most evenings I would hole up in the hostel’s public area to avoid the less savory citizens of the city. This gave me the opportunity to meet the people who were staying in the hostel. Most people stayed just one or two nights at the hostel, but some were there for longer. An Irish fellow getting over a bad intestinal parasite infestation was there for three nights. He had bicycled by himself from Beijing to Ulaanbataar and was going to take a horse-ride to the Gobi and western Mongolia eventually getting back on his bike and heading for Russia. He had been delayed a week, however, by his unfortunate illness.

Two Israeli men and a British girl stayed for a night, they were on their way to the Gobi to explore it for two days. Three French men were planning a walking trip to Western Mongolia. Two girls waiting for their plane flights out, one from France and one from the US, were at the end of their Asia trip which had taken them to several cities in Eastern China, the Gobi, and eventually Ulaanbataar. One girl was at the end of a year-long term working at a school for underprivileged children from the ger district—an area with about the population of the city proper people with nomads who are in and out throughout the year and live in their gers—which surrounds Ulaanbataar. It was an interesting place to be and made the evenings less lonely. I was even invited to join two French students who were traveling by horse around the Gobi for two weeks and had an extra horse leaving me to only pay the daily expenses, unfortunately I was leaving well before they would have returned so I had to turn them down.

I spent three days and two nights in the wilderness camping by myself and finishing out the supplies in a little town called Gachuurt, to the northeast of Ulaanbataar. It cost me almost 20,000 togrok for the taxi out there, but I found it was worth it to save the $6 a night for the hostel. It was a calming time and not altogether bad to be by myself somewhere I felt completely comfortable. Making the half-hour trip to pump fresh water, scouring the parched hillsides for sticks to make a fire and clearing a rock-free tent-site for myself made for good exercise and a great way to pass the time. When a goat-herd passed my little camp with a flock of 75-100 as I was reading my Bible, a nod and a smile told me that I was welcome there.

When I got back to the city, I was a bit disappointed to be back in the dirtiness of the city. I had discovered over the trip that cities always feel dirtier than the countryside. I have yet to find a city where I would be comfortable eating a grape dropped on the sidewalk, even if I washed it off. But in the countryside, a grape dropped on the dirt would be brushed off and eaten without a second thought. I walked back to Gachuurt and caught the 500 togrok bus to Ulaanabataar.

The last 4 days in the city were uneventful for the most part. I talked to the hostellers, watched a movie about a Mongolian nomad during Soviet days. Apparently the Soviet government had attempted to control all meat production which up to that point had been the purview of individual nomadic families. In order to do this, they offered buyouts to the farmers and gave them palotes (small apartments in large concrete buildings). At about the same time (coincidentally?) the government also released news of a plague which would ravage the flocks of the nomadic farmers and required that the animals be burned to prevent the spread of the disease.

It was a sad movie, but interesting in its (delectably accurate) depiction of the history of Mongolia during Soviet control. The movie was shown at a small coffee shop called Café Amsterdam and was attended by about 20 Dutch people and a group of about 30 mixed French, Yankees, Mongolians, and other peoples.

By the time it came to leave Ulaanbataar, I was ready to leave. It’s not that Mongolia struck me as an unpleasant place, or that I didn’t enjoy my time there, I was just done with the city and ready to be traveling again.

At 10 AM the Mongolian segment of my trip ended with the departure of my no-frills trip on Air China from Chinggis Khaan International Airport to Beijing International. Since 5:30 that morning, I had been getting ready, walking toward the airport, and, when the time was right, getting a 10,000 togrok taxi ride to the airport, and waiting after customs. My trip in Asia was coming to a close, but I still had almost a week before the true end of my trip.

Something Completely Different: An End.

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

We woke the next morning (August 18th) and I made my getaway. Dan and I caught a taxi eighteen kilometers to Chinggis Khaan International Airport. I had my bag shrink-wrapped and I departed Daniel and Mongolian excitement at 11 AM. In that excitement, I had left my journal at the Mongolian BBQ restaurant and my toiletry bag at the hostel. It felt appropriate; I had left my meal in the hostel toilet. My journey home lasted 25 hours. That included a four-hour layover in Bejing, where I randomly enjoyed the comfort of the business class lounge. That meant I enjoyed as much free food and drinks as I wanted. I avoided the Mongolian barbeque. I also washed my face in the swank bathroom.

Apparently, my ticket from Bejing to Washington D.C. was business class. That meant the most comfortable seat in which I had ever flown, more delicious free food, and serious personal entertainment. Full from an extra serving of cheesecake, I watched Star Trek and The Soloist in the dark cabin, taking a break to peer into the blinding sunlight on the Alaskan coast as we crossed the International Date Line. It was a Tuesday lasting 36 hours. I caught up on stateside news in Dulles International, and minutes before the day ended, I landed in Columbia, SC. And now for something completely different. My family welcomed me at the security gate and I enjoyed hugs all around.

Wednesday I slept-in, unpacked, got my teeth cleaned, and received a speeding ticket (an expensive one at that, since my wallet and license were in Ohio with David). Welcome back to America. The next day I started another semester of college classes. That weekend I moved into my apartment I share with three other guys on campus. The month following has been a blur of classes, friendships, work, and countless other readjustments. I think this was the best approach, since I had no opportunity to feel down, suddenly stationary after three and a half months of the greatest adventure of my life. In a way, the adventure has only continued but in a new way. It’s true for all of us. God traveled with us in Europe and Asia; God continues to accompany us back in the States. The adventures change but God, Who was so faithful to protect and reveal His glory over such an incredibly full summer, remains the same.

O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit down or stand up. You know my thoughts even when I’m far away. You see me when I travel and when I rest at home. [You see us when we drive 20,000 miles and when we train across Russia. You see me when I study for a sociology exam and when I enjoy college football games.] You know everything I do. You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord. You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand! I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence! (Psalm 139:1-7)

I hope you have enjoyed following along with this extraordinary journey and have been as encouraged as I have by God’s constant provision and guidance for just four college kids trying to see the world. It certainly is a wonderful place. I’m out. Peace.


Something Completely Different: Mongolia

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

It had been a posh ride. And now for something completely different.

We pulled into the Ulaanbataar train station around 6 AM the morning of August sixteenth. A few minutes before that, while rubbing the most pleasant sleep of our train-journey out of my eyes, I (Matt) had discovered the zippers of my bag had snapped. Ever resourceful, I wrapped the suitcase in twine to pseudo-secure the main pouch and my personal belongings. The day had begun. “Shoulder to the wheel.”

We shouldered our packs and made our traditional entrance into cities: heavy-laden and completely lost. I had been communicating with a hostel owner to reserve a night’s rest. Unfortunately, we couldn’t speak Mongolian, we had no tögrög (the currency), we were cold and hungry, Dan’s laptop with the hostel’s address was nearly bereft of battery power, and we had no idea how to proceed to the hostel. It was near a post office. Where was the post office? We started walking. After an hour the sun had risen and we found an Internet connection. Surprisingly, Google maps was no help with directions, the address was merely a star on one of two unmarked roads. With that, the laptop died. We kept walking, following a grimy boulevard in the direction Dan deemed most promising to house a postal service. We walked through the city’s jumble of concrete and dirt, accompanied by a mangy mutt for a significant leg of our journey. It was cold. Only later I learned Ulaanbataar is the coldest national capital . . . in the world.

Over three hours later, we tried to ask directions from some security guards using an adapted version of pictionary. Amazingly, we communicated our intentions of finding the post office and were pointed back the way we had come. As we retraced our steps, at least eight or nine ATM machines rejected my debit card. Another two hours and I finally found a bank that could exchange a €100 for over two thousand tögrög. Over two hours later, we were still unable to find the hostel when we stopped, exasperated and starting to wear on each other’s nerves. While we rested and sized up our situation, I happened to notice an address on a building behind us, only the third I had seen during our tour of the city. It was the same as our hostel’s address. It was our hostel. Unfortunately, they were full for the night.

We walked back to the Golden Gobi hostel, the one from Daniel’s card (see previous update). They were full, too. We dirtied the hostel’s foyer before following a woman to the hostel’s overflow building, discarding our baggage, and heading out into the town. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening rehabilitating from our morning stroll by eating submarine sandwiches, reading, and taking turns on the sandwich shop’s Internet and power source. Ironically, Laura stopped there for a sandwich with her group. We felt we had earned the right to enjoy a treat, Dan a root beer and me a Mountain Dew. On a roll, we stopped at a grocery and bought a hearty tomato-based sauce for noodles. Dan cooked that back at our well-provisioned hostel kitchen and we enjoyed a few Top Gear episodes.

We spent the next day wandering the city, trying to avoid Western tourists. We walked about, half-heartedly searching for the Naran Tuul, also known as the Black Market, famous for its cheap local fare. I ended up finding a free trade shop and buying some souvenirs like a Mongol chess set and replica Morin Khuur (horse-head fiddle), the national instrument. We made it to Sükhbaatar Square at the center of the city with a saddled statue of the city’s hero Sükhbaatar, responsible for the country’s independence from China, and seated Chinggis Kahn. The city was a remarkable mix of concrete, dirt, and glass, modern development was thrown upon the grimy remnants of Soviet structures. We never ventured far from the parallel main boulevards through the city, full of jostling Landcruisers and yellow taxis. The occasional Hummer seemed incredibly natural in such a wild land. Not all city roads were paved and potholes were prevalent. At one point we witnessed flames shooting from a car’s bonnet.

Late in the afternoon, Dan stopped to search for his suddenly-missing camera. Two young men approached and indicated they had “found” the camera. We warmly thanked them and were surprised when they gestured for a monetary payment for their goodwill. Several minutes of tense debate later and Dan assured them that we were appreciative but had no money to spare. The men were less than thrilled but soon retreated, shouting curses. We continued on for a few more blocks. Stopped on the median at a main intersection, determining our route from there, I suddenly received a jolt below the shoulder blade. The young men had followed us and one had chucked a chunk of cement at me from the sidewalk. I stared them down as they continued to yell insults. We made our escape by quickly heading for a crowded marketplace. I remained a little paranoid for the rest of the evening. It was a rough city.

WARNING: The following paragraph contains material unsuitable for those prone to queasiness. Reader discretion is advised.

Dan and I decided to celebrate our safe arrival at the last night of our travels by visiting Mongolian BBQ. We thoroughly enjoyed the irony of eating Mongolian barbeque in a US franchise restaurant (the nation’s first) in Mongolia. We both ate our fill of the stir-fry buffet next to a table of French tourists. After months of living with a limited menu, my stomach was not prepared for high levels of deliciousness. I did some journaling that night before retiring to my last hostel bed of the trip. I suddenly woke at 4 AM, sat up in the dark room of a dozen sleeping travelers, and vomited hard. I caught the overflow in my hands. We’re talking a lot of Mongolian barbeque cradled against my bare chest. I’ll spare you the details but I spent the next few minutes trying to open the hostel room’s door and then that of the bathroom while my hands were full of barbeque. It took me nearly half an hour to clean up my mess, take a freezing shower, and return to bed. My last night of the trip.


A Posh Ride

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

We had roughed it. We had drunk water we pump-filtered ourselves. We had warmed ourselves over fires we built ourselves. We had erected shelters for ourselves. We had carried and cooked our own food. And at the end of all that, we found ourselves in the lavish surroundings of a second-class train cabin.

There were complimentary sheets, pillows, and blankets for the beds. The samovar was always full, the providnitsa was pleasant, drinking water was provided, and everything on the train worked. It was like being in a large airplane, with a flat-screen TV in our little room and little reading lights over our seats.

In layout, our compartment was similar to the platskartny cabins we had spent most of our time on, only about 4-5 feet wide with four bunks and a table along the sides. The main difference, however, was that on the side which normally had the walkway and another two bunks was a wall with a door to the train’s hallway. It was quite ritzy, we thought.

Matt and I settled in, tossing our stuff all over the cabin as we are wont to do (this may be exaggeration, but we certainly still had a lot of stuff, although less than before the camping trip). We had gotten some food and drink at a little store in Irkutsk so we had supplies. We also had two roommates. One was named Laura and she was a tour guide for an Australian company. Her route was from St. Petersburg to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. She had done it a few times before, and new her way around the train and the schedule pretty well, which was an asset to us who, as always (and by our own choice), were winging it.

Laura and her group rode second-class almost the entire time, so she was also completely comfortable in these swanky surroundings. Our other companion (whose name I don’t remember) was not so pleased to be in such a comfortable cabin. She was a Russian 21-year old who had moved to Paris with her family when she was young and lived there since. She seemed to be a bit unhappy with her life in Paris. She explained to us a lot of how the immigration system works and told us of all the protests she enjoyed attending, throughout the EU, including a recent protest at the G8 summit.

The rest of the passengers on the train were the quintessential tourists. They all had their cameras, they were all in little groups, most had tour guides, the young people were all into drinking… it was a lot of the kinds of things we had dealt with in Europe and had been frustrated with. People who don’t really appreciate the culture around and are there just for the sake of saying that they were there.

That first evening as the train rolled away from Irkutsk toward the Mongolian border, Matt and I enjoyed a good discussion with Laura and the Russian girl about what makes a good traveler and what makes a bad tourist. Laura, being a tour guide, said that a good tour group with a good guide can really see a country and get to know it well, while being able to move through it at a fast enough pace to see even more things.

Our Russian friend was more of the opinion that to get to know a country and make it worthwhile to visit it you needed to really get in touch with the people of the country, especially the people at the bottom end of the economic and social ladder. She had ridden from Moscow to Irkutsk by platskartny and had stayed with local people when possible and walked instead of taking taxis or cars. She claimed this had allowed her to connect with the people of Russian in a much more meaningful way. Of course, we countered with the fact that she spoke fluent Russian whereas Matt and I spoke barely a few dozen words, so of course she would be able to connect more easily with the local people.

It was a heated discussion that lasted for a few hours during which Laura popped in and out seeing to the needs of her group. Eventually it was evening, we all broke out our evening meals and shared bread, cheese, jams, and candied fruit around. The main course for all of us was bowls of instant noodles made with the hot water from the samovar (Laura’s Top Train-cooking Tip: “Chinese rice noodles don’t work real well if you can’t boil them,” she said as she crunched her semi-cooked, but delicious looking noodles.)

We fell asleep late-ish that evening and woke up the next morning still in Russia (It’s a huge country!). Matt and I both read for a while (I was reading Worldwalk, a highly recommended book about a young Ohio journalist named Steven Newman who walked around the world in four years back in the late eighties. Matt was reading the last chunk of The Idiot which I had finished during the hiking trip.)

After a few hours, the train stopped at the border and we all got out. The train would be there for several hours, so Matt and I set out to explore the town after taking a picture for some tourists from Minnesota. As we explored, it turned out that pretty much the only thing in town was the train station and a small freight-yard. Matt and I decided to explore the decidedly sandy countryside and went hiking up a nearby hill where we sat and drank some Orange Fanta we had gotten in Irkutsk. After seeing all there was to see on that hill, we headed back into town where we bumped into the Russian girl again and all three of us walked down the tracks for a bit exploring in the opposite direction and talking about the things we had seen on our travels and what our lives were like compared to where we lived.

At the end of the several hours, we got back on the train and were informed that the train would be leaving in another half hour, but that the bathrooms would be closed for about 3 hours. Matt and I decided not to risk it and went to the train station where we found an 8-ruble price tag on the bathrooms. Well, I wasn’t going to pay that so I went around to the back of the train station and found a small, ramshackle latrine shed and used that. Not pleasant, but free!

We got back on the train, had our passports checked and stamped and we were off for half an hour to the other side of the border. At that side the train once again stopped for several hours after we had gotten our passports checked and stamped on the Mongolian side. The sun was setting and we had started this border crossing business at about noon and we were getting a bit impatient. After the stamping, the Russian, Matt, and I got out again, walked around the larger Mongolian town for a bit admiring the Soviet architecture, the Buddhist temple, and the basketball court.

Just as the sun dipped below the horizon, we were along the train tracks about 15 minutes north of the train station when all the sudden our train came chugging past. It stopped a few people waved calmly at us as we stood gape-mouthed. A switch snapped and our train chugged off again around the corner. As we watched, it steamed off in the direction of Ulaanbataar, leaving us at this small border town!

We decided the thing to do was book it back to the train station and see if there was anything we could do. When we arrived at the train station, we were relieved to find our train sitting there on the tracks, just on a different siding and all of our touristy companions were milling about the platform. We joined them for a bit before it started getting cold and we got back on the train and stewed up our suppers again. Half an hour or so later, we were off again after about 9 hours of border crossing formalities.

That evening, Matt and I both slept well. Well, that is, until 5 AM when the providnitsa knocked loudly on the door, opened it up and shook both the Russian and I, leaving Matt and Laura alone. Well, I groggily got up, washed my face, unmade my bed so the providnitsa could have the linens and sat down, still mostly asleep. Out the window, the pre-dawn light began slowly dimming the darkness. The greyish light illuminating the gers (round, cloth tents Mongolian nomads have been using for centuries, since before the time of the Khaans) scattered throughout the countryside.

As the sun rose, we approached the city of Ulaanbataar and just past 6 AM we arrived. It was still mostly dark and it was freezing cold, and we didn’t quite know where the guesthouse was that Matt had told we would be staying with. We said goodbye to the Russian and Laura and set off, but not before a lady on the platform gave me a card for the Golden Gobi hostel.

It was a bit of a rough introduction to Ulaanbataar, a city nestled in the beautiful countryside that makes up Mongolia. It was about to get rougher.