Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Mongolia (July 28-31, 2011)

I am in St. Johns, Newfoundland, having been around Greenland and Iceland for the past week and without an internet connection...  Next week, internet connections will return to normal.

I should acknowledge as I begin this post that while in Mongolia, I kept looking for magnolias, but didn’t see any.
In an attempt avenge my joking around about her passport, Anastasia proclaimed that our first day in Mongolia would be “talk like an American day.”  Thankfully no one joined her campaign and she soon tired of the game.  The American she tried to imitate was Scarlett O’Hara, but Ana’s “American-talk” sounded like the quintessential southern bell had a speech impediment.  The only worse sounding thing I heard my first day in Mongolia was “throat-singing.”  I must admit, throat-singing was more pleasing than the more frequently heard Chinese “throat-clearings,” but there is a reason such musical delights haven’t found their way onto Casey Kasen’s Top 40 (just as there are similar reasons there are no southern belles from Australia).   Throat singing could only sound good after large qualities of fermented mare’s milk, another Mongolian custom I don’t need to experience again.   Mare’s milk and throat-singing aside, I really liked Mongolia.  Maybe I’ll retire here.  As for a faux-Southern dialect from an Australian, there are not enough cans of Fosters to temper that sound.
Getting off the Trans-Mongolian in Ulan Bator (which means “Red Hero”), we were met by Nemo, our local tour guide. A trained urologist, Nemo has found that since the fall of communism, he can make four times as much as a tour guide than as a skilled physician.  (Needless to say, I am sure health care in his country has suffered.)  He took us to our hotel where we checked in and freshened up after the 30 hour train ride.  An hour later, he led us on a walking tour of the city.  Ulan Bator is a neat place.  Granted, most of it is unpaved and where there are sidewalks, they’re broken up so badly that one is better off walking in the street (which are congested with cars) or walking where there are no sidewalks.  UB as the city is known has swelled since the fall of communism and now has well over a million people (even thought it has a small town feel).  Nemo took us to a small restaurant for lunch, then downtown where we got to stand in the square in front of the parliament building and gaze with awe at its oversized statues of Genghis (or Chinggis as he’s known in these parts) and a couple other Klans.  From the square, we viewed the “butterfly” office building, an ultra-modern structure that seems out of place.  And then there is the capital Post Office that appears to be sponsored by Coca-Cola.     We walked around town, and then took in a cultural performance where we were treated with wonderful music and dance numbers along with the less than wonderful throat singing.  The highlight was a woman contortionist that ties herself up so tightly in knots so that I could have taken home in my backpack.  She was amazing and my back hurt just thinking about her moves.  Afterwards, we ate at a Mongolian barbeque joint, where you pick out your meat and condiments from a buffet and have a chef prepare them.  There similar restaurants in the States, but I haven’t found one that serves horse (admittedly, I haven’t gone out of my way looking for one), but horse was one of the meat selections here, right between chicken and mutton. 
I was up early my second morning in Mongolia, looking for deodorant.  I learned two things in my 90 minute search: people here aren’t early birds and deodorant is a rare commodity in these parts. Later, after we were picked up by the tour bus, we stopped at a grocery store and I was able to find deodorant.  I’d brought a bag full of groceries (snacks and stuff along with some toothpaste), all of which came to the same price as my lone and small stick of deodorant.  But I’m sure the rest of the group appreciated the sacrifice I made to purchase some expensive deodorant.    After stopping at the store, we headed out into the countryside to Terelj National Park, a place that’s about 70 km from Ulan Bator and is filled with ger camps.   There are frequent tolls on this very rough road.  Obviously, the tolls were being spent on road repair.  Along the way, we made a number of stops to see and hold a trained eagle (using trained eagles to hunt is a big thing in Mongolia), to ride a double-humped camel (a lot easier than a single humped one and at least my camel was nicer than those I’ve been around in the past), and to sample fermented mare’s milk (a drink that even the hard-core alcoholics within our group turned their nose up at).  Nemo also had the driver stopped by a cairn built by Buddhists along the roadside at a mountain pass.  We were told we could walk around it three times, adding stones each time, and our prayers would be answered.  Not being Buddhists, most of the group spent the time having pictures taken as they jumped in the sky at the edge of the cliff, against a beautiful backdrop.  I did neither; instead I just stood and looked in awe at the scenery.  The mountains are beautiful; we could just as easily be in the Boulder Mountains of Idaho or the Ruby Mountains in Nevada or the Tushurs, south of Richfield in Utah. 

At the ger camp, our group splits up.  Some of them rented horses and took off for a ride into the mountains.  That evening, at dinner, we learned that some of these horses were just days from the glue factory or perhaps that Mongolian barbeque joint.  Instead of riding, I decided to hike.  The hills were calling my name.  Several of us, along with Nemo, headed high in the mountains, where the meadows were filled with wildflowers.  At the ridgeline, Xiatain and I continued on ahead of the group, checking out a Buddhist Temple in the next valley.  We had wanted to go to a prayer grotto on the mountain behind it, but those at the temple discouraged us, saying it was too dangerous.  It was also getting late.  We hiked back over the ridge and were back at the ger camp in time to begin the preparations for dinner.

There’s a Korean group in the camp and they have a goat roast scheduled for the evening.  They’ve bring the goat into the camp, still alive.  Nemo explains what will happen to the goat and ask if there are any of us interested in watching.  Daniel and I are curious.  If you’re going to eat meat, you might as well know how it is prepared,” Daniel summarizes as his reason for wanting to witness the process.  As a commodity trader who deals in pork futures, I’m sure this is a side of the business he never sees.  We’re invited into an empty ger (undoubtedly they have found that this is too traumatic for many of their guest to watch).  The goat is brought in; its legs have been broken.  A man hold’s the goat’s legs while another holds his mouth with one hand and rubs his head with his free hand, comforting the animal.  Another man (or an old boy, for he looks 14), takes a knife and quickly cuts a small incision in the goat’s abdomen.  He reaches inside the incision, sticking his arm half way inside the goat, grabbing the arteries from the heart and yanking them out.  The goat’s eyes get big for a second and he looks directly at me.  I am thankful when one of the Koreans steps in front of me to get a better look.  The goat quickly dies.  Nemo explains why they kill this way and how it is really more humane than the slitting of a throat and bleeding out of an animal as is done in Jewish and Islamic customs.  I’m not so sure that it is a more humane or peaceful death.  There was something haunting in those eyes and I although I like goat meat, I was glad that we didn’t have goat to add to the dumplings we made for dinner.  Yes, we made our own dinner, while attending a Mongolian dumpling-making class.  The dumplings were good, but nothing like my grandma’s chicken and dumpling recipe.

That night the stars were beautiful and appeared to be so close.  It was cold and the folks at the Ger Camp built fires in each of the gers so that we could stay warm.   I woke up at 4 AM, cold after having a nightmare (I was in Mongolia and my father had died and there were questions about what to do with Mom).  I was cold because I was only sleeping in a light silk sleep sack as it was hot with the fire in the stove that I’d gone to sleep without pulling on the extra covers.  Once the fire died, the ger cooled rapidly.  Ninety minutes later, I got up and woke Leo and then walked over to Xialin’s ger and knocked on her down (they’d wanted to see the sunrise) and the three of us headed up a ridge behind the ger Camp, where we froze while waiting for the sun.  It was cold (especially since I only had a light rain jacket), but beautiful.  After breakfast, we got to try our hand at shooting a long bow.  Needless to say, none of us will be riding with Genghis Klan any time soon.  We drove back into capital.  

That afternoon, we headed to the Yellow Rock Ger Camp on the outskirts of the city, a settlement area for those moving from the country.  In this capital city, most of the people don’t have running water and have to purchase water from wells that are situated every few blocks.  Likewise, there is no plumbing and people refer to their outhouses as “long drops.”  Checking one out, I can testify that it is an appropriate name, for the outhouses are fashioned from the traditional Asian squat toilets and if one slipped while going to the toilet, a long drop would be just the beginning of one’s problems.   The first home we visit is a ger (but a fancy one).  It was a traditional Mongol family and (as part of their contract with Intrepid Travel) they provided us with a traditional meal.  Afterwards, we get to play dress up and act like Mr. and Mrs. Genghis Klans. 
Next, we walk over to a Kazak family’s home.  On our way, we’re caught in a brief shower while the sun is shining.  Yulia tells us that in Russia, they call such an experience a “mushroom rain,” as the water and sun brings out the mushrooms.  As we walk in the shower, we pass one of the community wells where kids are hauling filled water containers in wagons and wheel barrows back to their homes.  The second family we visit is a Kazak, a member of a Muslim minority tribe.  While the woman feeds us a snack, we play another round of dress up with their traditional outfits.  Each tribe has a different type of dress as I’d see the following day in the Mongolian National Museum which has a large room with samples of each style.  Interestingly, in the 45 minutes we’re at the Kazak home, creating chaos with our dress up games, the man of the house sleeps on a bed on the corner.  Also interesting is the woman’s taste in art as there are several posters of Japanese Geishas tacked up on the walls.   
As we’re walking around, I ask Nemo about the name of this neighborhood (which is most famous as it houses Mongolia’s only mental health hospital—they still refer to it as an insane asylum).  Mongolia is big in mining and “Yellow Rock” sounds as if their might be gold here.  Instead, I learn the name has a more sinister meaning.  He points to a rock cliff and tells about how, during the purges of the 1920s and 30s, monks of the “Yellow sect” of Buddhism were thrown to their death off the cliffs by the Communists. 
After getting back to the hotel, Ana and I walk into town in search of warmer coats.  I was surprised to find prices for western-style clothes to be so expensive in Mongolia (I should have purchased such a coat in Vietnam or China).  Walking around, we got soaked in a rain and, while talking about the problems of spouse abuse, got to observe it happening, first-hand.  We both found it difficult to watch the man strike his wife (or maybe girlfriend, we had no way of knowing).  She did strike back and they both yelled at each other.  Not knowing the language, the customs, the legal system, or even the police phone number, we were helpless.
On our second night in Ulan Bator, we all went out to eat (as if we were still hungry after an afternoon mooching off the locals).  The food was good but there was way too much of it.  Then, several of us found ourselves at a karaoke bar.   Personally, I hate karaoke.  It is my belief karaoke, which began in the Land of the Rising Sun, is Japan’s revenge for losing the Second World War.  But, karaoke is now a world phenomena and I figured this was my one chance to experience it in Mongolia.  So I tagged along.   There were six of us and we had fun even if I stayed up way too late.

Our last day in Ulan Bator was a Sunday.  Nemo, who was one of the most helpful guides, had found a church for me to worship at.  This was especially nice of him since he was Buddhist and knew nothing about Christianity.  He asked about attending himself, but ended up not going and spending the time with his family.  I hiked over to the church for their 10 AM worship service (a two hour event).  The place was packed.   The “Eternal Love Church” had been planted by Koreans in 1992, after the end of communism in Mongolia.  There was a Korean Presbyterian mission group present at worship.   They sang many songs (in Mongolian and Korean) with familiar tunes, both hymns and contemporary songs (“Amazing Grace” and “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” were two familiar tunes in a strange language).  The Korean pastor preached and it was translated by a woman into Mongolian, which didn’t do me any good.  I did figure out that the sermon was based on Ezekiel 37 (the Valley of the Bones) and thought it a little ironic as I’d preached on Ezekiel 47 (the vision of the temple) when I was in Korea.   After church, I spoke with an Australian bloke and his Korean wife who are missionaries in Ulan Bator and learned there are over 200 churches in this city of 1.2 million, but most are small house churches.  There is a large new Catholic Church and also a rather large Orthodox Church, but during the Communist era, all religion was suppressed.  It’s only been in the last 20 years that churches as well as the Buddhist monasteries and the Muslim mosques (about 8% of Mongolia is Muslim) have been allowed to operate without strict government control or persecution. 
After church, I had the afternoon free.  It was nice to be on my own for the day.  I ate at a Korean restaurant (perhaps I was inspired by the preacher).  I had a wonderful meal consisting of perrigo (a spiced beef dish), rice, vegetables and pickles and a variety of kimchi.   After lunch, I walked downtown and spent nearly two hours in the Natural History Museum, which features many dinosaurs as well as displays on geology and wildlife and a Mongolian’s first cosmonaut.  Next, I headed over to the national museum, which was truly wonderful.  They had a major display on the Klans and Mongolian’s golden era, but their most interesting section dealt with Mongolia’s twentieth century history.  Mongolia attempted to wrestle independence from China in 1912, at the end of the Qing Dynasty.  China insisted on keeping Mongolia within its sphere, which encouraged Mongolian leaders developing a secret relationship with Russia. The Bolsheviks were sympatric to their cause and supported Mongolia becoming a separate country.  In 1924, Mongolia became the second self-identified Communist country in the world.  The museum portrays a balanced view of the communist years, showing the good and bad.  When the Communists took power, only about 2 percent of the Mongolian population was literate.  Under communism, literacy rose to over 96 percent.  However, such advances came at a high cost.  Mongolia experienced many purges during the communistic era.  Buddhist monks and priests were especially targeted and often killed.  In 1990, the country allowed political parties other than the communist into the political process.  Later, they began to liberalize the economy, allowing competition in the marketplace.  At the museum, I brought some gifts for people at home and two of my favorite souvenirs: a silk Mongolian tie with camels and gers and a Mongolian t-shirt.
I returned to the hotel where I meet up with my group.   We had a new member join us.  Jo was from Australia (which meant we Americans were no longer dominate as there were three of us and three of them).  At 6 PM, the ten of us left the hotel for the train station where we boarded the train for Ulan Ude, Russia.   In the morning, we’d have another border to cross, but that’s another story.  Stay tuned.


  1. Poor goat! And that Talk like an American thing must be stopped - especially if someone thinks we speak like Scarlett in the south. :)

    Love reading these adventures.

  2. Yet another place on the bucket list. It reminds me of Montana.


  3. I've always had an urge to visit Mongolia. Was fascinated with a small country that produced such incredible warriors in the past. I'm still not sure what "Throat singing" is. That Goat sacrifice. The breaking of the legs first was one of the harshest elements to me.

  4. Once again you have tweaked my traveling desire!