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Sunday, October 9, 2011

Hugging Mongolia Goodbye

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thankfully I excel at all of those things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 19, 2011

Flipping My World Upside Down

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

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

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

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

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

And it all seems so quick.

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

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

But how could I not miss this?

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

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Mongolia by Kayak

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

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

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

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

Our saviors, who let us share their jeep.

A picnic was included, with some pigs.

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

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

The start of the gorge.

Our first camp site.

Our first visitor.

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

Just before we launched our boats.

The gorge begins to steepen.

Rapids on the first day.

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon Mac and Cheese. Delicious.

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

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

Day three camp.

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

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

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

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

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

Delicious fresh yogurt and horse milk liquor.

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

Me acting as a ferry.

Sunset at our campsite after day 4 of kayaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Looking back: One year in the land of Chinggis

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

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

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

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

And won our first pub quiz:

And took our first ger face photos!

We saw our first snow in September...

and learned the wonders of karaoke in Mongolia:

Chris played basketball...

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

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

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

and went to Thailand!

Only to come back for our first Tsagaan Tsar:

We turned 30!

And froze our butts off at the ice festival:

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

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

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

And on our first kayaking adventure...

And saw our first Naadam...

And we got engaged!

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

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

Jack arrived; we went kayaking again:

The boys set off on their trip:

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

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