Thursday, March 30, 2006

Amazon in Mongolia


Alright, most of you know the drill, for those of you new to this – you’ll want to print this one out, grab a drink, sit back, relax – like ta hear it? Hear it go….

Mongolia – the final frontier! I landed in the cold embrace of spring time in Mongolia which feels like winter to anyone else in their right mind or with a low fat content in their diet. The wind chill made it feel like zero degrees and as I bundled up to leave the airport I saw short stocky Mongolians wearing only suit jackets and the like. Perhaps for the first time I realized that my 6’2,” (BEEP) pound, solid stature was in fact quite fragile!
I’m fragile!!

The brisk night air enveloped me, I took a deep breath in appreciation of the fresh country air, and then promptly dove my fragile ass into the nearest heated vehicle. The long stretch of road leading from the airport to the city is quite barren with the occasion Mongolian on foot braving the night’s temperatures. The road continues on with very few cars and slowly gives way to a few structures, shacks, then gas stations, then grows and expands to a few buildings. You then drive under an elaborate, tall gateway structure above the road which officially welcomes you to Ulaanbaatar, or red hero, named after their national hero who liberated Mongolia from Chinese rule and summoned the Soviet red army for support some 80 years ago.

Soviet influence remains permeated throughout the city’s center as the drab communist architecture creates eye sore after eye sore in a massive homogenous and equitable construction of gray concrete overflowing in every direction. Massive rectangular structures adorn every block, and almost every piece of real estate has been devoured so that very few blades of grass and even less tress have survived the cities’ expansion to accommodate its population. It holds the largest concentration of people in a country of roughly 2 million inhabitants. Indeed, the population is small for such a large land mass, but this ain’t Bangladesh where the heat and humidity, spices, foods, music, drumming, dancing, and hard labor just make all hot and heated and sweaty and ready to……..….do……….things. All KINDS of………things!!

Yes indeedy……

What OH, excuse me – yes, it’s too damn COLD to get naked and procreate!!! Oh HAIL NO! Living out in the countryside in your little round tent, or ger, you wrap yourself in blankets and animal fur and don’t move till morning when you light a fire again to thaw out!

And though the history is fascinating and the people extraordinary, which we could talk about at great length, today I just wanted to share with you my average Sunday in Mongolia.

I woke up this past Sunday morning and crept out from under my 4 blankets to the window which revealed a snow covered city that had not been there the night before. I looked longingly at my bed and prepared to dive back in and burrow myself for the next 24 hours.

BUT NO! I must be strong, I had planned to go horseback riding in the country with some friends and knowing my crazy upcoming schedule with work, I knew I should take advantage of any opportunity to enjoy myself. The wind howled angrily in response to my thoughts and beat against my window. Threw squinted eyes and clenched teeth I muttered several curses as I made my way to the shower.

A quick weather check revealed that the temperature to be a balmy 5 degrees Fahrenheit with wind chills from – 10 to – 17 and would drop to 0 degrees that night. Ahhhh, springtime in Mongolia.
I have GOT to get a new job!!!!

Evil thoughts crept in my head - maybe my friends would cancel? Damnit all, they’ve been in Mongolia too long which has frozen every bit of sense they had left. Maybe I should just call and cancel?? The wind howled in bitter temptation!!
NO! NO! I will be strong!! It will be fun! Yeah! Yeah, that’s it!

I dressed - jeans, two long sleeve layers, two turtlenecks, a cashmere sweater, a wool sweater, a down coat, two alpaca wool hats, two pairs of gloves, 3 pairs of wool socks, lined boots, and a wool scarf – check! I was borrowing a pair of thick long johns from a friend later. Right then, I’m off!

Outside it didn’t actually seem that bad, forgetting of course that I was in the sun, had a ridiculous amount of clothes on, and was protected from the ravenous winds by the safety of the city’s structures. I met my friends for a quit breakfast and a warm drink and we were off in a little city car that could be compared to a little Mazda 4-door. The two navigating Mongolians in the front, and my two friends and myself “cozy” in the back.

Past the city’s center, more dilapidated structures take root, the factories and industries release smoke into the air blanketing the city, and a most intricate piping system reveals itself. Massive pipes of many sizes weave their way above and below ground and look like they can’t possibly still be standing. The Russians built a centralized heating system and hot water is actually heated at a central plant and then piped hot throughout the entire city into every home – fascinating when you consider the climate of Mongolia. If the plant is not working, ain’t no hot water for anyone! It also explains the slight rusty smell of the water.

The industry areas give way to the ger districts, or the tent cities, that have embedded themselves in a sprawling mass at the cities outskirts. Thousands migrated to the city in search of survival after hard winters that killed their herds and crops, after poor land privatization policies that have pushed some people off their ancestral lands, or after farmers and herders were forced to leave their land after environmental damage from mining has destroyed their rivers and herding grounds. The reasons abound.

Beyond the ger districts lies the open road, a single road heading into the vast countryside of Mongolia. The landscapes of Mongolia are diverse and mystifying – from deserts to forests, gently rolling grasslands (the steppes) to mountain ranges, from immense rivers and lakes to lands bordering Siberia. We drove by breathtaking mountain ranges covered with snow, the light hitting them in such a way that that the jagged rocks dramatically cast striking shadows, and the sunlight leapt in and out of the crevasses creating a majestic view that was simply hypnotizing.

The mountains eventually retreated back into the earth, and wide open plains took their place, spreading out in every direction and covered with dust and a pale yellow grass thirsty for water and summer. I kept using my hand to clear off the window that very few minutes kept converting my body heat and breath into a thin layer of ice blocking my view. We drove through open plains for miles and miles often without seeing a single soul or sign of life, except for the occasional ovoo, shamanistic symbols throughout the country of a praying mound of rocks with a large stick in the middle adorned with sacred blue prayer scarfs. It is customary with walk around it clockwise three times and throw three rocks or leave items symbolizing what you are praying for.

I was lookin-WHACK!!!! Our friend driving hit a massive bump in the road which caused me to my head to slam into the roof!! “Oh sorry,” giggled the Mongolian who was driving like a maniac, “No shocks.” Greeeeeeeeeat, as I’m stuck in the backseat, my Filipino friend, Eve, sitting next to me was safe from harm with her 5’3” frame. My British friend, Will, also over 6 feet was not so lucky as he rubbed his own head wound. Were we only suppose to be traveling an hour out of the city, but plans changed last minute and we were now going to visit a herding family supposedly 3 hours away. It’s fine, I go with the flow - as long as this chick drives a little better!!

“WATCH OUT!!!” yelled Will and I instinctively ducked down and covered my head as we sped over another bump causing our Mongolian friend Enkee to giggle with glee. I used all my conflict resolution skills not to smack her in the back of the head!! DOWN AISHA! Down!!

I am not a pacifist!


From time to time there were herds of horses or cattle grazing in the plains or near a rolling hill – signs of life and a ger hidden somewhere, but we drove on. My day-dreaming in the car jarred into a harsh reality check as we hit a colossal mining site, a disgusting looming area of destruction with massive amounts of ground unearthed to get to the precious gold underneath. And though I couldn’t see it, I knew there must be a river on the other side that had once flowed freely through these plains and was now damned up by the mine leaving the plains, the herds and the people thirsty for their natural right. This is part of the human rights abuses that I’m here working on– but we will save that for another time.

Eve sees another praying mound, it seems to be a rather popular one and there are a lot of offerings around the mound, she insists that we stop so that I may walk around it 3 times clockwise to pray and for good karama.

“Oh NO!” I say as I see the winds howling looking to devour any fool that leaves their shelter. “I’ve seen it on TV, good enough.”
She insists.
Damnit! We get out and the wind slaps me in the face, cuts through my jeans, beats against my back, my sides – I’m getting my ass kicked!! I’m screaming like a little girl on the inside, and trying to be tough on the outside as I make my way to the praying thing. Tears are streaming down my face from the wind and cold and I can barely see as I make a run for it 3 times around the damn mound covered with ice, praying for the gods to ward off hypothermia. I almost get hit by a lone car speeding down the road as I run across the street desperately seeking warmth and blinded by my steady stream of tears.

Past the mine we continued and off-roaded onto the dirt paths in search of a nomadic family – yes that IS at difficult as it sounds. The plains turned into rolling hills and the remnants of the river that struggled to survive was iced over, and then just to our right was a mass of birds over what could have only been a carcass. We took a closer look and dozens of massive eagle vultures we tearing away at a cow – they were beautiful and regal even in their frenzied feeding and naturally unattractive features. They spread their wings and shot us a look, claiming their meal as we drove by. The plains rose into rolling hills and 3 hours later we entered Hinti the ancient homeland of Chiggis Khan. We hit a turn in the road, Enkee took it at lightening speed and we all thought we were going to flip, her cousin then got behind the wheel cause “he knew the way” – thank you jesus!

We continue for a while and I sink back into oblivion watching the Mongolian landscape go by, thinking about everything and nothing at all. When I begin to notice that we’ve been driving in circles for a little while – hmmmmmmm! Finally, he stops driving in the middle of nowhere. Yes, yes it’s true that most of Mongolia is the middle of nowhere, aaaand that’s where we were.

I figure it was a bathroom break which I was dreading, it wasn’t so much the fact that it’s an open plain with nowhere to conceal yourself but more the fact of having to expose my ass to the brutal subzero temperatures. I’d been holding it for 2 hours now and was delusional about holding it all day.
Her cousin Zatzee turns around, looks at us sheepishly, and with his limited English says, “No address. Only mountains.”

“Adventura,” he says, “Italian.”

Ha! Indeed, my friend, it always is.

He stops to get his bearings, I’m trying to think of anything but the need to pee – STAY STRONG!!! Warm in car! Warm in car! We’re off again and stop 5 minutes later, all 3 of us cleverly yell out, “No Address!”

He says, “No. Car.”
“Cojones!” he says.
“WHAT?” I yell incredulously.
“Cojones, you know Espanol?” he asks.

I breakout into roars of laughter, and those of you who know my laugh know it’s quite hardy.
(Footnote: Cojones is the Spanish slang for balls or testicles)
I love the randomness of life!!

The car had overheated!! DAMN!! The benefit of sub zero wind chills? There are a few. He gets out and opens the hood, to let winter winds attend to our vehicle. My friends get out to stretch their legs, they open the door and the wind barrels through the car, I quickly close the door as soon as Eve’s leg clears the way. “Don’t you want to come?” they yell. I shoot them a look. They understand it’s meaning.

We’re off again, and stop again 10 minutes later, the car has over heated AGAIN…this can’t be good! And this becomes the pattern of the trip of the next 2 ½ hours. Drive for 15 minutes, stop let car cool, drive, stop, drive – MERCY! We’re also still driving back and forth trying to find where a family might have hidden their tents in the mountains to shield themselves from the bitter winter….riiiiiiiiiight!

We have now been driving for 5 ½ hours. That’s it!!! I can’t hold it any more, damn water drinking!! Eve needs to as well. We make a run for it, it’s too cold for me to care if anyone can see us, but my friend insists on being more proper – damnit! We find a deep ditch and attempt to squat but I almost fall into it, so sweet Eve stands above me so I can hold on to her leg so I don’t fall! Instant bonding indeed. I take a deep breath and expose my ass to the elements and a flurry of curses come flying out of my mouth. Eve cracks up!!
JESUS – I’m having stage fright cause it’s so COLD – this is a nightmare!!!!

Finally, mission accomplished, we run back to the car which happens to be against the bloody wind so it feels like I’m moving backwards!! My hair has whipped all around my head, there are tears streaming down my face, and my teeth are cold for the love of god!! We dive back into the car and we’re off – I should probably mention that it’s about 3:30 in the afternoon by now!

The car starts making a strange sound. We listen. We stop. We have a flat tire. Damn! This means I have to get out of the car!!! As this is a city car, he doesn’t even have a real spare, only a temporary one – that can NOT be good for the ride home now 6 hours away!! I brace myself and enter the cold – this stuff is seriously ridiculous!! And then I’m suppose to ride a horse and go faster?? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME??!! Why didn’t I go back to bed??????!!!! I stand as the wind beats against me and for some reason I decide to open my eyes and there in front of me are the smaller Mongolian and Filipino girl comfortably shielded from the wind by ME!!!!!! They look up and smile. Everything is covered but my eyes so they can’t see my snarl but I squint at them in disgust!

We change the tire, we’re off. The then, THERE THEY ARE – 3 white tents in the distance – our destination!!!!

------------------------------------DRINK REFILL or NAP-----------------------------------

We arrive, how interesting that this is the drivers FAMILY????!!!
We’ve been taken for a serious RIDE cause this dude wanted to see his family!! At this point I’ve already shrugged my shoulders and surrendered to fate, so I just laughed!! We enter the ger his family greets us warmly. Zatzee tells them that we’ve just driven 6 hours to go horseback riding. They look at us like we’re crazy – Mongolians are smart.

But it’s really cold, and very windy, why would you want to ride today – someone translates. Hehehe, JUST GET THE DAMN HORSES I scream in my head as I resist the urge to stick my feet IN the fire to get a little warmth! Two men leave to round up some horses, I go to the car and try to put on my friends long johns. Now everyone is outside, I’m flailing in the back seat trying to maneuver taking off my freshly washed and dryed jeans (DOH!) with a ton of layers on my top, in a small car with a big body– this was a good idea. Some Mongolians notice some commotion in the car and curiously walk over, for a moment I freeze my jeans are off – what to do? Then the cold against my exposed skin smacks some sense into me – it’s COLD, I’m on a mission to get warmer. This is what a big ass looks like my little Mongolian friends! Girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do!!

Somehow I succeed and feel SO much warmer, I’m happy! Until, I go back outside again! By now the clouds had moved in, so there was no sun, and no city buildings to block the wind – I have not the words to describe to you what that cold felt like. Enkee gives me her thick, wind proof down vest – I happily add that baby to my layers! The horses are brought over, Mongolian horses are like the people, short, stocky, and strong. The little furry horses looked…somewhat agitated. The Mongolian herder says that he is proud that his horses are not tame but wild which is what makes them such good horses.


They ask me if I want to ride bare back (without a saddle) and I’ve ALWAYS wanted to, and then I see a horse in the distance with the rest of the herd, repeatedly kick another horse.
Ummmmmm, no thank you, I reply.

Mongolian saddles are a curious creation, instead of sitting on the horse they rise upwards off the horse into this V shape.

It barely fits my ass!
And the stirrups (where you put your feet) are so high for short Mongolian legs that my knees are level with the horse’s back!!! This is NOT good for riding.

The horse, now I’m not joking, turns around to look at me.
I smile.


Oh he’s wild, and he wants to run which I would love except it feels like I’m about to fly over it’s head!!! I pull back hard on the reigns, he slows, and then tries to take off again!!! A Mongolian rider laughs hysterically as he pulls up next to me to tell me I should stand up on the horse and that would make it better, and he demonstrates on his horse to show me.
STAND UP!!! FOOL! I thought for sure I was going to fly right over this horses head – it’s really a wonderful feeling!! Bloody hell! The cold has apparently gotten to his brain too.

Eve takes one look at the horses and decides – hell no. Will also found the horses wild and the saddle impossible to use and got off of his. Riding lasted less than 20 minutes.
We toured the horse herd, and then retreated inside, the Mongolians had a sumo wrestling championship to watch and I was freezing my cajones off!

The Mongolians all headed to the one tent with a massive satellite dish outside next to the solar panel. Hey, just cause you live in the middle of nowhere doesn’t mean you got to live like you’re in the middle of nowhere. These guys were hooked up!! We joined them as the woman of the tent began preparing our meal – I sighed, knowing that I would have to eat hardly to be respectful and that anything that they served would contain a ton of animal fat.

It begins.
Ah, the diet of Mongolia.

We watch some exciting sumo matches as two Mongolians battled for the international championship – quite a bit of national pride filled the tent! And dinner is served – dumplings stuffed with mostly piece of goat fat, a little bit of goat meat, cooked in pure yak milk with some yak butter, and rice on the bottom. I eat it, I have no choice or I would insult the entire family. And SILLY me an entire bowl of this stuff was only the appetizer. We went to the elder’s tent where his daughter made another traditional Mongolian meal, you break off large pieces of cow, roll out one large flat noodle and boil the beef with the massive noodle on top. The noodle is served on the side in a bowl and the meat in another bowl where you tear off pieces of meat and pasta with your hands and go to town. However, before we can eat, the head of the household, the most senior man, will cut off a slice of the cow intestine stuffed with fat and throw it into the fire as an offering to the gods, and then cut off another piece and place it in front of the Buddhist shrine in the household. Everyone gets served according to place and honor, so the eldest man first, and as guests we were allowed to eat first with the elder, the younger Mongolians (older than me!) must wait to eat what we left.

As honored guests (and I keep trying to tell them we’re not guests but almost like family – but they never buy it), we were given generous portions of beef tongue and intestine stuff with large portions of fat and a little bit a beef. Mind you, I’m already full from the first onslaught of animal products in a bowl, and now I must respectfully eat more!! This would be one area where my size and stature serve as a great disadvantage as they expect that I would eat at least twice as much as they do!! DAMNIT! I really try to force myself to eat a little more and not disrespect them, but every time I stopped they continued to fill my bowl or the elder demanded that I eat more. When I finally said I couldn’t, he looked unhappy and looked away. I shoved another piece of meat into my mouth, he grunted in approval and then when I really had to stop he looked disappointed and stopped talking to me.
Within minutes so much meat and meat products made me feel like curling up into a ball and hibernating for the winter, or the alternative would have been a lovely stomach pumping and some lettuce - but such is life.

So after a 6 hours drive, 15 miuntes of horseback riding, and an hour and a half with the family, it was getting late, roughly 6 p.m. and there was no way we were going to be able to navigate over all those rocks carefully with our temporary tire without adequate light. The Mongolians all incredulously looked at each other like these crazy foreigners drove all this way in terrible weather for 2 hours and are going back???!!!
Why yes, yes we are – work calls Monday morning.

And so we were off. The winds had picked up considerably, the sun was retiring for the evening and the cold was comfortably settling in for the night. We said our thank yous and good byes and headed off, praying to the tire gods to let our little tire make it through the journey and not have us be stuck where NO ONE could find us and in the cold!!! The sun setting over Chinggis’ homeland was spectacular, the reds, ambers, and purplish hues created a beautiful fire in the sky as the light played off of each other and reluctantly sunk below the mountains in the distance. The blue blues of the sky turned a deep midnight blue-black giving way to dozens of tiny sparks of light interspersed throughout the dark abyss above. The dozens of small flickers of light turned into hundreds, and then thousands of brilliant bright stars. I sunk back into the seat in that state of mind where all outside noise disappears, your senses relax and retreat to a place of rest, and my eyes followed the glints of light and got lost and the blue-black ocean of the Mongolian sky and faded into sleep. I was happy to be here and knew the morning hours would bring a lot of work and more to come.

It grows late here and so I wish you well. I know I owe most of you some personal form of communication, I am sorry, but I do think of you!

Sweet Dreams and Yak Milk (that is if you're still awake and you've made it this far!!),