Monday, 14 March 2011

landing in St Jean de Luz

The moment that Chinggis Khaan landed in the sleepy Basque fishing port of St Jean de Luz he knew that he had found a second home. He would have struggled to find a more removed place from his wild and frozen Steppe. A multitide of brightly painted fishing boats sat berthed; enormous nets drying across their masts. Tall neatly packed townhouses in equally colourful resplendour watched on from the rim of the harbour, their windows crammed with curious faces. After ten months at sea the sight, sound and smells of this Basque fishing village embellished a maternal caress. The townsfolk lined the dock to welcome their new resident.

"Ahoy there!" shouted a swarthy looking Basque man, "Ongi etorri!".
"Sain baina uu!" replied Chinggis mimicking the welcome.

The dark, olive-skinned man leaned over and offered the Mongol emperor his arm. Pulling him ashore the two men embraced. It had been a long time since Chinggis had last been made to feel this welcome. A young child carrying a white terrine offered the stranger a splendid assortment of freshly caught fish. Chinggis had never tasted fish before but as the crowd looked on in anticipation he quickly swallowed three sardines and gulped greedily from a bottle of Irouleguy wine his new Basque friend had thrust into his hand. His eyes looked around at the people. They looked very different to those from his homeland. He looked forward to finding out more about them; particularly the women.

Basque of the day:- welcome :: ongi etorri

Friday, 4 March 2011

fond farewell

"The time has come" the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing wax -
Of cabbages - and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings."

The Walrus had most certainly spent 10 months in Mongolia. Each day has presented its own magic and now that the time has come to leave this land I feel that the sorcery will be left behind. It will remain to be rediscovered another day but new friends made will travel with us...

As for Chinggis and what made him so darned angry? I can only surmise two possible reasons. The first; as an avid cultural explorer he was wont to write poetry but failed in his pursuit to find a word that rhymed with his name. The second; have you ever tried to run the world's greatest ever empire from a remote felt tent surrounded by camels in -40C?

Ae fond kiss; and then we sever...

Mongolian of the day:- thank you :: tand bayarlaa

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

the times they are a changing

Today when I woke up in Mongolia it was -40C. On Sunday when I wake up in St Jean de Luz it will probably be +17C. A delightful swing of +57C. In the meantime a nice wee walk across the hills.Hat frozen to head? Check. Nose snot truly frozen? Check. Chilblains across body? Check. Frostbite appearing? Check. Eyelashes carrying icicles? Check. Closing eyes becoming more difficult and viscous? Check. Stupid arse for being out walking in this weather? Check.

Three days before I depart and this wonderous country is still throwing me surprises. I have already started planning my next visit. Too many new friends would be missed otherwise.

Mongolian of the day:- cold :: khuuiten

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

at the bottom of the garden

In recent weeks there has been a marked increase in the number of animals in our garden, I say garden, the grounds of our rather lovely ex-Politburo apartments total some 500 acres.

As the winter marches on herds of animals have moved nearer Ulaanbaatar to escape from the Steppe and surrounding mountains. Looking out of my bedroom window in the morning there are generally three options: goats, wild horses or big hairy cows.

Other creature residents include woodpeckers, marmottes, wild dogs (some rabid), the odd cat, Steppe eagles and more carrion than you can find pellets to kill. No sign of any wolves yet. Similarly the bears and snow leopards are staying away for the time being.

The animal visits serve to remind just how much more difficult life is further away from Ulaanbaatar. This year has been relatively soft compared to recent years. Not sure how I would have coped last year in -50C when some 30% of animals in Mongolia died; oddly enough nobody ever reported what % of the Mongolian people moved on...

If wild horses and dogs can't survive what hope for humans?

Mongolian of the day:- animal :: aimtan

Monday, 28 February 2011

the home stretch

Well, it's almost ten months since I started to think about a wee trip for a couple of weeks to Outer Mongolia. I am still living in the cradle of Ulaanbaatar but my time here is almost done. To mark the start of my last week the weather has very kindly dipped dramatically. I'm not sure when I'll next take a walk along a deeply frozen river in -38C.

I visited the infamous Black Market today. The place was made famous by Ewen McGregor during his 'Long Way Round' adventure (he bought a motorbike there). It is a quite astonishing spectacle. So very unlike any Western shopping experience and even the Arab souks feel somewhat sophisticated against the backdrop of grimy stalls selling everything from tractor wheels to plastic tiaras. Given the size of Ulaanbaatar, some 1 million people, the Black Market is quite especially large. This is one of many markets, albeit the one selling the widest variety of goods, so it's multi hectare span took me aback.

Set into different zones a myriad of wares are touted. From silk to sausages, leather to latex, dishwashers to diamantes - there is something for everyone. If you can put up with the icy wind, hocking vendors and absolute disorganisation then the Black Market offers a retail memory that will last forever. I didn't see any sign of Ewen McGregor, I guess that's a great advertisement for the the Black Market - his motorbike obviously worked. Shame though, I've always wanted to meet Obi-Wan Kenobi...

Mongolian of the day:- shop :: delguur

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

the minging food people eat

I like to consider myself a relatively adventurous chap when it comes to eating. You don't get to be my size if you turn your nose up at food too often. I've eaten almost every mammal in Europe; I've tried as many fish as I've had chance and I've even had a kebab on Caroline Street in Cardiff and lived to tell the tale.
However, my tastebuds were completely sickened the other day as I walked down a side street in Beijing. A myriad of startlingly interesting products were being offered up on sticks.
First up there were mice and rat parts; nothing too scary there, dormouse is not bad eaten with the right sauce. Further along came bats and marmotte. I was beginning to lose my appetite here. Venturing further into the masticating throng I saw a host of horrendous appetisers, including: starfish, sauteed dog, giant spiders, spiced cats chunks and to top it all 'live' scorpion kebabs.
If you don't believe the scorpions were alive click on the link here - truly minging.
Mongolian of the day:- food :: khool

Monday, 21 February 2011

you know you've been in Mongolia too long when...

This morning I woke up, clicked on my iPhone weather app and revelled in the fact that it was an exciting -18C outside. After the crazy cold of recent weeks this felt pretty balmy and I looked forward to a nice long walk outside. It took a few moments before my brain engaged and I realised that -18C is still pretty bloody cold. Time to return to Europe.

Walking back from Ulaanbaatar to my house outside town I hiked along the river which retains a good metre of ice on its surface. The whole river and its banks are frozen; it is incredibly flat (and slippy). By mid afternoon the temperature had risen to -9C; the warmest it's been since mid October. I was far from alone as families took to the ice enjoying the moderate heat that was pouring across the Steppe for the first time this year. None of us wore jackets and some had short sleeved shirts on. As I contemplated taking off my jumper I remembered that it was still -9C. If it was the UK the newspapers would be warning people to stay indoors for fear of death. Perspective is a wonderful thing. Then again, so is good weather. Time to return to Europe.

Mongolian of the day:- Spring :: khavar

Friday, 18 February 2011

preparing to leave Chinggis behind

After two weeks in Beijing I have returned to Ulaanbaatar for the final time. At the end of the month I am heading back to the warmer (though less sunny) climes of St Jean de Luz deep within the Basque Country. The last nine months has been an awfully big adventure. That leaves me fourteen days to surmise what it was that made Chinggis Khaan so darned angry: stomach ulcer? migraine? parents? overworked? insecure? I will fathom an appropriate answer.It also only leaves me a fortnight to bid farewell to my Mongolian haunts and friends. I long to go horse riding across the Steppe once more but it's impossible sub -20C. Perhaps I could stop off here when I take a train from the Atlantic to Pacific later this year...
Meanwhile, back in the Basque Country the spring tides are raging and the massive wave known as Belharra is generating enormous surf. Watching this wee clip made me feel homesick for St Jean de Luz. La Rhune is resplendant in the background as always.

Mongolian of the day:- good health! :: eruul mendiin toloo!

Monday, 31 January 2011

icy magic tricks

I've learned a great deal from my time in Mongolia. Apart from the myriad of cultural and historic mysteries there are several funky tricks that I have picked up from living in this challenging climate:-

1. at -35C boiling water turns into snow if you throw it in the air [connect to link here] - love this so much but am afraid to find out what would happen if I took a pee outside at this temperature!

2. at minus 30C ice starts to stop being slippy; even the local ice rink doesn't function properly

3. you really do stick to metal if you touch it below -25C; and if you touch it with your tongue...

4. below -30C any parts of skin that are exposed to the air turn white in about ten minutes, numb after 15 and can cease to ever function again after 25 minutes

5. if your home is warm and it's below -30C outside, when you open a window or the front door a mysterious chill mist drifts inwards - very spooky

6. if your home is warm and it's below -15C outside any tiny gaps in windows or doors sucks the cold air and creates a noisy wind despite it being still outside and that disappears as soon as you open the door

7. below -20C, and if it's incredibly dry, when the snow falls it evaporates before it reaches the ground resulting in a mere couple of inches of snow throughout the 7 month winter

Mongolian of the day:- make :: khiikh

Friday, 28 January 2011

a room with a view

I'd like to think that I was getting used to the weather in Mongolia; but I'm not. When the thermometer touches -40C only a very tempting offer would get me to leave the house; such offers might include lunch, dinner, coffee etc.
This morning, after coming back after breakfast with friends in Ulaanbaatar, I stood next to the fire, thawed out (eventually) and sat down to get some work down. It takes so long to get dressed to go out in this weather that by the time you've derobed you've warmed yourself up, it save going to the gym.
Halfway through the afternoon my imagination began to wander. I stared out of the window and wondered how so many animals manage to survive such wilderness. Besides the wild dogs there are a host of creatures that roam the icy expanses. From my desk I watched the local herd of wild horses (I say wild but they actually belong to the President of Mongolia who lives next door). Dreaming furhter afield I spotted two Steppe eagles dancing together on the currents. Normal I would say they were dancing on thermals but I can'ty see how there could possibly be any warm out there. Nearer to home a woodpecker rather randomly appeared and brought me back to my apartment. It was a lovely reminder of home; they are such cosmopolitan creatures.
Mongolian of the day:- animal :: aimtan

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

true grit

There are not many places where you can look out of your sitting room window and watch cowboys at work. Yet again Mongolia bowls a googly. This afternoon I sat at my desk and watched a cowboy coralling his herd across the mountainside.
The icy landscape rendered his antics unduly hazardous but he moved his charges as if he were picking up freshly cut flowers. They moved willfully in whichever direction he commanded. The mountains he was working on are more steep than I am happy to walk yet he galloped to and fro ensuring that his commerce was undertaken with the utmost efficiency and unerring effectiveness.
The Mongol horseman is a consumate professional.
Ulaanbaatar was the coldest place on earth last week at -47C. Today it was the most polluted place on earth; that's urbanisation and the march of capitalism for you. Thank goodness the winds have finally come.
Mongolian of the day:- horse :: moir

Monday, 24 January 2011

meat me at the market

Ulaanbaatar is a funny old place. Although it is fairly primitive in many respects (there are only a few hundred miles of tarmac road in a country the size of France, Spain, Germany and UK combined) and while it's remoteness can be unforgiving (Ulaanbaatar is the most remote capital city in the world - and the coldest) the Mongolian capital has markets than can sell you anything from a rare species of monkey to HP Sauce. Some may have seen the Black Market on Ewan McGregor's 'The Long Way Round' (it's where he picked up motorbike parts). It is an intimidating place. However, my preferred market is nearer the centre of town and unlike the Black Market (which specialises in dirty heavy goods) the Mercury Market is just for food - a great passion of mine.
Each week I set off with my shopping list. The market starts in the car park where you can pick up a freshly slaughtered sheep if the mood takes you. The market itself is split into four areas. A small entrance hall that offers perfumes, DVDs and other capitalist oriented consumables leads into the first main hall. Here you can find any fruit you could possibly want and any packeted or tinned items you can imagine (this week I managed to source fresh Russian cranberry sauce in vodka and Bisto veggie stock cubes).
This hall leads onto a passage displaying a variety of interesting dairy products. They say it's cheese but coming from France I ain't going anywhere near it. A dozen or so paces on and you reach another large hall (the same size as the fruit and tinnery). The first half is overflowing with seasonal vegetables (like the fruit almost all imported via Russia or China). An incredible assortment of potatoes line the stalls with any number of intriguing root vegetables piled upon them. The vegetables lead to the second half of the hall houses my favourite stalls - the butchers.
From a room in the back you can hear the nostalgic baa-ing of a sheep. This is followed by a dull thwudd. From here a saw can be heard accompanied by the sound of slops falling on the floor. Within minutes freshly butchered mutton is on offer. That's what I call fresh food. On a myriad of clean(ish) tables an incredible variety of meat cuts are nonchalently displayed. One of the butchers has a seemingly mummified sheep's head as her display sign. The roast mutton I cooked up yesterday was one of the best roasts I can remember.
Mongolian of the day:- vegetarian :: [does not compute]

Friday, 21 January 2011

absolute silliness

Ok, scratch what I wrote yesterday about Mongolia. The cold here is unlike anything I've experienced before. I tried to go for a walk this morning and not for want of trying I was warned against doing so. Combined with the joyful pollution that reeks out of the many gers as they burn cardboard, plastic, tyres - whatever it takes to keep warm - there is a definite bite to your throat whenever you venture outdoors.

There is a hill next to my home here that is about twice the height of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh (roughly 500m) so nothing too big. I try and walk up it whenever I can as means of keeping fit. When I first arrived it was a struggle because we are a bit higher up than I am used to; but I managed. When summer arrived I found it tough in +40C; but I managed. In Autumn I struggled at 0C; but I managed. As I set off this morning two Mongolian friends implored me to stop. They assured me that if I tried to walk up the hill in this weather my corpse would be carried off the hill. I failed (but am still breathing).

It might be mostly sunny. It might be mostly still. It might not feel too bad if you are only walking from your home to the car and back. However, if you walk any distance or remain outside for more than a couple of minutes your skin starts to get bitten, your bogies freeze, it becomes tougher to close your eyes as the mucous covering your eyeballs begins to turn more viscous and there is a shortness to your breath that would worry even the more fanatically fit athlete. Still, I can't help but be excited by it. Where else could I revel in -40C? Where else could I walks across deep frozen rivers? Where else could I be so often be close to death? Mongolia continues to surprise when you least expect it.

Apologies if I go on about the weather but a) I am British and b) it is amazing.

Mongolian of the day:- I speak a little Mongolian :: tiym, bi Mongol hel zhaahan medne

Thursday, 20 January 2011

meanwhile, back in Mongolia

Flying back across the South Gobi last night was a world away from the heady parties, fine banquets and consumerist excesses that have marked my last month in Europe. Despite having gained some ten pounds and spent considerably more enjoiying myself with friends and family I readily changed currency and by the time the last snow capped mountain loomed out of sight I was safely in the land of the tugrik.
My wonderful wife had her birthday while we were in St Jean de Luz; the Basque port town definitely remains our intended eventual home. I recall the evening well. We sat outside on Place Louis XIV, ate freshly caught seafood and quaffed a delightful grand cru. How different to wake up two weeks later in an ice filled -38C landscape.
Despite the wonder and ferocity of winter in Mongolia I confess that I actually found it colder in Britain. It must be something to do with the wind or wet but the -5C I experienced while sitting in Murrayfield watching Edinburgh beat Glasgow at rugby felt a darn site colder than my bracing walk over the river this morning.
Mongolian of the day:- return :: butsaj irekh

Thursday, 23 December 2010

silver bells

The only downside to Christmas that I can see is that they become less spread apart the older we get; after all absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Far from being Mr Scrooge I am whole-heartedly looking forward to the next fortnight. It will take in four countries, forty friends and family members, four hundred too many calories per meal and four thousand miles.

If you do everything to excess it surely levels itself out someplace.

Happy Christmas!


Joyeux Noel!

Feliz Navidad!

Zul saryn bolon shine ony mend devshuulye!

Friday, 17 December 2010

back to Blighty

This is the first Christmas I can recall since childhood when I have been truly excited (not in the French meaning of the word). Travelling the lesser voyaged paths is exhilirating and wonderful. It also serves to pinpoint what is important in your life.
Although I enjoy spending what my friends deem an unhealthy amount of time in my own company, this Christmas I am more than happy to be in the warm embrace of so many friends and family members.
Four days back in the UK has seen me do some odd things. After dancing gaily around supermarkets in awe of vegetables, Harrod's foodhall in particular, I have eaten non-stop at a plethora of splendid restaurants. The food is consequential but not nearly as important as the friends I have been eating with.
Tomorrow we return to St Jean de Luz for the first time in an age. I am reliably informed that our cat is still alive. While we have been sent photos of her none of them were date stamped or had newspaper front pages to verify the time. I remain sceptical.
Until then I intend to sit in an old East End ale house, quaff beer and eat stilton cheese with a teaspoon.
Cockney of the day:- abercrombie and fitch :: bitch

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

the garden of England

Being back in Europe is odd. After six months in Mongolia I found myself wandering giddily around Morrison's supermarket buying up far more fruit and vegetables than I could possibly eat and purchasing more prawns and squid than I could possibly want. As for fresh cream profiteroles... Scoffed the lot.
I am staying with my old next door neighbours in deepest darkest Kent. I had forgotten just how lovely a corner of the world Kent is. It is truly, quintessentially English and that is no bad thing, and I say that as a Scotsman. Kent also has what is undoubtedly my favourite beer in the world. Sitting in The George last night I enjoyed more than my fair share of Master Brew, seriously good ale.
Walking up on the Weald this morning the bracing views reminded me why I spent so many years living here. It may only be 50 miles from London but it remains unspoiled. Once can easily imagine stagecoaches passing by en route to Paris. The sound of spitfires flying overhead on their way to the Battle of Britain can be heard if you listen closely enough. On a clear day you can almost make out France some 60 miles south.
Kentish of the day:- blouse :: sweat profusely

Friday, 10 December 2010

end of term report

Today is my last day living full-time in Ulaanbaatar, the fabulous capital city of Mongolia; coldest capital city in the world; fastest developing capital city and a splendidly wonderful and completely barmy place. Following a heavy night of dancing and drinking I have to suffer the pains of first class travel once more as I brave a wee flight across Northern Korea for some time in Seoul before heading back to London, then Paris then sunny St Jean de Luz. It has been some six months; an adventure I feel honoured to have had the privilege to enjoy. Herewith 5 good things about Mongolia, 5 less good and 5 interesting.

The Good

  1. Mongolian music is wonderful, unique and omnipresent. It plays as important a role on Mongolian society as it does in Basque culture.
  2. Mongolian culture and history is unrivalled; its geographic position has largely sheltered its heritage from untoward outside advances and it remains as it has been for centuries.
  3. The Steppe is both wonderful and fearsome; it is one of the largest and most hostile places I have been able to enjoy and riding across it guarantees peace of mind.
  4. The Mongolian people have an amazing sense of self belief; there is little doubt their future is bright given this and the serene anger that lurks under the commercial skin thanks to Chinggis.
  5. I have made some incredible friends in Mongolia; it is a happy place and I hope that as it changes so much over the next few years that it remains so (go now if you want to experience it as it has been)

The Bad

  1. The harsh environment and weather are strking and waring to the outsider.
  2. As the country undergoes dramatic change so quickly there is a sense of potential double standards and corruption; Louis Vuitton is established while orphans struggle to survive.
  3. There is trepidation about outsiders, a little is healthy too much is dangerous; there is a scary right wing movement being established that needs to be quashed soon.
  4. As the country expands economically it needs to make provision for pollution and recycling.
  5. Mongolia needs to get over its perceived dislike of China; the economic upside for Mongolia is immense given its natural resources

...and the Interesting
  1. Mongolia has, in my view, the prettiest ladies in the world (even my wife agrees).
  2. The Mongolian word for beaver is minge; the Mongolian for lion is aslan.
  3. Airag is possibly the most unusual and horrid tasting drink on the planet.
  4. Mongolian horses are the hardest animals I have ever met; they could even beat badgers in a fight if it came to it.
  5. Mongolia has some of the most amusing and wonderful signs for what it was that made Chinggis Khaan so angry; I shall continue my search next year...

Mongolian of the day:- goodbye :: bayartai

Thursday, 9 December 2010

stuff what I have eaten

During my time in Mongolia I have eaten a vast variety of food. Before coming here I had presumed that Mongolia would serve up the same food as you find in Mongolian restaurants throughout the world - how very wrong to presume anything. The staple fare in Mongolia is almost entirely based around mutton, dumplings and fat. Don't let this put you off though, the local dishes are truly delicious. Amongst my favourites so far are buuz (steamed dumplings filled with mutton, photo), bansh (boiled dumplings with mutton), khuushuur (deep fried mutton - this appeals to my Scottish taste buds - think juicy Cornish pastie). Other dishes include noodles and rice dishes; almost all containing mutton. The diet here is all about using what's readily available and preparing the body for harsh weather.

In and around Ulaanbaatar there are a ridiculous number of eateries (some fine, some less so). Eating out is almost the same price as cooking for yourself so it really is a no-brainer. Besides the usual selection of Thai, Korean, Indian and Chinese menus available there are some foods you would be hard pushed to find in Europe. Imagine yourself cooking up your own table stew of bulls penis and spring onions. Wonder at the taste of fried chicken heads (surprisingly sweet). Marvel at the aroma of sheeps head stew with vegetables. Gorge yourself on fattened duck hearts. Pig out on cockroaches on sticks.

I can safely say that they are all particularly yummy and know that there is one special friend in the Basque country who would happily have eaten everything I did with as much gusto!

Mongolian of the day:- to cook :: khool khiikh

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

leather and fur

Mongolians really know how to dress well. More importantly, Mongolians really know how to dress well in frighteningly cold weather. An average amble around Ulaanbaatar is akin to a promenade around Rome on a sunny January afternoon.

When the weather turns you will find almost everybody wearing fur. Fur coats, fur stoles, fur boots, fur scarves, fur hats. Mongolians also have fabulous boots. Boots of every conceivable shape, style and colour. Boots for macho men, boots for petite fashionistas, boots for grandmothers.

There is no room for futile political correctness when the temeperature is this low. In Ulaanbaatar fur is a necessity not a luxury. The government even offers mortgages to help people purchase furry protection against the cold. I saw a homeless person wearing a fur coat earlier this week. Anyone feeling queasy or remotely outraged by fur wearing should come and spend a week walking around Mongolia without a fur hat on - faux fur only offers false promise - get over it! People without protection from the cold die here on a regular basis.

Hot on the heels of purchasing my first fur hat (genuine fox, love it) I have just been measured up for my first pair of Mongolian boots. So normal is it to have bespoke boots made that the fitting took approximately two minutes. Choosing the style and colour took a little longer. This morning I opted for dark brown knee length tight fitters with limited fanciness. I figure they will look something between 'trendy Gestapo' and 'Jilly Cooper addict'. They will be ready on Friday and cost about the same as a pair of Converse. Fox on my head, cows on my feet.

Mongolian of the day:- leather :: savikh

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

would you buy anything from this man?

Ask yourself; does this jolly little fellow really encourage you to go and purchase some of the canned coffee drink he is promoting? Personally it makes me think that the drink has to contain drugs of some sort. There is something of Jack Black in the happy wee chap.

Different economies tend to adopt different business plans and different means of marketing their wares. Although there are many highly sophisticated consumers in Mongolia (in some cases far more sophisticated than any in Europe) marketing to the masses in Mongolia remains fairly vanilla. Ulaanbaatar may have Louis Vuitton, Armani, Prada and Gucci but it also has some interesting offerings. Some of my favourite outdoor marketing initiatives include:

Magic Pens, Mamma Mia (Mongolian style) and Morning Glory; what more could any discerning consumer wish for?

It is not surprising that marketing is sometimes a little confused. Mongolia is a country undergoing huge economic and cultural change. Chinggis Khaan has re-emerged over the last decade as a ferocious symbol of national identity. Given his reputation using the Mongol leader for branding purposes gives off several important messages. Secondly Ulaanbaatar is a capital city that is finding its identity. Currently there is debate in different countries, maps and websites about how to correctly spell the city's name: Ulaanbaatar or Ulan Bator. I prefer Ulaanbaatar, it feels more Mongolian.

Mongolian of the day:- market :: zakh