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

Monday, 6 December 2010

riding out across a winter wonderland

The sun shone brightly yesterday raising temperatures to a balmy -23C so I thought I would take the opportunity to spend the day horse riding across the Steppe. In weather like this you really must wrap up warm, people die regularly out here. Donning my newly acquired fox hat I looked quite resplendent (even if I do say so myself). Before coming to Mongolia I was not 100% in favour of fur. After six months here I appreciate that it really is the only way to keep the cold out. Anyone saying otherwise should spend some time here.
Riding away from my home we rose into the hills. Rising above the valley floor a breeze picked up. The wind chill factor was hellish. Within minutes my friend's faces were turning white marking the potential onset of frostbite. I made sure we all had our faces suitably protected before we rode on. The occasional flurry of snow hampered our progress but we made good time.
In a nearby valley we passed the Shaman site which looked delightful in the snow. The snow here does not get deep. There is simply very little precipitation. Far from being a good thing the dryness that pervades the air makes living and breathing that extra bit more challenging. Moving on from the spiritual site we met a couple of camels grazing on dry twigs in a tree that remained unsullied by ice. On we rode into the hills enjoying the vast views that only the Steppe can offer.
As the sun began to set we headed home in haste. The colours across the Steppe transport you to some magical kingdom and you expect to see orcs or fawns lolloping across the hillside. The last thing you want is to be caught outside once the sun is down. Thankfully we made it home in time and spent the rest of the day imbibing gin and tonic, purely for medicinal purposes.
Mongolian of the day:- hill :: dov

Friday, 3 December 2010

hats on to Mongolia

Hats are a big deal in Mongolia. Whether you are walking around Ulaanbaatar or exploring the Steppe you will find hats, hats and more hats.

They have three purposes:

1. They keep you warm in the crazy cold

2. They keep you cool in the heady heat

3. They make you look cool

men in particular are avid hat wearers. They will rarely take them off even when indoors. During business meetings men will don something upon their bonce. Eating supper in restaurants men will retain a head piece.

In Mongolia there is one act that is utterly forbidden: never ever touch another man's hat. That way certain violence lies. It is a serious business.

Mongolian of the day:- hat :: malgai

Thursday, 2 December 2010

what happens when it gets really cold

I've mentioned more than once that it is jolly cold in Mongolia. We are beginning to get used to it now. Reading about the media angst in Britain is hilarious; we long for any sign of humidity and as for -10C, that sounds deliciously balmy! It hasn't crept above -20C for longer than I can remember.
A few odd things happen when temperatures are this low.
Last week my nasal passages froze. I was completely incapable of picking any snot and blowing was right out. Walking is tough. When you first leave the house the soles of your shoes have a little warmth in them. This melts a bit of the ice which then refreezes on your shoes. You end up walking ice on ice, no end of fun. If you are outside for too long without protection your face swells up and you get white blotchy patches. This means frostbite and you should get indoors immediately. If you are out walking without enough layers of thermal clothing your legs catch chill blanes which is delightful sensation. My pet hate is body shape. Despite exercising on a daily basis everyone living around the -30C mark puts on between 5-10kg; it is so unfair.
I learned a great trick. If the temperature is less than thirty walk outside with a mug of boiling water and throw it into the air. The water immediately turns into snow. Hours of fun!
I have under two weeks before I return to the tropical weather in the UK.
Mongolian of the day:- freeze :: kholdokh

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

three feet of ice and counting

Well, it's been crazily cold for several weeks in Ulaanbaatar now. Proper Mongolia cold like -30C not that wimpy stuff they're complaining about in the UK. All vegetation has died, as have most of the wild dogs and cats. Restaurants are mostly meat stew.

The Tuul River, where I was swimming a few weeks back, has up to three feet of ice. Where Ulaanbaatar had only two bridges connecting the city to the other side of the river and mountains where I live those normal thoroughfares no longer matter. If you want to cross the river you simply walk, or drive, over it. The ice is frighteningly thick and grows as you watch it.

With the ice has come a new game/sport I've never seen before. Think curling-cricket-archery. Men stand at one end of a 50 metre polished ice bowling lane. The project ornately carved stones down the rink aiming for a red piece of felt at the other end. There is one large piece of red felt which is flanked by two others on each side.

Players wear thick felt boots, fur hats and dels. Dels are the traditional Mongolian dress worn by many throughout the country - it is warm but easily opened if the weather heats up, I liken it to an Asian kilt which being St Andrew's Day has a nice feel.

You get five stones and different points depending where your stone goes. Players have no special footwear for the ice. To give them a little bit of grip they dig a niche into the ice to push off from. I tried five times and fell flat on my bum each time much to the amusement of the locals. They have said I can come back to play anytime though I think that was meant as a joke. I call that cultural integration.

Mongolian of the day:- ice :: mos

Monday, 22 November 2010

chasing the dragon

Another week; another country. This time back to China and Beijing. It was supposed to be a three day event chasing visas but the Mongolian Embassy was mysteriously closed forcing us to stay in 5-star luxury a few extra days. Sometimes life is too cruel.
Beijing has become a surprise entry into my top five favourite cities featuring at number four ahead of Marrakech but behind Rome, New York and London. It is a truly special place where Communism and Capitalism dance a merry jig arm in arm.
This week I spent a good many hours wandering around the 798 District. Originally a Bauhaus styled factory complex from the 50's it is now the vibrant centre of a contemporary art scene that has emerged since the shackles of Communism have loosened a little. What used to be factories are now galleries, what were tool sheds are now studios. Everything from photography and fashion to sculpture and architecture is on display. You can watch people creating, absorb the artwork or partake in purchasing.
Mixed between the buildings a Chinese cafe culture is springing up. Although there are foreign visitors it is almost exclusively a local affair with the trendiest and most fashionable of Beijing hanging out and looking fabulously cool.
The best installation I saw was called 'Come the Wolf'; one hundred and fifty bronze wolves prowling towards a lone swordsman, highly evocative. My sole concern was the irresponsible treatment of dinosaurs I witnessed. It was truly miserable to see such beauties caged.
Chinese of the day:- thank you :: xie xie

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

when is Spring?

The weather in Mongolia is a little more extreme than I had imagined it would be. Being born in Scotland and living in the Basque Country I am used to things being slightly cooler than in say Africa or Australia. Having spent most of my life living in one of those places I have had my fair share of snow and definitely more than enough experience of rain. Winter in Edinburgh would be -10C easily and in the Pyrenees I would expect serious snowfall from mid December onwards.
This week I am having my first taste of a real winter.
Not content with sitting at a balmy -13C the weather has decided that wasn't challenging enough. Instead it has been bringing us temperatures nearer -20C, lovely. The one grace is that the climate here is so dry. We did have heavy snowfall at the weekend but rather than turning into the disgusting slush that it would in Europe it has largely stuck around or even evaporated. It's weird. Snow without any mess - I love that!
Being a continental landlocked country Mongolia has a climate that is characterised by low precipitation and sharp seasonal fluctuations. A long sumer and a longer winter. Courtesy of the high Siberian flank to the east and Himalayas to the south low pressures are infrequent. We pray for cloud cover in winter as it can raise temperatures into the sub teens.
The forecast for the coming weekend is showing us weather falling as low as -30C. Instead we are heading to China to sunbathe and bask in heady weather that promises +1C if we are lucky. Break out the t-shirts, unpack the shorts...
Mongolian of the day:- snow :: tsas

Thursday, 4 November 2010

does size matter?

Mongolia is scarily large and complicated country. It takes at least a day to travel north to south or east to west. It is a land of contrasts. The north is mountainous with forests, scary fish and lakes; the south comprises paleontologically interesting arid desert and glaciers. Things used to be a lot different. Mongolia used to be a whole lot bigger and more complex.

For centuries China and Russia have wrestled over Mongolia. Both super-nations have struggled to control the smaller nation and it's sedately savage population. After the Second World War a certain Mr Stalin decreed that Mongolia must never have an opportunity of having more than ten million inhabitants. He said were the country able to do so then Mongolia would surely take over the world; so savage and warlike did he deem its people.
After World War II Stalin took lands to the north around Lake Baikal and gave China what is now Inner Mongolia. Mongolia is still a big place with big challenges but it is not a fraction of what it used to be (size wise). But it is an amazing country with a fierce sense of identity, independence and integrity. It is a country I have come to love. I have always insisted that size really doesn't matter. It is the quality on offer that makes the difference.
Mongolian of the day:- land :: buukh

Friday, 29 October 2010

for Queen and country

Another Friday arrives in Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia that means only one thing: The Steppe Inne. The British Ambassador opens his bar each Friday between 1830 and 2100 for those he deems worthy of invitation. It is an occasion when the good and great of the City (and me) can mix, drink lots of beer, learn about one anothers cultures and customs and so forth. Once we have drunk enough ale we close up shop walk along the dusty road to Hazara and partake in a feast of North Indian cuisine. Some things are sacred. Beer and a curry on a Friday night is one of those things. Of course, we will be toasting Her Majesty et al.
Mongolian of the day:- beaver :: minge
[apologies but I found this out today and it has caused no end of mirth]

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

crossing the Gobi

The last five days have been all about crossing the remote South Gobi desert of Mongolia. Given inclement weather conditions we cheated and took a small plane for some of the way. The remainder was spent crossing rocky terrain, no tracks, in an old Soviet land rover-minibus cross (think VW camper with monster truck tyres). I have been fortunate to have crossed the Serengeti, traversed the Atlas Mountains and driven through the Empty Quarter of Oman/Yemen but none come close to the sheer enormity and remoteness of the Gobi.
Endless plains, Steppes, run into the horizon with towering mountains rising from beyond. This moonscape is an inhospitable place yet home to many nomads and a myriad of wonderful creatures. The Steppes are teeming with bactrian camels, Mongolian horses, marmottes, goats and snakes. The mountains are home to eagles, vultures, snow leopards, ibex, brown bears and many others. Two days into our adventure we came across a step in the Steppe, we referred to it as a 'Steppe change'. Here the flat Steppe changes level and red cliffs are born from the shift as the lower level continues on into infinity. Here there be monsters. It is where hardy dinosaur hunters come. Bones from many beasts have been found including the perfectly preserved skeletons of two small dinosaurs that died simultaneously during mortal combat.
There are small ger encampments spread thinly across the desert. There are also, thankfully, a few very small towns (100 inhabitants on average) where you can pick up supplies and petrol. We experienced the first snows of winter with temperatures around -20C. Given there are four months before winter proper starts I cannot imagine how people survive. The nearest hospital is days away once the snow comes. However, there is a camel festival in one of the towns in February and I am tempted to attend. The chap photographed won most of the honours with his fabulous bactrians last year. He invited us to sit with him in his ger where his wife and grand-daughter (photo) gave us some dried mare's milk based biscuits before we set off into the wild beyonds on camel led by his son...
Five days and 1,000km of desert crossing without washing, cell-phone or blackberry coverage reminds you just how good life can be.
Mongolian of the day:- my name is... :: minii ner...