Thursday, 19 August 2010

end of term report

Today is my last day of term in Ulaanbaatar. The school holidays have arrived and our cat called last night to say she was looking forward to seeing us. So what is my impression of Mongolia after my initial six weeks?
Before I left for Ulaanbaatar I had a fixed image of Mongolia. I imagined it to be a huge place with big mountains and limited urbanisation; people were attractive but unsophisticated and a little fearsome; it was freezing cold all year round; camels and horses ruled and the food was best left to rot.
I was in part correct. It is an enormous country, one of the biggest. It does have magnificent mountain ranges and deep soaring Steppes. However, in Ulaanbaatar it has a thriving and lively metropolis (about the same size as Glasgow or Bordeaux). The people are very attractive, especially the ladies though I am biased, but they are also exceedingly fashionable. Regardless of age, class or gender there is a certain panache and style about your average Mongolian that would greatly impress your average Parisian. Mongolians on the surface appear trepidous about foreigners, rightly so in many instances, but like in so many other less over-touristed destinations once a connection has been made it immediately feels strong.
It is cold, in winter. Summer is a hot and arid affair. In my six weeks I have experienced: +44C and -2C; scorching sunshine and awful storms. Horses certainly do rule, Harry is king, but the camel is an endangered being. I hope Alice and co manage to revitalise their species. As for the food, I would readily swap most of the dinners I have eaten in Europe or the Americas for the offerings given here. It is an eclectic example of eating ecstasy.
Before I came to Mongolia I was excited about the prospect. Now, as I prepare to leave her and head home for a while I am already feeling myself loking forward to being back in her vodka fuelled bosom. Between St Jean de Luz, Edinburgh and Ulaanbaatar I am truly spoiled. And so to Europe...
Mongolian of the day:- depart :: yavakh

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

the real Crazy Horse Saloon

Mongolia has its own Crazy Horse Saloon. It's a little different from the one in Paris. I prefer it; less seedy. It's outdoors and men ride right up to the bar.
Horses are everywhere in Mongolia, there are far more horses than people here. The Mongolian horse is the breed of choice. They are very different beasts from those found elsewhere. Measuring in at around 12 hands they are far shorter than their foreign cousins. They are also lighter but this does not make them weaker. On the contrary the Mongolian horse is one of the toughest beasts on the planet. They live outdoors all year round; from +40C to -40C. Closely related to the Przewalski the Mongolian horse is said to be unchanged since the time of Chinggis Khaan (Genghis to the West), and have lived on the Steppe since 2000BC, but this does not mean they are unsophisticated. Why, only yesterday I spent a lovely day with a horse called Harry and his brother Ed. They got excited when I turned up and said 'hey'.
"Just cause we's short, sir, don't mean we's weak" said Harry in a drawl that sounded like Sam Gangee. To prove his point he manfully, well horsefully, carried me far across the mountainous terrain. And I am a heavy chap. On our travels he told me a little about his family. "We has tough feet see, we don't need metal shoes like thems soft developed horses. And our tails. Our tails are special see; the manpeople use them to make violin strings. My wife, that's Edwina right, she don't like the manpeople though, they milk her and make a drink that makes them silly, they call its Airag." I had tasted the stuff, it was 'interesting' to say the least.
Harry asked me to turn off the quotes as he told me that his cousins, and many others, had been eaten by the manpeople. He doesn't like this and feels aggreived they act in this way after all the help they been given. "It was one of yous manpeople, the great Chinggis, who said it was 'easy to conquer the world from the back of a horse' and modern manpeople say that 'a Mongol without a horse is like a bird without wings'. I knows you lot does loves us though. You lot haves more songs about love for us horses than you have for your womenfolk." Strange as it may be, in Mongolia this is an accepted truth.
Mongolian of the day:- horse :: aduu

Thursday, 12 August 2010

big man Chinggis rises above the Steppe

As we drove across the Steppe today we rounded a valley corner and saw a shimmer of silver on the horizon. Driving closer the silver grew and grew and grew and grew. 30 minutes later we were standing at the foot of Chinggis Khaan. Rising out of the arid land, miles and miles from anywhere, a 131 foot tall statue of the warrior Chinggis wrapped in 250 tons of glittering steel stands proudly looking out across his empire. Walking towards the gargantuan emperor I realised that the dots at the horses feet weren't crows but people. It is the biggest, and most oddly located, statue I have ever seen. It's a little like a modern day Abu Simbel. Some hate it, I thought it was incredible.

Inside the monument a museum displays ancient metalwork from the 5th century BC. The craftsmanship is outstanding. At that time Mongolia seems to have been centuries ahead of other countries in terms of culture and skill. Mongolian armour and weapons appear to have been copied by the neighbouring Chinese as they established their empire. Chinggis was the pinnacle of Mongolian power after centuries developing an awesome arsenal. Visitors can clamber inside the horses belly and walk out of Chinggis' abdomen to a splendid view across the Steppe.

I didn't have a video but found this wee clip that puts things in perspective.

The statue is the latest Mongolian venture to rediscover Chinggis. This follows almost a century of Russian occupation during which all Mongolia specific cultural, religious and intellectual matters were spurned if not burned. Flying to Ulaanbaatar you land at the Chinggis Khaan International Airport; an enormous statue of Chinggis Khaan dominates the main Sukhbaatar Square; students study at the Chinggis Khaan University and his name is used to brand a myriad of products from vodka to hotels. Mongolian people are refinding their heritage and are exceedingly proud of their most famous father.

I wonder what Chinggis would have made of it all as he stood looking out of the window contemplating his next campaign...

Mongolian of the day:-big :: tom

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

two humps good; one hump bad in Mongolia

Today I went trekking in the mountains outside Ulaanbaatar with friends. Hiking with a difference. Rather than getting sore legs, the pain was a little higher in a rumpier zone. Today we were hanging with the Mongolian bactrians.

Alice, Billy, Bob and their friends can live happily in the adverse Steppe conditions. Their two humps, as opposed to one-humped Arabian cousins, are water carriers. Alice told me that a droopy hump means she's thirsty. She can consume 30 gallons of water in 13 minutes. Like their cousins Alice and co's nostrils close and they primp their eyelashes to keep out the sand.

Alice was a good lass. She informed me that bactrians are the only truly wild camels left. She looked forelorn as she said they were a dying breed with only some 1,000 left roaming mostly in Mongolia. She did finish on an optimistic note telling me that some of the larger commercial projects, including Oyu Tolgoi mine, are looking at ways of preserving, conserving and increasing the bactrian population. She shed a tear and we parted lifelong friends (though I doubt she'll ever write to me). She suggested a long hot bath to recover from her rocky movements.

Mongolian of the day:- camel :: temee

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

me and Ernie go for a spin

Today I went forth and met some of the wildlife that surrounds Ulaanbaatar. Of Mongolia's beasts the Steppe Eagle is one that I am particularly fond of. About 80cm tall, with a 2m wingspan and weighing in at 5kg it is a funky hunting machine. Although they mostly eat carrion they are also known for helping keep the marmotte numbers under control. The birds can be found from Romania through Mongolia.

Today I hooked up with Ernie and we went for a spin around the Steppes that surround Ulaanbaatar. After taking out a few marmottes we went back to camp, drank some airag (fermented yaks milk) and talked about the good times.

Ernie got drunk and I had to put him to bed early.

Mongolian of the day:- animal :: aimtan

Monday, 9 August 2010

driving mad in Ulaanbaatar

There are a lot of cars in Ulaanbaatar. This is a new thing. Ten years ago herds of horses were driven through the centre of the city. Now obscene Hummers, ridiculous Mitsubishis and other assorted calamitous vehicles choke the roads. It can take an hour to travel 5km. Some cars are left hand drive, others right. This is Mongolia, there are few rules. Mongolians are proud as punch of their cars. Despite the dust they are washed in the river and polished with frightening regularity so that they look dandy on the roads. 'Roads' is an overstatement. Driving more than 100m without swerving to avoid a moonscaped crater is a luxury. Most 'roads' alternate between shattered one-track concrete and rocky dust. This has as much to do with the extreme weather that fluctuates over 80C during the year as it has to do with infrastructure that offers great opportunity.

Driving is a relatively new phenomenon too. As horses are traded for 4x4s the average driver does little to change their transportation strategy. Space is sought out and taken despite the danger. Being first is all-important. This photo is a narrow one lane road. I am sitting in the middle. I was watching the car in front to the right as it stradled the pavement. Normal enough for these parts until the No.6 bus came hurtling down the centre of the pavement. Passengers laughed; pedestrians scattered; we just got out of the way.

Mongolian of the day:- peace :: enh taivan

Friday, 6 August 2010

take me to the river

For a moment this afternoon the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar were moved from Mongolia to the Deep South circa 1938. The sun shone high in the sky; birds sang blissfully as they flew up-river; children played gleefully in the Tuul River as their mothers watched on from bankside picnics; men passed by on horseback singing in harmony, tipping their hats whenever they encountered a lady. I sank into the river and let the coolness soak away my worries. I communicated freely with other bathers; no words were exchanged but we understood each other well enough. There were no cars, no mechanical sounds, no email, no cell-phones, just time to watch the sky and trail your feet in the river. The only thing missing was abject racism and we were all happy about it. There's no way he even received an invite. His invite was sent to harmony instead, she's far prettier. As Keats once said 'a thing of beauty is a joy forever'.
Mongolian of the day:- cool :: seruun

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Chinggis Khaan, the original Mr LoverMan

When Chinggis Khaan (aka Genghis Khan, aka Mr Funky-If-Angry-Love-Stuff) set out from near Ulaanbaatar c1200 with his Mongol hordes he had two agendas. His PR people in Mongolia espoused his fond desire to establish history's biggest ever empire; stretching from the Pacific to the Med; embracing and uniting all religions. What Mr Khaan didn't tell his advisors was that all he really wanted to do was bed as many women as possible before he dropped dead. This man had hot pants.

Besides being the most formiable warrior the world has ever known Chinggis was a shrewd politican, canny diplomat and had a keen eye for the ladies. Soon into his campaign the internet was full of stories that he killed his foes before bedding their wives and daughters. There seems to have been some truth to this. His empire covered almost half the world and he is alleged to have slept with many many thousands of women. His seed travelled far and wide. A genealogical study in 2003 suggests that there are over 16m men walking the planet who are directly related to Chinggis and his wandering trousers. Chances are we can each identify a Chinggis gene candidate from amongst our friends.

Mongolian of the day:- perspire :: khols tsutgakh

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

street kids in Ulaanbaatar

The population of Ulaanbaatar has increased dramatically in recent years as winters get harsher forcing erstwhile nomadic people to fix roots. There is a proliferation of ger camps on the outskirts of town. Mongolia is an emerging economy; many families in the camps have little to live on. Drug and alcohol abuse are prevalent in the camps. Many children are born unwanted or simply become undesirable as they get older. Others lose their parents. Others simply run away. There has been a mounting number of homeless children. A solution is being developed by an unlikely source.

The Metropolitan Police of Mongolia have bought a large house on the outskirts of the city. The house is for the exclusive use of orphaned street kids. A middle-aged doctor has given up her livelihood to focus on acting as matron to the forty or so children. The children are free to come and go as they please. Mostly, they seem to stay. The eldest child is 16, the youngest is 3. The house offers protection and a chance; no matter how small. These children have had it harder than any others I have come across. Poverty would be a luxury for some of them.

Set over three storeys the property contains two large dormitories; one for boys, one for girls. It has a large kitchen and dining area. The rest of the house is dominated by music and craft rooms. This may seem odd but the matron, assisted by local musicians, offers the children a chance to learn a musical instrument, sing in a choir, learn a craft or simply appreciate. I was privileged to be invited to this wonderful home for a day alongside the International Women's Association of Mongolia (IWAM), a charitable organisation, run by the delightfully energetic Mo, that is currently helping provide for the children.

When I arrived some of the older boys were hanging around outside looking far older and tougher than their ages warranted. I greeted them and went inside. They mostly ignored me. Inside I was given a tour of the home and several of the children played traditional Mongolian music or sang folk songs. There was some real talent amongst them. The ladies and I then offered to teach the children art, beadwork, juggling and writing.

I was on juggling duty together with the only other chap there. We had several sets of juggling bags with us for the children. After playing with some of the smaller kids one of the tough-guys from the front door came into the room. He was clearly keen to learn but was too cool for school. We eventually coaxed him to join us. Seeing the lad juggle killed me. As the bags flew from hand to hand years of solitude and harshness disappeared, if only for a while; a broad smile spread and relaxed across his tense face. He took the bags and disappeared to practice on his own; he laughed enthusiastically as he left the room. The other boys looked on astonished, this kid was not known for being happy. As we were leaving he hugged me and promised to learn five new tricks for my next visit. He didn't know if I was coming back, after meeting him and his friends it's impossible not to.

Mongolian of the day:- children :: khuukhed

Monday, 2 August 2010

real life dinosaurs and big open spaces near Ulaanbaatar

This weekend we ventured forth out of Ulaanbaatar into the Terelj National Park. It is an enormous space some 50km northeast of the capital and a popular destination for the city's residents. As we drove north we passed groups of locals lining the bedraggled road selling freshly picked wild strawberres, delicious; one jar for 50 pence. The valley gets wider the further from town you get. Massive boulders line its edge. It is as if you are in the set of a western starring John Wayne. Yaks, goats and horses mingle along the valley floor. Lush forests disappear up the hillsides. The space feels as wide as it seems long. High on the hill tops, tied to large branches, blue ribbons stream in the air. They are blessings for spiritual grounds and await the visit of passing Shamen. I spent an hour with one Shaman. He was very serious and mumbled a lot. I wish I could have understood what he was saying. There was much incense and giving of offerings. He kept banging a drum though and what Mongolian I know evaded me. I kept thinking about Ebenezer Goode. Next time.

Rounding one particularly enormous rock, fondly known as Turtle Rock, we came across a herd we hadn't expected. Some twenty life-sized dinosaurs stood idling away the hours in glorious concrete. Quite a shock. Thirty kilometres further north, as the road gave way to mud we found our haven for the weekend, the Terelj Hotel. The only hotel in Mongolia to feature in the Small Luxury Hotels guide. The clientele reminded us of Mumbai. Very fashionable and conversing freely in English smattered with the odd word in Mongolian. A super lush haunt if you find yourself in these parts.

Mongolian of the day:- thank you :: bayarlalaa