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...

Friday, 22 October 2010

desert rat

Today may be my last ever blog post. In about an hour I am setting out across the mountains and on into the Gobi Desert. We will be travelling for around five days on a return trip to the furthest reaches of Mongolia via Dalandzadgad and the Three Camels Lodge. It is a fierce environment. The 1,000km round trip has roads for about 100km, the rest is rocky terrain with barely a track to follow. GPS is crucial. We will be sleeping in gers, making some of the journey by camel, staying with nomads and hopefully having a fabulous experience. Journeys like this in Mongolia are unique. It is imperative to take sleeping bags and enough food to last several days. If the vehicle breaks down we could be stranded for days before anyone is able to get to us. With temperatures plummeting to -20C and heavy snow forecast this should be fun!
Mongolian of the day:- good luck :: amjilt husey

Thursday, 21 October 2010

a big red surprise

No entries for a week, 'interesting' web access in China... I arrived in Beijing last week not knowing what to expect. I left this morning with a great feeling of warmth for the city. I know it has the worst human rights record on the planet, I know that its 'die-hard Communism whilst wholly embracing Capitalism' brand of politics is slightly hypocritical and I know that the Cultural Revolution destroyed most of its charm but still I found the capital an awesome and heartwarming place.

Staying on the 66th floor of the Park Hyatt, an enormously fabulous hotel and great cure for vertigo, I was able to watch the city by day and night. To the east Tiananmen Square (an unremarkable place if it were not for its historic poignancy) and the Forbidden City (more impressive than any literature can do justice). To the north SoHo and a myriad of fabulous roast duck restaurants and ridiculously over the top and expensive haute couture magasins. To the west the financial district with its constant money-making (and currency fixing). To the south the Temple of Heaven and a thousand mature patrons enjoying tai chi at 0600. A mammoth assault on the senses.

Escaping the some 20 million inhabitants for a couple of days we headed north to the Commune by the Great Wall. It is a wonderfully set place. Not so much a hotel as a retro-chic community of interesting modernist architecture. More importantly it offers access to a remote section of the Great Wall of China that is little explored. This offered us the joy of a lengthy trek without meeing another soul. We only walked some 6km but given the sheer drops and vertical rises it felt a lot further. How anyone managed to defend this wall is beyond me... oh, yeah, they didn't. When it's defence was tested it failed... As Chinggis said of the Great Wall: "a wall is only as effective as the people that guard it." Allegedly over one million workers died building the wall, the guide books don't tell you that (or that Chinggis & Co broke straight through it).

Beijing is simply captivating. The city is a long way from it overbearing politically motivated reputation. It is an overly fashionable, crazily rich, strikingly poor, startlingly evocative, remotely intimidating, heart warmingly social, scandalously bipolar metropolis. If Bladerunner was to be built from scratch then Beijing 2010 is that urban sprawl. My appetite is whet...

Chinese of the day:- hello :: nin hao

Friday, 15 October 2010

secret liaison in Beijing

Shh, don't tell anyone but we are sneaking off to Beijing this weekend. As I write we are preparing to flit by moonlight. The reason for being covert? There is serious history between Mongolia and China. Ever since the Chinese overthrew the Mongolian empire and held control for several hundred years the Mongolians have resented them and vice versa (Chinggis & Co had trashed the previously unbeatable Chinese empire). The Russians may have kicked the Chinese out in the 1920's and subsequently killed some 25% of the Mongolian population whilst razing all important buildings to the ground but they are revered. They kicked the Chinese out. The feeling remains strong today. Stories abound in Ulaanbaatar about the Chinese being a sick race riddled with worms, about shoddy Chinese goods that will fall apart as soon as you touch them. A Mongolian friend who studied for his PhD in the US caught me reading a guidebook on Beijing earlier this week, he hasn't spoken to me since. Similarly the Chinese detest a country they view as their poor neighbour suddenly having the fastest growth economy in Asia. Particularly given the growth has resulted from the myriad of gold, copper and coal mines that are dotted along the Mongolia-China border on the side that favours Chinggis' descendents. How he must be smirking...

Mongolian of the day:- how are you? :: yu baina ve?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

proverbial ladder

I spent today riding out across the Mongolian Steppe. It was gloriously cold with snow on the higher ground. The Steppe is one of the few places where absolute silence exists. The senses are turned upside down. There is nothing to hear other than your own heartbeat. You can see for a hundred miles. The aroma of mountain herbs fills your nostrils. You can taste the excitment in your horses mind.

If a setting in this strange and wonderful country typifies itself then it is surely atop a horse riding across the mountains that fringe the Steppe.

My preferred Mongolian proverbs (part one):

1. a tiger wearing a bell will starve

2. a cat that likes to eat fresh fish will not go into the water

3. the distance between heaven and earth is no greater than one thought

4. it is easier to catch an escaped horse than take back an escaped word

5. if you drink the water, follow the custom

Mongolian of the day:- my name is... :: minii ner...

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

orphans in Mongolia

Sometimes you find yourself doing something that really makes you realise that you haven't been born yet. We might stress about interest rates hikes, job security, the environment, the size of our bum or our weight. There are others who would give their teeth to have these concerns rather than those they've been dealt. While Mongolia is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet it is also broken in places. No more so is this evident than amongst the vast population of orphans. Every third child in Mongolia lives in poverty. These kids have nothing.
No accurate statistics exist but it is reported there are far more orphans here than in most other countries, particularly those in the west. Many of the orphans live on the streets. Summers are spent scratching a living from passers by. Winters are spent fighting off death. Although far fewer than in years gone by there are still many children who spend winter living below the streets alongside the hot water pipes in the sewers (horrifically this has spawned a sycophantic trade in poverty tourism).
In recent years several privately operated orphanages have sprung up to augment the state facilities. These are not 'privately operated' like the public schools in the UK. They are mostly run by an incredible individual who is willing to dedicate their life to helping give these Mongolian kids the best chance available. They truly need it. Those who are able to find themselves in the orphanages are the lucky few, there are many more who remain on the streets often abused or in fear of their lives. I heard about a mother whose two year old daughter had double pneumonia and TB. She took her to a hospital for help. The state funded the girls recovery. The mother responded by taking her drugs and kicking the infant into the street. Six months later the mother wanted the child back from the orphanage. Six months after that the child returned. The spiral continued downwards until the child died. The mother is pregnant again.
I have been privileged to visit and help at a couple of the orphanages. Today I met some incredible youngsters. Under the guidance of a wonderful nun (think Blues Brothers) a real sense of community has been created that harbours, nurtures and cares for each and every child. The sister receives very little official investment but is brilliant at getting others to donate clothing, food and some money. She is also becoming my mentor for the remainder of my time in Mongolia. From next week I will be doing my best to help and learn from these amazing wee individuals and the wonderful human being who watches over them. Please note, I will also be looking for help from abroad...
Mongolian of the day:- you're welcome :: zugeer

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

I am awake - Buddhism in Mongolia

The dominant religion in Mongolia is Buddhism. The oldest may be Shamanism but since the 16th century, and the intervention of Altan Khan, Buddhism has dominated. In 1578 Altan invited the leading Tibetan monk to Mongolia. He formed an alliance with the monk that sanctioned Altan's might (Altan had serious military intentions) in return Altan named the Tibetan leader Dalai Lama, a name that continues today.

Tibetan Buddhism, which is still practiced extensively today in Mongolia, become the driving religious force. It was backed by the ambitious Altan and his wealthy family. It succeeded in forcibly driving Shamanism to the fringes of society and the monks took over the traditional Shaman roles as healers and diviners. Buddhism has not always been as peaceful as one might imagine. This tale certainly has overtures of current select Catholic or Islamic doctrine.

There are many Buddhist temples throughout Mongolia but few as large, presitgious or impressive as Gandan Khiid Monastery in Ulaanbaatar (see earlier post on Richard Gere).

It is a truly magnificent and tranquil spot where the hubub and din of the surrounding city are completely forgotten. The monks are quite a spectacle. People come here from all over simply to sit, relax and appreciate life. There should be locations like this in every city. It is the perfect place to contemplate enlightenment, even if you don't find it this time...

Mongolian of the day:- peace :: enx tajva

Monday, 11 October 2010

riding out across the Steppe

This weekend was all about horses in Mongolia. Together with a group of friends we drove into the mountains an hour south of Ulaanbaatar. Approaching a huddled camp of gers sheltering beneath the snow line our Land Rover's just about made it. We were met by a family of Mongolian nomads that have been working with horses for generations. Keen as we were to get going we were ushered into the family ger and given local tea to warm us up as we sat by the fire. I could quite happily have curled up and read a book but we had more physically challenging endeavours ahead.
Normally when I go riding I ask for a horse that is as close to a sofa as possible: large, comfortable and unlikely to move at any real speed. This time I felt braver and let the fates hand me dealer's choice. What a lovely livewire I received. Boy did he test my galloping skills.
Horses don't have names in Mongolia. There are too many of them (27 per capita) and also they think it's a bit silly. I guess one might be less inclines to eat something one had named and cared for. Talking of which I heard a great piece of Chinggis gossip. To sustain themselves while they crossed Asia into Europe the Mongol warriors survived on the blood of their horses. They would make a nick in the horses neck and suck vitality from it. I love Mongols even more now that they are also vampires...
Heading across the mountains at some 2,500 metres above sea level it really felt as though we were on the roof of the world. The mountains swept down away from us to the Steppe. The Steppe is some 60 miles wide to the mountains that rise into distant clouds. Mongolian horses are uncannily sure-footed. They are also not going to be told what to do by any mere mortal. Fortunately what the horses do want to do is usually in tandem with our wishes, hence Chinggis so easily conquered the known world. They are far shorter though infinitely more handsome and harder than their European cousins.
After two hours we were all a little frozen, it was -7C. We headed back to the gers where our hostess had prepared a lovely broth of mutton and noodles. A grand day out...
Mongolian of the day:- horse :: aduu

Thursday, 7 October 2010

funky signposts in Ulaanbaatar

Over the past week or two as I have been running my shopping errands I have noticed a few fabulous signs around Ulaanbaatar. Not only are there many exquisitely named commercial outlets (Bad Hair, Cozy Meat, Best Camel etc.) many of the products they offer are tremendously named.

My top three in no particular order:

1. This has to be the craziest sign I have ever come across. Imagine my surprise as I entered the chamber of solace only to discover that people are warned not to climb upon the throne to defecate; I left feeling rather unclean.

2. For those of us in need of a little assistance (though I did think having Disney characters in the window was a tad sick). This shop offers something for the ladies. For those of us menfolk who need a little help getting (it) up in the morning they even offer some fine products to assist. Obviously this does not apply to myself or any of the menfolk I have the pleasure of calling friends.

3. Perhaps the most obvious piece of signposting. It is a theory long voiced by those fairer amongst us but until now I had never actually seen a sign that rammed masculine intelligence levels home so robustly.

I will keep my eyes open for others...

Mongolian of the day:- life :: ami

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

the land of blue sky

Mongolia has on average over 250 days of clear sunshine each year. For a chap from Scotland that is mighty impressive. Rightly so. The sky here is bigger than anything I've come across in Africa and bluer than any sky I've seen in the Americas. Mongolia also has two clear seasons: hot and cold. Summer starts around the end of April and ends about now. Winter fills in the rest. However, in between there is about a week or so when things change suddenly.

The green forests that line the mountains have overnight turned firey orange and yellow. The gushing Tuul River has been reduced to a relative trickle (it freezes for most of winter). The days are generally warm around +19C although the nights drop to -10C.

The animals are unsure what to do. There are a lot of wild dogs amongst the yaks, horses and goats. They are less used to the extremeties than their fellow animals. As such mothers and puppies desperately seek out some form of shelter to protect against the coming chill. Not much survives at -40C. More importantly, with such wildly changing temperatures, it is really difficult to know what to wear.

Mongolian of the day:- welcome :: tavtai morilogtun

Monday, 4 October 2010

run to the hills

The snow has gone from Ulaanbaatar and temperatures have crept back up a tad so I am taking advantage and heading outdoors as often as possible. This morning I went into the hills near my apartment on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. I was in search of a shamen shrine I had noticed the last time I was on the hills.

The hills here are all roughly the same height at 700m which takes me safely over 2,000m above sea level. The hills are all also exceedingly steep. Medical practitioners may say otherwise but phsical exertion at this altitude does have an impact on breathing. I can usually manage simple things like getting up a wee hill with no problem; this morning I saw stars and had to rest with ridiculous frequency. I got to the top though.

From there the view spreads across the Steppe encompassing the whole of Ulaanbaatar. To the east the valley winds up towards Terelj, to the west the Steppe widens into the horizon. Traversing the hillside I finally found the shrine I had been seeking. It was busy for a Monday morning, not only were there various shamen, a few random cows were wondering what all the fuss was about.

There were three different shamen plying their wares today. It was a little like Shamen Factor or Shaman's Got Talent. Each was trying to outdo the other. Banging drums louder, clashing cymbals with more gusto, chanting more erratically, swaying more pendulously. It was quite an event. I am now raring to get my own shaman rendezvous arranged. I like gravity; the walk home downhill is always easier.

Mongolian of the day:- blue :: nomin

Friday, 1 October 2010

snowstorm in Ulaanbaatar

Overnight Mongolia saw its first significant snow of the season. I think it was premeditated; too convenient to have snow start at 00:00 on the first of the month. I awoke far earlier than normal. Living outside the city there is absolutely no light pollution. I usually wake up as the sun rises. This morning the moon reflecting on snow woke me two hours earlier at 0500. I wasn't disappointed.
Being as mature as I am I immediately threw on some warm clothes and ran up a nearby hill to savour the magic. I was utterly alone. The only sign of life was a herd of local horses that was slowly making its way along the ridge. Silence muffled all sound. There was no wind and the cold (-9C) gently crisped my face. I have watched a landscape I have come to love turn from green in August to brown over recent weeks, it has changed once more. Moments like this are all too rare. I am riding this afternoon and it promises to be a treat although this is only the start of what looks like being my first real winter.
Mongolian of the day:- snowstorm :: shine utga oruulah