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