Monday, July 30, 2012

"Shon, do you like ball sac?"

"...excuse me?"
"do you like balsak?"
"Oh, yes, Damday (Tasty)!"
The Balsaks are the deep-fried puffed-up pastries all over the place


Language is an interesting thing, and something I've been thinking a lot about over the past 12 days in Kazakh territory, near the "town" of Dayan, where very few people speak Mongolian, much less Russian, MUCH less English. I realized that learning a manageable amount of French and a smattering of Spanish was relatively easy, given the amount of cognates they have with English. Mongolian, Russian, Kazakh and Mandarin, however, have proven to be much more difficult. The fun part, though, is that the false cognates are often more interesting than the correct ones, as evidenced above.

As you know, I've been living with a Kazakh nomadic family for the past week and a half. I knew going out there that I didn't know any Kazakh and that they were unlikely to know any English, but that my Mongolian and Russian phrasebooks might help. What I found once the driver left me facing 11 long days with this family was that their command of any language other than Kazakh was comparable to mine of Kazakh: not really existent. This would be fun.

Before I left Ulgii, I got a few phrases from Alistair, the Scot who was helping me get things sorted. These all turned out to be almost useless, but I was able to scribble a few more in my pocket notebook before my driver left, as he spoke a few words of English. In the end, my entire source of communication with my hosts and their friends was left to memorizing a few pages of my notebook and adding a few in from time to time, as I pointed to them. This resulted in a long list of nouns, unfortunately.

As I mentioned before, the fun part was trying to remember them. I did this by trying to find things to associate them with, as with "balsak" above. I'll let you figure out the association I made there.

Some were easy:

Johk - No (you've got to be johk-ing)
Chai - Tea (easy enough)
Eet - Dog (Don't eet dogs)
Seerh - Cow (Steer w/o the T)

Some got a little more interesting:
Cheel - Wind (it makes you cheely!)
Jaman - Bad (don't be jaman, mon)
ustuck - Hot (u-stuck to your self, you're so sweaty)

And some started getting deeper into the depths of my imagination:
Toidom - Full (people may starve in a Kingdom, but everyone's full in a toy-dom!...)
Keshya - Yesterday (Ke$ha is SO yesterday)

Unfortunately, all of these were written down based on how they sounded when one person told me, so when I tried to use the same word with someone else, often it wasn't understood. This happened with "Goodbye" (Sau'bol), which I first heard as "soo'gol", which seems to be some sort of profanity in Kazakh, judging by the response I got from the people I said it to...


So communication with my human hosts was a challenge, for sure, but it usually just resulted in either laughing at me or a few moments of awkward staring and hand motions before the Kazakhs returned to whatever they were doing and I returned to sitting quietly and observing.

Communication with my animal hosts was quite different. Being nomadic herders, there were lots of animals around. The most plentiful were the sheep and goats (305 and 186, respectively. I know 'cause we counted them. Twice. Wait, make that 303 and 184. We ate a few.), 
Kunti trying her hand at milking the sheep

Kunti helping her dad, Yeltai, with some good ol' family goat skinning

the largest were the cows and yaks, and the most versatile were the horses (milk, meat AND transportation!)

I learned quickly that I'm not a natural horse rider. Or maybe it's just the wee Mongolian horses that don't fit my gangly self. Either way, I found that horses are uncomfortable.
My noble steed and I

 I've only ridden a horse once before. I was a child at the beach, maybe Ocean Shores, and all I remember was sitting on top, loping along the grey sand on a windy cloudy day and thinking, "This is kinda cool, but kinda boring, and I bet it's more fun if you have your own horse and you're allowed to gallop and stuff!" Here in Dayan, I had my chance. I had a horse, my hosts seemed to assume that I knew what to do with it, so let me ride freely, all should be good.

Wrong. It turns out my horse had three speeds: (1) annoyingly slow walk, (2) painfully bouncy trot, and (3) frighteningly fast gallop. Oh yeah, and there was also (0) abrupt stop, which happened often when we tried to cross streams. All of this would have been OK, except that my hosts apparently had horses who were willing to add in speed (1.5) moderately fast walk, combining the speed of the trot with the comfort of the walk. The ideal horse pace, in my mind.

Baibolat in speed (1.5) uphill

Since my horse didn't seem willing or able to perform speed (1.5), I alternated between speeds (1) and (2) until my horse got frustrated and jumped to (3) briefly, until I panicked and yanked back on the reins, bringing us quickly to speed (0). By the fourth day of horse riding, I told my hosts that I'd rather walk.

He found another speed

In addition to all of those creatures, there was the most useless animal of all: the dogs. I really don't know why they have dogs. There were three of them, and they just lazed around all day, eatings scraps and barking at anything that moved. Maybe they helped with wolves, I'm not sure. What I do know is that my Kazakh hosts never seemed to touch them or even really interact with them, other than to throw them a few scraps of meat or a bucket of goats blood to them.

Since I didn't know their Kazakh names, if they even had them, I gave them my own. Well, I gave two of them my own. One was kept chained to a post about 100yds away from the gers while the other two were let to run free. I never found out why. The other two were of very different dog-alities, though. One was Leo, a big, furry, blind, lazy lion-like lump of a dog; and the other (pictured below with the horse), was a dirty dreaded sheepdog I named Jack, after Cap'n Sparrow.

Jack and my horse in the rain. Chulpan in the background bringing water back from the lake


 And the dogs weren't the dirtiest part. They had to compete with Baka

Baka, with food crumbs, pee stain and all.
Baka is a 1 1/2 year old little Kazakh child that would make any western mother neurotic. His playground is lined not with rubber crumbs or woodchips, but with manure. His diapers are just pants, or not. His food is whatever he gets his mouth on and his bathing is occasional (although more often than the rest of the family. I watched him take one piece of cheese, slimy from his sucking on it, drop it on the pasture, pick it up by stabbing it with the pen he was holding in his other hand, then put it (and the dirt that came with it) back into his mouth like a lollypop. Another time, he was running around bottomless at the end of the day (as you do), he grabbed another piece of cheese, sucked on it, reached down and pressed it to his uncovered crotch, then brought it back up to his mouth (leaving a few crumbs down below, for good measure) and continued to suck.

This kid will never have allergies. That, or he won't see year 3. He has three strong, healthy older siblings, though, so apparently this style of parenting works. Maybe we should take notes?

My hosts, from left to right: (Back row) Kuliash, Altan, Baibolat, Me, Yeltai, Apa, my driver's girlfriend (not a host), Gulin, Chulpan, (front row - kids): Kunti, Chuah, Domolai and Khulin

Above is the rest of the family, and my hosts for the time I was there. There were three gers, owned each by Apa and her two sons, Baibolat and Yeltai. Each ger had two beds and the family was spread between them with me and maybe Bokash on the floor


While Baka and the dogs were eating anything, the rest of the humans were on a strict diet of meat, dairy and fat. In fact, here's what I came up with as an average Kazakh food pyramid:

I probably drank on average, a dozen cups of milk-based drink every day (tea or koumiss, fermented mare's milk). That's about a gallon and a half. Every time tea was served, it came with platters of cheeses (either super strong and rock-hard or soft and tasteless, all a mixture of cow, sheep and goat milk) and balsak, or the occasional other bread product. Look at the first picture for an example of a tea spread. That one's a bit fancier than most because it was at a party.

Meals were always meat-based, with some bready product included. This tended to be steamed or boiled noodles, slimy with the grease from the meat.

A fish feast after our first fishing trip

Sheep's head and other bits

The ear is surprisingly tasty

Another sheep's head with Bis Barmak underneath - a onion and oil-filled rolled pastry

Most of a goat

Preparing the goat's head (and hooves). It was then roasted in the stove (upper left)

bits of cooked guts and a sausage-like thing, filled with liver and other unknown pieces
The food was wonderful. At first. Then I realized that eating only Dairy, meat and fat for a long period of time also means that you don't poop for a long period of time. Not only that, but when you do, you wish you didn't. My overstuffed first aid kit had a plethora of medical options for uncontrollable pooping, but pepto-bismol and loperamide and antibiotics won't do much for the opposite.

I resorted to trying to find as much fiber as I could. Any trace of vegetable that ended up in our food (a few onions and potatoes), I ate. I dug out the few lara bars that I brought from home and rationed them out over the week. I pulled out the three packets of "Ye ye" instant coffee that I nabbed from the train two weeks earlier. Anything to get regular.

By the end of my time there, my mind was able to focus on the other experiences before me, and pooping again returned somewhere further back in my mind.

A day in the life

Speaking of those other experiences, now's about time to talk about what I actually did out there.

Each day started around 6:30am for Altan, the mother in my ger who would get up, start the fire and make tea. Baibolat, her husband, and I would get up around 7-7:30 to have tea with her, and the kids would roll out of bed around 8ish. At that point, we'd go out, gather the cows, and the women would milk them for the first time of the day while the men sat and watched.

Most of them, one guy would then take the sheep and go off to play shepherd for the day, an activity that I got to join on one occasion

The rough life of a khooichh (shepherd)

Around 10 or so, we'd have our second tea time of the day, then the days activities would begin. For the women, this was cleaning and making milk products, for the men, it was many things. Among them were:

Riding motorcycles:
Bokash's moto. I even got to ride it!

Yeltai fishing

Yeltai and friend showing off part of their catch

Bokash, Chuah and Kunti cleaning the fish
 Riding up mountains to find eagles' nests:
My  horse on top of a mountain

Going to parties:
An average Kazakh party
 Drying out poop for fuel:

Bokash flattening poop for drying
 Washing sheep:
This is the way we wash the sheep

I even got to help out
 Shearing sheep:
Baibolat shearing

The tool
 Wrestling each other:
Wrastlin' (I won 4/5 of my matches)

Trying on traditional Kazakh clothing:

A proud Baibolat
 Dismantling the ger for repairs:

The whole process only took about 3hrs

Or just sitting around.

Around 3pm or so, it was time to milk the sheep and goats (see Kunti above), another task performed by the women, once the men helped to herd them together and tie them up. Then it was time for more tea. Around 5 or 6 was a possible meal time, then time for horse milking, then time for more hanging out, drinking tea and possibly eating. At about 9pm it was time to herd the sheep into their little pen and tie up the cows for the night, then one last tea before bed and starting it all over again.

That was about the routine for the time I was out there. I filled a lot of the downtime with reflection, trying to learn Kazakh, wandering around and reading. One morning I even got up early for the sunrise:
good morning

In the end, it was a pretty awesome experience. It'll take a bit of adjustment to get back to city life...


My driver, Keta, was supposed to arrive on the 28th and we would leave on the 29th. By sundown on the 28th, I was already planning how I would either begin my life with the Kazakhs or start to walk back to Ulgii. I figured it'd take me 5 days or so.

Over the night, I started feeling ill. An illness that felt frighteningly like my Periodic Pooping Disease (PPD) of Nepal. Fortunately, it turned out to be entierly in the upper end of the digestive tract. In the morning, I could barely eat, and what I did I threw up (which was immediately devoured, in turn, by Leo. Proof that nothing goes to waste out here). So I was left ill and potentially trapped many miles from the nearest airport, much less hospital.

Then, Keta arrived. It was the morning of the 29th. He said we'd leave around 1pm, which was of course later (Mongolia time), followed by a hellish 7hr jeep ride (like the bus ride, but now with nausea and severe headache.) punctuated by three tea stops and a "oops, we ran out of gas" stop. This last one was actually wonderful, because it gave me a chance to nap in the still vehicle while Keta went for more fuel.

Keta (right, at a distance) goes for fuel

In the end, we arrived in Ulgii and I found myself a bed in my very own Ger. I'm planning to spend the next couple of days lazing around Ulgii to recharge and figure out where to go next.

The mosque in Ulgii

A government building with busts of Lenin (left) and Sukhbaatar (Right). Behind me was a red star on a pedestal. The soviets aren't long gone out here.

 Alright, so that's the last week and a half on my end. It's a bit long, but after that much time culturally alone, it's a bit cathartic to write about it. I'm sure you won't mind. Or,  you'll just not read this far :)

Unfortunately I left my other memory card at my guesthouse, so I only have the pictures from the second half of my experience, but maybe I'll get some more up in coming days. Until next time!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Truly nomadic

 A quick update before I take off...

After Tilek took very good care of me in Khovd, including a home-cooked meal, some new friends and tons of instant coffee, I arrived safely in Olgii. It's about a 7hr drive, in a russian minibusvan. I'd heard these were pretty packed and uncomfortable, but mine actually only had the same number of people as seats, and I had about twice the legroom as the day before, so I was quite happy.

In Olgii, I was met by a Scot named Alistair who is working with Bek, my contact in the area. Bek's out of town currently, but Alistair and Beks family put me up for the night and explained the next step in the journey: I'll be leaving today to about 200k west, deeper into the wilds of Mongolia. There, my driver will drop me off and I'll stay with a nomadic Kazakh family for the next 10 days to two weeks (I still haven't decided...). Needless to say, I will not have internet for the next couple of weeks, so don't plan on updates. If you're curious, imagine me eating a goats head, riding a horse, or playing charades to try to explain to my hosts that really, I'm quite full, and I don't need that last hunk of sheep fat. You should have it. Thank you, though.

A quick note about Kazakhs: Apparently this part of the world is where Kazakh culture has been most preserved. I'll actually be hearing a more pure version of the language and seeing a more pure version of the original culture than I will when I visit Kazakhstan itself. Unfortunately, my fledgling Mongolian skills may not be helpful, although my even more fledgling Russian may be...

Miss you all, I'm looking forward to reading some updates when I get back!!!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Автобус Ховд руу

Imagine a mechanical bull. That's right, the kind they have at those rodeo-themed bars. Ok, now imagine that you're sitting on that mechanical bull. Now, imagine that you're sitting on that mechanical bull in a closet. Now make that closet about half the size that you were just imagining. Maybe a little smaller. It's not just any closet, but more like Mrs. Trunchbull's "chokey" from Roald Dahl's Matilda. You know, with the sharp bits of metal sticking out of the walls so you can't lean against them. Ok, got it? Now, it's not just you on this bull.  It's you and your new friend, Sanjay, sitting sidesaddle. In the closet. Well, maybe it's more of a cubicle. You  can see over the walls a little bit. Now imagine that you take another 20 cubicles just like the one that you and Sanjay are in and pack them into a room of about 200 sq ft. Now put that room filled with all 43 of you on wheels. Now turn on all of those mechanical bulls. Now try to sleep. Welcome to the last couple of days of my life.

Oh yeah, and add in a puking kid, a couple of plastered old timers and three flat tires.

When I first got on the bus, I realized immediately that I would be in the back row. Seat 32, not a good sign. The back is where you want to be when you're 13 and riding the bus to junior high for maybe 20 minutes a day. The bumps are bigger, it's more fun. When you're an adult looking at a 48-hr ride, bigger bumps are not what you're going for.

Oh well, I figure, at least I'm not in the broken seat in the corner (I wish this computer would let me upload photos...) The driver assures me that I'm in the seat next to it. As people pile on, I realize that it will be the white guy's duty to be in the worst seat on the bus, obviously. Remember that mechanical bull? Maybe loosen the saddle a bit so it slides around on you.

We head out of UB on paved roads and it's not so bad. I begin to think to myself "hey, is this the worst it can get? No worries!" Wrong. Pavement soon gives way to patchy pavement, then sometimes it's more like a forest service road, graded and gravel. Sometimes more like your average beach access road, a bit sandy and rutted, but it's there. Then sometimes it's more like your average ATV track, or maybe portage trail. And remember, each of those bumps is at least twice as big in the back seat. Sometimes the road is a river crossing, sometimes it's driving through a field. Oh yeah, and sometimes the road just isn't.

All in all, though, it was surprisingly bearable. It helped that Sanjay and the other Mongolians were clearly as uncomfortable as I was. It turns out there isn't some gene that makes you immune to discomfort, just a general ability and willingness to subject yourself to more of it if necessary. You find ways to get "comfortable" I have a great photo of Sanjay and I cuddling for y'all when I get to a better computer.

40+ hours... that's a long time. Around hour 25 I thought to myself: "hey, almost there!" I immediately had flashbacks to running the Seattle marathon in 2003 with my friend John. At mile 18 I tried to encourage him by saying, "look, John, mile 18! We're almost there!" Thinking that since we were over 2/3 the way, we were almost there. "F*** you, Shawn. We have 8 miles left to run. We are NOT almost there!" Yes. 25 hours was not quite "almost there"

But it was more "almost there" than I thought. I had been told 44hrs by the bus driver in UB, so I was planning on arriving here in Khovd at around  8am with time to settle in, find a place to stay and find out how to get to Olgii. Unfortunately, (or fortunately), the bus was about 9 hours early, somehow. We pulled into Khovd at 11:15pm. In the dark. Everyone else said goodbye and left.

I started walking north. My plan was to camp out of town, anyway, might as well do that instead of try to find a hotel. Then so many of your voices passed through my head and I decided,  "you know, maybe  walking around the outskirts of a strange town at midnight with obvious tourist luggage is a bad idea..." So I forked up the $15 for the closest hotel and passed out for the night. I was comforted by the proximity to the police station, right across the street from the bus stop and less than a block from my hotel.

This morning I got up and walked past that same police station. One of the cops was swatting at spiders with his baton while one of the others was threatening his comrade with a live taser. At least I had the illusion of safety last night...

The plan:
A man named Tilek just stopped by and introduced himself. He's the only one I've met in Khovd who speaks English. He says he works for the WWF across the street (where I had just asked for directions) protecting wild horses. He also says he can show me how to get to the market and to the bus stop to get a bus for Olgii. Hopefully he's as helpful as he looks!

Once in Olgii, I'll try to get in touch with a friend of a friend who is setting up a homestay for me with a Kazakh nomadic family. I'll be with them for a week or so, maybe two. I'll post again whenever I have internet!

Take care and keep me posted.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

An update in three acts

Act 1

Naadam and UB

Naadam. This is the reason why I tried to get to Mongolia early in the first place. It's the national festival and involves three events: Wrestling:
This guy's wearing the traditional wrestling gear. He's pretty small for a wrestler, I think he probably lost.

The lineup

And horse racing, which I didn't see. 

Tickets for tourists were going for about $35 and were all sold out by the time I got here. I decided to head to the stadium anyway and managed to get some for about $20 from a guy near the gate. I thought this was a pretty good deal, until I heard from another traveler who got hers for about $6. Oh well. I got in:

The event itself wasn't bad. A neat opening ceremony that I didn't quite understand, then a generally festive atmosphere throughout the day, culminating in a concert and fireworks on the square:


Act 2


Once the opening day of Naadam was finished, my mind was set on getting out of UB. I had been in touch with Zoloo, the Mongolian girl who helped us cross the border, and she had invited all of us to come visit her in Darkhan. Darkhan is an old soviet city built in the "bread basket" of Mongolia, so lots of open fields and creepy crumbling apartment complexes:

One view from the hotel
The other view from the hotel

Luckily, the first day up there I met Zoloo and her family and we all went down to the river for a Mongolian picnic. Before anything else happened, her brother insisted that we go swimming, so we stripped down and dove into the chocolate-milk-hued stream. At some point while I felt the mud squeezing between my toes and watched the horses drinking from the riverside, I started to question the prudence of my decision. Then, I looked up at Munguunuu's smiling face, the sunset over the fields, the naked kids swimming next to us and Zoloo's family sitting by the bbq and though: health be damned, this is worth it.

I'm sure it's clean...

Once I got out of the water and dried off, I joined her family at the bbq and even got taught (sort of) to make khuushuur from Zoloo's mother (who started calling herself my Mongolian Mother).

Sampling my wares
 We spent the rest of the evening enjoying the bbq and trying many Mongolian tasty treats. Unfortunately I forgot to take pictures of most of them. In addition to the khuushuurs, we had airag (fermented mare's milk, which I'm holding in the picture above), vodka (of course), stewed mutton, potato salad (or something very much like it), and to top it all off: gummies for dessert. For some reason gummies are huge in Mongolia, every store has them and they're even sold on the streets.

the fields by the river
Once we got back to town, Munguunuu and I left the family's house to go to his & Zoloo's dad's office, where there is a matress and we would be spending the night. He wasn't quite ready for sleep and wanted to practice his English, however, so it was another few hours and few beers later that we finally slept. During that time the discussion ranged from his job (security guard at an army jail, maybe?), his feelings towards other groups (he doesn't like gay people, but he's not sure why; he doesn't like chinese people because they take Mongolian land and girls; he does like Russians, but again, he doesn't really know why. I think it's partly because of military alliances...; he does like Korean girls, I didn't ask for an explanation of that one).

In the morning, he left for work and I hung out at the office until Zoloo and her father came to pick me up at 11:30ish. The plan had been for 9am, but hey, it's Mongolia. Her dad took a shot of vodka and a cup of tea, then we went to their house for breakfast, since they had all just woken up within the past hour or so.

lunch. Kind of like lamb stew with rice
 The entire day we spent just hanging out and relaxing. Some other friends came over to join in the TV watching, chatting, or toplay chess:

The champion (right) poses
 I might have been bored, but I realized it was exactly what i was looking for: real Mongolian life. Plus, I enjoyed having a little time to relax.


By request: Street dogs of Mongolia

In my past travels, I've seen all sorts of street dogs. For a while, I just assumed that they were all the same. Especially in southeast Asia where there seems to be a breed of short-haired "street dog" that exists all over the place. Hong Kong had a little more variety, but nothing like what I saw in Beijing:

Watch out, he's vicious
These little guys were everywhere. And if it wasn't a shit-tzu, it was a Corgie. Apparently if you're a street dog in China, your legs have to be shorter than four inches.

Coming to Mongolia, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had heard that Mongolians used dogs to guard their gers (yurts), and that they weren't exactly petting dogs. But after seeing the wee pups in China I started to wonder if Mongolia would also have tiny canines guarding their streets. I was wrong:

Princess fluffybutt?
I think she must have some burnese in her
 The dogs here are crazy. Many of them are huge, like the big girl above. Then others are chained up and seem quite vicious, like these guys:

Scottie's pissed
Then others just were:
Looks like mumbles (the sled dog)
Happy pup with a boot
Then there are the dog gangs:
Team awesome
Team awesomer

I'll have to see what the countryside pups looks like

Act 3

Shit happens

Traveling is all about ups and downs. Naadam was an up, food is always an up, hanging out with Zoloo's family was an up, even just moving around is an up. Most of the downs are little things like accidentally buying a train ticket when I meant to buy a bus ticket (that actually happened), less-than-solid bowel movements (of course), getting overcharged (yep), or lost (why not?). Then, just as I'm starting to get frustrated as these little things add up, shit happens. Quite literally, actually. I got pooped on. It was only by a bird, so I guess it could be worse, but there it was: poop on my head.

At that point, all I could do was laugh. I wish I had taken a picture to show you all here.


I almost wasn't able to share any of these photos with y'all, as I had another exciting moment this afternoon. While I was out in UB looking for the post office, I got bumped by a couple guys and one grabbed my camera from my pocket. Luckily, they weren't too subtle about it and I was able to grab the guy and get the camera back before he got away. I yelled some obscenities at him as the adrenaline coursed through me and he laughed and walked away, probably to do the same thing to some other tourist a few minutes later. I was left seething about the fact that there was almost nothing other than my grumpiness deterring him from doing this again. The police were nowhere in sight, and even if they had been I'm skeptical as to what they might have done. All I can do is take it as a lesson learned for myself and I'll be more vigilant with my things.

Just for fun:
In case there is confusion about its purpose...
Oh yeah, and for those who are wondering: I'm on my way to Khovd tomorrow by bus. I've heard between 40 and 48 hours of bus, it's basically crossing all of Mongolia. I'm expecting it'll be 50+. I'll let you know how it goes...