"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hong Kong and Mongolia, A Report from the Field: The Good, the Bad, and the Worst of Money Matters

Hong Kong has a system I wish all of the United States would adopt.

Imagine having a card the size of a credit card.

You land at Hong Kong airport and make your way  to the railway station.  You reach a turnstile and briefly touch that card to a screen.  The turnstile arm unlocks and through you go. That's it.  Your train fare is paid.

You get on a trolley through the rear door.   When the bus reaches your stop, you exit by the front door, briefly touching that card to a screen.   That's it.   Tram fare is paid.

You stop at McDonald's for a snack.  When the person who is taking your order indicates, you briefly touch that card to a screen.   That's it.   Your snack is paid.

After your snack, you stop by a grocery and pick up a few things.   After the clerk rings up the total, touch the card briefly to the screen and you're on your way.   That's it.   The groceries are paid.

That card is called an Octopus card.   You put as much money on it as you want and when that amount is almost used up, you simply add more.

It is accepted almost everywhere in Hong Kong, though a few restaurants and shops don't.   They want cash.  No waiting for a computer to approve your credit card,  no signing a silly little machine with your signature totally unrecognizable.   And, in some cases, you pay less than with cash.

Slap and dash, as it were.  No lines, no fuss, multi-purpose.   No cooling your increasingly hot heels while a machine declines the credit card of the guy in front of you.   I know some cities have bus cards, subway cards, etc.   But can you use them to buy groceries?   Uh-uh.   One use and one use only.

Use the Octopus card to ride to the top of Victoria Hill on the tram.   Use it on a Star Ferry ride.   Use it at a grocery store, a flower shop, and multiple other places.  And a perk:   when you use it at most places, the sensor tells your your balance.   And another perk:  there's often a discount for seniors.

Afraid of losing it or having it stolen?   Don't put much money on it.  It's easily rechargeable in many locations.

And then there's Mongolia.

If I stayed here six months I still would not understand the money situation here.  The highest denomination bill here is the $20,000 tögrög or tugrik, or tug for short.  It's symbol is ₮.   The lowest denomination is the ten tug note.

Coins are no longer used and therein lies one of the problems.  No one likes to carry coins right?  Swell, let's issue paper notes instead of minting coins.

This wad of money is about $40.00 USD  in Mongolians tugs.

Slip  that in your wallet, sit on it, and you'll have a permanent list to port.

A 20,000 tug note is roughly $10 USD.  Ten dollars and two cents exactly, at today's rate of exchange.   That lowest note of twenty tug?   Worth one cent.

One hundred thousand tugs?  Fifty bucks.   My 180,000 hotel bill for four nights?    About $90.

This wad that would make Daddy Warbucks ecstatic is worth just about $200 USD.

There is no way of hiding that on your body in such a way that it is indetectable to the pickpockets in any place on earth.   There will be a suspicious bulge in that place.   One person I know keeps money in a small ziploc bag stuffed between two pairs of socks on the inside of his ankle.   His wallet, similarly protected in a plastic bag, goes on the other ankle.   If I tried that, I'd be tripping myself every step or so.

The notes are pretty enough, by US standards that is.   Our uninteresting money notes can't compare to South African rands for beauty, and the Mongolian money notes have interesting historic scenes.

20,000 tug

1,000 tug

Scene on a tug

A 5000 tug note

Another nice scene

There is one other thing about tugriks that baffles me no end.    I try to be careful about showing a wad of money when I'm in a public place.  The tugrik makes that almost impossible.   For those of us who are not used to the tug, and what color each denomination is, the Arabic numerals for the denominations are almost hiding in the filigree.

Go back to the 5000 tug note above.   Look to the right upper corner where we Americans look to note the amount.   I don't know what that is.

So, I'm standing at the check out counter with my hope-to-be purchases and I'm flipping through this giant wad of money trying to find Arabic numerals.

Once in a while I get lucky.   Yesterday, I picked up a large bottle of water, went to the cashier, flipped out 1,000 tug note for the 950 tug price, got my 50 tug note as change, and sailed out the door like I knew what I was doing.

Then there was today.  My purchases came to 23,516 tug (less than 12 USD and two bags full).  I thought I had it.   I handed over 20,000 tugs and 5000 tugs.  That makes 25,000 tugs, right?   Plenty for a 23,516 tug bill if I got my zeros and commas lined up just right.

Nope.   She wanted another 5,000 tugs.   Then she handed me back a fistful of notes.  I've stared at the receipt several times trying to figure out if there's a hidden tax or something.  I can only surmise that I gave her 500 tugs rather than 5000.

I swear, even if I stayed here six months I would never be able to think in that many zeros. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mongolia, A Report from the Field: A Khan by any other Name is Still a Khan

“They called us barbarians,” my guide Yusef says, in a way that suggests he is offended by the invective.   

“When I think of the Mongols,” I reply, “I think of fearsome warriors, not barbarians.”

Statue of a Mongolian warrior


Remember Genghis Khan, that innovative (or barbaric, take your pick) Mongol ruler whose armies conquered much of Asia, southern Russia, the Middle East, and took a big bite out of Europe?
Turns out that wasn’t his name.

His name was Temujin.  When his father, the ruler of a clan of Mongols was killed, Temujin was only 12, and the clansmen rejected the boy as their new leader, abandoning him and his family to die in a semi-desert area.

Temujin fooled them all by not dying and by 20 was ruler of the clan.  His power increased over the years as success followed success in warfare and at age 44 the Mongolian council (kuriltai) formally acknowledged Tumujin as the leader of all Mongols and the conquered countries.

It was then that Temujin took the honorific Chinggis, westernized as Genghis.

Detail on statue.

Today, it seems, everything is named after Chinggis Khan.   No matter where you look, that name pops up.  The airport, stores, restaurants, everywhere, and there is talk of instituting laws regarding use of the name to prevent trivialization.   They might be too late.

Though considered brutal by many historians, particularly by those in conquered countries, he is also noted for his religious tolerance, military system of meritocracy, enlarging trade between Christian Europe, Muslim Southeast Asia, and China, and allowing the Silk Road to flourish.   Mongolians consider him the founder of Mongolia.  The Mongols also set up a system of communication that rivaled the Pony Express, with horse stations every 50 km.   It, however, spread from Mongolia to eastern Europe, into Russia, and across the Middle East, wherever the Mongol armies were.

So, out of UB on the first day of my tour with Yusef and Aigii, where did we go for supper and to spend the night?   Why, the great statue Chinggis Khan, of course.

The statue of Chinggis Khan on horseback is to Mongolia as the Eifel Tower is the France, the Statue of Liberty is to the U.S., the Great Wall is to China, and the Taj Mahal is to India.   Located an hour and a half drive out of UB (33 miles), if there aren’t too many cows on the road, your first glimpse of the statue is the topmost part showing over a hill.   Soon the entire 131 foot high structure comes into view.

At sunrise, the statue appears golden.

Finished in 2008 and erected in sections, the statue is made of 250 tons of stainless steel.  An internal support system with an elevators and many stairs allows visitors to go as high as the horse’s neck, then exit there onto a viewing platform on top of the horse’s head.

The base of the statue has 36 columns, representing the 36 khans from Chinggis to Ligdan Khan (1588-1634).  It faces east, towards Chinggis Khan’s birthplace.  In a lower floor is an impressive museum of Mongolia bronze age artifacts.   No photos allowed.

The Khan's hand on a golden whip.   According to legend, this location is where Chinggis Khan found a golden whip, considered a good omen.

Falcon head on sword handle.  The falcon is the symbol of ancient Mongol tribes, the national bird orf Mongolia today, and is considered to be the symbol of Mongolia.

Now operated by Genco Travel, the company with which I traveled, future development calls for construction of a total of 200 gers arranged in the shape of the horse brands used by 13th century Mongolian tribes.

The first gers in the project, where I stayed two nights.

The Mongol Empire, 1206 – 1368

The Statue of Chinggis Khan, different views and differing lighting, plus interior.

Early morning

Head of warrior's horse.



Late afternoon.

Right after sunrise.

Along with the world's largest statue of a mounted horseman, one must also have the largest boot...

...and the largest whip.

Video of construction team lowering the head on to the body of the statue.

One of several interior seating areas.   There are also several souvenir shops.

Bas relief on gate panel depicting various ancient Mongolian scenes

Main gates

Being let out of the complex before official opening time.

Mongol Warriors above Main Gate

Notice the stag horns used as armor for the horse in the center.