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

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Mongolia, A Report from the Field: Of Box Springs, Milk Soup, and Poetry

We leave the wonderful little cafe in Khutul, and the bullied boy with his stones and wistful countenance, and drive through the lands of nomad herders.

It’s early winter here.   The greens of summer and the oranges of autumn are gone.  Now, nature has painted the land from a palette of golds and browns.  I could stare at this countryside for hours.

These mountain-top adornments appears to be an ovoo pole and perhaps a Buddhist shrine.

That’s a good thing, because there are miles and miles of this land and hours and hours before we reach our destination at Lake Khuvsgul tomorrow afternoon.


Some call this a stark and desolate land; I find poetry here.

Old and new.   A herder in the traditional coat called a  deel and his Mongolian horse, an anachronism against  a high voltage electrical tower.  Note the ovoo wrapped in blue prayer flags in front of the herder.   In this case, it most likely is a boundary ovoo rather than a spiritual one.

A herder's camp nestled in a swale.

The long golden rays of the setting sun highlight this pastoral scene.

We drive into a glorious sunset late in the afternoon, and as we are driving west and north, we enjoy the sunset for what seems like hours.

Setting sunlight reflects off  the tar strips on the highway.

Chimdee, the driver, is the first to spot this herder and he nudges me, then slows to a  stop for the photo.   He slows or stops every time he sees me raise my camera and will do that for the rest of the trip if  I'm in the front seat, and often points out things I don't see.

A herder carrying a long pole with a loop on the end  for catching one of the animals in his herd, much like a lariat or lasso was used by American cowboys.   It is called an uurga in Mongolian.

Eventually we reach the town of Bulgan, where we will spend the night at the Bulgan Hotel.


I am flabbergasted when I am shown to my room.   This has to be the largest hotel room I’ve ever been in, very comparable to the villa room at the Spier Hotel in the winelands of South Africa.

A dance floor between the bed and the desk.   One would need binoculars to watch TV in bed.

The room is chilly and there’s a strong draft (hurricane) coming from one outside corner of the room where the drapes are billowing inward.   I check behind the drapes and my suspicions are verified.   There’s a balcony beyond the outside wall.   

A typical enclosed Khrushchev balcony.

Note the sharp and dangerous broken plastic seat.   One does not linger.

Retrofitted plumbing, more evidence to support my belief that this is an apartment building remodeled into a hotel.

Need room for a retrofitted shower drain?   Some bricks will do nicely.

A hot water maker for tea or coffee, and a large bottle of Mongolian water.

I’m in a Khrushchev building!   I’d bet this was once an apartment building remodeled into a hotel.

The latch on the balcony door is broken so I lean a chair against the door to stop the north wind hurricane blowing through, and the room begins to warm up immediately.

An effective draft-stopper.

I check with Patti and Cap in their equally large room.   There’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on as electrical outlets near the bed are non-existent.   Cap needs to plug in his CPAP machine to assist his breathing during sleep, and there’s no outlet close enough. 

Once the idea of needing an electrical outlet is translated, it is quickly solved with an extension cord.    

I leave them and Yusef to handle that problem and return to my room.   I think the idea of a CPAP is new to the Mongolians here.   If it's new to you, the machine provides a "continuous positive airway pressure" to treat sleep apnea, hence the acronym CPAP.

Yusef, our driver Chimdee, and I go across the street to a restaurant, where we are shown into a private dining room.   “It will get too noisy when the dancing starts,” is the explanation.

We ate upstairs in this building.

I order beef and veggies with noodles.  The noodles are home-made and delicious.  Patti and Cap will dine in their room on food they brought.

Left overs.   I could not eat any more, even though they were delicious.

My friend and guide Yusel, prepariing to leave our private dining room.   Cap would not be happy with all the food left on my plate.   I have noticed the exceptionally large servings in both Hong Kong and Mongolia.  I don't know how they do it.

Back in the room, I get ready for bed and climb in.  

Uh-oh.   I think I am on the box spring part of a double mattress.   I lie in bed, trying to get comfortable, and wondering who has the mattress part of my bed.

I am going to wake up with octopus rings on my body.   I think of my friend Sue who has taught school in many countries.   She told me in one country she had the box spring, too, and when she tried to explain there was another part of the mattress set, she was told she was wrong, that mattresses are purchased two at a time and make two beds.

I leave one drape partially open because right across the street is a sign with the current time.  I can see it as I lie in bed.

My handy bedside clock across the street.

I forget to check in the morning to see if I have circles from sleeping on the box springs.  

There’s a knock on the door and when I open it, a hotel employee is standing there with a tray full of bowls.

The milk is bland, of course, but the dumplings are plentiful and tasty.

I take one of the bowls from the tray and thank the person.  It’s dumpling soup—tiny meat-filled dumplings in milk.   The dumplings are tasty, but the milk, as expected, is rather bland.  Whatever, it’s filling, and another Mongolian experience not to be forgotten.

Cap refuses the morning soup.  One reason is that he and Patti had already eaten food they had with them.   The other reason is that the soup did not appeal to Cap.   IN THE LEAST!

Well, no one travels to Mongolia for its cuisine as one does to France or Tuscany, but sampling the local cuisine is part of the adventure.  For centuries, the people here have made do with what was available to them, and that is not much.   I tell Cap he’s missing part of the Mongolian experience.   He does not think that funny, but I enjoy ribbing him, especially first thing in the morning.

Bulgan has a population of about 12,000 at an elevation of 4,000 ft.   It is 291 miles from Ulaanbaatar.

And the other direction in Bulgan.

Antennae on a home.   They look like bent coat hangers, a shelf from a refrigerator, and a barbeque grill, but they probably aren't.

And we load up, me in the left-side shotgun seat, Patti and Cap behind me, and Yusef, whom we have consigned to the rear seat with some of the luggage.   I did not make a mistake with “left-side shotgun seat.”   The driver’s position is on the right in this Mitsubishi van.

We are all about photos and good visibility here, and that is why we told Yusef he gets to lean on the baggage in the rear seat.   Yusef does not complain, though guides usually sit up front with the driver.  

A grove of Siberian larch.  Larch are a deciduous coniferous tree like evergreens, except the larch needles turn bright yellow in autumn and then to gold before they fall.   New needles appear in spring.      

Little do we know, as we journey into the early Bulgan sunrise, that serendipity has laid a surprise for us up the road.

Our drive for the day:   From Ulaanbaatar northwest to Darkan, southwest to Khutul, west to Erdenet, and southwest to Bulgan.   Tomorrow, northwest to Murun, then north to Lake Khovsgol (aka Khuvsgul).

A few more photos from the first day's drive: 

Monday, December 28, 2015

Mongolia, A Report from the Field: In Praise of Plans that Go Awry

Yusef returns to car and says, “There’s no ATM there.” 
We don’t understand at the time why he needs an ATM, other than the obvious reason.   Later he explains to me that Genco did not transfer the necessary funds for this trip into his account until after we left earlier this morning, and he needs cash to pay for our lunch.

Reflection in a mirrored building.

We drive a block or so and wait in the car while he tries another ATM.  “It’s broken,” he reports.  A small herd of cows appears and wanders down the street.   At the end of the block I see a cow jump up into what must a decorative planting in a triangular intersection.   A uniformed worker chases the cow out of the plants.

We're on our way to "the lake."   This is to be a six-day guided trip to a place everyone says is really nice and worth the two days up drive and two days back drive.   This is our first day.


Waiting for the cows to pass.

Yusef leaves to try again and this time he is successful.  We head for a nearby restaurant.   It’s closed.  

We try another.   It is also closed.   

 “We try to take our guests to nice restaurants,” he says.   "The only thing left is a small café for the locals."   He sounds apologetic.

"The cafe it is,” I say.  Yusef leads the way.

This town called Khutul has Russia written all over it, most likely because it was built in 1977 by the Soviets to support the nearby lime and cement mines.   Five story buildings called Khruschchev apartments are all over the place, each as dreary as the next.

After Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khruschchev’s regime embarked on a program of urbanization.   To relieve a critical housing shortage, cookie-cutter building projects took place to provide housing with  quantity over quality.   Many of the so-called apartments were communal, with as many as seven families each having its own small room, and sharing the kitchen and bathroom.

Note the planks that partially enclose the balcony, and the use of various materials to finish the job.   This same mis-match was on several buildings in the town.

Most of the apartments had narrow balconies, some enclosed, some not.  Apparently  there were no covenants as to the use of those balconies, and with no uniformity, the buildings soon came to resemble slums with a variety of different materials used to enclose the balconies.   Laundry was hung to dry and eventually air conditioning units were hung haphazardly in windows.

The buildings are instantly recognizable in countries once associated with Russia and the Soviet era, though many are more than five stories.

We arrive at a humble gray apartment building and enter a shop on the lower level.   What a surprise!  

 Inside is a cheery, warm room with two or three tables and a fancy  wooden counter.  We have caught the two women by surprise, but they are gracious and welcoming.

Of course the menu is all in Mongolian, and Yusef translates for us.

Patti and I both order potato salad.  Chimdee has his order in first—fried horse meat with sheeps’ tails.  Cap orders fried beef with potato salad, and Yusef wants fries with scrambled eggs.   And milk tea for me.

I'll have one from column A and two from column B...  The top item on the menu is 5000 Mongolian tugs, or $2.50 USD.

Patti and Cap.   Note the exquisite wood work on the counter behind them.

They let us use a small restroom adjacent to the kitchen.   There’s a bucket in the sink that catches water from a dripping faucet and apparently that’s how you flush the toilet because there isn’t any other way.  As I exit the bathroom, one of the women is peeling potatoes for our lunch.

The food is delicious!   This little café is a hidden gem in a dreary town.   We tell Yusef we want to stop here on the way back.

My potato salad and milk tea.


Chimdee's horse meat with sheep tails.   Adorning rice with maraschino cherries is apparently common.   I saw it several times.

Cap's fried beef with potatoes and veggies, but no cherry on his rice.

Yusef's scrambled eggs with fries.  

Cap remarked on how good the Mongolian potatoes were.   "Want some?"  offered Yusef.    "Careful there, Yusef," I warned.

  Yusef said he wasn't hungry, so Cap finished the whole plate...

Patti's potato salad.....

...and my potato salad.   I have to avert my eyes.   Yeah, it's the same photo, but he did finish the plates and I did avert my eyes.   By the way, he's 79 and skinny as pole.  I have no idea where he puts it.

Eating his goulash.   We think he's the cook's son.

We get in the vehicle after lunch and as we wait for everyone to get settled, I watch a couple boys across the street.  One hits the other across the chest a few times with a stick, not hard, but hard enough, then goes around the corner to join a group or boys with toy guns.

And he waits, rock in hand.

The boy who’d been hit peeks around the corner of the building and picks up a rock.   He bides his time, checking once in a while to keep track of his prey.  When the group wanders off, the boy pitches several rocks at his tormentor, none coming close.

And then we drive away.