Thursday, September 13, 2012

Homeward Bound...

First, let me say that I do not feel ready to go home or happy to be going home. I would gladly stay in Beijing for a couple more weeks in a heartbeat. But, given that is not my reality here's what I am most excited about in only rough order:
My cats
My friends
My garden - specifically the tomatoes and cucumbers
Whole Foods or Berkeley Bowl
My computer?
Streaming Netflix and HBO
Not having a frizz-mop of hair
Putting toilet paper in the toilet
A shower without worms
My car!  (That should be higher)
Speaking with people and understanding them
Having more than three shirts and a skirt to choose from
Wearing heels
The 10 quarts of pickles I made the night before I left
Drinking cocktails
A different hoodie than the one I've worn daily for the past five weeks
Facebook (China blocks it along with twitter and YouTube and others)

What I am not looking forward to:
Regular work days
My computer

Musings on Mongolia

Mongolia was definitely different than what I expected and defies description in some ways, but I'll try... It was not galloping horses across wide open plains, the wind in your hair (though likely for some travelers it could have been). It wasn't a series of cultural treasures from glorious times. It wasn't mind blowingly beautiful monasteries preserved for thousands of years. What it was for me was a feeling, once which had to grow over time with experience rather than being handed to me in a forbidden temple or summer palace.

Three weeks was the perfect amount of time there because it took at least a week for the experience to reveal itself. I'm more used to the sensory overload of travel - trying to communicate when you don't speak the language, bombarded with cultural sites and somewhat immediately thrown off the dock and forced to swim. This was a slow creep, nearly imperceptible. At first it barely felt different at all. Then as we checked out some sites it felt disappointing. They were small or in disrepair or were grossly exaggerated in the book. Then you start to realize Mongolia isn't about moving from site to site, it's about getting a glimpse of how people live in the country side, which likewise is not about visiting one or two family gers and then just "getting it". It's about exploring the vast expanses and slowly the feeling grows from seeing only steppe or desert day after day after day after day. You can't force or get spoon fed a substitute for being in and seeing vast, vast vistas of green with rolling hills of various height day after day and week after week. It puts you in a different mindset entirely. I was waiting for Mongolia to "click" for me for lack of a better term and then realized it had already - so subtly that I hadn't even noticed. We spent nearly a week driving around ostensibly to check out this temple and that waterfall but it quickly became obvious it was not the destination rather the journey that was the important part. Some days, particularly when we drove across the Gobi, we'd see maybe five gers all day and the requisite herds of sheep, goats and some horses, usually herded by the iron horse (aka motorcycle). The gers nearly always had a solar panel and TV and cell phones which at first was disappointing. How unauthentic! But then you realize what an extremely tough existence they live and why not have a TV? Should they live in the technological dark ages just because they live on the steppe in a ger?

There's something special that happens to your mindset, to your brain after being in a vast expanse for that long that I didn't anticipate but feel extremely lucky to have experienced. There are few places left with that much open space.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

The Sanitorium - Part I

So normally Lonely Planet is pretty good with their information. Sure - stores close, food may be better or worse than they describe, maybe they make a hostel sound better than it is, but I have never experienced a less accurate description than what was given for the shargaljuut hotsprings. Bree and I really wanted to go to hot springs. There were two nearby where we were traveling, and after hearing not-so-good reviews of one we decided to go to the hot springs that all of the local Mongolians go to, so at the least it wouldn't be too touristy. We met a couple of girls who had been and told us there were different pools for healing different body parts. How cool! So we had hired a driver for about a week and that was to be the third and fourth nights of our journey. According to lonely planet "international travelers" could stay at the shargaljuut resort - yay!!  A little splurging and pampering...
We had a brutal day of driving en route - maybe an hour of pavement and 8 hours of bumpy dirt roads. An important note here is that our driver did not speak English except for okay, stop and daily greetings. So we arrive around 6 and see a really rundown Soviet cinderblock style monstrosity, replete with peeling pale pink paint and no obvious Ger camp. Where is the resort? Is this the sanitorium with a resort inside? We called the phone number in the book but no one answered so we sent BimBa in to the decrepit building armed with the name shargaljuut resort. Out he comes at least 30 minutes later with a confused look on his face and seems to be saying with charades that he could not find the place. Crap. So i decide to try the number again and someone answers! I hand the phone to BimBa and he's on for longer than really makes sense and he did not seem to end the call with any resolution. So we stand around starting to get worried since we were a good three hours from anywhere. Then he gets a phone call back from whomever he spoke with the first time and signals that yes, this is the place and he goes back inside to talk to someone. Mind you until then I had been holding out hope that there had been some other building or set of gers that we just weren't seeing. Nope. The building looked like a cross between a prison and a short term residence hotel for seniors if such a thing exists. We wait another 30 minutes or so and finally he comes out and tells us to come in.
The inside was something to behold. Small mirror Mosaic tiles covering columns and a reception desk. Black marble perhaps. Really shabby chic furniture. It was something alright. So they tell us it's 50 dollars per person per night. What??!  That is super expensive for Mongolia especially for the condition of that place. But, the manager explains in partial English there's food and TV (um, yay Mongolian TV?) and the hot springs included and he decides to throw in a massage as well so we acquiesce because now it's even later and what else would we do? There may or may not be one ger camp there but if there is it's full. Mind you, this manager is 25, has a spiky short Mohawk situation, wears tacky sunglasses inside at night and a matchy matchy Tracksuit with some logo repeated all over it. So we pay the money for two days and then go to get dinner after too lengthy a tour from him only to find it's closed. He procures a bowl of meat soup for Bree but nothing for me unless I want slices of white bread, which I don't. So I ask because if seemed strange dinner wasn't included for that night and he explains the fee is per day so it starts with sleep and runs through the entire next day.  Ah! So I explain to him we are only there for one day. Two nights sleep but only one day and he understands so he writes down on our paper we would get 50% off the second day since a "spa package" makes no sense if we leave at 6am. I'm to return the next day to get the refund.
The place reminds me of a Catskills resort from the 40's or 50's which has never, ever been repaired or updated. Literally chunks of wall and ceiling are falling off and lying in small heaps - it's pretty clear they won't be cleaning them up.
Our room. For some reason I was still holding out hope that it may be decent. Why? Because sometimes I am delusional. It was one of the worst rooms we have had and we have been staying in guest houses and hostels, for sure nothing fancy but the beds had only filthy blankets, no sheets, and repulsive pillows. But hey, at least there was a 10" TV with four Mongolian channels.
So during this time it is slowly becoming apparent that this is not really a hot spring as the book described, it's really only a sanitorium, meaning people are there to heal specific health issues. The people in our long hall all seem to have children with physical as well as developmental disabilities who scream a lot. Very. Loudly. The average age of the cliental in the other building is likely mid-70's. We have been asked to report to the hospital at 9am the next day for what reason we are not sure but we suspect it has to do with our massage. No, none of the other staff speaks any English.
The next morning we go to the hospital amongst screaming children and the elderly and have no idea where to go. We have a slip of paper we were told by the manager is the the golden ticket so after seeing if we could decipher where to go (we couldn't),  I go into a room upstairs that looks administrative and show her the paper. She ushers us downstairs into what seems a triage room with two health professionals in it and we stand there. We are totally unable to communicate even with my Mongolian book and the first woman who started to help us walked away and never returned. I can't even count the number of times that's happened during our travels. During this time it was impossible not to notice that the other clients had these official looking books with pages of writing and dates and stamps... finally one of our saviors, Savior #1, speaks English to us and explains that you need the doctor to give you a plan. She was there with her son. We wound up with the nicest staff person who went with us everywhere, certainly above and beyond the call of duty. She didn't speaking English but we sort of understood her. She wrote us a little plan on the back of our golden ticket in Cyrillic and took us up to the hot springs. Then we realized you can't go and soak for however long you want nor can you just go in any of the 10 or so gers with the soaking tubs. You needed to be assigned and then you had 10 minutes. 10 minutes! All of that for 10 minutes. I was prepared to love those 10 minutes more than any other. She also showed us around the side of the hill where trickles of hot water were erupting from numerous,  numerous sites and rolling down the hill. Many of them were marked with a word and the temperature of the water in Celsius. Each word was a different body part or ailment like ear, eye, nose, head, stomach, leg, lungs, asthma, etc. The general idea was that you either drink a little of or do something external with the water from each. It was really cool but of course we didn't quite know what to do so we fudged it a bit. We also found out from Savior #1 that people stay for 10 days of treatment when they go, hence the treatment booklets, and that no one should go without a translator. Would have been good to know!
Thanks lonely planet. So instead of hot springs anyone can soak in with a resort for international travelers we are at a medical facility that does 10 day planned treatment programs for people with medical issues.
Continued in The Sanitorium - Part II.

The Sanitorium - Part II

I had already tried to get our refund in the morning but the manager had told me to come back at 3 and when I had, he told me he needed to talk to his manager about it so I should come back again at 8. I was definitely getting a sketchy vibe. Of course there is a full power outage before 8 so I go back with my headlamp into the main building which is as dark as a crypt and knock on the office door. No answer. I am pissed. He has clearly been giving me the run around already - he's quite the weasel.  So there I am in a dark, nearly deserted hallway with no idea what to do. It's not like we could deal with it the next day, we were leaving at 6am. So I just hung around trying to figure out what I could do with no real ideas and maybe 15 minutes later he comes out of the door I had knocked multiple times on! What a bastard. So, I ask him about the refund. He tells me it's not possible. I ask why and explain again that they charged us for a day we won't be there. He says it's not possible. I get angry and tell him he had better give us a refund as he had promised and the raised voice, as often happens, got him to say he would go check with his manager again so off he scurries into the darkness. I'm not sure I'll see him again. I call BimBa even though I am loathe to involve him in this crap. I can't tell if he understood my Mongolian rendition of "issue help office" or not. Enter Savior #2 stage right. This very nice woman asks in good English if I need help with something. I almost cried. I explain I am trying to get money back which the manager said he would give me but now he won't.  I show her the evidence. She stays with me and BimBa arrives and she explains the situation to him so far as I can tell. Then surprisingly the manager boy and his manager come back. They all start speaking in heated Mongolian.  Then they decide we should move into the office out of the reception area. Now more staff members are involved.  I am just standing there mute and mostly ignored. They all haggle for at least 20 minutes with my advocate asking a question to me about some specific detail here or there. Thank goodness I had the paper where he wrote down 50% because that was clearly the winning evidence.  Keep in mind the power is still out. We are in a pitch black room with eight Mongolian folks heatedly arguing amongst themselves with the occasional mini flashlight illuminating the 50% on the paper. Finally good prevails and they say they will give us the refund but they can't tonight because it is too late and do I have a Mongolian bank account they can wire it to instead. Um, seriously? Do I look like I have a Mongolian bank account? I explain I had come twice during the day when they had been open and was told to come back now after hours. The head manager actually said she was sorry but the weasel had never told her. So I suggest (all through the Savior #2 translator) that the weasel give us the money and they can pay him back the next day. They all laughed, but I was serious! So they agree BimBa will get the money in his account and give it to us and we adjourn for the evening.
Needless to say, I told BimBa the next day to keep it for his troubles and help.
So while this was a stressful and somewhat disappointing experience, it was really quite educational and intense. Rarely, if ever, am I someone who is unable to advocate for myself but here I was that person. I can only imagine what immigrants in the US go through on a daily basis between the language barrier and discrimination... it's good to be on the other side sometimes and live in other shoes for even a day or two.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

The Skies Opened

I was already planning to do a post on this subject describing the storm that took us by surprise as we walked up a couple of miles to a hilltop monastery. That story has officially been usurped by the storm we had this morning which was by far the biggest electrical storm I have ever experienced.
First, a word about the Gobi. Any picture I have ever seen of the Gobi is of those tall carmel colored sand dunes, nearly always with a couple of camels thrown in or at least some footsteps in shadow. In actuality the Gobi bears little resemblance. Sure, there are two small areas with those dunes, but the vast majority is a massive spread of scrubby, green (at least in summer), low rolling hills that goes on seemingly endlessly with a faint network of tire track pairs spider-webbing across. I will say this: it is truly a miracle that destinations are ever found. It all looks the same. There are certainly no signs. You drive for hours on end without seeing so much as a Ger where the set of tire tracks your driver has chosen have branched off at least five times with no indication of which split to take. We played musical Ger while driving across the Gobi attempting to find our Ger camp. Everytime we saw one we stopped to ask directions. Of course not speaking Mongolian I have no idea how they give directions but there is arm gesturing, pointing and a lot of description but what could be the landmarks? See the fourth flat hill? Go over that rise over there and look for the next Ger to ask? It is truly mind boggling and I consider myself to be good with directions. Finding the Ger camp last night which consisted of a couple of very small buildings and about 10 gers which was hundreds of kilometers into the Gobi was easily the work of wizards and magicians - talk about a needle in a haystack!
So back to the storm. I'm awoken at around 6am by the loudest thunder I have ever heard - ever. I felt it vibrate through the floor of the Ger and shake the sides. I felt it come up through the short wooden legs of the bed into my pillow. And the amazing thing was it went on that loudly mixed with nearly as loudly for about an HOUR. Growing up on the east coast we had some decent storms and we were taught to tell the distance by the amount of time between the rolls of thunder. There was no time between any of these rolls save for milliseconds. We were enveloped. At first it was only thunder and wind... and then the skies opened. I know people like corrugated tin roofs for the sound of rain but I daresay they have never heard rain on the fabric top of a Ger before. It was the best sound and I felt happier than I have in ages.
Thank you Gobi and bim ba!

Universal signs

It's amazing what you can get by on when you don't speak the language...

Beats me: shrug
Onion: make a chopping gesture and then rub your eyes like a baby crying
Time: tap your wrist
Girl's Pee: squat down and make a peeing noise... note that it takes longer for men to understand this than women
Money: rub your fingers together on one hand
Lighter: pretend there's a lighter in your hand and light it.
Sleep: head tilt to either side with both hands in prayer position under your ear.
Eat: pretend there is a sock puppet on one hand and put it to your lips and give yourself some kisses.
Drink/alcoholic: the old head tilt back with hand wrapped around imaginary container.
OK: thumb's up.
Cold: put each hand on the opposite arm and rub.
Hot: fan your face with your hand as if you are southern.
No: shake head side to side
NO: shake head side to side vigorously, widen eyes and firmly move hands in a horizontal motion from the center of your body outward
Yes: move head up and down
YES: move head up and down, put a big goofy grin on your face and clap your hands like a giddy schoolgirl.
I don't understand: really any contorted look of confusion, especially with one or both corners of the mouth downturned. Oftentimes followed by "English?"
Drive/driver: pretend you hands are at 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock on a steering wheel and rotate it back and forth.


There are many wise quotes about expectations.  Of course none come to mind specifically, but you know how they go... if you let yourself live in expectations then reality is going to be disappointing. Or if you are not flexible enough to adjust your expectations once reality presents itself, you will also be disappointed - and on it goes.

I definitely had different expectations of Mongolia than what we've experienced thus far. There is no question that the country is beautiful with wide open spaces and very, very few people. A smattering of gers here and there and lots of sheep,  goats,  horses and yaks. The scenery does not disappoint. However a large part of why I came here was to experience the culture - to learn about the people and in that respect our first nomadic family homestay was disappointing. We spent over two hours getting oriented to the ways of the nomadic people and their traditions and practices prior to departing for our white lake excursion - and worrying about how we would possibly remember all of it - only to find we weren't actually staying with a nomadic family up in white lake once we arrived. Nor were we staying with a herder's family... we were staying in a Ger camp. Ger camps are run by local families as an alternative to the herder lifestyle,  but you don't stay in their family Ger,  you stay in one of a series of guest gers which have only beds and a stove,  occasionally with a light or outlet which works for a couple of hours after dark. Tourism is a large part of the lives of many families in Mongolia because herding is extremely difficult. Their winters are bitterly cold and one bad winter can wipe out a large percentage of their livestock. Once that happens the only choice is often to move to town and set up your family ger in the Ger slums around the capital. Apparently it used to be the case with communism that there was more of a collective animal sharing so if one person lost a lot of animals there would be a redistribution of some sort so they would not suffer the full brunt of the loss. Now with democracy that is no longer the case and there would be no incentive to give another family some of your animals. Tourism gives families a much more reliable and steady income and is really a win-win for Mongolians and tourists. At the end of the white lake trip we did go to visit a nomadic family on our way back. It was extremely interesting to see how they live but I found myself relieved we hadn't stayed with a nomadic family for days because the language barrier is really difficult and they seem to feel obligated to entertain you which is a bit awkward.  So there was an initial disappointment but then a relief and a change of expectations.  We then planned the next seven days to see the geological and religious sites rather than focusing on how to try to expose ourselves to more native tradition because that can't be forced. It's more of a slow osmosis here... rather than being bombarded by facts and culture the learning comes in trickles which makes sense considering the Mongolian pace of life.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Twice bucked, once shy.

There are so many different sayings to describe the low probability of the same thing happening twice, especially in the same time period. Well, lightning may not strike twice but apparently my wild Mongolian horse does buck people off twice. And by people I mean me.
I was apprehensive before we got on the horses but once we were on and started walking all fear disappeared.  This was not going to be a gallop along the shore of white lake, this was going to be a slow walk with a number of other tourists as well. After a couple of hours we started trying to trot the horses which would work for short stints that eventually got a bit longer but a canter was as fast as we got, and we had to work for that.  Bree's horse cantered a little. My horse, Billy as I called him, kept pace with the canter but just went at a very fast trot which meant super bumpy. I had a silly school girl grin on my face the entire time. We were on the home stretch and my horse had taken the fast trotting lead when all of a suddenly I saw the horse torquing under me when I was somehow above it flying through the air... flying and then BOOM. Slammed down on my lower back with a shot of pain before the rest of me settled on the ground. Holy crap it hurt. All I could say over and over again was ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. I wasn't concerned that I was paralyzed or had broken anything but I knew that crunch meant that I would be in serious need of a chiropractor.  Needless to say that will need to wait until we return to the states. Bree ran over and made sure I could feel both of my feet and then we slowly got me up over the span of many minutes and started hobbling home. She saw the horse spook for literally no reason at all and buck me off. What luck I have!
Fast forward to the next day when we were supposed to ride horses to the volcano. It was unclear if I was going to be able to ride again since I felt all banged up but you know what they say - back in the saddle!  I thought I should give Billy the benefit of my doubt and got back on. Felt okay. Certainly it hurt a bit but nothing too serious. Bree's horse was really feisty though and after only a short walk and bucking about she decided to leave the horse back at the Ranch so to speaking and go on foot. Walking was more difficult for me so I stayed on Billy with a vow to have a walk-only trip. No trotting for you Billy! Everything was going so well... we were back near the Ger camp, maybe a quarter mile away and I had managed to keep Billy under control despite the continuous march of the iron horses (motorcycles) which spooked him a bit. Home free! Yeah. Until he spooked again and bucked me off onto my arm. The low-speed Buck-off is much less painful than the higher speed but still sucks especially when you are already sore. My arm is still recovering but luckily we are horse free for a week or so. Here's to hoping camels don't buck!


So maybe it's not only the adventure itself but the preparation for it and the anticipation of how challenging it may actually be that's part of the learning process?  Bree and I are sitting here about to leave on a four day trip where we stay in nomadic family gers and ride horses for two of the days - to white lake and a volcano. The horseback riding is FREAKING me out. During our orientation we got instruction on how to best place our feet in the stirrups so if we need to jump off a galloping horse we can!  Holy crap. I am pretty terrified of these half-size wild horses to begin with. A friend who did the peace corps here told us a story of a friend who was off on a horseback riding adventure and his horse decided it was time to go home so he took off lightening fast in the other direction and the poor guy got dragged for a while with his foot in the stirrup. I definitely don't want that to happen to me - so maybe it's actually good that I visualize leaping off of the crazed galloping horse...

There's a lot to be apprehensive of. There are more rules than you can shake a stick at when it comes to appropriate family Ger behavior. The eldest enter first. Don't point your feet north when you are sitting in the Ger. Receive everything with your right hand. Don't shake hands with your sleeves rolled up. Don't turn your back on the altar. Ever. And the list goes on. Of course for me not eating dairy makes it more complex because you have to try everything they give you and unless it's alcohol you should eat it all. Let's hope the lactaid works!

What happens if I screw up a rule and offend the family?  What if I fall off the horse?  What if the food makes me sick? What if we can't communicate at all? And the list goes on. So what I think is that the anticipation and anxiety is part of the learning experience. Mind over matter. Mind over matter. Mind over matter. It's okay to be scared but best to not let the fear affect either the experience itself or my ability to enjoy the journey. It's about calmly reminding myself that this entire experience is about learning, not just the parts I have identified as difficult or scary. And with that, I'm really looking forward to the challenges to come and also trying to be good to myself in the process. I may tend to be a wee bit hard on myself so now is the perfect time to let that go and enjoy the imperfections - or at least tolerate them!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Comfort zone

So I guess traveling is all about getting out of your comfort zone,  because until you do that you don't really test yourself or see your inner strength. How do you respond to adversity?  How do you solve problems?  What reaction do you have in stressful situations?

We only just arrived in Ulan bataar yesterday so I can't say there has been much adversity thus far. In fact,  it feels a bit easy but I think that may also be because I am traveling with a good friend which I have never done before. I think being alone adds a layer of anxiety which doesn't exist when there is someone else with you who speaks your language and can help you if needed which is all a new experience for me. Mongolia is actually much,  much easier than the 12 hours we spent in Beijing. Not being able to read the characters of a language makes you feel really helpless.  Just trying to get to our hotel was so difficult because i only had the english name and address printed out which no one understood. It took at least six people and one incorrect attempt to get us there. Talk about helpless!  At least we can read the Cyrillic characters here even if the meaning of the words is unknown. It's a relief to know with a little studying we'll be able to pronounce words,  read a map,  etc.

The strangest sensation thus far has been not having a computer and not compulsively checking email,  Facebook, etc. I am so used to a rapid-fire multi -tasking that I definitely went through a bit of withdrawal at first. I recall reading an article in the new York times about top neurologists who went on a trip to study what happened to their brains when they disconnected for a couple of weeks and it took them only a week for their brain chemistry to change. I am looking forward to that! I know my work has changed my brain patterns for the worse and hope disconnecting will be a much needed reset.

I think the trip is likely to feel somewhat easy until we head out west on Monday and stay in Ger's, ride horses and commune with nature which is always a wonderful challenge. It's guaranteed to rain when we are out in the steppe so I look forward to being wet and miserable at times and learning more about what I'm made of and who I've become over the past few years. Though it just recently ended, I grew and changed immensely throughout my relationship with Brian and I look forward to seeing all of these changes through the inevitable adversity to come!