Monday, June 23, 2008

It's not easy being brown

I never really appreciated the wonder of green.

After two weeks in Mongolia, I just spent three days in Boston. Like the Sceptered Isle for which it is named, New England practically glows in its lushness (I think mere politics kept it from being New Ireland.)

Where Mongolia is dominated by the grays and browns of its gritty soil, Boston fills the eye with chlorophyll. Given my Britannic genes, it was like soaking in a warm bath after a day of hard labor.

I know, however, how unfair it is to judge a land by your heritage. I spent several years in Texas, where the highest point on the horizon is a freeway overpass. I nearly when crazy for lack of a comforting mantle of surrounding hills. I had a friend, however, who had been terrified by a trip to my native West. Those mountains, he said, loomed over him like mountains.

The Mongolians more than love their open spaces – The Eternal Blue Sky is their spiritual anchor. And drought-parched land is such a part of their land that they don’t really see the lack of lawns in their cities or the brown of the landscape. When rains finally cause the hardy grass to jump out of the soil, their jubilation is for better pasture.

But I love green and always will. I’ll also always love Mongolia and the Eternal Blue Sky, I can’t easily comprehend finding the splendor in dry emptiness just as I delight in eye-filling foliage. But like the unqualified love for both my children, it is part of my soul.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mongolia's past is prologue

So is the past just a portent of Mongolia’s future?

Although I had visited before and fallen in love with the Mongolian people, the country itself was still something of a distant mirage in my mind. My 15 days with the University of Missouri Global Scholars program, however, awakened me to both the reality and dream of the land of Chingaas Khaan.

Much of Mongolia is shockingly bleak. In the drought-stricken Khentii region, finding a live blade of grass took hands-and-knees inspection. The cows, camels, sheep, goats and yaks wandering the steppes did little better with their parched tongues. A precious few herders live the traditional life in felt gers, moving frequently in search of better pastures.

But in Ulaanbaatar, construction cranes rival hood ornaments on upscale new cars. Fashions and hemlines are high. And so is the optimism. Someone is pumping lots of money into this forgotten nation.

Mongolia must be the most overlooked keystone in the global economy. The fact that it is a democratic country nestled between Russia and China is alone enough to raise an eyebrow. But since finding that the hooves of its herds pounded over huge mineral reserves and potential oil fields, Mongolia is poised for another of its many evolutions.

Chingaas Khaan was nothing if not wily. He understood that the best road to success was adaptation. He invented the Mongolian Way – an intensely emotional way of retaining his culture as a spiritual value while absorbing and capitalizing on the attributes of other peoples.

I have no doubt that Mongolia will put its own ancient spin on the 21st century. The gers won’t disappear as nearly half the population moves to the city – but they will likely become as “authentic” as the teepees in the American Southwest.

The potential of wealth for a country of 2.5 million souls evokes visions of Middle East sheikdoms or Latin American banana republics. But I don’t think so. Mongolians are both hard-headed about their independence and loyal to the teachings of Chingaas Khaan. Back in his day, the Great Leader developed a unique method of pillaging – he sent teams of accountants to the vanquished city to catalogue the booty so that it could be doled out to Mongolians in what he considered a just way.

If I wait another six years for a third visit, I have no doubt that I will find another Mongolia. Change is in the dry Mongolian air. While I’ve heard Westerners bemoan the fading of those quaint traditional herders, that’s really a selfish wish for their own entertainment.

Besides, you can count on some Chiingist to erect a “Mongol Land” under the Eternal Blue Sky.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Going to the Gobi

The Gobi Desert. It is hard to imagine a more forbidden name. Sandstorms, nomads, camels with two humps. And no water.

I unfolded my legs from an eight-hour train ride from the Gobi. It is indeed dry. Sandstorms are awesome but not fun. But the camels are a blast.

We spent three days wandering around in the desert in a Russian van that had no first gear and only worked in four-wheel-drive for a few feet. Gritty sand blew into everything -- I doubt my camera will last much longer.

But the Gobi is not without life. small lizards scurry across the sand and large green insects vaguely akin to grasshoppers cling to the thorny brush.

The people in the Gobi are mining the region's new gold -- tourists. A monk wearing a cartoon-emblazoned towel led us through a new-age "World Energy Center." A group of believers chanted then plopped onto the sand to suck up energy. Ger camps are blossoming everywhere.

My favorite adventure was a stop at the ger of a young couple who raise camels. Bactrian camels are almost like big dogs. I loved them, expecially when they gave me the reins and I got to jog through the desert unaccompanied.

But the Gobi has long been conquered. As far as I walked and rode into this vast and legendary desert, the tracks of inconsiderate man were everywhere. The discarded beer can is the universal symbol for "We Were Here." Garbage is our legacy.

Here are more photos.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The greater Mongolia

Today was our wrap-up session, as half the group leaves for home tomorrow and the rest (including me) goes on a side jaunt to the Gobi Desert. The farewells were bittersweet, but the conclusion of the tour gave us a chance to contemplate Mongolia as the academics we are.

This is a country of surprises, challenges and opportunities. It is all but unknown to most of America, but once changed the entire civilized world and is positioned to have major impact again.

Our trip to the very rural countryside emphasized the contrasts in Mongolia. We were all delighted to return to Ulaanbaatar, which in comparison seems on the cutting edge of modernity. As Brian White noted about the capital, "We are hanging on to civilized life by our fingertips here."

But as the sages among us have noted, all that could change in an eye blink. Mongolia has discovered that its herds of goats graze over a fortune of buried minerals. Will it become the new Kuwait? And if so, will the people benefit or just the leaders and their foreign sponsors?

I may be an optimist, but I think Mongolia may take the "good" path to its future. The sultans of the Middle East historically grabbed the wealth for themselves when they conquered. But Chingaas Khaan had a trailing army of accountants who inventoried all the booty in a captured city and then divided it among the Mongolian people.

The Mongolians may let the Chinese, Koreans and Canadians turn the first spades in the mineral boom, but I have no doubt they will hold onto a major share of the total wealth. If the Mongolians are true to their heritage, that means we may see a wealthy country of highly educated and articulate people who keep in the office while the tourists go out to the countryside to see the quaint (and by then subsidized) nomads.

Today was our wrap-up session, as half the group leaves for home tomorrow and the rest (including me) goes on a side jaunt to the Gobi Desert. The farewells were bittersweet, but the conclusion of the tour gave us a chance to contemplate Mongolia as the academics we are.

This is a country of surprises, challenges and opportunities. It is all but unknown to most of America, but once changed the entire civilized world and is positioned to have major impact again.

Our trip to the very rural countryside emphasized the contrasts in Mongolia. We were all delighted to return to Ulaanbaatar, which in comparison seems on the cutting edge of modernity. As Brian White noted about the capital, "We are hanging on to civilized life by our fingertips here."

But as the sages among us have noted, all that could change in an eye blink. Mongolia has discovered that its herds of goats graze over a fortune of buried minerals. Will it become the new Kuwait? And if so, will the people benefit or just the leaders and their foreign sponsors?

I may be an optimist, but I think Mongolia may take the "good" path to its future. The sultans of the Middle East historically grabbed the wealth for themselves when they conquered. But Chingaas Khaan had a trailing army of accountants who inventoried all the booty in a captured city and then divided it among the Mongolian people.

The Mongolians may let the Chinese, Koreans and Canadians turn the first spades in the mineral boom, but I have no doubt they will hold onto a major share of the total wealth. If the Mongolians are true to their heritage, we may see a wealthy country of highly educated and articulate people who keep in the office while the tourists go out to the countryside to see the quaint (and by then subsidized) nomads.
Today was our wrapup session, as half the group leaves for home tomorrow and the rest (including me) goes on a side jaunt to the Gobi Desert. The farewells were bittersweet, but

Monday, June 09, 2008

Road to adventure

My energy and my enthusiasm are at odds with each other tonight. It is after midnight and I am dog tired. But my head is still swimming with the sights, sounds and smells of three days on the road in rural Mongolia.

Chingaas Khaan spent most of his youth in Khentii region of northeast Mongolia. Later it was his staging ground for the reorganization of bands of nomadic herders into the mighty Mongol nation.

Accompanied by Mongolian historians O. Sukhbaatar and Munkh-Erdene Lhamsuren, we caravaned through Khenti in two Russian jeep/vans and a more modern but less comfortable Mitsubishi. It was a tour of history, wonder, lifestyles and vistas tempered with a developing environmental disaster.

Mongolia is dry in the best of years. But this year the rains did not come to Khenti. The grass in the pasture takes a good eye to find. The cattle are thin and many carcasses littered the landscape. And this is early summer. With no grass now, the livestock have little chance of making it through the sub-zero weather.

If he herds die, so do the Mongolians.

Bed beckons, but there are plenty of photos on the Flickr site. And here is the short version to be fleshed out later.
-- "Road" is a relative term in Mongolia. At times it meant nothing at all as we simply drove off across the trackless steppes looking for our next waypoint.
-- "Road sign" is not a relative term in Mongolia. It is simply meaningless.
-- Camels are curious, but don't like cookies.
-- Milk tea is really salty milk and water, but tastes surprisingly good.
-- A ger is strangely roomy comfortable.
-- Mongolian faces are beautiful. As are their hearts. They welcomed this band of strangers into their gers, fed us from their larders and charmed us with incomprehensible words but universal smiles.
-- Chingaas Khaan camped in more places than there are inns in which Washington slept.
-- We erroneously start the history of Mongolia in the 1200's when Chingaas Khaan rose to power. But centuries before him the Turkic people, the Huns and others rode the steppes. Still earlier -- much earlier -- Stone Age people turned giant stones into art.
-- The secret to keeping a UAZ van on the road is to carry an extra distributor in your tool box
-- Dust storms are nasty. Just nasty. You taste them for days.
-- Hours, miles and bruised tailbones fade rapidly when you spend them with a handful of colleagues from various MU departments. I learned as much about myself, my school and my profession on this trip as I did about the simple cow herder who conquered most of the civilized world.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Too much to tell

In the past couple of days, I've chatted with Buddhist monk, posed with Lenin's statue, eaten horse for lunch, examined the bullet-riddled skulls of purged Mongolians, wandered the infamous Ulaanbaatar Black Market and, well, had one hell of a time.

But I still have to pack for a weekend trek to the the steppes and I'm too tired to write. So instead take a gander at the zillion photos I put on Flickr. I'll write again when I get back from the wilds.

The Grand Tour updated

Before World War 1, affluent young men and women celebrated their entree to civilized life by taking "The Grand Tour," a leisurely cruise to exotic ports around the world.

Winthrop and Penelope, buzz off. Meet Turk and Spence, the "two idiots with $600" and a desire to see the world.

When we were touring the Mongolian National Museum in Ulaanbaatar, I heard an accent from one of my favorite places in the world. "North England?" I asked as I passed a somewhat scruffy young man asking his friend where the **** they were supposed to be going next.

"Yeah, Manchester. You from America?" And indeed I was. There is an instant and amazing kinship among people who hear something close to their native tongue in a sea of unintelligible voices. And when I told him I was a journalism professor, his smile broadened, he nudged his friend and said, "Have we got a story for you!"

I wish I had met Paul Turko and John Spencer about 40 years ago. I take it back. I probably wouldn't be writing if I had.

Turk and Spence just graduated from Leeds University but wanted to have an adventure before going on to grad school. So they scraped up 300 pounds ($600) each, stuck out their thumbs and hitched rides to Ukraine.

And there they met Natasha Fedorova, whose gentle smile and gazelle-like grace would stop traffic on any continent. Natasha gave her boss an excuse, grabbed her bag and joined the adventure.

They took a train across Russia to Irkusk, delighted in the deep waters of Lake Baikal and headed down to Ulaanbaatar. Only to find me. Bummer.

The saving races is that they ran into Degi first. With true Mongol style, he offered them a place to sleep, access to his favorite watering holes and expert translation/guide service.

When I left the four, Turk and Spence were loudly debating their next move and wondering whether the Pacific Ocean was really a barrier to hitch hiking. Natasha looked bemused. Degi just patiently waited for the two Brits to stop talking and get moving.

And I'm sure they did. Keep an eye out for them. Or at least watch their YouTube movie for a bit of fun (but remember Manchester United fans seldom spare the course language).

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Clyde TV, Mongolia edition

I'm a print journalist, so video does not come naturally. But the Web makes it easy to add motion images. And now my still camera -- a Panasonic Lumix FZ7 -- has a nice video feature that lets me take nice shots without hauling a special camera.

So I gave it a try this morning. With the 13-hour time difference, I could not sleep. I was up at 3:30 a.m. I did email and sorted photos, then decided to walk through the awakening streets of Ulaanbaatar.

Here's a still image of what I saw, but you might enjoy this brief video. Be prepared -- I had no camera operator or remote control, so had to do a bit of running to get into the scene.

video

The Ulaanbaatar look

Dark stringy hair, weathered brow. A worn wool coat ( a deel) and felt boots with turned up toes. It's the Mongol look, right?

Go West, young man. All the way to Paris in this case. Although you still see traditional garb on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolians out chic Americans coast to coast. I've never seen so many men in expensive suits, women in heels and expensive outfits or such great hair on both genders.

No nation can be fairly stereotype, but all in all the Mongolians are handsome people. They are fairly tall, have elegant facial lines I always associated with the "Indian princess" of old movies and a grace of movement I envy.

They are also exceedingly clean. That sounds like a given unless you have looked at the streets and surroundings of Ulaanbaatar. Dirt is the operative word. It's too cold and too dry for lawns or other landscaping. If it is not paved here, it is just dirt and rocks. And not many paths or shortcuts are paved.

But no one seems to have dust on their shoes, spattered trouser cuffs or telltale dirty handprints on their shirts. It's a trick I wish I had learned as a 5-year old. And especially as a 57-year old.

Here are a few street scenes of Mongolian fashions. I hope you are pleasantly surprised.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Khey, Chet it right, will you?

One of the interesting lessons of my first day of class in Mongolia is that I may have never correctly pronounced anything to do with the country – other than the name of the country itself.

The Great Khan is the Great Han. K is a silent letter in Mongolian. And Genghis – especially when pronounced as “Jengis,” is a puzzle for Mongolians. He is Chingaas (“cheen gus”).

And then there is the capital with all the vowels. Ulanbaataar in my lexicon was OOO-lon ba TAR. Here, its “AlonBAtar” – said quickly with all ahhing and no oooing.

I was wrong about trying to learn the Mongolian phrase for "where is the toilet" so I don't even need to remember to drop the "h" in jorlong khaan baidag ve. The International Sign Language for Guys system works well here. You can hop on one foot while grabbing your crotch in any place on the planet and some fellow will direct you to the can.

And this is not a one-small-drink country, so give up on the chance you will be able to toast with a cheery "Erüül mehdiin tölöö’" when your turn comes around the table.

So a simple "bye-arsh-te" and a nod of thanks will do.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The long and the shorts of it

We are here!

Our skivvies are not …

Missouri’s learned envoys to the Land of the Endless Blue Sky arrived in Ulaanbaatar Sunday evening after (hang on… 2 ½ to St. Louis, almost 5 to LA, carry the layover, 13 to Seoul times a cramped leg plus transfer to Mongolia ) one heck of a long time on our bottoms in a variety of semi-comfortable seats. But we were all in good spirits, especially when Dan, Monke and Brian from the trip showed up and we found that Ted from Tennessee had been on the plane with use.

We chatted away with excitement while watching the bags plop onto the carrousel at glacial speed. And we grinned at each other as the crowd of fellow travelers dwindled.
And then we looked at each other in dismay when the last bag came up the belt – and wasn’t one of ours.

Our baggage is somewhere between Mongolia and Seoul. Or Seoul and Los Angeles. Or Los Angeles and the moon.
We were not alone. Several other long-distance passengers were left baggedly clueless. I knew we were in trouble when a very patient and very polite Mongolian official smiled and whipped out a sheet with pictures of various types of bags and descriptions in Cyrillic text. I wasn’t even exactly sure of the color of my new case and less sure how you describe a rolling backpack.

Korean Airlines has but one flight per day to Ulaanbaatar, so the best we can hope for is to have clean underwear sometime Monday night.

In the meantime we took a bus down the bumpy road to the Flower Hotel. Brian White, the host from CIEE, explained that Ulaanbaatar is like Las Vegas – very pretty at night. You make the call in the daylight.

It is indeed a city of lights. Not a lot of traffic, but interesting signs – the Hanburger. The Khan Brau beer palace, etc.

The Flower Hotel is older but nice. It has a famous Japanese restaurant and a bathhouse. But I most appreciated the in-room Internet for just $4 a day. And the bed. I talked to Cecile by video Skype, washed out my shorts and went to bed about midnight.

And here I am. Ready for my first meal and my first day of adventure – armed with the key phrase of the day.

Jorlong khaan baidag ve. (Where is the bathroom?)

Sometime in nowhere

I knew that an excursion into the world of Genghis Khan was a “timeless adventure,” but I didn’t take that phrase so personally.

I’m not really sure where I am. I’m not sure what time it is and I’m not really even sure what day it is.

There is little map of the Pacific Ocean on the video screen staring at me from the seatback on this Korean Airlines jumbo jet. The little picture of a plane is hovering over what I seem to recall is the Kamchatka Peninsula. Hmm. Isn’t that where the Russians shot down a Korean Airlines jumbo jet a few years ago?

So am I in Russia, or just a part of that cartoon airplane on the map? I think for now my home is Seat 23E, a reasonably comfortable cocoon tended by a bevy of graceful and bilingual ladies bearing plastic cups of orange juice. A Korean girl who just finished her junior year at an Austin high school is dozing on my right. She’s going home to visit her parents. Next to her is an older Korean-American woman who is even more talkative than me – I know she is from Orlando, doesn’t like CNN and told me her three all-time favorite preachers. I had a hard time politely coming up with a list of my own. I don’t think the old guy on the bench in front of Tiger Barber counts.

The lucky fellow with the aisle seat to my left installs scoring devices on bombing ranges. He has expensive earphones, quickly dismissed the video games on our seatback screens and has whipped through a couple of movies since we boarded. Not much you can say to someone wearing a sound-deadening Bose headset. He lets me get out when my kidneys wake up, though. And at least he won’t complain when I snore.

But I can’t get a grip on time. I’m like the cartoon fellow in those educational cartoons, rocketing through space while a clock back home doesn’t move. I think I crossed the International Date Line for the seventh time in my life while dozing awhile ago. The seatback video map says it is 20:31 at Departure and 2:32 at Destination. But not MY departure – I started in St. Louis, not LA . Nor MY Destination – Seoul is just a dinner stop before we head to Ulaanbaatar. So what time is it in Seat 23E? Between the 24-hour clock on that video screen, the darkness in the cabin and the fact that I could eat, sleep or pee at any hour anyway, I don’t have a clue.

That’s kind of nice, really. I’m not anywhere or any time in particular.

I just am.