Archive by Author | petersponderings

If You Give a Kid a Camera…

My new friend on the bus from Darkhan to Ulaanbaatar.

I made a friend on a bus in the Mongolian countryside.

… he may think it’s a napkin!

"It usually goes the other way."

“It usually goes the other way.”

… he may invent a game I would call “camera wars.”

"Got ya!"

“Got ya!”

… he may inadvertently take a picture of the camera itself.

Artsy for a novice!

Artsy for a novice!

…he may take over 100 photos in twenty minutes!

My face was sore from all the posting...

My face got sore from all the posing…

"There's other things to take pictures of besides me!" (My face was sore from all the posing and smiles.)

“There’s other things to take pictures of besides me!”

… he may teach you that to a ten-year-old local the most interesting things about Mongolia are:

– men peeing.

This was one of several...

This was one of several…

(At the rest stop I found a monument to all his pee-shots)

Only in Mongolia...

Only in Mongolia…

– plains and hills.

Looks like Mongolia to me!

Looks like Mongolia to me!

– cows!

Not exactly National Geographic worthy, but maybe someday!

Not exactly National Geographic worthy, but maybe someday!

– trains (some things appear to be almost universal!)

Not a bad shot!

Not a bad shot!

– juice

Apple juice!

(apple)

– and little brothers!

This little guy was pleased to be on camera!

This guy was pleased to be on camera!

I salute you my friend! Thanks for making the ride entertaining.

IMG_8065

I salute you my friend! Thanks for making the ride entertaining.

“The Golden Scissors” Gallery

April Fool’s Day was the date of a very serious national competition in Mongolia, the “Golden Scissors,” a contest between the country’s top cosmetology students.  My school, the Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic School of Art and Production, was well represented and my gracious coworkers even cancelled my classes so that I could go to cheer on our students! Members of […]

School Marketing Competition!

School Marketing Competition!

A student pitches her baked goods at a booth while classmates, teachers, and members of the general public circulate, try free samples, and buy discounted products. Love the hands-on activity!

Dogs of Ulaanbaatar

I love dogs. I grew up with a gentle giant of a yellow lab named Ben. He was a part of the family. Mongolia, like many developing countries, can be a heart-wrenching place to be a dog-lover, but things are changing fast.

A bed with a view!

A bed with a view!

Stray dogs are a common sight in Ulaanbaatar but they’re not nearly as common as they once were. Over the last twenty years numerous extermination campaigns have been launched to rid the city of feral canines, which can pose serious threats to humans. Dogs are not viewed in the same terms here as they are in the West. Attacks by rabid strays as well as the transmission of other dog-borne diseases and parasites makes man’s best friend a much larger risk to humans than in the developed world. While it’s a bit difficult at times to shed my bias, understanding the Mongolian cultural context is crucial to appreciate the complex relationship people here have with dogs.

Cozy!

Cozy!

Largely owing to Mongolia’s nomadic pastoralist heritage, there is a culture of viewing animals as commodities to be bought, sold, or eaten. Dogs have important traditional roles like guarding their owners’ gers (yurts) from raiding parties, helping with herding, and, most importantly, protecting the livestock from predators and thieves. The archetypal Mongolian dog, the massive, fearsome Mongol Bankhar, is even used to hunt steppe wolves that may prey on the herd! (Actually, it’s illegal to export the Mongolians’ prized canine,  a close relative of the Tibetan Mastiff.)

(Photo courtesy of : http://www.dokhyi-bhairubshakti.nl/newsa.html)

Majestic, but don't mess with it!

Majestic, but don’t mess with it!

Although revered for their loyalty and usefulness, dogs aren’t viewed with the same degree of anthropomorphism found in the West. In an environment without modern veterinary medicine, and, more recently in the countryside, where access to adequate care is difficult and treatments are expensive, injured dogs are killed with the understanding a new puppy will replace it in its duties.

Dogs are often sighted roaming the sidewalks of UB.

Dogs are often sighted roaming the sidewalks of UB.

However, in the quickly-modernizing capital city the traditional roles of dogs are absent and thus their utility is much less. On the contrary, they can be a major public nuisance and are often treated as such. Tales of animal rights abuses in Ulaanbaatar (as in many places in Asia) are not uncommon. Fellow foreigners have told me horror stories of drunken owners throwing massive rocks down from apartment windows onto tied-up dogs, killing them. Others have seen dogs kicked for fun by children in front of their parents. It appears reporting and enforcement of these offences is not a priority.

Most dogs here are very wary of humans.

Most dogs here are very wary of people.

In fact, it’s believed that numerous illegal dog fighting rings operate in Mongolia. In 2013, there was a scandal for Heineken when pictures of a dogfight at a Mongolian club, where its banners were prominently displayed, went viral. Company representatives said there was previously a promotional event at the venue and the club owners negligently failed to take the materials down afterwards. Heineken cut all ties with the establishment and publicly denounced the animal rights abuses. Dog fights have been taking place in Mongolia for centuries for entertainment and gambling.

Aside from hostile humans, dogs in Ulaanbaatar must confront extreme cold. “Pupsicles” is a term coined by expats in Ulaanbaatar to describe the frozen dead puppies found occasionally on the dirt sidewalks, back alleys, and main streets during the depths of winter. Temperatures in December, January, and February routinely hover around -30 to -40 degrees Celsius, virtually the same as in Fahrenheit. For this reason, dogs are known to travel in packs in order to survive, taking shelter anywhere they can find in sewers and abandoned structures. Sadly, they compete with the homeless population at times leading to further human-animal conflict.

Puppies!

These puppies are just fine!

Still, there are plenty of reasons for hope! Cultural attitudes and norms towards dogs and pet ownership are changing very fast. Owning a dog is seen as a status symbol in the city. Many affluent Mongolian owners shy away from the brutish Mongol breeds, instead favoring lap dogs. While a decade and a half ago there were virtually no shelters or clinics for animals, there are now a handful of NGO-run establishments that provide veterinary services. Rising levels of wealth among the upper echelon also means owners will spend money to pay for the healthcare of their pets instead of choosing to euthanize them and adopt others.

How could you NOT want to feed this guy?

How could you NOT want to feed this guy?

Neighborhoods collectively adopt strays, particularly puppies, and care for them. During the frigid winter months, locals deposited food scraps and old torn clothing for a pair of puppies that had made their home in a crevice in a concrete wall along a popular walkway. Mysteriously, the two disappeared one day. I’m hoping that a kind soul adopted them until the warmer weather returned; an increasingly common occurrence. There were dozens of puppies I wanted to adopt for the winter but I knew my landlord would have thrown a fit!

Wish I could adopt a cute little guy like this one!

Wish I could take in a cute little guy like this one!

Right now a litter of pups is yipping outside my window from their home in a small stand of trees near our building’s dumpster, where their parents teach them to scavenge. Springtime is here and the nights are much warmer; the river next to our building has thawed and is running. Locals continue to donate food scraps and even a jacket that serves as a bed for the cute youngsters. They don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon!

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To contact a rescue shelter in Mongolia please see the information below:

Foundation of Protection Animals of Mongolia

P.O. Box-46A-283

Ulaanbaatar- 210646

Mongolia

Tel: +976-8800-1414;

+976-9915-8085

Fax: +976-11-354551

animals_mongolia@yahoo.com

For more information on Mongolia from other travelers, check out a favorite travel website of mine with some great articles from the land of the Eternal Blue Sky: http://www.gonomad.com/destinations-worldwide/asia-tags/tag/location-mongolia

Sources:

http://robert-mcpherson.photoshelter.com/image/I0000uMev85d2TZQ

http://advocacy.britannica.com/blog/advocacy/2012/12/from-commodities-to-companions/

http://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/stories/update-heineken-severs-relationship-with-club-that-hosted-illegal-dog-

http://www.infomongolia.com/ct/ci/3225

Zaisan Hill

Zaisan Hill

A power plant smokestack, crows, and an ovoo, a traditional Mongolian shrine, made for an interesting shot on this weekend’s stormy hike.

Hair, Makeup, and Nails — Oh My!

I open the door and step into the sweaty gymnasium of the Rajiv Gandhi Polytechnic College of Arts and Production. The overwhelming odor of nail polish and hairspray is almost too much to bear. I wonder how long the dozens of participants and spectators have withstood the harsh fumes. Still, the action here is well worth the light-headedness.

Male creative hair design with first-year students!

The male creative hair design competitors are first-year student stylists.

Make-up competition! Each contestant must do his or her best to replicate the same illustration they're given.

Makeup competition! Each contestant must do his or her best to replicate the same illustration they’re given.

Male mannequin contest between second year students!

Male mannequin contest between second year students.

Manicurists at work!

First-year manicurists at work!

The room is alive with colors and textures, a teeming mass of cosmetics students, hair design trainees, and nail artist apprentices rushing to finish their creations before the deadline. It feels like an episode of a fashion-based reality TV show. Tensions are high. The focus and intensity of the contestants is palpable. Rihanna, Swedish house Mafia, and rave music blast my ears. I imagine the models going to an epic after party following the contest, but I’m told there is none!

Creative hair design competition between second-year diploma students. The stylist in red won an international competition last year.

Creative hair design competition between second-year diploma students. The stylist in red won an international competition last year.

The stylists are as stylish as their mannequins and models!

The hairdressers are as stylish as their mannequins and models!

Stylist and model pose for   a photo.

Stylist and model pose.

Glitter and dyed hair, cut by the stylists, litter the floor. Attendants with brooms and dustpans struggle to keep up with the debris showering the basketball court. Gracious and trusting volunteers in white smocks sit in rows of chairs as their classmates bring their creative experiments to life. Most are friends or classmates of the beauticians.

Bridal models patiently sit while makeup artists work their magic.

Bridal models patiently sit while makeup artists work their magic.

Long lines of tables ring the perimeter of the gymnasium, manicurists and hand models seated across from one another. The competitors painstakingly push back cuticles, paste on fake nails, and paint intricate designs in neon, black and white, silver, and gold. Models sport masks, tutus, dresses made of plastic trash bags, and even neon jumpsuits.

Look closely. The model is wearing a plastic garbage bag!

Look closely. The model is wearing a plastic garbage bag!

In a corner of the basketball court body paint is applied to two topless teenage students standing in nothing but booty shorts. On display for dozens of fellow classmates, teachers, and administrators I can’t believe the half nude spectacle! This would NEVER happen in the US!

Shockingly, fifteen year old students pose completely topless for the body painting competition!

Shockingly, fifteen year old students pose completely topless for the body painting competition!

As the time limits approach panicky stylists put the finishing touches on their designs. Models take off the smocks covering their outfits and volunteers hand out numbers. Judges slowly pace the aisles stopping to chat with one another and pointing, clipboards in hand.

Bridal makeup and hair models sit with numbered cards, posing for photos and judges.

Bridal makeup and hair models sit with numbered cards, posing for photos and judges.

Outfits are as creative and ridiculous as the nail art itself. Competitors await the judges decisions in the background.

Outfits are as creative and ridiculous as the nail art itself. Competitors await the judges decisions in the background.

Before the winners are declared the models practice their runway walk. In a long line they circle the rows of chairs as the crowds lining the walls snap photos with smart phones and murmur to one another. Groups of stylists stand back and compare their work with their classmates, anxiously awaiting the decisions. Models once again take their chairs and the judges hand out small slips of colored paper to the models of stylists who have placed in the top three.

Makeup models showing off for the judges.

Makeup models showing off for the judges.

Contestants' work is on display! Each model holds a card with a number corresponding to their beautician.

Contestants’ work is on display! Each model holds a card with a number corresponding to their beautician.

This is the way many students in my school dress...

This is the way many students in my school dress…

The products of the creative hair dummy contest on display.

The products of the creative hair dummy contest on display.

Medals in the background are ready to be handed out to the winning contestants!

Medals in the background are ready to be handed out to the winning contestants!

A few minutes later the chosen models, dummies, and stylists are brought to the front of the gym. An announcer in a shimmery navy blue suit calls out the winners. The crowd cheers wildly, but not everyone is happy.

“Good job,” I congratulate a first-year hair stylist student from my English Club, passing her in the crowd as I try to get a better camera angle. I’d watched her work and was impressed. “No! Not good. No good,” she turns away, wiping tears from her eye. Oops!

As you can see, a conservative dress code is strictly enforced!

As you can see, a conservative dress code is strictly enforced!

The models take their jobs very seriously.

The models take their jobs very seriously.

Models wore full costumes to highlight their nails!

Models wore full costumes to highlight their nails!

At first I don’t realize how important this school event is but soon a co-teacher informs me that winning means advancing to the national competition and potentially gaining recognition among the top hair design studios and beauty salons in Mongolia. There are five students in the room who won the national competition last year for their respective events and traveled to Brazil. One student won two gold medals at the international competition for creative hair design in the men’s and women’s categories for her age group.

Good luck at nationals Rajiv Gandhi students!

Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year!

What is Tsagaan Sar?

Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian Lunar New Year festival that has been celebrated for thousands of years by ethnic Mongols.

Tsagaan Sar literally mean "White Moon" but it might as well be, "loads of mutton pastries and too much vodka..."

Tsagaan Sar literally mean “White Moon” but it might as well be “mountains of mutton  and rivers of vodka…” The pile of dumplings I put a dent in sits in front of the “uuts” or cured mutton back and tail.

When is Tsagaan Sar?

The first day of Tsagaan Sar, and of the Mongolian lunar calendar, differs every year. The start of Tsagaan Sar falls on the new moon two lunar months after the winter solstice. While it generally coincides with the Chinese New Year, a Mongolian friend told me that it usually starts a day before or after the Chinese holiday.

While Tsagaan Sar is officially only three days (up from two last year) the first day back to work in the city also generally consists of Tsagaan Sar festivities. Here school officials await the Tsagaan Sar Greeting Ceremony with a tower of biscuits and "airal" in front of them.

While Tsagaan Sar is officially only three days (up from two days last year) the first day back to work generally consists of Tsagaan Sar festivities. Here school officials await the Tsagaan Sar Greeting Ceremony with a tower of biscuits and “airal,” dried cheese curd, in front of them.

How is Tsagaan Sar usually celebrated?

During Tsagaan Sar, Mongolians are required to, if possible, visit with all of their living relatives and family friends. The aim is to catch up on important news from the last year and wish each other well for the coming New Year. The celebration is officially celebrated for three days, but in reality the visits go on for days afterwards, even weeks in the countryside where herders have fewer formal obligations.

There is an elaborate and lengthy protocol to be observed by hosts and guests involving ceremonial greetings, the consumption of delicious foods and beverages, toasting, and gift-giving!

My visit to my friends Shine and Oko was a wonderful time! Like many visits, I was shown their family photo album and caught up on news from their last year!

My visit to my friends Shine and Oko was a wonderful time! Like many visits, I was shown their family photo album and caught up on news from their last year!

What customs are associated with Tsagaan Sar?

As an outsider, it seems that there are an incredible number of customs that accompany Tsagaan Sar, although many Mongolians insist it’s a very straightforward holiday to observe. Traditionally, it’s vital for the good fortune of both guests and hosts in the coming year that protocol is properly observed.

The most important custom during the holiday is the special New Year’s greeting that’s required for family members (excluding spouses), friends, and coworkers. Importantly, this greeting is done only once between two people during their first meeting of the New Year. The verbal greeting “Amar bain uu?” means “Are you living peacefully?” The simplest appropriate response is also “Amar bain uu?”

My coworkers greet one another in the traditional manner, lining up to greet the oldest administrators and faculty first. Most dressed in traditional "deels."

My coworkers greet one another in the traditional manner, lining up to greet the oldest administrators and faculty first. Most dressed in traditional “deels.”

However, the words are only a small part of the customary greeting. Generally, blue prayer scarves called “khadags” are offered by guests to their hosts with open outstretched arms, palms facing up. These are often filled with freshly pressed tugrik bills which are given to the hosts, but this depends on the family and its tradition. A common amount given to one’s host is a 5000 tugrik bill – around three dollars. In preparation for the giving of the scarf, it must be folded into thirds length-wise with the open side facing the host.

Hosts often also greet guests with a “khadag” in their outstretched arms but do not offer it to visitors, partially because as hosts they are required to provide many other things.

At the head of the long table sat the school director. For logistical reasons blue "khadags" were not part of this ceremony. (Imagine hundreds of them piling up in the director's arms!)

At the head of the long table sat the school director. For logistical reasons blue “khadags” were not part of this ceremony. (Imagine dozens of scarves piling up in the director’s arms!)

Whether or not there is a transfer of scarves, specific arm gesturing known as a “zolgokh” is required during the Tsagaan Sar greeting. Younger people of lesser rank place their hands underneath the elder person’s arms, gently grasping their elbows with palms as a show of support for their older relatives. The person initiating the greeting, generally the guest, often bows slightly and places his or her head on the left side, then the right of his hosts’ cheeks. This allows the guest and host to sniff one another politely in the process. I’m still not sure what the sniffing is all about but I’m glad I brushed my teeth before most of these greetings!

Are there gender-specific greetings?

While I’m not aware of any additional female to female greetings performed during Tsagaan Sar, for males of age there is an important custom involving the exchange of snuff bottles. This practice is not reserved specifically for Tsagaan Sar, especially in the countryside where it is customary, but it’s extremely common during the holiday. The polished and engraved snuff bottles, full of pulverized scented tobacco, are kept in brightly colored silk pouches that are stored in the inner breast pockets of one’s deel.

The exchange is executed by placing one’s carved and polished stone bottle in the palm of his hand and shaking hands with his comrade who also holds a snuff bottle if he has one. It is considered polite to pull up the wooden or plastic stopper before exchanging the bottles as a sign of respect. Generally, the snuff is not actually consumed which is probably a good thing as it’s clearly unhealthy and addictive. Instead, Mongolian men usually just pull up the stopper up and sniff the top of the bottle on both sides.

I exchange my small snuff bottle with my administrator's husband using the traditional handshake custom. It was fun to do home visits with my coworkers!

I exchange my small snuff bottle with my administrator’s husband using the traditional handshake custom. It was fun to visit the homes of several administrators with my coworkers!

The proper way to hand off a snuff bottle, with the silk pouch in the background.

The proper way to hand off a snuff bottle, with the silk pouch in the background.

Occasionally, women also may take part in the snuff bottle practice, particularly if they are older or are from the countryside. Like most Mongolian traditions, it has its origin among nomadic herders.

How do people dress on Tsagaan Sar?

People generally dress in traditional deels, boots, and decorative fur hats. However, many in the younger generations, especially in the cities, are now choosing to wear western clothing during these visits. Generally, the traditional garments are very warm so people often remove them after the greetings and wear everyday western clothes underneath. If outside or in public the deels usually stay on though.

My coworkers are all dressed up for the holiday!

My coworkers are all dressed up for the holiday!

What food is traditionally prepared and eaten during Tsagaan Sar?

According to etiquette, first, a bowl of salty, buttery milk tea is offered to guests known as “suutei tsai.” Then a bowl of” airak,” or fermented mare’s milk, is passed around the table until it’s nearly empty and refilled several times. Next, slices of cured mutton are cut off the “uuts” (pronounced “oats”) — a sheep back and tail that serves as the main centerpiece in every household.

Katie and I stand in front of the table at our friend, Urnaa's grandmother's home.

Katie and I stand in front of the table at our friend, Urnaa’s grandmother’s home. I’m proudly holding the bowl of fermented mare’s milk, “airak,” and trying to battle the array of vodkas placed in front of me in various glasses.

After that, a small mountain of “buuz,” or meat dumplings is presented to each guest. It’s required to eat at least three of them though eating more is generally a sign of respect for your hosts. Next, chocolates and juice are proffered and, if the guests are of age, vodka is poured and several rounds of ceremonial toasts are given by the oldest members of the hosts’ family. The speeches always include well wishes for health, wealth, and happiness for the New Year and continued good relations between the guests and hosts.

My supervisor and I with the traditional feast set before us! In front you can see the sweet curd dish with raisins along with an array of fruits, small vegetable salads, and juice. The levels of biscuits in the towers displayed at one's household indicate the eldest host's social status. (The highest number 9 is reserved for the President, 7 for eldest grandparents, 5 for younger grandparents, etc.)

My supervisor and I with the traditional feast set before us! In front you can see also see the sweet curd dish with raisins along with an array of fruits, small vegetable salads, and juice. The levels of biscuits in the towers displayed at one’s household indicate the eldest host’s social status. (The highest number 9 is reserved for the President, 7 for eldest grandparents, 5 for younger grandparents, etc.)

How did you celebrate Tsagaan Sar?

I visited six different households over four days and was served almost the exact same foods and beverages at each home – which were delicious! I visited my supervisor’s apartment, my Mongolian teacher’s home, a school administrator’s apartment, and a coworker’s suite in the city. I also visited a Mongolian friend’s mother and grandmother, who live in a small village an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. Between the visits I had enough buuz and vodka for the entire Year of the Horse!

Urnaa's mother's ger, with a small visitor and his trusty companion bidding us farewell.

Urnaa’s mother’s ger, with a small visitor and his trusty companion bidding us farewell.

Urnaa's uncle was a champion vodka-pourer...

Urnaa’s uncle was a champion vodka-pourer…

Me with school faculty. For some reason most of them took off their "deels" after the official ceremony.

Me with school faculty. For some reason most of them took off their “deels” after the official ceremony.

How was your commute to the countryside during the busy travel weekend?

We took a minibus to the village which only runs a couple times a day. Unlike most forms of public transportation, we had to wait until the bus was entirely full before it left! (I suppose if I were working on a holiday driving in the snow through the Mongolian countryside I would want every seat full too.) Katie, Urnaa, and I were the first ones to jump in the back and we waited for about an hour until the bus was full and then another half an hour for the drivers to smoke enough cigarettes to go!

During out trip back to Ulaanbaatar, after celebrating with Urnaa’s family, our drivers somehow crammed 29 people in a 14 passenger van! It was the last bus running to the city that day so everyone wanted to get on it to visit relatives for the last day of the official celebration. The driver, who made about twice as much money as usual with the extra passengers, had no complaints either!

There were ten people in our row that only had seatbelts for three! Elderly men and young children sat on tiny wooden stools where our leg room would normally be. Everyone had someone else’s arm or leg jammed into their side! As you can imagine, the bumpy roads were not fun. Also, as you can probably guess, there is not much enforcement of seat belt laws here… Not good!

The village's views of the nearby mountains were wonderful!

The village’s views of the nearby mountains were wonderful!

Traffic jam?

Traffic jam? Since when do cows graze on tires?

Our good friend, Urnaa, was a wonderful host and translator for our visits!

Our good friend, Urnaa, was a wonderful host and translator for our visits in the village!

Urnaa's mother and grandson (I think?) were kind enough to bid us farewell before we hopped on the crowded minibus!

Urnaa’s mother and grandson were kind enough to bid us farewell before we hopped on the crowded minibus!

What games did you play for the New Year?

I played with “shegai,” or sheep ankle bones, at my friend Shine and Oko’s house during my Tsagaan Sar visit. There are many types of bone games played by locals, who also use the ankle bones to forecast the future – especially for the New Year. There are four distinct sides to the bones that are each named after a different type of livestock. The sides are named after sheep, camels, goats, and horses. Certain combinations of these are seen as auspicious, or likely to bring good fortune, while others are believed to bring bad luck with still more representing “average” outcomes. According to my friends the best possible roll is having four different sides facing up.

Many Mongolians take these fortune-telling methods very seriously. There are only three possible casts of the bones allowed for the fortune telling, after that it’s believed that the rolls do not accurately reflect one’s fate. I rolled two average combinations of several sheep and goats, and one favorable one with two horses, a goat, and a sheep. Horses are seen as very good luck!

Hats are very important on Tsagaan Sar!

Hats are very important on Tsagaan Sar!

Happy New Year!!!

Happy New Year!!!

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and wealthy Year of the Horse!

Wishing you a happy, healthy, and wealthy Year of the Horse!

Winter Vacation: Laos!

Q & A: Travels in Laos

How was the weather?

The weather during my travels was hot and muggy with temperatures hovering in the upper 80s! There was hardly a cloud in the sky the whole trip. It was a welcome but also difficult change from the cold, wintry weather in Ulaanbaatar. The temperature was -10 degrees F when I left the Mongolian capital! Even in shorts and a T-shirt, my body needed a lot more fluids and calories to help regulate its internal temperature and I never stopped sweating which was probably good. Imagine going from the dead of winter to the hottest day in summer in less than 24 hours!

The Mekong River as seen from the banks of Don Det, a small island in Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands region in Southern Laos.

The Mekong River as seen from the banks of Don Det, a small island in Si Phan Don, the 4,000 islands region in Southern Laos.

What was a memory that stands out from your trip?

I went on a kayaking trip with my friends while staying on the island of Don Det. Our guide brought us through narrow side channels, forcing us to weave between small islands and duck beneath overhanging trees and brush. After several hours, we reached the middle of the massive muddy river. There were roughly two football fields’ worth of space between us and the shore on either side.

The mighty muddy Mekong!

The mighty muddy Mekong!

At first I was confused about why he told our group to stop paddling and stay quiet, but soon we spotted several Irrawaddy River Dolphins, a critically endangered species of freshwater dolphin! The lumpy, grey creatures came within fifty feet of our boats and breached the surface with their whole bodies, enabling us to get a pretty good look at them. The local guide told us that there were only six left in this entire stretch of river due to a variety of irresponsible fishing methods. Local fishermen still use arsenic, dynamite, and nets in which dolphins get caught to bring in their catch!

[Photo credit: gokunming.com]

What other animals did you see?

On my tour of the Laotian countryside the most common creatures I encountered were domesticated farm animals, but certainly not the kind we find in the US. On the small island where we stayed for several days I sighted water buffaloes, ducks, and chickens along the small dusty path that served as a main road. The water buffaloes were escaping the heat of the day by basking in the cool silted waters of the Mekong. One of them was submerged entirely except for this head, making him look almost like a hippo with horns due to his huge flared nostrils and wide cranium.

Baby water buffaloes!

Baby water buffaloes!

Baby water buffaloes next to a parked bike. A view from the main road on Don Det.

Baby water buffaloes next to a parked bike. A view from the main road on Don Det.

The adults were across the road, cooling off in the river.

The adults were across the road, cooling off in the river.

I think they have the right idea!

I think they have the right idea!

What else did you see on the Mekong River?

While kayaking I glanced up at the trees  towering twenty feet above us that were growing out of the river. Their tops were bent over as if they had been thrashed in a violent storm. Our Laotian guide, noticing me observing said “the water during the rainy season reaches the tops of those trees.” The water level of the river changes markedly depending on the season. During the summer months, from April or May to October or November, there are monsoons that cause major flooding, which many farmers depend on to irrigate their rice paddies which must have several inches of water to grow. Families build their houses on stilts five to ten feet high (some even higher) to prevent their homes from being flooded this time of year. Thankfully I was visiting during the dry season when temperatures soar but travel is easier because flooding of roads isn’t an issue.

Houses on stilts line the water. In some areas the water level can increase by 2-4 meters along the shore.

Houses on stilts line the water. In some areas the water level can increase by 2-4 meters along the shore.

What currency do they use in Laos?

The Lao kip is the official and most common currency in circulation. One dollar equals roughly 8,000 kip. Thai baht and US dollars are also accepted in many restaurants and stores. The currency was introduced in 1979 by the government of the PDR to replace the obsolete and devalued previous currency called the Pathet Lao kip. Upon introduction 1 Lao kip was equal to 100 Pathet Lao kip.

[Photo credit: emergingfrontiers.com]

How much does a bottle of water cost?

One bottle of water costs roughly 4000 kip at most markets. However, renting a bike for a day cost only 8,000 kip and one night in our guest bungalow on the river, complete with hammock and mosquito netting, cost only 10,000 kip per night!

What language do they speak in Laos?

Lao or Laotian is the most commonly spoken language in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s tonal which means that speakers raise and lower their voices in a much wider range than English. It sounds almost musical to my untrained ears. The locals’ warm demeanor makes it sound like they’re singing to each other in the dusty hot streets.

Lao is spoken not only in Laos but also in nearby Thailand and Cambodia. In fact, out of the roughly twenty-five million speakers of Laotian only three million reside in Laos. Further, while Lao is the default language, it is common in the hospitality industry, for example hotels, restaurants, etc., for locals to know enough English to communicate with customers. Still, the average English level is very low in Laos.

What was your best meal in Laos?

Perhaps sadly, the best meal of the week for me was a meatball, sausage, and vegetable pizza! It’s easy to find pizza in Ulaanbaatar but it’s hard to find a great pizza place. My friend Jeremy, who had been living in Japan, hadn’t eaten pizza in 8 months! Upon his request we ventured to a local restaurant in Pakse, Laos that advertised New York style pizza. It even had a picture of the statue of liberty on its sign! While there was nothing deep-dish about it, it was delicious. Between the five of us we finished 4 large pizzas!

As far as local food, earlier that day we had some succulent marinated grilled fish balls and green tea flavored iced tea on a street overlooking the river. Vietnamese pho, beef noodle soup, and ban mi, baguette sandwiches, were also major culinary highlights.

What was your favorite thing to do on the trip?

My favorite activity besides kayaking was renting motorbikes. My friend, Jake, was the only one who had ridden one before so we nominated him as our guide. Following his lead, we zipped around on our glorified scooters, quickly leaving the small urban area to explore the dry rice paddies and wats, or Buddhist temples, in the adjacent rural area. We were welcomed by shaved-headed monks adorned in orange and yellow robes. Following the local custom, we took our shoes off and examined the elaborate murals and Buddha and dragon statues inside the open-air prayer rooms. Another highlight of our motorbike adventure was finding a deserted spot on the river to skip rocks and watch the fishermen motor by.

One of the countless wats we passed!

One of the countless wats we passed!

The entrance to a Laotian temple. As you can see, virtually all temples are open air, with no walls necessary. Some also had rows of fans on the ceilings to ventilate.

The entrance to a Laotian temple. As you can see, virtually all temples are open air, with no walls necessary. Some also had rows of fans on the ceilings to ventilate.

After a long afternoon of motorbiking, we watched the sunset from the rooftop bar of a local hotel.

After a long afternoon of motorbiking, we watched the sunset from the rooftop bar of a local hotel.

Nothing like a sunset with a cold Beer Lao in hand...

Nothing like a sunset with a cold Beer Lao in hand…

As you can barely see (expand the photo), there is a small golden fleck on the mountain in the background. That became our next mission for the evening...

As you can barely see (expand the photo), there is a small golden fleck on the mountain in the background. That became our next mission for the evening…

During our motorbike adventures, just before sunset, we spotted a massive golden Buddha statue perched on a hilltop overlooking the town. Although it was nighttime by the time we reached the trail head leading to the effigy, the moon was bright and guided us while we bush whacked through the jungle in search of the shoddy unlit boardwalk. The view from the summit was totally worth it!

The Buddha statue!

The Buddha statue!

My friend, Andrew.

My friend, Andrew.

My friend, Jake, climbing the quasi-constructed staircase. A lot of sights seem "under construction" but still open here...

My friend, Jake, climbing the quasi-constructed staircase. A lot of sights seem “under construction” but still open here…

We motored across the busy bridge, tested out several wrong paths in the dense forest at night, braved a crumbling boardwalk by moonlight, but finally we made it to the top!

We motored across the busy bridge, tested out several wrong paths in the dense forest at night, braved a crumbling boardwalk by moonlight, but finally we made it to the top!

What was your favorite game you played?

My favorite game of the trip was juggling a woven soccer ball made of stiff wicker-like reeds that my friend bought at a local market. This is one of the most popular pastimes among Laotian children, who set up volleyball nets in the dry rice fields and kick the softball-sized ball back and forth over the net.

What was your most interesting method of travel?

On our trip from the riverside town of Pakse to the small island of Don Det my friends and me experienced a very local means of transportation. The “song-tu” is a large flat-bed truck modified to hold three parallel benches underneath a tin roof loaded down with luggage. Typically, these barrel down the road with people packed in like sardines, hanging their arms and heads out due to the crammed seating.

This was after several stops were made and we dropped off passengers...

This was after several stops were made and we dropped off passengers…

Originally, my friends and I planned to take a normal passenger (Greyhound-style) bus to the ferry landing. However, our taxi driver  brought us not to the main bus terminal but to a smaller station with not much time to spare before the last buses left for the ferry landing. With few good options, we bought our tickets for 40,000 kip and jumped in the back of the “song-tu” for three hours of personal time with the locals.

Thankfully I got in last and, from the back of the flatbed, was able to snap some photos of the scenery as we sped along the dry dusty roads.

Thankfully I got in last and, from the back of the flatbed, was able to snap some photos of the scenery as we sped along the dry dusty roads.

This is what comes to mind when I think of Southern Laos during January. Bone dry rice paddies!

This is what comes to mind when I think of Southern Laos during January. Bone dry rice paddies!

A main street in a small Laos village.

A main street in a small Laotian village.

A woman unloads her rice at the local market from her Chinese tractor.

A woman unloads her rice at the local market from her Chinese tractor.

Vendors sell snacks for travelers. After arriving at one small village, sticky rice, roasted chickens, and small beef sticks were thrust into the "song-tu" from all sides by local hawkers! I had no choice but to try the coconut rice (it was practically in my mouth already after being shoved into my face). Roasted in a hollow bamboo stalk it was delicious but too messy to even get a photo!

Vendors sell snacks for travelers. After arriving at one small village, sticky rice, roasted chickens, and small beef sticks were thrust into the “song-tu” from all sides by local hawkers! I had no choice but to try the coconut rice (it was practically in my mouth already after being shoved into my face). Roasted in a hollow bamboo stalk it was delicious but too messy to even get a photo!

Last, I have to thank my intrepid, flexible, and spontaneous fellow travelers who accompanied me on my journey:

Thanks to everyone for a great time!

Thanks to everyone for a great time!

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Thanks for reading about my time in Laos! I hope you stay tuned for more updates on Mongolia!

Pollution in Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s icy capital, is the world’s second most-polluted city according to a recent Quartz study cited by TIME magazine. I’ve traveled a fair amount in Asia, which as a region faces many environmental issues due to its rapid industrialization and urbanization. However, before living in UB I could never have imagined air pollution so bad. When I pull back my curtains in the morning the city looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic sci-fi or horror movie. Buildings two blocks away are nearly invisible, veiled in a gray haze. Soviet-era minibuses cruise down the street, disappearing into a blanket of smog after a block and a half. On some days I can’t count the number of children on the soccer field from my apartment building less than 100 yards away. How they’re braving the thick haze, not to mention the -15 C weather, I will never fully understand.

A view from my apartment window on a better than average morning.

A view from my apartment window on a better-than-average morning.

Air pollution is measured by the number of airborne particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter per cubic meter (PM10). At this size, the particles easily become trapped in human lung tissue leading to asthma and bronchitis and contributing to heart disease and other respiratory and cardio-vascular maladies. Recent studies have also found strong correlations between elevated PM10 and higher prevalence of cancer of the mouth, larynx, and lungs. The world’s average annual pollution count in major cities is 71 PM10 according to the 2013 Quartz study. [The World Health Organization’s recommended target level is less than 10 PM10 per cubic meter.] In Ulaanbaatar, the average annual level is 279 PM10, according to the same Quartz study.

My daily commute to my school. Today, the high-rise apartment buildings straight ahead are invisible.

My daily commute to school. Today, the high-rise apartment buildings straight ahead are invisible.

Shockingly, in the winter air pollution levels are many times higher than the yearly average mainly due to the massive amounts of coal required for heating a city where the average high temperature is -10 C between November and late February. In recent years during December, January, and February, PM10 measurements have been reported between 750 and 1,500 PM10. One independent air quality observer recently reported levels exceeding 2,000 particles per cubic meter! At these levels, citizens are essentially breathing in inescapable smoke! A 2011 joint World Health Organization and Mongolian Ministry of Nature, Environment and Green Development study found that the levels of particulate matter in UB are more than 35 times higher than the WHO’s recommended standards.

The view from my classroom window. Imagine an entire hillside behind the smoke. In fact, "smoke" is the forecast most days here.

The view from my classroom window. Imagine an entire hillside behind the smoke. In fact, “smoke” is the forecast most days here.

The suffocating pollution is caused by a number of factors. First, coal-fired power plants located within the city’s borders spew out thick smoke without the EPA emissions standards in place in the United States or Europe. Second, transportation contributes an increasing share each year as the city’s roads, designed to accommodate 500,000 people, are burdened by nearly 1.2 million. Tens of thousands of new vehicles are on the road each year, adding to already intolerable traffic woes and smog. However, the leading cause of the poor air quality is energy consumption in the city’s peripheral ger districts, which are comprised of former nomads relying on coal burning stoves to stay warm and cook. It is estimated that these quasi-temporary squatter settlements grow by roughly 15,000 people each year. Most lack access to basic needs such as clean water, adequate sanitation, and, of course, electricity.

The hazy hillside beyond is the ger district. Many days, especially in the mornings, virtually nothing but the buildings in the foreground is visible. Picture taken from the roof of my apartment building.

The hazy hillside beyond is the ger district. Many days, especially in the mornings, virtually nothing but the buildings in the foreground is visible. Picture taken from the roof of my apartment building.

So what are the effects of these astronomical levels of air pollution on Ulaanbaatar’s residents? Accounts vary, but a 2012 article in the Mongolia Briefing reported that roughly 1600 deaths and an additional 8,500 hospital admissions are due to pollution-related causes. A 2011 study found that an estimated 1 in 10 citizens of UB die of pollution-related causes. It’s not hard to consider that this rate may be even higher when, during the winter months, breathing the outside air is equivalent to smoking 4 to 5 packs of cigarettes a day! The aforementioned joint WHO-Ministry of Nature study found:

…that pollution levels in some locations of Ulaanbaatar are so high that the study team is not aware of similar high monitored particulate matter (PM) values in any other city in the world. In order to bring concentrations in line with Mongolia’s air quality standards, emissions have to be reduced by more than 90 percent. (The Mongolia Briefing.)

I live in one of the areas referred to above – on the border of the ger district north of downtown UB. The overwhelming burden of the pollution falls on the poor inhabiting these boroughs mostly because the residents cannot afford any means other than coal, wood, or even trash to stay warm or cook. According to an October article in the UB Post “ger districts produce as much as 70 to 90 percent of the air pollution in the winter.” Due to the inversion created by the valley and extremely cold temperatures, which traps the hot, polluted air, the highest concentrations of particulate matter stay in these areas. While I am fortunate enough to be able to afford a pollution mask and an air purifier for my room, I walk past coughing, wheezing, and sputtering residents daily who are not able to afford such luxuries.

Also on my daily commute.

Also on my daily commute.

So, what has the government done to help fix the public health crisis? Many Mongolians are very frustrated with the level of governmental ineffectiveness. A couple weeks ago, looking outside through our classroom window a co-worker turned to me suddenly and said “our politicians are very bad!” [Earlier that day the pollution was such that my students had difficulty seeing the PowerPoint presentation on the screen due to the obscuring effect of the projector illuminating the floating particulate matter. As soon as I entered the classroom my mouth was filled with a chalky texture and smoky taste, my throat became scratchy, my chest burned dully, and my eyes started to water. This is not normal, thankfully.]

The most marginalized citizens are literally on the periphery of the city, obscured from the downtown by a thick wall of haze. [This is on a very clear day.]

The most marginalized citizens are literally on the periphery of the city, obscured from the downtown by a thick wall of haze. [This is on a very clear day.]

As my co-teacher voiced, the city’s politicians and bureaucrats appear to be failing its residents. As quoted in the UB Post, Chief of the City Air Quality Office, Ch.Batsaikhan, said:

There is talk that Ulaanbaatar is the most polluted city… Mongolia is not leading the world with its dust…  There are lots of factors that generate dust and particles, such as roadwork, construction and population density. But we have to take action against this. We have to develop green areas, and increase the number of small fountains. Most highly developed cities wash their roads and squares. That is why we are planning to wash roads next year. If we wash public roads and areas, dust must decrease.

Yes, you'll find similar scenes on every block in UB, but this is not the cause of the air quality problems.

Yes, you’ll find similar scenes on every block in UB, but this is not the cause of the air quality problems.

Creating more fountains? Cleaning the streets!? How can this be a serious response to a question about emissions? This quote seems to undermine the credibility and competence of the city office spearheading the issue by exposing a complete misunderstanding or willingness to overlook the true causes of the pollution problem. More recently, the mayor met with representatives of Mitsubishi Motors and issued a statement encouraging the population to buy electric cars, at best a weak step towards reducing transportation-related emissions.

What else is being done? Since the passing of a 2011 Clean Air Act, the Ministry of Nature, Environment, and Green Development has allocated its 92 million tugrik budget to programs to subsidize cleaner burning coal briquettes, while admitting the suppliers wouldn’t be able to meet the entire city’s demand. It has also subsidized cleaner-burning stoves for those in the ger districts with limited effectiveness. [Many residents refuse to buy any new stoves due to their extremely limited incomes, favoring Soviet-era technology.]

Again, on a good day.

Again, the downtown on a good day.

Despite research findings of international experts, which he publicly questioned, the Minister of Nature, Environment, and Green Development declared a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions and nearly 30 percent drop in particulate matter since last year. Still, many residents wonder where the figures are coming from and where the money went. “The pollution here is as bad as ever, and most people think it’s even worse than last year,” one local reported.

A more typical day, facing downtown.

A more typical day, facing downtown.

If there were such a thing as a positive result of pollution it might be this sunrise...

If there were such a thing as a positive result of pollution, it might be this sunrise…

Sources:

http://qz.com/136606/here-are-the-worlds-worst-cities-for-air-pollution-and-theyre-not-the-ones-youd-expect/

http://mongolia-briefing.com/news/2012/01/air-pollution-in-ulaanbaatar-kills-1600-people-every-year.html

http://ubairpollution.org/wiki/index.php?title=UB_Air_Pollution_Wiki#2013

http://www.sfu.ca/pamr/media-releases/2011/study-air-pollution-killing-ulaanbaatar-mongolia-residents.html

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11869-013-0198-7

http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=6255

http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=6667

http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=6578

http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=6578

Ulaanbaatar Field Trip

On a Saturday morning several weeks ago, I met my co-teacher, Seggii, and our English tour-guide students at Parliament.

The Mongolian National Parliament Building, Ulaanbaatar.

The Mongolian National Parliament Building, Ulaanbaatar.

After forty minutes of waiting for all the teachers and students to gather, we made our first stop at the National Museum in the basement of the Parliament building. After going through security, we gazed upon many priceless artifacts — well, in between photo-shoots that is. It seems like for every special occasion or outing I attend, particularly with my students, around fifty percent of my time is spent posing for photos. Considering I speak very little, if any, Mongolian, this is quite fine with me and allows for genuine interaction without language being necessary. [My students’ English level is very low and most of them are very shy to speak with me beyond greetings and small talk.]  However, sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit objectified or tokenized as “the white person,” or, conversely, sometimes feel that I’m treated like a celebrity. I try not to let the extra attention go to my head but the daily unwanted attention in the hallways in my school can be wearisome, especially because the students’ English is usually so low that I can’ actually engage in real conversations with them.

One of the dozens of photo ops throughout the day. This time we're posing in front of a gigantic mural of Genghis Khan.

One of the dozens of photo ops throughout the day. This time we’re posing in front of a gigantic mural of Genghis Khan.

The gallery is very well maintained and has some fascinating items. Among them:

The official Mongolian national seal.

The official Mongolian national seal.

 

An ancient Mongolian diplomatic passport.

An ancient Mongolian diplomatic passport.

A replica of the black banner flown by Genghis Khan back in the day.

A replica of the black banner flown by Genghis Khan back in the day.

 

A mural of a wrathful Mongolian Buddhist deity.

A mural of a wrathful Mongolian Buddhist deity.

A very old boot.

A very old boot.

An even older hat.

An even older hat.

And who could forget the decorative box that the national seal is stored in.

And who could forget the decorative box that the national seal is stored in.

After departing the museum we walked out onto the front steps of Parliament right into a massive display of pomp and circumstance. Dozens of Mongolian soldiers marched up the steps in perfect synchronization (very un-Mongolian) as we scrambled down them. We were quickly ushered off the “stage” by security officers, but we still had an excellent view of the elaborate ceremony. Later I learned it was a practice run for Genghis Khan’s birthday (Chingghis Khan to Mongolians). It was nice to not have to compete with the crowds for these photos. There were maybe two dozen people on hand to witness the rehearsal.

A few photos from the impressive display:

Soldiers doing what Mongolians do best, looking tough!

Soldiers doing what Mongolians do best, looking tough!

Fierce.

Fierce.

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Me and my new friend!

Me and my new friend!

After a few minutes of looking badass they marched off. I'm not sure if the high leg kick helps their bad-boy image or not, but the Minister of Silly Walks would be impressed.

After a few minutes of looking badass they marched off. I’m not sure if the high leg kick helps their bad-boy image or not, but the Minister of Silly Walks would be impressed.

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Which Mongolian is my student and which is the soldier? I can't even tell!

Which Mongolian is my student and which is the soldier? I can’t even tell!

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Posing in front of the giant statue of General Sukhbaatar, a  Mongolian hero of the revolution.

Posing in front of the giant statue of General Sukhbaatar, a Mongolian hero of the revolution.

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After the marching and more photos, we took a bus across town. Thankfully, our first stop was for lunch at a small restaurant that sold two things, buuz and milk tea. What more does a Mongolian need?

Buuz, Mongolian dumplings. "Did I need to order four?"

Buuz, steamed Mongolian dumplings filled with mutton or beef. “Did I need to order four?”

Yes, I did...

Yes, I did…

The next stop was to Zaisan hill, a massive Soviet WWII monument erected well before the democratic revolution in 1990. Approaching the many steps leading to the monument, I helped three of my students practice their English by counting each one as we marched up them in unison. Six hundred and four steps later, we reached the top!

The circular monument with inset Soviet murals overlooks the city.

The circular monument with inset Soviet murals overlooks the city.

"That is called a skyscraper."

Maybe I said, “that is called a skyscraper.” Or maybe it was something more like “First, we’ll take the archers to the hills to the north and flank our enemy with our cavalry from the west.” We will never know for sure.

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After throwing darts at balloon targets and winning small stuffed animal prizes, my students and I descended the stairs and posed with more Soviet sculptures. At my co-teacher’s encouragement, I picked the nose of a Soviet commander and even climbed a tank on display with a student.

Okay, if she's doing it...

Okay, if she’s doing it…

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Apparently this tank was used by the Soviets in 1945. Again at my teacher’s encouragement, I decided to go through with the staged re-enactment of Mongolian-Soviet friendship.

"Up!"

“Up!”

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"Goodbye for now!"

“Goodbye for now!”