Steppe Riders!

Two weekends ago I went to Steppe Riders, a family owned tourist camp about an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar. The group of ex-patriot riding enthusiasts I went with is appropriately named the “CC and C  Riders” which obviously for Chaps, Chicks, and Chinggis (Khaan). We convened in the morning outside of the Grand Khaan Irish Pub and loaded up into two vans.

I'm not sure who this man was, but he really wanted a picture with me as our group gathered to carpool to Steppe Riders! As a general rule, if someone wants a photo with me, I make sure to get one with them too!

I’m not sure who this man was, but he really wanted a picture with me as our group gathered to carpool! As a general rule, if someone wants a photo with me, I make sure to get one with them too!

As usual, the ride to the countryside was filled with massive potholes, close-calls with oncoming vehicles as both drivers tried to avoid said potholes, and the occasional gravel flicking up onto the windshield from cars in front of us. It was a true pleasure to meet both a New Englander and a Spaniard on the ride, both from places I’ve called home! I’m glad I had a chance to chat with both about their life stories and experiences of Mongolia so far!

The view of the crowded parking lot that we pulled into after the bumpy ride.

The view of the crowded parking lot that we pulled into after the bumpy ride.

Steppe Riders is in a beautiful valley nestled far enough outside of the city to ensure that the air is fresh and the views of the sprawling vacant hills are spectacular. With over a hundred horses, it’s not a small operation. The agency relies on seasonal temporary labor from English-speaking foreigners, who come from all over the world to volunteer there for weeks at a time. We met folks from Australia, New Zealand, and Seattle who had been there helping to prepare meals, serve guests, clean gers, groom and tack horses, and help lead rides for guests. Foreign volunteers pay $150 a week for the costs of room and board and get access to the horses and trails after guest rides are finished for the day. They even get to help lead overnight rides too!

This is the guest gazebo where we had tea and played a traditional game with sheep ankle bones before suiting up for the ride!

This is the guest gazebo where we had tea and played a traditional game of “ankle bones” before suiting up for the ride!

These are the guest gers which tourists can stay in overnight if they've booked multiple days of riding.

These are the guest gers which tourists can stay in overnight if they’ve booked multiple days of riding.

The horses are tethered to the line and ready to be tacked!

The horses are tethered to the line, tacked and ready to go!

These kids are part of the family business and they "help out" with many of the chores.

These kids are part of the family business plan. They “help out” with many of the chores and provide excellent entertainment for all.

The large ger is home to a long table where meals are served to guests. The ger beside it is the cooking tent.

The large blue-roofed ger is home to a long table where meals are served to guests. The ger beside it is the cooking tent.

Unlike the previous riding operation I went to, Steppe Riders supplied helmets, chaps, and English-speaking guides. They didn’t even whip our horses and try to herd us! In fact,  they even made an effort to make us feel welcome by offering us tea and asking about our riding experience beforehand. They even suggested dividing us into groups based on experience! How refreshing from our last ride!

Excited to ride!

Excited to ride!

Meet a few members of the CC and C Riders!

Meet a few of the CC and C Riders!

Now, meet them again!

Now, meet them again! (For the record, I’m not actually grabbing my buddy Ben’s chest and making him feel very awkward, but attempting to karate chop… fail!)

View of the camp.

View of the camp from my horse after saddling up.

The riders head out!

The riders head out!

I think as a general rule in Mongolia here, if you want a decent horse you need to explain profusely that you are an experienced rider. Otherwise, most Mongolian tour operators will give you a clunker that has some temperament issues and doesn’t like to gallop. I think that, probably for good reason, every place I’ve ridden the herders have been very cautious to let any foreigners ride their faster horses. (Although I admit so far I’ve lucked out. I think that just because of my hat and cowboy boots people take me a bit more seriously!) In general though, in comparison to the locals in the countryside who ride day in and day out  starting at age three or four, all foreigners lack experience!

My favorite mode of transportation!

My favorite mode of transportation!

Leaving the camp, we reach the expansive rolling hills. At this point, the divide between the beginner and more experienced riders becomes evident. It also became obvious who had a horse that liked to run and who didn’t. My horse liked to run a lot! My friend Katie’s horse also like to let loose and we raced our horses across the plains at a full gallop for a few hundred yards at a time before forcing our horses to take a breather and trot or walk.

For some reason, even among our student coordinators — who did a fantastic job leading us around the city during our first month — Mongolian guides don’t necessarily like to lead from the front. When you have open space and horses that like to race this means that you lose sight of the leader after turning into a crease in the valley. Our guides had no problem with us really opening up some space between the other riders, but often had to motion the correct direction for us to run in. There are no trails here and the horses as a result were not programmed to run on autopilot for most of our ride. It was nice to actually have the opportunity to practice some horsemanship skills though! (It was also great to not have to put up with a five year old screaming at us and whipping our horses too, although I missed our last guide!)

Circling a "odoo" on my quarter horse. These sacred rock piles are meant to be circumambulated three times in a clockwise motion. It's a practice to pay respect to the spirits of the mountains and valleys and is generally observed by rural Mongolians.

Circling a “odoo” on my quarter horse. These sacred rock piles are meant to be circumambulated three times in a clockwise motion. It’s a practice to pay respect to the spirits of the mountains and valleys and is generally observed by rural Mongolians on foot.

My horse is tired after all that running! (I wonder how much rest they get in between uses.)

My horse is tired after all that galloping! (I wonder how much rest they get in between rides. I’m guessing not enough!)

My horse is a bit suspicious of me now that I'm on the ground, especially with this shiny metal thing in my hand!

Looking stoic, maybe slightly suspicious of his rider.

Enjoying the break!

Enjoying the break!

Our group together at the halfway point!

Our group together at the halfway point!

One of my favorite points on the ride was our last run up a dirt road when the guide looked at me with a “you wanna gallop?” expression accentuated by an arch of her eyebrows and a wide grin. “Of course!” We raced past the cows that darted off the road ahead of us and passed the Mongolian herd dogs barking and chasing at our heels.

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Getting back to camp after a long loop!

Getting back to camp after a long loop!

"Are we really back here already? We should give these ones a rest and take some new ones out!"

“Are we really back here already? We should give these ones a rest and take some new ones out!”

Overall, Steppe Riders was a great experience! Although the ride could have been a bit longer than the two hours we were out, the service was wonderful and the horse I was given had some serious spirit. The scenery was gorgeous and the meal of tsuivan,” homemade fried rice noodles and veggies, at the end of the day was delicious and filling.

One of my highlights of the day was the ride back, where I got the chance to talk with my new Spanish friend in “Castellano” for an hour or so about everything from her hometown of San Sebastian to travel in India to Buddhism! Oh how I miss speaking Spanish every day! I suppose I came to the wrong country for that… but I have plans now for weekly Mongolian lessons.

Nomadic Homestay Part 2

(Continued from Part 1…)

Still in a bit of a fog from my visit with the shaman, I decide to investigate what’s cooking for the celebratory meal! The first course is already well underway. Beef noodle soup!

It seems universal! Every barbecue has a guy like this to man the grill, skillet, pot, etc. And he's all business when he's not pouring vodka...

It seems almost universal! Every barbecue must have a guy like this to man the grill, skillet, pot, etc.

An older relative tends the wood-burning stove the family has brought along. The rusted eight foot chimney, originally designed for venting smoke from gers while cooking indoors, has been erected in front of a row of western-style camping tents. Like most traditional Mongolian foods, there are no spices added to the dish. The one seasoning I notice being sprinkled generously into the pot is salt. It seems to be doing the trick. It smells delicious!

Beef noodle soup. Yum!

Beef noodle soup. Yum!

Goat. It’s what’s for lunch!

Suddenly, my attention is diverted to the main course. “Baaah!” Gleefully, our host father hauls a charcoal black goat over to the outdoor stove. Straddling its front quarters, he wields an ax in his right hand. He means business! His son joins him in restraining the struggling animal. As he prepares himself for the first step in the recipe, he smiles at me with a “this is how it’s done!” look. Deftly and with immense force, he brings down the butt of the ax onto the crown of the goat’s head. “Bleeah! Bleeeah! Ble-“ it cries before the second and third blow quickly silence it.

Now that the goat is limp and unconscious, the father motions to his son to help him flip it over to expose its belly. In a matter of seconds, it’s on its back. The father kneels down and uses the blade of the ax to make a large incision in the upper belly of the beast. Reaching his arm inside the still breathing animal, the herder grimaces with concentration as he searches for something. Thirty seconds later he pulls out its heart! Is this really happening? With its heart resting on top of its upturned belly, this goat is done for.

Waiting patiently for the goat to give up the ghost. Not much doubt that it's not going to live long with its heart outside of its body!

Waiting patiently for the goat to die. Not much doubt that it’s not going to live long with its heart outside of its body!

Success! The father and son duo prepare the first ingredient in the time-honored recipe which calls for: 1) One freshly killed goat and 2) salt.

Success! The father and son duo prepare the first ingredient in the time-honored recipe which calls for: 1) A freshly killed goat, 2) water, and 3) salt.

Moments later the father expands the original incision and empties the contents of the abdomen into several metal bowls. Several younger relatives look on with interest.

Looks delicious already!

Looks delicious! Doesn’t it?

No wasting time in this step!

No wasting time in this step!

"This is how it's done, my nephew!"

“This is how it’s done!”

Meanwhile, his nephew fires up a soviet-era blowtorch to singe the hair off the carcass.

Readying the blowtorch! (I made sure to line up to the side off this operation.)

Readying the blowtorch! (I made sure to line up to the side of this operation to take the this photo.)

After the innards are divided into three basins, two older women take the one containing the rectum and lower bowels and squeeze out the fecal matter inside of them.

A young family member looks on with interest as her aunts prepares the intenstines.

A young family member looks on with interest as her aunts prepares the intestines.

The pile of green grassy material comes from the animal's intestinal tract and rumen, one of the multiple compartments of the stomach that goats, sheep, and other ruminants have to digest the tough grasses of the steppe.

The pile of green grassy material comes from the animal’s intestinal tract and rumen, one of the multiple compartments of the stomach that goats have to digest the tough steppe grasses.

"Can we eat it yet?" "No! You are crazy! We can't eat that!" "I thought Mongolians were tough!" "Okay, you eat it then!" (Tempting as it was, my friend, Erdene, won the argument.)

“Can we eat it yet?” “No! Are you crazy?! We can’t eat that!” “I thought Mongolians were tough!” “Okay, you eat it then!” (Tempting as it was, my friend, Erdene, won the argument.)

Now that the blowtorch is fired up, the hair is burned and scraped off with a large knife. I’m not the only one who gets the ordeal on film!

While my host father looks on, his nephews put the blowtorch to use on its "flamethrower" setting.

While my host father looks on, his nephews put the blowtorch to use on its “flamethrower” setting.

While one directs the flame, the other scrapes off the burnt hair.

While one directs the flame, the other scrapes off the burnt hair.

This event was documented by the participants as well.

This event was documented by the participants as well.

"Dinner's almost ready!"

“Dinner’s almost ready!”

If this goat was not already dead, it would be in serious trouble. I'm glad the men with the flamethrower and knife are on my side!

If this goat was not already dead, it would be in serious trouble. I’m glad the men with the flamethrower and knife are on my side! (At least they were until the wrestling started.)

Bon appetit!

Bon appetit!

While the three men continue with the labor-intensive endeavor, my host mother takes the massive pot of beef noodle stew from the burner and doles out bowls to everyone else. We kneel and sit cross legged around the same tarp used for the ankle bones game earlier. White bread is passed out and I help myself to several pieces. Offered another bowl by my host mom, I can’t refuse!

Finishing the first course, I watch as the meat with singed skin still attached is butchered and thrown into a cooking pot. The highly prized internal organs are saved for later meals throughout our stay. (Goat brains for breakfast, anyone?)

"Let's throw in a bit of this  just for flavor!"

“Let’s throw in a bit of this here meat, just for flavor!”

The second course goes on the stove.

The second course goes on the stove.

Drinking Time!

As I snap photos of the final steps of the meal preparation, I’m beckoned into the main tent by the older relative who has been diligently manning the stove top. Seated on the ground are two other elders with an opened bottle of vodka between them. Two more full ones lay on the ground nearby. My friend and interpreter absent, I’m left to fend for myself.

The men in the tent inspect me carefully and begin to chat in Mongolian as they finish passing around a red thermos cup full of vodka to one another. They’re probably debating how much this white guy can drink… Before I can think too much more about it, the man in charge pours between four and five shots of Chinggis Khan into the cup. That is a LOT of alcohol!

With keen interest, the three Mongolians watch intently as I’m offered the cup. “What’s he gonna do?” they’re asking themselves. This could be a bad idea, but… “Bottoms up!” Without hesitation, I down the entire cup. Whew! Grimacing and wiping away the drops of vodka dribbling down my chin with my sleeve, I quickly hand it back. Thankfully we just ate and this is not on an empty stomach. 

Immediately the men’s eyes open wide with surprise. Smiling and shaking my head, I see they also have the biggest grins I’ve seen on their faces so far. Even the killing of the goat didn’t have this effect. They start laughing and punching each other on the shoulders. “I told you he would drink it all!” “Wow, you were right!” I imagine they’re saying.

Having proven myself, the next few rounds they pour less than a shot for me. Thankfully, my friend comes to rescue me soon.  “Peter, your face is bright red! How much have you drank?” “I dunno, less than them!” I laugh. He’s offered the cup shortly afterwards. A non-drinker, he touches his lips politely to the cup, but our hosts are not very pleased with his lack of enthusiasm. However, I’ve proven myself enough to have a full on conversation with the men, with my friend as translator.

After a twenty minute conversation about the differences between Christianity and Shamanism, we get up to check on the main dish cooking outside.

Meal Time!

An uncle adding water to the cooking goat dish.

An uncle adds water to the cooking goat meat.

After several rounds of salty milk tea with my new friends back in the ger – which thankfully cuts the edge off the vodka quite nicely – the main course arrives. The boiled meat is fairly tender and has a lot of fat on it, the best part of any meal for most Mongolians. Voraciously hungry, I help myself to a goat rib and part of it’s hind left leg. My hosts watch my efforts to cut small pieces off, and insist that I make several cross-cuts to be able to more easily rip it off with my canine teeth. The strategy works and, although I feel I’m eating like a caveman, apparently I’m doing it right.

There’s something very satisfying about this whole process, something elemental. How many times in the U.S. have I really seen where my food comes from? Especially meat! Here I know that the goat lived a full and free life on the steppe and was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible.

The main dish is served steaming hot inside the ger. Notice that there are a few mats laid down, but otherwise the grassy ground serves as a sufficient floor.

The main dish is served steaming hot inside the ger. Notice that there are a few mats laid down, but otherwise the grassy ground serves as a sufficient floor.

Plates, utensils other than knives, and napkins are not necessary! Generally, several blades are placed in the serving dish for people to share in order to cut off desired pieces of meat.

Plates, utensils, and napkins are not necessary! Generally, several knives are placed in the serving dish for people to cut off the desired pieces of meat.

Watermelon for desert!

Watermelon for desert!

Packing up!

After the feasting commences and several more rounds of ankle bones and a small wrestling tournament (which I’ll write more about later) ensue, it’s time to go!

Nomads doing what they do best, packing up and moving out!

Nomads doing what they do best, packing up and moving out! First, they take down the sheepskin outer covering.

"Anyone home?"

“Anyone home?”

The family works with incredible efficiency to take down the ger erected earlier that day for the ceremony.

The family works with incredible efficiency to take down the ger erected earlier that day specifically for the ceremony. Next, the painted wooden roof poles are removed.

One man holds the main support two beams holding up the crown upon which the beams rest. Traditionally, the two pillars are sacred. Walking or standing between them in an erect ger is sacrilegious because they represent the channel between the earthly and the supernatural. Only the most revered lamas and shamans with special powers are permitted to sit in this position.

A man holds in place the main support beams that support the ceiling. Traditionally, the space between the two pillars is sacred. Walking or standing between them is sacrilegious because they represent the conduit between the earthly and the supernatural realms. Only the most revered lamas and shamans with special powers are permitted to sit in this position.

After the roof is taken down, the doorway is removed and the collapsible siding pieces are neatly folded.

After the roof is taken down, the doorway is removed and the collapsible siding pieces are neatly folded.

In the midst of the operation, a girl pauses to collect her thoughts.

In the midst of the operation, a girl pauses to collect her thoughts and belongings.

Almost down!

Almost down! Total time: 10 minutes.

While traditionally the pieces of gers were loaded onto horses, a Japanese truck will do!

While traditionally the pieces of gers were loaded onto horses, a Japanese truck will do!

Securing the ger gear.

Securing the ger gear.

Preparing to load up the truck.

Preparing to load up the truck.

After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirit of the mountain and their ancestors.

After the camp has been taken down completely, the elders in the family pay their respect to the spirits of the mountain and of their ancestors.

Paying homage.

Paying homage.

Honoring the spirits, a man kneels and bows in the direction of the shrine we visited earlier atop the hill.

Honoring the spirits, a man kneels and bows in the direction of the shrine we visited earlier.

Thanks for taking the time to read a bit more about my home stay! Still plenty more material to come from that short but busy visit!

Nomadic Home Stay Part 1

After over a half an hour of driving around aimlessly in a large valley, hopping from ger to ger, we finally find the first of four host families with whom we Fulbrighters will stay for the next three days. I suppose that’s one problem with arranging home visits with nomads in advance, they pack everything and move at a moment’s notice!

"Hi! I think we're here?"

“Hi! I think we’re here?”

Our hosts could be anywhere out there...

Our hosts could have been anywhere out there…

Our drivers help the first two Fulbrighters unload their gear and move it into their host family’s home. “Let’s walk from here,” our student coordinator, Erdene, suggests. “Sure, it doesn’t look too far,” I reply, nodding in agreement. We haul our backpacks and sleeping bags out of the back of the truck and begin to walk across the pasture.

Ten minutes later, we approach the next camp. Two gers stand side by side. “I think this is the right one, but I don’t remember! It’s in a different place this time.” Of course it is. 

Our host family's twin gers. One is home to the kitchen, eating area, and tack room, while the other is home to the family's shrine and main sleeping quarters.

Our host family’s twin gers. One is home to the kitchen, eating area, and tack room, while the other holds the family’s shrine and main sleeping quarters.

No one answers the doors when we knock. Peaking our heads inside, they’re empty. More worrisome, there were no livestock anywhere in sight. No sheep, goats, or horses. “Are they out moving the herd?” “No idea!” He looks as confused as I do.

Circling the back side of the gers, we find a baby goat tied to a broken down truck. This is a good sign! “Think that’s our dinner?” I ask Erdene, only half-joking. “No! We don’t eat baby animals here. You Americans are so weird – you eat baby sheep!” “Yeah, lamb is delicious! So tender and flavorful.” “Ew!” There’s no point in arguing, he’s just gonna have to come visit me sometime.

We sit patiently waiting until we remember the Frisbee Erdene brought. After a few minutes tossing around the disk, a rusty old Japanese truck pulls up and a teenager wearing sweatpants , a leather jacket, and Nike high-tops jumps out. “He says his family is having a mountain ritual today on the other side of the valley. Do we want to go?” Erdene interprets. “Of course we do!”

After hopping into the cab of the sputtering old truck we barrel along for a few minutes of silence. I try to ask a couple of questions through Erdene, but the kid doesn’t have too much to say. “We don’t have the idea of awkward silence that you Americans have. It’s normal here. He’s just very masculine.” And apparently I’m being a girl right now by trying to be friendly…

Eventually, we come across two men walking across the valley a few hundred yards apart. Our driver stops to speak with each and motions for them to jump in the back. After the second one hops in, we turn back towards the gers. “He’s going to give them airag. The family we’re staying with is famous for it.” Airag is fermented mare’s milk, a staple beverage among herders. As an airag fan, this is a very good sign.

After the young host entertains the neighbors back at the ger, it’s our turn to hop into the back of the truck.

Erdene in the back of the truck as we depart for the mountain ceremony for the second time.

Erdene smiles as we depart for the mountain ceremony the second time. Soon, we stood up and braced ourselves with our arms on the roof of the cab as our host brother floored it across the plains.

After dropping off the neighbors at the biggest intersection around, the crossing of a dirt cattle path and a stream bed, we continue to the base of a large grassy hill.  After parking by a cluster of tents and a ger, we climb halfway up the slope to where a group of people have gathered around a circular pile of rocks. A slender metal pole juts upwards from the middle of the heap. Colorful prayer scarves tied to the beam flap wildly in the wind. Getting closer, I spot cheese, cigarettes, and vodka bottles resting on West side of the shrine. Offerings.

Through my host brother and Erdene I’m introduced to our host mother and father. We shake hands and they smile a bit inquisitively. (Later I learn that I’m the first American they’ve met and the first white person some of their relatives had ever seen in person.) After introducing myself by my explaining where I’m from and telling them about my family, we eventually turning back to the proceedings.

The presiding spiritual authority is the family’s Shaman, a woman dressed in a traditional black “deel.” She sports a black mask and a headdress decorated with eagle feathers. [See photos below. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures at the sacred site on the hill.] With drum and rattle in hand, she greets us kindly and nods approvingly as we patiently observe. As I look on, each family member walks around the shrine three times, throwing a small pebble onto it during each pass. One man generously sprinkles vodka onto the rocks  as he walks around it.

“We’re really lucky. I had no idea this was happening. I’ve never seen this sort of ceremony,” Erdene says. “Me neither!” This doesn’t exactly happen regularly in Boston or Seattle. As the last family members finish the rite, our hosts motion for us to pay our respects. I circumambulate the shrine, doing my best to imitate the family members. Then, kneeling before the altar, I bow low three times, accidentally placing my forehead into the pool of sticky, cheesy vodka. I doubt Smirnoff makes this flavor… probably for a reason! Thankfully, no one seems to notice the droplets rolling down my face. I carefully brush it off my cheeks and forehead and into my hair. Makes a good hair gel!

 Satisfied with our efforts to honor the spirit of the mountain, the group marches down the hill to their day camp. The children in the family run around and play tag and the general demeanor changes from reverence to revelry.

This ten year old girl wasn't shy!

This girl wasn’t shy! She came up to me right after the ceremony to take a photo with me using her smart phone. I got one too! (Clearly.)

“We just happened to show up for the biggest family celebration of the year, didn’t we?” I exclaim. “Yeah! This is amazing.”

Arriving at the ceremonial ger erected for the day’s activities,  I sit next to the eldest relatives out of respect. A plump man doles out airag into a single bowl from a bright orange five-gallon gasoline container. After downing half of it and passing it to my friend, I pass the empty bowl back to my hosts, who seem quite pleased. Refreshing!

Taking stock of their strange white guest, the men motion for me to flex my bicep muscle and then point towards a younger relative my age. The oldest man makes the universal gesture for arm wrestling! Oh, it’s on! Seizing the chance to bond with my hosts, I roll up my sleeve and quickly approach the small stool.

Round 1. Win.

Round 1: Win.

While, surprisingly, I beat the first man quite a bit bigger than me, my arm is tired. I haven’t been training enough for this… His cousin, a full-time herder jumps right up and challenges me next.

Round 2. Begin!

Round 2. Begin! (Note: While his “deel” and sash are the colors of the monks robes in Tibetan Buddhism, this is a herder’s formal wear. He stripped off the top part to show off his guns. Deels are also very practical and most older nomadic men wear them every day.)

Fail!

Fail! This guy was way stronger than his older cousin and wore me out.

After the arm wrestling match, I’m invited over to a large tarp where hundreds of sheep ankle bones are spread out. Relatives of all ages gather on the edges, kneeling or propping themselves up with their arms or elbows. I’ve seen ankle bones before but have never learned how to play. “There are many different types of games,” Erdene informs me. I kneel next to my host dad and quickly become engrossed in learning the rules.

The shaman is stead to my right. She looks a bit different with the headdress!

The shaman is seated to my right. She looks a bit different without the headdress!

[How the game worked: First, all players selected an equal number of ankle bones from the massive communal pile. It could be any number. In the first round I watched everyone took twelve. Naturally, when I was invited to play during the next round I took the same number but my host quickly added more to my pile. Like most things here, the rules are flexible.

Every player then contributed the same number of bones (generally 2 or 4) to the middle of the playing surface. One by one, players took all of the donated bones and, using both hands, cast them down onto the tarp. The ankle bones rolled and landed with one of four distinct sides facing up. The player who tossed the bones must then, using his thumb or forefinger, flick all the ankle bones into one another that have matching sides facing up. While this was quite obvious to herders who butcher sheep routinely, I struggled at first to identify the matching sides.

I look a bit confused, they look fairly amused. The basic storyline of the visit!

I look a bit confused and they look fairly amused. The basic story line of the visit!

Once the player knocks two bones together, he adds both to his personal pile, thus winning them from his opponents. If he is skilled and is able to flick all of the matching bones into one another without missing or hitting any incorrect bones, then all players must again contribute to the pile. He then tosses them again and flicks matches together until he makes a mistake. Once he messes up, then the player to his left gets a chance to roll the bones and try his luck flicking the matching bones. The game continues until one player wins all of the bones from the other players. This can take a long time depending on how many bones each player starts with and how many players there are!]

During the middle of our match, gasps rise unexpectedly from the relatives. The shaman, who had left the game and disappeared into the ger, suddenly begins to beat her drum and dance rhythmically outside the main ceremonial ger. “She’s being possessed!” Erdene explains in a quick, very serious tone.

Family members quickly surround her with outstretched arms as she spins violently, rattle in hand. Then, as she careens out of control, they catch her before she falls and bring her gently down to a cross-legged position. Shortly, the eldest male in the family appears from the ger with a large platter of cheese, cigarettes, and vodka to offer to the ancestral spirit.

After she settles into a deep trance, her relatives approach here with gits - cheese products and a bottle of airag in the foreground.

After she settles into a deep trance, her relatives approach her with gifts. The basket contains dairy products like cured camels milk. The water bottle next to the shaman’s sister is filled with airag.

The shaman cackles and chants in an ancient Mongolian dialect. “No one knows what she’s saying,” Erdene comments. “How can that be?” “Only the shaman’s sister can comprehend the language she speaks,” he clarifies.

Family members gather to watch.

Family members gather to watch the proceedings.

After receiving the offerings, the shaman invites the relatives, one by one, to approach. With heads bowed they kneel low before her. Some light cigarettes and insert them into the end of her long pipe. Others pour vodka into a small metal bowl for her. One woman sings a traditional folk song that prompts the possessed shaman to giggle in a very high-pitched tone and convulse violently with laughter.

A woman talks to one of her ancestral spirits which has taken over the body of the shaman.

A woman talks to one of her ancestral spirits which has taken over the body of the shaman.

The girl in the background is more interested in the door to the ger than spirit possession.

The shaman drinks from a small bowl of vodka in between drags on her cigarette pipe. The girl in the background is more interested in the ger than in spirit possession!

Pipe-smoking.

Pipe-smoking in deep contemplation.

Strangely, most of the men with whom I’d been playing continue their game, completely uninterested in the spectacle. Happens every year I suppose!

Ankle bones is more important. Let's face it.

Ankle bones are pretty awesome! Let’s face it.

At one point, the wife of one player calls him up and, reluctantly, he walks over to the shaman and pays his respects.

Blessed by the rattle.

This man is being blessed by the spirit who taps each approaching visitor on the back with a rattle.

“Peter, they want you to go up!” Erdene tells me. Doing my best to copy what I’ve just witnessed, I kneel low before the shaman. She whispers to me in a forceful, wheezy tone. Her sister, who also speaks some English, serves as an interpreter.

I’m told to bow before her. As I do the shaman places her hand on my back. Then, she has me sit up and place my hands in front of her open-faced so she can study my palms.

After a few nervous moments, she begins to tell me things about my past. Things she had no way of knowing! Then, seamlessly, she changes gears and advises me about my future. A shiver runs down my spine. I almost began to tear up. I’m still perplexed by the brief encounter and am not sure what to make of it.

Following local superstition, I will not share what the shaman has disclosed for fear of negatively influencing my fate. Let’s just say it was uncanny how much she seemed to know about me. I had not had a single conversation with the shaman beforehand, who spoke no English, and very little interaction with her sister.

(To be continued. Next I’ll focus on the food and drink during my outing!)

Horseback Riding

Last weekend I went on a horseback riding outing in the countryside with a group of French, Australian, Canadian, and American ex-pats. We met at noon in the famous Sukhbaatar Square in the heart of Ulaanbaatar.

A ger made of flowers! I'm sure this doesn't stay up all year, especially when it's -40 degrees!

A ger made of flowers! I’m sure this doesn’t stay up all year, especially when it’s -40 degrees!

I don't think anyone actually lives in it...

I don’t think anyone actually lives in it…

After waiting for several stragglers who were running on Mongolian time we hopped into a large van the trip coordinator had reserved for us. After juggling seats and gear around for several minutes, we were off to the nearest convenience store – after all what’s a weekend trip without snacks and beverages!?

Love me some Chewy Fruit in my milk!

Love me some Chewy Fruit in my milk!

Unfortunately, we had the misfortune of getting caught in a nasty traffic jam shortly afterwards. We were stuck on the same kilometer stretch of road for almost an hour before reaching the outskirts of the city where things finally sped up. Unlike the weekdays, when cars with certain license plate numbers are banned from the roads at penalty of heavy fines, there are no restrictions on vehicle traffic on Saturday and Sunday.

After escaping the city and driving for an hour through the surrounding hills and valleys we reached the entrance to Terelj National Park, where an orange-vested man demanded a 3000 Tugrik fee from each of us. According the group members who make this trip routinely, this was either a very new policy or a profiteering individual dressed as an official… Regardless, the roughly two dollars were worth entering the park unhindered.

When we finally arrived at our guest ger camp it was nearly 2:30 and some of our group still hadn’t eaten lunch. After snacking, we began to saddle up for our afternoon ride and by this point it was around four o’clock. Having ridden two years ago in a traditional Mongolian wooden saddle and vividly recalling the awkward bruises it left, I was really hoping the rumor was true about this outfitter having Russian tack.

This tiny saddle is not big enough for 85% of adults.

This tiny saddle is not big enough for 85% of adults.

Upon inspection there weren’t any wooden saddles, but the ones they had looked a bit Frankenstein-like. Mine for example consisted of a tattered fake leather cushion stretched over a pokey metal frame. Other saddles looked like a hybrid between English and Western, but probably ones designed for children! And regardless of the saddle, all the stirrups were steel, circular, and extremely short – at least compared to the Western riding I’ve done.

Crappy cushion over steel frame means a very uncomfortable ride. Mine had far less padding than this one!

Crappy cushion over steel frame means a very uncomfortable ride. Mine had far less padding than this one!

For numerous reasons most of the stirrups were not adjustable either. I pleaded with my Mongolian guide to lengthen the stirrups by using nearly half my vocabulary to say “excuse me,” or ochlaarai. After getting his attention, I made some awkward hand gestures that to him looked like I was showing off my Western cowboy boots that I’d brought with me from the States. After a minute of intense boot inspection and apparent approval, he understood what I was actually trying to ask at which point he gave me a “you’re crazy, that’s how long they’re supposed to be!” look and quickly moved on to assist other riders.

Slowly accepting the fact that this ride would be very uncomfortable, I snapped a few photos of fellow riders who would endure a similar fate!

Our fearless group of ex-pats waiting to head out.

Our fearless group of ex-pats waiting to head out.

Looking around I was half-expecting our group to be led around a corral on pony rides! Mongolian horses are much shorter and often stockier than most Arabian varieties common to North America. In fact, the guide’s son, who must have been about five years old, was on a horse the same size as mine.

Our guide with whistle in mouth, ready to signal it's time to ride!

Our guide with whistle in mouth signaling it’s time to ride!

Setting off, I was surprised to see that unlike the trail rides that I was accustomed to the riders were not in-line along a set trail but spread out riding side by side. The guide’s main role was to herd our horses in this formation, and depending on how he felt he determined the speed we went!

Being herded out on the trail!

Being herded out on the trail!

Of course, none of us spoke excellent Mongolian and he spoke no English so we had no idea what was happening most of the time. The best form of communication was the long stick he used to whip our horses, and occasionally us, to get the herd moving faster. His piercing whistle and booming yells, usually employed as a threat to being whipped, would also get most of the horses trotting.

A few minutes into our excursion we rode through a river nearly three feet deep. While most of us got soaked from the knees down I managed to avoid getting wet by propping my feet up on the withers of my horse. Little did we know at this point, but the trip would be measured by river crossings. There were nine in total!

One of the many rivers that day!

One of the many rivers that day!

As we passed through the meadows and woods, we came across the hay fields that support the herd during the wintertime. Along the way, our herder paid a visit to one of the sites where the grasses were being harvested and stacked. The teenage boys were using scythes to cut the high fields down.

Herder and farm hands.

Herder and farm hands.

While the Mongolian horses weren’t quite as fast as the ones I was used to riding in the States, they had unbelievable stamina. I think I had plenty of company when I admit I stayed busy just trying to stay on mine!

The guide was whipping, yelling, or whistling at our horses every few minutes to keep up the pace! That meant most of us were trotting, and with the stirrups so short the group’s thighs were burning and knees aching after just an hour.

“I just can’t do this!” one experienced rider exclaimed. Resorting to riding without stirrups and cantering, he charged ahead then waited for the group to catch up.

The death trot was not an option for me either! One reason was that trotting meant the steel frame pounded my tailbone to the point where I would have some very awkward bruises for the next week.

Another reason was that my horse was a feisty fella and feared the herder’s whip more than the others. Using the long end of my lead rope which, oddly, was still attached to the harness, I whipped my horse into gear. “Cheww!! Choo!” I screamed in the same fierce tone as the Mongolian guides. It worked! Once my horse got started it took a LOT to slow down. It also really like detours too. While there was a general trail through the meadows, it liked to explore the nooks and crannies of the valleys at a full gallop!

The scenery was okay. I mean, if you're into that sort of thing...

The scenery was okay too by the way. I mean, if you’re into that sort of thing…

As we charged across the plain, a flock of birds unexpectedly flew up  a mere meter in front of my companion’s horse. Spooking, the horse put on the brakes! The rider clung to his horse’s neck as he surged forward. Wrapping his legs around the mare, he sloughed off to the left side, hitting the ground. Thankfully he was a real cowboy and got right back on. A very graceful dismount if you ask me!

My horse and I ran through much of the field behind me! (If you can't tell from my hair...)

My horse and I ran through most of the fields behind me! (If you can’t tell from my hair.)

View from the hilltop at the halfway point.

View from the hilltop at the halfway point.

No, I didn't ask for a Lion King scene re-enactment. It just happened!

Father and son. No, I didn’t ask for a Lion King scene re-enactment. It just happened!

Our guide decided to make my friend, Katie, the object of target practice! He shot part of the flowers off at us.

Our guide decided to make my friend, Katie, the object of target practice! He shot part of the flowers off at us.

Is she surprised by the view or by the fact that the kiddo just hit her in the head?

Is she surprised by the view or by the fact that the kiddo just hit her in the head?

Taking aim...

Taking aim…

I could get used to this.

I could get used to this.

On the way back, there were some more mishaps. Our group was tired after two and half hours of riding and it showed. One rider “got stuck” on a tree and the young guide had to come coax his horse down the mountain. Another led his horse off trail and it tripped in a marmot hole, causing him to fall off. A third rider ran into a bee hive and was stung repeatedly while his horse freaked out! He was able to dismount and walk his horse to the trail while the father and son team laughed their butts off and kept their distance. All of these mishaps were in the first five minutes of turning to go back home.

Amazingly, we all survived. While walking was very painful for the next couple days, it was entirely worth it!

Field Trip to the Chinggis Khan Statue!

Last weekend our program had an official excursion to the world’s largest Chinggis Khan Statue, an attraction of which Mongolians are very proud. I had very few expectations, as is usually best in Mongolia to avoid being too surprised or disappointed.

Our drivers picked us up at promptly nine am, which is very unusual in a country where the nomadic conception of time heavily influences time management. Traditionally, morning, afternoon, or evening would suffice for arranging get togethers. As the pictures hopefully illustrate, it was a fun-filled day!

The way there!

Leaving Ulaanbaatar, we saw several notable sites probably worth revisiting:

Military monument on the way out of Ulaanbaatar.

Military monument on the way out of Ulaanbaatar.

The outskirts of UB. The sprawl in the valley is largely made up of gers - with little or no access to electricity, running water, or plumbing. Each year more and more nomads settle in these "ger districts" which are plagued by many obvious health and sanitation issues.

The outskirts of UB. The sprawl in the valley is largely made up of gers – traditional portable dwellings that most Americans would recognize as yurts. Bringing their homes with them from the countryside, each year more and more nomads settle in these “ger districts.” With little or no access to electricity, running water, or plumbing, these neighborhoods are plagued by many obvious health and sanitation issues.

A bit farther out of town the new rich build their mansions with the help of workers who stay in traditional gers.

A bit farther out of town the new rich build their mansions with the help of workers who stay in traditional gers nearby. Today’s wealthy are among the first to build western style homes.

A ger right off the highway advertising huushuur for sale, a very popular dish that is essentially a battered and fried meat patty.

A ger along the highway advertises huushuur for sale, a very popular dish that is essentially a battered and fried mutton or beef patty.

Basketball is very popular here! It's normal to see basketball hoops without any court surface whatsoever. Must make dribbling a bit difficult!

Basketball is very popular here! It’s normal to see basketball hoops without any court surface whatsoever. Must make dribbling a bit difficult!

Recently erected power lines stand in stark contrast against the beautiful backdrop of the countryside.

Recently erected power lines stand in stark contrast against the beautiful backdrop of the countryside.

Two hours of bumpy driving later…

As we approach the gigantic statue, we see a combination of three different types of architecture: the traditional ger, the soviet-style minimalist concrete block house, and a more modern building under construction.

As we approach the gigantic statue, we see a combination of three different types of architecture: the minimalist soviet-style  concrete block house, the traditional ger, and a modern building under construction.

We’ve made it!

After an hour and a half of racing along dirt roads paralleling the highway still under construction or in dire need of repair, we reach the statue!

After an hour and a half of racing along dirt roads paralleling the highway still under construction or in dire need of repair, we reach the statue!

Imposing!

Imposing!

A Kazakh falconer dances to techno with his golden eagle, trying to lure customers into paying for a photo with the massive bird!

A Kazakh falconer dances to techno with his golden eagle, trying to lure customers into paying for a photo with the massive bird! The tourist in the background is not convinced!

Inside!

Introducing the world's largest shoe! Japanese tourists dressed as Mongolians really made the photo though... I guess they don't take it personally that the Mongols during their reign attempted to invade their country by boat in the 13th century! (Clearly the Mongols were out of their element.) No hard feelings!

Introducing the world’s largest shoe! Japanese tourists dressed as Mongolians really made the photo though… I guess they don’t take it personally that the Mongols attempted to invade their country by boat in the 13th century! (Clearly the Mongols were out of their element on the high seas.) No hard feelings!

Take me to the top!

In case you forget how to use stairs, they even have a little demonstration, or is a warning sign?

In case you forget how to use stairs up to the top, they even have a little demonstration, or is a warning sign?

Chinggis Khan, from the top of his horse's head!

Chinggis Khan, from the top of his horse’s head!

Quite the expression.

Anyone see the resemblance?

Anyone see the resemblance?

View of the countryside from the horse's head!

View of the countryside from the horse’s head!

View of the entrance from the top of the horse.

View of the entrance.

An archery range was among the fun side activities.

An archery range was among the fun side activities available to tourists.

Basketball and volleyball courts for bored tourists.

Basketball and volleyball courts for visitors.

You could even ride horses by the main entrance!

You could even ride horses lined up by the main entrance!

Back down on the ground…

This bathroom is for "man" only, and apparently that means you have to wear a v-neck too.

This bathroom is for “Man” only, and apparently that means you have to wear a v-neck too.

Inspired by the impressive example of Chinggis, I convince my fellow Fulbrighter to crown me new head of the mongol hordes. The gift shop owner was less than pleased, but this was a pivotal moment for me.

Inspired by Chinggis, I convince my fellow Fulbrighter to crown me as new head of the mongol hordes. The gift shop owner was less than pleased, but this was a pivotal moment for me.

Lunch!

Horse sausage!

Horse sausage!

Stir-fried horse meat! Delicious!

Stir-fried horse meat! Delicious!

The way back!

English gibberish on the back of a business vehicle.

English gibberish on the back of a business vehicle.

To avoid the backup on the main thoroughfare, our driver decided to try out his own route through a few back alleys.

To avoid the backup on the main thoroughfare, our driver decided to try out his own route through a few back alleys.

Traffic on the backroad too!

Traffic on the back road too!

This was taken out of the front windshield. We somehow managed to snake our way through all these vehicles with nothing more than patience, maneuvering and plenty of honking!

This was taken out of the front windshield. We somehow managed to snake our way through all these vehicles with nothing more than patience, maneuvering and plenty of honking!

Beautiful scenery while stuck in the horrible bumper to bumper congestion.

Beautiful scenery while stuck in the horrible bumper to bumper congestion.

That moment when a very drunk Mongolian stumbles by at 3 in the afternoon and gets stuck between the stopped car and the van next to it. Captured! I have no idea what sort of conversation ensued here, but thankfully if didn't last long and this poor fellow found his way out of this jam!

A very drunk Mongolian stumbled by at 3 in the afternoon and got stuck between our stopped car and the van next to it. Fail! I have no idea what sort of conversation ensued here, but thankfully if didn’t last long and this poor fellow found his way out of this jam!

Standing on a roof while disassembling it? No problem!

Standing on a roof while disassembling it? No problem!

Don't fall in!

Don’t fall in!

Traffic!

Traffic!

Eventually we were able to get through this huge mess and back home, although it certainly would have been easier to walk!

My Day at the Horse Race

Last Saturday my Mongolian friends, Oko and Shine, took me to the largest horse race in Mongolia, and, according to the official Guinness Book of World Records’ observer, the biggest horse race ever recorded!

However, just to get this out of the way, no horse racing was actually witnessed. In fact, in true Mongolian style, we showed up about 30 minutes too late to see the famous Mongol horsemen (and horsewomen!) gallop through the massive finish-line gate. Although my hosts were prompt and timely, the information center they spoke with about the race told them that it would end at 3 pm! So, when we got there at around noon the 4,249 riders had just finished. Regardless, the festive atmosphere and massive scale of the event was a true spectacle.

The Way There…

Heck, the ride there was an adventure enough for me! The father in the family, Shine, had recently returned from Fiji where he took an English course for 4 months on the beach (sign me up to teach there next!). As a result he was a bit rusty driving. At least he had the courtesy to warn me beforehand! For those who haven’t been to Ulaanbaatar and witnessed the incredibly erratic, aggressive driving style and blatant disregard for traffic laws, this was rather worrisome. However, we managed to escape the city traffic unscathed.

It was only when we got 20 kilometers outside UB to where we faced our biggest challenge, the roundabout, rotary, or traffic circle (depending on where you come from). As the picture below shows quite well, traffic circles here move counter-clockwise which is NOT, evidently, the same direction they flow in Fiji.

sds

The exact second I almost soiled myself, but somehow managed to take a picture instead.

Approaching the finish line, we saw riders headed in all directions on horseback.

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While the race was over, the fun was certainly not! The finish line party was basically a Mongolian country fair or carnival, with all sorts of food vendors, side shows, and smaller events. Taking advantage of the entire valley, the attractions were very spread out. In fact, this may also be a Guinness World Record for the world’s most vacant parking lot:

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No threat of someone stealing your spot out here!

A few of the sites…

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The tented seating is attached to a traditional ger, or Mongolian yurt.

I was very tempted to ride this one...

I was very tempted to ride this one…

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These Mongolians paid the businessman to dress up in traditional clothing for a photo shoot.

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Nothing traditional about this, not to my knowledge at least. (Although I may have been thrown that high by a cowboy while wrestling the last time I was in the countryside.)

Boys eating ice cream watch the bungee trampoline goers.

Boys eating ice cream watch the bungee trampoline goers.

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Don’t believe his racing number, there were only 4249 riders according to the announcers!

Archery!

Of all the attractions we passed, archery really caught my eye. One of the three manly sports, there were several make-shift shooting ranges set up where for 2000 tugrik, or about $1.30 you could shoot 4 arrows.

Could I resist? No, of course not.

Man in a 'deel' or a traditional top worn commonly still in the countryside and occasionally in the city, mostly among the elderly.

Man in a ‘deel’ or a traditional garment still worn commonly  in the countryside but only occasionally in the city, mostly among the elderly.

Father teaches son technique.
Father teaches son technique.
Shine takes aim at the target, a sheep skin stretched between two posts.

Shine takes aim at the target, a sheep skin stretched between two posts.

In front of the target, these arrow-fetchers had perhaps the most risky job of the day!

In front of the target, these arrow-fetchers had perhaps the most risky job of the day!

I was just starting to get it down after 8 arrows. My last one glanced off the bottom of the wood post.

I was just starting to get the hang of it after 8 arrows. My last one glanced off the bottom of the wooden post.

Awkwardness

And then, it happened…

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Kinda forgot Alvin and his mates were all male chipmunks. A smiling crowd quickly gathered reminding me that even accidental displays of homosexuality - especially man on chipmunk action - probably isn't exactly okay... oops! To be fair, the Mongolian in the blue hoodie was definitely female (as evidenced by the universal leg gesturing).

I momentarily forgot Alvin and his mates were all male chipmunks. A smiling crowd quickly gathered reminding me that even accidental displays of homosexuality – especially man on chipmunk action – probably aren’t exactly okay… oops! To be fair, the Mongolian in the blue hoodie was definitely female (as shown by the universal leg gesturing).

Moving on…

"Could you tell me when the race ends?" "It ended two hours ago..."

If I had to guess what they were saying it would go something like this: “Could you tell me when the racers are supposed to get here?” “The race ended two hours ago…”

A traditional Mongolian pastime, "Bone games." Using four horse vertebrae, the player rolls his hand and somehow "races them," according to my host at least. I'm still waiting to learn the rules.

A traditional Mongolian pastime, “Bone games.” Using four horse vertebrae, the player rolls his hand and somehow “races the horses,” according to my host. I’m still waiting to learn the rules.

This little guy must have beat the dealer!

This little guy beat the dealer!

And then there was good ‘ole fashioned street gambling, minus the street (of course) and plus one cobblestone plaza lined with gers.

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Better odds than Vegas I suppose.

Better odds than Vegas I suppose.

The Picnic

After exploring the fair grounds for a bit we retreated across the plain for a picnic with a grand view of the spectacle.

My warm, welcoming, wonderful hosts! Shine is holding up Kushuur, meat, in this case beef, fried in a pancake. We also had bread, sausage, cucumbers, watermelon, milk tea, and some chocolates I brought!

My warm, welcoming, wonderful hosts! Shine is holding up khuushuur, a meat patty, in this case beef, fried in a pancake. We also had bread, sausage, cucumbers, watermelon, milk tea, and some chocolates I brought!

Here is a sampling of the views from the hill…

We listened to Shine's country music CD from the car, a mixture of "Rhinestone Cowboy" and Dolly Parton. Meanwhile, the son played techno off of his phone and danced the robot for us. (He was too shy to let me get it on tape but he's GOOD!)

We listened to Shine’s country music CD from the car, a mixture including “Rhinestone Cowboy” and Dolly Parton. Meanwhile, the son played techno off of his phone and danced the robot for us. (He was too shy to let me get it on tape but he is GOOD!)

Cloud watching is a great way to pass the time, especially with a storm front coming through!

Cloud watching is a great way to pass the time, especially with a storm front coming through!

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Those three dots were some of the nearest picnic goers.

Once the rains came in we made our way back to the city!

The traffic on the way back was of a different sort than the kind you find in Boston.

The traffic on the way back was of a different sort than the kind you find in Boston.

On the return trip we were stuck in traffic from the event for quite a while. Still, we managed to play a word game for about an hour where each player had to think of a different noun that starts with the last letter of the preceding one. I was very impressed with the vocabulary of my hosts, especially their son, and even got to practice teaching English a bit – something that will soon be a more or less full-time job!

Anyway, hope to post some more pictures soon of my daily life here in UB. Looking forward to your comments! (Also, by clicking on the pictures you can enlarge them!)

The End.

My Travel Day in Quotes

In order to relate the most noteworthy events of the first hours of my adventure, I’ve listed the most memorable quotes of the day within context.

1. “It’s a matter of pride!”

As my relatives drop me off at Sea-Tac International Airport I coolly refuse their generous offers to help me carry my gear to the ticket counter. Insistently, I wave them off and haul my two giant duffel bags, backpacking backpack, day pack, and carry-on bag to the ticket counter. Less than a minute later I realize that although my itinerary is booked with American Airlines, my flight is operated by Hainan Airlines whose ticket counter is several hundred yards away. The actual second quote of the day was a four letter word not worth mentioning here…

Testing out my travel gear...

dealing with all of it was not!Haley 116

2. “Follow the people instead of the signs.”

Wise advice from a fellow anonymous traveler. After the sweaty, stuffy 12 hour flight from Sea-Tac to Beijing, I’m hit with a steamy wave of hot air as I follow the string of people walking down the stairs from our plane to the tarmac below. So this is what 34 degrees Celsius feels like…
After a shuttle drops us off at the main terminal, I make the mistake of following signs towards “international transfers” (a bit too intuitive I suppose). Of course, at the end of the nearly-vacant quarter-mile corridor a man at a booth points me back towards where I came from where I re-join the herd.

3. “This way, friend…”

Now on the other side of passport control in Beijing, I reach the baggage carousel. Although my luggage is supposedly checked through to Ulaanbaatar, I find my bags rotating unattended on the baggage claim. Noticing my confusion, a kind security officer helps me ask other airline personnel about the arrangements. Thankfully, I will not have to carry everything with me. This is good because I’ve picked up a third carry-on bag in the Seattle airport full of American mementos for my soon-to-be Mongolian friends. The officer assures me the bags will be delivered and checked through to Ulaanbaatar.

Seconds later, the helpful officer loads my carry-on bags onto a cart and escorts me right past his coworkers through the next x-ray security checkpoint. He then points me towards the next shuttle to the correct airport terminal for departure. I have several miles on the freeway to feel guilty about expecting him to ask me for a tip!

4. “Of course I’m right!”

Upon reaching Terminal 3 and miraculously locating the next check-in counter within mere seconds, I check-in to get my boarding pass to Ulaanbaatar. “I’m sorry but you have too much baggage,” the Chinese woman at the Mongolian ticket counter says, without a hint of remorse.

“I was told earlier by Hainan Airlines [my first leg] that everything was set to go through to Ulaanbaatar. I already paid 110 dollars!”

“We have no affiliation with Hainan Airlines. You can talk with them about it. You’re only allowed to have 23 kg. After that it’s 45 remnimbi per extra kilogram.”

“So how much is that in dollars?” I ask, kicking myself for not checking the most recent exchange rates.

“Oh, about 20 dollars.”

“Alright. That’s no problem.” Whew. I thought it would be more than that!

“See the man down there? Take him this form and pay him.” Why is everything at least fifty yards away from where I need it to be?! In the sweltering heat, I haul my three carry-on bags that together must weigh about 23 kg.

When I reach the desk, the man is wiping his brow as the sweat beads up on his forehead. Handing him the form and my credit card, I wait expectantly for the receipt. When it comes, I’m shocked.

“275 dollars?! She said it would be twenty US dollars!”

“No. It’s 275 dollars.”

I’m pissed. I ask the man for his calculator, in the process embarrassing him greatly. Re-checking his calculations with the numbers the woman gave me, I reach the same figure. Snap!

“You’re right! Wow, that’s expensive.” “Of course I’m right!!” he yells back at me. Only now do I recall the concept of face, and begin to realize how rude I’ve just been. Blame it on the heat!

I don’t complain anymore.

5. “Burger King!”

Looking to replenish my energy and morale after that massive, heart-wrenching hit to the pocketbook, I steer towards the first beacon of hope I can find, an illuminated Burger King sign that shines brightly. The chicken sandwich is slimy and I barely touch the fries and Coke. Still, at this point it’s good to have calories in my system.

Sadly, my beacon of hope...

Sadly, my beacon of hope…

6. “Over here!” “No, here!”

Perhaps the best part of the trip so far… Two attractive (take notes American TSA!) female Chinese security officers each grab one of my arms and pull me back and forth towards their twin yellow pedestals. The surprise victim of a tug of war match, all I can do is smile wide in disbelief as they giggle, vying to pat me down. The initially playful back and forth escalates into forceful jerks on my arms.

Keep my shoulders in their sockets, ladies! “Woah!”I yell. [Recall that by now I’ve walked several miles with large bags today. Also, the evening before was whipped around on an inner tube behind my uncle’s boat at speeds of around 30 mph!]

The initial grabber relinquishes her grasp and the other triumphantly pushes me up onto the yellow foot-printed pad. The ensuing pat down experience is quite refreshing, but awkward. Afterwards, I wonder if I should have left a tip for the extra attention devoted to my shoulders… I should have told her I had a knot to work out!

7. “My bag isn’t here.”

After a couple hours of thirty seconds naps, nodding myself awake to avoid drooling on the Mongolian gentleman next to me, we touch down in Ulaanbaatar just before midnight. After making it through passport control and security and passing several Mongolians with signs in English for foreigners – none which have one with my name – I reach the baggage carousel. I spot two of my three my bags immediately, then try my best to suppress my anxiety as, one by one, Mongolians pull their luggage off of the rotating belt and walk past me to the exit. So this is what happens when you insult the man in charge of your baggage in Beijing…

With my hosts nowhere in sight, I ask two airport employees about who to talk to about lost luggage. They point me over to a lone desk by the exit.

I wait for ten minutes behind an irate Thai resident of Mongolia, who left his house keys in his bag that didn’t show up either. “For the last time, I just want to borrow a phone to call my friend to find a place to sleep tonight.” “Sir, one moment!”

While the conflict continues, with no other passengers in sight, I make my way towards the exit to see if I should arrange for a ride. Yes! They’re here! Two Mongolians roughly my age are waiting with a sign for me! I greet them from 30 feet away with a wave.

“Hi! My bag isn’t here. I’m waiting to fill out a form.”

Kindly, my Mongolian hostess helps me communicate with the clerk in charge of lost bags. Shortly after, I’m whisked into the night towards our guesthouse in UB! After avoiding T-boning several vehicles in unmarked intersections of the pothole-filled streets, we reach our final destination…

Haley 124

Haley 121