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Reindeer and Expectations

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Halfway across Mongolia I found myself in Murun, which feels like an old New England town in a lot of ways. There are few paved roads, as well as no running water or sewer, but there are colorful wood houses and streetlights down every dirt road. In another life I could have been posted in a place like this, if I had been invited to Peace Corps Mongolia instead of China. I like it, but two years would have been a very long time to be here.

There are plenty of people, and the mountains are close, but that’s about it. Even the road from Ulaanbaatar to here was mostly dirt, and at least once the bus driver just left the tread marks carved into the steppe and just drove through the scrub and bushes. There has been a running joke for a while about Posh Corps China, where every comfort can be found, but I never really noticed before coming here.

The bathroom has been closed because the pipes have begun to freeze, so we drained it like we would the summer homes in New York when I worked there. Nothing really seems to dry, but it also doesn’t quite freeze. It’s definitely fall here, and everything I saw went from green to yellow to brown in about a week and a half. It feels like California, but far colder and we use wood fired stoves to keep everything warm.

I was only in Murun for a couple days before heading to the far north, eight hours through muddy back roads to a village in Khovsgul. It was beautiful, and for me had that New England feel to it, especially on the last day when an icy mist covered the village. The amazing thing about Mongolia is that it feels safe enough that seeing a shadow walk through the mist with an axe wasn’t really scary.

The next day I took a car and a horse to the reindeer tribe in Khovsgul Aimag through what was closer to being marsh than anything else. It snowed, then melted, and the horse was stepping to its knees into the mud at times. I’m too big for the reindeer, and on that land I’m too big for the horse too. The flat lands were okay, but on the downhill it stumbled and I was thrown off. The good thing is that it was a soft landing, easier than most I have taken in Kungfu.

It was a beautiful valley, far away from everything. The food was simple but good, bread and meat or rice and meat, but that seems to be the standard for Mongolia. Their milk tea is weak and a little salty, but perfect for the weather we had. Cold days, colder nights, and a bit of snow and rain. I wish I could say I discovered something there, but it was just a place where people live. No more magic than anywhere else I have been, but stark and beautiful as the winter began. At night after dark the husband and wife I was staying with read to each other and the animals wandered around outside.

The animals were more fascinating to me. Reindeer grunt. The small ones sound like pugs, snorting around the ground looking for food and licking my hands for the salt on my skin. The big ones sound like someone fighting to start a gas powered chainsaw. They move more like dogs too, snuffling the ground, moving like a dog hunting. I had always imagined them more like cows, but that part of me comes from a different world. So many of the animals in the US are domesticated or living off our scraps, so seeing animals this close to being wild is fascinating. It was the same with the goats and sheep for me, sprinting across the steppe whenever a car came close. The sheep still look like orbs with skinny legs, but they run like dogs. It’s almost comical, but I also realize that everything I have seen has been so deeply influenced by the developed world, that I don’t really know what the world could be without us.

Mongolia is wild, and somehow deeply uncomplicated. Things are functional, practical, and without a lot of fuss. That is what I noticed about the Reindeer tribe, that they were so similar to the people living in the cities. People setting up a yurt in their yard, and that is just where someone lives now. Cooking everything over the same stove that keeps the house warm at night. Simple wood highlighted by vivid colors. People without fear, even when it comes to speaking a new language. The children here can get shy, but most of the time they just speak as much or as little as they can.

In a lot of ways, I wish I had spent the two years here, living in a place that really feels wild, but I know that part of that is just because it is so different from what I have known. There are so many things here that feel familiar, but somehow I think that familiarity is hiding what is truly Mongolian. Like so many of the buildings here that look Russian, Chinese, or western, with yurts scattered throughout the towns and cities. It would be easy to think that true Mongolian architecture was non-existent, but truly it is just hidden.

But I think the one thing I wonder about the most is how to really understand a culture as it is, but with such a short time to really understand it. To see the superstition, the language, the history, and the behavior and try to put together a cohesive idea of what a place is seems impossible. Like so many things, I don’t think I can really explain the place so much as I can explain who I become when I am a part of this place. I want to see the world, but in so many ways the world is just a mirror.

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Posted by Porticaeli 09:44 Archived in Mongolia Tagged nature travel english photography mongolia american reindeer Comments (0)

Expected Beauty

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It was a long trip out of Lijiang丽江 to the coastal cities of China. I spent 36 hours on two trains to Hangzhou杭州, then took another train and a plane to Beijing北京. It was a good trip, but in a lot of ways it was exactly what I expected.

That is the thing about big cities in China, they are what I expect them to be. Hangzhou’s major pull is the massive Westlake, but it’s like so many other places I have seen before. Smaller cities trying to capture the beauty of the coast by copying their style. The buildings were bigger and well maintained, but there were no surprises. Everything looked clean, like most tourist zones in China, with an army of people to keep it beautiful.

And that is the thing. Hangzhou is beautiful, but it’s such common beauty that I get bored. Another lake with flowers and bridges. Another group of people, well dressed and on their way to a club. Another temple that could be in any major city in China. There is no mystery, no surprise, and nothing to grab my attention or inspire me. Nothing to really make me feel.

There is a reason I loved going to the small towns in the middle of nowhere, with my friends who never really understood why I am so fascinated by places like that. Places where the paint is peeling, the walls are crumbling, and everything is worn by use and love. Hole in the wall dumpling shops that have been run by the same family for decades, using the same old pots and made by people talking and laughing. Cobblestone streets worn bare by a century of street markets, or just watching the endless stars above with a friend, shining through the darkness away from the big cities. That is what I remember. That is what I love.

Beijing wasn’t much different. I met up with some friends, and we traveled to a few sites together, but I don’t really care about seeing the ancient palaces and squares that have been copied in so many other places. I wandered by a few old sites before finding the parks and gardens I preferred. The sky was clear and the sun was hot, but there were plenty of places to rest in the shade. I understand why Chinese people would want to see everything, their country, their history, but I lack the attachment to it to find it interesting.

What I enjoyed was talking to my friends, wandering through side streets and small parks, and the view from the Great Wall. It’s an amazing thing to see, and actually a short but hard climb. There were far less people than the pictures always suggest, but we went after school started and everyone had to be back to work. It was worth going to Beijing, but that is not the kind of place I love.

I still miss Guilin with its strange rock spires, sleeping under the stars in Dunhuang, the silence in Lijiang, and the homes of my friends in Longnan, Wanzhou, Wushan, and so many other places. I still want to see the Tibetan areas and make it out to Xinjiang one day, but I have such a thirst for something different that I am glad to be out of China for a while. I will be back, but for now I am thankful for the change of scenery.

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Posted by Porticaeli 04:00 Archived in China Tagged nature travel china great english wall photography american Comments (0)

Pear trees and Spiderwebs

I was in Chengdu, finishing the paperwork and trying to see as many people as I could before I left, trying to decide if it was my final time or not. The idea of finding work in Chengdu after the New Year is sticking with me. I could go somewhere new, struggle through the adventure of a new place and a new language, but for now, I have bills to catch up with. There are other places in China I could go, but my friends at the Peace Corps know most of the people I would want work with, so it might be better to go through them. Guanxi is a useful thing sometimes.
For now, I am heading south for a while, first to Kunming, then back into the mountains outside Dali. I teach a couple hours a day, and my foot is finally healing after my body rejected my effort to take up running again. I see old friends, and the food is healthier than I have had in a long time, but part of me just wants rolled tacos and a quesadilla. I am not yet looking forward to the adventure ahead.
Part of it is still being in China, like my time here hasn’t really ended for now. I’m not in anyplace new, and there isn’t much here I haven’t seen yet. Eryuan is still beautiful, surrounded by pear trees filled with spiderwebs, but it feels like I’m waiting, not traveling. Part of it is that I still have too much stuff. I need some fall clothing for Mongolia and my camping gear will be useful in the Philippines, but I should have shed more of the clothing I am still carrying around. Part of it is that I kind of envy the people who just went home.
There is something tiring about living in another country for so long, especially when home is so far away. In Mexico, I wasted a lot of time and money on trips home because it was so close. That was part of the reason I began there, that I could walk away if I needed to. Now, home is a city where my family doesn’t live. Part of the cost of travel is that the worlds you leave behind keep changing without you.
The same will happen in Lanzhou I am sure. I was a part of so many lives, and hopefully I did more good than harm, but I will never really know the result of all of my work. I will go back and visit one day, but I can’t possibly see all that will come of my time there. It makes me think of the dream of final judgement after death, the idea that we will finally know exactly what changes we enacted on the world. For good or bad, at least there would be an answer.
Most of the time I am okay not knowing. I choose to believe the people who have thanked me, or told me what a change I wrought, and I choose to forget that there is so much of the story that I will never know, but there is always a whisper of doubt waiting for my attention. The things I say and do are based in the facts that I am an outsider and an American. The people here who follow my advice are not. There is always a question of the damage that will be done if they follow me because where I am tolerated, they may not be. More important, they have so much more to lose here than I do.
Pear trees and spiderwebs. It’s easy for me because I have no fear of the spiders, but that is because they have never really hurt me. That is a privilege I wish everyone had, the ability to reach through danger because they can never really hurt you, but that is not the world we live in. All the people who are afraid for my safety as I travel have been harmed in ways I haven’t. So I travel on, with caution, but no real fear. Anxiety, yes. True fear, no.
The next place I go will be Lijiang, up the mountains toward Shangri-la. I have time, I may continue up or stay in Lijiang and leave something to the imagination, but in truth, nothing will be new until I reach Mongolia. A new language, new food, and a whole new world awaits.

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Posted by Porticaeli 20:40 Archived in China Tagged nature travel china english dali american Comments (0)

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