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A Wedding in Murun

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It’s hard to think back on Mongolia, simply because so much happened there. The vegetation went from green to yellow, then brown before I left. It started out warm, good weather for shorts, but by the end it snowed and stayed below freezing during the day. I went from a city to a farm, then a town and a nomadic tribe. I worked, taught, wandered, cooked, and slept on top of a mountain, but one of my favorite things had to be the Mongolian wedding.

The friends I was staying with had a wedding while I was there, so part of my invitation was just that I was staying where the wedding would take place. It was fascinating. There were traditional foods, large slabs of meat cooked in a local restaurant before being set up for presentation on the day of the wedding. A person would stand up, give a short speech, then sing one of the many songs that everyone in the family seemed to know. There were a couple people whose only job was to take a single, large shot glass and pass it around the room, person to person, and refilling it after each drink. Like in China, I was not allowed to refuse, and the times I tried to only sip I was given the cup again and told to drain it.

The vodka here tastes like rubbing alcohol to me. Reminds me of a medicine cabinet, or working in the hospital. It will get you drunk, but it really doesn’t seem to be something we should be drinking. The food was amazing the first day, but the thing about the wedding is that it seems to last about a week. After the first day with the big ceremony in an elegant yurt built just for the occasion, people kept coming to the house, day after day, to sit and eat and drink. They talked, they laughed, and they gave presents.

The last couple days of the wedding we traveled north to Lake Khovshgul to visit more of the family. I don’t really know the exact reason since we were visiting the people who were already at the wedding, but it is custom. It snowed that day and night, covering the world in a white sheet of glittering diamonds with waves of golden grasses across it. Tourist season had ended so most of the places felt empty and isolated. We ate and sat around the warm fire while presents were passed around, then it was on to the next home, and the next family.

I think it was my favorite because it was the only thing I experienced there that felt truly Mongolian. The language is written mostly in what looks like Russian characters. The buildings often have the feel of Russia, the Soviet Union, or China. So many of the restaurants are Korean, American, British, or Indian. So many of the Mongolian places have changed to suit tourists or have been influenced by their neighbors that it is hard for me to see what is truly Mongolian.

The wedding felt like a wedding, but it was not Chinese, or Russian, American, or Mexican. The way people celebrated, they spoke, even the way they passed snuff bottles to each other to smell, even if you didn’t want to try it. Everyone wore beautiful, traditional Mongolian robes and laughed and sang with their families. Part of me wants to see the similarities between it and the other places I have been, but that would be dishonest. I haven’t seen anything like it, so simple, traditional, and beautiful.

Mongolia was beautiful, and still wild in a way I have never seen. Part of that I saw in the children there. They don’t seem to look to the adults for direction, like they have simply had to deal with all their games and arguments themselves. They speak with confidence, even though they have rarely spoken English before. They learn it in school, but they never really speak it, like in nearly every public school I have seen before.

On the other side, they are much more physical, and in many ways closer to violence than I am used to. Games like rock, scissor, paper end with someone getting flicked in the forehead, and tag always seems to be at the edge of someone being slapped too hard, or in the head. Shame seems unnatural to them, like after accidentally poking someone in the eye, apologizing just never occurs to them. At best, it is spoken as the child runs off to play again.

Wild. It is the best description for Mongolia I can think of. A place where problems are solved between the people involved because the higher authority simply isn’t always there. A place where you can camp wherever you like because there are so few fences. A place of courage, confidence, self-reliance. I am sorry that I had to leave, but as the days were still below freezing it is best that I begin to head south for the winter.


Posted by Porticaeli 02:43 Archived in Mongolia Tagged travel english photography mongolia american murun Comments (0)

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.


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

A Farm in Orkhon

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Who you spend your time with greatly changes your experiences. I find that to be so true for myself. I have always been a bit of an empath, a mirror, mimic maybe, but I tend to greatly vary my personality based on who is around me at any give time. It’s not always something I control, it’s just something I do. It’s part of what makes it easy for me to learn languages and kung fu. If I can see it or hear it, I can copy it. It takes time, but it never seems like learning these things is out of reach.

When I arrived on the farm in Orkhon, there was one group of people. A variety of countries, accents, and personalities were represented, but mostly outgoing, high energy, and one guy who could easily have been my brother. I got along with them well enough, we talked and laughed a lot, but when the one I really connected with was gone, I felt the difference.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t connect with the others, but the cultural connection wasn’t there. Having someone around who I didn’t have to explain the random quotes and stupid voices to is something I have missed for a long time, but I didn’t really know it. Most of the people in Peace Corps were a generation behind me and from cultures spread across the world, and there is a big difference between my generation, no great wars, no great depression, and those who came after 9/11.

It’s not just that day, but all that came after that changed who we were. Not just the problems, but the culture, the humor, technology, and everything else. There was a ten-year void for my generation where the problems were mostly solved before they began and the fears of the Cold War were becoming myth. I didn’t really know there was that much of a difference until I met someone so much like myself, laughing at movies and shows that would never survive today.

Connection. That is the problem. I can talk to almost anyone, and there is usually some common ground, something to connect over, but finding that again makes me miss home more than I knew I could. And not just the place, but the time. So much has changed since I lived in San Diego, and the same goes for every place that I have lived. The world moves on when we leave, and that more than anything makes it hard to go back. That no one is important enough to stop the world from turning.

When I left the farm, it was an entirely different group. Mostly French and Germans. A woman from the Czech Republic with a smile that lit up like a pinball machine came and went while I was there. They were still younger than me, but somehow different, more relaxed, more easy going. There was talk of travel, food, philosophy, and there was laughter. There were comments I had to keep to myself, simply because I didn’t want to try and explain the cultural references for them, but it was a good time.

The work was background for me. I helped take out a bathroom, replumb it, then build an office with a bed in it. I replaced the water heater for the shower after failing to fix the one that would only heat to warm. I shoveled horse shit to be dried and burned over the long winter coming up and I helped build haystacks to feed the cows. I cooked well enough, and shared some of the wonderful things you can make in a rice cooker like slow cooked beef and soup. I spent more time than I would like looking for tools and materials to do the work, and I really missed my DeWalt power tools and having a Home Depot down the street.

One day I walked off into the steppe and headed for a mountain nearby. It took me longer than I would like to climb it, but I camped on top and saw the sunrise and sunset. The moon went down and I could see the Milky Way and stars stretching to the horizons. At times I thought it would never end, and at times I felt it went by far too fast. It’s one more place that I could live forever, but there is still so much to see in the world.

Even now, the pain fades and only the joy of the memories remains. Beautiful people, laughter, amazing food that tasted better for the hunger after a long day working. I’m glad I was able to build something there, something that will last and help them in the winter to come. I’m glad I met Gary, the old cow who loved scratches. But in a few days I will be off to the Reindeer Tribe, six days heading north past Khuvsgul Lake to see something I can’t really imagine yet. And then I will remember without pain.


Posted by Porticaeli 03:43 Archived in Mongolia Tagged travel english photography mongolia american orkhon Comments (0)

Beauty in Change

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Leaving anyplace I have called home is hard, but not for the reasons I expected. My time was up, and there are people I miss every day, but it’s more that I wish they were here then I was there. I had forgotten how beautiful everything is when I find myself deep in a new country, but Mongolia was breathtaking from the start.

Ulaanbaatar is a small city by the standards I grown used to over the past couple years. Most of the buildings are low and the sky stretches overhead. Most of the buildings seem to be in the style of the Soviet Union or China, but there are a few amazing exceptions. The capital building is columns and glass with the khans of old sitting on bronze thrones or riding bronze horses. On the other end is the yurts, which they always call gers. I like the word yurt better. It’s just fun to say. Yurt. Even if it is wrong.

The other thing I noticed is the people. So many of the women here are beautiful, and each in their own way. I think that is a lot of it for me, that they are comfortable with their rich dark skin, or pale skin, or all the shades in between. Many of them have curves, and they don’t seem to worry or feel bad about their weight. Just the variety between different women is beautiful to me. Maybe I was just too long in a place where there seems to be only one standard of beauty, and so much true beauty is hidden beneath the need to be pale and skinny.

The men seem to have something about them that makes me think of the warriors their people once were, a confidence to their stride and their backs straight. Or maybe I am just seeing what I want to see, the ancient horsemen that lived free beneath the eternal blue sky.

Mongolia was my first choice for Peace Corps, or at least I remember it that way now. I have read a few stories about the place, heard rumors, but I don’t really know what Mongolia is in the 21st century. It’s supposed to be the most sparsely populated country in the world, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is true. The cities still have the feel of ancient towns I come across in other countries, with open air markets scattered throughout and many of surface streets still unpaved. I have had more than one person tell me about how they traveled the country and just set up their tent wherever they stopped, no campground needed.

I am tempted to do that, to just go and see what I can find out there. Hitchhike, or rent something and drive. As long as I have my phone I can find my way back from anywhere I wind up. But I already have plans, for now. I am on a farm for the next week and a half, currently finishing ripping out an unused bathroom and replacing it with a small office and a bed. Sometimes I help shovel out the horse stalls, gathering manure to be dried and burned throughout winter.

Most days I help with the cows, either in the morning or at night. They have to be herded so they can be milked, but there are 44 cows and no fences so it can take time to find them. The woman I am staying with has about a hundred horses also, but they just run free this time of year. Soon we will have to bring down the cows for the winter and gather the grass they will be eating once the plants go into hibernation. The scenery is amazing, the sunsets extraordinary, and the stars fill the sky.

There are a lot of other volunteers here, too. Most younger than I am, traveling alone or with a partner, from Europe, Singapore, New Zealand, and surprisingly Los Angeles. I got along best with that guy before he headed out. We hazed each other, talked about everything from philosophy to Monty Python, quoting and laughing, not even needing to finish our sentences to know the references. It was like having a brother around again.

But we all move on sooner or later. Visas end, work calls, or simply more adventure in other countries. Soon enough, I will be gone too, to Murun, somewhere halfway across the country. I will be teaching again, for a couple weeks anyway, and there is the Golden Eagle Festival in the beginning of October I am trying to get to. Two months here really isn’t enough, but the days are already getting cold and I can feel the winds blowing me onward. The hardest thing sometimes is trying to enjoy where I am before I look ahead to where I might be.


Posted by Porticaeli 04:45 Archived in Mongolia Tagged travel english photography mongolia american orkhon 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.


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

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