Mongolia Part 2: Ulaan Baatar Routine, First Two Excursions

As opposed to my last update which memorialized a few of the people we met in Mongolia — not posthumously thankfully —, this entry focuses more specifically on how I spent my time during the three weeks or so in the country. I cover our “routine” in Ulaan Baatar as well as our first two excursions to the countryside, which I vastly preferred to the congestion, chaos and filth of the capitol city. While the period taking classes in the monastery was enjoyable, the days were long and arduous, filled with grueling class sessions. The room in the monastery we stayed in was beautifully decorated with gold and red color schemes, containing an elaborate altar at the far end and intricately constructed steel profiles of the Buddha affixed to the outside of each window. However, the benches we sat upon were little wider than two by fours, making the entire experience a bit uncomfortable even with a sweater folded underneath one’s rump. Outside of class, our days in “UB,” as we referred to it, were filled with adventures for food and drink; either at local restaurants or at the find-anything-there State Department Store (or SDS as we referred to it).

The Mongolian cuisine was quite delightful if one first got past the fact that it was heavy and often greasy, consisting largely of mutton-based dishes. Some of the traditional plates were the “bos,” or stuffed dumplings, hearty meat stews, “manto,” or steamed white bread, and who could forget the fermented mare’s milk and dried camel’s yogurt which nearly made me gag! (Perhaps the only food to ever illicit this response. Imagine the sourest milk on the planet in concentrated cube form). Strangely, looking back on it, many of the best dishes I had were from vegetarian restaurants. In a country with a nomadic pastoralist tradition of consuming massive quantities of meat and dairy, the vegan joints were all the rage within our group. Perhaps it was an escape from the heavy dark meat that every other chain or ma and pa-owned restaurant offered, but man, were those places good! Never would I have guessed what soy products and tofu could do mixed in with plenty of fresh vegetables, which were very hard to come by otherwise.

Our days in Ulaan Baatar were also full of lots of reading and writing, as we were assigned many chapters and outside handouts for our Introductory Buddhism course – not to mention the lengthy research project which spanned the entire time in UB and the China tour which followed. While I filled much of the time in UB with schoolwork, it was the extracurricular activities which were the most memorable. For example, in one entertaining outing, a group of four other Pac Rimmers and I visited the Museum of Natural History one afternoon, a laughter-filled adventure had at the expense of all the poorly translated display panels. On another occasion during a weekend night, over a dozen students went out to a local restaurant and afterwards migrated to the nearest Karaoke club where we sang and danced for two hours straight in a private room, all for under five dollars a person. Once we figured out how to use the darn controller, which was about 1 foot by 1 foot and all in Korean, things moved along pretty quickly. I will definitely remember dancing to RESPECT by Arethra, screaming my voice hoarse to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, and being tickled by roughly five Pac Rimmers (the true number of attackers I will never know), who insisted on sitting on me, torturing me to the point of near-exhaustion and hyperventilation. Don’t ask how it happened, I don’t fully recall, but it was BAD! However, in spite of it, that was a very good night.

To change gears, while there were many great times had in the city, it was the Mongolian countryside which captured my senses and imagination. Before leaving the city I had little idea that the majority of the country was a gorgeous vast expanse filled with plains and mountains which seem to rise out of nowhere. At this point I should take time to briefly discuss our first two major outings, each requiring a bus ride of several hours. The first visit was to Khar Khorum, the ancient capital and the second to Tereli, the site of our beloved Abbott’s retreat center and temple, nestled in a beautiful mountain-crested valley. I greatly enjoyed both excursions due to the rare opportunities to explore mountain ranges by both hiking and rock climbing. One of the most memorable experiences of the entire journey thus far was a morning climb on the first full day spent outside of UB, after staying the night in a ger (or Yurt) camp. The trek up the small mountain, adjacent to the settlement, consisted of a challenging scramble and a climactic, almost cathartic, moment while summiting the granite peaks exactly as the sun rose up behind them. Needless to say, there are few occasions I would willingly get up around 6 am for (and it was still a struggle to get out of bed) but this one was entirely worth it!

I shouldn’t forget that the second trip, our visit to the Abbott’s monastery, yielded another great morning of solo climbing (3.5 hours to be exact, along with several situations which would have resulted in a quick death if not navigated cautiously and fortuitously). After trying several failed routes up the bowl-shaped ridge – which involved a lot of fence-jumping and steep climbing that left my hands a bit raw —I finally found a passable, yet still challenging way up the steep granite incline. It was only after bear-crawling up the outcroppings and clinging with my hands to a steep, narrow overhang that ran most of the way up this particular formation that I was able to keep my footing and make progress. I wasn’t exactly sure how I would make it down that final route either (well – safely at least), but I would find an alternate route once at the top. Thankfully, I stumbled across two classmates who were nearing the summit from another side canyon, which was far easier apparently. After joining with the two, a second wind hit me and we all made it as far as physically possile, reaching a false summit that, nonetheless, had a breathtaking view of the valley below. The way down was bumpy and footing was uncertain at times but it was much more enjoyable than it would have been alone!

Once at the bottom, the ecstasy of consuming massive amounts of traditional Mongolian barbecue afterwards cannot be adequately described using any words I know. I had a voracious appetite and there were large quantities of slow-roasted mutton on the bone, potatoes, and other vegetables… ‘nuff said. Oh yes, and I had the honor of helping to clean the pot too! I think there was a classic Peter-moment caught on tape while wearing my burr-covered blue sweatshirt, nose running from a combination of a head cold, a chilly morning, and a fine hot meal. I recall tearing sheep-meat off a long-bone with my teeth and grumbling something barbaric. It all just seemed to fit the scene too well!

Apart from the mountain-climbing adventures on the first two outings, there were many other memories, including private audiences with two Buddhist Abbotts and exploration of ancient monasteries and temples. Unfortunately, while the sessions with the Abbotts were marvelous, I have little to no idea what the significance of most of the contents of the monasteries was since the tour guides from Khar Khorum spoke butchered English. Although, luckily, I gathered sufficient material for my on-going academic project through lively discussions with our interpreters and special guests. Most memorable in my mind were the opportunities to: hold golden eagles for two dollars, GIANT birds; hear a traditional throat singing performance, a cross between humming, whistling, and gargling; see a contortionist act and cringe throughout most of it; and lastly, try some very good Mongolian vodka and some very, very bad Mongolian vodka.

On a side note, every supermarket in the country has an entire aisle devoted to vodka, virtually all named after their beloved Genghis Khan – known as Chinggis Khan to locals. As I learned, not all Chinggis vodkas are the same. Some are smooth as glass while others require 5-10 minutes for one’s taste-buds to recover no matter how creative the post-shot remedy (even pickles cannot offer a full antidote).

Vodka-sampling aside, some other priceless memories included going camel and horseback riding, wrestling with Mongolian cowboys, and having a home visit and question and answer session with a lifelong nomadic herder in his ger. In the process of each of these, I learned a lot about myself. First, I now know I don’t like riding camels, I’d rather take a horse. Camels are large, onerous and foul-smelling animals that are extremely stubborn, and no doubt hard to break. Second, I learned that I’d rather ride a Western horse with a Western saddle than a Mongolian mare. I was struck by the small stature of the equines (dinky ponies really) and unimpressed by the wooden buckets for saddles that left many of my companions with awkward bruises. Not to mention that the stirrups were so short that I couldn’t even properly extend my legs. Third, even though I was once a very good wrestler, I had a lot to learn in the Mongolian-style judo that was widely practiced throughout rural areas. I nearly held my own in the several matches I wrestled, but the different scoring-system and the sheer number of hours the rough herders left me at a disadvantage- aka I soundly lost my second bout. Fourth, wrestling outside on the hard ground will leave marks, such as bruised eyelids and scrapes on foreheads… But you should have seen the other guy!

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Mongolia Part 1: Personalities from our Travels

Mongolia was an incredible experience. It was a country that I had no preconceived notions of (okay- besides that one Southpark episode!) and one by which I was pleasantly surprised. The Mongolian people we came into contact with through our program were all extremely kind and generous with their time and money, making every effort to ensure that we Americans were exposed to and fully enjoyed the traditional foods, art, pastimes, religious practices, and geography of their mother country. In this post I will illuminate just a few of the many remarkable individuals that our group encountered in our Mongolian adventures.

Our primary contact during our time in Mongolia was a man referred to by our group simply as the Abbott, a former scientist in his early 60’s who, after the fall of communism in 1990, was inspired to found a monastery in honor of one destroyed decades ago in the same vicinity. The Abbott also intended to continue the legacy of his father who had been a Buddhist monk in the time of the communists’ reign. Like many in his father’s generation, the Abbott’s dad was forced to shed his robes and lead a secular existence, including working life and marriage. Throughout the decades of communist iconoclasm and repression, characterized by the desecration of nearly every temple in the country and the murder of thousands of monks, the Abbott’s father preserved his copy of and notes on the sacred Lam Rim – a body of Buddhist texts – in order to pass them on to his son. It was the Abbott’s sole inheritance. Since then, the Abbott has established the Lam Rim Monastery, where our group had the pleasure of studying Buddhism.

One memory of taking classes there that I won’t soon forget was the frequent interruptions by curious laypeople attempting to pry their way into the room —a side chamber with its own shrine. Many times it sounded as if the would-be intruder was about to tear the handle off the locked door in order to discover the secrets within! Strangely, it became a normal occurrence after the first day. However, during both of our test days, the mid-term and final, our brainwaves had to compete with the sounds of chanting monks and loud bells and crashing sounds – rites we never saw, unfortunately.

Apart from allowing us to study in his beautifully decorated monastery, which boasted intricate and brightly colored hand-carved and painted wood paneling all around the outside, the Abbott was an crucial contact for our group. He had worked with our director for nearly three decades and without him we would have been unable to plan and organize most aspects of our outings including meals, transportation, and shelter, among other “details”. On these excursions, the Abbott was kind enough to accompany us and give us lectures, delivered with the help of amiable translators. A shy and humble man, he saw the enthusiasm in our group for Buddhism and provided us with extra opportunities at every corner, from trips to the national opera (which he paid for!), to home visits to meet with old friends of his (who happen to be nomadic herders of 80 years), to unsolicited sessions with renowned scholars on ancient Mongol scripts (to help us with our projects, of course). I shall fondly recall the Abbott’s warm smile and kind gaze, punctuated by his rare but exuberant laughter — for example, when he learned of our great anxiety over crossing the street (more on that later).

The second contact whom our group greatly enjoyed the company of was a Canadian-born Irishman whose gregarious nature and witty, if edgy, sense of humor never ceased to amuse. A prolific writer and expert on Tibetan Buddhism, our friend, Glenn, had penned over thirty books on the subject. His seemingly endless knowledge (and, at times, pure speculation) was hard to put an end to once a single question was asked. Filled with loads of humorous and entertaining side stories, his lectures were at times a bit hard to follow but well worth the time and attention spent listening. Glenn was a large man with a long white ponytail who seemed to consider himself a holy person, a true lama. I couldn’t help but compare him in some small way with Danzan Ravjaa, “the crazy drunken monk” of the Gobi, who we were studying simultaneously during out Buddhism class. (Glenn, who was incredibly well connected, even graciously put us in touch with the author of the famous 19thcentury monk’s chronicler, another character that I won’t have time to thoroughly discuss.)

I dare to make the last comparison to Ravjaa because Glenn was a curious fellow to say the least. He gave off an aura of incredible intellect and seemed to possess tremendous spiritual knowledge, which was accompanied with a great irreverence for convention — much like the whiskey drinking womanizer of the Gobi. On the first night, he made crude references to the opposite sex and encouraged the group to engage in debauchery with him, behavior which made him popular to an extent but was clearly unbecoming of an historian or spiritual instructor. Further, demonstrating a flair for the dramatic, he took pride in his outlandish interpretations of history (e.g. the American War for Independence was motivated mainly by the large debts of the founding fathers to the Bank of England, or his opinion that the world should be run by one simple government, using one single common currency). His seeming ignorance was far surpassed by his incredible grasp of historical and factual information, specifically pertaining to Tibetan Buddhism. It could have been the Irishman in him creatively fabricating brash theories about contemporary politics, but he was smart as a whip when it came to his specialty. I greatly enjoyed conversing with Glenn and thank him sincerely for lecturing our group and scheduling individual appointments to help us with our projects.

The third individual whom we had the honor to meet was the Panchen Ocho Rinpoche, a revered Buddhist teacher and non-profit leader who was runner up to the former Panchen Lama during the process of selecting his Holiness’ next reincarnation. We were very fortunate to have a private audience with Rinpoche, partly due to his being longtime friends with our director’s husband. Small world! Our brief session hearing the life story of the eighty-something year old Rinpoche was a rare and revealing opportunity into how difficult life was in Tibet, especially for monks, during the beginning of the Chinese occupation. I had the rare opportunity at the end of our session to ask him how he recommended young impressionable men and women live the rest of their lives, knowing that they could live another 60 years or die tomorrow. His response was very insightful.

First, he spoke of potentially dangerous animals, which are capable of limited positive or negative karmic actions. For example, a dog could help humans herd sheep and protect its owner from would-be assailants, or it could horribly maul a child unprovoked. Then he compared such beasts to humans, who have the potential for effecting much more drastic changes in our world, for better or for worse. Along with the increased capacity for good or evil action that mankind possesses, we have a much greater level of responsibility, particularly those of us from such privileged backgrounds. (An interesting side note is that throughout Mongolia and our Buddhist studies, a number of individuals viewed our group as having remarkably good karma to merit rebirth into such wealth and opportunity for Buddhist education, especially so far from our homeland.) Next, he reminded us that a lifetime is comprised of individual seconds and minutes and that it generally only takes a few of them to enact a positive change in someone’s life. Each moment is precious when our time is so short on this earth, Rinpoche lectured. I imagine that it is often our lack of courage that prevents us from following through with opportunities for great benevolent acts. As I sat cross-legged on the padding listening to the Abbott, it was hard to hear his words without adding in my personal interpretation or analysis, largely because their depth of meaning sparked many other thoughts – even in the moment. However, I’ll spare the readers further digressions. Regardless, his final remarks were a bit more direct and focused (at least for a Tibetan lama): 1) remember that education benefits not just you alone but others too — it is a great gift that keeps on giving —, and 2) be a contributing member of your community in fostering peace and tolerance.

Can’t find much to criticize there…

While I don’t have enough time to share their wonderful personalities, I have to deeply thank Oko, Shine and Rema, our interpreters and guides during our trips in Mongolia, without whom none of our excursions would have been possible. In addition, I would like to extend my gratitude to all of our support staff including the drivers and the cooks. I admire the gall and fortitude of our drivers, as well as their quick reflexes which were necessary to navigate both the congested and chaotic avenues of Ulaan Baatar and the great steppes, void of anything resembling a road. Even when tires blew out or we became stuck in deep, loose sand of dried up riverbeds they never lost their cool. The cooks, I have to say, did a wonderful job. I ate my best meals in Mongolia on the road with our caravan, whose wonderful soups, dumplings, meat dishes, breads, rice plates, and fresh watermelon repeatedly tantalized my taste buds— which were never bored with two similar meals. As many in my group will recall, we ate mutton prepared about 50 different ways in Mongolia. I for one thoroughly enjoyed all of them, although I was hesitant to admit it at the time.

Welcome to my blog!

This is my first blog post and I admit I’m quite inexperienced and skeptical of the whole blogging fad. I don’t consider myself the type of person who needs to share every daily occurrance or accomplishment with the world. I am writing this for my family and friends so that they can share some of my experiences with me while I travel abroad in Asia over the next 8 or so months. In order to protect my privacy and safety and that of my companions, our current location will never be disclosed in these posts. I will try to update this site every time we change countries — which is fairly often — with a few entries in order to fill in my readers! I am open to suggestions regarding content, style, etc. I reiterate, I have never blogged and I would like to provide my readership with the type of material they desire, while still of course preserving an electronic record of the trip for my own benefit. So, let’s get started…

I am happy to disclose that the first few days of our group’s journey took us to South Korea. The few days in SK were a test of mettle for the group as a whole. Without any words of advice or directions (much less maps or language tips), we were told we had the few days free and were handed wads of foreign currency and expected to explore wherever we pleased and survive! It seemed a bit overwhelming with the time change and sleep deprivation, but now looking back it was a great experience that taught us lessons about how to travel as tourists on our own.

The following is a description of the experience I wrote while riding the Subway from Incheon Airport station, near where we were staying, and Seoul, South Korea:

We are exhausted. The group and I have been adventuring through Seoul for the day, exploring the busy city streets by foot — half-lost even when we are most sure where we are headed, but most of the time not caring anyway. Towards the beginning of the day it was easy to simply relax and people watch as we traversed the bustling avenues of the downtown shopping district, but as the number of miscommunications and small mishaps grew — e.g. getting off at the wrong stops, losing groupmembers, people losing traintickets etc. — the group’s spirits declined markedly. Currently, as I ride the subway towards Incheon Airport Station, which is only a few minutes’ walk away from our hotel, the Pac Rimmers sit still in silence for the first time since we embarked on the trip. The jet lag and constant walking, particularly our small but taxing trek to the top of the seoul tower, has taken its toll and bags have emerged under each person’s eyes, highlighted by the glistening of beads of sweat which have poured out of everyone’s forehead at a constant rate all day. It’s hot and humid here! The drama and tension at its height could be characterized by this brief, and fairly accurate although somewhat stylized, depiction of the scene in the Seoul subway…

Somewhere underground in South Korea a group of eight intrepid
adventurers faces its first great challenge. Plagued by self-doubt and
confusion the wanderers are forced to rely on one another in order to be able to safely find their way out of the chaotic subterranean setting. Strangers in odd garb whir by, either completely ignorant of their plight or, worse, occasionally staring, pointing and chuckling, leaving the group unable to respond in any intelligible manner. Men in shimmering silver suits pass at great speeds, dyed and gelled hair bouncing subtly as they simultaneously text and talk on a blue tooth devices. Short women in stilettos march by, whisking fingers through their immaculately shampooed, combed, dyed, and hair-dried locks as they glance back at them quizzically, wondering what on earth they are doing resting their feet while the great throngs of Asians march on deliberately. Clearly they don’t fully comprehend the situation in which the journeymen find themselves. Our heroes have nearly had it. Their feet are sore from constant walking and hiking; they are dehydrated from the long day of profuse perspiration; longing for any hints or clues to find their way out of the elaborate, chaotic maze that is the Seoul subway system; but, most of all, they are coming to grips with the reality that the next nine months will be full of many similar gauntlets.

Fast forward to a few minutes later inside the train — it is
clear that the entire day has been a test, and, although the group has been pressed and the normally vigorous and chatty twenty-somethings are staring blankly into the distance or at the ground, arms draped over their heads, each feels accomplished in some small way because he or she didn’t lose it. Instead, they feel bound together a bit already, openly sharing stories of college antics gone awry and comforting one another with cheerful waves and side hugs, leaning heads on one another’s shoulders. We found the right train– finally!! The road will be long, the journey will be difficult at times, but the camaraderie help make the travels worth it.

So, needless to say, several lessons were learned in the process. Namely, travel in small groups, take maps, agree on times and places to meet if splitting up occurs, agree on the itinerary for the wandering in advance — even basic things such as when do we want to eat, what districts do we want to see, etc. Much of our education from the first couple days will benefit us for the remainder of the trip and I am grateful that we were given (or gave ourselves?) a quick crash-course in a relatively safe environment, at least compared to some of the locations we’ll visit.

Some of the highlights of our brief South Korean experience included the peanut soymilk (incredible!); abandoning my summer experiment with vegetarianism for Korean style-barbecue; climbing the Seoul tower on consecutive days (quite a hike from some but an amazing view); a 5-minute conversation with a police officer trying to help us with directions that was so futile it resulted in both profound confusion and hilarity for both parties involved; exploring the many small shops, storefronts, and traditional marketplace; buying a watch with an alarm clock and new dressy walking shoes (all I brought were my hiking boots); our trip to the DMZ; and getting to know my companions a bit better.

Low-lights included losing my brand-new prescription glasses (meh, I’ve never really worn glasses anyway) and my towel (meh, isn’t that what dirty laundry is for?); laughing my way into a restaurant hysterically and thus prompting very poor service by being too distracted by the sign on the door advertising something along the lines of “hangover soup with pig bone” (sleep deprivation may have played a key role); being horribly lost and confused by the public transit system and experiencing traveller’s paranoia for the first time in a bunch of sketchy neighborhoods on our way to the tower (ok- both added to the adventure!).

Alright, there will be more content to come and I would like to add a few pictures from South Korea too so stay tuned folks!