May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkey’s howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches where storms come and go as lightening clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you---beyond that next turning of the canyon walls. ---Edward Abbey (thanks Trudy Hall)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Well, We Thought We Were Going To Russia -- little did we know!

July 12
Today was all about travel.  We got to the train station insanely early and got on the relatively short train with a whole bunch of German senior citizens, who hooted and laughed and investigated the train curiously.  We stretched out, read, slept and watched the beautiful landscape slide by.   

Our room corner first floor
After passing the Mongolian boarder, we were stopped at the Russian boarder for not having a visa to enter.  We had ordered and paid for a multiple entry visa from “Visaexpress.”  Apparently, they gave us a single entry visa.  Surprise!   
So they searched our room, evacuated us and sat us in a big empty room with a large X-ray machine for baggage in it.  They said they will send us back to Mongolia, because there is no way to get a visa except at an embassy.  We broke the law, so we have to pay a penalty of about $70 each. (…and we have other losses: Trans Siberian Rail Ticket, either new visa or plane ticket toward Helsinki, deposit in hostel in Moscow,  room/board in Mongolia, Flight from Moscow to Helsinki. Plus the pain and suffering: 20 hours in "prison" offering only bread and tea for food, not being able to go to the Contact Improv Festival concert in Moscow, the jam too, and the kitty show!  We had a tall interpreter with big eyes who likes being in the army and hopes to increase her rank in the years.  They brought us, guarded to a place with metal bunks and lumpy mattresses and a window covered by metal slats so you can’t see anything out of it. 

Across the hall was a leaky rusty toilet with no lid or seat and a sink with soap, and a door that won’t close.  The shower is a platform with a shower head on a long tube.  We have two people (man and woman) guarding us at all times.  I got up to pee at 6am and startled the woman who was supposed to be watching over us.  They have our passports.  I wonder where a criminal would go? 

July 13,  
We got up late, thinking about making a music video to “Folsom Prison,” and getting out some cranberries and nuts from the groceries we bought.  Their bread is pretty good.  They let us open the metal blinds in the kitchen about a foot, so we have a little natural light, and we have been working on the itinerary and journaling.  Oxanna just came in to ask us some basic questions.  Then told us that we only have a ride back to the Mongolian boarder, not to Ulan Baatar as promised last night.  She was very nice.  Funnies thing that happened today was that we asked if we could go for a walk.  “No.”  We asked if we could go with them for only 10 minutes.  “Go Shopping?”  Just a walk. (That seemed to confuse them.)  They called the boss and then said we could.  So there we were, wandering around the village park of Nowski, with cows in the park, trash all over and an arts building on the other side, with our two police escorts following us.  I don’t think I’ve ever imagined I would be in such a situation in my life!  I know it’s protocol, but it seems like we’re not much of a flight risk.  I was trying to figure out to where I would escape!  So we came back, wanted to take a shower, but there was no light bulb in the room.  I rigged some flashlights, and the shower experience became quite pleasant.  All of a sudden, the plans changed.  We were rushed out at 4:30 on the 6:00 train rather than the 7:30 one.  Quick!  So we rushed on and went to Sukbaatar.  There, they told us we needed to have a ticket to Ulanbaatar, but we said that the Russians promised us a free ride.  We lost that battle, and Les ran at the last minute to get a ticket in Mongolian second class.  They wanted money for the sheets, the hot water, etc.  It was a local train so it arrived at 6AM. 

July 14
We parked our stuff at Andre’s Hostel, before we went to town to do business.  Of course nothing is turning out in our favor. No free ride to Ulanbaatar, no refund of the train tickets, no one at the bank understands how we can make the penalty payment, the Russian bank was closed when we finally found it.  The Russian embassy guy was friendly, and hopefully on Monday, we can get the penalty paid.  We spent a fortune on quesadillas and real coffee at the Bistro, walked a long way to the hostel to shower, taxi ($1) to the theater and home to crash.   The show was amazing!  I loved seeing the style of the movement of the 30 or more dancers that were so energetic.  

Costumes for San(?) Dancers
Much of the movement reminded me of what your shoulders and arms would do if you were galloping on horseback.  A slow up and strong quick down.  They stylized their hands and smiles and even danced around us, creating winds.  Even more astounding were the throat singers and horse-head fiddlers.  Wow.  There's so much range in what those two strings can do.  It's sensitive and passionate, and deep and resonate.  Wow.  The show started with a woman who had a voice that could carry across many valleys.  Strong, confident, beautiful, powerful and lovely.  I was impressed with all of this.

July 15
I spent the morning with a Watson Fellowship winner who is finishing her year of travel before going back to Minnesota.  She spent months in 5 countries, including Egypt when she had to flee because of the revolution and where she learned a special kind of embroidery on the west side of the oasis in a town that just got a road. She went to Guatamala where she witnessed the strongest women’s active group, Uganda, and Mongolia where she is learning how to embroider in this special way in the western part of the country, and how to felt with a contemporary artist.  She also went to an area where women are gathering materials from the garbage to weave rugs and make artwork to sell.  Pretty cool conversation!  We went to the train ticketing station to see if we could get our money back there, but alas, no.  The afternoon was spent researching couch surfing.  It looks like a great match with my sentiments.  Tomorrow, we have booked a trip to the national park, to ride horses, stay in a gur and to see the sights in the countryside.

Mongolian Countryside!
THIS music video has so much of what we're learning about Mongolia!

July 11
Today starts Nadam, a big celebration of Mongolia, so Haliuna (our hostess) arranged transportation out to the horseracing site.  
fellow passengers
 On the way, the van broke down and so we went across the highway to sample some mare’s milk vodka.  
Haliuna stirring mare's milk
Pretty good!  Then Haliuna took us plus her charming brother, niece (Michelle) and two Chinese tourists (Yan & Feng) up the hill toward a Gur that had horses tied to a line.  
mutton hanging from rafters

 We went inside and sat while a boy slept on the carpet over the grass next to the Buddhist alter with mare’s milk and gifts on it, then we changed to the next door gur that seemed to be the kitchen and hang out area with meat drying on the rafters, a tiny stove in the middle, small cupboard, bed and floor mattress.   
Outside was a decorated motorbike that the cowboy used to bring the horses down the hill.  
They poured us mare’s milk beer--a little more bubbly than the milk vodka.  I offered almonds.  

 Before we left, we watched them milk a horse.   A colt primed the pump, they took away the colt, and she squatted on the left side of the horse (right side gives you sour milk!) 
Another van showed up with Haliuna’s husband and with a toddler asleep in the back seat; and off we went to the races.  As soon as we got there, the children (young!) racing the horses were nearing the finish line.  Folks were hooting them encouragement.  The children wore bright colors and the horses looked tired after 20 K running.  There is only grass and a strong smelling plant that reminded my sinuses of sage in our West.  One can see several days walk in one eyeful, like the tundra in Alaska.   

We went to a beef Kabob seller and ate the best food we’ve had yet.  Rain was in the distance when Les and I went waaay down the hill to see the booths with calligraphy, 
folklore, felting, archery, a stage etc., but of course it had closed 10 minutes earlier.  Trainers, and horse riders of all ages were riding the range; one beat me to the outhouse and kept hold of the reigns while he was inside. J  It was cold when we returned to the van, and they bought VERY (exploded and spilled when opened) greasy pocket breads filled with mutton.  Haliuna left her hat at the family’s gur, so we headed back; but on the way, the driver wanted to pick up some fresh mutton.  I’ll say it was fresh!  He was offered a sheep here, or a more expensive on there.  They would have it butchered while we went to get Haliuna’s hat.  While he was negotiating the sale, I watched as they skinned another.  The skin came off relatively easy; I could see how thick and all-encompassing fascia is.  Meanwhile, back at the gur, we had boiled mare’s milk (given in bowls starting with the eldest to the youngest) while the woman, wearing high heels, rolled out the dough for noodles, and fried then boiled veggies and meat for soup. 
Cowboys came in on their horses and tied them to what looked like a volleyball net, came in with their robes, and big colorful sashes and Russian boots.  Haliuna said it was proper to offer them $5 each couple, so we fished out some money and I handed it over Les and said “thank you” to our host.  Haliuna took the other tourist’s money and bowed in front of the man with a little ceremony holding the money with two hands.  Ugh, I think my version was crass and ungraceful.  Sorry, I should have waited for a cue.  The van came back with meat in the back seat and we followed the huge storm into town.  I crashed upon return.    

Sunday, July 10, 2011

To Mongolia

July 6 A woman from our hostel is studying traditional secret Mongolian dance, and was in Ulan Ude for festivals that showed the costumes and traditions of the form, so she suggested we go to a museum.  I loved the posters of health problems and what you can take to cure them.  The bodies had fluids flowing from them, and displayed the location of fluids, energy and organs. There were masks and costumes and pouches and the same orange round things I have that the Dali lama breathed upon.   

hotel breakfast
July 7, we left at 7:30 on the bus to Ulan Baatar. It took only about 2 hours (by train 11 hours) to get through customs.  They say that the logging trucks wait 2-3 DAYS to get through the queue.  Along the way, I went to an outhouse with just a slit in a concrete floor.  The shelter was tilted quite a bit.  I grabbed some weeds for toilet paper before I went in and I think it was marijuana!  I brought some back to show Les, but I tossed it before we took off again; we weren't sure.  The landscape is stunning; Les keeps saying that it looks just like Colorado.  Yes, BUT there are real live cowboys/goatboys herding their livestock around the open range with cylindrical “gers” that are nomadic homes for these people.  I LOVE the idea of having only essentials and moving them along from time to time.  That said, Les wrote a postcard today that pictured a gur with satellite discs and solar panels.  On arrival, we gave up finding the Happy Travels Guest House, after a long goose chase with various drivers and callers, and ended up in a hotel that brought us breakfast (egg, hot dog, sandwich) in the morning.
"Happy Travel" is someone's apartment!

July 8, we continued in a taxi to look for our guest house.  Nothing; so we booked a bed in another hostel--but get this—When we went to get our bags, we were hungry, so we went to the Korean restaurant, I wanted to sit in back by the sun, we were trying to read the menu and look a the pictures, when this woman (Haliuna) asked us if we needed help.  She gave us advice in ordering and we got to talking.  We said we couldn’t find the Happy Traveler Guest House, we’d been looking for two days.  She said, “Oh, that’s me!”  GO FIGURE!  So she took us up to the space where there were two tourists who just come back from a long (weeks!) motorbike trip around the country.  It sounded amazing!  So we got our stuff and went up the five floors to sleep on hard wooden slatted cots in her living room.  I think of Bob Naeher everyday trying to have a vegetarian experience--not easy.  Also, he set me up with the Mongolian Arts Council people (Daria) who will email me a meeting time and place tonight.
            As promised during EW reunion, I wanted to deliver the rock to the left of the entrance way of the government building.  When we got there, it was dark with a very imposing statue at the top of the huge stairs.  There were guards and ropes to keep me from going up, so I put the white rock (I put a little purple heart on it) at the bottom of a ramp on the left side for the EW alumna to find it when she comes in a week or two.  Also, I had a homemade fabric bag on my shoulder as we walked, and someone slashed a little hole in it while we were perusing the street!

Daria of Mongolian Arts
July 9…was quite a crazy day.  We spent the morning at the internet center, because I thought I would be able to connect through Haliuna’s computer last night Daria from the Arts council was supposed to tell me when a meeting with her could be.  We talked about the arts in Mongolia; she thought that setting up an opportunity for me to teach next time I come was a great idea. She’s getting ready for Nadam, and gave us two invitations: one to the horse racing center just out of town, and another to the grand opening of the Chinggis Khaan exhibition that is here from the USA. SCORE!   When we left the thunder started, and we made it home before the rain.  We bought some dumplings and boiled them up (more boiled mutton.  Hmmm) and then I got my hair cut across the street while Les did his laundry.  I got a nice long head massage, and she spent quite a bit of time making the length just right.  I gave them quite a little "hair" dance in thanks for such a good time. 
Drama Theater
We were too late to go to the traditional song and dance show, so we went to a traditional drama about how good Mongolian moms are.  We were the only foreigners there.  It was so great to see something not catered to tourists and to hear the sniffles at the end of the show.  The play was stylized so that the lines were delivered in an almost operatic way: long drawn out vowels with long pauses between lines.  Music under their speaking gave it a cinematic feel, and the costumes were intense.  They wore the traditional outfits with the long sleeves that can lengthen down past the knees with huge cuffs. By the time we left the theater, it was pouring—a deluge that flooded sidewalks and filled our shoes.  Everyone in the world wanted a cab, so we got on the bus.  I think there was an accident or a blockage and eventually the bus took a detour that skipped our stop.  We ended up in another part of town with a woman who was trying to help us.  She had us meet her boyfriend who spoke English and he invited us up to his home to wait out the storm.  Instead we tried to get a taxi.  A couple picked us up, wanting to return all the help they got when they were abroad.  They wandered toward the train station, and suddenly there we were, right in front of the hotel!  Miraculous!  Our feet were very cold, so filling a basin of hot water as I showered (a tub with a shower head is typical) helped a lot.

July 10 
We got out and went to the monestary.  Wow, what a huge 50 foot?, blue eyed, golden Buddah in the ornate temple!  Folks were bowing three times with their foreheads on the money donation box or the white silk fabric that ran across a platform with pictures of the Lamas and ornaments.  Then they would douse themselves with insense and spin the large prayer wheels all the way around the temple clockwise while a lone voice and small cymbals set a lovely, peaceful tone to the place.  Apparently you walk backwards out of the temple.  
 People fed the pidgeons outside, where there was a bride and groom standing. Then we walked around to find that the music and dance show was cancelled due to Nadam.  So we rushed around to find an inferior performance for tourists.  Here is a photo of the contortionist.  The pop dance was horrible, but I loved the music and traditional dance at the end with huge masks and lots of props and layers of costume.  We have found a place that makes espresso and milkshakes.  Ahhh.
Les has more photos of today, I'll add.  Tomorrow we're going to the horse racing site for Nadam.