Wednesday, August 29, 2007

UB beaches are nothing like Saipan's

The familia enjoys an afternoon at what passes for the beach in UB. Beautiful day here in Ulan Baatar. Heavy thunderstorms during the night, left the air bright and clear of a persistent haze. As a bonus, Erdene’s brother, Amara, arrived from the country Ger in time to join the pmpkn and I for our morning walk and coffee with pastry. The lad has found a new inquisitive personality, since mastering the crawl and an extra pair of arms are always welcome.
Otherwise, not much in the news department, unless conquering infant diarrhea rates an extra edition of the UB Post. My mutton shipment to Alberta, Canada was intercepted and returned by Mongolian customs. We’re going to work on alternative shipment via Saipan. Bruce, can you make a stop at Godfathers around the tenth of September? I’ll throw in an extra can, US dollars for onward shipment, and some dried sausage, but I wouldn’t take a chance on the fresh stuff. Or rather, I would suggest you don’t take a chance.
There was a personal first for the expat family at the State Department store over the weekend. We ran into an Australian couple and their little boy while shopping and we had met them elsewhere in town a few weeks earlier. UB is beginning to develop that small town within a city feel. I’m on nodding acquaintances’ with the local contingent of Mormon missionaries, but that is not an occurrence common to UB. Of course, the Pmpkn has a regular fan club around our building, the little girls and older people love to see him coming. Our excursions to the sandbox will be continue as long as summer keeps it’s tenuous grasp on these northern climes. Nothing like a baby with his bare toes in warm sand.
On a somewhat disturbing note, I’m becoming increasingly convinced the little guy is possessed by the devil. He speaks in tongues for one thing and has developed a growling sort of voice reminiscent of Linda Blair in “The Exorcist”. I’m not at all surprised, as my mother told me early on, that she and my father were convinced that I was possessed and I should be prepared for the same with the lad. Unfortunately for my parents, Vatican II, while removing Latin from mass also moved the church away from the exorcism business. If he starts spewing green stuff; I’ll investigate the local solutions. Otherwise, we may be off to Manila, RP for a visit. Such is life. I’m not casting stones, but my mom’s attitude is somewhat surprising in her acceptance of demon possession. “God’s judgment” and “serves you right” isn’t what I would expect from a dedicated activist to the public good like my mom. She is a life long Catholic, however, and her good deeds could be form of penance. She is also an educated woman and wields both guilt and sarcasm as the crusaders of old slashed with their swords. To paraphrase, the Monty Python troop; “ she knows sarcasm, metaphor, pathos, all the tricks...”
My Saipan neighbor and friend, the teacher, has taken up residence in town. Speaking American English with a friend is a fun switch. Plus, I can show off my new found city wise ways. A joint trip to the black market went well. Found what we were looking for without getting taken. We’ve been comparing notes on UB and will sit down together for a joint post one of these days. He’s talking about buying a car and actually driving himself around UB. I’m happy every time I cross the street safely on foot, but he wants to commute and explore the local environs . His health insurance and work visa is current, so he might as well. He’ll have to deal with not only the local drivers but also with what my wife calls the local minivan busses: “crazy rat drivers” If he wants to deal with them on their turf, I suggest high blood pressure medication and either good insurance or a car you can run away from.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


In this post; a view of Mongolian construction staging, the boy meets meat and, a spam update. Also, “Honey, please tell me that isn’t beer foam on the pmpkn’s chin“.

In days, long since past, I was an infant researcher. As the blessed event loomed ever closer, finding out all that could be known about babies was of the highest priority. Neither, the missus or I had been expecting before and our family support groups were a bit distant, so the reader might easily guess at my anxiety level. One article, which stuck out in my mind, dealt with subject of accidentally doing the wrong thing and surviving the consequences. Unlike, many other sources of baby information, this article was positive in outlook for both infants and parents. Can’t say as the prospect of one day screwing up was glaring like a warning flare in the front of my mind, but I considered the subject along with the others.
Well, last night at dinner, I had my first whoops. Fortunately, no ill effects ensued, except to my own self-esteem. We ordered an appetizer of ’vital’ meats with vegetables and an accompanying plate of finely-sliced tripe in a tangy marinade. Erdene has been in the habit of giving the lad a small chunk of shish-kebobed mutton to suck on, when we stop from a snack at the sidewalk café’s. No harm in that, as the piece is too big for his mouth and he hasn’t progressed to finger food. If mutton juice is a problem for babies, so be it, but I would be skeptical. The Mongolians have a saying which sums up their take on the feeding thing. “Meat is for men, grass for animals” I’m thinking of buying the t-shirt.
Well, I figured that a little slice from the small meat tray would be just the thing for the lad to hold in his mouth. No sooner, had I placed the narrow sliver of sliced meat in his little maw, than he slurped it in like a strand of spaghetti. To quote our favorite orator, Larry the Cable Guy; “It was gone faster, than a set of rims at a snoop dog concert”. I attempted immediately to retrieve the offending object to the lad’s vigorous disappointment. However, anyone who says: prying an infants jaws apart is easy, is a liar. I had a pit bull once who choked on a child’s ball and her jaws were easier to separate. Of course the pmpkn has one little stub of a tooth, so getting a finger in his mouth was less painful than the dog’s, but at any rate, the meat was gone. I went from cautiously optimistic to a state bordering hysteria in a split second, although there were no signs of distress, yet.
The boys mother and uncle, sitting across the table, had missed the action to this point, although I figured once I started pounding on baby’s back, they would take note. Happily, my lightning fast lightening review of the “baby choking” checklist was not needed. Noting my flushed face and somewhat serious demeanor, my loving and blissfully ignorant wife asked; what was up? I confessed to my deed and she took me to task for giving the boy meat from the tray. While happy there was no choking, she was slightly perturbed because, the assorted meat tray was labeled “vital” meats on the menu. Vitals, of course, would be vital organs. She was a little displeased, that I would give the lad “old” meat. I, defended my actions by pointing out while I had erred, I didn’t give him any slivers of tripe from our other appetizer. She forgave me faster, than I forgave myself, although, I did manage to enjoy my dinner. I’m not sure the pmpkn even noticed, although, he did develop a little case of diarrhea later in the week. I’m blaming it on the new tooth. Apologies to Bruce B. on bringing up the bowel thing again, but it’s relevant.
I’m still working on a post describing the Mongol Rally, but seem to be stuck in some weird fugue which is preventing me from finishing. I’ve certainly enjoyed learning about the rally and, despite the fact most of the participants are British, I’ve had fun talking in a familiar tongue. I’m considering looking for sponsors for next year, if I can get a low price on my brother-in- law Russ’ Chevy Assfire for a vehicle. I did, however, find out why I’ve been having trouble connecting to the internet, anywhere except from home. Microsoft… Need, I say more?

Here are three ways to tell you aren’t in Saipan anymore. You notice the weather patterns change. Sometimes, even daily. You catch a cold. The water hardness deposits finally slough away from interior of the tea kettle.
Spam Update, Simon’s package is on the way and so is mine The cans of spam and mutton should cross paths somewhere over the Pacific in a week or so. I’m thinking of a spam preparation poll. Note: to my brothers and other interested parties. Put Spam in your Zombie Apocalypse survival kits. In the event of the Apocalypse spam will dissapear from the shelves, faster than a set of rims at a snoop dog concert.

Today’s lame and dated joke, therefore, one of my all time favorites. Why did Lady Di and Mother Teresa have to die? To prepare us, for the tragic passing of Sonny Bono. Does anyone remember; Cher’s eulogy to Sonny? I will freely admit her delivery brought me to tears.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

No stonings at the Black Market

My trip to the Naaran Tul or black market was remarkably similar to my journey to Erdenet on the train. I.e. The pictures didn’t come out. However, broaching the no camera barrier, more of less successfully, without suffering the “major penalty”, will encourage me to be a bit less circumspect in my picture taking next time. Perhaps, like the vistas from the train, the “black market” is too substantial an image to be captured on film. I’ve seen quite a few urban markets in Asia and I’ve always been a flea market and garage sale aficionado, stateside. In my judgment, the Naaran Tul, is the top dog. In size, it equals the largest mall. When viewed in terms of gross acreage and variety of goods, it stands alone.
The international market in Pusan, isn’t bad and the markets of Seoul and Okinawa also offer variety at low prices. The produce and seafood stands in Busan, particularly, have a huge variety. I spent two hours there one afternoon, just eating from one block‘s offerings. Busan, loses to UB, however, because the same clothing and consumer goods are sold on alternating sections. Naaran Tul is a continuous run of unending variety. Hat selections seem to be similar and backpacks, but otherwise, nearly every stall has something different to offer. Quite an accomplishment in an area covering six or eight blocks. Crap! Probably more than that. I’m on my fifth trip and am still finding new items. New products on the last trip were; swords and puppies (well separated, by distance). Ever heard the song, “plastic Jesus on the dashboard of life” I haven’t seen any “plastic Jesus’” but picked up a fine little bronze bhudda, which will fit on my dashboard.
I haven’t been a clothes whore all my life, its something I picked up in middle age. Until recently, fabrics and fit were of no consequence as long as the item went over my thighs or shoulders, didn’t itch, and provided a reasonable amount of but and gut cover. Colors were gray and dark blue, with the obligatory white “T” or Polo shirt. Polo’s are extremely handy for hiding the plumber’s crack. These days, I revel in the feel of soft cotton and even understand the concept of thread count. I’m still not big on matching colors and would never even consider trying to get an exact match, but I can make my socks match my hat (a hat, would be an accessory for a guy). For me, going overboard would be wearing a leather belt, if I’m carrying my leather wallet. On Saipan, it was a ballistic nylon wallet with swim trunks or a rust-proof money clip for fancy dress.
Bargains aren’t much of an issue at the Naaran Tul. It’s all inexpensive. Note, I didn‘t use the word cheap. There are plastic products from the southern neighbor, but cheap plastic crap is not any reason for visiting this market. Embroidered cotton shirts: five bucks. Quilted Queen-sized bedspread, padded for the little one’s noggin: twelve thousand Toureg or ten-fifty US. Want to make your own? Five, hundred-yard long aisles of fabrics from polyesters to silk. Thread, buttons, and whatever else the sewer needs can be found in the side aisles. There are even separate sewing rooms over the wholesale meat section, for custom work. Instead of buying a mattress for the new crib, we had a double quilt pad made up. Total cost: four dollars US. Fit to the crib, perfect. Of course, he still won’t sleep through the night. I can’t find shoes to fit my size thirteen feet, but had a wooden plug made of my feet for a pair of leather boots. If the price is over thirty dollars, I’ll be surprised.
What else? A block-sized expanse of bicycle supplies, closely combined with an area of the same size filled with motorcycle and car parts, along with rows of power and hand tools, conveniently located next to a large area of construction supplies.
Surrounding all that, are several long aisles of horse tack with stirrups and saddles made to order. Need a stove or a few hundred leagues of line, just next door. Every sort of dish and pan (except, meatloaf pans) colorful or plain. No guns.. Plenty of knives though. Mongolians are never far from a sharp tool. Although, I have yet to see one resort to a knife when teeth will do.
This seems to be the best I can do without pictures. If the variety of styles and the sheer volume isn’t enough, the variety of colors dazzle the eye . Maybe it is the long grey winter days, that inspire the Mongolians to choose the brighter fabrics. But color aside, the view, of aisle after aisle; of shirts, pants and dresses, boggle the senses. After awhile, the brain goes into sensory overload. Turn a corner, what seems to be a half mile of leather coats, another turn, women’s shirts and dresses, men’s hats, traditional dress in one stall, with cute little girl clothes next door. The market goes on and on. Can’t wait to go back and check on the sword prices. My dear wife believes we are going there for a spare set of sheets in Royal Blue, but I’m going for another Bhudda and maybe a cutting implement or two.

Obviously, I did make it back to the market and took some decent pictures for a change. Ran out of time, before reaching the swords, so I'll be going back.

Interesting event in UB yesterday. The Mongol rally finished up at Dave's place in UB. I happened to stop in, while looking for a working internet connection, and talked with some of the partcipants. Hell of a race, Istanbul, Turkey to UB. The cars were pretty beat up and the drivers didn't look too hot either. They were certainly thirsty though. I'll check it out some more and post something interesting.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Random observations

I’m dreadfully slow to post this week. I’m not entirely sure what is troubling me; the post on Narran Tul shopping has been ready to go for days now. One reason could be that; I’m a little distracted, now the pmpkn has begun crawling. Not only, do I feel compelled to keep close tabs on him as he indulges his new found freedom, but he’s cute as the dickens. The spectacle, of some of the liberal bloggers on Saipan and from around Sodom on the Potomac, eating their young, has also captured my attention. Plus, my internet connection (totally stolen, from the net café next to the pharmacy, restaurant, and sex shop downstairs) is a bit slow and prone to cut out while uploading pictures. Enough with the excuses.
On the subject of Saipan liberals. According to my own poll, conducted along strict scientific lines, among my wife’s friends. Mongolian women find Jeff T.’s body type to be extremely attractive. No lie. Several of the more popular Mongolian actors and singers could be body doubles for him. I’ll try and find a picture for my non-Saipanian readers, so they can flesh out the image in their minds. Sorry Brad, the beach boy. Your type loses out this time. Too bad, as I see at least a couple of Tina Sablan look-alikes every day. Mongolian women are in a word; Hot. They dress with: if not elegance, then style, walk with a certain fluid grace, and generally exude an aura of cute sophistication. It would behoove every male under the age of seventy matching Jeff T’s description to visit (sorry, Dad. They have a thing about older men, which wouldn’t help the cause).
Someone else in my building speaks or at least reads English. There was a little commotion in the hallway, Friday evening. My first impulse was to introduce my neighbor’s uninvited caller to a can of whoop ass, as the noise was about to wake up the baby, but was dissuaded by the missus. Seems that interfering with noisy people in the common areas is frowned upon in UB. Plus, she saw through the keyhole, the agitator was a woman. Apparently, my next door neighbor pissed off his girlfriend and she felt compelled to raise a little cain in the hallway. Next morning, I saw the universal message from a scorned lover keyed on his door; F#*k Off. Good penmanship, also. Or is that, keymanship?
It’s noon here and time for the daily horn blowing exercise in the street, below my balcony. The side street, paralleling the back of my building, is narrow and twisting with one main entrance and exit. There is a gated business building, abutting the hairpin turn closest to the apartment, which is extremely busy for the two hours of Mongolian lunch. By design, there is, only one vehicle opening in the fence which surrounds what is mainly some sort of insurance and vehicle registration office. The gate is situated, directly across from the main street access, and the intersection goes into gridlock at the drop of a hat. One thing about Mongolians, if they are forced to take their foot off the gas, you can be sure the horn will sound simultaneously. If that isn’t enough, everyone and their brother going in and out of the area, has a car alarm fitted with a hair trigger. Passing cars and gusts of wind set them off regularly, although I have yet to see anyone breaking into a car in the middle of the afternoon on a busy street. Thankfully, the pmpkn sleeps right through the noontime racket. My dear wife, and informer on most things Mongolian, says the narrowness of the streets is the result of government corruption. She could be correct; I saw a twenty-five year old boy driving a new humvee yesterday.
I’ve come to take a weird pleasure in all the activity, while trying to predict which driver will be the most likely to cause the inevitable gridlock. Previously, my belief was the three way stop at the end of Beach Road in Garapan, Saipan provides the best example of a cluster screwup, but this small corner by my apartment has taken over first place. Yielding, to a Mongolian driver, appears to be the impending prospect of impacting an object of greater mass than his or her own vehicle. Sperm Whales, as seen recently on the National Geographic Channel, engaging in pre-mating rituals, are running a close third to Beach Road at this point in time. What I’m really waiting to see in UB, is a pedestrian crossing dependant Japanese couple, passing from youth to middle age, while attempting to safely cross the street.

The ideal male form, as seen by Mongolian women and semi-ironically the favored cut of mutton, as seen by most Mongolians

Yankee's fan utilizing his niche

I'm glad to see everyone who wants to work in UB, finds a job to fit his or her abilities.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Alan Amara at nine months

Warning: This post is entirely about the baby. Unless, you are interested in child development as seen through the eyes of a happy parent, wait for the next installment of news from UB, in which your intrepid correspondent takes his camera to the Naaran Tuul market. If there is no new post on UB shopping, then you can assume there was a stoning.
The lad had a big weekend. On Friday, he finally took his first crawl. Directly towards danger central, of course. He was headed for the high chair and the bag of broken glass for some chin ups and play time. Amazing, how quickly babies progress, once they do the basic moves for the first time. It was only two weeks ago, that he started sitting up, without immediately falling over. Now he has the entire living room for a play space. “Quick Seymour, go check on the free range children.”
Sunday, we noticed a rough edge on his lower gum, looks like a tooth. He’s been a little cranky and has run a slight fever, but nothing to write home about. Whoops, I am writing home. Anyway, nothing major and the first tooth is a happy sign for all of us. Mongolians worry about babies who aren’t chewing on a mutton bone. I’m tempted to write “Ask, Dr Sears” to enquire when a child should have mutton marrow in their diet.
He’s sitting up all the time now, matter of fact, he refuses to lie down, unless there is a breast near his mouth. He’s totally dependant on the breast for a sleep aid. Mom’s picking up rings under her eyes, which rival Saturn. To a lesser extent, the boob dependency sort of sucks for me, when Erdene is out. Takes a lot of crying, before total exhaustion kicks him down and out. Have to work on that one. He likes the sippy cup, even if he isn’t holding it on his own, so maybe we can work out some sort of compromise. I hope so, I have better hopes that a permanent solution for Mideast peace will be found, before I can get him to sleep on my own without major trauma for both of us. It could be; like colic or painful teething, or the black plague, but we've brought it on ourselves, despite all the books and advice. Sot it goes.
Learning the basics of crawling has been painful for everyone. He’s done a bunch of face plants and continues to perform the occasional backflip, but fewer every day. Erdene freaks out whenever his noggin misses the pad and klonks on the carpet, but she’ll adjust or he‘ll stop falling. Alternatively, he could keep falling and she will go crazy with worry. My theory, is the Pmpkn’s sputnik like skull will withstand any klonk from his own sitting height and statistics will support me on this. Otherwise, we would have a nation (nay, even a world) of drooling idiots. The current presidential prospects non-withstanding. Conventional Mongolian wisdom holds that: any contact with the deck and the babies head is bad, on a level approaching spilled milk. Oh! They don’t cry over spilled milk, they swear and stamp their feet. Spilling or wasting milk is a big no, no. It’s ok to flick a drop or two towards the four points of the compass, but that’s it. Nomadic herding traditions, I suppose.
No problems with the food in Mongolia. There is a lot of sugar in the prepared baby food, but mom has been mashing up fruits and vegetables. He’s on meat now. We cook ground mutton, then add water, and flour for his mush. He still gets rice and wheat gruel with some fruit, but the meat gruel is de rigueur for Mongolian babies. I’m not fighting it and he is having no trouble with the new diet. Actually, he is pooping regularly, so we are all happy.
Our new neighborhood is convenient for just about everything. I haven’t, personally, checked out the sex shop on the first floor. However, Erdene and Siegii did and reported the establishment to be “nasty”. The semi-attached restaurant isn’t bad at all. We, (mom and dad. That’s aich and ove in Mongol) had a tasty helping of milk soup with dumplings this weekend. Our landlord prescribed it for Erdene’s sore lower back. That isn’t the strangest prescription, I’ve run across in Mongolia, by any means, although, on one has yet suggested rubbing a sheep rib on an afflicted body part. In contrast to our old digs, we don’t have to travel far for food and such. There is a small grocery directly across from our building. A short stroll around the corner and there are roadside vendors selling; fruit, drinks, and little necessities. A bakery and larger supermarket aren’t more than a hundred yards away. Otherwise, lots of kids around and while the neighborhood isn’t well to do, there aren’t any slums. There are some shipping containers and an old railway car, a couple blocks over, that people have turned into housing, but that’s UB. We are only four blocks from the nearest yurt and if this is inner-city living, we have no problems with it.
Pmkpn and I didn’t get our walk in this morning due to rain, but we’ll both be up early tomorrow. I’m going for the vitamin breakfast; a gargantuan bowl of Yogurt, a huge bowl of trail mix/granola, an equally large bowl of fruit salad, and a roll. Man doesn’t live by processed meats alone. The German or English breakfast can wait until the next visit. A few more weeks, a couple more teeth, and I can order a side of bacon for the lad. Now, that will be a day to write home about.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Mutton in a can

We’ve moved out of our fancy borrowed mongo/euro digs on the desirable southeast side of town for the more gritty southwest end, near the train station. If we had a karoke bar to go along with the sex shop, restaurant, and pharmacy, then we would have sex, drugs, and rock and roll, all nearby. No more wireless in the living room or HBO on the box. Now, we have Russian game shows and badly dubbed movies. If I turn the sound up to max, I can hear the original dialogue and the pmpkn doesn’t care too much what is on. He’s happy we still have the Fashion Channel, though.
All in all, I like the move. These days: instead of walking through a muddy construction thoroughfare near the impending Hilton Hotel- to pick up a cab for the city- we are only a short walk from the coffee and tea shops of downtown. As a bonus, there is a huge wholesale and retail market close to us which sells everything from breads to whole sheep (on the hook, not live). Also nearby, is a killer indoor retail market with peanut butter and SPAGHETTIOS along with the usual local foods. Still no spam, although, a small Korean store has faux spam. I’m holding out for the real thing. I can always get mutton in a can.
A small visit from home, I found Beach Cliff sardines from Maine, across the street from our apartment Surprisingly to me, the humble sardines were selling at twice the Saipan price. Another reminder of Saipan, were two young Mormons in the neighborhood, buying frosted flakes. The wages of sin. I did my good turn for the day and told them of a market around the corner selling the same cereal for a third of the price. I rubbed it in a little, by suggesting they check out the excellent oatmeal granola with fresh local yogurt for even less money A little bit of Shadenfruede, making the Mormons think, I’m a granola type. Honestly, though, the yogurt here is awesome. If I don’t go out for the breakfast, a little of what I find in the fridge with yogurt is no problem for me. Last week, I even had a slice of quiche for breakfast.
Saint Siegii, Erdene’s sister, came by with the fabled yak’s milk cream today, then took the missus out for an afternoons shopping, leaving me with the pmpkn. Keeps me out of trouble and an afternoon with lad is always fun. My morning with pmpkn was every reason for loving a city. Alan Amara and I set out a little after eight for “Chez Bernard” a UB landmark for travelers of the backpack variety and one of my favorite spots for coffee and “streaky“ bacon. Since the boy was in the backpack carrier, I figured we would fit right in. I skipped on a traditional breakfast in favor of the four cheese eye opener; which included two semi-soft Mongolian cheeses (one a bit like cheddar, an elusive cheese here), some local cream cheese, and STILTON. An exceptionally fine stilton: firm and not mistreated from the journey, but still melt in the mouth creamy, firmly veined with flavor, and topped with the crunchy crumbly outside coating which makes England great (right after; “rum, sodomy, and the lash“). As the unfamiliar reader might guess, I’m a big Stilton fan and as it has been a couple of years, since I’ve enjoyed as beautiful a cheese, as I did this morning. After waiting so long, I believe, I‘m entitled to gush a little bit. The lad, as usual, was entertained by the wait staff and various other diners. I shared my apple juice with him, otherwise he was off accompanying our waitress on her rounds. She’s pretty impressive. I saw the two of them remove a table of three’s plates, etc.. at one go, and not miss a beat or drop a cup. I’m lucky if I can unlock the door with the pumpkin in a carrier and he was secured by only her arm.
My morning walks with the lad are going to be so much fun. We’ve only explored the quarter of the city closest to us. If what we have seen is any indication, we’ll have some great walks, before the weather turns. On a side street today, we passed a couple of guys cleaning up an impressive collection of mostly dried blood splatters. Note to self: continue to listen to the missus about staying in or otherwise closely watching my back at night. I’m thrilled by the pmpkn’ reaction to the city. He’s still as curious, as he was at Kannat Gardens, most noises don’t faze him, and people love to see him go by. In the backback carrier he sits at an altitude of seven feet, which makes for some amusing comparisons with babies on camels. No complaints from Erdene, as long as I watch my step in traffic. No mother will turn down uninterrupted sleep.
About Mongolia and Sheep. I missed some pictures at the market yesterday, which would have illustrated the attraction of Mongolians to mutton fat. Most of the Mutton, I’ve seen: rivals Oprah and Rosie for fat layers. The cuts I saw on the carving tables reminded me somewhat of whale and seal meat blubber. I think, I could buy a lamb in season, but would get some funny looks, as lambs haven‘t built up a decent coating of fat and are not considered to be saleable.
Mongolians strike me as very traditional, but with some sound reasoning behind the tradition. Fatty meat in the winter, serves to keep people warm by providing an internal heat source, and a little summer’s extravagance is soon used up in the lean cold months. The available mutton, though, is fresh and clean tasting. It’s not corn-fed beef by any means, but still tasty. Not many spices are used in most dishes, if you discount salt. I had the opportunity to watch Erdene’s mom prepare Mongolian Hot Pot cooked entirely in a homemade pressure cooker made from an oversized milk can fitted with a clamped lid sealed by a rubber gasket. The cooking was accomplished by placing hot stones in the bottom to sear the cut up mutton quarter, as well as, interspersed with the layers of vegetables. Hot salted milk along with a handful of spice was used as the base, plus whatever liquids worked out of the vegetables and mutton fat during cooking. The spice flavors carried over nicely to the finished dish. The juice from the pot is either drunk from a bowl or as a sort of shot. Interesting and flavorful, but not for the fat intolerant. I had Hot Pot in a restaurant and that was spicy to the point of fiery hot. Either way, Hot Pot is a tasty dish. Next up, is a whole sheep, folded over itself several times and cooked in a similar manner, just in a much larger vessel.
Salt, is a staple of the Mongolian diet. I’m pretty sure the use of salt, some call it overuse, carries back to the old days, when iodine wasn’t as prevalent in food (ie. prepared) as it is today. Years ago, added salt, was necessary for health. Today, probably not as much. From what I’ve noticed so far, however, the rank and file Mongolians eschew prepared foods for traditional meals prepared from scratch. To a westerners’ tastes, the local food is a bit salty, but to a Mongolian, not.
Another healthy tradition is Mongolian Milk tea. Basically, just heated milk with a tiny bit of tea, and some salt. Mom cooked up a big bowl, before starting on the hot pot. What we didn‘t drink, went into the pressure cooker/milk can for additional flavor. Heating the milk is a good idea, here, as pasteurization is unknown in the countryside. Wait a day too long and you have a gallon of yogurt instead of sweet goat’s milk. I’m trying not to think of some of oddities which have passed through my system.
Upon reflection, I could open one hell of a restaurant here. I would start by what is available locally, but prepared a little differently. Such as; In the mornings, the tiny Mongolian blue berries in silver dollar-sized pancakes, together with the fine local bacon. Later in the day, a milk cream lamb stew with vegetables, barley, and soft yeasty flour dumplings. It had better be a good stew, as generally, Mongolians prefer something substantial inside the dumpling and I might have a problem with unfulfilled expectations. I wonder how mutton would work in place of beef bone stock, in a French onion soup? Lamb breast takes to barbequing very well, I think that would fly here. Hmm. Stay tuned. We’re going to serve meatloaf and garlic mashed potatoes to Erdene’s family on their visit to UB, shortly. We’ll see how that works. I’m going to make three pans worth, though, maybe four. Mongolians do like to eat. I’ve seen Erdene clean out nearly one pan by herself and expect no less from her mom and dad.
Wow! Saturday, 4 August is my day. This morning, one of the local English language channels had an hour long special on modern Naval warfare trends and developments and this afternoon on the BBC, there is a program on Colditz castle, the un-escapable WWII POW camp. Not a mention of Paris H., lame-assed pre-primary politics, or the Yankees. An excellent Stilton too. What a day. Coming soon, a look at home grown Mongolian television programs and their version of a western. Hint. They usually feature Mongolians on horseback slaying the Chinese with swords.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Found: one dining car and an open window for photography.

We found our return visit from Erdenet to be much more conducive to picture taking. Finding the dining car, plus a friendly conductress, allowed me to catch up on my mail and blog posts. On the whole, a very relaxing ride with plenty of time for organizing my thoughts and observations. The food in the dining car was better than most airlines. A reasonably spicy Goulash and steamed mutton dumplings, which are the bomb in Mongolia. However, I didn’t get as much writing done, as I would have liked. One of the waitresses caught me organizing my pictures and the entire staff needed to see every picture of the pmpkn we had, until my much abused battery gave up the ghost. No complaints, though, the attendant in our car took the lad in for over an hour, which enabled Erdene to relax and chat with our compartment mates, while I made my excursions to an open window with the camera. My downfall on the journey to Erdenet, was trying to take a picture with baby in one hand and camera in other. Neither, baby or camera hit the deck or went out the window, but the picture taking suffered.
I’m a little to close to Mongolia for my thoughts to be truly objective. My wife’s family is Mongolian and I tend to view life here through their examples. Then again, I’m living with an astute woman and closer to more people of varying groups, than would otherwise be the case for a foreigner. I’ve noticed for example; family groups take care of each other, as long as indivuals stay inside the boundaries of what is considered the social norm. If you don’t have a family group or go outside the bounds of what is socially acceptable, then life might not be so good. Finding out where the limits of the “social norm” are is one of my projects while I‘m here. Through observation, I hope, not experience.
The economics of Mongolia doesn’t allow for much of a safety net. Children beg on the street, if there isn’t someone to take them in. Even, poor tight-knit families have it tough. I saw several children with parents, lugging full bags of plastic and glass containers for the few toureg they would bring in. Abject poverty, yes, but there is still dignity. Mongolians are a tough bunch, you can see it in the deeply etched lines on the faces of the older generation and the stoicism of all. I’m glad to say; overall, kids are still kids here, smiling and playing without too many cares. From my viewpoint, the future of Mongolia depends on where the government puts the revenue from the new mineral leases; their pockets, or infrastructure and education.
Looking around at the landscape on our return voyage, I could see the dangers of an increasing population on the fragile grasslands, which feed and clothe the citizens. Actually, the land is more than an economic term. In the countryside, the land is as much of Mongolians as it is their home, food, and living. They are the land. They don’t take from it, as much as they exist with it. An important distinction in my book.
Desertification, is a word heard at least once a day on the Mongolian news. The latest numbers I have heard; say that the number of grazing animals are up 70% in the last five years. Of course, they experienced economic conditions which approached complete famine, seven years ago, so I could see why the numbers are higher. This July evening, hillsides are bare and brown, bottom lands along streams are lush, but for how long? Mongolia is rocks, earth, and a thin layer of grass. Remove the grass and erosion occurs very quickly. The growing season is extremely short, so any damage doesn’t really have much of an opportunity to repair itself, before the winter winds begin to blow the loose topsoil away. The traditional strategy is “nomadic pastoralism”. Fancy word, which translates to moving the herd on a regular basis, before overgrazing takes place. Population concentrations are staying closer to the larger towns and transportation routes, however, which is upsetting the strategy which functioned for so long. The Mongolians are concerned about the matter and we’ll see if their deep roots to the land, enable them to solve a problem which has toppled many civilizations. Thanks to my brother, Matt, for his gift of the book; “Collapse” by Jared Diamond for enabling such a brilliant observation.
One cautionary note for any Mongolian travellers who travel by train; before I close. There will be an attendant cleaning the restrooms on the train (two to a car, one of which will be functioning). As the attendant or attendants works their way back, they LOCK the doors, so by the time the train reaches it’s destination, there will be no open restrooms. Plan ahead. This isn’t just my observation from two train rides, my dear wife limited her fluid intake over twelve hours to one bottle of water. Coming up soon; Mongolian food in depth, a detailed look at traffic in UB, what’s new and exciting in Mongolia, and whatever else catches my fancy. The first item which comes to mind is; why is the restaurant, directly underneath my new apartment, cohabiting with a sex shop and a pharmacy and is the food any good?