Nov 7, 2007

Кочевая жизнь джозефа (On Mongolia)

I couldn't have said it better myself.

This billboard was outside our hostel in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, where i spent the last week. And the whole experience was too awesome for words, so I've decided not to try and describe it, at all. But suffice to say, Mongolia... really is a place where all of my dreams got happiness. And after my story, I'll try my best to prove it with pretty pictures.

But first, a story: Remember in my last entry, how I described my plans for Mongolia? How ten kids from our group, all dedicated members of Rotary International, were going to Ulan Bator, to stay with host-families from the Rotary branch there? And that the club would pick us up from the train station, give us tours fo the city, and then take us out on the steppe on a four-day excursion? And the whole thing would be an international bridge-building mission? Yeah I don't remember that either. But somehow, that was the message passed on to the Rotary Club of Ulan Bator. This story is a thriller-mystery, with all sorts of twists and turns and international intrigue, so stick around.

What happened was, four other kids and I bought train tickets to Mongolia, with no real plans, other than to stay in a hostel and spend a few nights on the steppe/in the desert. An acquaintance of mine here named Olya, who I met at the two Rotary meetings I went to for some reason, also wanted to go to Mongolia. So we agreed to meet sometime and have dinner.

So I was sitting in the hostel, and I got a call from Olya, who said the Rotary Club was having dinner, and invited me to join. I'd eaten already, but i agreed, and she said somebody would come pick me up. Except instead of somebody, it was two drivers, driving two huge vans. So I made sure my knife was in my pocket, and cautiously approached them. The one driver who spoke Russian asked me where the other nine club members were. And I said "...nine club members..... well... I'm only here with four kids, who are at a karaoke bar now, and I'm pretty sure they don't even know what Rotary Club is." And he got this real perplexed look... and drove me to the restaurant alone.

When I got there, I found at least fifteen pairs of Mongolian and Russian eyes fixed on me, staring with that same perplexed look the driver had. And Olya, with a look of embarassment/disappointment. So I made sure my knife was in my pocket, and cautiously approached the table... And when I sat down, Olya asked where the others were. She speaks English, kinda. So I said in English, "Olya, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about."
So that's when the president of Rotary Mongolia started yelling at me. He told me all about the plans I had made with them, the home-stays, the tourist outings, how I said I'd meet all the members, etc etc.... and I tried my best to translate into Russian, "Look, whoever you are, I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about." But I guess it didn't translate, because he spent the entire dinner telling me, in a calmer voice, how much time he had spent organizing for my group. And I kept telling him, these Rotary members in my group don't even exist, and that I had no idea what went wrong. They had really planned a big welcome... they even ordered a full sheep's head for me. And I'm not making that up... in Mongolia, the honored guest really does get the head of the sheep.

Anyway... I looked to Olya for some explanation. That's when she stabbed me, right in my foreign back. She looked at me, all disappointed, and scolded me in Russian. "Djjjjozef.... If you don't understand something at the meetings, you need to say something."

Now, I speak Russian well enough to know, that at those meetings, nobody said a word to me, and nobody talked about these big plans for Mongolia. But I didn't speak Russian well enough to defend myself there at dinner, so I just laughed and apologized. And I spoke Mongolian well enough to know that ten Mongolians were sitting around me in a circle, looking at me and talking about me... but not well enough to say I didn't want any more sheep-head. It was clear that Olya had made some huge mistake, and decided it was easier to blame the guy who can't speak the language, than to take responsbility. That's the point


When I got back to Irkutsk, after a whole week of practicing my angry rant I'd give to Olya, I talked to a girl in our group who's babushka connected me with Rotary in the first place. Apparently, it was actually this babushka who had made most of the plans for our group, and it wasn't all Olya's fault. So I actually don't get to give the angry rant, and the only lasting impact is that the president of Rotary Mongolia considers me a thoughtless and selfish person. But I guess I can live with that.


Pretty pictures, enjoy!

Traditionally, Mongolians worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky. And it's true... the sky there is really, really blue and huge and impressive. This is one of ten thousand scenic spots on the steppe. Also, note the traditional dwelling, the round, felt-walled Ger (translation: Yurt (translation: Tipi)). We spent three nights in different Gers. And some guy told us that 60% of the population still lives in them. But they're nomads, so i bet the census isn't all that accurate.

There are animals everywhere on the steppe. Horses and cows, and sheep, and goats, and yaks, and the occasional camel-herd. And all of them are really long-haired and winterized already. One morning we woke up, and these sheep, along with about 200 others, had amassed outside our Ger.

The nice thing about taking pictures in Mongolia, is that the background makes every picture look really epic and beautiful. And camels are kinda epic and beautiful as it is. From a distance.

In reality, camels are the stupidest, ugliest, most unpleasant animals on the planet. And they bite, and spit, and scream, and look like they're just slapped together from a bin of leftover animal-parts.

Steppe, with snow, and sun. It is a really alien landscape... and impressive in its endlessness. Next time you're in the area, definitely stop by. It's worth it.


I guess I'll write the 'reflections' part, if i have to. Mongolia was really amazing. It was a disadvantage not to speak the language, for sure, and so our experience could only be so deep.... but everybody had an amazing time. The city there is lively and colorful, the people know how to smile, and the food has flavor, instead of fat with sugar on top. And so when we had to leave... we were all pretty unhappy about it. Russia seemed really gray, and cold, and unhappy and dark, and we all had to spend the whole train ride catching up on work. Also, we'd been speaking english, so our Russian was all out of shape.

But then... amazingly... Russia kinda took me back with open arms. The weather was sunny and warm, and my babushka was really happy to see me. I gave her a few gifts I'd picked up, and we had a very lively conversation, which i actually understood. In class, we had way less work than we expected, and even the bus driver was really outgoing and talkative and friendly. In retrospect he was probably drunk, but the whole day just went perfectly, and now I'm really happy to be in Russia. Of course, it's still that same pattern of waves, and I just happen to be on top of one now... so stay tuned. I'm not completely fooled... the next crazy, probably unpleasant experience is right around the corner...


Question: When and where in your life, have you really felt your dreams get happiness? Describe what the place looked like, and why it was so special to you. Your answer should be 2-3 paragraphs long, and typed.

This was the suction-packed train-beef I ate for dinner on the ride back to Irkutsk, courtesy of Mongolain Railways. I got sick at least three times on that trip, although i still say the food was better than in Russia. And these might be the most exotic viruses I ever contract, so I'm trying to enjoy them.


beth said...

i warned you about the camels, didn't i? very funny photo.

gee, i thought you were kidding about your rotary meetings. sheeps head. shrink wrapped meat that looks like stuff i pick up in the yard. ugh ugh. you are a brave young man.


Berta said...

I couldn't tell if your rotary club meeting story was a tall tale or not. hehe.

Nice pictures!

Elena said...

Hello, Osia!

How great to read your engaging story about Mongolia - especially now that we've just watched a documentary on women and education in Mongolia at the Central Asian Film Forum here, at Bowdoin! We even had a Mongolian woman coming to one of the (earlier) screenings! She spoke perfect Russian!

I liked your question about the place in which your "dreams get happiness." For me the Caucasus Mountains was such a place. Mountains in Maikop are relatively low, since it is just the beginning of the Caucausus chain; and since I spent all my life there before going to study at Piatigorsk, I just took them for granted. When my father drove me to Piatigorsk for the first time, though, the ultimate beauty of the area opened up to me in the course of jut a few hours. After about two hours of driving through a relatively hilly terrain with extremely spacious valleys you suddenly see a tall, free-standind mountain in the middle of a huge plato. It is so surreal - just a single giant in the middle of an open space. After about a fifteen-minute drive the mountain gets behind you getting out of your eyesight, but suddenly a few more giants appear in front of you, equally free-standing and awe-inspiring. And thus it continues for another half hour until you come to a hill as you enter Piatigorsk ("the city of five mountains"). The air is transparent, and you can see so far ahead, that you look into the sky ahead of you and think that you see unusually shaped white clouds on the horizon. You admire the clouds for a while, when you gradually realize that these are actually snow-covered mountain peaks, the double-headed Elbrus. Its shape resembles a camel's back, but the local people saw it as "woman's breasts" - that's what Elbrus means in a Caucasian tongue. Somehow you don't see the lower part of the mountain due to the haze, just the brilliant white cap suspended in the air. This is the most sublime view I experienced in my whole life, and the best part about it was that I could see it almost every day (on very clear days) from my dormitory room's balcony! A great image to wake up to every morning!

Tolstoy does a much better job describing the same itinerary in his "The Cossacks" - a fascinating anthropological study of the local people, as well as a beautifully written story.

Osia, it is so great to hear that you are actively exploring that beautiful part of the world. And you will be remembered here on Saturday when the film you made last summer will be shown at The Evening Star!

Thanks for the lovely posts, can't wait for more! Shchastlivo,

Elena Ivanovna

Loon of the Compound said...

Joseph. I just looked at your blog, and the title is:
Time Flying
A retired 70-something follows a dream around the planet. I'm travelling the world to study and experience the only thing that really makes me tick: rare and antique timepieces. I want this blog to become a forum for all clock-enthusiasts, young and old, as well as a journal of my experiences.

Did you do this or has Blogger lost its mind?

Also, nice pictures.

Scot said...

I wish I could go to Mongolia.
Don't give up the ship Joey!