Friday, June 29, 2012

Part 3 -Misadventures Traveling Mongol Style

I really don't intend for this to come off all negative....I did enjoy myself, bond more with my counterparts and visit some amazing places!  I rather enjoy a more relaxed, slow paced kind of trip, and not to be in a sleep deprived brain fog....(however, my surly sarcasm must have an outlet) 

Day 3 finds us having camped out near a lovely river....up at dawn (well, they were up at dawn and let me sleep in till 6:30) and clearing our camp site in preparation to head further north to our final destination, Lake Huvskgul.  (Well, I mean them..... I was bleary eyed and barely conscious)...I was impressed at seeing everyone gather our trash, only to take it to the dump spot  in the open.  Well, at least it's all in one place.  Below are a few glimpses of the gorgeous views we traveled so far to see; well worth it.

 The lake is so pristine and clear, you can see the rocks way out into the water.  
Major culture clash... littering is  common here.  During the course of this time in the micro bus with a captive audience, I tried to convince all that every bit of trash does matter, that bottles and plastic don't decompose, but potato peels do.  However, I was openly laughed at... leaving me to sulk silently and wish I'd just kept my mouth shut.....(a difficult task for me at times).

We finally made it to the Lake, at 2 am Day 4.  This ger camp was an Eco Camp, aimed at teaching reforestation, caring for nature and no littering was strictly enforced!  It was a heavenly place and I finally rested well the next two nights.  When someone told me to get up, I said thanks, I'm going back to sleep and I did.

brief glimpse of the bonfire.... the video I attempted to load (all 24 seconds) was not finished loading even after 24 hours..
Much hiking, oohing and aahing at the lake, climbing up rocks to look out over the lake, a fireworks show (and bonfire) on the beach.

Day 6 had us up early to take a boat to the next town.  Their had been lots of rain every day and the poor rutted road into the camp was sure to be hellacious, so only the men rode in the micro buses, so they could push them out once they got stuck.

Funny story, our boat , an old Russian looking thing pulled too close to shore (even though we were taken to it by rowboat a few at a time)... We  were urged to "rock the boat" back and forth; these antics at the behest of the captain to  get us unstuck.  It did finally work:)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Misadventures in traveling Mongol Style - Part 2

I'm not sure that I actually listed any misadventures on that first day of the trip.  (but I sure liked the catchy title, and must note that even after two years some basic differences still amaze me, and I'm amazed to still be amazed:) However, here's an incident that left me shaking my head in wonder (and cross cultural confusion).    

One of our many stops was to a "sacred mountain", where we hiked up and then walked around the ovoo (oh whoa)  and threw a stone each of the three times around.  Kind of like praying for a safe journey; I believe ovoo's are actually more Shamanistic rather than Buddhist, but I cannot get a straight answer.

At any rate, there was also vodka toasting and candy sharing as part of this momentous site visit.  When I told my counterpart I needed to relieve myself, she told me I'd have to wait, as this cannot be done on the sacred mountain. Ok, I said, I can wait (knowing full well we'd probably be stopping again within the hour.)

Though this is a sacred site, I noticed with disappointment, a small gully  filled with empty vodka bottles and witnessed one of our group add another to it.  When I asked why this is acceptable, I got the usual, who knows, it's what we've always done.

That first day on the road started at 8:20 am (after being summoned to school at 7 am) and ended around 10 pm when we arrived at a school dormitory where we were staying the night.  After cooking some packaged soup,and quickly eating it, I was the first to crash, and the last to awaken the next morning.

Day 2 had us up at 6 am, and we commenced to use the outhouse, then walk down to the river to wash up and brush our teeth before returning to pack up all our stuff from the room and have breakfast.  I was already in a brain fog even though this was only our second day!

About 2.5 hours after being awakened, we were finally leaving. . . to go find an open petrol station.  This wasted at least another 45 minutes.  I could have been sleeping...wah.

We arrived at the area of the Lake, of which no one could tell me the name in English or why there were all these volcanic rocks around.... Is this an inactive volcano?  We hiked up the mountain to see the crater....which sure enough my instincts were right I verified later by reading up, was the ancient volcano pit.... and many volcanic rocks.

Inquiring minds want to know...? .not the case here...only me.. Another cultural difference I've noticed time and again....why ask why is the way of the Mongolians, never questioning why, only saying it's their way.  Hard to progress as a nation and people if you never ask why or what or how?!

A few hours later heading to the actual lake, which we could view from the volcanic crater, our micro bus broke something underneath and we had to stop while our driver repaired it.  Afterwards, he realized he lost his wallet with his driver's license, passport, etc and dropped us off while he drove back to have a look at the shelter area of the park where he was sitting.

our grateful group.... the lady on the left holding the thermos and the old man in the deel and hat were our heros!
In his absence, a hail storm blew in, and we women ran for cover, simultaneously giggling and cursing (ok, just me cursing..)  The driver returned, picked us up and we then drove to the nearest ger and discovered a little old man had found his wallet.  We all shook his hand and thanked him, giving him gifts of food, juice and vodka, and the driver gave him a 20,000 T reward.  A happy ending:)

We had yet to find the lake..... and when we finally did, everyone else was already cooking their lunch and so we hurriedly did too.  There were so many bugs it was a wonder no one was eaten alive, though one man did pass out from a little too much drinking and another cut his foot on stones in the lake.

When we left, we made it down the road for 10 minutes before stopping so some of the group could walk down to a cave.  I opted to wait in the van and thus missed this sudden rain storm which drenched most everyone who got out.

This night we ended up camping and sure enough I was the first one to bed and was fortunate enough they let me sleep in till 6:30.  I did awaken once later when the two teachers who were sharing the tent with me tried to glean my cooperation in moving and so they sandwiched me in the middle...I would have stayed in my sleeping bag but they were taking down the tent around me. Thus began day 3......

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Travelling Mongol Style-Misadventures Day 1

As my time here draws to a close,  I was excited to go on a trip with the teachers from my school.  Last summer there was talk of a group trip, but it didn't work out.  This being my last summer in Mongolia, and the end of my time with all of the lovely people I've worked with at School #1, I figured this would be a trip not to be missed!  And boy was it ever, in so many ways!
our chariot awaits

Foreign language teachers rule!

for our entertainment... the 3 stooges:)
The plan was to journey from our town all the way to Lake Huvskgul, the largest fresh water lake in Mongolia and the second largest on the continent; number one being Lake Beikel in Russia.  Unlike the desert surroundings here, up north the terrain is rich with trees, rivers with actual running water (unlike our "river" here in my town, which at it's peak, is a barely wet stream) and of course the lake.  It's been a place I've wanted to visit since arriving here, and now was my chance to go!

I was fully aware that this would be an interesting and probably culturally challenging adventure, being the only foreigner amongst 72 Mongolians.  All the arrangements were made and I just asked when and where to be and how much to pay.... Each of us paid 100,000 T (around $78) for the transportation and some lodging.  The plan was to camp out at least a couple nights.

Food was going to be an issue, as they mostly eat mutton, boiled and very fatty, so I said no worries, I'll bring my own food.  After some pondering what would be easy, I took individual yogurts, peanut butter, crackers, apples, oranges, a lovely trail mix I made, biscuits, individual coffee packs and several different dry soup mixes.  A little camping pan with a lid, a couple bowls and spoons and I was ready!

We were to leave on Friday morning: I was informed we'd leave at 7 am.  Knowing Mongolian time is not exactly punctual time, I decided to get up at 7.  I received a phone call from Chuka, one of my English speaking counterparts at 6:45 telling me she was on her way to the school and to save her a seat on a micro bus.  I had to confess that I wasn't even out of bed yet!

So, I get to school by 7:20, and sure enough there are 6 micro buses there, loading up. These vehicles are like extended vans and have seating for 12 plus a driver; which usually means about 18 people sandwiched into each.  Fortunately for me, we each had our own seat!!!  In my group were 4 English speaking teachers, 2 history teachers, 4 physical education teachers (3 of them men I like to call the 3 stooges:) one music teacher and me.  A pretty fun group to be certain!

After lots of confusion, etc, I had to track down one of our volunteer tents from my VSO friend Jo, as the teachers said, oh, we may camp a few nights but only have 2 tents.  By 8:15 we were on our way, stopping by Jo's to pick up the tent.  Wow, was I ever impressed that we got such an early start!

However, within about 5 minutes I got the true taste of the flavor of the upcoming trip as we got just outside of town, the entire caravan stopped at the little monument by the "Arvaikheer" sign gate to have a photo session and some vodka toasting to a safe journey.  I informed them I'd pass on the vodka thank you and if I'd had my wits about me more, perhaps would have then said, hey grab my pack off the roof please, I'll just walk back home thank you.

Not to say it was a bad trip at all; but in the words of the Grateful Dead, by the end I was singing to myself "what a long strange trip it's been".  Tune in soon for more on this amazing journey by micro bus!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Cultural Difference-Crazy Foreign Neighbor

Even after living here for 2 years, I find that I still say some wacky things to neighbors I know have a very limited understanding of the English language.  Is it because I know they can't understand me or is it because when I get just a little freaked out by my lack of ability to communicate I start babbling in English.  (just comes naturally to me).

Yesterday I returned home around 3 pm after an uncomfortable bus ride.  It was my own fault that my legs were squished for the entire 7 hour journey, as I didn't want to put my new "North Face" backpack in the luggage compartment underneath the bus.  Of course, it just doesn't fit in the tiny storage area above the seats and it won't quite be crammed under the seat... right there in my leg space is the only place it can really go.  I had my computer in it and really didn't want to stick it in the aisle....

The bus ride had the added fun of sitting next to a grandma with a puking child (second bus journey in a row with a poor sick kid next to me)... To top it off I peed on my jacket tied around my waist when I ran out to relieve myself after 3 hours....Must not have gauged the wind right... ooh.

So I get home to Arvaikheer and figure maybe my usual taxi driver will be there and we'll recognize each other and I'll get an easy ride home.  I didn't see him, but instead saw my old man "friend" Z, whose calls I had to ignore for 7 months after ending our fling a year ago.....So in my awkward hurry, I decided to test run the new backpack and hoof it home.  

It's about a 20 minute stroll to my apartment.... This bargain of a backpack (65K T, about 50 bucks)...was not as comfy as I'd hoped.  I was tired, cranky and hungry, and just wanted to get home and nestle in for the rest of the day!  

Two short breaks later, both unsuccessful attempts to re-adjust the pack so it was more comfy.. I was almost there!  I stopped at the closest delgur to pick up yogurt and pasta and then was at my door!

Yea, I made it, but where was the freakin' key!?  hhhmmmm... not carrying a purse and not being familiar with any small crannies in this new pack, I must have hidden it somewhere in the pack where it wouldn't get lost and I could find it easily..... Sounds logical, eh?

By now, I am systematically taking things out of the pack... ooooh here's the bag of fresh spinach and broccoli I so excitedly bought.  The broccoli just cause it was there and I love it and the fresh spinach which I bought along with half kilo of cheddar cheese to make that  baked dip recipe I've been dreaming of, finally all the ingredients.

The broccoli, since putting it in the pack early this morning and having it on the hot crowded bus, now smelled like rotting produce...filling the hallway with a bad odor.... Next, I get out the bag with the clothes, not there, how about the toiletries bag....crap, not in there either.... Soon I have the entire contents of my bag sprawled in front of my door and pull out the computer bag, and there's my key!  Yea!!!

Right now my neighbor, the nice lady whose family owns the sporting goods store in the market and whose English I know is limited to "hi" and whose husband thinks I'm a crazy foreigner ever since we had a dispute over me putting my garbage in the hallway on collection day (he was right, dogs got in and what they didn't eat, they left all over the hall).......... and she looks at my stuff all over and tries to nod and leave and I proceed to babble......

"Hi, I just got home and couldn't find my key....and....take everything out".... and as she nods and rushes out....."and that horrible smell of rotting vegetation is actually sacred vegetables that I brought all the way from Ulanbataar cause I'm your crazy foreign neighbor and I like to eat this smelly weird sh*t".  Have a nice day!"

Friday, June 8, 2012

Food Revolution - Final Episode

Ah, yes, I've been obsessively talking about food and this will be the final in this series (threat or promise you ask?)....

Now this is the one where I blather on about foods I miss and can't wait to eat once I return to American soil.  I haven't been back for two years now and there are many dishes that just cannot be found and/or replicated here.  That will be in late August where I'll be visiting family and friends for about 5 weeks.

The first dish I want to make when I return is spinach/cheese dip and serve it up with white corn chips.... Oops, just drooled on my computer.  For those not acquainted with this awesome delight, it's very easy.  A one pound tub of sour cream mixed with one packet Knorr vegetable soup mix, a pound shredded cheddar cheese and one box frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained.  Mix it all together, bake it at 375 till brown and bubbly and enjoy.....

There are a few restaurant foods I miss.... Bloomin' Onion from Outback Steakhouse to go with a big fat juicy fillet, medium rare please.

Olive Garden...endless salad bowl and the creamy sausage soup.....

A real fresh crispy pizza from anywhere!!!!!

Broasted chicken and jo jo's with cole slaw from Dravenstott's Restaurant in Orrville:)

Long John Silver's fish and fries, smothered in vinegar....

A burger and fries from Five Guys in Kent.

Sandwiches....lots and lots of sandwiches... a Reuben, crispy and smothered with Thousand Island dressing.  Crispy Italian sub sandwiches with the bread so crunchy it drops crumbs all over you when you eat it.

Pork chops.... that I'll bread and bake at home.  A roast beef, slow cooked with fresh mashed potatoes and gravy.  A pork roast with sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.  

Lay's potato chips, regular, original in the yellow bag....

Oh, I could go on and on, though these are the highlights....I must now finish getting ready to go meet my site mates for dinner at our favorite restaurant in town.  If I'm lucky, they'll have pizza tonight (though they didn't the last 2 times we've gone), and I'll enjoy and savor it, even if it does have pickles, corn and kidney beans on it!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Food Revolution - Part 3

Yep, still talking about food here.....  I want to share a little bit about the wider variety of food available here.  The small city of 28,000 where I reside is an aimag center, like a state capital.  We are located a mere 7 hour bus ride from Ulanbataar all on the paved road!  We get a good variety of foods, but not nearly as much as the big city.

Though I like to eat local food, it's just not so possible here.  In this part of the country, there's not much water and what grows well is the usual desert scrub grass and plants; not exactly edible fare.  Meat and dairy products fresh, not so tasty in my opinion.

What is local that I consume is flour, bread (made in a factory in my town), yogurt, and some potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions.  Much of the produce for sale locally is imported from China. Although Mongolia in general does not like China (the old hard feelings passed down from generations when China ruled Mongolia), much of the fresh goods, including fruits and veggies come from there and are purchased and enjoyed here.

In the past two years, I've noticed an influx of imported foods.  My favorite cheese is imported from Luxembourg, corn flakes from Thailand, instant coffee hails from Germany as do the hot dogs in a jar, tuna- Netherlands, crackers imported from Malaysia, and most of the fresh fruit from China.  The fruit in jars, like that below come from Russia, as do many of the spices I buy.

jar fruit from Russia, fresh from China, blueberries from USA
some of the latest available items in Arvaikheer
One of my newest discoveries here is sour cream.  It was in one store last summer and only this month has resurfaced in our city.  A small one sells for about a dollar (the little carton on it's side in bottom photo), but worth the price!  I now have a stock pile, just in case!

Raisins here are tricky.... Many packaged varieties are available and imported from various places.  The cheapest ones are dangerous, as there are sometimes tiny pebbles in the package, along with the raisins.  The story goes that many a PC volunteer has broken a tooth on these tasty treats....

The corn flakes are a welcome treat to me!  I love crunchy foods and this cereal is a wonder of crispy deliciousness!

The organic flour is a new item on the scene and is actually made in Mongolia!!!!  

I certainly don't starve here, though there are many foods I miss and crave and can't wait to indulge in upon my return to the USA..... yep, that's my next blog...coming soon:)

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Food Revolution- Part 2

pasta with homemade pesto

spicy pad thai with fresh cilantro

vegetarian buuz  with chunky tomato sauce

eggs with bacon bits, fresh tomato and broccoli sprouts

lovely fresh salad from my garden with freshly made croutons, served with feta cheese and Good Seasons Italian dressing made with balsamic vinegar, accompanied by fresh hummus and flat bread
I find that I spend a lot of time with food.  Thinking about it, shopping for it, cooking it, eating it and enjoying it.  I like to think I am an earth friendly/environment conscious person; one who wants to be part of the local food movement, eating only locally grown, produced, raised foods, but definitely not in Mongolia.  However, to do my little part, I grow lettuce, spinach, tomatoes and many herbs on my lovely south facing windowsills for my own personal enjoyment.

My food obsession (if one can actually call it that, yea probably) is nothing new.  I've always loved to eat, eat, eat, smell, touch, taste, savor and enjoy.  I attempt to live a rather healthy lifestyle overall, and to eat plenty of veggies and fruits, which though challenging, is possible in Arvaikheer.  We get a much larger variety of foods here now than we did two years ago when I first came to town.

Real cheese, as we know it in the West, is available here in Arvaikheer, at least some of the time...Mostly it's Elam or Gouda cheese, which have a nice texture and a milder taste.  Very expensive indeed, going for close to $6 a pound or more, it's a worthwhile extravagance on the PC budget.  Homemade mac and cheese, with a white sauce and cheese added is a lovely option, as well as grilled cheese and just plain old cheese and crackers.  They don't call it cheese, glorious cheese for nothing.  Usually I buy a big hunk, cut it and freeze some and enjoy the rest very quickly!!!!

Cereal, the crunchy, crispy kind I enjoy has now come to town.  At first, no sign of such luxuries; we had to wait for a trip to the city for cereal other than mushy bitter oatmeal.  Now we regularly get Corn Flakes, Froot Loops and a nice Granola cereal as well.  These are also pricey but worth the cost!  I just finished a lovely bowl of corn flakes, with milk and a fresh banana for breakfast!  Yum:)  

We are very fortunate in our town that fruits are available year round, with apples and oranges being the staples.  Warmer weather brings fresh bananas, kiwi, grapes, pineapple, plums and peaches.  Fruit in jars in heavy syrup are available most any time in stores.  

These photos illustrate some of my culinary creations and a good sampling of what I like to make and eat.  Soups are a favorite of mine as well and though beans are not usually found in town, I stock up when I go to the city and I cook large pots of soups, freezing some for later . 

Pizza is a tough to find item here, and there is only one restaurant in town that makes it, though it's not always available.  The crust is nice and crispy, not too thin, heavy on the cheese and the toppings are good, yet odd combinations.  The house specialty pizza has bacon, chicken, peppers, onions and sliced peaches (from a "tin") and is quite delicious.  The veg pizza has any number of veggies on it, depending on availability; sometimes there is even corn (yes, kernels of canned corn sprinkled on it) as well as kidney beans and even sliced pickles!  Surprising what you can learn to enjoy!

This is just a small glimpse into my world of food in Mongolia...expect more to come on one of my favorite topics!

Friday, June 1, 2012

Food Revolution - Part 1- Mongolian Food

I love food, always have, always will.  At times in my life I've been thinner, more health conscious, more physically active, but my love and enjoyment of food never wavers.  What food revolution you may be asking?  Well, mine I guess.... My collision with the Mongolian foods, the ever increasing amounts and types of Westernized foods available here and what is a typical diet here versus what I generally eat.

This started out as one post, then I quickly realized that one post is not enough for me to dish up this topic.  This first installment will start at the beginning with my introduction to Mongolian food and all about the food consumed here.  Disclaimer:  if this post lacks my usual positive attitude, never fear, it's still there and will return shortly.  Food is a very serious topic!

When I initially discovered I was coming to Mongolia with the PC, one of my worries was, what's the food like?  Will I like it?  Will I gain weight?  Will I go hungry frequently?  I read the typical diet consists of meat, dairy and tea.  Having been raised on a dairy farm, I adore dairy, am a big time carnivore and tea, well ok.

My sister Sue looked up a recipe online for a dish called buuz.  (pronounced like "boats")Buuz are a little steamed dumpling made with flour and meat.  This particular version was tasty, filled with ground beef, cabbage, onion and garlic.  After tasting these, I thought...hmmm not bad!  She also made tasty little fried dough cookies and milk tea for my going away party.  What a thoughtful sister I have!  Little did I know the strong smell of mutton wafting through the air was not far ahead.

Fast forward to PC training....after the first three days I just could not stand the taste of, let alone the smell of mutton.  I quickly asked the training manager if it was too late to change to Vegetarian.  Thankfully, it was not and all summer my host family honored me by 1) not slaughtering a sheep or other animal in the yard for me and 2) fixing me vegetarian food!  Not much variety in this option, however no fatty meat!

Back to the Mongolian diet and the Mongolian National Food dishes.  There are a few, and all involve mutton and flour.  In a nomadic society, meat is the main staple.  In Mongolia herders use their animals (sheep, goat, cow, camel and horse) for many purposes including food.  With the harsh weather, especially in the winter, they believe the fat to be good for you and will help you keep warm.(I personally dispute this belief, especially seeing all the skinny Mongolians and even the not so skinny ones who constantly complain of the cold...) Thinking of the nomadic lifestyle, harsh climate and poor rocky soil, it makes sense that the most common veggies grown and used here are potatoes, carrots, onion, cabbage and some garlic thrown in.

Mutton is the most common meat available in most areas.  In the far West horse is eaten more frequently than other parts of the country (though I have eaten and liked it!), camel available more in the Gobi areas and goat and beef is around as well.  The method of slaughtering and butchering are different here as well.  For a sheep, the animal is held down, chest cut open and the heart pulled out.  Blood is not drained (so as not to spoil the ground) and the method of cutting the meat appears to be rather haphazard.  (not the steaks, roasts, chops, etc)    Huge chunks of meat, fresh in the markets and pulled out of peoples freezers to be hacked off in bits for use.  Recently at my friend Uugnaa's house, she pulled a huge hunk of meat from her freezer.  I asked her if it was mutton or what?  She didn't know, and said it was fresh when she bought it, so it didn't really matter to her.

Buuz are one of the Mongolian National Foods.  A small steamed dumpling filled with lightly seasoned meat, it can be made from mutton, goat, horse, camel or beef.  I have had all but camel while here, and in spite of my aversion to mutton (it's smell, taste and greasiness) in buuz it's not too bad.  This popular food can be found in most restaurants, as well as all the small guanzes (cafes) in towns and at little stops along the paved road.  These dumplings are especially popular at Tsagaan Sar, festival of the White Moon.  As part of the ceremony of this holiday (New Year) families make hundreds or even thousands of buuz to serve their guests.  I must add that I have concocted my own version of veggie buuz, filled with shredded veg and soy meat.

A second version of the mutton/ flour combo and another Mongolian National Food is the khuusher.(sounds like hoe-sure)  Khuusher is a  deep fried foldover stuffed with (you guessed it) mutton.  These are an integral part of the other huge national celebration, Nadaam.  Nadaam is the summer celebration featuring the three manly sports, wrestiling (my fave), archery and horse racing.  The Nadaam khusher are exceptionally large and stuffed full.  These are on every menu and vegetarian options are available in some places, most of them rather tasty.  I haven't tried making these, preferring french fries if I'm going to bother deep frying at home!

Tsuivain is a third popular dish.  (sounds like soy vin)I don't think it's called a national food, but it's available most everywhere.  The tsuivain is a noodle which my host family frequently made.  The dough is rolled out extremely thin.  It can be used fresh or dried, and is sold in almost every little delgur around.  The meat version includes lots of fatty meat mixed in with the noodles and a little veg, mostly carrot, onion, potato and seasoning.  Vegetarian versions usually include soy meat and my favorite local restaurant makes an amazing dish with a variety of veggies for around $2.50.  Ive tried making this at home and don't have the seasoning right.... hhmmm. The noodles are great in soup however!

The most famous drink here (aside from vodka which I am sooooo over!) is Tsutee Tsea, (sue tay say) or milk tea.  Traditionally this is made on a ger stove with fresh milk which doesn't boil, due to the constant dramatic ladling action.  Salt and loose tea are added.  Some folks put animal fat in for an extra added dimension, which is something I can do without.  To me, it tastes like salty warm milk with a very slight tea flavor.

So I don't care for the national foods, except in vegetarian versions and I don't care for milk tea or vodka, so what do I eat and drink here? Tune in for Food Revolution Part 2 for the answers to this and other burning questions....