Friday, September 16, 2005

Undri Mindh (Good afternoon, viewers),
Posts to this blog are like number 38 buses. You wait ages for one, and then three come at once. In other ways, this blog is not at all like a bus, so do not try to board it, attract the conductor's attention, or stand in front of the yellow line while the vehicle is in motion. Next stop, Zavkhan market. All aboard!

One of the bigger unofficial milestones of the year in Ulaanbaatar is the turning on and off of the heating system. The whole city is still centrally heated, and individual houses and apartments do not have thermostats- you are as hot or as cold as the state decides you are. Usually, this means you are walking around in shorts, as the heating engineers seem to err on the side of tropical.

The heating comes on the 15th of September, an event preceded by unannounced workmen stomping around the attic (in old Russian buildings, plumbing is in the roof) at 11pm on Sunday night, followed by heavy hammering, rotary saws cutting through metal, and welding. Given the quality of Mongolian construction, this usually leads to plaster falling on your face as you lie in bed, wondering if you're about to be invaded by wrench wielding maniacs. It's like that film Brazil, only in Mongolia.

Once the dust settles and banging subsides, the heating comes one, one radiator at a time. And despite all my caviling about the State of Things, on the morning of the 16th, we awoke to heavy snowstorms and zero temperatures. The picture above was taken on the way to work. A neat bit of scheduling. Almost-almost too neat….

The heat will remain on until 15th of May, no matter what the weather does between now and then. Whether the blowtorch wielding roof marauding casuals will return between now and then depends very much on the creaky pipes holding it together for another season. Let’s hope together, shall we?

Gadaa huiten bain (outside it's cold, viewers)


Dried and pickled goodies on display, Bayankhongor

Gazpacho in the Gobi

Sain Bainuu Viewers- Bi tantai daihiat ulzandah bayartai bain (I am pleased to meet you again, viewers).

Into every life a little hiatus must fall, and so it is with this chronicle of Fast Times at Mongolia High. It's been a busy few weeks, the ramifications of which are such that future entries may be shorter and less frequent. While this will doubtless come as a relief to those of you who have moseyed over, looked at this and said "eeeh, I don't have time for this" before heading to the fridge to see if there's any pie left (I'm looking at you, Kwana), some others of you may be distressed by this change. Our recommendation is to read the blog, eat the pie, and try not to fret.

But what are these portentous events? Have all keyboards mysteriously reverted to Mongolian script? Did a passing yak trample our hard drive? Is there something besides soy in the sausages? No, viewers, it's more than these. After fifteen months of kiddie swims and toddler groups, I have finally rejoined the cabal of the Gainfully Employed. It has, luckily, been a relatively simple transition to make. After a few days on the job, I no longer had the urge to sniff my colleagues' nappies when they whimper, and they all seem to like the introduction of cookies and juice, and naptime after lunch. Natty, on the other hand, still has not given me his 2005 workplan, and his petty cash allocations are a mess.

I'm working for the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a medium sized NGO has does work in a number of different sectors (health, education, microcredit,etc). I've been hired to oversee four different projects to do with food security, spread over Bayankhongor and Zavkhan aimags (see the map on the right if you're a keen-o.) For those of you who collect them, the title of the position is Food Security Coordinator, which gives me the right to enter the summer palace through the west gate, graze my goats on the village green in times of drought, and a stipend of 16 gallons of yoghurt per annum.

In order for what comes next to make any kind of sense at all, two paragraphs of context are going to have to be administered, so lie still and try not to cough as it slides down. It may prove useful one day, if Mongolian diets come up as a topic at a cocktail party, so hush up and pay attention.

Basically, the standard operating lifestyle in Mongolia centres around the herd of animals kept by every family. You herd it, milk it, get wool and skins from it, kill it, eat every bit of it, sell it, and that's it. In summer, rural Mongolians' diet centres on 'white food' (tsagaan holl, viewers), which is an inventive collection of dairy products consumed fresh, fermented, curdled, curded, aged, bewitched, bothered and bewildered. In winter, animals are slaughtered and meat is consumed- it is cold enough that meat is kept by shoving it into the rafters of the ger, where it freezes, thus you can consume an animal slowly without it going off. Easy peasy.

This is a fine system when it works, which is some of the time. If, however, the winter is extremely hard (-63 celsius, let's say), and the animals start to die, then very rapidly, the folks who depend on those animals begin to feel pretty peaky pretty quickly. In 1999-2001, there were an especially hard series of winters (called dzud, viewers) which killed off whole herds, in some cases, and forced rural families to the aimag centres to find quoi manger. Essentially, there's no plan b. So what this program attempts to do is encourage people to plant, harvest, cook and store agricultural produce as well as meat and dairy, so that they have at least a couple of options when the cold hits, and can make a bit of cash by selling off whatever veg they don't need, have more micronutrients and minerals in their diet.

See? That wasn't so bad, was it? It's fun learning stuff.

So second day on the job, and it's off to Bayankhongor, 600 kms ot the southwest, of which the last 200 are dirt tracks over the steppe- this takes about 12 hours, if you don't stop for anything more substantial than a Mars bar, more if you do.

About 120 kms outside the capital, along a section which is terraced (in that it has tarmac bits on it), we were marooned behind a truck with trailer barreling along at speeds fast enough to be unsafe but slow enough to be frustrating to be behind.

Having sounded the horn in the accustomed fashion, we moved to over take on left, half on the road and half on the shoulder, gathering speed to pass the extra long vehicle. Given the age of the truck and the probable level of noise in the cabin, the charitable explanation is that the driver did not hear our horn. Either way, as we passed the trailer, the truck rumbled fast over to the left, with the body of the trailer looking fling us into the hereafter. The driver extraordinaire (and my boss) stomped on brakes, and steered us off the shoulder and onto the plains, while the truck boomed on carefree.

Now some of you may have noticed that my employer has the word Adventist in a position of some prominence in their name, which may give some hint as to their general outlook on matters spirit and flesh. As the truck was hoving to, and it was clear we were about to be smashed to pieces, I blurted "Jesus Christ!!!". Luckily, I did not, in my panic, choose to adorn it with some of the profanity which is often inserted between the first and second names. Loud public swears may not be the best way to impress the new boss of a Christian organization, viewers. Try to refrain in future.

Once we were done with the swearing, the next day it was more driving to the edge of the Gobi desert, where the tiny community of Jinnst lies. The Gobi proper lies some distance farther south, but the Jinnst salient gives one a pretty good idea of what's out there. With sand and gravel fields all around, there is a valley of slight width which has a narrow river flowing through it. The river allows for human habitation, and along its banks is a community of not more than 30 gers, spread up and down the river. Behind the gers a huge sand dune rises, reminding you that the green beneath your feet is a shallow mirage.

Upstream from the settlement, mining has begun, and the folk of Jinnst have begun to complain that the water tastes different than before. Depending on what is found in the deposits upstream, the real possibility of mercury poisoning exists. We took water samples from the river which are now being analyzed at the lab. A bad business it will be if the water is tainted- watch this space.

Nothing grows higher than a shrub anywhere in the vast nothing, with the bewildering exception of one great big tree. It stands all by itself, quite some distance from Jinnst and the river. It is too big to get one's arms around, and is in mysteriously robust health, all green leaves in the dry breeze. We mused silently on how this tree came to be in the desert, and how it had escaped being chopped down for all these years. We speculated that it must have some mystical significance to have lasted this long. Each lost in his own thoughts, we drew these quiet meditations to a close, got the chainsaw from the boot and took the big ugly brute down. It was spoiling the view.

No, no we didn't. Did we?

Driving on, we arrived finally at Jinnst, where the river's edge veggie growers awaited. As Mongolians don't have a long history of growing stuff in the ground, part of this whole process involves a step by step training process, from planting through harvesting, to make sure everyone knows which end is up on a carrot. Today's lesson involved that cunningest of subjects, the How to Cook. This way you don't have people standing around with their crops rotting in the ground, claiming not to know what to do with rutabaga, snozzcumber, or spunkwort. Once you've successfully bagged yourself an aubergine, how do you gut, clean and roast him? How indeed.

Gathered in the welcome low light inside the ger were about forty growers, men, women and children. And up against the far wall, wearing her best whites, chef hat and crisp new apron, was a chef from the Mongolian Culinary Institute (for such a thing exists), specializing in vegetarian fare. Three tables, burners, and banks of visual aids were set up as seen on teevee cooking shows, and for the next three hours chef wowed the crowd with such unexpected wonders as squash vichyssoise, carrot with sauerkraut, apple compote and sundry other fresh and pickled bits and pieces. It went over a storm, especially as chef thoughtfully prepared enough in advance for everyone to try everything, plus everyone got a pamphlet of recipies for everything they tasted that day. Masterchef in the Ger, and so far so good in this gig.

We continued in this vein the following day, north of Gallut, a town about which our Lonely Planet states "if for some bizarre reason you find yourself in Gallut.." Well tell you what, LP, we go to Gallut to poke about in cabbage patches, that's what we do. Gallut was slightly harder to reach than usual because the wooden bridge over the river was destroyed a few days earlier when two mining company trucks well above the limits of what the timber could hold tried to cross it, splintering the bridge and hurling the second truck into the water. Luckily, we were told, they were able to get the truck out (so much for the bridge). Both trucks, having crossed, were now marooned on the other side, lined up like naughty schoolboys by the edge of the water, being made to look at what they'd done. Neither truck appeared in the least bit remorseful. Short of anything else to do, and with the bridge unlikely to get repaired anytime soon, the two truck drivers ambled on over and took in a lesson or two in how to make potato salad. Otherwise, it was more of the same, with the inclusion of the a huge frisbee match at the end of the afternoon, involving a cliff, a water hazard, two guys on horseback, a few dogs, all the men and boys over the age of seven in the village, and about half the women. Mongolians are able to throw a Frisbee pretty much instinctively, and a huge scrum of fun was had.

Thereafter, it was a short twelve hour dive back to the capital, in time to have a day off and head back to the office. Still, not bad for a first week, and certainly more frisbee and fricassee than expected.

And with the acrid fumes of pickling vinegar fumigating our nostrils, and our mining company stock dividends burning a hole in our pocket, we will draw this installment to a close. We hope you'll remember to do the required reading, mind your tongue and not overburden your herds.

Bi tantai tanilsandaa bayartai bain (nice to have seen you, viewers),