Friday, August 04, 2006

When the grass is high....

U bain (‘sup) viewers?
This interregnum has been, to date, the longest ever hiatus this blog has yet experienced. Ochlaraai (apologies, viewers). While realizing that the readership for this piffle has now dwindled to less than a handful, we are delighted that someone actually noticed at all. So shouts-out then for Swithun, who poked us with a stick to see if we were dead or just sleeping.

Thing is, July is the all time high holiday month in Mongolia, and this year more than most. With dextrous scheduling, Mongolian holidays happen in January (Tsagaan Tsar) and July (Naadam), and last about in a week in each case. None of your long Arbor day weekend here and President’s birthday there rubbish for Mongolia. If you’re going on holiday, then make a decent muttony meal of it, and blow off the whole week. On top of which, July is the month when it begins to get genuinely hot. So between public hols and weather, it’s hard month to spend in front of a computer.

So we didn’t. First off was a sally to Lake Huvsgul, the 12th largest body of fresh water in the world, southern cousin to Lake Baikal. However, unrelenting rain meant that what should have been a easy morning’s drive from the sniggeringly entitled town of Moron to the lake’s edge turned into many rivers to cross, without so much as a Jimmy Cliff tape in the player to help us out. On our first attempt, we balked at the second river, as we would have had to cross 500 metres of floodwater against the current, a prospect less than concerting. When other cars were being hauled across by road graders, it seemed a slightly silly choice, given our lack of heavy earth moving equipment. On our second attempt the following day, what had been mighty torrents had disappeared altogether, leaving behind rocky riverbeds and tumbled trees, but no water. We had obviously imagined it all.

On we went up the western shore of the good lake, wending through forests and fording yet more rivers still in flood. It was later noticed that we were the first car to attempt the route in some days without a convoy- others had traveled up the lake by boat, having been told the road was impassable. Just goes to show what you can accomplish when you’re ignorant. The lake itself is fully splendid- as clear as a window, unspoilt by people, bereft of boats, and so clean you can wash your car with it. No wonder Mongolian Expat magazine lists it as one of the Six Places you Must Visit in Mongolia. Only doing what we’re told, viewers.

The trip, while ultimately pretty routine by Mongolian standards, was also confirmation of what we learned last Naadam: five days doesn’t get you very far in a place as big as this one, and any trip in Mongolia, no matter what the distance, will take five hours. Just will. Plan your in-ride entertainment and hydration strategy accordingly.

By being out of town, we missed the triumphant ceremonies marking the 800th anniversary of the Great Mongolian State. In 1206 (or thereabouts), Chinggis Khan (Genghis to you ill-educated out there) managed to unify the various warring tribes of Mongolia and create a credible nation which was a challenge/counterbalances to the Xi Xia in the east and the Jin in the south. From there on out, it was world domination, leaving such legacies to the world as a reopened overland route form Europe to Asia, the Forbidden City in Beijing (built by Kubilai Khan, Chinggis’s grandson), three kinds of Chinggis vodka, Chinggis beer, the Chinggis Club (three of them), Chinggis Khan international airport, and confusion to our enemies. To celebrate, all Naadam festivities were presented in multiples of 800, so there were 800 horsehead fiddlers, 800 long-song singers, 800 archers, and so on. A new and imposing statue of Chinggis was unveiled outside Parliament House, flanked by two of his generals on horseback. A few days later, 800 pieces of scaffolding were replaced as the whole edifice was 800 hours (or days) behind schedule . But hey, you don’t build a legacy 800 years strong overnight.

And finally, as a glittering finale on the 31st, geriatric German hard rock outfit the Scorpions played a gig on Sukhbataar Square. Lack of promotional material and forewarning (it was billed as a ‘surprise gig’ which is fine as long as someone knows where they should be standing to get their surprise) meant that the first our correspondent heard or saw of it was on UB television, the programming of which is esoteric enough that it was in no way surprising to find the Scorpions on it. However, nor was there anything to suggest in was happening just down the street. Imagine our surprise when last nights bleary eyed teevee watching turned into the next day’s front page. No word on whether ‘Winds of Change’ was retrofitted to include references to the siege of Samarkand.

German guitars aside, the summer has also been punctuated by short, speedy zooms down unsuspecting mountain and hillsides. Back in January, getting a jump on midlife crisis issues, I parted one young Settle resident from his mountain board. For those of you uncertain about such matters, a mountain board is basically an overlong skateboard with knobbly rubber tyres, intended to help you get down that slope in double quick time. You get to the top of a hill. You get on your board. You go down it. It is, in a phrase, much much stupid fun. And a country as wavy as the ocean with limited trees. Mongolia, meet mountain board. Play nice. Having accumulated a fair selection of scratches on my pointy bits while getting to grips with this improved method of dealing with pesky downhills, I knuckled under and scored some pads last week. Within metres of first putting on protection, I hit a marmot hole full on, and tumbled ass over teakettle into the flowers, thus proving that pads aren’t just for fashion, and Poetic Justice isn’t just amovie with Janet Jackson in it.

So if in the next few weeks this blog is once again punctuated by silence and atrophy, then it’s because we are off tearing around the countryside on four small wheels. And if the wind gets up, one adds a kite to the equation, and sails across the steppe. That’s where we’ll be, viewers.

Saihan amaraaraa,


Thursday, June 22, 2006

Our bold new direction

Greetings all-

What you see above is cover art for our new concept triple album entitled "Birthdays on the Balcony", a four hour oddessy into children's festivites with a Mongolian edge. The first disc is a challenging reworking of "John Jacob Jingleheimerschmidt" for throat singers, the second is a loop of 14 three year olds chewing carrot sticks over a reggae beat, and the final is a 27 minute free jazz rendering of Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" played on horsehead fiddles and flugelhorns.

Happy birthday to Natty (tursung undri bayaring mindh hurgee, viewers), two years old yesterday.

More soon,


Friday, May 26, 2006

One of Uaz, One of Uaz

Yamur Mashin, humuus (whatta car, viewers.)

See, there’s two things about Mongolia. One is, it’s far away. The second is, it’s really big.

Granted, it’s far away depending on where’s you’re standing, and it’s big compared to smaller things, but when you combine the two, that’s when you get a Mongolian outlook.

So there you are, looking around Mongolia and thinking such deep thoughts as “man it’s big” and “wow it’s far away”, and while your understanding of these concepts will vary depending on what kind of viewing platform you stand upon and what kind of shaded goggles you are squinting through, one thing seems certain. If you’re going to move around Mongolia, you will need a conveyance. In a word, a car.

Not just any car. Oh no. Many of your new fangled rides with their drink holders and in-seat heated bottom massagers are poor choices for the Mongolian milieu. Humvees may prowl the streets of Ulaanbaatar, but these are only vehicular bling, the equivalent of 4WD stiletto heels. Their mileage is so poor and Mongolian gas stations so far apart that taking them farther than the hairdressers is a journey fraught with peril. Plenty of Rovers, Cruisers, Troopers and Patrols exist, but if a widget pops lose from its housing when you hit a camel or something, good luck contacting your nearest dealer to help you out with the parts. So what then is the intrepid Mongolian warrior, weekend or otherwise, to drive?

Step forward the Uaz, as car as iconic in Mongolia as the SUV in America or the Matatu in Kenya. Bata used to promote the Safari boot as ‘the Shoe that says you know Africa’. The Uaz is the Safari boot of Mongolia. Ugly as a kick in the face, made with skills as old as the hills, fixable with pantyhose and gum, and still- no other shoe (or car) sets the maidens’ hearts aflutter like a Uaz.

While you are savouring the fluid lines of the bodywork, marveling at the hardiness of the steering rack or just feeling oddly aroused by the steering wheel, a bit of history for you.

Back when it looked like the Third Reich was going to gobble up Mother Russia like so much caviar, major industries were moved out of the way of the Wehrmacht by shoveling them way inland away from the front. The ZIS car company was moved from Moscow to Ulyanovsk on the Volga where it began making cars and useful wartime items like shells. After the war, the Ulyanovsk plant was hied off into its own company, and in the 1950s they started cranking out four wheel drives according to a basic model which is still largely unchanged. This is the Uaz. Uaz is pronounced- eh., however you feel like it, really. Go nuts. It’s an acronym which stands for Ulyanovsk Avtomobilny Zavod. Russian cars have never gone in for all this fancy naming crap. There’s no Russian word for Elantra, Fabula, or Ka. An Uaz is a Uaz. Similarly, big Russian six wheel trucks are called Kamaz. Because they are made in Kamchatka, the mythical land from the game of Risk handy for invading Alaska, Japan, Irkutsk, Yakusk and Mongolia. By this logic, every car made in Detroit should be called a Daz. Which would be fine, really.

Anyway. Mostly, if you’re referring to one of these beauties in English, you’d call it a Russian Jeep. Or in Mongolian, a 69 (jahren youse, viewers), which is the model number- you know, just in case Uaz is too unspecific for you (not that there are other models, but still.) So Russian jeep UAZ 69 it is. No other ride comes close to being so vital to the country. The Uaz equivalent of a VW bus, the furgon, plays a part certainly, but all others are simply cars. The Uaz is a way of life.

Why are they so great? Well, for a start, they’re cheaper than a good horse. A boxfresh Uaz will run you between ten and fifteen grand American, and a secondhand one is considerably less. Ideally, of course, you don’t want one still in the original packaging. The whole car production process is a pretty complicated thing, and most cars come off the line with a few jagged edges here and there. You need to own a Uaz for a couple of years at least to get the transmission ground down to the point that you can shift into third, and plug up all the leaks around the doors and windows with strips of foam rubber and carpet samples so you don’t freeze in winter or suffocate in summer. A car a couple of years old is more comfortable and useful than a brand new one.

Secondly, they are engineered simply enough that anyone with a modicum of mechanical knowledge can fix them. Which is great, because by a tremendous stroke of luck, Mongolian drivers have that modicum.

At the first sign of parking, the first order of business is to clean the car inside and out with a retentiveness usually reserved for jewelers and spaceflight. While decidedly open minded when it comes to spitting, urinating and trash in public, Mongolians keep their cars clean enough inside and out that you could build silicon chips in the backseat if needs be. So first order of business when the motor is at rest is to tidy it thoroughly.

If your parking type situation persists, then its time to jack the car up and start taking bits of it apart, spreading it in a halo around the car, and peering at the constituent gubbins until inspiration strikes. The front left axle/wheel is a popular place to start, so if for any reason nothing’s actually wrong with your car, start there anyway and work diagonally across the engine. In unfamiliar towns, this is also a surefire way to meet some of the most eligible batchelors around, as blokes come ambling over from their stoops to speculate on where that bit that’s shaped like a little helmet for a monkey goes.

It is mostly pointless for anyone not responsible for driving the car to try to get involved. Such futility usually unfolds thus:

Me: “So what’s the problem?”
Trusty Translator: “He says it’s not a problem.”
Me: “Right.” (pause) “So why is he taking apart the brake?”
TT: (no answer)
Me: “Can you ask him?”
TT: “No.”
Me: “Why not?”
TT: “Because it’s his car.”
Me: “Ah.”

Despite/because of the mechanical know how exerted all over these vehicles, they can be and are fixed with just about anything. When one I was traveling in had its axle mounting come away from the main chassis (thanks to some economizing in the welding department in Ulyanovsk that day), the axle was strapped back on in with wire and string. Okay so it didn’t work for long, but it seemed a plausible repair at the time. When the repair didn’t work, we drove on for 100 kilometres regardless. Uazzerful.

Why else are these cars great? Plenty of reasons. They come in a dazzling array of technicolour hues, including army green, grey, and khaki. You can take out all the seats and turn them into a sleeping space, a dining hall or a ballroom, depending on your needs. There is no upper limit on how many people can fit in them. But most of all, Uazes are great because, like an asylum, they have padded ceilings. While the mod-cons of the rest of the car are no-frills bare minimum tick the box and move on simple, the roof of the car is thickly upholstered like a wingback chair in the gentlemen’s lounge at the country club. There’s no seatbelts, but with a cushioned ceiling you don’t need them- if you hit a bump, you will float through the air, sink comfortably into the ceiling headfirst, and float back to earth like a feather. Your ass is your own responsibility, but Uaz is looking after your head. However, if the ceiling has worn through in places, that may be cause for alarm. Position yourself under a thick bit.

But before you reach for your checkbook and start ordering up a Uaz each for the kids and a brace for the missus, thereby joining a fraternity of motorists whose enthusiasts include the Ethiopian army and the Nepali tourist industry, I fear I must inform you that there is a downside to the Uaz experience. That is to say, a downside if you’ve understood the motoring experience to include an element of comfort. Whoever told you that one has taken unfair advantage of your good nature. For the Uazanite, comfort is as far away as Mongolia is from Montenegro. Seats made of iron planks and rocks, pointy bits of rusty metal just near your tenderer regions, shock absorbers that are adjusted for maximum reverb so you pogo like a punk on every pebble, and ventilation which is either freezing or boiling. Couple that with road surfaces like a bowl of Cheerios, and you’re in for an automotive no-fun ride. For the first few kilometres you can pretend you’re in some kind of music video ride where that lurching up and down is part of the purpose, but an ad hoc imaginary gangsta lean is hardly enough to traverse the steppe with.

Added to the fact that setting off across the steppe usually includes choice between a track off thataway and another off thisaway and the driver can’t decide is the right one, riding the Uaz lightning is an emotional process. In phase one, as you careen from boulder to boulder on the wrong road and have to go back and hit all those same pointless bumps twice, a level of anger, frustration and concern for self rises, wherein you swear that this is positively the last time you’ll rent one of the buckets, and much bile is directed towards all other inhabitants in the car, especially the driver. During this phase, it’s handy not to know any Mongolian, lest one be tempted to verbalize some of these mental stylings.

Then phase two, which begins when Something Happens. Usually this is a breakdown. When temporarily disabled, you have no choice but to look around you and then, the majesty of just where you are sinks in. What’s more, you need that car to get through this, so there’s no point getting pissed at something you cannot hope to alter. Acceptance. When the car gets moving again, phase three begins. Grateful to be back on the road, and with a renewed sense of peace, the landscape takes over, and the sheer wonder of Mongolia’s lands permeates your soul like a warm breeze. As the sun sets and catches the gold in the grass, your aching ass is feeling no pain, but is buoyed along by something bigger. By the time you get where you’re going, all is gentleness and calm. Enlightenment comes on Russian retreads, viewers. Sit back and enjoy the ride.

With inner peace abounding, I will close this entry by saying that after fifty-odd good years, the day of the Uaz is waning. The cheapness of second hand Hyundais has meant that the Uaz is slowly getting squeezed out by the cast offs from Mongolia’s neighbours. While still prevalent outside the capital, the day will certainly come when the Uaz is a relic of a glorious past, along with the hammer and sickle. In the meantime, Mongolia’s drivers do it Russian style, and we here as the Missives salute the spirit of the steppe supped from the goblet of Uaz.

Safe journeys, viewers! (saihan yavaarai!)

(all half-assed research into this article was done from unreliable sources in Ulaanbaatar and the internet. I assume you already figured this out. If you were reading this blog for factual info, then you’re already so off course that you might as well jump overboard and hope that a dolphin carries you home.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Knead to be Needed

Before Seoul Massage

Sonin saihan uu bain, more iin? (What’s new, pussycats?)

If there are any readers left at this point, it must be due to the sheer wonderfulness of intertia, or a certain degree of Pavlovian internet masochism. You are encouraged to cease salivating, for the bell has rung, and after too too long, a new entry is yours for the rumination.

But my oh my modern life viewers. What a tense place it can be, filled with stress and strains, anxieties and pains. And now medical science suggests that such time honoured coping methods as keg stands and Gauloises blondes are actually part of the problem, not part of the solution. Eating your wrinkles away is an option, but how many fudge eating contests can you go to before the fun begins to seep away like so much chocolatey goo? Watching professional sports, picking fights in the street, gambling and psychotherapy all pass the time, but none really reach that deep down fatigue that a body feels at the end of a working week. How to unwind, viewers. How to unwind. The answer is not to try to do it yourself, for you are not a watchmaker with your hands on the springs which make you tick and tock. You need a masseuse. Clearly.

Nestled below us on the first floor of building 37, Chingeltei district, is Seoul Massaj (massage, viewers). During our various travels around southeast Asia, the calming delights of reflexology were explored between noodle dishes and tuk tuk rides, and we acquired a taste for it. Upon our return to the steppe, we decided to sample some of the local fare to see if it compared, and no, it did not. No comparison. It transcended. It was a whole new way of paying someone to beat you up. If southeast Asian massage is a lithe monkey dancing on manicured paws, Mongolian stylee is a mighty great yak with gnarled hooves of power. Bow down in its presence, unworthy ones. One amply proportioned acquaintance of ours described his visit to the ladies of Seoul by saying “a ninety eight pound Mongolian woman took me like it was prison.” A lively description to be sure, but as he’s a human rights lawyer I assume this was a professional assessment of the process.

The foyer of Seoul Massage is a modest affair, no bigger than most department store dressing rooms. A rack of sandals and a matron behind a counter are there, as well as a laminated menu of options. Just as Mongolian restaurants serve both kinds of food (sheep and lamb), Seoul offers both kinds of massage: foot and body (hol and bie, viewers). One price, no fussing. Now get those boots off and get inside. Let’s do a foot massage today, ‘cause these dogs are barking, my verucas are salty, and corns’ coming in by the bushel.

Having removed one’s shoes, you are ushered into the darkened chambers beyond, half of which are equipped with banks of massage tables for those of you who selected the body option (we’ll see you after), and reclining chairs and footstools for the footies. The lighting is discreet and darkened, and a radio burbles out the latest chart nonsense from Asia and the west. Escorted to a recliner, you are presented with your new outfit of striped pajama bottoms and a loose t-shirt (black for boys, orange for girls). While you change from your civvies to your uniform, your captain readies the accoutrements she will require to bend you to her will.

Now as anyone who’s seen Pulp Ficton knows, there are foot massages and then there are foot massages. If Tony Rocky Horror gave Mia Wallace one of what follows, then Marcellus had every reason to suspect that something more than podiatry was going on.

Your massage begins when you sit on a footstool and plunge your feet into a wooden washtub like the ones in old cartoons people used to wear to hide their nakedness. The water is scented with a handful of aromatic herbs to ease relaxation, and is carefully warmed to a temperature somewhere between McDonald’s lawsuit and lava. This tub of water will prove very important for the next little while, as you may frequently need to distract yourself from what else is happening by concentrating on whether your feet have turned to fondue yet. After a few moments to allow your feet to start shriveling down to size three, your masseuse glides into position behind you to begin your foot massage.

Now obviously, a foot massage concentrates on one’s feet. It is thus only logical that this massage starts with your back. As the healing begins, you realize that where southeast Asian masseurs and –seuses spend their days softening their fingers in bowls of jasmine scented oil and drinking mango juice while watching Singapore soaps in air conditioned parlours, their Mongolian counterparts straphang on busted ex-Korean buses to and from a dusty ger where they wrangle with goats and braid rawhide to make ropes to hold the house down when the spring winds hit. These women spend their massage apprenticeship grinding rice into flour in their fists for months before they are allowed near a client. Rumour has it they ran out of rice three winters ago and since then have been using a mixture of gravel and broken glass. By the time you realize how formidable you have been gripped, it is too late and you are no longer holding the keys to the auto of life. These women are small, but they could whup you faster than you could say shiatsu, and that’s just what they’re going to do.

As the pressure exerted on your spine exceeds three atmospheres, another unique element of Seoul massage pokes you in the eye. Hands, which certainly are an important weapon in the available massage arsenal, are only one possible option. Any bit of the body which is bony, pointy, gnarly or strong, can and will be used. And so the moments fly by as you wonder “which bit of you is doing that to me?” Possible answers include elbow, knee, bottom forearm, top of forearm, outer thigh, and foot (it’s a foot massage, remember?). Apparently there is a special treatment which involves steamrolling your body using only the head, but it’s a bit intense.

With your back now living in jelly, it’s time to get on with your foot massage and start agitating your….head. Yep. Can’t just make a beeline for the piggies. Gotta walk the whole course before you race the hounds on it. And so begins a bewildering process somewhere between phrenology and trepanning, whereby your poor old scalp that never hurt a fly becomes the venue for such double fisted techniques as When Elephants fight the Grass is Trampled, Mother Spider Defends her Nest, and sometimes, just sometimes, Joe Pesci’s vice trick from Casino. While all this is happening, in a hopeless effort to escape, you crumple over your knees until you’re hunched like Gollum contemplating your visage in the steaming puddle where your feet now live. In sympathy with your plight, your masseuse starts touseling your hair affectionately, like Dennis the Menace used to get when he’d crash his boxracer into Mr. Wilson’s new mailbox. Whatta scamp. And so, thinking it all nearing conclusion, you begin to extend your neck from beneath your shell. More fool you. What may seem like a friendly touseling between friends is in fact an expert winnowing, whereby weak follicles are being separated from the strong. By the time you realize your predicament, she’s grasped a hold of all the runts straight along your centre part and YANK! She pulls you up to ramrod straight using only ten hairs, Gollum banished forever. Who is in charge has never been more clear. All hail the new queen in town.

By this point, your overheated and puckered feets are quite convinced that they’ve been lied to, and they’re not going to the amusement park after all but are on the way to the doctor’s for a booster shot. They are not wrong. With the back and noggin threats neutralized, our new ruler can finally turn her attention to those neglected..arms. Oh well, at least they’re a limb, so we must be getting closer. At this point the Seoul method becomes slightly clearer- moments of reassuring gentleness are interspersed with sudden, unexpected violence. It’s like how someone once (erroneously) described rolfing as talking about a traumatic experience from your childhood and then having your therapist punch you in the face. It’s sort of like that. Gentle strokes down the bones of each finger, the joints of which are then popped so hard it sounds like timber being felled. But before you have time to muse on this too much more, you are treated to such anatomically impossible feats as the whole arm reverse rotation body pop (whereby your fully extended arm is lulled into such suppleness that your elbow joint is popped upwards), and such symbolic positions as the Figurehead of HMS Victory (fingers knitted behind head, elbows pulled back until almost touching, knee in middle of the back) and the Dying Swan (hands held at wrists, pulled back as far as they go, outer thigh shoving back straight). Another domino of resistance falls, and your entire upper body is now under the flag of Seoul massage.

Your feet breathe a sigh of relief that they have, despite the name of the procedure, escaped with little more than a robust stewing. But your masseuse sees all, hears all. Your feet are finally withdrawn from their solution, and quick as a flash are bound tightly in white napkins lest they try to escape. The washtub is withdrawn, and your reclining chair is stretched out to full flat. Lay your weary and beaten self down on it while she drapes a sheet over you to keep you warm. Since you know what comes after gentleness by now, you instinctively tense up as you assume at least a charley horse or nuggies comes after the comfy blankie. But no, it seems that your feet have finally moved up the queue, and it’s time for them to get manipulated. Surprise and fear are legitimate at this stage. Let them flow, it helps to cleanse.

What happens next is not so much an anticlimax as such a relief that it’s all you can do to stay awake. In keeping with tradition though, your foot is defined as starting at the knee and all points south. You lie under your blanket as your feet are jiggled and your toes are individually fibrillated until you are lulled into a reverie involving mermaids, unicorns and rainbows. After a bit, you realize that for the past five minutes she’s been folding your whole foot over on itself, top over bottom, left over right, like a floppy bit of dough. Whether or not it’s relaxing is no longer of issue, as you lost the ability to form opinions other than ‘owie’ or ‘no owie’ some miles back.

Things are winding up. Your sheets are swaddled up around you like a mummy, and your legs are spun in huge circles over your head like in the halcyon days of breakdancing. Your feet are replaced in roughly the location they started in, and then it’s over.

Like hitting yourself repeatedly with a hammer, the reason to do it is because it feels good when it stops. You are given all the time to convalesce that you need, before you change back out of your scrubs and into your skin. If you are of a hirsute nature, proof of what you have done can be found on your calves, where little snarled clusters of hairy dingleberries have sprouted where your legs were so vigorously kneaded.

As you emerge dazed into the world outside, the sun’s a little brighter, the birds are chirping a little more chirpyily, and the cracks in the pavement seem that much more calm and ordered.

Exhausted but elated, you trudge home a hero, for you have completed your quest and lived to tell the tale. Years from now, your grandchildren will gasp as in wonder as you rhyme them the ballad of the massaged man.

On which mighty note we shall close. I shall end by mentioning that 200 hours of painstaking fieldwork went into researching this article. I hope you realize what lengths I go to on your behalf.

Saihan ahmraraa (have a good rest, viewers),


After Seoul Massage

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Shilling for the Deserving

In an effort to disguise a lack of new content by filling space with advertising, we are most pleased to announce the publication of Africa Against All Odds, a book of photos by Glenn Edwards. I worked with Glenn in Malawi in 2002 on this project, and had a great time tooling around the central provinces with him Compassion is an overused word when applied to photography, but in this case entirely appropriate for Glenn’s treatment of his various subjects across the continent.

A gallery of images from the book is available here, as well as ordering information. Glenn assures me my face appears nowhere in its pages- some things the world just isn’t ready for.

Mash ih saihan zoruck, viewers (lots of great photos, viewers),


(I don't have Glenn's permission to use the image above, so if he asks it will be cheerfully and immediately removed.)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Enjoy a nap while waiting for the next installment

Here's another photo to tide you over until our next entry hoves into view. In the next thrilling episode, we'll be exploring what it means to get massaged in Mongolia.

And if that doesn't sound ominous to you, you haven't been paying attention.

Coming soon to a massage parlour near you viewers,


In Christ's Name Dehydrated

Sain bainuu viewers-

Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but it's not a half bad thing to have around something like a blog. Its absence in these parts points to a giant mind at work, or something.

Whatever the case, I returned from a couple of weeks of assessing the viability of a national school feeding programme in Mongolia- it's like a spa treatment, only with more longdrops- and found the item pictured above nestled into the in-tray.

Words do fail me somewhat here, viewers. Anyone have any serving suggestions?

Daihiat odughgui, (more soon, viewers) Jannie

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Media Frenzy of One

Since an important part of any blog is shameless self promotion propelled by the belief that one's minutest doings are a point of fascination to the world at large, I am pleased to announce that the photo above has been selected as the cover shot of the latest issue of Great Nation. Great Nation is THE magazine for expatriate Mongolians living in Korea, and its pages alternate between Mongolian and Korean language articles on a whole welter of issues. It's website can be found here (useful to have the Korean and Cyrillic font sets) but is pretty out of date; for all I know it may be advocating cruelty to animals and more exploration of Venus, but hey, in this age of lowered journalistic integrity, who am I to care what my photos are being used for?

Between the Swedish travel supplement and the Mongolian press, I feel confident in declaring myself a major global media player. I shall be listing myself on the NYSE later this afternoon, but without compromising my artistic vision. Buy early and often.

Yours megalomanically,


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Mighty Blighty

What Ho, viewers!

February finds us back in Mongolia after a month in the UK, where, if you are reading this, we probably saw you. So hello. If we did not see you in the UK and yet you’re still reading this, why then that is even more remarkable, and you’re the reason we get up in the morning. So why do I feel like rolling over and going back to sleep?

Turning our acute observational eye to Blighty for just a tick, a few small bits and pieces which got lodged in our grill are extracted here for your review. In tribute to our Yorkshire ‘hood’s most glittering literary son Alan Bennett’s annual diary, this entry is in simple point form, easily swallowed and forgotten, like a tuna and sweetcorn on wholemeal.

  • Gastro-notes: As in many other countries, people in the Uke Hey spent a tremendous amount of time going hither and yon in their cars. People are busy, time is money, rush hour must be avoided, the A65’s got roadworks on both sides, but everybody’s gotta eat sometime. Pub meals are expensive and may only be served between precise hours, service areas tend to occur only on main roads and are in any case largely toxic, and the weather may not allow for picnics. All of which combines to create the phenomena of Sandwiches in Cars. In lay-bys, car parks, view points and petrol stations, a quick glance behind the windscreen shows drivers and pax huddled over Tupperware, noshing down two slices with filling. Short rows of three and four cars crouch by the side of the road in murky weather, sometimes supported by a van advertising Hot Food for those not already packing a few rounds. This activity is so ingrained into the fabric of things, and the weather is so insistently uncooperative that people unwind in their spare time by taking their sandwiches for a drive to areas of outstanding natural beauty. You fuel up the motor, tuck your trousers into your socks, put the dog in the back and drive all the way to the Ribblehead Viaduct for a pleasant afternoon among the arches, only to find horizontal rain and a wind with murder on its mind. Typical, isn’t it? Still, seems a shame to come all this way for nothing, doesn’t it? Nevermind, mustn’t grumble. Turn up Radio Four, open up the lunch box, and fog up the car. Everything seems better over a wensleydale and chutney with a smoky bacon crisp. Now where’s the flask? Oooh, luvly.
  • Religious Affairs Department: It is somewhere beyond cliché to complain about the English weather, but even so, it cannot go without mention. On the first afternoon we were there, I took Natty out into the garden at about one in the afternoon. He looked at the sky and the thick grey putty of clouds smeared across it and declared “dark.” No son, that’s what passes for daylight in these parts. From the mouths of babes comes stuff what’s true and that. As if in response to the gloom of winter, the Methodist church in Settle has a poster on its notice board of a sun baked white sandy beach and the surf beyond with the legend “Wish you were here! Love, Jesus” written in ‘handwriting’ font across it. Whether the Son of God is on holiday or works there or something is not clear. Viewers wishing to know more about their spiritual travel options are encouraged to enquire within. And still on the Methodist tip, a Settle lady in the prime of life recently presented one of her ladyfriends with a fresh new copy of the parish newsletter, to which her excited pal was heard to remark “Ooooh! I wish I could reciprocate with the Methodist Recorder!” We assume she was talking about another newsletter, but we could be wrong. if anyone knows if there’s another meaning for “reading the Methodist Recorder”, answers on the back of a postcard of a tropical idyll to our Ulaanbaatar HQ. Best entries will receive a lifetime subscription to Settle Community News. (with a tip of the flat cap to our reporter-at-large T.R-J.)
  • Vice dept: And so on to south London, where the hippest trends are born, and describing someone as “being committed to a decadent lifestyle” is a compliment. Certain parts of south London are less wholesome than others, and are the sort of places where people wear fake rather than real Burberry and say ‘Good Luck’ to their cars before going to bed. But this ramshackle state of affairs of is not a result of incompetent or inefficient local government, social corrosion, dub reggae or the youth of today. Oh no. The seediness of certain boroughs is a result of Drug Tourism. That’s right viewers: it seems that certain neighbourhoods have developed a reputation as being such good places to score that well heeled north Londoners have been known to hop in minicabs and come south with the sole intention of purchasing illegal stimulants and the like, thus bringing otherwise upright areas into disrepute. It is apparently a) impossible to find any illegal product north of the Thames, b) dealers never stray more than three blocks from the building they were born in and c) dealers have no idea how to use courier services, the internet or even those same minicabs that are bringing all them tourists into the once placid boulevards and avenues. And so the drug taking public must journey south. Guerrila action to Take Back the Streets by reversing the trend and sending Brixton residents into Chelsea and Kensington to try to buy there have so far met with inconclusive results. In the meantime, packs of toffs clad in John Smedley curb crawl around Lambeth disturbing the law abiding citizens with their loaded questions about ‘gear’ and ‘could one sort one out’ and the like. Pensioners clutch their pearls to their neck and hurriedly cross the road, remembering the old days when all the houses had bead curtains for doors and you could leave the collection plate in the high street overnight and no one would so much as borrow a farthing. And now? Hordes of Japanese with next-gen cameras and safari jackets clutching the Fodor’s Getting On One in London clog the zebra crossings following tour guides waving antennas with a red rag tied on it as they are led on walking tours of the once reputable shooting galleries and crack dens of SW 11. It’s getting so the streets aren’t safe for the dopeheads anymore. Won’t someone stop the madness? Look, if two Mongolian cops in the only ger in 100 miles can bust timber runners with only their bare hands, then surely the Met can bring the Tourism scourge under control? Our anxious thoughts go out to Mark and Keith, living under siege in Camberwell. Keep hope alive.

On which gritty street-tough note we shall close. Coming soon, more silliness about Mongolia. See you then!

All the best (saihan saihanig husii, viewers),


Thursday, January 05, 2006

On Marmots

Shin onii mindh (happy new year, viewers)-
As the mercury plumbs deep new lows, and the lining of one's clothes turns from synthetics to animal fur, winter in Mongolia appears to be among us. On the 21st of December, Mongolians celebrate the beginning of '9 times 9'- the first 33 days represent the start of winter, the next 33 the coldest days, and the final 33 the beginning of the end of winter. While the maths may not add up, and it wasn't exactly above zero before the 21st neither, it is indicative of the fact that outside it's getting a bit froze. It's early 33 days, but thus far it has been within the realm of expectations: don't go outside in shorts expecting warmth and you won't get it- easy! We tip our dogskin boots in sympathy towards our peeps in Minnesota, who suffer the same thing but with less opportunities to eat belly warming meaties than we Mongolian residents have. Nick, fear not: we're saving you a slice of marmot.

Our story this week takes place in the late weeks of autumn, in the soum of Ikh Choloochiheruul, where I had gone with my trusty colleague in a less than trusty rented Russian jeep to inspect the gardening progress of the good people of the soum. This particular spot is two hours flight and five hours drive from Ulaanbaatar, a mere trifle by the standards of the day. By the way, a soum is a Mongolian administrative division roughly equivalent to a county. Each of the 300 soum centres in the country has a post office, a school, a telephone, a bank, a 'hospital', a police station, and a petrol station. Electricity, water, and internet are optional extras.

There can be fewer more futile tasks than assessing a garden plot AFTER the harvest has already been completed- unkind people might suggest it is in fact no different than scrabbling around in a dirt patch, but we food security coordinators are a sharp eyed bunch, and can see things in a pile of dust that the untrained eye would miss. Our mission was compounded somewhat by the fact for this visit we had decided to use the Improvisational Rapid Assessment tool, an old fallback of the humanitarian/development playlist. Basically, you forget to tell anybody you're coming. My colleague Hovdogh had taken care of that step for us, and our local contact had done her bit by shooting off to the capital for a week or two to visit her ailing pop. What, then, to do?

Into this breach stepped the local soum governor, the estimable Tsartsagaan. A lady in the prime of her life, she strode unannounced into our hotel room shortly after sun up. Mongolians, on the whole, don't share western mores about privacy. People in round houses know no corners, or something. Anyway, Tsartsagaan had decided that she herself would escort us to the garden plot, and we could leave forthwith. A woman in a position of administrative power wearing a camel hair twinset and a full head of makeup before nine in the morning is not to be questioned, viewers. Saddle up and ride out.

Driving the fifty kilometres to the project site, the less than trusty driver of our less than trusty jeep whacked in a cassette of the Greatest Mongolian Driving Hits..Ever! His vehicle fully conformed to the basic rules of having a crap car: the more crap the car, the more booming your system must be. So despite this being a car that would later have its front axle mount rupture from the chassis while we were driving, the graphic equalizer and woofer system was presently giving us an immersive aural experience, steppe style. This was then taken to the next level. Due to some mysterious cultural shared consciousness, every Mongolian knows the words to every Mongolian song ever written ever. And every Mongolian must sing, sing, sing. In fact, it is especially important to sing when driving in a car, Tsartsagaan informed me. My pathetic lack of knowledge of Mongolian repertoire was not an excuse, it was a disgrace.

And so with the volume up to eleven, and three throaty companions in good musical spirits, the kilometres flew by like so many miles. Mongolian driving music is a jaunty, exhilarating affair, with lots of cowboy movie strings of the herds galloping majestically across the steppe, uplifting female vocals, and lusty male solo singers, exalting to the great blue skies the greatness of...Their Mums. Yep. Unless specifically stated otherwise, all Mongolian music is a paean to Mater; how she's keeping everyone safe as they travel, how she's just wonderful at making the curds, and how she'll have a warm cup of tea ready for us when we get back. Sung with pep by the cast of Oklahoma, in Mongolian. When I was asked how many western songs are written about mothers, my answer provoked the kind of pitying head shaking usually reserved for stories of puppies left out in the rain.

As the mountain pass gave way to a giant plain, our happy singing car came upon a single dingy ger by the side of the road, incongruously stocked with a huge stack of uncut tree trunks. A quick scan of the horizon confirmed there wasn't a tree in sight, but all was soon revealed. This ger was the temporary shelter for a policeman and an environment officer, cunningly placed to intercept logging thieves and smugglers pinching wood from the forests up north and selling them in the treeless south. Now why treelifters couldn't drive around the only tent in fifteen square kilometers is not clear. Even less clear is why they would even stop for two dudes without so much as two horses between them. It's not many cops who can stop a truck single handed, wrestle the occupants to the ground and arrest them, remove the cargo from the flatbed, do the paperwork and still get a good night's sleep on the cold hard ground at a decent hour, but that seemed to be the m.o. This duo's duties were not limited to busting timberrunners, but in fact covered seizure of all contraband which might somehow be drawn to them. Illegal whatnot of all sorts was winkled out and impounded, as smugglers of all shapes and sizes found themselves drawn, magnetlike, to the only ger in 50 kilometres.

Contraband is like anything else, and is subject to the whims of fashion, trend and taste. In 2005, the number one most wanted illegal item in short supply was the marmot. A big groundhoggy thing that lives in holes, he is marmota sibirica (tarvag, viewers). If you read Russian and can't get enough marmot info, then is for you. For the rest of us, it is enough to know that the marmot is a big rat thing that lives in the ground, good for making stoles and other accessories from. Other fun facts about the marmot include that it has fleas that still carry bubonic plague- every year about five or six Mongolians get chomped or mugged by a marmot and get plague. Also, they are congenitally stupid. Like many steppe dwellers there are really, really bored, and spend months inside with nothing to do. So they are easily distracted and will be entertained by almost anything. Over the centuries, the rugged outdoorsmen of Mongolia have worked this out, and lure the marmot from his nest by such cunning predatory manouvres as honking the horn, yelling out "knock knock!", and singing bracing Mongolian hunting songs such as "I kill you good little beastie". Marmots come above ground to see who's throwing the party, hunter shoulders weapon, there is a one sided exchange of bullets, and terminally comatose marmots comes home to daddy.

But the most important thing about the marmot is that while he's an attractive fellow to make a hat from, and a pretty sporting hunt, he is fine, fine eating. Boiled, steamed, grilled or just plain old warmed on the car radiator, he's the rodent of the moment. There are various marmot organs which are considered especially good for one's health, so much so that they are called People Meat (hun mach, viewers). Certain Mongolians are so enamoured of the taste of marmot flesh that autumn just doesn't taste right without a marmoty burp in the gullet. Be that as it may, this year the government decided that a) plague was just really, really medieval and surely we could skip a year without someone coming over all buboed, b) so many marmot munchers had seriously depleted numbers of marmots left in burrows and c) just do what we say. So it was that this year, there was no legal marmot to be had in Mongolia, and lo there was much gnashing of teeth, free of marmoty sinew.

And yet, all hope was not lost for those who'd been looking forward to marmotburger all year. For instance, what of already dead marmot? What if, purely hypothetically, a cop in a ger in the middle of nowhere had intercepted some not alive marmots shot by naughty persons? What if those marmots were more than he could possibly consume I mean enter into evidence himself, even if there was a friend to help him out? What then? Wouldn't it just go bad? Wouldn't that be a crime too? Well wouldn't it? Our hostess in the twinset Tsartsagaan was thinking along the same lines. Plus, as governor, she is the boss of him and does represent the will of the people, so make with the meats, flatfoot.

The finer points of this Socratic dialogue was held in the conditional tense (or at least was translated to me that way), so after a lot of "IF I did have a marmot then I WOULD give it to you" type chortling, it was off to see the soil spot. The project site was a dusty affair, located as it was at the summer grazing spot, now vacated by all but one family. So no people, no turnips, and nothing to assess except the consistency of dust. A successful mission, I'd say.

On the way back, we stopped at the same cop ger we'd visited on the way out. By a strange confluence of nature and human appetites, in the hours we were away, not one but two marmots had now been found. One was already in a state of severe undress, in the process of being gutted on a cardboard box. The other? Not totally certain, but Tsartsagaan entered the ger and emerged with a mysterious bundle in her arms covered in cloth, which was then stashed in the back of the car. And back we went to the soum capital to take advantage of the many amenities on offer. Could it be that her parcel of cloth contained a marmot? Who can say with certainty, in today's confusing world? But suspicion points in that direction, viewers. This would not be the only suspicious marmot of an increasingly marmoty trip.

Later that evening, my colleague Hovdogh was greeted by some of her local pals, delighted to see her after such a long absence. To celebrate her return, they had thoughtfully brought her...a marmot. Nicely cooked with not too much salt, presented tastefully squashed into a plastic bag. Hovdogh could not have been happier, she being of the too much marmot is not enough school of gastronomy. Having bought herself a jumbo jar of Polish pickles to accompany her repast, she set to work. Now a word about eating marmot in 2005. You may have somehow found yourself in possession of such a thing, but it is still illegal, and the law is still the law, and you can't just sit on the front step and chow down in full view. One must be discreet. Given that our hosts were mostly government folk of some tier or another, it really wouldn't do to chew on the illicit meat right in their faces- even if they gave it to you. A etiqutte poser, to be sure. The simplest thing to do, really, is chomp it down in the car on one's own. No mess no fuss. Which is what she did. For three consecutive meals, Hovdogh would sit in the passenger seat before we'd go into a house (inevitably for a meal), get out the pickles and paring knife and gnaw away. The standard Mongolian fashion for meat eating is direct under any circumstances, but hunched over a bag of contraband in the car with occasional visible flicks of a greasy knife gave the whole process a certain junkie feel.

Even after three drive-in marmot specials, there was still leftovers, and that same plastic bag was kicking around the car with carcass in it. As we were driving the five hours back to the aimag capital, the driver pulled up on a dried up riverbed and came round to where the marmot bag was. Flipping open a secret panel in the back rear right side door, he stuffed the plastic bag into the leg of a spare pair of trousers and closed the panel again. Why is marmot always stashed inside clothes, anyway? This was apparently necessary because just ahead was another spot where cops and environment officers tended to lie in wait of smugglers, and he didn't want the marmot bag in plain sight. Entertained by the James Bond secret panel (although the similarities ended there), and amused by the fact that in all the great wide open space of Mongolia the cops have an unerring ability to pick their busts in just the right spots, we proceeded towards the suspected trap.

And with all the inevitability of a thing going to happen, there were the cops and environment guys, right on schedule. In fact, not only were they cops and environment guys, they were the SAME cops and environment guys we'd met the day before, accompanied by their superior officer from the capital. Realizing that these dudes has little ground to stand on on the whole 'have you got any illegal marmots in bags in secret panels' type questions seeing as how they were dealers, we were disrespectfully sniggery throughout our questioning. The superior officer saw nothing funny about anything, but other two authority figures shuffled their feet and averted their eyes, waiting for this whole episode to be over. I was later told that if the car was searched, the driver was going to say that the marmot concealing trousers belonged to me, thereby ratcheting up the whole affair to a full blown diplomatic crisis. In the event, all parties agreed it's a rum old world and no mistake, spat in the dust and drove off in search of more marmot related adventures.

The remainder of the trip passed without rodent related incident, although I will close this entry by simply mentioning that under pressure to sample the delights on offer, and on the understanding that you only live once, I was induced to sample a sliver of marmot. Screwing my courage to the sticking post, I did so. I can report without fear of contradiction that it tasted meaty, for the most part.

On which note we shall close- we are away in the UK for the next few weeks, so you'll have to get your jollies at another internet spot till early February, viewers.
Saihan saihuig husii (wish you all the best, viewers),

A alleged marmot under interrogation yesterday.