Monday, October 31, 2011

To Ger or Not to Ger, That is the Question

To celebrate four years of marriage, and spending nearly every waking minute together for the past 11 months, we decided to get even closer. We would go camping, in a two-person tent*, in the Gobi desert.

The tour was styled as an alternative to packaged group tours, and on top of that, was a non-profit organization that funneled the bulk of the cost of the trip back to the families and communities that we would visit in the desert. So with a fair bit of trepidation we prepared for our Gobi excursion to Noble Rock Palace, described in the promotion materials as “a desert trekking route that cannot be missed if you are an avid explorer [yes] with the taste for adventure [yes] and an active imagination [yes! We are really close on this one!].”

The trip would take us through the “vast and awe inspiring desert landscapes to experience the lifestyle of desert nomads.” We would live with Mongolian families eating, drinking and visiting with them in their Ger (the traditional Mongolian tent/house still used through the country), but thankfully would sleep in our tent. And following in the footsteps of generations of nomads we would travel by horse and camel (though Twinny Brown mostly went by jeep and motorcycle!).

The following posts will detail the highlights (and there were highlights) and the lowlights (and there were most certainly lowlights) of our five days in the Gobi. But first, an introduction to The Rules of the Ger.

*We had a Quedobo brand tent. This French company makes tents like French designers make jeans – for really skinny people. And while two adults can squeeze into their so-called two-man tent, there is not an inch to spare. For two normal-sized Americans, I’d recommend going for a three-man tent. 

The Rules of the Ger

In Mongolia, there are no rules of the road.  (This makes walking around Ulanbataar an extremely scary activity).  There are, however, rules of the Ger, and they are detailed, elaborate, and extremely specific.  Screw up, and you have mortally offended your host family.

But first, what is a ger? 

A ger (also known, but not in Mongolia, as a yurt) is a multipurpose dwelling that can easily be collapsed and transported.  Mongolian nomadic families eat, sleep, hang out and receive visitors in their ger.

Some families have multiple gers
How I can build a ger?

Building a ger is easy!  Especially when you build a tiny ger, and you have a Mongolian teenager to show you how to do the whole thing.

First, raise the walls.
Sorry Dave, but the squat toilet is located outside the ger
Laying floor.
With this kind of the experience, I think I'm ready to tackle the floors in my NYC apartment no problem.
When you're a giant (compared to your ger) it's easy to install furniture prior to building a roof.
Raisin' the roof
Cover the whole thing with felt, and you're done!
Bad Japanese horror flick
In prehistoric times, T-Rex's roamed in this part of the world
What is this, a ger for ants?
How can we teach them to read if they can't even fit inside the building?
Bad Japanese horror flick II
The finished product!
OK, time to dismantle it.
Big ger, little ger
 The Top Twenty Rules of the Ger (in no particular order)
  1. The door of the ger must always face south. 
  2. The west side of the ger is the men’s side; it’s also the side where visitors sit.  Male things, like the horse saddle and bridle, are kept on the west side of the ger. 
  3. The east side of the ger is the women’s side.  The kitchenware and appliances are kept here, and the family bed is also here.
  4. The north side of the ger (the khoimer) is reserved for the man of the household.  The most prized possessions are kept here, such as weapons, photographs, and musical instruments. 
  5. Men enter the ger first, then women, and then children.  Accordingly, men visitors should sit in the north-western part of the ger (but never due north, that’s for the patriarch!) and women should sit south of them.
  6. Always walk around a ger in a clockwise direction. 
  7. If you lie down in a ger, your head must face north and your feet must face south. 
  8. Never whistle inside a ger. 
  9. Never step on the threshold of the ger; always step over it. 
  10. Never touch another person’s hat. 
  11. If someone accidentally kicks your foot or leg, you must immediately shake hands. 
  12. Never point a knife in anyone’s direction. 
  13. Never pass anything with just two fingers.
  14. Always receive things (food, drink, gifts) with both hands, or with your right hand with the left hand supporting the right elbow.  Similarly, never take food from a plate with your left hand. 
  15. Never wave your sleeve (this is a mark of protest) or extent your pinky finger (a mark of disrespect). 
  16. You must at least take a sip or a bite of food and drink offered, even if it is disgusting (see e.g.: fermented mare’s milk, dehydrated sour milk curd, etc).  If you don’t want to eat any more, you must say (in Mongolian), “Thank you, I have tasted your food.”  An exception to this rule is hot tea – you must take a sip immediately and you must drink the whole bowl. 
  17. Always pick things up with an open hand, your palm facing upwards. 
  18. Everyone eats and drinks out of porcelain or pottery bowls, except for the man of the house.  He is served all of his food and drink in a copper or silver bowl, which he keeps in his special wooden chest in the north area of the ger and (as we witnessed on one occasion) licks it clean. 
  19. If you are offered a snuff box you must take a snuff, or at least pretend to snuff. 
  20. A polite greeting upon entering a ger is, “Have you had a good summer/autumn/winter/spring?”
So there you have it.  Twenty simple, straightforward, logical rules to live by in a ger.

Dave and Zana (baby girl) had just accidentally bumped feet.
Both parties immediately jumped into this hearty handshake.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Less IS more. The final gear post.

Here are the last odds and ends that we had on the grand tour.  Frankly, its just not that much stuff.  And you know what?  Its great. Rarely were there times when we wished we had more stuff with us, and when those times occurred, we could almost always purchase whatever it is we needed.  Traveling light is 100% the way to go.
Victorinox Swiss Army Mountaineer Pocket Knife

This guy has come in handy innumerable times – not surprisingly, his highest and best (and most frequent) use is his corkscrew feature.  Mine is especially cool because it is engraved with my initials (thanks Danny!).  Just gotta remember to check him when you fly.
Joby Gorillapod Flexible Tripod (GP1-E1EN)
We don’t use this guy as much as we should, but when you want to set up a timer shot, Joby can snuggle your camera up into just about any position to get the shot.
Princeton Tec Fuel Headlamp

We had two of these headlamps and they were great.  Lightweight, bright, and easy to use these were better than traditional flashlights.  Eventually, we lost both of them.  Story of our lives.

In Vientiene in the rainy season you need a good poncho.  Especially if you plan to ride a motorbike.  These were thick plastic and worked well.  They keep you much drier, much hotter, and much uglier than our rainjackets.

(But remember, ponchos aren't always that easy to get on.  Here Jesse poncho'd up, immediately before we went swimming).


Bought in BsAs these guys have held up remarkably well after 10 months, I KNOW who can keep an umbrella for 10 months!, but of late they are falling apart.  We should not be carrying these in our luggage, but somehow can’t bring ourselves to thrown them away.  [JLM: We just got home, and they were the first things I tossed.  To be replaced with even crappier NYC street umbrellas].

When you chase the summer you need a good hat.  To keep cool, block harmful UV rays, and of course, look good.  We’ve had more than our fair share of hats and then promptly lose them.  These Tilly models were great while they lasted...
Sleep sacks
Not us.
And who are these guys, and why are they sleeping on the floor?

The sleepsack is like a thin, silk sleeping bag.  We have a double one (but no way could we both sleep in it, in that respect it's sized like a two-man tent), and a single one.  They are cool and comfy, but the version we bought has Velcro tabs supposedly to make it easier to get in and out of of, but we just find them scratchy, annoying, and usually wished they weren’t there.
Quick-dry shammy Towels

We bought these and used them less than 5 times.  The places we stay generally provide towels, and if they don’t, the showers are usually too gross for us to use anyway.  The one time we needed them, during the Annapurna trek, we forget them, but thankfully Ted & Sarah each had one (and ones larger than the hand towel size ones we bought) that they lent us.  When we did use them, it was good.
Stuff sack (AKA Compression sacks)

These should be mandatory.  As laundry bags, and dry(ish) bags (they are not 100% waterproof like the actual drybag, though you can get compression drybags), and for all around stuffing.  These bags can compress your stuff mightily, shrinking clothes, gifts, and other crushable items to nearly half their unstuffed size.  I wish we had bought more of these and earlier in the trip.
Laundry bag

Gotta keep the dirties away from the cleans.  This should have been a stuff sack, not just a regular bag. 
This has been the one of the best things on the trip.  The dry bag regularly travels with us and protects all our electronics in the case of rain, on boat trips, and during Thai New Year (Songkran).  There is great assurance knowing your stuff will remain totally dry regardless of how wet everything else is.
Bag O’Health

Another great use for the packing cube is our bag O’health.  With a bit of everything he, thankfully, is rarely used.  We made our own working off the compenets of the one on Amazon, and put it, of course, in an eBags slim packing cube.
Toothbrush holders
Yeah, pretty ordinary, but they work.
These guys come in awfully handy as the bathrooms in our accommodations have not always had the cleanest looking shelves or counter-spaces.  Below are some alternative holders that we saw along the way....

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pick... Pick... Pick-Pocket Police (or How the Whole Police Department Got the Flu)

A rare, indeed singular, photo-free post.  I guess we just weren't in the photo-taking mood...
Our final day in Mongolia was spent shuttling between the various police stations to file the necessary incident reports. Our first stop was the main police station. We arrived at the empty station and took a number, like we were at the deli counter. Five minutes later an officer spoke to us in Mongolian. When we replied in English, it became clear that this officer would not be able to help us in any meaningful way. He directed us to return to the waiting area. About ten minutes later a man in a suit poked his head out from the large double doors leading into the station. In good English he said, "please follow me," turned around and started walking. Scrambling to put away our kindles, collect all our goods, and pack up the backpack we made it though the doors only to find a long corridor with multiple stairways. Our man was gone! Wandering around the police station we began poking our heads into the various (and empty) offices and hallways. Finally, after cruising around, our man pops his head out of his office and waves us in, giving us a look like we were totally crazy for not knowing where his office was in the giant station.

Situated in his office we began explaining how we were robbed twice, and our fears that this would be a difficult process were confirmed. We made pickpocket gestures, my standing around dumbly while Jesse looked around furtively and then reached into my pocket and took my wallet. Our charades were not helpful. Next, I pulled out the report that I had written up explaining what happened and what was stolen. I handed him the paper hoping that he could just stamp my handwritten report and that this could serve as our police report. Instead he took the paper and intently stared at it for a good five minutes. Now, the only thing on the sheet was the date of the incident, a one sentence description of what happened, and a list of what was stolen. After this deep pondering he picked up the phone and spoke with someone for about another five minutes. Long enough that Jesse and I were beginning to feel optimistic. But, we shouldn’t have been. Eventually, he returned my incident report (the one I wrote), unstamped, and gave me an envelope on which he had scribbled something in Mongolian. He keeps pointing at the writing and saying “police, pickpocket police.” After much back and forth we concluded that he has given us the address of the tourist police, or the “pickpocket police” and it is they who can fill out police reports for, as you would think, pickpocketings.

Back on the Mongolian streets we made our way to the next police department. After a few stops for further directions, we finally arrived at a housing complex where we were assured was the office of the tourist police. We cruised between the apartment buildings, and then we finally saw it; the tourist police department. And the entire police station was moving. That’s right. The station was literally changing its physical location. Movers, [JLM: they could have been robbers], were carting out tables, file cabinets, and even televisions. They were tearing down shelves, painting the walls, and scrubbing the floors. We peeked our heads in and gingerly made our way to a desk where we explained we needed to file a police report. We were instructed to sit down and wait. So wait we did. At one point while we waited the men torn a shelf off the wall and flung aside, except that it was hurled right towards us! The large plank of wood, with chipped paint and large nails sticking out of it missed Jesse’s head by on a foot or so.  At least the other officers/movers chastised him to be more careful as this was still the working tourist police station.

Eventually a man motioned that we should come into his office. I went in and explained how I was pickpocketed and we completed the report. It was fairly straightforward. I was shocked. I took my copy of the report, and then I explained that there was a second incident. And this is where things got tricky. At first he thought that we had put the wrong date down and wanted to change the date on the first report. Of course, I would not give him that report back. As I continued gesturing that we had a second report to file, a separate incident, on a new date, he interrupted me and I thought that he understood. Actually, it was just lunchtime. He packed up his pens and pads and simply walked out leaving me standing in his office, as he headed into the next room to sit with two other officers and began eating their lunch.

When he was finished with his lunch he walked back to the office where we had completed the first form. He waved me back in, and as if we had not just done this 20 minutes earlier began asking me about the second incident. By this time, however, the movers had reached the office we were working in! And as we were filling out the report they were literally taking pieces of furniture from the office and bringing them outside. We finally completed the report as the movers waited, watching us  slowly fill out the tiny form. As soon as he handed it to me and I packed it up, they grabbed hold of the desk we had been working on and headed out. The desk actually made it out of the police station before Jesse and I did!

In the end we got our police reports –whatever they might say – and had a bit of an adventure getting them. Ready to leave Mongolia we were excited to get back on the train and head back to Russia, hoping all our documents and visas were in order….

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Cr-Ulaanbaatar (Cruel-Ulaanbaatar)

322 days, that is how long we travelled without any criminal incidents; no theft, no robbery, no pickpockets. We successfully made it through some of the most notorious cities for this type of petty crime: Buenos Aires and the San Telmo marketCairo and the Khan al-Khalili market, and Delhi and the Chandni Chowk market, just to name a few. But on our 323rd day, our streak came to an end. Ulaanbaatar (UB), it seems, had our number, and the Mongolia thieves called on us not once, but twice during our 10-day visit to their fine country.

Seems the Lonely Planet was right,
pickpockets do target public buses.

It is not as if we shouldn’t have known. Ulaanbaatar is well-known for petty crime against tourists. But, then again, so are all the other cities we had successfully navigated crime-free, including our many years in New York. And we assumed that the precautions we always took would be sufficient in UB. Alas, they were not.

The first incident occurred at the Dragon Bus station where we were boarding a bus to head to the Gobi desert. We found our bus, dropped our luggage, and were happily situated in our seats with all our possessions. As we sat in our front seats looking out at all the other pathetic run-down buses we saw a large American wandering around looking lost. We recognized him as the third member of our Gobi tour, and so, I hopped off, introduced myself and we returned to the bus. And then I realized, Remy was gone. We frantically looked through all our pockets, all our bags, and all around us. But he was gone. Along with all our UB and many of our Beijing-Mongolia train photos (thus the photo-free post). I even had the audacity (and foolishness) to walk back through the bus station looking on the ground and asking the dodgy-looking fellows if they had seen my red camera. You can imagine the blank stares I got when I made my photo-taking gesture and implied if they had seen my bright red camera. And the worst part was that I knew it was right there, in one of their pockets, and would soon be on offer at the nearby Russian market along with all the other stolen goods in UB.

And guess where our hotel was when someone
snatched our backpack?  On Peace Ave between
the Post Office and the State Department store.
Way to go Lonely Planet.
With nothing else to do, I hopped back on the bus, reminded myself that at least I still had Fatty-D, and resolved that one pick-pocketing in nearly 11 months of continuous travel was not so bad. Plus, we’d have to go shopping for yet another point-and-shoot camera (fun!) in Mongolia (expensive).

Fast forward four days. We had just completed an eye-opening, stomach-closing, and incredible tour through the Gobi desert. Fatty-D proved up to the task, taking incredible photos, and surviving a very near-death experience [more on this in the next few days]. We also just completed the worst, or second-to-worst bus ride of the entire trip [JLM: It is impossible to make an actual determination of which ride was worse]. And while we were unloading our bags outside our hotel (on Peace Ave; peace, ha) from the taxi from, someone stole our backpack. So on the 327th day of our trip, we were robbed again. We could hardly believe it.

Next up, our trials and tribulations working with the Mongolian police department...

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

C'mon Ride the Train, 'N Ride It!

It smelled like a fruit market.  That’s probably not the first thing you imagine when you picture the train ride from Beijing to Ulanbataar, but it’s true.  Sitting in our train compartment was like sitting in the middle of a very tiny, very ripe local fruit stand.
Train conductors on the platform in Beijing
It was the first leg of our Trans-Mongolian journey and we were a little nervous and a lot excited.  We pictured free-flowing vodka, hearty Russians singing uproarious songs, and little old babushkas sharing their blintzes and borscht with us.  Instead, we met our very nice and very normal compartment-mates: an eighty-five year old Australian man traveling on a tour (the rest of the group was in first class; we were in second class) and a young Mongolian women traveling home after working in Korea.
It turns out that there are many train stations in Beijing.
Our ticket was printed solely in Chinese.
We were really relieved to have arrived at the correct station.
Our surly conductor, in front of our car #7
We boarded the train in Beijing at 7:30 am, and most of the day passed uneventfully – chatting with other passengers, visiting the dining car (according to the Lonely Planet, the Chinese dining car is the best along the entire Trans-Mongolian railroad; having eaten in the Chinese dining car, we resolved to pack our own groceries for the rest of the trip) and reading and watching TV on our computers.
Saying goodbye to Beijing
Car #7 hallway
Taking a nap in our cabin
Train bathroom
Empties onto the tracks.
We passed by the Great Wall of China
Typical Chinese scenery - fields bordered by heavy industry
At around 9:30 pm the train pulled into a station at the Chinese border.  We were all herded off the train and into the giant empty building where we were shepherded into the convenience store.  We wandered around, picking up some bottled water, a package of cookies, laughing over the potato chips flavors (a favorite activity of ours in each new country; this convenience store offered “refreshing blueberry” flavor) and pricing out Johnny Walker (Dave is keeping a mental Johnny Walker Index which he updates at every airport duty free store, convenience store, liquor store, and supermarket we visit*).  The Mongolians, as we would come to understand, knew better.  They loaded up shopping carts with crates of fresh fruit and veggies. 
The train station at night.
The Viennese Waltz played loudly over the loudspeakers (not a joke).
When we left the convenience store, the train was gone.  This is never something you hope to experience on a train ride, especially when all of your luggage is still on the train.  It turns out that they had just taken the train away to change the bogies.  The Chinese tracks were of a different gauge than the Mongolian tracks, of course.  “Not to worry,” we were told, “the bogie-changing process will just take a few hours.”  So we sat around the empty train station, milled around on the empty platform, and entertained ourselves in the empty customs stations.
Ni hao. Would you like a legal consultation?
Dale mans Declarations
Steve is ready to give an Examination
Milling around.  At this point we're really ready to get back on the train.
[FUN FACT!  You'll meet Alida, Dale and Steve again later on this blog!]
When we finally got back on the train around midnight, the fun was far from over.  First, we helped our Mongolian compartment-mate stack her crates of fruit throughout the cabin.   Then, we attempted to sleep.  Every thirty minutes to an hour a new immigration or customs official (Chinese or Mongolian) would bang on the door, fling it open, flip on the lights and bark out orders.  (Midnight to four a.m. did not seem like a desirable border-crossing time.  Why couldn’t our train have left at 7pm and gone through immigration and customs in the morning instead?)  We would blearily hand over passports, fill out forms and try not to get stepped on as officials in army boots climbed all over our beds to poke around in our stuff.
First glimpse of Mongolia the next morning.  It is flat!
And there are horses!
The morning brought a new and exciting experience – the Mongolian dining car.  Where the Chinese car was rather spartan, the Mongolian car was decked out.  You know, the usual train dining car decorations: wood paneled walls hung with traditional Mongolian weapons.
Chinese dining car.  Booooooring.
Mongolian dining car.  So fun!
(Note the fake mounted deer head on the right!)
The Mongolian dining car attendant took an especial dislike to Dave.  It all started when he asked her how much an omelet cost.  In response she brought him an omelet that had been sitting on another table, untouched, for at least the past hour and a half.  Dave politely explained that he just wanted to know the price, he didn’t want an omelet and especially not that omelet.  After that, Dave was the attendant’s mortal enemy.  She scowled every time she walked by him and when he asked for a cup of coffee she curtly responded “No. No coffee.”  Then we watched her pour coffee for some other people.
The dining car attendant didn't hate Steve though, so he ordered giant Mongolian beer for the table.
We arrived in Ulanbataar in the late afternoon to huge cloudless blue skies and the next leg of our adventure.  Stay tuned.
And of course, bags of coal filled the vestibule area of each car.
* So far the cheapest Johnny Walker is available in Vientiane, Laos.