Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tripping Off to Tsetserleg; Getting More Than I Bargained For

While Leslie was in UB for an HIV/AIDS conference and watching the inauguration on TV last week, I spent 4 days in the province capital to our north. Tsetserleg for an inauguration party and some business-related things. We didn’t have the same media access, so we just celebrated with good American comfort food and each other's diasporadic company.

Tsetserleg is generally considered the most beautiful of the provincial capitals. The city of around 20,000+ residents enjoys tree-lined streets and a beautiful temple that you can see atop a small mountain. There are volcanoes and other geological fascinations in the province making it a destination for domestic and foreign tourists. Tsetserleg means "garden" in Mongolian.

Unfortunately, cars don't go there directly or regularly and there's no public transportation from Bayankhongor, and Peace Corps volunteers are not allowed to drive while serving. To get there, I was advised a couple times to take a bus 14 hours to UB (391 miles) and get a bus 10 hours (261 miles) back from there or take a bus half way then wait on the road in the below zeros for the UB to Tsetserleg bus. In the hitchhiking scenario, I would pay the same as the trip from UB, but cut off much of the time. Patient as I am neither were options I was willing to consider just to go 145 miles north-northeast (about the same distance from Bowling Green to Xenia, OH or Philadelphia, P.A. to Washington, D.C.).

Thanks to
for the map.

Instead, I got some help from an English teacher friend of mine to hire a car and driver. Tsetserleg also means "kindergarten" in Mongolian, so there was a little communication problem at first as he thought I wanted a taxi to go 100 feet. After we got that straighten out, we went to the market and announced our need over the loudspeaker where messages are constantly streaming much like an auctioneer’s speedy, monotone cadence. Two brothers answered the call and we met at my friend’s restaurant to discuss a price. I negotiated pretty toughly and the price we ended on was even much lower than the buses if a couple of us went together, so to offset the costs, I got some other guys to join me. One guy was already in Bayankhongor traveling during his week off so it was an easy sell. He went to Tsetserleg with our bearded sitemate Peder and I, but found his own way home from there.

In the States, this direct trip would be about 2-and-a-half hours in decent traffic. Needless to say, it took a little longer and the road was less traveled.

Tuesday morning we headed out on our adventure in a old Russian Jeep, a GAZ 69 or what sounds like "Jar in use" in Mongolian, the number 69. These cars are cherished for their simplicity, which makes them easily fixable, but they do have a tendency to break down frequently requiring lots of fixing.

The older of the brothers driver, Ganbold, checks under the hood while Brandon and I stretch our legs and pose for Peder's camera. Brandon was already in Bayankhongor and joined us on a whim. He only went one way on the this trip then made his way back another way.

The younger of the two drivers, Altangerel, fills up the radiator. It was a two man job keeping our Russian jeep going up these mountains. In the background, notice the "Ovoo", or sacred mound of rocks with the branch sticking up adorned by a blue scarf called a "hadag." Always pass on the left, and if you have time and/or someone's looking, circle it three times for good fortune: 1 for your ancestors, 1 for yourself, and one for your future generations.

During our trip over the roughest terrain possible, crossing (mostly frozen) streams, up mountains, through rocks, in the snow with no hardly more than a suggested path than a road, our only major obstacle was a leaky radiator that our drivers were able to keep sufficiently filled. There wasn’t much heat toward the back so my feet were a little cold, but nothing to complain about. We moved at a labored but consistent pace, never stopping longer than to fill up with water and pee and get back on the road. We did stop one time for about 30 mins to help some loggers traverse a wide river, whose efforts were futile.

Our drivers and the loggers look for the best place to cross the heavy truck loaded with wood. They did what they could, but the truck became stuck and we had things to do so we left the loggers to fend for themselves.

After 8 hours of punishing travel in the middle of nowhere, we got in at dinner time Tuesday for hamburgers, French fries, onion rings, coleslaw, cold Coca Cola and hot homemade apple pie a la mode. The dinner was pretty good. We've made better in beautiful Bayankhongor, the undisputed culinary capital of Mongolia as far as Peace Corps volunteers go, but it was fun to share in the joviality with Americans and their good American fare. The three of us who showed up late were on dishes duty.

For the next few days we hung out, ate pot pie and tacos, went dancing, attended an aerobics class and wandered around the town in the frigid -30s. Like Bayankhongor, it’s nestled among some mountains, but unlike our fair provincial capital, Tsetserleg doesn’t have coal or coal smog. What they do have are trees and tourism dollars making it a little more Westernized and modern. They even have a couple traffic lights, which weren't on. It’s quite a fine city and I enjoyed being there.

After three days there, with one left to go as per our agreement with the drivers, one of them showed up with a buddy at my friend’s apartment requesting to leave right then. If fact, the one guy who I’d negotiated with and who knew our agreement well, simply said, “Okay, let’s go.” I was completely baffled and explained to him that we would be leaving in the morning because I had things I was still doing. After a minute or two he calmly agreed and sat quietly on the couch with the other guy. It was a little awkward.

The custom for the host when someone visits your home in Mongolia is to offer them something to drink, usually Mongolian milk tea if you have it, and candy of some sort, usually aarul (hard, dried sour yogurt) if you have it, but hard candy or chocolates will do. I've never been to someone's house where this did not happen. Thinking that's why they were still sitting there, my friend offered them coffee and candy, which they quickly ate and drank in virtual silence. I tried talking to them, but I couldn’t understand them well. It sounded to me like they were asking me for more money. Feeling weird about the whole thing, I called my Mongolian friend, who’s a translator, to help me talk to them.

I was correct. She told me the driver said that since they’d been in Tsetserleg they’d lost 25 liters of gas and that I would have to pay for it or else we couldn’t get home. On my behalf, she explained to them that their stupidity was not my problem and I wasn’t paying them anything more than I owed. We both thought the whole thing was totally bizarre and agreed they probably lost 25 liters of vodka since coming to town, not gas. In the end, they agreed to leave at 8 a.m. the next morning and quietly left.

After an evening of tacos and dancing at a trul posh, newly renovated club, my traveling companion Peder and I were foolishly packed and ready to go with shoes on at 8 a.m. for the the trip back to beautiful Bayankhongor in the 69. Not surprisingly, we didn’t leave then. It's not uncommon for Mongolians to be a half an hour late so we waited. When I called them at 9, they said the car had frozen overnight and they would be there after they built a fire under it and got it started. Figuring we had some time, Peder went to the store and bought some fixings for breakfast. We made hard boiled eggs and toast, napped and left around 11:30.

Apparently to offset the costs of their lost “gas”, the one driver picked up a few extra passengers for the way home, which was fine with me since I’d told them it would be OK to have other people in the car with us. There was only one driver at this point, which gave us more room, so it worked out. When we got in, my lanky buddy Peder hopped in the front with his knees to the dash, and I hopped in the back where I had ample leg room next to an older woman in three younger women, one of whom was riding on a lap. We were packed in, but it wasn’t the end of the world.

Just when I thought we were as full as we were going to get, from the side of the road on the outskirts of town, we picked up the other driver and the other friend who I’d met the day before in the false start attempt to get out of town. And then a half hour later we picked up an incredibly old man who sat nestled beside me in the center of the jeep. If you had your fingers ready to keep track, that’s 4 women and 6 men for a grand total of all your fingers worth of people in the tiny jeep. The woman who was on my lap was a young math teacher in her early 20s and small, with an accommodating seat of her own. I didn’t really mind the ride for the first few hours.

Despite the late start and the crowded conditions, Peder and I were having a good time. About two hours into the trip, we stopped a random ger in the middle of nowhere for a break. As per the custom, they offered us some milk tea and aarul and we went on our way. An hour later we did the same, this time at a beautiful spot overlooking a deep valley.

We stopped for a break and climbed up this hill to enjoy some milk tea with a herder family whose ger was just behind me. We didn't take any pictures of the gers or the families because we didn't feel it was appropriate.

An hour after that we stopped again. Since it was getting dark and near our 4-hour mark and midway point, I figured we wouldn’t stop again. With that in mind, I drank as much tea as was offered and ate some bortsog (tasty fried bread) expecting that to hold me over until we got back home. The drivers talked for a while with the ger family and the rest of us sat in mostly quiet except for polite platitudes. Satisfied for the remaining half of the trip, I crammed snuggly back into the jeep enjoying the most authentic, warming Mongolian experience one could ever have.

Then 20 minutes later we stopped again. Now, at 5 o’clock, the trip was losing its romance and I was beginning to lose my patience for all the stopping. People were expecting us back at 8 and we were still at least 4 hours away. Politely we drank our tea. The three young teachers were becoming restless, and we were all sleepy. Peder and I and the teachers sat on a bed and drifted in and out of consciousness. One girl took them up on the offer to lay down right about the time the lady of the household started chopping at a kilo of frozen meat. For the next twenty minutes she used a clever to hack off little shards of meat and collected them on the cutting board as she chatted. I turned to Peder, annoyed, and we agreed it sure looked like we were staying for dinner. We shared a laugh about how we thought the last ger would have been our last. Several older men wondered in, seemingly from nowhere, rolled and smoked cigarettes and enjoyed their milk tea and conversation.

As 6 o’clock rolled around, the teacher to my right asked about the time in a little bit of a huff and rolled her eyes. 15 minutes later she did the same. It was obvious to us about this time that our drivers actually knew our hosts and they continued to talk and have a good time while the rest of us sat silently observing.

7 o’clock came and went, and we continued to drink tea and guess what we might be having for dinner. It looked like soup: meat and water and some vegetables. Then she added some oil, and then some more. It probably wasn’t soup.

Mongolian stoves sit in the center of the round ger and have a round hole cut about two-and-a-half feet wide in the top, which is usually covered by a flat peice of metal with a handle. When they cook, they open the top and place a cast iron wok in the whole directly over the flames. They make everything this way, including tea.

At 7:30, I still wasn’t hungry after the bortsog and liters of tea I’d drowned myself in by this point, but we were treated to a tasty, but noticeably oily, rice dish with some little chucks of meat and root vegetables, a pretty common catch-all dinner here. Eagerly waited to leave despite the kind gesture from our hosts, I ate my portion and pocketed some fatty gristle to offload later.

I asked one of the girls if she was ready to go yet, and she affirmed her exhaustion with a pitiful head nod to the affirmative and a sigh. I asked why we were still there and she said she didn’t know either, but she was tired and ready to be home.

Soon after that, the old men of the ger and our older driver pulled out paper and seriously discussed something, which went on for about 20 minutes. Things got tense for a few minutes, but resolved. Then from a cold cabinet in the back of the ger emerged a bottle of vodka. As per custom, they offered it around the room starting with the men, oldest to youngest, then the woman, who politely refused their offering by lightly touching the glass to their lips and returning to the pourer. It was obvious then that the reason our drivers agreed to take us was so they could conduct this business on our way home.

Thankfully, we made it through the bottle pretty quickly. Certainly we were ready to go now. It was already past 8, the time we were supposed to have been back. As the second bottle came out of the cabinet, the three young teachers groaned their disbelief with us in chorus.

Bottle number two made its rounds. Luckily there were about 15 people in the ger, so it would be a quick ordeal, I thought. But every time it reached the second oldest man, instead of drinking it and keeping the rotation going, he would set it down and continue talking or rolling a cigarette or ignore if for no reason, and only one of the women was drinking. Telepathically, I tried to will him to pick up the glass and drink. My eyes focused on the tiny shot and drew a line from its place on the floor to his face. My patience had run out.

Finally, at a little after 9, the driver stood up and said, “Okay, let’s go.” We left the old lady there, so we rearranged the car a little. The old man in the back went to the front seat with the small driver and Peder rode between the seats on a wooden box. I still had a woman on my lap, but the other ladies got a chance to spread out a little bit.

The rest of the ride was a blur of pain in my leg from my lap passenger and frozen feet. Because there was only heat on the windshield, every other surface in the car had frost and ice on it. Where I was, I couldn’t see anything, so as we shook and weaved and banged around in the dark, I could only see the driver’s head in front of me and a little sliver ahead of us where the headlights hit the dirt and snow. At one point we lost the road for a while, which the driver eventually found it by driving wide swaths back and forth through the valley.

We were about an hour outside of Bayankhongor approaching a small village around 2:30 a.m. when we regained cell phone service when my phone started receiving text messages in sequence from Leslie (who was in UB), my site mates, the volunteers from Tsetserleg we’d left in the morning, my friend who had helped hire the driver and the Peace Corps safety and security officer. Thankfully there’s no voicemail in Mongolia or I would have had some of those too. As quickly as I could, I called or texted everyone to let them know we were still fine.

We stopped in the village and offloaded the old man, but picked up another woman and a baby.
By 3:30, Peder and I labored into my apartment, recounted our crazy trip, contacted the safety and security officer and crashed for the night.

As far as 8 hour car rides that turn into 14 hours, it could have been worse. We didn’t break down once, we got to see some beautiful countryside, we met some interesting people, and we had the most authentic Mongolian experience anyone could ever have just short of actually being Mongolian. We left late, we sat ten people in a car meant for five, we stopped at random countryside gers for generous hospitality accompanied by tea and aarul, and we sat around while two bottles vodka sealed a business deal.

All and all, I wouldn’t say I’d love to do it again anytime soon, but I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


There are many beautiful things about the different seasons in Bayankhongor. Autumn was nice because the few trees we do have turned all sorts of familiar Fall colors and the weather went from unbearably hot to perfect during the day. Now that we've been in Bayankhongor for our first Winter, we know that it's much prettier with snow on the ground to cover up the sandy, flying dust, but there's another menace in the air these days: Smog.

Our apartment, like all the permanent business, residential and government buildings in our sprawling town of around 30,000, is heated from one of several shared coal-fired hot water stations. Unfortunately, this usually doesn't get our apartment over 60F (15.5C) in our warmest room and our kitchen barely ever gets above 50 (10C), so we supplement with an electric space heater (electricity comes from UB, incidentally). Everyone else, probably 70% of the residents here heat their gers mostly with coal and some wood. Add that to the omnipresent pits of smoldering garbage, and it's not a fun situation to breath in.

There are few trees in our province at all and those are to our north by a few hours drive at least. Coal is available here relatively cheaply and represents a life line to warmth in the Winter because it burns hotter and longer than wood anyway. Both put off a lot of soot and smoke into the air and since the weather has been consistently cold (though relatively mild for Mongolian Winter with temperatures at or around zero for the last couple weeks), and perhaps do to other meteorological and geological factors not moving the hanging air from our tucked little valley, the smog has really become a problem. In fact, in the early mornings and late evenings, the city is blanketed by a layer of white and gray so thick we can't see more than 60 or 70 meters and sometimes less.

I didn't really notice the smog so much until Tysen and I went for a little hike up one of the mountains on Sunday afternoon. You can really tell from these pictures what a menace the coal and wood exhaust can be.

On our hike, Tysen and I were on the mountain in the background here. Tysen took this photo around Christmastime from the Stupa that holds radio towers.

This is a similar shot we took in early September.

The river is frozen over and this is a pretty scene made slightly ominous by the smog.

As dusk approached, we made our way back toward the city. Tysen posed for a photo.

Once we were back to the city center, I was actually a little lost. There is a huge building to the left about 50 meters that you completely can't see.

Obviously we're not alone in this smog problem. Virtually every developed and developing city in the world has a smog problem from time to time. The problem has been around for centuries, probably as long as people have been living closely and burning things to stay warm. Thankfully we don't have many cars here in Bayankhongor or millions of people.

I have to say, though, we really did enjoy those S'mores we made over Tysen's fire last week.