Archive for the ‘impressions’ Category

Kazakh Eagle Festival

I went to the Eagle Festival yesterday.  TWice a year the Kazakhs hold their Eagle festival, showing off the huntings skills of their magnificent birds.  The first event is in October, in the west and is difficult to get to both geographically and, for a working teacher, practically.  Fortunately, they hold their second festival in Ulaanbaatar in ‘spring’–that balmy time of year when temperatures soar into the -10s.

Enveloped in multiple layers,  a few of the other teachers and I trekked to the Grand Khan Irish Pub (how’s that for a set of words you never thought you’d see together?) to catch the bus to Bogd Mountain, about 20 km outside the city.  It’s a sign of Mongolia’s lack of habitation that a mere 20 minutes outside the city, you’d never know it was there,  as the hills and steppes stretched around us.  It wasn’t actually snowing, but crystals floated through the air, sparkling like glitter, lending a surreal atmosphere to the surroundings.

There were probably only a couple hundred people there, including a crew from National Geographic Kids, and we had to do a lot of milling around waiting for the exhibition to start.  After a somewhat ridiculous fashion show inside the central ger–with marble floors no less (and who knew the inside of a ger could actually be colder than the outside?), we all trooped out into the sun again to the start of the opening parade.

Golden Eagles are about the most majestic bird I have ever seen, and far larger than you would think. Watching the hunters on their  ponies, in traditional dress with the birds perched on their arms, one had a sense of Mongolia’s past marching by.  After the ceremonies, there was about a km hike to the area where the hunting skills would be displayed.  Around this time, I realized that, while the rest of me was pretty warm, my feet, despite two pairs of thermal socks and my woolly Uggs, were absolutely freezing, and I started worrying about frostbite.  I was also a bit worried about hunting carnage, as part of the display was having the eagles kill a live wolf.  This, I did not want to see.

Fortunately, I ran into another of the teachers, who had driven, so we sat in her car and had an excellent, long-distance view of the hunting, as each of the riders, launched their bird, rode off, then called it back.    Apparently, the riders did not bring their actual ponies, but used Ulaanbaatar horses, so the horses were afraid of the birds and only a few of the eagles actually landed back on the arm of their hunter.   One bird got distracted by a bystanders fur hat and launched itself at the wearer.  Fortunately, neither bird nor bystander were hurt!  While galloping across the steppes, one rider’s horse stumbled and completely somersaulted, landing on rider and bird.  That was  heart-stopping to watch, but, again, no-one was hurt, which was pretty amazing.

Pictures are below–and I have a short video I’ll post later.

In other news, I’m booking a 5 day trip to the Gobi right after school is out, prior to coming home to the summer.  Very excited about that.  Then, a mere 3 months from now, it’s home for the summer!

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It’s a bad pollution day.  Here’s the pic I promised.  Compare it with the picture I took from same place last September.

Baigalmaa says it’s not even bad yet.  It will be much worse next month.  Oh, joy.

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Ah, Venice….

Or at least, Venice, Macao style.  This story is too funny.

When I arrived in Macao on Sunday, I oohed and aahed over the restored colonial Venetian buildings across the street from where I’m staying…the Hard Rock Hotel.  Seemed a bit bizarre to have these wonderful colonial structures surrounded by the ultra-modern hype that is the City of Dreams, but hey, so it goes in the 21st C.

Here’s the photo I took of the buildings.

Silly me!  Turns out those are all faux-colonial buildings and inside lurks one of the largest malls in the world!  LOL!  And the inside is just a HOOT.  Ground floor is high end designer stores, surrounding a large casino, but all built as if you’re inside the Doge’s palace…complete with rococo ceilings and lots of gilt!

Head up the escalator to the mall proper and you find yourself wandering the streets of Venice: complete with canals and gondolas!  All of the store fronts are in high-Renaissance Venetian architectural style, but what’s interesting is the front only goes about 3/4 of the way to the ceiling, and the ceiling is painted to resemble the sky.  So you really do feel like you’re outside wandering the streets of Venice and St. Mark’s square.  The canals meander down the middle, with bridges to cross to get to the other side and people  wandering around in costume.  It’s all hilariously kitchy and oddly fascinating, I must say!

The conference is over, and my flight doesn’t leave until 2 a.m., so I have the day to wander around.  I’m going to head over to Macao (the hotel’s in Taipa) and do the tourist/shopping there for the day.  I must say, pollution to the contrary, I could live here!

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Shanghai…last post

I figured I better finish blogging about Shanghai, since I leave for Macao tomorrow!   I know, I know.  It’s a rough life…but somebody’s got to live it!

Below are pics from my trip to the Yu Gardens.  The entrance to the gardens is actually somewhat hard to find, so there I was, wandering around all these historical Chinese buildings, wondering, “This is a garden?!” but simultaneously feeling like you’d been dropped in a sci-fi version of The Good Earth or something. Notice in the video clip there’s actually a Starbuck’s among all that imperial architecture!  Making one’s way through the heaving mass of humanity was a bit daunting, but the shops were good fun, and bargaining was the order of the day!  Bought myself a lovely little box for  1/2 the original asking price–I learned in Turkey the power of walking away!

Anyway, once I did find the actual gardens, which were designed by a famous architect whose name escapes me back in the 15th century, you really did feel transported back in time, wondering among the teahouses and over the bridges. I half expected to see Lao Tsu walk around the corner, and couldn’t help contrasting the grace of the garden’s design with UB (or modern design in general, really).  Anyway, video below!

Now, eating was an adventure here.  I’ve never really liked Chinese/Japanese food all that much–can take it or leave it, and I suspect the things I do like are far more western than they are Asian.  So what the heck am I doing in China, you ask?   Fair question!  A lifelong fascination with Shanghai I guess. Thus, to mitigate the McDonald’s lunch I mentioned earlier, I decided to a) have Chinese food for dinner, and b) take myself away from the Bund into more of “real” Shanghai–not that there were many foreigners around.

When I asked at the desk where I could go for dinner within walking distance, the clerk described a street about 5 or 6 blocks down.  After a wrong turn and some back-tracking, I finally landed on the right street.  Now, this is all at night, mind you, and Shanghai traffic is not to be taken lightly.  Despite all the cars, there are still plenty of bicycles and mopeds, and apparently street lights don’t apply to them. Or to cars that are turning, who barrel on through lights regardless of who or what is in the way. Crossing streets during the day time is a lesson in screwing up your courage; at night, even more so!  Nevertheless, I ventured onward, as streets grew narrower and more crowded, the signs less intelligible as what little English is here disappeared.  I did finally find some restaurants, but the pictures in the window were unrecognizable, the menus weren’t in English, and it all started feeling too claustrophobic; thus,to be blunt, I turned tail and headed back to a restaurant on a corner by the hotel.  Ah well, it was a good 45 minute walk, and did get me somewhat out of the tourist area.

At the restaurant, they offered me both a Chinese and Western menu.  I DID look at the Chinese one. Honest!  But shark’s fin soup, sea anemone and other odd-sounding dishes (what?  No lemon chicken?  No beef broccoli?) soon had me ordering pan-seared salmon—with jasmine tea.  That was my bow to China.  Pathetic, eh?

I ordered a whole pot of the tea in deference to the blustery walk I’d had, but the guy looked at me like I was nuts and said a glass was enough.  And it really came in a glass.  A water tumbler.  With this weird looking piece of herbage in the bottom, as if they’d dumped in a dried plant of some sort, but I decided what the heck and drank it anyway.

What was very cool, though, is during the course of the meal, as the herbage absorbed more and more water, it started to “blossom”.  The outer leaves–I presume they were tea–started to spread chrysanthemum like, revealing a pinkish center.  Then even that started to expand and two stamens grew from that.  This all took about 45 minutes, and was oddly beautiful to watch.  I can’t imagine how hard it was to tie all that together–and who would have thought of something like that?  Talk about food art!

I did FINALLY have a real (and excellent) Chinese meal when I met up with my friend, Anne (who speaks fluent Mandarin).  We met some other friends and went to this funky little place near her apartment and proceeded to have an amazing dinner of Shanghai noodles, garlic broccoli, sweet/sour pork, dumplings and some other things I can’ t remember.  I let Anne do the ordering, my only stipulation: Nothing gelatinous!

However–AHEM!–I will point out one item who’s picture suggested looked good threw Anne into fits.  “That has eels and tongue in it!”   So I must say, I’m glad I waited!

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A list of Mongolian do’s and don’ts, from my friend, Erin.  She was one of my students in Egypt (her dad is my boss), and she lived here for a year, became pretty fluent in the language (impressive!) and really loves the place.  These are  interesting, and I have to bug her for the explanation behind some of these….
1. Mongolians greet people in the ger after they enter, not from the outside.
2. Mongolians don’t pass in front of someone’s ger they would not want to visit, the pass behind.
3. When people enter a ger, they leave their weapons outside
4. When Mongolians enter a ger they step in with their right foot first. A person who comes to argue or demand repayment of a debt enter with their left foot first.
5. When guests enter the ger they sit on the left side of the ger. The left side is for guests, the right side is for the wife and the side opposite the door is for the father.
6. Mongolians never show the bottom of their feet to the alter, hearth or another person.
7. If someone is sitting or standing Mongolians pass in behind them, not in front.
8. Mongolians never go between two support columns in the ger. They also never give food to each other between these two columns.
9. Mongolians don’t lean against the columns.
10. Mongolians always taste things like food, tea and vodka that a family offers them to show they do not dislike or disrespect the family.
11. When Mongolians visit a family they give a gift to the family when they leave but during Tsagaan Tsar (Mongolian Holiday in February) they give it to the family when they come.
12. Mongolians don’t walk over food, food containers or someone who is lying down on the floor.
13. When Mongolians give things to each other they never throw them. They give things with two hands or their right hand unless it is food, then they only give it with their right hand and use their left hand to support the right at the elbow for formality or if they food is heavy. They never give things between their fingers. If they give a knife, spoon or fork they give it handle first. You should receive things with your right hand.
14. When Mongolians cut meat they point the sharp part towards themselves.
15. Mongolians don’t whistle inside the ger, they believe it calls ghosts. Whistling outside, which they do, calls the wind.
16. Mongolians don’t place hats upside down, if they do it means that they are asking to be sick.
17. Mongolians don’t put books down upside down or walk over books or written things.
18. If Mongolians step on someone’s foot, the must always shake hand with that person, even in a crowd or club. If they don’t it means you will, in the future, argue with that person.
19. Mongolians don’t point at someone with something they are holding or their finger when they are talking unless they are angry and mean it.
20. Mongolians don’t sing or cry in bed.
21. Mongolians don’t touch an older person’s or man’s head. (Blondes don’t get petted here unlike in Japan or China)
22. If someone gives a container of milk or yogurt they return the container filled with cookies or candy or other such gifts.
23. If a Mongolian family has a guest they do not sweep the floor or take the garbage out while the guests are inside.
24. Mongolians don’t go under clothes lines or between supporting poles.
25. When Mongolians give food to people they give to the father first and then everyone else.
26. Mongolians don’t’ say, “What a cute baby” to a little baby, instead they say “What an ugly child”. Death wants to kill all the cute children so if you say “what a cute baby” death will come and kill the child but if you say the child is “ugly” then the parents understand what you mean and death remains unaware.
27. When Mongolians take their children out in the dark, they put black soot on their nose to fool death and ghosts into thinking their child is a chipmunk.
28. Mongolians don’t like to hear someone saying, “My house, my father, my child etc.” But you can say things like “my eye, my pen etc.”
29. If Mongolians trip going into a ger, it’s good luck but if they trip going out of the door they have to go back in and come out so they don’t take out all the family’s good luck with them,
30. Mongolians don’t step on the door frame when entering or leaving a house or building.
31. When driving or walking through the Mongolian countryside, if you see a prayer tree (a tree or stack of sticks and rocks covered in cloth that is usually blue) you must get out of the car an walk around clockwise three times. If you are in a car and in a hurry you can just honk three times.

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Culture Stunned

Wikipedia: Culture Shock: Culture shock refers to the anxiety and feelings (of surprise, disorientation, uncertainty, confusion, etc.) felt when people have to operate within a different and unknown culture such as one may encounter in a foreign country ..

I have often thought that culture shock isn’t about the big changes. For an obvious example, the different attitudes towards women in the Middle East. One expects that and, while it’s certainly annoying, it’s not “shocking” in the sense of stunning the senses and emotions into disoriented overload.

No, I think culture shock stems from a series of little “stuns”; things you’re used to doing mindlessly, suddenly demand vast amounts of thought and energy. After an extended period of time, if you’re not consciously aware of the process, these little shocks to the system can add up to an impressive meltdown, worse because they’re so unanticipated.

Who would think that broom handles in Mongolia wouldn’t even reach the bottom of your navel, necessitating sweeping the vast expanse of uncarpeted floor in a crouched over hunch that sends the back into spasms?

Or last night I set my washing machine, with a number of buttons that would be the envy of a flight deck commander, all marked with highly cryptic symbols, to what I thought was a reasonable time. That was at 7 p.m. When I went to bed around 11, it was still going, but I figured it had to end soon. When I got up at 6:45…….it was still going!

Small details….but pile them up one after another and they can overwhelm you if you lose your sense of humor about it all!

Fortunately, my sense of humor is recovering. I had a pretty rough first few weeks; probably more rough because it was so unexpected. Seasoned old ex-pat me expected to breeze right in and settle. Live and learn. But I’m evening out now, which is good.

I bought a TV yesterday, and my joy at the prospect of having the cable hooked up today outweighed all sense of proportion to the event itself. Longing for the familiar.

My biggest stress factor has been the difficulty in shopping here. There are a few small stores in the compound for basics, but for fresh fruit and veg you have to go to Mercury market in town, which means going out and hailing a car, then trying to explain where you want to go. The though of dealing with this in -30 weather was quite daunting for me.

While talking to one of the other teachers here, she told me she hired a driver for 3 hours each Sunday to take her shopping and on any other errands. She offered to let me tag along with her for a few weeks; her driver, who speaks a little English, may even be willing to let me hire him on Saturdays for the same thing. All for about $5/hour. Bargain!

(We take a commercial break in this post to announce: The cable guy is here! Hooray!)

So to the few recipients of “melt down” emails, fear not! Thank you for being encouraging, and I am doing a LOT better. Today was the first day the entire faculty was back and I must say, a school, is a school, is a school! Meetings are meetings, and no matter where you are, teachers do the same things to get ready.

Doing this teaches me I am far more a creature of habit and routine than I like to admit, but it’s good to stretch those boundaries occasionally, however uncomfortable a process that is.

On, on…..

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Terelj National Park

Stunning place.  Will blog about it in a few days.  In the meantime, here are the pics.

oops–forgot I can’t embed html in a WordPress Blog.  Well, the link is there on the right in the Flickr panel.

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