Saturday, June 13, 2009


It is now time to officially Colin's Mongolian Adventure. If you care to follow my adventures further, you can find my Indonesian experiences at where I will share my views and experiences of living on the outskirts of Jakarta as well as my adventures throughout the country.

Thank you to everyone who found the time to check out my experiences in Mongolia.

Bayarteh and Sain Yavaraa.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Bayarteh, Mongolia

There is one thing to be said about the late spring/early summer in Mongolia.... it'll make you fall in love with the country all over again. With only a week left before I leave this land for good, I find myself rather reminiscent and nostalgic about my time here. There have been some crazy adventures and slowly over the past two years, the completely absurd has become commonplace and often not even noteworthy.

Here's a brief glimpse of the past two years of Mongolia:

Elk Attack

Yes, you read that right. My first real experience with Mongolia came slightly more than a month into living here. Two friends of mine and I decided to go on an overnight hike to go to an old monastery that has ancient rock-paintings at the sight. A few hours into our hike, we ended up being confronted by four young elk - one buck, three does. At first they seemed curious, they just wandered away. When we followed them into the clearing, they changed their minds about us being harmless and chased us around for the next few hours. We eventually escaped the wrath of these beasts and found ourselves in some random ger (felt tent) camp, which was not even close to where we planned to go, where they fed us, gave us a bed to sleep us and provided plenty of beverage.

Gobi Desert

This one is particularly strong for me as I visited the Gobi (which is the Mongolian word for desert) on two separate occasions. The first time through was probably a bit more exciting because I had no idea what I should expect. There are so many unforgettable experiences from the Gobi. The glowing red cliffs at the break of dawn while standing in the middle of the Flaming Cliffs; Climbing the tallest sand dunes in the world - twice; riding a camel along the bottom of the dunes for about 3 hours longer than my rear-end appreciated; crashing in a family's ger for the night without warning and sharing vodka shots all night with the fathers; realizing that we bring more on a on-week trip through the Gobi than the people who live there own; drawing water from a well to give water to the flocks and herds of cows, goats and camels that would visit without a herder; being crammed into an old Russian Turgon with seven other people for as much as 8 hours a day every day for an entire week; going on not one, but two road trips where we didn't see anything that resembled a road.

Off-road Biking to Terelj

Terelj is a fairly large national park located about 70 km east of Ulaanbaatar. For March Break a small group of us decided to rent bikes to ride out there and back. Of course, I hadn't been on a bicycle since I was in high school and we didn't even remotely follow any roads. I got bitten by a rather ferocious dog chasing me, lost the nut on my back wheel and crashed with surprising grace. We rode about 170 km is 3 days and pushed myself to do something I didn't think I was capable of or even interested in.

The Rainy Season

The "Rainy Season" in Mongolia isn't really a season at all. It's about 2 weeks of continuous rain. Unfortunately, this is primarily a desert country and the city had no water drainage infrastructure to speak of. For 2 weeks, the city, check that, the country floods. Last year alone, over twenty families perished as their gers slid down the side of a muddy hill. Five people in the countryside were killed by rain (newspaper's words, not mine). On the positive side, a country that can look very brown, grey and uninviting for a large portion of the year quickly becomes green and full of life.

Eagle Festival

Once in a while it is worth braving the -40 degree temperatures in the winter to experience something unique. Last year, the Mongolian Eagle festival was moved from the West of the country to Terelj. Here we got to watch very large hunting eagles strut their respective hunting talents. One of the events involves a man releasing a live fox for some eagles to hunt. This was a little disturbing until we realized that the foxes were, in most cases, smarter than the eagles and more often than not got away.


Mongolian cuisine is not wonderfully well known around the world. Right now most of you are thinking of Mongolian Grill, aren't you. There is basically nothing Mongolian about Mongolian Grill. Mongolian food involves a great deal of meat. This meat is usually supplemented by fat and noodles. Virtually every Mongolian meal consists of these same ingredients in one way or another. There is one exception - dumplings. Mongolians love their dumplings. I can live without the buuz (pronounced boze) - a small doughy shell with goat or mutton in the middle - and the bansh - a larger version of the buuz. The huushuur (ho-shoor), however, is magnificent. For my birthday this year, I told my students not to bring me presents. Instead, bringing my huushuur was more than welcome. I ended up with roughly 200 of them. They resemble a Jamaican patty, but the crust is a little more doughy, and the filling is simply beef and onion, but the seasoning is unbelievable. I still maintain that good huushuur would make the best after-bar snack ever. Since arriving in Mongolia, I have tasted the milk of five (yes, five) different types of animals. I didn't like any of them. Especially when they were fermented. For those of you wondering, they are cow, goat, horse (both fermented and not), camel (also tried it fermented) and yak. If there is one thing I miss about Canada, it's the milk.

While I can't convey every great memory, or the amazing people I've met while here, I'll leave you with this: If the opportunity ever arises to visit Mongolia, seize it. It is a beautiful and magnificent country that is still largely untouched but modern life. That being said, think twice before choosing to live her for an extended period. It is not a country for the feint-of-heart. It can be trying and difficult at times. Without question though, I will forget the hardships of this country and remember the beauty and adventure it brought to my life.

Mongolia, bayarlalaa, bayarteh. (Thank you and good-bye)

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ups and Downs

With only 6 weeks left, I had my first real robbery experience. It seems everyone ends up having at least one, whether it be a simple pick-pocket or an aggravated assault. While I got to experience the worst of Mongolia, in some ways I also got to experience the best on the same night.

It began on Friday night around midnight. I was leaving the bar to go home, but there wasn't a car to be seen, so I walked to the main road. Still, no cars. I walked along the road in the direction I was going waiting for a car to come by. While I was walking, I got a phone call from a friend. I stayed on the phone as I walked several blocks still looking for a car. Along the way, some guy comes up to me and starts talking to me in Mongolian, rather angrily and unnecessarily close to me. This continued for a couple of blocks while I was still trying to talk to my friend. Finally the guy seemed to get the hint and went away... or so I thought.

All of a sudden he came running up on me, delivering a blow to the right side of my head, breaking my thick-framed glasses. and knocking me down. I quickly realized that he had grabbed my phone during the attack (although knocked the battery and back-plate off). Knowing my friend must be freaking out and unable to call me back, I got up and ran at top speed after the guy. I caught him on a cross street, and tackled him, delivering a few right-handed blows to his face. He practically begged me to take my phone back. I'm not proud that I hit a man, but I feel justified in what I did.

After retrieving by phone, I had to go back and search blindly for my glasses (which I didn't know were broken yet) and the missing parts of my phone. It turns out an older man had watched the attack and gathered up my belongings - less the lens from the right side of my glasses - for me and brought them over. He also indicated that he thought I did a good thing by chasing after my attacker. I then thanked him and called my friend back who was now frantically looking for me. As I was trying to establish where to meet, my phone went dead again. I had mentioned another restaurant/bar I was near, but wasn't sure if she was going to meet me there or further down the road. The other problem is that I managed to hit my knee pretty hard on the ground during the attack, so walking was now excruciating. I met some other guys standing outside of the bar and they let me try putting my SIM card in their phone to call my friend, although their number was saved to my phone, not the card. They then began walking with me to try to find my friend. When the walking became too hard, they got me in a taxi to check the place I knew my friend had been. Eventually I got home, plugged in my phone and called back explaining what happened.

So, while a really crappy thing happened, which is what most people would remember from an experience like this, it is the two separate random acts of kindness that will stand out in my memory.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Being Kept in the Dark

One of the the bigger drawbacks to living in a developing country, and Mongolia in particular, is the sporadic and sometimes even frequent loss of electricity. Now, we have all experienced power failures at one point or another. There is one small difference between a power shortage in Canada and one in Mongolia. In Canada, power outages occur because of inclement weather or because of a problem with a transformer, power line, or payment ability. In any of these cases, power problems are often predictable and cleared up quickly. Here, power outages happen regularly at unpredictable times and for unknown lengths of time. Worst of all, there is rarely any warning and they tend to happen to happen at some of the least convenient times, like around 4 o'clock in the afternoon, when I'm trying to do work and haven't quite gotten around to preparing for dinner.

Typically, these power outages last anywhere from three minutes (just long enough to frustrate you) to three days (just long enough to make you very poor), with an average of maybe 4 hours. Of course this doesn't apply to everyone here. Those who live in the heart of Ulaanbaatar rarely suffer this plight. Those of us who live on the outskirts agonize through the possibility of it happening at any time on any day. There is, of course a forgotten third group: those who live in towns outside of Ulaanbaatar. Unfortunately for these poor souls, their electricity is provided by Russia... but only for select periods of time. It is not uncommon for the whole town to have their power turned off for the night at 10 o'clock or earlier.

I must say, the latter group has one advantage over the rest of us - no indoor plumbing. How is this an advantage? (And I'm certain you asked). Now, to be frank, I don't fully understand Soviet engineering, but somehow they seem to have made every utility system completely dependent on the power plants. As a result, when the electricity goes out (and I'm still not convinced that it isn't some guy just randomly pushing buttons), I also lose the internet, water (except for the one flush left behind in the toilet - choose carefully), and in the middle of the frigidly cold winter, heat. This makes for a very dull and poorly lit night and on occasion, a rather cold one too. Suddenly, having a wood or coal burning stove in a felt tent with an outhouse somewhere nearby can seem very desirable. Especially when the power outage lasts more than a few hours.

The inconveniences really depend on the time of the outage too. An early morning outage means that an electric alarm clock won't work, so it is no longer a viable option. I now rely on a combination of a battery powered clock, my cell phone and a watch that is slowly gaining time. And have you ever tried to get ready for work with absolutely no running water? Trust me, not an easy task... although you're ready much more quickly. A shortage anywhere from eight o'clock in the morning to four o'clock in the afternoon means I have to try teaching with no electronic resources and no lights. As I mentioned, the water stops working, so this causes some interesting... problems in the washrooms. The other option is to lose power in the evening (not that we really have an option in the matter). This is particularly fun because i mean that the loss of power actually costs me money. Since I can't cook with my electric stove, nor is there any water available (and most meals require water in one way or another) and we don't have a barbecue on the premises, I (and everyone else) now has to order food for delivery. There is the other choice to go into town where they have power, but bear in mind that it gets dark here just before four o'clock in the winter, and walking in the dark and cold at that time is rarely an attractive option.

I like to believe that this hardship is forced upon me in the spirit of environmentalism. I know this isn't likely because few people here even consider putting their garbage in anything that resembles a receptacle designed for such a purpose. Still I kid myself. I mean, with the frequency of power outages and the areas they affect, they must be saving millions (of tugrug, not dollars). As one of my many affluent neighbours commented to me some time ago, "You can spend [an absurd amount of money] on a home and that doesn't even guarantee that you'll have electricity." Maybe not, but it makes me appreciate the little amenities in life a little more.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Free Agency

This column will strike a chord with sports fans more than others.

As a sports fan myself, one thing I've always struggled with is the concept of free-agency. It doesn't seem so long ago that when a professional athlete signed on with a team, that was the place he would remain until they no longer had a use for him. In recent years we have seen many a player change teams for reasons we assume to be money.

As a non-athlete, I seem to be in a fairly unique situation where I have the opportunity to experience free agency. As an international teacher, I sign contracts for anywhere from 1-3 years at a time. As my contract comes up, I, like many professional athletes, feel the need to look into my options. This isn't to say that I'm giving up on where I am at the time. I recently signed a contract to work in Indonesia for two years. I was both ecstatic and gutted to have signed that contract. Gutted because I love Mongolia. It's people, culture and way of life still fascinate me. Leaving would inevitably result in cutting short this opening chapter into my life abroad. With that in mind, I am ecstatic because it is a new adventure. A place I don't know yet and will have the amazing opportunity to experience something new. With those things being a trade-off, I had to look at the other factors. There are a few that really tipped the balance toward moving to Indonesia. This opportunity will give me the chance to reunite and work with one of my best friends again. That is a factor that is amongst the most important. (didn't Scott Niedermayer sign on with the Ducks for basically that same reason?) Beyond that there are many perks, like getting to own a moped, and drive it year-round. The money is better, and I have better health coverage--something I actually have to worry about, both because I don't have a universal health-care system and because I tend to take risks that could leave me seriously injured. A last, but not least, rather than a single-bedroom apartment, I will be given my own two-bedroom house--perfect for parking my eventual fleet of mopeds and motorbikes.

As with professional athletes, some people are displeased with a decision to leave. For an athlete, the worst comes from the fans. Inevitably any player who chooses to leave one team for another becomes hated by the fans of his former team. For me, things aren't quite so bad. My "fans" are the 22 seven and eight-year-olds in my class, and to a lesser degree the other students I have come to know well in the school. Instead of receiving boos and verbal jabs from my fans and the media, I have to receive daily pleas and petitions for me to change my mind and stay.

What I'm trying to say is, I'm not leaving because I want out. I'm leaving because I see a better opportunity somewhere else. Don't feel bad professional athletes. I, as an average guy, understand why you choose free agency. And I get it, someday, signing back home just might be the thing I want the most. I wouldn't mind one of those multi-million dollar contracts though.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Gobi, Second Time Around

I suppose this is a little overdue, as this trip happened back in October.

For our fall break, Jeff, Jen, Jonny, Megan, Gurgit and I took a tour of the Gobi. The first half was to be a similar experience as what I had the previous year, however, this year would find us turning west instead of east. Rather than a play-by-play of each day, I'll give you a "snapshot" view.

Just starting out, Jeff is drooling with anticipation.

Typically, the first thing to do is get gas. The blown tire on the bottom of the truck was a bit of a bad omen. We had our share of problems with the vehicle this year, including a near-accident in the first few minutes of the trip.

We stopped for a little hike and some lunch in the protection of this mountain. Our guide, Inga, told us it was bad luck to day the name of the mountain while in sight of it. It clearly made her nervous, so we didn't push.

Our first ger stay of the trip, featuring a 7 year old girl that was giddy playing cards with Jen and drawing pictures of each of us.

Because it was so cold, our van wouldn't start in the morning. Dawaa (the same driver as I had the year before) lit a fire under the van to warm it up. To keep from freaking out, we lent the family a hand in rounding up their goats for milking. I ventured in and grabbed them by the horns to line them up, while Jen and Megan tried their hands at the actual milking.

A hare hiding in the dirt. Megan and I were standing just 5 feet away and didn't notice him at all. Dawaa had to point it out to us.

Dawaa asked us all to get out so we could take pictures of him driving by.

We got up nice and early to see the Flaming Cliffs at sunrise. We were greeted by the silhouettes of a few camels. Jeff and I trekked about a kilometer over the the cliffs proper for the photo op of a lifetime.

The sun breaking the horizon.

We weren't disappointed.

Stopping for lunch in the middle of nowhere. It was warm enough to take the coats off for a little while.

Wildlife watching. Dawaa spotted a fox on the side of the mountain, so we stopped for some pictures. We saw a couple of foxes, some vultures, and a ton of tiny little gopher-like animals.

Picking our way down through the gorge at Yolin-Am.

We stopped to fill our giant canteens with the water from the stream. The stream doubled as a road. You have to ignore the fact that we just along this stream for about an hour before we decided to collect some of the water.

Most tours detour around these mountains. We went through them. This pass is barely wider than the Turgon. Jeff, Jonny and I got out to tape and photograph the van travelling through the gorge. It must have been funny watching the three of us running around to film the very van we'd been riding around in for hours and hours each day.

After surviving the very serious terrain in the mountains, the flat, open plains broke the van. I don't know a lot about cars, but as I understand it, the bracket holding the leaf-plates (suspension) snapped, so we couldn't drive anywhere without risking serious damage.

Looks safe doesn't it?

We had to keep warm somehow during our 2 hour wait while Dawaa magically fixed the van.

Possibly the happiest looking camel in the world.

Climbing the tallest sand dunes in the world. Jonny just charged up the 300 metre high dunes.

Snow on the dunes. Inga said she couldn't remember that ever happening before.

I mastered the sand dunes again.

We lost our radiator cap (van problem number 4 if you're keeping track), so we needed to get water to refill the radiator. Some camels came by for a drink, so Jen obliged while Dawaa (again magically) fixed the van.

Ovoos, they're everywhere.

At Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia. This is inside the monastery. Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman visited this in their adventure mini-series "Long Way Round".

Jeff & I heated some water on our stove, and got to half-shower. We only really wet our hair, but it was so refreshing, and we even felt clean.

We were entertained in our ger with some traditional Mongolian music.

Tarmac. Glorious tarmac.

Chinngis Khaan believed that turtles were the greatest animal in the world because the could survive equally on land and in the water. There are four that protect Kharkhorin.

Penis Rock. Mongolians swear that it's natural. I have a hard time (no pun intended) believing that.

On the "road"

Monday, March 16, 2009

Keeping Up With the Times

This past weekend something remarkable happened. I went bowling. What's remarkable about this? Well, this is Mongolia's first bowling alley. Yes, the Mongolians have finally cracked the technology to allow its people to bowl (I think our nuclear secrets are pretty safe for now). It made me start thinking about the development of this peculiar city in which I live.

Mongolia has had three district periods of development that really capture the image of the country. The first of these periods was centuries ago, long before the time of Chinngis Khaan - that's Chinngis, not Ghengis. Mongolians are traditionally nomadic people, in fact, somewhere between thirty and forty percent of the country is still nomadic. The nomads live, almost without exception, in large felt tents called gers (often called yurts elsewhere). A ger is a circular tent with a wooden structure. The remarkable thing about these gers is that most people who live here in Ulaanbaatar still live in them. Anywhere else in the world these would be considered "slums", but here you find plenty of them mixed in with apartment complexes that sell the units for more than half a million American dollars. Outside of the city, it is far from rare to find solar chargers attached to banks of batteries to provide power. Even more stunning is the fact that at least half of these rural gers have a satellite dish. Living in a tent is not a curse, it's a practical matter, since these people pack up and move every three or four months. Keep in mind, they can take apart or build their house in a matter of a couple of hours, rather than in weeks or even months.

Skipping ahead a few hundred years, Mongolian construction was heavily influenced by the presence of the Soviet Union. In the early 1950s a massive amount of construction, where the first permanent buildings started to be erected. For the first time in Mongolian history, people were beginning to live in dwellings with multiple rooms. Unfortunately for Ulaanbaatar and some of the smaller cities (the second largest city only has a current population of 90 000) these are amongst the least attractive buildings ever built. They are also everywhere. Another drawback was the population explosion that this construction caused, particularly here in Ulaanbaatar, where the population has increased from 25 000 in the early twentieth century to over a million people today (to be clear, that means that over one-third of the population lives in this city). In addition to the horrible hideous apartment complexes, the city is also blighted by sets of asbestos-covered pipes that carry the hot water to all of the permanent structures. Of course the Soviets were unconcerned with appearance, so these pipes are all above ground, and actually create very imposing and bizarre looking overpasses over roads. They also make very odd U-shaped detours around any slight bump in the ground.

Finally, the country - which really means UB - is currently in it's biggest period of development. The only problem is that it doesn't appear that the city actually wanted to develop as there has been no preparations made whatsoever. Those who have facilitated the growth (private enterprises) never really took the dynamics of the people into account either. In my district, which is one of the wealthier ones in the city, there are currently 23 new apartment buildings under construction. Each of the resulting 200-plus new apartments will be sold for at least a quarter of a million dollars. The problem here is that this country doesn't have enough wealthy families to purchase these apartments. Cars have been imported from Japan (and yes, they are set up for driving on the left side of the road) and South Korea at an alarming rate, however; the only new road that is being built (in the entire country) is a 40 km stretch of road that leads and I kid you not, out into the middle of the desert.

I love that this country holds on to its traditional ways, but also that it embraces new ideas. I just find it odd that they seemingly reject the associated necessities that support the world they would like to believe Ulaanbaatar is. Imagine living somewhere that every person owns at least one cell phone when the entire country has never even had more that 200 000 land lines in its history. It's such a lovely mish-mash of the years 1208, 1954 and 2009.