Saturday, December 11, 2010

A new chapter in Ulaanbaatar and first day nerves.

I’ve been back in Mongolia for over 2 months now. I settled back into life here so quickly it was as if I had never left. Seriously, I’m talking hours here not days.

When my plane landed at Chinggis Khan airport a number of questions ran through mind. Had I made the right decision in coming back? Did I have the right visa? When was the person sitting to my left going to stop talking to me? And where were my shoes? I was mostly concerned with the latter. After contemplating standing up and accusing a random passenger of theft I decided to be rational and look a bit harder. Eventually I found them being trampled by the guy in the row in front of me. I tried to give him a harsh glare and if looks could kill he would definitely have had some mild bruising at the very least.

Mercifully, I negotiated immigration control without any problems. The same could not be said about baggage claim. Standing, exhausted at the conveyer belt and watching a number of bags doing laps of baggage claim I got that familiar sinking feeling that years of travelling related stress had honed into something of a sixth sense. This feeling was compounded when a door off to the right opened and I glimpsed some bags, one of which was mine, surrounded by 4 security guards who looked intent on ruining my day. Eventually there was a flurry of movement and said security guards burst through the doors carrying my bags and those of the other unfortunate people who had gathered and were sharing the same look of anxiety and barely contained frustration. Our bags were then dumped in front of an x-ray machine and then examined and sent through the machine. One foolish passenger protested at the delay and his bag was sent to the back of the queue. He clearly forgot that, in the same way as you don’t piss off people who bring you food, you don’t piss off people who control when you can have your bags back. After a painful wait I got my bag, but only after I had been thoroughly quizzed about the ‘suspicious package’ in my bag (which was prescription medicine, and very clearly labelled as such).

Emerging, blinking in the harsh morning light, I allowed myself a little smile as I gazed out over Ulaanbaatar. That smile quickly vanished as I was accosted by what, in my sleep deprived state, seemed like a thousand taxi drivers (In reality it was more like 5) After trying to choose one of these drivers I remembered that I had little say in the matter and allowed myself to pushed and pulled into a car. The problem with ‘the chaos’ method of choosing a taxi is that you are likely to end up with the most forceful and possibly maniacal guy around. This proved to be the case and we arrived in the centre of the city in record time due to a complete disregard for other vehicles and other annoyances such as stop-lights.

My return to Ulaanbaatar would have gone much more smoothly had the apartment I had arranged (and paid the deposit for) not been whipped from under my feet like rug whilst I was away. Thankfully there is no shortage of awesome people in this town who are willing to put up with a homeless guy and I was able to impose myself upon on the generous nature of my good friend James. He no doubt regretted his rash decision after the first day.

I had a couple of days to get used to life back before I began teaching which I was very grateful for as I was fairly nervous. Truth be told, I was looking forward to it about as much as a man looks forward to a prostate exam. This was mostly due to the images that were ricocheting around my brain of me standing in front of a class and suddenly realising that I didn’t actually know anything and then to complete the humiliation, being ‘pantsed’ by the big kid in class.

When I woke up on the morning of my first day at school a single thought ran through my head, ‘Shiiiiiiiiiiit’, and stayed there until I reached the gates of the school. At that point a new thought ran through my head, ‘Hoooooooollllyyyyy Shiiiiiit’. As you can tell, my thoughts are often eloquent and succinct. Anyway, staring up at the blue and grey facade of Orchlon School with its unusual symbol which appears to be a smiling face with a bad haircut, I decided it was time to man up. So exuding as much confidence as I could muster I strode up to the main doors, of which there are two sets, and tried to picture what opening a door with style and √©lan would look like. I’m sure that if I hadn’t been doing this I would have noticed that no one else was heading towards the same doors as me and would have spared myself the embarrassment of walking face first into a locked door. If that had proven to be the only awkward moment of the day I would have been a happy man.

I spent my first morning meeting my new colleagues and trying to suppress the urge to run screaming from the building and set the record for shortest teaching career in history. Time, as it is known to do, marched on and eventually the bell signalling the start of my first class rang and I promptly fainted. Just kidding. I grabbed the things I presumed a teacher would need and headed upstairs, paused at the door to the classroom, took a deep breath, adopted the most authoritative pose I could and walked in. Miraculously, the students (who were grade 6 or around 10-12 years old) didn’t immediately plunge into anarchy but a look of puzzlement did cross their faces in unison when I explained that I was their new teacher. I simply assumed that they were just wondering how a fool such as I could be a teacher and carried on. The reason for their bemusement soon became apparent when their actual teacher, John, walked into the room and politely explained that I was in wrong classroom. That was teaching fail number one.

Somehow I blundered my way through the rest of the day and arrived home thoroughly tired. Sitting on the couch, I thought about what the rest of the year might hold in store for me. My pessimism soon drifted away as I looked out over the city as the sunset turned the hills red, and realised that teaching would get easier with each passing day and that in all likelihood, I was going to have an amazing year.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Returning to Mongolia and unhelpful Russians

Well, I'm back in Mongolia.

It's been a long time since I last decided to write a post and a lot has happened in the interim. There is way too much to talk about so I'll just give a rundown of the important stuff! My placement with VSO came to an end after a year which, overall, was pretty successful. Towards the end of the year I realised that I was pretty happy in Mongolia and would like to stay for another year so I began to search for someone who would be willing to give me some money in return for minimal effort on my part. This line of enquiry proved less than fruitful so I was forced to look for something that might require me to actually put in some effort. To cut a long story short I managed to get a job as a English and history teacher at Orchlon school and I'm pretty pleased about it. So after a 5 week holiday at home in Liverpool I have returned to Mongolia in a blaze of nothing out of the ordinary.

As I write this I am sitting in a friend’s apartment (as I don't yet have a place of my own to live) gazing out over a city that I have grown to love. I can see the hills to the south of Ulaanbaatar, glowing in the late afternoon sun. There's the jumble of miss-matched buildings and the noise of daily life. There is also a construction site where the roof section appears to have collapsed and is currently surrounded by a lot of builders who look distinctly perplexed. Apparently nobody told them that slender sticks were not an appropriate support for a concrete roof. Yep, it's good to be back.

Unfortunately, as good as it is to be in Mongolia, getting here wasn't much fun. Standing in Heathrow airport, contemplating the journey that lay before me (and coincidentally listening to Journey. The world's greatest band?), I began to wonder if my trip would go smoothly. The answer came when I opened the bottle of coke I had just bought and it erupted with a force that made Mt. Vesuvius circa AD 79 seem like a gurgle. So, drenched and with the laughter of the various bystanders ringing in my ears, I trudged off to my gate.

I don't know if anyone else thinks this, but airports late at night are creepy. My flight was the last of the day and as I strolled along past the closed shops and empty seats I suddenly noticed that it was very quiet...a little too quiet perhaps. Then I saw hunched figures shuffling from various dark corridors and groaning like something from a George A. Romero film. Just as I was reaching for something to defend myself against this horde of un-dead with, I realised that it was just the cleaning staff and gave a sigh of relief. Still, I got too close to one of them who promptly bared his teeth and hissed at me before flitting back into the darkness.
Once I had slumped into my seat on the plane and made myself as comfortable as possible on the seat that the designer had presumably engineered for maximum discomfort, I glanced around and it dawned on me that there were around 6 empty rows at the back of the plane. Given that this was an overnight flight, the opportunity to have somewhere to lie down was too good to pass up. Unfortunately, I was not the only one who had made this discovery. There were at least 7 other people who noticed this and, with movie-like timing, we all realised that we had competition. Our eyes narrowed simultaneously and the stand-off music from 'The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly' played over the tannoy. The fact that we were mid-take off and couldn’t leave our seats only added to the suspense. All eyes were directed towards the fasten seatbelts sign when one enterprising soul decided to risk the wrath of the Russian air hostesses and make a break for it. I expected him to melt like one of the Nazi’s at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, such was the intensity of the air hostesses glare but he survived and claimed his row. The pressure was on and when the seat-belt light went off it was it was every man for himself. Unfortunately I had been too focussed on said light and had failed to remember that I didn’t have an aisle seat. Panic set in as I realised too late that there was a elderly gentleman blocking my way like a geriatric Great Wall of China. For a moment I considered vaulting over him but I had flashes of the following days’ headlines which would no doubt have read ‘elderly man killed by airplane acrobatic antics’. So with a wistful glance back at the triumphant people who would have an excellent night’s rest in their empty rows, I settled into my seat and tried, unsuccessfully, to sleep.

Arriving in Moscow at 5:30am, I stumbled bleary-eyed from the plane tried to prepare myself for the mental and physical challenge of spending 15 hours in an airport (an airport with the most unfriendly staff in the world I might add) The first obstacle was Russian transit passport control. As I shuffled up to the desk I was met with a stare that told me this airport employee was blaming me for the fact that he had to be there at this un-Godly hour. Given that I appeared to be the only person from my flight in transit I couldn’t help but agree with him. I tentatively handed over my passport and the man (let’s call him Igor) glanced at it, and then back to me, then back at the passport. Gradually, a look began to spread across Igor’s face that appeared to be part confusion and part malice. Then he said (in his strong Russian accent, which immediately made me picture him as a movie villain) “This not your face”. Naturally I was somewhat puzzled by this and replied, eloquently and incisively, “erm, yes it is”. Admittedly, I am 6 years older than I was when I got my passport and age has naturally taken its toll, but I don’t look that different. After a verbal sparring match in which he deftly parried my increasingly exacerbated retorts with shrugs and grunts, Igor evidently got bored and decided to let me through.

My 15 hours in purgatory were spent infuriating the cleaning staff by consistently lying down to sleep on spots that they were apparently desperate to clean. As soon as I would lie down in a corner somewhere, a cleaner would instantly appear and start attempting to run over my feet with their cleaning trolley in an attempt to get me to move. In between bouts of being assaulted by disgruntled employees, I tried to entertain myself as best I could. In the end, I spent most of the day slumped in a chair looking somewhat catatonic and wondering if death was a better alternative to this living hell populated by dour Russians. Time stubbornly refused to go by quickly but eventually I was sitting on a plane and heading to Mongolia.
Descending over Mongolia’s rolling hills and steppe as dawn broke reminded why I love this place and I began to think about all the amazing things I would see and do over the next year. As I did a broad smile spread across my face, so broad in fact that the lady sitting next to me looked distinctly disquieted. Clearly she must have thought I was nuttier than a bag of squirrel crap. I am willingly spending another winter in Mongolia so she might be right.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

A new year in Mongolia and wanton disregard for personal safety

So, in previous posts I promised to try harder to keep this blog up to date. Clearly I failed. Because I feel I have let down the literally tens of people who sporadically read this, I shall be publishing this post followed immediately by another. I know, I spoil you. I will also make a commitment to at least think about possibly trying harder to write more regularly.

It has been over 2 months since I last forced myself to sit down and write something, so I realise that what I'm writing about will be a bit out of date but what can you do? In that time I turned 24, the world turned 2010, and the milk at the back of my fridge turned sour.

As the end of the 2009 drew near I was more curious than excited about what the holiday season would be like in Mongolia. Christmas proved to be a somewhat strange affair. For those of you who don't know (and you should feel bad if you don't), Christianity isn't the religion of choice for most Asian nations. Long ago Mongolia decided to opt for the eminently more relaxed religion of Buddhism. Had they known then that the celebration of a religious figure's birth would become the consumerist, secular (how many people still think of Christmas as religious holiday first anymore?) holiday it is today, would they still have gone for the chubby chilled out guy? Probably, but the answer remains one of life's 'great' mysteries (at least in my head anyway)

Anyway, celebrating Christmas in a Buddhist country was a new experience for me. Well that is what I though at first. As the 25th crept closer I began to notice the all-too familiar signs of consumer Christmas lurking on street corners and looking shifty, like a guy who knows he is doing something wrong but just pulls his cap down further and hopes no one asks what he's doing there. Before you could say "T'is the season to be jolly' there were santa's appearing in shop windows and people selling decorations on the street. Enormous Christmas trees sprang up on Sukhbaatar Square and outside the state department store. I enquired about these anomalies from my colleagues and I was assured that they were 'New Years' trees. Go figure. Needless to say, I was perplexed by all this but I decided not to dwell on it and enjoy myself.

As it turned out, My Christmas, and indeed my New Years, turned out to be worryingly similar to many of the recent ones I had experienced (minus the family and long-term friends of course) There were parties, gluttonous meals, hangovers, awkward social situations, and the ubiquitous anti-climax that is New Years. This is not to say that I didn't enjoy all those things.

I loved the parties and having to unbuckle my belt after eating more than is good for you. Hangovers are sign that something awesome happened the night before and I have come to appreciate awkward-social situations for the comedic masterpieces they are. Hell, I even enjoyed being let down by the promise of New Years again (I would like to insert a caveat about New Years being an anti-climax. The only reason it is a consistent let-down is that I always build it up to be something greater than it ever actually is)

It is a small coincidence that throughout December I had been reading Charles Dickens 'Great Expectations' and one would assume this would have dropped a rather massive hint bomb on my thick cranium. However, even that much lauded novel wasn't all I'd hoped for. A more introspective person would realise that perhaps the problem isn't with New Years but myself. I, however, will follow the teachings of the great General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett who sagely said "when all else fails, a shear pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through". Truly wise words.

Despite my ludicrously high expectations I had a great New Years (not as great as the fire works display involving elephants,pandas, and fighter jets that I had hoped for would have been) There was a party at an AYAD's (Australian Youth Ambassadors for Development)place and a trip to Sukhbaatar Square for some champagne and fireworks. It was all very boozy and there was much frolicking. However, no New Years celebration would be complete without a bizarre occurrence.

It came in the form of 3 Frenchmen (bizarre enough on their own, I know) who were, inexplicably, scouts. That's right, scouts. Complete with toggles and those scarf things they wear. There we were, drinking champagne and trying our best to stave of frostbite when we were accosted by these Francophone folks tying knots in stuff and building camp fires. Okay, so they weren't doing that but it was still slightly surreal. It might not be the last thing you expect to find in Ulaanbaatar at midnight on New Years Eve but it's got to be up there in the top ten.

As it is inclined to do, new year came and went and I looked forward with a mixture of dread and anticipation. I find the beginning of a new year often makes me curious about the myriad ways life will attempt to kick me in the nuts in the year to come and how best to avoid these crotch aimed hazards. Invariably I come up with nothing and get on with life.

January was a notable month for 2 reasons: Firstly, I fired my first (and probably last) gun. Secondly, I finally discovered where an annoying banging noise was coming from in my apartment and put a stop to it. The former is much more interesting so I'll talk about that.

I had never really had a desire to fire a gun but I have to admit that when the opportunity arose, I was intrigued and agreed to go on the trip. The thing that most interested me was that we were told we would be able to drive a tank. Now, as a man, there are few things as inclined to make me jump up and down with excitement than being told I can drive a tank.

There were 9 other people who felt the same as me and on a freezing Sunday morning we clambered into our vehicles safe in the knowledge that soon we would be handling weapons of war with absolutely no idea what we were doing. The drive out to the 'Monglian Military Tourist Camp' (surely the best name in the history of tourist camps) started pleasantly enough, Mongolia is after all a very beautiful country. Unfortunately, once you leave the bubble that is Ulaanbaatar, the roads quickly deteriorate and travelling becomes something of a nightmare. This we discovered as our vehicles got stuck in the snow that had had all winter to build up.

The first time this happened, all we needed to do was push to free ourselves from a snowy trap. The second time we weren't so lucky. We had to cross a ditch of sorts which we knew would be full of snow, but we were spurred on by the temptation of the tank. We opted for the 'drive as fast as you can at the problem and hope for the best' tactic which precipitated a rapid reduction in forward momentum as we immediately got stuck in a snow drift.

Some people might have panicked when confronted with a potentially deadly situation like this, but we weren't some people. We were development workers, and development workers don't take snow for an answer (you see what I did there...snow...no...think about it. It's genius) We exited the vehicles and began heroically watching on as our drivers started digging us out. You probably don't realise how much courage it takes to stand aside and let other people do the work but let me tell you, its at least some.

Eventually, after we had spent a fair bit of time running around and having fun, it dawned on us that we were losing time with the tank. With this sudden realisation, we intrepid development workers sprang into action and began ineffectually pawing and kicking the snow with a small portion of the might we could muster. It was a truly magnificent sight.

After untold (probably around 20) minutes of intense effort we freed ourselves from the icy Bastille and charged onwards to tank and gun paradise. For about 5 minutes at least, then we encountered another ditch and spent 30 minutes trying to traverse it.

Finally, after enduring more hardships than any humans had had to bear (fact!) we arrived at our destination. We were cold, slightly damp, and some of us (me) were a little sleepy but through sheer grit and determination we had made it...only to be told that we couldn't drive the tank because there was no fuel or it was frozen solid, I forget which. As you can imagine, the disappointment was palpable. Some of us wept, I tried to hurl myself off a cliff but could only find a small dip in the land and so I ended up jumping into some snow and adopting the pose from that scene in platoon where Willam Defoe gets killed.

I may have made that last bit up but I think I am allowed some dramatic license, it is my blog after all.

The 'military tourist camp' consists of a ger camp, a brick building, the tank, and a firing range. It's not a big place by anyone's standards. Once we had finished playing on the tank (naturally the thing we all gravitated towards when we arrived) we were taken to the firing range. There was a table on which were laid all the guns which were available for our ballistic pleasure. There were a few pistols, a sub-machine gun, sniper rifle, AK47 (weapon of choice for guerilla movements the world over), RPD heavy machine gun, and finally an RPG, or rocket propelled grenade launcher. That's right, a bazooka.

I have to be honest, we were like kids in a toy store, only wielding guns instead of lego's. It was quite an expensive affair so I could only afford to fire one gun. Naturally I chose the AK47. Having never fired a gun before I should have probably chosen something more beginner friendly, but then it wouldn't have been as much fun.

We each chose a gun, took a number, and waited for our turn to open up a can of whoopass on the targets down range. When it came to be my turn, I was more than a little nervous. I had no idea what I was doing, but with some words of advice from Julian (our resident ex-army guy) I proceeded to nail 6 targets, including the most distant one. I was a little purturbed by how exhilirated I was but I put it down to being happy for not embarrassing myself, rather than firing the gun.

Now, this may seem obvious but guns are loud. Really loud. Until you have fired one or been standing next to someone who is then you really have no idea. The sound each gun made was also very distinctive. The sniper rifle made a sharp crack, the machine gun made a more concussive sound, and the pistols made a popping sound. Up until that point I had assumed they all sounded the same. You learn something new everyday I guess.

Once I was done with the guns and returned to the tank like a toddler running to a climbing frame. I had seen a tank before but no one had ever let me mess around on one unsupervised. It was a lot of fun.

Soon the time came to leave, but not before one man stepped up and took on the big boys. That man was Jess, and he was courageous enough to pay $100 to shoot the RPG. I think I was more nervous than he was, particularly as Julian had just told me that these things sometimes explode when exposed to extremes of temperature (it was around -30C at the time). I figured 30ft would be enough to avoid anything but a light splattering of body parts should the worst happen.

Thankfully it all went swimmingly and Jess exploded the hell out of one unfortunate hill.



So that's it. I have been writing for a while and I have lost the will to go on. Presumably that happened to most people after reading the first couple of paragraphs.

I hope you enjoyed reading and I apologise for the excessive length of this post.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Adapting to the cold and skiing for the first time

Mongolia is cold.

I realise that statement is an obvious one but I thought I would throw it out there anyway.

The temperature in Mongolia dropped below zero 2 weeks back and is going to stay that way for the next 4 months. I have come to terms with this fact and I no longer get annoyed at the length of time it takes to get ready to go outside. As anyone who has ever lived in a country where warmth is something to dream about for most of the year will tell you, the key to not freezing to death is layers. I realised very quickly that layering up is an exact science. Wear too many layers and you will overheat fairly rapidly, too few and you'll be trying to remember what it felt like to have feeling in your extremities. The extreme cold creates problems for everyone in one way or another. The main issue for people living in Ulaanbaatar is pollution. UB is surrounded on 3 sides by ger (the traditional Mongolian dwelling) districts where poverty is endemic. The only way to heat a ger is to burn whatever you can get your hands on. Coal is the most common fuel but people will burn almost anything to keep warm. The majority of UB's population live in these districts so you can imagine the conditions created by hundreds of thousands of people burning fuel. UB itself lies in a valley so the smoke has nowhere to go. It hangs above the city like a great brown stain on the sky and on most days you cannot see the hills which surround the UB. It is little wonder that Mongolians have such a high level of respiratory diseases.

I believe I am adapting to the cold fairly well. I have learnt to ensure my hair is completely dry before going anywhere and I know to cover my face, both in an attempt to block out the pollution and to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of the inside of ones nostrils freezing. I have become adept and traversing the seemingly permanent patch of ice which lies conveniently in front of the door to my apartment building. In the past I would have been slipping and flailing my way across it (it's pretty wide), earning the laughs of the old ladies who sit on the bench nearby every morning, apparently unconcerned by the cold. Now I practically glide across and the old ladies nod sagely like Mr. Miyagi approving of the Karate Kid. I even know precisely where the slippiest parts of my route to work are. Speaking of my route to work, there is a western man I pass unfailingly every morning who I have decided is my nemesis. He is always wearing a baseball cap, which is a ludicrous choice of headgear for a winter in Mongolia. I believe he does it to make me feel less tough for wearing a warm hat. He doesn't wear gloves either. Who the hell does he think he is huh? Of course, I may be overreacting but that doesn't stop me from muttering "douche bag" every time I pass him.

Last week saw an event of such monumental significance that words can barely describe it. Okay, I'm exaggerating but it was pretty awesome. On Thursday (Nov 26th) Mongolia's first skiing resort opened to the public. Thursday also happened to be Mongolian Independence Day so we I had the day off. I was also paid the day before. It could not have been more perfect. So when Thursday morning reared it's pollution stained head I threw on the clothes I felt were most suited to skiing and went to meet the other volunteers who had decided to take advantage of this most excellent day.

The Sky Resort (for that is what it is called) had put on a free bus to take people the 13km out of town. Once I had sat down on this bus it suddenly dawned on me that I had never skied before and that Mongolia (where safety is something to implemented sometime in the future) may not be the best place to start. Unfortunately it was too late to back out so I discarded the nagging doubts which were swimming around my brain and trusted to fate.

When the bus pulled up to the resort I was pleasantly surprised. I had envisioned a place where the slopes would be strewn with body mangling objects and bears would pick off unaware skiers like salmon in a river. This proved not to be the case. The resort looked really good. There were 5 slopes: 2 green, 2 blue, and a black. However, only the greens and 1 blue were open that day. It is not a big place by anyone's standards but it was good enough. The place was very busy, although I think most people were taking advantage of the 30% discount! As a result, our first hour there was spent in various different queues. Once I had managed to grab the equipment it was time to gear up and embarrass myself in front of hundreds of people. Outside, I clipped myself into the ski's and was given a quick lesson in basic movement by Kiwi Steve. Armed with my new found knowledge, I slipped and slid my way over to the learning slope. It being a learning slope, there wasn't actually much of a slope, but I was thankful for this as I stood at the start of it. After a moments contemplation I made the plow shape with the ski's and pushed myself off. Once I realised I hadn't immediately decked it I began to enjoy myself. That is until a 5 year old girl went speeding past me.

Having courageously conquered the learning slope a couple of times I felt ready to step it up a gear and move onto a green run. This was predominantly because I had just seen Stephanie (who was skiing for first time as well) jump on to the ski lift and head up. My manly pride was wounded so naturally I had to follow. Having never used a ski lift before, I was quite unprepared for the speed with which the chair comes up behind you and was not very gracefully scooped up. I enjoyed the ride up to the start because I was able to laugh at all the people wiping out in different, hilarious, ways. I tried not to think about the fact that I too would probably be grinding my face through the snow in a few minutes.

When we reached the top of the run I immediately began to regret my decision to go up there. The slope we had chosen to go down starts with a steep bend and then straightens out until the finish and it looked much, much, steeper from the top. Still, fortune favours the foolish (at least I think that's how the saying goes) and with Steve's encouragements in my ear I let gravity have it's wicked way with me. Just like on the learning slopes, I made a plough shape and away I went. I started out pretty well but there was just one small problem. I hadn't learn how to turn, and it turns out that that is a pretty integral part of controlling one's speed. This quickly became apparent as my speed began to increase dramatically and my ski's began to straighten out. Before I knew what had happened I was hurtling down the slope. I probably would have been screaming if I wasn't so shocked. The whole way down I was thinking "don't fall, don't fall, don't fall, please get out of the way kid, don't fall, thank God the kid got out of the way, don't fall, don't fall, how the hell do I stop? Thankfully, I eventually ran out of momentum and came to an extremely relieved stop.

I spent the rest of the day on the green slopes and I did pretty well. I didn't fall over once, although I did slam into the back of a very large snow sculpture as my momentum failed to run out. Happily the sculpture was unharmed, my dignity was not.

I hope you enjoyed reading

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A series of parties and frozen hair

It appears that my attitude to this blog has been a bit lackadaisical of late. It's been over a month since my last post (I know, you have been lost without it) and a lot has happened in that time. Too much to write about in one post in fact.

Work is going great and I have built up quite a rapport with my desk. It allows me to put things on it and I try not to draw on it. But seriously, Sometimes work can be difficult. This is mostly because there is nobody telling me what needs to be done and when it needs to be done by. That might not sound like something that would make a job hard but like it or not, this is what most people who grow up in the West are used to. As a result, I have found myself in an environment where this doesn't happen. Some days can be a battle to make myself do something, others can be a battle to conquer the mountain of work I have created for myself. I prefer the latter. Happily, the days when it's a struggle to find something to do are few and far between.

Before I came to Mongolia one of my biggest concerns was that I wouldn't have much of a social life. I had a visions of myself hanging around my apartment with too much time to think. So it is with no small amount of relief that I find that my social life is, if anything, overactive. My budget is strained to breaking point due to my inability to say no. Actually, it's more likely to be because whenever someone mentions the word 'party' I get an uncontrollable urge to buy enough alcohol to drown a Rhino. I am slowly learning that my current lifestyle is unsustainable. A fact which was painfully demonstrated when I went to a market and realised that I only had enough money to buy a small bag of lentils...and I hate lentils.

Despite my current fiscal woes, I don't regret spending my money the way I did. The parties were pretty awesome. A couple immediately spring to mind. There was one a couple of weeks ago which was remarkable partly because I didn't know, or in fact, meet the host at any point, but also because I accidentally-on-purpose consumed a whole bottle of vodka. Though my memory is hazy, I do remember spending the entire night with said bottle of vodka holstered like a gun in my pocket. I also remember that there was a power cut so most of the partying was done in darkness. This meant that most of the conversations I had were dominated by comments such as "ow", "you're standing on my foot", and "that's not a bottle of beer your holding, it's sunflower oil". The following days' hangover was fairly spectacular as well. I woke up in the morning fully clothed and spead-eagled on my bed with an empty bottle of vodka in my jeans. When I stumbled into the kitchen it also became apparent that I had attempted to cook something when I got home. By the looks of it, I had tried to invent a new dish involving flour, bread, and another ingredient which I couldn't quite indentify. Needless to say, it didn't go well.

There was also a halloween party which would have been better had I not been wearing the worst halloween costume in Mongolia. In my defense I didn't choose it, I foolishly let a Scottish guy arrange it for me. My 'costume' consisted of a long, dirty, yellow raincoat. That's it. No one could quite decide whether I was dressed as a pervert, a serial killer or a fisherman. In the end I settled on a combination of the three. So I became (hopefully) the worlds first 'serialfishervert' (see below)



Still, I had a good time so no harm, no foul. There has been a bunch of other gatherings and shindigs but they can be summed up in the words 'I got drunk, had a good time, regretted it the next day'.

In other news, any warmth that was left in Mongolia has up-sticks and headed south. The temperature has dropped firmly below zero and won't be hitting the positives for another 4 months. As I write, the temperature is -12° C which, whilst cold, is nothing compared to what's forecast for the weekend. According to weather underground (http://www.wunderground.com/global/stations/44292.html), the temperature on Sunday will be a beer freezing -37° C. That's right folks, you read correctly. I am amazed that Mongolians don't just hibernate during winter.

When a country is this cold it affects everything. True, there are some days when you can get away with a fleece and hat, but mostly you have layer-up. Leaving the apartment takes a good 5 minutes as one has to pile on the clothes so that you don't lose an arm to frostbite. If it has snowed then walking anywhere requires all you attention in order to avoid slipping and sliding into on-coming traffic or a large, possible angry, Mongolian guy. I am seriously considering investing in a pair of ice skates! The other problem which I learnt about the hard way is that of things freezing. This may seem obvious, but when you have spent 23 years living in countries where your hair dry's if it is wet when you go outside, I was quite unprepared. For those of you who have never had frozen hair, I can tell you that it is quite disconcerting. I didn't even notice the first time (yep, it's happened more than once) until I tried to run my hands through my hair and was met with more resistance than usual. The dampest sections of my hair had literally frozen. I never expected to have to thaw out my hair when I came to this country.

That's all I've got time for now. I'll try to be more dilligent with my blog in future.

Thanks for reading.
-37° C. That's right folks, you read correctly. I am amazed that Mongolians don't just hibernate during winter.

When a country is this cold it affects everything. True, there are some days when you can get away with a fleece and hat, but mostly you have layer-up. Leaving the apartment takes a good 5 minutes as one has to pile on the clothes so that you don't lose an arm to frostbite. If it has snowed then walking anywhere requires all you attention in order to avoid slipping and sliding into on-coming traffic or a large, possible angry, Mongolian guy. I am seriously considering investing in a pair of ice skates! The other problem which I learnt about the hard way is that of things freezing. This may seem obvious, but when you have spent 23 years living in countries where your hair dry's if it is wet when you go outside, I was quite unprepared. For those of you who have never had frozen hair, I can tell you that it is quite disconcerting. I didn't even notice the first time (yep, it's happened more than once) until I tried to run my hands through my hair and was met with more resistance than usual. The dampest sections of my hair had literally frozen. I never expected to have to thaw out my hair when I came to this country.

That's all I've got time for now. I'll try to be more dilligent with my blog in future.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 12, 2009

A tidal wave of beer and a trek in Terelj

I recently made the decision to only write my blog when something interesting happens. This was partly because I don't want it to get boring (if it already has, please do let me know), but also because I am far too lazy to maintain that level of blogication (you see, what I did there was combine the words 'blog' and 'dedication' to make an amusing new word...well I liked it anyway) So that is why I haven't written a new post for a couple of weeks. Anyway, here is my next one...

The last couple of weeks have actually been interesting enough for me to have written two posts about it but as I mentioned earlier, I am far too lazy. Work has been going well and I'm really beginning to get used to life in Mongolia. If anything, I have become complacent. I now casually stroll out into the lawless death trap that is Ulaanbaatars' traffic whereas before I would have formed a strategic plan before even considering crossing a street. I laugh in the face of maniac drivers and kick death in the nuts. Having said that, I still have to be careful. There are occasions when I am crossing a street and I make the mistake of making eye-contact with an approaching driver. He/she instinctively see's this as a challenge and as a result will go out of their way to mow me down. Luckily, I have become adept at unleashing sudden bursts of cheetah-like speed and thus far I have been able to avoid becoming points on somebody's "running-over foreigners" score board.

The weekend before last (3rd-4th Oct) was pretty freaking awesome. Up until that point I hadn't really been able to cut-loose as I had been too busy. If that weekend had been a novel the synopsis would have read: "This is the tale of a guy who went out and drank lots of beer. Oh, and he also visited a monastary." I didn't consume vast quantities of alcohol but my bodies' ability to resist it had drastically weakened due to lack of practise. Now some people might think it's embarrassing to admit that after 3 beers on Saturday night I was well away, but not me. I don't remember exactly how many beers I drank that night, but I do remember that I had an awesome night. A bunch of us VSO's headed to this place called 'Ivory' and it was pretty cool. I met a load of new people and generally made merry. It had been a long time coming but it was worth the wait. All of the worries, stresses, and tiredness that go hand in hand with living in a new and strange country were washed away in a delicious tidal wave of beer. Of course, the morning after the night before is always interesting. I am not unaccustomed to hangovers but it had been a while so when I woke up my body decided to punish me for disturbing it's peace. I awoke lying awkwardly on my couch and my first thought was 'why did I use my trousers as a blanket and use the real blanket as a pillow?'. My second thought was 'my God, I have escaped a hangover, thank the heavens' because my head felt clear. Ecstatic at having evaded said hangover I leapt off the couch and was immediatly hit by the realisation that I had not in fact escaped punishment. My body had cunningly decided to delay exacting vengeance until I was least prepared for it. The moment I stood up I realised my mistake and was practically floored by a headache which felt like someone had ploughed a freight train through my forehead. It was then that I began to notice the familiar signs of a hangover -

Headache - check
Dry mouth - check
Extreme nausea - double check
Inability to move properly - check
Half eaten food lying nearby - check
Intense desire to eat cold pizza and watch a movie in bed - check

Eventually I recovered and I resolved to never let this happen again by drinking more regularly and regaining my alcohol tolerance.

The following weekend myself, Leah, Andrew, Aki, and a German guy named Stefan went for a trek in Terelj. The plan was to walk 40km up one valley, over a ridge, and down another. Terelj is a national park and it is exceedingly beautiful. Our route took us along a river and we passed a number of gers complete with angry guard dogs. There was however, an exception. As we walked past one ger a dog that had been lying nearby got up and bounded over towards us. We armed ourselves with stones (as we always did in such situations), ready to fend off the attack. In fact, it never came. What did come was an extremely friendly dog who seemed pleased to see us. We carried on walking but the dog followed us. We naturally assumed that it would get bored and go home but we were much mistaken. Our new companion would stick with us for the entire weekend. The walk up the valley was great. I was extremely grateful that we were walking on established paths rather than bushwhacking like on the last trip. I wasn't quite so grateful for the weather. The sun rapidly dissapeared and was replaced by cloud and a biting wind and didn't improve for the rest of the day.

We camped on top of a ridge seperating 2 valleys next to an ovoo. It was a nice spot and we got a fire going and cooked dinner whilst trying to fend off our canine companion who was trying her hardest to get our pasta. I was slightly apprehensive about the coming night as my sleeping bag was only good to -4C and the weather forecast had predicted that the night-time temperature for the area would be at least -5C. To prevent myself from freezing to death I threw on all the clothes I had with me and settled down to what proved to be an uncomfortable sleep. One problem with wearing a number of layers is that inevitably your body will decide to make you go to the toilet in the middle of the night. What is normally a simple function becomes a complex race against time to de-layer and get out of the tent. Add to that the fact that the woods we were in were spooky at night and what you are left with is a wholly unpleasant experience. Now, when I went to the toilet there wasn't a cloud in the night sky and the stars were out in all their splendour, so imagine my surprise when I woke up in the morning, unzipped my tent, poked my head out and saw a couple of inches of snow blanketing the ground. Imagine also, my consternation at having a hefty dollop of snow fall off my tent and on to my unsuspecting head. I quickly got over it though as the snow covered forest was magnificent. The snow continued to fall as we packed up and headed down into the next valley. It was truly stunning, all the more so because we walked past a herd of horses galloping about whilst their owner tried and failed to control them.

When the walk was over I was thoroughly tired and aching (40km in two days is a long way, at least for me anyway) but it was a great weekend. The next day in work was equally awesome as I found out that I had had my first project proposal accepted. Helloooooo £10,000 for CYPPD!

I hope you enjoyed this post!

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Living with a dead person, being electrocuted by plants, and snow in September.

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post. There is no particular reason for this, I just found lying on my couch after work to be much more agreeable than exerting the Olympian amount of effort it takes to write this thing. Exaggeration? Maybe. All I know is I like lying on my couch.

Anyway, the last 2 weeks have been ticked over nicely. It is such a relief to find yourself breezing through each day and the time not dragging at all. There was a nice moment not too long ago when I came home from work, kicked off my shoes, sat on the couch and thought "it's good to be home". Now that may not sound significant, but I had spent a good deal of time wondering if I would ever settle or whether everyday life would become a chore so to feel at home was something of an epiphany. This, of course, is not to say that I have forgotten where home, or the people in my life who matter most, really are.

I have also found that I am enjoying work. It must be said that sometimes it can drag but then that surely must apply to almost every job, except maybe being an astronaut...or a demolition expert (let's face it, getting paid to blow up big buildings must be awesome). My usual routine involves arriving at work at 9:00am, having a cup of coffee at 9:01am, reading and answering e-mails and then spending the rest of the day working on various project proposals or working out a budget (all interspersed with numerous cups of life-giving coffee). I have also discovered that proposal deadlines (in this case, our Edinburgh Global Partnership proposal was on Wednesday 23rd) can cause inordinate amounts of stress followed by a tsunami of relief rolling over you as it wings its way through cyberspace and (hopefully) gets accepted. So I think I will happy working at CYPPD for the next year, although I will be even happier if the projects I am planning don't crash and burn!

Having previously stated that I feel at home both in Ulaanbaatar, and in my apartment, settling in has not been without it's problems. There are the normal things that go hand-in-hand with moving to a city in a poor country, such as trying to avoid being mugged or pick-pocketed, dodging maniac drivers (who presumably count hitting a foreigner as a million points and see road safety as something to be pondered philosophically as they hurtle round a corner on the wrong side of the road). Then there are the less usual, person specific things. In my case, this means discovering (after having lived in my apartment for about a week: I only remembered to write about this yesterday) that you share your apartment not with a family of cheeky, yet friendly mice, nor a large cantankerous spider, oh no, that would be a luxury only to be dreamed of. Instead I discovered that, in fact, I share my apartment with the cremated remains of my landlady's mother-in-law. That's right, you read correctly; another persons dead relative. "Stop over-reacting Mike" you might say, "it's only ashes", and whilst that is true, it doesn't help to learnt that said dead mother-in-laws old clothes also occupy one of the compartments of your closet. For intents and purposes she still bloody lives here. Couple that with all of the strange noises the flat makes at night and the fact there have been a few times when I have woken up in the morning to discover a door open or light turned on that I could swear I closed or turned off the night before. Oh and then there were the words GET OUT scrawled in blood across my living room wall (just kidding...I think). Throw all of this into a metaphorical cauldren, stir it around a bit, and you are left with a concoction that has a 100% chance of freaking me out.

I seem to have grown used to my apartment's little indiosyncracies now and don't really associate it with a ghost any more, but there was a moment when I almost called Ray, Peter, Egon, and Winston to proton pack her dead ass.

The next little obstacle to settling in which my apartment threw at me (although admittedly, it's more a comic minor inconvenience than anything else) was quite literally shocking (please excuse the terrible pun). The first time occurred I didn't quite know what had happened. One mintute I was flicking through Mongolian channels on my TV, the next I had taken a big jump backwards and was waving my hand around in response to the sharp pain that had just shot through it. Okay, so the pain wasn't really bad, but allow me some dramatic license. Once I had gotten over my consternation and realised that it was just a static shock, I gazed around looking for the culprit. The TV was the most obvious suspect, sitting there looking old and angry with the world for inventing better TV's. But no! I had cautiously crept forward, reached out and touched it. Nothing. I scanned the floor looking for an exposed wire, anything upon which I could lay blame and exact revenge. Still nothing. Then, as I stood up I got shocked again. This time it was clear who was responsible. A most unlikely suspect if ever there was one. It sat there, green and seemingly harmless, but this potted plant was my attacker. I headed over to the fridge to get a beer and decide what this plants' fate would be. As I opened the fridge with my right hand, I put my left on the top and zap, I got shocked again. My immediate thought was that the plant on the TV had somehow hurled a bolt of lighting, Zeus-style, at me. However I quickly became aware that it was the other potted plant on top of the fridge that had assailed me. It was clearly a plant pincer movement, and a well executed one at that. The plants and I now live in a sort of North Korea - South Korea situation. I know not to invade their space and they know that if I do they will zap me again and that, unfortunately, would result in their quick exit from the building via the window.

The final thing I would like to talk briefly about is the sudden turn for the worse which the weather has taken recently. On the coldest day of this month (Saturday 19th) it snowed. It snowed a lot. I first became aware of this when I awoke that morning, had nice hot shower, threw on a t-shirt and trousers (the weather had been pretty good up to that point) and strolled outside. I doubt there has ever been a faster retreat (although the French or Italians may lay claim to that title). It was practically a blizzard. To say I was surprised would be a massive understatement. Before I had left my apartment I had been blissfully unaware of the Arctic conditions outside because I usually keep my curtains closed as I live on the ground floor and don't want curious Mongolians peering in. The snow in Mongolian is very strange. It doesn't feel wet to the touch and it is very powdery. Strangest (and worst) of all however, is the fact that try as you might, you cannot make a snow-ball out of it. I very nearly broke down in tears when I made this discovery. My dreams of stealthily landing a snow-ball on someone's head were dashed by the freakish snow of Mongolia.

That just about wraps it up for this post. I hope you have enjoyed it. Thanks for reading!