Thursday, July 23, 2009

the past two months

The upcoming weeks will be quite busy, so I'd better try to fill in the gap between Mongolia and the present before things get even more out of hand!

May 16th was a barbecue at a park in Kameoka. A lot of people turned out, and we had a really nice time. Nelis was in rare form that day, being totally silly. A bug got in his shirt, so he named it She and claimed it was his girlfriend. And during a conversation about mukade, the giant poisonous centipedes that roam Japan searching for victims, we had the following exchange.

Nelis: I like mukade.
me: What?! They're little black death machines!
Nelis: Have you ever spoken to a mukade? They're actually quite nice.

Nelis and I also made friends with a part-time English teacher named Minako, who by all appearances was a normal delicate little Japanese woman. When she heard that Nelis was South African, this happened!

Minako: Oh, I've visited there twice.
me: Really? Why?
Minako: For the World Power-lifting Championships.
me: What?! Did you compete?
Minako: Yes.
me: Did you win?
Minako: Second place.
me: !!!
Nelis: Could you lift me?
Minako: Easily.

Quelle suprise! Anyway, Joanna and I had to leave the barbecue a little early, which was maybe for the best, because shortly thereafter the police arrived to break up the party. I guess it was a slow day for crime in Kameoka, because apparently there were thirteen officers -- probably the entire staff of the local police box.

After the barbecue I went with Joanna and Alex R. to see a kabuki play. I don't remember now what it was called, but it involved probably the wackiest stage fighting I had ever seen, despite most of the play being a drama. These two guys staged a fight at an old mill, which actually had a giant pool of water with it on stage. First they fought across the roof, then one fell into the water, and then we he tried to climb up the waterwheel, the waterwheel actually started spinning him around on stage! It was ridiculous! Eventually the two samurai were both in the pool having a splash fight, not to mention intentionally soaking everyone in the front rows. And at one point they lost their swords and started hitting each other with carrots. Very funny!

On May 23rd, a group of us (me, Joanna, Neil, Alex, and Joy) climbed Mt. Hiei, which is along the border of Kyoto and Shiga prefectures. There are some nice temple complexes at the top, not to mention some absolutely breathtaking views of the surrounding area. By the time we got to the top, though, we were all sweaty and now that I have the moral superiority of having climbed it, next time I'll take the cable car!

Towards the end of May, Alex R. kickstarted a series of movie nights at his apartment, beginning with Jean Claude Van Damme's epic "Bloodsport." In later weeks, this would be followed with "Big Trouble in Little China," "Half-Baked," and the JCVD classics "Kickboxer" and "Double Team." I also had the boys over to my place one afternoon for a "Space Jam" and "Live Free or Die Hard" double feature that was pretty grand.

We also went to see the new Star Trek movie as soon as it came out. Totally awesome! When it ended, I just wanted to stay in the theater and watch it all over again.

The evening after our recontracting seminar (which was largely not worth mention), Hosoi-sensei had organized a staff party with the teachers from our old section, like a mini-reunion. We had a lot of fun, and I got to spend most of the night talking to Kaneshiro-sensei, who I would definitely marry, if only he weren't married already. In the process, though, I managed to make a Japanese mistake that is now tied for first with one I made in college. (The college mistake was during an interview test, where adding an extra syllable changed "Where does your family live?" to "Where does your pirate live?" Apparently Imai-sensei's pirate lives in Tokyo.) The mistake this time was when I was trying to say I was recently being kind of lazy about studying. I switched the word for lazy person, "namakemono," with the word "bakemono." Kaneshiro-sensei looked mighty surprised, and upon consulting my dictionary, we discovered that I'd just told him I was the boogeyman. Whoops!

After a few drinks, Hosoi-sensei decided to make a short speech about each person present. They were all like, "Oh, Ueda-sensei has finished her first year, congratulations..." and "Kristin always works so hard..." I was sitting next to him, so the speech about me was last. Hosoi-sensei is my best buddy at school, and was a little drunk by this point, so his speech about me went something like this. "Anna wore her hair down at work today. I asked her if she had cut it, but she didn't." Okay, what? And then, "Anna is...crazy." THANKS, HOSOI-SENSEI.

On June 6th, we went out to celebrate my friend Neil's birthday. We got together eight people and went to Karafune-ya, a huge ice cream parlour. Neil had preordered a one hundred dollar parfait. It was gigantic. The size of my entire torso. The eyes of every Japanese person in the restaurant were transfixed as the eight of us faced off against the parfait, and eventually (eventually) won. I think we needed closer to twelve people, from the way we all staggered out afterwards.

School has been busy, with various exams and interview tests and the speech contest, not to mention 800 goodbye Kristin classes. A lot of the junior high kids sang songs for her, which were totally adorable. "I'll Be There" by the Jackson 5 was a particularly challenging choice. We also had goodbye English Club meetings, for one of which I shelled out money for a nice goodbye cake. It was a pain to get, but made worth it by the students' joy for cake.

After school on June 26th, I went with Kristin and Sumiko (our tea ceremony teacher) to a really cool pottery exhibit at the little Sonobe museum. We were the only people there apart from the potter, so we were able to talk to him for awhile. His art involved a lot of animals and sea creatures. My favorite was this beautifully detailed and stylized octopus that sort of resembled Cthulhu, if Cthulhu were pretty.

On July 12th, we went to see kabuki once again, this time in Osaka. It was a kabuki production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (my favorite of his comedies), and it was absolutely stunning. It opened with three little boys singing a beautiful rendition of "O Come O Come Emmanuel" in Japanese. The same actor played both Sebastian and Viola, with by far the most unbelievable quick-changes I have ever seen. The sets were all gigantic, and there were probably a good ten of them, including a boat that actually traveled around the stage and an intricate cherry tree that actually had blooming branches drooping down over the actors. Everything was perfect and wonderful and lovely and comic. It was a great performance.

Tuesday the 14th, I took an hour and a half of annual leave to escape school early. Then I caught a train through Osaka to Hyogo, for my very first Hanshin Tigers game! It was so exciting. I adopted the Tigers as my Japanese baseball team three years ago when I studied in Osaka, but I'd never had a chance to go to a game. I wore my Toritani jersey, and bought a matching hat at Koshien stadium. The crowd was crazy, with all sorts of organized cheers that were specific to each Tigers player. The Tigers won 5-4 over the Chunichi Dragons, and the fans went wild! Twenty minutes after the game ended, we were all still in the stands, singing the Tigers theme song and the song for Hiyama, the MVP.

Finally, this past weekend! Sunday was the JET goodbye party in Kameoka, for all the folks who are leaving (or have already). We were walking to the venue, Liz's apartment, when the bottom dropped out and we were caught in the middle of a freaking flash flood. Our umbrellas helped almost none, and by the time we got to Liz's place, everybody was completely soaked. She gave us some towels, thank goodness, and the party was a lot of fun from there on out. A bunch of us stayed the night, and then went out for a late breakfast the next morning. Liz was kind enough to lend me an overshirt -- the one I had been wearing the night before had gotten crazily stained during the rainstorm (I think from my leather bag, somehow).

Monday was a holiday for Marine Day. (Marine as in the ocean, not the people. When I heard this was a national holiday, I thought, "Marine Day? Really? Well, I guess we have Arbor Day. But wait, we don't get a day off for Arbor Day. So it's still silly!") We did some shopping and said goodbye for now to Alex Ma. As Alex R. said, "It smells like burning marshmallows. Is Alex Ma on fire?"

After school on Tuesday I had to run back into the city, this time for Alex R.'s goodbye. We ate donburi at a restaurant we are fast becoming regulars of, had a beer at Ing Bar for old times sake, and did purikura together. Alex technically left Wednesday, but it's terrifically strange to try and envision our group without him. I hope someday we can really have our 2009 JETs Reunion Party back in America.

Nelis has also gone, and I probably won't see Liz again. The newbies start arriving in Japan on Sunday. I am leaving tomorrow morning for Tokyo, where I've been tagged to serve as a Tokyo Orientation Assistant. I get to meet them at the airport, and answer their questions at the hotel, and present a seminar about J-pop to several hundred people. (Death!) Then I will help escort all of the new Kyoto JETs back here. Among the group will be Paul (my new coworker), Paul's significant other (Liz's replacement), and Sabrina (my new neighbor). I haven't spoken to or messaged any of them yet...I hope they are cool people!

And wish me luck on my presentation. I have a sneaking suspicion that we're going to end up kind of winging it. :P

Friday, July 17, 2009

everybody wants to go to MONGOLIA!

I finally finished writing about Mongolia! It's practically a book. Please bear with me.

So, Mongolia was a pretty wacky experience, and I know no other way to do it justice than in excruciating detail. In fact, there is far too much to say for one post, so I am hitting it day by day. If you want to do things chronologically, please scroll down down down to the first post about Ulaanbaatar and work your way up from there. I think you'll have to go back a page, actually.

After this, I get to play catch up for the past two months. Oh boy.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Mongolia -- Day 10 and 11 (the end)

The last two days are a little blurry now, because I didn't make any notes at the time. (Whoops!)

One morning we went to Choijin Lama Temple, which was maybe my favorite place in UB. It was small, but beautiful and ornate. The art of Chinese-influence Buddhism is significantly different from the Buddhism in Japan -- namely, more violent and prone to linger on the Buddhist hells. It was really fascinating. In the makeshift gift shop (housed in a ger), I bought a bunch of little hand-painted cards as omiyage (souvenirs) for some of my coworkers and friends.

We found a statue of Lenin, and visited the Victims of Political Persecution Museum. It was contained in an old house (belonging to a previous prime minister that had been persecuted). The exhibits were mostly about the occupation by Soviet Russia, only half translated into English, and consisted of a lot of old photos and personal stories. The most suddenly stunning part was when you walked into a small room upstairs and came face to face with a plexiglass case full of human skulls, most with bullet holes. They were from a mass grave of 600 people that had just been discovered in about 2006.

We also tried to find the Modern Art Museum, but when we finally did, we discovered that it had been pretty much destroyed in a fire that caught from the bank next door.

At the guest house, we spent more time hanging out with Nasaa, as well as this guy Go from Tokyo. We watched a pretty crazy and kind of low-budget music competition show (essentially Ulaanbaatar Idol), and helped Go learn the words to "Stand By Me."

At last, it was time to depart. Nasaa and Urnuun's mother came with us to the airport. As we drove there, we passed the end of some Buddhist festival, and saw these flaming lanterns flying up into the sky. It was a nice image to end on, I think.

We had a great time in Mongolia. I wouldn't mind going back, though I'd much rather spend time in the countryside than in the city!

Mongolia -- Day 8 and 9 (Back in the UB)

The day after we got back from our tour, Chanaa escorted me, Fig, and Pasi on the one hour walk to an absolutely giant outdoor marketplace that was literally called "The Black Market." It was divided into vague quadrants, where you could find clothes, or antiques, or furniture, or anything else that occurred to you. There were probably fifty stalls just selling shoes.

We bought various souvenirs, and I managed to get a copy of the epic kayak album by Javhlan that we'd been listening to all week. It is amazing in the absolutely silliest way. Javhlan's sound is difficult to describe, except maybe like weird nomad opera? I saw him filed in a music store under "Country," which kind of made sense thinking about the actual Mongolian countryside -- though it is definitely Mongolian country music, bearing little or no resemblance to the American counterpart.

We grabbed a late lunch at a cafe Chanaa recommended, stopped by Hi-Fi Music for a few more Mongolian CDs (I think Fig had accumulated something like six by this point), and then Fig and I went out for dinner.

The next morning we spent some time watching the music channel with Nasaa (the hostel housekeeper), and then walked to Gandan Khiid. Gandan Khiid is a pretty cool monastery in the north-west corner of Ulaanbaatar. There were a lot of students there for some kind of graduation ceremony or trip, and a huge flock of pigeons trying to terrorize the public. The main building had a giant bronze statue of a standing Buddha, and a ton of smaller Buddha figurines lining the walls top to bottom. There was also a long line of these things that I think are like prayer wheels, stretching all along the inside and spinning constantly as the line of people ran their hands over them.

After lunch we next went to the Fine Art Museum and the attached Red Ger Gallery. Both were quite interesting. The Fine Art Museum had a lot of traditional works, including some intricate and heavy-looking festival masks and an absolutely stunning mandala model. It was about as big as a car, built in the shape of a finely detailed palace with various deities and decorations abounding. The Red Ger Gallery held more modern art, several pieces of which really impressed me. I particularly liked the paintings of one E. Tsolinonbat, but I can't seem to find him (or her) online anywhere for more information. (By the way, Dad, this is where I bought your painting!)

That night, Chanaa had invited Fig and I to dinner at her house. It was our first opportunity to see an urban dwelling. Chanaa lived with her husband and her two or three year old daughter, Anojun, in this tiny one room house tucked into a crowded neighborhood. (What we in America might consider a slum or at least projects, though I think it was fairly standard for UB.) There was no bathroom (or, I think, running water) so there was a tiny outhouse shack in the yard and Chanaa had to fill the teapot from a bucket. But inside the house was clean and decently furnished, and Anojun was an absolute pistol. She and I played a sort of strange game that involved spinning a plastic radish, which for some reason tickled Anojun to no end.

After a while, we were joined by a friend of Chanaa's husband, who was a big merry guy. (He lied to us about being a Mongolian wrestler, and told us that Japanese men must be crazy if we didn't have boyfriends.) Also, a neighborhood boy of perhaps seven came over to play with Anojun. The food was plentiful and great (oh, that I could cook like Chanaa) and we had an all around lovely time.

Mongolia -- Day 7 (the return)

The fifth day of our grand countryside excursion was mostly consumed by driving back to Ulaanbaatar, being forced to practice the "mama song" a million times in the van. None of us were totally eager to get back to the city, so instead, Ankha kept insisting that we were driving to the moon.

We stopped at the same Nowheresville town that had surprised us with the maid uniforms on the first day, and several children kept eying us through the windows. Taking the initiative, I grabbed a can of Pringles we'd brought in the van as a snack, jumped outside, and started dispersing stacks to them. ("Pringles For the Children" has a nice ring to it -- brand new charity?)

We stopped on a hill with a nice view of the rolling countryside to have lunch, Ankha getting up to his usual antics and dancing around on the roof of the van. But all too soon (boy, I cannot stress too soon enough) we were back in UB.

After fifteen minutes at a police checkpoint, we entered the city, passing a building called "The Akuma Center." (This elicited another laugh from all of us, because "Akuma" means devil in Japanese.) Back at Idre's Guesthouse, Ankha led us in our final rousing rendition of the "mama song," delighting (or at least amusing) the Mongolian staff. We bid farewell to our tour mates, and immediately ran for our first shower in five days. I don't think I've ever needed one more in my life.

Tired, we just grabbed some spicy ramen noodles from the weird little grocery store across the street. But at nine o'clock, we had agreed to go out with Pasi, our pre-tour Finnish friend. We walked across town (which I definitely wouldn't do in Ulaanbaatar without a male escort) to the so-called Club Dorgio. It was sort of underground, with tables arranged in tiers like auditorium seating. There was a live band, and we were just enjoying the atmosphere when, bam! The lights go out.

And they stay out. They stay out for fifteen or twenty minutes. But no one leaves! The bartender dispenses candles with such competence that I think this happens not irregularly, and then service continues as normal. (Though finding the bathroom in the dark was something of a challenge.)

Then we made one more stop at a mostly empty though quite swanky place called The History Club, which had the most eccentric menu I've ever seen. (The only thing approaching it is Ing Bar in Kyoto, which boasts the "world famous garlic festival.") The History Club's menu offered such amenities as:

African Salad
Vodka with traditional horn glass
Traditional throat song
Mongolian girls dance

But they were out of pretty much everything we ordered. No African History (that's right, no History at the History Club). All they had was french fries, so we ordered them twice back to back. (And no, we didn't have the guts or the money to order the Mongolian girls dance.)

Mongolia -- Day 6 (Kharkhorhiin and Erdene Zuu)

In the morning we bid farewell to ger number three and Mogi, our horse guide. He grinned his mostly toothless smile and blushed heavily when I told him, "Mogi, bi chamd hartzee!" ("Mogi, I love you!")

In the afternoon, we arrived via our bushwhacking van at the (very) small city of Kharkhorhiin, site of Karakorum, the ancient capitol and vaunted city of Chinggis Khan. Our fourth ger was among a whole cluster of guest gers, and we were excited to finally take a shower after four days running around on smelly animals...only to discover that the shower facilities were out of water. One more night among the unclean!

While Chanaa made lunch, Ankha decided that he was going to teach us the so-called "mama song." By this point, we had been listening to Javhlan (the kayak guy) on repeat almost nonstop for the past three days, so we all knew the tune like it was our national anthem. He painstakingly wrote out the first couple verses in the English alphabet (though Mongolians actually use Cyrillic) and started drilling us mercilessly. "Study! Study! Boma, come in!" I'm pretty sure we mangled the pronunciation, because Chanaa just started laughing when she heard us.

Next we visited Erdene Zuu monastery, the oldest Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. There were several buildings with various Buddhas enshrined inside, with stunningly colorful decorations. The ceilings in particular were painted in breathtaking patterns. The monastery was also host to a tiny marketplace, simply of blankets on the ground covered with trinkets, where we did some souvenir shopping.

To our surprise, there were several more girls in French main uniforms. I looked at Chanaa askance.

Me: Wait a minute. Chanaa, are those uniforms for every school?
Chanaa: Yes!
Me: Did you wear one in high school?
Chanaa: Yes!
Me: Oh my god! I want to see a picture!!

Alas, I never did. But Chanaa did explain to us that the uniforms had been imposed when the Russians took over. (Figures, hahaha.)

After Erdene Zuu, we stopped in the actual Kharkhoriin market to by (yet more) mutton, which was basically kept just sitting in huge chunks on tables in a bare white room. Fig and I didn't linger, instead wandering around outside, watching children in raggedy three piece suits playing pool on outdoor pool tables. Yuichiro wanted to stay and look around, insisting that he could walk back when he was finished, so we left him there (despite Ankha's cutely parental protests).

In the hour or so that it took Yuichiro to make his way back to the ger, Ankha spent most of it rolling around on Yuichiro's bed moaning, "Why, Boma, whyyyy? Boma where? Boooomaaaaaa!" And according to Chanaa, he wouldn't let her start dinner, because it needed to be hot when Yuichiro came back to eat. Hahaha, what a little dad.

That evening, a man (with excellent English) came and gave a concert at our campsite. He demonstrated traditional Mongolian throat singing and a several Mongolian instruments. (One which greatly resembled the Japanese koto.) Fig bought his CD, and I'm pretty sure that between the two of us we got the entire concert on video.

Afterwards, a group of Americans from another ger came and chatted with us for awhile, apparently using their recent layoffs as an excuse to travel abroad. At least one of them had been to Japan recently, so we spent some time discussing the things he'd seen and done.

But after they left, the gobi monster finally made his move! Switching off the lights, Ankha started growling and laughing like a crazier and more threatening Vincent Price. Needless to say, there was a lot of shrieking and pouncing and me holding a chair in front of me in self-defense.

Mongolia -- Day 5 (to the lake and back)

We started the day with bathroom adventure #3 -- no bathroom at all. We three girls (I, Fig, Miho) had snuck out the night before into the nearby woods, yelling "Hootie-hoo!" to keep track of each other in the dark. (A brief homage to Top Chef's Carla.) But in the morning light, it became evident that the woods were not as thick as one might hope for privacy, so there was some definite unease as we each tried to find a secluded enough spot and then keep our eyes peeled. This might have been all fine and forgettable, but...

As I was walking back to the ger, I suddenly heard Fig shriek in the woods behind me. "Oh my god!" Turning, I saw the source of her distress -- a guy on a motorcyle passed me with a vague grin, having evidently just motorcycled right past Fig. So much for the empty Mongolian wilderness.

We rode for two more hours on horseback, this time up into the wooded mountains that bordered the valleys. Most of the time we had to ride single-file, so it was very quiet and peaceful. Our goal was a pretty lake, which was still largely covered in ice. In some patches, the ice had melted into strange, spiky sheets stretched across the surface. We rested for awhile, took some pictures, and then rode the two hours back.

During our return trip through the valley, something spooked Miho's horse. I was riding right behind her when it started rearing like a wild thing, Miho clutching the saddle and flopping like a rag doll. My horse tried to follow suit, and I hauled back on the reins, thinking in a panic, "Oh my god, she's gonna fall! Oh crap, so am I!" Moments later, Miho was on the ground, but miraculously uninjured. I had managed to get control of my own mount, thank goodness, so it was just a matter of calming her horse. Miho was understandably wary, though, and since we were almost back to the gers, she elected to walk the rest of the way.

Chanaa made us khushuur for lunch (flat meat pastries), and I bribed the small children with candy and wet wipes. They were really into the wet wipes, for some reason...they watched the way I was cleaning off my face, and then mimicked me like little duchesses.

At last, it was onto the horses once again, to ride back across the plains to meet Ankha. By the time we were halfway back, my thighs were in pretty serious pain, so to distract ourselves Fig and I had a long conversation about Batman and other 90s cartoon shows. Then, Yuichiro had a spill of his own. It was quite odd actually. His horse wasn't going very fast, but when it stopped suddenly, Yuichiro just rolled over its shoulder in slow-motion, landing in a somersault that put him back on his feet in one smooth move, the way you only ever see on TV.

Finally we were back at the second homestead, Ankha running out to meet us and effectively stealing Chanaa's horse. We dropped off our mounts at the gers, had a cup of tea, and went off again to explore a nearby waterfall. Except, there had been no rain, so there wasn't actually any water. As Miho pointed out, it was less a waterfall, and more "just a fall."

So, we're all super tired and achy from the horseback riding - altogether, we had ridden for twelve out of the last thirty hours. But Ankha assured us that the just-a-fall was nearby, and we were willing to stretch our legs a little. What Ankha did not (and probably could not) tell us was that to get to the waterfall, we would have to scale down a practically vertical cliff. I think we must have looked pretty stunned with disbelief, because Ankha grinned and yelled, "Spiderman!" before bouncing down like a freaking mountain goat.

Eventually, we all made it down to the riverbed in one piece, but after about fifteen minutes, we just had to scale up it again.

We walked back (through a herd of yaks and a gang of herd dogs that I had to keep intercepting to protect dog-phobic Yuichiro), and had buuz for dinner (mutton dumplings). While getting ready for bed, we encountered bathroom adventure #4. As it turned out, while there was at least an actual outhouse this time, it was several hundred meters away through the yak herd. Fig went to find it in the dark, and just after she left, Chanaa came to tell us, "If you need toilet, please use near the ger. There are wild dogs." Whoops.

So, at least fifteen minutes later, Fig came back, looking frazzled, and having apparently crossed through some kind of dimensional rift in her attempt to find the outhouse. Lost amongst the yaks, she found a completely different set of buildings, and never encountered the outhouse at all, though it stood alone in the middle of a field and should have been easy to find. But at least she didn't meet the wild dogs!

Mongolia -- Day 4 (the grasslands)

We got up early to pack up our stuff, load into the van, and bid farewell to the desert. As was his wont, Ankha kept us all pretty entertained with his constant (and quite operatic) singing, pronouncing at intervals, "Mongolian pop star!" A few hours of bumpy off-roading took us out of the scrub and into some very pretty grasslands. They were these broad, open valleys surrounded by mountains, and occasionally cut by cool blue rivers still laden with ice. It looked like we had just driven into Lord of the Rings, or something.

Around lunchtime, we arrived at another homestead, where we ate some pseudo-spaghetti and outfitted ourselves for the next leg of the journey...on horseback. As it turned out, despite worrying about it when I was packing, I was the only one wearing acceptable shoes. So everyone else borrowed some pretty funny Mongolian boots (Miho's were HUGE on her), handed over one little overnight bag for the packhorse, and saddled up.

Chanaa had gone to great lengths to warn us that Mongolian horses are more dangerous than western horses (despite looking kind of smaller). Fig has a lot of riding experience, but mine basically distills to a week at a ranch in Arizona last year, Yuichiro's to one time in Peru, and it was Miho's very first time. We all found it funny that in Mongolia, instead of kicking your horse into a trot or gallop, you instead say, "Chuu, chuu!" (Mostly funny because we all knew that it was Japanese for "Kiss, kiss!")

Ankha stayed behind at the gers, temporarily replaced by our horse guide, a smiley middle-aged guy named Mogi. He was uber cheerful, and sang a lot. (A distinct trend of every tour guide we had in Mongolia, barring Chanaa.) We rode for four hours across the pretty valleys, and through the rivers (one of which Fig's horse almost fell into), passing sheep and yaks all over the place. As we approached our destination (yet another set of gers), Mogi's horse had a brief showdown with a big shaggy black yak, who (I kid you not) actually pranced back and forth like he was saying, "Hey, hey, whatchu doin'? Whatchu doin' here? Hey! Hey!" I wish I had it on tape.

Finally we got to that night's lodging, a cluster of gers populated mostly by small children and goats. The childrens' two favorite games seemed to be, grab-the-baby-goat-and-run-away-thus-freak-out-the-mama-goat, and try-to-ride-the-already-very-unhappy-mama-goat. Yuichiro, who was usually kind of weird and vaguely prissy, decided that these were the best games ever. He joined the two little girls in totally terrorizing the goats, and had this ridiculously big grin when he finally managed to catch one baby of his own. Baby goats are, by the way, called "ishik."

When it was time for dinner, we were realized there was no electricity, so the rest of the evening was mostly spent in conversation by candlelight.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Mongolia -- Day 3 (the Gobi desert, sort of)

The beginning of our grand countryside tour. We were up bright and early to meet our tour group and head out of the city. The tour was six people in total: besides Fig and I, there was a Japanese girl named Miho (from Chiba, near Tokyo), a Japanese guy named Yuichiro (from Saitama, coincidentally also near Tokyo), the tour guide, and the driver.

The tour guide was a really nice woman in her mid- to late-twenties (28?), named Chanaa. Her English was kind of funny, but good enough to do the trick. The driver was a 23 year old crazy man named Ankha, whose English was virtually nonexistent (apart from "Why? Why? Why? Why?") and who provided 90% of all entertainment during our trip. On our way out of UB, he stopped and bought a tape from a freestanding cassette stand (cassettes? REALLY?). It was by a really famous Mongolian singer named Javhlan, who was featured on the front, for some reason in a kayak. Little did we know that this cassette would become so integral in our lives.

Driving through the Mongolian countryside was interesting, but also very soporific to all us passengers who had gotten up early. After some general self-intro (in which we discovered that 22 year old Yuichiro had somehow already been to 57 countries) we all sort of napped. Part way through the morning we stopped for a bathroom break -- the first of a devolving set of weird countryside bathroom adventures.

The place we stopped was a community of perhaps 300 people, and we stopped to use a set of old wooden outhouses by the road. They were next to a tiled building, outside of which we were surprised to discover three girls wearing french maid uniforms, complete with stilettos. Why on earth were they dressed like that, in Nowheresville, Mongolia? And as we watched, more and more of them kept appearing, walking around the building's packed dirt courtyard. What could it mean?!

Back in the van, I asked Chanaa.

Me: Why are they dressed like that?
Chanaa: It's uniform.
Me: A uniform for what?
Chanaa: Uniform!
Me: Like a school uniform?
Chanaa: Yes, school uniform!

WHAT. We all boggled at that for awhile, then napped some more until lunch. Yuichiro slept in the weirdest and most uncomfortable looking positions, with his head wedged between the seats or, a few times, conked out on my shoulder. We of course took some clandestine photos to mark the event.

Whatever lunch was, it was awesome. We had hot tea and some kind of noodles with mutton (Mongolia's meat of choice) at this totally abandoned restaurant. There was a TV in one corner playing music videos, which Ankha settled down to watch. Pointing at the screen, he insisted, "Mama song! Mama song!" After a minute, we realized that it was the same as a song he had pointed out to us earlier in the van, off that very Javhlan cassette. (And so it begun...!)

In the late afternoon, our sleep was well and finally interrupted when we suddenly turned off the paved roads onto no road at all. The van flew along over the bumpy desert landscape, and upon seeing we were awake, Ankha cranked up some techno music and turned on a set of flashing blue lights that he'd strung around the inside of the ceiling. Laughing and dancing and half-falling out of our seats, we had a most improbable moving techno rave through the Gobi desert. (Video to follow!)

At one point we stopped for about twenty minutes to explore some sand dunes. Thanks to the wind, our clothes and skin were immediately covered in grit. Ankha started chasing us around, pretending to shoot us with a stick-cum-machine gun, wrestling Fig (and losing), and carrying me to the edge of a little lake in an effort to throw me in. The whole time, he was grinning and growling and shouting, "Gobi monster!!!" (Which immediately became one of our tour catch phrases. When in doubt, "Gobi monster!")

At last we reached our berth for the night. Tucked in the lee of a mountainous outcropping stood a herd of goats and sheep, and three canvas gers (a.k.a. yurts). One was set aside for us to use, with a wooden floor and several cots. As it turned out, there was another tour group staying in the second ger, almost entirely consisting of Japanese people! At least eight of them. We were seeing more Japanese people in Mongolia than actual Mongolians! Anyway, one of them had a Japanese <---> Mongolian phrasebook, which we used to learn our very first (and most often used) Mongolian word: liar. So when Ankha came back from rustling goats (no kidding) we gleefully declared him to be a "hotarch!"

The bathroom situation continued in its steady devolution. Instead of an outhouse, this homestead had a pit cordoned off by two blue tarps. But the tarps were only waist-high, and formed only two sides of a small triangle, leaving the back of the latrine open. Now, this wouldn't be a huge concern had they positioned the tarps against the outcropping. But for some reason, they had positioned it sideways, leaving your backside open to the plains. We had to go in groups to use it, so that at least one person could keep an eye out for any approaching goat herders about to get a surprise eyeful.

After we threw our stuff inside the ger and got a quick look around, it was time for a camel ride! We went in pairs, me and Fig first. The camel guide was a wizened little Mongolian man who had to be at least 65, and spent most of the hourish-long ride singing Mongolian folk songs. The countryside was breathtaking, all wide desert and craggy mountains and grassy plains. We found out that "batok" is evidently the word for baby camel, as we were being followed by an adorably gangly baby camel that tried to eat Fig's boot. The singing guide kept pointing at it and happily exclaiming "Batok baby!"

Chanaa made us all the Mongolian version of chicken noodle soup for dinner, taught us a complicated card game called Camel that involved giving each other piggy-back rides, and then Ankha renamed everyone. Apparently, Miho resembled a Mongolian friend of his, so he decided just to call her by the same name. Then, he gave the rest of us Mongolian names for good measure.

Miho = I forgot, actually...something like Zolha (a common girls' name)
Yuichiro = Boma (a common boys' name)
Fig = Ulanaa (meaning "red girl," because her cheeks were flushed)
me = Tsetsgee (which is a kind of flower. Pretty good deal for me!)

Then we played around outside for a while. There was a totally cute and incorrigible dog named Sara that kept chasing us around, we took photos of the moon, and Ankha was full of mock threats about the Gobi monster. That light in the distance? Gobi monster! After we go to sleep? Gobi monster! Sara? Definitely Gobi monster!

It's a wonder any of us could sleep with that dire threat hanging over our heads.

Mongolia -- Day 2 (Ulaanbaatar)

Our second day in UB began with a schedule change. Originally, we had been scheduled to go on a five-day excursion into the Mongolian countryside from May 3rd, accompanied by a French person and a British person. But one of them pulled out at the last minute, and so could we leave on the tour tomorrow instead? Of course this was fine with us, and imagine our humor when we discovered that our new travelmates were two Japanese people.

After that, we set out for the Natural History Museum. Along the way we were pseudo-accosted by a man brandishing a shovel -- mainly, he ran at us shouting just to freak us out, eliciting laughter from his friends and some colorful language from Fig. We grabbed lunch at a restaurant called Nomad Legends, which was quite good, and proceeded into the museum.

It was really weird. Apart from the oft Engrishy exhibition text (for some reason I was particularly tickled by odd phrasing of "the big science of biology"), there was an eerie plethora of taxidermied animals. Though one would of course expect some stuffed animals in a museum of natural history, the sheer number of them -- and worse, their sometimes blatantly amateur construction -- was striking. Birds' feathers were tatty and mussed, fish were affixed with dollar store googly eyes, and snow leopards wore expressions of almost comical surprise. In short, the museum often walked a narrow tightrope between morbidly comical and just plain sad. Of course, that said, my suspicion is that the funding for the museum was so lacking that they didn't have much of a choice. Apart from the dinosaur section, which was decently impressive, the exhibits (while interesting) had a distinctly unembellished and haphazard air.

Next, we took a brief spin through the Parliamentary Gardens, such as they were, but most everything was brown and dead, so we kept walking on through to Sukhbataar Square. This was perhaps the first place in Ulaanbaatar that honestly impressed me. A broad open square in the middle of the city, it boasted the huge parliament building at one end, with statues of Chinggis Khan and some of his generals. In the middle of the square was another statue of the eponymous Sukhbataar, who evidently led some revolution in Mongolia in 1921. (From what I gleaned of history while we were there, I think that's the one in which Mongolia ousted the Chinese in favor of the Soviets...but don't quote me on that.)

There were people loitering around trying to sell things like postcards to foreigners, sometimes using English. To fake them out, I would speak in Polish instead -- "I'm sorry, I don't speak English. I'm a Polish woman." It worked like a charm.

Fig and I then attempted to visit the Mongolian Artists' Exhibition Hall, only to discover that they had just finished taking down the current exhibition. However, one of the artists stopped to show us some of his work, which was for sale fairly cheaply. In the end, we both bought some. As we were taking the paintings back to Idre's Guest House, though, they sustained minor damage when a Mongolian teenager essentially body-slammed Fig. Well, body-slammed might be exaggerating, but there was a definite collision. As consolation, we decided to write off the little crinkles on the paintings as part of the "genuine Mongolian experience."

That night we ate dinner at a spot called the California Cafe, did a little preparatory shopping for our countryside excursion (i.e. toilet paper, wet wipes, tea bags, etc.), and then had a nice long conversation with another traveler at the guest house. His name was Pasi, a Finnish guy somewhere around thirty years old, who was on vacation from his job as a market analyst in Lithuania. Pasi was super friendly, if also super talkative, and we decided to meet up again when we got back from our tour.

After that, it was just a packing extravaganza as we reorganized our luggage for the tour, and I managed to squeeze five days into one backpack. Mongolia, ho!

Mongolia -- Arrival and Day 1 (Ulaanbaatar)

The day of our departure was among the busiest days I have had in a long long time. Our flight was at about five in the evening, but I had to go into work that morning because Kristin had taken the day off, and I had classes to cover. I was scheduled for class in every period until lunch, but fortunately the first two periods were rescheduled, and I had some extra time to prepare information and such for Mongolia. (And to steel my nerves for third and fourth period, which were two new classes that I was teaching with two new teachers, one of whom I'd only even met the day before.) In the end, the classes went okay, and I was amused to see that I'm now teaching a kid who lives on my street, and has just moved up from another local junior high. His name is Ryoma, and I think he's going to prove to be a funny character.

Fourth period ended at 12:35, and I was in a hurry to go get my luggage and get on the train by 1:08. Fortunately, Hosoi-sensei had kindly offered to give me a ride. He was waiting at my desk when I got back from class, looking a little sheepish, and he said to me, "Are you ready? ...Actually, I forgot, I don't have my car today, because there is a party tonight." (Meaning: he intended to drink, and was using the train to avoid Japan's zero blood alcohol law.) There was a moment of surprise on my part, but before I could even process the problem enough to be distressed, he hurriedly told me that Kawabe-sensei, the funny PE teacher, had agreed to take us, instead. I guess Hosoi-sensei felt obligated to come along, even though he wasn't actually driving anymore, so all three of us piled into Kawabe-sensei's van.

To make a long story short, I made the train and my connection at Kyoto station for the airport express, and arrived at the airport around 3:45. Fig was already there, and after checking in, we grabbed a late lunch/early dinner and hopped on the plane! It was about two hours to Seoul, where we found out that our next flight had been delayed about two or three hours. So we mucked about in the airport, had an encounter with a really sketched out Korean Air clerk who looked incredibly nervous as if we were hydras come to devour him, and finally got on our next plane. We arrived in Ulaanbaatar after one in the morning, and were met by Idre, the guy who runs the guesthouse where we stayed.

(I'd like to take a moment to comment on an advert we saw in the UB airport. It was for one of the major banks -- maybe Khan Bank -- and the tagline was, "Your inevitable business partner in Mongolia." Um, WHAT? They sound like the mafia!)

The drive into UB was strange and vaguely post-apocalyptic. It was really dark, and there were these huge smokestacks with orange lights looming over the city. There weren't many people on the street, but there were some wild dogs, a whole group of them besieging a parked SUV.

The guest house, though, was very nice on the inside, with computer access and laundry service, a kitchen and several public sitting areas. Plus, we were the only two in our room. Not bad for four dollars a night!

The next morning we got our first daylight look at UB. Outside, we could see a battered playground slide, dirt, broken concrete, and some pretty miserable looking buildings. My first reaction was, "It looks like Soviet Russia!" Which was in some ways accurate, but probably a little harsh. The city was just much greyer than I was expecting, and maybe moreso than any other place I've been. (It was even more intimidating than my first visit to Wittenberg, in which we accidentally drove through the south side of Springfield.)

The first thing we did was exchange our yen for tugrik, the Mongolian currency, and set out to explore town. We had tasty dumpling soup for lunch, did a little souvenir shopping at the State Department Store, and each picked up a beautiful tablecloth from this tiny hole-in-the-wall quilting shop we stumbled across in the ubiquitous apartment complexes. (I hesitate to call them tenements, because like many other places in UB, they were probably nicer on the inside. ...Probably.) We looked at a lot of cool antiques, but they were unfortunately out of our price range. Our quest to find the North Korean restaurant listed in our guidebook ended in failure (though we did pass a bar that claimed to be, "probably the most stylish lounge in UB"), so we ended up at Dublin, Mongolia's first Irish pub.

At the guesthouse that night, we befriended the young housekeeper, Nasaa, and a little boy named Urnuun, who lived en suite with his mother, who also worked there. We sort of taught them gin rummy, and then they taught us a Mongolian card game, which we played for hours. Urnuun had amazing English, even though he was only about ten. I guess it came from living in the guesthouse, where English was the most universal mode of communication. As a person, Urnuun reminded me of no one more than Short Round, the mischievous wise-cracking kid from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." He continually used his abracadabra black magic to curse us other players into being "jumpers," which is about the worst thing you can do in the game. And he changed the words to "We Are the Champions" to make a new composition -- "We Are the Jumpers."

Of course, he beat us all in the end.

in which my students continue to be hilarious

Here's some recent greats from the genius minds of my students! If these kids were any more adorable, I might just have to hug them to death. I mean death.

One of my all time favorites. When asking students to look at a picture of an umbrella and make a sentence using 'though':
“Though I put out the umbrella, my body got wet because the umbrella is a picture.”

On Yoko Ono:
“She and John Lennon gave their massage to the world.”

“I have no time to enjoy because I got many homework. I have to finish the homework. So, I didn’t go somewhere. But, I went to stroll with dog lover. When I go there, I looked dandelion fluff. I think, I want to fly to not homework world.”

“I couldn't visit any places because of many many homeworks, from 3 to 6. But I had to catch some crayfishes or big frogs for Creation Rika, so I and Isojima went to drains between fields near the Kameoka station on May 2. After a while, we hadn't found any crayfishes. And I asked to a woman working in the field where crayfishes are. She said “They will be seen in the rice-planting season.” Oh my god.”

Well, it's the first time I've seen that word as a verb.
“People tend to have prejudice against people who coffin a dead person.”
“Someday we will been coffined.”

“Track and field athletes use their cerebral, too.”