Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas in Hovd

Sometimes in western Mongolia you just have to make do... Christmas, for example! There is no wrapping paper of any kind here. While our friends creatively cut up a Christmas tablecloth, we made some potato stamps and decorated our own paper. Who knew that wrapping presents could be almost as fun as un-wrapping them!

There are also, of course, no trees in western Mongolia. While it may be possible to buy a plastic pygmy tree from the market (usually the week before New Year's), we chose to contextualize a bit this year - a beautiful section of ger wall strung with lights and hosting a variety of ornaments and ribbons!

Another great thing about Christmas are the concerts... and we were able to find a few. Eden (and Avery) has been taking dance lessons at the Childrens' Palace. They had a zoo of a holiday concert with all kinds of song and dance numbers. Eden was slightly overshadowed in stardom by the young male vocalist standing directly in front of her stunning dance performance, but she enjoyed it thoroughly (and is happy to dance for anyone on command!). I enjoyed a little stardom of my own, participating in the Christmas choir for our all-Hovd Church Celebration ;)

And of course you need presents to celebrate the Birthday!! Somehow we didn't have a problem finding these - thanks to a fruitful trip to UB (November) and some fantastic packages from the grandparents! It was a good first Christmas in Hovd... and it is such a privilege to celebrate the coming of our King among a people who have been so long without one.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Eagle Hunting

We had an amazing opportunity to take a long weekend and travel with friends to the annual Kazakh Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii. Of course the kids were thrilled... Zeke has been waiting over a year to see the golden eagle hunters! We even met the youngest hunter, who got 4th place and was Zeke's age - 10! I don't think that they would trust any of us with their eagles, but we got to hold this falcon.

There were horse and camel races, a tug-of-war game on horseback, and lots of local crafts, but of course the eagles were the best part. They would take off from a small mountain and pounce on a fur being dragged behind their trainer. Some would wander off, some missed, but most were deadly accurate. I think the fastest eagle was about 12 seconds from peak to pounce. The hunters themselves were quite impressive as well, dressed in their furs and colorful embroidery.

Not only that, but creation itself was most impressive. We stayed in a ger camp next to a large, clear river (I didn't know they HAD any large OR clear rivers in Mongolia!). There were even a few trees (right next to the river). But the mountains were awesome - jagged with a few perennial snowcaps. As we went through the highest pass our intrepid teammate (Larry) ran up to 9000ft... after we set up this base camp at 8800 ;)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Home Sweet Home

We made it to Hovd and, by God's grace, we have a home... temporarily. Living in a ger (yurt) is certainly a daily reminder that we are just pilgrims on earth! It's a beautiful spot on the northern end of town in the middle of the Kazakh neighborhood. We are surrounded by harsh yet majestic mountains (some of which we've climbed already). We can get fresh milk every morning... we just have to watch our step around the yard!

It is a fairly large, yet still snug ger. At first we weren't really sure if we would fit - no corners to stack suitcases, beds take up most of the wallspace, etc. This is the "kitchen" which transitions into the "library" and "master bedroom."

On the other side we have the "walk-in closet" transitioning into the "kids' bedroom." Notice how we even hung a sheet to give the illusion of actual rooms! In the center, of course, is our fireplace (and "dining room"). We use a bit of wood (the neighbors use brush) to get it going and some coal to make it last longer, but primarily we are burning cow dung ($2/bag!). Any questions?!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer camping 1

Our first camping trip for August started out with an exciting "shortcut" over mountains and streams... this one included a ferry crossing! Although the ferry itself seemed quite sea-worthy, the boarding and de-boarding process was a bit tricky - driving over rickety 2x4s. The trip via backroads was beautiful and perhaps shorter as the crow flies... but we certainly didn't save any time! And a few people wanted to throw up most of the time ;)

There were LOTS of kids (11 out of 17) and plenty of food. Our "western dish" for the day was spaghetti. It was surprisingly damp and cool in the evenings, though our days were fabulous. So the kids spent all day in the nearby stream and then bundled up tight for the night. We also had a race to the top of the mountain which got the blood flowing and a wild game with our football of mongolianized "500."

This was our last special time with Dawaa and Bathoik (our project staff) and their families. I managed to sneak a little bit of work in as we spent a few hours reflecting on the example of the Grameen Bank, and a bit of reflection as we gathered around the evening fire to talk about these last few years and share communion. Camping can be hard work, but God is good and this was definitely worth it!

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Coming of Larry

These last few weeks I have been thinking to myself... there isn't much time left. I just KNOW that, when the Lains get here, I am going to have to exercise. I know it will be good for me and I'll probably even like it, so as painful as it is we boys are trying to get ourselves ready. We don't want to be caught weak and flabby!

Of course I chuckle every time I think of it because it is so like our waiting for Jesus sometimes! I don't really want to get up and exercise today, and I'm not really up for socializing with neighbors - much less leading them to reflect on spiritual truths - but there is just no getting around the HUGE risk of not being ready when He comes. Thankfully, Larry can only torture us in this world... but I gotta say, I look forward to becoming a better man with his help. Ha, it will even be his second coming (to Mongolia)!!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Dread Head

We've had some time on our hands the last couple weekends to work on an experiment ... Saiah's dreadlocks! It is our first attempt, without any fancy products, so it is pretty obvious that we are going to need some practice ;) Thankfully Saiah isn't too worried about it... which is good since the back half of his head still isn't done yet.

We had a lovely Sunday out at the river with our church. We sang some songs, had a review/lesson on the spiritual universe, jumped in the river, and enjoyed some boiled meat (the Mongolian equivalent of a BBQ). These two bums made a sandcastle in their free time, and didn't even burn all day in the sun!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Motor Tour 8 - Friends

Perhaps the greatest and most interesting part of the trip was just meeting and spending time with people I would have never have met otherwise. For example, even way out in the middle of nowhere we found young people who were learning English! This young fellow, whose sister's English was half decent (his wasn't), had never even met a foreigner before...

At the opening ceremony we even rubbed elbows with Darhan's vice-governor for a bit. He knew a bit about CAMA Services and was pleased with my Mongolian.

On our very own team we had a variety of backgrounds - like two doctors and several businessmen (e.g. a kimchi company, and this guy owns part of a cellphone company as well as the international market in town). We had VERY different ideas about economic development, but I think that we both really came to respect each other (and you can see how he just adores "Jack"!).

For me it was even more than just the individuals, but watching and enjoying how we all functioned and began to relate as a group of Mongolian men ;) For example the evening toasts were a cornerstone to bonding (and I figured out how to get out of drinking!); and seeing discomforts fade as guys started to find their niche or specific function in the group. I think that I may have ended up learning more about the culture from the campsites than from the historic sites! I praise God for this culture and for these friends!!

Monday, July 05, 2010

Motor Tour 7 - Battlegrounds

Perhaps the best part of the trip was riding a motorcycle over the plains and valleys where Chingis' scouts and soldiers once rode. This is supposedly the site of his very first battle, as described in their only recorded history "The Secret History of the Mongols," where he fought the Mergeds (30,000 or so!) to take back his wife. The only thing there now is a big rock (brought there to commemorate the plain) and a small bubbling spring.

Another site, this one back in the hills and forests, is where Chingis supposedly fought his best friend Jamukh for leadership over all Mongol peoples. Chingis did not want to kill him, but Jamukh insisted. Standing here is our faithful leader and documentarian - Javhai.

After all that traveling it is nice to sit down and have a snack... again supposedly in the very place where Chingis once hitched his horse 800 years ago! It is just too bad that you have to travel so many long and dusty hours just to get to another neat-looking rock in the middle of nowhere!

Another favorite visit was to this traditional bow-maker. Krista got me one of these bows almost 2 years ago but I never saw how it was done - cutting strips of ram's horn, glueing it to a strip of birch(with homemade glue from livestock...don't ask!), and coating on layers of cow tendons. This backwards-bending bow is surprisingly strong - as powerful as an English longbow and half the size!

Motor Tour 6 - Rivers

Here is bold "Jack," leading us to greener pastures. This is a cliff overlooking the Orhon valley... I've never seen Mongolia so green! It was a beautiful spot, which was good because we ended up staying there for HOURS trying to fix a car. This area north of Darhan is famous for its vegetables (which may not be saying much for Mongolia, but is still impressive to me).

Further up the river, although several more hours around, we stopped and spent some time around this ferry. I grew up near a ferry and, while I wasn't too impressed with the ramps, it was ingenious how they use cable winches to slant the ferry so that the current pulls them across (no motor!).

We ended up visiting seven "rivers" on our trip (some of them less than knee deep). On especially hot days we would all strip down to our undies and jump in (or crawl in, as the case often was). One of the cultural curiosities we did NOT participate in was the sand sauna... a little too hot and a little too close!

I know this is supposed to be G-rated, but I thought you would be proud to know that all 3 of us Americans didn't hesitate to follow suit... it was pretty frigid but, like I said, it was HOT out there!

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Motor Tour 5 - Religions

Tibetan Buddhism is the official religion of Mongolia (though no one knows much about it except the lams). Since the fall of communism (and the mass destruction of all things buddhist) there has been slow stages of revival. Here we visited the opening ceremony for a new temple that will built upon the ruins of an old monastery. I heard that USAid gave $1 million for another such rebuilding effort.

These young fellows have been dedicated to buddhist teachings and service. They do not participate in public school or events, but board at the temple and receive their education from their "teacher." Here they take a few minutes in the shade before the ceremony, where they will assist the monks with Tibetan scriptures and musical instruments.

From my perspective the heart-beliefs of Mongolia are still animistic, though it is somewhat confusing since monks often participate thoroughly in animistic practices. This is the "mother tree"... a difficult visit for me due to the hypocrisy I find in venerating a single tree and generally disregarding the rest of our environment (not to mention the hypocrisy of worshipping a tree and generally disregarding the Lord of Heaven, something Chingis himself would never have done).

By far the most interesting experience was sitting next to our traveling monk (who now consults privately instead of serving in a temple) in the home of a distinguished Kazakh elder, with a former muslim imam (who is now a local official). It was very bizarre to see their cultural similarities, yet to identify far more with the Kazakh muslims theologically. For me the greatest insight, and challenge, was to realize that they had no intentions or even desire to "convert" one another - Mongolians are buddhist and Kazakhs are muslim... it is the Christians who to some extent must disregard all culture and history as they follow their Savior in search for the all-encompassing community with eternal foundations.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Motor Tour 4- Animal Whisperers

That second campsite, the one on the hill, was near one of Darhan's champion horseracers. We dropped in after pitching our tents, about 11:30pm, for tea and some jokes. Then the next morning he showed off one of his 3 herds to us and put his youngest on this prize-winner (he had six prize-winning horses). I think that even "Jack" got to ride him for a bit (about 3 minutes), but the horse looked MUCH smaller underneath my 6'3" friend.

Our fourth campsite was by a pleasant stream next to one of Mongolia's champion hunters. We dropped in BEFORE pitching our tents, about 11:30pm, for tea and some jokes. Then the next morning he sprang out of bed to show us a wolf pelt (from 4 days ago) and rustle a horse for milking - it is "airag" season (fermented mare's milk). Did I mention he is 78 years old?

Of course we encountered more than just horse whisperers... here is a young goat whisperer trying to re-tether our dinner! We also saw sheep and even a couple herds of camels (all 5 of Mongolia's livestock).

But I can't leave out the cows. These fine fellows were generous enough to share a bit of shade with me, which can be hard to come by on the open steppe of Mongolia! They weren't very chatty, which was fine with me because by that time I was hot and tired and wanted to get away from people for awhile! Ha, trying to get away from people while traveling in the remote countryside of the least dense nation on earth!!

Motor Tour 3 - Campsites

We had a variety of wonderful camping spots. I had no idea that our area of Mongolia had so many trees! Our first night could have been a pleasant forest in central Oregon. Everyone piled out of their trucks about sundown (10pm-ish, the earliest we ever made camp!). Then, due to a small excursion in the morning (not to mention the stockpile of beer and vodka from the night before) we hung around this beautiful spot for HOURS!

Our next night was very different are far more typically Mongolian - a great view from a grassy hilltop, but not a tree in sight. There was a salt lake in the distance and plenty of critters to entertain us, though.

The food was also quite interesting, though nothing was different about it at all - fairly bland greasy soups every night (usually around midnight)! I actually quite liked it... for the first couple nights. Although I slowly lost my appetite, it had nothing to do with the fact that we butchered, smoked, and carried our own meat throughout the long hot days. Actually the bloodless killing, skinning and light smoking are all quite fascinating... now if only we had some curry, or at least ketchup!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Motor Tour 2 - Roads

A good share of the time (perhaps 1/3) we had decent roads - mostly dirt. That is smooth sailing for a motorcycle! Unfortunately about 1/3 of the roads were really BAD. I didn't really mind the ruts, or washboard, or rocks... and I didn't even ride on the really hard road towards the end (bike broke down). But the sand was awful, and almost everywhere.

The best part of the trip was having no roads at all! I kept humming, "Signs, signs, everywhere there's signs, blocking up the scenery and wasting my time"... not really a problem here in Mongolia!

For example one can take off after eagles, or round up a few camels, or scout a difficult cliff or river crossing, or just go to the top of a hill and enjoy the view. Here we are with a few of the guys overlooking a valley where the local monks are beginning to rebuild some monestary ruins.

The roads weren't too bad, but don't be fooled by this easy-rider. It was HOT! Most days were in the upper 90's. Our mongolian friends thought they were dying, and they were all riding in cars! I don't think I've ever drank so much water in my life. Thankfully the layers of dust kept me from getting sunburned...

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

MotorTour 1- Darhan

Our adventure started on a regular old Saturday afternoon. Here we are getting gas after the big "sending off." My fellow traveler, we'll call him "Jack" (he might get in trouble if certain people knew he went on this trip!), talked me into this brave expedition... I didn't know we would be the only ones on bikes... and I didn't know he would get the fancy dirt-bike with all the cool gear ;)

It is interesting to me that they picked "Jack" to come along as their poster-boy for Darhan's 50th anniversary! He is certainly a charmer... who wouldn't want to come visit this beautiful city?!

Our first several hours (or so it seemed) were spent circling Darhan visiting the "main attractions." Having lived here 7 years, and wanting to get OUT of Darhan on my motorcycle, I did not find them all that attractive! But we did have some cops stop traffic for us once or twice while we flew by with our fancy banners.

Our personal favorite stop was the relatively new Metal Man. He is a creative (hub caps, sewing machines, welding tanks, you-name-it!) 10-meter tall representative of Darhan's steel factory as you come into town. And with us is Garret (his real name), the 3rd musketeer on this wild mongolian ride...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Mongolia MotoTour

It was a wild ride - 5 days, 4 nights - traveling around to each of the cultural and historic sights around Darhan. In preparation for Darhan's 50th anniversary next year, a team of 18 was put together - videographers, historians, technicians, a few businessmen, and a pair of American bikers! - to record all of these sights in order to promote city-pride and tourism. It wasn't easy! The days were long (dinner was usually around midnight), the roads were dusty, and the days were HOT (about 100F).

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, traveling with this small horde across road, trail and steppe. We even rode our bikes across ancient battlefields like modern horsemen, and stopped to swim in the rivers and rest in the shade of mountains where Chingis himself once rode. In the next couple blogs I will try to show you these places, some of them beautiful and some of the harsh...

Saturday, June 05, 2010

High Fying

We enjoyed "International Childrens' Day" on June 1st, a popular holiday here in Mongolia. And we have had some great weather lately, but quite windy... perfect for kite-flying.

We ordered ourselves a present and have all been enjoying this 2-meter training kite - bigger ones are used for kite-boarding. Even this one can be a little strong for the boys, but if they get the hang of it then maybe next year we will get them a mountain-board (and lots and lots of pads!). See, there are fun things you can do with wind and LOTS of sandy steppe!