Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Harvest and bounty

Today I helped kill a sheep. Tsa-Tsa, the second oldest, got word she had a job in UB and was off like a rocket. All the kids like UB way better than the countryside. They decided to harvest one sheep and send the meat with Tsa-Tsa. I’m not sure if it was to sell or for relatives there to share. Anyways, Tsemgee and one of the boys picked an animal and laid it on its back. Very calmly, Tsemgee cut a 10 inch slit along the ribcage line that runs throat to belly. He reached in, and with his finger, hooked the spinal cord and broke it. The sheep struggled a bit, but it was a very quick, bloodless death with minimal trauma for the animal. I helped with the skinning and gutting, and found it to be largely similar to field dressing a deer. The part that was different was how they dealt with the entrails. All the entrails were cleaned with water. The lower organs were emptied of their grassy bile contents, turned inside out, and washed. The stomach and other organs I didn’t recognize were cut into strips and stuffed into the intestine casing. The blood was carefully collected and mixed with flour and poured into intestine casing. The whole big bowl was then boiled until everything was thoroughly cooked. I handled everything very matter of factly and without issue until we got to the entrails cleaning.

In Alaska, I would keep the heart and the liver, but leave the rest of the mess for the bears as an offering. Seemed a good deal, so I didn’t have to bother with them, and the bears got a treat. Here nothing is wasted. I helped with the entrails washing, pouring the blood mixture into the intestine casing, and washing the organs. Then I needed to get some air, as I was feeling queasy. When they gave me a plate of organ meats to savor as they all dug in with lip smacking relish, I did my best to keep it together. I ate a little taste of each, except the blood sausage. I thought that would make me lose it. Everything was so tasty to Enhee, she couldn’t imagine why I wasn’t enjoying it. Nevertheless, she could see I was getting a little green. While the entrails were boiling, I had explained to her that because I am a hunter (which she thought was a hoot) the killing and processing of the animal didn’t phase me. With motions and pictures I told her Americans may eat the liver and the heart, but not the other organs. At least I think she understood enough not to be offended that I didn’t partake more in the feast.

I have embraced dirt, and am learning to accept the flies that often pester. I have made it a principle to try things with an open mind. If I don’t like it, I don’t have to keep eating it or doing it. That got me through the entrails meal. It also meant I gargled with this foul smelling herbal concoction used to treat a sore throat. It did help, but was very bitter and left a lingering harsh taste for 30 minutes. I have been sleeping on a hard board bed with a wool blanket spread over it. I have been sponge bathing in the river every other day, and will only wash my hair once a week or less (usually for me it was every 5 days, so not so much of a stretch). My arms and back are getting more toned, and my skin is tanner and my hair bleached by the sun. With all this I mean to say I am adapting and learning better to accept things as they are, redefining what I need, and toughening up a bit. I am finding what I came here to find, and more.

Learning to be a nomadic herder, Part 3

Everything here revolves around the animals and when the milking needs to happen. I haven’t spent time around livestock, so this is all new to me. I was somewhat frustrated at first by my feeble results as I tried to milk a cow. When Enhee does it, huge amounts pour from the teats. When I did it, even when I got a rhythm going, it was a tiny stream and the cow would get irritated with my pulling and whack me in the head with her tail. Every day, the 11 cows get milked once at 5 am and once at 8 pm. Seventy sheep and goats get milked once a day at 3 pm. So far I have been learning with the cows, and seeing a small improvement each day. By the end of the first week, I could milk one cow by myself until it was finished. I have one cow in particular that I like. Her teats are big and knobby and easy to handle, and though she looks back and me and sighs big exasperated sighs, she is more patient with my tugging than the other cows. I’m still having trouble with the goats. Many of them fight being milked and I don’t know how to make them still enough to squeeze effectively. They move their legs side-to-side and then if that doesn’t stop me, they sit in the milking bucket as I stare helplessly on. When the goats give Enhee or Hoolang trouble, they yell at them in Mongolian and the animals still. Haven’t gotten that trick mastered yet.They make a dizzying array of products from the milk. For breakfast they have milk tea--a salty milk water and tea hot drink--and bread with a butter-like substance that is the thick skin of boiled milk. The make a fermented yogurt called airag they believe is good for digestion, but which makes my stomach very unhappy. They make cheese from the curds (my favorite so far) as well as some hard dried curds and cheeses. Every morning, I take some of the fresh cow milk, boil it and make my coffee with it, and have some cereal. For lunch and dinner, they make hand made noodles and eat them in soup or dry with thinly sliced meat (every day they get a chunk of frozen meat that is stored at a neighbor’s house with a freezer a mile away). In the soup they sometimes add potatoes and a little carrot. Sometimes instead of noodles, they use rice. Everything is well cooked, with no refrigerator, it is a good thing they don’t like their meat pink. The only things they make from the horse milk are a fermented yogurt called airag, and Mongolian vodka (distilled from the airag). Yesterday, Enhee woke me smiling and waving for me to follow her. They were just finishing the distilling of the first batch of vodka and she wanted me to have some. As it was first thing in the morning, I just had a taste. It tasted like hot watery vodka that tasted vaguely of sour cheese.I’m beginning to feel like part of things here. Enhee gave me a sewing project using the hand-cranked sewing machine to make a fancy horse blanket for the big upcoming national celebration, Naddam. They are calling on me to help with many kinds of jobs, and are beginning to understand the strengths and skills I can offer. When good friends of the grandparents came to visit, I was invited to sit in the big ger packed with laughing visiting people. I did my best to answer questions, and my family helped translate my attempts in Mongolian for the visitors. In Mongolia the men carry beautiful little jars made of bone or stone which contain tobacco snuff. It is part of the ritual greeting to take out the snuff bottles, exchange them a certain way, take a bit of snuff (or at least sniff the bottle) and return them. I had read about it, and seen it in a movie, but hadn’t been anywhere it was done. I successfully did the ritual without coaching, and looked up to see my family looking at me with some degree of pride.The little kids like me and when I am out of my ger they call to me to play. My name here is Baraa, which is “Rain” in Mongolian. I love that my name can change to wherever I am, but still be my name. When I go out, I hear little voices calling “Baraa! Baraa!” and when I look, they laugh or wave to me. My second day here, I was throwing a Frisbee with the kids and throw it a different way than they had seen before (which made it go much farther than their method). The grandfather came over and had me show him how I was doing it. He practiced for an hour and was throwing really well by the end. It was a fun way to connect with him.
In my immersion experience with the Thai family, it took a full 3 weeks to get to a more comfortable place. I think after 10 days I am farther along that path here than I was in 3 weeks there. The giardia is gone (I think) and overall I’m doing well with the food and water here (knock on wood). I’m more able to make sense of what is being said or asked even when it strays away from my limited vocabulary. I have also started teaching some English to anyone who wants to learn. We were able to get some English books to work from by a relative visiting from UB. I will enjoy that.

Learning to be a Mongolian nomadic herder, Part 2

The Mongolian summer ger camp where I am staying is made up of one family with their elderly parents and all their combined livestock. My host family has one ger, with my smaller auxiliary ger next door. The grandparents live about 200 feet away in a large ger, with a second ger next door with extended family in it. I spent part of the first day figuring out who everyone was and their relation to each other. I won’t go into great detail here, but basically my host mother, Enhee, is the sister of a Mongolian friend Chimgee who I met through Anu in Denver. Enhee and Chimgee’s mother is the grandmother of the camp. The grandmother bore nine children, and some of them live here, and some of her grandchildren live here. Altogether, usually there are 7-9 people in Enhee’s ger, and 5-7 people in the grandparents gers.

Enhee is the heart of the family. She keeps things running on schedule. She keeps the children safe and in line. She keeps the kitchen going making dairy products to sell and food to feed the family. She knows what needs to happen next. Her daughter Tsa Tsa or other visiting relatives pitch in with all this, but she is the motor that keeps things going. She is up at 5 am to milk the cows, and goes to bed at 11 pm after the last tasks are done. She is able to catch a few short naps through the day to keep her stamina. All the people here have their assigned role and jobs, though they can step in and help with other jobs when needed. The boys round up the animals, sort them, take them to graze, cut wood and other tasks needing muscle and physical skill. The men help get the animals tied up and ready for milking and make runs to town for supplies. They also do the killing when it is time to harvest animals. The grandmother keeps her own kitchen and household running and still milks her own animals. At 67 she can still climb the corral fence, wrestle a sheep, and keep things running at her ger. The grandfather is 78 and still scrapes the barnyard throughout the day, and helps tie up the animals at milking time. It is inspiring to see the elders so integrated and independent.

The camp sits at the bottom of a broad valley, hemmed by small forested mountains. Usually a wind comes down the valley around 3 or 4 pm carrying walls of dust and dirt. The gers are fairly open structures, so this fine dirt gets everywhere and there’s nothing to be done about it. Every day we sweep and dust, and dishes are always wiped out before use, but mostly everyone just ignores it. Animals continuously snort, whinney, run, bray, eat and converse around the gers. There are about 30 horses (5 of these get milked 5 times a day), 400 sheep and goats (70 of these get milked once a day), and 30 cows (11 get milked twice a day). Everyone, even the 3 year old kids, help with the animals. They can herd them around. I saw a tiny three year old boy with total confidence command several huge cows to get up and move. The little boys ride around on sticks as if they were horses and practice all the moves they see the older boys doing. And the older boys--they can ride like the wind! The horses are part of their bodies moving with grace and fury. They go and gather the herds for milking and bring them back after taking them to the nearby mountainside to graze. It always makes me catch my breath to watch the way they ride, command the animals, and use their lassos.

Learning to be a Mongolian nomadic herder, Part 1

I have long been curious to see what happens when you take away all you know to be true of culture and relating to the world, what is left? I have left the modern world (except for a cell phone or two) and entered the daily life of the nomadic herder in Mongolia. This wonderful family that has taken me in are living mostly as their ancestors have for a thousand years. They were willing to guide me, a huge ignorant white woman, in the ways of this world. Some things I already know from my time in Alaska. I can chop wood and build a good fire and haul things around. But working with animals is all new, and the cultural competency is slowly building as I learn the taboos and the etiquette. We pass the dictionary back and forth, and if that doesn’t work, we give up and play charades until it seems we understand each other. It is working surprisingly well.

The first day was all about logistics. I brought the local English teacher to help translate, though it was hard for us to understand each other, too. Her conversation skills are still developing and she hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to practice outside of the classroom. I had to figure out: where will I eat, sleep, and shit? How can I make sure I have boiled water everyday? How will I manage my diabetes? (This requires figuring out the new food, time of day to eat, how much activity I am doing and adjusting my medications accordingly.) I had understood they had an extra ger for me to use. When I arrived, they did have 2 gers, but both were in full use. One was full of cooking food and sleeping boys, and one was the main family ger. I was a little distraught. How was this going to work? I wanted to make sure that I had a place I would be comfortable without taking something important from them. Finally, they decided to move the kitchen into the big ger, and I would have one-third to half of the bed, and a table to use for my things in the small ger. I have a stove I can boil my own water on, and they will continue to use the other half of the ger for storage and sometimes to cook when needed. One or two teenage girls will share the bed at night (I made it clear I would only share with females). Now that I have things set up, it feels totally fine. I have my area that will not be disturbed, and am learning to live with people coming and going from the ger without announcement or formality.

The second problem was a little embarrassing but so crucial that I released my discomfort about it and everyone took it on as a community problem to solve. I did not grow up squatting, and have a hard time squatting for long enough to relax enough to take care of business. They have an outhouse that is a deep hole with 2 boards suspended over the top to squat on. I needed some kind of system that would support me. One fellow that lives at the camp named Ma took on the problem with enthusiasm. He made everyone laugh as he tried different solutions like balancing on a stool with one butt cheek or putting one cheek each on a small stool. We drew pictures back and forth of our ideas. Should we use stones? Wood? Finally, it was the mom of the family, Enhee, that had the idea to use an old bucket, turned upside down with a hole cut in the top. The two teenage boys and I pitched in and the four of us (with Ma) dug a deep hole small enough across that the bucket would not fall in. Ma used tin snips to cut the hole and pliers to bend the sharp metal away from the opening. We put fabric around 4 poles for a privacy screen. Now there is a Western style outhouse next to the squat outhouse everyone else uses. They have a more natural attitude about bodily functions here. No hang ups like I (and many Westerners) have about it. I embraced this cultural norm and was able to laugh and use it as a way to connect. Solving a problem together is a great opportunity to bond, and the toilet works great!

The other aspects of this life will take time for me to understand. I am learning 10-15 words a day, and getting fast at using my dictionary. Everyone is encouraging my attempts, though my bad accent makes it hard for them to understand as I try to speak from the dictionary. On my second day here, I was making new simple complete sentences in Mongolian that were grammatically correct without looking at my dictionary. Other times, I struggled to remember a word I have looked up 20 times. After 2 weeks, I know enough to aid in getting basic needs met, and I can get most questions answered using our lexicon of gestures and my broken Mongolian.
It is a process requiring great patience on both sides, and I think Enhee understands this. I feel the whole family has taken a liking to me, and I am quickly being accepted as one of them. That connection despite great differences of experience and language is what brought me here. Though it is uncomfortable at times, it is an extraordinary feeling.

Living my Mongolian dream

So after so many years of wanting to be here, I am here, living in a yurt in the Mongolian countryside. The summer camp of Enhee and Tsemgee is about 20 km from the heart of Ghengis Khan’s ancient empire, Kharkhorin. The town of Kharkhorin is a small town with modern conveniences. The camp sits in a gorgeous broad valley which empties a small river onto an expansive plain. In the afternoon the sun can be intense, immobilizing everyone for a few hours in the heat. Other days, it is cloudy and cool. The picturesque green plains against a deep blue sky makes every direction I look appear as something from a travel poster for Mongolia. There is always something going on at the camp. Food to cook or dairy products to collect or process. Animals that need moved in or moved out. Cleaning, wood chopping, dung collecting…always work to do. I am enjoying getting to know the daily rhythms.

I have posted the first batch of pictures, and a short video clip to give you all a sense of what I’m up to (to get to my pictures go to, click on “photos” then the link “to see all of Rain’s photos” and you can look in the Mongolia folder). Following are entries from my first 2 weeks. Also, just have to say “thanks” to Anu and Chimgee in the US, and Kelly and Bayara in UB for their help making things easier for me by helping with arrangements and translation on occasion.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The view from the back of a Mongolian Police car

It was a day book-ended by police, but don't worry, I'm still a free woman. On a taxi ride to the monestary my female driver tried to go around a line of stuck traffic and almost hit a traffic cop. He had her pull over and he took her license. It was a tense ride as he allowed her to take me to my destination before returning to retrieve her license and face the music. She had the look of a child sitting outside the principal's office all the way.
The Kundan monestary was really amazing, the highlight being a 3 story tall gilded Buddha. The building that held him looked as though they built it around the Buddha after he was put up. Beautiful Tibetan buddist design, ornate decor and three walls covered in glass encased shelves filled with small buddhas, all the same size. Pilgrims (and me) walked around clockwise spinning the barrel prayer wheels and saying a mantra. It was a very peaceful place, with a wonderful calming energy.
I walked the 2 miles to a big shopping center to get my last provisions for the countryside (I leave tomorrow). Then I walked another 2 miles with my big bags trying to find a small theatre where I was to meet a friend of Anu's for a Mongolian music and dance performance. The place was really hard to find. I was walking in the sun for almost an hour. I saw a policeman helping an elderly woman, and I could see he was very patient with her. He was a young buck, with a happy honest face. I waited my turn to speak to him, and he pointed me in the direction of where I should go. I headed off. Then he realized he had told me the wrong way, and came after me in his police car.
His partner, an older enthusiastic man, yelled, "Get in! Get in!" The young one waved his hand at the direction I was headed, telling me it was wrong. Heaving my bags in and squeezing in to the back seat, we took off. We came onto the street that was filled with parked traffic. We inched along for about 2 minutes, then another police car with lights blaring came tearing down into oncoming traffic going the way we were trying to go. My young cop jumped out behind the speeding car and followed him closely all the way down the 1/2 mile of stuck traffic. I held on to the back of the seat. Meanwhile, the jolly cop is yelling out questions. "What country you??? How you like Mongolia people?? Mongolia the best, yeah!???"
When we arrived at the place I was seeking, the young cop shouted out with a triumphant "this is the place!" and I piled out, thanking them in Mongolian several times. They got a big kick out of the whole thing.

The show was lovely, and it was good to see Kelly again. Tonight I am packing and feeling a sense of inching along a diving board, approaching the edge, and not quite able to see if there is water in the pool. I'm loaded with gifts for the family, and my food and belongings and supplies for the summer. After traveling three months with just a back pack, it feels cumbersome. But it all comes down to this: tomorrow night I'll be sleeping in a real ger, in the open expanse of the rolling Mongolian countryside.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Hello from Mongolia

Wanted to share a video of Bayara's kids, Michael and Michelle. We have been getting to know each other as I have been relaxing and resting up here at their house in UB. Michael (age 8) taught me the camel knuckle game, and has been sharing his bunk bed with me. Michelle has been kind enough to include me in her affections in the beautiful open way of 5 year olds (welcoming me when I come in with enthusiasm and big hugs).

Still not feeling my best. Started another round of antibiotics today. Hope this round will rid me of the giardia I have been fighting since India.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Ulaanbaatar, part 2

Mongolians are a strong people with an enduring sense of national pride and identity. My visit to the National Museum left me with so many questions about their recent journey to democracy. I saw a really good exhibit detailing their chronological history for the past 100 years. The country has struggled as an only child standing between the demanding, domineering parents of China and Russia. Varied influences from both countries have led to deep conflicts in ideology, such as communism vs. religion. Mongolia gained her independence from China after WW2 with Russian support, only to be managed by them via a Mongolian puppet government. In 1991, there was a successful movement to become a democracy. The past 20 years has been a struggle with building a stronger infrastructure, navigating the waters of international economic development, all while dealing with issues of internal corruption that many developing nations have.

Another challenge is how to stop or at least slow the tide of people moving to UB. As is the case in most countries, urbanization is calling people out of the rural areas to look for work in the city. Here, it means a growing edge of ger slums surrounding the city, where there are no utilities and resources are scarce. In the winter, the smoke from the wood-fueled stoves in the gers makes the air in UB almost unbreathable.

The current President, Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, is working to address these issues head on. Another of Anu's friends, Kelly, took me around the city and spoke of her hope and optimism that the current president will make progress in these areas. She thought he is the first leader that has a chance to really make a difference.

Though things are expensive, you can get anything you want or need here. Almost everything is imported, with most food and produce coming from China. Mongolians are very positive about America, and there are many restaurants and supermarkets dedicated to offering American fare. Almost everyone has a cell phone, and internet cafe's are available all around downtown. Many expats live and work here, which gives the city a real international flair.

I am waiting for the care package I prepared before I left that Anu shipped to me to arrive. It was delayed at some point along the route due to a strike. I hope to get it by Wednesday. Waiting for the package has kept me in UB a few days longer than I would have stayed otherwise, but I am glad for the time to rest and check it out in a leisurely way. It has given me some breathing room I needed.

Ulaanbaatar, capital of Mongolia, part1

Ulaanbaatar, or "UB" as it is usually called, is a large sprawling urban center. The heart of the country, it houses government, business, and half of Mongolia's population of 2.5 million. I am staying with a friend of Anu's (my friend and contact in Denver) not far from downtown in a nice apartment building. Bayara lives in a 2 bedroom flat with her 2 children and live-in babysitter. The family has been generous with me. I share the bottom bunk of a bunk bed with Bayara's son. I have had a couple days out seeing the city, and several days to rest and hang out with Bayara's kids.

Her son taught me to play one of the games played with real animal ankle bones. The bones come from sheep or goats and are about 1.5 inches x 1 inch x 1/2 inch and each side is unique. This makes them into a kind of dice with which many games are played. I learned to play a game that is like a combination of dice and marbles. You start with 20 (more if you have more players) and throw them down. You have to flick (like marbles) one into another with the same side up. If you hit it without hitting anything else, you take one, and can try again. The goal is to get all the bones from the other player. There are other rules that keep it engaging. In any Mongolian film where they show life inside the ger, there are always boys playing this game. Glad I will go out already knowing the basics, since it is one of the main forms of entertainment.

One evening Bayara came home with a special treat from her mom. Her parents had just killed a sheep and shared a bowl of boiled entrails with her. This is the first thing that is cooked, and it is savored by friends, family, and neighbors. I eyed the bowl with some hesitation. It smelled like lamb, but the snaking entrails and organs had a greyish tint from the boiling. After initially taking a pass, I asked to try the most mild piece. She gave me a piece of heart. The meat was firm and tasty. I said I would try one more. She gave me a chunk of congealed blood. I didn't let myself think about it before popping it in my mouth. This one had a texture of soft-set Jello, with a strong gamey taste. I found it a little disconcerting. That ended my exploration for the evening, but I am determined to try more delicacies during my time here. The usual diet for urban Mongolians has a lot of meat and potatoes, some rice, and some noodles. Lucky for me Bayara also likes vegetables so we have had salads with most meals. In the countryside they mostly will eat dairy, meat, cabbage, potatoes and some rice and flour noodles. I am bringing some dried fruit and vitamin supplements to help round out my diet.
Anu's friends have welcomed me here and helped show me around, housed me and fed me. I am grateful for this experience which is so different than my guesthouse living of the past few months. It is nice to be part of a home and feel the daily rhythms of stability. I will head out on Thursday for Kharkhorin, and then get to meet my family for the summer.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Human rights concerns in China

The story of the “haves” and the “have-nots” is an old story with humankind. It is common (though not fair) to have a dominate culture that controls more of the resources, and minority cultures that see less of them. My time with the Tibetan refugees (exiles in India) and the Uyger people (in Urumqi and Turpan in Western China) has made me think a lot about what it is that China is doing that is different than our own systems of inequality, classism and oppression in the USA. Of course I kept these thoughts to myself while I was in China, writing (true but harmless) tourist blogs. I wanted time to process what I saw, and time to clear the border as all incoming and outgoing information is monitored. All email is run through filters that look for key words that notify officials of any controversial content. For these reasons I was careful. Everything here I learned directly from people who have or who are experiencing this. I asked questions and tried to get information without getting on any soap boxes, or putting the people I talked to in awkward situations. I worked to understand the Han perspective, while also learning from other voices. I haven’t written like this before, but hope to raise awareness with my sharing.

In McLeod Ganj, India, I spoke with many Tibetans in exile and saw films shared by activist groups. What did I find? The clamp down on the Tibetans that increased after their protests just before the 2008 Olympics has not let up. People are imprisoned and tortured for slight infractions or unfounded accusations. Family members of those that escape into exile are under threat. Tibetans that return after fleeing are beat and imprisoned and fined. One filmmaker that taped what Tibetans thought about the Olympics being in China was arrested and is still in prison. Though it came through with the message that the world should hear the Tibetan people’s cry for support, and know that human rights violations continue there, the film’s criticism was moderate. The Chinese response was not. I also saw a film that showed clips during the protests where several non-violent Buddhist protesters were beaten to death. The soldiers standing nearby laughed and smoked as the Tibetans were kicked and beaten by their comrades not 10 feet away.

I heard the stories of some of the nuns that had fled after they had been imprisoned for practicing non-Party approved religious studies. The numbers of people allowed to enter or stay in the monastic life is tightly regulated to keep the numbers low, and the Chinese government created a benign course of study for them to use in the monasteries. Those caught using traditional content rich with their heritage and culture, are punished (some with their lives). The nuns I spoke with had served an average of 3 years each, and were routinely beaten for their “crimes.” They had made the decision to flee to India to a free nunnery where they could practice their faith and be close to the Dalai Lama, even though this puts their families behind at risk of harassment. All of their families supported this decision.

The Dalai Lama is asking for freedom of religion, and freedom for his people to maintain their culture and language. He is not asking for independence from China. There is a feeling the Chinese are just trying to ignore his requests until he dies, and no matter what he says, the Chinese Government is convinced he demands an independent Tibet. They are hoping time will erase the problem. But there is growing unrest among the young that are demanding nothing less than independence. The situation is tenuous.

The Uyger people in Western China have more freedom to practice Islam than the Tibetans have to practice Buddhism, but the oppression of the people is evident. The calls to prayer ring out over the city during the day, and mosques all over the city are well attended. The strategy there seems to be more of a systematic approach. The Han Chinese run the education system. The children are not allowed to speak the Uyger language at school, and must speak Chinese (or English in their English classes). There is a strict prohibition against prayer at school. Separate schools, clubs, or classes about the Uyger language and culture are forbidden. There are observers at the mosques during prayer, (it is thought they do this to prevent any organizing). In Kashgar, military presence is more overt. Police are throughout the city in full riot gear even though it has been a year since the small uprising there. A German tourist shared that the feeling in the city is one of intimidation and tangible police threat.

Everywhere there is massive construction happening. Old parts of cities (literally every city I passed through) are being knocked down to make way for new shiny high rise apartments. The people living in those old areas are forcibly moved to new housing, even if their families have lived there for many generations. The last three remaining historic neighborhoods of the ancient city of Kashgar are slated to be replaced this year. Any objections have been muted. The scale of this effort is astounding. “Modernize! Modernize!” sounds the cry.

The Chinese I talked to are proud of all the progress and construction efforts. They don’t have information about any “down-sides” and only get the positives done up on their national TV stations with swelling patriotic music and high production values. The Chinese government are masters at controlling information and generating propaganda. The message that comes through is: See all the benefits a modern and prosperous China can bring to these backward, misled people. China offers the children of these quaint and simple people such generous opportunities with education and better economic standing…a chance to be part of something truly great…a member of the biggest and best country on earth. Why, when given the choice of continuing their silly ways with their old superstitions, or gaining wealth and the respect of the Chinese, would they chose the former? It seemed most Chinese simply don’t know (or don’t care to know) what is happening behind the scenes to bring these people into the folds of the red flag.

So for me, there are a few things China is doing that take them into the arena of deliberate, dangerous, unforgivable human rights violations, above and beyond the more common systems of oppression that develop when a dominate culture is present. One is their suppression and outright prosecution of the religious, spiritual, and cultural lives of the Tibetans and Uygers (and other minority groups with smaller populations). Another is the way they are controlling their information so their own people cannot know about and fight the injustice happening there. And the third is (something the US has also done) which is to effectively gut the cultures of the minority groups, but continue to use their ethnic costumes and images of a few aspects of their culture to “prove” how inclusive the dominate culture is. It makes my heart hurt.

I hope to take action by seeing what is being done by international human rights groups, especially related to the Uygers, as they have no one as well known and respected as the Dalai Lama to speak for them. If anyone finds any direct ways to support action to help these groups, please post them on the comments here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Mongolia at last!

I am writing from Ulaanbaatar (and able to post directly myself now that I am in a democratic country again). The night before I got on the train I couldn't sleep because I was so excited for this next chapter to begin. The train ride was a lot of fun. My cabin compartment just had one other person, a new Indian diplomat arriving for a 2-3 year post at the Indian Embassy. He was travelling with his family's possessions, with his wife and child following a bit later. Interesting to get some insight into the life of an official like that. He has lived interesting places, and after taking this "less desirable" post means he won't have to do another more remote placement in the future.

The route took us through incredibly beautiful landscapes which made me which I could hop on and off the train. This one mountainous section with mist and lakes was especially lovely. The tunnels and open spaces were about even, and every time we popped out of a tunnel, there were varied wonderful scenes to see for about 1 minute before being swallowed by the next tunnel. It went like this: Blackness, clickety clickety clack clickety clack. Light! Steep green lush mountains dipping their feet in clear blue water, water lilies, a man fishes from the bank, mists hang in the trees. Clickety clack, flickering lights. Big flat bottomed valley with huge athletic training field in mint condition. No one around to use the track, soccer field, gymnastic area, soccer field. Secret training area for the Olympics? Clickety clack. Building anticipation with my nose to the window. What will appear next? A small village with mud brink houses and pagoda rooflines huddles next to the perfect stillness of a lake reflecting mountains. A fish jumps making a ripple... That section went for about an hour like that. Better than a good documentary. I was riveted.

In the night we went crossed the border and they had to switch all the cars to different wheels as the tracks are a smaller gauge than the tracks in China. They make the people get off, then lift the cars one by one (with their wheels attached) to another wheel unit that has smaller wheels. Took about 3 hours.

I woke in the morning and everything had changed. We were crossing the eastern edge of the Gobi desert. Scrubby plants, blowing sand that was seeping in the windows and making the hallways hazy, like we were entering a dream flashback in an old movie. I saw my first herds of livestock, some lone herdsmen. I started watching for my first ger (yurt) sighting. In the first town we stopped in, there were gers around the edge of town, with fences and yards. This is common to all Mongolian towns and cities (even UB).

About 2 hours later, we moved into greener and greener landscape, and the land started to pitch and roll as if it were a green sea with a gentle swell coming in off a far away stormy sea. I don't know why, but this landscape has called to me for a long time. In films, it created this crazy sense of longing approaching homesickness. Seeing it in person made my heart rejoice and ache from the beauty of it. I couldn't leave the window.

And then, my heart leapt at the sight of a small group of gers far from everything else, surrounded by a few groups of grazing animals. A thin trail of smoke rising from the chimneys, dogs and people working with the grazers. It looked much like what I think my home for the summer will be. Where does this desire come from to live and learn about this nomadic herding life? Why the feeling I'm coming home? Why does this landscape play a song deep in my gut? Why, when I saw a yurt in a book for the first time, did I think: "Now, that is what a house is supposed to look like!" There are not answers for these questions, but I do know I am glad to be here. Grateful to my friend Anu in Denver for helping me make the connections and offering support so I can be here. Next entry I will talk about Ulaanbaatar, the capital of the country and home to a third of the population here.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Rain's Big Adventures, Part Two Begins

In my mind I have always thought of this trip in 2 sections. The adventures before Mongolia, and Mongolia. It feels like it was forever ago that I left, and sort of this vague spacy feeling when I see all the pictures of what I've done. Ironic that being with the nomads will mean I settle down for the first time in over 2 months. I have not had more than 5 days in one place since I left. In some ways I anticipated, and in others I didn't, the first part of the trip has been honing and shaping me so I am in a better place for the second part. I knew it would help me not be attached, not accumulate stuff. That has been true. I move with more confidence through situations that are confusing or chaotic. I found a better balance here in China with the staring. I'm getting a better feel for how to stay pleasant but have a firm boundary. I'm used to being in situations where I don't share the language, where either I'm silent or figure out a creative way to get what I need.

Also this trip has been much more solitary than I would have expected, with my paths taking me off the well-trodden trails, which means less fellow travelers. Living out with the nomads will be the most isolated I have been since my time in Tenakee (in Alaska when I did my experiment in solitude and lived in a cabin alone for 2 months at the age of 22), even though I will be with people. When I lived with the family in Thailand for a month, at least I had classes during the day with English speakers. This will be really Out There, but I think it is the only way for me to adapt. Total immersion. I want to see how fully I can adapt, learn the language, gain practical skills (I'll be able to milk anything with teats like a pro), and embody a new way of being. How completely I can become an "us" rather than a "them" with humans so different than me. Making meaningful connections. Fun to think I'll have enough language at the end to get around and explore more on my own.

After saying how isolated I will be, I found out I will be able to have a cell phone even out where I am. Probably expensive to use but nice to have if I feel crazy. Like when I would kayak from my cabin into Tenakee every 2 weeks or so and babble to whomever I could get on the phone in a big rush, all the words from 2 weeks pouring out. Part of totally adapting to a new environment is shedding some of the current reality, which feels like shedding a part of yourself, and can be disconcerting. If I call to babble just remind me that I am doing the right thing, that it is worth it, and I will be glad I've done this (I always am), and that the only way out is through. I'm glad that between my Tenakee experiment and the immersion in Thailand, I know what I am in for. I also expect to be able to have more joy and peace within the experience than in those times, because I have learned a lot since then that will come in handy.

Update on my health: I'm pretty sure I still have giardia, but got rid of the parasite I got that was causing the severe diarrhea. Overall I'm down 20 pounds, my energy is pretty good, system is very sensitive. I'll see a doctor in Ulaanbaatar before I head out to the remote area to stock up on any meds I might want to have on hand and make sure there's not something I'm overlooking with my gut hitchhikers. My diabetes control most of this trip has been much better than it ever is at home (because I pay more attention to it, and know I can't get lazy.)

Thanks for reading!

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Delicious Search for Dinner in Turpan

After a day of exploring ruins and covering a hundred miles of expansive desert landscapes, you come back tired and hungry. I drank some water, took a nap, and was ready to seek out a good dinner at the bazaar in the city of Turpan.

Lonely Planet advised to look beyond the obvious food stalls among the other merchants and so I went deeper. Down curving bustling alleyways, past fruit sellers, clothes, fabrics, household wares, pots and pans, hand tools. Through several areas of food sellers, looking for one that had the hand made noodles in a soup, and that had many customers (always a good sign in any town!) The smoke of kabobs on the barbecue drifted by thick enough to water my eyes. The smell of lamb on the grill made my tongue lick my lips.

I finally saw a stall with seating that was almost full of customers. The cart had 4 sizes of handmade noodles and a large pot of lamb broth. Each bowl was prepared for the customer, first with the noodle they wanted, then broth, then fresh spring onion and cilantro sprinkled on top. The broth had a hint of tomato, hearty meat flavor with a pleasant kick of spice at the end.

I sat with the other folks, all Uyger. The Uygers are the people I came to learn about. Their language and culture is heavily related to the Turks, and as a people they are 98% Muslim. Their faces can look Chinese, European, and Turkish. Some have clear blue or green eyes. The men wear woven square hats, and most women wear head scarfs. My dinner companions eyed me warily as we all slurped the tasty meal.

After eating, I got a slice of watermelon and walked through a Uyger neighborhood. I was adopted by a little girl, about 8 years old, bringing a stack of flat bread home to her family from the market. She hummed, danced, and talked happily to me in Uyger as we walked. Most houses had families sitting outside enjoying the cool evening air. Both men and women smiled at me, though expressions of surprise, glee, curiosity and mirth were clear on their open, friendly faces. When they laughed, it was good-natured and laced with amazement. Much kinder than the other countries I have been to so far. Not many Westerners make it to this part of China, and even less leave the finely manicured streets of the main drag. When we passed her house, the little girl waved enthusiastically and ran to tell her waiting kin about me. They peeked out and smiled.

This region is famous for its grapes, raisins, and melons. Sorry I won't be here in July to try the honey and musk melons! I had my driver take me to see the grapes and the little rooms they dry them in. I walked past a farmer and his wife working. I smiled at them. The woman looked incredulous as she yelled something to her husband. The driver chuckled so I asked what she had said. She told him, "You better not be looking at that Russian girl!" And he replied something like, "Wife, I'm not looking!" Most of the white people in this area are Russians here on business. Many of the signs are written in Chinese, Uyger (like Arabic) and Russian. Rarely any English.

I have gone to many of the "tourist" places, and they are alright. But I like talking or at least interacting with people better. The miracle of making a connection across a seemingly endless gap. Without language, religion or culture in common, connection can be made if both parties are open to it. The Uyger way is much more amenable to this kind of connection than the Chinese. They seem to carry their rich culture and faith in their bones with them. There is an ease and a quiet confidence in them that I think many Chinese have difficulty finding in their own culture. I'm so glad I came to see this part of the world where the Silk Road shared both directions, where Arabia and China collided and created an amazing mix of things that don't happen anywhere else on the planet.