Friday, September 9, 2011

Returning to Ulaanbaatar

August 18, 2011

After breakfast we all packed up our luggage and set out for Ulaanbaatar.

Trudy and Jig went in one vehicle with Dash who was attending our briefings in Ulaanbaatar.

I hitched a ride with Sarah and Donna in their Toyota Landcruiser. It was great! I had legroom. I had comfort! and I was not crouded in!

Our travels back were almost 7 hours but the ride was smooth, even when some of the roads were rough. We stopped for lunch and found that we were at a very popular spot that was filled with diners and some food choices were no longer available.

I had lamb with noodles and was quite content. I have had so much lamb on this trip, the next noise out of my mouth will be baah baah baah.

When we arrived at our hotel of modern conveniences, Imperial Puma Hotel, we were pleased to hear that two of our colleagues (Meagan and Sophie), that we were worried about, were released from a quarantined area to board their plane and arrive at our hotel later that night.

It was wonderful meeting up with all the other coaches and sharing stories of our experiences.

We all had dinner together than most everyone needed an early bedtime as we were each quite exhausted from the travelling.

I kept busy up to near midnight and was able to welcome Sophie and Meagan as they checked in.

My last Day at BEH Credit Union

August 17, 2011

Morning came early, once again, but today has extra activity at the ger camp. Most of the "residents" are departing for other areas of Mongolia continuing their vacations and explorations. They come from all over the world but primarily Britain, Germany, France and one lone young lady from Washington state, USA.

They each have their own story as to why they chose Mongolia and none had pre-conceived notions of grandeur.

The young lady from Washington state is a fire fighter. She took a sabatical which started the beginning of April 2011 when she tried downhill skiing in Mongolia. She said the slopes were great but the snow conditions were poor most everywhere she went. They do not get as much snow as we in North American ski centers get, therefore the base is minimal and the wind sept snow is crusty to icey. Plus there are no ski lifts. Your manually trek to the top of the mountain and then ski down. Sounds like hard work.

She explained to me that since the snow melted she has been bicycling all over Mongolia and has felt safe on her own. She pitches her own tent each day and really enjoys the mix of solitude and times when she has companionship at ger camps.

Yesterday before she arrived at camp, she had been caught in a storm that started off as sleet and turned to snow followed by a down-pour. It turned the dirt road into a mud pool that lasted about 4 to 5 miles that she had to push her bike with her camping trailer through mud that was well above her ankles. Being a fire man fighting forest fires, she looked very strong and determined. The weather certainly did not prevent her from arriving at her chosen destination.

Stories like hers are repeated by other tourists which make the ger camp quite enjoyable.

Today I picked up the beautifully tailored dale ( a traditional full length garment of distinction) that I had made for my wife. The tailor had me acquire the silk at the market and next day it was ready. In Canadian dollar terms, the silk cost $30 and her tailoring was $20. Bargains like this are hard to believe especially when you see the quality of workmanship and attention to detail of very fine decorative stitching and patterns.

Trudy and I had prepared a presentation of recommendations to BEH Credit Union of where we saw their opportunities to improve and focus. These were primarily where the greatest value could be achieved for the credit union and its members. Dash, the Manager, made notes throughout the 2 hours that we presented. On concluding, he thanked us deeply saying that we had brought forward real options for them to make great strides. He liked everything we presented but also confessed that he personally had some resistance to overcome his "continue as before" comfort zone. We really appreciated this feedback because we have all been in the position that ideas are presented to us and we resist until the seed of that idea germinates and develops within us and wins us over. Dash pledged to try these options because he knew we were bringing him real world experiences and knowledge that was invaluable. I am bowled over by all the credit union people that we worked with because they badly want to attain the success that we have achieved in Canada.

As lunch time approached, Sarah Feldberg and Donna Balkan from Canadian Co-operative Association arrived for their own deliberations with the credit union and then with the felt producers co-op.

Mid afternoon we all toured the Erdene Zuu which is the 16th century Buddhist temple in Khara-Khorum. It is a huge temple of at least 25 acres within the temple walls. Our hired guide was eloquent with all the historical information as well as informing us of the proper observance of Buddhist ritual of circling some inner temples three times and our prayers and wishes would be granted.

Spinning the brass prayer drums three times was done by each of us as we travelled through the various temple buildings.

Many of the buildings were now museum type locations with religious artifacts and treasures that each held special meaning and significance. Concluding this visit proved tiring since it is so very large. But before we departed the temple, we visited a Buddhist ger where a wedding was underway and the family members were each receiving blessings. We observed the ceremony but made certain that we did not impinge on the privacy of the family. While we did not understand the words conveyed, we could see the happiness on the family members' faces and that of the bride and groom.

Arriving at the ger camp, Sarah and Donna and their translator were assigned a ger and  I agreed to have their driver share my ger which had four beds in it.

That evening after dinner, Gamboldt and Dash showed up at the ger camp dining room with gifts, Airag and vodka. Plus a throat singer to entertain us. The evening was very pleasant and entertaining. the whole camp attended our celebrations and one fellow even entertained us with a few Beattles songs that he had perfected.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day in Mongolia.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Visiting the Black Market Stalls

Blog for August  16, 2011
Morning came early but I dragged it out to 7 am before getting up.
The nights are very cold probably low 40F and I wish I had my winter pajamas.  It is a bearable temperature since I wrap myself up in the comforter but then toss and turn during the night unwrapping myself.
The ger I am in has the ability to fire up the wood stove but the chimney has to be set in place and firewood gathered. Perhaps I will do that tonight. I know that heating the ger makes it very comfortable and takes the dampness out of the air.
There are about a dozen gers here with tourists and they are all doing just fine. I just have to toughen up to this climate of warm days and cold nights.
Today we commence our 2nd day of work at BEH credit union. `
We again met with Dash, the Manager, Gambold, the Accountant & Loans Officer and Solungut, the cashier. All the employees seem to be able to do each other’s job and answer most any question competently. As we gathered for our information meeting in the one room office of the credit union, several members came in and some joined our discussions particularly Board members and Committee members.
From a work perspective, the day was very rewarding as we accomplished much. It is clearly apparent that there are some “strange rules and ratios” that we do not comprehend the need or value for. Perhaps it is because they are new in their development of the credit union system and being very cautious. We will arrive at conclusions and recommendations over the next two days.
During our lunch break, Gambold took us to the black market where I bought several meters of silk at a great price. I took this to a seamstress who is making me a traditional dale to wear at home. We visited several merchants and saw how they make their wares and the marketing they do.
At the end of the day, we visited a monument on the top of one of the mountains that overlooks the town. It is a tribute to Mongolian history of its empire over 1400 years from the sixth century to now. Three huge mosaic panels displayed maps of Asia and Europe showing the vast expanse achieved by Genghis Kahn as the most accomplished empire builder and another panel showed a lesser expanse with the third panel showing this century and how Mongolia shrank from greatness.
The sights from this mountain top were spectacular and there were several merchants selling their wares. Of course I am now many tugriks lighter but the gifts will provide long lasting memories.
We returned to our ger camp for dinner and then a relaxing night.

First Day at BEH SCU

Blog for August 15, 2011

It was a really cold night making sleep a little sporadic. The ger camp has tourists and travelers coming and going each day. It is a pleasure talking to them  about their vacations in Mongolia and where they are from.
Through the night, someone tried to get in my ger at about 4 am. I awoke and spoke that this was my ger and the person left without a word. My ger door doesn’t close properly and I tie a string around the  bolt and frame to keep the door shut. I had shown this problem to the owner last night and she will have her father fix the door today while I am out.
 I was the first to get to the showers this morning at 6:30 am. The showers have a very small heater mounted on the wall that heats the water as it flows through to the shower head. Yesterday it did not work very well and I had a cold shower. Today it work marvelously and I had a hot shower. Actually too hot.  However, when the outside temperature is in the 45 F range, you take all the heat you can get to get the chill out of your bones. At about 9 am the temperature will rise to about 60 F and get better by mid day around 78 F.
Gambold was the most punctual Mongolian we met. He was always at least 10 minutes early. We spent the day from 10 am to 6 pm at the credit union actually doing the work we had planned and the staff were really anxious to cooperate with us.
At the end of the day, Dash took us to see a few sites and then we returned to our ger camp for dinner and an early night to bed.

A Day of More Surprises

Blog for August 13, 2011
It was the barking dogs from hell alarm clock again today at about 5 am. We only got back to our hotel room at about 2:20 am so I could really have used a little more deep sleep. I think these dogs are actually singing since they do this every morning and they never seem to be fighting or chasing anything.
I decided to get up and work on some of my emails and reports even though I have no internet service, I want to be ready to blast everything off when I do have service.
This morning we will be travelling to Kharakhorum for our next credit union assignment.  Our ride is supposed to arrive at 9:00 am but realistically, the roads and flooding will certainly slow them up a couple of hours. I packed up my suitcase and got myself ready to leave when the driver arrives. I hate causing them any delays. I wish there was some reciprocation to my timeliness and readiness.
At 9 am breakfast is supposed to be delivered to the dining room of the hotel. But, I am the only person in Mongolia wearing a watch so why do I expect them to be on-time. True to form, breakfast arrives at 10:30 am. Also, our driver arrives at the same time. I am impressed because the terrain had gotten so bad from the recent storms.
After breakfast I start saying goodbye to Jamia, Sarah, Dash and Sarah’s husband, Zundui, but I am told no, not yet as they are going to travel part way with us. This apparently is a Mongolian custom that I am about to experience.
We all hop in our respective vehicles and start our day’s trip. We no sooner get out of the muddy road sections of town and stop beside a fast flowing brook and a carpet is pulled out of the truck for a roadside picnic.
I forgot to mention that I had an upset stomach from the night before and other then an early morning bout of intestinal disruption, I was barely holding things together. I thought I did good consuming breakfast which had two scoops of rice which I knew would help my stomach and intestinal rumblings.
Well here we are on the picnic rug when the airag (mare’s milk alcohol) gets brought out. I am really worried now as I really do not care for the taste but have been polite and drank it whenever passed to me. As it came to me, I took a deep breath and did my best to drink the bowl dry. The down side of this is that they have a gallon that they keep refilling the bowl and passing it around. I had to ask Jig to explain my illness and I was afforded exemption on the next few rounds.
I knew I was really in trouble when Jamia pulled out a 40 ounce bottle of the best vodka, Genghis Khan Gold. As tradition would have it, I as guest would be the first to be handed the tea cup full of vodka. There was probably 4 ounces in this cup. I took a big gulp and swallowed. Then another and another until the cup was empty. I knew I had to do my part as the cup would be passed around the circle until the bottle was empty. I noticed that few people were emptying the cup, so that meant it was going to go around at least three times before the bottle was empty. Trudy and Jig were real troopers emptying the cup each time. They knew that this was the only way to conclude this ordeal.
Right in the middle of the first round, Sarah returns with a plastic bag full of fresh cooked meat. It was a ground hog and the head was intact but roasted. The ground hog’s little ears, eyes and two bucked teeth were clearly visible and oh so appetizing. I apologized but declined on this treat again citing my upset stomach but also that I had just finished a large breakfast. Otherwise everyone dug in an grabbed pieces of the ground hog and swore how delicious it was. Sarah’s husband, Zundui, cut the cheeks off the groundhog’s head and said this was the best part. After all this food was consumed, we made speeches and said our goodbyes. At this time Jamia presented Trudy and I an oil painting of the Orkhon water falls that we had visited two days earlier. I thanked everyone and told them that Trudy and I would get a presentation plaque made for the frame and have this picture hung in the International Development section of CCA’s offices for all visitors to see the kindness afforded us.
As we got underway, it was apparent that our new driver and his Russian made 4 wheel drive type jeep was quite capable of making good time even through the bad trails and roads.
The accountant from the credit union, Gambold, was in the front passenger seat and talked to us most of the way. He had very good questions to compare Canada and Mongolia and it was evident that he was deeply proud of their history and particularly the conquests of Genghis Khan.
We only stopped once along the way, at the White River Falls where the Red River and White River meet. The Red River was very muddy and we were told that was because of mining operations upstream. I started to have a pee near the river when they all shouted no no that this would pollute the river so I move away a respectful distance. With all the garbage that gets thrown out the windows, I was amazed that pee was a worse pollutant.
We arrived in Kharakhorum at about 2 pm only to be surprised that the modern hotel we would be staying at was actually a guest camp of gers. Although disappointed, I resigned myself to enjoy the experience for the next 4 nights.
We were shown to our ger. Two women and I sharing the same ger may not go over well. Although there is enough room for privacy and respect, we were each a little uncomfortable so the owner gave Trudy and Jig a second smaller ger. I now had the 4 bed ger all to myself.
Trudy quickly did a tour of the grounds and discovered a building that contained showers. Another moment of brightness in our expectations was accomplished. However, she reported that the outhouse was unpleasant and had two holes in the floor and no wall between. I think that news gave me immediate constipation.
Lunch was ready for us in a nice dining hall and the food was great. The next surprise came when the lady informed me that they had internet but it was slow. I have experienced slow before but this was really slow. It took 45 minutes to get to my mail and 25 minutes to send one short email to my wife, Louise, who was certainly worrying about my whereabouts and safety.
Surprises just kept on happening. As I was making my way to the outhouse with my trusty roll of toilet paper in hand, the grounds keeper kept grunting and pointing to the shower building so I went in and sure enough, there were two stalls with flush toilets. This was surely heaven!
We decided to walk into the center of the town which we were told was about 3 km.  The walk was enjoyable but more like 5 to 7 km each way. We passed a market area of stalls in front of the very large Buddhist temple. Although they had lots of restaurant stands and gift shops, we were on our way to town for groceries and supplies.
Jig received a call from her husband who had been in this same town for the past 3 days for a conference but was supposed to leave early that morning. Good fortune smiled on Jig as her husband was late leaving and he would drive to the grocery store to meet us.  Jig’s re-union with her husband was short and he departed for the long trip back to Ulaanbaatar which would be about 7 hours.
The big grocery store was quite small but packed with goods. We were able to find everything we needed and started back to camp.
After our late dinner of noodles and meat, Gambold arrived with mare’s milk alcohol. We passed around the cup several times before calling it a night and retiring to our gers.

Shankh Khiid Monastery

Blog for August 12, 2011
Each day seemed to have a surprise for us as our credit union hosts were trying to take best care of us.
They showed up right after breakfast and suggested we take a trip to see the ancient Shankh Khiid monastery which is on a mountain top two ranges north of our hotel.
We agreed to go but for reasons unknown to us, everyone disappeared to do something personal. A little more than three hours of waiting, we finally had the whole gang together to go. That seemed too easy and we soon experienced the credit union manager get out while we were fueling at a new station and he talked forever to the owner. The manager is also the mayor of the town and knows and talks to everyone. We just got underway again and he requested a stop at a store and 10 minutes latter comes out with another bottle of vodka.
We drove over the first mountain range which seemed quite high but passable and entered a beautiful valley and were again directed by the manager to turn here and there until we arrived at a herder’s ger unannounced. We all went in sat down and ate their lunch. I had met the herder’s wife the day before at the horse races and she was really nice both times but you could see her concerns as she was trying to stretch the meal she cooked for only her family, now had to serve everyone.
Then we got into the herder’s hooch and when that ran out we broke out the bottle of vodka. After we consumed everything, we left the manager behind and continued our trip. However, we were now another two hours later than expected and daylight would become a problem later.
We started up the second mountain range which was much higher and steeper and stopped just a couple of kilometers short of our destination to visit a ger and talk about going the rest of the way to the top by renting a jeep. We couldn’t get a jeep so we managed to drive/climb the paths to the upper parking lot.
There are no signs to tell you where the monastery is or how far it is. Six of us started walking into the forest following muddy trails churned up by 4 X 4 vehicles and horses. All trails seemed to go in the same general direction so we were certain we would not get lost. An hour and twenty minutes later we reached the summit but still couldn’t see the monastery. A German family told us that we needed to follow this other trail for about 30 minutes brisk walk and than a 300 foot climb (half an hour) up the rocks to the monastery.
Not being wusses, we marched along the muddy trails and arrived at the site, out of breath, feet soaked and freezing cold once we stopped.
Four of our team climbed the rock cliffs to the monastery. I couldn’t go because my knee was really inflamed and painful. I lent my camera to Sarah’s son and he brought back wonderful pictures. The climb up the cliff to the monastery and down, was well over two hours. We knew we were really getting into trouble as the sun would soon set and we could get lost in the forest.
We agreed to walk back very quickly without stopping and that everyone should be careful to keep stragglers in sight. We made it back in record time of 55 minutes. The sun had already set and it was darkening very fast. As we came out of the forest to get in our minibus, we were surprised that Zundi, our driver had left with his wife and daughter. After making some enquiries of people in the parking lot, one herder advised that our driver was down at the ger camp a couple of kilometers down the mountain.
When we arrived at the ger it was pitch black outside and warm and cozy inside. The manager was there too and that meant we were eating dinner here followed by alcohol and vodka. The herder’s wife made us a great meal of roasted yak and potatoes, cabbage and carrots. This was the first time we got vegetables and the cabbage was delicious and a much different flavour than we get back home.
After dinner, the airag (mare’s milk alcohol) came out and I went to the minibus and retrieved all the cans of beer I brought for the trip. I also thought the beer would help me handle the alcohol and vodka.  The beer was welcomed by everyone and it really did make it easier for me to handle the mare’s milk and the vodka while consuming more than my share of it. Every time someone got their 2 once shooter of vodka, they had to make a speech. That part was really good and we actually got in some debates over Mongolia’s roads, tourism and garbage. In fact the herder and the manager started to argue so heavily the herder left his ger.
Then we started singing songs and the herder came back in the ger. The custom is each person must stand and sing a song, any song. I am not a singer and I do not really know any songs. However, I had a liter of beer, several bowls of airag and at least 8 ounces of vodka over a one hour time period so my inhibitions were relaxed. They sang many beautiful tunes about their country, their lifestyle and their horses. I sang “swim said the momma fishy swim if you can” song that my granddaughters love but I couldn’t remember all the words. Probably caused by my consumption of alcohol. On the second round of songs, Trudy seeing my desperation offered to sing Oh Canada with me. We did well except where the French part comes in and we couldn’t remember the English words for that part but pressed on to finish our national anthem to applause. My singing days are over. Then again, they never really started.
At midnight, the activities were concluding. The manager gave us the option to spend the night in the ger or go back to the hotel. We chose the hotel option because the next morning our ride to Kharakhorum was arriving at 9 am.
We thanked the herder and his wife for the fun time and drove back to the hotel arriving at 2:20 am. Obviously, I was only going to get 3 to 4 hours sleep depending on the “hounds from hell”.

Another Day of Naadam

Blog August 11, 2011
The morning was cold and crisp with rain still occurring on and off.
We all gathered in Atic’s ger for breakfast. Again a delicious meal that was far too heavy for our western appetites. It was another stick to the ribs meal that would carry us several hours.
After breakfast we packed up our luggage and headed for the Naadam day of horse races and wrestling in Orkon Falls.
This time, the credit union manager had his two horses in races and we drove our minibus at full speed beside the horse and rider for the entire race. His horse came in second. Again these races are run over a course that is 22 km long. It is simply amazing the stamina of these small horses. No wonder Genghis Khan conquered the world.
We watched other races from the finishing line and the credit union manager’s other horse came in first and was his crowning achievement for the day.
We all loaded up in the minivan and travelled to a nearby ger for lunch. The herder’s wife had cooked us Yak, which was delicious. As custom would have it, we shared several bowls of mare’s milk alcohol followed by a bottle of vodka. I think I am getting used to this or maybe I am developing a tolerance.
We returned to the Naadam site and watched several wrestling matches that allow people in the audience to pit themselves against the professional wrestlers. A couple of audience participants actually beat the pros even though they were sometimes mismatched by 100 pounds of weight and significant height differences. No one got hurt and all seemed to have fun.
I met several tourists from Switzerland, Netherlands, England, Norway and a fellow from Italy who played the saxophone for everyone.  His music was upbeat blues and he played very well.
As the event was winding up and prizes were being bestowed, we waited for the credit union manager who was to travel back with us. He decided we should join his winner’s circle of friends to have more vodka. Afterwards, he advised us that he was getting a ride back in a better more powerful Land Cruiser so we all started departing for the same river crossing.
We got to the crossing first and noticed the water was at least one foot higher than normal due to all the rain and the current was very fast. We knew from the prior day's experience that the minibus would certainly get stuck mid river.
We waited for everyone to catch up to us at the crossing and watched many a brave soul stall halfway across including several motorbikes, cars, trucks and minivans. They actually were blockading each other from being able to cross.
Along came our friend in his Toyota Land Cruiser and he went to the middle of the river and towed out one vehicle after another. Then he came back for us and towed us from shore to shore and it was a good thing as the water came in above the floor boards.
By this time it was almost 9 pm and getting quite dark and we had several hours travel to get back to our hotel.
The rain had changed all the dirt roads into slippery treacherous mud trails. Several times we got stuck and had to get out to push. One time we stopped dead as the undercarriage of the minivan hit a rock sticking up from the trail. I thought for sure there was major damage but the driver was confident that all we had to do was push the vehicle off the rock and we would be on our way. It worked and we were underway again but it was worse than ever since it was pitch black and there were always four or five trails that we could take and it was too dark to know which was right. Shortly after midnight, we arrived at Bat-Ulzii and had only to cross one more river that was two feet deeper than the last time we crossed and the current now looked like rapids.
Our driver lifted the hood to the engine and loosened one of the manifolds for reasons I do not understand but is common practice when the water will be over the top of the engine. Next he lined up the minivan to take a solid run for the far side but at an angle that was going up river against the current. It was touch and go but we made it only to be confronted by town streets that have no drainage gutters so the entire streets are mud patches and holes that caused us to slide uncontrollably and to spin around more than once. It took us over half an hour to go about 3 blocks in this tiny town.
I was never so glad to get to the hotel. I was wet through and through and freezing cold. I put the heaviest dry clothes and socks on and went to bed and finally warming up a bit when the sun came up.