Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Sunday in the park, part three

After having said our goodbyes to Bolor’s family at the ger and posing for some group shots in the yellowing afternoon sun, we piled back into the cars and, in our caravan of two, we began to retrace the journey home. The clouds that had brought winter to this valley had long since given way to a bright blue sky and a warm sun had melted the snow from the track. I had almost forgotten the river crossings that lay ahead until our van waded into the hub-high water and promptly stopped. No matter how hard Batdorj, our driver, tried to rock the van, the rear wheels just spun uselessly behind us.

We signaled to the Isuzu up ahead and Gantulga pulled a U-turn and brought his car back to face ours. I began to roll up my pants but everyone in the van, most of all Batdorj, shrieked in horror at the prospect of their guest getting his feet wet. I grudgingly complied.

The tow strap worked like a charm and we were once again on our way. But with much of the snow melted, the it became difficult to choose which of the numerous tracks across the flats to take. Which way did we come? It all looked very different but, then again, the trail often looks different from the other direction. I hung my camera out the window and took video out the window. Lost? I didn’t care. It was beautiful. What an adventure.

We crossed several more times. Little ones. Shallow. The van bumped along without too much trouble and each time we waded in, we climbed up the opposite bank. It was getting easier and the cars continued through the watery maze like a kiddie ride at the fair.

But then it stopped. One of the main channels of the river lay ahead, dark and wide. It was deep, too, as Gantulga eased the Isuzu into the black water. Deeper and deeper. First the hubs went under, then the tops of the front tires…
And then all forward progress stopped as the hood disappeared under the swirling surface and a menacing wave surged halfway up the windshield.

Not good.

Helpless to do anything but watch, everyone in our van was silent as the green Isuzu rolled, like a swamped canoe, leveled itself, and drifted downstream a little before settling with the water lapping the door handles.

Nara’s head appeared at the rear window. She was smiling in spite of the water steadily climbing up her legs inside the car.

There was a lot of yelling in Mongolian.

A little laughter but the tenor of the conversation was decidedly urgent. Batdorj uncoiled the tow strap from the brush guard while Gantulga opened the driver’s side door and waded to shore.
Gantulga, his arms submerged up to his shoulders and his head turned sideways to breathe somehow managed to attach the tow strap to a hook somewhere under the bumper. This accomplishment was met with a small cheerand there was a small but any optimism quickly faded as the shortcomings of the van’s inoperable four-wheel drive were suddenly on spectacular display.

Given the function of a rear differential, only one wheel spun uselessly at the rear of the van carving a neat little groove in the loose gravel and having no perceivable effect on the swamped Isuzu.

There was nothing to do but roll the van to the water’s edge to gain as much momentum as possible to try and jerk the Isuzu free. But each time we did this, the tow strap snapped taught with a dangerously violent “crack” that sent spray in every direction. But it was working. Each time, the Isuzu would lurch toward the bank and then slowly slide back into the deep water. But each time there was progress. It was small but it was progress.

Little by little, the Isuzu complied an inch or two with each jerk of the van and a little more of the swamped car rose out of the depths and crept toward land.

So when the tow strap finally snapped like a rubber band, too much progress had been made for anyone’s spirits to be dampened. I think most of us expected it to happen anyway. Batdorj had lots of straps. Lots of straps. Soon, he was back in the driver’s seat again repeating the cycle; roll to the water’s edge, gun the engine, engage the wheels and try to gain as much speed as possible to pull the Isuzu, an inch this time, half a foot that time, toward the shore.

Without warning, the car just rolled free of the water. We opened doors and the water rushed out in a moment of pure comedy. All that was missing was a fish or two flapping on the bank.

But optimism was again crushed as the Isuzu refused to make more than a feint clicking when Gantulga turned the key. Nothing at all. No sign of life.
We gathered wood and whatever flammable garbage we could find. We would need a fire with the sun sinking behind the mountains. It would get cold soon and we had three little kids and Ayunga, a pregnant woman, in our party. People dialed phones pacing as they talked. Calls were returned and made again. I had no idea what was going on. I gathered sticks, too, and dragged back a few nice logs even though it was clearly women’s work to gather wood.

But the women were having trouble lighting the fire and I could stand by and watch no more. I planted my face next to the pathetically smoldering pile of tissue paper and candy wrappers and tried my best to coax the flames higher. Instead, I blew it out. More matches.

More failure.

Until the vodka.

Yes, just add vodka and problems, some anyway, disappear.

No, we didn’t drink it this time. Gantulga poured a little on the fire and flames leapt to life with a vigor previously unseen.

There were protests that the vodka had been wasted.
No, no! It was OK. Turns out the vodka had been found. It was someone else’s.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Sunday at the park, part two

It's called Ten Rivers, a stony bottom land where the Ovor gorhi, the river that drains the Terelj Valley, broadens into a maze of meanders separated by low islands of every size, some wooded, some gray flats of riverworn stone.

It is, in short, a marvel that we have made it this far. The winding road through the pass into the valley exposed a weak link in our convoy of two as the van, a Mitsubishi Delica many years and miles from the showroom, showed itself to be almost useless on anything but dry pavement. Sure, it is emblazoned with logos proclaiming it's four-wheel-drive prowess and the rally-style foglight array is nothing short of impressive. But those locking hubs at the front were also little more than cosmetic. Turn them to lock and the most we could get out of them was a feint whirring sound from the front differential. Our macho minivan was nothing more than a loser cruiser out of its element.

But, incredibly, we crested the pass and began the slow descent through snowy covered forests of spindly pine into Terelj. We didn't stop. Too tired from digging and pushing and running and pushing some more and dangerously low (we only had three more bottles) on vodka, we opted to soldier on.

So when the Isuzu Wizard plunged into the dark and cold waters of the Ovor gorhi in what would turn out to be about a dozen river crossings, I was perplexed that the van would even attempt to follow us. But follow us it did. Again and again and, even when the water covered the bumpers and sent the exhuast far under water to burble and bubble like an outboard, the van followed faithfully and both cars climbed up the final bank onto a rolling, snow-covered plain ringed by mountains.


Here and there fences cut the landscape and encircled gatherings of gers and small wooden houses. Ger is Mongolian for yurt, a Turkish word more familiar to us in America. It is a for round, temporary structures used here by nomads or anyone looking for a simple place to live. Our convoy headed for one fenced gathering made up of two gers, side by side, and a smallish house no bigger than a Home Depot shed. There were lots of animal shelters made of small logs and roofed with sod and dung.

A man with a wind-blown face shaded by a wide-brimmed hat welcomed us and swung the gate wide for the cars.

"Sanbainoh!" we said, as the cars disgorged their human and, yes, canine contents to stretch and yawn in the cold day.


Inside the ger it was warm and we sat, men on the left, women on the right, at a long table that was rapidly filling with dishes of every description. The vodka came out and, yes, the Dixie cups, too.

We toasted, "This is lovely."

We toasted again, "Yes, it is."

This was dried yogurt and this was lamb and these were pickles and, what was that? Those were...there was a discussion in Mongolian. I was pointing to what tasted like a kind of meat slaw. It was delicious. Turns out it was mutton in butterfat with salt.

Very good. Very good.

The meat arrived in a cloud of steam. An entire sheep had been slaughtered for the meal and through the steam I could see its little head nestled in the cooked innards of its broken body. All was gray and brown. I was hungry but I was not sure I was ready.

Someone handed me a little hoof. Others already had started on theirs and I became caught up in the vodka and the carniverousness of the moment and soon began tearing flesh from the bone, cleaning it, as Nara instructed me to do, until there was nothing left. It was like eating lobster in a way. There came a point where there was nothing left to eat but, yes, there was. Out of the corner of your eye I noticed that my neighbor, a veteran in the devouring of all parts of the sheep, had broken the little ankle in half and was tearing at the newly exposed cartiledge and sinews. I followed suit alternately picking and gnawing. Was I doing it right?

At last I was left with bones and a little hoof. One bone in particular, a little one not much bigger than the link on a bicycle chain, could be used as a sort of die, a plaything for nomadic children at loose ends. Roll it to see whether you get horse, camel, goat or cow by how the bone comes to rest.

I tried the heart and it is good. Liver, too? Tasted like, well, liver. And this? This was the first stomach of a cow filled with blood and cooked. The sausage broke apart and flooded my mouth with the warm, blackened jelly of the cooked blood. I swallowed again and again but it wouldn't go down and I was thinking way too much. At last, my smooth muscle won out. I was not a fan but I took a few more to see if it grew on me. It didn't.

And then it was time to wander. We visited the animals. The kids (human) held the kids (goat). I held one and it bleated in protest. It didn't like me and no matter how hard I tried to comfort the little thing all it wanted to do is get away and join its mother. Someone handed me another and then both were in my arms struggling and bleating. They laughed at me. I laughed, too, but I wished they would nestle in my arms to prove me the "animals love me" guy that I think I am.

A brief walk up the hill in back of the ger and the girls joined us to survey the valley below. We threw snowballs and rolled them in a failed attempt at a snowman. And here, in this valley ringed by snowy mountains, with two little girls laughing and running in the snow, I felt tears in my eyes for the first of several times today. It was partly the beauty of the moment that moved me but mostly it was the sudden and overwhealming wish to be with my family. To hear Chloe's voice join Yeroo and Altananga's. Marcus on my shoulders and Catherine by my side looking down at this perfect place, this tiny dot of time and place.

And then it was time to go back to the ger.

And there was more food. I had seen the cooking of the rest of the sheep earlier in the ger next door but I had no idea we were eating that, too. Another steaming bowl of mutton, ribs and thighs, shoulders and chops this time, sat steaming at the end of the table ready for round two.


Our host had a scapula in his hands and was pointing to me. There was a lot of conversation in Mongolian. Laughter. More Mongolian and a translation. He was going to tell my fortune but first he must clean it completely before putting it in the fire.

In it goes. We eat. I wait. More vodka.

At last the scapula was pulled from the fire and everyone laughed because the verdict was, apparently, clear.

"I am going to have another!"

"Another what?" I asked.

Another member of my family, Nara explained with a wicked grin.

"MY family?" I explained that I was donen with kids and that if my wife were pregnant there would be mixed emotions.

"Another WIFE?" Again, I explained, there would be problems ahead on that front.

Mongolian. Laughter and a translation. "She will get used to it," they say.

Somehow I doubt it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Sunday at the park, part one

Nara calls it traveling Mongolian style. For every seat in the car, there must be at least one person. So, when we began our trip to Terelj National Park, there were fourteen of us packed like, well, Mongolians, into two cars. Oh, and there was Barss, Nara's faithful German Shepherd.

Tracey and I are there, of course. And Nara, too. But we also have three smaller guests. Nara's granddaughter, Yeroo, age eleven, and her cousins, Altangana, about the same age, and Haluna, four, who sings to us from the back seat.

It was snowing when we left and by the time our convoy was crossing the first bridge out of town the road was just a narrow ribbon of black unrolled across a blank white landscape. No horizon. No up, no down. Just white.

We opted not to climb to the top of the Ginggis Khan Memorial, our first stop on this wintery Magical Mystery Tour. You couldn't see anything from up there anyway so why spend the money? Instead we posed for pictures in front of a giant statue, perhaps twenty stories tall, of the greatest Mongolian leader, on horseback staring defiantly into the blowing snow.

We throw snowballs. The little girls squeal. Barss lopes in a picture of canine bliss through the snow.

Then, Nara is fumbling with a packet of what looks like flowered Dixie cups and there is a small commotion around the tailgate of one of the cars. At last, they find what they have been looking for, a bottle of vodka. But, before you drink in Mongolia, there is a ritual. You must first give a little to the Gods by dipping your right ring finger into the cup and flicking a bit to the heavens and the compass points. And then it's bottoms up. An empty cup is not tolerated especially when, it seems, it is mine, and I am quickly feeling no pain.

Doors slam and we are off again, backtracking this time. Without the snow we would cut across the landscape, fording the River Tuul, but with the snow we decide to keep to the road.

We stop again, this time to wait for Nara's car. We wait. And wait some more. I have to pee. Should I go now? We wait and finally I can't take it any more and sieze the moment. And here I am, in Mongolia, marking my territory in a sea of white. It's another one of those "I can't believe I am here" moments.

Nara's car has arrived and, yes, it's time for more vodka. This time it is in the shadow of a billboard at the side of the road. No matter. Again, my Dixie cup is brimming and again, we dip and flick. I am bold and brave. Smiling. Warm.

Nara wants me to join her car for the next leg of the journey. It is a rolling teachers' lounge. Laughter, questions. The landscape shifts and huge rock outcroppings loom out of the snow high above the car. We see horses.

"How do you call horses?" I ask.

They demonstrate and I give it a try, surprising myself with a trilling my R.

Laughter. "It is perfect," Nara says.

"It's the vodka," I say.

More laughter. No translation needed.

"What do you see up here?" Nara asks. I peer through the windshield into the white and there, unmistakably, is the great gray shape of a turtle. We are at turtle rock.

We get out. More snowballs. More vodka. I hoist Halunga onto my shoulders. I miss Marcus and Chloe. I gallop and she giggles. I whinney and her giggles become a laugh. I really miss Marcus and Chloe.

And then back in the cars.

Friday, April 17, 2009

I'll sleep when I'm jailed

Having spent the night planning in borrowed university classrooms, they would emerge in small groups into the cold Mongolian dawn. Their footsteps often were the first to touch the newly-fallen snow. Students, professors and trade unionists, each separately planning, each unaware of the other groups activities, but each very aware that any day may be the last for the democratic movement in Mongolia.

"Maybe we won't meet tomorrow," they would say to each other in parting. Half joking that at least in jail, they would get more sleep.
But that was 1989.

Twenty years have passed and now, Nara, who took the train back from studying for her PhD in Moscow to join the fledgling democracy movement, is joined by three junior-high school students to guide us on a hotspot tour of the democratic movement in Ulan Baatar. The quiet dawn of democracy Nara describes has been replaced by traffic. Surging, weaving, beeping traffic. A byprodoct of the success of the democracy movement.

We stop at a statue. Standing in front of the curved facade of the physics building, it looks like it might be Stalin on the granite plinth but for the Mongolian face. "It is Choibalsan," Nara says, "Mongolian Stalin."

Yessouche takes the lead. A compact little man in a seventh-grader's body, he holds forth on the misdeeds of Choibalsan now and then poking at his picture on the poster held up spokesmodel style by his classmates, Puujee and Maralmaa. We wait for the translation and nod our heads when it comes. Choibalsan was a bad man.

"He killed my grandfather," Nara adds at last, her sorrow mixing with a certain degree of pride.
For all his crimes, his statue must suffer the punishment of being painted pink.
The tour continues and we weave our way through the flow of traffic to another corner and another statue and what emerges to me is a pattern. In the see-saw political struggle for parliamentary and presidential power between the Democratic party and the Communists, a sort of monumental chess game has evolved with Ulan Baatar as the board. With the Democrats in power, statues from the Soviet era of Lenin, Stalin and their Mongolian abettors, were taken down or moved, replaced with Democratic heroes. Rinchin, jailed under the Communists for nationalist writings in the traditional Mongolian script, now stands in bronze where Stalin (yes, they had a statue of him) used to be. The building in back of him is now the National Library.
But across the street from Rinchin's statue, is another bronze, this time a Communist, erected recently by the Communist party. We don't stop to talk in front of this statue.

"I don't like this," she says, nodding to the statue.

At last we come to a statue of what looks like a professor. Glasses on his intelligent face and a soft leather briefcase hanging from his right hand, the man known as Zurig gazes across Sumbaatar Square at the gleaming facade of Mongolia's parliamentary buildng. He is an icon of democracy in Mongolia and should have been the first democratically elected president of this country.

But in a crime that remains unsolved, Zurig was murdered in his apartment.
For all the peace, love and understanding that marked the transition of the is country from a communist dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy, he is a constant reminder that politics and power is big stuff and people in power don't often go away without a fight.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Interesting question, Doug

Doug of Noank, Connecticut writes:

"Hey, Kim, nice descriptions. When are you moving?"

Well, Doug, that is a very interesting question and I have been considering it now for several days. My only trouble is that I can not figure out how to convince my loving wife and beautiful children to come here.

But now that I am done teaching Mongolian schoolchildren and have had two giant Chinggis Khan beers to celebrate, my thoughts on the matter have become much clearer.

Catherine, my love, you were made for Mongolia. You are an internet queen and can do your work from any place on the globe. All you need is a dish and a solar panel. What better way to provide extra income in your new nomadic lifestyle? We will sell the house, buy a nice Ger and a few thousand Cashmere goats. No, you can't do this at home. Greenwich is no good for goats of this type. For one thing, Cashmere goats grow impossibly stinky in our climate. The air is too wet, the winters, too mild. Nobody wants stinky sweaters and scarves, now, do they? No, Cashmere goats are happiest here and so will you be, my dear.

And I have already forwarded your web page to Nara!


Nara makes everything happen. And she comes from a little town up near the Russian border called Yeroo. Well, her father was from there. He was a Buryat and he came to Ulan Baator to work on the railway so when Stalin wiped out the Buryats, he survived because, to Russians, all Mongolians look and sound alike. So Nara has taken an interest in her ancestral home. She has already managed to get the Japanese government to send her a pickling plant. She also scored a grant for building greenhouses! You, Catherine, with all your knowledge of marketing for microfarming, are an invaluable asset to the people of Yeroo!

Chloe. This is easy. How would you like to have a horse? Yes. A REAL horse. I can see you now, riding over the steppe tending to the aforementioned goats. A dream come true, right? You might not be so fond of sharing a circular room that functions as a kitchen, bathroom and bedroom (your brother's too) all at once. But anything getting you down will surely be cured with a little gallop over the hills and valleys.

Marcus. Also easy. You are the next incarnation of Chinggis Khan himself. I have seen it in your eye and in your demeanor. You, despite coming from a family of wishy-washy peacenick, moral relativists, know what it is all about. When we ask you what you are doing and you say, "Whacking things!" it is clear that you are a great warrior. Come and practice with your bow and arrow. Wrestle at the Nadaam. You will one day assume your rightful place on the throne where the Mighty Khan once sat. It is your destiny.

Indy and Natalie. Sorry Murray and Jane. It's camp Granma and Grandpa for you, two. There are plenty of dogs in Mongolia and, Natalie, you demonstrate the Buddhist belief that life is suffering. You can't have more than a few years left. Hopefully you will come back as an animal you like.

The truth is, Doug, I am very sad to leave this place. I begin to cry, in fact. And I am doing so now, I am afraid.

There was one school, Doug. It was in the dusty hills just outside Ulan Baatar in the midst of the thousands of Gers seperated by ramshackle fences of scrap wood and corrugated tin. Depressing. We met in the library and there were no books. Black and white photos of famous Mongolian authors hung in identical eight-by-ten frames all along the walls.

But there were no books.

No books in the library.

Chloe, how would you like your very own horse?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

On the edge

The Lonely Planet guide compares the Mongolian language to the sound of two cats coughing up hairballs until one finally succeeds.

Not so.

To my ear, at least, the language here is musical. It moves freely from being spoken at the tip of the trilling tongue to deep in the throat will the carefree lilt of a Scandinavian storyteller. It is charming in every way except for its difficulty. Perhaps the Lonely Planet, usually encouraging to the adventurous traveler, was trying to spare me the futility of trying to speak Mongolian. But I would miss the piss-your-pants laughter that greets me whenever I try a new word. If coaxing the oral machinery to manufacture all these new sounds is half as hard for our translators, we need to leave bigger presents for them.

"It's a very difficult language."

This according to Starlight, a tall Peace Corps volunteer from Oregon. Barely able to maintain contact with the floor, Starlight is pure youthful energy and optimism. But Mongolian has been tough.

"Oh my God!" she said. "Native speakers." And after a torrent of English language washed over me, she apologized. "But it's just so long since I have spoken English outside of teaching it."

I quite literally bumped into her when I was observing a lesson in Choyr, a town perched on the last patches of withered grass before the Gobi Desert's sands take over and stretch to the Chinese border. It was a three hour drive with seven of us, Tracey and me, four other civics teachers from schools we had already visited, our translator, Sarnai, and the head honcho over here, Nara. Eight if you count our silent driver who, even though he was at the wheel of a van brimming with attractive women, never took his eyes off the road for more than a cautious glance in the mirror.

The lesson? I am stealing it. Zorga, the principal for the school, left her office and returned to the classroom to remind everyone that at the core she is a master teacher. Students, in groups of five to seven, clustered around desks. Their task; to match the symbol, scales of justice for example, with a brief description of a government action. Each group had about eight to match. Hard work but the students set about the task with the enthusiasm that I have come to expect from Mongolian students. They huddle, arm in arm, over the desk, deliberating, sorting, discussing and, this is important, LISTENING to one another. And then, like a flower, the huddle opens. They have made their decision.

"Final answer?" Zorga asks in Mongolian.

"San!" they say in unison. "Yes!"

And the lesson goes on like this for forty-five minutes with Zorga issuing a new task, each more difficult than the one before. But the students are equal to the tasks and the difficulty seems to energize them.

I am stealing this lesson.

And then, it's my turn.

"I'm up?"

It's a change of plan. We had arrived late at the school and the schedule, such as it is, has been reworked. Sarnai, my usually quiet and diminutive translator, has me by the arm in a tight grip. "We hurry," she says.

Suddenly I am in a class of ninth-graders. I instruct the students on how to complete the survey of citizen actions, the backbone of my lesson, but forget to introduce myself and have to go back and do it again. I am using words my translator doesn't know. The energy of Zorga's class is matched by the silence of mine. I wished I had a pin so I could hear it drop.

But things loosen up and, somewhat mercifully, the period is over.

At the end of the day, we are ushered back into a gymnasium that does double-duty as an auditorium. The place is buzzing with excitement and only after a moment to I begin to understand what I am in for. Standing in the corner are what look to be between twenty and thirty little kids, maybe six years old, all in sequined pink ballroom outfits. The girls have little halter tops and shiver in the early spring chill. The boys have white slacks and wide-collared leisure shirts open, disco-style, to mid sternum. Behind the little kids, high-school boys and girls watch from the darkness of a doorway, peeking out at the foreign visitors. We are not the only ones gathered here for the concert, but I feel that all eyes are on us.

The concert starts with singing and it is too much. My colleague, Tracey, has already decimated her supply and is now dabbing at her eyes with borrowed tissue. Traditional Mongolian singing, sweet even through the distortion of the PA, is followed by three boys playing the Morin Khur, the two-stringed Mongolian fiddle, who set my foot to tapping. But again I am fighting back tears as I watch a girl, maybe fifteen, perform a dance so energetic that at times she is leaping into the air and grazing the back of her head with the sole of her slippered foot. She jingles and jumps, shaking the medals of competitions she has won. Always smiling, she suddenly leaps into the air and crashes down, landing on her knees. She does it again, spinning this time. And again, again and again.

And then the little kids come out and do their thing. It's a kind of salsa-meets Asia number and my tear ducts are at it again.

If this is the future of Mongolia, nobody should worry.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Vowels? we don't need no stinkin' vowels

Correct pronunciation of Mongolian words is best achieved by eliminating all but the first vowel. After that, run all consonants together at the back of your throat. No, that's not it. Try again. Nope.

It's impossible. I keep writing people's names the way they sound and then I realize I heard wrong. Lots of scratching out in my "I'm going to be organized, this time" notebook. Oh well.

So, I am beginning to get an idea of the second world. It exists. It's not just some placemarker between the first and the third. There is a layer that is definitely in-between. Apartment buildings root here in the bony dust of Mongolia but they are crumbling; a product of a system in which quality control was subordinate to quantity control from Stalin to Brezhnev. I end it at Brezhnev because I don't think a whole lot of building took place here beyond him. There is no part of the road that is not repaired. It is all repair. The repairs need repairing and any road off the main is a graveyard for differentials and exhaust systems.

And all the while it is beautiful. Colorful, from the vinyl signs that mix Latin and Cyrillic letters for effect rather than meaning to the faded pinks and greens of Russian-era apartment blocks. Traffic, struggling to make way like salmon to spawn, beeps and jostles, beeps and jostles another foot, another yard, another block further.

We weave our way down dusty roads and then backtrack. We can't find the school. All the buildings look alike, compains Sukhar, our driver. Is it here or further down? We call.
Eventually, in a canyon formed by identical, blue-tiled apartment buildings, the school appears.

It is a depressing building. There is no sign of life like a public pool in the dead of winter. There is a tangled wreckage in one corner of the school yard. Only after a moment did I recognize the twisted shapes as a swingset and see-saw.

Fort Apache.

But once inside the building, the mood is changed. The bright yellow painted wooden floors that seem to be the norm in Mongolia radiate a kind or warmth and security that contrasts sharply with the armored exterior of the building. Geraniums perch on the inside ledges of the hallways and the Mongolian sun pours in though the curtained windows.

The students are uniformed. Well-behaved, of course, they listen to their teachers at desks built for two. They work together and share their work, standing to announce the results of each groups' work. They seem at ease. Mature. Poised and conscious of their as inheritors of a fragile and newly forged democracy.

Time for me to teach. There is a feeling you get as a teacher when a lesson is working well. It flows and you are directing the flow perhaps like a Tai Chi master. But, when the lesson isn't working, YOU are. You toil. Sysaphus trying to roll a conversation here or achieve an objective there only to feel it slip away, degrading into aimlessness and wasted time. And you think, "Maybe I should stop right here."

A lesson in translation is the same only worse. You give instruction and then wait. You have no sense of undertanding. You must wait. Give more instruction and wait again. You are in a drunken driving simulation where each turn of the wheel, each stab of the brake, is met with...nothing until what seems like an eternity has passed and then the wheels turn or the brakes engage.

You smile. You listen and you soldier on. There's no looking at your watch, here. It's not like that because you are completely engaged in driving that lesson forward. Squinting your eyes and asking your ears, no matter how futile it is, to make sense of the Mongolian tongue.

And then, almost as soon as you have said "Sanbainoh," it is time for goodbye.

"Bayartai!" you say.

And the students say, "Goodbye!"

Friday, April 10, 2009

Buy her a pearl metaphor

The man we call Tank Man is invisible here, according to our tour guide. But you have to wonder how many Erics there are here among the millions of people that form the People’s Republic.

Eric was to become a teacher but he has put his plans on hold for a while until his brother graduates from engineering school.
“Then,” he said, “It will be my turn.”

He wants to become a teacher at a public school. It’s a good job and it pays well. Oh, and there are summers off, too. Some things, I guess, are universal.
“But what would happen if you taught about Tiananmen?” I asked.
He laughed, shaking his head.
“That would not be good for my career.”

The government has the Tienanmen covered. The story goes that 14 government solders were killed by terrorists. This justifies the nightly closing of the Tienanmen Square area after the flag lowering ceremony in the evening. Tracey and I were told “no” rather firmly by an impossibly young soldier in a uniform that was two sizes too big when we attempted to swim counter to the stream of people and re-enter the Square on our first night. Even though the words came from an impossibly young policeman in a uniform so big it recalled a Halloween costume, we felt the gravity of the order and rejoined the flow of the crowd without a complaint.

According to Eric, the security at Tienanmen Square correlates closely with the protests of 1989.

You get the impression that Eric does what he has to and that this is the attitude of many Chinese. Educated, hard-working and smart, they play by the rules, such as they are, to get a piece of the pie. Eric avoids risk and dutifully takes us to the lunch spot, and the pearl market, and the jade shop. This is what he has to do. I understand. His youthful enthusiasm more than makes up for it. While I wish he would take us to the maze of alleys and gardens in the Hutong west of Tienanmen.
“No,” he said. “I will not take you there.”
“Someone see me with you,” he said when we were away from the driver, “They might tell someone.”

It’s a funny union between business and government. Official government store? I am not sure what that means. The pearl joint with rooms full of rows and rows of immaculate glass cases glowing under the halogen beams from above definitely seemed official.

But the jade place, while it did begin with an explanation of the different types of jade and how a so-called “happiness” ball is made, lacked that official feel.

What’s a happiness ball? You mean you don’t know? I’d never seen one either but I guess they must be very popular with tourists. It’s a kind of stone ball with twelve holes, one for each month, drilled into its sides. This allows the carver to carve another ball inside the first, and another inside the second, and a third and, well, you get the idea. The biggest balls…can I say that again? The biggest balls have the most balls…inside…
It’s supposed to represent generations of family unity. An ancestor thing.

A Chinese thing.

I asked Eric if he had one. That was the first and only time I saw him laugh. Truly laugh.

But, make no mistake, they were expecting us. That jade store knew we were coming. Perhaps it was the call Eric made in the car but when our car pulled up, all that was missing was Ricardo Montalban.

No, sorry again, my love, I did not buy you a jade bracelet.
But you WANTED a happiness ball? Sorry again. No dice. And that goes for the enormous model junk as tall as Yao Ming and the life-sized ancient Chinese soldier. Nope.

But someone is always watching. And maybe I can shed a little light on the good side of that little coin. If someone is always watching you might behave a little better.

Tracey and I ignored our aching feet and headed off to the Pearl Market. No, not the first one. This Pearl Market is kind of like a department store had a wreck and collided with a flea market.

Floor one; rugs, bikes and undies. Loads of undies. They actually were selling them in bales. Go up a flight and its gadgets, more gadgets, more gadgets and, amid the silicon wonders of capitalism run amok, Mao stuff. Mao playing cards, watches, handkerchiefs, undies (of course) and Little Red Books of various sizes and translations.

Go up another flight and you hit jewelery. Hundreds of booths all selling pretty much the same thing; pearls, jade, and coral. Earrings short and dangly, necklaces of every description, pearls on strings, ropes of pearls, black pearls, white pearls, and, of course, fake pearls.

And did I mention the chorus of young women and men pleading for you to “have a look?” Lot’s of that. You respond at first, then you smile and by the time you are done with a floor, you barely nod your head.

I bargained. I probably got ripped off. Hard to say. What is the going price of a reproduction Cultural Revolution poster in Yuan? You tell me that.

Anyway, up another flight and more of the same but, perhaps, a higher quality.
Top floor is quiet. Big shops up there with price tags, BIG price tags and binocular microscopes at the counter and a white-gloved silent staff that wait for you to enter before addressing you in perfect English.

I stuck to the second and third floor.

But then it was closing time and we were hungry so we hoofed it home. And then it hit me. I had not even thought of safety. I get the impression that the people in Beijing do not count on being held up at gunpoint as part and parcel of city life.

Maybe it is because someone is watching.

Interesting note. I always have to check how I spell Tienanmen. So I Googled it. The first hit, and this is in the People’s Republic, now, was the Tienanmen Square protests and several pictures of “Tank Man” appeared.

I felt as if I should exit the page. Like porn had jumped on my screen.

Not enough time

There were thousands of people. People of all kinds, mostly Chinese, flowed though arches, gates and over bridges. A surging flood of humanity, they parted here and came together again, there.
But for all the people, the Forbidden City is a place of calm. Of cool breezes brushed with the heavy scent of Juniper blossom and quiet order. The palace absorbs chaos and channels it through spaces into wide courtyards ringed with red walls.
I could have stayed there for days.
It kept changing. First, it is magnificent and broad. It is the power of the Emperor and his people. And then it is quiet courtyards and cloisters. There are narrow walks behind rows of columns and secret gardens shaded by old pines.
And there are thousands of people. And it is quiet and peaceful. It is a good place to sit and think. To bring a book, perhaps.
"Feng Shui," says Eric.
It was a great tour that, alas, fell a little flat when, somewhat predictably, lunch at a tourist trap was next on the agenda. It wasn't too bad. A little Kung Pao and we were off again. This time it was to the Temple of Heaven but not before a stop at the Pearl Market. It's an official pearl store and they run you through a demo about pearls; how to tell if they are real, where they come from. Actually, Alice, our guide in that place, opened a freshwater oyster for us after prodding both Tracey and me to guess how many pearls were inside. I guessed one. Tracey said nine. Turns out we never counted them all up but there were more than 20 when Alice stopped picking though the stringy carcass of the late Mr. Oyster's body.
No, Catherine, I didn't get you pearls. I hope that you will forgive me (I did guess which string of pearls was the fake, though, with the old rub it on your tooth trick).
But then it was on to the Temple of Heaven which was cool but not quite like the Forbidden Palace. I put a bunch of pictures up but the most interesting thing I can tell you about the Temple of Heaven is that people come from all over Beijing to play cards there, sing and also dance to country-western music.
Huh. I didn't know that.
Next posting will be about the "real" Pearl Market. The one Eric didn't want us to go to.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Summer in Beijing

It hit me over Wisconsin. The suburbs of Milwaukee subsided into brown fields tinged with snow and scrolling under the gleaming white wing of the plane was the coastline of Lake Michigan.
I have gone 51 miles.
There are six-and-a-half thousand more to go.
Breaking up a trip like that is an exercise in entertainment rationing. Anything that is even remotely interesting has to be spread out. Anything. Podcast? Spread it out. The mini-pretzels that came with lunch? Eat one every twelve minutes so you can make the whole package last, let's! You can make a package of mini pretzels last for over an hour. That's 500 miles.
But Beijing came sooner that I imagined once we left the pack ice of the Bearing Strait and came in over the snowy mountains of Eastern Siberia.
The clouds even parted at precisely the right moment for me to catch the iconic looping lines of the Great Wall.
We were met by Eric, our tour guide for tomorrow. Tracey found him amid the sea of men and women holding little signs saying things like "Welcome Dr Andersen" and "Lotus Tours." Eric's English is perfect and he told us how to recognize counterfeit bills in China. The trick is that you can't. He agreed. "Just look out," he said enthusiastically from the front seat of the cab.
But Tracey and I were on our own, tonight. Dinner was, I think, on Tracey's mind. Eric had recommended a place with a blue walrus in front. He did some hand motions but it seemed like you just went right and then right again.
We kept walking and walking down a beautiful avenue with a park running down the middle. We consulted the map several times. And we kept walking.
We never found the restaurant but we did stumble across the flag changing ceremony in front of Mao's portrait near the gates to the Forbidden City. There were throngs of people; young, old, tourists, families with small and exhausted children wailing on their laps. We waited patiently in this crowd for a while both getting hungrier all the time. Then we tried waiting impatiently and that seemed to do the trick as several files of soldiers appeared, white-gloved, and arms swinging and goose stepping with moderate enthusiasm toward a flagpole flying the flag of the People's Republic.
Well, that was pretty much that, we figured, because the flag came down, the traffic roared to life on the wide road, and everyone started heading home.
Time to eat.
We found a nice place and threw ourselves at the mercy of the one waitress who could speak English. She gave us the house special which basically translated to 'good-smelling bowl of spicy fish' served in what appeared to be one of Lucy's old dog bowls. It was nothing short of delicious albeit bony. It would have served a family of seven.
Had a nice beer, too.
Off to bed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The (more) enlightened one

So, now he's not coming. The Dalai Lama has backed out of his engagement at the Times Union Center in Albany citing the controversy surrounding the organization sponsoring his visit. This according to a press release from the Dalai Lama's office.
"His Holiness the Dalai Lama," the realase read, "Was concerned that his message would not get through in the current environment."

He (His Holiness, that is) is right. The so-called World Ethical Foundation's sponsorship of the visit would have clouded the Dalai Lama's message of wisdom and peace which, somewhat ironically, was reinforced by his refusal to attend. At least in my mind.

Since blogging about the visit and calling for His Holiness to back out, I found myself questioning the purity of the Dalai Lama. I wanted to believe in the sincerity of his message of peace and harmony but I couldn't help but wonder if He was "for hire" by any Johnny-come-lately, pseudo-enlightened organization looking to bask in some respectability in exchange for a donation to His Holiness' cause.

Wouldn't that be the way?

I don't mean "The Way," like eightfold path and snatch the pebble from my hand, Grasshopper.
I mean the "Say it ain't so, Joe" way.

And then, who is the Dalai Lama, anyway? What does it mean to "Free Tibet?" What is the difference between the theocracy that was pre-Chinese invasion Tibet and an absolute, divine right monarchy?

Is it just our Western, elitist, East-coast liberal bias that somehow puts Buddhism beyond corruption and allows Tibet to escape scrutiny as a historically opressive country that has, by most measures, been improved by the Chinese?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a big fan of the Chinese invasion. And there are lots of measures besides infant mortality, per-capita GDP, life expectancy and literacy rates...actually, there aren't a lot of measures but there is more to life than statistical improvements that the World Bank would recognize.

And I don't want to give the Chinese credit where none is due. You would have to try pretty hard not to see improvements in all of the measures I mentioned before. To say that the Chinese did all that is a bit of a stretch, too. It probably would have happened anyway.

But what does the Dalai Lama intend to do with Tibet should be, by some bizarre circumstance, find himself at the wheel of that country? Is the first order to create a constitutional democracy and continue the Chinese-led policy of land-reform? Perhaps the time spent in exhile by His Holiness has had a positive effect but who is to say what the next encarnation will do with his power. Or her power. The fact that the Dalai Lama has hinted at the possibility of a female reincarnation is evidence that the Enlightened One has become more enlightened.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Looking in the rearview mirror

I remember my father teaching me to drive. It was in the field behind Shaker Pond.
"Look, Kim, there's a bear!"
My head spun in every direction.
"Behind you!"
I turned to look and my foot fell heavily on the gas pedal. And suddenly the car was a wild beast, snarling and roaring toward the lake with me a helpless passenger watching disaster unfold.

There was no bear.
It was a lesson. Use the rear view mirror.
It's not something that comes naturally to anyone learning to drive especially teenage boys but as I pack for this trip, I notice something different. I am torn.
Years ago, I traveled to Italy, to Perugia, to study Italian and generally to have a good time. I know time is a funny lens that distorts and re-distorts the facts with each recollection but I can't for the life of me remember feeling torn between what I was going to do and what I would leave behind. I looked ahead. The rear view mirror? Like the quote from "Gumball Rally" goes; "What is behind you, does not matter!"

But there is Catherine, and Chloe, and Marcus, and the way the sun shines through the windowpane on a quiet Sunday morning at home.
It could not be further away. At this time it is the exact opposite time, there. It is the antipode to here. It is definitely, there.

But the world is smaller, now.
But, I got a funky green, "War of the Worlds" webcam at Kmart for ten bucks and downloaded Skype. I didn't know anyone on Skype. But, yes I did. I called my sister. Nothing. I forgot about it. Muli-tasking is not my strong point.

"Hey, Kim!"
Why was my computer yelling at me? How did it know my name and why did it sound so much like my brother-in-law?
"It's me, Doug!"
"Hi, Doug," I said. "What are you doing in my Mac?"
We talked for a while. He put my sister on. My wife joined in and there we were, all Skyping away like we had always done it.

A rear view mirror.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Burn baby burn

Simple plans always start out, well, simple.

Put in a wood stove. A simple plan, right?

We had a chimney more or less in the right spot so all we had to do was move the thimble, what some people might call "the hole," to the other side of the chimney and we would be as good as done. Then all we had to do was pick a stove from one of the glossy catalogs strewn across the kitchen table and we would be we would have a cozy little stove flickering away before the first snow.

Catherine: "Are you sure?"

Me: "It will be easy."

When Justin, the mason, showed up he agreed.

Af first he agreed but then he got silent and just stood there staring at the space where the stove would be and I sensed trouble.

"What's back there?" he asked looking at the plaster and lath wall. He poked his finger into one of a half-dozen test holes. He asked to see one of tha catalogs.

"Which stove do you want to put in there? This one?"

He flipped to the installation page and began to measure. He measured a lot always looking back to the catalog and the page that showed all the clearances for the stove.

"Can't do it," he said.

"But," I protested. "You can."

No, it turned out, you can't. We were all depressed. Justin, possibly, most of all.

Days passed and Catherine and I were heading in completely different directions. I was ready to just ignore building codes and put a stove in. Catherine, sensing my mood, had hidden all my tools. She called me from the grocery store just to make sure I hadn't taken a sledgehammer to some unsuspecting wall.

Justin called again.

"I have a plan," he said, "That just might work."

Turned out he did have a plan. A big, scary plan that involved turning an entire interior wall into a brick wall. In terms of building code, it would work. With what he was proposing, you could run a nuclear reactor without any risk at all. The downside was that our kitchen could end up looking like Pizzaria Uno.

I swallowed hard and gave the green light to the project.

It worked.

Now, this winter, Catherine learned to ski. That was cool. We also got those derelict snowmobiles running and that was fun just to be able to say they weren't dead. And it snowed. It was a normal winter. But what's really cool is that we burned 350 fewer gallons of fuel oil this winter than we did last winter. And this winter was much colder than last, too.

And we were a lot warmer.