Lost Gobi Pictures

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I’ve been back for 5 months now and, for the most part, I’ve forgotten about this blog. I still have another year of hosting left, however, and there seems to be at least a few hits per day so I figure it doesn’t hurt to add a few new things. I finally got the picture from the Gobi trip I took in May (thanks Ruth!) and it reminded of how amazing this experience was (and that I actually miss it quite a bit). The pictures come from about three or four different cameras and the quality of some isn’t great, but there are some really good ones in there. I can’t really recall all the details and names of the places, so I won’t write a whole lot about it.

Two important things I will note:

Tourism in Mongolia, for the most part consists, of getting a group of people together and jumping in a Russian Jeep (Orosnei Mashin – looks like a VW bus with big tires), then heading out straight in one direction out of the city. The final destination is not as important as the journey to it, and it is pretty easy to find something interesting no matter which direction you head. Jeep drivers somehow have a sixth sense about which of the hundreds of intertwining barely visible dirt tracks crisscrossing the steppe to take, and getting lost is pretty hard to define. The real dangers are getting stuck, getting caught in a dust storm, and breaking down (especially in winter).

The most impressive thing about the thousands of square kilometres of nothing is just how different that nothing can look like: we drove through fields of green grass, fields of purple flowers, yellow flowers; red, white, brown, yellow, and black sand; parched scrub lands, dunes, rock fields, and areas with dump truck sized boulders and sheets of shale; rocky mountains, and dried up-lake beds. Also no matter where we went and no matter how dry and brutal things looked, there was always some kind of plant life happening. With that there was always rodents, and hawks, kites, and eagles to eat them; gazelles; Bactrian camels; herds of goats and sheep; herder families and even the occasional stunted village or town. So a basic, brutal cycle of life.

Here’s the rest of what we saw. It’s definitely a very exciting place for geology, geography, and zoology, but not much else.

Flaming Cliffs (Bayan Zag)

Singing Sands (Khongoryn Els)

Ice Canyon (Yolyn Am)

Dalanzagad Aimag Capital

White Cliffs (?)

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It’s a Wrap!

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I’ve been back in Canada for a few days now, but I thought I should put on a closer post before everything gets mixed up again. (I’m still waiting for some photos from my Gobi trip, which I’ll post as soon as I can!) I don’t want to be too boring so I’ll just sum up the experience in general and make a few points about some key stuff.

This was definitely one of the bigger things I’ve done in my life and it will leave an impression for quite a while I’m sure. The experience for me was nearly all positive and I believe I was able to achieve pretty much everything I hoped to achieve in terms of getting outside my bubble of North American pseudo-reality, becoming immersed in a culture and language much different from my own, and doing something positive for the benefit of many Mongolians.

The overseas volunteering concept is definitely not perfect. I’ve seen first hand how it can be inefficient, condescending, and just plain wasteful. I’ve also seen many of the other manifestations of international aid and development and how completely off the wall they can be. So while acknowledging the faults of overseas specialist volunteering, i.e. VSO, I’m still a firm believer that it does many positive things and produces generally good results overall. I’d definitely like to volunteer again with VSO or another group in the future. After I’ve gained some experience working in Canada as an engineer for a few years, I’ll be in a better position to share my expertise in another country (maybe not in Mongolia again though). I also encourage anyone else who may be interested to consider it as well.

In terms of the cultural exchange that I experienced, it will take me a while before I can step on someone’s foot and not have a knee-jerk reaction to immediately shake their hand, or to point with one finger instead of my whole arm and give something to someone without supporting my right hand at the elbow, or the many other customs I picked up. Learning Mongolian, a language about as far removed in origin from English as possible, and achieving some level of rudimentary communication was one of the most worthwhile things I did out there. Even though I was never able to have an actual in depth conversation with anybody, I was at least able to connect with a few people in their own language and have communication occur at some level. Also the friends I made there both foreign and Mongolian had a huge impact on my life and world-view. I’ve learn all sorts of the things about Mongolians, but also about English, Scottish, Dutch, Filipino, Kenyan, Australian, and Japanese people.

The only thing for sure about Mongolia is that it is changing too quickly to be able to say anything for sure about it. In the nine months I was there, the changes to the city landscape, political landscape, and international makeup have been very noticeable. If I come back in a few years, I’m sure it will be a very different country. The saddest part about that is it is becoming just like everywhere else. How many capital cities around the world have neither a Starbucks nor a single American fast food chain? UB is likely one of the dying few. How many countries have a large nomadic population, with pockets of people living a traditional lifestyle nearly unchanged for thousands of years? Unfortunately, not even Mongolian herder families are immune to the forces of capitalism, globalization, and climate change, and eventually they too will have to adapt and change to fit into the “modern world”.

Never again will I be able to wonder about Mongolia, the word will no longer conjure up images of ice fields, mean-ass dudes on horses, or an endless vacant wasteland. I now have seen enough to know these stereotypes are seriously outdated and wrong, and I hope anyone who has read this blog or at least looked at the pictures will have changed their views as well. The only way to actually understand and get a feeling for this country, however, is to visit it. I would encourage anybody who has any interest, to visit as soon as possible, before it is too late!

Here are my top 10 Mongolian experiences in no particular order:

  • My first day in the country, driving out to a ger camp in Terelj National park and being thoroughly happy to have chosen Mongolian (over The Gambia, my second choice).
  • Sharing a very awkward elevator ride during Tsaagan Sar (lunar new year) with an old lady, two frozen solid sheep carcasses and a dog.
  • The rush and exhilaration of defying the odds and arriving at work in the morning during the winter, avoiding the homicidal drivers, the ice patches, the -30C weather, the thick smog, the huge open holes in the sidewalk and the blinding sunlight.
  • The novelty of having my nose hair and eyelashes frozen together and my scarf and hat caked in frost after only a short walk outside.
  • Seeing an “Eagle Festival” complete with fox hunting, rabbit sacrifice, and a rousing match of Goat Polo.
  • Climbing and sliding down the huge, perfectly uniform sand dunes of the Khogoryn Els in the Gobi Dessert.
  • Partying it up with my roommates and Mongolian friends during our Halloween, Christmas, and St. Patrick’s Day parties. Plus, the bizarre stuff that always goes down at UB night clubs, including contortionist shows, Cwalk faceoffs, and huge circle dances to really bad Russian techno music.
  • Coming across a herd of 1000 yaks and over 4000 sheep and goats in the middle of the vast steppe. They were being herded across Mongolia by 4 people on horse back and two dogs for 60 days.
  • My short trips to India and China for giving me a lot of extra context and perspective to fit into my Mongolian experience, and being amazing in their own right.
  • Arguing with taxi drivers, ordering food at the guanz, cracking lame jokes with some oldsters who had stopped me on the street, trying to impress girls, and making connections with Mongolians whenever they were available.

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Thanks for reading!


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From May 7th to May 18th I went to India mainly to visit my younger brother, Manoj and see what he was doing. It was a ridiculously short trip and I didn’t make it very far from the medium sized city of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu (South India, a few hundred km from Chennai/Madras) where my bro is living. The experience in general was so thoroughly different and intense to anything I had seen before, I’m still having a hard time figuring out what actually happen. Obviously, it was also the complete diametrical opposite of Mongolia in everyway, which probably added to the shock. I didn’t get to see too much of the famous landmarks, etc., but I do feel like I got a pretty genuine India experience, including the people, the environment, the food etc. It was definitely a good introduction and gives my something to build on should I ever go back (fairly likely).

In order to explain why I went out there and what I was mostly doing, I need to explain that Manoj, my brother, was born in this area of India and lived there for the first six years of his life before being adopted by our family and moving to Canada. He’s now back there working with a “micro-NGO” called Youth Helping Hands, promoting and developing musical and other artistic talents amongst the children in Coimbatore’s numerous orphanages. YHH was started and is run by a young man named Arun, who grew up in the same orphanage as my brother and is the same age. Arun has just finished up at the local music college specializing in drumming and singing, and, being a orphan himself, decided a good way to help other orphans would be to showcase their artistic talents in large talent shows. This kills many birds with one large stone: it promotes the children to develop their talents, gives them confidence and self-esteem, brings this often neglected and shunned part of the community into the public eye, helps raise funds for the orphanages, provides good entertainment to the community, and gives Arun and his fellow musicians a chance to promote their own band to a larger audience. So, Arun, who has already held a smaller event like this in February, is working with my brother to put on a very ambitious concert, featuring 6 hours of entertainment, several hundred orphans, and celebrities and dignitaries from the community. They hope to attract several thousand people and raise quite a bit of cash for their cause. I’ll be helping out with multimedia and fundraising in Canada, and maybe some web development for them in the future, so I’ll definitely post some details on this later on.

This big event is scheduled to take place on the 29th of June, so most of my time in India was spent shadowing my brother and Arun as they made the rounds to different orphanages in the area and had meeting with sponsors and donors. This exposed me to quite a bit of the poverty and social issues in the area, which was pretty intense. Most of the orphanages were struggling to put food on the table and get medicines for the children, but were getting by through the heroic efforts of a few completely selfless people, who seemed to have fallen into the responsibility. It was definitely awkward for me, as a white dude on vacation to be visiting these places, but hopefully I can bring the experience home and help make the issues more visible.

I did make it out of the city for two days to see a bit of the mountainous country side where a huge amount of tea is grown. Our destinations were the tourist towns of Coonoor and Ooty, set in the mountain valleys and featuring many gardens and other attractions of interest mainly to Indian tourists. The highlights were speeding through the mountain roads listening to extremely load Tamil music (which is pretty good!) looking at the intense green, lush scenery; walking through the gardens (hence far too many pictures of flowers), and hanging out with some of Manoj’s friends.

Other interesting stuff that I’ll remember for a long, long time include:

  • Speeding through the crazy-busy streets of Coimbatore on the back on motorcycle with no helmet and a complete disregard for any sort of safety or traffic regulations.
  • Getting tips on full-hand eating from a few of the guys. I had been timidly picking at the food (mostly flat breads or rice with sauces, and nearly all really good) with three fingers, before being strongly remonstrated and shown the different techniques for eating India food with your hand.
  • Standing still for 30 seconds in any location and being swarmed with people wanting pictures, to shake my hand and ask my name, or to hold their babies.
  • The unbelievable low-impact, sustainable life style of the people and far-sightedness of the government. There was almost exclusive use of solar hot water heating and electric fan cooling, most people don’t have appliances or personal transport and everything is shared. The city government is also introducing a policy banning high density plastics, most plastic bags, and vinyl sign boards.
  • The nearly complete mono-culture of that area of India. I was the only foreigner from outside of India in the town of 500,000, and it was difficult to find a Chinese or even a North Indian restaurant to eat at. Even in Mongolia in most places you can find quite a number of western or other foods and influences.

As a side note I got to spend a half day in Beijing on the way home, as I had quite a long layover. The contrast between Delhi (of which I was only able to see the area near the airport) and Beijing was like night and day. Having been in Beijing for a few weeks in December, I was an expert at getting around the city on the metro and I took a few walks through the free part of the Forbidden City and another park nearby. The city was very sombre due the earthquakes, but was still a nice change over place to hang out in between India and Mongolia.

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Wrapping Up Work

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=476,75,100,,left] “Whoa that’s awesome Jon, you’re going to write about how you spend all your time sitting at a desk staring at a computer while rarely updating the photos and posts with cool stuff about Mongolia, which is really why I am here”.

[singlepic=253,75,100,,left]Well believe me I don’t do it as often as other people, and to be honest the rest of my time is mainly spent in strange Mongolia bars and discos, or reading at home.

Anyways that’s about to end as this is my last month and I’ve got lots of great stuff planned. I would like to mention, however, two projects that I’ve recently completed, that I’m sort of proud of, and let you know that I’ve wrapped up my work out here and am feeling pretty good about it. Continue reading “Wrapping Up Work”

Volunteer Model…

…But not model volunteer. Here’s one for the WTF! Mongolia category. Another volunteer, Clare, who works at a university for fiber-arts and fashion, invited me and a few of the other volunteers to be models for the school’s annual fashion show. Apparently, they only wanted men as the women had many more costume changes to make, and I guess they wanted foreigners, because hey let’s face it, we’re kinda funny looking! We did two night shows at a swanky hotel, got some free food afterwards, and obviously did something none of us would ever have been even remotely considered for back at home. In case you are wondering what my qualifications are, here’s my best guess:

  1. I’m foreign (a novelty I’m afraid I can’t help)
  2. I can walk in a straight line, execute turns and stops, while not becoming lost, confused or falling over.
  3. I can tolerate sharing a changing room with the very nice Mongolian models and spending the evening swaddled in fine wool, cashmere, yak and camel very likely making an ass of myself.
  4. I was somehow able to keep a straight face through it all.

My future as a human clothes-hanger doesn’t look all that promising, but I can definitely say I have a lot more respect for the modeling profession–it’s harder than it seems for sure. Anyways, a very fun experience, and photos I will look back on for years to come and laugh my ass off (at myself)!

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I must have heard this song at least once a day on average over the past month and a half, it’s got to be the number one, but I’m not sure if there’s an official chart out here.

Mongolian music (to me decidedly a misinformed foreigner) seems to fall into one of a few categories: traditional stuff (Hoarse fiddle, long song, throat singing, etc. which I like for sure), country-pop stuff like this selection below (which, sorry, all sounds pretty much the same too me, but then I don’t speak the language and probably miss a lot), and finally the youthful hip hop and hard rock stuff that is frantically rebelling against the first two.

While I can’t really appreciate Javkhlan (sounds a bit like ‘javelin’), on a musical level, I can definitely vouch for his popularity, and this particular song shows some nice scenes of (romanticized) Mongolian rural life. From what I gather, he wrote this song as a tribute to his passing mother, and features a few hundred Mongolian mothers in the background. The title “Eejiin Chanasan Tsai” means “Mother’s Boiled Tea“.

Check out the video below or HERE:

Hacksin’ at the “Military Rest Center”

The last post was super long and boring, so to appease my burgeoning audience of Finnish and Brazilian based viewers who reach my site with such inexplicable keyword searchs as “world largest rock concert” and “santiago de cuba“, I’ve posted some pix of a place I stayed at in the pseudo-countryside last weekend. Nothing too special, more just low-key chillin’ in the forest with the peeps type thing. Enjoy.