Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


A Disappointing Dinner

So it’s nine o’clock and I’m exhausted, probably because I teach a class at 8 am on Thursdays now. I don’t know why that’s such a big deal; for the entirety of my high school career, I was usually at school by 7 am. But with the exception of one twice-weekly 8:30 am class my first semester of college, I haven’t had an eight o’clock class since, well, high school. For matter, I think I had maybe four classes in my entire college career that started before ten o’clock. At least my introduction to a Real Adult Job with Real Adult Hours is a slow one, as I only teach classes three days a week.

But that was not the point of this post. I did not log on to complain about having to walk to work in the dark in the snow, but rather about my failed attempts to make dinner last night.

Most of my friends would agree that I’m a pretty decent cook. I can follow a recipe, I know the approximate extent to which I can modify said recipe without risking disaster, and I’m good coming up with ingredients that will taste good together based on what’s available (an invaluable skill here, where ingredients common in the US—limes, say, or rosemary, or spinach—are not to be found). Nor am I one to confuse sugar with salt, or forget I have something on the stove, or drastically undercook things. In short: I am not particularly used to kitchen disasters.

Yesterday’s dinner, however, was definitely one of the more dismal I have prepared. I don’t know how it’s possible to screw up cooking rice in a rice cooker, but mine went straight from crunchy (when it first said it was done) to mushy (when I attempted to cook it longer) without ever reaching ‘fluffy and delicious.’ I suspect it had something to do with the power cord, which the тогоо recently fried—which is to say that it overheated to the point where part of the coating melted off to expose the wires, though said wires still conduct electricity. Тогооs are standard cooking equipment in gers, but these electric woks are ill-suited to apartment life. Beyond their complete inability to brown food without burning it black, I have every confidence in their ability to blow fuses and start fires.

Needless to say, they’re made in China; Mongolians are deeply suspicious of most Chinese-made goods, and rightly so. All Chinese exports of decent quality go to America, and Europe, while the stuff they send here is virtually guaranteed to fall apart or self-destruct in an unreasonably short period of time.

But mushy rice does not a ruined dinner make, though it does mean that your broccoli goes similarly mushy when you try to keep it warm while waiting for the rice to finish cooking. No, what ruins your dinner is when you fail to distinguish between two frozen, unlabeled chunks of meat and grab your roommate’s хонины мах instead of your адууны мах.

I don’t know if every Westerner who moves to Mongolia promptly acquires an abiding hatred of mutton, but I think I can safely say that most of them do. I had nothing against the stuff when I arrived here; for the first week or two, I had no problem with mutton huushuur and buuz (or at least, I had problems with the amount of fat they contained, rather than with the kind of meat).

But mutton has a distinctive taste, one that everyone I know quickly grew sick of. Unfortunately, you can’t really escape it; it’s by far the cheapest meat available, and it’s pretty much all Mongolians eat. Some restaurants offer beef, chicken, or pork, in that order of frequency, especially if they offer Western food. But if the kind of meat in a dish is not specified, it’s safe to bet it’s mutton.

That might not be so bad if were seasoned, but Mongolians season most of their foods with two things: fat and salt, and lots of them. Sometimes they add onions, and very occasionally, garlic. But the traditional Mongolian diet consists of mutton, sheep fat, flour, salt, milk products—and not much else. Vegetables are a recent addition; nomadic families don’t plant gardens, and Mongolian greenery is mostly grass.

All of which is a long way of saying that Mongolia has pretty much killed sheep meat for me. We’ll see if I can stomach lamb when I get back to the states, but with the exception of tsuivan, I would usually rather not eat than eat mutton. The taste is strong and unpleasant, and the smell it gives of when you cook it is even more so.  So realizing, when the meat hit the pan, that it was not what I thought it was, made my dining experience a distinctly dismal one.

Dismal, you’ll notice, not disastrous. Mutton with mushy broccoli and mushier rice is certainly edible, and as expensive as broccoli is here, it’s not something you can justifiably throw aside in despair as you make a beeline for the nearest restaurant. It’s just not enjoyable.

And I didn’t even have any wine to wash away the taste of disappointment.

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In Praise of Universality

Lest I get myself unintentionally embroiled in the Mac/PC war, let me preface this by saying that I am an Apple user, not a worshipper. I freely acknowledge that Apple has its fair share of issues with universality, especially when it comes to things like proprietary software and file formats. But when it comes to charging the devices it makes, Apple’s got its act together. I love that all Macs use the same chargers; that they can borrow someone else’s, regardless of what year or model they’ve got, makes it so much easier when someone forgets to bring theirs.

And then there’s this little thing, which is one of the most useful electrical devices I own:

Yes, it’s an iPod charger. But because so many other devices can be charged with a USB connection these days, I can use it to charge all manner of other things: my camera, my Kindle, my cell phone (my US phone, at least). My friend Lauren could use it to charge her awesome self-sterilizing water bottle. So as long as I’ve got these three cords on hand, I can plug in almost anything I have that requires charging – and probably anything a friend needs charged, too. Remember the days of junk drawers filled with almost-identical phone chargers that only worked for one specific model? Yeah, I don’t miss them either.

Now, most of the aforementioned devices come with their own USB-to-wall pieces. The reason I like the iPod one is that the wall outlet part is detachable – a fact which holds little importance within the US but becomes highly significant once you leave it.

I have the adapters for Australia as well, but I didn't bring them with me. Only the ones I knew might be useful.

Clockwise from the bottom right: UK/Ireland/Hong Kong, Europe, China, US, Korea

This little adapter kit is kind of pricey, but it was well worth the expense. I bought it before studying in France so that I could plug my computer in without having to worry about bringing my cord and an adapter with me anywhere I went, since you can swap these in for the extender part of the cord and just plug the transformer straight into the wall. But you can also use them for an iPod charger. With a couple pieces of white plastic that fit easily into a plastic sandwich bag, I can charge anything anywhere.

The one exception is my Mongolian phone, which is a Nokia brick that hails from the pre-standardization days.

It’s also dual-voltage, which means I don’t have to worry about a voltage converter, another plus. (Though happily, most electrical devices smarter than a hair dryer are usually dual-voltage. Things like hair dryers, curling irons, and flatirons still tend to overheat and melt even if you convert the voltage – but since I own exactly none of these things, that’s happily a non-issue for me.)

Having an array of charging options is especially important here in Mongolia. Given its location, what kind of plugs do you think you would need here? Chinese? Korean?

European, it turns out. Which makes a lot of sense, given the strong Russian influences here, but it’s still not what you’d expect of a country that is patently in Asia.

Unfortunately, the wall outlets aren’t always the European sort. Sometimes, you find yourself on a train and discover that it was apparently made in China – or at least, the wall outlets were. Or the extension cord in your office wants British plugs. Or you’re being med-evacced to Korea, which uses yet another type of wall outlet. (Thankfully, only the first has actually happened to me.) Whatever the reason, chances are you’ll find yourself in at least one situation that calls for a plug that isn’t European.

Another gadget, one that is both more and less useful:

A universal power strip. Brilliant.

I’ve never seen these before, but they are brilliant, and I am definitely taking this one with me in case I find myself residing in Europe some day. The lesser part of its usefulness is that it can only be plugged into a European-style wall outlet. But so long as you have one of those, you can plug pretty much anything into these. And that’s really a necessity in a country where nothing is standardized. During my orientation, for example, my dorm room had three pieces of electrical equipment: a tea kettle, a television, and a refrigerator. And a universal power strip, without which I could not have used any of these thing; the kettle was British, the television Korean, and the refrigerator Chinese, and each was thus incapable of being plugged directly into the wall outlet.

When it comes to living things, diversity is something wondrous, to be cherished and protected. In my electronics, however, I am a huge fan of universality. If your digital camera requires me to buy proprietary cords in order for me to charge it or upload its pictures, then I’m sorry, but I ain’t buying it. I’ll stick with something that works with all the other equipment I already own, thanks all the same.

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Greetings from Mongolia – At Long, Long Last

August 9, 2012

Not sure when I’ll be able to post this, since no one with a Mac has yet figured out how to connect to the Internet, but I might as well write before the memories fade and before I pass out from exhaustion.

The US portion of our trip was pretty straightforward. Except for me having to fly from Chicago to Atlanta just to turn around and head to Seattle; that part was pretty backwards. But I found Lisa and then Lauren pretty easily while we waited to board our flight in Atlanta, and then Eli found us as we made our way off the plane in Seattle. So we had people to talk to and watch our luggage and consult with – which turned out to be a very good thing once we got to China.

I’d hoped to fly through Seoul, since I’ve heard fantastic things about that airport, but we were routed through Beijing instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with Beijing’s airport; the airport is HUGE, and the architecture is pretty impressive. But we arrived at 11:30 pm with a 1:45 am flight to board, and there’s no easy way to transfer your baggage to Miat Airlines in Beijing. Once you deplane, you have to get your luggage, go through customs, go to the wrong terminal, wait 10 minutes for a shuttle to the right terminal, ride that shuttle for 15 minutes through the streets of Beijing until it finally gets to the terminal, and then rush to your counter to check in before it closes one hour before the flight’s scheduled departure. Going to the wrong terminal is optional, of course, but when you’re wandering around an unfamiliar airport where you can’t read any of the signage, you tend to go where you’re told. Even if the directions you’re given are wrong.

We approximate that we made it to the check-in counter about 5 minutes after it closed. By the time we got there at 12:50, everything was dark, and it took us a long time to find anyone who could explain why the counter was unmanned. All of the workers we found spoke at least a little English, but none of them spoke very much, and all seemed rather annoyed to have to deal with us. Eventually, an employee at an information desk informed me shortly that we had missed our check-in period and would just have to wait for the next flight – at 9 pm the next day.

Luckily for us, Beijing’s terminal 3 has a few cafés that are open all night, so we crashed at one of these until we could figure out a course of action. Our options seemed pretty limited: no one had cell coverage; there were terminals with free internet access, but you couldn’t type in them; you needed a Chinese phone number in order to access the WiFi. At this rate, our ride would be waiting for us at the airport in UB at 4 am, and until he realized we weren’t there, no one would know that something was amiss. No one had any Chinese money, and we were reluctant to use our debit cards because we hadn’t thought to put China on the travel notifications and didn’t want our banks to lock our accounts. The night ahead looked awfully long without the prospect of food or any way of making alternate plans.

Thank heavens Lauren had an iPhone. She couldn’t make calls or send email, but she could access some of her old email – including some from our coordinator in DC, whose signature included his phone number. So we pulled them up and wrote down the number, telling her we’d all chip in for the obscene data charges she might incur for doing so. Then I pulled out the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies. While our circumstances weren’t exactly life-threatening, they were still pretty urgent, and the credit card was linked to a different account than my debit card. Even if the bank blocked my credit card, I figured, I’d still be able to use the debit card once we got to Mongolia. So off to the payphone we marched.

Hopefully the rates weren’t too exorbitant, because it ended up being a 20-minute phone call. Jonathan was out to lunch, and the woman who answered the phone wasn’t much help. She kept putting me on hold while she looked for someone to hand me off to and telling me that there should be someone at the airport who could tell us what to do. She didn’t seem to hear my repeated insistence that it was two in the morning and there was no one there, or my request that she email Chris to let him know that he wouldn’t be picking us up. Finally, she found someone with some sense, who patched me through to the travel agency so we could book a replacement flight.

We ended up with an 8:35 am flight on another airline, which was infinitely preferable to the 9 pm. We made our way to the counter at 6:30 am and were probably the first people to check in, and they didn’t even charge us extra to check multiple bags. The food on that flight was fairly questionable, and I didn’t manage to sleep, but by the time we touched down, all we cared about was not being in an airplane or an airport.

I’ll report my impressions on UB when I’ve had time to see a little more of it, but for now, here’s the tl;dr summary in numbers:

Total travel time (from leaving my house to arriving at the dorm in UB): 38 hours

Flying time: 21 hours

Sleep managed: 7 hours

Peanut/pretzel packages: at least 10

Cups of coffee: 1

Cups of tea: 5

Waterbottle refills: 3

The take-home lessons:

  1. Transferring through Beijing takes more than 2 hours
  2. Airline food is miserable, no matter where you’re going.
  3. Don’t fly to Ulaanbaatar on a lark; it’s not worth it.
  4. US carriers give you black tea; Chinese carriers, green.