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.


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I fail at hiking.

Or, to be more specific, I have thus far failed abysmally at hiking the hills around Erdenet. This is hard for me, as an avid outdoorswoman, long-time Scout, and veteran of several backpacking trips, to admit, but it’s true. And for this, I blame one trait: my hatred of wet feet and squelchy hiking boots.

“I must be cursed,” I recently commented to a Swedish long-time resident of this town. “Every time I try to set foot out of doors, it starts to rain.”

“That’s not a curse, it’s a blessing,” he replied. “Rain is always a blessing in Mongolia.”

He is, generally speaking, correct. If you look up Mongolia’s climate, chances are that one of the words your’e going to find describing it is arid. Even this far north of the Gobi, rain is still considered rare and special. The first rainfall of the year is considered especially lucky; when it fell on April 20th this year, during my friend’s wedding, we were told that this was a particularly auspicious sign for their marriage.

But while the rains did not begin until late this year, with skies that seemed not to remember how to deliver liquid precipitation and continued to dump snow on us until May 27th, they have fallen with a vengeance in the two months since. I would estimate that it has rained at least four or five days out of every week since that final blizzard; much to my dismay, the weekend always falls into the wet side of that statistic. It has rained on every single Saturday and Sunday since May.

The internet, in typical fashion, offers widely conflicting statistics as to Erdenet’s average rainfall and, so far as I’ve found, precisely none regarding this year’s actual rainfall to date, but all the Mongolians I’ve asked agree: this year has been unusually cold and wet.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Thus, I haven’t made much of an effort to get out onto the hills. When you’re on a week-long backpacking trip with a campsite to get to before nightfall, you trod onward through rain and muck, seeking shelter only when the conditions grow too dangerous for you to do otherwise; you’ve no other choice. But who willingly starts a day-hike in the rain, especially in the Land of Eternal Blue Skies? Especially especially in three-year-old hiking boots that only two weeks ago demonstrated how very not waterproof they are, in their old age?

Today, I vowed, would be different. I would set out in the morning and get a good chunk of the “trails” beneath my feet before thunderstorms started rolling in around noon, as they are wont to do.

Then, of course, I slept later than I’d intended, dallied about on the Internet, and decided to have one more cup of coffee before I left. I finally packed up the essentials (full Nalgene and knife, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, camera and phone, journal, walking stick, and some snacks) and headed out the front door around 10:30, just in time to hear the first rumble of thunder. I paused on the threshold, debating. The day was warm and, so far, sunny. I had a plastic bag to protect my journal and electronics, and if it rained, I’d end up with wet feet whether I had a raincoat or not. I was clad entirely in quick-drying synthetics (except for the wool hiking socks); did I really want to schlep my raincoat along with me?

No, I decided, I did not. The rain might not fall for hours, if it fell at all; the skies overhead were blue, and the sound of thunder carries a long way across the steppe. That storm was probably still far away. If, in despite of all this rationalizing, it rained anyway – well, then I’d just get wet.

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

Within minutes, I’d made my way beyond the roads and garages that circle Erdenet and started uphill. Grasses and wildflowers swayed in the light breeze, and the buzz of grasshoppers served as a pleasant – and, blessedly, quieter and less annoying – reminder of the cicadas that would be singing incessantly at home. I let my thoughts wander to previous hiking trips as I rambled back and forth in search of easy passage uphill. I stopped to take pictures of flowers and Tibetan prayer flags, mentally composing an entry I meant to write about the many scripts of Mongolia, and almost managing to ignore the continued grumbling of thunder from the west.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

As I approached the first peak along the ridge I meant to follow, the clouds shifted to cover the sun, and the wind began to pick up. The temperature dropped from uncomfortably warm to noticeably cool, and when I turned my eyes westward, I found that the clouds from the foreboding bluish-grey that threatens rain to the streaky, lighter hue in the process of delivering it. The clouds directly overhead, meanwhile, had begun to darken. Don’t be a baby, I told myself. It’s just rain.

But it wasn’t. As I watched, a bolt of lightning streaked through the clouds to the west. It was still far away, but was it far enough? Did I really want to be on an exposed mountaintop in a lightning storm? Or even one of the larch forests growing on the mountainsides – would that be better, or worse?

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far - I should be able to make that!

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far – I should be able to make that!

I changed my game plan. I’d summit this little mountain, circle its ovoo, and then head for Bayan-Undur. I hadn’t seen that spectacular ovoo since the fall, and I wanted pictures in a different season. Just those two peaks, I decided as I started uphill once more. I should be able to do both of those before the rains hit.

Then I heard a new sound from the west: not a crack or a boom, but a long, drawn-out rumble, the kind that lingers like a lion’s roar. It was answered in kind by a louder rumble just east of me before fading into a faint, scratchy crackling to the west. Either the western storm front had just thundered so loudly that the sound had echoed off the mountain on which I was standing and then been bounced back again by the mountains to the west, or the storm fronts to the east and west had begun to thunder in concert.

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim...

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim…

Either way, the message was clear. I picked my way over to a narrow, twisted track, the kind trod by many little hoofed feet, and started down the mountain. Sheep and goats might not have a whole lot in those tiny brains of theirs, bless them, but they do have the sense to seek shelter from the elements, and to create wonderfully nettle-free trails to places in which to do so. Without even pausing to tuck my camera and journal into the Ziploc bag I’d brought to protect them, I began the downward climb in earnest. IMG_1364

I made it home just as the first few drops began to splatter on the pavement around me. So far, as I sit and type this in my warm, dry apartment, it’s done no more than drizzle; the thunder has stopped, and the skies above this little valley have turned gorgeously, infuriatingly blue. But the sky to the north, above those hills I long to hike, maintains its threatening cast, and until it clears, I think I’ve tempted fate enough for the day. The heavens have spoken, and I shall obey.


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Rain

It tried hard to rain on the 22nd.

I looked out the window at midday to find the sky bisected by a streak of ominous grey, feathered along its northern edge with the striations typically indicative of rain. I quickly headed out the café door, knowing I still needed to stop by the school that day and wishing I’d had the sense to go earlier. I have no love for early spring rains; I can handle getting wet, and I tolerate cold with aplomb, but combining the two leaves me shivering, achy, and thoroughly miserable.

I felt a few drops spatter wetly across my face as I trudged up the hill to school. Here it comes, I thought, preparing to pull out my raincoat. But the precipitation I saw was coming down too erratically, in little fits and starts and the occasional swirl. After a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was also falling too slowly to be rain.

The snow, coming down in little balls not fluffy enough to be termed ‘flakes,’ melted instantly upon reaching the ground, which helped to create the illusion of rain. But though the clouds coughed and sputtered, it seemed they’d forgotten how to produce liquid precipitation. Theirs was a valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless.

By five o’clock, the skies had given up on any pretense at rain. The dark clouds of the early afternoon had been replaced by a flat white blanket; the snowflakes, having grown thick and fluffy enough to house Polly Pocket and several of her friends, fell purposefully earthward in the absence of a breeze on which to tarry. Within an hour, cars and grass alike sported over an inch of the stuff, though the streets still remained stubbornly bare. I checked the weather on my desktop and chuckled at its naive insistence of 40-degree rain. The snows had no intent to relinquish this town so easily.

But I awoke this morning to an unfamiliar sound, one which even the insistent chirping of birds could not disguise. And the light was wrong; surely it should be brighter than this at 6 am? I knew what I would find when I dragged myself to the window to peer around my hideously-patterned floral curtains, but still I felt compelled to do so. I needed the visual confirmation to convince myself of what my other senses were telling me.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about a little rain; Chicago’s no Seattle, but we still get plenty of the stuff. Rain floods our streets in the spring, cancels summer sports events, prevents outdoor recess for schoolchildren in the fall, and washes away snowmen and hopes of a white Christmas.

But not so here. Rain is not our constant companion in this land of high, cold desert. When you live in a place where the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for four straight months, and when that time is bracketed on either end by an additional month or two of snow, the first rain of the year is a big deal. It’s the long-awaited assurance that summer is finally on its way, that the grass will grow and the sheep will get fat and we won’t all freeze or starve (or both).

Its arrival is anticipated, noted, and celebrated – not ceremonially, perhaps, but personally. The week of the Boston bombing aligned with the week I was scheduled to teach my students about the news. After discussing the various media by which the news can be conveyed and obtained, I asked each class what had happened in the news that week. Over the course of the entire week, approximately three students answered my query with cries of, “Boston,” though a description of what had happened in Boston far outstripped their English abilities. (I was also highly impressed by the one student who called out, “Bad Korea.” Not a bad distinction when you don’t know the words for north or south.)

No, the word I heard again and again was “Khovsgol.” Erdenet had received only snow that week (several inches of it, at that),  but it had rained in Khovsgol, I was told time and again. Students in every class felt the need to inform me of this momentous event; the arrival of the spring rain was exciting and newsworthy even when a twelve-hour drive would be required to reach the area that it had fallen.

This morning’s rain was actually the third we’ve had this year, but it was the first to do more than drizzle lightly and leave a few puddles on the pavement. A steady, if light, fall like this was something I hadn’t seen since December (in Tokyo; our last real rainfall in Erdenet was in September). I stared for a while, wondering how something so simple could seem so momentous. And then I sighed in relief as I watched it turn once more to snow, glad that I could walk the half an hour to work without getting soaked.


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le 26 mai: Des Léçons Appris en Faisent du Vélo à Beaune

Some of these were learned by trial and error today, and some at another date, but all were relevant to our day today.

  • Don’t try to order breakfast food from a brasserie at lunchtime, as it will take FOREVER. Long enough that you start to wonder if they’re out back collecting eggs for that quiche and waiting for your croissant dough to rise. If you want such things, go to a Boulanger, where they have them on hand all the time.
  • Any time my mother and I decide to go for a long bike ride, it will rain. Last time, we biked up to Lake Forest Beach from our house. It was HOT when we started, so we figured the rain would feel nice. We didn’t count on the rain dropping the temperature down into the fifties (or colder), and we ended up sitting in the bathrooms trying to dry off our clothes and borrowing sweatshirts from the lost and found for the way home. This time, at least, we were more prepared and outfitted with raincoats and quick-dry clothes.
  •  If the weather forecast calls for a 60% chance of rain, don’t go with your original plans and hope that there’s more than a 40% chance that it won’t.
  • When choosing a raincoat, make sure the hood a) can be tightened so it stays up in the wind generated, say, by biking, and b) does not flop down into your face, obscuring your vision to an absurd and unsafe degree. This will allow you to actually WEAR said hood while biking, keeping you warmer and preventing you from looking like a drowned rat.
  • When the guy at the bike rental place offers you a helmet, take it. Especially if it has a visor, as this will help to keep the rain out of your face.
  • Know that rental bikes are crap, and you will likely end up with a bike that  has no shocks, a seat that pitches you forward, handlebars  that aren’t meant for the racer crouch the seat wants to force you into, brakes that make an alarming crunching sound, and a front wheel that hits your feet when you try to turn, severely limiting your ability to do so.
  • Don’t stop halfway up a hill to wait for your mother. If you find yourself stopped with more climbing to do, find downhill or at least flat spot where you can start and gain a little momentum before heading back up the road. ANYTHING is better than trying to start up a muddy hill from a dead stop. (Told you, Mom.)
  •  DO NOT try to brake and turn at the same time on a wet, muddy road (knew this one already, but was rather abruptly reminded of it). Brake BEFORE that sharp turn at the bottom of the hill with a stone wall  on the downhill side, and after, if you still have to.
  • DO NOT try to brake too quickly while going downhill on said wet, muddy roads, especially if thy are not level (which they are not). Even if you are not turning, that back wheel will skid out from under you if it gets locked up, because the road is banked.
  • DO NOT sharply call out for your daughter, who is riding in front of you, to stop, causing her to brake too quickly and start to skid.
  • When you reach a fork in the road with a cross, behind which you can see that the sky up ahead is dark and tempestuous, while that behind you is reasonably clear, listen to your mother and take it as a sign from God to turn back. (I wanted to go on to the next little town/vineyard/whatever it was that we could see up ahead, despite the ominous rumblings of thunder. We got to the top of the hill, at which point I realized that the clouds where coming on much faster than I had anticipated, and it started to rain. So we turned back.)

  • If you find that you are on one side of a small, old, European city, and your destination is at the other side, don’t try to go through it. The streets are likely made of cobblestone, and bikes and cobblestone do not get along. Even if you go slowly. I’ve never tried to use a jackhammer, but I imagine that it feels something like that. Remember that you are on a rental bike that does not have shocks, and this will make the cobblestone an even more inhospitable surface. Take the ring road around the city walls instead, even if Mom wants to cut through.
  • Don’t try to eat at a restaurant that appears to have only one staff member present. The poor man was waiter, bartender, and (if someone wanted an omelet or a croque-monsieur) cook, and he had a bout nine tables’ worth of people.
  • There is always time for ice cream. Especially sorbet de cassis (black currants).
  • Check when the trains back to Dijon run before you leave the station for the day—and check when the desk closes. Chances are, the ticket machines don’t like American credit cards and you don’t have 16 euros in coins.
  • Don’t despair if you can’t buy a ticket for a short ride on the TGV. They might not even check to see if you have one.