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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Thailand Tuesdays: Zoom Zoom

Zoom zoom.

I’m pretty sure my Uncle Mike has written this at the close of the written message on every card I’ve ever received from him. He says it aloud too, on the phone and in person, usually as we finish discussing something that’s happened since the last time we talked. It’s his verbal representation of the passage of time—a self-deprecating reference to the fact that his household’s Christmas cards typically get mailed in April, perhaps, but a more broadly applicable statement as well. When you live several hundred miles from your extended family, it’s all too easy to let several months go by in between conversations with them.

Zoom, zoom. That’s the phrase that comes to mind when I contemplate the date. A year ago, I had just arrived in Thailand for a visa run vacation utterly unlike the life I’d been living in Mongolia. It hardly seems possible that an entire year has gone by since then, but according to the calendar, it must be so. To think: a whole year, and I still haven’t written anything here about my two weeks in Southeast Asia. Shame on me.

But I spent last Sunday working out a writing plan for the month, and so I’m introducing a Thai Tuesdays series to get those stories out of my head and onto this blog. It’s high time I told you about the monkeys, the elephants, the food—oh man, the food. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Why Thailand?

A lot of seasoned travelers seem to regard Thailand with a certain degree of scorn. Thailand is where the tourists go. And it’s true, they do—they have for many years, and in great numbers. After so many years as a tourist destination, a lot of the paths to, from, and through Thailand have been worn pretty smooth. A quick Google search will show you several Thai-language phrasebook apps, though you can traverse the country without ever learning more than “hello” and “thank you.” The Lonely Planet guidebook on Thailand is a whopping EIGHT HUNDRED pages long, nearly three times the length of the Mongolian edition. Everyone has heard of Bangkok and Phuket, if only in reference to the vaguely dirty sound of the names in English. If you’re looking, as my generation so often is, to blaze entirely new trails, Thailand is blasé.

But I had just spent a year in a country 80% of Americans probably couldn’t place on a map, where the roads were mostly unpaved and the language, at least to the rest of the world, mostly unknown. Trailblazing 24/7 is exhausting, and while I pride myself on my ability to rough it, I was looking forward to smoother paths.

I don’t even mean that metaphorically. I went to Thailand, in large part, because I knew it had widespread paved roads and the infrastructure that accompanies them. If this was my vacation, I wanted to take it in a place where travel could be said to zoom rather than bump bump shake.

I was not disappointed.


Misery, Thy Name is Mikr

If there’s one thing that my recent trip to Khuvsgul taught me, it’s that where travel is concerned, transportation is my Achilles heel. I’m very okay with roughing it when we get wherever we’re going – I can deal with hard beds (or no beds) and not showering, with life without television or Internet. I don’t expect the locals to be able to speak English to me, though I certainly appreciate it when they can. But put me in a crowded, untrustworthy vehicle on a winding, uneven set of muddy tire tracks, and it’s all I can do not to put my head between my knees and cry. I spend the entirety of the journey wondering whatever possessed me to attempt this madness, praying that we don’t crash, and contemplating the fact that this unfortunate ending would at least bring an end to my constant state of semi- to complete nausea. If I’m lucky, I can curl up in a corner before the going gets too rough and sleep through the worst of it – but when corners and sleep are not to be had, the entire experience is an agonizing one.

The ride up to Murun (the provincial capital of Khuvsgul aimag, about 1.5 hours from the lake itself) was nine and a half hours long, and only an hour of it was spent on paved road. I spent the majority of that time leaning my head against the rolled-up sweatshirt I’d wedged between the window and the seat in front of me, desperately attempting to will myself into unconsciousness. It mostly did not work. I did plenty of dozing but remained acutely aware of how slowly time plodded by. 

Nine and a half hours is a long time to be conscious, vaguely sick, and unable to do anything about it. You listen to your iPod; you munch half-heartedly on the snacks you brought, especially the candied ginger; you attempt to ride the very fine balance between the agony of a dehydration-induced headache and the agony of a full bladder on a bumpy road.  You open the window a little wider to offset the combined body heat of twenty people in a fourteen-seat vehicle, resigning yourself to getting coated in dust if the breeze lowers the temperature even infinitesimally. You shut your ears to the retching of the child in the seat in front of you, hoping he doesn’t throw up on your friends, who are seated across from him, but mostly trying not to think about it so that you don’t join the puke parade. And you grumble to yourself that this trip had better be worth it, because you’re going to go through the same thing all over again to get home.

But really, I needn’t have worried about that. In some ways, the return journey sounds much worse: it took twelve hours, starting at 5 pm, in a fold-up seat that left me nowhere to rest my head. But there were only fourteen of us in the mikr this time, and the only drunk passenger was all the way in the back. The driver turned off both the lights and the radio in the wee hours of the night, immensely helpful in the snatching of brief bouts of sleep. Most importantly, the temperature in the vehicle never climbed beyond the mid-sixties, remaining well shy of the threshold of misery. All the same, it was a very long night.

Never again will I complain about driving in the US – if I do, remind me about Mongolia, and that will shut me up. No matter how long the drive, paved roads and your own seat make all the difference. AC and the ability to go to the bathroom at need don’t hurt either.

Will I get in a mikr again? Sadly, that answer is a definite yes. There’s just no other way to get around most of this country, and there still so much more country to see. Though I decided long ago that this is a country I would rather see on horseback than by car, no matter how much more time it took, the unfortunate fact is that that’s not really an option. So I’ll bite the bullet and remind myself that yes, the sights I’m headed for are worth the misery of mikrs.

Khuvsgul was.


Outreach Trip, Part V: Otgoo’s Car

March Mongolian roadtripping might have been stressful and time-consuming, but it had its ups as well as downs. Many of the things that contributed to our ongoing difficulty were also the ones that made it interesting and memorable.

Take Otgoo, for instance. I rode in all three of the Embassy vehicles at least once over the course of the week. Dashaa and the other driver (whose name I never got) were both calm and dependable. They handled their vehicles well, drove at a reasonable pace, and spoke enough English to carry on some semblance of a conversation with us.

He doesn't usually look quite this crazy...

He doesn’t usually look quite this crazy… (Photo credit: Lisa)

And then there was Otgoo.

Otgoo blazed along the non-existent  roads as though hoping to flatten a path for us through sheer force and speed. He frequently left the other two cars in the dust as he flew across the steppe – sometimes figuratively, and sometimes, after hitting a large bump, quite literally. I, sitting Indian-style in the front seat, was able to absorb most of the the jolting with my core, a sort of inversion of butt-bouncing on a trampoline (is anyone else familiar with that movement?) But poor Joe, the tallest of us, had the misfortune to be seated in the back seat with the broken seatbelt on several such occasions. He hit the roof more than once before figuring out how to brace himself against my seat.

Thankfully, he sustained no serious head trauma, but even if he had, I think some things would still be burned into his memory. Otgoo’s taste in music, for instance. While the other two cars traveled in silence most of the time, Otgoo had a single CD on repeat the entire trip. Its contents ranged from traditional Mongolian to bhangra, Turkish to Lady Gaga and Brittney Spears. We sang along to “Pokerface” and the “Phantom of the Opera” techno remix and danced our way through many of the numbers in unfamiliar languages. My first stint in this car began shortly after we left Tosontsengel, when Joe tapped out due to musical overload. And so it was that I found myself in Otgoo’s car when we hit our first obstacle of the day.

The road from Tosontsengel to Uliastai, like the one from Tariat to Tosentsengel, took us through mountains and floodplains. We passed hills and valleys and frozen, downward-sloping rivers that bulged oddly, like small glaciers. And then, of course, we reached another stretch of winding, one-lane road blocked by a stuck vehicle.

At least this time the blockage was of a considerably smaller scale. The traffic through this part of the mountains had carved deep ruts into the road, and the pressure of numerous cars had melted the ice within the ruts, while the rest of the road maintained a thick coat of highly compacted ice. The melting snows, meanwhile, had exacerbated the problem; a small river ran across the road, creating deep pools in the trenches before escaping through a tiny breach and continuing its downward journey.

Lodged in the midst of all this was a blue pickup truck, heavily laden with logs. It had followed in the tread of its many predecessors, and now could not escape it: burdened as it was, its tires could no longer reach the bottom of the watery trenches, and it had bottomed out on the icy barrier between them. The truck’s occupants stood on either side of the road, peering at the undercarriage while one man jabbed at the ensnaring ice with a hefty chunk of rebar.

Yep, they're stuck.

Yep, they’re stuck.

There was no way around these folks, or the car trapped on the other side of them would have taken it. So out of the cars we piled. While two of the drivers searched for a rope with which to drag the truck out of the ditches, Lisa and I fell to my fourth-grade recess standby: waterworks. If we could impede the flow of water into the road and widen its egress, we might be able to give it better traction. We set about damming off the inward flow with rocks and chunks of ice, while the third driver took up the abandoned rebar to chip at the ditch walls.

It was at this point that the week’s first reworded song made its appearance. “If I had a shovel,” someone muttered, to which both Joe and I responded – he with the traditional “I’d shovel in the morning,” I with the equally applicable “I’d dig myself a drainage trench.” Alas, there was no shovel to be had.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts. Less successful efforts in the background.

We did succeed in lessening the water’s depth somewhat, but not enough to free the trapped vehicle; our attempt to tow it freed it from the ice upon which it was beached, but settled it in waters too deep for the wheels to do more than spin helplessly. And so it was that the truck’s driver finally unbound his cargo, an act he’d clearly hoped to avoid. Logs fell to either side, throwing up great waves of muddy water. When the remaining load was stable, we approached. Several of the men began laying the logs before the tires to create a sort of boardwalk, and some one had had the bright idea to drive them under the tires using the only mallet available – another log. Mongol ingenuity at its finest.


Alright, let’s give this another shot…

Load lessened and boardwalk in place, with the towing vehicle once more attached, the truck was at last freed from its prison, though not without much spinning of tires and unhappy grinding of gears. It drove onward to the end of the danger zone, a good forty feet beyond the pile of logs left it its wake.

But eight people can move a pile of logs pretty quickly, even if two of them are loading rather than hauling and everyone has to pick their steps with care. My ability to shoulder a spar rather than dragging it behind me was met with a, “Ямар хүчтэй вэ!” (How strong!) from the drivers and the inevitable, “Katelin, please be careful!” from the Embassy workers. Never mind that how much time I’ve spent hauling much larger logs over the past four summers; girls can be strong? Who knew?!

At long last, the logs were loaded and the way was clear. We were Uliastai bound, and not even boulders in the road would keep us from getting there.


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Outreach Trip, Part IV: Travel Hazards

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: traveling in Mongolia is a difficult business. Once we’d completed our morning presentation in Tariat, our schedules were clear of planned programming for nearly two days. No presentations to deliver or TV interviews to prepare for (or, more accurately, dread). The Embassy workers had described these two days as a “break,” and thus, we had assumed that we’d be able to rest: to sleep in, perhaps, or to hang out, play cards, and chat in a space larger than an SUV.

This, needless to say, was hilariously wrong.

We had nearly four hundred kilometers to cover over the course of those two days, the second two hundred of which took us beyond the roads recognized by Google Maps. The plan was simple: the first leg of the journey would take us from Tariat to Tosontsengel; the second, from Tosontsengel to Uliastai. We’d leave the Tariat area around 10:30, then stop for a late lunch in one of the driver’s family’s soums, and arrive in Tosontsengel in the late afternoon. The next morning we’d repeat the process, though without the helpful family rest stop. In America, neither day’s journey would take more than a few hours. But we were not in America, and not for a moment were we allowed to forget it.

It had begun to snow lightly before we left the volcano, but the skies cleared quickly once we got on the “road” (as it were). We passed hills turquoise-and rust-tinted hills and speculated about the mineral content of the soil; I observed that the grass looked greener than any I’d seen in months. We gloried in the sun and bright blue skies. It seemed the skies smiled on that day’s journey.

But that illusion evaporated as we approached a high mountain pass. The girls in the car behind me apparently took no notice of the warning signs, claiming the weather had sprung up out of nowhere, but I grew worried long before the problems started. The skies above might be blue, but those ahead spelled trouble.


We’re driving into that?

Snow appeared on the ground as we began our ascent – a light dusting at first, then occasional drifts that grew in size and number as we climbed. The grey mass ahead grew closer and closer as we worked our way through the switchbacks. And then, suddenly, it was all around us. The road before us disappeared into the swirling white; but for their headlights, so too did the cars behind us. Only once have I experienced a whiteout more complete, and that was on a flat American highway. We inched along, unable to see the road more than a few feet in front of us. When the visibility cleared slightly, we found ourselves facing a serious problem.

No zoom on this picture - they're that close, and that hard to see.

No zoom on this picture – visibility’s that bad.

The snow on either side of the road was piled over a foot high; the road beneath us mercilessly slick, though free of drifts. But a few hundred yards in front of us, the snows continued unabated across the road, trapping nearly a dozen vehicles. It wasn’t just cars that were stuck, either: two mikrs were stuck as well, and, most worryingly, not one but three semis. One semi had clearly tried to pass the other after it got stuck, blocking the entire road.


Trapped behind a long line of stuck trucks.

Any hope of making it to Dashaa’s family in time for lunch quickly evaporated. No one could go anywhere until both semis were freed, and while a crowd of men labored to dig them out, shovels seemed to be in short supply. Even more frustratingly, two more mikrs arrived while we waited – and rather than get in line with the rest of us, they apparently felt the need to pass us all and get themselves stuck in the snow as well. So there we stayed for the next four and a half hours while we waited for the roads to clear.

I can’t speak for the other cars, but everyone in mine cheered when the crowd ahead of us began to move one more. Imagine our dumbfounded disbelief when the snow ended abruptly just over the next ridge. Less than a thousand feet of snowed-over roadway had impeded our progress so long that we had not yet reached our “lunch” stop at the time we’d thought to arrive in Tosontsengel.

Surely, we thought, that was our trial for the day. The skies had cleared, we’d passed most of the snow, and our trusty Embassy vehicles were trucking along without any sign of a problem. Surely the road could have no more to throw at us that day.

And then we reached the river. At least, it had once been a river, before the heavy precipitation of the past year turned the entire area into a floodplain. Now it was a broad swath of ice occupying the entire valley, still littered with the carcasses it had swallowed. We passed a long-abandoned truck half-submerged in the ice, and then an entire hashaa filled with several inches of the stuff. I don’t know how quickly the waters must have risen around the ger that still sat there, but it must have been a chilly place to live.

Frozen Floodplain

Frozen floodplain.

However, these sights paled compared with that which was to come. The ice, we discovered, had begun to melt, and the resulting river flowed quite quickly. And, as rivers will do, it had chosen the smoothest course: the road.

Road, river... who's splitting hairs?

Road, river… who’s splitting hairs?

Our last embassy-organized trip had also involved an unfortunate encounter with a river, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in flashing back to it when I saw what lay before us. That river we had merely tried to cross, and still it had flooded our engine and left us paralyzed for hours. Surely we’d meet with even greater misfortune this time, when we were actually driving down the length of the river.

But there was no other way. The drivers judged that the water, though deep, was not too deep, and so in we went. I couldn’t believe we were doing this; none of us could. But somehow, we emerged from that water without so much as a hiccup in the proceedings. As the sun began to set in front of us, we neared our promised “lunch” stop, thrilled by the promise of real food at last.



Travel (is a Pain)

So, I have a friend who lives out in the Gobi. He’s never had a visitor in the year and a half he’s been at his site; I’ve never been to the Gobi and would like to see it. And I have a 3-week semester break in January. So far, the math is pretty simple.

But upon investigating the logistics of thing, I’m beginning to understand why he’s never had a visitor. Govi-Altai, like much of Mongolia, is unreasonably difficult to get to. How far a distance are we talking about, and what makes it “unreasonably difficult?”

My favorite part is the directions.

My favorite part is the directions.

Do note the fun bit to the left: Google can’t calculate directions to Govi-Altai, even from Ulaanbaatar. But that’s not actually all that surprising; Google uses roads to calculate directions and distances, and most of Mongolia doesn’t have roads.

Not kidding. Those yellow lines aren’t just the main roads – they’re more or less the only ones. There’s a paved road from Darkhan to Erdenet that isn’t shown, so you can drive between Mongolia’s three cities pretty easily (yes, there are only three in the entire country). You have to go from Erdenet to UB by way of Darkhan, though; there’s no road straight between the two. But outside of what you see on this map, most roads are just ruts in the ground.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it'll be like in January.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it’ll be like in January.

These are not fun to drive, let me tell you. They are wind-y and bumpy and uneven – patently bad news for someone with a long history of car sickness. And driving on such “roads” is excruciatingly slow going. Even in summer, you can’t really go above 20 MPH. This means that Khovsgol, the big lake to the northwest of Erdenet, is a 12-hour drive away from me; Govi-Altai would be at least 24.

To make matters worse, you’re not spending those 12-24 hours in a comfortable vehicle. In all likelihood, you’ll be stuffed into a mikr (Soviet microbus) with almost twice as many people as there are seats. That’s not an exaggeration – they’re built to hold 13-14, and the last time I rode in one, it was with 22 of my new best friends. Or if not “best,” certainly “closest.”

It makes for a journey that is hot, cramped, and loud if there are little kids packed in there with you. All of these exacerbate my car sickness and help to make for a thoroughly miserable journey.

Now, the good news is that Altai has an airport. Two hours in a plane instead of twenty four on the road, not counting the inevitable delays and breakdowns? Done.

… or it would be, if I could actually find any information on ticket costs. Aero Mongolia has a website, and some of it is accessible in English – including a flight schedule (albeit one that differs from the one all the travel websites seem to think it runs on). What it does not have is any information about actual tickets: how much they cost, where you can purchase them, etc. Байхгуй. Ditto for the travel websites. There is a telephone number, but given my nearly-nonexistent Mongolian language skills, that sounds like a good way to waste нэгж (phone credit) without actually accomplishing anything. Time to enlist the help of my Mongolian friends, methinks.

And now y’all know why I haven’t done very much traveling, even though I’ve already been here for four months: it’s complicated. And frustrating. And, above all, time-consuming.