Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Back Home!

I arrived home safe and sound yesterday at 5:00 after three days in Seoul en route. Seoul was an amazing experience and it's now most definitely on my "must see" list as a place for a return visit.
All good things must come to an end however so this brings my Mongolian trip to a close.
Next up, a six-day ride through Jasper/Banff national Park and detour coming home through Idaho and Montana to ride the Going-to-the-Sun highway and the Beartooth Pass.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Mongolian Opera


Fishing in Sengel


Muslim Extremists

August 17

I experienced my first run-in with hard-core Muslim extremists yesterday but it wasn’t as frightening as I thought it would be.

On Saturday evening we attended the wedding of the son of the chairwoman of the board of the local credit union. Since then she’s been too busy with all the family commitments that go along with a three-day Kazak wedding to meet with us at the credit union so yesterday we were invited to her house for lunch.

Like many Kazak families they have a family compound and within the fence there’s a western style house, some outbuildings and a Gerr that’s used as a summer residence. In their case, because they’re a fairly affluent family, the Gerr was not only their summer residence but a place for guests to stay and was used for traditional family gatherings. It was in the Gerr that we were welcomed for lunch and introduced to extreme Muslim behaviour. In this case though, it wasn’t anything religious or political. It was extreme warmth, extreme hospitality and an extremely good time!

The Gerr was decorated with beautiful wall hangings, family mementos and thick felt rugs, and felt more like something out of Lawrence of Arabia than a middle-class Kazak family in Mongolia. We were introduced to all their children and had a fantastic time learning about their family and little more about Kazak culture and history. And as far as Muslim traditions go, apparently you’re able to pick and choose. I don’t know much about the Muslim religion but I can’t say I thought it would include the copious amounts of Vodka that we consumed during the many friendly toasts. And just to prove that we have much more in common than differences, everyone was on their best behaviour while the Chairwoman was at the table but in the middle of the afternoon she and the children had to leave for another family function leaving the men behind – and that’s when the Vodka really started to flow! That is until the 80 year old elderly Kazak uncle joined us. He’s a much more traditional Muslim and the Vodka quickly disappeared while he sang us a few traditional Kazak folk songs and shared with us through our interpreter his family history. But once he left, out came the Vodka again! All in all it was a five hour “lunch” and by the early evening I had an “extreme” headache so I guess the Muslim’s here are extremists after all.


Back in Ulgii

August 16
Greetings from the remote, rugged and more than just a little run down Aimeg capital of Ulgii (or Olgii, depending on which version you use) Our arrival was a little harried but all’s well that ends well. We were originally dropped off at one of the two decent (decent being an altogether relative term ) hotels in town and I was quite excited. It had a great wifi connection, small but comfortable rooms with clean ensuite bathrooms and lots and lots of hot water. We arrived early and our rooms weren’t ready yet so while they were being cleaned I caught up on a few e-mails all the while thinking longingly of the first shower I was going to have in four days. Then, just as we were ready to unpack, our interpreter got a call from the host organization and said the whole thing was a mistake.......... we were supposed to check into a Gerr camp on the other side of town. So off we trundled to the Blue Wolf Gerr Camp – a collection of small and large Gerr’s in a fenced in back yard that has more the feel of an abandoned gravel pit than the open steppes one normally associates with a Gerr. Oh well, I’m comfortably ensconced in a HUGE five man Gerr with electricity and sporadic wifi and it’s a short walk to the shower building where there are real toilets and hot showers – what more can you ask for!

Our actual work here has been with a local credit union that you would recognize as a credit union anywhere. It’s a VERY small office in a hidden corner of a rundown office building but from this location four staff looks after the financial needs of over 300 members. They take deposits and grant loans and they play an important role in the community because many of their members wouldn’t be able to access these services through regular chartered banks. And speaking of members, the credit union’s two newest members are from Canada! Scott and I both opened memberships and I deposited $20,000 MNT to a new savings account and I have the Mongolian pass book and new member coffee mug to prove it!

Unfortunately the internet connection here isn’t strong enough to upload pictures so that will have to wait until I’m back in UB.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

More thoughts from the road......

August 13
I was told once that music is the international language - and I’m sure I heard or read somewhere that math is universal regardless of language or culture. Well, I have one more to add. An activity practiced and enjoyed by everyone, no matter where or when, and that’s fishing.

Yesterday was a full and busy day. We reviewed endless financial statements and offered our insight and advice on a broad range subjects. It’s interesting and rewarding work but exhausting because everything has to be done through an interpreter and things have to be confirmed and reconfirmed in order to ensure the message isn’t lost somewhere in between. But at the end of the day our Kazak host’s surprised us with an impromptu fishing trip along the banks of the most amazing river I’ve ever seen. Not for its swift running current or any real claim to fame but for just being. It was the most idyllic, peaceful setting I’ve experienced in a long time and could have been pulled directly from the pages of a Mongolian tourist brochure. And as I was sitting there with my new Kazak friends, eating freshly caught pan-fried fish and drinking vodka halfway around the world almost on the Kazak/Chinese/Russian border, it was more than a little surreal. Sometimes the world is a very interesting place indeed and the path we travel takes is in places we would never imagine.

Next stop..... Bayan Uglii – where I REALLY hope there’s running water!


Random thoughts from Mongolia

August 11
Hi Everyone
I’m not much into blogging anymore so this is my first entry in a very long time. I’m back in Mongolia on a follow up visit to my original coaching assignment last year. This time around I’m working with Scott again and we’re out in the remote western area of the country working with small rural credit unions. Our role is to offer whatever advice we can to assist credit unions and cooperatives in their struggle to lift people out of poverty through the cooperative model.

I’m writing this now (Thursday) but it won’t actually get posted until I’m back in an area with internet access. No such luck here. “Here” is the Soum (small town) of Tsengel, which is a small hamlet of approx 1,000 people in the far western Aimeg (province) of Uglii. I flew into the Aimeg capital of Baya-Uglii on Wednesday on the once weekly flight. Scott and I, our interpreter, a few Mongolians and WAY too many pushy, rude and loud, middle-aged European tourists landed on a dirt strip at a small post-Russian airport only five hours late from UB. The tourists and literally mountains of their hiking gear were whisked away by waiting guides and Scott and I were picked up by our contact in Tsengel and made our way approx 80 klm overland by land cruiser. A very looooong 80 klm on dirt roads that ranged from fairly smooth, to rough, to VERY rough to just two vague outlines in the dirt and grasslands.

Last year I was in a business class hotel in UB for the entire time. This time though, it’s a little different. So far there’s electricity but it’s sporadic and the wiring has a definite ancient Russian flair. I’m staying in what can charitably be called a hotel – at least that’s what the Mongolian sign says – but it feels more like a dilapidated hunting lodge. There are four rooms with four single Russian army cots in each room and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. There’s a small alcove in the hall that has two wash basins but there’s no door for privacy and there’s no running water – just a pot that the cook fills with hot water in the morning. The rest of the “facilities” consist of a VERY basic outhouse out back, but because we’re on the border of Kazakhstan all the toilets are “squat” toilets so the outhouse just has a strip of flooring removed in the middle - no actual commode. Oh well, my legs get a good workout while I’m balancing to.... never mind! Throw in a large communal dining room where we hang out in the evening and the Kazak family (yes, the entire family) that takes care of the kitchen and runs the place and it’s like something out of Three Cups of Tea.

So....... no running water, sporadic electricity, no internet (although all the Mongols and Kazaks are running around with smart phones and seem to have no trouble with cell coverage!) and accommodations that at best can be described as rustic. Pretty crappy, right? I should be hating it, eh? Well, nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, I’d REALLY like an actual toilet and some nice hot water but if this is the price to be paid for seeing some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever experienced, or visiting a far off exotic land I’ve only ever seen in National Geographic, then sign me up!

Today we spent the morning in meetings with the chairman of the board of the local co-op. An amazing man doing incredible things for his Soum. The co-op has an education program to teach better land use techniques and is actively pursuing a new crop management and animal husbandry program to increase yields and finally store fodder and grain over the winter so this Soum won’t be devastated by another harsh winter. He’s also running the local credit union, a herdsman co-op and has programs running to test new crops. Amazing. And let’s not forget the hotel – it’s owned and run by the co-op too.

In the afternoon we toured a new water irrigation system, looked at his crop management area and then spent an hour with a local Kazak family that’s been hired to maintain one of the crop areas. No tourists, no “put on” hospitality, just a very nice family offering us their home and their hospitality. They’re obviously very poor by our standards but rich beyond measure in so many ways we no longer appreciate or understand. They work hard but their tie to the land, their family and their community sustains and nurtures them and they warmly shared whatever they had available – as is the custom throughout this region. Freshly boiled milk tea, several kinds of cheeses, warm bread and sweets.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. This area borders China and Russia and is only 18 Klm from Kazakhstan. Most of the population is Kazak and Muslim, not Mongolian and Buddhist. No matter what I expected however, what I found were hard working people going about their daily lives. No Muslim extremism here, just quiet reserved people with a smile for a foreigner and warm hospitality for a weary traveller. And as always, I was reminded that no matter how far you travel the people you meet will have far more in common than differences.