Out with the Old, In with the New!

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Is it the nature of things (or simply me and my itchy feet?) that just as I have (semi-happily) settled into my newest environment that I should suddenly find ahead of me a tantalizing new horizon? Its confirmation awaits the final details … stay tuned until after the holidays on this one!

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Meanwhile, 2016 – an annus horribilis for me in many ways – is nearing an end. The year started in a fine way, with a trip to Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia, followed soon after by a much-needed solo trip to Nicaragua. Things were looking good – back-to-back Latino-flavored trips in my favorite kind of weather – warm!

Unfortunately, the latter getaway was bookended by (much) less relaxing journeys to take care of my ailing mother. February/March followed up with a relocation from long-time home Chicago to less-than-eagerly-anticipated Washington, DC., and the beginning of multiple back-and-forth drives between those two cities, usually with elderly dog in tow, for the next few months.

I did get a few kicks out of hoodwinking many of you for April Fool’s Day, and I also escaped to Aspen, Colorado, for a glorious string of days in the mountains, even as I struggled with sleeplessness (so not me!) in a bad bed, myriad frustrations in a tiny apartment with non-functional appliances, and a decline in health and fitness in my new urban lifestyle.

Summer brought another series of trips to and from the new DC residence, the old house in Illinois, and the parents’ house in Pennsylvania, but again, the stress of this peripatetic lifestyle, and worries about aging parents and dog, were salved by one of the most amazing trips of my lifetime – to Mongolia – chronicled in an embarrassment of posts in August. Two little side trips to Seoul rounded out that month quite nicely!

I bitched about DC more than I should have (in spite of landing a great new job at American University), lived vicariously through my daughter and her stint in Ghana this fall, and then finally came to terms with Washington by late autumn, just in time to contemplate leaving for greener pastures!

I plan to enjoy my family and our soon-to-be-listed home in Chicago over the holidays and just afterward, I will pop into Cuba for a week before facing head-on the next wave of changes about to wash over me. It’s all good – this time I’m up for the ride! Can’t wait to tell you more about it!

 

 

The Magic Outside my Door

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It’s no secret that I’ve been a reluctant transplant to Washington, DC, for the last nine months, and that was well before all the upheaval of the last few weeks. In my brain, I know it’s a beautiful city, but there was something in my heart that wouldn’t let me fully embrace this place.

Washington is filled with limestone facades and mansard roofs I would rave about if they were in Paris. Streets with colorful row houses lined up under flowering trees fill my vibrant urban neighborhood, yet I desultorily snap photos of them and never look at them again. Impressive statues spring from a plethora of green parks, rowers ply the sparkling Potomac in slim shells, and gothic spires pierce the sky from Georgetown to Cathedral Heights. And still I said Meh …

But a month or so ago, a switch was flipped. We started to make a point to get out at least once a week with tourist eyes. I resisted – some places more than others. Great Falls promised and delivered some powerful nature, Rock Creek Park and Roosevelt Island got us deep into the woods in the midst of a major city, and Union Market produced one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I’d had in a long time!

Languishing on the list, however, was Dumbarton Oaks, a house and garden in Georgetown that my husband had frequented years ago as a student. I pictured a few teak benches and some pedestrian flower beds, a boring colonial house and small parklet of limited interest.

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Proving my bias toward international inspiration, I got a comment from a blog reader way over in Sri Lanka (that’s you, Peta!) who gave me the final shove I needed to go see this place. On an abnormally warm, sunny day, we finally ventured through the gates to what turned out to be an enchanted garden of wonder and delight.

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Each “room” was a microcosm of magic: Nearly tropical pockets of ponds, flowers and giant leaves.

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Autumnal tableaux of pumpkins and pergolas draped with withering vines.

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A mossy wall with a tiny Pan and his flute, pointing the way to an oval pool, a long allée, and its vanishing point among a stand of still-green trees.

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A pebble garden, geometric latticework, and grassy steps in a worn amphitheater.

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Time stopped as we slowly wandered the grounds here and for a little while, I fell in love with my adopted city.

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Comfortable with (a little) Chaos

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Chaos sometimes happens when I travel and in retrospect, it has created many of my most powerful trip memories. Life at home is rarely chaotic; it follows a fairly predictable rhythm and most days I’m a slightly boring creature of habit. Drop me into a foreign locale, though, and I’m usually (strangely) OK with all hell breaking loose after a few days of acclimation.

Kathmandu has to be the all-time winner for daily bedlam. On first arrival, the sensory assault here was overwhelming in an almost frightening way. As I left the airport late at night, alone, I wondered if my days of solo female travel needed to finally come to an end. A good sleep later, I was feeling intrigued by the cows in the street; a few days into it, I was charmed by the jumble of vendors jammed into alleys; and two weeks later, I was truly, madly in love with this colorfully outrageous and unruly city, even when an electrical box exploded a few feet away, sending me and dozens of Nepalis running for cover.

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Athens – in full summer, blazing in 100-degree heat, and polluted by thousands of belching vehicles jam-packed into an overpopulated metropolis – ranks a close second. The chaos here was mostly car-based: the sharp and constant cacophony of horns, the shouting of drivers at one another, the parking on the sidewalks, and once, the abrupt and spontaneous gathering of four men to pick up and move, in a fit of pique, one of said cars parked on the sidewalk.

A skinny street in Istanbul, approaching Taksim Square, seemed placid enough – until we rounded a corner and came face to face with the beginnings of a protest. Waving signs and chanting mobs thickened in minutes, and the sudden crackle of firecrackers set my heart pounding, my head panicking, and my feet beating a retreat.

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Egg-throwing mobs similarly interrupted a pleasant morning stroll in Buenos Aires, and hurtling rickshaws threatened to cut us down as we tried in vain to cross a main street in Lhasa. Sweaty clumps of young men pressed (a little more than necessarily) close to my college girlfriends and me on a morning ride to class on Madrid’s metro years ago, trapping us and blocking our ability to get off at our station. Perhaps most frightening of all, a dense crowd at Sydney’s Y2K New Year’s celebration caused us to lose our 12-year-old for almost an hour as we were sucked into its vortex at the end of the fireworks show.

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We could play it safe. We could skip the crowds and the bigger cities. We could leave the kids at home. I could travel with others to some of the exotic but underdeveloped places I like to experience. Some of the chaos has been simply unpleasant, some horribly frustrating. A few situations have been potentially dangerous, and one or two downright scary. But when push comes to shove (literally!), the deepest imprints of my trips have often been the unexpectedly crazy moments that started the adrenaline pumping and the opening of the veins that take in the lifeblood of a place.

Happy Camper

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An unexpected glimpse of my childhood arrived in my inbox this past week. The camp I attended as a young girl had revamped their website and sent me a link, so I poked around it for a few minutes until I came to a video. I blithely clicked PLAY and for the next 30 minutes I was transported several decades back in time to a place that started my love affair with the great outdoors and in many ways transformed the arc of my life.

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The camp was founded over 70 years ago and most of the cabins and other facilities had seen little updating by my day, or since. (This is a good thing.) Green Cove is a traditional girls’ camp (the brother camp is nearby), a place where old-fashioned activities continue to be practiced in much the same ways they always have, perhaps with slightly better equipment. There are no team sports here, no competitions, no electronics, and no fancy anythings. The cabins and dining hall smell delightfully of mildew, and the furnishings are of the woodsy, rustic variety.

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Here we learned (and the girls still learn) to rock climb, build a fire, sail and kayak and canoe, and ride mountain bikes and horses. We handled carabiners, tent pegs, awls, pitons, booms, paddles, and reins. We got filthy almost every day, and we didn’t care if our wet hair stuck to our faces, our t-shirts got permanently stained, and our shoes and bathing suits never dried out over the course of a month or more. We ate hungrily at every family-style meal, and we burned off all of it and more every day in the lake and on the trails.

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We launched arrows and fired rifles, cast fishing lines and hoisted backpacks, carved wood, wove textiles, and enameled copper. We were trusted around sharp tools and hot fires, wobbly river rocks and skittish horses. We were given the confidence to lead the way on a steep ledge, the skill to clean a mare’s hoof, the faith to lean back into a rappel, the nerves to flip a kayak.

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In our free time, we swept high out over the lake on a giant swing and dropped into the cold, muddy water, played capture the flag until we were winded, lay back in the grass to count wooly white animals in the sky, wrote long letters home from our bunks, and napped, deeply. At night, we gathered around campfires, sang songs, played ping pong, opened mail from home, talked for hours in our cabins, and slept more soundly on a lumpy cot than we ever would again in a five-star bed.

Camp life was idyllic, but for me, the highlights of my months in the mountains were the wilderness trips. Starting at young ages, girls could start spending from 1 to 6 or more days out in nature, learning to live as one with the earth. I loved that Green Cove’s raison d’être was to encourage girls to seek outdoor adventures and to develop the skills needed to continually pursue challenges in the woods and mountains and, ultimately, life. I went into camp a very shy girl, a girl who played it safe. I emerged with the ammunition to get through my teenage and young adult years with some semblance of confidence, and I started down a path of world discovery, ideally on foot out in nature, that I still eagerly pursue today.

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I’m sure a few of my fellow campers no longer want to trek for weeks on end, go without showers for days at a time, or sleep on a flimsy mat under a sleeping bag on a buggy night. For me, it’s still heaven, and I still chase those interludes when iPhones and email, work deadlines and house projects fade into gray, and nothing lies before me each morning but a chance to put one foot in front of the other under a green canopy or on a rocky path. Camp changed my whole relationship with the world outside my door; I fell in love with it, and I never fell out.

Submitted as part of the Weekly Photo Challenge: Transmogrify

Photo Note: Not a single one of these photos is from camp! Those days were captured on a tiny, crummy old film camera, and I don’t even know where the prints might be.

Guest Post from Ghana

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I have written a time or two about a short trip I took to Ghana almost a decade ago, but I am now seeing current-day Accra (the capital) through the eyes of my public health worker daughter, who is living there and working on a malaria project for several months. Her journal has captivated me, both for her cultural insights and the hilarity (from afar) of her daily life and the inevitable adjustments that she has had to make. Without further preamble, let me introduce K and a few amusing snippets from her writings: 

On Fabric and Food

Since I arrived in Accra in late August, I have been keeping a journal that is more-or-less a chronological account of my days and weeks here, interspersed with some commentary on the excitement, frustration, awe, and unfamiliarity associated with new people, places, and ways of life. In that respect, my journal entries are not a perfect match for my Mom’s blog – that is, a compilation of very organized entries, with anecdotes that are neatly tied together by a central theme that is never tired and never forced. I can’t promise any of those things, but since she graciously agreed to let my words coexist with hers, I will do my best to follow suit. Here, I have taken snippets from my journal about my two most frequently-described topics – fabric and food – to give you a taste for the stories that surround them and for how they make my heart and belly full, respectively.

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9/1. So I heard about expats having cheese parties abroad. Exclusive cheese parties. Who wants to share their cheese with 30 random people when you could share it with 10? Well, at the A&C Mall, which I visited 3 times today, the cheese was plentiful! I should have known better. The feta cheese I bought has a very unfortunate taste. I would be thrilled to share it with as many people as would be willing to eat it … I also took the moment to ask if we could stop for a few groceries, and I again, ended up with the weirdest basket of foods, including feta cheese, none of which I ended up eating tonight because the healthy things all required washing and I am JUST NOT READY to sabotage my diarrhea-less day with diarrhea yet. I did get the water boiler hook-up from the nice lady who works at my apartment, so now at least I know I can boil enough water so that I can dump excessive amounts of it onto fruits and vegetables without feeling as guilty about wasting bottles of water.

9/3. Cindy, a friend from school, introduced me to a tailor she has been using named Eleanor, who has her own store in Osu where you can pick out your own fabrics and clothing design. She was hilarious, radiant, and beautifully adorned with her masterful work and many brightly-colored accessories.

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9/4. I identified a beautiful fabric dress that I want. Fridays in the office are for traditional Ghanaian clothing rather than business attire, and I totally want to get into that! Missed the boat this week and wore a red and black dress (here, red and black together means you’re going to a funeral…).

9/6. At work, I wrote down some basic expressions in Twi and practiced them, and I successfully put in my first food order at work (jollof rice). According to Wikipedia, it’s “the progenitor of the Louisianan dish jambalaya,” and that’s a pretty good description. For 10 GH₵ ($2.50), it was my lunch, dinner, and I still have more in my fridge at home.

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9/8. Mary, the receptionist, is good about remembering what I have eaten and thinking of something new I can try, so we decided together that today was kenkey day. Kenkey is this huge sourdough dumpling made from ground corn. It is super dense, and it is served with hot pepper sauce and fried fish. This sounded okay to me, not great, but when the time came to eat, Lucy, the woman who buys the food, pulled out a whole fish, eyes included, and flopped it onto my plate. She then showed me how to peel the leaves covering the kenkey, and when I involved my left hand, she pushed it away and said, “No, use right hand.” Theresa was eating it across from me so she showed me how to take some of the kenkey off the ball and rub it between my fingers to get it to the right consistency, and then to dip it into the hot pepper. Again, everyone was amused by this. I asked if I ate the fish with my hands, too, and people laughed again like “Obviously!” The hot pepper was extremely hot, and it was too much to eat in large quantities. Another colleague, Theresa, said, “Get her some gravy; she can’t eat that,” while Mary was dumping less spicy sauce from someone else’s plate onto mine and marking the line I shouldn’t cross for spiciness sake. My boss, John, was piling my plate with his fried yams and sweet potatoes (like French fries!), and saying “Eat these, you won’t be able to eat much of this (the pepper) yet.” Another woman walked in, glanced at me, jaw dropped, and went, “Is this safe?” I felt like a little alien worthy of protection.

9/10. I actually ate vegetables!! Well, on top of noodles (this is the starchiest life), and had my first sip of alcohol in a while. They were out of wine, so I tried their Club beer, which kind of tasted skunked. (Little did I know that’s just how it tastes.) Elizabeth, my new Ghanaian friend, ordered a Smirnoff ice, which was so funny to me. I told her about the American custom of “icing” someone and she thought it was funny but also didn’t really understand, which totally makes sense.

9/11. I stopped in Woodin, the popular fabric store, and finally made myself buy something. I have been so indecisive about these fabrics, and I think I just need to try out the process and see how the first piece of clothing I have made turns out. The salesperson was extremely friendly, and I asked him a million really dumb questions about fabrics and made him help me choose which one to buy, and he happily obliged.

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9/12. Today, I ate white rice with red sauce and a hard-boiled egg. Mysteriously, this is the only food I’ve heard of without a local name. I was told, you are eating “plain rice.” Good to know. I also sampled someone’s waakye, which is rice and beans, with pieces of pasta, garri (crushed cassava), and Shito (black pepper). Everyone was packed in the lunch room at the same time today, eating with their hands, some standing up, and everyone sort of seemed to get a kick out of my confusion. I ask a lot of questions about the food because they seem to like explaining it, and it helps me, you know, bond.

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9/15. On Wednesday, the three of us ladies went out to lunch and ate sandwiches. Bliss. My sandwich had four carrot flakes, two miniature tomato slices, and a sprinkle of lettuce. I’m starting to feel about vegetables here like Mom felt about paper products in Tibet – overdose on them whenever possible because you never know when they’ll appear next. I practically sing aloud when I see an onion in my jollof rice, plain rice, or fried rice. Rice, rice, rice, onion, rice, repeat.

9/18. We left for Makola market, the overwhelming but famous Saturday local market in Accra. It was hectic and hot and there was everything under the sun, including live snails, but we stuck to fabrics, and I came home with two more, which I can’t wait to (someday) convert to clothes.

9/19. On Saturday morning, I vowed to use the shared kitchen at my place. I carried my eggs and olive oil and plate across the compound and into the kitchen. Alas, I could not light the damn burner. Someone said I needed a match. Another person said I just needed to adjust the gas tank. Either way, I’m afraid I will blow myself up before I eat an egg safely.

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9/25. We all had non-instant coffee, a rare treat, and my friend Emily and I agree that is was the best and worst part of our day. It actually felt like a drug, rejuvenating me with every delicious sip, but hours later the two of us were seriously over-caffeinated just from the one cup and our arms and legs felt weak and twitchy the whole rest of the day.

9/29. First, they took us to my colleague Robert’s wife’s shop in a rather faraway location, and I had my measurements taken and handed over my beautiful fabric to have a dress made. I felt oddly sad giving it away, knowing it would not return to me in its perfect, unaltered state. Then Mary wanted to also stop at her friend’s shop, so we made another out-of-the-way stop, and I was lucky I had brought another fabric with me. This tailor measured me (in a much more intense, full-body way, including a nipple-to-nipple measurement that was in no way necessary for a skirt), and I handed over the other precious two yards I had unfolded, held up to my body, and refolded innumerable times. I exchanged phone numbers with both tailors and then texted them pictures of ladies I found on Google images whose clothing I wanted to imitate.

9/29. We stopped beforehand at Woodin so Emily could grab some last minute gifts, and the Osu location has way more fabrics, and I felt super addicted and emotionally unstable in response to this addiction that resulted in oohing and aweing and pining over fabrics that I can’t justify buying.

10/2. I got my dress back!! Robert delivered it to me by way of his wife, and as I held it up to myself, he expressed doubt that it would fit right. He was right. It was huge in the chest and totally gaping, but I still felt I had to model it for everyone, so I got to experience the joy of a group of colleagues tugging at the fabric over my chest, commenting on the flatness of my chest, and Robert taking up-close pictures of my chest to send to his wife so she could redo it. At one point, Robert was intently assessing the fit, and Mary slapped his hand away from me. He wasn’t making me uncomfortable, but it was cute to watch her stick up for me. I was sad to see the dress leave my possession again, but it came back, along with my skirt from the other tailor, and now they both fit, and I’m all set for African dress Fridays!

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10/4. This weekend, I went to the obruni (white person) market (that’s what my friends call this market which draws mostly expats) on my own and bought some gifts and used the tailor I had met my first week, Eleanor, for my final fabric to be made into a shirt. The crafts are good there, but I find the obrunis consistently annoying, paler than ever, and loud. They fiend after the one and only bagel stand in Accra, and they shout at each other in jarring accents (I can’t even identify where such a voice would come from), which forces me to cringe politely into their round, burnt faces.

10/5. Since there is nothing else going on in my life this week, I will discuss the common expression used when you are eating and someone else enters the room – “You are invited.” This confused the heck out of me when I first got here. I would walk into the kitchen for a glass of water, and Mary would be eating unidentified meats for breakfast and she would say, “You are invited.” Huh? I smiled and nodded but then just walked away thinking I had probably done the rudest thing ever. Then, the next few times, I would walk in on someone eating, and they would say it without even raising their head or looking at me. Today, John was starting a late lunch as we joined a conference call together, and he said as we received the Skype call, “You are invited to my lunch.” Eventually, I realized (and got confirmation) that it’s just something people say out of courtesy but it doesn’t mean you have to join them, or watch them eat, or help them eat their unidentified meats.

10/9. Jack, one of the roommates and band members, arranged for a spit pig to be served through his local coworker’s family member, and we savagely sliced this pig apart for dinner, which we ate outside in the pouring rain.

10/17. When I got back, Donald and Samuel, who work at my apartment, were eating dinner in the bar and invited me to join. They were eating big hunks of pork, and I was full from dinner, but I tried to identify a small bite to be polite when they offered me some. Once I popped it in my mouth, I realized it was not going to be pretty. It was so tough, and they were asking me questions and I could not respond because my mouth was having to work hard on this very intense-tasting fresh pig with so much un-chewable fat. I told them, “Gimme five minutes,” which they thought was funny, but then five minutes later, when I was still “hiding” the huge un-chewable fat chunk in my cheek, I had to come clean and tell them I didn’t know what to do about it. Donald rolled his eyes and said to Samuel, “Get her a napkin,” and I tried to own the spitting out motion like I wasn’t the total obruni I am.

10/18. I started my day by picking up my shirt from Eleanor. She sells her stuff at the expat market each month, but otherwise you just go to her house. She is really successful – not just doing business in her neighborhood but totally catering to the expat community, too, and even starting to show her clothes internationally within West Africa. So I headed off on my own to meet this lady, and she lived in a little neighborhood so close to the beach you could smell and feel the water. She met me outside close to noon looking sleepy and of course wearing some African print shorts. When I walked into her house, fabric was draped over everything. It reminded me of what it would be like to go into an artist’s home and to find paintings and paint everywhere. She showed me to the showroom, and while she adjusted the shirt she had made for me, I shopped around. I don’t know why I’m such a fiend for these clothes – I literally ripped my own off in this stranger’s house and put as many dresses as I could find on myself.

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I can now happily say I’m going African print strong, with five bright pieces of clothing lining my makeshift closet and two more fabrics lying dormant in my arsenal, awaiting their beautiful, affordable final form. While I may have beat indecision when it comes to fabric shopping and tailoring, I am still learning how to integrate fashion with food; understanding how to enjoy the dense, fried, caloric, starchy foods and still fitting comfortably into my never-even-slightly-stretchy prints has been a challenge I’ve yet to overcome. I still have a long way to go when it comes to adjusting to my life with one foot out the door, but I’m lucky I have a pretty solid role model who reminds me why I’m doing it.

Losing my Local

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I’m struggling to define “local” these days. Life has been so unstable for the last nine months that we seem to have no local anything anymore. We are missing a whole lot of local, in fact: a local bar, a local grocery store, a local group of friends, even a local collection of all of our possessions. I like feeling like a local; I like to belong, I like habit, and I like to have regular places that I frequent.

Given my love for travel and always being on the move, this state of affairs should not have thrown me as it has. But having one foot out the door implies that the other one is planted somewhere, and it’s that solid base I’m missing. For 25 years, local has meant my home in a small village near Chicago, a place filled with independent stores where the shopkeepers knew my name and stocked things I asked for, an errand always turned into a chat, and everything I owned was in one place.

We are now bouncing from DC city apartment to Pennsylvania mountain getaway, minus the hiking shoes I left in the Midwest on the last trip “home.” I feel scattered, but (I swear) I’m trying hard to make my new location my idea of local.

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My Local Metro

Missing Mongolia

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Fall is upon us in the eastern U.S. and no matter how much I wished for these cooling breezes and drops in temperature and humidity over the past three months, I am already feeling nostalgic for summer. More than the weather, however, I am missing the yawning span of free and easy vacation days that are one of the perks of being a university professor.

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More specifically, I am reminiscing about the weeks I just spent in Mongolia, a place that in itself brought back poignant memories for me: my days of horseback riding as a young child and teenager, sleeping under the stars on a totally black night, county fairs, rock-hopping in mountain streams – all thousands of miles and decades away. As I ride a last wave of nostalgia with my final post on Mongolia, I revisit a summery landscape that caught me by surprise.

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I’ve said it before: I’m not a desert lover. One of my new travel mates in Mongolia couldn’t wait to get to the Gobi. I, on the other hand, would have been quite happy to park myself in a ger out on the steppe and never leave, riding my horse off into the soft, green hills. I’ve never been drawn to arid landscapes and don’t naturally like places that are dry, brown, or barren. But just as I did at Zion National Park in the U.S., Wadi Rum in Jordan, and other famous desert destinations, I put aside my distaste for desiccation in order to see one of the world’s famous deserts.

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I traded a shiny-coated horse for a mangy camel, elevation for endless flatness, and verdant hills for rust-colored cliffs, but the Gobi’s sere, simple beauty grabbed me after all and seems to have stubbornly parked itself in my memories.

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Sunset happens precipitously here; one minute there is searing heat and glare and the next, the sun has sunk below the horizon in the blink of a squinting eye. Mornings are equally hasty in arriving, with the deep blackness of desert night quickly shattered by sunlight that has no natural barriers. I am missing that unimpeded view of the sun each morning and night here in my city home.

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The Gobi has a few salmon-colored, ridged sand dunes, but on the whole it is a land of reddish dirt patterned with olive-green scrub grass. Four of the usual Mongolian suspects ply the paths; that is, the sheep and the goats, the horses and the camels, always in those pairs.

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Vehicles are few and far between, and with no marked roads, routes, or landmarks, I have no idea how they find their way around. There were long periods of time on our drives when we saw no other vehicles and when faced with a choice of three identical dirt paths at just slightly different angles, our driver always seemed to know exactly which one to take. (I normally have a very good sense of direction, and I occasionally had the feeling that we were doubling back after making a wrong turn, but that was just a hunch. We did always end up where we wanted to go!)

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One exception to the stubbly green topography was the Flaming Cliffs, a series of sandstone formations that are most famous as the site of Roy Chapman Andrew’s expeditions in the early 1920s that led to the discovery of the first dinosaur eggs, as well as thousands of dinosaur bones, all of which were packaged up and carted away on the backs of camels to their new home in the American Museum of Natural History. After a hike of only several hours on the parched cliffs, I found the notion of mounting such an extensive expedition in this harsh and remote environment – nearly a century ago, no less – to be truly staggering.

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A final stop in the Gobi provided a brief respite from the heat and sun as we hiked deep into Yolyn Am, a narrow canyon in the Gurvan Saikhan mountains that is home to an ice field that often lingers the whole way through the summer months. We stream-hopped back and forth until we could go no farther into the gorge, but try as we might, we did not glimpse any lammergeiers, the large birds after which the canyon is named.

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The Gobi was the last stop on a wide-ranging trip around Mongolia, chronicled in the posts below, and the final travel spree of my summer break. Soon it will be time to stop looking back in longing and start contemplating the next memory-making escape.

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Want more Mongolia?

Danshig Naadam: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/danshig-naadam/

Framing a House Mongolian Style: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/framing-a-house-mongolian-style/

A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/

Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/

On the Edge in Seoul

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Bracketing my glorious time in Mongolia last month were two short stays in Seoul, Korea. Knowing that flights into and out of Ulaanbaatar could be iffy due to windy conditions, I was happy to arrange a day south of the Han River on the way there and two days on the north side coming home. After my husband’s trip to Korea in the 90s that was full of unfortunate stereotypes (mostly dog and smog), I knew I would not be accompanied there anytime soon, so I had to make this happen on my own. Luckily, I fared much better!

A common theme of the two stopovers was an old/new mash-up – historic structures and streets pushed up against the edges of the very modern parts of the city. Both sides benefitted from the contrast: temple bricks and wood with the patina of time added texture and depth to the glint of skyscrapers in the Gangnam area,

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while the blocky, mirrored facades of distant towers made a contemporary backdrop for the monochromatic old hanok houses and their curly-edged rooflines in the more northern, traditional part of the city.

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In Gangnam, my hotel was sleek and cool, but at the push of a button, the curtain panel drew back to expose a giant Buddha standing amid lanterns and upturned eaves in the Bongeunsa temple complex.

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In Insadong a few weeks later, the tables were turned; my lodging was small and backward, but my view was into the future. There, a morning stroll along the edge of ancient Changdeokgung Palace led me uphill to Bukchon Hanok Village, a 600-year-old urban area from Joseon Dynasty days, which looked out over an array of new high-rises shimmering in the summer haze.

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Seoul is a huge city, but its most captivating sights always seemed to be at the edges of my vision: a quiet man on the edge of the urban Cheonggyecheon stream,

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artwork on the edges of buildings in Insadong,

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the boundaries between fanciful old design and the angular solidity of new architecture,

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a glassy line-up on the river’s edge, or a tiny restaurant wedged into a zigzag alley.

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Seoul teeters on the edge between ancient temple cuisine and trendy coffeehouses; dank, lukewarm showers and fancy, self-heating toilet seats; gritty fish shops and Samsung’s funky HQ; old men in drab clothing and young girls in full-blown Hello Kitty. I barely dented the surface of Seoul, but in three short days I walked these borders of past and present, ageless and innovative, to find a city looking both forward and back in a most agreeable way.

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(Huge shout-out to Shelley, a Seoul resident and blogger at Travel-Stained, who really gave me the biggest edge of all with her priceless advice on where to go and what to see in my short time there.)

Danshig Naadam

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Eight centuries ago, Genghis Khan and his armies rampaged across the steppe in central Asia, conquering lands and peoples to create a Mongol kingdom whose reach exceeded that of any other empire before or since. History gives us a view of the Mongols as vicious and unkempt heathens, but we know from books such as the 13th century The Secret History of the Mongols that cultural life on the steppe was alive and well, ritualized in both athletic and spiritual realms.

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Mongolia’s most famous festival, Naadam, has its origins in the steppe celebrations and competitions that began in Genghis Khan’s day, perhaps in concert with weddings and other spiritual assemblies. Then and now, sporting competitions took place in three areas: horseracing, archery, and wrestling. Starting in 1639, these “Three Manly Sports” were integrated into an event called Danshig Naadam, a yearly gathering of nomads, nobles, and monks from across the country to participate in both sports and spiritual activities.

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Nowadays, Mongolia aficionados may know that Naadam is held on July 11-13, and in fact, it remains a national holiday on those dates. But that festival – still the most popular time to visit Mongolia – is actually the secular celebration of this ancient gathering. After the 1921 People’s Revolution, the government recast the event as a sporting event only, eliminating the religious and spiritual aspects.

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With the end of Communism in 1990 came a return of Buddhism, and the monks and monasteries began to flourish once again. Finally, in 2015, the city of Ulaanbaatar and the monasteries came together to reestablish the original Danshig Naadam festival, held August 6-7, adding back the religious competitions and cultural performances, such as the Buddhist tsam dance, to the Three Manly Sports.

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We spent two days enjoying the carnival atmosphere of Danshig Naadam. Like a state fair, the festival is filled with animals, game booths, crafts, picnics, cotton candy, and happy crowds under the beating summer sun.

About an hour outside of Ulaanbaatar, at Hui Doloon Hudag, the main stadium and the other sporting venues became my substitute for the Olympic Games this summer. In marked contrast to that modern extravaganza, however, here the opening ceremony featured bleating Buddhist horns and clanging cymbals, chanting monks, and colorful parades of horses and flags.

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Also unlike modern sporting events, the competitors here wear traditional clothing and follow ancient customs as part of their sports. In wrestling, male participants don an unusual outfit of briefs, a skimpy open-chested, sleeved top and leather boots with upturned toes, and they perform an ancient eagle dance before and after they clash. Top-ranked wrestlers choose their opponents, so early matches are uneven and quick, while later ones can be long stand-offs. Matches are not timed, and competitors lose if they touch the ground at any time with a body part other than hands or feet.

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Mongolia has a horse-based history and culture; children learn to ride early and are seemingly as comfortable on horses as we are in chairs. The main horse race at Danshig Naadam is a 30-km cross-country event with children aged 5-13 as jockeys. By the end of that age range, many children are already too heavy, so the races are usually won by tiny youngsters. We stationed ourselves near the finish line and, true to form, this year’s winner looked like a 6 or 7-year-old boy, galloping in a cloud of dust as he whipped his mount to victory. Boys and girls compete together in this race, and many of the top finishers we saw were female.

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Men and women both compete, but do so separately, in the archery tournaments. The handmade bows and elegant costumes captivated me so much I don’t even know who won these events! Men shoot from 75 meters and women from 65 meters; both are so accurate that officials stand right near the targets to repair the walls after a hit.

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Danshig Naadam was a great way to experience Mongolian culture, ancient and current. Families rode in from near and far, on horses or in pick-ups, and set up tents for the festivities. Competitors and spectators alike were dressed in colorful fashions, and there was a sense of holiday merriment in the air.

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I felt very lucky to be part of the real Danshig Naadam festival in only its second year back in existence after its Communist-triggered hiatus. If you have a chance to visit Mongolia in summer, aim for mid-July or early August to take advantage of these fabulous opportunities to mingle with Mongolians at their most famous festivals.

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Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:

Framing a House Mongolian Style: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/26/framing-a-house-mongolian-style/

A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/

Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/

 

 

Framing a House (Mongolian-Style)

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When we build a house in most of the world, we start with a permanent foundation and frame the structure from there on up, and we hope and expect that our home will exist in that spot for years to come. In much of rural Mongolia, there is some beautiful house framing going on, but the resulting structure – a ger (often known as a yurt in other languages) – is a fully collapsible and movable one that has been used for thousands of years.

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I’ve spent a good amount of time in tents the world over, and I expected a fairly similar abode when I went to Mongolia last month. I was in for a striking surprise in several respects. For one, gers are quite large and sturdy. Gers are sized in terms of the number of expandable panels, and a typical ger for a family might be a 6-panel affair. Each panel is an accordion-like grid of lightweight wood strips that folds up into a bundle that can be loaded onto a camel (or these days, sometimes a pick-up truck) for transport to the next season’s pastureland.

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Between each lattice-work panel is a post, and the panels and posts are lashed together with leather or rope ties. Between the front two panels is a wood doorframe and heavy wood door.

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In a ger of this size, there are usually at least three couches or beds that serve in those capacities, respectively, during daytime and night. One side of the ger is used for food preparation, and other sections have traditionally been designated for men, women, children, and guests. In the center of the ger is a wood-burning stove whose chimney rises through a hole in the tent’s ceiling.

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My second surprise was how complex and stunning those ceiling designs were, in both the gers for tourists and those of the nomadic families.  An open circle, or crown, at the top of the tent has a series of radiating poles – a gorgeous geometric array of orange or red painted rafters – that settle onto the side panels. This roof is often self-supporting, but in larger gers, it may sit on the support posts between the side panels. The crown is partially open for the stovepipe and for air circulation, but it can be covered with a canvas tarp that usually lies over the roof for extra protection.

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The entire structure is covered with felt, usually made from sheep or goat wool from the family’s animals. This material insulates the ger in both hot and cold weather and is often wrapped again in a canvas covering that is more water- and sunproof. The entire tent is held together by long ropes tied horizontally around the dwelling.

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(As a fun aside, we visited the Mongolian version of Costco one day to gather supplies outside Ulaanbaatar, and what should we find in the back of the store but a generic ger! Like most things in a big box store, this one was plain and characterless.)

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Gers are round in order to redirect the fierce winds on the open steppe. Their circular shape helps them resist gusts from any direction, which is critical in a place with no natural windbreaks like trees or tall grasses and shrubs, and their rounded tops protect the roof from being ripped off.

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A nomadic family can disassemble and reassemble a ger in an hour or two, and most family-sized gers can be transported on two or three camels. We were lucky to see one camel loaded up with long poles as the summer grazing season was coming to an end during our trip.

We were even luckier to spend half of our nights in Mongolia in these aesthetically pleasing and comfortable tents. I loved tucking my modern belongings into the lattice-work walls that have characterized these gers for centuries. I slept like a baby with my crown view of the stars and my door open to the sweeping grasslands (in spite of a hungry visitor one night – a vole? – who ate my snacks right out of my backpack, and a toad that hopped in one night after it was too dark to find him to scoot him out). We visited a number of families on the steppe and in the Gobi Desert, sitting around their stoves and enjoying their unmatched hospitality in their cheerful gers.

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I think a good quarter of my photos are of gers gers at sunrise, gers in the distance, gers on a glowing evening, and gers with their charming owners – and I’m sure one of those remembrances will end up in a frame of its own on my wall one of these days!

Part of a series of posts on my trip to Mongolia in August 2016. Other posts can be found here:

Danshig Naadam: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/danshig-naadam/

A Steppe Out of Time: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/19/a-steppe-out-of-time/

Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/16/ulaanbaatars-contrasts-and-surprises/

Nothing Narrow Here: https://lexklein.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/nothing-narrow-here/

A Steppe Out of Time

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I’ve always had a fascination with the word “steppe,” a term I’d read in various books to describe the land over which impossibly exotic characters ranged – legions of Russian soldiers, swarms of Genghis Khan’s archers on horseback, camel trains of nomads traversing a vast, empty plain. I pictured the steppe as a massive shelf, an unbounded plateau taking a giant stride down from Russia and Siberia into Central Eurasia. I might even go so far as to say that I went to Mongolia solely to see the steppe, with its grasslands and treeless plains that spread out for miles and miles under massive blue skies. I saw the foray into this land as a rare opportunity to step off the grid and into the pages of history right up to this day.

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In my last post, I noted my surprise at the newness and modernity of Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. While I took pleasure in getting to know that city, my real joy in Mongolia was heading out to the steppe land west of UB. With one of the lowest population densities on earth, Mongolia is literally wide open, and I wanted to get out there and breathe in the vastness and, maybe, see a little of the life that takes place there, a life that feels far removed from that in the city.

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The Mongolian grassland plateau is part of the biggest steppe region in the world, one that stretches from Eastern Europe (Ukraine) through Central Asia – a number of the ‘Stans (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan), Russia, and others. While there are now paved roads connecting most of the country’s provinces, the majority of roads on the steppe are bouncy dirt paths, often with no discernible lanes or traffic patterns.

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The verdant plains of summer spread out like ruched fabric, rising and dipping, folding and wrinkling like thick, crumpled velvet. Often, the greenish-yellow moors are framed by brown and purple mountains, unfolding in layers for miles on end. The vistas are like watercolor paintings, gradations of color and light stacked from foreground to background until they melt into the heavens.

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Little white gers off in the distance dot the landscape, and herds of animals roam freely, the sheep with the goats, the horses alongside the camels.

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Unlike the leap into the 21st century that UB has taken in recent years, much of life on the steppe takes place just as it has for centuries, with people living in harmony with the land. Nomadic families move with the seasons, packing up their gers and their animals at least four times a year to find new pasturelands. In summer, access to water is critical, while winter brings a need for grasslands with minimal snow cover. In spring, the herders look for early flora to nourish the animals before birthing time arrives, and in fall, they seek out later-growth foliage to fatten up before winter comes around again.

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Both the livelihood and sustenance of these nomads depend on their animals – primarily horses, camels, cattle, sheep, and goats. The Mongolian diet is heavily based on meat and dairy products, and days revolve around animal care and putting up food for future seasons. On a visit to a wonderfully engaging nomadic family, we helped milk the mares and the cows, then cut huge blocks of soft cheese into smaller pieces that were dried on the roof for winter consumption.

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We drank airag, a fermented mare’s milk, nibbled on mutton dumplings, and savored a creamy rice pudding made with the cow’s milk we had helped procure minutes earlier. Animal fur, hair, and skins can be sold for use in the city as rugs, the famous Mongolian cashmere, and other products as a way to earn money to buy agricultural staples the nomads cannot grow (rice and flour among them), animals to breed (the most expensive, a camel, costs about $750), or supplies, like the gers themselves ($1000 or so).

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Traditional herding life is likely to change and fade out in coming years as pressures to join the global economy increase and as younger generations develop ambitions beyond a life in the country. The families who still make their home on the steppe may live simply and freely, but they take small bites of the world beyond. They use solar panels for energy in their gers, their children go to school (which is compulsory), and, of course, they own cellphones, which are almost as attached to their ears as they are anywhere else! The darling girls I bonded with one evening knew their way around an iPhone – insisting we take selfies together and then taking (many, many) videos of me riding their horses.

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I didn’t get enough time on the steppe. I understand the difficulty of taking people out into such unpopulated, unsupported areas and I get that most people can only take the ger camps for so many nights before craving a real shower and some wifi! But I could have stayed much longer, waking at dawn to see horses wandering through camp, bouncing down the dirt roads into the green suede hills, stopping to photograph a shimmering, lemon-lime wheat field or a posse of Bactrian camels, meeting the industrious and endearing local people, and reclining outside my tent at midnight to see the entire Milky Way clouding up a night sky unpolluted by other light sources.

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The steppe was a rare treat, a dream come true, a step out of time and place, a pause button in the universe that I needed to see and experience for myself. If history holds, I will crave a return someday soon, and I will add Mongolia to the list of places I’ve felt compelled to revisit.

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Ulaanbaatar’s Contrasts and Surprises

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The first stop on my two-week sojourn in Mongolia was the exotic-sounding capital, Ulaanbaatar. I had pictured a frontier kind of town, a high-altitude patchwork of nomadic ger tents and hulking concrete apartment blocs, jumbled together in a hazy valley. Part of that vision was accurate, but I also found sparkling glass skyscrapers, quaint Buddhist temples, an old Soviet department store, and upscale malls in this city trying very hard to be the next swanky Asian destination.

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Founded in 1639 as the headquarters of the leader of Mongolian Buddhism, Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero”) became a permanent city in its current location on the Tuul River in 1778. The city lies in an east-west valley surrounded by four sacred mountains and is still home to hillsides full of gers, the traditional Mongolian round tents, on the edges of town.

In 1990, when Mongolia emerged from Russian communist rule, the population was only 500,000, but UB now has 1.4 million residents, almost 50% of the country’s total population. (The escape from Soviet grasp also marked the change of the city’s spelling from a Russian-based transcription to the current one, for those who have known this capital as Ulan Bator.)

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As a result, the capital city of this young democracy is growing by leaps and bounds, creating marked contrasts between old and new. The Choijin Lama Temple sits in the shadow of the glimmering Blue Sky Hotel and other glassy towers.

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The posh Shangri-La Mall, opened just 6 days before my arrival and the site of the country’s first IMAX theater, rises up from a weedy field.

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On the other side of that scrubby grass and trees is another anomaly: a colorful amusement park in the middle of the city.

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Huge construction cranes teeter over a battered log cabin.

Humble venders sit in shabby kiosks less than a block away from a Louis Vuitton store, and the Gandan Buddhist monastery peers down upon a sea of those boxy Soviet buildings as well as the shiny new high-rises.

 

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I loved the city. I expected to tolerate it in between forays out into the countryside, but I found myself looking forward to our sporadic returns, and not just because it was a respite from sleeping in a tent with no running water or electricity! It would be a tough place to live permanently – it’s blazing hot in the summer and the coldest capital on earth in the winter – but I enjoyed every minute we spent in this curious mix of the traditional and modern laid out under a huge canopy of blue sky.

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Stay tuned for the “real” Mongolia: the steppe landscapes and the nomadic families that live there, a glimpse of the Danshig Naadam cultural and sports festival, and the Gobi Desert – all coming up in future posts!

Morning in the Gobi

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Dawn and dusk have offered some of the most beautiful scenes here in Mongolia. I’ve spent the last few days in the Gobi Desert on the southern border of the country and was able to capture the sun rising over the pale green scrub that stretches for miles, as well as the soft, blue-tinged white of the gers as camp awakes each morning. It is a setting of great peace and quiet; I am sorry to leave it.

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Nothing Narrow Here

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Could there be a worse Weekly Photo Challenge prompt for me this week? The only narrow thing I’ve seen in the last few days was my airplane seat in the economy section of a U.S. carrier that should be charged with inhumane treatment. And that was not a pretty picture, literally (I did take one) or figuratively, so I’ll spare you.

No, these next few weeks are not going to be “narrow.” I’ve just landed in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to begin a trip through this vast, wide-open country. A land of unfurling skies, rolling grasslands, and big new ambitions, Mongolia and its most famous leader, Genghis Khan, have nothing narrow about them.

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Genghis Khan cut a huge swath through the world in the 13th century, leading relatively small, nimble armies of highly-skilled horsemen with insane archery skills against robust militaries from Korea to Vienna, Russia to Viet Nam, and all over Central Asia. In 25 years, this man (who was also known to be physically large) conquered more territory than the Roman Army did in centuries.

Those with a narrow knowledge of Genghis Khan know him solely as a rapist and pillager, and those things he apparently was, according to most sources. But he was a complex character to many historians; some see his numerous accomplishments as “worth” the multitudes of deaths he ordered, while others can’t see past the killing, even as it led to a whole new world order. In the fullness of time, men and events can lose their distastefulness when seen in the context of later developments, and revisionist history has a way of softening the personality traits and actions that “great men” used to change the world. When we narrow our eyes and look closely at Genghis Khan, what do we see as his legacy?

In coming days, I hope to learn more about this multifaceted man and his role in Mongolia’s history, and I will venture out into the land of the nomads who still populate much of rural Mongolia. There will be few shots of small things or narrow spaces; my eyes, camera, and mind will be prepped for panoramas, wide angles, and the very big picture. Stay tuned!

Can’t See the Forest for the Trees (and other little things)

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On our last two weekend escapes from the hot and humid city, we’ve hiked some very small sections of the Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail in western Pennsylvania.

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It is a woodsy walk, overall a 70-mile traipse through more than 20,000 acres of dense trees, cold streams, ferns, wildflowers, and prodigious clumps of rhododendron. The LHHT starts in Ohiopyle State Park and ends near Johnstown; along the way, there are shelters every 8-10 miles and enough varied terrain to keep hikers happy for days. There are great views from the higher ridges, and the entire trail sits at about 2500’ of elevation, so even on a sweltering day like one we had this weekend, the air is cool and the path largely shaded.

But that’s an overview of this trail I want to thru-hike some day. Yesterday what I focused on were the details, those little features that make every walk in the woods a mini treasure hunt.

In the Costa Rican Cloud Forest

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In a post on family travel a few months ago, I briefly introduced the other eight feet that wander the globe with me from time to time. While we’ve had many good vacation times overseas, the five of us have also spent some time volunteering abroad, a vastly different way to really learn about other lands and cultures.

We all agree that our first and longest work tour was the best – a nine-day building trip in the Monteverde area of Costa Rica. We had been to the country before and remembered technicolor sunsets over the Pacific, ziplining through the jungle canopy, and nature walks in the rainforest, but nothing prepared us for the level of poverty we would experience for a week and a half the second time. This trip was the polar opposite of our previous one and, as we soon found out, it was quite different from our life here at home, too.

We arrived in Santa Elena, deep in the Monteverde cloud forest, to heavy rains. The road into the town was unpaved, and even when wet, its firm ridges rattled our van and our brains for what seemed like an eternity. We dropped our bags in the spartan rooms we were assigned, let out tiny screams when we spied a gigantic spider in the shower and tiny sighs when we felt the thin, rock-hard beds, and then bolted out to walk into town to find food and an internet café.

Water rushed down the hill, swirling around our ankles and backing up into the kiosks set up along the well-traveled route. This was hint number one of the dirt to come. Staying positive, we loaded up on beverages and snacks and returned to our simple accommodations to start a routine that we would follow for the next nine evenings: taking turns showering off the day’s grit and then assembling for beers in a courtyard of plastic chairs.

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Each morning we would ride for over an hour on rutted dirt roads into a tiny village in the hills. Here, our overall goals were to dig a hole and two trenches for a new septic system, finish the interior of a school lunch building, dig a culvert, and paint a community center. There were no power tools to use; we mixed concrete by hand and transported it by wheelbarrow, both backbreaking jobs.

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We framed walls, tiled floors and countertops, built bookcases, cleared a landslide (and felt a powerful temblor one afternoon) and laid pipe in our new trenches. Yes, we were exhausted. And filthy.

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We worked under a volunteer philosophy called servant learning in which we were asked to follow local instructions and leadership; we were there to provide manpower and friendship, not control. Oftentimes, the work did not progress in a way we ever-so-efficient Americans were accustomed to. We moved concrete blocks into a pile to make room to dig trenches, then had to move them again to build walls. We built walls that had to be deconstructed when room measurements were inaccurate.

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We cemented a floor before someone mentioned we needed to run pipes under a counter. We had to chisel out spaces for electric sockets, hacking into 2x4s and drywall. With no levels available, we eyeballed our shelves for squareness; once propped on the uneven floors, that notion proved moot anyway.

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And we found all sorts of interesting things in our new trenches!

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Beyond the work, we forged a deep affection for the villagers. At first, they were shy, speaking in quiet voices with eyes lowered. They cooked us tiny tasty tortillas for lunch each day and worked alongside us before and after the meals. They were masters of their own domain, and even though we thought we knew better, most of the time their ways were the best ways to get things done. As the days passed and we worked together for hours on end, the formality began to crack and we laughed with our new friends, the adults sharing a smile over a wheelbarrow gone rogue and the kids rustling up impromptu soccer games when they got bored digging holes.

At the end of our work tour, the villagers arranged a dance party for our final night. With a boom box and tables laden with food, we celebrated our building accomplishments and cemented the brief but deep friendships we had formed. We wore our finest outfits; for all of us, Ticos and Americans alike, this meant a clean shirt and pair of jeans, a simple dress or skirt. Our final night together, we were partners of a different sort, dancing the night away in the simple community room that we and many former volunteers had helped build and raising our glasses together to the national slogan: Pura Vida!

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“Pure Life” is not just a saying in Costa Rica; it’s a way of life, a lifestyle quite opposite to the one many of us live at home. It is a life of simplicity – and contentedness with that simplicity. Costa Ricans don’t stress out about things, they are grateful for what they have, they don’t worry or dwell on negatives, and they have a humble and relaxed way of looking at life. Pura Vida expresses a feeling of eternal optimism and, as opposed to what we might feel in their circumstances, they would say and really mean what Pura Vida expresses: “Life is good!”

Meatless in Mongolia?

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I’ve been a vegetarian since 2009 and have rarely felt any need to eat meat since then. My reasons for choosing a meatless diet were many and varied, ranging from a waning interest in the taste of meat in general to the environmental and health concerns of raising and eating animals from huge, industrial farms. (Truth be told, my aversion started even earlier – after I read Alive, the book about airplane crash victims in the Andes who ate human flesh to survive. But I digress, unappealingly.)

I have not been a zealot about my stance, however, and many people outside of my family and closest friends are not aware I’m a vegetarian, even when I share meals with them. I’m reluctant to ask dinner hosts for special foods and have always quietly found plenty of things to fill my plate in almost every setting. When I’ve traveled, I’ve sustained myself perfectly well, even on arduous treks in locales where meat is prized, like Nepal, where I hiked for weeks in the high Himalayas, fueled mainly by carbs and eggs (and the occasional protein bar!).

So why am I even considering eating meat in Mongolia next month? For one, the traditional Mongolian nomadic diet is highly meat- and dairy-centric, with vegetables and fruits very hard to come by in the grasslands that cover much of the country I’ll be crossing. They are not easy to grow in the strong winds and harsh climates (both summer and winter) out on the steppe, and the nomadic population is on the move from season to season and could not tend them anyway.

(Pixabay)

(Pixabay)

Animals, on the other hand, move along with nomadic families and provide a consistent source of meat and dairy products to their owners. I’ve read that I can’t even count on eggs here, as I have in other meat-oriented cultures; Mongolian herders do not keep chickens because they are considered dirty (not to mention difficult to herd!). Beyond logistics, Mongolians also believe that meat is critical for the spirit as well as the body; in fact, they are often disdainful of vegetables, considering them food fit only for animals.

This disapprobation would not be enough to persuade me, but one other factor might: the strong sense of hospitality that Mongolians dearly value. In the nomadic grasslands, travelers are always welcome in any ger, the round tents that herdsmen and their families live in. The custom is to walk into any tent, even a stranger’s, and there are many greeting rituals that include vodka, snuff boxes, tea, and food. Much of my upcoming trip will be spent in the grasslands, staying in ger camps and meeting the local people. I’ve been told to bring along some small gifts, and I know from previous travels that refusing what is offered to me may be considered rude or offensive.

(Pixabay)

(Pixabay)

Will I need to eat a few bites of meat to be polite? Will I find enough to eat during my days on the steppe without resorting to meat? I don’t think I have a philosophical problem with it; many of my objections to meat are moot in Mongolia, where animals are treasured and raised responsibly. The bigger question is whether it will be at all appealing, or even bearable, to eat some of the animal products I may be served?

Have you ever had to, wanted to, or refused to put aside your preferences or beliefs when traveling?

1, 2, 3, 4, 5 (Cinque) Terre

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Day hikes are the appetizers and desserts of trekking aficionados. When I can’t get away for a week or more, the next best thing is a jaunt that still requires a backpack and provisions, a destination, and some great scenery. And the Cinque Terre, literally ‘Five Lands,’ is the perfect place to spend a day on foot and rack up some numbers, traversing the five small towns that form a colorful string along the rugged Ligurian coast of western Italy. We did just that to top off our Tour du Mont Blanc circuit hike one summer.

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Uno: We based ourselves and started our walk in the busiest and northernmost of the Cinque Terre towns – Monterosso al Mare. Here there are many accommodations, restaurants, and even a beach, all set in irregular stone streets that surround the seashore and harbor. The town is famous for pesto, anchovies, and lemons, and we loaded up on pizza, pasta, and limoncello as a well-earned reward for our long Alpine hike and, in my case, the rigors of driving a little stick-shift car on the outrageously steep and twisted roads into the region.

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Due: After a hearty breakfast the next day, we set off for town number two: Vernazza. This fishing village is the most picturesque of the group, and we were very lucky to get a beautiful approach shot before a morning rain shower swept us into the harbor and onto the main plaza. Fishing boats bobbed in the curved waterfront (and rested in the village streets), an old castle loomed in the background, pastel-colored buildings haphazardly climbed the hills, and villagers and tourists alike crammed under the few awnings and overhangs in the piazza for protection from the short-lived squall. With the passing of the mini-tempest, the old men went back to untangling their fishing lines, the adolescent boys to ogling the scantily-clad young female visitors, and we to our hike.

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Tre: We climbed out of Vernazza on a series of winding stairs and terraces, feeling almost voyeuristic as we passed private patios and stereotypical lines of laundry dangling off skinny houses.

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We were now on our way to Corniglia, the only one of the five towns not directly on the water. Perched high on a rocky hill and surrounded by vineyards, Corniglia was the quietest of the villages, and we decided to stop here for a relaxing lunch amid flowering bushes and old stone walls.

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These two first sections were the toughest – close to 4 miles overall of steep hills up and down – and we hit the highest point of the day on the way into Corniglia.

Quattro: The smallest enclave, Manarola, was the fourth stop, following a relatively flat and easy route of just over a mile after lunch. Like its big sister, Vernazza, it is a jumble of vibrant facades that spill down the hill into the harbor. It is bright and busy, filled with shops and boats and locals, but has a smaller, more relaxed ambiance – the ideal time and place for an ice cream stop and whiling away some time just people-watching.

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Cinque: By late afternoon, we had arrived in Riomaggiore on a cliff-side trail, dubbed Lovers Lane, that overlooked the brilliantly-blue sea.

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Farthest to the south and east, Riomaggiore is the largest town of the five and feels more accessible to the outside world than the other villages. Here, those same painted buildings form a V around one final scenic harbor, and the railroad provides an easy return to Monterosso, just in time for more limoncello and pizza.

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More Numbers: The Sentiero Azzurro, the Cinque Terre’s most popular walking trail, covers about 7 miles overall and can be walked in either direction. Most people walk south to north, starting flat and easy, but we did it backwards. In recent years, the path has been closed in some sections; heavy rains have washed out parts of the route and rock slides have blocked the path in and out of Corniglia. In addition, the Italian government is limiting the number of hikers to 1.5 million this season (a high of 2.5 million trekked the trail last year) to protect the area, so I’m glad we got there when we did!

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Jubilation in the Mountains

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Is there anything more restorative than a walk in the woods? This past week I was able to hike for a few days in the area around Aspen, Colorado, and I lapped up every minute of it.

From loading my backpack for the day (does anyone else find this an oddly satisfying task?) to spending hours at a time with no other human in sight, I allow time to fade from my consciousness. I’m in a zone I can only find on a woodsy trail, and a Rocky Mountain high is a real thing (even without legal-in-Colorado help). I hike by myself the first two days and feel the deep joy of being out in nature, alone with my thoughts and the sights and smells of the mountains.

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The aspen trees sport feathery leaves at an elevation of 8000’ but at 10,000’ they are still naked soldiers lined up in ranks up and down the sides of the mountains. (The aspens intrigued me; please indulge me this gallery of trees!)

Some paths are still blocked with snow, while others are beginning to grow a spring carpet of colorful mosses and tiny wildflowers.

DSC_0494The trails are wonderfully diverse; I start on a shaded path alongside a stream, emerge into some prairie-like flats, then climb on exposed red rock one morning.

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A hike at a higher elevation begins at lake’s edge, climbs gently through dense aspen thickets, then rises steeply over rough root systems and rocks until I am forced to stop when the route is fully snowed over.

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My obsession for the four days I am there is to get a great shot of the Maroon Bells, (supposedly) the most photographed mountains in North America. I go after breakfast one day, but the three-peaked mass is partially shrouded in cloud cover. They are visible – and impressive – but the color palate is drab and cold, with water, trees, stone, and sky all a similar dark gray-blue-green. I am not completely disappointed (and get in a fantastic hike on the almost-empty Crater Lake Trail), but I do have that familiar feeling of seeing my target mountain in less-than-perfect conditions.

DSC_0568I return that afternoon to find even thicker clouds, but the peaks and the swoop are in slightly sharper relief. I snap away, hoping the wind will die down enough to allow the iconic reflection of the massif in the lake. It is not meant to be, and I leave the White River National Forest feeling better about the clarity of my new photos but still not very satisfied.

Version 2Unlike my usual self, I decide I simply must have a better photo and set my alarm for 4:15 am to try to catch the sun rising on the face of the Bells. The next morning, four of us bundle up and head to the lake once more. Hopeful and shivering cold, we walk the shore of the lake, pacing up and down the beginnings of several trails, then set up with a few other hardy souls for the spectacle to come. The sky is clear and slowly turning orange behind us and pinkish blue in front.

IMG_3237Ten minutes after official sunrise, the crests ignite! We are all clicking away as the rosy light gradually lights up the whole face. Suddenly … jubilation! The lake grows still and flat, and the fire on the mountain is mirrored in the water. It is this amateur photographer’s dream come true, and I snap away with both Nikon and iPhone until my batteries fail. (I did say amateur.)

Version 2If you search for images of the Maroon Bells, you will find photos that blow your mind. Mine are no match for those, but I am happy with them, and happier still that I made the effort to capture to the best of my ability a place I may never get to see again. I was indeed jubilant as the rising sun hit those peaks, but the whole time I spent in the mountains was a source of deep joy that will sustain me until I can escape the flatlands again!

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Face of a Pilgrim

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Although I was tempted to submit many of the dozens of portraits I have taken around the world in a giant mosaic for this week’s photo challenge, I chose to post just this very special one.

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This beatific woman allowed me to take her photo alongside the wall of prayer wheels surrounding the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. She is one of the pilgrims who have traveled to Lhasa to pay their respects at the home of the Dalai Lamas of the past, as well as the temples and shrines in this most holy of Tibetan Buddhist cities.

What I don’t know about her is how she got here, or from where. Many pilgrims arrive in Lhasa after journeys of several months from faraway rural areas, and the most pious of them do it by prostrating themselves the entire way. They sink to their knees, push their arms and hands ahead of themselves to lie down flat on the ground, then slide their arms and legs together again to stand, only to repeat the supplicating motion over and over again for days, weeks, and even months. (And I think yoga-barre-Pilates is hard!)

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Other pilgrims arrive in this city at the top of the world by car, bus, horse, farm vehicle, or on foot. It is a humbling vision to see them in our midst; we are there to try to absorb this mysterious country’s culture for a short time while they have waited a lifetime to get the chance to come to Lhasa. They are everywhere, twirling their hand-held prayer wheels, prostrating outside the temples, and walking circle after circle around the Jokhang Temple, the Potala Palace, and other sacred sites.

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This dear woman was but one of these gentle, devout people that make up the Tibetan population, but her sweet, weather-worn face is a poignant memory of all of them.