Posts Tagged With: Mongolia

Summer Travel in Central Mongolia

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter leaving this beautiful camp, our base during Naadam, we headed southwest for six days along the “Heartland Circuit.”
10557045_10152622390980746_8288162626551885544_oOne of our first stops was near the Khogno Khaan Natural Reserve, where we hiked up a sacred mountain, respectfully, and saw ruins of the Uvgun Monastery. Mongolia’s monasteries were violently destroyed by the Soviets in the 1930s and many have not been fully restored.
IMG_1390Some parts of Uvgun have been rebuilt, however, and the granddaughter (celibacy was not fully implemented, apparently) now tends the site.
IMG_1401There was time before dinner to get in a quick camel ride, which was great because now I can check that off my list and not do it again.
IMG_1411But we were on the edge of the Gobi desert as the sun was going down, so the light was amazing.
Our next camp was in the Orkhon Valley, next to the river.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe river is lovely, but kayaking in the river was magical, because: horses.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAKayaking with me has been likened to “Driving Miss Daisy,” but I was too excited to paddle much — we were often closer than these pictures show, because by the time the very patient husband had the camera set, they’d moved away from us. Summer is a great time for the horses and other livestock as they roam free for months, getting fat and glossy from the grass and fresh air.
We travelled in this very sturdy Soviet-era van, a UAZ, which are still plentiful in Mongolia and beloved for their ease of repair. Drivers work freelance for tour companies (we went with the fabulous Goyo Travel) and own their vehicles; the UAZ is completely mechanical, meaning it has no internal computer systems, so the driver can fix it with basic tools out in the middle of nowhere. They have high clearance and can go anywhere.
1907862_10152622394385746_1176235303637523967_oI mention this because on the next leg we came to a very dodgy looking bridge with a small but persuasive warning sign advising caution.
IMG_1421My feeling about these situations is that we all make our own decisions: we four travellers and the guide made the decision to get out of the van and walk, while the driver made the decision to drive over. We all held our breath, but it was fine and on we went, arriving at the trailhead for a hike to Tovkhon Monastery.
IMG_1434On the way back we got to see a herder family milking their horses to make airag, the alcoholic drink made from fermented horse milk. (An acquired taste, I think.)
IMG_1436Since we’d crossed in the morning, that bridge had been closed to vehicles. We walked, and the driver went downstream to drive across a shallow bit.
IMG_1459Our next stop was the Erdene Zuu Monastery, which is on the site of the ancient capital of Karakorum.
IMG_1472While Buddhist temples and monasteries have, obviously, much in common wherever they are, the wide-open emptiness of Mongolia makes these particularly stunning. Favorite race horses are honored after they die by becoming part of an ovoo cairn.
IMG_1478We ended our trip with a night at Ogii Lake. The weather had turned cold and cloudy, but we saw plenty of hardy Mongolians swimming. I was happy to get close to the lake just by having fish for dinner.
(Note: The photos of the camels crossing the road and the UAZ van were taken by our friend with the good camera.)

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The Down Side of Naadam

As is clear by now, I really love the Mongolian horses, and one of the most fun parts of a small-town Naadam was having horses all around us. People just seemed to bring ’em along from wherever they came from and were riding all over town. Horses were tied up by the food tents like a row of parked cars, and The Husband kept goading me into making an offer for this one or that.


Child jockeys.

Horse racing is one of the three Naadam sports, celebrating the tough glory/glorious toughness of traditional Mongolia, and the horse racing now includes a ton of prestige and a whole lot of money. Not only is the prize money high, but people invest and spend huge sums on training and pampering their best horses. It’s no longer the pure, romantic gallop over the steppes, but it’s understandable. The problem is who’s riding those pampered race horses.

Child jockeys.

As young as five years old, little boys ride full-out for 30 or 60 kilometers/18.6 or 37 miles bareback. It’s horrifying. This boy below actually seems old for the sport — the idea is to minimize the weight on the horse in order to maximize speed.

10484217_10152622388285746_5290746835543897710_oHere’s another boy post-race:
I kept looking for some positive side to this, asking our guide what the jockeys gain by racing, and there’s not much for the boys. Apparently, all the prize money and prestige goes to the horses, so what families value is having a winning horse, not a winning jockey.
To me, this definitely meets the standard of “harmful traditional practices” (though I am aware the term is usually applied to female genital mutilation, child marriage and dowry-related violence) because it’s so shockingly dangerous. The UB Post published a paid message from some of the international NGOs here that talked about how they understand this to be a deeply-held tradition and want to be sensitive to that tradition, but, really, perhaps it’s time to reconsider? Mongolia signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child back in 1990, so there are grounds to argue that child jockeys violate an international treaty that Mongolia agreed to uphold. I’m not sure, though, what it will take to stop this. The rights framework is there, and certainly it would be easy enough to set minimum weight standards for jockeys to meet.

We actually saw very little of the race itself. There’s an old belief that following the dust of four-year-old racehorses is lucky (see what I mean about all status accruing to the horse? I guess it’s good that the best luck ISN’T associated with four-year-old jockeys.) and over time too many people were on the course. In their Land Cruisers. So, we watched from a hill above, then went to the finish when the little clouds had passed by.
IMG_1357Hard to see, in more ways than one.

(NB: The two middle photos were taken by our visiting friend with the good camera.)

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Naadam, Small Town Mongolia

We got the very good advice to spend Naadam, Mongolia’s biggest holiday, in one of the smaller towns rather than in Ulaanbaatar. Naadam celebrates Mongolia’s three “manly sports:” horse racing, wrestling and archery. People come together for a few days, wear their best clothes and enjoy the competitions. It was so much fun.
The night before the official opening, the town had a concert that we were able to attend. It seemed like the entire population was there, all dressed up and greeting each other, while the acts ranged from groups of dancers, teenagers playing instruments, the high school marching band and some interesting fusions of traditional and modern music. Some of the performers had done too much karaoke and overestimated their talent, but some were excellent. And who doesn’t love a group of ten year olds playing recorders?
The opening ceremony was a mix of Mongolian history and folklore and local celebration, many of which featured horses.
IMG_1304The governor rode in on a horse, too:

1655664_10152622384730746_9138688145067128035_oThere were also dances and then a parade. The marching band:
IMG_1322Some of the town leaders:
IMG_1326Wrestlers of all ages:
IMG_1331Wrestling competition underway:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch as I appreciate the skill of archery, and the fact that women also compete, it’s not all that interesting to watch.
10494516_10152622387530746_1330336689149265954_oThe clothes were gorgeous.
(Photos of governor and archers were taken by our visiting friend.)

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For Mongolian Government Nerds Only


Mongolian Parliament Building (it only looks gloomy in the rain)

Soon after I got to work this morning I was asked to cover a meeting hosted by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. After a quick detour home to upgrade my outfit (mindful that in Asia it’s far, FAR better to appear late than in sneakers), I arrived for a round table discussion led by the ODIHR on their report as an election observer of Mongolia’s most recent presidential election, held in June, 2013. The report was just finalised and is being discussed with various stakeholders, including government ministries, the political parties and some civil society organizations (such as the NGO I work for).

Mongolia has a unicameral parliamentary system, with 76 members of parliament and a Prime Minister who is elected by the members. There is also a President, who is elected by a popular vote and once elected steps out of his or her party to serve in a non-partisan, symbolic role as representative of the Mongolian people. The President is the Head of State and Commander in Chief, while the Prime Minister leads the government and chooses people for Cabinet positions.

As an American, my understanding of parliamentary governance isn’t completely solid, even after five years in Malaysia, and a system that includes both a President and a Prime Minister is that much more confusing. But both the husband and I worked in government in the US, and watching Mongolia develop its young democracy is fascinating. In addition, the NGO where I work is conducting a series of training sessions for women from rural areas and underserved communities to expand their political participation. The sessions are funded only through 2014 however, and I just wrote an application for continued funding from the US State Department, under the Global Women, Peace and Security initiative. The State Department thinks, and I agree, that bringing more women into decision-making positions helps countries stabilize and develop in positive ways. And it’s interesting that Mongolia, which has more educated women than men and high levels of women in the workforce, lags way behind other countries and its own targets in women holding political office.

Sorry, where was I again? Right, how did that 2013 election go?

Generally, it went fine. As was carefully noted, fundamental human rights were respected during the campaign. The recommendations for improvement included some administrative/procedural fixes, but mostly concerned greater disclosure and transparency. A few examples:

  • De-criminalize libel, because the current law limits free speech by journalists. Libel should be a civil offence instead of criminal.
  • Review the legal framework regarding media generally, in order to strengthen journalists’ ability to provide unbiased and fair coverage of elections and candidates.
  • Provide for disclosure of ownership of media outlets in laws pertaining to media.
  • Reform liability for content, so that politicians and parties are held accountable for providing misleading content, rather than the media outlets themselves. (“I’m XYZ, and I approve this message.”)

I pause here to note that Mongolians widely distrust their national media, to the extent that the Mongolian government describes this mistrust as a problem in its annual reports to international development entities. Reporters are often paid by individuals or businesses to write particular stories, and there is very little fact-checking. People rely on what they hear from their friends and neighbors instead of news sources. So, there is a lot of room for improvement in media coverage of elections.

Additional recommendations include:

  • Introduce more regulations regarding campaign financing, because there is a lack of transparency and oversight in this area.
  • Allow more than just ten days for people to check their voter registration status.
  • Allow prisoners to vote.
  • Allow presidential candidates to run without a political affiliation. The ODIHR representatives noted this as particularly important to enable individuals to represent the country as a whole.

The round table discussion participants mostly agreed — or said they did — with these recommendations, and acknowledged that whoever has the most money wins. There was a lot of talk about improving procedures, and what surprised me, and I think surprised the ODIHR team, was a high level of concern about electronic vote counting machines. Not voting machines, just machines to count ballots; apparently, people do not trust the machines, thinking of them as unproven and confusing. The non-partisan/non-governmental Voter Education Center runs an information hotline and said they got some 1200 calls on election day (remember that the population is only about 2.7 million) asking for basic information, and many of those calls were from poll workers.

Which goes to show — principles and accountability matter in democracy, but low-level mechanics matter a lot too.

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A Liebster Award!


The lively, interesting and, as I now know, kind blogger Czechsotans has nominated this blog for a Liebster Award! Many thanks for the support, and check out Czechsotans’ entry here

I admit that Liebster Awards were unfamiliar to me, and the gist is that the Liebsters are a way for smaller blogs to share and support each other’s work. The nominator asks each nominee to answer some questions, and then those nominees answer and pass on the award with new questions to their own set of nominees. The rules, loosely understood, are here.

Czechsotans asks the following  questions, and because Drinking Coffee Elsewhere: Mongolia is an expat blog, I’ll answer in terms of life in Mongolia:

1. If your blog was a song, what would it be and why?

I came of musical age in the late 1970’s, and Blondie’s “One Way or Another” captures my somewhat antagonistic affection for Mongolia.

2. What is one thing you reeeeally like about the town where you live?IMG_1204

For a city that is commonly described as unattractive, there are some lovely little parks and green, open spaces. The center of the city is easily walkable, as long as one is EXTREMELY vigilant when crossing the street, and walking is a great way to appreciate the parks and old architecture. At this time of year, flowers are planted along the sidewalks as well, which makes the street scene even nicer.

3. What are you doing this summer?

Staying in Mongolia to enjoy the warm weather and host some of our close friends who are visiting from Malaysia. It’s a huge treat to spend time with people we really miss, plus visitors give us a good excuse to sightsee outside Ulaanbaatar.

4. Name a place you’ve traveled that you’d recommend to others and why.

The Mongolian countryside is breathtaking. Ulaanbaatar has its charms and comforts, but travellers should come to Mongolia for the wild beauty of the landscape and the rigorous outdoor activities.

5. Who is someone you look up to?

I have been really fortunate through work in the NGO sector to meet some amazing women leaders. Some of them were among those who fought for democracy in the immediate post-socialist period, and some of them are advocating every day for law and policy reform. As I write this, the revised version of the Law on Domestic Violence has been at Parliament all week, and people are working hard to get that law passed.

6. What drives you crazy?

The food. Traditional Mongolian food is meaty, fatty and bland, and even as I appreciate the very good environmental and cultural reasons for this diet, I have a very hard time eating here. The local taste for meaty, fatty and bland affects the preparation of non-Mongolian food as well: where else would you find sausage nigiri sushi? On the positive side, my own cooking is improving as I learn to make more ingredients and dishes that I can’t find here.

7. Where do you do most of your blogging?

Each post starts as a conversation in my head with some hypothetical Interested Person. When the narrative flows and I have a semi-coherent idea of the beginning, middle and end of the post, I get on the computer to write and find images. The actual “where” depends on the time and energy I have for writing, sometimes at home, sometimes at work.

8. How do you spend your free time?

A lot of cooking, obviously! We eat all breakfasts and about five dinners a week at home, which takes time to prepare and hunt for ingredients. Now that the weather is warm, I love riding and wish I could do that every weekend. We have more of a social life now, too, so we have people over or meet somewhere to get together. All my other time is spent reading, both books and online.

9. What is something cool you’ve found?

Mongolian (Tuvan, specifically) throat singing — oh, my god! Listen to this.

10. If you could switch places with someone for a day, who would it be?

Honestly, I have no idea!

11. What gets your creative juices flowing?

One of the tags I just added recently is Cultural Dislocation. I’m just now calling it out specifically, but really, cultural dislocation is the feeling that inspires me to write and describe what we experience here. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of daily life in an unfamiliar culture: basic tasks can be very difficult because, well, how do you add money to your phone or find a shoe repair place, or or or or… One way I can tell how hard this is? When we’re in the US I am ridiculously excited by simple interactions IN WHICH I AM UNDERSTOOD. Such as asking where something is in a store, being told and finding the thing in that place. When so much is unfamiliar, we notice more, and that is what sparks creativity.

And my nominations for Liebster Awards go to:

If they want, and when they have time, I would love to know how they answer the following questions:

  1. What started this project?
  2. What’s your favorite part of blogging?
  3. What have you learned along the way, and would you give this advice to others?
  4. Do you have a particular audience in mind?
  5. How do you use structure in your blogging — a set of guidelines for posting, or as things arise?
  6. What particular image or memory best captures the spirit of your blog?
  7. If you could go anywhere in the world and share the experience through the blog, where would it be?
  8. Whom from your past would you go back to and thank?
  9. What about you might we not know from reading your blog?
  10. What makes you feel better after a hard day?
  11. Do you have an end in mind for your blog?

Moon rising over Ulaanbaatar

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