Monday, September 30, 2019

Disseminating Tracks III: Into the Gobi

 And so it is that I find myself for the third time in four days going to the airport at an hour before daylight.  Possibly the same genius who was responsible for putting the sports arena and airport along the same road had decided to schedule the departure of a full third of the day's flights between the hours of 6 and 7 a.m.  The airport is a strange place, the feeling small, somewhat dark and confined.  We all huddle like refugees around a handful of cramped tables, drinking our coffees and keeping one ear perked for the announcements in a language we don't understand.  

The waiting area at our gate is filled with miners ready to board their flight to the contentious Oyu Tolgoi mine in the south.  Oddly enough, about ten minutes after they boarded they are back, and return to their seats, sitting slumped, sullenly, sleepily. Then it is our turn to board, and not long afterward, the twin props begin to spin, and we're aloft.  

The earth below is a monocolor tone, a bit like my native New Mexico, but without the punctuation of mountains that in their dramatic contrast give the word 'flat' its definition.  Tracks crisscross nearly everywhere. In some cases, a half-dozen parallel tracks race each other across the plain, then homogenize into a single strand, which from the air resembles an immense rake.  

The city of Dalanzadgad eventually rises up. Its minute downtown area is a just handful of six- or seven-story buildings, reminding me of the Albuquerque I knew when I first moved there in 1981, a similarity made easy due to the backdrop of purple mountains behind which in their own way resemble the Sandias.  But its the smell that really brings it home, the smell of sage, in the near-autumn air.

At Gurvan Saikan Airport, I could be standing in front of my mother's house, with the Manzanos defining one horizon, stretching out toward Mountainair further south. It is a very short drive to our ger camp.  The tents are all identical, their interiors differing little in each of the half dozen camps in which we'll stay over the following weeks.  There are a pair of beds (though a double here); a few quaint pieces of furniture that always seem to match the door in being twee and ornately painted.  The trelliswork within defines the ger's circular walls, and can easily be retracted for a nomadic people's seasonal move.  (Tucking in sleeves or pantlegs between the wood and the canvas also makes for a good place to air out clothing on a trip devoid of washing facilities.)  The canvas outside the trellis can be 'untucked' to create air-conditioning, especially when the wooden, ever south-facing door is tied open.  The apex of the roof has a section that can be peeled back for the same cooling effect, or for viewing stars from the comfort of one's bed. 

After a short rest we regroup for lunch in the main ger, an immense space that could seat a hundred or so.  It would prove the biggest of the trip.  Then we pile into our Land Rovers for the drive out into the Gobi.  The size of our group allows for just a pair of them, driven by a couple of friendly fellows who we grow to know well during our near-two weeks together.  One of them, Bilgee, has all the craggy resemblance to a middle-aged Charles Bronson, though he has a penchant for smiling much more often.  He has a theme song of sorts, which will roar out of his vehicle each time we are expected to embark, and even louder when we roll out of the steppe and into a ger camp.  

We head into the Yol Valley, named for the massive bearded vultures that seemed nearly ever overhead. We begin with a quick stop at a small nature center, which contains a number of lifeless taxidermied animals (by which I mean the taxidermy itself looked lifeless).  We soon leave this behind to drive the short ways out to the start of our walk.  There are a depressing number of vehicles out at the car park, amny being those attractive vans right out of the Soviet '50s.  I'm told they are sturdy little beasts, but devoid of air-con, and break down easily (though easily repaired).  These belong to the Korean tourists who will prove to be the largest tourist demographic in Mongolia.  I've always thought that the Korean language sounds somewhat Japanese, but spoken alongside Mongolian, I hear an even closer relation there.  (Mongolian spoken in a vacuum sounds almost Russian to me.)       

We follow a broad valley, passing herds of cows and horses happily grazing.  A few of the latter must be on their lunch break, for most of their brethren are laden down with Koreans, who look as if they are mustering courage to take one hand off the reins to take a selfie.  Eventually the valley narrows into a canyon of steep walls, where we find more people, many scrambling atop craggy rock formations and contorting themselves into an array of photogenic poses.  (This will lead to catchphrase of sorts, as anytime we'd gather for a group photo, we'd attempt a new "Korean pose.") There are few locals too, the older horsemen in traditional clothes, and a handful of young boys busy with horseplay of their own, wrestling and just being boys. 

We lose the crowd not long after, as we wend our way through the narrow walls, repeatedly jumping the stream that ever runs through.  One section has a sudden drop, which is slippery and tough going with the wet soles of shoes. Eventually the canyon opens into another broad valley of softly sloping hills and wildflowers.  We stop often, looking at plants and flowers and animals, the most amusing being the pika scrambling everywhere, and the grouse trying to look dignified as they amble up some remarkably steep ascents.  Juniper bushes prove even better climbers, reaching remarkable heights.  And along the way, the sacred ovoo mark the more oddly shaped rocks, looking very sacred indeed.     

The landscape dazzles, in color, in shape, in scale.  But the true vastness will be measured later.  After dark, the sky shows all she is capable of, and the stars she paints herself with are of a number beyond imagination.

On the turntable:  Love and Rockets, "Hot Trip to Heaven"

Friday, September 27, 2019

Disseminating Tracks II: Ulaanbataar

Our single day in Beijing was nearly inadvertently extended, for when we go to our departure gate at the time our ticket tells us with be the start of boarding, we find ourselves last, the plane already full.  It leaves the ground a few minutes before it is supposed to.  The earth below is hidden by cloud, opening only for landing.  Luckily we pass over Ulaanbaatar on approach, the view below confirming exactly my mental map, with all our proposed destinations for the day clearly visible beneath us.  We circle out over the suburbs, which fittingly are more circular than squared, here too the residents preferring their homey gers to the soulless Soviet style apartments of the city center.  The runway is lined with a few old planes from that same area, as well as an ancient Sikorsky helicopter, its body arched and bent like an aging dog.

At first glance, Ulaanbaatar proves unattractive, with the aforementioned apartment blocks, interlinked by the exposed pipes that stretch from the coal and natural gas plants billowing their steam further out. In the winter, freezing temps turn this into smog, making the capital one of the most polluted cities in the world, its toxic particulates trapped by the cold air and the ring of surrounding mountains. The poor air quality has led to discussion about moving the airport further out, due to ample cancelled flights.  (Town planning isn't much better.  I don't know who the genius is that decided to set the massive sports arena out on the same road as the airport.)   In his book The Horse Boy, Rupert Issacson states that Mongolians don't do cities well.  But rather than the Mongolians, the blame should fall on the Soviets.  Practical, functional, but by no means attractive.

We arrive at out hotel, the Blue Sky, a mollusc shell rising across a broad boulevard from the obligatory central square.  LYL tells me that on her last visit a few years ago, this tower of blue glass had been the stand-alone high rise in the city.  It has since been joined by a dozen more, all hotels, clustered in the same few blocks.  From these lofty heights, one has a good view of the mountains hemming in from all sides, no doubt a magnificent sight when coated with snow (provided they can be seen at all through the smog).  The nearer hills stretching toward them are dotted with white ger, like little beads of foam on the surface of a bright green sea.

Despite the first impression, the city's charm takes hold at street level.  We start at Gandan Khiid, Mongolia's most important Buddhist temple, and one of the few to survive the Soviet purges of the 1930s.  The windhorse flies on, above the circumambulating pilgrims spinning as they go oil-cannisters repurposed as prayer wheels.  We join them, lapping a trio of buildings that look like Russian dacha.  A prayer service is underway in the main temple, and we go inside to quietly sit awhile, relishing the Tibetan cultural vibe that I so adore.  

After a quick peek at the 26-meter statue of Migjid Janraisig (Kannon/Kuan Yin) and her amazing surrounding pantheon of Buddhas and sutras, we move down the hill, past the Centre of Eternal Heavenly Sophistication (intriguing, yet sadly closed), to the main boulevard.  We dawdle, looking for lunch, before settling on a Monglian Hot Pot place.  The cool hues of John Coltrane serenade us as we sit at a table with a sunken heater at center, then laden down with a number of side dishes to immerse in the boiling water.  I really appreciate the chopsticks, long and lacquered, with screw on the end where you can attach tips of wood, thereby practicing hygiene and alleviating waste.(I'm looking at you here Japan.)  As we leave we are encouraged to roll a series of sheep's ankle bones along a square of felt, which reveals our fortune.  We have no idea what it means, only that the proprietress gives both of us an enthusiastic yet wordless thumbs up.  

The next stop is a contrived one: the State Department Store, a throwback to the Soviet glory days of 1921.  We intend to buy some traditional kit to wear at dinners, a bit of fun we enjoy while traveling. Yet here nothing appeals, all of it too formal, too expensive.  (I will return the following day to pick up a light jacket, since the clouds of morning had spoken of autumn, a season which the forecast then attempts to bypass entirely by promising 6℃ nights while we're out on the Gobi.)  

Across the street is Beatles Square, so named for the large brass figures of the Fab Four at the center.  I can't help but be reminded of Almaty's similar Apple Statue.  Back to school sales have overflowed from the State Department Store and a series of stalls have been erected in one corner.  

We continue along. I am surprised by all the well-dressed youth in this Chic Élanbataar, which suggests a burgeoning middle class. Yet below the new hotels, some of the old remains, as well as a few open and untouched spaces.  One has a lovely little villa in the center, which reminds me a bit of Jim Thompson's house in Bangkok.  It looks abandoned, but for a guard sitting in a little hut by the front gate.

With the cool temperatures and small town vibe I'm reminded a lot of Boulder, aside from the ger of course.  I'm told that over a million people live in the city, about a third of the country's entire population. The numbers tend to increase after a hard winter, the fatal dzud that often kill up to a million livestock.  Thus the capital is simultaneously on the grow and falling apart.  The streets and sidewalks are broken, and water lingers after recent rains.

LYL decides to go back to the hotel for a rest, but I detour over to Chojin Lama Temple, the former residence of Mongolia's last state oracle.  Converted into a museum in 1942, it has all the look of a Taoist Temple, yet filled with articles more Tibetan, including the lingering ghosts of butter lamps.  The exhibits aren't too profound but the handful of buildings appeal, and it is fun to frame for photos their spiky corners against the more modern towers above.  

I wander past the blocky and unmistakably Russian-built Wedding Palace, foregoing a pair of inviting cafes to instead visit a craft beer bar I'd seen on the drive in.  They don't have the sampler flights that I ask for, but amazingly they bring me four modest glasses anyway, free of charge.  I nurse these awhile, followed by a 'guilt' pint, thinking what a funky little city this is.  Eventually a trio comes in and sits at the opposite corner of the place, yet one voice, the American one, still cuts across.  He and his female Mongolian colleagues small talk for a few minutes, until he launches into some inane business speak.  I don't know his position, where he sits in the company heirarchy, but his language, though friendly, is aggressive and didactic.  I'm reminded of the book The Ugly American that I've recently read, and here before me I see its basic premise at work, that my countrymen too often take a position of superiority, rather than one of understanding.  But what do I know.  

We meet our Wild Frontiers group the following morning, the numbers refreshingly small, just six.  We set off immediately across the square, taking a few photos with the massive statues of the Khans, then spend the rest of the morning at the National Museum, finding it as grand and informative as I'd been told.  Another hot pot lunch follows, this one more formal but not quite as tasty as yesterday.  Then a performance at the Tumen-Ekh Ensemble, which in just an hour offers a remarkable cross section of the diversity of musical forms that the steppe has to offer.  These kinds of things can be very hit or miss, but this one is particularly good.  And when I see the singer staring off into space as he sings khöömei, I begin to feel tears welling up in my eyes. That's where it started for me 20 years ago, with the mesmerizing throat singing, suggesting perhaps a tie to this part of the world, and its vastness.  As we file out I decide that I'll buy a horse-headed fiddle when we returned here to UB in two weeks.  

It is a very easy day, just wandering a small slice of the city.  We finish at a trendy little restaurant near our hotel.  It is western fare (and opulent wine) but I appreciate our guide Tulga's choice, for once we leave this cosmopolitan city, all our meals will most certainly be from one of what the Mongolians refer to as the five snouts...

On the turntable:   Genesis, "Foxtrot"

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Disseminating Tracks: (Beijing Prelude)

From East to West, the twain kept a-rolling, spreading into Europe and the Middle East.  Devouring book after book as I travel, each page revealing new insights into how great an extent Asia defined Europe, despite the latter's reluctance to admit it.  These influences came on the hoof of the Mongols of course.  Being a product of a Eurocentic education and culture, I'd grown up believing that they'd been bringers of war, conquerors of cities, slaughterers of culture.  Yet due to my current reading, I now see their progenitor Genghis (hereafter Chinggis, in keeping with the true pronunciation) as one of the world's earliest proponents of globalization. Slaughter he did, yes, but only those who opposed him (no different than the economic policies of a certain sitting president).  Those who bent the knee were absorbed into the growing diaspora, their knowledge and experts utilized, their technologies and economies emulated. And almost as amazing as all that the Mongols accomplished, was the brief period in which they did it.  Their dominance lasted a mere 150 years or so, but their legacy lived on.

Until the 20th Century at least. The prior century was the most horrific proponent of genocide in history, culturally speaking.  Back in 2006, I'd flown to Beijing in order to bicycle around the old Mongol hutong neighborhoods, worried that they wouldn't survive the frenzy leading to the 2008 Olympic Games.  Prophetically, on my roamings today I find them long gone, replaced by new monuments to Chinese wealth, monuments found in every large city across the globe, monuments to the icons of fashions that will fade from the stage far more quickly than the Mongols had.  For isn't the nature of empires, business or otherwise, to fall?

 With a keen sense of irony, we stay at another monument to empire, the Beijing Hotel, which started life in 1917 as the Grand Hotel du Pekin, before eventually becoming the head of Japanese operations during their occupation. I have a Lost in Translation moment as I wander through its sprawl, trying desperately to find the Writer's Bar.  Somewhere during my journey I come to a massive banquet room, whose grand columns and staircase looks like a set from The Last Emperor, after Pu Yi was made puppet of the Japanese.  I finally find the bar, its French-made parquet floor the first dance floor in China, its walls hung with the celebrities and dignitaries entertained by Mao and the Gang over the subsequent half century.  I hope they had better luck with the menu, as nearly everything I ask for has run out.  I suppose I need to get back into China mode.  Luckily I'll only be here for one day. 


On the turntable: Bruce Hornsby, "Here Come the Noise Makers"

Monday, September 23, 2019


One last swim,
Before Summer dissolves into
Spider lilies and swirling typhoon. 

On the turntable:  Black Sabbath, "Born Again"

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Sunday Papers: Ella Maillart

"Travelling in company, one does not learn the language so quickly. The natives do not make their own of you. You penetrate less deeply into the life about you."

On the turntable:  "Bob Weir & Rob Wasserman, "Fall 1989 Long Island Sound"
On the nighttable:  "James Hilton, "Lost Horizon"

Wednesday, September 18, 2019


On the cusp of autumn
Cool bookends
Frame the shape of day.

On the turntable: Journey, "Greatest Hits Live"

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sunday Papers: Diana Shipton

"However close you are to people, however mentally in tune with them, places and experiences that you have not shared have little meaning.  You listen to the stories they tell you of people and countries you do not know; you look at the photographs they show you, but however interested you would like to be, the unshared existence remains like something in a novel, shadowy and unreal. Only personal experience can be a firm reality." 

 On the turntable:  Gene Loves Jezebel, "Giving up the Ghost"

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Sunday Papers: Peter Fleming

"Communism is like platonic love.  It is all right as a theory, it is all right as an experiment, but after that it too often fails to maintain its original nature."

 On the turntable:  Jerry Reed, "Hot A' Mighty"