Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas

To all our readers, dear friends and family, we wish you a joyful and merry Christmas.

A little bummed about not being able to spend it with our families in California, we settled for the happiest place on earth:

I'd been to Disneyland Hong Kong a few years back as part of a family reunion, but M had never been. We figured Christmas was as good a time as any to go. Unfortunately for us, so did several thousand other people.

I'm sure M will have plenty to write about this wonderful place, but in the meantime, for your viewing pleasure:


Not my gumdrop buttons!

And to all a goodnight!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


and it feels so good. (Bet you didn't see that one coming)

I made it to Hong Kong safe and sound, thus ending our international posting schedule.

While going from Beijing to Hong Kong is always a jarring experience price-wise, it's also an extremely comforting one, especially since we have family to stay with. Yesterday, we bummed around a bit and then went out to dinner with my aunt. Halfway through a gleeful dinner of noodles and xiaolongbao, she announced it was her anniversary. We're glad we stuck around to celebrate it with her, since my uncle went to the states a couple days before her. After dinner, we went through a couple malls doing some last-minute Christmas shopping, then met up with Justin (randomly bumping into his friends on the way) at this crazy arcade because Justin's friend wanted to use up 3 months of change. My eyes got all big when we walked in, this place was legit, I'm definitely going back.

It was a rough week and a half without M. We really are pretty weak sauce. Is it possible for a married couple to be too attached? Too dependent? Hmm...

I joked with M that I felt kind of like a domesticated animal released back into the wild. Lacking basic survival skills, I resorted to foraging for food, namely Mcdonalds and Subway.

Friday, December 19, 2008

La Vida Loca

While M's been down south, I've been trying to keep myself busy. So, when my friend Judy asked me and our friend Zeke to help accompany her at a singing competition, I jumped at the chance. She had already placed in the audition, so this was a finals competition.

Here were the songs she picked:

SeeqPod - Playable Search

Typical to China, Judy had only been given a week's notice about the event, so we didn't think it'd be too big of a deal. Little did we know.

Monday night, we show up to the venue at Peking University and the place is abuzz with craziness. Apparently, one of our favorite brands of ramen noodles was sponsoring the event, so there were stacks of ramen everywhere. People were giving out free hand-clappers, thunder-sticks, glow bracelets, at the door, setting up bubble and smoke machines, dv-cams, and projector screens. While we were soundchecking, friends were making signs for each of the participants:

It turns out this was the Beijing area university finals for a Idol style competition, the winner would perform in the city-wide competition in the spring. The stakes were high for the 11 other karaoke star compatriots we would be facing off against. Zeke and I surveyed the competition, quickly becoming confused. Some of our competitors were androgynous. We spent several minutes debating ("Totally a guy..." "No, wait" "But...").

Eventually, the event started and we were ushered backstage. The night started off with a bang: a foreign student hip-hop crew doing an evolution of dance style routine (as a guest act, not in the competition). While I'm sure some of the jokes were lost on our native Chinese audience (Will and Carlton's dance, anybody?), it certainly got the crowd riled up.

One of the contestants was a hip hop crew + rapper team, replete with full choreography. Another group was an a capella group who did a medley of Jay Chou's Jian Dan Ai, which sounded kind of like these guys from UM, although instead of Where is the Love?, they medleyed Jay with Truly, Madly, Deeply by Savage Garden. I used to sing those two songs together, so if anyone asks, you can tell them you heard it here first...

One of the most epic performances was Livin' La Vida Loca by one of the aforementioned ambiguities. Shortly before the performance, Zeke and I had confirmed that she was indeed, well, a she. As she began, these two scantily clad dancers walked out from either side of the stage. Halfway through the song, the dancers shimmied up to the singer and ripped away her white shirt to reveal another a black shirt with tears in it (I think it was cued to that part about waking up in New York City). Pretty exciting stuff. I'm just glad she didn't do a different Ricky Martin song, infamized by one of my floormates in college: She Bangs.

After we performed our first song, we got some feedback from a panel of pseudo-famous people. It was surprisingly fun, actually, the whole Idol/reality TV feel. Then they narrowed the competition and we performed our second song. Unfortunately, here's where we lost to one of the girls who sounds like a guy. She eventually went on to win the competition, though, so it's kind of like we got second place :).

Most of the contestants at the end were the guys who sang like girls or the girls who sang like guys. Judy says it might be because Chinese people think that's really impressive. Hmmm...well that's cool, I guess. Too bad they haven't discovered this guy, Nick Pitera, yet:

(Oh, I just read that Nick works for Pixar now...Berkeley crew, you guys should find this guy and be his friend! So hot.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

So what ARE you doing in China?

I get asked this question a lot, so I figured I may as well start a series here to talk about my research and work in Beijing. So, technically I'm still a UM student, who is here on a research fellowship for the completion of my thesis. Once I'm done here, I will be done with my program. As part of my research, I'm basically interning for China's first and arguably most well-known* independent documentary director Wu Wenguang. His breakout film was an independent documentary called "Bumming in Beijing," or <<流浪北京>>。(*When I say well-known, I mean in international academic and independent art circles, not in China. In everyday China, he's about as famous as...well, me. Which is not much.)

Basically, he came to Ann Arbor about a year ago to screen some of his films, and that's how I was offered the opportunity to come intern at his independent arts space, Caochangdi Workstation (CCD). I do a lot of translation work for them, mostly film subtitles for their Villager Documentary Project, and in return, I get to hang around and use their archives, and basically get to know how things work so that I can write my Masters thesis about this space and the Villager Project.

Some of you already know this, but the Villager Documentary Project is Wu's latest and biggest project, and it basically features four villagers who were given digital video cameras three years ago, and told to film their villages (the project actually began with 10 villagers, but most of them have fallen off the map). Each of these villagers has now completed one short film and two feature length documentaries, and are on their way to producing a third. Each year, they gather footage of their village life on their DV cams, and then come to Beijing to edit their films at CCD. You can already guess what issues might arise from a project like this: everything from fascination about the footage they capture, to questions about the quality of their films, and even deeper to what an opportunity like this might do for their roles in society. More on this later.

I know this is all very complicated. Don't worry, no pop quizzes anytime soon. Anyway, I'll update about my work little by little, but that's the general introduction to what I'm doing here.

On a more recent note, I just spent the weekend in Shenzhen for a contemporary arts festival that invited CCD to screen documentaries and perform at the OCAT Art Museum and Contemporary Art Terminal. Shenzhen is one of China's special economic zones, and pretty much any of you blog readers probably has a much closer relationship to the city than you realize: unless you're an avid American Apparel shopper, your underwear, shoes, bags, Apple computers, you name it, were probably all produced there. Between Olympics policies and the financial crisis, many of Shenzhen's factories are closing down, leaving throngs of Chinese migrant workers unemployed.

Meanwhile, it appears the city is trying to build a hip, yuppie indie art culture into its industrial infrastructure. The bourgie "Overseas Chinese Town" (OCT for short) is now overrun with posh hotels, art museums, lofts, and of course the obligatory Starbucks. Throw in some amazingly cheap Southern Chinese cuisine (crab and garlic noodles, anyone?), not to mention some gaudy theme parks--you know, for irony's sake--and you have the hipster traveler's dream come true.

We spent two full days and one extra night screening and discussing the villagers' films, as well as a film by Wu himself, and another three films by young documentary filmmakers also supported by CCD. It's been hard for me sometimes, because at this point in the Villager Project, we're beginning to see the growing tension between the villagers' rural identities and their newfound posts as documentary directors. What must it feel like to be wrenched from your familiar (if difficult) life, and plopped into the already complicated Chinese independent art scene, drooled over by international artists and academics, and made to feel like somehow Change is in your hands? Who are they, Obama?

So, seeing as how this is my Masters thesis, I'm still processing through the myriad tumbling thoughts in my head, and I'll spare you the mess in there. This can get the ball rolling, and the next time I start spewing about this stuff, you'll at least know the basics.

For now, I will leave you with a couple pictures.

Here's Wu himself treating us to McDonald's. It was pretty sweet to document China's premier independent documentary filmmaker patronizing this familiar global establishment. Muahaha:
From Beijing Dou

And here are a couple of the villagers, starting with Wang Wei, from Shandong Province:
From Beijing Dou

and my favorite, Shao Yuzhen, who lives in Shunyi, near Beijing:
From Beijing Dou

She's invited us to her home to visit sometime during the Spring Festival vacation. Will definitely post about that!

Anyway, just some brief comments about how I spend my time here. More to come in the "What ARE we doing in China" series. Maybe Josh will tell you all about his dream to start a massage parlor slash Chinese school.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

So cold

It's freezing here! We were forewarned that Beijing would be cold, and this isn't even the worst of it. Our friend Tim says it gets as cold as 5 degrees fahrenheit during the day in January. Yikes!

We thought the puffy jackets that got us through a Michigan winter would hold up, but if it gets any colder, I'll have to add more layers. I've been perpetually wearing my long underwear bottoms too, but I still feel cold...maybe I'll do what I did in Mongolia and wear long underwear, sweats, and pants. That way if I come across any stray horses I can ride them without fear of chafing.

Also of note, M and I found an awesome Korean restaurant. Monday, our friend Nate took us there; we ate ourselves silly for cheap. Then yesterday, we took Justin there and ate ourselves even sillier. Oh, and last week we found a decent Pho/Vietnamese restaurant. I've been telling M that Beijing feels so much more livable now. Heh, we sure love to eat.

Tomorrow M leaves for a film festival in Shenzhen, and then she'll stay in Hong Kong with my aunt and uncle for a week before we fly to Taiwan from there. This'll be the longest we've been apart since we got married! :(. So sad.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Bait and Switch

Every other Friday I have a private tutoring session with a 10 year old boy named Tom, after Tom and Jerry. He's a blast, and, just like his namesake, he really enjoys meowing. Since M had the day off, she came along for kicks.

The session was mostly uneventful. M sat at the table with me so she could draw pictures of random vocabulary from his English textbook to help him understand the words: piranhas, porcupines, turkeys, cacti, ice know, essential words for a ten year old.

After the session, we were talking with his mom for a few minutes when she offered us some snacks. Conveniently stored in a metal Danish Butter Cookie tin. I bet some of your parents totally did that growing up. Inside she had some tamarind candies, some kind of strange haw-jerky/brick, and an unopened bag of caramels.

They looked kind of like these bad boys:

I used to love these guys when I was growing up. Total teeth killers.

I eyed the caramels, but decided against making a move for them, opting instead for one tamarind candy. Somehow, Tom's mom started telling us how her husband had brought them back from some business trip to Thailand but she doesn't really know what they are. Hmm...She offers them to us, but we politely refuse, she insists, and hands the bag to Tom to open. As she passes the bag, I get a glimpse at the tag:

Durian Toffee

For those of you who have never had the experience that is Durian, a bunch of us in Berkeley realized it tastes a lot like: cream...onion...egg (in that order. For full effect, please march in place in between flavors).

Alarms went off in my head. Abort! Abort!

It was too late. Tom comes running back with scissors and eagerly cuts open the bag. All of us hesitate, staring awkwardly at the open bag. I gingerly pick one up, the crisp wrapper crackling in my hands as I remove it.

Imagine that you took a toffee candy, hid it inside a durian fruit, and buried the fruit underground for two weeks.

The only real saving grace was that I could lean over and breath my durian breath on M for the rest of the night. Good times.

This, by the way, is what a durian looks like:

Uncracked, it looks like some kind of medieval torture device. Inside, it looks like alien baby after-birth.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving in Beijing

As this was our first Thanksgiving outside of America, we were a little unsure about how we'd fare. I'm a big fan of the traditional Thanksgiving spread. Mostly because I can only get that particular combination of dishes and flavors a couple times a year. The week before the big day, M realized that she had to go to a lecture at Beijing University at 6 on Thanksgiving Day. Oh no!

It quickly hit us: Thanksgiving is American. For most of the rest of the world, it's just some random Thursday. Speaking of which, who was the wise guy who put it on a Thursday? Seriously. I mean, it was nice to be able to get Thursday and Friday off back in the day, but really, it just caused heaps of trouble. Anyone else remember the Tuesday night all-nighters, stumbling to that 4:00 class the next day to take that mandatory midterm from a very un-thankful professor? Or the 12+ hour bumper to bumper rides from Norcal to Socal and back again? Oh America!

Since I had a couple hours of work in the morning and M had the lecture at 6pm, we weren't really sure how we'd celebrate. But some of our newly reunited friends here in the city invited us to their potluck shindig that started at 3pm. Perfect! And what a shindig it was. M has repeatedly exclaimed that it was quite possibly her best Thanksgiving meal ever. She's still whining about how that lecture prevented her from just eating non-stop all night. It's possible we've been craving normal Western food for so long that our taste buds were in withdrawal, but the meal was freakin' awesome.

Those of you who know us well enough are probably laughing by now, since you probably figured we'd just gush about the food first. Yes, we're a couple of mini-gluttons.

We are thankful though. The holiday was a nice opportunity to step back and reflect on the near overwhelming sense of blessing and provision we've been feeling lately. We talk a lot of trash about being here in China, mostly for a good laugh and to keep the blog interesting, but also because there are times when we're genuinely freaked out about being here. In all of the craziness, though, there are these amazingly clear pinpoints of God's love and provision--surprising and exciting job opportunities, chance encounters with friends we needed to see, great conversations with new friends that we really enjoy, the list goes on. And we're nothing special; I guess all I'm really trying to say is that Beijing has, in many ways, made me more grateful, more able to see and appreciate the ways we're being cared for. I need these reminders, ungrateful wretch that I am.

On that note, a happy belated Thanksgiving to all of you!

PS: I totally rickrolled one of my classes today. I brought my guitar to some of my classes, and one of my younger classes, 7-8 year olds, was acting up while I was trying to sing them some kid's song, so I stopped. Paused. And said, "Ok, fine, now I'm going to sing you a very famous song." I just couldn't let them down.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Marilyn's Guide to Procrastination

1. Take a summer course that's more play than work.
2. Get used to it.
3. Take note that there's a paper to write, "technically" due in December.
4. Tell yourself you should just get it done before the summer's over.
5. Of course, don't listen.
6. Spend most of your time "doing research" for your thesis, watching American TV shows on, and fleeing the country because of "visa issues."
7. Learn from your Professor in mid-November that the paper is now due on Thanksgiving Day.
8. Freak out just a little, but not enough to spur you into action.
9. Spend another few days telling yourself to write it, but find yourself playing 80s hits on bass guitar at a Chinese rehearsal studio, then playing card games over ramen and kimchi. (Proof that sometimes the most exciting things happen when you're procrastinating.)
10. Write a blog entry about writing your paper instead of actually writing it.

11. FINISH THE PAPER. After a 5am bedtime and only 3 hours of sleep.

OK, so do yourselves a favor and don't actually follow that guide, because it's terrible. J and I are always talking about how I have the worst combination when it comes to productivity: Type A expectations with Type B habits. This wreaks havoc on my psyche anytime a deadline shows up on the horizon.

Now is one of those times...a 15 page paper looms over me like an ion-infused cloud threatening to pour down rain, and I just keep popping up umbrellas of all different shapes and sizes to elude its existence.

Today, I'm really going to work on it. I promise. I just figured that since I'd promised a post about my school-related stuff, I'd use this as a chance to flesh out my thoughts a little. ;)

Anyway, I'm comparing two films, one by Jia Zhangke and the other by one of the villager documentarists I'm writing my MA thesis on, a woman named Shao Yuzhen.

If you want to check out any Chinese films from the last few years, most people would tell you Jia Zhangke is the guy to watch. His films (Xiao wu a.k.a. Pickpocket, Unknown Pleasures, The World, Still Life, etc.) consistently pick up international art film festival awards (including the coveted Golden Lion from Venice for his latest, Still Life), and critics and scholars alike drool over his raw post-socialist realist aesthetic and tongue-in-cheek commentary on Chinese society:

Of course, his films contain a lot of the same characteristics we've all come to expect from Chinese cinema: slow pace; long takes and shots; raw image quality; no "ending" don't expect Jerry Bruckheimer or anything. But, if you're feeling like brushing up on the global indie culture scene, here's a decent place to start.

Shao Yuzhen, on the other hand, is exactly what I called her: a villager, who now happens to make documentaries. That's because the director I'm interning for, Wu Wenguang, gave her (and 9 others) a digital video cam, and told her to film whatever she wanted around her village. Then he invited her to come to his studio in Beijing to edit her footage. Shao got some great material of a CCTV crew coming into her village, feeding her husband almost word for word some praises about the CCP's new rural tax exemption, then broadcasting it on the news like it really came from his heart. Hmm. Shao works in relative anonymity (especially compared to the likes of Jia Zhangke), which is part of the whole plan, because then she's able to just live among her fellow villagers and capture these amazing nuggets of video gold about contemporary village life in China.

So, I'm interested in comparing the two, particularly with regards to how they use absurdity (and a little absurdism) to highlight "realities" of their post-socialist society.

Ok, ok...back to work. Wish me luck.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bike Hero, FTW!

Update: Okay, so it's totally viral. I still love the video. Here's a funny response to it but some guy actually shredding guitar hero on a bike: Bike Hero on Expert

And now we see how deep this viral rabbit trail really goes.


Normally, I refrain from just posting links and videos that I like here. I spend so much time in the underbelly of the internet that I'd flood you all with weird stunts.

This particular stunt, however, is so awesome that I have to share it.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Bike Hero.

Hat's off to these illustrious teens (or viral marketing team) and the inordinate amount of free time that they have.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Only in China (Lightbulb Edition)

Late Friday afternoon, M and I returned from a trip to the Silk Market, where we had bought some shoes for me and boots for her. (Random tidbit: I hate wearing shoes, but I like to buy them. Having lived in Ann Arbor and now Beijing, though, I've gotten to wear the shoes I've bought much more often than when I lived in California.) We opened the door to our apartment and turned on the light. There was a bright flash, a snap, crackle, pop, and then glass shattered onto the floor in front of us. As you can guess, one of the lightbulbs had exploded. Oh, China.

All the power in our apartment was fried. Thankfully, the management of our place is helpful, so we called them to see if they could send someone up to look at what happened. We figured it was probably just a short and we could reset the fuses to restore power. But when your lightbulbs are exploding, it's worth having a "professional" take a look. While we waited for the maintenance guys to come, I swept up the bits up burnt broken glass. Eventually, the guys showed up and took a look around. They mumbled something about how it was just a short and flipped a few switches, which turned the power back on. They did offer to change our lightbulbs for 5rmb once we had bought replacements.

Now I've developed a semi-conscious habit of not standing under lightbulbs. I guess it's the "avoid shards of flaming glass embedded in my skull" instinct kicking in. The thing about Only in China moments is they can often be followed up with "Wow! If I'd only been [a foot closer / a moment sooner / a day later] I might have been [killed / maimed / neutered].

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Mongolia : Day 6

It's hard to follow up such an exciting post. Especially such a well written one. And especially with the details of another 30 hour train ride.

I do want to tell the Marmot story first, though. On our way to Mongolia, Justin intoned sober warning to us: Marmots in Mongolia carry the bubonic plague. Apparently, these strange little creatures are out scavenging before winter sets in and carry a disease we only knew from the history books. Every so often we would remember Justin's warning and wonder out loud, "What the heck is a marmot anyway?" Our only clue was Justin's Marmot jacket. Which wasn't really much of a clue at all. Eventually, we settled on either a bird or a rodent.

On our way through the Mongolian countryside, Justin decided to slip some questions about Marmots into his friendly chatter with Tushik, our driver. "Tushik, have you ever seen a Marmot?" He grinned, "hmm...Yes, Marmot, I like." Tushik tells us that he likes to eat Marmots. Apparently, he hunts them, although they're hard to find in late autumn. Then, he goes into detail on how to skin a marmot, place hot stones inside of it, and grill it over a fire. Apparently, that's the best way to enjoy a Mongolian marmot.**Justin asks Tushik, "So what does marmot taste like?" To which Tushik wryly grins and politely retorts, "Marmot... tastes like marmot."**(Justin had to remind me about this, hehe). We try to ask whether the marmots have the bubonic plague, but all we really learn is that it's best not to eat sick marmots. hmmm...Justin decides to change the subject, so he asks Tushik, "Well, what's your favorite meat?" He grinned, "Marmot. Do you want to try?" Backpedaling quickly, Justin politely declines. The three of us make eye contact while thinking exactly the same thing: "If he thinks we want to try Marmots, he'll convince the family we're staying at to cook Marmots as a gesture of Mongolian hospitality..." Images of me rolling on the Mongolian plains, slowly and painfully becoming a zombie because of the bubonic plague, flash through my mind.

Later, when we climbed up to the Buddhist temple, we noticed a strange brass carving of a rodent serving as the handle of the entrance door:
From Beijing Dou

"Could this in fact be the dreaded mythical Marmot, the very one that struck such petrifying fear into our hearts?", we mused.

When we arrived back in Beijing, M looked up the wikipedia entry for Marmots. Apparently they're just oversize squirrels. Cute ones at that:

To which Justin replied, "They are cuter than I expected… I can’t eat that."

I was sorely disappointed, since I was expecting more of a Rodent of Unusual Size:

But consider yourself warned; next time you're wandering around the Mongolian plains shortly before winter, stay away from any cute curious rodents that want to play. They'll turn you into a zombie.

Ok, so enough about Marmots. (Although I am curious why a rugged outdoor clothing company chose Marmots for their moniker. You don't see me wearing a "Prairie Dog" jacket.)

Day 6:

The next morning when we rolled out of bed at the crack of dawn, we were extremely stiff and sore. After muttering and grumbling about horses for a few minutes, we managed to get our stuff together and head out the door. It was lightly snowing outside, and still mostly dark. We hopped in a cab and made it to the train station with time to kill. We had blown all our money on Indian and Mexican food the night before, leaving us with only 300 tugrug (30 cents). Justin wandered up to a few of the counters trying to use his remaining money to buy sour gummies, but to no avail. Finally, just before the train left, he drove a hard bargain and got us a small bottle of water with our remaining money.

Upon boarding the train, we were pleasantly surprised to find that our two rooms (since we were forced to buy the expensive 2 per berth tickets) shared a bathroom. We spent most of the trip with the bathroom doors open so that we could lock the main doors and keep an eye on our stuff.

This time it was my turn to sleep on the top bunk. Unfortunately for me, I was so sore that every time I had to swing up there, every muscle in my body screamed out in pain.

The train's heater on the way to Mongolia had only run for a short time in the morning and a short time at night, but apparently in the expensive seats, the heater runs 24 hours a day. All three of us were quickly dying of heat. We did take advantage of it, though, by placing our leftover Mexican and Indian food on top of the heating coils to warm our lunch.

Sometime on the trip, Marilyn had introduced me and Justin to a card game that she called PaiQi (Rows of 7) growing up. Apparently it's also called Sevens or Dominoes in other parts of the world. Whether we got the rules wrong or she learned it differently, M's version of Sevens included the exciting rule of being able to "burn" cards when you couldn't play. Since the goal of the game is to take turns building out from each suit's seven up to the King and down to the Ace, a burned card meant other players were stuck with unplayable cards, which would then be counted against them at the end of the round. We wiled away hours upon hours of this game, often squabbling and bickering about how tightfisted and withholding the other players were being. Despite M's insistence that I would sneak up from behind to win it, she easily took the first 3 games. I was finally able to sneak past Justin in the final game for the 500 point win. It was a controversial last hand as we were pulling into Beijing, so we grabbed our stuff, disembarked, and ran across the street to Mcdonald's to grab some food and replay the last hand. We started up a new tally in Beijing, although Justin now aptly calls it "The Evil Game". Currently, Justin's up by about 150 points on us. Looks like his turn has finally come.

Other than that crazy card game, we spent the rest of the time moaning about the heat, sleeping, and eating ramen and peanut-butter/jelly or nutella sandwiches. The return trip went by quite fast, and before we knew it, we were home:
From Beijing Dou

The Mongolian Adventure was over. We returned victorious (and very sore).

So that's it. Thanks for following along on our crazy trip. I'm sure we went into a lot more detail than you needed, so you're a trooper for reading all of it.

We've tossed around the idea of trying to do the whole Transiberian next time: Moscow - Irkustk (Risk players, you know wassup...) - Ulaan Baatar - Beijing. Who's in?

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Mongolia : Day 5 (or Horses, Horses, Horses, Horses)

We awoke after a brisk night in the ger, having braved a few loud spurts of crying from Anochin, and a couple awkward early morning trips to the outhouse. (I think the brittle cheese cubes our hosts fed to us really did a number on our bowels.)

Anyway, Bolta was up and about very early, chopping wood for the family and then riding out to a neighboring horse herder to gather extra horses for our journey back to "civilization"--a town called Nalaikh roughly 20 km from our overnight stay. We were told it should take about 3 hours to ride there, and then we could take a bus back to Ulaan Baatar for the equivalent of $.70. Sounded like a good plan to us.

First, let me say that Bolta is a frickin' warrior. Here he is leading an extra horse back in the diffuse light of early morning:
From Beijing Dou

Second, I should point out that we are NOT warriors. Contrast Bolta with this repeat picture of us standing in front of the little house, all bundled up and taking pictures with puppies:
From Beijing Dou

From Beijing Dou

Between Bolta's beastliness and our wimpiness, you can probably guess how this horse ride is going to play out.

We started off pretty upbeat, believing ourselves to be hardy (albeit slightly inexperienced) riders. Here are J and me on our horses, Chestnut and Nelly Banana, respectively:
From Beijing Dou

And here's Justin on his horse, Milkshake (who, of course, brings all the boys to the yard):
From Beijing Dou

Our goofy grins betray our naivete at the difficult and painful journey ahead.

Basically, Bolta would hang out at the back of the team with our pack horse, and give our horses a whack on the bottom whenever they were going too slow or meandering off the path (which, as luck would have it, was very very often). Those of you who've ever ridden horses before know that the slow, lumbering pace is pretty comfortable, while the mid-tempo trot is very bumpy and hard on the behind. A full gallop on the other hand, though somewhat frightening for the neophyte, becomes much smoother and more pleasant. The combination of our horses' laziness and Bolta's Stick of Terror left us constantly bouncing and flouncing in a medium trot. Oh joy.

Here's Bolta and his Stick as we ride through a herd of cows and yaks:
From Beijing Dou

J's horse was (not surprisingly, according to J) the laziest (and fattest) of all, and constantly stopped to eat:
From Beijing Dou

It was also prone to wandering away from the rest of us (as was Justin's horse, although I didn't manage to get a picture of said wandering):
From Beijing Dou

Personally, I was relieved whenever J's horse would act up, because it would give the rest of us a slight respite from Bolta's beatings (on our horses, of course). J would even the score, however, by sneaking up behind me and using his reins to whip my horse into a painful trot. Grrr.

I should mention that it wasn't all bad. There were times when our horses would go into full gallops, and we'd yell with glee as we flew across the Mongolian plains. But that never lasted long. About two and a half hours in, Justin and I were dead tired, and Bolta informed us that the city should only be an hour or so away. What he didn't tell us was that he planned on trotting our horses the entire way, punishing our already sore bottoms. Seriously, at some point, the pain was so great and I had to use so much strength to prop myself up between trots, that it took every muscle in my aching body--and every ounce of concentration--to not just pass out and flop off my horse.

At one point, Justin and I tried to convince Bolta to take the horses back and let us just walk to Nalaikh, but he told us he needed to meet someone in town to help him ride the horses back. Meanwhile, J shows no signs of being in nearly as much pain as the rest of us. He concedes that he's willing to walk, but looks and sounds like he could do this for another three hours. Justin and I are puzzled by his sudden ruggedness, and I begin to wonder if there's more to Josh than I realize...

Finally, after four hours of riding, Bolta realizes that we can't hack it, and lets us dismount at the gate of the national park. Justin and I slide off and amble around with our legs spread, while J uses his remaining energy to do an Irish jig. OK, not really, but he wasn't having much trouble walking around. Justin mentions that he probably has welts on his butt, and I quietly think the same. J just stands there and looks around. Again, we wonder about J's hidden horseriding talents.

Meanwhile, Bolta hitches a ride for us with some strangers back to Ulaan Baatar directly. All we can think is "Sweet!" since, at this point, safety is a distant third on our list of priorities, after food and shower.

In less than an hour, we are back in our cozy room, deciding what to resolve first: our starvation or our stickiness. Somehow, J is already magically prancing around in his sweats (I swear, this guy is probably the fastest undresser in the history of modern man). We pick food. As we all get bundled up and ready to go out again, Justin and I notice J pulling his pants on over his sweats.

Justin: "Hey man, why are you wearing your jeans over your sweats? Why don't you just change?"
Josh: "Huh? Oh, I've been wearing these sweats under my pants all day."


Justin and I whip our heads around and yell simultaneously, "THAT'S WHY YOU WEREN'T IN PAIN!!"

He also had his long underwear, his precious long underwear, on underneath the sweats and the pants!

Justin gave him a good talking-to for not sharing his secret this morning, and I tickled him for acting so aloof when we pondered his superhuman stamina.

Later that night, after a meal at Ulaan Baatar's "Only Mexican AND Indian Restaurant!", we take turns showering, compare bruises and sores, and knock out at 9:30. Best. Sleep. Ever.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Mongolia : Day 4

Well, the care package was certainly a pleasant surprise and a welcome distraction from the Mongolia travelogue, but the show must go on...

Going through pictures, I just realized I missed an important event from day 3:

Justin had stepped out of the room for a second, and I was in the middle of changing when he knocked. As he came in, I jumped onto the superbed, wearing only my long underwear, flailing and dancing around. Thinking quickly, he realized what a uniquely blackmailable sight he had before him, and whipped out his camera, which is apparently designed for exactly this kind of quick access. Unfortunately, for him, I'm quick on the draw with my dances too. I've had plenty of practice stopping a dance in mid-motion, which I promptly did. Marilyn saw an opportunity of her own, and tackled me to try and tickle me.

Even after she relented and went back to packing, I was still laughing so hard that I had a hard time rolling over and getting up.

Good times, good times. Justin got the full experience traveling with the beans.

Anyway, if you're still reading this, and there's a good chance I lost you with those long underwear shots, on to day 4.

Day 4 started bright and early with some peanut butter, nutella, and banana sandwiches as we waited for our driver to show. Our hostel had some arrangements with local independent tour operators, and we had chosen the "small Japanese car with English speaking driver" since we didn't need an SUV or Russian Jeep (we passed a few during the day, those things are freaky). Apparently some other tour lets you drive a tank around; if I had one regret from Mongolia, it's not paying the big bucks to commandeer a tank. I'll just go ahead and say it (sorry Justin): Justin's big regret is not wrestling a Mongolian man...

Shortly after 9, our driver, Tushik, pulled up. We had thus far found Mongolians to be extremely gregarious and welcoming, and Tushik was no exception. We loaded our packs into the back of the car and set out into the Mongolian pseudo-wilderness.

We drove for a while, Justin riding shotgun and chatting happily with our driver, me and M in the back alternately dozing off. (Something about being in a car just puts me right to sleep. You might want to remember that the next time I'm in the driver's seat). The city, its outskirts, and the small mining towns along the way faded into the distance as we entered Terelj National Park. As we passed through the gate, our driver told us, "Normally, you would have to pay an entrance fee, but since you do not look like foreigners, no fee." We all gave a rousing cheer in honor of our Asian faces. Looking like a local causes me some trouble in Beijing; the parents at my weekend job sometimes want a foreign face to go with their foreign teachers. Unfortunately for them, I don't count. Some companies even pay ABCs, and other native English speakers of Asian descent, less than they pay white or obviously "foreign" teachers. This time, however, our Asian faces saved us 9000 tugrug (about $8usd). Booyah...

We had only been in the park a few minutes when we passed a couple camels tethered on the side of the road. "Camels!" I exclaimed (as my alter-ego: Captain Obvious), and our driver swerved off the road and screeched to a halt. We all piled out of the car to have a look. At a safe distance, of course, since we'd been warned about the full range of a camel's spit. As we gaped at the camels, a man came up and pulled one of them to its knees. He motioned for one of us to mount it. Justin and Marilyn seemed a bit camel-shy, so I went first. It was here that Justin's quick access camera came in handy:

It all happened so fast that the look on my face here is mostly disbelief, as in "wait a I on a camel?" Plus, I had just gingerly put my hand on its hump (its hump...its lovely camel hump...), only to find it surprisingly...hmm supple is the word that comes to mind, but the usage is quite awkward.

Off I go...
From Beijing Dou

The camel warrior returns victoriously from his first camel campaign
From Beijing Dou

M was up next:
From Beijing Dou

From Beijing Dou

And Justin had to go next, since we'd endlessly tease him if he didnt:
From Beijing Dou

From Beijing Dou

This is what the view from up top looks like:

The whole experience was actually quite pleasant. The camels didn't smell nearly as bad as we had been told, and the camel's hair was actually quite soft.

We rolled back into the car, and headed on our merry way.

"Do you want to climb cave?" Our driver asked us a few minutes later as we passed an outcropping of rock with a small cave inside. "Sure, why not?" So he put the car in reverse, and backed up to the rock.
From Beijing Dou

Next up, Turtle Rock.
Oddly enough, turtle rock is a large rock that...looks like a turtle. Here, an intrepid explorer approaches the mighty turtle:
From Beijing Dou

Not sure what's going on here, but it looks exciting.
From Beijing Dou

After turtle rock, we had lunch in the spare bedroom of the turtle rock snack shop. M had tasty chicken soup, Justin had a beef and mutton tail soup with pieces of dough, his favorite Mongolian meal of the trip, and I had pan-fried lamb and beef, which I cracked a tooth on. Nice...(Going to have that fixed tomorrow. Beijing dentistry might be worth a post, we'll see.)

After lunch, we headed up the road to a Buddhist monastery halfway up the hill. Although Buddhism took a big hit in Mongolia during the Soviet communist era, now that Mongolia is democratic, it's coming back. As we made our way up to the monastery, we were led by a spunky black dog. Halfway up, another dog came and tried to lead us and the two dogs got in a bit of a growling match.

In between us and the monastery? A large ravine that we had to cross old-school bridge style.
From Beijing Dou

From Beijing Dou

Over the ravine, and up the stairs...
From Beijing Dou

Halfway point celebrations:
From Beijing Dou

We were too cheap to go inside. So we took a few pictures, enjoyed the view, and then it was time to head back down.
From Beijing Dou

After the monastery, it was time to head to our host family's tent. We had decided we could save money by sending Tushik home and riding horses back to civilization. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Since we had wanted to stay with a Mongolian family in a ger, our guide, Bolta, offered to let us stay with his family for the night so we could leave together the next morning.

Here we are, outside the ger:
From Beijing Dou

Yes, that's a satellite dish in the background. We spent a good part of the night watching some Mongolian-dubbed Luke Wilson movie, which IMDB now tells me was "Henry Poole is Here".

We met Bolta's wife, Ambolta, and two-year old daughter, Anochin, who was cute as a button. But, after Tushik left, our only way of communicating with them was by charades. So we decided to let her and her daughter enjoy the afternoon without having to awkwardly stare at some foreigners. We'd have plenty of time for that after dinner. Before he left, Tushik told us we could climb up the ridge behind the ger, so we decided to give it a go.

The ascent.
From Beijing Dou

Upon discovering two dead trees on the ground.
From Beijing Dou

I told Justin I'd give him a dollar if he could climb to the top of these rocks. He failed. I'll give him an A for affort.
From Beijing Dou

Justin dubbed this rock "The Nose".
From Beijing Dou

After a couple hours of scrabbling around on rocks, we got a bit cold and decided to head back.

Back at the ger, we watched Ambolta make dinner, a traditional Mongolian dish called Tsuivan. She rolled some dough out into what looked like tortillas, partially baked them on top of the stove, then cut them into small noodle-like pieces. Then she stir-fried some beef and vegetables, added some water, placed the noodles on top, and then covered it to let it steam. It was delicious. While Ambolta was making dinner, we played with Anochin. She was quite taken with The Book, which caused some trouble when we wanted to look up Mongolian words and phrases in the back. One time, Anochin started crying because we were using the book, and her mom gave her one of the chocopies that we had brought as gifts. And everything was okay.

Here she is keeping a close watch on The Book.

M tried to teach her football, but she just wanted to throw it, not kick it. We also accidentally taught her how to hit people with a water bottle, hehe.

After dinner, we sat around watching a dubbed Korean drama, then Luke Wilson. Bolta came home eventually, and we all hung out for a bit. Generous host that he was, Bolta offered the three of us a strange white square. Then he made a bullhorn gesture. must be a cow product. But it's a powdery white square. Cognitive dissonance alarms went off like crazy! We all took tentative bites. It tasted like a cross between dried sour yogurt and beef. Hmmm...Justin and M snuck their squares into their pockets. I finished mine by trying not to think about it as I took big bites out of it.

Somewhere around 8:30, we started nodding off, so they set up a futon and mattress pad for us. Justin had brought some kind of high-tech mummy bag, and Bolta and his family got a huge laugh out of him climbing inside of his bag and standing up to change his pants while still inside of it. Eventually we all went to sleep. I'm pretty sure I gave them a poor impression of Americans with my incessant snoring.

And so ends day 4 of our Mongolian adventure. Whew, what a write-up! Stay tuned, M gets to write up the crazy times: the horse ride back.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

What have we here?

We interrupt our daily Mongolia post to bring you a message about our sponsors, er...giftors?

Yesterday, Josh and I got into a little bit of a tiff, mostly because I was trying to tell him a story and he fell asleep on me. But, in his defense, he was really really tired, and had a headache, and I realize that I probably jabber at him a little too close to bedtime much more often than I should.

And so, it was a pleasant way to end our squabble when he pointed out that there was a notice on the door when he came home yesterday. After staring at the Chinese for a few minutes in hopes that it would make sense to me (and then looking at the note underneath it, which showed ours and our friend Florence's addresses), I finally ascertained that we had a package waiting for us somewhere. Ooh la la!

Today, Josh and I left Caochangdi (aka CCD, where I intern) early so we could swing by this mysterious location to pick up our package. By this time, Flo had already hinted to me that the package wasn't just from her...

When we arrived at the Express Mailing Service (EMS), we were amazed that anything ever gets mailed correctly in China, because there were boxes strewn around everywhere, and it took a couple of minutes before I could even get anyone's attention to help me. I handed them my slip, and they scurried around for a while before locating IT in this big ol' bin. The thing was huge!

After carrying it to a dumpling restaurant, then cabbing home, I was ready to tear into the thing. We don't have a picture of the box as a whole, because I guess I was too busy busting it open:
From Beijing Dou

Note the look of glee.

Apparently, my high school friends had taken it upon themselves to make sure we are well nutritioned...
From Beijing Dou

I would like to take this moment to point out that no matter what stage of life I meet my friends in, they are all convinced that my nasal problems are going to be the death of me. Now, Josh and I each have our very own neti pot! ;)

Next on their list was making sure we'll never be bored:
From Beijing Dou

From Beijing Dou

(That's a set of Travel Scrabble I'm tinkering around with.)

They even sent us bowls. Bowls! All because they read that we shared one cereal bowl in the mornings. Hahahaha.
From Beijing Dou

And, we got another Marianne creation, which is always nice:
From Beijing Dou

Of course, what's a care package without some gummies for Josh to chew on?
From Beijing Dou

And last, but most definitely not least, our friends decided that we needed that much less room on our bed:
From Beijing Dou

Totoro and Turtle, meet Mengniu (which means "Mongolian Cow," also my favorite brand of yogurt here in Beijing).

Seriously, why do our friends know us so well? Down to our nasal irrigation needs? Thanks, all you lovelies (+ Jerry haha) for making us feel very loved! There's no escaping the fact that we are incredibly blessed.

And now, for some neti pot action...