Letters to Jonathan- Day 5: Dinosaurs and Goodbye

Jonathan-

Mongolia has approximately three million residents, and one million of them live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. That’s a lot of people for one city. We started this morning by going to a local Buddhist temple. We happened to be there while the lamas (monks) were chanting. They wouldn’t let me take any photos inside but it was an amazing sight to see and hear. There were tons of men and boys talking (or singing?) at the same time. They would intermittently stop to blow trumpets as large as the room, or hit drums above their head with big sticks or play various sort of other instruments. Jenna even caught one of the guys checking out Facebook on his iPhone, which he kept hidden in his robes.  We saw a set of giant golden feet which will eventually be a statue of Buddha bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

You would have loved the Mongolian history museum, it was very weird seeing history told from a perspective other than a European one. It was interesting seeing the Europeans portrayed as the “enemy.” We did see some of Marco Polo whose travels and writing introduced Europe to Mongolia and China (at the time ruled by the Mongolian Kublai Khan.)

One of the coolest things we saw was a dinosaur that the Mongolians had recently recovered. It is a Tarbosaurus bataar which is the Asian cousin of the T. Rex. Apparently, a University of Florida professor stole the fossils from the southern part of Mongolia in the Gobi Desert where lots of dinosaur fossils can be found. After attempting to sell the dinosaur for a million dollars, the US courts were able to return the dinosaur to the people of Mongolia and put the professor in jail.

We only had a few hours left to do some shopping. Dr. Sandler recommended a store called Mary & Martha  which sells crafts to help disadvantaged people (such as prisoners or reformed prostitutes)  to sell crafts so they can help support their families. We also went to the State Store which use to be the only big store and was run by the Russians. It’s now a giant mall with lots of goods. Dr. Gayle found some nice cashmere scarves for his wife, Dr. Abram bought a cool Mongolian mask, Dr. Sandler and Jenna bought a bunch of leather wallets for their family, and I bought some jewelry for my wife and daughter and a cool Mongolian wresting cap for my son. You would have looked good in a wresting cap.

Dr. Sandler had eaten at a North Korean restaurant last year and it was recently recommended by a New York Times article. When we got there we realized it had changed ownership and now served Mongolian food (mutton!) but didn’t bother changing the décor or name. Having had eaten enough Mongolian mutton we decided to check out the Sky Lounge in the Blue Sky Hotel and Tower. This recently finished 5 star hotel is a distinct shape on the landscape, with breathtaking views of the city. The name pays homage to Mongolia’s title as “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.” Sunset overlooking the top of the city was a perfect way to end our stay in Mongolia.

View from the top of the Blue Sky Tower

View from the top of the Blue Sky Tower

Jonathan, I’m so glad you fell in love with this country. After spending two weeks here, I understand the amazing mixture of unique landscapes, incredible history, and the kind and giving people that makes Mongolia so special. Thanks for being on this journey with me.

Adam

Letters to Jonathan- Day 4: Statue and Singing

Jonathan-

Today we get to head back to the city. I wanted to climb the mountain by our camp and watch the sunrise but the 5:45am wakeup time, 30 degree temperature, cloudy and rainy weather made me rethink my plans. My bed in the warm toasty ger was too much to give up. I have a feeling that you would have made me get up to enjoy the sunrise though. I did climb the mountain again before we left to get one last look at the countryside. It still took my breath away.

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A view I won’t ever forget

On the way back to the big city we stopped so Tsegi and Bazaara could buy some more airag from a local family. Yuck! We were all too scared to get out of the van because we thought they would make us drink some more. Whenever Americans rest somewhere we just lean against a wall, but whenever we see Mongolians resting they seem to squat with their feet flat. OUCH! Today we decided we are gonna try to squat like Mongolians as much as possible, so keep a close eye out for our group squats.

We stopped at the Chinggas Khaan Statue Complex. This 131 ft tall statue of Genghis Khan was amazing. It was very shiny all in silver, with a gold horse whip and gold accents on his belt. It’s reported that Genghis found a golden horse whip in the area and it was an omen signifying his power and importance and foretelling his ultimate rise to power. I’d just be happy to have found something made out of gold. There’s an elevator in the horse’s tail that allows you to ride up inside the statue. You get to stand on top of the horse’s head and get a close up look of the statue. Awesome!

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Standing on top of the horse of the Chinggas Statue

While at the Statue Complex we had the opportunity to try on some clothing from the 1300s when Genghis Khan was in power. I think the power in the helmet went to Dr. Abram’s head.

We stopped at a local city for lunch and guess what was on the menu again: MUTTON! We are all so tired of sheep! Dr. Gayle even asked if they had any goat. When they said there wasn’t even any goat Jenna convinced the cook to make us the same meal but to use chicken instead. Our waitress thought we were crazy, but it turned out really good.

The traffic in Ulaanbaatar is insane! Crazy drivers who make up their own lanes is only half the problem. Since they get cars from all over the world the steering wheels could be on either side of the car. It took us several hours to get back to the motel.

Traffic, traffic everywhere!

Traffic, traffic everywhere!

After a quick shower we made it to a traditional Mongolian performance. We got to see their throat singing called Khoomei and some of their musical instruments made with horse hair (I told you, they love their horses!). The best was the contortionist. This girl could rest her chin between her ankles. OUCH!

We ended the evening at a French Restaurant. Dr. Gayle loves French food so he was super excited. We were all happy to have another meal with no mutton.

Dr. Gayle's French restaurant!

Dr. Gayle is so excited for his French restaurant!

We only have one more day in Mongolia. Tomorrow we get to explore the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.

Adam

Letters to Jonathan- Day 3: Rafting and Horses

Jonathan,

I’m surprised at how peaceful and warm a ger can be at night. I think I slept better in my ger than I did in my motel back in the city. The Mongolian people are traditionally a nomadic people who live in their ger, a sort of tent house, and have up to 300 animals, including horses, sheep, goats, and cows. They will pack up their home and move up to three times a year to find favorable grasslands for the animals or shelter from the winds during the winter. Each ger has a woodstove to help keep the family warm at night. If it gets too cold (down to 40 degrees below zero!) they will sometimes bring the baby animals inside the ger. The gers are tall enough to stand in but the doorway is lower than we are use to, as a result Dr. Abram kept hitting his head on the door frame. You would have found it especially humorous to hear a “thunk” followed by an “OW!” every time the neurologist walks out the door. You would think a doctor of the brain would take better care of his noggin.

We decided to enjoy a morning rafting adventure down the Herlen River, except the doctors only brought dress shoes and sneakers, so they wound up stealing the shower shoes from the bathroom. Tsegi loaded up the raft on top of his van and drove us 7 km up river. As we started to float down the river we discover that our tour guide Bazaara had never been in a raft before! Luckily Dr. Sandler is an old rafting pro who steered us straight, (unless you count all the circles he made us do down the river). The river was very calm and peaceful with no rapids. We passed tons of sheep, goats, cows, and of course horses! It’s reported that there are approximately eight horses for every Mongolian.

In the afternoon we went on a horse ride, which was my first. The Mongolian horses are smaller and sturdier than the ones we see in the states. These are better suited to the altitude and rocky and hilly environment of Mongolia. They also do a constant bobbing thing with their head. Our Neurologist Dr. Abram is convinced they have some sort of brain stem defect from so much head movement. If you want a Mongolian horse to go faster you don’t say “giddy up,” instead you say, “choo choo.” I tried to envision myself as a warrior in Genghis Khan’s army but I felt more like a train conductor yelling “choo choo” across the Mongolian steppes. Since there were only three horses for five riders we were also given a yak cart for the other riders. Upon closer inspection we realized that our “yak” was really just a cow. I won’t admit that it took us 20 minutes to realize they tricked us. The yak cart (cow cart) had a bum wheel that made for a super bumpy ride. Being on the horses even let us get up close to the local equivalent of prairie dogs called marmots. Marmots are supposed to be yummy to eat but we couldn’t talk our guide into catching one for us. I bet if you were here you could catch one for us in no time.

This evening it rained so we lit the wood fire stoves in our gers. Those things sure did an awesome job of keeping our gers warm and toasty. Normally sleeping in a tent in the rain is a cold and wet prospect, but the sound of the rain falling on the sheep skin roof was enough to lull us into a deep sleep.

Adam

Letters to Jonathan- Day 2: Nature and History

Jonathan – 

Brrrrrr! It was cold last night! Can you believe that our cabin didn’t have any heat and only one tiny candle? Luckily they gave us some extra blankets. The sun comes up at 6 am so we decided to take a look around Blue Lake.

Our Cabin for the first night

Our Cabin for the first night

We were confused when we saw a series of totem poles. As we got closer, we realized they weren’t totem poles but instead an amazing historical monument made of wooden columns, one for each for each of the Khans of Mongolia. (“Khan” is simply a title of authority similar to king or emperor, but of course you already knew that). At the top of each post is a carved likeness of each Khan. As we read each plaque describing each Khan we realized that being a Khan was not really a position that lends itself to a long life. Some of them only lasted a couple of months before they died or were killed by other family members.

Hanging out with the Khans

Hanging out with the Khans

Dr. Sandler has been reading the guide book about Mongolia. (Between you and me I think he’s memorized most of it. I bet the two of you could have contests to see who could know more about Mongolia.) Dr. Sandler reports that the lake we are camped at is called “Blue Lake by the heart shaped mountains” and is where Temujin called a khuruldai (tribal meeting) and was confirmed as the first ruler of the united tribes of Mongolia and his name was changed to Genghis Khan. It didn’t seem to bother him that his best-friend-turned-arch-enemy, Jamukha, was still in charge of half of the country.

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         To be at the site of such a historic event in Mongolian history I expected a giant lake, but it was actually quite small. It was very reflective of the natural landscape and when the beautiful blue sky reflected off the lake you could tell why it was called Blue Lake. All the mountains look alike to me but our driver and tour guide can somehow them apart and get us to where we are going even though they’ve never been here before and they have no road signs or maps. They say the can “just find their way based on the shape of the mountains.”

We had lunch in a local city. Our guide reports the city is near a coal mine, so most of the residents are involved with the mine. We walked into the supermarket and at the back there was a meat market with giant hunks of meat. A lady was cutting up a piece of meat so large it looked like a horse’s rib cage and hind quarters. Definitely not something you’d see at Publix!

My kids asked me to find out about the schools so we took a detour through the city to check out the local school. As luck would have it today was their first day of school. The first day of school is a big deal, even if September 1st falls on a Sunday (which it did this year). The opening festivities were already over but the balloons and banners were still up and there were still some boys playing soccer in the field. The nomadic children from the country side will live in the city during the school year with extended family members or stay in the dorms. The primary school is from age six to age twelve. Could you imagine living away from your family for more than half the year to go to school?


We’ve only known our driver to get lost once, but it worked out awesome. We found ourselves on a precipice overlooking the Herlen River. There was a ger on the top with livestock all around. There were even Mongolians fishing in the river. Dr. Sandler reports this was the most beautiful view of Mongolia he has seen yet. I even contemplated rolling down the hill, if only it weren’t covered in rocks. I think Jenna even broke out in a little rendition of “The Sound of Music.”

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The tourist season ends in the middle of September but one our ger camps shut down early so we got to stay two nights at Steppe Nomads located in the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. This is the best rated ger camp on Trip Advisor and we can see why! Being in a nature preserve, the camp had a big focus on making use of natural resources like solar and wind power. All heat in the ger was provided by wood stove, including the water for showers. Dr. Gayle is just excited that we don’t use dung stoves like some of the ger camps use.
The ger camp is at the base of the Herlen River. It’s very peaceful watching the birds play around in the reeds. While Jenna and Dr. Sandler read by the river, Dr. Gayle, Dr. Abram and I hiked to the top of the highest mountain overlooking the camp. I bet you would have beaten us all up the mountain.

Jenna and Dr. Sandler reading by the Herlen River

Jenna and Dr. Sandler reading by the Herlen River

Dr. Gayle and Dr. Abram at the top of a mountain overlooking the ger camp.

Dr. Gayle and Dr. Abram at the top of a mountain overlooking the ger camp.

Despite all the natural beauty surrounding us we were most amazed at the stars at night. Without any ambient city lights you could see millions of stars. We stole a blanket from the bed and lay out on the grasslands for an hour as we stared up at the universe. We could see the Milky Way and make out individual satellites shooting across the sky as they were orbiting the earth. For me, the most touching moment was when Dr. Gayle saw his first shooting star in over 20 years. You would have loved it.

Adam

Letters to Jonathan- Day 1: Gers and Horse Milk

Note to the reader:

            The reason we chose to come help the children and medical professionals of Mongolia was because of a dear special boy named Jonathan Soud. His love for the country he never got to visit and the foundation his parents helped establish have enabled us to provide this much needed teaching. SYou can read more about Jonathan and his reason for picking Mongolia on the Why we are going page.

            I was one of the nurses who personally took care of Jonathan and his family while he was in the hospital. I got to spend countless evenings giving him his chemo and other medications, talking to him and his family about the soccer matches that were always on the TV in his room, and tiptoeing  in during the middle of the night to make sure everything was ok.

            During my time in Mongolia, I continuously envisioned seeing the country through Jonathan’s eyes. What would Jonathan think of this mountain? How would Jonathan like this van ride? Would Jonathan eat that? This “view the country through Jonathan’s eyes” technique was most evident during the second week of our trip when we got to leave the hospital and see some of the countryside. As I experienced everything this wonderful country had to offer, I chose to journal my experiences in a daily letter to Jonathan. Over the next few days I will share my letters to Jonathan on the blog so you can also experience some of Mongolia.

Dear Jonathan -

            Now that we are done training and teaching the hospital staff so they can better help the children of Mongolia we are going to spend a few days exploring the country that you fell in love with.

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A panoramic view of the Mongolian countryside.

            We left our hotel early and met our tour guide Bazaraa and our driver Tsegi (pronounced Ziggy). We loaded up the Russian van, filled up spare gas containers, and headed east to the land of Chinggis Khaan (Americans know him as Genghis Khan, but you and I know better). As we drive along the smooth paved road by the rolling green mountains of grass and stare at the beautiful blue sky with the occasional giant puffy cloud I can’t help but think about how much you would have loved seeing this beautiful and peaceful place.    Then all the sudden the paved road ends and we are bouncing around like rag dolls inside a tin can. Saying that the unpaved roads of Mongolia are “rough” is an understatement. They are more like a poorly constructed carnival rollercoaster with every other screw missing and no safety harness.

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The 2013 Mongolia Bound Team and our Russian Van

            We stopped at a roadside attraction to hold an eagle or a vulture. You would have laughed until you fell on the ground when you saw the vulture bite me so hard that he left a bruise on my arm.

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Hanging out with a vulture.

            Our next stop was to a Mongolian homestead where the traditional nomadic family opened their home to us. Theirs was the traditional ger, a round tent with a wood stove in the middle.  The family showed us how they milked their mares (female horse) every 2 hours to keep their milk production up. Who knew you could milk a horse? They mix the mare’s milk with yeast, thousands of stirs, and months of time to ferment. The fermented mare’s milk is called airag. Being the kind hosts they were they gave us each a cup of airag as well as some cheese curds (also made from horse milk.) Trust me: it doesn’t taste any better than it sounds. I could just picture the disguised look on your face as you tasted the bitter alcoholic beverage. Then again you have a special love for Mongolia so you might have been one of the few non-Mongolians that like airag.

            Then several more hours in the tin can van of eternal bounciness and after driving through several rivers we got to a Buddhist monastery. The history behind it is amazing and you would have enjoyed every moment of the head Lama’s description, including the part where we had to climb a mountain. That’s where your running skills would have come in handy.

            After two more hours in the van we got to our base camp for the night. They have little two-story log cabins that all five of us could sleep. A quick dinner of mutton dumplings at the community hall was just enough to top us off.

What's for dinner? Mutton!

What’s for dinner? Mutton!

            The funniest part of the day was at bedtime. In the pitch black of night we fumbled through brushing our teeth in the dark. I won’t name any names, but in the dark one of the doctors accidentally used a tube of Neosporin instead of toothpaste. He did admit that Neosporin tastes better than the airag. I’m excited about all the awesome things we have planned for tomorrow.

Adam

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