Turkey photos are up on Flickr

October 10th, 2008 § Comments Off on Turkey photos are up on Flickr § permalink

Click here to see them

Squeaky clean

August 11th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

Last night we received an email from a newly made Mongolian friend, John, asking if we have had a nice foamy bath now that we’re in Korea. I wonder if we really smelled so bad that this is one of his main questions or if he just has a nicely sardonic acceptance of Mongolia’s deficits–specifically, the lack of convenient access to bathing facilities and hot water.

Having just got out of the shower moments ago, I am reveling in the thought that I have been squeaky clean for 4 days in a row now, with a bathroom ‘en suite’ and a toilet I can sit on if I choose to, toilet paper provided by someone other than myself, and access to a hot water shower whenever I like.  When we departed Mongolia, I was going on day 6 without a shower, wearing the same clothes I’d had on since my last bath. I am so thankful the immigration officer at the Seoul airport didn’t ask me to take my bandana off when checking my passport–he’d asked the gentleman ahead of me to remove his hat and upon seeing this, visions of my 6-day-old, greasy bed head on display popped into my head and worried me that I wouldn’t be allowed into the country.

Benjamin and I were both embarrassed to enter Korea as dirty backpackers, especially as the Korean people are crisp and respectable in the appearance. On the flight, Benjamin told me he couldn’t cross his legs because if his foot left contact with his shoe, the foul odor the pair had developed would waft throughout the plane’s cabin and possibly kill or maim his neighbors. I can attest that this is not an exaggeration. Our second night in Seoul was spent scrubbing both of our pairs of shoes with a bar of soap and toothbrush.

Here’s a photo of us as we left Mongolia:

Mongolia photo albums are up on Flickr

August 9th, 2008 § Comments Off on Mongolia photo albums are up on Flickr § permalink

See Cheryn’s Mongolia collection on flickr

Descriptions, tags, and all that jazz to come once back home, with time to add the details…

Picture Mongolia

August 8th, 2008 § Comments Off on Picture Mongolia § permalink

I haven’t said near enough about Mongolia and our adventures there… there was too much to do and too little internet access. Now we’re in Korea (yes! miracles happened and we made it), and there will be new stories to collect. To give you a flavor of Mongolia, I’m posting several photos, but stay on the lookout for Flickr albums coming soon…

Mongolia is all about the land, and there’s one stunning landscape after another on any drive or flight between here and there. This image was taken on our journey between Olgii and Hovd towards the end of our trip. And because there are few paved roads in Mongolia, and the terrain is so rugged, no trip is complete without the requisite breakdown or flat tire.

The most common type of restaurant found outside of Ulaan Baatar is called a guanz (canteen)–perhaps the origin of the term ‘hole in the wall’. And withing the guanz, the most common food is, of course, mutton-based and greasy. Buuz (steamed mutton dumplings) and kuushuur (fried mutton pancakes) are pictured here.

The public shower
Most hotels or ger camps don’t have hot water showers (if they have a shower at all), so if you want to bathe with something other than ice-cold water, a visit to the public bath/shower is in order! For the equivlanet of $1.00, all the hot water you can stand is yours. Never mind the aesthetic of the place–Mongolia is a time capsule of Russian Bolshevik architecture and glum aesthetics. Because it’s not convenient to go every day, we spent much of our time in Mongolia between showers.

Strawberry Ger Camp
Our last few days in Mongolia were spent at the Strawberry Ger Camp in Hovd, run by a school teacher named Amarraa, who’s set up a few gers during the summer break on the school’s grounds, and charges tourists a little over $4.00 per night. Nomads live in gers, so they can be erected and dismantled quickly. We discovered a plate of ankle bones under our bed one morning–perhaps a shamanistic ritual or misplaced keepsake? Who knows…  bones are a common sight around Mongolia–walking anywhere there always seems to be a discarded bone (or hoof or skull) in the dusty street or sidewalk.

Traditional clothing
Amarra keeps traditional costumes on hand for tourists to play dress up.

The Hovd airport

The tiny airport in Hovd, as experienced on our arrival to a flight on August 7 that had departed 5 hours early. The first image is a view back to town (Benjamin’s 5km walk)

On the road

August 8th, 2008 § Comments Off on On the road § permalink

It usually takes a a week or so to get “That” feeling. You get over your jet lag, lower your expectations of everything, adjust your gut to the local fare, downshift into the low and slow gears, and in most cases “That” feeling arrives with mixed company in establishments that serve beer and the local version of meat on a stick. A day after arriving in Olgii is when I knew I was officially on the road.

Olgii is located in the far west of Mongolia. The borders of China, Russia, and Khazakstan are all within a days driving distance. The main spoken langugage Khazak is followed by Mongolian and Russian. The people are a mix of Sufi Muslim and (insert here) mostly herders and their traditions have probably not changed for hundreds of years. Time in Olgii creeps along, unlike the wind and dust that relentlessly eat away at the soviet era buildings that populate the town. It is still pretty “wild west” out here, which seems to draw adventurous characters from all over the globe.

“That” feeling came while making friends in the local beer garden. Beer garden is a loose term here. It is more a place that the local young couples or groups of young people come to escape the very close living quarters that most families share in their Ger. It is also a place for families to come to with their children to talk, eat, and drink (the Sufi’s are a little loose and slightly tolerant with alcohol consumption) with friends. There are small pavilions scattered around a walled-in garden with a swing-set in the middle and various plastic children’s riding motorcycles or cars and some music playing. There are also 5 or 6 very small Gers that couples can rent out for maybe a little more private time, and backpackers can rent out (yes, odd as that sounds you can stay in a Ger in the beer garden). From what I could tell it was not quite a love hotel thing, the culture is fairly conservative so more a Ger of our own for a few hours kinda thing.

Back to “That” feeling. I could write pages about all the details of each eccentric character I met but it seems more fitting to just throw them out like the lost hollywood casting director’s face book that fell from the sky and blew into Olgii: the bohemian Italian pizza maker hallucinogen inspired oil painter; the Lithuanian linux head-cum-Mongolian Altai guide with a penchant for vodka and beer; the Swiss-French 21 year old girl with a hidden penchant for the Russian Soul who had hitchhiked through Russia to Olgii to try and scan the eclipse with a camera-obscura,; the professor of Botany from Moscow with his two muscle bound Russian equivalents of the Navy SEALS (these three brought out the hidden penchant of the former); the Dutch-English girl who went to high school in Saratoga CA who was taking a break from a road trip gone awry; the Australian Cambodian Ger merchant who was spending the summer ferreting out new Ger to export while staying with a local family; a tech geek from SF who worked some magic for a Khazak TV documentary film maker who happened to be filming in the area; a certain girl from SF who’d come all the way to stare at the sky for 2 minutes to see why eclipse-viewing is so addictive and found she was our eclipse expert. There are a few more characters, but that’s another night in a Ger camp down the road, and includes 4 naked men and 1 woman (yours truly, Ben and Cheryn) in a Russian Banya.

All of the above found sitting under the abundant stars around a few plastic tables and chairs in one evening in the middle of nowhere Mongolia. “That” is the warm feeling of being on the road.

How do you say ‘cluster fuck’ in Mongolian?

August 7th, 2008 § 2 comments § permalink

Since Benjamin and I are in need of a few beers at the moment, and to make my life and yours simpler at the moment, I’ll just paste in the dialog of an email conversation that sort of explains the state of things in our travels. Read from the bottom up for a thread with some semblance of sense:

I'm going to rename it as 'fucked up place'

(OK, you should know I am giggling but still, it is fucked up - we'll tell
you why later, or perhaps will all my extra time here tomorrow, I'll make
a big blog post. A preview of the story: airline reschedule flight 5 hours
early meaning we miss our flight to Ulaan Baatar and then flight to Seoul,
etc. etc. Stuck here for another day until the next flight. no more
flights to Seoul with our purchased airline until mid-September! big
clusterfuck. BK had to walk 5 km from the airport to town in scorching
Mongolia heat/desert)

Hovd, Mongolia...

It's beer o'clock!


> Well it may be nowhere, but ya got an internet connection!
> Where exactly is nowhere?
> Mark
> On Aug 5, 2008, at 11:22 PM, cheryn@destinationtbd.com wrote:
>> Awesome! Congrats!
>> B and C, in nowhere, Mongolia...
>>> X-Ray Book Co. & Industrial Mandalas
>>> are Proud to Announce X-Ray Handbook #1
>>> A series of 20 prints by Mark Faigenbaum
>>> tipped into a circa 1960's copy of
>>> Science Digest with letterpress wraps.
>>> Package design and letterpress by
>>> Johnny Brewton. Published in a
>>> limited edition of 59 copies, each
>>> numbered and signed by the Artist
>>> and Designer.
>>> $99.99 postpaid
>>> Check it out here:
>>> www.industrialmandalas.com/redemption
>>> Buy through PayPal
>>> https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_xclick&business=maf%40well%2ecom&undefined_quantity=1&item_name=INSTRUCTIONS%20FOR%20REDEMPTION%20%28Limited%20Edition%29&amount=99%2e99&no_shipping=2&currency_code=USD&lc=US&bn=PP%2dBuyNowBF&charset=UTF%2d8
>>> Or send a check or money order to:
>>> Mark Faigenbaum
>>> 611 Texas Street
>>> San Francisco, CA  94107

Total solar success

August 3rd, 2008 § 3 comments § permalink

After months of planning and hoping for success getting from point A to B to C to D (the final location being our eclipse camp), not to mention all the wishing for good weather and clear skies, the TSE (total solar eclipse) of 2008 has come and gone, and WE GOT TO SEE IT!

Only 2 minutes and 5 seconds, it was lightening fast (time never seemed to pass so instantaneously in my life)… but during totality, when the moon blotted out the sun in the sky, the sight of the glowing ring around the black orb was mesmerizing… and the sight, like a picture in a photo album, is etched into my memory even though afterwards, it felt as if the whole experience was a dream. Perhaps the sight is so surreal that the brain cannot interpret the event in any other way but as an odd concoction of sleep’s imagery.

As everyone who has witnessed a TSE has said, it was truly a spectacular sight. I can’t say it was a life changing experience – apart from the fact that any travel to foreign lands is a life changing experience – but it did add another hobby to my ever-growing roster. I’m addicted to eclipses and can now call myself an ‘eclipse chaser’, with plans as soon as I get home to make arrangements for next year’s TSE, which will be over 6 minutes in the seas south of Japan!

They say you shouldn’t bother trying to photograph the eclipse, especially for ‘eclipse virgins’ like me; it’s hard to capture unless you’re a real pro with a lot of experience (not to mention it’s a waste of time to be fiddling with your camera instead of looking at the sky). I took this image during totality, which comes nowhere close to doing the sight justice. The sun/moon looks much smaller in this photo than it did in “real life”, and the camera recorded a lot of the sun’s flare, which isn’t visible during the actual event – it sort of ruins the effect of a glowing eye, the ‘eye of God’ as some call it. There are 2 white specks captured, just left of the sun (and slightly higher) – 2 of the 4 planets visible during the eclipse. I believe the closest to the sun in Mercury and the other is Jupiter.

I have much more to say about travel in Mongolia, and the eclipse experience itself, but I would be held up in this internet cafe for a solid week if not longer, just getting it out of my head and journal. Stay tuned for more blog updates, but for the real story, I need more time (and a willing publisher).

We’ve made it to Olgii!

July 26th, 2008 § 9 comments § permalink

We have made it to Olgii, the town from which we will depart to the Tavan Bogd National Park to camp and view the eclipse. We arrived yesterday after a very BuMpPy 5-hour journey via hired jeep from Hovd. Benjamin summed the drive up nicely when he said, “It was like driving from one landscape painting into another.” It was also a bit like a safari-I didn’t realize how exciting it feels to see animals in the wild, without herder or fence.

We saw bactrian camels racing each other across the steppe (bactrian camels have 2 humps), yaks grazing near shallow but fast moving streams, herds of goats and sheep, and of course horses. Some of the landscapes we traveled through were full of rocks (more rocks than I’ve ever seen in 1 place), and some reminded me of an underwater scene, by the gradation of colors that rose from the plain up mountainsides, shifting from unreal mossy greens to blue-ish green and then brown. We also passed through a multitude of weather systems: hot and cloudless sunny skies in one instant, gray skies with wind and rain another. All along the way are the white circular-shaped gers (maybe more recognizable to you as yurts), where nomadic Mongolians live temporally-they move up to 5 times a year.

Our time in Hovd is a story in and of itself-I have several pages in my journal devoted to the brief time period of having arrived there and leaving it (less than 24 hours). I’m not sure I’ll cover all the details here, but suffice it to say that it was on arrival in Hovd, in this dusty nowhere of a place with all the charm a crumbling communist-era desert town can offer, that we started to wonder if we were really stupid for coming to Mongolia on a DIY tour.

Arriving at the airport, there are no taxis or touts as we’ve become used to in even the most remotest places in our travels (sign number 1 that you might be in over your head). Having asked a kid (named Hasha) hanging around the airport if he might give us a ride into town, we did secure transport, but he had to stop at his family’s home on the way to pick up his father because, he said with a giggle after we were on our way again, “I do not have a license.” When his father came out to the car, he was followed by the boy’s entire family who joined him, apparently, to see what Hasha had picked up or gotten himself into. Benjamin and I joked that his parentslater scolded him, “Again with the tourists? When we let you borrow the car…”

It’s unclear whether it was a random event, this family-style taxi service, so Benjamin asked, “Do you do this often?” and Hasha said that he didn’t, but nadaam was the next day (nadaam is an annual festival that involves horse racing and wrestling competitions). ‘Crap’ I thought to myself-it might be hard to find a room or a driver that wanted to leave the next day due to the festivities-our goal being get to Olgii! Get to Olgii! Get to Olgii! Indeed, it was hard to find a room, but we managed to squirrel our way to an overpriced hovel for ‘one night only’, and in the dark and after having been to another hotel that Benjamin described as ‘scary’, we were happy to pay $35.00 for a dingy room with no hot water and only 1 pillow.

Before leaving us, Hasha promised to help us find a ride to Olgii the next day-suggesting that perhaps his uncle would make the trip. He promised to return the next morning at 9 am and that he did, to our delight, for after our 1 night in Hovd, with crap for accommodation, and with Benjamin waking ill, and me feeling as if we’d landed on the moon (with all the hospitality that would entail, which is little), getting to Olgii became more of a mission than it ever was.

After a confusing morning of walking around town with Hasha, which I won’t bore you with the details, we finally ended up at the family’s home (once again with the tourists!) and made the deal in the family’s ger over milk tea, bread, and pungent yak cheese-Hasha and his uncle agreed to take us to Olgii that day. We left an hour later, after picking up a friend of Hasha’s uncle who, Hasha said, “…knows the way; there are many tracks.” Benjamin whispered to me, “I thought there was a road.” But a road in Mongolian terms is a track in the dirt-or several of them actually, running in parallel, or parting in places to overcome obstacles, such as flooded rivers or muddy traps, and others that lead off to some other place, where we didn’t want to be.

One final hitch in our grand getaway was a police check point on the one road out of town, set up to catch drivers with expired (or without) licenses. As our luck would have it, of course, Hasha’s uncle didn’t have a valid license. It was confiscated and after about 20 minutes of pleading with the police to give it back and let him be on his way, Hasha’s uncle returned to the car and drove off without it, checking the rear view mirror to make sure the police were not in pursuit. The heavy nadaam traffic kept them distracted, as well as the another police man further down the road, who we evaded by pretending to be nadaam attendees headed to the parking area (undefined as it were). Once far enough to get away undetected, Hasha’s uncle veered toward the road, and sped off leaving the issue of his license to deal with on return to town.

Benjamin and I breathed a huge sigh of relief that the issue didn’t send us back to Hovd to start the process of finding a ride all over again, especially as we’d filled the jeep’s double tanks up with petrol ($100.00) and had been feeling unlucky up until this moment, as if there were some force working against the success of our trip. For me, all along during the planning stages, getting to Olgii was always the important thing and also became the one thing that proved to be the most difficult thing to arrange. I’d always thought that once in Olgii, we could relax about the success of our eclipse trip… and we can, weather permitting.

Despite one last hurdle of maybe not having a tent to camp with (the town is dry with all the eclipse chasers), we’ve not only secured one but also found another group of DIY eclipse chasers looking for 2 people to join their group and share the cost of petrol… it’s exactly the opportunity we were looking for and it found us, while sitting right here in this internet cafe, typing up this post.

We plan to leave the day after tomorrow, on Monday and camp for 6 days. Unless I find time to write more tomorrow, the next post will be a glorious, life altering description of the sight of the eclipse… or it will be a description of a really expensive, far-away-from-home camping trip.

I do have much more to say about Mongolia in general; I have 20 full pages in my journal since arrival but have had little opportunity to write about my experiences on this blog (or have been shut down by sudden power outages).

Clear skies!

Arrival in Mongolia

July 26th, 2008 § Comments Off on Arrival in Mongolia § permalink

July 24 – Day 2

The trip here felt like one of the longest days of our lives. Yesterday, our first full day in Mongolia, I crossed three days off the calendar in my journal-two of them fully spent in airports or in the sky. The third day crossed off was spent traipsing around Ulaan Baatar bleary-eyed and foggy-minded with jet lag, so I’m not sure if it even counts.

The temperamental nature of our trip-all the unknowns and things that could go wrong in regard to logistics and weather (clouds ruin a good eclipse) have become somewhat realized, although nothing is certain still, either good or bad-which, ironically, is the only consistent thing with this trip: that nothing is certain.

When checking in to our guest house yesterday morning, Zaya (of Zaya’s Guest House) called Aero Mongolia to confirm our flights to Hovd on July 24 (today). Hovd is part 1 of a 3 part journey within Mongolia to our proposed camp and eclipse site. Her call resulted in a lengthy conversation with the booking agent, during which I thought to myself how wonderful it was I didn’t understand the language, because if I could follow along, and due to the length and tone of the conversation, I’m sure I would have been stressed out-there was obviously some problem, but it’s easy to ignore and defer worrying about it when you don’t know what it is.

It turns out that in early July, during the riots that happened in Ulaan Baatar regarding election results, the airline’s office was burned down and they consequently had no records. Somehow, though, they knew the flight was fully booked and apparently Benjamin and I were not on their passenger list. Zaya threatened the airline with having to pay for our travels and they suddenly found seats, but recommended we get to the airport super early to get them. Later in the day, Zaya left a note on our door that the airline needed us to present ourselves to their office in person, as the departure time had changed from 11:00 am to 5:30 pm.

Having done that, somewhat skeptical whether or not we actually have seats, our plan is to arrive to the airport super super early instead of just super early as recommended to make sure we get a boarding pass.

Getting on Mongol time

July 20th, 2008 § 1 comment § permalink

I haven’t felt this way since I left on our last trip. Granted our last trip was more grandiose in scale and emotion particularly on a more personal level. If you aren’t familiar with it I suggest you yield and get a flavor of it and then read on.

While the scale and time frame are much shorter in comparison, the stress and anxiety level are still the same about leaving. No I am not selling all of my stuff (phew), no I am not worried to much about what to wear, no I am not worried about what I may have forgotten and need, no I don’t have to find a new job in a culture I left a year ago. I have a whole new set of unknowns: Why I am taking my tent, a sleeping bag, a GPS unit (oh thank you Molly D!)(which I do take comfort that I will be able to find my way back if I get lost), adopting an optimistic attitude about mutton, looking forward to fermented mares milk, man I hope we find a driver that will take us further into an already remote area of the globe that we have never been to, did I tell the guys at work about the idiosyncrasies of rebooting the server on a Friday? That last one was eating away at me on Thursday night, but after the smooth, painless and happy smiles of the stand-in tech team training on Friday I feel a great weight lifted. Smooth sailing Boys!

Five weeks total on the road and three weeks of those on literally no roads to nowhere to witness something that has been referred to as “a spiritual experience”, “seeing the eye of the universe”, “Amazing, brilliant, awesome, mystical, super, incredible, heavenly, and out-of-sight! , an emotional experience” “addictive” according to the eclipse chasers group on yahoo. I must point out that we have to be in the right place and the right time (in the right middle of nowhere) to actually see this phenomenon. All of this with little to no confirmation of transport or lodgings has me a bit stressed out and very excited at the same time. But hey it is Mongolia, I thrive in this kind of chaos, what do I have to worry about. Everything I have read indicates that Mongolia is actually the largest campground on Earth. Tent, sleeping bag, GPS, open mind, mmmm mutton, sense of adventure, seeing something few have seen, yeah here we go!
04:27=19:27 tomorrow in Mongol Time