Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Apple Praised and Censured, Divine Intervention, Teachers' Day

Tuesday 30th January 2007
Just to reassure those of you who may have been thinking of starting up a crisis fund to help me out of my recent technical difficulties - my iBook eventually recovered, through its own mysterious means. No damage done - although the date on the calendar was mysteriously changed to 1970. I should also post my apologies to Project Gutenberg and the author(s) of the King James Bible - it seems that iTunes and its system-choking Album Artwork feature were the source of my processing meltdown.

Furthermore, I was paid in full by my dear Turkish friend, thanks, apparently, to the good grace of Allah, who saw to it that the school managed to sell some text books. I am reluctant, however, to have future remuneration dependent on the intervention of the deity. Some heated words were regretably spoken last night, but, cash in my pocket, I don't hold any hard feelings.

Meanwhile, Thursday will be "Teachers' Day" for which all kinds of exciting activities have been planned at a ger-restaurant outside the city. I can't reveal much about the planned activities as the meeting I was required to attend today for my 'team'(?) at the forthcoming festivities was held entirely in Mongolian and - presumably to allow me the thrill of surprise - noone bothered to translate any of it. Watch this space.

Weather report: Conditions have been sub-tropical: Saturday was a sweltering -6c with a breeze that I would have sworn was balmy. This has cleared the smog, although since Saturday there has been a bit of a bite in the air again.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Technical Problems, Performing Cats, Nurses are Women

Monday 29th January 2007
Thursday I had the joy of experiencing meltdown with my iBook, quite possibly as a result of downloading the King James Bible from the Project Gutenberg site. My laptop now won't boot up, which may be repairable with a system restore disc - unfortunately mine is nestled away in a packing case somewhere in Liverpool, and Apple don't seem to have got an awful lot of suppliers out here in Mongolia.

I cheered myself up by going to see the visiting Russian circus on Saturday afternoon. I was particularly drawn by the feature in the UB Post which promised performing dogs and cats. I was not disappointed - my particular favourite being the cat which lay on its back in a special harness and rolled a ball on its feet. The acrobats and trapeze artists were all Mongolian and pretty impressive. On the whole though, the circus was a very scrappy affair. The kids in the seats surrounding us had been to see it three times, and mostly came for the tigers in the Grand Finale. One of the kids admonished me for clapping too enthusiastically during a trapeze act.

Through asking my colleagues and students I have learned that the overwhelming majority of Mongolians express a marked aversion to cats. By way of explanation I have been told a rather involved story concerning a Buddhist monk who crucified a cat and set the creature adrift on a river. The cat was rescued and nursed back to health. Years later the monk passed by the cat's home and the vengeful creature attacked him and bit through his jugular. Well, so I was told.

Over the weekend I worked recording a CD of basic English grammar - spending hours reading out lists of words and sentences such as: "The pen is on the table", "Mr Smith is going to work", and "Nurses are women." The grammar book is the work of my Turkish night school employer, a very charming man and tireless self-promoter. His own name finds its way into his exercises, such as "Our English Teacher Mr ------ is very good" and "'Who are two good writers?' 'Charles Dickens and Mr ------ are two good writers.'" I haven't actually been paid for my work yet, which situation is almost made worthwhile by the overblown excuses and promises calling down God as a witness that I will certainly be paid by noon tomorrow. I'm due to work at the night school this evening - for the fourth day running I was promised I would be paid by noon yesterday - that he would phone me and come to wherever I was to bring me my money. I am looking forward to hearing his latest excuse this evening. In the meantime, I am looking to find another evening job.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Full English, White Moon, Abraham Lincoln's Vices

Thursday 25th January
Without the chaotic pressure of school, the past week has been quite relaxing. I am ashamed to report that I haven't been out to the mountains, hunted any wolves or ridden any horses during my holiday. My excuse is that I have kept myself quite busy by teaching two conversation classes each day. I am enjoying teaching the conversation classes, largely because it has been made very clear that my duty there consists of chatting amiably and encouraging my students to do so.

One frequent subject of my conversations with students has been the upcoming festival of 'White Moon' - which, being the Mongolian new year, is second only to the summer Nadaam Festival. The festival, which I believe falls on the 18th of February this year, is a time that Mongolians traditionally spend with their family doing three things - drinking milk tea, vodka and eating 'buuz'. Buuz are boiled meat dumplings, and I am repeatedly assured that that nothing but buuz are eaten throughout the festival. As with Nadaam, there will also be wrestling and horse-racing: as everybody knows, the horse-racing is done by children in Mongolia, and promises to be an interesting spectacle. The reigning champion of Sumo in Japan is a Mongolian, Asashoryu, and by all accounts he is having another very promising year so far. Last night a Mongolian friend told me that Asashoryu's brother won the Nadaam wrestling bout last year. He also told me that Asashoryu was sent to Japan to compete in Sumo by his father in hopes that the traditions of the Japanese sport would help to improve his son's temper and undisciplined character. Asashoryu is a much beloved character in Mongolia, I have heard numerous stories of how he is liable to punch in the face anyone who doesn't show him enough respect, and then consider that person to be honoured to be felled by such a legendary fist. The Speyside distillery have recently begun marketing Yokozuna whisky in Mongolia in honour of the great man - Yokozuna being the highest ranking in Sumo. This week's edition of the UB Post informs me that Asashoryu has won this his 20th 'Basho' and is now ranked as the 5th greatest Sumo wrestler of all time.

For the time being I have transferred my bibulary loyalties from the Grand Khan Irish Pub to Dave's Place English Pub. Cornering the proprietor (Dave, of course) late on Saturday night whilst he was engaged in a merry game of Jenga with some of his regulars quite happily acquiesced to my playing some banjo at the bar on Sunday evening. A proportion of vodka in his veins at the time may have been responsible for his carefree decision - certainly when I arrived at the pub on Sunday morning for a Full English breakfast he seemed a bit apprehensive about any details that might have been agreed to in regard to my playing. I hastened to reassure Dave that nothing had been promised, only that he had agreed that I might come down and play that evening and 'see how things go.' When I returned to the bar as arranged at 7pm to pick, Dave happened to be absent on business elsewhere. The various customers who left as I played were careful to express their gratitude for my performance as they passed me on their way out.

Dave's Full English and his meat pie and chips are very good. There is something very reassuring in knowing that there is no corner of the globe where an Englishman cannot begin his day with fried eggs, bread, mushrooms, bacon, sausage and tomato, accompanied by toast and baked beans. Here in Ulaanbaatar that can only be achieved satisfactorily on a Sunday morning, if Dave's confident dismissal of the Grand Khan's Full English is to be credited: but I think once a week is enough. Afterall, I don't want to be thouht of as a xenophobic, homesick ex-Pat, railing about the indignity of being forced to eat all this foreign muck, and not being able to get a decent pint of bitter and people not knowing how to queue properly.

Abraham Lincoln was inordinately fond of telling raucous and rough-hewn tales, at the slightest provocation and particularly to illustrate his point in an argument. Gore Vidal's excellent biographical novel 'Lincoln' illustrates this side of Lincoln's character very strikingly throughout. Doubtless one important source for Vidal was "Lincoln's Yarns and Stories" by Colonel Alexander McClure, a very lengthy collection of hundreds of Lincoln's annecdotes - some, no doubt, apocryphal, but most as reported by this or that person and covering Lincoln's life from his early days as an Illinois lawyer to the long and difficult years of the Civil War. The book is an extremely entertaining oral history, possibly of wider interest than to Civil War obsessives like myself, and is my recommendation for the week from the Project Gutenberg free e-book website. My favourite quote isn't from one of Lincoln's stories, but from one of the editor's introductions to a tall-tale:

It is true that Lincoln did not drink, never swore, was a
stranger to smoking and lived a moral life generally, but he did
like horse-racing and chicken fighting.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Half-term, Wolf Hunting, Palace of Culture, Laxative Clyster No.20

Saturday 20th January 2007
The school holidays have begun, with a tremendous wave of joy and relief all around. We were to have one week’s holiday, but Friday morning I learned that the school management had met with the teachers and decided to give us two weeks holiday instead. Naturally I was very happy at the news, although if I had known how long I would get as a break I might have made arrangements to do something with my time. As it is, because of my committments to teach in the evenings, it is going to be difficult for me to get away from the city for more than a couple of days and I find myself wondering what I can do with all my spare time. Most of my students are going abroad - to Thailand, south China, London, and Korea. A lot of the kids’ parents work for the school’s owning corporation, and there jetting off in two chartered planes for warmer climes for a week - or now maybe two. I’m most envious of the students who are going to the countryside. One student did very kindly invite me to go skiing with his friends and himself at the weekend, which I felt a bit of a coward in declining his offer. I haven’t skied (skiied?) before and I feel fairly certain that there are dozens of better ways for me to break my leg whilst over here. Another student is going hunting with his father 300km away from the city. Two of his uncle's horses were recently “eaten by wolves” and he is very much hoping to hunt the creatures responsible.

Wolf-hunting is a subject of passionate enthusiasm for many Mongolians. Wolves are hunted with rifles and night sights and with bows and arrows,they are stalked on foot, chased on horseback or fired at from the comfort of a Mitsubishi Shogun. A student in my night-school class very eloquently explained the national obsession, and poured scorn on the objections of Europeans who had been shocked to learn during a study visit he made to Ireland that he enjoyed killing wolves. “We hunt the wolf and kill them. When we find their hole, we pull out the wolf cubs and kill them, but we leave one alive. Then, when this cub is grown he makes noise - awooo! - and brings the other wolf, they hear him, and we kill them too.” Something every Mongolian confirms when I ask is that “no part of the wolf is wasted.” A lot of the Mongolians who I have discussed wolf-hunting with have been tour guides, or from the middle and upper classes of UB society. They have told me that, once killed, they give the carcass to the “countryside people, who are very poor.” This seems quite an act of generosity, as from their accounts the individual parts of a wolf when sold have a total value around $1000. Whether this figure is accurate I don’t know, but certainly every Mongolian I have asked has stated an absolute belief in the medicinal qualities of the wolf: which is to say that following a fairly straightforward homeopathic rule you eat wolf liver for cirrhosis, lung for bronchitis; the brain is a cure for headaches, the heart for pulmonary ailments; wolf throat beats lemsip every time, and of course the wolf testicles, preferably eaten as soon as the wolf is slain, will guarantee a man unshakable vigour and virility. Most people I have spoken to have a personal testament to the efficacy of these cures.

Assuming that noone invites me to go wolf-hunting, I find myself at the beginning of the holiday well-disposed towards the notion of doing some class preparation. So far, preparing for a class has meant knowing roughly what grade of students I was to be teaching and checking my notes from the previous lesson (usually something like "No students brought books to class. Most students settled down to answer p.67 q2 once 5 mins of lesson remained."). Now I have two weeks' breathing space I supppose I can sit down and plan lessons properly.

A student from my night school class took me to the 'Swiss library' which has quite a lot of decent books on the subject of teaching English. The library is nestled in the 'Cultural Palace' on Sukhbaatar Square: a fine building which contains a theatre, the Ulaanbaatar symphony, numerous other small libraries and also Dave's Place English Pub (a cosy little cellar bar frequented by Anglophonic ex-pats, where you can eat very passable 'real English chips' and also cheese and baked bean toasties).

I am constantly looking for reading material. I have recently become an avid downloader of e-books from the Project Gutenberg site. The website has thousands of out-of-copyright books in its catalogue and the books are free to download and distribute as you see fit, which is a considerable resource indeed. There's a lifetime of reading material on there. Reading books off a screen isn't the chore you may imagine it to be when it's the only way of getting something worth reading. Reading in the bath is a bit more of a problem. The e-book format has many advantages - for example, using the 'find' feature of your word-processing software to scan through the complete works of Shakespeare, the King James bible or the unabridged Pepys diaries makes a very useful research tool. And it's free! Some of the books are available in audio format. Obscurities that you would have to pay a lot of money for in print, such as 'The King in Yellow' and 'The House-Boat on the Styx' are yours for the click of a button.

I was delighted to find on Gutenberg a book I have been trying to get a copy of for years: 'Enquire Within Upon Everything' the ultimate Victorian gentleman's guide to, well, everything of course. A friend once had a copy he found at a flea-market. The section of medical advice will give many hours of hilarious reading, and is really quite an alarming insight into the state of medicine in the late 1800s. They make Mongolian wolf-cures look like the height of medicinal sophistication. To treat 'Hysterics': "the fit may be prevented by the administration of thirty drops of laudanum, and as many of ether." Inflammation of the brain? "Application of cold to the head, bleeding from the temples or back of the neck by leeches or cupping... Avoid excitement, study, intemperance." 'Cupping' is one of the treatments used against mad King George - placing a glass cup on the back of the patient and heating it with a candle to cause blisters. May possibly make 'avoiding excitement' a bit of a problem. The dutiful husband is advised to treat 'scanty' menstruation from his wife by (in 'strong patients') "'cupping' the loins [and] exercise in the open air." Is your child suffering convulsions? "If during teething, free lancing of the gums, the warm bath, cold applications to the head, leeches to the temples, an emetic, and a laxative clyster, No. 20." 'Laxative clyster no. 20' by the way is a "pint and a half of gruel or fat broth, a tablespoonful of castor oil, one of common salt, and a lump of butter; mix, to be injected slowly. A third of this quantity is enough for an infant." For those unfamiliar with the term, a clyster is an enema. That should keep the buggers from convulsing.

Monday, 15 January 2007

Yod, Celebrity Evening Class

Monday 15th January 2007
Are you getting enough Yod? I know I’m preaching to the converted here, friends, but the advice on the back of the bag of Bamash Co. salt I bought today set me worrying that some poor souls out there might be neglecting the yod element of their diet:

“Salt with yod can protect human body from yod deficiency and prevent body from pathogeny because of yod deficiency as well as its aftermath reliable.”

So please, folks, keep up your yod intake this winter, or face the aftermath reliable.

Fans of Guys666 will be disappointed to learn that although I did meet the Guys today they did not take my class, for obscure reasons (yod deficiency?) that escaped me at the time. Apparently it has something to do with the fact that they are going to Korea for Valentines Day. Whatever the reason, I was able to hide my disappointment from my non-boy band students, and teach my first English beginners class. I think it went ok.

Whilst I cannot now boast to my school students that I teach the coolest soft-rap band in Mongolia, at least I do not have to face the prospect of Guys666 releasing a song about what a boring and bad-tempered teacher I am.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Health, Horses

Sunday 14th January 2007
Some revealing articles in the Mongol Messenger last Tuesday. The results of a ‘Health bribery survey’ have been published. The survey covered 1400 people who have used medical services across Mongolia, also 228 medical staff responded to the questions. 68.4% of patients claimed to have given bribes of up to T30,000 (40.8% of respondents earned T50,000 - 100,000 per month). According to the messenger: “Of hospital staff, 48.1% of those who admitted to accepting bribes earned T50,000-100,000 a month; 34.1% earned T100,000 - 200,000; 4.3% earned over T300,00.” The article does not report what percentage of the 228 medical staff admitted to taking bribes - perhaps the meaning is that all these 228 did so. Furthermore, it doesn’t indicated whether the reported earnings are salary or from bribes. However, the article goes on to quote Survey team head M Batbaatar: “In Dornod Aimag [district], the local level of bribery is that a surgical patient should give T20,000 to the surgeon and T5,000 to each nurse. In Ulaanbaatar, with its higher cost of living, people pay more.” The salaries of medical staff are very low, and the bribes are generally referred to by citizens as ‘informal payments.’

Front page news is that Health Minister L Gundalai has been dismissed by the Prime Minister M Enkhbold, because he has been “unable to maintain the principle of cabinet solidarity... operated a mistaken personnel policy... fought with the Environment Minister [literally?]... and displayed an unethical and inappropriate character.” The Health Minister strongly denies these accusations. There is no mention of the bribery survey or the general reported decline in medical services being a factor in his dismissal, although speaking at a public rally, L Gundalai did say “...I was Health Minister for 11 months. The sector... suffer[ed] from corruption and red tape. I have been unable to do much about this because of much pressure.” I do not know what the allegations of an “inappropriate character” specifically refer to. As it happens, I had recently been told a first hand anecdote about a morning meeting somebody had with the minister when said minister was, in the British political euphemism, ‘tired and emotional’ - that is to say ‘tired and emotional as a newt’ - but I am given to understand that this is by no means uncommon here (or Westminster or presumably anywhere else for that matter). It would seem to me, however, that if in a speech at a rally of your supporters after your dismissal that you can say that after 11 months in your job you have been “unable to do much” then it is probably unsurprising that most Ulaanbaatans are less then enthusiastic (and light years from optimistic) on the subject of politics and government.

The subject of air pollution, in the same issue of the Messenger, paints a further grim picture of the health situation in Ulaanbaatar. Head of the Mongolian Green Coalition (founded January 4th), O Bum-Yalagch quotes the Social Health Institute as finding Nitrogen Dioxide to be 1.5 times the safe limit, Carbon Monoxide 4.2 times higher and “dust” 7.8 times. In response the ‘Hydrology, Meteorology and Environment Monitoring Office Air Pollution Quality Department’ said that “at present we have no equipment to detect the six basic pollutants, so we can only measure SO 2 and NO 2 at our four Ulaanbaatar monitoring points.” Presumably there wasn’t much left in the budget after paying to get their letterheads printed. If the government cannot at present actually be bothered to measure the air pollution, any hope that something effective is going to be done about it remains somewhat forlorn.

For myself then, I was very happy this weekend to take an extremely healthy trip out to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, some 40 km or so East out of UB. The park is a very popular destination in summer, and well served by tourist camps. Mathieu and Francois - the intrepid French travellers I met last week, were heading out there to stay at a ger. Also coming along was their fellow francophone Marie, a Swiss ceramicist currently travelling before taking up a 6 month placement at a Chinese university. The trip was organised through their hostel, the UB Guesthouse (http://www.ubguest.com) and there being 4 of us cost a very reasonable $30 a head, which compared favourably to other prices we were quoted. Furthermore the UB Guesthouse seems a pretty decent place to stay, being clean and centrally located, and costing only $5 a night (although it does have a midnight curfew “for the safety of guests”). For that we would get 3 meals, ger accommodation and a 2 hour horse ride.

Our taxi left the hostel some time around 10am. I recognised most of the route from my trip to Baganuur with Tso and Shinee’s family. There seemed to be a little more traffic on the bumpy and icy road. We had to stop here and there to let a herds of goat and cows pass, and at one point our driver executed a quick swerve to avoid a giant lump of coal that dropped off the back of a lorry travelling in the opposite direction and hurtled towards us. In around an hour we were in the Terelj Park. The park is spectacularly beautiful. Anyone who’s mental image of Mongolia consists only of wide empty grasslands would be surprised at the scenery in this region - there are forests and wide (now frozen) rivers, and the rocky crags and outcrops of the hills and mountains are more familiar from images of America’s west. As we stood drinking in the surrounding scenery at our camp, Marie (I think) remarked that in every direction was a different view, something else to stop you and demand your attention.

The park is doubtless beautiful in the green of spring and summer, but has its own appeal under a white winter blanket. Apart from the unearthly beauty is the scarcity of other visitors. There are many tourist camps in the Park and most are deserted for winter. Hoardings alongside the road advertise modern hotels and ‘Western bathrooms’ - we also passed a camp with a football pitch and a basketball court. We didn’t know until we arrived, but our own accommodation was in as single ger next to the ger and winter stables of a herder family, rather than in one of the larger and indeed pleasant but perhaps slightly sterile tourist camps. There was, in fact, a camp consisting of a dozen ger and three or four Swiss chalet just a few hundred metres around the valley’s corner from us, but it may as well have been a hundred miles away, being mostly empty, and hidden from us by a rocky spur of timeworn rocks topped by giant boulders.

The fire was blazing noisily in the rusted stove of our ger when we arrived, each to climb one of the five slightly short and stiff but comfortable enough beds around the walls. With some intuition that our lunch would be a couple of hours away yet, we had a little walk and look around the slopes and boulders surrounding the encampment. Before we were overwhelmed by the tranquility of the scenery, the herders’ children called us over to where they were throwing themselves into a deep drift of snow, and we spent the next hour with them sledging down a near vertical slope, being vigourously attacked and snowballed, until we were able to wearily trudge back to our home - where the fire had faltered but not died, and was quickly revived. Lunch was simple but adequate - a plate of fried meat and vegetables with rice, and also happily with some herbs and so a little more flavour than what I have started to get increasingly picky about eating at the school. Accompanied by a large flask of tea, the meal was followed by a spontaneous and simultaneous 40 winks.

The temperature began to drop threateningly as the fire died again, which woke us all up pretty effectively. We went out and scrounged some more wood for the fire, and 2pm being on us, hung about expectantly for the afternoon’s horse ride to start. Our hosts prepared our horses - very promisingly one had earlier bitten Mathieu and left a sizeable hole in his sheepskin coat. Being on the large side I got the largest horse - which could not have been mistaken for a pony but was obviously short (although extremely stocky) by comparison to the breeds we’re used to calling horses. After the ride, one of our hosts, maybe the senior guy, said the horse was a siberian breed, and cost $5,000. Our horses saddled we mounted them, without any nonsense such as instructions on how to handle our steeds or basic safety - we’d all ridden a horse at least once before in the distant past, so of course that would have been entirely unnecessary. Actually, they proved to be very sensible horses and required very little from us as riders, except not to freeze to death. It was a little on the cold side, I’m thinking probably below -20c. Naturally, we were all wrapped up as much as humanly possible, but after an hour or so it was a challenging environment. The beauty of the scenery entirely made up for any hardship experienced. Personally, I was very happy with my outfitting, and my Mongolian boots certainly did the job they were made for. I would recommend gloves to anyone else giving it a try, however, and regret not replacing mine after losing them a few weeks ago.

As we rode along up and down over small hills in the narrow valley, our guide either helpfully whipped at our horses to encourage them to canter, or sang incredibly lonesome and soulful traditional songs. The sun was disappearing behind the mountains before us when we arrived at our destination, and very grateful dropped off our equally grateful mounts, hitched them to a post and entered a warm and cosy ger I took to be the home of our guide, where his wife had prepared tea and fried dough cakes. The children watched a movie on tv, while we gratefully drank the warm tea and defrosted to the point that the return would be possible.Going back of course, the horses though more tired were easier to encourage to canter, and as the landscape was darkening and our faces were muffled by hats and scarves, as we were jolted up and down or our horses occasionally stumbled in the snow (though they were extremely sure-footed, as you’d expect them to be), it was an exciting ride. I’m aching a little, as I write this now (in my straight backed living room chair - which has proven to be some bizarre soviet or Mongolian concept of a Lazy Boy, having a hidden footrest though still no way of reclining the 90 degree back), but not as sore as I expected to be, and still enchanted by the experience.

Our fire, happily, had been taken care of by our hosts, so we returned to warmth and comfort. The evening meal was buuz (meatballs) followed by booze (vodka), a game involving taking turns trying to guess what each other had drawn, and possibly a degree of banjo playing also. There was much Gallic smoking of cigarettes and conversation that although I couldn’t understand, I could at least follow the gist of - which for me makes a welcome change. We went out to look at the night sky - slightly clouded but still compelling, and were rewarded with two shooting stars - the first being particularly bright and long, and my eyes tricked me into seeing a trail of vapour following it, which I suppose couldn’t have happened. Finally, our wood box stocked and a bucket of coal tipped into the stove, we turned in, probably only around 9.30pm, but surely having had a full day. It was incredibly hot at first, to the extent that breathing was difficult, but naturally the fire cooled down soon enough. Of course we’d been warned by people not to let the fire go out, as however cosy the ger are with the stove burning, the outside temperature is going to quickly make steps to assert itself once the stove goes cold. I first woke around 12, the temperature now extremely pleasant and checked the stove to find the embers still quite fiercely glowing, and so probably unnecessarily loaded up more wood. Woke again at 2, 3 and 7am - when I put the last two sticks onto the fairly sparsely strewn glowing coals. Our cheery guide of the previous evening came in around 8.30 maybe, and it seems he was able to get a new fire started from the ashes of the previous one, so we’d lasted the night pretty well. It was cool now in the ger but not cold - in pretty short order it was a furnace again, making breakfast a little difficult to manage, but welcome all the same.

Got a great deal of satisfaction before leaving from helping our guide to push an unwieldy two-wheeled wooden cart to the well in the outbuildings of the tourist camp. The system for the return was for one of the kids to cling to the top of the barrel to prevent it from slipping or spilling. We got the water back without mishap.

Finally, our taxi arrived and we waved our good byes and returned to the city. All-in-all it had been an unforgettable experience - would have been worth it had it cost more, extremely good value as it was. We left a T20,000 tip when we left, which there had been no prompting at all for and which was surely deserved by these very gracious and hardworking people. I hope to get back out and stay there again some time.

On leaving the park the car was stopped by an ominous array of police and military types. No one could explain at the time - but indicated that we needed to wash our hands, then pass through a green canvas decontamination tent. We were told we wouldn’t need to wear the gas masks waiting on a table outside. After walking across some white chalky substance, we were allowed to get back in our taxi and leave. I assumed it was related to foot and mouth or something - and indeed on our return found a reference in the Messenger to a recent outbreak in livestock of smallpox, and measures being taken to contain it.

Photographs to follow. Meanwhile if you cannot wait, please checkout those posted at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ulaanbaanjo

Monday, 8 January 2007

Workaholic, Encore en Bogdkhaan Uul, Bones, Rocks, Peanuts

Monday 8th January 2007
It has been a while since I’ve had the chance to sit down and write either this or the many emails and letters I have promised people (sorry). I could blame myself (congenital laziness, watching too much TV, having nothing worth writing, etc) but the fact is that my conniving employer tricked me into agreeing to produce 8 exam papers by today. It would be “no problem at all,” I boasted. I managed to ‘finish’ (well, slightly more than start) 4 papers by about 9.30pm last night, when I angrily threw my books aside, cursed my boss for allowing me to agree to such a head-wrecking task, and watched a DVD of ‘Snakes on a Plane’ (accompanied by a few vodka and cokes) in rebellion. I dreamt of exam questions all night. When I set a reading piece in the classroom, I have no problem coming up with a half dozen thoughtful and engaging questions that manage to both test the students’ abilities and enable them to learn from the process. Multiple choice, fill in the blanks (which is what are preferred for exam papers here) I find it takes me half an hour to come up with one facetiously worded question, ie - (from my first paper) Complete the following sentence using a gerund:

It is very annoying for me ________(deal) with sudden changes in my schedule.

I didn’t even know what a gerund was until a few weeks ago. And I spelled sentence ‘sentance.’

Of course, I took the correct approach to informing my boss that I hadn’t done the work I’d agreed to do: I went to her office first thing this morning and complained at great length about my incompetence in the area of test writing. I’ve been given a week’s reprieve.

It is very refreshing being in a job where, owing to a complete absence of any other suitable candidates, I can be honest about my failings. There is no need to lie and claim to be punctual, hard-working, competent, etc. Today I went to visit the Turkish teacher’s language school. He very much wants me to start working for him. At present his courses are indeed taught by “100% foreign English teachers” as his literature boasts, but he has not attempted to hide from me that he really, really needs to hire a native speaker. We discussed terms. “I have to tell you,” I said, “I’ve no previous experience teaching English, am extremely lazy and not at all drawn to the idea of hard work.” I start next Monday, teaching 2 hours in the evening Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

I’m promised that I’ll be paid a decent salary - I’ll check exactly how much tomorrow (if it’s T10,000, ie £4 an hour then that buys a decent meal at a restaurant). After talking terms though (and me further saying that the salary is very important to me regardless of my ability) my new boss then told me that one of my students will be a member of the Mongolian group Guys666! That’s the fellers who are currently pictured on the back of Hite beer cans, and who I previously mentioned in the blog here.If I’d known that I’d be teaching Guys666 then I would have agreed to work for nothing.

In all serious, though, although I am congenitally lazy, I think I may enjoy the tutoring job, and it should be an interesting change to teach students who are all motivated to learn.

Yesterday, other than spending a few weary hours in the evening attempting to work, I spent the day out hiking in the Bogdkhaan Uul again - this time dragging two young french travellers, Mathieu and Francois, along with me, so as not to be trespassing on my own. There was fresh snow on the ground, creating a pleasant contrast with my previous hike; the sun, of course, shone as brightly as ever and again there was barely a breath of wind. Crossed the path of many more people out gathering firewood. At the top of a mountain pass Francois found two camel heads and two horse heads left at the foot of a pile of stones (an ‘ovobo’ I think the word is) presumably for shamanic reasons.Unfortunately the powdery fresh snow was not as good for sledging on the plastic sack I’d saved from my previous trip. Mathieu and Francois are travelling on the Trans-Mongolian, with the aim of eventually heading to Kazakhstan and driving back to France. They keep a blog of their travels at onetrip-onenoise.over-blog.com (written in French for some reason)

Saturday I went to the Museum of Natural History. The Gobi desert has been the location of some of the most important finds in palaentology, and Ulaanbaatar has some of the most significant finds in this splendid and very soviet era museum. I was most excited to see the fossil of two dinosaurs who died locked in (assuredly) mortal combat: the only such dinosaur remains in the world. I don’t know what dinosaurologists say, but my 2 minute inspection led me to conclude that the smaller dinosaur, which looks in a pretty bad shape, managed, with a kick of its sharply clawed feet, to rip the stomach out of the more powerful-looking one in its death-throes. There are also about half a dozen dinosaur egg nests, and (ah!) a fossilized nest of deceased newly hatched dinosaurs.

An irresistable appeal to me of the Museum of Natural History is the building itself, which is as soviet-era forbidding and run-down as you could hope to imagine. I will return someday soon and pay the T5000 photography fee to take pictures of the walls and dimly lit corridors. This is a real Natural History museum, with stuffed birds and insects pinned to cards. No high falutin’ interactive displays - unless you count iron meteorites that you can rub or try to pick up (heavy) when the attendants aren’t watching.

As I didn’t bring my notebook with me I couldn’t jot down any of the gems of asian English from the display labels. To compensate, here’s the label from the back of a chinese packet of salted peanuts:


Thursday, 4 January 2007

Television, Inertia

Thursday 4th January 2007
I’m told that we’ve been having an exceptionally mild winter. There were only a handful of days it snowed through December, and the temperature usually remained above -20c during the day. It has snowed all day today - a very light and powdery snow, as previously, but the constant fall has led now to a little over a half inch on the ground; for what may be the first time in my month here there are irregular little gusts of wind. Winter may be coming on.

School continues fine, ups and downs, but continues, and behaviour has improved immensely. Sadly, the students are starting to make salient criticisms of my teaching methods and pertinent suggestions, forcing me to pay more attention to them and their needs. Sigh.

Today we had fish for lunch! Rather than adapting to the diet I’ve been getting fussier and fussier over my eating at school. I just can’t work up an appetite for a mound of meat and rice, in very much a natural gravy, accompanied by three or four slices of carrot - day in and day out. The dinner ladies don’t seem to be able to overcome the instinct to give me manly-sized servings - possibly because I always do my best to prevent them from seeing how much I am throwing away at the end of every lunch

I continue to face unanticipated requests to do additional work: this week, to produce 6 exam papers by Monday (so far managed to do about a quarter of one), which I agreed to without any thought about how difficult it is to write a balanced test paper. I suppose I will have to write six deeply unbalanced papers instead. What I did whinge about was being asked to teach 4 additional hours of lessons for a month to coach 6 leading students for an upcoming inter-school English ‘Olympiad’. A - I need those four hours to prepare for (and, more importantly, recover from) my scheduled lessons. B - If the students did a fraction of the work expected of them, maybe they wouldn’t need additional coaching? And if they do need coaching then why don’t their wealthy parents pay for it? Graciously, I agreed to do it.

Later in the day a Turkish part-time teacher asked whether I might be interested in any work at his English language school - so I’ll be meeting with him after school Monday. Which reminds me that I’d promised to volunteer my greatly-in-demand teaching abilities to the CNCF this week - must give them a call again tomorrow.

The question now is whether I can fit all these commitments into my busy schedule. I have become a bit of a TV addict since finding my way about the schedules. Other than The Simpsons, Arrested Development, The Office (American version - which, dare I say, is fresher and funnier than the original -sorry) and Seinfeld, the Korean KBS World channel usually has English subtitles has some great soap operas and historical dramas; there’s a Japanese channel which doesn’t have subtitles but an excellent sci-fi kung-fu series which seems to be on all the time, and is maybe about a group of hot young women and cool dudes half of whom have been brainwashed into hunting down the others (I think); Russian TV has a lot of slapstick comedy programs which are pretty easy to follow - the main comedian in a sketch show bears an uncanny resemblance to Vic Reeves, with blond hair and a tash. Sadly the dozens of Mongolian channels are less than compelling on the whole - although there’s always a music video worth catching on some time - I saw the ‘Beer Band’ on one channel recently, with my good friend Lhagvaa (or Ganko, I’m still unclear on the name) on vocals. Unfortunately I don’t get the Knowledge Channel - a Mongolian channel which shows BBC DVDs (‘Life of Plants’, ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’, etc) all day (at the end of the program a blue ‘DVD Eject’ screen comes up, followed by ‘DVD Loading’ and ‘Play’). I can always catch a Premiership game if I want to see the footy - pirated from Sky Sports or Setanta. I don’t think much attention is paid to international copyright here yet. It doesn’t appear to be possible anywhere in the country to buy CDs or DVDs that aren’t Chinese copies (and on the whole very high quality copies too, except of latest releases, which are usually video-cammed).

I am ashamed to admit that I have so far made no attempt to find out where I can catch some traditional Mongolian music, which I hope to rectify soon. Not that I’m not getting enough culture, as you can well see. Fortunately, I have run out of the delicious bubble-and-squeak type concoction that my cleaner knocked up for me from the odds and ends in my fridge, and which I’ve been living off for a week (supplemented by a more than adequate carrot and potato soup which I cooked myself) - so I may possibly be able to save ‘Snakes on a Plane’ for another evening, and to brave the elements and get myself out of my cosy apartment to a restaurant to eat this evening. Damn, Seinfeld’s started, and I’ve only seen this episode a few times before - I’ll head out to Los Bandidos curry house just as soon as it’s over. And if I’m not back in time for The Office, well, so be it. I can buy the whole season from the video store for about a fiver anyhow.

Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Happy New Year, Tag

A very Happy New Year to one and all, and thanks for the encouragement and kind comments that have come from, well, if not all quarters, at least more quarters than I expected. I'm back at school and everything is going surprisingly smoothly at present. Normal service will be resumed presently.

In the meantime it seems I have been 'tagged' by my good friend and inspiration Patrick Finch, who (having been tagged himself) has given us 5 Things We Didn't Know About Him on his blog Peregrinations(see link on right until one of you HTML-savvy types tells me how to embed a link here in the text) - Pad, you phoney, I knew 4 of those facts, and I seem to remember discussing the merits of vanilla Martinis in Harry's Bar not too long ago. Of course Patrick knows that until I met him (1985?) I knew nothing whatsoever about pretty much any kind of music, and that he insisted that I be known as Jimi rather than James and spell it so, but does he know that:

1. Like my hero the late great Johnny Cash, I once worked unsuccessfully as a vacuum cleaner salesman.

2. I was first published (aged 8) in the short-lived Nutty comic, with a letter to Bananaman I copied word for word from the Beano.

3. I own the first three Spice Girls singles on vinyl.

4. A a child I took piano lessons for 2 years. I was not put forward for my first grade exam.

5. Richard Dawkins and his (presumably) well-reasoned arguments aside, I believe in some kind of all-pervading benign presence, and that, ultimately, everything will be Alright. I haven't worked out the details yet.

I'd like to pass the tag on to Ken Grady at Gradygroove (again, see right). I would also like to take this opportunity to recommend that you check out his mercilessly incisive observations of life from a transplanted Georgian (that's Georgia in the good old southern US) living in rural Cheshire and working in Liverpool. WARNING There is banjo content WARNING