Thursday, April 30, 2015

Rain in Mongolia?

April Showers Bring May Flowers

            This old western proverb from 1886, still holds true, or at least I think it will here in Mongolia.  It was a little late on the rain since it only arrived today, and May starts tomorrow, but we will just have to wait and see if it is enough to make the flowers bloom.

Time stamp- 8am


Time Stamp 8:15pm


            The big surprise along with the rain is how warm the weather has gotten.  I fully expected it to be in the 40 and 50s through April and a better part of May, but it’s already in the 60s and 70s.  A few days ago we even cracked the 80s.  Honestly it’s not bad, since it is a dry heat, and a welcome change from the winter.  The pollution has also decreased along with the weather since there is less of a need to burn coal in the gers now for warmth.  The river finally melted and made me think of rowing again but the Tuul River is rocky and shallow, not a good combination.  Running by the river is a nice way to relax after a day of teaching, the scenery is nice, the traffic isn't bad and it is not too crowded.  The only downside is the last few times I’ve gone running there is a guy cooking some kind of barbecue and it smells so good.  I get hungry each time I run by it so I’m starving by the time I get back.

I really need to stop doing this


            Stupid pens, someone need to make a washing machine safe pen.  I would buy hundreds of them.  Seriously I think the people at the washing machine and detergent companies don’t understand how men do laundry.

1- Dump overflowing laundry basket in the machine
2- Pour in detergent
3- Set machine for the highest settings and let it run
4- Put in the dryer or in my case hang it out to dry
5- Collect and dump on bed
6- Wear as needed
7- Put away during Skype calls with parents
8- Repeat as needed

            See very simple and effective, the perfect way to keep your clothes clean.  I should patent this and teach classes on how to do laundry.  What do you think is Chris Meharg’s Laundry ready for Shark Tank, or should I go with Chris Meharg’s Asia.

            Personally I think Chris Meharg’s Asia sounds better, but I think it’s a little too similar to Rick Steve’s Europe and I rather avoid the law suit.  Then there is the problem, of having only visited a few countries at this point, not to mention who would want to listen to me anyway.  Well here are my two main pieces of advice.

1- Why not
2- Try anything once

Plants

            I guess I have truly moved into my apartment now that I have plants.  I’m a biologist with an interest in medicine, not a plant expert, so don’t ask me what they are.  Now let’s just see how long I can keep these plants alive.



Sunday, April 26, 2015

Mongolia in April

Mongolia update


            It may not seem like it, given my recent posting on Korea, but yes life continues on in Mongolia, and it is as interesting as ever.  Got to love the Mongolian weather.  We have had days were was in the high 60s and then the next morning it was snowing with clear blue skies.  Then the next day it is back up in the 60s again.  I guess the Mongolians have it right when they say spring is like a capricious woman.  Thankfully that phase has not lasted very long.  (Knock on wood)

            Now it has been surprisingly warm these last few weeks, even breaking into the 70s the last day or two.  I’m not one to knock a gift horse in the mouth, but I did not expect it to get this warm, this quickly.  With the weather now warm enough to run outside without risking a case of hypothermia, I can run outside again.

Running in Mongolia


            So here I am enjoying the nice weather while going on a run through Zaisan when come across a Mongolian construction worker.  Now the extent of my Mongolian is limited to hello, and a couple of food items.  I say hello to be nice and the next thing I know he is running with me, and smashing into me like it is full contact running or something.  It is a very interesting style of running as I can't figure out if he is tripping on the rocks, wants to wrestle (a big pastime here) or this is how Mongolians always run.  Oh and the whole time he is spouting off in Mongolian, while all I can say is um I don't know Mongolian.  Thankfully he got tired after five minutes and I didn't end up being turned into a pretzel.

Quiz Night in Mongolia


            A local Irish pub (Hennessy's) runs a fairly regular quiz night that a number of expats join in on.  I have gone several times and it is always a fun experience.  The quiz questions and topics vary quite a bit depending on who is the quiz master but this time one of the rounds took me for a loop.  There is usually a liquor tasting round, this week it was Kahlua, Bourbon, and Tequila, however the quiz master added another alcoholic round.  Chug a Chinggis, a Mongolian Beer.


            Clearly one of those skills I didn't learn in college is going to come back and haunt me.  The rules were simple the first one to finish the beer and place the mug upside down on their head wins.


            Clearly I did not do well.  Oh well who knew not learning how to chug a beer, let alone drink one would come in handy one day.  My team came in fourth by the way and it was a valiant effort.

Junk to Punk


            Another bit of fun was being a judge for a school fashion show, Junk to Punk where the students use recycled materials to make fashion.  This year’s theme was characters, and since a good number of students here like anime, I was asked to be a judge, because you know I understand that stuff.  Well first time for everything I guess.  The fashion show was a smashing success, even if I was a bit clueless as a judge, and the students did an amazing job.  The only problem I had was one of the costumes had these really ornate looking white flowers that reminded me of cake frosting.  So I spent the rest of the fashion hungry, wishing I had some cake.

Payment


            The students occasionally have various after school activities that they need to find chaperons for.  I have helped out on several occasions, so I wasn't to surprised when one of my fellow teaching buddies mentioned that the kids were desperate for a chaperon for Fridays traditional Mongolian card game tournament taking place after school.  I said I could do it if the kids were desperate, I mean it’s not like I do much on Friday afternoons and I can grade papers and stuff while they do their thing.  Well the next thing I know I get brownies from the students for helping them out.

Diabetes here we come


            The school was also having a bake sale to raise money for Earth day because they are going to plant trees at their sister school, somewhere in the city.  Don’t ask me where it is exactly as I have no clue.



            Anyway I am a sucker for bake sales since I can’t get that kind of stuff in the stores here in Mongolia and I am too lazy to make it myself.  The students also know me well since they always seem to carry them by my room on their way to the lobby at the end of the day.  It’s not my fault they ran out of chocolate cake……. Ok yeah it is my fault, but I only bought 5 pieces.  I have no regrets, it tasted divine.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

South Korea Day 4

The DMZ


            The DMZ or demilitarized zone is the border between North and South Korea, who are technically still at war.  It is also one of the most, if not the most heavily fortified locations on the planet.  According to the guide it will take over 400 years to remove all of the land mines strewn over the 2.5 mile wide, 160 mile long zone cutting the Korean Peninsula in half.  This of course begs the question why there are tours into the zone, or how they are allowed in the first place.  Well I can officially say that the tours in no way jeopardize the ongoing mission.

            Stop number one is a tour is a small site just outside the DMZ with a number memorials, little shops, and even a small amusement park.  I guess Korea has a south of the border too, but  all kidding aside seeing the rides was more than a little weird, especially when placed next to various memorials.

Korean War Memorial



            The memorial is to commemorate all of the soldiers who fought in the war to protect South Korea.  Over 970,000 soldiers fought in the war on the side of South Korea with over 178,426 dead, 32,925 missing, and 566,434 wounded.

The Peace Bell



            The bell was erected in the hope that the two Korea’s will one day be unified.

A relic of the war



The DMZ



            Now for the main event, at the check point soldiers entered the bus and examined our passports, while another group scans the bus.  Now that we are past the barbed wire, road blocks and everything else, I spy helicopters flying overhead.  Fully loaded Apache helicopters chock full of missiles, and rockets just looking for something to erase from existence.  So yes even if it doesn't look like it, this place is a full on fortress.

The DMZ


            Our first real stop inside the DMZ is the third of four incursion tunnels the North Koreans built under the DMZ.  Now the North Koreans claim it was for mining coal, but even I know you don't find coal mixed in with granite.  Oh and no pictures, not that it stopped certain types of tourists, but I wasn't taking any chances.  The rule for entering the tunnel was if you are over 150 cm you must wear a helmet no exceptions.  So being 190 cm I snagged the plastic yellow helmet and trudged down a rather steep path into the depths of the earth.  The first part of the tunnel is a large concrete lined tube several meters in diameter, so I just thought the South Koreans were being overly cautious.  Boy was I wrong, the actual tunnel is insanely small, (at least for me) and it is a dynamite blasted and hand carved path.  The rough jagged rocks are a concussion waiting to happen, and frankly I wanted a metal helmet, not a cheap plastic one.

            Now to give you an idea I was using the old duck walk from high school football, for a hell of a lot longer than my coaches ever did.  What made it worse was there are places where you can stand up a bit higher than others, and a few times I could stand up completely.  My traveling buddy for the day was a nice guy from Switzerland, and we had a nice time conversing about various topics.  The most interesting conversation was the one we had while walking/ crawling through the tunnel.  FYI- The tunnels are monitored 24/7/365 by the UN in case of North Korean incursions

            Me- I can’t believe this place is a tourist attraction
            Swiss guy- There would be a lot of dead tourists if the North Koreans invaded right now
            Me- Ugh, don’t remind me
            Swiss guy- why do you think I’m walking behind you
            Me- Somehow I’m not surprised

            Sometime later after viewing the barbed wire barrier with a large concrete wall and steel door behind it with a small window.  A camera is pointed through the window monitoring another barrier on the other side.

            Me- It still amazes me that the South Koreans left this place intact
            Swiss guy- Yup, and there might be some politics involved
            Me- I mean the North Koreans have to know the South Koreans are watching it
            Swiss guy- Maybe the South Koreans are banking on stupidity on the other side
            Me- So they wired the entire place to blow in case the North Koreans ever used it
            Swiss guy- Maybe
            Me- Then what the hell are we doing down here
            Swiss guy- It was on the tour

            I’m just happy that the people around us A didn’t speak English, and or B just thought we were a pair of stupid westerns or something.  I don’t relish the idea of ending up disappearing in some sort of facility for saying something dumb.

Alright time for the main event- AKA getting as close to North Korea as I ever want to


            The second stop inside the DMZ was the viewing point to see across the DMZ into North Korea, and the fake town they built there.  It was a bit hazy and cloudy so I couldn’t see much, so I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

North Korea



The giant flag Pole



            The final stop on the tour was the Dorasan station, a train station built in the DMZ in the hope that A the Korean Peninsula is unified at some point, or B North Korean relations normalize to the point that normal rail traffic can occur.


A future plan of the South Koreans, to reduce shipping costs, and time to certain markets.



Hey Mom look where I’m headed next



Close up of my ticket



Passport stamp



The Train





Monday, April 20, 2015

South Korea Day 3

South Korea Day 3

            Day three was just as much of a monster touring day, despite being all by lonesome with no tours for the day, my favorite way to explore a city.  It was interesting wandering through several different Seoul markets, and despite all that I still couldn't find what I was looking for.  I did not have any tours scheduled for today, so I went to my tried and true method of exploring a new city, find stuff that looks cool on the map and go see what it is all about.

            There is a large green blob located near Insa-dong on the map, labeled Jongmyo Shrine, now in other parts of Asia large shrines are either very important, interesting or both.  Thus my mind made up, I started on my way to the shrine.  While on the way I saw a small Tteok Museum labeled on the map.  Well I had no idea what Tteok was, so I went over to check it out.  As it turns out, Tteok are rice cakes, of which there are many varieties in Korea depending on the region and time of year.  This particular Korean cuisine dates back to the early Bronze Age so it has been around for quite some time.  Rice cakes are classified based on how they are made, steaming, pounding, frying, and boiling.  There are also a variety of fillings that can be placed inside the cakes as well.  The cakes are eaten on New Year’s Day and during other celebrations.

            The museum also contained an exhibit on kimchi which was pretty interesting as well.  Sorry for the lack of pictures here, but the museum does not allow pictures.  It did offer several different cooking classes some of which looked interesting, however you needed to have a group of at least 5 people and call in advance.  Either way it was a nice way to start day even if it had the side effect of making me hungry.

            As I cut through the narrow streets towards the Jongmyo shrine I hit my first surprise of the day.


            Mahabodhi Temple was built by Zen Master Yon Shung a Buddhist monk in 1911 and dedicated it to the Korean Independence movement.  He was a key figure in the Korean independence movement until his death in 1940.


The Temple



Bell Tower thingy



Nice Lady



There be dragons



            Its little hidden gems like this, that make me love traveling to a new city even more.  Just wandering around with the map, you never know what you are going to get.

Jongmyo Shrine (Well kinda sorta maybe)


            I arrived to what seemed like a long line of tourists waiting to get in and figured it wasn't open yet.  Well not exactly, it seems that the only way to get in is to take a tour of the place.  Well just my luck that the next English tour was leaving in about 25 minutes, so I bought a ticket for the exorbitant price of 1000…… won, which is a little less than 1 USD.  You guys really didn't think I would pay 1000 dollars to get inside did you.  A stroll through a nearby park to kill time and I was ready to go.

More Churches or the Seoul Version of Christ the Redeemer



Jongmyo Shrine (For real this time I swear)



            First off let me say the guide was great, and she was very knowledgeable about the site.  Don’t worry I refrained from asking any stupid questions this time.  Now for the Shrine, it was built east of the palace in 1395 according to Feng Shui, to house the memorial tablets of the royal family.  The current buildings date from 1601 after they were rebuilt due to being burned down in a Japanese invasion of Korea.  In Confucianism the bodies are buried somewhere else, but the tablets are said to contain their souls, when they called back to Earth to honor them are certain times during the year.  During the Josen Dynasty the ceremonies were performed five times a year at night.  Currently though the ceremonies are only held once a year on May 1st.  The ceremonies involve a lot of rituals, dancing, music, and food.  Now if you’re thinking what I am thinking, woohoo part time baby, and well you would be wrong, very wrong.  It is a very serious and solemn affair, attended only by the royal family, and high ranking government officials to honor their ancestors.  As it is the only site of its type left in Asia that still performs the ceremonies, it was designated as a UNESCO site in 1995.


            What you are looking at here is a path called the kings way.  The king walks on the center platform while the government officials walk on the left and right platforms, with everyone else walks on the ground.  Here at the shrine it takes on a higher significance due to the relationship with the royal ancestors.  We were told multiple times not to step on the king’s way and I felt kind of bad when a tourist from Hong Kong kept stepping on it.   I don’t understand all the importance of it, but it’s important to the Koreans so I’ll follow along.

Kings bathroom for ceremonial preparations



Kings ceremonial robes



Entrance to the main ceremonial area



Spirit Chambers- where the tablets are stored



Yeah it is huge, I am standing in the far back corner.

Spirit chamber close up



Entrance for us peons



Other highlights from the shrine



            This copper pot would normally contain water, which was thought to protect the building against fire.  The rational was that the water would scare off the fire spirits that normal would light buildings on fire.  They are placed at the four corners of the building being protected.

Cool artwork



City Gates of Seoul


            After leaving the shrine, I continued on my self-guided walking tour of Seoul heading for the east gate of the city (Heunginjimun).  Before I made it to the gate I meandered through the Pyounghwa Market in search of a zoom lens for my camera.  Yes the durable point and shoot Olympus TG-3 comes with an attachable zoom lens.  My thoughts at the time, I’m gonna get my lens, I’m gonna get my lens, this is going to be awesome, I’m gonna get my lens…… Dang it!  So yeah the entire place was one giant clothing market.  Not exactly my cup of tea.  Despite being housed in a large building resembling a giant department store it is more like a long cluster of individual stalls selling just about everything you could want.

Heunginjimun Gate




            There is a small park next to the gate that contains part of the old city wall.  It was turned into a park and it is a favorite spot for denizens of Seoul to relax, as long as your knees can handle the hill.  Walking through the park led to discovery number 2 of the day, the Seoul City wall museum, which is a nice little exhibit explaining the history of the different city gates, and the city wall over the years.

The wall



Amazing stone work- each of those stones are cute square which I found to be very interesting as most Asian castles that I have seen use brick or uncut stone.



OK break time



Warning Asian Architecture time


            You’ll notice how the roof in the pavilion pictured above has a slight upward curve towards the edges of the roof.  This is unique to Korean architecture, and I didn’t see anything like it in Mongolia, Thailand, or Japan.

Mongolia- Winter Palace of Bohd Khan



            You will notice here that yes it does indeed tilt upward at the corners it is more of an inclined plane and not a gentle curve.  No doubt this is a Korean influence from the days of the Mongol Empire.

Thailand- High pointed roofs



Japan
Senoji Temple gate (Buddhist)- slight upward line but not a full curve



Shinto Shrine- Ueno Park- Straight Roof line



End Asian Architecture time


Warning Korean Mythology Time


            The northern gate of the city was almost never opened, and if it was, the gate was not left open very long.  The reason was the northern winds carried, various spirits and other beings with it that would make the women of the city extremely promiscuous.  Yes, the north wind made the women of Seoul get their freak on.  Notice they do not mention which city gate had to stay closed to prevent the men from getting their freak on.

Korean Mythology Time over


Nadaemun Market

            Undeterred from my shopping failure I made my way down to the Nadaemun market one of the bigger markets in the city in hopes of finding my camera lens.


            Yup it’s big and it’s crazy and I got lost so I had lunch.  Just for the record it wasn't a wrong turn at Albuquerque.  It was a wrong turn out of the number five subway exit.


            Yes, it looks more appetizing than it actually is.  I’d rather have Mongolian pizza and they don’t even know what proper pepperoni is.  Anyway I eventually found my way, and camera stores, lots and lots of camera stores.  I must have went through over more than two dozen stores and not a one had Olympus cameras, let alone what I was looking for.  Yeah, one of my big goals for the trip turned out to be a totally bust.  I had to order the lens online and ship them to my parents’ house before having them shipped out to Mongolia.

This is for Kelvin- Look Seafood



Hhmmmmm doesn’t that look tasty.

            There is more than just markets in Nadaemun.  The Sungnyemun, or South gate is located by Nadaemun.  Not much to see here besides the gate, and I wouldn't got out of the way to see it, but if you are in the area it is worth a shot.


            The final stop of the day was Namsan park, which I thought would be a small little thing, and boy was I wrong.  The park is called the heart of Seoul and it is huge.  It is loaded with all kinds of different attractions, statues, monuments, museums, and lots of other stuff.  Now most of it was closed on the day I was there, but I still had a nice time.  Oh and one last thing it is very hilly, so I don’t recommend making the last stop of the day like I did.


First President of Korea



First Vice president- Don’t ask me why he gets the bigger monument



Tea shop- sadly it was closed



Hey look mom I think I just got on a Korean K drama



View from the top



Bonus- Dinner


            So with all the walking I did I was plenty hungry by the end of the day and Korean barbeque sounded perfect.  Well the meal was listed for two people.
            Waitress- Is for 2
            Me- Don’t care hungry
            Waitress- Is for 2
            We- Don’t care hungry
            Waitress- …….OK



            I have long discovered that two person meals in Asia are really meant for just one American.  FYI- it was also very tasty.