Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Interesting Restaurant

Interesting Restaurant?

            As a kid growing up in the USA, I had the opportunity to try a variety of cuisines from around the world, since you know, we are kind of a melting pot (I’ll leave the authenticity of said cuisine up to you).  Now add on to that trips abroad to Canada, Europe, Japan, Thailand, and South Korea.  By this point you’re probably thinking I’ve had the chance to try every type of cuisine on the planet.  Well you would be wrong oh so wrong, because I recently had the chance to try out North Korean Cuisine.  Yes you heard me right, North Korean cuisine.  As it turns out, Mongolia is one of the few countries on the planet to have friendly relations with the most reclusive country in the world.

            Now I know what you’re thinking, Chris you #$#$!@^%$^@! Moronic idiot, what the hell where you doing traveling to North Korean.  And no I did not travel to North Korean, you couldn’t pay me enough to do that.  However there is a North Korean Cuisine restaurant in Ulaanbaatar off a side street a little ways behind the State Department store.  (It is called the state department store, because prior to the collapse of the communist it was run by the state.)  FYI- Our resident foodie Kelvin couldn’t make it either time, and he was worried we would be eating pine cones or something.


            So what is North Korean Cuisine…..? Well its hot pots, stews, soups, noodle dishes, meat, and kimchi lots of kimchi.  Oh and an important tidbit for anyone traveling to Korea, if the title of the dish contains the word nutritious, its dog.  Yes, you heard me in Korean cuisine nutritious equal’s dog meat.  So if you are a dog lover don’t have the nutritious soup.  Oh and for the record I did not have it and neither did anyone else.

The intrepid travelers trip 1

The intrepid travelers trip 2

Amuse bouche or something like that

            If you can’t tell its rice cakes, and kimchi.  The rice cakes tasted something like an upscale wonder bread.  Weird, I know, but they did taste pretty good.  The kimchi, and don’t ask me what kind of kimchi it is, was also extremely tasty and delicious.


            Yes, kimichi again but it is oh so good.  I could eat kimchi every day.  This is some kind of cabbage kimchi, but between the two trips I had several other varieties including raddish, which is my current favorite.

Main course

Braised Ox ribs

Some kind of beef dish

Seafood hot pot

            Mine was the braised ox ribs, which I had on both excursions, and it was delicious.  The meat is so tender it literally falls right off the bones, and the broth is exquisite.  I highly recommend this dish if you end up going.  Something to remember is to make sure to get rice with the meal because it is perfect for finishing off any leftover sauce.  Oh and the portion sizes are large, and by large I mean American large, I was stuffed after eating it.

            The service can be a little slow, but that seems to be a Mongolian thing and it really wasn’t any different than any other restaurant in Ulaanbaatar.  I do have to say it was particularly bad on our second excursion, but the place was having some renovations done.  A number of us concluding that the restaurant wasn’t really expecting anyone that night, let alone a group of 14 westerns.  Thus I will give them a pass, this time.

The Show

            Sadly no desert, sorry mom not even ice cream.  However you do get a show, by North Korean singers and dancers.  It’s not Vegas by any sense of the imagination, but it gets the job done, and hey where else could I see North Korean singing and dancing.

            At this point some of you are probably wondering, how we know that it is actually a real North Korean Restaurant run by North Koreans.  Well the pictures of the Un family on the wall might have something to do with it, or the souvenir stand selling, North Korean postage stamps, among other things.  FYI- the book of stamps cost 130 USD.  Not to mention the place is cash only.  As we learned from our Mongolian friends, this particular establishment is sanctioned and run by the North Korean government.  Apparently working at this establishment is quite the step up, and many North Koreans apply to work here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Hunnu Mall

Hunnu Mall

            A new mall and shopping area has recently opened here in Ulaanbaatar and I had a chance to check it out.  Time to see just how different the Mongolian shopping experience is from the American one.  The mall is located about 20 minutes or so from Zaisan, out the airport road, close to the British School of Ulaanbaatar, so it’s on the city limits so to speak.

The Outside

            Well it looks like any other mall from the outside, but it is missing the large parking lot found at American malls.  Now this is either because it isn’t completed yet, there is some kind of construction going on next door, they didn’t plan for one, or they just don’t need it.

            Inside you can clearly tell the mall only opened in March, not because of how clean it is, but because there are still some store fronts waiting to be filled.  Now the stores are a mix of western and other Asian brands (some are better known to my Australian counterparts).  I didn’t scope out all the prices, so I can’t say how they compare, but the selection itself was ok.  It seems like a good place to go if you need electronics, shoes, backpacks, and other hiking gear.  I might actually splurge and buy a bigger TV for my apartment next year.

            The biggest difference and most shocking surprise was the Dinosaurs, and no I’m not talking about that chemically induced abomination.

Or the coolest dinosaur creature on the planet.

            Yes, that is Godzilla and yes it is on top of a Hotel in Shinjuku, and yes he is the official cultural ambassador of Shinjuku.  Just so you know, the Hotel in question is owned by Toho, the film company that created Godzilla and the giant monster movie genre.

            No the dinosaurs in the mall are the real ones, bones and all.  It was a bit surprising at first, but then again this is Mongolia, which has a treasure trove of sites for paleontologists.

Don’t ask me what it is, I focus on living species not dead ones.

The next one is a close relative of the infamous T-rex.

            There is even a little museum in the mall, with a larger variety of dinosaur bones, some of the highlights are the protoceratops and archaeopteryx.  A few more English explanations would have been nice to, but I don’t think it was geared towards the western tourists.

            Behind the mall, there is a little outdoor shopping area, with a variety of shops and a real life arcade.  A number of these were closed or were in the process of being completed, but there is a nice little Irish pub, with decent food.


Buddhist Meditation Center in Mongolia

            So before we get to Buddhism in Mongolia, who decides to go for a run in Mongolia, when the sky is a little dark.  Yes despite being known at the land of the big blue sky, it does happen.  Now technically Mongolia is a desert since it gets less than ten inches a rain a year (9 inches if you are wondering), so I really shouldn’t have to worry about getting drenched on my run right…… Right…….. Yeah no, completely wrong.  I got drenched, I swear 2-3 of those 9 inches came down while I was running and it was the biggest rain storm I’ve seen since coming to Mongolia.  Oh and it gets better, the rain doesn’t come down at the start of my run, oh no that would be to nice.  It just has to start when I am 25 minutes out and about to turn around, so the whole way back in the pouring rain.  So yeah I kind of felt something like this.

Now on to the Buddhism

            So Buddhism, founded on the teaching of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) in India, between 600 - 400 BC.  In a nutshell, Buddhism teaches that by following the Noble 8 fold path, one can reach enlightenment or Nirvana.  By reaching Nirvana one escapes the cycle of death and rebirth.

Warning Science Content

            At this point in time most astrophysicists, religion no withstanding, pretty much agree that the big bang theory pretty much explains the formation of the universe from a scientific standpoint.  The end of the universe is a little more diverse and things are still up in the air a bit.  Well what does all this have to do with Buddhism, nothing really besides an interesting observation.  In Buddhist mythology, the world doesn’t have a beginning or an ending, but is simply an endless cycle.  Well low and behold in the modern era, scientists have come up with the Big crunch/ Big bounce theory.  In this theory the current expansion of the universe would stop, and begin to shrink.  This shrinking would continue until all of the matter and energy in the universe would collapse into a singularity before exploding in another big bang.  Curious that this scientific theory has interesting implications for Buddhism.

Ok, Back to Buddhism

            Over the years Buddhism split into two main branches.  Mahayana, which is the larger of the two and spread to Eastern Asia.  Theravada, spread mainly into South East Asia.  There is also a third branch of Buddhism, Vajrayana, found mainly in Tibet, the Himalayas, and Mongolia, with smaller pockets in other Asian countries.  The Dali Lama is a central figure in Vajrayana Buddhism.  The main difference between Vajrayana and the other schools of Buddhism is that in Vajrayana, the practitioner wants to become Buddha.  While in other schools they wish to obtain Nirvana.

            Personally I call Vajrayana Buddhism creepy Buddhism because it has some of the oddest imagery, when compared to the temples I visited in other Asian countries.  Some of the statues made me feel like I was looking at props in a Tim Burton movie.

Meditation Center in Mongolia

            This particular Temple, Meditation center, or whatever else you can call it, is located a good two hour drive outside of Ulaanbaatar.  Getting a chance to see a new recently built meditation center, is very cool, and thanks to Buya (prob spelled that wrong) Mark, Kathleen, and one more whose name I forgot.  (In my defense I met them for the first time the day of the trip, and I was sleeping most of the drive).  However getting there was even more interesting.

The group

Stop 1

            A small Buddhist temple on the way out of the city, in hopes of having a good trip.

The city

            The road to get to the center was quite nice, and I got to see more of the lovely Mongolian countryside.  Things changed a bit once we left the road driving off road in a Prius.  Yes, you heard me, off-roading in a Prius.  I have a new appreciation for the toughness of the Prius, and prior to my living in Mongolia, I would have said they wouldn’t last very long at all.  We did have to stop and ask for directions a few times, follow a dirt path for a good 40 minutes, but we made it.

The Road

The Countryside (Courtesy of Mark)



Yep, we are out in the middle of nowhere.

Yes, that is snow on the ground in May.

The temple in the distance

Close up

Inside the Temple (Courtesy of Mark)
Three headed bat fish thing

That’s the spider monster in the corner


I do have one more for you.

Yes, they are doing exactly what you think they are doing, and yes the duck is doing it wrong.

PS- I have been doing some guest blogging recently about Thailand and I hope my Bangkok and Chang Mai posts will be up soon.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Intro to Japan

I’m Still Here

            Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, but it’s been a rough couple of weeks here in Mongolia.  Now before you ask it’s not the weather, food, or the job, let’s just say that Mongolia is not the easiest place in the world to do the single guy thing, and leave it at that.  Originally I planned to spend the summer here in Mongolia and do some Mountain climbing, which I mentioned previously.  Sadly for most of you or happily if your my mother, that particular trip is not going to happen as I am headed back to the states for the summer to recharge for another school year in Mongolia.  So for my west coast relatives, I will see you on the 17th, and I am ready for some California food, ah cantaloupe, jack fruit (I’ve been dying for some since Thailand), guacamole, and seafood.  As for all of you guys back in PA and NJ, I’ll be back in town on the 22nd.  John, I am still working on a Mongolian cookbook written in English, but I haven’t had any luck yet.  Oh and I almost forgot one thing, real American cereal, not the cheap knock off stuff either.

            Now with all of the topics I have to write about, the last several weeks in Mongolia, South Korea, and such, I have decided to go with Japan, because today was at least the third time Kelvin asked about my blog.  He wants to know when I will post again and specifically about Japan.  FYI- I really think he just wants pictures of sushi.  So Kelvin, today’s post is just for you, the first post about my travels in Japan in the spring of 2013.

            First things first, why did I go to Japan?  Well, if you haven’t figured it out already I am a huge anime fan (ok super fan, but who is keeping notes).  So like any self-respecting anime fan I had the desire to travel there eventually.  Well after several years of saving I amassed enough funds to afford a 2 month jaunt in style around the country.  So after finally completing a master’s in education, I took off for the Shangri-La of anime fans.  Let it be said that there is much more to Japan than just anime, and I discovered that very early on in my journey.  I also found those aspects to much more interesting than the anime related stuff, as you will see as I post about the locations I explored on my travels.

            So two months, 8 weeks, or 56 days would be nearly impossible to write about in a step by step fashion like I am doing with my South Korea trip, so this time I will be writing about all of the places I visited during my original trip to Japan and my much more recent weekend getaway individually.  This also may not be done in the correct order.

Warning Japanese Geography content

            Japan is an island nation made up of four main Islands (Honshu, Kyushu, Shikoku, Hokaido) and the Ryuku islands, which are broken up into several smaller chains.  All told the country stretches from just south of San Diego CA, to Seattle Washington.
            Honshu- The main Island of Japan and the seventh largest island in the world.  The island is divided into 5 regions, and more on that later.
            Shikoku- The smallest of the four main islands.  It did not have a direct connection to Honshu until the 1990s.
            Kyushu- The southern most of the four main islands, and it was the access point for foreigners into Japan for centuries.
            Hokkaido- The northern most island and the frontier region of Japan, large national parks and untamed wilderness.
            Ryuku Islands- Also known as the Nansei islands.  The Ryuku kingdom ruled the islands and had relations with Japan starting in the 700s with varying levels of influence until they were completely under Japanese control in the 1870s.

            The islands are subdivided into 47 prefectures, which are akin to something between states or counties.  The prefectures are then subdivided into cities, districts, and villages, similar to local townships and municipalities.

Japanese Geography content over

            Out of those 47 I traveled to locations in 23 of them, and here all of the locations I traveled to.

            Honshu- Tokyo, Hakone, Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Kanazawa, Nagoya, Nara, Ise, Kyoto, Mt. Koya, Osaka, Himeji, Shikoku, Hiroshima, Miyajima, Hirosaki, Kakunodate, Sendai, Matsushima, Niko

            Shikoku- Matsuyama

            Kyushu- Nagasaki, Kagoshima

            Hokkaido- Kushiro, Lake Akan, Abashiri, Ashikawa, Saporro, Utoro, Noboribetsu, Hakodate

            Ryuku islands- Naha, Ishigaki, Iriomote

            I know that most of my locations are located on Honshu and Hokkaido, but I still feel like I saw most if not all of what Japan has to offer.

Getting to Japan

            Today is the big day it is finally happening.  I am finally on my way to Japan, after three years of saving, and planning I am doing it.  So I’ve gotten everything packed up and ready to go.  I don’t know if I’ve over packed or not only time will tell I guess, so I’ve got a medium to large sized hiking pack, and a small triangle sling bag for my trip, with enough clothing to last for two weeks so I’ll have to do laundry at least 4 times.  Anyway it’s 2am and I’d better get some sleep before I leave for Newark.  Everything went exactly as planned, and I even got to the airport early with enough time to wander around the concourse several times before heading to the gate.

            Sadly things did not go as planned once I got to the gate, the freaking flight was delayed several hours totally screwing up my travel plans.  Well several hours later and a Limo ride across town to JFK and I’m on my finally on my way.  The alternative was an overnight layover in Dallas.  Ooohhhh Shiny…..

            I am now stuck in a window seat with my knees jammed in place and the person in front of me is probably a little annoyed that he can’t move the seat back.  Sorry that isn’t a knee defender it’s my knees.

            The eagle has landed; I repeat the eagle has landed.  The flight was fine seeing as I slept most of the way, and the snacks came in handy so I didn’t have to eat the nasty ass airline food.  Now Japan is a first world country, so I did not expect to have to march down off the plan on to the tarmac at Haneda airport before taking a bus to the terminal.  Customs was fine but it was almost 11pm by the time I made it through and began the joy of navigating the mass transit systems of Japan.  It was a little confusing but give me a break it’s late and I can’t read Japanese.  So I finally made it to the right subway and the only other people in the car is a mother and daughter from Bergen County NJ.  Sheesh, give me a break, I’m who knows how many miles from home and the first people I meet are from NJ.  Now by the time I made it to Asakusa Tokyo, it’s after midnight and I am lost wandering around like an idiot when this nice Japanese woman rides up to me and asks me if I’m lost.  Yes, yes, yes, and hell yes.  Oh and thank god for cell phones, since she whips hers out and finds my Ryokan (Loose translation a Japanese bread and breakfast).  A short walk later and one phone call by her and I’m in (she wanted to make sure I got in since it was closed for the night).  However, I made my reservation starting Friday not Thursday ddoooohhhhhh!  Well a few extra bucks later and I finally have my room.  In closing if I had a similar problem in Philadelphia or New York I would have been shot and stabbed several times before being left for dead in the street.  I love Japanese women.  (Helpful and cute)