Friday, 7 December 2012

ran home today

Winter is no longer coming - it is here!

I thought I'd list what I wore on my run back from work, and it was just about right for the 6km 40 minute jog home.

shoes - normal inov8 roclites, with debri gaitor to keep out the snow (but a size too big)

3 pairs of socks - normal school socks, insulated thermal Japanese technology socks, heavy duty smartwool winter socks.

4 pairs of trousers, compression/cycling shorts, thick winter cycling tights, lined shell/training pants, windproof over trousers.

4 shirts/jackets - long sleeved thermal base layer, thick long sleeved base layer, running soft shell fleece lined hoodie, patagonia wind shell.

2 buffs, one mainly for the neck, one to cover the face and ears

1 thick fleece hat (hoods as required)

3 pairs of gloves, liner gloves,  thin fleece gloves, big soft shell wind resistant fleece gloves.

I got home with my eye lashes white and icing, and the breathing increasingly difficult as the buff over my mouth and nose froze.

Now be careful out there!

Friday, 23 November 2012

Weather bug

I know you are all fascinated by the weather here.

There is a weather station on the roof that provides some information to the Mongolian weather networks and it can be accessed through

ISU Weather station

It sounds ridiculous but it was -28 when we got to school this morning with a wind chill or feels like temperature of -38 but we walked in and it was fine, a little cool but not enough to put me off contemplating a run on Sunday, the temperature does not tell the whole story with regards to the weather in this country.

"it gets a bit uncomfortable below -25" I was told when I asked about running through the winter. I didn't believe him but he's right, anything above that is really very doable and with the right kit I'd go as far as to say down to -30 would not be 'unpleasant'.

The challenge is not the cold but the conditions underfoot, still should be running on the river soon.

Never thought I'd be saying that!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Fire! Fire! Oh...just starting the car.

So we have a whole load of cars that get rugged up for the night in the car park. You can pay $50 a month to park in the heated underground car park or you can rug up your car with specially made duvets, many of which are camouflage, though who they are hiding them from I have no idea.

For the life me I couldn't see how it helped, it's -25 or lower for most of the night, even putting a duvet over your car, no matter how well fitted, was not going to trap enough heat in a cooling metal box to keep it warm enough to start in the morning was it?

Apparently it is effective to a certain extent, that and going down before breakfast to light up and kick a small paraffin burner under the car, walk away eat breakfast and when you come back an hour later all is toasty warm and good to go, at least that is what I was told. Never seen anyone do it, never seen the remains of a burner left on the ground - I was skeptical.

I was walking home from work tonight and as I approached one of the many building site entrances there was a powerful smell of cheap coal, I looked for the ger smoke stack and for other sources and could see nothing - nothing except a big old digger with a tarp covering it's engine casing, and smoke - smoke escaping from between the engine casing the tarp and the cab. There were 3 men in attendance and my camera was not within reach, so I have no proof but I swear they had lit a fire under the thing and were waiting for the diesel to melt enough to get the thing going.

So maybe the paraffin burner idea is not such a silly idea.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

An early winter walk

We got nicely rugged up and went out this afternoon, through the park and out to the river. Along the river bank, back through a housing complex. It was only -10/-12C, but the air quite literally sparkled, it was like there was fine glitter falling, all the moisture in the air was turning to ice around us, it was quite magical.

The park looks very different white.

even the new trees get rugged up

Now what left those tracks?

The river is just about frozen

 And in some places it is already frozen enough for the men to be out playing a kind of bowls, kind of curling, kind of skittles, kind of non of the above.

 Still a building site, might look a little better white but the entire place is still one big building site.

Labourers accommodation.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

oh my that was fun

It has been snowing now since Wednesday morning, fine dry powder that despite the time it's been snowing amounts to only a couple of inches. Today (Friday) is a run home day, so I did. It was interesting! We had discovered on the way to work that the sidewalks where they exist are treacherous - no body uses them unless they really have to, everyone walks on the road, where there is grip to be had. This does make for interesting times on these roads, women in tottery high heels, kids in trainers, and men and women in deels and steppe boots all sharing the road with the many 4x4's, most of which have not switched to snow tyres yet so don't exactly corner well.
My run took me across some waste ground, soon to be built on no doubt. The sun was low and the light was flat, maybe a function of the light mist of snow still falling, maybe the sun glasses weren't helping, either way it was almost impossible to pick out the undulations and each stride became something of a surprise, not knowing where or when my foot was going to touch down. I didn't fall but it was touch and go on a few occasions.
I made it through the waste ground, and back into the park where the light was so flat it was almost impossible to see anything at all. I only got to see when I was back doing the dance between road, and oncoming vehicles, and slippery sidewalk. I made it back into the apartment complex ok where an army of mainly women were frantically sweeping away the snow, to leave impossibly slippy wet or icy tiles.
no grip

grip but...

I guess they have to keep on top of it or it will just end up so deep it will never clear in the spring but for now at least the roads are the safest place to be.
We have some ice spikes and screws to put into the bottom of shoes coming (thanks Bob) but I'm not sure quite how much of an advantage they will be on the swept and polished sidewalks.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

mine's bigger than yours

In a city where might is right, and your power and influence are judged by the size and shininess of your car. In a city where Range Rovers and Land Cruisers are the norm rather than the exception. In a city where the Hummer is becoming de rigeur we saw some thing surprising last week.

A stretch Hummer, no idea how you get that through these streets, the corners are too tight, the humps and holes likely to bottom it out even with its prodigious ground clearance.

Then believing we had just seen the biggest car in UB we turned a corner and...

Now that's what I'm talking about...a proper sized vehicle. What the picture doesn't show is the the four front wheels all of which turn and the huge dif. at the back suggesting it is somewhat more than 4 wheel drive.

I wonder how long before we see these on the school run.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Steppe(ing) out

Ok so if you are reading this in an email update, do yourself a favour and go to the actual blog site (click on the title - in blue at the top of the email). The pictures, and there are a lot of them, are much better. In  fact go make yourself a cup of tea, pour yourself a frothy beverage, or otherwise settle in for a while - this may only have been three days but if you read it all it's going to take a while and there are lots and lots of photos.

After a week of being ill, a few extra days recovery during the first part of our half term vacation, and a certain amount of stir crazy, we decided it best if we leave UB for a couple of days at least. A conversion with a colleague, who knows about some of these things, had us headed for Tsetserleg a town way out west. Largely, because it had what was about the only accommodation that was open and was not in Terelj. So we booked a room in the Fairfield guest house, had our friend organize a car and driver, and packed a very big bag. We had no real idea what to expect in terms of weather or scenery or accommodation or any real idea what we were going to do when we got there, so in true Isaac fashion we packed for every eventuality. (I blame my obsession with over packing on being stuck up a mountain with Carvel years ago in Spain where we were forced to overnight and had next to nothing of any use except one light weight jumper between us. What was an uncomfortable mistake there, would be fatal here).

 So bright and early on Thursday morning we met our driver and his car. Chris had told us he could not guarantee the quality of the car, and while this one did indeed get us there and back it was christened HKK (Hyundai Krap Kar).
After a couple of hours we stopped, for a toilet break. That small shed in the distance, that is the toilet - Aussies call them 'Thunderboxes'. It was cold, and the flies had all died off for the winter, these things would not be pleasant in the summer I'm sure. It was a toilet with one hell of a view though.

Shortly after that we stopped for an early lunch, Byambaa (Bimba) our driver was hungry. Now the deal is this costs us 80,000trg £40/per day for driver and car, plus his accommodation plus his food, plus any petrol. I'll give you a brief run down of the total costs at the end but suffice to say that for 3 days 2 nights it was not cheap.
Anyway after a couple of stops where, despite extensive looking menus, there was only one thing being prepared  and it was not to his liking, we finally stopped at a place and settled down for lunch.
Now we had no idea what he was ordering us, we threw out a couple names of food we knew and we liked and we hoped.
I'm guessing it was mainly mutton or goat what do you think?
Inside was clean and the food was OK if a little cold, Byambaa sent it back to be warmed up a couple of times.
Meat and 2 veg Mogolian style - still on the bone and with  a kind of pancake

Horse head fiddles get their name for a good reason.

But as we were eating, life carried on outside, and it was just like the guide books suggest.

Zebra  Sheep crossing.

Nothing quite prepares you for this country, it's a bit like the high deserts in the US, its a bit like the African Savannah, it's bloody cold and there are animals everywhere. Some animals are tended by people on horseback, some looked after on foot, some looked after by people on motorbikes, some obviously attached to a lone ger nestled into the hillside, some are just wandering in the middle of nowhere.

Shortly after lunch it became obvious that Byambaa was struggling to stay awake, the Ibiza dance music came on, the window was wound down, and he was slugging away at his cold coffee mix. In the end he gave up and asked for 5 minutes sleep. With nothing else to do we wandered off up the hill nearby, you quickly get a long way from anywhere here. But then, as it turns out, not so much, because just after we looked back at the car and saw it as a tiny spot parked next to some road side gers, we crested a rise and...
Now not knowing the Mongolian for 'tie up your dogs' which is apparently a traditional, and entirely necessary greeting, when 'visiting' with neighbours, we decided it was probably time to head back to the car, wake Byambaa, and move on.
Another hour down the road, we spotted vultures circling and coming in to land, I asked Byambaa to stop the car so I could get closer to try and take some pictures. Unfortunately the vultures were far more wary of me than they were hungry, so the pictures were not as impressive as the scene.
...and then from the other side of the road I saw 3 animals moving purposefully across the steppe. Clearly together but quartering the ground independently, they were following a herd of horses. One, the biggest of them, also spotted the vultures and began trotting directly at me giving off a warning growl that could be heard from some distance. There are wolves in these parts, in fact Mongolia is one of the few places left in the world where the wolves are doing so well that the hunting of them is not only allowed but actively encouraged.
I moved back towards the car, they were only dogs but the big fella was definitely intent on making the carcass his and neither I nor the vultures were going to argue. When we came back 2 days later he was still there with a small pack of others guarding and feeding on the remains.

The rest of the journey was fairly uneventful, apart from the inevitable puncture.

So once fixed we sat in HKK and watched Mongolia pass by, it is a fascinating place.

Day 2

Day two saw us waking bright and early, eager to begin our adventure and keen to see what is reputedly Mongolia's 'most attractive city'. Tsetserleg is the aimag capital of Arkhanghai and is on most peoples list of places to visit in Mongolia, with good reason, there are nearby hot springs (only open in the summer - go figure), the scenery is spectacular as it sits in the foothills of the Khangai mountains, and there is a  good guest house open all year owned by westerners with English speaking staff and a good bakery attached.

view from the window in the morning - it had snowed

clean, comfortable (apart from the pillows) and warm enough - just.

We chatted briefly with the owner - an Antipodean of some description, who had bought the place from 'The British couple' who are mentioned in most guide books. He informed us that one of my students and family were staying in 'our other property'.
 'Oh God' was my response, we traveled 500km on dodgy roads to a place in the middle of nowhere to 'get away from it all' only to be reacquainted with one of my students. I asked him not to tell them we were there, but as it happens they were just packing up to leave.
Anyway he pointed us in the direction of some good hiking, we packed our day sacks, extra layers, extra food, water in insulated bottles (the last time we'd hiked with camel backs - even with insulated hoses - they had frozen solid) turned upside down in the carriers, water freezes on the top first so you want the bite valve at the bottom not the top, and we set off.

My god but it was cold. He warned us that if the wind was blowing and it was, we would be better sticking to the valleys. But first we headed off to the monastery - one of the few to survive the Stalinist purges - by quickly converting itself to a museum, it currently serves both purposes.

The view looking back over the city was interesting.

The museum showed no signs of being open, maybe like everything else it closed for the winter or maybe we were just a little early in the day.
Ninja Sarah lurks 
From the monastery we bushwhacked our way over into the next valley. Khadag were everywhere, tied to rocks, wrapped around trees. I've yet to get to the bottom of this cultural phenomenon, or indeed locate anywhere selling khadag but they are everywhere. Usually blue, but they can be blue, red, yellow, green or occasionally white, though that is rarer and more common in Tibet than Mongolia.

White color: Is the symbol for mother milk, friendship, affection and
Green color: Stands for the earth, fertility of the earth and good wishes.
Yellow color: Is the symbol for the worship of God.
Blue color: This is the color of the sky and is the symbol for peace and
Red color: Symbol for fire and strength of the nation.
The sash/ belt worn my men around their deel is almost always yellow/orange while the khadag tied to ovoo trees and rocks are predominantly blue.

So we continued on, round the shoulder of the mountain and down into the valley where were given great views of the most orderly of ger districts. If only UB was built in such an orderly fashion, the traffic, navigating the city, everything would be so much easier. Sadly UB isn't but Tsetserleg is.

Some 'properties have clearly been a here while and are definitely not nomadic any more though, despite their apparent 'opulence', they still have to collect water from the stream.
From there we set off up the valley, with a biting wind in our faces it was hard going getting the layering right, and the further up the valley we went, the more the snow and ice.

looking back

We were definitely the only people travelling that route today

Horse head larch

Eventually we climbed up to the ridge line separating, two valleys and found an ovoo. Unusually this one was made entirely from sticks not rocks but I guess there were lots of sticks and very few rocks to be found. We did as you should when coming across an ovoo, we walked round 3 times in a clockwise direction.

and then we headed back down the next valley towards town. With the wind at our backs and the shelter of the trees it was a very pleasant stroll.

It's just round that bend - honest - and there is a tea shop I promise.

Tea shop? With cakes? Where?

Tsetserleg in the distance

After a lovely walk down the wooded valley we got back into the outskirts of town easily enough and it was an interesting walk back into the city,


Basketball court, everywhere you go there are basketball hoops, it is the Mongolian sporting obsession.
You may not be able to make it out but the figure to the right of the telegraph pole is wheeling his water carrier down to the stream, no running water in these ger districts no matter how well settled and affluent some of them look.

Tsetserleg steaming in the distance, water supply for the ger districts is beginning to freeze up. No idea what they do when it goes solid, collect and melt ice I guess. 
 Tsetserleg itself is an interesting city. 'Most beautiful city in Mongolia' ? Hmm I'd hate to see the ugliest but it is certainly more orderly and not without it's own kind of charm- not in a Cotswold village kind of way, more in a wild west frontier town sort of way, anyway judge for yourselves.

Milk, brought to town in plastic 5 gallon containers strapped to the back of a Russian or south Korean motorbike, delivered by a man in a deel and wooly bonnet. Now that's service.

Modern Tsetserleg - could be any town anywhere (kinda) right?

Like most towns in Mongolia, it's not without its soviet influences.

The urban ger - it still makes me smile especially when you see the solar panels and satellite dish.

Ok so that was day 2 of the adventure - all that remained was the long - long journey back to UB.

Day 3

We set off back toward UB and stopped on the way to pick up an old lady walking across a bridge just outside of a small town.

The rivers are beginning to freeze - not long now and they will be solid.

  Turns out the town was Byambaa's town of birth. It was not a throbbing modern metropolis.

We called in at Kharkhorin on the way back. The ancient capital of the Mongol Empire.

 "In the mid-13th century, Karakorum was a happening place. Chinggis Khaan established a supply base here and his son Ögedei ordered the construction of a proper capital, a decree that attracted traders, dignitaries and skilled workers from across Asia and even Europe.
The good times lasted around 40 years until Kublai moved the capital to Khanbalik (later called Beijing), a decision that still incites resentment among some Mongolians. Following the move to Beijing and the subsequent collapse of the Mongol empire, Karakorum was abandoned and then destroyed by vengeful Manchurian soldiers in 1388.
Whatever was left of Karakorum was used to help build Erdene Zuu Khiid in the 16th century, which itself was badly damaged during the Stalinist purges.
The charmless Soviet-built town of Kharkhorin (and its gigantic flour factory) was built a couple of kilometers away from Erdene Zuu. There is nothing of interest in the town and it’s a big disappointment if you've come expecting the glories of Middle Ages, but a surge in tourism has improved local infrastructure. There are even plans to move the capital here and build a modern planned city (you’ll see a billboard in town with the layout). Although this isn't expected to happen anytime soon, it doesn't hurt for a small town to dream."

It was stunningly cold there and the wind cut through everything, it was colder than it had ever been on the walk the day before, we did not linger. Don't think Koyasan has anything to fear as a Buddhist monastic destination.

As with any tourist sites there were the sellers outside the monastery selling everything from dodgy looking memorabilia to Thai silver necklaces.

Byambaa could not resist the opportunity to show us his best Byambaa Khan 

He then took us offroading in HKK so we could see an ancient phallus.

That's HKK top left and the walls to the monastery in Kharkhorin in the distance

We had a couple of other stops along the way home.

One was to spend time watching a waterhole where cattle, camels and horses all vied for access to the water.

The next was for lunch, and shortly after lunch we stopped again for the necessary Byambaa nap. So with the car parked at the side of the road, and Byambaa reclined, we set off up into the neighbouring hills to stretch our legs, get some air, and kill some time.
Not long after we set off though,we saw a man walking towards us, a little unsteadily it has to be said. As he approached we gave him our cheeriest 'sam banu' and he stopped dropped his bag of stuff, rearranged his sash and gestured for us to go over, which we did. He chatted away oblivious to the fact that we had used our only Mongolian moments earlier and could not understand a word he said. He shook our hands and made to give us what we thought was a kiss on the cheek, but it turned out to be more of a good up close sniffing. He had more than a hint of eau de vodka about him but he was a cheery soul. He gestured the way we were walking, the way he had come and continued to chat away- I think implying that if we kept going we would find his ger and be made welcome. He posed for some photos after making sure his sash was straight and getting Sarah to button up his deel properly and then went on his way. We walked the way he had gestured for another 10-15 minutes found nothing so turned round and set off back to the car.

It is astonishing that in such a large country, with such a small population, in seemingly the middle of nowhere you are able to stumble across people and dogs. She wasn't with our new friend, but out of nowhere came a friendly young black dog, bouncing and wagging her tail. She hunted the gerbils (or hamsters or something similar) that were everywhere, without any luck it has to be said, she followed us for a while and then she too went on her way.

Sarah and Bob

The nearest habitation to where we met 'Bob' and not the direction he came from, nor the way he was heading.

Another 3 hours bumpy, kidney thumping ride in HKK and we were back in UB. You could see the black cloud hanging above it, in the distance, long before you could see the city, but we were nevertheless glad to be home.

It's some place this and no amount of blogging or photos are going to do it justice. You will just need to get out here and see it for yourselves.

Be warned though, the pictures show the glory of the scenery but not the trash, everywhere, literally everywhere, plastic bags, beer cans, and vodka bottles, just strewn about. It's no wonder most of the dogs have a limp, they probably have cut paws from the glass. Mongolia like many developing countries, has yet to come to terms with modern rubbish, it is the shame of this country, so beautiful and yet...
Mongolians pride themselves on their shamanistic beliefs, on their reverence for  nature and yet seem incapable of seeing the dumping of trash at the side of the road, or the leaving of broken glass as incongruous with this belief system. I guess I must not be too judgmental in applying my modern western values to a culture rapidly speeding towards the 21st century from a centuries old nomadic history, but it does still cause me some concern. A friend, who has spent time with the Tarahumara in Mexico and lives in Arizona, has a theory that the nomadic cultures simply have not yet adjusted to the idea that things are no longer biodegradable. Where, in the past, anything discarded would have rotted quickly or been scavenged, now it sits in perpetuity, as an ugly eyesore.

Mongolia is a great place but  it is a challenge in many many ways.

Driver and car 240,000 tgr. (80,000 x 3)
Accommodation for us 21,000 each per night, so 84,000. And for the driver who got a room to himself - (apparently drivers usually stay in special driver accommodation which is kind of like a bunk house and is usually 1/3 the price  - such was not available, so he got a room like ours to himself and we paid the single supplement) 31,000/night so 62,000.  So 146,000 total to the guest house.
Fuel 140,000
Meals for us and for Byambaa about another 100,000.
Oh and 1000 road toll.

So just over 620,000 tgr £310 for a 3 day jaunt. Was it worth it - yes. Would I do it again - like that probably not, 8 hours each way cramped in the back of an HKK lost its appeal.

It does make me want my own car though, the ability to get out of the city and camp - anywhere, literally anywhere at all,  does appeal.Though I must get enough Mongolian to shout "Tie up your dogs". We'll be camping near to a ger so the wolves don't bother us.