Sunday, November 12, 2017

Hustai National Park

On our last full day of the journey we headed east, back to Ulan Bator and along the way made a stop at Hustai national park. The park is a huge reserve and there are numerous wild animals there like big cats, mountain goats, elk, and wild horses. The star of the assortment is the wild horse, known as Przewalkskis horses. These horses are genetically distinct from domesticate horses and are truly wild. In the world they are one of only two groups of truly wild horses still in existence, the other being somewhere in Africa.

So we entered the park keeping a keen eye for the horses, but mostly we saw prairie dogs until we spotted another van pulled over on the side of the road. The returning people told us that just over the ridge there was a group of the horses. So we hiked up the hill and as we crested we could see 4-5 horses staring back at us. As we stood there, them looking at us, us looking at them, we could also hear the elk in the hills around us calling to each other. We could barely see the elk, but the horses were close enough. Our guide told us he could see the difference between these and other horses. He was Mongolian, so I believe him, but to me it just looked like another horse.

After standing around for a bit we packed it back into the van and decided to go directly back to Ulan Bator.

Just a side note to all the great things on our trip. I was truly surprised at how polluted Ulan Bator would get. There are many power plants very close to the expanding city and they are burning coal all the time. On top of that, many people around and in the valley where the capital is are still living in gers and burning wood and coal in stoves of their own, quite inefficiently, adding to the smoke. It was bizarre in some ways that in this really beautiful and out of the way place there was so much smog, but that is the way of developing countries today.

Lake Ogii

On day three we woke early and jumped back in the van. Today we were going to the old Buddhist temple of Tuvkhun which had been destroyed by the communists in the early days of the Mongolian republic. There were still a good number of temples that had been restored and there were about 30 active monks on the site, but also lots of empty space where buildings had been knocked down. It was quite a beautiful and quiet place.

After we had walked around for a bit we went nearby to where the old city of Karakorum has existed. A joint Mongolian/Japanese team had built a museum there outlining the dig and artifacts that were found. It was all pretty interesting, but the best bit was that there was a tomb of a nomad found nearby. The tomb was quite large and the paintings on stucco walls were mostly still intact, as were golden ornaments and the containers for the cremated bodies. The most interesting thing for me was that the people in the tomb were Turkic. They did not look like Mongolians, but more like central Asians in the “stans” over time they had drifted from the Mongolian Steppe to central asia and into Turkey itself.

After the museum we headed for lunch and then on to lake Ugii A note about lunch, being vegetarian in Mongolia is not easy. Every place we went to our guide had to explain to the wait staff what to make and pretty much every time it was egg noodles with vegetable. It was not a bad tasting dish, but having it day after day became boring. Mongolia does not naturally had a lot of fruit and vegetables because of the climate. People mostly rely on dairy products and meat from the herds that they keep and every time we arrived at a new family’s home we would share in these products, milk tea and, for Suz, perhaps a bit of goat or cow meat.

Lake Ugii was quite large, but our guide told us it expanded to about twice that size in the spring when the rains came. Kind of a neat thing to think about, and expanding lake. He also told me there were fish in the lake, but I was skeptical as it wasn’t river fed and when looking at the water later it was very clear, but free of vegetation. From the top of a hill overlooking the lake we took a few moments to get the view in. It was here that I asked about a pile of stones I saw. I had seen many of these along the way and wasn’t sure what they were, but my guide told me they were Ovo and when someone died the family would add stones to the pile along with some personal possessions.

That night we stayed in gers again, but an interesting thing happened. There were 4-5 gers at this location along with what looked like a wood built cabin. The family only had one ger when we arrived, but rather than have all of us stay together again the family volunteered to leave their ger for the night and stay in the cabin. This left the family ger to Stu and Suz, so there were lots of personal possessions around the ger. That night the family got up to some drinking and brawling, which we could clearly hear. We gathered in Stu and Suz’s ger to have dinner and, from time to time someone would open the door (there was not lock really), peek in, realize the family wasn’t there, and then walk away. Everyone was getting progressively more drunk (but us) so we thought we ought to remind the family that we would need some wood for our stove to light a fire. They promised to send someone around to do it later. Luckily they did, but funnily it was only to Aya and my ger. On the way to the bathroom I opened the door to our ger and found a fella in there poking the fire. He then pointed to a big plastic bag of coal and dropped the whole thing into the stove, plastic and all. I thought for sure we were going to die in the night. The next day I asked Stu about it and he said no one ever came to their ger and they were cold all night. The fella in my ger must have been shit faced and either forgot there was another ger and just thought the hell with it and chucked it all in our stove. We did stay toasty for most of the night.


On day two we woke early for breakfast and were surprised by a layer of snow. A big question mark for us was whether or not our van would make it up the steep hill we came down to get into the camp the day before. Our driver didn't seem to care too much though and gunned it up pretty easily. For the greater part of the day we were on the highway, making our way to the edge of the sand dunes at the edge of the Gobi desert (I guess we were actually in it, but mostly grassland) We arrived around early evening and again went through the motions of greeting our family for the night. Interestingly, this family had some fermented mare's milk to share with us, called Airag. It tasted like alcoholic yogurt. Pretty bitter at first drink, but it definitely got better as you had more. This time around we shared a ger with Stu and Suz because there were other guests coming later on and not enough room for us each to get our own. 

After lying about for a bit, we got on camels and rode to the edge of the sand dunes. If you have ever ridden a camel before, you know that it is a ridiculous looking animal. Years ago I'd had the opportunity to ride a camel by the pyramids in Giza, but turned it down because they looked so ungainly. This time around there was no other option, so I got on. The camel's hair was kind of thick and coarse to the touch, but the surprising thing to me was how warm they were. Aya's camel seemed pretty grumpy and didn't really want to kneel down to let her get on. She (the camel, not Aya) also complained a lot along the way, trying to go in a different direction and moaning a bit. For the most part, the camels were pretty docile. 

We made our way to the dunes, kicked about for a bit, and then made our way back to the ger. As the night got colder we huddled in our ger and kept the fire going as long as we could, but like the night before we all slept and the fire went out. The next morning we woke to a freezing cold room.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Mongolian Hordes

This past October holiday Aya and I decided to venture north to Mongolia. We had been planning this for some time, but thought we should jump on this before the weather got too cold and I think we timed it just right. The temperatures did get below freezing at night, but were pleasant during the day, reaching about 20C on some days.

Our first day we stayed in central Ulan Bator and, with not much time before the sun was setting, decided to go to the National History Museum located just off of Chinggis square. The square itself was pretty impressive, with huge statues of Damdin Suhkbataar in the center of the square and statues of Chinggis Khen on the north end by the parliamentary building flanked by statues of... his sons? I think? After we danced around the square a bit (square dancing?) we headed on to the museum. Considering that we new Mongolia was not a highly development country economically, we were pleasantly surprised by the museum. It has multiple floors and rooms with a good amount of historical artifacts. Unfortunately, you had to pay to take pictures inside and, I guess unfortunately, I'm a bit of a scrooge so we decided to just view the displays instead of paying to take pictures. The most surprising thing for me, which I guess I kind of knew, was that many of the tribes that had inhabited Mongolia had moved east and settled in central Asia and western Europe. Some of these were part of  Ghenghis Khan's Golden Horde, but the rest were just nomads who for one reason or another moved. In any case, the museum was great and we really enjoyed it, but we had a tour to catch early the next morning so headed back to our hotel for an early night.

The next morning we were picked up by Danista Nomad tours. They were great the whole way through. Very polite, on time, good service overall and a decent price. We ended up opting to share the journey with another couple and that turned out to be a good decision as then focus wasn't always on us. It was also nice to have another couple of people to share our thoughts with and to ask questions to. We had a guide/translator who did a great job, and also a driver who I must say was pretty good at driving though did scare us a few times. The roads in Mongolia are not too bad, but there are parts that get wild. We crossed rivers in the van, took roads rutted enough to bang our head on the (padded) ceiling, and spent long hours on endless straight highway across the Mongolian plain. It was great.

On Day one we headed west out of town, first stopping at Zaisan, a soviet era memorial to the victory over the Japan and the partnership between the Soviets and Mongolians. The monument was pretty cool. One thing that we all noticed was the power plants on the east side of the city, pumping out smoke from the coal fired power. This was something we noticed on the way into town too. We were really surprised by how close to the city the power plant was. As I'm told, the city has expanded a lot in the past couple of decades so even though it was build outside of the city the city was now gotten closer to it. I could see that as a possibility, but even compared to the center of the city, the power plant was only a couple of kilometers away, too close. On top of that, we were later to learn, there were a few more plants that were just a bit further from town to the east. Any day the winds were coming from the east Ulan Bator was guaranteed to be covered in smog, which seemed to happen regularly each night we were in town.

After Ziasan memorial we jumped back in the van to head out to the huge Ghenghis Khan Equestrian Statue. It was a pretty cool site. In the lower levels there was a museum with some of the artifacts found in the area. The funny thing was, there was a mock up of a ger with a tea set in it. While we were looking around there was a Chinese tour group there who grabbed the other guy we were with, an Englishman, and started taking pictures with him. Then, the pulled him into the mock up and took pictures of serving him tea. It was a bit funny. After that walked up a set of stairs going to the top of the statue where you can come out and view the surrounding area. There seem to be plans of creating a type of park and hotel structure there in the future and expanding the museum to a few other nearby sites. One of the kitschy things there was that there were these giant birds which appeared to be hawks, but our guide told us were buzzards. We were to see them again both at tourist sites for people to pose with, but also gliding around the countryside.

Our next stop was Turtle Rock. Pretty obvious, right? We got out of the van for a bit and had a walk around, the climbed up the back side to get a good view. It was indeed pretty nice, but we didn't stay for long. The sun was getting low and we had to get back into the van to make it to our camp for the night.

After an hour or so more on a paved road we made it to a small town, then drove across (through actually) a river and then a rutted road and a few more small streams. As the gers along the way became fewer and fewer we kept thinking, is this it? Is this it? Eventually there was nothing else in sight. We charged the van up a steep hill and as we crested we saw a three ger ranch at the bottom of the valley. That is where we would stay for the night. When we arrived we entered the family ger to make greetings, which we would come to know meant having some milk tea(cow's) and some fried dough snacks. Once we had a bit of a snack and talked for a little bit we went to our own ger for a short rest. We then got mounted up on horseback and went for a ride around the surrounding valleys. It was beautiful in the cold and still of the evening. On the way back to the ranch we rounded up the cattle that were out in the valley and then shortly after returning we had a nice dinner with our fellow travelers. Each place we stayed the tour company had set up in advance so gers, beds, meals, etc. were all ready to go. I would also add that each place we stayed was in a ger, but the three nights we were traveling around were all different in the food that we ate, the families that were there, and the environment surrounding the gers. Each ger was relatively the same with a wood fire stove int he center, the chimney going through a somewhat open hole in the roof and the surrounding rounds walls of the ger having 4-5 beds to sleep on with possibly a middle table for meals. That night as we went to to bed, we stoked the fire one last time and hoped we wouldn't freeze in the night.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Wisconsin Summer

San Francisco Half Marathon/Moonlight Marathon

This summer I ran two half marathons. First, the Davis moonlight marathon on July 9th in Davis, California. I had been training for a couple of months building up to the San Francisco half marathon at the end of July, but I always look for races around places where I'll be staying, so when I saw this was about 3 miles from the NEH seminar I attended this summer I went for it. I usually like to get in a "practice" race before the real one to estimate what time I might expect. Considering this was a couple of weeks prior to the San Francisco race, but San Francisco was supposed to be hillier, I thought that I ought to add about 5 minutes to whatever time I ran here and I was estimating I would finish around 1hr 50 minutes.

What I did not consider was the heat. Davis is away from the coast and although it looks close to San Francisco on a map it does not share it's weather patterns. On the day of the race it was 105F at peak of the day and about 100 when I started running at 7pm. Add on top of that that I thought the race was the next day, had gone out drinking with buddies the night before, only to realize at 3pm on race day that the start was in 4 hours... So, I considered not running it, but I had been hydrating all day and felt ok. I biked to the race (I know, biking to a race then biking home? madness) and by the time I got there around 630pm there were a lot of people milling around. To make a long story short, the race started just about on time and the course was a pretty nice loopy bit of bike trail going through quiet neighborhoods and parks. As the race went on I realized that the heat was slowing me down. In the first hour I must have stopped for water/to walk at least 5 times. It was at about 8pm that the sun really started to leave the sky and the temperatures dropped. I think by the time I finished, just a few minutes after 9pm, that the temperature was 75F, a big difference from the start. It was noticeable on my timing as well. The second half of the race I ran faster than the first with about 1hr for the second half and 1hr 5 min for the first. So, I didn't hit my time of 1 hr 50 minutes for the whole race, but I completed it and was pretty proud of that. Then I got on my bike and pedaled the 3 miles back to campus.

Two weeks later I was in San Francisco for the 1/2 marathon there. By this point in the year I was very well prepared to run this race, having trained hills and distances beyond the 21 km required. When I arrived in SF it was late afternoon so my plan was just to chill and eat a mild dinner, but then I remembered that I hadn't even picked up my race pack yet! Ok, so I checked out an Uber to the pick up place, about 3 miles away. Unfortunately Uber doesn't work for me in the US (with a Chinese CC) so I ended up walking to the expo center and then walking back, a 6 mile loop. I then had a spaghetti dinner and hit the hay around 9pm. It took a long while to get to sleep though since my window went to a shared courtyard where some women where (literally) yelling at each other in conversation.  I finally got to sleep around what must have been 1030. I had set my alarm for 445am since the start time was 530am and I wanted to eat a bit before leaving. In the darkness of the morning a door slammed and woke me up. Being race day, I thought, I better check my phone to see if I should get up. Good thing I did! I don't know how, but both of my alarms failed to go off so now it was 5:07am, 23 minutes to race start and I was a mile away from the start line and just waking up. I jumped out of bed to get my clothes on and decided there wasn't time to eat, but I had a couple of gels for the race so I sucked down one of those as I half jogged/power walked to the start line. I shouldn't have gone so fast because when I got there I stood around for another 30 minutes waiting for waves to start. I didn't actually cross the start line until around 6am.

The race was marvelous. Early morning in the bay area was very beautiful and slightly cool, but I was sweating and there was fog pretty early on. I felt really good going onto the Bay Bridge and pretty much the whole race I was passing people. I actually put myself a wave back further than I thought I could do with the idea that it would be encouraging to pass people and it was. The bridge was shrouded in fog and really I couldn't see more than 100m in front of me let alone get a view of the ocean or bay.

By the time we came off the bridge I was thinking that I might hit my goal of 1hr 55min. That is a bit slower than my normal 1/2 time, but SF is a hilly race. The next 1/3 of the race was mostly up and down hills and then finally on to the finish. Overall it was a great event. I then boarded the bus back to SF which was sunny and clear. An hour later, after walking to my hotel, showering and packing up, I was on the road to fly out of San Jose and to Wisconsin.

Yes, it was as hard as it looks, but I loved it!

NEH Hannah Arendt

What can I say about NEH programs and especially the Hannah Arendt seminar under Kathy Jones? Not enough, but I will try. 
This is my third NEH seminar and I have loved every one of them, but this one was definitely the best and I would argue the most intellectually challenging. For the first week or so I was thinking each day, do I belong here? Who are these people and how did I end up among them? They were so passionate about a text which, I must admit, was very hard to read and interpret. Sometimes the full meaning of what we were reading or discussing wouldn't hit me until a week later (I think some things I am still trying to sort out). Reading through Eichmann in Jerusalem and then Origins of Totalitarianism, both by Hannah Arendt, with one of the world's premier Arendt scholars was really a treat. Being surrounded by peers of high intellectual pursuit and a curiosity similar to my own was challenging and at the same time really rewarding. I had a lot of doubt and anxiety in this seminar, but it pushed me to thinking about things in a whole new way and questioning much of what I didn't before. 

The seminar, which at least for 2018 has not been renewed (after 7 years running! bummer) took place over a month long period at the UC Davis campus. As with most NEH programs, participants were housed in student housing with daily interactions during the week and free weekends. At first I thought, oh, there are only  3 hours each afternoon we are expected to be in discussion, the rest is free, how nice. I soon realized that the three hour discussions were heavy and dug deep. I was drained after each one, but eager to read the next section assigned, which would usually take me another 4-5 hours a day as I had to read and re-read each section just to glean most of the meaning. We were also visited by other scholars such as Uda Ispis and Ayten G├╝ndogdu

On the weekends we, of course, wanted to unwind and at least push the weight of the holocaust and banal evil to the backs of our minds. So we went hiking(to Feather Falls), did trivia, and took day trips together to San Francisco. Some of us lounged by the pool and read Origins of Totalitarianism, a funny sight to see 4-5 people around a pool all reading the same big black book and not one of them making a peep. Often we would meet in the dining halls or out for a drink in the evening and those conversations were almost as valuable as the seminar discussions themselves as we talked about the current political climate and how that related to the banality of evil, or how it did not at all. 

It is had to say enough about this program and about the thoughts of Hannah Arendt, but maybe it is enough to say that I now understand how the average man or woman can commit atrocious acts and how whole societies can go along with them.