Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Xanadu

Last night I happened to end up in Xanadu (cf Andreas' comment on blog "Surroundings"). It's an art gallery in central UB but sometimes also becomes the stage for those who want to experience what it's like to sing in a mike in front of an audience. It's the energetic John - whom you may remember from UB -40 - who organises these open mike events. It was supposed to start at 7.30 pm, but when I arrived with Odnoo and a Swiss friend at 8 pm the room was more or less empty and there was no sign at all of any music event. Nothing to worry about, though, we're in Mongolia and things aren't always that exact. Just a little later things started to happen and people arrived, and more people arrived, and they smoked, oh did they smoke! (and there seemed to be no ventilation), and even more people arrived. People were a little slow to sign up for performing, but with John's encouragement there was soon a queue of brave singers wanting to try out their artistic talents.

Please, artists, forgive me, but what I remember most from this night out is how to order a beer that hasn't been chilled in Mongolian. This has nothing to do with the quality of your performance, dear artists, not at all! It's just that I'm so used to making linguistic observations that I can't stop myself.

Open mike with Mongolian backdrop.


Friday, April 29, 2011


Today, as the forecast had promised, winter was back (well, not real Mongolian winter, but more like Brussels winter), with snow and wind. This is one of the mud seas that had formed during the night and early morning and which I somehow had to cross on my way to work, wearing black jeans and black suede boots. They are no longer black.

In the background you can see some quite typical garages.

Today was my last working day with the small children in the orphanage, as I will start teaching English to the older kids next week. I hope to be able to pop in and hug these five sweeties from time to time, though, as the teaching will take place just next door.

Here we are in the dining area, which doubles as playing area when it's not meal time, right after the morning snack. The morning snack drink is the reason why you can see at least one soaked t-shirt in the picture.

Thursday, April 28, 2011


The shaman I visited the other day is a pretty lady with a husband and children, living in an ordinary apartment. Seeing her transform into a shaman was an extraordinary experience, which started with the intense shaman drum beats and her chanting, all this while the TV was on in the living room. The first spirit she channeled, she channels two, was a very determined gentleman with a liking for snuff. Her voice changed, as did her language, which became a somewhat archaic form of Mongolian. After a break of an hour or so, she channeled her second spirit and turned into a medicine shaman. This gentleman seemed to be a little softer and didn't want any snuff.

The room where the ceremonies took place had a part of it set up with the necessary equipment. It is to be noted that the two spirits use different outfits and also different drums.

It was somehow unreal witnessing these ancient rituals - with the TV commercials and music shows as a faint acoustic backdrop. Culture clash, to say the least.

It didn't feel right to take pictures at the shaman ceremony, so today's illustration has nothing to do with shamanism, on the contrary. It's the Buddhist blue ceremonial scarf, khadag, which is here tied around a tree in Terelj National Park.

If you are curious and want to read more:
Mongolian shamanism I hope the information on this site is accurate, I'm not really a specialist so I can't judge.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

One for the road

Yesterday we had winter again. It snowed (not much, but still) and the strong wind was absolutely freezing. Today spring is back, but the forecast says more snow and low temperatures towards the end of the week. But even if spring is a bit slow to arrive permanently, at least it does arrive: when I came here 24 days ago, there was ice on the street in front of where I live and also some ugly-looking blackish snow drifts, but there is no longer any trace of neither ice nor snow drifts! By the way, the temperature difference between night and day can easily be around 20 degrees or so.

Need some music for the long drive ahead? Just pick something up from this outlet in the middle of nowhere!

Loose ends (this is not in UB but in the countryside).

Monday, April 25, 2011

Extra extra - Dream Discovery Academy

Check out Zulaa's Dream Discovery Academy blog!
And don't miss Anna's Dream Team England web site
The summer camp for children from poor areas in UB is planned for mid-June. We need your financial support!

White swan

It may seem somewhat unlikely, but there is a very nice opera house in Ulaanbaatar, the Duuriin Teatr. They have a rather impressive program of operas and ballets, mostly very well-known ones as for instance Aida, La Bohème and Swan Lake, but also Mongolian productions, such as the ballet Choijid Tara.

Last night I saw Swan Lake. The small theater was crammed, foreigners clearly over-represented. Many Mongolian families had brought their children along, something you don't see that often in other opera houses, perhaps because the ticket price is prohibitive - here the most expensive tickets cost 10,000 tugrigs, about 6 euros, perhaps because the performance starts too late - here all performances start at 5 pm.

Take a look at the website: Duuriin Teatr

The compulsory opera house chandelier.
After the ballet I had the opportunity of attending a shaman ceremony, not one for tourists but a real one, but that's another story!

Misplaced eagle and and other short stories

Eagle-hunting is something the Kazakhs in Western Mongolia do, but on our way to Terelj National Park last Saturday there was a man by the road using his eagle for lucrative purposes. We fell into the trap, of course, and had pictures taken. The eagle was heavy, so I didn't have to feel bad about not having done my biceps exercises for a few days :-)

In the middle of absolutely nowhere an imposing monument has been erected in the honour of the Great Chingghis Khaan (see also my profile picture). It sounds perhaps strange, but the location isn't as odd as you may think. It is somehow natural to see the statue there, on the steppe which was his homeland (well, actually, as faithful readers of my blog may recall, he came from Khentii in the east, but anyway).

The statue is about 40 m high, and in the building it stands on there is a rather interesting museum on Mongolian history. 

You don't need to go to the top of the monument to get a magnificent view - this picture was simply taken from just outside the building.

Inside this rock there is a cave where some 100 Buddhist monks hid from persecutors during the Stalinist era, when almost all temples in Mongolia were destroyed and thousands of monks were killed.

Camel enjoying life.

What you really do in Terelj is horseback riding, even if you never sat on a horse before. I did sit on a horse a couple of times in my life, but I certainly can't ride. But I succumbed to peer pressure and went for an hour-long ride, my horse firmly guided by this man, Horlaa, who, rightly so, had no faith in my capability of getting the horse to go in the right direction.

There is a small temple just a few hundred metres uphill from this spot, but it hadn't yet opened for the season.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Spring cleaning

It's spring cleaning time! This week I have seen a great number of cars being washed. This morning, for instance, two men were meticulously polishing their respective vehicles in front of my window.

So I thought it might be a good idea to spring clean myself too! I had over two hours of pedicure and foot massage in an elegant beauty parlor (it did not cost a fortune), so now apart from being clean, my feet are also fit for walking, something I hope to do tomorrow when I will be going to one of the national parks nearby.

I have taken the bus (and trolley bus) quite a lot recently (see also blog "Bag lady") and I must say that the tickets look just so much nicer than the ones we have in Brussels. Here is an example - I'm sorry it's a little crinkly but it has spent a few days in my pocket. It's a small item, 6 x 4 cm, approximately.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Red flag

On the way back to Ulaanbaatar from the countryside last Sunday, I noticed quite a few cars with small red flags fluttering in the wind. I thought perhaps that communist party dignitaries had some kind of outing, but no: they were driving school cars! That there were so many of them on a Sunday is probably explained by the fact that Sunday is the only day when you don't risk being caught in a traffic jam.

The red flags should be used on all cars that are not driving school cars though, in my opinion. I'm sure the learners' cars are, by far, the least dangerous vehicles in town. I never cross a street unless I really have to since it's so scary. You have to take one lane at a time, meaning that you have to stand there in the middle of the street with cars whizzing past just centimeters in front of you and behind you. But I should add that since I came here almost three weeks ago, it has actually happened on three occasions that cars have stopped or slowed down to let me cross! The first time I was so surprised that I just stood there staring at the car.

In the countryside you don't have to worry about crossing roads ... They are usually dirt tracks, quite often parallel tracks have developed, as in the picture. If there is no track in sight you can just drive wherever it's possible to get your vehicle to move forward.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bag lady

On the way home today I took the trolley bus. On every bus there is a ticket seller, usually a woman, who isn't always that easy to spot, especially if the bus is crowded, since (s)he is moving around in the bus and isn't wearing a uniform. The most recognizable item is often a rather big cross-body bag. The thing is that I'm also using a rather big cross-body bag, so today there was a lady who handed me 1000 tugrig and wanted a ticket from me :-))  The price for a trolley bus ticket is, by the way, 200 tugrig, about 12 cents.

This is one of the little princesses where I work - she loves being outdoors, not to mention being on a swing, and lifts her head up towards the sky to really feel the sun and the wind.

I know that today is the last working day for many of you before Easter, so I wish you already now a
Happy Easter!

Monday, April 18, 2011

But what does it really look like over there?

Today was my first day at the orphanage. The older children looked at me with their eyes wide open, in total silence. I said hello to them, but no one dared say anything at first. Then finally one of them said, almost whispering, "Sain baina uu".

My job is to help out a little with the small children in the morning. I took a beautiful little autistic girl out for a walk - she loves being outdoors - and we met a puppy, for mutual joy! Somehow the puppy seemed to understand that it mustn't come too close, but it yelped and jumped and hid and ran around, and the girl bubbled with laughter. At lunch I had the task of feeding a very small boy who ate his soup with great appetite, but just before the last spoonful he fell asleep, his head falling down onto the plate ...

So far I haven't published any pictures of gers (yurts) or a village (they are called "sum"), so here are, for you enlightenment, two typical views. Ulaanbaatar is Ulaanbaatar, but the countryside really is Mongolia!

NB the solar panels. The sun shines almost every day, so it's an efficient way of getting energy.
Don't think that there are sums in the Mongolian countryside just as there are villages dotted all over Belgium! Perhaps you pass one or so, or see one in the far distance, in "densely" populated areas ... In other areas, such as the Gobi, you can travel for days without even seeing one single person, let alone a whole sum!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Country life

How can I summarize three days filled to the rim with all sorts of impressions and experiences in just a few lines?? I have seen newborn lambs, I have seen a newborn lamb die, I have held a one-hour old baby goat in my arms, I have seen a stillborn baby goat (yes, I do know that baby goats are called kids), I have seen a sheep being slaughtered, I have seen newborn lambs and baby goats being brought into the ger and put next to the stove to gather strength, I have met incredibly hospitable and friendly people, I have drunk countless cups of milk tea, I have eaten fresh home-made yoghurt (has absolutely nothing to do with the product we get from supermarkets), I have tried milking a cow (disastrous result), and I have seen the endless steppe which I just can't get enough of.

The last picture shows a sheep being slaughtered the Mongolian way: through a slit in the stomach you enter your hand a cut or block the artery. You really see no blood at all, amazingly enough.

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Next week I will start working a little, just a few hours per day, in an orphanage run by the NGO where I will start teaching English to street children in May. My work will be in the district where I live, about a 25-minute walk from home, I should think. I paid a visit to my future supervisor today, and was once again struck by the sharp contrasts you see everywhere in UB: the orphanage/school seemed to be in an abandoned industrial area, but almost next to it is the Ministry of Defense, an imposing building.

Baigamaa, my supervisor. In the room to the left, some cool teenagers were watching a Mongolian comedy DVD.

The orphanage where I will start working a little on Monday. The NGO is called Setgelees setgeld , which they themselves translate as Soul to soul, but those of you who know Mongolian perhaps agree with me that the translation could be improved.

In the taxi (that is, in the car that stopped and acted taxi) there was this little surprise in the front seat! He stared at me for 10 minutes, thinking, I'm sure, what a strange person I was, but then he got used to me and just didn't stop smiling! Sooo cute!

And in the Projects Abroad office one of the ghastly-looking pinatas from yesterday had turned into something quite different! It's Enkhmaa smiling next to it.

Tomorrow morning I will leave UB and go to the countryside, to the Hentii province, for three days. Hentii is in Eastern Mongolia, and it was there that Chingghis Khaan was born. I will visit some of Odnoo's relatives who are nomads. So I hope to have interesting things to tell you when I'm back! 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Coat and tomato

Finally: two really easy Mongolian words!! I'm daily struggling with haah (to close), hiih (to make), cuux (to sit) and uux (to drink), not to mention halbaga (spoon), solongos (Korean) and dzavsarlaga (break). How relieved I was to learn that coat is called palto and tomato is called pomidor! For the latter there is of course also a real Mongolian word that I learned with no problem at all out of pure relief that the other two were so easy: ulaan lool.

The afternoon was devoted to the Dream Discovery project. We prepared a visit to a care center on Friday, making pinatas (I'm sure you know what that is, I had no idea), the skeletons of which are pictured here below. Don't worry, they will be nicely decorated together with the kids in the care center and used to brighten up their rooms.

We then finalised our mission statement and business plan, which I will publish here as soon as we have made the last corrections. In June we will organise a four-day camp for 50 underprivileged children, and for this money is needed. One of the ideas for fundraising that came up was to organise parallel sponsored hikes on the outskirts of UB and in Southern England (where Anna comes from) on 7 May.

It seems as though I will have a full class of French students! At least 8 people or so are interested, and hopefully we will be able to use a real classroom. That will definitely be better working and studying conditions than the shared desk and the restaurant table used so far!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What has ice skating got to do with a bus without wheels?

In front of the Projects Abroad office there is this abandoned bus wreck without wheels. I have been very intrigued by this - what is it doing there, in the middle of the city, just next to the city swimming pool? I got the answer today: in the winter there is a small ice skating rink behind it and the bus is used to keep skates in and as a changing room. That's what I call recycling!

Some of you have asked about the orphanage we visited last Sunday. If you would like to know more, please take a look here:

Monday, April 11, 2011

What you also can do on a Monday afternoon

I took the bus with Odnoo today, just two stops. When we were getting off, three men, who pretended not to know each other, got between Odnoo and myself. They didn't do anything then, but we noticed that they followed us. When they saw that we had understood their shady business, which was of course pick-pocketing, they lost interest in us, thank goodness. So we arrived safely at the food market, an interesting place which I will tell you more about another time.

Later I took a long walk downtown this lovely spring afternoon.

This is the very center of UB, Sukhbaatar square. Sukhbaatar ("sukh" means "axe", "baatar", as you all know, is "hero") is a national hero who played a central role in founding the Mongolian People's Party and in liberating Mongolia from the Chinese. The huge building you can catch a glimpse of is the national parliament.

A nice pastime on a sunny afternoon!

And demand for French lessons seems to be on the increase, I hope I can meet all requests!

Dream discoveries

Remember the new charity I wrote about a couple of days ago, the Dream Discovery Factory? Today Zulaa, Anna and myself introduced the idea to two groups of students of English (NB these people come to their language courses on a Sunday, and as you can see, the rooms were crammed). Almost all of them signed up to promote the Dream Discovery and to help out in one way or another.


"I want to become a doctor"

In the afternoon we went on to an orphanage where we played with the children, celebrated Zulaa's birthday with a huge cake and made a Wish Box. The children made hearts, wings or clouds or just any shape they liked from coloured sheets of paper and wrote their wishes on them.

Was it one of these girls who wrote "love" on her card and drew lots of flowers?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

UB -40

One of Odnoo's students plays in a band very wittily called UB -40. They performed some all-time favourites last night in a pub-restaurant-night club where a big crowd of expats and Mongolians had gathered. Odnoo and myself were of course in the audience.

Starry curtains and glitter glitter glitter.
The Great Khaan has given his name to all kinds of products.