Saturday, December 8, 2012

Photo shoot

This week we shot a three minute short penned by Oliver and me including all members of Batbileg's Family (sans crazy Uncle Tumor). The gist of the shot is as follows: the family is getting their photos taken by Chuka (boyfriend of the middle daughter Monkzul). Ariunzul shows up late, her father (Batbileg) strips down to his wrestling outfit, and Rick didn't get the memo that the family WASN'T dressing in traditional clothing. Below are photos from the shoot. The video will be posted shortly (this week!)

Dan doing his filming thing

With Key, one of the show's producers (and go to guy for EVERYTHING!)

setting up the shot

Tuul and Selenge. 

Chuka and Monkzul

The children of the family and one boyfriend with silver hair

Chuka and me

Lining up

Our director
Selenge and me at our interview session at Cafe 9

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Batbileg's Family

Things are happening rapidly.

The last two weeks have been met with a quick shoot at a mall behind Blue Sky Tower as well as the solidification of filming locations and production details. It's official, Batbileg's Family will broadcast on Mongol HD starting February 1st 2013! Below is our first cast photo, as well as a quick shot Selenge and I took last Sunday. Good job to our producers at MGM, who have been working their tails off to get this show out as soon as possible.

More updates coming this week as I'm finally in the world of smart phones... which should prove interesting!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Up and away: Mongolia’s first sitcom and its origins

Published November 19th in the UB Post 

Mongolia’s first sitcom is coming faster than winter. The sitcom, Batbileg’s Family, will be a single camera styled television show based heavily on tried and true sitcom format America has been broadcasting since the 1950s. It will be an interesting mix of movie cinematography and mockumentary styled interviews. In last week’s installment, I spoke of the finer details involved with creating the sitcom (i.e. chicken suits) and promised to keep everyone updated regarding the sitcom’s progress. This installment will do just that, as well as dig deeper into how the sitcom came about.
Oliver Claycamp, the sitcom’s head writer, originally developed the idea earlier this year. Growing tired of Mongolian television and its lack of comedy, as well as it import of Korean shows and bad overdubbing of western shows, Oliver proposed a question: Why doesn’t Mongolia have its own sitcom? Mongolians watch plenty of television and are highly influenced by Western programming, from music to cinema. So, why not write the first Mongolian sitcom? Why not create a wholesome family show and film it in a style that has rarely been seen on television here?
Oliver first proposed to me the idea of the sitcom through a series of text messages. By this point in our friendship, we’d proposed so many strange writing ideas to each other I was sure he was playing a joke on me. Regardless, I readily agreed for two reasons. One, I have a problem saying no to people especially involving creative endeavors. No sense in missing an opportunity to try something new. Two, I was intrigued. Was it possible? Could two American writers pull it off? Who would produce it? Could we find an American to act in it? When would we actually start filming it?
The answers came over the following months. Yes, it was possible. Yes, two Americans could pull it off with the help of a clever Mongolian woman, Zola, Oliver’s wife, our translator and go-to-guru for culturally relevant jokes.  Mongol Grand Media, a new production company setting a new standard for Mongolian media productions would produce it. Strangely, I would end up acting in it playing the American character, Rick, which wasn’t the original plan but since feels like it has been the whole time. And for the final answer, December will be the month it starts filming.
This week MGM studios have seen many things: from countless sponsor meetings to heated discussions regarding a three minute episode to better advertise the show. Originally, Joon Wook Kim, our Korean director, wanted something Simpsonsesque, an opener involving an extended action shot that details the shows youngest character, a 10 year old boy named Batta, moving through the family’s home and weaving in and out of everyone’s business. Oliver wanted to film an actual scene from the show, to show the interview style as well as the settings and theme. After a long discussion involving Oliver, myself, the executives producers, Joon Wook Kim, and phone calls to Dan Peters, our lead cameraman/go to guy for anything and everything technical in the show, a decision was reached: the three minute episode would be a quick storyline in which the family is attempting to take a portrait at a local photo studio. The shoot is planned for the following weekend.
Saturday also saw the first official video shoot for the sitcom. In the scene, Rick, the American character in the show, sits in an abandoned playground as the snow falls round him. He comments on the coldness of the weather and how he is feeling lonely. His phone rings and he suddenly grows excited that someone is calling him. He takes the call only to tell the person on the phone that he is busy and that he can’t be bothered. The short can be found via Youtube: Lonely Rick.
On Sunday we shot our first commercial featuring members of the sitcom. The commercial, for the Niislel gym near Zaisan, features a long shot of the gym, the people working out there, and a quick cameo by Rick who’s running on a treadmill when he becomes distracted by the pretty girl running next to him. The commercial also features Mongolian top model Temka, pumping iron and looking fierce.
Progress can come in different spurts. It can be fast, nearly blinding, and seem to appear out of nowhere and it can be slow, molasses slow, with no end in sight. Batbileg’s Family falls into the former category. Since first hooking up with MGM in September, the show has barreled towards it filming date. With the official filming date taking place this next week, the cast nearly solidified, and all the pieces falling into place, it’s starting to feel as real as the first mockumentary of a fictional Mongolian family can possibly feel. Excitement is in the air, and history is soon to be made. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

A French designer, chicken suits, and Mongolia’s first sitcom

                “We need chicken suits,” Oliver says to Jesse, the French designer for Mongol Grand Media’s new Mongolian sitcom.

                “Chicken costumes?” Jesse asks. He looks at us suspiciously, as if we are putting him on. We had just requested a deel made out of camouflage material. He has reason to be suspicious.

                “Yea. Two. We need two.”

                So goes a normal conversation at MGM’s newly founded studio in the heart of Ulaanbaatar. Over the course of the year, Oliver Claycamp and I have been working on a sitcom, but not just any sitcom, we have been tediously scripting out Mongolia’s very first sitcom. The sitcom will be filmed in a single camera mockumentary style, and if all goes according to plan, filming should start at the beginning of December. Until that time, I will be documenting for my blog and the UB Post the more interesting happenings at the office, ranging from issues of translations to discussions on theme music for the show. It’s a truly international effort, and something that has a good chance of spreading further than Mongolia’s landlocked borders.

               Translation. Translation and finding those who can do it quickly has become somewhat of the lifeblood of our office. The show’s director will be a Korean man who speaks Mongolian, the actors will all be Mongolian, the foreign actors (including myself—more on this later) will speak Mongolian in the show, the producers speak Mongolian, English and Korean, Oliver speaks Mongolian, I’m studying Mongolian, the Frenchman speaks English, and thus any discussion is usually translated at least once depending on who’s in the room. The script is also translated multiple times, from English to Mongolian then finally to Korean for the director, who while fluent in Mongolian, has trouble reading Cyrillic. We also plan to translate the script into Chinese at a later time.

                A normal day for me: I greet Joon Wook Kim, the Korean director, who tells me something in Korean-accented Mongolian, which I invariably don’t understand, which he then tells to Oliver or Key for translation(the executive producer), who then relay the message to me, after which I reply, and the translation loop continues until the conversation is over. As frustrating as this sounds, it’s actually quite smooth and there has yet to be any real translation problems. Everyone knows the immensity of our task, and the goal of quality and good programming seem to trump any issues of interpretation.

                That brings me to another thing: jokes that are lost in translation. Luckily, Oliver’s wife Zola has become somewhat of our guru on jokes.  Not only does she translate the scripts, she also enhances our jokes and gives us a truly local spin on the various dilemmas we cook up. I’ve even left out good portions of scenes for the pieces I write just to get her take on it. Her script translations and influence are vital to our finished product.

 American humor can be sarcastic, it can be slapstick and it can be based entirely on wordplay. It runs the smorgasbord of English communication and has huge regional variations. For writer’s writing to a foreign audience, some of these types of jokes don’t work and have to be changed to make sense. While it’s always sad seeing a joke go, the bigger picture is what’s really important here, and it’s the bigger picture that continues to propel this project further.

There’s always something happening at the studio, at least after the auditions start. From a rapping Mongolian child to a gorgeous model singing a popular English song, people have poured into the studio to audition for roles. Some characters have been cast, including the characters Ariunzul, a twenty-something woman dating a foreigner, Batbileg, her father, and Javzmaa, her stepmother, and Tumor, the obligatory crazy uncle.  The search continues for Monkhzul, the sixteen year old daughter obsessed with Korean culture, and Batta, the youngest actor in the show who plays a clever child always on the cusp of getting himself or someone else into trouble.

Then there’s Rick. In the show, Rick is an American man dating a Mongolian woman (Ariunzul). Originally, Rick was supposed to be played by another foreigner. Then, a month or so ago, I got a call from Oliver.

“The guy playing Rick is out,” he said. He was at the studio and our producers were probably huddled around him, or at least in my mind they were.

“Maybe we can get my friend Dan,” I suggested.

“They’re saying maybe you can do it,” Oliver said.



“No way, I’ll talk to Dan.”

“Ok, think about it.”

It’s hard to describe how strange it is to write dialogue for a character for a few months then get the offer to play that character. It definitely makes you question future ideas involving that character, especially now that you have the choice whether to be the actor or not. But I thought about it, and decided to take the role. After all, time was running out and the show was nearing production. Plus, I had a general sense of what was going on at all times due to my role as the show’s co-writer. A month ago I became Rick and a month from now I will play Rick on television. Still strange to write and even stranger to say.

Dan, the friend I mentioned earlier, will also have a role in the show. He will play Steve, Rick’s friend whom he occasionally calls. So picture this: Rick is having some dilemma and to get advice he calls Steve, who is always doing something wacky (which is very easy to do in a city as diverse as UB). They will speak only Mongolian to one another, bad Mongolian I might add, and the subtitles will be in English. The sense of irony is powerful here:  two Americans speaking Mongolian to one another while they could be speaking English. Dan, an Afghanistan war veteran and documentary filmmaker, will also help with filming, post production, and everything in between. The staff diversity of the show continues to expand as we near production.

The coming week will see many things, including the recording of a theme song, which I wrote and someone else will perform, and more auditions to find our final two main characters. A ten minute mini-episode will be written and should be filmed soon and an advertisement campaign will move into its final stages of preparation. Mongolian’s first sitcom, which has yet to be named but will likely be Batbileg’s Family, is on its way to television history. As the snow settles and the temperature plummets, the cast, crew, and producers at MGM are going into overdrive in preparation for our winter debut.

Halloween time!

Halloween in Mongolia is always interesting. 

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

British Man Becomes a Mongolian Shaman

Paul Diamond, a wandering shaman friend of mine recently became a shaman in the Mongolian tradition. More details to follow, or not, as the pictures tell the story. Photos by Dan Peters

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The center of a ger

The center of a ger
By Cooper Baltis

 Published September 4th in the UB Post

Life in a Mongolian ger revolves around a wrought iron stove. It’s the original central heating that doubles as a device in which everything is cooked, boiled, steamed, fried, simmered, and cleaned. It is invariably rusty, stained from daily usage and inlayed with endless knot regalia. It is crucial and strikingly useful. It is the center of the ger and the single most used item in the countryside.
Mongolian women spend most of their day around the stove. They begin their mornings by boiling water. Once the water is boiled, milk and tea is added to the boiling pot. A large ladle hanging from a chord near the stove is used to mix the milk and water together. A pinch of salt is mixed into the pot and an old saucepan is used to strain the milk tea into a pot. The nozzle of the tea pot is used to transfer the milk tea into a large thermos. The thermos is generally a bright color, the front of which is decorated by a floral pattern.
The thermos of milk tea is brought to a small table close to the back of the ger. It is set on the table next to a plastic bowl filled with bootsog, a fried pastry cut into small squares. The man of the ger enters and sits down on a stool next to the table. He greets his wife and daughters with a nod. His hands are muddy and slightly bloody from pulling a large thorn out of the hooves of one of his sheep. He reaches for the milk tea and pours it into a bowl. He finishes the tea quickly. Ochre finger prints remain on the white bowl. He takes one bootsog, puts it in the front pocket of his shirt, and leaves the ger.
The oldest daughter takes the pot used to boil the milk tea outside the ger. She uses an old rag to clean the milky residue off the side of the pot. She finishes and scoops water out of a plastic container into the pot. The pot is brought back into the ger and set on the stove. The middle daughter adds small chunks of wood into the stove. She blows air inside the stove using a hollow rod and listens for the crackling sound of the embers. While all this happens, the mother sits on her bed, combing the hair of the youngest daughter.
The water begins to boil on the stove. The oldest daughter pours most of the hot water into a metal wash bin. With the help of her sister, she carries the wash bin outside. The middle sister returns to the ger and grabs a sack of clothing out of a plastic bucket.
The mother sets her youngest daughter on the bed and picks up two small orange stools. She turns one of the stools upside down near the stove. She takes the pot full of water off the stove and balances it between the legs of the overturned stool. The mother sits on the other stool and starts using the hot water to wash dishes. The youngest daughter wanders outside to find her sisters.
She finds her sisters sitting around the wash bin on their heels. Soap suds splash out of the bin. The oldest sister scrubs a pair of jeans with her bare knuckles. The middle sister reaches for the youngest and tickles her. The youngest protests and runs back into the ger.
The youngest daughter pays little attention to the small handheld iron her mother has now set on top of the stove. The youngest runs to the bed and pulls a pack of playing cards out from beneath the mattress. As she plays, the middle daughter enters the ger and hands her mother a collared t-shirt. Using a large wooden cutting board, the mother begins to iron the collar of shirt with the freshly heated iron that had been sitting on the stove. As she runs the iron across the shirt, steam rises into the ger.
After the collar is ironed, more wood is added to the stove. The oldest daughter takes a cart to the nearby river to retrieve water. The middle daughter and the mother begin cutting slices of kneaded flour into noodles. They sit around the cutting board next to the stove. The youngest daughter waddles by with a candy wrapper hanging out of her mouth.
Oil is rubbed onto the noodles and they are cast into a large pot on top of the stove. As the noodles boil, the middle daughter quickly cuts a few slivers off a hunk of meat of a carcass they had been storing outside in their shed. She cuts quickly, precisely, dicing the meat into little square-shaped pieces. The meat is added to the pot and oily bubbles appear on top of the water.
The oldest daughter returns with a barrel of water just in time for lunch. A boy with a cast on his arm from a nearby ger helps her lift the barrel and place it next to the front door. They eat the soup and the boy leaves as quickly as he came. The oldest daughter adds water to the pot and more wood to the stove. As the water boils, she uses butter knife to scrape dirt from under her nails. She drops the bowls used for lunch into the water.
The dishes are clean and a lull settles over the ger. The youngest and middle daughters doze off. The mother and oldest daughter retrieve a large hunk of fat and begin slicing it into manageable chunks. A different pot is brought in from outside. The bottom of the pot is charred from years of usage. The middle daughter wakes up and starts sweeping the ger. While the fat boils on the stove, the oldest daughter kneads a large hunk of dough. With little pinches, the mother separates the dough into a pile on the cutting board. She drops the dough into the boiling fat on the stove. She comes back after each piece of dough has turned a golden brown. Using a strainer, she retrieves the piping hot pieces and deposits them into a large bucket. The middle daughter picks out a fresh bootsog and tosses it into her mouth.
The afternoon progresses in short waves of activity and rest. More flour is kneaded and torn into tiny circles. Diced meat is added to the circles and the corners are brought together in a pinch. The dumplings are arranged on the cutting board until the flour and meat is finished. Outside the ger, the father and his oldest daughter corral the cows and sheep.
A steaming pan is placed into the large pot on the stove.  A splash of water is added and the mother combs the hair of her youngest daughter until the water is boiling. She sets the dumpling  onto the steaming tray and once they are steamed, she places them into a large bowl.
The father and his oldest daughter enter the ger. Their pants are dirty with milk stains and animal droppings. They take off their boots and huddled around the dumplings. The middle daughter pours tea for her father, mother, and sister. She holds her youngest sister in her lap as they eat.
As night settles, the dumplings are devoured and more milk tea is boiled on the stove. The outside temperature starts to plummet. The father brings in a stack of wood and deposits it next to the stove. The family changes into their sleeping clothes and prepares for bed. The oldest daughter relaxes on the bed across from their parents. The middle daughter sleeps on the floor. The mother rises in the middle of the night and sticks a few large pieces of wood into the stove.
The ger is warm and the family rests. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tyler interview

published July 31, 2012 in the UB Post

Tyler Davis-Mayo, a Sarah Lawrence College graduate, originally came to Mongolia to continue his study of Shamanism, a path which started in Nepal. The UB Post sat down with Mayo recently to discuss his path to Shamanism and any Shamanic activities he has participated in since arriving in Ulaanbaatar.

When did your path to Shamanism begin?
It’s hard to say exactly when it began, but there are a few turning points that stand out, the most notable of which was a long psychological illness. Many Shamans are called through an illness, either physical or psychological or both, and this is sometimes identified by another shaman as a calling. As shamanism in the Western World has been pushed underground and become less prominent, the calling is rarely identified as such. I was guided by the spirits through a kind of intuitive call and response to where I am now.
What do you mean by intuitive call and response?
The spirit world, or most worlds that are not physical, do not have as strong of a duality as the physical world does. In the physical world, we can kind of map cause and effect to a certain degree. In the realms of spirit, it doesn’t quite work the same way. In fact, being unsure, not knowing, doubting, in some way is the access to these realms. You’re never “sure” in the way that you’re sure that if you have a fire in front of you you’ll be hot; you can’t be certain  in the same way that a spirit or a deity is communicating with you because it’s exactly in this space of unknowing that these sort of entities live.  It takes a lot of intuition and trust as well as trial and error to understand this space.
Tell us about what happened to you in Nepal.
I was never sure why I was so drawn to Nepal. As I was living there, it became clear that the Goddess Kali had called me there and brought me there. Through listening to her, in this kind of intuitive way, I was led to meet a few Nepali Shamans and through them I also met a good English friend who was also a practicing shaman. We met in the same shaman’s house on the same day asking the same questions. He also has a strong relationship with Kali so we figured it wasn’t just chance. Together, we took the initiation into the Nepali shamanic tradition.
Tell us about teaching Shamanism at the Krishnamurti School, Brockwood Park, in England over the past year.
I wasn’t teaching Shamanism, I was teaching about what Shamanism is. I think Shamanism is something that people are drawn to by another force and it takes a lot of questioning of one’s self to see if it’s the right path for them. But it’s important in the Western World to revitalize this way of seeing the world and interacting with the world in our cultures. One of the ways in which I began the class was by explaining that from my experience, Shamanism exists in a space that has an emphasis on the relationship to what we normally see as separate objects. Whereas our culture, modern culture, puts an emphasis on the individual and their conflict with the environment, emphasizing the perception of seperate objects such as the cup on the table, shamanism puts an emphasis on the relationship between the cup and the table. So the cup is on the table, and in their relationship is a type of reality.  This way of perceiving things reveals the interconnectedness of our world. That is something that we have lost in modern society and it’s part of why we have such violence between each other as humans and lack of respect for nature.
Tell us about your first visit to a Mongolian shaman.
My first visit with a Mongolian shaman was very strong. From what I’ve seen now, it seems to be true that most Mongolian Shamans, including this one, can bring through the spirit of ancestors quite powerfully. You can feel the energy of the room change even before the spirit was completely brought through. In Shamanism, it’s necessary to manipulate the space where the ritual takes place. The shaman definitely had created a sacred space. When the spirit was brought through you could also feel the heat radiating off the shaman and the shift in energy.
One thing that was interesting to me is the emphasis on ancestor spirits. While this is common in many forms of shamanism, it’s not always emphasized as much as it is in Mongolia. This particular spirit (which the shaman channeled) was very wise and was willing to pose hard questions to the person they were healing, which is in my opinion an essential part of the healing process. This allows the person being healed to look at their own problems and affect their own healing. Also, the spirits are a lot of fun as long as you’re respectful. They can joke with you a bit and invite you into a very friendly atmosphere. The Shamans themselves are also very friendly. At the beginning of this first visit, the shaman invited me to a big shamanic ritual the following weekend where three Shamans were taking on new spirits. This kind of invitation was very sacred and gracious of him – and the timing was also quite serendipitous.
What was your purpose in visiting the shaman?
I’m still at an early stage in learning to be a shaman and I’m sure I’ll always be learning. I visited because I needed some help from the spirit in clearing some blockages that I became aware of in my own practice not too long ago. In traveling to Mongolia it became clear that one of the reasons I’m here is to engage myself with the Shamans and spirits here and obtain their help in my ongoing learning and development.
What happened at the Shaman initiation?
There were seven Mongolian Shamans in all, three of which were taking on new spirits and about thirty to forty friends and family members. The Shamans set up the ritual space by creating a circle of protection and power around the whole camp. In the main ritual ger, they all set up their alters and opened up the spirit world, or as they called it, the Heavens, which serves to create a direct link between the physical realm and the realm of spirits.
There were various other rituals, many Shamans calling in their own spirits. The rituals to call in the new spirits were quite strong and the main teacher as well as the other Shamans had to be careful as it can be dangerous when first calling on the new spirit. They did this in a well-practiced manner, even as it went on almost all night. In one of the last rituals, five shaman set up around an oboo, which had a string tied to the top of it and had been brought down to the center of the ritual ger, connecting the Heavens to the earth. These five Shamans brought their spirits all at the same time, which was extremely powerful.
Did they tell you which tradition they were practicing?
Yes, their tradition was the Buriyat tradition which has a big emphasis on the costumes the Shamans wear. It’s quite elaborate and while most forms of shamanism have some forms of attire, the Buriyat tradition seems to be one of the most elaborate, and it’s essential to their shamanic practice.
Did you take your spirit?
The Mongolian Shamans were very open and gracious, and asked me if I wanted to bring through my spirit, which I did. It was a big opening for me.  My spirit doesn’t always come through so strong since I’m still learning. In this space, with all the energy there, my spirit came through very strongly and there was an interesting healing and communication between my spirit and the Mongolian Shamans. I was very grateful for that opportunity.
How did the Mongolians respond once you took your spirit?
Well I think it was unusual for them to see this type of spirit come through because at least in the Buriyat tradition, the Shaman’s face is covered when the spirit comes through. When my spirit comes through, there’s no face covering. My spirit, who is a female spirit, likes to look around and move more than the spirits in the Buriyat tradition.  Also, my spirit is a deity, whereas Buriyat Shamans are ancestor spirits, so there is a different energy coming through, which I feel is a little different from what they’re used to. So the space was unfamiliar to them, But it seemed that the Shamans and the Mongolians there appreciated the experience and were grateful for the spirit to come through.
This might be an obvious question, but did anything weird happen at the Mongolian Shaman gathering?
Weird things always happen in Shaman gatherings. One funny thing that happened was about midnight, in between rituals, a van showed up with a small movie crew. They filmed a short scene that appeared to be in a film taking place sometime in Mongolia’s past with the actors in traditional Mongolian clothes. It seemed quite random, but it had obviously been set up beforehand. We found out later that it was for a hip-hop music video.  Another interesting thing was the hawks that were swooping down quite close to the ritual ger during key moments. The shamans explained that in their beliefs, this was the spirits coming down to watch the proceedings and to accept offerings.
What are traditional Mongolian offerings?
Vodka of course, as well as different types of food and sweets. In larger rituals like this, animals are sacrificed. Things like food and alcohol and fire are common offerings in most Shamanic rituals.
You said that the first Shaman you visited removed a blockage. How did he go about doing this?
After the first time that he brought the spirit through and agreed to remove the block, we were told to return in five days. We were to bring with us many offerings and tools for the ceremony such as vodka, katag, silk, black and red string and a white sheet. When the spirit was called through, he directed the ceremony and the translators, or the spirit’s helpers, who in this case were the Shaman’s sister and a family friend, carried out the remainder of the ritual. First I offered katag, silk, vodka and tea to the spirit. Then, he directed the vodka to be arranged on a tray and for me to be covered with the white sheet and the red and black string to be wrapped around me.  I’m not sure exactly what was going on, of course, because the spirits have their own language that they operate with in the ceremony and of course everything was in Mongolian. What I felt at this point was the blanket and the string were isolating the blockage.
The spirit asked me to sing my power song and drummed along to it. Then he had some red and black string tied around my right angle and told me to focus my awareness there, as if my spirit was present there. He drummed again and at this point, he was bringing my spirit through the block. In doing so, the energy of the spirit moving through the block dissipates it, and that dissipation and movement through the block is the removal of the block. The spirit said he would leave and come back; the spirit left the space and the Shaman returned (through him) and after a few minutes the Shaman drummed in the spirit again. The spirit said that the ceremony had been successful.
Did you feel anything when he was removing the blockage?
There were a couple times when a very strong energy was moving through my body. When they removed the sheet and the string, I could feel myself opening up, as if there were more space in my body.
What are your next plans while in Mongolia?
Next I’m traveling to Khovd. There is a woman considered to be a Green Tara living there. I work with Green Tara’s spirit, and before I knew about this particular woman, I felt she was drawing me to Mongolia. When I found out about this Green Tara, I felt it was obvious that I should go and visit her.
What have you learned thus far from Mongolian Shamans?
Well the learning is still going on and in that state, things are very much in flux. I’m seeing something about the complexity about the Shamanic world, the difference between ancestor spirits and deities. Something is starting to become clear about the interaction between the deities and the ancestors and also about the roots of Shamanism and how this tradition emerged in Mongolia. Also the Shamans have been extremely proficient in what they do, and have imparted a lot of wisdom about how to move forward and create a closer relationship with my spirit, and the realms of spirit at large.
Anything else you’d like say?
I’d like to thank the UB Post’s Cooper and Khash for making contact and translating, which isn’t easy. I’d also like to thank Oliver Claycamp for putting us in contact with a very good shaman. Also, I want to express my gratitude to the Shaman’s and their translators for their openness and willingness to bring me into their space and teach me about their tradition. And of course, the deepest reverence for the spirits, for their healing and guidance. 

Sheer violence and hollow revelations: the legacy of the Mad Baron

Published July 28 in the UB Post 

It’s no stretch to say that the Mongolia we see today, the world’s fastest growing economy, has had a powerful and interesting past. With its colorful cast of historical figures and conquerors, none are more puzzling than psychopathic warlord Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, or, as many called him, the “Mad Baron.”

The self-proclaimed last Khan of Mongolia, the Baron played an important role in deciding the twentieth century fate of Mongolia. Without the Baron’s interventions, antagonization, sheer violence, and hollow revelations, twentieth century might never have matured in the way it did.

Worshiped by many as a demon and by others as a living God, the Baron was born to a Baltic-Russian aristocratic family in Graz, Austria sometime in the mid-1880s. Adding to his tyrannical enigma, the Baron’s birthdate is difficult to pin down because of two reports that separate his birth by over a year. More puzzling is his last name, Sternberg, a traditional Jewish last name that means “star mounted,” especially when prefaced with Ungern, which means “unwilling.” Unwillingly star-mounted. Not a great fan of his own name, especially when taken into account with his anti-Semitism, the Baron would later have his name translated as “Great Star Mountain” during his reign in Mongolia.

His sadistic tendencies, which would later show up in the ways he punished his enemies and those around him, were seldom reported while the Baron was a child. He grew up during a trying time in Eastern Europe but had a more privileged childhood than most. The Baron claimed his lineage could be traced all the way back to Attila the Hun and that his family had always been “warlike and given to mysticism and asceticism.” He was fond of detailing his family lineage and their carnage, including his great uncle Baron Wilhelm Ungern, who had been known as “brother of Satan” due to his alchemical inclinations and general insanity.

Various descriptions of the Baron only add to his intrigue. Some described him as tall, others as short; some said he had green eyes, others blue. He’s been depicted as a raving lunatic and as a pseudo-philosopher of history and esoteric concepts. One of the few existing pictures of him depicts him in a shiny Mongolian deel adorned with the Russian Order of St. George lapel. Perhaps the best description of him comes from Ferdinand Ossendowski’s  Beasts, Men and Gods as a man with “a small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine icons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave.”

The Baron’s philosophy was also baffling. “I have spent all my life in war or in the study and learning of Buddhism,” he once said, when asked about his religious preference. Practicing what he deemed “Military Buddhism,” the Baron took it upon himself to kill or punish as many as he could to help speed up their Buddhist rebirths. His admiration for Buddhism grew with his disgust for the Bolshevik revolution happening in Russia. The Baron claimed that Military Buddhism protected the processes of humanity by steering it towards evolution; this as opposed to revolution, which only led humanity “to bestiality” and same sword different leader mentalities.

His path of carnage began after the Baron volunteered as a soldier in the Russo-Japanese War, a war fought entirely on the collapsing Chinese Empire. By the time he had arrived at the front, the war had all but dissipated, leaving the Baron to gain his first appreciation of the Central Asian landscape. He continued his military service after his first taste of Asia by serving as an officer in East Siberia. While in Siberia, he became obsessed with the nomadic culture of passing Mongolians. In 1913, he was transferred to a small Russian consulate in Khovd, a small western city in Mongolia. At the start of the First World War, he joined the Austrian Front. As the war concluded and the Boleshevik Revolution began, he backed the Romanovs and earned the “Mad Baron” moniker which would stick with him in various forms until his death.

Believing himself to be a reincarnation of Chinggis Khan, the Baron rode with a horde of renegade soldiers to Mongolia on October 1, 1920. His goal was to establish a pan-Asiatic state founded on Buddhism, or more appropriately, Military Buddhism. He made plans to free the Bogd Khan, the emperor of Mongolia who had been imprisoned by the Manchu.  After three days of drunken horsemen galloping the streets shooting, raping, pillaging, and killing indiscriminately, the Baron successfully sieged Ulaanbaatar in February of 1921. Two weeks later, he freed the Bodg Khan, and was given the high title darkhan khoshoi chin wang. He began promoting order and cleanliness in Urga, forcing the citizens to clean the town, thread lights along the streets from the newly built electricity plant, build bridges, and set up schools and hospitals. He also protected trade by publicly hanging Russian and Mongolians guilty of stealing from Chinese merchants.

The violent nature of the Baron bloomed during his short reign over the now semi-sovereign nation of Mongolia. A fan of alcohol himself, he savagely tortured any soldiers found drunk or hung over by forcing them to camp naked on frozen rivers. Everyone was a suspect to the baron, who favored lashings by stick until flesh separated from the bone. He pooled many of his torture methods from Buddhist concepts of hell, such as burning in fire pots. His collection of soldiers, a group of about six thousand composed mostly of Cossacks and Mongolians, would flee like mice when the Baron stumbled around his encampments looking for someone to discipline.

As his rule continued, the Baron grew increasingly eccentric, and took to riding around shirtless and growing out his beard. He surrounded himself with shamans and fortune tellers, and grew increasingly bold on the battlefield. There are eye witness accounts of him taking tea breaks and smoking cigarettes during the heat of battle. Other accounts see him galloping blindly into seas of bullets with little or no armor. People around him started to grow frightened of the Baron, especially as his close circle began to question his stability and vision. Meanwhile, D. Sukhbaatar, the future Mongolian revolutionary leader, was bringing his Bolshevik-backed forces from Russian to Mongolia.

Several fights ensued in the summer of 1921, eventually leaving the Baron to retreat towards Tuva to prepare for an escape to Tibet. His soldiers—outnumbered, outgunned and frightened by their leader—mutinied and planned to kill the Baron and his inner circle. Days later, after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, the Baron was captured by a Soviet detachment. En route to his trial in Moscow, The Times reported in September 13, 1921 that the Baron was being publicly exhibited as a monster. He denied all charges levied against him, defending himself to the end by saying that all those who died because of him died because they were “too red.”  He was executed by a firing squad on September 15, 1921.

“My name is surrounded with such hate and fear that no one can judge what is the truth and what is false, what is history and what myth,” the Baron said in 1921. A special sort of crazy, the Baron lived according to his own truth but unfortunately for others, they too fell prey to his brutal madness. He was a sad man, filled with carnage, blood lust and burdens. “I am not a simply a man, I am a leader of great forces and have in my head so much care, sorrow and woes!” he once said to travel writer Ossendowski. While the change to Communism may very well had happened with or without the Baron, he played an important part in sparking the national grasp for Communism through his outlandish ideologies and wild abandon.  By inspiring fear in those who met him, the Baron created an opening and some would argue, necessity, for outside forces to swoop into Mongolia. 

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Texas, the Mongolia of America

Texas, the Mongolia of America

Published July 16th in the UB Post

            There are more similarities between Mongolia and Texas than one would think. They both contain vast stretches of land that host everything from empty steppes to gorgeous mountains. Both have large livestock and mineral industries, and share a sense of pride attached to hailing from the region. Both are patriotic, sometimes kitschy and above all, solipsistic. Even more interesting, some of the hats and boots Mongolian men wear resemble Texas attire. The landscapes are harsh in their own right, one hotter than sin and the other colder than hell. There’s even a Texas Pub in Mongolia, a popular restaurant with burgers and steaks. Mongolia seems to know some about Texas, but how much does Texas know about Mongolia?
While visiting my family in Texas over the summer, I decided to take it upon myself to find the answer to this question and introduce a key point of Mongolian culture to a few of my Texan friends. My first stop was a Mexican food restaurant the morning following my arrival. After ordering some tacos, I explained to the waitress at the restaurant that I hadn’t eaten Mexican food in nearly year.
            “Where did you live, dear?” she asked, putting her order pad into her front apron.
            “I still live there. Mongolia. I live in Outer Mongolia.”
            A look of confusion spread across her face as she tried to place Mongolia.
            “You know,” I said. “Genghis Khan? Mongolian empire? Between Russia and China?”
            She shook her head slightly.
            “It’s far away. In Asia,” I said, giving up.
            “Really? Do they have Mexican food there?”
            “They have one place that mixes Mexican food with Indian food.”
            She laughed. “Is it cold there?”
            “Very cold.”
            “How long is winter?”
            “It depends on your definition of winter. If your definition of winter begins at 32 degrees, then it is cold about seven months out of the year.”
            “If your definition begins at negative ten degrees and below, then winter lasts about four months.”
She shivered. “And the food?”
            “Mutton, mutton and more mutton, except for the capital city,” I said, loading a chip with salsa. “There’s lots of international restaurants there.”
            “What’s mutton?”
            “Old sheep.”
            “Do they know about Texas there?”
            “Actually, they called Texas Tejas…” I said with a smile. Originally, Texas was pronounced Tejas, which happened to be the same way Mongolians pronounced the name.
            “How funny…”
            After quenching my year long craving for Mexican food, I headed over to the Starbucks nearby with a full stomach.
            “Hey, I know you. You used to come in here,” the Starbucks barista said, pouring my coffee. “Didn’t you go somewhere or something?”
            “Yea, I’ve been in Mongolia the last year.”
            “Mongolia? Isn’t that where nomads live?”
            “It sure is. They live in the countryside.”
            “Well, what’s it like there?” she asked, handing me my copy of coffee.
            The inevitable question. How should one describe Mongolia to a Texan? Cold? Full of tradition? A budding democracy? A former Communist country? The pollution? The tradition? The Soviet Blocs? It’s a warranted question that any expat will tell you they have trouble answering.
I went with the easiest answer: “It’s like anywhere else. Sometimes good, sometimes bad.”
            “I saw something about Mongolia on the National Geographic channel,” she said. “They live in, oh what are they called?”
            “Yurts, but Mongolians call them gers.”
            “Yea those tent things. Have you stayed in one of those?”
            “I stayed in a ger last year with a Mongolian family. They had a baby who I thought was a girl but turned out later to be a boy.”
            “That’s nice. How big is Mongolia?”
            “It’s twice the size of Texas with less than half the population of Houston.”
            A few days after my arrival in Texas, I was invited to a birthday party on the outskirts of the city. Knowing that I needed to represent Mongolia and my travels somehow, and secretly hoping to rile some Texans into starting an old fashioned shoot-out, I brought a liter bottle of Chinggis Gold Vodka to the party. I vowed to teach the Texans to drink the Mongolian way, and for the most part, besides the fact that I wasn’t able to get them to finish the bottle completely – I succeeded.
            “Mongolia?” one woman with blonde streaks in her hair and a chest tattoo asked, “Does that place still exist?”
            “I’m living proof that it does,” I replied, as we lounged in wooden chairs around a homemade picnic table. Beers sat on the table, beads of sweat on their necks and ours. “So are about ten million other people. It’s been a bit under the radar the last one hundred years.”
            Another guy asked: “One in six people or something are related to Genghis Khan? It’s something like that, right?”
            “Yea, he was a busy man,” I replied, blocking the unforgiving Texas sun with my forearm.
            “I heard he had like 1,000 babies. That’s a busy man!”
            “I don’t wish it upon anyone.”
            “I’ll be honest with you,” he said, leveling a beer-filled gaze at me, “About the only thing I know about Mongolia is the historical stuff. You know, Genghis Khan and all that. Taking over everything. The rest is a mystery. What’s it like there now?”
            “Its growing in every way imaginable. Who knows how much it will grow over the next ten years.”
            A former co-worker of mine wearing a fifteen gallon cowboy hat knew a bit more about Mongolia than the other party members. As it turned out, her father had been dating a Mongolian woman for some time, which was something of a contention for her.  
“What’s it like there? I mean, what’s it really like?” she asked, after explaining to me how the Mongolian woman had sent her a book on shamanism and how her father had survived a car accident with the woman recently.
            “It’s really cold.”
            “How cold?”
            “Cold enough that your eyelashes freeze.”
            “That’s really cold.”
            Gathering a few of my friends in a walled-in patio built off the backside of the house, I did my best to explain to them how Mongolians make a toast.
            “It usually begins with a Mongolian guy saying ‘za,’” I said, holding up the shot glass. I had brought a shot glass made out of an antler especially for the toast. I explained that Mongolians didn’t normally drink of shot glasses-cum-antlers but I don’t think anyone heard me.
            One of my friends, a hearty Texan in a vanilla cowboy hat held up his beer and said, “Za.”
            “Yea, za,” I said, keeping my shot glass in the air. “So someone holds up the glass, says some nice words about fate, destiny and then they finish the bottle. The youngest one technically needs to fill the shots.”
            “Finish it?” someone asked.
            “Finish it,” I said, pouring the first shot and handing it to my friend.
            “Za,” he said, taking the shot.
            “You only say ‘za’ right before you give a toast,” I explained to him later. “I mean, it’s not a tradition or anything, it’s just someone saying ‘ok.’ Like, ‘Ok, I am toasting to blah blah blah…”
            “So what should I say if someone hands me a shot?” he asked, as I handed him another.
            “You should say bayarlaa,” I said.
            He snorted. “What that’s mean?”
            “Thank you.”
            Later I handed him a shot and he said “borscht,” which is pretty close only having heard the word one time. He claimed that the Mongolian vodka had loosened up the party and set a nice vibe for an evening full of live bluegrass and wide brimmed hats. He also told me to keep the spare room at my apartment open in Mongolia. Apparently, I’d sold him on the country.
            As I walked around handing out shots, I heard various comments regarding Mongolian vodka:
            “It’s like a shot of water with a dash of cayenne pepper. Wonderful.”
            “It’s so smooth.”
            “If I lived there I would drink this every day.”
            “It’s so tasty.”
            “How many bottles did you bring?”
            “Is this really from Mongolia?”
            “Where is that again? This is delicious!”
            “I don’t normally drink vodka but I’ll make an exception seeing as how you brought this all the way from Mongolia.”
            The vodka was a hit at the party, and I left early, after playing devil’s advocate and giving everyone as much as they could take. I even tossed a shot into the wind, thanking the Gods for their blessings, good Texas friends, and the cool breeze that had blown up over the nearby hill, rustling the leaves in the trees and stirring joy in our souls.
My next stop: a Mongolian stir-fry restaurant.
            The following day, I arrived at Genghis Grill in South Austin after a hearty rebound from my night of Texas/Mongolia drinking introductions. The restaurant was nearly covered by the wild foliage outside its dark tinted windows. It sat in the far corner of a shopping complex adorned by a red sign that Genghis Khan might or might not have approved of.
            Walking inside, I asked the host if it was ok if I took a few photos. I explained to him that I lived in Mongolia, something he didn’t seem too impressed about, and looked around the seating area until I found an item actually from Mongolia. Someone, he didn’t know who, had left one of the leather wrapped souvenir bottles of Mongolian vodka on the wooden counter that surrounded the host’s station. I explained to him that the bottle was actually from Mongolia, again he wasn’t impressed, and pointed at the alcohol tax sticker on the label.
            “So, are there lots of these Genghis Grill restaurants?” I asked him, as he continued to stare at me wearily.
            “There are at least twenty-five in Texas,” he said.
            “Yes. Genghis Grill is a franchise food chain headquartered in Dallas,” he said. “There are lots in Houston.”
            “Has anyone here ever been to Mongolia?”
            “You said it was a franchise, has the owner ever been to Mongolia?”
            “No, I mean I don’t think so. Maybe someone at corporate headquarters went.”
            “Well, this is definitely from there,” I said, turning towards the emptied bottle of Mongolian vodka.
            “That was here before I got job,” he said, turning and walking towards the bar on the far side of the restaurant.
            I looked up at the restaurant’s motto which had been written on the wall opposite the host’s station:
“Genghis Khan and his Mongol warriors heated their shields over open fires to grill food in the heat of battle. Likewise, our Grill Masters take the fresh ingredients you choose to build your bowl, then stir fry them to perfection on our sizzling hot grill.”
            As I sat myself in the far corner of the restaurant, under a pair of black and red flags tied to the ends of fake spears, I wondered if the restaurant’s motto was true. Did Mongolian soldiers really use shields as giant woks or was it another fictitious account of the famed warriors? With so many rumors, tall tales and sentences that began with, “I heard Genghis Khan,” followed by some strange exaggeration, it was hard to tell what was true about classic Mongolia these days and what was false. One thing was for certain, the Mongols conquered more than they knew what to do with and if they are anything like the Mongolians today: they ate meat and lots of it.
The food items on the menu might have shamed a current day Mongolian. Edamame? Summer rolls? Stir fry? Your average Mongolian would have never tasted any of the dishes. My favorite concoction? Khan’s roasted apple pie: a pastry shell with Fuji apples baked inside and glazed with sticky globs of Mexican caramel. Think a desert version of Mongolian huushur and you have about the closest thing on the menu to actual Mongolian food.
            The drinks were a different story: Khan’s Mojito, the Mongolian mudslide (PatrĂ³n, vanilla Smirnoff, Baileys and cream), the Mongolian martini, Khan’s kamakazi and the Warriorita all would have quenched the palate of any thirsty Mongol today or 800 years ago. The best named drink items? The Khangarita and my personal favorite, the trademarked Mongorita, a blue margarita in a giant fishbowl shaped glass with thick shards of salt affixed to the rim.
            Maybe Genghis Grill, while ripe with stereotypes, actually captured somewhat of the essence of the thirteenth century Mongolians. I looked around at the restaurant, hoping to validate my sudden epiphany. There were gongs hanging from the tops of the booths, more flag clad spears, a picture of some guys with mustaches on horses that looked like something out of Medieval Times, wood stools with GG (Genghis Grill) burnt into their backsides, track lighting, red walls with black air conditioning piping on the ceilings and the restaurant’s other motto painted on the wall that flanked the bar: “They ate well. Really well.”
            Maybe not.
            The host came back around to take my order. I ordered a green tea and offered him the Mongolian flag that I had purchased at the Chinggis Khan Airport. I won’t say he took the flag reluctantly, but he seemed more or less enthused that I had given it to him.
            “That’s the actual Mongolian flag,” I told him, handing it to him before leaving the restaurant thirty minutes later.
            “Nice,” he said, waving it around like a sleepy man at a Fourth of July parade.
             While they may be worlds away, Texas and Mongolia have more in common than they think. Most importantly, they could also learn things from each other. For Mongolians, Texans could teach them quite a bit about extracting resources efficiently and navigating the fine line between maintaining one’s landscape and reaping the benefits from one’s resources. For Texans, Mongolians could share insight regarding globalization and the importance of culture. Most Mongolians speak more than one language, something that many Texans could benefit from, especially considering their proximity to Mexico.
            Mongolia has been called the Texas of Asia, referring to its vast resources and size. While there is a sister city relation between Darkhan-Uul and Irving, Texas, it seems the only other connections between the two places is a few dinosaur bones that have made their way from Mongolia to Texas. Both share a horse culture and admiration for rebels, conquerors and outlaws. About the only thing separating Mongolia and Texas are a few oceans, a few ideologies, a few nomads, a few countries, and about 11,406 kilometers. 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Cover for Roger Grate, Sukh Dev

Draft version cover of my new novel. 

Saker numbers expected to increase by 2015

Published June 25, 2012 in the UB Post

A favorite bird of Chinggis Khan, 150 Saker Falcons will be exported this year, an agreement reached at a Mongolian cabinet meeting earlier this month.
The most commonly used raptor by Arabic falconers, the endangered Saker Falcon (falco cherrug), with its brown underbelly, gunmetal gray flight feathers and 35-42 cm wingspan, is a highly sought after export in the Gulf Arab countries. Sales of the falcon, both legal and illegal, have increased exponentially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, which has created international pressure for countries hosting the falcons to protect them from extinction.
Known for its ability to adapt to desert climatea, the last fifteen years have seen a substantial increase in the illegal Saker trade to the Middle East, directly threatening the already low numbers of the species. The illegal trade is difficult to track, claim the researchers from the Middle East Falcon Research Group, due to the migratory patterns of the falcon, which stretches from Mongolia to parts of Africa. The most striking decline in recent years has been seen in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, directly funneling bird smugglers into Mongolia in hopes of trapping a falcon. While UNESCO recognizes falconry as a ‘living cultural heritage,’ the exportation of endangered falcons such as the Saker creates an immense challenge when trying to balance ecological factors with recognized global traditions. With Saker Falcons selling for 10,000 to 12,000 USD, it’s no wonder that the illegal trade continues, regardless of biological considerations.
Legal trade of the falcon has picked up in the last decade, with Mongolia legally exporting 2,700 Saker Falcons from 2000-2010, earning the country an estimated 11 million USD. According to 2010 estimates, less than 7,000 falcons remain in-country, and the fact that the endangered falcon is exported at all has some critics and environmentalists up in arms. Worldwide estimates by Birdlife international pin the Saker population somewhere between 12800 and 30800 individual falcons.
While the Mongolian government has decreased the amount of exports in the last four years, from 300 to 150, the necessity for bilateral relations between Mongolia and the Gulf continues to have continued to influence the legal trade. The building of the new parliament house, preservation of the Gobi bear, as well as a 22 million dollar road project all have been undertaken with funding from Gulf Arab countries. All of these things come under consideration during debates to limit Saker exportation.

Recently, a five year Saker program was executed by the Environmental Agency-Abu Dhabi, the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center (WSCC) and International Wildlife Consultants (IWC), showing some signs of progress on Mongolia’s vast steppe. As it can be difficult for Saker Falcons to find viable nesting areas on the barren step, 5,000 metal barrels on poles with holes cut into the sides have been installed in Saker breeding areas. The 2011 results show that 201 pairs of falcons have chosen the barrels as a nest, something that scientist see as good results. Scientists for the project also hope to implement microchips onto the young falcons, helping to decrease the number of Sakers that are exported illegally.
Researchers aren’t the only ones enthusiastic about the Saker project. Local herders claim that the nests have brought more falcons into the region, which has decreased the amount of rodents that are notorious for destroying prime grazing lands. The program’s target is to have 500 pairs of Sakers producing 1500 chicks in their artificial nests by 2015. They also hope to inspire ecotourism in the areas where nests are erected.
With conservation measures being implemented, Saker numbers are expected to go up in the coming years. However, for the bird to be adequately preserved in Mongolia, a crack down on the illegal export trade will need to be instigated to prevent the number of Sakers from declining. Further research will also need to be done regarding the artificial nests, ensuring that the population is increasing in a way that isn’t triggering an increase in illegal exportation. If Mongolia continues along the path of conservation, it very well may be the only safe haven for Saker Falcons in the near future. 

Weekend getaway: Darkhan

Published Monday June 18th in the UB Post

You’re an expat living in Mongolia or a Mongolian needing a little break from the everyday grind.  Maybe you are very familiar with UB, maybe you have rarely left the comfort of your office or the delicacies of your favorite restaurants, maybe you thrive in the city and are less than thrilled about visiting the countryside. You love familiarity, the creature comforts, the nightlife, the supposed security of UB. Besides, you have a two week vacation every year and you can just visit someplace else in Asia during that time. You’ve heard of Darkhan, the third largest city in Mongolian nestled along the Trans-Siberian Railway, but have thought nothing of it. After all, what does Darkhan have to offer that UB can’t provide?
An industrial base created in 1960 by the Soviets, Darkhan lies just three hours away from UB, two and a half if your taxi driver drinks a Red Bull before departure, four if the road is especially congested, three and a half if you cram yourself onto a bus, and most surprisingly, six if you go by train. It’s close by, it’s quiet and the local economy has picked up in recent years due to coal mining and grain production. It’s a city that you can circle by foot within an hour and a half, a city near enough to the Russian border to make it unique to other cities you might have visited in Mongolia. It’s a place that you can do most of the things you can do in UB, from going to clubs to visiting monasteries and museums.
Braving a journey to the mysterious Darkhan, former UB Post editor Timothy McLaughlin, a local teacher named Sara Wilson, and yours truly, decided to take it upon ourselves to discover what Darkhan truly had to offer. The following is an account of our less than arduous journey.
 Picking the worst day possible to leave UB, we braved the rain as we negotiated with taxi drivers at the Dragon Center. Agreeing on a price, we sat in his stuffy taxi twenty minutes or so while he tried to find another person to take to Darkhan. After all, a taxi (technically) has four seats available and we were only filling three.
 Like good expats, we quickly grew impatient and asked the driver if he would leave immediately, offering to pay him extra. The driver, a stocky Mongolian man with an almost fetish-like affection for leather jackets, readily agreed to our price and hopped in the taxi, speeding away from the Dragon Center and doing his best to avoid pedestrians, puddles and any chance of fresh air coming into the vehicle by child-locking the windows. Total cost of the ride: 60,000 MNT split three ways.
We arrived in Darkhan three hours later. The trip was relatively painless, and the candy hills of Selenge province, pink from the sun, random herders with peppered flocks on nearby hillsides, vast miles of blue sky with occasional clouds casting heavy shadows below and the general smoothness of the road, greatly lifted our spirits. We were dropped off outside a random delguur, and picked up within minutes by one of my students, Batchimeg, who had offered to be our tour guide.
Our first stop was the Kharaa hotel, where we shared a room for 30,000 MNT also split three ways. It was a nice hotel, a bit confusing at first as our guide Batchimeg lead us through a labyrinth-like secret entrance (while far from secret, it sounds better this way), but the rooms had hot water and were old but comfortable.
After settling in, we were escorted via Batchimeg’s mother’s minivan to the popular Texas Pub, and sat down at a table not far from the extremely loud, but fairly decent live band. Decorated with pictures of Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Texas regalia, ropes tied from the heating pipes on the ceiling, pictures of New Mexico, painted barbed wire and mounted horns: the phrase ‘out of place’ does not accurately define the restaurant dedicated to Texas in the middle of nowhere Mongolia, over 7,000 miles away from the Lone Star State. I can say this with authority having been born in Texas. (Interesting note: Darkhan is a partner city with Irving, Texas, home of ExxonMobil).
We shared two pizzas, sipped a few cocktails and beer, and had a great time at the Texas Pub. We quickly settled our tab, as Darkhan nightlife was calling and due to local bar curfews (they actually follow the rules in Darkhan), we were in a hurry to get dancing. Before heading to DD Club, we toured the giant Morinkhuur statue on the northeastern side of the new town and did a quick circumambulation of the chipped golden Buddha statue on the hill. After getting our religion and tradition out of the way, we hurried to DD Club to see what all the local buzz was about.
            For a tax of 1,000 MNT, DD Club is not only the best deal in Mongolia, it also rivals if not beats the hottest clubs in UB. With a weird space-age glass floor covering what looks like a Martian landscape cast in green, cool spheres on the walls, nice lighting, ample seating, great bottle prices, friendly enough locals, and an interesting steel beam structure surrounding the dance floor, DD Club did not disappoint. We danced, we watched a small girl fight break out, we drank and were merry.
DD Club closed before twelve, and we were left to wander the streets of Darkhan for the next hour or so, something which we soon realized was a common Saturday night for the youth in the city. Retiring to our hotel, we vowed to tackle the city of Darkhan in the morning, hopefully seeing all the sights before our planned departure at two.
While we didn’t succeed in seeing everything the following morning, for example, we missed the Kharaagiin Khiid Buddhist monastery, which is housed in an old log cabin in the ‘old town’ section of the city. Also due to the fact it was Sunday, we missed the Museum of Darkhan-Uul, which hosts a collection of archeological findings and taxidermies. We did succeed in meeting our guide Batchimeg at a local bakery and filling ourselves with some sort of Russian pastry item, followed by Korean food at Bulgogi Family, gorging ourselves on Bibimbab.
We finished lunch, which was good enough, and headed towards the hotel to grab our luggage. Arriving at the bus station, we again took the expat route of hiring a driver upon discovering that the long wait to buy our bus tickets was set to make us miss the bus we hoped to take. This time we each paid 15,000 MNT, as the driver had a buddy who also needed to go to UB. We hit the road, ready to return to UB and its traffic congestion and hurried atmosphere. We were dropped off at the Dragon bus station and left to fend for ourselves, easy enough if one knows how to hail a taxi in Mongolia.
Darkhan is a small city worth the trip from UB. The quiet streets, clean air, decent restaurants and attractions make that is once removed from the daily stress associated with the capital city nearby. With a population of over 75,000, it doesn’t seem as small as some of the aimaig centers one might visit in Mongolia, yet it is small enough to feel local and homey. It’s a weekend getaway that’s affordable, easy to undertake, and highly rewarding.