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.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Mongolia Today, Mongolia Tomorrow

Mongolia Today, Mongolia Tomorrow
Published June 1, 2012

Once, while walking to my home after teaching an English lesson at the National University of Mongolia, I heard a familiar bass line drift through the brisk evening air from a second story window. In an old grapefruit building next to my school, a young Mongolian band was practicing a cover of Nirvana’s “Come as You Are.” I stopped, a little surprised to hear that particular song drifting from the half-opened window. As I continued walking, it dawned on me that the song defined so much that I witnessed in Ulaanbaatar every day: its startling individuality, its anachronistic underpinnings, its double-edged hospitality, even down to its weapons laws.
If there is truly a place where West meets East, a place where an old man wearing a traditional Mongolian deel and checking his iPhone with prayer beads wrapped tightly around his wrist isn’t out of the ordinary, a place where a woman under the age of 30 helped start and run the first Mongolian stock market, a location where a young man with a sharp Korean haircut and patent leather jacket is at ease and walking with his arms behind his back while doing a bit of throat singing, a place as hot as it is cold, as isolated as it is welcoming, as mysterious as it is pedestrian—Mongolia is such a place.
It is a country where modernity and tradition have mixed so fluidly that neither seem oblivious to the other and every time one is in danger of overshadowing the other, the natural way of things somehow balances the other out. It is an endless knot of extremities and creature comforts, culture and technology, whimsicalities and sustainable groundwork, laudable feats and furtive failures, incipient consumer culture and daily surprises. Mongolia has a dialectical relationship with itself.
Ulaanbaatar is almost a world unto itself with its own celebrities, its own host of singular magazines and newspapers, its own clearly defined communities, widening social gaps clear as UB days cold as UB nights, its own environmental problems, its own fascinating history, all within the confines of a city that paints itself larger than it actually is, a city that is the center of its own world. It is a city that treats itself how New York treats itself: self-important, an obvious center of something, a place where everything happens, a place to be seen, a place to be heard. Yet it is truly in the middle of nowhere, miles from any other major city, on a vast steppe surrounded by vast steppe surrounded by icy mountains, fields of livestock, sandy deserts and sandwiched by the Russian and Chinese border.
This solipsistic mentality, this come as you are belief system, only adds to the uniqueness that is Mongolia, uniqueness wrapped in justified self-importance. Justified by its historical place on the world stage, its budding mining sector, its switch to democracy, justified through its matchless ability blur the distinction between past and future, tradition and technology, globalization and cultural identity. The Mongolian mindset is contagious, dangerous at times, but radically distinct at a time in history when tedious standardization is prevalent and great powers are waning. It is invigorating in a world weighed down by economic woes and fruitless wars. It is booming, it is revitalizing, it is growing so quickly that living in Ulaanbaatar is quixotic, the growth as mesmerizing as it is frightening.
Mongolia is and always will be as Mongolia does. It’s the Wild West of Asia, the last frontier, Minegolia, the land of Chinggis Khan, the last nomadic stronghold or whatever buzzword economists and social historians levy on it. While the sustainability of its growth is yet to be seen, and many would rightly argue needs to be addressed, the near future seems to be pretty bright for the unique inhabitants of the Asian steppe.