Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Katrin and Adam

Adam, from Canada, and Katrin, from Germany, came up to the ranch on Wednesday night.

On the train ride up, we talked about Mongolian customs. I mentioned the important ones, such as always offering and accepting something with either your right hand or both hands, but never with the left hand. Katrin said that in her German guidebook, it was written that one should not get out of bed in the morning until after the woman of the ger has risen, because she likes to have coffee or tea brewing and other things prepared before the rest of the ger gets up. I had never heard that, but when I thought about it, I realized that Minjee was, in fact, always the first to rise in their ger. However, I assumed this could be largely attributed to Martin’s and my habit of drinking and staying up late the night before. Katrin’s comment also reminded me of Dan’s “Where’s my breakfast?” line.

Mongon met us at the train station with horses. Soon after riding out from the station, Adam’s horse bucked him several times. I told him, “Don’t worry: if you fall off . . . get back on.”

The next morning, we drank milk tea and sat a spell talking with Saraa. Katrin grew up in East Germany, and Saraa is familiar with her hometown. Saraa and Tseren had traveled to East Germany while they were national athletes for Mongolia during the Soviet period. Saraa offered to take them into Orkhon the next day, show them the features of the little town, and introduce them to the mayor.

Later, Katrin, Adam, and I went for a ride through the grazing land north of the ranch. Halfway out, the horses got willful and tried to gallop back home. I gave some riding tips, and we pushed on. Thereafter, they kept impressive control of their horses, especially Katrin. We rode to where the Orkhon River bounds the northern edge of the grazing land; we rode through the brush along the river, and then I showed them the tunnel under the railroad tracks, which one must pass through to head up to the ridge.

That evening, in the ger, we sat around with Sun-Hee and Jonathan, talking and drinking Altai. Jonathan is Martin’s son, who grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and Sun-Hee is Jonathan’s girlfriend. Sun-Hee is from Seoul, South Korea.

For some years, Adam and Katrin had each been studying and alternately living in Germany and Canada. Adam is from Edmonton.

I said that I grew up in North Dakota and had spent time in Calgary and that I really like Canada. “It’s like California, but colder.”

Adam asked me if “treeplanter” meant anything to me. I thought to myself that all “treeplanter” means to me is simply a person who plants trees. Since I was certain that Adam was referring to something more specific than that, I said, “No. What’s a treeplanter?”

Adam said, “It’s a person who plants trees.”

After I had stopped laughing, both Adam and Katrin explained that there is a treeplanter culture in Canada. Logging companies are required to replant each tree that they cut, so they employ people to live in camps in the forest and plant hundreds of seedlings per day through the summer. “There is a perception that treeplanters are a bunch of hippies running around in the woods. And that’s generally what they are,” Katrin said.

Tseren came in and said hellos. He sat at the table, near to the stove, and put a kettle of airag on the stove.

He then produced his tobacco bottle and passed it to each of us. We each took sniffs from the bottle and passed it back.

With the airag heated, he poured out a bowl and passed it to Adam. Adam drank it and passed it back. Then, in turn, we each accepted and drank a bowl of airag.

This continued for many rounds over the next hour or two, eventually prompting Jonathan to proclaim that Tseren has some kind of magical bottomless kettle of airag.

Tseren threw some airag at the roof of the ger, in offering to the Blue Sky. He gave a lengthy speech of welcome and about the state of the ranch, which I did my best to translate.

At one point, Tseren sang an Italian operatic song, which sounded Mongolian. He then passed the bowl around again and insisted that everyone sing before drinking. Adam sang “O Canada.” Katrin sang a German song, the tune of which I recognized. I sang “Sixteen Ton.” Jonathan wimped out, claiming that he was doing us a service by sparing us from his singing. Sun-Hee sang a Korean lullaby.

We then enjoyed a nice Korean meal that Sun-Hee had cooked, along with excellent Mongolian buuz.

Adam and Katrin were looking forward to partaking in the milking. I left to go back to UB on the train that night. Martin and Minjee came up the next afternoon. Katrin and Adam stayed at the ranch for two more days. On Saturday, they took the long horse ride up over the northern ridge and down into the valley on the far side.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006


Dan, my friend from California, came up to the ranch Friday night and stayed for two days.

The first day, he, Jonathan, and I took a long horse ride to the north. The four dogs from the ranch came along, and this provided us some additional activity in the form of keeping the dogs from chasing the grazing cattle and horses that we encountered.

It was a very good ride, including great views, a steep descent, some interesting terrain, and several good gallops. We met one old herder with a flock of sheep on top of the ridge, and I talked with him a bit. He was from Orkhon.

In the last leg of the ride, when we were almost home, Jonathan and Dan began complaining about their sore butts. I later reported to Martin that one was “winging” (because he’s Australian), and the other was “whining” (because he’s American).

That was the second time in his life that Dan had ever been on a horse. The first was the night before, after we had arrived on the train and Mongon and Martin had met us at the station with mounts to ride back to the ranch.

Dan came into Martin and Minjee’s ger in the morning while we were still sleeping and said, “Where’s my breakfast?” Later, we attested that “Get it yourself!” is the only appropriate response to such a question.

Dan really enjoyed playing with Zaya. The rest of us concurred that he was probably going to go home and get his wife pregnant.


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email message from Dan to friends:


I've now been in Mongolia for five days. It's Monday morning here in Ulaanbaatar; our train back from the ranch dropped us here at about 7AM, and I'm going to finally attempt to write something interesting for you.

I'm starting to figure out Radigan's definition of "ecstasy." I think it involves a tremendous degree of personal freedom, horses, and a dawning realization that we're not as weak as we're taught to believe we are. For example: our train up on Friday evening arrived at Orkhon at 3 in the morning, and the means of transportation from the station to the ranch was horse. Never having ridden a horse before, the instructions given to me were: "get on."

The horse was led by Martin, a man I can't begin to describe in this format, but suffice it to say he's a good guy. So in fact I didn't really need to know anything. But the next day, when we took the horses out after lunch, the instructions given to me -- this time without anybody leading -- were still "get on." It turns out, that's pretty much all you need to know about riding a horse.

It was a beautiful ride. From the ranch, three of us rode across the steppe a short way to the thawing Orkhon river... up a hill, yielding beautiful panoramic views of the landscape which I took no pictures of whatsoever... down the other side, through a frozen bog, then along the train tracks coming back... On the way we saw sheep, cows, wild horses... The dogs that followed us from the ranch kept trying to play games with the livestock we passed by. It was a long ride, at least for my first ride. The GPS showed us being a bit over four miles away as the crow flies, at what I think was our furthest point away from the ranch, but I figure we actually rode over ten miles in total, across what would have been very taxing terrain for a person to hike. Anyway, the point is: there I was, on my own horse, literally galloping across the steppe in Outer Mongolia.

Ass, legs and lower back were pretty sore after that, so I spent all of Sunday taking photos around the ranch and relaxing.

Alcohol has also played a role here. I've had my share of Altai, a drink made with some kind of berry. We also broke out the baijou I picked up in Beijing, but after maybe half a shot each, it was determined to be undrinkable.

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