Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mongolian update

The first time I thought I was imagining but the second time a few days later when the gold plated BMW 5 series wagon sped by our battered blue Impreza, Oyun Baator, the cafe manager, said: "There goes the new Mongolia." Gold mine of the moment. Housing prices rise 25% or more a year, bringing on investors, scaring away ordinary Mongolians who can barely afford to rent. Who knows if today's election will change that. The corrupt ruling parties are stumbling all over each other with blandishment promises like shares for each and every citizen in the new literal gold mine the Chinese and Americans are in a bidding war over. Right now they are only getting 20,000 Tukrik each: $15.00. Ironically, that's just enough to have raised the price of meat--Mongolia's favorite food to the obsession point. Fifteen dollars is such a small fortune to the nomads, they see no reason to sell their animals.

The nomads in the gers are old Mongolia, literally. The young ones are all here in Ulan Baator, cashing in however they can, although they all find excuses to send their children or themselves back to grandma in the ger for weekends or summer holiday. Evidently this reminds them they're still Mongolian. UB is a vibrant youthful city full of young men and women fussing over their children when they're not with grandma in the ger. The little girls with their high cheekbones and thick black hair are especially eye-catching because they toddle nonchalantly about in bright, often gaudy outfits, spangly shoes and flashy tights, with elaborate hair bands that sometimes have bows bigger than their faces. Some of the small kids are bald because it's a tradition in this country to shave off a young girl's hair on her third birthday so she will grow up to have strong, thick, healthy hair. It happens to boys when they are four. I've only seen a handful of Mongolians in the traditional deel--and all of them were senior citizens. This is a hopping young city of ice cream stands, karaoke bars, short shorts with lacey black leggings and 4 inch high heels.

And impatience. The horn honking makes me remember old New York. Cars stop as they are supposed to for pedestrians in the marked crosswalks and all the cars behind them honk. It's already a game of chicken as it is since some cars, like say a gold plated BMW station wagon, don't feel at all obliged to stop for anybody. I've had better luck than the natives because nobody wants the hassle of dealing with the American Embassy but it's still heart stopping to cross a street here. The horseman's instinct to gallop is alive and thriving. Especially late at night when young Mongolian men drag race.

Mongolian men appear to be of two types: tall and wiry or short and squat with the physique of a potential Sumo wrestler. The women come in all shapes and sizes, but I confess I am particularly partial to all the Brunhildes sashaying unself-consciously down the street in tight pants and decolletté. Go Mongolian mamas! This is a city where stores don't just stock sizes for the anorexic. WEighing in as size 8-10 makes me seem about average.

Last night walking back to the cafe, Oyun Baator pointed to a passing Mercedes and said: "That's what I want, a big car like that. No more small car."

"What's wrong with a small car?" I protested. "Small cars here can be taxis and taxis can pick up beautiful women. Small cars are for small women, no?"

"But I like big women!" he said.

Yesterday the summer rains came. Great for the animals, everybody declared. Now they will have good grass to eat. But bad for the cafe. Mongolians, it seems, don't mind trekking to the outhouse when it's 40 below but they won't take to the streets in summer rain. Actually, as I learned yesterday, it's not easy to walk around here when it rains. The city has no storm drains, not one. And to make matters worse, all the buildings have huge gutters with downspouts pouring water onto the sidewalk, turning them into rivers as wide and deep as the Tuul. Sometimes, many times, there is no dry ground in sight. The curbs, sidewalks and sometimes the entire street becomes a lake. Dozens of stylish young women waded through in their cheap Chinese wellies so that the tight jeans stuck into them didn't even have a drop of water on them. Others in sandals or open toe shoes confronted the problem, looked around and seeing no hope shrugged and waded in. At certain points the water met the hamstrings.

Today nobody was on the streets. It was eerie. Everything is closed because Election Day is a national holiday here. It could also be the start of riots if things don't go the way some people want. Four years ago a mob burned the Communist Party building and several people were shot by the police. Nobody knows what's going to happen tomorrow but this afternoon in bright summer sunshine people emerged, arm in arm, hand in hand, under the shade of parasols or in tank tops. The corner gelato cart was doing a roaring business with treats for the children. Is it the calm before a storm?

I'm leaving for the airport at 4AM so here's hoping it's not

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Summer in the city: Ulan Baator

Mongolia is not a hardship post, at least at this time of year. The huge state department store Nomin has five floors of everything from 81" flat screen TVs and stainless steel pizza pans to potted marginata plants and Clinique cosmetics. Plus of course cashmere: a quarter of the second level selling floor overflows with Mongolian cashmere and camel hair from 10 different local companies. Sweaters, hats, gloves, socks, leggings, dresses, coats, even woven cashmere blankets and camel hair throws. The quality is luscious, the styling fashionable and the prices reasonable to ridiculous.

You can go to a bustling pub and watch the European football tournament on one of those 81" flatscreen TVs while sipping a stein of Chinggis beer and gorging on a hamburger with fries. The meat is Mongolian grass fed. You can also go to a fancier restaurant for red wine and braised lamb shanks in cognac pumpkin sauce for $17. You can eat real cheesecake, Uzbek pilaf, French onion soup. The taxi system is a bit bizarre but it works. There are officially marked metered taxis roaming the streets or you can call for one, but mostly people just go to the curb and flag down passing cars. The rule of thumb is that small, old cars will taxi you for about $1.80, 2,000 tukrit, which helps the driver pay for gas. The other rule of thumb is not to flag down the humungous SUVS that dominate the streets, especially if you are a single woman. You will be taken for a ride and not paying in tukrit.

Last week I went to a dinner party at the apartment of an American working here. It was palatial to say the least. The duplex had two living rooms, a huge kitchen with all the latest appliances, a 15' square astroturf covered patio/deck and three extra large bedrooms. The master bath was as big as the front room of the STupa Cafe and had a whirlpool tub, huge glass enclosed marble stall shower, the Korean version of Toto toilets and double sinks with enough room left to exercise in if you chose to. It came with garage parking.

The city has a handful of museums including a costume collection and the lovely Zenabazar Art Museum, dedicated to a Mongolian lama who propogated a particular style. It has gorgeous applique thangkhas, a local specialty. It has an opera house and theater. Karaoke bars are such the rage, there's one on every other block in between all the clothing and handbag stores. The Mongolians are literate: the city has universities and bookstores. wi-fi is ubiquitous and just about everyone is talking on a cellphone as they scurry down the sidewalk or sit in their car honking at the stalled traffic.

Speaking of traffic, there are lights and delineated pedestrian crossings. Some lights even tell you in bright green how many seconds you have to get across the intersection. But that's no guarantee. Drivers here hate to stop for pedestrians; they hate to stop for traffic lights or anything actually. It's like they're horsemen galloping on the plain; they want to keep going. But there is a fine now for hitting a pedestrian. This is easy to do because most pedestrians wander into the streets like the cows of India, crossing where and when they please, even while traffic is flowing fast on a green light. I've watched them stand bewildered in the middle of the road while the light is green wondering why the whizzing traffic doesn't stop for them. I've even had several people encourage me to step off the curb with them while the light was green. It's bizarre but I've gotten used to it.

Two Saturdays ago I got the extraordinary experience of the Gobi Spa. The entry fee is 20,000 tukrit, which is about $17, and when you pay you are handed your own blue sweat suit and two keys. One is for a locker at the entry where you have to store your shoes. The other is for the women's locker room where you put all your clothes and that blue sweat suit. Then you get the choice of showers with all the shampoos, conditioners, soaps and body lotions supplied; the sauna for which you have to sit on a plastic bag to be sanitary, the cool and hot tub, or the tables where three gorgeous young Mongolian women in bikinis will give you a body scrub that will take your skin off. The fierceness of their scrubbing made me think this place was a Russian holdover.

Once you've sweated, showered and been scrubbed, you put on a pair of plastic panties and your blue sweat suit--the pants are bermuda shorts length. Now you have the choice of a relaxation room where you can recline on mats and watch TV or sleep or sip your soda from the bar; a private massage, a restaurant, a dark relaxation room with mats covering the entire floor or three special saunas. One is the salt room, one the agate room and one is made of another mineral with quite different properties. The floor of these rooms is lined with mats you can recline on, using or not as a pillow the wooden blocks scattered around.

We went on what happened to be Mother's Day and the place was packed. The locker room was a riot of mother's brushing the black hair of their small daughters or shepherding them into the sauna. A few little girls were having a screaming good time in the shallow cold pool but stopped to notice me, the only yellow haired female in the place.

Perhaps that's why the squat Mongolian man in the agate sauna room noticed me too. I wasn't reclining. I was sitting with my back against the hot wall, one of those wooden blocks under my knees, trying to release tight muscles in my lower back. I was in there with my new friend Amanda who was guiding me. The man, who was the only other person in there, started talking to her. Because Amanda is strikingly gorgeous with high cheek-bones, full lips and large almond eyes, I thought he was flirting. But then I saw them pointing to me. The man put his hand in the air, moving it down to indicate the disks of the spine. "He's saying you should go to the traditional hospital for massage that will cure your back," Amanda explained. "He's very professional; he can see your problem." The man pointed to his lower back and then at me. "I know where the place is. I think you should go."

And two days ago I did. I was the only person not bearing an xray and also the only nonMongolian paying the $12 for a 45 minute treatment. It was bone cracking chiropractic so I got out of there in a hurry. But back treatment is available along with cashmere, cheesecake, cabs and karaoke in Ulan Baator.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmthing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Metro Mongolia: Life in UB

This month marks my 50th anniversary as a world traveler. Perhaps that's why two events of the last two days seem so startling, at least to me. The first happened Saturday night when I actually ordered and ate a raw salad at a restaurant in Asia. Me who has so obsessively and relentlessly avoided all uncooked food outside the US --even on airplanes--because there's nothing like a serious bout of dysentery to discourage you forever. My extremism was actually reinforced by one small slip up five years ago. At a very fancy French restaurant in Kathmandu I accidentally nibbled on a piece of lettuce touching my steak frites on the plate and spent the night in the bathroom.

But I did it! Cucumbers, radishes, tomatoes, even spinach was in the salad bowl and nothing negative happened. That's one of the blessings of Mongolia. It's not just that the Russian occupation enforced cleanliness. It's more that the usual bacteria that infect raw food can't survive six months of -40ºCelsius. Somehow magically even the vegetables and fruits that come from below the border in northern China are edible. Eureka!

Unfortunately yesterday's happening wasn't anything to shout about. I was pickpocketed. Me who so furiously protects her money with all sorts of body hugging contraptions got so frazzled by my boss here ordering me around the one first class food market, telling me what I could and could not stop to look at, that I must have left my small purse unzipped. or perhaps the hulking young Mongolian blocking the doorway supposedly chatting on his phone was a brilliant thief. The good news is that somehow my merit kicked in because the moment I noticed my purse open and wallet gone, he threw the wallet at our car. What he filched was $125 US; he didn't want the Mongolian money, my credit cards or Iphone. Lucky me, I guess.

I'd heard horror stories about nasty pickpocketing here but most Mongolians are so thoughtful and helpful it was hard to believe until it just happened like that, a guy lying in wait for a foreigner. I mean today I tried to tip the woman who worked on my body at the traditional hospital-- I was told it was medical massage for spinal issues but it was ferocious bone bashing and bending-Chiropractic hell- and she shoved the money back at me as though insulted.

In other news, we're having a heat wave: it's been 90º the last three days and the Mongolians are on the streets in cut off jeans, cut off almost to the Brazilian wax point, sandals, tank tops and bare chests. Amanda showed up for her birthday dinner last night in tight white jeans and a striped spaghetti strap top. And of course she was wearing open backed sandals with a thick woodenHeels more than 2" high. "I'm so short," she always complains. The Mongolians love sundresses too and manage to stay stylish in the swelter so it's easy to spot the foreigners: they're all in the latest khaki trekking gear.

Imagine this climate that swings from -40º C to +33º. I think that beats Maine.

Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

Still in Mongolia

After a back-breaking week of cooking up all sorts of special dishes to test for the new cafe menu here in Ulan Baator, the staff closed up yesterday afternoon to take me to the"countryside", as Mongolians call everything beyond this capital city. It was a profundly heartfelt thank you for the cheesecake, pizza, eggplant parmesan, cilantro pesto and dhal bhat platters I'd taught them to prepare.

Four of us took off about 2:15 in the center's old royal blue Subaru Impreza, a tiny tinny car that gets lost on the roads jammed by Land Cruisers and Lexus SUVs. Uyin Baator, the cafe manager, had sacrificed his day off to be the driver. I had the honor of the passenger seat. In the back were Nandia, who takes orders and money seven days a week now that the university where she is studying to be an English translator is closed for summer holiday, and the head cook, Eveel, who looks Eastern European with her pale skin, long black pigtail and generous figure. Otgo, the dishwasher and potato peeler, had to bow out at the last minute because her brother had been taken to the hospital. A bag of food and four bottles of water were thrown in the far back.

We went with the heavy traffic down boulevards to the four-lane Peace Bridge over the snaking Tuul River that defines this city. It's one of only two bridges that connect the older, more developed part of UB with the relentlessly growing new city on the far bank. Everywhere you look are cranes parked beside crowds of enormous half built apartment towers. Mongolia currently is the world's fastest growing economy with a GDP rise of 25% per year thanks to all the copper and gold under the Gobi Desert, and although 1 million of its 2 million people already live in UB, it looks like the city is preparing to absorb the last nomads out there on the plains.

"Agh," Uyin Baator grumbled as we crossed the river again on a smaller bridge. "This used to be a really big and beautiful river. This is our Mongolian Tuul River. but no more. Look how thin it is. They are taking all the water."

After the slum district where the toxic coal fired plants are and where Mercedes and Volkswagon and Hyundai car dealerships line the last of the four-lane boulevard, we bounced along a pot-holed two lane, stopping for gas and then at a small shop for what turned out to be salami. Mongolians cannot picnic without meat and Eveel had packed food from the vegetarian cafe. So now all filled up, we motored past decaying Soviet buildings, an occasional ger and lots of huge billboards screaming the merits of candidates for the upcoming election. There were plenty of intervening billboards too touting Swedish mascara, Bridgestone Tires, the loving bank tellers who patchildren on the shoulder, and the joys of a flat screen Samsung TV. Korean companies are kings here.

We passed the airport and a glass space ship that they told me was a new sport palace and suddenly the car choked, sputtered, slowed, sputtered, slowed. The bewildered Uyin Baator pulled off the road, opened the hood and double checked all the dipsticks. He started the motor again. The car lurched, sputtered and crawled. "You got bad gas," I said. "either water or dirt in it."

"Maybe," he said, not really sure what to do.

I got out and tried to flag down a truck. It zoomed right by. So did three cars. Then a white sedan with four young guys pulled over. A guy got out of the back. He had on droopy swim shorts and unlaced sneakers. He worried over the car, put his food on the pedal to rev the motor and told Uyin Baator I was right. His sister had the same problem last week: bad gas.

We lurched and crawled our way into the small town on the horizon. The gas station attendant sympathized with our problem but had no solution. We filled the tank a bit more and soldiered on. All the stopping we had to do gave me a good chance to snap photos of Mongolians on their ponies herding horses, large herds of sheep, dry river beds waiting for summer rains, or white gers sprinkled below the treeless rolling green hills.

Eventually we reached our destination: Manjushri Mountain, a popular weekend getaway spot for UB residents. The entry fee for Mongolians is 75 cents but for foreigners $6. Uyin Baator pleaded with the elderly couple guarding the entry gate for me to be admitted as a Mongolian since this was a holy Buddhist mountain and I was such a good Buddhist. The fat Mongolian woman in the big straw hat and tight black capri pants considered this for a moment, looked at me and handed back the $6.

The Soviets destroyed what had been a major monastery on Manjushri Mountain just as they did the monastery on Chenrezig mountain. But there are remnants on this mountain and inside the one remaining wooden building a small shrine has been recreated. A Buddha statue is flanked by statues of Green and White Tara and the altar is decked in royal blue khatas. Mongolian khatas are all this rich blue hue "for the blue sky," Eveel explained. Then she put her forehead to the altar for blessings, opened her small purse and put money in front of the Buddha. She is very very devout, which is why she works in our cafe and not a restaurant where she could earn twice the money and be able to afford a place to live. Eveel is in her 40s now and is basically alone here in UB having left her family in the ger and chosen not to marry.

The rocks behind the building had four or five cave openings framed by wooden doors. This is obviously where the monks must have meditated in retreat. As I was looking up at these cavesI thought I saw a stream of maroon flowing down above them. It got closer and closer. It was monks in Tibetan garb. As it turned out, eight Tibetan monks from Dharmsala had gone to the mountain top to do prayers of blessing. With longhorn, prayer table and texts in hand, they hurried off to their bus in the crowded parking lot.

"There!" Eveel said triumphantly, pointing to a rock beneath us. "You ask me all the time for rhubarb. here." Finally! Mongolia gave rhubarb to the world: it grows wild here. You cannot buy it in stores; you have to go to the countryside to pick it. Under my feet it was everywhere, newly sprouting. Rugosa roses and blackberry brambles were also sprouting. Siberan iris and violets were in full purple bloom under strong summer sun in that big blue sky. Uyin Bataar motioned us to the shade of the glade of evergreen trees and here we, one group among many, had our little picnic before lurching back to Ulan Baator in the lingering summer light.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Ger-eat Evening

Grandma's tattered shack had 2 1/2 rooms, the half being the blue "kitchen" partially walled off from the main room. It had a woodstove for heating and cooking, a tabletop over drawers for food preparation and blue plastic water barrel with a large metal ladle laying on its black plastic top. When the front door was open, it obscured a wall mirror, a hanging towel and a small shelf with an oval bar of soap and hair brush. Below was a stool with a basin.

The main room was a bedsitter with two single beds caddycornered, five trunks stacked up like a chest of drawers between them. The top was used as a small Buddhist altar with pictures of Chenrezig, Mahakala and Shakyamuni Buddha flanked by unlit votive candles in silver bowls. The front wall had a metal chest supporting a 36" flat screen TV attached to the satellite dish outside the window. All sorts of wires ran between that TV and the window to the single socket. It provided power for one hanging lightbulb--a swirling fluorescent--and the sewing machine on its own table in that window next to the TV. A low rectangular wood plank table was in the center of the room, surrounded by four of the square painted stools Mongolians sit on.

We were directed to that table as soon as we walked in. In less than a minute bowls of Mongolian tea were passed around. A bowl of wrapped candies was plunked in the center, then a plate of biscuits from a package and a bag of croissant like pastries, which weren't bad once they were dunked into the salty milky "tea." But I didn't get much time to enjoy them because a haphazard collection of bowls large and small was being passed out with our dinner in them. It was the ubiquitous tsuivan, Mongolian noodles stirfried with carrots and tidbits of mutton--and salt. Lots of salt. Everybody was offered chopsticks except me to whom Grandmother proudly held out a fork.

It turned out that Grandmother was the ex mother-in-law of the doctor's wife, actually the grandmother of her only child, a daugher now 24 who had studied in Paris and was working in UB for a French company. The granddaughter loved her grandmother more than anything in the world and came to see her almost every weekend. Her mother had not seen Grandmother for at least a year or two. So there was much to catch up on including, I gathered, news of the former husband, an artist now living in the Czech Republic.

When an elderly couple walked in, and joined us, more bowls of tsuivan magically appeared. "Sixty-nine," the ruddy faced husband said to me, pointing proudly to himself as he squatted on a stool next to me. He took off his black watchman's cap. A chair was produced for his wife. "She has bad knees, two of them, " Amanda's brother explained, and the conversation was suddenly about my last year's knee tear surgery and her upcoming knee replacement surgery and my advice on how she might strengthen her thigh muscles, once I learned swimming was not an option in Mongolia.

Amanda brought out a half dozen bottles of Mongolian beer and two bottles of red wine, her favorite. The beer we drank from bottles, the wine from Grandmother's silver bowls. At some point the elderly couple who had mysteriously appeared got up and disappeared. I didn't notice because the conversation had taken a hard turn: something was apparently said about the fact that Grandmother had lost one of her two sons because Amanda's brother's body stiffened and his voice was loud and harsh. "He lost his son too," Amanda whispered to me, "and he can't get over it." (I later learned the son was a 21 year old university student in pre-med whose evening out with friends turned violent after too much alchohol and one of those friends murdered him with a knife--a not uncommon scenario in Ulan Baator.)

Amanda's brother finally calmed down and the 69 year old re-appeared to reclaim his beer. I don't know what the conversation was about but it seemed quite jolly. Grandmother sat royally erect on her stool removed enough from the table for her to be watching over us in that high neck royal blue gown and those black riding boots, her gray hair pulled tightly back in a bun hidden by a small head scarf that accentuated her small gold hoop earrings. It was 11 PM on Saturday night and as the wine was poured into those silver bowls and those little candies were continually unwrapped, it was really quite impossible not to feel totally content under that single light bulb on those low square painted stools in that tattered shack off the road in the middle of Mongolia.

"Okay," Amanda said eventually. "Now we go to the ger. But first to the long drop. I hate the long drop. Be prepared!"

The "long drop" turned out to be an outhouse. A Mongolian outhouse. The floor had five planks. Planks two and four had a smaller plank nailed on top and plank three was missing so that when you put your feet on planks two and four you could aim below--the long drop.

There was no long drop near the ger so I was told to just go anywhere behind it. Indeed I noticed on the trip out that Mongolians, men and woman alike, unabashedly pee wherever it is convenient. We saw busses pulled over by the side of the road, its passengers peeing on the open plain in full view of the road, and nobody said anything.

Our ger had a solid foundation and a painted red wooden door you had to crouch to pass through. But the interior, viewed by the light of two candles, was surprisingly spacious. tons of headroom everywhere. In the center was a small rectangular box woodstove just like the one at Grandmother's, its metal stovepipe chimney rising through the open air peak that revealed the starry sky. It was pumping out lots of wood heat, from tree stumps like the ones piled in a bucket next to it waiting to go in. "It's very warm now," Amanda said. "But when the stove stops, the ger gets cold fast. So be prepared. There are many blankets."

There were two single beds and one marriage bed, a few of those square painted stools that we deployed as nighttables--a washing area, and a sitting area of two upholstered chairs around the wooden table holding those two candles. With absolutely no ado, Amanda, her brother, her brother's wife and I all got ready for bed. It was midnight with a half moon. The doctor blew out the candles.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Going to a Ger

My new Mongolian/American friend who wants to be called Amanda, whose life story is worth its own blogpost if not a major movie, surprised me Saturday afternoon as I was finishing in the cafe kitchen. "I'm coming at 4, be ready with warm clothes and food. We're going to the countryside." That's what Mongolians call the rest of their enormous country beyond the bumper car, horn honking bounds of Ulan Baator. That's where they truly love being, just the way Mainers who live on the coast can't wait to get away to the woods where everyone of them keeps a little cabin. Even the most sophisticated urbanite, like Nanda's step-brother, a kidney transplant surgeon trained in Chicago, keeps a ger and horse in the countryside. "It's the real Mongolia," everyone says.

So off we went in her brother's Japanese SUV with the driver riding English style on the right side while the car went American style on the right side of the road. His stylishly dressed wife sat in the passenger seat, telling him whether he could pass or not, which I reckoned was tricky from his perspective. "A typical married couple," Nanda said at one point. "He drives and she directs and of course they're arguing all the time." It seemed quite light hearted and good natured to me, especially since these people had just returned the night before from an 8 hour journey to see her aging parents in the far countryside after her father was awarded a medal of honor for his fine building work. Then they'd immediately consented to Nanda's plea to take us out of UB, as the locals call it.

It wasn't easy getting out of town late on a Saturday afternoon since there are only two bridges over the Tuul River that bisects UB. We sat in a traffic jam Nanda found reminscent of her time on the Santa Monica Freeway, the 405, when she lived in LA. But I didn't mind this one: the cars were spiffy, the sidewalks were clean and I was getting a change of scenery. The national bird of UB seems to be the crane as humungous ones tower everywhere, building sleek office skyscrapers and apartment buildings. I finally saw gas stations too. Petrol is sold by the liter and is so wildly expensive that Nanda took $ 70 from me to pay for her brother's gas.

We began to move on the other side of the river, plowing along a four lane highway that suddenly became a two land dirt road, then a two lane paved highway, again a dirt road with huge gouges and potholes we had to keep sideswiping. But we were in big sky country, a tree-less steppe where grass was just beginning to emerge and the bare background hills folded into each other as they rolled from dark to white in the play of light. It was perfect scenery for old Westerns except the land was dotted here or there by an occasional white ger whose uniform roundness and pointed peak looked like a dollop of frozen yogurt or white Hershey's kiss. The ger, which we call yurt, is the typical Mongolian house. These people historically have been nomads and the white horsehair ger can be set up or taken down in about an hour. Permanent ones now sit on brick or cement foundations and have painted wooden doors as well as metal stovepipes rising through the peak of the round roof. The door always opens to the south for the solar benefits, but also because the wind blows east west. You can set your compass by a ger door.

Predictably around a ger will be large or small herds of cows, sheep and goats or horses. Once we passed a pack of camels accompanied by an eagle.

An hour out, a monumental stainless steel status of Chinggis aka Ghengis Khan wielding a golden whip atop his horse rose out of nowhere on the barren plain. We drove through an archway to a crowded parking lot. We climbed a lot of steps and went inside a ger shaped glass building where we had to pay the equivalent of $4 each to go further. "The guy who thought this up is very rich now," Nanda said as she handed me my change. We crossed an atrium that had a three story high boot to put LL Bean to shame. "It took 60 cows to make enough leather for Chingiss Khan's boot," Nanda's brother said as we gawked.

We took a small elevator to 3, the top floor. From there we wound around a narrow cement staircase that finally opened to a small flight of wider steps that took us a platform where, turning around, I realized we'd been inside the butt of the horse and were now outside atop its head eye to eye with the great waist belt of Chinggiss Khan with his golden whip. Amanda said this was actually the spot where Chinggiss is supposed to have found the golden whip that signaled his success as Emperor of the World.

Getting off the elevator at 2 we found a museum of Mongolian artifacts including primitive armor, bronze teapots, bronze bridles and iron stirrups, and eventually chainmail. Another room featured a huge map of Chinggis' empire, stretching from the coast of China to Turkey and Syria, and the way he divided it up among his sons: the Yuan Empire that was essentially China, the Golden Horde that was essentially all the central Asian "stans", .. . There was one English speaking docent there and she was anxious to give her spiel about the various dynastys outlined on the map because I was the only foreigner who'd passed through that day. "Which was Kublai Khan?" I asked and she pointed to China, proudly noting that its Great Wall had been built specifically to keep the fearsome Mongolians out.

About 45 minutes after we left Chinggis Khan on the plain, long flat topped sand hills began to appear in front of the rolling ones. "Coal mining," Amanda said. And I remembered everyone telling me how eerie UB is in the 40 below winter with the thick smog of coal heat filling the air so that you cannot see a foot in front of you. The road bent 90 degrees and a town appeared. "The Russians built it for the coal mines but it's a nice little town now." With severa banks, a supermarket, several mini marts, the standard karoake bars, one cafe and two restaurants lined up along the main road, it looked like a typical small town serving several thousand people. It took two minutes to drive through.

We were only two more minutes into the countryside when the SUV suddenly veered off road onto the plain. It was almost 9 PM and light was fading. But we soon twisted onto a dirt track going seemingly nowhere, crossed onto yet another and finally came to a stop in front of a fenced in shack and ger. "The woman who lives here alone," Amanda said as she threw open her door, "is 73 and she's just beautiful in every way. You're gonna love her. That's why I brought you."

More tomorrow about dinner and the ger and that beautiful old woman.

goinandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Thursday, June 07, 2012

Meals in Mongolia

I was invited to Mongolia to revitalize the menu at the vegetarian Stupa Cafe. Conveniently placed just inside the front door of a four -story building dedicated to Buddha Dharma, it is supposed to generate income to support all the effort and activities of bringing Dharma back to Mongolia. It's mostly patronized by local Mongolians, many devotees of the Dharma offered here, with the occasional tourist or two. Mongolia is an adventure travel hotspot right now and urban Ulan Baator is the necessary entry and exit point for the desert experience. So they have to begrudge themselves a day or two here. These tourists are easy to spot: they're usually a tad unkempt whereas the Mongolians are flashily dressed to the nines, often with a lot of spiffy sparkle on their clothes and high heeled shoes. The cafe doesn't get much of the enormous expat business crowd like the Cuban who runs Millie's Cafe near all the embassies, probably because its reviews on Yelp and Trip Advisor are lukewarm. My mission is to change and fire everybody up.

This is a challenge in the world's coldest urbanizing nation, five to six months of minus 40ºC. The traditionally rural, nomadic Mongolians have managed for thousands of years to survive courtesy of their animal herds: sheep, cows, horses and goats. Think milk and meat. Then think it again and again and again. This unkosher diet suits perfectly because the Mongolians have mastered the fine art of fermenting that milk and in all that ferment are more vitamins than we get from industrially produced green vegetables. Plus there are more forms of dairy here than anywhere on the planet and the array in markets is mindboggling, also at times quite confusing. It's not just all the butter, yogurt, sourcream, clotted cream, and the one or two mysteriously solid forms that pass for cheese. The Mongolians have perfected the art of drying yogurt curds into thousands of shapes that are displayed in jars and on plates on market counters like grayish cookies.

All this dairy, yet it's impossible to find anything that resembles what we think of as cheese. I've spent a few dollars here and there fooling myself. Just when I think I've scored something like mascarpone or ricotta it melts on the toast like the clotted cream it is. I bought a chunk of what I thought could be mozzarella but it refused to melt. Foolishly I spent 40 minutes hand whisking the hell out of thick milk thinking I could make whipped cream. All I got was the same milk with some bubbles in it. There doesn't seem to be much correspondence between the milk of the local cows and the milk of our Western cows, although I'm told the quality and texture of the dairy changes radically in summertime after the animals finally get to munch on grass. This however is mostly preserved for winter in those cookie-like forms, so there's no way to know what else it might have been.

Vegetables are even more novel to the Mongolians than they are to the Tibetans. What's in the market --everywhere the same array of bell peppers, potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbages, torpedo shaped beets, tomatoes--comes either from Russia or China, although it seems the leaf lettuce might be local at this time of year. Ditto the stringy looking scallions. The two fresh herbs, dill and cilantro, are wilted and dry. Most of what's in cans is stuff from attics that has been dumped here by countries like Germany which at least leaves the Germany label on. The Chinese disguise their stuff with phony English labels. The Russians provide a lot of grains; the Chinese rice they wouldn't dare eat. Everybody said: Wait til you go to Mercury Market and there you will find everything good." What I found was a food flea market where you could buy expired cans of Russian caviar, jars of German sauerkraut and for $15 a restaurant sized plastic jar of McCormick's oregano.

My mission is to make meals from this that will appeal to both the Mongolians and the tourists, keeping the price point low enough for the students and other low income locals who depend on the cafe. It is also not to alienate the long suffering kitchen staff, 5 women who do hard labor from 9AM until 7 or 8 PM for $200 a week and all the food they can taste while cooking it. They are now sharing with me what they make for their own lunch as a sign of acceptance and it's hard not to notice that absolutely every day, the fried rice or soup always contains tiny morsels of lamb. Fatty morsels because they love fat the best, a carryover from those minus 40ºC days.

That shows it's not an easy task to turn these people into vegetarians but I'm on it, starting with real Italian pizza. My homemade marinara sauce, a handful of canned mushrooms, a chopped green pepper and some Mozzarrella cheese I found at that Mercury Market in a two kilo loaf was a hit. Just like yesterday's frittata with onions and zucchini, and of course cheese on top. Gotta do dairy. and if not dairy, deep fried. The Mongolians love anything fatty and fried. Watching the kitchen staff turn out about 500 "calzones" a day, I got the idea of thinly slicing one of the potatoes and throwing the disks into the fryolator too. And so we had chips! With lots of salt, the other ingredient the Mongolians worship. If their food isn't slathered in salt, they don't think it has any taste. So chips were a winner.

but the bigger hit, the surprise triumph, was arancini. These fried risotto balls are the traditional way Italians use leftovers: last night's risotto is fried up with some garlic, onions and parmesan cheese, and when it's piping hot an egg is stirred in along with breadcrumbs made from yesterday's fresh loaf. Golf-ball sized balls of this are handrolled. a small cube of mozzarella is inserted in the center and when the ball is rolled in more breadcrumbs it's ready to be deep fried. Our arancini got the "fantastico" approval of our Italian director, although he was bewildered about why they were more tennis ball sized. "The Mongolians," I explained, "like everything big or they feel cheated. They're right up there with McDonald's in supersizing everything."

I told the cafe director these were called fried rice balls but he was going to call them "money balls" because he would be making money on his waste. His smile got as big as all Mongolia.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Meatless in Mongolia Part One

The red robed nun said I really hit the ground running, but the truth is more that I hit the ground of Ulan Baator in a white Land Cruiser, one of the hundreds among the Mercedes and Lexus SUVs clogging the traffic on the surprising well paved streets of Mongolia's major city. it had been borrowed for the occasion of fetching the two of us from Chingghis Khan airport just before midnight. As we rolled through the darkness to who knew where, I saw city lights in the distance and eventually a narrow river to be crossed, a surprise in a country defined by the great Gobi Desert. When we came to a halt in the unlit parking area of a red brick block building, I thought I had arrived at last at my final destination, Lama Zopa's Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition (FPMT) Buddhist temple, epicenter of His HOliness the Dalai Lama's aspiration to return Buddhism to the Mongolian people now that the rabidly atheistic Soviets have been pushed out. Wrong.

After 16 hours of flying and changing time zones from night to day all I wanted to do was go to sleep but after a climbed the cement stairs and took off my shoes outside a front door, I discovered I was going to a welcome reception in the private apartment of our driver, a tall, handsome young man who turned out to be the younger brother of the woman who outside the immigration and baggage area held the sign with my name neatly written on it. The two rooms of his residence were bleakly boxy and cement like, the remains of Soviet occupation, but the living room where we sat had a large flat screen TV with Phillips speakers above, plenty of electricity and running water--unlike all of Nepal and half of India--and a kitchen with a recognizable stove, a microwave and refrigerator. It also had a brand new, two week old baby asleep on the bed sitter next to me--a girl. The father picked her up with great tenderness and obvious pride: girls are a blessing in Mongolia where 67% of the men are alcoholic and violent by the age of 17. Young women populate the universities and offices and in droves, I am told, are chosing to be single mothers because most Mongolian men are so unpleasant to live with.

Although it was now after midnight, the wife had prepared us a full Mongolian meal--minus meat, indicating she is Buddhist now. On the coffee table in front of me was a plate of fresh sliced tomatoes interlaced with sliced cucumber, a bowl of Russian potato salad and another bowl of grated carrots swimming in loose mayonnaise--Russian food like borscht and mayonnaise salads are a culinary legacy of the 50-year Soviet occupation. There was also a polite plate of packaged cookies (what we would call biscuits). I held a soup bowl filled with warm rice-laced milk for which I had a spoon. (I later learned that milk rice with meat dumplings in it is more or less the national dish of Mongolia.) There was of course tea-- with milk. "You came to work with Mongolian food," the English nun said, "and here it is, so you hit the ground running." Frankly, I just wanted to hit the ground.

I came here on the strength of three emails, asking for a vegetarian cook to revitalize the Stupa Cafe, housed in a four story building that is the epicenter of the effort to revive Buddhism in Mongolia. The basement classrooms are used to teach English--over 250 students come for the ESL, Dharma to children and yoga. The rear of the main floor is a meditation hall mainly used absolutely every morning by a dozen elderly Mongolian women--and one man, about half in traditional dress, who chant while they fill 1500 water bowls as an offering of merit. Having accomplished that each morning, they then sit down and chant the entire one hour prayer of praise to the protector Mother goddess Tara. The front of the building has a small shop on the left and the Stupa Cafe on the right. Its kitchen abuts that singing shrine room and in the morning the sound of the faithful chanting is our kitchen white noise.

I was given a private room and bathroom on the second floor where the main meditation hall is. surprisingly anywhere from 12 to 60 people will show up for evening prayer services that start at 6PM. While they are in session, I cannot use the abutting kitchen set up for those of us who live here: a nun from western Australia, the center director who is from Italy, the ESL teacher who is from Kansas, and the outreach NGO director from Singapore. He supervises the soup kitchen/medical clinic/job training project about 7 kilometers away where the homeless former herders now congregate. Mongolia is superbooming just now, the fastest growing economy in the world because under the vast and fearsome Gobi Desert lie the world's second largest copper and gold deposits. And surprise! Everybody wants to tear up the Earth to exploit them. In addition to the torrent of foreignors pouring into this goldrush and not just for the minerals but the banking and real estate, over 1 million people have moved into Ulan Baator from their gers on the plains. More pour in every day. Sadly, the unskilled and illiterate have no place except in the outlying slums which are metastasizing at an alarming rate. So the Buddhists are reaching out in the spirit of healing and compassion but it seems they have unwittingly been pushed into fierce competition by the evangelical Christians and Mormons who apparentlyresort to any tactic they can think of to convert Mongolians to Jesus. The soup kitchen therefore has to serve meat, which is off limits at the Stupa Cafe. Indeed the whole point of my being here to make vegetarian food more appealing, if not downright magnetic.

The rest of the second floor is offices, the library and the lounge where we eat and meet. The top floor has the translation office and residences for the others who live here by the year. I am only here for five weeks.

More about the Stupa Cafe shortly. I have to go to work in it right now.

Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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