My dog makes bike wheels: нохой минь дугуй хийдэг.

‘Oh you can’t help that’, said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

People are strange, when you’re a stranger. Jim was onto something with that, but I think he only had it half right. Sure, when you’re on the outside looking in, what you see can seem quite odd. But when you’re on the inside looking out? That face peeping in from the other side of the window can be just as startling.


We often write about things we have seen in Mongolia that we find interesting and unusual. Sometimes they seem weird simply because we just don’t yet understand the reasons behind them. Case in point—we were amused about the odd shoe off/shoe on procedures that we had to go through just to enter the gym. It seemed a bizarre waste of time. Until we got to winter, and observed the constant battle waged against snow, ice and mud trekked in from the outside. Of course you take your outside shoes off. It makes perfect sense.

What we haven’t written about is what is weird about us. I don’t intend to list everything. I’m sure you haven’t got all night. But here are the top reasons our Mongolian friends and colleagues assure us on a semi-regular basis that we are weird.

1. The eyebrow raising fact that comes up most often is our diet.  No meat? But it’s not a real meal without meat! Despite the fact that there is a small population of Mongolian Buddhists and a range of vegan restaurants in UB, махгүй хоол still seems to be seen as an oddity. Our vegetable-heavy plates are blamed for every cough and sneeze.

2. Our dress sense, or lack thereof. Matt insists on wearing his sneakers to walk to work, despite the temperatures outside. His friends think he will freeze to death, or at least catch a cold. He tells them it’s too hot in the office to wear fleece-lined winter boots all day. He doesn’t mention that it’s also because he has since decided he owns the ugliest winter boots ever made.

I also fail in the sartorial stakes. One day at work I am told by the lovely Ariunzaya: ‘You have very strange fashion sense.’

‘Why?’ I ask, surprised.

At the time I am wearing a pair of culottes, ballet flats and a sleeveless shirt. It’s what I might wear to work in Australia on a court and client-free day. Neat, comfortable, but not exactly pushing fashion boundaries.

‘You only wear black’, she says. Ah. True that.

‘That’s because I’m from Melbourne’, I explain.

She raises a carefully penciled brow as if to say that’s no explanation at all. She later also declares me odd for not wearing make-up to work, but confesses that if she felt she had a choice, she wouldn’t bother with it either.

3. We are still studying Mongolian, despite being native speakers of what is apparently the most useful language in the world. ‘Why do you bother?’ I am often asked. (It is possible that this is as much a reflection on my mangled vowels as it is on the actual usefulness of the language.) I bother because it’s a challenge, because I want to keep up with my multi-lingual husband, and because I don’t want to presume others will speak English for me. There are plenty of people here who I would love to be able to converse freely with. I’d love to sit down with cycling coach Baata and have a fluent conversation, not just a jumble of word fragments punctuated by mime and hieroglyphics scratched into the dust on the back of his car. I wouldn’t tell him things like ‘my dog makes bike wheels’. This was met with a confused response. I tried ‘my dog used to make bike wheels’, ‘my dog is presently making a bike wheel’ and ‘my dog can make bike wheels’ before realising that it was not the verb/tense but the noun that was the issue. By then, the hole I’d dug was far too deep—students of Mongolian, add the нохой/нөхөр trap to your list.

4. Possibly the weirdest thing of all is our child-free status. As a thirty something woman, I ought by rights to have popped out four children, earned a national service medal for my contribution to genetics and be on my way to an early retirement. I’m not sure Matt gets the social welfare benefits, but he’d get to cart around a child so swaddled in winter clothes that its limbs stuck out like a starfish.

We are both often asked whether we have kids. For me, the exchange usually begins like this.

‘Do you have any children?’


‘Ah, not yet.’

Occasionally the ‘not yet’ statement is followed by ‘but when?’  Sometimes I say, in my best Mongolian, that I have a daughter but she is a black and white dog. This sometimes gets a laugh but more often the response is just a deeply concerned shake of the head.

Миний гоё нохой/хүүхэд

Many Mongolians start families in their early twenties. Although I’m not entirely sure of the accuracy of this, older Mongolian friends have said that under communism people tended to have children later, while the age has come down in recent years.

Spend ten hours watching Mongolian video clips, as I did recently on a bus between Dalanzagdad and Ulaanbaatar, and you’ll see how prominently the concept of ‘family’ features. With the exception of one pop song named ‘Superman’, an epic demonstration of misogyny in pop, the remaining 9 hours and 57 minutes alternated between horses dashing across the steppe and multi-generational families doing domestic tasks or walking in the forest together.

People seem genuinely puzzled by the fact that we haven’t yet popped out a poppet or made plans to do so in the immediate future. Does it mean we hate children? Don’t we see it as our duty? Could we possibly be happy without them? (Answers: Nope, Nope, and So far so good). Are you insane?!

I don’t know—they may be right. We may be crazy.


Notes from exile

Tsagaan Sar, or lunar new year, was celebrated last week in Mongolia. Over the course of several days, people visit the homes of family and friends. Most wear traditional deels, many having new ones made for the occasion. Tsagaan Sar is also an opportunity to consume your body weight in buuz, steamed meat dumplings. Some of our friends have made 2,000 dumplings in preparation.  Matt and I, however, don’t join in the Tsagaan Sar celebrations. This is in part because we are not particularly partial to meat dumplings, but mostly because, well, vita brevis. We decide to impose on ourselves a temporary exile to Siberia instead.

For those with days to spare and a passion for great train journeys, the Trans-Mongolian railway is probably the most civilised way to make your way from Ulaanbaatar into Siberia. If you have less time, there are two alternatives. A 1.5 hour flight to Irkustk, or 18 hours on the bus over a 24 hour period. We take the bus up. We learn our lesson and fly back.

Lake Baikal – Baygal Nuur
Khoboy Cape, Olkhon Island, Siberia

The main attraction in the region is the truly enormous Lake Baikal. It’s the largest fresh water lake in the world. It holds 20 per cent of the world’s unfrozen fresh-water. In places it is so wide that it is impossible to tell where the horizon lies. Over summer, it sounds like a beautiful place for water sports. In winter, if you time your visit right, it’s possible to drive across the lake. We spend a day in a clapped-out Lada bumping over the ice. It’s not an entirely comfortable feeling. I know that the lake is over 1.5 kilometres deep in parts, and we are driving on a  crust of ice a mere metre-or-so thick . When you stand still you can hear the creaks and snaps of the lake’s slow thaw.

Winter touring on Lake Baikal

We stop for tea at an ice village sculpted onto the lake.  A bearded traveller who has taken up a two week job pouring tea for tourists, tells us that last week they had a samovar atop the ice bar. Over the course of the day it melted deep into the ice. I pray that our Lada driver will seek shade, and get a move on so that our car doesn’t follow suit


Cathedral of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, Irkustk

Our travels centre around Irkustk, a large city in a region not known for large cities. It has been nicknamed ‘The Paris of Siberia’, and we can see why. There is heritage-protected wooden architecture not seen elsewhere in Russia, cute coffee shops and craft breweries, and a thriving arts scene. There are theatres: academic, youth, puppet, independent/alternative, musical. All have something different on most nights. There is a philharmonic orchestra, art galleries, multiple museums. We lift our brows and plan a program of performances to attend. Some Vaughan-Williams at the philharmonic one night perhaps? A Gogol drama the next? We miss out on tickets to both, and end up at a performance of modern organ/theremin compositions and a children’s puppet show. Sadly we don’t know how to yell ‘He’s Behind You!’ in Russian when the sneaky ‘krokodil’ makes an appearance. Like most of the (mostly under 8) audience, Matt decides on a new career. He will become a puppeteer. I tell him he needs a gimmick—there’s clearly going to be a lot of competition. He says he will be a puppeteer who only performs the stories of cycling’s great victories and scandals.[1]


We see how Russian theatre troupes program their repertoire and suddenly the arts scene in Mongolia makes a lot more sense. Russian cities have repertory theatres, in which a troop of actors perform a rotating series of their repertoire. From time to time they rehearse new productions and retire shows that aren’t popular. Every summer they tour to other cities around Russia.  At the State Opera and Ballet Academic Theatre in Ulaanbaatar there is usually a ballet on Saturday afternoon and an opera on Sunday. Rather than premiering a show which then runs over a season, each production is staged for one night only. The sets were large, and it seemed like a huge amount of effort to go to for a single performance. The upside is that if you miss Swan Lake this month, it will probably be performed again in a month or two. It probably also means there is greater job security for artists.

Matt with ‘Monument to Dog’

One thing I was hoping for was a change in food. Country cafes that offered more than buuz, khushuur and tsuivan. The first place we stop at we go to pull out Google translate for the menu. We don’t need it. There is buuz, or khushuur, or tsuivan. The border between Mongolia and Siberia isn’t quite as clear as the customs officials might think.

Now we’re back in UB. There’s no Gogol on the theatre menu, but we’ve heard rumours of two Brazilian heavy metal acts coming in the next few weeks.  The temperatures are reaching above zero some days, and the sun is still out at 6 in the evening. It feels like summer isn’t so far away.

[1] He’s fickle. At the Roskilde viking ship museum he decided he was going to be a friendly viking.  

One day in the life—Blossoming in the Mongolian winter

Music is the Winter Reel by Tasmanian band Bandecoute.

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?—John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charley: In search of America

According to the traditional Mongolian herders’ calendar, the coldest part of the year is broken into nine portions of nine days, with the fourth nine being the coldest. And with that, right on cue, on the second day of the fourth nine it dropped to minus 40 here in Ulaanabaatar. Today is the start of the sixth nine, during which, according to the traditional herders’ wisdom, the roads should start to become visible through the snow.

Given that we have now survived the thick of it, this post is about a typical winter’s day in our lives. It follows on from our post about a typical autumn day back in October.

The alarm jars us out of bed at 7:00. We are both groggy, as we often seem to be in winter. It may be that it is because we have gradually filled our lives to take up most of the available time we have, or it may be because it is dark when we wake up, and dark when we leave work. The shortest day here occurred on December 22 when we only had 8 hours and 22 minutes of daylight. The sun rose at 8:39am, and set at 5:02pm. Consequently, it sometimes feels like someone has played a trick on us in the mornings, moving all of the clocks in our house back by an hour or two.

It may also be because of our diet. This is not due to a lack of fruit and vegies, although they have increased in price and decreased in quality. Rather, it is because we have not been eating meat, which our Mongolian friends solemnly tell us contains all of the vitamins and nutrients we need to keep us healthy and warm through winter. In particular, we have not been eating sheep’s tail which we are promised is extra good for us—kind of like an anti-viral/bacterial busting nuclear weapon.

We drag ourselves off to the gym to continue getting massive, before going our separate ways for the day. It is around minus thirty as I begin my walk to work. We have recently moved office and I am now a thirty minute walk to the north. The office is right on the edge of the ‘ger[1] district’. As Kate has described in the past, this is the large, sprawling area that wraps around Ulaanbaatar where many people still live in their traditional gers. Surviving the winter necessitates their furiously burning coal to stave off the cold, which means that the pollution in the ger district is often stifling. The US Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you avoid daily average levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) above 35µg/m3. On some days we reach levels of over 1,000 µg/m3. Today, however, the pollution is not too bad—I can faintly see the buildings in the far off distance, and by the afternoon it is clear and beautiful from our 15th floor windows.

Kate meanwhile, has had a day off from her work both at the Judicial Council and the Cycling Federation. This means that she is free to continue writing the next great Australian novel. She heads off to a new old café, named the Bee Café, that has recently reopened, where the coffee is good, the décor warm and the service friendly.[2] After a few hours of graft, interspersed with reading articles about D. J. Trump and feeling angry, she heads off home for some lunch. Perhaps there is a silver lining to his rage-inducing actions—no happy artist was ever a good one.

Kate’s office for the morning – the Bee Cafe

After work I leg it back south for my first ever horse-head fiddle lesson, Kate’s birthday present to me. The horsehead fiddle is a traditional Mongolian two-stringed instrument played with a bow. Traditionally they were made with animal skin, but nowadays they are usually made of wood with European-style f-holes. They sound like a cross between a cello and a violin, which means that played well, they sound absolutely gorgeous.[3] Played like I am currently playing, however, they sound something like a cross between a horse having its head removed and an out-of tune drunken child doing wordless karaoke. I take it upon myself to practice as much as possible while Kate is around to add to the rage and do my bit for the great Australian novel.

After an afternoon of more writing Kate comes to meet me at Briti Grey, acute bar where they have recently begun holding jazz nights for a standing room only crowd. The players are all young Mongolian students studying together who have a passion for the genre that borders on that expressed by Elwood Blues for the blues. They are on a mission to bring great jazz to Mongolia, and we benefit. They are tight and skilled, and their passion washes over the keenly-listening audience.

Mongolia’s first jazz generation?

And after a couple of their sets, our day is done. We rug up and wander back to our apartment for a late snack before washing, rinsing and repeating. Winter has proven to be as interesting as autumn and summer. We have tried to follow the Mongolian example of not being cowed by the weather, but embracing it. And at the end of the day, the cold makes it even more agreeable to sit in a bar, red wine in hand, listening to jazz in the company of friends. It won’t feel quite the same in summer.

[1] ‘Ger’ is the Mongolian word for a yurt.

[2] It is above the Internom bookshop for any Mongolites reading this.

[3] This is what a horsehead fiddle (or morin khuur) should sound like:

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Hit the road Jack: running around the globe

Matt and I met training at the Melbourne Uni Athletics Club. We chose the same day to turn up for our first training session, thinking we were fit, we’d be fine. A delightful young lady, (now a dear friend), took us out to Princes Park in Parkville and in the most encouraging way possible showed us exactly how unfit we were. Since then, we’ve improved that fitness, lost it, found it, lost it and so on. In the process, we’ve stood on more than a few race starting lines. Late last year we escaped the Mongolian winter to run the Taipei half-marathon. We’re going to share what it’s like to toe the starting line in three very different nations.


The start of an Aussie fun run is relatively calm. There is some jostling for position, but nothing untoward. We might stop to listen to Deeks[1] yelling at us all to give it our best shot and enjoy the day. The national anthem might be sung. A media chopper is often buzzing around overhead. The crowd hums with excitement. Then the gun is fired, and we’re off. The crowd usually pelts along for the first kilometer—it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and go out much faster than you ought. After that, things settle down and there’s space to settle into your own rhythm. Little packs of runners form and dissolve. The crowd cheers you on, and if your lungs permit, you might cheer the front runners.


At the end of the run, you swig a sports drink and stagger off to meet or wait for your friends. There’s also the obligatory show bag full of advertising material and perhaps a copy of the Herald Sun. The advertisements go straight into the recycling bin. The newspaper gets handed to the dog, who takes great pleasure in ripping it to shreds. The paper then also ends up in the recycling bin, unread. I appreciate that races need sponsors, but there must be a more environmentally friendly way of getting their messages out.



Last year we ran the Arig Bank ‘Hope and Possibility’ fun run. The event offered distances from 3km to a full marathon, on flat closed roads starting from National Park. It also included a wheelchair event, which had a good turnout. Matt and I chose to run the 10km race. A friend had run the 3km earlier in the day and sent us a message warning us to watch out for a bit of pushing at the start. That was something of an understatement. It was Hobbesian in its ferocity. The crowd surged forward, everyone desperate to be in front position. Weapons were drawn (probably). A woman wearing false eyelashes drove an elbow into my stomach to get me to move.  The local elite runners looked on wearily, but allowed themselves to be absorbed into the crowd rather than fighting their way forward. Eventually some clever types decided that the rope barrier was for guidance only and climbed over it, edging the start line ever forward. There was no countdown—someone in the crowd sneezed, an enthusiastic runner mistook that for the starters gun, and everyone immediately followed. They sprinted out. Around 300 metres in, I waved goodbye to Ms Eyelashes with more than reasonable glee. I could see why the elites hadn’t stressed too much. In under a kilometer, the crowd had thinned. From there, it was wide open roads all the way.


At the end of the run, we each received a certificate. There are no giveaways. No advertising material. Matt and I were lucky enough to have scored medals in our age groups. We stay for some of the presentations. The presenter keeps saying ‘Bayan Hoorgae’, which we mistake for ‘Bayan Olgii’, one of the north-western provinces of Mongolia. We wonder why so many good runners hail from that far-flung part of the country. Perhaps it’s the higher altitude? Perhaps this is the new cradle of endurance athletes. The Tarahumara and their diet of chia seeds need to make way—the Mongolian Khazakhs are coming. Vogue will be touting mutton and mare’s milk as the super foods of 2017. We later discover that ‘Bayan Hoorgae’ means ‘Congratulations’.  Disappointing.



The Taipei Marathon festival is a huge affair, with about 18,000 people running 42.2, 21.1 and 10 kilometres. Matt and I opt for the half-marathon option. Despite the huge number of participants, everything happens with remarkable ease. I find a position a few rows back from the start line. I have personal space. Australian levels of personal space. Swing a dead cat kind of personal space. No-one is trying to elbow me out of the way. I wave to Matt, who is a few metres ahead. He gives me a wide arm wave back, followed by a cheeky thumbs up. In front of the start line (to which due respect is paid), a group of cheerleaders perform power aerobics for us. A pair of Super Perky MCs offer exuberant commentary in Taiwanese, English and Japanese. They seem excited enough to explode into a thousand rainbows. All around, the glass screens of mobile phones flash in the sunlight. In Taiwan, it appears, you haven’t run a race unless you’ve recorded every moment. People are snapping selfies. High above us, several media choppers circle, and in a lower stratosphere numerous drones swoop in for pictures. On every corner, there’s a photographer with a very serious looking camera. I have never been more photographed in my life. At one point, the male Super Perky MC calls out ‘We’ve got our helicopters out. You can watch the live footage on your televisions. Not everyone has their television with them, but you all have your mobile phones.’ Wait, what? Who is carrying a television?! Hell, even a mobile phone seems unnecessary. I have sneakers, running clothes, and some emergency money and a gel shoved in my bra.  I think that’ll do.

Afterwards, we queue to have our legs sprayed with cooling ‘magic spray’. Then we gather up the two different bags (each!) provided by the race organisers. We have a collection of advertising material, heat bandages, energy bars, Ovaltine samples, towels as well as a substantial lunch. So much stuff! Some useful, but most of it not. I immediately put all of the heat bandages on in an effort not to waste them. Ten minutes later I remove them all as the deep-heat throb sets in. At least they got used.

Next up is the Ulaanbaatar marathon in June. Matt is hoping to give the full distance a crack if his body doesn’t decide to betray him again. I will have a chat to my cycling legs to see what they think they can manage. In the meantime, I will continue with the martial arts training. By June I should have mastered the five-point palm exploding eyelash technique. Beware anyone who dares to poke an elbow in my direction—you take your life into your own hands.

[1] Robert De Castella, former world champion and world record holding marathon runner

Conversations with the dead

It’s been quite a while between blog posts. Travels, Christmas, New Year celebrations and life have all got in the way. To kick things back into action, I thought it would be appropriate to tackle a big topic. Something a little heavy. Something that isn’t appropriate dinner party conversation. Something like… oh… religion. And perhaps, while I’m at it, let’s throw in a little politics.p1060026

I’ll begin by winding the clock right back. Chinggis Khan and his hordes are galloping across the steppes in their highly successful attempt to expand the Mongol Empire. If you’re a modern child and need something to help create a mental image, picture Drogo and the Dothraki on the rampage. While Chinggis Khan and his sons might have been feared warlords, they are also reputed to have been early proponents of freedom of religion. Chinggis’ son Ogedei married a Nestorian Christian woman and built mosques, churches and Buddhist monasteries for his subjects.

Fast forward a good 700 years to the 1930s, where much of the population is Buddhist. Religion being a prohibited opiate, communist purges result in the destruction of religious buildings, including the vast majority of Buddhist monasteries and stupas. During this time, many lamas are arrested, many executed. The number who lost their lives is unclear: some sources suggest around 3,000, while others estimate as many as 18,000 died. It was enough to drive religion underground.


The condemnation of religion under communism can be seen in the art of that period. Recently I helped a friend with a translation of a novel written in the 1970s. It tells the story of a bright young novice monk from a poor Mongolian family. To please his parents the boy studies hard and is rewarded with the opportunity to continue his religious training in Lhasa.  He joins a group of pilgrims to make the journey from Mongolia. It’s a dangerous road, beset by blue-faced bandits, treacherous cliffs and wild rivers. Many of his friends don’t survive the journey.  But what he endures while travelling is nothing compared with the corruption he must deal with when he arrives in Tibet. Still, the boy studies hard and rises through the ranks, trying to do the right thing. For all his efforts he ultimately ends up blind, alone and banished to the Gobi desert, where he survives on spilled drops of camels’ milk that have hardened to cheese in the sun. The book is not a condemnation of Buddhism itself, but it does show religion as a tool to manipulate the poor while those in power grow fat.

Similarly, the Mongolian ballet ‘Skillful Khas’ portrays Buddhist monks as twisted, goblin-like creatures who seize a talented young inventor, Khas, dragging him away from his family and compelling him to build statues for their monastery.[1]

With the end of communism twenty years ago, people are now able to practice religion openly again. The majority of the population are nominally Buddhist. It is an understated kind of Buddhism. There aren’t shrines on every corner. But occasionally you will come across a tree in the countryside wrapped in blue prayer flags, or a little white stupa on the side of a hill.


Although many monasteries have had to be rebuilt, it still possible to visit some original ones. Amarbayasgalant Monastery survived, possible due to its remote location in northern Mongolia. It’s a few hours’ drive from Darkhan, which in turn is a few hours train ride from UB. Time has taken its toll on the buildings, even if the communists didn’t take theirs. Many are crumbling, but those that still stand give a sense of what it might have been like in its heyday. The enormous main hall would once have been filled with chanting monks, and the surrounding buildings bustling with people performing the tasks of day to day living. Once there were many monasteries like this. It is still a working monastery, although the small population of monks are mostly children under 18. When we visit they are busy playing soccer.


Huge crowds turned out to hear the Dalai Lama speak on a recent visit to Ulaanbaatar. A political scuffle with China followed, including temporary closure of the Mongolian/Chinese border and postponement of trade talks. Two points on this—and I’ll leave others to connect the dots and form their own conclusions.

1) Freedom of religion is a constitutional right in Mongolia.

2) The Foreign Minister has stated that the Dalai Lama won’t be visiting again under the current administration (there’s a comments field below, go for broke.)

In the north west of the country you are more likely to encounter the spike of a mosque’s minaret than the smooth white dome of a stupa. Many of the people living in this area are Muslim Kazakhs. Although they may have been born and spent all their lives in Mongolia, perhaps never having visited Kazakhstan, they identify first and foremost as Kazakhs.

Christianity too has found a home here in Mongolia. In Ulaanbaatar there are Christian churches of various denominations, including a Russian orthodox church which conducts services in Russian. Like most monasteries, the churches appear to have been built or rebuilt in the last twenty years.

Arguably the greatest spiritual resurgence, however, is of Mongolian shamanism. It is growing in popularity, particularly among young people. Perhaps there is a link with the enormous popularity of Chinggis Khan himself, a whose name and image appears on everything from public buildings to bottles of vodka, and who has a public holiday in honour of his birthday (5 November, in case you were wondering). Chinggis apparently practiced shamanism. Perhaps it’s also about reforging a national identity after communism.p1060058

Shamans are otherwise ordinary people who are able to connect with the spirit world. They don’t choose to become shamans, they are chosen. The become mediums able to channel the spirits of ancestors, their posture and voices transforming into those of the dead. They provide advice, help those that are ill, assist people who have lost loved ones to handle their grief. A friend tells us there are three types of shaman: white shamans, who dispense good advice and have people’s best interests at heart; black shamans, who are willing to summon bad spirits; and fake shamans, who are just in it for the money.

I am surprised by the number of friends who believe in shamanism. I ask one very down to earth colleague about it whether she visits a shaman. She looks at me in surprise. ‘Of course I do.’ I admit part of me is incredibly curious about what a visit to a shaman would involve. Probably the same part of me that gets nervous and lazy and avoids making important decisions. I’m curious about what my ancestors would tell me. And even if they don’t have sage advice to dispense, it would be nice to sit down for a cup of metaphysical tsuutei tsei and a chat.

[1] As an aside, I’ve also recently learnt that Swan Lake ends differently depending on where in the world you are. Soviet Siegfried kills von Rothbart and he and Soviet Odette live happily ever after. Western Siegfried and Odette don’t fare so well. Sometimes poor Odette ends up ascending to the heavens, sometimes she gets stuck as a swan. Siegfried invariably ends up dead. Which serves him right for hunting swans in the first place.

Photo Gallery – Gun Galuut (the place with many ducks)

‘Gun Galuut’ means ‘the place with many ducks’. During our recent visit we saw no ducks, or indeed many birds at all, because they have all sensibly headed off to warmer climates.  We were, however, lucky enough to see argali sheep in the far distance.

The Kherlen River, one of the longest in Mongolia

The river was slowly freezing over. Each morning there was a new ledge of ice, hanging off the previous day’s. As the day warmed up, small icebergs slowly floated downstream. We saw some small fish darting away under the ice, and were reliably informed that they survive the winter in the water under the solid ice.

Temperatures were cooler than Ulaanbaatar by several degrees, (minus 20 overnight) and we were glad of the refuge offered by our ger.
These are, I believe, frozen bubbles in the ice.
There are monsters in Gun Galuut.

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Hot running water – but only if you’re lucky


I never thought I would be writing a blog post about plumbing, and yet here it is.

We have the olfactory magic pudding of bathrooms. The plumbing between all of the apartments in our building is connected, which means that we can be nosy neighbours without going all James Stuart in Rear Window, peering out from behind a chink in the curtains with binoculars. Instead we spy through our sink plughole. Occasionally the smell can be unspeakable, but for the most part it actually isn’t always what you would expect to be coming through the plumbing. Often, it seems, our neighbours are boiling up mutton. Someone washes their hair with apple scented shampoo. Another smokes the odd illicit cigarette.

Our hot water is not heated by a water heating unit in our apartment, or even our building. In Ulaanbaatar, hot water is a utility like others, pumped throughout the city via a network of very well insulated pipes. In summer there are rolling, fortnight long outages of hot water for each city block while maintenance work is done on the pipes. No problem, we thought, when informed by our prospective landlady that we would be have cold showers for a fortnight. ‘We’ll just shower at the gym’. That the gym might be on the same city block as our apartment was not something we considered. Fortunately the temperatures were around 30°C those weeks, so it wasn’t much of a hardship.

There are access points that ought to be covered by manholes all over the city that provide easy access to the hot water pipes. Often the manholes have been removed, making for significant fall hazards. Some of the holes look to be several metres deep. I once asked a Mongolian friend how the street dogs make it through the freezing winter. She told me that sometimes the dogs go down the manholes so that they can sleep out of the wind, warmed by the hot water pipes. The city’s homeless also sometimes need to do this to survive.


Hot water services don’t extend significantly beyond the CBD, however. A few weeks ago, I went on a tour of the ger district run by Ger Community Mapping. I was initially a little concerned that this might involve voyeuristic peering into ‘poor’ people’s homes, but the focus was quite different. Instead we were taken to see positive community initiatives, as well as being shown some of the infrastructure available to those who live in the ger area. It highlighted what individuals and small groups, with a little imagination albeit limited resources, are capable of doing for their communities. Our guide was as pains to point out that the tour is meant to be educational rather than entertaining. The tours are an adjunct to, and fundraiser for, the group’s main work, which is to create specialised maps of both the ger area and the CBD which identify particular areas of need. They have maps which show the ‘eco-households’ that grow their own vegetables (only about 2%). They have maps that show population density compared with the numbers of schools and kindergartens. And they have maps that demonstrate the level of access to water and how many households need to walk more than 500 metres to access drinkable water. They are a neat way of illustrating the point when lobbying the government for change.

Our tour started at a view point from which we could observe the breadth of the ger

Water storage shed

district’s sprawl. The population of Ulaanbaatar has almost doubled since 2000, with much of the city’s expansion occurring without government planning for infrastructure. Putting in infrastructure such as roads, water pipes and power after the fact is very difficult, and can involve significant hardship or relocation for the people whose land is in the way.As part of the tour, we went to two water collection points. One was a natural spring which bubbles out of the earth in a small stream. On the day we visited, a number of people, mostly teenage boys, were filling up plastic drums with water. I can only imagine how unpleasant a task that would be in the depths of winter. The other collection point was located inside a small lockable shed—it looked a lot like a petrol pump. When we arrived, a man was pumping water into a huge drum that he carried on a wheelbarrow. After filling up he paid the keeper of the keys for his water. At about 1 Australian cent per litre, the cost is not prohibitive. In both cases, because the water is stored deep underground it is sufficiently insulated against the winter temperatures.

Nogoon Nuur

We finished the tour with a visit to Nogoon Nuur (Green Lake). Built inside a disused quarry, Nogoon Nuur is a community park for children. We were told that its creator had worked in Korea and was inspired by the theme parks there. He wanted to build something similar for the children of Ulaanbaatar. There is a shallow lake at the bottom of the quarry, with paddle boats for hire in summer and ice skates for hire in winter. It was an autumn day when we visited, and so too cold to paddle and not cold enough to skate. Only a family of ducks played on the water. In the future, however, the owner plans to build a children’s library and musical instrument collection to entertain kids in Spring and Autumn. I hope to take Matt skating there in a few weeks, once the water has frozen over. We’ll come home to thaw out with hot water straight from the tap, and I hope we’ll remember to think twice about how fortunate that actually makes us.

One (autumn) day in the life of Kate and Matt Denisovich

There is a certain appeal in getting a peek into someone else’s every-day life—even if that person’s life is not that different to yours, or is entirely made up. While I cannot promise beach babes, high drama or Alf Stewart, I can offer a look into an average day of ours here in Mongolia as autumn comes to an end.

In between trips to the mountains, horse-riding, vodka tasting trials and becoming lords of the flies in Terelj, life flows forward gently in a swirl of work, language lessons, running (me) training with the cycling federation junior girls’ team (Kate) and socialising.

Our apartment block

We get up at 8am, feeling quite ragged—I don’t know whether it is the slightly higher altitude, the glaring light from the giant TV screen on the side of a hotel nearby being refracted through the cold haze and pollution or just our regular helter-skelter lives, but we seem to need more sleep here.

It is around minus ten degrees as I set off for work looking like the Michelin Man. Kate has the morning to write—a bit of a rarity these days in between her volunteer work with the cycling federation and the judicial council.

It has snowed overnight, and there is a softness to the sound of the city. As always, I see street dogs heading off on their secret missions elsewhere during the 10 minute walk to work. There is not much of a program to deal with them here, and I believe that they are either culled or left to die in the harsh winters. There is not even an animal shelter as far as we can find. If I could put several years into Mongolia, I would love to work with an organisation that was implementing a holistic solution to the problem. In the meantime, we do our best not to fall in love with every street dog we meet.

I work for the Independent Research Institute of Mongolia. They are a young organisation and have rapidly grown over the last several years. This requires inventiveness when space is necessary (‘Shall we hold the meeting at my desk or yours? Are you happy to share a chair?’). I work on a couple of different projects through the morning, interspersed with requests for proofreading and hi-jinks with my young colleagues. It is a pleasant atmosphere—they work hard, but everyone including the CEO and operations manager are prepared to spare some precious time whenever I have a question or an issue.

One of the differences I have noticed between here and Australia is the different attitude towards personal space. If you were to take the acceptable distance in which you are allowed to stand next to someone in an Australian office, then halve it, and take the square root of that figure, you would be getting closer to the acceptable distance in Mongolia. Touching is more acceptable too, unless you touch someone’s foot with yours, in which case you need to shake their hand as soon as possible to show that you are not declaring war on them.

I often go to lunch at a cute café nearby called Coffee Hut, run by a garrulous lad named Lkhagvadorj and his family. They make a couple of ‘Matt-special’ no-meat dishes just for me. They cost around three dollars—which means that if I could just find some way of earning an Australian salary over here, I could come home, buy a house, and eat all of the avocado on toast I want.

Kate meanwhile, has put on all of the layers of clothing she can find in the house, and ridden the eight kilometres to meet her cycling girls. It is still minus five degrees, which means that she is fine as long as she is riding, but less fine when she is not. For some reason, when she gets there, there is no riding, but rather an hour and a half-long discussion between coaches in civvies. She has no idea why, or what they are talking about—as is often the case, one must be flexible here (see blog posts number 2, 3, 7, 9 and 11). Unfortunately it is hard to be flexible in minus five degrees, and Kate is forced into bed to warm up when she gets home. This time she manages to avoid frostbite, however.

The cityscape heading to the gym

After my work and Kate’s process of decryogenicification we head off to ‘Golden Gym’ to get ripped. Fifty minutes on the treadmill (‘quick, think of something interesting… brain slowly atrophying… must think of something… ‘Home and Away?’ no, no good… brain atrophying faster…’) followed by a core strengthening class run by Madame Paine and we are ready for dinner.

We go to our local Japanese noodle house—delightfully named ‘Noodle Warrior—for some slurpy noodles (me) and some less-slurpy-and-slightly-grossed-out-because-of-the-slurpy noodles (Kate) before braving the cold again for home.

And so our autumn day comes to an end. It’s now 12:30am, and I’m hollering for advice from Kate—who is back in bed—on how I should finish this blog. She has strongly suggested that I do it in a self-referential way, or if not, whatever I do, do it very quickly or run the risk of sleeping on the couch.

The end.

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Beyond the mutton: eating in Mongolia

I am sitting in a cosy lounge chair at Code, a French style patisserie on Urt Tsagaan Road. Piled up behind me are the many layers that need to be shed when entering almost any building in UB: down jacket, jumper, scarf, mittens. Although it’s below zero outside, it’s always tropically warm indoors.

Pinenuts are sold by the cupful on most street corners. Arguably they’re more effort than they are worth…

The waitress brings me an espresso and one of those squat, plump little cakes called ‘petites madeleines’. After pondering the wonders of the madeleine a while, and spending a little time looking at what is trending on my Facebook newsfeed, it occurs to me that I ought to write something about the everyday in Mongolia. Food is an obvious place to start, it being what’s in front of me at the time of writing. I’ve lost count of the number of people back in Australia who asked:  ‘Mongolia? But you’re vegetarian. Won’t you starve?’ Other doubting Thomas’s commented: ‘I give you six months. You’ll love eating mutton by then.’

Granted, Mongolia’s most famous dishes are on the meaty side. There are khooshuur—pockets of pastry filled with minced meat and potato and deep fried. They are available almost everywhere, from fast food places catering to students at the university, to the more upmarket restaurants, to road side shacks beside major roads. More touristy places will occasionally make a vegetarian version with cabbage, carrot and potato. There are buuz—steamed dumplings filled with mince meat. We’ve found frozen vegan versions filled with black beans, tofu and spinach. Tsuivan are fat noodles fried with mutton, onion, cabbage and carrot, easily made sans mutton. There is horhog. Standing alone, hor and hog translate to ‘poison’ and ‘rubbish’. Together they are a dish made from a whole sheep cut into chunks and boiled in a container with hot stones, and perhaps some potato or carrot. We have yet to find a vegetarian version of this one. Our meat eating friends assure us that it does taste good, albeit with a strong mutton flavour. They never seem able to eat much of it though.buuz_khuushuur_1

Despite the meatiness of traditional Mongolian cuisine, we have not wasted away. Many restaurants in UB at least make a vegetarian pizza or pasta. Good Indian food abounds. There is also a good handful of dedicated vegan and vegetarian restaurants. One does a haloumi burger. Another does mock meat versions of Asian classics. One near my office serves up something that needs to be chased by a visit to the health clinic and a full course of norfloxacin.

Outside UB, things are a little trickier. We tell people we are tsagaan khoolton—‘white food eaters’. In ger camps, this usually means being given cabbage, carrot and potato soup. Among the most useful tips and tricks for new players we’ve received: carry a bottle of chilli sauce everywhere.  In rural restaurants we have awkward conversations about whether pork is meat, sausage is meat, or chicken is meat, which eventually lead to a not overly disappointed acceptance on our part that we will be calling a bowl of hot chips dinner.

Self-catering is the other option. There is no one market or supermarket that has everything, and things aren’t restocked with any regularity. There is much comparing of notes among the Australian community about specialty items. ‘Have you been to Khan Deli yet? They have proper bagels’. ‘Quick, eMart has turmeric and paneer’. ‘Where on earth did you find kale?’  It has taken four months to discover that parmesan cheese is available. (I’d say where, but then it might all sell out. Okay, try the fancy Italian place tucked away behind Choijin Lama Temple Museum. Please leave me a wedge.) Fresh fruit and vegetables are available, although as it gets colder the range is more limited, more expensive and looking a little sadder. Much of the fruit is imported from South America or China. We mostly get apples, pears and bananas, although for a period we had plums and nectarines, and on one occasion a mangosteen, which would have made Queen Victoria proud.

So we are by no means starving, nor have we become carnivorous. Although having come from Melbourne, there are things we miss. Antipasto. Felafel after midnight. And 40,000₮ serves of smashed avo on sourdough. Now that would really be something.

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Fists raised to the blue sky—mining a different kind of metal in Mongolia

Last week the first snow of winter fell. It was beautiful, walking to work through Sukhbaatar Square through the gently swirling white flakes. It does mean, however, that it’s time to pack away those teeny-tiny summer wrestling outfits and head indoors for a good dose of ART. Fortunately there is a bit going on. The October ballet and opera schedule has been released, with European classics like Giselle and Aida programmed alongside Natsagdorj’s The Princess of Gunger, and in the last fortnight Matt and I have been to two very different music events.

The first was a concert by Pavel Milyukov, a solo violinist with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. It was as much a night for music lovers as it was for those who want to frock up and be seen, and for Matt and I, a chance to have another look around Mongolia’s National Opera House; its round marble roof is constructed to look like the inside of a ger.

The second: Noise Music Festival—a two day celebration of all things metal.

The venue was the somewhat disconcertingly named ‘SS Club’. Because of this, Matt did a little online sleuthing before the show. We had heard there is a bar somewhere in Ulaanbaaatar which is decorated with Nazi paraphernalia, and neither of us were all that keen to walk into a den of Blue Mongols.[1]

Thankfully the SS Club is entirely swastika free. Essentially a fancy tent erected inside a shed, it is a somewhat odd place for a heavy metal festival, with a preppy blue and white colour scheme and cardboard chandeliers. It is the kind of place that would host large weddings and the usual function staff have been rostered on for the evening: waitresses in white shirts and aprons shuffle between head-banging punters to deliver baskets of hot chips; the security guards are clean-shaven and slim in neat suits. Also incongruous were glamorous young things in matching jumpsuits meant to be spruiking Viva Vodka but instead standing around looking awkward, clearly wondering why they were there.

Noise Music Fest was dedicated to all things ‘metal’; that broad definition the thread that tied all the bands together. Metal, of course, is a genre splintered into sub-genres, and the bands we get are a very mixed bunch. The locals tend towards a thrash sound,[2] with a dose of death metal thrown in.[3] Some of them swig airag on stage. [4] We also get a completely insane noisecore band from Japan—Sete Star Sept  —who are probably better categorised as performance artists. The female vocalist/bass player prowles around the stage roaring, and the brief moments they settle into a recognisable musical beat are a relief between sensory assaults. Dark MOFO should put them on the line-up.[5] There is Inner Missing, a doom/goth duo from St Petersburg who end their set by asking the crowd very politely if anyone would mind if they finished with a song that wasn’t actually metal? We get a chance to talk to them afterwards and find that, despite the morbid lyrics, they are just so gosh-darn lovely. There is no ‘I’m in a band’ posturing. They just seem genuinely pleased to be in Mongolia.

And then there is ХУРД (Hurd).

Hurd are a Mongolian metal institution. They’ve been around since 1987. They have long hair and tight pants. They reminded me of another band I saw a few years ago in Melbourne. Matt and I had tickets to go to a gig with a much esteemed friend. The morning of the performance, the band we were going for pulled out, leaving only a band that has been playing for over 20 years and aren’t exactly cutting edge. We debated awhile—should we even go? Matt piked, but the MEF and I figured we had paid our money to see the high-dive act, so we headed along anyway. Turns out, there’s a reason Avenged Sevenfold have been playing for more than 20 years. Hurd were like this. Their music is pretty unexciting really, but those guys sweat charisma. They make you want to get down on your knees and pray to the gods of rock and roll.

We manage to remain upright, however, and take the time to watch the crowd. There are the death metal boys with their faces painted to resemble border collies. Or Alice Cooper. But probably border collies. There are dudes in leather pants with leather jackets tied around their waists. There is a girl in a wheelchair being pushed around by her friends. I don’t think she stops smiling all night. There are lots of Pink Floyd and AC/DC t-shirts going around, probably because a local Korean shop sells those particular t-shirts cheap. They are the go-to uniform for the part-time metal lovers.

Unlike in Australia, where the gigs Matt and I go to tend to have a gender split of about 7:1, which does dork up the vibe a bit,[6] here it is about 50/50. This is great—metal girls are great—except when it comes to bathroom queues.

I’m used to waltzing in, doing a few pirouettes through the empty space, before deliberating over which empty cubicle is most appealing. It doesn’t happen in women’s public toilets very often. You might as well make the most of it. But with an even gender split, I don’t get to trek the vast tiled steppes. Instead I get to queue. Mongolian style. This doesn’t at all resemble an Australian queue. In fact, it’s more like a blood sport, where elbows fly with abandon and you really appreciate how stilettos got their name. I am muscled out of the way repeatedly, until finally I take a deep breath, puff myself out to be as large as possible, and force eye-contact with the woman next to me. She smiles and takes a step backwards, making space for me. ‘Right’, I think. ‘I’m finally in’. As soon as the door swings open, however, she leaps forward, gives me a cheeky grin and yells ‘Sorry!’ in English.

Matt’s bathroom attendances are similarly dramatic. On one occasion, he returns to join me in the foyer only to have Uugii, the event organiser, come running over and demand he get on stage. He’s supposed to be playing bass in ‘Hitobashira’. Right now. Matt explains that he is neither in a band nor can he play bass. It takes a moment, but Uugii finally slaps Mattie on the back and concedes that perhaps he is not a North American bass player after all. Perhaps if he starts practicing now, we can score him a cameo spot for next year. There will be a next year, right Uugii?




[1] As an aside, the Blue Mongols are a pro-nationalist group who fuse neo-nazism with environmentalist sympathies. They are named for the blue birthmarks which many Mongolian babies have on their lower backs at birth. The marks fade over time, but they are viewed by the Blue Mongols as a sign of being a true Mongolian. That the blue spots also occur in much of the rest of Asia, sub-saharan Africa and Latin-America is a tedious detail which seems to have been overlooked.

[2] Metallica/Megadeath

[3] Yawn… straight death metal is a pretty boring sub-genre. Fast, repetitive rhythms with someone (usually in face paint), growling over the top.

[4] Fermented mare’s milk.

[5]David Walsh—if you’re reading:

[6] Yes it’s a Flight of the Conchords reference. You’re welcome.

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