Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Last pics 

A few post volunteering trip pics to finish with.....

Last Entry 

And so it comes to a close….or does it?

I returned to the UK about 2 weeks ago and was hit by the ‘culture shock’ so frequently described by the VSO office as they try to prepare you for your return to your own country…easing the transition from volunteer to another number.

I was lucky enough to spend my first days back in the UK with a returned nurse volunteer from Mongolia, sharing stories and experiences and chatting about readjustment.

I never thought there would be a problem to return to the familiar…the first thing that hit me was the excess of the culture, swiftly followed by the expense of living…coffee and sandwich in the airport for £7…approximately 15,000 Tugriks…that’s, you know I don’t even remember, how distant seems Mongolia, its blue skies, its mutton smells, the community of volunteers trying to make a difference, the grinding poverty and toil of the health service to meet the needs of the population, with ailing resources and crippling bureaucracy.

So what now?

My extensive learning from the experience is leading me towards an appreciation of quality of daily life… my next direction is leading me to the hills, to highland living with a couple of horses and fresh air to get my volunteering experience in perspective and use it as a step up, not an isolated adventure in a country thousands of miles away - in both physical and mental distance.

It seems like it will be very easy to look only at the daily grind and forget the bigger picture…I guess staying involved with vso is a way to prevent this?? I have been in regular contact with my Mongolian colleagues and some of the other volunteers…very special friends I will have for life.

So, this weblog will end …like an unfinished sentence because really it is just the start……

Monday, December 05, 2005

To make contact 

Cannot access my weblog page to read comments so please email me instead if you want a reply! This has happened before in China and did not resolve.

Decision time 

Despite the hypnotic quality of some parts of Lhasa, it is also the landscape i came to see and so negotiations have been ongoing over the weekend to plan a trip out into the countryside. And so today the decision was made and passports sent for permit approval.

We go to Everest base camp via some beautiful scenery, remote monasteries and historical sites, including the residence of the absent Panchen Lama. There is quite a feeling of hopeless expectation in many of the Lhasa sites, museum like preservation in the vain hope of a return of their leader, i imagine the residence of the panchen lama will be similar, and yet the people remain unwavering in their leaderless belief.

Witnessing the magnificence of the dramatic landscape and reality of these pilgrims' journeys and life will perhaps add some deeper perspective to this snapshot i have seen in Lhasa.

I'll let you know.


Lhasa and its people are absorbing. Despite avoiding 'the english club' in UB, i was very interested when invited to attend the english corner in Lhasa. Two medical students, studying tibetan traditional medicine, met us and took us into the depths of the historical quarter to the location of the club.

An evening of interesting conversation passed very quickly as we discussed topics ranging from football teams andpop stars to veiled political comment and enquiry about the knowledge of Tibet in the 'outside' world.

I have found it frustrating to have lived within a culture to suddenly be a tourist in one and not have the opportunity to 'get under the skin' and see more than pilgrims and temples. However, this provided a unique insight into the lives of young tibetan people today.

We went for dinner to a local restaurant after the discussions were over and shared spicy yak meat and noodles while continuing to quiz our friendly tibetan hosts. Invitations were extended for future meetings and attendance at the english corner, prior to shivering our way home at 11pm with lots to think about!

A step back in time 

Driving through Lhasa is like driving along the wide boulevards of any 'chinese' city, until you turn at the golden yaks on the roundabout and are presented with the dominating spectacle of the potala palace brooding on the hill, overlooking the big 'liberation' plaza that used to be peoples homes.

In the crystal clear air and mongolian blue sky, every framed window and fluttering awning takes on a sharp clarity, the gold discreetly glinting. Despite having seen many pictures, like the great wall, it managed to stand up for itself on first

Once my eyes travelled down to street level, i saw crowds of people walking with purpose - the same purpose - in a clockwise direction passed the palace, completing the pilgrimmage kora, stepping neatly around the particularly devout prostrating on the pavement.

This glimpse was further reinforced after i left my bags and went out to explore in the old part of town. I was quickly absorbed into the flow of people, hushed by the swish of feet, the hum of chanting and the turn of prayer wheels as we completed the circumambulation of the Jokhang temple.

The route was lined by stalls selling prayer flags, beads, sheepskin dells, yak butter for the lamps, tibetan bread and fried potatoes that are sold with lots of chilli. The smells of burning juniper in the huge incense kilns, and the animal husbandry aroma reminiscencent of the countryside people of mongolia...except these countryside pilgrims carried a slightly different scent, yak rather than mutton? mingled in the narrow alleyway around the temple.

The beautiful, weather beaten and devoted faces, skin lined dells and cheeky children tied by ropes around their waist to their mothers to prevent their loss in the throng calmed my mind and moved me back in time, to a time without cars and mobile phones where different things appear important....

First impressions 

I decided to take the easy route and fly from Xi'an to Lhasa, princess style, what is a few more night shifts to pay for the luxury??

It turned out to be a good decision. As i returned to my seat from the facilities i buckled up as we were bumping around in turbulence. As i glanced out the window i visibly jumped in my seat and let out a little expletive. Where there was flat clouds below the aeroplane, there were now massive mountain peaks soaring out of the clouds, seeming to graze the plane wings.

I watched spindrift blowing off one huge mountain in the distance, the forming clouds made the mountain look like a steam train chugging along. The turbulence was related to that then...It was a whole world of peaks above the clouds that kept me transfixed, didn't even think about the turbulence making the plane fall out the sky!!

The clouds occasionally parted to reveal plunging cliffs, snaking glaciers and glistening rivers until we banked steeply between some mountains, and skimmed a glacial blue river to land - 3 hours from Xi'an, into Lhasa airport.

We had arrived.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Aspic in Xi'an 

Isn't it sad, i'm in this ancient seat of civilization, have wondered at the aweinspiring sight of the thousands of soldiers guarding the tomb of this old emperor and all i think to write about is the food i had on my trip to the muslim quarter of the city.

The area is vibrant, full of life, smells and piles of offal - livers, tongues, intestines, unmentionables. I stopped on my wanders to sample the gastronomical wares of a little old lady sitting next to a steaming wok, her face a map of life's emotional toil.

I was dished up a bowl of what appeared to be aspic jelly drowned in chilli paste with a sprinkle of green onions for token veggie content. 'Lish is not an appropriately adjectival adjective to describe the explosion of taste and burn of chilli that greeted my first mouthful. Maybe Yum would do??

Anyone willing to make a guess at what i was eating 'cos i surely don't know!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Last Disco In Mongolia 

Mongolian people love music and love dancing, however it is usually asian pop, blackeyed peas, or fifty cent. That's okay in its place. However, the Gods were conspiring and a party appeared on my last weekend in Mongolia - techno music thumping until we faded out and left at 4 in the morning.

Despite the excellent music and company it was with nostalgia as i realsied that this would be my last disco in mongolia. What a one though!!

We walked home through the crispy, deserted streets of Ub, stars shining in the inky black sky and i took a deep breath. 'Last Time's are funny. That was the last time i'd walk through town with aching legs and dulled ears, arm in arm with chums, chattering against the cold, base still thumping in the distance....another classic memory to add to the store.

Tomorrow is the train to China, and the leaving of Mongolia - for now....

Monday, November 14, 2005

One week to go 

With one week to go, mixed feelings are flying around my head about closing this chapter of my life. I have learned so much from being in Mongolia, working with VSO, and being around inspiring and motivated people....both professionally and personally.

Now i'm not going to get all mushy here, but there you have it...i'll be sad to leave. And yet it's on to great things, this has been the spring board i wanted and needed. First big step is tp pare down all my accumulations and fit them into one rucksack to take the train to beijing next thursday then strike out for Tibet.

I don't know what i'll be able to feasibly see in Tibet due to the weather but i wish to make the pilgrimmage to everesat and hopefully do the 6 day pilgrimmage walk around mount kailash in the west of the country. I'll keep updating this blog so you can hear if i make it!

Then on to Vietnam for a couple of weeks warmth and good company before heading home to blighty...starting my trip with friends and ending with friends. Well organised if i may say so myself!! So have included a couple of 'moving' pics, i think i'l have to leave out a couple of pairs of shoes to pare it down.

Eagle festival 

Some friends went to the October eagle festival in the west of Mongolia (the Kazakh province) and shared some great pics, here are a couple to whet your appetite! These guys hunt with these birds by the way!

positive energy.... 

Friday’s list was not one I was looking forwarding to and had actually delayed until the last possible moment, one needs strength and lots of positive energy to get anything out of ‘the system’. The week had been one of conflicting information, no there is no train to Beijing on Saturday, yes Sunday, yes you can book, no you can’t, maybe the Wednesday train will accept bookings, oh there’s no train on Wednesday it’s Thursday.Hmm. So it was with a set jaw that I started the day – in preparation for bureaucratic disorganisation and queue’s.

First, I marched to the Chinese embassy to collect my visa. I slid around precariously actually as Friday morning the city had been laid quiet with snow. To set the correct tone for the day, I dug out the old walkman and put on a compilation of women jazz singers. It was easier to walk and stand in queue’s to Ella Fitzgerald than screaming PJ Harvey.

Following 3 queue changes, funny looks as I think I was singing out loud as well as generally head bobbing, 45 minutes and a double charge for the visa ‘cos I ticked the wrong box later, I floated out from the stifling heat of the Chinese embassy visa department into the crispy air. One down, three to go.

I had checked out the Vietnamese embassy the day before and arrived at the exact time, prepared. Whether it is a communist regime thing (or remains of in the case of Mongolia), Asian organisation generally or a combination of both, I did not expect the result that was to greet me at the Vietnamese embassy. I was invited to sit and given the appropriate forms to fill in. When asked the price of the visa, I was told $30. As I confirmed with raised eyebrows to facially express a question, I was met by a high pitched infectious giggle by this suited official who then scurried to another office giggling and squealing no, no, no! On his return, his beaming smile and yellow post-it revealed indeed no, it was $60, for two weeks only, cannot issue for longer.

That’s okay. 2 weeks is fine, I can accept that….I’m not in a queue or crush of bodies and it’s colder inside than out making me glad to have my winter clobber on! I hand over my completed form and passport, 10 minutes later I am walking out with a visa.


…and then Fever by Billie holiday husks into my ears, couldn’t help but do a little jiggle down the road, and smile….keep thinking positive, it’s working!

Next was the serious baldyrat – the chaotic crush of the ticket booth at the station. First issue was finding it…but a nice man showed us the way (as opposed to the usual vague hand wave in the direction you are going). Good job as the office is tucked away behind other buildings…clearly known only to those in the know!

To be brief..following a 40 minute belly crush in the scrum at the window, I was beginning to flake. I had on my thermals ‘cos it’s Baltic outside but inside with the heating on and the bodyheat of 20 other people they are not necessary! Luckily one of the ladies behind the desk caught my eye, looked at the passports and directed us upstairs where we swanned into a VIP lounge. No queue, and seats to sit at to make your request of the friendly ticket selling lady. Literally 2 seconds later, ticket in hand we left the room, smiling. Once outside the building I leapt in the air wooping, danced around to the tune of ‘we’ve got tickets to Beijing…we are going on holiday!!!!’ People don’t woop and dance here, so again, funny looks and crossing the street treatment. But…WOOHOO!! How painless and straight forward?

To completely ice the cake, the list ended with an honest taxi driver from the station and a spot-on mozzarella panini for lunch. Positive energy is addictive!!

Monday, November 07, 2005

you will go to the ball 

At short notice I’m attending an embassy reception in case the health minister has heard of the legendary spread put on by the British embassy and decide to cancel their usual Thursday night date and come to the party in honour of the VSO CEO. I’m the VSO health rep for the night. Now such a prospect does fill me with trepidation…I know that I can do small talk, but through sporadic translation I think my topics are limited. So, in excellent coping style, I’ve decided not to worry about that...otherwise I’ll drink too many aperitifs and become the entertainment for the evening, as was a narrow miss at the Queen’s birthday celebration!.

The next big worry…what does a girl wear? I consulted my boss who said ‘anything, it doesn’t matter’. When I repeated this statement to one of the design volunteers, I was met with a raised eyebrow and a ‘hmmm’. My wardrobe can definitely be described as ‘casual’. My best clobber amounts to some red shoes (that could do with a jolly good wash apparently – can you wash shoes??), black trousers with grungy ragged bottoms, and an H&M shirt that has not seen an iron in the 15months I’ve been here. (All clean though mum and dad before I get a row!)

‘No good’ was the professional opinion. However, following an intense resource allocation session, my Mongolian silk skirt is being run up as we speak and ‘cashmere studio’ examined for a potential top-half loan item. The joys of contacts! Talk about rags to riches?! Again, one of the joys of Asia, and Mongolia in particular…the bureaucracy can be crippling but if required things can happen at the drop of a hat – ‘you will have outfit to go to the ball’!

Monday, October 24, 2005

mixed feelings 

Decided with a group of chums to get out of the city for the day at the weekend and did the walk from Manzushir Hid back to UB, again. It was great to stretch the legs, here the birds singing and the wind in the trees (there aren’t too many trees in UB), while overdosing on fresh air.

But it was with a melancholic step that I hoofed it over the hills, probably the last time I’ll be in that neck of the woods. As the sun lit up the hills across the valley it hit me that in a little over 4 weeks I’ll be gone. Left Mongolia, left this lifestyle. Am still digesting the mixed flavour of this realisation…

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