Sumpteretc's Blog

What's on my mind at the moment

Month: January, 2009

Walking in UB

I have been assured that no bit of trivium is too insignificant to merit mention in this blog, which bolsters one’s confidence but gives one little direction for composition. So…

Let’s talk a little bit about walking around in the city. We have chosen, for the moment at least, not to purchase a vehicle. One doesn’t necessarily need an automobile for urban travel, and we have few plans for rural travel in the near future. Consequently, we take taxis occasionally but often walk to wherever we need to go. I have been fortunate to find friends with a class schedule similar to mine, so I can generally ride in their car to and from school. Occasionally, though, I make the journey on foot. (Tiffany always walks to school; what a trooper!) The trip to school takes about 20-30 minutes, depending on one’s pace.

I want to share a bit about the terrain encountered by the Ulaanbaatar pedestrian. In previous blogs, I have made mention of the often uncovered manholes (excuse me, personnel access, uh, holes), which pose a constant danger. A far more common danger though is the kilometers-long tripping hazard known as the sidewalk. We have had very little snow since our arrival. However, there is ample evidence that snow did fall sometime earlier this winter. The evidence is the sheet of ice that still blankets everything in the city. Most sidewalks bear this evidence; a few have been cleared by hand with some sort of garden tool. The typical city sidewalk looks something like this: Ulaanbaatar sidewalk You’ll notice the two white areas on the sides of the sidewalk. Those are the safe zones. If you put your feet down hard enough, you’ll only slip once every ten or fifteen steps. That gray stripe in the middle is for the daredevils–generally, the children–although plenty of adults use it too. If you travel the slick stripe, you never have to lift your feet; you can just skate. I rarely am that adventurous, but I have been goaded into it by elementary school girls before.

Very Short Post

I was going to write a bit tonight about getting around the neighborhood, but I didn’t get as many pictures taken as I meant to. You’ll have to wait another day or two.

Joel sat unassisted for the first time today. He was still a little wobbly but he was definitely doing it.

American Food Shop

Tonight, I went to visit the American Food Shop, a store that has an amazing selection of imported products. Ididn’t spend the time to make a careful inventory of all that was there, but I did notice brands like Jiffy Pop, Skippy and Starbucks. Does shopping there make me a bad missionary? To be fair, all I bought was hamburger, freezer bags and vinegar.

On another topic entirely, my language teacher asks me almost daily, “Are you tired?” I’m not really, but I think my eyes start to glaze over after a couple of hours. I got some pretty good review done when I got back to the apartment. I’m finding FlashCard Exchange to be a very useful tool. It’s a bit painful to type everything in Cyrillic, but I like the interface. I’m thinking about paying for the full version. If you search for Mongolian on the site, most of the flash cards are mine.

Church Observations

I don’t have anything too profound to write about today. Because this was a Sunday, we didn’t have a whole lot going on. Our church does not have its own building, so we don’t have our Sunday service until 2:00 p.m. We meet in something like a shopping center, and another church meets in that space in the morning. It’s nice to not have to rush around to get ready in the morning, but it just feels odd to have church in the afternoon.

The service starts pretty much on time. There is quite a bit of singing and praying. Most of the songs seem to be translated choruses from America or Australia, sometimes repeated ad infinitum. There also doesn’t seem to be a great deal of variety; we sang several songs this week that we sang last week and in February/March 2007. Tiffany was out with Joel for part of the service, and Elijah slept through most of it. Gantuya, a girl who speaks English pretty well, came back and sat with me to provide abbreviated translation. The message was from the account of John the Baptist and focused on the cost of discipleship. It was refreshing to hear this perspective, as I had feared that the prosperity gospel was infecting the believers here.

After the service, Gantuya showed us the church offices and invited us to their Wednesday evening staff meetings. This is an interesting time of transition in the church. Pastor Naraa is preparing to step down to allow Otgonbayar, the founder of the church, to return to the pastorate. Otgonbayar has been in Chicago the past four years or so. There is going to be an interim period between Naraa’s abdication and Otgonbayar’s arrival, so this morning they introduced the team of people who will lead the church during that period and we prayed over that group. It was comprised of 9 or 10 ladies. While there are a number of men in the church, it seems that not many of them are in leadership roles. That may be somewhat indicative of the culture as a whole, where it seems that men are almost expected to be alcoholics and of little value when regarding the advancement of the society.

Another trip to the dzag

People keep asking me how school is going. That’s a tough question to answer. I don’t mind the actual “going to school” part of it. It’s the learning that’s more of an issue. Sometimes I’m sitting there, the teacher is rattling away and my mind is racing trying to keep up. But I don’t have enough grounding in the language to figure out practical uses for everything. One moment, I’m bombarded with new vocabulary; the next, it’s some fine point of pronunciation or a seemingly obscure grammatical rule. I walk out of the classroom wondering how to process the three hours’ worth of information that I just received.

Today, I learned a few pairs of opposite adjectives. I learned a few of the verbal commands that a teacher often gives. We began to talk about the genitive case and the ways that it’s formed. I got some intense drilling on pronunciation. And I learned a few words for part of the body. I’m not sure how much of that I actually “learned” but I heard it all. If I could just immediately go home and work through the material, I might absorb it better but my day is rarely working out that way.

Elijah was going to a playgroup this afternoon, so I wound up making a trip to the dzag, or market. My brother-in-law gave me some boots that are wonderful in cold weather but fit just poorly enough to make a blister on the back of my heel when I have to walk too far. On my way to the dzag, I stopped at a couple of shopping centers to look for a seat for Joel. The only ones I found were a couple of walkers that I had looked at the other day. They had told me then that they weren’t for sale. I at least wanted to find out what they were called, so that I could ask for them at the market. So I asked the owner, “Ter yu bay?” which I think is supposed to be “What is that?” She got a calculator and showed me 16,000. OK! I told her I would go to the market and come back to buy it.

I went on to the market with a list of things Tiffany wanted me to pick up. She also sent a hunk of beef with me to have it ground. I pantomimed to three different people what I was looking for, but I’m apparently not that great at charades (although I did manage to convey spray bottle to another shop owner. You try it.) Finally, the third person sent a man with me to find the makina to grind the beef. He led me downstairs. I didn’t even know this place had a downstairs so I would have been a long time looking for it. I got the meat taken care of and headed back upstairs to finish off the list (minus chicken breasts, eggplant and celery, which I never located).

When I got back to the baby store, the owner started to get down the green walker. I pointed to the blue one. She said I couldn’t have it. She got down the green one and showed me that it was missing some key parts but that I couldn’t have the blue one. I was seriously confused. I decided to buy the green one and worry about the missing parts later. While I was fumbling around with my money, she told me “margaash” (tomorrow). Cynics say that margaash is one of the six most commonly heard words in Mongolia, so I don’t know if things will actually be different tomorrow, or if she just wanted me to leave today. Maybe I’ll try it if I get time.

Bureaucratic nightmares

Today was chock-full of dealing with bureaucracy. I couldn’t go to school at 9:00 as scheduled because I had to get us registered with immigration. You have seven days from your arrival to do this or pay a $200 per person fine. We arrived last Wednesday. Thursday was a holiday. Friday, the boss of our district left the office early, so we couldn’t get our proof of residence. Saturday and Sunday were the weekend, so nothing was open. Monday, the district boss was not in his office. Immigration is closed tomorrow. So, today was the only day I could do what was necessary to avoid the fines.

The school sent someone to help me; I’ll call him Mr. U, because I don’t know his name. Mr. U showed up a little after 9:00, and we walked over to the district boss’s office. This walk only takes about 5 minutes, but it was extremely cold this morning, i.e. -25C.  We entered the office and Mr. U lays our passports and copies of our passports on the boss’s desk, whereupon the boss and Mr. U launch into simultaneous 5-minute tirades at the tops of their lungs. Apparently, the boss was demanding to see Switzerland, he would be very difficult to see. Frankly, with both of them yelling at the same time, I’m not sure how either knew what the other was talking about.

Finally, Mr. U gave up (although he told me he wasn’t afraid of the big bosses). We walked back to the building across from ours, where the apartment boss lives. We walked into her house/office (?) and asked her to write a note to the district boss. She also didn’t know Ewen wasn’t living here, so she called the custodian of our building to come over. She vouched for the fact that Ewen wasn’t here anymore, so the apartment boss wrote a note to the district boss and signed and stamped it. We then carried it back to the district boss, who just chuckled and then filled out the necessary form. We carried it to another office and had it stamped. Finally, Mr. U and I parted ways, me to head for school and him to carry the passports and paperwork to Immigration and continue the bureaucratic circus.

Black Market

Today, I decided to venture out on a shopping excursion to the Central Market, more commonly known as the Black Market. I’m not sure the origin of that title, but it doesn’t appear to have anything to do with illegal activity. I left the apartment a little after 10:00 a.m. A lady was cleaning the elevator, so I decided to take the stairs down. We are staying on the 12th floor. On the landing for the 10th floor, I found a man sleeping. At the 8th floor, I could smell tobacco smoke strongly. I was a little worried about what I might encounter in the stairwell but I made it down without incident.

It took me 7 or 8 minutes to walk to a shopping center called Sunday Plaza. According to the signs on the doors, the stores opened at 10:00. There were very few stores open, however. I think this shopping center might be only a month or so old, so there are lots of vacancies. More common, though, were stores that were existent and well-stocked but not open. I think part of the issue was a relaxed idea about opening at 10:00, and part was a relaxed idea about working the weekend after a holiday. At any rate, I walked on down the street to the “24-hour” shopping center. Oddly enough, they also were not opening until “10:00” and the guard in the lobby didn’t seem to be allowing anyone past him. I walked back outside and around the corner to the Black Market.

As I was about to enter the gate, my way was blocked by a woman demanding an admission fee. I gave her a questioning look and she showed me a 50 tugrik bill. I fumbled around and finally found a T100 bill and traded her for her T50. Even though it was now well past 10:00, merchants were just beginning to set out their wares.  I wandered around for a bit in the stationery section of the market and then meandered back through stalls selling hundreds of bolts of cloth. More and more clothing booths were starting to open, but it was very cold and I was having trouble finding anything I was looking for. When I got to the area selling oriental rugs and rolls of linoleum, I surmised that I was approaching the rear of the market and headed back towards the front. I bought a couple of pens and notebooks for school next week. I headed back towards the back of the market again to see if anything else had opened. A number of shops selling boots and other cold-weather clothes were opening up, so I wandered through, casually looking for a hat. I noticed an area selling furs and hides. This time after walking past the linoleum rolls, I discovered that the market extended quite a bit further. I would say the whole complex might encompass thirty or more acres. I walked through the furniture section stopping to inquire about the price of a bunk bed. Then, I hit the hardware section which extended across much of the back row of the market. I bought a few electrical adapters and made some mental notes for the future.

I’m running out of steam, so I’ll wrap this up by saying that I also found the saddle section, the toy section, the household goods section, the grocery section, eventually even the meat, produce and haircut sections of the market. If somebody has made up a map of the place, I need a copy. It’s an exhausting place just to think about.

First days in Ulaanbaatar

It’s 5:45 AM, and Elijah and I have been up since about 3:15. That’s an improvement over our 2:00 rising time the two previous mornings, but we still have a bit to go before jetlag is conquered. Elijah’s watching a movie, and I’m trying to do some things on the internet. The connection keeps going down, so I decided to just blog and then post when I get a connection again.

Let me back up to Wednesday morning. We arrived at Beijing on time and deplaned, expecting to have a three-hour layover. We were apparently the first flight arriving that morning, because immigration wasn’t really set up yet. We asked a police officer where we were supposed to go, and he walked over to a booth and processed our papers. We walked through security and into the airport proper. The new terminal that they built for the Olympics was beautiful and huge. It’s also apparently very difficult to heat, so they don’t bother trying. We looked at the departure board and noticed that our flight was leaving at 12:55 rather than at 8:55 as our itinerary had stated. The nice ladies at the information booth could give us no gate information at that time, so we wandered around until we found a spot with an electrical outlet in the floor. I powered up the laptop, found a free wireless connection and managed to get a few emails off. The airport had a couple of kids’ play areas so we spent some time there and then headed over to Pizza Hut for breakfast. They were out of toast, but we got eggs, bacon and instant coffee for about $5 per person.

Finally, after 7 hours of waiting, we were able to get on our flight to Mongolia. The gate was just a door leading out to a road, where we boarded a bus and drove out on the tarmac to the plane. We were really struggling with the boys and all the carry-ons. I dropped a roll-on suitcase on a guy’s head while I was trying to put it in the overhead bin; I was mortified.

We eventually got settled in and Elijah went right to sleep. I was sitting next to a Mongolian doctor who lives out in the countryside, and we chatted a bit. The flight was fairly short and uneventful. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, Elijah was deep in sleep, very hard to rouse, and extremely cranky. The doctor ended up carrying him into the airport. All of our bags were waiting on the carrousel. (We forgot to check for the car seat, since it was a last minute decision to take it.) We were glad to see Pastor Naraa and a number of others waiting for us. We weren’t sure if they would know about the later flight or not. Apparently, it’s standard practice to call the airport before heading out there.

Naraa and her husband drove us to “our” apartment. (It actually belongs to another missionary couple who are on furlough in Switzerland currently, but they are being gracious enough to allow us to live here while we work on our apartment. Shortly after we arrived and got our bags inside, another missionary, Liz, showed up to help us get situated. She had bought a couple days’ worth of groceries for us and offered her assistance in whatever we needed.

Soon, everyone cleared out to let us get some rest. We were in bed well before midnight, so other than watching a few early fireworks, we let the New Year show itself in.

As I mentioned, Elijah was up at 2:00, so I was too. Because it was a holiday, there wasn’t much that we could do. I did take a walk in the afternoon, looking for the Black Market. I took a couple of wrong turns and never found it, but I did manage to buy a few things at a supermarket and make it back home so that should count for something. It’s an interesting time to be in Ulaanbaatar. High rise apartments are being built all over the city. Actually, we learned yesterday that the construction is stalled because the banks are not lending money anymore. It seems likely that the area was being overbuilt as well.

The streets and sidewalks are covered with ice, so you really have to watch your step. This is also important because there are lots of open manholes. Tiff teases me about walking around looking at my GPS receiver; it would be especially dangerous here. Streets are difficult to cross, too; traffic is fairly heavy and vehicles aren’t likely to give way to pedestrians. Speaking of vehicles, there is quite a variety. I have mostly seen imports from Korea and Japan, but I’ve also seen a Cadillac Escalade and a Hummer H1, so somebody has some money around here.

Yesterday, Liz came by to try to help us with our internet connection. Naturally, it worked perfectly when she was here and for a number of hours thereafter. This morning has been a vastly different story. I’ll have internet access for a few seconds or minutes and then it’s gone. There has been some problem in the past with another tenant in the building cutting into the line and stealing the DSL connection. Since I started having problems at 3:30 am, I’m guessing that‘s not the issue this time. While Liz was here, she gave us lots of valuable information about where to buy things, about the home school cooperative, about a playgroup that meets weekly at her apartment, etc.

At 4:00, Uranchimeg, owner of Friends Language School, sent her husband to help me get some work done on our visas and show me the way to the school. I thought he might come by car but we were on foot the rest of the afternoon. It took us a while to find a place to get photocopies made of our passports and the quality was pretty lousy. By the time, we got to the microdistrict director’s (?) office, he had taken off for the day, even though he had just promised to wait for our arrival. So it looks like visa processing will have to wait until Monday. Then we walked to the school. It’s a good 17 or 18 minute walk, even with my relatively brisk pace.

Uranchimeg was very apologetic about the difficulties we encountered in getting to Mongolia. She said she had made a number of angry phone calls and visits to get things straightened out and that she would work on getting our visas extended by a month because of all the delay. She informed me that we would begin classes on Monday. I will go to school from 9:00 to 12:15 each day; Tiffany will attend from 3:15 to 4:45. She asked how we would be paying for our tuition, and I pulled $4,560 in cash from my money belt. She was startled (appalled?) that I was carrying that much cash. She warned me that Mongolian men might suddenly just attack me without cause. In all honesty, that was why I was anxious to get the money out of my hands and into hers. After picking up a student handbook and a few other forms, I walked back to the apartment alone, more or less without incident.

It was already dark by time I arrived home, which meant temperatures were dropping. We decided to try to make it to a restaurant down the street. Joel did not take well to being bundled up, but he did okay once we got out into the cold. Walking on slick streets with Elijah slows things down considerably, but we made it to BBQ Chicken without much difficulty. This is a Korean-owned (I think) fried-chicken restaurant. BBQ, in this case, stands for Best Believable Quality, and the placemats advertised the restaurant as “the world best family restaurant.” I thought it was a little pricey and nothing tasted quite right, except for the Pepsis. It was alright but I don’t think we’ll make it a weekly tradition. For some reason, we got a hand towel with the company logo on it when we paid for our meal.

We stopped at a supermarket on the way home, since Tiff had not had a chance to do that yet. We didn’t find everything we were looking for, but she picked up a few things. The meat and produce sections did not look too promising. We have not had any of either in our diets yet, so we’ll see how that goes.

Well, this is getting as long as some of my dad’s travel journals so I’ll wrap it up here and wait for a chance to post it. I’m happy to give more details about our adventure, but I don’t want to drive people crazy with all the minutiae of daily life. So, if you read this, leave me a comment or ask a question and I’ll try to gear my material to the audience.




It’s 12:30 AM, December 30 (Beijing time). I think we have about another 4½ hours on the flight from Los Angeles to Beijing. Tiffany and Elijah are watching “Horton Hears a Who.” Elijah’s headphone jack doesn’t work right so the wire for his headphones is lying across my lap. Joel is lying in his bulkhead bassinet, cooing contentedly, kicking and waving.

The flight from Kansas City to Chicago wasn’t too bad but it was definitely full. We had to gate-check Joel’s car seat and hold him the whole time. We had Economy Plus seats, though, which meant a little extra legroom.

We had a 5-hour layover in Chicago. We found some electric outlets so Elijah could plug in his DVD player and watch a little Tom and Jerry. After supper, I headed down to the gate to get seat assignments. United had way overbooked the flight; I think there were 220 names on the standby list. We got our seats, but they were 10B, 28 B and 29E. Tiff took the Economy Plus 10B with Joel, while Elijah and I headed back to the rear of the plane. Elijah’s seatmates seemed okay with him, but I finally asked a guy next to me to trade with Elijah. He grumbled about moving to a middle seat, but he agreed. Elijah’s former seatmates asked, “Why couldn’t it be a petite blonde?” I replied, “You had the petite blonde already, but I’m bringing him back over here.” Then I asked the guy in the window seat if he wanted a little extra legroom. He was amenable, so Tiff traded him and we all ended up in row 28. They showed “Ghost World” (?) but we were too tried to watch it.

We knew that we had a 12:40 flight out of LA, but we hadn’t thought about that being Pacific Time. So it was a challenge to haul our sleepy bodies through LAX. We had to take a shuttle to another terminal. Issuing the tickets on Air China took a while, and then Joel needed his diaper changed. We got through security and arrived at the gate just before they closed the door.

Since we were the last ones on the plane, there was no place for our carry-ons, but the flight attendants made room in the employee area. The bulkhead seating and bassinet have been wonderful. I had some trepidation about Air China, but so far it has been pretty decent.