Sunday, December 27, 2009


Snowy in Seoul.
Four days left at work - only one day of teaching.
12 days left total - I just bought a phone [Motorola Droid] for Portland.
Sara's making peanut-butter cups.
The bikes are packed.
All is well.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Busan and Jeju

Sara and I used our last week of vacation last week, when Sara's mother Karen came to town. We traveled to the South in Korea, to Busan and Jeju Island. The trip was overall quite pleasant, and it is always good to see Korea with a fresh set of eyes. The South of South Korea turned out to be very much like the northern part, just much less crowded.

We got to Busan by train and took a taxi to the hotel that I had booked on the Hostelbookers website, a website that has never let me down... until that day. The Hotel Elysee was not just a Love Hotel, but a really sleazy love hotel. In Korea, there are many of these establishments - a hotel that you go with your mistress or prostitute. Most have curtains around the parking lots so that people can get in and out of their cars without their faces being seen. As the taxi pulled up to the hotel, there were the curtains.

Now some love hotels are over-the-top, with circular beds, jacuzzi, theme rooms, etc., so Sara wanted to check it out, just in case we would have a great story to tell. I hesitated, but Sara knows her mother's comfort zones better than I, so I went along. Before we got to the front door, we saw a few pornographic business cards on the ground, presumably advertising the attributes and abilities of the owners of the women whose cards they were.

The lobby wasn't the nicest, and the clerk had some trouble finding my reservation. After turning to what I guessed was the "stay-the-whole-night" section of his reservation book, he found my name. He asked for a credit card, but we indicated that we'd like to see a room first. He took us up to the fourth floor, past a bookshelf full of porn VHS cassettes, and to a nasty smoke-filled room, without so much as a mirror on the ceiling.

We left and wound up finding a much more acceptable hotel, the Busan Tourist Hotel. It is nominally rated at four stars, which it very well may have been in 1982, but not much had been done to update it since then. A cleanish place to sleep, and no more.

We were very close to the central fish market of Busan, so we spent a day wandering around there, checking things out. There were so many strange fish there, and so many women selling these strange fish. Ice is the only form of refrigeration, and everything is open-air. I really wonder how many fish actually get sold and where the leftover fish go.

Can't get fresher than this

Lacking a certain ceremony

The bustle of the fish market. Pink seems to be "in" this year.

The uniformity of the sea creatures is strange.

Some blue fish - the most familiar fish I saw.

Eviscerated and drying fish of some sort.

Extremely disgusting sea creatures

All of my stay in Seoul I've been disappointed at the lack of hilariously written English mistakes on signs. While they are far from accurate, they just aren't funny. Busan and Jeju did not fail to deliver, so I'll let the signs speak for themselves.


Crotch steamed dish


Small octopus & sellfish broth

AROMA relax house

Let's come on the barista espresso taste world

Originally, we had planned to take a boat from Busan to Jeju Island, but it turns out that it is a eight hour overnight trip. We flew for around $50 a person for the 50 minute flight. We also found out that it is possible to fly domestically with just our resident alien identification cards - no passport needed.

Jeju is a volcanic island that is roughly an oval. We stayed on the south side of the island, since the weather looked better there, in a town called Seogwipo. Jeju is fair-sized and parts of it are set up resort-style with large fancy hotels. Not looking to spend that kind of money, we booked rooms at Hotel Napoli, which I'd rate at one and a half stars. I think in the future I'll spend a little more money on accommodations. Sara and I stayed in a Korean-style room, where you sleep on a mat on the floor, and Karen stayed in a Western-style room, where you sleep in a bed.

There were many mosquitoes in our room and I left at least a dozen new bloodstains on the wallpaper. I also got several bed bug bites. Come to think of it, the only other time I've encountered bed bugs, besides at the Hotel Napoli, was in Naples, Italy. Coincidence? I think not.

Anyway, Seogwipo is a nice-enough little town, with all the usual Korean things in it. Our first full day, we toured around the East side of the island on our way to some lava tubes. The only bus I could figure out that would take us there was the local bus, which turned out to be the all-stop bus. All in all, it only took two hours to get to the town close to the lava tubes, but it sure did feel like a whole lot longer. I wasn't sure how to get to the lava tubes, so I tried calling the tourist agencies that were on my map. I got a few answers of, "I can't speak English" (in English), when I saw Sara waving me over. She and her mom were standing in front of what turned out to be the taxi company's office. A driver had heard them talking, and offered to take us to our destination. Perfect!

The lava tubes were pretty neat - big tubes underground where lots of lava used to flow out of the ground. The path went for about a kilometer, all underground, dimly lit. At the end of the path was a lava column (?) that was dramatically lit.

After we walked back out, we decided to go to Cheju City, which is the main city on Jeju, and check out the tea museum. We were looking at a bus schedule when a taxi pulled up and asked us if we were heading to Cheju. He gave us a flat rate of W20,000 (about $17) and the bus would've been W15,000 for the three of us, so we hopped in. We gave him Sara's brochure for the tea museum, which he studied with his magnifying glass (while driving) and he had to make a call to figure out where it was. Turns out that it is in Shin-Cheju, or New Jeju, a city right next to Cheju. Anyway, we made it and he kept his word of W20,000, even though he had taken us to a different city.

The International Tea Museum was a complete disappointment. Before we went into the museum, we learned that all of the descriptions are in Korean only, so we decided to just have a cup of tea and look at the gift shop. We were served some pretty terrible tea in paper cups from the server, along with the imperative, "Money." Now not many people speak English in Korea (or if they do, they won't speak it out of fear of making mistakes), so I shouldn't be hard on people who do, but with all of the emphasis of being polite and respectful in Korean culture, what people do say can be surprising.

Tea cups.

After tea, we looked at our guide book to see where we should head next. Nobody felt like museums or the like, so we chose the place where the book said locals hang out outside. We got a taxi there, and wandered the deserted streets for a while, and took another taxi to where we could take the 50 minute bus ride back to our hotel. This taxi driver was notable - he corrected my Korean. Usually it is very hard to get anyone to do this - I know that I am saying things wrong, and I'd of course like to improve.

The next day we spent some time walking around Seogwipo and lay on the grass in the sun. This was the best moment of the trip - very relaxing. The rest of the day was spent walking around and at some point we went to dinner at a fancy restaurant at a hotel.

The ubiquitous grandfather statue.

Another night of killing mosquitoes passed and we got the plane and headed back to Seoul. It was my first time flying into Gimpo airport - it is a whole lot closer than Incheon. We got the new express subway on line nine and were back in the thick of things in 37 minutes.

Overall, a very nice trip. It really underscored how small Korea is - about half the size of Oregon. I've now been to the very northernmost point in South Korea and all the way to the southernmost point, and the landscape looks all very similar. We are very lucky in the US to have such a large country with so many different landscapes and eco-regions.


Wednesday, November 18, 2009

January 8th, 2010: Leaving Seoul

Sara and I have finally gotten firm dates on the end of our contracts (harder than it sounds) and are set to leave Seoul on January 8th! This is bittersweet news, however, since after a few weeks, Sara will be returning to Seoul with a promotion and another year of work, and I'll stay in Portland. I have no idea how anyone even contemplated a long-distance relationship before the magic of the internet.

Anyway, in the next weeks I know that I'll be reflecting a lot on my time here. What will really be interesting is the reverse-culture shock. When I left PDX, I was fed up with how insular and narrow-minded it was. Now I can't wait to get back to a community of like-minded people. Like they say, you don't know what you value until you loose it. I know I'm a sucker for nostalgia, but the Tea Bagger Party nonsense has done a lot to keep my nostalgia in check.

When I get back stateside, I hope to dedicate a lot of time to polo, traveling, relaxing, and making things with my hands. I also hope to get involved with community organizations, take CERT training, and find a progressive workplace that is a good fit.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Vacation at the Suncruise Resort

Sara and I got back from a very nice vacation the other day. A solid nine days in a row proved itself to be long enough to completely relax, forget about work, and enjoy ourselves! I had been told that Jong-Dong-Jin, on the East Sea of Korea about two hours away from Seoul, was a good place to stay, so I started looking for a hotel. We wound up staying at the first place I found, although when I originally showed it to Sara it was meant to be the joke option.

This cruise-ship-on-a-hill is actually a nine floor hotel, restaurant, rotating sky lounge and banquet hall all wrapped into one unexpected hull. The rooms are divided into either the sunrise or sunset sides, but since they are actually face north or south, they are better thought of as parking lot view or amazing ocean view. You can guess which side we stayed on.

The hotel was quite nice, although needing a paint job in several places. As far as I could tell, besides a group of Chinese, we were the only foreigners there. The restaurant was quite good for dinner and lackluster for all other meals, but to be fair I don't think anyone can do a good American breakfast in this country.

I don't really know what there is to do in the area besides hiking and beach activities, but for us it was the perfect getaway for pure rest. All in all, a complete success!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What sort of poster is this?

I was walking through my local Seoul subway station and saw this poster. I'm speechless. How could anyone think this was a good idea? I don't know what the poster says, but I can only assume that they are trying to convey the idea that this child could be any Korean citizen.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Language Studies

Korean is a tough language. It is ranked by the US Department of Defense as the hardest language in the world for a native English speaker to learn as an adult. Before moving here, Sara and I got a tutor in Portland, who taught us some of the basics, like the alphabet and some useful set phrases.

Unlike the rest of the language, the Korean alphabet is perhaps the easiest alphabet to learn in the world. In the 15th century, a King named Sejong, tired of writing with Chinese characters, got a bunch of linguists to design a writing system. What they came up with is now known as Hangul, and it is a very straight-forward phonetic alphabet that is organized into syllabic blocks. All the shapes of Hangul represent how to make the sound of the letter with your mouth and tongue - although this isn't always obvious.

For a few months, we had a teacher here in Seoul, but when she quit her job, we never looked for anyone else. This is partly to do with the Korean educational paradigm, that memorization is the same as learning. More to the point is that Korean uses many borrowed words, and that once you are comfortable reading Hangul and understand the way words are transliterated, things get a lot easier. This is not to say that I can communicate well, but I do feel comfortable meeting most of my needs in restaurants, when shopping and in taxis. For all the time and money that Koreans spend on learning English, you won't actually encounter many people willing to speak it, due to their fears of making a mistake.

To give you an idea of the transliteration scheme, here are a few examples. Included is how they sound when sounded out, separated by syllable. Sometimes there are helpful spaces put between words, sometimes there are not.
  • I saw this on a poster. 드러잉: 쇼    Deu-rah-ing: syo. Drawing: Show
  • A tasty meal. 치개산드이츠  Chi-ken-san-deu-i-cheu. Chicken Sandwich
  • The name of a book (and movie). 더리더  Dah-ri-dah. The Reader
  • Another movie. 굿모닝 프레지던트  Goot-mo-ning Peu-reh-ji-dan-teu. Good Morning President
 As you can see, things can be a little confusing, like using the same syllable block in "The Reader" to convey "the" and "der". It is something I've found myself getting better at over time and I'm amazed at the sheer quantity of words used every day that are transliterated from the English. I'll never be able to have a decent conversation with someone in Korean, but that is OK. For now, I'm back to my 아이스 아매리카노 (a-i-seu a-mae-ri-ka-no).

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Lady Hamilton as Miranda

Inspired by the English painter George Romney's "Lady Hamilton as Miranda", I made the following. It still has a lot of problems, but this is all I'll be working on it for now... drawing is a lot harder when you aren't tracing!


Sunday, August 30, 2009

New Toy: Intuos4 Graphics Tablet

In order to not go crazy in Korea, I bought myself a Intuos4 graphics tablet, which is basically a pressure sensitive surface that you can draw on with a pen-type tool. It is a large step up from a mouse for a few reasons - the pressure sensitivity, the "feel" and simply the difference between putting the pen on the pad vs clicking and holding the mouse.

My drawing skills are most weak, so I decided to follow the route of countless people before me and learn by tracing something good. I chose The Kazusa Sea Route, by Katsushika Hokusai, one of the many views of Mt. Fuji. It isn't my favorite, but it has a lot of detail, so I figured that it'd give me a lot of practice. I know dozens of shortcuts that could've made it more accurate and quicker, but for this exercise I decided not to take them. It was a lot of work and I'll not be holding myself to such rules in the future!

I also took some liberties in the coloring department, namely in the color of the ship.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Microsoft's Racially Charged Stock Photography

EDIT: Microsoft has since fixed their strange marketing decision.

On the forums of one of my favorite websites, TheDailyWTF, a poster pointed out that a photo on Microsoft's Polish site had been doctored to remove the black man from the picture, as seen on Microsoft's global site for Optimize Your Business Productivity Infrastructure (OBPI).

Since then, Microsoft (or whoever is in charge of their website) has changed the photos to include the black man in both pictures, but not before I managed to capture the offending photoshoped image, presented in animated gif format for your viewing pleasure.

Also of note, as pointed out on the WTF forums: the Apple laptop. Bootcamp aside, whoever chose that stock photography, as well as made the decisions to edit it for race, needs to get a talking to.

EDIT 2: Story got widespread, Microsoft apologizes. "Marketing site photo mistake—sincere apologies. We're in the process of taking down the image." (source)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Chartjunk: Global Health Council's Chart on Spousal Abuse

The Global Health Council has "interpreted" some data from unicef on the "percentage of women who believe it is OK for their husbands to hit them" from developing countries. I'm going to completely ignore the far greater issue, spousal abuse, and focus on what is perhaps the worst use of graphical data that I have ever seen.

The whole point of using an information graphic is to graphically show how information is related. I'm siding with Tufte on this one - keep it simple and don't use graphics if you don't have to.
  • For this graph, they used some sort of pie-chart hybrid. Pie charts are appropriate when you want to show the relationship between "slices" that together make up 100% of the pie. On this graph we have a whopping 731.8% of data shown. Do us a favor and use a bar or line graph.
  • Is this all the data though? If you click the link provided to the unicef data, there are actually 67 different countries that were surveyed. Why aren't they included? What was behind the decision for the countries that were included?
  • Take a look at Rwanda (48%) and then at Jordan (90%). They should not be represented as more or less the same size.
  • What is the actual survey question? If you click to the unicef page, you see that it is "% of girls and women aged 15–49 who responded that a husband or partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances (2001–2007)". I'm not going to press on the semantics that much, but the GHC wording makes it sound like the women are referring to themselves rather than women in general.
  • Data is only available from some countries, most notably "developing nations". It is horrifying to read that the majority of women in some countries believe that spousal abuse can be justified, but for me, I need some comparison numbers. What would the survey say for the United States? Italy? I hope 0%, but without this data, the chart has less meaning.
  • To that point, to present this data as "shocking", which the GHC was clearly going for, they should not be including the "lower bounds" of Georgia and Serbia. This is biased opinion based off of my ignorance of Georgia and Serbia, but if they are meant to show what "normal" is, they chose the wrong countries.
So, how could you present this data more effectively?
  • Include all the data or group by distinct categories, like "Sub-Saharan Africa" or "Former Soviet Block" or "Top 10 Spousal Abuse Hot-Spots".
  • Use either a bar chart or no graph at all: the numbers and the subject matter speak for themselves.
  • Use full disclosure about what the chart is representing "% of girls and women aged 15–49 who responded that a husband or partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife under certain circumstances (2001–2007)"
  • The result is something that is much more sobering, and in my opinion appropriate, for the matter at hand. This doesn't, however, resolve the lack of comparison data, but that is a rant for another day.


Monday, August 17, 2009

Seoul Fixed Gear Bike Shop - Skid Bikes

Over the weekend I went to Skid Bikes to help two people (who had found me via this blog) buy bikes here in Seoul. I had never heard of Skid Bikes (their website needs some help) - they are located pretty close to the metro in Apgujeong.

We spent about two hours there and I watched them answer many questions in English and assemble a new bike (Jamis with a flip-flop) from a box, which took them about a half-hour. They have a very small shop, but overall were very friendly, prompt and competent. Their selection of bikes, components and accessories on hand is very low, due to their store size. They have new bikes for sale as well as used frames - the mechanics all ride very fancy bikes themselves so I assume they can custom order parts for you.

Both people wound up buying a bike - the Jamis - and I was impressed with the whole experience, especially after my overwhelmingly negative experience with LSD. I would definitely recommend Skid Bikes for the foreigner in Seoul looking for a fixed or free single speed bike. Just in case you are wondering, I have no financial or other relationship with them.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Design in the Spare Time

I've been trying to improve my Illustrator technique lately and produced the following. I've always loved poster art - Mucha and the like. I borrowed the French from a event in Paris - my apologies if it doesn't make sense - I think it is some sort of party. Click for a larger view.

My long term goal is to be able to make digital "woodblock" images, colored in with "watercolor".


Sunday, August 9, 2009

Moving Forward for the Wrong Reasons

This video is playing now on TVs across Seoul - a public service announcement (PSA) of sorts - showing both the good and the bad side of Korean culture. It addresses many of the negative "first impressions" a westerner sees when coming to Korea for a short time: impatience, rudeness to strangers, and depression.

Source and translation:

At first glance I really liked this video, (though it missed out on a few things and the Korean on the escalator would never have looked back at the person he pushed aside) but when talking to Sara about it, she made an excellent point. This PSA is not trying to make a better, more polite Korea for Koreans - it is for the foreigners. The message comes off as: foreigners think you are disrespectful. The message should be: respect your fellow man.

This seems to be a common theme with government-sponsored initiatives, like the one that is trying to change the side of the stairs that people walk up and down on, from left to right. This is a completely foreigner-centric policy that is not actually helping Koreans in their day-to-day life.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sara and Sasha in Mongolia


[Note: For the full picture set, see here]

Needing a break from humid, crowded Seoul, Sara and I took a vacation to cool, sparsely populated Mongolia. We went on a guided tour and chose to go to Lake Muren in Northern Mongolia. It is a large country, so there are many tour options – most have you drive hundreds of kilometers a day. We chose the lake since we wanted to just go somewhere beautiful and just relax.

We flew in to Beijing from Seoul and I got pulled aside after going through the thermal imager so they could take my temperature. I was worried, since China is notorious for ruining people's vacations right now with forced quarantines. Nobody spoke English and it was a little strange, but my temperature (36.2 C or 97.2 F) didn't cause too much concern (I always run cold), so they let me on my way.

We got our connecting ticket at the appropriately named connecting flights desk (my worries about not being able to find it were unfounded) and a woman from the desk led us around the terminal to get to the connecting flight. She took us through five security checkpoints and then put us on a bus and walked away. We were the only passengers on the bus and we were driven literally over the tarmac - we had to stop for a plane taking off. Being on the tarmac seemed surreal and the bus had a tv that had the X-Files in English playing - it didn't help. Especially since it was a “creepy little possessed girl” episode. We then went through another two security checkpoints and into our terminal. There were no problems at any point – it was just strange... somehow very communist.

The terminal we went to was very modern – from the drive I had assumed we were going to an ancient unused terminal. Lots of people were there - mostly Mongolians. The departure lounge we were in had two planes: one bound for Ulaan Baatar and one for Addis Addiba. It was striking to see people talking to one another – you could tell people were strangers and just making conversation. This is something you never see in Seoul, where strangers do their best (which is pretty good) to ignore each other.

Our flight was a little bumpy (Sara would tell you it was horrifying, but I was once on a two engine plane and one engine failed, so a lot less gets to me) and we landed in Ulaan Baatar with no problem. A very small woman was waiting with our names on a piece of paper and took us to a van, a very old Soviet vehicle. The first thing we noticed when we stepped outside of the terminal was the smell of fresh cut grass. It had been a long time. We shared the van with a couple from the south of South Korea (Pusan) – an American and a Canadian. They have been here for several years and said that Pusan is much more relaxed than Seoul. I wonder sometimes how our South Korean experience would be if Sara and I were in a different city… would we have better things to say?

Anyway, we got to the hostel after a 30 minute drive through Ulaan Baatar. Mongolia used to be a Soviet satellite, so all the buildings are blocky and cement and most are decrepit. Everywhere there is graffiti, dust, garbage and terrible roads. Raw is a good word to describe it – the city felt way more "real" than Seoul. Seoul is so superficial - people don't interact with each other. Everyone always has somewhere to go and they are going there in a hurry. We saw Mongolians just sitting around, hanging out. Casual.

We got our room in Idre’s Guest House (think hostel) and settled in for the night. Not the nicest, but our room was private and had its own bathroom. No soap or toilet paper - glad we brought our own. (You also don't flush toilet paper in Mongolia - you put it in a trashcan.) The next morning we had a few hours before our guide picked us up and we wandered around looking for better food than the one fried egg white we were served as breakfast at the guest house.

Most stores didn't open for a while and then they didn't open on time. Once we got in, there were a lot of Korean foods for sale - familiar brands. Mongolia doesn't make much, so most things are imported, usually from China, Russia or Korea. Later on, we found out that there are often shortages of consumer goods – at restaurants you can't get most things on the menu. We got some cheese for Sara and bread for me and wandered around, looking at the decrepit buildings. People were friendly enough - not overly friendly, but mildly curious and polite. You could call it "just right".

Mongolians write their language with the Cyrillic alphabet, so I could read a lot of signs, but the language itself is very different from Russian. Some borrowed words I got, but most I had no clue. Spoken Mongolian is a strange language. I wouldn't call it attractive, but it seems very utilitarian. I think it evolved so that they could communicate easily across great distances. It has many throaty noises x, ch, ss. People were very quiet, but they could understand each other quite easily. "Yes" is a noisy inhale with your mouth in an "o" position. "No" is a noisy inhale with your mouth in an "iy" position.

Hair Salons

Anyway, our guide picked us up and drove us to a few banks to try to get cash - the money that I had exchanged went towards paying the hostel, since the person on duty couldn't figure out the credit card machine. He turned out to not be our guide, but a driver, and drove us to the airport. In Mongolia there is no regulation for which side of the car the steering wheel is on – you take what you can get. They drive on the right side of the road, but traffic rules seem to be taken as suggestions, not law. At one point we saw the traffic police driving around in marked van yelling over his loudspeaker at anyone who was doing anything illegal and driving on. He yelled a lot.

We had a short flight from Ulaan Baatar to Muren, an hour and a half northwest. It was beautiful to look out the window - the landscape is almost bare of civilization. We came during the green part of the year, so it was very lush looking. There are no paved roads outside of towns, just a network of dirt roads. When a road becomes too rutted, people move off to the side of it and create new tracks. No rules against driving off the trail.

We flew over gers (yurts) here and there and watched herds of animals running. Everything was wild. Rivers, mountains, beautiful hills. The animals are all domesticated, but there are almost no fences.

We landed and our guide and driver met us - the guide spoke very good English, the driver none at all. Gamba was the guide's name - a rather portly Mongolian. As the nomadic lifestyle has turned urban, the diet has not changed. Obesity is a problem and things happened here just like they did in the Midwest. Walking around and doing farm work all day takes a lot of energy. City life does not.

The view from the Muren Airport

Gamba was knowledgeable about Mongolian culture and customs, but annoying since he didn't like many ethnic groups. The Chinese, Russians, Japanese, Koreans and New Zealanders were all on his bad list and he had no problem with sharing this. He also loved Western rock music like Guns ‘n Roses and came up with some pretty random music quotes.

He took us to a restaurant in Muren and we had some beef and noodles. Gamba insisted on ordering for me and wouldn’t listen to what I wanted, ordering me a carrot and cheese dish instead of a side salad. The whole meal was decent – the spices reminded me of Chinese food. Then I remembered that we were very close to China.

After lunch we set out to the lake. The driver drove a Toyota land cruiser and the paved road ended at the airport. He drove fast when he could, but it was mainly very slow going. The countryside is beautiful - very empty. We saw sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses, all running free. Very few people and only a few other cars.

Our ride - a Toyota Land Cruiser that only got two flats on our 150 mile trip

The views were spectacular. You can see people's gers and herds down by the river

Roads were "suggested" at worst and graded at best

Some sheep running from our vehicle

Every once in a while you would see just a person or two walking somewhere... it looked strange because you couldn't see where they had started or where they were going to. All the animals we saw were grazing or running away from us. It took us about three hours to travel the 60 miles to the lake. It took another 30 minutes to travel the last half mile to our camp.

We were shown our ger (yurt) and then we unpacked. Gers are made of felt stretched around a wooden frame. We could stand up in the middle area, but you definitely have to duck to get in. The ger had a stove in the middle and three beds - one opposite the door, one to the right, and one to the left. There was a small dresser and a small table. Gers are meant to be moved, so things are pretty sparse. It is the tradition to leave your shoes on inside. There was one electric light – electricity is available for a few hours at night. Bathrooms and showers were located in a nearby building – how water only was available at certain times as well. It all reminded me of summer camp!

The only window was at the top middle of the ger - there was some plastic covering the top area around the smokestack. Traditionally this hole was left open except during weather, so it let fresh air in. Also, the bottom edge of the ger was mostly uncovered - it was rolled up a bit to let in air (and the occasional insect). There were some bees and horseflies that wandered in, but not too many. Around the lake there were many, many flies. Free roaming yaks, goats, cows, sheep and horses makes for lots of shit and that means flies.

Ger #5

Sara providing some perspective

The textures of the ger: wood and felt

The textures of the ger door

The inside of our ger showing posts, beams and smokestack.

We checked out the lake and surrounding area for the rest of the day and had the second of what turned out to be many beef meals. I also convinced Gamba that I wanted to try that famous Mongolian drink – fermented mare’s milk – also known as airag or kumis. Milking a mare is a two-person job. One person holds the horse and the other sits directly behind the horse and reaches around to milk it (why was that sentence so hard to write?). Besides extending its shelf life, fermenting the milk also takes away its powerful laxative properties. The descriptions I’d read of the milk made it sound horrible, but I didn’t mind it at all – it reminded me of yoghurt water. Not delicious, mind you, but definitely palatable.

The next day we went to visit a nomadic family - an hour’s drive away, or 20 minutes as the crow flies. The family set up camp in an "accessible" area by the lake and brought their reindeer for tourists to take pictures of (for a fee). It felt a bit like an Indian reservation and made Sara and me uncomfortable. Our guide as well. We went down to the lake and spent time there instead, taking pictures, and ate some lunch (beef). Suddenly a rainstorm came over the mountains and we drove back to the ger.

Sara and I got warm in our ger and went out for a walk after the weather passed. The next day we went for a boat ride to a spit in the middle of the lake. There were many other tourists there, but it was very beautiful. There were a few shamanistic shrines - lots of torn blue cloth, money and vodka offerings. You see these shrine spots all over - torn blue fabric wrapped around trees and rocks here and there. Blue is a sacred color for the Mongolians - the limitless sky.

A view from the lake shore

Another view of the lake

We wandered around, then went back to the camp and hung out and then did some more wandering. Beef again for lunch, but there was a special treat for dinner: goat. Not having an oven, they cooked the goat the traditional way, by heating up some rocks (pillow basalt) in a fire and sticking them in a bag (made of the goat) with the dressed goat meat inside. They handed us the rocks at first – still very hot – which I believe is a tradition. The goat was delicious – I’d definitely eat it again.

The next day we went for a horse ride: Sara, the guide, myself and the horse owner, Ot. His real name is five syllables long, so we kept it at Ot. It was my first time on a horse, so I was on a lead, but it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. My horse was very gassy though. We rode up to a shrine that looked over the nearest town – a beautiful view. There were some other Mongolians up there and people just chatted with each other. Again, it was refreshing to see strangers talking to each other. When hiking, many Koreans listen to the radio or watch their portable tvs.

The gassy horse I rode

Mongolians admiring the view

The shrine and the lake

We saddled back up and rode to a group of tourists who were being led to their campsite on horseback. Some of them had slow horses so Ot rode around to the back of them and encouraged them on. I was on lead, so I followed him, of course. I talked a little bit to Ot in Russian - neither of us spoke it well, but it was fun to be able to communicate and he invited us to his ger for tea.

We rode up to his home area and he hollered for his son to come out and help with the horses. He has 20 or 30 horses and lives in an area with one other family and their ger. As far as I can tell, there is no land ownership, so he has squatter's rights. His ger was very basic - it turns out that our tourist ger is quite fancy with its carvings and stout beams.

His wife made us some “tea” (hot salted milk) and served some fresh made bread and yak butter. Yak butter is absolutely amazing. Delicious. Their ger was kind of dilapidated, but it was good to see how herders or nomads actually live. Every winter they move their ger to the closest town (population 2,000) so his kids can go to school. His horses wander around freely, although they are usually hobbled.

Nearby, all the herds of goats and sheep we saw had a child looking after them. Time and time again, we saw children just hanging out in the middle of nowhere. It was really refreshing to see kids able to wander without fear. The kids in the countryside were quite healthy looking, although we saw street children in Ulaan Baatar who were filthy and impoverished.

Eventually we got back on the horses and rode the rest of the way back to our ger camp. We caught up with the slow group and encouraged them on again, gave up and cantered home. I was shocked at the pick-up horses have… quite some acceleration! Up to that point I had done pretty well at not clinging on to the saddle with my free hand, but damn that horse was going fast.

A forest herd of yaks and cows

A friendly cow (yak?)

After that we wandered to take more pictures. The sky started clouding over and we hurried back. There was an intense lightning storm and I got some great photos. The storm left mammatus clouds – I’ve always wanted to see them in person. That night there was an even bigger lightning storm - several flashes per second for a half hour. All the beef that I had been eating caught up to me and I wasn’t going to be sleeping anyway, so it was a nice distraction.

The bathhouse after the storm

Mammatus clouds over our ger

The next day we drove back and it was quite bumpy, giving me a fairly debilitating headache. Before taking us to the airport, we went to see the deer stones – old megaliths with carved deer on them.

Deer stones

We flew back to Ulaan Baatar and Sara got me some ibuprofen. I took a short nap and felt a million times better. I got up and we went out and ate Cuban food and explored the dirty city. The foreign food in Mongolia is much better than the foreign food in Seoul.

Every city in Mongolia has a land policy where anyone is entitled to a little land to put their ger and animals on. People coming from the country live all around the edges of cities in these ger camps. Walking around, we saw street kids and Porsches, prostitutes and men in suits. There were poor Russians and rich Mongolians, as well as rich Russians and poor Mongolians – I believe this led to a sort of harmony. You also saw interracial couples, with either gender coming from either ethnic group. Due to the traditional Confucian culture, in Korea interracial couples are almost exclusively Korean women with Western men. Not many Western women will put up with the domineering Korean male archetype: think of 1950’s US man.

We spent one full day in Ulaan Baatar, wandering around and at the natural history museum. I think the Soviets were the last people to put any money into it – very decrepit, yellowing and peeling exhibit descriptions, not up-to-date information, horrible taxidermy, etc. They had amazing fossils though – the Gobi Desert is rich with them. My two favorites were of course the famous Velociraptor fighting a Protoceratops; and the arms of a Deinocherious – a dinosaur with eight foot long arms and ten inch long claws. Yikes! The museum was also very firm in their statements about evolution – I had had no idea how the Soviets presented the topic; not surprisingly, it was with an iron fist.

Statues and buildings - all decrepit

BD's Mongolian Barbeque

Creative product endorsement

Poorly presented musk deer

Random Havana-esque building

Seven days and 620 photographs later, Sara and I left early in the morning, feeling spiritually refreshed. I am so happy to know that there are places like Mongolia left in the world – raw, natural, and open. Our drive to the airport was courtesy of some guy – apparently many drivers are opportune taxi drivers. We got one last look at Ulaan Baatar – abandoned skeletal apartment blocks with a few ger squatters, new apartment blocks going up, tired prostitutes, and people resting under billboards while their sheep grazed nearby.