Sunday, December 12, 2010

Entry 12: A rest in Beijing, then onto Japan…

Right now I am writing from inside my tent, prone on my sleeping pad, the strong smell of sulfur laden air is intensified by our heightened senses that come with lack of food.

We are currently out of fresh water with which to cook, so went without dinner this evening. Ocean waves are crashing on the rocks beneath us so violently, they shake the tent. I’m afraid the roar may awaken the half-slumbering, steaming volcano looming just over our heads.
We are on Iou-Jima, a Japanese Island located a few hours ferry ride off the southern tip of the mainland.

We are camped on the edge of the nicest hot spring pools I’ve ever seen, which is saying much since it’s been my life ambition to soak in as many springs as possible before I check out. The view while sitting in the hot spring takes in a huge expanse of ocean dotted with islands, some with perfectly shaped cones with steam billowing from their peak. Hot spring pools, all with a surreal green translucent tint, two of them perfect soaking temperature are coated in rocks the colors of the rainbow. On one side of us a hot spring waterfall splashes directly into the ocean and on the other a troll-shaped, monolithic rock rises out of the ocean.

We even caught a tasty parrot fish, fishing right from the springs.

I can’t remember being at a nicer spot - a hundred people live on this island and the only policeman, a comical-looking one: wearing hard-soled, black boots, floundering on the rocks came by the other day to check on us and helped placed rocks on top of our tent stakes to prevent it from blowing away.

My previous entry was from Mongolia over 2 months ago. Since then, Sony & I took the Siberian Express train back to Beijing and dinned or should I say pigged out on spicy, Szechuan food for a few weeks with friends after suffering from food deprivation for over 5 months.

Now with the aftertaste of animal fat completely gone, we took a flight to Japan where we stayed in Tokyo for 3 weeks with our friend Reiko. Reiko’s dad owns an apartment building with a big view over the Tokyo skyline and our choice of 3 vacant apartments which we move about. Rooms are Ryokan-style separated by paper wall screens and floors are covered in Tatami mats, mats made of reed with their strong scent giving the impression of sleeping outdoors. If ever I am interested in a house enough to have one, I’ve always known I would want Tatami mat rooms.

In previous visits to Tokyo, I was a bit annoyed by the repetitive, uninteresting cycle of life here. It’s as if the men and women live in two separate worlds. The men work all day, the women shop all day. At night the roles switch, the men go out, dine amongst themselves and sex the girls afterwards. The girls are monetarily compensated which allows them to go shopping again, perpetuating the endless loop.

(love. by the hour.)

Instead of dwelling on the negative aspects of this behavior, I tried to see the positive ones. For instance, since this society works so well, maybe men and women should be in separate worlds. As long as we insist on living in male-dominated societies where women, aside from sex appeal aren’t very interesting, it may be best to give each other separate space.

Almost everyday Sony and I first selected potentially interesting sites, used Google Earth to get their GPS coordinates, plugged them into the GPS unit and bicycled to each site passing through the tiniest side streets we could find in route. Japanese attend to every detail in life and this aspect comes out in everything you see, even in the most, obscure, non-descript dead-end alleyway are interesting details.

One morning we went to Tsukiji Fish Market, historically the world’s most famous and bustling with as much activity today as in the past. We toured the market, learned about it’s secrete pricing language, were shown how to cruelly immobilize fish with a needle drawn through their spinal cord to keep them alive but immobilized making flapping out of the packaging impossible and witnessed a tuna auction. I was unimpressed with the fish the size and poor variety, but didn’t expect much considering oceans worldwide are on the brink of collapse.

For a few days we took a side trip to Izu, an area a day’s drive from Tokyo and known for its hot springs and beaches. Two of my former students picked us up and drove us to a Ryokan with its own private hot spring. We only stayed one night, but what an amazing treat to have natural hot spring water flowing 24/7 just outside you bedroom, set in a lush garden.

Next, we took a flight to Kyoto and Nara for a 2 week visit where we met our Seattle friend, Myrna (for the Kyoto section of our trip, please see her excellent blog at:

Our stay in these temple towns was magnificent, as the changing leaves peaked, bringing a surreal, euphoric feel to the temples. Ten years previous I came to Kyoto in October, much too early for the leaves. We set course on bicycle for as many sites as possible, but with an astonishing 1,600 Buddhist temples, plus 400 Shinto shrines, a trio of palaces, dozens of gardens and museums and boasting more World Heritage Sites per square inch than any other city we barely scratched the surface.

Seeing Kyoto temple gardens over 1,000 years old in peak foliage is a peak life experience.

The meditate state in which the monks work with nature can be felt by even the most passive, insensitive tourist with headphones playing rage against the machine, me for example.

It is the monk’s intent to recreate the entire Japanese country landscape to be taken into one view. The garden becomes a microcosm in and of itself. By Western values monks employ a non-sense-ical method or at best a contradiction in terms is at play; rocks are grown, sophisticated primitivity is admired and the goal of the controlled accident is the pinnacle of achievement. For a society bent on washing the dirt from the clean, separating the evil from the good, it may be impossible to approach the gardens as they were meant to in a contemplative, Japanese way, to experience feelings that we don’t even have concepts for or words. Although we heard peak leaves are best we may return at the beginning of April for peak cherry blossom with my mom.

Next, we flew to Kagoshima, the southern tip of the Japan mainland and ferry boat hopped to a few islands. Yakushima, the first of the islands we visited for a week had nice ocean view hot springs and hiking trails through forests that were the inspiration for Princess Mononoke and to the top of a volcanic peak.

We either hiked by foot or hitch-hiked all around the island taking in views of the beautifully, wooded forests with monkeys, sea-turtle beaches and stunted bamboo forests above the tree line. Takako, a Tokyo girl joined us for a multi-day hike.

It was raining and cold, perfect for hypothermia on the second day. Takako, with misplaced concerns and light pack set off ahead of us, got lost and almost didn’t make it to our rendezvous spot at a worker’s hut where 3 islanders were fixing a broken bridge. They saved her life with dry cloths and we all ate dinner together.

I’m about to put the pen down and fall asleep now. The thought of being right under this active volcano and amid the rocks formed of recently dried lava has me a bit nervous, but the pounding waves seem more of an immediate threat. In between hot spring soaks, Sony and I play Dungeons & Dragons and she managed to slay all 5 of our characters this evening that have been with us for almost one year, since we began our horse trek across Mongolia.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Entry 11 - back on two feet

Sony and I are back in the capital city, UlanBaatar. It’s been over a month since we parted from our horses, our horse sores all healed except for my left knee that still wakes me in the middle of every night throbbing. Maybe it’s good for my knee that I will be traveling instead of skiing this winter, but my sister, who is a physical therapist, told me pulled ligaments never heal; instead they are just replaced by weaker muscles that will always be more prone to re-injury.

Reflecting back on our horse journey, feelings of wonder and warmth well up in us. The magic that is still alive in the Mongolian countryside was once at the center of all our cultures, worldwide.

Before coming, my main interest in Mongolia was to see how people living without the concept of landownership played out in their psyche at large. When there is no land ownership there is no more “I own this, you cant go here or there, my place is better than yours, you don’t have as much as me, my view is better, this is where I sleep,” and so forth. In America, even walking past a private property along a road in what is clearly public right-of-way is cause for suspicion, concern and anxiety. Walking on private property and up to a house is a crime of trespass so grave that the owner would be justified in carrying out the penalty of death. This paranoia of each other that landownership brings about pervades all aspects of our relationships with each other. A root we see each other in a confrontation, not in a partnership. I never had one nervous feeling when approaching any ger in the countryside, late in the night and many miles from the nearest town. At any hour, without question or knock on the door, even a drunken stranger is welcome into a ger of another to eat and sleep. We don’t even know what an upset or annoyed Mongolian herder looks like as anger between herders must be exceedingly rare.

No landownership rides on the back of an unspoken partnership that has far reaching influence. No land ownership is just one aspect of the partnership societies that were once the world’s norm with only a trace of their prescience left. Only when the father needs to know who his offspring are does the partnership society collapse into a competitive society. The psychedelic rituals once at the heart of the partnership, now replaced with the ritual of the stone drunk, male-dominated beer garden revelries used to keep society in check periodically dissolving interpersonal barriers which the psychedelics target so effectively. Were it not for the continued need for paternal-ship, the 60’s may have succeeded in restoring the partnership and possibly the health of the planet looming ever closer to irreversible self-destruction.

The end of our horse journey included several days ride to the most western town on our tour, Batshireet. Batshireet resembles an American wild-west town of past, being the last main settlement before the foothills turn into significant mountains to the west and north.

Having a month left on our 5-month visa we rode west into the valley beyond thinking that maybe we could find a herder willing to guide us through what we were told to be impassible mountains, full of bandits and wolves. In addition to this lure of danger there is also a hot springs at the base of the largest mountain in the range where Ghengis Khan reportedly spoke to wolves for advice. We camped in a huge valley of the Onon River with the mountains visible at a great distance, rising to meet the skyline in a 360-degree panorama, making for spectacularly colorful sunrises and sets.

Finding a herder guide proved to be impossible, as September is the time of year there is a mad rush to cut, transport and store as much hay as possible for the upcoming winter animal rations.

With a broken GPS, horse sores and wounds and mainly the psychological strain of caring for horses 24/7 we gave up on the idea of ridding through the wilderness back to UlanBataar (UB) and instead to relax, camp with the herders, eat fish and take in the scenery. With the help of Purekhun, the local school computer teacher, we posted fancy for sale signs for three horses and horse gear. Within a few days herders were showing up outside our tent wanting to see the horses. We ended up selling the horses to what looked to be a gentle, kind herder who we were told loved horses and not to a slave driver, which a few seemed to be having a rough demeanor.

After I removed the hobbles from skittish red, the herder tied all three horses together and at my request lead them to our tent where Sony could have one last look at them. I thought for sure she would tear up, but she didn’t, future children beware, her nurturing side must not be all that strong. I felt sad to see them go off, but super happy to be free of them and that they were to as decent a place as a semi-domesticated horse could go. I felt a huge weight was removed.

The next day we found a ride in a Russian jeep a 14-hour ride back to UB. Coincidentally, in route to UB we received a text message from Neal Irons who just happened to be in mid-route also back to UB. Neal’s ride however was a 3-day journey from the western border of Mongolia, as he accomplished his mission ridding alone east to west. After being separated several months and the horse riding finished it was great to see Neal again. He strolled into the bar with a beard as thick as Grizzly Adams, a “g’day” in an even thicker accent and a very happy expression on his face.

We shared tales of each others’ journeys and gathered from Neal’s account that he went through three or more horses, riding them up to140 km per day until the horse was no longer ride-able. He only had ten photos or so, as he didn’t have a battery recharger, he slept on the ground, as he had no tent, he managed without a flashlight and rose to ride before dawn most mornings since being on the horse was better lying on the ground too cold to sleep. With any differences or hard feelings forgotten, we warmly parted and Neal border a train the next morning back to China and then Australia to tend his flock that his wife had been caring for in his absence.

We rested for a week then took a bus back to the countryside to Tsenkher, and hiked to a hot spring near the north Gobi Desert.

We stayed a week at one of the pools, developed in a Japanese-style and set in a beautiful valley. We placed our tent alongside to the pipe carrying the geothermally heated water to the handful of hot spring resorts and tapped a valve to fill our water bottles with the nearly boiling water and put them inside our sleeping bags to help keep our feet warm as the night temperatures were now far below freezing.

(the hot spring source, and frost on the ground)

Our next destination was Shargaljut, a hot spring on the other side of the mountains, which tour guides for westerners also visiting the springs warned us not to try and cross. They said it would be better to take a 3-day journey back to UB and then approach the springs from the south side of the mountains. However, as the bird flies, the springs were only about 80 km so we decide to try and hitch and walk our way there. After a few rides and several days later, we ended up in the foothills of the mountains where we camped next to herders and fished Tuul, big salmon for a few days.

One big truck, by the sound of it passed late in the night, the only vehicle headed into the mountains for the past several days. That morning the herders started taking their ger down, moving onto greener pastures so we figured this was a good sign to move on ahead. We walked 6 km to a bridge where we stopped to look for fish when two big trucks fully loaded with what looked to be sub-standard logs for building, which we later learned were to be sold in the market on the other side of the mountains as fuel for cooking and heating as there are no trees in the Gobi.

Sony riding in the lead truck and I in the other, it was possibly the most dangerous, roughest, slowest, 28-hour ride I ever experienced. The wooden bridges we crossed looked as if they would collapse under their own weight, let alone a fully-loaded truck and where there were no bridges, the river crossings were arduous.

The trucks were constantly getting stuck in the river beds where they had to pull each other out, it became my job to climb on top of the log stack and lower down the tow wire or lift the heavy hitch to disconnect or reconnect the towed trailer.

One crossing took over six hours with both trucks nearly getting stuck, the drive shaft of one of the trucks even broke and to my amazement one of the drivers produced a spare driveshaft from god knows where? Nothing phased the logging crew, three men and one tough woman in high heeled boots, looking like a Nazi gaestapo from Hiter’s elite guard. They all slept in the truck cab on top of each other with no blankets on the mountain summit. I was so cramped I ended up sleeping on bare ground next to the truck in the 15-dgree weather. Each time we broke down was an occasion for celebration. Their first reaction was to light up cigarettes and depending on the nature of the breakdown a bottle of vodka. Even with the broken driveshaft and truck half under river water so cold it would freeze immediately if it weren’t flowing gave cause for a party-like atmosphere. Betweeen bouts of strenuous labor, goat meat and drinks were served around some logs that were pulled of the truck to burn. It’s hard to imagine that these people risk their life and vehicles for such a pathetic load of wood, but as we slowly inched down into the Gobi, it became clear that the need for fuel must be dire with not a tree in sight.

After staying a few days in the front yard of a school teacher’s house we set out to Shargaljut, the next hot spring destination. Just a short 35 km drive northeast of town, but long enough to breakdown from overheating four or five times. We took a ride with three men and a woman, the men already smelling of alcohol. The occasion to drink with every breakdown was interspersed with stops at every ger within striking distance of the road to drink fermented horse milk.

What should have been at most a 2-hour ride quickly transformed into a cross between an insane road rally and pub crawl. The men were getting real cozy with Sony trying to feel her up, while the girl was guiding my hands to all her soft spots.

(fermented horse milk mustache)

The hot springs turned out to be a super letdown. Rather than pools of water outside next to the pretty river, all the heated water was collected in a tank and piped to a decrepit old building from the Russian era within which were rusty showerheads in dank, dark shower stalls.

I couldn’t image how to make the place worse. We took one shower and were anxious to take even the most cramped vehicle full of drunken perverts we could find back to the city.
While back in the city of Bayanhongor we hoped to catch a shared ride deeper into the Gobi, but didn’t have any luck and didn’t want to pay for our own private vehicle so we took a minivan back to UB with the intent of looking for engineering work with our remaining time before our train ride back to China. There is growing pressure here to suburbanize the countryside, at least around UB and build infrastructure for what will soon be the largest gold, copper and coal mines in the world. The GNP will double in the next 2 years making Mongolia the world’s fastest growing economy. This is all bad news for everything we love about the country, as the wealth will only stay in few hands and the land for the first time is being privatized and fenced off, sand and water contaminated with heavy metals is blowing or leaching contaminants, transporting them across the entire country and beyond, cow meat for export is rapidly replacing horse culture, backed by so-called American and European help organizations, funds are being used to encourage herders to abandon their lifestyles and move to towns and cities in order to provide cheap labor to build roads and service the rapidly expanding, dirty and dismal transportation system needed to move resources more effectively to China. In short, if you have any desire to experience life as a nomad, which is the humans natural state with the world’s last nomads at large, you shouldn’t wait another season for possibly I and others will be turning this place into the vapid world at large.

Some other highlights:
(nomad timidly trying my cooking)

(taking down the Ger to move to warmer