Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Entry 8: Ulanbaatar, Mongolia - Horses, Zuuds, Ghengis Khan

Hopefully, Neal will have found gentle horses that won’t try to throw us every time we mount, but not so gentle that they don’t want to walk across the country. There will be a bit of training involved (Janusz has been watching horse training videos on youtube at night), to get the semi-wild horses to be rideable, to follow and to stay within the confounds of an electric fence we plan to set up each night.

Finding suitable horses will be extra difficult since Mongolia has just experienced back to back the worst zuuds in living memory. A zuud is a combination of blizzard and bitter cold, preceded by drought. This winter, over 8 million cows, yaks, camels, horses, goats, and sheep died, over 17% of the coutnry’s livestock. The horses we saw from the train ride from China that weren’t rotting caraccess strewn around the tracks were very skinny. We planned to buy our horses in the East improving our chances where Neale reported the other day that the horses are bigger and healthier as this region’s zuud is least harsh and spring grass is most lush.

The planned start for our ride is Nomrog, a strictly protected area, a landscape of virgin fields (the world’s largest last uncultivated grassland) and pine forests untouched by livestock and humans. In addition to our visa extension, we are also waiting for the special permits to allow us pass checkpoints to visit this area. After three days of not hearing from our lead scout Neale, he called yesterday morning to let us know his attempt to enter this region failed. After being turned back by the border patrol, he was escorted to a special “hotel” room with a guard standing at the front door (aka jail) for a day and a half.

Aside from bandits, our horses running off with all our food, gear, and water, rabid dog and wolf attacks, by far our biggest concern will be finding water. As we will be crossing some very dry areas after two zuuds. We track down a map with all the known springs and wells in the country, but do they have water?

Mongolians, unlike other civilizations, never felt the need to build monuments to their greatness. The so called “great” civilizations are really just testimonies to plunder egotism and greed built with slave labor. The great pyramids, the great wall of china, Inca Aztec and Mayan temples, even the taj mahal (the girls so easily buy into the notion was supposedly built out of love) and all the other pompous European landmarks tourists flock to and try to find special meaning in today.

What we have heard about Mongolians (if anything) is the worst rap a culture ever got. If human “nature” is any indication, we need to be suspect when we hear such trash talk since it’s almost always short-sighted people talking poorly of what they envy or fear. As a side note, what does nature have to do with our own misgivings? Contrary to the accusations of our language, nature is definitely not a teacher of idiotic ideas to humans. Since the Mongols were first encountered, not one good word was written, their leader being accused as being the devil himself. Could all this be because Mongols live in such close proximity to nature? More recently, people with the terrible, genetic disorder of Down syndrome have been collectively referred to as Mongoloids, coined by a medical doctor in 1866 and still in use. Before I tell you how beautiful the people and their customs really are, I first want to say a bit about their infamous leader, Genghis Khan from the eleven hundreds.

When the Spanish conquistadors eradicated South American civilizations, keep in mind these people really believed in everlasting damnation. Believing that the Mayans were worshiping the devil, if they couldn’t be made to submit by force, then just maybe in their last dying breath they would surrender to Jesus and be saved by a fate even worse than death? Maybe in the same spirit Genghis Khan emancipated people from cities. In his younger years, he was a captive of city people and held in their prison. He observed how city people lived and saw them as no better than caged animals compared to the freedom of living the nomadic lifestyle. When it came time for payback, Genghis burnt cities to the ground, maybe with the same genuine hope, like the conquistadores, that people would be saved and the place would revert back to grassland and freedom.

Genghis’ culture was largely influenced by shamanism. Mongolian shamans have taught (thousands of years before ecology was even a western concept) that the land should in no way be altered, a hard lesson we ourselves will be learning in many generations to come. If a post is required to tie up a horse, that post hole needs to be covered as soon as it is removed. Even Mongolian boots are designed in such a way with the toes turned up, so that soil isn’t inadvertently kicked when walking.

Seems these ideas that have lasted thousands of years are quickly giving way to the all-enticing ways of the west. Now all one sees here in the capitol city are Mongolian girls strutting around in the highest of heels. In my engineering pavement design class, we learned that women’s high heels are some of the largest and most damaging forces pavement will ever experience, much larger than even truck tires!

After viewing a Mongolian shaman ceremony, a tourist from England let the shaman know that English shamans instead conduct their rituals differently, with the aid of tea and leaves of some sort. The shaman was quick to point out that the method the Englishman spoke of doesn’t work for if it did, if shamans in England had any power, they would not have let their natural world go to waste. Thus, Mongolian culture, a leave no trace culture has nothing to show from its plunder, being at its peak the largest civilization the world has ever known.

Genghis Khan invited everyone, even the poor to live within the confounds of his tent, encouraged religious freedom (inviting faiths from around the world to have open dialogue with him each week), was first to institute the practice of diplomatic immunity and was quoted as saying “to conquer the world is of no great consequence, but to gain the heart of a man, is to conquer the world.” From the standpoint of people that have something to lose (the status quo) and the people that whose jobs depend on the status quo (the historians), it’s no very hard to see why such a person as Genghis Khan and the entire mongol world would get such a bad rap.

Understandably, we are anxious to get out to the countryside after being with the converted city folk for almost 3 weeks now. Sony and I went to the only strip bar (topless only) last night and the girls are as every bit beautiful naked as they look on the street. Their faces are as Asian looking as any face in China, but their large bodies and breasts and long legs seem more Caucasian than Chinese. We expect even greater natural beauty of the country people. It is Mongolian countryside custom to enter a home without knocking and if no one is there to feel free to eat and put fuel on the fire. A western horse traveler I read about feared he would run out of food. Instead, he found that he could barely travel a few miles before the next ger (Mongolian home) made him stop to share in their food and drink. Some of our route will be in the vicinity of herders, however much of it will be in un-grazed lands.

Entry 7: Ulanbaatar, Mongolia - Visas, TV Coverage, 2010, June 10

(From left to right: Uka, our friend - who also happens to be a lawyer and made this tv interview possible; Neale, the type-A Aussie; Janusz, the polish; Naara, the morning news broadcaster)

The immigration office, our second UB haunt, was where we had to apply for our visa extensions. Sony and I (US citizens), get an automatic 90 days with no visa required, Neale, (Aussie), 60 days, but he worked for a year before coming to Mongolia to try for 120 but only got 90, and poor Janush (Poland), only a 30 day visa. Neale makes Type A people seemed relaxed. Just watching him go about everyday business is entertaining. He runs around frantic everywhere, even when there is no place to go. He doesn’t seem to sleep or eat, in fact, we still don’t have visas, and he has left to the East of Mongolia without us. Neale feels the need to cross the entire country border to border (the reason why we need more than 90 days), as a climber needs to reach the summit I am not interested in goal oriented travel and would be happy enough to ride in circles if need be, as long as I was seeing the most interesting places possible in the allotted time.

Neale carries a special GPS device that automatically updates his position to his website, we can then put his coordinates into our gps unit and hopefully find him out on the steppe this week, with visa extensions in hand.

The visa extension process involved getting denied twice, hiring a lawyer, doing an interview with a Mongolian tv station, talking about how great our trip is for Mongolian tourism,

meeting with the head of immigration, AIDS test (negative if any one is interested, wink) and countless forms, all to be filled out in Mongolian.

(Neale, with doctor, discussing his HIV results. We all tested negative.)

During our down time, when we were not waiting at the immigration office or shopping at the black market, we did some sightseeing around Ulanbaatar:

(monument dedicated to the Soviets)

(breast feeding at the Soviet meeting)

(what remains of Buddhist monasteries, after the Russian purge of over 90% of all monasteries in Mongolia)

(Leo meets Reindeer)

Entry 6: Ulanbaatar, Mongolia - Meet the Horse Riders

We ended up spending over two weeks in UB, mainly between two places: the open market (the largest in Asia - and also I’m sure, the most insane) and the Mongolian immigration office. The outdoor market a.k.a the black market so called by locals, is full of the horse gear we need.

Russian, European, and Mongolian saddles, the latter being made of wood and not recommended for western asses, conditioned to sit eight hours a day on soft padded leather or more commonly, ergonomically correct corporate swivel chairs. After many days of shopping and bargaining, our guesthouse is now full of riding gear - many of the items of which I do not even know the names but I’m sure in the upcoming days will know well.

(Mongolian saddle, made of wood - this is the "before" photo)

(Western saddle on the left, "after" photo of Mongolian saddle, right)

A year ago when we first started researching our plan horse trek across Mongolia, Sony happened upon a website of Neale, a sheep herder from Australia who has the same idea of a horse ride across.
Janusz (pronounced ‘Yanush’), a horse expert from Poland also responded to Neale’s website and now we are a four person team.

Since all other inquires to Neale dropped out after he told them what to expect, we are possiblly the four craziest western nomads in the world. Sony and I have no horse experience. (Actually, one experience does come to mind: back in high school, a girl told me to mount a horse (which latter I found out was a race horse). She just galloped away while my horse followed. I held on for dear life as we raced across ski resort runs and treed paths where she yelled at me to keep my knees in (as the horse is only awareness of it’s own body size and doesn’t account for a riders knees as it rounds tightly around trees)).

As bad as our situation sounds – we having no horse experience, it gets worse. Neither Neale nor Janusz have any camping experience. Fortunately, I spend more time in the woods than a forest ranger wandering aimlessly while Sony, having taken the formal route, has passed leadership courses in wilderness survival in Patagonia. What seems like a lifetime of shopping with Neale getting $150 pick-pocketed his last day of shopping and a rotten apple tossed at him, we are finally outfitted. We have beautiful brass bells to be fitted around each horse’s neck so we can possibly find them if they run away at night. There will be eight horses; each of us will have two horses, one to ride, one to pack. We have all the fittings: bridles, harnesses, lead ropes, stirrups, pads, mouth pieces and straps. Neale brought a pattern for pack bags that he designed for a long term ride and had a seamstress fabricate eight bags. Sony, Janusz, and I each bought a Del (traditional Mongolian riding robe) which they plan to ride in but I weighing more want to spare my horse of this extra weight – at least for the first leg of the trip from the eastern border of Mongolia/china back to the capital, Ulanbaatar. I’ve never looked so good in clothing as my blue beautifully patterned soft exterior with heavy warm interior Del.

Whenever I put on traditional Asian clothes, I feel so regal. It is so hard to understand how the world has traded comfort and beauty for the drab western attire of a funeral director as the standard for dress. I still don’t know which side to hang my Johnson in pants – the left side or right? I guess how you dress is how you feel. Thus, if our clothes are any indication of reality for us must be a bleak cloudy Monday morning.

The final items for our trip are riding boots and helmet (bicycle will do). I picked out with the “help” of a mob of spectators a pair of black Mongolian boots while Sony found a nice pair of brown Mexican made cowboy boots. Neale told us the most important thing is that the boot have a smooth leather sole to help get out of the stirrups quickly if necessary.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Entry 5: Ulanbaatar, Mongolia and Shamans: 2010, June 6

The girl from San Diego we met earlier at the Beijing airport, in Ulanbaatar to visit her family in Mongolia has showed us around a bit. Turns out, her dad is “Mongolia’s number one Shaman” (by her account. - Incidentally, he does appear on a History's Channel's documentary about the search for Genghis Khan's treasures. He was one of many who opposed digging up Mongolia's graves and land in the name of exploration). We were invited to first go to his Ger (a Mongolian round house) where we witnessed him perform a ceremony to cure a man of alcoholism.

(our friend is on the left)

(inside the Shaman's Ger)

We then went to a ceremony in a grassy spot with many flags just a few miles from the city. The ceremony was held for a female being initiated as a Shaman. The ceremony appears to be highly ritualistic and lacked what use to be the main ingredient that now a Shaman never uses – the psychoactive mushroom. A few days later, we were lucky enough to attend a gathering of 15 shamans in the same spot.

The pouring rain and hypothermal bone-chilling weather seemed to intensive the franticness of drumming, as Shamans passed into the realm of spirits and then passed out with family members catching their limb bodies just before hitting the ground.

With fires issuing clouds of smoke, fueled by sacrifices of volatile vodka and some unrecognizable animal jaws wrapped in green linen, pitched into the flames, goat heads sitting in pools of blood or top their own dismembered bodies,

offerings of bread piled into castle like structures with many other colorful food treats on tables,

milk and seeds being tossed everywhere into the air by families of the shamans and the air filled with the sound of chanting pounding drums and tiny mouth instruments - all made for a pretty impressive scene.

Entry 4: Wake Up Call America: 2010 June 4

Wakeup call to America: Instead of being hypnotized by your government propaganda about China as a place where no human rights exist, factory workers are under-age, the one child policy, Olympics cheaters sending athletes who do not qualify because of age, communism, no religious freedom, etc. all this B.S is of no consequence.

While Americans are standing around shaking their Christian moral sticks at each other and other countries, (within their fake democracy, as if the two party system really represents anything other than one big bureaucracy), the Chinese people are being much better represented by their government which isn’t focused on meeting their monthly budget or trying to win votes for the next election but thinking about future generations. China is only second to the U.S now in publishing researcher papers, and with an output rate that ballooned from 20,000 papers in 1998 to 112,000 in 2008, China will easily outpace America by the end of this decade (the U.S increase in papers was a paltry one, at a quarter output rate). At least some American institutions recognize this importance – if only for their own future survival, Harvard college has opened up a satellite office and Business school in Shanghai. The Chinese government makes decisions in hours that are bigger than policy changes America has not seen since the building of the Hoover Dam. Our ineffective system has a strangle hold on itself where any attempt at a decision only tightens the noose . The people here in China don’t’ feel threatened and they shouldn’t. In many ways, they have more rights than Americans.

America unknowingly equate rights (or the word they love most, freedom) with buying power. We each have the “right” to consume resources at the rate of 12 other humans on the planet. When one is provided an environment to explore his identity without being told how things are or should be that is freedom and the only freedom worth anything. In this respect, where is “the land of the free” without counter institutions such as Lao Tze, promotion of mind-numbing media/ drugs (nicotine, sugar, alcohol), restriction of enlightening (psychoactive) drugs promotion of religions that at root encourage individual isolation, and thus heightening sexual frustration and criminalizing prostitution, except for the wealthy.

The Chinese government is not bogged down by religious morality that possibly could only appeal to the reason of a backwater, uneducated and malnourished slave 2000 years ago. Last time I was in Asia it was the Clinton sex scandal that was at the top of the American news and now, it is Tiger Woods. This sort of media wouldn’t even turn a head in Asia since there is no pretense here to live up to in human or fake virtues. (Asia can’t believe America makes a big deal over sex, primates have been banging each other in the canopy for millions of years. And who are we to admonish Chinese with bumper stickers pasted all over our cars to “free Tibet” when we did the same thing to our native peoples to make way for “progress.” Don’t’ get me wrong, I favor no government but to say one is better because it is called a democracy and one is bad because it is called communism is B.S. We can only hope in a few decades that the Chinese will either pity us or will want to invest in America as a retirement place to escape their degraded environment. The best thing we could have done for the planet was to help the Chinese build nuclear power plants on every street corner twenty years ago.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Entry 3: Shanghai, 2010.May 20

The next stop on our train circuit was Shanghai – the city Chinese consider to be the pinnacle of modern Chinese civilization.

Initially, we planned to first head to another country side area full of mountain vistas but the relentless cloudy and rainy weather kept us in Shanghai for more than a week. A man we met on the train, a local Shanghai-nese who now lives in Vancouver BC, escorted us to meet our friend Xin. We know Xin from Seattle where she worked as a top executive for the Microsoft division of China. She left that job for her new position as the VP of Cisco China. We stayed at Xin’s penthouse which unexpectedly included perks such as on-demand massage therapists, cooks, and anything one could imagine. (She has graced quite a few magazines and heralded as one of the top female executives in China).

With the World Expo in full swing, Xin gave us her access pass (Cisco spent $40 million for a pavilion to showcase how Cisco technology will improve quality of life). We toured as much of the Expo as two full days would allow. Easily the world’s largest Expo, the entire Seattle Center (which was constructed for the World Expo in 1966 and the largest venue I know of in America) would be swallowed up in one little obscure corner at this Expo. The best thing for me about cities/christmas is the lights and the Expo did not disappoint. The Expo pavilions with all the new LED light technology were so brilliant, even painful to look at, such shifting brightness every way. Oil was the most impressive corporate display, with a bewildering ever changing display of shifting lights shining through the building.

Most of the Expo I felt was a waste of money (a $4 billion waste) as the buildings are suppose to showcase the beauty of a country – which of course is its ethnic uniqueness and landscapes – both of which are nearly obliterated and replaced by such displays of thoughtless wealth and business. Nonetheless, as long as we “preserve,” and document these extinct cultures, peoples and natural landscapes with movies such as Planet Earth, and showcase these dying animals and cultures, in Expos, Museums and plastic imitations at Walt Disney, then we will at least have something to show future generations and never even have to leave the city.

As such, the 50 foot tall lighted coke bottle is today’s’ symbol of the Buddha “drink happiness.”

Forget crystal meth or cocaine, refined sugar, “16 sugar cubes in one coke bottle,” is easily one of the most abused of the addictive drugs on the planet - yes, “drug.” It has most definitely changed the consciousness of everyone on the planet and bottled in plastic, no less, which is a product of yes, hydro-carbon and oil. A visit to a community in Laos a few years ago, where opium was still the drug of choice (people there can not afford refined sugar), showed me kids addicted to opium are much more pleasant than kids high on sugar.

We toured other city sights in Shanghai with other local guides, but in Shanghai, the pretentious display of the wealth is the main tourist attraction - buildings so tall that there tops are lost in smog, shopping districts as wealthy as any in the USA, with starbucks at the base of the Ritz-Carlton and even a 6.5 star hotel. (My camper may not even warrant one star, but it is the Northstar.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Entry 2: Beijing to Xian, 2010, May 14

Entry 2: Shanghai, World Expo
We later toured the Olympic park, built for the 2008 summer games, making the Vancouver 2010 winter Olympics (where we spent the month before coming to China) seem relatively small. My idea of big had to be revised again after visiting the World Expo in Shanghai (where I am now).

(that's the large bird's nest in the background)

Tracy, a native Beijinger and new friend, drove us north of Beijing a few hours where I was surprised to see a sign for a ski resort. We drove up into the mountains and hiked from the road 15 minutes to a section of ruins of what was once the Great Wall. Most of the stones now form the terraces where peasants grow their crops in the field below.

With the weather ski cold and snowy in Mongolia, and the Chinese so surprisingly warm and hospitable (at least the Northern Mandarin speaking ones) we decided to travel three more weeks in East China. Xian, a 12 hour journey west of Beijing was our first destination. Xian is the home of the Terracotta Warriors – only recently discovered in 1981 – a tomb (Mongol style) with clay replicas each detailing individual horses and humans. Thousands of them and no two replicas are alike. Within less than a year after the emperor’s death, the pissed off people enslaved to build the terracotta army, raided the tombs, treasures and smashed most of the statues, leaving the statues buried and undiscovered until the early eighties.

The following two days we hiked up to an area (Huang Shan), a Mountain with 5 sacred peaks and said to be the place where Lao Tze - easily the world’s greatest (philosopher) hung out. Incredibly steep stairs, hundreds of thousands of them, carved right out of the rock, were leading to impossible temples and caves perched on even more impossible cliff faces. (Reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, these steep rock paths are exactly like those described when Gollum leads Frodo and Sam to the spider’s lair.)

Since Lao Tze’s (ideas) are all direct references to his profound observations of nature, there is no culture barrier to understanding him. For those acquainted with nature (or themselves) will love Lao Tze. Lao Tze is the pressure release valve for individuals that are interested in knowing more about life than just standard dogma, such as Confucius propaganda. We Westerners have no equivalent release valve institution built into our system and this absence plays a big role in our insanity. After climbing each peak, light ran out and we began the descent down the mountain looking for a nice lama temple to sleep besides.

With very little sleeping options (all temples turned into store kiosks), the spot we chose to sleep that night was a small section roped off from the main path, but nonetheless used by people to relieve themselves. Sony had to wear a mask to help overcome the overwhelming stench of dried piss. All night the relentless push of hikers went passed us, those that noticed us, shined flashlights in our eyes. I give the Chinese tourists lots of credit though. Most are out of shape city folk that start the climb at 11 pm, reach the summit an hour before sunrise, nap for an hour, and then come back down. By doing this, they avoid the cost of paying the exorbitant price for a hotel room on the mountain.

Our next sight was the Longmen Caves, a super impressive cliff next to a river with thousands of Buddhas. Many of the heads decapitated as they are now a part of private/public collections throughout the Western world. The limestone rock was hewn by hand into large caverns and the Buddha carved in the surrounding walls. It must have been a great place to come contemplate life, but is now, just an “official historical cultural sight”(as decreed by the Chinese government) visited by hoards of Chinese on package tours with megaphone wielding tour guides.

We stayed in several towns, some totally off the tourist route. I am surprised places in China still exist where people never see foreigners.

These are the places where one does not need to worry about “tourist prices.” Of the many great massages we had, the cheapest a mere $1.25 for an hour long foot massage and meals for 50 cents. Mostly we eat steam buns with vegetables stuffed inside for 4 cents each.

I assumed all Chinese ate rice for every meal, but in one month, we only ate rice twice. Food in China is almost nothing of what you might find at a hole in wall in America – the food is tastier and more sanitary to boot. The Xian muslim night market, was my first introduction to the Uyghur- the mixed white/Chinese ethnic minority of the northwest China. Previously, the Uyghur had similar nomadic lifestyle to the present day Mongols. Locals took us around and the variety of street food was astonishing. We visited a very old but still active Mosque, and were there just in time to watch the men rush into the the main hall for prayer - women are prohibited from the inner chambers.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Entry 1: Beijing to Xian, 2010, May 14

We are en route from Beijing to Xian , a 12 hour journey via train traveling at speeds up to 100 mph.

The trip to this point has been great. It all started after spending one month at the 2010 winter Olympics in Vancouver, after which, the process of packing and getting life in general order to be able to take off for a minimum of one year of travel, began. The end of February to mid April was spent in Seattle getting ready for possibly the most adventurous part of the trip – a four month horse ride across Mongolia. We plan to be the highest tech salmon nomads on the Mongolian steppe: two flexible solar panels will cover our horse’s ass to charge up a GPS unit, rechargeable batteries, cameras, iPods, 1TB external hard drive and a netbook (which is loaded with software to translate Mongolian to English) to boot.

No land ownership, teeming with semi-nomads, the largest animal herds in Asia, shamans, tombs, landscapes ranging from alpine lake regions full of fish (locals don’t eat fish) to old growth Taiga forests to the flaming cliffs of the Gobi desert, Mongolia offers the largest vistas of grass and sky and the most diverse landscapes the world has to offer. In 1994, when I enrolled in the Peace corp , my first choice was Mongolia, the most remote country on their list. With almost no roads, and the lowest population density of any country in the world, what city-raised dweller wouldn’t want to experience such a contrast? And be able to learn more from as different a place as one can experience.

With three weeks before departure to Beijing China, I drove my truck and boat to Los Angeles, where the camper and boat will be stored, with two other travel companions who share my same passion for adventure: Sony, a self-described hedonistic free spirit who will travel the year with me, and Aleth, who was recently released after being diagnosed with clinically acute psychosis (e.g. she speaks to dead people). We took a detour in Oregon to ski at Mt. Bachelor for a week and luckily came across a huge dump of spring snowfall. This mountain made for one of my best ski experiences, which speaks volumes since I bore easily on a mountain without any moguls to ski – and Bachelor has none. What it does offer, however, as an extinct symmetrical volcano, is an almost perpetually sunny mountain, the top of which is above the tree line.

A single chair lift allows access to the peak and one can drop down anywhere in a 360 degree circle into the tree line. Any part of the forest can be entered – there are no designated runs, just pure skiing through the most extensive glade skiing with the largest trees you can ski through in the world (not the largest trees in the world).

We did a stop over in SF to see an ex-boyfriend of Sony’s, who kindly injected $2500 worth of vaccines to my already full yellow immunization card of travel shots from previous years of travel. While rabies and Japanese encephalitis are no longer a major threat, I only have to worry about bubonic plague, which is still alive in the countryside of Mongolia – it’s last breeding ground on earth.

L.A’ s dry heat is the best place to store the camper. Left unattended in Seattle, the camper would become a pile of mold in a matter of months.

Once in LA, we made final preparations during the last two weeks: testing all of the electronics, especially the solar panels, getting last minute fishing gear, cleaning out the camper and prepping all the dry powdered food. We are only packing one set of clothes. Since weight is an issue, one is only allowed one or two non-essential survival items (i.e.luxury items). I’ve chosen to bring my dungeons and dragons’ dice in any we have any down time.

A majority of the gear weight consists of wild smoked salmon, which we caught in British Columbia and smoked ourselves - in anticipation of .this trip. Below, are pictures of salmon we smoked ourselves in July 2008 (!) and August 2009.

After celebrating Sony’s Mom’s birthday, with a traditional Korean dinner, we were dropped off at the LAX airport, with the same parting words that several of our friends and family already issued as part of their farewell, “Don’t do any stupid.” On board on Air China, with the GPS unit in hand, I could trace our flight over Alaska and the Bering Sea. I woke Sony to show her the midnight sun and clear vistas of Alaska’s glaciers, Yukon River, and disappearing ice pack in the form of fragmented icebergs clearly seen floating about the bays.

(Below, on Air China, trying to avoid H1N1 and any other airbornes.)

Upon arrival at the Beijing airport, on our way to collect our bags, we met a woman, from San Diego, who happened to be Mongolian and headed to Mongolia for one month. We would later meet her again in Ulanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) and she would become one of many friends we met along the way who were of invaluable help with translation, navigation and negotiation to buy our remaining gear for horses and the horses themselves. We actually agonized over Chinese customs (would they confiscate our smoked salmon!) only find no custom officers in sight and breezed through the exit like high ranking officials with major connections.

The Beijing airport, modernized for the 2008 Olympics, is the largest in the world. The interior spaces are enormous, but it was the Chinese military guards who provided the real entertainment – always walking in pairs, with arms swinging in unison.