Wednesday, August 22, 2007


When a tribal outcast named Temujin became Khan ('King') of the Mongols in 1189, Mongolia's history took what was to be a most suprising turn, and its next two centuries have left an idelible impression on the world. That same man, later titled Chinggis Khan (Genghis Khan), unified the previously warring tribes of the steppe in 1206 and then set out to conquer the known world. The next 200 years saw Mongols ruling China (the Yuan Dynasty under his grandson Kublai Khan), Russia and Eastern Europe (the Golden Horde), and riding through the plateau of Tibet, shaping and adopting Tibetan Buddhism as they went. Although the Manchus and internal fighting put an end to this amazing empire, the Mongolians made their stamp on history, and have been proud of it ever since. As we flew over the arid desert and endless steppe on the way to Ulaan Baatar, and later when we bumped and jostled across the grasslands into the countryside, it was easy to understand how the Mongol people became so hardy, a trait that helped shape their present.

Russian-looking buildings were the norm in Ulaan Baatar.

The mystery and grandeur of this country and its history, however, comes to a grinding halt in the capital city. Half-built, congested, busy and polluted, the city is a far cry from what once was a gorgeous valley here in north-central Mongolia. As people move off the steppe and into the city, the usual urban problems crop up, including water pollution and overuse, poverty and crime. The city has under a million people, so it is easily walkable. The number of foreigners in the city suprised us, especially compared to Korea. Even though it is small, it's a metropolitan city: it's possible to eat Turkish, Italian, Mexican, Russian, German and almost any other European food here. The Mongolian people in the city are an entertaining mix of dusty horse-riders, decked-out young women, and traditionally-dressed elders with the life of the steppe wrinkled into their faces.

This temple and attached monastery is one of the largest in Mongolia.

Outside the city, the people are quick to smile, warm, curious, and above all, proud of their nation. Over 300 years of brutal Chinese rule left an extremely bad taste in these people's mouths, and after Sukh Baatar helped them gain independence from the Middle Kingdom (China) in 1921, they became, in 1924, the 2nd communist state in the world after Russia. Then followed years under Russian rule under the Communist party, which even today shares the power with the Democratic party. That influence is easy to see in Ulaan Baatar, and because of it, most older people can speak Russian. The official Mogolian script is currently Cyrillic, the same as Russia.

We spent 4 days living in this ger ('gare'), amidst silence, greenery and good people.

We didn't come all this way, however, to see the city. The steppe, the desert, and the rolling hills in between have captured imaginations for centuries, and, if all goes well, will continue to do so. We hopped on a mini-bus with an American family and a German/French couple, and drove 4 hours outside of UB to the Khan Khentii Strictly Protected Area to stay in a low-impact ger camp. The area we stayed in was absolutely wonderful. No cars, no electrical wires, no cell phones, and virtually no people. Night was silent and totally dark, except for the sky, which shone with thousands of stars and the shadowy outline of the Milky Way. Our days were spent wandering the grasslands by foot or by horse, or floating down the Tuul River by raft. The birds were fantastic - a lot of new ones for us, but the most impressive were the raptors - eagles, kites and buzzards are seen floating effortlessly almost everytime you incline your head towards to the blue sky. The people out there live a peaceful and quiet life, either raising herds, growing vegetables or tending to their family's needs in their ger. The ger itself is a wonderful invention, and upon asking how much they were, we were told that a good one goes for a yak, while less-quality ones will sell for a healthy horse. We'll keep that in mind.

No roads, people or power lines as far as the eye can see . . . ahhhhh:)

The camp itself had wonderful food, kept cold in the fridge by a combination of solar panels and a wind rotor. The gers are totally collapsable, leaving no mark on the environment except for the rings on the earth under them when they pack it up and move to higher ground before the onset of the killer winter. Sitting in late evening on our hilltop watching the sun set over the tranquil valley was gourmet food for our soul, and we felt rejuvenated and revived after our busy last few months in Korea.

Lots to do while staying at the ger - including some horseback riding with friends Daniel (German - in photo) and Anne-Sophie (French).

We then had 3 more days in the city before heading off to China. However, after getting more and more depressed as we got into the city, we headed right back to a travel agent after we found a hostel to stay in. We had brought our tent etc to camp, and hadn't used it yet, so we decided to hire a driver and head back to the hills, this time to Terelj National Park, just south of the Khan Khentii area. After taking the rugged jeep through rivers, up mountains and through passes, we ended up next to the Tuul River overlooking a perfectly still mountain valley with nothing but the sound of wind, the birds, and distant cattle to keep us company. The driver, a 62-year old Mongolian named Konchik, spent most of his time in local gers seeing old friends once we got settled in a perfect camp spot. We did teach him some cards, however, and shared many laughs while trying to communicate through sign language and facial contortions. It was a wonderful end to our time here in Mongolia, a country which we will come back to, not for the city, but for the amazing country, that itself reminds us so much of home.

The greatest gift we received from Mongolia was the feeling of inspiration: somewhere in the world there are people living in harmony with their surronding environment, and this country, although fighting huge changes, is in a position to make decisions to protect their greatest resource - the steppe and deserts where past peoples helped create one of the world's largest empires, and who could again rise in the world's eye as a country who takes a stand against the environmentally destructive path so many other countries have chosen.

Life on the Steppe is often harsh, but the summer affords life some growing room.

We can only hope our next journey here will find the countryside as quiet and healthy as we did this time. We're off tonight at 8:20 on a train to the Chinese border, and tomorrow we'll find some way to get to Beijing to meet Mom and Dad Styles. We'll be visiting our old haunts, favourtie restaurants and seeing our Chinese friends who helped make China a wonderful place to travel. We're looking forward to the next stage on our journey! Hope you are all well, and thank you for all the emails we've received telling us about what journeys you are on:) We'll write again from Xi'an. For more photos of Mongolia, visit our photo album found on the right hand side of this page under 'Family and Friends'.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

First Days in Mongolia

Our trip has kicked off in Ulaan Bataar, a city that seems to be half-built and mostly neglected. After living in South Korea for 3 years, we think we've been spoiled by living in a 'Western'-like country. We have quickly come to remember that most of Asia is still 'developing'.

Huge Russian-style buildings stare down congested roads filled with Japanese and Korean imports, as well as the usual belching buses and window-tinted Mercedes. The city sits in a valley between Okanagan-looking mountains made of grasslands and topped off by a skiff of forest. The air is wonderfully dry and much cooler than the Korea we have left behind.

We have taken two days to walk around the city trying to take it all in, and we're somewhat confused by what we see. Most places we're looking for have been found (or not) not on the main streets, but behind main streets. To get to them you have to walk through empty lots and dirt tracks we'd never think of walking down anywhere else. Most places are not where they should be on the map, and we've taken to just 'heading in that direction' and 'finding what we can find' in terms of restaurants and attractions. Huge apartment blocks are deserted, and just one block off the main road you're met with pebbled 'streets' and broken fences. They certainly borrowed heavily from the Russian style of architecture, so the Leather Goods Factory, a Government Building and the local abandoned apartment block all look the same, give or take a few panes of glass and some misplaced concrete.

The people found here are a similar mixture of coifed and non-coifed, which makes for an interesting mix. Lots of foreigners of all ages and nationalities ply the roads and cross the streets with us in nervous bunches. We spent an hour yesterday with a sunny Portuguese man finding out that the avenues out of this country are few. We've decided to take a 20 hour local train ride to the border, cross the border into China, and then figure out the final 12 hours to Beijing once there. There are no seats on International trains until September 8th, and flights would break the bank. Who knew Mongolia was such a hot-spot??!

Tomorrow morning we leave the growing/aged city for the countryside for 4 days in a ger camp for some hiking, solitude and greenery. Should be fantastic, and hopefully the internet connection will be good enough after the trip for us to load some pictures!! Take care, and hope all are well back home.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Saying Goodbye

Our time in Korea comes to an end on Tuesday the 14th, and our last day of work for over a year is under 6 hours away from being complete. Our time in this small country has been absolutely wonderful. The places we've gone, the people we've met, the experiences we've been fortunate enough to enjoy and the memories we have made here in South Korea have left an impression upon us that won't soon dissipate.

For over a month now we've been slowly working away at our 5 piles (things to send home, things to sell, things to give away, things to leave here and things to pack for our travels), and finally we're getting close to whittling everything down to fitting in our two travel backpacks. Cody says the mess in our apartment has downsized from 'nuclear' to 'napalm' to 'hurricane' in the past three days alone. Impressive.

Our great staff, whose company we've enjoyed so much and who we'll miss in the months to come.

One thing that has been the toughest to say goodbye to has been the friends we've worked with over the past two years. We were extremely lucky to have 10 other foreigners to work with, who were not only our sounding boards and moral support when needed, but also our camping partners, soccer, ultimate and basketball teammates, our wine-tasting amis and 10 more reasons to look forward to heading in to work every day. With 8 of us leaving after today, we wish the remaining 4 the best of luck in building the wonderful closeness we've enjoyed so much in the past years!

Parting with our Pride, and its new proud owner - Casey from Jeonju.

Our nice little car has driven us 40,000 km around this country, affording us looks into places many foreign teachers don't have the luxury to peer into. Up mountains and through tunnels, across bridges and into snow storms, our travels in Korea have opened our eyes to what this country has to offer!

One of our friends, Mr. Yu with Ha-yeon, his darling daughter.

Our Korean friends have taught us innumerable things about the Korean people and culture and have helped explain things during the usual times of bafflement you get when you live in a foreign country. We've come from knowing nothing about Korea except about the Korean War to having a fairly solid understanding of what makes this country tick, and what makes their people so fiercely patriotic. This understanding will in turn help us grasp the deeper meanings of the changes we'll see in this country in the years to come, whether that be union with their fellow Koreans to the North, or another amazing economic spurt.

Certainly times are changing here like they are elsewhere, the younger generation beginning to fight against the older's grasp on things. Like the first generation without war in the Western world has made huge inroads into changing the social and cultural landscape there, so this first generation without war will do the same. With such a deeply Confucian system, however, that change will take longer to play out, and indeed it may take until the next generation for things to radically change.

We've been so fortunate in the experiences South Korea has afforded us. Emily has finished a Master's Degree in Oriental Studies, and learned about Asian culture and religion from teachers who grew up with these values. That experience cannot be done in Canada. Her thesis is now finished printing and editing, so if you'd like a copy, she'll be more than happy to send you a copy through email! I have also been fortunate in having my eyes opened to conservation and shorebird counting. The experiences I have had with Nial, Birds Korea and through the involvement in the SSMP have changed the roles Emily and I now play in the greater society, and given us cause to stop and think about how fragile the world around us is, and how necessary it is for us to change our behaviour.

As you know, we're heading to Mongolia first, where we'll be for 10 days until we meet up with Mom and Dad Styles in Beijing on the 25th of August. The adventure begins. As internet will be as spotty as sit down toilets and hot showers while traveling, we will not be updating the blog every day. We do aim, however, to update once a week, hopefully on Mondays, to keep you abreast of our travels. So, check in on us every once in a while, and please send us emails more often than that:)) Take care, and we hope this finds you happy and healthy.