Posts tagged Mongolia

What?! March all ready???

We are half way through our semester and I have great students, one from Mongolia, another from India and two from Asia: China and Japan.  The last student has an interesting background, his grandfather went to Japan from his home of Korea.  I asked this student if he doesn’t consider himself part Korean…like we Americans think of our Nordic background or Italian or French ancestry.  No…he feel 100% Japanese which is puzzling to me.  I suppose because the Koreans and Japanese don’t like each other, especially after WWII, then you have to be distinctively one or the other, not a mix.  I love this student’s laugh, he is also a big guy for an Asian.

The Mongolian student is very quiet and is not too strong of a writing student. Based on where she has come from, I can understand why writing would not be her strongest suit.  She had a GREAT story about her grandparents.  Her grandfather fell in love with this woman but then he had to go serve in the Sino-Mongolian war.  He left behind this woman who had been promised in an arranged marriage to someone else.  She slipped away just before the wedding and lived in Ulan Baator for several years until she could meet up with her lover, my student’s grandfather after he had served his three years.  Her grandmother, as it turns out, had not let her family know where she was so she could marry the man she loved and NOT the one who was arranged for her.

I have another student from several years back who had a grandfather who fought in the Navy during WWII in the Pacific Ocean. He took sick and was brought over to a hospital ship but meanwhile when he was gone from his original fighting ship, it was attacked. Every single person died that he knew because of an explosion, he was the only person to survive that attack.  He lived with survivor’s guilt all his life but he did end up marrying the nurse who took care of him on the hospital ship.

Yes, I have wonderful students who are trying to learn APA formatting so that they can write more academic papers. The first assignment is always the easiest because I am asking them to describe someone they love and respect. Some don’t know their grandparents but have heard a LOT about them from others.  I feel privileged to be able to see into these lives of the GREAT Generation, no matter what country they come from.

The spring weather is very tempting to go out with not as much wraps on, I’ve been getting some great photos of sunsets and sunrises.  I’ll show off some of MY grandparents instead.  I have reason to be proud of both sides of my family. They were farmers and hard workers. These are both of my grandpas and my Dad on Father’s Day.

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What I remember of Astana, Kazakhstan, THEE coldest capital in the world…almost

Yes, we just experienced Astana cityscape

40 mph winds this past weekend and I was reminded what it was like living in Astana. It has the recognition of being the SECOND coldest capital in the world…after Ulan Bataar, Mongolia.  I thought it was THEE coldest some days I was out in it.  Wearing fur helped, having cuddle duds on under pants also provided the necessary warmth. Owning a good pair of boots that only Canadians know how to put together and wearing mittens instead of gloves was the key to staying warm in the onslaught of merciless winds.  In any case, as I listened to the wind howl around our house, I thought of those who live and work in Astana and what they have to put up with for almost 5-6 months.  I understand coming from Minnesota.

What most of us do is look at seed catalogs and think about our spring planting. We look at summer pictures with blue skies and green trees and grass. We tell ourselves that “soon and very soon, we will  have warmer temps again.”  The people on the East Coast from New York passed Washington D.C. just had about 2-3 feet of snow dumped on them.  They don’t know how to handle that sort of thing.  Best to just hunker down and do what I suggested above…or read a good book.

Anyway, green grass will be back soon and then there is the mowing of the lawns that happen all too frequently.  Enjoy each day no matter what the temperature or weather…it is a gift!

downtown

 

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Twenty-seven Questions and First Impressions of Kyrgyzstan (Part III)

My last part of a letter I wrote to Tanya, dated May 8, 1994. She was a teaching colleague and friend at the Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota where we taught ITAs (International Teaching Assistants) together.
20) How are you surviving in terms of food, heat, housing and friends?
The food has little fiber or what there is might be peeled off because of uncertainty in the pesticides used. I am back to eating the apple skins if they are good apples. Many people eat sunflower seeds everywhere. There is LOTS of meat here so for all vegetarians who plan to come to this part of the world, think again. Many of the Peace Corps volunteers that I trained last summer had to succumb to the lifestyle here or they were forever in a heat about all the meat that was served. It is simply part of this culture, the nomadic tribesmen herding their sheep around.
In fact, yesterday I was at the market wanting to buy some sheep for the manti [steamed meat dumpling] party I was to have with my Kyrgyz students that evening but there was only beef. On my way home I was walking on the sidewalk of the main drag when I saw a sheep running at full tilt down the main street in the oncoming traffic lane. He was being chased by three-four men. I thought to myself, “that was the sheep I need for my party.” The sheep kept getting away from the men and probably was hit by a car. It is unusual to see a live sheep in the middle of an urban setting, they are EVERYWHERE out in the country. Food is plentiful and the vegetables are seasonal. The winter months there were no cucumbers or tomatoes but now that is ALL that you will see for salads at restaurants for the next six months.
As far as heat, I had a cold apartment but that is because the windows are not insulated well. This is because of poor workmanship. However, the winter months here are mild compared to Minnesota winters. I didn’t suffer too badly from my cold apartment since I had an electric heater and blanket. I love the place where I live, seven stories up with a view of the mountains from the east AND west sides. I pay $130 a month for a four room “flat.”
You asked about friends…I have my teacher friends and I have friends that I made through Peace Corps, the sauna, and also the church that I attend. There are plenty of people here I can go to plus I have e-mail so that I can keep up with old friends back in the States!
21) Have you had to deal with any shortages?
No, not like when I lived in China (1986-88) where they didn’t have sugar for a time or butter at other times. But yes, because they don’t have peanut butter or brown sugar or Stateside items like that, I just bring it with me when I have a chance to go home. We do not have massive shortages that I am aware of like I experienced in China or that they have in Mongolia, for instance. Also, I have money that can buy me more things whereas the local people on their subsistence living could probably tell you about shortages.
22) Have you had many opportunities to get to know any of the faculty there?
Yes, my dean, of course we are becoming friends in a professional sense. Others that I teach pronunciation to, I have had them over for a manti party. I don’t feel particularly close to any of my Kyrgyz teaching colleagues since they often have more than one job to supplement their income. They are busy with family too.
23) Have you been able to make many friends with the locals? As I mentioned before, I have my sauna friends and my landlady is my friend, as is my Russian teacher. I have not invested a lot of time in getting to know their culture by going to their homes and participating in their traditions. It would be a Russified form and not a true picture of the real Kyrgyz.
24) How would you typify the culture? It is a sort of hybrid of Russian and Kyrgyz, more heavily influenced by the Russian communist way of thinking. Perhaps there is some Asian way of thinking but compared to the Chinese I know and living in China, the Kyrgyz are more westernized. By the way, they have a strong dislike for anything Chinese! Carryover of Russia’s prejudice against their formidable border foe.
25) Would you say that it is heavily influenced by Russian culture, Turkish culture, Mongolian or what?
As mentioned already, the Russians have heavily influenced the capital city and the Turkish language has had a heavy influence in the Kyrgyz language. Perhaps if you went out to the countryside, the Mongolian presence would be strong, but I don’t know.
26) Do you feel it is easy to get to know people or do you find the people to be somewhat reserved?
They are fairly easy to get to know and rather “too” straightforward about their opinion sometimes. (Russian influence) They are not reserved like the Chinese I know. In fact, most of the Kyrgyz students I have are quite extroverted and outgoing. Their speaking skills are very good for never having had a native speaker talk to them before this year.
27) How are you looked upon being a single woman?
It is much easier to be single here in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan than it was in China. There they thought something was wrong with you if you weren’t married by age 25. Here, for foreigners, they made allowances up to 30. But here in Bishkek they seem to have a more westernized view of life and again this is my views from the people in the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Perhaps in the countryside they would think that I should be married with seven kids by now.
Tanya, that is all for now. Hopefully I have shed some light on the little bit that I know about this Kyrgyz culture. I remember a year ago I had these same questions. So answering them now to the best of my abilities made me think that I have actually learned something about this culture and am happy to share it with you.
By the way, Tanya, your name is very popular here. One of my best friend’s name is Tatyana, she is living in Almaty, Kazakhstan and her friends call her Tanya for short. I hope this has helped you and that you apply for a Fulbright here because they would love to have your expertise…

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“Nowadays” and “To my mind…”

Been a while since I wrote anything strictly about Central Asia, today is the DAY!  While teaching in Almaty it was brought to my attention by a fellow American teacher that our Kazakh students over-used the word “nowadays.”  He was tired of it and suggested other words that could be used instead.  That didn’t bother me as much as “to my mind” which really was our way of saying, “I think” or longer version of “To my way of thinking.”  Fortunately I never heard my Russian speaking Kazakh students refer to their body as an “organism.” That used to really bother me while teaching in Ukraine but I think their post-Soviet English teachers must have cleared that vocabulary word up right away.

I get a little bit nostalgic for the things my Kazakh or Ukrainian students used to write and so I am including a few proverbs from some Central Asian students which applies to their culture of Uzbekistan.  I have often remarked to my husband that we could always go to Mongolia to teach.  He surprises me lately when he actually takes me seriously.  My pining for things foreign again is perhaps similar to the kid’s book titled “Alexander’s no good, horrible, bad day” where Alexander thinks moving to Australia will solve all his problems.  If only I had visited Samarkand and Bukara in Uzbekistan when I had the chance with my Russian friend Tatyana who wanted to bring me there nearly 20 years ago.  I knew Tatyana back when I was a Peace Corps trainer in Almaty the summer of 1993.  I should have taken her up on it because I believe Uzbekistan is closed off to Americans for now.

Anyway, doing a bit of reading up on the Uzbek culture I see they have similar attributes to that of Kazakhstan (small wonder since they are neighbors and come from the same gene pool).  Here are a few of the proverbs that seem to run counter to their governmental policies of keeping American tourists out.  I know Americans can get in, but from descriptions I have heard from fellow American travelers, it is NOT easy.

“A guest is as honorable as a father.”

“Hospitality is above enmity.”

“Seven neighbors are the parents of one child.”

“When guests come to one’s home, that family is full of abundance and luck.”

Finally, I’ll end with an Arabic proverb “Time is like a sword. If you don’t cut, it cuts you.”  I think it means to use your valuable time wisely in pursuit of useful activities.

“Nowadays,” I am trying to use my time wisely as I feel “grounded” in a good way in the U.S.  My husband and I continue to wait our summons on where our next job will be.  Stay in the U.S. or return to Central Asia (or even Mongolia).  Believe it or not, I actually miss seeing my students’ papers that read “to my mind.” Soon they will have such good English that all of those Russian translation carry-overs will disappear forever.

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How fluid are Kazakhstan’s borders with China?

While I lived in Harbin, Heilongjiang in the late 1980s, I had always heard about Urumqi in the western part of China.  Northeast China is a LOOOOnnnggg ways away. Just compare the distance of East Coast of the U.S. with the West Coast.  I lived closer to Urumqi while I lived in Kazakhstan’s capital of Astana.  Missed my chance to see what used to be considered Uyghurstan or whatever spelling you choose for an ethnic group that was Muslim and did not look Oriental.  I remember when I was visiting in Shanghai or Guangzhou, we would be bombarded outside of our hotel with “change money, change money…” by the Uyghurs.  I wonder if they still do that or if they have become more sophisticated in making money off of the clueless foreigners.

Anyway, I know friends of mine who did cross the Kazakhstan border into China and it was an arduous task.  Long waits and no service mentality to come to the aid of hapless travelers who didn’t know what they were in for except an adventure to China.  I’m including a map of Kazakhstan and China’s border from a Chinese perspective.  I would like to know more about this region of the world.  I’ve suggested many times to my husband that we could always go to Mongolia to teach, another place I’d like to visit.  We shall see.  For now, maybe I should just rent out the movie “Close to Eden.”  Besides wonderful cinematography, it shows a clash of Chinese and Mongolian and Russian cultures all in one mix.

I’m also wondering about human trafficking between the borders of China and Kazakhstan (or Kyrgyzstan for that matter), how easy is it to cross illegally over the Tien Shan mountains?  I need to find someone who knows the geography of this little known area in Central Asia.  Of course, the traffickers know where the leaky places are and perhaps they have also greased the palms of those who are in charge of law enforcement at the borders. So much corruption on both sides, too many victims will sadly fall prey to the traffickers deceitful lies.

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“Weeping Camel” movie about nomadic life on Mongolian steppes

National Geographic made a great film titled “Weeping Camel” if you want to know what life on the nomad’s steppe is like in Mongolia. It could just as well have been filmed in Kazakhstan. It showed several Mongolian families in their yurts and featured one of their camels delivering a baby camel.  It took two days and was a very difficult delivery.  The mother camel rejected her baby that was white, which is rare for camels.  I thought the best line in the film is when someone in the family, an older and wiser person said, “We must find a good violinist” to help with the ritual of getting mother and colt back together.  All is subtitled in English because the conversations are all naturally in Mongolian.

Here is how the movie starts, quote taken from imdb.com:

 Now my children I’ll tell you the story of the weeping camel. Many years ago, God gave antlers to the camel as a reward for the goodness of its heart. But one day a rogue deer came and asked the camel to lend him his antlers. He wanted to adorn himself with them for a celebration in the west. The camel trusted the deer and gave him his antlers, but the deer never brought them back. Since then the camels keep gazing at the horizon and still await the deer’s return.

I’m not sure how National Geographic was able to do the filming but they got a LOT of intimate shots of the children getting bathed, baby girl crying when she was put on a leash inside the yurt next to grandma, sharing meals, etc. We also saw the delivery of the baby camel and how they tried to coerce the mother to return to her baby while the baby camel wailed and moaned.  They had to force feed the baby camel from a horn filled with milk from another mother camel.  Arduous work, best that the mother camel do her job as a mother.

The cutest part is the little Mongolian boy about 5-6 years old wants to ride with his older brother on a camel to the nearby town where they must fetch the musician who will do the ritual.  Remember, they must find a good violinist.  Keep in mind that their violin has only two strings but the same kind of bow that we are used to seeing.  It looks like an er-hu that the Chinese play but is boxy instead.

The little boy can’t even mount the camel by himself.  He is in awe of the television set that people have in more civilized areas.  He asks why they can’t have a t.v. and his older brother’s reply is that they have no electricity in their yurt.  They do buy batteries for their grandfather’s radio which is their only connection to the outside world.

I highly recommend renting or buying this DVD. Though it is slow moving, the photography and the story line are great.  I won’t tell you the ending whether the mother camel and her offspring finally get together. That would be a major spoiler to the whole plot of the movie.  Enjoy the extended family, how they live without any outside interference from the rest of the world.  This gives you a clear picture of what life used to be like in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and other parts of Central Asia.  Life is close to nature with herding sheep, cattle, camels and living off the land.  Simple as that.

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“The Way Back” or “The Long Walk” of 4,000 miles out of Siberia’s prison

Last night we watched “The Way Back” starring Ed Harris and a superb cast of actors (including one 16 year old girl). The movie is based on a true story of an original group of 7-8 men who walked away from an Siberian prison camp in 1941.  My husband, as a young boy, had read the book that was first published in 1955 titled “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” written by Ronald Downing.  That alone clinched our decision to experience this epic journey through cold, mountain passes and thirsty, Mongolian deserts. My husband wanted to see how close the movie fit to his recollection of reading this book 45-50 years ago.

Interestingly enough, Ronald Downing had started his own quest in Tibet of the legendary abominable snowman. However, he instead started gathering information about a Polish man, Slavomir Rawicz, who had walked across eastern Siberia to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia, through China, Tibet and the Himalayans to finally gain his freedom in India. That was more compelling to write about than a snowman.

No doubt the film’s director Peter Weir had some parts of Downing’s book “Hollywood-ized”  However, the main meaning comes across in the special features after the movie.  That is, the inhumanity present in 100s of concentration camps throughout the Soviet Union is little known by people from the West.  I’m guessing for every 100 movies about Nazi atrocities in concentration camps, you have one movie about what Stalin did to his own people of the U.S.S.R. with the Siberian gulags. (That would also include Kazakhstan’s KARLAG system too)

The Soviet system was extremely brutal to their political prisoners who were imprisoned alongside REAL criminals of thieves and murderers.  There is one character, Valka, in this story who owned a knife, he called it “the wolf.” He also had tatooed on his chest the faces of Lenin and Stalin.  Though he believed in communism, he actually helped the other “politicals” survive in the wilds with the use of his knife. Yet he turned back once they got to the Trans-Siberian railway which they thought was the end of the Soviet Union and walking into freedom…sadly Mongolia had been taken over by USSR and so their trek to freedom continued.

The movie skipped over the Himalayans since the over two hour long movie had already shown its audience enough of the bitter cold of Siberia and reaching Lake Baikal and then the dry desert scenes. Also, I don’t think the actors or camera and production crews could fathom doing more marathon type survivalist living in the mountains.

The real hero of this story (played by Jim Sturgess) in both the movie and the book was Slavomir Rawicz, this Polish army officer who had been captured by the Red Army and accused of being a Nazi. His wife had been tortured to create a false testimony against him and Slavomir was summarily imprisoned by the Communists out to Siberia. He successfully trekked 4,000 miles after escaping from a Siberian prisoner of war camp. He survived the ordeal which lasted about a year because he knew how to live in the outdoors and survive on nature’s food and water.  He was accused by the Ed Harris character, known only as “Mr. Smith” of not being able to survive in the prisoner’s camp because he was too kind and helped other prisoners.  Perhaps his kindness and knowledge of how to survive is what eventually prevailed and got the two other men out alive with him.

Apparently, the older American, dubbed “Mr. Smith” had earlier watched his 17 year old son die at the mercy of communists then he was sent to the gulag and once “free” went on the Lhasa, Tibet. We don’t know if he survived once he parted ways with Slavomir and the others.  Also, I’m not sure if the movie ended accurately which showed how Slavomir had waited until Poland was free from the bonds of communist oppression to see his wife again after being separated for almost 50 years.  I would like to get a copy of the old book titled “The Long Walk” to read what my husband had read 50 years ago.  Such a remarkable story had a great impact on him.  The movie may have a profound impact on many other westerners as well.

Why don’t more people in the West know about the gulag system that happened throughout Russia and Kazakhstan?  Little is written because few people survived the cruel brutalities!  I would highly recommend watching this movie “The Way Back.”

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