Mongolia Infection

My sister took me on the Trans Siberian Rail, from Beijing to Moscow.


That experience is fodder for a future blog entry (or series), where I hope I’ll be able to capture how truly life-changing it was.

But, I want to carve out our time in Mongolia separately.

Mongolia was unexpected, awesome, fascinating, and infecting.  By infecting, I mean I “caught” an unexpected love for the country and its history and its people.

In preparing for the trip, I had read all kinds of accounts of the Trans Siberian experience itself, and I had read about the nomadic camp in the Gobi desert thatin which we’d be staying in a ger tent.  So I had done my research, but I hadn’t really spent any time considering its people, history or culture.

After having “caught my infection” I am now an avid reader of Mongolian current events, and am fascinated by its history, ancient and modern.

First, our trip…

We exited the train at Ulan Baatar, Mongolia’s capital city, and were struck by the juxtaposition between being in the middle of nowhere, and being in a highly industrialized soviet city.

That is only the first of many contrasts we encountered: food that is a cross between Russian, Chinese and “nomadic”; a language that is written in Cyrillic (although the Mongols are highly resentful of their Soviet history); a poor economy, rich in minerals (see Soviet resentment); a people who are working to regain their pride, identity and nationalism, and yet trying to also enter the modern world culture and economy.

All of this is dizzying, and I found it addictive as well.

On our drive to the nomadic camp where we stayed in a ger tent (which is like a yurt) for a few days, our modern van broke down.  So, we had to hike miles through the Gobi Desert, until we were rescued by carts and horses.

mongolia cart

mongolia tire

At the ger camp, we rode horses, watched cultural shows, feasted, drank fermented milk, and hiked in the desert.  And we played volleyball, fell in love with the wild dogs, and flirted with the cowboys.

mongolia ger

mongolia hike

mongolia cowboy

It was sad to say goodbye to Mongolia, it was, by far, the hardest place to leave on the whole trip.

When I got back to Chicago, I was still buzzing with my love for the place, and quickly read two books:

1. Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World 2. Michael Walter’s The Shadow Walker

Between these two books, you get an excellent idea of the ancient history of and the current situation in Mongolia.

The best thing about Weatherford’s book on Khan is that he focuses on more than the bloodthirsty conquering aspect of the historic icon.  I finished his book with a real appreciation of why the Mongols are trying to resurrect him as a national hero.  Of course, they want to identify with the man who helped the Mongols become a fearsome powerhouse (he conquered more in his reign than the Romans did in centuries).  But, also, they want to celebrate the progressive man who promoted tolerance of religion and cultures, and who opened new trade and communication channels.

mongolia weatherford

Walters’ fictional murder mystery was fun to read because Ulan Baatar and a ger camp make up the setting, and he does an entertaining job of bringing to light a lot of modern Mongolia’s quirks and challenges through the eyes of a foreign (British) detective.

mongolia walters

I can’t honestly be sure if I would have enjoyed the book if I hadn’t been to Mongolia, or at least had an interest in it.  But, as both are true, I turned the pages as excited to see how Inspector Nergui solved the crime as I was to read about the setting and surrounding events.

I think of Mongolia on a daily basis, since I have named my dog Gobi.  She looks just like one of the dogs my sister and I met and adopted for the duration of our stay.  Like my dog, my memories of Mongolia are never far from my heart.

mongolia gobi




Hawaii Deserves Better From Me

I have been lucky enough to visit Hawaii four times so far.  And, I can say without reservation that I loved it each time.  I’ve rented open-air jeeps and driven around volcanoes and found deserted beaches.  I learned to surf.  I danced the hula, ate roasted pig and plates of fresh pineapple, and drank piña coladas.  I visited Pearl Harbor, watched whales dive, and experienced magical sunsets.


I know this paragraph will sound snobbish and off-putting, but here I go: everyone speaks English so it’s comfortable and easy.  And it’s American, so it’s clean and modern.  There aren’t any bugs or snakes.  Or exotic diseases.  You can drink the water.

As a tourist, it is hard to imagine a more potent example of paradise.

But, taking off my tourist hat and looking at Hawaiians as fellow Americans, I start to feel a little more uncomfortable.  They have a long and tortured relationship with the mainland U.S., and their rich culture, I feel, has been Disneyized for easy consumption.

After my last trip there I was determined to learn more about it and be a more responsible tourist.  So, I read Sarah Vowell’s “Unfamiliar Fishes”.

unfamiliar fishes

Anyone familiar with Vowell (I wasn’t) will immediately see the error of my ways.  Her book is very entertaining.  But, even in the course of criticizing the patronizing way the missionaries and U.S. government treated the nation of Hawaii, her easy-breezy, overly-chatty tone manages to patronize its history.

I was enjoying the book so much as I read it, that it wasn’t until almost the end that I realized how cringe-worthy this irony really is.  And how much I felt like the book was my fifth visit to Hawaii, where I thoroughly enjoyed myself but didn’t give the island or its people the respect they deserve.

In fairness, I did learn a lot.  From the death of Captain Cook, to the influx of missionaries, whalers and sugar cane prospectors, I do have a much more nuanced understanding of the plight of the Native Hawaiians as their population was decimated from 300,000 to a mere 40,000.

But, as much as Vowell educated me that Hawaiians are sensitive to this day about their annexation into the U.S., I was left feeling uneasy with her flippant tone and the shallowness of her descriptions.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

Annexation ceremony in 1898 in Honolulu.

The truth is, I have been spoiled by all the effort that Ryszard Kapuściński, and other authors I’ve been reading, make to remove the “Us and Them” mentality, and explain history, places and cultures with sensitivity and depth.  And, that’s just not the charter Vowell embraces.  She is purely an entertainer.

I ate up her book, but it left me hungry, with the all too familiar guilt of a junk food binge.

Lietuva Part I: It’s In My Blood

My dad was born in Lithuania (Lietuva), and escaped with his family during World War II.  Although my dad sports a classic Chicago accent, his parents never learned English, and I spent many days of my childhood listening to the grown-ups speaking Lithuanian, while my sister and I ate Lithuanian food and were spoiled with wordless affection.


I think it is because of this time that I don’t flinch when I find myself spending hours surrounded by people speaking to each other in languages I can’t comprehend.  I have become pretty adept at following conversations through body language, tone, and facial expressions.  Sure, understanding the words is a plus.  But it’s often not needed.

I recently heard Ruta Sepetys speak at a Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference, and I was blown away.  Let me say, first, that I think the whole audience was in awe of this dynamic woman.  But, on a personal level, she shares my relationship with Lithuania.  She, too, is the daughter of immigrants.  She, too, had family who was displaced, exiled, and killed in the war and post-war.  And, she, too, grew up not speaking the language, but being surrounded by its music.

between shades of grey

After her speech, I immediately downloaded her book, Between Shades of Gray, and devoured it.  It is an important story for me, for my family, and for Lithuania.  But, it is also an important story for all of us to be reminded that there were atrocities committed in World War II beyond those horrors architected by Hitler.

Though the eyes of a 15-year-old Lithuanian girl in 1941, Sepetys reminds us that Stalin has even more blood on his hands.

I’m Going to Graceland

There are a few places in the United States that are still on the top of my list to go visit.  I have done a pretty good job seeing the country, but there are gaps.  One of the gaps until recently was Graceland, and Memphis, in general.

When describing myself, “Elvis fan” would not make the list of characteristics.  But, I do love me some Elvis.  And, I have always wanted to make the pilgrimage to see his house (and car museum, and plane).  And, I was looking forward to a lot more than just Graceland:  I wanted to see the duck parade at the Peabody Hotel, try Guss’s famous fried chicken, and listen to some music on Beale Street.

We got to Memphis, and headed directly to the Heartbreak Hotel, where we spent our first night.  (We were actually scheduled to stay both nights there, but immediately upon checking in, we decided we needed a plan B.)  Then, we taxied to Beale street, and got into the Memphis groove.

The next day we toured Graceland, which lived up to all my expectations, and then moved into the Peabody Hotel where we saw the ducks.  The staff at the Peabody couldn’t have been friendlier and they directed us to Guss’s, where we imbibed several frosty beers while waiting for our table.  The wait was worth it, that chicken was finger licking delicious.

The whole visit to Memphis, I was thinking about the latest Stephen King book which I had just finished, 11/22/63.  In a nutshell, it is about a time traveler from the present day who travels back into the late 1950’s in an attempt to stop the assignation of John F Kennedy.  I really enjoyed the book, and while it doesn’t take place in Memphis, it kept coming to mind.

One of the major takeaways I got from the novel was that while, in many ways, the late 50’s and early 60’s were a golden era in the US (the food was tastier, the beer was fresher, the air was cleaner, the cars better), it was really only a golden era if you were a white, Christian, heterosexual man.  If you weren’t, you are a lot better off in 2012, no matter how good the food used to taste.