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Mongolia. Seriously. The Sequel.


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#1 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 02:08 PM

To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII.

The escape-fantasies began after I had walked about 10 miles barefoot through slippery mud (yes, it was clay) in an evaporating (not quickly enough for our needs, though) lake in the middle of the Gobi Desert (carrying no drinking-water) in the hopes of convincing a bunch of Mongolians (prospective Mongolians, rather, because they were too far away to determine who they were at first, and who, it turns out, spoke zero English) to walk back with me through the slippery mud "lake" to help extricate our vehicle. As their reward, they would get to walk all the way back to their trucks because we didn't have enough room to transport them. Nor could we transport ourselves -- I had to slog once again to the edge of the "lake" until the jeep hit dry ground before we were able to catch a ride around. (As you may recall, this had been our original, unheeded suggestion seven hours earlier.)

When I returned to the jeep with the Mongol horde in tow, J casually suggested: "What would you think about spending next week on the beach somewhere -- maybe Bali or the south of Thailand . . . " Until then, my intractable nature hadn't permitted even the slightest bit of speculation about an escape plan, but the seed was planted and my imagination ran with it: hot showers, beaches, really good Thai food, spa treatments!

It was something to think about, at least, as our driver's redoubled efforts to get us past the lake -- an automobile graveyard of sorts -- became increasingly punishing.

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At the all-time crazy-high of his driving insanity, a jar of pickles (the previous day, psycho-driver had purchased several jars of homemade pickles and, despite my protestations, refused to stow them sensibly) flew into the air, ricocheted off the ceiling, and crashed into J's back, whereupon it shattered, raining glass shards, pickles, and pickle juices all over J (and, to a lesser extent, the rest of us).

The next logical step in this madcap progression would, you might expect, involve stopping and attempting to address the issue of the pickles--and more importantly, the glass shards that would soon be embedded in our asses. But our driver, veritably possessed at this point, refused to stop. His latest operating theory was that, if he stopped where he was, he would get stuck, even though we were no longer in the lake and were in no more danger of getting stuck than we would have been on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. May I also remind everybody that this was the same day on which we ran out of gas and had to sleep on the floor of a Mongolian gas station.

Like a prisoner of war, it was the fantasy of eventual escape that sustained us. As we drove for 14 hours the next day, nestled among the residue of pickle juices and more than a few stray shards of glass, we watched intently for the lights of UB and, with the remaining vestiges of our sanity, in the back seat, we secretly planned our tropical beach vacation where mutton fur and gristle would be nothing but distant dreams.

That night back in UB, our translator/guide, J, and I feasted at Ristorante Della Casa-2. We had planned to dine at Pizza Della Casa, which seems to be synonymous with Ristorante Della Casa-1, but we were thwarted by a surreal quirk of UB's transportation network: nobody in the entire city, and especially not the cab drivers, knows the names of the streets. Any of the streets. Like, if there existed a Main Street in UB, nobody there would know its name, because they navigate nomad-style, strictly by landmarks and perhaps the constellations.

I would like to pause at this time to assure you that everything I'm telling you is the truth.

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Luckily, in the process of searching for Pizza Della Casa aka Ristorante Della Casa-1, we stumbled across the Ristorante Della Casa-2 outpost. Were I to tell you that our translator/guide ordered a pizza, and were I to offer you a prize -- say, a piece of "old cheese," if you guessed correctly -- do you think you might be able to guess what kind of topping she had on her pizza?

All pretense of wanting to enjoy authentic Mongolian cuisine had been thrashed out of us somewhere in the desert, and at this point there was no hesitation about ordering Western food. Not that we could actually get any Western food, but even an approximation of bad Western food sounded dreamy to us. Even the copious mayonnaise (perhaps it's yogurt, I lied to myself) on J's salad didn't stop me from eating almost all of it.

We were due to depart early the next morning on a flight to Olgii, the capital of the aimag (province) in the western part of Mongolia, where the population is predominantly Kazakh. Over dinner we told our translator/guide that we weren't going. J's symptoms had been worsening and she was barely able to fight gravity enough to stand up. And my upper respiratory situation was no picnic either -- J and I sounded like the entire population of a sanitarium as depicted in early 20th Century German literature.

Our translator/guide called back to Olgii, the seat of power, where the owner of the guide company and his wife live, to inform them of our decision. This threw the wife (the owner was out "in the countryside" with a group of 14 Swedes) into a kerfuffle. So distressed was she that we weren't coming, she begged (via the translator/guide) us to reconsider. She would personally arrange everything for us, she would care for us, she would take extra good care of J, everything would be seamless, she promised. We declined the offer.

I was due to spend the following day with our translator/guide visiting UB's greatest-hits attractions. J could barely extract herself from bed, but I made her agree to join me at the hotel's buffet breakfast (included in the cost of the room). As we prepared to head off to breakfast, it became clear that J's traveler's checks were missing. All of them.

No, there is no American Express office in Mongolia. There is, however, a place that American Express has designated as its authorized backup-subcontractor-assistant-agent. Not that this office was authorized to actually issue replacement travelers checks, but J was asked to fill out an opus of documents, forms, and paperwork (which we did tag-team, swapping her paperwork back and forth) in the hopes that she could get replacements by the end of one week -- one day before we would depart the country forever (this was the optimistic scenario). The woman who helped us was, however, extremely nice.

We began the search for medication. By the way, if you need to make a phone call in UB, there are no pay-phones per se. There are, instead, guys wandering around with phones. Not exactly the cellular phones we're accustomed to. They're like regular desk phones, but totally wireless. At first we speculated that maybe all these guys were wandering telephone-equipment salespeople, but we figured it out after awhile.

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Eventually we located a pharmacy, and after scrutinizing several shelves full of Mongolian medicines, some thankfully with a few English words on their labels, we were able to find something that we were pretty darn sure was an antibiotic, and possibly even one intended for human consumption (one might think that this, of all situations, would have been an ideal opportunity to make use of the fact that our guide was really a translator by training, but alas she was apparently not trained in this particular area of vocabulary). The medicine was in the form of a liquid suspension, which added an eerie aura of Middle Ages-style alchemy to the whole experience. Little did we know that the woman only sold J enough for two days, but at least it was something.

We were so buoyed by our triumphs that day -- to be clear, I am referring to the events described in the three preceding paragraphs, which at the time felt like triumphs -- that J and I cast aside our weak-willed fantasizing and shallow dreams of spa treatments and tropical cocktails served in hollowed-out pineapples with paper umbrellas. We were going to press on to the western part of Mongolia and see some damn Kazakhs if it was the last thing we did.

We made arrangements to depart the following morning, and the guide company's owner's wife was ecstatic. She and our translator/guide scrambled to get us new plane tickets and fortune was shining down upon us because we were actually ticketed to fly into Olgii and not into Khovd (hundreds of kilometers away) as had been our original plan on account of lack of Olgii availability.

But the following morning, J was too sick to go. The antibiotics hadn't kicked in, she was miserable, and it was clear that if she subjected herself to the strain of additional travel she would only get worse. This time around we skipped right over the Thai beach fantasy and started talking about maybe Los Angeles as a nice place to spend a few days. This is known as hitting rock bottom.

We also discussed putting off our departure to the west for another day in hopes of an improvement in her health, me going alone and her staying in the hotel recuperating, or just moving on to Beijing and spending the week there (we had plans to spend a little time in Beijing at the end of the trip anyway).

J was insistent that I go ahead west and leave her to recuperate in the hotel. "What are you going to do, sit in the hotel room and watch me sleep?" But how could I leave her at that point? We still weren't even sure the stuff she was taking was an antibiotic. What if she got worse and was all alone? Not to mention, though I've always had an interest in Mongolia, I'm not the one who actually provided the final push to get us there. This was her dream more than mine. It was simply not an option to separate from her for even a day without first getting her medically stabilized.

We continued the now-repetitive discussion at the buffet breakfast (included in the cost of the room). We tried to find the address of an American doctor in UB but apparently there aren't any. We tried to find the address of any Western doctor. Nothing doing on that front either. Then we got the bright idea that, since there were a bunch of US Marines staying in the hotel (I hope I haven't compromised our national security by mentioning that there are US Marines on assignment in UB, but I would like to go on record as the first journalist to break the story), maybe they would be traveling with a doctor. No dice. Their unit's medic wasn't slated to arrive until September 5th. We'd be long gone by then.

I was back to fantasizing: I imagined standing up in the middle of the cavernous dining room, which was after all full of Westerners, expats, and various high-ranking officials (this was an ultra-luxury hotel by Mongolian standards), and shouting out, as in the movies, "Is there a doctor in the house!" Less dramatically, I resolved to ask everybody in the room individually. I surveyed the room, looking for candidates. I saw a Western woman, probably in her 50s, sitting with a teenage boy who I took to be her son. I got up from our table, forced myself to march across the dining room (yes, I am a life-long shy person), and asked, "Do you speak English?"

"Yes," she replied pleasantly.

"Do you happen to know of an American or Western doctor in UB?" I continued. "My friend is quite ill and we've been told by the embassy that there are no American or Western doctors here."

"Why yes," she said. "Actually, we're traveling with a physician from the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles. Let's go see him right now."

Turns out there was a group of Boy Scouts from LA doing some kind of service work in Mongolia. The doctor they had with them turned out to be a preeminent pediatrician, and he immediately gave Jennifer a thorough exam -- not to mention his mere presence was tremendously confidence-inspiring and comforting. After listening to her breathing and coughing, and checking down her throat, in her nose, chest, etc., he announced that she didn't have pneumonia, but she did have a bad case of bronchitis. And then the young man who had been sitting with the lovely woman at breakfast (he was, it turned out, not her son) produced from his bag a "Z-pack" (a course of Zithromax, the mother of all antibiotics for upper respiratory infections). And, as luck would have it, the doctor would be remaining in the hotel for the next few days and could be called upon to monitor J's progress. Things were looking up. J shoo shoo-ed me away and told me to get on my way to the west before it was too late. So it turns out that I would head out to the western part of the country in search of Kazakhs, while J would sleep off the bronchitis and recuperate in peace and quiet.

I sat alone on the flight to Olgii. I was so exhausted from all the stress and troubleshooting, and the worrying. I zoned out and watched the barren landscape far below.

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(Those aren't actually photos taken from the plane -- they're taken from ground level -- but this was a good place to put them.)

Olgii is the quintessential western town. Western Mongolia, that is. I arrived on Saturday, which is the day on which everything is closed, and Olgii looked like a ghost town. It was extremely dry and dusty and there was no one in the streets. All that was missing was the tumbleweeds.

The guide company's owner's wife greeted me at the airport with her adorable nine-year old son, a well-loved Land Cruiser, and a driver. My translator/guide, also from Olgii, was greeted by her husband.

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Can you envision the tumbleweeds?

I was whisked away to a special apartment for guests (apparently used for their small groups, as there was only one bedroom -- and I certainly qualified as a small group), where I would be able to stay alone (oh happy day!) for the night. After I was safely ensconced in the apartment, my translator/guide took her leave and Aiyka (the guide company's owner's wife) and Jan (the most adorable Mongolian cook I've ever seen, and I've seen a few) set about making us dinner in the apartment's kitchen while I washed the long trip off of me (with gloriously hot water) and down the drain. I have little memory of what we ate for dinner that night, but it was light and involved soup and home-baked (by Aiyka's daughter) bread with preserves from Russia, and margarine. Margarine? I never quite figured that out but, in the middle of this dairy-intensive nation, it is quite common to see margarine. I suppose the lack of refrigeration has something to do with it, but at the same time the Mongolians regularly eat unrefrigerated yogurt, cheese, and, yes, butter. Go figure. The meal was accompanied, as always, by bottomless bowls of milk tea.

And then Aiyka heard my cough. (Remember, although J was acutely ill, I was far from being the poster girl for good bronchial health.)

"Would you like me to treat you?" she inquired.

"Oh, you have medicine?" I asked, hopeful.

"No! Mongolian treatment!" she beamed.

Okay, time to put the kiddies to bed. This is where the story goes NC-17.

The moment I indicated my assent, Aiyka and Jan, who at that point I knew only as long as you have, descended upon me and briskly removed my shirt and started unfastening my bra. I was too dumbfounded to resist or question them. Whatever they were going to do, I hoped it wouldn't hurt.

They wrapped me in quilts from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes. They submerged my feet in a plastic basin (also used for washing clothes) of hot water with a red powdered substance mixed in. I was told it was "a spice that Russians use a lot," I guessed paprika, and research by J later indicated cayenne pepper. Jan then brought over a saucepan filled with a dark liquid and hunks of something suspended in it. Whatever it was had been cooked, and it was hot. The solid contents of this brew were removed one piece at a time (I couldn't really see all that well what was going on because the two of them were buzzing around me and the quilts, while now opened to reveal my body, still somewhat obscured my view). They placed a piece of this stuff on my back and patted it flat onto my right kidney. The left followed. I was then wrapped up in sheets of plastic, Yentl style, so tightly I could scarcely breathe. With what little breath I could draw, I asked, "What is that?" I don't know why I hadn't guessed earlier: "Horsemeat!"

I was repackaged in the quilts; not even my eyes peeked out. A hand broke through the quilt nearest my face and gestured for me to accept a drink. "Drink!" (Jan had virtually no English -- about as much as I had Mongolian -- and Aiyka was shy about speaking, even though her English turned out to be rather good). It was hot, very hot, so I blew on it for a while and it steamed my face. That alone was surprisingly comforting. Then I sipped and almost gagged. I couldn't identify the taste but to me, in my little cave world, I could have sworn that it tasted like blood. "Could it be horse-blood tea? Nah. But why not?" went the internal dialog. After all, I was already wrapped up in plastic sheets with horsemeat plastered to my back. Would horse-blood tea really come as a surprise? I managed about three sips, maybe four, and decided that it would be best not to ask for details about the tea. Denial and ignorance were my allies. The hand popped in front of my face again and the horse-blood tea (that's what I decided to call it) was withdrawn. "You didn't drink!"

"Uh, it was very hot."

"Not hot anymore! Drink this!"

A new cup was thrust at me and I cautiously blew on this one. I hazarded a sip and it seemed slightly less offensive than the previous brew. I managed to get down a couple of additional sips. That cup was removed and a third steaming cup came into my cave-world. This one seemed to be something along the lines of actual tea. I blew on it, steamed my face, and drank approximately half of the potion.

"Stay in bed for the next hour. Then go to toilet. Can you sleep like this?"

"You mean wrapped up [in [i]horsemeat?[/i]] like this?"

"Okay, we unwrap you. But stay in bed!"

Jan and Aiyka set about unwrapping me, and then put me to bed. I removed my pants, which by then had a ring of horse blood around the waistline from the dripping steaks that were pressed against my body. Aiyka whisked my pants away and returned moments later with the evidence washed away.

There followed a large amount of gesticulating and what I was able to decipher was that I was to stay in bed wrapped in the heavy quilts, and they were going to lock me into the flat--they wanted me to stay in bed at all costs, even if it meant being locked in. The door was locked from the outside -- not something I was terribly excited about. Jan would come with the keys at 9:00 the following morning to liberate me and cook up some breakfast.

What was the point of arguing? If my fate was to be trapped in a building collapse in the capital of the Mongolian Kazakh aimag with horse-blood on my pants, so be it. I was tired and the horse-blood tea had washed away some of the stress and worry of the past week. If there was a natural disaster (and at least a forest fire wasn't a concern, as there were no trees in sight), I doubt I'd have noticed anyway. And at least, in the end, I got my spa treatment.

To be continued in Part III . . .

To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII

A few photos from the meat market in Olgii:

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Construction workers are the same everywhere:

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Outdoor snooker redux:

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To read all the parts of this series please click: Part I; Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part V; Part VI; Part VII.
Ellen Shapiro
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#2 Jason Perlow

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 03:01 PM

Wow. I keep wondering how more nuts you could possibly get, but then I read something like this.
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#3 jhlurie

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 03:16 PM

The only two words I can think of are "good" and "lord".
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#4 Jinmyo

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 03:31 PM

Uh...

:blink:
"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

#5 Jinmyo

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 06:22 PM

Okay. I've had to digest this episode for a bit.

Ellen, the story is amazing. But so are you.

How do you get such amazing colours in your photographs? Do you do much digital treatment at all?

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"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

#6 foodie52

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 06:39 PM

Thank you so much: that was wonderful!

#7 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 07:36 PM

Okay. I've had to digest this episode for a bit.

How do you get such amazing colours in your photographs? Do you do much digital treatment at all?


Jin, I try to "shoot em as I see em" and not alter the photos much at all. I've done the same thing to every one of these photos: I've run the entire set through a batch processing program called DCE Auto Enhance so that the gigantic 6 megapixel images from my digital camera don't blow out your screen--it reduces images to any size, in this case 600x400. It also does a little bit of contrast adjustment and the like so that the photos are properly optimized for computer screens. But I don't do any special effects in PhotoShop or anything like that--because I'm a film photographer at heart. I kind of see the world through my own lens. I know it sounds hokey--sort of like I'm into crystals--but it's just how it is.
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#8 Rachel Perlow

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Posted 12 September 2003 - 09:03 PM

Oy vey.

My favorite line? "At least, in the end, I got my spa treatment." LOL at that one. :laugh:

If I may be so crass, Ellen, how much did you guys pay for your whirlwind tour of Mongolia?
What is the currency/exchange, for example, how much did a pizza cost at Pizza Casa?

#9 jhlurie

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 09:00 AM

Okay people, why does this post NOT have ten million or so responses? :biggrin: Somebody is crazy enough to go to Mongolia and get wrapped in raw horse meat, we need to appreciate/ridicule/gasp/wince/marvel at her!
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#10 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 09:07 AM

Sometimes even eGullet diehards are speechless. I keep reading these "Horsemeat Confidential" posts, trying to think of something to say, and the best I've been able to come up with so far is the "Tartar sauce" joke from the other thread -- which at least Pan appreciated. :raz:

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#11 shrondell

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 09:49 AM

Were you able to find any kosher restaurants there? I want to go but am a bit concerned about my dietary restrictions.

#12 Varmint

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 10:06 AM

Sometimes even eGullet diehards are speechless. I keep reading these "Horsemeat Confidential" posts, trying to think of something to say, and the best I've been able to come up with so far is the "Tartar sauce" joke from the other thread -- which at least Pan appreciated.  :raz:

My sentiments exactly. As I said in the first segment, this is my all time favorite post on this site. I'm a bit surprised Ellen hasn't decided to write a book about this (mis)adventure.
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#13 jhlurie

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 10:14 AM

Were you able to find any kosher restaurants there?  I want to go but am a bit concerned about my dietary restrictions.

I'm guessing the nearest Rabbi would be... well... there ARE a few in China, right?

Seems to me, in a country with LESS than 1% arable land (and that's apparently a recent development), Meat and dairy will be inevitably mixed.


Area:
total: 1.565 million sq km
water: 9,600 sq km
land: 1,555,400 sq km

Land use:
arable land: 0.84%
permanent crops: 0%

Irrigated land:
840 sq km (1998 est.)

from the CIA Factbook Entry on Mongolia


Unrelated to the kosher question, but one interesting thing from the Factbook. 99.1% literacy? China is only 86%. Even the US is ONLY 97%. It must be a hold-over from the Soviets. Even today, Russia has 99.6% literacy.
Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

#14 bourdain

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 10:19 AM

A fine, fine and really enjoyable report. Hardcore!
abourdain

#15 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 10:25 AM

Mongolia has a fondness for Jews.

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#16 maggiethecat

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 10:30 AM

Wow. Really. This is great reading (and writing!) Ellen.

And if you don't get a movie deal (or, at least, a mini-series) there really is no justice in this world.

Margaret McArthur

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#17 Claire

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 11:09 AM

Amazing. I can't imagine how relieved you were when you stumbled across the doctor. I wouldn't have been able to restrain myself from throwing the damn pickles out the window. I wonder if those old motorcycles have any value to collectors in the U.S. Curiously, the event that really gives me the skeevies is sleeping on the gas station floor. Fantastic report. Can't wait to read part three.

#18 Pan

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 11:27 AM

Claire took the words right out of my mouth. Maybe someday I'll fulfill my long-held fantasy of visiting Samarkand and Bukhara, but I doubt anything I ever do will be as adventurous as Ellen's fantastic voyage.

#19 Suzanne F

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 11:34 AM

Definitely Julianne Moore, with a perm.

#20 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 11:38 AM

Okay but in Ellen's defense that's no perm. That's just her hair. She's an Ivory Girl.

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#21 Suzanne F

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 12:17 PM

Oh, I know Ellen is as natural as they come (in a very good way). But Julianne would need a perm.

Steven, did you know that any of that awful stuff was happening at the time? Or did you only find out once your fine lady was home safe? Well, at least you had Momo to hug in times of fear.

Edited to add: Thank you, Ellen, for sizing the photos the way you did!!! Makes it so much easier to follow the whole saga.

Edited by Suzanne F, 13 September 2003 - 12:18 PM.


#22 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 12:35 PM

I didn't have contemporaneous awareness of any of the Gobi desert stuff (the events described in Part I), but once she returned to UB I started to get relatively frequent e-mail updates (from both Ellen and, to a lesser extent, from J) so I knew most of the Part II (and beyond) stuff close in time to when it was happening. In all cases, I chose denial as the best approach to processing the information. Conversely, Ellen and J were totally unaware of the blackout (her plane took off that afternoon, a very short time before it happened) until they got e-mail from me almost a week later.

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#23 Fat Guy

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 12:52 PM

Do you do much digital treatment at all?

Jin, if you'd like to see an example of what one of these images looks like before any postprocessing, I've set something up. Here's one of the temple images you saw in Part I, at 400x600 snapshot resolution with basic autolevels, as most of Ellen's images get presented on eGullet:

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Now if you follow this link, which you'll only want to do if you're on a broadband connection, you'll see the original 6 megapixel jpeg out of the camera -- no modification at all, not even rotation. This is the image Ellen would work from in order to make a large print. Note if you view it in Explorer, the software will shrink it down to fit your screen. To see the whole thing at full resolution, hover your cursor over the image, and then click on the expand-image box that appears at the bottom right.

Also, another experiment, this would be just the part of the image above that, if cropped, would be roughly the resolution we're using here:

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Finally, here's how that detail would look if we messed around with it in PhotoShop or PaintShop in order to make it look the way they'd want it to look in a glossy magazine:

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#24 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 01:05 PM

Rachel,

If I may be so crass, Ellen, how much did you guys pay for your whirlwind tour of Mongolia? What is the currency/exchange, for example, how much did a pizza cost at Pizza Casa?


The big expense, when you go to a developing nation halfway around the world, is getting there. Plane tickets are so variable in price, and so much depends on luck and when you buy them, or get them with frequent flier miles, not to mention how you combine them with other stops (for example I also spent a week in Beijing on the same trip), that my actual trip cost wouldn't be indicative of much. Once you get to a developing nation halfway around the world, however, things get cheap -- and if you want them to be cheaper than cheap, that can also be arranged. Of course you can also spend just as much as you'd spend on a vacation at Canyon Ranch, if you go with an upscale tour agency like Butterfield & Robinson. Not that B&R goes to Mongolia, but they'll get you for $500 per day in Southeast Asia when you can travel there on your own for like a dollar, and a lot of that money will go to Western companies and to middlemen, whereas I prefer to work directly with locals and limit the layers in the hierarchy of payment -- it's best for everybody, and it's the most respectful way to deal with the economics of it all. Certainly, once you're there, for $50-$100 per day you can travel at just about the highest level Mongolia can provide, and certainly you can travel quite well there for less. In terms of conversion, one US dollar is about 1000 Mongolian Tugrik (1084 to be precise, last time I checked). At Ristorante Della Casa-2, a large Pizza Mongol, with mutton and onions, is 2400 Tugrik. That would qualify as very, very expensive by local standards (annual per capita income is in the US$1000 range).

Shrondell,

Were you able to find any kosher restaurants there? I want to go but am a bit concerned about my dietary restrictions.


I know, I know. It's amusing just to think about the idea of a kosher restaurant in Mongolia, but I'll take the opportunity to point out a couple of things about world travel for those with dietary restrictions: It's definitely true that there's a point of restrictedness (is that a word?) at which it becomes supremely challenging to travel outside of places that really cater to you. But it can always be done if you're willing to form a group. I probably couldn't take one Hasidic Jew to Mongolia on a tour, because at that level of observance that person would be very particular about what knife has touched what product, and what bowl has been used for what, but if a group of 12 wanted to go I'm pretty certain that I could set it up--we'd have our own cook (this is not unusual), vegetarian-only food (they'd have to eat a lot of noodles, and some mayonnaise too!), and other approved arrangements. At a lower level of observance, it becomes even easier in direct proportion to the lessening of restrictions: I can take strictly Conservative and even some Modern Orthodox Jews to Nepal, for example, as part of a mixed group because they tend to be satisfied with "no meat" as a sufficient level of kashruth so I can just tell the cook, "No meat." And, while I don't keep kosher, I did grow up in a kosher home, know the dietary laws, and still observe some of the practices of kashruth. And this has never been a problem for me traveling anywhere in the world--except maybe North Carolina. :laugh:

[edited for clarity]
Ellen Shapiro
www.byellen.com

#25 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 01:09 PM

Wow.  Really.  This is great reading (and writing!) Ellen.

And if you don't get a movie deal (or, at least, a mini-series) there really is no justice in this world.

Hell, I'd settle for a book deal! But we already know that there's no justice in this world. And I haven't even told you about the Eagle Hunter yet! That'll be in the next installment.
Ellen Shapiro
www.byellen.com

#26 awilda

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 01:26 PM

Ms. Shapiro do you have a tour company/ is that what you meant in the second paragraph of the money and food article???

#27 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 01:44 PM

Awilda,

A tour company, no. I have taken groups as large as 12 to Nepal, I co-lead a Sierra Club trip along Oregon's Rogue River most years, and I'm often willing to put trips together for groups of people. But it's not my business and I don't make any money from it. To date, I've never even covered my own expenses. My profession is that I'm a writer and photographer, not a guide or travel agent. But when I get really far off the beaten path and I tell people about my travels I often get requests to put trips together--which I sometimes will do. When I'm really passionate about a place (like Nepal) I'm eager to share it with people and whatever I can do to get people to travel outside the mainstream, I do.
Ellen Shapiro
www.byellen.com

#28 Ellen Shapiro

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 02:17 PM

Steven, did you know that any of that awful stuff was happening at the time?  Or did you only find out once your fine lady was home safe?  Well, at least you had Momo to hug in times of fear.

Suzanne,

I don't tell Steven any of the really gory details until I get home. If I did, I think you'd find me handcuffed to the bed with only my right hand free to type posts on eGullet. I've been traveling alone on a shoestring to far-away places since I was 22 (when I traveled around the world by myself on my hard-earned babysitting money) so I've gotten pretty good at troubleshooting and looking after myself and others. I've found that while it's very tempting to report home (if there is even a way to do so) to family about the trials and tribulations I've encountered on my travels (in order to be comforted by the empathy of loved ones), I know that it’s also unfair because of the worry it will cause them in the long run (no way to contact me for weeks on end to follow up even if they want to). Generally speaking, there are always times of stress and even trouble on trips to far-away and off-the-beaten-track destinations, but heck, I wouldn’t have these entertaining stories to tell you if I didn’t go, would I?
Ellen Shapiro
www.byellen.com

#29 anil

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 02:19 PM

Okay people, why does this post NOT have ten million or so responses?  :biggrin:......

You mean to say there are no French Restaurants in mongolia ? So how can we argue if Mongolians can learn from French techniques :smile:

On a serious note: Excellent TR (Trip Reports) I note that KE flies from ICN (Seoul) to Ulan Bator; so I could possibly earn miles If I chose to make a trip.
anil

#30 colestove

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Posted 13 September 2003 - 02:48 PM

Ms Ellen; I am in awe as I read your accounts of your life and times. Thank you so much for your reports and incredible pictures. Awesome in the best sense of the word. Thank you again.



colestove