Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Eloise and I didn't get to shower last night, so we're hoping to be able to do so this morning. Why didn't we shower last night? Well, I'll tell you. One problem - the water. The cold water was okay, but the hot water was running a rich red color. I tried to convince myself that it was just a little rust in the lines, but it didn't work. I just couldn't make myself shower in water that looked like that. I can accept, even cherish, the metaphor in the hymns about being "washed in the blood of the Lamb", but this is here on earth and just looked a bit too real for me. So, a cold water wash-up had to do. We were hoping the situation would improve by this morning. It has, and we manage to get a fairly decent shower.
Later, we learn that the hot water comes from lines that travel throughout the city, from a central heating point somewhere. So, the hot water that comes through our bathroom, if not diverted by our tap, goes right back out and on to another location. This seems very strange, until one stops to realize that the same thing happens at home with the cold water that circulates through the city water lines. The only difference is that we heat it ourselves at the point of use. Still, circulating hot water doesn't seem to me to be a very efficient plan. One would think there would be a lot of heat loss as the water travels through miles of lines.
After a good breakfast in the dining room, and a motivating pep talk from our leaders, we break up and proceed downstairs to join our respective groups. Two of our guys, Ray and Jay (now there's a combination!) are going with Pastor Midor on a journey through the steppes, to visit individual families in their gers and witness to them. Pastor Midor is a Mongolian, a very committed Christian with a true evangelist's heart. He has been described, accurately I think, as a modern-day Paul. The love of God shines in his eyes, the fervor of his calling resonates around him like an aura, and one feels blessed just being in his presence.
Pastor Midor and Ray and Jay plan to spend the next week on this journey, riding camels and/or horses, and leading some pack animals as well, with the supplies they will need. It sounds exciting! I wish I could go along, but of course, a woman on a trip such as this wouldn't be proper, and probably not terribly practical. Here's a picture of the three guys:
The trio of traveling evangelists leaves the hotel to go find their animals, and the rest of us gather, preparing to depart for our areas of service. Eloise is going to the sewing center, along with others. There they expect to be teaching the Mongol women how to sew, and helping them make clothing and blankets and quilts for the children. Eloise is armed with her special left-handed scissors and a lot of expertise. I can only dream of sewing as well as she does.
Another group is going out into the town, to visit ill and needy elders in the apartment buildings. I was originally scheduled for this duty, but since the apartments can have five stories or more and of course, there are no working elevators, there is no way I can navigate all those stairs with my damaged knee. One of our men, Bobby, has generously loaned me an Ace knee wrap, and it helps some, but it's not a brace. It serves more to give me a more secure feeling and to remind me not to put any stress on the knee. Stairs at this point are simply not an option. So, I'm reassigned to join the team going out to the remote medical site. This is what I did last year, and so I know that I'll spend most of the day sitting on a bench. I can just about handle that.
We get into our assigned vans and the journey begins. To our surprise, the vans are not the beat-up, bedraggled and suffering Russian vans we rode in last year. We are in relatively new vehicles, with doors that actually close and are not tied on with bits of rope. The windows open and close, a real novelty. The vans are roomy and the seats are comfortable. We are told that the Russian vans were otherwise engaged, and they were not able to get them for us. I'm not sure whether this is a tongue-in-cheek statement, or the truth. I'm sure the Russian vans would cost less to rent than the ones we're enjoying this year, and while those old vans will beat you to death, still I can respect the need for good stewardship of the ministry's funds. Our bruises might be painful, but a big dent in the budget would hurt a lot more.
Besides, the old Russian vans were fun. I'm a little disappointed that our first-timers will miss that experience. Still, even in the newer, more modern vans, the trip over the countryside is no walk in the park. It's not as rough as last year, due in part to better suspension in the vans, but also due in large part to the fact that it has not been raining. Last year, there had been a lot of rain, and the track (no way can it be called a road) was rutted and slippery, with a lot of wash-outs and deep gullies that had to be traversed. Still, we made it, and we had fun. We'll make it this year, too, but it won't be quite as much fun.
When we arrive at the site, it looks much like it did last year. We're in the same beautiful location, on the bend of a swiftly-flowing river. Our triage tent has been set up by the industrious Mustangs, and there are gers for the doctors and the pharmacist. Dr. Tom will be in one ger, Dr. Ron in another, and Tammy, an RN with a lot of field experience as a Navy nurse, will function as a doctor this year, in a third ger. She's savvy enough to send anything she feels is beyond her expertise over to one of the MD's, so it's okay.
At this point, let me explain who the Mustangs are, for those of you who didn't read last year's journal. They're the older teenage boys from the ministry, and they live and function in a sort of "boot camp" situation. They chose the name "Mustangs" for themselves, and it's great to watch the spirit of pride and almost military discipline under which they live. They're capable and hard-working, and very obliging. If you need something done, and done quickly, ask a Mustang. They're eager to help and to please.
They live at the main compound, near the village of Hongor. This compound is located on the land that was deeded over to the ministry by the Mongolian government, and it's beautiful. It's situated on a lovely section of the river, and would be prime land in any country. The greenhouses, the warehouses and the Mustangs' dormitories are located there. As you will see later, the new "church ger" is located there as well. In time, Jerry and Susan will build their home there, next door to the church. It will be lovely, a roomy ger built over a dugout basement, which will have one wall of windows with a beautiful view of the river. If ever anyone deserved such a home, they do.
Back to the Mustangs. There are twelve of them, I think. They wear their fatigue-style clothes, and various styles of hats, so they're very identifiable. I recall many of them from last year's trip, and am happy to see them again. They come over for hugs, and to demonstrate the improvements in their English. I remember one young man in particular. He's never without a smile on his face, and we nicknamed him Smiley last year. They are so sweet, it's hard to imagine that they have all come from situations of abuse, abandonment, poverty and want. Most are now Christians, but I must stress that this is not pushed on them, it's a free and willing choice.
When a team such as ours is visiting, it's the Mustangs that do the very important work of setting up and breaking down our camps. Those boys can set a ger up in less than two hours, and can tear one down in twenty minutes. They can take our tent down in about five minutes. I don't know how long it takes them to set it up, but I imagine it's not very long.
Once we arrive and start seeing patients, the boys function as escorts for the patients, helping them get through the intake area where they are given a registration card, and then they keep them in proper order of arrival as they go through our triage area. Once we have seen the patient, gotten their vital signs and a brief history of their complaints, there is always a Mustang standing ready to escort them to the benches outside the doctors' gers. They're careful to keep the waiting lines at about the same length, always taking their patient to the shortest line. There are usually two or three who just circulate around the camp, running errands, fetching bottles of water for us when we run dry, and holding babies while moms are being seen by the nurses.
When we arrived this first morning, it was immediately noticed that one of the young Mustangs had a serious problem. He was barely walking, just hobbling along, with his knee bent and obviously painful. Investigation revealed a badly infected, hugely swollen knee. He had fallen from his bicycle a few days back, sustaining an abrasion and possibly a puncture wound to the knee. It had become infected and abscessed, and needed immediate attention. He, in true teenage boy fashion, had just gone about his business and had not reported it to anyone.
Dr. Ron immediately set to work. The knee needed to be incised and drained, but we weren't prepared for surgery and had no scalpels in our supplies. Not to worry - Dr. Ron is resourceful. He used the largest-bore needle he could find, and more or less perforated a line across the abscess until it opened on its own. Once it was cleaned out, the wound was packed and bandaged, and the boy was started on a course of strong antibiotics. None of this came a moment too soon. An infection like that could have easily invaded the joint and it's not inconceivable that it could have cost the boy his leg. However, with the improvised but effective treatment, and the antibiotics, Smiley was walking much better by the next day. Yep, it was my happy-faced little friend. The pain subsided rapidly, healing started immediately, and by the end of our visit his knee was fine.
We went right to work seeing patients, and my companion in triage this time was Barb, a nurse from Canada. She and her husband have joined our group, will be working with us for our entire stay, and then they will continue on and travel in Mongolia for a few weeks after we leave. I miss my colleague from last year, Toom Chris, but soon find that Barb is fun, friendly and very capable. I know we're going to be friends, and will have a great time working together.
This grows lengthy, so I'm going to stop here and pick up today's events in another installment.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
As I said, we're now in Beijing, and after deplaning, we follow Omar through the challenging maze of the airport. We are to collect our luggage which, by no small miracle, has made it to Beijing with us. I can't imagine what it took to get it off our broken plane and reloaded onto the one that actually brought us here. Transferring the luggage for about 500 people would be a monumental task, but they did it.
We complete all the formalities in the airport - and they are legion - and gather at a staging point designated by Omar. He is deep in negotiations with United Airlines, as our Miat Airlines flight to Ulaanbaatar has long since departed without us, and there is nothing else until tomorrow. It is Omar's opinion that since it was United's fault that we are going to be stranded here overnight, they should pay for hotel accommodations for us. Naturally, United sees it differently, but implacable as always, Omar finally convinces them and they agree.
Omar manages to get enough rooms for us at the Sino-Swiss hotel, where we stayed last year, and the hotel sends vans to pick us up. Our luggage is loaded in with us, with large pieces in the aisles and smaller pieces in our laps, and away we go!
Arrival at the Sino-Swiss feels like coming home, weary as we are. Those of us who are veterans of last year's trip remember the hotel very well. It's nice - not overly luxurious, but very comfortable. After the heat and humidity outside, our room is cool, the beds are comfortable, and there is a shower that willing delivers a generous supply of hot water. At least it does after we remember that we are in China and the hot water tap is on the right! We wash away a layer or two of travel grime, and with grateful sighs, we settle into the clean beds and very quickly fall asleep.
Five a.m. comes with astonishing speed, and we are up, dressed and in the lobby well before six. The group assembles, and soon we're back on the vans, heading for the airport. Due to the very early hour, the traffic is quite light, and we oldtimers are mildly disappointed, because we had been anticipating the expressions on the faces of the newcomers when they saw Beijing's traffic for the first time. Consoling ourselves that we'll have that bit of fun on our return trip, we give way to gratitude that we're going to make it to the airport in record time.
Indeed, the vans deliver us to the airport in just a few minutes, and we follow Omar inside. There is a delay, while our group assembles and Omar goes off to begin negotiations to get us on a Miat flight. For some reason, United needs to be involved - probably to confirm why we missed yesterday's flight and therefore need to get on one today. Finally, the appropriate officials show up, Asian amenities are observed and we can see Omar smiling. That's a very good sign, and sure enough, in a few minutes the Miat ticket counter is opened and the agents begin issuing boarding passes to our group.
Once this is done, Omar again leads us through the various phases of approval required by China. We visit Customs, fill out and turn in our health questionnaire (as though anyone with an ounce of smart would admit to being ill and risk being quarantined in China) and complete our exit cards. All documents ask for essentially the same information, all are collected by an unsmiling Chinese and put into a large pile of similar forms. I feel so certain that each of these are carefully read and processed at some point, probably sometime within the next two years. What is the point? Still, we do it.
We make our way to our gate and soon are boarding a plane bound for Ulaanbaatar, in Mongolia. The Miat staff, as always, are friendly, charming, efficient and make us feel welcome. The two young female attendants are lovely, very beautiful women. As soon as we're in the air, cabin service begins and is almost non-stop thereafter. At this rate, we'll all soon be too large to fit in our seats!
There is some cloud cover, and we're not able to see the Great Wall. I couldn't have seen much anyway, from my aisle seat. Too bad. It's truly a sight to behold from the air, but I have to content myself with memories of last year's flight. In what seems a very short time by comparison to the last flights, we feel the plane start to throttle down and before we know it, we're on the ground in Ulaanbaatar.
In the jetway after leaving the plane, I stop to attach my carry-on bag to the little wheels I bought. Taking a step backward for a more stable position, I suddenly find myself flat on my back. My first thought is that I've somehow fallen off the jetway, but immediately, reason tells me that this isn't possible. It's enclosed, for heaven's sake! All I can remember is stepping back, and the odd impression that either my leg wasn't there, or there was nothing beneath it to stand on. Obviously, neither of those options can be true. I become aware that my knee, the one I twisted on the United flight, is hurting. OK, that explains it. The knee simply gave way.
Immediately, I see faces above me, and hands are reaching to help me up. Dr. Tom and others soon have me on my feet, my carry-on is retrieved and I'm assured it will be taken care of, and I have a tall, strong man on either side, practically carrying me through the jetway. I have probably been this embarrassed at some other point in my life, but right now, I can't think when it was. Feeling like the world's biggest klutz, I gratefully allow the guys to assist me.
Fortunately, the airport in Ulaanbaatar is small and informal. There is only one luggage carousel (maybe two?) and the guys find a chair nearby, deposit me there and go off to retrieve my luggage. That's not a problem. Everyone on the trip knows my blue and white flowered luggage. In fact, it's used as a signal to let us know when we're at the right carousel. If my "hand-painted periwinkles" bag appears, then this must be the place!
All the luggage is collected, and Dr. Tom - ever the gentleman - insists on helping me outside to the bus which is waiting for us, to take us to Darkhan. Others of the guys are nearby, as well. I feel safe. I'm walking okay, though the knee is tender and feels very unstable. Of course, I thought I was walking okay before I fell in the jetway, too. It's a bit disconcerting to realize that I can't depend on my knee to hold me up, but it's encouraging to know that I won't be left stranded, like a turtle on its back.
Again let me say, the only reason I'm recounting this personal situation is to underscore the spirit of unity, of helpfulness, of support for each other that is woven through our group like a golden thread. I can't see my bags anywhere, but I'm not worried. I know that someone has taken care of them. I know that Eloise has the bag containing my cameras, and my passport is secured in a little leather pouch which hangs around my neck. As I attempt to board the bus and find that I cannot use my left leg to lift myself up the steps, hands are there to support and assist, and I'm quickly settled into a comfortable seat. The bus is large, and there are empty seats, so Eloise is seated behind me and we each have a whole seat to ourselves. I'm glad, because now we can both see the beautiful Mongolian countryside as we travel toward Darkhan. I get myself situated, camera ready, and prepare to watch for remembered landmarks.
This has been a long and arduous journey, but for those of us who have been here before, the stressful journey fades in our memories, no longer important. We know the joys and rewards of a period of service in this beautiful land, as we try to show the love of God to the remarkable people who live here. The first-timers in the group are fun to watch, as their anticipation and excitement overcome their fatigue. Of course, the same thing is happening to us old-timers as well.
Finally, we're all on board and settled, and our driver shepherds the big vehicle out of the airport and onto the highway. We are on our way to Darkhan!
As I watch the landscape unfold as we pass, I'm once again struck by the stark beauty of the place. I begin to recognize those landmarks I mentioned - a particularly spectacular group of hills, or a rocky outcropping. We pass many ovoos, but I don't see the one I photographed last year. I'm sure it has been added to by now, and would no longer look the same. An ovoo is a pile of stones, sticks, trinkets and other things that are piled together by travelers, as an offering to the spirits of the mountains. Often poles are stuck into the top of the heap, and strips of cloth are attached like banners. The cloth is always in the color I call "Buddha Blue". The same shade of blue, always. I learned from my translators last year that the color is often used by Buddhists, who believe it to be a sacred color to the Buddha. So, while established to pay homage to elemental spirits such as wind and rain, and to animal spirits as well, there is a strong overlay of Buddhism in the piles of debris known as ovoos.
As we approach the halfway point, memories of the infamous restroom (read: outhouse) come to mind, and I'm thankful that I'll be able to pass up a visit there. The bus stops, however, and a few brave and/or desperate souls do enter the dark portals. Not I!
We finally arrive in Darkhan, and are taken to the Darkhan Hotel, the same place we stayed last year. Still shabby, still crumbling, still struggling, but not seedy. Somehow, the woman who runs it manages to put in little touches that just break one's heart. Her daughter is one of our translators, and in the course of this visit, we learn about her struggles to extract operating funds from the owner. She usually can't even get enough for daily operation, much less repairs and upgrades. In the journal of our last trip, I described our room. Rickety furniture, threadbare carpet, unbelievable plumbing and broken bathroom tiles, but we had sheer curtains at the windows that bore lovely embroidery work. This time, everything is the same, but we find a pair of complimentary disposable slippers by each bed, and in the bathroom, on the sagging shelf above the cracked, leaky sink, we find a new toothbrush and some packets of shampoo. Later we are to learn that not every room had these little amenities. I guess the woman just does what she can, with the pittance the owner allows her for operating expenses. You have to give her credit for trying.
After a little time for cleaning up and settling in, we gather in the dining room for dinner. The food, as usual, is good. Fried potatoes that quickly become everyone's favorite, which is a good thing, because we receive them three times a day. With some of that good Mongolian catsup on them, they're great! I don't recall what else we had, but it must have been good, because I do remember that I didn't go away hungry.
Friday, December 12, 2008
We settle in and prepare to depart San Francisco. It is 1:15 p.m., our scheduled departure time. We wait, expecting to feel the gentle motion of the jet as it is pushed away from the gate, but nothing happens. The plane does not move. Minutes tick by, and it's getting warm and stuffy inside the airplane. People begin to speculate on the reason for the delay. We can see no empty seats that would indicate a delay to allow someone to make their connection, but then the plane is huge and we can't see the whole thing. It's getting very warm, and people are getting restless.
Finally, after about half an hour, the pilot's voice comes over the intercom and announces that there is a problem with the ventilation system in one of the lavatories, and it will take about twenty minutes to repair it. There is an audible collective sigh as we settle down for a longer wait.
Another half hour passes. We are now one hour late in departing. The pilot announces that a part is needed to complete the repair and it is being sent over by courier - another twenty minute delay. Apparently someone has asked the obvious question - why can't that lavatory just be locked and not used, and let us get on our way? The pilot explains that the ventilation in the lavatories is part of the overall smoke ventilation system for the entire aircraft, so it must be repaired and functional. Sigh. By now it is quite warm in the plane and several hundred people are getting hungry and restless.
The twenty-minute explanation is repeated once more, and this time no one believes him. Our disbelief is justified, as we wait, and then wait some more. Finally, at about 4:30, the announcement is made that the problem cannot be corrected (apparently not in our lifetime, anyway) and we are going to deplane and wait for another aircraft to be made available. We can expect to depart San Francisco at 6:45 p.m. This does not bode well for us to make our connection with Miat Airlines in Beijing.
Everyone gathers their belongings once again, and we leave the plane. Inside the terminal, we are given vouchers for food service and told from which gate our flight will eventually depart. Eloise and I hook up with three other women from our group and go in search of a restaurant. We don't find much. We finally end up at something that describes itself as a "deli". The sign should have read "Clip Joint". I spend $19.83 for a fair-to-middlin' sandwich, a tiny fruit cup, two cookies and a bottle of water. The voucher covers $15 of that, so I guess it was okay.
After we've finished eating, I decide I'm tired of lugging my carry-on bag, which seems to be getting heavier by the minute. In a little luggage shop, I find a set of wheels with some bungee cords for securing things. The whole device collapses into a flat, easily-stored form, but expands to hold my bag, my little pillow and my camera case. The thing costs $30, but as I drop my heavy bag onto the base and secure everything, I think that this just may be the best $30 I've ever spent! Hooray, it rolls!
We move on to the waiting area for our flight, and at about 6:45 (the time we were told we would be departing) we are called to board the plane. Everyone gets settled, expecting a rapid departure, but no - again we are waiting. After about half an hour, the explanation is given that because our original crew is now in overtime, the FAA requires that there be four pilots on board and they are waiting for the fourth one to arrive. We can understand that this is a safety issue, and we have no quarrel with it, but seems like the airline should have thought about that earlier and had the pilot already on the scene. At 7:30, an attendant tells us that the pilot is here and we will be departing shortly.
Finally, at 7:50 the plane moves away from the gate, and now at this moment, 8:05, we are sitting on the tarmac, not moving. Needless to say, we're all a bit edgy, wondering just what has gone wrong now. At 8:15, an hour and a half after we boarded, the plane finally begins its lumbering, ponderous journey down the runway, taxiing for takeoff. We are over six hours late, and should be halfway to Beijing by now. The 12-hour flight ahead of us doesn't sound very inviting.
The captain is pushing the big jet hard, it shudders and strains, and suddenly we get that "light" feeling and know that we're airborne. Look out, Beijing, here we come! Finally.
The flight is essentially uneventful, a few rough patches but nothing serious. The young man seated next to me is very pleasant, and we make conversation. I discover that his name is Anthony, and he works for Google, the internet search engine people. He's delighted when I use the term "Google it", and I think probably a little surprised that this old gal even knows what that means. He shows me pictures of his boys, I share pictures of my family (thanks, Brittney) and we watch a movie together on his laptop.
It's now 9:20 a.m., Texas time, or 27 1/2 hours after we first gathered at D/FW. It's 10:20 p.m. in Beijing. Rumor has it that we will be landing in about half an hour. We are ready. The cabin staff has been great. We have been fed much more than we ever wanted or should have eaten, but of course we ate it anyway. Passengers, for the most part, have been patient and pleasant.
Remembering Beijing airport from last year, I decide it would be prudent to make one last potty stop before we land, and Anthony obligingly gets up to allow me to leave my seat. Mission accomplished, and I'm returning to my seat. The seatbelt sign has been turned on, and I must hurry. Anthony is elsewhere, walking around. There is a trick to getting into the center seat quickly and with a measure of grace, and I employ it. You step in with the left foot, holding onto the back of the seat in front of you. Then you sort of swing into the seat, with your left foot pivoting into alignment as you drop into your seat. At least this is the plan. It usually works. Not always. This time, just as I started to swing into place, the plane lurched and literally threw me into the seat. Probably would have been fine, except my heel was wedged against something and my foot did not pivot. Result - one corkscrewed knee, lots of pain, and significant nausea.
I managed to keep quiet, but Eloise knew I was hurt, and kept asking how she could help me. (That's what good friends are for, you know. In fact, I would not be mentioning this personal incident at all, except for the fact that it demonstrates so beautifully the spirit of comradeship and cooperation that prevailed in our group, as you will see.) I sat gritting my teeth and chewing my shirt collar for a few minutes, and miraculously, in about five minutes, the pain subsided and I thought I might be home free.
We feel the big plane starting to descend, and the pilot sends the cabin staff scurrying to prepare for landing. This very long, very tiring flight is finally about to end.
Monday, November 24, 2008
I have finally just about shaken the cold I caught from a "gentleman" on the return flight last week, and am feeling well enough to begin this little epic. More about him much, much later.
July 23, 2005 -- It's 4:00 a.m., and my clock is singing its annoying, repetitious little song to me, trying almost in vain to awaken me. Hush, stupid clock! I have only been asleep for about three hours, and it's just not enough! My suitcase is packed and ready, however, so my late-hour efforts were worthwhile.
My little dog, Sugarplum, is tired of the alarm and is now adding her efforts to those of the clock, walking across my chest and nudging my face, and I have no choice but to get up. Once I'm on my feet, excitement and anticipation drive away fatigue, and I dress quickly. Poor little Sugarplum is just as excited as I am. She does not know yet that she's not going, and has been bringing me her toys for two days, wanting me to pack them as I always do when she travels with me. My friend Deanna will be staying with her while I'm gone, but Sugarplum doesn't know that, and is fairly dancing with excitement. She loves to travel.
It's now 5:10 a.m. and Eloise and Jerry will be here soon. I make a final visual sweep of the house, retrieve my insulin from the refrigerator and put it in my carry-on bag. No forgetting it this time, like I did last year! I pull the big old "handpainted periwinkles" suitcase through the house to the kitchen door, and Sugarplum's level of excitement ratchets up another notch. Poor baby. I'm putting off telling her the awful truth.
At 5:15 sharp, Jerry and Eloise arrive, and Jerry loads my luggage into the car. I return to the house and pick up the excited, trembling little dog. I say simply, "You're not going, baby. You have to stay home." She goes limp in my arms, and doesn't move as I carry her to the bedroom. I wonder if she remembers when I left her last year. Placing her on the bed, I cup her little face in my hands and try to reassure her. She just gazes at me with liquid brown eyes, trusting me because she loves me, accepting because she must, but not pleased with the turn of events.
I stroke her soft, silky little body once more, then step away. She remains motionless, exactly where I put her, and looks at me. One more spoken goodby, and I close the door on her disappointed little self, knowing I will be forgiven the moment I walk into the house in two weeks. Two weeks! Will I really be gone that long?
We arrive at the airport before 6:00, and have no problem finding our group. Almost everyone is already here, and the others come in very soon. We're all here now - about half are newcomers, and the rest of us were part of last year's journey.
Omar is here, and his new pastor is with him. We were all so shocked and dismayed when Omar announced a few weeks ago that he was leaving our church to follow God's call to a church in Kingsland. Since this trip was already planned, however, he is with us, leading us as before.
As I said, we were all dismayed and not a little sad at losing him, and therefore just a bit hesitant about this new pastor of his. However, once we meet Pastor Alex, and note his open, friendly demeanor, we all thaw a bit. Then I see that his foot and leg are in a sturdy brace, as he broke his foot only a few days ago. Still, he is here! His stock rises considerably in my eyes. Maybe he's not a villain after all, even if he did take Omar away from us. Maybe God knew what He was doing!
We board our flight, and wonder of wonders, Eloise and I are the only passengers seated in a 3-seat row. Eloise has her preferred aisle seat, I have my window, and there's an empty seat between us. Unfortunately, Eloise soon finds that there are drawbacks to an aisle seat, as another passenger loses her balance while trying to stow her carry-on bag, and the heavy bag falls, striking Eloise on the head and shoulder. After a few stunned moments, Eloise decides she's not injured, but I think she'll probably have a significant headache!
As the plane backs away from the gate and no one else has been seated, we realize that we really and truly do have that empty seat between us. We are able to raise the armrests and "spread out" just a bit. This is a luxury we will probably never enjoy again. Once we're airborne, and the restrictions are lifted, we make use of that empty seat, putting our snack stuff, books, pens and other small items there. The unexpected freedom and space are welcome, and we have a very pleasant flight. We're seated over a wing, so the view isn't very exciting, but by craning my neck and mashing my nose on the glass, I do get glimpses of spectacular mountains, some with snowy peaks.
In what seems like a very short time, we land in San Francisco, and as the plane rolls toward the gate, we marvel at the mountains which we can see through the windows on both sides. We deplane without incident and regroup in a waiting area. Omar leads us through the terminal to another waiting area near our gate, and we make camp, as our layover is to be a long one, several hours.
We use the time to visit, renew old traveling acquaintances, and get to know some of the newcomers. We find a place to get some lunch and spend a little time there, Eloise and I and two others sharing a table. I remember that I need to buy batteries for the cameras, as I was out of them at home this morning. I go over to a newsstand and spend almost $30 for 16 AA batteries and a roll of mints! I will be grumpy for the next ten minutes or so. $30, indeed!
Finally, it's time to board the huge bird that will take us to Beijing, and we gather up our belongings, waiting for our section to be called.
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
One is very minor. The drink that we reluctantly sampled when we visited in the herdsman's ger, the fermented mare's milk, is spelled "airag". You will remember that I spelled it "erek", but I did say I was spelling phonetically, and I stand by it. That's pretty much how it's pronounced. However, if you should choose to check it out on the internet, you wouldn't find it under my phonetic spelling.
Now, for the important thing! I have a follow-up on Little Nate, and I know everyone will want to know how he's doing. I'm very happy to report that he's doing wonderfully well. Those of you who are receiving this who were part of the expedition already know about Nate's progress, but this journal is going to a lot of people who weren't with us, and therefore haven't received the updates that we have.
We have received some emails from Jerry Smith, and I'll share part of it with you. You will remember that when Little Nate was found and brought to the CTW (Change The World) compound, he was pitifully thin, weak and frail. He could barely hold his head up, and was completely unable to sit up unaided. Remember, this child is four years old. Had he not been rescued, he probably would have lived only a few more days.
He has been with the CTW staffers now since the second week in August, and there have been some changes. For one, he's had a haircut. A very close one, for sanitary purposes, I'm sure. He has been getting at least three square meals a day, and enjoying them very much. We're told he particularly loves ice cream. He has been bathed, and held, and rocked, and loved on a lot. He has received visual and verbal and tactile stimulation. A kind and talented man built him a little chair, similar to a high chair, in which he is gently supported, and he is able to sit up comfortably for the first time in his life. I don't have all the details, and I'm no expert, but I'd be very surprised if he doesn't make some tremendous progress in his motor skills and abilities over the next year or so. Just look at these pictures, to see how far he has come:
Can't you see the hopelessness and despair in this little boy? He's tired, and weak, and just doesn't have the spirit to try any longer. He just laid his little head on Jerry's shoulder, ready to accept whatever life was about to deal out to him. Bless his sweet heart, he just had no idea!
How many four-year-old children have you seen who would just lie there passively, and submit to the examination being conducted by two big strangers? There was a frightening resignation in his manner on that first night.
Isn't it amazing, what can be accomplished with a little food and a lot of love? This child is the embodiment of what Change The World Ministries is all about. Jerry Smith frequently says they are trying to change the world, one child at a time. Who knows who little Nathan will be in twenty years? If he can learn to talk and communicate, even if he's not able to walk normally, he can still be a voice for God someday. If he never learns to do more than smile and make someone's day brighter, he will still be living proof of what can be done by an individual or an organization that seeks God's will and tries to follow it, to help to ease some of the suffering in this world and let a little light into the dark places.
I have never been so moved, so impressed, so spiritually touched as I was in Mongolia. There will be another expedition next year, and if my health and finances permit, and if there is a place for me on the team, I will return. The work that is being done there is absolutely amazing, the growth has been astonishing, and the potential is limitless. Remember, this is a country that only recently was under Communist control. It is primarily Buddhist (or atheistic), with a strong animist influence as well. We talked about this in an earlier installment.
The government does not normally look kindly upon Christians. However, in the few short years that CTW has been active there, the Mongolian government has gone from barely tolerating their presence, to deeding more than a hundred acres over to the ministry, free and clear. This leniency and generosity on the part of the government is making it possible for a lot of things to happen there much, much sooner than anyone expected. Because funds didn't have to be used to purchase land, they have been able to build dormitories for the children, greenhouses, kitchens, storehouses, feeding stations for outreach in the town, and to begin work on a lovely worship center. They will be able to house, feed, clothe and educate children who would otherwise be living in the sewers of Darkhan and other cities.
These children will be led to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, gently and patiently, one at a time. No child is coerced, but they are taught by example that God is Love, and that they are loved as well. The work is young there, but who can tell where it will lead, and what will be accomplished as these children grow into Christian adults and spread out over Mongolia, taking the Word with them? Who knows, my mischievous, smiling little back-massager may go out one day and lead his country from darkness into God's light.
It has been an indescribable privilege to be a tiny part of the work that is being done in Mongolia. It has been a joy to get to know some of the kind and gracious Mongolian people. It will be my ongoing joy to continue to participate in that work by sending a little money now and then. It won't be a lot, I don't have a lot, but I can send some, and I will. By the grace of God, I'm not living under a staircase!
If you'd like to participate in the Change The World ministry, here's the address:
P.O. Box 153029
Irving, TX 75015-3029
You may be wondering, why an Irving address? That's because Change The World Ministries has a local base, with a local account, and contributions are gathered into that account and handled as a whole, rather than having the money sent to Mongolia in little individual checks that they would then have to try to cash over there, which would be virtually impossible.
I make no apologies for this little commercial. This is a genuine, working, fruit-bearing ministry, and it must have funds in order to continue to function. I firmly believe that God will bless every little dime that is given, and the rewards will be totally out of proportion, above and beyond whatever the amount may be. God can take a little, and turn it into a lot!
Well, that's the end of my journal. I hope each one who has read it enjoyed it. Most of all, I hope everyone got a sense of what is happening through CTW in Mongolia. God is at work there, and God is good.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
I suppose we can say it's still Thursday right now, and we are still going about to one place and another, seeing the sights and shopping. At one point, we're all standing in a group on a sidewalk, waiting for our bus to find us. We have been mobbed, as usual, by street vendors, and a couple of our folks have bought from them. There are some young policemen standing nearby, and they call David over and tell him to instruct us not to buy from the vendors. Their manner was calm and friendly, but David later told us that failure to obey their instructions could conceivably result in seizure of our passports! Apparently, the Chinese government is trying to put a stop to the harassment of tourists by these vendors, fearing it may be detrimental to the tourism industry in general.
We discussed it briefly among ourselves, and decided it would probably be best not to have any more to do with the vendors and beggars, and I was quite comfortable with that. I certainly didn't want to lose my passport!
And then it happened. As we were all standing there, I noticed that those on the fringes of the group had fallen silent, and were stepping back, opening a narrow pathway through our midst. Through that little opening, I saw a man and a woman slowly walking, and I couldn't suppress a little groan when I saw them. Both were small, of short stature and slight build. The man's left arm ended a few inches below his elbow, and he walked with a limp. With his other hand, he held the arm of the woman.
It was the woman's face that struck so at my heart. She had been horribly, pitifully, hideously burned. I don't know if she had any hair, as she was wearing a little knit hat. Both ears were gone, just little ridges beside the openings on the sides of her head, hard to distinguish in the thick, rough surface of scarred skin. Her face appeared to have melted, like wax. There was no nose, just two holes in the middle of her face. Her right eye was either gone or buried under thick folds of scar tissue, but obviously there was no sight in it. There were no eyebrows. Her mouth was a grotesquely twisted slash in her lower face, and her neck was a mass of leathery, wrinkled skin.
It was her left eye, her only eye, which held my gaze riveted to her face. The upper lid was gone, and so a large expanse of the eyeball was visible. She had control of it, and it moved left to right, and back again, as she searched the faces of those of us who were unable to take our gaze away from her. It has been said that the eyes are the windows of the soul, and I think that is right. In that single eye, protruding so eerily from that ruined face, I was able to see strength, an indomitable spirit, and justifiable pride. Her bearing seemed to say, "I have survived this. Could you have done the same?"
As the two moved through our group, they never said a word, never asked for anything. The woman simply held one hand cupped in front of her. If we wanted to help, she would accept it, but she would not beg. I couldn't stand it. I forgot the presence of the police, and hurriedly grabbed the first bill I got my hand on in my wallet. It was a $5 bill, such a small amount to an American, but probably a significant amount to her. I hope so. I pressed it into her hand, and that all-seeing eye swept downward for an instant, enough to see what she held, and then rolled back up and looked directly at me. For an instant, our gaze locked, and she rewarded me very generously with a quick, brief nod of her head. There was no gratuitous thanks, no judgment about the amount, just a dignified acceptance and acknowledgment of what I had given her. I wish it could have been much more, and I might have gone into my wallet again, but she and her companion were moving on through the crowd. I'm happy to note that others of our group gave her something, and I feel sure that everyone would have done so, given the time. It all took place so quickly, that the pair were gone before many of us knew what was happening.
I'm also happy to report that the police, who must surely have seen what was going on, seemed to be very preoccupied with something across the street, and never said a word to any of us. May the Lord bless them for that.
Afterward, I struggled with my feelings for a while. It occurred to me that our English language is lacking in some ways. There are just some things for which we don't have an adequate or appropriate word. What happened there with that tragic woman is a case in point. I can't find a word, I don't know what to call the exchange that took place. It wasn't charity. Now, charity is a very nice word, and it certainly has its place. It comes from the Latin "caritas", meaning love or affection. However, if one isn't careful, today it can carry a note of condescension, and that should be avoided. No one wants to be dependent upon the "charity" of others.
It didn't feel like charity to me when I gave her the money, it felt like a privilege. I am certain that she didn't feel like she was accepting charity. There was too much dignity in that eye, and in her posture. I think the closest I can come to a single descriptive word is "sharing."
Friday, August 13. It's time to go home. We're all excited and anxious to get back to our lives, but there is an undercurrent of regret, as well. This was felt most strongly as we left Mongolia, and the scheduled time in China was meant to help us disengage, to "debrief" as it were, but now, as we're preparing to leave for home, we're sharply aware that the whole experience is coming to a close. I'm not sure I'm ready for that.
We board our bus, arrive at the airport and get through there without mishap. Once on the plane, we all begin to realize just how tired we are, and sleep overtakes many of us. The flight to Chicago is long but uneventful, and we have a layover there. Soon, however, we're on another plane and after what now seems like a pretty short trip, we're in Dallas.
Jerry is there to meet Eloise and me, and brings me directly home. I pull my "hand-painted periwinkles" luggage into the house, and stand in my own kitchen again for the first time in nearly two weeks. Enough food in the pantry and freezer to feed me for weeks. Hot and cold running water, which is clean and drinkable. I walk through the rest of the house, on soft new carpet. I count two and a half bathrooms, and each fixture has its own water supply, it doesn't have to share a leaky, movable faucet with something else. There is a soft, comfortable bed with nice linens. There are ample towels, soft and fluffy. There is cool air blowing from a vent overhead, and touching a switch brings light. There are TVs, telephones and a computer. I cannot help but wonder, "Why me, Lord?" I think of the families living in tiny, cramped apartments or in some situations, in the space beneath staircases in Mongolia. Very little food, undependable water, certainly no air conditioning, no beds, nothing. Just a place on the bare floor to lie down to sleep, crowded with several other people. And I wonder, "Why not me, Lord?" I have no answer. I can only trust that He does.
After a hot shower that lasted about three days, I finally get into my own bed, and find that I'm unable to get comfortable because my little dog, my constant companion, is not there. She's with my granddaughter, and I'll get her very soon, but for tonight, I miss her. Once again, the disparity of it all hits me. There are people in Mongolia tonight who can't sleep because they're hungry, and too warm in the stifling space beneath those stairs, and crowded in with too many other people. I can't sleep because I miss my dog, who eats and lives much better than many of the people I've just left. The irony is painfully obvious.
Searching my heart, I really don't believe that God begrudges me the companionship of my little dog, and I think He expects me to take proper care of her, to feed her and provide for her. I do believe, however, that He also expects me to remember, to never forget, the needs of the people who have so little, and to help in any way that I can. This, I intend to do.
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Another very enjoyable thing we did was the ricksha ride. You probably know what a ricksha, or rickshaw, is but I'll catch you up anyway. It's a small buggy, typically seating only two people at the most, and in older times it was pulled by a man who placed himself between two poles extending from the front of the little buggy, and holding the poles, he would run along the streets, pulling the little buggy behind him. Nowadays, the buggy is attached to a bicycle, and the driver rides the bicycle, which pulls the buggy.
Eloise and I got into one together, and our driver was a large, genial man who was very friendly and kind to us. Toom Chris, who (mercifully) rode alone, had a driver who was small of stature and didn't look very strong. The expression on his face when he saw Toom Chris was priceless. The man may have been small, but he had a large sense of humor, and we all had a good laugh when he partially encircled Toom Chris's huge bicep with his hands, then transferred his hands to his own thigh, indicating that Chris's arm was bigger than his leg. Which, indeed, it was. However, once we got under way, it was evident that those thin little legs were made of steel, as he had no trouble at all in powering the ricksha right along with everyone else.
LANNI AND ELOISE IN A RICKSHA
You'll remember that earlier I mentioned that we felt like we were being shown the best of Beijing, but knew that there must be a darker side somewhere, just as there is in any large city. At one point, our bus was passing through an area that obviously had not undergone any renovation. David commented on this, and acknowledged that it's a problem for the government. They want to tear it down and rebuild, but are delaying, surprisingly, for humanitarian reasons. Apparently some of these old sections date back for two hundred years or more, and the little homes within those rabbit-warren areas may have been in a single family for many generations. There are narrow little lanes that traverse the neighborhood, really too small for auto traffic, but bicycles and pedestrians have no problem. The people are well known to each other, and form a very tightly-knit community. They look after each other, and share in each other's joys and sorrows. In short, however poor and rundown the area may look to outsiders, to the residents, it's home.
When the government does tear a neighborhood down, they make every effort to relocate the residents into nicer surroundings, but the people don't want to go. They want to remain where they are, with their old friends and neighbors, and in many cases their family members, close by. We were privileged to be invited to visit a home in one of the back-alley areas, and were surprised at how nice it really was. From the outside, it looked very rundown and dilapidated, but inside it was quite lovely. There was a large TV, comfortable furnishings, family pictures, a modern refrigerator, all the comforts of a home. Outside, there was a tiny patio, with a grape arbor overhead, and some beautiful flowers. The resident, our host, was hospitable and charming, a well-spoken and obviously educated man. Of course, this visit was arranged by our tour guide, and we know that there are areas that he would not want us to see, but then there are parts of Dallas to which I wouldn't take a visitor from China.
Once again, this has grown too long, and I think I'll save the rest for tomorrow.
NOTE: I do know how to paragraph my text. This program does not know how to honor the commands I give it. After re-paragraphing this about four times, I gave up. My apologies.
Monday, September 15, 2008
After breakfast, we board the bus and head out for a day of sightseeing. Our tour guide, David, is aboard, and Eloise and I are fortunate enough to be seated at the front, so we can hear him well. His accent is heavy, and sometimes we have trouble understanding him, but mostly we get it. There is, however, a small disadvantage in sitting in the front. We can see everything! We see every car that passes within two inches of our bumper, every bicyclist that escapes annihilation by the thickness of a coat of paint, every pedestrian whose head just bobs alongside and across the front of our bus, seemingly totally unaware of our existence. The driver keeps up a steady rhythm of little beeps of the horn, and absolutely never loses his temper. I can't help thinking that in traffic like this in Dallas, someone would get shot, or there would at the very least be a fistfight or two. It's absolutely certain that there would be wrecks, but we have yet to see one.
We inch along at a snail's pace, but this is fine with us, because we have a chance to take in the beauty that exists in much of Beijing. David tells us that a major beautification project is under way across China, and this includes Beijing. It's easy to see the results. There are beautiful, new high-rise buildings. There is lovely landscaping along the roadways. We are aware, of course, that what we're seeing now is strategically placed to enhance the tourist's impression of the city. We strongly suspect that there are areas that are not so nice, but of course, that's true anywhere. Dallas has its seamy side, too.
We're going to visit many places and points of interest, and I'm not at all sure of the timeline, when we went wherever, so I'm not going to try to reconstruct it. I'll just tell you the more interesting things about each place.
One major stop was Tiananmen Square, the scene of the bloody standoff between the Communist regime and the young resistance movement. Who can forget the picture of the young man in the white shirt, standing alone, facing an advancing column of tanks, blocking that advance with nothing but his own body? If you don't remember, or want to know more, just run a Google search on "Tiananmen" and you'll find enough to keep you reading all day.
A light rain was falling, but we left the bus and walked out onto the square, along with several thousand other people. The square is huge, and even though there were so many people, it wasn't crowded at all. You see a lot of police personnel, but they don't seem to bother anyone. There is a feeling in the air, though, an impression, that one had better watch one's step. This is still a Communist nation, though I wonder how long it will be so. The uprising in Tiananmen Square was brutally put down, leaving many people dead, but the movement still lives, and I believe that the day will come when Communism will be a thing of the past in China. I pray so.
Because of the high volume of foot traffic, and the thick motor traffic, tunnels have been dug beneath the streets, to allow people to cross without having to get in the streets. These tunnels are long, wide, hot and very humid. People can be seen sitting along the walls with their head on their knees, apparently napping. Others just simply stretch out on the ground next to a wall and sleep. No one seemed to bother them.
Another place we visited was a silk factory. We got to actually watch the workers as they unwound the incredibly thin filament of silk from the cocoons and spun it into thread. About ten cocoons are floated in a small basin of water, and the worker sloshes a little brush around in the water until it snags a filament from each cocoon. Once they have isolated these filaments, they put all ten or twelve of them together into one thread, and this is attached to a spinning spool. As the spool twirls, it pulls the filaments from each cocoon and winds it up as a single thread. When the spools are filled, they are removed to a loom where the threads are woven into silk fabric. It was absolutely fascinating, to watch the little cocoons dancing and spinning in their water bath, as they were unwound. Inside each cocoon, of course, is a silkworm caterpillar, which is already dead and therefore doesn't mind being undressed as his cocoon is unwound.
We saw some absolutely beautiful silk fabrics, and things made from silk. One thing that fascinated me was the silk duvets. Several girls stand around a square table, about the size of a king-size bed. The edges of the table are lined with pegs or hooks. The girls start with a large fluffy handful of silk filament, which looks a lot like cotton candy. They each take hold of a section, and pull outward on it. Remarkably, it stretches and gives, and soon they have a very thin layer of silk, as large as the table. They hook it in place, and begin another. I don't know how many layers they stack on top of each other, but eventually it's over an inch thick, light and airy, virtually weightless. This is the duvet stuffing, or batting, and it's sewn into a very light silk envelope, which will then be placed into a colorful, beautifully embroidered silk duvet cover. This outer cover is removable for cleaning, and the rest of it just needs to be shaken out and aired now and then. We were assured that the silk inside would never shift or bunch up. I didn't buy one, but I wish I had.
Another interesting place was the pearl factory. This is where pearls are literally produced by the dozens in large, fresh-water oysters. In the foyer of the building there was a water tank which was filled with huge oysters. A guide opened one, and showed us how the pearls just filled the bed of the shell. Apparently, an irritant is introduced into the shell, and the oyster immediately begins covering it with the smooth and beautiful substance that hardens into a pearl. I couldn't help thinking that we should all be like an oyster. When life deals us a hurt, or an irritating thing makes our life uncomfortable, we should try to just cover it with a smooth attitude, and thereby render it harmless. T
here were about two dozen pearls in each oyster, of all sizes, and we were each given one. Mine is particularly large and beautiful, and I plan to get my brother to make it into a pretty piece of jewelry. That is, if I can find it....
We also visited the cloissonne factory, where we were able to watch the process by which the beautiful cloissonne vases are made, as well as jewelry and Christmas ornaments. It's a fascinating process, and results in beautiful products. A cloissonne vase is created by first tracing a pre-designed pattern onto a plain brass vase. Then thin strands of a beaded-texture wire are glued in place, following the pattern. Paint is then applied to fill in the spaces between the wires, creating a beautiful design. The piece is then fired to set the glues and paints. After this, it can be either polished or not. If the piece is to be polished, it's turned on a polishing wheel until it's perfectly smooth, and the rough surface of the wire disappears, giving the impression that it's embedded in the piece. If not polished, the piece has a rough, raised, textured surface that is quite beautiful. Either way, the resulting piece is lovely.
Along the way, at the appropriate hours, we would stop for meals. Guess what we were served. You guessed it, Chinese food! Fortunately, I love Chinese food, and thoroughly enjoyed every meal. Our first experience was a surprise, as food is served differently than in America. The tables are large and round, and in the center of each is a revolving platform, a very large lazy susan, if you will. At each place, there is a very small plate. It's smaller than the little salad plates we ate from in Mongolia. The plates in China are about the size of a small saucer. How, one wonders, will I ever get enough food on that to satisfy my appetite? In the states, we wouldn't feed a two-year-old child from a plate that small.
After everyone is seated, the servers begin to bring steaming dishes of food, which are placed on the revolving centerpiece. Each person is expected to take a small amount from each dish and place it on their little saucer, then give the lazy susan a little push to pass the dish on to the next person. The food is not brought in all at once, but rather with a delay of a couple of minutes between each dish. As we were usually hungry, we would begin eating the little dab of food on our plate, and as other dishes were brought in, we would take a little bit, eat a bit more, another dish arrives, take a little bit, and so on. By the time the tenth or twelfth dish arrived, and we had managed to sneak a second dab of something we particularly liked, we would find that we were satisfied and had eaten quite enough.
Chopsticks were always at each place, and they are not disposable. To take a pair as a souvenir would be the same as pocketing the silverware in a restaurant in the states. Forks were always available, standing in a little holder in the center of the table. Knives were not needed, as everything is served with bite-size preparation, in deference to the chopsticks, I suppose. I tried the chopsticks a few times, and could have kept from starving if I had to use them, but since I prefer to eat my meal as opposed to wearing it, I gave up and used a fork. I'm just not very cosmopolitan, I guess.
The food was always quite good. Some meals were better than others, of course, just as it is here at home, but all of it was good, and a lot of it was really excellent. Surprisingly, I didn't get tired of Chinese food, though I'll admit I could have done some serious damage to a hamburger or a plate of cheese enchiladas. There is more to tell, but this installment grows too long, so we'll pick up again tomorrow.
Friday, September 12, 2008
Probably the most impressive and most memorable event was our visit to the Great Wall. Never in my wildest imagination did I ever think I'd actually see, up close and personal, the Great Wall of China. It almost defies description, but I'll try. I had the presence of mind to buy a book about it, because I knew I'd never remember all the facts that our very knowledgeable tour guide, David, kept throwing at us in large, rapid doses. The Wall was originally built in the 9th century B.C., and was rebuilt or extended over the centuries by various emperors and dynasties. I'll not try to go into a history of the Wall here, but here's a fairly good website if you want to know more: http://www.travelchinaguide.com/china_great_wall/
The Wall that is generally accepted as the Great Wall today is the part that was built by the Ming Dynasty in the period from 1368-1644 A.D. This wall extends over 4,000 miles, and exists in various states of preservation.
The part that we visited is very near to Beijing, and is pretty much a tourist attraction, very crowded and packed with the ubiquitous vendors, who are all afflicted with a remarkable form of selective deafness. They do not hear the English word "no." It simply doesn't register with them. The street vendors in the city have the same condition, but they seem to understand sign language. A raised hand, palm toward them, and a vigorous shaking of one's head will usually discourage them, but those at the Great Wall apparently are partially blind in addition to their deafness.
When we arrived at the Wall, our bus driver gave us a supreme demonstration of his driving skill. He threaded that huge, lumbering vehicle into places that I wouldn't have tried to pull a coaster wagon, let alone drive a car. He moved along inch by slow inch, making full use of his horn, and managed to squeak through tiny passages and crowds of people without ever hitting anything or anyone. It's remarkable. Once we encountered another bus coming in the opposite direction, and it didn't look like one bus could get through, much less two, but with some backing up and repositioning, the two drivers made it work and neither ever lost his composure.
At last we came to an area where the bus could be parked, and we all got out. It was unbelievably humid, and soon a light mist began falling. We were standing on a steep slope, and the ground was littered with a layer of mercifully unidentifiable detritus. This, combined with the mist, made the footing slippery and undependable. We were told that the actual gateway to the wall was quite a long way off, all uphill, over trails and crumbling steps. Eloise and I took a few seconds to decide, and opted for the tourist's Six Flags version of reaching the entrance. We rode the mechanized sleds. Most of our group made the same decision, with only about four of the guys deciding to actually make the hike.
The walk up the hill to the sleds was enough for us. The high altitude, the steep slope, and the heavy humidity had us breathing pretty hard by the time we got that far. We were really glad we weren't going to try to hike the whole thing. After a fairly short wait, we found ourselves being hustled into the little individual sleds and clamped in, and the sleds began their ratchety ascent. Up and up we went, and once again found ourselves feeling very thankful that we weren't making the climb on foot.
It's important here to understand that the Great Wall essentially runs over the tops of mountains. The mountains in that part of China lie in convoluted folds, not in individual peaks like our Rockies. The Wall is built on top, along ridges and up and over such peaks as may occur, but it's almost always on the highest ground around. Therefore, to get to the Wall itself, our little sleds had to climb a mountain, and they did.
At the end of the run, we were again hustled to get out, because the chain drive is moving constantly. The sleds were disengaged just long enough for the attendant to more or less yank us out before the next sled hit ours. Those guys make the roller coaster attendants at Six Flags look lazy.
When we were on our feet again, we followed the crowd to and through a ticket area, where Omar had already paid our way, and we were funneled into a fairly narrow passage that enclosed some steep steps. This is where we "climbed the Great Wall of China." Those steps emptied onto a sloped walkway, and at the end of that, we found ourselves actually standing on top of the Great Wall, looking out over the mountains, and at the expanse of the Wall as it faded into the distance.
We were under a time constraint, so we didn't stay on top of the Wall for long, but it was long enough that we felt the impact of the size and scope of the structure. It's wide enough for five horseman to ride side by side, and the length of it is incomprehensible. It would be a mammoth undertaking today, with all our modern equipment and methods, yet this enormous structure was built so long ago, when hand labor was about all they had to draw upon. Indeed, I'm not sure that there would be any other way to build it. The ridges and peaks that it spans are tall and heavily wooded, and it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get our modern-day equipment in there. Perhaps the way it was originally built is the only way it could be done. One thing is sure, it is indeed a wonder of the world, and I feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to see it.
After a little while, when we had absorbed about all of the enormity and grandeur of the Wall that we could, we realized it was time to start back down. We joined up with a few others of our group, and made our way back to the sled station. There we were hurriedly inserted into our little sleds and the descent began. A bit different, going down. No chain ratcheting us along this time! We were free-wheeling, just spinning down that mountain on rails that looked pretty slick and shiny. Just as I was beginning to wonder where and how it was all going to end, we caught the smell of hot rubber, and realized that the lead sled was occupied by a park employee, who had a simple, rubber-to-the-rail brake at his command. The sleds were all backed up one to another, and the leader would wait until they got going fast enough to give us all a thrill, then he would apply his brake to the rail and we would slow down, passing through the little clouds of smoke that arose from his brake. It's a pretty ingenious system, and it was fun. Also, it sure beat walking!
When we left the sleds, we started our return trip to the bus, and were immediately engulfed in swarms of vendors, all of whom offered us the bargain to end all bargains, and none of whom responded to our repeated negative answers. They just kept coming. It was like being in a human tornado. One woman followed me, repeating the same sales pitch over and over, for at least two hundred yards.
Finally, as we neared the bus, Eloise and I spotted a camel, complete with saddle and a sign that advertised that one could have a picture taken aboard the camel. Well, that looked like fun, so we decided to do it, and I went first. There was a small metal platform next to the animal, with steep steps leading to the top. Once on top, the trick was to get into the saddle and get settled before the camel stepped aside or bit you. No, I never actually saw him bite anyone, but he surely looked capable of doing so. He had the longest, yellowest, ugliest teeth I ever saw, but had absolutely beautiful eyes. God played a joke on the camel when He designed most of his body, but He made up for it with the eyes.
Now, this was a two-hump camel, so the idea is to perch on his back, between the humps. Naturally, this means that there will be a hump in front of you, and believe me, that's about the silliest-looking structure I've ever seen. It was quite tall, not really big around, about like a large fence post. It was crowned by a thick mat of brown hair, that looked very much like a messy bird's nest. Remember, it was misting rain, so this hair, in fact the entire camel, was frosted in mist, and very damp. What does a wet camel smell like? Just about what you'd expect - a wet camel. Perhaps not as offensive as one might expect, but not something you'd like to bottle and take home. As for his posture, I couldn't help but feel that it was pretty ungallant of him to lean forward in that squatty, strained position as soon as I got on board. I may not be a lightweight, but I'm not that heavy!
After my picture was taken, Eloise climbed up and got on the camel, who then proceeded to take a step or two forward. Eloise's reaction was much the same as it was when the bus would have a near-miss. Squeal, apply a brake and grab onto something. Problem was, camels don't have floorboards for the imaginary brake, and she didn't want to grab a handful of that thatch of wet camel hair. So she just squealed. I guess it worked. The camel stopped, Eloise's picture was taken, and we went on our way. Soon we found ourselves on board the bus again, and our driver miraculously got us through the maze of people and vehicles and back out onto the highway. Our visit to the Great Wall of China was over. I was impressed. I want to go again, but I think I don't want to go back to the same place. I have read of a place that is a reachable distance from Beijing, and that is relatively unspoiled, with none of the accoutrements of tourism that ensnared us today. I think I'd like to go there, when and if I'm in this country again. Well, as promised, I'm going to end this installment here, as it grows too long. Tomorrow was another day in China, and it is another day here as well.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Omar has made reservations for us at a cultural center/theater, and has told us a little bit about what we can expect there. The highlight of the show will be a performance by a Mongolian Throat Singer. What on earth is that?? Well, we found out, and it's really an unbelievable phenomenon.
Certain people, somehow, seem to have the physical ability or the talent or whatever you may choose to call it, to produce more than one tone at a time. We all talk, sing, yell or whatever by producing one tone, modulating it as needed to form words or change pitch. The tones can be raised and lowered up and down the scale at will, but there's only one tone to a customer, ordinarily. These throat singers can somehow produce two tones at the same time, each on a different pitch.
Have you ever stood in front of a fan and hummed, talked, sang or whistled into the breeze the fan creates? Sure you have. Every child discovers this at some point in his life, and every adult worth his or her salt has played with the discovery again when no one is watching. If you haven't, you need to conduct a search for your inner child, and liberate him or her.
Anyway, I think most of us know about the "double sound" that's produced when we do this. Well, that's what these throat singers sound like, and I have no earthly idea how they do it. It was fascinating. It sounded like two voices, but there was only one man singing. The question immediately arises - was another voice being transmitted from a microphone somewhere? Of course, that was possible, but I don't think so. The throat singers are famous in Mongolia, and I'm sure if it was a hoax, someone would have exposed it by now. I do know that it was beautiful, and absolutely fascinating.
We went to a lovely restaurant, had a delicious meal and returned to the hotel to rest and get ready for our flight back into China in the morning. We will be spending three days in Beijing. We're going to the Great Wall! We're going to the Forbidden City! We're going to shop! Uh-oh!
Saturday, September 6, 2008
After breakfast, we make one last trip to our rooms, make one more check to be sure we've forgotten nothing, and avail ourselves of the facilities one last time. I don't think I'm going to miss our bathroom.
Downstairs, the last of our luggage is being loaded into the bus's underbelly, and people are milling about, delaying the boarding as long as possible. Hugs are exchanged with our interpreters, over and over. We have given them small gifts, including some Beanie Babies, and the girls are holding theirs. BatBubba is wearing the Texas T-shirt Eloise gave him. We are becoming very aware of how much we're going to miss these bright young folks who have been at our sides since we arrived, facilitating and making possible everything we've tried to do here. One more round of hugs, the wiping away of a few tears, and finally we board the bus.
With much grinding of gears, the bus lumbers out of the parking lot, and we are on our way to Ulaanbaatar. It's going to be a long drive, and we fear it won't be as much fun as the first trip. On that one, we had our enthusiasm and anticipation to help the time pass. This time, we are dealing with nostalgia and reluctance to leave this land. We drive over the same landscape, but there is a bittersweet quality this time. We know more now. We pass some gers, and they no longer seem so mysterious and exotic to us. We know that they are simply a house, a home to a family of nice people, who work hard and just try to make a living the best way they know how. We know how lovely the gers are inside, and how comfortable, and how very practical for this part of the world.
As we're driving over the beautiful Mongolian countryside, I'm suddenly struck by the thought that if I don't get pictures of some things now, I may never get them. I mention that I'd like to get a picture of an ovoo (pronounced OH-woe), but by the time I realize that we're coming upon one, it's gone before I can get the camera focused. Somehow the word gets to the driver, and without warning, he pulls over on the shoulder and stops the bus. There is a lovely ovoo on the other side of the highway. I make my way across the aisle to a window and get a great picture.
AN OVOO ON THE ROADSIDE BETWEEN DARKHAN AND ULAANBAATAR
An ovoo is a very interesting manifestation of the religious background of the nomadic people of Mongolia. Buddhism is strong there, but there is a lot of animism as well, which involves shamanism, superstition and reverence for gods of nature. Travelers in Mongolia build the ovoos, these piles of rock and sticks, a little bit at a time, as they move through a given area. The idea is to leave an offering, thanking the god of the mountain, or the pass, or the valley, for allowing the traveler safe passage. The offerings usually consist of a stone, or possibly a stick or piece of wood, sometimes even a small trinket. The blue strips of cloth, as I understand it, represent a prayer of a more specific nature. After leaving the gift, the traveler walks around the ovoo three times in a clockwise direction, and then goes on his way.
Some ovoos are enormous, fifty feet or more in diameter, and may be taller than a mounted rider's head. These huge ones may be more than a hundred years old, as this custom is an ancient one. This particular ovoo was about ten or twelve feet in diameter, and about two or three feet tall, not counting the poles. I saw one that was so tiny it would have been completely unnoticed, had it not been for a couple of blue strips of cloth tied to a twig. It contained only three or four small rocks stacked together. I suppose everything has to start somewhere.
As we approached the midway point, it occurred to me that a rest stop would be very welcome. Then I remembered the infamous rest stop, regretted my last cup of tea, and silently hoped that we would stop at a different place. We didn't. Oh, mercy. We stopped at the same awful place, with the same awful little hut, and the same awful stench hit us as soon as we stepped off the bus. The first time, I was able to convince myself that I could make it to Darkhan, and I did. This time, I knew I could never make it to Ulaanbaatar. I am seriously regretting that last cup of tea now. There was no choice. I joined the pitiful little line of equally desperate women, and made my way toward that miserable hut. It's amazing how polite and courteous we all became, each one urging everyone else to go ahead and go first.
Finally it was my turn, and there was no one left to send on ahead of me. Nothing to do but enter the wretched hut and take care of business. I took a deep breath of the stinking air outside, because I feared it would be worse inside. I made it last as long as I could, but inside the hut I finally had to breathe, and learned that I was right. It was worse inside. I realized that I really missed our bathroom in Darkhan. As I stood there, over that gap in the floor, my purse strap slipped off my shoulder and to my great relief, it caught at my elbow. I hung it around my neck, because I knew if it ever fell through that gap, it would just have to stay there, passport and all.
After about ten years, I was ready to leave the little hut. Since I hadn't yet died of asphyxiation, I took the liberty of snapping a picture from the doorway as I left. I'll spare you the sight, but I have the picture, if anyone is interested. I walked across the parking lot toward the bus, pausing to let the prevailing wind blow (I hoped) some of the smell out of my hair and clothes. Those of us who had braved the perils of the little hut were understandably a bit smug as we boarded the bus, and can be forgiven for being unsympathetic toward those who chose to complete the ride in a state of discomfort.
The rest of the ride passed uneventfully, and finally our bus pulled up in front of the same hotel in which we had stayed upon entering Mongolia. It's nice, the rooms are clean and comfortable, and it has a real bathroom!!! Eloise and I are sharing a room this time, which is fine with us. We have only a short time to clean up and be ready to go, because Omar has a couple of events planned for us this evening. It sounds interesting, and we can hardly wait.