Sunday, July 27, 2008

The bus ride

1:00 p.m., Mongolia time.

We have landed in Ulaanbaatar. Immediately, we are aware that the atmosphere is different than in China. The airport in China was large, sleek and modern. Here, it is much smaller, and not so new. Not rundown exactly, but definitely not as modern as the one in Beijing. The people are much friendlier, however, and we like the place already.

The language we hear is considerably more pleasant than the Chinese we heard in Beijing. Chinese is harsh to Western ears, and the speakers always sound as though they're angry. Perhaps they are. Anyway, the Mongolian language is much softer, with a gentle rhythm to it, and a lot of sibilant sounds. It sounds very difficult, but it's pretty.

A young woman named Badmaa has been traveling with us. She is a Mongolian, a medical student who has actually graduated, but still has some residencies to complete. One of our team members, himself a physician, befriended her on a previous tour, and she has been in America for the last two months, living with him and his family. We have all gotten to know her, and to love her. She is delightful, bright, enthusiastic, eager and filled with the joy of the Lord. She is returning home, and Mongolia's gain will be our loss. She is met by her sister, grandmother and boyfriend, and we were witnesses to a sweet, tearful reunion.

A bus was waiting for us, along with a van for the luggage. The bus has a/c (sort of) and is comfortable enough. The driver is skillful, which is fortunate, as will soon become apparent. Susan Smith, the wife of Jerry Smith, who founded the Change The World ministry that we will be working with, and two Mongolian associates met us, and will ride with us to Darkhan. Susan shared some very interesting stories and facts with us. Eloise and I were fortunate enough to be seated across the aisle from Susan and behind Omar, and the conversation really made the time pass quickly.

Omar is hilarious. He shared stories from his childhood with us, including what he called his "ascot period." It seems that when he was in about the third grade, his mother bought him some little suits to wear to school. He described them as "Eddie Munster" suits, and they came complete with little ascots. He was compelled to wear them every day. Well, you can imagine what response that would generate from schoolkids. Omar's reaction to that was to reply, "What? Do you mean you don't have a suit and ascot? That's terrible. Maybe you should ask your parents to buy you some, because they're the latest thing." He declares that the ascot experience is what taught him to think on his feet and talk his way out of any situation. We were all roaring with laughter, just picturing Omar in his little suit and ascot.

The drive was about four hours, through desolate but beautiful country. It is very hilly, progressing to mountainous in places, but unlike any terrain I've ever seen. It's like the land is in folds and pleats, and there are almost no trees. There is vegetation - grass, weeds and a few wild flowers, but very few trees. The ones that do exist are gathered into small, isolated groves on the hillsides. The margins are sharply defined, as though the trees had been clearcut up to that point, but Susan says not, they just grow that way.

I realize that I'm seeing the same lines that I noticed from the plane, cobwebbing the landscape, and now I can see what they are. They're little tracks and trails, running alongside each other, crossing each other, veering off and returning, and they are everywhere. Some lead right up to the highway, and very soon we see the makers of these trails. There are animals everywhere. Not wild animals, but rather livestock. The same livestock that at home would be held behind fences and in corrals. Out here, they are free-ranging. I don't see a fence anywhere. Free-range includes the highway, apparently, as we encounter horses, cattle, sheep and goats clustered right on the shoulder of the road, and occasionally meandering across it. The driver uses the horn generously, but the animals mostly ignore it, and just go on about their business.

Not only do animals gather along the roadway, but people do the same thing. We see a lot of people just walking along the side of the road, or standing beside it, sometimes sitting on suitcases or bundles. We are told that these are travelers, and may be waiting for a bus, or hitching a ride, or might just walk all the way to Darkhan. If a vehicle has broken down, it is just stopped in the road, and the occupants are milling around beside it. Our driver exhibits all of his aforementioned skill, as he avoids mowing anyone down. No one gets excited at all.

Susan explains that almost all the land belongs to the government, but herdsman families live on it with permission, and keep their herds. The animals free-range and graze, but apparently know where they live and return home at night. Thus, the network of trails.

We were told there would be a "rest stop" about halfway, and Eloise and I were looking forward to that. However, when we got off the bus and saw the facilities, we decided we didn't need any rest! The bathroom consisted of a crude hut, clinging to the side of a deep ravine. It was divided into four sections, two for men and two for women. No doors, just a ramshackle wall built across the front of the little building. Inside, not only were there no doors, there was nothing else either, except a space where one plank had been removed from the floor, leaving a foot-wide gap, through which one could get a glimpse of the gates of hell. One is expected to straddle the gap and perform. Okay for guys, I guess, but a bit more difficult for the girls. The stench was overpowering, and only the very hardy or the very desperate went inside. After a quick peek through the door, I decided I wasn't that hardy, or that desperate, and returned to the bus.

Leaving the rest stop, we continued our drive through the beautiful Mongolian countryside. We see a lot of gers, and are surprised to see that some are equipped with satellite dishes! Most do not have electricity, but some do have gas-powered generators. They are the ones who have TV. We see a few motor vehicles outside the gers, but most of the time, there are only animals outside. Horses - always several horses, as they are the chief mode of transportation for these nomadic people. We learn that the families who have permission may stay on their chosen site for long periods, but most families do not have permission and must move every four months, or they will be charged taxes for the land they're occupying. This seems like a monumental inconvenience to us, because the gers look pretty substantial and semi-permanent. I'm anxious to learn more about them.

Soon, we begin to see buildings in the distance, and realize that we are approaching our destination, the city of Darkhan. The Mongols pronounce the kh combination with a soft, throat-clearing sound, but for Westerners, it usually just comes out as Darhan, with the "han" rhyming with "con." I'm busy at the window with my camera, snapping pictures as we go, but most don't turn out well, as the bus is lurching and swaying a lot. Perhaps I'll get some pictures later. I put the camera away, and just sit there and soak in my first impressions of the area that will be my home for the next ten days or so. America seems very, very far away.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Approaching Mongolia

Wednesday, August 4, 5:30 a.m. China time

Up at 5:15, ready to go to breakfast.

It was delicious. Excellent bacon, and ham so fat that I trimmed away over half of the total - just too much fat - but the lean was very good. Potatoes, and a waffle that was lovely, with a fruit compote, not syrup. It was very light and fluffy, and over an inch thick. It's all served buffet-style, and there are astonishing things available, such as pork and beans. (At breakfast?) There are also slices of cheese, tomatoes and cucumbers. This hotel, the Sino-Swiss, is Swiss-run, so that probably explains a lot.

After breakfast, it was time to "head 'em up and move 'em out!" We boarded another bus - a/c this time - and drove to the airport. Several checkpoints to be cleared as we moved through the airport, each manned by an unsmiling young Chinese. The other passengers, mostly Asians, are very aggressive and will mow you down if you let them. They don't seem to appreciate it when you allow them to precede you, instead they look at you rather pityingly, like they think you must be stupid. The officials are, for the most part, very serious and grim, but I did manage to get a small smile out of one young woman. The Communist influence, I suppose. I'd be grim, too, if I had to be a Communist. At one point, we were standing in line beneath a sign that read in English "Foreigners." That was a bit disconcerting. It's the first time I've ever found myself designated as a "foreigner."

We boarded a very nice, new-looking Miat Airlines aircraft without incident and are at this moment as I write, taxiing out to take off for Ulaanbaatar, or "the U.B." as it's often called.

I should mention that the air is very clear and beautiful today - all the smog is gone. The mountains around Beijing are absolutely gorgeous. Very impressive. Now I know why mountains always look the way they do in Chinese paintings - that peculiar, stylized appearance. That's exactly what they look like!

The Miat staff is friendly and efficient, and the plane is very comfortable. The attendants are Mongolian, and are much more pleasant than the Chinese people we encountered in the airport.

I have a window seat, and my nose is pressed to the glass. I want to see everything I can see. About fifteen minutes out of Beijing, I notice a crooked white line snaking across the ridges on the mountains below. Someone said it is the Great Wall. Hmm. Not too impressive from up here at first glance, but as I let the sight sink in, I realize the distance it's covering - it extends as far as I can see - and the altitude from which I'm seeing it, and I begin to get a sense of the immensity of it. We'll visit it when we come back through, and I imagine it will be much more impressive up close.

Farther out, I notice that there are many roads, connecting what appears to be warehouses or sheds, some sort of long, narrow, repetitive buildings. What are they, and why are they scattered out in the mountains? Finally, I realize that they're located near some dark splotches which I take to be some sort of vegetation that's different from what covers the hills, and there are tiny lines from the splotches to the buildings. All the splotches seem to be on the same side of the mountains. I think about it a while, and I think I have an answer, though no one can confirm it. I think I may be seeing tea plantations, and the buildings are the drying sheds. Can't prove it, but it's as good an answer as any. Hooray - I love tea!

As we fly northward, at some point we leave China and enter Mongolia, though we're not aware of it at the time. There are some changes in the topography below, though. The mountains flatten into hills, and there are very few trees. There are, however, many, many little lines that spread like cobwebs over the surface. These lines are crooked, meandering, and they converge and then separate, they criss-cross each other, they run parallel to each other. They are everywhere! What on earth are they? They're too small and narrow to be roads, and anyway, there are relatively few motor vehicles in Mongolia, especially out in the wilderness such as we're flying over right now. I also notice occasional light-colored, irregularly-shaped formations on the ground.

The sound of the plane's engines changes slightly, and I think we're dropping a little. We must be getting close to the U.B. As we get lower, I can see that some of the light-colored formations I saw before are actually herds of sheep, goats, cattle, or any combination thereof. I see one herd that seems to be mostly horses. If there is anyone in attendance, I haven't been able to see them yet. The animals appear to be wild, just going about as they please.

I begin to notice some tiny white, round dots scattered about on the plains below, and I realize that they must be the "gers" we have been told about. A ger is a tent/building hybrid that has been used by the Mongols for centuries as dwellings. They're movable, and suit the Mongolian nomadic lifestyle very well. I suspect we'll learn a lot more about them during our stay here.

We are now over Ulaanbaatar, and the pilot is making our descent. Our mission in Mongolia is about to begin.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In Beijing

Tuesday, August 3, 2:00 p.m. China time.
We are in Beijing!! We made it through the airport just fine, thanks to Omar. We are a group of 29, ranging in age from one teenage girl and all ages up to me (65) and one person who is one year older. Most are from Plymouth Park, but not all. There is a plumber from somewhere near Tyler, a preacher from a church in Winona and two female members of his church. Dr. Tom Dickey (pathologist at my hospital) and his wife, who attend a Methodist church in Irving. Pretty much a motley crew. Our luggage had already been pulled off the carousel by the time we got to the area, thanks to Omar's "yellow tag" system. We all had bright yellow name tags attached to each piece of our luggage, and everyone knows to watch for those tags and nab them when they go by.

One handle on my new blue and white "hand-painted periwinkles" luggage had been broken, but I'm not surprised. It weighs nearly 60 pounds. I packed responsibly with regard to clothes, I truly did, but it is full of snack crackers, bags of nuts, cookies, candy bars, granola bars and such. Why on earth I brought all that stuff, I'll never know. Even if they fed us nothing at all, Eloise and I could never eat all that lot. Next time, I'll know better.

Omar arranged for a bus to take us to our hotel. Originally, we were to make a connection and go directly to Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, but Mongolia's Miat Airline had cancelled our flight, so we can't get out of Beijing until tomorrow. Thus, a hotel tonight. We are tired, and secretly grateful. Omar gently convinced Miat that they should pay for it, since we weren't notified of the cancellation until we got to Beijing. He even got them to pay the airport tax that will be charged when we re-enter the airport tomorrow. $75 per person! We board the bus and are on our way, into the unknown mystery that is Beijing's traffic. The weather is very hot and terribly humid, the bus is crowded and there is no a/c. We are tired. We could be excused for being cranky, but no one is. I think we're all still a little giddy from the sheer excitement of it all. Personally, I'm having a wonderful time.

Not only is Beijing hot and humid, but it's shrouded in a thick, dense blanket of smog. It's worse than Dallas ever thought of. It's worse than Mexico City, and I didn't think anything could be worse than that and still boast of life within its borders. Visibility is about two blocks. Arrgh. Anyway, we all crowded into the middle and back of the bus, and our luggage was loaded onto the seats in the front. I expected the rear wheels to leave the ground, but they didn't.

The drive was very short, probably about two miles, but it took at least twenty minutes. How to describe the traffic? Let's see....First of all, we see no speed limit signs. They aren't necessary. Nothing moves at more than 15 to 20 miles an hour, and often we just creep along at idle speed. If a driver has no horn, he has no chance. They all drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn. It's a constant chorus of beeps, up and down the scale, like thousands of little frogs. The narrow streets were never intended for buses, and the buses must share with hundreds of pedestrians, hundreds of bicycles, and of course, hundreds of cars. Everyone ignores all common road rules, right of way is by bluff only. It is survival of the fittest. Eloise wears out her "brake" on the floor beneath her seat. I close my eyes and pray a lot.

We arrive at our hotel safely, and unload the bus. Our male companions, as always, very gallantly help the ladies with the heaviest pieces of luggage. Bless them. The hotel is, in Omar's words, "an old four-star hotel." I would describe it as "shabbily genteel", rather like the old Baker in Dallas, before it was demolished. A bit past its prime, but clean, reasonably convenient, and comfortable enough. My room is cool, once I figured out that the keycard inserted into the proper slot would activate the power for lights and a/c. There is a shower, a clean bed, bottled water and a TV, which gets some American stations. What else does one need? Most of our group are doubled up in rooms, but somehow Eloise and I got private rooms.

A shower and clean clothes had a restorative effect, and Eloise and I met the group for dinner in the hotel dining room. It's now 6 p.m. China time, but 5 a.m. home time. We are tired, but while dinner was a bit generic, it was good, and we enjoyed it. We went back to our rooms, and I was in bed before 9 p.m. Imagine that! The bed was hard, but comfortable enough. One small, smushable pillow (I love it), and my first experience with a duvet. No top sheet, just a duvet. It's light, but warm. I assume the cover is changed and laundered in the same manner as a sheet. At least, I hope so. I never even turned the TV on, and was asleep in seconds.

Here we are in the Beijing airport:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Departure

This is the first installment in the first of the Mongolia journals. I hope everyone enjoys reading it. If you can find just half as much pleasure in the reading as I found as I lived it, it will be well worth your time.

Sunday, August 1, 4:30 p.m.
My packing is done, except for a little fine-tuning. I'm very excited and almost wish it was tomorrow morning already, but not quite. I still need a little more time here in my home, before going to the other side of the world.

Monday, August 2, 3:45 a.m.
I'm waiting for Jerry and Eloise to pick me up. They arrived at 4 a.m. sharp, Jerry loaded my luggage and we were off. Three blocks from the house and I realized I had left my glucometer and insulin on the bathroom counter. No problem, we were early, went back for it. It's not something I could leave behind.

5:00 a.m. We're all checked in and ready to board. A good group - Many I know, but some I don't, so I know I'll make some new friends.

Omar Garcia, our fearless leader, is a wonder. Very organized, and therefore very calm. No running about with his hair on fire, he has it all planned out ahead of time. He's wearing an orange shirt, which makes him easy to find. I'm glad, because I don't plan to stray very far from him.

6:00 a.m. Take off! We're on our way to Mongolia. Who would ever have thought I'd be doing this at age 65? I'm very excited.

I do miss my little Plum. She thought surely she was going, because she usually does when I pack a suitcase, so she brought me some toys while I was packing, as she always does, expecting me to pack them, too. She was very crestfallen when I put her in the bedroom and told her goodbye. David will pick her up later this morning. She's in good hands.

Chicago, 11:00 a.m. We are checking our visas and passports - we already have boarding passes, got them in Dallas. A very pompous ticket agent informed one member of our group that the flight is oversold and therefore there is no seat for him, but no problem, he could take the next flight! Omar, unflappable as always, quietly informed the agent that this is not acceptable and will not happen. Bump a single passenger if you must, but do not pull one member out of a group and bump him, especially as all tickets were purchased at one time and have been reconfirmed at least twice. The man tried to argue, Omar did not argue, simply told him to fix the problem. He did.

12:30 p.m. Sitting in a 777, about to take off for Beijing. Beijing. That's in China! Oh, my!

Still Monday, August 2, 5:30 p.m. Dallas time. This plane is getting smaller. We have hit a few rough patches that make us all stay seated, but when it smooths out, people get up and walk around. The staff are friendly and helpful. At the moment, we're very near the North Pole, and are over a huge icefield. To my surprise, there are patches of open water. They're small, but they're there. I saw a "pilot's halo" over the ice. It's a circular rainbow, and is absolutely beautiful. No sign of Santa Claus anywhere yet.

Tuesday, August 3, 2:00 p.m. China time. We are in Beijing! More later.......

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How it Began

As some of you know, I had the opportunity to go to Mongolia with a mission team in August of 2004. Never in my wildest imagination as an adult, did I think I'd end up on the other side of the world some day, but God had other ideas. Thinking back, I know He had it planned for a very long time.

When I was about twelve years old, at a church service where a foreign missionary spoke about missions and the need for people to go and serve, I felt in my childish heart that God was calling me to be a missionary. I think most young Christian children experience that at some time. In addition, I knew even then that I wanted to be a part of the medical field when I grew up, so it was natural that I'd see myself as a medical missionary.

So, at the altar call at the end of the service, I walked to the front and told the pastor that I wanted to commit myself to be a medical missionary. That pastor had known me and my family all my life, and being the intuitive and experienced man that he was, he very gravely and kindly accepted my "commitment" and suggested that I pray about it a lot, and in the meantime, do my best in school and get the necessary education.

Time and circumstance (and a handsome young man) intervened, and I found myself married, with children coming along at intervals, and not only was I not a missionary, I wasn't even in the medical field! I don't think I ever really forgot the missionary idea, though it definitely was buried deeply in my mind. I'm quite sure I didn't forget the medical part, because at the age of 37, with some trepidation, I enrolled in nursing school, and at age 40, I was a registered nurse, working at our local hospital.

Fast-forward to 2004, and I'm a 64 year old widow, still working at the same hospital, and quite content just doing my job. Picture another church service, with another foreign missionary speaking, telling of the need for help where he lives and works - in Mongolia, of all places. I felt the old stirring in my heart, but thinking of my family, my job, my home and all the many obligations in my life, I knew I would never just sell out and move to the other side of the world.

Wait! What was that? He said, "We need people who will come and spend just a couple of weeks with us, helping us meet the needs of the children in our care, and those of the nomads out in the countryside."

Just a couple of weeks?? I'm listening very intently now.

"We need men who can do construction."

Well, that leaves me out. I'd only be in the way.

"We need women who can cook and sew, to teach our local women how to prepare nutritious meals from the food we're growing, and how to make clothes for the children."

Well, I like to cook, and I can sew a little. Oh, but anyone can do that, probably better than I can. They don't really need me.

Then he said the magic words. "We need people with a medical background, doctors and nurses, to staff the remote clinics for the nomads out in the countryside."

Oh, my! Now he definitely had my attention, and at the end of the service, I found myself once more walking down a church aisle. The amazing thing is, I didn't "get" the connection at that time. It was not until I was sitting astride a bench, beneath a tent on the banks of a river in Mongolia, taking blood pressures and interviewing an endless line of nomadic folk, that it hit me. I was on a mission trip, and I was doing medical work. I was a medical missionary!

The lesson in all of this, for me, is simple. God's plans for us aren't always what we imagine them to be. When I was twelve, I pictured myself in deepest, darkest Africa, fighting bugs and malaria, and helping leprous, starving people. Fascinating, but that wasn't His plan. No, His plan for me wasn't that dramatic. He planned for me to be on that bench, beside that river, doing a simple job, and nothing more. All He asked of me was that I be willing, and I suppose I had been willing all my life. I know for a fact that God engineered my entry into nursing school, but that's another story. I know now that He was preparing me for Mongolia, among other things. Anyway, it was just a matter of my willingness and preparation meeting the proper circumstances, and that's what happened on that Sunday when the missionary to Mongolia spoke at my church.

So, that's how the Mongolia missions began. In later posts, I'll share installments from the journals I kept on those two trips. If I can figure out how to do it, I'll include some pictures. Mongolia is a starkly beautiful, strange land, and I want very much to return. Perhaps one day I will.