Thursday, July 1, 2010

Mongolian Permaculture: Day 1 – Ulanbaataar


Three Permaculturists’ faces - Rick, Kat and Matt - are pressed against a passenger jet window, peering out to the landscape below – Mongolia.

We could be looking at the topographical satellite photos from GoogleMaps except for the dull roar of jet engines: muted browns fading in to green veins following erosion gullies down hillsides and gullies, dirt tracks crisss-crossing the map rolling out mile by mile below.

It is a surreal feeling, after so many months of preparation and research and brainstorming and daydreaming of this place, to know that in twenty minutes we will be walking the same ground that Genghis Khan tread a millenia ago.

…am I still daydreaming?

Started reading the landscape from 10,000 feet on our final descent. Flew over the low mountain range that borders Ulanbaataar to the north, over plateaus fuzzy with conifer forests, erosion gullys tinged with green winding their way to an unseen river.

Discovered the unseen riverbed, wide and winding, snaking its way out of the capitol city. Deep channels cut into the wide rockbeds, weaving in and out of itself past the blacktop highway and ger encampments on the outskirts of town.

Caught a climpse of the Trans-Siberian Railway chugging along its long steel path.

Realized that what we thought were living hedges are actually woodframe and corrugated iron fencing.

Startled some cattle grazing on the dry river beds on our final approach.

Spotted a steel ‘mega-yurt’ as we taxied down the runway – is it a sports stadium?

Held our breath until our bags were the last to flop onto the baggage claim conveyor belt. Picked up by Bek’s friend ‘Dok’ and his hard companion/driver ‘Ingktor’.

Survived the drive back to the city center through ‘suburbs’ being created before our eyes. It seems like roads are being created ad-hoc by fencelines of new houses; feels like driving through a major construction site miles long; looks like many of the houses are being built by the owners… Untidy but no urban rubbish piling up. Stark contrast to the soul-less, build-a-box, monotony of tract home developments back home.

Accosted by roadside billboards all the way into the city; MontBlanc Pens are heavily targeting new arrivals to Chinggis Khan International Airport??

Saw an interesting billboard talking about a German-Mongolian eco-village development being built. Is Wunderbar, ja?

Dropped bags at ‘Happiness Hotel’, changed out of the tshirt I’d been wearing for the last twenty hours, then piled back into the 4WD to drive to…

…theAid Agency's Mongolia Head Offices. 500m around the corner.

Toured the offices and met with The Country Director for briefing on the agency's current Mongolia projects.

Lunch at Modern Nomads, a touristy indoor/outdoor bistro on the main road in Ulanbaataar with Bek, Food Security Director and my fellow PDC Graduate [SCPI November 2009] and his boss The Programs Director to catch up and get briefed on our project. Tradtional Mongolian food: mutton dumplings, meat and flat noodles in broth, and milk tea.

Back to the Happiness Hotel for a cold shower [no hot water on the fifth floor!] and a cat nap. Full sunlight at 5pm, sun doesn’t set until about 10pm this time of year.

Wandered the streets of Ulanbataar and watched Rick play hilarious charades to ask for some thrush relief cream at the chemist [how does the pharmacist interpret his crazy dance as ‘he needs erectile dysfunction pills’ to finally understand ‘I have an itch’] …LoL

Explored a Mongolian supermarket. ‘Fresh’ produce is a relative concept; mouldy garlic, vacuum-packed imported ears of corn, sprouted potatoes, softening apples… huge variety of meat products available though.

Visited the CitySquare and stumbled across a US Marine brass band alternating musical sets with the Mongolian National Army band. ….Twenty hours on two airplanes, halfway across the road to one of the most ancient cities and cultures only to hear ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ being played at the feet of a two-story statue of Ghengis Khan. Not sure how good I feel about that…

Bought preserved plums from an old lady roadside vendor with windblown cheeks and smiling eyes who made sure I counted the change she gave me to make sure she had done me right.

Looked for a vegetarian restaurant for Kat, who has been reintroducing herself to meat for six months in preparation for this trip. No such luck; all two vegetarian restaurants in the city were closed… so, off to a Korean BBQ: Kimchee Stew + Kimchee Pork + Beef Bulgogi + Iced Tea = T20,000 [Tugrik]. Or, a little less than $20AUS.

A little street girl broke our hearts as she walked up to our table and tried to sell us baby wipes and cigarettes for T2,000. She looked straight into our eyes and silently pleaded - 10,000 times better than any look Antonio Banderas’ Puss-In-Boots could give in Shrek. None of us smoke, or need baby wipes, and so I take my shot of concrete to harden up and say no. She is skilled though, and renegotiates deftly with us for 2/3 of the plate of pork. The waitresses smile warmly as they watch the entire exchange, and wordlessly hand her a plastic bag to collect her meal, which could probably feed 2 or 3 mouths tonight.

Silent, poised and dignified, she disappears into the night.



  1. Hey guys - nice one, you're finally there! Looking forward to hearing the updates, keep em coming!

  2. I am reading!

    Nice matt!


  3. This is fascinating.

  4. I have a friend traveling there now too! The new vacay? Be safe! :-)

  5. the new vacay? we're working our buns off!! =p it's not work when u love what ur doing tho...