Monday, February 8, 2010

My latest soum trip

by Mark

I'm going to let the pictures do most of the talking, but there were a couple of highlights I thought I should mention from my last soum trip. We spent about 4 days traveling to five different soums to deliver an informational seminar on Mercy Corps' Loan Guarantee Mechanism program. At each soum we would have anywhere from 7 to 30 people come listen to us talk for about 30 minutes. My job was to setup and tear down the laptop and projector at each location (haha, tough job!).

On the way from the first soum (Ix Tamir) to the second soum (Chuluut) we had to pass over the Chuluut River. It's fairly large, and it's frozen for nearly 4 months of the year. However, it took me a second to figure out we were in the process of crossing over it, when suddenly I realized I could hear ice cracking. Our driver Tsogoo slowly crept the jeep forward and then decided it was best to stop and walk on ahead to see how the river was. So there we were just sitting in the middle of a frozen river, probably about 100 yards out on a sheet of ice, with probably another 150-200 yards to go. Needless to say, Tsogoo came back from his brief walk and decided it was best to turn around and find another way to get across. And for that I am grateful...

The second random story occurred on the way from the fourth soum (Ondor Ulaan) to the fifth soum (Erdene Mandal). We were driving just after dark, climbing over a rather large range of hills, and we found ourselves making ground on a vehicle up ahead. As we got closer I realized that the back of this small truck was full of people, kids really, as each one couldn't have been more than 16 years old. There were probably 7 or 8 of them in the back of this vehicle, and they must have been freezing...but as I was pulling out my camera to snap a picture I realized they were waving beer bottles at us as we passed. They probably don't remember the cold much. Considering how bumpy the ride was, I wasn't able to get the best picture, but someone I felt like this pic actually captured the moment (even if it's the moment from their hazy point of view).

About one hour later I found myself needing to take a bathroom break, but unfortunately on this trip I didn't have a translator so a lot of my communication was in my broken Mongolian mixed with my co-workers limited English...and quite honestly I probably spent about 45 minutes trying to think of the best way to say "I need to pee really bad, can we stop the vehicle!?". It's funny sometimes how when you expect a person to speak one language and then they try to speak in another language, at first you don't realize they're speaking a word you might know. This happens all the time with me when I'm trying to speak Mongolian to my counterparts, so no matter how many times I said I need to use the "noil" - toilet...or the "joorlon" - outhouse...they didn't get it...just expecting me to be using English words. Finally I used the english word "toilet" and my director figured it out. Good thing it didn't resort to charades. You might be asking yourself why I'm telling this story...well it's because we stopped and walked out into about 6 inches of snow and I looked up and could see nearly every star in the sky. And as I was going to the bathroom in the mountains of northern Arkhangai, Mongolia, I looked out and witnessed a herd of about 30 wild horses go stampeding by me about 50 yards away. That image will always stick with was incredible.

Anyway, continuing the stories. After we finished the seminar in the fifth soum, we dropped down to the nearest frozen river and went to watch Mongolians play a game on the ice that only men are allowed to compete in. It's basically a cross between bowling and curling, but you use a little metal square-coin shaped piece instead of a ball or whatever those things are called they use in curling. There are two teams and each person from a team goes one after another. They start in a position similar to this guy:

You push off from a notch dug out of the ice, extend your hand forward and attempt to glide the metal object (it's about 2" x 2" in size) along a brushed section of the ice. That section is roughly 70-80 yards in length. You can kind of see it here:

It's not nearly as simple as throwing something down the ice though, you've got to try and hit a little red cup that is at the other end of the ice. If you hit that red cup, you get 3 points for your team, if you just miss it but get it between the two nearest ankle bones you get 2 points, and if you miss but still get it between the two farthest ankle bones you get 1 point. Everything else is worth nothing but a taunting yell from the opposing team.

I could chat about all of the little houses I stopped at, or the restaurants, or the seminars, or even about the hours and hours of bouncing around in a Russian jeep, but I don't think those stories are that interesting. It's not anything that I haven't spoken of before, so instead I'll leave you with this quick video of the men playing on the ice as well as this link to more pictures on Facebook:

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