Here now and now here or nowhere

The title of this blog comes from a play on words that "now here" is also the same letters as "nowhere" just with a space added in the middle. I am always trying to get better at being in the here and now, and I've always been a bit of a joker so that is why I chose this name.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hot and Sour Soup

When I move to new area one thing I always look for is a chinese food place that has two items in a style I like. It's very important that I can get these comfort foods quick and easy. The first, an americanized dish which is far from healthy but super tasty, (depending on the style) egg foo young. It's a dish I used to order frequently from Dragon Chef, the low brow take away chinese food spot in my hometown of Needham, MA. The second dish is hot an sour soup. I love chinese style hot and sour soup but as anyone who's ordered a lot of hot and sour soups can tell you, there are many different styles and versions of this soup. Some too spicy, some too vinegary, some with too much msg and some that just plain suck.

When I lived in NYC, my budget survived on eating a lot of either wonton or hot and sour soup for dinners. for $2.50 I could buy a quart of either soup and it had flavor and nutrition. (moderately) Hot and sour soup will have lots of veggies, mushrooms, tofu and sometimes a meat or two. So there was protein and vitamins mixed in with other oddities that only chinese cooking can bring.

Ordering food has been pretty hard for me in Beijing. I can't speak or read a lick of Mandarin and menus are mostly just the characters and no pics. I rely on either pointing at other peoples food or being lucky and finding a picture menu.

The other day I wandered into a spot close by to where I am staying and to my delight, they had a picture menu. Actually I walked into three restaurants before this but none had menus I could read. I spotted what looked to be a bowl of possibly hot and sour soup. Pictures are pictures and you still don't know fully what everything is or what you may get. But it was 8rmb (roughly $1.20) and I figured I could at least pay to find what it was.

Instead of a bowl for one I got a bowl for like 8 of whatever this concoction/potion may be.

And what was it???

It was indeed a hot and sour soup. Only, using the peppercorns I've heard so much about in the states. It had this heat that only a nice peppercorn can offer, mixing with the tofu and mushrooms flavor and a bit of vinegar (thankfully not too much). But for the most part, special pepper excluded, it tasted like hot and sours I've had back home on both coasts.

I've heard over and over that chinese food is different in america than it is in it's original country, but not this dish. This dish is a classic no matter where you go, and why mess with a classic?

Backpacking Haiku

While I have a small (and diminishing) hole in the firewall of this great, great country I thought I'd post a haiku I wrote while traveling from Mongolia to Beijing on the Trans-Mongolian Express. I'm not sure on the last line and would appreciate feedback from the community. namaste

I am a turtle
With my home upon the back
Smells like laundry time

I am a turtle
With my home upon the back
Travel heals my soul

Monday, August 30, 2010

A day trip to Kharkhorin

I went out for an overnight trip to Kharkhorin with Batbold, a co-worker of Jocelyn's. Kharkhorin is about a 5-6 hours drive west of UB, and the roads are predominately paved (something you can't say for most of the countries roads.) Kharkhorin was once the capital of the country and also hosts Erdene Zuu. Erdene Zuu used to be a great temple before the communists destroyed it and religion in the country. They are rebuilding it currently, and many monks have started studying there again. Because of the communists destruction most is gone and and Erdene Zuu is a museum but in the shell of what it once was.

The crew was me, Batbold, his wife and his adorable 2 year old. His son took a little getting used to me, but soon enough was calling me "ackhar" which means something like big brother.

We stopped for a quick camel ride. Here is Batbold's wife and son. She used to live in the Gobi and knows how to ride well. She helped me lead a camel by myself. A bit scary not having someone pull you but really fun. Surprisingly when camels get running they can really move.

Penis rock. Once viewed as a sacred rock for fertility. Many having troubles getting pregnant would travel far just to touch it, thinking it would help. Just in case, I stayed far away.

another angle of the old penis rock.

The new penis rock monument.

Clearly circumcision is practices in mongolia.

just in case you wanted another angle.

Erdene Zuu

stupas and blue skies. Erdene Zuu has 108 stupas on the walls surrounding the monastery.

The 3 buddhas.


A beautiful ceiling.

different buddhas. each had a different theme or from a different time.

blue skies and stuppas.

blue skies and stuppas and mountains.

turtle rock. It had something to do with the ancients believing the world was actually not round but on a turtles back so having it as a border had some sort of protection. no, not kidding here.

another angle of the turtle.

another mongolian goal down. having a giant eagle on my arm.

surprisingly heavy. I was scared to look him in the eye as he may have clawed me to death.

check out his talons!! huge.

what a beautiful animal.


beautiful colors in the distant.

throwing rocks in the river. Both Batbold and I are not the best skimmers of rocks.

brothers! Seriously, how cute is this kid? We'd be walking and I'd just hold my hand out or a few fingers and he'd grab on for support.

Friday, August 27, 2010

What's that your eating?

While I deal with internet issues with the great firewall of china, I may have issues with posting pictures and stories to the blog.  So here's something I wrote for my friend (and former trek leader) Aaron's blog.

One of the fun parts of travel is getting to try new or just different spins on culinary delights. I'm heading to China shortly and I've heard of all the crazy things you can eat there, and this excites me greatly. However, don't overlook Mongolia as a place where food is exciting. Most of my ex-pat friends here are sick of the food as it's predominately mutton based foods, but you can still get creative or exciting within this realm of food.

Yesterday I went out to lunch with a friend of a friend who is Mongolian. I wanted to have some traditional Mongolian dishes. Don't get me wrong, I love buuz (mutton dumplings) and Khuushuur (deep fried mutton patties) but surely there has to be more to Mongolian cooking than this, right? Well there is.

Bayarmaa is eating a mixed organ dish containing stomach, liver, tripe, kidney, and heart. There were a few vegetables mixed in as well, which seemed highly unmongolian. I ordered the fried liver and onions with sheeps tail. Honestly, I ordered this partly in honor of my mother and grandmother. As a child my mom and bubbie would make liver and onions and the house would reek of this horrible smell. I hated that smell, and the taste was worse. I remember coming in one night from playing with a friend and my mom was making liver and onions. I walked in the door, got a whiff and immediately felt sick.  But I've grown up so much since those days. And now I somewhat like the taste of liver, at least in moderation.  The addition of sheeps tail is to add the fattyness to it.  In other countries bacon is commonly added to this dish, but pig is not very common to Mongolia, while sheep are plentiful.  The dish was quite tasty, but again in moderation.  Halfway through, i hit a point of not wanting to eat anymore liver. But being a good eater, I did finish the plate.  Bayarmaa kept offering her food up to me, so how could I refuse. Organs are something that have really grown on me in the last few years.  I can't always taste the difference between stomach, tripe or other innards as to me they all have a similar taste but the tecture and shape/color allow me to distinguish which is which. But really, why does it matter what organ your eating when you're cramming your face down with sweet, sweet, sweetbreads.  If you haven't tried eating organ dishes, I would start slowly. heart and liver are a bit stronger tasting so try stomach or tripe first. Make sure they are cooked properly, as sometimes tripe can be to chewy and personally, I'm not a fan of this. But be adventurous with your food, don't just stick to meat and potatoes (or tofu and potatoes for the vegetarians reading this).

Speaking of being adventurous in eating, and of eating organs...

Last night we had a little going away party for me with some of the friends I've really grown to know in UB. I hadn't had Mongolian hotpot yet so I asked to try that. It seemed liked a fun group thing. Well, Mongolian hotpot is different than the other shabu shabu's I know. The main difference is that everyone gets there own small pot with the soup choice they like, versus one big communal bowl. My party mates were somewhat tame on the ordering, and got basic meat and veggies. The word in Mongolia is on the whole don't order chicken as there aren't any in the country so you know it isn't fresh. When I saw they had the other type of cock on the menu, I knew I had to try it. I've had rocky mountain oysters (aka calf fries aka cow balls) before, but not the bull penis. Ok, make your juvenile penis jokes here... Done? ok, lets go forward then. Cow balls are very organ-like tasting so I expected the same for the penis. It came out looking not at all like the penis I know (and am very familiar with) in fact it looked almost like calimari. Because of this we all thought it would be chewy. However, after cooking for the right amount of time the penis wasn't chewy at all, rather soft and almost melting like. The taste was very bland, but when mixed with the sesame dipping sauce it became a bit more enjoyable.  Not sure if I'd ever order it again, but I wouldn't be adverse to this though. At least I now know, and that's half the battle (though a battle against what?)

My friend Alicia holding up the uncooked horse penis, and the center plate in front of all that yummy cock.

The western side of mongolia is filled mostly with Kazakh people. Kazakh and Mongols have very different cultures and customs. One dish that is common out west but not so much in the east is horse.  Horse is not that uncommon in a lot of the world and I think I may have even had it before (I once ordered food in Prague that may have been horse but I couldn't read the menu so wasn't positive).  So while not as exciting as organs, horse is still somewhat of a different dish for Americans.  I think I'd rather eat mutton or beef if given the option, but horse isn't bad. It's a little gamey and a bit more chewy but it does have some nice flavor. I think the biggest benefit is how much there is of it, as horses are big animals.

Of the few dishes we had with horse, this was my favorite. It's a curried horse and vegetable dish over rice. I really enjoyed this, mostly because of the curry flavoring, and could see myself eating this dish frequently. The garlic and horse soup, not so much.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A week away at Lake Khovsgol (part 2)

I went away for a week to visit Lake Khovsgol, located in the north western part of Mongolia. I've decided to break this week into three parts so as not to bore my readers with too many pictures

Part two, in which our hero ventures into local gers and eats various homemade cheese and curd products, and drinks traditional mongolian vodka made from milk. He also visits a hot spring, gets caught in a snow storm (in the middle of summer??) and takes control of a dance party on a boat. All this and more.. so read on for the exciting second part of this story.

One of the families we stopped off at on the way to the hot springs had these delicious cheese type cookies almost. they tasted like a faint farmers cheese. It reminded me of what is inside of blintze. Quite tasty but after a few I was in need of a break.

A nice break from the dirt and grass roads, this is a log bridge which isn't over any water or air, just laid on the ground. The bumpiness from this is still less than the "road" we were on

These are the cabins we stayed in at the hot spring. pretty cosy, except my bed was sort of broken so i slept on the floor.

yep, my foot and shit. I stepped in some fresh horse or cow shit. it was hard on top but soft and warm on the inside. not my finest moment.

The hot springs. Each hut had a different temperature water ranging from 22-48 degrees of celsius. There was that nice sulfuring smell all in the air.

myself, mai, beka, and pete in the hot tub. Drinking vodka and staying classy. Funny story about this place. So that night we sneak into the springs at midnight and go in for a dip. well I must have been in for a while and really dehydrated myself. when we go to leave i feel sick, I mean really, really sick. I don't know if i'm going to puke or shit myself or both. it was raining outside so i end up going to just sit in the rain. I feel like shit, pure shit. I think partly that i could die here. I'm pretty weak and delirious. I'm telling the others to go on without me and I have visions of either being woken up naked outside the hut by the mongolians who run the place or of being eaten by a wolf (yes, there are wolf around these parts) After some time, and help from Pete, I make it back to the camp. Weak and tired i gulp some water, put my sleeping bag on the ground, and pass out.

On the way home it starts to snow. Nothing like a snow storm on an August day.

The following day is a disgusting rainy day. We decide to move to the ger camp across the street from where we were the night before, and to also go on a boat ride around the lake. No one is too plussed about it as it's rainy and nasty out but we decide to go. pretty much as soon as we drop our bags in the new ger camp, the sun comes out. It's still very cold, but we have son. This boat (not the barge) is the boat we go out on.

notice the snow capped mountains. These were where we walked a few days before. there was no snow then, but covered now. Timing is everything. :)

more majestic mountains, now with snow

The cruise director. I took her hat and donned it on my head, she seemed ok with it, as long as we posed for pics.

As the music started playing, the dancing took off. as the dancing took off, i made my rounds with the dancers. This lady knew how to get down.

Rocking the middle of the dance circle. These mongolians know how to get down, and how to have a fun time on a boat

Look at me, driving a boat. Though Carl clearly steals the picture with his face and thumbs up.

I'm the captain. and I'm purposely driving us off course left as covertly as possible :)

captain carl. seriously, he had me cracking up all day. A great boat ride indeed.

but could this day get any better???

I guess we'll need to see what happens in the third installment of my week at Khovsgol.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A week away at Lake Khovsgol (part 1)

I went away for a week to visit Lake Khovsgol, located in the north western part of Mongolia. I've decided to break this week into three parts so as not to bore my readers with too many pictures.

I ventured up with 2 Aussie guy friends of Jocelyn's (Pete and Carl) and an Aussie girl who was friends with one of the guys. Jane, the girl, left on tuesday but another Aussie girl, Rebekah came in on that day. We also picked up a Japanese girl, Mai, who was traveling by herself, rounding up a nice group of 5 traveling fools.

The lake is one of seventeen ancient lakes worldwide more than 2 million years old and is the most significant drinking water reserve of Mongolia. Its water is potable without any treatment. That said, I didn't brave trying to drink it from the source. I did however jump in to the freezing cold water very briefly, (and very naked) and then walked quickly to my ger to warm up. brr....

Flying from UB to Moron. The ground beneath a vast array of steppe mountains and planes

The land and sky from the plane as the sun begins to set.

The landing strip of Moron Airport. a small paved strip in the middle of nowhere.

We spent the night at a tourist ger camp. In the morning we met some of the other travelers. These girls were from Slovenia. The bottle that the one in purple is holding is of homemade plum schnapps. It may have been 8am, but it's never too early to try homemade local spirits. It was quite strong, but tasty. I mixed it with some fruit tea which really offered a nice combination of flavor and sensations.

Carl and I in Moron on the way from buying water for the drive to Hatgal, near the lake

Shake your face. a game in which you shake your face very fast and capture the results in photos. Carl was great at this. The fists were added to make it look like he was getting in a fight.

Me, sitting by the lake. Reading in my book and contemplating the meaning of life. Notice how clear and blue the lake is.

Nature's door, the camp we stayed at for the first two days on the lake. notice the mountains in the background. Later you'll see two different views of them.

Mai went horseback riding while the rest of us went for a walk in the woods.

well, not so much a walk in the woods as much as a hike up those mountains I previously showed. Once on top, a nap was much needed.

Not a bad place to rest.

Coming back down near the end of the hike. Notice how monstrous I look compared to the Aussies. Sometimes I forget who big I really am.

Sun sets on the lake.

At breakfast I was getting very warm from sitting in the sun, so i took my shirt off. No one seemed to mind until hairs started showing up in the butter.

We headed back down to Hatgal to plan a trip to a different part of the lake. At the Ger camp we stayed at I met a formidable opponent. The very young wrestler wanted a piece of the giant Amerik. I was game.

We started off with the usual rustle and tussle.

but he quickly showed his strength in slamming me to the ground.

But I wasn't one to give up easily, even if he was fearless and rugged.

He had a grip like a giant eagle, never letting loose.

But I quickly changed momentum

And with my amazing ups, was able to hop over him in single bounds. This threw him for a loop.

and I then got him on the run...

and I left him on the ger for about 3 seconds before he started to cry miserably... oh well, game over. I actually wrestled with him for nearly an hour. Dirty and tired I was ready for dinner. yet he wasn't tired and proceeded to play with other tourists. Clearly he was the winner.