"With Heaven's aid I have conquered for you a huge empire. But my life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you."

-Genghis Khan

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Roads? Where we're going we don't need... roads

Many of you will recall months ago, I made an open invitation for anyone and everyone to come out and visit me. While most people wrote off my invitation as the incessant ramblings of a lonely and troubled soul, two very lucky ladies heeded my words and made the long journey out here to see the intricacies of my life that can't be revealed in blog form. Three weeks ago, my lovely sisters, Emma and Jesse, arrived in Mongolia and the three of us prepared for the adventure of a lifetime: an epic road trip from Ulaanbaatar to Bayan Olgi, the westernmost province of Mongolia.

While most people are aware of Mongolia's diversity in climate and landscape, few realize that Mongolia also possesses amazing ethnic diversity. It ranks as the world's least densely populated country, but this population is made up of over 20 different ethnic groups. Bayan Olgi is comprised almost entirely by one of these ethnic minorities: the Kazakhs. Bayan Olgi is the only Kazakh province in Mongolia and due to its extremely remote location has been left almost completely untouched by both Soviet and Mongolian influence, making it more like Kazakhstan than Kazakhstan itself is these days.

Jesse and Emma arrived on a Sunday night and our trip began the following Tuesday. Most Mongolians refuse to start any sort of trip or project on Tuesdays, as it is considered bad luck. I wrote this off as foolish superstition, but there were several times during the trip that I couldn't help but thinking we should have reconsidered this very rash decision.

The trip to western Mongolia is one that few tourists and even fewer Mongolians ever get to make. The drive is a trek at over 1500 km on traditional Mongolian roads, meaning roads that aren't really roads at all. Most of the time you are just driving across the expansive steppe, where the sheep to car ratio is in the thousands.

We slowly made our way west, stopping to camp in a Siberian pine forest, enjoying a night at a luxury hot springs resort, two nights on the beautiful white lake, and a night camping next to a salt lake, to name just a few of the highlights. Pictures of the entire trip have been posted on Facebook. If you are not friends with me, or have not joined the Facebook revolution, click here to see them.

It was somewhere around our 5th day, where the scenery got boring, the days of heavy driving began, and the decision to start the trip on a Tuesday began to haunt us. The day was Monday May 25, a day forever etched into my mind as it was one day after Mongolia's presidential election. We were making our way to our final destination of Olgi city in Bayan Olgi when our car smashed into a rock, bending our back drive shaft, and eliminating any possibility of four wheel drive for the rest of the day. This forced us into an unscheduled pit stop in OmonGobi, which is hands down the worst town I have ever been to. That's right. Even worse than Castlegar. We must have been the only foreigners ever to come to this town, but were treated more like lepers than celebrities. After four hours killing time, playing round after round of "would you rather?", we determined that it would be more favorable to lose a hand than to spend a month in OmonGobi. Luckily, by this time our car had been fixed and we got to leave, hands intact.

We made it to Olgi, thinking that the next day would be a nice leisurely drive to the Five Saints National Park, perched on the borders of Russia, Mongolia, China and Kazakhstan. Sadly, bureaucracy kept us from leaving until the late afternoon, and we ended up with another long driving day. In these far reaches of the Earth, the people speak neither Mongolian nor English, so even our guide and driver were unable to communicate. We drove for hours, seeing no signs of life, in a place where our driver had only been once. On instinct alone, he managed to find the Kazakh home where we would be staying for the next two nights. How he did this, I will never know.

After spending the next day holed in due to a blizzard, which are apparently commonplace in this part of the world at this time of the year, we finally made it to the Five Saints and got stunning views of Russia and China. It was a spot that I have dreamt about going since I touched down in Mongolia 10 months ago, and a great finale to an amazing trip. We had been through hell and made it to the end of the earth, and the most amazing part is that the three of us managed not to kill each other even after spending two weeks driving all day and sharing a tent/room/ger at night. Our parents are very proud of us I'm sure.

11 more days of nomad living and I still haven't united the hordes, but at least I've got the Kazakhs on my side.

Only 19 more ethnic groups to go.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Importance of Being Mongolian

"You can take the boy out of the theater, but you can't take the theater out of the boy."

Chinggis Khan (preceding a(nother) brutal beating from his disgusted father)

I begin this post with an apology. I have come close to killing this blog, but intend to revive it in my final Mongolian month.

A blog you see is like a flower. Water it and it will grow. Shit on it and it will bloom. Well after so many (4 at most) disappointed followers have shat on me and my blogging skills, I am finally back with a keyboard in lieu of a watering can and fresh life experiences in lieu of sunshine.

On the topic of sunshine, spring has finally sprung, and summer is just around the corner. There is a saying in Mongolia: "Never trust the spring sky" for Mongolian weather is more erratic than their drivers. While I prance around town in stylish short pants and complimentary Princeton shades, the Mongolians continue to wear long johns, tuques, and down jackets, in fear that the weather will turn its mighty wrath against them. I have taken their hesitance in stride, dominating local outdoor basketball courts, scarfing untouched ice cream, and even losing the old shirt every once in a while. If you thought a Canadian winter can make a boy pasty, you ain't seen nothing yet.

But I digress. The biggest news I have to report is that I finally fulfilled a dream eight years in the making and played the role of Algernon in the UB Players production of Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of being Earnest." I read the play in high school and had been dying to play the part ever since. Who knew I would have to travel halfway around the world in order to finally find a theater company where I would be the most qualified for the role. Small pond baby. Small pond. I opted to play Algie as a closeted homosexual, inciting people to come up to me afterward telling me that I was perfect for the part and that it was the role I was born to play. I'll let you be the judge.

Here's me and by brother Earnest (the very talented Dan Macdonald). Notice the Mongolian furniture in our very colonial take on Wilde.

And this classic mustache shot. Closeted Homosexual? Pssshhh. More like closeted Tom Selleck.

It might be an opportune time for me to mention now that the crew of the play awarded me the "Illusions of Grandeur Award" following the production. Philistines! All of them!

The UB Players is Mongolia's first and only expat theater company, a group known primarily for their love of alcohol, socializing, and high society. Earnest was a fitting choice as it simultaneously celebrates and tears down these very ideals. Our particular group was also tearing down pillars of its own as a group made up of Australian volunteers, Fullbright Scholars, and 100% of PIA Mongolia was a far cry from the Ambassadors and diplomats that usually grace the UB Players stage. This was reflected in the quality of the show as well.

Putting on a play anywhere is a struggle, but in Mongolia it becomes a veritable free for all. Amazing that in the world's least densely populated country we were unable to find a real rehearsal space, being forced to run lines in a dingy, dog filled, basement. Tech rehearsals are known to be long and drawn out, but try doing it with a technician who has just come back from a two hour long date with the sweet vodka vixens. On top of this, all of our performances had to start later than intended due to a social dancing club that dominated the adjacent ballroom. Amazing that for 7 nights straight, there was a live band and over 200 ecstatic Mongolians shaking their groove thangs from 6-8. In a country not known for its punctuality (Mongolian time = +1-2 hours), it is fun to see what people actually care to show up on time for.

I am feeling a bit confused as to how to spend my evenings these days, but I think first on my list is going to be to secure my membership card to this very exclusive dance party. If I put my name on the list now, I just might be able to score a spot before I leave allowing me to dance the Foxtrot to the Tetris theme 7 nights a week. If I haven't made Chinggis proud already, becoming lord of the dance would surely be the straw that broke the camel's back.

More frequent postings to come as I procrastinate putting in my grades and finding a job.

Until next time,

Chinggis (not Genghis anymore) Cochrane

Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Ice Vacation

What do you get when you combine -30 degree weather, 0.4% of the world's freshwater, and a handful of wide eyed tourists?

If you guessed a kick ass way to spend the Mongolian New Year then you would be right. To celebrate the new year in style, 11 friends and I threw off the shackles of city life and headed north to Lake Khovsgol for its annual Ice Festival, now among the top 10 ice festivals in the world!

Khovsgol lake is a full 20 hour drive from Ulaanbaatar and houses over 0.4% of the world's freshwater. Called the little brother of Russia's Lake Baikal for its geological and natural similarities, the lake spends the better part of the year frozen solid, becoming a superhighway for Russian oil tankers and European speed skaters alike.

The trip out there was split between an overnight train and a beast of a car ride. Being the selfless man that I am, I offered my fellow passengers the opportunity to hear my epic and boisterous reading of Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland. I made it through the first 4 pages and was almost down the rabbit hole when my lunch decided to go the other way. Family members will recall a similar experience I had in the Bolivian wild involving massive amounts of Cheetos. This time around I was smart enough to stand upwind.

Fool me once shame on you. Fool me twice - you can't get fooled again.

Following the most powerful puke of my life, and 10 more hours on roads that have seen little improvement since the days of Genghis Khan, we made it to the lake. For those of you that have never had the joy of riding a jeep across a frozen lake, it is definitely not for the faint of heart. Each second we drove further was accompanied by loud cracking noises. Our driver ensured us that these were normal, and he was definitely right, for we were driving on over one and a half meters of ice. Driving on the ice involved more 360s than a 100,000 point combo in Tony Hawk's pro skater. Even with my life flashing before my eyes at every turn of the wheel, I still thanked god that we were off of the dirt roads. We finally made it to our accommodations, which were humble and quintessentially Mongolian.

Sleeping in a Ger during the Siberian winter is an exercise in both survival and patience. The fire must stay stoked all night so as to avoid frostbite, but don't stoke it too much or your ger will quickly become a smoke shack. I dreamt more in one smoke filled night there than I've done in months, even having an out of body experience where I dreamt from someone else's point of view and saw myself through his eyes. I know now how hard it is to spend time with me, and for this I apologize.

But onto the Ice Festival! All I have to say about this is that I would not like to see the festivals that did not break the top ten. I don't know where they get off calling 10 ice sculptures, an igloo with full bar capabilities, and a few disheveled looking reindeer a festival, but they did manage to dupe almost 100 tourists and for this I commend them. Festival highlights included a slide made out of ice, ice tug of war, and ice wrestling, all activities where I perfected the fine art of falling on my ass.

We did not stay at the festival long but opted instead for more exciting activities: riding a one horse open sleigh across the ice, several 15 km skates, horse riding, and finally living my boyhood dream of ice fishing.

Why they call it ice fishing and not ice breaking I will never fully understand, but a chainsaw can aid in killing fish as well as killing trees and sexy teens, which is very good to know. Mongolian style fishing means leaving the lines overnight and checking them in the morning. Wanting to be a part of the big catch, I refused to buy into the Mongolian ritual, and went from hole to hole, breaking the ice, tugging the lines and sadly coming up empty handed every time. The Mongolians had much better luck, and I learned that a watched fish never bites.

For those of you that read my blog and enjoyed my send up of the Mongolian Toilet (the top result when googling Mongolian Toilet btw) you will surely enjoy this next tale. My original plan had been to hold my bowel movements for the entirety of the trip, but 6 days on a diet consisting primarily of yak meat and vodka threw a wrench into the whole operation.

I am not a big outdoors man.

I have not been on any week long back packing trips.

I have never held a grudge against any of my neighbours.

I had never taken a dump in the great outdoors before this trip.

I was going to lose my D card eventually, and what better place or time to do this than Siberia in the winter? There's really nothing like a howling wolf to give you the much needed incentive to perform this necessary and beautiful act. I liked it so much in fact that I returned for round two. And so on. And so forth.

Cross that one off of my "things to do before I die" list, and "places to take a dump before I die" list.

Talking about killing two birds with one glorious stone. (Not literally I hope)

Be real,


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Journey to the Small Screen

Well folks, it happened. After years and years of paying my dues and making coffee for Hollywood Fat Cats, I finally got my big break. No, I didn't get cast in the role of "the foreigner" in the second chapter of Sergei Bodrov's "Mongol". My venture to the silver screen will have to wait for the time being. I did however, get cast in the role I was born to play, myself, in a special episode of Mongolia's marquis English language show: Voicebox TV.

Voicebox TV is a television show written and produced by two of my friends. These two friends are, I am sorry to say, Australian, and it is through an Australian Government program that they are in Mongolia working on this very cool project. Basically the two of them go out every week with a camera and a dream, and come out with a tight 22 minute episode that both educates and entertains. The goal of the show is to help Mongolians improve their English and also to help foreigners understand Mongolian culture a little bit. Normally the show features a mostly Mongolian cast, but this week, the dynamic duo needed some of their foreign friends to help deliver a high quality episode. They turned to me, and deliver I did!

This week's episode was an expose on the Mongolian Lunar New Year, or "Tsagaan Sar". The direct translation is "White Moon", and it refers to the last day of winter and the first day of spring. Its a holiday that mainly consists of eating large amounts of meat and drinking large amounts of vodka, so really not that different from a typical weekday around here.

The holiday is very ritualistic and everything must be done in a specific order. The TV episode was mainly an explanation of the different parts of the ceremony with lots of shots of Mongolians interacting with foreigners. I'm not sure if the episode was supposed to be funny, but the way that the other foreigners and I messed up the various parts of the ceremony is sure to crack the target audience up. I also refused to tell any of the Mongolian people in the Ger my actual name, forcing them to call me by my newly self-christened Mongolian name: "Kharsukh". The literal translation is "Black Axe", and has received universally negative reviews from every Mongolian who I have told it to. They tell me its a stupid and fake name. I just think they're a bit intimidated to be talking to a man with the cojones to dub himself Black Axe. When I get back to English Speaking lands I think I'll just go by Blax, but for now, "Kharsukh" it is.

The traditional Tsagaan Sar food is a steamed, mutton filled dumpling called a "buuz" (sounds like "BOSS" speakers, and ryhmes with "shows". Buuz, like most Mongolian foods is both sheepy and white. One of the traditions of Tsagaan Sar is visiting different families, usually friends or relatives, but often strangers as well. At every home you go to, you will be served food and are expected to eat a certain number of buuz. I have been told that you are supposed to eat 5-10 buuz at every home you visit and can visit up to 10 homes, accounting for a total of 50-100 buuz! Pretty amazing stuff. In traditional Western tradition, the producers of Voicebox decided to exploit this little ritual in a good old fashioned eating contest.

It seems I wasn't brought on TV for my wit after all. I was brought their for my stomach. Normally I don't let people use me for my body, but I decided I could make an exception this time.

The contest: See who could eat 10 buuz in the quickest time.

My opponent: A 11 year old Mongolian boy who grew up in Boseman (Buuzman), Montana

Normally I take it easy when competing against a clearly outmatched foe, but when the cameras are rolling its a whole other story. I prepared for the contest by eating nothing but cabbage and lettuce for a week, allowing them to release valuable gasses, thereby stretching out my stomach to superhuman proportions. The contest was over before it began, and I finished my 10 buuz before my opponent could eat 5.


Victorious, I strutted my stuff, pumped my fist, and to add insult to injury, even finished my opponents remaining buuz. It will teach 11 year olds around the world not to mess with the likes of me.

I don't think I will be invited back to star in a second episode. People will tell you its because of my horrible sportsmanship, or repeated attempts at speaking Mongolian on an English language TV show, but we all know its politics. Its always politics with these Hollywood Fat Cats. Either way, I have made my mark and what a mark it is.

If you ask my me, TV is for chumps anyways. Chumps and hobos. Next time you see me I'll be strutting on the silver screen.

Start preordering your tickets now.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A B$tch is a B$tch but a Dog is a Man's Best Friend

I have been back in Ulaanbaatar for roughly a week and a half now, and let me tell you, getting off that plane after spending five of the most blissful weeks of my life in Southeast Asia, I could not help but wondering:

"What the Hell am I doing here?"

I left 30 degree weather, a private slice of the Indian Ocean, pad Thai that cost less than a dollar, and air fresher than any I had ever breathed for -30 degree weather, an apartment building that wasn't even nice when it was built during the Cold War, vegetables that cost an arm and a leg, and air that feels worse on my lungs than 100 cigarettes. Everyone had been telling me I was crazy for living in Mongolia and I was starting to believe it myself.

Then I was perusing a little thing called Facebook, maybe you've heard of it, and I came across an album entitled "Dog Sledding in Mongolia", and I remembered that I did not come to Mongolia because I had heard it was a blissful paradise; oh no! I came to Mongolia because it is simply and truly, the most badass place I could think of at the time. There's a long list of things I need to do before my nomadic stint is up, and dog sledding was sitting in the number one spot.

I made a few calls, wrote a few emails, and set up my date with destiny. The drive out of the smoggy UB haze and into the countryside was better than 100 monkeys typing on 100 typewriters and that was only the beginning. We arrived at the dog sled camp in roughly an hour. We decided it was time to change our wheels for something a little more environmentally friendly. When we exited the vehicle we were greeted by the sound of 40 excited and anxious dogs, ready to go for the run of their lives. The first thing I noticed was that these dogs were much smaller than I had expected. I felt a little bit like an American going to McDonald's in Canada and learning that the Canadian "Large" is the equivalent of an American "Medium". In summary, I felt shortchanged. I didn't think that these puny bone bags would be able to pull my 160 pound frame.

Well folks. I was wrong. Dead wrong. And after a 30 second tutorial on dog sledding from Joelle, our funky French guide, I was about to learn that big things come in small packages.

Meet Marvin. Marvin is 8 years old and lives in Terelj National Park. His likes include chewing on sheep bones, going on long walks in the park, defecating while running at 15 km/hour, and chasing animals nearly 30 times his size. Marvin, like his childhood hero, Balto, spends his days pulling humans around on a dog sled. Unlike Balto however, Marvin pulls a much more precious cargo than medicine for a bunch of whiny Alaskan kids. Marvin gets to pull me.

Here are me, Marvin and the rest of "Team Awesome". While Marvin is indeed a great friend and an inspired runner, his position as lead dog is questionable at best. I was informed that Marvin was a hunting dog, and that I would have to keep an eye on him from the get go. Well the get go came sooner than I could have imagined as not 100 meters from our starting point he was already chasing a cow, bringing me, 4 dogs, and the sled with him. When he realized he would not be able to catch this bovine in his current state, he resumed course.

This behavior continued anytime he noticed footprints, heard rustling, or saw anything in the woods. Luckily, he eventually responded to my cries of "Marvin, don't be an idiot!" It worked wonders for my dad with me, and apparently the effect crosses the boundaries of species as well. As our relationship grew stronger, we got into a groove. Unfortunately, Marvin couldn't stand not being the lead sled, so would often attempt ill advised short cuts over tree roots and gravel. I became airborne on three different occasions and had to dismount the sled through several different gravel patches. None of this deterred my canine companion.

We finally reached our resting point and we human beings ate meat while the dogs got to eat snow. I felt a little bad for Marvin and the rest of Team Awesome, but Joelle assured me that if I played favourites and fed one of the dogs, the others would kill him in his sleep. Not even Marvin deserved that, so I kept my meat to myself.

The ride home involved more shortcuts and a new trick that Marvin learned. I call it the "Poop and Run". Unfortunately he was not the best multitasker, and this move would cause the four dogs behind him to get tangled and frustrated. They would then begin to bark which made poor Marvin nervous and unable to release his bowels. It was a vicious cycle indeed, and one that is unresolved to this day.

By far the highlight of the trip was when we were about half a kilometer from our basecamp. I noticed the rest of the sleds had stopped and could only assume it was Marvin related. Sure enough, there was a family of Yaks standing by the trail. Joelle had stopped his sled because he knew Marvin would try something Marvinesque. Sure enough, Marvin instinctively went after the one Yak that he stood a chance against, the new born baby. His mother was none too pleased at this and charged in Marvin's (and my) direction. If you have never been chased by an angry yak, I highly recommend it. Make sure to do it in the cold as you can see the air being forced out of her nose. My life flashed before my eyes and Joelle could do nothing but sigh and let out an "Oh Marvin..."

We made it back and apparently none of the other riders had nearly the antics filled experience that I did. Their dogs were well behaved, hard working, and obedient. In other words, their dogs were boring. Marvin's irrational and exciting behavior was rewarded by giving him a bone while the other dogs were left to fight over pieces of cow dung.

Every word here is true. Even the cow dung thing. I may be living in a hellishly cold place and developing lung cancer from the smog, but at least I am privy to doing some crazy things that I would not be able to do in most other places. My list is still long, but at least I can cross of #1.

Next up: Ice Fishing! Stay tuned for the thrilling recap, because honestly, what is more exciting than a guy sitting over a hole, holding a string with a hook attached to it. Scuba diving in Thailand? Not bloody likely.