leaving Olgii

so my time in olgii is up.

and i can say with certainty: i will miss this place. in fact, i just might have plans to move here in the fall… but more on that later.

needing to get back to UB for various reasons (one of which is definitely not to overstay my welcome with the lovely Justin and his floor) i left Olgii sad but satisfied, and with a promise to return in July.

a huge thanks to the peace corps folk who were gracious enough to adopt me and incorporate me into their lives. and of course to the new women in my life, who were equally as gracious letting a crazy stranger respectfully destroy their domestic spaces.

until july…

a very kazkakh punctuation to my trip: golden eagle being checked into baggage




it never ceases to amaze me how receptive and generous people here have been to my project!

i can only imagine what kind of nutjob people would think you were if you said to someone in the states, “hey, you don’t know me, but i want to come into your house, rearrange all of your furniture, stitch together your throw pillows and a few dishtowels, make you sit on top of them then take your photo. also, since you’re nice, you should feed me tea and cookies while i do this. ok?”

there’d probably be a millisecond pause (only in disbelief) before they escorted you off their property with the butt of a rifle.

yet here, people have not only been ready and willing to do all of the above, but they’ve enthusiastically welcomed me into their homes and and then been so excited by my ‘installation’ of their embroidery work they’ve immediately requested a family portrait in front of it! pretty amazing.

so here is the latest portrait in my ‘shaping kazakh’ series, this time of my translator Alenka’s mom:

and some pics from the making (including a brief respite for a yoga lesson):

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Success!!! success!! resounding success!!!!

am still glowing in the aftermath of a fantastic first photo shoot! i could go into details of the day but for fear of lapsing into overzealous gleeful rambling.. i’ll let the photos speak for themselves:

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Admittedly, a large part of my first day in Olgii was spent nursing a serious hangover.

the espresso helped though, and i was glad to have had the foresight to schelp my newly aquired coffeepot and bag of espresso on the long journey. brian was also grateful, as it was the first cup of real coffee he’d had in almost 2 years (these peace corp folk are legitimately hardcore). luckily, justin introduced me to a local Uyghur restaurant where we were able to get some serious hangover food in the form of all things fried and doused in mayonaise deliciousness:

my time here in olgii since said hangover has been nothing short of fantastic.

the peace corps folk have been incredibly generious to let me crash with them indefinitely and i am trying to be a model houseguest (ie: doing general domestic duties / buying beer / making banana-laden french toast and espresso on the regular). it seems to be working. and thank god for that because i’ve decided to extend my stay a week longer 🙂

so while there’s not much to do here insofar as entertainment, i can say that the food tastes better, the people are friedlier, and the streets are exponentially safer than in UB. it’s a welcome change of pace.

though the weather here has continued in typical mongolian schizophrenic spring fashion- meaning that i got caught in a snow storm in the middle of may:

as for the food tasting better.. i had a culinary epiphany the other day! it finally occured to me why the meat in mongolia always tastes, frankly, slightly rank: MONGOLIANS DON’T DRAIN THE BLOOD FROM THEIR MEAT! the traditional mongolian way of slaughtering an animal is to cut open their chest, thrust a hand inside the animal’s chest cavity and pinch off the aorta to stop its heart. while that method is, admittedly, pretty baddass, it also allows for little to no of the animal’s blood to be spilled on the ground- ground which mongolians consider sacred. [as a side note: i am immediately reminded of my cousin Troy’s botched attempt at butchering a gift cow- for those of you who don’t know the story, suffice to say that it involves him schlepping a dead and partially sun-baked cow with a dead calf half-hanging out of its rear-end across the entirity of Lancaster county.. culminating in the butcher telling him that that because he’d neglected to drain the blood out of it, instead of prime-cut serloin steaks he’d be eating spiced beefsticks for the next 10 months.] so realizing that THAT’S why the meat in mongolia is so damn strong (and often unpalatable) finally registered.

by contrast, kazakh meat is all halal- meaning drained of blood- and consequently a hell of a lot tastier. and everything in olgii is halal. so, although i still don’t love mutton, my taste buds rejoice!

in other food news: i had my first horse-meat experience! (thanks to brian and justin making horseburgers):

and it was… delicious! flashbacks of watching Black Beauty and National Velvet aside, i strangely didn’t feel wierd or guilty about it at all.. on to human meat! 😉

as for my project news, things here are really picking up in exciting ways. i’ve been meeting with different kazakh women artisans every day and people have been really receptive to my project. Chieko has been accompanying me around to do artisan interviews, which has been nice having someone interested in the same things i am to discuss and bounce ideas off of. it’s been a great learning experience so far, especially regarding how tuskis (embroidered wall hangings) have changed over the years from the period of socialism to capitalism. namely, during socialism the materials and colors were limited from what could be imported from russia, and therefore limited the pallet to white, black, red, yellow and green. there was also no market to sell their embroidery work, so everything was made for personal use, and many women expressed regret over having had to sell the older tuskis made by their mothers and grandmothers because of financial straits after the transition to democracy.

I also befriended a kazakh girl named alenka in the market, who has also agreed to act as translator, which usually makes things easier. though what is somewhat more exciting than her often curious translating, her mother is an incredible embroiderer and spent an afternoon showing me her different embroidery work:

and even gifted me an embroidered vest! the vest goes perfectly with my ridiculous (and *plush*!) new peacock-patterned skirt bought at the local market for $3, and a borrowed eagle-hunter’s hat.. point of fashion: kazakh grandma meets galatic warrior:

oh yes, i am taking olgii’s fashion scene by storm.

of the people i’ve met so far, i’ve really connected with one artisan in particular named Ina. she does what can most aptly be described as free-style embroidery- without following patterns or traditional designs and instead creating unique free-form shapes.

countless photos of Ina’s older work

Ina showing the pattern for a new tuskis

the other day we spent the afternoon playing around in her ‘studio’ and i gave her the idea to use the extra scraps from antique tuskis to create necklaces.

she immediately took to the idea and we spent the afternoon lost in craft-land until we realized that we’d been sitting sewing for 5+ hours while chieko and our friend kaitlyn were bored out of their minds.. but here was the result:

and Ina trying her hand at it:

so, things are moving forward… i have my first photoshoot scheduled for tomorrow for a new series of portraits i am doing of kazakh women artisans, which i am both excited and anxious to begin… so stay tuned for that!

in the meantime, here are some photos from the past week:

horse sausage!

getting out horse meat freshly ground

outdoor billiards hall behind the market

just a local pile of horse legs…?!

‘vegetable soup’ in mongolia = mutton + potatoes

Gulmira’s mom showing antique tuskis

Ina’s husband Kaderbek dressing up for us in traditional Kazakh garb

workers in a local embroidery export workshop

khovd to olgii

i was told by a woman at the hotel that transport to olgii left at noon, and in my western punctuality-ingrained foolishness i decided to go early just in case there was a possibility that the jeep left earlier… i should know by now that in mongolia, there’s absolutely no point in arriving anywhere on time. although i think that my punctuality may have solidified my front-seat-status, which was excellent, as the alternative would have been to spend the 7 hour trip as one of the 6 (yes 6!) grown adults + one baby squeezed into the back seat.

first and foremost for all future cross-country mongolian travelers: the travel books claiming the road from khovd to olgii as being better than ulaanbaatar to khovd are a total lie. to say the road was unpaved would be a dramatic understatement, and the trip would definitely not have been possible without aforementioned russian jeep. that said, 7 hours of some serious off-roading was pretty fantastic.

our driver was a genial old kazakh man whose control of the seriously misaligned steering wheel was hilarious yet impressive. i felt like i was in an old movie where the steering doesn’t match up to the fake scenery flying past the rear window.

and the landscape was absolutely gorgeous: snow-capped mountains, babbling brooks, and herds of sheep/ goats/ horses and occasionally camels that would periodically block the road. and everywhere, especially near the streams, there was the hint of green, giving the faintest glimpse of how beautiful the trip could be in the height of summer.

though beauty aside, i can also see how attempting the trip after some spring rain would potentially tack on at least another 2 days if you had to factor in some serious mud and higher streams to ford. as it was, we had to come to the assistance of a poor cab driver who didn’t quite make it through one of them.

of course because this is mongolia and people are constantly breaking down / getting stuck alongside the road, everyone is always prepared to help someone out of a bind, and drivers seems to take the whole thing in stride. so our group plus another man (who had just helped us fix our engine not some 20 min before) were put to the task of trying to get the poor guy out. after repeated attempts to physically push it out failed, the final solution was to take an abandoned tire found upstream (the roads here are littered with such useful abandoned objects) as a buffer to use our jeep to push the car out. and hurrah! success!

the most amazing part though, was how much of a team effort the whole debacle proved to be. in the end the other man drove our driver’s jeep while one of our passengers steered the stranded man’s car. i couldn’t help but think of how differently the whole scenario would have gone down in the states- namely how weird americans are about having other strangers drive their cars (or handle their property in general) and how quickly vehicular problems escalate into heated arguments. it was pretty cool to see the situation handled otherwise.

then… after 7 hours of a beautiful if not bumpy ride, we finally arrived in Olgii, just in time for sunset- making it truly look like the golden city of my dreams.

upon arrival i was welcomed by Brian, a peace corps volunteer, who knows a friend of mine from UB and agreed to let me crash on his couch. he introduced me to his fellow peace corps folk, Justin and Kaitlyn, who immediately handed me a beer and inaugurated me into olgii with a night of card games and heavy drinking (which, apparently, is how they spend most of their free time here for lack of other entertainment options). needlesstosay it was a fantastic way to decompress after such an odyssey.