Monday, July 5, 2010


When I got back to UB I stayed with a friend's older brother and wife. They have a son in college, studying music, in Korea. When I got there they were watching a Russian soap opera that is on every night. The dad, Naran-suh, perhaps trying to come across as tough said, "I usually don't prefer to watch these kind of shows, but with only one tv I watch them sometimes with my wife." The next night his wife was work and when I came home, what was he doing? Working in front of the tv. What was he watching? His wife's favorite Russian soap opera. haha. I think he tried to compensate a little for me seeing him watching the soap opera because the first night he talked about Chinggis Khan for about 2 hours. He ended up showing me a Japanese film about Mongolia's hero.

In the middle of his Chinggis narative he told me that Chinggis, whose birth name was Temujin, was called Chinggis, because like the word 'tingis' in Mongolian, which means 'ocean,' he thought of himself to be comparatively great and expansive. Another word for ocean in Mongolian is 'dalai,' as in 'Dalai Lama.' The Buddhist priest that is as great and expansive as the sea. I could go all day on random stuff like this. Here's another one. The name of the country Hungary, or 'Ohn-gar' in Mongolian, is a contraction of the words 'Barone' and 'gar,' meaning 'right' and 'hand.' This is because that is where Chinggis' 'right hand' army, or right side army was stationed. (At least that's what Naran-suh told me) Even in Hungarian, where the name for the country is 'Myagar,' you still have the word 'gar' that remains. 'Mya' in Mongolian is slang for crappy so I wonder if the locals decided to give a new adjective to describe Chinggis' army.

Since is was getting late, we skipped through a lot of the Japanese Chinggis Khan movie. At about midnight, an hour into this movie Naran-suh says, "Yeah, this movie isn't actually that good...I'll get you a better one from the store tomorrow." I am now the proud owner of "Chinggis Khan: The 30-part mini series."

So the next day, (before getting home late at night and watching parts 1 and 2 of my new Chinggis Khan miniseries, of course, with Naran-suh) I went to the mission home to drop off some pictures in the branch mailboxes to send to people, that I had taken throughout the previous week. I ran into the mission driver, Botbold, who has been helping mission presidents for about a decade now. As we walked out of the building together I saw one of the American office-elders I had met earlier. He was wearing a custom-made brown suit. "Ahh darn. I forgot that I had wanted to get a suit made." Botbold, always a positive thinker, and wanting to help people out says.
"So why don't you?"
"Because, I'm leaving early in the morning the day after tomorrow."
"So what? You still have time."
"I basically only have a day."
"You have pleeeeeenty of time."

So he had me call his wife who then took me around to buy fabric. Barely thinking twice about whether or not we would be able to find someone who could sew an entire suit in a day (after all if Botbold said it can be done, if can be done. Right?) we bought the fabric for about $60. At this point it was about 5pm. We then went to a couple of seamstresses. One couldn't finish it because she had to go to the doctor the next day. And another seamstress shop wouldn't touch it because they said that there was no way they would finish it in time.

I was starting to second guess Batbold's enthusiasm and confidence that it could be done. A little disappointed that I was already $60 into this decision, his wife called him and he told us we had one more option, a lady who used to make suits for the missionaries in years past. He called her, and she said she was coming from the market but would do it if we could be there when she came home from the market. Wow. So we did a stake-out in front of her house for about 45 minutes waiting for her to come. She took measurements and we agreed on a price: $32.

The best part was the next day I talked to her and she said, "You know you got enough material for a vest too. Do you want one?" "SURE" "Ok then, we'll take some measurements and make you a vest." Sweet. I called her around 9pm that day to check on the status. "Just putting the finishing touches on the vest, but the pants and coat are done. Come on over and pick it up." So now I am not only the proud owner of a 30 part Chinggis Khan series, but a custom 3-piece suite, sewn in a day.

I'm pretty excited to go to Beijing to take a shower. The water line was broken during some construction on a neighboring building, so there hasn't been any running water at the family's house during my stay. High speed internet but no running water is actually a very common living situation here. You crack me up Mongolia.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

UB -> Choibalsan

The city of Choibalsan is in northeast Mongolia. It is quite close to the Russian, and Chinese borders. Something about the place gets you when you're there for a while. I don't know if it's the fresh air, the landscape, or the chill people but it has been a long-time favorite place for missionaries to serve. It is a two hour flight, or a 14 hour car drive. The road is paved for about 1/3 of the travel time. It is quite cheap to fly there if you're a Mongolian (about $85) but around $200 to fly as a foreigner (The Mongolian way of business). I decided I would take a mini-bus out and fly back. I may have paid a lot less for that minibus, but it was a LOT more memorable.

By my count the mini-bus had seats for about 27 people. About 11 two-person benches, and a back row with 5 seats. There was no undercarriage luggage storage so everyone fit as much as they could in a small overhead rack. The rest of the luggage, including my backpack, was just piled in the middle of the aisle. That wouldn't have been so bad if there hadn't been, by my best count, 41 people on board. So naturally there were two little kids sitting on my backpack the entire 14 hours. No problem with that. One kid even decided it was nice and soft so he started to jump up and down on it like a trampoline. No problem with that either since I didn't have anything breakable in the bag, except a CD I bought at the St. Besil cathedral in Moscow. I went to check and see if my CD was ok at one of our famous roadside bathroom breaks, and it was fine. However, I noticed a lot of my clothes were a little damp. Either some kid decided to wee-wee on my CD, or the alternative: little kid bum sweat.

About 2 hours into the trip, after we had already taken one bathroom break, a guy from the back row started shouting at the driver. "Hey driver! Can you stop?" No response. (Louder) "Hey Driver!! Can't you stop?!" This continued intermittently for about 5 minutes. "Hey driver!!! I have to go!" He kept shouting at the driver and started to annoy people. Someone yelled back at him to shut-up. "Don't tell me to shut up, I'm just a guy with a body like everyone else, and it has to go!" Then someone yelled back, "What are you, a kid?" "If I was a kid, you'd stop the bus! Kids have to go, adults have to go, we all have to go! Can't you think about someone else and just stop the bus?" At this point he was either gaining some sympathy or just completely annoying everyone because one lady yelled to the bus driver to stop and let this guy go. So he did.

The real hit of trip were the two girls in front of me who kept looking into this cookie tin. I noticed it had a bunch of wholes punched in it. All the little kids gathered around and I saw that they had two turtles. It really freaked out one of the guys in front of them so for a little while, every couple of minutes they poked him, or were putting one of the turtles in his face.

There was a little grubby kid, about a year old, whose older brother had given him some chewing gum. It was really funny to watch this kid play with this gum. Then he dropped it. I realized later that night that my backpack had been the lucky landing spot for this gum.

Oh man, there are plenty of other stories I could tell you about this single, trip. The angry lady who accused the driver of losing her bag. The wheel seat where I sat with my knees to my throat. The way you help a little kid go potty in the wilderness. The 9 hour dirt road. Wild horses. Good stuff.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


On the entire trip thus far I have not eaten so cheaply. On the entire trip thus far I have also not eaten so MUCH. Guess I didn't realize how much I missed Mongolian food. Maybe the German girl at the hostel was right and Mongolian food really IS good. I was served some sketchy meat the other day in Erdenet, but paying $1 for it made me not feel bad about not eating it. We had a joke on my mission that the reason that there are no authentic Mongolian restaurants is that they'd go straight out of business. Sadly, I saw that happen in Provo one year.

In Ulaanbaatar, I served in 3 branches. The longest of which was in the middle of my mission when I served in a branch for about 6 mo. with Elder Cottle (who was an awesome missionary) called Sukhbaatar. We had no one to teach coming in. We worked super hard. At the end of six months we were both transferred before a number of the people we taught ended up being baptized. One of them was a family with a mom and three sons. One of the old branch missionaries, Goyoo, now married in the temple with 2 kids was good enough to take me to see a couple of old friends. We saw some old ward members, an old companion of mine, and this family that I taught.

It was really fun to see them. As my experience has gone, it is one thing to see old friends but an entirely different experience to see people that are still active in the church. The power had gone out when we arrived, but kicked back in by the time we left so the mom was able to cook some dumplings for us. She also served some 'hyarum' basically water and milk, but heated up. Mongolians usually drink a good amount of tea and hyarum. However, church members are quite peculiar in Mongolia because a loooot of tea is consumed there. When she handed my my cup of steaming hyarum, instead of the usual thing you say when you serve a hot drink in Mongolia, "Please drink your tea," she said, "Here, drink your Mormon tea." I laughed really hard. I looked through the photo album of her middle son who was there. He just finished his mission in Mongolia.

He served as a branch president for about a year in a branch outside of Ulaanbaatar. It was fun to see his mission pictures. I found out his little brother was coming back from the Philipines MTC that night to start serving his mission in Mongolia. There was a baptism at the Stake Center the next day, and I ran into him there. I started talking to him about his family and he totally didn't recognize me. Kind of funny because when I last saw him he was about 12. Now he's 19 and about 6'3''. I think he just thought I had served in his branch and that he didn't recognize me because he had been at the MTC. He started to walk away and I grabbed him, "Elder Tuvshin it's me, Skinner." "Yooooi!" That's what you say in Mongolia when you're surprised, or when you are embarrassed. He grabbed me and hugged me before he had to run an errand with his companion.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Erdenet -> Ulaanbaatar

Returning to Mongolia has been a really interesting experience. Since my mission was so long ago and in a country so foreign and far away it sometimes feels like it didn't happen. It's strange to show up in a completely foreign town, not your home, no friends to pick you up, but knowing exactly where you are and how to get everywhere. Going around to the different places seems like chasing your own ghost. Each street corner has a memory, each building a different conversation. It felt like I was in 'A Christmas Carol' or something.

So anyhow, before I left Erdenet I got a used cell phone and a charger, and a one month pre-paid plan for about $20. Not bad, I figured. There were some people in Erdenet that it was hard for me to get in touch with because I didn't have a phone. Definitely worth it. Armed with my new phone, I decided I would take a minivan to the city (Ulaanbaatar). I saved a whole $8 by not taking a car, and it took only about two more hours. Plus! I got to sit in a 13 seat minivan with, by my best count 17 other people. One of the drivers pulled a head rest out of the socket and jammed it in between the seat and the wall. This poor little girl had to sit on it the whole way.

The dude next to me was a herder from the countryside. He was trying to sleep and it was a little like Rusty and Audrey on 'Christmas Vacation.' (If you don't get that reference, how about Buster and Michael...anyone?) I swear we made a thousand stops, not including the 1/2 hour we waited at the driver's house before we even left Erdenet so he could pick up some boxes. All of these stories are being prepped for my next next, book (after the sketchy food book) called 'The Mongolian way of Business.'

As we approached Ulaanbaatar I asked some people which district we were in and realized I probably knew better than them. I was right. I soon found out a taxi wouldn't go near the city center where my hostel was located, so I took a bus.

When I got to the hostel there was this German girl and Tazmanian woman chatting about their adventures. The Tazmanian woman, about 10 minutes earlier, had her purse swiped while crossing the street. The German girl had been living in the countryside with a family for the last month. Brave soul. There were a couple of people like that in our hostel that were raving about their experience, the families, the goats, and especially the food (sheep testicles and all). Skeptical about whether or not they really loved ALL of the food as much as they were claiming, I tried to dig a little deeper. "Did you eat ____?" "Yes, I loved it." "What about ___?" "That was very good." Tough girl eh? So I pulled out the big guns. "Intestine filled with congealed blood?" By the look on her face I could tell that she had eaten it. And that she didn't in fact love ALL Mongolian food. Haha, I KNEW it.

Monday, June 21, 2010


When I showed up in church the next day the first thing I notices was the lady playing the piano, Oyuna. She had been the building cleaner years earlier, when we held our meetings in the Selink Hotel's Restaurant. I played the piano in Erdenet when I was there, and actually gave this lady a few piano lessons when we had no one to play. She obviously stuck with it and was doing pretty well. There were a few other familiar faces that came and spoke with me, including a sister I had served with, and the branch president that had just finished his mission in Russia when I served.

One of the highlights was seeing a girl we taught named Oyunsahun. She was a referral from her friend, a convert taught by my cousin Ryan in Austrailia. I said hi and shook her hand before the senior sister missionary there asked me to translate the meeting. She had no idea who I was, and after the meeting came up to me and asked if she could schedule another time for an English lesson. I realized she still didn't recognize me and stopped and said, "Who were the Elders that taught you?" "There was one guy named Skinner..." "That's me." "Paaaah." Priceless.

Later was when I was sitting in the foyer talking to the sister that I had served with. There was an elder standing a little bit off interested in seeing if he could gather from our conversation who I was. I looked over at him and then at his name tag. "Bat-Sengel." I said out loud. "I used to know a guy in the town of Choibalsan named...." In the middle of my sentence I suddenly recognized him. He was taught by the other set of missionaries while I was in Choibalsan. There were about 5 young men at that time in that town that were all good friends and close with the missionaries. I came to call them the 'Lost Boys' because of their penchant for scheming great plans and big ideas. Two of the Lost Boys were brothers and ran their family's shoe repair shop. Their father was an alcoholic so at times it mainly fell upon them to feed the family. On one occassion some of the Lost Boys came to the missionaries' apartments late at night asking if they could borrow our bikes. The shoe reapair shop was about to go under and they needed to buy some materials to get it going again. Their plan was to borrow the bikes so that they could ride out to an old landfil, fill their backpacks with whatever useful thing they could find, save the shoe repair shop, and save the family. They were all very active in the church, bringing the sacrament bread, helping with tithing, membership clerking, organizing branch family home evening and what have you. Bat-Sengel was one of the Lost Boys. I was stunned as I realized who he was and I started to get up out of my seat, and he jumped forward embrace me, as I did him. It was a moment I will never forget.

I later borrowed the branch missionaries to help me find some old friends. We got in a taxi and after about 30 seconds realized our driver was totally hammered. He was swerving everywhere. Had it not been a Sunday afternoon, or a town with more than two stoplights (installed very recently) I might have been a bit more worried. We visited the branch pianist Oyuna, as I mentioned, a long time member. She recently went to the temple, and is now taking care of her grandson. I was really happy for her dedication, but even more amazed at her grandson. Earlier, in Czech I made reference to a guide that sounded like a news anchor, the movie 'Better Off Dead,' etc. Well I met a sort of Mongolian equivalent to that. Oyuna's, eight year-old grandson has learned English by watching Japanese anime cartoons for about 10 hours a day since he was three. He was pretty good. When I spoke to him the conversation always eventually shifted towards fighting or martial arts in some way, but he was pretty darn good.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Russia - Mongolia (Ulan Ude - Erdenet)

As I mentioned, I took a bus across the Mongolian-Russian border instead of a train. The drive was quite beautiful on the Mongolian side of the border, oddly no so much on the other side. There were two stops along the way. The first bathroom break, and the border/lunch break. The first bathroom break was awesome. Boys on the left side of the road, girls on the right. BYOTP, if you know what I mean.

I met some travelers from France that were pretty interesting. This couple started from Paris, and hitchhiked to Helsinki. They took a bus to St. Petersburg, the Trans-Siberian, and are now planning on finding a Mongolian countryside family to stay with for about a month. And that's not all. After that they're going on to S.E. Asia and will fly back home from Cambodia a year after they left. My mind is blown.

Crossing the Russian border was another FUN border experience. A Russian soldier came aboard and checked everyone's passports and visas. Then we got off and scanned our luggage. Then we stood in line for someone at one of those booth thingys to check our passports and visas again. Thanks to someone along the trip, I had two pen marks on my visa. This is not allowed. Well, it's allowed but you have to wait 5 more minutes than everyone else in line. Luckily a lady appeared from the other side and asked if she could help in translating. Then we filled out exit, and entry cards. Got back on the bus. Another soldier came on and checked our passport stamps. They really need to expedite that process.

The Mongolian side of the border was another story. A soldier got on the bus and started checking passports again. Here we go again, I thought. He checked about five and then got off. hahah, YES. Then the Mongolian booth thingy guy asked me how long I would stay in Mongolia. I started to chat with him in Mongolian explaining how I was a church/English teacher years ago. Then he just said, as closely as I can translate, "Well come on in."

After some sweet Mongolian food, super cheap and tons of it, we got to Darkhan around 4pm. I was the only one to get off along with a lady that got on to exchange money. She helped me find the first car to Erdenet. So I got in with three other guys and we were off. Of course we had to make a stop just outside Darkhan at a store. The guy in the passenger seat comes back with, what else, a bottle of vodka. Oh Mongolia, how I've missed you. Let the good times roll.

I've done the drive between the towns of Darkhan and Erdenet about half a dozen times. It is so beautiful. Of course, you have to honk a number of times for herds of horses and sheep on the roads, but the rolling green hills, big blue sky, and clouds that extend forever is one of my favorite things.

One of the guys passed out after his share of the vodka and was quiet the rest of the way. The other two were old friends and chatted the rest of the way. I spoke with them about a few things. They asked me why I'm not married and offered to introduce me to some hardworking countryside girls.

The driver was an Erdenet local so I asked him to take me to a hotel he thought was cheap. Thus began my entrance to the 'Pyramid Karaoke Hotel.' I went and saw the church that we broke ground for while I was in Erdenet as a missionary and then I got really nostalgic. It was surreal to smell the food, see the landscape, see the people, and hear the language. So I went to my old missionary apartment, and passed by the water fountain in the city center that dances to music- a recent addition that has become quite the hang out.

Before I went to sleep I decided to do one of my famous bathtub laundry loads. I learned in Moscow that the washing is pretty easy, it's the drying you've got to get right. I spent about an hour wringing out the clothes I had washed. My hands were raw. Then I was sung to sleep by some really... hmm... awesome karaoke being sung by inebriated citizens the floor below me.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Ulan Ude

I got to Ulan Ude at 6 in the morning after my last stretch on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. I don't know what lottery I won but I have had my own bunk on each leg of the trip. I did find out an interesting fact on this particular train though- they lock the bathroom doors after midnight.

Ulan Ude seems more Mongolian than Russian to me. Most of the people are of Mongolian descent, and thus look more Asian than Russian. The Buriat dialect of Mongolian is even spoken by a lot of the people, in addition to Russian. Although, it is dying out among the younger generation. Even the name 'Ulan Ude' is Mongolian. It means 'red door.' (Pronounced Oh-lahn oo-day by Russians and Olth-ahn ode by Mongolians) Seems like a fitting name for a town that has acted as gateway for trade between Europe, Russia, and China through the generations.

My guide was a Buriat woman that teaches Tourism in the local college. It was fun to speak a little Mongolian with her. I suspect it was a little like being from Brazil and speaking to someone from Portugal. Actually, it's probably more like being from Utah and listening in on an everyday conversation in Spanish Harlem...every once in a while I would catch a conversation where I could hardly understand half of what was being said. Different vocabulary, and different cultures definitely makes a difference.

I'll be the first to admit that my history lessons thus far, and sources for historical facts have been pretty shady, but they're getting even more shady with the language barrier. Plus I have no internet to check any info. However, let me give you some 'facts' about the area of Ulan Ude, Russia. This area of Russia was predominantly inhabited by the Huns around the third century BC. Around the time of Chinggis Khan it was inhabited by the Merkits (or Mergid in Mongolian) who started the fighting that made Chinggis go postal on the entire world. As the story goes, Chinggis' father pulled a sort of 'Seven Brides for Seven Brothers' (just admit you understand the reference) maneuver and when it came time to take a wife, he literally took a wife - from the Merkits. A generation after, the Merkits repayed the favor and stole the wife of Chinggis. So he swore that he would obtain vengeance and kill every last one of the Merkits.

In the year 1728 a border between Russia and China under the direction of Sava Ragusinski, who was assigned by was formed that separated Russia from its neighbors to the south. The Mongolians living in the area opted to stay and become part of Russia.

The prevailing religion of Mongolia's ancestors is Shamanism. On lake Baikal there is an island that is considered sort of the hub of modern Shamanism where religious 'priests' still perform the rituals of their heritage. The same island has been separated from the world for ages. There are no roads to it, and they only had electricity installed about three years ago. Mongolia eventually became Buddhist (Tibetan Buddhist or Lamaism) and it was recognized as an official religion in Russia in 1741. Coming out of communism it was Josef Stalin that praised the efforts of Lam's to help the country and in 1946 allowed the building of a temple. It is a little outside Ulan Ude and is called the Ivolginski Datsan.

The Ivolginski Datsan is basically a religious compound about 30km outside the city of Ulan Ude. They have a number of temples and the only Buddhist university that existed in Soviet Russia. You can study to become an artist, musician, linguist, etc.

It is really interesting to see how other people worship. From the minute we set foot on the compound we could hear a chant being sung in a low voice, by dozens of lams, and broadcast throughout the yard. At the end of a song there is a series of loud crashes that sounds like a young kid going crazy on a drum set. It was really loud, and kind of eerie.

In one of the temples there were two lams performing a daily ritual that my guide and I took part in. As they read a prayer-chant in Tibetan we faced the front of the temple, that had a whole bunch of images and statuettes, and took hold of some 'white food.' I was holding a box of milk, and I think my guide had yogurt. We walked backwards outside of the door and on the grass, I doused some of my milk, and raised an offering to the gods.

We also passed many a prayer wheel, from the size of a gallon of milk, to the size of a side of beef hanging in a meat market. The wheels have prayers written inside of them. As you pass, in order to pray you give it a spin. Another ritual I witnessed was the walk towards the Green Tara. This god is believed to bless the quickest and in order to receive the blessings all you have to do is touch her hand print rock. The stone, a little bigger than a bowling ball, was found in the area and has a spot that looks like a hand print. The catch is, in order to get the blessings, you have to start from about 15 feet away, and close your eyes and walk towards it. It is set in a display about 4 feet off the ground, and people walk towards it with their eyes closed and arms outstretched, hoping that their hands will find the rock. I didn't see anyone succeed except an old grandma. Lots of years of praying practice, I guess.

Other than that Ulan Ude was pretty chill. I saw the Trinity Church (Russian Orthodox) built from 1740-1780. After we saw the main town square, and victory arch my guide tried to help me change my train ticket for a bus ticket. I found out the bus to Darkhan, Mongolia arrives late afternoon instead of 11pm. And since I wanted to drive straight to a nearby town after that I figured it was better to arrive sooner than later. Getting the bus ticket was no problem, but refunding the train ticket was...well, impossible. I got a 3% refund. Awesome.

Going to the train station etc. gave me some time to talk a little more with my guide. Her grandfather was taken to a Russian work camp (in the 1930s?) on accusations of being a spy for the Japanese. He was executed soon after. Her grandmother, then with children and a small baby had the same fate. Her mom, aunts and uncles were raised in different families. There is a small memorial built to remember those who died during times of government oppression, the worst year being around 1938. I also found out that her father was the Minister of Culture in the state of Buriatia in 1991. A poet himself, he wrote the words of the Buriat Anthem.

Getting kind of anxious to eat some Mongolian food I went to a Mongolian restaurant, 'Modern Nomads,' and ordered a platter of all kinds of Mongolian food. Sooo good.
In the evening I went to the town movie theater where 'Prince of Persia' was playing. I sat outside the theater to see if it would perhaps play in English with Russian subtitles. Then I realized I didn't really want to see it if it was in English. While I was sitting there, there were 2 young boys hanging around the theater. Suddenly the ticket taker lady yelled at one of them to get out. Then a few minutes later he came back in and sat back down. She looked over at the two and in a tired tone of voice said something. They immediately jumped to their feet, thanked her, and ran into the theater. Haha. Movie theater rats. Always bugging that lady so see if they can get open seats. Awesome.