Thursday, January 27, 2011

Mongolia | Fifth of the Nine-Nines | Tavisan Budaa Khöldökhgui

The Fifth of the Nine-Nines—nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather—begins today, January 27. This is Tavisan Budaa Khöldökhgui, the time when “Cooked Rice Cannot Be Frozen.” I must admit I really don’t understand the definition of this period. It seems to me that cooked rice would be frozen at any temperature below freezing, and we can certainly expect colder temperatures than that during the last week of January and beginning of February. Anyhow, the Fourth of the Nine-Nines was supposed to be coldest of the Nine-Nines, and indeed it has warmed up a little since nine days ago; at 8:30 am it was -23 ° F / -30 ° C. Tsagaan Sar begins in a week, however, and with the new moon we might well have a cold snap. 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Mongolia | World’s Fourth Coolest Country

Yes, Mongolia is the Fourth Coolest Country In The World, exceeded in the hipness factor only by Jamaica, Singapore (?!?) and Brazil, apparently the coolest place in the world (blame it on the Bossa Nova). 
My pal Yooton, celebrating her coolness on a mountaintop above Lake Khövsgöl
 Yooton: “Hey, I’m Cool!”
What is supposed to be not so cool about Mongolia: “Yak-based dairy products … at every meal,” is surely an exaggeration. Yak-based dairy products are found only in certain areas of Mongolia. Gov-Altai Aimag does boast of vodka made from the milk of yaks, however.
Yak Milk Vodka made in the Town of Biger, in Gov-Altai Aimag. Cool, if you like vodka. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mongolia | Fourth Nine Nine | Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne | Montblanc Pens

The Fourth of the Nine-Nines, known as Dönön Ükhiin Ever Khöldöne—Time When Four Year-Old Cows’ Horns Freeze—begins today, January 18. This is supposed to be the coldest of the Nine-Nines, nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. It was chilly 36 below 0 F. (-38 Cº) at 8:30 am, which is about normal for This Time Of The Year.

Yet another story about luxury goods in Mongolia. The media seems obsessed with this subject. This time it is Montblanc Pens. There is even a religious angle:
In the past, Mongolian families used to hand down highly decorated snuff boxes from father to son. Now this is being replaced by Montblanc pens and watches, Mr Enkhbazar said. “Traditionally when people have a pen, it shows they are highly educated and they are really proud to have these pens,” he added. Pens sell better than watches, partly because the Dalai Lama also uses a Montblanc pen. Most Mongolians are Buddhists, so they want to follow their spiritual leader’s choice of writing instrument.
Of course there is no doubt about the Dalai Lama’s choice of computer:
One More Enlightened Mac User

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Mongolia | Third of the Nine Nines | Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö

The Third of The Nine-Nines begins on January 9. Gurvan Ükhrii Ever Khöldönö is the nine-day period of Winter when the horns of three year-old cows freeze. This period is supposed to be colder than the First of the Nine Nines and the Second of the Nine Nines. So far this has not been the case. At 8:00 this morning it was 24 below 0º F and 9 below 0º F at noon, warmer than nine days ago, and relatively mild for this time of the year.

Tsagaan Sar, the Mongolian Lunar New Year, is coming up on February 3. We can expect some colder weather before then. The coming year is, of course, the Year of the Iron Rabbit

Friday, December 31, 2010

Mongolia | Second of the Nine Nines | Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö

Update: By 8:30 am the temperature has dropped to 36º below O F. This is a drop of 15 degrees since 5:30 am, which hardly seems possible, but I have rechecked the weather reports and this seems to be the case. 36 below 0 F. is certainly cold enough to freeze twice-distilled arkhi, so it seems we are indeed experiencing Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö.


I mentioned earlier that the First of the Nine-Nines—the Nine-Nines being nine periods of nine days each, each period characterized by a certain type of winter weather—started on the day of the Winter Solstice, which occurred here in Mongolia on December 22. The Second of the Nine Nines begins today, December 31. Known as Khorz Arkhi Khöldönö, this is the time when twice-distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. As you will recall, the first of the Nine-Nines was the time when regular, or once distilled, arkhi freezes. As this indicates, the second period should be colder than the first, since twice distilled arkhi obviously has a much higher alcohol content. This morning at 5:00 it was a relatively balmy Minus 21°F / –29°C, however, almost exactly the same temperature on the same day last year. The Third of the Nine Nines begins on January 8th. 


As some of you may know, today is also the last day of the year according to the admittedly outdated and outmoded Gregorian calendar which unfortunately seems to hold much of the world in its thrall. I have been boycotting the Gregorian calendar for several years now (I prefer the Lunar Calendar myself), so as usual I will not be celebrating anything tonight. Don’t expect to find me in any of Ulaan Baatar’s notoriously Louche Coffee Shops. I will spend the evening in my hovel, but since it is Friday Night I may treat myself to some twenty-year old Puerh Tea while perusing the latest addition to the Scriptorium, the biography of Lesley Blanch.
Lesley Blanch

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

USA | Manhattan | E. Gene Smith

E. Gene Smith, world-famous collector of Tibetan texts and founder of the Manhattan-based Tibetan Resource Center, has transmigrated. I had been in contact with Mr. Smith several times over the years, most recently in connection with an Unusual Kalachakra Tantra Text I had stumbled across. He came to Ulaan Baatar occasionally and I was a bit surprised when he said he wanted to meet me, since I am really not that involved with the world of Tibetan Buddhism. He had seen my book about Zanabazar, the First Bogd Gegeen of Mongolia, however, and he was keen to talk about Zanabazar. We finally met for lunch at the Delhi Darbar Restaurant in the Puma Imperial Hotel where he was staying. Although it was just he and I for lunch we ended up talking for four hours. Amazingly, he had actually met the Diluv Khutagt. It is not quite clear who, if anyone, will step into the seven-league boots of Mr. Smith. He might well have been sui generis in the field of Tibetan studies. 

E. Gene Smith (1936–2010)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan | Eclipse | Nine Nines—Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö

Wandered up to the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi (Noblemen’s Hill) to watch the Moon rise in eclipse on the evening of the 21st. It was minus 8º F when I reached the top. Not surprisingly I was the only person there. 
 The Summit of Zaisan Tolgoi
The War Memorial at the top of Zaisan Tolgoi
The total phase of the eclipse ended at 4:53 pm, just four minutes before the official moon rise time of 4:57. When the moon finally did clear the mountains to the east at about 5:15 it was of normal color and roughly 50% occluded; in other words it resembled a regular half-moon. By 6:05 the shadow on the moon had disappeared completely and it looked like a regular Full Moon.

As you know, each Full Moon has a name associated with it. See North American Names for the Full Moons. The last Full Moon before the Winter Solstice, is known as the Cold Moon, Frost Moon, or Long Nights Moon in English. This is the Full Moon that occurred yesterday. I don’t know if Mongolians have a name for this moon. Maybe Batbold Pandita can help us. 

The Winter Solstice occurred today at 7:38 a.m. (Ulaan Baatar Time), marking the beginning of Winter. In Mongolia the Winter Solstice also marked the beginning of the so-called Nine-Nines: nine periods of nine days each, each period marked by some description of winter weather. The first of the nine nine-Day periods is Nermel Arkhi Khöldönö, the time when normally distilled homemade Mongolian arkhi (vodka) freezes. It was minus 27º F. at 7:38 a.m., cold enough, I think, to freeze Mongolian moonshine, which is not as strong as the store-bought vodka. The next Nine-Day Period starts on December 31. Stayed tuned for updates.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan Tolgoi | Winter Solstice

The Winter Solstice occurs here in Ulaan Baatar at 7:38 AM on the morning of December 22 (also see the 2009 Winter Solstice and 2008 Winter Solstice)December 22 will of course be the shortest day of the year: here in Ulaan Baatar the sun will rise at 8:39 am and set at 5:02 pm for a day of 8 hours, 22 minutes, and 53 seconds. That’s two seconds less the day before and four seconds less than the day after, December 23. The Winter Solstice occurs 6:38 PM on the evening of December 21 in the Eastern United States, on the same day as the Total Lunar Eclipse, which is extremely unusual:
This eclipse is notable because it takes place just hours before the December solstice, which marks the beginning of northern winter and southern summer. The last Dec. 21 total lunar eclipse occurred in the year 1638. (Number-crunchers quibbled for a while over whether that one counted as a solstice eclipse, due to shifts between the Julian and Gregorian calendar, but the current consensus is that It Does Indeed Count. The next winter solstice eclipse is due in 2094.
I am not quite sure where I will go for the Solstice. I may retire to the summit of Öndör Gegeenii Uul, right in front of my hovel in Zaisan Tolgoi, for appropriate ceremonies. Feel free to join me. As usual, I am imploring people not to celebrate the Solstice by engaging in any animal or Human Sacrifices
Summit (left) of Öndör Gegeenii Uul

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Mongolia | Zaisan | Full Moon | Lunar Eclipse

Unless you have spent the last couple of months indulging in some totally heedless Bacchanalia in a basement bar in Greenwich Village you no doubt know that there is a Total Lunar Eclipse scheduled for December 21, 2010. In the Western Hemisphere the eclipse will fall on the same day as the Winter Solstice; here in Mongolia it will occur the day before. 
Phases of the Eclipse, with Total in the Middle. For a more detailed view see Lunar Eclipse Phases
Some of the best views of the Lunar Eclipse will be from the east coast of the United States. In Mongolia the situation is complicated to say the least. Here is the schedule (all local Ulaanbaatar times): 

Penumbral begins:  1:29 pm
Partial eclipse begins:  2:33 pm
Total eclipse begins:  3:41 pm
Full Moon at 4:13
Greatest eclipse:  4:17 pm
Total Eclipse ends: 4:53 pm

Moon Rises at 4:57
Sun Sets at 5:01

Partial eclipse ends: 6:01 pm
Penumbral ends: 7:05  pm

As can be seen from this the eclipse begins and the period of total eclipse ends before the moon rises and the sun sets. Thus it will rise during the partial eclipse phase when the sun is still up.  Exactly how the moon will appear when it first rises and then after the sun sets, when it is still in the partial eclipse phase, is unclear. I will be at the summit of Zaisan Tolgoi from 4:00 pm onward on the 21st to find out, however. 

Now there is an additional complication: the forecast for the 21st is snow, with a high temperature of 3º F and a low of minus 27º F. If the skies are clouded over it might not be possible to see the moon at all, regardless of the eclipse phase. 

Eclipses, both solar and lunar, are big events in Mongolia. See the Solar Eclipse of 1997.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Mongolia | Gov-Altai Aimag | Camel Trip | Edrin Gov to Tsenkher Gov

The Gobi is the fifth-largest desert in the world, covering roughly 500,000 square miles (1,295,000 square kilometers). While most of the world might think of the Gobi Desert as a single entity, people within Mongolia recognize thirty-three different gobis, or gov, as they are called in Mongolian. These gov are relatively flat areas, covered with sand or gravel of varying sizes, most trending east-west, and separated from each other by ridges of shale, granite, basalt, and other up-thrusting rocks.
On our trip south from Bayan Tooroi we will pass through four govs. Zakhyn Us, where we started, is in the Zakhui Zartyn Gov, a flat area between the main crest of the Gov-Altai Mountains and the Edrin Mountains to the south. Crossing the Edrin Mountains we passed into the Edrin Gov. Much of this is classic zag desert—gravel flats covering with miniature forests of zag (saxaul bushes = Haloxylon ammodendron)
The barren gravel flats of the northern edge of the Edrin Gov with Eej Khaikhan still visible in the distance. 
 Classic Zag Desert in the middle of the Edrin Gov
Ulaan Budargana—Another common plant in the Edrin Gov
Around two in the afternoon we stopped for a tea break. Among my tea supplies I had two disks of Puerh Tea, one of the so-called Ripe or Cooked Puerh and the other Raw or Green Puerh. I am partial to the smoother Ripe Puerh, but on my Last Horse Trip I discovered that the astringently bitter Green Puerh, with the addition of sugar to take away some of the edge, was by no means unwelcome while lounging on our carpets during an afternoon tea break. And thus it proved to be on this camel trip.  I also brought along four ounces of Iron Goddess of Mercy Oolong Tea for the more delicate palates of the ladies. Indeed, I like it too, but I knew from past experience that the camel guys preferred the more robust Puerh. They had also brought some Mongolian brick tea which we would drink for a change of pace, salted as usual. 
Solongo brewing up a pot of ever-welcome Green Puerh tea
After tea we continued on, the camels resuming their usual  slow, stately pace. It is of course possible to trot camels, and fast racing camels can attain prodigious speeds, but camels laden with heavy loads like ours, including 100 liters of water (220 pounds worth) plus food and cooking and sleeping gear, can be trotted only for very short distances if at all. For the long haul they must be walked. In walking mode camels have two speeds: slow, and slower. I have measured their walking speed for hours on end with a GPS and have determined that their slow, or regular, walking mode, when they are relatively well rested, is 4.9 kilometer (3 miles) an hour. People are quick to point out that they can walk faster than that, which is perfectly true.  Humans can easily outpace even a well-rested camel. After four or five eight-to-ten hour days camels tend to tire, and eventually they slip down into a lower gear, covering 4.3 kilometer (2.67 miles) per hour. Now they are practically moving in slow motion, slowly lifting a leg, moving it forward as if through molasses, and then putting the foot down again with great deliberateness. The liberal use of a taishir, the short cane which the camel men use to prod their camels, will speed them back up to their regular pace for short distances, but until they are rested at least overnight they will always will slip back into lower gear if left to their own devices.  
By late afternoon we had reached the gravel flats at the southern edge of the Edrin Gov
A low range of hills separates the Edrin Gov from the Tsenkher Gov
We camped for the night in amidst the sparse zag bushes between the Edrin Gov and the Tsenkher Gov, having covered 34.5 kilometers for the day. The camel men set up one tent for themselves and another for Sister Dulya and Solongo, but as usual in the desert I opted to sleep out under the stars, or as they say in Siberia, “in the Big Tent.” Usually I would throw out my carpets and sleep a hundred feet or so away from the campfire and the tents so that I could fully enjoy the solitude of the desert. Tonight, however, both Sukhee and Brother Duit insisted that I sleep right beside the two tents, since we were still in the area where rabid wolves had been reported. Presumably a rabid wolf would be more inclined to pick off what appeared to be a straggler from the group. I had my doubts that a rabid wolf would be making any such distinctions but did not want to argue with the camel guys.They assured me that tomorrow night we would be out of the danger zone and I could resume what they considered my misanthropic ways.
Between the Edrin Gov and the Tsenkher Gov
One of the great pleasures of traveling in the Gobi is gazing at the night skies. Few places in the world offer a better view of the stars than the Gobi Desert. On most nights there is very little if any any cloud cover, leaving a perfect view of the Heavens from horizon to horizon. There is absolutely no light pollution from towns or cities and the nearest source of any kind of industrial pollution is many hundred of miles away if not more. Also the almost complete absence of humidity in the air means that star light is not refracted by moisture. In today’s world most people have probably never even had a real unimpeded view of the night skies. In many cities no stars at all are visible. Before I left I emailed someone in the United States about this trip and mentioned how clear the skies were in the Gobi. This person asked in reply whether it would be possible to see the Milky Way in the Gobi, implying that the Milky Way was now thought to be some kind of rare phenomenon which most people never saw anymore. In the Gobi the Milky Way (which has the same name in Mongolian [Suun Zam = Milky Road]) is a near solid belt of light arcing across the sky almost horizon to horizon. 

On this trip we would also be treated to a New Moon in three days, which would of course  maximize the star-viewing potential, but even tonight there was quite a show. First out was not a star at all, but the planet Jupiter on the southeast horizon. It would remain for most of the night as the brightest object in the skies. Indeed, much of this month it is the biggest it will appear at any time between 1963 and 2022.  The first star out was twinkling Capella in the northeast, only forty-one light years away, which makes it virtually our neighbor. Actually Capella is two stars revolving so closely around each other that they appear as one. The light we now see from this binary star left it when I was twenty years old, certainly a sobering thought.  One by one the full panoply of constellations popped into view: Big Dipper,  Draco, LIttle Dipper, Cassiopeia, Perseus, Pegasus, and Cynus being the most prominent up until midnight, after which Orion dominated the Heavens.