Two Swiss in Mongolia – discovering Zanabazar and more artefacts

Zanabazar – who is he?

Ursula intended to visit the Zanabazar museum for fine arts. Zanabazar – who is he? I started to read about him and discovered an impressive leader.

Zanabazar was the first Bogd Gegen or spiritual head of buddhism of Mongolia. He lived from 1675-1723. His name means thunderbolt. He was a pioneer of medicine, literature, art, astronomy, language, music, architecture. He is the Leonardo da Vinci of Mongolia, Jacqui confirms proudly.  Zanabazar composed music, and mastering bronze casting, he created sculptures. He founded a school to hand over his art to talented monks. In addition he invented a script; the first letter is part of the Mongolian flag and this letter is full of symbolism. For instance the yingyang stands for equilibrium inside the country or the bars on the sides mean good relations with the neighbors, this is what we heard from one guide.

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As the political leader, Zanabazar cooperated with the Chinese. The Oirats from West Mongolia had overrun the central Khalk Mongolians. Zanabazar managed to defeat the Oriats with the support of the Chinese, but for the price of becoming part of China. Some say that Zanabazar has sold Mongolia to China. Others value that he might not have had a choice and that under the Chinese rule, Mongolia lived a period pf peace.

Visiting the Zanabazar museum

Some of Zanabar’s sculptures are on display in the Zanabazar museum.  We pay the entrance fee, stay some time in the great museum shop (buying fairy tales) and then head right to his room. We admire the “real” Buddha (Shakiamuni), his five Buddhas, the wives, the Boddhisatvas and the guards, all with their special attributes.

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There are more Buddhist treasures in the Zanabazar museum

We continue with the Tankras (some painted on silk, some wonderfully patchworked, enhanced by stitching), mandalas (one is also patchwork and one is a three dimensional mandala) and the tsam masks.

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And there is ancient and more recent folk art on the first floor, even Infographs

On the first floor, we find the remians from 3000 AD ( rock paintings), from 2000 AD (deer stones) and from the Turks (stone sculptures – busts). There is also folk art such as the horse head guitar (a traditional music instrument).

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Infographs must have been invented by the Mongolians. Infographs display various scenes to explain a story. One infograph on display here shows the preparation and celebration of the feast of airak (airak is an acoholic drink made out of milk from a female horse) and a second shows a day in Mongolia ( life in all its aspects from moving a ger to giving birth to a child).

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This was a wonderful afternoon in the museum, and I enjoyed that I could share this experience with Ursula and that we like the same level of detail. I  just need to read more to understand the symbolism of the Buddhist art.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – discovering the vene of the peoples from the steppes

Mountains and steppes – how could peoples assemble their forces to build empires?
Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world. Nomads in the steppes. For me it has always been an enigm, how peoples could organize themselves here to conquer empires, and this happened three times in history: The huns, the turkish-uigurs and the Mongolians with Chinggis Khan. Later research suggests that there was a fourth people, the Skythes, that went west and settled around the Black Sea.

Join us in the Orkhon valley. I believe, here we found the vene of the peoples of the steppes
The Orkhon river forms a vast fertile plane in the center of Mongolia north of the central Khangai mountain range. The river gives water to this fertile plane of about 40kmx40km, after having demonstrated its strength in a much praised waterfall, after having cut its way through the lava stream, and after having meandered through the Khangai mountain range.

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This vast plane was the place where the armies from the steppes congregated. While getting ready, they could be fed, because this plane allowed for agriculture. It is here, where the Turkish tribes had their center in the 6/7th century. It is in this plane, where Chinggis Khan formed his army of a 100’000 soldiers (grouped in 10’000s) and where he founded Kharkhorin as a fort (the name is related with the Russian word  “Kreml”). It is here where decisions about Khan successorship were taken. It was here, where the great capital of Kharkorin existed for about 140 years, later their ruins were reused to build the first tibetan buddhist temple, Erdene Zuu. And it was also here, where the later city of Ulan Baator is said to have had its first location; it then moved several times and settled eventually at the Tul river.

Kharkorin – the sprawling town of diversity in the steppes
The son of Chinggis Khan, Ögedei, completed the capital of the Mongolian empire. The grand-son of Chinggis Khan, Kublai Khan, then moved the capital to Beijing, after having become emperor of China. The Ming, the dynasty that followed the Mongolian emperors completely destroyed Kharkorin.
Traders that traveled along the silk road wrote about this cosmopolitan capital of the thirtteenth century. A jeweller deported to this place, Bouche, built a fountain that spilled beverages. The Mongolians tolerated all religions, and there were mosques, Christian churches, Jewish synagogues – in all about twelve religions coexisted here.
Today, Kharkorin is just a district (sum) town with a lively market for the citizens and nomads. They find all they need for their daily live: Kitchen and sleeping equipment, tools and parts to build a ger (such as the roof, the door, the floor or carpets), clothing, shoes and cloth, food, drinking water and meat. Ursula and I most enjoy the shop with the cloth. Here I buy a new belt and Gisela found cloth in red and black to sew a jacket.

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Erdene Zuu, the reincarnation of Kharkorin
The ruins of Kharkorin reincarnated in Erdene Zuu, the first tibetan buddhist monastery built in 1585. It was the most important monastery of Mongolia, until it was destroyed in the 1930-ies during the purges of Stalin. Three main temples remained wthin an enclosure, one for the young Buddha, one for the adult Buddha and one for the old Buddha. There is also a white Stupa (the biggest in Mongolia) and a temple, where monks are praying again.

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The German excavations of Kharkorin
Behind the monastery, Germans are working to excavate the old Kharkorin, but there is nothing to see for us, except for the stone turtle with its blue scarf.

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I think that the travel reports of the missionary William of Rubruck and an envoy sent by the Pope (Giovanni de Piano Carpine) give some insight into this mysterious town that was primarily inhabited by foreigners. It is said that the Mongolians preferd to live in their gers, as the Lonely Planet tells us.

Two Swiss in Mongolia – looking for dinosaurs

A raped raptor or Tarbosauros Bataar now on Sükhbaatar square

Somewhere a Tarbosauros Bataar appeared at an auction. Wait a minute, the Mongolians said, these raptor dinosaurs have only been found in our country! They managed to retrieve their Tarbosauros and now it is shown in an exhibition on Sükhbataar square, in a metallic box. We visit the museum box. There the raptor stands on his hind legs, with his short forearms (not used to capture his prey), with his long head and strong neck (used to tear apart his prey) and with his small brain (used to smell where the prey is, this part of the brain was well developed – and, says Ursula, beings with smaller brains might not be more stupid… women also have smaller brains than men).  The exhibition is well curated.

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The flaming cliffs in the Gobi desert – Indiana Jones found dinosaurs here

Later in the south, near Bayanzag, we walk through the flaming cliffs. They are made from sandstone and are exposed to constant erosion. In the 1920’s Roy Chapman Andrews came here and found bones and eggs of dinosaurs.  Roy loved adventures and science and it is said that Indiana Jones has been modeled after him.

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The erosion discloses dinosaur bones and eggs until today. We walk around in the cliffs. Matthias keeps hs eyes open… and he ends up finding some bones in the sand.

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Some dino bones in the museum of the Gurvan Saikhan National Park

The bones and eggs found in the Gobi desert are now on display in the museum of Natural History  in Ulan Baator which is currently closed due to renovation. We found this bone in the museum at the entrance to the Gurvan Saikhan National Park.

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Two Swiss in Mongolia – joining the Ulanbaators for a weekend in Terelj

Terelj is about 50km from Ulanbaator and it is weekend

Our first excursion with Vikinger takes us to Terelj, a resort which is at the entrance to Gorkhi Terelj national park. It is weekend and the Ulanbaators also head there.

Our small bus fights its way through the Saturday traffic jam in Ulan Baator, passes by the Russian orthodox church built in the traditional style with ognion shaped cupolas, passes by the catholic church which looks like a stone model of a ger, follows the railway up to the mining town Nalaikh (many Kasachs live and work here), turns north into the mountains and drops us in the Guru camp that is owned by Julchin tours, the local tour operator of Wikinger.

Walking and observing the locals from town

After lunch, our small group starts for a three hours walk, up and down through the hills. Our target is the Aryapala initiaton and meditation center.

Ursula sings this tune: “S’goot es Schnäggli s’Bärgli uff, s’Bärgli uff, äne wyder aabe , äne wyyder aabe, uff em Buuch, uff em Buuch.” (A small snail goes uphill, goes uphill, then again down, then again down, on its belly, on its belly).

We stroll through meadows abundant with edelweiss, gentiane, astera and we even find a yellow puppy flower – next to a tin. The rocks stimulate my phantasy, there are frogs, horses and faces around us. Matthias explains, this is granit that is breaking easily and has been formed by erosion (not by glaciers, as there have never been glaciers here… the area is too dry). Well, all guide books proudly announce the turtle rock… but the turtle rock does not resemble a turtle at all, by my opinion. Below is a rock that to my opinion looks more like it…

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We share this beautiful landscape with Ulanbaators

We come across a large family that performs a wrestling contest. The winner, a strong young man of about twenty years is honored. Then he offers us (the unexpected spectators) milk and bortzig (fried unleaved bread). The five year old upspring is wrestling outside the circle and has a lot of fun.

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We come across families sitting at the border of the lark tree forest. They are pick-nicking and singing joyfully.

And when we reach the ground of the meditation center, we share the hanging bridge and the many stairs leading up to the balcony with families that carry their young offspring, sweating and breathing. And we share the magnificent view across two mountain ridges with them.

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The sun is setting and our bus picks us up.

Our camp has now more guests

In our Guru camp there are now more guests that share their weekend with us. They enjoy the camp, lightly dressed and in high heals. They seem to be happy to be together, as they chat in the night.

A second walk on Sunday

On Sunday we walk up to a hill across the valley. A great area to hike. The rocks stimulate my phantasy. I see animals and people in them. When I share my imagination with Matthias, he asks me to give him from the same stuff that I smoke. Well, some people keep their phantasy, even as they grow older and do not need to smoke for that. On the way, we meet grand’pa with his grandson on their Sunday ride solemnly circumambulating each ovoo they come across.

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Two Swiss in Mongolia – the boat ride on the Khövsgöl lake

Joining the group from Stuttgart for a boat ride
During breakfast, Aika organizes that we can join the boat tour with the group from Stuttgart, three men and two children. One of them is a Mongolian living in Germany. He is showing his country to his daughter and to some friends. Costs: 90’000 Törgöt or about 45 Dollars each for four hours.
The wish rock – do I have a wish?
The manager of the camp drives the boat to the wish rock
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High above the lake there is an ovoo.
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We climb the small path to the ridge, find a great view of this large lake disappearing in the horizon.
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We circle the ovoo three times – clockwise.
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What about my wish on this wish rock? I have Ernst in my heart and I am happy to have lived with him. I do not know what else to wish, except that I want to enjoy looking back, while sharing my live with friends – give and take. And, Ernst, forgive me for having let your son join you too early.
The manager points out some wild garlic (лук) to me. It is a green stem with the fluffy violett flower reminding me of the chive in my garden.
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Berries and birds
Next stop is a stony shore with some blue berries. They are blackcurrant (черная смородина). The children love to eat from the bushes in the wild.
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Next stop is at the birds’ rock. Our boat rund so fast that most seagulls and cormorans leave the island and wait outside on the water.
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We stroll along the island, plough our way through swarms of small flies, hold our breath, when the smell around us gets to strong (on Galapagos they make dung out of this), sadly look at the dead birds lying around, as young seagulls risk being eaten by adults.
Fishing for the children
Our boat takes us back to a bay, where the children unpack angling rods for a short fishing session. We climb up the cliff and find a beautiful forest clearing with a burbling creek and a carpet of mushrooms, all relatives of the boletus.
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After that we return to our Döltur camp for lunch and for another stroll along the lake, enjoying the cristal clear water.
Dinner – simmered ham with many delicacies
At 6:30 the camp restaurant is still closed; dinner is not ready. This camp has a very gifted lady cook, and today she is preparig a specialty: Ham that isnsimmering in an oven behind the kitchen (хорхог).
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She serves it with rice, steamed bread (мантуу), mushrooms, cabbage in the form of salad and various vegetables, rice, potato and pickled cucumber. We take the bones into our hands and gnaw on them like real Mongolians. It is a delicious meal. As we come down to our ger, the oven has been heated so well that we feel like in a sauna.
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Two Swiss in Mongolia – visiting the shaman lady

The interview with the shaman lady

Pudje drives our car to the Shaman lady he knows. She lives in a wooden house that has the shape of a ger. Other than a ger it has windows. The kitchen and the bed as well as the altar (in this case an owl on a blue flag) are at the usual places,
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but other than a nomadic ger, the walls are full with the “tools” she needs as a shaman and with souvenirs (I assume given by visitors) such as bottles of vodka or portwine).
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The ger is almost overloaded and dirty. In the kitchen corner there are still bones from one of the last meals. Some ladies come and start to clean up the kitchen.
The shaman lady immediately offers us to show how she performs her cult and this would cost 250’000 Tögröt or about 150 dollars. No, we do not want a show for tourists. We just want to talk to her about her art. Ursula leads the interview – I can tell that she has a lot of practice at this (doctors practice “anamnese”). Aika translates and the shaman answers reluctantly first. At the age of thirteen she decided to become a shaman, and she is the 14th shaman in her family. No, she does not want to say, why she made this decision (which we of course respect, because the reason may be very personal, an illness or a stroke of fate). Her mum taught her the practice. She mainly tries to help people with psychic or health problems or she forecasts their future. She uses her mental abilities to cure people, she does not use medical plants. After a ceremony it takes her two days to recover. She is a Tuva and can speak Tuva and Mongolian. She has five children.
Whether she would show us her drum, we ask. No, she would do so only for 250000 Tögrök, she answers.
Then she switches and starts to ask questions. Your names? Your country? Your age? Children? And then a few compliments such as “you look younger than your age” and “your skin is still beautiful”. We return the compliments: “You look wise and you have charisma”. She starts to thaw up a bit. She invites us to join a ceremony that is planned in the forest in about an hour. Her husband comes and pulls a foto album from under her bed. In 2010 they traveled through Europe and also came to Switzerland. They met European shamans, and some of them also had visited them in Mongolia.
The room is now full with people. Three ladies and a young man from Ulanbatoor want to explore shamanism, and a man in his fifties admires her; he has already attended various sessions and has often been the only person to see the fire in front of the practicing shaman lady – and he could even take a foto of what he saw and the others could not see. He shows us the foto…
The group of people now takes their cars to get to the shaman place about five to ten kilometers north. It is on a hill in the forest. The sacred area is surrounded by a fence covered with ribbons in all colors.
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 A hut made of branches. A bench in front of the house. The guests put their gifts on to that bench: Bisquits, milk tea, vodka, cigarettes, toffees and more. A mat on the ground and a fireplace nearby. The husband tunes the drum over the fire, carefully testing it from time to time. Supported by the guests the shaman lady dresses up for her performance. She puts on a coat made of fur pieces (fox), a grim mask with feathers on top and big shoes. The guests write their wishes on white ribbons and add them to her coat. She sits down and her husband sits next to her. She starts to hit the drum with a decorated drum stick while turning her upper body. Sometimes her husband supports her carefully. Her coat must be heavy – I think what she performs requires a huge physical effort.
After some time the man in his fifties kneels and bends down in front of her. He has problems with his eyes, but wants to open up a new business. The shaman lady continues to play the drum and turn her upper body, while murmuring her advice. Her husband translates her words. The future does not look good for this man and the shaman asks him to take care for his health.
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The three ladies bend down one after the other. They mostly have problems with men and also ask about the future of their families. When translating, the husband sometimes smiles or lights a cigarette; then he speaks with the cigarette in the edge of his mouth. From time to time the shaman lady needs a bowl of milk tea or wodka. One of the ladies has just been divorced, has a son, and would like to find a new husband. The shaman lady shows compassion by dropping the drum on her back. She foresees that this lady will find a new husband in two years. This young lady takes notes, while the shaman speaks to her.
In the background, Kleiber and squirrels enjoy the bisquits – a second performance is going on here. From time to time the guests and the husband sprinkle milk tea around or throw toffees into the air.
Last it is the turn of the young man from Ulanbatoor. Then the husband helps the shaman lady to get up and undress. She sits down again and immediately is back in this world and wants to know, whether we liked it. We leave a gift between the bisquits and the wodka and say good-bye.
Lunch in the camp
We are frozen – the ceremony had lasted about one and a half hours in the cold forest. We take our box lunch in the camp.
Siesta and a walk
To digest our experience with shamanism, we need a rest and free Aika and Pudje for the remaining afternoon. They visit relatives of Pudje and we meet them later laying hearts for their partners. Aika takes a foto of me with her heart that says “I love you”. Yes, I do… today it is exactly two years ago that you became a star watching over me.
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Two Swiss in Mongolia – visiting a ger

Saying good-bye to Döltur

Today we move from the Döltur camp to Tolgoit which is about 50km away to the north. A the gate of Döltur, we receive a very kind farewell: Two ladies have a wooden bucket and a spoon. With the spoon they sprinkle a liquid (tea or milk) on the ground and wave, until we disappear. This is a Mongolian tradition. Waving until the guest disappears round the next corner is what we also do in Switzerland.

Grandma welcomes us in her ger

Pudje drives our car north and suddenly leaves the road heading uphill towards a lonely ger. Pagmajaw  welcomes us. Aika translates. Pagmajaw is 65 years old, and we tell her that we are 62. She has retired and selected this nomadic life with her husband.

She has two daughters and four grand children. One daughter is studying in Ulanbaator and the second daughter works as a secretary in  a national park.

She has 60 yaks and 200 sheep. Every morning she milks 16 yak animals, her forces do not suffice for more.  We watch her boil about 20l of milk on the central oven. She carefully watches it, stirs it with a scoop and then pours the boiled milk into smaller pots. On the next day she will take the cream off the milk. She offers us bread and some of this cream which tastes like cream cheese. She also offers milk tea and explains that when preparing it, it is crucial to add water to milk and never milk to water.

Mushrooms are for animals

Next to the oven there are some brown lamella mushrooms. Pudje takes a hat of a mushroom, fills it with cream and roasts it in the wooden fire. Delicious.

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Pagmajaw dries the mushrooms. Some hang on the side wall in the wooden grill that supports the ger. She feeds these mushrooms to the animals. Only occasionally they use mushrooms for their meals, mostly as spices. I tell her that we love to eat mushrooms, but have to look for them, while here you have to be careful not to step on them while walking, and she laughs.

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The ger has all that is needed for life here

Pagmajew tells us that they move their ger four times per year. Construction and deconstruction is done in a few hours. They now load their material on a car to move from one place to the next. Before horses transported their household. The ger is not full with a lot of superfluous things. It has exactly, what is needed to live here.

There is a kitchen to the right of the entrance,

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next a sack with tea leaf bricks,

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next her bed,

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near the bed a sack – she takes lamb skin out of it that she will use to insulate the house in winter. Next some boxes and the pots with the cooked milk.

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The holy corner opposite the entrance is a sack and a rolled piece of silk fabric (yellow, green, blue and red). On the men’s side are his bed, the dried mushrooms and a wooden board with cheese that is ready to be cut and then dried.

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In the wooden grid are hanging tools of daily life like sun glasses or a small book.

And also there are the signs of modern times

There is a satellite telephone that keeps on ringing (the daughters are calling), a mobile phone, a radio, a collection of cables, a sewing machine (she uses it to sew her traditional tuffed long jacket made out of dark red silk), an alarm clock, two batteries and a solar panel. Also this ger owns a car.

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With a hearty good-bye we hand over our small gifts.

To the Tolgoit camp

We continue our way to the Tolgoit camp. We cross the Yankhi pass. Overlooking the pass are the slopes that had ben hurt by the Russian scientists. They needed a road. In front of us the lake, a gorgeous view.

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Shortly afterwards we enter the Toilgot camp and move into a ger that has been heated so well that we open the door to breathe.

Reflecting our visit on the afternoon walk

After lunch we stroll amidst lark trees and mushrooms. We walk softly on the needles.

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On the way back there is a nice view of the lake. Mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms, especially the red boletus (Rotfussröhrling)…

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I imagine the risotto prepared with them! Ursula’s comment: “No nutritive value in mushrooms; this might be why the nomads ignore them.”

We reflect that Mongolia is transforming quickly. Half the population lives in towns now. The nomads use cars and motor cycles instead of horses. They use it to move gers and to guard their animals. At the elections four years ago, everybody came on horseback, and this year almost all came by car or motor bike.

Aika confirms that it might be true that the daughter of Pagmajew is studying in Ulanbaator, even if she might be forty years old. There are many older students. They receive a monthly salary of about USD 50, as the government thinks education to be important. Good marks lead to additional payments. “Some students go to the disco instead of studying”, she frowns.

We tell Aika about our flight that has been diverted to Edinburgh to take the army music band to some festival. She then tells me about the elections. The candidate of the opposition was in prison, until the elections were over, she says. There might be more capriciousness  such as the black market burning down and now there is room for street construction. It is said that the shopkeepers could buy an insurance  beforehand and were compensated. If this is true, there might be more room for change in Mongolia.