Friday, July 1, 2016

I made friends with a Monk

I went recently to the Gandantegchinlen Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.  I'm told it's the largest in Mongolia; it's definitely quite impressive.  The Monastery is staffed by monks, properly referred to with the Tibetan title Lama, as you can see in the name Dalai Lama.  These monks are available to give children auspicious names, tell people auspicious days to do things, and read prayers in Tibetan.  Mongolian believers will either have prayers read for prosperity in their current life or to get Karma for a better reincarnation.   
 If you are anything you'll want to to get a closer look at the cool writing up there!
Or you could look at the exquisite carving and painting, I suppose.
 I went in and wandered about for a bit until I found a Lama who looked friendly and asked him if I could talk to him.
This is Myagmarsuren.  He is just 22 years old and has been a Lama for 5 years.
He told me that he decided to become a Lama because he was interested in Tibetan, the liturgical language here.  He sometimes goes with senior Lamas to bless houses and babies, but a lot of his time is spent memorizing tibetan scriptures such as the Chogchen sutra, the Six Blessings and the 10 protections.   The life of a Tibetan buddhist Lama involves many restrictions and vows, such as not marrying.  Unlike many Buddhist traditions, I was told that most Mongolian monks do eat meat, as Mongolian cuisine just about mandates it.  They ensure that animals are slaughtered humanely, and they even read prayers for these animals to ensure they are reincarnated in a better position, perhaps even as humans.  The Lamas are also required to wear robes as in the picture above, and Myagmarsuren says he wears normal clothes only on very rare occasions.
He offered to show me around some of the more interesting parts of the Monastery. He showed me this mural depicting many of Tibetan Buddhist deities.  He worked on some of the background work and the two outermost pavilions pictured.
He explained that the Gandantegchinlen monostary has a history spanning more than 150 years, though it was used to house soldiers in the era of World War II while Mongolia fought for independence.  The temple is full of exquisitely made Buddhas and other icons, which Myagmarsuren said people brought in droves after Communist rule ended.  They brought all religious items they had hidden for years and filled the monastery with them.  Even before that, he told me the story of a man named Talkh (which means 'bread,' if you're curious) who helped found the monastery.  Talkh was a rich herder who had his hand in the slaughter of countless animals.  One day an epiphany led him to realize how much sin he had accumulated in slaughtering his animals, and so he helped found Gandantegchinlen monastery to generate good Karma.
Myagmarsuren offered to give me pointers in reading Tibetan Sutras, which requires not only navigation of labyrinthine tibetan orthography, but also knowledge of liturgical tradition and proper chants.  My interest in this is primarily linguistic, but it has been fascinating to learn more about Tibetan Buddhist beliefs from a man who dedicated his life to them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

When things just work

Here are some Mongolian buses.

Some of them run on gas.
And some of them don't.

Some people are convinced the electric buses aren't as fast.  I don't know if that's true, but they're often less crowded as a result, which is nice.

The buses get their own lanes on main roads, so they are often much faster than taxis.

There are some salient differences between the buses in Ulaanbaatar and Provo, where I study.

  1. Ulaanbaatar buses come far more frequently.  If you've been waiting for ten minutes, you're probably in the wrong place for the bus you want.
  2. Ulaanbaatar buses are slightly more economic.  You can ride anywhere in the city, bus transfers included, for 0.25 USD (500 MNT).  That is just a bit better than the 2.50 UTA fair.  Just a bit.
  3. Ulaanbaatar buses are faster and more exciting!  Hold on to something if you're not sitting, though.
  4. There are far more bus stations here.  You can expect to find one within reasonable distance of just about anywhere in the city.
  5. Mongolian bus stops have better names.  They are named after whatever area of interest is closest, whether it be the Wrestling Palace, the Dragon Center, or the 25th Pharmacy.
The pros of Mongolian buses far outweigh the cons:
  1. Ulaanbaatar buses are crowded.
  2. They are somewhat less clean.
  3. They're not as good at keeping a schedule.  Sometimes you can see two of the same bus at a bus stop.  But that's ok, because the next one will come in five minutes anyway.  
Last but not least, Mongolian buses have a smart card system that actually works.  The cards are easy to buy, easy to use, and reliable--you can even keep it in your purse or wallet and just hold that up to the reader!  Really, a little work of art, and all with a nice Mongolian interface.

Sometimes it seems like Mongolian buses shouldn't work.  They keep routes but no particular schedule, zoom in and out of traffic, and their drivers always to be in some state of discontent.  And yet they work perfectly well, in that they satisfactorily serve their purpose.  It's really nice when things just work.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

You leave town for a couple of years and they change everything

After my long day (about 48 hours) of travel yesterday, I made my first foray into Ulaanbaatar, which I haven't seen in almost two years.  

I got on the bus, all savvy and ready to hand the proper change to the conductor, as Mongolians do.  Or did.  Instead, I found there was no cash-collecting conductor at all.  Instead, these smart little boxes were posted beside every door.  No one cared to explain to me how to pay to these little robots, nor did they insist I get off if I didn't have a 'Smart Card', probably because they assumed I wouldn't understand a word of it all.  I did eventually get a smart card, though.  For 500 MNT (.25 USD) you can ride to any point in the city, transfers included!  Compare this to the lovely Provo buses, which charge exactly 10 times that amount.  Buses in Ulaanbaatar are also faster and more plentiful.

Throughout the day, I noticed little changes here and there.  This building near the mission office went out of business while I was in Mongolia.  I had never even gone in, but it seemed a little sad to see the place in such a state of disrepair.
Some of the changes were quite welcome.  Look at this amazing double KFC-Pizza Hut!  For the most part, I'd say the changes were ambivalent or good.  The bus card readers do make things easier, even though it threw me for a loop.

But so many things don't change.  I walked up to this nearby bus station and I was struck by how familiar it was.  It reminded me of people I had met there and the places I went so often.
Side note, for those of you who don't think this looks like a bus station, the actual stations are hidden from the picture, I'm referring to the area by the bus station name, as Mongolians sometimes do.  I admit I didn't consider that discrepancy when I took the picture.

A plate of tsuivan is still tsuivan, oily, savory and delicious as ever.

I randomly encountered a dozen people today that I knew from my mission.  They all asked, "When did you get here," and I always said, "Yesterday," we chatted and that was it.  I had thought I would be surprised to see the city again after so long, but aside for encountering the odd difference, I really wasn't.  The strangest thing about being back is how strange it isn't.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

One linguist. One airport. Fourteen hours.

One linguist.  One airport.  Fourteen hours.

Our plane flew through the night--that is, we skipped Tuesday entirely.  For more than fourteen hours,  from when we left Las Vegas to when we touched down in South Korea, we didn't see any sunlight.  
I am in the Incheon airport before most of the tourist traps have opened, and I will leave after most close.
After a leisurly first tour of the entire international terminal, I found breakfast at MosBurger, which I believe I visited last time I was here.  I decided to get something tame--A shrimpburger.  Very normal.

Korea is a land of many wonders.  At the Dunkin' Donuts I found this: Grapefruit Donut!  It was truly divine.  I even managed the entire transaction in rudimentary Korean.
Last time I came to this airport, I only had an hour or two, paltry time compared to my half-day, and entirely spent worrying about my next flight.  After a brief walk or two, I assumed that the entire airport was filled with the same few stores: outrageously expensive "Fashion & Accessories", ski supplies, designer watches and all manner of posh booze.
 This time, I also discovered the chocolate stores where a bag of M&M's costs 30 dollars.  Don't worry, most of the food was actually quite reasonably priced.
 In my 14 hour stay this time, though, I've discovered some of the wonders of this airport, which I learned has been the world's best rated for about a decade now.
Just look at this quintet playing arrangements of disney songs!
 When I first came to Incheon almost four years ago, I had one goal: I wanted to find some variation on "I love Korea" to prove I was there.  Catching my connection was a nice bonus.  Alas, I never found the shirt, and after looking for one on two occasions two years apart, I concluded that no such store existed in this airport.  If it didn't cost at least 200 USD, they didn't sell it.
How wrong I was!  At last, after four years of very intermittent searching, I discovered a very Korean shirt to my liking!  Bonus points to whoever can figure out what historically significant document is encoded on it.
 I also got a tour from Jonathan, an airport tour guide, who showed me the historical and artistic exhibits the airport has to offer.  I told you it was a cool airport.

Ironically, this restaurant aptly named "Robot" was one of the few I did not eat at.  
I have never been so well and richly served by the idea of comfort food before today.  It turned a daylong airport wait into quite a rich experience--need I remind you of the grapefruit-flavored donuts?
I admit, I was too busy snapping pictures of funny Engrish and other strange things I saw, and I didn't bother to photograph all the places I ate.  But after a skip of the international dateline invalidated the idea of meals, I tried quite a few.  I mentioned Mosburger, with its amazing shrimp Hamburgers.  Joining the Dunkin' Donuts in American fare was Auntie Anne's, (which I've actually never seen outside of an airport), where I had the luxury of a proper glass of American lemonade.  Travelling in Asia will make you appreciate a good class of lemonade--don't miss the chance if ever you should come here.  Again, I'm sorry I didn't take a good picture, but in lieu of an illustration, just go buy yourself a lemonade.  Please.  You'll enjoy it more.
In general, if you find yourself travelling through the Incheon International Airport, look around for good food.  Whether you want something very American (Taco Bell) or very Korean, you will find it.
Also, as I hinted above, all the food cost what you'd expect to pay for it or less in America outside an airport.  The same cannot be said of the Las Vegas airport, mind you--flyer beware.
You might think this last picture is a lot like the first.  That's because it is.  But I took it, trying to show what an open space it was despite being not that open of a space.  But after walking around this place for half a day, I started to feel like I was outside while inside.  Wandering around a mile-wide airport terminal filled with every kind of store and restaurant imaginable, complete with people from every nation on earth, gave a whole new meaning to the Great Indoors.
I have survived the 14 hours, by which I mean it was actually really nice.  The airport has free wifi and relatively widespread outlet availability.  The food was good too, and the seats were comfy enough.  But now, a plane will come and bear me hence.  If you want to read about that, look at my post before this one. After travelling for three calendar days, I may well be too tired to write anything else about it.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Today I start the two-day trek that will take me to Mongolia. 
I wrote the following poem while looking out the window during takeoff from Salt Lake. 

We're born to walk, as human feet
Need solid ground to be complete. 
By rights the sky's beyond our reach
For Gravity, we can't impeach. 
And yet I sit upon a plane
Which soars beyond the clouds and rain
And takes us, dwellers of the earth
Far from the terra of our birth. 
This miracle of human flight
Which takes me miles through the night
Is like permission from on high
To take a brief seat in the sky. 
I think about that, as I rise—
This invitation from the skies—
To join the light and lofty things,
Despite that we are heavy beings. 
I think about this paradox
As on the wind the airplane rocks. 
This aircraft too, of metal wrought,
Belongs below, not high aloft. 
And yet, through genius work and skill,
Good engineering, fuel and will, 
This metal bird can bear us hence
To show us our earth's countenance. 
The ancient man would wonder how
The laws of nature could allow
A metal ship, a crate, no less,
To be man's key to weightlessness. 
Yet while I share the angel's height
And hold the earth within my sight
And though I know the ground's my right, 
I thank God for the gift of flight. 

Joshua Sims
Six miles over Utah, June 6, 2016. 

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Return of the Linguist

Mongolia and Back Again

The Return of the Linguist

In 2013, he went to Mongolia. Now he’s going back again.

Do you ever wonder what linguists do? Do you want to know more about the ancient nation of Mongolia? Do you miss Mongolia and Back Again, my award-winning blog? Back by popular demand, this blog will chronicle my adventures, this time time as a field linguist. Check here regularly for clever insights, amusing pictures and answers to all the above questions, only on Mongolia and Back Again: The Return of the Linguist!
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014


These times of transition are strange, but we can be grateful for both sides--the things we enjoyed before and the great things after. The grass is usually green on both sides. As long as we are diligent to remember and follow the Lord, we can trust that there will be good things on both sides of the various transitions and changes in our life.

I look forward to the many blessings the Lord has in store for me and all of us, foreshadowed by the many blessings given heretofore.

I am happy for the many blessings that await our newest members and future missionaries here in Mongolia, and I hope they will learn from the strippling warriors in the Book of Mormon who, though wounded in battle, nevertheless stood fast in the liberty wherewith God had made them free; and they were strict to remember the Lord from day to day, observing to keep his statutes and his judgments, and his commandments continually.  Their faith was strong, and I plan to keep my faith strong.  Attention to obedience is the key, because that unlocks those blessings we need to be happy.