Friday, February 28, 2003

Heard enough of armchair generals, barstool diplomats, pie-eyed pundits, and cut-rate Nostrodamases venting on the war with Iraq? Then read this rant about why everyone should, in the words of the author, "Shut your goddamn pieholes". Having just returned from north China, I think this expression should be modified to "Shut your noodle chutes!" Or for those people in the Alleghany Mountains, “Shut your damn beer drains!"
Well, it looks like George "Hulegu" Bush is going to roll the dice on this Iraq thing. I consulted one of Ulaan Baatar's famous fortune tellers yesterday and this person informed me that the US will invade Iraq on March 18. This person refused to comment on the outcome, but did point out that the ancient city of Baghdad was built in the shape of an enneagon, a figure with nine sides. So what we have here is a struggle between Saddam in his Enneagon and Donald "Rummie" Rumsfeld in his Pentagon. For the connection between the Assassins, who were wiped out by Hulegu in 1256, and enneagons see Here. By the way, it's back down to 15 below 0 F this morning: so much for the imminent arrival of spring.

Thursday, February 20, 2003

It's a Heat Wave! (cue up Martha and the Vandellas). It got up to 34 degrees F. (that's 1 degree above 0 for you Europeans) yesterday afternoon. I think this is the first time it has gotten above freezing this year. Women have reappeared from behind their scarves and furs . . . But that does not mean it has not been a bad winter, and it could still get worse: See here for an Update on the fourth-in-a-row catastrophic winter here in Mongolia.

Science Update: See the latest Blow to Darwinism.

Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Someone asked me what I am reading now . . . At the moment The Gardens of Light by Amin Maalouf. Just finished Maalouf's Samarkand. You might also be interested in The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Isma'ilis. See a Furious Rejoinder to those who have had the gall to compare Hassan Sabbah to Osama bin Laden. More details on these books in a moment . . .

Sunday, February 16, 2003

As mentioned below I left Ulaan Baatar on New Year’s Day, Feb. 2 for Xining. The night before, New Year’s Eve, I was invited to a soiree at the apartment of the older woman in the photo below. She is the mother of a friend of mine who is now living in the States.

Saturday, February 15, 2003

It’s hard to believe it has been over three weeks since I last posted. Well, I have been traveling, and not always where it was easy to find internet access. I left Ulaan Baatar on Feb 2, which is the day Mongolians celebrate the New Year, according to the Mongol-Tibetan calendar. Not only did I have an compartment on the train to myself, I had a whole car to myself. Not many Mongolian choose to travel on this day, most preferring to stay by the hearth. Of course I was traveling in one of the Luxe cars.

It was a grueling thirty-six hour train ride down to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, part of China. This included a four hour layover at the border to clear the Mongolian border checkpoint and customs, then Chinese border checkpoint and customs. As usual the Chinese border police were extremely friendly, declaring, “Welcome to China and Happy New Year!” I think these guys must be under orders to put their best foot forward when greeting foreigners. Then of course we had to change the “boogies” on the cars, which means all the cars had to be lifted up on hydraulic jacks and the wheels removed and new wheels place under them, since the tracks in Mongolia are of different width than the tracks in China. This is supposedly a hold over of the Cold War days intended to keep trains from being used for military invasions. Whoever came up with this cockamamie idea of changing the boogies should be horse-whipped. It would be much easier and faster just to get off the Mongolian train at the border and get on a Chinese one.

Anyhow, after interminable delays we were on our way to the city of Hohhot. Just before I left I read in the paper that in Baotou, a big city near Hohhot, a new Wal-Mart-type store had a grand opening with lots of promised bargains. 50,000 people stormed the store on the opening morning and eleven were crushed to death in the resulting frenzy. This makes the Day-After Thanksgiving Shopping Frenzy in American stores look like tea at Tiffanies.

I arrived in Hohhot late on the evening of Feb. 3 and checked into a flea bin near the railroad station. Hohhot itself is a city of a million or so. It was founded by the Mongolian Altan Khan in the mid-sixteenth century, one of the first permanent Mongolian cities to be built after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in China. The next morning I went to the Old Town, which is supposedly where the remaining Mongolians in the city now live - the majority are now Han Chinese – to see the Dazhao Temple founded by Altan Khan in 1579. Altan Khan, you will recall, was converted to Buddhism in 1578 by the Tibetan lama Sonam Gyatso. In appreciation Altan Khan gave Sonam Gyatso the title of Dalai Lama, which of course is still in use today, notably by the 14th bearer of this title. Dalai is Mongolian word meaning roughly “oceanic” (there is a Dalai Eej [Oceanic Mother] Grocery Store next to where I live in Ulaan Baatar).They were still celebrating New Year and the air in the courtyard of the temple was heavy with the smoke of firecrackers.

One of the Dazhao Temples

Abudai Khan, who introduced Buddhism to Outer Mongolia, supposedly got the idea for the first Buddhist temple in post-Yuan Dynasty Outer Mongolia (the current country of Mongolia) from this temple here in Hohhot. This first temple in Outer Mongolia, a quite modest affair, Can Still be Seen at Erdene Zuu Monastery near Kharkhorin.

Then I popped across the street to visit the Xilituzhao Temple, built in the 1580s. The blue grazed bricks used in this temple are quite unusual . . .

As soon as I was able to make transportation arrangements I moved on to the city of Xining, in Qinghai province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.