The Mongolian Experiment an experiment in crowdsourcing and journalism Wed, 10 Nov 2010 15:29:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Blogging Hiatus Over Wed, 10 Nov 2010 15:29:27 +0000

Wow, it’s been awhile, hasn’t it?

I had to press “pause” on this blog for a little while, because between my two jobs, I suddenly found myself working about 60 hours a week.  But, I did not pause in my efforts for TME.  In the interim time I have gotten countless emails from folks offering advice, found a Mongolian language tutor, and have been doing gear testing and physical training as well.

The good news is that I have changed jobs and my new work will allow me considerably more time to post here, so you can expect more regular posting from now on.

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Calling All Air Travel Ninjas! Tue, 07 Sep 2010 14:11:27 +0000 One of the areas of travel planning that I have relatively little experience in is airline ticket booking.  In the past, I have typically just gone to Kayak or CheapoAir and bought the cheapest non-insane ticket I could find.  However, The Mongolian Experiment is a bit more complicated than that.  Flying to the proverbial middle of nowhere is never cheap, and flights to Mongolia are few and far between.  Most route through Seoul, Tokyo, or Beijing, but are still wallet-crushingly expensive despite having lengthy layovers (I once saw a DC-Mongolia flight with a total travel time of 42hrs!) and tend to range between $1800-$2400.  Given that I’m trying to keep the budget for this trip as low as possible while still keeping things sane, I’m feeling a bit lost.  But, you can help.

Earn a spot on the Contributors page!

I suspect that I should be able to game the system a little bit for cheaper tickets, but I’m not entirely sure how.  Should I look at buying separate tickets from DC-Seoul and then Seoul-Ulaanbaatar based on the idea that tickets to Korea will probably be cheaper?  Should I look at a RTW ticket and make a stop in Moscow/Stockholm/Paris on the way home?  I have some idea of where to start, but I know that there are plenty of folks out there who know a hell of a lot more about booking air travel than I do.  If you’d like to earn yourself a spot on the Contributors page for this project, leave a comment below with any advice you have for trying to buy tickets to Mongolia. Provide me with a solid idea and I’ll provide you with your very own Contributor badge, as well as bragging rights that you helped this project come to fruition.

[Photo by Emily Wu]

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FAQ Answers: Is anyone else involved in this project? Thu, 02 Sep 2010 16:20:30 +0000 You all are! Once in Mongolia, I will be completing this project entirely on my own (with the help of locals) but until I step off that plane, anyone who reads or contributes to this blog is, in effect, involved in the project.  This project is ultimately for the public, and I feel that getting as much public input as possible shifts their role from purely consumers to participants as well.  I couldn’t do it without you all, so you’re just as much a part of the project as I am.

You see, as readers, your input helps me to figure out not only how to complete this project but also, to a certain extent, what the project actually isReaders help with the “how” by providing valuable advice on a variety of subjects, and they will eventually help with the “what” by providing input on what they would like to see the project become. From the very beginning, I’ve said that “the only two things about TME that are set in stone are that it must be in Mongolia and it must have a journalism component”.  The end product could be anything from a gallery show to a website about traveling in Mongolia to the beginnings of a Mongolia-based non-profit to a documentary film or even all of the above.  What TME becomes will be largely determined by two factors: what is possible and what people want to see.  Some day soon here, once I have the “how” worked out a bit more concretely, I will start asking folks about the “what”.

Stick around and be involved!

Just like this group of picnicing Mongolians, I'm hoping to take a group of disparate voices and turn them into a beautiful song, er, project.

[Photo by Chris De Bruyn]

FAQ Answers: How will you be getting around? Thu, 26 Aug 2010 14:11:35 +0000 This is one of the aspects I hope to get some input on, but for right now, I plan on attempting to accomplish as much of the trip as possible via horseback.  There are several reasons for this, but my two biggest concerns with transportation are reliability/continuity and approachability.

Horses are more reliable:

A breakdown of a car or motorcycle could leave me stranded for weeks while I await the proper replacement parts, but injury of a horse can be remedied fairly easily via purchase of a new horse.  Also, with some injuries, a day or two of rest and recovery at a nomad’s ger would solve the problem.  With a vehicle, no amount of “resting” will make it repair itself.

Nomads understand and respect travelers on horseback:

As for approachability, I want to make sure that the people I come across in the course of my expedition view me as an outsider as little as possible.  By approaching them on horseback, I am, in effect, approaching them on a level that they can understand, and thus they will (hopefully) be more likely to open up to me than if I arrived in a jeep like some rich kid.  Nomads have a deep understanding and respect for horseback travelers and will thus be more likely to have a respect for me and see me as similar to them.  This should, in theory, help them open up to me and the camera.

[Photo by Karina Moreton]

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Navigating by Mongolian GPS: The Ger Positioning System Wed, 25 Aug 2010 14:22:29 +0000 Mongolia is a country with very few paved roads, as well as very few official roads in general.  While this is not a problem for me due to the fact that I will be traveling on horseback, it does make navigation somewhat difficult, as there’s not really anything to follow along a map.

Mongolian GPS in action.

There seem to be two camps of thought for navigating Mongolia: use a western GPS system with pre-loaded topographical maps or use the Mongolian “GPS”.

The Mongolian “GPS” is not a gadget but instead is typically a gesture.  When traveling in Mongolia, many have been successful at using what has jokingly become referred to as the “Ger Positioning System”, and many claim that it is just as reliable, if not moreso, than a computerized GPS, and most Mongolians prefer to use this system.

How to use the Ger Positioning System:

  1. Locate the nearest ger (yurt).  Find a resident while avoiding the ferocious guard dogs typically skulking about.
  2. Ask where the next ger in the general direction of your destination is.
  3. Follow the direction of the nomad’s pointed hand until you come to another ger.
  4. Repeat.

That’s it!  Mongolian nomads are intimately familiar with the landscape around them, and typically have a good sense of where their neighbors are.  It’s not 100% reliable, but in a country where no 100% accurate map exists, it’s a pretty good option for those who want to find their way around Mongolia without a guide (like myself).  Plus, each time you stop you will likely be offered food and water.  If the family has a solar or wind power set up, you may be allowed to recharge a device (such as a satellite phone, camera, etc) for a little while.

If you do use Mongolian GPS in your travels, make sure to carry some sort of gift to give out.  Cigarettes, candy, or even a polaroid will work.  You should also carry a compass that is capable of marking down a heading, so that you can make sure you don’t wander off track.  If you have a western GPS, you can also use that to plot your heading.  If you lose track of what direction you are pointed, look for other gers (even if no one is around) because ger doors always face south and you can use that knowledge to re-align yourself.  If you can’t find any, look for the telltale circular marks of gers that have moved on, and see if you can determine where the door was via worn away patches of grass.

The Ger Positioning System seems to be the preferred method of navigation for teams in the Mongol Rally, and I have read accounts of many other travelers using this method, either by itself or in conjunction with more modern navigation aids.  Mongolians have been traveling this way for centuries (millennia, more likely), and I am planning on using this method in the more populated areas of the country.  The more I read about people successfully using this method from getting place to place, the more confidence I have in myself that I should be able to do it as well.  A few land navigation lessons wouldn’t hurt, though. ;)

[Photos by Bart Pogoda and Kit Seeborg]

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Mongolian Cowboys Tue, 24 Aug 2010 14:22:49 +0000 Mongolian herding techniques are considerably different from those of the cowboys of North America.  Long sticks looped with rope are used instead of lassos, and once the livestock is separated from the herd, the herdsmen will often work from the ground, rather than their horse.  You can see an example in this video of a competition:

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A Little About Mongolian Horses Tue, 24 Aug 2010 13:01:28 +0000 Mongolian Horse and its OwnerWhen I decided to do this project on horseback, I decided that I should probably learn a bit about the horses that I will be dealing with in Mongolia. Though the exact origins of the breed are hard to determine, it is generally thought that Mongolian horses descend from primitive wild horse breeds such as the Takhi (known in the west as Przewalski’s Horse) and others which are now extinct.  Horses have been a staple of Mongolian society for virtually as long as it has existed, and horseback riding has been documented with the nomads of the central Asian steppes at least as far back as 2000 BC. The horses are very resistant to cold, and their hair is very fine and frequently used for the bows of the Morin Khuur, or Mongolian Horse-Head Fiddle.  Their hooves are also extremely tough and very few are ever fitted with horseshoes.

I am a semi-experienced rider (Western lessons in childhood and English lessons during college), but Mongolians are arguably the most skilled riders on the planet, and I don’t want to look like an idiot when I get there. Once I decided that I would be doing this project on horseback, I started riding my friend Christiane’s horse as often as possible. Kalumet is about as far from the physical stature of a Mongolian horse as I one can get, but any riding experience is better than no riding experience.  That said, there’s still going to be a pretty steep learning curve because…

Mongolian horses are almost impossible for a western rider to prepare for. They are short, stocky, and most have five gaits instead of four (the fifth being a running walk variously called tölt, single-footing, or racking).  Mongolian horses are also typically not as “broken” as western horses, and are frequently wilder and more difficult to control. Whereas western equitation focuses on complete control of the horse as the pinnacle of achievement, Mongolian equitation focuses on having a horse that is capable of judging what is best for a given situation while the rider is busy with other tasks. Mongolians put a huge amount of trust into the abilities of their horses, and that changes they way that they ride.  The saddle itself provides a very stable seat due to its high back and front, but it only allows minimal control over the horse.  More control is given to the horse than in western riding, and I have read countless accounts of westerners trying to ride a Mongolian horse the way they would ride a western horse, and the Mongolian horses essentially rebel against such heavy-handed attempts at subjugation.  Mongolian horses are independent and expect to be allowed to think for themselves and judge what is probably best for the situation at hand. Most seem to prefer cantering in virtually any situation.  Racing horses will run at full gallop for over 35 km at a time, and they are trained to keep running even after losing their riders, so you have to make sure not to fall off!

Though Mongolians do not typically name their horses as westerners do, they do frequently have favourites, and in groups each family member will have his or her own horse. These horses are generally valued more highly than other working horses, and are given somewhat preferential treatment.  That said, horses are primarily a working animal in Mongolia, and they are not pampered as they are in the west.  As a friend of mine says, “Mongolians see horses the way most people see their cars.”

Being a short, somewhat stocky person much like your average Mongolian, I am really looking forward to finally being able to ride horses that are smaller than what you can get in the west.  I also eagerly anticipate finally being able to ride for as long as I want without worrying about running into a fence.  With Mongolia’s lack of territorial fences, it’s not hard to see how they are able to maintain such a strong, horse-based culture.  They have no boundaries.

[Photos by Kate MacLeod, Emilia Tjernström, Lee LeFever]

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Adjusting Scope & Scale Mon, 23 Aug 2010 17:36:33 +0000 I have a Mongolian pen pal who is, conveniently, a guide during the summer months.  I have been corresponding with him through traditional pen-and-paper mail for a few months now, and though the mail between DC and Ulaanbaatar isn’t exactly the fastest ever, he has proven to be a wealth of information and advice.

One of his recent bits of advice has given me pause, however.  In his most recent letter, he expressed concern about my ability to reach all of the provinces within a reasonable amount of time and suggested that I “pre-choose” a limited number of locations to focus on.  My immediate reaction was to think “No, I know that I can do this!”, but upon reflection, I think that he has a good point.

I have always had difficulty with focus in my projects, and I tend to be too broad in the scope that I hope to accomplish.  Mongolia has 21 provinces and if I were to focus on even one aspect of each, much less the 2-3 I was originally thinking of, then I would likely have to be there for years. Given that I have 6 months, at most, of blizzard-free travel time, I suspect I need to rethink the scale of things.

Choosing to focus longer on a smaller number of “features” might be exactly what I need to do with this project. I have always emphasized depth and getting to know the local culture with this project, and I’m beginning to realize that if I am rushing from place to place, I’d be shooting myself in the foot when it comes to having a real connection with the nomads I will be staying with.

Between the slowness of horseback travel and having enough time to form an actual connection with the people I am attempting to document, I think it would be best if I focused on no more than five “features” for The Mongolian Experiment. I think five is a good number because it allows me to do one per month, with the assumption that I will be spending my first month or so based in a set location, learning Mongolian and better horsemanship.  Five allows me to do a project in the north, west, east, central, and Gobi areas of Mongolia, which still means covering the bulk of the country.  If I get there and travel is taking longer than expected, then it will be easier for me to adjust my plans.  Flexibility is absolutely necessary when doing a project like this in a country like Mongolia, and I think that focusing more deeply on a smaller number of cultural facets would increase the flexibility of the project.

What do you think?  Do you think it’s better to have a narrower focus or a broader one?  Which would interest you more as a potential reader/viewer?

[Photo by Michael Foley]

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How To Help TME Without Spending A Penny Sat, 21 Aug 2010 14:30:45 +0000 Do you have travel or outdoors gear getting lonely in your closet? A parka from a trip to Tibet that has outgrown its usefulness now that you are based in a bungalow near Bangkok?  A water purifier that has been put aside because you now only camp in areas with potable water available?  Horseback riding equipment left over from lessons you had to stop?

One of the best ways in which you can help out The Mongolian Experiment is also one of the easiest: donating gear that you no longer use.

Donating clothing, equipment, and other assorted gear to TME helps out more than you might think:

  • It’s easier – and cheaper – than buying new gear. Donated gear reduces my fundraising needs, and helps to keep me on schedule.
  • The nature of TME also requires a lot of gear that I am unlikely to use again in the near future, so it makes more sense to use pre-owned equipment than to waste resources (both environmental and financial) by buying it new.
  • You’ve tested it out for me. Donated gear comes with an automatic bundle of knowledge.  Whether you’ve used it or not, a donated piece of equipment has been researched, purchased, and examined by someone else.

What you get out of it:

  • Recognition: If you donate anything that I use during the course of TME, you will be listed on the sponsors page, in a section for those who have helped out by donating equipment.  The sponsors page is typically reserved for folks who have made financial contributions to TME, but donating gear is effectively the same thing, and you deserve credit too.  You will get space for one 125px square ad for your site (if you don’t have one, I’ll make you one for free that you can also use elsewhere). In addition to all of this, whenever I mention a piece of equipment that you lent, I will mention you or your site.
  • Bragging rights: You will also be able to display a badge on your site stating that you helped this project come to fruition, if you so choose.

How to help:

If you have equipment or clothing that you think might be useful to this expedition, please leave a comment below. If the item(s) seem appropriate to the project, I will pay for the shipping to get the item to me, as the project grows nearer.

If you would prefer to lend an item rather than outright donating it, that’s okay too. Please contact me for details if you have equipment that you would like to temporarily loan to the project.

[Photo by Jeffrey Chan]

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FAQ Answers: What do you hope to accomplish? Part 2 Thu, 19 Aug 2010 15:42:46 +0000

There are actually two things I wish to accomplish with TME.  One, as I mentioned, is to raise awareness of the issues facing Mongolia today and through that, to help out some of the charities and NGOs that do work there.  However, there is a second, equally important goal for TME: helping fledgling journalists.

You see, I went to a college where every student was required to do a master’s thesis-sized project in their final year (and nothing else but that).  I got to see some really awesome projects come to fruition, but I also saw a lot of even more incredible projects fall to the wayside because they were too complicated or too expensive for the average college student to pursue.  I myself have often had ideas for what I think would be really incredible projects that I would love to do, but I have been held back by the complications of logistics and fundraising.

The Mongolian Experiment is sort of a “proof of concept” for a new way of tackling journalism or documentary projects which otherwise might never get off the ground. It’s hard to plan an international expedition when you’re working 60 hour weeks on your way up from the bottom rungs of the field, and it’s my belief that such a situation ends up stifling out some really incredible voices.  I want to help give a voice to all the emerging journalists out there who have a great idea but no way to actualize it.

Through crowdsourcing the research and funding of TME, I plan to prove that someone with more passion and drive than time or money can achieve what they set out to accomplish by using similar methods. When TME is all said and done, I will be setting up a website to help streamline this process.

Normally such projects are only possible with the assistance of an established news agency.  However, such associations frequently come with many terms and conditions, and the stories which need to be told often go unpublicized.  My goal is to help the world by helping citizen journalists to complete projects which would normally only be possible with the assistance of a news source, thus helping to tell the world the stories it needs to hear.

[Photo by Chris Devers]

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