Travel Scoops: Mongolian yak dung and cheese curds in Denver Colorado

Denver, CO, USA, May 2015

I’m learning to appreciate the smell of yak dung, which, evidently, is bluish in color and quite prevalent in Western Mongolia. After Baja encircles me with one of her arms and passes a receptacle of burning dung dust around my waist three times, she then waves toward my face wafts of the incense-like curling smoke, which actually smell more like pot than poop. It is all part of a Mongolian purifying ritual.

Baja moves the dung dust around Tsogo.

Baja moves the dung dust around Tsogo.

“We do this every morning,” says Tsogo, Baja’s artist husband whom I have come to interview for a story about his art and the burgeoning Mongolian community living in Denver, Colorado. “Before we go to work — just going to morning,” the affable artist says while gesturing widely with his arms outstretched. “Smile and the whole day is good.” He points to both corners of his broad grin that prompts his deep dimples.

The dung certainly stimulates one’s senses. I enlist my seven-year-old daughter, Kasey, for a cleansing. After all, I brought her along with me to meet the Majids and experience a taste of Mongolian culture in Colorado.

In fact, the Rocky Mountain state is home to more than 2,000 people of Mongolian heritage. Mongolian immigrants chose Denver as one of the first US destinations in which to settle in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It started with an engineering student who came to study at Colorado School of Mines in 1989 and now Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, is a sister city to Denver. The two, both classified as “mile high cities” due to their elevations at more than 5,000 ft., share many similarities, including climate and terrain.

Photo by: Sheila Sund; https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheila_sund/

Denver, Colorado. Photo by: Sheila Sund; https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheila_sund/

Photo by: Francisco Anzola; https://www.flickr.com/photos/fran001/

Ulaanbaatar. Photo by: Francisco Anzola; https://www.flickr.com/photos/fran001/

It wasn’t until the late 1990s when Tsogo and his wife, Baja, decided to leave an economically depressed Mongolia that Colorado registered on their radar. First Tsogo checked out San Francisco, which he did not particularly like, “Too many people in one city,” he maintains. “Then my sister’s son was in Colorado and he said, ‘Tsogo, come to Denver — it’s just like Mongolia.’”

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Hmongtown: Taking a Trip to Southeast Asia in St. Paul Minnesota

Yer and Young at Mr. Papaya in Hmongtown

Yer and Young at Mr. Papaya in Hmongtown

“Ua tsaug.”

Clunking through the Hmong phrase that sixteen-year-old Young Lee just taught me, I press my hands together and lean forward, doing a sort of semi-Geisha bow to thank her mother, Yer Xiong, for my delicious and cheap bowl of noodle soup. I nudge my eight-year-old son Eddie to do the same.

300px-Geisha_dance

© John Rawlinson

“I’m not quite sure why I just bowed,” I blurt out to Young, thinking perhaps that’s not the appropriate way you thank someone who is Hmong.

“Yeah. We’re not Japanese,” she says.

“But that’s okay,” she adds with a smile. Despite wearing a hair net, she looks sassy with her lip piercing and with her hair in a high somewhat unkempt trendy bun. She towers over her mom who, wearing a more hard core hair net resembling a shower cap, remains silent.

Over standard white button down shirts, they both wear matching black aprons with Southeast Asian style embroidered trim. Young has fashioned her white shirt into a ripped sleeveless look, and she wears a hot pink tank top underneath. It is the same hot pink as the smart phone she had been texting on earlier during her brief break.

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Scarves, Somali Tea and the Polar Vortex

Shamso outfits me with a scarf.

Shamso outfits me with a scarf.

Shamso reaches around my neck to reposition a fringed end of the gold trimmed navy scarf that she picked out for me. The scarf, made of soft cotton, feels surprisingly heavy after she wraps, rolls and tucks the material into place just above the collar of my puffy black winter jacket.

Standing back with her hands on her hips to assess, and in her own vibrant fuchsia and gold print headscarf, she squints. It’s not quite right. Shamso leans in and gently tugs at the fabric above my forehead. She nods, smiles and says something in Somali to Maryan, who also seems to approve of my new East African look.

I'm flanked with Shamso on the left and Maryan on the right.

I’m flanked with Shamso on the left and Maryan on the right.

When I suggest a photo with the two women I have just met, Shamso reaches in her pocket, whips out her iPhone, holds it out with one hand and then snaps a few photos while we smile and lean in together with a backdrop of fluorescent light panels and the vibrant inventory of shopping stall 137, which includes hanging scarves, as well as neon animal, striped and floral print gowns, skirts and leggings.

It’s an “I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing-in-perfect-harmony” moment, and I’m on a giddy global high. About 30 minutes earlier, I had trudged with my dad through the sloppy, tire-churned-up Uptown snow toward Suuqa Karmel, a Somali market in Minneapolis. The powder blue concrete complex with colorful murals of dessert scenes, including a camel caravan and palm trees, definitely seems out of place since snow banks jut up from the sidewalk leading to the entrance.

Suuga Karmel

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Searching for a Dashboard Deity

My Vegas Ganesha bringing me good luck on the road.

My Vegas Ganesha bringing me good luck on the road.

Toronto, Canada. 2013. Standing next to a large bronze, meditating statue of Shiva, the Destroyer, Maharani Emporium owner Rupert Lalla, tugs at a gold chain around his neck. He pulls the attached gold figure up from beneath his green plaid shirt. Bringing it forward so I can see it more closely, he reveals a tiny figure with an elephant head, human body and four arms in various positions — Ganesha.

I take this as a good sign since I’ve been grilling Rupert in his Toronto shop about this Hindu god and why Indians choose him for their cars as the preferred dashboard deity.

A bit about Ganesha

Totally fitting as a dashboard deity, Ganesha is the Hindu god of protection, wisdom and remover of obstacles. He also is the son of the god of destruction and recreation, Shiva, and the Hindu goddess of power, Parvati. Often called the easiest god to worship, Ganesha, according to Hindu belief, accepts any devotee’s prayers — whether formal or informal. Embracing Ganesha as their god of choice, residents of Mumbai hold Ganesh Chaturthi, an eleven-day festival solely devoted to the elephant-headed god.

A Ganesha statue outside a jungle elephant preserve. The electric green moss transfixed me.

A Ganesha statue outside a jungle elephant preserve. The electric green moss transfixed me.

In 2010, during a trip to Bali, I noticed that Ganesha was everywhere on the “Island of the Gods,” since the Balinese place him near entrances of buildings and temples. Stationed in the parking lot of an elephant preserve in the jungle, appropriately, was a large moss speckled volcanic Ganesha sculpture complete with a jewel-encrusted headdress. The contrast of the dark rock and the electric green moss on the statue all against the backdrop of the dense, vibrant jungle captivated me.

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Travel Oops: Supersize Me with Some Kim Chee, Please!

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser

Wandering through Seoul Market’s seaweed section, which is just as expansive and visually overloading as the cereal aisle of any Wal-Mart, I’m overwhelmed. Seaweed comes in jars, plastic bags, foil bags, freeze-dried bags, individually wrapped snack packs and family sized jumbo bags.

Seaweed snack packs — notice how I stacked on upside down. Oops....

Seaweed snack packs — notice how I stacked on upside down. Oops….

Seaweed that looks like kelp looms large in a long baguette like bag, and then there’s red seaweed, green seaweed, roasted seaweed, rectangular seaweed and small square seaweed. Asian writing appears on every bag, and although I can’t read the characters, it’s clear from their differing shapes that they identify seaweeds from not only Korea, but probably from Japan and China, too.

Clearly I’m a complete amateur Asian market shopper even in the US. Maybe trying another aisle will be less intense. The noodle shelves are no different: udon, soba, somen, bean thread cellophane, rice, wheat, thick, curly, transparent. Really, what should I expect? Roaming through the noodle section of a standard American grocery store could be mind blowing for someone who is not familiar with Italian pasta.

© Travel Channel

© Travel Channel

I had been so confident before entering the Colorado Springs store. After all, I had seen Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” episode in Korea where he samples fermented kim chee from recently unearthed clay urns. I eat Asian food whenever I can, but I guess I’ve not seen it much in the pre-preparation phase.

“Mom, where’s the ice cream?” my son Eddie approaches me after having cased the somewhat cramped market out. He’s clearly not intimidated. Sensing my paralysis, he leaves and I hear him talk to the shop keeper behind the counter. I peek over and see the woman show him a refrigerated case. Ice cream, that’s definitely doable. I leave the noodle aisle.

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