Japan: Cherry Blossoms

I’ve been fortunate during my recent journeys to tick a few travel-related items off my bucket list.

I have always wanted to visit Japan during the beginning of spring and travel the country south to north following the cherry blossoms. For the uninitiated, cherry trees have an extremely short flowering season. The blossoms last for around two weeks at most, or as little as a few days if wind and rain knock the flowers from the trees. Catching the trees in full bloom requires a combination of good timing and sheer luck.

Families gather along the Kyū-Yodo River to picnic under the cherry blossoms.
Families gather along the Kyū-Yodo River to picnic under the cherry blossoms.

Continue reading Japan: Cherry Blossoms

Mongolia: Bankhar Dog

During my time in Mongolia, I had the pleasure of meeting Doug Lally and Devin Byrne from The Nomadic Guardians Foundation. The Foundation’s purpose is to protect and restore the Bankhar, an ancient dog breed indigenous to Mongolia.

A cousin of the Tibetan Mastiff, the Bankhar has been used for centuries as a livestock guardian by Mongolia’s nomadic herders. However, during the country’s Soviet occupation, the Bankhar population dropped significantly and in many regions of the country the Bankhar lost its place in the nomads’ culture.

Mongolian Bankhar demands kisses!
Mongolian Bankhar demands kisses!

Continue reading Mongolia: Bankhar Dog

Mongolia: Air Pollution

As I mentioned in an earlier post—Mongolia: First Impressions—the smog in Ulaanbaatar (UB) was the first thing I noticed as my plane came in to land at Mongolia’s capital.

During Mongolia’s long and harsh winters, UB’s air quality plummets to become the second-polluted in the world. 60% of the pollution comes from households burning coal in small stoves. UB’s population of 1.4m—almost half of Mongolia’s total 3.0m population—has grown rapidly in recent years, driven by families migrating to the capital from rural areas. Most of these families live in gers, traditional nomadic felt tents. To keep warm during winter, they burn coal to stay warm, with the average family consuming 4.5 tonnes of coal during a single winter.

Continue reading Mongolia: Air Pollution

Mongolia: a weekend in Terelj (Part 3 of 3)

(Click here for Part 1 or here for Part 2)

I woke up early Sunday morning, too excited to sleep knowing we were going to play with an army of huskies. After a quick breakfast, we jumped in the car and drove down to the Tuul River. The Tuul is a long waterway, flowing over seven hundred kilometres through northern and central Mongolia, including through Ulaanbaatar along the southern edge of the city.

The river is frozen solid during winter, so we drove right out into the centre of the ice to meet the dog-sledding folk. We arrived to see the five sleds already laid out on the ice, with the dogs being taken one-by-one from the truck and hooked up to the sleds. The demeanour of the dogs ran the full gamut from irrepressible excitement to zero-fucks-given.

The dogs' enthusiasm ran from irrepresible excitement to zero-fucks-given
The dogs’ enthusiasm ran from irrepresible excitement to zero-fucks-given

Continue reading Mongolia: a weekend in Terelj (Part 3 of 3)

Mongolia: A weekend in Terelj (Part 2 of 3)

(Click here for Part 1)

After an hour or so R&R, we were ready to go hiking. Everyone in the group was well-prepared, except for me. Despite the perpetually-icy streets of Ulaanbaatar, I still hadn’t bought myself a pair of winter boots. At first, I was waiting to find the best place to buy them; but after a couple of weeks of surviving totally fine, I decided maybe I didn’t need boots. So for the entire weekend, I was wearing a flimsy pair of Diesel running shoes that were so old there was little-to-no grip left on the soles.

These are definitely NOT hiking boots
These are definitely NOT hiking boots

As it turned out, grip-less running shoes and slippery ice-covered Mongolian hiking trails do not mix. Who’d have thought? Continue reading Mongolia: A weekend in Terelj (Part 2 of 3)

Mongolia: A weekend in Terelj (Part 1 of 3)

I spent a weekend with friends visiting Gorkhi-Terelj National Park. This beautiful expanse of largely-untouched wilderness is located about 65 kilometres—or a 90 minute drive—East of central Ulaanbaatar. A lush green paradise in Summer, Terlelj is still a beautiful place to visit in the dead of Winter. With an overnight stay in a traditional ger, we had the opportunity to enjoy horse-riding, dog-sledding, hiking, plus we visited some local landmarks. Well worth the trip!

The weekend began with a lazy 930am start to meet Bold, our guide and driver. The trip out to Terelj was interesting. For the first hour we drove past mixed residential and industrial neighbourhoods, the density falling the further we drove. The smoke haze of UB continued all the way to these outer areas, albeit not as thick as the city centre. The mountains surrounding UB seem to hold in the pollution, preventing it from dissipating. It wasn’t until we crested a mountain that we finally escaped the smoke bowl. From then on, the trip was beautiful, with clear skies and pristine countryside all around. Continue reading Mongolia: A weekend in Terelj (Part 1 of 3)

Writing: My Hit List

(The word cloud used as the image for this post was generated from my sci-fi short story Dissolution, which you can read here.)

Every writer has a list of words or phrases they hate. This post contains my personal list of 63 phrases I avoid because I feel they weaken my writing. I am no expert, so don’t take this post as gospel. Nevertheless, this list has helped me, so I thought I would share it. I have compiled this list over the past few years based on personal preferences, plus feedback from editors, beta readers, and fellow writers. Note, I primarily use this list when writing and editing fiction.

To avoid repetition, I grouped similar phrases together in the table below. I then gave each phrase a rating:

  • Black: Total ban. I will rework the sentence to remove these phrases 100% of the time.
  • Red: Avoid whenever possible. I will do my best to remove these phrases, but if there is a good reason for them to stay, so be it.
  • Amber: Beware. I will check to see if my use of these phrases indicates a weak sentence.

I have included a comment beside each item explaining its inclusion on the list.

Enjoy! Let me know what you think in the comments. Continue reading Writing: My Hit List

Mongolia: Darkhan

Over the past weekend, I visited Darkhan, the second largest city in Mongolia. Darkhan is situated in northern Mongolia, about 230 kilometres north of Ulaanbaatar and less than 130 kilometres south of the Russian border. Despite being Mongolia’s second-largest city, Darkhan’s population of 76,000 is dwarfed by Ulaanbaatar’s 1,372,000, highlighting how Mongolia’s urbanisation has been concentrated in the fast-growing capital.

I visited Darkhan as part of my work with Kiva.org, the crowdfunding microfinance non-profit. Kiva partners with two local microfinance organisations—XacBank and Credit Mongol. Part of my job is to undertake an audit of a random sample of Borrowers each organisation has funded through Kiva, to ensure the partnership is operating within agreed parameters. Continue reading Mongolia: Darkhan

Writing: Dissolution, a short story

I wrote this science fiction story, titled “Dissolution”, last year. It was published in the multi-genre anthology Anything Goes: Volume 1. The anthology, which contains twenty-one stories including this one, is available to buy in print or ebook here. Dissolution is set in the same near(ish) future setting as a book I’m currently working on. Let me know what you think of the story in the comments.

 

Dr Ada Low thrust her hand across the desk, killing the power to her computer monitors, turning the screens black.

Mercifully black.

She slumped backwards into her chair. A heavy exhale, almost a groan, burst from her lips. Her fingers itched to rip the memory card from the computer and hurl it out the window.

“I could hurl myself out afterwards,” she laughed, a bit too loudly. She covered her mouth to silence herself. I must be in shock. Her reflection stared back at her from the darkened monitors; her face a sickly shade of grey, drops of sweat beading on her forehead.

Pulling open her bottom drawer, Ada rifled towards the back until her shaking fingers grasped the small packet she desperately needed. Ten minutes later she was on her third cigarette, the first three she had smoked in… is it five years since I quit?

The cigarettes tasted horrible, stale after years waiting at the bottom of her desk. But the smoke still coiled smoothly into her lungs. It was like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in years, yet the conversation flows like it was yesterday. The smoke tickled her bloodstream with nicotine, pumping the stimulant up into her brain. There, it made itself at home, triggering a familiar flood of neurotransmitters and hormones. A cosy chemical soup, telling Ada that everything would be okay.

Her nerves calmed, she reached back across her desk and flicked the power button.

The screens lit up, filling Ada’s vision with nightmares.  Continue reading Writing: Dissolution, a short story

Mongolia: First Impressions

This is the first of many blog posts chronicling my time in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. It is also my first ever blog post. Drop a comment below letting me know how I did and what topics you’d like to see in future.

 

It’s a terrible cliché—and an ancient Simpsons joke—to call a country “A Land of Contrasts”, or Extremes, or Superlatives. But there are no better phrases to describe Mongolia and its capital, Ulaanbaatar. By almost any  conceivable measure it is a far-from-average place. This theme of contrasts and extremes will flow through many of my future blog posts, but to avoid making this post too long, here are just my initial observations.

The “Land of Contrasts” notion hit me even before the plane touched down. Flying over the Gobi Desert, I found myself gobsmacked at the scale and emptiness of the countryside. Australia is often described as a wide, brown, empty land, but Mongolia has us beaten. With only 3.1 million people spread across a whopping 1.6 million square kilometres, Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country on Earth. But that sense of space evaporated as the plane approached the capital, Ulaanbaatar. In stark contrast (see, there’s that word) to the emptiness of the countryside, Ulaanbaatar is a sprawling metropolis, home to over 1.3 million people, or almost half the population of the entire country. Continue reading Mongolia: First Impressions