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Letters from Mongolia: Getting there

Half the Fun.

Getting there that is. This implies that being there is the other half. Two halves make one. What about planning and getting ready? That's a lot of fun, too. So the end result is better than 100 percent.

I like that and my right brain looks for that kind of solution. If it were math, maybe it'd qualify to be called "an elegant solution." Well, maybe a little brother of one.

I'm planning to visit Mongolia; an exploratory visit I hope will lead to more. I'm curious about a thousand different things! I live in Dalian, in northeast China, so on the scale of things here it's not too far away. I have to go way west to be able to cross the border. Total trip budget is $500-$550. The ticket prices make air and the direct train from Beijing out of the question.

Mongolia packing list: most important, take compassion and love. I've already spent $100 on the most important part, gifts. Small gifts. People who have little appreciate more what they do have. Per person annual income average is $1,680, according to an article a year ago in Bloomberg News. Friendliness and hospitality are not rated economically; reported to be through the roof. I hope I can be worthy of these people. The capital city has some of the usual problems, and I'll be more careful there.

How did I set my budget? By guess and the experience of doing similar things for many years now. I set it before I knew any of the air or train prices, and on general principles: strong constraints often lead to far better solutions (witness the UNIX operating system for computers), and just throwing money at something offers no satisfaction and no challenge.

There's the scenic route as opposed to the direct route. For this trip it might be to enter Inner Mongolia (China) at the nearest point by train, which would be from Shenyang. It's a short hop to Tongliao, Inner Mongolia. From Tongliao, the train goes west; and I'd need to get off that train at Jining or Benhot to go to the Chinese border city, Erlian. Then it's cross the border and catch the train or other transport to Ulan-Bator.

It's July 31. OK, I just spent a good hour on researching the train schedules online. I have to schedule backward from Erlian. After I do that I'll check with a friend to see if those trains still run and if they're daily.

I used to garden many years ago and the seed catalogs would arrive in the mail shortly after Christmas. We'd spend many happy hours with them, debating this or that, planning and gradually putting together our seed orders. My garden was right against several others and I always tried to grow something that would be a surprise. One year it was Swiss chard, another sponge gourds. It was great fun.

"Woody, what in the world is that?"

"Just wait. By and by you'll see the result."

I treat travel planning the same way. The catalogs that involves are the stores of my mind and it happens mostly while I'm doing other things. A question or idea occurs to me and I make a mental note to check it out next chance I get, or sometimes I write something down. I have a list of things to pack and a spreadsheet of what things weigh. Neither is near complete yet.

How will I keep my feet healthy and happy? That one's easy because I can't find or buy good shoes or boots. I have become used to Crocs lately and that'll be my footwear. Socks? I have cotton or wool and think wool is the choice.

Gifts to take? That's been the hardest one for this trip. Usually I have some ideas as where I'm going is somewhat similar to things in my experience. This time I'm not so sure. I've joked that I need to go once just to find out how I need to go, what to take, etc., and I expect to find some truth in that.

So what am I planning to take for gifts? Well there are men, women and children. I'm planning small Swiss Army-type knives for the men, simple sewing awls and needles for the women, and U.S.-made pencils for the children. A few shuttlecocks just because we've had so much fun with them here.

Shuttlecock (not for badminton) - literally "ball with feathers" - is something my students educated me about. My university classes stretch over two hours and there's a break in the middle. I noticed small groups of students going out into corners of the hallways with one of these and getting a little exercise and having a lot of fun. I just had to try it. It's sort of like a Hacky Sack except that I never see people having fun with a Hacky Sack the way we have fun with a shuttlecock. So I'll take a few just in case.

My bag will be the one I came up with a couple of years ago when I found that, of a 10 kilogram (22 pound) airline carryon bag allowance my empty bag weighed more than six pounds. Commercially I found that a 3-pound bag was considered hot (and expensive) stuff.

I wanted better, set my sights much higher and my budget much lower. I wanted something two pounds or under that didn't cost much. I hoped for wheels. I came up with a compromise. Not pretty or elegant, no wheels, straps aren't comfortable like I wish.

It weighs under a pound, is almost an exact fit for the airlines' size requirements squishes well and has stood rough use. The cost is negligible. Pretty good, nothing spectacular. Maybe I can make the straps more comfortable and convenient for this trip.

The big national festivals are held in July. August is tourist season and maybe I won't go until September. Oh, one more decision: How many chocolate bars should I take?

Gannaway is on his way.

editor's note

From time to time, we will be printing missives from Woodson T. Gannaway, an American who came to China in 1999 to teach at the Liaoning Teacher's College in Dalian and has been in Dalian ever since, teaching at different schools with other informal classes along the way.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.