Dreams etched in pages of ice, conversations captured in frozen crystals.

Like many others, I face my news feeds with a sense of foreboding and angst these days, so it is such a pleasure to read find a hidden gem of news such as the ice library of dreams on the shores of Lake Baikal.


This delighted me with a variety of whispers from many places in my own library of memories.

I remember, late July in 1999, dithering at the shore, dipping my toes into the clear, icy waters of Lake Baikal near the village of Listvyanka in Siberia. I was determined to get into the water. Legend has it that Baikal’s water has special powers and I was not going to miss the opportunity to take advantage of these. Just in case. It is believed that if you dip your hands into the lake, you will be rewarded with an extra year of life. The bonus for slipping your feet into the water is an extra 2 years. If you swim in the lake, you gain an irresistible additional 25 years of life. The challenge comes from the fact that Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the world, it is the deepest lake on the planet and it contains one fifth of all fresh water in the world.

In winter it freezes over completely and even in the height of summer when the air was hot enough to burn my skin, the water remains shockingly cold. My toes curled around the pebbles, the skin already turning red with the cold. Slowly, I ventured in, inch after inch. When it was just deep enough, I lowered myself into the water, splashing briefly, a bear like roar involuntarily escaping from deep inside my lungs before I decided that my immersion qualified for the 25 year bonus. As I stepped back to the shore, dripping and shivering, I locked eyes with a puzzled brown cow before it veered away from the shore and the strange, drenched human.

The ice library on Lake Baikal speaks with a voice which is unusual in its simplicity and complexity. The library is carved from blocks of ice, designed to resemble open books. On each page, there is a wish or dream, sent from people all over the world. Some dreams are personal, some further reaching. All are etched into the ice, preserved until the warmer spring air comes. Then the dreams will slowly melt into the deep waters of the lake. An exquisitely modest concept, yet so powerful.

This is chiming with another page from my personal memory book. I remember arriving in Mongolia in November 2005. It was a warm autumn seemingly, at a gentle -20°C. Yes, that reads minus. I would need to prepare for winter which was approaching rapidly. I knew that the temperatures would settle around -35C in the afternoon sun, and sink to -45C at night. Knowing this is one thing, but these temperatures are unimaginable if you have never experienced them. They are also dangerously cold as described in an earlier post about the Mongolian cold and snow.

The air is so cold and arid that your breath freezes instantly in a cloud around you when you speak.

a winter ride

a winter ride 2

a winter ride4

The Mongolians say that the words you utter are captured in tiny ice crystals, and preserved in the air until the warmer air comes and they thaw. This was such a beautiful image, that it inspired the first poem which I have ever had published. This was called “December Conversations” and appeared in the summer edition of Ulaanbaatar City Guide of 2006, and I share an extract here.



December Conversations

So cold the river is fully frozen,

unable to thaw for many months

not until the summer sun

is strong enough to permeate each icy layer.

So cold my eyelashes trap

tiny invisible particles

fusing, bonding lash to lash

a mesh barrier filtering my vision.

So cold that every breath and word

tumbles in clouds out of our mouths

instantly freezing in formations of frosted

whispers, words and conversations.

Our every word is preserved

suspended in the air

in frozen animation

through all the winter months.

A mother soothes her crying child

her loving words softly resting

in the air between her lips

and her son’s smarting bright red cheeks.

The two young lovers hugging as they walk

whisper messages of eternal love and endless devotion ……..

All throughout the winter months

the city air is crammed and filled

with captured, suspended conversations

secrets, disagreements and private messages…

The city smiles knowingly

as it releases its melted secrets

into the streets



In Africa the skies are not cold, there is no ice or frost on the grass. Yet the thought of a library of ice, and of words preserved in frozen crystals have embedded firmly in my spirit for the day. I have sent my own dream in the hope that it might be etched on the walls of the ice library, and eventually join the waters of Lake Baikal.

Our words are powerful and precious, let us use them with care, consideration and tenderness.

springtime thaw

A Cosmic Coincidence

The cosmic events of the past day have reminded me of visiting the Natural History Museum in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia when I travelled through in 1999.  I remember being astounded by one of the exhibits. There in the midst of one of the rooms was a chunky great shiny black stone, around the size of a beer barrel just sitting on the floor.  It was a meteorite.  A real meteorite from outer space.  We could touch it, and prod it and it certainly looked “other worldly” with its smoothish, dimpled surface.  The fact that this piece of extra-terrestrial treasure was not secured behind bars or a glass cabinet has been noted in a number of guide books and blogs, and it is actually not so surprising that it is not locked away.  Have you any idea how heavy a meteorite is?  There was no way this lump of rock could be moved let alone lifted or spirited away.  It is surprising that the floor did not sag underneath it.


I tried to find a picture of this meteorite to share here and came across an even more fascinating discovery.  Most of the photographs of meteorites which came up in my image search, came up on E-bay!  Seriously?! You can browse for meteorites, dump a few in your shopping cart (as if it could bear the weight) and then arrange to have it shipped to you.  Or perhaps just launched across the stratosphere!  The meteorite in this advert was much smaller than the one I had seen in Mongolia, at around 16″ but it weighs nearly 50kg!  No wonder the one I saw just sat undisturbed!

The other cosmic event, which has taken the world’s attention is of course the fact that an asteroid, cited as being the size of an Olympic swimming pool, narrowly missed colliding with Earth.  Apparently it passed closer to the Earth’s surface than the satellites cruising around up there, seeming to dodge around them


With climate change discussions and natural disasters we already feel vulnerable and insignificant as humans.  But somehow we feel that little bit more equipped to deal with many types of disasters.  However, I think that stuff falling out of the sky from outer space is far more scary.  A collision with the asteroid which has just trundled past us waving at the astronomers watching and holding their breath, would probably (according to the news report I heard) obliterate around 750 square miles.  How tiny and insignificant do we feel in that type of event?

The meteorite fall in Russia was a major cosmic event, instantly shooting to the top of the news reports globally.  For there to be another significant astronomic happening within a few hours is astonishing and really makes us stop and think of our insignificance in the global and intergalactic scheme of things.  Albeit somewhat incompatible with our elevated opinion of ourselves as a species.   So how convincing is it to hear that two such momentous occurrences are a “cosmic coincidence?”  A coincidence?  Really?

Earlier in the week, before these cosmic surprises, I was working with a number of specialist colleagues who came here to contribute to our programme planning.  I have met most of the visitors before, including one woman who I had been introduced to briefly in our regional office.  So in the course of our work together this week, I realised that she had a gentle Scottish accent.  A little like mine, in that it seemed to have been rubbed smooth at the edges as a result of living overseas for a number of years.  This tends to happen a lot to Scottish accents  overseas.  We have to soften them somewhat so that we can be understood.  Otherwise life can become lonely as people get a bit tired of asking us to repeat what we have said more than three times and drift away.  This week, as fellow Scots, it did not take long for one of us to ask where in Scotland the other came from. My colleague told me the name of the village she came from,  her face conveying the expectation that I would not have heard of it.   To my surprise, and to hers, it was a village very close to the village I grew up in, less than 20 kilometres away.  And being a rural area, all children from a wide catchment area around would go to the same secondary school.  Which of course was the next question.  With the confirmation that we did go to the same school, the next question was “when?”  Incredibly we were at that same small rural school at the same time (two years between us).  After the day’s work we were able to reminisce and catch up on the far too many intervening years. Who on earth would have thought that forty odd years after travelling on the same school bus and sitting in the same classrooms, we would meet up on the other side of the planet, here in Myanmar?


And in my view, that  truly was an astonishingly cosmic coincidence!

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow………

One of the things I missed most when I moved from Scotland to Asia, was snow.  I really missed it. When I was buried in the newness of breast cancer life, and burying myself in bloggery as a way of keeping a focus on moving forward and playing around with settings, I vaguely remember finding some function or gimmick which offered a special “snowing” feature for the month of December.  This gifts me the illusion of snowflakes falling on the blog page throughout the whole month of December.  How sweet.  Or how annoying.  And how northern-hemisphere-centric! Ever since then I am reminded of my rash “click here for December snow” action as it returns every year without fail and people ask me what is wrong with my screen!  I think I believed that this might be a nice way of remembering snow.  Now that I am in Myanmar, snow is even more distant with our hotter climate, usually dry winters and lush tropical vegetation.  Not a snowflake in sight, and no prospects of snow sighting.  So perhaps I felt that this would be a good way of maintaining my relationship with snow!

After leaving Scotland, and moving to Nepal I was particularly surprised at just how much I missed snow.  Of course, parts of Nepal do see snow, those famous Himalayas for example, but snow rarely fell in  the Kathmandu valley and certainly not while I was there.  One year there was a dusting of snow on the hills around the valley, and there was great excitement, cars driving up to the hills and then slithering around the roads as the drivers were not used to these conditions.  From the winter of 2000 right until after I left Nepal at the end of 2005 I only saw snow from a distance, picture postcard-like views of the Himal and their snow capped peaks.


Beautiful, snowy snow.  But too far away to seem real.  No crunch of snow underfoot, no hypnotically mesmerising kaleidoscope of snow falling in front of my eyes, no smell of snow as it headed towards us, no sepia sky brimming with snowflakes, no trees with branches laden with heavy snow coverings.  No snow to touch or kick up as I walked. And I really missed it.

I missed it to the extent that I used to dream of snow.  Sweet nostalgia dreams, from which I would wake in a warm fuzzy mood, bathed in childhood like sentiment.  One dream has stayed with me very clearly.  I was standing at the edge of a field, covered in snow.  The snow was untouched, and I ran into the field revelling in the sensation of snow underfoot, and ridiculously excited at the fun I  was having.  I was aware, in my dream, of people watching me, with critical eyes as I stirred up the snow.  Clearly I was breaking some “don’t run in the field and  spoil the snow” rule. I remember clearly justifying my actions, and explaining that I had not seen snow for many years, and feeling a level of frustration that I was not understood.

It was to be the end of 2005 before I would experience snow again…………..

on horseback

Nepal has cold winters, and of course Scotland is not short of cold weather, but our transfer to Mongolia brought a new league of cold.  We arrived in mid November when temperatures were around -20C.  Phenomenally cold. Colder than I had ever experienced, although some very severe winters in Scotland had seen minus 10 – 15C.  However, the paralysing -20C was consistently labelled “pleasant autumn weather”.  A real signal of what we knew was ahead.

The temperatures drop rapidly as the short summer turns to winter, and for months sit well under freezing point. In December and January daytime temperatures would rise to around a balmy minus 35C with night time temperatures dropping to the high minus 40s.

in the afternoon sun -37C

Way beyond the experience of so many of us.  Read hard core cold.The rivers start to freeze over in October and by November you can safely walk across them. By December they are the winter roads.  By April, they are thawing again, a slow process melting layers of ice which can be metres thick, the sound of the ice cracking and creaking for weeks as slowly, gradually it melts.


springtime thaw

My walk to work was less than ten minutes, but in the early days in Mongolia, I found I would be running late every day because I drastically underestimated how long it would take to get dressed with all the needed layers.  My feet started hurting, and blisters appeared on my heels because I was not used to wearing closed shoes.  And even in the short walk to work, I discovered previously unknown fine hairs on my face thanks to them freezing rapidly when I stepped into the cold air.  Even though I was covered head to toe with only my eyes and upper face exposed.

We did not have to wait long for snow!  However, I soon realised that Mongolian snow is very different to Scottish snow. The climate is incredibly arid in Mongolia, and the cold accompanied by blue skies. Therefore, the Mongolian snow is powdery and fine, and tends to be a thin dusting more often than deep drifts. It is very difficult to make snowballs from dry, powdery snow, and this made me realise just how wet and slushy our Scottish snow tends to be!  But I could still smell it approaching, that unmistakeable scent of damp and cold all rolled into that unique snow smell.

We lived in Mongolia for just over a year, which meant we in effect experienced two winters.  The last snow of the outgoing winter fell in June on Ulaan Baatar, a light dusting and a respite until the first snow of the new winter which fell the last week of August. After five years of now snow, I truly caught up with my snow deficit. The pictures on this post are a tiny selection of images and memories of Mongolian winter.  I bought my first digital camera just before we left Nepal, and took around 4000 photos in Mongolia!  (The only photograph which is not my own is the first picture (above) of the Nepali Himalaya.)

Mongolia is rightly known as a land of horsemen and herders.


And children learn to ride almost as soon as they can walk.

a winter ride

a winter ride3a winter ride 5

a winter ride 2

a winter ride4

The herders live in tough conditions, in mobile homes (gers) which move according to the season for the right grazing and shelter conditions for the animals.


missing something interesting

favourite lamb

fetching water

traditional functional herder attire

Life in the countryside revolves around the livestock which includes camels, yak and goats as well as horses.

out for a wander

bactrian camel

As I sit here in the the only weeks of year which are vaguely cool in Yangon, surrounded by lush vegatation and unable to recall what that deep cold really feels like, it is nice to wallow a little in the memories of such a different place, with its wonderful snowy associations.

a winter ride3

And appreciate again the truly amazing experiences I have been fortunate to have.  And that is something that cancer can never steal from me.

My first proper haircut since the Dr Evil days

The last time I had my hair cut, was in preparation to losing my locks after chemo 1, and a quick buzz with a razor in Scotland to even up the fluff which was sticking out above my ears.  I have been resisting getting my haircut, partly because it has taken so long to re-grow (it is six months since the last chemo) and partly because I want to see how these crazy curls turn out.  But over the past couple of weeks, I have been sprouting wings above my ears.  My hair is getting longer and the curls make my hair stick out untidily, bringing an unwelcome toilet brush look.  Added to that, the main colour which seems to be coming back now is darker brown.  So I decided to get a bit of a trim to get rid of the wings and the frosted silver topping.

I realise that the last time I had a proper haircut was over a year ago, and was actually quite an experience.  So much so, that in my previous life, I wrote about it on my earlier blog. This is my account of the experience then, last August.

31 August 2009

I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. After a couple of months here and a lot of putting off, I finally decided that I had to do something about my hair. Not difficult, you would think.


The first challenge came on Wednesday morning, sitting having breakfast, when I learned (the hard way) that it is not auspicious to wash your hair on a Wednesday here. Apparently I was setting myself up to get the burdens of the world on my shoulders. Definitely something to be avoided – but a bit too late, as I sat with my hair dripping!


I had a recollection from living in Mongolia that haircutting was inauspicious on either a Monday or Tuesday, so I began research on haircutting and washing issues here.


It is even more complicated. Certain days are good, bad or neutral for hair washing and a different set of days is auspicious or not for hair cutting.  So in order to identify when I could have a shampoo and cut, I had to develop a complicated matrix to guide my choice of day.


On Saturday I was finalising my research with the intent of getting my hair cut at long last. In summary, Wednesday is not good for hair washing, and Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday are good. Fine so far. For cutting – Monday and Friday are the bad days. So I confirmed with my source that Saturday is good so that I could go ahead with the cut? It was confirmed. Saturday is good. The days to be avoided are Monday and Friday – oh – and the day you are born. You’ve guessed it – I was born on a Saturday, so the day’s plan suddenly disintegrated. Even phoning for an appointment was sabotaged as a recorded message informed me that the selected hairdressing salon had not paid their phone bill and the phone was disconnected.


On Sunday I therefore embarked on phase 2 of Project Haircut. This involved a pleasant walk to the Hairdresser’s, making an appointment for a shampoo and cut for myself and a friend, and returning later.


Arriving later for the appointment, there were more surprises to come. For the shampooing, I was a bit alarmed to be led into a room with a couch (like a doctor’s examination room) where my friend was already tucked up – and lying having her hair washed! It felt, surreal, bizarre and slightly discomforting.

I was not prepared for the most amazing shampoo of my life. For the next hour I experienced an incredible hair wash and shampoo, which included head, neck and upper back massage – totally unexpected and completely relaxing.


I am never, ever going to put off getting my hair cut again. In fact, I am consulting my diary right now to see when it will be the next auspicious date for a hair wash!


The irony of the last sentence hit me full force when I re-read it today.  How on earth was I to know that it would be my last haircut for a very long time?  How could I possibly have known that my next actual cut would be to crop my hair ready for the shave?  How much I had taken for my hair for granted.

Last weekend, I fortunately remembered that a Saturday haircut was out of the question, since I am “Saturday-born”.  However, I am sure it is not inauspicious to book a haircut on a Saturday, so that is what I did.  I made an appointment with the same Salon where I had had the delicious shampooing experience over a year ago and basked in the anticipation of my first salon shampoo in such a long while.

On Sunday I was actually slightly nervous when I arrived at the Salon.  I was concerned that Twang Arm could get too much attention, and it is difficult to explain that gentle massage in certain areas of my shoulder and back is fine but other areas near the surgery and lymphatic area should be avoided.  But the overriding sense was one of eager anticipation.

I was not disappointed, and was led into the same dimly lit room with the same three couches with a sink at the head.  I settled down and let the hairdresser start the massage, after showing her the areas not to touch.

Again the shampoo massage lasted for around 45 minutes, which is quite impressive when you consider how little hair there is to shampoo!.  It included gentle upper back and shoulder massage and even a quick massage of my feet and legs (since I had asked for my arms not to be touched). I realised at one point that the water temperature seemed to be perfect, neither too hot nor cold.  I have so many recollections of shampooing experiences where I have leapt off the seat when scalded with water that is too hot, or trying to suppress an animal like roar when freezing cold water has hit my scalp, while being asked “is the temperature ok, madam?”.  Perhaps it is one of the benefits of living in a climate which is temperate and tropical and when we rarely need to use a heater for the water but it certainly adds to the comfort of the shampoo massage.

The other thing which I particularly like about the Myanmar style massage is that, for me, it is the right mix between firm and gentle.  Thai massages are definitely invigorating but often make me squeal and leave me bruised.  Gentle massage is definitely relaxing and pleasant, but the firmer massage does give the impression that it has been more beneficial.

So after the massage, I had to somehow stir myself from the blissed state I was in, and make my way back to the styling room.  The hairdresser may have been surprised that I was having a cut, since my hair was so short, but she did nothing to express that surprise, for which I was thankful.


There was a bit of confusion about the cut I wanted, but that is not surprising given my odd instructions.  “Clip my wings, take away the silvery topping but leave it as long as you can”!!

The result was fine, even though I realised I had been secretly hoping that it would bring a transformation to my pre- Dr Evil days.  My hair looked darker without the silvery bits, although still a bit too grey for my liking.  It was much tidier and looks almost like a hairstyle, rather than re-growth after baldness.  Or perhaps that is wishful thinking.

I have decided that I will delay on attempting to colour it at all.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, it is still extremely short and if coloured would quickly develop two tones as the new hair (hopefully) continues to grow and lengthen.  The second reason is a bit more sobering.  My Big Check is next month and the fear of discovering that some nasty cells or worse have survived or developed despite all the treatment is at the forefront of my mind.  Being blunt, there is no point in colouring my hair if I had to have chemo again and lose it all over again.  And it would be a waste of money (the shrewd Scottish perspective). If, however, the Big Check goes well and I am released back into real life until the following check, then I reckon that will be a very good time to hide the grey bits.

Now that was a very long story for a very short hair cut, and a reminder of how the most mundane things that we have taken for granted take on a very different meaning!