ULAAN BATAAR, MONGOLIA: You don't really learn about technology until you're removed from it to the point where you're at both extremes of the technological spectrum. Say, using plentiful Mongolian sunshine to charge your iPod.
During the course of a two-week scuba diving expedition to the landlocked Asian country's Lake Khosvgol, we learned about both ends of that spectrum. For the members of our team who work in Mongolia, satellite telephones and generators are part and parcel of their work. In all, we moved over a ton of equipment from places such as Hong Kong and Beijing to the lake shore and back, along with personal equipment from our participants' home countries, including Austria, the United States, and the UK.
Remote, large in area and small in population, Mongolia is a country of strange contrasts. It's a classic one-city country: Ulaan Bataar (formerly spelled Ulan Bator) accounts for roughly one-third of the nation's three million people. UB, as it's known locally, is an aesthetically displeasing city that gives Mongolians their only opportunities to experience both traffic and pollution. Outside of the capital, a pastoral lifestyle rules, with gers (traditional Mongolian tents) dotting the landscape and rolling green hills that would work as the set for "Dances with Wolves 2."
Despite its small population, the country sports five fixed-line and wireless telecom operators, and 19 television stations. Perfect photographs of gers are sometimes ruined by the residents' installation of a large satellite dish.
In this kind of situation, where one is limited to a few hours of electricity per day and the environment beats up everything but the best, brand loyalty takes on a new meaning. I only saw one brand of satellite phone while I was there, that offered by Iridium Satellite. Perhaps best remembered for the losses it made for Motorola when that company was its major backer, Iridium resumed service after acquisition by private investors.
Regardless of its financial underpinnings, the phones provided reliable service, although unlike mobile service, there are caveats to their use. They don't work so well while driving or on the ground floor of tall buildings, and there is a definite delay between the people conversing. That said, when we needed to connect, the service was reliable and call clarity consistent. It also cost about $8 per minute, but when your choice is that or smoke signals, it's worth the price. A new Mongolian operator, G Mobile, has begun offering service in the Khovsgol region, but we found the SIM cards hard to find and it required a hard ride over rough road into town to try to find one. We stuck with Iridium.
One late addition to my own kit proved invaluable: a solar iPod charger. I find familiar television shows do a good job of fending off homesickness, in this case, early episodes of "Law & Order" I bought from the iTunes Music Store. With DVD power consumption from a laptop making that impractical, viewing through my iPod became a power-efficient way for me to fall asleep while blocking out my ger-mate's snoring. The high-altitude sunshine and cloudless Mongolian skies led to a quick fill, usually completed in a morning or afternoon, which then gave the iPod a full charge in about three to four hours, with battery life indistinguishable from charges off my laptop.