Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.

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Transfer to Erdenet – Complete!

August 31, 2012

Well, I have now moved into my new apartment and met with my new coworkers, and to be honest, I’m more than a little dismayed. The apartment is in fairly dismal condition: the stairwell is dark and dingy and smells of excrement; the outer doorknob is broken, though still usable; the window frames have been so sloppily painted that the windows no longer close; the kitchen is small, awkward, and at present, equipped only with a hot plate, a rice cooker, and an ancient refrigerator. Its only advantage over our dorm in Zaisan is the availability of hot water; we don’t even have Internet, though I’ve been promised that will be remedied on Monday.

The weather is rainy today, as it has been more often than not in the three weeks we’ve been here – land of the blue skies, my foot – and since I can’t completely close the windows and have no control over the heat, the apartment is cold and damp. I’m told this won’t be an issue in the winter, however, as they will turn on the heat on September 15, at which point the apartment will be very hot for the rest of the winter. I’m not sure that’s an improvement.

I’d take a hot shower to warm my spirits, but the sink and shower are connected, and I’m not sure how to divert the flow from one spigot to the other. I’ll have to ask my roommate later this evening.

Yes, you read that correctly – unbeknownst to me or even the Embassy, I have a Mongolian roommate. My school evidently decided that it would be safer and easier for me to live with another teacher from the school. I agree with them, but I do wish they’d seen fit to let us know in advance, or to equip the apartment with another bed and wardrobe. We’ll each have our own bedrooms once hers actually has a bed; at present, she’s sleeping on the floor in the TV room.

Lack of preparations aside, I like what I know of her so far. Her name is Намүүнаа (Namuna in Roman script); she’s twenty-six and has taught communications at this school for three years. She speaks marginally more English than I do Mongolian, which is to say that most of our communication at the moment consists of pointing and gesturing. But once I have more of the basics down, I’m hoping that I will learn Mongolian much faster because of her.

We have an easier time communicating when my co-teacher is around, but not by much; her English is so limited that I wonder how she can possibly have earned a degree in English teaching. I have no idea what teaching with her will be like, or what she plans on teaching the students, but I guess I’ll learn more about that later today; she’s preparing her lesson plans now, and we’re to go over them this afternoon.

At least the teachers have all been very welcoming. I’ve caught very few of their names, so I hope they will be patient with me as I try to learn them. No one here can say my name either, so after fighting to go by my full name my entire life, I have suddenly and inadvertently acquired a nickname: Катя. I’ve never been “Kate” or “Katie” to anyone except the relatives who decided on those terms of address long before I was old enough to protest, and certainly not to myself – so “Katya” it was.

That’s about all I’ve got for now. Maybe I’ll have a brighter outlook once I’ve had some soup and started on my next project: Post-It Note-ing the house with the names of all the furnishings in English and Mongolian. No time like the present to start breaking down that communication barrier.

A much happier account of the wonderful time we spent in the countryside will be forthcoming once I’ve had a chance to type and post it.

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August 20

The past two or three days were the best we’ve spent so far, even if parts of them were cold, wet, or uncomfortable. We visited a tourist camp called Буянт (“Boyant,” more or less), and it was absolutely marvelous. I know we’ll be heading to the countryside again next weekend, and I hope it’s as much fun as this was.

Five of us – everyone but the two Lisas – went out for the first time on Friday. We met one of our coordinators at a place called the Grand Khan Irish Pub. The only “Irish” thing about it was that it served Jameson, Guinness, and Murphy’s – but in cans, which no self-respecting Irishman would ever drink. We had a good time regardless, especially when the band started playing “Sweet Home Alabama.” It seems we came halfway around the world just to hear the same music.

After our first round of drinks, we left for another bar Chimgee knew of. On our way, we managed to pick up a drunken Kazakh name Eric. He introduced himself to all of us in English and then followed us into the second pub. This one had already closed, though it wasn’t yet 11 pm, so we moved on to a third placed called the Golden Lounge. I hadn’t expected to go clubbing, and none of us were really dressed for it, but when we found ourselves at a club, everyone went with the flow.

Inside, the place looked like a cross between a laser light show and the set of Rent. We sat around a table on the upper deck and ordered what, split evenly, was the cheapest thing on the menu: a bottle of vodka. I’m not usually one for shots, and straight vodka’s not exactly my thing, but even the cheap Mongolian vodka is better than a lot of expensive American stuff, so it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. I did skip a couple of rounds, mindful of my last experience with vodka; I didn’t mind being the least intoxicated of our party.

Chimgee, Lauren, and I left the boys to dance at one point, while they polished off the remaining 30% of the bottle. Mongolian club dancing is very different from American. There’s no grinding – the men and women touch at the hands, if at all. There were a lot more men than women on the dance floor, most of whom bopped around in a style distinctly reminiscent of awkward bar/bat mitzvah attendees. One by one, the boys filtered down to join us, though we each took a turn guarding the table with all our stuff.

It might to have been what I expected of the evening, but it was a lot of fun There were no incidents with handsy or pushy Mongolian men, though Lucas was convinced there was trouble brewing between him and the guy who wanted our table by the time we left at 12:30 or so. The music was largely remixed pop, much of it American, and it wasn’t so loud that left feeling deafened, as is often the case at American clubs. Aside from the grumpy taxi driver who overcharged us on the way home, it was a great night.

I was up at eight the next morning to pack for our overnight trip to the countryside. Evidently, I was one of the first to rise – at least two of our party slept through their alarms and were rudely awakened at 9:30, when we were getting ready to leave. I’m glad I paced myself the night before, as I was the only one of the five who went out who wasn’t hung over in the morning. Lucas and Eli in particular were pretty miserable during our long train ride.

The train itself wasn’t much fun. We split up to fill whatever spaces we could find, which often meant cramming uncomfortably close together. I had a window frame digging into my back for most of the ride, and the car grew uncomfortably warm. Best of all, the train broke dwon for two hours with a third of the journey left to go. We were all starving by the time we arrived around 3, and very glad to disembark.

The view from the train windows, though, was incredible – shining rivers that wound between green mountains, rolling plains dotted with clumps of white gers, dust roads lined with brightly-painted buildings. I could bare contain my delight as we neared our destination, my window showing me a herd of small, stocky horses wandering along the riverside.

“This is paradise,” I breathed as I stepped down onto the platform, and I heard several of the others voice the same opinion. We were in a little valley, surrounded by green mountains and blue sky. These mountains might not measure up to those of my childhood, but they were majestic nonetheless.

So, naturally, the first thing we did after dumping our stuff and scarfing down lunch (soup and гуляш, or gouliash) was to climb one. We didn’t even stop to grab water bottles or grab walking sticks – we ambled towards the nearest mountain, and before we knew it, we were on our way up. The ascent probably took us an hour and a half, but we were in not real hurry. We stopped often to marvel at wildflowers and mountain views, or to comment on the agility of the cows, horses, and sheep that had clearly preceded us. Eli and Lucas reached the top first, followed by Joe, then me, and then Lauren. I had caught by breath and was getting goosebumps from the cool breeze by the time our teacher Bold reached the top with Bayasmaa’s 15-year-old niece, Undra. Bayasmaa herself appeared shortly after that, holding her three-year-old grandson by the hand. We’d taken lots of pictures by this point, and I had found a walking stick for the descent. It was almost six o’clock at this point, and we were supposed to be at dinner at seven, so after taking a few group pictures, we headed back down.

Dinner was hearty – four хуушуур (hoshoor) is a lot – and lunch had been only four hours previous. But the hike had given us an appetite, and nearly everyone finished the flat, fried dumplings full of meat, onion, and cabbage.

We were in for a special treat after dinner: one of the staff members asked if we’d like to see her milk the cows. We agreed enthusiastically, and with a little persuading, we even got her to let us give the milking a try. I did reasonably well, I think, though I could certainly do better with more practice. The cow she let us milk was called ‘small one;’ besides being small, she was the gentlest and the least likely to fuss and upset the milk. This was an important factor, as the bucket was nearly full by the time we got to try. It was warmer than I’d expected, verging on hot, and capped with a thick layer of frothy cream.

That pail of milk appeared on our breakfast table the next morning, in the form of homemade тараг – yogurt. This was thick and sweetened, and I disliked it less than the other Mongolian dairy products I’ve tried, but even so, I could only manage a few spoonfuls before it started to make me queasy. Everyone else found it delicious, and I’m beginning to fear there is no hope for me where Mongolian dairy is concerned. Everything has a strong, gamy aftertaste that I just can’t stomach. And if I can’t manage freshly-made yogurt, I don’t think there’s anything I can. I can’t abide сүүтэй цай, for instance, even though everyone in Mongolia seems to enjoy this salty, buttery milk tea. You’d think a tea-lover would be in paradise in Asia, but Mongolia seems to be the exception to the rule.

On the other hand, Mongolia has a lot in common with other Asian countries (particularly India, from what Corry tells me) where the toilet situation is concerned. I learned the hard way at this tourist camp that it’s always a good idea to carry toilet paper with you. I’m pretty used to latrines, but at least they usually have seats and toilet paper. The outhouse at Буянт was more of a Turkish toilet, which is to say, a building with a hole in the floor. And no TP. City buildings usually have more standard toilets, but even they are not always equipped with toilet paper. Note duly taken; I shall be better prepared for our three-day journey to the countryside this weekend.

We were also disapointed by the lack of showers. It’s not something I would have expected had I known more about where we were going, but we had been told they would available and were rather counting on that fact. Our dorm has been without hot water for almost two weeks now, so a hot shower would have been a lovely departure from the cold shower/warm basin bath combination I’ve resorted to.

At least the train ride back was nice. We were cold and wet by the time it arrived, and my toes were going numb; it had been raining for a solid twelve hours at that point, and the temperature was probably down to the high forties. But the setup was much nicer once we were onboard. Lisa B., Lucas, Eli, and I had our own compartment – a vast improvement over the cramped quarters on the previous ride. We curled up under the blankets they provided, ordered Russian-style instant coffee (which is more sugar than coffee), told embarrassing stories, and played with Bayasmaa’s grandson, who kept popping in and out. The landscape appeared a little more drab than before, overshadowed by the dreary sky, but we enjoyed our journey and the view nonetheless. We all wished we’d been so comfortable for the longer ride out, but it was a great way to end the weekend nonetheless.

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Updates coming soon

I had intended to post about our visit to the countryside last weekend tonight, and maybe even put up some pictures, but those plans were forestalled. I will do my best to find some Internet time tomorrow afternoon to post the lovely long entry I’ve written on that trip.

This blogging business is complicated when you have to jump through hoops to get online. But I’ll brave those hoops soon, I promise!

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Zaisan (or зайсан, if you prefer)

August 15, 2012

We’ve started our Mongolian language lessons, and let me tell you, it’s overwhelming. The Cyrillic alphabet has a lot of the same letters as the Latin alphabet, but they don’t all make the same sounds. My name, for instance, is spelled Кэтлин, “taxi” is такси, and “restaurant” is рэcторант (that’s a transliteration; an actual translation would lack the final ‘t’). I need to drill the numbers tonight, too, because we learned 1-20, the tens, 100, 1000, and 1,000,000, and we’re expected to know them. I can consistently remember 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10. Oh boy. So tonight will be fun, but not the kind that makes for interesting blogging.

It occurs to me that I have not yet described my (somewhat disastrous) exploration of Zaisan. Nothing spectacularly exciting has happened in the last few days, so I might as well chronicle that adventure.

Our dorm is in the Zaisan area, which is named after a Soviet monument on a hill; it’s about a ten-minute walk from my dorm. I wandered over there one morning figuring it would be maybe a forty minute undertaking. Walk over, walk up, take some pictures, walk down. Simple, right?

I got a few pictures, but not nearly as many as I had hoped, as my camera informed me almost immediately that it was running out of battery. Whoops. I can’t even post them at the moment, as I completely forget to bring my camera cord with me, so I’ll upload them next time I’ve got internet access.

Anyway, I made it to the top without incident. It was pretty cool, and very definitely Soviet. And then, rather than go back down the stairs like a normal person, I decided to take the trail that led down the back way.

My descent went just fine. The trail was a little slick, but I’ve done much worse in Ireland. I was confident I’d make it back within my allotted forty-five minutes. Then, as I examined the roads to figure out how to get back to the dorm, I realized that the bottom of the mountain was essentially walled in. Moreover, almost everything at the base was under construction. I’m fine with hopping the occasional fence or wall, but not if it means wandering through a construction site.

So I followed the trail around to the left, thinking that I would eventually find a way out. Surely the entire base couldn’t be fenced in, right?

And then the trail ended.

This didn’t seem so bad at first. The growth wasn’t that thick, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to walk through. And there was a shrine, of sorts, not too far away. I had walked by one already, a large pile of shale, the good-luck blue scarves that all the taxi drivers have above their mirrors, and Tibetan prayer flags wrapped around sticks. I still don’t know what their significance is, but clearly, they’re established features and not just piles of trash. It would take a few trips to make one, so one would think there’d be a trail nearby.

En route, I made a fun discovery.

This is a stinging nettle. They grow in Mongolia. In fact, they grow all over Zaisan. I tried to avoid them after brushing up against a few, but this was not an easy task. Better yet, those almost-invisible spines are hardy enough to sting you right through your clothing, leaving raised white welts surrounded by red, enflamed flesh. That not-very-thick growth suddenly became a lot more intimidating.

But I’d come this far already, and surely there’d be a path at the shrine. So I ploughed onward, avoiding the nettles when I could, stepping on them when I couldn’t (at least it kept the flowers, the most painful part, away), and trying to protect myself with my coat when I could.

And then I found myself on a scree.

I hate screes; they are, without a doubt, my least favorite terrain to traverse. At their best, they’re frightening: your feet slide out from under you every few steps, and you worry about falling down the mountain altogether. On top of these typical worries, this one was littered with broken glass and dotted with more nettle-like plants. And it was wet. Great.

I picked my way gingerly across the slope. I managed to avoid falling, though fighting my way through more nettles was inevitable. Eventually, I made it to the shrine – only to find that there was no path.

What now? I was less than halfway around the mountain, and the nettles got thicker ahead of me. I couldn’t fight through them all the way to the steps, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back the way I had come. I wasn’t far from the base, but I was still walled in, and the lot that wasn’t under construction contained a clearly-occupied ger. I wasn’t about to hop into someone’s back yard when the smoke was rising from the chimney hole – most nomads have guard dogs.

But I could see the monument at the top from where I stood, and while it was further away than the base, it wasn’t that far. I’d have to scramble, and maybe even climb, but it was more rocky than nettle-y, and of the two options, I’d take the rocks. So I started upwards, mentally preparing myself for a slippery climb.

Thankfully, I came upon a trail before the mountainside really got steep. There was still broken glass and nettle flowers to dodge, but a trail! Hallelujah. It brought me back to that deceptively simple one I’d first followed down the mountainside, and this time, I did the sane thing: I climbed back up, looked around, and took the steps back down.

The whole venture took close to two hours, but I made it off that dratted mountain without sustaining serious injury.

And the welts were gone by the time I made it back to the dorm.

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Now that we’ve got the food poisoning out of the way…

August 12, 2012

The others had breakfast at an Internet café this morning, so they could talk to their parents and their friends, but my digestive system decided to throw a hissy fit, so this post will have to be delayed. The first good weather since we arrived, and I’m spending the day in bed. At least my room has its own bathroom, so I don’t have far to go.

I whined when mom made me take my Align during the days leading up to this trip, but I have to concede it was a good idea. I’ve never had problems in Europe, but it appears that Asia is another matter. “Where the **** are you?” my stomach wants to know, “and what the **** have you been eating?”

The same things as everyone else, actually, so I don’t know why I’m sick and they’re not. But whatever it is, it’s miserable, and I’ve spent a good part of the day profoundly wishing IVs were a do-it-yourself kind of thing so I could get enough fluids in my system to make the headache and the dizziness go away. Drinking my water is, unfortunately, rather counterproductive.

I’m very glad to have other Fulbrighters here with me. Lisa agreed to buy me some applesauce, in hopes that I’ll be able to keep it down by tonight, and Lucas offered me some of his antibiotics. And I’ve had a fun time with all of them so far, even before I got sick. Seven of us is too few for the group to really get cliquey, and mealtime adventures and the like have all been open invitations.

UB is an interesting and varied city, from what I’ve seen so far. Its center is pretty well-developed, with an impressive parliamentary building, a number of tall office buildings, and reasonably good streets. The edges, however have a distinctly third-world appearance to them. Everything is either ramshackle, with rusted edges and peeling paint, or under construction – there’s construction everywhere. A five-minute walk takes you past stray dogs, people burning old clothes, and even the occasional ger.

Walking itself is an adventure, as sidewalks are all but nonexistent, and the traffic is terrifying. People weave in and out of lanes indiscriminately, blaring their horns at anyone they judge to be moving too slowly. Turn signal usage appears optional, but then again, it seems nothing has been standardized in this city: the grocery store labels are a mix of Mongolian, Russian, Chinese, German, and even French; it’s anyone’s guess which side the steering wheel of any given car will be on; the appliances in my room include a Korean TV, a Chinese refrigerator, and a British tea kettle (each with its respective kind of plug, of course). Thank heavens for universal power strips.

And the roads – imagine the potholes that turn up in Chicago if they were subjected to a winter half again as long and twice as cold. And never repaired. When it rains, as it has for the past two days, these enormous and irregular holes fill with water, so that you have no idea how deep they are. It’s all but impossible to avoid them on busy streets, and drivers are not exactly careful about splashing nearby pedestrians. Lucas got hit with a particularly impressive spray that cleared the top of his head. His clothes, face, neck, and even his hair were all thoroughly spattered, to the great amusement of the passing locals.

The two of us continued on in search of dinner anyway, the others having decided to stay in and snack in their rooms. We eventually made our way to a place on the left side of the street, whose name we managed, even with our limited knowledge of Cyrillic, to decipher as “Mongol Restoran.”

There were only a few patrons inside, and our waitress spoke enough English to tell us that the items on the first page were soups, but that was about it. With no idea what anything was, we each pointed to a random number, and as the waitress left, we toasted each other with glasses of lukewarm Mongolian beer.

I have no idea which of the random selections I received, which is a shame, because mine was delicious. Beef, potatoes, and carrots are all fairly major ingredients here, which suits me just fine. Portions are generous, too – a mixed blessing, since you can’t take leftovers home. The only thing I haven’t liked so far is the milk tea. It’s vaguely salty, with melted fat that congeals on the top if you let it sit long enough, and it smells like melted butter. I hate butter. I’m not sure what I’ll do about this, as it’s rude not to finish your tea if it’s offered, and even more so to refuse it. I’ll need to learn how to explain in Mongolian that milk tea makes me feel ill, I guess, as that’s probably the only acceptable reason not to drink it. Today’s misery was not a result of the tea, though. I liked the Mongolian Chinese food we had last night, but I guess it did not like me.

I’m feeling much better than I was this morning, though, which I take to be a good sign. Hopefully I’ll be out and about tomorrow, and back on solid food. Cautiously

(Update: I’m posting from a café on the other side of town and just finished eating an omelet, so all is well once more. I was pretty miserable for about eight hours or so yesterday, but it could have been a lot worse. And I’ll be brushing my teeth with filtered water from now on, just in case.)

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Greetings from Mongolia – At Long, Long Last

August 9, 2012

Not sure when I’ll be able to post this, since no one with a Mac has yet figured out how to connect to the Internet, but I might as well write before the memories fade and before I pass out from exhaustion.

The US portion of our trip was pretty straightforward. Except for me having to fly from Chicago to Atlanta just to turn around and head to Seattle; that part was pretty backwards. But I found Lisa and then Lauren pretty easily while we waited to board our flight in Atlanta, and then Eli found us as we made our way off the plane in Seattle. So we had people to talk to and watch our luggage and consult with – which turned out to be a very good thing once we got to China.

I’d hoped to fly through Seoul, since I’ve heard fantastic things about that airport, but we were routed through Beijing instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with Beijing’s airport; the airport is HUGE, and the architecture is pretty impressive. But we arrived at 11:30 pm with a 1:45 am flight to board, and there’s no easy way to transfer your baggage to Miat Airlines in Beijing. Once you deplane, you have to get your luggage, go through customs, go to the wrong terminal, wait 10 minutes for a shuttle to the right terminal, ride that shuttle for 15 minutes through the streets of Beijing until it finally gets to the terminal, and then rush to your counter to check in before it closes one hour before the flight’s scheduled departure. Going to the wrong terminal is optional, of course, but when you’re wandering around an unfamiliar airport where you can’t read any of the signage, you tend to go where you’re told. Even if the directions you’re given are wrong.

We approximate that we made it to the check-in counter about 5 minutes after it closed. By the time we got there at 12:50, everything was dark, and it took us a long time to find anyone who could explain why the counter was unmanned. All of the workers we found spoke at least a little English, but none of them spoke very much, and all seemed rather annoyed to have to deal with us. Eventually, an employee at an information desk informed me shortly that we had missed our check-in period and would just have to wait for the next flight – at 9 pm the next day.

Luckily for us, Beijing’s terminal 3 has a few cafés that are open all night, so we crashed at one of these until we could figure out a course of action. Our options seemed pretty limited: no one had cell coverage; there were terminals with free internet access, but you couldn’t type in them; you needed a Chinese phone number in order to access the WiFi. At this rate, our ride would be waiting for us at the airport in UB at 4 am, and until he realized we weren’t there, no one would know that something was amiss. No one had any Chinese money, and we were reluctant to use our debit cards because we hadn’t thought to put China on the travel notifications and didn’t want our banks to lock our accounts. The night ahead looked awfully long without the prospect of food or any way of making alternate plans.

Thank heavens Lauren had an iPhone. She couldn’t make calls or send email, but she could access some of her old email – including some from our coordinator in DC, whose signature included his phone number. So we pulled them up and wrote down the number, telling her we’d all chip in for the obscene data charges she might incur for doing so. Then I pulled out the credit card my parents had given me for emergencies. While our circumstances weren’t exactly life-threatening, they were still pretty urgent, and the credit card was linked to a different account than my debit card. Even if the bank blocked my credit card, I figured, I’d still be able to use the debit card once we got to Mongolia. So off to the payphone we marched.

Hopefully the rates weren’t too exorbitant, because it ended up being a 20-minute phone call. Jonathan was out to lunch, and the woman who answered the phone wasn’t much help. She kept putting me on hold while she looked for someone to hand me off to and telling me that there should be someone at the airport who could tell us what to do. She didn’t seem to hear my repeated insistence that it was two in the morning and there was no one there, or my request that she email Chris to let him know that he wouldn’t be picking us up. Finally, she found someone with some sense, who patched me through to the travel agency so we could book a replacement flight.

We ended up with an 8:35 am flight on another airline, which was infinitely preferable to the 9 pm. We made our way to the counter at 6:30 am and were probably the first people to check in, and they didn’t even charge us extra to check multiple bags. The food on that flight was fairly questionable, and I didn’t manage to sleep, but by the time we touched down, all we cared about was not being in an airplane or an airport.

I’ll report my impressions on UB when I’ve had time to see a little more of it, but for now, here’s the tl;dr summary in numbers:

Total travel time (from leaving my house to arriving at the dorm in UB): 38 hours

Flying time: 21 hours

Sleep managed: 7 hours

Peanut/pretzel packages: at least 10

Cups of coffee: 1

Cups of tea: 5

Waterbottle refills: 3

The take-home lessons:

  1. Transferring through Beijing takes more than 2 hours
  2. Airline food is miserable, no matter where you’re going.
  3. Don’t fly to Ulaanbaatar on a lark; it’s not worth it.
  4. US carriers give you black tea; Chinese carriers, green.