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.


3 Comments

Outreach Trip, Part V: Otgoo’s Car

March Mongolian roadtripping might have been stressful and time-consuming, but it had its ups as well as downs. Many of the things that contributed to our ongoing difficulty were also the ones that made it interesting and memorable.

Take Otgoo, for instance. I rode in all three of the Embassy vehicles at least once over the course of the week. Dashaa and the other driver (whose name I never got) were both calm and dependable. They handled their vehicles well, drove at a reasonable pace, and spoke enough English to carry on some semblance of a conversation with us.

He doesn't usually look quite this crazy...

He doesn’t usually look quite this crazy… (Photo credit: Lisa)

And then there was Otgoo.

Otgoo blazed along the non-existent  roads as though hoping to flatten a path for us through sheer force and speed. He frequently left the other two cars in the dust as he flew across the steppe – sometimes figuratively, and sometimes, after hitting a large bump, quite literally. I, sitting Indian-style in the front seat, was able to absorb most of the the jolting with my core, a sort of inversion of butt-bouncing on a trampoline (is anyone else familiar with that movement?) But poor Joe, the tallest of us, had the misfortune to be seated in the back seat with the broken seatbelt on several such occasions. He hit the roof more than once before figuring out how to brace himself against my seat.

Thankfully, he sustained no serious head trauma, but even if he had, I think some things would still be burned into his memory. Otgoo’s taste in music, for instance. While the other two cars traveled in silence most of the time, Otgoo had a single CD on repeat the entire trip. Its contents ranged from traditional Mongolian to bhangra, Turkish to Lady Gaga and Brittney Spears. We sang along to “Pokerface” and the “Phantom of the Opera” techno remix and danced our way through many of the numbers in unfamiliar languages. My first stint in this car began shortly after we left Tosontsengel, when Joe tapped out due to musical overload. And so it was that I found myself in Otgoo’s car when we hit our first obstacle of the day.

The road from Tosontsengel to Uliastai, like the one from Tariat to Tosentsengel, took us through mountains and floodplains. We passed hills and valleys and frozen, downward-sloping rivers that bulged oddly, like small glaciers. And then, of course, we reached another stretch of winding, one-lane road blocked by a stuck vehicle.

At least this time the blockage was of a considerably smaller scale. The traffic through this part of the mountains had carved deep ruts into the road, and the pressure of numerous cars had melted the ice within the ruts, while the rest of the road maintained a thick coat of highly compacted ice. The melting snows, meanwhile, had exacerbated the problem; a small river ran across the road, creating deep pools in the trenches before escaping through a tiny breach and continuing its downward journey.

Lodged in the midst of all this was a blue pickup truck, heavily laden with logs. It had followed in the tread of its many predecessors, and now could not escape it: burdened as it was, its tires could no longer reach the bottom of the watery trenches, and it had bottomed out on the icy barrier between them. The truck’s occupants stood on either side of the road, peering at the undercarriage while one man jabbed at the ensnaring ice with a hefty chunk of rebar.

Yep, they're stuck.

Yep, they’re stuck.

There was no way around these folks, or the car trapped on the other side of them would have taken it. So out of the cars we piled. While two of the drivers searched for a rope with which to drag the truck out of the ditches, Lisa and I fell to my fourth-grade recess standby: waterworks. If we could impede the flow of water into the road and widen its egress, we might be able to give it better traction. We set about damming off the inward flow with rocks and chunks of ice, while the third driver took up the abandoned rebar to chip at the ditch walls.

It was at this point that the week’s first reworded song made its appearance. “If I had a shovel,” someone muttered, to which both Joe and I responded – he with the traditional “I’d shovel in the morning,” I with the equally applicable “I’d dig myself a drainage trench.” Alas, there was no shovel to be had.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts. Less successful efforts in the background.

We did succeed in lessening the water’s depth somewhat, but not enough to free the trapped vehicle; our attempt to tow it freed it from the ice upon which it was beached, but settled it in waters too deep for the wheels to do more than spin helplessly. And so it was that the truck’s driver finally unbound his cargo, an act he’d clearly hoped to avoid. Logs fell to either side, throwing up great waves of muddy water. When the remaining load was stable, we approached. Several of the men began laying the logs before the tires to create a sort of boardwalk, and some one had had the bright idea to drive them under the tires using the only mallet available – another log. Mongol ingenuity at its finest.

DSCN5478

Alright, let’s give this another shot…

Load lessened and boardwalk in place, with the towing vehicle once more attached, the truck was at last freed from its prison, though not without much spinning of tires and unhappy grinding of gears. It drove onward to the end of the danger zone, a good forty feet beyond the pile of logs left it its wake.

But eight people can move a pile of logs pretty quickly, even if two of them are loading rather than hauling and everyone has to pick their steps with care. My ability to shoulder a spar rather than dragging it behind me was met with a, “Ямар хүчтэй вэ!” (How strong!) from the drivers and the inevitable, “Katelin, please be careful!” from the Embassy workers. Never mind that how much time I’ve spent hauling much larger logs over the past four summers; girls can be strong? Who knew?!

At long last, the logs were loaded and the way was clear. We were Uliastai bound, and not even boulders in the road would keep us from getting there.

DSCN5480

Advertisements


1 Comment

Dependence

One of the most frustrating things about living in a country where I don’t speak the language is my level of dependence on others. My day-to-day life is manageable, mainly because it’s so routine. I go to the same stores each week and buy more or less the same things; I frequent the same restaurants and favor the same dishes. I’ve had to pick up enough packages that I know who to ask, what documents to bring, and when the customs lady works (these things aren’t publicly announced, of course; you have to figure them out through trial and error). 

But for any task that strays beyond the everyday, I require some level of assistance. Buying a domestic plane ticket to visit a friend in a different part of the country? Ask the director where the airline office is. Buying a ticket for someone else? Have the director call to ask whether this is possible and what paperwork is required to do so. Want to study Mongolian music? Get your school to arrange lessons for you at the children’s palace. None of these are things I am capable of arranging on my own; I don’t know where to go or who to ask for things, and I don’t have the language skills to request and acquire that information.

Nothing has brought that point home to me so much as my recent loss of my residence permit. The process for replacing one of these, I have learned, is complicated, involving extensive wading through deep paperwork and incomprehensible bureaucracy. I’ll need to make a trip to the capital and pay an obscene amount of money to attain a new one. If that wasn’t enough, the paperwork I’ll need to bring with me is extensive: statements from my employer and apartment manager verifying where I work and live, a newspaper clipping announcing the loss of my permit, and, of course, my passport. 

The passport’s easy, but the other requirements – not so much. Where does one go to put an announcement in the newspaper? How does one request such an announcement? How much does it cost? Where is the paper distributed? What is a “residence permit” even called in Mongolian? Мэддэггүй.

My coworkers do, thank goodness, and several have agreed to help me. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be in any great hurry to do so. You’re supposed to obtain a new residence permit within fourteen days of losing your old one, and I’m down to eight now. Seven, if the immigration/registration office isn’t open on Saturdays, which I’m guessing it isn’t. Apparently, there are a few days of lag time between sending the announcement to the newspaper and seeing it printed, which means that I am running out of time fast.

I feel bad for burdening my fellow teachers with this; I know their workloads are at least twice mine, and that doesn’t give them much time to run to various offices around the city in order to deal with the necessary paperwork. But visa and registration paperwork is serious business, and I wish someone besides me seemed to have a sense of urgency about it. I would much prefer not to be kicked unceremoniously out of the country and then fined for the inconvenience to those who kicked me out.

Time to double down on my language study, I think. My communicative incompetence is the main reason I find myself needing so much help from others, and I’m growing sick of feeling trapped and helpless. I’m an adult, now, after all; we’re supposed to be able to take care of ourselves.


1 Comment

Outreach Trip, Part IV: Travel Hazards

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: traveling in Mongolia is a difficult business. Once we’d completed our morning presentation in Tariat, our schedules were clear of planned programming for nearly two days. No presentations to deliver or TV interviews to prepare for (or, more accurately, dread). The Embassy workers had described these two days as a “break,” and thus, we had assumed that we’d be able to rest: to sleep in, perhaps, or to hang out, play cards, and chat in a space larger than an SUV.

This, needless to say, was hilariously wrong.

We had nearly four hundred kilometers to cover over the course of those two days, the second two hundred of which took us beyond the roads recognized by Google Maps. The plan was simple: the first leg of the journey would take us from Tariat to Tosontsengel; the second, from Tosontsengel to Uliastai. We’d leave the Tariat area around 10:30, then stop for a late lunch in one of the driver’s family’s soums, and arrive in Tosontsengel in the late afternoon. The next morning we’d repeat the process, though without the helpful family rest stop. In America, neither day’s journey would take more than a few hours. But we were not in America, and not for a moment were we allowed to forget it.

It had begun to snow lightly before we left the volcano, but the skies cleared quickly once we got on the “road” (as it were). We passed hills turquoise-and rust-tinted hills and speculated about the mineral content of the soil; I observed that the grass looked greener than any I’d seen in months. We gloried in the sun and bright blue skies. It seemed the skies smiled on that day’s journey.

But that illusion evaporated as we approached a high mountain pass. The girls in the car behind me apparently took no notice of the warning signs, claiming the weather had sprung up out of nowhere, but I grew worried long before the problems started. The skies above might be blue, but those ahead spelled trouble.

IMG_0730

We’re driving into that?

Snow appeared on the ground as we began our ascent – a light dusting at first, then occasional drifts that grew in size and number as we climbed. The grey mass ahead grew closer and closer as we worked our way through the switchbacks. And then, suddenly, it was all around us. The road before us disappeared into the swirling white; but for their headlights, so too did the cars behind us. Only once have I experienced a whiteout more complete, and that was on a flat American highway. We inched along, unable to see the road more than a few feet in front of us. When the visibility cleared slightly, we found ourselves facing a serious problem.

No zoom on this picture - they're that close, and that hard to see.

No zoom on this picture – visibility’s that bad.

The snow on either side of the road was piled over a foot high; the road beneath us mercilessly slick, though free of drifts. But a few hundred yards in front of us, the snows continued unabated across the road, trapping nearly a dozen vehicles. It wasn’t just cars that were stuck, either: two mikrs were stuck as well, and, most worryingly, not one but three semis. One semi had clearly tried to pass the other after it got stuck, blocking the entire road.

DSC05642

Trapped behind a long line of stuck trucks.

Any hope of making it to Dashaa’s family in time for lunch quickly evaporated. No one could go anywhere until both semis were freed, and while a crowd of men labored to dig them out, shovels seemed to be in short supply. Even more frustratingly, two more mikrs arrived while we waited – and rather than get in line with the rest of us, they apparently felt the need to pass us all and get themselves stuck in the snow as well. So there we stayed for the next four and a half hours while we waited for the roads to clear.

I can’t speak for the other cars, but everyone in mine cheered when the crowd ahead of us began to move one more. Imagine our dumbfounded disbelief when the snow ended abruptly just over the next ridge. Less than a thousand feet of snowed-over roadway had impeded our progress so long that we had not yet reached our “lunch” stop at the time we’d thought to arrive in Tosontsengel.

Surely, we thought, that was our trial for the day. The skies had cleared, we’d passed most of the snow, and our trusty Embassy vehicles were trucking along without any sign of a problem. Surely the road could have no more to throw at us that day.

And then we reached the river. At least, it had once been a river, before the heavy precipitation of the past year turned the entire area into a floodplain. Now it was a broad swath of ice occupying the entire valley, still littered with the carcasses it had swallowed. We passed a long-abandoned truck half-submerged in the ice, and then an entire hashaa filled with several inches of the stuff. I don’t know how quickly the waters must have risen around the ger that still sat there, but it must have been a chilly place to live.

Frozen Floodplain

Frozen floodplain.

However, these sights paled compared with that which was to come. The ice, we discovered, had begun to melt, and the resulting river flowed quite quickly. And, as rivers will do, it had chosen the smoothest course: the road.

Road, river... who's splitting hairs?

Road, river… who’s splitting hairs?

Our last embassy-organized trip had also involved an unfortunate encounter with a river, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in flashing back to it when I saw what lay before us. That river we had merely tried to cross, and still it had flooded our engine and left us paralyzed for hours. Surely we’d meet with even greater misfortune this time, when we were actually driving down the length of the river.

But there was no other way. The drivers judged that the water, though deep, was not too deep, and so in we went. I couldn’t believe we were doing this; none of us could. But somehow, we emerged from that water without so much as a hiccup in the proceedings. As the sun began to set in front of us, we neared our promised “lunch” stop, thrilled by the promise of real food at last.

IMG_0744


4 Comments

Mini-Mongol Invasion

Apparently I am a magnet for small children.

It’s spring in Mongolia, and the balmy 50-degree weather has brought the children out in hordes to play. They are everywhere: running through school yards, traversing the streets in packs, thronging to the playgrounds at the center of every apartment complex. I understand their enthusiasm; it’s been a long winter, and they’ve been cooped up indoors indoors for months now. You don’t go out to play in the snow in the dead of winter here, as children do in America; it’s just too cold. The snow is too dry and powdery to pack together, and the smaller children, when their parents do bring them outside, are so bundled up as to be almost immobile. The youngest ones are, in fact, immobile: puffed out to twice their size and spread-eagled by their snowsuits. The local PCVs call them “starfish babies.”

 

IMG_0577

A coworker and her starfish baby.

But now they’ve shed their layers and run rampant throughout the city. This I’d expected. What I hadn’t expected was to draw so much attention from so many of them.

There’s a sizable Russian population in this town, and thus the Americans are accustomed to being mistaken for Russians. Орос хүн, people mutter as we walk by; they hail us with здравствуйте! and try to tell us prices in Russian. But although blondes and redheads are particularly likely to be assumed Russian, I have largely been exempt from this trend. Blonde I may be, but my face is too round and my features too soft to fit the Russian profile. The only people who usually try to talk to me in Russian are drunk men. One man tried repeatedly to engage me in conversation despite my blank stare and unabated pace. Finally his friend elbowed him; “she’s not Russian, stupid,” he said in Mongolian.

But small children make the same mistake. Lacking the more sophisticated profiling abilities of the adults, most seem prone to the belief that all white people are Russian. Is she Russian?, they ask as I walk by. No, say some of their friends, she’s English. And unlike the children I’ve encountered in the countryside, the youngsters of Erdenet have no problem running up to me to settle the debate. Four times in the last three days, I’ve been stopped by children in the street or on the playground. Aнаа, анаа! they call, using a term of address for an older sister. Та орос хүн үү? I tell them that I’m not Russian, but American, and the ones who guessed correctly grin in triumph. Some of them gape at my ability to speak even a little Mongolian; others ask what I’m doing in Mongolia. Hello!, they often chorus, eager to show off the few English words they know.

When I ask them their names and ages, they chatter at me in rapid Mongolian – eager, I can only assume, to share their life stories. My utter lack of comprehension is usually lost on them, and often they follow me even after I’ve walked away, shouting goodbye! in English if they know it and Mongolian if they don’t. Today a five-year-old boy bounded over to me on the street and tried to talk to me in Mongolian. I told him repeatedly that I didn’t understand, but this little one was nothing if not persistant. Анаа, нааш ир, he said, reaching up to take my hand. I followed him to his mother’s delguur; what else are you supposed to do when a five-year-old takes your hand and says, “big sister, come here” ? His mother laughed when he led me in and greeted me in Mongolian. I asked his name, confirmed that he was her son, and said I had to go; when I left the shop, he ran after me shouting Баяртай!.

As a blonde living in Asia, I’ve gotten used to being stared at. But I don’t remember being swarmed this way when I came here in the fall. You’d think I’d lose novelty over time, rather than gain it. But either I’m more interesting now than I was in the fall, or the children have gained some courage. Either way, I’m not complaining. This morning’s encounter was the most adorable thing that’s happened to me in a while. Even if it did make me late for my lesson.


Leave a comment

So, what do you do all day?

I get this question a lot here. Not from the locals, naturally, but from friends and family back home – especially friends in the throes of grad school, for whom “free time” a sort of long-lost fantasy, one coveted almost as highly as sleep. (Almost.)

And they certainly have a point. My workload, compared to theirs, is comically pitiful. I teach five 80-minute classes a week – meaning I teach the same material to five different groups of students. Real teachers, I know, are forever working on lesson plans, but you don’t have to do a whole lot of that when you teach the same lesson all week. I meet with my co-teacher on Monday or Tuesday to plan the lesson, tweak it slightly over the course of the week according to its success or failure, and simplify it for my Friday morning hellions. And that’s about it for time with my actual students.

Of course, that’s not all the teaching I do. I also do one lesson a week for the teachers at my school (at least, the 5-10 who deign to attend), and I work with the director for two hours a week; we spend one on her English, and one on my Mongolian. I teach the Children’s Palace director for three hours a week in exchange for two hours of morin huur lessons. And I attend the Peace Corps community events – conversation night on Tuesdays, movie night on Thursdays.

Even so, that doesn’t add up to a whole lot of time – about 18 hours of scheduled time commitments. I had more than that in college, when you factored in my extracurriculars and the two executive boards in which I took part.

My schedule for the week.

My schedule for the week.

So, what do I do with all that free time?

Well, I blog (obviously). I’ve tried hard to get posts up on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the past few months, though I’ve certainly missed a few Fridays. This takes a surprisingly long time, though it becomes much less surprising when you consider my tendency to handwrite entries in my journal before transcribing and editing them for online posting. Also, uploading photos takes forever when your internet is so painfully slow.

I hang out with the Peace Corps volunteers and the other Fulbrighter in Erdenet. We hang out at each other’s apartments; we go out to eat; we go to bars or karaoke bars. In a given weekend, I usually spend two of the three evenings in their company. One of the PCVs is getting married this weekend, and five of us are performing a Mongolian dance at his wedding, so we’ve been meeting three or four days a week to practice said dance.

I study Mongolian. On paper, mostly, as my listening skills are still pitiful and many of the sounds continue to escape my command. My book doesn’t have exercises, so I spend a lot of time recopying and sounding out sentences like these:

We came from the city by bus last Sunday. Бид өнгөрсөн Нямд хотод автобусаар ирсэн.

I will go to America during summer vacation. Би зуны амралтаар Америк руу явна.

Which of these children broke this window? Эдгээр хүүхдүүдийн хэн нь энэ цонхыг хагалсан бэ?

(Having recently learned the dative-locative, accusative, genitive, instrumental, ablative, and comitative cases, I spend a lot of my practice time trying to jam as many of them as possible into one sentence, despite my complete inability to construct something so complicated in conversation.)

I wander the city in search of internet connections strong enough to support a Skype conversation. I have weekly Skype dates with my parents and my ‘sister,’ though my brother’s pretty much off the radar.

I spend ridiculous amounts of time on the internet, when I can get access to it. I follow four web comics and several blogs – a few written by friends, most written by people I’ve never met. A few in particular tend to broach complex issues and copious links to other discussions about those issue, which I follow, read, contemplate, and then usually discuss with Sarah during our weekly Skype date. I continue my slow but steady progress through the vlogbrothers YouTube Channel (they’ve been posting regularly since 2007; I’m midway through 2008). This one’s particularly time-consuming, since the speed of my home internet means a four-minute video can take upwards of twenty minutes to buffer fully, at least in the evening.

But most of that extra time is spent just… living. Keeping up with daily life takes twice as long when you have half as many convenient time-saving devices.

Take cooking, for instance. My appliance options are as follows: a hot plate, a toaster oven, a тогоо, a rice cooker, and a tea kettle. Only one of these appliances may be operated in the kitchen at one time, lest we blow a fuse. I can fry an egg, boil water, and make rice all at the same time – but only if I move the tea kettle and rice cooker to different rooms. When you have only one burner to work with, you eat a lot of one-pot meals (which in my case translates to a lot of soup). A meal like, say, meatloaf with mashed potatoes and a vegetable is out of the question; it would take hours, and I’d never manage to get it all hot at the same time. Even soups can be tricky, requiring careful attention to the order in which ingredients are added and cooked,  since I can’t have two pots going simultaneously.

And I’ve always been a “from scratch” kind of girl, but there’s “from scratch” and then there’s from scratch. I have no problem throwing together pancakes or a cake without a mix, but how much time does it take to whip up a bowl of batter? A craving for Mexican food, by contrast, requires a saga of cooking to satisfy. I have access to meat, rice, beans, vegetables, and even hot pepper and cumin (thank you, Mom – apparently I cannot live without cumin). But none of it’s prepared. If I want tortillas, I have to make them myself. The same is true for refried beans, and usually for salsa as well. The quest for fajitas becomes an odyssey in which I prepare individual elements over the course of several days so that I can finally, gloriously, assemble them into that sought-after ideal of deliciousness.

Even tracking down the ingredients can be a time-consuming process. One-stop grocery shopping does not exist here; even the chain grocery stores in this town are limited in size, and a great deal of their space is devoted to candy and alcohol. Delguurs are ubiquitous, and most of them sell almost the same things – but not quite. This one carries alcohol; that one doesn’t have noodles. You learn where to go for what items.

Accordingly, I go to one delguur for vegetables and another for fruit (the Americans refer to their respective owners as “the veggie man” and “the fruit lady”). The fruit lady also sells chicken and brown eggs; in fact, I go to her more often for these two items than for overpriced, often overripe, fruit. I cruise the Russian-oriented mini mart near them for honey, jam, spices, and brown eggs (when the fruit lady doesn’t have them, which recently has been often). For cheese and pork, I go to Food Shop (which also caters largely to Russians); for bacon, smoked fish, Russian beer, tea, and other spices, I go to another Russian delguur. Coffee, peanut butter, and beans I get from Good Price, a store on the other side of town that specializes in American goods (its name, alas, is a misnomer). I get red meat from the market on the south side of town. Bread, flour, milk, sugar and other things I didn’t realize I was out of I usually grab from the delguur closest to my apartment – when it’s open. To visit all of these places in one day would take hours and require a full circuit of town – and half of what I bought that day would, in all likelihood, go moldy before I managed to eat it. So I do the Russian circuit (which is blessedly close) several days a week; I go to Good Price only in search of specific items, and only on my way home from work. I haven’t been to the meat market in over two months, and won’t until I finish my current kilo of horse.

4-19 Shopping Map

And then there’s cleaning. My school’s provision of a vacuum cleaner has, thank heavens, drastically reduced the amount of time needed to keep my room in a passable state of cleanliness. No more spending hours scrubbing at the carpet with a wet rag or swiping fruitlessly at it with a broom – hallelujah! But even so, cleaning the floor often takes a lot longer than I’ve bargained for. Namuuna uses the vacuum as well – and while she’s good about emptying the container after she uses it, she doesn’t usually clean the filter. And after a thorough sweeping, the filter is often so clogged as to drastically reduce the efficacy of the vacuum cleaner. Thus, the time I meant to spend sweeping is often spent washing out the filter instead – and then waiting for it to dry, since I fear the potential repercussions of using it wet.

You get the gist. Even the simplest task often takes forever here. I haven’t even started on laundry. To do that herculean task justice would require me to write another whole post devoted to the subject. And so I shall – at a later date, when I have pictures to illustrate and your patience hasn’t already been tried by 1500 words of my rambling.

And that, in short, is your answer: In my copious spare time, I ramble. Around town, around the Internet, on the Internet. I ramble, and I learn, and I live.


4 Comments

Outreach Trip, Part III: Tariat

The next stop on our trip was a soum called Tariat.  Tariat itself left very little impression on me – which is unsurprising, considering that we spent approximately fourteen hours there, over half of them asleep. So this post, like my memories of the soum, will be framed by the things that we saw on our way to and from Tariat.

We left Tsetserleg around 4:30 on Monday afternoon. It had already been a long day of presenting and being presented to, so none of us were particularly thrilled about getting back in the cars and driving onwards. But in we got and on we went. The paved road ended abruptly about five minutes out of Tsetserleg, but the gravel that replaced it was reasonably smooth – for the first half of our journey, at least. For that I was most grateful: I was about halfway through the third book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire at this point and unwilling to put it down. But I was eventually forced to do so, as reading, rough roads, and I are not a good combination. But the scenery was interesting and afforded us plenty to see and talk about.

We had quickly left the mountains surrounding Tsetserleg for the more open steppe that covers much of the country, but there were always more on the horizon, whichever way you looked. Steppe and mountains alike were still the dead, dry brown of winter, but we had blue sky above us and a good road beneath us; not a bad way to watch afternoon fade into evening.

About an hour outside Tariat, a canyon opened on our right, growing larger with every minute we drove. Dashaa carefully maneuvered our car off the road, around the ditches, and through the intervening herd of yaks so that we could pile out for a closer look. The canyon was deep enough that little sunlight reached the base, even during the height of the afternoon. Snow still covered the near bank, reaching all the way up to just below the lip, and the river’s surface was still frozen solid. Some of the ice retained its coating of snow, but green swirled unexpectedly through the the white of the exposed ice. This would be no calm stream come summer.

Чулуут Каньон / Chuluut Canyon

Чулуут Каньон / Chuluut Canyon

The other cars had pulled ahead while we dawdled at the edge of the canyon, but we soon caught up: they too had stopped not far ahead. We jumped out again, to take more pictures. The canyon walls sloped less steeply here, and more trees grew on the banks. I would have loved to see this canyon in September; larch trees  hold their green, needle-like leaves until late in autumn, turning a lovely golden color after aspens have dropped all their leaves, before they too succumb to the cold. But Чулууд, as I learned the canyon was called, had begun to leave the throes of winter behind. A stream of liquid water snaked its way through the ice here, only to be subsumed by it further downstream.

It was past dinnertime when we arrived in Tariat, but we’d had sandwiches and snacks in the car to tide us over. I was glad of my sandwich; I consistently forget that ноготой шөл doesn’t translate to “vegetable soup” so much as “soup with vegetables.” Mutton soup, in other words. I’ve already expressed my general dislike of mutton, and boiled mutton is my least favorite preparation of the meat. The milk tea wasn’t really to my liking either; I’m not generally a fan of the stuff, and this struck me as unusually gamey. I’m glad I at least tried, it though – we later learned that the reason for the unusual taste was that it was made from yak’s milk.

We were joined at dinner by Mike, the PCV at whose school we’d be presenting the following morning. Mike is truly what my friend Eric would call a “hudoo rat” : he’s a ger-dweller as well as a soumer, and his soum is six hours by mikr from the aimag center. Eric has a modem and can sometimes get Internet access in Delger, if he sits in exactly the right place and the Internet gods are willing. But Mike doesn’t get Internet in his soum at all. For him to get online, he has to make the six-hour trip to Tsetserleg. Suffice to say, he doesn’t spend much time on Facebook. The Embassy had provided us with the contact information of the PCVs we’d be meeting along the way, so the Lisas had asked whether any of them wanted goods from the capital. Mike’s requests were simple: baked goods and macaroni and cheese. He got both.

Tumpin: A wide, shallow wash bucket. Photo credit to former PCV Belen Diez.

Mike had plenty of entertaining stories to tell, including several about his dog. Peace Corps pets tend to be adopted/rescued strays, and Mike’s dog was no exception. Her name caused a double-take for a lot of us, though: “you named your dog Tumpin?” But while most PC pets are “rescues” in the sense that the were taken in off of the street, so to speak, Tumpin was truly rescued as a puppy – from an outhouse. In the summer. And then rescued a second time, when she fell in another outhouse after Mike adopted her. Her name, it would seem, is well-earned.

Our one presentation at Mike’s school the next morning flew by, and before we knew it, we were on the road again. But not the road to Tosontsengel – at least, not yet. First, we made a quick side trip to Khorgo.

There aren’t many volcanoes in Mongolia, but Khorgo is one of them. And even though it’s been extinct for seven thousand years, it still sticks out from the surrounding area. The rocks are darker, sharper; the mountain, strangely rounded. There are trees, but they’re sparse and scrawny.

One of these things is not like the others... Can you guess which one is the volcano?

One of these things is not like the others… Can you guess which one is the volcano?

We bounded out of the cars and up the mountainside, ignoring the wind and impending snow. Khorgo is clearly a tourist destination; while it doesn’t have marked trails, like you would find in America, the steeper part of the climb had concrete steps that cut through the strangely-mounded scree. For that, we were all grateful; screes are never fun to climb.

We only had an hour to explore, but we reached the lip of the volcano in far less time. The volcano itself might not have been very tall, but its crater was impressively deep. Phil warned us to stay away from the edge, telling us that the had lost Fulbrighters to volcanoes before. We tittered nervously, waiting for the punchline, but there wasn’t one: two live volcanoes, two lost Fulbrighters. This one, thankfully, wasn’t active, but falling into the crater would certainly result in serious injury at the very least.

Tattered flag atop the volcano's main ovoo. Photo courtesy of Amraa.

Tattered flag atop the volcano’s main ovoo. Photo courtesy of Amraa.

I would have liked to climb higher but was informed that we didn’t have time. So back to the cars we went. We reached the base just as the first flakes of the threatened snow began to fall, and then we were back on the road once more.


Leave a comment

The Land of Perpetual Snow

My father is well-known, within my extended family, at least, for his propensity to rename that which is new to him. Thus, he refers to the ghost of Gryffindor house as “Almost-Headless Frank,” and that game they play on broomsticks as “wacky badminton.” So when I told him the Mongolian version of “how are you?” it came as no surprise that he did the same thing.

“How are you?” is sort of built into the Mongolian “hello;” сайна байна уу? translates roughly as “are you good?” Their follow-up question, therefore, is more like, “how was your rest?” (Cyrillic: Cайхан амарсан уу?, Latin: Saihan amarsan uu?; sounds like sa [like sat, without the t] han amarse no).

My father’s rendition? “So, how much snow?” As the first two examples illustrate, how well the dad-isms fit varies pretty widely. But this one’s pretty darn accurate.

To wit: In Chicago, and probably in the rest of the world, Chicago is primarily a winter phenomenon. Sure, we might get the occasional flurry in October or May, but in your average year, the majority of the snow falls in January or perhaps early February.

Not so here. A friend of mine once explained that she dislikes snow because it means that it’s too cold to rain; here, snow means that it’s relatively warm. For much of our winter, it is simply too cold to snow. We got the occasional flurry in December and January, but never enough for any serious accumulation. All we ever got was a thin, glittery layer of dry white powder that rendered sidewalks a deathtrap. Seriously, who decided tile sidewalks were a good idea in a country that’s frozen half the year?

The extreme cold and amount of ice crystals in the air do result in a number of cool atmospheric phenomena, like these parhelia. Photo credit to Jonathan Tavennic Renich.

If you’ll recall, my definition of Mongolian winter was pretty straightforward: winter starts when the snow stops melting and end when it starts to. But the presence of snow in both fall and spring are implicit in this definition; that the snow has started to melt does not mean there won’t be more.

The snow started on September 26th, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d had at least twelve days of snowfall. December and January gave us a hiatus, but now it’s back. We got at least as much snow in February as in December and January combined, and as much again in March. Halfway into April, we’re still getting snow at least twice a week, though it’s now interspersed with several days of 40-60 degree weather.

And unlike the snowfall we got in the winter, this stuff means business. Spring snow doesn’t mean a flurry of the minuscule ice crystals we got in winter, but the big, thick flakes that weigh down your eyelashes and sparkle surreally in the presence of even a little light. The Friday before St. Patrick’s Day brought us five inches of the stuff; the last eight hours have given us at least another four, with drifts over a foot tall in some places.

As someone who enjoys cold and snow, I don’t really mind, but I know a lot of the Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty sick of the stuff.  This morning, I asked the director of the Children’s Palace when the snow usually stops. “Maybe May?” she said. “But last year it snowed on July 1st.”

So get used to the snow, folks. It doesn’t look like we’ll be rid of it anytime soon.