We arrived in Arkhangai’s mountainous capital a little after 5 pm, which gave us a little bit of time to settle in and get our bearings before our next commitment. The guesthouse and even the town surpassed all my expectations. Tsetserleg was beautifully sited, with mountains overlooking it from every direction and a neat ger district and monastery perched on neighboring hills. There were apartment buildings and paved streets and even stop lights – a seemingly minor detail, until you consider that even Erdenet, the second most populous city in the country, has only two of them.
I ought not to have been surprised at the picturesque surroundings; tsetserleg is Mongolian for “garden,” after all. Mongolia is by no means lush even at the best of times, and it’s certainly not at its best in late March, which is by turns snowy, muddy, windy, and generally brown. But the landscape possesses a harsh and rugged beauty regardless of season and weather, and Tsetserleg had that in abundance.
As an aimag center, it also offered a few creature comforts like apartments and guesthouses with running water. Hot water, even, which my hotel in UB had lacked. The furnishings were comfortable, if a little sparse, and the sheets were clean. What more could we ask for?
Well, breathing time, for one thing. There was no chance to explore the town; within half an hour of our arrival, we were expected at the local TV station to give an interview. We pulled on our nicer work clothes and headed out, expecting to be interviewed at the station itself. Instead, they took us to local teacher’s college and taped the interview outdoors, which sort of negated the point of our dressing up (hard to see what you’re wearing under a coat!).
The interview was largely directed at Phil: What brought the US Embassy Public Affairs Officer to Tsetserleg? What did the Embassy have to say to Arkhangai residents? But some of the questions were pointed at us as well: What were our names, and where were we from? What were we doing in Mongolia? What did we think of Mongolia, and of the Mongolian education system?
Most of these questions were answered with Uyanga E’s help; she translated the Mongolian questions to us and our English answers back into Mongolian for the interviewers. But Joe and I made use of what Mongolian we possessed to introduce ourselves. This interview was the first appearance of an introduction I would repeat time and again during our trip: “Мимий нэр Кэйтлин. Би Чикагогаас ирсэн. Би одоо Эрдэнэтэд амьдардаг, Хөдөө Аж Ахуйн МСУТ-д англи хэл заадаг.” (“My name is Katelin. I’m from Chicago. Now I live in Erdenet and teach English at the Vocational Training Center of Agriculture.”
We soon developed a habit of asking Joe to introduce himself last, as his Mongolian knowledge far surpassed everyone else’s. In addition to the advantage of some tutelage prior to arriving in Mongolia, he’s also the only one of us to be taking formal lessons. My few (and highly simplistic) sentences sounded awfully pathetic next to his superior grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. It was better for him to go last so that we built up to him, rather than being overshadowed.
After the interview, we headed back to our guesthouse, where we met the local Peace Corps Volunteers for dinner. This was to be a recurrent event; there were PCVs stationed at three of our four overnight stops, and the Embassy made sure to connect us to all of them. Bryce and Sierra, the two in Tsetserleg, were both in their second year of service. They were the ones who had recommended the guesthouses restaurant, since it’s the only place in town that serves western food. The steak sandwich was pretty good, but the real star of the meal was the fresh-baked bread. They had a carrot bread with garlic and rosemary that I will have to attempt to recreate in the near future.
And then, after dinner – surprise! – we weren’t done yet. The news station had asked us to return for a sit-down interview. So we trooped back over to the station and seated ourselves in a semi-circle in front of some ungodly bright lights – even Uyanga commented on how bright it was in that room. This interview was more in-depth, with questions like, “you’re not that much older than your students – how has traveling affected you as young people, and what would you say about it to our young people?” and “what do you find most interesting or enjoyable about life in Mongolia?”
Thank goodness for Uyanga, who did an amazing job as translator; as Joe put it, “she translated the sh*t out of that interview.” The rest of us lacked the language skills to listen for mistakes or omissions on her part, but from what he could tell, she had made none.
We were up bright and early the next morning for our first round of presentations. We were to give two simultaneous presentations at each school: one on life in America, for the younger kids, and one on American colleges, for the 10th and 11th graders. We visited two schools at Tsetserleg, so I got to do both presentations – and after presentation at the second school, Lisa D and Uyanga and I got to do another TV interview. Yeesh. How many times were they going to ask us the same questions?
After lunch, we were off to visit the old monastery, now mostly a museum. The architecture itself was fascinating enough, and it was interesting to compare the two wings; the eastern one had been restored and repainted in the 1980’s, while the western one had been left as it was.
The exhibits inside showed many of the same things we’d seen at other museums: a partially assembled ger that allowed visitors to examine its construction; traditional dress for monks and the nobility; shagai and other traditional games. The most interesting exhibit was that of musical instruments. We were all familiar with the morin huur, or horsehead fiddle, and the panpipes, but a number of these were new to us. They also had a swan huur and other intricately carved string instruments reminiscent of the guitar and mandolin, all of which, we were told, were native to this aimag. They also had an instrument known to me a as a zither, though the Mongolians have a different name for it. Apparently the one on display was the oldest such instrument in the country.
Our duties in Tsetserleg were not quite finished: we still had two more presentations to deliver at the youth/cultural center. I had prepared the presentation on American folk music, and Joe was a music major, so the two of us delivered it while the Lisas gave yet another interview. I had found examples of Cajun, Appalachian, and Blues music, to which the kids appeared to listen with interest, and we concluded by singing “This Land is Your Land” for them – with harmony, even. We were supposed to do another presentation on famous American chess players, but that one was scrapped at the last minute, as the cultural center had presentations to show us. In addition to a lengthy slide show detailing the many classes and events they organize, we were also treated to a traditional song and dance by some of their participants.
I was unable to get a video of the dance at the time, but I’ll post other dances at a later date. Mongolian dances are intricate and beautiful, and the pictures below don’t do them the least bit of justice.