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.


Hiking Fiasco, Part I: Manzushir Khiid

“Hey, what’s up?” my friend asked when I picked up the phone.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, without really answering. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to meet you today.”

“Why’s that?” she asked; I briefly explained where I was. “The president,” she repeated dubiously. “The president of what? of MONGOLIA?!”

I murmured my assent.

“What the F**K, Katelin!” she shouted in my ear.

I winced. “Listen, it’s a long story, but I’d be happy to tell you later – when I’m not, you know, being detained for trespassing on the presidential grounds.”


“We’re going hiking tomorrow if you’d like to join us,” one of the new girls mentioned as sat in their apartment, preparing dinner. So it was that the next morning, I found myself in my hiking gear in a minibus headed to Zuun Mod, provincial capital of Tuv aimag. The plan was to take the one-hour ride down to Zuun Mod, hike the seven kilometers to Manzushir Monastery, and then pick up the trail from there. We were told it was roughly a six-hour hike on a well-marked path, though the guidebook did caution us to come well-supplied and let people know where we were going – the markers were painted only a few years ago, after a foreign tourist got lost and died of exposure. So we left early, with a ton of food, raincoats, and about a liter and a half of water apiece.

We took our time perusing Manzushir first. It had a religious museum with a few lama masks, instruments, and paintings, but most of it was stuff I had seen before. We spent a lot longer in the Nature Museum, asking questions about the various stuffed animals that occupied it – deer, foxes, bears, wolves, vultures. The guide spoke a little English, and between that and my limited Mongolian, we muddled along. We oohed and ahed over some really spectacular paintings (mosaics?) made of sand, bark, moss, and colored sugar and rock salt. I would have liked to climb into the enormous bronze cauldron that sat just outside the door – large enough to boil up to ten sheep at once, according to the sign – but refrained.

Ruins of the old monastery

Ruins of the old monastery

We did, however, make our way up to ruins of the old monastery, a set of tumbled down sandstone walls atop the hill at the back of the clearing. I ran my fingers across the rough surface that had been eroded into rounded shapes by centuries of wind and rain and giggled when Ginny made the discovery that she was just barely short enough to stand upright in the doorways. I’m no giant, but I certainly could not have done so.

We also checked out the first of the cave paintings, which were shielded by be-khadaged walls partway up the mountain.

18th century cave Buddhist cave paintings

18th century cave Buddhist cave paintings

The pigment on these eighteenth-century depictions of Buddha had begun to fade, but the outlines etched into the rock were still clear. We would have liked to see the others as well, but the day was getting away from us and we had at least fifteen kilometers of walking ahead of us, so we settled down to our feast of leftover Indian, pasta, and horse sandwiches. Before heading off, we also purchased an additional three liters of water to replenish our already significantly-depleted supply.

From the beginning of the hike, we could tell this wasn’t going to be as easy as we’d though. For one thing, the directions in the book did not seem to match the actual terrain: we were told to head left when facing the museum, which would take us northwest up the hill and past a stupa. As we climbed, however, we discovered that the stupa topped the opposing hill, to the south; walking towards it would take us away from the city. Confused but not unduly worried, we relied on the compass on Valerie’s iPhone instead, trusting we’d find a second stupa in due time.

Yep, that rock face.

Yep, that rock face.

Instead, we found ourselves scrambling down a steep face of mossy boulders, scooting on our butts when we didn’t trust our footing. I grabbed at a tree or two to steady myself and snatched it back quickly, surprised by spiky spruce needles instead of the soft larch common in Erdenet. Upon closer inspection, I noted a wealth of conifers: not only spruce, but pine and cedar as well. Tuv, it seemed, sported a far more selection of trees than Orkhon.

“Let’s try a bit more to the west,” we said when we reached the base of the rock face; “this surely can’t be the right way.” So over we tramped, Ginny in the lead; Krysta and I, at the rear, joked that at this rate, we’d be out here for days. “Well, at least we’ve got plenty of food,” she said. “And there’s water everywhere,” I added, so that shouldn’t be a problem either.”

She asked if I could make a fire with sticks, and I answered that while I knew the principles, I’d never actually done it. I do know that it’s hard, especially with wood dampened by the wettest summer anyone can remember. We didn’t have any flint, so flint and steel wouldn’t be an option either – a shame, since this method I could manage quite handily. We’d batteries in our flashlights, but not 9-volts (though as we’d no steel wool, it mattered little). Three of us wore glasses, so we might be able to try the magnifying glass method. And, of course, I added as an afterthought, I had a pack of wind- and waterproof matches.

Then, as I paused at a creek to wet my bandanna and tie it about my head, we heard a shout from up ahead. “Yellow marks!” Ginny called back to us. “We found it! We’re not going to die out here!”

We stopped to take pictures, proud of ourselves for having found the thrall despite the terribly misleading directions. It led us along a stream, across a clearing full of echoes, and past a pyramidal ovoo. The path was easy, the trail almost insultingly clearly marked, with yellow blazes to guide us every ten feet or so.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. The trees ended at a hillside dotted with crimson patches of rhubarb, and with them, our trail. We took our time in the ascent, pausing often to collect rhubarb until our arms were overflowing the vermilion stalks, the ground behind us littered with leaves like Christmas-colored flags. At the last clearing, the marks had resumed with the trees, directly across from their endpoint; after an hour of constant easy guidance, we’d no reason to assume the case would be different here.

But it was. We scoured the tree line, our eyes peeled for the tiniest splash of yellow, but to no avail. When we came across a set of tire tracks we followed them instead, thinking they would take us to a path. They too ended just beyond the edge of the trees. But path or no, we’d come this far already and weren’t turning back now, so we took out the compass and forged onward.

The rock scrambles that peppered our forested tramping were fun at at first – I’ve always been a bit of a mountain goat, and I consider leaping from boulder to boulder, picking my way across precarious footing, to be good sport. But as the day wore on and my joints began to complain of the repeated impact, the experience lost some of its novelty. I’d already rolled my ankle several times throughout the day – never seriously, thank heavens, but the repeated strain made it unwilling to bear weight at the awkward angles our scrambles required. Many of the boulders also bore a thick coating of moss, something we blessed and cursed in equal measure: though the extra cushioning was a boon to oft-compressed knees and ankles, its tendency to slide out from under one’s feet made for a few scary slips for all of us.

The water situation didn’t help, either. The sun beat down relentlessly on us all day, and much of our journey had been uphill. Even the downhill stretches often required a degree of leaping and scrabbling that left us all panting and wiping the sweat from our eyes. We’d stopped for frequent water breaks until realizing, around mid-afternoon, that we’d less than a liter and a half between the five of us. While we could fill our bottles in one of the many streams, we’d no way to purify the water, and none of us wished court giardia if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

But even before our collective realization, I’d known I was in trouble as I watched the contents of my bottle dwindle. Water breaks might have been frequent up to that point, but we’d made only one potty break since our eight a.m. departure, and I’d not felt the need to participate. Sudden movements now sent my head reeling, more than doubling the difficulty presented by the fields of boulders that we seemed to face with increasing frequency – when dehydration hits, my balance is the first thing to go.

We were headed downhill at this point, determined to get off the darn mountain and onto what looked to be clearer ground down in the valley. Between my weakened ankle, blistered heels, and general difficulties with descent, I’d long since begun to lag behind the others, but a rumbling overhead quickened my step. It wasn’t the first I’d heard, but this sounded louder and closer. The rumbling continued to grow louder and more frequent as I caught up to the others. A glance over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions: the clouds behind us were dark, ugly, and coming on fast.

“Is that thunder?” one of the girls asked, and I nodded. “Oh, let’s hurry!” she cried. “I don’t want to be out here if there’s lightning!”

But as we rounded a bend, it became clear that the storm was only the beginning of our problems. There before us lay the city: visible at last, but distant yet. even on the flat, I thought, that would take us nearly two hours to walk, and the light had already begun to wane. That might just be from the storm, whispered a tiny voice in my head. It wasn’t very convincing.

I knew, at that point, what our course of action would have to be, but I kept the thought to myself until we reached the river that ran along the valley floor. We’d thought to follow it down to the city, but we now saw that it ran through yet another field of boulders, this one with no end in sight.

The rocks on the other side were large, reasonably flat, and thick with moss, so I called a halt. “Look,” I said, “we’ve got maybe half an hour of daylight left, and we’re not going to make it to the city in that time. We’re going to have to sleep out here tonight.”

Alisa protested. “But you guys don’t have enough layers! We won’t be warm enough! And we can see the city – we should keep going.”

Valerie shook her head. “It’ll be more dangerous to keep walking after dark. The ground’s too uneven – even with flashlights, someone will break an ankle.”

“Can’t we call someone?” Alisa asked. “I’ve got phone service.”

But the rest of us shook our heads. Yes, we could – and should – call people to let them know we wouldn’t be back tonight. But “in the mountains south of the city” is an awfully vague location, and we’d no way to narrow it down. No one was coming to get us tonight; we were on our own.


Little(r) Me

Per a request made by Polly (fellow second-world TEFL-er, though she’s in Russia, and my most frequent commenter), I present to you: images of my childhood. Though my seventeen-year career as a (very bad) gymnast undoubtedly furnished us with plenty of equivalents to the fabulously disgruntled Pollerina photos she posted, they exist only in the photo albums in my basement back home. There they shall remain unless my mother takes it upon herself to share them with the world. Mom, if you’re reading this: please, be merciful.

Dad holding newborn me and Bailey, the ever-living, always grumpy cat. She lived to be 21 and carried grudging memories of me as a toddler until she went senile at the age of 17 or so. After that, she liked me a lot more.

Halloween or the release of the 4th Harry Potter book. Both are equally likely.

I may only have caught the last few months of the eighties, but they’re clearly in full swing here.

Apparently I liked Beauty and the Beast. And my baby brother. At that age, we called him “Buddha Boy.”
























All my other pictures are in an un-uploadable format, evidently, or they also feature my brother. As the adorable younger brother you see here is now a 6’4″ Marine, I think I’ve embarrassed him enough for one day.

You wouldn't catch me dead in that color anymore, but I haven't lost the halo.

You wouldn’t catch me dead in that color anymore, but I haven’t lost the halo.


What Do You Eat in Mongolia?: Beet and Cabbage Salad Edition

I’m not usually one to run to social media every time I sit down to eat. I mean, we all have those friends who bombard us with pictures of their every meal via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. ad nauseam, and really, who needs them? But there are some things that merit sharing, especially when they’re replicable.

I’m leaving my apartment in less than a week, which means I’m in the midst of trying to use whatever I have left in the apartment without buying anything new – a familiar scramble for many of us, I’m sure, but a tricky  one nonetheless. It’s a state of near-constant peckishness and deliberation about its extent, which of the dwindling supplies might satisfactorily alleviate it, and whether it merits the purchase of new foodstuffs. It doesn’t help that I tend not keep snack food around; neither barley nor dry beans are particularly quick to prepare.

But I managed to throw something together last week that fell into both of the previously described categories, and since that is a rare experience indeed, I figured I ought to share the recipe that left my mouth watering for more. It was sweet and tangy and earthy and crunchy and came out so much better than I had any right to expect given the haphazard preparation.

Must-Go Beet and Cabbage Salad

  • Dig half a baked beet out of your rapidly-emptying refrigerator. Halve it, then slice into strips thin enough to cook rapidly. Throw them into a hot skillet with enough oil to compensate for the degrading non-stick surface. The heat should be high enough to caramelize the surface of the beets nicely without burning them.
  • While the beets are browning, thinly slice a withered quarter of an onion. Reduce the heat slightly and add the onions. Throw in a spoonful of sugar as well, because who doesn’t like caramelization?
  • Mince a clove of garlic and add it, along with a little salt. Stir.
  • Shred or julienne a handful of cabbage and add it; despite my phytochemicals-are-tasty preference for red cabbage, I used green for color contrast. Stir a few times, then turn off the heat and throw on the lid – when mostly raw, they add some nice crunch.
  • Splash in some red wine vinegar if you live somewhere where it’s available; if you live in Mongolia, add just a tiny bit of the obscenely strong white vinegar they have here and be very careful not to splash it, because that stuff will give you honest-to-god chemical burns. Trust me on that one.
  • Enjoy with Mexican rice empanadas/khuushuur, or whatever else you happen to have. No, I have absolutely no problem throwing world cuisines together – why do you ask?
You know it's good when you gobble most of it down before realizing you probably want photographic evidence.

You know it’s good when you gobble most of it down before realizing you probably want photographic evidence.

If, like me, you love beets, cabbage, and vinegar, and this sounds absolutely splendid, I offer you one caution: don’t try to make this in large quantities. The balance of sweet and sour, soft and crunchy that so enchanted me when I prepared this small serving depends on caramelizing the sugars in the beets, as well as the spoonful later added, and that won’t happen if there’s more than a thin layer of beets in the bottom of the pan.

What are your favorite everything-must-go recipes? I’ve got plenty of potatoes and carrots left, as well as barley, black beans, red kidney beans, and eggs. Creative preparation suggestions are appreciated!


Don’t Pet the Puppies?

For reasons I have yet to ascertain, the Mongolian Fulbright administrators do not advise their grantees to get rabies vaccinations before we arrive. Instead, they include as part of our in-country orientation a lecture from representatives at an American-operated, privately run medical clinic whose services you cannot use unless you are member, and whose membership fees even we well-paid Fulbrights cannot really afford. These representatives begin with the assumption that we have all been vaccinated and are subsequently horrified to learn we have not.

“You didn’t even get the immunoglobin?!” they ask, wide-eyed. “The vaccine itself is easy enough to come by here, but you need the immunoglobin first, and they don’t keep it to hand in the hospitals here.”Well, that would have been good to know before I arrived.

It’s not that rabies is rampant here, but rather that conditions are ripe for any outbreak to spread like wildfire. While apartment-dwelling pets remain rare, most residents of the ger districts keep khashaa dogs to protect their animals and homes. Spaying and neutering being mostly unknown here, this means that cities and soums alike teem with packs of strays. They congregate at the edges of town and around garbage bins, prowling the streets by day and night. One dog, even an aggressive one, is not unduly frightening; most will turn tail at the motion of   a human stooping to scoop up a rock, even if there are no rocks to be had in the vicinity. But a snarling pack is bolder and rather more difficult to dissuade.

The main method of population control is to round them up and shoot them, typically at the beginning of the winter. It’s thought to be more humane to deal with them this way than to let them starve and/or freeze to death, as many of them will. Not for nothing do the local Peace Corps Volunteers know November as the advent of starfish babies and pupsicles. (Happily, my Mongolian winter involved many of the former and none of the latter.)

Even out of their enclosures, khashaa dogs are usually distinguishable by the same means as pet dogs in the States: the presence of something bright around their necks. Lacking proper collars, Mongolians will use fabric, belts, even the bows from chocolate boxes. Without these markers, no dog is safe; after rescuing her from outhouses not once but twice, our friend Mike lost his dog, the aptly-named Tumpin, to the cold-weather roundup when she got out without her collar.

But even khashaa dogs are not really pets as we think of them; being more like guard dogs, they’re not conditioned to be friendly to every passerby. As such, the message impressed upon all Westerners as soon as we arrive is clear: Don’t pet the animals. You’d think by now I would have learned to heed that message.

Not that I’ve been bitten, mind you; the sole “bites” I’ve ever received have been from cats, and they’ve been of the warning kind whereby the cat grabs hold of you with claws sheathed and applies enough pressure for its teeth to be felt, but not to break the skin. But that’s a cat for you: purring and friendly until it suddenly isn’t. I do have the sense to let them approach me, rather than the other way around; no matter how low my kitty-love quota may run, I know I’ll get nothing but grief from a frightened cat.

But dogs present other problems.  I typically stick to puppies, as they’re less likely to have learned to fear man. And really, who could resist faces like these?

Yesterday, however, I actually petted adult stray. A bad choice, I know, but I couldn’t resist – he was wriggling! I spotted him from across the street; he was curled up in the grass, his head on his paws.

“Aren’t you cute,” I crooned as I walked past. He perked up his years and thumped his tail. You said something to me!, I read in his new attentiveness. And you said it nicely and didn’t yell at me or anything! I took a step closer. He remained on his belly but thumped his tail enthusiastically. I took another step. “Well, hello there.”

At this, his excitement surpassed the level expressible by simple tail-wagging. In its place, he began the full-body wriggle I’ve seen from so many strays desperate to belong to people. There’s so much emotion conveyed in that wriggle: restraint, joy, desperation, suppressed longing, anticipation of disappointment. He wriggled harder as a I took another step closer, torn between bounding up to me and running away. Will you play with me? he asked with every fiber of his being. I want to play and you look like a nice person but maybe you’ll chase me away like all the other people they shout at me like I’m a bad got but I’m a GOOD dog and I want to play but I’m afraid oh won’t you pleasepleasePLEASE be my friend?!

I closed the gap between us and crouched slowly, extending my hand. He inched close enough to sniff it and gave my fingers one cautious lick, but pulled back when I tried to pet him. He did not bare his teeth, however, and so I allowed him a few more sniffs before slowly, cautiously stroking his ears. He permitted it, having abandoned his wriggling for the absolute stillness of caution. Knowing that these few skritches were as much as he’d permit, I rose and turned to leave. He stood as well, wagging his tail in my wake.

I turned back to him. “Sorry, love. You can’t come with me.” He continued wagging his tail, his eyes alight with the hope he’d found himself a person. I sighed; while I’ve had puppies aplenty trail after me, I hadn’t expected that instant attachment from a fully-grown dog. I stamped my foot. “Shoo.” He backed away, but after my first few steps, proceeded to follow me once more. I raised my voice and my arms in the single upward flap I use for herding horses, startling cattle, and dissuading dogs. “Go away. I can’t keep you. Shoo.” Mongolian passersby chuckled at my predicament, but I stood firm.

After a few more attempts, the dog remained while I continued my determined march away. I tried not to think of the roundups to come in the next few months, the fate that might await this dog and so many others. I hoped he’d find himself a human, a permanent resident more able to take care of a sweet and trusting creature so desperate to belong.


Zuds and their Ghosts


The only post-2000 grave I recall seeing.

We stood at the base of the hill, considering how best to satisfy the needs of both curiosity and decorum. The gloriously blue sky overhead was a brilliant lie, giving the impression that this wasn’t a brief break between the downpours that had predominated our time here in Khatgal, and throwing the engravings on the headstones at our feet into garish relief.

I’d seen ovoos and stupas aplenty in the past ten months, but a cemetery was a new sight. I’d been told at some point that Buddhists usually burned their dead and accepted without question that Mongolians, even the ones who weren’t Buddhist, would do the same for pure practicality’s sake. Mongolia is a country of permafrost, where lakes freeze solid to a depth of four feet or more in winter and don’t thaw completely until June, and the snows that fall in late October have no chance to dissipate until February, when the temperature finally edges above freezing once more.

It doesn’t stay there, either, but flirts with both sides of the divide for the next three months. The first rain of the year fell on April 20th, but the snow continued intermittently until May 27th (when we got nearly a foot of it). Even in April, workers wishing to dig so much as foot-deep trench to lay cable were first obliged to literally set the ground on fire in order to soften it. Digging deep enough to lay a grave would be possible for a few months of the year, no more.

So it was with great curiosity that I moved about the remains of Khatgal’s dead, noting the differences between these graves and those I’d seen elsewhere. They lacked the space-efficient grid pattern that makes it impossible to walk through an American cemetery without stepping on someone’s grave, sprawling haphazardly in every direction. No marble angels here, either, nor a single imposing obelisk, though one solitary cross sat surrounded by its mostly-rectangular brethren. Some markers were of stone, others of a metal that, though tawdry in appearance, bore better witness to the lifetimes it marked than did its more traditional weatherworn counterpart.


Not enough Cyrillic for me to read the name, and I can’t read the Tibetan.

It was fairly recent, this graveyard, with only a few birthdates predating 1900 and at least one resident who’d not moved there until the turn of the millennium. A few stones bore inscriptions in Tibetan, but all the names we found had been engraved after Mongolia adopted the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940’s. The dates bespoke the same communist era as the cemetery’s Spartan sensibilities: most of them marked lives lived in the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

After only a few minutes of wandering, I noticed that one date was starting to sound awfully familiar. The birthdates differed, of course, but surely the last grave I’d looked at also marked a life ended in 1983 – and for that matter, so did at least four of the last ten. In fact, nearly half the stones in this section of the graveyard dated from that year, many of those from its first few months. Assessing each marker with new purpose, now, I noticed another pattern as well: a disproportionate number of the 1983 graves were heartbreakingly small.

What happened in 1983? I wondered aloud, and my companions murmured their mutual curiosity. And then someone made the inevitable suggestion: Maybe there was a zud.

None of us had witnessed one of these devastating winters, the last having occurred in 2010, but I’d learned the term within a week of arriving in the country. Tornados, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions – most of the natural disasters familiar to us are (almost) completely absent in Mongolia[i]. But they do have winters so cold the livestock freeze to death, or so snowy they starve for lack of forage. A zud is not measured in degrees below zero or centimeters of snow, but in cost: I’ve heard it defined as a winter in which over a million head of livestock are lost to the elements. The zud of 2010 took over eight million, more than 17% of the country’s livestock population.

For the many urban residents of developed countries (as I assume most of my readers are), it might be hard to translate that number into more understandable terms. Yes, that’s an awful lot of dead animals, but what exactly does that mean in terms of human suffering?

A lot. In a country largely populated with subsistence herders, that’s a catastrophic loss. It means that at least one animal corpse for every three people lies frozen on the steppe, to rot there in the coming summer. It means that thousands of herders and their families will have to move to the city, having lost their livelihoods with the death of all or most of their livestock. It means that eight million animals will not contribute their monetary value to Mongolia’s economy, nor their meat to its people: Mongolians will eat no animal that died of natural causes, not even hypothermia. The fattest cow, once dead at hands not human, will feed only the varmints. Some herders will slaughter their animals themselves in the face of insurmountable cold, that their flesh might still be fit for human consumption – but once wiped out in this matter, neither herd nor livelihood will regenerate.

Even now, for most Mongolians outside the three largest cities, meat is the primary source of sustenance during the long months of winter. Permafrost is not particularly conducive to agriculture, so the few vegetables widely available in this country (potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, beets) are recent, mostly imported, additions to the Mongolian diet. Mongolia’s three “national foods[ii]” require only meat, fat, flour, and salt; anything else is a recent addition, and in the most isolated parts of the country (a phrase akin to ‘the hottest parts of the Sahara,’ perhaps, or ‘the wettest parts of the ocean’), those additions often remain unavailable. Take the meat and animal fat out of the equation, and you’re left trying to survive the winter on flour, rice, and little else.

That might not mean complete starvation, but in my mind it certainly constitutes famine, and that level of malnutrition would also leave people vulnerable to the first spark of contagion to come wandering through the community. People compromised by malnutrition, its accompanying ailments (scurvy, rickets, and so forth), and exhaustion are also more prone to accidents. A zud doesn’t result in the sudden, large-scale loss of human life that we associate with most natural disasters; its toll is slow and insidious, taking months instead of minutes to end or alter lives.

We did not ask our hosts, nor anyone else in Khatgal, what had happened in 1983 to end so many lives; by the time we made it back to our lodgings, we were more concerned with not getting struck by lightning than unraveling the mysteries of years past. But I wish now that we had. Excepting its major interactions with the rest of the world, Mongolia is not a country whose historical events may be uncovered by a casual perusal of the Internet, particularly if the peruser doesn’t speak Mongolian. The story of Khatgal’s difficult winter of 1983 most likely exists only in the memories of those who survived it.

It might not have been something so widespread as a zud, after all. Perhaps that specific part of northern Mongolia was particularly cold or snowy that winter, and the local livestock populations were devastated, or the roads (such as they are) did not permit the transportation of food. Perhaps the soum was struck by disease, and the residents of the nearby aimag center preferred to watch their neighbors waste away rather than risk infection themselves. Perhaps a spark from someone’s stove caught in the felt or floorboards of a ger and the fire leapt from khashaa  (yard) to khashaa, the smoke inhalation taking its toll on even those whose homes survived the blaze.

I wondered, as I wandered amongst the thirty-year-old graves, what it had been like for those who dug them. How many infants went into the ground that winter, before their first haircuts or even their first steps? How many children were left to those grieving mothers, and for how many was the loss of a hungry mouth a terrible sort of blessing?

What did they do for those who passed in March and April, that time of transition when the ground remains frozen, but the air is not? Did they cremate them, as they must have cremated those who died in the months so cold that one might freeze or burn without knowing which was which? Or did they strew smoking coals along the ground, chipping desperately at the half-frozen earth in order to carve out a space large enough to lay the dead to rest?

Did they curse that brilliant blue sky for its ghastly cheerfulness, wishing that it would weep, as they did, while they watched their loved ones fade away?

I don’t know; in all likelihood, I never will. Perhaps the people of Khatgal would prefer that I didn’t go digging about in their graveyard, uncovering old grief to satisfy my curiosity. But I can’t help but believe that some of those ghosts might want their stories told.



[i] The few volcanoes are long dead, and the earthquakes too weak to do much damage.

[ii] The term mostly annoys me, since the standard textbooks would appear to conflate national and traditional, but as what Mongolians call their “national foods” do not include the milk products that compose most of the traditional summer diet, the term is useful here. The “national foods,” for those interested, are бууз (buuz), хуушуур (khuushuur), and цуйван (tsuivan).


Everyone Loves a Good Riddle

More often than I’d like to admit, I’m interrupted while getting ready for bed with the realization that I have a lesson to teach the next morning, and that I haven’t planned it yet. The nice thing about speaking lessons, of course, is that they don’t require a whole lot of advanced planning – just a topic and enough activities or questions to keep a conversation going for the whole hour.  But you still have to come up with something beforehand.

With my more advanced students, I tend to fall back on riddles. They’re hard in a second language, since English riddles (like our jokes) tend to make such heavy use of wordplay. But talking through the double meanings is a fun way to improve my students’ vocabularies, and I’m always looking for a good way to stretch their critical thinking muscles.

And then, of course, I ask them for some examples of their own. For whatever reason, this is typically met with resistance. “Mongolia has many riddles,” they often respond, as though I’d asked them to provide an exhaustive list.

Of course it does; I don’t know of any languages that don’t. I’d love to do a sociolinguistic research project on the subject of riddles: their importance in various cultures, the ways in which they are used, the kinds of logical twists that must be followed in order to guess the answers. Alas, my copy of Speech Play and Verbal Art is back in Chicago, and so I’ve no analysis to inject into this post, nor any cross-cultural examples to present to you.

Instead, I’m collecting my own list of Mongolian examples. “Tell me some,” I insist to my students when they continue to dither. They’re resisting for the same reason I’m persisting: translation is a difficult exercise, and I want them to practice it. And while not all riddles make sense in translation, the Children’s Palace director managed to provide me with a few that did.

1. Ten sons of father are very hard workers; ten daughters of mother are too lazy.

2. Далан давхар хувцастай – It wears seventy layers of clothes.

3. Өглөө дөрвөн хөлтэй, өдөр хоёр хөлтэй, орой гурван хөлтэй – In the morning it has four legs, in the afternoon it has two legs, in the evening it has three legs.

I was particularly intrigued by the third one, given that we have the same riddle in English. I’d love to know whether that one cropped up independently in both languages or was borrowed by one from the other. Khongorzul, though a font of other kinds of information, did not know.

If, like me, you were unable to puzzle out the first two riddles without further information, here are some hints: #1 is something everyone has; #2 is a kind of food.

If you’ve any more riddles from other languages to add to my collection, please leave them in the comments! I’d like to write a more thoughtful post on the subject when I have time to do it justice.



Whenever someone asks me, “What are Mongolian people like?” I always give them the same answer:

Life in Mongolia is like living with an entire country of grandmothers. Everyone is always trying to feed you and telling you to put on more clothes.

Some of you have probably heard this from me a few times now, and I’m sure the answer’s gotten a little tired in the telling. But cliché or not, I stick to it because it’s no less true than it was eleven months ago. I know I complained about it in the winter months, when the inherent condescension of not being trusted to dress myself properly began to grate on my nerves. But even then, I knew I preferred the endless chorus of, “Don’t you have a real winter coat?” and “Your shoes not warm enough” to being left to fend for myself in the coldest weather I’d ever experienced. Parents and grandparents can be overbearing, certainly, but we all know that they do it because they care about us. And that concern is itself a potent charm against the cold of winter.

The arrival of warmer weather brought an end to my being made to feel like my brother (who makes a habit of running around in Chicago winters in shorts and a sweatshirt), but other forms of hospitality persist. Yesterday, for instance, I stopped by a seamstress’s home to pick up the new deel I’d commissioned from her (a short “fashion” deel, not the traditional kind I purchased in January). She was in the midst of cooking some sort of large, thick, fried pancakes, and she ushered me into the kitchen to wait until she’d finished cooking.

“Суу, суу,” she said, pointing at a chair. “Цай уух уу?”

Upon being informed that it was black tea she had on hand, rather than the ubiquitous milk tea I want but fail to enjoy, I said I would indeed like some. She poured me a cup from the standard pink plastic thermos and placed a large bowl containing the first completed cake in front of me. “Ид, ид.” This is a command I’ve heard countless times; it’s the endless refrain of Mongolian hosts, and it sounds exactly the same in both English and Mongolian: “eat, eat.”

I’d never had this sort of food before, and I didn’t catch what it was called, but it was delightful: about half an inch thick and slightly sweet, crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside. I asked what was in it, besides the obvious flour and sugar; just butter, she said. Utterly lacking in nutritional value, I’m sure, but deliciously so.

I’d eaten my fill and finished my tea by the time she finished cooking the remaining cakes, but had that not been the case, she would have waited for me before proceeding to the purpose of my visit.  Mind you, I wasn’t a friend she’d invited over for a meal, or even a short social visit; I was just there to try on the deel she was sewing for me. But Mongolian manners dictated that as a guest who’d be staying any significant length of time, I be offered a cup of tea. And she certainly wasn’t going to cook in front of me without offering me some, especially since she sat down to break off part of the last crispy cake after it came out of the oil.

The custom holds no matter where I go; when I step into the offices of my school’s director or the Children’s Palace Director, even when I’m there to tutor them, the first question I’m asked is, “Coffee or tea?” The owner of whatever ger you’ve just entered, to my undying chagrin, will often hand you a steaming bowl of salty milk tea and the tray of aaruul completely unprompted, leaving me scrambling to stutter out my standard lie (“Sorry, I can’t drink milk”). I really do appreciate the gesture; I just wish it wasn’t made with milk. I can drink it, technically; it’s just that the whole milk they use, to which they often add more fat, makes me queasy.

I have yet to see a Mongolian pass up a chance to feed me, either. If you visit a friend’s home, the second thing she will most likely do is to bustle into the kitchen and begin cooking for you – the first, of course, is to offer you tea. And they’ll go out of their way to do this for you. My roommate’s oldest sister has a house in UB, and Namuunaa called to let her know I was in the city when I went in May. Amarjargal, in turn, called to ask when I was coming over for dinner. Her disappointment at my “Thanks, but I’m not sure I have time” crackled more loudly than the phone; I was afraid I’d offended her!

When I did find time to visit their home, she and her husband picked me up from the State Department Store; after a dinner of tsuivan with beets and beef cheeks, they tried to keep me for the night. When I insisted that I really did need to get back, they took a taxi in with me from their home in Sansar and walked me to my friend’s apartment building. I hadn’t even remembered their names at the outset of the evening, but they, like almost everyone else I’ve met in this country, wanted to keep me safe and make me feel welcome.

So when I sipped at my tea and tried my best to make polite conversation with my seamstress yesterday, it was with thanks but without surprise. Her name is Oyuntuya, I learned, though the Mongolian friend who up until now had acted as translator had simply called her эгч ээ (“ig-chay”). It means older sister, and it’s the standard term of address for an older but not old woman in this country. Still, it wasn’t what came to mind as I watched this cheerful, hospitable woman bustling about her little kitchen. What I wanted to call her, in the best possible sense of the word, was эмээ: grandmother.


And to think I call myself an English major

… well, actually, I don’t. I call myself a linguistics major. But I’m a linguistics major who attempted to double-major in literature until I realize that it would mean taking four lit classes in a single semester during my senior year, at which point I said, “I’d like sleep and sanity, please and thank you,” and minored in rhetoric instead. But I still consider myself an English major. I write like one, as anyone who’s seen my Academic Writing will attest. I text in fully punctuated, grammatically correct sentences. I giggle at terrible grammar jokes. I dither about whether to footnote/endnote inside or outside the punctuation at the end of my sentences. I believe firmly in the importance of the Oxford Comma (an opinion upon which I think Hitler and JFK would, for the sake of their dignity, agree).

And for as long as I can remember, I’ve been The Girl Who Corrects Everyone’s Grammar. I’ve been doing it for so long that I can’t actually think of any specific instances in which I’ve corrected people, though I’m sure my friends and family will be happy to provide them once this is posted. I tell my friends it’s part of my charm, and they agree – whereupon they cheerfully and deliberately bombard me with misuses of there/their/they’re, it’s/its, and your/you’re. Or they refer to things as “addicting” in order to make me twitch.* But I digress.

Living in a non-English speaking country does things to your English. When addressing nonnative speakers, you slow down, over-enunciate, and simplify. First to go, of course, are the complex rhetorical structures you’ve spent your academic life perfecting. You condense your modal verbs, abandon all words longer than three syllables, discard objects and articles with wild abandon. You affix tag questions to your queries, having realized once the phrase is halfway uttered that your listener won’t catch the upward inflection that marks it as a question.** You try to keep your speech as unmangled as possible, for the sake of your higher-level learners, but sometimes the oversimplification in the name of understanding is often necessary.

And then, somehow, it starts leaking into your everyday English. Latinate words elude you, and you find yourself Googling the finer points of grammar as complex constructions grow unfamiliar.  And then one day, the dam gives way altogether, and you answer a request to turn up the stove with a beauty like, “That’s the most hotter it gets.”***

I suppose it was inevitable, then, that I might find my more advanced students asking me to correct their grammar more often.

I should note, I suppose, that most of my classes are not grammatically-focused. I figure that if these students want lessons on exactly how to structure their sentences, they can get it from Mongolian teachers who will actually be able to explain them in ways the students will understand – with my limited Mongolian, I can do this only for the students with the most advanced English. Instead, my focus is typically on getting them to speak. I try to make them use their English aloud, in contexts outside of the grammatical exercises that many seem to think are the only ways in which they can practice and learn.

Especially with my elementary-level learners, my desire to observe the niceties of grammar has long since been superseded by the desire for meaningful communication. I’ve seen a lot of students who spend most of their time in silence, too terrified of making a mistake to open their mouths, and that kind of environment is the last thing I want to foster. If my students want to talk, I tend to let them. Obviously, in the classes in which I actually teach grammar, I’m picky about whatever structure we’ve been focusing on that day. But if they don’t obstruct my understanding, I tend to let a lot of errors go.

I used Ryan Woodward’s Thought of You  in my high school speaking class last month. This beautiful short film made the rounds on Facebook when it first came out on Vimeo a few years ago, but I’m embedding it here anyway. You don’t need to watch it to understand my point, but you should anyway, because it’s just that gorgeous.

After we had watched, I asked my students to tell me about the video. They hit the basics pretty quickly: It’s a love story. There is a man and a woman. They are dancing. They are drawings. The man leaves and the woman cries. Without any prompting from me, they also identified crucial shift at the video’s climax: the woman is white at the beginning and black at the end; the man is the opposite. “Why do you think that is?” I asked them, and the room fell silent, as it does almost every time I ask them, “why?”

And then I heard the voice of the smallest girl, the one who never speaks up unless I specifically call on her and false starts three or four times whenever she tries to answer the question.

“Maybe… she is at beginning not love him, and he is love her. Next, she is fell, and he is not love her.”

It took her a long time to stumble to stumble through this grammatical nightmare of an utterance, but I was impressed with her nonetheless. Grammatically correct or not, the meaning was clear, and she had done an excellent job of explaining her interpretation within the narrow confines of her limited vocabulary.

Moreover, it was a tricky question to start with. The Mongolian education system, from what I’ve seen, puts a great deal of emphasis on listening to the teacher talk, and little to none on critical thinking. Even fairly high-level students, when asked a why question as simple as, “Why do you like basketball?” will often answer with a shrug of the shoulders or, “It’s interesting,” if they answer at all. Literary interpretation is not on the menu in their own tongue, much less a second language. So I certainly wasn’t about to interrupt my student in the midst of her answer, no matter how far it wandered from the tradition constraints of grammar. That she felt compelled to offer an interpretation was victory enough.

Obviously, this is a complicated topic that I’ve only touched upon, and that I’d like to address at length another time and with appropriate references to SLA theory. But at the moment, I’d like to hear from the other TEFL-ers among my readers. To what extent do you focus on grammar in your lessons? When do you start to switch your focus from “get them to talk” to “mold their English into something that adheres to standard grammatical rules”? And just how do you get those terrified beginners to talk?


* No, that’s not hyperbole. I really do twitch. And while addicting is a word, it’s not an adjective. Addictive, people. So much more elegant, in addition to being the right part of speech.

** And because it’s the structure most likely to be recognized as a question by speakers of a language that uses sentence-final question particles.

*** Uttered by a friend who shall here remain unnamed. He’s only been here a few months longer than I, so I’m sure it won’t be long before  I start to unleash my own grammatical monstrosities. My house grows glassier by the day.