Everywhere But Home

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


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All Things Mongolian

As a college student more focused on doing well in my studies than what I would do when I finished them, and then a resident of a country in which meeting immediate needs far surpassed the importance of future planning (must wash clothes to wear tomorrow! must go grocery shopping or starve! must get the power turned back on or have nothing to teach in class tomorrow!), networking has always seemed to me to be a supremely abstract concept, the sort of thing dealt with mostly by Professional People wearing suits and meeting by the office water cooler to discuss office politics and resume semantics. Instead, it turns out to be something that really matters to the pre-professional people desperate to find their first full-time jobs so that they can move out of their parents’ houses and feel like real adults.

Since I enjoy my 35 hours/week at the local florist, I would classify myself as anxious rather than desperate–but it is, nonetheless, the latter category with which I identify. Floral design is a fun field in which I get to exercise my oft-neglected creative spirit, but part-time employ at a small business covers neither dental nor vision-related expenses, and as a cavity-prone girl with glasses, I sort of need both. So if any of my readers know of any writing- or language-related job openings in Chicagoland, I would be deeply appreciative of a heads-up!

Weirdly, the upshot of having lived in a little-known country is that I often find myself on the other side of the networking paradigm. Even though I’ve been back in the US for six months, I still find myself getting emails and comments from folks seeking connections in Mongolia. Want advice on when/how to travel the country, how to obtain a bottle of whisky exported only to MGL, or how to get hold of the contacts you need for a research visa? Apparently, I’m the girl to ask! My reach in many of these areas is limited, especially as most of my contacts will return to the US this summer, but I promise you, dear readers, that I will always try my best to connect you to the right people to answer your strange and unforeseen questions. After all, on the grand karmic scale of things, that means that someone out there will eventually help me to find the job I’m seeking, right?

In the meantime, it also means that I find myself CC’d on all things Mongolian that cross my friends’ Facebook feeds. Mongolia has apparently been pretty trendy in the past month, so there have been a lot of these things, and some of them are awfully cool! Because I have been so shamefully bad at posting regularly this month (Mea culpa! Working on your feet for seven hours a day is tiring as all get-out!), please allow me to share a few with you while I work on generating new and interesting stories to tickle your collective fancy. (Holy unintentional euphemisms, Batman!)

FreeCreditScore “Mongolian” Slider

At some point in the last year, Mongolian made an appearance on a freecreditscore.com commercial! I thought it was cool to see this language being recognized in something so high-stakes a a US TV commercial, even if only as a novelty.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the authenticity of the language, though perhaps some of my readers might be able to. I recognize several of the words, but the accent strikes me as… questionable.

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

BBC recently ran a story about Ashol-Pan, a thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh girl apprenticed in the tradition of eagle hunting. The photos are gorgeous, even if the information is a little skimpy. It looks like I’m going to have to move the story of my own experience with a Kazakh eagle hunter up the queue to rectify this deficit!

A girl and her eagle.

Kazakh Photo Essay

For some basic information, as well as more spectacular photos, check out Christo Geoghegan’s photo essay on western Mongolia’s Kazakh population. Though they make up only a small percentage of the population of Mongolia as a whole, the Kazakh people are the majority in Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s western-most province. I was fortunate enough to visit the province during the Eagle Festival last October, and to stay with several Kazakh families. I have lots of stories to tell about the experience, but my pictures in no way compare to this professional’s! I highly suggest you check out his work.

Just one of many gorgeous photos! Seriously, go check these out.

That’s all for now, folks! Enjoy the pretty pictures while I work on generating some more content while also working and also also job searching.


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Siamese

After Thailand’s initial temperature shock had worn off, and I’d sighed in gratitude at both iced beverages and spicy food, I began to notice them. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. They were everywhere – lurking in corners, watching from the shadows, draped across doorsteps and sidewalks and curled lazily in the sun. Some fled at my approach; others welcomed me, coming out to greet me with tails held high. Most took in my presence through half-lidded eyes, twitched the the tips of their tails, and continued their repose.

In the preceding year, I’d grown unaccustomed to seeing cats with any regularity. There were a few to be found in the streets of Erdenet, mostly in the Russian districts, but the sight of approaching humans sent most of them running for the crevices that led below the apartment buildings, the warm dark spaces too small for most pursuers. Some Mongolians hudoo-dwelling Mongolians keep them for pest prevention, but few in the cities have such a use for them. And the vast majority would never keep them as pets.

Most Mongolians, when I tell them that cats were my favorite animal, shudder or grimace in surprise and disgust. They’re not afraid of cats, per se, but they definitely don’t like them. Their eyes are scary, they tell me; their eyes will put curses on you. My protests that cats were smart and independent and graceful, and their hard-won affection heartwarming, fell on deaf ears. “Муур муухай,” they answered; “муур муу.” Cats are ugly; cats are bad.

Most Mongolians are definitely team “cats will kill you in your sleep.”

The Thai people, by contrast, love their cats. I’d see them at fruit and vegetable markets, napping on boxes behind counters and in stores; I’d see them walking the city streets like they owned them. I especially saw them at temples, where they lurked in droves. All, owned or stray, seemed sleek and well-fed – nothing like the scrawny, mangy moggies cowering in Mongolian courtyards. And most, I noticed, watched me with bright blue eyes.

I was, after all, in the country that brought us the Siamese.

The presence of cats made feel both at home and homesick. I’d missed cats during my year in Mongolia, stopping far more often than was wise to pet the strays who didn’t bolt the moment I took a step in their direction. It was nice to be among people who loved these animals as I did, but each new pair of blue eyes sent a pang through my heart as I remembered my own Siamese.

Bailey was an irritable little old lady for most of her life. Her meow was nasal and unpleasant, and she wasn’t particularly playful, though she grudgingly tolerated the dog’s tendency to lick her ears until they were sopping wet. She liked to crawl beneath the covers and bite my parents’ toes at night. We’d had her since before I was born, and it wasn’t until I was in my teens and she grew too old and senile to remember how I’d put a hairclip on her tail when I was three that she began to warm up to me.

I loved her anyway. She was a fixture, not only of my childhood, but of my adolescence as well; it wasn’t until I turned twenty-one, nearly three years after we’d had to put Bailey down, that I was finally the older of the two of us.

I hadn’t thought about her in a while when I arrived in Thailand, but I had plenty of time to do so while I was there. I sat down in a temple and counted the number of cats within sight – sixteen, at least – and petted the ones who let me for a while, remembering my cranky old cat. I’m told she used to play with my grandparents’ long-dead golden retriever as a kitten, running behind the couch and then coming out the other side and smacking him on the butt when he stuck his head behind it to look for her. I hope they’re playing now, reunited at long last.


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Hiking Fiasco, Part II: Survival

“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.

(Apologies for the absurdly long wait after the last cliffhanger in this story.  If the segment above wasn’t enough to remind you what happened in Part I of the Hiking Fiasco, I don’t blame you; feel free to click back and reread. I’ll wait.)

As dark began to fall in earnest, we took stock of our resources. I had a plastic bag containing one box of wind- and waterproof matches, about eight feet of ultra-lightweight rope, a pocket knife, and one of our two flashlights. We all had cell phones, most of which even had service. Valerie had her iPhone, which had served as our compass all day and was now running low on batteries. We had a little water left, and some food. All of us had rain jackets, but only about half of us had other layers to put on. Several of us were still in short sleeves, myself included, and my rain jacket’s sleeves were not insulated.

The day had been hot, but the temperature was already dropping, and it would fall even further once night set in. Those of us who wouldn’t sweat right through them put on our jackets in order to conserve what heat we had, but even so, we knew we were in for a miserable night. We had no tents, no sleeping bags. Fire, then, was to be our first priority.

Alisa fretted aloud about our predicament, our unpreparedness, whether we’d get hypothermia, and how much trouble we’d be in, her voice growing more panicky and high-pitched with every sentence. “Firewood,” I said, looking her in the eye. “You’re in charge of the big sticks. Nothing alive or rotting. Go.”

She drew a deep breath, nodded, and went.

We chose a largish, flat expanse near but not directly under a tree and piled our bags together, moving flashlights and other important items to our pockets so they wouldn’t get lost in the dark. I set the other girls to collecting wood as well, while I sat down to sort it according to size. I grinned when they returned with a thick piece of birch and again when I was presented with a branch thick with the tiny pieces of pine deadwood we call “itsy bitsies” at camp.

“More of these,” I said, gesturing to both. “Birchbark is campfire gold, and the little pine twigs make the best kindling.” The light had dwindled so far that they couldn’t clearly see what I was asking them to get, so I held up the pine for them to feel its distinctive scaly texture. Once they knew what they were looking for, I was piled with armloads of the stuff.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t doing so well with the fire. I’d started with the classic log cabin fire but failed twice to get it lit. Wind- and waterproof these matches might be, but they were horrifically difficult to light, and once I did get them lit, their weatherproof coating burned down much faster than an ordinary match. I couldn’t reach into the log cabin structure and light enough tinder for the twigs to catch without singing my fingers. At this rate, I would run us out of matches before I got anything lit, and we’d be at serious risk of hypothermia.

In frustration bordering on desperation, I resorted to the most basic fire-making technique of them all: bunch up some toilet paper, light it, drop a few handfuls of kindling on it, and blow. I heaved a sigh of relief when the twigs caught, or would have if my lungs weren’t already busy supplying our fledgling fire with oxygen. One of the other girls handed me sticks of increasingly larger sizes as the tongues of flame increased in size and brightness, and slowly we built the blaze into a more stable size and shape.

Fire lit and compatriots notified, it was time to get what sleep we could. Four of us bedded down a flat stretch of moss a few feet from the fire, chain-spooning to conserve heat, while the fifth sat the first fire watch. We’d evenly divided the approximate hours until dawn and allotted an hour and a half to each person, during which they were to keep an eye on fire and firewood alike to keep the fire from either dying out or spreading to the downed and very dead pine only a few feet away. Given my difficulties in starting the first fire, none of us wanted to wake shivering in the dead of night to stir desperately at a pile of ashes that refused to reignite.

The first fire watch was really a formality; I don’t think any of us actually got any sleep as the night grew darker and the thunder louder and more persistent over the next hour. I think the others were plagued with the same worries that ran though my head, their frequency increasing with the thunder. Our raincoats could keep us only so dry; we had no way to protect the fire. Visions of sodden huddles, chattering teeth, and genuine hypothermia danced before my open eyes.

When the first few droplets fell, we all leaped to our feet in unison. If it really was going to rain, we needed shelter, and we needed it fast. We cannibalized our woodpile  for the biggest sticks, wishing we hadn’t broken so many when we gathered wood earlier. Then we broke into groups to gather more materials.

Alisa watched me as I lay long branches between a log and a stump and then used them to support smaller ones, creating a framework about two feet off the ground. “How are you making this?” she asked, and I explained that we needed the frame to be dense enough to support pine boughs that would shed at least some of the rain. “Oh!” she said. “Like a sukkah!”

I grinned. “Exactly.”

Given her greater experience in the field of sukkahs, I left Alisa in charge of the construction while I joined the pine-collection effort. The local pines sported dense collections of needles at the tips of their branches, but only there; the rest of the branch was bare. It took an awful lot of branch tips to cover even a small section our 5’x3.5′ framework. Thank goodness for the moss. Even if it just absorbed the rain rather than repelling it, it was still a roof of some kind. With a little care in peeling and carrying, we were able to detach two-inch-deep sections of nearly a square foot. I felt a little guilty about killing so much moss and cutting off so many live pine branches, but not enough to stop.

Our finished shelter wasn’t about to win any contests for beauty or comfort: the roof was patchy and small, leaving most of our legs exposed, and too low for us even to sit up underneath it. But it was more shelter than we’d had before, and building it had given us a sense of purpose and accomplishment. It had also kept us moving enough to accumulate some more body heat, which we knew we’d need. We crawled back in, curled up together, and tried once more to sleep.

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Oh, moss, how we love and hate thee.

It was a long, cold night. Even with my arms pulled into the body of my jacket, I wasn’t dressed to withstand temperatures in the low forties (single digits, for the Celcius-minded), and no one was much better off. The moss beneath us made a soft bed, but also a damp one that refused to warm. Even packed together like sardines we were cold. One by one, we left the shelter for spots closer to the fire. Alisa remained curled up in the shelter for nearly half an hour after the rest of us had abandoned it, but eventually she too awoke at the loss of shared heat.

Fire watch turned out to be unnecessary: even curled up as near to as we dared, none of us slept soundly, and there were always a couple of us awake. The shelter, too, proved superfluous; despite its loud and frequent threats, the promised rain never fell. On us, that is. We learned later that the city had gotten drenched, while our area remained miraculously dry. Perhaps the shelter wasn’t so superfluous – if we hadn’t built it, it probably would have poured in our part of the mountains too. Murphy’s law is not to be tested, especially when it teams up with mother nature.

At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.

As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.


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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.”

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“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.


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I fail at hiking.

Or, to be more specific, I have thus far failed abysmally at hiking the hills around Erdenet. This is hard for me, as an avid outdoorswoman, long-time Scout, and veteran of several backpacking trips, to admit, but it’s true. And for this, I blame one trait: my hatred of wet feet and squelchy hiking boots.

“I must be cursed,” I recently commented to a Swedish long-time resident of this town. “Every time I try to set foot out of doors, it starts to rain.”

“That’s not a curse, it’s a blessing,” he replied. “Rain is always a blessing in Mongolia.”

He is, generally speaking, correct. If you look up Mongolia’s climate, chances are that one of the words your’e going to find describing it is arid. Even this far north of the Gobi, rain is still considered rare and special. The first rainfall of the year is considered especially lucky; when it fell on April 20th this year, during my friend’s wedding, we were told that this was a particularly auspicious sign for their marriage.

But while the rains did not begin until late this year, with skies that seemed not to remember how to deliver liquid precipitation and continued to dump snow on us until May 27th, they have fallen with a vengeance in the two months since. I would estimate that it has rained at least four or five days out of every week since that final blizzard; much to my dismay, the weekend always falls into the wet side of that statistic. It has rained on every single Saturday and Sunday since May.

The internet, in typical fashion, offers widely conflicting statistics as to Erdenet’s average rainfall and, so far as I’ve found, precisely none regarding this year’s actual rainfall to date, but all the Mongolians I’ve asked agree: this year has been unusually cold and wet.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Case in point: there is water in this rock. It has not yet rained today.

Thus, I haven’t made much of an effort to get out onto the hills. When you’re on a week-long backpacking trip with a campsite to get to before nightfall, you trod onward through rain and muck, seeking shelter only when the conditions grow too dangerous for you to do otherwise; you’ve no other choice. But who willingly starts a day-hike in the rain, especially in the Land of Eternal Blue Skies? Especially especially in three-year-old hiking boots that only two weeks ago demonstrated how very not waterproof they are, in their old age?

Today, I vowed, would be different. I would set out in the morning and get a good chunk of the “trails” beneath my feet before thunderstorms started rolling in around noon, as they are wont to do.

Then, of course, I slept later than I’d intended, dallied about on the Internet, and decided to have one more cup of coffee before I left. I finally packed up the essentials (full Nalgene and knife, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, camera and phone, journal, walking stick, and some snacks) and headed out the front door around 10:30, just in time to hear the first rumble of thunder. I paused on the threshold, debating. The day was warm and, so far, sunny. I had a plastic bag to protect my journal and electronics, and if it rained, I’d end up with wet feet whether I had a raincoat or not. I was clad entirely in quick-drying synthetics (except for the wool hiking socks); did I really want to schlep my raincoat along with me?

No, I decided, I did not. The rain might not fall for hours, if it fell at all; the skies overhead were blue, and the sound of thunder carries a long way across the steppe. That storm was probably still far away. If, in despite of all this rationalizing, it rained anyway – well, then I’d just get wet.

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

How could it possible rain on such a lovely (albeit hazy) summer day?

Within minutes, I’d made my way beyond the roads and garages that circle Erdenet and started uphill. Grasses and wildflowers swayed in the light breeze, and the buzz of grasshoppers served as a pleasant – and, blessedly, quieter and less annoying – reminder of the cicadas that would be singing incessantly at home. I let my thoughts wander to previous hiking trips as I rambled back and forth in search of easy passage uphill. I stopped to take pictures of flowers and Tibetan prayer flags, mentally composing an entry I meant to write about the many scripts of Mongolia, and almost managing to ignore the continued grumbling of thunder from the west.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

Pretty prayer flags. Not-so-pretty skies.

As I approached the first peak along the ridge I meant to follow, the clouds shifted to cover the sun, and the wind began to pick up. The temperature dropped from uncomfortably warm to noticeably cool, and when I turned my eyes westward, I found that the clouds from the foreboding bluish-grey that threatens rain to the streaky, lighter hue in the process of delivering it. The clouds directly overhead, meanwhile, had begun to darken. Don’t be a baby, I told myself. It’s just rain.

But it wasn’t. As I watched, a bolt of lightning streaked through the clouds to the west. It was still far away, but was it far enough? Did I really want to be on an exposed mountaintop in a lightning storm? Or even one of the larch forests growing on the mountainsides – would that be better, or worse?

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far - I should be able to make that!

Bayan-Undur is the shorter peak at the center. Not too far – I should be able to make that!

I changed my game plan. I’d summit this little mountain, circle its ovoo, and then head for Bayan-Undur. I hadn’t seen that spectacular ovoo since the fall, and I wanted pictures in a different season. Just those two peaks, I decided as I started uphill once more. I should be able to do both of those before the rains hit.

Then I heard a new sound from the west: not a crack or a boom, but a long, drawn-out rumble, the kind that lingers like a lion’s roar. It was answered in kind by a louder rumble just east of me before fading into a faint, scratchy crackling to the west. Either the western storm front had just thundered so loudly that the sound had echoed off the mountain on which I was standing and then been bounced back again by the mountains to the west, or the storm fronts to the east and west had begun to thunder in concert.

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim...

The skies overhead do seem to be getting awfully grim…

Either way, the message was clear. I picked my way over to a narrow, twisted track, the kind trod by many little hoofed feet, and started down the mountain. Sheep and goats might not have a whole lot in those tiny brains of theirs, bless them, but they do have the sense to seek shelter from the elements, and to create wonderfully nettle-free trails to places in which to do so. Without even pausing to tuck my camera and journal into the Ziploc bag I’d brought to protect them, I began the downward climb in earnest. IMG_1364

I made it home just as the first few drops began to splatter on the pavement around me. So far, as I sit and type this in my warm, dry apartment, it’s done no more than drizzle; the thunder has stopped, and the skies above this little valley have turned gorgeously, infuriatingly blue. But the sky to the north, above those hills I long to hike, maintains its threatening cast, and until it clears, I think I’ve tempted fate enough for the day. The heavens have spoken, and I shall obey.


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Outreach Trip, Part II: Tsetserleg, Land of TV Interviews

Image courtesy of Lisa D.

Welcome to Tsetserleg City!

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.

The roads outside Tsetserleg.

The roads outside Tsetserleg

Tsetserleg ger district

Tsetserleg ger district

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.

Our surprise evening talk show-style interview. Photo courtesy of Amraa, who is therefore not in it.

Our surprise evening talk show-style interview. Photo courtesy of Amraa, who is therefore not in it.

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?

Lisa, Amraa, and me after our first presentation on life in America. Image courtesy of Amraa.

Lisa and me after our first presentation on life in America. Image courtesy of Amraa.

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.

Gladys checking out the base of the wolf statue

Gladys checking out the base of the wolf statue

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.


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Outreach Trip, Part I: Kharkhorin

My trip to the hudoo was quite an adventure, and it’s going to take some time to chronicle it. So let’s make sure we’ve got the basics down before the tale begins.

Cast: Four Fulbright ETAs (me, Joe, Lisa B, and Lisa D); Amraa, a Mongolian alumnus of an Embassy-run intensive English program in the States; Uyanga E and Uyanga A, our main contacts at the Embassy; Uyanga E’s seeing-eye dog Gladys; Phil, a retired member of the Foreign Service, who’s been acting as Public Affairs Officer for the past four months, since Allyson’s on maternity leave; Phil’s girlfriend Polly, a fellow member of the Foreign Service on vacation from her placement in Hong Kong; Dashaa, Otgoo, and a third driver whose name I never learned.

Setting: Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags, notably Tsetserleg and Uliastai, their respective aimag centers, and Tariat and Tosontsengel soums, as well as innumerable stops along the way.

Actually our route was UB-Kharkhorin-Tsetserleg-Tariat-Tosontsengel-Uliastai-Tosonstengel-somewhere north of Tariat-Kharkhorin-UB. But close enough

Actually our route was UB-Kharkhorin-Tsetserleg-Tariat-Tosontsengel-Uliastai-Tosonstengel-somewhere northeast of Tariat-Kharkhorin-UB. But close enough

Purpose: To give presentations about life and the college experience in America to Mongolian schoolchildren, in hopes of inspiring them to travel there. Also for Phil to meet with members of the local governments to do whatever the PAO does. And, of course, to get the ETAs out of our respective cities in order to see the countryside.

All clear? Excellent! Let the story begin!

Our journey began more smoothly than I’d anticipated, since we were on paved roads the whole first day. I knew that ended at Tsetserleg, though, and I wasn’t looking forward to rough “roads” for the rest of the week without the benefit of motion sickness medications.

While the ETAs in UB had met with the Embassy workers the previous week to discuss the trip specifics, I had only ever received a vague schedule. As such, I knew what presentations we’d be giving and when, but not what else was on our agenda. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we’d be stopping at Хархорин en route to Tsetserleg.

Хархорин, known to the western world as Kharkhorum, was Chinggis Khaan’s capital and the first city to be built in Mongolia. There’s not much left to look at now; the palace and anything else he built are long since gone. But there is a museum (alas, closed during our visit) and a monastery, and plenty of gift shops and guanzes (the Mongolian equivalent of fast-food restaurants) to service both the tourist industry and the nearby sum.

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The walls of Kharkhorin.

I doubt sincerely that the monastery dates all the way back to the great Khaan, but it was still pretty cool. The tall white walls encircled a rectangular compound containing a number of buildings. We passed a ger from which we heard the low-pitched, sing-song sound of chanting and ran our hands along a line of prayer wheels that creaked as they spun. Some were bronze-colored, and some silver, but all were emblazoned with Tibetan characters and the соёмбо.

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Prayer wheels. Spin to send your prayers heavenward.

Tibetan characters on the left, soyombo on the right.

Tibetan characters on the left, soyombo on the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the center of the compound stood a white stupa – one far less elaborate than the photos I’ve seen from Thailand, but impressive nonetheless. We paused to take photos of it before circling a small wooden structure covered with khadags. At Uyanga’s instruction, we we each took hold of a length of the blue fabric and whispered our wishes.

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Lots and lots of khadags. A Mongolian wishing well of sorts.

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Stupa in the background; offerings in the foreground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A column of young monks streamed by us in their flame-colored robes – not changing solemnly, as might be expected, but laughing as they passed a soccer ball between them. I ought not to have been surprised; becoming a lam here does not consign one to a life of somber meditation. One of our Mongolian friends in Erdenet is not only a monk, but a model as well.

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Mongolian soccer-playing monks.

Once we’d bypassed the young monks, none of whom could have been more than fifteen, we headed into the temple itself. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outside, so the first thing to strike me was the smell: the sharp sweetness of burning cedar incense, shadowed by a century of dust and faintly outlined by the musty tang of old dairy products. I inhaled deeply and gradually began to pick out the sources of these scents.

The large golden Buddha along the back wall I had expected, as well as the candles that flickered before it. Their smoke mingled with that of the incense as it swirled upwards. But the large racks we had to pass in order to reach the altar were less familiar, as were the wrapped rectangular packages they bore. it was from these that the must, milky smell seemed to emanate; had I to venture a guess, I’d say they were blocks of cheese. Such an inclusion in a temple would have perplexed me when first I arrived here, but I have since observed that a number of Mongolian religious rituals involve the use of milk. Why not cheese too? It does, after all, have the unquestionable advantage of keeping longer.

Uyanga E had dutifully answered all of our questions thus far, and though she could not actually see the temple, she ventured explanations when we described what we were looking at. Of particular interest to us were the wooden structures along each side wall, close the altar. They contained a hundred wooden cubbies, each about four inches square and arranged in a ten by ten grid. A bundle of orange silk fitted neatly inside each cavity, leaving a tongue of red, yellow, green, and blue silk sticking out. Uyanga told us that these contained prayers and chants, which the monks would read on the appropriate occasions.

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Prayer scrolls.

For a small fee, you can get the monks to chant on your behalf. Wouldn’t that be an experience, to have the monks of Kharkhorin praying for you? But none of us coughed up the fee. I offered my own silent prayers instead, on behalf of a friend whose grandmother recently passed away. A Christian praying on behalf of a Jewish friend in a Buddhist temple – quite the combination!

Eventually, we all had to end our wanderings and head back to the cars. The road had been kind to us so far, but our final destination for the day was still a long way off.