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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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part IV: Тэмээ

Camels! Camels camels camels.

Riding a camel was really one of the only expectations I’d had as far as what I’d do with my time in the Gobi, but almost as soon as I arrived, it started to sound as though I wouldn’t be able to. When Mongolians give you a possible date for something but then push it back every time you ask about it, chances are it’s not going to happen. The camels were really far away, we were told; it was too snowy here, so they’d had to go further out, where there was more food. The roads were bad and they didn’t think we could handle the ride. We would go on Friday, then Saturday, then maybe Sunday if the weather was good.

And then one day one of Eric’s counterparts informed us we’d be leaving at noon the next day. In most of Mongolia, this would mean we wouldn’t actually hit the road until two, but because Delger occupies a hole in the Mongolian space-time continuum, we actually left at ten. It’s a good thing we knew to be ready early, because bundling up for the occasion involved the time-consuming donning of many, many layers.

I could have just worn my coat, of course; since my deel isn’t lined,  it’s nowhere near as warm as my winter coat. But if you had a chance to ride a camel in the country’s traditional dress, wouldn’t you? That’s what I thought.

An hour in the car brought us past mountains, roaming herds of livestock, and a strange line at which the snow just stopped. It didn’t correspond with a ridge, or a road, or anything that I could see; nor did it transition gradually. It was like someone had laid a giant tarp across the ground and removed it after the snow ended.

Weird, right?

Weird, right?

Finally we arrived at a small cluster of gers. We disembarked from the car, pausing so I could put on my deel –  hadn’t been wearing it because I knew it would be warm in the car, and I’m more likely to get carsick if it’s too warm – and headed for the nearest one. The guard-kid bleated at us as we approached, so I stopped to take a picture.

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

What with my (utter lack of) Mongolian language skills, I didn’t really know what was discussed in the ger. Eric attempted to translate huushuur into English, and we learned that “fried pastry” is an amazingly effective tongue twister for Mongolians; as their language contains neither [p] nor [f], they tend not to be able to differentiate between the two sounds. Our hosts threw some buuz in the steamer and handed us steaming cups of milk tea. I sipped politely at mine, glad that southern suutei tsai is made without most of the fat and salt they use up north, but still unable to stomach a large quantity of the stuff. I was glad to be able to hand my bowl off to Eric when he finished his own.

While we waited for the buuz to finish cooking, Eric presented our hosts with a gift to thank them for their hospitality. This is pretty standard anytime you visit someone, but especially when they’re doing you a favor like letting them ride their camels. In that case, there is a specific protocol to follow. You present the gift with both hands; you might need only one to hold the gift, but the хадаг (the ubiquitous ceremonial blue scarf) must be draped across both. And as when doing anything important in Mongolia, you’re supposed to wear your hat.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

Finally, the sitting and eating and talking and gift-giving were complete, and our hosts took us out to their camels. There were two saddled, but it seemed we’d only be riding the one. They’re much larger I would have thought; it’s one thing to know an animal’s big, but quite another to stand beside it and observe that its head is roughly the size of your entire torso. We were seeing them in all their winter glory, bulked out by a significant quantity of shaggy hair. In the summer, that hair comes out in patches, leaving the camels looking positively diseased.

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Sitting down, he’s almost shoulder height. Told you they were big.

I got to go first, and it was clear they had absolutely no faith in my abilities. I was pony-led the entire time, and they told me to hold onto the hump when the camel stood up – a totally unnecessary direction. Camels aren’t exactly graceful when they stand up and sit down, but the motion doesn’t begin to compare to sitting a bucking pony. Like draft horses, camels don’t seem prone to, or even capable of, large sudden movement. Besides, the humps fore and aft of you make for a very secure seat. A comfortable one, too; Mongolian camel saddles are apparently much more padded than the ones they use for their horses.

I was bound and determined to have another turn, especially after they let Eric control the camel himself. And they were kind enough to let me have one. The camel was biddable, but I suppose I would be too if I was being directed through a piercing in my upper lip. He responded to leg pressure too, which is more than can be said of many of the horses here. And he stood and sat in response to verbal commands. He wasn’t happy about it, though. From all his whining, you would have thought we were doing something much worse than walk him around in circles.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

I’m not sure what I expected a camel to sound like, but this one certainly defied all my expectations. He moaned and whined and squeaked, emitting noises that doubtless have been used for aliens in movie sound effects. I mean it; that’s the closest comparison I can come up with.

Camels make funny noises. Fancy that.

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My Visit to Govi-Altai, Part III: Delger

As vacations go, my visit to Delger wasn’t particularly eventful. I was staying with a friend, after all, and of the two of us, I was the only one on vacation. Exploring on my own wasn’t really an option, either; there’s not a lot to see in a soum, but I wasn’t about to venture outside of it. I may have lived in this country for almost eight months now, but my spoken language abilities, at best, rival those of a two-year-old, and my navigation abilities are, shall we say, notoriously lacking. I do a decent job if I’m paying attention, but if someone else was leading the group from point A point B, I won’t be able to find my way between them, even if I’ve walked the route five times. And I rely heavily on the sun to orient myself, which means I’m SOL at night or on overcast days. And this is Mongolia in the winter we’re talking about – sunny, but snow everywhere you look, and cold enough to kill you pretty quickly . Nope, I definitely wasn’t venturing out on my own.

So rather than sit around in Eric’s room all day, I helped him teach. It was a lot of fun, because it allowed us to show the kids what interactions between native speakers sound like. I wish I was able to do that in my own classes – to demonstrate “repeat after me” instead of having to translate it, to have a partner whose idea of team teaching wasn’t to sit at the back of the room on Facebook and translate as needed. I also liked getting to see how he managed his classroom: how he turns the usual “what day is it?” into a pronunciation exercise, for example (most Mongolians pronounce 2013 as ‘two tousand turty’). I came back with new ideas for games and tongue twisters to use with my classes, additions that are always appreciated.

But we did venture out of the school grounds on a couple of occasions, and not just to have dinner at a counterpart’s ger or wander from delguur to delguur in search of eggs, potatoes, and candles. We spent one afternoon hiking to a local landmark called surguul (cургууль) – “the school.” I guess that’s where the school was located once upon a time, though Delger’s school, like the rest of Delger, is now located on the other side of the lake. Its location means it’s a lot easier to reach in the winter than the summer; rather than having to take the long way around the lake, through mud and quicksand, we just walked straight across the ice.

There were large cracks in the lake’s surface where the ice had clearly melted and refrozen, which gave us some trepidation about walking upon it. But water in a Mongolian January, even a warm one, is pretty thoroughly frozen. The ice ma not have been ten feet thick like the surface of Khuuvsgul, but most of this lake was a lot less than ten feet deep to begin with. So we weren’t too worried.

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All the pictures that follow are actually from Eric’s camera, since mine ran out of battery as soon as I tried to take pictures of us in front of the rock. Camera batteries do not like cold, and they definitely don’t like Mongolian cold.

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“School” seems like a misnomer – that rock looks like a camel to me!

We actually climbed all the way to the top of the rock formation, the part that looks to me like a camel’s head. In doing so, I learned that I’m a lot more cautious about clambering around on rock formations in the winter. I’ve lost a lot of the mountain goat fearlessness I possessed as a child regardless, but I’m even less confident in the season of snow and ice. Even minor impacts are more painful in the cold, not to mention more likely. The clothes don’t help, either; it’s hard to clamber around in a knee-length coat, and Mongolian boots are not known for having good traction.

But we made it to the top anyway, even if we had to make our way carefully across the final gap instead of leaping it as we would have in the summer. We stayed there for a while, talking and taking in the view. And catching our breath: walking through snow, even shallow snow, requires more exertion than we’d anticipated. I shed several layers during the walk there and spent a good part of the walk back alternating between zipping and unzipping my coat, not to mention pushing back my scarf (I was too hot with it on) and pulling it back on (my ears were cold without it). Yep, that’s right: I can overheat even in a Mongolian winter.

I'm overheating; his breath is freezing on his scarf. This is why I came to Mongolia and not Thailand.

I’m overheating; his breath is freezing on his scarf. This is why I came to Mongolia and not Thailand.

We did have one more adventure, the much-anticipated highlight of my trip. But that one deserves a post of its own.

 


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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part II: Buying a Deel

Although stopping for food was certainly a necessary part of our trip to Altai’s zah, it was not our primary objective. That had long since been established: we were going to get me a deel.

The deel (transliterated from the Cyrillic дээл, but pronounced more like “dell”) is the traditional dress of Mongolia. It’s a wrap-style outer garment that reminds many Americans of a robe, though it’s worn more like a coat. (Albeit a coat with a very useful front pouch in which you can put things like your wallet, or a bottle of vodka, or the adorable rabbit you’re petnapping from the vegetable store.)

Deels come in two varieties: summer and winter. The summer ones are lighter, though not exactly breathable. Of old they were supposedly made of silk, and some of the fancy ones still are, but most of the ones you find these days are synthetic. Winter deels, too, are usually synthetic, but the nicer ones are made from lambskin. It’s also pretty easy to get a woolen lining, which makes even a cheap winter deel considerably warmer.

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Inguun hasn’t really got the “smile for the camera” thing down, but little kids in deels are pretty much the cutest thing ever.

In the countryside, many people wear their deels every day, but city-dwellers typically don them only for Naadam, Tsagaan Sar, and special occasions like weddings, graduations, and haircutting ceremonies. They also tend to favor updated styles for these special-occasion deels; they’re often cut much closer and are pulled over the head or zipped close rather than wrapped and tied. Even the ones with front closures bear as much resemblance to a dress as to a traditional deel. I wore one such garment for our Teacher’s Day concert last month, and I’d like to buy one before I leave the country to wear on special occasions back home.

Me in my Teacher's Day concert finery.

Me in my Teacher’s Day concert finery.

But our search that day was for something simpler: just a common winter deel. Preferably a blue one, to match my eyes and approximately half the clothing in my wardrobe. Even so, this proved trickier than expected. While the lady at the first place we went to was very friendly and helpful, the deels she showed us were all turquoise. I like turquoise, but not like this; these were flat, unpatterned, and eye-smartingly loud. We did spot one swath of ice-blue fabric way up on a shelf, but it was far too ornate and definitely out of our price range.

I tried a few on anyway, shrugging reluctantly out of my coat and pulling them on as quickly as possible. An unheated Mongolian store in January, even a mild January, is not a comfortable place to be without a coat. Especially when the “warm” clothes you’re trying on have been chilling on those freezing cold shelves for goodness knows how long.

Unfortunately for me, fastening a deel is an acquired skill – one which, needless to say, I had not yet acquired. Common deels do not zip, and while some of the nicer ones have buttons, most don’t have those either. Instead, they close with small loops of trim through which you slip knotted trip affixed to the other part of the garment. The system is button-like, to be sure, but less secure; the knots are far more likely to slip from their holes than your standard button. It’s also more difficult to master, as the trim is somehow simultaneously slick enough to slip between your fingers and rough enough to hurt that one nailbed that was exposed when you broke a a nail last week. The placement doesn’t help either: two on your collar, two to three along your shoulder, another two to three along your thigh, and one under the armpit. The shoulder and thigh fastenings are easily visible and accessible, but the other two locations are not, even if you hoist your arm awkwardly to try to peer under it. And they’re all on the right side of your body. Being a lefty is a definite advantage when it comes to getting deel-ed up.

Eric helped me fumble through the process, but even after all that trouble, we were forced to admit that these were not the deels we were looking for. We did find a very nice white fur hat (to the back of which, I swear, the rabbit’s ears were still attached), but hats are apparently one of the things for which the price mysteriously doubles when a white person does the asking.

So on to the next delguur we went. This one, thankfully, prominently featured a little space heater. By no means was it roasty-toasty in there, but at least I wasn’t covered in gooseflesh the instant I unzipped my coat.

It only took a few moments of browsing for us to identify the deel I wanted to try on. A shade or two darker than cobalt, with white-gold trim and embroidered blue flowers outlined in white, it matched my specifications much better than anything I had seen thus far.

This time, we has a shopkeeper’s assistant to help me into my deel. She made quick work of the fastenings, though she clucked in disapproval at the apparently inadequate length of the deel itself, and especially of the sleeves. Hudoo deels often have extra-long sleeves with flared ends, which can be rolled back to free the hands or extended to keep them warm. Mine is not a hudoo deel, but the little boy’s in Gracie’s adorable photo is.

Shopkeeper-lady apparently though I needed one. She extended one of my arms, taking my hand to demonstrate – and gasped, clutching both of my hands in hers and exclaiming at how “хүйтэн” they were. I get this reaction a lot: from friends, from boyfriends, even, when I was in UB for Thanksgiving, rom a a drunk man on the bus on whose foot I tripped. Mongolians seem particularly concerned by it and often make much over the temperature of my hands even when I don’t find them noticeably cold.

Eventually, she stopped fussing about my hands and started fussing over my choice of бүс, or belt. They wanted to give me one in construction-sign orange. It’s a common belt color, and my father the faithful Illini fan would have heartily approved the color combination, but I was not a fan. The next one they tred to give us was green. But while the tattered leaf-green sample sash we’d used when I tried the deel on went nicely with my blue deel (and dark green Mongol boots), the fabric they had for sale was much… brighter. Acid-green belts might be just as common as fluorescent orange ones, regardless of what color deel they’re holding on, but that didn’t mean I wanted one.

Finally, we persuaded the shopkeeper to cut us a strip of white fabric, which I thought looked better with the trim and embroidery on my deel. Helper-lady wasn’t pleased with this one either, declaring it neither long nor wide enough. It was just long enough double knot when (tightly) wrapped around me twice; the more elaborate tying methods would have required a few extra feet of sash. I’d like to have that option, but fabric is easy to buy, so I shouldn’t have much difficulty finding a longer bus. So we paid and headed out to catch our ride. I had my first deel.

Horse, snow, countryside, fur, deel, mountains - Mongolia in a nutshell.

Horse, snow, countryside, fur, deel, mountains – Mongolia in a nutshell.

A final picture with my director's parents, both of whom donned their hats and matching deels just for the picture.

A final picture with my director’s parents, both of whom donned their hats and matching deels just for the picture.


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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part I: A Geography Lesson

I realize these posts are coming to you rather out of order, and for that, I apologize. I have a giant backlog of things to talk about, and I’m hoping (probably in vain) to get caught up on it soon. It’s hard to write about the arrival spring and how you wish for more winter when you haven’t really done winter justice in your writing yet. But in writing about winter, I get caught up on things like what it’s like to use an outhouse in the winter, and that should properly go in my yet-to-be-written entry on my visit to Govi-Altai. But if I’m forever trying to catch up with where I should be, I don’t bother to write down the things that are happening currently, and then I lose the better part of those details. Baugh. I suppose that’s why I have a journal and a blog. I just have to make the time to write in both. And now that I’ve done my typical pre-entry ramble, let’s get on with the topic of today’s post!

For those of you who don’t know me from real life, or who I haven’t talked to much, I flew down to the southwestern corner of Mongolia in January to visit a friend who lives in Govi-Altai. Mongolian geography 101: Mongolia is divided into 21 aimags, or provinces. I live in Orkhon, the smallest; Govi-Altai is one of the largest. It’s also one of the five aimags named after the desert that sprawls across them. (And yes, it’s called the “Govi” here, not Gobi; in Cyrillic, the /v/ sound is written is /в/, which I think is where the disparity arose.)

This aimag is so called because it contains both the Govi desert and the Altai Mountain Range. I love me some mountains, so I was very happy about getting to see those, even if it was just from the air.

None of my pictures do the sight justice. Though the way the wind flattens the snow at the top does look pretty cool.

None of my pictures do the sight justice. Though the way the wind flattens the snow at the top does look pretty cool.

My flight landed in the aimag center, Altai. An aimag center is not centrally located within an aimag; rather, it is that aimag’s largest town and the center of its administration. Aimag centers often share names with their aimags, but not always; Erdenet is the aimag center for Orkhon, for example. Eric, however, does not live in an aimag center; he lives in Delger, a soum about an hour from Altai. Soums are smaller than aimag centers; essentially, they’re small towns out in the countryside. They have schools and small shops and lots of dwellings… and not much else. For anything other than the most basic groceries, Eric has to go to Altai.

Driving is a good way to make money in Mongolia, so you can nearly always find someone who’ll take you where you need to go. Some drivers make the journey from one major city to another, or from an aimag center to nearby soums, on a daily basis. But while there would certainly be drivers going from Altai to Delger, neither Eric nor I trusted that I would be able to find one with my limited Mongolian language abilities. So he met me at the airport, and then we hung out in Altai for a few hours before heading to his soum.

We went out to lunch with the PCVs stationed in Altai (there are several) and hit the zah for groceries. We were thwarted in our attempts to find meat other than mutton, but I did get to pet the resident rabbit at the produce store. (You’d think he’d eat the merchandise…) And we had one other important errand: the acquisition of a deel. It occurs to me that I have yet to write about Mongolian traditional clothing, so I will relate the story of purchasing my own in a subsequent post.

And then, suddenly, we had to go. Delger is apparently located in a rift in the space-time continuum, in which the laws of Mongolian Time operate in reverse. Concerts take place two hours before the posted start time and are just ending when you arrive; buses that were supposed to leave at 3 depart at 2. We took our time about getting lunch and heading to the zah because our driver had said we wouldn’t be leaving until 8. Then, as we headed to lunch, he called to say we’d be leaving at 5. And when we ran into him at the zah, the departure time had been changed to 3.

So we piled into the car with four other people, a number of bags and packages, and an accordion, and started down the road to Delger.


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Travel (is a Pain)

So, I have a friend who lives out in the Gobi. He’s never had a visitor in the year and a half he’s been at his site; I’ve never been to the Gobi and would like to see it. And I have a 3-week semester break in January. So far, the math is pretty simple.

But upon investigating the logistics of thing, I’m beginning to understand why he’s never had a visitor. Govi-Altai, like much of Mongolia, is unreasonably difficult to get to. How far a distance are we talking about, and what makes it “unreasonably difficult?”

My favorite part is the directions.

My favorite part is the directions.

Do note the fun bit to the left: Google can’t calculate directions to Govi-Altai, even from Ulaanbaatar. But that’s not actually all that surprising; Google uses roads to calculate directions and distances, and most of Mongolia doesn’t have roads.

Not kidding. Those yellow lines aren’t just the main roads – they’re more or less the only ones. There’s a paved road from Darkhan to Erdenet that isn’t shown, so you can drive between Mongolia’s three cities pretty easily (yes, there are only three in the entire country). You have to go from Erdenet to UB by way of Darkhan, though; there’s no road straight between the two. But outside of what you see on this map, most roads are just ruts in the ground.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it'll be like in January.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it’ll be like in January.

These are not fun to drive, let me tell you. They are wind-y and bumpy and uneven – patently bad news for someone with a long history of car sickness. And driving on such “roads” is excruciatingly slow going. Even in summer, you can’t really go above 20 MPH. This means that Khovsgol, the big lake to the northwest of Erdenet, is a 12-hour drive away from me; Govi-Altai would be at least 24.

To make matters worse, you’re not spending those 12-24 hours in a comfortable vehicle. In all likelihood, you’ll be stuffed into a mikr (Soviet microbus) with almost twice as many people as there are seats. That’s not an exaggeration – they’re built to hold 13-14, and the last time I rode in one, it was with 22 of my new best friends. Or if not “best,” certainly “closest.”

It makes for a journey that is hot, cramped, and loud if there are little kids packed in there with you. All of these exacerbate my car sickness and help to make for a thoroughly miserable journey.

Now, the good news is that Altai has an airport. Two hours in a plane instead of twenty four on the road, not counting the inevitable delays and breakdowns? Done.

… or it would be, if I could actually find any information on ticket costs. Aero Mongolia has a website, and some of it is accessible in English – including a flight schedule (albeit one that differs from the one all the travel websites seem to think it runs on). What it does not have is any information about actual tickets: how much they cost, where you can purchase them, etc. Байхгуй. Ditto for the travel websites. There is a telephone number, but given my nearly-nonexistent Mongolian language skills, that sounds like a good way to waste нэгж (phone credit) without actually accomplishing anything. Time to enlist the help of my Mongolian friends, methinks.

And now y’all know why I haven’t done very much traveling, even though I’ve already been here for four months: it’s complicated. And frustrating. And, above all, time-consuming.