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.


How-To: Laundry Day

When my friend Corry studied in India, she had to ask her her host sister how to do laundry. “You don’t know how to wash your clothes?” the sister asked, bewildered. When Corry explained that in America we have machines that do the washing for us, her host sister was even more amazed. After doing my laundry by hand for over a year, I began to comprehend that feeling. Just think of all the things you can do while a machine washes your clothes for you!

Mongolia is a little more advanced when it comes to time-saving gadgets. Washing machines are common in the big cities, and even out in the soums, they’re not unheard of. Most of them are manual: you’re the one who does the filling and the draining and the rinsing. All the machine really does is agitate your clothes. The attached dryer, if there is one, is little more than a centrifuge that spins most of the water out of your clothes.

While we had such a machine in my apartment, I would classify it as mostly nonfunctional. It didn’t drain properly  and always smells like mold, and my clothes often came out of it more worn and wet but no less dirty. The dryer didn’t spin at all unless you leaned most of your weight on the (broken) lid, and even then, it was too weak to handle a single wet sheet or towel. Even with lighter items, all it usually did was clunk about half-heartedly (and without appreciable results).

So I didn’t use it. Bulky items like sheets, towels, and sweatshirts I schlepped to the homes of friends with functional machines, who were kind enough to let me use them. But everything else I did the old-fashioned way. Mostly, I didn’t mind, as long as I was good about doing the laundry regularly. I’m not saying I would have wanted to be a laundress (in the days when such people existed), but there’s something peaceful about staring into a bucket of suds.

I would venture a guess that most Americans, excepting those who have gone on long camping trips, have never done laundry by hand. The process isn’t especially difficult, but it’s certainly time-consuming. Here are some tips on how best to accomplish it.

1. Make sure you’ve got everything on hand before you start and that the box of soap you plan on using isn’t actually empty. Mongolians typically use two types of soap when hand-washing: the powdered detergent (to create suds) and the ordinary bar kind (for scrubbing). You can do the wash in the bathtub, but that requires a lot of water, so I usually just use the tumpin. I acquired a small plastic washboard from the Korean home supply store shortly after I moved into my apartment (thank heavens for the Koreans!)


Laundry materials: assembled.

Laundry materials: assembled.

2. Use hot water. Hand-washing is not super-efficient, and it’s unlikely you’ll actually scrub most of whatever garment you’re washing. This means that you need hot water if you’re going to do any serious odor removal. Cold water doesn’t remove grease, either. So either pick a day when the hot water’s working or get that kettle going.

3. Everything your mother told you about sorting according to colors? I’m sure you all forgot it as soon as you got to college, relying on cold water and dye-absorbent sheets to keep everything from turning the same color as everything else. Well, dredge that knowledge up again, because it counts double here. Your clothes will leach out a truly amazing amount of dye, and the dirt… let’s not think about the dirt.

4. Reuse the wash water. Chances are, you can clean more clothes with it than you can manage at one time in a little tumpin. Just remember to wash your lightest clothes first, and your dirtiest clothes last.

5. WASH YOUR SOCKS LAST. You will be disgusted at how much dirt they pick up. Unless  you wear slippers, like the Mongolians; then they might not be quite so bad.

6. Handkerchiefs are unimaginably gross to hand-wash. Do not attempt without a washboard. Do not reuse the wash-water.

7. Baking soda is a surprisingly effective stain remover.

8. Wring out the soapy water before rinsing. You probably had to use a lot of soap to get the suds going, and it’ll take more water than you think to get it all out.

9. Wring as much water as possible out of cotton before hanging it to dry. Wet cotton stretches like you wouldn’t believe.

Efficient use of radiator drying space.

Lotsa socks!

10. Stuff socks in the spaces of your radiator to make more efficient use of your precious drying space.

11. Wash right-side out; dry inside-out. The dirt’s on the outside, so that’s what you want to scrub, but if you’re drying clothes on old metal radiators, you want any rust stains incurred to be on the inside.

12. Do not forget your clothes on the laundry line, or it will rain and they will get wet and you will have to leave them out even longer. If you’re really unlucky, the wind will blow them off the line onto the filthy porch, and you’ll have to wash them all over again.

13. Laundry mountain is not fun to scale. By the time I’ve gotten one tumpin’s worth of laundry washed, rinsed, and hung to dry, my laundry zen is pretty much exhausted – as is the available space to hang my clothes to dry. So for most of my time in Mongolia, I did one “load” a day, 2-3 days per week.

14. You don’t have to wash your clothes as often as you think. A good airing-out (hung up, and not in an enclosed space like a closet) will remove most of the odor from clothes that aren’t sweat-soaked or spilled-upon. I re-wore most garments several times before washing them, especially work clothes, which I swapped out and hung up as soon as I got home.

15. Wool is your friend. It’s warm, it’s durable, and it’s remarkably odor-resistant. I have one yak-wool dress that I’ve owned for over a year and never washed. It’s not sweat-stained, and it doesn’t smell; why would I wash it?

Makes you grateful for washing machines, don’t it?


Dinner in the Second World: Cowboy Potatoes

Life in the second world presents as a series of paradoxes. In some ways, I live the same life I might in America, with only a façade of Mongolian-ness thrown in for effect; in others, the roles reverse, and my assumptions about an apparently familiar subject are thrown into constant revision. In this series, I will attempt to bring this funhouse to life.

“What do you eat in Mongolia?” people ask, and it’s not always an easy question to answer. What I eat in the burgeoning metropolis of Erdenet differs greatly from what Mongolian people in Erdenet eat, which is different again from what people out in the hudoo (an Anglicization of хөдөө, or ‘countryside’) eat. But let’s explore this question via what I had for dinner tonight, and how I made it, because it does a pretty thorough job of reflecting multiple facets of a complex question. Also, it was delicious.

Cowboy Potatoes (a recipe shamelessly yoinked from fellow Fulbrighter Teresa and then modified to reflect my own notions of deliciousness)

  • Set some water to boil in your demonic тогоо (electric wok). Make sure to turn it on a lower setting so that it does not melt its own cord, and also that you put it in a room on a different circuit than the kitchen so that you do not blow a fuse by attempting to boil water in two different rooms at the same time again. Check periodically that it has not set itself on fire.
  • Throw out the carrots that have gotten moldy, and ascertain which of the potatoes are salvageable if you cut off the many, many sprouts. Attempt to peel them.
  • Sigh in frustration at the fact that your roommate has clearly been using the knives to open cans again, even though you bought a can opener. Grab a ceramic bowl, turn it over, and sharpen the knives on the unglazed bottom edge. Before using them, be sure to rinse off any metal or ceramic shavings they may have accrued in the sharpening process. Also run your thumb along the edge to remind yourself of their newly-sharpened status, as one trip to the emergency room is plenty.
  • Peel the potatoes and carrots using the smaller of the knives. In America, I’d just cook the potatoes with the skins on, but these were probably grown in China, and who knows what chemicals they spray their crops with. (Aside from distrust of all things made in China Mongolia has instilled in me, potatoes really are one of those foods you want to buy organic when possible.) Wash the dirt from the peeled root vegetables. Mongolians do it in that order (peel first, wash second) while Americans would do the reverse; I suspect the Mongolian method is chosen because it uses and dirties a lot less water.
  • Cut the carrots and potatoes into chunks and throw them in the water. Hope the тогоо doesn’t melt anything while you go back to the kitchen.
  • Fry up some bacon on on your little hot plate. Keep the drippings.
  • While the bacon cooks, cut onions, garlic, and cabbage. Most Mongolians prefer green cabbage, but I buy red when possible, because it’s pretty and because phytochemicals are tasty. They’re even tastier fried in bacon grease, though obviously not quite as healthy. Start the cabbage first, with a little water so that it steams for a bit while you do the aromatics. Add a little butter before mixing in the onions and garlic if the cabbage appears to have absorbed all the fat.
  • If the potatoes and carrots are cooked through, strain them using your dish drainer (since you don’t have a colander). Toss them back into the тогоо, as it’s the largest bowl you’ve got. Mash them, and thank the Korean home supply stores for the fact that you are able to do so using a potato ricer rather than a fork.
  • Add milk and butter and mix. Don’t use much butter; there’s already plenty of fat in the cabbage mixture, and whole milk’s got plenty of its own.
  • Cut up some cheese and add it while the mixture is still hot enough to melt it. Don’t use a lot, because it’s prohibitively expensive. Be sure to thank the Russians for the fact that it’s available at all.
  • Chop the bacon and sprinkle it in, along with the cabbage, onions, and garlic. . Dig out the aforementioned can opener and dump in a can of corn (drained) for good measure.
  • Season liberally with salt and pepper and mix.
  • Dish out; put individual servings of leftovers in ceramic bowls, since they can be reheated in the toaster oven or in boiling water without shattering.
  • Enjoy!
Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty

Cowboy potatoes: colorful and tasty



This is not the first foreign country in which I’ve lived, but it is the first in which things like inflation have had a directly observable impact on my life. the only price I’m used to keeping an eye on is that of gasoline – and having grown up in Chicago and gone to school in rural Ohio, I found that even that usually had more to do with geography than the fluctuating price of oil.

Things are different here. I have no idea how much a gallon of gas costs in Erdenet; I’d have to convert from liters to gallons as well as tugriks to dollars, and since I don’t drive here, I’ve never bothered to note the price, much less do the math. What I have noticed, though, is the rising cost of food. A kilo of potatoes, carrots, beets, or turnips cost 800 ₮ last September; cabbage, onions and garlic, 1000. Since then, potatoes and carrots have gone up to 1000; beets and turnips are 1300, and onions 1500. That the price of onions is still dirt cheap (less than a fifty cents a pound) is beside the point. The point is that onions now cost fifty percent more than they did just nine months ago.

It’s not just root vegetables, either. Our favorite wine (so designated because it’s the only stuff under 10,000 a bottle that even approaches “palatable”) recently jumped from 6,800 to 8,600 at the wine shop. Maybe they thought no one would notice if they just switched the numbers around. And while I don’t frequent any one restaurant enough to point to any particular spikes in prices since my arrival, Lauren informs me that she’s noticed them at at least three of our favorite restaurants. The menus aren’t much help in identifying how recently prices have jumped, as the the orange stickers that mark where a price has been covered and rewritten are so widespread I no longer note their presence.

And restaurant owners have to worry about more than just the rising ingredient prices when trying to meat their increasing overhead costs. Our friend Marco (of the fabulous pizza) complains that although his two-year lease stipulated a fixed rent cost for both years, the landlord has since demanded more money for the second year. In the States, you could contest the violation of such a contract, but so far as I know, the  legal process to do so just doesn’t exist here.

People respond to the problem in a number of ways. When a friend of mine wanted to buy a converter for her Mac, she was perplexed b the request that she pay in cash, in dollars. “Wouldn’t you rather have the money in tugriks, so that you can actually spend it?” she asked. No, she was told; he wanted it in USD. She was confused by this, but he had what she needed, so she went to the bank and exchanged some of the local currency for dollars and forked them over.

She later learned that this man acquires US currency whenever he can, squirreling it all away somewhere. This struck most of the Americans to whom she related the story as surprising and impractical, but given Mongolia’s turbulent economic history, his actions are certainly not without reason.

Mongolia was  a Soviet puppet state for the better part of the 20th century, and the Soviets were loathe to share their newfound source of lumber and minerals with other trading partners. Nor were they particularly inclined to share the industries they established with the locals; it was the Soviets who ran the mines and lumber mills and factories. When the Soviet Union collapsed, it took something like 80% of the Mongolian economy with it, plunging the country into a recession far deeper than the American Great Depression. Livestock outnumber people in this country by a ration of nearly 30 to 1, so the population never starved – but people had precious little besides their animals. Jobs disappeared. The value of the currency plummeted. Factories were stripped, their machines melted down and sold for parts because Mongolians had never learned how to use them. These abandoned shells are still scattered across the country; while the soums in which they were built need the income they could provide, they often lack the money or expertise to refurnish and run them.

Mind you, most of this is hearsay history. Wikipedia goes on for pages about Genghis Khan’s [sic] empire and the Khalkha people but devotes a scant paragraph to events after the country’s democratization. There is a page on the economic history of the People’s Republic of Mongolia – but like the People’s Republic itself, it ends at 1990. I found exactly one sentence mentioning the existence of a Mongolian depression, and it did not include details. So I cannot give you exact facts and figures, because I don’t have them. They’re out there somewhere, I’m sure, but since they’re  in either books I don’t have or a language I don’t speak, that “somewhere” is not one I can access.

Even so, people and places speak for themselves. I’ve seen the now-defunct buildings in Khyelganat and Tonsontsengel. I’ve heard the stories from people who remember when 1500 tugriks was enough to furnish a ger instead of buy a kilo of onions or half a cup of coffee. Some of them were lucky or far-sighted enough to pull their money from the banks and put it all into furniture and other goods, but others awoke one day to find their life savings worth less than a few days’ worth of groceries.

They used to have coins for denominations less than 1 tugrik. Now 1000 tugs (the blue bill) are worth about 70 cents.

They used to have coins for denominations less than 1 tugrik. Now 1000 tugs (the blue bill) are worth about 70 cents.

Hoarding American currency is, I suppose, the same sort of act. It’s a guarantee that even if the economy bottoms out again, the hoarder will still have something of value. The mining industry boom has done a lot to get Mongolia’s economy going again, but as the 10% inflation rate and 30% unemployment rates show, it’s got a long way yet to go. Under those circumstances, I’d want some sort of a guarantee too.


Posh Corps Problems

Well, hello, tumpin! We haven’t seen this much of each other in a while. Frankly, I’d hoped to keep it that way.

(We all remember what a tumpin is, right?)

One of the joys of Soviet-built cities is that beyond opening, closing, and duct-taping shut your windows, you have absolutely no control over the temperature of your apartment. The city turns on the heat on September 15th and turns it off again on May 15th, regardless of the actual weather conditions. There’s no tapering in or out, either; the same amount of heat blasts from those radiators in 50˚ April as in −30˚ December (10 and −35, for you metric folks). It was nearly 80 outside before they turned the heat off, and even hotter in here, leaving me to fling wide every window and wander the apartment in skirt and sports bra in lieu of actual clothes. I rejoiced when my radiators went cold; finally, a temperature at which I could actually sleep!

Three days later, we had a blizzard.

Not a real blizzard, I suppose; the ground was too warm for anything to accumulate. But comically fluffy flakes fell from the sky for the better part of the day, driven by swirling winds that seemed determined to sweep them into your eyes no matter which way you turned. As much as I love snow, by late May, we’re all ready for a change.

Following that day, the temperature in my apartment has dropped to about 60˚ (16). Usually I am a fan of the sixties; for anything that requires me to be up and moving, 60-65 is actually my preferred temperature range; if I’m to be less active, 68 is ideal. But those eight degrees apparently make a world of difference; if you’re sitting around in the sunless damp, 60 will drain the warmth from your bones right quick. Adam, for all those times in the winter when you complained that your apartment was only 60 degrees, and I said, “Oh, that’s not that bad,” I apologize. It is.

One of the further joys of living in a second-world country is that many of the creature comforts we take for granted in the States are available only on a limited and unpredictable basis. My refrigerator has hummed steadily since the last power outage in November, but it would seem that the availability of water is dictated by some capricious little sprite. At times, my hot water has come out so steamy that I had to be careful not to scald myself; at others, it’s barely more than tepid. Sometimes someone somewhere has clearly switched it off for reasons unknown to me, and the pipes gurgle emptily upon the turning of the hot-water tap. For at least one day every month, there is no water at all, hot or cold. Inevitably, this will be the day when my Nalgene is empty, my hair greasy, and my dishes unwashed, leaving me with little to do but throw my hands in the air and buy a bottle of water after eating at a restaurant, hoping that I will be able to wash my hair before school the next day.

The hot water registered at “kinda warm” when I washed the breakfast dishes this morning; when I returned around 12:30, then pipes were still flowing, but the water issuing from the faucet no longer maintained any pretensions at warmth. Having just returned from the gym, and desperately in need of a shower, I was left with three options.

  1. Be sweaty and gross.
  2. Suck it up and take a cold shower.
  3. Break out the tumpin.

Normally, I’d go for option 2. I’ve bathed in Lake Superior before; surely I can stand a little cold water, right? But given my apartment’s recent descent into cooler-than-comfortable temperatures, I knew I’d already be spending most of my afternoon cuddling with a Nalgene full of hot water; I didn’t want to start by lowering my body temperature. Besides, that morning’s trip to the gym had included my introduction to deadlifting, and Kevin had started me at 60 kg, which is only slightly less than my own body weight. He’d kept a careful eye on my technique to make sure I didn’t hurt myself, but I could already feel the muscles of my lower back constricting into a tight little ball. Years of gymnastics have taught me that if I’m already starting to get sore the same day, I’m going to stay that way for several more; were I to shock those muscles with cold water, I’d probably be hobbling about like an old crone by days’ end.

So I dragged out the tumpin and set the kettle to boil, wishing that I at least had a dry towel (it was still damp from being washed last night).

Even as I grumbled, I knew I’d get no sympathy from most of my Peace Corps friends. My water might not be hot at the moment, but at least I could still get it straight from the tap, instead of having to fetch it from a well, river, or delivery truck. My apartment might be a little chilly now, but at least I didn’t have to spend winter nights wrapped in a bundle of clothes and blankets because the temperature in my home dropped below freezing after the fire went out each night.

I may not be Peace Corps, but the phrase my PC friends use for these sorts of complaints is too good to pass up: Posh Corps Problems. Inconvenienced by your temporary lack of hot or cold water? Broke at the end of the month because you live in a town that actually has restaurants and bars at which to spend money? Bummed because your Internet isn’t fast enough to stream sports games from home? Unwilling to use your washing machine because it doesn’t drain properly and smells like mold? Posh Corps Problems, the lot of them.

I like the term for its punniness, true, but also because of how well it conveys the idea of relative privilege. I might not have all the things I would take for granted back home, but I still have a lot more at my disposal than my friends in the soums. While Posh Corps Problems are a few steps down from First World Problems, they’re still far more trivial than needing to cut wood every day so you don’t freeze to death or using an outhouse for the entirety of the −40˚winter. As much as I might want to complain when back is aching and my pipes are cold, I’ve still got it pretty good.

And so it is to you, readers, that I address my current longing for a nice, hot bath. After all, my words fly to you on the wings of the Internet, which the soumers (bless them) can’t reach.