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.


Leave a comment

Outreach Trip, Part VI: Identity Crisis in Uliastai

It’s amazing how dramatically a few months in another country can alter your perspective. After a few weeks of sub-zero weather (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a brief venture up to the mid-twenties is a heat wave. You cast aside your down-filled coat and myriad base layers with glee; you float about town on your daily errands, the T-shirt and sweatshirt you have deemed adequate insulation barely heavy enough to keep you on the ground. When the long-anticipated arrival of spring breaks the temperature up to a whopping 50 (that’s 10˚C, for the non-American readers), you gallivant to dance practice in a tank top.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest world capital, it’s true, but obscene cold is not Mongolia’s only claim to fame. With 604,000 square miles (1.5 million km²) and a mere 3.18 million people to its name, it also holds the first-place ranking as the most sparsely-populated country in the world (though that falls to 5th if you count dependent territories). That’s like spreading the population of Chicago across an area the size of Alaska – the city proper, mind you, not including its many suburbs. And once you consider that more than half of these three million people live in the capital city, it’s more like spreading the population of Naperville across the same land area.

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square kilometer.

Spending time here, unsurprisingly, skews your perceptions of population. I live in the second-largest city in this country – but since there are only three cites, you could just as easily call it the second-smallest. My hometown of 18,000 people is considered a small suburb in Illinois; the next stop on our outreach trip, the comparably-sized Uliastai, is a pretty big town by Mongolian standards. After days of eating lunch at the lone guanz of this or that soum, and attempted stops at those with none, it felt big to us too.

Uliastai from above. Doesn't look like much, but it felt it.

Uliastai from above. Doesn’t look like much, but it felt it.

In keeping with the size of its population, Uliastai boasted an impressive four Peace Corps Volunteers. Bianca, Bill, Brian, and (the sadly non-alliterative) Karen met us at the hotel and then led us to a place called Crystal. We followed them across town, through unmarked doors, and up a flight of stairs to find ourselves in a restaurant with beer (all in cans/bottles, but at least they had Fusion), a dance floor, and a menu that included chicken. Really, what more could we ask for?

It was at this dinner I realized I was suffering something of an identity crisis. Of the eight Fulbright ETAs and Researchers my age, six live in the capital. Consequently, Lauren and I see them but rarely; I had missed Joe’s visit to Erdenet at New Year’s, and so the last time I had seen any of my four travel companions was at Thanksgiving. Nor have I done a particularly good job of keeping in touch with them. I did not know, for instance, that Lucas had started an NGO, or that Eli had become the second ETA to have his appendix removed this year (yikes!) I knew enough about the other ETAs that the standard ground for get-to-know-you smalltalk had already been covered, but so little about their recent lives that the only real questions I could ask were of the vague, “so how have you been?” variety.

Instead, it was the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I connected. The Fulbrighters in UB have access to a large network of expats, but our scope in Erdenet is rather more limited. There are a few older, married Americans here with whom we interact less frequently, but between community English events and weekend gatherings, I see each of the 6 Erdenet PCVs (and Lauren) at least once a week. So unlike the UB Fulbrighters, I spoke the lingo already; I could ask the PCVs we met along the way about their COS dates, what they’d done at IST, and what they thought of their CPs’ English and teaching skills.

One of the things I admire about the Peace Corps is its centralization and the close-knit feeling that follows from it. All the volunteers from each round meet each other and are given phones programmed with the numbers of the other PCVs in the country; the second-year volunteers all come to Thanksgiving in UB, as do most of the first years with the time and money to do so. Even if, as a PCV, you don’t really know a certain other volunteer, you probably have a friend who does.

For those who become topics of discussion by the inevitable gossip mill, this isn’t always ideal; if you want to keep your private life private, don’t date someone in the Peace Corps. But for me, at this table in Uliastai, it meant that even though I had never met any of these people, I still had things to talk about with them. I could ask Bianca about her host mother in Hutuul, whom everyone at the training site had loved; back in Tsetserleg, I had already known the bare bones of a project Bryce was describing because Gracie had talked about picking it up next year. I might not have known these people, but I’d heard stories about them, or about other volunteers whose experiences were more like theirs than my own.

The Peace Corps is a community in a way that the Fulbright is not, and the volunteers in Erdenet adopted Lauren and me into that community when we first arrived at their site. After spending so much time with them, it seems that I identify more strongly with the Peace Corps volunteers than with my fellow Fulbrighters! Several of my travel companions even asked if I had thought about joining the Peace Corps after I finished my grant, since I seemed to like it so much. I haven’t given the possibility much serious though, but I do know this: I would have had a more productive and enjoyable time in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer than as a Fulbrighter.

Our time in Uliastai also served to demonstrate to me just how much a difference that sort of community can make – just to those who are part of it, but to the larger group it serves. By the time we reached Uliastai, we had been giving presentations for the better part of a week. I was grateful that the others devised a rotation that constantly switched up which presentation we were delivering, and with whom, as it kept the whole thing from getting too tedious. Even so, our visit to Brian’s school the following morning was the third time I had done the Universities in America presentation, and the second time I had done with Joe. But more importantly, it was a first: the first time that any of the students had actually taken the opportunity to ask us questions. Some of the students were even skilled (and brave!) enough to pose their questions to us in English. And even those who stuck to their native language were often asking about programs and scholarships they could use to study in America.

IMG_0772

Uyanga translating for our bravest and most responsive audience (not including Gladys)

Four English speakers together can do what one alone cannot: form a speaking club that exposes learners to authentic spoken English. Offer students multiple people with whom to practice, or incentive to improve their skills until they are comfortable doing so. Form a consistent schedule that doesn’t require events to be rearranged or canceled because one person is sick or swamped with work. Work together to overcome the bureaucratic, linguistic, and logistical obstacles they encounter along the way. Brian’s students, by daring to raise their hands and ask about ways to get themselves to America, showed us just how much more effective English teachers are in groups.

When I returned to Erdenet at the end of the trip and resumed participation in the seminars, conversation nights, and moving screenings my situates (another PC term I’ve adopted) organize, it would be with a renewed sense of appreciation. Neither my students nor my co-teachers are motivated enough to take advantage of these opportunities, but I’m always encouraged to see the number of others who are. I’ve learned songs, games, and teaching methods from assisting at the Peace Corps events, and I know that the folks around me have my back when I need help navigating life with limited language ability. I’m hooked into a network of friendly, skilled, and resourceful people who know what there is to see in their area and how to get there, and who don’t mind visitors crashing on their floors. Most importantly, I’ve got friends with whom to share the crazy, frustrating, amazing experience that is living and teaching in Mongolia.

IMG_0197

Nine Americans, six Mongolians, one Russian. Halloween in Erdenet.

Advertisements


3 Comments

Outreach Trip, Part V: Otgoo’s Car

March Mongolian roadtripping might have been stressful and time-consuming, but it had its ups as well as downs. Many of the things that contributed to our ongoing difficulty were also the ones that made it interesting and memorable.

Take Otgoo, for instance. I rode in all three of the Embassy vehicles at least once over the course of the week. Dashaa and the other driver (whose name I never got) were both calm and dependable. They handled their vehicles well, drove at a reasonable pace, and spoke enough English to carry on some semblance of a conversation with us.

He doesn't usually look quite this crazy...

He doesn’t usually look quite this crazy… (Photo credit: Lisa)

And then there was Otgoo.

Otgoo blazed along the non-existent  roads as though hoping to flatten a path for us through sheer force and speed. He frequently left the other two cars in the dust as he flew across the steppe – sometimes figuratively, and sometimes, after hitting a large bump, quite literally. I, sitting Indian-style in the front seat, was able to absorb most of the the jolting with my core, a sort of inversion of butt-bouncing on a trampoline (is anyone else familiar with that movement?) But poor Joe, the tallest of us, had the misfortune to be seated in the back seat with the broken seatbelt on several such occasions. He hit the roof more than once before figuring out how to brace himself against my seat.

Thankfully, he sustained no serious head trauma, but even if he had, I think some things would still be burned into his memory. Otgoo’s taste in music, for instance. While the other two cars traveled in silence most of the time, Otgoo had a single CD on repeat the entire trip. Its contents ranged from traditional Mongolian to bhangra, Turkish to Lady Gaga and Brittney Spears. We sang along to “Pokerface” and the “Phantom of the Opera” techno remix and danced our way through many of the numbers in unfamiliar languages. My first stint in this car began shortly after we left Tosontsengel, when Joe tapped out due to musical overload. And so it was that I found myself in Otgoo’s car when we hit our first obstacle of the day.

The road from Tosontsengel to Uliastai, like the one from Tariat to Tosentsengel, took us through mountains and floodplains. We passed hills and valleys and frozen, downward-sloping rivers that bulged oddly, like small glaciers. And then, of course, we reached another stretch of winding, one-lane road blocked by a stuck vehicle.

At least this time the blockage was of a considerably smaller scale. The traffic through this part of the mountains had carved deep ruts into the road, and the pressure of numerous cars had melted the ice within the ruts, while the rest of the road maintained a thick coat of highly compacted ice. The melting snows, meanwhile, had exacerbated the problem; a small river ran across the road, creating deep pools in the trenches before escaping through a tiny breach and continuing its downward journey.

Lodged in the midst of all this was a blue pickup truck, heavily laden with logs. It had followed in the tread of its many predecessors, and now could not escape it: burdened as it was, its tires could no longer reach the bottom of the watery trenches, and it had bottomed out on the icy barrier between them. The truck’s occupants stood on either side of the road, peering at the undercarriage while one man jabbed at the ensnaring ice with a hefty chunk of rebar.

Yep, they're stuck.

Yep, they’re stuck.

There was no way around these folks, or the car trapped on the other side of them would have taken it. So out of the cars we piled. While two of the drivers searched for a rope with which to drag the truck out of the ditches, Lisa and I fell to my fourth-grade recess standby: waterworks. If we could impede the flow of water into the road and widen its egress, we might be able to give it better traction. We set about damming off the inward flow with rocks and chunks of ice, while the third driver took up the abandoned rebar to chip at the ditch walls.

It was at this point that the week’s first reworded song made its appearance. “If I had a shovel,” someone muttered, to which both Joe and I responded – he with the traditional “I’d shovel in the morning,” I with the equally applicable “I’d dig myself a drainage trench.” Alas, there was no shovel to be had.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts.

Foreground: the result of our waterworks efforts. Less successful efforts in the background.

We did succeed in lessening the water’s depth somewhat, but not enough to free the trapped vehicle; our attempt to tow it freed it from the ice upon which it was beached, but settled it in waters too deep for the wheels to do more than spin helplessly. And so it was that the truck’s driver finally unbound his cargo, an act he’d clearly hoped to avoid. Logs fell to either side, throwing up great waves of muddy water. When the remaining load was stable, we approached. Several of the men began laying the logs before the tires to create a sort of boardwalk, and some one had had the bright idea to drive them under the tires using the only mallet available – another log. Mongol ingenuity at its finest.

DSCN5478

Alright, let’s give this another shot…

Load lessened and boardwalk in place, with the towing vehicle once more attached, the truck was at last freed from its prison, though not without much spinning of tires and unhappy grinding of gears. It drove onward to the end of the danger zone, a good forty feet beyond the pile of logs left it its wake.

But eight people can move a pile of logs pretty quickly, even if two of them are loading rather than hauling and everyone has to pick their steps with care. My ability to shoulder a spar rather than dragging it behind me was met with a, “Ямар хүчтэй вэ!” (How strong!) from the drivers and the inevitable, “Katelin, please be careful!” from the Embassy workers. Never mind that how much time I’ve spent hauling much larger logs over the past four summers; girls can be strong? Who knew?!

At long last, the logs were loaded and the way was clear. We were Uliastai bound, and not even boulders in the road would keep us from getting there.

DSCN5480


1 Comment

Outreach Trip, Part IV: Travel Hazards

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: traveling in Mongolia is a difficult business. Once we’d completed our morning presentation in Tariat, our schedules were clear of planned programming for nearly two days. No presentations to deliver or TV interviews to prepare for (or, more accurately, dread). The Embassy workers had described these two days as a “break,” and thus, we had assumed that we’d be able to rest: to sleep in, perhaps, or to hang out, play cards, and chat in a space larger than an SUV.

This, needless to say, was hilariously wrong.

We had nearly four hundred kilometers to cover over the course of those two days, the second two hundred of which took us beyond the roads recognized by Google Maps. The plan was simple: the first leg of the journey would take us from Tariat to Tosontsengel; the second, from Tosontsengel to Uliastai. We’d leave the Tariat area around 10:30, then stop for a late lunch in one of the driver’s family’s soums, and arrive in Tosontsengel in the late afternoon. The next morning we’d repeat the process, though without the helpful family rest stop. In America, neither day’s journey would take more than a few hours. But we were not in America, and not for a moment were we allowed to forget it.

It had begun to snow lightly before we left the volcano, but the skies cleared quickly once we got on the “road” (as it were). We passed hills turquoise-and rust-tinted hills and speculated about the mineral content of the soil; I observed that the grass looked greener than any I’d seen in months. We gloried in the sun and bright blue skies. It seemed the skies smiled on that day’s journey.

But that illusion evaporated as we approached a high mountain pass. The girls in the car behind me apparently took no notice of the warning signs, claiming the weather had sprung up out of nowhere, but I grew worried long before the problems started. The skies above might be blue, but those ahead spelled trouble.

IMG_0730

We’re driving into that?

Snow appeared on the ground as we began our ascent – a light dusting at first, then occasional drifts that grew in size and number as we climbed. The grey mass ahead grew closer and closer as we worked our way through the switchbacks. And then, suddenly, it was all around us. The road before us disappeared into the swirling white; but for their headlights, so too did the cars behind us. Only once have I experienced a whiteout more complete, and that was on a flat American highway. We inched along, unable to see the road more than a few feet in front of us. When the visibility cleared slightly, we found ourselves facing a serious problem.

No zoom on this picture - they're that close, and that hard to see.

No zoom on this picture – visibility’s that bad.

The snow on either side of the road was piled over a foot high; the road beneath us mercilessly slick, though free of drifts. But a few hundred yards in front of us, the snows continued unabated across the road, trapping nearly a dozen vehicles. It wasn’t just cars that were stuck, either: two mikrs were stuck as well, and, most worryingly, not one but three semis. One semi had clearly tried to pass the other after it got stuck, blocking the entire road.

DSC05642

Trapped behind a long line of stuck trucks.

Any hope of making it to Dashaa’s family in time for lunch quickly evaporated. No one could go anywhere until both semis were freed, and while a crowd of men labored to dig them out, shovels seemed to be in short supply. Even more frustratingly, two more mikrs arrived while we waited – and rather than get in line with the rest of us, they apparently felt the need to pass us all and get themselves stuck in the snow as well. So there we stayed for the next four and a half hours while we waited for the roads to clear.

I can’t speak for the other cars, but everyone in mine cheered when the crowd ahead of us began to move one more. Imagine our dumbfounded disbelief when the snow ended abruptly just over the next ridge. Less than a thousand feet of snowed-over roadway had impeded our progress so long that we had not yet reached our “lunch” stop at the time we’d thought to arrive in Tosontsengel.

Surely, we thought, that was our trial for the day. The skies had cleared, we’d passed most of the snow, and our trusty Embassy vehicles were trucking along without any sign of a problem. Surely the road could have no more to throw at us that day.

And then we reached the river. At least, it had once been a river, before the heavy precipitation of the past year turned the entire area into a floodplain. Now it was a broad swath of ice occupying the entire valley, still littered with the carcasses it had swallowed. We passed a long-abandoned truck half-submerged in the ice, and then an entire hashaa filled with several inches of the stuff. I don’t know how quickly the waters must have risen around the ger that still sat there, but it must have been a chilly place to live.

Frozen Floodplain

Frozen floodplain.

However, these sights paled compared with that which was to come. The ice, we discovered, had begun to melt, and the resulting river flowed quite quickly. And, as rivers will do, it had chosen the smoothest course: the road.

Road, river... who's splitting hairs?

Road, river… who’s splitting hairs?

Our last embassy-organized trip had also involved an unfortunate encounter with a river, and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in flashing back to it when I saw what lay before us. That river we had merely tried to cross, and still it had flooded our engine and left us paralyzed for hours. Surely we’d meet with even greater misfortune this time, when we were actually driving down the length of the river.

But there was no other way. The drivers judged that the water, though deep, was not too deep, and so in we went. I couldn’t believe we were doing this; none of us could. But somehow, we emerged from that water without so much as a hiccup in the proceedings. As the sun began to set in front of us, we neared our promised “lunch” stop, thrilled by the promise of real food at last.

IMG_0744


4 Comments

Outreach Trip, Part III: Tariat

The next stop on our trip was a soum called Tariat.  Tariat itself left very little impression on me – which is unsurprising, considering that we spent approximately fourteen hours there, over half of them asleep. So this post, like my memories of the soum, will be framed by the things that we saw on our way to and from Tariat.

We left Tsetserleg around 4:30 on Monday afternoon. It had already been a long day of presenting and being presented to, so none of us were particularly thrilled about getting back in the cars and driving onwards. But in we got and on we went. The paved road ended abruptly about five minutes out of Tsetserleg, but the gravel that replaced it was reasonably smooth – for the first half of our journey, at least. For that I was most grateful: I was about halfway through the third book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire at this point and unwilling to put it down. But I was eventually forced to do so, as reading, rough roads, and I are not a good combination. But the scenery was interesting and afforded us plenty to see and talk about.

We had quickly left the mountains surrounding Tsetserleg for the more open steppe that covers much of the country, but there were always more on the horizon, whichever way you looked. Steppe and mountains alike were still the dead, dry brown of winter, but we had blue sky above us and a good road beneath us; not a bad way to watch afternoon fade into evening.

About an hour outside Tariat, a canyon opened on our right, growing larger with every minute we drove. Dashaa carefully maneuvered our car off the road, around the ditches, and through the intervening herd of yaks so that we could pile out for a closer look. The canyon was deep enough that little sunlight reached the base, even during the height of the afternoon. Snow still covered the near bank, reaching all the way up to just below the lip, and the river’s surface was still frozen solid. Some of the ice retained its coating of snow, but green swirled unexpectedly through the the white of the exposed ice. This would be no calm stream come summer.

Чулуут Каньон / Chuluut Canyon

Чулуут Каньон / Chuluut Canyon

The other cars had pulled ahead while we dawdled at the edge of the canyon, but we soon caught up: they too had stopped not far ahead. We jumped out again, to take more pictures. The canyon walls sloped less steeply here, and more trees grew on the banks. I would have loved to see this canyon in September; larch trees  hold their green, needle-like leaves until late in autumn, turning a lovely golden color after aspens have dropped all their leaves, before they too succumb to the cold. But Чулууд, as I learned the canyon was called, had begun to leave the throes of winter behind. A stream of liquid water snaked its way through the ice here, only to be subsumed by it further downstream.

It was past dinnertime when we arrived in Tariat, but we’d had sandwiches and snacks in the car to tide us over. I was glad of my sandwich; I consistently forget that ноготой шөл doesn’t translate to “vegetable soup” so much as “soup with vegetables.” Mutton soup, in other words. I’ve already expressed my general dislike of mutton, and boiled mutton is my least favorite preparation of the meat. The milk tea wasn’t really to my liking either; I’m not generally a fan of the stuff, and this struck me as unusually gamey. I’m glad I at least tried, it though – we later learned that the reason for the unusual taste was that it was made from yak’s milk.

We were joined at dinner by Mike, the PCV at whose school we’d be presenting the following morning. Mike is truly what my friend Eric would call a “hudoo rat” : he’s a ger-dweller as well as a soumer, and his soum is six hours by mikr from the aimag center. Eric has a modem and can sometimes get Internet access in Delger, if he sits in exactly the right place and the Internet gods are willing. But Mike doesn’t get Internet in his soum at all. For him to get online, he has to make the six-hour trip to Tsetserleg. Suffice to say, he doesn’t spend much time on Facebook. The Embassy had provided us with the contact information of the PCVs we’d be meeting along the way, so the Lisas had asked whether any of them wanted goods from the capital. Mike’s requests were simple: baked goods and macaroni and cheese. He got both.

Tumpin: A wide, shallow wash bucket. Photo credit to former PCV Belen Diez.

Mike had plenty of entertaining stories to tell, including several about his dog. Peace Corps pets tend to be adopted/rescued strays, and Mike’s dog was no exception. Her name caused a double-take for a lot of us, though: “you named your dog Tumpin?” But while most PC pets are “rescues” in the sense that the were taken in off of the street, so to speak, Tumpin was truly rescued as a puppy – from an outhouse. In the summer. And then rescued a second time, when she fell in another outhouse after Mike adopted her. Her name, it would seem, is well-earned.

Our one presentation at Mike’s school the next morning flew by, and before we knew it, we were on the road again. But not the road to Tosontsengel – at least, not yet. First, we made a quick side trip to Khorgo.

There aren’t many volcanoes in Mongolia, but Khorgo is one of them. And even though it’s been extinct for seven thousand years, it still sticks out from the surrounding area. The rocks are darker, sharper; the mountain, strangely rounded. There are trees, but they’re sparse and scrawny.

One of these things is not like the others... Can you guess which one is the volcano?

One of these things is not like the others… Can you guess which one is the volcano?

We bounded out of the cars and up the mountainside, ignoring the wind and impending snow. Khorgo is clearly a tourist destination; while it doesn’t have marked trails, like you would find in America, the steeper part of the climb had concrete steps that cut through the strangely-mounded scree. For that, we were all grateful; screes are never fun to climb.

We only had an hour to explore, but we reached the lip of the volcano in far less time. The volcano itself might not have been very tall, but its crater was impressively deep. Phil warned us to stay away from the edge, telling us that the had lost Fulbrighters to volcanoes before. We tittered nervously, waiting for the punchline, but there wasn’t one: two live volcanoes, two lost Fulbrighters. This one, thankfully, wasn’t active, but falling into the crater would certainly result in serious injury at the very least.

Tattered flag atop the volcano's main ovoo. Photo courtesy of Amraa.

Tattered flag atop the volcano’s main ovoo. Photo courtesy of Amraa.

I would have liked to climb higher but was informed that we didn’t have time. So back to the cars we went. We reached the base just as the first flakes of the threatened snow began to fall, and then we were back on the road once more.


1 Comment

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.