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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Goodbyes and Shoutouts

It hit with a suddenness that took took my breath away. One minute I was staring eagerly out the window of my second Russian van in as many weeks, excited for the trip to the Gobi that had barely begun, and the next I was slumped against the seat, so exhausted at the prospect of being shaken half to death for the next seven days that I would have given almost anything to be out of that seat and back in the capital city. 

My plans had been ambitious: after my two weeks in Thailand, I’d spend a month in Mongolia that would take me west to the Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, south to the Gobi, and back up to Erdenet to celebrate my birthday with my friends. Then I’d ship most of my belongings home, joining friends in Vietnam and seeing Angkor Wat in Cambodia before finally returning home for Thanksgiving.

Needless to say, things had not gone as planned. I’d gotten sick upon returning from Thailand, forcing me to move my planned Gobi trip from mid-September to early October. That three-week delay, seemingly so trivial, would force me to register to stay beyond my allotted month, and it would also severely curtail my tour options. Mid-September is still sort of tourist season in Mongolia; October most assuredly is not. The one tour to the Gobi I was able to join left Ulaanbaatar a mere 15 hours after my flight from the west landed. I needed a few days to rest from one trip before beginning another, and I wasn’t going to get them.

And so, in that moment of window-gazing realization, my plans were upended. I knew then that I was simply too tired to continue my intended itinerary. After the Gobi trip, I returned to Ulaanbaatar even more traveled-out than I’d left it. Though the prospect of a beach somewhere in southeast Asia tempted me, given that I’d be headed home into a Chicago winter, I couldn’t quite manage to find it worth the ordeal of getting there. All the itineraries to Bangkok were awful, forcing me to arrive past midnight or spend the night in the Beijing airport. I could have taken the extra-long layover option, using the time to see Beijing itself, but even the thought of seeing the Great Wall paled next to my exhaustion of the thought of more crowds, more customs forms, and another language I didn’t understand.

It was time to go home.

“You know, your cousin in Florida’s having a baby shower the first weekend of November,” said my mother. “Florida has beaches.” And while I know the Thai islands must make Florida’s coastline look like a drab sparrow to its colorful parrot, I decided Florida was enough. Within an hour, we’d booked a flight that would get me home in time for Halloween. I leave tomorrow afternoon, and though I’ve spent the past few days packing and repacking to meet the baggage guidelines, I still can’t quite process that fact.

If you’re dismayed at not yet having heard my stories about the places I’ve been in the past two months, worry not; I have dozens of blog posts about Thailand, Bayan-Ulgii, and the Gobi that are still brewing, and even more on the rest of my time here. My experiences here have given me material to blog about for at least another year, and I fully intend to make use of it. There are lots of tales yet to tell, beginning with the conclusion to the hiking disaster cliffhanger.

But first, I have other matters to attend to. As my nearly fifteen months in Asia draw rapidly to a close, I find myself with a lot of thanks to bestow upon the people who have helped and supported me throughout that time. 

First and foremost, of course, those thanks have to go to Mom and Dad. I can’t begin to quantify all you’ve done for me in the past few months (not to mention my whole life), so I won’t even try. Now you can quit fretting yourself into an ulcer, Mom. Just think – as long as the Grand High Military Masters of Fickleness don’t change their minds at the last minute (as they so often do), you get to have both your chicks home for the holidays!

The second (and equally obvious) recipient is the Fulbright Program that brought me to this fantastic country. Friends who told me, when I was dithering between Mongolia (as a Fulbrighter) and France (with TAPIF), that I’d be nuts to pass up this fantastic opportunity – thanks. You were right. Accepting the Fulbright got me more than a plane ticket across the world and a placement at a school; I can’t begin to count the number of doors it has made available to me. I now have Mongolian pseudo-relatives so determinedly hospitable that they get offended if I don’t let them know when I’m in town or make the time to visit them; I have friends in Ireland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, and numerous other countries whom I would not have met had I not been in Asia and with whom, I have been strenuously informed, I am to stay should I ever pass through their parts of the world. I have a high-profile program name to put on my resume, and a schnazzy @fulbright.com email address available to me, should I choose to use it. I have connections in the US Department of State (!) and Foreign Service who have been honest and enthusiastic in providing information about those career paths, should I choose to pursue them. I have contacts at the US Embassy in Mongolia who never hesitated to provide assistance in ways far below their job description, whether it was by helping me in my (futile) search for motion-sickness medication or calling my co-teacher to explain what, precisely, she needed to put in that letter I need for my exit visa. Uyangas, you da bomb.

The other Fulbrighters, too, deserve thanks: my own cohort for the great time I had with them, and the new one for folding me into their social group and helping me with the unexpectedly extensive preparations needed before I can leave. Fifteen months in a country leave you with lot of baggage, and though I’ve known them only a few months, they volunteered to help me shoulder it even before I could ask. I’m so glad I stayed on long enough to meet you guys, and I wish our time here overlapped more.

But the biggest thank-you I need to bestow is to a different and less obvious group, and that’s Peace Corps Mongolia. Whereas I was part of only the third group of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Mongolia, the new generation of Peace Corps Volunteers is the twenty-fourth to serve in this country. As the more established program, it has far more resources and a much better-developed support system. It was my great fortune to be placed in the same city as six PCVs who, without hesitation, granted me access to both.

My thanks, however, go not just to the organization itself, but to the people who make it up. The greatest part about living with so many PCVs was the way it hooked me into a country-wide network of other PCVs. There are volunteers in just about ever corner of this country, and they are some of the most helpful and welcoming people I have ever known. There is no possible way to thank these people for every individual thing they’ve done for me, but I’d like to mention a few.

Thank you for immediately folding me into your social network, for insisting that I attend early gatherings that I would otherwise have skipped for fear I was imposing. Thank you for including me in your educational endeavors, for providing a teaching environment far more rewarding than the one I was assigned. For your unwavering patience in explaining the bewildering array of acronyms that are an integral part of the Peace Corps patois, and for forgetting at times that I might need such explanations, as though I’d been part of your group from the beginning. Thank you for taking the time to accompany and assist me on errands in the days when even a visit to the post office far exceeded my pathetic language skills. Thank you for providing your expertise on little, everyday matters, even if it meant responding to a text from someone you’d never met. For offering your floors to sleep on, when you had the room to do so, and for throwing out the welcome mat in other ways when you did not. For the open invitation to visit your homes, near or far, and the way it expanded my travel prospects. Thank you for welcoming me, and the rest of the Fulbrighters, to Peace Corps Thanksgiving, for giving us a family with whom to celebrate when our own families were so far away. 

Thank you for accepting me as one of your own. 

The biggest thanks, of course, go to the Erdenet Peace Corps Volunteers, whom I saw nearly every other day during my grant term and without whom I would surely have gone stir-crazy, and to the friend in the Gobi who acted as a much-needed confidante during my difficult winter. I found myself in what ought to have been a Peace Corps placement without the much more extensive Peace Corps training, and without all of your support, I might well have broken my contract and gone home early. I certainly would not have stayed five months after the end of my grant term to experience more of this country and culture. The Fulbright program may have brought me to Mongolia, but it was the Peace Corps Volunteers who made me want to stay.

I can’t thank you enough.

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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.


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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.

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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.

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


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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.


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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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Thanksgiving in UB

Well, this weekend has certainly been… eventful, in both good ways and bad. Good things first: Thanksgiving was wonderful. Lots of people, tons of food, and a good deal of fun. You can’t really get your hands on turkey here, but we had chicken – and lots of it. We also had mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie – all the essentials. The Fulbrighters had all been invited, so I got to hang out with most of them; in a couple of cases, this was the first time I had seen them since I moved to UB at the end of August. It was loud and noisy enough that there was only so much catching up we could do, but it was still nice to be able to hug and say hello.

This weekend also gave me a chance to meet Peace Corps Volunteers stationed all over the country. I doubt I’ll see most of them again, or even get a chance to talk to them – I didn’t get their phone numbers, and most soumers don’t have particularly regular internet access. But new faces and friendly conversations were great, whether they took place at the dinner table, in the comfortable chairs at the Thanksgiving, or over a beer (or two, or three).

After Thanksgiving dinner, we went salsa dancing – not just me and my gallant host,  but almost all of the PCVs, and a few of the Fulbrighters as well. I didn’t get to do much actual salsa dancing; there were few people who really knew what they were doing, and they all had other people to dance with. I’m terribly out of practice in any case, so I  wasn’t following particularly well. But the dancing was very fun anyway.

My other dancing experience didn’t go nearly so well. Most of the PCVs, plus a number of other expats, went to Aer Club on Friday evening, resulting in a very packed dance floor and the first grinding I’ve seen since I left the states. Putting so many expats together in a city like UB is like piling dryer lint on top of birchbark; when sparks started flying between Mongolian men and American women, the whole place was ablaze in moments. Someone threw a punch, someone else threw one back, people waded in to pull them apart and got hit themselves – it got ugly very fast. The fighting had broken apart and restarted twice by the time the police arrived.

All the Americans who hadn’t already fled were busy looking for their things and their friends so that they could do so, but I was unable to join them. My host had jumped right into the thick of it and was throwing both punches and words, so I was stuck waiting. In the end, the police grabbed three foreigners (two Americans and my host’s British friend) and three Mongolians to haul them off to the police station. And since none of the foreigners really spoke Mongolian and my Mongolian host speaks fluent English, he accompanied them to translate. So I accompanied them as well, since I couldn’t exactly go home without them.

This was my second Mongolian police station in less than a week, and it was not an enjoyable experience. At 1 am, all we really wanted to do was go home, but instead we were stuck waiting while both sides wrote out depositions and filed complaints.

I also missed my train back to Erdenet on Sunday night, having given myself about five too few minutes to walk to the station; I arrived just in time to watch the train pull away from the platform.  At some point during our mad rush to the station, we also made an unpleasant discovery. I had carried my stuff around the city all afternoon without major incident – which is to say that while two people had made an attempt at opening my backpack, neither was successful. I had been careful to put both zippers all the way at the bottom, where they’d be difficult to get to; the zipper to the computer compartment was more accessible, but with such a full backpack, I knew from experience that it would be difficult to extract my laptop. Those first two attempts on my backpack were obvious, and I whirled around and smacked the offending passersby.

It’s harder to guard your belongings at night, though; when the temperature drops well below zero, the extra layers you throw on muffle your hearing and obstruct your peripheral vision. I was in a hurry, and walking with a friend, and both of those things distracted me enough for someone to get my backpack open. Only the things at the very top were lost; I wasn’t too upset about losing  a packet of star anise or my fleece gloves, since they weren’t nearly warm enough anyway. But my bag full of chargers and  cords is now also gone as well: my camera battery charger, camera/computer cable, Kindle/computer cord, phone charger, my iPod cord, the handy iPod charger I wrote about here, and the European outlet adapter that goes with it. It was a terribly inconvenient loss, but all in all, I’d say I was lucky; all these things are replaceable and reasonably inexpensive. Between my US phone charger and my external hard drives, I still had the cords I need to connect to everything but my iPod. A new phone charger and iPod cord/charger ran me about $14 today, though sadly the charger is only compatible with European outlets. A new charger is only $12, but the world adapter kit is closer to 40, and I still have most of the inserts. I’m not sure if it’s possible to buy only the European one. Still need the camera battery charger, though.

Having my stuff stolen wasn’t much fun, but all in all, it was still a good trip to UB. I went to see a movie with a new friend during my extra night (Hotel Transylvania, not the new James Bond) and spent some more time getting to know PCVs. Not quite what I expected out of this trip, but still plenty of fun.


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Random Ramblings and Cold-Weather Acclimation

Duly noted: chicken tacos do not sit well when ingested immediately after working out. I knew they weren’t going to after the first few bites, but I finished my plate anyway; they were delicious, and I was hungry, and I was going to get my money’s worth. Besides, chicken tacos. An everyday thing stateside, but definitely a treat here.

And I can deal with some gastric grousing, so long as it’s not actual food poisoning. I leave UB in two days, and a train is not a good place to be when your stomach declares war. Not as bad as, say, a bus or an airplane (or worse yet, a meeker – see below), but still not good.

I've been packed into one of these with 22 of my closest friends; I think it legally seats about 14. Thank god it was only for an hour.

The cheapest form of transportation hereabouts, but you get what you pay for.

Besides, I’ve got stuff to do tomorrow: laundry, packing for my trip to UB, making cranberry sauce for Peace Corps Thanksgiving, baking cookies for the friends hosting me, acquiring the ingredients necessary to make said goodies, planning out my lessons for Thursday. Ironically, Thanksgiving is the only day I’m working this week; I don’t have classes Monday or Tuesday, Wednesday is election day (which is a national holiday, unlike in the US), and I’m taking Friday off to travel. Tough life, eh?

I used the first day of this non-work week to have the Americans over for dinner. The high school teachers among us midway through a two-week break, so we’ve been taking turns having everyone over for dinner. I made chili and cornbread, which were very well received by all but the Mongolians, who thought the chili too spicy. It’s the first time I had people over, and I think it went pretty well. I probably won’t play host to such a large group very often, though; there was barely enough space for us all to sit in my room, and nowhere near enough seating. And I think everyone now knows that I mean it when I ask them to bring their own cups/bowls/spoons if they don’t want to eat in shifts. I don’t even have enough bowls for us all to make one do double duty, as the Mongolians do (they don’t have separate words for “cup” and “bowl;” both are an аяга). Besides, that would have meant being unable to enjoy the chili and Nathan’s fantastic horchata simultaneously, and clearly, such things are meant to go together.

It could have been the body heat of so many people in such a small space, or it could have been a variety of other things: the extra layer of tape now gumming up the leaky seals in my windows, the fact that it’s actually stayed above 0*F for the past few nights, someone somewhere cranking up the radiators. But whatever the cause, it is now significantly warmer in my apartment. By “significantly warmer” I mean that my room now averages 75*F, otherwise known as “too dang hot!” It’s at least ten degrees warmer than I’d like it to be, seeing as a comfortable sleeping temperature for me is about 60.

And that’s before my body kicks into cold-weather mode, which it has apparently done. Today’s forecast high was only about 27, but it was a sunny 27, so I dressed appropriately when leaving the apartment: no gloves, hat, or coat, just a sweatshirt over a T-shirt. A short-sleeved T-shirt. I think my little brother would be proud. And no, as I repeatedly told Mongolians, I wasn’t cold.

This week’s teacher lesson is on weather, and for “snow,” I plan on showing them the picture of LSD (Lake Shore Drive, for the non-Chicagoans) during the Snowpocalypse. You know the one:

I really wish I'd been here to see this.

Never mind that this is not a typical Chicago winter, and that I was in a different state at the time. I just want some cold-weather street cred so people will stop telling me to put on a coat. I’ll put on coat when I’m cold, and I ain’t cold yet.

Nor, I’ll bet, are Mongolian babies. We have officially entered what Nathan likes to call “starfish baby season” – the time of year when Mongolian toddlers are so bundled up they can’t move. And I don’t mean they can barely move; they’re legitimately immobile, spread-eagled like a little starfish. Their parents sometimes carry them sideways under their arms, as you might a package. It’s an adorable and hilarious sight, and unfortunately it appears not to have made it onto Google Images. I’ll sneak some surreptitious pictures and post them when I get a chance.