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.


Guanzes: Fast Food Here and There

Fast food, as we think of it, doesn’t really exist in Mongolia. I’m not just talking about American fast food, though that doesn’t really exist either; there is exactly one American food restaurant–not chain, but actual location–in the entire country. (And it’s not even McDonald’s!) Mongolia does have a fast food chain of its own, but while Khaan Buuz has a presence in many aimag centers, it’s a far cry from the ubiquity of chains here in the US. You can’t pull off the highway to grab a quick bite from a familiar  name while driving from one city to the next, because 1) There are no highways; 2) There are only twenty-three cities in the country with a population greater than 10,000; and 3) Khaan Buuz doesn’t have non-city roadside locations. But even if the restaurant’s name isn’t instantly recognizable, its menu surely will be.

Mongolia might not have much in the way of “fast food,” but aside from celebratory dishes like khorkhog, it doesn’t really have “slow food” either. I’d be hard-pressed to count the number of times my roommate arrived home, hungry and hoping for a quick bite, while I was in the middle of cooking my own dinner. When this happened, I usually moved my food off the stove for the twenty minutes it would take her to finish cooking and resumed once she was done. It didn’t seem right to make her wait the hour it might take my split-pea soup to move from “crunchy” to “soupy” when all she was going to do was shave some mutton off of the chunk in the freezer and throw it in boiling water with noodles and salt. She and other Mongolians were often amazed by my cooking, even though the food I cooked wasn’t usually difficult to prepare. But by dint of using spices other than salt (and occasionally dill) and a more complex cooking process than heat-and-eat, my meals stood apart.

I would describe most Mongolian food as “utilitarian,” and гурилтай шөл (guriltai shöl, or soup with noodles) certainly exemplifies that characteristic. It’s one of several core Mongolian foods made from little more than meat, flour, salt, and water. Oh, and fat. Mongolians eat a lot of fat. Other typical Mongolian foods include:

  • Бууз/buuz – steamed dumplings, typically filled with chopped mutton. My own version has chicken, vegetables, ginger, and sesame oil, which Mongolians find either delicious or heretical. Traditionally served at Tsagaan Sar. The variation known as мантуун бууз/mantuun buuz have a leavened dough.
  • Хуушуур/khuushuur – fried dough pockets, more like empanadas than any American equivalent. Same dough and filling as buuz, flatter and fried instead of steamed.  Traditionally served at Naadam.
  • Цуйван/tsuivan – steam-fried noodles with meat and potatoes. City tsuivan often contains carrots, cabbage, onions, and sometimes beets, but countryside fare is usually more minimalist. Tsuivan is by far my favorite Mongolian food, but I have yet to produce a satisfactory batch in my own kitchen.
  • Банш/bansh or банштай шөл/banshtai shölbansh are basically smaller buuz, only smaller and boiled rather than steamed. Banshtai shöl is soup with more meat, bansh, and a few vegetables. In addition to a more familiar soup, bansh are often served in сүүтэй цай/suutei tsai, or milk tea.
  • Будаатай хуурга/budaatai khuurga – rice with fried meat and vegetables. Said vegetables may be limited to potatoes and onions, or they may include cabbage, peppers, and carrots.

These, in addition to Russian contributions like гуляш and mayonnaise-y салат (gulyash and salat, respectively, though gulyash bears a much closer resemblance to goulash than salat to salad), are the foods you’re most likely to encounter when eating in Mongolia, whether at home or on the road. Budaatai khuurgatsuivan, and shöl come together in minutes; buuzkhuushuur, and bansh require a little more preparation. As a result, while all the foods listed above will probably be present on the menu of your standard roadside eating establishment, the non-dumpling options are more likely to be available.

These eating establishments, though not part of nation-wide franchises, are often similarly named. The signs above their doors might not bear names at all, but rather, labels: цайны газар, хоолны газар, зоогийн газар (tea place, food place, meal place). Despite independent ownership and operation, they are as generic as they are ubiquitous. If there is a substantial difference between a tea place and a meal place, I have yet to see it. Instead, I referred to any small eatery serving food fast and on the cheap by a more general term, borrowed from the Chinese: гуанз, or guanz.

If asked, the Mongolians I knew would translate guanz as “fast food,” but the term doesn’t carry the same distinction there as here. The phrase makes me think of burger joints and national franchises, of establishments I visit only when on the road and in a hurry. American fast food is industrialized, shipped cross-country and cooked using griddles, deep-fat fryers, and other equipment not usually found in home kitchens. It’s saturated in fat and, at least in affluent communities, often seen as an indulgence; most of us don’t eat burgers and fries every day. It’s “fast” because it’s typically frozen and requires no preparation beyond adding heat or hot water.

Mongolian guanz food, by contrast, is exactly what you’d find in a Mongolian home. The only thing that’s “fast” about it is that you didn’t have to cook it.


Mini-Mongol Invasion

Apparently I am a magnet for small children.

It’s spring in Mongolia, and the balmy 50-degree weather has brought the children out in hordes to play. They are everywhere: running through school yards, traversing the streets in packs, thronging to the playgrounds at the center of every apartment complex. I understand their enthusiasm; it’s been a long winter, and they’ve been cooped up indoors indoors for months now. You don’t go out to play in the snow in the dead of winter here, as children do in America; it’s just too cold. The snow is too dry and powdery to pack together, and the smaller children, when their parents do bring them outside, are so bundled up as to be almost immobile. The youngest ones are, in fact, immobile: puffed out to twice their size and spread-eagled by their snowsuits. The local PCVs call them “starfish babies.”



A coworker and her starfish baby.

But now they’ve shed their layers and run rampant throughout the city. This I’d expected. What I hadn’t expected was to draw so much attention from so many of them.

There’s a sizable Russian population in this town, and thus the Americans are accustomed to being mistaken for Russians. Орос хүн, people mutter as we walk by; they hail us with здравствуйте! and try to tell us prices in Russian. But although blondes and redheads are particularly likely to be assumed Russian, I have largely been exempt from this trend. Blonde I may be, but my face is too round and my features too soft to fit the Russian profile. The only people who usually try to talk to me in Russian are drunk men. One man tried repeatedly to engage me in conversation despite my blank stare and unabated pace. Finally his friend elbowed him; “she’s not Russian, stupid,” he said in Mongolian.

But small children make the same mistake. Lacking the more sophisticated profiling abilities of the adults, most seem prone to the belief that all white people are Russian. Is she Russian?, they ask as I walk by. No, say some of their friends, she’s English. And unlike the children I’ve encountered in the countryside, the youngsters of Erdenet have no problem running up to me to settle the debate. Four times in the last three days, I’ve been stopped by children in the street or on the playground. Aнаа, анаа! they call, using a term of address for an older sister. Та орос хүн үү? I tell them that I’m not Russian, but American, and the ones who guessed correctly grin in triumph. Some of them gape at my ability to speak even a little Mongolian; others ask what I’m doing in Mongolia. Hello!, they often chorus, eager to show off the few English words they know.

When I ask them their names and ages, they chatter at me in rapid Mongolian – eager, I can only assume, to share their life stories. My utter lack of comprehension is usually lost on them, and often they follow me even after I’ve walked away, shouting goodbye! in English if they know it and Mongolian if they don’t. Today a five-year-old boy bounded over to me on the street and tried to talk to me in Mongolian. I told him repeatedly that I didn’t understand, but this little one was nothing if not persistant. Анаа, нааш ир, he said, reaching up to take my hand. I followed him to his mother’s delguur; what else are you supposed to do when a five-year-old takes your hand and says, “big sister, come here” ? His mother laughed when he led me in and greeted me in Mongolian. I asked his name, confirmed that he was her son, and said I had to go; when I left the shop, he ran after me shouting Баяртай!.

As a blonde living in Asia, I’ve gotten used to being stared at. But I don’t remember being swarmed this way when I came here in the fall. You’d think I’d lose novelty over time, rather than gain it. But either I’m more interesting now than I was in the fall, or the children have gained some courage. Either way, I’m not complaining. This morning’s encounter was the most adorable thing that’s happened to me in a while. Even if it did make me late for my lesson.

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In Praise of Universality

Lest I get myself unintentionally embroiled in the Mac/PC war, let me preface this by saying that I am an Apple user, not a worshipper. I freely acknowledge that Apple has its fair share of issues with universality, especially when it comes to things like proprietary software and file formats. But when it comes to charging the devices it makes, Apple’s got its act together. I love that all Macs use the same chargers; that they can borrow someone else’s, regardless of what year or model they’ve got, makes it so much easier when someone forgets to bring theirs.

And then there’s this little thing, which is one of the most useful electrical devices I own:

Yes, it’s an iPod charger. But because so many other devices can be charged with a USB connection these days, I can use it to charge all manner of other things: my camera, my Kindle, my cell phone (my US phone, at least). My friend Lauren could use it to charge her awesome self-sterilizing water bottle. So as long as I’ve got these three cords on hand, I can plug in almost anything I have that requires charging – and probably anything a friend needs charged, too. Remember the days of junk drawers filled with almost-identical phone chargers that only worked for one specific model? Yeah, I don’t miss them either.

Now, most of the aforementioned devices come with their own USB-to-wall pieces. The reason I like the iPod one is that the wall outlet part is detachable – a fact which holds little importance within the US but becomes highly significant once you leave it.

I have the adapters for Australia as well, but I didn't bring them with me. Only the ones I knew might be useful.

Clockwise from the bottom right: UK/Ireland/Hong Kong, Europe, China, US, Korea

This little adapter kit is kind of pricey, but it was well worth the expense. I bought it before studying in France so that I could plug my computer in without having to worry about bringing my cord and an adapter with me anywhere I went, since you can swap these in for the extender part of the cord and just plug the transformer straight into the wall. But you can also use them for an iPod charger. With a couple pieces of white plastic that fit easily into a plastic sandwich bag, I can charge anything anywhere.

The one exception is my Mongolian phone, which is a Nokia brick that hails from the pre-standardization days.

It’s also dual-voltage, which means I don’t have to worry about a voltage converter, another plus. (Though happily, most electrical devices smarter than a hair dryer are usually dual-voltage. Things like hair dryers, curling irons, and flatirons still tend to overheat and melt even if you convert the voltage – but since I own exactly none of these things, that’s happily a non-issue for me.)

Having an array of charging options is especially important here in Mongolia. Given its location, what kind of plugs do you think you would need here? Chinese? Korean?

European, it turns out. Which makes a lot of sense, given the strong Russian influences here, but it’s still not what you’d expect of a country that is patently in Asia.

Unfortunately, the wall outlets aren’t always the European sort. Sometimes, you find yourself on a train and discover that it was apparently made in China – or at least, the wall outlets were. Or the extension cord in your office wants British plugs. Or you’re being med-evacced to Korea, which uses yet another type of wall outlet. (Thankfully, only the first has actually happened to me.) Whatever the reason, chances are you’ll find yourself in at least one situation that calls for a plug that isn’t European.

Another gadget, one that is both more and less useful:

A universal power strip. Brilliant.

I’ve never seen these before, but they are brilliant, and I am definitely taking this one with me in case I find myself residing in Europe some day. The lesser part of its usefulness is that it can only be plugged into a European-style wall outlet. But so long as you have one of those, you can plug pretty much anything into these. And that’s really a necessity in a country where nothing is standardized. During my orientation, for example, my dorm room had three pieces of electrical equipment: a tea kettle, a television, and a refrigerator. And a universal power strip, without which I could not have used any of these thing; the kettle was British, the television Korean, and the refrigerator Chinese, and each was thus incapable of being plugged directly into the wall outlet.

When it comes to living things, diversity is something wondrous, to be cherished and protected. In my electronics, however, I am a huge fan of universality. If your digital camera requires me to buy proprietary cords in order for me to charge it or upload its pictures, then I’m sorry, but I ain’t buying it. I’ll stick with something that works with all the other equipment I already own, thanks all the same.

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Taboos and Tiger Time: Addendum

A few facts gathered from discussing the previous post with the Russian friends:

  • Some gers are fitted with curtains to provide at least a minimal amount of privacy
  • A red rag somewhere on the outside of the ger is the equivalent of hanging a tie (or a shoe, or a sock… while the tie is traditional, I’m sure we’ve all seen plenty of variations) on your door. Only useful during the day, though, given the lack of lighted hallways.
  • Irina confirms that children who grew up in gers have a lot more sexual knowledge than those who did not – which manifests in Mongolian children engaging in or imitating sexual behaviors at a very young age. The Russians find this disturbing and discourage it, but they say that their Mongolian counterparts think of it as normal.

I think this last point is the most interesting. Obviously, we have differing ideas of “normal” competing here, and this intersection is a good place to point out that not all cultures think of children as “innocents” from whom sex should be hidden. I’ve never lived in such a culture before – to the contrary, both of the countries I’ve previously lived in were mostly Catholic – so this is an interesting contrast for me. Anyone know what Buddhism has to say about sex?

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A Day in the Life

Ways in which today was successful:

  • I spent all afternoon hiking
  • I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck before leaving
  • I climbed a rock face that was probably a little too steep for me to do this safely.
  • I managed said climb without injury.
  • I completed about 3/4 of my intended route
  • I made some Russian friends! They were having a barbecue up on the mountain, and when I walked by, they invited me to join them at their table for food and “maybe a little vodka” (ha). So I hung out with them for an hour or two. They taught me the Russian words for please, thank you, hot, cold, and dance, effectively doubling my Russian vocabulary.

Ways in which today was not so successful:

  • I neglected to bring more sunscreen with me
  • Even though I spent five hours up in the mountains, I never managed to make it out of earshot of other people. Sound carries really really well over the steppes, and apparently Saturday afternoon is when everyone heads for the mountains.
  • I had wanted to find a quiet spot in the forest to write for a while. But since no quiet spot was to be found, no writing was done either.
  • I still haven’t found a way to listen to .wma/.odm files on my mac
  • I’m going to be late to join the other Americans at a bar across town.

Overall, I’d say today was pretty good.