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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A Land of Milk and Snow

“What’s your favorite color?” I used to ask my students in English and my acquaintances in Mongolian, and more often than not, I was surprised by the answer: white.

I think it’s probably safe to say that most Americans, unless they’ve studied or worked with lighting design, think of white not as a color, but as the absence thereof. It’s ceilings and doors and moldings that frame brighter-colored walls without calling attention to themselves; it’s a canvas not yet painted, a page not yet filled. It is, metaphorically and literally, a blank slate, a color whose only cultural connotations are of purity – which is to say, absence.

Mongolians feel very differently. Not only is white a color, it’s one of immense significance; after blue, it’s probably the second-most ceremonially important color.

That fact is particularly evident at this time of year. This Friday marks the beginning of one of the biggest holidays of the Mongolian calendar: Tsagaan Sar, which literally translates to white moon/month. That’s some cultural heft right there; while we westerners affiliate certain colors with particular holidays, we don’t call Christmas “red and green day.”

But what makes this month “white?” The moon itself? That would be my first guess, especially if the holiday fell on a full moon. But it doesn’t; it marks the beginning of the lunar cycle, starting the day after a night devoid of any moon at all. During Tsagaan Sar, even a clear night is frightfully dark out in the countryside, since the moon’s only presence is the tiniest of slivers.

The snow? That might be your next guess, and it wouldn’t be a bad one. Snow blankets the Mongolian landscape unmelted from the beginning of November to the end of February and can continue to color it as early as August, or as late as June. For countryside-dwelling herders, it is the color of half their world for up to half of the year, a ceaseless sheet of brilliance that turns many of their eyes blue with cataracts by the time their grandchildren are born. Snow is a source of beauty, but also of danger; too much of it will keep their herds from being able to graze on the dead remnants of last summer’s grass. It is also more likely to fall after Tsagaan Sar than in the two months previous, during which the weather is often too cold for snow.

But while snow is a fact of life in Mongolia, it’s not a sustainer of life, and so white is most strongly and importantly associated not with snow, but with milk.

When I’ve stayed with nomadic families, I’ve noticed that the first thing they do in the morning is to light a fire in the stove; the second, to heat a big bowl of water over that fire and draw off what they need for other uses; the third, to add the tea leaves, milk, and salt needed to make suutei tsai, or milk tea, which they’ll pour into a thermos to be drunk throughout the day. It’s what they give to a visitor the moment he crosses the threshold, what they socialize over and warm their hands with, and what they drink with meals, since they largely believe that drinking cold water with hot food will make you sick.

But the fourth thing nomadic families do, before anyone gets to drink the prepared milk tea, is take a ladle-full outside and fling it skyward in an offering to Tenger, the shamanist sky god. Even apartment-dwelling city folks lean out their windows with full spoons to participate in this ritual. The Mongolian gods must like milk, because their religious sites are soaked in it: splashed across ovoos and shrines, neatly collected in cups around their bases, and even illuminating temples in the form of milkfat-based candles. Seeing these religious applications was what helped me to understand that milk, and the mind-boggling array of things made with it, are much more than a mainstay of the Mongolian diet. You don’t make a point of sacrificing cheap gruel to a household god, no matter how much of it you eat; you give the gods the best of what you have.

You welcome important guests and occasions with it, too. When I visited the Mongolian countryside on an outreach trip with the other Fulbrighters and some higher-ups from the Embassy, the mayor of Tosontsengel greeted us with a copper cup of milk, which we passed between us peace-pipe style. On my last day at the school where I’d taught for a year, I was presented with a similar cup, also filled with milk. And when an American friend married a Mongolian woman, his father-in-law handed him a silver cup of milk as part of the ceremony, from which he and his new bride then drank.

After witnessing these and many other ceremonial uses of milk, I eventually learned not to be surprised when my students told me their favorite color was white. To me, it’s the color of the stuff I put on my cereal or in my coffee – but to them, it’s life.

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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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Rain

It tried hard to rain on the 22nd.

I looked out the window at midday to find the sky bisected by a streak of ominous grey, feathered along its northern edge with the striations typically indicative of rain. I quickly headed out the café door, knowing I still needed to stop by the school that day and wishing I’d had the sense to go earlier. I have no love for early spring rains; I can handle getting wet, and I tolerate cold with aplomb, but combining the two leaves me shivering, achy, and thoroughly miserable.

I felt a few drops spatter wetly across my face as I trudged up the hill to school. Here it comes, I thought, preparing to pull out my raincoat. But the precipitation I saw was coming down too erratically, in little fits and starts and the occasional swirl. After a few seconds of confusion, I realized it was also falling too slowly to be rain.

The snow, coming down in little balls not fluffy enough to be termed ‘flakes,’ melted instantly upon reaching the ground, which helped to create the illusion of rain. But though the clouds coughed and sputtered, it seemed they’d forgotten how to produce liquid precipitation. Theirs was a valiant effort, but a failed one nonetheless.

By five o’clock, the skies had given up on any pretense at rain. The dark clouds of the early afternoon had been replaced by a flat white blanket; the snowflakes, having grown thick and fluffy enough to house Polly Pocket and several of her friends, fell purposefully earthward in the absence of a breeze on which to tarry. Within an hour, cars and grass alike sported over an inch of the stuff, though the streets still remained stubbornly bare. I checked the weather on my desktop and chuckled at its naive insistence of 40-degree rain. The snows had no intent to relinquish this town so easily.

But I awoke this morning to an unfamiliar sound, one which even the insistent chirping of birds could not disguise. And the light was wrong; surely it should be brighter than this at 6 am? I knew what I would find when I dragged myself to the window to peer around my hideously-patterned floral curtains, but still I felt compelled to do so. I needed the visual confirmation to convince myself of what my other senses were telling me.

I’m not usually one to make a big deal about a little rain; Chicago’s no Seattle, but we still get plenty of the stuff. Rain floods our streets in the spring, cancels summer sports events, prevents outdoor recess for schoolchildren in the fall, and washes away snowmen and hopes of a white Christmas.

But not so here. Rain is not our constant companion in this land of high, cold desert. When you live in a place where the temperature drops below freezing and stays there for four straight months, and when that time is bracketed on either end by an additional month or two of snow, the first rain of the year is a big deal. It’s the long-awaited assurance that summer is finally on its way, that the grass will grow and the sheep will get fat and we won’t all freeze or starve (or both).

Its arrival is anticipated, noted, and celebrated – not ceremonially, perhaps, but personally. The week of the Boston bombing aligned with the week I was scheduled to teach my students about the news. After discussing the various media by which the news can be conveyed and obtained, I asked each class what had happened in the news that week. Over the course of the entire week, approximately three students answered my query with cries of, “Boston,” though a description of what had happened in Boston far outstripped their English abilities. (I was also highly impressed by the one student who called out, “Bad Korea.” Not a bad distinction when you don’t know the words for north or south.)

No, the word I heard again and again was “Khovsgol.” Erdenet had received only snow that week (several inches of it, at that),  but it had rained in Khovsgol, I was told time and again. Students in every class felt the need to inform me of this momentous event; the arrival of the spring rain was exciting and newsworthy even when a twelve-hour drive would be required to reach the area that it had fallen.

This morning’s rain was actually the third we’ve had this year, but it was the first to do more than drizzle lightly and leave a few puddles on the pavement. A steady, if light, fall like this was something I hadn’t seen since December (in Tokyo; our last real rainfall in Erdenet was in September). I stared for a while, wondering how something so simple could seem so momentous. And then I sighed in relief as I watched it turn once more to snow, glad that I could walk the half an hour to work without getting soaked.


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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.

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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.

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The Land of Perpetual Snow

My father is well-known, within my extended family, at least, for his propensity to rename that which is new to him. Thus, he refers to the ghost of Gryffindor house as “Almost-Headless Frank,” and that game they play on broomsticks as “wacky badminton.” So when I told him the Mongolian version of “how are you?” it came as no surprise that he did the same thing.

“How are you?” is sort of built into the Mongolian “hello;” сайна байна уу? translates roughly as “are you good?” Their follow-up question, therefore, is more like, “how was your rest?” (Cyrillic: Cайхан амарсан уу?, Latin: Saihan amarsan uu?; sounds like sa [like sat, without the t] han amarse no).

My father’s rendition? “So, how much snow?” As the first two examples illustrate, how well the dad-isms fit varies pretty widely. But this one’s pretty darn accurate.

To wit: In Chicago, and probably in the rest of the world, Chicago is primarily a winter phenomenon. Sure, we might get the occasional flurry in October or May, but in your average year, the majority of the snow falls in January or perhaps early February.

Not so here. A friend of mine once explained that she dislikes snow because it means that it’s too cold to rain; here, snow means that it’s relatively warm. For much of our winter, it is simply too cold to snow. We got the occasional flurry in December and January, but never enough for any serious accumulation. All we ever got was a thin, glittery layer of dry white powder that rendered sidewalks a deathtrap. Seriously, who decided tile sidewalks were a good idea in a country that’s frozen half the year?

The extreme cold and amount of ice crystals in the air do result in a number of cool atmospheric phenomena, like these parhelia. Photo credit to Jonathan Tavennic Renich.

If you’ll recall, my definition of Mongolian winter was pretty straightforward: winter starts when the snow stops melting and end when it starts to. But the presence of snow in both fall and spring are implicit in this definition; that the snow has started to melt does not mean there won’t be more.

The snow started on September 26th, and by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, we’d had at least twelve days of snowfall. December and January gave us a hiatus, but now it’s back. We got at least as much snow in February as in December and January combined, and as much again in March. Halfway into April, we’re still getting snow at least twice a week, though it’s now interspersed with several days of 40-60 degree weather.

And unlike the snowfall we got in the winter, this stuff means business. Spring snow doesn’t mean a flurry of the minuscule ice crystals we got in winter, but the big, thick flakes that weigh down your eyelashes and sparkle surreally in the presence of even a little light. The Friday before St. Patrick’s Day brought us five inches of the stuff; the last eight hours have given us at least another four, with drifts over a foot tall in some places.

As someone who enjoys cold and snow, I don’t really mind, but I know a lot of the Peace Corps Volunteers are pretty sick of the stuff.  This morning, I asked the director of the Children’s Palace when the snow usually stops. “Maybe May?” she said. “But last year it snowed on July 1st.”

So get used to the snow, folks. It doesn’t look like we’ll be rid of it anytime soon.


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My Trip to Govi-Altai, Part IV: Тэмээ

Camels! Camels camels camels.

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

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

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

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

Weird, right?

Weird, right?

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

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

goats wearing blankets = unexpectedly adorable

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

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

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

The receiver is supposed to wear his hat too.

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

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

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

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

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

They let us ride double. That was pretty cool.

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

Camels make funny noises. Fancy that.


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My Visit to Govi-Altai, Part III: Delger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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