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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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.

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A Land of Many Scripts

My first few days in Mongolia were bewildering ones. Consider: I had a thirteen-hour time difference to adjust to; I’d never been to Asia before; I couldn’t speak the language, or even read the alphabet. I’d done almost no research on Ulaanbaatar, the city in which I’d be spending the next three weeks. I’m not usually such an underprepared traveler, mind you; we were supposed to have an orientation program in which we’d learn the basics of the language and culture, as well as how to do things like navigate the city and order food.

But that started on Monday, and we arrived on Thursday.

So our first few meals in Mongolia were of the “point at something on the menu and hope for the best” variety – a dicey enterprise, but one from which we thankfully emerged unscathed. I’m particularly grateful that I never ended up with anything really nasty because this remained an ordering strategy for far longer than one would have expected, even after I’d learned the Cyrillic alphabet. Reading Cyrillic, it turns out, does not mean you can read Mongolian.

Mongolians have been writing for a long time, and the way they write has evolved considerably during that time. Learning to read in Mongolia is therefore no simple matter. Whereas most Americans have only one alphabet to master, Mongolians have a variety to choose from.

Phags-pa

Image Credit: the Japanese Archaeological Association

While several variants exist, Mongolian Phags-pa is very boxy and not particularly script-like.

Invented during the reign of Kublai Khan in order to serve three languages spoken at the heart of the then-enormous Mongol Empire (Tibetan, Mongolian, and Chinese), this blocky-looking script fell pretty quickly from common use. While Mongolians no longer write with it, it does appear frequently as ornamentation – perhaps because it bears some resemblance to the knot-like decorative patterns they so often favor. I’ve seen it on statues, stationery, fabrics – and, of course, money.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

Phags-pa vertical along the left; to the right, the soyombo.

  Soyombo

Money brings us to another short-lived script: Soyombo, which is not technically an alphabet, but an abugida(If you’ve never heard of one,  you’re not alone. In short, it’s a system that notes consonant-vowel groupings, emphasizing the consonants.) The Soyombo script was designed in the 1680s by Mongolian scholar-monk Bogdo Zanabazar for translating Buddhist documents from Tibetan or Sanskrit. This very complex system never made it into everyday use, but its eponymous Soyombo symbol has been adopted as a national symbol and appears on everything from bills to walls to the flag.

Classical Script

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children's Palace director.

Handwritten for me by the Erdenet Children’s Palace director.

Called монгол бичиг, or Mongol bichig (literally, Mongolian writing) this writing system has certainly had the longest run of them all, and it’s still used in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia. In Mongolia proper its modern uses are mainly ceremonial: logos, certificates, statues, signs. I’ve seen many documents titled in the script, or stamped with it alongside a signature, but never one entirely written in it. It too graces every piece of Mongolian currency, and Mongol bichig calligraphy is a common art form – especially among students, all of whom now learn it as children.

Though one of my tutees offered to teach me this beautiful script, I declined. I’m still very much a beginner in reading in Cyrillic, so adding this would mean biting off way more than I could chew. Like Phags-Pa, this script is vertical – but while the cursive system has a “spine,” little else of it is orthogonal. It also resembles Arabic in that its letters take different forms depending on whether they fall at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. As if that wasn’t enough, everything written in the Classical Script is also spelled differently, since Cyrillic spellings reflect changes in pronunciation that have occurred since the Classical codification of Mongolian. Had I lived in Mongolia another year, I would have liked to learn it, but in the limited time I had, I decided not to court madness.

Cyrillic

Block-printed Cyrillic is the everyday writing system in Mongolia and has been since the Soviets first stepped in in the 1940s. This is what you’ll find in textbooks, legal documents – anything printed. It’s the writing system in which I learned to read Mongolian, and to this day it remains the only one in which I can reliably do so. Mongolian Cyrillic has two more letters than Russian Cyrillic – vowels ү and ө, which correspond approximately to “oo” and “eu” [u,ʊ]. Despite these additions, Google still fails to distinguish between the two languages, though at least it now recognizes Mongolian as a language.

Cyrillic Script

Unfortunately, learning block-printed Cyrillic is not enough. Whereas many Americans consider cursive so obsolete that a lot of elementary schools no longer teach it, the reverse seems to be true in Mongolia. Any handwritten Mongolian you encounter will almost certainly be in cursive, be it on longhand lesson plans or the dry-erase menus favored at cheap diners.

To say that this is problematic for foreigners is and understatement, because Cyrillic script is confusing. Not only are many of its letters very similar to each other, as is typical of scripts, they are also highly dissimilar to their printed forms. Consider д, р, and т in the chart below, and compare г to ч or м to и and ц.

This made it extremely difficult for Mongolians to teach me things, since I need to see words written out in order to remember them. They’d write in cursive, and when I said I couldn’t read it, they’d try the Latin alphabet, which I couldn’t read either. The poem below was written for me by the school director inside a notebook she gave me. In return, I gave her a book with a note in English cursive. “Katya, your writing is bad!” she told me, at which point I indicated her own, explaining that I couldn’t read it either. Thereafter, she was much more consistent about printing.

Катяд (?) / (?) төлөө (?) / Сайн дуу минь / Сайн найз минь / Сайн багш минь (?) төлөө / (Минй хувьд цагаа / зөв хуваар??? / чиний чөлөөт / цагаар хамт / (?) (?) / Чиний найз Цоож
Kudos to anyone who can puzzle out the rest!

Latin

Mongolian can be written in the Latin alphabet too, of course. The government implemented it briefly in the 1900s before abandoning it in favor of Cyrillic. But if the Cyrillic alphabet is a poor fit for this language, the Latin alphabet is an even poorer one. Mongolian Cyrillic has twelve and a half vowels, and while there’s some overlap in the sounds they represent, all are used. Even if you use y’s to denote я, е, ё, ю as ya, yeyoyu, that still leaves more vowels than the Latin alphabet can accommodate. Standard transcription methods use diacritics to distinguish between the remaining vowels, as follows:

Screen shot 2014-01-13 at 12.20.06 PMHowever, this scheme (from Charles Bawden’s Mongolian-English Dictionary) differs from the one used by the US Library of Congress, which differs again from the one that often appears in Wikipedia articles. It’s also extremely misleading for English speakers, since virtually none of the vowels are pronounced the way we’d expect them to be. As a result, transliterated Mongolian makes no sense to me. Bi avtobusaar gereecee delgüür rüü yavaad emnelegt irsen does not sound like Би автобусаар гэрээсээ дэлгүүр рүү яваад эмнэлэгт ирсэн in my head, and I’m hard-pressed just to figure out how to spell that sentence, much less read it. It just doesn’t process.

Furthermore, there’s the issue of usage. Mongolians do not typically use the Latin alphabet unless they are a) using a computer without a Mongolian keyboard, or b) texting. Neither scenario lends itself to the use of diacritics, and so the у/ү distinction is lost. Standardization, meanwhile, goes by the wayside: e could be э or e, yo ë or ю, and I’ve seen ө rendered as both u and o. Mongolian has rules about which vowels can occur in the same word, so it’s usually clear which letter is meant in longer words, but shorter ones are problematic. By uul, do you mean уул or үүл – am I supposed to be looking at the cloud, or the mountain? Happily, there is no өөл to further the confusion, but уур, үүр, and өөр are distinct words that are all commonly rendered as uur

Tibetan

Oh, so you thought we were done? Guess again! While it’s not used for everyday purposes and most Mongolians can’t read or write it, Tibetan writing is ubiquitous in Mongolia. Most Mongolians are nominally Buddhist, Shamanist, or a combination of the two, and it was the Tibetans who brought Buddhism to Mongolia. Anything of religious significance will likely include Tibetan writing: prayer wheels, prayer flags, temples and stupas, statues of religious figures.

A single sign or statue in Mongolia might bear inscriptions in three or four different scripts. It makes for a rich and varied, but initially bewildering, cultural experience that requires a lot of puzzling out.

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A Tibetan phrase, transliterated into Cyrillic, with an attempt at an English translation.

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The Almost-Russian Almost-New Year

The Thursday before my Mongolian Christmas, my teacher class and I played Christmas bingo. Rather than attempt to tell the biblical tale to members of a thoroughly non-Christian culture, I opted to stick with with the holiday’s secular trappings: bells, holly, candles, Santa. I went over the vocabulary before we started, and that went pretty well until I held up a picture of a decorated evergreen and asked what it was.

The teachers conferred with each other, double-checking the words in question. Then Setgel, the star pupil, confidently called out their answer: “New Year’s tree!”

New Year‘s tree? No, I told them firmly, shaking my head. In English, we call it a Christmas tree. They repeated the words dubiously, and we moved on to the next picture. But the vocabulary didn’t stick; every time a winning row included a tree, it was called back to me as a “New Year’s tree.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had Russia to thank for the confusion. During its 68 years as a Soviet satellite state, Mongolia (then called the Mongolian People’s Republic) adopted a number of Russian traditions. I don’t know whether Russian yolki were originally associated with Christmas in the days before the Soviet kibosh on religion, but now, as Anna explains, they’re definitely a New Year’s thing.

And as Russi has yolki, Mongolia has шинэ жилийн мод (shine jiliin mod). Christmas isn’t really a thing in a country with so few Christians, but similar-looking traditions, stripped of their religious connotations, have made their way in anyway. I can’t blame the Mongolians for adopting any tradition that incorporates light and sparkly things into their long winters. They celebrate the new year twice – on December 31st with the rest of the world, with champagne and fireworks and drunken parties, and again at Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year and traditional beginning of spring.

My roommate's duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

My roommate’s duu in front of their шинэ жилиин мод.

The trees themselves vary widely in appearance. My roommate’s extended family had a small one covered in ornaments that closely resembled Western Christmas trees, though the Mongolian love of glitz was also evident in its multicolored fiberoptic inserts. The tree in front of one Erdenet’s shopping centers, by contrast, was not a tree at all, but a cone formed of tinsel garlands and brightly-colored, constantly flashing lights stretched taught between a tall pole at the center and the broken slabs of ice heaped around its base. I’ve seen some lovely specimens of the tradition, but this was not one of them.

I was in for more surprises at my school’s New Year’s celebration. I went home for New Year’s last year, and so I missed the fireworks and ice sculptures and other festivities held in Erdenet’s main square, but not my school’s parties. There aren’t many restaurants in Erdenet, and since they were all booked for the weekend closer to the end of the year, our parties were held on December 23rd.

Yes, parties, plural. We had one in the afternoon for the students, and then a teachers-only party later in the evening. The afternoon party was dry, save for one bottle of champagne (or shampanski, as they call it, in what I assume is the Russian fashion); the evening one was another story altogether, of which I remember about half.

But the afternoon party was memorable primarily for its entertainment. The students put on two dance numbers: one to a wordless, very pop-y version of “Jingle Bells,” another to a slow waltz. Waltzes, while not traditionally Mongolian, are nonetheless a dance party staple, interspersed unpredictably amongst the more expected pop and house music. The Mongolians I’ve asked say they learned waltzes from the Russians, who evidently did not teach them that three-beat dances do not work very well with four-beat music, nor four-beat dances with three-beat music.

We also had an appearance from a familiar character – or rather, an almost-familiar one. American traditions are quite firm on the fact that the jolly man with a big white beard wears red, though I’ve seen Father Christmas wear green in a few English depictions. But blue? I’d never seen Santa wear blue.

Then again, this wasn’t Santa Claus. He was Өвлийн Өвөө (övliin övöö) – Grandfather Winter, who I’d wager is the Mongolian incarnation of Russia’s Ded Moroz.

The white beard looked more than a little out of place in a country where I’ve never seen the elderly go white and very few are capable of growing even straggly little beards. But the fat, jolly grandfather image is plenty Mongolian. And whatever his origin, he was a welcome sight to a girl for whom Christmas would be an ordinary work day.

Even if he didn’t give us presents.


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So What Do I Call You Now?

Adulthood is a pesky thing. It keeps rearing up when I least expect it, reminding me that the rules by which I have always abided (why do we say “abided” here, and not “abode?”) have changed; I cannot do things as I have always done them. Responsibility, which I have never feared, suddenly carries real-world repercussions that affect more than just me, and suddenly I occupy a different place in the world.

A lot of this was true in Mongolia, of course, but some of it hits me afresh now that I’ve returned to America, specifically the issue of names. There are an awful lot of people I originally knew as Mr./Ms./Dr. [last name] because I was a child, or a student. But now I’m neither, and that muddies the waters a bit. How does one address a former teacher/professor? A former scout leader? A former boss who also attends my church? My parents’ friends, who I’ve always sort-of-but-not-really known?

Some of these folks make it easy for me. The scout leader addresses me by last name unless I address her by first name; several of my teachers/professors always asked me to call them by their first names, or have told me since graduating that I can do so.

But then there’s the former-boss-who-attends-my church. I knew him first as an adult at church, so I called him Mr. B. But then I started working for him, and I couldn’t call everyone else at the office by their first names and not him. But then, it didn’t seem right to call him by his first name at church, either. So I referred to him by his first name at work and his last name at church and just tried to avoid addressing him by name altogether. For that matter, I still do, even though I no longer work for him.

And what are you supposed to do about professors with doctorates who sign their emails with their first names, or their initials, but never actually address the issue of address? My general policy is to call those with doctorates by their titles unless and until I’m specifically asked to do otherwise, but those signatures add just enough ambiguity to the situation to make me antsy. If you don’t want me to call you by name, why are you signing your emails to me with it? But if you want me to call you by name, why haven’t you asked me to?

Mongolia brought a welcome reprieve from the business of titles. No one there calls anyone Mr. or Mrs. anything, probably because there is no single system of last names. Mongolians don’t usually have single surnames that are passed along the generations; instead, most of them have adopted the Russian patronymic system. Thus, each child bears the name of his or her father – sometimes with the genitive suffix appended, and sometimes not. That’s already a lot of mosts and sometimeses: a Mongolian’s “surname” could be 1) a Russian-style patronymic, with the genitive suffix; 2) a patronymic without the suffix; 3) a Western-style family name.

To further confuse matters, they also reverse the familiar Western order of the names so that the patronymic (or surname) comes first, much like the Chinese family name. Mongolian names in intra-national contexts are always listed this way. But throw a Western country with a different name order into the mix, and it’s a bit of a toss-up as to which will be used. Just writing your name on an official form becomes a headache, lest you accidentally switch the boxes for your “first” and “last” names. Even finding people on Facebook is tricky, since some list their names in Western order, and some in Eastern.

And yet, I said this was simpler to navigate? If you were actually talking to the person, it was indeed.

If you look at a Mongolian business card, you’ll find it very easy to tell which name to use when addressing the person to whom it belongs: it’s in all caps. Thus, my name (transcribed phonetically) would read Бурк КЭЙТЛИН; my coworker’s, Доржсүрэн ҮҮРЦАЙХ. The given name has precedence, and it’s what everyone calls you. Indeed, sometimes they don’t even bother to list the family name/surname/patronymic – just the initial. I have no idea what my coworkers’ last names were because on every roster I ever saw, their names were just listed as Ц. Лхагва or Г. Эрдэнэсувд.

“What?” you ask, “students call their teachers by first name?” Well, sort of. Often they add the word teacher (багш/bagsh, plus a vocative aa) to the end of the teacher’s name – or they just call the teacher teacher. Thus, my students called me Katya-bagshaa or just bagshaa. I called my students,  coworkers, and superiors alike by their first names, and my coworkers called me Katya unless I was actively teaching them (in which case they too called me Katya-bagshaa). It was all wonderfully simple and uniform.

Now, alas, I’m back to wondering  what I’m supposed to call people, especially the ones I now know in different contexts. I just wrote an entire post about how much I dislike being called by unsanctioned nicknames, which is all part of the same topic. I wouldn’t want to cause the same distress to someone else through a similar instance of over-familiarity.

Just tell me what you want to be called, alright? Less ambiguity, less stress all around.


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Inflation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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Zaisan (or зайсан, if you prefer)

August 15, 2012

We’ve started our Mongolian language lessons, and let me tell you, it’s overwhelming. The Cyrillic alphabet has a lot of the same letters as the Latin alphabet, but they don’t all make the same sounds. My name, for instance, is spelled Кэтлин, “taxi” is такси, and “restaurant” is рэcторант (that’s a transliteration; an actual translation would lack the final ‘t’). I need to drill the numbers tonight, too, because we learned 1-20, the tens, 100, 1000, and 1,000,000, and we’re expected to know them. I can consistently remember 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, and 10. Oh boy. So tonight will be fun, but not the kind that makes for interesting blogging.

It occurs to me that I have not yet described my (somewhat disastrous) exploration of Zaisan. Nothing spectacularly exciting has happened in the last few days, so I might as well chronicle that adventure.

Our dorm is in the Zaisan area, which is named after a Soviet monument on a hill; it’s about a ten-minute walk from my dorm. I wandered over there one morning figuring it would be maybe a forty minute undertaking. Walk over, walk up, take some pictures, walk down. Simple, right?

I got a few pictures, but not nearly as many as I had hoped, as my camera informed me almost immediately that it was running out of battery. Whoops. I can’t even post them at the moment, as I completely forget to bring my camera cord with me, so I’ll upload them next time I’ve got internet access.

Anyway, I made it to the top without incident. It was pretty cool, and very definitely Soviet. And then, rather than go back down the stairs like a normal person, I decided to take the trail that led down the back way.

My descent went just fine. The trail was a little slick, but I’ve done much worse in Ireland. I was confident I’d make it back within my allotted forty-five minutes. Then, as I examined the roads to figure out how to get back to the dorm, I realized that the bottom of the mountain was essentially walled in. Moreover, almost everything at the base was under construction. I’m fine with hopping the occasional fence or wall, but not if it means wandering through a construction site.

So I followed the trail around to the left, thinking that I would eventually find a way out. Surely the entire base couldn’t be fenced in, right?

And then the trail ended.

This didn’t seem so bad at first. The growth wasn’t that thick, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to walk through. And there was a shrine, of sorts, not too far away. I had walked by one already, a large pile of shale, the good-luck blue scarves that all the taxi drivers have above their mirrors, and Tibetan prayer flags wrapped around sticks. I still don’t know what their significance is, but clearly, they’re established features and not just piles of trash. It would take a few trips to make one, so one would think there’d be a trail nearby.

En route, I made a fun discovery.

This is a stinging nettle. They grow in Mongolia. In fact, they grow all over Zaisan. I tried to avoid them after brushing up against a few, but this was not an easy task. Better yet, those almost-invisible spines are hardy enough to sting you right through your clothing, leaving raised white welts surrounded by red, enflamed flesh. That not-very-thick growth suddenly became a lot more intimidating.

But I’d come this far already, and surely there’d be a path at the shrine. So I ploughed onward, avoiding the nettles when I could, stepping on them when I couldn’t (at least it kept the flowers, the most painful part, away), and trying to protect myself with my coat when I could.

And then I found myself on a scree.

I hate screes; they are, without a doubt, my least favorite terrain to traverse. At their best, they’re frightening: your feet slide out from under you every few steps, and you worry about falling down the mountain altogether. On top of these typical worries, this one was littered with broken glass and dotted with more nettle-like plants. And it was wet. Great.

I picked my way gingerly across the slope. I managed to avoid falling, though fighting my way through more nettles was inevitable. Eventually, I made it to the shrine – only to find that there was no path.

What now? I was less than halfway around the mountain, and the nettles got thicker ahead of me. I couldn’t fight through them all the way to the steps, and I couldn’t bring myself to go back the way I had come. I wasn’t far from the base, but I was still walled in, and the lot that wasn’t under construction contained a clearly-occupied ger. I wasn’t about to hop into someone’s back yard when the smoke was rising from the chimney hole – most nomads have guard dogs.

But I could see the monument at the top from where I stood, and while it was further away than the base, it wasn’t that far. I’d have to scramble, and maybe even climb, but it was more rocky than nettle-y, and of the two options, I’d take the rocks. So I started upwards, mentally preparing myself for a slippery climb.

Thankfully, I came upon a trail before the mountainside really got steep. There was still broken glass and nettle flowers to dodge, but a trail! Hallelujah. It brought me back to that deceptively simple one I’d first followed down the mountainside, and this time, I did the sane thing: I climbed back up, looked around, and took the steps back down.

The whole venture took close to two hours, but I made it off that dratted mountain without sustaining serious injury.

And the welts were gone by the time I made it back to the dorm.