A Merry Mongolian Holiday Season, Part 2 (Hiking Through the Snow)

After all the Shine Jil parties, actual New Year’s Day was the following week, and I celebrated by waking up super early to climb a mountain and watch the first sunrise of the new year! Why, you ask? Because I’m crazy!

Or, it’s a tradition in Uliastai for (seriously dedicated) people to hike to the top of the tallest mountain surrounding the town, in the freezing, pitch black, wee hours of the morning to catch the first glimpse of the sun peeking over the horizon to ring in the new year. And I’m crazy.

I remembered some of my coworkers mentioning the event the year before, and me thinking how nice it would be to NOT do that and instead stay bundled up in my warm sleeping bag and down comforter all morning. But this year, I spent almost all of New Year’s Eve trying to decide whether or not to go. It would be my last chance to do so, and I did check the weather to find it was “only” getting down to -5 degrees F (-20 degrees C), which is quite bearable if properly dressed, and nothing like the -20 degrees F (-29 degrees C) it was just a few days before and after.

So I told my supervisor I was gonna go! Originally the plan had been to head to the mountain at 4am, but then it became 6am. Okay, whatever, the sun doesn’t rise here in winter until well after 9am, but I had attempted to climb this mountain with my sitemates back in the summer (when it wasn’t covered in a foot of snow) and had gotten 3/4 of the way up before they insisted that we go back down. I don’t remember how long it took us to get that 3/4 of the way up, but I trusted my Mongolian friends knew how much time it would take.

I was all ready to leave at 6am and headed out of my khashaa to wait for my supervisor and her boyfriend to pick me up. But they were late. I tried calling both of their phones, but got no answer. After 45 minutes, I went back into my ger, stripped off my outerwear, made another fire, and got ready to go back to sleep, thinking that the hike wasn’t gonna happen. Then at around 7:20am, my supervisor called me to say they were heading to my home. I asked her if it was really worth it at this point, if we really had time to make it to the top of the mountain before the sunrise. She insisted we did, so I frantically threw my layers back on and ran out to meet them. Apparently the car hadn’t started, which in winter in Mongolia means you have to blowtorch the engine until it unfreezes. Seriously. That had taken about an hour, but now we were off!

We drove to the base of the mountain, I put on my headlamp so I could see where the heck I was going, and promptly left my supervisor and her boyfriend behind (sorry, but they were going too slow, and I was not gonna miss the sunrise that I woke up early just to see). I soon realized just how much effort it took to trudge uphill through the snow and had to stop for breaks quite often. But because I was racing against the clock, I couldn’t take many real breaks that involved actually sitting down and taking a sip of water; I would get as much ground covered as I felt possible before collapse, then stop (still standing) and take a few deep breaths for maybe 10-15 seconds, then push on again.

Disclaimer: I highly advise against hiking a mountain in this fashion. You should obviously pace yourself and not be a lunatic dead-set on reaching the summit by a certain time.

Who you calling a lunatic?

Who you calling a lunatic?

It started getting light before I reached the top, but the sun rises on the opposite side of the mountain from where we were hiking, so I couldn’t be sure whether I was too late or not until I did get to the top. Which, according to the time stamp my camera has for the first photo I took on the summit, was at 9:10am. So I had somehow made it up in just over 1.5 hours.

Up through that

Up through that

As the following video shows, I originally thought I had missed the sunrise, until everyone else at the top started shouting:

But nope! I had made it just in time!

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There were plenty of other people who had made the hike:

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But my supervisor and her boyfriend didn’t make it to the top until about 20 minutes later, after which we gave milk offerings and took more photos.

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It was obviously very cold and windy on top of the mountain, so after snapping a bunch of photos, eating a snack, and waiting to see if we had won a raffle (we didn’t), it was time to head back down to Uliastai.

Way down there

Way down there

We were one of the last groups to leave, so the path back down was basically deep trenches through the snow, which in some parts were so smooth that it was easier to just sit down and slide than try to walk!

When I finally got home, I was so exhausted I slept for almost 6 hours, but the experience had definitely been worth it!

 

On another note, due to one of sitemates having to go to UB for medical for a few weeks, we had to postpone our Zavkhan Christmas celebration until well into January. Even then, 2 of our sitemates couldn’t come at the last minute due to being sick or transportation issues, but the 4 of us girls enjoyed a day full of watching movies, playing cards, and eating all the good food (cinnamon rolls for breakfast, turkey and stuffing for lunch [turkey courtesy of the US Embassy in UB], and spaghetti and meatballs for dinner). And then the long holiday season was over, only for Tsagaan Sar to be right around the corner in February!

Christmas and Shine Jil/New Year’s

I briefly mentioned Shine Jil in my last post, but now that I have experienced the holiday season here, I can share what it’s like.

Health Department Shine Jil Party

Every workplace has a Shine Jil party at some point during the weeks leading up to the new year. These are almost like a mix between the standard office Christmas parties in America and prom. On the day of the health department’s party (which was a weekday), everyone stopped working about 4 hours before the party to get all dolled up. They brought in 2 hairdressers and a makeup artist, so I spent almost an hour getting my hair done, complete with tons of glitter (I’m pretty sure Mongolia is a major importer of glitter this time of year) and little stick-on flowers:

All for only 10,000 tugriks (about $5)

All for only 10,000 tugriks (about $5)

Our party was at one of the most expensive restaurants in town, and we each had to pay 50,000 tugriks for tickets to go, but when the spread looks like this:

That fruit plate alone probably cost 50,000 tugriks

That fruit plate alone probably cost 50,000 tugriks

…along with 2 dinner plates and (of course) tons of alcohol, it’s not too bad.

The party consisted of lots of food, drinks, and dancing, as well as some contests (with prizes). The people at my table forced me to participate in a dance contest with the director of the health department, but we ended up winning, so I guess the embarrassment was worth it!

Overall, it was a lot of fun!

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Mongolian Santa

Mongolian Santa

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Even after the restaurant kicked us out around 1am, most of my coworkers went back to the health department to continue the party there. But, like I said, it was a weeknight, and I wanted at least some sleep before going into work the next day, and a hangover didn’t sound too fun either, so I skipped out on that.

Christmas Dinner

My supervisor was nice enough to give me Christmas Day off from work. And because she and the other coworker in our office wanted to come visit my home at some point over the holidays, I invited them (and the other Uliastai PCVs) over for Christmas dinner. My mom had sent me my grandma’s super yummy spaghetti and meatballs recipe, and I had acquired all the ingredients I needed (including some things while I was in UB that I can’t get here). But the sauce takes about 5 hours to make, so it’s the kind of meal you can only really make when you have all day to do so—which I now had!

On Christmas morning I went to the meat market to get a kilo of beef, which I then took to the guy with the meat grinder to make it into ground beef for the meatballs (isn’t that what everyone does on Christmas morning?). Then I went home and started the sauce, made the meatballs, and tidied up my ger as best I could. I already had some nice Christmas decorations up that my parents had sent me in a care package:

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Finally my guests arrived, and it’s a good thing the recipe makes so much (and my ger is so big) since I had my supervisor and her boyfriend, my other coworker and her husband and daughter, and 3 other PCVs over.

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The food was great, and it was nice to have a taste of home on Christmas.

Bookbridge Shine Jil Party

That Saturday, we had a Shine Jil party at the library for the students in our Bookbridge English classes. All of us PCVs assumed we would just be giving out candy to the kids and watching a Christmas movie or something, until we arrived at the library and saw this:

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Apparently the head of the Bookbridge center had been arranging an actual party, so all the students had brought in food from their homes (and lots of cakes!), dressed up all nice and fancy (while we PCVs were walking around in essentially lounge wear), and had prepared tons of songs and dances to perform:

Playing the morin khuur

Playing the morin khuur

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All the girls love their K-pop

All the girls love their K-pop

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And then they forced us to go up there and dance to some random mix of songs (but I’ll save your eyes the horror of looking at those photos).

PCV Christmas Celebration

The next day we had a Christmas get-together with all the Zavkhan PCVs. Peace Corps had given someone from each aimag a turkey during the TEFL IST to bring back to their site so that we could have a turkey dinner for Christmas (since turkey is really only available in UB, and probably way beyond our price range regardless).

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We also made mashed potatoes and gravy, risotto, and roasted vegetables:

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…as well as cake and brownies for dessert!

We had arranged a Secret Santa, so we exchanged those gifts, and I got a little baby Christmas tree!

I had seriously considered buying one a couple weeks ago, but getting it as a gift is even better!

I had seriously considered buying one a couple weeks ago, but getting it as a gift is even better!

And then we chatted and sang songs to some guitar and ukulele music:

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The next day was even a holiday, so we had some time to chill before going back to work.

New Year’s Eve

And I was back at work for all of one and a half days! On New Year’s Eve, I went to the health department just to find out that everyone would be leaving early in the afternoon to go home/shopping to prepare for whatever they had going on that evening. But first, we of course had to drink several bottles of champagne and a bunch of cake (sooooooo much cake this time of year! The students in our Adult Beginner’s English Class even gave each of us teachers a whole cake!)

That evening, my khashaa family invited me over to their home to celebrate, along with a bunch of their relatives. We had tons of food, as well as more cake and champagne. And I finally got a picture with my khashaa parents!

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Then my supervisor picked me up and we went to the stadium, where there was a concert, a bunch of ice sculptures, ice skating, and even some fireworks.

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Ice ger

Igloo/Ice ger

Ice Christmas/Shine Jil tree (with a real one behind it)

Ice-sculpture Christmas/Shine Jil tree (with a real one behind it)

Next we went over to my supervisor’s home and ate even more food and played khuzur (cards) with her relatives until midnight, when we opened more champagne and cut into more cake.

Luckily the next two days were holidays, giving me a nice 4-day weekend!

Happy New Year (Шинэ жилийн мэнд хүргэе)!!!

UPDATE: I made a YouTube channel where I’ve uploaded some videos, included a few from my Shine Jil parties, if you want to check them out here.

IST in UB

If you have no idea what the title of this post means, you clearly haven’t checked out the new page on my blog called “Peace Corps Acronyms,” right there at the top of this screen. Go ahead, give it a look. I can wait.

So, now you know that IST is short for In-Service Training, the week-long PC training each Volunteer cohort has after about 3-4 months at site. And UB is short for Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Because my M25 cohort is much larger than previous Volunteer cohorts to come to Mongolia, they decided to split us up by sector and have two ISTs. TEFL is by far our largest sector, with almost 60 PCVs, so they are having their own IST starting this weekend. But the 10 of us Health PCVs and the 12 remaining CYD Volunteers had our own intimate little IST at the beginning of December.

Because there are only 2 flights a week between Uliastai and UB during the winter–and because of when those flights are relative to when our training days happened to fall–I got to come into UB 2 days before IST and stay 3 days after, giving me plenty of relaxation and shopping time!

And 4 hours of pretending I'm flying over Antarctica

And 4 hours of pretending I’m flying over Antarctica

Each PCV gets to bring one of their Mongolian counterparts with them to IST (so that they can actually be included in what we learn through the training), so I brought my supervisor, with whom I’ve done most of my work so far. Conveniently enough, she has relatives who live in UB, and since Peace Corps only provides us with hotel rooms during the actual training days, we both stayed at her relatives’ apartment during those extra days in UB. (Note: I could have stayed at a one of the many hostels in the city for pretty dang cheap, but free is cheaper than cheap, and includes free breakfast and dinner thanks to good old Mongolian hospitality.) Yes, I did bring her relatives a gift to thank them for letting me crash at their place, and then they proceeded to give me a gift before I left, as if to say, “Thanks for sleeping on our couch, using our water and wifi, and eating our food!” only in a completely sincere, non-sarcastic way (because this hospitality thing is no joke).

Anyway, my supervisor and I spent our first few hours in UB chilling at her relatives’ apartment, watching a terrible Mongolian dub of The Starving Games, a parody of The Hunger Games, because Mongolian television is weird. Then we all went to the home of some other relatives of theirs, whose daughter had recently had a baby. They live in one of the many ger districts that surround the center of UB (over half of the residents of UB live in these ger districts). So one minute we were driving along a major city street, and the next we turned right onto a dirt road lined with hashaas (fenced-in yards with wood houses and/or gers), where the people live without access to running water or the sewage system. It literally looked just like a road in any other town or village in Mongolia, except it was right there next to the huge apartment buildings, shopping centers, and tourist attractions of the center of UB.

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

We spent the next day eating Cinnabon and admiring the Christmas* decorations at the State Department Store, a large, Western-style shopping mall.

Yum!

Yummy!

Pretty!

Pretty!

Then we proceeded to go shop elsewhere, because the State Department Store is one of the more expensive places to shop in UB. We ended up at Sunday Plaza, an insanely crowded, multistory building filled with hundreds of stalls where you can buy all kinds of clothes, accessories, home goods, etc. My supervisor needed a new winter coat and I needed some nice warm fuzzy winter boots, so we spent the better part of the afternoon wandering from stall to stall, trying things on, and realizing that–even at this moderately-priced shopping center–we could not afford much of what UB has to offer. She couldn’t get the coat she really, really liked, and I found out that the fur boots that everybody and their grandmother seems to own cost like 350,000 tugriks (or about $190, aka waaaaay more than I would ever spend on a pair of shoes, even in the US). Turns out they’re made from reindeer skin, hence the hefty price tag. But I did find some cheaper, even furrier boots, so I succeeded in acquiring that staple of the Mongolian wardrobe.

The actual training took place at the Park Hotel, which is super nice (especially by Peace Corps standards; the hotel we stayed at during the summer trainings was not even comparable).

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Is that a freakin' bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Is that a freakin’ bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Each training day consisted of 8-9 hours of various seminars including technical sessions (regarding our respective health or CYD work), Mongolian language classes, cross-culture sessions, and administrative stuff. We went to about half of the sessions with our counterparts, and the other sessions had the PCVs and counterparts separated.

We were provided with 3 meals a day by the hotel: buffet breakfasts and 3-course lunches and dinners. They even had real, non-instant coffee, which does not really exist in Mongolia outside of UB, so of course we proceeded to clean the hotel out, until there was absolutely no coffee left (brewed or instant) in the hotel by our last day. Oh, and I got to have lunch with the US Ambassador in Mongolia one of the days (like, sitting across the table from her) and even got a picture with her, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to post it online so I won’t.

Our evenings were spent exchanging media on our external hard drives, watching movies, playing games, and just chilling out with the people we never get to see anymore because we’re spread across the country.

After all of the seminars were over, we went to the Peace Corps office, where they let us all rummage through huge piles and boxes of office supplies and books donated by the embassy for us to take back to our sites. But because my supervisor and I were flying back to Uliastai (and each passenger is only allowed to take 10kg of luggage on the plane), she decided that we would fill up 2 giant boxes of printer paper, binders, miscellaneous other office supplies, and resource books to take back to our health department, but just put them on a truck heading to Uliastai instead of the plane.

So the next day, with the help of some men from a medical equipment company that my supervisor knows/works with, we went to…uh, I don’t even know what to call it. An enormous “parking lot” where rows and rows of trucks heading out to all the different aimags are loaded up with supplies for the shops in each city/soum. A truck depot, I guess? We found a truck that was leaving for Uliastai later that day and had just enough room left to fit our boxes and excess baggage.

Then we went to the Black Market, which is not the underground market for buying illegal drugs, but is  probably one of (if not the) cheapest place to shop in UB, to get a few more things we wanted. We would have stayed longer, but the cheap prices come with a toll: the entire market is outdoors, so with the stupidly cold Mongolian winter temperatures, it’s difficult to stay there too long before you feel your body screaming for warmth.

For my last full day in UB, we went to Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) to get some pictures with the Chinggis Khaan** statue:

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I'm a true Mongolian now!

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I’m a true Mongolian now!

and the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a famous revolutionary:

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Then we ate lunch at Pizza Hut, because pizza:

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My flight back to Uliastai was the next morning (my supervisor was staying a few more days for a Ministry of Health-sponsored training happening in the city). And luckily I had left my hashaa family a spare key to my ger so that they could light a fire in my stove before I arrived so it wouldn’t be -20 degrees inside (a ger left to itself for 10 days in winter is not something you want to come home to).

*Most Mongolians don’t really celebrate Christmas, but they have adopted a lot of the traditional Christmas decorations of the Western world and use them for Shine Jil, or New Year’s. In fact, Mongolians generally don’t realize that what we call Christmas and New Year’s are two completely different holidays that just happen to fall within the same week. So even though they’re not really celebrating Christmas, Shine Jil in Mongolia is quite a big deal and is almost comparable to Christmas in America (in terms of how many people celebrate it and the extent of commercialization). Look forward to hearing more about Shine Jil after we have our health department’s Shine Jil party in a couple weeks!

**Yes, his name was Chinggis Khaan (pronounced ching-gis haan). The whole Genghis Khan spelling/pronunciation comes from centuries of horrible transcription of the Mongolian language. It doesn’t help that the letter “х” in the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is like a harder, throatier English “h” sound, is generally transliterated into the Latin script as “kh,” which we read and pronounce like an English “k.” So yes, the “k” in his name is silent (or at least not pronounced like the “k” we’re used to).