The Nine Nines of Winter

Here in Mongolia, winter is traditionally thought of as nine periods of nine days each, or the “Nine Nines of Winter.” Obviously winter in Mongolia lasts longer than 81 days, but the Nines represent the coldest part of winter. The Nines start on the winter solstice (so they started on December 22 in 2015), and each of the Nines is associated with an event related to how cold it supposedly is:

1st Nine: Mongolian vodka (made from milk) freezes

2nd Nine: Regular vodka freezes

3rd Nine: The horns of 3-year-old bulls freeze and fall off

4th Nine: The horns of 4-year-old bulls freeze and fall off

5th Nine: Boiled rice no longer freezes

6th Nine: Roads start to become visible through the snow

7th Nine: Snow on hill tops begins to melt

8th Nine: The ground becomes damp

9th Nine: Warmer days have arrived

Yes, I know most of you can't read this, but it basically says what I just talked about, and I thought the pictures were cute (from http://news.gogo.mn/r/176271)

Yes, I know most of you can’t read this, but it basically says what I just talked about, and I thought the pictures were cute (from http://news.gogo.mn/r/176271)

Today is the first day of the 6th Nine, and I can say the roads are still very much covered in ice and snow, and likely will be for quite some time. Maybe this system was developed by Mongolians in the Gobi or somewhere else warmer than Zavkhan (okay, everywhere in Mongolia is warmer than Zavkhan, but still…). The idea that “warmer” days will have arrived by the end of the Nines (which will be March 12 this year) is laughable. But I guess it’s all relative, and considering the past few weeks we had, it wouldn’t take much to make it “warmer.”

The 4th and 5th Nines are thought to be the coldest, and that was definitely true this year. There were a couple weeks in mid to late January when it was well into the -30s F (-35 to -40 C) every single night, and never even got close to breaking 0 degrees F (-18 C) during the day.

Courtesy of Saruul Sora on Facebook

Different hemispheres and all, but still (photo credit to Saruul Sora on Facebook)

I’ve been chopping so much wood recently to keep the fire in my stove burning that I was really worried for a bit that I had injured my shoulder (it’s better now because I got a little wood-chopping break thanks to my sitemate).

I spend the first hour or so after I get home from work huddling next to my stove, then slowly start taking the layers off as my ger warms up. Even the nights when it got close to -40, I couldn’t keep a fire going all night because that would have required me to wake up several times during the night (I don’t know if it’s the kind of stove I have or just the fact that my ger is relatively large and therefor has more air to heat, but it is impossible to keep it warm without tending to the fire every hour or so, even when I use coal). So instead of keeping warm that way, I go to bed wearing two layers plus my winter deel, sleep in my Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag (rated to -20 degrees F/-29C!), under my down comforter, along with a winter hat and gloves. Then I wake up in the morning, quickly start a fire, then run back under the covers for another 30-40 minutes until my ger is bearable. Even then, I can still see my breath while getting ready in the morning, and all my toiletries (toothpaste, face wash, moisturizer, etc.) are pretty much frozen (but ice crystals are exfoliating, right?). It’s really cold is what I’m saying.

This was predicted to be a particularly harsh winter, and I can say that it’s definitely much colder than last winter. I can’t even escape the cold at work, since the radiators we have at the health department only provide so much heat unless you’re sitting right next to them. So, most of the time I’m wearing my jacket (and sometimes even gloves) in my office at work.

But, the Nines are over half-way through, and even though what I perceive as winter will continue for 3 or 4 more months, the coming above-zero days will feel like a sauna by comparison!

 

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Tsagaan Sar

WARNING: This post is very long.

A couple weeks ago, I was ambushed by my khashaa family as soon as I got home from work and told to come over and help them make bansh (a smaller version of buuz that is boiled instead of steamed) with a bunch of their extended family for Tsagaan Sar.

The unofficial motto of Tsagaan Sar

The unofficial motto of Tsagaan Sar

Just what is Tsagaan Sar, you ask?

Tsagaan Sar translates to “white moon” and is basically the Mongolian celebration of the Lunar New Year. It’s kind of a big deal here.

Tsagaan Sar lasts for an entire month (sar also translates to “month”), but the first 3 days are the most important and the ones that everyone celebrates and gets off work for. The first day’s celebration is typically reserved for family, while the second and third days are spent visiting with friends. Everyone wears their winter deel, boots, and fanciest hats. In cities and towns–even small ones out in the middle of nowhere like here in Uliastai–most people (the biggest exception is older people) don’t wear traditional Mongolian clothes very often. But Tsagaan Sar is when literally everyone wears their deel and traditional Mongolian hats. And you eat all the food–mostly buuz and bansh. Seriously, mutton dumplings for days.

If you want to read more about it, there’s a nice article about some Tsagaan Sar customs here and a cool infographic showing the (massive) expenses that come with the celebration here (for reference, 1 US dollar is equal to approximately 1900 Mongolian tugrik [MNT]).

This year, Tsagaan Sar began on Thursday, February 19th, but all the craziness leading up to it began much earlier. As I already mentioned, my khashaa family started making bansh weeks before the holiday, as many families do. I was there for almost 4 hours and participated in the making of literally hundreds—if not thousands—of bansh. I finally left because it was late, I was tired, and my already inferior bansh were starting to look uglier by the minute. I don’t know how long the rest of them continued at it or how many bansh were ultimately made, but considering we started out with 50 kilos of meat, I’m willing to bet it was a lot.

The Monday before Tsagaan Sar began, the stores and streets were packed with people preparing for the holiday. People were buying food to prepare whatever they had left to make and gifts to give to all their visitors (in the complete opposite fashion of American visiting custom, the host during Tsagaan Sar gives each visitor a gift, instead of the visitors bringing a gift to the host). People left work early to super-clean their homes (like, scrubbing-the-walls clean), and by 2pm on Tuesday I was one of about five people left at the health department (until they were all called back a couple hours later when the director returned from UB and called an impromptu meeting). Before my supervisor left for the day, she told me I didn’t need to come in on Wednesday because pretty much no one else would be anyway. Sweet! All the vacation but none of the housework! (Sorry, but I had no plans of inviting anyone over to my ger as that would require me to actually have a bunch of food prepared, which I cannot afford on my measly PC living allowance. Plus, I would be way too busy visiting everyone else’s homes over Tsagaan Sar to have people come to mine). But since I had the day off, I did do some cleaning anyway. Just in case someone happened to peek into my ger, I didn’t want them to recoil in horror at the lack of sparkling cleanliness (because you can’t start the new year with a dirty home).

Day 1

On the first day of Tsagaan Sar, I woke up at 7:30am to get my fire started and planned to get up and about at 8. I wasn’t sure what time I was supposed to go over to my khashaa family’s home to celebrate, but I wanted to be prepared. But when 8 o’clock rolled around, I remembered how much I love sleep. I set my alarm for 9 and dozed off again, until I was awakened by my khashaa dad calling my name from outside my ger. I jumped out of bed, yelled something in English (my brain can’t do Mongolian as soon as I wake up; and no, my khashaa dad doesn’t understand English), and started getting ready. A few minutes later, he came back to make sure I was actually getting ready (see: doesn’t understand English, above) and told me to put on “nice clothes.” So obviously I put on my winter deel and my new traditional fox fur hat (called a loovuuz).

And wearing my "Mongol smile" (aka, not smiling)

And practicing my “Mongol smile” (aka, not smiling)

Sorry about the fur hat PETA, but it’s tradition, and it’s my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer to share in their culture. At least it’s not the kind with the legs and tail still attached

I finally went over to my khashaa family’s house, where all the extended family was already gathered (it’s called being fashionably late, people). I went around to each person (oldest male first, then down through the rest of the men, then oldest female, down through the rest of the women, and finally children) and gave them the special greeting for Tsagaan Sar, called zolgokh, where both people hold out their arms with the younger placing their arms under the other’s and holding their elbows to show support. Then you say a special greeting and sniff each others’ cheeks. (No, you read that right. It’s just like how in some cultures people greet each other by kissing them on the cheek, only in Mongolia it’s a sniff instead of a kiss.) I’m sure I messed up something, especially since I can’t really tell the ages of Mongolians very well and might have put my arms under those of a guy whose age I did not know but might have been younger than me. Then the men took out their snuff bottles (every Mongolian man has a fancy, expensive snuff bottle), which are called khuurug, and offered them to me. This custom also has a very specific set of rules: you must accept the bottle with your right hand, palm open, and don’t ever put your finger on the top of the cap. You’re not necessarily expected to take any snuff (though you certainly can if you want, especially if you’re a man), so you simply sniff the bottle’s cap (it would have already been opened a little before it was passed to you, but you should not close it before handing it back to the owner).

snuff-bottles

Then I was poured some milk tea and encouraged to eat, uh, everything.

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There was the bansh that we had made a couple weeks before, a giant hunk of sheep, towers of boov (hard cake things) with aaruul on top, potato salad, a giant platter of fruit,  assorted candies, and much more. And of course there was vodka. If you’re not doing shots of vodka before 10 o’clock in the morning, you’re doing Tsagaan Sar wrong.

Then came the gifts. As I mentioned before, the hosts give a gift to each visitor, and once you’ve received your gift, that’s your cue to leave (at least they have a nice way of kicking people out of the house). Older people and special guests often receive a khadag with a fairly large monetary gift. Other guests will receive either money, clothing like socks, nice dishes, or various other things. Children will often receive candy or some kind of snack.

Because I’m immediate family (kind of), I didn’t have to leave after I got my gift. The extended family left, and shortly thereafter, my khashaa parents, their daughter and son-in-law and their baby, and I went to the khashaa next door, which belongs to some of the relatives who had just been over to our place (the celebration starts at the oldest member of the family’s home, and then everyone goes back to their own home to receive guests, occasionally going out to visit other relatives). They also had a huge feast, and I was already getting full. After we received our gifts, we headed back to my khashaa parents’ home. They then went to visit other relatives, but I stayed because I knew my supervisor was going to invite me to her family’s home. Even though the first day of Tsagaan Sar is typically reserved for visiting family members, foreigners are apparently considered honored guests and can visit whoever they please (or they just feel sorry for us because we don’t have our own families here with us). I also needed to scrape snow off the top of my ger because it had snowed again the night before. This is important because if the snow is left on top of the ger, the felt that insulates the ger will freeze, making it super cold(er) inside and possibly leading to water leaking through the felt if it melts.

Ahh, the joys of living in a ger

Ahh, the joys of living in a ger

My supervisor called soon after and told me to come on over. At her home, the whole ritual of formal greetings and snuff bottle passing was repeated. There was yet more food that I was constantly encouraged to eat. I stayed over there for a couple hours, until I received my gift: a chocolate bar and a beautiful framed piece of art showing the 4 positions (goat, camel, sheep, horse) of the shagai (ankle bones) used in many traditional Mongolian games and fortunetelling.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time I got home, and I was quite exhausted. I had no other plans for the day, and my khashaa family was still off visiting other relatives, so I took a nice, long nap. Then I did some reading and finally wrote up this section of this post before I forgot everything.

Day 2

The second day of Tsagaan Sar was pretty chill: not only because I didn’t do as much running around and visiting people, but also because it got crazy cold again (haha, see what I did there?). Just when it had finally started getting a little warmer (as in, slightly above freezing for a few hours during the day), it was suddenly back to sub-zero temperatures. It was hovering right around -3 degrees F (with a -17 degree wind chill!) during the day on Friday and then got down to -33 degrees F at night.

I spent the morning relaxing and uploading photos that I had taken the day before. The week before, one of my coworkers had invited me to her daughter’s hair-cutting ceremony, which was supposed to be on the second day of Tsagaan Sar. But it turned out that she would just be having family over that day, and all the coworkers from the health department would come visit her sometime during the next week.

Later in the day, the other PCVs and I went over to the home of the friend whose son’s hair-cutting ceremony we went to back in the fall. It was a Tsagaan Sar visit but also a goodbye dinner because she and her family were moving to UB soon for her new job.

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I'll miss this cute little ball of energy

I’ll miss this cute little ball of energy

Luckily her apartment is very close to my home or else I would have frozen to death on the way back (see: -33 degrees, above).

Day 3

The lady who runs the Bookbridge Center where we teach English classes for students on Saturdays had earlier invited us to her home on the third day of Tsagaan Sar. But on that morning we found out that she was still out in the khuduu (countryside) with her family and asked to change our visit to another day.

Since I had no other plans for the day, I went with a few of the other PCVs to visit one of their coworker’s home. While walking there with another PCV (who was also wearing her deel and fox fur hat), we were stopped by a Mongolian man speaking perfect English and carrying a really fancy camera. Since that’s not something you come across every day here in Uliastai, we guessed he was a professional photographer from UB or something. Anyway, he asked if he could take a picture of the two of us, and we said sure. So if we end up on the cover of Mongolian Vogue, you’ll know why.

After our first visit of the day, we went to the home of one of our friends from the university who speaks very good English and helps us with our community English classes. Her mom, who works in Ireland of all places, had also come back to Mongolia for vacation to visit her family and friends, so it was interesting to talk to her as well. While we were there, some of their relatives came to visit as well, including an 86-year-old man. Now, people very, very rarely live to be 86 in Mongolia, but here this guy was, and he was absolutely astonished by the two white girls sitting there in traditional Mongolian clothes. Yeah, we’re pretty mind-blowing.

Days 4-5

Even though the official celebration days were now over, there was still excitement to be had. We (the Zavkhan PCVs) had recently met a guy who is starting his own tour company here in Zavkhan. He actually grew up here but had been working in UB as a guide for various films and for other tour companies. He has amazing English skills but had enlisted our help to edit the text (trip itineraries, etc.) for his website for the new company. To thank us for our help, he offered to take us to a horse festival in Tsagaanchuluut soum, about 5 hours to the south of Uliastai and near the border with Govi-Altai aimag. A few of the other PCVs were too busy or otherwise didn’t want to go, but 4 of us did end up going (because free trip).

We traveled via purgon, a type of old Russian military jeep. Not the most comfortable means of transport for the unpaved, mountainous roads of Zavkhan, but such is life in Mongolia. And I only went flying out of my seat and ended up on the floor from a giant bump in the road once, so that’s pretty good.

Traveling in style

Traveling in style

We stopped for lunch at the river near Tsagaankhairkhan soum. The river was–of course–frozen, so we just set up right there on top of the ice.

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Drinking coffee on a carpet on a frozen river

Drinking coffee on a carpet on a frozen river

After lunch we continued on our way, and shortly thereafter our purgon got stuck in the snow, so the boys had to dig it out.

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Once the purgon was freed, we drove on, at one point stopping to do some cross-country skiing. Our guide had brought his cross-country skis and told the other girl she could bring hers (which she has with her in Mongolia). None of the rest of us had ever done cross-country skiing before, but we all tried it out.

Oh yeah, I'm a pro! (actually, all 3 of us who'd never skied before fell at some point during our short runs; I fell literally the second I put my foot in the bindings)

Oh yeah, I’m a pro! (actually, all 3 of us who’d never skied before fell at some point during our short runs; I fell literally the second I put my foot in the bindings)

We finally arrived at Tsagaanchuluut, where we spent the night at our guide’s older sister’s home with her family. Before the sun went down, we ran up the nearby hill to get some pictures with a bunch of Buddhist statues.

And the moon, 'cause it looked awesome

And the moon, ’cause it looked awesome

Then we had dinner and spent the evening playing cards with their family.

The next morning, we went back up the hill to get a few more photos of the soum:

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Pictured: the entire soum

and the Buddhist statues:

Copying mudras (hand gestures) from the statues

Copying mudras (hand gestures) from the statues

Then we set off for the horse festival, which was taking place about 20km to the south of Tsagaanchuluut. On the way, we saw some Mongolian gazelles!

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The festival ended up being delayed a few hours, so we spent that time walking around and taking pictures.

We could see the Altai mountain range (the tallest in Mongolia) over in Govi-Altai

We could see the Altai mountain range (the tallest in Mongolia) over in nearby Govi-Altai aimag

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As the only foreigners, we soon attracted a lot of attention. Herders started chatting with us, giving us the zolgokh greeting and exchanging snuff bottles. They were quite impressed that we could actually speak some Mongolian.

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Younger herders kept asking us to take their picture.

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Finally, the competitions started. For the first event, riders had to reach down–while on their galloping horse–and pick up a blue khadag tied to a small stick that was on the ground, and then pick up their long lasso-pole (called an uurga) that was also on the ground a bit further away.

Pffft, I can totally do that

Pffft, I can totally do that

A rider who successfully picked up his pole-lasso

A rider who successfully picked up his lasso-pole

I even got some video of the event:

The next event consisted of some herders driving a large group of horses through the central area that all the spectators were standing around. The competitor (who was just standing for this event) had to use his lasso-pole to try to catch one of the horses as they ran by.

While trying not to get trampled

While trying not to get trampled

Yeah, let me just run into this herd of stampeding horses and try to catch one with my rope-on-a-stick

Yeah, let me just run into this herd of stampeding horses and try to catch one with my rope-on-a-stick

I also got a video of this event, which proved to be quite a challenge, as only 1 or 2 herders managed to successfully catch a horse. Usually the rope just ended up breaking or coming loose even if they did get it around a horse.

At this point the racers from a race that I didn’t even know had started began arriving. Our guide’s nephew ended up coming in 4th place, but by this point my camera battery had died. Unfortunately, we had to leave soon after this, even though there were still more events (like lassoing on horseback, and breaking a horse) that would be happening later (thanks to the delay of the start of the festival). We had to get back to Uliastai that night, and there were ominous-looking clouds in the distance.

Sure enough, as soon as we got back to Tsagaanchuluut for dinner before heading home, it started to snow. And it continued to snow for the entire 5-hour-drive back, in the dark. Luckily we made it home safely and in good time. It was an amazing trip and a great end to the Tsagaan Sar weekend.

NOTE: I did take many more videos during the horse festival (and a random one of the snow a couple weeks ago) but because I’m too lazy to figure out how to combine all these short little videos into a larger compilation video, I just uploaded them all individually to my YouTube channel. So you can check out the other videos there if you so desire.

About Zavkhan and Uliastai

I mentioned a while ago that I would talk more about Zavkhan and Uliastai in an upcoming post, and what better time to do that than now?

Zavkhan aimag

Zavkhan is an aimag (province) in the Western part of Mongolia.

Location of Zavkhan (the star represents Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia)

Location of Zavkhan (the star represents Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia)

I previously referred to it as the black hole of Mongolia because of how difficult it is to travel through the region, what with all the mountains and deserts and terribly maintained roads (or lack of roads at all). In fact, the whole Western region of the country is pretty dang remote, so much so that Peace Corps no longer sends Volunteers out to Bayan-Ulgii aimag (the westernmost one) or Uvs aimag (the one to the northwest of Zavkhan) precisely because of how isolated and hard-to-reach PCVs who lived in those provinces before were.

The population of Zavkhan as of 2011 was 65,481, making it the 8th least populous and having the 8th smallest population density (0.79 people/km2) of Mongolia’s 21 aimags (after all those in the Gobi, because who wants to live there?).  Population growth in the aimag actually stopped back in 1994 (at 103,150) and has been steadily decreasing ever since. I guess people don’t like living in a black hole much more than they like living in the Gobi.

It’s a shame really, because Zavkhan is a beautiful place. The terrain ranges from the tall mountains and forests of the Khangai Mountain Range in the east:

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including Otgontenger, the highest peak in the range (4,031 m/13,225 ft) and the only one capped with a permanent glacier:

But it's one of Mongolia's four sacred mountains, so don't even think about climbing it

But it’s one of Mongolia’s three most sacred mountains, so don’t even think about climbing it (seriously, it’s forbidden by law)

to the broad steppe of the north:

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to the sand dunes of the edge of the Gobi desert in the west and southwest:

surrounding giant lakes, because screw the desert (BTW, this is Bayan Nuur, or "Rich Lake")

…surrounding giant lakes, because screw the desert (BTW, this is Bayan Nuur, or “Rich Lake”)

Who says Mongolia doesn't have white sandy beaches?

Who says Mongolia doesn’t have white sandy beaches? (this would be Khar Nuur, or “Black Lake”)

to the Great Lakes Depression in the far west:

Looks like I have a lot of sightseeing to do over the next 2 years!

Zavkhan is often referred to as the coldest aimag in Mongolia, though this is largely due to the fact that it contains a few soums that get much colder than other places. For example, Tosontsengel, the largest soum in Zavkhan after the capital, has recorded temperatures as low as -52.9 degrees C/-63.2 degrees F. And although winters are bitterly cold in Zavkhan, they’re also very dry, so I have very little risk of being buried in a blizzard (freezing to death by other means is still a possibility though).

Uliastai

Uliastai is the aimag center (capital) of Zavkhan. As you can see from this lovely topographic map of Mongolia and all its aimags’ capitals, Uliastai has quite a few mountains surrounding it and between it and Ulaanbaatar (UB):

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I had to look up why Russia was labeled “Russland.” This is apparently a German map.

There are buses and meekers (vans) that regularly travel between UB and Uliastai, but considering that’s over 1000 km on unpaved, poorly maintained, mountainous roads, you’re looking at 40-60 hours of bumpy, crowded travel surrounded by a bunch of strangers who will definitely be staring at you–the foreigner–for the entirety of the trip. And you can have this wonderful experience all for the low low price of 48,000 tugriks (about $27)! Or you can travel via the same method we originally arrived in Uliastai–airplane. The airport is about 45 minutes outside the city (as it’s hard to land airplanes in a small valley literally surrounded by mountains), has one unpaved runway, and only has 3 flights a week during summer (2 a week during winter, or “most of the year”). Flights are only 2 hours long, but all this convenience comes with the hefty price tag of about 240,000 tugriks (about $133) one-way. Now, I realize that may not seem too expensive, but remember, we PCVs don’t really get “paid” so much as we get a “living allowance” to pay our rent and utilities and buy food and other stuff we need to–y’know–live. So when a round-trip plane ticket costs  significantly more money than we get in a single month, it is officially “expensive.” Which really sucks when there are literally only flights between Uliastai and UB; if you want to fly to even a neighboring aimag, you actually have to first fly to UB, and then from UB fly to that other aimag.

But if you’re only going to a neighboring aimag, then just take the bus or a meeker! It’ll be a much shorter trip than the ride to UB, so it can’t be that bad, some of you may be thinking. But that’s the problem: there are very, very few meekers (and no buses) that regularly go to and from other places, so your only option is usually to privately hire a meeker driver to take you to your destination, which is expensive as hell unless you have a bunch of friends going with you on your trip to split the cost with. Most aimag centers in the central and eastern regions of Mongolia have many more transportation options, including a freakin’ train! But not us. Such is life in “the black hole.”

Anyway, Uliastai is a city of 15,460 people (as of 2012). Like the rest of Zavkhan, its population has seen a decline in recent years. Back in 2000 its population was 24,276, making it the 10th most populous city in Mongolia, but yeah, not anymore. Yet for some reason, there are at least 4 new apartment buildings currently under construction in the city, so they’re either expecting a whole lot of new residents, or the city has more money than it knows what to do with.

The city experiences a lovely subarctic climate, with “long, dry, very cold winters and short, warm summers.” Pretty much all the precipitation falls between June and August, and I get to look forward to an average of 5.3 hours of sunlight per day come December! So, yeah, if someone wants to send me one of those “happy lights” for an early Christmas present before I succumb to seasonal affective disorder, it would be much appreciated.

Uliastai is–as I mentioned–surrounded by mountains, and it’s located in a river valley where the Chigestai and Bogdiin Gol rivers converge. It is actually one of the oldest settlements in Mongolia, originally founded in 1733 as a military post by the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty’s rule of Mongolia. And despite its modern reputation as one of the most remote aimag capitals in the country, Uliastai was once an important center of caravan trade.

The city doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions (as it’s not exactly a tourist hotspot; see “black hole” above), but there are two museums: the Zavkhan Aimag History Museum:

Which has a lovely display dedicated to the torture of Mongolians under the Qing Dynasty (yeah, Mongolians really don't like the Chinese_

Which has a lovely exhibit showing the torture of Mongolians under the Qing Dynasty (yeah, Mongolians really don’t like China)

and the Museum of Famous People:

which features such people as the first Zavkhan resident to scale Mt. Everest

which features such people as the first Zavkhan resident to scale Mt. Everest

There’s also a cool pavilion with a bunch of stupas on top of a hill right in the middle of the city, called Javkhlant Tolgoi (literally, “magnificent peak”) that gives a nice view of the city:

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and a small Buddhist temple further down on that same hill:

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Other than that, there’s not much here except lots of hiking. Not that I mind too much. Living in a small, remote aimag capital like this allows me to experience some of the more traditional aspects of Mongolian life while still having some of the luxuries I wouldn’t find in a soum.

Being Sick in Mongolia

You know what’s never fun? Being sick.

You know what’s even less fun? Being sick in a foreign country, in a new city, far far away from family and friends, without running water or a toilet, and with my doctor and all the potentially helpful medicines he could prescribe on the other side of the country.

In case I haven’t mentioned before (I have), I’ve had a cold for over 4 weeks now. I started having some mild symptoms right before coming out to Uliastai, but with the immediate start to work, adjustment to living in a completely new setting, and insane busy-ness in general, my immune system has not been able to fight it off.

I already told you about my maybe-not-so-wise decision to go hiking with my coworkers, after which my symptoms got much worse. The following week at work, I had to go home early after lunch on both Monday and Tuesday because I felt so bad and everyone could tell. In addition to the cold symptoms, I also had really bad stomach cramps. When I went home on Tuesday I laid down for a really long nap, and then that evening my supervisor came to check on me and bring me something for dinner. By then my stomach cramps were so bad I could barely move, and being in any position other than laying down felt horrible (not that lying down didn’t hurt too). My supervisor freaked out and told me to call the PCMO, which I did. The Peace Corps doctor told me I was probably just really dehydrated, which was what was causing the cramps. So he told me to drink a bunch of warm water, but slowly, and then take some medicine.

So I did just that, and promptly vomited. Where do you puke when you don’t have a toilet? When I felt it coming on (you know the feeling), I made my way to the door to head to the outhouse, but my supervisor stopped me and indicated I should just throw up in my “dry sink”…

This thing

This thing

…which just drains into a bucket underneath that I have to empty every few days. So, basically just vomiting into a bucket. By this point my supervisor still hadn’t abandoned me in my diseased state, but proceeded to cook up what she called “rice juice,” which she said is what Mongolians drink/eat to coat their digestive system and ease cramps. I tried to drink some more water while it was cooking, and when it was done I had two bites before throwing up again. I called the PCMO again to tell him I had thrown up twice in the past 30 minutes, making it kind of hard to get hydrated, and he told me to stop trying to ingest anything and just go to bed. So my supervisor reluctantly left to let me sleep.

I had the rest of the week off from work while I tried to rest up and finally get better. My supervisor was insanely helpful, bringing me lunch and dinner all three days I missed work. The thing about working with a bunch of doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health professionals is that they know how to take care of you when you’re sick. My supervisor is a pharmacist, so she was checking over all the medications I was taking. The director of the health department is a doctor (specifically a surgeon), and he even came over to my ger the day after my stomach cramp/vomiting ordeal to check on me (and joke about maybe needing to do an emergency surgery). Thankfully my stomach problems went away the very next day, but my cold symptoms are still with me, even a week later (it’s been almost 5 weeks now total). I’ve been taking plenty of medicine, and the PCMO even sent me some additional medicine from UB, but nothing provides more than temporary relief for my symptoms. A few people have suggested that maybe it’s just due to the seasons changing and the weird weather patterns (constantly alternating freezing temperatures with rather balmy ones). Whatever it is, I hope it resolves soon, because winter will not be fun if I’m already sick.

Weekend Hike with My Coworkers (and Escalation of My Illness)

I told you there would be lots of hiking!

The Saturday after my third week in Uliastai, a group of coworkers from the health department and I went hiking. They had invited me earlier in the week, before I was completely exhausted, so I had agreed to go, only to be sore from tons of aerobics and tired from lack of sleep the morning of the hike.

We met up at the health department at 7am before driving over to where we would be hiking. I had originally been told we would be hiking a certain famous mountain right behind the hill my friends and I had climbed two weeks before

Yeah, that one

Yeah, that one

…which is apparently the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai. But when we started driving in a different direction, straight through the valley (and all its rivers and streams, at one time getting stuck, because off-roading in a sedan is not the brightest of ideas), I assumed that the plans had changed.

We ended up driving quite far away from town and even part of the way up the mountain we would be hiking, until we ended up here:

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

We abandoned the car and finally started up the mountain, which wasn’t too steep at first, until it suddenly was.

Ok, break time!

Ok, break time!

It was also very cold, as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain. Which was great for my never-ending cold (as in, the upper respiratory infection). Let’s just say my pockets were stuffed full of tissues for my dripping nose the whole time.

After a while, we came to what I thought was the top of the hill we were climbing, but ended up just being a slightly less steep part of the hill. At least it was pretty with all the trees, and we were finally up in the sun.

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When we got to the top of that hill, we could see into the valley on the other side of the mountain, where the Bogdiin River flows into Uliastai.

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But we weren’t even close to done yet! Next we had to get up to some weird rock formation!

Onward!

Onward!

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To be honest, I had absolutely no idea where we were going or if anyone else did either. I got the sense that we were just going to keep hiking up and up and up until there was no where left to hike up to.

We had made it up to a grassy hill and someone finally showed me where we were headed:

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To that pointy rock formation up there a little to the left. Not only was that the top of the mountain we were on (finally!), but there was an old legend that if that rock formation (which actually has a name: Jinst) ever fell down, the whole city of Uliastai would be flooded. Yay!

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

From the top of the mountain, Uliastai looked so tiny!

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At this point we finally sat down and had a picnic with the food we’d brought.

Mongolian picnic

Mongolian picnic

But with the combination of no longer moving, being on top of a mountain, and, well, being in Mongolia, it was really freakin’ cold! The wind definitely didn’t help either. All of my coworkers laughed at me when I put on the gloves and ear warmers I had packed in my backpack (haha, silly American can’t handle a little sub-freezing windchill without dragging out her gloves!), but I saw them all rubbing their hands together and breathing hot air into them, so I know they were cold too! Just jealous that they didn’t come prepared like me…

Anyway, after eating our food, we wandered around all the cool rock formations and took a bunch of photos:

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Eventually we headed back down the mountain, but instead of going down the way we had come up, we decided to go straight down one of the rockiest, steepest parts of the mountain at a ridiculously fast pace, because who couldn’t use a little damage to their knee ligaments?

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 40 minutes, tops!

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 20 minutes, tops!

When we finally did get back down to where the cars were parked, we found that one of the other health department workers and her daughter had come to bring us more food! Time for a second picnic!

While we were eating, two young boys rode by on a horse, and my coworkers (who knew that I like horses), called these random boys over and asked them if I could ride on their horse. They may have bribed the boys with some of the food we were munching on, but they let me sit on their horse while one of the boys led it around for a while.

Cementing in the young children's minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

Cementing in the young children’s minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

But no Mongolian shindig is complete without vodka! Which our director just happened to have in the trunk of his car! Now, I’m not a fan of vodka unless it’s mixed with something into a cocktail, but we had been warned during PST that vodka would be present at pretty much all Mongolian get-togethers (even those with your boss present) and that it is customary to pass shots around. So of course I was offered a shot, which I begrudgingly took and gagged on.

Finally we piled into the cars to head back to Uliastai. But then we stopped by a random ger in the middle of nowhere to ask–I kid you not–if they had any yogurt. See, traditional Mongolian yogurt can be made with the milk of any livestock, but my coworkers informed me that the best yogurt comes from the animals belonging to the herdsmen out in the countryside. So, seeing a ger in the middle of nowhere, they (correctly) assumed that a herding family must live there and have yogurt at the ready. A couple coworkers went in to ask if they had any fresh yogurt, and when they confirmed that they did, all 10 of us waltzed into this poor random family’s ger to eat their food. As my director told me, it is perfectly acceptable out in the countryside to come to some stranger’s ger and get fed. So the family served us milk tea, bread, and the coveted yogurt and chatted a while until we finally left.

I was quite tired at this point (and still sick), and I thought we were going home, but when we got close to town they pulled over by the river and started dragging blankets and mats out of the cars and laying them on the ground. It was time to play cards!

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They proceeded to play a billion rounds of a Mongolian card game that they often play during lunch at the health department. They had tried to teach me how to play before, and did again on this occasion, but for some unknown reason they always assign one of the workers who speaks absolutely no English to teach me, and I’m not one of those people who can learn how to play a card game just by watching other people play it. Every time I thought I was understanding the game, someone would play a card that changed everything.

We eventually started to pack up, until someone remembered that there was food left over from our earlier picnics and–gasp!–we hadn’t finished the bottle of vodka from earlier! So picnic #3 commenced, as well as another round of shots. By now most of my coworkers could tell that I was tired and not feeling so well (did the constantly wiping and blowing my nose tip them off?), so we left very soon after that. I did get one last photo of the mountain that we had climbed though:

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

But yeah, you probably shouldn’t spend an entire day hiking and various other exploits when you’re battling an illness, as I found out when I got much sicker the next week!

Weeks 2 and 3 at Site

My second week in Uliastai saw the beginning of several projects. First, Dolgor, the health policy specialist at the Zavkhan governor’s office, contacted me about a dental hygiene project that she had worked on last year with some PCVs. The Volunteer who did a lot of the work with her had just recently finished her service and had left, so when she heard that new PCVs (including a Health Volunteer!) were coming, she wanted to ask for assistance in implementing the program again. This past spring, an amazing NGO called Kids’ International Dental Services sent American dentists to Uliastai to clean children’s teeth and perform any needed dental procedures, absolutely free of charge, and Dolgor wanted to bring them back again next spring. But, being based in the US, the organization didn’t have anyone who spoke Mongolian, so she needed me to help her translate the proposal and other communications with them.

That week, I also started—or, more accurately, I was told I would start—an aerobics class for the staff at the health department. That Monday during lunch, one of the employees told me there would be a dance class in the health department’s gym at 4pm that afternoon. When I asked for more details, she proceeded to tell me that I would be teaching the dance class. Well, that was news to me. I told everyone that I would need more than a couple hours to prepare to teach a fitness class, so they helpfully moved it to the next week.

So that next Monday morning I held our first aerobics class. I may have stolen most of the moves from a Hip Hop Abs video I had gotten on my external hard drive during one of our PC media swaps, but whatever. I am not an aerobics instructor and have never taught group fitness classes before, so I need a little bit of help. Because our gym isn’t big enough to hold everyone who wanted to participate in the aerobics classes, they decided to split it into two groups. And to get maximum benefits of the workout, each group wanted to have the class three times a week, which would mean I would be teaching aerobics classes six times a week (twice a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday). That idea lasted for about half a week until they realized that I could not physically do that either because a) I’m just out of shape, b) I was sick with a cold, and/or c) they were working me to death and I wasn’t getting enough rest in general.

And finally, I started the much anticipated English lessons at the health department. As I am not a TEFL Volunteer and only received one session during PST regarding teaching English, I felt a little unprepared to plan and teach English classes, but I guess they felt like being a native English speaker was enough of a qualification. I knew there were at least two distinct levels of English language skills among the health department staff, so I decided to do two different level classes: beginner and intermediate. I was planning to teach each class once a week, but the HD staff told me I should teach each class twice a week. So in addition to the proposed 6 aerobics classes per week, they wanted me to teach 4 English classes per week.

And work from 8am to 6pm Monday through Friday.

And do additional lesson planning at home.

Let’s just say my third week at site pushed me over the edge. The cold I’d had for a while got worse, I was always sore from aerobics, I wasn’t getting enough sleep or “me-time,” and all of this was making me crabby.

After consulting my PC Regional Manager and some of the M24s I knew, I decided to talk to my supervisor about cutting down on some of my work. I told her that as a PCV I technically wasn’t supposed to be working at my HCA more than 40 hours a week (I was working at least 50 at that point). So she said I could just do 3 aerobics classes per week and I could leave a little early on the days I came in at 8am (the health department technically opens at 9am but she wanted me to come in early to teach classes at 8). Which sounded great, except that Friday, after noticing how tired I looked, she said I could leave at 5 that day, but then proceeded to call me into a meeting at 4:45 that ended up lasting until 6 (seriously, who holds a meeting at 4:45 on a Friday?).

Yeah, to be continued.

The Fridge-Eating Ger

My first Thursday in Uliastai was quite interesting. On Monday I had noticed that my fridge had stopped working (yes, the day after I moved in).

You remember this beauty, right?

You remember this beauty, right?

Luckily I hadn’t put much in it yet, because the next day when the electrician came to fix it, he determined that the motor was broken and would need to be replaced. So on Thursday morning I was told to go back to my ger during lunchtime so that the electrician could fix my fridge—except the power was out (we’ve been having a lot of power outages–supposedly because they’re busy working on the electrical system in town to improve it), so he couldn’t fix it then. So I went back to the health department, where I got to sit in on a 4-hour seminar for doctors in soums throughout Zavkhan. I couldn’t understand most of what was being said, but it was still interesting.

That evening, I received a text message from my supervisor asking if she could come to my ger. I said “sure” because that’s the Mongolian thing to do (actually, stopping by unannounced is the even more Mongolian thing to do, but thankfully she at least gave me some warning). So she stopped by to give me some cleaning supplies (I guess she thinks my ger is a pigsty) and Mongolian yogurt. Then she spent almost an hour scrutinizing my ger (apparently I didn’t hang my hadag in the correct place; why am I sleeping in a sleeping bag? etc.), asking if I needed anything else (why don’t I have more food? Do I have winter boots? Was I able to steal my neighbor’s wifi?), and telling me what she wanted me to work on at the health department the next day.

Then, upon discovering that my water containers were close to empty, she told me how to get more. There’s a well in our hashaa that I had already gotten water from, but I was told that water was just for cleaning laundry. To get water for drinking, cooking, etc., we had to go to a small river right outside town. So my supervisor told my hashaa dad that I needed water, and we headed off. With my supervisor translating, my hashaa dad told me that I was not allowed to go get water alone because it was dangerous (he thinks the stray dogs will eat me, but I see several times more dogs just walking to the health department each day than I did walking to the river). If I ever needed water, I was just supposed to let him know, and he would go get it for me. He also told me to feel free to come to their home and watch TV, learn Mongolian, etc. whenever I wanted.

After our water-fetching adventure, my supervisor and I went back into my ger to talk some more. I was starving by this point as I hadn’t eaten dinner, and just as I was hoping my supervisor would head home soon (I love her and all, but I need to eat! I wouldn’t even have minded cooking dinner for both of us, except she had already eaten before coming over), the electrician and his wife came in. It was almost 9pm, but he was determined to fix my fridge, dammit! While he got started on the fridge, my supervisor hinted that I should offer the electrician’s wife a seat and that I should offer them all candy (in Mongolia, you absolutely must have a bowl of candy always at the ready for when guests drop by, and luckily they had already prepared me one when I moved in). After we determined that my hosting skills are abhorrent (sorry, I’m not actually Mongolian so I don’t have the whole hospitality thing ingrained into every fiber of my being), we sat around for what felt like forever watching the electrician fix my fridge (the motor had to be replaced, so it took a while). My hashaa mom and dad also stopped in, and as time went on, I seriously considered just eating my dinner in front of everyone; I didn’t have enough for the 5 unexpected guests sitting around my ger, but I was starving.

But before I could do anything about my hunger, our attention turned to how freakin’ cold it was in my ger. I had offered to start a fire in my stove earlier, but I was told not to as the electrician would have to move all of his work tools. But as it got colder by the minute, we all agreed that a fire was necessary. Yes, it was August, but it had been rainy and windy all day so it was colder than normal that evening (and, y’know, it’s Mongolia). And my ger isn’t very well insulated yet (they “winterize” the gers usually by October, meaning they add more layers of felt and weatherproof tarps, pile sand up against the outside walls, insulate the door, etc.). So we started a fire and huddled around the stove while the electrician finished up.

Everyone finally left around 10:30, and I immediately shoveled in some food. I had planned to spend the evening writing new blog posts, so I wrote out a few paragraphs before calling it a night.

And then, as the title of this post probably tipped you off, the fridge proceeded to break again two days later! I think the health department gave up on that fridge, because they had their accountant (who was on vacation in UB) pick up a brand new fridge for me. So a few days later the health department’s watchman and driver came with me to my ger to get rid of the old fridge and install the new one. Yay! Brand new fridge! How could this possibly go wrong?

You know how! This brand new fridge also proceeded to break just a couple days after it was installed! By this point I figured there was some issue with the electrical wiring in my ger and maybe random power surges were frying the fridges’ motors. Both fridges had been plugged into an extension cord that was already in my ger (not the one Peace Corps gave me), so my guess is that it didn’t have a surge protector. So after trying to revive it a couple times, they dragged that fridge away too. They said they will try to get it fixed, but so far I still have no fridge. I guess this is what I get for going on about how posh my ger is.