The Final Summer

This is it: the final summer. I have less than 1 month left in Mongolia. I have completed my practicum project and submitted all the required documents to my graduate school for me to graduate in August. I’ve bought plane tickets for my COS trip (going back to Japan!) and now know exactly when I’ll be arriving home. It’s slowing dawning on me how much I’ll miss this beautiful place I’ve lived in for the past two years and all the amazing people I’ve met.

But just because it’s summer doesn’t mean things are slowing down (okay, they are a little). A couple of my sitemates and I (as well as a few PCVs from other aimags) put on a five-day leadership camp for 7th and 8th grade students here in Uliastai. We had community members hold workshops on leadership, communication, teamwork, relationships, diversity, and environmental protection.

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And of course we had plenty of games and other activities sprinkled throughout, including a nutrition session involving the students making (and then eating) healthier versions of traditional Mongolian foods:

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and a hike to the river on the last day of the camp, followed by a trash pick-up competition:

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Later in June, the Mongolian national and local elections took place. Obviously as Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re not supposed to really discuss politics beyond very general, nonpartisan topics, such as the voting age (16 in Mongolia) and the campaign process, which in Mongolia is quite different than in America. The entire campaign season is barely three weeks. One weekend I was just walking through town and noticed tons of shops and other buildings were draped with posters and photos of the candidates and flags of their respective political parties.

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There were also an abundance of cars driving around with speakers blaring campaign messages, in addition to the numerous speakers set up outside each of the aforementioned shops-turned-campaign-headquarters. Since the whole process is so short, it makes sense that it would be very high-impact, but I must admit that the music blaring from the shops near my home and the messages from the cars that drove around until well after dark got a little tiring. But voting day was on a Wednesday, so I got the day off from work! On a less happy note, all of the PCVs were on “standfast” (a Peace Corps term meaning we couldn’t leave our sites) for the week or so around the election, since in past years there have been riots and such over election results and PC didn’t want us being outside of our communities if something like that happened this time around.

Then the day before the election, all the posters, flags, and speakers had disappeared. Election day itself was pretty uneventful, which was nice after the stories Peace Corps told us about the 2008 elections that ended in riots, burned buildings, and 5 deaths in Ulaanbaatar.

 

The weather has also turned gorgeous! We took advantage of the nice weather this past weekend and finally hiked all the way to the top of the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai (we had attempted the hike last summer, but only got about 3/4 of the way up before realizing we hadn’t really brought enough water and food to complete the hike without some mild suffering and so turned back). This is also the same mountain I hiked earlier in the year to watch the first sunrise of the new year, but on that occasion we had taken a different route to a lower summit.

It took us about 2.5 hours to get to the top, where we were greeted with fields of wildflowers

and a view of Otgontenger, a sacred mountain and the tallest in Zavkhan and the Khangai range

and a view of Otgontenger, a sacred mountain and the tallest in Zavkhan province and the whole Khangai range

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cool rock formations

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a little shrine

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and views of the town.

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We explored the summit for a couple hours, then made our way back down. And although my legs were sore and I got a bit sunburned (long Mongolian winters spent bundled up in several layers of clothes don’t do much for your skin’s tolerance to sunlight), it was an amazing way to really soak in the beauty of Uliastai before I leave.

The Other Side of PST

Shortly after Naadam, I left my site once again to come to Darkhan for the second half of the M26 cohort’s Pre-Service Training (PST). As I mentioned in a previous post, myself, another M25 Health PCV, and a Mongolian Technical Coordinator were responsible for training the 12 Health Trainees for the remainder of PST. My first day back in Darkhan was a Wednesday, which was the day that our group of Trainees had cross-culture sessions in the afternoon instead of health technical sessions, so I didn’t actually get a chance to meet them that day. But things got off to a great (note heavy sarcasm) start when the other Health trainers and I were informed that one of our Trainees would be leaving to go back to America. So my first session with our Trainees was kicked off with the PST Director announcing to the group that one of their friends was leaving, which set a not-exactly-positive mood for the rest of the session (and PST, to be honest).

Many of our sessions during the second half were joint sessions, with the Trainees and Mongolian counterparts from their practicum sites. These sessions were the most difficult because information and instructions for activities had to be given in both English and Mongolian, so they took longer. The Trainees also had to try to communicate with the counterparts during the activities, which was complicated when different counterparts showed up to each session or didn’t show up at all.

A couple weeks into second half, we lost another one of our Health Trainees, which further dampened the spirits of the remaining 10. I obviously can’t mention details, but let’s just say our group was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Our typical day consisted of going into the PST office at 9am (while the Trainees were in their Mongolian language class) and preparing for that afternoon’s session or whatever else needed to be done. Then after lunch, we would either go to the school in their training community (Mangirt) for technical session, go to the health department for joint session, or divide up to visit the Trainees at their practicum sites. Wednesdays were our “office days,” when we didn’t have to go anywhere in the afternoon because our Trainees had cross-culture sessions with another training team. We usually wrapped up around 5:30pm, though many times we had to stay much later to write up session reports and evaluations. We also had staff meetings every Monday morning.

We usually had weekends free, but sometimes we helped out with other PST activities. For example, our Trainees had a “ger visit” one Saturday, where they all went over to one of the Trainee’s ger so their LCFs and us Resource Volunteers (who both live in gers) could talk about traditions and beliefs Mongolian have regarding gers and how to live in a ger. We also went to their Host Family Appreciation Day, which consisted of a khorkhog by the river. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian dish that is made by taking your skinned sheep or goat…

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Nope, things like this don’t even faze me anymore

…cutting it into pieces…

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…along with the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, etc.)…

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…putting the meat, veggies, stones heated on a fire, some water, and a bit of spices into a large metal container…

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…then closing and sealing the container and leaving it on the fire for about an hour…

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…until it comes out looking like this:

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone (while still burning hot) and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

We also had other food to munch on…

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…gave out certificates to the host families…

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…waded in the river…

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…and made water balloons:

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The last week of PST consisted of Final Center Days and Supervisor’s Conference. All the Trainees came back into Darkhan for their final sessions with Peace Corps staff. On the first day, they finally had their long-awaited site announcements!

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

I had found out through the Peace Corps grapevine that my aimag, Zavkhan, was only getting one new PCV from the M26 group, despite there being 69 of them swearing in and only 21 aimags in Mongolia for them to be sorted into. Only 2 other aimags only got one newbie, and one of those is a tiny aimag with a very small population. Some people say it’s because Zavkhan got 5 volunteers last year, but we’re not the only aimag that got that many last year, and those other ones got more than 1 new volunteer. A few aimags got 6 new volunteers this year, so some aimags have a total of 9 PCVs now!

And only 2 of my M26 Healthies got sent to the western region, so now there’s only 3 Health PCVs in that whole region (including me; yes, I was the only M25 Health PCV sent to the west), which is weird considering there’s now a total of 19 Health Volunteers in Mongolia, only 3 of which are in the west (and there’s only 3 regions, so it would make more sense for there to be like 6 in each region). I mean, the west is the best (our unofficial motto), but it’s also the poorest region with the worst health indicators and could really use more Health Volunteers. But whatever, I won’t pretend I understand the intricacies of the PC site placement process.

Anyway, our new sitemate is a CYD Volunteer who will be working at the school that one of our recently-departed M24 sitemates worked at (although he was a TEFL Volunteer). Originally, PC was going to put another TEFLer in Uliastai, but me and my fellow Zavkhan Resource Volunteer convinced them that our site had a greater need for a CYD Volunteer, since our only one had finished her service this summer. And we apparently (according to the other trainers) got the best of the CYD Trainees, so I guess having one super amazing sitemate is better than a handful of sub-par ones.

The rest of Final Center Days mostly consisted of additional sessions on PC policy, admin stuff, medical, safety and security, etc., some of which myself and the other Resource Volunteers helped out with. Then on Thursday, the supervisors from the HCAs came in to meet their new Volunteers:

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Then there were more sessions, some with the PCTs separate from the supervisors, some with them together.

On Friday after the last session of Final Center Days, we had a rehearsal for the Swearing-In Ceremony. Unlike our PST last year, where we went to UB for our Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, the M26 cohort’s Swearing-In was at the theater in Darkhan. The ceremony itself was on Saturday morning, and it turned out very nicely.

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After a few speeches, the Trainees took the oath of service and officially became Volunteers. Then the Regional Managers handed out certificates to each newly-minted PCV.

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One person from each of the three programs (TEFL, CYD, Health) had been chosen to give a short speech (in Mongolian), and my new sitemate was the representative for CYD (told you she was the best). Then there were a few cultural performances, including a mash-up of the “Cups” song and a Mongolian song that we all learn during PST…

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…a traditional Mongolian dance (bringing back memories from last PST)…

…and a Mongolian song sung by one of the new Volunteers whose voice was so good that some Mongolians in the audience were literally brought to tears:

The ceremony was followed by a reception, lots of photos, and then everyone heading back to the hotel to pack their things and get on the bus to UB to head off to their sites.

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The next day, we had a short debriefing meeting before going to the river once again for a PST staff picnic, which was (of course) another khorkhog, but with a lot more fruit…

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…and failed jumping pictures:

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The next morning, we checked out of our apartment and headed to UB, where I would have my mid-service medical and dental exams before going for our M25 Mid-Service Training (MST).

The Long Journey to the Taiga

I am back from my trip to the taiga to visit the reindeer herders, and after uploading several hundred photos, I’m ready to write about the experience. There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m expecting to have 3 posts about the trip. This one will be about the multi-day trip from my site to the camp where we would be staying for the duration of the Reindeer Project (as Peace Corps wants us to call it instead of Reindeer Camp). Since there’s not much else to do on a crazy-long bus ride, I took pretty detailed notes of what was happening as it happened.

As I mentioned in my last post, the bus from Uliastai to UB was supposed to leave at 2pm rather than 9am. Things didn’t get off to a great start as the bus didn’t really leave until a little after 3 because we were waiting for like half the people on the bus to show up. Then we finally started moving around 3:20 only to stop at the first gas station we came across. They filled the bus with gas and apparently discovered some mechanical issue with the bus because we stayed there for almost 30 minutes while a bunch of men went out to mess around with the bus. At 3:45 we finally left the gas station only to stop less than 2 minutes later at a shop for people to get drinks and snacks. Seriously people?! Maybe prepare a little by bringing some damn food and a water bottle with you on a 27-hour bus ride!
We finally got out of Uliastai around 4pm. So we were already 2 hours behind schedule, and I was not too confident that we’d be making it to UB in time to catch the bus to Huvsgul.
Around 6pm, after driving along the river valley that leads to Uliastai and passing tons of gers and herds of animals…

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…we stopped in the middle of nowhere for what I had hoped would be a quick bathroom break but ending up being a 30-minute long sit-around-and-wait break. Around 8:45 we finally passed the first soum, where we took a–thankfully much shorter–bathroom break.
At 9:15 we stopped again to deal with more mechanical issues (which I think had something to do with the rear axle, but I know next to nothing about cars). I decided that there’s no way in hell I’d be making it to UB in time to catch the 6pm bus to Murun the next day, so I called one of the PCVs in charge of the reindeer project to tell her what was going on. She said I could take the 8am bus to Murun the day after, though that would make me miss an entire day of planning and preparing for the trip with the others. We finally started moving again at 10:30.
Just before midnight we arrived in Tosontsengel, where we stopped at a guanz (canteen/cafeteria) to eat. I had already been munching on all the food I had brought throughout the journey and didn’t feel like eating an actual meal at midnight, right before I was hoping to get some sleep. So I just took a bathroom break, ate a small snack, and waited for the other passengers to finish eating.
At 3 o’clock in the goddamn morning we all had to get off the bus and walk across a bridge while the bus went down a different road a bit upriver (something about a new bridge being built and the old bridge not being strong enough to hold a huge bus and all its passengers). I couldn’t see what they were doing by the bus, but it took over 30 minutes before we met back up with it and could get back on (and it wasn’t exactly warm outside). The only benefit was getting a nice view of the starry sky and Milky Way.
Around 6:30am we stopped briefly in a soum where the lady sitting next to me picked up a kid who I assumed was her son and a bunch more luggage. This lady had already been taking up part of my seat, but now that she had an 8-year-old on her lap and was trying to hold onto 3 bags, she was really squeezing me into the window. The joys of public transportation…
At 9:30 we stopped for another bathroom break/fix-the-bus break in Arkhangai aimag, but at least we stopped next to some beautiful scenery:

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The paved road that they’ve been building for a while from UB out west finally appeared, so the ride was quicker and less bumpy after that. At 11:30 we stopped for another bathroom break and for lunch. I think I slept most of the remainder of the trip, but I know we finally arrived in UB around 1am (which you may notice is 7 hours after the bus I was supposed to take to Huvsgul left, and makes a total of 35 hours on that freakin’ bus).

While I was still on the bus to UB, I had asked another PCV who was taking the later bus to Huvsgul to try to get me a bus ticket. She went to the bus station that evening but apparently they don’t sell tickets past 7:30, although the ticket lady did say there were tickets left. Apparently we didn’t get to the bus station early enough the next morning, because when I went to get my ticket, the lady said they were sold out. I got a ticket for the next bus (3pm) and went to find the other two girls who were taking the 8am bus. The combination of the stress of quickly packing up my ger, being on a bus for 35 hours, and only getting 3 hours of sleep at the hostel caught up to me, and I started crying while the three of us tried to convince the driver to let us squeeze into two seats or begging the passengers already on the bus to switch tickets with me, even offering to throw in some extra money. Either they didn’t understand or didn’t care, but no one took us up on the offer. Maybe the driver felt bad since I was still crying, but he eventually opened up the luggage hatch and let me put my bag in, then led me to a seat in the back of the bus. I don’t know if a passenger just didn’t show up, but I didn’t care and wasn’t going to move now that I was on the bus.
But then a couple hours later during our first rest stop, the driver approached me again and asked for my ticket. He went away with another guy and they both came back saying I needed to pay for my seat since my ticket was for 3pm. Uh, yeah, I thought we had already gone through this back at the bus station. And the driver was the one who had told me to put my luggage on the bus and led me to a seat, but now he was saying I needed to pay the full price of another ticket or wait there until the 3pm bus came by. As I had no desire to stand in the middle of nowhere, alone, for 7 hours, we at least convinced the driver to only make me pay half price. Yay for extortion!
We got into Murun just before 10pm. The other PCVs who were going on the trip had spent the day going over logistics, but those of us who were late were quickly caught up the next morning. We spent that day buying all the food we would need up in the taiga (we would be cooking all our own meals) and organizing and packing the donations we would be giving to the families:

Sorting clothing donations

Sorting clothing donations

The next morning, we packed ourselves and all our luggage into 2 purgons for the bumpy 10-hour ride up to Tsagaannuur, the soum closest to the reindeer herders’ camps.

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The part of northwestern Huvsgul aimag that we were traveling into is in a national Special Protected Area, so we had to get permission beforehand to cross the border.

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That evening we arrived in Tsagaannuur, where we stayed at a ger camp with a great location right on the lake:

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The next morning we divided into our East and West Taiga groups and set off for our respective drop-off points, where each group then took a 6-7-hour horse trek up to their respective camps (as you can’t exactly drive to those remote locations).

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The view

The view

View during our lunch break

View during our lunch break

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders' camp (we each named our horses)

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders’ camp (we each named our horses)

The guides seemed quite intent on getting to the camp as quickly as possible, so we spent a large portion of the ride trotting rather than walking the horses. Our butts and legs were sore for days afterwards!

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

While walking down the mountain, we got our first view of the reindeer!

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Once in the valley, we got back on the horses to ride the rest of the way into the camp, where we were greeted by the families and the camp dogs:

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Kids coming to greet us

Kids coming to greet us

And that is the tale of our journey to the camp; my next post will be about the week that we spent there living among the reindeer herders. Stay tuned!

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).

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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.

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.

First Trip Away From Site

This past Wednesday, some of my coworkers at the health department asked me if I wanted to come with them on an overnight trip to one of Zavkhan’s soum hospitals for an inspection.

Now, just the previous weekend, some of the PCVs here in Zavkhan had planned to go to Govi-Altai aimag (which borders Zavkhan to the south) to have an early Thanksgiving get-together with the PCVs there and to go to a camel festival that was happening that Sunday. But Peace Corps has this little policy where new Volunteers aren’t allowed to leave their site for the first 3 months (unless it’s work-related travel with their HCA, official Peace Corps business, or travel for medical reasons). Guess when my cohort’s 3-month mark was? November 17th, the day after the freakin’ camel festival! One of the M24s here in Uliastai even called our Regional Manager to see if she would give us some leeway, but no. The M24s still could have gone without us M25s, but they were nice enough to stay and keep us company, and told us we could try to find another camel festival to go to next spring (when it’s not ridiculously cold). I will ride a camel before I leave Mongolia, dammit!

Anyway, I was pretty bummed about that, so when my coworkers invited me on their little trip, I was all for it! Sure, there wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner or camels, but I would be going on a trip! Woohoo! And they even gave me a full 24 hours notice (yes, we left the day after they invited me).

That Thursday after lunch, the 5 of us (me, the director, 2 health department specialists, and the driver) packed into a Land Cruiser for the 3.5-hour drive to Otgon soum, about 130 km southeast of Uliastai. The drive could best be described as “whiplash-inducing”, especially since I ended up in the back middle seat with no headrest, and to say the road was unpaved would be an understatement. But there was plenty of nice scenery to look at, although the windows were so fogged up that I couldn’t really take pictures. We did stop at one point, and I managed to snap a few photos:

Yes, it's been snowing

Yes, it’s been snowing, even in the technically-desert

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But then, disaster struck! While I was handing my camera to one of my coworkers so she could take a picture of the rest of us, she/I accidentally dropped the camera, which (of course) landed lens-down in a pile of snow-covered dirt. We tried to wipe off as much dirt as we could with the one napkin we had, but decided to try to fix it once we got to our destination.

At about 5:30, we finally arrived at the Otgon hospital:

Or "Health Center" if you want to be all technical

Note: photo taken the next day, as my camera was still out of commission at this point

We were shown to our room, which was a patient room with 4 hospital beds. And considering the “hospital” only had 10 beds in total, we were lucky they didn’t have a bunch of inpatients then. You may remember there being 5 of us, so the driver stayed the night at a friend’s home.

First we were served dinner, which consisted of bread and butter, potatoes, extremely fatty beef ribs, blood-filled intestines, and milk tea. I ate as much bread and potatoes as I could to avoid eating too much of the meat/intestines. I really don’t think I’ll ever get used to traditional Mongolian food.

After dinner, we started the hospital inspection while the driver tried to fix my camera (using a needle to try to get the dirt out from around the lens, and putting those valuable medical supplies to good use).

I followed my coworkers as they went around to all the hospital’s rooms, interviewing patients about the care they received there, inspecting the medical equipment and supplies, etc.

Fun fact: there’s no running water out in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia, even in the hospital. So we, along with all the hospital employees and patients, had to use outhouses behind the hospital, and all the sinks inside were “dry sinks” like the one I have in my ger. So I had one night of sleeping in a room with heating, but still had the joy of running to the outhouse in the freezing cold.

After the inspection, we played the one card game that Mongolians seem to know, called khuzur. I’ve mentioned this game before when we played it after a hike with my coworkers a couple months ago, but never really caught on to how to play. I finally found a blog post that actually describes how to play the game (although my coworkers seem to play a slightly different variation). And this time, my coworkers were willing to actually explain it to me so that now I mostly understand what’s going on.

And of course, one of my coworkers busted out a bottle of vodka. Once they started insisting we had to finish the bottle that night, I finally asked why? I’ve noticed that once a bottle of alcohol is opened, Mongolians never stop drinking it until it’s empty. Apparently it has something to do with luck. So we did finish the bottle, with just a little bit of help from me, because I hate vodka unless it’s in a cocktail.

I didn’t sleep too well that night because my director snores like crazy. In the morning we were served more bread and butter and a kind of porridge, then the 2 specialists went off to meet with the hospital workers to discuss what they found during their inspection and offer suggestions. The driver came back and took the director and I down to the river by town to get a view of Otgontenger, the mountain I’ve mentioned before that is the tallest in Zavkhan (and the Khangai range) and capped with a permanent glacier. The driver had managed to fix my camera, so I was able to get pictures!

Ok, so it's still pretty far away. Despite being located in the Otgon region of Zavkhan, the mountain is still about 70 km away from the Otgon soum

Ok, so it’s still pretty far away. Despite being located in the Otgon region of Zavkhan, the mountain is still about 70 km away from Otgon soum

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

After our little sightseeing detour, we headed back to the hospital and played cards again until lunch. My coworkers started eating the leftovers from dinner the night before (which had just been sitting out in the open since then), so I assumed that was our lunch. They forced me to eat a couple pieces of meat, and then a hospital worker came in with a big bowl of fresh buuz. Good thing I just risked food poisoning thinking no other food was coming…

Then the others went off to another meeting while I took a nap because I was really tired after not getting much sleep and not having any coffee. At about 2:30 that afternoon, we got back into the Land Cruiser, and I assumed we were heading back to Uliastai. But not before a “small meeting” with the soum‘s mayor, which ended up being an hour long.

Then we were really on our way back. We got another view of Otgontenger and some more photos:

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About an hour later, we passed by a huge herd of horses:

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It was impossible to capture just how many horses there were in just a few pictures, as there were a ton more over the next hill

It was impossible to capture just how many horses there were in just a few pictures, as there were a ton more over the next hill

We passed by a herder and our driver stopped to ask how many horses were in his herd: 4,000!!! Four-thousand horses and just 4 herders to keep track of them!

In the freezing cold no less

In the freezing cold no less

The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, outside of the continuing whiplash. It was dark when we finally got back to Uliastai, and it was insanely cold in my ger, but it was good to be home.

Oh, remember how I mentioned food poisoning earlier? Yeah, that’s because I was definitely nauseous and throwing up the next morning. My supervisor asked what I had eaten during the trip and also thought that it was something I ate. Mongolians may be perfectly fine eating approaching-rotten meat because they have iron stomachs, but I cannot without suffering the consequences. So I spent the whole day in bed, but I’m feeling much better now!

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.