Close of Service and Back to America

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun (and busy)! I know I haven’t updated this blog in a couple months, but I’ve been a little wrapped up with COSing, another trip to Japan, and returning home to America!

First up: Close of Service (COS)

Saying goodbye to my coworkers, khashaa family, friends, and sitemates was obviously difficult. Anywhere you live for 2 years will start to feel like home to you, but I can say I felt like it was time to get back to my American home. I really did enjoy my time in the Peace Corps and in Mongolia, and I definitely grew as a person through all the adventures and struggles I experienced, but I was ready to see my family and friends stateside again.

I could go into all the details of my last few weeks in Mongolia, but with all the other things that have already happened since then, this post would never end. I can, however, attest that things stayed interesting up to the very end. The health department had to take down my ger 2 weeks before I was to head to UB to COS (long story), so I ended up living in the health department (again) for my last bit of time.

Apparently it's easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Apparently it’s easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Then, after packing up my bags and saying my goodbyes, it was off to UB for all the fun paperwork, medical stuff, and exit interviews you have to complete before you can leave the country. This takes 3 days, and at the end you “ring out your service,” literally.

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After that, you’re free to leave the country, which for me meant going off to Japan once more for my COS trip (many PCVs travel after they COS before returning home to take advantage of being relatively close to travel destinations). I had really enjoyed the Japan trip my sitemate and I went on back in March and wanted to see more of the country. Plus, I could justify it by the fact that it was technically on the way home, whereas if I ever wanted to go back to Japan in the future, I’d be shelling out close to $2000 to get there and back from the US east coast. I made it slightly less “on the way home” by staying there for almost an entire month, which my family did not exactly appreciate.

Since I'd already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

Since I’d already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

It took me until just over a week ago to finally finish uploading all the numerous photos I took during my trip, so I couldn’t even begin to try to select a few to post here, but I can say it was an amazing trip, and everywhere I visited was absolutely beautiful. After 2 years in frigid, landlocked Mongolia, I really appreciated the ocean and beaches like never before.

Returning to America

Finally, it was time to head home. I flew from Okinawa to Shanghai, then to Los Angeles. But while I was at LAX waiting for the final leg of my flight to Atlanta, I got a great welcome back to America. An armed airport guard came up to our gate and demanded that everyone get up and go back out past the security check. Well, when a guard carrying a rifle tells you to get the heck out of there, you tend to do as they say. Our gate was at the end of the terminal so we had to walk past all the other gates on the way out, which had already been emptied. At the end of the terminal and spilling out of the exit were the hundreds and hundreds of passengers who had been in the terminal before being evacuated. I won’t lie: the first thoughts running through my head at the time were that there was a bomb or a gunman on the loose and that I didn’t want to die when I was so close to finally getting home. No airport officials were telling us anything, so obviously people started taking out their smartphones and looking to see if there was any news about what was going on. We heard reports of an “unconfirmed shooting” that had taken place at the airport, but as we continued to wait around for almost an hour, the news updated to reveal that the whole shooting thing had been a false alarm. Apparently people in another terminal had heard a “loud noise” and thought it was gunfire, leading to panic and people calling 911 to report a shooting at the airport. So obviously the police had to respond to the 911 calls and they ended up searching all the terminals. Oh, and a guy dressed up as Zorro with a plastic sword was involved somehow. The whole fiasco delayed my flight two hours (and all the other flights as well), which caused a lot of people to miss their connections in Atlanta, but all I cared about was that I was home!

My parents were there to pick me up, there may have been tears shed upon seeing them for the first time in over 2 years, and then we went off for breakfast at IHOP (it was early in the morning and I wanted me some stuffed French toast). When I finally got home, I slept for most of the day before we went back out for dinner to eat more food I hadn’t been able to enjoy in Mongolia.

I feel like I had an easier time adjusting to life back in America because I had spent so much time traveling around Japan, which served as a buffer between my vastly different lives in rural Mongolia and suburban America. I was very jet-lagged for quite a few days, it did take some practice to get used to driving again, and all the options available in grocery stores and restaurants was a little overwhelming, but I don’t think I’ve experienced as severe reverse culture shock as many other RPCVs. I’ve spent most of my time so far visiting with family and friends and researching and applying for public health jobs, so it’s been a bit more chill than a lot of my RPCV friends who went straight into grad school or a job as soon as they got home.

I wish I had something more poignant to add about my COS and readjustment. I don’t think this will be my last blog post, but considering how long it took me to get this one out, I can’t say for sure. At any rate, I figured I should get this one posted before another 2 months post-COS have passed me by! And then maybe I’ll be able to collect my thoughts and add a new post later about my reflections on my Peace Corps service!

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!

 

Visiting the Smoggy City

I spent a few days last week in UB for a training (ok, the training was only one day but with Zavkhan’s twice-weekly flight schedule, I got to stick around for a few extra days). It was a seminar regarding PC/Mongolia’s  EAP (Emergency Action Plan), so since it concerns the safety and security of PCVs in-country, I probably shouldn’t really talk about here.

So instead, I’ll discuss just how insanely smoggy UB is, particularly in the winter. I knew UB had an air pollution problem, but I just don’t remember it being so bad the couple of times I was there last winter. I guess I didn’t spend as much time walking around outside during my last winter visit, since all the sessions and meals during our IST last year were held at the same hotel we were staying at.

But this time around, I was walking outside a lot, and my lungs did not appreciate the air quality. It was worst in the evening; every time I went out to dinner with friends, I would step out of the restaurant and immediately start hacking my lungs out.

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There’s been several news articles about UB’s air pollution problem since I’ve been in Mongolia, including:

Not that UB’s smog is a new development. I found articles from 2013 that discuss how UB is the second most polluted city in the world–not exactly what you’d expect of a city in the sparsely-populated, wide-open land of Mongolia. But get nearly half of the country’s population living in one city, and then get half of that group of people living in traditional gers and wooden houses in the “ger districts” of UB, and you’re left with well over 500,000 people who all rely on old-fashioned wood and coal-burning stoves to cook food and not freeze to death during the long, harsh winters.

The coal-fueled power plants and growing number of cars on the streets are certainly also contributing to the air pollution, as is the fact that UB is located in a valley surrounded by mountains that reduce air circulation, but air pollution from household stoves is a somewhat unique contributor that other top air pollution cities don’t really deal with.

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The Mongolian government, as well as several international organizations, have been looking into possible solutions, such as cleaner-burning stoves and continuing to expand the public transportation system, but it looks like for now, I’ll just have to appreciate the fresh mountain air of Uliastai even more.

 

When Work = Sightseeing

A couple weekends ago, my health department had a bunch of visitors from the Mongolian Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Caritas Czech Republic. A few years ago, the WHO and the Czech NGO had established a series of mobile health clinics in some of the more remote parts of Zavkhan. Now they had come back to check how the clinics (and the Zavkhan health system in general) were doing.

Because of all the fancy, important guests, the health department decided to host a retreat on the Saturday they arrived. And since the retreat was going to be at Khar Nuur (Black Lake), which is something of a hot-spot in Zavkhan, our health department representatives said I could come along. Sure, it was on a Saturday, but I don’t mind doing work-related stuff on the weekend if it involves a free trip to someplace cool! And sure, we had to leave at 5 o’clock in the morning and wouldn’t be getting back until late in the evening, but I could just sleep in the purgon on the way (note: I couldn’t).

The bumpy ride to Khar Nuur only took about 3 hours. For some reason, I had thought Khar Nuur was farther away; if I had known it took such a (comparatively) short time to get there, I probably would have tried to make a trip sooner. I had seen photos from my friends and coworkers, and Zavkhan’s Wikipedia page features a satellite photo of the lake, showing the sand dunes that surround it:

Again, khar means “black” in Mongolian, so someone was clearly drinking a bit too much vodka when they named the lake

Holy crap, was it beautiful! Luckily my coworkers didn’t seem to know where exactly we were supposed to go, so we ended up driving almost halfway around the lake before they figured it out and turned around, letting me see a great deal of scenery.

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Desert sand dunes and snow-capped mountains surround the bizarrely blue lake

The beautiful retreat location

The beautiful retreat location

Our job was to set up the interior of the ger (because of course it was a ger) before the guests arrived and to help with serving the food and drinks during the luncheon (the main course was fresh fish from the lake!). But of course, being a foreigner, everyone outside of my health department coworkers assumed I was a guest from one of the visiting international organizations and kept insisting I sit down and enjoy the luncheon with the others. Eventually my coworkers just told me to join so that I could schmooze with the English-speaking visitors.

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My coworkers hadn’t told me that we were going anywhere else, but sure enough, as soon as lunch was finished, we quickly cleaned up and packed up the supplies before everyone piled back into the vehicles. While the guests went off to visit one of the mobile health clinics in the area, we drove through the mountains for another hour or so until we reached the place where dinner would be at: another of the mobile health clinics, right on the banks of the Mukhart River:

Yep, that's the mobile health clinic

Yep, that’s the mobile health clinic; perfect since gers were originally designed to be portable homes for nomadic herders

And here's the inside

And here’s the inside

We once again helped set up the ger for dinner, which was khorkhog. But the visitors wouldn’t be there until a little later, so I had some time to go exploring! The Mukhart River forms an oasis in the middle of a large sand dune field.

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But the coolest part of the river is its source, which was just a quick hike away. You see, if you continue upstream, you’ll eventually run into a giant, 12-story wall of sand:

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Whoa, let’s get a closer look at that:

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Yep, the source of the Mukhart River is beneath that huge sand dune. The river springs from underground, making the sand dune atop it look like a large dam. You can actually climb to the top of the dune and then slide down into the water below. Unfortunately, since I was technically there for work, I couldn’t just disappear for a couple hours, and it was a bit too cold to be playing in the water anyway (you may have noticed the patches of snow in several of these photos). But I did vow to come back to both the Mukhart River and Khar Nuur with my sitemates next summer (when it is warm enough to play in the water), especially since I know it’s really not that far away.

So it was a fun trip, and it was nice to get to go somewhere that weekend, since it was not only my birthday weekend but the weekend of the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii aimag. I had originally planned to go to the Eagle Festival this year, but of course, Peace Corps decided to schedule their fall site visits such that our Regional Manager would be visiting us in Zavkhan right around that time. I was so mad when I found out the site visit schedule, since this was my one and only chance to see the Eagle Festival during my Peace Corps service (I couldn’t go last year because we had a travel ban for our first 3 months at site, and I can’t go next year because I’ll be back in America by then). Bummer, but that’s why I was glad to get this other trip in as a consolation prize.

MST, and Other Happenings from the Past Few Weeks

After PST was over and all the new PCVs had gone off to their sites, I went to UB to await my cohort’s Mid-Service Training (MST). There was only a week between the M26s’ PST and our M25 MST, and Peace Corps sure as hell wasn’t going to pay for any of us fly-site people to take a plane trip back to site for a few days just to turn around and head right back again. So I literally hung out in UB for a week. Which sounds great, except I had to foot the bill for almost everything (and staying in UB is expensive!), even though Peace Corps hadn’t really given me any other options. I did get reimbursed for a couple of those days, as I had to be in UB for my mid-service medical and dental exams and could write them off as “medical travel,” but I still ended up having to spend a lot of money to stay at the hostel and buy the overpriced food of the big city. Luckily, I had plenty of money saved up (as there’s not much to buy in a small town in the middle of nowhere), so I decided to take advantage of my free time and go all out!

…By which I mean I went around to a bunch of the touristy sites in and around UB. Yes, I know how to party.

My first stop was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a large Buddhist monastery smack dab in the middle of the city.

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That building on the left houses a statue of the boddhisattva Avalokiteśvara (which likely means nothing to you if you’re not Buddhist), which is apparently the tallest indoor statue in the world, at 87 ft (26.5 m).

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The next day, I went to the southern part of the city to visit the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan and the Zaisan Memorial. The Winter Palace was one of the four residences of the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (spiritual head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism) who later became the emperor of Mongolia (the Bogd Khan) when it declared independence from the Qing dynasty of China in 1911. The Bogd Khan was the theocratic ruler of Mongolia until his death in 1924, after which the communist government of the Mongolian People’s Republic came into power.

Anyway, now the palace is a museum and tourist attraction. I was able to get some pictures of the outside of the buildings, but they had a strict “no photography” policy inside, so I have no photos of all the cool stuff the museum had, like the fancy jeweled decorations worn by the Bogd Khan’s pet elephant (because of course he had a pet elephant).

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On the way to my next stop, I saw a giant Buddha statue…

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…and then made it to the base of the Zaisan Memorial hill. The memorial honors Soviet soldiers killed during World War II, and at the base of the hill is a tank memorial, featuring a Soviet tank sponsored by Mongolia and that participated in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

It even comes with a map of its journey from Moscow to Berlin

It even comes with a map of its journey from Moscow to Berlin

Then I climbed a bunch of steps to the top of the hill, where the main memorial is.

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There’s a circular painting depicting scenes of friendship and support between Mongolia and the Soviet Union:

This scene shows Soviet support for Mongolia's declaration of independence

This scene shows Soviet support for Mongolia’s declaration of independence

Here's the defeat of the Japanese by a joint Mongolian/Soviet effort during a border conflict in 1939

Here’s the defeat of the Japanese by a joint Mongolian/Soviet effort during a border conflict in 1939

And here's the defeat of Nazi Germany

And here’s the defeat of Nazi Germany

and the hill offered a great view of UB:

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There was also a guy with an eagle that you could pay 3,000 tugriks ($1.50) to hold and get pictures taken, so of course I did that:

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The following day, two guys at the hostel and I decided to take a tour to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is one of the most famous and scenic of Mongolia’s national parks. It’s not too far from UB, so it’s a really popular tourist destination. We were only doing a day trip, so we didn’t get to see much of the park (it’s pretty damn big), but we went on a hike up to a monastery, which had an amazing view.

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We ate lunch, then went off to see “Turtle Rock.”

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After our brief trip to the park, we headed to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue (I refuse to spell it your silly, wrong way, Wikipedia).

Which is literally a giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan on a horse

Which is literally a giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan on a horse

You could even go up inside the statue and walk out on the horse’s head, in order to get face-to-face with Chinggis…

He's always watching...

He’s always watching…

Or to look out at the (quite underwhelming, especially after Terelj) surrounding view:

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After checking out the statue and the museum underneath it, we went back to the hostel for a nice rest.

Finally, it was time for MST. It was held at the same resort that the PDM workshop had been held at back in April, about an hour outside of UB. MST was the first time some of us had seen each other in a year, since Health and CYD had a separate IST from the TEFL group. It was a time to reflect on our first year of service and to look ahead and plan for our second year. We also had a few Mongolian language classes, as well as our second Language Proficiency Interview (LPI). Our first LPI–basically a 30-minute discussion with a Mongolian teacher used to rate your level of language proficiency–was at the end of PST last summer. I was pretty nervous about how this LPI would go. I had done well on my first one, but that was after a summer of 4-hour Mongolian classes every weekday. I fell out of the habit of studying soon after I got to site, and even though I obviously have to speak a ton of Mongolian at site, it’s always in the same situations (shopping for groceries, taking a taxi, at work at the health department, etc.), so my vocabulary has probably decreased. In any case, I have one more LPI to look forward to, at our COS conference next spring!

MST was Monday through Friday, and then it was (finally) back to Uliastai on Saturday. My ger had been reconstructed (after it was taken down to replace the wooden floor at the beginning of the summer), but for whatever reason my electricity hadn’t been reconnected, so I without power for the first 4 days I was back. It also rained almost every day that first week back, so I quickly discovered that my ger floods from rainwater seeping in along the floor (an issue which I’m still working to get resolved). And there was the general unpacking of all my belongings that I had to pack up right before they took my ger down. So it’s been kinda stressful.

But the weekend after that stressful week was filled with hanging out with my sitemates, including our new M26. On Friday evening, we got together to make dinner and to discuss our plans for community projects for the next year (community English classes, “Monglish” nights, benefit concert 2.0, and several new projects that are in the works–so stay tuned!).

Then on Saturday we went on our first hike of autumn (though how many more we’ll be able to go on before winter hits is questionable, considering it’s already getting below freezing at night).

Our destination: that cliff

Our destination: that cliff

Why yes, I do live in one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia

Why yes, I do live in one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia

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View of Uliastai

View of Uliastai

The ladies of Zavkhan (photo credit to Travis, who's so lucky to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with us)

The ladies of Zavkhan (photo credit to Travis, who’s so lucky to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with us)

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).

Benefit Concert for Tumentsogt Soum

Back in April, there were huge wildfires across large areas of eastern Mongolia. One of our PCVs who lives in Tumentsogt soum in Sukhbaatar aimag shared some photos of the devastation the wildfires caused in his soum and the surrounding steppe:

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Over 75% of the countryside surrounding Tumentsogt was burned

Over 75% of the countryside surrounding Tumentsogt was burned

At least 60 families' gers (and everything inside) were completely destroyed by the fires

At least 60 families’ gers (and everything inside) were completely destroyed by the fires

A huge number of livestock were killed in the fires. As many people in soums are herders, their livestock are their livelihood

A huge number of livestock were killed in the fires. As many people in soums are herders, their livestock are their livelihood

So when my sitemates and I heard about this, we decided to hold a benefit concert to raise money for the people of Tumentsogt to help them rebuild their homes and purchase new household items and livestock. We planned the concert with the help of our Bookbridge center; the head of the center really took charge and got a lot of the stuff done (including handling all the money, since PCVs aren’t allowed to handle money for projects like this), and our students were very excited to plan performances for the show.

Uliastai has a theater that holds concerts quite regularly, and though it costs quite a bit of money to rent the theater for a concert, we were able to talk the theater director into letting us rent it for half the usual price since it was for a charitable cause. We decided to have each of Uliastai’s 5 schools put together 15 minutes worth of performances (singing, dancing, etc.) from their students, and to have each school try to sell 150 tickets to both of the showings (we had one at 6pm and another at 8pm on a Friday). Our Bookbridge students were also given 15 minutes for their own performances.

While we did run into a couple issues (like one of the school’s director refusing to allow his students to participate or to even sell tickets because they were busy getting ready for their school’s open house or something later that weekend), everything somehow managed to come together in less than a month. We were able to sell most of the tickets (making enough money to pay off the theater rental and have about 500,000 tugriks [roughly $250] in profits to donate to Tumentsogt) and the concert itself went very well. I took lots of photos and recorded videos of some of the performances and uploaded them to my YouTube channel, but here are a few of my favorites:

Students getting ready backstage

Students getting ready backstage

A young student dressed in traditional Mongolian costume getting ready to sing

A young student dressed in traditional Mongolian costume getting ready to sing

The first-place winner of our English Song Competition from the week before:

One of our 11th grade students singing and playing guitar

One of our 11th grade students singing and playing guitar

A student performing a traditional Mongolian dance

A student performing a traditional Mongolian dance

Although $250 may not seem like much, that amount of money goes a lot further here in Mongolia than it would in America, so I’d like to think we helped at least one family get back on their feet. And because the concert was such a success, we’re thinking of maybe doing another benefit concert next spring for some other cause.

The concert was the evening before one of my sitemates and I flew to UB, then took a bus up to Darkhan for Training of Trainers, which will be the subject of my next post (yes, I know I said that at the end of my previous post, but I’m serious this time).

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.

What I’ve Been Up To

So, I realize my last post was about me being sick and then I kinda just dropped off the map for a few weeks, but I’m here to tell you that I am alive and well! I actually started feeling 100% again just a few days after my post about being sick, but I haven’t been online much partly because I’ve been pretty busy (but in a good way) and partly because I haven’t been able to connect to my neighbor’s wifi like I was before (and I am not going to go to them and ask them what the deal is, as they’ve graciously allowed me to steal their wifi for over a month now, with no cost to me). I did get a modem (for free, from one of the PCVs who recently left), but unfortunately it happens to be for the service provider with the slowest internet connection in town, but at least I can still get online.

But life in general is going well. Here are some of the things that have been going on the past few weeks:

  • There was a huge, aimag-wide chess competition going on for several days. And I mean huge! There were a total of 9999 students taking place in the competition (so, basically all the students in the aimag), school was cancelled for days, students from all the different soums throughout Zavkhan came into Uliastai for the final rounds of competition, and there was a fancy “closing ceremony” in the brand new stadium here in town.
Complete with a giant chess board no less

Complete with a giant chess board no less

The ceremony included musical performances by a bunch of students playing the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle),

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announcement of the winners in each age and gender group,

Boys...

Boys…

...and girls

…and girls

and an appearance by the president of the World Chess Federation, a Russian man named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov:

He's the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

He’s the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

Turns out, he’s kind of a big deal. Along with being the president of the World Chess Federation since 1995, he was the President of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia from 1993 to 2010 and is a multi-millionaire. So while the whole enormous chess competition thing was pretty amazing by itself, having an important international politician and businessman show up ensured that reporters from all the national news stations in Mongolia were there, which is how I ended up being on Mongolian TV (in the background of course–we just happened to be sitting right behind where the important guy was giving his speech). Oh, and they gave him a horse as a gift, because that’s something that happens in Mongolia.

Did you think I was kidding?

Did you think I was kidding?

  • I went to a concert with some of my coworkers from the health department. The headliner was a relatively famous Mongolian singer, B. Khangal, who also happens to be a doctor, because why the hell not?

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  • I started helping out a couple of the TEFL PCVs here in Uliastai with their English classes for students that take place every Saturday at the local library, which is funded in part by Bookbridge. We have one-hour classes for 3 different age groups (including lots and lots of games), and given the current surge in the number of students coming each week, we may need to create an additional class or two to accommodate all the students.
Notice the kids standing in the back; that's because there were no where near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

Notice the kids standing in the back; that’s because there were nowhere near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

  • My supervisor and I started teaching a seminar on STIs (which are a huge problem in Mongolia) for the high school and college students in Uliastai (ok, she teaches, since it’s all in Mongolian, and I helped plan the seminar, assist with things that don’t require a lot of language skills during the actual seminars, and analyze the results from the pre- and post-tests we give to the students). So far we’ve done the seminar for the college students and high school students from 3 of the 5 schools in the city. The plan is to do this STI seminar at each of the schools, then rotate through the schools again with seminars on other health issues (smoking, alcohol, etc.)
  • I had my first site visit by my Peace Corps Regional Manager. Twice a year, PC staff travel all around the country to visit each and every one of us PCVs to make sure everything is going well with our living conditions and at our HCAs. So the Regional Manager for our good ‘ol Western region came out here to visit each of our homes (note: my ger is still awesome, she informed me) and to sit down and chat with our coworkers at our HCA. Not much else to say about that, since the whole 50-hour work week issue had been resolved already and the people at the health department didn’t appear to be begging her to send a different PCV to replace me, so it was pretty uneventful, but a nice visit nonetheless.
  • Last weekend my site mates, some Mongolian friends, and I celebrated my birthday! On Saturday we taught our regular English classes at the library, followed by some shopping, and then we had “Monglish” night, birthday edition. What is “Monglish” night, you ask? Well, every Saturday evening we PCVs here in Uliastai (and the 2 out in the soums, if they can make it into town) hang out and have dinner with Mongolians we’ve met (whether through our HCA, community projects, or by chance) so that they can practice speaking English with us and we can practice speaking Mongolian with them. So this was another one of those nights, except my supervisor came and brought a birthday cake…
...and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

…and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

A couple of our Mongolian friends also brought a bottle of wine, because we’re classy (and they know I don’t like beer or vodka, which are the only other drinks available here). There was a huge group of kindergarten teachers at the tables next to us, and they, on the other hand, were enjoying a couple (or twelve) bottles of vodka. The restaurant we were at also plays music  later in the evening, and these teachers started going on to the dance floor and dancing the standard awkward Mongolian circle dance (imagine a bunch of preteens at a middle school dance, and you’ve pretty much got the idea). And then they started coming over to our table and literally dragging us onto the dance floor. Eventually we managed to escape, but it was a quite memorable first birthday in Mongolia.

On Sunday, my site mates and I hung out at one girl’s apartment, eating food (including another cake!), drinking more wine, and playing games. Overall, a very good birthday weekend!

Birthday gifts!

Birthday gifts!