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!

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A Merry Mongolian Holiday Season, Part 1 (Shine Jil All the Way)

The busy holiday season has ended, so I finally have some time to write another post! And it’s a long one, so I decided to split it into two parts.

One of the biggest holidays in Mongolia is Shine Jil, which literally means New Year, although it has adopted the decorations and many other characteristics of Christmas and is celebrated throughout the month of December, not just December 31/January 1. Between mid to late December, there are many Shine Jil parties for all of the workplaces. Everyone dresses up in their nicest, sparkliest dress clothes and gets their hair done for an evening of dancing, games, food, and drink.

First was our health department Shine Jil party.

Cheers!

Cheers!

It was similar to last year’s party, except this time around I was told I had to perform the traditional Mongolian dance that my supervisor and I had learned for a health department “concert” we had about a month earlier (and by “learned” I mean my supervisor suggested we get a dance teacher to teach us a dance all of 3 days before the concert). So after a rushed, exhausting few days of learning my second traditional Mongolian dance, we performed it in front of all our coworkers…absolutely none of whom thought to record it.

I was told I had to perform the dance again (alone this time) at our Shine Jil party, but I didn’t mind because this would give me another chance to have someone record it. I gave my supervisor my camera and showed her how to record video on it, which she (thought she) did. When I checked my camera after the performance, however, all she had managed to capture were two tiny clips, one right before the dance and one right at the end. So because of double-clicking or whatever happened, my second chance of getting video of the dance had failed. Here’s a couple photos another coworker took instead:

And of course I'm looking away from the camera

And of course I’m looking away from the camera

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So although I still had no video of my dance, it was a very enjoyable evening.

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A week later, I went to Shine Jil parties for Bookbridge and the health organizations of Zavkhan. Although I had been asked/told to perform my dance again that evening at the big party for health organizations, to ensure I got a video, I offered to perform the dance at the Bookbridge Shine Jil party and gave my camera to one of the other PCVs. So naturally, my camera (which is honestly a pretty cheap little thing) refused to stay in focus while recording the video, a problem I have had with it before. So once again, all I had were a couple photos, these ones taken by the Bookbridge librarian.

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But there was plenty of food and games, including a game of Jenga that managed to last far beyond what any of us expected:

Especially on a wobbly table surrounded by sugar-fueled kids

Especially on a wobbly table surrounded by sugar-fueled kids

Later that day was a big Shine Jil party for all of the health organizations (hospitals, clinics, pharmacies, etc.) of Zavkhan province, hosted by the health department. We had fancy food,

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a live band,

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a giant Shine Jil/Christmas tree,

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and even Mongolian Santa and his helpers:

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There were also lots of awards given out to the various health professionals and a ton of ballroom dancing. Me being the “interesting foreigner,” I was asked by several Mongolian men to dance, even after it became extremely obvious that I don’t know how to do the Mongolian “waltz” or whatever it was they were doing and kept stepping on the guys’ feet. Seriously, about 70% of the evening was made up of this:

But even though I’m horrible at ballroom dancing, I was able to perform my traditional Mongolian dance for the (hopefully) last time in front of all 200+ people present. It was my last chance to get a video, so instead of trusting my camera to pull through, I asked my supervisor to record the dance with her smart phone that she was familiar with. Luckily, she managed to record the whole performance! Less luckily, it’s from a terrible angle and pretty shaky. But with my luck, this is the best it’s gonna get:

Stay tuned for Part 2!

I Swear I Actually Do Work

I’ve become aware that many of my blog posts make it seem like I a) spend a lot of time away from site, or b) do a lot of non work-related stuff at site. But to be honest, that’s all just an illusion formed from my habit of only posting about especially fun/interesting/unusual things (which of course is all relative–my life here in general is probably pretty unusual to most of my readers, but for me the day-to-day stuff has simply become “normal” life for me). The truth is, my primary assignment (working at the Zavkhan health department) mostly consists of work that probably wouldn’t be super exciting to read about every month, since most days I just sit in an office working on various projects, occasionally helping with a training or seminar either at the health department or at local schools, and teaching my coworkers English.

The health department certainly does tons of work throughout the aimag, but most of my involvement is behind the scenes and at the planning stage. Let’s face it: Mongolian is a really difficult language to learn, and I’ve long since accepted that I’ll never be fluent in the language (and the vast majority of people here in Uliastai will never be fluent in English), so for any health-related projects I generally have to have a Mongolian counterpart do all the talking and presenting and facilitating, even if I planned everything. Turns out this is actually the ideal set-up for Health PCVs, since our entire purpose is building the capacity of host country nationals. Our work wouldn’t be very sustainable if we PCVs were always running the show instead of helping our counterparts build their knowledge and skills, though the result is that to an outside observer, it can look like we don’t really do much.

So to sometimes switch things up and convince myself that I’m actually doing something, I work on lots of projects outside of the health department, often with my sitemates. I love working with kids, so sometimes I’m envious of my sitemates who all work in schools and have little fan clubs/armies of adorable children, while I work in a typical office building of 30 some adults. So when my sitemates do projects at their schools or projects for students outside of school, I like to help them out as much as possible. So far, I’ve participated in some capacity in:

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  • community English classes for adults (outside of my health department classes)
  • a week-long art camp for students from herding families during a school break
We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

  • the benefit concert we held back in spring
  • weekly “Mongolish” nights with locals who want to practice speaking English
  • various English competitions (song competition, speaking competition, culture fair, etc.) between students from all the local schools, since I’m the only impartial judge
The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

I also do various things on my own outside of the health department, including:

  • editing the annual reports of the workers at the local World Vision office (World Vision is a US-based NGO, so all their reports have to be submitted in English)
  • teaching English at the Zoonotic Disease Research Center
  • editing the local news that a Mongolian reporter friend of mine translates and presents in English

And of course, I do plenty of work at/with my health department. In the nearly 16 months that I’ve been here in Uliastai, I’ve helped with:

  • making CPR and first aid brochures and planning a training for students of herder families (the parents of which spend the school year out in the countryside, meaning these students live alone in town and are responsible for their younger siblings)
  • a handwashing peer education program for students
  • College Student Health Promotion Day
Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

  • our dental screening project for 1st-3rd graders back in May
  • informal computer/software assistance to coworkers as needed
  • program development (needs assessment, writing goals and objectives, monitoring and evaluation, etc.) trainings for coworkers
  • beginner and intermediate level English classes for coworkers
  • accident and injury prevention trainings for parents and kindergarten teachers
     Yes, I've discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country


Yes, I’ve discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country

  • a seminar on dealing with patients with alcohol problems for doctors at the hospital
  • a seminar on maternity care in America for midwives from throughout Zavkhan
The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

[By the way, the only reason I can keep track of all this stuff is because we have to complete and submit the dreaded VRF (Volunteer Report Form) twice a year, where we list and describe (in detail) all the activities we’ve done as PCVs.]

See, I do stuff, I promise!

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.

Leaving the Taiga

We left the camp bright and early on Saturday morning. Our group leader used the satellite phone to inform Peace Corps staff that we were about to head out on the horse trek, only to have the Director of Programming & Training be rather confused as to why we were leaving 2 days early.

That’s right: somehow we had spent the entire week thinking we were supposed to leave on Saturday, when the plan had actually been all along to leave on Monday. We had put we were leaving on Monday on the Leave Request Forms we had submitted to PC weeks earlier, the other group who went to the West Taiga knew to leave on Monday, but somehow all 8 of us got it stuck in our heads that we were leaving on Saturday. Throughout the week there were times when we would ask each other what the date was, and the answer always seemed too early, considering I knew we were supposed to arrive back in Murun on June 30, but I never gave it much thought, nor did anyone else apparently. To be fair, everyone at the camp (including the CP who we had arranged everything with) also thought we were leaving on Saturday, though they may have gotten that from us. Again, none of us are quite sure how this happened, but both groups had been talking when we were at the ger camp in Tsagaannuur about asking PC if we could stay an extra day at the ger camp when we returned from the reindeer camps (to get some rest between the long horse trek and the longer purgon ride back to Murun). But it seems our group subconsciously was going to make us stay at the ger camp an extra 2 days no matter what.

Anyway, since we were already all packed and the horses and guides were ready to go by the time we found out about our little mistake, PC told us to go ahead and leave anyway. To be honest, I was a little upset about us leaving early, as there were other activities we had wanted to do with the reindeer herders but didn’t have time for (or so we thought), but by that point they were expecting us to leave, so we did.
The horse ride back was significantly faster, partly because it was downhill more of the way but mostly because our guides were eager to get to the drop-off point because they were going to turn around and go back to their camp that same day.

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So we spent a large portion of the trek at a trot or canter, with some of us even galloping at points. Five hours later, we arrived at the drop-off point, but since the driver who was supposed to take us back to Tsagaannuur thought we were arriving Monday afternoon, we had to call him to pick us up (which we had to wait to do since there was no phone reception on the way). He arrived 2 and a half hours later, even though it shouldn’t have taken much more than an hour.

So we were all very tired from waking up super early, horse trekking (quickly) across 55 km of mountains and forests, and waiting in the middle of nowhere for hours. And then on the way back to town, our purgon was stopped at a bridge (a bridge that we had no problem going through on our way to the drop-off point the week before). Our driver got out and talked to the guys manning the gate in front of the bridge, who then came over to us waiting in the purgon and told us we had to pay 12,000 tugriks (about $6) to cross the bridge. He had 2 small pieces of paper with the Mongolian word for “tourist” on them along with  a price of 6,000. We tried to explain to them that we weren’t tourists, that we live and work in Mongolia (I mean, we were speaking to them in Mongolian), but they seemed to think that the Korean-American PCV among us was our Mongolian translator/tour guide and we were tourists. This went on for almost 20 minutes, with us refusing to budge, not so much because of the money (which was a tiny amount when split between the 8 of us) but because we knew they were trying to rip us off. It was especially annoying since our driver was one of the ones who had driven us up from Murun, and he knew we weren’t tourists, but he didn’t say anything to back us up. The bridge trolls finally said they were going into town and would be back in an hour, and we heard them mention the Mongolian word for “police.” We decided we would rather just get our bags out of the purgon and walk the rest of the way than pay the stupid toll, so we got out and asked the driver to let us get our bags out of the back because we were going to walk. He seemed ready to laugh at us, as we were still quite a ways from town and he obviously thought we were joking, but we weren’t playing around. Since he didn’t seem to want to wait around for an hour for the police to show up, he paid another bridge troll the toll (supposedly, though we think it was a front, as it’s not like corruption doesn’t exist here). He told us to get back in the purgon and took us into town. We needed to stop at a store in town for some snacks since we would be staying at the ger camp for 2 days. So we got out and went into a shop, only to come back out and not see our purgon or driver anywhere. We thought he had gone to get the police, but he finally showed up 10 minutes later. He took us to the ger camp, and we thought he was going to try to charge us more than the previously agreed upon 5,000 tugriks each to make us pay for the toll anyway (though, again, we saw him give the guy some money but it definitely wasn’t 12,000 and we do think it was some kind of front), but he didn’t even try that on us, probably because he figured if we were willing to walk with all our shit into town to avoid paying a toll, we were not going to be screwed with by him trying to charge us more for the ride.
The next day, the lady who runs the ger camp had us doing manual labor for most of the day. She wanted rock paths leading from the gers to the dining hall and bathrooms, and we agreed to help out since she’s always been super nice to PCVs: she gives us a discount price for staying at the camp and doesn’t charge us for using the showers or taking the canoes and kayaks out on the lake (which we did later that day). She even let us use the kitchen to cook our own meals, since we had some food left over and not enough money to pay for meals at the camp along with our lodging. A couple groups of tourists stayed at the camp briefly, and she asked us not to talk to them about how much (or little) we paid to stay there (or how we didn’t have to pay for the showers and canoes). We figured it was also nice that those tourists saw us working around the camp in case they found out about how much less we were paying, since we were doing plenty enough work to cover much of our expenses.

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Monday was a very chill day. We all slept in again, the boys finished the little that was left of the rock path, and we waited for the arrival of the PCVs from the West Taiga. They got to the ger camp a little after 7. We ate dinner and then had a meeting to debrief how the trips to both sides had gone.
The 2 purgons came to pick us up the next morning at 9. After packing up, we went into town because most of us needed to take out money from the bank. We finally left Tsagaannuur around 10:30, but one of the purgons kept breaking down. Twice we had to stop for an hour while the drivers tried to fix it up, so the normally 10-hour drive took closer to 13 hours.
The next morning in Murun I did laundry and bought my bus ticket back to UB. Our bus left at around 7 in the evening, so we had the whole night to rest for when we arrived in UB the next morning. Except the woman sitting beside me kept reaching over me and opening the window, so I was awakened by freezing cold air blasting my face throughout the night.

We got into UB earlier than expected (before 9) and spent the morning at the PC office returning the helmets we had borrowed for the horse trek (as per PC requirements), having coffee and chatting with the Country Director, and filling out reimbursement forms for travel costs to and from the reindeer camp (since PC/Mongolia has grant money this summer to reimburse some of the travel costs PCVs incur while working at camps throughout the country). Then I went back to the hostel to take a shower, followed by lunch at a pizza place. I went to the bus station to buy a ticket back to site, but all the seats were sold out until the Monday morning bus, meaning I would be in UB with some other PCVs for 4th of July weekend!
On the evening of the 3rd, we went to watch a fellow PCV and his friend perform at a local bar/cafe. Then on the 4th a few of us who were in town for various reasons went to lunch at a little restaurant popular among expats that was having 4th of July specials, including buy 1 get 1 free hotdogs and good prices on apple pie. While heading back with a few others, we stopped by an art gallery, hung out in Chinggis Square, and had drinks at a bar.

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Then we went our separate ways, with me going back to the hostel, where a larger group of PCVs were busy getting drunk and later going out, while I just chilled out for the rest of the evening (until a couple of the girls dragged me out for a mojito). There were some fireworks that were shot off from the square (which is conveniently half a block from the hostel), so that was a nice end to the 4th.
The next day was my last full day in UB. Most of the others at the hostel headed back to their sites, so I had a day of chilling out and eating in to make up for all the money I’d spent the previous few days.
The bus to Uliastai left at 9 the next morning, and I was at least riding with one of my sitemates. The ride was significantly shorter than the ride from Uliastai to UB I had taken 3 weeks earlier: something about not having the bus break down on a regular basis and not stopping to take breaks every 2 hours do a lot to make a bus ride shorter. The only issue we ran into was that the bus got stuck in sand at like 4 in the morning, so everyone had to get off the bus into the chilly night air while a bunch of people tried to push it out of the sand. But on the plus side, the bridge was fixed so we didn’t have to walk across it in the dead of night while the bus went around. In the end, the bus trip only took 26 hours compared to the 35 hours of before.
Since my ger had been taken down, I was still having to stay at the health department. Which meant all my coworkers knew when I got back and expected me to just hop right back into work, despite getting very little sleep on the bus the night before. But then it was Naadam, which meant several days of vacation. Unfortunately, the entire weekend and into the next week was nothing but chilly, rainy weather. Because the weather was so bad (and because the health department is much further away from the stadium than my khashaa would have been if I was still at my ger), I really only got to see the opening ceremony. But you can check out my post from last year’s Naadam if you really want to see what it’s all about.

Later today I am heading back to Darkhan to begin my stint as a Resource Volunteer for the second half of PST. Let the next adventure begin!

International Women’s Day and Soldiers’ Day

March 8th was International Women’s Day. Many of you have probably never heard of International Women’s Day (IWD), as it’s not really celebrated in much of the world outside of Asia, Eastern Europe, and a few random countries in Africa. In Mongolia, IWD is an official holiday. But of course, it was on a Sunday this year, so we didn’t get a day off work or anything.

The Saturday before IWD, however, the men who work at our health department (all 6 of them) put together a nice little dinner party for the 20-some women of the health department. We were each given a red rose:

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and the men prepared a bunch of food for us:

Meat, vegetables, vodka, and grape juice

Meat, vegetables, vodka, and grape juice: a Mongolian feast

I don’t know if I’ll ever get used to seeing women, all dressed up, gnawing chunks of meat off the bone until it’s dry. I was scolded for leaving some “meat” (which was really fat and ligaments and other stuff I won’t eat) on my bone, so I said I wasn’t very hungry (which was true).

And then there was the vodka. All the vodka. I was offered–I kid you not–10 shots of vodka. Ten. Granted, the shot glasses were on the smaller end so it was more like 5 actual “units” of alcohol or whatever, but still. That in addition to the 2 glasses of wine they served. After the fifth or so shot that was offered to me, I started sneakily filling my glass with the white grape juice that we also had. Then when one of the guys came around with the vodka bottle, I showed him that I already had some and proceeded to drink it, even pulling the old bleh-vodka-it-burns face to really sell the act. But I eventually ran out of grape juice, as I was drinking tons of it to stave off intoxication. For the last couple shots I was offered, I just flat out refused to drink them. My coworkers know I don’t like to drink a lot (especially not vodka), but it was a celebration, and they were insistent. I might have offended some of them, but I know–and they should know, being health workers and all–that alcohol is a huge problem here in Mongolia, and I certainly don’t want to encourage or be part of that excessive drinking culture.

After eating, the men sang karaoke for us, the party eventually turning into drunken singing and chatting. I ended up leaving early because I still needed to pick up some groceries and bring wood into my ger. This also may have offended some people–or maybe they were too drunk to notice–but I live alone, in a ger, which is a lot of work, with no family to help out like Mongolians have (Mongolians never live alone).

But it was still a nice day and I did have fun.

Then, a couple weeks later (March 18th to be exact), there was Soldiers’ Day, the anniversary of the founding of Mongolia’s modern military. It is also known as Men’s and Soldiers’ Day because it is celebrated as the male version of Mongolia’s Women’s Day.

There is an army base here in Uliastai, but it’s in a part of town not exactly close to where I live or work, so I didn’t see what they had going on. But I did see the police force having a ceremony outside the government building as I was leaving a meeting. And for lunch that day at the health department, the women prepared a nice big meal of the the exact same thing we had eaten for Women’s Day. There was less vodka, however, or maybe I just went back to my office before they had brought out all the bottles.

The following Saturday, the health department workers went to the nice Korean restaurant in town to have the big celebration for Soldier’s Day, but my stomach had been kind of messed up all week and I didn’t want to irritate it more with spicy Korean food, so I had to skip out on that. Maybe that’s where the rest of the vodka went…

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.