The Final Summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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cool rock formations

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a little shrine

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and views of the town.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who you calling a lunatic?

Who you calling a lunatic?

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

Up through that

Up through that

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

But nope! I had made it just in time!

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

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

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

Way down there

Way down there

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

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

 

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

Reindeer Project in the East Taiga

After several days of traveling by bus, purgon, and horse, we had arrived at the East Taiga reindeer herders’ summer camp.

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The East Taiga, which is north of Tsagaannuur and close to the Russian border, is home to about 20 reindeer herding families and roughly 150 reindeer. There are many more herders and reindeer in the West Taiga, which is more spread out, but in all, Mongolia has less than 300 people who identify as Dukha (Tsaatan) and only about 650 domesticated reindeer.

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The Dukha are nomadic herders who live and travel in small communities. Their reindeer are central to their lives and each day is structured around all the chores necessary to care for the reindeer. At the camp we stayed at, the herders tied up the adult reindeer near their teepees* during the night, while the babies were allowed to run free.

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And munch on lichen

And munch on lichen

Then at 6 in the morning, the women would wake up and go set the adult reindeer free and tie up the babies. During the day, the women made milk tea, yogurt, and cheese from the reindeer milk.

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These dairy products make up a large portion of their diet, which they supplement with meat from wild animals they hunt in the forest (they only kill the reindeer for meat if they are very old or sick). During the day, they also gather firewood and keep track of where the reindeer are grazing. In the evening, the herders would go out and herd the reindeer back into the camp, milk the mothers, and set the babies free again.

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The Dukha teach their children at a young age how to care for the reindeer: children learn to ride the reindeer very early and help with the herding, and girls help their mothers milk the reindeer.

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Many families with children move to Tsagaannuur during the school year (or at least for the winter) so that they can be closer to their children, who go to the school in Tsagaannuur.

For more detailed information about the Dukha, you can check out this publication, Changing Taiga: Challenges for Mongolia’s Reindeer Herders.
During our stay, we each slept at a different host families’ teepee, but had our own teepee for cooking our meals and planning/holding our lessons.

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Two of my fellow PCVs with a few of the girls inside our teepee

Two of my fellow PCVs with a few of the girls inside our teepee

Our teepee had a dirt floor, 2 wooden beds/benches, and a wood burning stove. We were told to hang all the bags of food because the camp dogs might come into our teepee and rummage through the bags. We got all our water from the river, which was conveniently only 30 feet from our teepee. There was no electricity. We went to the bathroom in the bushes, etc., etc., and all the other hardcore camping stuff.

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Our first full day at the camp, a group of kids popped over by our teepee, so we decided to go ahead and start our activities. We told them to go get all the other kids so we could do our morning stretches/exercises. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, we had kids dropping by.

Playing games with the kids

Playing games with the kids

We played games with them outside, but then it rained for several hours, so we had the kids come inside our teepee and draw and talk about themselves.

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Later in the day, a few of us went on a hike just outside the camp.

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In the evening, the kids came back and we played more games.

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The next day the weather was much nicer, so we had our meeting with everyone in the camp to discuss why we were there and to distribute our donations (clothes, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste).

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That afternoon, some of the boys wanted us to go with them to their watering hole for a swim. We decided it was too cold to do much more than wade, but we watched the boys playing around for a bit.

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Then they took a couple of us on a hike up a very steep, rocky mountain. But it was worth it because we got an amazing view of the entire valley and their camp.

Yeah, those little white dots would be the teepees

Yeah, those little white dots would be the teepees

And zooming in a little with my camera, we could even see the reindeer herds moving

And zooming in a little with my camera, we could even see the reindeer herds moving

That evening, we did some teamwork exercises disguised as relay races (ok, so we were really just having them do relay races for fun, but I’ve got to make it sound like we did actual work, right?)

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The next day John (the other Health PCV) and I did a lesson with the kids on nutrition (while also incorporating some English), where we discussed the different food groups in a “food teepee”:

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Other activities we did included English lessons, toothbrushing, origami, making friendship bracelets, and just playing with the kids (running around outside is exercise, so that counts as a health session, right?). But it was often difficult to gather people for sessions: the adults were working most of the day and groups of kids would go off fishing or something. And when we did have kids, there was often a wide range of ages: the older kids knew some English (and were eager to learn more) while the younger ones didn’t know any, making it difficult to have one lesson at a time. It’s also difficult to lead a health session for a group of kids between the ages of 3 and 16.

On our last full day at the camp, we went with some of the herders and the older kids to move rocks from the path that leads from the camp up the mountain, as the rocks are bad for the horses to walk on (you may remember us having to get off the horses and walk down the mountain when we arrived at the camp).

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And because we all wanted the chance (and photos!) to ride a reindeer, we went to our host families to ask if we could ride one:

This reindeer decided to run through half the camp with me on his back before I could get him to stop

This reindeer decided to run through half the camp with me on his back before I could get him to stop

Then in the evening, we had a talent show, where the kids performed songs and dances they had prepared for us. The talent show eventually turned into a dance party, until it was too late (and too cold) to go on.

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The next morning is when we departed the camp, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

 

*I call them teepees, though the correct term is ortz (or chum in parts of Russia).

By the way, I took a few videos during the trip that have now been uploaded to my YouTube channel if you want to check them out.

And I shall end with this photo of a bunch of reindeer peeking into our teepee

And I shall end with this funny photo of a bunch of reindeer peeking into our teepee

Spring Has Sprung!

After roughly 7 months of winter, it looks like spring has finally arrived here in Uliastai! And by “arrived,” I mean one week it was still frigid with sub-zero temperatures during the night, and the next I could comfortably walk around town with jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Now I only have to make a small fire in my stove in the morning to get the chill out from the night before and maybe a small fire late in the evening depending on how long I plan to stay up. I somehow still have over half of my firewood left, probably because it was a relatively “mild” winter by Mongolian standards. The sun doesn’t set until almost 10pm, so even accounting for daylight saving time, that’s an extra 3-4 hours of light during the evening. But unfortunately, the warmer weather means my ger spiders have come back. Stupid spiders.

Most of the snow on the surrounding mountains has melted…

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…and some parts of the rivers have completely thawed as well.

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

The weather was even nice enough yesterday for us to go on our first hike of spring!

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Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

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Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

It was a nice little excursion, but I didn’t even think about how my ghost-white skin would react to seeing the sun for the first time in over half a year. I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck, but completely forgot about my arms. So now they’re sunburned. 😦

Hair-Cutting, Hiking, and Halloween

A few weeks ago I got to go to my second Mongolian hair-cutting ceremony. Now, I already talked a little about hair-cutting ceremonies in my post about the first one I went to over the summer, but I didn’t get any pictures at that ceremony, so I made sure to take plenty of photos at this more recent one.

During the hair-cutting

During the hair-cutting

During the hair-cutting

During the hair-cutting

This ceremony was for the son of a Mongolian woman who is good friends with all the PCVs in Zavkhan and speaks amazing English.

Getting the rest of his hair shaved off

Getting the rest of his hair shaved off

The finished product

The finished product

 

I’ve also gone on two more hikes since my last post (gotta get as many in as possible before winter starts!). The first was with a few other PCVs and a few Mongolian friends.

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Panorama

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On our way back we found a bunch of baby yaks, so of course I had to pet one

On our way back we found a bunch of baby yaks, so of course I had to pet one

We also passed by a small temple

We also passed by a small temple

 

The second hike was with two other PCVs and a large group of students from the Adult Beginner’s English Class we recently started up.

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We even had a random dog from town follow us for the entire 5-hour hike

We even had a random dog from town follow us for the entire 5-hour hike

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And because none of us knew where we were going, we ended up choosing a route down the mountain that quickly became more rock-climbing than hiking

And because none of us knew where we were going, we ended up choosing a route down the mountain that quickly became more rock-climbing than hiking

Let's just say it was too steep for the dog to even climb down, so we may have had to carry her part of the way

Let’s just say it was too steep for the dog to even climb down, so we may have had to carry her part of the way

And I only fell once! And luckily I managed to break my fall with my arm instead of my head!

Pictured: NOT the easiest way to get down a mountain

Pictured: NOT the easiest way to get down a mountain

 

Finally, each of the schools in town had a Halloween party organized by their respective PCVs. Since I don’t work at a school, I stopped by the party at the school closest to my home to get in on the Halloween spirit.

Complete with a mummy-wrapping race...

Complete with a mummy-wrapping race…

...zombie limbo...

…zombie limbo…

...and bobbing for apples.

…and bobbing for apples.

 

We also had a Halloween-themed lesson for the students in our Bookbridge English classes at the library, where they drew pictures and wrote a paragraph about their “monster family.”

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First Weekend Hike (Because What Else Are You Gonna Do in a Town Literally Surrounded by Mountains?)

On our first Saturday in Uliastai, two of my sitemates and I went hiking up one of the hills behind Shin Khurul, the neighborhood that one of my sitemates lives in that’s about a 40-minute walk from the center of the city.

At least it's a nice, scenic walk

At least it’s a nice, scenic walk

After fueling up on PB&J sandwiches (peanut butter is only available in UB or care packages sent from back home, but luckily we had stocked up before heading out to Zavkhan), we decided on a hill. It was already almost noon so we knew we didn’t have time to tackle one of the actual mountains, so we settled on this hill:

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Ok, you look taller and rockier up close...

Ok, you look taller and rockier up close…

Our “hike” ended up being more rock-climbing in some areas:

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And maybe I’m just out of shape, but it was exhausting! I think I’ll blame it on the thin air from the elevation though. Uliastai’s elevation is 5,751 ft (1,753 m), but obviously we were higher up on the hill. And I’m from Atlanta, where the elevation ranges from 738 – 1,050 ft (225 – 320 m), and I had spent the previous two years in New Orleans, which is below sea level in some areas, so I’m gonna make that my excuse.

Finally we approached the top of the hill:

You can tell it's the top because you can see the blue hadags on the owoo shrine

You can tell it’s the top because you can see the blue hadag on the owoo shrine

We stopped to rest and eat a bit before taking a bunch of photos.

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Then we headed back down the other, less rocky side of the hill.

It was a lot of fun and I have a feeling I’ll be doing plenty of hiking during my 2 years here!