Language IST and Second Site Visit

There had been rumors floating around for a while about a possible Language IST (like the regular IST I talked about a few posts back, but shorter and specifically focusing on Mongolian language) sometime in late winter/early spring, which was exciting because according to the rumors, it was going to be regional, with the PCVs from different regions of Mongolia coming together, and supposedly we Zavkhan PCVs and others in the western region were going to be going to Govi-Altai (the aimag to the south of Zavkhan) for our Language IST. So we would get to travel (on Peace Corps’ dime) and get to see some other Volunteers.

But as is always a risk with the rumor mill, this turned out to be not quite the case. A few weeks ago we finally got an email from Peace Corps confirming that there would be Language ISTs, but a later email with the details revealed that instead of having us congregate at a few regional locations, most of us would just be having our Language ISTs at our own aimag centers. A few of the aimags in the central and eastern regions did get to travel to other sites, but those of us out in the remote West had to stay where we were. And because Uliastai is the aimag center of Zavkhan, I really didn’t get to go anywhere. Our 2 PCVs in soums came into town, but that was the extent of travel here.

To make the whole thing even less exciting, it was scheduled for a Friday through Monday, effectively taking up the entire weekend that all of us use to go grocery shopping and do our chores (living in a ger ain’t no picnic–Sunday is my day for sweeping and other miscellaneous cleaning, fetching water, chopping wood and hauling it into my pin [shed attached to my ger], and hand-washing laundry).

The haul from an average wood-chopping session

The haul from an average wood-chopping session

Peace Corps also decided to go ahead and do our “spring” site visits during this time, so the Assistant Regional Manager for the western region came to check out our homes and HCAs to make sure everything was going well. She was also here to check out potential HCAs for the next batch of Volunteers to come to Mongolia later this year.

So this past Friday morning, instead of going into work at 9 like usual, I had the home portion of my site visit (it was supposed to be at 10am, but the flight from UB was delayed a bit). Then we went to the health department around noon for our first session with the two Mongolian language teachers Peace Corps had sent. This first session was–according to the schedule we had received–supposed to last until 6, but at around 2:30 the teachers told us we were done for the day. Okaaaaay…Well, not gonna argue with that. So we ended up having time to go do our grocery shopping after all.

The next day (Saturday) was tough because we had language class from 9am to 6pm. Luckily it was at the school really close to my home, so I didn’t have to wake up too super early. There are 8 of us PCVs in Zavkhan, but we are all at very different levels regarding our Mongolian language abilities. Obviously the M24 PCVs who have been here for almost two years can speak Mongolian much better than us M25s who have only been here for 9 months. One of the M24s is also one of those language geniuses who can pick up other languages like it’s nothing, so he’s practically fluent. And then a couple of the M25s aren’t super motivated to learn more Mongolian than they need to get by, especially since they’re TEFL Volunteers and mostly work with the English teachers at their schools. And then there are those of us hovering somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I definitely did learn quite a few new things, but the whole training would have been much better if we were able to split into multiple groups based on ability, which would have been more feasible if larger groups of PCVs congregated in their regions as we originally thought the training would be.

After surviving a day of nothing but Mongolian classes, we got to go to the nice Korean restaurant in town (which is definitely the best/most expensive/only non-Mongolian food-based restaurant in Uliastai). We were treated by a visitor from the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., who is in charge of language training for all the countries Peace Corps operates in. He also happened to be a PCV right here in Uliastai 10 years ago, so since he was in Mongolia anyway for work and had the opportunity to tag along with our Assistant Regional Manager on her sites visits, he obviously took it. So we were treated to a nice meal and got to chat with him about our experiences and how Uliastai has changed over the past 10 years.

On Sunday morning we had more language classes, and according to the schedule, they were to end around 1pm. But then the teachers informed us that they were told to have class until 5pm. But as I mentioned before, those of us who live in gers do all our chores on Sunday, and I needed to chop wood for the coming week (which, no, I can’t do during the work week because I’m literally at work during the only daylight hours, and you’d have to be crazy to chop wood when it’s not only winter in Mongolia, but also dark and therefore even colder than usual). So after lunch I kindly informed the teachers that, sorry, I had to go home and make sure I didn’t freeze to death in the next few days.

Although we didn’t have language classes on Monday (so I went to work as usual), the teachers were still there for individual tutoring, so I got another 2 hours of language learning in. Later in the day the Assistant Regional Manager came to the health department for the HCA portion of her site visit. So we had a meeting with the director, my supervisor, and some of my other CPs to discuss how things were going at work (pretty good, in case you were wondering).

After that, the language IST and site visit were over, and I was extremely exhausted from basically getting no rest over the weekend and then going straight into another full work week. Fun times.

IST in UB

If you have no idea what the title of this post means, you clearly haven’t checked out the new page on my blog called “Peace Corps Acronyms,” right there at the top of this screen. Go ahead, give it a look. I can wait.

So, now you know that IST is short for In-Service Training, the week-long PC training each Volunteer cohort has after about 3-4 months at site. And UB is short for Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Because my M25 cohort is much larger than previous Volunteer cohorts to come to Mongolia, they decided to split us up by sector and have two ISTs. TEFL is by far our largest sector, with almost 60 PCVs, so they are having their own IST starting this weekend. But the 10 of us Health PCVs and the 12 remaining CYD Volunteers had our own intimate little IST at the beginning of December.

Because there are only 2 flights a week between Uliastai and UB during the winter–and because of when those flights are relative to when our training days happened to fall–I got to come into UB 2 days before IST and stay 3 days after, giving me plenty of relaxation and shopping time!

And 4 hours of pretending I'm flying over Antarctica

And 4 hours of pretending I’m flying over Antarctica

Each PCV gets to bring one of their Mongolian counterparts with them to IST (so that they can actually be included in what we learn through the training), so I brought my supervisor, with whom I’ve done most of my work so far. Conveniently enough, she has relatives who live in UB, and since Peace Corps only provides us with hotel rooms during the actual training days, we both stayed at her relatives’ apartment during those extra days in UB. (Note: I could have stayed at a one of the many hostels in the city for pretty dang cheap, but free is cheaper than cheap, and includes free breakfast and dinner thanks to good old Mongolian hospitality.) Yes, I did bring her relatives a gift to thank them for letting me crash at their place, and then they proceeded to give me a gift before I left, as if to say, “Thanks for sleeping on our couch, using our water and wifi, and eating our food!” only in a completely sincere, non-sarcastic way (because this hospitality thing is no joke).

Anyway, my supervisor and I spent our first few hours in UB chilling at her relatives’ apartment, watching a terrible Mongolian dub of The Starving Games, a parody of The Hunger Games, because Mongolian television is weird. Then we all went to the home of some other relatives of theirs, whose daughter had recently had a baby. They live in one of the many ger districts that surround the center of UB (over half of the residents of UB live in these ger districts). So one minute we were driving along a major city street, and the next we turned right onto a dirt road lined with hashaas (fenced-in yards with wood houses and/or gers), where the people live without access to running water or the sewage system. It literally looked just like a road in any other town or village in Mongolia, except it was right there next to the huge apartment buildings, shopping centers, and tourist attractions of the center of UB.

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

We spent the next day eating Cinnabon and admiring the Christmas* decorations at the State Department Store, a large, Western-style shopping mall.

Yum!

Yummy!

Pretty!

Pretty!

Then we proceeded to go shop elsewhere, because the State Department Store is one of the more expensive places to shop in UB. We ended up at Sunday Plaza, an insanely crowded, multistory building filled with hundreds of stalls where you can buy all kinds of clothes, accessories, home goods, etc. My supervisor needed a new winter coat and I needed some nice warm fuzzy winter boots, so we spent the better part of the afternoon wandering from stall to stall, trying things on, and realizing that–even at this moderately-priced shopping center–we could not afford much of what UB has to offer. She couldn’t get the coat she really, really liked, and I found out that the fur boots that everybody and their grandmother seems to own cost like 350,000 tugriks (or about $190, aka waaaaay more than I would ever spend on a pair of shoes, even in the US). Turns out they’re made from reindeer skin, hence the hefty price tag. But I did find some cheaper, even furrier boots, so I succeeded in acquiring that staple of the Mongolian wardrobe.

The actual training took place at the Park Hotel, which is super nice (especially by Peace Corps standards; the hotel we stayed at during the summer trainings was not even comparable).

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Is that a freakin' bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Is that a freakin’ bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Each training day consisted of 8-9 hours of various seminars including technical sessions (regarding our respective health or CYD work), Mongolian language classes, cross-culture sessions, and administrative stuff. We went to about half of the sessions with our counterparts, and the other sessions had the PCVs and counterparts separated.

We were provided with 3 meals a day by the hotel: buffet breakfasts and 3-course lunches and dinners. They even had real, non-instant coffee, which does not really exist in Mongolia outside of UB, so of course we proceeded to clean the hotel out, until there was absolutely no coffee left (brewed or instant) in the hotel by our last day. Oh, and I got to have lunch with the US Ambassador in Mongolia one of the days (like, sitting across the table from her) and even got a picture with her, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to post it online so I won’t.

Our evenings were spent exchanging media on our external hard drives, watching movies, playing games, and just chilling out with the people we never get to see anymore because we’re spread across the country.

After all of the seminars were over, we went to the Peace Corps office, where they let us all rummage through huge piles and boxes of office supplies and books donated by the embassy for us to take back to our sites. But because my supervisor and I were flying back to Uliastai (and each passenger is only allowed to take 10kg of luggage on the plane), she decided that we would fill up 2 giant boxes of printer paper, binders, miscellaneous other office supplies, and resource books to take back to our health department, but just put them on a truck heading to Uliastai instead of the plane.

So the next day, with the help of some men from a medical equipment company that my supervisor knows/works with, we went to…uh, I don’t even know what to call it. An enormous “parking lot” where rows and rows of trucks heading out to all the different aimags are loaded up with supplies for the shops in each city/soum. A truck depot, I guess? We found a truck that was leaving for Uliastai later that day and had just enough room left to fit our boxes and excess baggage.

Then we went to the Black Market, which is not the underground market for buying illegal drugs, but is  probably one of (if not the) cheapest place to shop in UB, to get a few more things we wanted. We would have stayed longer, but the cheap prices come with a toll: the entire market is outdoors, so with the stupidly cold Mongolian winter temperatures, it’s difficult to stay there too long before you feel your body screaming for warmth.

For my last full day in UB, we went to Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) to get some pictures with the Chinggis Khaan** statue:

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I'm a true Mongolian now!

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I’m a true Mongolian now!

and the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a famous revolutionary:

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Then we ate lunch at Pizza Hut, because pizza:

IMG_2413

My flight back to Uliastai was the next morning (my supervisor was staying a few more days for a Ministry of Health-sponsored training happening in the city). And luckily I had left my hashaa family a spare key to my ger so that they could light a fire in my stove before I arrived so it wouldn’t be -20 degrees inside (a ger left to itself for 10 days in winter is not something you want to come home to).

*Most Mongolians don’t really celebrate Christmas, but they have adopted a lot of the traditional Christmas decorations of the Western world and use them for Shine Jil, or New Year’s. In fact, Mongolians generally don’t realize that what we call Christmas and New Year’s are two completely different holidays that just happen to fall within the same week. So even though they’re not really celebrating Christmas, Shine Jil in Mongolia is quite a big deal and is almost comparable to Christmas in America (in terms of how many people celebrate it and the extent of commercialization). Look forward to hearing more about Shine Jil after we have our health department’s Shine Jil party in a couple weeks!

**Yes, his name was Chinggis Khaan (pronounced ching-gis haan). The whole Genghis Khan spelling/pronunciation comes from centuries of horrible transcription of the Mongolian language. It doesn’t help that the letter “х” in the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is like a harder, throatier English “h” sound, is generally transliterated into the Latin script as “kh,” which we read and pronounce like an English “k.” So yes, the “k” in his name is silent (or at least not pronounced like the “k” we’re used to).