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)

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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.

Fun with Mongolian Cyrillic!

Yes, I know I haven’t added a new post in a couple weeks. I’ve been busy finishing a huge paper for my Master’s program that technically isn’t due until I officially graduate but I wanted to get done before I leave for Mongolia (which is only like a week away now! Ahhhh!). So I haven’t done anything to prepare for my upcoming adventure, but if you ever wanted to read a 34-page paper about improving health care access for nomadic populations, I’ve got you covered!

I mentioned in my last post that the writing system used in Mongolia is the Cyrillic alphabet, which is the basis of many of the languages spoken across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Here’s the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet with the approximate English sounds below each letter:

Mongolian Cyrillic Alphabet

Doesn’t look too difficult at first glance, right? Heck, a good chunk of the Cyrillic letters seem to be the same letters we use in English!

Except it’s trickery! Lies! Sure, some of the letters are the same (e.g., M and T), but that’s just to lure you into a false sense of security. C’mon! Their B is our V, their H is our N, their P is our R, and they even have a weird backwards R that is nothing like our R!

Plus, there are entirely too many vowels: 13 letters out of the 35-letter alphabet are vowels! If you include the long vowels (basically doubling up the short vowels in the alphabet) and the numerous diphthongs (combinations of 2-3 different vowels), you end up with way more vowel sounds than my brain can comprehend or differentiate. I honestly cannot tell the difference between some of the sounds, even after watching several videos and listening to a bunch of audio tracks.

Several of the volunteers who are already over in Mongolia have told us newbies not to worry about trying to figure out the language until we get there, as it’s infinitely easier to learn when you actually have a real live teacher (and 4 hours of language class a day, and live with a host family that doesn’t speak any English, and have the looming threat of getting kicked out of the Peace Corps if you don’t learn the language well enough during pre-service training). So instead, I’ve made flash cards of the Cyrillic letters so that I will at least be able to read the words I’ll be learning how to say.

And there’s a small bit of comfort in knowing that at least we won’t have to learn this:

What the?

What the?

That, my friends, is the Traditional Mongolian script, which was the official writing system in Mongolia until 1946, when the Soviets introduced Cyrillic. It’s still used for some official government documents, and it’s used in Inner Mongolia along with Chinese, but for the most part, Mongolians in Mongolia use Cyrillic. Which is great, because just looking at that picture gives me a headache and reminds me that things could be worse.

Random Mongolia Fact #7: The Mongolian Language

I will obviously be learning the language spoken in Mongolia during my 3 months of pre-service training, and that language is *drum roll* Mongolian! No, they do not speak Chinese. No, they do not speak Russian*, although if someone were to look at a random sign in Mongolia they might assume Russian is the national language…

Mongolian sign

Uhhhh, yeah, that’s what I was gonna say

People who are familiar with what Russian looks like could be forgiven for thinking Mongolians speak Russian, because they both use the Cyrillic alphabet**. Back when Mongolia was a satellite of the Soviet Union, Mongolians were forced to adopt the Cyrillic alphabet, and it just kinda stuck.

Anyway, the Mongolian language is the most well-known member of the Mongolic language family, which itself is (according to some linguists but denied by others) a member of the larger Altaic language family, which includes the Turkic, Tungusic, Korean, and Japanese languages.

Mongolian is apparently a very difficult language to learn, not helped at all by the fact that it’s not really similar to any other language. So no matter what your native language is, trying to learn Mongolian as a foreign language will suck. Yay!

I’ve decided that learning at least a little bit of the language before I leave for Mongolia would be a good idea, although I haven’t gotten much further than struggling to comprehend the alphabet. But that’s a post for another time!

 

*Obviously there are some people in Mongolia who can speak Chinese or Russian, just like there are people in any country who can speak a foreign language. Here I’m referring to the national language of Mongolia.

**The Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet is only used in the country of Mongolia. People in Inner Mongolia (which, as you’ll remember, is part of China) still use the traditional Mongolian script.

Random Mongolia Fact #4: Mongolia vs. Inner Mongolia

For the record, Inner Mongolia is not actually part of the country Mongolia. Inner Mongolia (officially the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region) is one of five autonomous regions in China, similar to other Chinese provinces but with more legislative rights and with a higher population of a particular minority ethnic group (e.g., Mongols in Inner Mongolia).

Inner Mongolia in red

Inner Mongolia in red

Mongolian is an official language in Inner Mongolia (along with Chinese), but it is written in the Mongolian script rather than the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet currently used in the country of Mongolia. I’ll probably do another post in the near-ish future regarding the Mongolian language and writing system(s).