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.

13490791_10154461696534238_2172190981596862834_o

13483174_10154461697729238_3410960062065047411_o

13522837_10154464036029238_987515143826451489_o

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:

13522805_10154464011774238_1047565033732723877_o

13458573_10154464012394238_2976558441566509747_o

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

13495629_10154464289844238_4481154575589383162_o

13475015_10154464298054238_6939520087555006068_o

13458559_10154464300224238_6205106161022091647_o

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.

IMG_0746

IMG_0747

IMG_0750

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

13584741_10154491669334238_1170672296014383087_o

cool rock formations

13528477_10154491659079238_8970368437272190604_o

13582148_10154491662954238_3286726110366383976_o

a little shrine

13568941_10154491665314238_9043391314444695617_o

and views of the town.

13568967_10154491674619238_5662887710594157306_o

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.

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!

IMG_6239

IMG_6248

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

IMG_6240

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.

IMG_6256

IMG_6270

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.

IMG_4406

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.

IMG_4445

IMG_4322

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.

IMG_4525

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.

IMG_4517

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.

IMG_4491

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.

IMG_4325

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.

IMG_4313

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.

IMG_4312

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.

IMG_4340
Later in the day, a few of us went on a hike just outside the camp.

IMG_4355

IMG_4367
In the evening, the kids came back and we played more games.

IMG_4378
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).

IMG_4396

IMG_4395

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.

IMG_4423

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?)

IMG_4464

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”:

IMG_4472

IMG_4470

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).

IMG_4510

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.

DSCN0941

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

Weekend Hike with My Coworkers (and Escalation of My Illness)

I told you there would be lots of hiking!

The Saturday after my third week in Uliastai, a group of coworkers from the health department and I went hiking. They had invited me earlier in the week, before I was completely exhausted, so I had agreed to go, only to be sore from tons of aerobics and tired from lack of sleep the morning of the hike.

We met up at the health department at 7am before driving over to where we would be hiking. I had originally been told we would be hiking a certain famous mountain right behind the hill my friends and I had climbed two weeks before

Yeah, that one

Yeah, that one

…which is apparently the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai. But when we started driving in a different direction, straight through the valley (and all its rivers and streams, at one time getting stuck, because off-roading in a sedan is not the brightest of ideas), I assumed that the plans had changed.

We ended up driving quite far away from town and even part of the way up the mountain we would be hiking, until we ended up here:

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

You can just barely make out the city way out there in the background

We abandoned the car and finally started up the mountain, which wasn’t too steep at first, until it suddenly was.

Ok, break time!

Ok, break time!

It was also very cold, as the sun was rising on the other side of the mountain. Which was great for my never-ending cold (as in, the upper respiratory infection). Let’s just say my pockets were stuffed full of tissues for my dripping nose the whole time.

After a while, we came to what I thought was the top of the hill we were climbing, but ended up just being a slightly less steep part of the hill. At least it was pretty with all the trees, and we were finally up in the sun.

IMG_1580

When we got to the top of that hill, we could see into the valley on the other side of the mountain, where the Bogdiin River flows into Uliastai.

IMG_1614

But we weren’t even close to done yet! Next we had to get up to some weird rock formation!

Onward!

Onward!

IMG_1640

To be honest, I had absolutely no idea where we were going or if anyone else did either. I got the sense that we were just going to keep hiking up and up and up until there was no where left to hike up to.

We had made it up to a grassy hill and someone finally showed me where we were headed:

IMG_1645

To that pointy rock formation up there a little to the left. Not only was that the top of the mountain we were on (finally!), but there was an old legend that if that rock formation (which actually has a name: Jinst) ever fell down, the whole city of Uliastai would be flooded. Yay!

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

And of course, there was an owoo shrine right beside it

From the top of the mountain, Uliastai looked so tiny!

IMG_1660

At this point we finally sat down and had a picnic with the food we’d brought.

Mongolian picnic

Mongolian picnic

But with the combination of no longer moving, being on top of a mountain, and, well, being in Mongolia, it was really freakin’ cold! The wind definitely didn’t help either. All of my coworkers laughed at me when I put on the gloves and ear warmers I had packed in my backpack (haha, silly American can’t handle a little sub-freezing windchill without dragging out her gloves!), but I saw them all rubbing their hands together and breathing hot air into them, so I know they were cold too! Just jealous that they didn’t come prepared like me…

Anyway, after eating our food, we wandered around all the cool rock formations and took a bunch of photos:

DSCF5965

DSCF5978

DSCF5998

Eventually we headed back down the mountain, but instead of going down the way we had come up, we decided to go straight down one of the rockiest, steepest parts of the mountain at a ridiculously fast pace, because who couldn’t use a little damage to their knee ligaments?

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 40 minutes, tops!

Come on slowpokes! It only took us 4 hours to get up there, you should be able to come back down in 20 minutes, tops!

When we finally did get back down to where the cars were parked, we found that one of the other health department workers and her daughter had come to bring us more food! Time for a second picnic!

While we were eating, two young boys rode by on a horse, and my coworkers (who knew that I like horses), called these random boys over and asked them if I could ride on their horse. They may have bribed the boys with some of the food we were munching on, but they let me sit on their horse while one of the boys led it around for a while.

Cementing in the young children's minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

Cementing in the young children’s minds that foreigners are a bunch of weirdos

But no Mongolian shindig is complete without vodka! Which our director just happened to have in the trunk of his car! Now, I’m not a fan of vodka unless it’s mixed with something into a cocktail, but we had been warned during PST that vodka would be present at pretty much all Mongolian get-togethers (even those with your boss present) and that it is customary to pass shots around. So of course I was offered a shot, which I begrudgingly took and gagged on.

Finally we piled into the cars to head back to Uliastai. But then we stopped by a random ger in the middle of nowhere to ask–I kid you not–if they had any yogurt. See, traditional Mongolian yogurt can be made with the milk of any livestock, but my coworkers informed me that the best yogurt comes from the animals belonging to the herdsmen out in the countryside. So, seeing a ger in the middle of nowhere, they (correctly) assumed that a herding family must live there and have yogurt at the ready. A couple coworkers went in to ask if they had any fresh yogurt, and when they confirmed that they did, all 10 of us waltzed into this poor random family’s ger to eat their food. As my director told me, it is perfectly acceptable out in the countryside to come to some stranger’s ger and get fed. So the family served us milk tea, bread, and the coveted yogurt and chatted a while until we finally left.

I was quite tired at this point (and still sick), and I thought we were going home, but when we got close to town they pulled over by the river and started dragging blankets and mats out of the cars and laying them on the ground. It was time to play cards!

IMG_1717

They proceeded to play a billion rounds of a Mongolian card game that they often play during lunch at the health department. They had tried to teach me how to play before, and did again on this occasion, but for some unknown reason they always assign one of the workers who speaks absolutely no English to teach me, and I’m not one of those people who can learn how to play a card game just by watching other people play it. Every time I thought I was understanding the game, someone would play a card that changed everything.

We eventually started to pack up, until someone remembered that there was food left over from our earlier picnics and–gasp!–we hadn’t finished the bottle of vodka from earlier! So picnic #3 commenced, as well as another round of shots. By now most of my coworkers could tell that I was tired and not feeling so well (did the constantly wiping and blowing my nose tip them off?), so we left very soon after that. I did get one last photo of the mountain that we had climbed though:

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

Does that itty bitty, barely perceptible rock on the top look familiar?

But yeah, you probably shouldn’t spend an entire day hiking and various other exploits when you’re battling an illness, as I found out when I got much sicker the next week!

Final Day with My Host Family (and Fun Trip!)

On Friday evening (the same day my host family came back from their long trip) they told me that the next day (the last full day with them) we would be going on a trip up to the Russian border. So the next morning at 9:30 all 7 of us (baby included) crammed into the car to head out. We first stopped at the market to pick up food for the picnics they had planned, and then we proceeded to go back home (apparently they had forgot some things). So around 10:30 we finally left Darkhan and headed north up to Sukhbaatar City. Shortly after leaving we passed Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake), and there were camels! I didn’t think there were camels in Mongolia outside the Gobi Desert, but my host mom told me that at one point there were only 7 camels in the Darkhan-Uul aimag, but since then the population has grown to a few hundred. Of course we passed by before I could snap a photo, and they were gone by the time we came back that evening, but I saw camels!

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Right before we got into Sukhbaatar, we took a detour to Eej Mod (Mother Tree), which is an important spot among adherents of Shamanism. The large tree was struck by lightning a few years ago, but it is still believed to grant wishes to those who visit it. The tree (and many around it) are covered in tons and tons of khadags (silk scarves), and there are a wide variety of offerings placed around the tree (including bricks of tea, matches and incense, cakes, cartons of milk, and bottles of vodka). There were tons of Mongolians there, and I felt very awkward not knowing what to do. So I followed my host family around while they walked in circles and threw rice and spoonfuls of milk all over the place (which turned out to be what they had forgotten at the house and had to come back for). Unfortunately I didn’t get any good photos because I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to be snapping pictures while people were bowing and praying to the sacred tree, but I later found this post by another blogger who did manage to get some nice pictures if you want to check it out.

Then we got back in the car and headed into Sukhbaatar, where we stopped at a shop to get some special bread that’s apparently only available there. We then drove out of the city and even further north up to the Mongolian-Russian border, to a place called Saikhani Khutul.

IMG_1172

It’s basically a park up on a mountain overlooking the border into Siberia.

IMG_1207

The river down there is

The river down there is Selenge Gol, one of the longest rivers in Mongolia, which eventually flows into a lake in Russia.

We ate lunch at one of the pavilions then went around to the many animal statues at the park.

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa on a horse

Ochralaa and me

Ochralaa and me on a leopard

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer's leg)

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer’s leg)

My host siblings and I even ventured over to an eagle statue that required some treacherous climbing to get to:

IMG_1210

IMG_1195

IMG_1202

Then we went over to the main viewing area for more photo ops:

IMG_1224

IMG_1234

As we headed back to the car, we stopped by one more statue, which I think is supposed to symbolize the friendship between Mongolia and Russia:

IMG_1250

On the way back to Darkhan, we stopped at the Orkhon Gol, the longest river in Mongolia, for another picnic and some card games.

IMG_1269

Some horses even stopped by

Some horses even stopped by

We finally had to head back home so I could finish packing, but it was really amazing to get to spend so much quality time with my amazing host family and to see some great sites!