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!

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My First Naadam

Thursday, July 10 was the first day of Darkhan’s Naadam (the national Naadam in Ulaanbaatar started on the 11th). There was actually one event the previous day that our LCFs took us to see: a shagai competition where they fling shagai pieces at targets using what look like mini crossbows.

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We had the day off from classes so that we could go see the events. My host family wasn’t going to the stadium that day, so I went with some of the other PCTs instead. We got to watch the opening ceremony in the stadium (which is conveniently located in Dereven near the school we have classes at, so it was within walking distance for us).

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Then the mayor of Darkhan invited us to his ger for huushuur (which is apparently the food of Naadam), mutton, and airag (the fermented mare’s milk). I really could have done without the airag, but the huushuur was really good, and it was nice to get all the food for free versus having to buy it from the vendors.

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Inside the mayor's ger

Inside the mayor’s ger

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The mayor is the one directly behind the tower of bread, wearing the white shirt and hat

After we left the mayor’s ger, we walked around the stadium to see all the tents and booths that had been set up.

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Then we went back inside to watch some of the wrestling.

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The winner of each match does a little "eagle dance" around the shrine thing

The winner of each match does a little “eagle dance” around the shrine thing

Then we met up with the mayor again, because he wanted to take us to see the archery (which is in a different part of Darkhan) and to have someone show us how to shoot a bow and arrow. So me and one of the other PCTs got to ride in the mayor’s car (nothing super fancy, but he did have his own driver). At the archery site they had us sit under a tent to watch the archers do their thing and fed us more huushuur and airag.

The men

The men

The women

The women

The children

The children

The red things on the ground there in the middle are the center of the target

The red things on the ground there in the middle are the center of the target

More food

More food

Once the competitions were done, the mayor had one of the archers agree to show us all how to shoot the bow and arrow. There were four of us, but only one guy, so he got to go first (because Mongolia is a very male-dominated culture), even though it was one of the other girls who was super excited about learning archery and she was the one who had asked the mayor at all our previous meetings if he could find someone to teach her archery. But anyway, the archer shows our guy how to hold the bow and arrow and lets him shoot it toward the target.

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Then after they retrieve the arrow they let him shoot it again. But this time he shoots the arrow into an area of concrete, breaking it in half.

Eh, we can duct tape it, right?

Eh, we can duct tape it, right?

Whoops! Well, just get another arrow, right? There’s literally dozens of them with all the archers gathered together. Except apparently the arrows are pretty rare because they’re made with some special wood that has to dry for a year before it can be used and there’s only like 10 people in all of Mongolia who make the arrows. So the competitors are not willing to lend their precious arrows out, meaning not only did our guy break one of the nice archer’s super rare arrows, but there was no way we were going to get another one. So none of us three girls got to even hold the bow and arrow, let alone shoot it, because the stupid guy had to go first and break everything. Needless to say, the girl who really wanted to do archery was not happy at all (neither was I). So if that guy happens to go missing anytime soon, you’ll know why.

On the second day of Naadam, my host family and I went out to the countryside (not too far—it was only about a 15 minute drive, but you couldn’t even tell you had just left the city). My host brother was racing in the Ikh Nas (meaning the horses are over 5 years old) horse race, which is 25 kilometers across the open countryside. My family was running late, so we got there just 5 minutes before the end of the race. I took pictures of the first group of finishers, but I couldn’t tell which one was him (but my host family kept yelling his name so I know he was one of them).

Is one of you Suuna?

Is one of you Suuna?

Maybe you? You look like you have a yellow shirt.

Maybe you? You look like you have a yellow shirt.

He ended up in 8th place out of like 150 riders, which I thought was pretty amazing, but apparently he was pretty bummed about it. Only 1st through 5th place get prizes, and I guess after winning one of the races at the Orkhon Naadam the previous week, 8th place doesn’t seem too great.

It looked like the kid who came in 1st place was only like 4 years old.

Yeah, I'm talking about you

Yeah, I’m talking about you

Apparently it’s very common for really young kids to ride in (and win) these races. I mean, they barely weigh anything so of course a horse can run faster with only 20 extra pounds on it versus 100. I’ve heard the government is trying to set new rules where riders have to be at least 14 years old to race (because there are apparently a lot of injuries), but I have no idea how they would enforce that. My host brother, who’s 15, is apparently pretty old for a rider, so I don’t know how they would basically tell all the younger kids (who make up the vast, vast majority of the current riders) that they can’t race until they’re older.

Since I wasn’t sure if I had gotten a picture of my host brother approaching the finish line, I wanted to get one after the race when we went over to meet up with him. But he got off his horse right as we were coming over so the owner/trainer could cool it down, and then when I saw how bummed he looked, I didn’t want to shove a camera in his face.

Here's his horse though

Here’s his horse though

We hung out for almost an hour before heading back home for lunch. After resting a bit at home, we went out to the stadium.

Host dad and Ochralaa on a donkey

Host dad and Ochralaa on a donkey

Ochralaa in a toy car

Ochralaa in a toy car

Tattoo!

“I ❤ Mongolia” tattoo!

We barely stayed for an hour though, just walking around to the different booths outside. I guess my family’s just not too into Naadam outside of the horse races. We did get a picture taken with camels though!

Gaahh, why is no one else smiling?! (On left camel, Suuna; on right camel, a cousin; standing, left to right: Bakana, mom, dad holding Ochralaa, me, and Boloroo)

Gaahh, why is no one else smiling?! (On left camel, Suuna; on right camel, my host mom’s younger brother; standing, left to right: Bakana, mom, dad holding Ochralaa, me, and Boloroo)

Oh, and by the way, you can totally fit 7 people plus 1 toddler in a sedan (though I don’t recommend it anywhere there are actual laws preventing stuff like that).

UPDATE: I created a YouTube channel where I’ve uploaded some of my videos from Naadam. Check them out here.

Home Alone

On July 1, my host family and a bunch of relatives went out to the countryside to watch my host brother horse race in Orkhon‘s Naadam (which was super early for some reason). Everyone remembers Naadam, right? They had asked me on Saturday night to come with them, and when I told them I had classes that day, they told me to ask my teachers if I could skip class to go with them. I knew immediately that that wouldn’t fly, but I asked my LCFs on Monday anyway. They said that Peace Corps wouldn’t allow it, but I got the feeling they wouldn’t have cared too much. I would have liked to have gone with my family, but I also didn’t want to skip class (and I knew the technical session facilitators wouldn’t have given me the afternoon off anyway).

So they left early Tuesday morning, and I got to prepare my own breakfast (a difficult task of getting bread, butter, and sugar) and lunch. Lunch was the tough part because we got out of language class about 15 minutes late (another visit with the mayor of Darkhan), leaving me only about an hour to walk home, make lunch, and eat it. There aren’t really any ingredients that would have allowed me to throw together something quickly, so I had to peel and cut some potatoes and carrots, cut up a hunk of mutton, and cook it in a pot on the stove top to make a little soup. Unfortunately the food took forever to cook, and I was running out of time, so the vegetables didn’t get all the way cooked, but I mostly just wanted the meat cooked all the way. I still didn’t even have time to finish eating it because the food was so hot, but I got my first experience of solo Mongolian cooking. My host family came home later that day and told me my brother had won one of the races he was in! So the next day they were going back to Orkhon to see him get his champion photos taken, but Mid-Center Days were starting then, so I wasn’t able to see that either. But he was also racing at the Darkhan Naadam the next week, so I would get to see him then.

Random Mongolia Fact #6: Sports in Mongolia

A few days ago, my family went to a hockey game (yes, ice hockey does exist in some parts of the South), and my dad asked me if hockey was a popular sport in Mongolia, to which I replied, “Uhhhhhh…”

It turns out Mongolia does have a national ice hockey team, but hockey would hardly be considered a “popular” sport there (note: sharing a border with Russia does not automatically make hockey a big deal in some countries). In actuality, the three traditional Mongolian sports are still the most popular and ARE a big deal: wrestling, horse racing, and archery. These three sports are the highlights of Naadam, the main national festival in Mongolia.

Which itself is kinda a big deal.

Which itself is kind of a big deal.

Mongolian wrestling is the most popular of the three sports. During Naadam, hundreds of wrestlers from across the country compete in the main competition in Ulaanbaatar, while additional smaller competitions take place in each aimag (province) and sum (district) around the country.

And yes, they all wear that outfit.

Only the manliest of men can pull this off.

Only the manliest of men can pull this off.

And the wrestlers start very young:

Dawwwwww, can I keep him?

Dawwwwww, can I keep him?

Horse racing is another of the sports featured during Naadam, as horseback riding is central to Mongolian culture. Unlike Western horse racing , where races are typically shorter sprints (up to about 2 km) around a track, Mongolian horse racing is a cross-country event (with races 15 to 30 km long). Also, the jockeys are typically children between the ages of 5 and 13.

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Recently, girls have been allowed to participate in the horse racing events right alongside the boys.

Mongol Derby 2013

And finally, there’s archery.

Both men and women participate in the archery events at Naadam.

Archery

Like horseback riding, archery has a strong tradition in Mongolia (think back to Genghis Khan’s army). Although mounted archery is not as widespread today in Mongolia (or anywhere really) as it once was (for example, at most Naadam festivals, the archery and horse-riding competitions are separate), there has recently been a desire to bring back the tradition.

Mounted Archery

Which is great, because if I haven’t learned to shoot an arrow while riding a horse like Legolas by the end of my service in Mongolia, I will be extremely disappointed.