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:

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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).

 

First Week in Uliastai

Unlike the TEFL and CYD Volunteers (who work in schools that don’t start until the beginning of September), we Health Volunteers have to start to work right away. So on Monday morning, less than 24 hours after I arrived in Uliastai, I went to the health department for my first day on the job.

Earlier that morning, I was awoken by banging on my door. It had started to rain and my hashaa mom wanted to pull the flap over the roof of my ger (which has windows that don’t exactly keep out the rain). But to pull the flap over, she first had to come inside to take the stove pipe down so that it wasn’t poking up through the roof. After that was dealt with, I went back to sleep for another hour, before I had to get up to start the day.

One of the employees at the health department, Ganaa, is the niece of my hashaa parents, and she stayed at the hashaa next door with her sister (all the hashaas surrounding ours belong to relatives of my hashaa parents) for the first week so that she could walk with me to the health department in the mornings until I learned all the ways to get there (because there are several).

The health department

The health department

The health department is about a 20 minute walk from my hashaa, through the center of town, and Ganaa pointed out what all of the buildings are that we passed along the way (and since we took a different route each morning, I got to learn about many places in town). She also speaks a decent amount of English, which definitely made it easier.

My first day at work consisted of a long staff meeting in the morning where the director introduced me and discussed what my role would be and how everyone would be working with me (or at least that’s what I got from it—it was all in Mongolian). Then my supervisor, a young woman named Mandakh, gave me a tour of the health department and introduced me to everyone there.

Then it was time for lunch. At the health department, lunch is cooked in a cafeteria right there in the building and all the employees eat together (which is nice because that’s one meal I don’t have to worry about each week day, but can be bad if I don’t like what’s being served on a particular day). There’s one woman who cooks most of the meals, but apparently other employees sometimes prepare the lunch, and I was told I might be asked to cook at some point.

Later that afternoon, Mandakh showed me around town a bit. We went to the police station, where I had to register as a resident of the city.

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Next she showed me where the post office is, and then she took me to some of the different markets and shops to buy some things I needed for my ger. After we dropped the purchases off at my hashaa, she took me to another part of town to see a park with sports fields and a playground and the new stadium being built (which will be ready for next year’s Naadam):

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Then she invited me over to her family’s house for dinner. After dinner, I went with her family down to one of the two rivers that flows through Uliastai.

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By this time it was getting dark, so she walked with me back to my hashaa (luckily she doesn’t live too far away). I was absolutely exhausted, so I went to bed soon after that.

For the rest of the week, work consisted of translating the health department’s work plan for me, translating documents regarding local and national health initiatives, and sitting in on a seminar for doctors throughout Zavkhan about the “21 Healthy Habits” they’re trying to promote. I was asked multiple times by several different people when I would be starting English classes, so those will definitely be happening soon.

On Wednesday, Zak (one of the M24 Volunteers in Uliastai), gathered us newbies together for a tour of the city. Joel, the PCV out in a soum about 45 minutes away, also came in so that he could buy some stuff he needed but wasn’t available in his little soum. I was at the health department that day, but when I told them Zak wanted to show us around, they had no problem letting me leave early (Zak seems to know everyone in town, including the people I work with).

He took us around to all the hot spots of the city and showed us which shops sold what.

The Uliastai Hotel, the nicest one in the city

The Uliastai Hotel, the nicest one in the city (complete with expensive restaurant!)

The sports center

The sports center

The Museum of Famous People (seriously)

The Museum of Famous People (seriously)

The Zavkhan Museum

The Zavkhan Museum

The “Old” Theater (they’re in the process of building a new one)

The “Old” Theater (they’re in the process of building a new one)

 

The public library

The public library

Shopping

Shopping

 

The giant market conveniently right across the street from my hashaa

The giant market conveniently right across the street from my hashaa

The traffic circle

The traffic circle (yes, my town’s so fancy it has a traffic circle)

One of the bridges

One of the bridges (or, two I guess: the footbridge we’re walking on and the bridge for cars)

We stopped at a restaurant for lunch…

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…and after our tour of the town, Zak invited us to his ger.

Good times all around.

Getting a Deel

I had heard rumors that most of the PCTs at the other sites had been given deels (traditional Mongolian robes/dresses) by their host families and were planning to wear them for our Swearing-In Ceremony.

There are tons and tons of different kinds of deels. These are more like winter deels, whereas we got summer deels that are shorter and more modern

There are tons and tons of different kinds of deels. These are more like winter deels, whereas we got summer deels that are generally shorter and more modern

With past groups of Mongolia PCTs, the Peace Corps had provided each host family with money for them to buy their Trainee a deel, but because our group is so big (about twice as big as the previous group), they didn’t do that this year. But almost all of the other host community sites have had PCTs before, and some of their host families had even had Trainees during previous years, so the families at these sites probably assumed they were expected to give us deels. But my host community of Dereven has never had PCTs before, so none of our families were aware of the previous years’ tradition, although a couple of the PCTs here in Dereven were given deels by their family right before Naadam. Regardless, I did want a deel to wear to the Swearing-In Ceremony (and just to have one!), especially if most of the other Trainees would be wearing them, so I asked my host sister one day if she would take me to the market to get one made (I would pay for it of course).

So the Sunday before my last week in Dereven I went with my sister to one of the markets in Darkhan to get a deel. And I am so glad I brought my sister with me, because I never would have been able to do it without her! The first shop we went to didn’t have a huge selection and was (according to my sister) overpriced, but the second one we went to was overwhelming with choices. There were literally thousands of different fabrics to choose from and tons of styles on display. I already knew that I wanted a two-piece deel, with the top and skirt separate so I could wear them together or separately for more versatility, and that I wanted it to be teal (a word for which does not exist in Mongolian, so I had to get my point across by calling one of my hands “khokh” [dark blue] and the other “nogoon” [green] and interlocking the fingers of both my hands). There were a fair amount of teal fabrics, but most of them had designs that I didn’t like so much. I finally found one that I really liked, and then was confused when the shopkeeper kept showing me other fabrics (some of which weren’t even close to teal, like a bright pink one). I don’t know why they kept trying to get me to pick a different fabric, but finally they accepted that I really wanted the teal one. Then my sister had to explain to the lady that I wanted a two-piece deel. They didn’t have any of those on display, but the shopkeeper had a book with photos of women in different styles of deels. There were 2 two-piece styles to choose from, and my sister and the shopkeeper (plus the tailor who works with the shopkeeper) kept going back and forth between which one I should get (I quickly learned that my input had little value in this conversation because what the hell did I know about deels). They finally settled on one of the styles, but then I had to explain to the shopkeeper again that I wanted the teal fabric (the style of the deel I was getting was a white one in the photo, but white looks horrible on my pasty, pale skin, so I shot that down immediately). Even after deciding on the fabric and style, my sister then helped me choose the length of the skirt, the length of the sleeves, the kind of collar, and the type/color of the stitching. After spending what felt like an hour (but I later discovered had only been about 30 minutes), the shopkeeper cut off the pieces of fabric I needed for my deel (which I paid for then), and then the tailor took us upstairs to a giant room full of cubicles for all the deel tailors. She proceeded to take my measurements and to sketch out what my deel would look like. She said it would be ready in 3 or 4 days, and I paid her half up front and would pay the other half when it was done.

Three days later, my host sister called me to tell me my deel was ready and to meet her at the market at 6 that evening to go get it. But when we went to see the tailor, it turned out that she was not yet finished with my deel, she just needed to put the fabric (which she had put into roughly shirt and skirt shapes) on me to pin it and make sure it would fit correctly. No problem, except—God forbid—I was wearing a different bra than I had been wearing the day she took my measurements. I had had dance practice (more on that in a future post) right before this, so I was wearing a sports bra, but I had been wearing a regular bra when she took my measurements. So I’m standing there in my bra with the tailor pushing my boobs around to how they would be if I were wearing a regular bra with more “oomph” (deels, particularly summer fashion deels like the one I was getting, are not stretchy at all, so they have to fit perfectly to your body or they won’t lay right). After the tailor and my sister finish touching and talking about my boobs, the tailor drew lines on the fabric with chalk to mark where she needed to take it in and add the sleeves and collar. Then we did the same thing with the skirt, which was much easier. After the tailor finished, my sister told me we would need to come back in a couple days, when I’m wearing a regular bra, for the tailor to get a better fit for the top. Good lord! Obviously something got lost in translation, because I was told I was getting my deel that day; if I had known I was just going in for sizing stuff, maybe I would have thought to wear a regular bra, because apparently it’s a huge deal. At least now I know that I won’t be able to wear a sports bra under my deel or it will look horrible!

But then on the day I was supposed to go back for more sizing, my deel was actually already finished! I had planned to meet my sister at the market again, but when I called her she said she had already picked it up (so much for getting the sizing perfectly right). When she came home I tried it on, and it looked great!

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My deel ended up being relatively expensive compared to the prices I had heard from some other people, but I think that’s because the two-piece style costs more to make and the fabric I picked out may have been kind of expensive. But it was still just under 100,000 tugriks (a little under 40,000 for the fabric, and 60,000 for actually making it), which is approximately $55 (USD). Not bad for an authentic, custom-made deel.