What I’ve Been Up To

So, I realize my last post was about me being sick and then I kinda just dropped off the map for a few weeks, but I’m here to tell you that I am alive and well! I actually started feeling 100% again just a few days after my post about being sick, but I haven’t been online much partly because I’ve been pretty busy (but in a good way) and partly because I haven’t been able to connect to my neighbor’s wifi like I was before (and I am not going to go to them and ask them what the deal is, as they’ve graciously allowed me to steal their wifi for over a month now, with no cost to me). I did get a modem (for free, from one of the PCVs who recently left), but unfortunately it happens to be for the service provider with the slowest internet connection in town, but at least I can still get online.

But life in general is going well. Here are some of the things that have been going on the past few weeks:

  • There was a huge, aimag-wide chess competition going on for several days. And I mean huge! There were a total of 9999 students taking place in the competition (so, basically all the students in the aimag), school was cancelled for days, students from all the different soums throughout Zavkhan came into Uliastai for the final rounds of competition, and there was a fancy “closing ceremony” in the brand new stadium here in town.
Complete with a giant chess board no less

Complete with a giant chess board no less

The ceremony included musical performances by a bunch of students playing the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle),

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announcement of the winners in each age and gender group,

Boys...

Boys…

...and girls

…and girls

and an appearance by the president of the World Chess Federation, a Russian man named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov:

He's the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

He’s the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

Turns out, he’s kind of a big deal. Along with being the president of the World Chess Federation since 1995, he was the President of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia from 1993 to 2010 and is a multi-millionaire. So while the whole enormous chess competition thing was pretty amazing by itself, having an important international politician and businessman show up ensured that reporters from all the national news stations in Mongolia were there, which is how I ended up being on Mongolian TV (in the background of course–we just happened to be sitting right behind where the important guy was giving his speech). Oh, and they gave him a horse as a gift, because that’s something that happens in Mongolia.

Did you think I was kidding?

Did you think I was kidding?

  • I went to a concert with some of my coworkers from the health department. The headliner was a relatively famous Mongolian singer, B. Khangal, who also happens to be a doctor, because why the hell not?

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  • I started helping out a couple of the TEFL PCVs here in Uliastai with their English classes for students that take place every Saturday at the local library, which is funded in part by Bookbridge. We have one-hour classes for 3 different age groups (including lots and lots of games), and given the current surge in the number of students coming each week, we may need to create an additional class or two to accommodate all the students.
Notice the kids standing in the back; that's because there were no where near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

Notice the kids standing in the back; that’s because there were nowhere near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

  • My supervisor and I started teaching a seminar on STIs (which are a huge problem in Mongolia) for the high school and college students in Uliastai (ok, she teaches, since it’s all in Mongolian, and I helped plan the seminar, assist with things that don’t require a lot of language skills during the actual seminars, and analyze the results from the pre- and post-tests we give to the students). So far we’ve done the seminar for the college students and high school students from 3 of the 5 schools in the city. The plan is to do this STI seminar at each of the schools, then rotate through the schools again with seminars on other health issues (smoking, alcohol, etc.)
  • I had my first site visit by my Peace Corps Regional Manager. Twice a year, PC staff travel all around the country to visit each and every one of us PCVs to make sure everything is going well with our living conditions and at our HCAs. So the Regional Manager for our good ‘ol Western region came out here to visit each of our homes (note: my ger is still awesome, she informed me) and to sit down and chat with our coworkers at our HCA. Not much else to say about that, since the whole 50-hour work week issue had been resolved already and the people at the health department didn’t appear to be begging her to send a different PCV to replace me, so it was pretty uneventful, but a nice visit nonetheless.
  • Last weekend my site mates, some Mongolian friends, and I celebrated my birthday! On Saturday we taught our regular English classes at the library, followed by some shopping, and then we had “Monglish” night, birthday edition. What is “Monglish” night, you ask? Well, every Saturday evening we PCVs here in Uliastai (and the 2 out in the soums, if they can make it into town) hang out and have dinner with Mongolians we’ve met (whether through our HCA, community projects, or by chance) so that they can practice speaking English with us and we can practice speaking Mongolian with them. So this was another one of those nights, except my supervisor came and brought a birthday cake…
...and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

…and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

A couple of our Mongolian friends also brought a bottle of wine, because we’re classy (and they know I don’t like beer or vodka, which are the only other drinks available here). There was a huge group of kindergarten teachers at the tables next to us, and they, on the other hand, were enjoying a couple (or twelve) bottles of vodka. The restaurant we were at also plays music  later in the evening, and these teachers started going on to the dance floor and dancing the standard awkward Mongolian circle dance (imagine a bunch of preteens at a middle school dance, and you’ve pretty much got the idea). And then they started coming over to our table and literally dragging us onto the dance floor. Eventually we managed to escape, but it was a quite memorable first birthday in Mongolia.

On Sunday, my site mates and I hung out at one girl’s apartment, eating food (including another cake!), drinking more wine, and playing games. Overall, a very good birthday weekend!

Birthday gifts!

Birthday gifts!

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.