27 April marked the first day since October that I didn’t have to wear my two layer winter coat outside.
However, now that it’s spring, Mongolian weather is experiencing some mood swings as the weather shifts from warm to cold on a day-by-day basis.
One day it’s warm. The next day, there is a dust storm.
One day it’s warm and sunny. The next day, there’s a 30-minute snow storm.
One day the sky is blue. The next day, the sky turns moody and gray and grumbles as another wind storm arrives.
Or all four seasons happen in a single day.
I went on a hike into the countryside with students. A day that started out brilliantly but was eventually thwarted by the weather.
Here we are marching out of our aimag.
It was warm enough for short sleeves.
Schools are still taking Olympiad exams. Students compete to place 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in their school subjects. I think the concept is utterly ridiculous as students and even teachers are put under a lot of pressure by administration to compete for the best score.
So, going out on a hike was a perfect diversion to leave school behind.
When we set off, it was warm enough for me to take my jacket off and frolic about in short sleeves.
But 30-minutes after we finally found our spot, the sun vanished, it began to rain, and the wind forced us to find shelter against the rocky outcrop of a hill.
I couldn’t help but laugh as I sat there against the rocks trying to rub life back into my cold fingers. I should have realized that this was going to happen. But as I sat there with Mongolian students ranging from 7th to 11th grade, this had just become another comical moment that I stored away into my memory to reminisce about later in the future.
A blizzard hit my aimag on the first day of spring break. It was by no means a gentle snow fall but with the help of strong winds the cold snow was whipped into my face making it impossible to see as I walked. So, I hunkered down in my apartment, holding a mug of hot chocolate while watching cars getting stuck in the snow, motorcyclists walking their bikes, and small children drowning in the snow drifts as their older siblings came to their rescue. Later, when I had to go food shopping, I found myself floundering as the snow came up to my knees in certain places.
The very weekend the snow storm hit was the weekend me and my site mates were supposed to go to Ulaanbaatar. Sadly, the storm shut the bus station down for four-days because all the roads were buried in snow. This brings me to the next chapter of my story.
As the roads were gradually cleared and the bus station opened, luckily, a window of opportunity opened up and I was able to travel to UB. I had to visit the dentist and so I was on medical leave. I traveled without my site mates making this the first time I had to travel in Mongolia by myself. On the morning of my departure, I waited for my driver to take me to the station but he never showed. As if by coincidence, my counterpart came to my home at 7:30 in the morning and walked with me to the bus. The drive to the city took eight-hours. It was slow going driving north as roads were still covered in snow and my bus stopped by a house for 30-minutes without any explanation. The season also transitioned from winter to spring the closer I got to UB. Ironically, as my aimag was getting pounded by snow, UB was getting dazzled by sunshine and clear blue skies.
A lot happened as a PCV, who still has no grasp of the Mongolian language, toured around UB. I miss city life. My aimag has a large market plus a bakery and a coffee shop but I miss seeing buildings and seeing more variety of shops and stores.
I ran into a lot of unexpected people:
While walking to the Peace Corps Office, I ran into my 5th grade student. Her mother bought me a cookie from the café we were standing in front of.
I heard an “Anna?” as I was running late for my dentist appointment. It was Kevin B who was back in Mongolia. I must have had my peripheral vision turned off because I didn’t notice as a 7-ft. man walked right past me.
A Mongolian woman pretended to tie her shoes as she waited for me to catch up to her on the sidewalk. She was eager to talk about America and had never met a “Chicago girl” before. She lives in a soum three-hours away from my aimag.
When I showed up at my hostel, I didn’t know if any PCVs would be there but funnily enough there is always a guarantee there will be some in the city. As I was eating breakfast in the hostel kitchen, my Peace Corps trainer from last summer, Matt, plopped down on the stool in front of me with a, “What’s up, Anna?”
While I was waiting for my bus to leave at the Dragon Center, a man tried to pick pocket me. He probably thought the blonde hair was a dead giveaway for a stupid tourist with open pockets containing an iPhone just ripe for the picking. He wasn’t pleased when I swerved around him as his grubby hand unsuccessfully swiped my jacket followed by my triumphant smirk as I descended down the escalator.
Food, food, food:
I was most excited about eating food in UB. In fact, the only pictures I took while in UB was of food. I ate cheeseburgers at Ruby Room and Granville, a stir-fried dish at a Korean restaurant, had a large popcorn at the movies, munched on various delicacies in a café, and ate a bagel with salmon at Khan Deli.
After 10 months, my Mongolian is still awful. However, it has made transportation either very amusing or terrifying. When I got off the bus at the Dragon Center, I was swamped by men yelling,
Everyone in Mongolia is a cab driver.
The first car I got into, the driver walked away leaving me in it. I quickly got out and power walked away farther down Peace Avenue. The second car had never heard of Peace Corps and couldn’t understand what I was saying, (I couldn’t blame him though). The office doesn’t exactly have an address so I was saying, “Suhkbataar Square,” and “Coke can.” I just called someone at Peace Corps to talk to him followed by many “ahhhhh, zaa zaa zaa!”
The afternoon when I had to go back to the Dragon Center, I hailed down a driver who didn’t know what the Dragon Center was. The driver was in a good mood and called a friend who speaks English. Apparently, you need to replace the “A” sound in dragon and emphasize more of an “O” sound. For 30 minutes, we combined our minimal English and Mongolian and chatted about the weather, Mongolia, food, and the Chicago Bulls.
I should really improve my language but I still surprisingly get around without the need for fluency.
Finally, *cue the music*…
A tale as old as time:
I grew up watching Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and just had to watch the live version in IMAX 3D and it was so good! The woman next to me was swiping away tears from under her 3D glasses. Or maybe that was me.
The next time I will be back in the city will be when my parents come to visit in the summer!
After the long Tsagaan Sar break, all schools have a “wear your deel to school day.”
A deel, if you remember, is Mongolia’s traditional clothing that is worn in the countryside and during holidays such as Tsagaan Sar during the winter and Nadaam during the summer.
There is nothing more adorable then seeing small children in their deels. At my school, there were more younger students strutting about in their deels then the older high school students.
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Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.
When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.
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Another game students played is when you throw an ankle bone into the air and with the same hand try to swipe up as many ankle bones from the floor before you catch the falling ankle bone. If you successfully catch the ankle bone, you keep the ankle bones you swiped.
Tsagaan Sar felt like a race that began weeks in advance. Stores were being emptied out, I had to wait 30 minutes in a line at the ATM as a dead goat was being shoved into my back, and many folk from the countryside came in for weekend shopping trips. I heard the word “Opoc” (Russia) being whispered as I stealthy weaved through the crowds.
What is Tsagaan Sar?
Tsagaan Sar is Mongolia’s Lunar New Year.
Because this is a brand new holiday for all of us, Peace Corps prepared us with what to expect and taught us the proper greetings. Below are just three examples:
Сар шинийн мэнд хүргэе! – Happy Tsagaan Sar!
Сайхан шинэлээрэй! – Have a good Tsagaan Sar!
Сар шиндээ сайхан шинж байна уу? – Are you having a good Tsagaan Sar?
In my new winter deel, I visited five homes where I stuffed myself like a glutton. It was the epitome of being fat and happy.
Every Mongolian household puts together a display of food on the eve of Tsagaan Sar. The layers of all the bread represent happiness and sadness. Always beginning and ending the year in happiness. On top are white food items such as sugar cubes, aaruul, and white mints. The color white represents the moon. Then there is a massive chunk of beef guests can carve from, fruit, and a bowl of sweets.
What does Tsagaan Sar entail?
Food– So much food! The main entre is buuz. Every family makes over a thousand buuz. There are also more plates of meat with slices of pickles plus chocolate. You can drink milk tea, airag, vodka, beer, and juice.
Two weeks before the holiday, I went to the supermarket. The atmosphere of the supermarket was much like a gladiatorial fight. People were fighting over boxes; straight, organized lines at the cashier no longer existed. People were trying to step in front of each other while old women showed no mercy as they shoved themselves to the very front; the last couple of eggs, bags of bread and apples, and packages of chocolate chip cookies were swiftly scooped up. But before I got caught up in all of it, I promptly made a u-turn and bee- lined it to another less raucous supermarket. Thus, I had to stock my kitchen with food as if the apocalypse was approaching. Later, on 6 March, stores still didn’t have dairy products or bread.
Family– Tsagaan Sar is all about visiting family. Depending on how large a family is… and Mongolian families are large…you can spend two-weeks or more visiting each others gers and apartments. Visits can be short or long depending on how busy your day is.
Winter deels – Tsagaan Sar is a blast to the past honoring Mongolian tradition by wearing a deel. Seamstresses are busy months in advance creating new winter deels for men and women, boys and girls.
Presents– After every visit, Mongolians give presents to every visitor before they leave. It can be a variety of items such as candy, cookies, money, soap, and makeup.
Some Peace Corps Volunteers have described the holiday as being a lot like Halloween (going out and visiting houses), Thanksgiving (eating a lot of food), and Christmas (giving and receiving presents) all rolled up into one big holiday.
My school also had a ceremony.
A Buddhist monk attended the ceremony. We were all given three white food items: a wafer, a peppermint, and a sugar cube. As the monk chanted and incense wafted up into the air, we had to circle our hands, while holding the items, when directed by the monk. I was very close to chomping down on the wafer beforehand but quickly stopped myself when I saw no one else was eating.
Now its Spring!
Tsagaan Sar also symbolizes the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The weather already feels warmer. It won’t be shorts weather until May or June but the sun is shining bright.
Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.
This year’s Peace Corps’ challenge is highlighting hospitality from countries around the world. For thousands of years, Mongolians have been a hospitable people who has endured to this day.
Before, a person could travel for days without encountering another human being. Therefore, it became important and necessary for ger dwellers to offer their home to travelers and herders. That hospitality was then expected to be reciprocated.
A friend told me that I should give the video challenge a go and voila! After a month of shooting video and editing, I submitted my 2-minute video showing Mongolian hospitality, a country that is so often overlooked but is slowly budding out.
Click on the picture shown below to give my picture and video a Facebook like.
On the second floor of the theater, the only sound was the scratching of pens on paper in a quiet room. Some students instantly began to write while others stared blankly off into the distance trying to categorize their jumbled minds of Mongolian and English.
As someone who spent hours writing silly (and cringe-worthy) stories as a child and whom was heavily inspired after reading “The Lord of the Rings” in elementary school, I was very excited for this particular event.
9 February was the Write On! competition. Write On is a creative writing competition that grades 6th through 12th including university students and young professionals can compete in. Organized by Peace Corps Volunteers, Write On is held in 22 Peace Corps countries. Mongolia joined the competition in 2011. The objective of the competition is to allow students of all ages to be creative and to just go crazy with their imaginations.
During January, we organized and held two writing workshops for students in our aimag. The first workshop was “How to write a creative story” – introduction, rising action, conflict, falling action, and resolution – while our second workshop was “Using your imagination.” Students won’t know what the story prompts are until they arrive. From 9AM to 5PM, students came when they wanted. They were allowed only 90 minutes to write.
10 February was judging day. Many hours were spent in the theater reading all the stories and let me tell you…boy, were some of them entertaining! Each story was read by three different people and if there was a tie in score a fourth reader was needed.
Finally, the awards ceremony was on 11 February. The stories who came in 1st place will move on to compete in the national level. We are very proud of our winners and our counterparts who sacrificed their time helping us.
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Next year I will be a National Coordinator for Write On!
I spent 8 hours standing on my feet as a hostess at Shaw’s Crab House counting down the hours while listening to Michael Buble Christmas music on loop.
1 January 2017:
I had a winter picnic out in the Mongolian countryside.
Blue and white were the only colors I could see for miles across the Mongolian steppe, speckled occasionally with brown and black horses. It was refreshing to not see telephone wires marring the view, to be free of constant pollution, and to not hear the sound of traffic.
With Adiya, one of my counterparts, and her family, we first visited a horse monument. Enclosed within a square of stupas are 10 large horse statues. All are in memory of my aimag’s best race horses.
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After our walk around, we got back into the car and drove on. We drove straight up the main – and only paved road – for 20 minutes when suddenly, the car took an immediate left off of the road and onto a trail that is only visible to the Mongolian eye. We bumped our way over the steppe closer toward the hills until the car finally came to a halt in the middle of the snowy field. It was here on untouched snow where we had our picnic.
Blankets were laid out, milk tea was poured, and soup was prepared on a little traveling stove. We stayed out there until our fingers and toes lost all feeling.
In addition to this month, I turned 24. I spent the day time at an English teacher’s seminar hosted by the State Department. Peace Corps Volunteers were there as a formality but otherwise sat in the back with our computers. In the evening, I had dinner and cake with my site mates and two counterparts. But the best part of the day was having my family, including my two grandmothers in Sweden and Scotland, calling my phone with birthday messages.
More January highlights:
Our aimag had a two-week winter break. At first I wondered what I would do during that time and regretting not booking a flight to a beach somewhere but I had a comfortable and lazy break. I read “Me Before You,” (book is way better than the movie) and “After You,” (super depressing), and I bought an oven.
I’m creating a video for a Peace Corps challenge. The theme is hospitality. Adiya took me to her sister’s ger to shoot video and I was invited over to my neighbor’s apartment. True to their hospitable nature, I have been eating so much buuz and drinking an incredible amount of milk tea for this video.
To make lesson planning more efficient, I create a monthly sign up sheet. Teachers are accountable for showing up after signing their name and available time for all to see. Now I’m teaching more classes except when something silly happens. The door to class 10A was jammed shut and nobody could open it. The students were inside while I was in the hallway. Eventually, the door had to be splintered and ripped off its hinges.
January was one of the coldest months. For one week we had a Siberian winter. I thought my face was going to crack. I stayed inside as much as humanly possible watching Brooklyn 99, the Gilmore Girls revival, and a very long movie, “Palm Trees in the Snow.”
Mongolia’s biggest holiday is swiftly approaching – Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s lunar New Year celebration. The market is crowded with people shopping for presents, food, and new deels. Homes are being scrubbed clean for families and friends who will invade. My counterparts have contributed to buying a winter deel for me. I’m building the anticpation by waiting until the holiday to post a picture of my deel in all its glory.
First holidays abroad and I must admit, it was tough on me. There were just too many Buchanan traditions I missed out on that I craved all throughout December such as seeing our Swedish Christmas tomtes decorating our home; decorating the Christmas tree; baking Swedish gingerbread cookies while munching on the dough; walking amongst all the twinkling lights that crown Chicago; eating a smorgasbord for dinner; driving to the airport at midnight with my dad to pick up my brother; and pestering my dad with my incessant chatter that makes him wish my brothers came home more often.
But Peace Corps Volunteers must adapt to new changes in their lives. So I made the most of my new situation. Just like in America, all stores in my aimag were decorated for Christmas and New Year’s. The government square had a large Christmas tree in the center. In the market, small Christmas trees were being sold along with lights, ornaments, little Santa jackets, and ribbons. I played Christmas music in the mornings and plugged my Christmas lights in every night.
My school held a Christmas/New Year concert in the sports hall. Each grade decorated a small Christmas tree that were lined up alongside the stage. Students sang and danced and Santa gave out presents to the best students. The Russian Santa isn’t a jolly, fat, and red suited fella we’re used to but is tall, thin, and dresses all in white.
I also attended the Young Teachers Christmas (Shinjil) party with my site mate, Jenni. The hall was decorated with snowflakes hanging from the ceiling, a Christmas tree was flashing away in a corner, banners saying “Merry Christmas” hung on the walls, Santa made an appearance, and women wore glittery dresses. At seeing the dresses, it felt like I had been transported back to high school prom while simultaneously feeling under dressed. Yet, the real Christmas miracle was having fresh pineapple delivered to our table. My first taste of pineapple in 6 months.
During IST, Peace Corps gave each aimag a turkey. Having never prepared a turkey before, I did extensive research before undertaking the task. What did I come to realize? That a big turkey requires a big pot that requires a large refrigerator. A counterpart supplied me with the pot but the pot barely managed to get into my tiny fridge. I was lying in bed when I heard a thumping sound but I thought it was the children next door to me. The thump came again and then I remembered that a massive pot filled to the rim with salt water in which a turkey was floating in was in my fridge. I caught the pot before the entire shelf came crashing down. My Friday night was spent duct taping my shelf back up and cutting up the turkey into many pieces to be put into a smaller pot. There was turkey blood everywhere.
Nevertheless, our Christmas Eve feast was a success with the turkey, roasted potatoes and carrots, and cinnamon rolls. On Christmas, we prepared a brunch that included blueberry scones and strawberries. I chatted with my family and opened my Christmas packages my parents sent. It was a Christmas spent with my sitemates who become like family during your service.
For New Year’s Eve, my counterpart invited me to her home. She had spent two hours the day before preparing buuz, Mongolian steamed dumplings. I feasted on the most delicious buuz I’ve ever had. At midnight, 2017 swept in as little fireworks popped in the sky.
What’s my New Year resolution? I don’t really have one except to continue my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
Packing for two-years of your life is tough. I can still vividly remember back in May 2016 when I spent all week in my basement attempting to sort out all my stuff. Clothes were strewn everywhere and piles of miscellaneous were scattered all over the place. I even had my mom come down and I would hold up a t-shirt or a dress and ask, “Yes? No? Maybe?” In the airports, people went around me like I was a rock in a stream. No one wanted to mess with me as I struggled with over a hundred pounds.
There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to packing. Bring what you think is necessary and important for you. Packing lists you find online only proved to be a little helpful for me. Thus, you will read a snippet of what I packed to avoid a nervous breakdown.
There is not much out there about Mongolia. When standing in the travel section in a bookstore, there were 30 books about China, 15 about Japan, and 1 – if you’re lucky – about Mongolia. But guess what? Mongolia pretty much has everything! During your first three months of service, you will be under a travel ban but Peace Corps does give permission if you need to go to UB for something crucial such as winter clothes or a broken computer. If you live in a small soum, you can travel to your local aimeg.
Here’s what I brought with me to Mongolia. I will not give quantities because if you want to go ahead and bring 10 black t-shirts or a lot of dresses, bring 10 black t-shirts and a lot of dresses. Pack your style and prepare to be a little scruffy.
Mongolians don’t care if you re-wear the same outfit.
Pack what you can be versatile with. For example, I have a floral dress from Forever 21. I can tuck it into my skirts, I wear long-sleeve under armor underneath when it’s cold, and I can wear it with leggings. Plus, it washes and dries quickly.
More than half of you will be washing your clothes in a bucket so don’t bring material that can easily get destroyed.
Pack an equal amount of professional and casual clothes.
Pack a cardigan. Women in Mongolia don’t show off their shoulders especially at work. Even at parties, most women wear dresses that cover their shoulders. You won’t get arrested for indecency. It’s just how it is and you’ll avoid a light scolding during your first week.
If your computer is over 6 years old, buy a new one but not the latest Apple computer. You will use your computer a lot and you don’t want your computer to suddenly break. I have Microsoft Windows 10.
Height matters. I am 6 feet tall with size 10 feet. Therefore, I had to pack all my shoes: running shoes, walking shoes, flats, sandals, winter boots, and my leather boots. If you are short with small feet, you will be luckier in the clothing and shoe department.
When you land in Mongolia, you will have no time to go shopping. Then when you arrive at your training site, your site might not have what you need. So, pack extra deodorant, a big bottle of lotion, a big tube of toothpaste, underwear, etc..
At your permanent site, your counterparts will take you out shopping for whatever you might need. It’s not necessary to pack pots, pans, forks, spoons, a sewing kit, a tent, etc..
Whatever it is that you absolutely can’t find, your family can send you a package.
What am I most grateful for?
My kindle. Small with a battery that lasts forever, it is my favorite possession.
My hard drive. Pack two – at least 1 TB – and have the other as backup. Upload movies and shows to it. If you don’t know how to do that kind of stuff like me, you can have media exchanges with other volunteers. You will be my best friend if you come with the latest movies and shows. Also, back up your computer.
My pillow and two pillowcases. Mongolians don’t use pillows and if they do, it’s packed with sand or material found in beanie babies. You also can’t find pillow cases.
Special items from home. A family calendar, a small photo album, my Chicago Blackhawks t-shirt, my flannel shirt, a journal, many types of teas, cards friends and family wrote to me, and comfy pants.
My winter gear. I packed my winter coat, a lot of under amour, thick socks, winter boots, and my hat. Winter will hit you fast and you don’t want to be caught off guard without a coat.
My running shorts. Summers get very hot and I wore my shorts every day outside of school during training. Even now when my apartment gets very hot, I wear my shorts.
What do I have that is necessary?
A headlamp. Even though I live in an apartment, I have had power outages.
An external power charger. During the long power outages, you still have something to charge your items with.
Duct tape and clear scotch tape to fix all your problems.
A pocket knife.
Lotion. Lotion is expensive and most lotion has chemicals like bleach in it.
Stickers. Students love stickers! If you have trouble motivating students to do their work, pull out your stickers. I brought stickers for all seasons and holidays.
Extra ear buds.
Spices, especially cinnamon.
What did my parents send in care packages?
School supplies like flash cards, larger notebooks, folders, more pens and pencils, and a map of the United States to show students.
More chapstick, tea, and lotion.
A few more casual t-shirts and comfy pants.
Starbursts, gummy bears, trail mix, and Nature Valley bars.
Extra chargers for when mine mysteriously disappeared or died.
DVDs for fun.
What do I wish I could have packed but had no space for?
A smaller sleeping bag. Peace Corps gives you a sleeping bag but it’s enormous and weighs a ton. It just isn’t possible to lug it around with you when traveling.
More sweaters. I thought, “Hey, I can just buy some,” but that’s not true. Cashmere sweaters – while significantly cheaper in Mongolia compared to in America – are still expensive on a Peace Corps budget and most sweaters I find unflattering.
A more glamorous dress for teacher and holiday parties. At a Christmas party, it felt like I was at my high school prom.
What will Peace Corps give you?
A cell phone.
A sleeping bag.
A plug adapter with six outlets.
A bug net.
A medical kit but I recommend packing extra vitamins and Airborne.
A water filter.
What was I able to buy in Mongolia?
A morning robe.
A wool dress.
A cashmere scarf.
Camel socks and camel leggings.
Don’t change your style while packing. If you prefer dresses over pants, pack your dresses. If you like nail polish, pack your nail polish. Don’t pack what you would never catch yourself wearing in the States. The same for hobbies. If you have never knitted a thing in your life, don’t pack up extra space with items you might never use. If you think you can sacrifice your winter coat for something else more important, go for it. If you have never kept a journal, don’t feel compelled to bring a journal. If you love coffee, bring a french press. If you like wearing high heels, bring your best pair.
So, relax, breathe, and remember, you are all in the same boat. You’ll have funny stories to retail. Most of all, don’t freak out and compare what you are packing to somebody else’s. All will be well.