The Beginning of the End

My last year as a TEFL teacher/trainer began on 1 September. 

This school year is going to be even better than last year because I know people, I know what to expect, and I’m aware of what can be considered as a helpless cause. 

But before the school year began, my Peace Corps group reunited for our mid-service training (MST) at Terelj National Park outside of UB. Unlike our in-service training (IST) in December 2016, where we had to bring our counterparts along, MST was just Peace Corps.

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Many of us were unprepared for how cold it was going to be. When we arrived at the park, it was pouring down with rain and we were all running into our little wooden houses. It was cold and there was no heat in any of the buildings. However, our houses had hot showers (!!!!!) and heated floors. Every night, me and my room-mate would lay our sweaters on the ground so they would be warm and toasty in the mornings. The wear was “business causal” but for me, it was wear as many layers as possible. 

It’s a beautiful park once the fog and clouds lifted. From 7am to 5:30 we were stuck in sessions but afterwards we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some of us went horse back riding (which left me sore for a week), we hiked up hills, running back down, and we sat around a large bonfire. Unfortunately when we departed, the weather was warm and sunny making me wish we could stay longer. 

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On the first day of school, my school smelled of fresh paint as balloons and a large banner were hung outside by the front entrance. Students were back in their uniforms. I spent the first two weeks of school waiting for the teachers schedule to be completed. During September and for the duration of October, I’m teaching 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the morning with lesson planning and teacher development in the afternoon. Besides school, I was busy with Special Olympics and Teachers Day. 

This year, Special Olympics was hosted in my aimeg. Teams came from four different regions with one team coming all the way from Khuvsgul. They all arrived on Thursday. Friday consisted of medical screenings and basketball, table tennis, and judo competitions. Saturday was badminton with track and field races held outside. I was asked to take photographs and was kept busy, walking from one spot to the other, snapping away.  They were so happy to be competing and racing each other. 

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Teachers Day is when 12 grade students become teachers for the day while the teachers become the students. This is a holiday 12th graders are very excited about. In the morning, teachers trade places with their students and sit at the desks while a student teaches. We are also given a 12th grader to later exchange gifts with in the evening. My 12th grader took her role very seriously. We met the night before so she could create the perfect lesson plan and she did an amazing job. Last year, my school had a volleyball competition but this year my school had a teachers talent contest. 

You can read about teachers day from last year here

More marvelous things that have since happened:

  • I finally have internet. Now I don’t have to walk 20-minutes to a restaurant and order the cheapest item on the menu as I use their internet. 

 

  • For a long time, my building’s heating was broken. I was told it wouldn’t be fixed for another two or three weeks making me cry out in anguish. My apartment was so frigid I got sick and shivered myself to sleep. Thankfully, it didn’t take three weeks to fix and now my home is blessedly warm. Why do I make such a big deal out of this? Because in Mongolia, air conditioning doesn’t exist and heating comes from a central system which people can’t control on how hot it gets.

 

  • My aimeg has two new health volunteers. There are now four of us. 

 

  • I’m re-watching “The Office” and “Gilmore Girls” thus bringing joy to my life when the language barrier becomes to much or when something breaks in my apartment or even when people hoot and “OY” at me as I’m trying to go about my business. 

 

  • There was a silly moment during my school’s track and field day when my name was called and one of the teachers was holding out a medal for me. I thought, “I have done absolutely nothing that warrants a medal but okay…” Conveniently my two counterparts disappeared so I didn’t know what everyone was yelling. But apparently they just wanted me to place the medal around the neck of another teacher. I’m nearly just walked off with the medal. 
  • I’m eagerly awaiting a box of books for my school I’ve asked an organization in America to send. 

 

  • I took a long deep breath and signed up to take the GRE in December. 

 

  • We have a new café in town called Friends Café. The woman who owns it went to university in America and used to live in Naperville. Small world!! 

 

  • People always ask if I’m cold. They all think I’m to skinny for a Mongolian winter. That I need more meat on my bones. 

 

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Family visits Mongolia

July was a dull month. When I flew back from Cambodia, all the adrenaline wore off as I took the bus back to my little town. It rained a lot. During the heavy rain storms, some of the rain would find its way through a small crack in my ceiling and slowly filter down my wallpaper. As I read in bed I could see the water stains over the top of my book slowly evaporating to a dark stain, thus making the ugly wallpaper even uglier. July consisted of a plethora amount of baking, watching movies, reading, and spending time with my site mate whose Peace Corps service was coming to a glorious end. The only highlight was wearing my new deel to Naadam where I watched some of the events, wrestling and archery, but that only holds my attention for so long. The whole entire time I was counting down until August.

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My counterpart helped me to design my new summer deel.

My parents visited Mongolia!

For two-weeks, I explored the Gobi Desert and Ulaanbaatar with my mom and dad. 14-months was the longest I had gone without seeing them. I was extremely happy to see them and to hear Swedish being spoken again.

My parents visited Mongolia through a travel agency called Nomadic Expeditions. The agency had a two-week travel itinerary planned that took us around the capital city and throughout the Gobi. Our group consisted of only five people: the Buchanan family, a female traveler called Billy, and our tour guide, Tseveen. We had been expecting more people but were delighted with our close-knit group. We even managed to squeeze in some invigorating and competitive games of Heads Up during the evenings.

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While in UB, we stayed at the Shangri La. One of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I traded the slab of concrete I sleep on for a bed that felt like a cloud, 15-second cold showers for long hot showers, wifi, and I could watch TV, (HBO!!!) I had trouble sleeping my first night because I wasn’t used to the comfort. The hotel also connects to the Shangri La Mall. Without needing to go outside, we wandered over for shopping and the movie theater.

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View from my window.

Ulaanbaatar

I will first write briefly about what we saw and did in the city.

We visited three temples. The first was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the center of Mongolian Buddhists. There are 150 monks currently residing at the monastery. The second one was Choijin Lama Temple. This temple is situated right in the middle of the city, surrounded by new buildings such as the Shangri La and the Blue Sky. A perfect example of old vs new in UB. When you look upwards, you can see the angles and faded colors of the temple roof alongside the blue glass of the city’s skyscrapers. The third temple was part of the Winter Palace which is also a museum. All the temples are lively with various colors and carvings of faces and animals on the roofs. Furthermore, we visited the National Musuem and an art museum plus the Winter Palace.

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Over the Peace Bridge, there is the Zaisan Memorial for Soviet soldiers killed in WWII.  At the top, is a panorama view of the whole city. We also met an eagle.

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Move activities consisted of cashmere shopping and seeing the National Mongolian Orchestra perform.

We also spent a night at Hustai National Park. Despite the rain, we drove into the park to see Mongolian wild horses also known as Przewalksi’s horse. As we drove, we spotted eagles, falcons, and fat marmots. Our driver had eyes like a hawk because even while driving he spotted the horses in a nanosecond. The first time I couldn’t see the horses even with binoculars but 20-minutes later we came across two-herds grazing near each other upon the hillside. They’re very small and yellow like small smudges. We weren’t allowed to get to close.

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Gobi Desert

We had to leave at 4:30 am for the airport. We flew a small plane for an hour and 20 minutes from UB to Ömnögovi province. I was dozing away for the most part but when I was briefly awake, I could hear English, German, and Japanese being spoken. Two cars met us and for another hour we drove over bumpy grassland to the Three Camel Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world. It is also the most luxurious ger camp in Mongolia. Each ger is named after an animal. I stayed in the Pallas Cat while my parents stayed in the Snow Leopard. In addition, there’s a lounge with a bar, a dining room, an entertainment lounge, and a massage ger. However, there is no internet or cell service. Not too far away from the camp is a watering hole where herds of horses would come stampeding for along with goats, sheep, and the occasional cow. There is absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see. No roads, no telephone lines, no billboards. Just the flat Gobi grasslands stretching all the way to the Altai Mountains.

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We did a lot while traversing the desert. While walking, lizards skittered around our feet diving for cover, small gazelles leaped through the grass, and we even spotted a small snake slithering away, (much to the delight of my dad).

On day one, we hiked up to the top of hills and saw petroglyphs. Immediately following the hike, we biked back to the lodge. Due to the bumpy trail, my arms became sore from all the shaking and my fingers were clenched tightly over the handle bars as I fought to make sure I didn’t go flying off.

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We didn’t just stay at the Three Camel Lodge. On days two and three, we were driven in a circular route that took us to new sites. The sights were incredible. Sand dunes on one side with the Altai Mountains cresting on the other.

We met a nomadic family. This family we met was even larger than expected because family was visiting from central Mongolia. My parents drank airag for the first time and saw how nomadic families survive by milking their horses and goats, using solar panels for electricity, and using a car battery to watch TV. Mongolian horses are very skittish. This family had a large herd and we watched one of the boys trying to break a new horse but falling in the process.

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During the night of day 2, we slept in tents. I was laughing at the image of my mom sleeping in a sleeping bag. The temperature dropped as we were out there and it rained but I thought it was incredibly cozy. Our camels arrived that night.

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On day three, we rode camels. I had the largest camel but the saddles aren’t soft. Just pieces of felt layered on top of each other. Me and my camel, Alfonzo, were comfortable walking at a slow gait but the 15-year-old wrangler kept speeding my camel up causing my rear end to be rubbed raw. We spent three hours riding our camels. The camels have a piece of wood through their noses with a rope attached. I think it looks painful but camels have high pain tolerance. For the first hour, we were clumped in a group holding on to each other’s ropes as our camels walked over small sand dunes but then we were left to guide our own camels once we reached flat ground. My lazy camel lumbered behind the others knowing I had absolutely no control over him. Camels are strange animals. They look very smug with their slanted eyes but also look like small giraffes because of their long necks. Then when they turn their heads back to look at you, it’s very snake-like. When we finally stopped three hours later, I had to topple off my camel. I was too sore to lift my leg over the hump. We were asked if we wanted to continue riding after lunch but nobody said yes.

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We spent the night at Gobi Erdene, another ger camp. Sort of like the Three Camel Lodge but not as luxurious. This ger camp conserves its electricity all day by only turning it on at 7 pm. As soon as the clock struck 7, it was humorous to watch everyone come walking into the main building to charge their phones and cameras.

On day four, we drove from Gobi Erdene to the Singing Sand Dunes. Ditching our shoes at the base of the 600-foot sand dune, my confident gait up the dune quickly transitioned into a battle-weary crawl on my hands and feet. If it wasn’t for my dad I don’t think I would have made it to the top. Or it would have taken me significantly longer as I had to stop every 10 steps as the dune became steeper to climb and I struggled to breathe. Once at the top, I was happy to just sit upon the spine that ran between the top of the dunes.

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I saw enough horses, camels, goats and sheep to last me a lifetime. During day five, at a Naadam festival, which was plopped down in the middle of nowhere, we watched camels being milked, baby horses were being wrangled up, and the sheep were getting their fur sheered. This wasn’t a real Naadam. The contestants were all children who were using this day to practice wrestling, archery, and horse racing. But I’m happy my parents got to see the festival even though it wasn’t a genuine one.

 

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Our Three Camel Lodge driver changed into his deel during Naadam.

 

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Day six was my favorite day. We walked through a park but I can’t remember the name of it anymore. The park was beautiful. The hills had rocky crags at the tops. Small rivulets of a stream criss-crossed its way through the valley. I gave up on trying to keep my shoes dry every time we had to cross from one side to the other. Small Pikas were running around. They are like a chipmunk/mouse hybrid with large ears who squeak, “Pip pip!” I call them Pikachus.

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On our last day in the Gobi, we visited the Flaming Cliffs. So called because when the sun is shining, the cliffs glow red. But it was cloudy as we were there and later we had to leave earlier than expected because of a lightning storm. The Flaming Cliffs is where the world’s first dinosaur eggs were discovered along with many more dinosaur archaeological finds. If you look and dig around closely you can find tiny miniscule pieces of dinosaur eggs.

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When we returned back to the city, all our phones dinged with all the messages and emails we couldn’t look at while in the desert.

The trip was for two-weeks but my parents stayed for two extra days. We walked more around UB, went shopping, and saw a film. I was so pleased they came to Mongolia. Visiting via Nomadic Expeditions was perfect because we were comfortable as we traveled and there was something new every day. But what was nice was how the itinerary wasn’t jam-packed with too many activities. We still had plenty of down-time and relaxation. The whole trip was perfect and I came back to my town a few pounds heavier from all the food I devoured.

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 I hope you can view all the pictures. Internet is very poor where I am.

One year in Mongolia

1 June was Children’s Day in Mongolia, a national holiday.

With no school, children were outside playing and families were in the government square where there were toy cars for kids to drive around in, a swing set, and the museum had free admittance.

1 June is also another significant day for me.

I have been in Mongolia for one-year. I have completed one year of Peace Corps service.

When I looked back on what I have written during my service – (I have written more than 500 uncensored pages of my Peace Corps experiences) – it has been fascinating to see how I have transformed in this country.

Here’s brief one-year summary of my first year. Let us precede down memory lane.

June 2016

  • Arriving in Mongolia with 52 PCVs.
  • My Peace Corps training site was in a small soum in northern Mongolia where I lived with a host family and 8 other PCVs.
  • Peace Corps training was like a boot camp: early mornings, a nightly curfew, long hours of lessons, and if you screwed up, you were sent home.
  • Being hit hard by homesickness, being sick for 3-weeks, and the long hours of language class.
  • My first Mongolian sentence I learned was, “I eat egg.”
  • I feared the outhouses because I thought I was going to fall through and learned the importance of emptying your pockets.
  • Numerous ducky-showers in my blue tumpun.
  • The “Where’s Nancy?” moment during ping pong.
  • Driving to the Russian border.
  • Thunder storms that took out the power.
  • Our sacred wifi spot on the 2nd floor in the school hallway.
  • Not being able to keep a straight face during mico-teaching or saying/hearing the word, “болох уу.” We were the worst.

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July 2016

  • The hottest month of the year.
  • Being given a Mongolian name, Анхмаа (Ankmaa).
  • Celebrating Naadam in my new summer deel.
  • Having our trainer saying she needs to buy somethings before visiting the Mother Tree and coming out with ice cream, “Does the Mother Tree also need some pizza?”
  • River day!
  • Being told that I didn’t have what it takes to live in Mongolia due to its “rough” nature: “Winters are tough. It’s not for everyone.”
  • Getting food poisoning from ice cream.
  • Obtaining a closer relationship with my host family.
  • Having a mouse infestation in my home.
  • Andy: “Everybody, I have an announcement. I’ve decided to resign myself from Peace Corps……Just kidding, tomorrow morning, we’re having a river cleanup day.”
  • Karaoke night.

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August 2016

  • Exploring Darkhan with Emma and her host sister.
  • Host Family Appreciation Party by the river.
  • My host mom’s farewell text message after saying goodbye: “Love you my family. Good luck. See you come back soon.”
  • Getting my official site placement in western Mongolia.
  • Waiting three hours for our food in a Korean restaurant:“This is like prison food.”
  • Officially becoming 46 Peace Corps Volunteers during Mongolia’s 25th anniversary.
  • Meeting my counterparts and having my first teacher party where they spoke in Mongolian. Not knowing the language, I found myself intensely watching a high jump competition on TV.

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September 2016

  • The beginning of the school year.
  • Moving Jenni into her new home and having to carry a mattress up the stairs: “Pivot!”
  • Walking on the outskirts of the ger district with my site mates.
  • Seeing a yellow Labrador.
  • Pizza night with the Catholic nuns.
  • Receiving the devastating news that Angelina divorced Brad.
  • Weekend in Kharkhorin and visiting Erdene Zuu Monastery.
  • 25 September was the first snowfall.

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October 2016

  • Celebrating Teachers Day.
  • Starting our Saturday speaking club, The Chatty Bunch.
  • My friend Zulmka getting accepted to study abroad in Luxembourg.
  • Buying a bottle of wine and figuring out later, as we took our first sips, that it was brandy.
  • Celebrating Halloween with Bookbridge students.
  • Celebrating Tuya’s birthday.

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November 2016

  • Consolidation day drill: “Happy Drill Day. Hope nobody is illegally traveling.”
  • The 20-hour drive to Khentii and the Bookbridge English Festival.
  • Seeing the Genghis Khan statue in all its shiny glory.
  • Celebrating Friendsgiving twice at home and in Bayanhongor.
  • My radiator bursting and leaking water everywhere.
  • Almost missing the bus that would take me to IST.

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December 2016

  • Seeing everyone again at IST and finally having a hot shower.
  • Finally getting internet.
  • Walking in -20-degree weather to the Sunday Market.
  • The Young Teachers Christmas Party.
  • Having a crippling stomach inflammation that kept me bed-ridden for days.
  • Having a sleepover on Christmas Eve.
  • Having a low-key New Year’s celebration with two of my counterparts.  

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January 2017

  • Vising the horse statues and having a winter picnic on 1 January.
  • Finally buying an oven. Best decision I’ve made.
  • Turning 24 years old.
  • Having my lowest point of my service when my CP made me cry.

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February 2017

  • A three-day language seminar.
  • Making my Peace Corps hospitality video.
  • Perrin: “You want to eat at the vegetarian restaurant?” Simon: “Pizza chicken?!?!” Perrin: “No….”
  •  The Write On competition.
  • Having Mongolian dance lessons.
  • Finding and buying bags of frozen strawberries.
  • Celebrating Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s New Year in my new winter deel.

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March 2017

  • Watching Tuya rain hell on the woman who cheated me out of my internet data.
  • Going on a run with Perrin and getting chased by some youths. “Piss off” probably wasn’t the best Peace Corps response to them.
  • Telling Adiya I wanted to make some tsuvien but she mistakenly thought I said soybean so she was trying to look up what soybean was.
  • Wear your deel to school day.
  • Eating fish for the first time in months.
  • A massive snow storm that hit us at the end of the month.
  • Traveling to UB where I ate so much food and watched “Beauty and the Beast.”

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April 2017

  • Having a three-day TedX workshop for 33 students.
  • Making pizza with Adiya and her kids.
  • Going to the hair salon and having six people watch me as I got my hair cut.
  • Uuganaa: “I’m so proud you are here in Mongolia.”
  • Teaching the best class all year with my 6th graders.
  • Going hiking in the countryside and getting hit by a rain and wind storm.

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May 2017

  • The last month of school.
  • Arvaikheer’s trash cleanup day.
  • Dust storms.
  • Inviting all my English teachers to my home for dinner.
  • Buying material for my new summer deel.
  • Ted X Arvaikheer being a success with 3 students speaking in English.
  • Having dinner with people from the US Embassy and Mongolia’s Fulbright candidates.
  • Traveling 16 hours to Erdenet for Special Olympics.

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One more year!

Hygge in Mongolia

Moving to a new country has its moments:

It’s exciting. It’s new. There’s an adrenaline rush.

But, it’s also nerve-wrecking and scary.

Unlike America, Mongolia follows its own set of rules. The country is still developing but its culture and traditions have been firmly rooted in Mongolian life for hundreds of years. It has all been a whirl wind for me.

When thrown into a country that is not your own, you will experience:

  1. A new language that can create excitement when you can understand something or frustrations when you have no idea what is being said.
  2. A new sense of time. America is a punctual country. More then 5-minutes late and you are questioned or given a warning while you try to put the blame on how bad the traffic was or how the train was delayed. In Mongolia, if you are more then 30-minutes late, no questions are asked. You simply say, “I was at the market,” “I had to go to the bank,” “I had to eat lunch,” or absolutely nothing.
  3. A new work environment. In Mongolia, classes are run differently and are more teacher focused then student focused. For example, students aren’t asked for their opinion on subject matter and there is a lack of critical thinking. Substitute teachers don’t exist. If a teacher can’t come to school another teacher will cover their classes.
  4. A lot of staring. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I always get stared at. When I got a haircut, I had 6 people staring unflinchingly at me through the mirror. Many Mongolians have never seen an American before and that I understand, so I say hi to the children or I look straight ahead and ignore it, but I also have moments when I don’t want to leave my home.
  5. New holidays such as Mongolian New Year, Tsagaan Sar, and Naadam, Mongolia’s summer holiday.
  6. Different weather. Winter and summer are Mongolia’s dominant seasons. Luckily, I’m from Chicago so the cold winter didn’t throw me off kilter. In the fall, it will start to snow as early as September and in the spring we get wind and dust storms.
  7. A new diet. Mongolia has no seafood and unless you are in UB, there is no Mexican, Indian, or sushi to be eaten.

But you can also make new friends, eat new food, discover a new talent, explore, make great memories, and become aware of what you are capable of when on your own in a foreign country.  

Therefore, it has become essential for me to find ways to relax. To have myself a comfortable alcove where it’s just me and for a few hours the outside world doesn’t exist.

So, what do I do?

I’m trying to live with some “Hygge” in my life – (not to be confused with “lagom” which is something else entirely).

Pronounced “Hoo guh,” hygge is, “A quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

The key words being cozy and content.

My main ingredients for such a feeling consists of:

  • Tea
  • Fuzzy socks
  • Comfortable pants
  • Candles
  • My kindle, I have already read 25 books, or my hard drive of movies.
  • Music
  • Baked goods that I either buy or bake myself.
  • Cat naps as I bask in the sun that shines through my windows.

When something causes me stress or frustration, it’s important that I have a comfortable home away from home to come back to.

A hike in the countryside

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.

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.

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There is still snow and ice out in the countryside.
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We had brought a jump rope and a ball to play volleyball and soccer.

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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.

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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.

 

Spring Break in UB

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.

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My counterpart, in the red coat, walking across the government square.
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The hill next to my yellow school later became a place for sledding and snowball fights.
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The road from my apartment building to the market and center of town.

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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.

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My counterpart’s daughter making snow angels in front of a ger.

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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.

 

Taxi rides:

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,

“Taxi?

Taxi!

Taxi?!?!”

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!

Shagai

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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Group photo with my 5th grade class.

 

Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.

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When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.

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This game is called “Horse Race” and can last for a very long time.

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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.

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Celebrating Tsagaan Sar

Ready…Set…Tsagaan Sar!

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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My counterpart Nymdavaa and her husband in their home.

 

  • 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.
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On top of a hill with an ovoo, a sacred stone heap.
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My counterpart’s daughter also wearing a blue deel.
  • 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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Me with my school’s English and Russian teachers.

 

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.

Write On!

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.

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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.

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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!