Sunday, January 4, 2009


A few weeks ago I went to South Korea to take the GMAT. I am applying to business school for next year, so the past few months I have been doing little else beside study. Aside from my trip to Korea, I haven’t left Mongolia in the past 18 months. It was kind of strange to visit a developed country. The roads are actually paved. There ARE actually roads. Cars aren’t in a constant state of breaking down, and there are buildings taller than 16 stories. It was kind of intimidating.
Even just leaving Mongolia was a pretty funny experience. As I was standing in line at security a bunch of little kids who were probably going to study in Korea came, all carrying bottles of juice. Not only did they get to take their juice past security, they didn’t even go through security. They were just waved on through. And of course, there weren’t any of those “line control” things, so it was just a line of people standing waiting, which of course meant people were cutting to the front the whole time. Some people in Mongolia are just too important to stand in line. The woman at customs in the Ulaanbaatar airport took a very long time looking at my passport. She couldn’t understand the English on my Mongolian visa, and where it says “3 YRS,” she thought it meant 3 months. I explained that I live in Mongolia, that I’m a Peace Corps volunteer and I was just visiting Korea. She gave me a confused look and then let me pass. On the airplane as we approached Seoul, the flight attendant was passing out entry cards for Korea, and when she got to my row she gave them to the Mongolians sitting next to me but not to me. I asked her for one, and she said “no, you don’t need one. You are a transit passenger.” So I explained that actually, I live in Mongolia and was visiting Korea and then returning to Mongolia. We went round and round a couple times and she was clearly very confused, but eventually gave me the card.
Being in Seoul was fun, it was kind of frustrating at times because I didn’t understand anything that was being said around me. In Mongolia I’m used to being able to catch at least the gist of a conversation. Luckily, most people in Korea speak pretty good English so it wasn’t really a problem. I didn’t really do much because I was there to take the GMAT, but I did walk around Seoul a lot. I was kind of disappointed in the weather, it was cold and overcast the whole time I was there. Not nearly as cold as Mongolia, but I was really hoping that it would be warm enough that I wouldn’t need to wear gloves and a hat every time I went outside. I was really impressed with some of the differences I noticed in the few days I was there. Crossing streets, everyone waited for the light to turn before walking. Even if there were no cars coming. I was kind of shocked by that. In Mongolia that almost never happens. In Tsetserleg there are no street lights, but even in UB, people normally just walk right out in traffic. If you don’t, you probably won’t ever get to cross the street, and there is usually so much of a traffic jam that the cars aren’t really moving anyway.
As soon as I got to the check-in counter to my flight back to Mongolia I felt right at home. Everyone was speaking Mongolian and I could understand them, they were all trying to cut in line and an old woman in a fur coat even rammed me with her luggage cart because I wouldn’t let her cut in front of me. Everyone had luggage carts. Mongolians usually travel with little else besides their purse. I have seen women going on week-long trips without so much as a change of clothes, but coming back from Korea is an entirely different story. Nearly every person on the flight had a luggage cart full of boxes. Everything from Apple computers to blankets. The woman at the counter seemed surprised that I only had one duffle bag.
Even before I checked in, the flight had an hour wind delay. Flying into Mongolia in the winter is a tricky thing. I have heard rumors of at least two people who flew in from Beijing that got to Mongolia, and then had to go back to Beijing without landing because of either smog or wind. The weather in Mongolia is fickle. Luckily my flight didn’t fly all the way there before realizing there was a problem with the weather, so instead I just waited in the airport an extra hour. As soon as the airline staff showed up at our gate, there was a rush of people (there is no “group A” etc when flying to Mongolia, it’s just a free-for-all). The airline staff eventually came out from behind the desk and yelled at everyone to go sit down because they weren’t ready yet, but only about 5 people left the horde to sit back down. Once they did start letting people through, everyone started scrunching up to the front and two airline employees had to come and physically push people into some semblance of a line. That made me smile, and I was happy to be coming home. I didn’t even forget my line-standing defense mechanisms while I was in Korea. One man tried to casually cut in front of me and I gave him my best death stare, so he got behind me instead.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


A few days ago I went to the ATM at the Khaan bank in Tsetserleg. The ATM is a new addition, it appeared last summer. No longer do I have to push grandmothers out of my way to get my pittance of a living allowance every month. But I do have to wait while a swarm of high school students tries to figure out how to work the ATM. I don’t know exactly when ATMs made it to Mongolia, but I am fairly certain it was only in the past couple years. In UB, most people have figured it out and are used to the process. In the countryside (as much as an Aimag center can be considered the ‘countryside,’ trust me there are several more levels…) people have not yet figured it out. Even young people, who are the most adaptable to technology, take several minutes to withdraw their 2,000 tugriks (less than $2) from the ATM. That’s another thing that seems odd to me, and makes me seem very strange to them. I wait in line behind 10 kids who each withdraw somewhere between 1,000 and 5,000 tugriks, and then they all look over my shoulder while I take out 100,000. It probably just reinforces the perception that I am a rich American, but really I just don’t like to stand in that ridiculous line more than about once a month.
As I was walking to the bank, I saw a horde of high school or college age girls walking to the bank from the opposite direction, so I quickened my step in hopes of beating them to the ATM. I did, but there were already 6 or 7 people standing in line. So I stepped up (extremely close) to the last person, aware as I am to the Mongol line-standing requirements, and prepared to wait my turn. ATM etiquette has not reached this country yet, and everyone in front of me was looking over the shoulder of the person actually withdrawing money. Partially because most of them needed help from their friends to figure out how to do it. Also, PIN numbers in Mongolia are the last four digits of the ATM card, so it really doesn’t matter if anyone sees your PIN anyway, they could easily figure it out. Finally my turn arrived, and with three Mongolians looking intently over my shoulder, I withdrew the money I will need for UB as well as the money I want to exchange into Korean Won. This was a pretty significant amount (especially compared to the 2,000 or 3,000 MNT that most others were withdrawing), and I left the bank to a whispered chorus of “wow, that was a lot of money.”

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Yammer Sonin Youm Be!

This phrase has been the story of my life this past week. It means “how interesting!” or “how strange!” and it’s a phrase used in Mongolia for any number of things. It can have a positive connotation, like when you run into someone you know on the street that you weren’t expecting to see, or a negative connotation when you get hung up on by the fire department because it’s after 6pm and they would really prefer not to deal with your electrical fire after work hours.
Last weekend I went to UB to buy a plane ticket to Korea to take the GMAT and meet Cady. She came back out to Arkhangai to visit and do some seminars with me. While we were in UB we went to all the stores that sell “uncommon” vegetables and food, such as crackers, cheese, spices. On of my friends has told me about the American Store, which is owned by an American who has lived here a really long time and started importing many things from America that you can’t find here. The store is a little hole-in-the-wall place that is buried in a neighborhood in UB. My friend drew me a map, so Cady and I went in search of it. We eventually found it, and it’s literally in a shack in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings. It was amazing. Tortilla chips, jars of salsa, marshmallows. Things I never imagined existed in this country. We spent about half an hour wandering around in awe.
We took the post bus back to Arkhangai, which is my usual mode of transport. It was especially miserable. We thought it was going to be the “big bus” because the woman who sold the tickets said so, but it didn’t turn out to be. The “big bus” is like a normal bus, the luggage goes on the bottom and the seats are normal bus seats that have backs and headrests. The addition of the “big bus” is a pretty new and welcome development. It turned out that we took the “little bus,” which is more standard in Mongolia. It is a bus about half the length of normal busses, with no room underneath for luggage. It should seat about 26, but usually there are about 40 people on the bus. And all the luggage is piled in the aisle, under seats, and crammed into the little shelf on the roof. On my way to UB it must have been “bring all your boxes on the bus” day, it seemed like everyone who got on the bus had about 4 boxes. So the luggage was piled about a foot over the level of peoples’ heads. I was in the very back seat and every time the bus stopped I had to crawl over the pile. On the way back to Arkhangai Cady and I were sitting near the front, so while we still had to climb over things, it wasn’t nearly as precarious. But we were seated right next to the heater, which is basically the breath of hell shooting hot air at you the entire 12 hour ride. So I opened the window. The bus ride is always a battle between the windows and roof vents being opened or closed. Usually someone will open them, and then 10 minutes later someone else will close it. Repeat, repeat, repeat. When the windows are open it is actually quite pleasant. It’s kind of annoying having air blowing in your face the whole time, but much better than being hot and miserable. Not usually according to Mongolians though. The woman sitting behind us was of the opinion that it’s better to swelter. So she tried to reach in front of me and close our window. I told her she couldn’t because I was hot, and she slapped me on the shoulder, pouted, and basically told me I was alone in being hot.
Everyone gets grumpy on the bus. It’s long and very uncomfortable. Sometimes that makes people act like jerks. While Cady and I were on the bus the Mongolians around us kept commenting to each other how difficult the foreigners were. I’m not sure why they thought we couldn’t understand them because we spoke to people in Mongolian several times. Our Mongolian is better than their English, so we made ourselves feel better by making sarcastic comments about them. After the lunch break a bunch of the men sitting in the front started drinking beer. So, of course, we had to stop at a place we don’t normally stop so they could get out and “look at the horses.” Cady and I got out and they yelled at us and said we weren’t allowed to and that we should drink less water. Later one of them tried to get me to throw his beer bottles caps out the window and I told him no I wouldn’t, what a bad thing. They all laughed, and it didn’t do much good because the next time we stopped for them to look at the horses he threw those and the bottles out the door.
We did eventually reach Tsetserleg, only slightly less the worse for the wear. A couple nights ago I had everyone over for dinner. We were all in my kitchen cooking, and all of a sudden we started smelling plastic burning. So we looked around to figure out what it was. Turned out to be my electrical outlet melting. So we unplugged everything, but Ochgo went out in the hall and saw a fire in the fuse box. That was a little scary. So I called my counterparts and they got a hold of my landlord. She came over and started calling the police and the fire department to get someone to come out and see what the problem was/try to keep my apartment from burning down. They hung up on her because it was after 6pm (not by much). Apparently in Mongolia the fire department only works during business hours. Yamer sonin youm be. Eventually they agreed to come out, and 45 minutes later two men showed up. I’m not sure what they did besides flip my fuses on and off a couple times and pull the outlet out and look inside the wall, but they said everything was fine but I couldn’t plug so many things in at once. Stupid foreigner. Aside from a half-melted outlet, it seems that everything is fine.
On Saturday we all went to Battsengal to go riding. It was Christi and Zaneta’s first trip to the hudoo, so we should have known… The driver we normally hire to take us to Battsengal couldn’t go because something is wrong with his car, so we had to take some other guy. About half way to Battsengal we were driving along and the tire fell off the axel. Not a flat tire, that’s normal. The entire tire, lug nuts and all, flew off the car and rolled about half a mile away down a hill. How interesting. The driver and Cady, who jumped out of the car and took off after the tire before we were even stopped, eventually got the tire back to the car and the driver began fixing it. He kept saying how interesting, we are so lucky, if we had been coming down a mountain we all probably would have died, we are the champions of luck. Interesting way to look at it I suppose. He discovered that the metal part that makes the tire turn was completely stripped, and a couple parts had fallen out. What brilliant car maintenance. Luckily Zaneta found the two little metal parts that were missing. He told us he didn’t need them so Tuul threw them in the grass, but it later turned out that his spare part was also missing pieces. So we picked through the grass and eventually found them. Two and a half hours, several games of 20 questions and charades later, and he had the tire pack on the axel and we were off.
On our way home, after our driver made us stop at some ger so he could buy aireg, the battery died. Luckily we just made it to Tsetserleg before the car completely died so we all just walked home. The driver still expected us to pay him full price. I refused, I have become so frustrated with some Mongolians and their ridiculous business practices. He takes horrible care of his car and it can’t even make it 120km without having several major problems, he stops at his friend’s place when we told him we didn’t want to stop and he still expects us to pay him what is equivalent to about a quarter of our monthly living allowance on top of all the gas? I don’t think so. We eventually came to an agreement on a 10,000 tugrik reduction in the price, and he was still mad and said we could never ride in his car again. How sad for us.
Luckily we made it out to Battsengal last weekend, because Winter has officially hit. It has snowed a few times this week and the biting, dust-filled winter wind has started.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Second Year

This is my second Fall in Mongolia, and it's amazing how many things are different this year. One of the most noticeable, and recently beneficial, has been the fact that I know more people. Other volunteers in my Aimag do too, and we have all benefited greatly in the form of leafy greens. Ik Tamir has one farmer who is growing spinach and lettuce this year. We bought out his whole crop of spinach and a lot of his lettuce and I have eaten salad at least once a day since Saturday. I also know the people at Fairfield well, and have been getting lettuce from their garden, as well as the hook up with vegetables from other missionaries in the Aimag. It has been awesome.
My language (though by no means great) is also significantly better than when I arrived at site last August. I can understand a lot more, and I can actually hold a somewhat meaningful conversation in Mongolian.
One of the things I am most excited about this year (aside from the exotic vegetables in my diet) is actually having stuff to do at work. I have almost 200 surveys that my office collected from tourists this summer to process, and I've started writing the value chain report. It's so nice to be busy.
I've also been spending a lot of time with my new site mates. It's strange not being the only PCV in Tsetserleg anymore. One of my site mates has the entire series of Sex and the City, which is awesome. We have been watching that and we will finish with the movie (which came out on DVD in UB about a month ago, which I am sure is perfectly legitimate. I would not steal a car, or a purse and buying a bootleg movie is definitely exactly the same...).
Though I am much more comfortable and used to a lot of the things that are Mongolia, there are still some that continue to frustrate and sometimes infuriate me. Some things about this country really are just inexcusably ridiculous. I've learned to embrace pushing people when trying to stand in line at the bank, or standing with my toes practically on the next persons heels while in line at a store. But sometimes the blatant inefficiency and acceptance of such inefficiency really gets to me. Walking into a delguur and seeing the shopkeeper talking on her phone doesn't really bother me any more. I usually just start talking to her and ask for what I want anyway, and they usually give me what I ask for and take my money without even pausing in their conversation. But the last time I ate in one of the cafes near my office with my site mates and Tuul, the waitress actually answered her cell phone and started having a conversation while we were in the middle of trying to pay. Not only was she having a conversation, but she completely ignored us until she was finished talking.
A few weekends ago I went to the supermarket that is open on Saturdays. It isn't the one I usually go to, but the other one is closed on Saturday. I was there with one of my site mates, and we both found a few things we wanted (although the dried tofu that was confirmed to have been there the day before was nowhere to be found). When we went to the checkout we were informed we were not allowed to buy any of those things because they didn't know the price. Things like honey, yogurt and plastic cheese. Things that are commonly found in the supermarkets in Tsetserleg and were ON THE SHELF. This is a fairly common occurrence, especially at that supermarket. I don't understand why anyone would think that is acceptable.
I love living in Mongolia, but sometimes it is impossible for me to understand why things are the way they are. I'm quite sure they will continue to be this way indefinitely though, because every time I get upset about it Mongolians look at me like I'm the crazy one.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Lesson in Patience

This summer has flown by. I'm finally back home in Arkhangai, and I don't plan to leave for awhile. It was really nice getting to travel so much the past couple months, I got to see Lake Hovsgul and the Gobi desert, but it was also pretty exhausting. My family was here at the beginning of August. It was really interesting to watch them come to appreciate what it's really like here. I thought I had described how bad the roads are, how things are never planned and how unbelievably long it takes to get places... but it would appear you have to experience it for yourself to really understand.
The trip I planned for my parents was pretty brutal, we only had 5 days to see the Gobi and Tsetserleg. Most volunteers who have people visit give them a day or two in UB to settle in, but we left for the Gobi the morning after they arrived. On the first day we drove all the way to Dalanzadgad, the aimag center of Omnogov (South Gobi). We were on paved road for about an hour, and then the rest of the 13 hour trip was dirt/rock/sand road. We arrived in Dalanzadgad at about midnight, but we could see the lights from the town for almost 2 hours before we actually got there. It was torture, we were all going a little crazy by that point. I didn't have a reservation anywhere, or really have any idea where we would stay that night. I just knew we would find a ger camp, there are several of them in the area. That's just the way things are done in Mongolia. My mom had a little freak out about that, understandably. But, after a ridiculous conversation with the receptionist at a hotel, we found a ger camp. The owner even made us some really delicious buuz, even though it was almost 1:00am.
The next morning we continued on to see the "glacier." The "glacier" is actually a small stream in a deep gorge that freezes so thick in the winter that it stays frozen all summer long. We rode camels part of the way into the gorge, and then walked the rest. It was a really beautiful place, the geology in the Gobi is incredible. The "glacier" was more of an ice cube by that time, it has been a very rainy summer, which washes away a lot of the ice. But it was still pretty incredible to see an ice cube in the Gobi desert in August. After the ice cube we drove to the Khonger Els, the giant sand dunes. We stayed at a really nice ger camp at the foot of the dunes. It was really incredibly hot. There was a constant wind that felt like it just sucked all the water right out of you. Even at 10 pm it was still unbelievably hot. My parents were hoping for air conditioning in the ger, which I said was impossible and they would never find that. Except, of course, the next night we stayed at a ger camp in Kharkhorin that actually did have air conditioning IN the gers. It was mind-blowing. Of course it was kind of cold that night, and we didn't need it. Too bad they didn't have that in the Gobi.
The last night my parents were here we stayed in Tsetserleg. My work had a horhog for us, which was really fun. My family also got to meet Sophie and see my apartment. Sophie was so excited that I was home, and I think she felt a bit betrayed when I left again the next day. It was interesting showing my parents my apartment, they were a little skeptical when we drove up to the building. It looks like a slum from the outside, but I think they felt a bit better when they saw my steel door and that the inside of my apartment isn't actually so bad.
I know that I have learned a lot of patience in the year that I have been here, but it really put it into perspective hearing my family asking "are we there yet?" and saying things like "it can not possibly take that long to go 200 km!" throughout our trip. And I guess I have forgotten how much I suffered the first few times I went on long trips in Mongolia.
My parents were also a little shocked by my newfound nonchalance about things like flies. One night we were eating dinner with our driver, and a fly landed on his hamburger (we were at the ger camp in Kharkhorin with AC in the gers, hamburgers are not normally found in the countryside). My sister scraped the fly off with a knife, because this was a very determined fly and would not be scared away by the wave of a hand. The driver then used the knife to cut his hamburger, and my Mom didn't think that was such a good idea. Such is life in Mongolia. Flies are everywhere, and you can almost guarantee they have touched your food at some point. And really, a fly never gave anyone giardia, so what's the big deal?
Seeing my Mom's surprise at my attitude about flies, I told the story of a volunteer who ate a piece of pizza off the ground this summer. When I was in Darkhan helping with the CED training, Cady hosted a dinner for the CED trainees at her apartment. We made them pizza, stromboli, fruit salad and all kinds of other delicious delicacies. Some people were standing out on the balcony at one point, and someone dropped a piece of pizza (Cady lives on the 4th floor). It just so happened that a volunteer was walking by at that exact moment in search of a delguur which would ignore prohibition for foreigners. He picked the pizza up and ate it. My family thought that was hilarious. But really, it landed crust-side down, and who wouldn't eat a piece of pizza that feel at your feet from the sky??
After my parents left my sister stayed four more days. We mostly stayed in UB and did some souvenir shopping and tried to avoid the creepy guy staying at the guesthouse. We did go out to Hustai National Park for one night. Hustai is about 2 hours west of UB, and it is where the 200 wild Takhis (Prezwalski's Horse) live. On our way out there the car got stuck in some sand, but after about an hour of digging and pushing we were on our way again. That evening we drove to the valley where the Takhis live, and as the sun set we watched several herds come down off the mountains to drink. It was really cool, they are the only undomesticated horses left, and Mongolia is the only place where they live in the wild.
The next morning we went riding. Our horses were unbelievably short, even by Mongolian standards. And the saddles, though the ger camp claimed they were Russian, were not much more than a thin layer of leather over some 2x4s. We both got a bit bruised.
After Tori left, I went back up to Darkhan to see the new volunteers swear in. We now have 59 new PCVs in Mongolia, three of which are in Arkhangai. I have two site mates in Tsetserleg, and there is a new TEFL in Battsengal (and she rides horses, which is good for everyone). The new volunteers have completely changed the demographics of Arkhangai, while I used to be the only girl in the Aimag, now there are four. It's a nice change, and they smell a whole lot better.
It has already started to feel like fall/winter. I forgot how quickly the weather changes. There has already been snow in several places of Mongolia, and I have already had to break out my long underwear (in August!!). I'm hoping that this winter will be a bit more mild than last, I lived through one record-breakingly cold winter and have no desire to do so again.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer Escapades

The past month has been a full one, for me and for Mongolia. First we had a State of Emergency for flooding, several districts of UB had to be evacuated and many summer English camps were cancelled or evacuated due to the heavy rains. My apartment was without running water until the morning I left for Darkhan to help with PST (a total of 15 days!), though there was certainly no shortage of water outside. The whole country is beautiful lush green now because of all the rain, and all the animals are looking fat and happy.
I spent about a week in Darkhan helping with training for the new volunteers, and celebrating the 4th of July. On the 1st we had our second State of Emergency for the summer, declared to stop the rioting in UB. Mongolia had a parliamentary election and the preliminary results were announced on July 1st, with the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) winning 46 of 76 seats. The Democratic Party and some of the other smaller parties claimed that the elections had been unfair, or counted wrong and organized a protest in Sukhbaatar Square, which turned in to a drunken, violent riot with 5 people killed and a bunch more injured seriously. They also torched the MPRP headquarter building and, sadly, looted and burned the National Art Gallery next door. Many of the rioters were drunk, and they also broke in to the Duty Free store in the MPRP building. The police used rubber bullets, tear gas and a water cannon to try to dissuade the rioters, but none of those things worked. Apparently the police didn't have nearly enough rubber bullets or riot gear, and the rioting lasted pretty late into the night. All that is left of the building is a burned shell. President Enkhbayar declared a four day State of Emergency, which included a ban on alcohol sales, a 10pm-8am curfew, a ban on public gatherings and only the National TV channel was allowed to broadcast. This was the first time anything like this has happened in Mongolia, and many Mongolians are really sad and disappointed in their fellow countrymen. There were many international observers of the voting, and all declared that they were free and fair. The State of Emergency was only in UB, but Darkhan followed suit and also declared a four day State of Emergency, which happened to coincide with the 4th of July. That was a bit disappointing, but luckily PCVs are resourceful as well as persuasive and managed to explain to a few delguur owners that it was a really important American holiday, and that we certainly weren't going to do any rioting.
After the 4th I went to Sukhbaatar with Cady to visit her host family. We spent the night at their house, and Cady, Eej and I drank some vodka and wine and had a dance party in the living room. It was really fun to see the host family again, and they were really glad to see us. The next day Sukhbaatar Naadam started, so I spent the whole day at the Naadam stadium watching wresting and archery. Another PCV was doing archery, and one of the trainees wrestled. I stayed in Selenge until the 16th, visiting friends and celebrating Naadam. Naadam was even more fun this year, I am armed with a greater appreciation of Mongolian wrestling, a stomach that can handle Naadam hoshur with ease, and the great patience to be able to sit and watch archery for hours upon hours. I have also refined my ability to take shots of vodka, a talent that it seems I am frequently called upon to practice.
I needed a few days to rest and recover after the week of Naadam festivities, and then took the night train to UB, in search of a tour group going to Lake Hovsgul to join. After a day of frustrating waiting and brief talks with some guesthouses, it seemed like it wasn't going to work out and we were going to have to suck it up and take the bus. But then, at the last minute, Doug and I joined a group of 4 Polish and a French guy. We piled in the porgon and off we went. Three days later we arrived in Khatgal (the soum on the shore of Lake Hovsgul). That trip was my first experience with Mongolian tourism. I am a little amazed that people actually take trips in Mongolia. I think it might have to do with the fact that, until you experience travel here, you have no idea what you are getting yourself into (but for those who are not faint-of-heart, you should definitely come! It is a beautiful country and there is nowhere else like it in the world). Don't get me wrong, to me it felt like luxury. We had our own car, we could stop when we wanted, and no babies were throwing up on us. But three days of off-roading in a Russian vehicle tends to be a bit tough on one's bones and muscles. It was well worth it though, and we all became quick friends and spent a good portion of the time laughing.
Once we made it to Khatgal we celebrated in the only appropriate way. The next day we set off on a two-day, one-night horse trek along the lake. It was the first time I have camped since I came to Mongolia, and it was beautiful. Lake Hovsgul is crystal clear and surrounded by wooded mountains. We rode through the woods along the lake for about 5 hours, after which both the horses and we were exhausted. We stopped for the night in a beautiful meadow right beside the lake, and even though we could see storm clouds rolling in we all decided we had to "swim" in the lake.
Several Mongolians have told me that Lake Hovsgul stays so cold, even in the summer, that if you swim out into the middle you will probably drown. I never believed that, but after the 3.5 seconds I spent in the lake I am a believer. It was COLD. All I could manage was a quick dive under water and then a hasty retreat to the shore. We enjoyed the rest of the evening by a roaring fire, and rode back to Khatgal the next day.
We decided to stay one more day at the lake, and 5 of us went in search of some kayaks that were rumored to be around. We found the ger camp, and managed to talk them down from $20/hour to 20,000T for the day. They only had two kayaks, and we were five, but they threw in an inflatable dingy for free, because "they don't like it and never use it." We quickly figured out why they didn't like it, and ended up having to tie it to one of the kayaks and pull it with us. We rowed out into the lake for about two hours, against the wind the whole time but consoling ourselves with the thought that the way home would be super easy with the wind at our backs. We stopped on the shore for awhile, and the next thing we knew we were watching a huge rainstorm sweep down the mountains over Khatgal, coming right for us. We decided to make a run for it, and got back in our kayaks and started paddling like crazy. About 2 minutes in we started to feel the first drops, and then the sky opened up. It was raining so hard we could hardly see where we were going, and we were a little worried when we started to see some flashes of lighting off in the distance but it ended up being quite an adventure. We all returned to the ger camp soaking wet, looking like drowned rats. They kindly gave us some hot tea and then we went back to our ger camp and put on some dry clothes and started a fire in the ger.
Doug and I were really lucky, and managed to catch a ride back to UB with two other American girls in a Russian jeep. The driver had lost his tour group, they decided they wanted to stay in Hovsgul longer instead of doing the 10 day tour they had planned, so he was going straight back to UB. It only took us two days to get back to the city, but it was pretty rough. Russian jeeps really beat you up, and the road we took was a really hard one.
I have been in UB for the past week working at Mercy Corps. I've been interviewing tour companies for a project I'm working on. My parents and sister arrive on Saturday night, which I am really excited about. We will go to the Gobi for a few days, and then to Arkhangai for one night. It will be nice to be back in Tsetserleg, even if for a day. I have been away for a long time this summer. I am excited to see Sophie, I have been told that she isn't eating very well and searches the faces of all the foreigners looking for me. Poor Sophie.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Hudoo Life

Last week I spent several days at a ger camp, Beaten Paths, in Battsengal. It is set up on the family's land, a few hundred feet away from the well (there are no rivers or water sources close enough for the animals) and consists of two tourist gers and the family ger. Beaten Paths is a Mercy Corps client, so I went out to give advice on how to improve and a basic accounting/bookkeeping training. Also to hang out with some other PCVs who happened to be there. We were the season's first "tourists," so it was a good chance for the family to figure out what they still needed to do to set up for the "Jinkin" tourists who will come later.
Spending more than 1-2 nights in a ger camp is quite rare, most tourists spend an average of 1 night in any given ger camp and then move on. And with good reason, there isn't a whole lot to do. But sometimes it's nice just to sit under a dirty tarp awning and watch the sheep, goats, horses and cows go by. Our proximity to the well meant that close to 1,000 animals came and went several times a day. We fought the baby cows for the integrity of our ger and outhouse (they thought the dirt pile by the outhouse was AWESOME), stared down goats and pondered the worth of "sheep language," which it turns out is seriously annoying (and, as everyone knows, sheep are stupid so probably not very worthwhile either). One morning we were sitting outside reading and looked up to find about 50 goats ten feet away from us, just staring. I guess we are interesting too.
Watching the various herds of horses was really interesting for me. Horses in America don't generally live in proper herds, but in Mongolia they do. A stallion has 7-8 mares with their foals and "daags" (2-year old horses, who are actually only one by conventional count but Mongolians consider them 2) following them around. There was one herd who's stallion looked just like Spirit Stallion of the Cimeron, and whenever they drank at the well he would stand back and keep an eye on everything, occasionally chasing away a goat.
The last day we were all there we drove to the river and had a sheep horhog (after having the sheep's innards for breakfast...) Then we spent the night in Rob's ger in the soum center and Tuul and I came back to Tsetserleg yesterday. As seems to happen whenever I go to the countryside, we came back to find that there will be no running water in town until the 20th. So much for that shower we were both really looking forward to. Living in an apartment without water is awful. The faucets and shower just sit there mocking me, and I am currently having a debate with myself between paying Fairfield to do some much-needed laundry (they have their own water system), or just being smelly for a few weeks. We will see which wins out.