Archive for April, 2009

travel diary: ovorkhangai

My second trip to the countryside followed on the heels of the first (back to back, actually).  This time, we headed southwest to the edge of the Gobi, to Ovorkhangai aimag. Ovorkhangai is known for being the home of Kharhorin, the old capital of Ghengis Khan.  We didn’t make it that far, staying instead in the aimag center, Arvaikheer.  The purpose of this visit was just to get out of town and relax a bit, and I traveled with an AYA volunteer.

We stayed with PCVs (the best network in Mongolia) who showed us how to make khushuur (we used tofu and cheese with the potatoes and veggies) and toured us around.  There isn’t much to see and do in Arvaikheer, so of course, we went shopping.  I managed to restrain myself and only picked up a single pair of cute shiny red wedges (velcro with bling. whoot).  Shopping in an aimag center is interesting – some of it is thrift shopping, and I could have sworn one of my old jean jackets donated to charity was on sale.  And some of it is imports from China, with prices that seem unreasonable for the countryside.

And of course, I ate about 500 piroshki, fried bread stuffed with meat and rice.

We tried to go to karaoke, but ended up sitting at the bar for hours just chatting (the karaoke room was also occupied for most of the night).  It was fascinating to listen to the PCVs talk about their experiences in Mongolia, ranging from some amazing times to some ridiculously crazy times.

And in the midst of it all, we managed to not get killed by the crazy drunk guy in the market who went out of his way to pick a fight, and didn’t let the stares from the folks from the hudoo bother us too much.

Arvaikheer sits on the edge of the Gobi, so it was really dusty.  Our second day was also incredibly windy, which made our hike up the nearby hilltop a little uncomfortable.   But even in the midst of the dry and dust, there are pockets of green, a sign that spring is definitely on its way.

Our return to UB was uncertain, as there was a travel advisory for dust storms.  When they blow in with other storms (ice, rain, etc), the busses tend not to run.  Ours did, however, and at a good pace, getting us back to the city in slightly less time than our trip out.

Now I’m back in UB and a little more thankful for the modern conveniences I have here. Like a shower.  Nothing like not bathing for a few days to lower some standards….

Pictures can be found here!


travel diary: selenge

I finally made it out of the city, tagging along on a trip to Selenge, an aimag in the north on the Russian border.  The trip was a site visit for visitors from LGI to explore mechanisms of local governance and financing.

Selenge aimag is about 5 hours north of Ulaanbaatar, on the border with Russia (on a side note, Baikal is about 400 km further north).  It is the agricultural center of Mongolia, reportedly producing up to 70% of Mongolia’s local wheat.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean much, when most of the wheat in Mongolia is imported (or rather, flooded from China and Russia).  The government has plans for commercializing agriculture (though there are a number of political obstacles involved), and the progression of that plan will be interesting in the months and years to come.

So we drove up to Sukhbaatar, the aimag center, on Thursday afternoon.  Sukhbaatar is pretty much on the border, and from certain areas around town, you can see Russia.  On the way, we noticed the dry and dusty landscape outside of UB, that turned into pre-spring pasture land.  Eventually, the straight lines of agricultural land appeared, though nothing has been planted yet – the soil has been tilled and treated with fertilizer in preparation.  Just kilometers from Sukhbaatar, pine trees appeared, with struggling forests on the horizon.  Compared to the brown of UB, it was a treat. All along the way, the visitors from Poland and Hungary entertained us, until I could have sworn I was traveling with the Post-Soviet Comedy Club.

I spent Friday in the company of a Peace Corps volunteer, who is in Selenge teaching English.  We chatted a bit about goings-on in Selenge, and about Peace Corps and Mongolia in general.  I met OSF and the visitors for lunch, where we stuffed down khooshur in alarmingly large quantities.  Then some site visits, starting with a food processing factory.  This factory makes dairy products and various bread products and pastries, and the hope is to increase capital to increase production.  At the end, we tasted the treats and drank some vodka with our hosts, thus starting my drinking binge at 2 pm on a Friday afternoon.

Next stop was a fertilizer factory, where I’m not quite sure what kind of fertilizer was being made.  I then met up with  the PCV once again, and we lay out on the roof of his ger and chatted about traveling and crazy adventures in Mongolia (rafting? flying a plane?) while drinking beer.  Then, I met up again with OSF and the aimag administrators, who took us a bit out of town to get a great view of the valley, where multiple rivers merge.  More vodka ensued, as well as smoked fish, which comes from the local rivers.

After that, we had dinner with the new owner of the flour mill, which aims to be back in production by September.  The mill is enormous, and I’m skeptical that the aimag will produce enough wheat for processing.  But when I asked, there was no plan to import raw material from Russia (despite being on the border…?).  Dinner was at the mill, in a ger, where food just kept appearing.  And of course, more vodka.  And beer (Tiger). And wine (Lindemanns).   So, I was good and drunk by the end of dinner.

Of course, the day can’t end like that.  The PCVs in town went clubbing, so I tagged along, with the daughter of the mill owner and my colleague from OSF.  The club – unintentionally ironically named “Collectiv” – looked like what I expected.  It also played techno from about 10 years ago, and about an hour into it, we begged for some American music (we got Britney). Add two more beers.

Like all provincial towns, the club closed at 11:30.

We spent the second day in a soum of Selenge, called Shaamar.  While the visitors met with the government, I wandered around for 2 hours taking pictures of the countryside, trees, farm animals, and houses.  In a way, the landscape reminded me of West Virginia or perhaps the Blue Ridge Mountains.   After that, we headed back to town.

So, 3 days, one province down.  We also stopped briefly in Darkhan, which is an autonomous muncipality (Darkhan-Uul).  So that might count as two.  And course, 4 shots of vodka, 3 beers, and a glass of wine.  Next stop: tomorrow, I head to Ovurkhangai and its aimag center, Arvaikheer, to hang out for a few days.  And then it’s back to work.

I have some ideas now about my research and I hope to develop that more in the next few days as well.

Pictures can be found here!

food and culture

Before coming to Mongolia, I was a vegetarian, though I did eat meat on the rare occaison.   A few months before leaving the US, I reincorporated meat back into my diet, which wasn’t the easiest thing to try.

But I’m glad I did, because meat is pervasive here.  It’s in just about everything, and particularly, in the countryside, forms the backbone of the diet.

Interestingly, though, it’s not the centerpiece of the Mongolian diet, except perhaps during certain times of the year.  But while meat is an essential part of the diet, one thing I have noticed is that it’s not necessarily the largest portion of a meal.

For example, people don’t just eat big chunks of meat.  They don’t eat steaks or hamburgers.  In the winter months, they might eat hunks of hot fat, but this is not a typical daily dish.  Instead, Mongolians eat dumplings, or noodles.  The noodles in particular, tend to contain carrot and potato and maybe even cabbage (or, when I’m lucky, peppers).

In a sense, meat is a fringe food in the urban diet, and at times, in the rural diet as well.  This is, of course, what we see in so much of the rest of the world – the heavy dependence on basic carbs (wheat and rice), and the addition of vegetables and meat as “flavoring”.

Sadly, there isn’t much more to the Mongolian diet than this – meat, flour, milk, and potatoes and carrots.  Of course, with the warmer weather, I can find all sorts of other things (garlic scape and bock choy for example).  But it’s an interesting experience introducing Mongolians to these other items and expanding the diet.  I’ve heard some funny stories from friends about trying to make spaghetti (would have been better without tomato sauce) and lentil soup (smelled bad).   I think if I end up doing a homestay in the countryside, it’ll be an interesting culinary exchange.


It had to happen sometime, though I was not expecting it so soon. I’ve come down with quite the nasty bug. I’m hoping it’s viral and self-limiting, so I don’t have to worry about antibiotics. In case, though, I’ve put in a request to my insurance company for the name of my doctor. Or, I’ll just “borrow” someone else’s antibiotics.
I suspect it’s the pollution, and the dust storm (coupled with a closeby fire) we had recently. But this one has been a doozy – my throat is swollen and sore from the base of my neck to my outer ear. The fever has come and gone, and now I’m chewing tylenol like candy. Swallowing hurts (fyi, juice, with its acidity, doesn’t make things better). I’ve stopped taking the decongestants, because the dryness isn’t helping my throat. This doesn’t bode well for surviving the winter!
On the upside, I managed to drag myself out of bed to visit the pharmacy for medication. It went surprisingly well, given my lack of Mongolian and Russian, and her lack of English. I’m learning charades quite well.

the little things

Some days, things seem really hard.  I know that my East Coast mentality needs to be dropped, but it’s hard not to get frustrated by the little things I take for granted.  Like… how much do things cost?  Sometimes, the store gives you a price.  And sometimes, it gives you 3 prices.  I have friends who tell me they still have no idea how to figure it out.

Today, I got frustrated when I realized that I don’t have an outlet compatible with my laptop plug.  I brought adapters, but not for the 3-prong type.  So I can charge my phone and camera, but not my laptop.  So, off to the internet cafe, I went.

There, things got a little better.  The staff speaks English, which helps with my other frustration – language barrier.  I need to get on those languages classes.

Then, there’s the lack of planning for things. People here don’t plan.  Me, with my color coded Google calendar is having a hard time getting used to that. On the other hand, it makes other things seem a bit easier – like randomly deciding to go to lunch.  Or maybe getting out of town.  Or perhaps, just skipping work and sitting in the internet cafe.

I run into a lot of people at Nayra Cafe, so it is fast becoming my favorite place (they also have mac and cheese in their store).   I met the Indian Ambassador here, at the same time I met the owner, who has spent a lot of time in Brazil.   Mongolians are a well-traveled people.  I also keep running into people I know, which then tends to lead to a random evening hanging out on a rooftop.

Today, I  taught my first yoga class.  It was tougher than expected, but fun.  Next week will be better.  It would help if I could just download some music, but so many sites block access outside the US.

I haven’t figured out if I can drink the tap water, so I’ve been boiling it just in case.  It tastes awful, which means I need to find some powdered drink mix.  Haven’t found it yet.

And then there was the washing machine fiasco.  How hard is it to use a washing machine, you ask?  Well, when there are about 600 buttons on it, I’d say very hard.  Also, 3 slots for soap (my mom tells me one is for bleach and one is for softener).   It took two tries to get my clothes clean.  Embarrassingly, there are English instructions on there.  They just don’t add up to the all the buttons.

But these are little things.  I hear about muggings and getting ripped off, and as the weather warms up, pickpockets and assault.  I’ve experienced none of that.  OSF is also helping me with my research (whenever I get to that, sometime after voiceovers, yoga, and rugby), which is not always the case of most people’s local partners.  And so far, the food has been great.  Life could be worse.

new apartment

I finally moved into my new apartment, and there are a few things I need to get (most importantly, hangers).  A few shots of inside, and the view (East facing).

Living Room


View from Apt

opportunity and paul farmer

I find it ironic (perhaps in the Alanis Morissette way?) that the rest of the world comes to the US for opportunity, and I came to Mongolia.  But, in the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve been given opportunities that would have taken a lot more experience or effort in the US.  For example, working with Open Society Forum has given me the opportunity to work on HIV/AIDS, education, governance, and even economic development issues. Normally, we’d agree that I’m not really trained to do this.  In Mongolia, though, the one-eyed man is king.  And so, with my limited experience with these issues, I’m the perfect “outside” expert.  Or take for instance, my new role as a yoga teacher.  Never taught before, and not really trained.  But, I guess we make do, and it’ll be a learning experience for both myself and the students.

Yesterday, a friend and I were discussing Paul Farmer, who used to be something of a hero of mine.  Now I’m disillusioned and jaded, and I see the man now has feet of clay.  One of the things I mentioned is his ranting about how we in the public health community “wait for the evidence” before we act, and in doing so, lose countless lives.  That might be true, but if waiting means ensuring that the right actions are taken, then waiting could also save lives.

But being in Mongolia has given me a fresh look on Farmer’s POV.  Is there such as a thing as a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, when the alternative is no knowledge?  Or perhaps, action is taken when pieces of the whole are cobbled together, creating, if not a full picture, at least a semblence of one?  Paul Farmer did what no one else was doing in Haiti.  And I am teaching yoga in a country where, as far as I can tell, there is only one yoga teacher.

I think Farmer’s mistake was in thinking that the work in Haiti would translate to the whole world.  So I suppose my mistake could be in thinking that teaching yoga here means I can teach it anywhere (without training).  I guess I will learn something from Paul Farmer after all.