Posts Tagged 'making do'

how to survive in mongolia

There are mountains back there somewhere....

I’m down to my last month or so in Mongolia and I’m starting to reflect on my time here.  Before coming here, I had this perspective of Mongolia being mysterious and remote and completely different from life in America.

Well, there are definitely some differences, but it’s not nearly so mysterious as it’s made out to be.  One thing I’ve definitely noticed is the tendency of photographers and film makers to focus on some small aspect that is quirky or interesting, and then generalizing this to the rest of the country.

But Ulaanbaatar is a thriving city, much like any other in Central Asia or even the rest of Asia.  The countryside is of course not like rural America, but it’s not like being on the moon (except for this one part in Olgii…).

Anyway, some tips to survive living in and visiting Mongolia:

  1. Spend some time in the city.  A lot of people don’t like UB, but no one can argue that it’s the best place to get anything.  So yeah, maybe you hate cities and want to get to know the “locals”, but sometimes you just want a spinach and feta salad.
  2. Get out of the city.  It’s not beautiful, it has no stunnng architecture, and the traffic is horrendous. Not to mention the pollution.  But the countryside is beautiful, adventure is always to be had, and you will always be welcome at a ger when you get horribly lost.
  3. Embrace the care package.  Sure you can rough it.  Or, you can just enjoy your little pleasures in life.
  4. Learn to cook.  I complained about not having Mexican food.  And then I learned to make it all myself.  When I return to the US, I’m never buying store bought tortillas (or pita or ricotta!) again. Even better, invite some friends over.
  5. Don’t be a jackass.  Look, no one likes an outsider who comes in, throwing their weight around and acting like they own the place.  So don’t.  Just kick back, relax, and learn to embrace tardiness and stonewalling.
  6. Be friendly.  That one really needs no explanation.
  7. It’s not that cold.

There will be more to come, I’m sure!


thanksgiving in mongolia

Thanksgiving in Mongolia was suprisingly like Thanksgiving in America, though not without considerable effort.  First, there was the matter of the turkey.  Not a common sight here, but the embassy staff receives a special shipment of over 1000 turkeys in mid-November.  This year, unfortunately, they didn’t arrive, due to some ill-timed bad weather.

But, Thanksgiving isn’t the same without the turkey, so a good friend rallied his resources and managed to get his hands on one, raised by a farmer in the far east of the country.   Apparently, this lucky soul only had 10, and the US embassy suggested to him that now would be an opportune time to sell them.  So he did, and $98 later, our 3.4 kilo crowning jewel arrived.

The rest of the ingredients proved easy enough to find, except perhaps sweet potatoes.  Yams were possible, but this year Thanksgiving fell on the same day as Mongolia’s constitutional independence, and as a national holiday, the markets were closed (though some stores remained open).  So no yams either, but potatoes, beans, corn, carrots, bread for stuffing, pumpkin, and all sorts of other goodies were procured in advance.  The night before, we set to cooking, producing pie, ricotta cheesecake, and the foundations of several other dishes besides.

The day of, vegetables were chopped, and the bird soaked in a pot of salt water.   3.4 kilos is nothing spectacular, and the only indication that we had a turkey was its long neck.  When you are used to American butchering of fowl, the sight of the long neck and the cavity on the other side is a bit disconcerting.  After several minutes of grossing ourselves out, we managed to marinate the bird and put it in the oven (where it barely fit – 3.4 kilos was perhaps the perfect size).

Because two of us live in the same building, we managed to move chairs and a table from one apartment to another, so that we were able to squeeze 12 people around one table.  Everything else was prepared, and an extra chicken obtained just in case.

All told, we had the turkey and chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, roasted carrots and leeks, sauteed spinach and mushrooms, savory zucchini ricotta cheesecake, apple-walnut stuffing, sesame green beans, rolls, pumpkin bread, a hearty salad, pumpkin pie, chocolate pecan pie, strawberry cake, ice cream, and even fresh mongolian cream.  And, at the 11th hour, as we lamented for the 10th time that we would have no cranberry sauce, a friend walked in with a bag of hawthorn (or perhaps goji) berries – small, bright red, and most important, tart.  So we boiled them in a sugar syrup, added orange rind and juice, and made the best approximation of cranberry sauce that we could have manged.  Dinner was complete.

swine flu

H1N1 came late to Mongolia, but it came in like a lion.  Since the initial cases were reported in early October, the headcount has gone up to over 900 (remember, pop: 2.7 million), with 9 deaths (ie, 1% case fatality rate).  To combat the spread of the disease, we are basically on lockdown.

Schools have been closed for 2 weeks, and will remain closed for another 2 weeks.  The local stations are broadcasting lessons, so students are still learning and keeping up.  Universities are still open, however (not sure why).

Everything closes at 9 pm, with a strict penalty imposed for violators.  There is nothing like being harried through a nice meal to remind you to which extreme measures people can often resort.   Entertainment facilities, sporting events, and pretty much all public gatherings have been canceled.  This leaves most people very little to do, and unfortunately, the city’s youth have found hanging out on the street behaving like hooligans an adequate way to pass the time.  Luckily, its getting colder and colder, so most will stay indoors anyway.  I am guessing the liquor companies are doing brisk business at the stores.

The most recent decision has been to stop all domestic travel, except flights.  This means no buses, and potentially even no trains.  Private cars are still allowed around, but many people are not going anywhere. Rumor has it the city will be closed entirely this weekend, meaning no one will go in or out.

The most alarming news is that the land border with China is closed for 2 weeks, meaning imports will slow to a trickle.  Given how much produce and other food items come across that border, I imagine the prices are going to start rising soon.

What does this mean for the economy?  I guess we will soon see….

art of the cross-sell

I’ve been out of the city for a few weeks (posts to follow), hence the quiet around here lately.   But now I’m back in the city, and after this weekend’s flurry of goodbye parties, I hope to really buckle down and clear off the lingering items on my to-do list.  At least for a few weeks, before my brothers arrive and the whirlwind starts again.

Being back in the office is a secret relief.  While I love traveling and experiencing new things, the office routine is a bit comforting.  Of course I say this now, and in 3 weeks I’ll be itching to head out again. But currently, OSF is working on their strategic plan, and this is the sort of thing I enjoy doing – the brainstorming and big picturing that goes behind making a 2-year plan.   It is fascinating to watch their progress on this, and offer my insights based on my experiences with American organizations and non-profits.

Today, we had an enlightening conversation about the word “cross sell”.  I was asked to explain it, so I gave the superficial definition – just the idea of selling a second related product to a customer after a successful first sale.  But, because it seems a bit odd that we have a term and a concept for something so mundane, I tried to get more into the “why” of the word.  Which is where things got tough, because so much of language is related to culture, or at least a way of expressing culture.

See, the cross-sell is more than just selling a second or third product.  It’s about adding value to a product for the consumer, and about customer retention and building a relationship.  The cross-sell isn’t just for the purposes of unloading more crap onto your willing customer, though our American penchance for buying more crap makes it a bit easier.

My Mongolian colleagues understood the idea of add-on “deals”, but the psychology behind the transaction was a little bit lost.  Our service-oriented, consumerist, capitalist culture has yet to make inroads here in Mongolia.  While competitiveness is a newly burgeoning concept here, it has yet to establish itself into the national psyche.  And free-market economics, driver of competitiveness, which essentially drives the need for service and relationship-building, is still on the fringe.

So the idea of being sold a motorcycle, and then being offered the helmet at a lower cost makes sense, of course, from the consumer point of view.  But thinking about this from the business point of view is something of a new experience for Mongolians.  It’s the reason why sellers won’t go below a specific price, even if it means losing the sale entirely and having to hold on to inventory far longer than necessary.  It’s also the reason why restaurants operate with only half of their menu items, and no one seems to be bothered. And it’s the reason why buying a bottle of wine is often more expensive than buying 4-6 glasses of wine (interestingly, it’s cheaper to buy 0.5 L of beer, vs 2 0.33 L mugs of beer).

I imagine this is all rapidly changing from a Mongolian perspective, but from my perspective, where I take these things for granted, it seems excruciatingly slow. In the meantime, I have to settle for paying for my wine a glass at a time, and feeling no loyalty towards the  businesses I frequent.

the working life

It occurs to me that there are a lot of posts here about parties and horseback riding and other frivolous adventures, but not much about my daily activities. Mostly, that is because on a semi-regular basis, I actually work, and that isn’t all that exciting to write about (or read).  But for the purposes of explaining life here in Mongolia, here’s a post on work.

I work with the Open Society Forum, which is part of the Soros Open Society Institute network.  The network is an amazing model – while initially each country office was a subsidiary of the main office in New York, eventually each branch spins off to become semi- or even fully autonomous.  Yet, each office in-country retains its contacts in other countries (and New York), providing a web of organizations each with a common purpose.

In Mongolia, OSF operates in a number of sectors, including economic, fiscal, environmental, and social welfare policy.  In addition, election monitoring and anti-corruption are other important areas in which OSF has a vested interest. On a regular basis, OSF staff work in these fields, often collaborating with Parliament, and local and foreign NGOs, as well as other organizations in the OSI network.

My role at OSF is somewhat undefined. I am, of course, here to do my own research.  But at the same time, I have certain expertise that can be useful for them, particularly in terms of methodology.  Our American educational system places a high value on problem solving and critical analysis skills, and Mongolia is still heavily invested in the Soviet model (aka, rote memorization).  So one skill I bring that is useful is a clear understanding of analysis and methodology in research.  Which is beneficial, because OSF currently has a cohort of policy fellows in dire need of some training.

Policy analysis is by no means a difficult field, but without a foundation in the type of thinking that is promoted in our educational system, it can be difficult for students educated here to step outside the system and delve into analysis and synthesis.  So I’ve been working on a training manual for the fellows – just a simple pamphlet outlining the steps in a policy analysis, as well as some brief information on various data collection techniques.   I’ve also been working on developing a private blog to share thoughts and provide critique on some of the documents the fellows are sending in (first step: proper explanation of a literature review).  In this case, it seems clear that the policy fellowship serves two purposes: one is civil society engagement in political processes, and the second is training for the fellows in critical analysis.

Of course my other role at OSF is rather simple – I am the de facto yoga instructor.  It is actually quite a lot of fun, and I do appreciate a weekly committment to my yoga practice.  Ideally, it will help me maintain my own home practice as well.    Other than that, I am also available to edit English documents and help put together a newsletter.  I am also working on setting up a system for producing podcasts.

I am, in other words, a policy analysis expert, methodology trainer, yoga instructor, and new media specialist.

As for life in the office, I have it good.  The staff cook lunch every day, so I get to eat freshly homemade Mongolian food (way better than restaurant food by a mile). Of course, it also requires dropping the vegetarian pretense, which frankly has not bothered me here.  Knowing that my meat is not industrially produced but instead is raised and slaughtered in a traditional manner means I’m not violating any major principles that led me to being a vegetarian in the first place. I meet my awesome friend Dave every so often for lunch – he helps keep me sane and fills me in on all things post-Soviet political. We also tend to eat veg….

And that is working in Mongolia in a nutshell.  I am also here to do my own research which is slowly coalescing.  More on that, soon enough.

In the meantime, as part of a longer (perhaps lifetime?) project, I’ve set up another blog.  It starts here in Mongolia and will branch out…  And will be looking for guest bloggers!


At any given moment, we never know how the weather will be. Today, it topped 30 celsius.  Saturday, we had snow in the morning and tomorrow we will again.  The wind will often pick up suddenly, whirling dust through the air, before abruptly stilling, leaving the dust to settle around me, in my hair, and eyes, and mouth.

The snow comes and goes, but it is dry, never sticking for too long (except, perhaps universally, on the tops of cars). There is freezing rain too, but it’s like nothing I grew up with, in Ohio or DC. Here, the rain falls through dryness, and itself almost feels cold and desiccated when it lands on your hands and face.

My Mongolian colleagues can smell the moisture in the air before, during, and after rain.  I can smell the lack of moisture when it doesn’t rain.  And when it does, I smell smoke and pollution being washed away. But I don’t smell wetness. I think maybe, being used to an abundance of moisture, I only notice it when it is not there.

I love the unpredictable weather though. This is spring in Mongolia, ever changing like a woman’s moods.  Some days, the air is calm, and altitude makes the sun beat down on your face in a pseudo-tropical warmth.   And then suddenly, wind or rain or snow or some other unpredictable element sweeps through and sends you scurrying for a scarf or gloves or raincoat or perhaps just the safe indoors.

But the green is peeking through, and where spring is flighty and uncertain, I hope summer is strong and sure. I want to see flowers and and smell grass, even if I have to leave the city to do so.  And perhaps most importantly, I want to witness rivers and mountains, and yes, even the desert (my secret love). Amazingly, Mongolia has all of this, and all of it wonderful.

It doesn’t always seem like it, but nature smiles here.

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!