Posts Tagged 'what the hell?'

nine nines of winter

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, it’s really quite cold here.  There are those who insist that it’s colder “back home”, but “back home”, I’ve never put on long underwear just to walk to a friend’s house.  Here, I wear a down-fill jacket fit for arctic temperatures.

The Mongolians know a cold winter.  In fact, they’ve got a system going, lovingly known as “the nine nines of winter” (Yucen Yuc).  Winter begins on the winter solstice (this season, December 22nd), and continues for 81 days, broken down into 9 sets of 9.   Each nine is marked by some action or observance.  Generally, it goes:

  • First nine – shimijn arkhi (mild alcoholic beverage made of milk) freezes
  • Second nine – arkhi (vodka) freezes (second distillation, also sometimes, they say Russian vodka freezes)
  • Third nine – tail of three-year-old yak freezes
  • Fourth – horns of four-year-old yak freeze
  • Fifth nine – boiled rice does not congeal any more
  • Sixth nine – roads blacken (ie, snow melting on blacktop)
  • Seventh nine – hilltops blacken (snow melting on the lower hills)
  • Eighth nine – ground becomes damp (snow melting on grass)
  • Ninth nine – warm days set in

We are in the second of the nines currently, which started on New Year’s Eve.  I’ve got some vodka on my balcony – not yet frozen.  But arkhi has less alcohol than bottled vodka, and I’ve heard some frozen vodka stories from others.  Up next, January 8th, we test some yak tails.

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cough cough hack

So lockdown continues for another 14 days, with schools and other things still closed.  But I’m mostly concerned about the pollution and the constant hacking and nose-blowing that never seems to stop.

The air is hazy, and the smell lingers in everything.   It isn’t so bad in the day time, but at night, it can be a major disincentive to going out (which works for now, since everything closes at 9 pm). I think as it gets colder, the daytime haze will grow, as more people burn things 24-hours a day.   Sometimes, the haze is so bad that the mountains that ring the city are not visible.

The smell is not the pleasant one of smoke.  It’s more like plastic, and dung, and maybe even tires.   It is acrid and vaguely nauseating, and with the biting cold, it sears the inside of your nostrils.  Only two months left, and its not the cold that will get me, but the pollution.

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….

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!

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.

picture perfect

I can’t believe I’ve never been to Hawaii before.

visa debacle

So I’m still trying to get a visa.  Everyone says I should get the visa for the full stay before I go, which is what I’m trying to do.  Open Society put through the paperwork and had everything sent to the embassy here.

Of course, it’s always the embassies that mess everything up.   I’ve called 4 times to try to find out what I need to bring to get my visa (and to find out if it’s ready).  The usual conversation goes like this:

me: Hi, I’m calling to find out if my visa is ready.

visa office:  What is your name?

me. Patel, Deepali.

visa office: Oh, right.  Mexican?

me: Um. No. American.

visa office: Is this a tourist or business visa?

me:  Student.

visa office: Oh. Let me call you back.

Of course, no one calls me back.

Today, I went to the visa office to pick up my visa, because I was told it was ready.  Well, it’s not.  Or at least, they don’t know if it is. Because apparently, it’s sitting in the safe and only the consular officer has access.

visa office:  Can you come back tomorrow?

me: Sure, what time?

visa office: What time do you want to come by?

me:  Um, when the consular officer is here?

What am I missing?

We decided on 9 am.  But then later I realized I couldn’t go that early, so I called to see if I could go by later.

me: Hi, I can’t come by tomorrow at 9 am. Can I come at 10?

visa office:  Yes.  Wait, is this a tourist visa?

me: Student.

visa office:  Let me call you back.

Sigh.