Book Reception

My friend Erka wrote a book of poetry! It was published and on Monday I went to her book reception.  It was held in her shoe store which is in the new Darkhan Department Store.  My supervisor, her husband, and I were the first to arrive.  The store is small, with the 25 people who came to the reception it was crowded. 

Once the bulk of the guests arrived, Erka spoke about the process of writing her book of poetry, when she began and what the collection of pieces means to her.  Then a bottle of champagne was popped and split among the group.  We all had a splash of champagne in our little paper cups to toast her success.  A few other folks made speeches and Erka was presented with gifts; wine baskets with fruit, a journal with a pen, a crystal pen, and other thoughtful items. 

Erka then read one of the poems in her book.  She said to me that the next time we went for coffee she would translate one of the shorter poems for me.  I’ll have to translate the rest on my own and ask her for clarification when I’m stuck.

I thought I had escaped the speech giving because it looked like Erka was about to start signing copies of the book and then she sprung it on me, “Chris, would you like to say something?”  Of course, of course I would *sigh*.  So I made a brief speech about this being my first Mongolian book reception and how I was proud of Erka and that I wished her great success and congratulations.  She translated for the rest of the group and people smiled at me.  Awkward much?  I like being a wallflower.

Everyone who came to the reception got a copy of the book which she signed. After the book-signing came the snack-eating and wine-drinking portion of the program.  Then we all went back to work.  The whole shindig lasted about an hour.

I’ve been in Mongolia for a little over a year now.  I haven’t been to a hair-cutting ceremony, a wedding, or a funeral.  But I’ve been to a book reception.  Not many PCVs can say that.

Adoption Averted

I came marginally close to adopting a cat yesterday. But thankfully I came away from the situation pet free.

Coming back from a jog yesterday morning ~8:30, there was an adorable 8-month-old-ish kitten perched on a chest-high branch in the small tree in front of my apartment building.  He was mostly white with some brown tabby blotches on his head and sides.  Of course I stopped to give him some loving.  I scritched behind his ears and under his chin, and cooed at him for a few minutes.  The Mongolians that passed by while this was happening looked at me like I was crazy.  Not for the cooing but because I was actively touching a cat. Well, maybe a little for the cooing.  Anyhow, I left the kitten hanging out on his branch and went into my building.

A couple of hours later I came down to go to the small grocery on the first floor of my building.  Guess who was sitting on the steps into the grocery – yup, my little friend.  He was skittish when the door of the grocery opened and would dart down a couple of the steps but he hung out there until I came out with the eggs and orange juice I needed to make carrot muffins (they were damn tasty). I stooped down to give him some reassuring head scritches and he seemed less tense.  As I rounded the steps and went in the entrance to my stairwell, I noticed he was following me.  I made it to the first landing and he had slowed his pursuit but was still following.  I panicked at the prospect of having a pet and ran as fast as I could up the rest of the flights of stairs hoping he wouldn’t follow because I knew that if he made it to my front door with me, I wouldn’t be able to resist his kitten charm and would have allowed him into my apartment.  Once in, there’s no question that I would keep him.  Thankfully, he didn’t follow me. Whew!

When I left to deliver muffins a couple of hours later, he was gone.  I love cats and I do miss having one but getting a pet here just isn’t a smart thing for me to do.  A: Every time I leave town, I would have to ask someone to care for it. B: It would break my heart to leave it here when I go back to the states. There’s hoops to jump through and monetary layout to get it back to the states with me. C: I’m already living on a minimal stipend.  Do I really make enough each month to feed a cat.  Plus litter costs. Vaccinations. Spaying/neutering. Etc.  D: I really want to travel after my service.  Couldn’t do that if I had a pet.

For these reasons, I plan to stay pet free for the duration of my service.  *crosses fingers, knocks on wood*

The Second Year Begins

(technically the second year began in June, but hey, I’m talking school year)

August was a whirlwind.  As the new crop of trainees finished up Pre-Service Training, I sat in on some of their practice teaching sessions and shared my observations and feedback. All 67 of them came to Darkhan for their last week of training and their swearing-in ceremony. They were sworn in as the 23rd class of Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers at the Darkhan Theater.  Here in Darkhan, we got 4 new volunteers!  Three are university teachers and one is working at the Health Department.  So, now there are 8 volunteers in Darkhan; 5 working at universities.  I look forward to doing some inter-collegiate competitions this year.

Two days after the new volunteers dispersed to their new homes, I headed to UB for my class of volunteers’ Mid-Service Training.  It was also time for our annual physical and dental check-up.  MST was held outside UB at a resort in Terelj.  We stayed in gers for a couple of nights, attended training sessions during the day, but generally just enjoyed each others company.  It’s not often that our whole group gets together in one place.  We’re spread out all over this large country; many of these people I hadn’t seen since In-Service Training last December.  Honestly, just seeing everyone together, having a good time, and all the laughter and smiles, did more to prepare me for this second year than any of the training sessions.

The day after I got back from MST, the school year began at my university.  We start a week earlier than everyone else.  I figured I’d go into school around 9:30/10:00 because I knew I wouldn’t be teaching for a couple of weeks until the schedule gets ironed out so there was no reason to drag myself in there early.  Oh, but there was… the opening ceremony was at 9:00.  Everyone dressed in their finest, balloon arches, music and speeches. And I missed it. I got a text from one of my cps at 9:30 that read “where r u?”.  I told her that I was on my way.  She said the ceremony was happening and I replied with “no one told me about it”.  This happens so often here, and not just to me.  The grapevine does not always extend to volunteers.  It’s not deliberate and I’ve learned to laugh about it when it happens or at least shrug my shoulders and say “Oh, Mongolia.”

Now, it’s the second week of classes and the schedule is still not concrete.  I know which teachers I’m working with this semester but not when I’m working with them.  This also makes it difficult for me to schedule my solo classes because I have to base them around when I can get the most attendees from among the teaching staff.  I’ll have it all ironed out by the end of next week, the third week of a 16 week semester.  Wheee, and away we go.


A little over one year in and here are some of the things I’ve noticed about food.

• I don’t miss fast food. I hope that I can continue not eating fast food when I return to the states.
• I haven’t eaten corn at all.  It’s so prevalent in America and a part of so many packaged foods but not here.
• I miss nuts more than anything else.  Plain, unroasted, unsalted nuts.  Not peanuts, those are available. But real nuts: brazil nuts, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts.  Almonds are available here but they’re really expensive.  I also saw a 2 lb. bag of pecans once that was $45. Not in my Peace Corps budget.
• In a country where meat plays such an intrinsic role of every meal (it’s not a meal, if there’s no meat. I’m not kidding.), I eat far less meat here than I did in the states.  In fact, it was 6 months between beef purchases (both times only a kilo was purchased). And I didn’t buy any other form of meat in that period of time except for canned tuna.
• I don’t really eat cheese anymore.  It’s available in Darkhan but it’s quite expensive.
• I’ve learned how to make Korean, Indian, and of course, Mongolian food.
• I eat a lot of rice and eggs. Rice makes up for what I don’t eat in white flour products.
• I eat a lot of bell peppers, potatoes, carrots, cucumber, cabbage, and tomatoes.  Now that summer is here the vegetable and fruit selection has expanded, and I’ve had ramps, broccoli, some unidentified greens that were delicious, and spring onions.
• I miss Dairy Queen and Izzy’s Ice Cream Parlor in St. Paul, MN. What they have for ice cream here just doesn’t compare.
• I miss sushi.  I hear there’s a decent sushi restaurant in UB but it’s spendy.
• I miss avocados and good mexican food.
• I miss raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries.
• I’ve lost 30 lbs. since coming to Mongolia.  This is a good thing. Not the regular statistics for PCVs in Mongolia.  Most women gain weight.
• I miss Guinness and other good beers.

But the things I miss, I don’t really think about that often.  It’s not like I sit and pine for a good, stout beer. And being in a large city, my selection of food and drink is far larger than my fellow PCVs living in small soums.  And I love to cook, so I’ve made some delicious food with what is available to me.  I think it will be very strange, perhaps even a  little frightening, the first time I go into an American grocery store and am faced with plethora of items for every day purchase.

Gobi Trip – Final Day

Main road – Lost – Darkhan

Not much to say about the last day.  We had leftover goat for breakfast, packed up and were on the road by 10am.  We made a brief stop on the main road to Ulaanbaatar where the driver told us to get anything we might want for the rest of the day because we would not be stopping again.  After the hellish driving conditions he went through the day before, I imagine he was ready to get home.

In order to avoid the traffic jam that is UB, they decided to cut across country (using dirt roads, of course) at a diagonal toward Bayanchandmani.  We got lost.  Not by far, just a few km.  It was a beautiful place to be lost, green rolling hills, blue sky. We stopped for a bit of a gnosh.  After, we drove over to the nearest ger and asked for directions.  The woman there put us on the right path and we met up with the main road between UB and Darkhan rather quickly.

We arrived back in Darkhan in the mid-afternoon.  I was looking forward to a shower, relaxing on my couch and watching a movie.  This was not to be my future.  I hadn’t even made it my door, backpack still on, hands full of sleeping bag, pillow, bottle of water, when I was accosted (pleasantly) by my next door neighbor and the neighbor who lives below me.  Through hand motions and my broken Mongolian, I figured out that my apartment had sprung a leak and was dripping into the downstairs neighbors apartment.  Shit.

I got my door unlocked and the three of us entered expecting to see disaster.  I unloaded all my gear in my bedroom and went to the living room. The floor was covered in water, the 9′ x 6′ oriental rug was sodden.  The radiator had sprung a leak.  The silver-lining is that it had only started to drip in the downstairs neighbors the day before and she had already started a remodeling project so the wallpaper had already been stripped from the walls.  Essentially no damage was done, at least none that my school (who owns my apartment) would need to pay for.  My rug saved the day.  The rug that now weighed an absolute ton and needed to be removed from my apartment so that I could start getting the rest of the water off the floor.  I managed to roll it up and push/pull it out onto the porch.  Plumbers were called, a large pot was put under the drip, I moved all the furniture and ruined all but one towel sopping up the copper-colored water from the floor.  I couldn’t unroll the rug and lift it onto the porch railing to dry, it was far too heavy.  So, it stayed in a heap overnight. The next day when the plumbers came I asked them to open it up for me and toss it over the railing.  They were very helpful.

I’m glad this didn’t happen in the middle of winter.  The water from the radiator would have been scalding and the rug never would have dried outside.  It would have just frozen into a solid rug-cicle till spring thaw.  Nothing in my apartment was destroyed, I sacrificed a few towels.  Really, for a busted, leaking radiator – things could have been much worse.

To use the overused adage – all’s well that ends well.  I eventually got my shower and even watched a movie that night.

Gobi Trip – Day Seven

Waterfall – Hailstorm – Kharkhorin

Goat for breakfast! We finished cooking the goat this morning and had a lovely breakfast gnawing meat from bones, eating greasy potato chunks with our fingers and  using bread to wipe the grease from our faces and hands, then eating the bread.

The ground was practically dry after last night’s thunderstorm.  It just soaked up all that water like a sponge.  We waited around for a little while to let the bottom of the tents dry out before packing them up.  With that and the goat roasting we got a late start; leaving camp around 11am.

After about 2 hours of travel over a very rocky field (so the travel was very slow) we arrived at one of the very few waterfalls in Mongolia, Ulaan Tsutgalan.  It is dry for most of the year but July & August are the best times to see it.  “When it does run, the roads leading to it are often washed out, making transport here very difficult.  Even in dry weather the road is pretty rough. (Lonely Planet)”

As we were pulling in to the parking area, thunder was rumbling in the distance.  Storm clouds were moving in and we knew we had a very short period to see the waterfall without getting rained on.  Not wanting to get soaked and then have to sit in the mikr, I rushed ahead of the group, took in the scenic beauty, snapped a few pictures, hit the outhouse and went back to the mikr.  I was only one of three who took this approach.  Everyone else wanted to hike to the bottom of the gorge and then back up.  I sat in the mikr and read as the thunderstorm turned into a hailstorm.

Once everyone was back and loaded up, the driver decided to get on the road; with the windows fogged up, rain lashing down, and hail pelting us.  This was the only time during the trip that I was truly frightened.  As LP said, the road is pretty rough even in good weather.  At one point the driver tried to get up a short, yet steep incline four times; each time we slid backwards at a 45 degree angle and my side of the mikr was the side that would have hit the ground first had we toppled over.  Time to pop a xanax.

The xanax did not kick in before we had to cross a river 4 TIMES because that’s the way the road zagged.  The water was so high and running so fast that you could feel it trying to push the mikr downstream.  Did I mention – terrified. But really I have to give props to our driver.  He got us through some areas that were more treacherous than when I drove my little Hyundai up the washed-out mountain road to Silver City, Idaho.

The storm did finally pass and after several hours of travel we made it into Kharkhorin around 7pm.  Kharkhorin is the ancient capital of Mongolia and is home to the first Buddhist temple in Mongolia, Erdene Zuu  (more info on the ancient capital here and the monastery here).  As we arrived so late in the day, the main temples of the monastery were closed but we were able to walk around the grounds.

Outside of the main entrance to the monastery is a long row of food tents and in front of those tents, pandering to tourists, were a couple of people selling the opportunity to hold an eagle and get your photo taken.  I had never held an eagle, so I did the tourist thing.  I also paid for two of my Mongolian friends to do this as well.  I needed compatriots in my act of blatant tourism.  It cost more for me, 2000 tgks as opposed to 1000 tgks for natives, which only totaled $3.50 altogether.

This was a good end to a harrowing day of travel.  We drove into the night towards Ulaanbaatar and stopped to camp along the roadside at around 10:30pm.  The next day was the last day of the trip; all driving towards home.

Gobi Trip – Day Six

NW of Khujirt – Bat-Olzii – Tövkhön Khiid

This was a beautiful morning.  I was the first one up at 7:30 and went for a walk up to these white rock formations in the hill overlooking our camp.  I spent an hour up there, reading and watching the sun move up over the hills. Slowly the camp roused and I could tell it would be a leisurely morning before we got on the road.  I think the guys needed it after dealing with the mikr repairs yesterday.

We got on the road around 10:30 headed toward Bat-Olzii. One of the best friends I’ve made so far in Peace Corps used to live in Bat-Olzii.  She was medically separated from PC in May, but thankfully she is on the mend and close to medical care in the states and not a 10 hour ride from medical facilities in UB.  So, it was bittersweet driving into her soum without her there.

On the way into Bat-Olzii we stopped at a ‘scenic overlook’ to view the river winding its way through the countryside down below us.  I could hardly pay attention to the beauty around me because of being swarmed by flies.  I don’t mean 5-10 flies were annoying me by buzzing around.  I mean hundreds of flies were driving me to distraction, I’m lucky I didn’t fall off the overlook from all the gesticulating and swatting I was doing.

Bat-Olzii is in the Khangai Nuruu National Park which covers a very large area of land and is composed of rolling hills, mountains, a large river, trees, rocky plains, and is just plain gorgeous.  Green, green land and blue, blue sky.  We stopped in B-Olzii to refuel, both the mikr and ourselves, and to get directions to Tövkhön Khiid.



Next we headed to Tövkhön Khiid.  I’ll let Lonely Planet tell you about it – “Hidden deep in the Khangai mountains, this incredibly scenic monastery has become a major pilgrimage centre for Mongolians seeking spiritual solace. Zanabazar founded the site in 1653 and lived, worked and meditated here for 30 years. The monastery was destroyed in 1937 but rebuilt with public funds in the early 1990s. Situated at the tope of Shireet Ulaan Uul, Zanabazar apparently liked the unusual formation of the peak; the rocky outcrop looks like an enormous throne.”  It also warns – “Swarms of flies will probably plague your ascent; wrap a t-shirt, bandana or towel around your head to keep them away.”  That doesn’t work, btw.

Tövkhön Khiid on the left mountain top

There is a parking lot at the base of the mountain that is a 3k walk from the monastery.  All uphill of course.  Renting a horse for the trek is an option.  An option that I should have taken.  I made it about 2.5k up and then had an exercise-induced asthma attack, which have gotten worse since coming to Mongolia.  My inhaler was not in my pocket, cuz I’m an idiot.  So, I went back down and did not make it to the top.  My traveling companions took many pictures so I got to see what I missed and I will be going back.  I’ll make sure I have my inhaler in my pocket then.  Here’s a pic of the woods we walked through.

so different from where I was two days before this

We left T-K around 5:45 and drove back towards B-Olzii.  We stopped at a ger we had passed on the way to T-K and negotiated a price for a goat. The Korean man traveling with us wanted to have a khuurkhug one of the nights we camped and he said he would pay for the goat.   A khuurkhug is kind of like a goat roast but the goat is cut into chunks and put into a large metal canister with rocks that have been heated in the fire as well as potatoes and onions.  Then the canister is put in the fire.  It’s delicious!

These two guys road down to our campsite by the river with the goat on the motorcycle. One guy to drive the bike, one guy to hold the goat.


After killing the goat and removing the innards (almost all to be used later – we gave them to the family that provided the goat because of the time it takes to prepare the innards), the feet and head are removed, then the hide is blow-torched off. Once thoroughly blow-torched, the goat is then cut into chunks to be cooked in the canister. This process takes awhile.

Meanwhile, a storm was blowing in.  Lots of lightning, big thunder, dark skies, and wind so strong it blew one of the tents down.  Two of us stayed in our tent to hold it down but it was being bent sideways by the wind. I was certain the poles were going to break. Thankfully they didn’t. And we managed to stay dry!  It was a successful camping in a thunderstorm.  Alas, the goat did not finish cooking that night.  So, we had goat for breakfast the next day.  But that’s tomorrow’s story…

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