Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gotta Love the Work Trips

by Mark

Last Tuesday I was informed that we'd be traveling to Tariat soum on a work-related trip to visit with 4 "herder groups" that have been working in the tourism industry here in Arkhangai, Mongolia. I soon realized this trip was supposed to last four days. Tariat is only a 5-6 hour drive west (about 180 kilometers), so why so many days? Well after a 24 hour period in Tariat soum, we were going to drive all the way back, past Tsetserleg, into Tsenher soum. But we'll get to that part later...

On the way to Tariat, we came across this little guy selling "airag" on the roadside.

The scenery along the way was beautiful, the people we met were hospitable, and the lessons on "what to see in western Arkhangai" were plentiful. Did you know there are 33 extinct volcanoes out there? Well we climbed to the crater rim of one found on the south end of White Lake (Tsagaan Nuur). The surrounding area is just covered in basalt rock, black ground nearly as far you can see. But the trees are turning yellow at this time of year, so they made the view quite attractive.

There's so many pictures of places we stopped to take a look at (unfortunately I can't load them all here), so most will find their way on to Facebook (link will be at the end of this post). But here's some links to a couple: we saw a couple volcano crater lakes, the Yellow Dog Hell Cave, the Ice Cave, White Lake, the Chuluut River, and the Tree of 100 branches. All were incredible sites, but I was there to work wasn't I? So here's the obligatory pic of me listening to the women who run these herder groups discussing their 12 point plan to increase tourism in Tariat (really quite extensive):

The work was done, the meeting was over, so it was time to make our way back. We stopped for the second night back in Tsetserleg to sleep, then got up early and continued to Tsenher soum. This soum is known for its hot springs, boiling right up out of the ground, heating at this particular location no less than 4 ger camps and at least 2 large greenhouses. The area was gorgeous. The people were great. And when it was all said and done, we stayed an additional night to eat, drink, relax and dance with people from Mongolia, Germany, Switzerland, and myself as the lone American.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Daily Life in Tsetserleg

Daily routines, daily ponderings, daily challenges...
by Kara

Sometimes life here in Mongolia feels, well… normal. A few months ago feeling normal seemed like it may be an unattainable for me in this country. Yet today I find myself, one month into living in our new home in our new town, having found routine and some order to life. Fortunately, each day’s routine is accompanied by a dose of unpredictability; we are still living in Mongolia after all.

We wake up each morning with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and each other’s company. Breakfast is usually suutai boda (hot rice with milk and sugar), bread and jam, or on occasion something fancy like eggs or pancakes. After breakfast we walk to our respective work places, strolling in around 9:30 or 10, which is a pretty average arrival time for most of our coworkers.

Like I said, we’ve been here a month, but that doesn’t mean we’ve really figured everything out at work yet. I’m still trying to put together a solid to-do list each week to keep myself busy. A few of the random things I’ve done include participating in a big, grand first day of school ceremony, visiting classrooms, tallying hundreds of surveys recently completed by children in our town, helping teach some English classes to kids, and occasionally serving as the IT person at work. I also got to help out at a camp that one of my sitemates helped plan. It was a short two-day camp and was specifically for kids with disabilities. It was a really great experience and good time spent with a group of wonderful kids and teens, as well as my sitemates. (Unfortunately though, I managed to get food poisoning which set in during my night at camp, so my second day of camp wasn't quite as exciting...)

Anyway, back to work stuff... I also have started daily English lessons with my coworkers, which has actually been pretty fun so far. I am hesitant to sign up for too much English teaching because it’s easy for a Community Youth Development volunteer to turn into a full-time English teacher and tutor, but it’s a valuable skill that I have to offer so I think it’d be selfish to not share that skill with my coworkers at least. Plus, it helps me get to know them all better and eventually will help our communication with one another. Right now there are only a couple of beginner-level English speakers and the others only know Mongolian and maybe Russian. Given my limited Mongolian skills (and no knowledge of Russian!) this results in a very slow communication process. Sometimes I wonder how I’ll ever get any work done with such a language barrier, as well as a sometimes equally confusing cultural barrier. Fortunately, I have an excellent counterpart/coworker who I share an office with. Even after only four weeks together we have learned to understand each other pretty well.

Over the upcoming year I believe my biggest project will be to help raise funds to renovate a nearby summer camp, as well as help coordinate and plan both the renovation and the logistcs of the camp. Our organization recently acquired the use of the camp and we plan to open it up next summer. It’s in a beautiful location but has become very run down over years of abandonment. I’m looking forward to helping with this project more. I also will get to help more with our organization’s activities working directly with children starting next month.

I have some more ideas of things I’d like to get started within my organization, as well as some projects I’d like to do outside of work in my community. First though, I’m trying to spend time getting to know my community. It’s difficult for me to feel so unproductive at times, but I’m doing my best to be patient, yet proactive, and flexible.

Anyway, after a morning of trying to figure out what to do at work, Mark and I meet up and go home to have lunch together. During our walk we get to hear a chorus of greetings from adorable little children on their way to and from school. The brave ones who say hello to us are eager to practice their English, but usually don’t have too much to say beyond hi and hello, except for the occasional kid who introduces himself as Kobe Bryant or Chinggis Khan’s brother. Peace Corps Volunteers have said they get tired of this constant attention from children, but I’m not quite that jaded yet; these kids still brighten my day.

After a relaxing hour-long lunch at home Mark and I head back to work for the afternoon. We usually finish around 5 or 5:30 and one or both of us heads to the market to buy food for dinner. Without a refrigerator and since its not consistently cold enough here yet to use our balcony as a fridge, we end up grocery shopping everyday. Some days I love the adventure of going to the market, while other days I’m tired and I just want to be able to buy some vegetables without having a confusing, awkward moment with the vendor. Today for example I was given a piece of gum as change instead of the 20 tugriks I was owed. Twenty tugriks is equivalent to about one penny, so I didn’t really care about the change, but I didn’t know exactly what to do or say when the cashier just handed me some gum. So I did the only thing I really could do, ate it and left.

On the walk home the town is usually filled with people shopping, running errands, and heading home for the day. This is when I get to see a ton of different people (and when I’m often stared at by a handful of these people). Today I saw a woman pushing a cart down the road; lying upon the cart was her very drunk husband (I presume) who was nearly passed out but still conscious enough to be mumbling to himself. The other day I saw men going down the road on horseback, on wooden saddles, wearing dels (traditional Mongolian clothing), and to me, given their mode of transportation and attire, they looked the same as men who lived here hundreds of years ago – yet they were riding to the tune of Smack That, an American rap song being blared by a local cell phone vendor. In those moments I look around and wonder where I am and how I got there…

Anyway, when I finally make it home after the captivating walk, Mark and I make dinner. Although our ingredients are pretty limited here, especially given our minimal Peace Corps salary, we’ve enjoyed learning how to cook with them and make meals together. I didn’t really like cooking that much back in the States, but I’m learning to appreciate it more here. If nothing else, I’ve learned to appreciate eating food that I enjoy after a summer of not doing any cooking and always being forced to eat whatever was placed in front of me. Plus, we don’t have too many other options. There are plenty of days where I cook only because I don’t have the Pho shop or Thaiger Room down the road to grab some food at.

After dinner we are usually reading, on the internet, or watching TV shows or movies on our computer. In truth, the entertainment we watch on our computer is a form of escapism, where we don’t have to think in Mongolian and we can maybe even forget we’re in Mongolia for a moment, which is a bit of a guilty pleasure. Don’t get me wrong, we have fallen in love with Mongolia, but it is very mentally tiring at times. Oh, and as of this week, I’ve started trying to work out a bit more. I do not plan on gaining a bunch of fat to stay warm this winter, much to the chagrin of some of my coworkers and my host mom.

When we’re not following this routine it’s usually because we’ve been whisked away to the hodoo (countryside) with coworkers, which always serves as an adventure. (Which is actually where Mark is at this very moment.) And though our jobs may sound boring, and well, they are sometimes (but aren’t all jobs occasionally?), they are also fun and exciting. Speaking Mongolian all day can be exhausting, but I’m always challenged and growing. And finally grasping the understanding of what my coworker has been trying to communicate feels very rewarding! Also, trying to better understand the Mongolian culture can be confusing, but it’s also fascinating. And just when I think I can make some blanket statement about Mongolians, somebody defies my logic and I start all over.

As I’m trying to figure out all these details of surviving daily life here in Tsetserleg I also find myself pondering the bigger picture. What am I doing here? How can I help? Are they giving me back more than I’m contributing? Will I ever feel like I totally understand my coworkers and will they ever understand me? Will I ever learn to like drinking airag and Mongolia’s plethora of dairy products? I’m not sure if I’ll ever totally be able to answer these questions, but I’m okay with that. I’m just glad I’m in a place where I’m able to constantly learn, be challenged, and ask a lot of meaningful questions. And obviously, I hope that during all of this personal growth I’m able to serve Mongolians in a meaningful manner. I just don’t quite know how yet…

Saturday, September 19, 2009

They Say it was a Wrestler...

by Mark

A few days back, my entire workplace got invited to a neighboring soum (pronounced "soam" - equivalent to a US state county) for a lunch party honoring one of the winners of the best products awards from our Trade Fair. They were unable to attend the ceremony and thus felt it was necessary to thank all of us with a meal...since in turn we would be bringing them their various awards. The location reminded me a lot of Eastern Washington (maybe a few more trees), and with it being the middle of autumn everything was changing colors. It was beautiful.

But it was the post-meal adventure that really captured my attention. You have to realize that Mongolia is made up of various mountainous areas and in between these are rather large, incredibly flat valleys. In the middle, I mean dead center, of one of these valleys there is a very large rock.

As you get closer, you realize that it's got to be nearly 50-60 feet tall. And it's not coming from inside the earth, rather it appears to have been placed there by design.

Of course there's a tourist marker giving some information about it's significance in Mongolian history, but the real point of making a trip this far off the main road is to make a wish. The trick is to stand on the West side of this towering rock, find a rock of approximate baseball size, make a wish, and attempt to throw your stone over the giant monument. Most know my baseball background...

So most people stare at this giant slab of mineral matter and wonder just how it may have gotten there. In Washington state most of our large, randomly placed rocks, arrived either by the more natural way of giant glaciers during colder periods in the history of our world...or let's just say by giant trucks. The story here in Mongolia is that a famous wrestler from Arkhangai, to prove his strength, simply picked up the rock from the neighboring mountains and place it in the middle of the open field. So I ask you, how do you think it got there? "They say it was a wrestler." haha.

But then again they said I couldn't throw a stone over their rock...

Monday, September 14, 2009

Arkhangai Trade Fair 2009

by Mark


Thursday was officially the first “work” day of the Arkhangai Trade Fair. It was basically a day of balloon blowing, streamer hanging, stall/booth setup, explaining to participants that were early that registration would begin at 3:00 pm, last minute runs to the Technology & Industry School for 40 extra tables, shots of vodka in the parking lot to celebrate before the event started, and any other activities that would be necessary to put on a 2 day trade fair for nearly 120 companies.
Of course everyone was tired before Registration even began, but a team of 4-5 women handled the throng of eager participants who all wanted to register first and have the pick of the best booths.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard before, but Mongolians do not queue in the sense that most Americans would recognize. Rather than forming lines, waiting your turn, and occasionally allowing people to jump ahead of you in line if you feel compassionate, here it’s a free-for-all. Everyone is leaning on other people attempting to give money to the staff, yelling information about their company, and even signing paperwork on people’s backs. Just because you are the closest to the table does not guarantee you will ever get signed up for this event – unless you start pushing/yelling as well. It’s entertaining to say the least, and there were many times that I would look over at my co-workers and see them just laughing at the craziness. I was glad they recognized the chaos around them.
Soon after registration began, someone realized we’d forgotten to get tables for about 40 stalls. Unbeknown to me I was about to take a 20 minute trip into the country-side to a Tech & Industry School for the necessary counter space. The reason I mention this trip is not because of its significance but rather because of the transportation. Take a look at this –

We did manage to lose one table on the ride back into town in this beast of a truck. My co-workers got a kick out of telling me that its name is “MARK 150” – definitely a Russian transport. Anyway, we got back, setup the tables, and called it an evening.


Speeches, songs, dances, and a mad rush into the Sport Hall that was housing our Trade Fair made up the morning of day 2. I was tasked with camera duties. I have suspicions it was because of my height…well, and largely because they had little else for me to do. However, my “role” at this Trade Fair was to manage the events that were put on by various fair sponsors. For instance, three competing banks each had activities for kids or adults. It was my job to make sure they stuck to their schedule. One bank had a bike race for kids, another had a Trivia contest (each correct answer would gain you 5,000 tugriks, or roughly $3.50), and the other bank had an Airag Drinking Contest (airag is fermented mare’s milk, a slightly alcoholic beverage).
Sometime in the afternoon, one of my directors decided it was time to take me around to all of the stalls and introduce me to the many Airag producers that are from the area. Six bowls later I found myself outside being led toward the animals that were on display behind the sport hall. Interesting side note: the winning goat weighed in at 86 kilos.

We didn’t spend long watching the cattle, rather we found ourselves enjoying a 7th bowl of airag and a bag of onion kimchi – which by the way was the hottest stuff I’ve eaten in a long time. By now my bladder is screaming at me, and the airag/kimchi mixture in my stomach is churning. I finally found a reason to head back to the Sport Hall, needing to shop for some veggies for dinner later that night. Kara met me after work and we were tortured by the smell of pizza coming from somewhere in the trade fair. Eventually we found out that a local restaurant had made pizza, brought it to the fair, sold all of them, and then just bailed. Missed out on that chance.


When I got to the Sport Hall on Saturday morning I was greeted by this on our registration table:

Supposedly my work had purchased it the night before, but Kara and I had left just in time to not have to be involved in what was supposed to be a late night delicacy. The reason it was still there in the morning had to do with over-cooking and the meal just never actually occurred. Oh, too bad.
I chatted with my director and supervisor about the previous day’s sales figures. First of all, we had a record turnout of participants with nearly 120 booths full of products from all over Mongolia. We also brought in about 1.5 million tugriks in registration fees (last year was 900,000 tugs). But the less impressive figure was the sales that were generated by all of the companies – only 36 million tugriks on day 1. I told everyone I thought it was because many people were looking at items that day and would be back to purchase things on this final day. This proved true, as the latest figures were roughly 105 million in total sales over the 2 days. That’s exciting. The numbers are down a bit from last year, but that’s due to economic issues that are still being overcome in Mongolia in 2009.
Here are a couple of photos of the awards ceremony that followed the trade fair.

Obviously I can’t talk about everything that happened during the past few days, there is just too much information. I chose to focus on the entertaining aspects of my weekend. Hopefully you can find some time to check out the myriad of photos that will paint a picture of the 2009 Arkhangai Trade Fair posted here:

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A View from the Hills

I'm sure we'll post more pictures in the near future, but for now I just wanted to get a few loaded for all to see.