Our friend Aleta (a fellow CYD PCV), Mark, and I in UBby Kara
As Mark mentioned, we recently traveled to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (pronounced "u-lawn-baaa-tar" with emphasis on "baaa" and the "u" sounds like the "oo" in "food" -- or just call it UB for short, like we do). It was really fun to get to see all of our other PCV friends again and have some time in the city to hang out together. I thought I'd share a little bit about our experiences in UB.
Upon arriving in this grand city (which holds half of the population of Mongolia and up until Greenland decided to become it's own country was the coldest capital city on earth - I guess it's second now - if you count Greenland), we realized we are a bit more like countryside folks than city folks here in Mongolia (though the opposite was true in the U.S.). We've only been at our site for a few months, but being an 8-hour drive away from UB, it's a lot different. As we got off of the bus in UB we were surrounded by taxi drivers offering us rides into the central part of the city. Although already a little overwhelmed, we were accompanied by PCV friends who have lived here for a year and know the routine. They instructed us that they think it's better to cross the crazy four-lane road and catch a cab on the other side. So there we were, looking like tourists with our backpacks full and heavy on our backs, trying to dart across this highway of cars going at least 40mph. Cars do not stop or slow down for people here (unless they are unoccupied taxis) and crossing roads feels like risking your death. Anyway, we made it across - alive. And by the end of the trip we learned how to cross roads like pros - standing in between lanes of traffic and darting across, enjoying the adrenaline rush.
Next, taxis in Mongolia do not have meters therefore you have to negotiate the price to where you are going every trip. We expect to be ripped off a little bit, being foreigners, but don't want to lose all our money to cab drivers. So when you get in you have to ask how much it costs to your destination or how much a kilometer costs (should be about 500 tugriks/$.30 a km). Also, you can check the odometer when you get in to make sure they aren't lying about the mileage when you arrive at your destination. And if you put your stuff in the trunk, the driver could try to hold it hostage until you pay when he demands. All of these factors are a little overwhelming initially, especially given our limited language skills, but by the end of our trip we were pretty comfortable with the process. A couple of days in a group of us forgot to ask what the price would be until we arrived at our destination. Our cab driver told us an outrageous price and we said no way, and gave him a more than generous amount, but didn't match his demand. We all got out before he could lock us in and my friend tried to cross the street in front of the car and the driver tried to hit him! It was a kind of startling experience. However, later that night we took another taxi and had the polar opposite experience. This other cab driver was really nice, told us a fair price, and we had a nice conversation about UB, Mongolia, the weather, and the Beatles. We even had a little group sing-along!
Anyway, we did do things other than just take taxis around town. For one, we ate lots of great food. Of course, we spent a lot for that food, but it was worth it. Allin all, we went to a German bakery, French bakery, "Irish" pub, Mexican-Indian restaurant, Chinese restaurant, and Korean restaurant. Unfortunately, while we happened to be in UB, the government mandated that all bars and restaurants close at 9:00pm every night to prevent the spread of H1N1. (Although I'm not really sure how much sense that makes.) Some places would stay open later and just close the blinds and lock the doors, but it still made for an early curfew a lot of nights.
Mark and our friends Ashlee and Scott outside of Michelle's French Bakery
While we were in UB we stayed at the UB Guesthouse, which is like a hostel. We stayed in a room with 8 bunk beds and it cost 6000 tugriks a night which is about $4. The nice thing is that it had great hot showers, a small breakfast in the mornings (bread and jam), nice owners, internet, and a kitchen where we could to cook our Thanksgiving potluck dish.
Another part of UB that's different than our little town of Tsetserleg is the feeling of safety and security. PC staff warned us until our ears bled about how dangerous UB can be, mostly regarding pick-pocketing. So at first, I felt a little nervous and always guarded my purse vigilantly. However, after a week of being there, I became more comfortable. After about two weeks there, Mark and I both got to leave without having been pick-pocketed or seriously harassed. But I felt relieved to come back home to my town and have my biggest worries being avoiding really drunk men and scary dogs.
One other interesting part of being in UB was being with tons of other Americans and seeing lots of other foreigners. Being in a restaurant with 10-20 (or 30-40 one night) other Americans suddenly makes you feel a lot more self-conscious about your behavior. In my town I'm out with 3 other Americans at most and we're a pretty tame group. I've never been too worried about Mongolians having a negative image of me. But in UB, when surrounded by tons of other Americans, many of whom have been drinking when we're out in the evenings, the image we're presenting as Americans and PCVs is a lot different. In a big group we all feel safe and less aware of attention we may be receiving. Many of us, including me, also forget how many Mongolians speak English in UB and that many of them can understand everything we're saying. Why does it matter what they think about us? Because how Mongolians perceive us can affect our work. Even if just one Mongolian sees us acting like idiots, word might spread that all PCVs and maybe all Americans are idiots. The Peace Corps goals include spreading peace and friendship and sharing in, hopefully, positive cross-culture interactions. Now don't get me wrong, I love my friends here and loved hanging out with them. But I'm happy to be back here in my small town where I have more control over people's perception of me.
Lastly, although I loved spending time in UB, seeing friends, eating great food, going shopping, and having some days out of the office, another reason I'm glad to be home is because of the kids! Even if I don't get to work with kids all the time, everyday on my walk to and from work I get at least one cheery "Hello! Hi!" from some little kiddo trotting to or from school. I didn't get that in UB! For one, I didn't see as many kids wandering around town by themselves, and two, they don't seem so amused at seeing a foreigner. And who knows, maybe the kids here in Arkhangai are just a little bit cuter too. :)
Thanks for reading my ramblings! And Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!!!