Saturday, February 27, 2010

Tsagaan Sar: Food/Drink

by Kara & Mark

To begin, the number one, most popular food that must be at every Tsagaan Sar celebration are buuz. Buuz are small Mongolian meat dumplings that are steamed. Most people I asked said on average they made 1,000 buuz for Tsagaan Sar! They can be made with any kind of meat but most of the ones we ate this year were made from beef or horse meat. Over the course of six days Mark managed to eat at least 100 buuz (he counted - actually he's telling me it was a total of 109 over an 8 day period) while I finished having eaten around 40-50.

In addition to buuz each family has at least one salad to share. Some of the salads include carrot salad, potato salad, and fruit salad (fruit covered in mayonnaise). Most families who plan on hosting and who can afford it also have a cooked sheep’s back and tail on the table. It's tradition that you taste at least one small piece of this meat.

Also sitting on the table, as you can see, is a tower of cookie-like, hard biscuits. On top you will find all kinds of candy, sugar cubes, and dairy products. It is customary to take one small piece from this tower. At this particular house there are 5 layers of "biscuits", but at any other home there may be 3, 5, 7, or even 9 layers. It's always an odd number of layers to represent one layer of sadness sandwiched by two layers of happiness. The number of layers is based on a mixture of the homeowner's age and years married.

Another very important component to all Tsagaan Sar celebrations is vodka, and various other types of alcohol. At every home you go to you must be served at least three shots of vodka. You don’t have to drink all three shots, but they are served to you. Some hosts will let you get away with just a tiny sip of each, while others say, “Drink, drink!” until you’ve drank an amount they think is sufficient. Some families serve other drinks along with the vodka, including homemade juice, wine, or Mongolian vodka, which is made from fermented yaks’ milk. In some homes everybody has their own shot glass but often you share one glass. The server pours a shot and hands it to you, always in their right hand. You must always accept it with your right hand and to be even more respectful you touch your left hand to your right elbow as you are accepting it. You hand it back the same way when you’re done. Also, you should have your sleeves rolled down as a sign of respect. Once one person has handed it back to the server the process continues with each person around the room.

Typically, once you've tried some candy, drank your milk tea, eaten some buuz, and sipped some vodka it's time to move on to the next house. You don't want to overstay your welcome, so most visits last only a little over an hour on average.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Couple more pics from Ambassador's visit

by Mark

As promised here are a few more pictures from when the Ambassador came through town. It was the stories they heard from the herders and the pictures they took that helped bring about the $50,000 in aid that USAID has promised. Again, we're thankful.

(This is the first herder we spoke to who mentioned that he's lost nearly 60% of his animals this winter.)

(It's not easy to see, but that is a pile of dead animals - they blend in to the surroundings)

(This is a pile of about 4 sheep that were pulled from the pens that very morning - they're not entirely dead, but they've lost motor function and are dying...but they're still breathing. It's just tragic that this happens nearly every day.)

(I'm wrapping this up with a nice picture, this is Oyunchimeg the director of IEC taking her chance of a photo-op with the Ambassador)

Thursday, February 25, 2010

USAID Disaster Assistance

In case you wanted to know what some of your tax dollars are going toward...check out this USAID Disaster Declaration. It appears that the visit from USAID, the US Ambassador, and the Embassy has resulted in $50,000 being sent to Mongolia (thru UNICEF) for the purchase of emergency relief supplies. We're all glad to see some assistance coming this way...thank you Jonathan, Chuck, and Dan.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Tsagaan Sar: Greetings

by Kara

Like Mark said, Tsagaan Sar involves visiting the homes of your friends and families. At each visit everybody does a formal, traditional greeting that is only done for this holiday. Mark and I were pretty nervous about not doing these correctly and asked our coworkers beforehand about what to do. The first couple of homes we visited we were really nervous about messing up, but by the end we felt pretty comfortable.

So first, if it is going to be a large gathering of people, you arrive to the host’s house and drink tea and take some candy and dairy products until the rest of the guests arrive. Men begin by passing around their snuff bottle. This is a small bottle filled with a sort of tobacco that they sniff up their noses. They pass the bottle to everybody, but most of us, except the other older men who use snuff, just hold it to our noses and pretend to sniff. When passing the bottle, you must do so as seen in the photo below, always passing it with your right hand.

When everybody is there the greetings begin. (If it’s just a small gathering and more informal you can greet each other when you arrive.) You get in line and begin greeting the oldest person there. The younger person puts her arms out, elbows bent, palms up. The older person does the same but her arms go on top of the younger person’s. This shows that the younger person is respectfully holding up the arms of the older person. As you’re doing this you say a couple of greetings, basically, asking if they’re having a nice new year so far. At this point in formal settings you also put a crisp 1,000 or 5,000 Tugrik bill in their hands. Then, the older person leans in as if they were going to kiss the cheeks of the younger person, but instead of kissing, they sniff each cheek.

Now, everybody should have greeted the older person. After this everybody usually goes around the room to greet everybody else. If you are the same age, instead of one person holding up the other person’s arms, each person puts their right arm on top and left arm below. The tricky part for us was knowing who was older, younger, or the same age. Sometimes I got so used to greeting older people that when I came around to people the same age or younger I put my hands under theirs. Usually people just smiled and maybe laughed a little at me, and I did the same as I realized what I had done. Finally, when all of these greetings were complete, the eating and drinking began!

What is Tsagaan Sar?

by Mark

Kara and I will be posting a short series of blog posts to describe the biggest Mongolian holiday of the year, Tsagaan Sar. First, I'll give a little background of the holiday. The direct translation of the name means White (Tsagaan) Month (Sar) or White Moon (because "sar" has two meanings). The event is officially three days long and corresponds with the beginning of the Lunar New Year. This year the holiday fell on February 14-16. Much like the Chinese New Year, there are particular animals that represent each of 12 years - and this year is the Year of the White Tiger.

Though the holiday is officially three days long, it typically lasts about a week, but in the countryside it's not rare to see it last for three weeks or more. I personally visited homes for six straight days (though I will have everyone know that we still did greetings and ate traditional food at work today, some 10 days after the holiday began). However long the celebration, it involves preparing and eating a lot food, visiting friends and family, and exchanging gifts. Also, the day before the Lunar New Year is called Bituun. Typically everyone gets together with family that night to eat as much as they possibly can, and then walk up our local mountain to light candles and place them in the rocks. The following morning, some families will get up early, walk up the mountain again, and watch the sunrise on the first morning of Tsagaan Sar. Welcome White Month!


Monday, February 22, 2010

U.S. Ambassador Addleton in Arkhangai

by Mark

About 10 days ago, our aimag was visited by three important people: the U.S. Ambassador to Mongolia Jonathon Addleton, the USAID representative to Mongolia Chuck Howell (and interestingly enough, the first Peace Corps Director in Mongolia from 1991-1993), and Dan Rakove - Political Officer from the U.S. Embassy. Besides coming to view our wonderful region, their main focus was to see first-hand the devastating effects of the "zud" (this word is used when snow falls early in the winter, melts during the day, freezes overnight, and then it snows again the next day making it impossible for weak animals to break through to the grass beneath - this has probably been the worst winter in the past 30 years here in Mongolia).

(left to right: Chuck from USAID, myself, Ambassador Addleton)

According to Chuck, both Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags have been hit the worst...but everywhere in the country herders are being affected in a myriad of ways. We began the day by meeting in a nearby soum (Tuuvshruulekh) to chat with the soum governor as well as some of the herder families in the nearby hills. The piles and piles of dead animals along the "road" were disheartening. The first herder we spoke to said he'd lost 60 percent of his goats/sheep. A little further on we stopped at a ger to chat with the families, and saw that their situation appeared similar. They've lost 18 of their 20 horses, all but 1 cow, and they only have 100 of their original 400 sheep/goats. It was incredibly sad. They even told us a story of having their first load of hay and fodder stolen from their truck earlier in the winter...and that just set the tone for the rest of the season.

Dan from the US Embassy had his camera and has promised to send me photos of what we saw early that day. I will post some of those as soon as I get them. Not only did we see piles of dead animals, but herders must take the dead and dying animals from the pens each morning - typically 3-4 every night! They're piled outside the gers.

(Arkhangai Governor's Office)

Our next stop was back in town to meet with the Aimag governor - we discussed the impact this year's zud has had versus the one they had back in 2000-2001. We talked about lessons learned, what they're doing to help these herders, and the impact this winter will have over the coming 3-5 years in Mongolia. The local government estimates that 50-60% of all herders will have to find new work because they will not have enough animals left to continue herding. This means a flood of people into the aimag centers and into UB...all of which will be looking for work. The job market is already limited, so the coming years will probably see a spike in the poverty rates.

Afterward, we decided it would be good to meet with the some of the local organizations that are attempting to assist those in need. We visited with the head of Information Education Center (IEC), the head of Knowledge Network (the other organization I work with), as well as with FLOM (the Finnish organization in town that works directly with disabled people and their businesses). They were quick visits, but they reminded us that in the midst of all the trouble there are many people attempting to help.

After all of the visits and tours through town, myself and all of the Peace Corps Volunteers here in Arkhangai got together with our visitors and had a wonderful meal together at Fairfield Cafe. We got to chat a bit more about what we're all doing here in Arkhangai...and got to talk with the Ambassador in a wonderfully informal way.

It was a great day for me in many ways - I got a chance to chat with these three men, gaining different perspectives and gleaning information throughout the day. I met government officials here in Arkhangai. I also got a chance to see the surrounding regions and see first-hand the zud's devastation...though it was sad, it was an eye-opener that I wouldn't have missed. And I felt like overall I was given an opportunity to meet "important" people...representatives who really have a chance to catch the ear of the US government and help bring about assistance to Arkhangai and all of Mongolia.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"Mongolia: Life in the extreme cold" - BBC News Article by ME!

by Kara

Last week I was contacted by a BBC news reporter. She found our blog and asked me if I would write something for BBC about living in Mongolia's harsh winter. I gladly agreed and it was just published on their website!

The second author is my friend Aleta. We didn't know each other had been contacted until we had already sent in our pieces. Of all volunteers she's one of my closest friends here so it's pretty awesome that both of us got to contribute. 

In addition, a BBC World News radio host did a phone interview with me last night, also asking me about the cold in Mongolia. If any of you happen to listen to BBC's radio programme, let me know if you hear me! 

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Helping Child Jockeys

by Kara

In my post last month I mentioned a project I'm working on for child jockeys here in Mongolia. I'm really starting to work on this project more now so I wanted to write a little more about it.

Since long before the time of Genghis Khan horse riding has been a popular tradition amongst Mongolians. Even today horse riding remains an important part of their cultural heritage.  In addition to the everyday use of horses by Mongolians, more formal horse races take place throughout the year. Some of the most dangerous races are during the winter when sub-zero temperatures create dangerous racing conditions. However, the biggest competitions occur every July at the Naadam Festivals taking place all over Mongolia. Every year more than 30,000 child jockeys ranging from the ages of 4-10 years old participate in 12-28 kilometer races. Unfortunately, on average, about 5% of these children fall off of their horses.  Due to the lack of financial resources, lack of knowledge, and indifference, many of the children embark on these races without proper protective gear like helmets and pads, and sometimes even without shoes or saddles. As a result, every year many children suffer from severe lifelong injuries, and for some of the most unfortunate, death. Though measures have been taken on a legislative level, none of the laws to provide the children with protective gear are being enforced. I personally have met one young girl in my town who became paralyzed as a result of falling off of a horse and will spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.   

My coworkers have recognized this need and want to do something about it. However, my organization does not have sufficient funding to purchase helmets for the children in our community. So, I'm trying to think about some ways to help. My first idea is to do what another PCV did in her province and submit letters to the editors of horse magazines and solicit donations from individuals. I started doing this this week and I've already had a few who said they'll publish it. But, if any of you have other ideas for about how to approach this, that'd be great! Do any of you have connections to companies who might be willing to donate children's helmets or pads? Can you think of a better way to mend this situation? If so, email me or comment on this post.
Also, if any of you would like to donate new or used helmets, elbow-pads, or knee-pads, let me know! Thanks!

This is me on a typical Mongolian horse this summer. Notice how small he is!
Blarg! I'm not wearing a helmet! 

Monday, February 8, 2010

My latest soum trip

by Mark

I'm going to let the pictures do most of the talking, but there were a couple of highlights I thought I should mention from my last soum trip. We spent about 4 days traveling to five different soums to deliver an informational seminar on Mercy Corps' Loan Guarantee Mechanism program. At each soum we would have anywhere from 7 to 30 people come listen to us talk for about 30 minutes. My job was to setup and tear down the laptop and projector at each location (haha, tough job!).

On the way from the first soum (Ix Tamir) to the second soum (Chuluut) we had to pass over the Chuluut River. It's fairly large, and it's frozen for nearly 4 months of the year. However, it took me a second to figure out we were in the process of crossing over it, when suddenly I realized I could hear ice cracking. Our driver Tsogoo slowly crept the jeep forward and then decided it was best to stop and walk on ahead to see how the river was. So there we were just sitting in the middle of a frozen river, probably about 100 yards out on a sheet of ice, with probably another 150-200 yards to go. Needless to say, Tsogoo came back from his brief walk and decided it was best to turn around and find another way to get across. And for that I am grateful...

The second random story occurred on the way from the fourth soum (Ondor Ulaan) to the fifth soum (Erdene Mandal). We were driving just after dark, climbing over a rather large range of hills, and we found ourselves making ground on a vehicle up ahead. As we got closer I realized that the back of this small truck was full of people, kids really, as each one couldn't have been more than 16 years old. There were probably 7 or 8 of them in the back of this vehicle, and they must have been freezing...but as I was pulling out my camera to snap a picture I realized they were waving beer bottles at us as we passed. They probably don't remember the cold much. Considering how bumpy the ride was, I wasn't able to get the best picture, but someone I felt like this pic actually captured the moment (even if it's the moment from their hazy point of view).

About one hour later I found myself needing to take a bathroom break, but unfortunately on this trip I didn't have a translator so a lot of my communication was in my broken Mongolian mixed with my co-workers limited English...and quite honestly I probably spent about 45 minutes trying to think of the best way to say "I need to pee really bad, can we stop the vehicle!?". It's funny sometimes how when you expect a person to speak one language and then they try to speak in another language, at first you don't realize they're speaking a word you might know. This happens all the time with me when I'm trying to speak Mongolian to my counterparts, so no matter how many times I said I need to use the "noil" - toilet...or the "joorlon" - outhouse...they didn't get it...just expecting me to be using English words. Finally I used the english word "toilet" and my director figured it out. Good thing it didn't resort to charades. You might be asking yourself why I'm telling this story...well it's because we stopped and walked out into about 6 inches of snow and I looked up and could see nearly every star in the sky. And as I was going to the bathroom in the mountains of northern Arkhangai, Mongolia, I looked out and witnessed a herd of about 30 wild horses go stampeding by me about 50 yards away. That image will always stick with was incredible.

Anyway, continuing the stories. After we finished the seminar in the fifth soum, we dropped down to the nearest frozen river and went to watch Mongolians play a game on the ice that only men are allowed to compete in. It's basically a cross between bowling and curling, but you use a little metal square-coin shaped piece instead of a ball or whatever those things are called they use in curling. There are two teams and each person from a team goes one after another. They start in a position similar to this guy:

You push off from a notch dug out of the ice, extend your hand forward and attempt to glide the metal object (it's about 2" x 2" in size) along a brushed section of the ice. That section is roughly 70-80 yards in length. You can kind of see it here:

It's not nearly as simple as throwing something down the ice though, you've got to try and hit a little red cup that is at the other end of the ice. If you hit that red cup, you get 3 points for your team, if you just miss it but get it between the two nearest ankle bones you get 2 points, and if you miss but still get it between the two farthest ankle bones you get 1 point. Everything else is worth nothing but a taunting yell from the opposing team.

I could chat about all of the little houses I stopped at, or the restaurants, or the seminars, or even about the hours and hours of bouncing around in a Russian jeep, but I don't think those stories are that interesting. It's not anything that I haven't spoken of before, so instead I'll leave you with this quick video of the men playing on the ice as well as this link to more pictures on Facebook:

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


by Mark

I'm not even sure how we skipped over this little bit of entertainment from our last trip into UB. We were asked if we wanted to join in on a little Broomball tournament being held at the "ice rink" at the Star Apartments (same place that we had the Thanksgiving meal a couple months back). The tournament was being hosted by the Embassy staff and their spouses, and they asked Peace Corps (PC) to be involved again this year. As you'll notice in the picture, one of the embassy teams even made matching aprons and called themselves "The Real Housewives of Ulaanbaatar"...the entire team consisted of the spouses of embassy staff. The Peace Corps managed to put together two teams, and the Embassy staff also had two teams.
For those of you who don't know Broomball, the rules are simple. It's hockey using shoes instead of skates, a ball instead of a puck, and brooms instead of sticks. It's 4-on-4 competition, with 1 female on each team mandatory. You play two 10 minute halves. There's not too much else to say other than it was a few hours of falling, sliding, swiping, and scrambling to sweep a soccer ball into the opposing team's net in -20 Celsius weather. The two PC teams had to have a tie-breaker game to determine who would face off against the winning embassy team, and sadly Kara and my team fell 1 point short of playing in the finals. But that meant we got to run up and down the sidelines shouting assistance to our exhausted PC friends as they went on to beat the embassy staff 1-0 in the final game!!

Go PC!