Monday, September 27, 2010


by Mark

Getting your hair cut isn't as simple as you might think.  Not when it's supposed to be your first time, and when the symbolism of the event requires all friends/family to be there to witness and partake in said haircutting.

This past weekend Kara and I were fortunate enough to be invited to one of the "events" in traditional Mongolian life that we have had yet to witness.  In fact, we were invited to two of these events on the same day.  September 25th, 2010 was an auspicious day in the Mongolian calendar - one that would bring good luck to any activity you should choose to partake of.  Thus, there were weddings and haircuttings and people moving and putting up gers and all manner of partying - since of course this day could only bring good!

Children in Mongolia traditionally wait a few years before receiving their first haircut.  For girls, it is best to wait until they are 2 or 4 years old to have this ceremonial haircutting.  For boys, they should be 3 or 5.  What this means is that it is nearly impossible to tell the gender of small children under four.  Little boys run around in pink coats with hair to their shoulders.  Thus it's typically acceptable to ask someone what gender their child is...or if you're fortunate enough to see them running around without pants, a common occurrence in the summer, you might be able to avoid the confusion altogether.

Kara and I went to our first haircutting ceremony (which happened to be for my directors' daughter) with this background knowledge, and yet as so often happens in Mongolia, we found ourselves confused as to what was happening around us.  This child was not 2 or 4, she wasn't even 6 or 8...this girl was 12!!  How could this possibly be her first haircutting?  This doesn't seem real?  We're not getting the authentic experience!  We later learned that this young woman never had her ceremony due to various reasons, and so today was her lucky day.

How it works is actually fairly simple.  The young woman goes around the room from person to person.  If it's your turn to cut her hair, you grab the scissors with attached blue hadak (ribbon) and bag for catching the hair.  You take a small piece of hair, maybe a few inches long, snip snip, put the hair in the little bag, and as you hand back the scissors you also give the child 5000 tugriks (about $4).  That's it!  Your turn to be involved takes about 20 seconds!  Of course this is preceded by about an hour of eating and drinking and greeting all the friends and family of the child.

Immediately following this party, we went to another home of my co-worker, who did have a little girl that fit the typical age range.  We simply repeated the above procedure.  All in all, it was a great experience and another thing we can scratch off the Mongolian To-Do List.

Kara doing the honors

My co-worker, Naraa, handing over 5000 tugriks.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Work Update: The Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Project

by Kara

It’s September. The leaves have started changing, it’s getting colder, I’m consuming way more hot beverages everyday, no longer wearing just short-sleeves to work, and trying to get my work up and going again. Like many other PCVs my time this summer was an alternating mix of intensive work – summer camp – and  intensive rest. Now that the school year has started it’s time to restart my 9ish to 5ish schedule and put away my flip-flops, tank tops, and cotton skirt. I’ll admit, my work at my organization has gotten off to a bit of a slow start. However, I do have one project which is helping to keep me pretty busy: the Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Project.

Last spring my sitemates (Zaneta and Sarah) and I came up with a fairly elaborate grant proposal (for Peace Corps standards) with the small hope that we’d get funded. To our surprise, the Millennium Challenge Account decided to award us money! I think we shared in unison the response of, “Wow! Yeah! ...Oh crap” – realizing we had to make all the stuff we wrote about a reality. Fortunately, we have a great project team. Zaneta finished up her two years of service and left but we got an equally awesome replacement – Tim. He’s taken her spot at the Health Department. And Sarah is still a teacher. Together, with our counterparts, we make up a nice cross-sector project, combining health, education, and child development (that’s me).

So what does the project actually entail? Well first, we’re training student and teacher trainer teams to teach “healthy lifestyles” lessons to all public school 10th grade students from November to May. Second, we’re doing a couple of trainings with school cooks about nutrition and new cooking ideas. (All elementary students get a free meal/snack daily.) Third, this will all culminate with the first annual Arkhangai Healthy Lifestyles Fair next May. The fair will have cooking contests, a community walk and run, a poster contest (ala “what’s your anti-drug?”), a jeopardy-style knowledge competition, and perhaps diabetes testing and heart disease testing. The goal of this whole thing is to reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes and heart disease (the top killers of Mongolians, the latter being the number one killer of people worldwide) by encouraging healthy lifestyles amongst youth. We’re focusing on eating healthy, the importance of exercise, and the risks and consequences of drinking and smoking.

Why focus on these things? Primarily because that's what the funders wanted. A little background though... The Mongolian diet traditionally consists of meat and dairy products that are high in fat content. This is because Mongolians were traditionally (and about 30% of the population still is) nomadic herders. Being nomadic doesn’t allow you with the time to plant crops and harvest them. However, your animals are always present, which produce said meat and dairy products. Plus, even though you’re eating a lot of fat, you live a very active lifestyle and you burn it off. Now, more and more Mongolians have moved to the aimag centers (provincial capitals) and the city and live sedentary lives – engaging in less physical activity but continuing to eat foods high in fat. Also, while people in the aimag centers have the advantage of having year-round access to fruits and vegetables, they also have access to processed foods, high in trans fats and generally less healthy. In addition, smoking and especially drinking are huge problems (22% of men are alcohol dependent, 39% of men drink at a hazardous level) and both are big risk factors for heart disease.

Anyway, we’re really just getting started but it’s a pretty cool project and our fingers are crossed we can pull it off!

Here's an example of the traditional dairy products I referred two. These are two varieties of aarul -- dried milk curds. They were made in June and have been drying out and hardening all summer. These were given to me yesterday as a thank you from a local English teacher for helping her with her English.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Arkhangai Trade Fair 2010

by Mark

This past weekend was the 2010 Arkhangai Partnership Trade Fair.  The two organizations I work with (Mercy Corps and Knowledge Network) were responsible for bringing nearly 200 businesses from 7 different aimags into one locale.  The event was 3 days long.  Including the great weather, everything went wonderfully.  The diversity of products was incredible, and the produce being sold was of varieties we hadn't seen in town before. Things like real lettuce...canned salsa...packaged pizza.  I'll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

Fried Fish from Hovsgul Aimag

Salsa - this was burn-your-mouth-spicy-HOT!

Notice the stuffed Badger, Marmot, Squirrels, etc.

A few of the performers

Arkhangai's Governor handing out the "Grand Prix", or top prize in the trade fair.
More pictures will be posted on Facebook in the coming days - as soon as we figure out why our Internet in town has been going at a snail's pace.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Soaking Up the Warm Weather

Photos from a hike that Mark and I went on today:

That's our town, Tsetserleg, in the background

If you click on this, you should be able to see a bigger version. We just got a new program that allows us to stitch photos together so we were able to combine a few photos to get a good panoramic shot of our town.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Know anybody coming to Mongolia?

by Kara

I know this is a long shot, but I'm looking for people are coming to visit Mongolia sometime between now and June 2011 and who may be interested in helping the Mongolian Helmet Project. Donors in the US are helping me collect new and used helmets for child jockeys to wear during the Naadam horse races. This year, in an effort to save money on shipping costs, I'd like to arrange for more helmets to be delivered in hand to Mongolia. Even if the person you know can only bring one helmet, let me know! Thanks!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The citizen's have spoken

Click on the pic to see an option for viewing a larger version
   I just thought you all might like to see my cheesy, smiling face on the 4th page of the August edition of Mercy Corps Mongolia's newspaper "Citizen's Voice".  We were spotlighted for our work in our aimag and asked to list everything we've worked on in the past year specifically.  Obviously you won't be able to read the text, but you can see my co-workers in the pic!  I'm sitting next to my director Dashka and next to him is our driver Tsogoo.  In the back row is Azaa (directly behind me), Jackie my translator is next to her, and next to Jackie is Baagii (our Program Officer).  Wonderful people.