Thursday, May 19, 2011


by Kara

Though it's hard for Mark and I to believe, the end of our 2 years of service is coming to an end soon! We received official approval from our Peace Corps Mongolia Country Director to conclude our service and fly home July 24!!!

However, before that day comes, we still have a lot to do. Mark is busy finishing up projects at work, including the final reports for his unique business and unique product competition, training his counterparts on how to maintain the Travel Arkhangai website, and a couple more tourism trainings for local businesses.

I'm heading off to the city of Darkhan next week to take part in a two-week training of trainers. I've been asked to help train the incoming group of Community Youth Development volunteers. This is what Mark did last year after we returned from vacation. I'll be gone about 5 weeks total, spending 2 weeks preparing the trainings and 2 1/2 weeks actually doing the training. Although this means time apart from Mark (and our cat Mishka!) I'm looking forward to a change of pace and a change of scenery. Things at my work have slowed down a lot for me lately and I'm not very busy. If you know me, you know I like to be busy. Plus, it'll be fun to see a fresh group of people newly embarking upon their experience here in Mongolia. Mark is planning to try and come visit me in Darkhan sometime in the middle of my training too, hopefully around the time of our anniversary.

After I return from training I'll spend some time at my organization's summer camp. Then we'll celebrate Naadam (horse racing, archery, and wrestling summer festival) here in Arkhangai, hand out some more helmets to child jockeys, and after, pack up our apartment! We'll head into UB a few days before our official Close of Service date to do gobs of paperwork and medical check-ups.

It's going to be a little odd and possibly anti-climatic because PCVs from our group are departing at different dates throughout the summer, so there's not exactly one big good-bye party. In fact, we've already realized we've seen some people for the last time in Mongolia and didn't even do a proper goodbye. We've already started trying to convince people to come visit us in Seattle and hope to visit others in the future too. In fact, some PCVs are already planning a two-year reunion in New Orleans where at least 4-5 PCVs from our group are planning to live -- a few of them planning to live together even!

To make our return home a little sweeter we've also planned a short vacation in San Francisco on our way home! We're visiting one of my best friends and her husband there. And I've never been to San Francisco so while they're busy working during the days, we're going to explore the city. Then, I'll be home in time to spend my birthday at home with our friends and families!

I'm not sure what kinds of photos to include on a blog like this, but a blog post is boring without any, so here are some from events as of late.

Ondor-ulaan soum, about 2-3 hours away from where we live. Mark visited it last week with the national Mercy Corps director. 

Bulgan Mountain. This image is used on everything and seen everywhere throughout our town so it's a bit tired to us, but I have to admit, it is pretty. It's a very short walk away from our apartment.

And then there's the occasional dumpings of spring snow. Ugh. This was last week. 

I held my last Zumba fitness class this week! The girls are super cute and I'm going to miss this them. Two of them have come to almost every single class since October so I made them certificates and gave them some jump ropes as gifts (to keep up with their strict exercise routine over the summer). For our last class we ended up doing about 10 minutes of Zumba and spent the rest of the time taking pictures and eating cookies. :)

Sunday, May 15, 2011


by Kara

Last weekend Mark and I talked to our sitemates Sarah and Tim and decided that Saturday would be a great day to head to the river for a picnic. The weather was supposed to get bad on Sunday, but Saturday was supposed to be 61 degrees. So we met up around 2:00 and a couple of Mongolian friends joined us. It started out alright and we tried convincing ourselves it was a nice spring day - Tim was wearing shorts, Sarah a dress and flipflops. But then, a rare thing started happening - it started to rain... "Oh, I'm sure it'll pass over..."

After walking for at least an hour we arrived at the river and started eating. The men, in an effort to show us their skills, made a fire, for which we were all very thankful as the temperature started to drop...

Look how strong they are!
After eating, Mark and Tim discussed the best method for fishing. Tim had brought his fishing pole, some hooks he had spent the morning searching for at our local market, and a ping pong ball for a bobber, but the selection of bait was lacking. Bread? Corn? Canned mackerel? He tried his best, but unfortunately, he was unsuccessful.

After enjoying some smores and delicious cake that Sarah made, we realized the increasingly steady pour of rain was not letting up and we should probably head back. Sarah and Tim were jokingly scolded by our Mongolian friends for not dressing appropriately, while Mark and I were praised for our preparedness. I pulled out two shirts, a scarf, hat, and gloves from our backpack for the walk home. Unfortunately, the weather kept getting worse and worse. Poor Sarah and Tim were miserable and cold to the bone. Mark and I were chilled too, but not quite as bad. Tim said on the walk home, which took about an hour and 15 minutes, that this was the coldest he'd ever been in Mongolia! Here's a picture, but it's kind of impossible to show how cold we felt. (And let's hope Sarah doesn't read our blog because she'd hate to know this picture of her, with Tim's socks on under flip-flops and Mark's huge coat draped over her, was floating around the interweb.)

All in all it was a fun day and definitely a memorable one!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Close of Service Conference

by Kara

Every year Peace Corps holds a Close of Service Conference for all of the volunteers finishing up their second year of service. Our conference was April 27-29. Out of the original 69 volunteers who came to Mongolia we had 48 in attendance at the conference. If you're wondering, that's not too bad of a rate. I've heard that overall, Mongolia has a better retention rate than other PC countries, despite what you might think. Maybe we come to Mongolia with lower expectations than those PCVs who end up Fiji and think life is going to be a beautiful paradise everyday. (As I write this, it is May 10 and there's a huge snow storm occurring outside.)

Anyway, the conference was a time for us to spend time with our fellow PCVs, reflect upon our experiences together, and talk about post-Peace Corps life. There were some boring sessions and some interesting ones and fun activities in the evenings. It was great to get to spend a few solid days with all the PCVs. And it was interesting to see who has changed a lot, stayed exactly the same, or just changed somewhat (in most cases, for the better).

Hear are some highlights!

Day 1: The ger camp we stayed at.
It was warm and sunny and beautiful.

And less than 48 hours later we woke up to 6 inches of snow and freezing cold weather.
It continued to snow the entire day and the guys even had to get out of our bus on our way out of the camp to help push it. Typical spring weather in Mongolia.

One of our evening activities was a cooking contest. I was smart and joined a team with amazing cooks  - that's us! We made fish tacos, beef tacos, (I made a million tortillas), two kinds of salsa, a peanut noodle dish (we had to make a Mongolian dish with at twist) and bananas dipped in chocolate and coconut for dessert. It was delicious and all made completely from scratch!
Ashlee and I

Chaos in the kitchen.

WE WON!!! The judges joined us for this photo-op.

The three married men playing Monopoly deal
All the PCVs! Mark and I are in the back and you can't actually see my face in the photo...

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Promoting Unique Business Ideas

by Mark

What started as an idea last August came to fruition in the past couple of weeks.  Myself and counterparts from three different organizations that I work with here in Mongolia developed and launched "Arkhangai's 1st Annual Unique Business/Product Idea Competition".  The aim being to foster an environment in our entire province that is open and welcoming for creative ideas to expand the types of businesses in the marketplace.

We opened up the application season March 1st with a goal of receiving 30+ applications.  After advertising via television, flyers, banners, and newspaper we closed the application period on March 31st.  We had received an incredible 56 applications from 15 different towns!  But we only had money/space enough for 10 applicants to attend the training portion of the competition.  We had to rate all of the applications so that we could choose the ten best to attend this second part of the competition - a week-long Business Plan/Proposal Development Training that would be mandatory for any applicant that was chosen.  During the week, the trainees would be given all the basic knowledge through lecture, projects, guest speakers, and multiple skilled trainers to develop their full business plan - including 10+ hours of one-on-one work with a consultant who would help them with the financials and other technical aspects of the business plan writing.

As an added incentive the ten trainees were in the running for the grand prize: 1,500,000₮ (roughly $1200).  But there was a catch...the money wouldn't just be handed to them in cash/check form.  Instead, this prize money could only be obtained in the form of re-imbursement for any interest payments made on loans necessary to implement their winning business plan.  Meaning, "Winner A" must actually start his business and make interest payments on his loan before he can approach our organization for re-imbursement.  (Some of you may be wondering just how far this money can go.  The average loan size needed to implement the business ideas proposed was about 6 million tugriks.  The highest bank loan interest rate is currently 1.6% monthly for 24 months.  That's a total of 2.3 million tugriks in interest paid using simple interest calculations.  So this prize money would cover roughly 65% of the costs associated with obtaining a loan!)

We structured our prize money this way in order to attempt to guarantee results and to see the establishment of our top unique business idea.  All but one of our trainees completed their business plan during the training, and three members of my staff rated their proposals using ten different criteria.  I just received the final results yesterday.  My staff was not able to choose just one winner - so instead we crowned two.  The prize money will be split evenly between the two winners.  But don't worry, both of the winning proposals only need approximately 3.5 million tugriks in loans to get started.  So that prize money should go a long way in recovering their costs!

I'm guessing that many of you reading this are wondering what types of ideas were proposed for this competition.  Well, I haven't looked at all of the applications that weren't chosen to attend the training...but I know there were ideas for magazine libraries and brown paper bag manufacturing.  But I can tell you about the top 10 ideas.  Enjoy the count-down:

#10 - Planting Chatsargana (small yellow berry used in fruit drinks) in Hairhan soum
# 9 - Toilet paper packaging
# 8 - Metal smelting for custom iron fence and roofing materials
# 7 - Using "yellow" milk to produce ice cream, jams, and candy
# 6 - Packaging Airag (fermented mare's milk) for use in ger camps
# 5 - Growing fodder for animals in Tsakhir soum
# 4 - Manufacturing cotton bags to replace plastic bags used in stores
# 3 - Packaging a form of boiled down animal meat product "stock" to be used in winter - I guess you just add water!
# 2 - Installation of electronic signs around our provincial center to replace all of the paper information boards - WINNER (most unique yet implementable idea!)
# 1 - Manufacture and sale of unique custom leather goods - WINNER (best business plan!)

I was part of the opening ceremony.  However, I was unable to lead any of the training sessions due to the fact that mere hours after this photo was taken my translator left for a 2 week trip to Russia.

One of the first activities was to have the trainees draw their unique business idea concept on paper and present it to the class.

This activity was showing the trainees how to set objectives to meet your goal.  They had to get from point A to point B using more than 2 different forms of movement.  But they had to tell us how they would do it before they attempted it.  (ie. 2 jumps, followed by 6 zigzag steps, followed by 5 hops, etc) This trainee was about to jump a short distance to achieve his goal.

At any given time we had 4-5 consultants wandering the training room helping people with their writing/planning.

After the first few days in the classroom, we moved to an Internet cafe in town that let us rent out their computers.  Here the trainees put all of their preparations/notes into an actual written business plan (with the assistance of consultants).

All of the attendees were given a Certificate for having completed the training.  This man happens to be our #1 winner as well.

The picture ended up being a little blurry, but this is the entire staff handing our #2 winner his "Батламж" or "Guarantee" saying he's entitled to 750,000 tugriks in re-imbursement money for being our competition winner!
Overall, the entire project was a huge success!  Yes, we had to change things as we went...but for the most part we were able to follow our project plan.  Thanks to funding from a United States Peace Corps SPA grant and to Mercy Corps Mongolia, and with funding and training assistance from the local NGO's Knowledge Network and Information & Education Center, Arkhangai's 1st Annual Unique Business/Product Idea Competition did happen successfully.  Ten different people have full business plans completed that they can take to the bank to receive funding for their ideas, and dozens more people were given the opportunity to express their ideas for what is needed in this aimag.  We've already begun talks on how to fund this project in subsequent years.  So here's hoping that Arkhangai continues to support the unique ideas of its residents!