Weather in UB

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Nothing says "Christmas" like end of the season airag

Brian pouring the airag
Christmas is a hard time of year to be away from family, but somehow we managed to celebrate in style. I made some Christmas cookies which my family calls "snowballs" but apparently are also called, "sandies" and "russian tea cakes". We had tons of food, egg nog (homemade), and loads of libations. The best cultural fusion came when Brian brought out the old oil canister that was full of end of the season airag. End of the season airag is a bit tangier than airag you get at other times of year. Nearly all of us partook in a bowl of the delicious, fermented mare's milk. This airag was given to Brian as a gift from a friend...lucky him! This was definitly not your average Christmas party. We also sang Christmas carols, accompanied by Mike on the Morin khuur. It was a hybrid, cosmopolitan, party for sure with people of several ethnicities and nationalities represented. All in all it was a good time, and a lovely way to spend Christmas. The perfect Mongolian gingerbread house

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Central Asian Jam Session

Rocking, cross-culturally
A former Fulbright Fellow, Mike, came back to Mongolia for work and a visit...we were all lucky he did! Mike is a musician and ethnomusicologist. When he was here before he studied the Mongolian Moriin Khuur, or horse head fiddle. He called up some of his old teachers, friends, and some students that he knows from Hohot (the capital of Inner Mongolia where he is currently residing) and had a jam session. Some of the students are from Xinjiang, Western China. They are Chahar Mongols, a different tribe from the Khalkha Mongols that live here in Outer Mongolia. Because two of the young men grew up in Xinjiang, they speak Uighur, Kazakh, Mongolian and Chinese. They also play the dombra, a famous Kazakh instrument. One of the guys is great at Khoomi , Mongolian throat singing. All of these young men are students at the Dance and Music University here in Ulaanbataar, and the older men are teachers of Mongolian traditional instruments.
The jam session was such a wonderful fusion of Central Asian culture, with a little bit of twangy American rock and blues thrown in. I took some clips, hopefully they will load up for your listening and viewing pleasure.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Come on Dalai light my fire (bad joke)

The 14th Dalai Lama (Dalai meaning: Ocean or infinite in Mongolian) is on my matchbox. When I saw these matches in the store, I wondered if they were officially sanctioned by the Dalai Lama, or if he even knew that his picture graces the cover of matchboxes in Mongolia. I heard the Dalai Lama speak last year, and something tells me he would find this really amusing. He seemed to laugh about everything!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

It's a small world afterall

Making "big bird" prints in HovdYou know it's cold when the cat, who is covered in fur, sleeps on the radiator.
This is a P.S. to other other part of the Hovd story. I forgot to mention that in Hovd I met a guy who lives in UB and works for a prominent NGO that happens to have grown up in a neighborhood about 10 minutes from mine in Chicago. It was a strange discovery especially when we realized that we actually know some of the same people. There we were, meeting for the first time in a town of 35,000 people in Western Mongolia. CRAZY!
The other strange thing that happened was on the plane back to UB. I was sitting next to Kazakh woman who was with an Iranian bussinessman. We exchanged pleasantries (In several languages), talked about Sharon Stone and Denzel Washington and went our separate ways. Yesterday I was at the "Ikh Delguur", directly translated: BIG Store, but people call it The State Department Store, and I ran into the Iranian guy, and the Kazakh woman. The man walked right up to me and said "You are from America? We are friends." I agreed that we were in fact friends. He continued by saying "the politics are between Bush and Ahmadinejad" I agreed again and wished him well. Upon reflection I guess that really was the elephant in the room. As an American, you never know how yer gonna be received by people aboard, luck for me this guy separated policy and people!
And now, some more pictures of Hovd:
Winter Meat- the people in the distance are slaughtering a cow for winter meat
The Hovd Theater
Cow in the gutter and (upper left corner) "Bakery King" sign based on the Burger King logo

"X-Men" Mini-market and store

Tuesday, December 11, 2007


Rocking the Trader Joe's bag outside the Hovd Theater
I just got back from Hovd, Western Mongolia, one of my research sites. The one thing that really differentiates Hovd from the rest of Mongolia is that fact that most of the restaurants serve "haluun chinjew" paste. Mongolian food is generally salty and bland, but this stuff can spice up anything! As my father would say, "it makes a rabbit spit in a bulldogs face."
Red Pepper Paste-Thank you China!
This was my first trip to Hovd and I was lucky enough to have some Peace Corps connections. As an RPCV, I was able to contact the volunteers who were staying in Hovd and stay with them in exchange for green vegetables which I purchased in UB and brought out to Hovd. In the winter Hovd has a very limited fruit and vegetable selection, so the volunteers were so excited to eat fresh veggies. They were also very helpful in setting up connections and interviews with locals.
Hovd is "considered remote even by Mongolian standards" according to Wikipedia! That's really amusing. I would say that it's a pretty standard Mongolian aimag (provinical) center. In the summer it's know for it's watermelons and cantaloupe, unfortunately I saw none of that. One notable thing is that there are some Kazakh people who live in Hovd, and I must say that hearing Kazakh was refreshing as I am usually surrounded by Mongolian speakers. Plus, I got to buy some beautiful Kazakh wallhangings, purses and pillowcases! The fun fact I learned about Hovd is that the rich families (all 2 of them) spend their weekends in Urumqi (Western China). I heard that with 2 drivers you can make it there in 24 hours! I bet that's where the red pepper paste comes from.
It snowed 3 of the days that I was in Hovd which is really unusual for such a dry place. It was really cold (to be expected) and the remarkable thing is that even though the power plant seems to be chugging coal, none of the buildings were warm inside...bad insulation. I was just happy that the hot water was working.
My research went really well and I got to check out the "city". The most insane (aside from the usual insanity) part came at 7:45 this morning when I airline called and said that check-in was over and the plane was leaving at 8am. It was supposed to leave at 10:20, but they pushed it up, and some how the foreigners never got the message. Some of the Peace Corps volunteers were also going to UB and we all hurried to make the flight. One guy lives in a Mongolian ger, so he had a variety of chores he had to complete to "close up" the ger. We got a local car on the street and with the airport in sight, the car started to fail, it was almost out of gas. So we sat in this car, going at a snails pace hoping the airplane didn't take off. Once we got to the airport, it became apparent that we weren't the only ones who hadn't gotten the message. Needless to say, we made the flight and made it safely to UB.
I took some photos in Hovd and here are the ones you might enjoy.
Downtown Hovd

An ass outside the Freedom Disco. Photo credit: S. WedlakeOne of the Secondary Schools in Hovd

Play time in the courtyard

The "Vibrator" Bar

I'll post some more pictures later when the internet speeds up!

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


The Lemons. Photo credit J. Sandhu
The Lemons play every Monday night here in UB at the Grand Khan Irish Pub. It's a real Irish pub (they even serve Guinness), but a hell of a lot cleaner than the pubs are in Ireland. The Lemons are my favorite Mongolian band. They are very hip, Indie rock guys. If you read my blog, you've read about them before. Judging by the looks on the faces of many in the crowd, I'm not sure Mongolians are really into this style of music. They seem to prefer slow songs about their homeland and mothers, like Javhlan sings. The Lemons managed to play a bunch of my favs and they covered Queen and Radiohead. It was cool to see them rocking out. It reminded me of home...except everyone at the pub was sitting down.

Friday, November 23, 2007


Delicious, home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner (Photo credits: S. Munson)
Being in UB has it's perks. For example, I got to eat green vegetables, go to combat class, and celebrate Thanksgiving with my friends! I hadn't planned on being in UB this week, but the flights were all booked up so I have to wait until December to finsh my research in the countryside. Currently there is only one airline flying domestically and the planes seat about 40 people. I'm not a glutton for punishment so I mentally said "no" to the possibility of taking a 3 days car ride (that might turn into 6 days if you factor in breakdowns and flat tires) to Hovd.
Yesterday my friends and I threw together a pretty good thanksgiving. My friend S and I went grocery shopping and found sweet potatoes, which are called "chikerte tomc" or potatoes with sugar in Mongolian. We even managed to find one can of cream of mushroom soup! This was a huge find because it was surrounded by 40 cans of chicken noodle soup and we didn't think we'd be able to find it anywhere. S and I cooked all day. We ended up with: mashed potatoes, biscuits, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, stuffing, biscotti, and apple crisp, all made from scratch. The boys brought fried chicken (closest you can get to turkey) from BBQ chicken (A Korean fast food chicken joint). One person brought Chinese chicken in a bag. Which has to be the most disgusting thing I've ever seen. It's literally a whole chicken, cooked and vacuum packed into a bag. When you take it out it's all slimy and you can seen the head. Minus turkey and pumpkin pie, it was still a great time, celebrated with good friends.
SICK-Chicken in a bag

SICKER-Chicken outta the bag

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Leaving Choibalsan

Choibalsan City!
I love the countryside. It never ceases to amaze me. It keeps you on yer toes. During my time in the Peace Corps here, I found a full porcupine back (the skin and quills) stuck into a window in my apartment. I was walking out of my friends apartment where I’m currently staying and I noticed a patch of porcupine quills above the door. My friends say that it protects them from evil. I asked around and many of my Mongolian friends have porcupine quills. It’s actually quite normal to have a few quills wrapped in red string in a safe place in your house. This is also a protectorate. I have no idea when this started, or who decided that the porcupine was special, so if you can fill in the gaps, please do. I run into these religious (Buddhist, Shamanistic) or traditional trinkets all over the place. While staying at my friend’s house I was asked to circle burning incense around my body 3 times. This incense was blessed by the Lamas and is supposed to keep my body healthy. Let’s hope it works!
I’m pretty excited to go back to the city for a few days so that I can eat something other than salt, mutton, and flour. I'm gonna miss everyone here. I promised to come back in the spring or summer to visit again. Soon I'm off to the western part of the country, Hovd Aimag.
Some Choibalsan pics for you to enjoy!
The sun coming up over the steppe in ChoibalsanThe main drag
Breakfast: Mutton bones, boov, and milk teaThe view from Bayaraa's window

Monday, November 19, 2007

Holy Days

Entrance to the Monastery in Choibalsan
The picture that was above me
Prayer flags and Buddha
After a Saturday night at the Disco spent dancing to Modern Talking, I woke up bright and early Sunday morning to go to the Monastery to celebrate Shiini Nam (New 8). It was explained to me that this is the most auspicious day in the Tibetan winter calendar. Basically, the monks have the worshippers light 108 candles and they chant from the scriptures until the candles go out. The mother-in-law of the people I’m staying with was in charge of making the candles and preparing the offerings for Buddha. The candles were made with “Shar toc” (yellow oil) which is basically this fatty, cheesy smelling product that looks like butter, but tastes and smells like rotting dairy products. She also bought cookies and candy bars (Buddha’s favorite). Because my family was part of the preparation, we went to the Monastery at 8am to set up. My friends set everything up while the grandma’s told them where to put everything.
Preparing everything for the ceremony
I had a chance to sit back and watch the Lama’s get everything in working order. The Lama’s varied in age. The youngest was around 10 and the oldest in his 70s. Around 9:30 everything was set and all the Lama’s had arrived, so we went outside to start the procession in.
The Procession into the Monastery
At this point the youngest Lama’s went and started the call to prayer. They blow into these big seashells to let everyone know it’s starting. We went inside, the Lama’s, started chanting, the faithful lit 108 candles and we prayed. As we sat there, lots of people were filing in and out of the ger monastery. One Lama sat on either side of the ger and people would come in, offer money, and hand over a list of prayers to the Lama who would then say a special prayer for them and bless them. Note: all of the scriptures are written in Sanskrit and read in Tibetan. So, no one has any idea what is being said. I imagine it’s how Catholics feel when the Latin mass is read. Nonetheless, the chanting is absolutely enchanting and I found myself getting lost and wrapped up in it.
The Lama's chanting
I stayed for 3 hours, at which point my friend and I left. His wife and mother-law-stayed for 3 more hours until the candles had burned out. I was actually surprised at how many young people I saw attending services at the Monastery. Generally people here aren't actively religious, but elements of Buddhism survived the Stalinst purges of the 1930s. During Socialist times people practiced in secert. Most of the Mongolians I know say they aren't religious, but they still have their homes blessed and purified by Lamas, and they keep other sacred things in their homes. Most of them confess to only going to the Monastery on the big holy days.
My stay in Choibalsan is coming to an end. It's been really great on the research front and being in the countryside again has been refreshing. It is funny though, my friends who live in Choibalsan don't actually consider this the countryside. They maintain that the countryside is 20km outside of Choibalsan. An interesting part of my research has been this idea of "the countryside" and where and how people define the "countryside" and the people who live in it. But that's a whole other lofty academic issue that I won't bore you with.
Here is a clip of the Lama's chanting

Friday, November 16, 2007

Don't hit your students!

I found this picture that tells teachers not to hit their pupils. I echo this sentiment and favor other types of punishment, and/or positive reinforcements.
There are a few cultural points to this picture that I'm certain anyone who has ever taught or attended school in Mongolia, Russia, or Central Asia can immediately identify. First is the "pot holder" looking thing hanging on the left side of the chalk board. This is used to erase the board, and/or to put water on the board. Sometimes the chalk has to be wet in order for it to write on the board. The second notable thing is the students uniforms. The girl has on the "french maid" uniform with large bows in her hair and the boy a suit. This is how students dress for school on special occasions, or if the class director tells them to do so.
Bottom line, don't hit kids!

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Wild West of the East

Kid getting water from the river with a little help from his friends
Me, friends, and cute 1/2 naked children
Freak snowstorm in Choibalsan: A place that's a little bit "country" and a little bit "rock n' roll"Camel carts share the road with cars
Mostly frozen Kherlen River in Choibalsan
The beautiful city of Choibalsan, as seen from the river in the morning.
Some things have changed in Choibalsan over the last 2 years. For example, there is now reliable, relatively high speed Internet. I can't watch Youtube videos, but it's just as good as my connection in UB.
Being here again is kind of strange. It's almost as if I never left. I surprised a bunch of friends who told me that they thought they would never see me again.It's been really nice to reconnect with people.
I've been pretty busy with interviews and research. I've really been employing some "high level" thinking skills out here. In addition to all of my academic endeavors, I was asked to judge the English competition at the Dornod Aimag Courthouse. consequently, I am staying with one of the judges. He organized the competition and as a favor to him I agreed to be the "foreign expert". There were 4 teams: North star, Five Fingers of a Hand, BINGO, and Venus. They chose the team names. They had to do an introduction, sing a song, Q and A, and name that word. Overall, it was pretty entertaining for me. I had adults trying to impress me with their English skills. Honestly, judging this competition of adults wasn't that far from the students competitions I used to judge when I was a teacher here. Competitions are very much a part of life here and that doesn't stop at grade 11. Additionally none of the competitors actually spoke English. They all studied Russian. That added another element of humor as I tried to decipher English words pronounced Russian style with Mongolian accents.
Annie and team "Bingo" the winners of the Courthouse English Competition
Me, laying down the law I've also been walking around the town and checking things out. Last week and this weekend have been pretty warm (in the 40sF), so I was able to go out running in the morning by the river and chat with the old folks as they do their morning exercises. There must have been an influx of missionaries here in the past 2 years, because nearly every person I met asks if I am a "Jesus person". I tell em I'm just a "zugeer" or "OK" person. that seems to settle it. A herder approached me here the other day. He was so curious about who I was and since he was staring at me I said "what?" Once he heard me speak Mongolian, I got 1000 questions concerning my availability, marriage status, and whether or not I had children. He made sure I knew what soum he lives in in case I wanted to come and see, and as we went our separate ways he shouted "I love you."
The cutest white bull in the whole aimag-"Tsaagana"

Friday, November 9, 2007

An Update from "the field"

Since Jaspal commented that I actually do have pretty good Internet out here, I'm gonna briefly update you all now and add the pics once I'm back in UB.
So this is my first time back to Choibalsan, the city I lived in for 2 years from 2003-2005. I must say, not a lot has changed. There are a few new buildings and stores, but the heart and soul of Choibalsan is the same. I think I forgot how "countryside" this place actually is. I think living in UB...Oh, i have to finish that thought later because a Mormon Elder interrupted to ask if I had "seen the light of Jesus Christ, our savior...." I told him that I can barely see any light through the smog in UB, but perhaps "the light" shines in Choibalsan. We then got into a discussion about "secret underwear", cultural reciprocity and paternalism. He invited me to spend 4 hours in church on Sunday, but I think I'll be worshipping at the church of mutton and vodka out by the river with my friends...."where one or 2 are gathered in my name, I am present."

Monday, November 5, 2007

I'm going to the countryside

In true researcher style, I'm taking off for 6 weeks to go into "the field". It's kinda funny because I'm really already in "the field", but it seems like when people talk about field research, they literally mean going into "the bush" (or field). A couple of people have recently said to me, "well, when are you goin into the field"? It's a hard question because technically, I'm already in "the field" doing interviews, observations, and other things that researchers do :) My "field" just happens to be an urban center at the moment. So, I like to say that I'm now entering the countryside portion of my fieldwork. Now that I'm done explaining that, I'd like you all to turn your attention to my friend Jaspal's blog ( Jaspal has documented his time in "the field" in Mongolia and offers really interesting and insightful comments about his research here. Plus, he takes great pictures! So I might be MIA for a few weeks. Check my blog now and again because I may have some access to decent Internet connections in "the field".

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Strange affirmations and wolves

"I love to have fun. I love my family and friends. I love this beautiful planet earth. The reason why I chose this car is because it will totally satisfy my requirements for outdoor living. Well...tomorrow where shall we go?" I took a picture of this car outside my apartment the other day. I've seen it a couple times and was hoping to catch a picture of it. It's just too funny and ironic.
I was lucky enough to still have my camera on me to catch the next 2 shots. Look closely...what is that ball of fur curled up under the balcony? Look! Just to the right of the "hot pot" sign.... It's a wolf carcass. That's right, a wolf. It's not the first dead wolf I've seen in Mongolia, it's just the first on I've seen in UB (on the building next to 2 ministry offices). In Choibalsan I used to see wolf carcasses for sale at the market, and once or twice a carcass from a recent hunt tied to a car hood or roof. Mongolians have an interesting relationship with the wolf. They see the wolf as this cunning, trickster character that they respect, but as a herding society, they also view the wolf as an enemy. Additionally, parts of the wolf's body are used in traditional medicine. I've heard of wolf's tongue being wrapped around the throat of a person with chronic sore throats, and wolf's lung being eaten to treat TB. I wonder what this one was used for? Maybe the hot pot.
In other news, it was really cold here today. I think the temperature only got to about 12F, but with the wind it felt colder. I was out in the ger districts today doing research and the variety of living conditions that I can be observed in such a small space here never ceases to amaze me. I took the bus for the first time since I've been back. The bus prices recently went up 100 to 200 tugrics. That's a huge amount for some people. I guess there will be a lot more people walking around this winter.
Settling into winter life has been hard for me this time around. I guess I know what's to come and I'm not looking forward to it! I am looking forward to going to Choibalsan next week to see my old friends and get out of the pollution!

Friday, October 26, 2007

I thought it would be nice to share some pictures of things I see everyday. They are kind of random, but I hate walking around the city with my camera out. As you can tell from these shots, I was very stealthy when I took them, not paying much attention to angle or shade. I took em' quick! They do offer a small glimpse into my life here:
These are the kids in my courtyard that hoop it up everyday after their classes. They are generally a friendly bunch, but every once in awhile they like to try out a swear word to see what I do. I either ignore them, or throw some Mongolian back at em.
This is big pink school #5 right in my neighborhood. A testament to the beauty of Russian architecture.
Here is a good shot of "The Burger House". It's on my way to the National University. I've never eaten there, but apparently babies and Paris Hilton like it, so it must be good. A testament to the globalization of the hamburger.
This is building #4 of the National University of Mongolia. This building and the college kids who live/attend classes in it, greet me every day on my way to the office.

This is a picture of the plaque outside the Cuban Embassy. I walk past this building everyday. I think I saw a Cuban guy once. I'm assuming this is the least desirable country for an ambassador from Cuba to be sent to. I'm sure that guy keeps a low profile. I felt really guilty taking this picture, like I was committing a crime. I mean, you can't get this close the US embassy! I literally could have gone and knocked on the door. Instead, I left our Cuban friends alone.

I must confess, I decided to take these pictures today after seeing my friend J's pictures of his research site in Kyrgyzstan. My pictures aren't nearly as beautiful, but they are probably just as interesting to people who have never been to this part of the world. In a few weeks I'll be off to the Mongolian coutryside for my own research and I'll be sure to take some breathtaking photos (In addition to the very serious, very important data collection)!