Happy Lunar New Year

Амар байна уу? (Amar baina uu?),

meaning

“Are you living peacefully?

As middle Tennessee welcomes warm spring weather, on the other side of the world Mongolians are celebrating the Lunar New Year ( Цагаан сар – Tsagaan Sar, which quite literally translates into ‘White Moon’)

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A young boy presents a khadag and recites a New Year poem

Ширээ дүүрэн идээтэй

Сэтгэл дүүрэн жаргалтай

Сар шинэдээ сайхан шинэлээрэй! 🌙

Tsagaan Sar is a 3 day holiday that celebrate the New Lunar Year; Families gather in the eldest members home. Neighbors visit one another throughout the days; Hosting or playing guest; Eating traditional Mongolian dumplings, бууз (buuz), drinking vodka and exchanging New Years greetings and gifts.

When greeting anyone older than you, they will be sitting and you will stand, arms reached out, the younger of the two will put their hands under the others elbows while sniffing each others cheeks. Showing a sign of support and holding a Khadag.

Weeks leading up to the celebration, Mongolians prepare the dumplings and freeze them in their natural outdoor freezer. A common question before leaving for the holidays, “how many buuz did you make?” (Usually in the high 100s to over 1000)

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Buuz, traditional meat filled dumplings. Your plate will never be empty of buuz during Tsagaan Sar

After the 3ish days are finished, many people ask, “how many buuz did you eat?” I think a friend of mine (who is still living in Mongolia as a private school teacher) ate close to 30 buuz in one day … something seen as an honor by Mongolians. And by foreigners, as a sign of, “you poor thing, how sick did you get?”

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And everyone wears their traditional clothing, a Deel.

I say 3ish, because if you have not visited some coworkers or distant friends, you will still be greeted with a plate of dumplings 🥟 and vodka throughout the first few weeks of the new year.

A traditional sight for the center of the table during holidays (Photo edict: Sebastian, current PCV, follow him on instagram @sebastian.zusi )

Ул Боов  – a stack of fried bread  (Boov) and aaruul (dried cheese curds) in a circular  shape, of uneven numbers to represent good luck. Ul quite litterally translates into Mountain. Candy and dairy is stacked on top of the ul boov, and it is traditional for a visitor to touch the side as respect and take a piece from the top.

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boov – fried bread. Aaruul – dried cheese curds

Also seen in the photo above, traditional Mongolian Snuff Bottles (хөөрөг – khoorog). These are typically owned by men or elders of the family. Passed to everyone who visits to enjoy. Passing them in a respectful gesture, palm up and your hand under your right elbow.

Early in the morning, the women of the family go outside and offer milk to the sky, while the men hike (now drive) to the highest mountain peak to watch the sun 🌞 rise and pray for new year beginnings.

As an outsider, the traditions that this holiday holds is beautiful to experience. Families gather, children are adored, elders are respected and celebration flows.

I wish all the best to all my friends and family in Mongolia, Happy White Moon. Cheers to a beautiful new year! 🥂

-SA

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6 months back and still figuring it out

Hello there!

Sorry for being such a stranger the past few months. It has been a whirl wind since August and I have been slow to gather my thoughts until now.

In August, I finished my 27 months of service in Mongolia with the Peace Corps. It was a bitter sweet time. My last couple of weeks were spent traveling around Mongolia with friends. We went to the Gobi Desert in Omon Govi, got to ride my first camel and got ready for some reverse culture shock, while spending time in the Capital City.

My friend and I knew we wanted to put off the inevitable of going home, finding a job/apply for school and figuring out the future. So what better way, then to travel the long way home.

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We took the VERY long way home – Ulaanbataar, Mongolia to Melbourne, Australia to Sydney to London, England to Edinburgh, Scotland to Iceland to Nashville, TN USA

How did we choose such a crazy rout? – we actually met friends and family at each point along the way. Friends in Australia, Family in London and Scotland and Friends in Iceland.

And yes – somehow, all the countries we visited were some of the most expensive places around the world. Below are some photos of our travels, so enjoy.

Australia:

UK:

Iceland:

Now, I am back in the US of A for almost 6 months. Still living at home and under one roof with my parents. I have had a few job opportunities and have reconnected with some great people in my life. I still do not know what I want to do with myself; I don’t know where/when I will settle down and live. But I have had plenty of time to reflect on my time in Mongolia.

I have run into old friends, friends of friends, family and family friends who crazily enough followed my time in Mongolia for the whole 2 years via this blog. After a lot of people said they enjoyed reading about my experience, I have decide to help explain more to everyone. For starters:

Top 5 questions Everyone has asked since being home:

  1. Do you miss it? – yes and no. I miss the relationships I made. I miss the calmness and relaxing nature. I miss the landscape and the vast sky. I miss the sounds (my fire crackling as I fell asleep; a horse running by my home; dogs barking all night long; the karaoke club throughout the night). I miss my students and the energy the brought. I miss seeing some very progressive and motivated young adults creating change. I miss other volunteers. I don’t miss the cold (-30 degree winters). I don’t miss the food. I don’t miss the loneliness/isolation.
  2. What did you eat? – This could be an entire post itself (well maybe it will be). Because of the harsh winters, veggies and fruits are a luxury. Summer is when wild berries come in the mountain sides, but most veggies, outside of root vegetables, came to our town from Russia or China. Meat – mainly sheep (NOT lamb) and horse (yes horse) in the winter, goat and beef. Heavy on the milk products, meat, flour and rice.
  3. How was the language? – Very difficult and so many different dialects. But, I found a true new love for language. Having dyslexia, I was terrified to learn a new language, especially one with a whole new alphabet (Cyrillic). But I 100% believe in full immersion learning. It is a sink or swim kind of situation. It wasn’t until my final 8 months or so that my language was high enough to work alongside co-workers and my family who know little to no English.
  4. What work did you do? – I was in Mongolia as a Community Youth Development Worker. I went to a Vocational school most days and worked with the school social worker and dorm teachers. Our students were 14-20+ years old. I also worked with our Human Resource worker – setting up different clubs (big brother big sister, sex ed, life skills and a volunteer club). I worked with students with disabilities in my community. Created a special Olympics program. Taught English. And worked with a very small youth community up north in my province. Their families are reindeer herders and have a marginalized life situation.
  5. What will you do now?  – NO CLUE! This is the dreaded question that everyone asks. Its hard because I do not have a clear answer. I wish I did. It is difficult not knowing your future as a late 20 yo with a very diverse work background.

 

Please let me know what you want to read about – Peace Corps, Mongolia, culture etc. I will write on anything and everything, but know that it will be my own opinion. I want to share Mongolia to so many, because it is an amazing place. If I can assist anyone looking into joining the Peace Corps, please reach out.

Thank you for Reading

SA

How to survive a Mongolian Winter


There are many ways Mongolians have perfected the art of surviving the freezing temperatures during the winter time. For over thousands of years, these nomadic people have been able to create the best practices by using the materials that surround them (wood/coal/felt/wool/fur/Meat) yes, I said meat! You will read about this later in the post, or you can see my post from last year about our school killing 65 sheep for our winter meat.

  1. The Home – and how to winterize your ger (гэр), a Mongolian traditional home

Some of my school workers starting my ger winterization

Most gers are winterized for winter no later than October. This process is usually done by the men of the family or boys (who can climb on the roof of the ger). 1st you have to take off the existing layers of canvas and felt and let them dry out from the summer rain. Then you had 2 or 3 layers of felt along the roof and walls of the ger, before putting the canvas covering on top.

My door, some call it a door for hobbits 

The door is liked with felt padding and the roof is sealed with plastic and glass windows.

Blocking the wind

The last step is to add an extra layer of felt and sand along the outside bottom of the ger, to help the wind to not pierce through your ger.

  1. The cloths – Mongolians do a great job dressing properly for warm weather. Long parka jackets to your knees. Many layers of Mongolian made wool (made from camel, yack and sheep) leggings, thigh high socks or your regular socks. Then there are the Mongolian boots, many layers of felt on the sole and usually lined with fur or wool.

My new thigh high camel wool socks! So warm

But the best is how the young kids are dressed by their parents. Full body snow suits. Gloves with strings attaching them to the jackets. Hoods up with a hat on. And then a tightly wrapped scarf that covers their entire face, minus the eyes and knotted in the back so the kids can unwrap themselves.

  1. The fuel – Most wooden homes and gers are heated by a wood burning stove. Using three types of fuel to burn: wood, coal or dung. I live in the norther most part of Mongolia and we are fortunate enough to have large forests to provide wood for us. Many people in my town have started to use coal in the winter, because wood is becoming too expensive and winters are colder then ever.

This amount of wood will last me about 2 weeks

  1. The food – Meat. Meat. Meat. In November, most families prepare all of their meat for the winter time. This can consist of a few sheep, cows and horses for the wintertime.

Over all, it is quite impressive to see how this group of  people are able to keep a healthy comfortable life during such difficult times.

 

Until Next Time

SA

Fall Update

It has been over 2 months since I have written anything on this blog. I am not sure if it is because of my new work schedule, lack of internet access, or because I am in the start of my 17th month of living in Mongolia and most things have lost its glimmer and wander and have become more of an everyday norm.

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In August I spent a lot of time in Murun, playing with my Khashaa  siblings and neighbor kids. At the end of the month, we had our MST (Mid Service Training) in the National Park outside of Ulaanbataar. It was an absolutely beautiful resort, but we were also able to come together as a whole cohort for the first time in a year.

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It was a very refreshing 4 day seminar – we discussed our successes and failures from.  the past year, and how to capitalize on both. We broke up into our 3 regions (West / Central / East) of where we all live, and competed in fun competitions with others who live near us and our regional managers. I live in the Central, and of course we WON! Because we are so great. But also because we have some of the best Regional Managers, two very strong Mongolian women who have very strong work ethics and do their very best to look out for the best interests in their regional volunteers.

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My School Social Worker and I on the 1st Day of school

After the short trip, it was back to the grind. As school officially started in all of Mongolia on September 1st. My school had a simple opening ceremony, but it was good to see new and old students, along with some teachers I have not seen all summer.

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Teachers’ Day Celebration, with a few of my favorits

October 5th, was International Teacher’s Day, and Mongolians truly know how to celebrate themselves on this day.  Our school participated in the Province wide teachers sports competition. Had team teachers’ competitions, an award ceremony and had a dinner/dance party. In all, we celebrated for over a week.

October 1st was Peace Corps deadline to get our gers winterized. This is the process of adding on felt to the ger to make it a bit warmer in the winter.

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1st snowfall of the year happened on October 10th 

Now that most of the big celebrations of the beginning of the year are over, it is time to have a normal schedule and get some real work done this year. I have a lot on my plate but I enjoy it this way. I feel productive and happy with the work I am doing.

Over the next coup of week I will make more detailed posts:

  • How to Winterize a Ger
  • From the outside looking in – a view of america 1/2 way around the world
  • Specific work projects and accomplishments
  • A Zud is coming  – what does it mean that it is the year of the monkey?

Until Next Time,

SA

Visit to the countryside and real Mongolian BBQ

a beautiful Ovoo outside of Murun City

Last weekend I was invited to the countryside with 15 other school workers.

A short hour dive to Burentogton Soum to have a traditional khorkhog (хорхог) Mongolian countryside barbecue.

No, this is not like your Mongolian bbq restaurants in America. We arrived at our dorm teacher’s family ger to enjoy a glass of hot milk tea and fresh made yogurt. Than the group quickly killed two sheep for us to eat.

hide is sun bathing, grandmother is chillin and a tracher is cookin up the stove

As seen in previous blogs, the process of killing animals in Mongolia is very humane and the best part is, they use ever part of the animal. Not letting a single thing go to waist.

heart of two sheep

While we waited for the innards (гэдэс) to be cleaned, I watched as we cut and cooked the heart over flame and coals. Then wrapping the heart meat in stomach fat and cooked it.

ingrediance

Once the vegetables from the families country garden were cleaned, it was time to set up the barbecue. (Onion – cонгино; potato- төмс; carrot- лууван; turnip- шар манжин)

adding the hot stones


You add about 4″ of water to the bottom, then throw in layers of meat, salt, veggies, and hot stones. The stones sit in the fire for an hour before being used, to get them nice and warm. Once the pot is full of goodies, you tighten down the lid and put it on top of the existing fire.

45 mins later, you have a delicious pressure cooker type of veggies, meat and brother for the whole group to eat.

Khorkhog might be my favorite Mongolian food. So much flavor and the meat is cooked to tender perfection.

half the crew getting water at the well

After lunch digested and some volleyball was played, we made our way to a special water well with healing minerals. Everyone grabbing a couple of gallons of water for their families back home.

This was a great way to start my weekend, but also a great way to start off my school year. I am so happy to have great people to work with at my school.

motorcycles are the number one form of transportstion in the countryside

Most of the teachers will come back to work the week I am gone to a peace corps training. But for now, I am able to enjoy the quiet and productive sounds of the school with my co workers and friends.

me with my beautiful social worker Miga!

Next week I will head back to UB for MST (Mid Servise Training). This will be my first time back with our entire cohort since swearing in last August. Right now our group is down to 56 volunteers after coming to country with 72 just 14 months ago. We have lost 22% of our group. Most Peace Corps cohorts have 1/3 leave by the time they finish. I hope the rest of our group can stay strong and rely on one another when things get hard. Because living here and doing the work we do; making the relationships we are making, is nothing like we will ever experience before.

Until next time

SA

Summer Ger Living

Rule #1: keep your door open as often as possible
Rule #2: master the art of flipping the bottom half of your ger walls



These two rules will help you survive the heat of a Mongolian summer. Allowing a nice cross breeze, when Mother Earth finds it necessary. 
The down side to living in a ger in the summer?…. BUGS! Huge spiders finding there way inside. Killing at least 5 or more a night. Flies love gers! No matter how much I clean, do the dishes, wipe down the counters or take out the trash, they are always buzzing around. Maybe one day I will miss the sound of a fly…… Baha! 


But, thanks to the great American government I work for, I am saved at night by my huge Peace Corps issued bug net 🙂 It just makes me feel like the princes I always wished to be.
Expect your ger to leak. When the summer rain comes, there is that huge circle in the middle of your ger that is not water resistant. Pull your rain tarp over if the rain last long enough; but still, your ger will leak. 
Your going to sweat! Just deal with it. Maybe workout before the sun rises or after it sets. But drink a lot of that well water you just fetched. 


Do you have kids who live in your khashaa (yard)? If so, expect them to spend majority of the day in your ger. Indoor games are always a great option to stay out of the heat. Unless you want to have a water fight on those extra hot days 🙂
And finally, try to make food that doesn’t require using your stove / hot plate. That’s just one more thing to make your ger stifling hot.
Good luck my summer ger dwellers. 

Until those winter days of constant fire making,

SA

Guide: Vacationing in Mongolia

Khuvsgol Province is one of the more popular places for tourists in Mongolia; and I am fortunate to call this place home.

This past week my friends Hana and her family took Stephen and I up to Lake Khuvsgol for 2 nights at a beautiful ger camp along the water. It was my first time to be on vacation here in Mongolia and I didn’t realize how much I needed the break.

The past 2 weeks I have been away from site and work, but working for Peace Corps  in Ulaanbaatar. UB is not a restful city – the whole environment takes energy and money out of me every time I go. Our friend Stephen is 1 of 3 volunteers who actually live in the city. After a year of hearing about UB life, he does not have it any less easy than the volunteers living out in the countryside or in province capitals. The city life of UB is financially draining (even if you are just buying essential items and not going out); people crash at your home so they don’t have to spend money at a hostel; and you have the constant smog from the city pollution, that has effected many people’s health over the years.

So needless to say, I think Stephen was just excited to get out of the city as Hana and I were and enjoy a nice relaxing vacation.

Khuvsgol Lake is one of the largest fresh water lakes in the world, and oh does it attract tourist from all around the world. The Small province capital I live in, of 30,000 people, soon becomes a swarm of foreigners in the summer time. Even Mongolians come to town for work as tour guides and translators.

We got off the airplane in Murun and immediately my friends were in awe of what I call home, mainly because of the trees. It was consistently said “this is not Mongolia”. The grocery store was bigger and had more options that what Hana’s home offers. And Stephen was taking in all of the men on motorcycles dressed in traditional Mongolian deels. It was quickly clear that Murun (my home) is a middle ground between the two extremes of Mongolia where my friends live – UB (the city where Stephen lives) to Uvs Province (a western province that has less access to common goods, but has the beautiful landscape of countryside Mongolia).

At the lake we stayed at Khuvsgol Dalai Ger Camp – a beautiful resort right on the edge of the lake, near the southern peninsula. The water has a beautiful teal coloring and is surrounded by high hills covered in trees.

The camp was run by a beautiful lady, Boya, who has a great team of workers, always speaking to us with big smile. Making fires in the morning for us and creating delicious meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There were showers and flushing toilets (not a common thing in Mongolia traditional living).

We got to ride horses, read on the dock, jump in the ice covered lake, go for runs, relax in quiet times and enjoy time with friends. I could not have asked for a better experience and it was all thanks to my friends giving family.

Below are recommendations for things to do and places to stay while in Khuvsgol, Mongolia.

 Travel:


UB to Murun, Khuvsgol

  • Option #1- Fly: $180 round trip; 2:30 hrs of travel time
  • Option #2 – Bus: $32 round trip; 14:00 hrs of travel time
  • Option #3 – Personal Car: $150 round trip (for the whole car); 10 – 14 hrs of travel time

Murun to Khuvsgol Lake

  • Option #1 – Personal Car: $60 round trip (for the whole car); 2 hrs of travel time
  • Option #2 – Meker (Microbus): $10 round trip; 2 hrs of travel time

Hotel:

Lake Ger Camps:

Horseback riding – $5 / hr

 Hope this helps,

SA 

Summer eats 

“Let tuce Eat.”

Yes, Mongolia gets hot! Yesterday reached close to 100 degrees Fahrenheit . But I will take the heat any day, as long as it means fewer winter days and more luscious food. It’s hard to imagine Mongolia’s sparse steppe producing beautiful fruits and veggies, but the warm/humid Summer’s make for a great late summer harvest.

Darimaa’s loot after our ride out of the Taiga (Rhubarb)

The markets in Murun have had a vast variety of color the past two months; Making this foreigner’s mouth water and eyes getting too big for the bank account. I am lucky to live in a province that is known specifically for certain foods (wild rhubarb, onions and blueberries). Up in the northern part of Khuvsgol province, rhubarb grows wild. On our horse trekk our guides would reach down and pull up a handful of delicious pieces.

Fresh picked strawberries

In Tov province, where I worked at a summer camp, we went strawberry picking. Now, these strawberries were very very small, but they tasted better than any strawberry in an American grocery store; a strong punch of flavor.

 

My friend’s home grown pepper

 

My Family’s tomato crops


Even greenhouses have become a big contributor to many produce stands here in Murun. My family just built a greenhouse this spring and already has some great progress. Also our farming vocation at school has 3 large greenhouses.

It’s going to be a sad day when all of there colors slowly leave the markets and the vast landscape of the summer, and winter comes yet again. Leaving my regular produce intake back to potatoes, cabbage, onions and peppers. At least it will only be 1 more year of a limited vegetarian diet. Just need to keep telling myself – “you can do it! It’s not for life”

Until Next Time,
SA

Easy as a Sunday morning

just relaxing next to the tepee

I have been off the grid for a while, working at summer camps and mearly enjoying the summer vacation that Mongolia has to offer.

Since I work at a school, I along with the CYD (community youth development) and TEFL (English teacher) volunteers get most of June, July and August off from school work. Giving us ample time to relax, lesson plan, work at summer camps, enjoy our towns and travel. 

Ice Cream break on a hot day in Darkhan, visiting my host family

It’s a muggy Sunday morning here in the Capital City (Ulanbattar) and I felt the need to write a blog post, to update those back home what I am doing. But sometimes it’s hard to put things into words.

This summer I have been able to read a lot, study/practice my Mongolian, Learn new things about my town, and spend quality time with volunteers and Mongolian friends.

During the summer, PC Mongolia has 3 cohorts in country. M25s – the volunteers who are finishing their service and returning home; M26s – my cohort. The volunteers who have made it one year in service and are about it imbark on their final school year; and M27s – the new volunteers who are in training all summer long and will move to their permanent sites mid August. 

It is strang to have both ends of the spectrum so close for me. 

On one hand, it seems like just yesterday I was walking to and from training sessions in the sweltering heat of Darkhan. Nervous if I would ever learn the language. 

On the other hand, seeing close friends finish out their 27 month service, get on airplanes and start a new chapter of their lives. This time next year I will be doing the same, but that seems like so far into the future. 

So for now, I am trying to work on being at peace and content with my current state. Learning to love the different things of Mongolia; even learning to laugh when there are things that don’t make any since to me, logically. 

road the train from Darkhan to Tov Aimag for a summer camp, then back to UB

I plan to say goodbye to a few friends who are leaving soon. Then spend the rest of the summer back in Murun and relaxing at home. MST (Mid Service Training) will be back in UB with our cohort and then school kicks off on September 1st. 

Tomorrow I have my 1 year medical and dental check up. Fingers crossed I don’t have any cavities.

Check out photos from the summer blow. 

Until next time,

SA

lunch break during our 6 hour horse trekk

group photo on our last day of lessons in the Taiga

 

young summer camp love, who could say no to these faces

Erdenorcher, 7 yo who stole my heart at camp

take a ride on the lake

summer hike outside of Murun with Hana

worked with these two fantastic social workers at tsoglog summer camp

Saying Goodbye

After a great couple of days with volunteers and a couple of our Mongolian Counterparts, it is that time of the year to start saying goodbye. Before you freak out, no, I am not leaving early from my 2 year service. But I am having to say goodbye to friends that I have made in the cohort ahead of me, whom are finishing their 27 month service in a few weeks.

Saying goodbye to Americans is one thing. It’s easy to say, we will stay in touch. Communicate over facebook. Or even try to plan visits back in the states. But honestly, who really knows where life will take us one month or even one year from now.

What was hard for me and a dose of reality, was watching the volunteers who are leaving soon, say goodbye to our Mongolian friends. Peace Corps volunteers have been working in Mongolia for 25 years. That is 25 years of Americans coming and leaving. 25 years of Americans working, building relationships, making memories and then departing, and for a good percentage of those volunteers, to never again return to this place they called home for 27 months.

I have only been living in Mongolia for 14 months, but I can already tell you that the goodbye process will be difficult for me this time next year. I have made friends and what I consider new family members since I have been here. Seeing people in my town this summer, catching up on how we are “Resting” or even just being yelled at by fellow teachers driving by, makes me feel welcomed in my community. Getting the monthly phone call from my host father from last summer, to ask me to go on a summer vacation with them out west. Or the amazing text messages from my host sister, telling me she got into University to study English next year.

How do you say goodbye to people who have taken time out of their own lives to help you acclimate, work, have fun and prosper in a new culture. How do you tell them honestly, hope to see you again, even though financially it is difficult for either party to travel ½ way around the world? How do you not let life get in the way, to remember a simple email reply or telephone call? How do you make the goodbye not so indefinite and not make others feel like you are just sweeping through their lives like a quick afternoon thunderstorm?

For now, I am thankful to not have to confront these questions head on. But I do know they will come soon enough. For those volunteers who are leaving soon: thank you for your help to make my 1st 14 months in Mongolia memorable. Your efforts to help each of us succeed and take an easier road than the one you might have traveled. Enjoy life on the other side. Have some beer, great wine, amazing food and please please please go see live music for me!

Until next time,

SA