Inside the Rugged Lives of Mongolia’s Nomads

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I love finding these kinds of short videos online because I feel like they give our readers a better sense of Mongolia’s heritage. Yes, there are still traditional Mongolian nomads of different ethnic backgrounds (the family featured here is Kazakh from western Mongolia), although I would argue more of Mongolia’s population is urban than rural at this point.

This short film highlights eagle hunting training, camel racing training, and other activities. The scenes inside the family ger also show traditional Kazakh embroidered wall hangings, and at 1:03, you can see a piece of cloth covered in different medals hanging from the wall. Medals are awarded for a number of reasons in Mongolia: for good work (a carry over from socialism), for the amount of children you have, for winning competitions. As the medals are blurry in the shot, there’s no way that I could even begin to attempt to tell you what these specific ones are for, but I would wager that this family is proud of these medals and the stories that they tell.

Enjoy!

Beth sig

Apartment Living in UB

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If you live in one of the ger districts or more on the outskirts of the city, you are more likely to live in an individual home, but by and large, housing in UB consists of apartments. New high rise apartment buildings go up all the time, to the extent that there are probably more apartments than possible residents. In this post, I’d like to

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High rise apartment building to the right. Multistory school building on the left. National park in the background.

highlight some of the similarities and differences (that I’ve noticed from personal experience) in apartment living in UB.

Before we moved to Mongolia, I pictured us living in a tiny, drafty, gloomy Soviet-era apartment. Rest assured these apartments exist in UB, but there are all kinds of different places to live at widely different price points, which brings me to the first few factoids.

  • Apartments are owned individually (more like condominiums in the US), and your landlord may own just a few apartments or many different ones across many different apartment complexes. (Note: a landlord can make or break your renting experience. Choose wisely and agree on very specific terms in your contract!)
  • Rent is not paid monthly as it is in the US (unless you have a special arrangement with your landlord). You pay everything upfront as part of your lease. If you’re leasing for a year, you pay for a year! Our current place (3 bedrooms, 1.5 bathrooms) is about $5k a year.
  • Utilities are typically separate from rent and there is an additional (small) monthly fee paid to your building’s jijuur (maintenance person), which covers maintenance and cleaning of common areas.

There are a few other quirks to apartment living here. Of course, as in any apartment, you will hear your neighbors. Also, like everywhere in the world, some neighbors are friendly, some are standoffish, and others are just rude. Meh. That’s life. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Here are some of the quirkiest things that we’ve experienced.

  • Apartment renovations at all hours of the day and night. Friendly reminder that the primary building material here is cement, so imagine hearing someone drill through cement walls for hours on end, starting at, oh, ten o’clock at night. What can you do about this? Pretty much nothing. Even if you’re Mongolian, asking your neighbors not to do this late at night could still be met with defensive anger. Since we’re *still* not fluent in Mongolian–we’re barely conversational–this isn’t something we’ve been able to address at all so we mostly grin and bear it.
  • IMG_20180119_093927You might find garbage in the stairwell. Some buildings have trash chutes–our current one does!–and those are handy. Otherwise, there are likely dumpsters located in your complex, which may or may not be conveniently located. Even so, you still might find garbage in the stairwell, which is left with the assumption that the cleaning lady will pick it up for you. I’ve done this once or twice and received a passive aggressive note *in English* as a result so those were the only times I did. You’ll note in the picture to the right that there is a bag of garbage right below the trash chute. The bag can clearly fit in the chute, so I’m not sure why it wasn’t tossed. It was full of old meat bones so maybe that has something to do with it? I literally have no idea. Again: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
  • You will hear your neighbors. This really isn’t unique to Mongolian apartments at all, but I think I now prefer being able to hear the day to day activities. It makes me feel connected to community somehow when I can hear my next door neighbor’s sneezes or the pitter patter of the elephants children that live upstairs. Sometimes this means that you hear arguments–I’ve heard some doozies–but unfortunately, as an expat, even if you suspect domestic abuse, there’s not much that you can do.
  • Water and electricity can be unreliable. You can expect to lose power and/or water in your apartment complex at some point. Sometimes power going out can be linked to a traffic accident in the area, sometimes it’s because of routine maintenance, and sometimes it’s because someone (maybe you!) blew a fuse. Have patience. It’ll come back on. 🙂 Water sometimes goes out with electricity. Other times, you might lose just hot water, like when the central heating cuts out in May. For the most part, these water outages are for a few hours, but the aforementioned hot water outage can be for a week.
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Taken from our kitchen window, you can see an empty lot between our complex and the next. Note the ger! There are a couple in the empty spaces around where we live, but they are not the typical housing situation in central UB.

I, for one, think that there are plenty of advantages to living in apartments in UB–or living in UB in general. Grocery stores of all sizes abound throughout and around apartment complexes, which makes shopping relatively easy if you don’t have a vehicle and need to make more frequent grocery trips. (Read this post for a comparison of grocery shopping between here and the US.) There are a number of small businesses that pop up in residential areas as well–banks, mobile phone stores, dry cleaners, tailors, etc. This means that you can get a lot of your errands accomplished locally.

I’m sure I’m forgetting interesting facts and anecdotes at this point, but this post is getting quite long so I ought to wrap it up. For those of you who live or have lived in UB, what would you add? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Let us know in the comments!

Beth sig

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What is really essential in this process is that both the teacher and the students know that open, curious questioning, whether in speaking or listening, is what grounds them mutually—not a simple passive pretense at dialogue. ~ Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom

Thoughts?

Beth sig

New year, new baby

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For readers of this blog who do not know us in person, this may come as a shock to many of you, but we recently welcomed our second baby into the world. I had every intention of posting a pregnancy announcement on here around the same time as we announced on FB and other social media, but…I majorly slacked off on the blog for quite a few months so that just didn’t happen. Regardless, we have another kiddo!

Also born at Intermed Hospital in UB (which I’ve mentioned a number of times in the past), T joined us on December 22 at 3:40pm local time. She is healthy, keeping up her weight, and a joy to us and those who have visited us in the hospital and at home. (If you’re curious about Mongolian traditions surrounding childhood, you should check out this post from when Z was born in May 2016.) I’m recovering well from labor and delivery, and Z is handling a younger sibling pretty darn well. My folks came to help out with the transition from one kid to two–and of course to meet their second grandchild–which has been very helpful indeed.

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How you bundle a newborn in winter in the frozen north:

For the most part, we’ve kept T indoors as much as possible because it’s the middle of winter and besides the cold, the air pollution is too much for a newborn’s lungs to handle. In fact, this winter the pollution has been bad enough for the government to decide to shut down schools for the month of January. Hospitals are full of sick kids, and since pollution is worst during morning and afternoon/evening commute times, it makes sense to shut down schools to keep kids indoors at peak pollution times. If we do go outdoors, it’s primarily in the early afternoon once Z’s up from his nap, when it’s warmest outside and there’s the least amount of pollution.

I have some more ideas for posts percolating on the back burner so hopefully I’ll be posting more regularly in 2018, but with two kids under two years old, there’s no guarantee of anything! We’ll see. 🙂

Shine onii mend! Happy new year!

Beth sig

Niislel Salat, a.k.a. “Capital Salad”

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**HUGE apology for not updating the blog in seven months. SEVEN. Holy cow.**

One of the best food-related reasons to love Mongolia is its delicious potatoes. I don’t know what it is about them that makes them so darn tasty, but they are the bomb. They are typically on the small side (at least per American expectations), and the flesh of the potato (is that the right word?) is a deep yellow. The closest American equivalent I can think of is Yukon Golds, but even those aren’t as divine as Mongolian taters. I’ve checked before buying potatoes to make sure that I’m getting Mongolian ones rather than Chinese ones. They’re that yummy that I’m willing to embarrass myself with my terrible language skills to make sure I get the good stuff. #worthit

As I write this love letter to Mongol tubers, let me add that po-tay-toes are included in a wide variety of Mongolian dishes from soups to noodle dishes to salads. I love a good potato salad (my maternal grandmother’s recipe is my favorite in the US), and Mongolian potato salad does not disappoint. It’s called niislel salat, or capital salad, here, but apparently it is also common in Russia (and other former USSR nations) and known there as Olivier salad. That said, there is a basic approach to making the salad, but I find that a lot of folks have their own variations–as is the case with potato salad globally.

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My attempt!

I attempted this salad in the US this summer while staying at my sister and brother-in-law’s place, and they both approved so I think it’s safe to say that a lot of Americans would find this tasty as well. I’ll give a list of ingredients and directions below on making the salad, as well as possible substitutions.

Ingredients

  • potatoes
  • eggs
  • peas
  • carrots
  • corn
  • “hyam” (similar to summer sausage or ham)
  • cucumber and/or dill pickles
  • mayonnaise
  • mustard

Directions

  1. Peel and chop potatoes into a fine cube. (Everything should be cut about the same size, so aim for something about 1/4 inch cubed.) Boil potatoes. If using fresh carrots, you can peel, chop, and boil at the same time as the potatoes. You can also use canned carrots that are already chopped if, like me, you’re lazy and don’t want to spend hours dicing veggies!
  2. Hard-boil the potatoes. Peel and chop to the same size as everything else.
  3. Chop the “hyam”, cucumber, and/or dill pickles into that nice small dice. (Is your arm hurting yet?)
  4. Throw everything into a large bowl and toss with mayonnaise, a bit of mustard, and perhaps salt and pepper to taste. You could also add some dill if you really like.

Like I said, there are a wide variety of ways to make this salad, so if you don’t have one of the vegetables or you’re not a fan of pickles or cucumbers, you can probably make it without and still get the gist of the typical dish. Most restaurants have a form of this salad available, especially smaller cafes or Mongolian fast food joints. It shows up during major holidays and here and there in between the big festivals. I always get excited to see it on the menu or on someone’s table.

Let me know if you’ve had this salad before or if you try it out from this recipe! Mongolian friends (and strangers), let me know if I’ve botched the recipe!

Cheers,

Beth sig