Outhouse Wolves and Other Stories

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A couple of weekends ago, we headed west of UB with some colleagues from our school to spend the night in the countryside with a herding family. The connection to this family was that the patriarch was the brother of the husband of one of our school’s headmasters, which was great for a couple of reasons. 1) It wasn’t a tourist camp so we had a more authentic experience, and 2) because we were connected, it didn’t feel like we were with total strangers. Our host family was so friendly and hospitable, and we had a great time!

 

crunchyside map

TBH, I’m not exactly sure where we stayed–as is the nature of traveling cross country to an impermanent settlement–but it was somewhere in or around the orange circle on the map. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

What was neat about this particular location was that it held a variety of landscapes. We stayed in gers on the steppe, but we were surrounded by mountains and about a 30 minute walk away from where we stayed was a large stretch of sand, including quite a few dunes. We were told this stretch of sand runs from the Gobi up to Lake Khuvsgul in the north. So in a way, we visited the Gobi. 😉

Camels:

crunchyside camelsCamels are one of the five key livestock kept by Mongolian nomads. (The others are horses, cows, sheep, and goats.) The Bactrian camel is native to Central Asia, and they are helpful beasts of burden in addition to providing wool for textiles and milk for dairy products. As you can see in these photos, the camels our host family had were in the process of shedding their thick winter coats and were semi-balding. There were camels that we used for riding, and other camels that were not–mamas and babies. One of the baby camels had been attacked by a wolf recently, so one of its hind legs was wounded. The family had been giving it antibiotics. The morning of our second day, that baby camel was on its feet and nursing. It was certainly favoring the wounded leg, but there’s hope for a full recovery!

Our ride took us a half hour out from camp to the stretch of Gobi sand (then back another half hour). The camels liked crowding each other as we rode, so I have some pretty gnarly bruises above my right ankle from when my camel crushed my leg into the neighboring camel’s metal stirrup, but there was no bolting, biting, or spitting, so I’d count that ride as a win. 😉 On our return walk/ride, one of our colleagues sang us a traditional Mongolian long song. He grew up in the countryside–not the city–so for him, being back where he grew up is always relaxing and nostalgic.

Good Eats:

crunchyside food

One thing that happens whenever we spend extended time with Mongolians is that we eat so. much. food. Personally, I can’t complain because I love eating, but some foreigners feel overwhelmed by how much food they are offered and don’t know if it’s ok to turn it down. (It is, but be nice about it and try to eat something!)

Our hosts served us a variety of traditional foods, including milk tea, khuushuur, and khorkhog. Khuushuur are fried meat pies. Some of the khuushuur were stuffed with mutton, and others were stuffed with “sheep stomach” (which tasted like minced organ meats, and not just tripe). That picture of Z eating a khuushuur in the top left? Sheep stomach! He was also interested in watching the frying process. The top right photo shows how the khorkhog was prepared. One sheep was butchered and the meat and bones were layered with minced onion, hot rocks from the stove, salt, potatoes, and carrots in a giant metal bowl with water on the bottom. The whole thing was covered and cooked for about an hour, turning into the most delectable meal.

In the morning, we had leftover mutton from the khorkhog, boortsog, more milk tea, coffee (!), rice porridge, and fry bread. Sadly, I wasn’t in the ger when they made the dough for the fry bread, so I’m not sure I’ll be able to recreate it at home, but I am definitely interested in trying. Delicious delicious food!

Countryside Living:

crunchyside Zach

When we first got to where we stayed over the weekend, Z was fairly shy, but he warmed up and ended up quite sad when we left. He was particularly enamored with the kids and lambs that stayed around the gers, and very much enjoyed chasing them. I don’t think they minded much, but I did worry that their mothers would be less than thrilled.

I don’t like to be the type of mother who hovers over her children, but there were a number of concerns that I had to balance while we were out of our normal. Z is not around animals enough here in UB to know that some animals are safe and some are not, so I had to corral him away from some of the livestock–like the overprotective camel mama whose baby had been attacked. She was a mama on a mission. I was also worried that Z would wander into the outhouse, which wasn’t deep, but also had no door on it and was exposed on one side and the top to the elements. I don’t know about you, but I’m not keen on fishing my toddler out of a toilet. 😉

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What I pictured happening to me.

Speaking of toilets, I needed to use it during the night. I had somewhat seriously told Eric as we got ready for bed that if I needed to pee before daybreak, I would just pee in one of the unused diapers we had brought along rather than go outside at night because of the wolves. (Ok, maybe just wolf–singular–but apex predator I am not.) Around 3:30am, well, I needed to go, and Eric (who was also awake) convinced me that I shouldn’t use a diaper for my bathroom break. I was still hesitant to use the outhouse–WOLVES, people!–but I decided maybe I could just pee behind the ger. I didn’t want to bring my phone for its flashlight because it’s hard enough to pee outside without peeing all over yourself in a squat without also having to juggle a light source. Anyway, once outside, I realized the moon was bright enough to cast shadows so I opted to use the outhouse. I know, I know. All that fuss for nothing. I was thankful for not needing a flashlight for that trip though because I have a record of losing items down outhouses. (RIP first Fitbit.) For the record, I squatted facing out so that if a wolf decided to take me down while in the outhouse, I’d at least see it coming and know my fate. My tombstone would have read: Here lies Bethany. Dead from outhouse wolves.

People:

crunchyside Talitha

We are just so flippin’ blessed to have the relationships that we do with Mongolians. Over the years, we’ve worked alongside educators, administrators, students, business folk, and more. Our children have been loved by all. We’ve written numerous recommendation letters, proofread so many essays and applications, and coached and encouraged and been coached and encouraged in return. Mongolian doctors have delivered both of our babies and been invested in their growth. Whenever folks ask me what my favorite part of living in Mongolia is, I tell them it’s the people, and this weekend reminded me again as to why.

Beth sig

PS. I had the bulk of this post written the night we came back from the countryside, but then things got really crazy so I only just finished wrapping it up.

Odette and Odile Take Ulaanbaatar

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Time for a possible paradigm shift!

A few weekends ago, the 9th and 10th grade classes from our school went to the *takes a deep breath* National Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Mongolia (Улсын дуурь бүжгийн эрдмийн театр) to see a production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (Хунт нуур). Eric knew that I would be more interested in going than him so I went in his place, and I’m so glad I did! It was my first visit to the opera house during our almost four years here in Mongolia, and I wish that I’d gone sooner.

It’s a beautiful space, a nice sized performance hall, and the musicians and dancers who brought about the production were excellent. I was moved to tears and laughter by the ballet and was on the edge of my seat during the climactic battle between the evil sorcerer and the prince. I have to say my favorite character in the ballet was the court jester. He was a phenomenal dancer and acted his part exceedingly well. This isn’t to say that Odette/Odile, the prince, and the sorcerer were not amazing dancers–they were!–but I was most entertained by the jester.

I didn’t take any photos of the performance itself because I don’t like making theater ushers angry, but I did take some photos of the interior and exterior of the theater. Enjoy!

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If you find yourself in UB, I highly recommend taking in a performance at this theater, which is located on the east side of Sukhbaatar Square. They have an extensive repertoire of both Mongolian and Western operas and ballets so you’re bound to find something you’ll like. Tickets are usually 20,000 MNT (a little less than $20 US).

Beth sig

PS. The images of Odette and Odile above are from this website.

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