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.

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

I miss Safeway.

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**I feel like it would be easy to misinterpret the intention behind this post, so I want to clarify that this post isn’t meant as a complaint but as an illustration of a challenge and an adjustment for an American living abroad.**

Because I grew up overseas in several developing nations, I was used to the necessity of shopping around to get all of the household goods. Or at least, that’s what I thought I was used to before moving to UB and realizing how little I understood what my parents actually went through to keep food in the house. See, by “used to the necessity of shopping around”, I mean, I knew that’s what my folks did, but I rarely participated in those shopping trips because I deemed them boring and just wanted to stay home and read a book. Let’s be honest, I still find shopping boring and would rather stay home and read a book.

As an adult, the only shopping I was used to was going to Safeway or Albertsons or whatever big name carry-all grocery store was closest, loading up on everything I needed in one trip, filling my car trunk, and going home with enough supplies to last for several weeks at a time. Here in UB, I’ve had to adjust my grocery shopping paradigm. For starters, we don’t have a car, so I can only buy what I can physically carry. Every time we go somewhere, I try to think of what else we can do in the relative area of where we are going (or what we can accomplish on the way) to help cut down on trips. Otherwise, I could easily be gradually purchasing throughout the week and would never feel “done” with grocery shopping. Factor in carrying a baby (in a snowsuit, he no longer fits in the baby carrier), and shopping becomes a bit of a challenge! Fortunately for me, when we have students over, I can usually convince them to come with me so we can bring home more at one time, rewarding them with food and chocolate. (You know who you are, and I thank you so much!!!) Also fortunately, our neighborhood grocery is well-stocked with the basics, and is about a five minute walk from our apartment.

However, to get the best deals on different products often involves shopping around at different markets. A meat market, for instance, is going to be cheaper than purchasing meat in my neighborhood grocery, and I can find meat for a wide variety of prices depending on where I go. The best deals on different products might be found through a friend who knows a guy who sells something out of the back of his truck. (Totally not as shady as it sounds!) A friend of mine connected me with a guy who sells Japanese diapers in bulk for cheaper than what we can find in any store so I get diapers delivered–handy, especially in winter!

One of the interesting things about household products and groceries here is that they come from all over the place. Sure, there are the expensive American import stores full of Skippy peanut butter and Starbucks coffee beans that go for $90 for a few pounds, but in our neighborhood grocery, we have stuff from Korea, China, Russia, Germany, Mongolia (duh), Kazakhstan, Poland, Hungary, and so much more! I’ll include some pics from our neighborhood grocery to give you an idea of what a basic supermarket holds. 🙂

Eggs typically come in a carton of 10, not a dozen, although you can find both. Alternately, you can buy eggs in singles (recycle an old carton for this task or use a produce bag) or as many as you want. A single egg at our grocery store costs 320mnt, which is like 10 cents. The bags above are local yogurt–delicious!

The instant noodle aisle is full of wonders to behold! Step aside, Top Ramen, you’ve been replaced by so many more delicious noodles!

This the cured/processed meat section. There is something similar to summer sausage available most places that’s both cheap and easy to incorporate into meals.

As an example of household goods, I wanted to include this image to show the variety of countries that source products here.

Produce doesn’t have the same regulations that it does in the US, which means your onions are not going to be uniform sizes. (Honestly, who really cares about that anyway?)

You might find American products with different flavors.

Case in point. ^_^

So that’s an idea of what it’s like to go grocery shopping here. They opened an Emart (Korean store similar to American Target or Walmart) at the start of the school year, but I have yet to go because I’ve heard that it’s super busy all of the time. Also, I still don’t have a car so it’s not really worth it to me to make the trek. I’ve heard that they might open another Emart that’s closer to us, but I’m not sure how much truth there is behind that rumor.

*cough cough*

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Bloomberg posted an illuminating article yesterday that broke down the current pollution issues. Guess what? Beijing can move over. Ulaanbaatar’s pollution has it beat–five times over.

Because it’s the Year of the Monkey, Mongolians have been predicting an extra cold, extra long winter. One of our coworkers said they are expecting four months of winter rather than three. (To me, it feels like winter lasts for six months anyway so…don’t listen to the expat who apparently doesn’t know these things. 😉 ) I’ve also heard that there might be an extra nine added to the “nine nines” of winter. What I’ve come to learn about Mongolian weather, however, is that you can never predict what might happen.

We’ve had snow on the ground for well over a month now, which has been nice in some ways. It’s kept the dust down, and the times that it’s been warm enough to snow has helped the air quality. The snow clears out the pollution for a couple of days before it gets bad again. I’m thankful that I’ve been able to stay indoors with Z more often than not. The pollution is so bad that one of the military hospitals is opening a wing for children with pneumonia because all of the other hospitals are full to overflowing. Even one of our teammate’s kids is recovering from pneumonia, and we are fortunate enough to live in a part of the city where the pollution is not so concentrated.

The pollution is so bad…that even Mongolians are wearing pollution masks, and that is an uncommon sight indeed. Usually, the only face masks we see people wearing are because they are sick (or vulnerable) and don’t want to pass on/catch others’ germs. So if you think of us, remember Mongolians this winter, especially those in Ulaanbaatar.

Beth sig

A Foreigner’s Guide to Riding the Bus in UB, Pt. 2

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There have been a few adjustments to public transportation around UB since we first posted about how to ride the bus here. When we returned to Mongolia from the US at the end of the summer, we returned to a completely overhauled bus system–new payment method, new bus lines, and new bus numbers/routes. Just to be safe, we avoided riding the buses for the first few weeks until we could figure everything out a bit. Even so, we’ve had a few mishaps–of course!–but nothing too grievous.

The biggest update is the method of payment. Instead of a fare collector moving up and down the bus and getting you to pay up, the system is much more automated. Now, you buy a bus card and put money on it. Once you get on the bus, you let the electronic reader scan your smart card and the reader automatically deducts money from it. It reminds me a lot of the ORCA cards in the Seattle metro area, actually.

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The cards have all different kinds of designs, but this is what mine looks like!

When we first bought our cards, we had a hard time tracking down a kiosk where we could purchase them and add money, but now they are much easier to find. Most of the major bus stops have kiosks nearby where you can either purchase a card or refill your card. Just look for the UMoney logo (image below). In a pinch, you can still pay in cash as you get on the bus (there’s a collection box next to the card readers), but I’m not sure if that will be a permanent alternative or not.

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Look for the UMoney logo! If you can find that, you can get a bus card. 🙂

Fares themselves don’t seem to have changed. It’s still 500 tugrug to ride the buses. I can’t speak for the trolleys since I haven’t used once since we’ve been back. I suspect that’s the same.

Something we forgot to mention in the last post which is pertinent to riding the bus and being in a crowded area in general. It’s considered rude to step on or kick someone’s shoes/feet in Mongolia. On a crowded bus, especially if you lose your footing and have to stumble to regain your balance, it’s very easy to accidentally stumble into or onto someone else. In that case, if you know whose feet you’ve trampled, a simple hand shake and an “уучлаарай” (pronounced roughly: oh-chla-ray) go a long way. Even strangers tend to smile when foreigners know to do this. 🙂

Another cultural tidbit…most Mongolians are pretty quiet on public transportation, at least compared to Westerners. Most people, if they talk at all, have quiet conversations with their traveling companions. If you don’t want to stand out more than you already do as a foreigner, keep your conversation volume down. Usually I’m so focused on trying not to fall over and keeping an eye on my bag that I don’t have the brain capacity to chat anyway, and anyway, having a conversation means you’re paying less attention to your surroundings, which makes you both more likely to miss your stop and to be a better target for pickpockets.

Hopefully this helps!

Beth sig

Winter Air Pollution

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It’s September, the morning after the first snowfall of the season, and Otgontuuya already knows that winter will be brutal. She sits on a pink plastic chair in her living room, takes off her thick jacket and breast-feeds her crying toddler. She has just gotten home, having walked across the uneven dirt roads overlooking the city, where the white ground is slowly turning a slushy gray. Even when the weather is nice, sharp turns and steep inclines often make it impossible for off-road vehicles to reach her neighborhood.

Otgontuuya is 28, and like most Mongolians, goes by only her first name. She is married, a stay-at-home mother who spends her free time sewing traditional tunic-like clothes for her kids. “I live for my children,” she says, rocking her 1-year-old daughter in her lap.

Along with freezing temperatures, winter brings memories of the child that never came. Six years ago, Otgontuuya was informed during a routine checkup that her baby had stopped growing. She miscarried at 12 weeks.

The culprit, doctors told her, was air pollution.

Thus begins this article on maternal health in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, by Liana Aghajanian (on Al Jazeera). I very strongly recommend that you read that article, which explains the tenuous situation well and includes photographs of life in the capital city for its residents who do not live in apartment buildings.

Somehow, in all of our preparations and research about Mongolia prior to arriving in the country, we missed the fact that Ulaanbaatar has terrible winter air pollution. Still not sure how that happened. Although I’ve read conflicting reports on this, UB is purportedly the most polluted capital city in the world in winter and the pollution is worse than in Beijing, China. The primary reason for this is that central heating comes from steam plants, which run on coal, and the city is lined with ger districts with residents burning coal and other flammable items for heat and cooking. I don’t suppose it helps that the city lies snugly between mountain ranges.

We are fortunate to live and work on the southern end of the city where we have a lot of wind that helps clear out the worst of the pollution. Even so, the outside air smells of coal smoke from late October to March or thereabouts. Depending on how cold it is, there are times when we can’t see certain parts of the city because of how thick the smoke is. Like all difficulties, it’s manageable with the right gear, but I have yet to meet a UB resident who doesn’t complain about the pollution. Looking at the rest of winter ahead of us (and this year’s winter looks like it might be a dzud), I don’t suspect we’ll have clear air for awhile. Fortunately, this too shall pass.

Do keep mothers and babies in your thoughts as winter progresses. (And sorry that this is not a cheerier post so close to the holidays…)

Beth sig

September Snow

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Yes, it’s October, but believe it or not, we had two snows last month. The most recent one happened on the 30th. Since then, we’ve been dodging either lakes (a.k.a. “puddles”) or swamps (a.k.a. muddy places on the sidewalks) on our commute to and from work. There have been a few times when we’re walking alongside the road with a giant puddle next to us and whoever is walking last will yell, “Bus!” and we all scramble as far from the road as we can in panic lest we get doused. It’s actually pretty entertaining. 🙂

I took some photos on our way to work on the 30th, so you can see some of the snow remnants as well as some of the sights from our normal commute. The other two guys in the photos are Hugh, our co-teacher, and one of our students from school who occasionally walks with us if the buses are too full or late.

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We have started updating our “resources” pages and have several books listed. The helpful websites page will probably take more time to update because it will be quite an undertaking. The internet is a font of helpful information!

All the best,

Beth sig