The Esterlys take Mongolia

Almost as soon as I was told I was being assigned to Mongolia with the Peace Corps, my parents started making plans to visit, and last August, they came. This blog post is long overdue, but it was such a fun and adventure-filled trip, I would be remiss not write about it, however late it is. This probably deserved to be broken up into several posts, but I’m so far behind at this point, I’m going to cut some corners. Forgive me.

My parents landed at Chinggis Khaan airport in Ulaanbaatar (UB) extremely early in the morning one fine August day and despite their insistence that they could navigate getting to Our Town just fine on their own, James and I went to UB to pick them up from the airport. Reality check: Mongolia is a damned hard country to travel in if you don’t speak Mongolian and don’t have tour guide.

We took the 8-hour bus ride to Our Town the next day and right away my parents loved Mongolia. We were the only foreigners on the bus (as usual) and the rest of the passengers were as interested in my parents as my parents were in them. They especially got a kick out of the cheesy music videos (see examples here) they play on the TV in the front of the bus.

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We have very fancy buses here in Mongolia: notice the tasseled curtains.

We spent a couple of days in Our Town. We visited our local market, monastery, and museum, and we got to watch a traditional Nadaam celebration.

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Our local monastery turned museum.
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The actual monastery.

I was afraid that my parents had missed all the Nadaam Festivals (which is Mongolia’s most famous holiday. You can read more about it in this blog post) but lo-and-behold, Our Town’s wrestler had won the National Nadaam’s wrestling competition and the town decided to have an extra Nadaam to celebrate, just in time for my parent’s visit.

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A wrestler looks out onto the wrestling field.
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The guy on the left is trying to play it cool but before the picture was taken he kept scooting closer and closer to James like he wouldn’t notice. Can’t say I blame the guy.

It was skin-melting hot out the whole time and on the first day of the two-day celebration a Korean reality-show showed up and kind of ruined the authenticity of everything, but I was still happy my parents got to experience some of the festivities.

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Town elders sharing their snuffbottles.

I knew that I didn’t want us to spend the whole three-week vacation in Our Town, but my parents were frustratingly easygoing about what they wanted to see and do during their trip. “Whatever you think is best” they kept saying.

There are so many beautiful things to see in Mongolia, it can be hard to decide where to start, so I started with the most popular tourist-attraction in Mongolia, Lake Khovsgol, and worked backward from there to plan a week-long 4-wheeling camping trip.

I worked with a local tourism company that is owned by Murray, an Australian friend of ours, to hire a car and driver (which is actually significantly cheaper than renting a car I might add.) I told him my plans and route, which he helped refine. There aren’t many paved roads in Mongolia, so our route was planned using known trails and by studying maps.

I made it very clear that we didn’t need anything fancy, but that my top priority was reliability. I have been in this country long enough to know that no one here ever says anything is impossible, so a driver with a sad two-door Sentra would say he could absolutely make the trip. “Zugeer” (it’s ok) is like a national motto that is sometimes used when things are very clearly NOT Zugeer.

I trusted Murray to find of someone good, so imagine my shock when the day we were supposed to leave, a run-down off-brand mini-van with bald wheels showed up to pick us up for our big trip. The back seat was caving in, and there was a horrible noise coming from the back end. My mom was not happy, and I was in panic mode. I wasn’t sure we would even make it to our first stop, but trying to play it cool, and seeing no immediate way out of this predicament, we all got in and took off.

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The van.

Our first stop was Taikhair Chuluut, which is just a big rock about 40 minutes outside of Our Town. I had heard so much about this rock, that I’ll admit, I was underwhelmed by it. It is just a big rock and while petroglyphs might have been discernible a couple of decades ago, every square foot of it has now unfortunately been tagged and spray painted.

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Taikair Chuluut: a big rock. There’s a legend about how a giant used it to crush all the snakes in the region a long time ago, but we still have snakes in the region, so he must have missed some.

We didn’t stay long at Taikhair Chuluut and quickly got back into our noisy van to continue on to Tsagaan Nuur, White Lake, where we were to spend a couple of days. The road from Taiikair Chuluut to Tsagaan Nuur was the only part of our route that was paved, so I had a terrible feeling when the driver pulled over on a deserted stretch and announced something was wrong with the front wheels.

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Soooo, is everything ok?

Several hours later, James had helped disassemble the entire front end of the van, my dad was collecting bugs for fishing to pass the time, and my mom had make me walk up every surrounding hill looking for a cell phone signal. It was not an auspicious beginning to the vacation to say the least.

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Finally James and our driver were able to get the car running again, but just barely. We limped the several hour drive to our second destination: White Lake National Park before the engine started spewing smoke everywhere going up the final mountain crossing before the ger camp. Despite the smoke being so thick we could barely see out the front window and the engine going slower and slower, our driver kept insisting that everything was JUST FINE. The van finally died completely just a 1/4 mile from our lake-front ger camp. We decided to walk the rest of the way.

I called Murray from the tour company.
“How’s the vacation going?”
“Not great, actually” I replied, ready for a fight.”We’ve broken down three times already today and this is the easiest leg of the trip.”

Turns out I didn’t even need to get my claws sharpened because Murray immediately recalled our driver (who I felt really bad for, clearly we weren’t the only ones having a bad day because I’m sure he ruined his engine pushing it too far) and agreed to send us what I had originally asked for: a reliable driver in a reliable car.

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Tsagaan Nuur in all it’s glory.

We had a lovely evening at Naraa’s ger camp and enjoyed our first afternoon in the Mongolian countryside. Our second driver, Ganbaa, showed up the next morning in the nicest, classic Land Cruiser I have ever seen and took us to visit the nearby volcano that created the whole area.

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Portrait with Ganbaa and car #2.
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Workin’ it.

We spent another day at Tsagaan Nuur, fishing and hiking, before setting off on a four-wheeling adventure north to the region of Khovsgol. There aren’t many roads in Mongolia, but Ganbaa had no trouble taking us across the vast expanse of mountains and steppe, even though it was rainy and wet most of the way. Every couple of minutes, one or both of my parents would insist that we stop the car to take pictures of the herds of livestock that sprinkle the countryside.

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Horses by the lake!
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Standard Mongolian road crossing.
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Stop the car! exhibit A. To be fair, it is pretty cool seeing herds everywhere.

At Khovsgol Lake, we spent one quick night at a ger camp in Khatgal, at the southern tip of the lake before proceeding up to our real destination. Most tourists stay on the west side of the river where the ger camps and tour companies are, but we went up the east side of the lake to an idyllic camp spot that Murray had told me about and whose exact location Murray made me promise to keep secret.

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Left side: busy, right side: space
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Setting up camp
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Welcome to my camping spot.

We spent three days there seeing no one else but herds of horses and the random herder in the distance. Ganbaa was so sweet helping us collecting firewood and generally being a nice guy to have around.

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You can’t tell me this isn’t idyllic.
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Success!

The drive back to Our Town took two days and we found the most beautiful spot in a valley to stop at.

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Setting up next to a fresh water spring meant we got to partake in it’s healing properties.

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the majesty of Mongolia.

After such a relaxing time by the lake, coming back to Our Town felt very busy. Things felt even more busy when we went back to Ulaabaatar.

We spent the last two days of the trip in Ulaanbaatar, doing a little bit of sight-seeing lot of shopping. I knew my mom really wanted to visit UB’s enormous Naraantuul or black-market and there was no way I was going to let her do that on her own. Naraantuul is like an enormous open-air market where you can find everything and nothing in an endless maze of stands. There are pickpockets galore and almost no one speaks English. We had a wonderful time.

We also visited Gandan Khiid, which is the largest monastery in UB. We watched the monks (some of whom are very young), and sat in on a reading (no photos allowed). Unbeknownst to us, it was a Buddhist lucky day to get married, and we also saw half a dozen newlyweds come through to be blessed.

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My parents visit flew by and before I knew it, I was putting them back on the plane and saying goodbye, trying not to think about the fact that we had a whole other year ahead of us. I was sad to see them go, but I had such a fantastic time and I think my parents did too.

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Close of Service Conference

Peace Corps puts on a handful of seminars/conferences for us during our time here. Our three-day Close of Service Conference was last week and I have a lot feelings about it.

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The seminar was mostly a pat-on-the-back, well-done-you-successfully-finished-Peace-Corps, here-are-some-tips-on-finding-jobs-now love fest. The reality is though that I have three whole months left of service. I wasn’t ready yet for the certificate of completion that my country director gave me. I don’t feel finished yet.

Imagine having a going-away party on Sunday but then going back to your regular job on Monday morning. It will trip you up a little. That’s kind of how the Close-of-Service Conference felt to me.

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I had no idea this deel my host-family made me by-hand my first weeks in Mongolia would become so #iconic for me. I had no say in the color/style/anything, but I wore it to my swearing in ceremony, and I couldn’t imagine wearing anything else to my closing ceremony.

RELIEF. The day before the conference was the day I officially finished taking care of everything really important I needed to do before going back to America: picked a University and a city to move to, packed up all my favorite Mongolian treasures, and sent my cat-son home to America (more on him in a later post). I could be evacuated out tomorrow and not stress too much about it because I’ve checked all the boxes that were really important to me.

SOLACE. The past 6-8 months have not been so great for me. I felt at times over-worked and under-appreciated and some cultural mores were starting to get under my skin. Reaching this marker meant a lot to me.

GUILT. I like to think I’ve always done my best over the past two years, but it’s hard not to compare yourself to other volunteers and their successes sometimes.

PRIDE. But I did do my best and I did accomplish a lot of great things, damn it!

JOVIALITY. We volunteers are so spread out, I rarely get to see many of them. When we do get together, we make a good time of it. We held a drag show on the last night, and James and I won “Best Lip Sync”!

SADNESS. This was the very last time I would be seeing the M27 cohort together, since we will all be leaving at different times over the span of two weeks in July. Over two years ago all of us met for the very first time at a hotel in Seattle before taking off on our big adventure together. I’ve been playing Dungeons and Dragons every week for two years over Skype with some of these nerds and I’ll miss it.

PREEMPTIVE NOSTALGIA. I’ll also miss Mongolia a lot, and I was forced to start thinking about how much of my life will change when I move back to America. I still have time to say goodbye to all my Mongolian friends, but this was the official beginning of the “saying goodbye” process.

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My crazy crew of adventurers. Two years of D&D and our characters have only died a couple of times.

STRESS. Even though I have a plan for life back in America, all the talk about job-hunting and career advice still got to me. What if I don’t get a job after grad school?!?! What if I don’t get a job during grad school?!?!?! What if I fail at grad school and never find a job again?!?!?

EXCITEMENT. I am so excited to have cheese again I can hardly stand it! Oh, and fish, I want fish tacos, and fish soup, and sushi, and shrimp kebabs, and grilled salmon! And any alcohol other than vodka! I have so much to look foreward too, not even counting, you know, major life changes like getting back into academia.

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Somehow we made it to the finish line.

Our Close of Service Conference was really helpful in laying out options and opportunities we will have as RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers), but the best part of it was getting to see all my PC friends together one last time and helping me shift my mentality toward appreciating all the small parts of daily life here while I still can.

James and I will officially be leaving Mongolia on Friday, August 3, and taking the Trans-Siberian Railway on our way back to America (another thing to be excited about even if my best friend told me I’ve been fundamentally changed by Mongolia if I now think a vacation through Russia sounds “fun”).

We have three months left of service, but I have a feeling they are going to go much too quickly.

 

 

The last six months

the martian GIF-source

In the past six months, I’ll admit it, I’ve dropped the ball with the blog. It’s not that nothing has been going on, on the contrary, a lot has been going on.

Back in late-August, I attended mid-service training and suddenly realized I was a year-out from being back in America with no plan. In four short, crazy months I researched schools, studied for and took the GRE, solicited recommendations, and wrote seven different applications with ten different essays. All the while I was still, you know, working.

James was an MVP: he was a ruthless editor and constant motivator.

It was definitely worth it though, because I GOT INTO ALL SEVEN SCHOOLS, including two Ivy Leagues. #humblebrag

Seinfeld Celebrating GIF-source

Now that that is finished, I’ll be posting some backlogged posts that have been in the works. I promise.

But first: I am proud to announce that I will be starting my Master’s degree in Museology (museum studies) at the University of Washington starting Fall 2018! I am super excited.

Until then, I have four months left of Peace Corps service and a lot of blog posts coming your way, so stay tuned!

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Arkhangai’s Wild Adventures Camp

In case the lack of blog posts recently wasn’t an indication enough, this summer has been a crazy busy one. Only now, have I had more than two consecutive days to just sit down and write. Today’s post is about what took the most of my energy: summer camps.

When Marc, James, and I set out to have a good old-fashioned, outdoor-based summer camp for the kids of Arkhangai, I had no idea that it would completely consume several months of my life and nearly drive me to jump off the cliffs of insanity.

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The two weeks leading up to the camp was such a comedy of errors, there were moments that I thought that the camp would FOR SURE HAVE TO BE CANCELLED THIS TIME.

  • James was asked to replace a volunteer at another camp in another region so he was gone and out of cell service up until four days before our camp.
  • My main Mongolian counterpart was hospitalized (but in the end pulled through like a boss and insisted we still have the camp).
  • Marc sprained his ankle and was put on bedrest.
  • The Mongolian presidential run-off election was rescheduled to be during our camp so some counterparts could not help with the camp because they had to work on the election.
  • We had a three-day water and power outage during which everyone’s phone died, making communication near-impossible, four days before we left.
  • The Children’s Center asked told us they were adding 10 students to our roster the day the camp started.

In the end, miraculously, we packed all 20 30 students and 4 student camp counselors into a small bus and made our way to a Soviet-constructed summer camp in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness. We had ten extra students we were down two adults. It was going to be a fun week.

And it was!

The goal of the camp was to teach 6th and 7th graders about Leave No Trace ethics (i.e. how to enjoy the outdoors while respecting it) and practice life skills. A common response we got from Americans was “don’t Mongolians already know how to live in great outdoors?”. To which I answer: Yes, most of them do, but they sometimes struggle with understanding pollution and conservation.

Historically, Mongolians didn’t need to worry about where their trash went. For one thing, their trash was biodegradable and because they are nomadic, they could just dump their trash wherever they were before moving. Alas, the culture of leaving trash where it was used has remained, but the trash being disposed of has changed from biodegradable waste to plastics. And while Mongolians reuse a lot of their trash in creative and innovative ways, there remains a sizable amount of waste that is just left in the steppe where it stays forever. This is tragic because Mongolia has something that virtually no other country has: wilderness. Not just wilderness, but a lot of wilderness that no one owns. It is a really special thing and we were excited to show students how special that is, how they can become stewards of their homeland and preserve it.

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We had to do some rewrites but we tried to keep to the posted schedule.
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James teaching campers how to use a compass.

Because of the number of students and the drop-out adults, we had a lot of work on our plates, and most days exceeded 12 hours. My recommendation to future volunteers is to to pick 1 (and just one) thing you want to do everyday and try to make that one thing happen. There are a lot of moving cogs with any kind of project this size so knowing what priorities you have is essential.

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Go team!
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Tug-of-War

One of the single biggest factors in the qualified success of the camp was our camp counselors. Before the camp, we divided all the campers into four teams, trying our best to have a fair age and gender distribution. Each team was led by an 11th grader who was personally responsible for all the campers on their team. On the first day of camp, we had each team make matching tie-dye shirts and come up with a chant that they then used the rest of the week. I was blown away by some of our counselors and how much responsibility and leadership they demonstrated.

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Playing a game of sharks and minnows

The location was also a hidden gem. The facilities provided us with food and shelter, so we had time to focus on the activities with the campers. In the middle of the week, we went on a full day hike through the surrounding woods and it was during that hike that I was made aware that only two of the campers had ever been hiking in the woods before. During the hike we gave each team a bag to collect trash along the trail and they turned it into a competition to see which team could collect the most.

The hike, like so many other activities we did, was far outside of our counterparts’ comfort zone, but with the exceptions of a few meltdowns (it wouldn’t be a real Peace Corps camp without a meltdown), I was impressed with how much everyone was willing to try new things.

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If we are going hiking, I’m going to need my purse.
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Oh, so no one wanted to carry the tarp, but now everyone wants to sit on it, eh?

Because we were at camp for the Fourth of July, I convinced the camp director that it was of the utmost importance to have a bonfire to celebrate our national holiday, and somehow they acquiesced. Being on an americana roll, I taught all the students to sing “This land is your land” by Woody Guthrie the next day, which is a great song for ESL students because it has a great message without too many new words. My counterparts loved the song and got the students to rewrite the lyrics to include places in Mongolia.

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I got kicked out of the band.
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Everyone wrote something that they were scared of or nervous about on a piece of paper and threw it into the 4th of July fire. Freedom!

Will I have another camp next year? Maybe.

It was so much fun and the kids loved it, but it was also a ridiculous amount of work and was a huge source of stress for a long time. Between the grant-writing, the selection of students, the curriculum-writing, and the organizing of logistics, I had my share of practice in project management. That being said, Arkhangai also received a lot of new volunteers this year so who knows, maybe they will be able to carry on the torch.

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byeeeee!

A Non-Definitive Guide to Mongolian Music Videos

Mongolians have great music. As a nomadic people, they didn’t have the room to carry around paintings or fancy vases, so music became their art of choice and they have some really interesting styles. Many of their more traditional songs have been revamped, edited, auto-tuned, and put into music videos. I watched a lot of music videos with my host-family on TV during PST, and now I still get to watch them while on long bus trips where they play them from DVDs on a screen in the front of the bus. Most people don’t have ipods, so you have to have something to keep people occupied for +8 hours. And yes, that is a lot of music videos, but I find them entertaining.

I like music from a lot of different places, but Mongolians have a particularly jaunty beat to their recent revamped music, and I really enjoy most of it. That being said, there is a fair amount of repetition of themes and styles I have noticed.

Below is a non-definitive list of music video styles. I should warn you that they are fond of super long intros so you can usually just skip ahead 30 seconds to the actual songs.

Damn, Mongolia is Awesome.

These videos are characterized by horses galloping in slow-motion, men in deels with their arms open wide, and lyrics about the greatness of the Mongolian people.

Young love and babies. 

Mongolians are romantics and there are a lot of music videos about young love. A slightly older man and woman narrate a story about a young couple who fall in love and have a lot of babies.

 Khodoo life forever.

These kinds of videos open with some kind of conflict between city folks and people who live in the countryside and are an interesting look the the “two Mongolias” that co-exist. These videos usually end with the city folks realizing how great countryside life is.

Moms are so pretty and wonderful.

These are self-explanatory: they celebrate the relationship between children and their mothers.

Male friendship.

There aren’t many videos about female friendship (or any that I can think of), but there are plenty about male friendship. If you see men around a campfire singing in the countryside, you might be watching a video about male friendship.

 Summer Jams

There are a lot of new artists in Mongolia right now, but I’m including this one because it was the big hit last summer and it for sure got stuck in my head. Plus I think it’s cool to see traditional deels looking so hip. Bonus points for the gratuitous use of English.

 

Finally, I want to reiterate that this list is by no means a comprehensive list of Mongolian music, but simply some common themes that I have seen in my limited experience and some songs I enjoy listening to.

Graduates

Today, James and I have been in Mongolia for exactly a year.

Let that sink in for a moment.

I’ll probably post some very introspective, self-gratifying post about what reaching the 12-month mark means to me soon, but I digress.

School doesn’t officially end until the beginning of June, but most of my clubs have evaporated already because frankly, most of my students have already checked out for the summer. And who can blame them? After a couple of freak snowstorms in the middle of the month, I am fairly certain the hot weather is here to stay and the sun is going down later and later in the day so that I actually get some daytime after work.

A couple of weeks ago we had the school graduation ceremony during which I took my standard position against a wall, waiting for someone to tell me to stand somewhere else. Such is the life of a Peace Corps volunteer. From that vantage point, I had a great time and may have shed a single tear watching some of my 12th graders graduate during the outdoor ceremony which was held in the courtyard in front of the school.

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I was actually relieved it didn’t snow! Here are some of my 5th graders looking cute.

It wouldn’t be a true school event unless the teachers had a quick beauty session in the English classroom beforehand. Outside chaos reigned as it usually does during big events, but inside, we ladies were getting pretty.

My Mongolian is pretty dismal so the finer points of the ceremony were lost on me. Names were called, hands were shaken, certificates were awarded. What I did understand was that the best academic achievers got medals (and that I was asked to help with that) and the best athletic achievers got a lot of medals plus a gift bag. Mongolians are serious when it comes to basketball, volleyball, and wrestling. I was once missed ONE shot during a teachers’ basketball tournament and was subsequently benched for the rest of the tournament.

Each class of graduating girls decided if they wanted to wear the “old” uniforms (the Soviet-looking brown dresses with white aprons) or the “new” uniforms (the blue button-ups with grey skirt and navy blazer that the students usually wear throughout the year).

The ceremony was held in the courtyard in the front of the school and some parents and other community members gathered in the street to watch. I think though, that the pictures say it all, so with no more ado:

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Did I say a lot of medals, because I meant A LOT of medals. Granted, this girl won the Asian judo championship so….she probably deserves to jingle when she walks.
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12th grade girls modeling the “old” uniform.
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A tender moment between a teacher and student.
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My colleague Tegshee and her brilliant daughter.
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I’ve noticed that many boys drop out of school early (it’s sad and needs to change), but the boys who do stay, generally do very well.

Not to get too emotional, but I am really going to miss some of my 12th graders, who are moving on to bigger and better things. I was so touched when some students in my “Olympic English” club (thus called because it is my most challenging class) gave me a mug with pictures of their favorite moments on it. Here’s to hoping that next year’s crop of seniors live up to these last ones!

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Your students might like you but do they put-your-face-in-a-heart-on-a-mug like you? I smile at this mug every morning.

The Library is Open

I have always been a big believer in celebrating the small victories in life. Getting a small English library started at my school feels like more than a small victory for me. It is still a work in progress (and I hope it will keep being a work in progress after I leave) but here is what we have so far, and how we did it.

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It may not be much, but it’s all ours.

Step 1: Decide if you need a library.

Our Town is home to four public K-12 schools. I work at School #2 which is located in the oldest building in town. The building had already been up for a while when the school was created 60 years ago this summer (we are having a big party to celebrate in September). I have a lot of questions about the construction of the building (Why is the gym on the second floor, above the library and a 5th grade classroom? Why is there a set of stairs that lead nowhere?), but overall it is similar to most buildings in Mongolia in that it’s stairs are uneven and I hope to never be in it in the event of an earthquake.

The school library consists of a classroom with desks where students can study before or after classes. In a small adjacent room are shelves of government-issued textbooks, which teachers check out at the beginning of the year. At my school, there is about one textbook for every three students. Students are not allowed in the back room, but I doubt they would even want to go back there because there ain’t nothing but old textbooks.

Needless to say, English books are non-existant. One day I decided my students needed something to read.

Step 2: Aquire books. 

Turns out, there were books in English at my school. A teacher had travelled to America some 10-15 years ago and had brought back some books that no one had looked at in a loooooong time. That teacher has since retired, but the books were still around waiting for someone to rescue them from the dusty pile in the back corner. I was happy to find some books but I was fairly certain that Crime & Punishment was going to be bit too challenging for most of my students (or literally anyone I teach).

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This was our starting point (along with most of the books from the “Hard” section). Not exactly ideal, but it’s a start.

Some of those books were in dismal shape, so even if a star student wanted to attempt it, they were not ready for prime-time. Cue montage of me working with paper, markers, and a several rolls of clear packing tape.

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The simple pleasures in life: knowing that some Mongolian’s perception of America is going to be shaped by this book.

Even with the freshly discovered tomes, I still had a lack of level-appropriate books. After consulting with some other Peace Corps volunteers, I ran across Darien Book Aid. Don’t be fooled by the slightly dated website, they actually provide an amazing service to schools around the world. An e-mail and a short application later, and our request was approved. Jump to four months in the future when our request was filled by volunteers and a 20lb box of books arrived at our local post office. It was a great day and there was definitely a party in the English classroom. Darien was incredibly helpful because they only send books that your school needs. In our case, I asked for EASY EASY EASY. If I am going to get kids to like reading, it is not by crushing their spirits and making them feel dumb (my personal opinion, I like positive reinforcement).

Step 3: Organize your books. 

Darien killed it and all the books were perfect: we got everything from picture books about superheroes to short chapter books about puppies. With all our shiny, new, level-appropriate books in hand, we had to organize them. Sure, we could have just left them in a pile in the corner, but that’s what happened with the books we had before. Furthermore I wanted to make finding books an enjoyable experience, not a chore.

During the next school break, I gathered some loitering students from around town and told them to put all the books into the pile they thought was best: Very easy, easy, medium, hard, and very hard. I did a little rearranging  from there, but I mostly followed their recommendations.

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I bought bins for the easy and very easy books because the books are an odd shape and bins make it easier to look through them.

The biggest help in learning about small libraries was American teachers writing about their experience on sites like this.

After the books were seperated, each book got a code: (the letter representing the level) -(a number), i.e. VE-014. The reason I did this was so I could catalogue all the books into an excel spreadsheet and easily see when books are missing on the shelf. It also makes it easier for kids to check out books if they don’t have the Latin alphabet down yet. To do this, I employed the extremely technical, paper, markers, and clear tape design.

Step 4: Make rules and enforce them.

My counterparts and I tried to keep the rules as simple as possible. Students can keep the books for one week unless they have a teacher’s special permission to keep them longer (for a longer book that takes more time to read for example). One of my counterparts, Tegshdelger, is the designated librarian who is responsible for calling students who have kept the books too long.

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“Books are your friends!” A James-ism that had to be included. And yes, we noticed the missing “s” after the picture was taken.

There are a lot of cool programs for organizing and keeping track of book check-outs for classroom libraries online that I found, but our school, like most of my student’s homes, doesn’t have internet, so they were not very useful to us. Instead we use the old-fashioned method of pen and paper. You don’t have to be fancy to be effective.

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As you can see, the Easy and Very Easy books are quite popular.

Step 5: Step back and let the kids enjoy the books.

Being in Mongolia puts America into perspective a lot of the time. You think about the access students have to something as basic as books in the average American classroom and compare that to your average Mongolian classroom. Many of my students thought it was cool to have any books around and when they found out they were allowed to take them home, they were floored.

 

If you’re a Peace Corps volunteer with a need for books, reach out to Peggy at Darien Book Aid. If you find yourself in the Connecticut area, consider giving them some of your time, because their work really does make a huge difference in the lives of a lot of kids.

Yay books!

Tsagaan Sar and Various Get-Togethers

Tsagaan Sar is the Mongolian New Year and translates as “White Month”. Normally Tsagaan Sar is celebrated around the same time as the Chinese New Year in January/February but because Mongolia expected such a brutal winter, and Tsagaan Sar is supposed to ring in the coming Spring, they pushed it back a month this year. Many other volunteers have described it as a mix between Christmas and Halloween that lasts officially for three days but can go on for a week. Some have even described it as their new favorite holiday. Well good for them. Tsagaan Sar is not my favorite holiday.

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When you don’t get invited anywhere but you already bought the outfits.

Actually Tsagaan Sar was great, but honestly not much different than most other gatherings I have been to (haircutting ceremonies, wakes, and house-warmings), which all follow a standard timeline. Here is a hilariously abridged guide to celebrations in Mongolia partly-based on a series of texts James sent me from a housewarming party not long ago. This is the blog post where I take everything I have learned in a career in anthropology and just throw that out the window (I hope you’re happy you rushed me mom).

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Around the table with American and Mongolian friends alike.

Got some clarification: one of the teachers moved into a new apartment so we’re visiting her. I wish they had told me about this in advance

The first things that makes celebrations special is we are never told about them until right before they are happening (48 hours if we are lucky, 20 minutes if we are not). In this case James was ambushed as he was leaving work.

So far it resembles the other formal visits/celebrations. Lots of of food on the table. Here is the sequence: tea, then candy, then khiam and potato salad, then airag, then snuffbox, then vodka.

Once at someone’s home, everyone sits in the living room around a low table that is covered with plates of potato salad, pickles, candy, fruit (a luxury food item), and a tower of arul (dried curd, which depending or variety can taste like a creamy yogurt bar or a sour brick). During Tsagaan Sar, there is also a special slab of boiled meat and fat (usually sheep) that sits in the middle of the table that anyone can carve small pieces from.

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mmmmm… brisket and sheep fat. The tail fat is the best.

The “snuffbox” James mentioned is the “khoorog”, a bottle carved out of precious stone and filled with powdered tobacco. At pretty much any kind of celebration or ceremony, Mongolian men greet each other with a little ritual in which they swap khoorogs with the other person, sniff the other person’s khoorog, then hand it back. James doesn’t own a khoorog yet, and reminds me of this every time he sees one.

“Then buuz, then more vodka.”

During every celebration, the host or hostess of the house sits at the head of the table and welcomes new guests with a shot glass of vodka that is then passed around to everyone at the table. While I can usually get away with just touching my lips to the glass in a show of respect thereafter, the first glass is non-negotiable: you must drink the whole glass. The vodka shot glass continues to be handed around, but hostesses will generally follow that up with insisting that you drink a bowl of milk tea. When you are finished with the tea, you use your bowl to eat some of the food on the table until the buuz (big, steamed meat dumplings) are ready and served. Especially during Tsagaan Sar, the number of buuz you can eat can become a competition.

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Colleague #1 home: us with her 12th grade daughter and her checkers-loving son.

“Then beef. Then FANCY VODKA. It’s Russian and the man of the house is very proud of it. It’s not very good.”

The vodka shots continue to go around while bottles of juice and beer are also opened. My M.O. is to have a bottle of beer because the beers tend to be light Korean styles with little flavor and low alcohol content that make it seem like I am drinking with everyone, giving me a good excuse to skip the vodka, while not actually imbibing that much (James’ note: Having a beer in your hand doesn’t necessarily excuse you from the vodka). Sometimes, if I am lucky, there will also be fermented mare’s milk (airag) to drink—most Americans recoil at the thought of it, but I actually enjoy it in small quantities—or a surprisingly strong alcohol they make from the liquid skimmed from the top of yogurt that tastes like watery sake.

There isn’t usually much pressure to talk, which is great since my Mongolian is dismal and the TV is usually on in the background, giving people something to look at during silent pauses.

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A picture with the man who refused to believe we were real Americans (Apparently we are Filipino and Russian)

“Then more buuz. Then they brought it full circle with the milk tea again, followed by intermittent rounds of buuz and vodka. There was an exchange of gifts and some speechmaking. Winding down?”

After people have eaten their fill of buuz, depending on the occasion, there might be a small speech, or even better, singing. Mongolians love to sing. As a nomadic people, Mongolians carried their history and their art through songs. The most common themes I have noticed are songs about their homeland, the vast steppe, and mothers. Sometimes people will ask me to lead them in a song, but between my wandering pitch and forgetting half the words, I am only ever asked once.

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Colleague #2’s home.
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Look at James in the mirror trying to make the baby smile.

Tsagaan Sar was fun because people really pull out all the stops and start the celebration by cleaning their homes from top to bottom and putting a plastic sheet over their carpets to protect them from all the visitors that come over. They also refill any containers in the home (i.e. sugar containers, water jugs). It’s probably because of some tradition (it is), but it’s also handy because everything is closed for the week so finding food is tough.

By most standards, our experience was somewhat subdued. We visited two colleagues’ homes on the second and third day of Tsagaan Sar, but I had the most fun at our neighbor’s apartment who had her daughter’s hair-cutting ceremony on day three.

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Using sheep fat as a pacifier: brilliant.

Mongolians shave their children’s heads at ages two and four for girls and three and five for boys. As each person of the circle of family and friends cuts off a strand of hair, they wish for something for the child (I wished she would become a kind-hearted person) and put some money into a bag with the hair. I love hair-cutting ceremonies, but to go any more in-depth is beyond the scope of this blog post (maybe for another one down the road…).

On the whole, Tsagaan Sar for me was mostly a nice excuse to eat food at people’s houses and dress up in our fancy matching deels, which is pretty darn great in of itself.

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You’re not an official couple until you have matching deels.

Most Valuable Things: Looking back on year 1

Packing can be extremely stressful. It can be even more stressful when you are packing to move to a country for two years and have no idea what your life will look like there. James and I requested to live in a humble ger; we were given a fabulous apartment in a relatively big town. There is no real way of knowing everything you should pack, but that being said, there are things that come in handy no matter what, and you can rely on the suggestions of people who have been there before. We are now the people who have been there before. Future PCVs do not despair! Here we have listed our M.V.T. Awards with the help of our site-mate, Marc, and 20/20 hindsight. This has also been kind of a fun way for us to review what we have actually used this past year. Strap in, this is a long post.

We were so naive....
We were so naive….

THINGS WE BROUGHT AND ARE HAPPY WE DID

LUCI Light or Headlamp (or both)

Having some kind of dependable light source is essential: whether it is because you need to run to the outhouse in the middle of the night or because the electricity turns off in town for no reason.  James and I lived on a sailboat before coming to Mongolia, so we had a good opportunity to test how durable things are. Luci lights are the ultimate solar lanterns. They weigh nothing, and are way tougher than they look. We also brought battery-powered headlamps, which we have both used a lot. Which leads to the next M.V.T.:

Rechargeable Batteries

You can buy batteries here, but why would you when rechargeables are around. Get some before you leave, and you are set for the rest of your trip.

Portable Speakers

A party without music and cake is just a meeting.
A party without music and cake is just a meeting.

Not really an “essential” but it has been awesome to have, and 100% deserves an M.V.T. award. Any gathering becomes a party (an easy way to gain popularity during PST), and all our CPs think that we own a magical box. Your speakers don’t have to be particularly powerful to have a big impact. Plus, our winter movie binges have been so much better because of them. We own these ones, that also pass the durability test, but anything you find/have is good.

External Hard Drive (either pre-filled with shows and movies or ready to receive)

Bring at least a 1 terabyte external hard drive either pre-filled with shows and movies or ready to be filled with other people’s shows and movies. There is an extensive rotating library of entertainment we all share and you need a place to store it all when the desktop of your laptop gets too crammed.

Pelican case for the laptop

Mongolia Vs. Electronics: keep you stuff safe
Mongolia Vs. Electronics: keep your stuff safe

Or any durable way to transport a laptop. Plenty of PCVs carry around their laptops in thin sleeves in a backpack, but I have found that traveling in Mongolia can be brutal and I am willing to carry around whatever bulky case is necessary to protect my precious laptop (it’s how I watch everything stored on the above mentioned external hard drive after all!)

Ziploc bags

Plastic wrap, aluminum foil, paper towels, you can just say goodbye to all those luxurious kitchen goods now. One kitchen luxury I have been hoarding since I got here is the Ziploc bags I used to pack some liquids when we came here. They get washed and reused until they disintegrate and even then, I usually try to tape them back together to make them last a while longer because they are that useful.

Good duct tape

But don't bring WD-40, I'm pretty sure TSA won't let you.
But don’t bring WD-40, I’m pretty sure TSA won’t let you.

Personally when packing, I looked at the giant heavy roll of Gorilla Tape and thought “this can’t be worth the weight it is taking up”. Well it is. For a place that would benefit a lot from the introduction of duct tape, Mongolia has yet to be introduced to it. I know it felt like an unnecessary weight in my bag, but when we really needed duct tape, we have been damned happy to have it.

A multi-tool

Preferably bring a multi-tool that has: a saw, a can-opener, a corkscrew, a screwdriver, and an optical screwdriver if you wear glasses.

A sturdy water bottle

Think Nalgene or Camelback. I have slowly started to convince my co-workers to take sips of water from time to time, but hydration is not a high-priority to them, so having my own source of water to drink at all times has been really important, especially when traveling.

A quality double-edged razor

SHAVE YOURSELF
SHAVE YOURSELF

By and large, Mongolian men do not have facial hair, and some work-places will insist that you keep your face clean-shaven. What is available here are cheap bic-style razors and poorly-made double-edged razors that don’t hold the blade correctly and “will cut your face off” (according to the men in the room). By contrast, the replacement razor blades that they sell are of pretty good quality and sold in every store in every town, so that James has been able to use them in his razor that he brought from the states (like this one that comes highly recommended). And the replacement blades are named “Sputnik”, which is pretty cool.

Small Mirror

Not every house/ger in Mongolia has a mirror, and almost none of our PST sites did. Shaving without a mirror is apparently extremely difficult, so a small mirror, even if it’s a tiny one attached to a compass, is essential. Also, even though we have emphasized a lot of camping/roughing it related gear, we were still expected to look professional and put-together for classes. People really like to look good here (do not underestimate the power of the Mongolian woman to walk in heels in any condition) and I thought it was really, really nice to have a handheld mirror to make sure my hair wasn’t going crazy in the morning.

Moisturizers and Oils

Real talk: last Fall, my skin was the worst it had ever been in my life, including when I was a teenager, probably thanks to a combination of extremely dry air, pollution, stress, and change in diet. Things are still not great, but they are getting better, and things could have been way worse, had I not followed a previous volunteer’s advice and not brought any skincare with me. Yes, it feels heavy in your luggage, and yes, some people will disagree with me, but my personal top M.V.T. has been the small bottle of avocado oil I brought with me (among other potions) to soothe dry skin. You can get good Korean skincare in UB, but I hardly ever get to go to UB, and the cost for them is steep.

Spot It! and a cribbage board

Everyone loves to play games and they work regardless of language barriers. My host-family and I could barely get a sentence across and yet we still became friends, and I am convinced our endless games of Spot It! were part of the reason for that.

A handheld GPS

We really like to hike and we have used James’ old Garmin (I think this is the latest version of it) quite a bit. A lot of Mongolia is unpaved and poorly mapped, so having it to track our progress while we have travelled has been fun and useful. James calls it nice insurance against getting lost in the steppe, and every driver we have met is in love with it. I wouldn’t recommend buying one, but if you have a handheld GPS, I think it is worth bringing along. If you need  accurate maps of Mongolia (which are sometimes hard to find), openstreetmap.org is a good place to start, or just contact us.

An unlocked smartphone

This falls into the category of slightly bougie but SUPER useful. Peace Corps gave us basic phones when we arrived, but having my iphone has been a game-changer. Mongolia by and large skipped the landline phase of development and skipped straight into cellular service, so most Mongolians have smartphones of some sort and aren’t surprised to see us using them. We took the sim card from our Peace Corps issued phones and put them into our phones, then we pay a little extra every month to have some limited internet to use on them. If you do this, make sure your phone is unlocked and download all the apps you want (this is the best Mongolian-English dictionary app I’ve used yet, and here’s a pretty good Mongolian keyboard) before coming because most internet connections won’t be very good.

Not sure if your phone is unlocked? Check here. If your phone is still locked to a carrier, don’t worry! As long as your phone is fully paid for and you’re not on a contract, your carrier is required by law to unlock it for you. Here’s a handy guide. Just make sure to unlock it before coming to Mongolia, and preferably before canceling your service. You see, phone companies are usually more inclined to listen to a customer service call while you’re still a paying customer, and if you think customer service calls are a pain in the ass now, try making one as an international call with a 13 hour time difference.

A Kindle/E-Reader

The one on the left weighs less.
The one on the left weighs less.

Look, I get it: “I just like reading from real books.” I also like reading real books when I have the chance.
But here’s the deal: real books are heavy, so unless you want to re-read your favorite novel over and over again for two years, suck it up and stop being such a hipster. Once again, there is a nice library of e-books floating around that you can stock up on too.

A Camera

This is an obvious one. Mongolia is super pretty, and I have had a great time hiding behind our Pentax capturing it.

THINGS WE DIDN’T BRING BUT WISH WE HAD

Electronic Repair Tool Kit

Fun fact: Pentalobe screws make great drill bit targets.
Fun fact: Pentalobe screws make great drill bit targets,

E-readers are great, but once you shatter the screen, they turn into an expensive paperweight. The same goes for most electronics. However, with the right tools and a bit of knowhow, you can very often get them working again. For instance, you can replace a Kindle screen yourself for about 25 bucks. James had already done it twice before we came to Mongolia. Electronic repair kits are small and easily portable. What were we thinking, leaving it behind? Tiny screwdrivers are not easily found at our open-air market. Let alone “pentalobes”. (Fuck you, Apple).

VGA Connector

At some point, you’re going to want to connect your laptop to a projector. If you have a Mac, that means you’ll need something like this. (Again, fuck you, Apple.) You should bring it from the US, because while you can them in UB, they are lousy and break in a matter of months. We didn’t bring ours from home and now have to budget for a new one every time we travel to UB.

Musical Instruments

We know what you are thinking: Giving up a whole piece of luggage for a musical instrument is S.T.U.P.I.D.
We didn’t bring any of our musical instruments, but we know people who did (looking at you Godwin. This kid brought a ukelele AND a saxophone) and they don’t seem to have any regrets. Meanwhile I’ve spent the winter wishing I had brought my banjo or at least bought something here. Mongolians love music and neighbors don’t tend to complain about noise.

ONE THING WE BROUGHT AND WISH WE HADN’T WASTED THE SPACE ON

Shortwave Radio

"This is London calling..."
“This is London calling…”

Are you an amateur radio enthusiast who’s bummed about the “Don’t-bring-any-transmitters-because-people-will-think-you’re-a-spy” rule? Or maybe you’re worried that you’ll be placed somewhere so remote that a shortwave radio might be your only source of news from the outside world? Well, James was both, and he brought along a compact shortwave receiver. We can now report that after extensive testing, the only shortwave news stations we can reliably receive are the state-run Chinese stations… because the Chinese government actively jams the signals from BBC, Voice of America, and any other reputable news agencies. Maybe we could receive them if we built some sort of elaborate antenna, but we’re trying NOT to look like spies. Also, we have the internet. You probably will too. Leave the radio at home.

Ultimately, the great thing about Peace Corps is you can show up at the airport with your toothbrush and a healthy sense of adventure and be set to go. Seriously, Peace Corps gives you a special passport before you leave, so you don’t even really need that.

Priorities.
Priorities.

So have fun with packing and keep in mind that while yes, you can get most things here (for a price) you may not have the opportunity to get your hands on toothpaste, shampoo, or soap for a couple of weeks so make sure to pack a small amount into a carry-on.

NOTE: This post didn’t mention clothing at all, so stay tuned for a follow-up about our clothing choices!

Snow and Ice Festival

There is a big river near Our Town called the Tamir River that has been completely frozen over for a couple of months already. During the summer, the Tamir River is a lovely place to have a picnic and maybe fish for trout (so I’m told). In the winter, the Tamir River becomes a place for games like ice shagai (use small metal rectangles to hit small pillars 80 feet away) and what they call kurling (like giant shuffle board on ice). Upon finding out that we had never been to the river (we don’t have a car and we have been busy, ok!) our community English club that meets on Sundays decided to rectify the situation and we all drove out for an afternoon of history lessons and practice.

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Cigarillo in my mouth, shagai in my hand.
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I thought Mongolian kids couldn’t get any cuter, then they started wearing father-son matching deels.
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James was great at it, as usual. Damn he’s annoying sometimes.

It was cold, but I didn’t feel it much, because I spent most of the time gliding across the ice trying to put enough force behind my shagai to propel it 80 ft. while simultaneously trying not to fall too hard. It was so much fun getting to learn to play from strangers who were more than happy to teach the strange foreigners.

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Power Posing.

Little did we know, we would be returning to Tamir River the very next weekend with our schools for the annual Snow and Ice Festival. Everyone dressed in their traditional dress finery, packed themselves into a van, and headed down to the river.

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21 people in coats, plus driver, plus food and drink packed into this van. If we weren’t good friends before, we are now.

During the Snow and Ice Festival, we lowly amateurs were not allow to actually play any of the games, but the people-watching kept us busy. I kept a mental checklist of who had the most flamboyant hat and how many animals it probably took to make it.

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Some of my colleagues, looking fly. 

Being a California girl, I was a bit put off by the ostentatious use of fur and leather when we first moved to Mongolia, but I have changed my tune pretty quick. Not using every part of every animal would be wasteful (and Mongolians are anything but wasteful) and until you have experienced -35 C, you really can’t appreciate how wonderful being warm is. I am almost ready to invest in some authentic hat and boots, but I keep having to remind myself that while I might feel stylish and cozy wearing horse-hair boots in Mongolia, I doubt I will get a positive response back in the US (that and my feet would be a sweaty mess).

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We live in the coolest place.
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“Kurling”
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I participated in a wrestling tournament! I lost this time, but I’ll be back, you’ll see! I’ll be back!

Zoom back to the festival: because we went with my school, we didn’t have any say in when we would go home. By hour four, I was getting a little chilled despite the huge amounts of buuz, hot milk tea, and vodka that was being passed around in the various vans where people would hole up to warm themselves. Despite the cold, my school teachers insisted on staying until the sun went down, six hours after we got there. James and I got home, got under the covers to warm up, and immediately fell asleep.

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Just in case anyone forgets how cold Mongolia is. Bet you couldn’t tell I was wearing three pairs of heavyweight long-underwear under those leggings.