The Gobi Desert

Back when I was first googling “Mongolia” after receiving my placement from Peace Corps in 2015, I started a mental checklist of things I wanted to do while here.

High on the list was “ride a camel”.

With just two months left in Mongolia, time was dwindling on making it happen, so when my friends Brandon and Godwin started planning a trip through the Gobi Desert and asked James and I if we wanted to go, I jumped at the opportunity.
Godwin planned the three-day trip with the help of Tuya, the woman who owns Gobi Sunrise Tours, and who we knew through word-of-mouth from other volunteers. She put together a reasonably-priced plan and package for us that ticked all the boxes.

The timing of the trip itself could not have been worse, everything in life seems to happen all at once, and it was a frantic week leading up to the trip. Still, we made it to our bus on time and began the journey.

As I have mentioned many times, Mongolia is big, and traveling takes a lot of time. Just getting to the Gobi took an 8 hour bus ride from Our Town to UB, then another 10 hour bus ride from UB to Dalanzadgad, the regional capital of Omnogovi.

The first night in Dalanzadgad we stayed with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, Kaelynn, and early the next morning, we were off.

DAY 1
If I’ve learned anything about traveling in Mongolia it’s that the right driver and car can make or break your experience. My first clue that our driver, Adiya, was a real pro was that he was half an hour early to come pick us up; this in a country where no one shows up to anything less than twenty minutes late. By the time he showed us a picture of him driving Michelle Rodriguez (you know, Letty, from the Fast Furious movies), I was sure we were in good hands.

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Fast Five – Adiya, Brandon, Godwin, myself, and James

By 8:15 we were already in front of the local Natural History Museum and asking around to see if anyone had a key to get in. The museum was filled with taxidermy animals that were by turns balding, misshapen, and unlabeled. As someone who is going back to school to study museums, it was depressing, but as your average museum-goer, it was entertaining.

After having a good chuckle, and taking mental notes of which animals to keep a lookout for, we proceeded down to Yolyn Am, the Eagle’s Mouth, or Valley of the Eagles. It is a narrow gorge in the Gurvan Saikhan Mountains where an ice field used to stay year round, but thanks to global warming, it now melts around September.

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In front of our fancy Lexus.

The hike through Yolyn Am was very pretty and the closer we got to the ice field, the narrower the gorge became and the more difficult the passage.

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Hiking down the gorge, getting my boots wet.

When we got to the ice field, we couldn’t go any further because the ice was too unstable to walk on. Almost as soon as we took out the camera to take some pictures before turning back around, a huge rush of tourists showed up and starting forming a line behind us. I was shocked.

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Someone had to take the picture, so I didn’t get to be in it.

Seeing a foreigner in most places in Mongolia is pretty rare, it is truly one of the least diverse places on the planet. Tourists tend to congregate around designated tour-appointed places which are not the places I usually find myself at. As it turns out however, guided tours around the Gobi are very popular, and we were right on the tourist path. Whole buses (I am still not sure how those buses were 4-wheeling across the desert, but in Mongolia everything is possible) full of tourists would pull up to popular attractions in a manner that reminded me of the way buses full of tourists wearing matching tee-shirts show up at the Grand Canyon.

From that point on, we made it our mission to start everything earlier than planned and keep ahead of the crowds.

Back in the car, we drove to a small town’s diner where food was waiting for us in a private back room.

After lunch, we drove further across the desert to the sand dunes where we stayed at Ganbold’s Ger Camp. Really, it should be called Ukhee’s Ger Camp, because it was Ganbold’s eldest daughter, Ukhee, who took care of everything. She was a lovely host who seemed very amused by our attempts at speaking Mongolian. Between the four of us, our Mongolian is nearly fluent, but between the heavy regional accent and the speed at which they spoke, we might as well have been utter beginners. At one point, James asked Ukhee for a broom and we discovered that they used a completely different word for broom in the South.

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Ganbold, sharing his bottle of snuff, a common greeting, even in the Gobi.
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Baby goat!
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Home for the night.

We spent our first evening walking around the dunes and having fun jumping around in the soft sand.

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Godwin face planted a mere second later.
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And the Oscar goes to….

DAY 2

All four of us were up at the crack of dawn, ready for the day. Today was the day we were going to ride camels! Unfortunately no one else was ready so we had to sit around playing cards for a couple hours until the camels were ready.

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Camels are such majestic creatures.

Bactrian camels differ from your standard camel in that they have two humps, and grow a thick fluffy coat in the winter to protect them from the cold. Most of the wool is shaved off in the summer, but on most camels they leave the wool between the two humps to act as padding for ridders. Camel wool is soft and super warm: I have my fair share of camel wool socks that are very beloved. They are very comfortable to ride too because their two humps act like a seat with a backrest and something to hold onto in front.

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The look of fulfilling a goal. Plus I got the fluffiest one!
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All aboard

I enjoy the occasional horseback ride as much as anyone else, but I’ll pick riding a camel over a horse any day. Even though bactrian camels are enormous and I was high off the ground, I felt really secure. My camel knelt down on his knees so I could get on and off comfortably, and once between the humps, I didn’t think I was going to fall off easily. The harness was just a carpet draped over the camel’s back with some stirrups sewed in. My camel didn’t listen to my steering instructions at all, but since it just wanted to follow/race the camel in front of it, I didn’t really care. Also unlike horses, the camels never seem in much of a rush, and are very relaxed about the whole wandering around the desert thing.

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View from the back

We rode them around the dunes for a couple of hours and it was everything I thought it would be.

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BFFs

Looking back, I spent a lot of the trip fawning over various animals. That afternoon, I checked another thing off my list when I cuddled one of the baby goats that was roaming around the ger camp. Once I started I couldn’t stop, and when we stopped at an “oasis” I became the goat whisperer as Brandon and James herded all the kids around me.

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I think this goat thought it was a lap dog.
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What an actual oasis looks like.
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So much cuteness for one photo.
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And one more just for fun.

The oasis was a pit stop on the way Mongolia’s highest sand dune, Hongoryn Els, about one hour away from our ger camp. It is part of a series of dunes, called the Singing Dunes because of the sound the sand makes when it is disturbed. We had to wait until the late afternoon to begin the climb to give the sand time to cool down. It doesn’t show in the pictures, but it really was very high and very steep. From the bottom we watched people try to climb it like little ants in the distance. Many gave up before the top. We plotted a route, took off our shoes, left everything with Adiya in the car and started up. We risked bringing James’ phone to the top because it is in a neigh indestructible water-proof case but I am happy we left everything else because the fine sand got everywhere. It was steep on the top half we had to crawl up on our hands and feet, sinking our limbs into the soft sand to get a grip.

About 3/4 of the way up, we heard a deep rumbling sound and thought there must be a helicopter on the other side of the dune before realizing that we had made the dune start singing. It was a strange experience seeing a sloooow-moving sand avalanche making such a loud sound.

Climbing to the top took us almost an hour and was one of the most exhausting things I have done in a long time (have I mentioned I recently ran a 10k?). It was rewarding though because the views were spectacular. Again there was no camera, so you’ll have to trust me on this one.

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See those little black dots? Those are people.
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Adiya took a picture of us at the end.

We slept especially well that night.

DAY 3

Day 3 was a lot of driving, but that doesn’t mean it was at all boring. After saying goodbye to Ukhee and the baby goats, we 4-wheeled through the desert until one of the back wheels on the car separated and we had to stop. Replacing the wheel only took about half an hour and then we were back on the road.

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Pit stop.

We got to Khavtsgait right before lunch time. At the top of the mountain are petroglyphs that date as far back as 8000 BCE.

Some of the petroglyphs were elaborate, and all were beautiful. I liked that I had to hike around the mountain to find them, like a scavenger hunt with no clues. It made me feel like I was the one discovering them.

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One of many petroglyphs.

From there we drove toward the Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs. Along the trail, Adiya stopped suddenly for a jackrabbit in the middle of the road that would not move.

Strange.

We got out of the car and walked toward it and still it did not move. Adiya almost touched it before it ran away and I noticed a second rabbit laying down near a small bush. We had stumbled across a rabbit giving birth to three baby rabbits RIGHT THERE IN FRONT OF US. The second rabbit looked slightly panicked, but she couldn’t move seeing as how she was actively giving birth. After watching the miracle of life three times, we backed away slowly and gave mom some space.

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If you look closely you can see a baby down there.
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On the road again.

The Bayanzag Flaming Cliffs are striking red cliffs that overlook a vast expanse of desert. It is most famous for its fossils, including the first dinosaur eggs found in the 1920s. There are no fossils left visible, and it is illegal to take them even if you find one, but the terrain and softness of the rock makes it likely there are more fossils underfoot. I could easily imagine velociraptors making their nests among the cliffs.

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Queen of Hydration

I can imagine that the cliffs are at their most fantastic during golden hour, but they were still stunning in the mid-afternoon when we visited. We explored the whole area and had some fun taking pictures before we had to head back to Dalazadgad.

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The circle of life
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Poser.

Since Kaelynn had left to help with a summer camp, we had no place to stay for the night, so Tuya generously let us stay in her house and even drove us to the bus station the next day.

The Gobi is arguably Mongolia’s most famous tourist destination. Yes, there are sometimes crowds, but not without reason. The area is gorgeous and you can see so many different sights in a relatively short amount of time. With the right vehicle and driver, even the drive is fun. It was a spectacular trip, and I am glad I made it a priority to visit before leaving Mongolia. Not only that, but I am so thankful that I got to do it with such great friends.

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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!

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. 

Merry Chrisma-hanu-kwanzikaa!

To Mongolians, there is no real difference between Christmas and New Years (and add Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Festivus to that list for good measure). The compilation of everything is called Shin Jil.

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Merry Everything from our side of the planet to yours.

Mongolians use a lot of Christmas iconography but mostly as generic decoration for Shin Jil and it imparts no importance whatsoever. Really Shin Jil is an excuse to get dolled up and have a glamorous party to ring in the New Year season.

Both of our schools had Shin Jil parties and luckily they were on different nights, so, of course, we had to attend both. Shin Jil is THE party of the year. Women here like looking good on a daily basis and dressing in what I would classify as prom dresses for even the smallest event, so for Shin Jil, they go all out. Every hairdresser in town was booked solid and making bank.

My school’s party was on Wednesday night and my first impression was that everyone looked really really nice. I wore a 1940s-esque black floor-length gown and didn’t feel the least bit overdressed. If anything, I felt like my outfit was missing some glitz. Note to self: next year wear more glitter. We had a fabulous time, I even won a rice cooker in the raffle! The very next night was James’ school party and by then I had my hair and makeup tried and tested. I liked going to James’ school party because when one of his counterparts told me he didn’t like to dance, I hijacked the DJ table, dragged James to the dance floor, and proved all his colleagues wrong. Later in the evening, they made us sing (as Mongolians are apt to do) and we sang what I suppose is now “our” song: When I’m 64. No one filmed it, which is maybe for the best.

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I really did try to open my eyes for this one.

Without the culture of “The Holidays” everywhere we went, we suddenly felt obligated to uphold a bunch of Christmas traditions all on our own, things that we would never do otherwise. We didn’t want to invest in a fancy plastic tree, so we made one out of cheap twinkle lights instead, and I love it. I played Christmas music round the clock for a week and James wasn’t even annoyed. I made my students in movie club watch “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (obviously my favorite holiday movie) and I think they actually enjoyed it thanks to the large amount of physical humor.

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Creative use of hard-to-find twinkle lights.

My school was supposed to have a “Christmas Carols competition” that didn’t feature a single carol, but did feature a lot of great Mongolian songs and what they call “American dances” (ie. high schoolers doing a jazz routine to a compilation of songs in English).

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It might be a federal law that every little Mongolian girl must own a puffy white dress.

Another volunteer from the M27 group, Emma, left her nearby town to come celebrate Christmas with us. She decided to buy a tree on her own, which we decorated while cooking a fancy dinner on Christmas Eve (BBQ pork sliders on homemade buns. Sometimes I think we eat better than most Americans). The next day we went on a Christmas day hike into the mountains where we found the only patch of snow deep enough to slide down using a tarp we were carrying around. When we came home, wet, cold and tired, it felt as much like a real Christmas as Christmases can get. it was the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f-ing Kaye.

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Emma before she taught us old-forgotten carols.
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Finding fabulous ingredients here is a full time hobby, but I’d say it’s worth it. Arkhangai is for foodies.
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The hike begins at the ovoo.

The holidays have perhaps been easier for me than for other people, because this is far from my first Christmas away from “home”, but I think also because this place feels like home in many ways already. If I have any resolutions, it is only to be more present. With how busy we are and how many new things there are to experience, the past eight months (holy cow! eight months!) have gone by so quickly that I want to start being more mindful about the everyday joys. Cheers to the New Year!

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I don’t even care if we’re gross. ❤ Photo cred: Emma

So, what would you say you do around here?

School directors are political appointees in Mongolia, so they sometimes get replaced after an election, as mine was.
Which is how I ended up in the new director’s office a month after starting, being asked the Mongolian equivalent of “So, what would you say you do here?”

My new director and I are on good terms now, and I thought it was probably about time I answer that same question for you.

As symbolized in this Teacher's Day card, I mostly stand around looking pretty, and I think the students are really responding to that.
As symbolized in this Teacher’s Day card, I mostly stand around looking pretty, and I think the students are really responding to that.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am under the Teaching English as a Foreign Language umbrella, but that doesn’t really describe what I do on a day-to-day basis, or even what my big goals are supposed to be. Peace Corps conveniently breaks down what we are trying to accomplish into three goals:

1. Build capacity in whatever way we can, mostly improving people’s English but also teaching life-skills like how to be good at google search and convincing people drinking water is healthy.

2. Help Mongolians understand American culture (hopefully in a positive light).

3. Help Americans understand Mongolian culture (which is what I try and mostly fail to do here).

Having cake at work is critical to properly integrating.
Having cake at work is critical to properly integrating.

On a day to day basis I work with the six English/Russian teachers (my counterparts, or CPs) at my school (by the way, James and I work at different schools), and help them improve their English. Most TEFL volunteers team-teach a lot of classes with their counterparts, but at my school, I don’t do as much of that. Now I have a lot of clubs and specialized classes, which I really, really enjoy. I am completely spoiled in this respect, because it means I get to work with a lot of motivated, smart, funny kids and more importantly, I get to create my own lesson plans. Real talk: the books the government gives teachers to use are pretty awful. I spend a significant amount of time helping my CPs rewrite the books to make them useable. My biggest gripes with the textbooks are that they use both British-isms and American English almost at random and focus on weird, ultra-specific vocabulary.

The winners of our school English mini-Olympics! It was a weekend and no one told me we were all dressing up.
The winners of our school English mini-Olympics! It was a weekend and no one told me we were all dressing up.

An average day can include anything from a 5th grade speaking and singing club, coffee break English practice for my CPs, beginner’s English for adults, Olympic English for 12th graders, to American movie club (my most popular club by a mile). There’s plenty more, but if you want a full list, e-mail me.

A rare scene of high-schoolers paying rapt attention in class.
A rare scene of some high-schoolers paying rapt attention in class.

When I’m not at work-work, there are always plenty of community events going on. Schools like to hold song-and-dance competitions and seemingly random parties for teachers, so that between both James’ and I’s schools, we have a pretty packed schedule. We don’t technically have to attend all community events, but I take integration pretty seriously and because so much of our work here depends heavily on being considered upstanding members of the community, I try to at least turn up for most things.

School's field day way back in September.
School’s field day way back in September. Let the games begin!
During a weekend judo competition  in the school gym.
During a weekend judo competition in the school gym.

A lot of people we talked to and blogs we read before coming to Peace Corps told us to prepare hobbies and plenty of movies because there is a lot of free time, but so far the opposite has been true for us. I am honestly looking forward to getting a couple of days off for New Year’s just to catch up with some reading.

Weather Forecasts or What do you mean it’s not even Winter yet?!

View of Our Town from the Ovoo on a hill, from that time I got so housebound I agreed to go hiking in the snow.
View of Our Town from the Ovoo on a hill, from that time I got so housebound I agreed to go hiking in the snow.

Mongolia is cold. We had our first snow on my birthday back in September, but, it has been especially cold these past few days and it looks like this weekend will be even worse. It is all my fellow PCVs can talk about, as if I needed to be reminded that yes, it is not just cold, it is my-face-hurts-oh-wait-no-I-can’t-feel-it-anymore kind of cold. Apparently we also have the coldest winter in 100 years to look forward to!

This stopped being fun 15 minutes ago.
This stopped being fun 15 minutes ago.

For those of you who don’t know: I do not deal with the cold very well. I grew up in Florida and Southern California. I never acquired the bodily capacity to deal with the cold and hoped never to have to. I think it is a superior testament to my dedication to serve that when Mongolia called, I came.

Blue is most Mongolians' favorite color and it's easy to see why. The vast Mongolian sky is truly spectacular to behold.
Blue is most Mongolians’ favorite color and it’s easy to see why. The vast Mongolian sky is truly spectacular to behold.

Granted, the snow is beautiful when viewed from inside our warm apartment, which is good because because I’ve spent much of the last week in our apartment drunk crying over the death of American civil liberties. Actually, the only way I have been able to convince myself to leave the warm sanctuary of our living room has been by telling myself that if the incumbent president of United States is determined to act like a bigoted, sexist fool in front of the rest of world, it is even more important now than ever that I present America as I want it to be seen: open, generous, and fun. Remember that James and I am the only foreigners that many of our coworkers, students, and neighbors interact with regularly.

As comfortable as pigs in a leaf pile. (There are a surprising number of pigs here considering I rarely find pork anywhere)
As comfortable as pigs in a leaf pile. (There are a surprising number of pigs here considering I rarely find pork anywhere)

Our Town will be a winter wonderland for a couple of weeks, until it gets even colder, cold enough that snow stops falling. Currently, I prefer the snow because the alternative is having the bright sun that always shines over Mongolia melt the snow just enough during the day for the water to become thick sheets of black ice during the night.

View from my English classroom.
View from my English classroom.

But the trick to walking on ice I think, is the same as getting through tough times: small steps, small steps.

Ta-da!
Ta-da!

On the Menu (Fall Edition)

The award for the least helpful menu goes to...
The award for the least helpful menu goes to…

Since moving to Our Town, there has been a pretty extreme change of diet from PST. The other PCV in Our Town is even more of a foodie than I am (when he opens his restaurant at the end of his service, I will be one of the first people to lay down money to eat there) and he has been instrumental in creating our healthy and flavorful diet. To explain exactly why it is so helpful to have another foodie in town, I have to back up and explain what food shopping is like here.

Or you can just have all the delicious food sent to you in a care package and never go shopping again!
Or you can just have all the delicious food sent to you in a care package and never go shopping again!

Yes, there are grocery stores here (and it’s not offensive to ask), but apart from the larger, overpriced grocery store that most of the tourists shop at, the stores are small, hole-in-the-wall operations that carry a rotating stock of seemingly random foodstuffs and beauty supplies. Some things you can count on being in stock: laundry detergent, rice, flour, ramen. Other things are hit and miss, so you keep a healthy stock in your own cupboard when you can: oatmeal, good flavors of Pringles, hot red pepper flakes, raisins, olive oil (when you find one that is not too expensive). Then, there are the treasure items that you see once and possibly never again: cheese (of any variety), tuna with a recognizable label. When I see these things, I will buy out the store’s stock if I can afford it.

Sure you may have crab, but do you have crab-flavored Pringles?
Sure you may have crab, but do you have crab-flavored Pringles?
What Americans call "Canola oil" is called by its actual name here.
What Americans call “Canola oil” is called by its actual name here.

Next to the vegetable market is the meat market, where one can peruse tables covered in mountains of meat and can buy an entire carcasses of a variety of animals depending on the time of year. Very rarely, I will find goat (my favorite), but there is always plenty of mutton, usually plenty of beef, and more and more horse meat available. Right after rice and flour, meat is by far the cheapest foodstuff. Pork is rare and Mongolians will think you are a psycho killer if you talk about lamb (“you kill babies?!?!”). I do not eat that much meat in general (to the horror of most Mongolians), so I don’t visit the meat market that often for that reason, but I go even less because I am terrible at picking out cuts. I have to be firm about not wanting all fat, and trying to communicate that I don’t like the cut they are giving me is difficult. One positive thing to come out of the freezing weather is that I worry less about dying from a meat-borne disease.

That one time we found pork and made egg biscuit breakfast sandwiches.
That one time we found pork and made egg biscuit breakfast sandwiches.

The vegetable market is where I get most of our food. At most stands, there are potatoes, carrots, cabbages, onions, and garlic. But in one corner of the market is one little old lady who has been trained by our fellow PCV and previous ex-pats that “Americans like vegetables.” She does a pretty fantastic job of having a much wider variety of produce than anyone else, because she knows that between us and our fellow PCV, someone will buy it. Thanks to her we can sometimes find green onions, daikon, red cabbage, and cherry tomatoes. Once in a while, she will even have a zucchini or two. Vegetable lady and I are such good friends now that she generally ushers me behind the stand to proudly show me her best wares.

Vegetables!
Vegetables!

I quickly mention fruit only to say that it is so outrageously expensive, that the only time I have fruit is when it is present at a party or other event.

Which brings us to why having another foodie around is such a great thing (other than the fact that he is a hoot to be around, and generally just a great friend): it doubles the eyes on the lookout for treasures, and we share ideas for creative uses of limited ingredients. We have gone to incredible lengths trying to recreate some foods we miss a lot, with mixed levels of success, and I have been learning to cook with the ingredients I do have, which means a lot more Asiatic flavors and techniques, an arrangement I am not dissatisfied with. Last month I learned to make kimchi! Bring on the probiotics.

That one time we found celery, we pooled all our resources to make a pretty damn good Bloody Mary.
That one time we found celery, we pooled all our resources to make pretty damn good Bloody Marys.
Kimchi is a messy affair.
Kimchi is a messy affair.

Mongolians are not adventurous eaters, but sometimes my enthusiasm for food inspires even the most hesitant eaters. A couple of days ago, upon finding baby bok choy at the market, I practically squealed with delight and was so excited that a Mongolian woman next to me asked what the vegetable was. I waxed poetical about the bok choy and told her how to cook it (as much as I could in broken Mongolian) and she ended up buying the rest of the stock.

My attempt at kimbob with homemade kimchi.
My attempt at kimbob with homemade kimchi.

I have been making good use of our toaster over as well: after being inspired by an American friend, I have taken up bread making as something of a hobby. You can buy standard white bread here, but it tends to be dense and kind of flavorless, so I have been working on introducing crusty, artisanal bread to my coworkers. So far, they are mostly only fans of the soft, sweet challah bread. I used to be called “the world’s worst baker” stateside, but it seems that on this side of the planet, I am considered pretty damned talented (so there).

Challah rolls covered in caramel.
Challah rolls covered in caramel.

So while yes, there are still plenty of foods that I miss a lot (mustard! spices! beans! beer!), we are far from destitute as long as I stay away from food websites. We shall see what changes winter brings to the food availability.

Settling-In

We are officially at site now and we have been for a couple of weeks, but we have been busy living our lives instead of writing the blog, #sorrynotsorry. That being said, I have been really excited to talk about our site placement, because it is awesome. I know I haven’t seen much of Mongolia, but holy cow, our town is gorgeous. Once again, I can’t give you the exact location so instead I’ll say a small city/large town in North central Mongolia.

All this and more did we carry.
All this and more did we carry.

Our home. First of all, by Peace Corps standards, our apartment is luxurious: the ceiling is nine-feet high, we have a separate bedroom, AND we have a water heater in our bathroom, which means that we not only get hot water in the bathroom (as long as the electricity is on in the town), but in the kitchen as well. I know, I know, this all sounds more like Posh Corps than Peace Corps.

Because our town is so beautiful (see James’ forthcoming entry on the subject), there are more tourists than I was used to seeing, so while non-Mongolian faces are sometimes seen in the downtown area, they do not usually venture into our neighborhood. That makes us very interesting to many people, particularly children who are often eager to practice the one word of English they know: “HI! HI! HI!”. Sometimes we get distrustful stares from adults, to which we smile and say hello in Mongolian, but mostly the only reaction we get is disinterested or positive.

We spent the first week in our new home settling-in: work hadn’t started, we didn’t have any responsibilities, and we had free time for the first time in three months. Our town is large enough to make it onto a map, but it has the advantage of being very walkable, so after we had criss-crossed the town every which way, we started hiking the mountains that surround the town.

We also bought some stuff. We were each given roughly $90 as a settling-in fund which we used on a very expensive but completely necessary toaster oven to supplement the hot plate that came with apartment, a very classy plastic chest of drawers with “sweet love” emblazoned on each drawer, and two stools to give us something to sit on around the table.

Making biscuits in our very fancy toaster over.
Making biscuits in our very fancy toaster over.
The new concept of 3-D drying!
The new concept of 3-D drying!

As fun as unsuccessfully haggling on the open air market was and as glorious as the views from the mountaintops were, by the week’s end we were getting a little antsy to start work. After the intensity of PST, we got to site ready to hit the ground running.

My first day of work, I came half an hour early, dressed to the nines, and with the classic optimism of American, smile spread wide across my face. Instead of diving into lesson planning and tailoring the curriculum though, my co-workers sent me home to change and we pulled up weeds from the school courtyard.

Picking weeds with my counter-parts.
Picking weeds with my counter-parts.

The day before classes began, we still didn’t have a class schedule, but as I have discovered, that was zuger, it was fine and why was I even concern about it? It would work itself out (it did). The first day of school was an event; there was a big opening ceremony with singers and dancers and speeches. I did a lot of standing around, pretending I remembered people’s names.

Camera's out: everyone stop smiling.
Camera’s out: everyone stop smiling.

Since that first day, the class schedule is still in flux and so is my schedule. The only things that haven’t changed are that I am working a lot and that I am still trying to remember people’s names. Mongolian names are long and poetic and hard for me to pronounce, but I’ll get into that more later.

There has been a lot to take in over the past couple of weeks, and that probably isn’t going to slow down for a while. We finally got internet set-up in the apartment this week though, so keep things up-to-date should be a heck of a lot easier.

Look on, ye mighty.
Look on, ye mighty.

FAQs

Since we started telling people we are moving to Mongolia with the Peace Corps, we have gotten a lot of questions (heck, we had a lot of questions ourselves!). We’ve decided to assemble and answer them in this FAQ. All of these answers come with a caveat: we are doing all the research we can, but the reality is that we are not there yet and therefore some of our answers are sure to be flawed. Here goes.

Peace Corps? Is that still a thing?

Yes, it is! For those of you who don’t know, the Peace Corps is a federal program that was created under the Kennedy administration after John F. finished reading “The Ugly American” and realized that what our foreign policy really needed was less bombs and more Americans on the ground and being themselves: industrious, humble, and willing to teach new skills. The Peace Corps has programs all over the world working on everything from AIDS prevention, to English acquisition, to water sanitation. The overarching goal of all these programs remains capacity-building while fostering international understanding on a grassroots level.

Why did you choose to join the Peace Corps?

It is something both of us had thought about long before we even knew each other. We both have a strong sense of service and identify with the Peace Corps’ mission. Since we both love to travel and explore, this is a great way for us to do that while doing something worthwhile. On a lighter note, we don’t have a hell of a lot of other responsibilities yet, so the timing is perfect. When we found out they had done away with that pesky marriage requirement for couples, it seemed like a no-brainer.

What will you be doing there?

Currently, we are slated to be English teachers at the university or secondary-school level. Mongolia has established English as a second official language, and we will be helping to build their capacity to teach English—not only by working with students, but also by helping Mongolian English teachers strengthen their language skills.

We will spend the first three months living with separate host-families and being trained in the subtle art of “English: a complicated language” before being assigned a place to live together somewhere in Mongolia, probably a city large enough to host two volunteers.

So, where is Mongolia again?

Mongolia is a landlocked country nestled between Russia and China in central Asia. It is the least densely populated nation on Earth. The country of Mongolia is also referred to as “Outer Mongolia”, differentiating it from “Inner Mongolia”, a portion of China which is ethnically Mongolian.

Is that the one with the yurts?

Yes, but what you mean to ask is “Is that the ones with the gers?”. Yurt is the Russian-ized name for what Mongolians call a ger.
They look like this:
It's a ger!
It’s a ger!
They are widely used as lodging, especially because 30% of the population is nomadic, and gers pack up nicely and are easily transported. However, gers can also be part of an urban lifestyle. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, has a well-established ger district, for example.

That sounds cold.

That wasn’t a question. But seriously, it is very cold. In the winter, it gets as low as -40, which is that magical temperature where you don’t have to specify Fahrenheit or Celsius.

We were hoping for a tropical paradise, and instead we are being sent to literally the coldest country the Peace Corps serves in.

What language do they speak there?

Mongolian. It isn’t really similar to any other modern language, but it may be distantly related to both Turkish and Korean, if that gives you any idea of difficulty level. That being said, now that we have tried to explain idioms to non-English speakers, we are not convinced English is a spring walk in the park either. There is a Mongolian script, developed under Genghis Khan, which is still used in inner Mongolia, but it was replaced in outer Mongolia by the Cyrillic alphabet in the 1940s.

Do they still have a Khan?

No, they do not. They are currently operating under a democratic government and have been since their peaceful revolution in 1990. Before that they were working under a communist government, an import from their Soviet Union neighbors to the North.

Why did you pick Mongolia?

We didn’t. We actually didn’t have a country in mind when we applied, and we were willing to go anywhere. However, when the Peace Corps asked for our preferences, we looked at the list of available posts, and chose some jobs and countries that ‘sounded neat’. This was a mistake. Little did we know, that meant we had to be considered for (and rejected from) those jobs before they could even consider us for any other posts. Finally, after months of waiting on our eventual rejection from Madagascar, we were contacted by a Peace Corps placement specialist who though we might be a good fit for Mongolia. If you’re reading this, thank you Sarah!

Note to any future Peace Corps Volunteers: Unless you have your heart set on a particular job or country, tell the Peace Corps you’ll go anywhere. Firstly, they have a lot of experience finding people jobs they are actually qualified for. Secondly, all of the places are neat.

When do you leave?

At the end of May 2016. It sounds like a long time from now, but we have a lot to do until then.

How long will you be gone?

We will be gone two years and three months, with the option to extend our service for a third year.

Are you guys going together?

Yup. We applied as a couple and we are serving as a couple. We aren’t allowed to work in the same school, to spread the English around a bit, but we will still share a home (except for the first three months when we are separated to ensure we both get a handle on the Mongolian language).

Wait, does this mean you’re spies?

We would say that this definitively proves that we are not, nor will we be. There is a hefty firewall between the Peace Corps and all the intelligence gathering organizations, to the point that if you have ever worked for an intelligence agency you are barred for life from joining the Peace Corps. This makes sense: to do the kind of work the Peace Corps accomplishes, there needs to exist a trust between the parties that would be damaged by the insinuation that Peace Corps is a front for anything.

Are you scared?

Terrified! Have we mentioned how hard Mongolian is to learn? Also: MINUS FORTY DEGREES!

That being said, we are beyond excited. We feel like the luckiest people ever, for a lot of reasons, but this is one of them.