Photodump

If you follow this blog with any regularity at all, you’ve noticed I don’t post a lot of pictures.

The reason for this is pretty simple: I don’t take a lot of pictures. I’m not a photographer. I don’t carry a camera with me unless I’m doing something specifically for photo-taking purposes. Most of the pictures I do take are of landscapes and pretty places, not people or cultural items or other things of interest to this blog. And I like to experience things firsthand — with my own eyes, not through a camera lens — so unless it’s a spectator event, with me sitting in the stands watching quietly, I’m not likely to snap a photo.

That said, I have collected some pictures here and there. Without further ado:

My first view of Mongolia, from a guest resort outside the capital.
My first view of Mongolia, from a guest resort outside the capital.

Traveling to our training site in June
Traveling to our training site in June
Trying to study when my host дүүs wanted to play.
Trying to study when my host дүүs wanted to play.
the demon goat.
the demon goat.
The aftermath of a dust storm. I had raised up the bottom flaps on my ger for air circulation and forgot to put them down.
The aftermath of a dust storm. I had raised up the bottom flaps on my ger for air circulation and forgot to put them down.
No comment.
No comment.
The kids in my host family liked to play with my iThing when they got bored. This means I have a lot of pictures of fingers and noses saved for posterity, but they also organized a couple of cute shots.
The kids in my host family liked to play with my iThing when they got bored. This means I have a lot of pictures of fingers and noses saved for posterity, but they also organized a couple of cute shots.
Mongolian wrestling during Naadam
Mongolian wrestling during Naadam
The Mongolian flag and my training site's sacred mountain, as seen from the Naadam stadium
The Mongolian flag and my training site’s sacred mountain, as seen from the Naadam stadium
Me and my host mom wearing our deels in front of my ger. My host mom's friend made mine for me.
Me and my host mom wearing our deels in front of my ger. My host mom’s friend made mine for me.
The cutest host дүү ever
The cutest host дүү ever
The view from Chinggis Khan square in Ulaanbaatar.
The view from Chinggis Khan square in Ulaanbaatar.
My training sitemates and our teachers in our deels. Missing: two LCFs and one PCV.
My training sitemates and our teachers in our deels. Missing: two LCFs and one PCV.
The view from my window at site.
The view from my window at site.
Beautiful...
Beautiful…
...isn't it?
…isn’t it?
The first snow in the mountains.
The first snow in the mountains.
Ulgii aimag center from Nairamdal Mountain.
Ulgii aimag center from Nairamdal Mountain.
Yes, that eagle is tied to someone's front fender
Yes, that eagle is tied to someone’s front fender
The Khovd River in February.
The Khovd River in February.

Happy holidays, part 3: Nauriz

Nauriz (properly Наурыз, also Nauryz or Nowruz) is the Kazakh new year celebration, observed around the week of March 20. Most of Bayan-Ulgii celebrated March 22-23, although there are stragglers on both ends extending the holiday from the 20th to the 25th.

The idea behind Nauriz is much the same as Mongolian Tsagaan Sar: celebrate the spring’s coming prosperity by cooking a lot of food and sharing it with family, neighbors and friends. In practice, however, it’s a little bit different. With this in mind I present —

How to Have a Successful Nauriz

1. Brush up on your Kazakh language ahead of time. This is one of those occasions where everyone is constantly speaking Kazakh and everyone’s father-in-law who never met you wants to see how much Kazakh you know. At minimum learn the holiday greetings: Улыс оң болсын, ақ мол болсын, and, if you want to get to the point, құтты наурыз.

2. If you are lucky enough to own Kazakh traditional clothes, wear them. This is the only time of year anyone who is not a small child or a bride wears traditional clothing. If you don’t have any, that’s fine — a lot of Kazakh people don’t, these days — but do wear a nice outfit and clean shoes.

3. Don’t eat breakfast.

4. Tuck a bit of toilet paper into your pocket before you leave home; you’re going to be drinking a lot of tea and a lot of soup. But also make sure your water filter is full. Both the tea and the soup are salty, and қазы is addictive for the same reason potato chips are addictive: it tastes like pure salt.

5. Under no circumstances should you agree to work Nauriz morning. Even if your CP is stuck at school until she finishes grading the national English Olympics exam. Even if all the other PCVs bailed on helping her grade. The city parade is supposed to happen at 10:00, which means it starts at 11:00 just when you are supposed to start grading — and you definitely don’t want to miss the chance to see people from every institution in town wearing their finest Kazakh clothes. In the square, where the parade takes place, there are also food gers and kiddie attractions like photos on a pony and roller skating.

6. Theoretically, you are supposed to visit 40 homes in the first day of Nauriz. This might happen for the school kids, who wander into a home, gulp down a half-bowl of қоже, and tell the host their name before they wander on to the next house. (“I think he is in my daughter’s class,” said my CP. “She said she invited some of her classmates.”) But for an adult, a bare minimum of 20 minutes is polite — enough time for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup — and a particularly hospitable host may occupy you for an hour and a half with different foods and topics of conversation. To visit three houses outside of your immediate neighbors is minimally satisfactory; five, admirable; seven, probably not possible before it gets dark (and anyway your stomach might explode).

7. While it’s socially acceptable to visit both days of the holiday, you might want to do most of your visits the first day, when the food is fresh and hasn’t been picked over by a dozen visitors. Most of your invitations will be on Day 1, anyway.

8. Don’t make a schedule. Resist the urge. Even if you have eleven invitations and you’re determined to fulfill all of them. Your schedule will be in tatters as soon as your host says a mutual acquaintance is coming in twenty minutes and they are visiting the same person as you next and you should definitely wait for them. Do, however, find out where everyone lives and decide when you want to visit which district. You don’t want to spend the day shuttling from the Turkish college to the over-the-bridge ger district and back (an hour-and-a-half walk one way or up to 5000T taxi fare).

9. Do call your prospective host before you make a visit. Usually, families manage the sheer number of invitations they receive by leaving one family member at home and sending the rest off on separate visits. If you know the whole family or if you’re visiting the mom of the family, odds are good you can visit any time, and strictly speaking you can walk right in without any invitation at all; but even so, it’s polite to call in advance and make sure the people you want to see are home.

10. When entering a house, there aren’t as many formalities as here were at Tsagaan Sar. Take off your shoes; wash your hands if you’ve just used the restroom; wish your host a happy Nauriz, and take a seat in the living room. Guests should sit facing the door near the head of the table (designated by the nearness of the meat plate if there are chairs at both ends).

11. Staples of the Nauriz table: the meat plate, with a goat’s head, sheep meat, and қазы (salty horse sausage); женте, a kind of crumbled sugar-and-dry-dairy dish with raisins; curd and red cheese; some bread and cold salad plates; cookies and candy; a fruit plate. First, you’ll be served a bowl of milk tea (some houses also have seabuckthorn juice) and urged to help yourself to the side dishes. Then your host will slice up some of the meat plate. Finally, қоже, the classic Nauriz soup: millet or rice served in meat broth mixed with a special kind of yogurt, which gives it a slightly sour taste. In some homes you will be able to mix in your own yogurt, while in others the broth is cooked with the yogurt or your host will mix it for you. As a bare minimum, drink one cup of tea, eat one bowl of soup, and sample anything your host points you to when they notice your mouth isn’t full.

12. If you’re midway through an extended visit and a large group troops in — perhaps your host’s homeroom class or half her husband’s coworkers — it may be a good idea to vacate the table, so they have enough seats, and relax in the back of the room or wherever your host indicates. The bigger group probably won’t stay long, and you can take advantage of the break to do a bit of digesting.

13. Once you have gossiped and digested sufficiently, tell your host it’s time to be on your way. They may inveigle you to try one more dish or suggest you wait for a companion for your next visit. Stop at the outhouse; call ahead for your next visit; and go on to the next stop!

14. You may collapse at home once it gets dark, as by then it’s not really polite to visit without being explicitly asked to.

cosmic musings

“Do you believe in God?”

I blinked. Four seventeen-year-old faces blinked back at me, waiting with earnest curiosity for a response they understood.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s a…complicated question.”

It was four-thirty on the Friday before the third-term holiday. The twelfth-grade concourse class had assembled, four-sevenths of them, for a listening lesson that ran short. At this point — three-quarters of the way through the year — they had exhausted all of the grammar points their exam book had to offer, and so my co-teacher announced that we would practice dialogues for the remainder of the class. This question had come from the aspiring lawyer, who was shy to speak but revealed a surprising fluency when pressed to do so.

Do you believe in God?

It’s a red-button question, in the States, where a single community will hold Jews, Muslims, and a half-dozen Christian denominations, all of whom profess to believe in one God but differ widely about what that means. Where a significant portion of the community is agnostic, or atheist, or of a non-Abrahamic tradition, and may be offended by the question’s inherent assumption. It’s a missionary question, after all, in the evangelical Christian tradition: not, What is your faith? but Do you follow mine?

But of course these girls were coming from a different angle, and had no knowledge of the context that makes that question so loaded in my home country. Religious diversity, among Kazakhs, exists mostly along a scale from the strict Muslim, who wears a head scarf and prays five times a day, to the citizen of Muslim tradition, who goes about her day without thinking too much about God but attends funerals, weddings, and holiday celebrations. I know there is a small Christian population here, and no doubt a few quiet atheists; there may even be some Kazakhs who have adopted Mongolian Buddhist tradition[1]. But the majority by far is at least nominally Muslim, and I would be surprised if my students knew more than one or two non-Muslim community members. For them, there really only was one way to conceive of God.

I didn’t want to answer with a simple yes or no. I know my students are sharp. I will give simplified answers to certain delicate questions (“Would you date a Kazakh?” they asked later, and I replied, “I want to go back to America”) but I think, as a matter of respect, I should attempt for most questions to convey as complete an answer as possible.

The girls murmured a question in Kazakh to their teacher. I caught the word ‘Крист’ and thought, yes, well, there’s a place to start. “My family is Christian.” My students nodded, satisfied by this answer; but I forged on anyway. “But there’s a — a ceremony — for Catholics, my mother’s family is Catholic Christian –” oh, what was the word, un-thought-of for the last six or eight years? ” — a sacrament, it’s called, a ritual called Confirmation — when you’re sixteen, you, um, you become an adult in the church. But I didn’t do that.” I was losing them, I could see, drawing away from them into a world of incomprehensibly foreign experience as their texbooks so often did. “I wanted to…oh, to see different religions first. There are so many religions in the world, and how to know which is right…”

Their faces had withdrawn into polite incomprehension, complete with raised eyebrows. I surrendered. “I believe in something. But I don’t know exactly what.”

#

It’s been a while since I’d given serious thought to the religious question.

It’s always been a question for me, for some reason, even during childhood CCD class and Masses (I recall being bribed, sulking and whining, into regular Sunday attendance with the promise of Sunday donuts afterward). Sometimes, hearing a hymn or following a Bible passage during church, I remember a sense of awe: This taps into something profound. I would feel, for the briefest moment, my insignificance in a timeline that stretched far beyond my birth and death; but it was always accompanied by a kind of sadness. This house is not my home. I was certain, even as a sulky preteen, that the natural laws laid down by the church did not align with my understanding of the world. At sixteen, I took one look at the list of requirements I had to for Confirmation and told my mother flatly that I did not want to be Christian. The ensuing argument started out stormy, but I was eventually permitted to drop out of my final year of religious ed.

I’ve known people who have become their best selves by following their faith; I’ve seen the strength that a religious community can confer on an individual. I admire that. I’m glad that it exists in the world. And on some level I do want it for myself. But it isn’t something I can do halfway; if I am going to commit to a belief, I am going to commit to it fully. And so, at sixteen, I put the question of religion — What do I believe in? — aside, figuring that someday I would find my way to the answer.

I’m wondering now if it’s time to think seriously about it again. What do I believe in? It seems to have been relevant, lately. I suppose in some ways it’s fundamental to being a PCV — positive belief, that is, not religion per se; you’ve got to have some kind of ethical guide given this unbelievable opportunity to choose what you do every single day, and it takes a kind of willful faith in circumstance to hold out hope for some of the projects we attempt. But it’s not just that. I’m in my mid-twenties now, and while I know that’s quite young to some of my readers (“little Renee,” my CPs say affectionately) I am certainly an adult. At some point in the near future — five, eight, ten years from now — I’m going to look up and find myself settled into a worldview and a lifestyle I may not have consciously chosen. Now is as good a time as any to examine my beliefs.

And it comes up in discussion. Not just with my well-meaning students, either. A fair number of people in Bayan-Ulgii’s expat/volunteer community are Christian, outspokenly so[2], and have found their way here partly because of their faith. It comes up with my fellow PCVs, who are, like me, somewhat of an intellectual bent: What would you do if you had no obligations — to anyone or anything? What do you think about organized religion? Even from the counselor: This week, consider this idea of a universal force that keeps coming up, and how it affects your thinking.

#

What do I believe in?

I don’t believe in an ordered universe, or at least, in a universe that behaves in a way that the human mind is capable of comprehending in full. The universe I believe in is, I suppose, a bit like the one Derrida[3] philosophizes: fundamentally chaotic, nonsensical, made comprehensible only by careful application of a constantly-shifting contextual target; gleeful in its chaos, studded with gems of cognizance and beauty, offering a choice, in all things, between joyful engagement and cynical denial. A world of infinite opportunity and constant, irreconcilable limitations.

I suspend judgment on the idea of a god, or an afterlife, on karmic balance or cosmic rule. No way to know for sure, I told myself as a teenager; no need to worry about it. I’m still not sure if that was a cop-out. I don’t believe these are things we can ever achieve certainty in, and while I think they’re ideas I ought to put more consideration into, I believe I would derive benefit from them only insofar as they gave me comfort and a sense of direction.

I believe that narrative is the way we make sense of our small part in a vast and confusing experience. I believe — as a writer — that narrative is one of the most powerful cognitive tools we have. It gives us the power to shape to our days and reconcile ourselves to the incomprehensible. I believe in the possibility that the narratives we shape for ourselves may, on our deathbeds, be the one real and poignant cumulation of a lifetime’s experiences. Even the tangible artifacts of memory are incomplete without the story that created them[4].

I am not convinced of the possibility of a universal ethical system (or any kind of universal philosophy, come to it), but I do believe in the positive power of a personal system of ethics. Consistently behave in a way that you find laudable, and at the very least you will feel fulfilled by your life. If your ethics are good, if good ethics exist, and you might benefit the world at large, if it is possible to place the world on a positive trajectory. But, not being convinced of universality, I am a fundamentally selfish creature, and I figure leading a fulfilling life (whatever that means) ought to be enough for most people.

I believe, most of all, that we retain the power to choose much about our lives. Everyone at some point faces choices that might change their life’s trajectory. But more than that, we are able to choose the way we conceive of that trajectory. We can engage with the circumstances we find ourselves in; we can create meaning in fundamentally arbitrary occurrences; we can name ourselves principled, and give ourselves principles to fulfill that name, and make further choices based on those principles. Deliberately or not, consciously or not, we choose every day whether our lives are rooted in hope or in fear. I am trying to be more aware of making that choice.

I don’t know, at the end of the day, if all that adds up to something approximating direction-giving organized belief. I suspect not, or else that I’m not applying it consistently — otherwise I wouldn’t be musing about it, would I? I do rather doubt that it aligns with the practices of most upstanding religious organizations. And while it makes me a bit sad, a self-exile, standing outside peering into the circle of light — I’m all right with it. I’m rather a contrary soul at the bottom, and doubt I would do terribly well as either sheep or shepherd.

#

Since religion is a hot issue in America, and since the practices of both Islam and Christianity are tangentially relevant to this post, a couple of ground rules for the comments section:
– No proselytizing.
– Be open-minded in your comments if you can, even if the discussion runs counter to your beliefs; at the very minimum be civil.
– Reactionary Islamophobia and hate speech will be immediately deleted and the poster’s IP and email blacklisted. Keep in mind that I am living in a Muslim community and have a great deal of respect for many of the people here.


[1] Though Kazakhs are proud of their minority status and their differing cultural traditions, among which religion is foremost. It seems more likely to me — as an outsider, mind, who hasn’t talked much about religion in my community — for a Kazakh to adopt a new minority faith like Christianity than to switch to something as quintessentially Mongolian as Buddhism/shamanism.
[2] But, do note, they are not missionaries: the Mongolian government is firmly against proselytizing as the country tries to reclaim its cultural roots from communist-era disavowal. We are not, for example, permitted to receive religious books by mail.
[3] A somewhat eccentric philosopher of the twentieth century, of much renown in literary theory. In case you can’t tell, I am rather fond of his work, which is not to say I understand it entirely.
[4] Relevant: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiMsI5ZZ-qg

Malice Draft 1 is finished!

Or rather, draft 0.5 of the novel that doesn’t even have a proper provisional title. My first draft is always more of a glorified outline that points out everything problematic about my initial conception of the project.

It’s clocked in at about 72,000 words (for the uninitiated: 75,000 words is a SHORT novel, too short for the fantasy genre unless it’s YA), which has me estimating the fleshed-out Real Draft 1 at around 100,000 words (the short end of average, for fantasy that isn’t Game of Thrones-style epic). About 60-65,000 of those words were written in Mongolia, with an additional 20,000ish words of outline when I reworked the plot in December.

The good:
– I can write in Mongolia! Keeping to a regular schedule has been really, really difficult for me here. I’ve been averaging slightly under 2,000 words a week here, where in the States — for the last three years! — I’d kept to a relatively steady 1,000 words a day. It’s good to see the words building up, however slowly.
– I have a solid outline to work from. The main characters are more or less fleshed out, even if their arcs kind of wander off into the sky somewhere around the draft’s halfway point; I know the major sticky points in worldbuilding and plot logistics.
– For the first time ever, I’ve *finished* something novel-length, and it’s (more or less) shaped like a novel!

That said, I’m not really satisfied. I never am, not by a first draft. I get to the end and I look back at all the things that don’t work with equal parts irritation and eagerness to dig back in. Coming as it did in 500-word fits and spurts, the completion of this draft is even less exciting than usual — I never really built up a consistent momentum to keep me enthusiastic about the story. Still, I’m pleased with the draft insofar as it goes, and I’m looking forward to the first rewrite.

What’s next?

While I’ve got a pretty good idea of what needs fixing, I’m going to set the first draft aside for a month or so, so that I can look over it with fresh eyes before coming up with my next plan of attack. I’ll probably do some worldbuilding, outlining, and character work when I do come back to it, rather than jumping headfirst into the next draft.

In the meantime, I’m going to be working on a strange secondary project I set up shortly before coming to Mongolia. I’m expecting it to be novella-ish length and I don’t quite know what it’s about, aside from sentient houses. I can (hopefully) finish that first draft within two or three months, and then return to the Malice project.

International Women’s Day

Yesterday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. I was aware that Mongolia celebrates the holiday, but not having heard much about it, I assumed it was a quiet affair much like Mother’s Day in the US. Work an ordinary day, then take Mom out to dinner and give her a present, that sort of thing.

I showed up to the teachers’ lounge on Monday to do tutoring for the national English Olympics. About halfway through the hour one of my teachers came over to inform me that the men at the school were throwing a party that night for the women, and that our afternoon meeting was canceled. I thanked her for the information with my usual spike of Oh god what do I wear how do I find the place how late should I show up? alarm, got directions to the third or fourth banquet hall I’ve partied at in this aimag, and resumed the lesson.

Toward the end of the lesson, a few students came in to chat with a tutee. One of them stole her Mongolian script reference sheet with a promise to return it the next day, at which point my student reminded her, “Ертең демалыс күн.” The other student shrugged and said she’d return it on Wednesday. With mingled alarm and reignation, I asked the girl in English, “No school tomorrow?” Half of my morning work was scheduled for Tuesday this week.

What I would give for advance knowledge about these events.

#

I’m happy for all women to be celebrated, but women in Mongolia — oh, do they ever deserve a day all their own.

10 of my 11 CPs are women. Out of the 110 teachers at my school, I would guess that less than 20 are men. Women in Mongolia, barred from traditional careers in herding and from dangerous and lucrative jobs in the mines, tend to be highly educated and are encouraged to pursue their education from a young age. They have a huge advantage over women in many parts of the world[1]. In any given collection of ‘bright’ or ‘talented’ students selected by their teachers, at least in the English department, a solid 90% will be girls. I think I have 4 boys in a concourse class that started with over 60 students.

In the modern world, this means that Mongolian women are highly employable. In a lot of families the woman earns higher or more stable wages. This does not, however, extricate them from the demands of social and family life.

Women in Mongolia are expected to do most of the housework. When I lived with a host family, I became the oldest ‘girl’ in the family, and as such (and ostensibly as part of my training) I was assigned a lot of chores. I did most of the dishes every night. Older girls are expected to clean the house, help attend visitors, and babysit younger siblings and cousins. Women will marry; married women will have children; women with children will be their children’s primary caregivers, along with the grandparents. This is taken as a given.

And then there’s the familial structure of a Kazakh household, which is again a little different. Kazakh families follow Muslim inheritance rules, which state that the youngest man of the family will inherit the parents’ property in exchange for taking care of them in their old age. This means that the son will continue to live under his parents’ roof (or a new roof he builds for them) for the entirety of his life.

His wife is келін, kelin, which in Kazakh means both younger sister-in-law and daughter-in-law. Just as the youngest son of the family is responsible for seeing to his parents’ welfare, the келін is responsible for seeing their household run smoothly. They take on the lion’s shore of the chores and childcare, and might even be responsible for helping with their siblings-in-laws’ chores and children if their in-laws live on the same property.

A lot of PCVs in Mongolia get asked why they don’t have a Mongolian boyfriend or girlfriend. My CPs tell me I should not marry a Kazakh man. I suspect I would not make a very good Kazakh wife.

And yet, despite all this work, my CPs are boundless in their enthusiasm for their work with me, their love for their families, their engagement with the life that they lead. I’ll be dragging and irritable in the afternoon as one of my CPs — who, aside from her teaching job, runs a cashmere business in the afternoons, does all the household chores, and manages a miniature kindergarten composed of her own children and her in-laws’ — cheerfully invites me home for lunch and an afternoon of lesson planning/Q&A. Or the department head, inundated with the projects assigned to her, will repeatedly ask for input about the latest competition assigned to her. The CPs who invite me to their homes, who make opportunities to work with me, who juggle their children and their careers and their holidays and the sudden appearance of in-laws from Kazakhstan, with not more than the occasional bit of snark at the dictates of their mothers-in-law…it amazes me. I don’t think I could do it.

#

I showed up an hour late to the Women’s Day party, expecting to be one of the first ones there, only to squeeze into a mostly-full table at which most of the food had been devoured. Shortly after my arrival, the men announced the official beginning of the night by serving milk tea. Only one cup per person: with a dozen or two men shelling out for eighty or a hundred women, funds didn’t stretch very far.

There were all the staples of a Kazakh party in Mongolia: singing, dancing, chatting with my table-mates. I marveled at how far I’ve come since the beginning of the year: I’m starting to catch bits and pieces of conversation, enough that I can piece together the gist of a discussion, and was proud to ward off a particularly insistent vodka server with, “Керек жоқ. Ішмеймін,”[2] which amused him enough that he left me alone. Dancing is fun instead of mildly terrifying, and I even attempted the Mongolian waltz with one of my CPs — who, not being especially good at it herself, agreed to give up halfway through. I also learned a new game, “Атым не?” (What’s my name?). You dance around until the music cuts off, at which point the announcer shouts out a number. Then you have to get into groups of that number. I just about had my belt yanked off by a teacher who was determined to keep me in our group, and was promptly disqualified with a dozen others when nobody else would let go either.

I would be lying if I said it hasn’t been a rough couple of months. But that night, giggling at my coworkers as they about knocked each other over trying to stay in the game, being yanked into the center of a dance circle by the craziest dancer in the school, recognizing the dance songs enough to sing some of the words, having my teachers affectionately call me “little” and tell me I wasn’t eating enough, chat with me, pull me into the dancing, make sure to assign me a ride home before any of them left — I felt, at last, as if I belonged.

I thought: I am here. There are so many places in the world I could have ended up, but I am here. There are so many people who have left, or have been left behind; but I have not, and I am here. And this is exactly where I choose to be.


[1] I remain puzzled, along with many other people, as to why Mongolia is a Let Girls Learn country. If anything, Mongolia has the opposite problem than the one Let Girls Learn proposes to solve.
[2] “No need. I won’t drink/I don’t drink,” though I got the conjugation wrong — it’s actually either ішпеймін or ішкем жоқ.

Food in Mongolia

Most of the time, these days, I eat horse meat.

It’s quite tasty, actually — it looks, cooks and tastes a lot like lean beef. It’s also one of the cleanest cuts of meat you can find here: in Mongolia, fat is considered as valuable and edible as meat, and so most of the cuts of beef or mutton are marbled. Horse meat is readily available in in Bayan-Ulgii at all times of year,[1] and only marginally more expensive than other meats. I supplement with beans and peanut butter, which I buy in UB or have shipped to me in care packages, since a diet of straight red meat can get tiresome.

Because Bayan-Ulgii is so far from the major cities, most of the produce is imported, and its availability varies. When I first arrived in August, we had onions, garlic, carrots, cabbage, in some дэлгүүрs (shops) cucumbers or tomatoes; apples, watermelons, and oranges. With regular shipments from China, Russia, and Kazakhstan, we are often able to find bell peppers, kiwis, and occasionally such gems as lemons, lettuce, and pomegranates.

I’m also a bit limited in prep methods. This is my kitchen:

[picture]

That’s fine by me, though, since I do most of my cooking on the stovetop anyway.

I have easy access to fresh dairy, and there are a lot of dry goods from Russia, China, and even western Europe in the aimag center — there’s even a Russian store with goodies like oatmeal and spices.

There’s a lot of overlap between Kazakh and Mongolian dishes. Here’s a quick primer on the foods I’ve eaten here:

Хурга (xurag) – a dish of chopped fried meat. Comes in будаатай (budaatai, with-rice) and ногоотай (nogootai, with-vegetable) varieties, among others.
Шөл (shul) or сопа (copa) – soup. Meat and bones are boiled together; the bones are removed, the meat left in. Also comes in будаатай and ногоотай, as well as гуралтай (guraltai, with-flour, i.e. noodle), versions.
Хушуур (xushuur) – meat or potatoes fried in flour pockets; sort of resembles a pasty.
Бууз (buuz) – meat dumplings steamed in flour pockets.
Цуйван (tsuivan) or құрдақ (kurdak) – a noodle dish! Steamed noodles, meat, and sometimes veggies. This is my favorite.
Сүүтэй будаа (suutei budaa) – rice cooked in milk to make a kind of soup; for upset stomachs. (My stomach was not too happy with the offering, considering how rich the dairy is here, but I appreciated the sentiment.) I ate this during PST, but haven’t seen it in Bayan-Ulgii.
Қазы (kaz/kazi) – Horse sausage. This is a Kazakh specialty I have yet to sample.

And some classically Kazakh/Mongolian foods that aren’t meals:

Сүүтэй цай (suutei tsai, lit. tea with milk) or ақ шай (ak chai, white tea) – the infamous milk tea which both Kazakhs and Mongolians drink like water. Mongolian milk tea is made by boiling tea leaves in milk; Kazakhs boil a milk-water mixture then pour it over a strainerful of tea leaves. Some families add salt. Kazakh milk tea is made with tea leaves from Kazakhstan and has a stronger flavor than Mongolian tea.
Тараг (tarag) or айран (airan) – a thin, sour, drinkable yogurt. Delicious with sugar or made into a frozen juice popsicle. Also makes a good sour cream substitute.
Ааруул (arul) or құрд (curd) – dried milk curds. Sour, crumbly, and hard enough to break off your tooth, but as snack foods go it’s quite healthy, and my host sisters loved it.
Айраг (airag) or қымыз (kumis) – fermented mare’s milk. The taste varies depending on who’s making it, but it’s sour, thick, and slightly fizzy. Can be served hot or cold. Kazakh Muslims who abstain from alcohol sometimes drink this instead of wine or vodka at house parties.
Борцаага (bortsag) or бауырсақ (baursak) – nuggets of deep-fried dough, somwhere between donuts and funnel cakes in taste and texture. The борцаага bowl, along with candy and milk tea, is always on the table in a Mongolian household, though Kazakhs supplement or replace this with cookies and bread.


[1] Unlike Kazakhs, Mongolians aren’t fond of horse meat, and in many provinces it is only available in the winter.