Category Archives: Kazakh

Happy holidays (part 2): Tsagaan Sar

In most of Mongolia, winter ends on the lunar new year. As the Year of the Monkey began last week, friends and familiy gathered together to celebrate Цагаан Сар (Tsagaan Sar), the White Month, the biggest holiday in the country.

In most of Mongolia. In Bayan-Ulgii, the new year also begins in spring, and it is also the year’s biggest holiday. But for Kazakhs, as for Westerners, spring begins on the vernal equinox in March.

None of my CPs celebrated Tsagaan Sar in their own homes. Most Kazakhs I asked said they visited one or two Mongolian families — close friends, neighbors, coworkers — who kept the holiday. But where most of the country grinds to a halt for the first half of Februrary, my school and community charged full steam ahead until the nationally declared holiday (February 9-11) shut down all federal institutions (including schools) and Mongolian-owned businesses.

I had a nice week off, though.


When I was first introduced to the faculty at my school, one of my CPs pulled me aside to point out a teacher.

“That’s Tuul,” she said. “The Mongolian teacher.”

“There’s only one Mongolian teacher?” I asked, deeply puzzled as to how one teacher could manage two thousand students. Mongolian language is possibly an even more challenging subject for my students than English, given that most of them speak Kazakh at home, receive limited conversational exposure to Mongolian, and yet are expected to speak it fluently if they want to attend a Mongolian university.

“No,” the CP insisted, “the Mongolian teacher.”

Abruptly I realized she wasn’t talking about language. Of the entire hundred-something teaching faculty at my school, exactly one teacher is ethnically Mongolian.


I have a total half-dozen Mongolian contacts at site — Tuul, and about half of my students at the police station. Most of my fellow PCVs spent the last week visiting the homes of friends and family, being stuffed to the brim with бууз and vodka. I spent most of the week relaxing at home, because I didn’t know where any of the Mongolians lived and I was nervous to go alone[1].

I did, however, visit one family. At lunch with a Russian friend working at the local Teachers’ College, I mentioned that I wanted to experience the holiday somehow. It turned out that in a few hours she was going with some other teachers to visit a coworker, and they were happy to invite me along. We hitched a ride with the director of the college (a nominal CP of mine, though I’ve yet to work with him on any projects) and arrived to the family’s apartment around 4 in the afternoon.

The first thing you do, when you arrive at a house during Tsagaan Sar, is greet the members of the household from oldest to youngest. They are each holding a хадах (khadakh), or ceremonial scarf. You support their elbows (if they are older than you; if they are younger, they support yours) and kiss them on each cheek, saying “Амар байна уу?”[2]

Everyone sits at a table which is absolutely loaded with food. Notable elements are the боов (boov) tower, a pastry-and-candy centerpiece whose height signifies the age and status of the family; a great many different kinds of fruit and vegetable salads; and the meat plate, which (confusingly for me) features қазы, or horse sausage, usually considered a Kazakh specialty[3]. We were served milk tea, then hot айраг (airag, fermented mare’s milk, also known as қымыз or komis), and our hosts chatted with the other guests.

Then came the vodka. Theoretically, anyone who visits a house is supposed to take three shots of vodka. Thankfully, most households are aware that three shots is a lot for an hour-and-a-half visit that (elsewhere in Mongolia) may be directly followed by another visit to somebody else. We did one toast, after the eldest man in the family gave a speech; everybody sipped their vodka; one of the men refilled everyone’s shot glass; and we ate some more.

Out came the бууз. Бууз (buuz, pronounced ‘boats’) are steamed meat dumplings, a Mongolian staple, and the traditional Tsagaan Sar meal. It is considered polite to eat at least three бууз on a Tsagaan Sar visit. I ate five, because they were quite good бууз and I had eaten a light lunch in preparation for the visit. Everyone chatted, then the next-oldest man in the household gave a speech. Everyone had another sip of vodka. The ladies of the house refilled our айраг glasses and passed out wine to the women, which I was pleased with because it tasted slightly less like paint stripper[4].

The oldest man among the visitors gave a speech. We toasted. The director of the teacher’s college gave a monetary gift and a speech. We toasted. One of the teachers gave a speech, and another teacher sang a song. We toasted again. I observed that we were now well past the required three shots; but then again, no one was actually drinking a shot at a time.

Then the head of the household looked at me and asked the teacher’s college director who I was. I blinked and gave him my name in Mongolian. He told me to give a speech.

I asked, in Mongolian, if I could give it in English and have the director translate. They were excited to realize I knew a little Mongolian and told me to give it in Mongolian. I gave it a shot, but I haven’t spoken Mongolian in two months (and then only to taxi drivers in the capital). Finally the director told me to just speak English, I said a couple of sentences, and everyone toasted.

My Russian friend gave a speech in Russian, to which everyone but me nodded wisely, and then we wrapped up our visit with gifts from our host.


To learn about a more typical Tsagaan Sar experience, and see actual pictures, check out some posts by my fellow volunteers:

Tsagaan Sar: Year of the Monkey
Tsagaan Sar Pictures
Сар Шинэдээ Сайхан Шилээрэй
Цагаан Сар

[1] On Monday Tuul came up to me and apologized profusely, using as much English as she knew, for forgetting to invite me to her home like she had invited the other teachers. I felt a great deal less guilty for not calling her and asking if I could visit.
[2] A variation on the usual hello, “Сайн байна уу?”, this literally translates to “Are you resting?”
[3] One key way to distinguish between Kazakhs and Mongolians: Kazakhs like horse and eat it at most celebrations. Many Mongolians dislike the taste (which has the same consistency and flavor as beef, but is rather gamier) and consider it a winter-only meat.
[4] I don’t really drink, so all alcohol tastes at least a little bit like paint stripper to me.

IST Recap

Happy 2016, everyone!

I’m glad December’s over. It was a weird and kind of rocky month, and I’m ready to start fresh.

I spent the bulk of last month in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for a series of Peace Corps trainings. Because I’m a fly site (Peace Corps buys me plane tickets for official events), because the Bayan-Ulgii flight schedule is a tad bit haphazard, and because my meetings were pretty scattered, I had training for seven days but stayed in the capital for two and a half weeks.

At the beginning of the month I had subwarden training. Every aimag has two safety officers — a subwarden and an alternate — chosen from among its PCVs. In the event of an emergency, the subwarden is responsible for communication between Peace Corps staff in the capital and other PCVs in the aimag; making sure aimag-mates are safe; keeping track of emergency supplies; and generally making sure no one loses their head and runs into a fire. If the subwarden is out of town, the alternate is supposed to take charge.

That training was only a day long, but gave me a whole week to hang out. It was pretty cool, because I got to see people I wouldn’t otherwise have met for months, if ever: Community Youth Development and Health volunteers, who had IST the week before; our M25 TEFL IST trainers; and M25s who’d come in for VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meetings, which happened that week as well. Toward the end of the week TEFL M26s began to filter in — the last two nights before IST, most of my PST sitemates stayed at the same guesthouse as me.

The following week was IST — In-Service Training. Five days of sessions about how to work well at site, specifically tailored to TEFL volunteers. IST is interesting, because everyone brings a Mongolian (or, in my case, Kazakh) counterpart, and the sessions are designed so that you work both with your own counterpart and with other people’s. I found the Experience Sharing session really useful, because it demonstrated for me that (while my school is atypical in a few ways) some of my difficulties at work are shared by many PCVs. We also had a cross-culture session that my counterpart says she found enlightening, but it didn’t benefit me as much. There are some rather pointed differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture (holidays and drinking culture being major ones), and because of the way our groups were divided, there were no Kazakh CPs in my session.

I walked away from the seminar with some new ideas, but it was also absolutely exhausting. When you put into one hotel 40 Americans who know each other embarrassingly well and have interacted with only a few native English speakers in the last three months…well, I’ll let you imagine the kind of shenanigans that go down. I think we were pretty evenly split between people who threw parties nightly and people who hid in their rooms because the population of the hotel was overwhelming. (I was among the latter, but I did spent a LOT of time making sure I got to see my close friends.)

I’d been having problems with the pollution at site — I’d start to cough whenever I spent more than a few minutes outside without a mask. I had intended to talk to the doctor about it anyway, but the week before IST I stayed in a guesthouse that kept ALL of its windows open. (Central heating in Mongolia is controlled by the government, and some buildings are randomly set to ‘sweltering’.) I’d developed a pretty deep cough, so on Tuesday I booked a few minutes with one of our doctors.

“I cough whenever I go outside,” I said.

“Okay. You should take Vitamin C for your weak immune system.”

Confused, I said, “It’s not a cold. I’m not sick. It’s the pollution.”

“Ah. Then you should exercise to make your lungs stronger.”

It’s a half hour walk from my home to my school, and I spend about an hour a night practicing karate. It was a bit of a sore point that morning, actually, because the night before I’d tried to work out with some other PCVs and started wheezing within fifteen minutes. Biting my tongue on a sharp retort, I said civilly, “I do exercise. Should I exercise when I’m coughing?”

“No. Maybe you are allergic to coal dust. I will also give you Benadryl so you can sleep at night.”

“I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” I said, and gave up, frustrated. In any case, I’d figured out some healthy practices on my own: wear a mask when you go outside and keep the windows closed.

By Wednesday night, however, it got to the point where I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. I couldn’t focus in sessions because my chest hurt. I staked out the hotel’s temporary medical office Thursday morning and pounced on the other doctor as soon as he got in. Upon realizing that he couldn’t actually listen to my lungs because I wasn’t capable of taking a deep breath, he brought me into the Peace Corps office proper for a breathing treatment. Afterwards he informed me that my lungs had been spasming and that I was probably developing pre-asthma triggered by the pollution. I received an inhaler, cough syrup, and several extra face masks, and returned to IST much happier and more functional.

The Monday after IST I was invited to the TEFL Project Advisory Committee meeting. The PAC is assembled annually (?) to review how Peace Corps is doing in Mongolia and how the program can improve. I attended with three other M26s, three M25s, two counterparts, the president of the English Language Teacher’s Association of Mongolia, and the Peace Corps staff associated with the TEFL program. In a way I feel like this was the most valuable part of my time in UB — I got to share my experiences as a TEFL volunteer and make suggestions for how the program might be bettered for incoming PCVs. I was also put on committees to compile resource handbooks for PCVs and to help the national education department revise their new textbooks (!!!!!).

All in all, it was a productive, emotional, and ultimately exhausting month, and while it was pretty interesting, I’m glad it’s over. Here’s to everything 2016 will bring.

Happy Holidays! (Part 1)

This week marks the end of the American holiday season and the beginning of Mongolia’s, as both sides of the world celebrate the calendar new year. It’s been a weird couple of weeks for me.

I came back to site from the capital on the 23rd. Bayan-Ulgii has a surprisingly large Western volunteer/expat community — the Norwegian Lutheran Mission, the English Language Institute, and Nova Lingua operate here year-round, in addition to long-term tourists, short-term teachers, and at least one expat family — and all of us were invited to Little Christmas Eve, hosted by the Norwegians. We had traditional porridge and marzipan and sang Christmas carols. I’d met about half the Westerners before, but it was fun to meet the rest and celebrate a holiday we have in common.

Porridge is cool. Photo cred goes to Hope of ELI.

I had originally planned to go to school on Christmas Eve and Christmas, since I’d been away for so long, but homesickness hit me pretty hard on the 24th. I stayed home, caught up with errands, and then in the evening those of us without families to celebrate with got together for a traditional Norwegian dinner. We ate cured sheep rib, mashed potatoes and turnips, sour cabbage, and lingonberry sauce, and finished off the meal with a delicious rice pudding made from last night’s porridge. I hung out and played board games for an hour or two, then went to bed.

P1010992Hanging out on Little Christmas Eve. Also Hope’s picture.

It was interesting — Karen and David’s pre-Christmas celebrations are much more familiar to me than Mongolian Шинэ Жил, but the food and traditions are still very different. Among other things, my family celebrates Christmas in the commercial-agnostic way common in America, and so an overtly religious discussion of Christmas and Norwegian traditions (provided for the kids on the 23rd) took me aback. After a moment, of course, I had to laugh at myself — Christmas is a fundamentally religious holiday, even if it’s not always celebrated as such in the States.

All four Bayan-Ulgii PCVs originally planned to work on Christmas. But when Tess and Alex’s work got canceled at the last minute, Jake and I decided to take off and celebrate with them. All of us were a little bit homesick at this time of year, and I don’t think it helped that we’d all been away from site for a significant portion of the month. We had a Holiday Turkey donated to us by Peace Corps staff, so we cooked an awesome dinner that kept us fed through the weekend. We followed it up with drinks (for the other three) and card games, those being a “weekends together in Ulgii” staple, then hung out and relaxed on Saturday. I also had the chance to talk to everyone in my family, and to open a care package that had been waiting at the post office most of the month.


Usually, on Christmas Eve, I hang out with my dad and wrap a few last presents. Our neighborhood does a luminaria, and so around noon we go to our neighbor’s house to put candles in white paper bags. A few people drop the candles off up and down the street. After that, we go home and cook dinner — usually ham, veggies, mashed potatoes, crescent rolls, cranberry sauce, and baked apples, with French silk pie for dessert. As soon as it gets dark (by 5pm), we light the candles in front of our house, as well as any neighbors who haven’t got to theirs yet. Our house is at the top of a hill on a straight dead-end street, so you can see the whole street lit up and down.


After dinner, we bring our presents down and deposit them under the tree. When we were kids, we’d watch those classic Christmas claymation videos before bed — Rudolph and The Little Drummer Boy — but for the last few years we’ve foregone that to sit around and chat.

On Christmas Day, we open presents with my dad and eat a big breakfast (cinnamon rolls are usually a staple). Around midmorning we head over to my mom’s, have another round of presents, and relax for the afternoon by the fire with Christmas songs on TV. My mom and stepdad make a delicious Christmas dinner (I missed barbeque ribs this year!) and we stuff ourselves silly to round off the holiday.

I finally went back to work on Monday. I learned that I’d missed the school’s Шинэ Жил (Shin Jil, or New Year’s) celebration, which had taken place the 23-25. Шинэ Жил is a Western import from the Soviet Union era, rather than a native new year’s tradition, and is celebrated by Kazakhs and Mongolians alike (though Kazakhs call it Жаңа Жыл – Janga Jil). I’m told that the school party features Father Winter — the Russian analogue to Santa Claus — with dancing, costumes, and skits. The adult parties, however, happen in banquet halls and restaurants, and almost every professional organization books one. They started while I was in UB (the conference rooms in our training venue were booked almost every evening), and my school had theirs Monday night.

It was your usual Kazakh party: We sat, chatted, and ate snacks (candy, fruit, cold salads, and the ubiquitous ham-cucumber-tomato plate); circle danced for a while; had an awards ceremony; danced more; ate cake; danced; ate meat; danced. Our school had hired famous singers from Khovd for one set of dances, and somebody dressed up as Santa Father Winter to hand out goodie bags with sweetbread, juice, and oranges to all the teachers. I’ve been having lung trouble since my stay in UB, so I couldn’t dance for long without coughing; parties aren’t much fun when you can neither dance nor make extended small talk, so I headed home before midnight.

Tonight, families will gather together and stay up til midnight to welcome the new year. While I would be welcome to spend another evening with any of the Westerners, I haven’t seen much of my CPs since I came back into town, and this is one tradition that I want to experience the Kazakh way. I’m super grateful to be invited to a CP’s house to celebrate.

See you all in 2016!


Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Today I’m celebrating with the other PCVs in our aimag. The rumor that Peace Corps sends us turkeys every year has not, as of yet, proven fruitful; instead, for reasons not entirely clear to me, we are eating fish tacos.

In honor of the holiday, here’s a list of things I’m grateful for here in Mongolia.

1. A monthly stipend that is guaranteed to cover my living expenses, and that would be adjusted (for the next set of PCVs, if not for me) if it didn’t. In the U.S., a job is worth whatever it’s worth per hour or year, and if it’s not enough to make ends meet, well, you have to work more or give things up. And while the tugrik-to-dollar exchange rate means I’ll never build a savings account worth carrying over to the States, I’ll be given a fairly substantial “adjustment” sum when I finish my time here.

2. On a similar note, although medical facilities are more limited in Mongolia than in the U.S., my health care is entirely covered by Peace Corps. There are two doctors on staff, with a regular office number and an all-hours emergency number. In case of a serious medical issue, Peace Corps arranges for any necessary transportation and appointments — whether at a local hospital, with Peace Corps doctors, or with a specialist in Ulaanbaatar. It’s a weight off my mind to have competent professionals dedicated to our needs and no need to worry about the logistics of expense.

3. A flexible schedule/set of projects and priorities that I define in collaboration with my supervisor and counterparts. I am super motivated to complete projects I care about, but I struggle when forced to spend large amounts of time on activities when I don’t see the benefit. (I have a vivid memory of my tenth-grade Spanish teacher almost begging me to do an extra credit assignment that would bump my final grade up three points — and I refused, because I wasn’t going to learn anything from the assignment and it would bore me.) Likewise, I work very well with a schedule that allows me to take breaks or work at home during hours when I’m not actively collaborating with someone.

4. The chance to flex my fledgling wings as a teacher and learn that not only am I pretty good at it, I actually enjoy it. I’ve been wrestling with teaching as a profession for most of my (brief) adult life: my interests and values mean I gravitate toward it, but I was never sure I had the personality type to love it. While I think I will always struggle working within a public school curriculum — for the same reasons I mentioned above — I expect that when I settle down, I’ll end up teaching in some capacity. I firmly believe that mentoring and passing on knowledge is one of the foundations of community. Learning new things is a joy for me, and I really do enjoy the opportunity to pass on that joy when I can.

5. The opportunity to learn not just one, but two new languages. Language is one of my favorite things, but I’ve never had a motivator to learn one before. Having experienced some of the difficulties of a second-language speaker, I’m all the more impressed by the excellent non-native speakers I’ve met, both in Mongolia and in the U.S.

6. The experience of traveling to a new part of the world, and the chance to see more of Mongolia with my vacation time this summer. Taking risks like travel opens my eyes to opportunities that never would occur to me, in the States.

7. More immediately and mundanely, the fact that I will be going to UB for in-service training next month. I miss Western food and the American friends scattered across the country.

8. My fellow Peace Corps Mongolia volunteers. I’ve made friends here that I know I can rely on, who have seen me — especially during PST — more vulnerable and in need of support than I ever like to be. Some of them have come through for me magnificently, and I know at least a few of the friendships I’ve made will last well beyond our end of service.

9. My host community. My counterparts have invited me into their homes, introduced me to their families, checked that I am learning the language (көп жайырақ) and that my apartment is warm (very), brought me to their celebrations, told me about their traditions, asked about mine and the friends and family I miss…the list goes on. The teachers at my school sometimes ask a lot of me, just as they ask a lot of themselves, but I have never doubted their sincere care and appreciation for me.

10. Y’all reading this blog. As much as I enjoy being here (and as hard as I can be to reach sometimes) I do miss home a lot. Sometimes I worry I’ve left people behind for good in coming here — or that people will move on without me. And, well, in some cases I’m sure that’s a reality. But every comment you make, every like or favorite you mark, and every private email or message you send me serves as a reminder that there are people in the States who are interested in what I do and want to stay in touch.

And here are some things I will not be taking for granted when I return to the U.S.:

1. Washing machines and dishwashers. It’s amazing how much time they save.

2. Instant meals and takeout — ditto. While there are guanzes — small cafes that serve Mongolian or Kazakh food for cheap — pretty much everywhere in Mongolia, they are sit-down and often only serve meat-and-flour staples and tea.

3. Clean air. I’m glad everybody is staying warm this winter, but the air pollution gives me an impressive cough if I go outside during prime coal-burning time.

4. Water that doesn’t have to be boiled or filtered. To be clear, it’s not that the water in Mongolia is somehow especially dirty — it isn’t — it’s that the bacteria in it are different from the bacteria in U.S. water. While the water in our part of the country doesn’t usually make us sick, and I can usually get by with drinking the pot of water I boiled for tea all day, it’s a pain to haul my filter out when I have company, and to have to rely on bought bottled water if I travel.

5. GREEN THINGS, in the sense of landscape as well as vegetables.

6. Central heating that is controlled by a thermostat in my reach, rather than whatever temperature the government of Mongolia says my building ought to be at.

7. Free English-language public libraries. There is only one in Bayan-Ulgii, and while its contents are pretty impressive for a place in which English is not people’s second but their fourth language[1], it would fill up less than one wall of even the tiny local branch I lived near in the States.

8. Good mattresses. Right now I sleep on an air mattress, and am super glad for it. It’s fairly common, in Mongolia, for beds to consist of one or two mattress pads (which, to give a sense of the thickness, can also be used as comforters) balanced on a frame by way of wooden boards or planks. My mattress during PST was literally held up by two-by-fours.

9. Being able to walk into a shop or a meeting certain I will understand what’s going on and be able to communicate my needs and desires — though hopefully I will be able to achieve this before I even leave Mongolia.

10. Chicken.

[1] Obviously, Kazakh is the first and Mongolian the second. As I understand it, kids start Russian class either slightly before or concurrently with English.

On Russian jeeps and the Kazakh question particle

Last weekend, at the end of our term break, another PCV and I went to visit a friend in a soum about two hours from the aimag center.

Public transportation is interesting in Mongolia. Although the vast majority of the roads are not paved, there are a bunch of ways to get around.

For long distance:
Planes fly from Ulaanbaatar to some aimag centers. It only takes three hours to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii center, but it costs about 200,000 tugriks one way — a round trip is more than my monthly stipend. PCVs generally only take plane trips when someone else is paying.
Bus routes run through major population centers and theoretically operate on a regular schedule (though breakdowns are regrettably frequent). Visitors to Bayan-Ulgii take the bus from Ulaanbaatar along the paved road west, which hits most of the southern aimag centers. This is the cheapest way to travel long distances, although for us it would be a two- to three-day trip.

For travel within the aimag, or to nearby aimags, you go to the square where drivers congregate, pick a vehicle you like the look of, and chat with the driver to book a seat. Drivers often have a routine destination and departure time, for which they charge a fixed price, but if you have a big group and are friends with a driver, you can sometimes hire them for special trips.
Mikrs are the most common transport, in most parts of the country, for daylong or weekend trips. The word mikr comes from the Mongolian cognate for microbus. These are vans (usually silver) which seat around 8 people.
– In the west, the roads through the mountains are a little rough, especially in winter. So we have purgons, which are like mikrs except Russian, uncomfortable, and virtually indestructible. Private drivers often own Land Cruisers, and some public drivers use the indestructible equivalent, the Russian jeep.
Taxis are usually used to get around within an aimag center or a city. You can drop by a taxi stand or hail one on the street and pay a couple hundred to a thousand tugriks. People don’t usually take taxis long distances, although it’s theoretically possible.

In my aimag, drivers come to the aimag center around midmorning and leave in the late afternoon. Jake and I agreed to meet at the drivers’ plaza in the market at noon to claim our seats.

When I arrived at the market, Jake was already waiting next to a powder-blue Russian jeep. “I like these,” he said, and since I had no preference I agreed. Jake got the driver’s attention and asked, in Kazakh, when he was leaving. The driver held up — I thought — four fingers.

“Үш,” Jake said. Three.

The driver put down his hand and nodded enthusiastically. Jake checked that the driver charged the usual price, shook hands, and prepared to go.

“Үш ме?” I asked, just to be sure.

The driver nodded again and held up three fingers.

We returned to the plaza at three and, predictably, sat around in the jeep for forty-five minutes. Finally a third passenger embarked and we drove off…only to pull over a one-minute drive down the road, so the driver and the other passenger could spend twenty minutes trying to call people. Finally the other passenger got out, and we left again…only to stop at the supermarket, where he loaded some packages into the trunk of his jeep.

Then he crossed the road, hopped in a taxi, and left us.

Meanwhile, the third passenger returned. He asked Jake[1] where the driver had gone.

“Білмеймін,” Jake said. I don’t know. At the other passenger’s puzzled look he added, “Такси.”

Eventually the driver returned. He pulled a jacket out of the engine of his jeep, which he used to blanket a big chunk of scrap metal that he tied to the back of the vehicle. Then a woman got into the jeep and we were off…to drop the woman off at her home.

Jake asked the other passenger when we were leaving, and the other passenger laughed and said we were sleeping in the aimag center tonight.

We drove to the edge of the city and stopped in front of a хашаа. The driver got out, and Jake asked the other passenger, again, when we were leaving. The passenger looked at his watch and said, “Бір сағат” — in an hour. Then he said, “Сегіз, тоғыз” — eight, nine — and gestured to the seats.

Jake asked, “Төрт, төрт?” and indicated that there would be four people in the front, four in the back.

The man laughed and gestured that there would be people sitting on our laps. “Кем жоқ па?” No big deal?

“Кем жоқ,” Jake affirmed.

We collected a few people from the хашаа, and then the driver stopped at a gas station. He got out, talked to the station operator, then returned to the door and stared at me.

I stared back.

Jake passed over money for both of us.

I had a brief moment of hope that, finally — around 6:00 — we were leaving. But then the driver pulled into another хашаа and loaded up two more people. I was wedged between Jake and the corner of the jeep. And then, at the next хашаа, three more people lined up outside the door.

The driver opened the door and stared at me.

I asked, “Німіне?” even though I knew what was coming.

Jake edged me out of my seat, and, resigned, I sat in his lap.

Finally, at 6:30, well after sunset, we began our trip down an unlit dirt road.

Within fifteen minutes, one of my legs had gone numb. Despite the height of the jeep’s ceiling, I had to bend my head to keep from bumping it, and eventually just rested my chin on the driver’s seat.

“Кем жоқ па?” the third passenger asked Jake after about half an hour of this.

“Кем жоқ,” Jake repeated.

The passenger — who also had somebody on his lap — laughed a little and said, “Маған кем жоқ емес.” It’s not nothing to me.

“Менде,” I muttered. Me neither.

“Сенде кем жоқ емес па?”


The whole jeep started laughing, and everyone brought out their favorite adjective. “Жаксы емес па? Жаман ба? Өте жаксы ма? Тамаша ма?”

“Жоқ! Тамаша емес!” No, it’s not excellent!

Shortly after this, the driver stopped in the middle of the steppe so that we could all stretch our limbs. When we got back in, I arranged myself so that I was fighting to stop my knees from bruising against the door latch instead of fruitlessly attempting to maintain feeling in my legs.

Now, there is a soum approximately halfway between the aimag center and our destination. We knew from our friend that it was not uncommon for people to be dropped off here. I figured that was why there were so many people in the jeep — surely the driver didn’t intend to torture us for two hours straight? — and was excited when we got into cell range and one of the passengers placed a phone call describing his location.

We approached the line of lights that marked the soum’s existence. We drove into the lights. We drove through the lights. We drove over a bridge, and though I strained my eyes, I could see no further lights in the distance.

As the soum receded behind us, I gave up hope of even a moment’s comfort on our journey.

We finally reached our destination around 8:30. Our friend met us at our dropoff point. She’d been worried, since we’d taken five and a half hours to make a two-hour trip and had been out of cell range for the majority of it.

“Oh,” she said when she saw our vehicle. “You took a Russian jeep. You never take the Russian jeep!”

Suffice to say that I had learned my lesson.

[1] Out of those of us working in the Kazakh region, Jake has the best grasp of the language. This is partly because he goes out of his way to make small talk in Kazakh. People mostly addressed him on the trip, rather than me, because he chatted with them and made it clear he understood what was going on.

Autumn Festivities

Life has picked up since the beginning of the school year. This is partly because of work — I’ve been adding a new class or commitment every week — but also because this September, there have been a LOT of events in my community.

School Anniversary

“How do you celebrate your school’s 20th anniversary in America?”

It was the week before school started, and my teachers were writing their annual plan of action. They had been speaking in Kazakh, and I’d tuned out, bored.

“Er…” I said, wracking my brain. An assembly with a (usually rather boring) speaker? Maybe some decorations in the halls? “We don’t, really.”

In Mongolia, they do. And they do it with style.

Class was canceled two Fridays ago for our 20th anniversary celebration. Instead, we had an awards ceremony/concert at noon. The school director (the Mongolian version of a principal) gave a presentation on the school’s major works and legacy. Then the director, distinguished teachers, and high-achieving students were given awards and gifts, though I only caught a few words of rapid Mongolian to guess what the awards were about. At last, after about an hour of speechmaking, students and teachers collaborated on about a dozen acts of dombra, singing and dancing.

In the evening, we had a banquet. We snacked and chatted during another awards ceremony, and then danced. I am a TERRIBLE dancer, but I like Kazakh dancing! Everyone stands in a circle and sort of shuffles from foot to foot. The more enthusiastic dancers take turns in the center. After the dancing — just when I had concluded that this was, very strangely, a party in Mongolia that didn’t have a meal — we received dinners and a meat plate at our table.

Then, on Saturday, all of the school’s teachers went on a picnic. We left the town center around 8 or 9 for a sparse forest by the river. When I say “by the river”, I mean “somewhere in the middle of a bunch of islands formed by the branching of the river and reached by fording river branches until one of the mikrs breaks down in the water and everyone has to go back to drag the broken mikr out and then decide to stop right there and picnic.” We broke up into groups of 10 or 20 and made separate cooking fires; ate breakfast (veggies, oranges, cold pasta salad, and hot milk tea); and then regrouped to dance. Repeat for lunch (meat stew and kumuz[1]) and dinner (soup, black tea, and a bottle of wine), but with a small contingent of increasingly drunk male teachers[2]. We went home around 8pm, which my teachers tell me is a very early end to such a day.


Kurban Ait

Most Kazakh people are Muslim and celebrate Islamic holidays. This past Thursday, Friday and Saturday were Kurban Ait, which takes place 70 days after the end of Ramadan. Observers who keep livestock sacrifice one of their animals, eat a portion, give a portion to family and friends, and donate a portion to the poor. I tried to ask a little bit about the meaning behind the holiday — “Why do you celebrate? Why now and not some other day?” — but was told only, “Because it’s 70 days after the end of Ramadan.” Instead of rambling on something I don’t really know about, I will direct you to the Wikipedia page for further detail.

One of my CPs generously invited me home on Friday. I practiced a few stumbling Kazakh sentences with her father-in-law, who carved the meat. In Kazakh culture, everyone eats from a common plate. I definitely prefer this to the eternal Mongolian battle between I should finish my plate according to politeness and Honored Guest gets as much food to eat alone as the rest of the entire family eats together.


Eagle Festival

This weekend, October 3-4, is the Eagle Festival in Bayan Ulgii! This is Bayan Ulgii’s main call to fame.

In my first week at site, I noticed a lot of raptors hanging out by the river. They’re a golden-brown color and about twice the size of the redtailed hawks I know in the States. I commented to one of my CPs that people weren’t kidding when they said there were eagles here.

“They aren’t eagles,” she said dismissively. “The eagles are bigger.”

The “small” bird seems to resemble the lowly black kite[4]. The Eagle Festival bird is the golden eagle. Kazakh eagle-hunters use these birds to catch fur-bearing animals, and then sell the pelts — as I learned this past week when I helped one of my CPs, who’ll be acting as a tour guide, with falconry vocab[3].

I plan to attend the festival this weekend, and will be putting up a report next week!


Teacher’s Day!

October 5th is Mongolia’s national Teacher’s Day. Our school is celebrating it on Monday — I think — one of the teachers said we would be celebrating Friday, but the other teacher sounded more sure of herself — we’ll see — and it sounds like a silly, fun sort of day. Topsy-turvy. The teachers sit back and relax while their students teach the classes, and we have another banquet over the weekend. I’m not sure how this holiday will work for me, since I don’t have homeroom students or a stable schedule, but I think I’ll have fun, whatever happens.

[1] Fermented mare’s milk, known by Mongolians and most PCVs as airag (айраг); қымыз (kumuz) is the Kazakh word.
[2] A small contigent for two reasons: One, there are only maybe two dozen male teachers at my school; two, possibly because of the predominantly Muslim population, Bayan-Ulgii parties are a little bit more sober than other Mongolian parties. Alcohol at picnics is a thing.
[3] Why do I know any falconry vocab? Goodness knows, but I managed to pull words like “hood” and “jesses” out of somewhere when my CP asked for them. And why is falconer the only common-use word for people who hunt with raptors?
[4] Edit 10/8/15: I am informed by a visiting PCV that these birds are kites, not steppe eagles — and migratory, which explains why I haven’t seen any in weeks.

Happy new school year!

Another month later…

My internet situation has been a little more questionable than I’d hoped for — I’ve only gotten public internet access as of this week.

This post and the previous one backdate to when I thought I would have internet within the week.

Written for September 2nd, 2015

Yesterday, September 1st, was Mongolia’s national first day of school. The teachers greeted each other in Kazakh, clasping hands, and I leaned over to one of my counterparts and asked what the words meant. “Happy new school year!” she told me.

In Mongolia, every school year begins with an opening ceremony. I gave a speech in front of the whole school — in Kazakh, written with the kind help of one of my counterparts — and sang an American song. At least two of the kids recorded the event, so there is now a video somewhere of me mangling Kazakh words and forgetting the lyrics to “I Dont Wanna Miss a Thing”[1].

I am super excited about my placement. Here are some of the awesome things about my school:

  • My CPs have high fluency and good comprehension — meaning we can speak exclusively in English, because they understand what I say and can answer in an appropriate way. (This is not true of all English teachers in Mongolia, unfortunately.)
  • I’ve already gotten suggestions for four or five different projects, as well as individual requests for specific help (e.g. grammar, TOEFL, teaching the college-prep 11th and 12th grade classes) — and I haven’t even started work yet.
  • The school has had multiple PCVs in the past, so they know what to expect and how to work with me.
  • The kind of projects being requested of me are very much in line with Peace Corps values — so, while it’s true I’m likely to help tutor advanced students for the Olympiads[2], I am also being asked to run a weekly English club for disabled students and help design student-centered, inductive lessons[3].
  • My CPs are super excited to have me specifically because I am a woman, and the entire English faculty at my school — bar one — is female. Cross-gender friendships are not a thing in Mongolia, but the division between work and personal life is not as strong as it is in the ‘States. My CPs really, really want to get to know me as a person, not just as a teacher, which they couldn’t do before — their previous PCVs were all male.
  • Related to the last: I am super well cared for here, as PCVs often aren’t when they live in apartments. While I spend a lot of time alone at loose ends — a chronic problem in PC/Mongolia — I’ve made contacts. I already have somebody to buy dairy from (it’s a thing here to buy dairy fresh), and my nearest neighbor/landlady is a CP’s sister. (Also a huge sweetheart who is gradually lending me half of her kitchen cabinet.) Last Friday at lunch I told my CPs my phone number, and my phone immediately started ringing off the hook as my CPs made sure I had theirs. “So you can call us in the evening,” one of them told me.

There are, however, some challenges in store.

  • I have eleven CPs. All of them have been excited to meet me, and about half have already suggested projects they want to work on. Scheduling could get…interesting.
  • I’m at one of the bigger schools in the province — there can be as many as 35 students per class. I really don’t like big classes, as a student or as a teacher; a lot of the fun of teaching, for me, is in getting to know the students and adapting my lessons to their needs. The more students there are, the more difficult this becomes.
  • I don’t know Kazakh. I really, really don’t know Kazakh. I can buy food at the market and mumble through some pleasantries (though I’m not sure which of the five ways to say “hello” is appropriate at any given moment). Because my CPs speak good English, and my landlady and school personnel also speak Mongolian, I could theoretically get by without learning much — but that’s not, in my opinion, a good thing. Most of my CPs speak Kazakh to each other, and in meetings the faculty speak both Kazakh and Mongolian (sometimes switching within a single sentence). I need to learn the language if I want to know what’s going on, but it’s going to take a lot of initiative on my part, since I can almost always ask for a translation instead.

I’d say, though, that these problems are surmountable with a bit of attention and planning.

All said and done, while I was petrified when I first got the placement (“I have how many CPs? There are how many students in this school?” not to mention that bigger schools are usually higher ranked and have a better reputation), the more time I spend here, the happier I am about the time I have ahead. I’m really looking forward to getting back to work.

[1] The story behind me singing in front of a crowd of Kazakh children is a tale unto itself, too long for this humble post.
[2] English competition, about which I shall write another day.
[3] Teacher jargon, about which I probably will not write.