Tag Archives: holidays

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.

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.

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.

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!

Xutul meets Zombies

Edit 2016-02-03: Ian has put up his cameras post (“Khutul on Film”) on his blog. Check it out!

Happy holidays, everyone!

December has been a bit crazy with Peace Corps-required trainings and the start of the Mongolian holiday season (Шинэ Жил [Shin Jil], or New Year’s, is at the end of the month). I’ll have posts on both over the course of the next month or so, but right now I need to process and catch up with work.

The nice thing about this madness? I’ve had the opportunity to meet and reconnect with my PST sitemates. The following post was inspired by a discussion with fellow bloggers Ian and Jenni, and should eventually have a companion post (What Cameras Are We?) on Ian’s blog.

So, without further ado:

The city you were visiting became the site of a zombie apocalypse while you were peacefully asleep in a hotel. You wake to find that a zombie has climbed through the window of your very small fourth-story room. The door is locked and the zombie could tackle you before you have time to unlock it. What would you do?[1] Room contents: bed, small table, wooden chair, bookshelf full of paperbacks and heavy ornaments.

Logan: Would beat the zombie to a pulp, no problem, and then spend the rest of the week painfully contemplating the ethical dilemma of (re?)-murdering the undead while on the run from a zombie horde bent on revenge.

Alex: Would have a wacky misadventure that resulted in her dangling halfway between her window and street level, safe from the zombies but not entirely certain how to return to solid ground before nightfall.

Ashleigh: Would be prepared for this eventuality on account of her extensive SFF reading. Having seen signs of the impending apocalypse, she would bring her Anti-Zombie Kit (TM) with her on vacation, with which she would hastily dispatch the zombie.

Elisha: Would loudly exclaim, “WHAT?!?” and demand all of the details of the zombification process, edging toward the doorway as the puzzled zombie paused in front of the window. She would discreetly unlock the door, slip out, and slam it shut on the lunging zombie’s face.

Ian: Would discover that zombies, like Ians, are photo-phobic. The zombie would tumble back out the window in its effort to escape Ian’s lens.

Olivia: Would scream and smash the zombie with the chair, stunning it long enough for her to implement a clever plan involving items on the bookshelf.

Bryan: Would probably get turned into a zombie, but it’d make a good story to tell his fellow sufferers.

Amanda: Would shout at the zombie to get the hell out of her room, how did you even get in here? before waking fully to the realization that it was undead. By then, however, the zombie would already be climbing back out the window in search of a more easily frightened target.

Jenni: Would make a quick call for help. Ian, at the top of her recent call list, would advise her to attempt a picture with her phone camera, and in this way she would frighten the zombie into submission.

Paul: Would affect complete ignorance of the zombie’s change of life and shoot the breeze as if it were perfectly normal to have a shambling corpse trail innards into your room on a Sunday morning. The zombie, confused, would decide he was one of theirs and stumble off to find someone else, pounding on the door and moaning until Paul considerately unlocked it.

Eric: Would loudly proclaim his love for his wife before smashing the zombie with a heavy orb from the bookshelf. The zombie would drop. A slightly puzzled pause would ensue — Eric having of course expected to be slaughtered by the angered undead — and then he and Emily would tiptoe out of the room, settle their bill with the zombified desk clerk, and return to their home city, which would remain unaffected by the scourge.

Nik: Would manage to make the zombie laugh, confounding scientific conclusions on humor as a trait destroyed by the zombification process. He would go on to be elected mayor of the new zombie city, appoint Bryan as Official Liaison Between Undead and Not-Yet-Dead, and issue official pardons to Logan, Olivia, and all other murderers undead or alive, in light of the immense panic caused by the change in state of three-quarters of the city’s population. His twenty-year reign would render him the most popular, if not necessarily the most effective, mayor in the city’s entire history.

Matt: Would calmly and quietly walk from his bed to his table, pick up his key, unlock his door, and leave the hotel.

Xutul and Xutul-friends: What are your thoughts? How close am I to the mark? What do you think I would do?

[1] These are Renee’s guesses. No interviews were performed for the writing of this post.

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.