Friday, September 30, 2011

Манзушир Хийд

At Chinggis Khaan's
A couple weekends ago, I went on a trip to Manzushir Khiid with the teachers from my school. We planned to leave from the school at 7 a.m., so of course we left around 8:30. It was a very cold day, and I dressed appropriately in three pairs of pants and three tops and a jacket. I even brought along my hat and gloves. My teachers also dressed warmly, but had a better idea of how to beat the cold. About thirty minutes into our meeker (microbus) ride there, the first bottle of vodka was opened and passed around in shot form, along with watermelon halves that had just been sliced in the car with a pocket knife. I’d like to inform you that at this point in the trip, we were off the main road and barreling down dusty, mountainous trails. What better time for a watermelon and shot fiesta?

Preparing the khorkhug
Pouring airag
(fermented mare's milk)
Outside of our ger

When we arrived at Khiid, we secured a ger for the day. Once inside, my male teachers, Batsukh, Altansukh, and Battogtokh began to make a fire while the female teachers organized a vast array of food on the only table. Once the fire was going, the men balanced a khorkhug container atop the wood-burning stove. Khorkhug is probably one of my favorite Mongolian delicacies, and it consists of a goat or sheep whose parts have been pressure-cooked in a giant metal milk jug-like container with water, potatoes, and carrots. I find the flavor and texture of the meat cooked in this style to be reminiscent of a nice roast. The khorkhug cooked as we munched down on ham, pickles, pickled salad, boov (small pastry-like bread nuggets), and homemade jam from mountain berries (which phenomenally tastes like blackberry jam and which I hope to bake with at some point, should I ever find an available oven).

After our khorkhug feast, we explored the grounds of Manzushir, a monestary that remains today in rubble after it was torn down in the 1930’s by the Soviets. We went to a museum full of taxidermied animals and then began our hike up one of the mountains surrounding the remains. The scenery at Manzushir is indescribable, and I’ve been assured that it is even more beautiful in the summertime. We climbed to the first of three protected overlooks that was built to protect very old carvings in the mountain. When standing on the small ledge in front of the carvings, one became aware of just how steep the trek was up the mountain, for the overlook rested on a bald-faced edge
among scattered rocks that had surely fallen from up above. In the second over-hang, we stopped to all simultaneously shout across the vastness which lay before us. Our combined voices carried over the rubble and through the valley on the other side. When we finished our unison yelling, one of my counterparts looked over at me and asked, “Could you feel the energy?” Her simple question summed up what that moment of yelling was: all of us throwing our voices across the scenery to see how far we could make it together, and ultimately, to be reminded of how small we stood amongst the mountains when the voices stopped and were engulfed by the sound of the wind.

The third overlook rested beside a tree covered in khadug, a traditional scarf (typically blue) which plays an important role in Mongolian culture. Adapted from Tibet, the bright blue of the scarf symbolizes the expansive Mongolian sky, and the giving of a khadug symbolizes compassion and purity of intentions. For example, when a man proposed to a woman, he will give a khadug to her father. Likewise, when I arrived in Mongolia, I was presented one for well wishes and the start of a good relationship. I was told that the tree dressed in these colorful scarves was a “wish tree,” and observed one by one as each of my counterparts and friends whispered their hopes among the branches.

Our climb down was only slightly less than terrifying. The steep face and numerous pebbles made finding secure footing difficult, but we all made it down just fine. Once back on the ground, we returned to our ger to rest for a bit and sing some songs. At around 6 p.m., I was invited over to the school management’s ger with the rest of our faculty for an “opening ceremony.” Confused at why the “opening ceremony” was happening so late in the day when I was already exhausted was beyond me, but I went anyway. Once there, the teachers from my school formed a huge circle and sang the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” Friends were laughing and dancing and vodka was being toasted. From the ceremony, we headed back to the ger to warm up before heading home. As predicted, this warming-up consisted of more drinking and singing.

All the teachers at "Opening Ceremony"

The Foreign Language Dept.
As the night ended, we headed back to our meeker. An impromptu dance party broke out after I had taken a seat inside, and my teachers came to drag me from the car to join in the middle-of-the-path get down. Finally, it was time to leave. I cannot quantify how long we were on the road on the way home. The trip was dark and disorienting, and the “road” was as bumpy as I remember it on our trip in. The only number I can measure this trip in is the three bottles of vodka we stopped separately to buy on our return home. Yes, three. In the meeker. On the dark, dark road. My counterparts spent the entire ride (I mean the entire ride) singing songs. At one point, a competition was held between the front half of the meeker and the back to see who could sing the most songs without repeating any. About 4 hours later when we arrived home, no song had been repeated, and the teachers began a tune about Baganuur (my town) which I could not have been more happy to hear. I was dropped off at nearly 1 a.m. right beside my apartment. The short walk home was bitter cold, but I couldn’t have been happier to see my warm bed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Classes Begin

I had my first class for my intermediate level English teachers. We learned modals (may, might, can, can't, couldn't). I learned that I'll be going somewhere out of town this weekend with the teachers from my school for a sort of back-to-school retreat. Immediately after being told this, my primary counterpart, Altansarnai added, "I think after tomorrow will be snow." Wonderful.

Yesterday, however, was a beautiful day. I know there are few of those left, so I went vegetable shopping in athletic pants and a t-shirt while the sun was still out. Yesterday was also the 10th anniversary of September 11th. I talked with some friends about where we were that day. It was strange to reminisce now as a teacher the way my teachers at the time remained so calm at school that day. I'm not sure that I would know what to do in their position. The day has come and gone and not much else was mentioned. I'm sure there are all sorts of memorials being aired on tv in the States, but here, it was a Sunday as usual. Sunday - Бүтэн сайн өдөр : Whole good day. I washed clothes in my bathtub (far superior to түмпүн washing, I might add) and made stir fry with the brown rice I found. Sometimes, my days are very normal.

Tonight, I'll teach a lesson on lesson planning. Until then, I have a free day. Each of my teachers was just given a gift bag with a carton of milk, matches, and something else that I can't see. I was told that it is tradition to collect money for a teacher when a member of her family dies, and in turn, that teacher later gives symbolic gifts to the contributors. Milk is very important and symbolic here, while the matches are more spiritually symbolic of the departed soul. Day by day, I am learning more about the culture that now engulfs me. I'll try to explain more customs as I remember them or as they come up.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The past month has been very busy. I moved from my summer home in Orkhon to Baganuur, a district of the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Baganuur has a population of around 25,000 and is located about 2 hours east of UB.

Ээж, Одко, Ме, Одмаа, Аав 
On August 19th (my birthday), I was sworn in by the US Ambassador as an official Peace Corps Volunteer. Accompanying the ceremony were many performances of our attempts at Mongolian dance, music, and song from my fellow trainees and I. I sang a popular song as a friend played along on guitar. After the ceremony, we had a reception and many of our host families came. Immediately after that, we went back to the dorm where we were staying in Darkhan and packed our things to move to our respective sites.

My family saw me off with flowers, chocolates, a birthday cake, and plenty of hugs and kisses. I was even given watermelon by another family that I was close with in the community who hosted a friend of mine. So with all of my baggage, the water filter, wash bucket, medical kit, and sleeping bag that PC had given me, and my newly acquired watermelon, cake, and candies, I loaded the bus for UB. Since there are only two main roads in the entire country, most travel has to occur by first going to the capital, and then continuing on to your destination. So most of us spent a few nights in UB before moving to our permanent sites. Once loaded, our buses left the dorm. My language teacher and friend, Tumee, brought me a bottle of water and handed it to me through the window as we rolled away, along with letters from home and birthday cards from my brother, Mom, and Mammaw. We waved goodbye and headed off. No one chased our bus, flinging milk towards the sky as they had done when we left Orkhon to wish us safe and prosperous travels, but we were moving nonetheless.

Орхон Trainees

Tvmээ and I

I stayed one night in UB. I went to dinner with friends from my training site and with some volunteers who were in the city to show us around. We went to an Irish pub where I had a stew with a pastry on top and a salad. It was incredible. Later, we went to a party that one of the current PCV’s was having for all the newly sworn in volunteers at a dance club. Concluding possibly the busiest birthday I’ve ever had, I headed back to the dorm where I would stay for the night before moving to my new home the next morning.

Today marks 3 weeks since my arrival in Baganuur. I live in a 4th floor one-room apartment very near to my school. I have running hot water and electricity. Since my city is large, I can find many products and produce that I haven’t seen all summer. Last week, I bought bananas. Today, I found a Dr. Pepper. Still, I am adjusting to things vastly new and foreign to me even though it’s my 4th month in country.

Take for example, the weather. On September 6th, we had our first snowfall. I awoke to snow still clinging to the mountains in the distance, though it had already melted from the ground. The temperature since then has often dipped below freezing, and today is the first day it has been out of the fifties. The sun is shining brightly and the sky is cloudless. I actually have my windows open as I sit at my kitchen table typing this post. Last night, however, I woke up at 3 freezing to put on another layer of clothes and turn on my space heater. Unpredictable. The heat in my apartment will be turned on next Thursday.

I spend my free time here reading and watching movies and tv shows. I just got internet in my apartment via a USB modem, and have already been able to Skype home. I work at a school complex, but I work primarily with teachers. After administering an assessment last week, I divided my 25 counterparts into 3 levels. I’ll teach intermediate English on Mondays and advanced English on Wednesdays. I hold office hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help my teachers lesson plan effectively. On Fridays, I have a special class of 9th graders. They are selected students who excel in English, and the class will focus on listening and speaking activities. I’ll also start a beginning class for the teachers I work with who know no English, and I’ll leave it open for other teachers in the school to join as well.

I’ve met great people here. I work with great, motivated teachers who treat me as a friend. I have two other sitemates who I get together with occasionally to make tacos, pasta, chili, or whatever else we are craving. I was even invited to vacation with the family of one of my teachers in the summer. She said that I need to go sightseeing, and that I should come with her family and be shown around.

I am getting used to my new life in Baganuur. Days pass easier now that I have made my schedule. I am a really lucky girl with a great life that, at the moment, just happens to be stationed in a foreign country. I’m excited for the adventure ahead.
(cows crossing the playground in front of my building in the rain)