if you’d like to make a call

January 23, 2014

Cell phones in Mongolia are pay-as-you-go rather than by monthly plan. Peace Corps provided our mobile phones, but we are responsible for adding нэгж (negj or phone units). The expected cost is built in to our monthly stipend; I spend about 5,000 tugricks ($3) per month on negj, probably below average among PCVs. You can buy negj from almost any delguur (store). You can also get unlimited plans from the branch (e.g., Mobicom, G-Mobile) directly. Mostly, I think people go to the stores. Usually, the store has extra negj loaded onto their phone and they transfer to your phone and you get at least three text messages immediately confirming the amount. Another way you can get negj is by a little scratch ticket sold at the store. These come in denominations of 1,000 tugricks and 5,000 tugricks (maybe higher, I don’t know). You scratch off the code and type it into your phone and send. And, if you run out of negj at an inconvenient time, you can type in a code for an emergency 500 negj, and the next time you load up, they’ll deduct 550.

Nearly everyone texts, since it is cheaper than talking. Personally, I still really don’t like texting when it’s used for conversation. For a one-way message (“There’s cheese at the cheese store!” or “I’ll be a bit late to club.”), I don’t mind.

Curiously, many Mongolians have more than one phone. In my department, only the director has an office phone. All of the other education specialists use their cell phones, but I don’t think their different phones are specific to work or personal life. Also, it’s not uncommon for people to take calls in the middle of a meeting; or for teachers to answer a call in the middle of class.

Very young children in Mongolia have cell phones. I’m talking 6, 7, 8 years old is not unusual. Many high school students have smart phones and some will boldly listen to music or play games during class. And some will use their phone to access an English-Mongolian dictionary ap. In classes where there is a shortage of books, students will pass their phones around and photograph the page with the lesson, then use their phones to zoom in on the text. Talk about resourceful!

Mongolians have embraced all that modern technology to the point that flat screen televisions inside gers are almost expected. So, it was really surprising that one of the textbooks includes a lesson on electronic gadgets. That there was such a lesson wasn’t surprising, but that the lesson listed camcorder, electronic dictionary, PDA, GPS, and last but not least, pager, was quite amusing. Though I told the teacher these were outdated terms, replaced by today’s all-in-one gadgets, she was insistent on teaching the lesson as is. And, let me tell you, explaining to these kids in English how a pager worked would probably be the same as explaining it to American kids in Mongolian.

I leave you with this lovely image of a fellow PCV, Kevin, who confiscated 5 phones in one of his classes. Not sure I’d know how to use one of these.


ECON 101, Mongolia edition

September 18, 2013

Effective September 1, 2013, Mongolia has a new minimum wage, 192,000T per month. The previous minimum was 140,400T, which meant that Peace Corps Volunteers were earning just over twice the minimum wage when I arrived last year.

Since we’re paid in togrogs, I know immediately whether I can afford something. There is an automatic conversion to a percent of my income that happens. I don’t have to convert the cost of things to dollars to know whether it is a good deal; I merely compare prices between delguurs, since most of what I buy is food. This means I don’t have to pay attention to exchange rates on a regular basis.

This summer, a German man was having trouble at an ATM in Govi-Altai. (He was riding his motorcycle from Germany to UB, another Other!)  He had planned to exchange a $100 bill, but it was Sunday and the banks were closed. (The fact that he had US dollars didn’t hit me until later; the international currency.) Since it was just a few weeks before leaving for my Russia trip, and I would need dollars to pay for my Russian Visa, I offered to take togrogs out of my account for him. (I had a brief moment of wondering whether the $100 bill I held in my hand was legitimate—I hadn’t seen American money in over a year!—but it was absurd to imagine that anyone would travel to Mongolia to launder counterfeit dollars.) I quoted him the last exchange rate I knew ($100 = 140,000T) and he agreed.

Turns out I got the better end of that deal, but not by too much. Now, take a look at this frightening graph showing the dollar to Mongolian togrog over the past year (from here).


When I came to Mongolia last year, the exchange rate was about 1350T=$1. Now, it is 1700T=$1. Again, since I’m paid in tugs, I wasn’t aware of this. Of course, we were all aware of the notorious inflation in Mongolia. Initially, some of us thought that store proprietors were trying to take advantage of us foreigners by charging us higher prices than those posted, only to be told by locals that, no, the prices just keep going up. In fact, the economy had been expanding so rapidly that it was noteworthy when the inflation had slowed to below 10%. Still, with such high inflation, we can probably expect another adjustment to our living allowance, so, thanks, my fellow Americans.

Here is but a glimpse of the rising prices:
Shower was 1200T, briefly 1500T, now 2000T.
one egg was 350T, now 500T.
liter of milk was 1500T, now 2000T.
peanut butter was 5500T, now 9000T.
chocolate bar was 1400T, now 1500T.
3D movie in UB was 6000T, now 7000T.
large bottle of water was 600T, now 1000T.

Another interesting money tidbit is that the minimum ATM withdrawal is 1000T (which is now about 50 cents); you can get a decent ice cream cone for that price. Can you imagine taking so little from the ATM?!! Also, I used the ATM for many months before reading a message on the screen that there is a per transaction fee of 100T. So, for those who do take the minimum amount, the fee is 10%, which I know is only pennies, but still, 10%!!!! Since reading this message, I now take 100,000T at a time (unless I am lazy and press the 80,000T button, which is the highest pre-set amount).

One of my students showed me this: Sad Chinggis.


Happy Chinggis.


I know I’ve done this with George Washington. I love that there are such simple universal amusements.

Posh Corps

March 8, 2013

I’ll let you in on a little secret: as much as I am serving in the Peace Corps, I am also serving in the Posh Corps. That’s the ‘inside joke’ for those of us who live in areas with indulgences or have an American bank account that we can tap into should our volunteer stipend not cover all our wants. That’s one of the perks of being an ‘older’ volunteer: having a savings account.

As far as Mongolia goes, living in an Aimag, rather than a soum, is definitely indicative of serving in the Posh Corps. Even though Govi-Altai is one of the smallest of the 21 Aimags, my diet is more varied (cheese!), I have indoor plumbing, and there are more opportunities for entertainment (karaoke!) than if I lived in a soum.

Now, I try to be good about having the legit Peace Corps experience and not dip into my American money for day-to-day life here. My first month in Govi-Altai, I held out for the regular internet flash-drive modem, rather than purchase the more expensive one they had in stock, just to save the additional 25,000 togrogs. A soumer would probably tell me that the delay didn’t qualify as a hardship since I had an internet café during that wait. It’s all perspective. A washing machine costs *only* about 100,000 or 150,000 togrogs but I’ve no intention of purchasing one. That’s less to do with the cost-benefit analysis and more to do with a needs-wants analysis: I don’t feel I need it, so therefore I don’t want it. (Convenient when the two correlate like that.)

It’s actually pretty easy for me to comply with my living allowance since my biggest luxuries pre-Peace Corps were frequent meals out and fantastic vacations-on-a-budget. Even with our newly established weekly PCV lunches at a local гүанз (“guanz” = café), I can swing the 1,000 tugs that the proprietor (under)charges for my veggie meal without questioning whether I can afford it on my PC stipend. And since those restaurants that I would want to frequent simply aren’t here, eating out isn’t the draw that it once was. That leaves vacations.

Prior to leaving the states, I sort of decided that I wouldn’t visit home until after my service was completed, and use my vacation time (we earn 2 days per month) to travel in these parts, instead, since it would be less expensive from here and since I don’t know whether I’d visit them otherwise.

In December, following our IST training in UB, I added a 10-day vacation to Singapore to visit my college roommate (Crystal, you’re a wonderful host!). This was covered by my American bank account, of course. Peace Corps covered my flight to the capital for the training, so taking the vacation when I did meant a $300 savings. Future trips in the works (Russia and Harbin, China, both via the Trans-Siberian Railway) will hopefully also be able to dovetail trainings in UB. I also intend to see more of Mongolia in the next year; Govi-Altai isn’t what I’d call scenic.

I’ve always been a thrifty person, but even I am surprised that I’ve unwittingly saved some togrogs along the way. Peace Corps advises that we save our annual leave allowance (~33,000 togrogs that we receive monthly), so that it’s available when we need it (i.e., for personal travel taken with annual leave since we are all over the country but likely have to leave from UB). Not a problem. And, some of the credit is almost certainly due to the care packages that have left me swimming in beans (special thanks to Tricia!) so I haven’t spent as much on food as I might have. And it looks like I’ll continue to be able to save since Congress has approved a 13% living allowance increase for this calendar year. But, lest you think I’m bragging about my Posh Corps life, the real point of this post is to highlight the disparity in the cost of living between Mongolia and the USA, which was evident in my Peace Corps W2 statement: in 7 months, I earned $1,984.99. Kind of makes me think about retiring here in 30 years…


December 2, 2012

Every three months, I’m a millionaire. Peace Corps includes my quarterly rent payment in my monthly stipend and I am responsible for paying my landlord within 5 days. I do it pretty much immediately; I have a bank app on my phone so it couldn’t be easier. And I have no idea if the money in my Mongolian bank account is earning interest. I can tell you that this summer, when our Khan Bank cards were distributed, the boys’ cards had horses on them and the girls’ cards had roses. If it were up to me, I would have chosen the horse.

In November, we completed the annual Living Allowance Survey so that Congress can decide whether Volunteers in Mongolia need more money to meet their basic needs. Inflation is pretty high here but that is a whole other blog topic. Anyway, I have all this data to share concerning the cost of living in Mongolia, specifically in Govi-Altai.

I’ve concluded that the staple groceries are comparable to back home, with just a few exceptions (e.g., peanut butter), but the services are much more affordable (if I think in terms of dollars, not necessarily in terms of my stipend). If there’s something specific you want to know the cost of, just let me know.

togrogs dollars
Rent 250,000  $  178.57
Living allowance 300,000  $  214.29
Monthly expenses
Internet 21,000₮  $   15.00
Phone 5,000₮  $     3.57
As needed
Toilet paper (per roll) 450₮  $     0.32
Baby wipes (70) 2,500₮  $     1.79
Letter—postage to US 1,100₮  $     0.79
Shampoo (Head & Shoulders = pricey) 7,800₮  $     5.57
Having my hair dyed in G-A 8,000₮  $     5.71
Having my hair cut in G-A 3,000₮  $     2.14
3D movie in UB 6,000₮  $     4.29
Hair cut in UB 10,000₮  $     7.14
Eggs (per dozen) 4,200₮  $     3.00
Bread 800₮  $     0.57
Honey 5,800₮  $     4.14
Flour (1 kg) 1,200₮  $     0.86
Cereal (small box) 3,000₮  $     2.14
Oats (1 kg) 1,200₮  $     0.86
dehydrated tofu (good-sized bag) 1,800₮  $     1.29
pasta 1kg 4,700₮  $     3.36
peanut butter (small jar, 18 oz) 5,500₮  $     3.93
Chocolate (regular bar size) 1,400₮  $     1.00
barley 1 kg 2,400₮  $     1.71
Tuna (small can) 2,500₮  $     1.79
milk 1 liter 1,500₮  $     1.07
cheese – pack (8 slices) (the good
cheese is much pricier)
2,500₮  $     1.79
Oil – large bottle 2,400₮  $     1.71
Tofu – block 4,500₮  $     3.21
Sugar 1 kg 900₮  $     0.64
Pickles 2,200₮  $     1.57
Rice – half kilo 1,500₮  $     1.07
Bouillon cube x 8 1,200₮  $     0.86
Juice – 2 liters 4,500₮  $     3.21
Juice – small 2,500₮  $     1.79
Butter 3,500₮  $     2.50
Peanuts (small can, 185 gr) 1,600₮  $     1.14
Canned veggies 2,000₮  $     1.43
Pringles 4,500₮  $     3.21
staple veggies (enough onions,
potatoes, carrots, turnips for a week)
5,200₮  $     3.71
tomatoes/cukes (2-3 of each) 3,000₮  $     2.14
Cabbage (this one was rather small) 800₮  $     0.57
3 bananas 1,800₮  $     1.29
2 peppers 2,000₮  $     1.43


Of note, Volunteers receive a Settling-In Allowance to cover some of those home set-up expenses. I include them here for a big picture of the cost of living. All but the modem and plant came from the Black Market. I still need to pick up more house stuff.
modem 50,000₮  $      35.71
blanket 20,000₮  $      14.29
rice cooker 22,000₮  $      15.71
laundry drying rack 18,000₮  $      12.86
steaming pot 20,000₮  $      14.29
large pan 15,000₮  $      10.71
mug 1,000₮  $        0.71
plant 10,000₮  $        7.14
slippers 1,000₮  $        0.71