July 10, 2014

This week is Naadam, Mongolia’s big summer holiday. The winter holiday, Tsagaan Sar, has all the tradition; Naadam simply has fun. I experienced two Naadams while I was in Mongolia. The first was in my training site, Orkhon, during PST. The second was at my permanent site, Govi-Altai. For the most part, the only difference was in scale, Orkhon’s being much smaller, Govi-Altai’s being a bit larger, and neither coming close to the size of the UB Naadam. It seems all soums celebrate their own Naadam and the dates are staggered a bit from the national Naadam and one another.

It’s an official 2-3 day holiday devoted entirely to sport, specifically wrestling, horse-racing, and archery. So, businesses are closed but stores would be open (unlike during Tsagaan Sar). There is music, dance and singing, too, so even if you don’t think you’re interested in the competitions, you could still have a good time. And those are just the events in the stadium. Outside the stadium there were pop-up carnival-type activities like a bean-bag toss and a throw-the-dart-pop-a-balloon game (that one without any safety precautions whatsoever for passersby!). It was the first time that I saw whole families out enjoying the day together, little kids flying kites. Mind you, we had only been in the country for 5 or 6 weeks by the time of that first Naadam, and my soum had only ~2000 people.

As it turns out, my favorite of the three “manly” sports was the wrestling. Tradition oozes out of every aspect of the sport, from the moment the men (only men wrestle) come onto the field wearing their summer deels and Mongol malgai (malgai = hat), it really is captivating to watch. Once the match is over, the winner does a sort of dance inspired by eagles in flight. And after, the two competitors come together and the winner raises his arms over the other. It’s really hard to explain with words without it sounding clunky because you know they’re not thinking “now I have to do the eagle dance… now I have to honor my competitor.” It’s just what they do.

Naadam is also the time you’re likely to be offered airag, the traditional fermented mare’s milk. I had it at the first Naadam in Orkhon, where there was an entire ger devoted only to airag. They also set up gers to sell huushuur, the official food of Naadam. My first year it was made with geddis (the stomach, etc), not my favorite, and those gers get mighty hot because of the non-stop deep frying inside.

My second year, in Govi-Altai, my Counterpart said that I should wear my Mongolian summer deel (dress) to the stadium at 9am. What she didn’t say was that the entire Education Department would march around the stadium as part of the opening ceremonies. There isn’t actually a lot of status with that, many groups in the aimag did it, but it is just one of those examples where I was given the least amount of information possible 🙂 Oh, Mongolia…

I wish I could post pictures for you here but it is difficult since I am on the move. Eventually, it will happen. Happy Naadam, everyone!

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


October 5, 2012

A small shop in Mongolia is called a delguur. The storefront is usually one of the doors to a house, and the delguur to resident ratio rivals that of a Starbucks or a Dunkin’ Donuts; from one, you can easily see at least 5 others. They range in size, but the footprint might max out at half the size of a 7-11.

More often than not, the prepackaged items are stocked in an orderly manner on shelves behind the counter: giant boxes of imported chocolates get prime shelf space, a few cans of peas, milk in a box, mayonnaise in a bag within a box, single toilet paper rolls, sea-cabbage for making a type of non-fish sushi called kimbab, or eating plain like I have come to do. The counters are always glass and underneath you will find smaller goodies (candy, spices, tea, single serve 3-in-1 packets of blended coffee, sugar and creamer). Eggs might be sitting in those egg-shaped cardboard trays on the counter and they are purchased individually. You tell the clerk what you want and he or she gets it for you. The money is kept in a cardboard box on one of the shelves, and if they can’t make exact change because of the pesky 10, 20, 50 tugrugs (10<penny), they make the difference in your favor.

I can imagine that going from shopping in a Supermarket—with over a dozen aisles, frozen foods, prepared foods, a deli, a bakery, and all manner of fruits and vegetables, fresh, frozen and canned—to shopping in a room with <1% of the stock would seriously distress someone who hadn’t already expressed that the sheer number of options available to Americans was overwhelming. Since I am the person who bemoaned so many brands of XX, it was a bit of a relief to walk into a store and choose *the* loaf of sliced bread, or *the* jar of pickles (we have pickles!!!), or *the* bag of dehydrated tofu. In and out in 5 minutes.

I can also imagine that there are people who, upon seeing less than perfect produce, would turn up their noses and shop elsewhere. Thankfully for me, I was the person who would have chosen the slightly damaged package just so that it wouldn’t get tossed out. And, yet, I was also the person who once asked a coworker who was peeling a full-sized carrot during lunch why she went through all that trouble?! This is what growth looks like, people. Transitioning from so-called “baby carrots” to the carrots-straight-from-the-earth was less of an adjustment than I would have thought. It’s one of the changes I plan to keep when I return home.

All the delguurs are variations on the same theme. They all start with candy, flour, tea, potatoes, onions, carrots, juice, salt, sugar, jam, soda, vodka, beer, single serve ice-cream, toilet paper. You know, the essentials. Maybe half of the delguurs will add some or all of these: cabbage, garlic, butter, yogurt, apples, eggs, milk, frozen chicken legs (loose in the freezer, take your pick). And a few of those will add cheese, bananas, peanut butter or cereal. So that the store that has cereal (which we helpfully refer to as “The Cereal Store”) has yogurt but neither eggs nor butter. The store that has cheese (which we call, yes, “The Cheese Store”) sometimes has chicken, sometimes has bananas, but hasn’t yet had peanut butter. Depending on what’s on your shopping list, if you guess right and the stars are aligned, you can get everything with just 3 stops. But, then, when you can walk across town in 20 minutes, it’s just a dusty, uneven aisle.

Day 1 again

August 23, 2012

How much do first impressions count for?

Yesterday, as my plane was descending into my new town, I took it all in from my window seat: the dusty landscape, the surrounding brown mountains, the sparse trees. So beautiful was my training site, Orkhon, with its greenery and roaming livestock—I’d say “hello, cows” ever a smile on my face—that maybe nowhere would measure up to its serenity, or at least the serenity I found within myself during those 10 weeks as a Peace Corps Trainee.

Last night was not only my first night in my first floor studio apartment but in a sense, it was also my first night alone. After 5 days of logistical sessions and my first work meetings with my counterpart in Darkhan, and another 5 days in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (UB), essentially waiting for my flight and saying goodbyes to fellow Volunteers (we are now PCVs!), some I will not see for a year, I was exhausted all around. After a too-brief nap and some unpacking, my counterpart and her husband drove me to the black market for some house-hold supplies and groceries and I cooked my first dinner for myself in months. It was bland.

But as tired as I was, you know that my mind doesn’t stop during waking hours, so I sat in my you’d-think-it-was-plush-but-it’s-really-stiff-as-a-board non-reclining chair contemplating just what I’d gotten myself into, thinking that I’ll have the same view of a trash-burning dumpster outside my window for the next two years.

And at that moment, when I probably needed it most of all, the phone rang. I would have been happy to hear from anyone, of course, but I was overjoyed to speak with my host family, first my brother, then my mom, then my sister. In my limited Mongolian, I told them I had arrived that morning, that I was in my apartment, what I made for dinner, and that I had to begin work the next morning. And I listened to each of their familiar voices, comforting me not with words that I didn’t understand but with smiles that I knew existed on the other end.

There is a bigger picture forming here. The first impression will have two years worth of opportunities to be overwritten.


July 19, 2012


I’ve been in Mongolia about 6 weeks now so I have some sense of the things I could use, what is available here, and what is cost prohibitive from a living allowance perspective—Peace Corps Trainees in Mongolia earn about two dollars a day, which is more than enough since our host families provide for us. Once we are officially Peace Corps Volunteers and are on our own, the allowance increases substantially, but still remains far below American wages. I mention this as a reminder that being here is my choice and going without comforts from home is as much a part of the experience as is integrating into the culture (and living as the locals do is, in fact, another way to integrate).

But since I’ve been asked what I need, and what I want, I will give a list of possibilities—I just ask that everyone reading this, who is potentially considering sending a care package, please remember who I am. Though I can be impulsive with purchases, as you know, more often than not, my practical side is typically in control of my spending. And, I have little problem with delayed gratification, or “sacrificing” now with an eye toward something great later. As someone who does not like to waste my money, I also don’t want you to waste yours. I say this because I have seen care packages delivered to my peers where the shipping alone was exorbitant (one was $126), and the contents were presumably thought to be highly desirable and unavailable (2 cases of snickers, which are not only available here, but comparably priced).

Okay, with that peace of mind, following is a list of things I could use throughout the next two years.

Peanut butter and trail mix – both are here at the American store, they just costs 5 times as much,

Oatmeal – haven’t seen it at all; would love a break from white rice, especially at breakfast,

Brown sugar – haven’t seen it, and if I get oatmeal, which would be wonderful, it would that much more wonderful if it had some brown sugar. (Though these will go together for me, I’d prefer to not have the flavored instant oatmeal packets.)

Granola and/or fiber bars – haven’t seen them. There’s lots of hiking here and snacks that can travel would keep me from absent-mindedly grabbing a candy bar,

Gatorade powder (or REI equivalent) or energy gel like cliff mocha (had a free sample from REI before I left) – for all those incredible hikes. Maybe it comes with age, but my knuckles swell 🙂

Hard candies – Mongolians have a big sweet tooth and ALWAYS offer candy to guests. Think of me when they go on sale after holidays or to stuff into the little extra space of a package of something else,

Sunscreen minimum 30 SPF – The Mongolian sun is strong! The weather is unpredictable (rainstorms to rainbows) but I can’t reapply often enough on a sunny day,

USB flash drives – from what I hear, during collaborations people “forget” to return them. I don’t want anyone to go out and buy USB flash drives! but if you happened to have conference freebies laying about (or maybe a 128MB one like I found at home before I left), and you don’t know what to do with it, I’ll gladly take it off your hands.

Finally, I could use a super-absorbent large towel for laundry. I can’t wring out the hand-washing enough to prevent dripping and I don’t want to use my personal towel for the laundry and for me. As I recall, family members are allowed to use my REI membership by giving my name, but in case you want it, the card # is 12070850.

Between all of us, packages have taken about 5 weeks, letters/cards about 3 weeks, so if you DO plan to send something, do it NOW because if you wait a few weeks, I’ll get my site assignment which will delay the package further. As soon as I have my new address (in a few weeks), I will post it and there will be about a month overlap.

If you do decide to send something, use USPS, not courier services, because they require a visit to the capital for signature. And if you don’t send a package, that’s cool too.