One Month In/Homestay/Bogd Khaan/Countryside3

1st month down, can’t say whether it went particularly fast or slow; some things are a blur. others are in painful detail. Lifestyle was not sustainable–too much drinking, eating out and general errors in judgment–but that’s okay for the first month. Done my 5 week language course; can’t really do much with it, but I feel like I’ve at least been exposed to a lot and might be able to make something happen eventually. The fact is though, one can almost get by without knowing the language here, and I’m only around for a short time so it’s harder to make the effort to learn.

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Generally Mongolia is Mongolia, with it’s vast array of quirks and quarks, I don’t pretend to understand and I won’t pretend to be able to “break it down” for you. I miss being able to talk to people in English–asking directions, buying things–ironically, stuff I would probably almost never do in Canada. I miss the fresher air and some of the rain, and I miss my own cooking, though that’s obviously my own fault. In short, I don’t really want to be home, but home is becoming more & more a distorted, rosy memory I can no longer trust. I don’t miss the stupid news, the stupid media, or the pretentiousness of North America.


Home Stay. I as mentioned before one of the more awesome parts of my language training was the chance to go on a 4 day home stay with a Mongolian family to practice my language and to get a feel for how things work in a family environment. Some of the other new volunteers got matched up with super excited Mongolian families who packed the days with activities, I was with an easy going young couple of about 30. My (I guess) “father”, Azaa, was a consultant for ADRA, another aid agency, and spoke basic English. He also had his sister and her toddler son around quite a bit. It was definitely an interesting experience even though I didn’t end up having to speak much Mongolian, except for good sessions. Azaa and I talked quite a bit on a variety of subjects including “The Chinese Invasion” (cheap labor coming from China to work in construction), Russia, Germany, xenophobia, universal morality and racism, etc. He was a very interesting guy, though maybe not a perfect representation of Mongolia, and he did make an effort to show me around the city and introduce me to his family and friends. If I was in that situation for any considerable amount of time my language skills would be much more developed and I would be exposed to a lot of stuff I might not otherwise see. Not sure how the relationship will continue, however, as we didn’t seem to make any real connections.

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The Winter Palace of the Bogd Khaan. The Bogd Khaan was the dude in charge of Mongolia between the end of the Qing Dynasty and the Soviet era. He was both the head of state and the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolian, besides that he had a big palace. I have never seen such crazy stuff in my life: every square inch of every surface was embellished, embossed, carved, and painted amazing colors. And that was just the buildings, the art inside was even more serious. Wild tapestries with god’s with hundreds of arms, legs, eyes, and what not; some amazing sculptures and religious icons; and other related art. In the historical part they had the furniture and clothing of the king, including a fur coat, as big as a car, made from the skins of 600 ferrets, a del made with gold thread, and quite a collection of taxidermy. Didn’t get a chance to see the whole thing as they were closing, but it’s definitely a place to come back to and spend the day.

Countryside3. What! three trips outside the city in 5 weeks this is the dream. Probably won’t happen much once the weather cools down, so it’s good to make the most of it. This trip was organized by the language school and was another chance to practice our Mongolian “skillz” and see how things are done in the country. There was a group of English speakers learning Mongolian, Koreans with some English learning Mongolian and Mongolians learning English. I was able to get chatty with a group of Mongolian girls, but after I had delivered my spiel about being called Jon, coming from Canada, and dangerously loving meat pancakes, the conversation kinda fizzled out. No matter though because the meal preparations were underway and the universal point-and-make-faces language took over. Hot stone mutton, ?????? or “horhog”, was the order of the day. Made by hacking up a sheep, putting the parts in a large metal canister, adding hot stones fished out of the fire, then topping the whole thing off with big hunks of potato and carrots and sticking the works back into the fire. This is the real “Mongolian Barbeque”, the stuff they have in North America with the stir-frying on a shield is a completely Chinese fabrication. The result is a greasy, fatty, smoky mix of well cooked meat and vegetables. The cooking stones are again fished out of the barrel and held in the hands for good health. I didn’t partake, because by this point the level of hygiene was getting seriously out of hand, and I figured I’d have better health not playing with the rocks.

After lunch, I finally got to ride a real Mongolian horse. Mine was a bit recalcitrant and didn’t speak English, but we had a good walk around, and at the end we broke into a pretty solid canter or gallop or whatever. The experience was truly a life memory and no matter how bad the pollution and cold is in the city and no matter how crappy other things might get, I’ll always remember rippin’ around the vast Mongolian steppe on a half wild steed, the wind in my hair, stringy bits of mutton in my teeth, and the smell of horse and dust in my nostrils. Effin’ eh!

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BYOBuuz!/Smoozin’ at the British Embassy/Countryside2

As things are starting to blur and turn into the selective, indeterminate memories of life, I’m just going to relate some of the big events over the past week(s). Also, since no one is able to corroborate the accuracy of the details, you will all just have to except them as fact, (or at least the best “fact” available through an often unreliable narrator.)


Now firmly established in the post-arrival, pre-work stage of things, patterns are beginning to emerge from within the chaos and the faintest outlines of an underlying order are gradually coming into focus. There is tons of info coming in from all around, lots of which is in Mongolian, but you only take in what you can and adopt a feel good policy of nihilism and procrastination for the rest. For example, there is no way I’m going to “learn” Mongolian in 5 weeks, but I can learn the things that I find interesting or funny, (Nemeg Jon gedeg, Bi huushuur aimaar dyrtay! = My name is Jon and I “dangerously” like meat pancakes!). Works in a surprising number of situations!

I have one more week of language training left, including a four day homestay with a Mongolian family, which I’m totally stoked for, and then I move to a new apartment and begin my job (more later). After that, things should start to calm down and I’ll get a nice rhythm going, and probably won’t have a whole lot to write about…

Highlights from the week of Sept 2-8th:

Night out at “Strings” night club/bar. Decided to miss the asinine English trivia night at the Dave’s place bar, for a chance to see a live Mongolian band play pop covers on traditional instruments. Unfortunately, the band’s summer contract was up so they were rescheduled to a not so sought after weeknight time slot… What we got, however, was even more cross-cultural: A Filipino/Malaysian/Columbian band playing Jamaican, Latin, etc. dance music in a Mongolian club modeled off the Hard Rock Cafe in Bejing, in turn modeled after the American institution. Was a great time in general, but obviously will have to go back and try to see the actual Mongolian band.

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BYOBuuZ! Partay! buuz is the national dish of Mongolian, but its hardly a shining example culinary sophistication. Basically a ground mutton ball with onions and salt, covered with sticky dough and steamed. Tastes like sheep! We had an impromptu cook off to try them out since they’re such a big deal around here: you can buy bags of them frozen and there are cafes every five meters. Later on we went to the  Khaan Buuz = King Dumplings, fast food chain to try out some of their famed 200 Tugrug (10¢) buuz and huushuur (meat pancake). Interestingly enough, the prevalence and ubiquity of these super-low cost fast food cafes has prevented Mcdonalds, Burger King, etc. from so far setting up shop in Mongolia. This is definitely a testament to Mongolia’s quick grasp and exploitation of the hitherto unknown capitalist concept of “predatory pricing”, used in this case, ironically, against the capitalist Big Boys themselves.

Friday night we head on down to the British Embassy’s “Steppe Inne” pub which operates Friday nights out of the back of the embassy. It serves, primarily, as a meeting place for the expats in the city; mainly British, with a few Americans, Australians and Indians. We meet the Ambassador, nice guy named Chris, who’s been pulling the pints behind the bar for something like 8 years (not sure what other official duties he performs).


Finally, on Saturday we went out to the “countryside” outside of UB for a visit to a real live herder family and a talk with a Mongolian ethnologist on various aspects of Mongolian culture and the traditional nomadic lifestyle. It was definitely a huge relief to get out of the smog and noise of the city for a while and we got some interesting insights into the practical side of living on the move. The word “countryside” (always said with a wistful smile and a pause) is used to describe pretty much everything outside the city of UB. It has also become sort of a idealized nebulous concept of peace, history, and national pride, as going into the countryside is like going back in time. Practically, however, everyone who lives in the country knows someone who lives in the city or would like to move to the city for a better job, and everyone who lives in the city can’t wait to get the hell out of here and visit the country, so things are still somewhat nomadic, in a way.


For our visit we basically just piled into a van and drove out in a random direction until we got fairly far from the city and into the mountains. From there, on the advise of the ethnologist, we just dropped in on a random ger and met the family, which consisted of a older women and here husband. Since everyone drops in on everyone else in Mongolia, and hospitality is not something that can be used up or exhausted, this was fine with them, and we moved right in. The women was in charge of some flocks of sheep and looking out for illegal logging and poaching on the mountain side for the government, while the husband was off racing his horse for most of the day. Their children were grown up and living in the city, so they we’re basically retired and taking it slow, not that there is any other way “taking it” around here. (Women generally run the herding show, while the children take care of the ger, leaving men ample time for riding horses around. The practical value of a few horses for riding I can see, but why a country with 300,000 herders needs almost 2 million horses, still is very unclear to me – I guess they just like horses!

All said and done it was a great trip out and a nice break from the city. There are so many places to visit and check out in Mongolia, but you can find some very interesting stuff just about anywhere you go.


Week 2 Retrospection


Internet’s been a little flaky at the VSO office where I do most stuff, but that’s hardly an excuse due to the preponderance of cheap internet cafes in the area. Aw well. Everything still all good, a little more chill this week than it was the first week. I haven’t gotten sick, or fallen into an open man hole yet (believe me that’s an accomplishment), or have had much of any problems other than being a little anxious to get crackin’ on my job.

Saturday (Aug 25) went up into the hills outside UB with two other vols for a nice birthday hike above the smog. We saw the old Soviet-Mongolian WW2 monument: giant exercise in soviet realism/idealism (glowing halos, distant steady gazes, huge thick dudes shaking hands, lots of red and gold, didn’t seem to include anything Mongolian whatsoever). After that we hiked further into the hills and got a good look down on the city.

Monday went back into the emerging grind du jour: Get up around 7:30, bread+sugar+lite banter; jockey for position for bathroom; rush off to catch bus to Bridge College Int. Language School for some rapid-fire Mongolian lessons; navigate huge piles of dirt, large holes in road, chunks of concrete and other nifty road obstacles; teachers at school are reasonable, and lessons aren’t too bad so far (getting the basics down); 10:30 coffee break always welcomed, conversation tends towards the vacuous and inane: mainly subtle differences between different types of British people.

Another hour and a half and we’re off to Jura Cafe for lunch. Amazing traffic each day, how we make it and how the whole road/traffic system works at all, despite the erratic driving and every man for himself mentality, is truly a wonder to behold. (There must be some intense chaos theory/”Conservation of Cars” law prevailing here under the surface that somehow ensures things don’t completely grind to a halt.)


Lunch at the cafe is almost exclusively ground mystery meat, egg, and rice or potato; however, due to the mindboggling array of different meat, egg, starch combos (egg covered with meat, meat wrapped in egg, egg meat stratification, boiled egg encased in meat encased in potato, etc, etc) we’ve eaten there for two weeks and some how have manged never to see the same thing twice. Denigrated vegetables in the form of a few tablespoons of salad or coleslaw and the ubiquitous milk tea also feature without deviation. I being the you-can-never-have-enough-free-food type, clean up for the amazingly picky eaters in the group, probably to the chagrin of my digestive system, though so far no food poisoning problems.


After lunch we walk back to the VSO program office for some afternoon workshops. Walk features death defying sprints across multiple lanes of traffic (not yielding to pedestrians is apparently an important underlying property of the aforementioned “Conservation of Cars” law), leaps around precipitous gorges through the sidewalk, and teeters around the numerous open manhole covers and other “traps for the inattentive”.

Back at the PO we dozily take in some different workshops designed to prepare us for working in Mongolia, which are interesting, but usually not super relevant to me. Topics include: the disability situation in Mongolian, health, social issues, education and other areas where the VSO tentacles have found there way. Some days we have field trips to such baffling places as the UN dispensary (apparently a racial discriminating place we’re I can get shots), or have guest speakers such as some top dogs in the police system who have kindly come to personally tell us to keep our wallets hidden.

The evening is a mix of computer time, Mongolian homework, expat socializing, and pubbing. Other notable highlights from the week include:

  • My 1st ever “pub-quiz” at the local English pub “Dave’s Place”. Apparently a UK institution that has failed to make the leap across the pond. Who knew mixing drinking with trivia would make any sense, but it was alright. The Anglophilia and expatria exude into the night air.
  • Friday night we head out to Allison’s, the VSO Mongolia Program Manger, apartment for a night of redoubtable Indian/Mexican food, bouncing blond babies, an even blonder dog, Welshims, and a long walk home.
  • Saturday (Aug 31), some of us check out the Narantul or Khar Zakh “The Black Market” (black surprising is not an adjective describing the legal status of the market). The thing encompasses several acres and is a mix of flea market, farmer’s market, hardware store, electronics boutique and hair salon. On feature are an orgy of Chinese knockoffs, kitsch, camp, paraphernalia, regalia, stovepipes, ger building material, several million pairs of shoes, and largely any other good or commodity known or suspected of ever being transacted between people at any point in human history.
  • Later that night the crew heads out to a karaoke dive bar for a rather lame time. I can’t sing worth a shit and annoy myself thoroughly. Look out for a video of my “Take me Home Country Roads” cropping up on the internet somewhere.

That’s it for this week…er last week…this week I might write about language school, UB city, or a suggestion from the audience (which hopefully isn’t just my mother hitting the refresh button 50 times a day!).


Tumen Ekh National Song & Dance Ensemble

This is a bit out of date as it happened last week sometime, but we went out to see this pre-packaged variety style show of traditional Mongolian songs, dance, contortionist, and a few other odd and ends thrown in. It was obviously focused on tourists as everything was super short and to the point. I think they went through a dozen or so acts during the 1 hour performance, so it was really hopping. They apparently also do the same show every day from 6:00 to 7:00 throughout the summer (tourist season) so things were rather well rehearsed.

The performances were definitely off the hook: an amazing blast of unfettered color, sound, and movements that were just so jubilant and original that it made me a little embarrassed of the stuffy, straight-legged pseudo-culture we have over in Canada. They had a mask dance (crazy reindeer heads, dragons and other things straight out of a “Fear and Loathing” acid trip), horse fiddle (a 2-stringed fiddle used for most of the traditional music), throat singing (absolutely bizarre bi-tonal throat vibrations that sounds like a mix between a digereedo and a giant mosquito), traditional songs done with the full orchestra of Mongolian instruments, tons of dances, and even some very unnerving contortionist that were almost unwatchable in a car accident sort of way.

Once I figure out how to add video of stuff to the site I’ll add some clips to the media page. But in the meantime YouTube, throat singing and horse fiddle. Since the performances were so short the whole thing was primarily just a taster of some of the most common types of shows out there. I’m definitely going to be seeking out some more stuff like it and hopefully viewing it in a more organic environment.

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Terelj National Park Outside UB


Immediately after arriving in Mongolia, I went out with the group to this park east of Ulaanbaatar. It wasn’t exactly the “real” countryside with nomadic people and the bit, but it was definitely sweet to get out and do something so soon after arriving. The park seemed to be filled with a lot of these semi-commercial “ger camps”, where tourists come and stay in a ger tent for a few days, basically just so they could say they did it. The fact that they were more or less permanent added to the semblance of the whole operation. It’s definitely a good low cost tourism deal for the Mongolians, however, because they just need to set up some tents and people will flock to them. The novelty can be fleeting and some of the camps have houses with showers and stuff to keep people happy.

So we basically hung out in the camp for most of the day getting to know the other volunteers and doing the usually cultural note swapping about the differences between Mongolians and English, English and Scottish, Filipino and Canadian etc., etc. We got an excellent traditional Mongolian meal that consisted all the greatest hits: huushuur (hamburger covered with dough and deep-fried), buuz (same as huushuur, but smaller and steamed), mutton with noodles, mutton with rice, and milk tea (hot thinned milk with salt, apparently actual tea is involved somehow, but I’ve never tasted it).

Outside the camp there was a nice river and some pretty impressive mountains. We didn’t get out too much, because it was rainy, on the other hand everything was super green.

The obligatory group shot. We’re not entirely homogeneous, but definitely stand out in a crowd of Mongolians. Some of the people are current volunteers who have been working for a few months to a year already the rest are new like me.

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Week 1 Recap!

Whoa, super intense week over all feels like I’ve been gone for months. There’s basically too much to absorb, process, and relate back to you, so things will be about a week or so behind until I get bored and have time on my hands like in the winter. This one will just be about getting into town and the general scene, then I’ll fill in some details on some of the other activities I’ve been doing.

Left on Wednesday, August 15th, flew to London to check out the VSO Head Office and get up to speed on the type of IT stuff they use and their basic setups and such. Didn’t have a whole lot of time to kick it in jolly olde England, but I got some walking around done in the Putney neighborhood where I was staying and in the “West-end”. Saw the giant ferris wheel thing, the big clock, the Trafalgar square, and rode around on the Tube. Didn’t give it much of a chance because I was their for such a short time but overall I found it very international, mindbogglingly expensive (Subway for like $16!), and not charmingly/redeemingly English enough. I’ll definitely have to go back and look around outside the city.

The rest of the flight plan is as displayed with this nifty map I got:



YVR (49°11’38″N 123°11’04″W)DUS (51°17’22″N 06°46’00″E)30°(NE)7901 km
DUS (51°17’22″N 06°46’00″E)LHR (51°28’39″N 00°27’41″W)275°(W)503 km
LHR (51°28’39″N 00°27’41″W)SVO (55°58’22″N 37°24’53″E)63°(NE)2516 km
SVO (55°58’22″N 37°24’53″E)OVB (55°00’45″N 82°39’02″E)73°(E)2810 km
OVB (55°00’45″N 82°39’02″E)ULN (47°50’35″N 106°46’00″E)105°(E)1845 km

5 segment path: Total Distance 15575 km

Moscow had by far the scariest airport I’ve ever seen, and generally felt uneasy during my two hours there, on the other hand I imagine the airport is not the highlight of the entire country and it’s a place I’d like to check out in the future.

Got in to UB at around 7:30 am on Sunday, August 19 and was immediately struck by how much more awesome their airport was than Moscow’s. It was uncharacteristically raining, but everything was looking a little greener as a result.

From the airport I got to the “guest house” (old crumbling apartment, but pretty damn posh relative to other places out there.) I’ll be staying in the apt with 5 other newly arrived volunteers (six more are in another building). It’s near the VSO Mongolia Program Office where I’ll be working for the first few months doing mainly web development for VSO itself. The rest of the volunteers and I are staying temporarily in the guest house while we get language training (3 hours a day for 5 weeks), and get up to speed on things. Afterwards will be split up and move to the neighborhoods or towns where we’ll be working, though most people are staying in UB city, like me.

The other volunteers are mainly youngish (mid-late 20s) and British with the exception of one Filipino and myself the lone new Canadian. There are also about 10-15 volunteers already here who arrived either in February or last year in August.

The VSO guys have a pretty intense schedule of fieldtrips, lessons, and cultural things line up for us and in general it all feels quite sheltered and easy. Not the “thrown into the deepest backwater and left on your own” experience I was sort of hoping for. I’ll relate some more of these things later on this week, and please ask me for some details on stuff you are interested in. I haven’t yet figured out a way to let people post anonymous or private comments but I’m looking into that.