Choibalsan city has experienced a bit of a renaissance in foreigners’ eyes. The 2005 Lonely Planet Mongolia describes Choibalsan as a “charmless aimag capital,” a “poor city with a high unemployment rate” which looks like it has “undergone an earthquake.” Our aimag (province) of Dornod suffers no better, merely getting a mention as the “least visited aimag in all Mongolia.”

That sourpuss author, Michael Kohn, must have received some vicious letters. Or, maybe he actually visited this place and realized his error. Now, in Lonely Planet Mongolia 2008, Dornod has become “one of the most beautiful areas of the country and relatively easy to get around.” It’s an “unspoilt ampitheatre of bounding gazelle, scurrying marmots, and jeep tracks that squiggle endlessly into the distance.”

Choibalsan itself gets props as a pleasant, peaceful city — full of delicious food and historical artifacts. We even saw some jinkin (genuine) tourists here last week.

Here’s a glance at my home. I took these photos last August, when I first arrived. The photos come from a leisurely hike to the abandoned Soviet army base.

A gathering storm whips up dust.

Dr. Maarten and Rev. Boldsaikhan inspect one of the French volunteers’ community gardens. Yummy radishes.

Kenny and Cassandra, on the road to the old Soviet army base.

Socialist murals always cast Man as Industry and Woman as Agriculture.

Sarah marching with Mongolian soldiers. The mosaic commemorates Mongolia’s 1939 clash with Japan.

A dramatic monument to Mongolia’s Unknown Soldier.

My beloved creepy history museum; Choibalsan himself, the “Stalin of Mongolia,” stands in front. You can even see Cho’s gargantuan pajamas on display inside.

There is no way to convey the vastness of the Mongolian sky.

The Soviet army dormitory. A construction crane still hovers over one half-complete building.

Cassandra marches toward Lenin.

Lenin’s head is rather tiny.

Choibalsan is this flat all over.

Looking at the ruins of the base’s mess hall. I took this photo from inside the army auditorium. We hunted for treasure in the debris. Cassandra found insignia buttons and I found pretty glass flasks.


When my friend Cass first got her kitten, we decided to name her “Omheezaya.” Zaya means “destiny.” Many women, and a few men, bear this sonorous word in their names. But Omhee? That means “putrid” or “smelly.”

So why would we name the cat “Putrid Destiny?”

In Mongolia, if a child has suffered sickness or bad luck, the parents might take the child to a Buddhist lama. The lama will give the child a new name. Sometimes a “bad name” can ward off wicked spirits. So children might go by Nergui (No name), Bibish (Not me), or Muunohoi (Bad Dog!)

And our poor little Omhee had a tough early life. We found her in the Anna home, a home for former street children. But most Mongolian kids don’t know how to care for kittens. So they threw her around and caught her like a Koosh ball. So, when we “rescued” the cat, we gave her a funny name. Putrid? It’s love. We want to ensure only good luck will come her way from now on.

kenny, me, and jasmine with Omhii

If you want a laugh, check this out. That’s the weather forecast for Choibalsan. Folks emailed me to ask if the temperature really did drop to – 45 F. Last week, tiim shuu (yes indeed). It only gets to -45 at night, though. I prefer -45 and calm to -20 and windy… which happens every morning during my 20 minute walk to school. You can’t avoid frozen eyelashes these days.

Mongolians believe winter has 81 days. They split the season into “nine nines” — amusingly subtitled cycles of cold.
I borrowed these from Jon Haley’s VSO blog:

  • First nine – Fermented milk freezes.
  • Second nine  – Vodka freezes.
  • Third nine  – The tail of a young cow becomes frozen.
  • Fourth nine  – The horns of a four year-old cow freeze.
  • Fifth nine  – Boiled rice no longer freezes.
  • Sixth nine  – The snow and ice starts to clear and the roads blacken.
  • Seventh nine  – The hilltops and mountains began to blacken.
  • Eighth nine  – The ground unfreezes and becomes damp.
  • Ninth nine  -Spring arrives! (Though it can still freeze, snow, and be generally unsettled)
  • In a few days, we’ll enter the fourth nine, the most bitter of them all. Those poor four-year-old cows. Wish them — and us — luck!

    Imagine a pageant…

    January 16, 2008

    …with critters and clowns; time travelers and tango dancers; Student of the Month awards and a teachers’ Cutest Miss contest; Cinderella and a quite underaged Prince Charming… welcome to Mongolian New Years’!
    That’s “Father Winter,” the Mongolian Santa Claus. His outfit is a marvelous mix of Mongolia and the West. Santa wears a traditional silk robe, sash boots, and hat. But they are all in red and white. Plus, he’s added pompoms and a cape.


    Father Winter’s girlfriends, the Snow Maidens.

    Meet the Snow Boys! My little imps, of course.

    I kid you not about the length of Mongolian rat-tails. This boy’s tinted his red for good measure.

    The 7th grade boys practice their merengue.

    Fourth graders … or bad-ass glam-rockers?

    Here’s the one word you need to know: “tsaa.” That means glitter, rhinestones, sequins, tinsel; anything shiny and sparkly. You gather up tsaa and stick to your body. And you keep on slapping it on. Because no matter how much tsaa you applied before leaving the flat, you will need more once you get to the party.



    Bagshnar Babes: Avenge Me

    December 13, 2007

    [Another transcript from our Mongolian radio show. A lapse into English absurdity.]

    S: Bagshnar babes.

    C: Wake up with a king.

    S: What the hell?

    C: You know, the king. The Burger King King? It’s their slogan. “Wake up with the king.”

    S: Ohhh, okay Cass. I get it.

    C: Man. I loathe the Burger King King with the passion of a thousand fiery burning suns. There is no word yet invented to describe the disdain I feel for that – thing.

    S: So you want to turn his house into a sea of flames?

    C: I’ll show him what flamebroiled really means.

    S: Yes, Cass, that makes a lot of sense. Why?

    C: Because he’s so freaky. I mean okay what would you do if first of all people wake up and he’s in their bed. And then he gives them a crossaintwich and then it’s cool. There’s nothing cool about that.

    S: I don’t like crossaintwiches. But if he just gave me a crossaint, I would take it. Like a chocolate croissant? Oh man.

    C: First of all, how can you not like croissantwiches, that’s just wrong. Second of all, if I woke up next to the King, I would grab my beast of a flashlight and beat the burger out of him. And if he offered me a stupid breakfast sandwich, I’m not eating that. No matter how good that smells.

    S: But I really like chocolate croissants.

    C: Sarah, you’re the kind of person that gets killed first in horror films.

    Bagshnar Babes: 60 Cent

    December 11, 2007

    [Check out the whole transcript at Bagshnar Babes: 60 Cent]

    S: When he was young, 50 Cent learned to play basketball and football. He also got shot with a gun.

    C: I love your brilliant transitions.

    S: I love your mom’s brilliant transitions. Dude, I’m trying to teach you something important that will help our listeners understand American rap culture. Do you already know everything about 50 Cent?

    C: Fo shizzle ma nizzle. I too am gangster. I know everything. I’m like an evil Santa Claus.

    S: Who am I — the elf?

    C: No, you’re one of the reindeer.

    S: Can I be Rudolf?

    C: How do you even respond to that?

    (Oh wait, you can. If it’s in English.) My friend Cassandra and I have somehow ended up as DJ’s on KIFE 102 FM here in the Cho. We have our own show, and that’s impressive. What’s not impressive is what we do with it.

    Here’s an excerpt from our first show: Bagshnar Babes: Meet the Babes. (bagshnar means “teachers” in Mongolian). You can read the whole transcript here.

    Cass & Sarah [channeling Wayne and Garth]:
    Bagshnar Babes!
    Tiim shdee.
    Welcome to Bagshnar Babes English Hour. Bringing you love from America.

    C: Yagaad Bagshnar?

    S: Yagaad gevel bid hoer Enkhtaivnii Korpusiin angli helnii bagsh.

    C: Yagaad Babes?

    S: Babe bol angli ug. Babe bol “hip hop” ug. Babe bol mongoloor hoorhon ineedtei busgui gesen ug.

    C: Yagaad gevel bid hoer yamar hoorhon yum be!
    [After playing songs for our three known fans, we like to remind our viewers just who we are with a tagline that gives unique insight into American culture]

    Bagshnar babes!
    … Can’t touch this.
    … The color of passion.
    … Just do it.
    … It’s what’s for dinner.
    … The other white meat.
    …What’s your anti-drug?

    Choibalsan has trash cans?

    November 25, 2007

    Supposedly, the fall of communism dealt a bad blow to Choibalsan’s standard of living. “Choibalsan is a poor city with the highest unemployment rate in Mongolia,” says the Lonely Planet. Since I have a nice job, I wonder how much I see of the real Choibalsan. I’m neither a ger dweller nor an underpaid hallway scrubber.

     But the Mongolian government is also busting its butt to build up Choibalsan. The government wants to keep people in the eastern and western corridors of the country — far away from the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

     Every year thousands of migrants stream into Ulaanbaatar. Unfortunately, UB can’t handle the stress. Crime in the ger districts abounds. Young people beg or pickpocket. Some say that one winter in UB damages your lungs as much as smoking for six years.

    So, Choibalsan gets a good amount of attention. It’s the biggest city in Mongolia’s east. Here, the state has built a huge hospital (500 jobs) and an electric plant that employs another couple hundred. Choibalsan has a university, at least two colleges, a shiny library, a funky-ass history museum, and the Dornod Aimag archives. We have college internet centers donated by Japan and Korea. I’m typing on computers donated by the the goverment of India(!) And e very few years, it seems, the government builds new schools.

    Finally: We have trash cans. This is intense. None of my friends has noticed public garbage cans anywhere else in the country. You’d be more likely to see a mango tree than a trash can in Mongolia. Or so I thought. Here in Choibalsan, each downtown street has a cute receptacle shaped like a mushroom or soccerball.

    Stupid broken camera! Photos will come…