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.

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To get from Ulaanbaatar to the shores of Khovsgol, you can go with a tour group. You can board a plane for most of the 700 kilometers. Or you can wheedle, argue, flirt, sing, drink, giggle, and spine-crunch your way through public transportation. Tuya and I opted for the latter option.

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Our fellow travelers fashioned their seats out of leaky barrels, dingy towels, and a random box of pap-smear equipment. (Alas, each piece of said equipment was in shatters by the end of the trip).

The route crossed through six main points:
UB -> Darkhan -> Erdenet -> Murun -> Khatgal -> Jankhai, where you finally hit the lake shore

On the longest leg, returning from Murun to Darkhan, our van made a total of 28 stops. The 400 mile trip took 23 hours. Sometimes our two drivers wanted to grab more passengers. But sometimes they just wanted to buy blowtorched marmots.

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15000 tugriks a pop:

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Altanhuyag and Monkhjargal halted to chat with fellow travellers, help me frame photos, and explain the finer points of Mongolian legends about the camel. One of those photos:

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Meanwhile, Yoomie and Dylan found ways to entertain themselves during the constant stops.

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About one third of the stops happened when our drivers wanted to assist other vehicles in distress. Despite his bum leg, Altanhuyag didn’t hesitate to grab his tools — his nuts, bolts, and axe — and squiggle under a creaking bus to get it moving again.

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It’s a Mongolian tradition to help out others on the road. And no one should argue.

When you’re on the path from Moron to Erdenet, six hours from either town, surrounded by puddles and broken bridges, and your van’s battery decides to explode at 3 am in the morning, what can you do?

Our drivers boasted mad skillz with tires and axles. But they couldn’t do much with the battery — aside from dousing the smoke with a bottle of Russian mineral water. Eventually a random driver wove into our field of vision. He bore a lighter in his teeth and wielded the all-important Scotch tape. Thirty minutes later, the headlights turned on; the tape deck fired up again with Abba’s “Happy New Year.” And our van rolled on.

The van’s final stop on the way home, next to the Darkhan river.

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In the world’s least densely populated country, a trusty driver is a baatar: a hero.

In the north of Mongolia lies the turquoise pearl of Lake Khovsgol. It runs one hundred miles long and holds 1% of the world’s fresh water. Mongolians don’t call it a lake, however; they refer to Khovsgol as Dalai Eej, or Mother Ocean.

You can see ten, twenty feet down with perfect clarity.
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You can ride or hike up the encircling mountains and breathe in the fragrance of dozens of wildflowers.

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Khovsgol Dalai Eej is home to Mongolia’s navy. (AKA: the ship Sukhbaatar, docked behind us in this photo).

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Because of its remoteness, this gorgeous place doesn’t draw too many people. When I visited, I saw more yaks dotting the lake than foreigners. Here are my friend Tuya and I, two lasses from Mongolia’s far East, sitting in the northern sun with a new friend.

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We met a bunch of government workers from a village in Ovorkhangai. All eight of them wanted to take photos with a “gadaa hun” (foreign person).

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I felt like a movie starlet… until the next gadaa hun wandered along and they mobbed him for photos too.

Tuya and I wandered across a singing contest between a German tour group and their Mongolian guides. It took place next to a blazing bonfire. I played for the Mongolian side with my rendition of the popular song, “Mother’s boiled tea.”

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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

In a testament to Mongolians’ eager participation in elections, during the July 2000 parliamentary election, officials in some rural areas rode on horseback, carrying ballot boxes from ger to ger, some of which served as official polling stations. (From the aforementioned PCV Politics guide.)

June 29, 2008 — Will we see poll boxes in gers? Not in a city like Darkhan. But Mongolia’s favorite nomadic national symbol still plays a big part in elections here. The inexpensive, easily movable ger makes an ideal campaign HQ. Like gigantic mushrooms, the campaign gers pop up every six apartment blocks. By day, they blare out Mongolian folk tunes from Chinese-imported CD players. By night, the gers glow with red neon. Ponytailed girls, in garish orange jerseys, wander out of the painted doors to press glossy calendars into the hands of passersby.

A ger from Ardchilsan nam candidate Tuvdendorj

True, I’ve only run across gers from the Democratic party. (Perhaps the Dems can’t afford office space like the MPRP. Or is it because the Dems seek the rural herder vote this time around)?

One Democratic Party candidate has stolen my heart – Kh. Temuujin.

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Like his namesake, Temuujin kicks ass… well, at least he did on a “Development Debates” reality TV show. Moreover, this Temuujin has sublime taste in political cartoons.

(Yes, Mongolia does have reality TV shows about development. Imagine Mongolian Idol, complete with viewers’ real-time text-messaged votes. But instead of warbling “Country Roads,” contestants argue over things like disability education. It’s quite suspenseful. When squaring off against two distinguished authorities, young Temuujin started off shaky – but he shot from 15% of the vote to 60% within the course of an hour.)

Here’s the MPRP’s “Ardiin Khuu” (Son of the People). J. Sukhbaatar. Lots of billboards show him clowning around with these two Olympic wrestling heroes, Kh. Tsagaanbaatar and B. Naranbaatar. Despite my protests that I can’t vote, I still got this cool calendar from his twelve-year-old minions.

But who knows who to trust? As we say here, “Snake has spots on the outside, human has spots on the inside.”

That’s the name of our latest class. Credit for the title goes to Doug, one of my three awesome co-teachers, who agree that we must subject our 65 students to a crash course on Mongolian political cartoons. This summer, I’ve returned to Darkhan. I’m training our new volunteers in cross-culture and community development.

We geeks feel especially alive — Mongolia will hold a parliamentary election on June 29. Back in 1990, the Mongolian Politburo resigned in a bloodless revolution. Ever since then, Mongolians have participated in free, fair, contested elections.

In 18 years of democracy, though, the MPRP – aka Old Commies – have tenaciously clung to both the parliament and presidency. While the Democrats held the presidency in 1993-97, and Parliament in 1996-2000, their shock therapy economic policies spooked people out dreadfully.

On that election day in 1997, a 62-year-old voter, Baljinnyam told the Associated Press: “I cherish the democracy that we now have, but I voted for Bagabandi [the MPRP candidate] because capitalism is coming too fast to Mongolia and leaving too many people without jobs. (Quote borrowed from an excellent guide to Mongolian politics written by a team of current PCV’s.)

But today, one week before the parliamentary election, only a knife’s edge of a margin separates the two main parties; the MPRP polls at 38%, and the Democratic Party clocks in at 37%.

The next batch of Mongolia volunteers have received their invitations. Yaaaaaaay!

In honor of pre-service training, let me post a funny Naadam photo from last summer.

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That’s me guzzling the airag, Ulaaka doing bunny ears, Chris LP, Margaret, and Brie.

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’!
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    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.

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    Father Winter’s girlfriends, the Snow Maidens.

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

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

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    The 7th grade boys practice their merengue.

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    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.

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