Sunday, December 28, 2008

UB Misadventures

Last post was mostly about IST and there wasn’t much written about the wonders of Ulaanbaatar. In this post, I will detail all the nooks and crannies of the gem of a city that is UB. To put it simply, for PCVs that do not live in the capital, coming into UB is like diving into an orgy of fantastic delights. For most of us, food is the number one pleasure! Most soum-ers’ (small town-ers) basic diet consists of mutton, potatoes, onions, and if they are lucky, carrots. For me living in a ‘large’ city like Choibalsan, I have access to other goods such as beef, horse, carrots, cabbage, pears, and a variety of other perishable goods on a daily basis. Though I have access to these goods, most restaurants can do so much with these basic ingredients, so most “western foods” are sub-par or is greatly influenced by Mongolian tastes (mayonnaise on everything.) UB my friends is a whole different story! The restaurants actually serve pizzas that tastes like American pizzas, hamburgers that has barbecue sauce and bacon with French fries as a side, and milk shakes that are do die for. For the limited amount of time that I was there, I feasted on hamburgers, BBQ chick pizza, Philly cheese steaks, sushi, udon noodles, Korean food, and the most delicious chicken tenders that I’ve ever tasted in my life.

After food, we went to bars for mixed cocktails and beer on draft. There, one almost felt as if he/she is in America, transported just for a few days to all the access and excessive goods that America has to offer. And if we were in a dancing mood, the clubs were always open and were rocking to “apple bottom jeans”, “dangerous”, and all the hottest hits that the Billboard top 10 has to offer.

It was on such a night that I shall begin a story about our misadventure in UB. A good many PCVs were at Oasis, a favorite club of ours, first dancing to Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’, and then moving to the techno beat. It was getting late, around 1:30 AM, so Kristen (another PCV) and I decided it was wise to get some sleep so we can do this again another day. We left the club and got to our guest house around 2:00 or so. I inserted the key, turned, and to my surprise the door didn’t open. I tried again, reinserted the key, jiggled it about and turned, again nothing. The third time, turned it left, then right, heard the click clack of the lock, but yet again failed to open the door. Maybe it was me, so I gave the key to Kristen for her hand at it. She gave it a go, but all in vain. Having no luck, we texted the other people that were staying with us but was still at the club. In 30 minutes, and with 3 sets of keys, the other PCVs arrived. One by one they tried, and one by one they failed to unlatch the lock. By 2:30 or so, we were all tired and just wanted the comforts of our warm beds waiting for us on the other side of the door. In desperation we called the person that runs the guest house, we explained the problem, but got no help but an answer just to try again. We did, but all was futile as he door would not give in.

Surprisingly under these circumstances, we were all calm and decided that the best course of action would be to find another shelter. We didn’t want to pay for a night at another guest house, so we all went ahead with the plan to head to the Peace Corps office. Along the way we found the Kebab and Cola restaurant to be open, so we went in for some munchies and fight off the cold. The heat was a welcomed relief from the negative degrees weather and biting wind. We ate and talked and was all in a genial mood, well, as genial as we can be. After the quick meal we headed for the office which was a 5-10 minute walk further. When we got to the PC office, which was supposed to be open 24 hours a day, we were all shocked to find it closed. We banged on the door, rung the bell, but it was to no avail. There wasn’t anybody home. By this time (~4AM) the cold had taken its toll, some PCVs’ eyelashes were frozen and tempers were heated by the strings of bad luck. The next course of action was to find the nearest shelter, and luckily we knew of a place that was close by. The 7 of us continued our journey onward, some coughing, some wheezing, and some freezing their butts off. We made contact with another PCV that has an apartment nearby, and by his graces, we were saved from roaming around the city in -15F or so weather. Since the PCV was also hosting others, the extra 7 people turned his living room into a cramped hostel. I decided to stay awake, since I knew that 3 or 4 hours of sleep will only make me grumpy. And that I did, awake and reading the latest issue of The New Yorker. Where else but UB!


Monday, December 22, 2008

UB: The Land of Milk, Honey, and Smog

This past week I was in Ulaanbaatar (UB); the land of milk, honey, and… smog! It was for our in-service-training which meant that all the expenses were paid for by the Peace Corps. So instead of 16 hour bus rides, I got in to UB with my teaching counterpart (CP) in a mere one and a half hours. It was the first time that my CP (Tumee) flew in a plane, which is not surprising because the fare ($375) is equivalent to 2 months of her salary. I can see that it was an interesting experience for her because she was looking out the windows the whole flight from her aisle seat.

We landed at 11:50 on Monday morning and headed straight for the Peace Corps office. The place was teeming with volunteers and their counterparts. People from all over the country consolidated at this one single point. It was a reunion of hugs and more hugs. People were chattering about, sharing stories of hardship and triumphs. But as I had errands to run, I left my CP at the office to acquaint herself with the place and meet other people. She was also waiting on people to come to pick up meat, yes meat, transported as “extra baggage” on the plane. Mongolia is quite an interesting place.

Tuesday morning we left early (7:00) from our guesthouse to catch the morning ride to the hotel where IST was to be held. The bus was suppose to leave at 7:45, but as this is Mongolia, everything runs late. My counterpart who is usually reliable and on time didn’t make it until 8, and if it wasn’t for this “Mongol time”, she would have had to pay for her trip out to the hotel. We drove through the UB smog and in 20 or so minutes reached our destination, a suburb on the mountains with pine trees and snow peaks. The Nukht hotel as it is called came with all the convenience of modern life. The room was clean, the beds were spacious, the bathroom! Oh my, the bathroom was so nice that I actually took a bath in it. After we registered for our room, it was on to the seminar right away.

Wednesday, as with most days, we started out with a three course breakfast. At 9 we moved intro a large conference room and began the day. We were broken up into 3 groups and had 1 and a half hour sessions throughout the day with topics ranging from team teaching, classroom management, and games for the class. Occasionally we break for tea in between sessions, and at 12:30, it was time for the 3 course lunch, delicious salad, soup, and then the main course. Lunch was the highlight of my day! After lunch we had more sessions until 6:30. And at 7 we had dinner, which had only 2 courses…boo. As you can tell by this paragraph, food is very important in my life.

During the day we had our seminar, but at night we had our сэмнайр (semin-nair = secret party.) The beer, vodka, and drinks flowed very easily. There were small dance parties all around, we had one in my room, and since there wasn’t that much room to begin with, the beds were even used as dance floors. To my surprise, everybody was up Thursday morning and ready to work. So it was another 9-7 routine. But Thursday was a special night as we had our talent show. It was good times all around as PCVs and our counterparts sang songs, read poetry, and told jokes. Much was lost in translation, but that didn’t matter since everybody was having fun. After the show, it was on to the dance floor and we all got down to techno and hip hop.

Friday we had a mini session and then it was time to pack at 2 and say good bye to the good life at the hotel. We took pictures and said our good byes to people that were leaving that day, and then we drove back to UB. At this point, it is the end of the Peace Corps sponsored IST, so if people wished to stay, it was out of their own pockets. And here I shall end part 1 of UB days. Look forward to Oasis, locked doors, freezing cold and Irish pubs in the next installment.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Turkey and Mashed Potatoes!

This past weekend I had the opportunity to leave my site for the first time since arriving in Choibalsan in August. It was 5 days of bliss spent in the glitz and glamour of the capital city of Mongolia. But we shall begin our story from the 7 a.m. departure on Thursday morning. Jasmine (M18 PCV) and I arrived early to the bus station to catch the puragon (Russian bus) heading for Ulaanbaatar to find a crowd of drivers buzzing about, running to, and grabbing our luggage and bodies to fill their cars. While Jasmine inspected each car and talked to the drivers, I was still shivering from the morning cold and fighting off other drivers that came and asked “hottod yavho?” “Go to the capital?” I replied, “no, just wait,” in Mongolian. After finding a car that she liked (the determining factor was the design of the seat covers), Jasmine and I huddled into the paragon. The windows began to frost as we waited, 30 minutes passed, and then 1 hour, and then another. Cars in Mongolia will only go when all the seats are filled up. After waiting 2 hours, the driver decided that he will not be driving to UB today, so we grabbed our stuff and joined another group of people heading to the city by bus.

We moved to the larger bus to find 12 or so people waiting. Paid the 30,000 tugrugs (about 30 dollars) for the seat and acquainted ourselves with the back of the bus, cuz you know that’s where all the cool kids and sheep meat is. The area was packed with luggage, meat, and other goods. Normally there isn’t that much room to move around, but our ride was fairly comfortable in the amount of available space. But the problem of heat was another story. The buses here are not fully heated. The heat comes from the front of the bus, and as you go further and further back, the heat diminishes into nothingness when you get to where we were sitting. So while the people in the front were in a sauna, Jasmine and I in the back was fighting off the bitter cold. To add to that misery, they also open the windows so that it will be cooler. Sometimes people here are quite inconsiderate, I mean, if you are hot, why not take off your layers of clothes before opening the windows. Yes, and so we rode on for 16 hours. Along the way we stopped for food twice and made 2 bathroom stops. I don’t think I will complain about traveling in America ever again.

We got into UB around midnight. And right after getting off the bus, another swarm of drivers came to ask where we were going. We would have gone right away if it wasn’t for Jasmine and her box of assorted meats. Let me explain, her social worker had asked her to haul 15 or so kilo of meat from Dornod to UB for the son that is studying in the capital. So after hauling this dead weight for 16 hours, we expected someone to greet us upon arrival to take their package. She had sent texts and called prior to this, but what do you know, the kid never got there. Jasmine tried to call, but all she got was hang-ups and unanswered calls, so this went on for a good 10 minutes while the drivers are still asking us where we were going. Exhausted from the travel, we gave up and headed for my guest house. And so is the story of my first traveling experience in Mongolia. Not that bad, but definitely not a good time.

So after this experience, Thanksgiving in UB was the most appropriate celebration that one can have. Since I like making lists, and is tired of writing, I’ll just put ‘em out there:

I’m thankful for:


Friends (Americans, PCVs, Mongolians)

Heat in my apartment

Warm-Hot showers

Long underwear

Hats that cover the ears

2,500 (~$2.20) tugrugs for a kilo of beef

Vegetables (Onions, carrots, potatoes, peppers: that’s all I get)

Spices (thanks once again family and friends)

Thanksgiving in UB (good food, good friends, good times!)

And you, yes YOU! I know you read my blog.