Random things I’ve found interesting about living in Mongolia, in no particular order

It’s the end of the semester here, and I have a lot of things to get done as a result. It’s going to be hard for me to write a blog post for the next week or so. But I know I have a number of regular readers now, so I’m offering this instead. It’s just a list of initial impressions I’ve had throughout the year of things I’ve noticed about living here. I didn’t start it until relatively recently, and I wish I had started it when we arrived, to see how it evolved over our stay here. Good thing to remember for next time!


The government plays a much bigger role than I’ve ever experienced before, but I guess it makes sense in a post-communist country with a long history of top-down governance. For example, the government will declare holidays or days off for specific reasons (they added a day onto Tsagaan Sar this winter), but then people will have to make up the work on a Saturday instead. So instead of getting an extra day off, you end up working on a weekend. Emma’s school gave them May 31 off in anticipation that the government would declare it a public holiday because Children’s Day (a national holiday on June 1) fell on a Saturday, but then the government didn’t do that. Emma still got the day off school, because her private school had scheduled it.

In the parts of the city where houses aren’t hooked up to plumbing, collecting water from the local water kiosk doesn’t seem to be gendered. You see as many men and boys fetching water as women and girls. This is very different from what I saw in eastern Africa, where water collection is mainly the work of women and girls.

Boys bringing home the water

The city’s heating system is centralized – hot water and steam – and it gets turned on and turned off on the same day, city-wide. The heat came on September 15, and was turned off in early May. Hot water gets turned off in different parts of the city for a few weeks during the summer on a published schedule. When you are used to private utilities and having control over your own heat and hot water, this seems very exotic, but it makes a lot of sense.

Even after almost a year, people here seem inscrutable to me. It can be hard for me to tell how people are feeling. Also, a lot of the things I think of as social niceties, the things that people do that make life a little more pleasant like saying “thank you,” holding the door for people, and that sort of thing, don’t seem to happen here. On the other hand, my students here are much more likely to say hello to me when they come in the classroom, to say thank you, and to say “See you later!” when they leave class than my American students were. There is in general more respect for children, older people, and teachers than I am used to from living in the USA.

As a teacher, I was surprised by how highly people seem to regard education here. There was a big celebration going on at schools around the city the Saturday before school started. Imagine: Parents and children dressing up and going to school on a Saturday before school is even in session. Boys were wearing suits, girls were wearing party dresses, there were flowers and balloons. It was a really big deal, and much more celebratory and fun than the usual “Back to School Night” in the US, or even at the international school Emma attended here in UB.

Speaking of which: How little Emma’s school took advantage of being in Mongolia to learn about just about anything. There were a few cultural events: National Culture Day, the Tsagaan Sar assembly, and maybe one or two other opportunities. But from a school that promised integration into the “host country,” field trips, and other opportunities to learn from the students’ environment, there was very little. In fact, her only field trip of the year is happening today: a trip to a Chinese restaurant with her Mandarin class. They did start the year out with a week-long camping trip to Hustai National Park, so maybe they thought they had it covered, but even that wasn’t really integrated into the rest of the year.

I asked Emma to think about what surprised her the most about living here, and these were things she mentioned: The animal skulls, bones, and parts that you see while you are out walking through the city. The way people just dump trash in the street. (I laughed at this one, because she tends to leave trash on the sofa when in arms reach of a waste basket—same thing!) The way people shove kids around (especially the way they shove in between parents and their children and separate them; to be fair, I pointed out that they shove adults, too, but it seemed strange to both of us that adults would shove children).

And then she promised to think about it more, as did I. But now I have to go teach two more classes!

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