A Day in Terelj

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A continuation of “Out into the Countryside.” We’ve been going out of town for the weekends (weekend mornings are the time I have to write these posts), so I haven’t been keeping up. But I wanted to finish the account of our day in Terelj before I write more. I’m keeping a running log of topics, and at some point I’m hoping to have the time to crank out a series of posts to catch up. In the meanwhile…

At the entrance to Terelj, there’s what looks like a small village: a cluster of houses with fenced in yards and a mini-market. These are vacation homes belonging to people from the city; Terelj is close to Ulaanbaatar, so it’s a popular getaway location for urbanites seeking fresh air and peace. (I learned later that this proximity to UB has taken its toll on the park; there are over 3,000 tourist camps in the park, but I will write about that more in a later post. The Mongolian national park system seems quite a bit different than the US one, and I am trying to learn more about it.)

Everyone cheered as the man working the entrance gate waved us through without paying the entrance fee. (Another way this system is different!) We drove along the broad valley of the Tuul River, the same one that flows through UB, and then wound our way up through a mountainous landscape, with patches of remnant snow from the season’s first snowfall scattered about. There were smaller dirt roads branching off, leading to clusters of white gers here and there, the “tourist camps” that fill the national park. There were also a handful of larger buildings, hotels supplementing the more low-impact but also low-amenity ger camps. One large hotel was under construction, and I wondered if there were any regulations controlling the growth of tourism in the area (an answer to this question in my next post). Eventually, our bus turned off onto one of the dirt roads, leading to the Mirage Tourist Camp where we would spend the day.

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The Mirage Camp was set back in a little valley, across from another camp, and down the road from yet one more. These tourist camps consist of a cluster of ger (yurts), often laid out in a grid, with a couple of permanent buildings, usually a restaurant and a bath house with toilets and showers. The ger used are the same as the ones nomadic people live in, with brightly painted doors and wooden frames contrasting with the white of the ger material. The interiors are lined with embossed silk, and there is a central window, really a skylight, through which the chimney of the wood stove passes. The skylight and the door are the only sources of natural light, but they are more than enough.

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We piled into one ger, while a couple of the students went off to cook lunch. The students had planned the entire day, including activities that were designed for us to get to know each other (there were two new faculty, plus a large freshman class), as well as to just have fun. The first was the classic say three things about yourself, including one lie, and the others have to guess what’s not true. Then we played an interesting number game I hadn’t come across, where every person counts, but for every number containing a 3, 6, or 9, you clap instead of saying the number, and for every number containing two multiples of three (say, 36), you clap twice. It’s easy till you hit the 30s, and then you really have to keep track so when you reach 40 you say it instead of clapping. I think we never made it past the 40s, but it was a lot of fun, and it ended up in a showdown between me and Emma. Emma won, of course; the prize was a mango juice pouch and a bar of chocolate.

This was what made the day special for me: The way everyone was included, even the new professor’s 12-year-old daughter. She fit right in with the students, joining in the games they played between lunch and dinner. It was the first time I remember that happening, Emma coming along with me on what was basically a professional event and not just being completely ignored. I think she was anticipating spending the day just sitting and drawing, but as she told me later, she had more fun with the Media and Communication students than she did with her seventh-grade class. One of the things I really appreciate about Mongolia International University is its ethic of care and inclusion. We are encouraged to get to know our students, and the Membership Training Program was just one form of that.

After the numbers game, we went outside, and Emma and I went off to find the restroom. We were pointed towards a wooden shack off to the side of the ger, and I was somewhat dismayed to see a squat toilet. This is what most people in the world use to go to the bathroom, but I’m less flexible than I used to be, so let’s just say it was a bit of a challenge for me. I told Emma I wasn’t going to drink anything for the rest of the day, and I was only kind of joking. (Later, we discovered the bath house with flush toilets and sinks – phew!)

As we walked down to join the others, I took some photos of the scenery and the fluffy calves that were ambling through the camp. The Mirage was set up against some gently eroding granite rock formations, with a view out across a grass-covered valley lined with low, forested mountains. Many of the trees were green, but the aspens had turned bright gold, giving the place a distinct autumnal feel. Since we’d arrived, the weather had cleared significantly, and the bright blue sky was scattered with white clouds. It had warmed up a bit, too, and we ended up not needing the extra layers I had brought along in anticipation of cold weather. The fresh air was a shock after over a month in the city, and I could understand why so many people came out to Terelj whenever they could.

Soon we were called to lunch in a large dining-ger at the top of the camp. I had told them that I would bring food for me and Emma, in anticipation of the meat-heavy lunch. I’d brought a can of baked beans, as well as some cooked rice (I really hadn’t known what to expect), and there was also green salad. We ate at a long table, with Emma and I sitting at one end with my department chair and the other new instructor, a Mongolian television producer who was teaching the practicum for the junior class. They mostly conversed in Korean (he went to school in South Korea and is fluent).

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After lunch, there was horseback riding. Emma had decided to try it, so she went with the first group for a half-hour ride. They just walked down the hill and back, with one of the students leading the horse Emma was on. (Emma used to take riding lessons, for about two years, but then suddenly decided she didn’t want to anymore and stopped. It’s been a few years now, though she went on a mule ride in the Grand Canyon summer before last.) The horses were small and stocky and looked like they’d do just fine in the cold Mongolian winter. As I walked along behind the horses, I had a chance to talk with one of the freshman students from Korea. She’s a bit older than the others, and had lived on a missionary boat for a few years with her parents; she told me about staying off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, for several months, after we realized we had Egypt in common.

Soon the ride was over. After a bit of down time in the ger, we went over to the camp’s basketball court (this seems to be another standard feature of many tourist camps, along with a playground), and the juniors started organizing people into the games they had planned. One of the games was a race that involved dribbling a basketball through cones, shooting a basket, and then hopping back with the basketball between your knees. Emma joined one of the teams, while I and the other faculty laughed and cheered from the sidelines. Then there was a similar game but with people working in teams of two, with one of their legs tied together. Finally, there was a treasure hunt. In the end, Emma’s team won, and they had an awards ceremony, receiving more candy and a juice pouch. The other team was given a opportunity to earn their prize by dancing to the song “Baby Shark.” Emma came up and whispered to me, “We listened to this in Newer Elementary.” It was pretty hilarious, with some of the students getting really into it and others looking like they’d rather be doing something else. Soon it was over, and they were given their consolation prizes, which were basically the same as what the winning team had gotten.

What I really enjoyed about the games was the camaraderie among the students and the encouragement they gave each other. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and everyone belonged. That is one of the things that makes teaching at MIU such a different experience. As I spend more time here and get to know the people and the place better, there are undercurrents beneath the collegial surface, but there is also a genuine feeling that we are all in this together and should make it the best experience it can be. I had a hard time imagining anything like this at the American universities I’ve spent time at.

We had some free time before dinner, so Emma and I wandered around a bit. Behind the restaurant, we found a dog tied up to a tractor. It was whining and looked very friendly. Emma went over to it, and a love affair ensued. Emma gravitates towards dogs and seems to find dog friends wherever she goes. The dog was more of a puppy, probably less than a year old, and seemed to have a bit of golden retriever to it. She (it turned out) was very friendly indeed, and Emma wanted to spend the rest of the day with the dog. Unfortunately, we were called to dinner.

I hadn’t realized we’d also be staying for dinner, so I hadn’t brought another meal along for us. Fortunately, we were allowed to order off the menu, which had a good-sized vegan section. We had some pasta with delicious vegetables on the side (which Emma was suspicious of, of course), because they were out of the more intriguing-sounding vegetable pancakes. After dinner, there was time for one more play session with the dog, and then we piled on the bus to return to the city, just as the yaks came grazing by.

Out into the countryside at last

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The road to Terelj, looking back towards Ulaanbaatar.

In September I had my first chance to go out of Ulaanbaatar. (Emma had already spent five days camping and hiking in Hustai National Park with her class. No, I wasn’t jealous in the least.) Mongolia International University has something it calls MTP—Membership Training Program—which is a somewhat odd name for a bonding retreat for each department. The department’s students, staff, and faculty usually head out of town for a day to spend some time together away from campus, getting to know each other and having some fun. The Media and Communication Department rented a bus from the university, and one cold Saturday morning we all piled in and headed for Terelj National Park, to spend the day at a ger (yurt) camp.

We were supposed to leave at 9:00 am, and when Emma and I came down the stairs in the dormitory, a group of my students were huddled around the bottom of the stairs. I laughed, because it was clear they wanted to stay in where it was warm and were looking out towards our bus with some regret. Emma and I went out and saw that Eunsun, our department chair, and Gerelee, the department secretary, and a couple of students were waiting near the bus. As soon as we went out, the other students slowly followed us outside.

It was cold—maybe high 20s/low 30s—and not very promising, weather-wise. The previous weekend had been gorgeous, sunny and in the 60s, and the students had wanted to have the MTP then, but we had planned everything for September 22, and it wasn’t possible to change the date. It was supposed to reach the mid-40s, and we’d just had the first snowfall of the year, so Emma and I had brought all our outerwear (which then consisted of a fleece jacket and rain jacket, in my case, and a couple of hoodies and a rain jacket for Emma). I had hats, gloves, and scarves, just in case. We got in the bus and waited for stragglers. We didn’t end up leaving until around 10:00, because a couple of the students who lived off campus were late, and we couldn’t leave without them. Fortunately, MIU is on the right side of town (east) for going to Terelj, so we got onto the main road and headed out of town.

Like most cities, Ulaanbaatar doesn’t just give way to countryside. It stretches on in a string of walled and enclosed subdivisions that are not yet dense but could be if the city grows enough. Some of the more distant ones look like ghost towns already, even though they are not yet finished. There are also high-rise apartment buildings hundreds of meters off the main road, lone concrete and glass monuments to modern urban living, surrounded by grass and sheep. After passing a development called “Happy Valley,” I thought, here are Mongolian McMansions. Currently, they are along a narrow, two-lane road with cracked pavement, but if what seems to be underway continues, it will become a main thoroughfare into the city from suburbia. At least, this seems to be the idea.

There were several of these communities scattered along both sides of the road. Like everywhere else, people here want to get out of the polluted, crowded, traffic-clogged city, to breathe the fresh air and see the sky, to smell the grass and the soil instead of exhaust fumes, to get back to their nomad roots. Mongolia is one of the least densely populated countries in the world, but because of environmental degradation, people are moving towards the city in droves. Right now, over one million of Mongolia’s three million people live in Ulaanbaatar, and the city’s population is growing every day. These aren’t people, though, who will be buying McMansions in Happy Valley. These are people who can’t afford to live in the high-rise apartments being built by the dozen in the city center, so they are setting up informal ger (yurt) encampments around the city. (I’m hoping to visit some of these soon and will write about them when I do.) So I’m not sure how viable the McMansions are—who will move into them, how many of them will stand empty like the high rises in the city do. It seems like an act of hopeless optimism to build these neighborhoods, a financial gamble on the part of companies who believe that if they build it, people will come. Like the million-dollar homes developers are building in my American town of Carlsbad, CA, in response to the “housing crisis,” which is really among the low-income community who will never live in those homes.

At some point along the way, we stopped to pick up some more food. The junior and sophomore classes had planned the whole day, including the menu, and still needed to get the ingredients for lunch and dinner. There was a huge Orgil Supermarket seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and we stopped there. I got out to stretch my legs and take pictures, but Emma huddled in the bus, drawing in her sketchbook. There were a couple of gas stations across the street, but otherwise not much else to be seen, except open countryside, and a billboard for Encanto Orange Town, which I think is an apartment complex near the Chinggis Khan International Airport. A reminder of the city that the travelers on the highway were leaving behind.

After the shoppers returned, we continued on our way, turning off onto the road to Terelj. Pretty soon, we were stopping again, in a small town that stretched along the road, and a couple of the students got out to locate some more lunch ingredients. The town consisted of low-lying cinder block and brick buildings, some store fronts along the main drag. There was a dirt road lined with walled-in properties. In front of the bus, a closed Fast Food stand promised “sendwiches,” along with khuushuur (a meat pastry) and shorlog (Mongolian shish kebab).

Soon we were underway once more. At some point, we passed a large cemetery, the first I’ve seen so far. We also passed a lot of livestock, and some scattered ger. The incessant noise and polluted air of Ulaanbaatar were a distant memory, and eventually we drove through the entrance gate to Terelj. As we did, the clouds started breaking, promising better weather for our day in the countryside. (Part Two of this post will follow, when I have a chance to write more, but now we are heading out to an art gallery, and to pick up some supplies from E-mart.)

At last – a food post!

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For the people who started following my blog because it seemed like it would be about food, and vegetarianism: There will be some posts on food. But as I explained in the beginning, my daughter and I settled on our title (really, the first one I thought of; it just stuck) mainly because it was funny (to us, anyway), and because it gets at one aspect of living in a foreign country: the dietary differences.

One of the things I love the most about being in a new country is going to the grocery store. Even if I’m just passing through as a tourist, markets, grocery stores, and supermarkets are at the top of my list as tourist destinations. One of the fascinating things for me is where food comes from. I talk to my Environmental Sociology class at UCSD about the phenomenon of “food from nowhere” – the tendency for people to not think about where their food comes from (the grocery store, of course!), and how corrosive that has been for our food systems, globally and locally. Food is a big part of our collective carbon footprint, the impact we have on our environment that is accelerating climate change. It’s also a huge part of economies and livelihoods the world over. Everyone needs to eat. So one of the things I pay close attention to is where food comes from.

In Ulaanbaatar, like many places in the world now, the answer is “from all over.” Instead of food from nowhere, we have food from everywhere. This post is going to be a quick guided tour of my refrigerator and cupboard, as well as what I’ve seen in the supermarkets and grocery stores I’ve been to. We have several nearby options for food shopping: Tenger Plaza, which is a pretty big supermarket (though small by California standards), a couple of mini-markets across the street, and Nomin, which sells groceries as well as electronics and household items. There’s also a small produce store across the street that I just found out about the other day, when we were on a dinner outing with new faculty from my university. So yes, there’s produce, too! Gosh, so much to write about.

One of the strangest things I’ve come across so far was in a store called “Good Price Market,” which has a logo kind of like the Whole Foods markets of the US, probably intentionally. It’s very upscale, with imported food from the US and Europe, and assorted other places, as well as some locally produced food. I’ve only been in once, but it sells Emma’s favorite kind of mac and cheese (Annie’s organic), so I will probably be going there again. The one time I went, I found this:

A bottle of cumin from Bayonne, New Jersey, USA. The cumin obviously was only packaged in Bayonne; who knows where it really came from. But think about it: Cumin grown somewhere (China?), probably processed somewhere else (in China?), imported to Bayonne, NJ, then shipped all over the world (Mongolia!) in boxes of glass bottles. How wasteful is that, when China is next door? But then, I’m trying to avoid buying food from China, because it’s got a lot of problems, so I might not buy it if it were labelled China. (I didn’t buy it, anyway, because I already had cumin from…Russia…but wait, where did that come from?)

Speaking of China, the weirdest food item so far has been shrink-wrapped ears of corn. I didn’t buy them at first, because there were other better-looking fresh foods to buy, but then one day I thought I would try one. Corn on the cob is just about Emma’s favorite food, and we hadn’t seen any here. So I brought one home from the supermarket and boiled it in water. Let’s just say I’m never buying that again. Emma compared it to eating a car tire. She took one tiny bite (two kernels) and spit it right out. I ate the whole thing, but I think it would have been better in soup.

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One of the main sources of imports is, predictably, Russia, as well as former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. So there’s the Polish pasta sauce, which we bought when the American cans of Del Monte ran out and the Italian Barilla sauce turned out to be kind of disgusting. The Polish sauce is a bit weird too—it seems to have had starch added, so it’s extra gloopy—but Emma deemed it edible. We’ll keep looking. Last night we had it for dinner with the pasta made in Kazakhstan. From Russia, there’s Tess Pina Colada and Ginger Mojito green teas, Jockey coffee, and our obligatory jar of Nutella, among other things. We also have Peacock corn flakes from South Korea (bought at e-Mart, along with our soy milk and tofu), Hosen kidney beans from China (until I found some Belle France cans, from—you guessed it!—France), and Pasta Zara from Italy. I also drink a lot of tea, so besides the Russian green tea, we have Belle France tea from Spain, linden tea from Turkey, and chamomile tea from Germany, as well as black tea from India, and a local green tea with cranberry leaves. Which brings me to the local food, of which there is plenty. Of course, bread, eggs, milk, and yogurt are from Mongolia. And our honey, jam, oatmeal, barley, and buckwheat seem to be locally produced as well.

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So, we’ve got food from everywhere here. As we stay longer, I want to try to increase the share that’s produced locally, especially as I find more places to shop. I will write another post (probably several) about the amount of waste we’re generating with our food consumption here. The packaging especially. I got used to reducing packaging as much as possible in California, but here, especially with where and how we shop, I’ve got a lot more garbage than I’m used to. Also, no composting (we live in an apartment building), and I am not sure about the recycling situation. There was a big box for plastic bottles in the basement, but it disappeared, and while there is also a bin labeled for recyclables, people seem to throw all trash mixed with recyclables into both bins. I am still figuring out what recycling facilities exist here in Ulaanbaatar.

But, like I said, that’s another post. As is cooking on a single hot plate. Really, I haven’t been making many actual meals here yet, though we don’t eat out, either. It’s beans and rice, or pasta, or (now that we’ve found it) tofu, or, for Emma, eggs, with whatever veggies I happen to have. I’m also going to start making soups now that the cooler weather is here. But cooking on a hot plate is a new experience for me, as are so many other things here.

One month in, and aspects of daily life are still confusing…

(I wanted to post this last weekend but didn’t finish it. I only have time for writing on the weekends right now, so I have a backlog of post ideas that are just going to have to wait their turn to get written.)

Monday, September 17, marked the day we’d been in Mongolia for a month. We are getting the hang of things. We have a daily routine. Emma uses a taxi to get to and from school, and once her schedule stabilizes, I’ll be able to order it by the week. (She’s going to be in the school production of Shrek, with rehearsals after school, but so far they’re not fixed.) I am getting my work schedule established – mainly preparing for four entirely new courses (three after October 27, when the co-teacher for one of them returns from Korea).

I’m studying Mongolian, but it’s still really limited. (I know how to say “three thousand,” for example, but when I was in a shop yesterday, I was completely unable to come up with the word for three. Now it’s there, no problem, but on the spot it was nowhere to be found. Old brain.) So the language barrier is making itself felt, because hardly anyone speaks English. Sign language and good humor go a long way, and agreeing good naturedly when people seem to be saying I should learn Mongolian (I’m trying!). I think by the end of the semester I’ll know enough to manage better, but in the meanwhile people can write notes in Mongolian for me when I need to do something specific.

A big thing happened this week on the daily life front: I got a bank account. This was a bit more challenging than it should have been because the branch that had an office for foreigners was closed for remodeling or something, so I had to go to another branch. Gerelee, the department secretary came with me to help translate. I filled out the applications, chuckling over the choice of “herder” under profession, and submitted them to the woman at the counter, along with my passport and residence card, fresh from Immigration. The bank teller had never processed an account application from a foreigner before, so she had to ask a manager or two about the process. She told us she had to fax it to the head office, and we would know in about 20 minutes if the application was approved. I really thought it would be that simple.

Gerelee and I decided to go for coffee. There was a Tom N Toms down the street, the Korean version of Starbucks. It was a warm day, so I had a peach iced tea. It came on a tray, carefully arranged with a napkin and straw. The cup was just like a Starbucks one, but the straw was burgundy instead of green, and the logo a simple capital T, at an angle, inside a burgundy circle. Otherwise, pretty much Starbucks.

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While we were there, Gerelee got a call from the bank that I needed to submit another form I could get online, but she didn’t understand what it was. It was something for Americans only. We decided to go back to the university so I could ask another American teacher if they knew. It turned out to be a W-9 form, which I might have thought of if I ever had needed one for opening a foreign bank account before, but I never had a bank account in Ethiopia, and my Egyptian bank hadn’t asked for one.

At that point, it was too late to go back to the bank, so we decided to go the following afternoon, after my classes. I printed out a W-9, and off we went. It was even more crowded than last time, but we saw the same woman who had helped us the day before, so after waiting a while in the back of the line, Gerelee went up and handed her my W-9. She recognized us immediately, pulled out my paperwork, and faxed everything again, telling Gerelee to come back in 20 minutes. This time, we waited in the outer lobby, where we could sit down.

After 20 minutes, we went back in to ask about the application. The bank teller squinted at her computer screen, and suddenly without a word grabbed my application and started going to a series of different offices, and eventually upstairs. Gerelee was as confused as I was. In the meanwhile, there was some commotion among the people who had been waiting, because one of the two people who’d been working was now gone. She came back after about five minutes, shoved everything back in the fax machine, and said something to Gerelee. It turned out my application had needed a stamp from the top manager of the branch, so she had had to re-send it, and we had to wait another 20 minutes.

We went back out into the outer lobby, and a few minutes later saw her leaving with a bag of food. It was her lunch break, and we’d have to wait until she came back to find out if my account would be approved or not. Me being me, I sat there for half an hour worrying about my account not being approved on some technicality, and thinking I could function without a bank account for a year since my housing was being handled by the university and I had no other regular bills. When we saw her come back in, we went back inside, and Gerelee asked her if she knew anything. She squinted at her computer screen again, for a while, while the voice in my head told me my application was doomed. Gerelee told me I might as well have a seat in the chair.

Suddenly, after I sat down, there was more commotion behind us. A woman came up and started yelling—not at me, but at Gerelee and the bank teller. Gerelee said something to her, and she started yelling even more. The bank teller then said something to her, as did the other one, and a security guard hovered in the background. She continued to yell for a while; it was clear that she was mad that I had seemed to cut the line, because we’d been waiting outside and she hadn’t seen us. I was sympathetic, but since this was my second day trying to open my account, I wasn’t about to go back to the end of the line every time there was a setback. Eventually there was a crowd around us, most people just watching, but some people joining in on one side or the other. I sat transfixed, waiting for my first Mongolian bank brawl.

Being yelled at in Mongolian is a lot like being yelled at in Klingon, but without the vowels. The thing about Mongolian is that it doesn’t sound like any other language I’ve heard (at least not recently). It’s one of the Mongolic languages of East-Central Asia, and it doesn’t seem to be closely related to any other living languages. Some linguists group it in a family they call Altaic with Japanese and Korean, but it doesn’t sound like either of those, and that language family is contested. Mongolian has a LOT of consonants (there are vowels, but they kind of get swallowed when you’re speaking), and every sentence sounds like it ends in ts-k-tskkkkk. In a normal conversational tone, it’s pleasant, but Emma has observed that it can make people sound angry when they probably really aren’t. But this woman was really angry, so it was intense.

Finally, though, the woman stopped yelling, the teller got the approval for my account, and about 10 minutes after that, I was walking out the door with a copy of my paperwork and a receipt for my initial deposit of 1000 MTN (about 40 cents) in my hand. The more amazing thing was that two days later, someone hand-delivered my ATM card to my office. My Mongolian financial life was up and running.

Learning to focus on the good

tofuThings rarely go according to plan. Especially when you are getting started in a foreign country. Yesterday, we were going out to lunch with my department chair at a shabu-shabu restaurant in the BlueMon Center in Ulaanbaatar. The plan was to meet in front of the school and take a taxi. I had this idea that after lunch, Emma and I could go to the Central Museum of Mongolian Dinosaurs (a 15-minute walk away), and then go shopping for warmer jackets or coats, since the weather is starting to get cold. It was supposed to be a nice warm day, around 60 degrees, with plenty of sunshine. The perfect day for walking around downtown.

We met my department chair, Eunsun, and started the process of hailing a taxi, which involves standing on the curb with your arm stuck out at an angle towards the ground (not up, like in New York). Then you tell the driver your destination, and they decide if they want to go there or not. It can be really hard to get a taxi to go to Emma’s school from our place, which is why I use a more expensive call service called Help Taxi for her (the drivers also speak English). Well, this time, no one wanted to go to the BlueMon Center. Eunsun got the idea to just get in a taxi and not give them a choice, but the guy sat there telling us he didn’t want to go there (in Mongolian) and clearly indicating we needed to go to the other side of the street to catch someone going the other way. (There’s a traffic circle at the end of our street so it’s easy to turn around; he just didn’t want to go in that direction.) We crossed the street, and the second taxi driver we hailed told us to hop in. It turned out the traffic towards downtown was already horrible, which might explain why the other drivers didn’t want to go there.

We eventually got to the restaurant and had a delicious meal. They had fried rice and tofu rolls with cucumber for Emma, and we had the mushroom soup with vegetables, which was delicious. Other options on the menu were horse meat and bull penis (called Bull Pizzle on the menu), but it was a place where I could be vegetarian easily. Each person had their own pot, which would make it easy for vegetarians and non-vegetarians to eat there together, too. Then we went to the Tom N Toms café downstairs for desert (Emma had red velvet cake and we had green tea), and I happened to mention that we were going to do some coat shopping afterwards. We also started talking about some of the things we hadn’t been able to find yet in UB – mainly tofu and sketchbooks. The Korean superstore e-mart came up, and suddenly Eunsun was making plans for us to go to the State Department Store to get coats and cashmere, and then go to e-mart for the other stuff. She was not keen on the idea of walking, so we ended up taking a taxi to the State Department Store (see my post on the pizza with no sauce for a description of this place).

First, we went to the second floor, which is where the cashmere is. We’d had an interesting discussion about cashmere at the café—how Mongolia produces about 90% of cashmere in the world, but that it’s destroying the environment here because goats eat everything, even the roots, so they are turning pasture land to desert. This had not predisposed me to buy cashmere, and I have a hard time shopping under the best of circumstances, but I really can’t do it when there is someone else along. Still, I bought a couple of pairs of cashmere socks for me and Emma and had a chance to look around a bit for stuff we might need later. Then we went to a central area downstairs that had been school supplies the first time we came a few weeks ago but was now devoted to boots and some parkas and jackets. I tried on a couple of down jackets and started to feel like I might be doomed. They were men’s XL, and while they fit my shoulders (a problem with women’s jackets sometimes), they did NOT fit my hips. Emma, in the meanwhile, shopped for boots and found a good waterproof pair rated to -32 degrees, which should be good enough for here. So, at least her feet will be warm and dry!

Then we caught another taxi to e-mart. E-mart was quite an experience. I have a rule never to go to places like Target or Costco on a Saturday afternoon. E-mart has been added to the list. It was crowded, and also a bit overwhelming after the much smaller shops we’ve been going to – even the Nomin Hypermart down the street can’t compare. Consumerism seems to be alive and well in Ulaanbaatar (I will write a post on this at some point, once I have a better sense of what’s going on). This e-mart had opened in 2016, and it was very successful, so they will be opening two other stores soon. I want to go back and explore, because there was a lot there we didn’t stop to look at, including a food court and a drone section (they even had a robotic dinosaur Emma got one year for Christmas). But for now, we were following Eunsun.

First we went upstairs, and Eunsun took us straight to the sketchbooks. After some looking Emma found some in a size she liked. We got five, because she fills them pretty fast. Then we went back downstairs to the food section. I’m pretty sure they had everything. There was a deli counter, but the tofu there was sold out, so we went for the packaged stuff (which is what I’m used to in the US, anyway, so that was OK). I picked out two kinds, both imported from Korea so a bit more expensive, but similar to US prices. Then Eunsun took us to the soy milk, which only comes in small drink boxes, so I bought a few for us to try.

After that we just followed Eunsun around the store. She went to look at coffee and tea, and I started my usual search for chamomile tea for Emma. It’s her favorite tea, but I hadn’t been able to find it here. There was a counter that sold loose tea as well, and I looked at that, but no chamomile. I was just telling Emma that this was the first country I’d lived in where I couldn’t find chamomile tea, when I looked up across to the boxed tea again, and the magic word “Kamille” leapt out at me from the top shelf. I think I might have squealed or something. It was even Bio (organic), from Hamburg. We got two boxes. So now we know where to go for sketchbooks, tofu, soymilk, and chamomile tea, as well as a few hundred thousand other items.

Then we caught a taxi home, which proved a lot easier than catching our first taxi. We went up this four-lane overpass that had murals of Mongolian countryside scenes along one side—horses and riders and gers (yurts) and the like, with a mural of Ulaanbaatar at the end. Then we turned the corner and sat in traffic for a really long time because of a traffic light. It reminded me of rare times in San Diego when a light would turn green, then turn red, then green again, and red again, and you would just sit there watching without moving because there were so many cars the traffic could just not flow. Usually there would be an accident or something else that would explain it, eventually. Here, every traffic light is like this every day. But eventually we made it onto Peace Avenue (the main drag through town), dropped Eunsun off at her apartment, and then rode in relatively light traffic the rest of the way to our place.

When we got home, we were both wiped out. Sitting in taxis is exhausting. And I had had the added stress of being frustrated about our change in plans. The thing was, I had really, really been looking forward to walking around downtown and seeing more of the city. I experience new places by walking them, and because of work, my time to explore so far has been limited. So the whole time we were sitting in taxis, sitting forever at traffic lights (not just that one I described, but several others along the way), I was looking around, envying all the people who were out walking on this gorgeous, sunny day. There was an outdoor market in front of the Parliament building we could have checked out if we hadn’t been in a taxi. There was another park with some interesting statues that would have been fun to look at. I had to swallow my own impatience, remind myself that Eunsun was taking her Saturday afternoon to help us find things that I had said we wanted, and that there will be other days for exploring before the weather gets too cold and the air quality too bad to spend much time outdoors.

So a lot of living in another country, being a foreigner and being a guest, is learning to focus on the good. I joked to Emma that I would never complain about San Diego traffic again (her reply: “That’s a lie!” which is true, it is). I have a thoughtful department chair who invites not just me but also my daughter out to lunch on a Saturday afternoon, and then shows us places to go for the things that we need. (She has learned from her own experience—when she came here from Korea two years ago, life was more challenging than it is now; she has told me a few stories!) And now I know where to go to get sketchbooks, tofu, soymilk, and chamomile tea all under one roof, which will definitely be useful. And Emma needs food that is familiar and that she actually likes, so seeking that out really matters. She loved the soymilk, but the first kind of tofu I cooked tasted “strange,” so she only ate one piece (with her usual slathering of ketchup). Hopefully the other kind I bought tastes good to her.

Crossing the street in Ulaanbaatar

sanetwo-sodbayar-262602-unsplash
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, photo by Sanetwo Sodbayar on Unsplash

The other day I had my first episode of street-crossing paralysis. I was going to the supermarket, crossing the street at the pedestrian crosswalk in front of the university, and I froze. I was standing in the middle of the street, on the line separating the two directions of traffic. Cars were speeding by on both sides of me. And I couldn’t go on. Fortunately, someone came along behind me and blithely walked out in front of the moving cars, which slowed to let her cross. I followed her across the three lanes of traffic to the other side, feeling rather foolish.

This is crossing the street in Ulaanbaatar. It’s also crossing the street in Cairo, or Addis Ababa, or any number of other cities I’ve lived in or visited. I’m just out of practice. It’s been a while. Emma chides me for being overly cautious. She’s perfectly happy stepping out in front of moving traffic, even at home in San Diego. But I’m having a hard time with it. I still go out of my way to cross at a traffic light if I am going in a certain direction (towards what will eventually be my bank). There are times when it is totally fine – like when there’s enough space between the cars to make it across the lane. Or when traffic is at a standstill and you can walk between stopped cars, or cars that are inching along. But there are also times when it seems impossible, like when the traffic is heavy enough for a steady stream of cars but light enough for them to be moving fast. It was like that when I froze.

Most of the streets I’ve been crossing so far have been main arteries through town, so they are pretty busy. There are two or three lanes of traffic in either direction, which means three or four lanes of cars each way, since the dotted lines marking the lanes are pretty much suggestions here. My strategy so far has been to cross with other people. If there’s no one there, I’ll pretend to check my phone or something until someone else comes along, and then I’ll go. If the traffic is light enough or slow enough, I’ll cross on my own, but sometimes I have to talk myself into it.

I know I’ll get used to this again. I think most drivers will slow down or stop, rather than hit a pedestrian. But on my first day here, the driver of the university van very nearly hit an old woman crossing in front of him, and it left an impression on me. As did learning that last year two MIU students were hit crossing the street in front of the university. It doesn’t seem worth it to me to risk death just to buy groceries or change money. And Emma, much as she thinks I’m being silly, is a big reason why I’m cautious. I want us both to live through this experience, preferably without serious injuries.

“How exciting! What an adventure!”

kitchen

That was pretty much every everyone’s reaction when Emma or I said that we were moving to Mongolia. Emma got really tired of it after a while, especially since when she gave her honest answer – “sort of” – people responded by either trying to get her excited about it or telling her, “Well, it’ll go fast!” She doesn’t want it to go fast, but she also had real reasons for not being excited. She was leaving a school she loves and lots of very close friends to follow her mom into the unknown. (I’m still trying to get her to write a post, folks, but it’s not really her thing.)

Moving to Mongolia is an adventure, ultimately, but what a lot of people don’t get is how much of it just really isn’t, especially in the beginning. Getting here was an adventure, for sure (see the post on our layover in Beijing), but once we were here, we had to hit the ground running. We arrived on a Friday, and Emma started school on Tuesday. Our entire first weekend was getting our apartment set up so we could function on a basic level. It came furnished (beds, wardrobes, a small table and stools, a desk and chair, a bookshelf, a refrigerator, a washing machine, a hot plate, and an electric kettle). But we had to supply dishes, pots, pans, sheets, pillows, and other necessities, and get a supply of food. So from the start, our stay here was about setting up a functioning household and establishing a routine so that Emma’s school year would start out well.

living roommy bedroom

Settling in has gone more easily here than it has in some of the other countries I’ve lived in. Living on the university campus helps – there’s a built-in community of people I can ask about where to go for what or how to do things. The Media and Communication Department secretary, Gerelee, has been extremely helpful in getting us set up. She was going to take us shopping on our first day, but immigration procedures prevailed, so she came to campus on our first Saturday morning to help us with initial shopping for household goods and food. Because we couldn’t go shopping that Friday, our first night was a little rough, but I had planned ahead. I had brought a couple of sheets and pillowcases for us to use; we just stuffed the pillowcases with clothes for the first night. I had also brought a few boxes of Emma’s staple food, Annie’s Mac’n’Cheese, and the person who had occupied our apartment before us had fortunately left behind a pot and some plates, so I cooked the macaroni without the cheese sauce (no butter or milk), and we had some of the snacks left over from the plane as side dishes. Hey, it worked.

Saturday morning, Gerelee met us on campus and we walked first to the Nomin Wholesale store around the corner from the university to buy pillows, sheets, towels, and kitchen stuff. It was like walking into Costco. A lot smaller, but…Costco. The store was set up exactly the same way – televisions and other electronics in the front, housewares down one side, food down the other, clothes and other stuff in the middle. Welcome to Mongolia! Of course, the labels were not all in English, and the prices were in tugrik; with an exchange rate of about 2500 to the dollar, it takes a bit of mental gymnastics to figure out how much something costs. But the initial impression was familiar. We managed to pick out a pot (Zebra stainless steel from Thailand), a frying pan (Tefal from France), a rice cooker (Monel from South Korea), sheet sets (Queenly from China), pillows (also Queenly), a comforter (Erdenet Home from Mongolia), and a couple of plates, bowls, glasses, and mugs. Then we carried it all back to the dorm before setting off to buy food.

The nearest supermarket is across the street in the other direction, but also very close. It’s in a building called Tengel Plaza, which also has a small Daiso and other small shops upstairs (plus the ATM machine that later ate my ATM card). The supermarket was fun. One of my favorite things about visiting or living in other countries is seeing the supermarkets – the mix of familiar and exotic, local and imported, mundane and bizarre. I will write about our supermarket in another post (I couldn’t fully explore it until Emma was away on her school camping trip, because food shopping isn’t her thing). But we got some staples, and then headed home to set up house.

cupboard

So much of getting started in a new country is this. Setting up a household. Figuring out the basic aspects of daily life. Where to go to get what. How to do basic things. Getting SIM cards. Figuring out how to re-load the SIM cards. Getting bus passes. Figuring out the bus routes. Figuring out how to use the bus passes. Figuring out how to reload the bus passes. Figuring out transportation to and from school for your kid because the buses don’t go all the way to her school (she’ll be taking taxis). Finding a can opener. Finding things your kid likes to eat. Figuring out how to cook meals on a single hot plate. Figuring out the right settings on your Turkish washing machine. Finding notebooks and sketchbooks. Buying a sofa so you have something comfortable to sit on. Waiting to get your passport back from Immigration so you can open a bank account and get back your American ATM card that was eaten by an ATM machine. The usual stuff.

So yes, eventually moving to Mongolia may seem like an adventure to us. But for now we are preoccupied by the details of daily life. Once we get that down, we’ll be open for more exciting things.