Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lessons Learned

I’ve now been at my office for just under a month. The first two weeks were hard. Everyone in my office but me is Mongolian, and while they all speak English, there are varying degrees of fluency. Also, they’ve never had a non-native working here before, and so even though we’re part of an international NGO, it took them a while to figure out what to do with me. In the beginning too, I brought lunch every day in an attempt to save money to travel.

Then, one day, I went out to lunch with a group of co-workers and my whole world changed. Suddenly, I was part of the group. And being part of the group meant being in on the jokes, finding out who had boyfriends, who didn’t, where the good clothing stores were, and where the good restaurants were that only locals know about. What’s more, becoming friends with my co-workers during lunch meant that, at work, they respected me more and gave me more to do. For the past few days, I’ve actually been overworked, which is awesome.

Also, through the Human Rights conference I went to for work, I met one of the Australians that I now hang out with all the time. She works for a Mongolian NGO too, and while there’s one other American that works in her office (sometimes) she’s essentially in the same boat I am, which is great, because we can give each other tips and the people we work with can laugh about us together.

Yesterday, while I was walking home from dropping a friend off at the train station, I saw a non-Mongolian girl, about my age, painting numbers on the sidewalk. She was Russian, and knew about as much English as I do Mongolian. But we spent about a half an hour trying to chat in this crazy English/Mongolian/Russian hybrid that neither of us really understood, and we had a great time. It turns out she works at the Russian school, and classes start tomorrow, so she was painting the class numbers where the kids will line up outside. She invited me to come by tomorrow morning at 11 to meet all the kids. And, just then, talking to her, I decided that everything here would be alright.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Peace Corps Partying

Last Saturday night, one of the Peace Corps volunteers threw himself a birthday party, and invited me. I brought two Australians and one American who had just arrived in Mongolia. We walked in the door of this beautiful apartment to find 20 people surrounding a beer pong table. It was kind of surreal.

There are 90 Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia, which seems like a huge number to me, 10 of which are located here in Ulaanbaatur. The one throwing the party is actually a 3rd year (Peace Corps volunteers are required to stay at their posts 27 months -- three months training, 24 working). There are actually several 3rd year Peace Corps people here in Mongolia, which really shows how much they enjoy Mongolia. In a lot of other countries, 27 months is more than enough.

One of the girls at the party had blow-dried hair, highlights, and ironed clothes, while the rest of us were in jeans and t-shirts. The thing is, she's spent the last year living in a ger with a dirt floor all the way in the East of Mongolia, without any other Americans around. I couldn't do it. So it makes sense that, on a weekend off, she might want to dress up.

The other strange part of the evening was that all the Peace Corps kids kept talking about events as if they were yesterday, but it soon became clear that much of what they were talking about happened at least a year ago. For many of them though, they get out of the countryside so rarely, and they see other Americans so rarely, that memories from a year ago are their most recent memories outside of their ger lives.

Oh, and on Saturday, I saw the Dalai Lama, which was pretty incredible. He just finished a week tour of Mongolia. China was so angry about it (because they don't recognize the Dalai Lama) that they suspended Air China flights to Mongolia for a little while, which further fostered the animus Mongolians tend to feel toward the Chinese. Mongolians, however, were wildly happy about the Dalai Lama's visit -- his seventh. The word Dalai is actually Mongolian, and 80 percent of the Mongolian population is Buddhist, so seeing the Dalai Lama is a huge deal.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Does Mongolia have fast food?

As of now, there aren't really fast food restaurants in Mongolia.

Mongolia does, however, have cafes and bakeries that offer carry out service and there are often people on the street selling buuz (dumpling-like treats that sometimes contain hot liquid along with meat) and khuusuur, which are essentially vegetable or meat empanadas. There are also places like Indra, and Berlin Burger that are kind of cafeteria-style fast food places. Right now though, there's no McDonalds, Burger King or Pizza Hut.

The one ostensibly Western fast food restaurant is BD's Mongolian Barbeque, owned by Billy Downs who runs a chain of these restaurants in the Southern US, and recently decided to have a Mongolian outpost. BD's is essentially a sit-down, make-your-own stir fry place.

A woman from the London office of the organization I work for was here this week, and she was saying that she had been in the Ukraine when the first McDonalds opened there. She had made some disparaging remarks about it, which really offended her Ukrainian friends. "How dare you deny us our place in the world?" they said to her. "We are finally joining the global market, and you are trying to hold us back."

Apparently, McDonalds recently sent a survey team to Mongolia to scout out the country as a potential market. The rumor is, however, that they decided against opening up a franchise here. Part of the supposed reason is that they couldn't compete with the pricing of items like khuusuur, which you can get for around ten cents apiece, and partially, Mongolia has such a low population density that UB would be their only possible market, and it just isn't that big. A lot of other Western companies, such as HSBC, have resisted participating in the Mongolian economy for the same reason.

At a certain point, however, I imagine that Mongolia will become enough of a tourist destination, and there will be enough other enticing factors, that companies will come, and Mongolia will join the global McDonalds market.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Are Mongolians fashionable?

One would think that citizens of a landlocked country with little access to basic items such as wheat would be similarly confined when it comes to fashion. Not so. Mongolians are incredibly fashionable.

I don't mean that Mongolians are wearing knee length shorts, or whatever is trendy in New York right now, but they are very conscious of how they look. UB has a large young population, as anyone who can comes into the city for university, and young people are likely to stay after they finish school. What this means is that you have a huge number of men and women in their late teens, early 20s who are unmarried and have disposable incomes.

The girls tend to wear outfits that people in the US might wear to go out on the weekends, or on special occasions. Women wear high heels almost all the time, and glittery tops are popular, as are short skirts. Men tend to wear button-down shirts and to have a generally sartorial look about them.

Cell phones are the key accessory for any outfit. I bought a used cell phone upon arriving in Mongolia for around $30. It's one of the original Nokia pre-flip phones that everyone used to have, six years ago. It works fine, all the controls are in English, and it gets good reception. Mongolians, however, practically pity me for having such an old phone. People here tend to buy new cell phones about once every six months, and they spend huge amounts of money: many cell phones here cost around $300 -- that's 25% of the average Mongolian's salary. On some level, I'm embarrassed for having such an ugly phone, and I want to say to people "I have a razr at home in New York, I swear!" but, at the same time, being a foreigner here I feel somewhat immune to social mores.

My boss recently, who is in her late 30s, was talking to me about the obsession with clothes and phones here in Mongolia. She was saying that Mongolians by nature are adaptive people; they are nomadic and used to change. They can adopt other cultures very quickly, almost unconsciously. She worries though that the adoption of style and image is occurring on a very superficial level. "I keep thinking they are going to wake up one day," she says, "and realize that they have no sense of who they really are." But then again, she says, maybe they won't. Either way, for now, they look great.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Mongolian Law

My office is putting together a huge document on how to train people to become paralegals, and so they are having me proof the English version, which is actually pretty good. My favorite paragraph so far:

"In law faculties moots are usually conducted formally and learners dress in robes and argue the appeal in a simulated moot court environment. This is not necessary for training paralegals. A simulated court environment can still be used but it is not necessary for learners to dress up in court robes."

I can just imagine the relief these paralegal teachers felt when they learned they did not need to find court robes........the paragraph also reminds me of why I'm not planning on going to law school.

This week I have been at the Northeast Asian Human Rights Defenders Conference that is going on here in UB. It's a kind of random assortment of people in the sense that I never knew that Cambodia constituted Northeast Asia, but people from Cambodian NGOs are here, along with people from China, Thailand, Hong Kong, South Korea, and, of course, Mongolia. In all, there are about 60 people here, only four of whom, myself included, are native English speakers. Still, the entire conference is in English.

Mongolia appears a lot worse off than I thought as far as Human Rights go. Like China, it is developing whole economies around trash collection, and other jobs that cause people to tramp around in some pretty gross stuff. Right now, there's no such thing as recycling in Mongolia, nor is there the understanding that trash doesn't just go away....not that Fresh Kills is anything to be proud of....So there are organizations that are trying to work with the trash collectors and to educate their children in an attempt to prevent them from spending their whole lives amidst waste. It's interesting that these people's occupation has made trash management a human rights issue.

In other news: I got my first set of business cards today. Who knew that coming to Mongolia would make me professional? They have English on one side and Mongolian on the other.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Where I live

Here's a photo of my apartment building. The shipping crates to the right are where my neighbors park their cars.

A friend of mine is currently in town from Beijing, so we took a trip this past weekend to Terelj National Park, where we pitched out little tent alongside a river, and just sat around and enjoyed the view.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Is Banking Easy in Mongolia?

This is one of my other gripes with Michael Kohn of Lonely Planet-Mongolia fame. Lonely Planet is the only travel guide company out there that makes a Mongolia guide, so Michael Kohn, the latest author, has a monopoly on tourist information. And sometimes he's wrong. As in when he says that "banking in Mongolia is a snap."

The one thing I'll give Kohn is that there a zillion banks in UB. I read the NYT article last week A Bank For Every Block and determined that Manhattan has nothing on Mongolia. Here, there are 17 different bank companies. All of which have the majority of their branches here in UB.

In another country, this might make it difficult to determine which bank to go to. Here, it's fairly easy; there are only three banks that are considered "clean" in the sense that they don't pay off the government: Xac Bank, Xhan Bank (which used to be the National ie, only bank in Mongolia), and the Trade and Development Bank. Otherwise, there is little to differentiate the banks. Almost none of them have ATMs, and it appears that just has Pepsi has a monopoly on soda in the Mall of America, Visa has a monopoly on debit and credit cards in Mongolia. A few banks accept Mastercard, but only when they feel like it. Most pretend they've never heard of Mastercard.

Mongolians are also a fan of lines, by which I mean they hate lines. By which I mean they shove to the front and pretend the line doesn't exist. Bank managers therefore like to exact pain on Mongolians by creating as many lines as possible. They often have you wait on one line to tell them how much money you would like. You may then have to wait on another line if you don't have an account there, where they will swipe your credit card or debit card, as though you are "purchasing" cash. For this you will get a receipt and you will watch the teller count out the proper amount of cash (all the money is on display here -- they seem to have no concerns about holdups). The teller will then walk the cash over to another teller whose line you will have to wait on to receive the cash. At which point you may snap, which could be what Michael Kohn meant to say.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Is Mongolia going to get its own Palm Islands?

This is the land of Xanadu after all....

Michael Schuman of Time: Asia thinks Mongolia could become the next UAE, given its natural resources. John Macken of Ivanhoe Mines doesn't believe that's a problem. Many Mongolians feel otherwise.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What's the food like in Mongolia? (How do Mongolians avoid scurvy?)

The Lonely Planet guidebook tries to pretend that UB has a wide food selection -- I believe it suggests that Ulaanbaatur is in the "upper echelons" as far as variety of cuisine goes in Asia. I beg to differ. Mongolia is a land-locked country that, for much of the year, is covered in permafrost. Nothing's growing. The fruits and vegetables that you can buy are limited in variety, and, because they are almost all imported, they're expensive.

The nomadic diet consists almost entirely of what they have on hand: a lot of milk products, from goats and yaks, many of which are fermented, so they can last through the winter, yak meat, and mutton. The other big ingredient is wheat. I was legitimately amazed they all didn't have scurvy until I learned that unpasteurized milk has some vitamin C in it, and, apparently, lamb liver contains quite a lot of vitamin C.

A friend of mine here who works for CHF International, (which, like Mercy Corps, is an organization that works on poverty reduction and sustainable change across the world) was telling me that two of the big funders of CHF's Mongolian operations are United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Apparently, the USAID tends to give money, and USDA works with CHF to help "monetize" American wheat. The USDA currently subsidizes wheat production in America. Then, because there is a surplus of wheat in America, the extra wheat gets shipped off to countries like Mongolia. CHF sells the wheat to Mongolians and uses that income to subsidize their programs.

In countries like Mongolia where it's difficult to grow wheat, this is a really effective way of giving people access to wheat. In countries in Africa, however, where this apparently also occurs, and where there is already wheat production, it can be devastating to the market as the surplus lowers the overall price of wheat.

Monday, August 07, 2006

NYT Discovers Mongolia

Ed Wong calls the roads here "bone-jarring."

The Steppe Inne

On Friday, I was invited by one of said older banker persons to the Steppe Inne, which was described as "like an eating club." As someone who is more used to eating ramen than anything, I was a little intimidated before going, and the barbed wire, guest list and mandatory i.d. check didn't help any.

As it turns out, the Steppe Inn is the British Embassy's kind of private bar, and, on weekends in the summer, they have relaxed barbeques....for people on their guest list.

I was talking to the woman flipping burgers (it's embassy staffers and their spouses that do the cooking) and she said the Steppe Inne opened in September 1988, which is really early (still Soviet-era) and even before the Peace Corps arrived (they're at year 17). Early in the sense that I was amazed there were enough of a scene in Mongolia at that time to warrant an exclusive bar at an embassy. I expressed surprise, because there is a bar on every corner in UB, and Mongolians are notorious for their vodka-swigging, and so she said, "well, you know, it was because there was nowhere to drink here then." Then she got kind of embarrassed, and I realized she meant there had been nowhere for Westerners to drink without Mongolians around.

The crowd at the Steppe Inne was mostly British Embassy folk, American embassy people, UN staffers, and people from the World Bank crowd. There was one Mongolian there. He seemed to know no one, and, spotting me (I can only assume) as someone else seemingly out of their element, came up to me and, finding out I was from New York, asked if I had ever climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty (I had) and how many steps it took (I had no idea). The only other non-White person there was, randomly, the owner of one of the best Indian restaurants in town.

As someone who has now been on the guest list, I can apply to be a guest member of the Inne, provided I get my boss to write a letter attesting that I do work here, fill out the application form, photocopy my passport, and provide them with two passport photographs. We'll see.

Oh, and when I was talking about the expat scene, I forgot to mention the Christian scene. It's huge here. Most older Mongolians are Buddhist, but a decent percentage of the younger generation is converting. The Mormon Church is the only church here legally allowed to proselytize, but there are a lot of different christian groups here that do less proselytizing, but maintain large public exposure by owning some of the big television stations, working with homeless kids, and generally doing a lot of civil projects around the country.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Are Mongolians Bad Drivers?

My first inclination is to say that they are the worst drivers I have ever seen. My second inclination is to qualify that statement. First off, you need to differentiate between Mongolians who live in UB (the only city in Mongolia over 100,000 people,) and everywhere else in the country.

In the city, there are no street lights. Okay, there are a few, at the massive six-lane four-direction intersections, but otherwise, there aren't any. Which means that cars have no reason to stop, and they don't want to stop. But pedestrians need to cross the road, which means that as a pedestrian, every time you cross the street, you have to take your life into your own hands and just walk out there and trust that the cars will stop or at least swerve a little. This always works better when there is a group of you.

Mongolia has one road that goes East-West across the country and it is not paved. Well, all but two small, random parts of it are not paved. One part, apparently, and this could very well be apochryphal, was paved by the Chinese, and, to make a larger profit, the Chinese apparently only made one and a half lanes instead of two, so it's not wide enough for two cars to fit. It also hasn't been repaired for a long time so it's pretty cracked. The other paved part, according to the same potentially apochryphal tale, was made by the Japanese, and that area is nice and smooth. It's almost like a mirage in that the dirt road suddenly becomes smooth asphalt and then, about 30 miles later, it abruptly becomes dirt again.

After a while, parts of the East-West road get so cut up and bumpy, in a bbbbbbummmbbbbummmm humming way, that drivers start making their own roads in the dirt next to the main road (Land Cruisers are the cars of choice here for obvious reasons -- you'd be nuts to drive anything that doesn't have 4-wheel drive outside of UB). The second roads tend to run parallel to the main road about 20 feet away. Sometimes the two roads intersect, and sometimes it's hard to tell if you are on the main road or the side road. The side road, however, tends to go BUMP! BUMP! as though you are on an trampoline and only spend half the time on the ground.

There's actually a big drama here about whether to fix the roads, because if the roads were fixed, people would drive on them more, and so it means that a lot of the really natural, beautiful places in Mongolia would be easily accessible by car and, if people went there, it would cause further disintegration of the nomadic lifestyle.

Another issue with Mongolian cars is that because they are all cheaply refurbished, they break down a lot. Probably every mile you will see a broken-down car. While this means that all Mongolians have to be really good car mechanics -- when you're in the middle of nowhere Mongolia, you need to be able to fix your own car -- it also means that quick fixes like sawdust to improve the gears are used regularly not as quick-fixes, but as completely valid methods for fixing one's car.

To further compound the Mongolian driving problem, gas is really expensive in Mongolian. It's essentially equivalent to what it is in the United States, which, while not expensive for the rest of the world, considering that the average Mongolian makes around $1200 a year, is really expensive for a Mongolian, so they are always trying to find an angle to make their gas last longer.

One more thing about Mongolian cars -- Mongolians hate seatbelts. I think they think seatbelts are for wusses. Seriously. Mongolians rip all the seatbelts out of their cars as soon as they buy them.

Part of me thinks maybe Mongolians are such crazy drivers because they are used to riding horses and so they are used to "off-roading" and they're also not used to having to worry about other passengers or drivers. Part of me also thinks that Mongolians are just really bad drivers.

What side of the road do people drive on in Mongolia?

In most countries, this would be a relatively simple question. In Mongolia, it's more complicated than right or left.

Mongolians do drive on the right side of the wheel as we do in the states, but......some of their steering wheels are on the left, some are on the right. That's because a full 90 percent of cars in Mongolia are bought second-hand, and they are bought second-hand from all over, including countries that drive on the left side of the road. This is only one of the many many reasons that sitting in a car in Mongolia or trying to cross the street are dangerous enterprises.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

How do you tell the difference between expats and tourists?

The first thing that will help you is to know that is a limited expat community in UB which appears to fall into two very distinct categories:

1. The young people. This group of people, of which I am one, range in age from about 23-32. They are here because they are in the Peace Corps, working for a non-profit, on a fellowship, or some other job that likely pays them Mongolian-style wages.

2. The old people. This group seems to consist almost entirely of men. They are usually at least 50 and they are here for business. They work for banks, as consultants, for oil companies, for real estate companies. They almost all make American salaries and have drivers and do not need to or try to speak Mongolian. Still, many of them have Mongolian girlfriends, almost all of whom are much younger. They live in places like the Star Apartments, which is where all the embassy folk live, and where rents are at Western rates. They speak in loud voices in restaurants and always order in English.

Tourists tend to travel in packs, and to be fairly young. Most of them look like they are here to go camping. Pants that have many pockets and photographer style vests are popular. So are restaurants that are in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Millie's Cafe, which is in the guidebook, is mainly older expats who can afford the high prices (the equivalent of $7 for a salad) but some tourists do make their way to it. Expats hang out at the cheap dvd store where they build up their dvd collections with $2 movies from China. And those are the major differences between expats and tourists.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

What's Ulaanbaatur, Mongolia like?

God, I wish I could say it's nice. Mongolia is a beautiful, beautiful country. UB is the ugliest capital I think I've ever seen. It consists almost entirely of slabs of concrete -- Soviet-style apartment blocks with windows cut out of them. None of them appear to have been renovated, ever. Furthermore, since they're concrete, they're not going to fall down any time soon. So they just stand there, balconies sloping downward (every apartment here appears to have a balcony), paint (where there is any) peeling, looking entirely unliveable.

Outside of the buildings, UB is similar to just about every other big city. There are supermarkets, department stores (2), lots of little cafes and restaurants, a circus, an opera house, and all the other accoutrements that go along with city living. The big difference is the mountains that are visible surrounding the city. They're huge and beautiful and remind you of how gorgeous the rest of the country is.

Almost all signs are in Mongolian, but an increasing number are in English. In the US, signs are often in French to signify class, here, it's English. Sometimes you'll get a mixture, like "Moda Mongolia" a "fancy" re: cheap quality Italian clothing store.

Currently, there are a lot of tourists around, a lot of Europeans, particularly French, some Australians, and fewer Americans. There are a lot more tourists than you would actually expect for Mongolia. Apparently, however, come the end of August, they will all be gone, only expats will remain, and no tourists will reappear until late June next year.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.