Friday, November 5, 2010


Frequently Asked Questions that you might have about my Mongolian Life

1. How often do you shower?
Not since August. I do this weird wriggling dance with a washcloth to try & to get my back clean, but who knows how effective I really am? But in reality, a tumpen (a large, very wide bucket) bath mostly involves water everywhere, dead skin peeling off in grayish clusters, & a lot of pre-planning in terms of hauling & heating water. I tumpen bathe probably twice a week. Sometimes I do so more often (especially if something important happens to be occurring in the near future).

2. How often do you do laundry?
As necessary. Handwashing can be really harsh on clothing, so it's best to get a couple wears out of any one article of clothing. A good indicator of “Wash me now!” is taking a scientific analysis of the clothing by sniffing the armpits of choice items. My dirty clothes take up residence in my laundry basket (a grocery bag hidden in my clothing cabinet) & I wash clothes probably twice a week. They line dry on rope I have strung across the metal pipes that snake around my window (the pipes go to the radiator). I'd hang them outside like my fellow Mongolians, but due to the dust floating around, I feel that it might be counterintuitive. Plus, my blackest blacks might get sunbleached.

3. How do you wash clothes?
In my tumpen. A little water goes a long way (you'd really be surprised). I eschew rinsing unlike some of my fellow PCVs because it seems like an unnecessary waste of water. Some PCVs buy the more expensive powered soap to wash their clothes with, but I'm doing just fine with my laundry soap bars. I cut soap into smaller pieces to be more economical, & it also makes the soap easier to handle. & I only use soap very sparingly because it gets the water too soapy & renders it useless for further clothes washing. Big items (sweaters, leggings, skirts) are washed first, & socks & unmentionables are last.

4. No really, the water thing, how does that work?
I haul water usually once a day. My dry sink has a bucket underneath for dirty water that I carry to dump out. To make my water triple-effective, I generally try to get as much use out of it as I can. If I tumpen bathe, I save that water to do laundry. After the laundry is done, the water is still good for washing dirty dishes.

5. In Mexico they say “Don't drink the water!” Is that true in Mongolia?
Yes, it's true. Water here is often fecally contaminated. The Soviet Union installed sewage pipes above water lines, & decades later, these pipes have begun to corrode. You get the idea. To make water potable, Peace Corps has advised us to boil it rapidly for two minutes. We have also been issued high-quality water filters to make the water safe. These filters have to be scrubbed (easy to do with a toothbrush) once every three weeks, & our entire filtering units also need to be washed out.

6. What's the Gobi like?
Contrary to my abject dismay at hearing my very unexpected site placement, I love it here. I really love it. I've made friends with the stunted trees outside my school, & my cat is known to bring in tailless lizards to dismember on my rug. Part of my adoration has to do with the wonderful people of Hanhongor, the incredible support I've received from the former M13 PCV Sadie who was here from 2002-2004, & the great accommodations I've been blessed with. Not many PCVs can say that their HCA (Host Country Agency) set them up with both a fridge & an oven!

7. So, it's really flat there?
Think New Mexico, although I'm pretty sure I've never been there. It's certainly no autumn wonderland, something I sorely miss, but the landscape is incredibly unique. I have mountains that border me to the north, east & west. The western mountains are quite large, & though they are miles away, & I very clearly see their snow-capped peaks when I go outside. We also have a plethora of interesting desert foliage, including these strange little plants that grow that just have two leaves & look somewhat like lily pads. Desert lily pads is what they're officially called, except I just invented that name & I don't really intend on ever finding out what they really are. Throughout October, the low shrubs burst into riots of color, which were really pleasing to look at when going into the aimag.

8. Are you cold?
Not at all! My radiator works beautifully (& I'll be biting my tongue when the power goes out on a dreary gray night, but that's what my cat-AKA-foot-heater is for). The temperature has been pretty temperate throughout the autumn season. We had our first snow on October 23rd, & it was absolutely enchanting. Not many people can say they've seen desert snow. As I write this, however, the snow is gone, & the temperature has been in the upper forties or mid-fifties from my best estimation.

9. So the power goes out?
Sadly, yes. But never fear, I have a trusty supply of candles (shlaa, as the Mongolians call them) on hand for just such occasions. We get our power from the aimag, & sometimes things can get sketchy. Last I heard from M20 Zach who lives in Dalanzadgad, the power plant has been having some issues, so the random outages may occur on-&-off for some time. I'm lucky just to have power. I live in the Gobi!

10. What Mongolian phrases do I need to know?
All of them. Not really, just the basics you'd need in any foreign situation: hello, goodbye, thank you, where is the bathroom?, how much does it cost?, & please (but Mongolian doesn't have a word for please). I'll write these out phonetically so you'll have a much easier time understanding how to say them (because few westerners read Cyrillic). Hello is “sen ben-oh?” to which you respond “sen” ---it's a hybrid of hello & how are you, really. Goodbye is “bye-ish-tare” or sometimes “bye-er-tay” depending on who you're talking to. Thank you is “bye-ersh-la.” Where is the bathroom is “haan jor-(gh)-lun ben way?” although you might have to gesture for someone to point things out. How much does it cost is “ya-mar oo-n-tay vay?” (the oo's sound like a “u” sound, as in the word “blue”).

11. So, what do you do for fun?
Fun question. For my sanity's sake, I keep a running journal, type out emails in word documents to send the next time I'm able to get online, & I also have a fabulous habit of writing letters & drawing elaborate inside-joke-type sketches for my fellow comrades. I spend a lot of money on postage each month, but the entertainment I gain from drawing, writing, & the wonderful responses I get from my friends are well worth the effort (& money). The best part of my day is when a teacher tells me that I have a letter waiting for me at the post office.

12. What's a togrog?
Really, it's pronounced “two-grik,” but when people transcribe Cyrillic to Roman, a substitution scheme is generally used. Tugriks (as I spell the word) are the Mongolian form of currency. One U.S. dollar is roughly the equivalent of 1375 tugriks, although the currency exchange changes on a daily basis. When the tugrik was first introduced by the Soviet Union in the 1920s, one tugrik was equal to one dollar. Then, the U.S.S.R. pulled out of Mongolia, & the economy plummeted. Consequently, there are no coins in modern Mongolian currency (that I've seen anyway) because the cost of the metal to make such coins would be worth more than the currency itself.

13. How much do you get paid per month?
The Peace Corps expects us to live at the level at which most Mongolians live. Consequently, our living allowances are around 190,000 tugriks per month, which roughly translates to $140. Think of being a poor college student & you'll understand how I manage. Living in a soum is actually beneficial, because I don't have the opportunity to spend as much money. I am able to save that money, & later, I will have the opportunity to travel all over Mongolia & visit my friends. (Also, factor in the fact that we don't need to worry about health care, housing, or most other things like that.)

14. What's the scariest thing about living in Mongolia?
The winters! Nope. The foreign sense of it all! Nope. Being away from everything that was ever familiar ever in your life ever! Nope. I'm not sure what's scary about Mongolia, so I'd have to say not very much. The Peace Corps did warn us about the street dogs (“na-hoy” in Mongolian) that can be vicious, but I've never had an incident, & if I did, I'd simply throw rocks at them just as true Mongolians do. The Peace Corps takes such good care of us that we were asked to detail where a helicopter could land in our towns if an emergency ever arose. I have very, very little to worry about where I live. In fact, I don't even think that Hanhongor has any crime that I've heard about since I moved here in August, & I am on a first-name basis with the police department.

15. Do you miss America?
All the time, but not in the sense that you'd probably imagine. I look back fondly on the little things that had so much meaning. Sure, I miss showers & creature comforts, & yeah, supermarkets stocked with food certainly seem luxurious. But what I really miss are walking the puppies with my Dad & then having a few drinks at a dive bar afterwards. What I really miss are the campfire sing-alongs with my brother & his guitar on our patio. What I really miss is being able to see my Mom learning the ins-&-outs of Facebook! I miss my beautiful friends & the great conversations we shared, but after all, they are only a letter (or coveted email) away.

16. What do you eat?
I'm still a vegetarian here, although most Mongolians subsist on a high meat & high starch-based diet. My soum has three delgoors (shops) that stock onions, carrots, & potatoes on a regular basis. I can also find apples. You learn to get creative. With a trusty supply of peanut butter from back home, I am able to make a great peanut-thai-chili noodle dish. Eggs & cheese are also available on occasion. Today, I made garlic bread sticks & a marinara from tinned tomatoes. The Peace Corps gave us a cookbook with recipes from past PCVs, & that helps a lot when I'm trying to do something fancy. In any case, all things are possible with some good old fashioned Peace Corps ingenuity. (My cat eats meat, by the way, & I've been making jerky!)

17. What about bathrooms?
You mean a room with a sparkling porcelain throne, glistening silver taps, & plush rugs? Not a chance. We have outhouses, & in the winter, they won't even smell! Ta-da! The aimag does have flush toilets, though, so that's always a lovely adventure.

18. I ran a Google search & found XYZ. It sounds horrible!
Whatever it is, it's not. Peace Corps takes incredible care of all of us. We have two highly-trained medical officers, a parade of both American & Mongolian staff members, financial officers, drivers, you name it. We even have a contracted helicopter. I'm not going to get malaria & die. I live next door to a hospital, in any case, & my cell phone works just fine. (Not to mention my entire soum looks out for my wellbeing, & they're more than eager to call Peace Corps if I'm throwing up violently.)

19. What about the plague?!
What about it? It still exists, yes, but Peace Corps gave us all these little blue capsules we lovingly refer to as Plague Pills, if the need should ever arise. The plague in Mongolia is carried by a small, prairie dog-like animal called a marmot, & you'd practically have to rub your face all over a marmot pelt to contract it. In addition to this, the Mongolian government is very good about quarantines. If there is an outbreak, it is contained almost immediately.

20. Genghis Khan was really brutal/tyrannical/fill-in-the-blank!
Not quite. I suggest reading Jack Weatherford's book on the subject. You thought the Roman empire was massive? Prepare to have your mind blown.

21. How do you take care of your cat?
Lots of love. Cago can go outside as he pleases, & knows exactly where he lives. I've never had a problem, although I don't like him going outside at night. He is adamant about following me around when I have to go get water. He's incredibly helpful. He even wants to help me teach, & has been known to bust into the school all stealth-like & find his way into my classroom (& thus into my arms). He eats jerky, which I make by cutting meat strips & hanging them to dry in my window. He's also partisan to eating whatever I'm eating most of the time, & he drinks milk (they have 3% here!) & water. His litter box is discreetly hidden under my low table, & is made from a wide, plastic “baby tumpen” (bucket) filled with sand & covered with a cardboard box with a cat-sized door cut into it.

22. How does your cell phone work?
Quite well, I'd say, especially since I live in the desert. We don't pay for incoming calls or texts, so please, feel free to learn how to Skype & call or text at will! (I really can't call, as it is too expensive. & I can't respond to Skype-sent texts.) Our cell phones are through a Mongolian company called MobiCom, & are on a pay-as-you-go type of plan. I go to the local delgoor, buy units, & then they are added to my phone. We text a lot here, since texts are only 19 tugriks each. Calls run at about 70 tugriks a minute (I believe), so calling is generally a once-or-twice-a-month-to-that-special-someone-or-beloved-comrade deal. We keep in touch mostly through texts, letters, & email. Sadly, Mongolian phones don't have voicemail, so many Mongolians are known to answer their phones at any & all times.

23. What would you say to someone who was entertaining the idea of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer someday?
I'd say what my father said to me: The first six months after training are the hardest. But the experience as whole is one of the most rewarding you will ever have. From my own perspective, Peace Corps has been my dream since I was a little girl, & I'm lucky to be one of the numbered few who can say that I'm truly living my dream. If you're thinking about it, please apply, & do it soon. The application process is quite a challenge in & of itself, & it was designed that way on purpose. If you truly aspire to becoming a PCV, I am more than willing to provide all of my experiences with the process (even a PowerPoint presentation I made for a seminar that I gave in college!). Just shoot me an email, & I'd be happy to answer any of your questions. Visit for more information!

If you have any other burnin' questions that need a-answerin', feel free to leave them in the comments, & I will be sure to respond to them as soon as I am able!


  1. Emma,

    I loved reading your post and hearing a little bit about what life is like as a volunteer in Mongolia. Keep warm!

    PCV Tonga

  2. Hey ho....Absolutely love the blog. Reminds me of a year i feel old! Keep up the good fight, see you at Thanksgiving!

    PCV Bagakhangai, Mongolia