Sunday, July 18, 2010

Yak Hunter

A set of definitions:

Yak: (n.)
a large, furry creature which is in and of itself quite harmless though it may look a bit formidable upon first inspection.

to hunt: (v.)
to chase or search for (game or other wild animals) for the purpose of catching or killing.
to pursue with force, hostility, etc., in order to capture
to search for; seek; endeavor to obtain or find

The epic two year quest to hunt a number of yaks has at last come to an end. To pretend that all yak hunting is over would be foolish indeed. Rather, there are some rather old, problematic yaks which have been done away with and replaced with new, more self-chosen ones.

A thank you to all who supported the hunting: suggesting hunting methods, sending hunting supplies, offering new perspectives on the definitions of the words at hand.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer in Bayankhongor

***Blatantly stolen from Camus' essay "Summer in Algiers"***

"The loves we share with a city are often secret loves."

"Bayankhongor opens to the sky like a mouth or a wound."

"In Bayankhongor one loves the commonplaces..."

"In Bayankhongor whoever is young and alive finds sanctuary and occasion for triumphs everywhere..."

"But for whoever has lost his youth there is nothing to cling to and nowhere where melancholy can escape itself."

"...places where man can flee his humanity and gently liberate himself from himself."

"...above all, there is the silence of summer evenings."

"Those brief moments when day topples into night must be peopled with secret signs and summons..."

"Everything related to death is either ridiculous or hateful here."

"To feel one's attachment to a certain region, one's love for a certain group of men, toknow that there is always a spot where one's heart will feel at peace - these are many certainties for a single human life. And yet this is not enough. But at certain moments everything yearns for that spiritual home. "Yes, we must go back there - these indeed." Is there anything odd in finding on earth that union that Plotinus longed for?"

"In the evening or after the rain, the whole earth, its womb moist with a seed redolent of bitter almond, rests after having given herself to the sun all summer long. And again that scent hallows the union of man and earthand awakens in us the only really virile love in this world: ephemeral and noble."

Thursday, June 24, 2010


Recent trip to the lovely village of Erdenetsogt proved delightful. Arrived Friday night after surviving a trip in a small yellow Korean bus over rather flooded roads which required the driver and assistants to leave the bus, throw stones into the river, and then drive over this newly created underwater "road". A normally less-than-an-hour drive turned into an approximately 3 hour adventure when the engine overheated and required deep gulps of water from the river that was causing us so much trouble.

The "doorman" who was in charge of managing the rock throwing and engine problems was otherwise occupied about 80% of the time. On either side of me sat some early 20 looking students likely on their way home for the summer from college (in UB?). Said doorman seemed to know these two ladies and wanted to get to know them better. Lots of slapping ensued without serious injury.

Once in Erdenetsogt the movie marathon began: No Country for Old Men, Rashomon, De-Lovely, and The Departed.

Saturday saw Wally, Leilia and I hiking for about three hours in search of a "forest." Turns out that the forest was a collection of approximately 50 or so trees which, in their defense, were able to provide a little shade. They were not able to quench our thirst or hunger...Super Kontik and Tsuivan over pasta noodles ensued upon arrival home (post blister investigation).

Sunday, the day of rest, was reserved for more movies and seeing the sites of the village, namely, the monastery which the Russians failed to destroy back in the day. Here is Wally with his "I'm-not-from-here-that's-why-I'm-standing-in-front-of-your-temple-like-this" pose.

Stayed up most of the night on Sunday distilling water for the epic walk from Erdenetsogt to Bayankhongor. Questions such as "Will we make it there without yak attacks?". "Which path should we take? The valley or mountain one?", and "Will this water distiller ever finish so we can sleep before we have to get up at 6am?" floated through our minds (or so I am arguing).

Day dawned, much coffee was ingested and we were off to Bayankhongor! Our first stop: two youths on horses wondering what in the world we were doing and reminiscing about the previous Erdenetsogt volunteer. It was about 10 am. The "leader" of the pair was already pleasantly buzzed it seemed. Second stop: an ancient jeep stops, doors open, inquisitive faces peer out, "Do you want a ride?" Ha! Need a ride?! Later investigation revealed that at least one of us wanted to take them up on that offer. I will not mention names. You know who you are.

I may have skipped the snack and dinner stops which were requested by...oh, I don't know...There may have been about 4 such stops. And one nap stop. Maybe requested by the aforesaid person...

But finally, after about 7 hours of walking we saw her! Beautiful Bayankhongor. Excited about this view we decided to swim/float down the river much to the continued indifference of the cows and yaks cooling themselves in our floating path...Our Chili and Egg Salad (capitalized!) had acquired a strange smell. Leilia disposed of them to the accompaniment of much rejoicing.

The Big City greeted us by selling us ice cream, eating my ATM card, and providing elderly women to cut us in line at the bank. The legendary Erdenetsogt to Bayankhongor trip: a small victory for Bayankhongor-volunteer-kind.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Years Later...

Here is the first informational email I sent from Bayankhongor. These were the days when Yak Hunter wasn't yet a blog...So long ago. Today marks the two year anniversary of my arrival in Mongolia! So: here is the aforementioned email with annotations (in parenthesis) by a soon to be "returned" Peace Corps Volunteer.

"Hello friends!

I am getting settled here in lovely Bayanhongor. And, as you may have guessed from the conspicuous lack of emailing, I have been busy as...a bee. I am teaching about 35 hours a week, on top of figuring out how to live in a ger, and implement/continue some secondary projects... (I have forgotten what it felt like to adjust to being in a ger - now life therein feels comfy).

First: the ger! There was a small scare when my director expressed her concern for my well-being during the winter if I stay in a ger. At first I was a little (ok a lot) insulted. Living in a ger was going to be one of my "I can do anything I want to" kind of projects...But after thinking about it a few days and calling some friends and consulting current ger-dwellers (Mongolian and otherwise) I told my director that I thought she was right, let's look for an apartment... (I am SO glad that I didn't move to an apartment: my host family has helped me through all the tough times these last two years, I wouldn't have them had I moved to an apartment).

Well, my hasha mom (who I had said nothing to, not wanting to ruffle feathers prematurely) had meanwhile ordered her son-in-law to chop down half of the lumber supply in our aimag (province). And she gathered coal...And started starting fires in my ger just about every night...showing me all the little "tricks" that a silly American attempting to live in a ger should know... (Oh Dogoo! My host mom is the best, she still checked in on my fire making this last winter. Our last chat centered around how "skilled" I have become at living in a ger: thanks to her, and school difficulties - she is one of the world's most sympathetic listeners/speakers).

My director calls me into her office one day and tells me that she just paid for a huge amount of lumber and coal at the urgent request of my hasha mom, and therefore I would be living in a ger this winter...Which, in my usual indecisive way, was what I wanted to hear at that point (the wonderful coal fire the night before was so hot I didn't sleep under blankets or in a sleeping bag meanwhile my apartment dwelling friends were freezing their...back ends off). (I had spelling problems, not that they have gone away: hasha should be haashaa).

In other news I now enjoy wearing business casual and even have the obligatory argyle teacher's sweater (which I wear with a huge smile on my face because it is made of camel hair, hilarious!). (Ha! I have totally gone the opposite direction. I wore jeans and a button down the other day only to discover that the director and teachers from UB were coming...Camel hair no longer provokes laughter).

I promise that pictures will come eventually...of the ger, and school, and Bayanhongor in general...

Days are already blurring together here and I have to remind myself once in a while that I am in freakin' Mongolia! What!? Surprising how quickly things get to be just daily life... (I said this SO quickly!? I feel that way times 100 these days. It seems like my life in America was a former incarnation of my current self).

After the first week of school, all the teachers went out to the hodoo (countryside). We were to leave at 1PM and left, in good Mongolian time, around 5PM. Hodoo visits involve driving hours on end into the vast, largely uninhabited countryside in order to cook a giant sheep and get really drunk for at least 2 days in a row...Oh, and eat lots of candy. Needless to say I did a lot of...sleeping. And candy eating. And tried desperately to convince people that I was having a good time (which I wasn't particularly). Lesson learned: avoid hodoo visits or bring lots of reading material...Also, never eat "hiam". Hiam is a strange, sausage like substance which is never fresh. I usually decline invitations to dine on this dish but thought it might be ok for some reason...It wasn't. And a six hour jeep ride (which is packed with 18 people) with a frequently moving bowel and a predisposition to vomiting is something less than pleasant... (Ah, the countryside: doable with family and lots of secret food stashes. The hiam comment makes me wonder why I waited till last September to eat a vegetarian diet...I have convinced my family and day visits to the countryside are fun and promise them delicious deserts upon return to "civilization" where ovens and ice cream abound).

Anyway, plenty of things to keep me busy (in fact, right now I should probably be doing some of them) but I hope that things will calm down a bit as I get used to teaching and my schedule becomes routine. We shall see... (This certainly never ended: always plenty to do these last two years. I wonder how different things would have been if I had lived in a village instead of a province capital, many more books would have been read I think...).

Let me know what you want to hear about (if anything...) and I will address it in the next update... (The time to request is now!).

I hope you are taking care and enjoying yourselves!

I miss you guys! (More so now).

Ciao for now, (Wow, I actually said this).


Saturday, May 29, 2010


Listening to just about every piece that the universe has produced that might contrast with Beethoven’s Opus 101 and Scriabin’s 9th Sonata in preparation for music school auditions. During said effort I ran across Mozart’s a minor sonata. Nathan kindly printed it out for me in UB (at the Peace Corps office – yes, I am that cheap) and brought it back to Bayankhongor.

While I am a fan of the outer movements, it’s really the second movement (the slow movement) that appeals most to me. I have happy memories of playing parts of the second movement during the offering at church on several occasions. It's the main theme that get’s me: a simple arpeggiated ascent followed by a step-wise winding down, finally resolving after a simple and heart-wrenching suspension.

If some or all of that description didn’t make sense we can either (a) blame it on my loss of correct music theory vocabulary after a 3-4 year separation from the likes of Duckett and Boubel or (b) forget about it because only the suspension is important here.

So, suspensions. When you come to the end of a phrase (at least in most music…um…at least in most music before 1900) the composer usually closes on a “good” sounding chord, something that sounds “natural” or “normal”. The suspensions in Mozart’s second movement come right before this “good” chord: the note right before is just a tiny step above what your ear might expect to hear. This causes a certain amount of tension (likely even more so back in Mozart’s day). The tension lasts until the “good” chord comes and resolves the “discord”.

When I was playing through the piece I felt like I could just “sit” on that suspension all day long before finally letting it settle into the resolution. I think I played it about 40 times in a row. Felt so right and appropriate.

Yesterday I checked my email after coming back from the capital and our Close of Service Conference, all the news and necessary replies, all the information to double check and the paperwork to submit threw my brain into a tizzy, or tension if you will. Resolution upon arrival home?

Monday, May 10, 2010

May 8, 2009/2010

Last May our lovely Nomgon mountain looked something like this:We had just finished giving a benefit concert at the theater (Leslie, Nathan, Julia, Dwan, and I). At the time it seemed like a freak accident type of weather event. This year, for better or worse, is different. Here's Nomgon mountain on May 8, 2010:
Similar, right? This year however such snow and accompanying temperatures seem terribly par for the course, with only a few warm days since "Spring" has started. Theoretically I should stop complaining because yesterday and today saw tiny puffy clouds, lots of sun, and T-shirts!

Chatting the other evening about how much everyone has changed since coming here and, being in denial I investigated the matter. Here's my sister Kim and I in April 2008 a little over a month before I came here:And now:Apparently my skin has seen more sun in its short lifespan...

In real news! School is winding down, just a few tests, speaking quizzes, and paperwork to do before summer and all its glorious freedom comes! Summer plans: German, practice (still looking for a Romantic era work that I (a) like and (b) isn't Schubert, let me know if you have any leads!), and eat egregious amounts of ice cream next to the Tui river!

Off to UB next week for a conference about Close of Service...time is short!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cake...from the Master!

Today is an important day here in Bayankhongor: my vegan birthday cake came from UB! The local vegetarian restaurant ordered it for me and is keeping it in their freezer until Saturday (at which time it will be served with kimchi huushuur!). Since going vegetarian last September I have been frequenting this little restaurant often. Often here means nearly every day. For under a dollar I can get 4 huushuur or 6 buuz which usually fills me up! The viability of such an establishment in such a meat friendly place is mostly explained by Miss Ching Hai. Her new age-ish religious movement has spun off a number of businesses including our local little restaurant. Recent additions to the Bayankhongor restaurant are: chick peas, hummus recipe sharing, a variety of beans and tofu, and vegan sausage! Exotic items for such a small isolated place. The restaurant also offers weekly meditation, literature about how being vegetarian is going to put a stop to global warming (?), and mint candies that look like livers...have yet to try those.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


So it is almost mid-April, right? Let's explain the following situation: snowfall today, with wind, snowfall two days ago, only 5 days of "the awesome hat" wearing weather. What is wrong!? We are undergoing an oddly long, cold winter called a zud. I think I am capable of enjoying this winter extension. Been having those days when every face with the backdrop of Nomgon mountain or the worn out downtown buildings makes me sentimental and reminds me that my time left here is short...

Was hanging out with Nyamtaivan (of "Send Nyamtaivan to the States" fame) this afternoon, correcting some tests she is working on. She helped me buy some cat meat then asked if she could hear the pieces I am working on for the upcoming concert. I naturally obliged. The f sharp key comes clean off the piano at the theater. Someone super glued it back into place. Surprisingly, that didn't remedy the situation! Result: two Joplins rags, a Mozart sonata, and two traditional Mongolian pieces with randomly flying f sharps.

Was talking to a good friend here the other day about such things: f sharps, two hour long bank "line" waits, "roads", etc. At this point such "disturbances" are frustrating, yes, but will shortly be nothing more than delightful vignettes and memories.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Lesson planned the rest of my college classes this week and it hit me: things are winding down. Reminded me that I have wanted to make a few lists ever since me sister Nikki came to visit last June. Here they finally are!

Things I will miss about Mongolia:
  • Aida, my cat (who is officially going to live with my landlady when I leave!)
  • my piano students: in a country with almost zero pianos some of them still manage to knock my socks off at their lessons
  • playing Phillip Glass pieces on a keyboard with settings number 33 (Strings II) and Drum Set Kit #5 (shame on me)
  • the smell of vodka and cigarettes in the Children's Theater practice room
  • practicing piano at the Shuren family ger
  • my ger!
  • Dogoo (my landlady) and her tea visits
  • everything being within walking distance
  • random French rapping on TV after a long day of hitting people over the head with English
  • Nomgon mountain, Tui River, Eurol River, Selenge province...
  • finding extreme answers while correcting tests ("I am wearing apple.")
  • the feeling a warming sun after 6 months of winter
  • my little brother's sketching, painting, and card playing visits
  • my amazing site mates: couldn't have asked for a better PC family
  • musing over the supply and demand of fresh tofu in this city
  • making a 102 degree fire in January and enjoying it with some hot chocolate
  • people singing on the street, at the store, and at work
  • hearing Mongolian
  • the veggie restaurant lady's smile
  • drinking the camel milk that a student gave to a fellow teacher in hopes of not receiving a failing grade
  • wrinkled old grandmas and grandpas in deels
Of course, there are also many things to look forward to about being in the States once again:
  • my own piano, upon which I can practice WHENEVER I WANT!!!
  • live music
  • libraries
  • cooking with friends and family (miss you guys!)
  • having an apartment and forcing my father to assist in it's interior decoration
  • living with less than I previously thought necessary (example: bowls and spoons, what other dishes does one need?)
  • working with Dr. Rieppel in preperation for...
  • grad school 2011!
  • getting a new job
  • dictionaries and the internet
  • fresh fruit and veggies, all the time!
  • growing herbs, lettuce...anything in my dwelling place
Will likely need to add some things to this list as these final months unfold. In the meantime, enjoy Spring!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Unfolding Future Plans

Word from all the music schools is officially in and I am officially going to reapply next year! During the interim I will be living in Minneapolis (after visiting southern Minnesota to see family and friends) working and practicing up a storm. It's looking like I will work with Dr. Rieppel on my audition pieces, which I couldn't be happier about! Currently re-investigating programs and it looks like I may be able to apply to some European schools this next time 'round!

In the mean time things here are far colder than we remember them being last year at this time. I am currently pretending that this means we won't see any unbearable heat during our remaining time here. School is moving right along and it looks like my English and German classes will end in early May. After that comes close of service conference and limited time to say good bye to everyone here!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Battsetseg and the Demise of XUDS

Let me start by saying that her name isn't really Battsetseg. She is a janitor at my college (The Institute of Commerce and Business, or XUDS for short). My guess is that she is around twenty-three years old. Last fall she started taking classes with the first year students hoping to pursue her B.S. (in accounting I believe). She changed from janitor uniform to student clothing about three times a day and studied well: never failed to turn in a homework assignment or come to class.

Then, earlier this semester we found out that the government will be "consolidating" publicly funded institutes of higher learning. Next fall Mongolia will go from around forty-six to sixteen such institutions. One of the many being cut is XUDS here in Bayankhongor.

Once the news about the XUDS closure was official, Battsetseg stopped attending classes. Students with the financial resources to move to the capital (UB) will be admitted to the business university there. Unsurprisingly, many students lack said resources and as a result are rarely seen in their Elementary English and German classes this semester...

In slightly happier news the weather is allowing for spring jackets and more fashionable hats. This week saw the completion of the BACC's Embassy Grant and soon we should know a date for the spring concert (early May?). Waiting to hear from just one more music school before I write up a blog about those plans...

Be well and enjoy spring!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Post Tsagaan Sar Telegraph

Turns out it IS possible to have a vegetarian Mongolian New Year without making people cry, beat you up, or offend in some milder way. Classes start tomorrow and I couldn't be happier: turns out three weeks of vacation are enough. I was reminded how short my time left here is when my host sister and I said our final goodbye this last week (she is returning to inner Mongolia where she is working on her Ph.D. in linguistics). Weather warming up here as it always seem to do after the lunar new year. Snow even melted a little the other day! Enjoy the Tsagaan Sar (New Year) pictures and be well!

Sunday, February 7, 2010


There is a German development agency working in Bayankhongor doing projects in the yurt districts. The first phase of the project involved helping families living on the same street form committees which decided what kind of projects they wanted to undertake. Often these committees decided to build outhouses (when your outhouse fills up you bury it and dig another one). My haashaa family (consisting of three employed adults with cars and houses) was part of our streets committee and we ended up with not one but two new outhouses!

Recently been spending lots of time with the "Shurens", a family with a piano in their yurt which they allow me to use in exchange for English and piano lessons. Needed to use the outhouse the other day while at their place and discovered that their outhouse is almost full. Family background: a single mom (occupation: janitor at the theater) with three daughters (one is an accountant, another unemployed, and the youngest a high school student).

How did this happen? Most importantly, I feel that the blame does not go on the development agency: once the Mongolian committees are formed they are hands off concerning who gets what. The problem then lies in who becomes members of said committees. What kept the Shurens from taking part in their street's committee? It seems likely to me that it was simply a matter of time: the two adults who could have attended the meetings work until late in the evening (sometimes all night in the case of the mother). The fact that their long hour jobs kept them from participating seems...


Friday, January 29, 2010

Saving the World

Background: There is a popular drink called aarts here in Mongolia. It is made from sugary crushed curds boiled with water and flour. Usually drunk in winter and hard to find during other seasons (though summer 2009 study claims that aarts ice cream is available!).

Problem: Aarts does not exist (in sizable enough quantities to be sold or noticed at least) in the United States of America or the surrounding countries. The glory of this drink makes it an official criterion for civilized cultures.


Solution: A volunteer group headed by T. Dawer will go throughout the lands of the Americas and bring them both aarts and the knowledge of how to make said drink. This will result in 5,236 citizens displaying a knowledge of the aarts making process by the year 2020. In addition 39,386 individuals will have tasted aarts and acknowledged its glory.

Summary: World saved.

Monday, January 11, 2010

On Distilled Water

There is a Mongolian proverb that goes something like this:

If you drink the water
follow the customs.

This is considered by many to parallel the proverb:

When in Rome
Do as the Romans do.

It comes up every once in a while and something about it has kept me wondering about its validity, particularly in my current situation here in Mongolia. I think that the proverb needs to be metaphorically elongated in my own situation. Here's why: I don't drink the water directly. And this is important: after I get my water from the guy with a horse and cart it goes into my water container and awaits the day when it is put into this:

I drink the water but distilled. Application: Tsagaan Sar + Vegetarianism = invite people over to your place for vegetable buuz from the local vegetarian restaurant. Can you skip the distilling process? Yes. Some people can seemingly do so without any negative consequences. Others of us get giardia.

Monday, January 4, 2010

2010 Resolutions

1) Spend time with the hashaa families every day.
2) Language study every day. This semester: Mongolian and German. Fall: start French.
3) Dedicate free time to music (Thanks to Mr. Cage's Autobiographical Statement for inspiration).
4) Read Persig's Lila.
5) A bet was made: Can I go from the first of January till Close of Service Conference in May without eating any Super Kontik? Of course!