Mongolia: Rural vs. Urban

January 18, 2009

Part of the beauty of Mongolia’s complex cultural, historical, and geographical landscapes is the intensity of the contrasts therein. Perhaps the starkest of these contrasts is the one that exists between Mongolia’s rural and urban populations. This wild discrepancy shows itself in nearly every aspect of the two halves–be it in air quality, visual aesthetics, or simply in peoples’ personal attitudes and ideals. Without taking a glimpse at these differences, it’s impossible to begin to understand the full scope of life in Mongolia.

By some estimates, around half of Mongolia’s population( over 1 million of about 2.9 million) lives in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The city is a sprawling and polluted jumble of modern construction, business headquarters, factories, restaurants, and hotels in the center, with crowded ger districts climbing on to the surrounding hills in every direction.  Ulaanbaatar’s situation in a bowl of large mountains once made it an ideally defensible location, but a combination of modern technology and the burning of coal in factories and private residences (which continue to increase in number at an alarming rate each year) has covered the city with an impenetrable blanket of smog during winters for decades.

The ger districts can be seen in the distance

The ger districts can be seen in the distance

Ulaanbaatar is said to be the coldest national capital on Earth, with an average annual temperature of -1.3 °C (29.7 °F). During the winter, temperatures routinely drop to -40°C  (-40°F), and survival in these conditions depends on the consumption of vast amounts of energy for heating. Apartment complexes and busineses are linked up to specialized or shared coal burning facilities, and each family in the ger districts burns wood and coal in individual stoves that double as cooking surfaces.

smog over Ulaanbaatar

smog over Ulaanbaatar

On a personal note, stepping out of the bus from Arvaikheer in Ulaanbaatar (or UB, as it’s often called) is always a shock to the senses; the smoke in the air is so strong that I can sometimes taste it when I first breathe it in. This is normally one of the most irritating contrasts between the countryside and the capital during the winter, but Arvaikheer is certainly not without its own horrendously polluted days. There are times when the forecast calls for deeply cold weather in my town, and businesses, apartment complexes,  and schools rev up their coal furnaces overnight accordingly. The next day, even if the weather turns out to be rather pleasant, the entire town has no choice but to wait for the coal fires to die down in the furnaces. In the mean time, buildings are super-heated, and the air around the town is pumped full of black smoke. Fortunately, Arvaikheer is only half-ringed by mountains, so smog can usually blow off into the desert with little impact on the immediate area. On days with no wind, though, it’s a different story…

Arvaikheer on a smoggy day =/

Arvaikheer on a smoggy day =/

the same ultra-smoggy day in Arvaikheer =/

the same ultra-smoggy day in Arvaikheer =/

Thankfully, though, unlike UB in the winter, the sky in the countryside almost always looks like this (sans temple, maybe–and this photo actually shows an unusually large amount of ‘clouds’, but still) :

clean air at Amarbaysaglant Temple in Selenge, my former province of residence

clean air at Amarbaysaglant Temple in Selenge, my former province of residence

Before going on any further, I should mention that the Mongolian word for ‘countryside’ is ‘hudoo’, and most Peace Corps volunteers consider the hudoo to be the sparsely populated or otherwise uninhabited parts of Mongolia. For instance, I would say that my summer home in Sant was located in the Hudoo, because my village only had 2080 people in it. To UB residents, however, every single place that is not Ulaanbaatar is the hudoo, whether it’s unpopulated expanses,  small villages, towns, or even relatively well-populated cities. So, my current home in Arvaikheer is thought of by Uvurkhangai residents to be a city, while cab drivers in UB tell me I’m from ‘the hudoo’ whenever I tell them where I live.

I suppose I didn’t fully understand this discrepant labeling until I actually spent some time in Ulaanbaatar. As mentioned in previous entries, I had been living in a converted cardboard and plaster toolshed in a muddy (but beautiful) village all summer, and the closest thing to a city that I’d seen before August was Darkhan, population 70,000. So when I first got a chance to sit down in a classy UB mahogany-paneled Italian restaurant with roaming professional violinists and stained glass windows, I was amazed.  And for those who are willing to pay the price, these places are available everywhere in Ulaanbaatar; sushi restaurants, night cubs, art galleries, natural history museums, paved roads, glass skyscrapers–physical and experiential evidence to support UB’s claim to being ” like little a European City.”

an alarmingly posh restaurant in UB

an alarmingly posh restaurant in UB

After a summer of village life, spending time in restaurants like the one pictured above was novel and refreshing. I only had about five hours of UB time before heading off to Arvaikheer at the end of the summer, though, so I never got the full experience until I returned to the city for a business meeting in October, and again in November and December. The times that followed were equally refeshing and rejuvenating, but each time I returned to Arvaikheer I was relieved to be out of the city. There’s something disruptive about suddenly exposing oneself to the comforts and amenities he or she left behind in a former lifestyle. Pizza and sushi remain at the top of the list of material things I miss most about my life in America, but transporting myself to a crowded Mongolian city where these things are at my fingertips involves a great deal of ancillary effort–the least of which is time commitment. The most difficult thing about allowing myself a taste of the lifestyle I left behind in America last May is the transition between rural and urban culture; the act of temporarily leaving the comforts I have worked hard to learn to appreciate in my simpler, rural lifestyle. I find that my trips to the city–to pizza, to sushi, to consumerism–also bring me closer to conflict, to excess, to noisy crowds. As I said before,  I almost always return to Arvaikheer feeling relieved.

my town =)

my town =)

As an American foreigner living in the Inner Asian remoteness of the former Soviet Union, my integration to the local and nationally prevailing cultural currents is bound to be strained. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but it’s also been a fascinating experience that has hinged on my ability to balance my existence along the same rural-vs-urban line that cleaves the Mongolian population. As a westerner, my personal culture aligns quite seamlessly in certain material ways with the lifestyle of the capital city, but as a volunteer I feel that I can connect on a much more personal level with rural communities. As is the case in nations all over the world, the booming and crowded capital city inevitably produces and houses citizens with certain specific ideals, goals, and interpersonal trends that differ greatly from those that arise from the circumstances of a rural lifestyle. Ulaanbaatar and its surrounding ‘hudoo’  mass–the second largest landlocked country in the world–are no exception.

awwwww, 'hudoo' Arvaikheer =)

awwwww, 'hudoo' Arvaikheer =)

I’ve noticed during my several trips to UB that I rarely had to use any Mongolian language to get by. When I tried, or merely did so out of ‘hudoo’ habit, my conversation partners–waiters, storeclerks, hostel workers–seemed to always answer me in English (or some semblance thereof). Even homeless people in UB have mastered their (often complex) pleas for support in six or seven European languages, in hopes that one of them would work on my foreign ears. This ability to speak other languages both stems from and continues to feed foreign investment in the country, and English, Russian, German, Japanese, and Turkish language instruction programs throughout the nation continue to inspire rural youth to move to the city for work.  Once in UB, these people take on quite a different air about them–akin, perhaps, to the proverbial American small towner changing completely after moving to New York. Among the most obvious of these changes is that few Mongolians in the most trafficked districts in the capital wear traditional Mongolian clothes; to do so would be to stand out, and residents of UB tend to look down on countryside dwellers and their attire in favor of a more ‘western’ look.

some women in traditional clothing at a local stupa complex opening ceremony outside of Arvaikheer

some women in traditional clothing at a local stupa complex opening ceremony outside of Arvaikheer

Concomitant with the personal agency changes that members of rural communites make upon living and working in UB is often the unfortunate departure from the collectivist interpersonal trends inherent to rural Mongolian lifestyles (if only due to separation from family members who remain in the hudoo). During my summer in Selenge Aimag, five of the six youths with whom I was closest in my village were  in the process of receiving an urban college education, had already graduated from an urban university, or were planning to do so. These young people had different goals from those of their parents–most of whom were farmers. There is no telling what kind of effects this may have on the Mongolian agricultural economy in the future, but if Selenge was any indication of trends in youth goals, Mongolia will have some vocational restructuring to do in a few decades.

Alcoholism is an enormous problem in Mongolia, and it is incontrovertibly more pronounced in rural communities than it is in the cities. This stems from boredom and unemployment, mostly. With 50% of Mongolia’s population under the age of 25, it will be increasingly crucial to divert Mongolian youth away from alcohol in the coming years. To tie these most immediate thoughts together, then, it’s recently become one of my personal goals to engage in youth-directed alcohol awareness education with an emphasis on how to maximize the social and financial potential of living an educated rural lifestyle. I do not believe in steering all of Mongolia’s youth toward city life–especially not when they can be inspired to improve the quality of their own lives, as well as those of their communities, while simultaneously ensuring the security of Mongolia’s agricultural future.

Some of the rural-dwelling sheep herders in my province, incidentally, are among the wealthiest people in the region. If that’s not enough proof that Mongolians can circumvent the ‘City-or-Fail’ route, I don’t know what is.

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If you have any questions about the contents of this post, feel free to leave them in the comments section. Thanks for tuning in!

My Town!

January 10, 2009

After a first entry filled with carefully vague allusions to my whereabouts, I discovered that I am, in fact, allowed to disclose my location–provided I don’t give the exact situation of my house in relation to other landmarks in the town. So, I decided to do an entire entry on my city!

I said before that I’m living in a province in the middle of Mongolia. To be more specific, the name of my province, or aimag, is Uvurkhangai. “Uvurkhangai” means “Southern Khangai,” and refers to the province’s situation in the southern portion of the Khangai Mountain Range. These mountains take on a lower, more sloping nature as they stretch south, and my town rests in one such tamer section of the range in northern-central Uvurkhangai.

our low-lying Khangai

our low-lying Khangai

view of the hills to the north

view of the hills to the north

ancient rock carvings on the big mountain
ancient rock carvings on the big mountain. no archaeological studies have been done on this site, but homologous rock images in other parts of Mongolia have been dated at roughly 40,000 years old.
carving of a mammoth and gazelles

carving of a woolly mammoth and gazelles--the depiction of woolly mammoths in rock carvings would suggest that they are at least 10,000 years old. A previous Arvaikheer volunteer who studied cultural anthropology noted that the whiter the carvings are, the older they are.

Arvaikheer, behind a pole covered in sacred blue cloth, or 'Hadag'

My town, behind a pole covered in sacred blue cloth, or 'Hadag'

The name of my city is “Arvaikheer,” which is a shortened pronunciation of the name of a famous

horse, Arvagarkheer– the fastest horse in an important race of over 1,000 horses sometime in the late 18th century. Arvaikheer is, indeed, deserving of a horse-themed name by virtue of its many surrounding herdsmen, large wild-horse herds, and the distinction of having the nation’s 2nd best fermented horse milk, or airag. Recently, local authorities decided to build on this equestrian reputation by constructing a large complex of stupas, or buddhist shrines, in the center of Arvaikheer valley. These 108 stupas, collectively called “Morin Tolgoe” or “Horse’s Head,” surround a painted statue of Arvagarkheer, and they boast a strong horse aesthetic. I was fascinated to see this blend of buddhist devotion and municipal pride; each stupa has two sides carved with two of the “eight auspicious signs of buddhism” (a pair of golden fish, a victory banner, a white umbrella, a conch shell of melody, a sacred vase, a dharma wheel, an endless knot, or a white lotus of honesty) in gold leaf friezes, and two sides carved with horses in various poses.

statue of Arvagarkheer, at Morin Tolgoe

statue of Arvagarkheer, at Morin Tolgoe

the stupa complex, pre-completion

the stupa complex, pre-completion

an example of the horse emblems on the stupas

an example of the horse emblems on the stupas

It wasn’t until my second trip to the stupa complex that I heard a fascinating bit of folklore that further drove the concept of the horse aesthetic home. Facing the semi-circle of columns that encases the statue of Arvagarkheer is a famous mountain called “Aav Khaerkhan.” Aav Khaerkhan, or “Father Mountain,” is the site where a Robin Hood-esque story took place in Mongolian oral tradition. In the story, a do-gooder bandit who stole sheep and gots from the rich and redistributed them to the poor was being chased through Arvaikheer valley by a local police force on horseback. When he reached a wide and violent river at the center of the valley, he realized he could go no farther. The police were approaching fast, but try as he might to ford the river, the bandit’s horse was too afraid of the rapids to cross. Desperate to escape, the bandit invoked the name of the big brown mountain swelling out of the land across the river : “Aav Khaerkhan, take me to safety!” And just like that, his horse rose into the air and flew him across the water to the top of the mountain, and he escaped the authorities to continue stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.

that black bump in the distance is Aav Khaerkhan

that black bump in the distance is Aav Khaerkhan

So, I know that was a lot about horses, but I felt the need to make a few establishing shots before going on with my explanation of the town itself.

The lifeblood of every town in Mongolia is the market, or zakh. For my first few months here, I spent nearly every day walking in and out of kiosks and stores in the market and talking with vendors and customers. Places where things are sold are definitely the best spots to hone your language skills in any country, and they provide a very visual framework on which to begin building an understanding of the culture on a consumer level. Arvaikheer’s market centers on the sale of home goods, clothing, motorcycle and auto-repair materials and services, food, and ger supplies.

view of the main road in the market

view of the main road in the market

a rainy/snowy view of the market in august

a rainy/snowy view of the market in august

For the first week after I was placed at site, Arvaikheer was experiencing scheduled power outtages between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. This was when I did the bulk of my market exploration (and the bulk of my ill-informed housewares shopping). I remember perusing the dark stores during the day and not having the common sense to pay extra attention to the things I was buying…With no electricity and no lights on the inside of the shops, it was impossible to check the reliability of electrical appliances before buying them, and I stupidly ended up purchasing a tripod hotplate with a faulty leg. My food went half-burnt for a month before I discovered other cooking options.

Aside from the market, people spend a lot of time in Ayuush Square in the center of town. This is where the aimag government headquarters are, and across the street is the communications center (post office + internet cafe) and the town’s most respected night club, “New Leader” (no Mongolian name).

Ayuush Square and the Government Building

Ayuush Square and the Government Building

Arvaikheer is the fastest-growing aimag center in terms of development, and it is expected to surpass Darkhan as a commercial center in the next two to three decades. There is even talk of moving Mongolia’s national capital city back to Kkarkorin–the ancient capital and aforementioned senior class fieldtip site, which is also in Uvurkhangai– and this would further enhance the politico-economic importance of Arvaikheer. In the mean time, I enjoy the quiet, dusty nature of this little desert town, and I will continue to post on it proudly =).

If you would like to see more pictures of rock carvings, or more pictures in general, feel free to email me at pmongolia@gmail.com.

FIRST POST!!!!!

January 5, 2009

So, I’ve been promising friends and family that I’m going to create a blog for my Mongolian experiences for about…seven months now. A few things happened during the holiday season, though, that finally pushed me out of the realm of mere planning…There are so many things that go on here in my life that necessitate a disciplined journaling routine, and I think enough fantastic things have piled up in recent months that I just had to do it now.

And now is the part of my wind-up where I have to say something to the effect of  <The views expressed in this blog do not in any way represent the ideas, opinions, or concerns of the United States Peace Corps, the United States State Department, or of any other second party.>

Anyway, in the interest of not skipping over the first seven months of my stay here, I’ll go through the main points of the experience thus far. I lived in a beautiful mountain village, or soum, in northern Mongolia from June until mid August. I stayed with a Mongolian host family–three boys about my age, a hardworking farmer-cum-teacher father, and a cosmetics-saleswoman mother–the entire time. They turned a cardboard and plaster storage addition into a room for me, and it was cozy and perfect. I was kept awake by what I thought were mice for a large part of the summer, but when I saw little clawed wings poking out through the cracks in the ceiling one night, I was relieved to discover they were bats (which meant the spider/ mosquito population was kept mostly in-check).

During the summer I attended Mongolian language and culture classes for about 6 hours a day with eight other Americans. It was probably one of the most blissful times of my entire life; the heat was intense, the air was more pure than anything I’d ever breathed before, the Milky Way was almost frighteningly bright at night, and the initial inability to communicate with my community forced me into a much more concise and nonverbal communicational persona. It all just felt so clean and perfect.

the view from my front yard during the summer

the view from my front yard during the summer

Concomitant with the summer’s lifestyle-simplification was a total lack of accessibility to the outside world. We had no way of contacting our family or friends in America, except during rare visits to a nearby city, and there was no way for us to even communicate with volunteers in other training sites unless it was done through the passing of notes by our trainers. This dearth of communicational amenities was actually kind of refreshing; I remember being so anxious to tear open the manila folder of letters that our trainers brought from time to time and see what kinds of news there were from other soums.

Eventually the end of the summer came, and what I expected to be a tearful goodbye with my host family turned out to be somewhat of a rushed departure. My host father had decided not to attend our final “host family appreciation” party at a famous monastery in the province, or aimag, and on that day he ended up falling into our well and breaking part of his spine. My host mother was consequently pretty preoccupied during those last few days of training, and her uncharacteristic distance made leaving the soum a lot easier on the heartstrings. We boarded one of those big travel conversion vans (which will hereafter be referred to as “mikrs,” the Mongolian term) and rode to the nearest city, where we had a wonderful swearing-in ceremony complete with talent performances and speeches. I gave a shaky speech in Mongolian…I remember having to pee so bad during the entire thing. I couldn’t have made much sense. Afterwards we were directed outside to a public park which had been designed in the shape of a scale model of Mongolia with geographic borders and labels for aimag capitals. An M-17 or M-18 volunteer called our names and site placements, one by one, and we were made to walk out to the approximate locations of our respective site assignments and stand there until everyone had been called.

I don’t think I’d ever felt so much anticipation–two years is a very long time, and the most challenging thing about Peace Corps at that stage had been the months of uncertainty that had built the experience…Uncertainty while waiting for the initial application to go through, uncertainty while waiting to find out to which region we had been invited, uncertainty while waiting to hear which country would accept us, uncertainty when flying away from home and not knowing a single person, uncertainty when arriving in Mongolia and not knowing where our training sites would be, and then the ultimate uncertainty of not knowing how the interpersonal relationships we had built during training would hold up under the added pressure of being geographically separated from one another in the second largest landlocked country on earth.

I was relieved to see that I had been placed in a prominent aimag center with not one or two or three, but seven other sitemates! It was to be located in the dead center of Mongolia, in the only aimag that contains all four of Mongolia’s geographic features: desert, mountains, steppe, and plains. I was given a position as an English teacher at a university in the town, and I was to live in an apartment. I was absolutely thrilled, which is a lot more than many of the other volunteers could say.

A few days later I was nestled in my new apartment with a gorgeous view of the Gobi desert right behind my building , seven excellent sitemates who would soon become my best friends, and a lot of work to do.

one of the first pictures I took at site

one of the first pictures I took at site

So I started work, and on the very first day of planning, my training manager and one of my Mongolian coworkers (hereafter referred to as “counterparts,” peace corps lingo) sat me down and explained to me that I would be taking my senior students to the north of my aimag for a ten-day field trip, during which they were to learn about Mongolian history in English and practice their tourguiding skills. I was flustered at first, because I had literally just gotten to site, but in the end I of course went and had an absolute blast.

our fieldtrip up north

When I returned from the trip, my students were speaking better English, and I felt like I had built a good working relationship with my counterpart (who had accompanied me on the excursion). Immediately upon returning, though, I noticed that I had missed out on the first two weeks of crucial reputation-building and vocational niche-carving…Not only was I entering classes two weeks late and having the awkward responsibility of surprising teachers with in-class observations/evaluations, but I was also feeling awkward at having to try to squeeze myself into the workplace after the semester had already begun. Not to mention the fact that the previous volunteer at my host country agency was twice my age. So, from the get go, respect has been an issue–both in the work place and among the youth on campus. I continue to deal with those challenges, but every day brings me closer to integrating with my community on a deeper level.

the view of my town from the mountains

the view of my town from the mountains

Now that we’re all caught up, I can move onto the reasons why this week inspired me so intensely to blog once and for all: New Years. It was probably the most spectacular celebration I’ve ever witnessed, anywhere, ever. I had participated in several New Years/ Christmas parties with faculty and students all week (Mongolians recognize the two as a single holiday, for some reason), but of course, in accordance with the cultural trends of much of the rest of the world, New Years Eve holds a special significance here in Mongolia as well. On December 31st, I ended up hanging out with my fellow American volunteers in a friend’s ger (circular canvas dwelling) until just around midnight. At 11:45, I believe, we went outside to look at fireworks. I had no idea what I was in store for–HUGE, fourth-of-july-grade mortar explosions in a 360-degree panorama all around the city, lighting up the mountains, shaking the ground. It was so picturesque. People were even shooting them out of their apartment windows, at which point they would fall a few meters and then explode at the bases of the buildings or crash into other apartments. I should have been terrified, especially where I was standing–but I was too mesmerized by the intensity and beauty of it all.

I spent the night at a fellow volunteer’s house that night so as to avoid the streets after such a late hour, and when I awoke the next morning, one of my counterparts called me to make sure I would be “ready for our trip to the countryside in an hour.” I had forgotten all about it, but I lied and told her I was ready. I walked out of my friend’s apartment when I had gotten my things together and was surprised to see the entire city completely covered in perfect, footprint-less snow!

January 1

January 1

I strolled home in the warm winter sun and put on my heaviest Mongolian winter boots, brushed my teeth, and jumped in my counterpart’s husband’s mikr. We–my school’s business management faculty, my counterpart, and I–rode into the frozen desert ten or so kilometers outside of the city to barbecue and celebrate the new year. The instant we arrived in the desert, the food preparation began. We found a cluster of small boulders between which to build a fire, and someone had brought a metallic disc with holes in it to place over the fire. I didn’t know what was going on until I saw my counterpart produce a vat filled with spiced and lemon-juiced beef. We tossed the pieces of meat onto the metal disc and watched them sizzle until they were ready. We ate them ravenously for a few hours while chatting and getting acquainted with one another.

snowy desert

snowy desert

The fresh air and food (and copious amounts of vodka) had everyone’s spirits soaring, and the snow and sun had us all at a perfect temperature for the first few hours. (During the Mongolian winter, snow is often associated with warmth. This is due to the fact that -35 degree temperatures and 0 per cent humidity cannot yield precipitation; so, whenever it’s “warm” enough to snow, the contrasts make it feel almost like spring.)

As with any Mongolian social gathering, there was a lot of singing and performing. And, of course, competition played a huge role. Mongolians have an incredible competitive streak to them, and this is probably leftover from nomadic times. Before people settled into permanent residences, inter-clan encounters were limited to summer competitions called “Naadam,” during which men from different tribes would come together in one place to show off their wrestling, archery, and horse-racing skills. This desire to prove ones fitness in ones community/personal environment–be it at work, at school, in the countryside, or wherever– remains a large part of Mongolian culture. So, at our little desert party, the women had a foot-race, and the men had a hands-tied-behind-the-back- sumo wrestling competition.

women's foot race!

women's foot-race!

I was nervous at first to participate in the wrestling part, because I didn’t know any of my potential opponents, but then I realized that everyone seemed to be really eager to see how I would do. So I competed…

me in a hands-tied-behind the back-sumo wrestling match

me in a hands-tied-behind-the-back-sumo wrestling match

And I did ok!

victory is mine!

victory is mine!

While the sun was out, it was a great day. I think it was an excellent opportunity for me to reach that level of community integration I mentioned earlier in this entry; networking is one thing, but eating spiced beef in a frozen desert for seven hours with a bunch of vodka-drinking New Years Day partygoers is something entirely different.

After the wrestling ended, I convinced everyone to go slide with me on a frozen river a little ways into the valley. We all ran down to the ice, and I figured we would just slide around, but I suppose I should have known that the Mongolians already had a traditional game planned for such an occasion. They split us all into two large groups and set up three full bottles of vodka in a line about 20 meters away from where we stood. Each member of both teams was given two smooth river stones to slide toward any of the three bottles ahead. In this way, it was kind of like shuffleboard, only the object of the game was to hit the bottles. Hitting either of the two outer bottles earned one’s team a single point, and hitting the center bottle earned 10. Of course the bottles shattered on contact, but we made sure to clean the evidence before we left.

As I was one of two sober people at the party, my team won the competition 22 to 0. I unfortunately don’t have any pictures of this game, but I do have one of the river:

frozen river fun!

frozen river fun!

Ultimately, the sun started receding behind the boulders and the mountains in the distance, and as the shadows lengthened I could feel my lower extremities screaming for some warmth. There was none, unfortunately. The sun went down, and just when I thought it was about time to leave, some of the more inebriated partiers decided they wanted to cook more of the spiced beef. I stood far away from the fire this time, because they were trying to ignite it with a gas-torch, and they all looked a little wobbly. One woman was trying to warm her hands on the flames, but was actually holding her hands in the fire. I tired to help her, but she insisted she was fine. I guess she was. Another man fell face-first into the fire, but was caught before any damage was done. My residual exhaustion from the night before had prevented me from drinking any alcohol during the desert party, and as a result I suppose I was the only person at the party who could actually feel the cold (and the only one who was worried about getting burnt).

Some more singing and toasting occurred, and just when I was beginning to think I might die a horrible, frostbitten death in the snow and sand, someone decided it was time to go home. Before I knew it, I was crouched on my bedroom floor between my space heater and my radiator, rendered immobile by a deep bone chill. Still, though, I was so happy to have had such a wild experience.

Moral of the story? I may be on my way to community integration, but I have a loooong way to go before I can run with the big dogs, so to speak. I know I said that the other partygoers’ alcohol consumption may have staved off feelings of freezing to death out there, but a lot of them were wearing the flimsiest dress shoes with dress socks! No wool or huge Mongol boots like mine! And yet, somehow, I was the one freezing. To be fair, this is my first winter here, but still. Hats off to Mongolians for laughing in the face of extreme conditions.

I hesitate to even include this part…but I woke up the next day with a serious case of bronchitis, which ultimately led to a 103-degree temperature and WILD hallucinations that Oprah was standing in my room and trying to get me to stop spending all day resting in bed like I needed to. I also had an unfortunate hallucination that I was the size of an ant, and so my entire room was terrifying and fascinating for about an hour.

That I can even sit and type this now is a miracle after that! But I’m feeling great, and I’m so grateful to have had such an awesome experience in the desert with my new friends. Stay tuned for more antics as the weeks go by!