Saturday, June 2, 2012

Flat Stanley Visits Choibalsan from Virginia!

This is Merrie's kitchen.
     I have a guest blogger today--Flat Stanley! He's visiting me from the Jolly Rogers class at Nottingham Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. His friend, Isaac Fenster, sent him to me. Thanks Isaac!'s Flat Stanley!
     Hi everyone! It took me a long time to get to Mongolia. It took 24 days to get from Arlington to Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, and another 6 days to get to Choibalsan, the city where Merrie lives. The mail is slow! I've been staying with Merrie in her apartment.
I slept in the guest bed which is in the living room
While many Mongolians still live in traditional homes, called gers, many Mongolians also live in wooden houses or apartments.

     Merrie is an English teacher at a vocational college called the Dornod Poly-Technical College. The college just changed its name, so they had a big celebration to mark the change. Merrie and I went to the ceremony. It was very interesting. There were speakers, dancers, and singers. These Buddhist priests read a special blessing for the continued success of the school and its teachers, workers, and students.

These costumed performers did a dance. What great costumes! After the ceremony, I tried on a pair of their boots.
The view from the Khalkhin Gol monument.

What a tall monument!
     We went sight-seeing around Choibalsan one day. We went to a monument marking the defeat of the Japanese at the battle of Khalkin River in 1939 during World War II. Choibalsan is in Dornod Province (or state), and Dornod shares a border with Russia and China. The battle was on Mongolia's border with China. The Mongolians won and kept the Japanese from invading Mongolia. The monument is on a little hill and you can see far around Choibalsan and the countryside. This part of Mongolia is very flat. It's in the steppe lands.

Me and my new friend, Tuuvshin at the mine.

Me and Merrie at the mine.
     Next we went to a coal mine that is right outside Choibalsan. Mining is very important in Mongolia. Mongolia has coal, gold, copper, oil, and uranium. I met a new friend named Tuuvshin. He's four. We were wearing matching clothes!

Me, Merrie, Saraa (Tuuvshin's momand Tuuvshin at the ovoo.
Me putting a stone on the ovoo.

The view of Choibalsan from the ovoo.
      We also went to the Khan Uul Ovoo. An ovoo (pronounced "ahwaa") is a pile of stones where people come to worship. You put a stone on the pile and walk around the pile clock-wise three times. Sometimes you put food on the pile. Merrie put a cookie on the pile. I laid a stone on it. This very big ovoo is also on a little hill and you can see all of Choibalsan from there. Choibalsan is Mongolia's 4th largest city and it has about 40,000 people.



     Near the ovoo we saw these 3 calves. Herding is very important in Mongolia. But in Mongolia, the herders just let their cows roam free. Sometimes you see a few cows walking through the middle of town!

Me and Tuuvshin on a tank!
Mongolian Heroes Memorial

Mongolian Heroes Memorial
     We went to another monument that is a memorial to Mongolian Heroes. This old tank was interesting. The art work at the monument was pretty.

     Finally, we went to Choibalsan's lake. It's man-made but people seemed to be having fun rowing rubber boats around. And it was a nice place for a walk...until it started raining! We had to end our trip quickly.
Rowing boats on the lake.
On our walk around the lake.

 I'll be coming home soon. And Merrie says she's going to send a souvenir! Can't wait to see it. See you soon!

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mongolian Games and Sports

Mongolian kids play many of the same games that American kids play. Soccer (called football in Mongolia), basketball, volleyball, and ping pong (called table tennis here) are all popular sports. Mongolian kids also jump rope and play red rover and tag.  Like American kids, Mongolian kids play computer and video games.  But most Mongolians do not have internet in their homes, so kids have to go to internet cafes to play online.  Teenagers and men like to play pool (called billiards here). In the winter, kids ice skate on outdoor ice rinks.
Ice skating in Choibalsan



sheep or goat ankle bones--shagai
There are some games that are unique to Mongolia.  Children and families play games with sheep ankle bones called shagai (pronounced “sha-guy”). There are many different ways to play. The sides of the bone are given names—horse (mor), camel (temee), goat (yamaa), sheep (khon). One way is to drop on the floor about 20-30 shagai (the more the better) and then flick one into another, but you have to hit a bone that has the same side up as the bone you flick. So you flick a camel into a camel or a goat into a goat, for example. You collect the shagai that you hit. You get to keep flicking until you flick one that doesn’t hit another bone or if you hit a bone that doesn't match the one you're flicking. The person who collects the most shagai wins.  It’s kind of like playing marbles. You can also play a horse race with shagai. You lay 10 shagai in a straight line, leaving out 1 shagai for each person who’s racing and 4 shagai to roll like dice.  You set your shagai next to the line of shagai and roll the 4 shagai. You can only move forward if you roll a horse. The person to move up the line and reach the end first wins.Shagai are also used to tell fortunes.  In fortunetelling, four shagai are rolled on the ground; the two convex sides, horse and sheep, are considered lucky, with horse being the luckiest. The sides with concave 
Shagai horse racing.
 indents, goat and camel, are deemed unlucky; rolling all four sides on one throw is considered very good fortune.
Wrestling at Naadam
Mongolia has three national sports that come from the warrior history of Mongolia. First is wrestling, second is archery, and third is horse racing. A Mongolian warrior had to be very good at all three skills because they were used in war. But today, they are sports played for fun. The national holiday, Naadam, features competitions of the three “manly” sports.
The wrestling and horse racing are different from what Americans know. In wrestling, the object is to get your opponent to touch the ground with any part of his body between the knees and the shoulders.  And it looks like you can do just about anything to achieve that goal. The costumes wrestlers wear are very interesting. They are usually bright red and blue. The bottoms are like speedo bathing suits.  And then they wear sleeves that go on the upper part of the arm and across the shoulders.  The story behind the outfit is a good one.  Women are not allowed to wrestle, but many, many years ago a woman entered a wrestling competition disguised as a man. She defeated many men and her gender was discovered only after she became a champion. From then on, the wrestlers are required to wear the costume that shows their chest in order to prevent women from entering wrestling competitions. When the wrestlers enter the field, they do an eagle dance, flapping their arms like an eagle, then they crouch down and slap their thighs on the front and back. It’s to show their strength and power. The winner of a match also does a victory eagle dance at the end of the match.

The horseracing is not on a round track like it is in the U.S. Horse races take place out in the countryside. They race straight out to a certain point, and then turn around and come back. It’s difficult to watch a horse race. You can’t see the whole thing. You have to stand at the start/finish line and you get to see the start and the end. Interestingly, the jockeys riding the horses are children.  Children start riding horses when they are as young as 4 or 5 years old. The children who race horses are usually 7 to 12 years old.

Mongolian horse racing. This photo was taken by my fellow PCV Kate Borkowski.

Mongolian Holidays

Hafsa tower and sheep butt at Tsagaan Sar celebration.
 Tsagaan Sar—Tsagaan Sar is a holiday that celebrates the lunar new year.  Tsagaan Sar means “White Month” or “White Moon.”  The date changes every year because it depends on the lunar calendar but it's usually some time at the end of January or early February.  This year Tsagaan Sar was Feb. 3-6.  This is one killer holiday.  It's a lot of work, a lot of eating, a lot of singing.  I don't think Americans have any holiday like it.  It would be like if we had 4 or 5 days in a row of Thanksgiving.
Mongolian families start getting ready for the holiday weeks in advance.  Everyone visits the homes of family and friends, wearing traditional Mongolian clothes.  And every time you visit a home, you have to eat a full meal. The preparation for the holiday is the work part.  The main food that's served is buuz which are steamed meat dumplings, and the meat is usually mutton but sometimes it's beef.  Families make hundreds, sometimes thousands, of buuz in preparation for Tsagaan Sar.  They make them ahead of time, freeze them, and every time someone visits your home, a fresh batch of buuz are steamed for the newcomers. There's also a potato salad, white salad, that has lots of mayo and hiam (not ham, hiam, pronounced like "hyam"--it's kind of like really fatty salami) and pickles.   Then there are plates of pickles and hiam.  At one home, I had a geddes (which is stomach or intestines) salad.  That was definitely not my favorite.  There's a lot of candy too.  Every home has a tower of hard bread, called hafsa, that is topped with aruul, which is dried sour milk curds, and then basically a pile of lard at the top. No one eats the hafsa until after Tsagaan Sar, and by then it's so hard the only way to eat it is to soak it in your milk tea or tea.  The size of the tower depends on how long the parents in the home have been married, and there can only be an odd number of layers.  So young couples may have a 3-layer tower, but an old couple could have a 7-layer tower.  Every home also has a slab of sheep lower back/butt or a cow chest, that has been boiled and is left out ceremoniously next to the tower of bread.  The head of the home will cut pieces off the meat and hand it around.  It's not bad if you don't get a whole bunch of fat.  My Mongolian friends know I don't like the fat so they would give me just meat or meat with a little bit of fat.  Mongolians, however, love the fat and will eat a big ol' piece.  There's milk tea (suutai tsai) to drink, and usually juice.  It's quite a spread, really. 

Also, every guest who comes to your home gets a gift or gifts.   The gifts are cell phone unit gift cards, shampoo, soap, leather key ring holder with Chinggis Khan printed on it (I got 2 of those!), and things like that.  I'm still using up my store of Tsagaan Sar shampoo and soap. Additionally, you're supposed to thoroughly clean your home and buy something new for the home. And you buy or make new dels, the Mongolian traditional clothes. That's to start the new year fresh.  As you can see, this holiday can be very expensive.  
At Chuluuntsetseg's home on Tsagaan Sar Eve.

So, Tsagaan Sar eve (the night before the first official day of Tsagaan Sar) is for immediate family and close friends.  You eat and drink all the same stuff, but it's more low-key and no presents are given.  I spent Tsagaan Sar eve with my counterparts Ariunaa and Chuluuntsegtseg at Chuluuntsetseg's home. It was nice. Chuluuntsetseg lives with her husband, daughter, and father-in-law, so it was all of them and then me and Ariunaa and her son. 

The first day of Tsagaan Sar is for family.  Young family members go visit old family members and 
My School Director about to give the Zolgokh greeting with a khadag in his hand. 
honor them with a greeting and usually a gift of money (maybe 500-5,000 Tugriks, about $.40 to $4).  The greeting is called “zolgokh.” In the greeting, the younger person comes to the older person who is sitting and puts out both their arms, palms up and the older person puts their arms out, palms down on top of the younger person.  Sometimes one or both people have a khadag in their hands.  A khadag is a long brightly colored scarf that is part of many rituals. Then with the younger person supporting the older person's arms, the younger person leans forward and they put cheek to cheek like you're going to kiss them, but instead you sniff them on both sides of the face.  And you say, "Amar sain uu?" which means "do you rest well?" 
Giving the zolgokh greeting.

On the second day of Tsagaan Sar, I went with my counterpart Ariunaa, her 2 sons, my sitemate Geoff, and Yeong Ji, a Korean volunteer at my school, to the countryside to visit some of Ariunaa's family.  Ariunaa was anxious that I see Tsagaan Sar in the countryside.  It was really fun.  The family was honored to have us foreigners there.  Mongolians are crazy about singing, and frequently burst into song at gatherings.  Everyone takes a turn to give a toast and sing a song. Usually, if you start singing a Mongolian song, everyone will join in.  Geoff knows Mongolian really well, so he was able to dazzle the Mongolians with a Mongolian song.  I sang an English song.  At one place, I sang "Amazing Grace" with another PCV.  Geoff and I sang "Ripple" (by the Grateful Dead) at another home.  After eating one full meal in the countryside and receiving gifts, we went to my other counterpart, Chuluuntsetseg's home, had another meal, sang more songs, received gifts and then went to the home of Tserenchimeg, the training manager at my school and one of my English students.  We had yet another full meal, more songs, and more gifts. 

On the third day of Tsagaan Sar, my school had its celebration.  That morning, the teachers all met in  
Waiting for Tsagaan Sar festivities to begin at my school.
our large conference room.  We had the tower and the sheep butt.  And everyone went around and gave the greeting, then we ate some meat and had some toasts to the new year.  After the school event, I went to the home of another one of my counterpart's, Batsaya.  And then I went with her to her brother's home.  And then later that afternoon, I went to the home of a student from the local teacher's college who I've been mentoring.  Whew!
On the fourth day, I only went to one home, thank goodness.  I went to my school's deputy director's home, Oyunkhand.  I went with Ariunaa and the 2 Korean volunteers from my school, Yeong Ji and Sook Bin.  That was a very pleasant morning.  And that ended my Tsagaan Sar. It was a lot of fun but exhausting.

I asked my teachers, and they always end up eating leftover buuz and hafsa for weeks after Tsagaan Sar. But it is a very important holiday. And for many Mongolians it is their favorite holiday even though it's a lot of work because it's the one time during the year that the whole family comes together. It's like a family reunion.

Christmas decorations at a restaurant--just like America!
Shin Jil—Shin Jil means “New Year.” Mongolians celebrate the new year the whole week before Dec. 31. Most Mongolians do not celebrate Christmas but Santa Claus usually makes an appearance at Shin Jil parties, and Christmas decorations, including Christmas trees, are up everywhere.

I went to 2 Shin Jil parties before Dec. 31. The first was the community women's organization's party. Everyone pays to go to the parties. I paid 25,000 tugriks (about $20) for each party. They are very nice, though. The parties start early, about 6:00 and last til after midnight. My school's teachers' party lasted til 2:00 AM! Everyone dresses to the nines. It's very fancy and sparkly. Women wear sequined dresses, get their hair done at a salon, and put glitter all over their hair and bodies. At the women's organization party, a woman came around with glitter gel and rubbed it on everyone.

At big parties like these, there is always some kind of program. At the women's party, a lot of awards were given out. There was a lot of singing and dancing. On each of the tables is juice and water. There are a couple of different salads and a hiam plate. Hiam is like salami except much bigger pieces of fat in it. Dinner is served as the night goes on. At the women's party, I think dinner came out at about 9 PM. At the teachers' party, it came out about 10 PM. Both dinners were very good and quite western. I think we had chicken at both meals. Chicken is not really a Mongolian staple food.

Santa Claus made an appearance at both parties and distributed gifts. I got a special gift at each party. Wh
Santa Claus at my school's Shin Jil party.
en I show up at meetings and events, I usually get singled out as an honored guest. It's unusual to have foreigners at events, so you inevitably become the center of attention at some point. Frequently, you end up on tv if the event is covered by the local tv station. The teachers' party had a huge program that the teachers prepared for for weeks. There were 6 men and women teachers who performed a ball room dance. There were several teachers who sang songs. Mongolians love to sing! I was supposed to sing a Christmas song with my fellow English teachers. We prepared a song, but the program went on so long, we didn't have to do it...thank God! I was nervous about it. There was a couple of students who did a ballroom dance routine. There were a lot of awards given out. There was a beauty/talent contest between 12 teachers. And there was lots of dancing. We had a blast!

Ballroom dancing at my school's Shin Jil party.
One interesting thing is that spouses or boyfriends or girlfriends do not attend functions with people. In America, when there are Christmas parties at work, people bring their husbands or wives. But not in Mongolia. The women's organization party was all women, except for one man--the Aimag (or state) governor who excused himself after saying a few words and giving out some awards saying he felt a little out of place. I met my school director's wife at the women's party, but I've never met her at a school function. Work and family are kept very separate. Most holiday parties follow this pattern of lots of food, dancing, singing, some sort of program, and awards.

Another interesting thing is that these big New Year’s parties do not happen on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31. They all happen before Dec. 31.  On the thirty-first, Mongolians celebrate the new year with their families at home. There were a lot of fireworks all over the city on New Year’s Eve. It was quite a display!

Naadam—Naadam is Mongolia's national holiday and it is usually held around July 10, 11, and 12.  
A wrestler of the future!
Most towns have their own celebrations but they don’t all necessarily occur on July 10-12.  For example, in Choibalsan, Naadam will be July 21-23 this year. There is one huge 3-day celebration in Ulaanbaatar on July 10-12. There are competitions in the three national “manly” sports--wrestling, horse racing, and archery. There is also a fourth sport, shagai, that is becoming more important at Naadam. Shagai is a game played with sheep ankle bones. There are several different versions but they usually involve some combination of flicking a bone into another bone and/or rolling the bones. The shagai competition at Naadam involves flicking the bones at a target about 50 feet away. It’s very difficult to hit it that far and on target.

The celebrations in towns are kind of like town fairs. There are people selling drinks and khuushur  
Singing at Naadam.
(fried meat pies). Different groups (like the school, the hospital, political parties) have tents set up and offer airag (fermented mare's milk--the traditional alcohol; it’s very low in alcohol, only about 3%, so it’s difficult to get drunk on airag) and food. I tasted airag, fermented mare's milk. It tastes like watered down, bubbly sour cream. It was ok, but not something you want to drink a lot of. Airag is supposed to be "good" for your stomach, which I think means it cleans you out. If you’re not careful you might spend quite a bit of the next day in the outhouse.

There is wrestling, and there is usually a stage set up for singing and dancing. Mongolians are all about the singing and dancing.  There is also horse racing out in the khudoo (countryside). Most people dress up in their best traditional clothing, so it's very colorful. The wrestling is fascinating. See the “Mongolian Games and Sports” section for more on the three “manly” sports. There are some wrestlers who clearly wrestle frequently, but they also take competitors from the crowd.
Wrestling at Naadam.

One of the teachers at my school told me Naadam is her favorite holiday because it’s in the summer when it’s warm, you’re outside a lot watching wrestling, archery, and horse racing, and it’s not near as much work as other holidays. You can buy khuushuur from vendors at the events.  You can also watch the horse racing and wrestling going on in Ulaanbaatar on tv.

Women’s Day—International Women’s Day is celebrated all over the world on March 1 every year. In Mongolia, it’s kind of like Mother’s Day. There is not usually work on that day. Women go out to eat at restaurants with their families or friends. Women also get presents like cake, flowers, and clothes from their husbands, male co-workers, and fathers. At my school there was a Women’s Day song competition with teachers and students competing. There were lots of songs about mothers.
A marching competition at my school.
 Soldiers’ or Men’s Day—In Mongolia, men also have a special day on March 18. One of the teachers at my school said this was his favorite holiday because he used to be in the army, and on this day he gets to compete in or watch marching competitions.  Also, his wife makes him his favorite foods. And on Men’s Day, women give men presents. At night, there are fireworks.

Children’s Day—Everybody gets a day in Mongolia!  On June 1, it’s Children’s Day. There are all kinds of fun competitions and games like bike-riding competitions, singing and dancing competitions, and art contests. Some children draw pictures of their families and give them to their mothers. The children get gifts from their parents and grandparents like balloons, toys, candy, cake, and juice. It’s a day of fun and games for children!

Freedom Day—On November 26, Mongolians celebrate Freedom Day, the day in 1921 when Mongolia won independence from the Chinese. On that day, everyone wears Mongolian traditional clothes to celebrate their culture and nation. There are ceremonies held where the Mongolian national anthem is sung by everyone. It’s a lot like America’s Fourth of July.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Mongolian Food

Mongolian Food
Mongolian food is very different from American food. The Mongolian diet is rooted in the herder culture. Years ago many, many Mongolians were herders. There are still a lot of herders but there aren’t as many as there used to be. Herders raise sheep, goats, yaks, cows, camels, and horses. So, the Mongolian diet is a lot of meat and dairy products. Sheep or mutton is the most popular meat. Many Mongolian families will buy a live sheep, kill it at home, and then eat all parts of the sheep. See this link for a story about a traditional Mongolian sheep dinner:  In the winter, the meat can be kept outside because it freezes. Mongolians don’t eat lambs or any other baby animals. It makes more sense to Mongolians to let the animals grow to adulthood. That way, you get more meat from the animals. In the grocery stores, you can buy frozen horse meat, mutton, beef, and chicken. We don’t eat horse meat in America, but it is very tasty. It’s lean and makes a good steak!


Usually, mutton is boiled.  Mongolians eat a lot of soup (called shul). The soup has mutton, carrots, potatoes, and noodles made out of flour and water. The same dough made out of flour and water is also used to make large meat dumplings called buuz (sounds like “boats”), small meat dumplings called bansh, and fried meat pies called khuushuur (sounds like “ho-shur”). For all three, meat (usually mutton but sometimes beef) is chopped into very small pieces and mixed with chopped onions, a little water, salt and pepper. Buuz are steamed, bansh are cooked in soup or milk tea (see below about milk tea), and khuushuur are deep fried in oil. One big difference in American cooking and Mongolian cooking is that Mongolians do not remove the fat from meat. In fact, Mongolians believe that fat is good for you and will eat big pieces of fat by itself. So the meat that is chopped up for buuz, bansh or khuushuur and that is put in soup includes a good bit of fat too. Sometimes khuushuur are made with potatoes (called “tomstay khuushuur,” which means “fried pies with potatoes”) or potatoes, carrots, and zucchini (called “nagoni khuushuur,” which means “vegetable fried pies”) instead of meat. Pinching the buuz and khuushuur shut is a true art, which I have not been able to master. Mongolians, both men and women, can pinch with speed and end up with a beautiful pattern on their buuz or khuushuur.

Blow torching the fur off a marmot.

There is a traditional cooking method that’s used to cook goat and marmot. Marmot are large rodent-like creatures about the size of a large cat.  Mongolians like to hunt marmot. Rocks are heated in a fire and then the rocks are stuffed inside the dead goat or marmot along with meat that has been cut up, organs like liver and intestines, and a little water. The goat or marmot is sewn up to keep everything in. The meat cooks from the inside. Then the fur is burned off with a blow torch. The goat or marmot is cut open and the rocks are removed. The hot rocks are given to people to toss back and forth in their hands until the rock cools down.  Mongolians believe the rocks are good for your health.

Blow torching the fur off a marmot.

There are many dairy products. Yogurt (called “tarag”) is very good, and people make it at home. Mongolian yogurt is thinner than the yogurt you buy at the store in America. You drink Mongolian yogurt mixed with sugar. It’s delicious! Mongolians eat dried sour milk curds, called “aruul.” It tastes a little like parmesan cheese. Every Mongolian home has a thermos of milk tea, called suutay tsay, at all times. It’s made with black tea, milk, salt, and sometimes butter or melted fat.  Less salt or no salt is put in the suutay tsay in the northeast of Mongolia. When you visit a Mongolian home, you are served suutay tsay and candy. It’s part of the Mongolian tradition of hospitality toward guests. And you have to finish your tea. It’s considered rude to leave a full cup. There’s a sour cream made by Buriad people in the northeast of Mongolia. It’s called “tsotsgee.” Ten liters of milk makes one liter of tsotsgee.
The Travel Channel’s show, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmerman, did an episode in Mongolia. See videos and pictures from the episode here:

Mongolian Clothes

Today Mongolians mostly wear what Americans wear—jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes. But there are traditional Mongolian clothes called dels, that are quite beautiful.  Both men and women wear dels. Older people wear dels more often than younger people. There are certain holidays, Tsagaan Sar and Independence Day, where everyone wears traditional Mongolian clothes. On the New Year holiday, Mongolians dress in very fancy, sparkly clothes. Everyone, especially the women, dresses to the nines. Some schools require students to wear uniforms. The boys usually have to wear black pants and white, button-down shirts.  But the girls have to wear dresses and hair bows that make them look a little like a French maid.  Enjoy these pictures of Mongolian clothes!
This is my Mongolian host dad wearing his del.

This is me and my Mongolian host mom in dels.

Western clothes stand next to Mongolian traditional clothes.

Dressed up at a New Year's Party.

Sparkles at a New Year's Party!


These girls are wearing their school uniforms.

These women are Khalkh Mongolian, signified by their tall hats.

This couple is Kazakh. You can tell by the embroidery on their clothes and the style of their hats.

Mongolian cowboys!