Monthly Archives: October 2013

Mongolian Food Calls My Bluff


Lamb organs

For most of my life, I’ve thought of myself as a food person. And over the years, I’ve gotten more and more adventurous, gotten better at cooking, learned more about why people eat what they eat (and been very judgmental too, I must say), all that. But here I’ve reverted to the narrow, picky habits of childhood; Mongolian food has called my bluff.

People who like Mongolian food describe it as meaty, fatty and bland, and from the locavore/anthropological point of view, this is both correct and appropriate. Traditionally, people eat what is easy to obtain, and nomadic people who live with their flocks of sheep/cows/horses/goats in a climate with a short growing season are going to eat a lot of meat and dairy. I get it, I really do. I just can’t eat this way.

IMG_0782My very kind and welcoming colleagues made an office lunch last week of a very traditional, common dish of dumplings in milk tea. The dumplings are small, like har gow with lamb filling, and milk tea — which is drunk everywhere — is tea made with milk, butter and salt. I tried to eat it, but could only manage a little. Of all the meat that I don’t like, lamb and mutton are the worst, because of that smell. It’s really embarrassing.

There are some vegetables included, mostly cooked together as a stew or dressed in mayonnaise and on the side, often with pickles and ham added for an eastern European flavor. Green salads are available at the more upscale, western restaurants — the kind I used to snark about in Malaysia: “Oh, they’re afraid of the local food, only eat at those bad western places.”

IMG_0797 This week we had two days of order-in-for-a-meeting office lunches, and I got the dish at right: beef goulash with rice, mashed potato, carrot salad and stewed cabbage. I ate around the goulash, while everyone else had lamb buns — the size of my fist, like bao — and salad of hardboiled egg and ham.

Now that we’re in our own apartment with a kitchen, we can cook dinner at home, and that’s been a relief. Most restaurant food seems bland to me, and the portions are huge, consistent with the local taste. I thought we Americans served the biggest portions, but if I can’t finish a soup and salad, that’s saying something.

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Working. To Stay Out of Trouble.

IMG_0799The good news from last week is that I am now working full time. Yay! Above is the view from my office.

When we were here back in August to check things out and see if the husband’s job would work out, I met with one of the women’s NGO leaders to learn about what the NGOs are doing here and what opportunities there might be for me. I was very excited by the extent to which they are working on women’s political participation and leadership, an interesting focus on women in the public sphere. Which makes sense for a country that is still transitioning to democracy.

After we arrived here For Real, I contacted the woman I’d met earlier, and we were both really interested in my working for them. It’s a small NGO that focuses on advocacy and training, as well as maintaining a network of feminist and gender-oriented NGOs in Mongolia. My role is to help with organizational development, particularly with office systems and increasing the capacity of the younger staff. In a small office like this (similar to my work in Malaysia), I get to do a lot of hands-on mentoring, which is fun for me and also seems to work well in building people’s skills. I’ll write more about this as I gain experience, but so far the issues are still very much about expanding political participation, for women generally, but also young women, rural women and the LGBT community, who partner on various projects.

Not only am I very glad to be contributing in some way and learning more about the country, but I’m also happy to have some structure to my time as Winter approaches. I laugh at myself as I notice how much my apprehension about the intense cold affects what I’m doing now (grocery shopping to fill our freezer with soup!), but I am also serious about making myself leave the house regularly. Can’t turn into “The Shining,” right?

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9 x 9 Days of Winter

In traditional Mongolian culture, the winter season begins at the winter solstice and is divided into nine nine-day sections. People kept track of the days with a call-and-response poem that goes something like this:

What Happens During the First Nine Days?

Distilled Vodka Will Freeze

What Happens During the Second Nine Days?

Horse Milk Vodka Will Freeze

What Happens During the Third Nine Days?

The Horns of Three-Year-Old Cattle Will Freeze

What Happens During the Fourth Nine Days?

The Horns of Four-Year-Old Cattle Will Freeze

What Happens During the Fifth Nine Days?

Taken* Rice Will Not Freeze

What Happens During the Sixth Nine Days?

The Road Starts to Be Visible

What Happens During the Seventh Nine Days?

The Hills Start to Look Brown

What Happens During the Eighth Nine Days?

The Ground Will Become Slushy**

What Happens During the Ninth Nine Days?

The Warm Weather Comes

*This was explained as rice put outside up on the roof, which I don’t quite understand.

**The Mongolian word for “slushy” is nal shal — onomatopoeia, just like English.

I’d love to hear more about this from Mongolians, so please comment if you have something to add.

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At the Mercy of Our Hosts


Inside the party ger

One of the things that happens when you’re an expat is that people very kindly set up events and excursions for you. The thinking is that since you don’t know the place or have any kind of social life, it’s a favor to arrange these outings. My personal Code of Expat Life includes saying yes to as many invitations as I can handle, because it is pretty much true that we don’t know the place or have a social life. The way to establish a life in a new country is to go out whenever and wherever asked.

But. You never really know what these excursions will involve: when it will end, how you’ll get home, what normal-for-them-completely-insane-for-you things will happen. For example, when we were very new to Malaysia, we accepted a lunch invitation with someone we’d met when we left an umbrella behind in a restaurant. That lunch turned into our being taken to his family home in the fire fighters’ quarters in a distant suburb, where we were shown the family albums, Bollywood movies on tv and expected to drink a lot of bad scotch throughout. When we finally managed to convince them we needed to leave, we had no idea how to get home. So that’s what I’m talking about.

That trip to the Genghis Khan statue was similar. Planned with the best of intentions by the husband’s (I have to come up with a new pseudonym for him now that we have an apartment. No one has High Standards all the time.) colleagues, we went off that morning with the boss and his driver, following a minivan with the rest of the group. IMG_0761 We didn’t see them again until lunch at a resort hotel nearby. As we finished eating with the boss, we were told that the group was waiting for us for the “opening ceremony.” Huh? Ok….

Behind the main building was a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) set up for events, and everyone was sitting at a large, u-shaped table laid with snacks and drinks. It turned out that the whole group was staying there overnight, so this was the beginning of a retreat. “Team building?” I asked; no, just for fun.

And out came the vodka. I wasn’t completely surprised, since we’d had welcome toasts after lunch when we visited in August, but this was the real thing: one toast after another after another. IMG_0771

Then someone celebrating a birthday was presented with his gift — a smoked pig’s head. (If we hadn’t known before that we are no longer in a Muslim country, this was definitely the moment.)

Then came the games. Now, I don’t mind standing up to introduce myself and thank everyone for welcoming us so warmly, but mention games and I start panicking. There was no getting out of this, though, and now I’ll never forget the year Genghis Khan was born: 1162.

When the time came for a break, people dispersed, and we found ourselves invited to a hotel-room ger with the boss, where we…drank more vodka. (Wait — wasn’t this the break time??) We started making motions to leave, were urged to stay through dinner; “No, thank you, really, we have to pack for moving tomorrow.” Then agreed to stay for the next ceremony. Which was the part where people share a hot pot of lamb organs.

I was raised to be polite, I really was, but there was NO WAY. Among other reasons, I’d already eaten my body weight in Pringles, trying to stay sober through all the vodka shots. Fortunately, the husband covered for me — maybe his new pseudonym should be He Who Eats Lamb Liver For Me.

We eventually made it home, thanks to the boss’ car and driver.

Dinner was out of the question.

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At the Intersection of Kitsch and Fabulous…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…looms Genghis Khan, or Chinggis Khaan, as he’s known here.

(And I still hear the voice of my Pakistani freshman dorm neighbor telling us, “No! It’s Jen-GAYS!” Can’t remember now why this came up repeatedly.)

This statue was built by a private company with big, big plans for a resort area an hour outside Ulaanbaatar. The surrounding area has not yet been developed, but there’s model in the museum area below the statue, along with a video that shows the construction of the statue. Mr. Khan is honored in many ways around here: besides the statues in Sukhbaatar Square pictured earlier, there’s also a hotel, a beer, and various other things named after him.

Also featured, somewhat surprisingly, in the museum is this snarky New York Times article about the statue:

We had quite a day out there, but that’s a story for another time. Meanwhile, here he is at dusk:



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