Monthly Archives: January 2014

Tsagaan Sar, The Bad Expats’ Version


Happy Year of the Horse!

It’s Tsagaan Sar in Mongolia this weekend, also known as the White Moon festival, celebrating the Lunar New Year. Along with Naadam in the summer, Tsagaan Sar is one of Mongolia’s most important holidays and a time for families to celebrate together.

The holiday goes back to Mongolia’s earliest, shamanist and animist traditions and marks the end of winter and the beginning of the warmer weather. (I hesitate to describe the current weather as incipient spring, but the solstice has passed so technically winter is winding down.) Similar to new year celebrations in other cultures, this is a time when homes are cleaned, people wear new clothes and attitudes are positive, to set the right tone for good fortune in the coming year. In Mongolia, younger members of the family visit the elders, which is a lovely gesture of respect and also means that the duties of hospitality fall on the oldest people. Some of my colleagues live with elderly parents, and they’ve been making dumplings for the past two weeks.

The traditional food for Tsagaan Sar is, not surprisingly, meat and dairy, with brown food symbolising the old year and white food the new. In the old days everyone had sheep to butcher, and sheep haunch was the centerpiece of the family table. downloadHowever, contemporary Mongolia is more urbanized, so sheep haunch is purchased — at highly inflated holiday prices. There actually have been editorials in the paper urging people not to go into debt just for the status of having a haunch on the table (and remember: these are the elders who host, so we’re talking about fixed-income retirees). The other traditional dishes are buuz, the mutton dumplings, and ul boov, a cookie that is stacked in circular rows, odd-numbered for good luck. At right is a photo of ul boov. The dumplings are made literally by the hundreds, as everyone who visits is given dumplings, milk tea and, likely, vodka and/or airag. The friendly, informal greeting this time of year is “Enjoy the buuz and the booze!”

You’re probably wondering about the other traditions of the holiday and wishing I’d explain a bit more. Which, as a new expat in Mongolia, I should do, having learned about the gifts, the greetings, the exchanging of snuff boxes by men. But we’re being bad expats this time: everything in UB is closed, and we had no particular invitations, so we took off for the bright lights and big city of Tokyo. No firsthand reports from me this year. (Nor are the photos by me: the horse is from Wikipedia, and the ul boov is from here.)

That said, there are two interesting things about the holiday that I’ve found out, both having to do with Mongolia’s idea of itself:

  1. In the socialist era, there was an effort made by the Soviets to change the holiday to “Collective Herder’s Day.” That didn’t take.
  2. I was informed, by several people, that Tsagaan Sar has NOTHING IN COMMON with Lunar New Year as celebrated by the Chinese. Completely different, oh, yes, completely different.
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When Someone Dies

IMG_0970One of my colleagues’ grandmother died recently. The illness came on suddenly, but my colleague was able to travel home in time for a last visit.

Following Mongolian custom, all of us in the office contributed money for the family. This is to help with funeral expenses and also is a way to acknowledge the family’s loss. When the colleague returned to the office, she showed me that she was wearing her grandmother’s earrings that were a last gift and a set of Buddhist prayer beads. Like a rosary, the beads help count prayers; saying the prayers three times a day will help the deceased person’s soul on its path.

Later she came by my desk with a small bag. Inside was tea, milk, soap, matches and small candles that she described as religious candles to light the soul’s path. This was not a gift, she explained, it’s customary for the bereaved family to give something back to all those who had contributed funds following a death. I asked about what is given, are these items symbolic or does each family decide what to give? Each family decides, and these things are typical for her family, but milk often is included. “Mongolians respect milk, so milk is given. Also matches.”

Symbolic, practical, maintaining community ties — I am lucky to be part of this.

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Ready for Winter in Mongolia?

IMG_0963I begin by noting that in December Mongolian people told me over and over that it was unusually warm. I continue by noting that the Polar Vortex caused unusual cold in many parts of the US and Canada.

But still, it’s WINTER IN MONGOLIA, people.

The idea of winter in Mongolia is scary, and this post is about trying to handle the uncertainty and intimidation associated with winter in Mongolia. Much of our apartment search was oriented around being close enough to walk places in -30 temperatures: could we get to work easily? Were there restaurants close by for times we’d want to eat out? How far would we have to carry groceries? In warmer weather, central Ulaanbaatar is very easy to walk around, but how far are we willing walk in midwinter?


(Stock photo, not taken by me)

Once we had an apartment and I’d found all those grocery stores, I started filling the freezer with supplies. By mid-November we had four different kinds of homemade soup, plus homemade bread, plus carried-from-San Francisco tamales and tortillas. Planning for food runs like the Amazon through my maternal line — one of my New York mother’s first comments on the phone 9/11 was that she had salmon in the freezer so she could feed anyone who came to their apartment — so stockpiling food was my first, strongest response to prepare for the unknown cold.

We also discussed whether or not to get a car, to eliminate an excuse for not going out of the city during the winter. Because maintaining cars is so hard in the cold, many people sell their cars in October and November, and we considered getting a used car. Which meant we’d also need a parking space — heated garage space strongly preferred, because an unheated space would mean having to keep all the car’s fluids and parts from freezing. I pictured having to get out of bed at 5:00 am to turn on the car, and where would that car even be, in a garage three blocks away? In the end, we decided the good apartment was not worth giving up to get a garage space.

The good apartment was equipped with all the other amenities we thought we’d need to get through the winter: a good, fast internet connection to power our two computers, iPad and Apple TV, seeds to grow our own fresh herbs, nice smelling candles and soap, and a huge supply of books for me. Never mind that I can borrow e-books online from our local US library; I need to see actual books on shelves around me in order to feel … what? Prepared? Secure?

It’s all about facing something unknown and trying to control that unknown thing. Expat life is all about living outside the familiar, and that’s what’s great about it, but something about this intense cold seems harder. The new culture/can’t speak the language stuff is challenging, of course, but we are used to that from Malaysia. Cold, -30 cold, has seemed like a whole new kind of scary.

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Lost in the Mongolian Grocery Store



We’ve spent A LOT of time as new expats exploring the grocery stores of Ulaanbaatar. For me, food shopping is one of the most interesting ways to learn about a new culture. What do people eat and how do they get it? More immediately, what will we eat besides Mongolian food? And where do we find it?

The good news is a lot more vegetables & fruits than I’d expected. IMG_0631Even durian, once! Relatively few vegetables are grown in Mongolia, so what’s here is mostly from China and easily-transported. IMG_0796Leafy greens, such as lettuce, aren’t so good, but there are plenty of root vegetables, as well as tomatoes and cucumbers. Root vegetables are sold unwashed, and sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between, say, beets and turnips in bins. At left is what we brought home one day — see those nice chilies and the ginger?

Meat is sold both in the butcher sections of larger stores and pre-packaged frozen. There are lots of options: cut pieces, pre-ground meats, sausages, and dumplings. IMG_0817(As far as I can tell from the dumpling packages, they’re all stuffed with mutton. Whatever differences there are between red, blue and green labels, it’s not the filling.) Frozen fish also is available. Though I miss eating fish more often, it doesn’t look that good so we rarely buy it.

Dairy is the other staple of the Mongolian diet. The trick is to figure out what, exactly, is inside the package — early on I bought sweetened yogurt instead of cream. Milk comes in different versions: UHT (Ultra High Temperature, meaning no refrigeration is needed) packs, “regular” and reconstituted from powder, with fat levels of 4% or 3.2%. I don’t care about the fat content but I do NOT prefer powdered milk. Other packages…are they butter? Cheese? Flavored yogurt? Some other thing? And there’s ahruul, the dried yogurt described by To Mongolia with Love:


Ahruul is everywhere!

It’s been surprisingly hard to find fresh herbs, which I miss a lot. IMG_0814Cilantro is the only one that’s relatively common and cheap. I’ve substituted celery leaves for parsley and bought mint when we’ve found it, but mostly it’s dried herbs in envelopes. And again, it’s a matter of figuring out the labels in Mongolian. (Time to start growing our own.)

A few other interesting things:

  • Every store, no matter how small, has a very large candy section, full of chocolates, wrapped hard candies, gift boxes, kids’ treats, you name it.
  • Mongolian food traditionally is not very seasoned. The default seasonings and condiments seem to be Eastern European: pickles everywhere, jars and cans of beets, sauerkraut, and preserved meats. There is lots of oil and what I finally identified as mayonnaise, but very little vinegar — salad is far more likely dressed with mayonnaise than vinaigrette.
  • Korean ingredients also seem very popular, including a wide range of sauces, seasoning mixes, misos, instant noodles, and kim chee.
  • Besides the big supermarkets, there are lots of little neighborhood markets that sell the basics: milk, bread, toilet paper, candy, cigarettes, and, because this is Mongolia, there’s also often a freezer case with big chunks of meat in it.

One of my favorite places is the big indoor market where individual vendors sell meat, produce, dairy and pantry items. This is where we find the widest range of produce and the freshest, sawed-off-the-haunch meat, but what’s fascinating are the little stalls of random packaged things. I’m not sure what the import process is for, say, US cake mixes or jars of peppercorns, but these vendors have just different enough stock that I wonder if a lot of it is hand-carried in from other countries. I went looking for horseradish several times with no luck. Pretty much all the stands looked as if they *might* have it, because they had mustard and paprika and ketchup, but no one did. Then, one day, someone had it. It’s like that.

Another category is the American stores that sellIMG_0800 US brands in big quantities, like a Costco, but in small spaces. Again, it’s hard to predict what you’ll find in one of these, but it’s stuff like paper towels, cereal, baby things, and huge institutional (hospitals, dormitories, prisons) food service-size jars of, say, peanut butter. Mongolian people shop there to be sure they’re getting authentic products. I was in a taxi with a colleague and the driver asked her where a nearby American store was, because his wife wanted to buy real US candy for a holiday party. Snickers are at every checkout counter, and it hadn’t occurred to me that they’d be counterfeit, but who knows?

IMG_0818Finally, what about that other household stuff? Some of it is easy to recognise, and the local labelling is kind of adorable, like this toilet paper at left. But some things are completely incomprehensible. IMG_0957We bought this bag of whatever back in October, hoping it was laundry detergent but not sure. Laundry detergent? Fabric softener? Dishwashing liquid? Bird shampoo? We tried looking online, then emailed a photo to a Korean-speaking friend in the US. The label turned out to be too euphemistic for her non-resident Korean language skills — the label and product name, “Gentle Pigeon” or some such, didn’t actually explain what it does, so our friend had to forward the photo to a cousin in Korea for further explanation. Turns out to be a very popular, heavily advertised … laundry detergent.

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Mongolian food

I haven’t gotten around to writing an overview of traditional and/or what’s-eaten-around-m Mongolian food, so imagine my delight when I saw this excellent post on To Mongolia with Love. Enjoy, and I will try to get my post on grocery shopping done soon as a follow up.

To Mongolia with Love

I read somewhere that “no one comes to Mongolia for the food.” That’s a really harsh and insensitive statement, but one I’m inclined to agree with. Meaning, unfortunately, it’s doubtful I’ll ever have a craving for the cultural cuisine. Much of the Mongolian food is very labor intensive. It is not uncommon for a meal to take 1-2 hours to prepare. (Which, actually, now that I think of it, might be standard but remember I didn’t really cook before I came here.) For anything involving dough, that is made from scratch.

The main courses:

Buuz – (pronounced “boats”) round, meat-filled dumpling. These can be eaten as is or made mini (“bansh”) and added to soup, which also contains meat.

Giddis – literally translates to “stomach” but refers to any of the animal innards. I did it. Once. A bite of intestines. The taste is tolerable, but the texture… slimy… It…

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