Monthly Archives: June 2014

Sunday Hike at Bogd Khaan, Ulaanbaatar

IMG_1216 Sunday morning at 8:00 seemed awfully early, especially after the lightest-latest night of the Summer Solstice and especially for a person such as myself who hikes only under ideal conditions. But off we went with a group of the husband’s coworkers, right outside Ulaanbaatar. One of the great things about the Mongolian landscape is the beauty so close to the city.IMG_1218 Stunning rock slides, formed by long-ago glaciers, and a spring, with water you can drink. IMG_1220 We reached the ridge after about an hour and half, and it was time to eat! IMG_1222 We were in a flat, open area, with other groups around us. For some reason, Mongolians like to climb up a hill, eat a bunch of food, then do group calisthenics before continuing on. Apparently, it’s a soviet thing.
IMG_1225We continued along the ridge, through woods filled with wildflowers.
IMG_1234Then the woods opened up to some serious drama.
IMG_1244On the way down, everyone took photos of each other.
IMG_1247Except me — I collected a big bunch of wild dandelion greens for cooking this week.

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For Mongolian Government Nerds Only


Mongolian Parliament Building (it only looks gloomy in the rain)

Soon after I got to work this morning I was asked to cover a meeting hosted by the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. After a quick detour home to upgrade my outfit (mindful that in Asia it’s far, FAR better to appear late than in sneakers), I arrived for a round table discussion led by the ODIHR on their report as an election observer of Mongolia’s most recent presidential election, held in June, 2013. The report was just finalised and is being discussed with various stakeholders, including government ministries, the political parties and some civil society organizations (such as the NGO I work for).

Mongolia has a unicameral parliamentary system, with 76 members of parliament and a Prime Minister who is elected by the members. There is also a President, who is elected by a popular vote and once elected steps out of his or her party to serve in a non-partisan, symbolic role as representative of the Mongolian people. The President is the Head of State and Commander in Chief, while the Prime Minister leads the government and chooses people for Cabinet positions.

As an American, my understanding of parliamentary governance isn’t completely solid, even after five years in Malaysia, and a system that includes both a President and a Prime Minister is that much more confusing. But both the husband and I worked in government in the US, and watching Mongolia develop its young democracy is fascinating. In addition, the NGO where I work is conducting a series of training sessions for women from rural areas and underserved communities to expand their political participation. The sessions are funded only through 2014 however, and I just wrote an application for continued funding from the US State Department, under the Global Women, Peace and Security initiative. The State Department thinks, and I agree, that bringing more women into decision-making positions helps countries stabilize and develop in positive ways. And it’s interesting that Mongolia, which has more educated women than men and high levels of women in the workforce, lags way behind other countries and its own targets in women holding political office.

Sorry, where was I again? Right, how did that 2013 election go?

Generally, it went fine. As was carefully noted, fundamental human rights were respected during the campaign. The recommendations for improvement included some administrative/procedural fixes, but mostly concerned greater disclosure and transparency. A few examples:

  • De-criminalize libel, because the current law limits free speech by journalists. Libel should be a civil offence instead of criminal.
  • Review the legal framework regarding media generally, in order to strengthen journalists’ ability to provide unbiased and fair coverage of elections and candidates.
  • Provide for disclosure of ownership of media outlets in laws pertaining to media.
  • Reform liability for content, so that politicians and parties are held accountable for providing misleading content, rather than the media outlets themselves. (“I’m XYZ, and I approve this message.”)

I pause here to note that Mongolians widely distrust their national media, to the extent that the Mongolian government describes this mistrust as a problem in its annual reports to international development entities. Reporters are often paid by individuals or businesses to write particular stories, and there is very little fact-checking. People rely on what they hear from their friends and neighbors instead of news sources. So, there is a lot of room for improvement in media coverage of elections.

Additional recommendations include:

  • Introduce more regulations regarding campaign financing, because there is a lack of transparency and oversight in this area.
  • Allow more than just ten days for people to check their voter registration status.
  • Allow prisoners to vote.
  • Allow presidential candidates to run without a political affiliation. The ODIHR representatives noted this as particularly important to enable individuals to represent the country as a whole.

The round table discussion participants mostly agreed — or said they did — with these recommendations, and acknowledged that whoever has the most money wins. There was a lot of talk about improving procedures, and what surprised me, and I think surprised the ODIHR team, was a high level of concern about electronic vote counting machines. Not voting machines, just machines to count ballots; apparently, people do not trust the machines, thinking of them as unproven and confusing. The non-partisan/non-governmental Voter Education Center runs an information hotline and said they got some 1200 calls on election day (remember that the population is only about 2.7 million) asking for basic information, and many of those calls were from poll workers.

Which goes to show — principles and accountability matter in democracy, but low-level mechanics matter a lot too.

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A Liebster Award!


The lively, interesting and, as I now know, kind blogger Czechsotans has nominated this blog for a Liebster Award! Many thanks for the support, and check out Czechsotans’ entry here

I admit that Liebster Awards were unfamiliar to me, and the gist is that the Liebsters are a way for smaller blogs to share and support each other’s work. The nominator asks each nominee to answer some questions, and then those nominees answer and pass on the award with new questions to their own set of nominees. The rules, loosely understood, are here.

Czechsotans asks the following  questions, and because Drinking Coffee Elsewhere: Mongolia is an expat blog, I’ll answer in terms of life in Mongolia:

1. If your blog was a song, what would it be and why?

I came of musical age in the late 1970’s, and Blondie’s “One Way or Another” captures my somewhat antagonistic affection for Mongolia.

2. What is one thing you reeeeally like about the town where you live?IMG_1204

For a city that is commonly described as unattractive, there are some lovely little parks and green, open spaces. The center of the city is easily walkable, as long as one is EXTREMELY vigilant when crossing the street, and walking is a great way to appreciate the parks and old architecture. At this time of year, flowers are planted along the sidewalks as well, which makes the street scene even nicer.

3. What are you doing this summer?

Staying in Mongolia to enjoy the warm weather and host some of our close friends who are visiting from Malaysia. It’s a huge treat to spend time with people we really miss, plus visitors give us a good excuse to sightsee outside Ulaanbaatar.

4. Name a place you’ve traveled that you’d recommend to others and why.

The Mongolian countryside is breathtaking. Ulaanbaatar has its charms and comforts, but travellers should come to Mongolia for the wild beauty of the landscape and the rigorous outdoor activities.

5. Who is someone you look up to?

I have been really fortunate through work in the NGO sector to meet some amazing women leaders. Some of them were among those who fought for democracy in the immediate post-socialist period, and some of them are advocating every day for law and policy reform. As I write this, the revised version of the Law on Domestic Violence has been at Parliament all week, and people are working hard to get that law passed.

6. What drives you crazy?

The food. Traditional Mongolian food is meaty, fatty and bland, and even as I appreciate the very good environmental and cultural reasons for this diet, I have a very hard time eating here. The local taste for meaty, fatty and bland affects the preparation of non-Mongolian food as well: where else would you find sausage nigiri sushi? On the positive side, my own cooking is improving as I learn to make more ingredients and dishes that I can’t find here.

7. Where do you do most of your blogging?

Each post starts as a conversation in my head with some hypothetical Interested Person. When the narrative flows and I have a semi-coherent idea of the beginning, middle and end of the post, I get on the computer to write and find images. The actual “where” depends on the time and energy I have for writing, sometimes at home, sometimes at work.

8. How do you spend your free time?

A lot of cooking, obviously! We eat all breakfasts and about five dinners a week at home, which takes time to prepare and hunt for ingredients. Now that the weather is warm, I love riding and wish I could do that every weekend. We have more of a social life now, too, so we have people over or meet somewhere to get together. All my other time is spent reading, both books and online.

9. What is something cool you’ve found?

Mongolian (Tuvan, specifically) throat singing — oh, my god! Listen to this.

10. If you could switch places with someone for a day, who would it be?

Honestly, I have no idea!

11. What gets your creative juices flowing?

One of the tags I just added recently is Cultural Dislocation. I’m just now calling it out specifically, but really, cultural dislocation is the feeling that inspires me to write and describe what we experience here. It’s hard to exaggerate the impact of daily life in an unfamiliar culture: basic tasks can be very difficult because, well, how do you add money to your phone or find a shoe repair place, or or or or… One way I can tell how hard this is? When we’re in the US I am ridiculously excited by simple interactions IN WHICH I AM UNDERSTOOD. Such as asking where something is in a store, being told and finding the thing in that place. When so much is unfamiliar, we notice more, and that is what sparks creativity.

And my nominations for Liebster Awards go to:

If they want, and when they have time, I would love to know how they answer the following questions:

  1. What started this project?
  2. What’s your favorite part of blogging?
  3. What have you learned along the way, and would you give this advice to others?
  4. Do you have a particular audience in mind?
  5. How do you use structure in your blogging — a set of guidelines for posting, or as things arise?
  6. What particular image or memory best captures the spirit of your blog?
  7. If you could go anywhere in the world and share the experience through the blog, where would it be?
  8. Whom from your past would you go back to and thank?
  9. What about you might we not know from reading your blog?
  10. What makes you feel better after a hard day?
  11. Do you have an end in mind for your blog?

Moon rising over Ulaanbaatar

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Getting to Ride Mongolian Horses

I say “getting to ride,” as in “fortunate enough to have the opportunity to ride” Mongolian horses. Less than an hour outside the city, and the countryside feels empty and wild. The terrain was grassy, rocky and bare, but with wildflowers underfoot. Yesterday:
IMG_1182The same area in late March:
IMG_1038I am not one to say that the only way to experience the real soul of a country is through its traditional activities and rural areas. All countries change over time, and contemporary urban life is just as “real” as village or nomadic life. We outsiders like to see how people live differently than we do, but let’s not expect the old ways to be preserved for our tourist eyes.

That said, horses are a deeply cherished part of Mongolian history and culture. Besides contributing to Chinggis Khaan’s conquests, horses are part of nomadic life, used for herding, milk, and meat. Songs and poems are written in cadences to match the rhythm of galloping. Horse racing is one of Mongolia’s three traditional sports, along with archery and wrestling. These horses are small and tough, they can run for hours without stopping and are used to travelling for days.

For a lazy urbanite like me, riding is a way to engage with the part of Mongolia and its history that take place outside the city, and I’m very glad to have opportunities to ride. There are places where you can go out for a few hours with guides and have lunch — it’s a fun way to spend a Saturday or Sunday. This young woman helped us get ready back in March and was one of our guides yesterday.

You can see how small the horses are.

IMG_1033The saddles and bridles are very basic, and the horses are guided with the reins rather than the legs, more like western/cowboy style. There’s some trotting, but it’s mostly walking or galloping, unless the horses are cantering to catch up with their friends. I learned to ride hunt-seat on an English saddle, so I prefer my stirrups shorter than is common here. Yesterday the man helping us used his pocket knife to make new holes in the straps for me, which will be appreciated the next time some ten year-old uses that saddle.

Here we are taking a short break:
IMG_1184Here’s one of the guides with the horse I was riding:
IMG_1187And thank god for those guides, because once you’re over the first hill it’s easy to get lost in that vast open space. Though, of course, the horses know their way back, and if you head that direction, they’ll gallop all the way.

For a much wilder equestrian story, check out the comments below:

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Mongolian Ger Camp: Fauna

This being Mongolia, the summer weather didn’t stay long, and we woke up COLD our second morning at the ger camp. Overnight temperatures had dropped down almost to 6C/43F with clouds and a strong wind. We’d hoped to go riding, but the horses for camp guests to ride had been moved, along with their racing brethren and sistren, to richer grazing areas where they can gain weight after the winter. Disappointing for us, but we also hadn’t brought warm jackets for that wind, even though it warmed up a bit as the day went on.

Instead, we took our urban selves down from the camp to the neighboring farm, where we saw foals and mares:

Sheep that we stayed away from because the herder had just — what’s the word here, wrangled? anyway — gotten on a horse and ridden around the flock to bring them closer together:
A very friendly donkey, who almost came home with me:
And camels, because, of course — it’s Mongolia:


Here’s the inside of our very comfortable ger:
Gers are heated by these stoves, which make the interior very warm when the fire is going, but less warm — a lot less warm — when the fire goes out in the middle of the night.

Sunset (around 8:30) at beautiful Mongolian Secret History Ger Camp:

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