Naadam, Small Town Mongolia

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We got the very good advice to spend Naadam, Mongolia’s biggest holiday, in one of the smaller towns rather than in Ulaanbaatar. Naadam celebrates Mongolia’s three “manly sports:” horse racing, wrestling and archery. People come together for a few days, wear their best clothes and enjoy the competitions. It was so much fun.
The night before the official opening, the town had a concert that we were able to attend. It seemed like the entire population was there, all dressed up and greeting each other, while the acts ranged from groups of dancers, teenagers playing instruments, the high school marching band and some interesting fusions of traditional and modern music. Some of the performers had done too much karaoke and overestimated their talent, but some were excellent. And who doesn’t love a group of ten year olds playing recorders?
The opening ceremony was a mix of Mongolian history and folklore and local celebration, many of which featured horses.
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IMG_1304The governor rode in on a horse, too:

1655664_10152622384730746_9138688145067128035_oThere were also dances and then a parade. The marching band:
IMG_1322Some of the town leaders:
IMG_1326Wrestlers of all ages:
IMG_1331Wrestling competition underway:
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMuch as I appreciate the skill of archery, and the fact that women also compete, it’s not all that interesting to watch.
10494516_10152622387530746_1330336689149265954_oThe clothes were gorgeous.
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(Photos of governor and archers were taken by our visiting friend.)

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July Comes to Mongolia

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When we were visiting Mongolia for the first time last August, we met an expat who told us there are two seasons in Mongolia: winter and July. Well, July is here, and summer is in full swing. The photo above is one of many flower beds planted around the central city, and there are new benches and sidewalk paintings as well. More people are out selling things, too, not just at the little tables that are out almost all year round, but kiosks selling ice cream and camping gear — summer stuff.IMG_1266

Mongolia’s biggest national holiday, Naadam, starts at the end of next week. I’ll write more about that later, when we actually get to see some events; for now, it’s enough to say that this is the beginning of the national vacation, similar to Europe in August. Only our two most junior staff will be working after next week, and the poor dears will just be organizing the files and answering the phone (if it rings). There’s a giddiness in the office now, way more joking around than usual, and it feels like the last few days of the school year. The husband reports that many men in his government office have stopped wearing jackets and ties and started wearing short-sleeved shirts to work. One of them is even wearing a baseball cap in the office! Around here it’s all flowery sundresses, sandals and two-hour lunch breaks.

The other common sight/street hazard is rain puddles. Big ones. This time of year, it rains for a little while most days. Most of Mongolia’s precipitation happens in July and August, and average total rainfall for these two months is 161 mm/6.3 inches, which is not much but enough to stress the stormwater drainage system. The photo below shows a typical scene: three kiosks and a puddle that was at 2/3 capacity when I took the photo. People place rocks and bricks to step across, which is fine if you can creep along against the wall of a building. There’s NO WAY I’m going to risk stepping through the middle.

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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.
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IMG_1234Then the woods opened up to some serious drama.
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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

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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!

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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?
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Moon rising over Ulaanbaatar

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