Posts Tagged With: City Life

July Comes to Mongolia

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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“We are HAPPY from Mongolia”

Very fun video set to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” that will cheer you right up. AND you can see scenes from all over Ulaanbaatar.

I love this.

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IMG_0962It’s definitely colder these days, unusually for February. “Colder” meaning don’t want to go out cold. In December and January people kept saying that it was warmer than usual; now, when it should be getting a little warmer, it’s colder. “Colder” meaning highs in the -20’s C/-10F in the middle of the day, and bits of things freeze on your face. My eyes water, which then causes my eyelashes to form little icicles, and the condensation on my scarf freezes and sticks to wet patches on my face.

We’ve made our home as comfortable as possible to get through the winter, and we have a well-stocked library, pantry, bar and Apple TV. (Just discovered “True Detective” last night — wow.) We make our own bread and yogurt, plus we’re growing herbs from seeds that my mother-in-law very thoughtfully gave us last summer. It’s like “Little House on the Steppe” here with all the DIY projects.

The problem is that staying at home, even for people as physically lazy as we can be, gets old after awhile. I just bundled up to go for a walk around town, and it felt good to move around and get some air. But there’s not much to do. The city set up a little skating rink in the main square, which I tried and won’t do again without some decent skates. And there’s a small ski area about an hour outside the city. Some people go hiking and horse riding, too. Maybe I’m too soft, too lazy or not desperate enough, but being outside for more than, oh, 45 minutes seems really unpleasant.

I guess what I’m saying is that we’ve created such a cosy little interior life that we don’t have much incentive to go out. And so we don’t, much, except for work and running errands. Mongolia has an amazing outdoor life and landscapes, but we’re not hardcore enough to enjoy that during the winter, and the urban life is fine, but fairly limited (I’ll write about some of the arts and performances another time). So, we’re hibernating comfortably and it works, except when I get restless and a bit stir-crazy. You Polar-Vortex sufferers probably know the feeling.

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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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