I’ve lived in Mongolia for a little over four months at this point, and life is finally starting to take on a regular schedule. Throughout my time here, there are some consistent differences I have noticed between life in the United States vs life in Mongolia, so prepare yourself for the logistics of Mongolian life.
In the United States, with the exception of kindergarten, most school days run from 8 am until around 3 pm, give or take half an hour for both start and end times. However, schools in Mongolia run slightly more similarly to a college with students choosing their electives and coming in and out of the school based on their elective and core subject schedules. As a result, school typically starts around 8 am and lasts until 7 pm. Here in Arvaikheer we have 4 public schools and one vocational college. Vocational colleges are basically trade schools. The one in Arvaikheer used to be a university, but due to poor enrollment, it is now a vocational college. The students who attend are students who failed the mandatory 9th grade exam. As a result, they are given the opportunity to learn trades, rather than finishing high school (sort of like a GED rather than a high school diploma). Depending on the vocational college’s resources, students have various opportunities to practice their trades. For example, the students at Arvaikheer’s vocational college can practice cooking because there is a kitchen, but the students learning about welding and building do not have the resources to practice their trades.
Of the 4 public schools, three are actually public, while my school, is a strange hybrid. To attend my school, a Japanese-funded charter school focused on mathematics and languages (Mongolian, English, Russian, and Japanese), students must pass an entrance exam. Based on the students’ grade, they pay different amounts to attend, with elementary school costing 125,000 tugriks per year, middle school costing 135,000 per year, and 10th grade and up costing 145,000 tugriks per year. To put this in relative terms, as PCVs, we make about 360,000 tugriks a month. It almost seems as though the payment is kept low enough as to not hinder enrollment. Teachers at my school are paid slightly more than teachers at the other three schools, but they must still must provide their own resources i.e. markers, paper for printing, flipchart paper, chalk from their income. The schedule is created by Training Managers (teachers are assigned 19-20 hours of teaching at a minimum per week) and takes about 1 month to finally settle, with up to 3 changes occurring throughout that month. My school has 8 sessions in the morning and 8 in the evening where each session is 40 minutes (a time limit set by the government), with the last session of the morning and the first session of the evening overlapping for 25 minutes. The 10th-12th graders only have class in the mornings, while all other grades have morning and afternoon sessions, including the elementary school. Every day, all students must participate in an exercise break that occurs during a 5-minute break between 2 class sessions. In general, there are no transition periods between classes though as students stay in classrooms, while the teachers move around to different grades. As a result of the varying times different grades are taught, both teachers and students come and go as they please, based on their schedules and lunch time, rather than spending the entire school day in the building as done in the US. Teachers and students alike stop in at the canteen (lunchroom) throughout the day for either snacks or traditional Mongolian foods like khuushuur, buuz, and milk tea, as well as a daily featured soup (one time it was cabbage, french fries, and mutton soup).
When students reach 6th grade, they are assigned a homeroom teacher who follows that class all the way up until the class graduates. Homeroom classes are meant for life skills, but in essence end up occasionally acting as another core subject class depending on what topic the homeroom teacher teaches. In addition, only one of the schools here has students with disabilities. A couple years ago, one of the teachers and a PCV teamed up to fundraise for a disabilities classroom that has a kitchen and various other resources, so the disabled students all attend the same school; however, most of the disabled students in Arvaikheer do not attend school. This is still an area that the community of Arvaikheer is looking to improve (i.e. increased enrollment) and in which to provide adequate support.
Schools often have lofty goals but lack the resources to meet them. For example, I am running a piano club with one of the music teachers at my school. Fun idea, right? Unfortunately, the school only has one upright piano, one keyboard, and one keyboard on the wall. Three more keyboards have been ordered from UB, so hopefully teaching lessons will be easier and more interactive when they arrive. However, students don’t have sheet music. The school has three binders of sheet music from which students may borrow one or two pieces with the teacher’s permission. I decided to ask my parents to send me some of my old books which I no longer need. My goal is to increase the school’s sheet music library, allow for better accessibility of music for the students, and have students play music more at their level. What I noticed after hearing the students play Fur Elise was that rather than looking at the sheet music to see which note to play when they got stuck, they had another student come up and tried to memorize the fingering. In addition, they were barely getting through pieces that were too difficult for them. Hopefully, with better technique and fingering, they will be able to play easier pieces, more at their level, but at a higher performance quality.
Furthermore, certain subjects are lacking. This last school year, health teachers got cut from the curriculum due to inadequate funding by the Mongolian government. The revamped Peace Corps Health program is attempting to fill this vacancy, as well as the lack of structure of the homeroom curriculum by introducing PCVs into homeroom classes to teach life skills, sexual reproductive health, alcohol and tobacco prevention, nutrition, and exercise.
I’ve got an easy life, living in an apartment in an aimag center, but that is not to say that apartment life is without difficulties. While ger-dwellers have a harder lifestyle and isolation typically, apartment-dwellers seem to have less control over their home. In the winter, electricity comes and goes, so I’ve been warned to always have food that doesn’t require cooking or re-heating to eat. Not to mention the electrical wiring is slightly shady (think: the outlet behind my fridge caught on fire so my landlord and I had to get fancy with our outlet to power-strip combinations). Sometimes apartments get extremely hot in the winter since most use old radiators that do not have temperature settings. However, when the power goes out, the apartments become frigid, and without a fire place, there is no way to stay warm besides layering clothes. The heating turned on during the last week of September and with it came a slew of problems. I have 5 heaters in my apartment, but only two would turn on. When I attempted to turn one of them on, it started spewing rusty water all over the wall and floor. The next day, I came home from school and another radiator had leaked over the entire floor. The maintenance worker from my school ended up buying new valves to replace the old rusted or stripped ones. My toilet also has a mind of its own… it doesn’t always flush and likes to run a lot (as in run water, not go for a 5-mile run), but I have recently figured out that by making sure the button comes back up, it stops running. To get hot water, some apartments wait until winter when the hot water turns on, while others, like mine, have a heater. Some heaters are larger and require 15 minutes to warm up all the water in the basin, but mine is small and continuously warms a small volume, which means that to have hot water, the water pressure must be really low. I’m not complaining though, the only amenity I’m missing in my apartment is an oven, but it’s extremely easy to get by without an oven.
Depending on how old the apartment building is, installing WiFi might be more difficult and cost more. Since my apartment is relatively new, there is a router at the top of the apartment to which my cable is connected that runs down the side of the building and into my apartment through a window where it connects to my modem. However, for buildings that do not have a router, WiFi is a lot more expensive; we’re talking an extra 150,000 tugriks for installation while my installation was complementary. Trash is placed in the stairwell and collected twice a week by the women who are paid to clean the floors and stairs, so the stairwell frequently smells like a trash dump (a wonderful present for my nose as soon as I step out of my apartment, the first apartment in the building). Peace Corps gives PCVs an allotted amount each month based on the general price of utilities in their area with the hope that throughout the 12 months, during which PCVs are always paid but don’t always require the utilities allowance for any payments (i.e. no heating during the summer months), the payment vs the cost will even out. I’m slightly skeptical of this, but I’ve been assured that turning in 6 months-worth of receipts of payment will either allow for reimbursement or an increased allowance. Still unsure what all that means, so we’ll see how it goes…
There are four major phone providers in Mongolia: Mobicom, Unitel, Skytel, and G-Mobile. Mobicom has the best coverage but is the most expensive, while Skytel and G-Mobile are the cheapest and offer incentives such as free Facebook (i.e. not using data when browsing Facebook). Unitel offers the best deal for ger data. There are wingles (little USB devices that create WiFi with a sim card), modems, and routers that are sold. Plans can be daily, weekly, or monthly plans depending on how much data you buy. With routers, the plans are either monthly or cheaper for a yearly contract that is still paid monthly. In addition, for texting and calling, you must buy “negj,” which are basically units. One text costs 19 units of negj with Mobicom. As PCVs, we are each given a Nokia phone with a Mobicom sim card paid for by Peace Corps and promised one replacement Nokia and sim card if anything happens to our current phone, but after that, we’re on our own. With Peace Corps’ family plan, there is free Mobi-Mobi calling. This is Peace Corps’ attempt at helping volunteers feel less isolated. My smartphone has a Skytel sim card for which I typically buy 10 GBs for 2 months for 30,000 tugriks. However, this will probably change with the addition of WiFi to my apartment. My apartment has a modem one of the teachers at my school gave me and a Mobicom yearly contract plan.
Mongolians and their phones are all over the place. Since I live in a larger city now, most people have smartphones. However, during PST, all adults and most children had old Nokias that barely had any buttons left and were taped to hold the phone together. The children who had smartphones usually had cracked old smartphones that only occasionally had data. Service goes in and out, but usually you can find 4G at any small town. During bus rides, if there are no towns nearby, both of my phones typically lose service, although the Mobicom phone lasts longer. However, for how large and sparsely populated Mongolia is, communication via phones is quite simple.
Winter is in transition currently in Arvaikheer. Last week, temperatures were in the 50s, windy, and with snow occasionally in the mornings that melted by 9 am. However, it is 15 degrees Fahrenheit right now with a high of 30 degrees at 4 pm… quite the drastic change. Other aimags are experiencing bountiful snowfall and blizzards already. As the heating has turned on, I have noticed a change in the air quality. In general, trash and waste (including what should be recycled) are burned in incinerators. There are two incinerators in the city: one at the north and one for medical waste next to the hospital at the east. Currently, grants are being written for the proposed move of the hospital incinerator to a new location at the south of the city as winds typically blow north to south in Arvaikheer. The addition of heating has caused all the heating waste release pipes to also exude black smoke. As you walk towards the market, you can smell and almost taste the trash and smog in the air. The air is visibly gray in comparison to August when we first arrived in Arvaikheer, and black clouds overlapping the city can be seen in all directions from any window of my apartment. Unfortunately, none of the incinerators in Arvaikheer have filters. This is apparently why Japanese and Korean volunteers have been banned from Arvaikheer since the smog poses a health risk. Peace Corps will provide us with filtered masks that will hopefully help. I’ve been warned that the ger districts on the outskirts of the city cannot be seen in the dead of winter due to the copious amounts of smoke in the air.
Ulaanbaatar has similar pollution problems. The last time I was in UB, I spoke with a civilian driver who was taking me to the bus station. She said that based on the final number of a car’s license plate, that car may not be driven in downtown UB on certain days. For example, license plates ending in 4 cannot be in downtown on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Similar attempts at controlling pollution have been made in other cities in various countries, such as in Quito, Ecuador. I’m unsure how efficient the solution is, but it is good the government is attempting some sort of solution.
With a paved road between Arvaikheer and UB, there are ample options for transportation. Three times daily, at 8 am, 2 pm, and 6 pm, a bus leaves from Arvaikheer to UB and vice-versa at a cost of 20,000 tugriks. Generally, the bus only has one mandatory 30-minute stop about halfway through the trip, but sometimes there can be up to 5 stops depending on the driver and if any passengers need to stop at the side of the road to go to the bathroom, pick up goods to sell in UB from family or friends who are waiting for them with a car, or even to pick up new people or get dropped off. There are also many meekers (kind of like vans) and private drivers always offering to go to UB. The bus leaves on time and all 45 seats are always filled. Meekers and private drivers are slightly less reliable. Meekers may take 1 or 2 hours to fill up and only leave when they are at full capacity or past full (i.e. 12 passenger seats but 17 people including children). The travel time for buses and meekers is about the same (7.5 hours to UB from Arvaikheer), while cars are faster (around 5 hours) but more expensive, especially if you are the only passenger. To get to Kharkhroin (the old capital of Mongolia) from Arvaikheer costs 12,000 tugriks and is typically a trip done in a meeker. The meekers in most towns in Mongolia are found either at the market or the transportation station.
The only train in Mongolia goes along the North-South line in Central Mongolia near UB, so we don’t have the benefits of the train line in Arvaikheer, although we are located 10 kilometers from the geographic center of Mongolia. In general, all transportation is through UB, especially to fly sites, like Bayan-Ulgii out in the western mountain range of Mongolia. In UB, you can just stick your hand out and eventually a registered taxi, unofficial taxi, or just a civilian will pull over and offer a ride (about 800 tugriks per kilometer). In Arvaikheer, all taxi rides are 2,000 tugriks, no matter how long the trip around the city (thus, this is both a curse and a blessing depending on the distance travelled).
Most recently, my travel experience has been on the bus. Children usually just sit in their parent’s or grandparent’s lap. One of my trips on the bus, I sat at the very back; looking out across the seats, I could see children’s heads popping up, peering over the seats at random times, like that game, Whac-A-Mole. The windows of the bus were frosting at 3 pm, that’s how cold it was already (classic Mongolia). The streets of Mongolia are slightly terrifying. Lanes are fluid, especially in UB where a three-lane road may arbitrarily have 4 or 5 lanes. Cars go up in the right-turn lane but then cut across the intersection to turn left because they didn’t want to wait in line… Although Mongolia is a right-side of the road country, the cars have steering wheels on either side since all cars are imported from the surrounding countries, so I wonder how easy it is to see traffic with side mirrors in cars with right-sided steering wheels. Apparently, car accidents are frequent and so are breakdowns, but in my experience so far, transportation has been pretty reliable, and Mongolians are always willing to help find transportation. Once the travel ban for M28s is lifted (an attempt by Peace Corps at helping and promoting integration by not allowing new PCVs to leave their aimags), hopefully I will get a better grasp on transportation. For now, my only experience has been during PST, coming to Arvaikheer, and returning to UB for dental appointments.
My teeth have always been perfect, leave the one time I chipped my front tooth on a fork while eating salad (pathetic story, I know); however, my teeth decided that Mongolia would be the time to test the dental system. One of my front teeth had been hurting for about a week and a half on and off if I drank cold water or a cold breeze blew when it eventually developed a crack. I sent a picture in an email to Peace Corps Medical and was immediately called. Eventually, I talked to one of the contracted dentists who recommended I come to UB for a checkup. I left that day, and my appointment was the next morning. Turned out that I needed a root canal (classic Roberta, skipping cavities and going straight for the root canal).
I’m now going for my third dental visit this week where hopefully my tooth will be well enough to receive a permanent filling; if not, a new medicine will be injected, and I will have to go back again for another check-up and hopefully, the permanent filling then. To get to UB, I have used money from my Peace Corps allowance but have kept receipts which I have turned into the Financial Department to get reimbursed. I will also be reimbursed for up to 30,000 tugriks for meals each day, depending on how many meals I ate. I’m still waiting for the reimbursements to come in, but they should come soon. During my stays in UB, I have either stayed in the sick room at Peace Corps headquarters or at a hotel paid for by Peace Corps if the sick room is otherwise occupied. I’ve been happily surprised by the quality of care I have received for my tooth and am reassured in case anything else were to arise during my service.
Life in Mongolia has definitely treated me well so far. Parts of Mongolian life are easy to become accustomed to, yet cultural differences and culture shock are an everyday aspect of life. The above-mentioned topics are parts of life that are omnipresent and, in my opinion, require conscious thought to attempt to fully understand and personally come to terms with. As my time continues here, I will hopefully develop a more well-rounded view and can also include other topics, such as price comparisons between goods in Mongolia vs the United States. For now, ponder what I’ve shared and imagine how your life in Mongolia would be. Would you want to live in the Land of the Blue Sky?