The good, the bad, and the downright ugly

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October 10th 2010
Published: October 11th 2010
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The Mongolian FlagThe Mongolian FlagThe Mongolian Flag

There is great pride in the flag - it adorns many vehicles as well as the main square in New Darkhan!
A note of caution: Please don't read this entry too critically. I have plenty of good things to say about this beautiful country I find myself in, but there are some aspects of life here which I wish were absent. I simply want this entry to read as my personal perspective as to some of the more remarkable aspects, both positive and negative, of my everyday life here in Darkhan.

The Good

* So far so good on the 'land of the blue sky' being accurate. It is slowly cooling down here, wintery low teens most of last week but followed up a stunning blue sky day on Sunday. The evenings, however, are consistently chilly. The heating in my apartment came on at the end of September and in the office in early October which makes for an interesting contrast.
* Social life - I now have a standing dinner appointment on Monday nights at the South Asian Kitchen in New Darkhan. The rest of the invitees are other ex-pats, from US Peace Corps, Germany, Australia (Warren, from the Australian Youth Ambassador program), Hungary, and a bunch of Mongolians who want to improve their conversational English. There are also Sandrina

Wandering along the east end of Peace Avenue in UB - this is what we stumbled upon.
(VSO) and Levi (Peace Corps) in the town of Khutul, which is about 40 minutes drive from Darkhan. They are good people and I will be making regular visits and vice versa to stay in touch. And I am also making regular trips to UB for VSO meetings etc, where I get to spend a few days with the lovely members of my volunteer cohort.
* Mongolian language lessons - I have recently started twice weekly private lessons. My teacher, Suvdaa, is lovely and I hope I prove to be a good student.
* All public servants received a 30%!p(MISSING)ay rise from 1 October 2010 - bring it on! Can't recall ever having a deal like that at home! (But, of course, I don't get a cent more as a VSO volunteer even though I am working in the public service!)
* A Night at the Opera - On Saturday 2 October at 5 pm in UB, a bunch of VSO volunteers attended opening night of the opera/ballet season and we
The front facadeThe front facadeThe front facade

We think the church and the facade are Russian Orthodox. Agreed?
saw 'Madam Butterfly'. It was an excellent production, especially the orchestra, and I couldn't help but laugh at an opera about an American in Japan, sung in Italian, being performed by Mongolians! And the cost? 5000 ₮ (or about A$4.50). Remarkable!
* Food - got to love bread without preservatives, fresh milk (only hours from the cow), fresh meat (just hours after being slaughtered) - this is healthy living Darkhan-style! And, with the help of my Mongolian teacher, I actually worked up the courage to use my language skills to buy milk and meat in Darkhan yesterday! Not only can I now ask for meat without fat, but also have it minced!
* Personal alcohol consumption - without actually making a conscious decision, I am having plenty of alcohol free days and I am sure my liver is really loving me for it. Since arriving in Darkhan, I have generally been consuming a bottle of cheap imported red wine a week, over the course of a weekend as part of the weekly food preparation process. I am yet to find a truly good wine but
Middle of Peace AvenueMiddle of Peace AvenueMiddle of Peace Avenue

Beth and Farrah enjoying a chilly but bright sunny morning in UB
what can I say, with my budget, it aint ever going to happen! And whilst I did bring a hip flask of 18yo Caol Ila with me, I am yet to partake in a wee dram.
* Internet - I did struggle to decide if this was good or bad. I am in the middle of nowhere so I shouldn't be surprised that my connection is super slow making video skype chats all but impossible and streaming live broadcasts of the Aussie Rules Grand Finals out of the question. On the otherhand, how great is it that I can skype home whenever I want and also listen to Australian radio??? Spring racing carnival, here I come!
* My workplace - with working hours of 8am-4pm, I am obviously very happy. And for my former Victorian public servant colleagues, just for you, I will have you know that the cleaners here are very polite and they actually clean everything - the floors, the desks, the ledges and window sills as well as the water basins! My other 2 favorite things about my workplace to date have been (i) the 10 free massage/cupping sessions my interpreter lined up for me. We spoke to a doctor, she felt my back for a minute and wrote on a piece of paper that I needed therapy. 10 minutes later, I wandered into the next room and off we went for session 1. and (ii) the daily morning tea delivered by the DHD canteen staff to each office. It is usually a mug of milky rice for the princely sum of 300 ₮ (that's less than 30c in Aussie terms).
* The innocence of it all - Two very simple examples here. The first relates to my favorite vegetarian restaurant in Old Darkhan. On only my second visit there for lunch, the waitress could not break my 5,000 ₮ note. What to do? In a mixture of hand gestures and broken English, we agreed I would come back the following week and pay! On IOU for a virtual stranger? -
During one of the intervalsDuring one of the intervalsDuring one of the intervals

Beth, Farrah, Kate and Erica
would never happen at home. The other relates to the relationship between adults and children. In taxis and buses, it is not uncommon for a child to sit on a stranger’s knee, male or female. Again, it would never happen at home.
* The beautiful country - yes it indeed is. Mongolians take immense pride in their personal appearance and it is standard to have some form of leather cleaner/shoe shine in your desk drawer at work and for both men and women to check their appearance each and every time they pass the ever-present mirror! Regardless of wealth, Mongolian women, in particular, always look fantastic with smart clothing, lots of bling, make-up and outrageous heels.

The Bad

* The beautiful country part II - However, pride in personal appearance does not extend to civic pride. Littering is the norm (for absolutely all ages) and this certainly includes smashing vodka bottles everywhere, which I am sure has some sort of points system associated with it, why else would it be so frequent? Sadly, with broken glass everywhere, children's playgrounds are not used in the manner in which they were intended. It would be difficult to encourage a child

Not a great pic but shows the glorious costumes and set design - not to mention the red-curly wig on the little boy!
to use a slide when there is shattered glass awaiting them at the base! And need I even mention spitting? It is an unfortunate Asian practice I can definitely live without.
* My workplace part II - oh for the love of stationary and associated equipment! It is a major impost to request a document be printed. Put it on a USB, take it to my counterpart (when she is here), have her find a piece of paper (new or recycled), and print. Similar for photocopying and I am yet to actually find a scanner in the department! And I do hope my general boredom will dissipate in the coming weeks - it is difficult to know what to do when your managers are always unavailable.
* Obesity - Once upon a time, the natives of Mongolia were nomadic folk, always out and about on the Steppes. They had a very high fat diet but that was ok, because their lifestyle required it to sustain them. Now, however, with just under 50% of the population living sedentary lives in UB and a further 20% or so doing likewise in the larger towns, the country is getting fat. Massive lifestyle change
Office viewOffice viewOffice view

Just for you, Yvonne! What can I see? The Black Market (across the main road), the path, the people and the abundant strays.
with no change in diet to match - plus all the imported goods that are available like potato chips and chocolates don't help either.
* Alcoholism - I considered having this in the 'downright ugly' section, but it is the behaviours associated with alcoholism which fit there. In terms of the impact on the health system, the increase in vodka consumption (thanks Russia) has led to some serious health issues including alarming increases in the rates of CV disease and diabetes. And it is not pleasant seeing men stagger around at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon.

The Downright Ugly

* Treatment of the mentally ill - I visited the local psychiatric ward 2 weeks ago. It is isolated (located in the back blocks of Old Darkhan, next to the TB ward (also not a pleasant facility)) and I was almost in tears as I walked in. It was something out of a mid-20th century horror movie. It is dirty, it is bare, and there is very little security for the petite Mongolian nurses who deal with mostly male patients. Thankfully, Robin, the recently departed VSO volunteer from the Darkhan Hospital has set up a TV room for the patients
Autumn leaves.......Autumn leaves.......Autumn leaves.......

This is my Parisian-esque walkway, alongside my apartment block. Unfortunately, Autumn is a very short season and most of the trees are already bare!
(a couch and a TV), and a national volunteering program therapy room. The latter is truly wonderful. Mongolians have only recently been introduced to the concept of volunteering and this occupational therapy program has seen Mongolian volunteers assist patients in creating art which is then sold in order to purchase additional art supplies. It is hoped eventually to have this program reach a fully self-funded status. My interpreter, Altai, and I will be volunteering for 2 hours a week commencing in a few weeks (it appears the program went into recess over summer months). I have decided to take a significant personal interest in this project and may be calling on you for financial assistance - but that will come a little later when I know what it is I actually need to purchase!
* Assaults and domestic violence - No matter how long I remain here, I will never be comfortable with this aspect of Mongolian life. I have seen several serious assaults on the streets, including one in broad daylight where the bystander effect was fully evident. I wanted so much to call the police, but my language skills are presently not good enough. And domestic violence? Lazy,
Cows grazing....outside my apartmentCows grazing....outside my apartmentCows grazing....outside my apartment

I took this looking out my lounge room window!
alcoholic and aggressive men abound and, like in the western world 50 years ago, there is no- to limited- support for the victims. Women are trapped by their lack of employment or under-employment and their reliance on their husband for the financial support of children and home. And, sadly, there is nothing I can do about it.

On a lighter note....some miscellaneous stuff to finish with

* For 100 ₮ you can be weighed on the street.
* It is bad luck to place your bag on the floor - particularly if you wish to have a good job and keep your money.
* You must be careful how you hand over money - folded between your index and middle fingers is the height of rudeness!
* You must carry toilet paper with you at all times, including in the workplace.
* It is rude to point in Mongolia
* In Darkhan, no alcohol day is the 17th of the month (if you recall,
The countryside litterThe countryside litterThe countryside litter

No comment necessary
it is the first of the month in UB). Each Governor makes his/her own declaration as to the date of an alcohol free day for the province/aimag - but still to find out why this was introduced.

Additional photos below
Photos: 13, Displayed: 13


The Darkhan litterThe Darkhan litter
The Darkhan litter

Looking out from my apartment
Darkhan garbage collectionDarkhan garbage collection
Darkhan garbage collection

Not frequent enough and, as you can see, very manual. No mechanised arms picking up garbage bins here!

11th October 2010

Wow - Great insight
Thanks for this fly on the wall look at your life in Darkhan. Looking forward to helping with the Art works and your request for financial assistance. What about selling it in here in Melb? Now that would be unique.
16th October 2010

Nobody could ever accuse you of sitting back and not enjoying what the world has to offer, be it good bad or ugly. Sometimes you need to see the ugly to really appreciate the good. Of course I'll kick in a percentage of my winnings on the "willy" horses over the Spring Carnival to your new project. Unfortunately it is zero at the moment but I'm sure it will improve.
17th October 2010

You have captured the good the bad and the downright ugly very well Merryn Mongolia is a cetainly and adventure in so many ways!
18th October 2010

On Vodka
Merryn, Another blogger whom I occasionally follow because of his adventures in Russian speaking countries wrote a long entry purely in an attempt to explain something about the relationship with vodka. It is long and rambling, but persevere because I think he's onto something.
4th January 2011

We think the church and the facade are Russian Orthodox. Agreed?
well merryn to keep your mind at ease yes you right it is indeed russian orthodox i try to send you a pic so you might be able to add it to the blogg

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