Thursday, August 14, 2008


When I step outside of my apartment, this is the view on my left. The building with the red roof is a 24 hour convenience store. While some of the signs are in English for the benefit of tourists, the vast majority are in Mongol (such as the green sign on the bottom center of the picture). I believe you can click on these pictures for a closer look.

This is the view on my right. I live in a similar building. When evening rolls around, the tiny, fenced-off "yard" in the middle fills with playing children and watchful, doting parents.

Ulaabataarites live in three kinds of homes: apartments, small houses, and gers. The apartments are Soviet-style concrete towerblocks that have 20 or more floors. A one bedroom apartment costs $30,000. Apartments are regarded as the best and nicest living arrangement that one could ever hope to own; small houses and gers are not as nice as apartments.

I live in such an apartment and find it comfortable. Even though the apartment complex is cramped, smells like urine, and is in dire need of repair, we keep our apartment clean and there is always hot water and a working stove.

I never realized how much I take some things for granted. When I flip on a light switch, I expect the light to turn on. When I turn the faucet, water splashes out. Last Tuesday after work, I arrived home and expected an elevator to take me up 9 flights of stairs. It turns out that there was a power outage and no electricity was working. I started to climb the stairs and stepped into... darkness.

I'm not afraid of the dark, but this darkness felt impenetrable. I could not see my flaying limbs. I could not see anything around me. This was something straight out of a horror movie. Who knew what kind of Mongolian dangers hid behind every corner? I could only move along, inch by inch, by touch alone. Unfortunately, the stairs were winding in a haphazard fashion and I couldn't be sure if the next step would be broken.

This was going to take a long, long time.

I considered crawling up on my hands and knees but didn't know what kind of insects or rodents scurried around. I was also afraid of cutting myself on a stray nail or shard of glass. My cell phone's illumination was too small and dim to see anything.

My imagination was working in overdrive. What if I finally made it up 4 flights, only to come tumbling back down? What if I tripped and knocked myself unconscious? The minutes were dripping by painfully. Slowly, I turned around and crept back.

Once back in the blessed sunlight, I considered alternative light sources. I walked to a nearby drug store and purchased a lighter, the only light source available. It was pathetic but worth a try.

With the cell phone in one shaking hand and the lighter in the other, I carried my groceries up and tried to tread carefully. I still couldn't see a darn thing.

Was it time to give up? Had I been defeated by my reliance on electricity? I felt frustrated and helpless. I felt like a stupid American. Why hadn't I remembered to carry a flashlight? For centuries, people have been living in darkness and have been getting along just fine. It's a minor, daily inconvenience that I just had to get used to.

Finally, I called Saikhnaa and she walked down 9 flights of stairs with a large light. My tiny hero, an elfin Mongolian arriving to save the Jolly Green American Giant.

Happy ending!


Saikhnaa and I were screaming and jumping up and down when judoist Tuvshinbayar Naidan won Mongolia's first ever Olympic gold medal. He is a national hero. It was the sweetest thing to see so many grown men fight back tears of joy.

Almost everyone was late arriving to work. Last night, everyone gathered in Suhbataar Square to laugh, sing, drink, and cry together. Cars were lined up for miles, honking wildly.

I'm not Mongolian but I am so, so proud. :)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

words can't describe

This past weekend, I went on an overnight trip to Terelj National Park and Turtle rock with coworkers.

We ate foods such as sheep heart, vodka distilled from fermented yak milk, alcoholic yak milk, and fried doughnuts. My stomach was not happy!

I showed that pony who was boss.

Ancient Mongolian script.

Beauty pageant. Just kidding. We are holding up our names that were written in Mongolian script.

There were various costumes that we could try on. The armor for the general outfit was really heavy. I could barely move.


A camel with two humps.

Turtle rock with Ama and Seku.

Various gers from different parts of Mongolia.

Morning barbeque of... sheep sausage. My stomach hated me.

Beautiful morning view of our bathrooms.

View from the top of the Buddhist monastery.
Hopefully, I'll be able to find a way to talk about this weekend because it was really amazing. I am so thankful that I came to Mongolia.
And don't worry, Dad, I didn't stand behind the horse. I love you, Mom, Dad, and Kristin!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

pressed for time

Constant culture clashes:

watching Singaporean musician Tanya Chua singing in Chinese on an American television station,

drinking Golden Gobi beer at an English pub while eating "British" pizza that has corn and carrots on it,

eating oreos with a British volunteer and Saikhnaa and listening to Mongolian jazz music at an Irish pub.

A few observations:

It is not unusual to see three old men sharing a mug of vodka on the street at 10 am on Saturday morning. Alcoholism is rampant here.

Oncoming traffic actually speeds up to warn you to get out of the way.

Say "bano" when answering the telephone. It means "hello!"

Since the cell phones here are in English (symbols, keypad, etc.), everyone who uses phones must know English in order to text and to use the phones.

Size is relative: in the US, I am considered small and thin. In Mongolia, I am considered the Jolly Green Giant.

There are Irish pubs everywhere but no Irish to be found.

Even if you are presented with a feast of cheese curds, fermented yak milk vodka, and sheep sausage, you should try it. When is the next time you'll get the chance? However, make sure you take immodium immediately afterwards. It will save you.

Don't be afraid to get dirty.

There is a huge disparity in the price that people will charge Mongolians compared to the price that they will charge foreigners. I'm talking 100x the price. If I sit really still and act mute, I might be able to get away with it.

I am really as bad at singing karaoke as I thought.

The sky in Mongolia is the bluest sky I've ever seen. It's so blue that I don't want to leave, so pure that it feels unreal.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

a mongolian husband

August 6, 2008

Some elements of the human experience are universal. Traffic stinks. Parking is impossible. Saikhnaa hits the snooze button on the alarm repeatedly so that she can squeeze out 10 more minutes of sleep before she has to wake up for work.

So maybe that’s why my coworkers, feeling kindly and motherly and seeing that I am not hideous and perhaps pitying my single status, are offering to find me a nice Mongolian husband. I find it so endearing. Of course, it’s all in good fun and they are not serious about it. It’s funny to me because hooking up with a Mongol is the very last thing I’d want out of this trip.

You see, part of the reason why I came to Mongolia was to mend a Broken Heart.

There, I finally said it.

I’ve never been one to kiss and tell but the combination of distance and the impersonal nature of blogging makes me feel safe and slightly reckless.

A few months ago, I became fixated on the idea of Mongolia. I thought of Mongolia for two reasons: 1) I felt like a nomad, scared and restless, and 2) Mongolia was the subject of a long-standing joke between me and a certain Someone. Somehow, I equated Mongolia’s green pastures and blue sky with closure.

I know – it seems dramatic, drastic, and slightly crazy. When you love someone like that, you lose all sense of where you begin and where the other person ends. 16 months ago, we broke each other and we both haven’t been the same since. For a long time, I was afraid that I’d never be whole again. But sometimes you have to hit rock bottom to find redemption.

All this time, Mongolia stood as the pinnacle of recovery. I thought that if I could only get there, if I could walk among the crowds as another nameless human being, it would mean that I was ok. Now I’m here and my insides still ache. But I’m not as weak as I thought.

It’s not a matter of getting over someone. It’s a matter of finding oneself. Growing up is realizing and accepting that the one you love might not be the one for you. Sometimes happiness is giving up something precious for something even better.

I know myself now and my head is back on straight. Today I want to make sure that I can be the best person possible if I ever put myself out there again. What gave me the jumpstart was reading a passage written by a Buddhist monk. He writes about the Western concept of a soulmate. Instead of searching long and hard for that certain Someone, why not cultivate the amazing relationships that are already present in our lives, with our sisters and mothers and fathers and classmates and neighbors?

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve been leaving little pieces of my heart with family and friends and baristas and Mongolian coworkers. Maybe it’s merely a quantitative strategy – if you spread yourself amongst many, a single person can’t hurt you so badly. But I think it’s because life can’t be dictated, constrained, or controlled by a single person, unless that person is yourself. I believe in sacrifice and commitment but I also believe in maintaining my own unique identity and living a separate, fulfilling life for ME.

So what do you do when you’ve lost the love of your life? What do you do when you’ve lost all that old self-confidence? What do you do when you’ve lost that promise for the future?

You do the only thing you can do – you move forward.

Monday, August 4, 2008

cheese dumplings

August 5, 2008

I've been in some pressure-filled situations before. Now I have a new standard for pressure: pressure is seven sets of Mongol eyes and razor smiles watching you try to choke down fried cheese dumplings while you are sick and dizzy from jetlag.

On my first day of work, my boss treated us to lunch at a fancy Mongolian restaurant and my coworkers ordered a soup entree and appetizer dish for me. After grilling me for an hour during lunch, we began to relax a little. My coworkers want to take me to the discos and camping in the countryside. I was really surprised to feel such hospitality and warmth.

I know Charlie, the Susans, and Saerin (and others) want to know about the food, so here goes: at the restaurant, we were served tiny bread rolls with pate (duck liver). The soup dish consisted of dumpling skin and bits of roasted sheep floating in flavorful soup. The appetizer dish consisted of fried meatballs, a tiny rack of lamb the size of my index finger (on second thought, it was probably not lamb), and various dumplings.

So far, my favorite Mongolian food is a large, triangular flat dumpling filled with meat called horsha. It reminds me a lot of a dish that my mom refers to as "Chinese hamburger," only flatter. For breakfast, I ate rice porridge with sugar and butter. It tasted like mushy rice with popcorn flavoring. Surprisingly, pretty good!

The law firm (Anand & Batzaya Advocates) is a mid-sized firm specializing in corporate and intellectual property transactions with foreign clients. The people who work here are a friendly, passionate, curious, and worldly bunch. Here is their website address, in case you are curious: Right now, I'm doing mostly translation and due diligence work for them. I work on the Slowest Computer In The Whole World.

I'm noticing all the small differences here and there that throw me off. Cold water faucet handles are located on the left side and hot water is on the left. The door latches are very different from the doorknobs found in the United States. I learned this the hard way: I was using the restroom at work and couldn't figure out how to unlatch the door and was forced to wait in the stall until someone finally let me out. I was so embarrassed that I was afraid to use the restroom afterwards.

I learned a few new things today. Holding up one's pinky finger is equivalent to flipping someone off. Cupping another person's fingers means that you're sorry. "Sain ba nuu" means "hello" and "bai yehrl laa" means "thank you." Say it with a lot of tongue twists and rolls.

The cultural aspects interest me a lot. Mongolians are Russian in mindset and Asian in appearance. Saikhnaa (that's my roommate's name - I finally figured out how to spell it) explained it as such: if a Chinese officer were to approach a Chinese citizen in China and ask for his or her identification, the citizen would comply promptly. If a Mongolian officer were to approach a Mongolian citizen in China and ask for identification, the citizen would be outraged. Mongolians view Russian culture favorably and seem ambivalent toward Koreans. Unfortunately (for me), they don't seem to be too fond of the Chinese.

The people here tell me how Mongolian I look, which I take as a compliment. Bear in mind that the typical Mongolian look varies widely: think slender, light-skinned women with dramatic eyes and distinct cheekbones; half-Asian, half-white looking Mongols with cornsilk hair and Caucasian features (presumably from the Russian influence?); Korean-esque Mongols; big, tall Mongol women with sturdy faces and arms. You get the idea.

Saikhnaa and I have been spending a lot of time together, walking around the city, cooking together, watching badly-dubbed tv. So far, one of my favorite moments involved sitting on a restaurant patio with a fantastic view of the city and watching the sun set. Saikhnaa and I were eating pizza, drinking Chingiis beer, the local beverage of choice, and talking about Life. My clothes were sticking to my skin, my legs were trembling from too much walking, and I kept thinking to myself, "Whoa, I am in freakin' MONGOLIA." Tonight, I'm meeting another volunteer for dinner. We've only spoken on the phone. Her name is Sophie and she mentioned traveling to Bayan Olgii, which I would be interested in doing. Hopefully, we'll become a dynamic traveling duo and get in all sorts of adventures.

Thanks so much for emailing me. I really appreciated it and it made me feel loved. I haven't had a chance to respond but will do so asap. Hope all is well.


leaving on a jet plane, don't know when i'll be back again

August 2, 2008

Dear all,

Here is the first installment of my Mongolia adventures. For those of you who don't know, I'm going to Mongolia for three weeks. I'm spending two weeks in the capital, Ulan Bator, and traveling around the country for a week. I plan to be cut off from the modern world but I will email every few days so that you know I'm still alive and kicking. If you don't hear from me for three weeks, consider me dead and send out a rescue team!

From the beginning: I took the train from San Diego to LAX. The train was delayed on the tracks for over an hour and all the passengers became increasingly mutinous. I started to panic in typical Sharon fashion but made a concerted effort to calm down and just roll with it. I befriended a girl named Briar who is studying Chinese acupuncture and we shared a few drinks in the cafe cart and commiserated with our fellow passengers. As soon as we arrived at Union Station, everyone started sprinting for taxis. It was complete madness. By the time I arrived at the airport, I had 40 minutes to get on my flight but made it just in the nick of time!

I flew from LAX to Beijing and from Beijing to Ulan Bator. While I stumbled through the Beijing airport, I knew I was beaming from ear to ear like an idiot. I don't know if it was the lack of sleep or my body going into caffeine withdrawal but I felt like uncontrollable joy was seeping out of every pore.

I don't remember much from either flight because I slept through most of it. My second flight was filled with loud Korean tourists and Danish do-gooders in sensible hiking shoes. As we descended upon Mongolia, I saw endless green mountains. There were no carefully marked city grids. From up above, it looked like roads were randomly snaking their way through the country, as if someone had spilled a bunch of yarn onto the ground.

The city is a huge, sprawling mass of buildings. The air quality is extremely poor and no one drives with any regard for traffic safety. In one taxi, the steering wheel was on the right; in the next one, the steering wheel was located on the left. Many buildings were torched by fire in the July 1 election revolts, so things are a bit more run-down than usual.

I'm living in a great apartment in the city with a girl my age. Her name is Nguk Ta or something close to it. We have our own rooms and a tiny kitchen. When Nguk Ta first met me, she said she was disappointed to see that I had an "Asian face." She thought that I'd be a true foreigner! Some of you will laugh when you find out that she tried to feed me a cheese sandwich. (FYI: I'm not the biggest fan of cheese.) A few hours later, she assembled a "real" lunch of boiled vegetables and rice. She wants to feed me sheep intestines and liver later. I told her I'd try it...

We watched MTV for awhile and then a movie called Baby Blues (?). Nguk Ta was surprisingly knowledgeable about American celebrity gossip. Nguk Ta speaks fluent English and we had an interesting discussion about Mongolian politics and Britney Spears. She told me that Mongolians are fascinated by black people and rappers. Although some of her peers live in the capital, most of them moved away after college to Korea, the United States, and Germany.

Many of the Mongolians here speak Mongol and Russian. Mongol sounds like the most bizarre mix of Russian and Korean. Russian and Korean culture have permeated their society. For instance, Nguk Ta works for a Russian construction company. She showed me pictures of their barbeque and the gathering looked like a meeting of the United Nations.

Two other people arrived today, a Belgian dude and a British gal. Our guide picked the three of us up at 2 pm and we roamed the city, stopping at various banks and shops. My favorite stop was the Gandantegchenling Monastery, which has a giant golden statue of Buddha. I've been to many Buddhist temples in my day but this one was so beautiful, it struck me dead in my tracks. Though I've never been religious, I spun the prayer wheels with bated breath and felt that the gesture brought me good luck.

Anyway, I'm about to leave to eat an "authentic" Mongolian dinner and get settled in. Tomorrow, I start work.

The question of the day was "why Mongolia?" The guides asked us this question, we asked each other this question, and I asked myself this question. No one seems satisfied when I joke that it's because I have a strong hankering for mongolian bbq.

Kristin (my younger, wiser sister) advised me not to put too much stock into this trip. Just go with it, she said. As usual, she's right. I'm not searching for a life-changing experience. I'm looking for something beautiful and good, even if it's something as small as making a genuine connection with a stranger on a train because we're both running late. I'm in Mongolia because I am a restless person and because I hope I can find something good for me. I want to embrace the world and to believe that it is still a beautiful place.

I like the idea of a nomadic lifestyle. I like the idea of me in my changing elements, moving forward and sideways across the globe, meeting people, milking yaks, forging chance encounters, and experiencing so many things that I want to know about, even if it seems mundane. A part of me yearns to run away from everything and cultivate a new life without self-imposed restraint, limitations, or obligation.

So thanks for all the well-wishes, quizzical looks, and votes of confidence. It's going to be an interesting adventure. See you soon.