Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Mongolia
Few developing countries in the world offer the level of service considered normal in the United States. Mail to Mongolia generally takes two to four weeks to arrive, and some mail may never arrive. Occasionally, letters may arrive with clipped edges because someone has tried to see if any money was inside; also, some boxes may be opened by customs officials to ensure nothing illegal is being shipped. Advise your family and friends to number their letters and to include the word “Airmail” on their envelopes.
Check with your local post office for information on weight and size limitations for packages. Packages sent by surface mail normally take two to three months. Volunteers have found that letters and packages have a better chance of arriving if correspondents do not use a variety of interesting stamps; write the address (with the exception of “Mongolia”) in the Cyrillic alphabet; use sturdy, well-taped boxes for packages (to discourage tampering); write “via China” on mail; and use padding for breakable items (including cassette and CD cases).
Your address while you are in training is listed below in English and in the Cyrillic alphabet. Peace Corps staff regularly bring trainees’ mail to the training site.
“Your Name,” PCT
Post Office Box 1036
Central Post Office
Mongolia (via China)
Once you learn the location of your site, you will need to send your new address to friends and family. Mail postmarked during your first four months in Mongolia (including pre-service training) and sent to the Peace Corps office in Ulaanbaatar will be forwarded to you along with the weekly Peace Corps mailing. Packages sent to the office and postmarked during your first four months in Mongolia will either be forwarded to you at your request (in which case the charge is deducted from your living allowance) or held at the office for you to pick up. Any mail sent to the Peace Corps office that is postmarked after your first four months in Mongolia will be returned to sender.
Be aware that you may incur customs charges on your personal mail, especially packages. How packages are labeled in the United States can influence these charges. For example, if someone sends you a package containing both printed matter and “luxury” items such as music cassettes, the customs charges calculated by the post office in Mongolia will generally be less if the printed matter is emphasized and the luxury items are not.
Long-distance calling to the U.S. from landlines is available from every soum (small city or town) throughout Mongolia, although the system is not foolproof. International direct-dial service exists in Mongolia, but only select phone numbers have this option. One way to make a long-distance call is to go to the communications office and book the call (i.e., arrange for the call to be made at a certain time and then pay at the time of call). These calls are for a pre-determined length of time, and may be cut off when time is up. The second option is to use prepaid phone cards that can be purchased at telecom branches and specified service agents. You can then make a call from any pay phone by following the instructions on the phone cards. Difficulty in making a connection and interference are common, so patience is the key when telephoning to and from Mongolia. Several hotels in Ulaanbaatar (e.g., Bayangol, Flower Hotel, and Chinggis Khan) offer direct service to the United States using a calling card or by calling collect via AT&T. However, collect calls can be very expensive! Contact an international carrier before you leave the U.S. to find out if you qualify for a savings plan for such calls.
Pre-paid international calling cards are now available from certain kiosks in Ulaanbaatar and can be used when calling the U.S. from landlines in the capital. The cost for the call is very affordable if you buy the right card. Peace Corps/ Mongolia can offer you advice on which cards are the best to purchase while in Ulaanbaatar.
Your host family during pre-service training may have a phone; if so, family and friends can call you directly there. (Note that the time in Mongolia is 13 hours later than Eastern Standard Time.) Some Volunteers call home using an Internet phone service; the cost is generally whatever the charge is for the Internet connection.
Cellphone service is very common in Mongolia. Upon swearing-in as a Volunteer, you will receive a Peace Corps-issued cell phone. This phone is the property of Peace Corps/ Mongolia and should be returned upon completion of service. While trainees are not prohibited from purchasing a personal cellphone prior to swearing-in, Peace Corps/Mongolia will not reimburse the cost of a personally purchased phone.
Cellphones purchased in the U.S. will not work in Mongolia.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
Although computers can be bought locally, they generally do not come with virus protection software or system software backup disks. If you bring your own computer, remember that the weather in Mongolia can be hard on LCD screens and electronic equipment may be damaged by power surges. You should also consider insuring your computer. Some host organizations provide limited access to computers, but they often contain contaminated files and may not have the necessary backup disks or software to fix a problem.
Internet connections are rare but increasing in smaller towns and communities. Most provincial centers now have access to the Internet, usually at the local post office or telecom center. In Ulaanbaatar, Internet cafes are plentiful, and the rates there—800 to 1,500 tugriks (67 cents to $1.25) per hour—are cheaper than elsewhere. Though connections can be unstable and frustratingly slow, and power outages occur, it is still nice to communicate so quickly with family and friends.
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During pre-service training you will live with a host family. Housing at your future assigned site is inspected and approved by Peace Corps staff before your arrival at the site, and the cost of housing is usually paid for or shared by the host organization. During your two years of service, Volunteers live in small family compounds or in separate apartments, depending on what is available at their site. Most sites are located either in a provincial town center (aimag in Mongolian) anywhere from 50 to almost 2,000 kilometers (31 to 1,240 miles) by road from the capital, or in provincial villages (soums) that are up to four hours by car from an aimag. A few Volunteers are assigned to Ulaanbaatar.
Peace Corps’ minimum housing standards stipulate that housing must provide Volunteers with some private space, personal security, adequate heat and water, and, in most cases, a reliable source of electricity. It is Volunteers’ responsibility to work with staff to ensure that their housing conforms to these standards. Programming, safety and security, and medical staff visit Volunteers at their sites early in their service to reconfirm that housing is safe and secure.
If you are assigned to a larger city, you may live in a one-room or two-room apartment by yourself. If you are assigned to a rural area, you might be the only non-Mongolian in town, and you may live in your own apartment in a building with other Mongolian families, in your own ger (the traditional tent used by nomads), or in a small wooden house in a compound with a Mongolian family.
Apartments typically consist of either one room with a separate kitchen or a bedroom and living room with a separate kitchen. Each apartment has a toilet and, usually, a bathtub or shower. The quality of the plumbing and the reliability of the water supply may not be up to American standards (all Volunteers are given water distillers that work with or without electricity). Hot water may not be continuously available, and bathing may have to be accomplished by heating water on the stove or going to a community bathhouse.
Heat is supplied by a central municipal system and is impossible to control, although some apartments have a supplementary wood stove. In the winter, apartment temperatures (in Fahrenheit) range from the high 70s to around 50 degrees. Apartments are furnished to Peace Corps’ standards with basic furniture and appliances, which are often used and not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.
A ger is a round tent of about 20 feet in diameter, made of a wooden lattice covered with thick felt. The inside consists of one room with furniture around the circumference and a wood stove in the center. Headroom varies from about 4.5 feet at the edge to 10 feet in the middle. Most gers have electricity for lighting and appliances, but water is delivered by truck or fetched from the local water source. Cooking is done using a wood, coal, or dung stove (which also provides heat) or, if you are lucky, on an electric hotplate. Communities with gers have bathhouses with hot- and cold-shower facilities.«» Areas where wood is more common may have more wood cabins than gers. These are typically small structures of about 300 square feet, with two rooms and the same heating, electricity, and plumbing facilities as gers.
Increasingly, Volunteers in Mongolia live in either gers or wooden houses, sharing a compound with a Mongolian family. Enhanced cultural interaction, improved language skills, and greater Volunteer safety have all resulted from this living arrangement.
Living Allowance and Money Management
You will receive a monthly living allowance, paid in tugriks, to cover your day-to-day expenses at a standard of living similar to that of your Mongolian co-workers. While this monthly allowance (currently 123,000 tugriks, or about $105 [U.S.] for Volunteers serving in the countryside; and 172,400 tugriks, or about $147 [U.S.] for Volunteers serving in Ulaanbaatar) is sufficient, keep in mind that several items are excluded as necessary expenses in the calculation of the living allowance. These include alcoholic beverages, tobacco, clothing (other than replacement clothing), non-official travel, church offerings, gifts, personal phone calls, and Internet and e-mail access. The current exchange rate is 1,170 Mongolian tugriks to the dollar. U.S. dollars can be exchanged at various places in Ulaanbaatar, including hotels, the Trade and Development Bank, post offices, and legal money exchange facilities. Depending upon the size of your community, you may be able to change money there as well.
You are likely to spend roughly 60 percent of your living allowance on food, and you probably will not be able to maintain the lifestyle, including diet, to which you are accustomed in the United States. For one thing, it is difficult to find the wide variety of foods available in the United States. It is also important that you live at the same economic level as the people in your community.
After you are sworn-in as a Volunteer, accounts in both tugriks and dollars will be set up for you at the Trade and Development Bank of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar. Once at site, you will establish a tugrik bank account at a local bank. Your living allowance will be deposited in either account at the beginning of every month. After being sworn-in at the end of training, the $24-per-month vacation allowance will be deposited monthly in your dollar account in Ulaanbaatar.
There are two options for getting cash transferred from the United States. First, the Trade and Development Bank has a reciprocal relationship with HSBC (Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Limited), so money can be transferred from HSBC to a local account in a few days, at a fee ranging from $7 to $15. You can get cash advances on a credit card (call your credit card company for rates). While credit cards are of limited use in Mongolia, they are accepted by major hotels and shops and may come in handy when traveling outside the country. Traveler’s checks can be purchased at the Trade and Development Bank in Ulaanbaatar and cashed there for a 2 percent fee. Although few retail outfits in Mongolia will accept them, they are useful for travel in other countries in the region. Personal checks are not accepted in Mongolia.
Food and Diet
Once a nation of nomadic herdsman, Mongolia is known as the Land of Five Animals — sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and camels. Traditionally, herdsmen got everything they needed to survive from these animals. Today’s diet still relies heavily on meat and dairy products, including a hardened curd called aaruul. Fermented mare’s milk is the traditional ceremonial drink. Dairy products are best in the fall, after the animals have fattened up on the green grasses of summer pastures.
The main meats are mutton and beef, but Mongolians also eat goat, horse, marmot, and camel. Some Mongolians buy a sheep carcass to put out on their balcony for the winter (a natural cold storage method). Shops in provincial centers sell beef, hamburger, smoked ham hocks, sausages, hot dogs, and chicken. (Mongolian chickens have been described as “very athletic” and are good for stewing.) Fish is sometimes sold at markets or door-to-door. Canned meat and seafood are also available. In soums (rural villages), only mutton, yak, horse, and beef (and sometimes camel) are available, so occasional trips to the provincial center are necessary for other items.
Milk, butter, eggs, yogurt, sour cream, and cheese are generally available in provincial centers and Ulaanbaatar, but eggs and sour cream are typically more difficult to find in soums. Milk and cream may not be pasteurized, so they must be boiled before consumption. Gouda, edam, and other imported cheeses are available in most cities, and tofu is sometimes available. You may be surprised by the variety of imported products that can be found at markets in provincial centers and Ulaanbaatar.
A limited variety of fresh fruits and vegetables appears in the markets regularly, but these foods are not a major part of the local diet. Potatoes, cabbages, turnips, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, tangerines, bananas, and apples are available most of the year in provincial town centers, Ulaanbaatar and in some bigger soums that are close to provincial centers and Ulaanbaatar. Vegetables such as cauliflower, radishes, and beets may be available only during the summer and early fall. As vegetables may be hard to find in soums, Volunteers placed there need to make occasional trips to the provincial center for marketing.
There is a growing variety of locally made bread and other bakery products from which to choose in Ulaanbaatar and provincial centers. Pasta is also available. In rural areas, bread and pasta are sometimes unavailable and pastries are nonexistent.
Mongolians drink a lot of “milk tea,” made from milk, tea, salt, and sometimes butter or fat. They favor hot beverages year-round in the belief that drinking cold liquids leads to stomach illnesses. Chinese and Russian tea and Undaa, a Mongolian citrus-flavored soft drink, are widely available, and fruit teas can be found in most of the markets in Ulaanbaatar. Western beer and soft drinks are also available in some markets.
The traditional diet can be bland, monotonous, and high in fat and cholesterol, and it may be difficult to limit your fat intake while eating with your neighbors. If you are a vegetarian, you may find it difficult to maintain your diet because of both limited food availability and cultural considerations. The Peace Corps living allowance, however, will enable you to buy some imported fresh and canned fruits and vegetables on visits to provincial centers, so a modest vegetarian diet is certainly possible, albeit difficult. Turning down food can offend Mongolians, who believe meat is necessary for survival in harsh climates, so a vegetarian will have to become good at explaining his or her “strange” diet to Mongolians.
Domestic travel includes planes, trains and automobiles. For foreigners, flying is expensive as there are two rates applied to all tickets: local and foreign. Currently, Aero Mongolia is the only approved domestic airline offering service in-country. Trips from Ulaanbaatar to a provicinal center range between $200 and $300 (round trip).
The Trans-Mongolian Railway operates on a 24-hour basis and connects northern Mongolia with the south. Trains are clean and comfortable, and they offer a choice between a hard seat (second-class) and a sleeper cabin. They are not equipped with restaurant cars. The line linking Moscow and Beijing via Ulaanbaatar, which was completed in 1955, provides a shorter route between Russia and China than the older line through Manchuria. As trains operate on time and are reliable, they are the most convenient way to travel in-country.
Travel among cities by bus, van, or Russian-made jeep is almost completely on unpaved roads. The price of rides, which depends on the price of the fuel supplied by Russia, has fluctuated greatly in recent years. Volunteers are prohibited from driving motorized vehicles in Mongolia or from riding on or operating motorcycles.
Geography and Climate
Probably the first thing you were told about Mongolia was that it is very cold. This is true. But rather than try to anticipate the various weather patterns of the country, it is better to prepare for the worst-case scenario, which is -40 degrees Celsius (-40°C) with a wind chill factor of -55 degrees Celsius. While this may sound unbearable, Volunteers are given many strategies for “beating” the cold from the Peace Corps training staff and their Mongolian neighbors.
Spring is sunny and extremely windy, and dust storms are common. The temperature ranges from 10 to 20 degrees Celsius (50º to 68°F), but the wind makes it seem colder. Summer is sunny and breezy, with an average temperature in the low 20s (70s F), though it can get as hot as 30 degrees (86°F) on a regular basis. Autumn is short, with temperatures similar to those in spring. The rainy season takes place in August and/or September. The sun shines almost every day in Mongolia, even in winter, and the glare from the snow can be intense, so sunglasses are a necessity.
Although Mongolia’s traditionally nomadic herdsmen are now comfortable on both motorcycles and horses and many live in apartments rather than in gers, Mongolia has not lost its rich cultural heritage. The Mongolian people’s hospitality endures, and most social life at Volunteer sites centers on visiting friends’ homes rather than going out to bars and clubs.
Mongolians enjoy a wide variety of sports. Soccer, volleyball, basketball, table tennis, and the national sport of wrestling all take place during the summer. Hiking is also popular during the warmer months. Cross-country skiing (and downhill skiing using a rope tow), sledding, and ice-skating are popular pastimes in the winter.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
It is very important that you dress professionally in work settings, where the appearance of the staff reflects on the office as a whole. You are also expected to dress professionally during training, which means no shorts or T-shirts, though clean jeans without rips are acceptable. You will need a more formal outfit for being sworn-in as a Volunteer. All clothes should be clean at all times.
The main goal is to fit into Mongolian culture, in which professionals, especially teachers, dress well. Typical clothing for men includes slacks, a collared shirt with a sweater or jacket, a tie, and dress shoes. Women tend to wear dresses or dressy slacks or skirts with blouse-and-sweater combinations and nice boots or high-heeled shoes. Some men and women wear dels (traditional clothing), but more so in the outlying soums than in the cities.
Although more casual clothing like khakis and polo shirts may be acceptable as office wear in Mongolia, such clothing is much harder to keep clean and presentable than synthetic fabrics because you will be hand-washing it. Synthetics are more stain resistant and do not lose their shape as easily. Dark colors are also best.
Most Mongolians have only a few outfits for work and will not judge you negatively for wearing only a few yourself. You can wear the same outfits again and again and no one will care or notice.
- Professionals in Mongolia wear their hair in fairly conservative styles. Although you might see young men on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, Darkha, or Erdenet with shoulder-length hair, long hair on men is rare in the professional environment. Male Volunteers should come to training with their hair conservatively cut and styled and not exceeding shoulder length. After you have completed pre-service training, been at your post for three months and have established your credibility, you might find that it is acceptable to wear a less conservative style.
- Body piercings are not common in professional settings.
Peace Corps/Mongolia requires Volunteers to remove facial piercings (with the exception of earrings in women) through pre-service training and during the first three months of service. This allows Volunteers to establish a professional rapport with colleagues and counterparts.
As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, and the Safety & Security Guidebook of Peace Corps/Mongolia, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails many safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well-off are some of the factors that can put a Volunteer at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. Petty thefts and burglaries are very common, and incidents of physical and sexual assault do occur frequently. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help you reduce your risks and enhance your safety and security. These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Mongolia. At the same time, you are expected to take responsibility for your safety and well-being.
Rewards and Frustrations
The potential for job satisfaction in Mongolia is quite low, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. Because of racist, financial or other challenges, some collaborating agencies do not always provide the support they promised. In addition, the pace of work and life is slower than what most Americans are accustomed to, and some people you work with may be hesitant to change practices and traditions that are centuries old. For these reasons, the Peace Corps experience of adapting to a new culture and environment is often described as a series of emotional valleys.
You will be given a high degree of responsibility and independence in your work—perhaps more than in any other job you have had or will have. You will often find yourself in situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your co-workers with little guidance from supervisors. You might work for months without seeing any visible impact from, or without receiving feedback on, your work. Development is a slow process. Positive progress most often comes after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.