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Phil's Mongolian Journals

Mongolian Journal #1

How if you have absolutely nothing better to do than either unclog the garbage disposal or read my stories from my summer in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, then read on. Though the best option is probably to delete my email from your computer along with that offer for a product guaranteed to add three extra inches to your height by buying Dr. Peter Dragon’s marvelous shoe inserts. So either hello or goodbye from Phil.

Language Lesson:

Sein Bainu (u pronounced long “o”: Like how are you?

Seinu: like 'Hay what’s up' or 'How’s it hangin'

Flight was quite good, but the only blurp on the 26-hour flight was in Beijing. Like most places, give a guy a uniform and without fireworks and blue smoke, he devolves into a jerk. My bags had to be inspected again when transferring at Beijing Airport to one of two jets that make up the Mongolian Global Airlines. Before boarding my jet to Ulaanbaatar, capital city of Mongolia, four young guys with green uniforms, festooned with badges, hash marks, and bouquets of bling too numerous to count, were supervising a crew of underlings who scanned every piece of luggage. But one of my bags containing all of my photo gear did not pass. This bag, packed with care and precision and organization, in safe wrappings so expensive equipment would not jostle around on the long flight (cables, computers, chargers, batteries, portable hard disks, and lenses of all sizes) did not pass inspection. The head “Bling” had a lot of fun making me sweat by insisting that I remove each piece of photo equipment, that is EVERYTHING in the bag, and put in special plastic tubs to be X-rayed again. Well, after the second pass, Zhang had a problem (by then we were on a first name basis)

SIDEBAR for Personal Edification: In China the family name is always first (Zhang Hui) but Ms. Letitia Baldrige says that it is quite acceptable to call a person by their family name.

OK, Zhang was mystified by my portable iPhone/iPad supplemental charger for long flights, etc. Didn’t need to plug into outlet in airport but carried two healthy charges in a small rectangular case the size of a bar of soap. The product was made in China, so I know the official knew what it was; but with a faux look of surprise, about as subtle as traditional Chinese opera, he growled “suspicious” and he must put it on the contraband table because it looked very mysterious.

I’d been through this drill before, so I told him I wanted it back and explained it was to charge an iPhone. He looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language and got a nonplussed look on his face.

SECOND SIDEBAR: (promise, the last): I have this “Learn-a-New-Word-a-Day” app. on my computer and it says to learn new words so you can impress people at parties and such, you need to study your new word and try to use it in conversation, so this is my virginal attempt using this really awe-inspiring word.

Ok, so Zhang, with his hands held up in confusion says, “iPhone?” as if he were from Wahoo or Council Bluffs or something. Last year Apple geared up production to meet a projected 20-30 million Chinese buyers of iPhone/iPad and iWatchs. After Zhang’s gesture of total ignorance of what iPhone is, my very reliable bullshit meter (finely calibrated after years teaching) sounded an “alert,” so, in a very un-Phil-like move, I made a big fuss and eventually he gave back my new charger, foiling his attempt to take it home to add to his collection, I’m sure.


Oyun and I live in small flat in Ulaanbaatar with two cats and a dog she is dogsitting for her daughter. In 2013 I had a teaching contract with the Mongolian University of Science and Technology for 2014-15 school year teaching English language classes to both faculty and students.

But because I could not get proper medication for myself for a year long professorship, I had to decline. (What a fouled up system we have in the triad: Medicare, drug dispensaries, and the pharmaceutical cartel. And a very unreliable mail system here in Mongolia. So I had to explain to my Dept. Head that I could not teach for her.

When I first applied to teach, MUST (acronym for the University) had contacted one of their teachers, Oyun Dundov; and since she wanted the income from what the university would pay to provide me with a bed and chow, she agreed. So in 2013 we began emailing and have ever since.

In fall 2014 Oyun asked me to come at least for a few months and she’d get me a few gigs at the university summer school, a week or two, maybe.

And since I was able to get proper medication to take with me for a summer stay and I had a place to stay and a person who knew her city well, I jumped at the chance. To explore a country that we all read about in our geography books at school, “Mongolia,” a name echoing the likes of Ghengus Kahn, Marco Polo, and powerful warriors on horseback playing polo with the heads of their vanquished enemy. A dream come true. We had a Catholic priest come to speak to us at St. Pat’s School in Missouri Valley. He was a brother to our teacher, Sr. of Perpetual Agony. He had spent twenty years in Mongolia a long time before we were in school and he had pictures of fabulous people in marvelous costumes and warriors riding horses, and all kinds of good stuff. After the entertainment, came the commercial: if you boys wanted to see really cool stuff like this, then sign up for a weekend at St. Columbians where you will meet many young priests and learn about the life of a Catholic priest.

What a shameful ruse to inflict on poor ignorant Iowa children. But as Father Devine used to say, “Can’t learn the Good Book on an empty stomach; so eat up, brothers, then you hearin’ Sweet Jesus tonight:


Most Americans know nothing about this huge country with a very small population, sort of like western Nebraska, without the central pivot irrigation systems. Yes they have thousands of cowboys on horseback but most of the herding is of goats or sheep or camels.

I recently asked 20 people, mostly well-educated, to name two or three facts about Mongolia. Five thought it was a place in China, 10 knew that it was famous for the legendary Ghengis Khan (only thing American geography school books include about this fly-over country), and the rest knew nothing at all but stated that they really liked the food at the Mongolian Grill out on Hwy 370 off Kennedy Freeway. Ok enough fact stuff.


My journal will be mostly stories about my summer in UlaanBaatar. I’m not an historian or sociologist or news journalist. I am, though, passionate about looking carefully into places that others may pass up because the environment is small or dirty or just not touristy enough to get out of our air-conditioned vehicle and explore with eyes wide open.

One of my favorite writers, Kathleen Norris, published a wonderful book about the years she lived on an acreage she inherited from a relative in South Dakota. Here she made a living off government grants for giving poetry workshops in schools in both North and South Dakota. At one of these schools she met a young artist, Jean Tamisea, doing “Arts in the Schools” programs, like Kathleen, conducting art workshops in prairie schools in the Dakotas. These two women became very close during the time Kathleen and Jean were in the Dakotas and often worked at the same schools.

Norris’s book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, narrates Norris’s journey from New York City to life on the prairie near Lemon, South Dakota, a place no one famous came from or anyone ever wanted to write about. It was an empty place from most people’s perspective. So Kathleen and my cousin, Jean, explored this seemingly empty place and discovered many rare treasures. Norris’s book is a spiritual journey as well as a quest to find meaning in a place as arid and empty as the Gobi Desert here in Mongolia. But during Kathleen’s days in Dakota she came to discover both a deeper understanding of the significance of this arid environment, as well as, grew in understanding of her own essential worth as a woman as well as a writer.

Dakota is the only paper book I carried with me to Mongolia. And each day I read a few pages to remind me of her journey and to be as patient as she in her exploration of a vast and very different geography from what she was used to. Mongolia is before me and it is so unlike anything I’ve ever seen, even China in the 1980’s was “modern” compared to current day Mongolia.


My first lesson on Mongolian culture came quickly and it was about time.

Last Sunday, Oyun was in tears even while she struggled to put on makeup to meet the day. She was preparing to walk a couple of miles to get to a bus to take her to her school, a feeder high school for the Mongolian University of Science and Technology, the place where I had been offered a teaching position. Oyun teaches English in the School of Mathematics. Her school is actually like OPS Magnet schools, about 8 different focus schools.

That day she had to conference with a few parents whose kids had not returned their schoolbooks to Oyun at the end of the year. She is responsible for all books her English class students use in Math, Science, etc. Here’s the kicker: If students do not bring books back to her, there is no punishment for the student but teachers do not get their summer money (like rest of contract year money) until all books are returned. If books are not returned she and her teacher friends must pay for books themselves.

Their education system is a headache and Oyun can do very little to make the system better. She tells me that administrators do nothing and put much of the administrative burden on teachers. They are very good at making goofy rules to make teachers squirm. Sunday was the first of several trips Oyun made to school for her salary. I have, at times, been impatient with Oyun because it seems so unfair what hoops she has to jump through to get her money. She said to me on one occasion, "You are American, you do not understand." Wow, is that an understatement! Yes, for me this has been a difficult lesson to learn; my perception has not be coexistent with the nature of things in this ancient culture.

When Thinking about Time, I believe time is a cultural construct. In the US and probably most of the western world, we are often the slaves of time. We have little electronic devices that tell us when to get up, when to meet a client, when to pee, etc. It is so important to be on time. I’m always 15 minutes early for any kind of appointment fearing I might be “LATE,” the apex of incivility in our culture. You know the three tablets that Mel Brooks brought down from the mountain in his movie, The History of the World? Well as you know Mel (Moses) dropped on of those tablets and rather than there being 15 Commandments we ended up with just 10. Few people know this besides Mel, but the 11th Commandment is, you got it, “Don’t be Late for Heaven’s sake.”

I was taught a great lesson by one of my UNO graduate students, a Native American guy who was in one of my classes and sometimes he’d come to class “late.” One evening, after taking his place at the seminar table (10 minutes after class began), he smiled: ”Sorry, I’ve been on Indian Time.” His unusual expression launched us on a fascinating journey that evening where we tried to drill into our thick Anglo, ethnocentric American heads what it would be like in a culture where time was not always “by the clock,” a lesson quite apt for my Travel Writing class, probably one of the best lessons of the term.

Here in UB time is very different. In the US, I often head to Hi-Vee and grab a ready-made salad for supper, box of Fruit Loops for breakfast, maybe a deli baked chicken for the freezer for an emergency.

Today, Oyun spent an hour making food for her animals, and then she fixed us breakfast (about an hour for a simple meal of carrots, potato, and “mutton.” Then she had to wash out a few things in a wee washer and hung them up on the radiator and hangers on kitchen cabinets. She got up at 8 am, and now it is almost 1:00 pm. And this was just the beginning, the struggle that is Ulaanbaatar.

This was Tuesday and she was now sitting on a small stool at the end of her bed where she kept all her magical potions that Mongolian girls love to use. Today she would make another assault on her school’s accountant (she calls him) and attempt to pry her money from his hands so she can pay her bills through the summer months. The trip to school will take an hour. She will have to find the financial manager and then the librarian and then the principal and all must sign a paper saying that she has completed all her duties as a teacher the spring term. So if her superiors feel like giving her the money, they will; or they may tell her to come back tomorrow because they can’t get the money today. Oyun said the school accountant told her, “Maybe we find it tomorrow.”

Although I am quite anxious about all this, Oyun smiles, “it’s ok. Although they treat us teachers like sheet, we must learn patience”

"Maybe" Time

This is a culture where the word “maybe” is highly significant. We Americans do not like “maybe;” we are a culture where we want certainty, where things are right or wrong, a culture of linear thinkers. We see life as if it were written on a 2X4. One end is beginning and the other end is, well, the end. We want our account books to go from chaos to balanced. For me this country of “maybe” is so alien, so frustrating, creating an angst of huge proportions. Like many Eastern cultures, Mongolians are more comfortable imagining the universe as operating like a wheel or circle. What Black Elk, called “the great hoop of the universe.”

THIRD SIDEBAR: (Ok so I lied, I invoke my right to poetic license). My photographs here in Mongolia tell me that photographs of Black Elk and other Native American people show a marked similarity to the people of Mongolia. Although an often hotly debated topic, current genetic research has given credibility to the theory that there maybe a clear connection between the Native people of the American Continent and people from the Siberia and Mongolia. Dr Theodore Schurr, from the University of Pennsylvania has published DNA research that revealed genetic markers linking people living in Mongolia and southern Siberia, with indigenous populations in North America. In the evenings we have been looking at Oyun’s family albums and her father’s parents and grandparents, people from the 19th and 20th Century could easily pass for Sioux up at the Res in Pine Ridge.


Skin is a huge topic here. Oyun, being a modern woman, although she says she is also traditional, has much to say about keeping her skin light. Many women, including Oyun, often wear large scarves over their heads and faces to keep the sun from darkening their skin. Yesterday Oyun and I were wandering around and I saw some teenagers in a group and Oyun said that the seven were a mix of city and country girls. I asked how she could tell and she said that country girls dress with no style and wear homemade dresses or slacks; and city girls are “more stylish.” And she added, “city girls have light skin, not like country girls who have dark skin and red cheeks.

The seven teenagers were on two benches, three on one and the four in my photograph above. Oyun asked the three girls on the bench if I could take a picture of them. They looked at each other, giggled, put their faces in their hands, and were totally nonplussed and since I’m in a poetic frame of mind, the girls were all atwitter. Much like a flock of spring birds when startled, they swiftly moved, like dancers in Swan Lake, to another part of the park.

Oyun nudged me and smiled: “Country girls. Red cheeks and no style.” The four girls in my photograph really liked the idea of being photographed. Oyun again, whispered, “City girls.” Now notice the body language in this group. Look especially at the hands and notice how at ease they are with themselves and with me. These are modern Mongolian women of a new generation who, as Oyun would say, “have style.”

Big Eyes

Teens these days are all agog (Yesterday’s Word for the Day) about having big eyes. Considered in these parts an essential component of what’s considered beautiful in this culture. Oyun wants big eyes and will go to great lengths to create the image through all kinds of cosmetic hocus-pocus. She said that surgeons are very busy these days. There is a wealthy class here and their kids can afford this type of surgery. I asked if they want western women’s eyes and she said no.

Notice the young woman third from the left and note her “big eyes.” Oyun later told me that she probably had “Doctor’s eyes.” In the interest of documentary photography I asked Oyun, do young women go into other forms of beauty or body augmentation, like breast enhancement? Oyun smiled: “Mongolian women do not want large breasts because such a thing would not be in proportion to other parts of the body. It is not good balance.” Yin/Yang is surprisingly part of a culture that takes most of its direction from an interesting fusion of Buddhist and Hindu ideologies.


The "Black" Market:

The city is a cacophony of dust, stop lights that most drivers disregard, business people in three-piece suits, older men in their Diels (pronounced Dells), a colorful, thin robe with thick belt, and kind of teepee hat taking a stroll with the wife in the “Black” Market.

There is a strong effort among the people here to get back to their Mongolian roots. I asked Oyun if the products sold at the market were illegal but she said no, just homemade or Mongolian made products. I told her that we have such markets but we don’t use the term “Black” but “Flea” market. She agreed that flea market in English is a good phrase. The Market is a mélange of hundreds or stalls and tented areas that sell everything from folk medicine, stoves for yurts (a round tent made of canvas or if out on the Steppes made of animal hide). I see many yurts when I look out Oyun’s window to the lot across alley and see many yurts of people who bought land and set up yurts to live in but when apartment buildings are to be built yurts must go. (Note my lack of determiners or what we used to call “articles” in the olden days). Mongolian language does not have words like “the,” or “a” or “an” so Oyun and you may have noticed through out this journal, I have joined the club and my English has acquired a kind of “mutton” flavored English.

Oyun’s English:

At times the last few days, I’ve tried to loosen Oyun’s book English up a bit with some surprising results. I am teaching her more sophisticated Americanisms, like “Bull shit” and she is teaching me how to say Hello and Good By and “How much for a half kilo of horseburger? And “Got pickles?”

Oyun and I go to little market in her flat complex to get small things and to larger market for mutton and horsemeat. Yesterday I had a big cold bowl of horse milk Yogurt. Actually it was good and I didn’t know it was horse milk until after I finished drinking the bowl dry. Then Oyun instructed me to clean the bowl with my tongue because that strengthens the throat and protects from the very long and severe winters here. And speaking of horse milk, the Mongolians love Russian vodka but they make their own out of horse milk and it’s cheaper but it does leave you with the trots. Ok, I can’t help myself!


Really highfalutin writing sometimes has an epilogue so I want one of those too.

This is my first journal from Mongolia and I hope my series of stories I send back home of this innocent abroad might be a small tribute to my mentor, Mark Twain, who was the master of the travel narrative and who couldn’t help himself at times to make fun of the human condition and especially himself. I am truly an innocent abroad; and, to come to appreciate Mongolian culture, first I have to unlearn all the stuff we have been fed or more importantly NOT been fed by our American purveyors of information about the “aliens,” those beyond our borders.

Maybe what is most dear to my heart in my journals is to try to give an honest impression of what I see and hear and what I learn from a brilliant teacher who has a charming, insightful yet candid understanding of her culture and teaches me about her people. My words and photographs I hope reflect the respect and honor I feel for Oyun’s Mongolian culture; and I want to tell a story, like one of my teachers, Kathleen Norris did, with clarity and with a sensitive perception and admiration for a people who are struggling to discover how to live a life independently.

As an American I am slowly becoming aware what history books could never convey, what it must have been like back in the olden days with Ben Franklin and JC Penny, when they had to have the foresight, imagination, and patience to build a nation. Our people must have experienced the same potholes that the Mongolian people are struggling with now.

As of June 24, 2015, UB has a small elite class, a larger middle class and a very large class at the poverty level. Each night thousands of homeless orphans seek shelter below the streets of UB. I stand at Oyun’s window and watch as many big and small boys pry open manhole covers under the rock and dirt roads where they seek shelter for the night. Hanging out below the streets in summer from predators, slavers, or drunken men who wander the streets at all hours. Oyun tells me during the winter the sewers leech heat from the earth and protect the children from some of the coldest winters on earth.

Sorry to leave you on this sour note but this is no place for tourists or people who like air-conditioned tour buses although the government does want to develop a tourism industry in a very bad way. Yes, there are small islands of hope here and there around the city; but if you stray very far from Sukhbaatar Square (Pizza Hut, British Pub, goverment buildings, the business center)-- Manhattan on a Liliputian scale--you enter into a world where every day is a primal struggle for survival. Oyun is educated and works hard with a good job, but she is often out of money and before I came she had hocked some ear-rings her daughter gave her on her birthday to pay her electric bill. And Oyun is one of the lucky ones.

Love and Peace to All my Family and Good friends., Send from Phil, Dad, or just What’s His Name.

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