Katieholder’s Blog

Tsagaan Sar, Ice Fest

Last Wednesday (2/24/10), I had all of my co-workers from Erdenet over to celebrate Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year, “White Month”) with me. I had been preparing the entire week before (cooking, cleaning, shopping) and was really nervous about it. Fortunately, my sitemate Brad was able to come over and help me set up so I could avoid any major faux pas.

I made potato salad, egg salad, heyam (meat) salad, and pasta salad. I did decide to forgo hand making the buuz since they are labor intensive and my buuz look pathetic, so I bought some frozen ones instead. I also had arroll (preserved cheese curds) and several types of candies and the standard bread tower. And of course, the tea and vodka. My little coffee table was packed! Everyone showed up at 6 and was impressed when they saw my deel. They were even more impressed when they found out that I had cooked all of the salads. I’m not sure, but I think that they think I only eat at restaurants or boiled eggs….

Anyway, I played hostess and got everyone fed and I asked Ganbaa to be the vodka server. Traditionally, the person who serves the vodka is either the owner of the home, or the oldest man. I didn’t know all of the ins and outs of serving the vodka, so I let G do the honor. First, the men are served, from oldest to youngest, then the women, oldest to youngest. You are passed a glass with a shot of vodka (passed with the right hand and the left hand touching the right elbow) and can either down the whole thing, part of it or just touch it to your lips. Whatever you do, you have to offer a toast. My co-workers know that I’m not much for vodka, so they don’t mind when I dilute it with some Coke or other mixer. The first time I did it though, I had a LOT of explaining to do.

So, we ate and drank, and drank and ate, and finally it was time to bring out Brad’s birthday cake! His b-day wasn’t until the following day, but I decided it would be nice for him to celebrate during the TS festivities, so I went to 5 bakeries all over town until I was able to locate a cake for him. This, of course, required even more shots after eating the cake and we were all in a mighty celebratory mood after it so we decided to play “ankle bones” which is a Mongolian game over a thousand years old. In the game, you have actual bones (from cows I think) and the bones have 4 sides: sheep, camel, horse and goat. The game is played like marbles where you have to flick a bone and hit a matching bone (sheep has to hit another sheep, etc.) and the person with the most bones at the end wins. It’s also a fortune telling tool where each combination that you roll means something different. The best combo to roll is one of each which means you will have very good luck and you get a wish. If you roll this combo, you gather all the bones into your hand and whisper your wish into your hand and then roll again. The next combo will let you know if your wish will come true or not.

After my co-workers left, Brad and I didn’t even attempt to clean up. He promptly fell asleep on the couch and I finished packing for the trip to Ice Fest on Friday. The next morning, of course, I woke up and immediately regretted my decision not to clean up at least a little the night before. It was like a TS bomb went off in my apartment. So, I called into work and let them know that I won’t be able to come in since I have to not only clean up from the night before, but prepare for all my friends coming in to stay with me for a night before leaving for Ice Fest.

So, I spent the morning cleaning while Brad spent the morning recovering on my couch. Brian and Garrett arrived at 5 from Bulgan the aimag center of Orkhon aimag about 40 km west of Erdenet. Race Hodges (M20) arrived from Yuro a soum north of Darkhan at around 4. After the guys arrived, they all helped me clean the apartment even more (sweeping, doing dishes and cleaning the stove). Seriously, it’s worth it to have house guests like this if they are going to clean my apartment. They can crash any time they want. Brian and Garrett cooked the frozen buuz I had bought for TS and we all crashed pretty early in order to get an early start the next morning.

Let me start off this next section by saying traveling in Mongolia is a study in confusion, patience and pain. Brad, Garrett and Brian lined up a microbus (mikre) that would “leave” at 2 p.m. that day. While they were off doing that, Race and I ran errands (ATM, food for trip, heavy hats, etc) and we were all ready to go by the 2 p.m. leave time. So, we get to the mikre stand at 2 only to find out that our mikre is only “half” full. This means that it was full to our untrained American eyes, but at least 4 more people were needed to make it Mongolian-full.

 A standard mikre has 2 forward facing rows of bench seats built for 3 people and one backward facing bench seat meant for 2 people. After the seats, there is a space for luggage and then the driver’s and shotgun seat. So, it’s built for 10 people. In reality here though, it travels with anywhere from 14-16 people. Soooo, it was about 5 p.m. by the time we actually set out. With 14 adults and 2 babies. I’ll only say this: there was a point in the trip where each of us considered jumping out of the mikre and taking at least one other person with us. The nightmares from that trip will haunt me forever. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

We arrived in Murun (Khovsgul’s aimag center about 3-4 hours south of the lake) at 9-ish the next morning in the coldest weather I have experienced yet here in Mongolia. (The “trip” only took 18 or so hours, but we had been sitting in the mikre for 22 hours, so we called it a 22 hour trip) Patrick Olsen (M19) came and picked Brian, Garrett, Brad and I up from the mikre stand while Race went off to Alison Boland’s ger to settle in. So, we walk back to Patrick’s haashaa and, btw Patrick, if you read this: your place is not “close”, it’s far. A mile is not close when you haven’t slept, are walking in freezing temps, and have backpacks and sleeping bags to lug around. Just saying.

So we settle in at Patrick’s, eat some food, drink and play Monopoly Deal (aka, the greatest card game ever—see pics on FB). After many hours of this, we all meet up (Alison, Sara Haught, Race, Patrick, Garrett, Brian, Brad and I) and decide to shop for dinner ingredients to cook at Alison’s ger. Major props to Patrick and Sara who made not one, but two kinds of pizza’s from scratch for dinner and a potato side dish. Excellent. After dinner (and shenanigans) we split up to go to sleep and prepare to go to Hatgal/Lake Khovsgul the next day.

Race and I stayed with Alison in her ger and all I have to say about that first night is that it was there and then that I really fell in love with my apartment. Waking up to seeing your breath with EVERYTHING in the ger frozen (toothpaste, shampoo, cooking water, vegetable oil—everything) was one of the most un-fun things I’ve ever experienced. Respect to all you ger dwellers out there. I don’t know that I could do it without crying every morning.

After breakfast, we all gathered to leave for Hatgal (the soum by Lake Khovsgul). Fortunately , we were able to make the 3-4 hour trip in a Land Cruiser in relative comfort. That’s right, you can fit 9 people with all their bags into a Land Cruiser. Bags = seats.

So we arrived at Hatgal just as night was falling and got to Ryan’s haashaa to split up the group (Ryan = M19 and possibly some sort of male model before joining Peace Corps…) Brad and I had decided to stay at a ger camp which ended up being a pretty good decision since the family that owned the ger camp fed us whenever we didn’t want to cook (which was all the time) and it was nice to get away from the general insanity that always results from 10 PCV’s sharing the same small house.

Brad and I got to our ger (small 3 walled ger with 3 small beds lining the walls and a wood stove in the middle). The owners had started a fire for us and we got to eat a buuz dinner with them before turning in for the night. Sidenote: Gers are “winterized” in the fall, which means a couple of more layers of felt are added over the “summer” layers in order to insulate the inside and keep that precious, precious heat from escaping too quickly. Our ger wasn’t winterized, which no tourist would notice, but coming from the PC background, Brad and I quickly noticed since 30 minutes after the fire would go out, the temperature would drop down to below freezing and we could see our breath.

The next morning, we awoke to find everything had frozen (water in cups, toothpaste, washrag, etc) so Brad got up and made a fire. Then, the owner of the camp came in and gave us breakfast (toast w/ homemade butter and homemade blueberry jam). After eating and getting dressed, we were off with our driver in the Land Cruiser to pick up the rest of the kids and head off to Ice Fest. Since it was dark when we arrived the night before, we didn’t really know where Ryan lived, so we did the only thing we could think of and just asked all the random people out where the “American boy” lived. Since he’s the only American in the tiny town, it didn’t take long. Gotta love small towns…

So, we all packed up and were off to Ice Fest. The “road” to the festival was actually a path marked with orange flags across the lake. Yes, we drove on the frozen lake, which did freak me out initially, but was very cool once I got used to the idea. We parked, got out and pretty much every single one of us promptly fell on the ice. It wasn’t too embarrassing since everyone else was falling too. We shopped the souvenirs where I picked up the single greatest pair of mittens ever made (seriously, my North Face gloves got nothing on these mittens).

After shopping, it was time for the opening ceremonies which lasted approximately an hour (we only watched for 10 minutes, our attention span isn’t that great). We then started exploring the slide and games on the ice. (See face book for pictures…)

After a couple of hours on the ice, we went off in search of food in the gers on the lake shore. We warmed up and got fed and were ready to get back out on the ice. After a few more hours of shenanigans, we were all exhausted and ready to get back to Hatgal for dinner.

The next day, we went back to Ice Fest for a few hours and then we headed back to Murun to spend the night. The next day, Brad, Garrett, Brian, Race and I were headed back to Erdenet. Unlike the ride to Murun which was HOT (heaters here apparently can only be turned on High and Off) and slow (19 hours), the ride back was FREEZING and fast(15 hours). At least, it was fast until we broke down outside of Bulgan (20 kilometers outside of Erdenet). So close to home, yet so far.

Sooooo, we sat there stranded for about 2 hours until another mikre was able to come and pick us up. Unfortunately, the driver who came to pick us up refused to drop us off at my apartment and basically kicked us out in the middle of town, at 4 a.m., in -40 degree weather. Jerk.

Anyway, so we lugged all our stuff back to my apartment where the guys promptly fell asleep on the floor and couch and I passed out on my glorious, wonderful bed. It’s a crazy thing, but when we were traveling, I kept thinking “I miss home/I want to be home” and by “home” I didn’t mean Arkansas, I meant Erdenet. I talked to Brad about it and he said that I had made the important transition where I thought of Erdenet/Mongolia as my home. It had happened to me before when I was in UB for IST in December, but never this strongly.

I decided that when I have to travel on a bus or mikre here, I’ll be limiting my trips to 8 hours or less. I’m planning on going to Eagle Fest in Bayan Olgii in October, but I’ll be flying both ways. Sorry kids, the thought of being on a bus for 40 HOURS makes my head hurt and I don’t know if I would survive it without a mental breakdown. I know my limitations.

So, we got back and I was almost fully recovered from the trip (feeling coming back into legs, neck able to turn both ways, etc) when Garrett tells me that my boss has decided to resign. AAAGGGHHH!!! This is never good news for a PCV as it sometimes means that you have to move into a cheaper apartment or change sites completely. Needless to say, my stomach has been acting up since I heard the news, but I’m doing my best to think positively about it.

This was a long post, I know, but I hope you enjoyed it. As always, Enjoy Your Amenities! Love, Katie

‘The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.’


Trackbacks & Pingbacks


  1. * rob says:

    I really hope your new boss let’s you stay in your apartment. That whole ger thing sounds pretty gnarly. I would probably end up killing some local livestock and sleeping inside of it’s stomach. I hope everything is going well otherwise. Love you, Rob.

    | Reply Posted 9 years, 1 month ago
    • * katieholder says:

      I hope they let me stay in the apartment too–living in a ger for a few days was cool during my trip, but doing it everyday would make me cry in my cornflakes.

      | Reply Posted 9 years, 1 month ago

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