Six students from the University of Pittsburgh Honors College trek across Mongolia in search of illumination, perspective, and the perfect cup of Yak-milk tea.

Monday, September 12, 2005

There she is...

I spent a few of my early days watching beauty queens parade through the streets of rural Virginia (lessons that I'm sure come through in my smile and wave). Friday night, however, I took my beauty pageant experience to a whole new level. Enticed by the opportunity to take part in Mongolia's first year of participating in the Miss World pageant (and, for the boys in the group, enticed by the opportunity to encourage all the bathing-suit-clad women), a few friends and I watched the whole sordid thing unfold from the second row.
I guess Mongolia wasn't expecting the invite, because it seems they had to throw together the competition last-minute. Somewhere between half and all of the contestants were actually professional models for some of the sponsoring magazines or modeling agencies, I think. Though we initially expected to see 21 competitors representing each of Mongolia's aimags - the provinces or states into which the country is divided – I'm pretty sure that all 13 women who competed live in Ulaanbaatar.
In addition to giving out crowns to the winner and two runners-up, the judges awarded a slew of honors: "Miss Photogenic," "Miss Goodwill," "Miss Talent," and "Miss IQ" (Miss IQ looked understandably disappointed). For those of you good at math, you'll note that all these awards left only six of the contestants without a sash. Considering that only three women competed in the talent portion, I felt sure that my favorite, #6, had the talent honor sewn up. A circus performer by trade, #6 was joined onstage by a younger teenager as the two juggled bowling pins, rode unicycles while juggling bowling pins and then - be still my heart - juggled flaming torches. She also performed flips, revealing what I'm pretty sure were not circus-issue underpants. I was prepared to give her the crown just for bringing fire into the act, but I accept that some judges might have other criteria for selecting Miss Mongolia. Just seeing her get the "Miss Talent" award would have satisfied me.
Who won Miss Talent? The woman who performed a 60-second song on the Mongolian mouth harp. Trust me: it's not more impressive than a standard-issue mouth harp performance in the West, and it definitely doesn't involve fire or flashy underwear. I had previously suspected life might not fair, but Friday night delivered a pretty big blow to my faith in the presence of any universal justice.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Nobody’s dancing queen

Dancing continues to be a popular activity for Westerners and financially-secure, urban Mongolians alike. My week and a half back in Mongolia has included as many clubs, but many more surprises, as most of my summer.
After a successful disco run the night after I returned, I was feeling pretty confident when I invited my Mongolian friend to come out dancing with my roommates and me last Friday. My friend is on vacation and had asked me several times during the week if I wanted to go dancing. The nightlife in UB doesn’t seem to slow down for anything as insignificant as a work or school night, but each time I turned her down, blaming my early hours at the office the next day. Friday seemed like the perfect night to set things right, but an unfortunate series of events kept dancing at a minimum. The clubs I’ve wound up at since my return have put much more focus on, er, passive entertainment than any of the clubs I frequented with the rest of the Pitt crew, and to my dismay, that entertainment sometimes occupies the entire dance floor for long periods of time.
Feeling kind of guilty that our dancing night involved so much sitting and so little dancing, I decided it was time to suck it up and head out on a weeknight. My friend and I met up, had a few drinks, and headed out for the disco at the seemingly reasonable hour of 10 p.m.
At least, it seemed reasonable until we entered the disco. Aside from a few couples sharing intimate drinks in the darker corners of the club, the room was empty. Especially the dance floor. We sat with beers for a little while, hoping the crowd was on the way. Then I broke down.
I had promised my friend a night of dancing and, by gosh, no personal dignity was going to stand in the way of our goal. I headed out to the empty dance floor, closed my eyes and started dancing. Whether she was inspired by my gusto or moved to pity, my friend quickly joined me, and the two of us proceeded to fill the otherwise empty dance floor for the next hour. A few people came and went, but we never wavered. The club’s floor might face empty nights the rest of this work week, but we didn’t let it go bare on Tuesday.
By the time we left, a little after midnight, things were getting pretty hopping. I guess I’ll have to head out later next time I want some dancing action on a weeknight. All things considered, though, I think I’m okay with an empty floor. It’s easier to be the dancing queen when you don’t have competition.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Bichmel Uceg

I made my triumphant return to Mongolian language class today, albeit an hour and a half late. To complement my work in Mongolia, I’m taking three hours of language classes every morning (except Wednesdays, when I spend long mornings teaching English to the college students at the Press Institute). I’ve started off in the beginners’ class, which has been kind of nice in that it’s allowed me to learn some of the basic language rules that I never learned in my most excellent “Survival Mongolian” class at Pitt or in our cool but somewhat disorganized class this summer. Unfortunately, beginners’ Mongolian starts at 8 a.m., while the second level class begins after we end at 11. The 8-11 class works regrettably well with my work schedule (except Wednesdays, but there’s no way around that), while it’s rather ill-suited to my ambitions of getting a good night’s sleep. Our apartment is about a 30-minute walk from the university, which means two things: 1) my alarm goes off at 6 a.m. – at least, the first alarm does – and 2) I have no hope of ever arriving on time.
It’s good to be working on the language again, though my plans are still a bit too vague to know whether it’ll do me any good after December. The one unpleasant factor? Bichmel Uceg, my mortal enemy, has reemerged with a vengeance. The term “bichmel uceg” refers to “written words,” sort of the Cyrillic version of cursive. When one of our summer language teachers attempted to write lessons in these tricky letters, our six-person class of Pitt students rebelled and insisted she return to the block letters (“parmal uceg”) that we had learned in the spring. Unfortunately, I don’t have the majority this time. My Chinese and Korean classmates (about three Chinese students, seven Korean students, an older Australian guy and I fill the classroom) have yet to really learn the block letters, so I’m stuck going with the majority. Just to give you a taste, the handwritten letter for T – one of the merciful few that actually looks the same in block Cyrillic and Roman letters – is a cursive “m” in this troublesome handwriting. Go figure.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

School's in, summer's out

The start of school has arrived in my life, as has a rather nasty cold. I'm doing alright, though the sparkling wine we drank with the students to celebrate the start of the school year at the Press Institute (where I've achieved intern-faculty status as an English teacher) didn't mesh well with the Niquil I've been popping throughout the day. Kind of a fuzzy feeling all over, thought it seems concentrated in my brain. I thought I'd be healthy/tough enough not to need any daytime cold medicine. I thought wrong, but I'm finding comfort in hot tea and cold ice cream. Not a bad treatment, regardless of whether it makes me feel less sick.
Tuesday night marked the unofficial end of summer here. I'm not sure if it was the way the wind blew that evening or the effects party we'd just had, but when one of my roommates said he thought we'd seen our last summer day, we all knew he was right. Appropriately, the next day was blustery and very wet. Today was beautiful but chilly. I hear autumn's beautiful in Mongolia, so I'll try to enjoy all of the short season while I can. I have a feeling the winter will blow in as decisively as fall did.
As the national First Day of School draws to a close, I think I've realized one thing: If all of Mongolia celebrates the first day of school like the Press Institute does, with sparkling wine and no classes, we stand to learn a lot from Mongolia.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Fort Ulaanbaatar reoccupied

Greetings, everyone! From here on out, it's just going to be you and me. The fate of your blog-reading enjoyment is not in particularly skilled hands - in fact, this is the first time I've posted on a blog. As the only member of team GQK Memorial Summer Camp remaining for Round 2: GQK Memorial Fall Camp, however, it looks like you're stuck with me.
I got back in Ulaanbaatar safely on Friday night, after a delightful direct flight from DC to Seoul and an evening jaunt from Seoul to UB. Time spent standing in lines in Beijing's airport: about 5 1/2 hours. Time spent standing in lines in Seoul's airport: about 25 minutes. Should you ever need a flight to Ulaanbaatar, I'd recommend Korean Air.
The past few days have mostly been spent settling in. Taking care of tuition and registration seemed a lot more time-consuming and complicated than necessary, and at first I attributed this to the way most things work in Mongolia. Reflecting on my experience registering back at Pitt in the days before I returned, however, I think this is one area where Mongolia is competing admirably with the American system.
It's still a little weird to be here without any of my five Pitt comrades, but I guess I'll start getting used to it. It's also been strange seeing all the friends we made here this summer - as if they were also out of another time and don't belong in this one. I've really appreciated all the help and companionship our friends here have offered, though, and I consider myself quite lucky.
I'll try to keep regular postings about my progress here. Until then, know that the base is no longer unmanned.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I don't like Chicago's floors

I'm in back in Pittsburgh. As the last member of GQKMSC to return from Mongolia I was begining to feel like the summer would never end, all in good ways of course :)
My last week was spend diging pitt toilets at Shank Monestary in West Centeral Mongolia. Mongolian Monestaries are in pretty bad shape, most were destoryed in 1931 as the communist government attempted to break the monestarie's regional controll. Old monks were murdered, middle age ones sent to work camps in Siberia and those under 14 were allowed to return home. Now, 70 years later, it is the youngest group of monks who have returned to the monestaries to rebuild the structures and help with community programs.
I was interning for the Cultural Restoration Project. The program brings western tourists to work on monestaries for two weeks at a time and uses the tourist's program costs to employ a team of locals to restore wood work, roofs, fences ect. While I was there we layed the foundation for a new school and dug a composting pit toilet. While not the most amusing subject the toilets are really important in Mongolia. In the country side most toilets are just pits, and when dug too deep (as they always are) run a serious risk of contaminating the ground water and attracting all sorts of pests. The 'new' toilets can be cleaned out everyyear, and when filled with sawdust are able to compost everything in them...not nearly as smelly.
The program also had a vegan cook, which was amazing for Mongolia. I ate better in the last week then I did all summer...even better than Sarah's cakes.
The rest of my stay in Mongolia was spent in the city, playing with artifacts and packing for the return home. Although I spent 5 hours on the runway in Beijing (after and 8 hour layover) and then the night trying to sleep on the floor at Chicago's airport, I made it home safe and sound this morning. I'll see everyone soon, unless your in mongolia, then you have to wait untill may. Till then ~Allison

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Bayertai, Baby
(Or: Taking the Country By Strohm)

    Foolish Mortals, People of Earth, and other friends of the GQKMSC team:
This will most likely be the last post I make from Mongolia. The adventure that started nearly three months ago is coming to a close. I have worked in a Mongolian hospital, I have seen the Gobi, and most importantly, I have heard a Mongolian bar band play Bob Dylan favorites while the sun dipped behind the Ulaan Bataar skyline. They later played a Spanish guitar version of Happy Birthday, but I think everyone there pretty much agreed to pretend it never happened.
    I am proud to announce that though this is my last post from Mongolia, it will not be Team GQKMSC's last post. Our fearless and intrepid advocate for free press and open society, J. Elizabeth Strohm, will be returning to the empire of Genghis Khan for the fall semester. Upon her return, she will be taking over blog duties for the team and will keep the adventure going for us all.
    I want to keep this short, as I've never been particularly good at goodbyes. This has been a wonderful trip, both on a personal and a professional level. Though I didn't accomplish all I had hoped to, I believe I return to the United States with a much more realistic understanding of the sheer difficulty of undertaking public health projects in the developing world. This trip would not have been possible without the support, guidance, and masterful kung-fu instruction of the University Honors College. If you're interested in the UHC and their other activities, check them out at or stop by. Strange and wonderful things are afoot on the 35th and 36th floors of the Cathedral. If you've been reading this blog and are interested in joining the adventure in the future, please don't hesitate to contact myself ( or the UHC for further details.
   This will turn into an endless list of thank-yous and goodbyes if I don't stop at some point, and this seems as good a place as any to do so. One last thing: if you ever find yourself in a little Gobi town called Sainshend, wait until dark and then look up at the sky. I won't give it away here, but trust'll knock your dell off.
    This is Akshar Abbott, signing off. You stay classy, Ulaan Bataar.