my new home is the gobi

August 17, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

Yesterday, I received some exciting news: my two-year site location has just about everything that I could have hoped for. I have the privilege of moving to the provincial center of the south Gobi, Dalandzadgad, an area famous for its dinosaur remains and old temples. Even though I’ll be in a desert climate, the terrain is varied with mountains and trees nearby. My housing situation has positive qualities of two worlds; I’ll be living in a ger (yurt), so I’ll have the chance to get a traditional aesthetic and experience the arduous labor of maintaining a ger in the winter. But, at the same time, I’ll be living in a town of about 20,000, so I’ll get the benefits of accessing a diversity of imported foods – a luxury that usually isn’t available in the small villages. One thing I’m excited to try is camels’ milk; I’ve been told that it’s delicious and easily accessible. Also, I’m pleased by the fact that the south Gobi is the warmest region of Mongolia. “Warmest” is a relative term, but maybe the average day in the winter will be like negative 20 instead of negative 40 degrees. I suppose that when it’s necessary to spend several hours of every day building fires and keeping a consistent supply of chopped wood, coal and dung, every difference counts.

As far as my job goes, I’ll be working at an organization called the Vocational Training Center (you can check out its website at The institution offers 13 different degrees for specialized skills such as hairdressing, mining rehabilitation and furniture carpentry. My primary responsibilities will include developing English curriculum, training English teachers, and tutoring students in conversational English. One of the reasons why the college needs English speakers is that the biggest coal mine in Mongolia is right next to my site, and the provincial center is aiming to provide mining companies with an English-speaking workforce. The mining industry is consistently changing the economic, political and environmental landscape of Dalandzadgad (probably for better and for worse), and I’m curious to see what sorts of issues come up and what sorts of projects my counterparts will feel a need to work on. I have a feeling that the combination of roaming camels, desert sands and an enormous mining industry will constitute a fascinating living experience.

So, that’s been the latest big news among the PCVs; everyone’s bustling with excitement about the cities, provincial centers or villages they’re going to and whether they’re living in an apartment, wooden house or ger. The site placement announcements were like an even more exciting cap to an already exciting conclusion of pre-service training – passing our language proficiency exams and interviews to swear-in as a fully trained PCV. But, let me step back a little. I feel that because there was no internet in Shaamar (my training site) for the past month or so, I should give an update on how the second half of training went.

As part of our training, we were required to teach ten English lessons to students who, after we wrote advertisements and spread them around the village, voluntarily showed up. I had a good time getting to know the students, and I’ve discovered (or perhaps already knew) that my teaching style thrives the most when I play as many games as possible. After practice teaching, it was cool to walk around the village and see kids, maybe playing volleyball or basketball on the paths outside, turn around and yell, “Hi Joeeeeee!” (emphasis on the extra “eeeeee” syllable).

In addition to teaching, Peace Corps gave us the responsibility to conduct a community development project. Myself and 3 other PCVs wanted to focus on unemployment because at the beginning of the summer, many of our host families identified it as a serious problem in Shaamar. We decided to facilitate a village-wide seminar on unemployment, hoping that people would show up and brainstorm ways to create jobs in the community. Although the meeting was not well-attended, the governor came, and if anything, it was a great learning experience for the Americans. We talked about how focusing on “unemployment” (or our conception of the word) maybe isn’t the most helpful approach because the nature of employment in Mongolia is completely different from that of the US. In rural Mongolia, employment is much more seasonally based (when you can grow and sell vegetables), and the culture is often much more reliant on barter and trade (e.g. if you can fix my car, I can keep you stocked in dairy products for a while). I think that problems arise when farmers are out of work for portions of the year, or there is a lack of will/motivation to produce trade-able commodities, or when issues of alcohol abuse come into play. When I get to site, I hope to attentively observe the conditions of employment and listen to what people have to say about how those conditions could be improved.

I think that my time this summer has been educational both in terms of technical knowledge from Peace Corps, but also in terms of less explicit education that comes solely through experience. For example, I learned what it feels like to hold a cow udder and milk it (it was surprisingly difficult and required a particular strength and finesse). I also learned what it feels like to get food poisoning and spend a 24-hour period running back and forth between bed and the outhouse. I’m not really eager to do that again.

Through everything, I look back on the summer fondly; on one of our last nights in Shaamar, a big group of the Americans and our host families watched the sunset by the river, chatted, clowned around and ate some grilled goat limbs. Now, time is moving forward, and I’m about to get a big taste of what desert life is like. This Friday, all of the 68 trainees who came in this year are having a swearing-in ceremony in which we’ll officially become Peace Corps Volunteers (it might even be on Mongolian National Television). I’ll be doing two performances: one is a traditional Mongolian dance and the other is a mash-up of a traditional Mongolian song with a new-school hip-hop remix. “Street Meets Steppe” is the title.

I miss everyone back home and think about home all the time. Sometimes, I have dreams that combine elements of my life back home with Mongolia. In one of them, I turned the corner of a dirt road to see my housemates from last year–Kai, Cam, Dan, and Andrew–sitting outside of a ger milking cows. After they said, “Hey, what’s up, man?” I woke up with a happy and disoriented smile.

Much love,



Entry Filed under: Uncategorized

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Ross Eustis&hellip  | 

    Great to read, man. I’ll be following you, got you on my Google Reader, che-ya. I’m sending your blog link to woman living in Seattle whose from the capital of Mongolia. She’s good friends with a Nepalese woman living as a homestay with my folks through the NGO EarthCorp.
    / Ross

  • 2. Bev Holman&hellip  | 

    Thank you so much for the update. It brightens our day to hear from you and see your wonderful writing. It is good to have an image of where you will be. You touch our hearts.
    Love, Bev and Sabin

  • 3. Sarah LOWE&hellip  | 

    Joe what wonderful thorough writing. I really get a sense of what life is like for you. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. Loved your dream- your unconscious bringing your friends to you.
    love, aunt sarah

  • 4. Donna&hellip  | 

    Joe, Amedee has a great recipe for camel’s milk pudding. It’s mind blowing just trying to imagine your reality right now. But it’s great to be able to picture you there. ~ Donna

  • 5. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, You are such a good writer and I enjoy your stories tremendously. I’m so glad you will have internet access so we can keep in touch more often. I’m so proud of you and love you so much. mom

    • 6. Tom Wheeler&hellip  | 


      Your Mongolian students and friends will feel the same way your family and friends back home do — lucky to have you. Your writing has both soul and craft, always a pleasure to read. We couldn’t be more proud.


  • 7. enki&hellip  | 

    Once you get used to sleeping in a ger, it’ll become very hard for you to sleep anywhere else . Make sure to raise the “хаяа” (side-wall?) during the summer to let in the breeze :).


  • 8. geoff&hellip  | 

    “clowned around and ate some grilled goat limbs.”

  • 9. Elan&hellip  | 

    Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong, Dalandzadgad, Gobi Desert, oh take me home, those country roads!!!

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