once upon a time, it got cold. then, it stayed cold.

December 5, 2011 wheelerinmongolia

Life is getting busy. While I’m not teaching English lessons, I usually either study Mongolian, do some sort of personal health maintenance activity like exercise or housecleaning, or keep in touch with someone and attempt to explain the intricacies of this experience: the beauties and frustrations, highs and lows, victories and failures. Free-time is becoming so valuable that sometimes I have to allow myself to not answer my phone and the dozens of random questions about English vocabulary and grammar. I think that being this busy is a good thing though, so long as I keep smiling throughout the process.

The power outages remain relentless. In the past 6 days, I’ve had electricity for a few hours each morning, but not at all at night. Although frustrating and inconvenient, it has become something I joke about, and my buddy Rob who lives in a village about 2 hours away can relate to the struggles of having a faulty power plant (last May, he went almost an entire month without power). The other night, I had a dream that combined two distinct time periods of my life. I was at a pub in Germany that I used to go to during my study abroad experience, but everyone in the pub was speaking Mongolian and saying “tog baihgui!” (power’s out!). I think I woke up with a big smile on my face.

The biggest event that I’ve gotten to experience recently was the Peace Corps Thanksgiving celebration in Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar (UB). To get there, I took a 15-hour bus ride which wasn’t exactly an experience I’m looking forward to repeating, but still it was pretty hilarious. Practically none of the roads in the Gobi are paved, and since I was sitting on the back of the bus, I was getting major air every time we hit a big bump. It was like being on an inner-tube strapped to a motor boat doing figure 8s and flying off the wake, except rather than an inner-tube I was squeezed on half a seat between two fairly robust men. The bus broke down a few times, which I was actually thankful for because I could rest my body. We also made a few stops at some small cafes on the side of the road. A monk cut me in line while I was trying to get some huushuur (fried pockets of meat), which was unexpected. The passengers also passed the time by breaking out in several song sessions, a nice backdrop to the bumpy desert excursion.

I consider UB to be a world in and of itself within Mongolia. I guess it’s analogous to comparing a big city in the states to a small, rural town, insofar as the sights, sounds, business and availability of goods is completely different. I definitely took advantage of the opportunity to indulge in a variety of food from nice restaurants. The temperature is starting to drop well below zero, and it really hit me for the first time in UB while I was sliding around the city in my adidas. Next time, imma wear some boots!

On my first day in UB, my friend Alison Boland, who lives there now, took me to see the biggest monastery in Mongolia. She explained some of the Buddhist traditions and practices such as walking around the perimeter of the monastery and spinning  these gold-colored, rotating cylinders full of books (I forgot the appropriate name) three times to acquire the wisdom from within them. Then, we got to go inside and sit in on a session of monks chanting and praying. On both ends of the monastery, there was a monk blowing into a long, thin horn, about twice the height of my older brothers. There were several drums being played around the room, and the chanting was both discordant and beautiful. It had a heavy rhythm, and I found myself kind of closing my eyes and nodding to it. Towards the end of the chant, some older monks brought around trays full of cookies and chips to accompany the bowls of airag (fermented mare’s milk), and then basically the monks got their snack on in a big, big way. One monk deliberated his choice between cookies or chips for a really long time before finally jumping up from his seat to grab the cookies.

At the actual Thanksgiving celebration, each volunteer made a dish and brought it, and there were something like 100 people there, so we had a mega-feast. Peace Corps roasted something like 12 turkeys for us. I made a big, green salad, and since lettuce is pretty hard to come by in Mongolia, I think it was well-received. Unexpectedly, about halfway through the festivities, a volunteer named Tim Jenkins, who came to Mongolia last year in the group before me, stood up on a chair to make an announcement. He said that every year at Thanksgiving, the Peace Corps does a tradition called the “Beacon of Hope” where a volunteer who has shown a lot of hard work and dedication to serve gets a funny Christmas sweater passed down to him or her. This year, Tim decided to give the sweater to me, and I couldn’t be grateful enough for that gesture. That was definitely a moment I wont forget.

Other than that, I generally consider life to be a roller coaster of ups and downs with an overall net positive. I had my first real in-depth conversation about politics in Mongolian with a cab driver in UB – made me realize that the language stuff really has come a long way. I’m continuing to do some extra music classes on the weekends with students from my school. Next week, my school director assigned me to be a judge for a singing/dancing competition. I have a feeling I’ll be hearing a lot of “We are the World.” And, I actually get to go back to UB again next week for an in-service training. Stoked about that! The adventure continues.



PS- I just watched a documentary film called “Genghis Blues” that I highly recommend. It’s about a blind American blues musician named Paul Pena who falls in love with the region of Tuva, a small territory bordering Mongolia that is now part of Russia but was an independent state for a few decades in the early 20th century; and, it was the birthplace of multiple-tone “throat singing.” Paul Pena dedicated himself to learning the Tuvan language and learning how to throat sing, and eventually he got to travel to Tuva and perform. It’s pretty cool to see the connections he made with the people there. Also, a lot of the land in Tuva looks similar to the village in Northern Mongolia where I lived over the summer.


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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Barbara&hellip  | 

    I look forward to the photo of you in the ‘cool’ Christmas sweater! Love you, Joe. I think about you every day. (You wouldn’t know it unless the ether waves are working between here and there.) Thanks so much for updating us with these great blog entries.


  • 2. anne lowe&hellip  | 

    Hi Joe, Love your recent blog! I was thinking, maybe you could write a book using these blog entries and then fleshing it out a bit to describe your life in the Peace Corps for two years in Mongolia. Reading a specialized biography like that might be really helpful for future volunteers. Your writing is so wonderful, and really transports us into your experience. Just something that came to me while I was swimming today. Love you, mom

    • 3. Donna&hellip  | 

      Hi Joe ~ thank you for sharing this amazing part of your life with us. I love the monastery story and bus ride. Very evocative writing – I can see you there. We miss you and think of you often. Much love to you. Just so you know….it’s cold here today.

  • 4. thatcuttykid&hellip  | 

    Joe! It’s Toby! I just talked to Elan on the phone and we lamented how much we missed you and were just generally awestruck in talking about how incredibly savagely baller what your doing is. He sent me here and the blog is awesome. hella good anecdotes. It looks like I will be moving to korea to teach english next september so if you are still in Mongolia I would love to try and come visit. miss you hella dude.
    mad love,

  • 5. Elan&hellip  | 


    So many images in this post that made me laugh! I love the notion of everyone in a German pub speaking frustratedly in Mongolian about how the power keeps going out–SO funny. Also, you squeezed in between two “robust” men in the back of the bus! And the monk who, after much deliberation, chooses cookies over chips. What took him so long? Cookies, obviously!

    And, as soon as I began reading that an honor was given out, I knew the identity of the recipient, Mr. Whitman 😉


  • 6. Elan&hellip  | 


    Didn’t have anywhere else to post this, but your @whitman.edu email address is no longer functioning! Please get with the times, create a gmail account and email me ASAP so I can send you awesome stuff, like Isaac Zones’ recent work: http://isaaczones.bandcamp.com/


  • 7. Donella, Deb and Daevon&hellip  | 

    Dear Joe;

    Hi! This is Donella, writing for the “Triple D Ranch”. Yours is the first blog I’ve ever read! Sounds like you are having a life that I can barely fathom. I think I could live w/ power outages, but power outages + cold temperatures…not so much.

    The news on our end of the world is Winter Solstice! Daevon and I went to his godmother’s house for our annual Solstice celebration. Ruby has a 5″ evergreen in a pot that she and her family bring in every year. The highlights of the celebration include one of the younger girls in the extended family (which I’m honestly starting to think includes a quarter of Eugene), coming out w/ a wreath of evergreens on her head, w/ 13 candles placed carefully in the wreath. She comes out w/ a tray of “sweet treats” for everyone. This year it was chocolate and gluten free something. She gives us the treats in the name of the goddess Lucina, and reminds us that, even though we’re beginning winter and in the midst of the longest night of the year, we should remember the sweetness of life, and that the sun is on it’s way back. We also each get a chance to light a small candle to place onto the branches of the tree, with a wish/prayer for the world. It’s really a lovely event and we all have a blast. After the tree lighting, we have a potluck feast, the musicians start filtering in and the hootenanny starts! Do folks out your way celebrate the Solstice?

    Well, try as I might to tone down the whole Christmas madness, Daevon is having none of it. Christmas still rules as far as he is concerned. This year, we’re to have our first Christmas Eve Traditions! We’re gonna gather up the tree decorating accoutrements that we’re not using and pop them back into the shed, neaten up a bit, and start the baking. Daevon has been learning to cook this year, and so he wants to make peppermint bark and jelly rolls. Hopefully, Deb and I will get out to Winco to grab something yummy for dinner, and then we’ll tuck in and spend the day playing games and watching Netflix. It’s been such a busy fall…I think really, we’re all just glad to have some extended time off to just put our feet up and relax–no meetings, no rehearsals, no gigs coming up too soon–nice to just be quiet and enjoying the relative calm of Winter and the extended darkness.

    Daevon went out the other day w/ Dan and Matt and your Dad to the movies, a bite at Cafe Yumm and then some Chess. I think Matt eventually beat him, but according to your Dad, it was a pretty close match. Better practice up and be on your toes for when you come home!

    Hmmm…well, judging by the other replies, maybe I’ve written too much? If you have an email address you can send me, I’ll send you emails instead. Good luck w/ your next trip to UB. Hopefully, you’ll come by some really fluffy pillows for your backside when you’re on the bus again.

    Merry Christmas, Happy Solstice and Happy New Year, Joe! We all love and miss you and are looking forward to more blogs!

    Much Love,
    The Triple D Ranchers

  • 8. Helen W Buckley&hellip  | 

    Dear Joe, Your Dad has sent the link to your blog and reading it is certainly a pleasure. You’re a good writer!
    It struck me that you are very much in the Wheeler family tradition having (and choosing to have) the adventure of exploring Asia. Grandma Wheeler lived with her family (the Hutchins) as a teenager in China, Japan and the Philippines. She attended Yen Ching University in Beijing for a while. In the Philippines she accompanied an Army mapping expedition, riding mules and carrying her own water, into a remote area where she was the first Western woman ever seen by the natives. Of course she did not experience the loneliness you’re having. The tradition is unbroken, with many of us living in the Far East in vastly differing circumstances. I’m looking forward to reading many more installments of your blog. Lots of love, Aunt Helen

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