If you were to ever meet me (or if you already have), one of the first things you might notice is that I have a lot of questions. And then you’d probably get annoyed because I am terrible at holding in those questions. Whether it was on my cohort’s Facebook group or in training sessions with Peace Corps staff, you could always count on me to raise my hand at least once … or thrice.
But if you have got a question, the door is wide open! I love to answer questions as equally as I love to ask them. Since last year’s Blog It Home competition, I’ve started getting more emails from readers and it’s been an absolute delight. So even though I’m an RPCV, I hope I can still offer you some advice or allay your concerns. Don’t hesitate to write if you’ve got something on your mind.
Quick note though: remember that my experience isn’t representative of all Peace Corps Mongolia and more importantly, what it might be like for you. It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot as a candidate and trainee, but “It really depends on your site/country.”
If you’re super nervous about what’s to come, the best thing you can do for yourself is to have no expectations. You might love it, hate it, or have a complicated love/hate relationship like many of us do. Be open to it all. And also know that you will learn so much during your Pre-Service Training. You will have plenty of chances to talk to staff and volunteers before swearing-in as a volunteer yourself.
For future Mongolia volunteers, here are six questions I bet you’re curious about:
How cold does Mongolia actually get?
Yes, winter in Mongolia is cold but not so much that it should make or break your decision to join. You will adapt quickly and learn how to dress properly. Also, winter in Mongolia is long but it’s not depressing – you will still see plenty of sunshine.
If you’re worried about what winter gear to bring, know that you will be able to find good-quality cashmere, wool, felt, and fur products in country. My personal favorites were yak/camel wool socks ($5), camel wool leggings ($20-40), and cashmere blend sweaters ($100-200). I also bought my Made-in-China winter coat (pictured above) in Ulaanbaatar in early November for about $90. It’s the best winter coat I’ve ever owned. I even brought it back to Ohio with me.
Some apparel I brought from home: Smartwool underlayers, my alpaca fur hat, GAP scarves, knee-high socks, wind-proof pants, LL Bean waterproof boots.
Have you found that you gained weight due to your new diet? Mongolian food consists of a lot dairy, how has that affected you? Do you have clean drinking water?
I ate fairly well at site but I also made a huge effort to have a fully stocked kitchen. I also learned how to cook new dishes and had my parents send stuff that I couldn’t find. Nowadays though, Mongolia is catching up quickly. You’ll be able to find just about everything in Ulaanbaatar. By the time I left, the stores at my site were stocking mozzarella, broccoli, ginger, western cereals, and Nutella on the regular. Of course the choice isn’t as great as in America but it’s not so bad that you have to live on rice and potatoes for two years. The smaller sites usually don’t have stuff beyond basic pantry items, but these soum volunteers travel to their provincial capital to stock up.
I gained a little weight during my two years but I was more sad about muscle loss. Having access to a nearby gym or being able to run outside without being harassed by other humans or stray dogs is a luxury that I had never thought about until Mongolia. One thing I’m glad I brought was downloaded yoga videos. Check out YogaDownload.com if you’re interested.
And yes, I had a lot of dairy during my service. I mostly ate yogurt and milk in my home and would only have the Mongolian dairy products when I visit Mongolian friends or families (or during Pre Service Training when I was living with a host family).
Finally, Peace Corps issues water jugs that filters water from the well, river or tap depending on your living situation.
What is the time line for Peace Corps Mongolia? Do you know which provinces volunteers go to and when they go to them?
If you’re interested in serving in Mongolia, I recommend looking for the application on PeaceCorps.gov in summer or early fall. At the time of writing, there is only one cohort per year in Education or Health and they leave in late May/early June.
Pre-Service Training (PST) will take place throughout the summer. This is the time to decide whether Peace Corps is right for you. Once you swear-in as a volunteer in August, your community members will have been notified and will be looking forward to your arrival. So take PST seriously and think hard about whether you can and want to commit to the next two years.
In terms of permanent placement, you could end up anywhere in Mongolia. You could be placed in a big city, a provincial capital or small village. These are preferences you should share during your PST interviews. Once you get to site, you’ll have about 3-6 site mates who might be anywhere from a 10-minute walk to 1-3 hours away by car. I had two site mates and two province mates both years.
In terms of language and culture, Mongolia is pretty uniform throughout. The only exception is a province called Bayan Olgii which is predominantly Kazakh and Kazakh-speaking. The volunteers in Bayan Olgii have to learn, work and live in Kazakh. Very few volunteers per cohort get sent to this province and that is entirely up to Peace Corps Mongolia staff. One thing to note is that Bayan Ulgii volunteers get very limited exposure to Kazakh culture and language before going out there; they just have to pick it up once they arrive. The reason for this is they don’t know they’re going to Bayan Olgii until site placements which happens just a few days before the end of PST. If you want to read more about serving in Bayan Olgii, check out the excellent blog Learning to Think by M26 Renee Melton.
Did you know of any volunteers who were able to go horseback riding near their permanent sites?
Something to know about ridable horses in Mongolia is that they’re just barely broken. They’re still pretty wild and the families that herd horses only have a few that can be ridden safely. The rest are used for dairy and meat. So it can be difficult to find a horse that can be ridden by a stranger without supervision and isn’t currently needed for herding responsibilities.
The times I rode in Mongolia were usually at tourist sites/camps and a handful of times in the countryside while visiting Mongolian families. Even then, the horse did what it wanted or someone was walking us on a lead. If you’re a countryside volunteer, you might have better luck. Another option is doing what my boyfriend always joked about, buying a meat horse and keeping it for equestrian purposes.
Pro packing tip: You’re required to ride with a helmet so if you want to take advantage of every opportunity, definitely bring your own riding/biking helmet!
What is your best advice for teaching English in Mongolia? Should I bring my own resources?
Is there anything you would have wanted to know before applying to Peace Corps Mongolia? Would you do it again?
I don’t regret my decision to join Peace Corps at all. In fact, I’m very, very happy I did it. I got a lot out of my experience both professionally and personally.
Professionally, I think Peace Corps is a great option for people interested in working or living abroad. PC offers the support and structure you need to cope with your first time immersed in a new culture. Some people adjust pretty quickly though and can feel restrained by all the rules of Peace Corps; others find it reassuring to know that someone has got their back if things go badly.
I don’t know if there is anything I would have wanted to know before joining Peace Corps Mongolia. I’ll reiterate that the most productive thing you can do for yourself is to accept and be open to anything and everything. Don’t “want” things to happen or not happen and let go of the idea that your way is the only way.
While I probably wouldn’t do Peace Corps a second time, I am open to Peace Corps Response which offers shorter and more specific assignments around the world. I also plan to live abroad again either in teaching or education development. These are ideas that I wouldn’t be entertaining if it weren’t for my time in Peace Corps. And for that, I’m grateful because it feels like two short years later, the whole world has opened up to me.