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adventures in Mongolia

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the coldest I’ve ever been

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I’ll remember this year’s Friday the 13th because of a spade of bad news, but I’ll remember the day after too. Went hiking on the Bogd Khan mountain (one of 4 mountains surrounding UB) for 5 hours in minus 30 degree C weather.

Snow flowers on Bogd Khan

on a very interesting sidenote, Mongolians play Mafia too! albeit a slightly different version. played it on the bus ride there… and it was one of my 2 contributions to moments of general hilarity.

i was the only foreigner/native english speaker on the trip, and happened to be the police for one round of Mafia. the narrator, while trying to get my attention during the “night session” of the game, when everyone else’s eyes are closed except for the police’s said – “Look at me!” in English. which of course was a dead giveaway for who exactly was the policeman…

the second moment is summed up below.

c’est moi

i was shivering like crazy on the mountain top, and this documents how my colleagues bundled me up with a sleeping bag and an extra jacket. didn’t help that much though! cold is cold.


Written by j

November 17, 2009 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Mongolia

the people who borrow

with 2 comments

today my envy of other kiva fellows faded because i finally, finally got to meet kiva borrowers.

there is a certain sadness that most of these borrowers have. for some it’s buried deep beneath stoicism and the victories of subsequent success, but for others it’s brimming at the surface, and you get the feeling that one more slight push would send them into the chasm. when i take their photos, they never smile – and i thought of asking them to, but i don’t want to if there’s nothing to smile about. the truth is, life has been hard for them.

kiva lenders may think they are doing a great thing (and they are doing a good thing of course), but these borrowers don’t get the benefit of the 0% interest rate, and to them, they aren’t being done any favors – because who knows what they had to get through to make those repayments back in full and on time, with interest added. they certainly don’t owe anyone anything, and because of that, when i intrude on their lives with a video and a huge camera, i feel somewhat ashamed.

but it’s not all grey of course. so many in the microfinance industry are in it because they hope, as do i. and the borrowers i met, they do laugh, but don’t necessarily dream. the reality is that for many, loans are required for survival or working capital, not necessarily to step up or make a significant game-changing investment. consequently, default rates in the microfinance world are lower than those in the mainstream commercial world, because these borrowers need to repay to get the next loan, and the next, and the next. and perhaps that’s why some of them are willing to go on video, get their photographs taken, answer questions… even though they might not necessarily want to – because they don’t want to risk losing their line of credit.

i realize this post sounds a bit morose, only because one particular borrower made such an impression on me.  soft-spoken, it isn’t in her nature to fight. but she has to, because she has two young sons to feed – a little red-faced baby was sleeping soundly on the single bed she had, and her other son, no more than 6, was watching a dubbed version of LOTR while doing homework. the downfall of socialism 20 years ago meant the closure of a lot of government-run factories, and she lost her job. so now she sits in her dimly lit ger, sewing grey gloves, hoping to find a mass buyer.

hers is the sadness that threatens to overflow.


where i went today: the Chingeltey ger district

lastly, a bit about my translator. when we came to this region he said, “you never want to come here. this is where all the poor people live.” he also came 40 minutes late to our appointment with the branch manager and staff… because he was having lunch after class. there’s also a certain smugness that he has, because he speaks English and is apparently rich and well-connected. all his family work in the government, and he roundly (he is round) tells me that he is able to get out of mandatory national service (army) because of connections and bribery. to top it off, he is very proud of the fact that most of what he wears or owns was bought overseas. can you tell what i’m thinking?? nevertheless, he is helping me for free (albeit receiving internship credit)… so i shall leave it at that.

Written by j

November 4, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Posted in Kiva, Mongolia

excerpts pertaining to M

with 3 comments

notable quotes from recent reads…

Ulaanbaatar is possibly the coldest capital city in the world.

– Michael Kohn, Lonely Planet Mongolia, p14

as a testament to the point above, it snowed on wednesday for the first time since summer… and it’s only early october.

The Mongols loved competitions of all sorts, and they organized debates among rival religions the same way they organized wrestling matches… Their debate ranged back and forth… No side seemed to convince the other of anything. Finally, as the effects of the alcohol became stronger, the Christians gave up trying to persuade anyone with logical arguments, and resorted to singing. The Muslims, who did not sing, responded by loudly reciting the Koran in an effort to drown out the Christians, and the Buddhists retreated into silent meditation. At the end of the debate, unable to convert or kill one another, they concluded the way most Mongol celebrations concluded, with everyone simply too drunk to continue.

– Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, p172-173

absolutely hilarious stuff.

Mongolians are lazy and (insert negative adjective that i’ve forgotten). Would you describe yourself as so?

– Mongolian Airlines In-flight Magazine, Interview question for J. O- a prominent Mongolian businesswoman

WOW. all I can safely say is that Mongolians are extremely candid.


Why have economists remained silent while banks rejected the poor as unworthy of credit? Nobody can provide a convincing answer. Because of this silence and indifference, banks have imposed a financial apartheid and gotten away with it. If economists would only recognize the powerful socioeconomic implications of credit, they might recognize the need to promote credit as a human right.

– Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the Poor, p150

go kiva.

Written by j

October 16, 2009 at 5:47 pm

Posted in Mongolia

the place between Russia and China

with 4 comments

here’s where i’m at: Map of Mongolia i wanted to write a before and after just so you can hear my drawn breath of anticipation / trepidation in between…

before: 9:30am EST on Friday, Oct 9th i realize no one knows a lot about Mongolia… therefore i can make up absolutely anything and people will believe me. haha case in point. (some of the following are actually true)

  1. there is a mongolian mythical creature called the Mongolian Death Worm which is purportedly found in the Gobi Desert, grows up to 5 ft long, and spews sulfuric acid which makes it deadly to men
  2. Genghis Khan’s father wasn’t his mother’s first husband
  3. mongolians historically have been nomads, and hence do not farm; therefore amongst many other things their vegetables are made-in-china
  4. there is another mongolian mythical creature in the Kharyagas lake which is roughly equivalent to the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland
  5. there is a Louis Vuitton store in the capital
  6. there still exists barter trade in Mongolia. I am for instance, trying to use 24 cans of xxx as currency. (am not revealing exactly what because i don’t want it to devalue. j/k)

turning to more mundane matters, in the next 35 hours starting at 4:30pm EST i will take 3 flights, have 2 layovers, be in 4 airports (Boston>LA>Seoul>Mongolia), before arriving in Ulaanbataar. hopefully it’ll go like clockwork.

after: roughly 3pm on Sunday, October 11th (Mongolian time is exactly 12 hours ahead of EST)

Landing in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

time to be a Kiva fellow.

Written by j

October 13, 2009 at 5:16 am

Posted in Mongolia