Posts filed under ‘Mongolia’

Kiva Fellows: Mixing Business with Pleasure

a job that lets you travel across Mongolia... AND play table tennis while you wait at the airport?!

A job that lets you travel across Mongolia… AND play table tennis while you wait at the airport?!

Here in Mongolia, my top priority with XacBank has been to complete borrower verifications (BVs)—visits to 10 randomly selected Kiva clients to ensure that everything in the field checks out with the information reported to Kiva’s San Francisco headquarters. As it happened, the borrowers in my sample were scattered across the country. Here’s a summary of what my month of April looked like:

  • 1 month spent
  • 4,872 km covered
  • 9 borrowers verified
  • 5 aimags traveled to
  • 7 branch offices visited
  • 10 training sessions delivered
  • 35 loan officers and other staff trained
  • 13 top Kiva borrowers recognized
  • 1 television interview completed
  • 67 client waivers checked
  • 2 runaway borrowers chased down
  • 1 Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire
  • 2 beautiful lakes and other sights experienced
  • 4 items delivered via Mongolian messenger service
  • Many kilos of cheese curds (and other nice gifts!) received

I couldn’t help but feel lucky—I knew it would be an eye-opening experience to visit all these different parts of Mongolia. After all, I think most Kiva Fellows are in this as much for the professional experience as for the exposure to new countries and cultures. Why not mix business with pleasure if you can?

Runaway borrowers

I’ve talked before about some of the work that Kiva Fellows do when we visit branch offices during our BVs, but what I didn’t explain was how, in order to successfully complete a BV, the Fellow must meet with every single borrower on the list. If for whatever reason, a borrower is unavaible or nowhere to be found (and that’s happened before!), the sample must be re-drawn and 10 new borrowers must be verified—no matter how close you were to finishing the first set of 10 (and irrespective of how far and long you had to travel to see them). So it’s safe to say that Kiva Fellows sweat it a little when these meetings don’t line up perfectly. And people are often on the move, which can raise some serious logistical challenges sometimes.

Kiva borrower Aibek - what a relief it was when we finally caught up to him!

Kiva borrower Aibek – what a relief it was when we finally caught up to him!

Take Aibek, for instance. Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator at XacBank, booked us flights to go see him in Bayan-Olgiy, the western-most province of Mongolia (flying made sense given that Olgiy, the city centre, is a 3 day drive from UB). She also arranged our accommodations and made plans with the Director to deliver training sessions at the branch office. We were all set to leave on Monday morning, but late in the afternoon of the Friday before, she called me up sounding very serious: ‘Aibek is not in Bayan-Olgiy. He’s in UB right now. I just spoke to the loan officer.’

the plane we took to Bayan-Olgiy

the plane we took to Bayan-Olgiy

The trickiest part was that he was only planning to be in UB for a few days—which meant that by the time we came back from our branch visits in Bayan-Olgiy and Uvs provinces, he would have left already. We couldn’t change our flights, and flying to Bayan-Olgiy a second time was pretty much out of the question. So the best thing to do was to meet in UB during the weekend. We made plans to meet him on Saturday at 10 a.m. in his neighbourhood. We made our way to the east end of the city and waited… No Aibek.

Batzul called the loan officer in Bayan-Olgiy, who then called Aibek, but he wasn’t picking up his phone. We communicated through his wife, who was at home. We waited and waited. No Aibek. We gave up and agreed to try and reschedule.

Our opportunity came that afternoon. Aibek, the loan officer told us, would meet us by the Wrestling Palace at 1 p.m. When we got there we searched in vain for any passers-by who looked like the man in the borrower profile. An hour passed. No Aibek.

But the third time’s a charm, right? On Sunday afternoon I got a call from Batzul—Aibek had been located! We hopped in a taxi and made our way to the west end of the city. We were driven to a desolate, industrial area surrounded by auto body shops, where random vans were parked and people seemed to be waiting around for something. We waited in the safety of the taxi, but when no Aibek appeared, we cautiously stepped out and started asking strangers if they knew of our man. Eventually, one of them pointed us to a van, and lo and behold, Aibek was there!

Bayan-Olgiy

Our first stop in our travels was Bayan-Olgiy. Bayan-Olgiy is a special part of Mongolia: This region is home to the country’s Kazakh minority, giving it a very distinct feel from the moment you arrive. The Kazakhs, who make up some 90% of the population of this province, adhere to Islam (rather than Buddhism, like much of the rest of Mongolia), and the predominant language is Kazakh, not Mongolian (though most people speak both). From my hotel window, I could hear the evening call to prayers.

visiting the main mosque in Olgiy, where 90% of the population practice Islam

visiting the main mosque in Olgiy, where Islam is the main religion

The Kazakhs were first drawn to the high mountain pastures in the region in the mid-1800s, where they let their sheep graze during the summer months. Throughout most of the 20th century, they were an isolated, tight-knit community, and this region is considered even by people in Kazakhstan as the best-preserved example of Kazakh culture. One of the things it’s best known for is the Eagle Festival, which takes place every year in October.

even the houses in Bayan-Olgiy look different than the rest of Mongolia

even the houses in Bayan-Olgiy look different than the rest of Mongolia

I think my Kazakh colleagues were as curious about me as I was about them. I immediately started learning some words in their language. Instead of bayarlalaa for ‘thank you,’ they say rahmed. Amansasbaa is the common greeting, whereas in Mongolian it’s sain bain uu (or more casually, you can say salem in Kazakh). And learning to say tansganmaa huanshtaman (it’s nice to meet you) came in pretty handy several times later on!

with a couple of the colleagues who treated me to lunch

with a couple of the colleagues who kindly treated me to lunch

delivering Kiva training to the staff at the Bayan-Olgiy branch

delivering Kiva training to the staff at the Bayan-Olgiy branch

Having finished our work at the branch quickly, our colleagues took us to see the main mosque in town, followed by a hike up a nearby peak to get a beautiful view of Olgiy, the Altai Mountains, and the river that flows from them. Later, the Branch Director and driver took us on a long and bumpy drive to Tolbo Nuur, a freshwater lake about 50km south of the city centre. Though it was still frozen, it was amazing to see a body of water (there aren’t many in Mongolia!).

taking in the landscapes on our way to the lake

taking in the landscapes on our way to the lake

the driver, the Branch Director, and Batzul at Tolbo Nuur

our driver, the Branch Director, and Batzul at Tolbo Nuur

Next stop: A visit to the Branch Director’s extended family living in the countryside! True to Kazakh/Mongolian hospitality, they welcomed us warmly and prepared a massive and delicious feast for us. It’s customary for people in Mongolia to welcome strangers—locals and foreigners alike—into their homes and feed them. It stems from their nomadic history, in which families would help other people who were passing through the area, or receive visitors from different parts of the country (for example, the capital) and exchange news with them. It’s a beautiful aspect of the culture here.

the Kazakh family who welcomed us into their home

the Kazakh family who welcomed us into their home

the feast that they prepared for us (top) and our driver carving up 4 different types of meat (bottom)

the feast that they prepared for us (above) and our driver carving up 4 different types of meat (below)

IMG_7056

a horse and its foal that the family owns

a horse and its foal that the family owns

On our way back to Olgiy, we soaked in the peaceful landscapes of the countryside…

wild swans taking flight

wild swans taking flight

cows grazing by the water

cows grazing in the quiet evening

IMG_7078

the moon rising over the countryside

A picnic at Uvs Nuur

By midweek, we were bidding farewell to our new friends in Bayan-Olgiy and boarding another plane, this time bound for Uvs. We were welcomed at the airport by a small crew, and no sooner did we arrive at the branch than we got down to business. Client waivers, visits to borrowers, loan officer training—check, check, check! Then the branch staff treated us to a warm welcome dinner at a nearby Korean restaurant. We were starting to feel like royalty!

the Kiva borrowers who were recognized by XacBank

the Kiva borrowers who were recognized by XacBank

The following morning, we had certificates and tokens of appreciation to hand out to 5 Kiva borrowers who had repaid their loans on time (or early). It turned out that the Branch Director had invited the local television crew to film the small ceremony! They asked me to say a few words about Kiva, so I was happy to talk about the good work Kiva and XacBank are doing. It aired on the evening news that night. I guess that makes me famous in Mongolia!

Batzul with the Branch Director (left) and two staff members from the Uvs branch

Batzul with the Branch Director (left) and two staff members from the Uvs branch

Next on the agenda was a trip to Uvs Nuur, a saltwater lake that is the largest in Mongolia. Lucky us! We followed a road for part of the trek but veered off after a while to avoid muddy areas where our SUV could get stuck. We zigzagged across an open field and eventually made it to the water’s edge, where Mongolians love to come and take a dip in the summertime. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and we took in the warm rays as we sat idly by the water’s edge and enjoyed the picnic our colleagues had packed for us. We couldn’t have spent a nicer time in Uvs!

Lake Tolbo

Uvs Lake

Business owners, an ancient monument and a stolen dinosaur

The following week, we hit the road for two more aimags, Arkhangai and Bayanhongor.

driving along a Mongolian superhighway

driving along the Mongolian superhighway from Arkhangai

some stretches of the road where you don't want to get stuck!

some stretches of the road where you don’t want to get stuck!

seems sturdy enough for our SUV, right?

seems sturdy enough for our SUV, right?

There, we had the opportunity to meet some borrowers who told us about their businesses. It’s always rewarding to make the connection between the borrower profiles on Kiva’s website and the people who are actually behind them. It’s also nice to see microcredit working effectively. These lovely ladies passed along their thank you’s to their Kiva lenders… Allow me to introduce them.

Byambahuu, who runs a produce and variety stand at the local market in Tsetserleg - and the recipient of a 9% interest incentive recognition award

Byambahuu is standing in front of her produce and variety stand at the local market in Tsetserleg. She was recognized by XacBank for her efforts to repay her loan on time, getting back 9%  of the amount she paid in interest deposited back into a savings account.

Oyunchimeg has a dairy stand at the local market in Tsetserleg, where she sells cheese curds and other milk products. She makes some of these products herself, while the rest she purchases from nomadic herders in the countryside.

Oyunchimeg has a dairy stand at the local market in Tsetserleg, where she sells cheese curds and other milk products. She makes some of these products herself, while the rest she purchases from nomadic herders in the countryside.

Munhdelger sells a variety of housewares and other goods at the outdoor section of the local market in Tsetserleg.

Munhdelger sells a variety of housewares and other useful household goods at the outdoor section of the local market in Tsetserleg.

Gerelmandah is a tailor who takes custom orders to make beautiful traditional Mongolian clothing, such as deels (below). It's a trade that was passed on to her by her mother, and one which she is now passing on to her own daughter.

Gerelmandah is a tailor in Bayanhongor who takes custom orders to make beautiful traditional Mongolian clothing, such as deels (below). It’s a trade that was passed on to her by her mother, and one which she is now passing on to her own daughter.

IMG_7756

While visiting these aimags, we also learned about some of Mongolia’s rich natural history. Not far from Tsetserleg, Arkhangai’s city centre, is Taikhar Chuluu, a large rock formation that juts out in the middle of a wide plain. Legend has it that a snake emerged from the earth one day, many moons ago, and a hero named Bökebilig forced it back and sealed off its cave with this rock. The rock has been revered by various civilizations since ancient times, as evidenced by the Mongolian, Tibetan, and Turkic inscriptions which can be found on it (the latter which dates back to the 6th century AD, although sadly, most of the inscriptions have been overwritten by modern-day graffiti).

one has to wonder how this got here... if not for the legend

one would have to wonder how this got here… if not for the legend

And did you know that it’s possible to smuggle a dinosaur out of a country? Luckily, the one that was taken from Mongolia is now on its way home. Bayanhongor, which is part of the Gobi Desert region, is home to some of the incredible dinosaur fossils that have been unearthed since the 1920s. These include many dinosaur eggs and several Velociraptors (which of course you’ll remember from Jurassic Park!). One of the most famous discoveries is of a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops that were locked in battle and frozen in time 80 million years ago. You can also see exhibits such as a nest of newborn baby dinosaurs, and a mother protecting her young at the Natural History Museum in UB—that is, when they’re not out touring the world!

the dry and dusty desert climate of Bayanhongor is also evident in the main city centre

the dry and dusty desert climate of Bayanhongor is also evident in the main city centre

The Mongolian Messenger

I witnessed another curiosity during these BV travels. In a country where there are effectively no street names or real addresses, I’ve been intrigued by how mail gets delivered around here. You may know that the Mongolian Empire had a highly developed mail system at the height of its rule. People have assured me that when they receive mail—that is, anything that cannot be taped to their doors—they are given notices to go pick it up at the nearest postal outlet. Sounds reasonable, right?

But the truth is, Mongolians today have instituted an informal delivery system that would surely do Chinggis Khan proud. My edification began as Batzul and I waited in line at the check-in counter in the UB airport to fly to Bayan-Olgiy. A man was hovering nearby, and finally he approached Batzul. They exchanged a few words in Mongolian; he passed her an envelope, and she took down a phone number. I observed the whole interaction somewhat suspiciously.

‘What was that all about?’ I asked after the man had gone.

‘Oh, he just wants me to deliver something in Olgiy,’ she replied casually. And to my confused stare, she added, ‘It’s the Mongolian Messenger service.’

As if that explained everything! My jaw must have dropped. I started sputtering… What? How? Who?? I was full of questions!

These questions were somewhat cleared up when we arrived in Olgiy. As we stopped for lunch with our branch colleague, Batzul got on the phone and a short while later, a lady walked into the restaurant. Just a few words were exchanged before the envelope was handed over and the lady walked back out. I watched in fascination. ‘How did you know she was the right lady?’ I exclaimed.

‘Because I just talked to her on the phone,’ Batzul answered matter-of-factly.

‘But don’t you need to see her ID or something?’ I persisted.

‘No.’ We resumed eating.

This happened again and again until I finally started to believe in the system. Coming back to UB this time, we walked out of the baggage-claim area of the airport and Batzul delivered another envelope straight into the outstretched hands of a stranger. She knew him by the black shirt he was wearing, she assured me. On the way into the city, our driver stopped along the road from the airport, not once but twice, at seemingly random intersections where our little Messenger hopped out, delivered her goods to waiting recipients, and hopped back into the car. I was blown away.

a typical plane which carries private messages across Mongolia... and a typical messenger who delivers the service

a typical plane which carries private messages across Mongolia… and an example of a messenger who delivers the service

The Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire

Speaking of this Messenger, delivering envelopes isn’t Batzul’s only talent. For the past four months, I’ve had the pleasure of working with her, and for good reason: She is a truly exemplary Kiva Coordinator. We’ve worked closely together, particularly during all of our branch visits for the BVs, and I must say we’ve made a great team. We get our work done quickly and efficiently, and even have time left to have some fun (as you now know).

But it’s not just that. Batzul is an impressive young professional all on her own. She is always on the ball with her Kiva work and manages several other projects on top of that. But the best part about her is that she takes immense pride in her job as a Kiva Coordinator, and also in the fact that her work is impacting the lives of many Mongolians. Whether we are running a training session together, or visiting a borrower, she’s been far more than just a translator. She elaborates by adding anecdotes and lessons from her own stock of experiences, including her interactions with branches, loan officers, and clients, thus adding colour and depth to the messages we deliver. She makes my job as a Kiva Fellow easy!

Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire (left) and the lucky Kiva Fellow who works with her

Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator-Extraordinaire (left) and the lucky Kiva Fellow who works with her

Just as I had thought, the opportunity to see so many different parts of Mongolia for my BVs was fun, rewarding, and incredibly enriching. And I have Batzul, the Kiva borrowers, XacBank, and all the incredible people at the branch offices we met to thank for that—so from the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for a truly amazing experience!

2 June 2013 at 10:30 1 comment

What Green Means in Mongolia

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high on a site where, as legend has it, he found his golden whip

a massive silver statue of Chinggis Khan looms 40m high on a snowy spring morning at Tsonjin Boldog, east of UB

Spring may have arrived in Mongolia, but for two Kiva staff who visited me in April, winter gave one last hurrah and dumped the largest snowfall I’ve seen since being here (a whopping 2 inches!).

If you’ve had a chance to read some of my past blog posts, you’ll already know that winter in Mongolia is a big deal—even for a Canuck like me. (more…)

31 May 2013 at 16:45

Of Baby Animals and Borrowers in Selenge

Spring has arrived in Mongolia! That means warmer weather (afternoons creeping closer and closer to the double digits)… and, of course, baby animals!

I had the opportunity to travel to Selenge aimag (province) last week with XacBank, one of Kiva’s partners in Mongolia. (more…)

13 April 2013 at 04:33

A Glimpse of Microfinance and Urban Poverty in Ulaanbaatar

Kiva loans being promoted at Transcapital

Munkhbayar, the Kiva Coordinator, promoting Kiva loans at Transcapital

Last week I started visiting some of Kiva’s borrowers with Transcapital, one of Kiva’s field partners that I’m working with here in Mongolia. While it was really encouraging to see Transcapital’s enthusiasm for Kiva at the head office as well as its various branch offices around Ulaanbaatar (UB), the new insights I’ve gained on urban poverty—both from these visits as well as just day-to-day life here—have left me perplexed so far, with far more questions than answers.

A short term solution?

Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB

Narantuul, the largest outdoor market in UB (above), and what you’ll find there (below)

vendors at Narantuul market

Our visits began with a stop at Narantuul market, the largest outdoor market in UB where a number of Transcapital’s clients have retail outlets. At a first glance, Narantuul is a colourful and vibrant marketplace where vendors sell everything from food and candy, to winter coats, scarves, belts, jeans, baseball caps, cardboard, and more. It’s the place where Mongolians often go to find cheaper wares, which makes sense considering some of the staggering prices I’ve seen at Ikh Delguur, the State Department Store. We spoke to Bayasgalan, the proud owner of a shop selling winter coats and clothes, a long time client of Transcapital’s, and a Kiva borrower.

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Bayasgalan and her clothing shop

Other vendors watched us with curiosity as we chatted with her, and the mood at the market was lively despite the cold. But my translator friend, whose family had sold candy there, explained to me as we left that pretty much all the vendors there need continual loans to in order to sustain their businesses. Without loans, they can’t operate; but even with loans, they struggle to get ahead… which is anything but encouraging.

Harsh working conditions

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

Kharkhorin market (above) and some of the items for sale (below)

vendors at Kharkhorin market

The next day, we visited Kharkhorin market, UB’s second largest outdoor market, located on the other side of the city. The wares there were slightly different: I saw lots of shoes, but also an eclectic collection of hardware parts, sinks, ropes, tools, and other random second-hand items.

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

Saranchimeg was busy selling her winter boots when we stopped by

We had trouble locating one of the two borrowers we had to meet, so we wandered around for some time looking for her. In the meantime we met and chatted with Saranchimeg, who had used her loan to increase her supply of winter boots. We had been outside for about 45 minutes by the time we finished chatting with her, and I thought my fingers and toes might fall off. It must have been around -25oC that day with the sharp wind whipping through the stalls. But my thoughts were with the market’s vendors who stand out there all day long, day in and day out. My translator friend assured me that, just because they’ve lived in Mongolia their whole lives, it doesn’t make the cold is any easier for them to bear. I was humbled by how hard they work.

The reality for taxi drivers

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

Batbileg, a taxi driver, in the car he purchased with the help of his loan

We also visited with some taxi drivers. While a male taxi driver may not be one of the sexiest loans on Kiva’s website, you should know how hard these people work to support their families, just like anyone else. And for what? Being a taxi driver is a tough way to make a living in UB: A one-kilometre ride will earn a driver about 1,500 Tugriks (or 1.07 USD).

I need a ride, someone... Anyone?

I need a ride, someone… Anyone?

Moreover, the competition is stiff. Since cars have become ubiquitous in Mongolia’s capital, everyone has become a taxi driver. It’s an overhang from the early days of capitalism, when cars were not that common and the city’s residents would help each other out by giving rides. Now, you see people on the streets with their hand out all the time, and it usually only takes a few minutes for a car to pull over.

Another borrower we met lived in one of the outer ger districts, the slums of the city which lack basic services like running water and sanitation. He was middle-aged and had taken out a housing loan, but he told us that he had been a driver under the socialist regime. He explained that he had had much difficulty in finding employment in his profession. Recently, though, he has started applying for driver jobs again. It’s a mystery to me how he has managed to make ends meet over the years.

Survival of the fittest?

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

an elderly lady I often see selling gum and candy on the street, even on the coldest winter days

It’s easy to think that people don’t work because they’re too lazy, or because they simply refuse to accept lower-paying positions. This may be true in some cases. But there may also be more to the issue than meets the eye. Mongolia had its Revolution and transition to a market economy in the early 1990s and it seems the transition was difficult for those who were brought up and educated in the socialist era: Many of their skills and experiences have not translated well in the new economy. While a lot of the leadership I’ve seen in white collar jobs are shockingly young—in their late 20s or early 30s—street and market vendors tend to be in their 50s or older. And for many of them, their wares include no more than a couple handfuls of gum and candy, which can’t possibly bring in that much at the end of the day.

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

some people sell fruit, others sell services such as the use of a telephone or a scale (like this lady here)

Maybe skills training is needed to support these people… or maybe it’s not that simple. Imagine being in your 40s or 50s and getting trained (or competing for jobs) alongside people who are a whole generation younger than you. And the longer you stay out of the workforce, the less confidence you generally have to return to it. One colleague of mine surmised that perhaps self-employment is the way to go for these people.

The fork in the road

Of course, this reflects only one facet of urban poverty here. Another, and perhaps larger, driver is the massive migration of traditional nomadic herders to the capital, as zuuds—extremely harsh winters—have killed off the millions of animals on which they depend for their livelihoods.

Mongolia has gone through some incredible changes over the past several years, thanks to the discovery of the largest unexploited reserve of copper, gold and silver in the world. Roads have appeared where they previously didn’t exist; herders have disappeared from the streets of UB; shiny new buildings have gone up; inflation has gone through the roof. It’s poised to be one of the fastest growing economies in the world in 2013.

There is immense potential for large-scale economic development and poverty alleviation in Mongolia. Microfinance is helping to tie things over, but how the country handles big issues such as corruption will ultimately determine whether the spoils will be shared by many. So far, everything I’ve taken in only seems to have raised more questions. I’ve only scratched the surface in terms of grasping the complex economic factors at work in this country, much less understanding the solutions.

28 March 2013 at 09:00

Mongolia Through the Senses

driving in the countryside

It’s been just over two weeks since I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and there’s been much to take in. I’ve never been anywhere quite so foreign to me, where nothing about the culture, the food, the people, or the language is familiar. Chances are, these things aren’t familiar for many of this blog’s readers either. So for my first post from Mongolia, I’ve decided to take you through my new world through the senses, so you can get an idea of what it’s been like walking around in my shoes (or rather, my heavy winter boots).

The sights

I’ve been walking to work to my three microfinance partners in Ulaanbaatar (UB). Once in a while when I glance up, I’ll catch a glimpse of the beautiful mountains looming just beyond the borders of the city. UB, a sprawling city of 1.2 million, is nestled in the Khan Khentii mountain range. The mountains are covered in snow, although snowfalls are occasional and light throughout the country’s long and chilly winter. Despite the cold, one of the things I’ve loved so far here is how sunny it’s been: Mongolia averages 260 days of sun every year.

walking down Seoul Avenue with Sky Tower ahead

walking down Seoul Avenue with the Blue Sky Tower ahead

UB is a place where old meets new. For example, the Choijin Lama monastery (now museum), built at the turn of the last century, is just a stone’s throw away from the modern Blue Sky Tower. On a visit to the Gandan Monastery one day, one monk interrupted his prayers to answer a call on his cell phone. Throughout the city, old Soviet-style buildings are increasingly becoming flanked by new houses, condominiums, offices, and hotels. Some buildings can be deceiving, though: One apartment I saw had been built only a few short months ago, but resembled a dusty relic from the Cold War era.

inside Gandan Monastery

inside Gandan Monastery

In Mongolia, or at least its capital, status matters. Walking across Sukhbaatar Square in the centre of the city, I see multiple women sporting their Luis Vuitton bags. A glance to the east of the Square will reveal an Emporio Armani and a Burberry store. As I cross the street, I try to avoid colliding with a Hummer or a Lexus SUV.

walking across Sukhbaatar Square toward Parliament House

walking across Sukhbaatar Square toward Parliament House

But perhaps the most striking image for foreigners arriving in the city is the ger districts. Gers are felt-lined tents traditionally inhabited by Mongolian herders in the countryside, but today they are a common sight in the city as well. While gers may have a surprising amount of furniture and modern appliances inside, they also lack basic infrastructure such as running water and sanitation.

outside of a ger

outside of a ger

inside a ger used by vacationers in the countryside

inside a ger used by vacationers in the countryside

The smells

The coal stoves used to heat gers are one of the main contributing factors to UB’s notoriety as one of the world’s most polluted cities. The coal power plants that fuel the city are also a culprit. As I walk through the city, I’m reminded of the scent of campfire, and a whiff of it usually follows me indoors as well. The air is the heaviest in the mornings, although by midday it generally clears up.

The smokiness has also come from cigarettes, although that’s set to change now. Until March 1st, smoking was permitted in public places, including restaurants and bars. It’s something I wasn’t accustomed to, so it was a bit of an adjustment. Starting this month, however, a new smoking law took effect. Smoking is now banned in all public places, including outdoors, with private homes or specially designated ‘smoking centres’ being the only acceptable places to light up. It will be interesting to see how people respond to being made to stop their habit cold turkey—or whether the law will be enforced.

Mongolians often escape to the countryside on weekends to enjoy the pristine air

Mongolians often escape to the countryside on weekends to enjoy the pristine air

The tastes

Speaking of smells, the scent of cooking mutton is one that has quickly become familiar in restaurants and apartment buildings alike. There are an estimated 14 million sheep in Mongolia. It’s an impressive sheep-to-human ratio, given the country’s population of about 2.8 million.

Mongolian soup with mutton and mutton dumplings

Mongolian soup with mutton and mutton dumplings

a typical Mongolian lunch - with a more generous salad portion than usual

a typical Mongolian lunch – with a more generous salad portion than usual

Needless to say, mutton is a staple in the Mongolian diet, and a meal without meat is generally unthinkable here. At most restaurants, veggies are an afterthought—they often come in the form of a small carrot or cabbage salad. But produce is available in supermarkets, and thank goodness I’ve discovered Merkuri market. It not only features a separate section where veggies are piled high, it is also known for its wide variety of imported foreign foods.

Merkuri market, with its eclectic mix of imported foods

Merkuri market, with its eclectic mix of imported foods

the produce section at Merkuri market

the vegetable section at Merkuri market

As tasty as buuz and khuushuur have been, the culinary experience hasn’t been limited to local foods. In particular, Korean and Japanese restaurants are quite popular, and I’ve even sampled good Sri Lankan cuisine since I’ve been here.

khuushuur - Mongolian fried dumpling with mutton inside

khuushuur – Mongolian fried dumpling with mutton inside

The sounds

So, what does one hear when walking around UB? It turns out that Mongolian drivers are just as communicative as their counterparts in Costa Rica, if not more so. (I’m listening to a chorus of angry beeeeps as I write.) Apparently there’s a law against using car horns in residential areas, but good luck with that! Mongolia’s capital is very much alive; the traffic is heavy, and the drivers impatient.

Traffic is a little crazy in UB. Cars and pedestrians alike behave like water: They follow the path of least resistance. Lanes don’t matter; cars squeeze into whatever space they can fill. Double turning lanes form spontaneously as cars race to get ahead of each other. At intersections, the traffic is like a leaky faucet, continuing to flow long after the light has changed. In response, pedestrians cross where and when they can. I refused to at first, and found myself standing alone at the red light with a little girl. (OK, so I’m a wimp.)

traffic is a bit crazy in UB, but the drivers are very skilled

traffic is a bit crazy in UB, but the drivers are very skilled

The other striking sound to me is the Mongolian language. I’ve been picking up a few phrases here and there, but so far I’ve been largely immune to the conversations around me. And saying mit ku (I don’t know) to someone who tries to speak to me only adds to the confusion, since most people here mistake me for being a local. As for signs, the majority of them are written in Cyrillic, which I can’t yet decipher. Luckily, there are just enough people who speak English here to make life a little easier, and there’s no shortage of friendly and helpful people.

most signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, although occasionally the old Mongolian script is used

most signs are written in the Cyrillic alphabet, although occasionally the old Mongolian script is used

Mongolians tend to take an active interest in foreigners, which has helped me feel really welcome here. Many Mongolians speak a second or a third language, even if it’s not English (Russian is common). And the people that I’ve met so far have been wonderful. Ladies I barely know will take me by the arm and help me cross the street—and I’m pretty sure they’re not just using me as a shield against those massive Hummers.

That sweet numb feeling

So finally, how does one feel physically when arriving in UB in the middle of February? Not much, I can tell you, because I’ve gone numb from head to toe.

Icy. Frosty. Glacial. Call it what you will.

Icy. Frosty. Glacial. Call it what you will.

It’s not actually that bad. OK, so it was in the beginning. My first full day here, the temperature was -35oC and that wasn’t easy. Weather forecasts generally describe the days as ‘Cold. Frigid.’ which I think is a very fair description. But you get used to it, and with the right combination of thermal underwear and layering, you can conquer the cold.

snow football (above) and snow football (below) - two ways to make the most of a Mongolian winter

snow football (above) and snow sumo (below): two ways to make the most of a Mongolian winter

IMG_5927

UB has the dubious honour of being the coldest capital in the world, and average temperatures stay below freezing for a good six months of the year. But that’s funny, because I lived in Ottawa, Canada before starting my fellowships with Kiva and I could have sworn that IT was the coldest capital in the world. Some days are not that different here from what they are back home.

But timing has something to do with it as well. It seems I may have caught the tail end of winter this year. Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s Lunar New Year, was celebrated on February 11th and marks the beginning of spring. And although spring weather is known to be highly variable, it’s hard not to feel uplifted when the sun is shining and the temperature is soaring all the way up to -1oC. Sometimes cold weather can be immiserating, but my experiences in Mongolia so far couldn’t be further from that.

7 March 2013 at 01:28 1 comment

Nomads: How Much Longer?

Jon Hiebert | KF 17 | Mongolia

This family was surprisingly connected. They showed me that the solar panel could charge their cell phones, and yes, they have reception here!

As we drove hundreds of kilometers on this “Mongolian highway” (dirt road), the only thing that broke the vast nothingness was animals and the occasional ger (Mongolian nomadic tent).  We were headed to a city called Kherlen in the Eastern Mongolian province of Dornod, where  I was scheduled to check in with five borrowers to verify some information.

While bumping along in the middle of nowhere, we saw a man on a motorbike coming from a different middle of nowhere, and our driver stopped to have a chat.  After we got going again, I asked my coworker/translator, Tsolmon what that was about.  He told me our driver wanted to stop at a ger where I could ride a horse!  I was happy to hear this news, as I needed to stretch my legs.  So, we drove and drove off the “main” road to find this horse.  After a lot of confusion and bickering between the two Mongolians I was with, we came across a ger — who knows if it was the ger — but I don’t think it matters all that much.

(more…)

21 May 2012 at 15:00 4 comments

Hello Spring: It’s Time to Celebrate

Compiled by Kiyomi Beach | KF17 | Mexico

Whether shaking off the chill of winter, welcoming the rainy season, or experiencing any other climate change, the spring can definitely be a time to celebrate. Some countries celebrate big which can mean local business owners have a surge in income from selling items related to the festivities. Sales for new clothes, fabrics for costumes, candies, and specialty foods increase, which give some Kiva borrowers an extra reason to celebrate.

While we may all be familiar with some holidays or festivals, each culture celebrates what may seam like a familiar holiday differently. Some countries have celebrations that are uniquely their own, with the common threads being are family and fun. Lets see how a few of the fellows celebrated.

Continue Reading 20 April 2012 at 09:00 4 comments

My mid-fellowship crisis: What am I doing here?

Jon Hiebert | KF 17 | Mongolia

I woke up on Friday morning just like every other morning.  Slightly pleased with the late start of 9:00 a.m., I still felt awkward getting dressed in my business suit. Then I enjoyed my Choco Chips cereal with milk in bed while getting mentally prepared for another day of laptop projects.

Lookin’ good but a little anxious in my suit.

To get to the office, I walked the tiled sidewalks only recently freed from a four-month coat of ice. I went upstairs, set up my Macbook in Transcapital‘s clean, newly-renovated office in the city center, and continued with my work. I was excited to be working on a report that will help transition another microfinance institution (MFI) from pilot program to full-fledged field partner. It’s still being assessed by Kiva Headquarters. This is just one of a number of projects I’m working on for Kiva, in addition to projects I’ve been asked to complete by the MFIs here. Today will be a productive day, I thought to myself.

But other thoughts started crowding my head.  I really need a haircut, I haven’t shined my shoes in four days, I should really get another winter hat so I don’t have to wear my old blond fox one every single day.  I also found myself being more and more affected — and even disillusioned — by the city’s office culture.  Of course, I work with wonderful people here — but I found myself losing track of why I’m in Mongolia in the first place. (more…)

26 March 2012 at 11:59 4 comments

Common sense in Mongolia: An evolving definition

Jon Hiebert | KF 17 | Mongolia

When looking for an apartment in a new city, common sense would guide you to look online, contact a realtor or network through ex-pats and friends that work and live in the area already. But common sense seems to be very relative here in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia…

“I’ll take you for a walk to some areas where you might want to live,” says Ron, a new friend of mine who wants to help us hunt for apartments.

“Sure,” I reply, thinking it would be good to get an idea of what places looked like and what they are near.

At this point, I had been in Ulaanbaatar for just 30 hours and was living in a guesthouse downtown. I had met an American Fulbright researcher, Hannah, and we were thinking of finding an apartment together.

Mongolian Parliament. No wonder this is called the “Land of the Eternal Blue Skies.” (more…)

25 February 2012 at 23:51 8 comments

Update from the Field: Earth Day, Celebrations + Exceeding Expectations

Compiled by Alexis Ditkowsky

Kiva Fellows observed Earth Day by sharing projects initiated by their partner microfinance institutions and host countries and by celebrating Kiva.org’s first batch of “Green Loans”. The upbeat mood also extended to anniversary parties at MFIs in Jordan and Armenia, enthusiastic endorsements to travel to Colombia, and reporting on a great opportunity for Kiva clients in Mongolia. Fellows also visited with borrowers in the Philippines, South Africa, and Armenia, and took us on a typical commute in Mexico City. All in all, a very busy week as members of KF14 wind down their time in the field.

Continue Reading 25 April 2011 at 02:45 4 comments

Update from the Field: Social Quirks, Justin Bieber + Lots of Carbs

Compiled by Alexis Ditkowsky, KF14, South Africa

While it may have been a slower “official” news week than usual, I can assure you that the Fellows are keeping busy. One Fellow spent hours searching fruitlessly for borrowers in the jungle, another has been suffering from serious gastrointestinal issues (aren’t you glad he didn’t post about that?), and the rest of us have been plotting something very special for the end of the week. In the meantime, you can catch up on social quirks in Rwanda, transportation in West Timor, the importance of corn in Guatemala, and the latest from Mongolia all while taking a look at photos from South Africa. Enjoy!

Continue Reading 28 March 2011 at 03:58 6 comments

A field partner grows from the pilot to active stage

Congratulations to Credit Mongol! This Kiva field partner in Mongolia recently achieved active status on the Kiva website.  As you may well know, Kiva partners with microfinance institutions (MFIs), like Credit Mongol, in countries across the globe, reaching hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs. These partnerships are what make Kiva possible on a large scale.

Kiva Fellow and Credit Mongol Kiva staff

Kiva Fellow and Credit Mongol Kiva staff

(more…)

27 March 2011 at 18:00 4 comments

Update from the Field: Fun Facts, Field Visits + Back to Basics

Compiled by Alexis Ditkowsky, KF14, South Africa

For many Fellows, this week was about getting back to basics: the borrowers. In between fun facts about Kiva Fellowships, doing database detective work, and reflecting on the internal dynamics of Kiva’s partner microfinance institutions, Fellows found themselves in the field again and again, much to their delight and often to the delight of borrowers. From Latin America to Africa to the Caucasus to Southeast Asia to Eastern Europe, meet Kiva clients, learn about their businesses, and check out all of the great photos.

Continue Reading 21 March 2011 at 01:53 9 comments

Ten interviews with Mongolian entrepreneurs

By Amber Barger, KF14, Mongolia

A borrower verification is a thorough check of ten random Kiva borrowers of a field partner. It’s used to verify the accuracy of the information published on the borrower profiles on the Kiva website. A borrower verification happens several times throughout the course of a partnership in order to assess a microfinance institution’s performance levels. Read below about the ten borrowers I visited through a borrower verification with XacBank.

Continue Reading 23 February 2011 at 07:00 3 comments

Happy Lunar New Year! How local traditions affect the business cycle

Happy Lunar New Year! Сар шинэдээ сайхан шинэлээрэй, as we say in Mongolian. Today, the countries and communities across the world who traditionally follow the lunar calendar are celebrating the first day of the New Year! Boy! – Microloan demands sure have been high lately. The need for loans center around traditional activities practiced for the Lunar New Year holiday.

(more…)

3 February 2011 at 06:00 3 comments

Video: How the connection happens – Kiva Coordinators

A Kiva Coordinator is someone who organizes and manages the Kiva program at one of Kiva’s field partners. Watch the video to find out what a Kiva Coordinator does everyday, their favorite aspects of working with Kiva, and also the challenges of being a Kiva Coordinator. As a Roaming Fellow, I had the opportunity to interview three Mongolian field partners – XacBank, Credit Mongol, and Transcapital.

(more…)

23 January 2011 at 05:00 6 comments

“9 Nines” – Nine sets of nine days of Mongolian winter

The winter technically began on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year – December 22. Although from October, families have been making fires to keep warm and temperatures have been well below freezing. Now we’re in the fourth set of nines in the Mongolian winter, the coldest set! I woke up this morning to -33 degree Fahrenheit temperatures in the capital city. The seasonal calendar greatly influences the types of micro businesses in Mongolia. In the wintertime, many of the businesses focus on keeping the general population warm.

Continue Reading 20 January 2011 at 05:00 2 comments

All in a weekend’s work: Trade fairs and certificate ceremonies

By Amber Barger, KF13, Mongolia.

Recently, I was able to travel to the countryside and combine many of my Kiva Fellow duties into one trip. With XacBank, I traveled to Uvurkhangai and Bayankhongor Provinces together with the Kiva Coordinator. We interviewed Kiva entrepreneurs, attended trade fairs, trained loan officers, and participated in a very special certificate ceremony – all in four days!

Continue Reading 4 January 2011 at 03:19 3 comments

Kiva Fellows: Kicking off 2011 Around the World

By Kiva Fellows, Various corners of the globe

Around the world, Kiva Fellows are kicking off 2011 in all sorts of different ways. Here’s what a handful of KF13-ers are doing to ring in the New Year. Enjoy and Happy 2011!

Continue Reading 1 January 2011 at 11:35 1 comment

Mongolian Independence/Constitution Day, A Short History Lesson

November 26 is a national Mongolian holiday. November 26, 1924 was the day that Mongolia declared itself as an independent country with the adoption of its first constitution. The Mongolian People’s Republic (MPR), a communist state, under the rule of the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), lasted until 1990.

Continue Reading 29 November 2010 at 03:00 1 comment

The range of rural to urban businesses in pictures

Mongolia is known for its vast amount of open space and beautiful scenery. The population density of Mongolia is just over 1 person per square kilometer. In this post, I’ll share photos from the most rural of businesses to the most urban.

The term “countryside” can be translated into “khuudoo” in Mongolian language. However, the meaning of the word is slightly different in English and Mongolian. The term khuudoo in Mongolian is relative to where you are from in the country and where you are when you say the word.

Continue Reading 13 November 2010 at 05:00 1 comment

Mongolia’s transportation infrastructure and how it influences micro businesses

By Amber Barger, KF12, Mongolia.

Mongolia is a landlocked country spanning 1,564,116 sq km, slightly smaller than Alaska. It’s situated between Russia and China. The main forms of transportation available from international destinations are flights from Russia, China, Korea, and Japan and the train route from Russia and China. Domestic flights, the train route and transport by road are options within Mongolia.

Small business owners normally don’t have the money to fly to and from Ulaanbaatar, this luxury is usually only attainable for government officials, foreigners, and wealthier urban Mongolians.

Continue Reading 8 November 2010 at 05:00 1 comment

Traditional Mongolian gers and the artisans who produce them

By Amber Barger, KF12, Mongolia.

If you browse Mongolian borrower profiles on Kiva.org, you’ll notice that most of them say that the borrower lives in traditional Mongolian housing named a ger, more commonly known as a yurt. Over the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to visit borrowers who live in traditional gers and who work in ger-producing workshops.

Continue Reading 18 October 2010 at 06:00 2 comments

XacBank provides youth financial education and savings accounts

By Amber Barger, KF12, Mongolia.

The past five years XacBank, a Kiva field partner, has been providing higher-education loans for university students. The bank has also created a savings account named Future Millionaire, for children under the age of eighteen. More recently, the bank has targeted a younger group of students, as young as eight years old, to provide personal finance and social education. XacBank is currently implementing two youth financial education programs – Aflatoun and Aspire.

Continue Reading 22 September 2010 at 06:00 5 comments

Mongolian Borrowers in the Dairy Industry

By Amber Barger, KF12, Mongolia.

Mongolians have been practicing the art of transforming milk into dozens of dairy products for hundreds of years. Nowadays, about 40 percent of the workforce is engaged in activities surrounding animal husbandry and products made from livestock. As Kiva’s August food month is coming to an end, here’s some insight into dairy product producers and distributors in Mongolia.

Continue Reading 30 August 2010 at 07:30 3 comments

Peace Corps Volunteers and Kiva Fellows

By Amber Barger, KF12, Mongolia

The goals of the United States Peace Corps and the Kiva Fellows Program fit quite well with each other. Because of this, I’m able to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) and Kiva Fellow at the same time. Both programs promote cross-cultural awareness and capacity building within the given host community. Let’s look at how the volunteer programs relate to each other.

Continue Reading 14 August 2010 at 07:00 12 comments

The Forgotten Half of Microfinance Not Forgotten at XacBank

“What is microfinance?” I’ve been asked this question a lot during my time as a Kiva Fellow. I used to answer by saying “microfinance is extending credit to people who do not have access to the traditional financial system” then remembering Kiva Fellows training I would add, “but not just credit, it’s providing other financial services, too.”

Continue Reading 6 July 2010 at 00:56 6 comments

World Cup Reports from Kiva Fellows Around the World

Kiva Fellows share their World Cup experiences from Mongolia, Rwanda, Mexico, Bolivia, Togo, Sri Lanka, Chile and Kyrgyzstan

Continue Reading 29 June 2010 at 22:56 3 comments

Summer Arrives in Mongolia: An Update on the Dzud Crisis

On Tuesday evening the atmosphere in Ulaanbaatar felt festive. It was Women and Children’s Day, offices had been closed all day and the weather had been sunny and unusually warm, reaching a high of 30 degrees Celsius. Even at 10pm, the streets were full of people chatting and strolling about.

It seemed like everyone was in a good mood, but I knew that many Mongolians, particularly those outside of the capital city, were likely not feeling very carefree. I’d just arrived back in the city after using the holiday weekend to travel to the countryside and see some of the spectacular scenery for which Mongolia is renowned. The vast steppes took my breath away. So did valleys full of decaying animal carcasses.

Continue Reading 6 June 2010 at 04:51 7 comments

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