My Dream Soum
Throughout my Pre-Service Training, I imagined my future site (where I would be placed for the following two years). I dreamt of snow capped peaks on the edge of the only lake in Mongolia in a small soum (village) where I would spend all my time, barely seeing any other Americans. My village would be off the beaten path and therefore wouldn’t have fresh produce or silly foreign products. I would travel to my aimag center (the provincial center) once or twice a month to acquire all the food, spices and such that I would require to live in a semi comfortable but still totally roughing it kind of way.
Reality Sets In
Mongolian Peace Corps Volunteers find out their site placements by visiting a park in Darkhan city where a gigantic map of Mongolia is laid out on the ground. Each aimag (province) is called out, followed by the names of the PCV’s who will live in that aimag. When my my name was read over the loud speaker, I was shocked to be two hours north of Ulaanbaatar (the capital), directly on the Trans-Siberian Train line- easy access to say the least. My soum would have 7,000 Mongolians, so big that PCV’s label it a “super soum”. The information confused and depressed me. Additionally, I was scared for my health, as Ulaanbaatar is tied with Beijing for worst air quality in the world, and I have asthma. My friends walked to their spots, the most northern aimag complete with reindeer, gorgeous mountains and lakes along with two western aimags stocked full of beautiful mountains and rare animals. I couldn’t help but compare my next two years with theirs. I imagined myself dying of asthma in a gross flatland with city-like dwellers in a “super” soum with no exotic animals or traditional culture while my friends immersed themselves in their tiny villages, knowing everyone by name and learning Mongolian fluently. The only joy derived from the fact that I would be living in a ger (a Mongolian yurt). But even this came with the consequence of two years of hard labor. Chopping wood and carrying water would fill my free time. My nights would consist of waking up every few hours to add fuel my my stove, keeping my ger warm in the icy negative forty degree, six month long winters.
Austin (my awesome sitemate) and I traveled to Batsumber, my new home, around midnight by car. When our driver, the PE teacher, told us we were arriving I wildly jerked my head trying to look at the surrounding scenory, and failing, as outside was pitch black outside. I prayed it was beautiful but, as a constant pessimist, imagined the worst. We were taken to the school dormitory, as my ger door had no lock. After tossing and turning all night on a bed made purely of wooden slats, we were roped into a town tour. The memory of that day is foggy from information overload and sleep deprivation, but I’m pretty sure the governor, police and school janitors all made an appearance. The first two weeks were filled with Ariel-time, consisting of much sleeping, more napping, and lots of ramen as I had yet to aquire a hotplate. I barely spoke to anyone, but learned where the closest well was (a fifteen minutes walk), along with several delgores (stores). In addition, I wondered what the heck I was doing in Mongolia, and if this was truly the experience I wanted out of the Peace Corps.
Batsumber has now been my home for a month, and it’s starting to feel like it. It’s a small enough village to get to know the shopkeepers and janitorial staff. It’s big enough that I can get juicy tomatoes (*gasp*) every week. It’s far enough away from Ulaanbaatar that it feels very, very rural. And it’s beautiful. Each morning during my twenty minute walk to school, I stare at the gorgeous mountains that are yearning to be climbed. Apparently my previous assumptions regarding my soum were wrong. My once pessimistic view is dwindling, squashed by new insights. Even when I picture myself doing the same, long walk during the big, bad winter, the fear that once gripped my heart has almost vanished. Instead a new image comes to mind, me walking home to my cozy ger, curling up next to my roaring stove, sipping some milk tea made fresh by my host mom. This soum is a great place, with some great people. I’m truly excited to spend the next two years here… Thank god.