Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Purchasing Differences

Even the common practice of shopping is different in Mongolia. For one, this is an entirely cash based society. Most people have an ATM card, but that is only used to get cash from the bank. There are 2 ATMs for our bank (Khan Bank) in our town, but often one or both of the ATMs are not working or out of cash. Most stores, especially in the countryside, do not take credit cards. However, many of the local stores do give store credit. For example, if I need to purchase food but don’t have cash, the store owner will log the purchases in a notebook and I can pay for them later. I don’t know if there is any interest or what the repayment terms are. Often, the ATM gives out 20,000T bills (about $17). Many of the stores won’t accept 20,000 bills unless your purchases are large. So, it means that we have to “queue up” many small items so that we can break a 20,000T bill. For example, we may wait to buy eggs, milk, bread, peppers, onions, and hyam (sausage for Bear) at once so that we can use a 20,000T.

More interesting are the local purchasing habits. In America, we are used to bulk purchases, the 50 roll toilet paper pack from Costco or 5lbs of cheese from Walmart. Well, here, the exact opposite is done. People typically only buy what they need for that day and will stop by the store everyday. For example, people often buy individual cigarettes or individual feminine products (1 days’ worth). The buyer will tell the clerk what they want and the clerk will remove the number of desired items from open packages from behind the counter. The most extreme case of individual purchasing that I have witnessed is individual pieces of gum. I don't think there is anything that can't be broken down for purchase. Also, if a store or restaurant doesn't have exact change, they will supplement the difference with pieces of gum. It is not uncommon to get a few pieces of gum with your change at a restaurant.

Similarly, purchases are not planned ahead more than 1 day, so there are mad-rushes for items the day before a holiday or major event. For example, yesterday was Women's day and most stores were closed, so there was a rush on alcohol/vodka/cake/flowers the night before. I don't know the rationale for daily purchasing, but it would be an interesting topic for an anthropologist.

Hot Springs Trip

This a picture of the tops of the hot springs huts with the temple in the foreground. The mountains in the distance are in Siberia.

This is the entrance sign for the Khan Khentii Protected Area (similar to a national park).

I was excited to be invited along on a trip to Northern Khentii a few weeks ago. We left in utter darkness at 5:40 AM to drive along tire tracks for 5 hours to reach the soum/town of interest. We were greeted warmly at the soum hospital with soup, berries and vodka. The berries were frozen from the summer crop of wild mountain berries. There were three varieties, all of which I’ve never seen before. Thus, I could not provide their English names. After lunch the real adventure began, as we entered complete wilderness, the closest I’ve come to tundra, or maybe that’s what it was. We drive off road, over frozen streams, on steep grades and over bumpy grasslands for six hours. I was truly thankful for the Land Cruiser I was in. We had to disembark once when we slid off an icy overpass and later were briefly stranded on large chunks of ice and water in a stream.

Just before dusk we arrived at a small cabin on a ridge overlooking the flatlands we drove through. This was surrounded by the largest mountains I’ve seen thus far in Mongolia, and Russia, as we were just South of its border. As we arrived there were comments about the 6-7 vehicles already parked. Turns out you don’t make reservations where no cell phones work. It would be a cozy night. We arrived to offerings of milk tea and hard cookies and had a tour of the area. Walking down the ridge brought us to six small wooden huts that sat along the natural hot springs. Each hut had a ‘bathing’ pool to fit 2 people and there was a well to drink the water from. After returning to the cabin a large bottle of vodka emerged. I slipped away to the other side, as this was the fourth offering of the day. Instead I spoke a mix of English and Mongolian and shared dinner and card games with the members of the other room. They happened to be the family of a coworker that was vacationing there. I slept next to ‘Grandma’ that night, toasty warm in my PC issued sleeping bag on the wooden plinth.

The next morning some of the group went to bathe, but I deferred, as it was nude bathing. I did have my swimsuit (on the top of the Land Cruiser), but in a cabin of 25 and the brisk wilderness without an outhouse, I deferred changing. So, I wandered around, enjoyed my first time back in a true forest with tall pine trees and a thick blanket of snow beneath. We left early due to limited sleeping space, driving along the frozen river for the first few hours. We stopped for photos and to collect natural mineral water, formed between two layers of the river’s ice. At three o’clock we stopped at an eight by ten foot cabin set up for cooking along the drive. After a filling lunch of bread, meat, veggies and milk tea, they announced the nine of us were staying there through the night. There was time for another jaunt and there were no wolves to be seen, though my coworkers were sure I’d be eaten. Time for relaxing, singing and more vodka led to an early bedtime followed by a long, extra cozy and uncomfortable night.

The next day we made our way back to the soum, stayed a bit, and eventually drove back to Khentii. We drove in the dark again. This time, there was more indecision regarding which tire treads to follow. At one lonely ger our director departed for 45 minutes when asking for directions. There is the custom of staying for tea and often dinner. This is another opportunity to be present in the moment, not worried by frustrations or delays. Sometimes I think, “what will be, will be,” is an apt phrase for this culture, for better and for worse. We arrived home safe, sleepy and dirty. I look forward to more unexpected adventures.

-written by Ashley