Sumpteretc's Blog

What's on my mind at the moment

Category: life in Mongolia

A Sad Day

Our church is grieving the loss of a dear member today. Our former pastor Naraa announced today that she would be transitioning to a different church. Her husband has had some areas of disagreement with the current leadership and is no longer attending our church, and now Naraa feels that God is leading her to go to a different church with her husband. Although Naraa has been out of a leadership role in our congregation since last summer, she has continued to preach on a semi-regular basis. She also was the driving force behind several of our church plants and discipled a number of young women in the church. She will be greatly missed.

We had hoped to have some Mongolian friends over for dinner tonight, but they were unable to come. It may have been for the best anyhow, as Joel had a fever earlier today. He seems to be okay now, but Tiffany and the boys were unable to attend church today. So we enjoyed an online sermon from Eau Claire Wesleyan Church, and I went to Eternal Light alone.

Teacher with a hangover

A few months ago, a new teacher came to our language school. He is different from the other teachers in a number of ways. He is currently the only male teacher in the school. He is 53 years old and has lived in the countryside most of his life. He is from a minority ethnic group, and he pronounces some words differently from Ulaanbaatar residents. It’s not usually a problem, but one day he kept saying “cool” and I kept saying “what?” Finally, he pointed at his foot and said “cool, cool,” and I finally realized that he was saying хөл (khool), “foot.”

Because he’s older and from the countryside, I thought he might be the ideal person to teach me Mongolian customs and traditions. It’s usually been pretty good, but today was almost more than I could handle. Apparently last night was a class reunion for the teachers’ college class of ’78. As soon as Batkhuu came in to the room, he told me that he had had quite a few beers at the party and that he wasn’t feeling too great. Soon, it became apparent that he was seriously hung over. While I was puzzling over some unknown words in a theme that we were reading, he got up and left for the bathroom. I could hear him emptying his stomach from down the hall. He was doing very little teaching today, just letting me mow my way through 3 times as much material as we usually cover. By the last half hour, I was just trying to keep him awake. He said that he went to bed at midnight last night, but he must not have slept very well. I was telling him about my time in the Navy. He would ask a question and immediately fall asleep. I would ramble on for a while, trying to fill as much time as possible. Eventually, I would trail off, his eyes would pop open, and he would ask me another surprisingly relevant question and fall back asleep.

Even without much instructional input, I think I still managed to learn a few things. The first essay I read was about the worship of the hearth, the second about the honored place of milk, and the third about important colors in Mongolia. The most interesting things were probably about milk and white foods. Milk is considered white, and water is considered black. So you can pour milk on top of water, but you can’t pour water on top of milk. If a mother wants to wish her family traveling safety, she sprinkles milk behind them. If a bad person wants to curse an enemy, he sprinkles water behind them.

On TV again!

Apparently, I’m becoming quite the television star. When I got to school today, I was told that an interview with me was aired last night on Eagle TV.

Waiting for Цагаан Сар

Winter continues unabated. Nearly every time I go outside, I feel like I’m going to lose my left pinkie. Maybe it’s time for a new pair of gloves. They’re 16 years old, so it’s possible that they’ve done their duty. I don’t know what today’s high temperature was, but it wasn’t high enough. It’s currently -31. Our school director chose today to talk about a sledding outing for the school. It was hard to drum up much enthusiasm. The colder it gets, the smokier it gets too; so by noon, it was getting hard to breathe outside. Tiffany was tired all day; I thought maybe it was carbon monoxide poisoning. Just got to hang in there. It’s supposed to be up to 8 by the weekend.

The ground is still covered in ice, as it no doubt will be until spring. This evening, I went to teach my English class at the church. Only a couple students showed up, so we called off class until next week. I boarded the microbus to go back home. After a long wait, we started up the hill towards our home. About halfway up, we skidded sideways on the ice. I was crammed in right next to the driver, so I hope he didn’t take my sharp intake of breath as criticism of his driving. A few hundred meters later, we were approaching a “bribe receiving area.” There were a half dozen policemen stopping microbuses, apparently at random. The driver asked the conductor if she had something–“reserves,” I think the word was. She said she didn’t. A policeman waved us down. The driver, after considerable banging on the door, managed to get out of the vehicle. The policeman was pointing at the front tire. I hope he was telling the driver it was unsafe for these conditions, but I really have no idea. They went behind the micro to do their dealing, so I didn’t see the outcome. I had to watch the driver of the microbus in front of us paying off his cop instead.

Finally, I got home. Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep my footing the last few days, primarily by intensely concentrating on every step I take.

So…we’re anxious for Цагаан Сар to come. That’s “White Month,” the lunar new year and the supposed end of winter, or at least the worst part of it. There’s always some debate on when it actually falls, though. It is supposed to be two months after the first new moon following the winter solstice, which seems fairly straightforward. According to the UB Post, though, “High ranking Buddhist religious figures from major temples and monasteries, astrologists, representatives from scientific research institutions and university professors gathered at the Office of the President Ts. Elbegdorj to ‘narrow down’ their views last Thursday regarding long-debated disputes about when to actually celebrate the first day of the Lunar New Year calendar….” They finally decided on Feb. 14, so I’m guessing there were some representatives from Hallmark Cards there as well.

Losing It

Today, in my language class, we talked about some of the many meanings and applications of the word алдах, which means “to lose.” These include: to have successes and failures, to drop, to give away a secret, to lose one’s life, to be nervous, to be careless, to accidentally set fire, to lose the paunch, to shout, to behave improperly, to lose one’s way, to become a mess, to be afraid of, to burst out laughing, to lose faith, to lose money, to lose sleep, to lose color, to sigh, to miss hardening (horse), to be uncomfortable, to leave water running accidentally, to lose consciousness, to let something out, to lose one’s footing, to be stolen, to lose one’s strength, to measure incorrectly, to lose time, to look weak or sick, to lose blood, to urinate, and to be in a muddle.

I guess, in English, we have quite a few expressions about losing things too. The loss by which I’ve been most beset the past couple of days is loss of balance. Yesterday, after dropping Elijah off at kindergarten, I headed to the bus stop to catch a micro to school. The ground was a sheet of ice, and when I stepped on the top step of a set of concrete stairs, I found myself momentarily flying through the air and subsequently flying down the steps on my rear end. Stunned but apparently unhurt, I made my way to the bus stop and on to school, marveling at the sight of Mongolians who seem to be able to use the icy ground to their advantage, fearlessly skiing down both steep and gentle slopes. I made it safely to right in front of the school, where I again хөл алдсан, i.e. lost my foot.

My in-laws kindly bought me some nice snow spikes for my shoes which do an excellent job of keeping me upright, and they work well with my dress shoes and probably with my tennis shoes. Unfortunately, however, on these -40 temperature days, I prefer to wear the boots my brother-in-law gave me. They do an admirable job of keeping my feet warm, but they are so bulky that the spikes tend to slip off of them. I have twice had to backtrack a block or two to track down a missing set of spikes. So, it’s a choice of warmth or sure footing.

However, just a few minutes ago, my stocking feet slipped on our parquet floors and left me lying in the middle of the living room. So perhaps I should be worried more about some inner ear infection and less about what kind of shoes I’ll wear tomorrow.

I guess sometimes losing isn’t all bad, though. Check out this classic song from Steve Taylor:

A few years ago, I chose the theme “Jesus is for Losers” for our youth retreat at Harmony Hill Youth Camp. I believed it then, but I think I’m growing in my understanding of what that means. Until we begin to realize how seriously we have lost our way, we can’t really comprehend how much we need a Savior.

Elijah goes to kindergarten

Well, today Elijah began school at the public kindergarten next to our apartment. He’s doing well with his homeschooling and is learning all that we want him to learn, but he doesn’t have a lot of friends, particularly Mongolian ones. I understand the homeschooling arguments about socialization, but in our context, he just wasn’t having enough outside time to really build healthy relationships.

So, a couple weeks ago, Tiffany met with the kindergarten director to see about enrolling Elijah at the school. The director didn’t seem particularly enthused by the idea nor by our intentions to pick Elijah up each day at 1:00, but she consented. Tiffany sat in on the classroom where Elijah would be attending and was satisfied with what she saw.

To enroll Elijah, we had to take him for a medical exam. We were told to go to the district 10th health center. We weren’t sure where that was, so Tiffany and I went wandering around on Monday. We asked a number of people and got a number of directions, some right, some wrong. Finally, we found the place. The receptionist looked at us like we were crazy. Why are you here? Do you have a card? You need to go to your family hospital. Hmm, our family hospital? Where is that? The receptionist gave us a phone number. We weren’t sure who we were calling, so we had a friend call and we found out the building number of the microdistrict family hospital. Then some more wandering. Finally, we found it and got the “card,” i.e. prescriptions for a urine test and a “white worm” test.

Tuesday, Elijah and I braved the terrible cold to walk the half hour or so back to the health center. It was about 10:45 when we arrived. (Hardly anything in Mongolia opens before 10 or 11.) The receptionist took a look at the prescriptions and said, “You’re late. You have to come before 9.” So the cold trek home and repeated on Wednesday. Anyway, it eventually all got done, and he’s in school.

Okay, so that was weird…

Far too often, I find myself not really knowing what’s going on around me.

For instance, today, I was sitting in church and beginning to wonder where the pastor was. I mean, he wasn’t scheduled to preach or anything, but it was still a little weird for him to just not be there at all. I had seen him before the service, but then he just disappeared. After church, he walked in again, obviously having come from outside. I had stepped out of the meeting room for a minute; and, when I walked in again, he was making some kind of announcement to those who were still there. It was something about a “bus,” and a “bus stop,” and a “picture.” I didn’t gather much beyond that.

I was helping put some of the sound equipment away, when the praise team leader asked me, “Are you going?” I said, “Going where? I don’t know anything about it.” She just smiled and walked away. ??????

We were packing up to go home, and a guy named Bek was holding Joel. Tiff finished getting Elijah bundled and we headed downstairs. Tiff said, “Where’s Bek?” I glance at our small group room, but the lights are off.

“I don’t know. Maybe he’s still upstairs.” Back upstairs. Checked the church office. Checked the meeting room. No Bek, no Joel. Back downstairs.

“Don’t know. I can’t find him.”

Tiff starts to enter panic mode. Pastor is in the church microbus now. I holler at him, “Where’s Bek? Do you know? He’s got Joel.”

“He’s probably already in the bus.”


“It’s parked around the corner.”

We rush to the corner. The bus doors open as we approach, and we see Joel on Bek’s lap. The bus is full of people from our church and from one of the church plants. Someone brings Joel to us, but there seems to be an expectation for us to board the bus. Gunbaa says, “If you have work, you don’t have to come.”

“I don’t have work, but what are we doing?”

“We’re going to take a picture.”

Tiff looks at me questioningly. “I didn’t bring a hat, and the boys are tired.”

“Maybe we should go.”

We board the bus and it zooms away. There’s lots of ice on the windows but we can sort of make out where we’re going, but it’s nowhere we’ve been before. We stop some place and wait for a while. People start getting on board with mono-pods, camera equipment, etc. At this point, I’m still thinking we’re heading somewhere to get a church photo taken, and I’m wondering how we afforded to charter a bus.

We pull down the street and turn around. Tiffany is sitting on the other side of the bus, a few seats away, so she texts me, “Are we extras?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I text back.

Slowly, it begins to dawn on me. We’re being filmed for a movie. The conductor isn’t a real conductor; she’s an actress. They act out a scene several times of her throwing a guy off the bus. The camera zooms in for a close-up of Joel for a while. Most of the church people get off the bus and board it several times.

I don’t know anything about the movie, or about whether we’ll make the final cut, but it was an adventure.

Visa Affidavit

Just last night, I was telling Tiffany that we probably ought to check our passports to see whether our student visas expired after one year or two. Then today, the director of our school came to us and started explaining to us the hoops we would have to jump through to get our second year student visa. She explained in Mongolian, of course, which was extremely helpful. Later, she came in and gave me a sample letter that I needed to write out by hand, filling in all the appropriate blanks. It is basically a request saying that it takes a long time to learn Mongolian, and that I need to study for another year. It’s a tad ironic, because I have to write it in perfect Mongolian, which tends to give the lie to the idea that I need to study for another year. I asked the director if I had to handwrite it, and she indicated that I did. If I typed it on the computer, she said, they would just think she wrote it. (Which, of course, she did. I just copied it.)

I have seen these handwritten affidavits on several other occasions. Once, for example, I signed my name to a handwritten full page, having no idea what it said, just that a friend had written it. That was just to get some boxes out of customs. I think that, in America, most bureaucrats would look askance at handwritten document, especially those created by foreigners who are still relatively new to writing with a different symbol set. Here, though, it seems to be the mark of authenticity.

By the way, in Mongolia, almost everyone writes in cursive, which is not, of course, the first symbol set you study. So, for the first several months, you can read nothing that anyone writes. Then, you start to learn cursive. I can do a reasonable job at it now, although I still make a few errors. I almost never write in cursive in English, so it was a bit of a learning curve for me.

Vacation Day

Well, today seemed a little more like a vacation day.

Our church has 12 hours of prayer once a month. Normally, it’s on the first Friday of the month, but because of our leaders’ retreat it was postponed until today. I have signed up to participate once before, but somehow my time slot came and went and it totally slipped my mind. I was sick on Sunday, so I had not signed up for this month’s event; but I figured it would be fine to just drop in. I had the best time of extended prayer that I have had for quite a while, so I think it was definitely a worthwhile pursuit.

After an hour of prayer, I jumped on a microbus and headed on down to the market. I purchased a set of shelves for our bathroom. We’ve been holding off for a long time looking for some kind of enclosed cabinet that would fit the space beside our washing machine. I was pretty well consigned to the fact that we were going to have to have something custom made, but Tiffany agreed today that some open shelves would work as a temporary measure. I bought another set last week as a bookshelf for the home school stuff, so we had a little experience putting the shelves together. This set was missing a screw, but I think we got it put together satisfactorily. It’s nice to get rid of the boxes that have been cluttering up the bathroom and maybe get some of the towels out of our bedroom.

We want to try to get out of the city at least once this month, even if it’s only to Terelj. Tsegii is going to church camp next Friday, so we figured that would be a good time for our outing. I emailed Tiara resort about spending the night in a ger there next weekend, and it looks like that’s going to work. Now, I just need to make sure we’ve got our transportation ducks in a row. I’m also a little worried about the weather. It looks like it will barely breach 70 over the next 10 days, and we’ve got the possibility of rain on 8 of those days.

This evening, for our date, we decided to check out Big Bowling. I think this bowling alley opened a couple months ago, but we hadn’t been yet. After trying to find some cheaper way to get there, we finally broke down and took a cab. The bowling there is actually pretty pricey for UB, but they were having a two-for-one special and we were there before 6:00, so we got off pretty cheap. At first, we were a little curious about the fact that Tiffany was the only woman bowling, but eventually a couple other women joined in. The bowling alley was pretty nice, 10 lanes with AMF pinsetters, ball returns, and computerized score keeping. It was obvious that we hadn’t bowled in a while, but I at least managed to break 100 both games.

From there, we hopped on a bus, not really sure where it was going, but assuming it would at least head back to the center of the city. As we approached the Peace Bridge, I suggested that we check out American Ger’ll restaurant. We’d heard decent reviews of the place but hadn’t yet visited. We walked by World Market and stopped in to see what the latest overpriced American imports were but didn’t buy anything. Then on to the restaurant. I’d say they have the American sports bar ambiance down pretty well, except for the TV programming. They had 2 TVs: one was showing Fashion TV and the other was showing a recording of the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. I figured that wouldn’t go over too well in most American establishments, but I guess nobody was complaining but me. The food was decent. I had a cheeseburger which was mediocre, but Tiff’s Philly cheese steak was the best she’s had…here.

We wandered around town a bit more and closed out our evening at Coffee Empire, which is kinda our default chilling out spot. We grab a cup of java and leaf through ancient magazines and chat. A nice evening of just relaxing and enjoying each other.


We have supposedly been on vacation for a week and a half now, but it’s been a little hard to tell. After speaking at the leaders’ retreat on Tuesday, I did have a day of rest. But Thursday, we were back out at the camp to spend some more time with the church folks. worship team at leader's retreat It was actually a great experience. That afternoon, ten believers were baptized. I’ve got to admit that seems an odd event at a leaders’ retreat. I’m thinking leadership may have been defined rather loosely, or maybe a few people just had never gotten around to being baptized.