"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Monday, December 21, 2015

Mongolia, A Report from the Field: Toilets and Tea

Changer is driving us in his wonderful Lexus hybrid to a town called Choir, pronounced like Tcherr, with a hint of the “t” sound.   It is the site of a former Soviet military site where anti-aircraft missiles were based, as well as the associated runway (now abandoned), the longest in Mongolia.

The landscape is like much of what I’ve seen in Mongolia.   Large almost flat plateaus are bordered by small to medium mountains.  It resembles parts of Montana, which is on the same latitude.

The white clouds at the bottom of the hill are actually snow from snow-making machines at a ski area on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar.

Farther south, we enter the northern part of an area known as the Mongolian-Manchurian grassland Steppe, 342,000 square miles of flat grasslands that form a crescent over the Gobi desert.   Northeast of here is the Daurian forest Steppe that transitions the grasslands into the forests of Siberia.

For now though, we are in wide open plains, dotted with livestock.

Horses on the Steppes.

Typical scene of the grassland Steppes.

In the back seat, Cap is experiencing some digestive distress and tells Changer that he needs a toilet.
Changer turns his head towards me and I see puzzlement on his face.

Cap repeats the request with more urgency, “A toilet with warm water and soap!”  There is nothing of the sort in this area, so Changer does what every other Mongolian does.   He pulls off onto the gravel shoulder and parks.

Cap heads for some wooden poles that are on the verge of collapsing, about fifty feet from the road.   They are a pitifully lacking screen, but the only things around.  Changer pulls ahead to spare us the scene.

“There’s a toilet everywhere,” he says to me with a big grin on his face, thereby explaining the puzzled look on his face.

This has nothing at all to do with the story.   I just thought it was a cool scene.

This young fellow and his dad were waiting for something.


Once back on the road, I tell Changer about something I read in a book about the Mongolian salted milk tea tradition.  I repeat what the author wrote about the woman of the house rising before anyone else to prepare the milk tea.   When it is done, she takes a small amount and exits the ger.

Changer is nodding his head as I speak.   She sprinkles a bit of tea to the east and the rising sun. 

Changer nods and I continue.   She then sprinkles tea in the other three cardinal directions.   Changer is nodding vigorously by this time.

Traditional milk tea.

She returns to the ger and serves the man of the house, any visitors, the children, and then herself last.   In this ceremony, she has respected the spirits and reaffirmed the social order of the family and each person’s responsibility.

Traditional milk tea.

Again, Changer agrees.   

Then he says, “I just put a tea bag in a cup of hot water.”

Green tea with tea bags.

And therein is the challenge for modern Mongolia.   Yanked from the 19th century into the 21st after the Soviet era collapsed in 1989, half the population now lives in cities and towns.

The other half live in the country, continuing the age-old traditions.   Some, during the harsh winters, move their gers into the cities and struggle to exist where there are no jobs for them.  In their dejection and desperation, now used to the vodka the Soviets brought, alcoholism has become a major problem in all of Mongolia.


Scenes from the day:

Vultures at a road kill.

Potato salad, my breakfast at the Sunshine Hotel.

Overhauling an engine in Choir.

A typical Khrushchev apartment building, once housing for the Soviet officers stationed here.

Oops.   Forgot to take a photo of my lunch in Choir--pineapple chicken with salad and fries.


Jacket worn by a fellow in the restaurant in Choir.

Just what you DO NOT want to see in your windshield when driving at night in Mongolia!


  1. Nice post Jeanne. It still amazes me how much different parts of the world resemble where I live in Wyoming. You think that when you travel that everything is going to be totally different and turn out to much the same. You always have great adventures and I enjoy hearing about them.

  2. Should anyone want (or have the courage to do so) more details of this trip go to .. babakaps.net .. NOV 7, 15 .. I BEG YOUR PARDON .. You may like your guided and scripted trips but you seemed to do OK on this adventure which was actually a mix between the two worlds. Your posts do sound like you were having fun. Smiling .. Cap and Patti who is booking her trip back to Alaska in late February.