4. AIMAG: BAYAN OLGII
In some ways, Olgii is your typical aimag. There is running water and electricity (both of which stop from time to time). There is a central market, a government building, a handful of schools, a small hospital, a post office, a few small shops and a lot where jeeps and forgons wait for passengers to take to nearby soums and occasionally to farther destinations like Ulaan Baatar or Russia. Herders come to town to sell meat, dairy products and skins. A few farmers sell potatoes, cabbage and carrots (and apples in the fall). Kids come in from the countryside or from nearby soums for school. Every now and then a tourist shows up en route to Tavan Bogd Uul or some new volunteer/NGO/expat rolls into town for a year of two to teach English or capitalism or Jesus.
In other ways, Olgii is unique. Unlike the flat, wide-horizon expanses of the central plains, the landscape out west changes in sudden shifts from forested foothills to glaciers. On one side of a barren mountain peak sits a crystal clear alpine lake and on the other a puddle of sand dunes. There are forests and glaciers to the north and we're situated just on the eastern side of the Altai Mountains. Moreover, Bayan Olgii is an island of Kazakhstan that just happens to be in Mongolia. People look as much west, over the Altai Mountains and across the border to Kazaksan as east to distant Ulaan Baatar for jobs, university and relatives. Most people don't speak Mongolian at all, but everyone over twenty speaks perfect Russian. Most of the schools are in Kazakh; people watch Kazakh television, sing Kazakh songs and are nominally Muslim. Kazakh keegezoui are more likely to have a picture of Mecca than an alter and they don't necessarily face south or observe any of the same interior directionality that Buddhist gers follow. Their style is different and with a much more elaborate material culture rich with a thriving tradition of producing handmade rugs, tapestries and interior decoration.
The Aimag center is another curious ex-soviet town full of decaying buildings – some abandoned and others in full use, thought it is awfully difficult to tell which is which. In the center of town, there are concrete apartment buildings for the full time residents, the students, the young couples that have left their gers and animals and the countryside behind them. Outside of the main downtown, which is primarily comprised of vacant lots and unclear space, most people live in hashas (fenced-off courtyards) along winding haphazard walkways and dirt roads, a neighborhood made up of spaces carved by foot paths leading to the river or to the grasses where people keep their goats and the occasional city cow.
Most families move to the countryside for the summer months and return around August or September to rebuild their houses and settle in for winter. The gers stay up until October, then people move indoors. This is different from Myangag Soum and other places I have visited further east where people live in their gers all winter.
When I left Khovd, I called up Bolatbek, a guide who had worked with some friends of mine the year before and who had offered to help me meet some families in Olgii and get to know the town better. I soon settled into his home and became absorbed into the family with an ease that was confusing even to me. I ended up staying in Bolatbek and Asemgul's home on and off for three weeks and it became my home base while in Bayan Olgii.
I spent most of my time in Olgii Aimag sitting with the grandmas, drinking tea and eating borsak. I quickly became the babysitter for Mika and Jaldlik, Asemgul's two crazy children ages four and seven. The first week, I must have spent ten hours a day in that kitchen. I'd escape only on long walks which became progressively frequent and necessary. The hasha had a ger and a small house, a shed for the coal and another from the cow (their only animal). All the cooking was done in the single room kitchen/shed where we spent 90% of the time playing, cooking, washing clothes, twirling yarn and napping. The ger was for sleeping and for entertaining and the house was completely empty except for the winter stove built into the firewall and a light fixture or two.
Bolatbek and Asemgul lived virtually next door in a house empty by comparison. They gave me a key after I ad been there a few days. As no one was ever in the house, it became a small, but much needed sanctuary. I felt the lack of privacy and tried not to be overwhelmed by being talked to and fed and watched constantly. After three days, I was seeped in butter and all sorts of horsemeat, mutton and goat.
I eventually realize that the grandmas are not sisters, as I had imagined, but mother and daughter-in-law, which explains why one always sits in the corner on the bed and the other on a stool. There are four generations of women floating through the home and I hardly see any of the men.
I wander around this side of town each afternoon until the neighborhood children catch on to my routine and begin to follow me in flocks. Foreigners are better than television. Especially when the Russians have turned off the power and no one can watch their TVs.
After about two weeks, it was time to head out to the countryside. I didn't go far at first, only caught a ride out to Ulaanhaus soum (directly west of Olgii) where I stayed with Tessa, another Peace Corps volunteer and her hasha family in their keegezoui until we packed it up and moved to their winter home...