I was living on the island of Lanai, Hawaii, working at the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele. I'd been working there for 15 years before I came to Mongolia.
How did you choose Mongolia?
In 2009, I traveled around Asia. I flew to Seoul, Korea and then to Mongolia...and then traveled overland by trains and buses through China, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In 2010, I decided to return to Asia. Most of my friends thought I was just going off on another trip, but the truth is I was searching for a new home, a new chapter, a new adventure. I have close friends in several countries in Asia that teach English. So my 2010 trip had a secret agenda, and that was to see what it would be like to live in those places, and how easy getting work would be. I visited Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, and finally Mongolia. I love each of these places! I had an incredible trip. But there was just something about Mongolia that fit me.
If you like meat, Mongolia is your place. Most expats complain about the food because Mongolian food is not really a culinary delight. Mongolian food feeds and nourishes you and keeps you alive...that's it.
Most of it is made from the most basic ingredients: Meat (often goat, mutton, or horse meat because it is the cheapest), root vegetables, flour and a little salt and oil. A meal is often started by making the noodles from scratch: simply flour and water.
Two of the most common dishes are 'buuz,' a small steamed dumpling with a meat filling and 'khuushuur,' a flat meat-filled pocket that is deep fried. As far as drinks go, milk tea is always served to guests. This is not tea with milk. This is milk with tea. It's a delicious cup of hot milk that has tea and salt added. Another must try is "airag" (also known as "kumis" in other parts of Central Asia). Airag is fermented mare's milk. It's sour taste takes some getting used to.
Can you find a selection of international cuisine in Mongolia?
Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia (often called "UB" by both foreigners and locals), has a growing number of international cuisines: Korean restaurants are everywhere (there is even one North Korean restaurant that I stumbled upon--BEST kimchi I've had in UB), a few excellent Indian restaurants, as well as Vietnamese, Russian, Kazakh, and Uzbek.
The lifestyle in the countryside is still nomadic. However, UB is finding it's way into becoming a modern city. You will see lots of expensive Mercedes, Hummers, and Land Cruisers; but don't be surprised if a guy on a horse gallops past you.
Have you learned the local language?
I am currently studying Mongolian. My Japanese and Korean friends here seem to learn the language faster because the grammar is similar. I'm still struggling with the language, I know a lot of words, but I'm trying to improve my grammar.
What are some interesting things about the Mongolian language?
The language is very unique. People might think that Mongolians speak or understand Chinese because it is so close to China. But the language is nothing like Chinese, there are a few loaned words for food, but that's it. If you know Chinese, it won't help you here. The language is also nothing like Russian (except the alphabet).
How do you keep yourself in touch with USA?
Find a website where you can watch all your favorite TV shows. Some people get a VPN (Virtual Private Network) so that they can access YouTube videos and other shows. There's something so comforting about going home after work, making dinner, and watching the Colbert Report, Survivor, or Master Chef.
Americans can get a 30 day visa on arrival (at the airport or at border crossings). If they want to stay more than 30 days, then they need to go to the Immigration office near the airport (about 20 km from the city) within 7 days to apply for a 90 day tourist visa.
What do you do for work?
I am an English teacher at TalkTalk English. It's a very nice school to work at.
What kind of certifications do you need to find work there?
I asked a friend of mine that's been living in Mongolia for 7 years teaching English: "What do I have to do to get a job here?" He suggested getting a TESOL certification, and coming right back to Mongolia. And that's exactly what I did. I went back to Hawaii, enrolled in the next TESOL class (it was held in Mexico,) saved as much money as I could, and in less than 9 months I was back in Mongolia.
Was it hard to find work there?
There is quite a bit of turn-over at work due to a lot of travelers who are only in Mongolia for a year or so. So my school seems to always be looking for new and qualified teachers.
What is the best time of year to visit?
The best months to visit are June and July when the wildflowers bloom. The green grassy hills and meadows are covered with patches of orange, yellow, purple, blue, and white flowers.
Do you have any advice on daily budgeting?
Don't go to a website and look at the average income of a country and think that you can live on that. Don't think you are the superhero that can skimp and barely get by on $5 a day. You'll probably be a miserable miserly penny-pincher, and make everyone who has to be around you miserable.
In Mongolia, more than 40% of the population live in UB. The city is surrounded by beautiful rolling green mountains. There are excellent opportunities to hike in these mountains without fear of wild animals.
Outside of UB is what everyone refers to as "the countryside." The countryside is the 99% of Mongolia that isn't UB. Most visitors come to Mongolia to experience this vast "countryside." And you don't have to go far.
About an hour out of the city is a beautiful protected area called Terelj. Some fun activities are horse-back riding and staying in a traditional 'ger' (yurt). I haven't gotten to travel too far out of the city. But next year, I'm hoping to go to Khuvsgul Lake. It is a pristine lake in northwestern Mongolia.
What have you learned about yourself by moving there?
I'm not a very patient person, but I hope that I've learned a bit of patience, let things that I can't control roll by. I hold my tongue more--which is very unusual. I'm kind of opinionated. I've kind of learned when and where and how to express my opinions.
I've learned from other people's bad examples how distasteful spouting off what's on your mind can be. I have learned to be more positive. That's not easy. This sounds odd, but I kind of learned this from Facebook. I was tired of reading peoples daily posts about being sick, sad, depressed,...Facebook can be a like a barf bag...it takes less than 30 seconds to post something that 300+ of your friends are going to read. I made a decision to try not to post anything negative and, no matter how I really feel, to make positive comments. Sounds cheesy, I know, but it has helped me to focus more on the positives than the negatives.
First, I think the principle of counting the cost before making the move is essential. I saw an idea that I really liked from another blogger. She put a small chalk board on her wall with her goal of how much money she needed...and then how much she had already saved. Also, be realistic with the costs.
Try not to compare. Avoid saying: "Well, this is how we do it in America..." Embrace the people, the culture, the food. If you don't like the place, the people or the culture...spare them your constant state of misery and GO HOME.
Don't whine about everything. Avoid criticizing and being negative about cultural differences. You're not in America, Canada, Japan, England or Australia anymore. Do things run a bit more efficiently in those countries? Probably. Do things make more sense where you're from? Maybe. Is it cleaner? Safer? Quite possibly, yes. But not everyone thinks like you do. What you think is strange may be normal for them. And what you think is normal may be strange to them. But if you have a sense of adventure, and you want to experience something new and different then by all means consider it. It is VERY do-able!
And finally, try to remain a positive force wherever you go! Have a great attitude. Be willing to learn and try and test yourself and don't be afraid to "fail." Even if you go to a place for 6 months or a year, and you have to return home, you didn't fail. You're experiences will enrich you for the rest of your life.
Scott Muehlbauer has been roaming the globe for more than 20 years. He was born and raised in Wisconsin; got raised some more in Hawaii; and now this global drifter has found himself in a drifter's land--Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. He's an English language teacher and a Mongolian language student. He can teach you English faster than you can teach him Mongolian...not because he's a good teacher, but because he's a terrible student.
EXTRA: Scott will be hosting a blog spot here on The Drifters Blog called "A Shot of Scott". Watch this spot for more info, and subscribe now if you want to tag along on the adventure...
"Chat With an Expat" takes you around the world and brings you into the homes, huts, tents and yurts of global drifters to give you an inside look at what life is like living abroad.
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And now we'd like to ask you: Would you consider living in Mongolia? Why or why not?
- Journal of an Expat, Part 1: First Impressions
- Journal of an Expat, Part 2: Sign Language and Sleep Patterns