Into the Black Hole of Mongolia

The Zavkhan group of M25s (minus one*) left for our sites on Sunday, August 17. Zavkhan is what Peace Corps calls a “fly site,” meaning it’s so far away from the PC office in UB that we have to fly back and forth. There are buses and meekers that regularly go to and from Uliastai, but they can take anywhere from 35 to 60 hours depending on road conditions, and generally any site that’s more than a 12-15 hour bus/meeker ride from UB is considered a fly site.

Which brings me to the question I’m sure you’ve all been asking: “Why did you refer to Zavkhan as the black hole of Mongolia?”

Well, I first heard that nickname from one of the Cross-Cultural Trainers who is a PCV out in Khovd, another one of the far west aimags.


Interesting side note: Peace Corps no longer sends PCVs to Bayan-Ulgii and Uvs aimags because of how far removed they are from everything, so those of us in Zavkhan, Khovd, and Gobi-Altai are now the farthest away

That Cross-Cultural session was about transportation in Mongolia, and at one point he referred to Zavkhan as “the black hole” because of how difficult the terrain is for vehicles and how the result is that very few people go into or out of the aimag. Zavkhan is very mountainous and there are very few land routes in and out of it, even to the bordering aimags, making flying the best (but also very expensive) option for travel.

So we were of course flying to Zavkhan (yes, Peace Corps paid for our plane tickets as well as our supervisors’). We each had a small mountain of luggage, so it was fun to see our supervisors’ faces when we dragged it all down from the dorms. It wasn’t so fun when, at the airport, we had to stand in line at the baggage check for about an hour because they had never seen so much luggage before and weren’t sure what to do. Luckily the plane we took (a small propeller plane with a max occupancy of about 40 people) was only half full, or else our luggage probably wouldn’t have fit.

We then went out onto the tarmac to board our itty bitty plane (definitely the smallest one I’ve ever been on).


It was about a 2 hour flight, and I slept or listened to music pretty much the whole time. There were some great views of the landscape down below, and I could have gotten some nice photos if my camera hadn’t been in my bag up in the overhead compartment and I was too lazy to get up.

A couple hours later we landed on the single, unpaved runway of the Donoi Airport (the only airport in the entire aimag).

Walknig over to the itty bitty airport

Walking over to the itty bitty airport

We waited around while everyone’s luggage was unloaded into a small room, and then we went in separate vehicles with our supervisors to our sites (3 of us to Uliastai and 1 to Aldarkhaan soum). My supervisor had arranged for one of the Uliastai hospital’s ambulances to come pick us up, so I got to enjoy the 40-minute drive from the airport to the city in an authentic Mongolian ambulance (I sincerely hope I never need to use one for its intended purpose). During the ride, I got some photos of the countryside:



As you can see, it's absolutely beautiful, so it's a shame it's so hard to get to

As you can see, it’s absolutely beautiful, so it’s a shame it’s so hard to get to

Finally we arrived in Uliastai:


We went on to the hashaa where I would be living, and my hashaa family and some people from the health department helped bring all my luggage into my ger.

My home for the next 2 years

My home for the next 2 years

They served me suutei tsai and some soup while they talked in Mongolian over my head. After about an hour they left so that I could start unpacking. I wasn’t able to get everything unpacked that first evening, but I did get some photos of the inside of my ger, even though it was still messy and I have since added some new things.

My sink and toiletry area

My sink and toiletry area

My closet and one of my armchairs

My closet and one of my armchairs

My desk and other armchair

My desk and other armchair

My bed

My bed

Shelves and cupboard for household and kitchen supplies

Shelves and cupboard for household and kitchen supplies

Kitchen table and electric stovetop

Kitchen table and electric stove top

Fridge, water container, trashcan, and broom/dustpan

Fridge, water container, trashcan, and broom/dustpan

My stove and fuel bin (which they filled with tree bark and scrap paper prior to my arrival, but will eventually be filled with wood and coal)

My stove and fuel bin (which they filled with tree bark and scrap paper prior to my arrival, but will eventually be filled with wood and coal)

You may notice that I have a pretty sweet setup (or you may be thinking, jeez, who could live in that dump for 2 years?), but apparently my ger is not only larger than the gers most PCVs live in, but it is very nicely furnished. My ger is actually brand new (the health department built it just for me) and they put a lot of nice furnishings in it I guess because they were so excited to finally have a Volunteer and wanted me to be as comfortable as I possibly can be in a ger. So no, most PCVs living in gers don’t have fridges and plush armchairs, I am just very lucky.

The only downside of my ger is that it is filled with spiders (mostly daddy long legs). Now, anyone who knows me personally knows that I have a deathly fear of spiders. I got over that a little living with my host family during PST because, even though my room didn’t have too many spiders, the outhouse was always full of them. But my ger is like a daddy long leg breeding ground or something. I have to kill at least 20 a day, which is definitely helping me get over my fear little by little (or at least I haven’t run screaming out of my ger or set it on fire to kill them all yet). I know it’s just because the ger isn’t completely sealed up like it will be come winter (there are little holes along the bottom of the walls where bugs can easily crawl inside). But if you happen to have a crippling fear of spiders that you’d like to overcome, may I recommend joining the Peace Corps? (It’s much cheaper than therapy!)

*One of the guys placed in Uliastai actually came into town later with his supervisor and his supervisor’s family, who had decided to make a family road trip out of the whole thing and drove from UB to Uliastai, taking the PCV with them.

8 thoughts on “Into the Black Hole of Mongolia

  1. Hi Melinda,

    I came across your blog thanks to googling ‘Uliastai Hospital’… I work for a medical assistance company and am trying to find out some information about the hospital so that I can give some advice to a TV crew who will be coming to the region in the near future to do a wildlife documentary.

    I’d be really grateful if you could tell me anything about the hospital – how big it is, what kind of diagnostic facilities it has, what kind of services it provides, what the ambulance(s) are like, etc. If you have any phone numbers or email addresses for the hospital, that would be great too.

    I don’t know how quickly you’re likely to see this message, but I only have a few days to gather this information, so even if it’s just a few quick thoughts from you, that would be a big help.

    It looks like an amazing – if pretty remote – place you’re in. Incredibly beautiful too. Good luck with the spiders!

    • Thanks for your interest! The general hospital in Uliastai (there’s also a women’s/maternity hospital and a children’s hospital in the same compound) is quite large: it has 261 employees (including 44 doctors and 123 nurses) and 200 patient beds. It has all the basic hospital departments, including emergency room (although much smaller and less busy than any American ER I’ve ever seen), various diagnostic and screening tools (including some fancy blood testing machines, X-ray and ultrasound; there may be more things that I just didn’t see on my short tour), several operating rooms, general outpatient department, and departments for cancer, infectious diseases, internal medicine, cardiovascular disease, mental health, ophthalmology, ENT, and dentistry. The ambulance I rode in was nothing like an American ambulance. It was basically a van with a gurney and a few medical supplies in the back.
      The woman’s/maternity hospital has your basic gynecology/obstetrics services and breast, cervical, and ovarian cancer screening and treatment.
      The children’s hospital has general inpatient and outpatient services for infants, children, and adolescents, as well as a counseling and STI/HIV screening and treatment center for adolescents.
      I’m sure I missed some things but that’s what I remember at this moment.

  2. Thank you so much, that’s really, really helpful!

    Also quite surprising in a way… It sounds like it’s more capable than I might expect for somewhere relatively small and so relatively far away from anywhere else. Even if it is the capital of the province.

    One of my really good friends did several years with the Peace Corps in Jordan, and it always sounded like she had a really interesting time. It sounds like you will too!

    Thanks again!

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  5. First time I read a comment on the many many spiders that may accompany you in your ger. I toured in Mongolia in 2015 and first I thought it was only close to lakes that spider invasions occured. But no, it was in different gers throughout Mongolia. You speak about 20 a day, I remember uncountable numbers! They were everywhere and even fell on your head while sleeping. Do you know a bit more about the what and why (do they all shelter or something, because you don’t see them on the grass outside? or do you? i mean if there would be so many outside, the grass would be like a big moving body 😦 ). It is so weird because you never read about it. Best kept Mongolian secret ever. I toured in july/august. If you know more, please let me know.

    • It was definitely a summer occurrence, as all the spiders and other bugs disappeared/died/hibernated during the colder months (so about 7-8 months out of the year where I was). I have no idea why they hung out in the gers, but they were outside as well. I remember finding them around my wood stack when I would chop firewood, and I saw them on hikes as well. I think they’re just more noticeable when they’re inside your home and not out in the wide open wilderness (where they should stay, in my opinion!).

      • Thanks for replying. My daughter said to me yesterday when I told her about your blog that she saw them crawling around on a sandy beach at one of the northern lakes as well (where indeed our ger was full of them also). When hiking you won’t spot them as easily I suppose . Which is good 🙂

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