About Zavkhan and Uliastai

I mentioned a while ago that I would talk more about Zavkhan and Uliastai in an upcoming post, and what better time to do that than now?

Zavkhan aimag

Zavkhan is an aimag (province) in the Western part of Mongolia.

Location of Zavkhan (the star represents Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia)

Location of Zavkhan (the star represents Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia)

I previously referred to it as the black hole of Mongolia because of how difficult it is to travel through the region, what with all the mountains and deserts and terribly maintained roads (or lack of roads at all). In fact, the whole Western region of the country is pretty dang remote, so much so that Peace Corps no longer sends Volunteers out to Bayan-Ulgii aimag (the westernmost one) or Uvs aimag (the one to the northwest of Zavkhan) precisely because of how isolated and hard-to-reach PCVs who lived in those provinces before were.

The population of Zavkhan as of 2011 was 65,481, making it the 8th least populous and having the 8th smallest population density (0.79 people/km2) of Mongolia’s 21 aimags (after all those in the Gobi, because who wants to live there?).  Population growth in the aimag actually stopped back in 1994 (at 103,150) and has been steadily decreasing ever since. I guess people don’t like living in a black hole much more than they like living in the Gobi.

It’s a shame really, because Zavkhan is a beautiful place. The terrain ranges from the tall mountains and forests of the Khangai Mountain Range in the east:

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including Otgontenger, the highest peak in the range (4,031 m/13,225 ft) and the only one capped with a permanent glacier:

But it's one of Mongolia's four sacred mountains, so don't even think about climbing it

But it’s one of Mongolia’s three most sacred mountains, so don’t even think about climbing it (seriously, it’s forbidden by law)

to the broad steppe of the north:

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to the sand dunes of the edge of the Gobi desert in the west and southwest:

surrounding giant lakes, because screw the desert (BTW, this is Bayan Nuur, or "Rich Lake")

…surrounding giant lakes, because screw the desert (BTW, this is Bayan Nuur, or “Rich Lake”)

Who says Mongolia doesn't have white sandy beaches?

Who says Mongolia doesn’t have white sandy beaches? (this would be Khar Nuur, or “Black Lake”)

to the Great Lakes Depression in the far west:

Looks like I have a lot of sightseeing to do over the next 2 years!

Zavkhan is often referred to as the coldest aimag in Mongolia, though this is largely due to the fact that it contains a few soums that get much colder than other places. For example, Tosontsengel, the largest soum in Zavkhan after the capital, has recorded temperatures as low as -52.9 degrees C/-63.2 degrees F. And although winters are bitterly cold in Zavkhan, they’re also very dry, so I have very little risk of being buried in a blizzard (freezing to death by other means is still a possibility though).

Uliastai

Uliastai is the aimag center (capital) of Zavkhan. As you can see from this lovely topographic map of Mongolia and all its aimags’ capitals, Uliastai has quite a few mountains surrounding it and between it and Ulaanbaatar (UB):

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I had to look up why Russia was labeled “Russland.” This is apparently a German map.

There are buses and meekers (vans) that regularly travel between UB and Uliastai, but considering that’s over 1000 km on unpaved, poorly maintained, mountainous roads, you’re looking at 40-60 hours of bumpy, crowded travel surrounded by a bunch of strangers who will definitely be staring at you–the foreigner–for the entirety of the trip. And you can have this wonderful experience all for the low low price of 48,000 tugriks (about $27)! Or you can travel via the same method we originally arrived in Uliastai–airplane. The airport is about 45 minutes outside the city (as it’s hard to land airplanes in a small valley literally surrounded by mountains), has one unpaved runway, and only has 3 flights a week during summer (2 a week during winter, or “most of the year”). Flights are only 2 hours long, but all this convenience comes with the hefty price tag of about 240,000 tugriks (about $133) one-way. Now, I realize that may not seem too expensive, but remember, we PCVs don’t really get “paid” so much as we get a “living allowance” to pay our rent and utilities and buy food and other stuff we need to–y’know–live. So when a round-trip plane ticket costs  significantly more money than we get in a single month, it is officially “expensive.” Which really sucks when there are literally only flights between Uliastai and UB; if you want to fly to even a neighboring aimag, you actually have to first fly to UB, and then from UB fly to that other aimag.

But if you’re only going to a neighboring aimag, then just take the bus or a meeker! It’ll be a much shorter trip than the ride to UB, so it can’t be that bad, some of you may be thinking. But that’s the problem: there are very, very few meekers (and no buses) that regularly go to and from other places, so your only option is usually to privately hire a meeker driver to take you to your destination, which is expensive as hell unless you have a bunch of friends going with you on your trip to split the cost with. Most aimag centers in the central and eastern regions of Mongolia have many more transportation options, including a freakin’ train! But not us. Such is life in “the black hole.”

Anyway, Uliastai is a city of 15,460 people (as of 2012). Like the rest of Zavkhan, its population has seen a decline in recent years. Back in 2000 its population was 24,276, making it the 10th most populous city in Mongolia, but yeah, not anymore. Yet for some reason, there are at least 4 new apartment buildings currently under construction in the city, so they’re either expecting a whole lot of new residents, or the city has more money than it knows what to do with.

The city experiences a lovely subarctic climate, with “long, dry, very cold winters and short, warm summers.” Pretty much all the precipitation falls between June and August, and I get to look forward to an average of 5.3 hours of sunlight per day come December! So, yeah, if someone wants to send me one of those “happy lights” for an early Christmas present before I succumb to seasonal affective disorder, it would be much appreciated.

Uliastai is–as I mentioned–surrounded by mountains, and it’s located in a river valley where the Chigestai and Bogdiin Gol rivers converge. It is actually one of the oldest settlements in Mongolia, originally founded in 1733 as a military post by the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty’s rule of Mongolia. And despite its modern reputation as one of the most remote aimag capitals in the country, Uliastai was once an important center of caravan trade.

The city doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions (as it’s not exactly a tourist hotspot; see “black hole” above), but there are two museums: the Zavkhan Aimag History Museum:

Which has a lovely display dedicated to the torture of Mongolians under the Qing Dynasty (yeah, Mongolians really don't like the Chinese_

Which has a lovely exhibit showing the torture of Mongolians under the Qing Dynasty (yeah, Mongolians really don’t like China)

and the Museum of Famous People:

which features such people as the first Zavkhan resident to scale Mt. Everest

which features such people as the first Zavkhan resident to scale Mt. Everest

There’s also a cool pavilion with a bunch of stupas on top of a hill right in the middle of the city, called Javkhlant Tolgoi (literally, “magnificent peak”) that gives a nice view of the city:

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and a small Buddhist temple further down on that same hill:

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Other than that, there’s not much here except lots of hiking. Not that I mind too much. Living in a small, remote aimag capital like this allows me to experience some of the more traditional aspects of Mongolian life while still having some of the luxuries I wouldn’t find in a soum.

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What I’ve Been Up To

So, I realize my last post was about me being sick and then I kinda just dropped off the map for a few weeks, but I’m here to tell you that I am alive and well! I actually started feeling 100% again just a few days after my post about being sick, but I haven’t been online much partly because I’ve been pretty busy (but in a good way) and partly because I haven’t been able to connect to my neighbor’s wifi like I was before (and I am not going to go to them and ask them what the deal is, as they’ve graciously allowed me to steal their wifi for over a month now, with no cost to me). I did get a modem (for free, from one of the PCVs who recently left), but unfortunately it happens to be for the service provider with the slowest internet connection in town, but at least I can still get online.

But life in general is going well. Here are some of the things that have been going on the past few weeks:

  • There was a huge, aimag-wide chess competition going on for several days. And I mean huge! There were a total of 9999 students taking place in the competition (so, basically all the students in the aimag), school was cancelled for days, students from all the different soums throughout Zavkhan came into Uliastai for the final rounds of competition, and there was a fancy “closing ceremony” in the brand new stadium here in town.
Complete with a giant chess board no less

Complete with a giant chess board no less

The ceremony included musical performances by a bunch of students playing the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle),

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announcement of the winners in each age and gender group,

Boys...

Boys…

...and girls

…and girls

and an appearance by the president of the World Chess Federation, a Russian man named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov:

He's the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

He’s the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

Turns out, he’s kind of a big deal. Along with being the president of the World Chess Federation since 1995, he was the President of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia from 1993 to 2010 and is a multi-millionaire. So while the whole enormous chess competition thing was pretty amazing by itself, having an important international politician and businessman show up ensured that reporters from all the national news stations in Mongolia were there, which is how I ended up being on Mongolian TV (in the background of course–we just happened to be sitting right behind where the important guy was giving his speech). Oh, and they gave him a horse as a gift, because that’s something that happens in Mongolia.

Did you think I was kidding?

Did you think I was kidding?

  • I went to a concert with some of my coworkers from the health department. The headliner was a relatively famous Mongolian singer, B. Khangal, who also happens to be a doctor, because why the hell not?

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  • I started helping out a couple of the TEFL PCVs here in Uliastai with their English classes for students that take place every Saturday at the local library, which is funded in part by Bookbridge. We have one-hour classes for 3 different age groups (including lots and lots of games), and given the current surge in the number of students coming each week, we may need to create an additional class or two to accommodate all the students.
Notice the kids standing in the back; that's because there were no where near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

Notice the kids standing in the back; that’s because there were nowhere near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

  • My supervisor and I started teaching a seminar on STIs (which are a huge problem in Mongolia) for the high school and college students in Uliastai (ok, she teaches, since it’s all in Mongolian, and I helped plan the seminar, assist with things that don’t require a lot of language skills during the actual seminars, and analyze the results from the pre- and post-tests we give to the students). So far we’ve done the seminar for the college students and high school students from 3 of the 5 schools in the city. The plan is to do this STI seminar at each of the schools, then rotate through the schools again with seminars on other health issues (smoking, alcohol, etc.)
  • I had my first site visit by my Peace Corps Regional Manager. Twice a year, PC staff travel all around the country to visit each and every one of us PCVs to make sure everything is going well with our living conditions and at our HCAs. So the Regional Manager for our good ‘ol Western region came out here to visit each of our homes (note: my ger is still awesome, she informed me) and to sit down and chat with our coworkers at our HCA. Not much else to say about that, since the whole 50-hour work week issue had been resolved already and the people at the health department didn’t appear to be begging her to send a different PCV to replace me, so it was pretty uneventful, but a nice visit nonetheless.
  • Last weekend my site mates, some Mongolian friends, and I celebrated my birthday! On Saturday we taught our regular English classes at the library, followed by some shopping, and then we had “Monglish” night, birthday edition. What is “Monglish” night, you ask? Well, every Saturday evening we PCVs here in Uliastai (and the 2 out in the soums, if they can make it into town) hang out and have dinner with Mongolians we’ve met (whether through our HCA, community projects, or by chance) so that they can practice speaking English with us and we can practice speaking Mongolian with them. So this was another one of those nights, except my supervisor came and brought a birthday cake…
...and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

…and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

A couple of our Mongolian friends also brought a bottle of wine, because we’re classy (and they know I don’t like beer or vodka, which are the only other drinks available here). There was a huge group of kindergarten teachers at the tables next to us, and they, on the other hand, were enjoying a couple (or twelve) bottles of vodka. The restaurant we were at also plays music  later in the evening, and these teachers started going on to the dance floor and dancing the standard awkward Mongolian circle dance (imagine a bunch of preteens at a middle school dance, and you’ve pretty much got the idea). And then they started coming over to our table and literally dragging us onto the dance floor. Eventually we managed to escape, but it was a quite memorable first birthday in Mongolia.

On Sunday, my site mates and I hung out at one girl’s apartment, eating food (including another cake!), drinking more wine, and playing games. Overall, a very good birthday weekend!

Birthday gifts!

Birthday gifts!