Leaving the Taiga

We left the camp bright and early on Saturday morning. Our group leader used the satellite phone to inform Peace Corps staff that we were about to head out on the horse trek, only to have the Director of Programming & Training be rather confused as to why we were leaving 2 days early.

That’s right: somehow we had spent the entire week thinking we were supposed to leave on Saturday, when the plan had actually been all along to leave on Monday. We had put we were leaving on Monday on the Leave Request Forms we had submitted to PC weeks earlier, the other group who went to the West Taiga knew to leave on Monday, but somehow all 8 of us got it stuck in our heads that we were leaving on Saturday. Throughout the week there were times when we would ask each other what the date was, and the answer always seemed too early, considering I knew we were supposed to arrive back in Murun on June 30, but I never gave it much thought, nor did anyone else apparently. To be fair, everyone at the camp (including the CP who we had arranged everything with) also thought we were leaving on Saturday, though they may have gotten that from us. Again, none of us are quite sure how this happened, but both groups had been talking when we were at the ger camp in Tsagaannuur about asking PC if we could stay an extra day at the ger camp when we returned from the reindeer camps (to get some rest between the long horse trek and the longer purgon ride back to Murun). But it seems our group subconsciously was going to make us stay at the ger camp an extra 2 days no matter what.

Anyway, since we were already all packed and the horses and guides were ready to go by the time we found out about our little mistake, PC told us to go ahead and leave anyway. To be honest, I was a little upset about us leaving early, as there were other activities we had wanted to do with the reindeer herders but didn’t have time for (or so we thought), but by that point they were expecting us to leave, so we did.
The horse ride back was significantly faster, partly because it was downhill more of the way but mostly because our guides were eager to get to the drop-off point because they were going to turn around and go back to their camp that same day.

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So we spent a large portion of the trek at a trot or canter, with some of us even galloping at points. Five hours later, we arrived at the drop-off point, but since the driver who was supposed to take us back to Tsagaannuur thought we were arriving Monday afternoon, we had to call him to pick us up (which we had to wait to do since there was no phone reception on the way). He arrived 2 and a half hours later, even though it shouldn’t have taken much more than an hour.

So we were all very tired from waking up super early, horse trekking (quickly) across 55 km of mountains and forests, and waiting in the middle of nowhere for hours. And then on the way back to town, our purgon was stopped at a bridge (a bridge that we had no problem going through on our way to the drop-off point the week before). Our driver got out and talked to the guys manning the gate in front of the bridge, who then came over to us waiting in the purgon and told us we had to pay 12,000 tugriks (about $6) to cross the bridge. He had 2 small pieces of paper with the Mongolian word for “tourist” on them along with  a price of 6,000. We tried to explain to them that we weren’t tourists, that we live and work in Mongolia (I mean, we were speaking to them in Mongolian), but they seemed to think that the Korean-American PCV among us was our Mongolian translator/tour guide and we were tourists. This went on for almost 20 minutes, with us refusing to budge, not so much because of the money (which was a tiny amount when split between the 8 of us) but because we knew they were trying to rip us off. It was especially annoying since our driver was one of the ones who had driven us up from Murun, and he knew we weren’t tourists, but he didn’t say anything to back us up. The bridge trolls finally said they were going into town and would be back in an hour, and we heard them mention the Mongolian word for “police.” We decided we would rather just get our bags out of the purgon and walk the rest of the way than pay the stupid toll, so we got out and asked the driver to let us get our bags out of the back because we were going to walk. He seemed ready to laugh at us, as we were still quite a ways from town and he obviously thought we were joking, but we weren’t playing around. Since he didn’t seem to want to wait around for an hour for the police to show up, he paid another bridge troll the toll (supposedly, though we think it was a front, as it’s not like corruption doesn’t exist here). He told us to get back in the purgon and took us into town. We needed to stop at a store in town for some snacks since we would be staying at the ger camp for 2 days. So we got out and went into a shop, only to come back out and not see our purgon or driver anywhere. We thought he had gone to get the police, but he finally showed up 10 minutes later. He took us to the ger camp, and we thought he was going to try to charge us more than the previously agreed upon 5,000 tugriks each to make us pay for the toll anyway (though, again, we saw him give the guy some money but it definitely wasn’t 12,000 and we do think it was some kind of front), but he didn’t even try that on us, probably because he figured if we were willing to walk with all our shit into town to avoid paying a toll, we were not going to be screwed with by him trying to charge us more for the ride.
The next day, the lady who runs the ger camp had us doing manual labor for most of the day. She wanted rock paths leading from the gers to the dining hall and bathrooms, and we agreed to help out since she’s always been super nice to PCVs: she gives us a discount price for staying at the camp and doesn’t charge us for using the showers or taking the canoes and kayaks out on the lake (which we did later that day). She even let us use the kitchen to cook our own meals, since we had some food left over and not enough money to pay for meals at the camp along with our lodging. A couple groups of tourists stayed at the camp briefly, and she asked us not to talk to them about how much (or little) we paid to stay there (or how we didn’t have to pay for the showers and canoes). We figured it was also nice that those tourists saw us working around the camp in case they found out about how much less we were paying, since we were doing plenty enough work to cover much of our expenses.

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Monday was a very chill day. We all slept in again, the boys finished the little that was left of the rock path, and we waited for the arrival of the PCVs from the West Taiga. They got to the ger camp a little after 7. We ate dinner and then had a meeting to debrief how the trips to both sides had gone.
The 2 purgons came to pick us up the next morning at 9. After packing up, we went into town because most of us needed to take out money from the bank. We finally left Tsagaannuur around 10:30, but one of the purgons kept breaking down. Twice we had to stop for an hour while the drivers tried to fix it up, so the normally 10-hour drive took closer to 13 hours.
The next morning in Murun I did laundry and bought my bus ticket back to UB. Our bus left at around 7 in the evening, so we had the whole night to rest for when we arrived in UB the next morning. Except the woman sitting beside me kept reaching over me and opening the window, so I was awakened by freezing cold air blasting my face throughout the night.

We got into UB earlier than expected (before 9) and spent the morning at the PC office returning the helmets we had borrowed for the horse trek (as per PC requirements), having coffee and chatting with the Country Director, and filling out reimbursement forms for travel costs to and from the reindeer camp (since PC/Mongolia has grant money this summer to reimburse some of the travel costs PCVs incur while working at camps throughout the country). Then I went back to the hostel to take a shower, followed by lunch at a pizza place. I went to the bus station to buy a ticket back to site, but all the seats were sold out until the Monday morning bus, meaning I would be in UB with some other PCVs for 4th of July weekend!
On the evening of the 3rd, we went to watch a fellow PCV and his friend perform at a local bar/cafe. Then on the 4th a few of us who were in town for various reasons went to lunch at a little restaurant popular among expats that was having 4th of July specials, including buy 1 get 1 free hotdogs and good prices on apple pie. While heading back with a few others, we stopped by an art gallery, hung out in Chinggis Square, and had drinks at a bar.

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Then we went our separate ways, with me going back to the hostel, where a larger group of PCVs were busy getting drunk and later going out, while I just chilled out for the rest of the evening (until a couple of the girls dragged me out for a mojito). There were some fireworks that were shot off from the square (which is conveniently half a block from the hostel), so that was a nice end to the 4th.
The next day was my last full day in UB. Most of the others at the hostel headed back to their sites, so I had a day of chilling out and eating in to make up for all the money I’d spent the previous few days.
The bus to Uliastai left at 9 the next morning, and I was at least riding with one of my sitemates. The ride was significantly shorter than the ride from Uliastai to UB I had taken 3 weeks earlier: something about not having the bus break down on a regular basis and not stopping to take breaks every 2 hours do a lot to make a bus ride shorter. The only issue we ran into was that the bus got stuck in sand at like 4 in the morning, so everyone had to get off the bus into the chilly night air while a bunch of people tried to push it out of the sand. But on the plus side, the bridge was fixed so we didn’t have to walk across it in the dead of night while the bus went around. In the end, the bus trip only took 26 hours compared to the 35 hours of before.
Since my ger had been taken down, I was still having to stay at the health department. Which meant all my coworkers knew when I got back and expected me to just hop right back into work, despite getting very little sleep on the bus the night before. But then it was Naadam, which meant several days of vacation. Unfortunately, the entire weekend and into the next week was nothing but chilly, rainy weather. Because the weather was so bad (and because the health department is much further away from the stadium than my khashaa would have been if I was still at my ger), I really only got to see the opening ceremony. But you can check out my post from last year’s Naadam if you really want to see what it’s all about.

Later today I am heading back to Darkhan to begin my stint as a Resource Volunteer for the second half of PST. Let the next adventure begin!

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Reindeer Project in the East Taiga

After several days of traveling by bus, purgon, and horse, we had arrived at the East Taiga reindeer herders’ summer camp.

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The East Taiga, which is north of Tsagaannuur and close to the Russian border, is home to about 20 reindeer herding families and roughly 150 reindeer. There are many more herders and reindeer in the West Taiga, which is more spread out, but in all, Mongolia has less than 300 people who identify as Dukha (Tsaatan) and only about 650 domesticated reindeer.

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The Dukha are nomadic herders who live and travel in small communities. Their reindeer are central to their lives and each day is structured around all the chores necessary to care for the reindeer. At the camp we stayed at, the herders tied up the adult reindeer near their teepees* during the night, while the babies were allowed to run free.

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And munch on lichen

And munch on lichen

Then at 6 in the morning, the women would wake up and go set the adult reindeer free and tie up the babies. During the day, the women made milk tea, yogurt, and cheese from the reindeer milk.

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These dairy products make up a large portion of their diet, which they supplement with meat from wild animals they hunt in the forest (they only kill the reindeer for meat if they are very old or sick). During the day, they also gather firewood and keep track of where the reindeer are grazing. In the evening, the herders would go out and herd the reindeer back into the camp, milk the mothers, and set the babies free again.

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The Dukha teach their children at a young age how to care for the reindeer: children learn to ride the reindeer very early and help with the herding, and girls help their mothers milk the reindeer.

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Many families with children move to Tsagaannuur during the school year (or at least for the winter) so that they can be closer to their children, who go to the school in Tsagaannuur.

For more detailed information about the Dukha, you can check out this publication, Changing Taiga: Challenges for Mongolia’s Reindeer Herders.
During our stay, we each slept at a different host families’ teepee, but had our own teepee for cooking our meals and planning/holding our lessons.

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Two of my fellow PCVs with a few of the girls inside our teepee

Two of my fellow PCVs with a few of the girls inside our teepee

Our teepee had a dirt floor, 2 wooden beds/benches, and a wood burning stove. We were told to hang all the bags of food because the camp dogs might come into our teepee and rummage through the bags. We got all our water from the river, which was conveniently only 30 feet from our teepee. There was no electricity. We went to the bathroom in the bushes, etc., etc., and all the other hardcore camping stuff.

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Our first full day at the camp, a group of kids popped over by our teepee, so we decided to go ahead and start our activities. We told them to go get all the other kids so we could do our morning stretches/exercises. Throughout the morning and early afternoon, we had kids dropping by.

Playing games with the kids

Playing games with the kids

We played games with them outside, but then it rained for several hours, so we had the kids come inside our teepee and draw and talk about themselves.

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Later in the day, a few of us went on a hike just outside the camp.

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In the evening, the kids came back and we played more games.

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The next day the weather was much nicer, so we had our meeting with everyone in the camp to discuss why we were there and to distribute our donations (clothes, soap, toothbrushes, and toothpaste).

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That afternoon, some of the boys wanted us to go with them to their watering hole for a swim. We decided it was too cold to do much more than wade, but we watched the boys playing around for a bit.

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Then they took a couple of us on a hike up a very steep, rocky mountain. But it was worth it because we got an amazing view of the entire valley and their camp.

Yeah, those little white dots would be the teepees

Yeah, those little white dots would be the teepees

And zooming in a little with my camera, we could even see the reindeer herds moving

And zooming in a little with my camera, we could even see the reindeer herds moving

That evening, we did some teamwork exercises disguised as relay races (ok, so we were really just having them do relay races for fun, but I’ve got to make it sound like we did actual work, right?)

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The next day John (the other Health PCV) and I did a lesson with the kids on nutrition (while also incorporating some English), where we discussed the different food groups in a “food teepee”:

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Other activities we did included English lessons, toothbrushing, origami, making friendship bracelets, and just playing with the kids (running around outside is exercise, so that counts as a health session, right?). But it was often difficult to gather people for sessions: the adults were working most of the day and groups of kids would go off fishing or something. And when we did have kids, there was often a wide range of ages: the older kids knew some English (and were eager to learn more) while the younger ones didn’t know any, making it difficult to have one lesson at a time. It’s also difficult to lead a health session for a group of kids between the ages of 3 and 16.

On our last full day at the camp, we went with some of the herders and the older kids to move rocks from the path that leads from the camp up the mountain, as the rocks are bad for the horses to walk on (you may remember us having to get off the horses and walk down the mountain when we arrived at the camp).

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And because we all wanted the chance (and photos!) to ride a reindeer, we went to our host families to ask if we could ride one:

This reindeer decided to run through half the camp with me on his back before I could get him to stop

This reindeer decided to run through half the camp with me on his back before I could get him to stop

Then in the evening, we had a talent show, where the kids performed songs and dances they had prepared for us. The talent show eventually turned into a dance party, until it was too late (and too cold) to go on.

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The next morning is when we departed the camp, which I’ll talk about in my next post.

 

*I call them teepees, though the correct term is ortz (or chum in parts of Russia).

By the way, I took a few videos during the trip that have now been uploaded to my YouTube channel if you want to check them out.

And I shall end with this photo of a bunch of reindeer peeking into our teepee

And I shall end with this funny photo of a bunch of reindeer peeking into our teepee

The Long Journey to the Taiga

I am back from my trip to the taiga to visit the reindeer herders, and after uploading several hundred photos, I’m ready to write about the experience. There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m expecting to have 3 posts about the trip. This one will be about the multi-day trip from my site to the camp where we would be staying for the duration of the Reindeer Project (as Peace Corps wants us to call it instead of Reindeer Camp). Since there’s not much else to do on a crazy-long bus ride, I took pretty detailed notes of what was happening as it happened.

As I mentioned in my last post, the bus from Uliastai to UB was supposed to leave at 2pm rather than 9am. Things didn’t get off to a great start as the bus didn’t really leave until a little after 3 because we were waiting for like half the people on the bus to show up. Then we finally started moving around 3:20 only to stop at the first gas station we came across. They filled the bus with gas and apparently discovered some mechanical issue with the bus because we stayed there for almost 30 minutes while a bunch of men went out to mess around with the bus. At 3:45 we finally left the gas station only to stop less than 2 minutes later at a shop for people to get drinks and snacks. Seriously people?! Maybe prepare a little by bringing some damn food and a water bottle with you on a 27-hour bus ride!
We finally got out of Uliastai around 4pm. So we were already 2 hours behind schedule, and I was not too confident that we’d be making it to UB in time to catch the bus to Huvsgul.
Around 6pm, after driving along the river valley that leads to Uliastai and passing tons of gers and herds of animals…

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…we stopped in the middle of nowhere for what I had hoped would be a quick bathroom break but ending up being a 30-minute long sit-around-and-wait break. Around 8:45 we finally passed the first soum, where we took a–thankfully much shorter–bathroom break.
At 9:15 we stopped again to deal with more mechanical issues (which I think had something to do with the rear axle, but I know next to nothing about cars). I decided that there’s no way in hell I’d be making it to UB in time to catch the 6pm bus to Murun the next day, so I called one of the PCVs in charge of the reindeer project to tell her what was going on. She said I could take the 8am bus to Murun the day after, though that would make me miss an entire day of planning and preparing for the trip with the others. We finally started moving again at 10:30.
Just before midnight we arrived in Tosontsengel, where we stopped at a guanz (canteen/cafeteria) to eat. I had already been munching on all the food I had brought throughout the journey and didn’t feel like eating an actual meal at midnight, right before I was hoping to get some sleep. So I just took a bathroom break, ate a small snack, and waited for the other passengers to finish eating.
At 3 o’clock in the goddamn morning we all had to get off the bus and walk across a bridge while the bus went down a different road a bit upriver (something about a new bridge being built and the old bridge not being strong enough to hold a huge bus and all its passengers). I couldn’t see what they were doing by the bus, but it took over 30 minutes before we met back up with it and could get back on (and it wasn’t exactly warm outside). The only benefit was getting a nice view of the starry sky and Milky Way.
Around 6:30am we stopped briefly in a soum where the lady sitting next to me picked up a kid who I assumed was her son and a bunch more luggage. This lady had already been taking up part of my seat, but now that she had an 8-year-old on her lap and was trying to hold onto 3 bags, she was really squeezing me into the window. The joys of public transportation…
At 9:30 we stopped for another bathroom break/fix-the-bus break in Arkhangai aimag, but at least we stopped next to some beautiful scenery:

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The paved road that they’ve been building for a while from UB out west finally appeared, so the ride was quicker and less bumpy after that. At 11:30 we stopped for another bathroom break and for lunch. I think I slept most of the remainder of the trip, but I know we finally arrived in UB around 1am (which you may notice is 7 hours after the bus I was supposed to take to Huvsgul left, and makes a total of 35 hours on that freakin’ bus).

While I was still on the bus to UB, I had asked another PCV who was taking the later bus to Huvsgul to try to get me a bus ticket. She went to the bus station that evening but apparently they don’t sell tickets past 7:30, although the ticket lady did say there were tickets left. Apparently we didn’t get to the bus station early enough the next morning, because when I went to get my ticket, the lady said they were sold out. I got a ticket for the next bus (3pm) and went to find the other two girls who were taking the 8am bus. The combination of the stress of quickly packing up my ger, being on a bus for 35 hours, and only getting 3 hours of sleep at the hostel caught up to me, and I started crying while the three of us tried to convince the driver to let us squeeze into two seats or begging the passengers already on the bus to switch tickets with me, even offering to throw in some extra money. Either they didn’t understand or didn’t care, but no one took us up on the offer. Maybe the driver felt bad since I was still crying, but he eventually opened up the luggage hatch and let me put my bag in, then led me to a seat in the back of the bus. I don’t know if a passenger just didn’t show up, but I didn’t care and wasn’t going to move now that I was on the bus.
But then a couple hours later during our first rest stop, the driver approached me again and asked for my ticket. He went away with another guy and they both came back saying I needed to pay for my seat since my ticket was for 3pm. Uh, yeah, I thought we had already gone through this back at the bus station. And the driver was the one who had told me to put my luggage on the bus and led me to a seat, but now he was saying I needed to pay the full price of another ticket or wait there until the 3pm bus came by. As I had no desire to stand in the middle of nowhere, alone, for 7 hours, we at least convinced the driver to only make me pay half price. Yay for extortion!
We got into Murun just before 10pm. The other PCVs who were going on the trip had spent the day going over logistics, but those of us who were late were quickly caught up the next morning. We spent that day buying all the food we would need up in the taiga (we would be cooking all our own meals) and organizing and packing the donations we would be giving to the families:

Sorting clothing donations

Sorting clothing donations

The next morning, we packed ourselves and all our luggage into 2 purgons for the bumpy 10-hour ride up to Tsagaannuur, the soum closest to the reindeer herders’ camps.

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The part of northwestern Huvsgul aimag that we were traveling into is in a national Special Protected Area, so we had to get permission beforehand to cross the border.

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That evening we arrived in Tsagaannuur, where we stayed at a ger camp with a great location right on the lake:

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The next morning we divided into our East and West Taiga groups and set off for our respective drop-off points, where each group then took a 6-7-hour horse trek up to their respective camps (as you can’t exactly drive to those remote locations).

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The view

The view

View during our lunch break

View during our lunch break

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders' camp (we each named our horses)

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders’ camp (we each named our horses)

The guides seemed quite intent on getting to the camp as quickly as possible, so we spent a large portion of the ride trotting rather than walking the horses. Our butts and legs were sore for days afterwards!

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

While walking down the mountain, we got our first view of the reindeer!

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Once in the valley, we got back on the horses to ride the rest of the way into the camp, where we were greeted by the families and the camp dogs:

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Kids coming to greet us

Kids coming to greet us

And that is the tale of our journey to the camp; my next post will be about the week that we spent there living among the reindeer herders. Stay tuned!