Ice Festival and a Poorly-Timed Blizzard

Every year at the beginning of March, there’s an Ice Festival at Huvsgul Lake (Huvsgul is the aimag northeast of Zavkhan, remember?). It’s the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia (by volume), and in winter it’s completely frozen over several feet deep.

Around the same time, some other PCVs in Mongolia found out that there was going to be an Eagle Festival right outside of UB (every year in October there’s an Eagle Festival way out in Bayan-Ulgii, but the Mongolian government finally decided to have another one closer to the capital so that everyone who doesn’t live in the farthest west corner of Mongolia can experience it). I really wanted to go since it would be my last chance, and I had only used 2 of the 48 vacation days Peace Corps gives us during our service, so I decided to take a week off (since UB isn’t exactly around the corner either) to go to the Eagle Festival with a bunch of other PCVs.

And then I found out that a Mongolian friend of ours was driving up to the Ice Festival with his wife and son and would be able to take me along. And since, if you’ll remember from the nightmarish trip from Uliastai to Huvsgul last summer when I went up for the reindeer camp, the only way to get there is to either take the super long way through UB and then back west again, or go the direct way in a private vehicle. I had no desire to relive the super long way, so the only way I would be able to go to Ice Festival was with this friend. The Ice Festival was scheduled for the first Thursday and Friday of March, while the Eagle Festival was that Saturday. My plan was to take the bus from Huvsgul to UB later that Friday, which would get me into UB early Saturday morning with plenty of time to meet up with the other PCVs to head to the Eagle Festival. But…that’s not exactly what happened.

The trip started out great. We left Uliastai early evening on Tuesday and drove until a little before midnight, when we stopped to sleep at the home of a friend of a friend. Then we drove all day Wednesday and finally arrived in Murun (the capital of Huvsgul), where we stayed with their relatives. The next morning we drove up to the lake for the first day of the festival.

It was ice galore! The festival itself was on the frozen lake:

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there was ice-skating:

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horse-drawn sleds:

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an ice slide:

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and an ice sculpture competition:

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Those gers in the background of the photo above were all places where you could get out of the cold for a bit and have some hot food and milk tea. There was also a large shopping area where people were selling clothes, souvenirs, and everything in between:

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There were various competitions going on throughout the festival as well, but the only one I saw was the horse sled race.

And then the whole walking around on ice with a camera in my hand caught up to me, as I slipped and fell while my camera flew out of my hand and smashed on the ice a good 30 feet away. It was beyond salvation, as the lens had shattered and wouldn’t even retract. It was just a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot, but it was brand new that my parents had send to me from America after my old camera broke during Shine Jil. I was doing so well with cameras in Mongolia until I managed to break two in less than three months. So that put a bit of a damper on the festivities, but luckily I had brought my iPhone and was able to still take some pictures (even if they were poor quality photos since my iPhone is several years old).

By late afternoon, it had started snowing a lot. My Mongolian friends had gone to find a place to stay for the night before they continued their trip up to Russia, and I had met up with a PCV who lives in Murun and another volunteer who works at the Murun Bookbridge center. The snow and wind got so bad that we had to seek shelter in one of the gers until the bus back to Murun would be leaving. Finally making our way back to the bus proved difficult, as it was now a full-on blizzard.

Good luck finding your vehicle in this!

Good luck finding your vehicle in this!

After trudging through the snow, fighting against the wind, and slipping and falling on the ice some more, we finally made it to a bus that was heading to Murun! The blizzard was so bad that the normally 1-1.5 hour ride took about 3.5 hours. You couldn’t see 3 feet in front of you, and snow and ice stuck to the windshield so much that one of the windshield wipers broke, so then we had to stop every 10 minutes or so for the driver to go outside and scrape the windshield clear. But that didn’t improve visibility too much, so then they just left the door open and had another guy hang out of it to look at the road ahead and tell the driver “left” or “right” so he didn’t send us careening off the road.

The worst of it had passed by the time we finally got into Murun that evening, but the next morning we all received a text from PC/Mongolia saying that the snowstorm had spread across a large part of the country and had shut down all transportation into and out of UB. But it was already nice and sunny again in Khuvsgul so I didn’t think there would be issues for long since the storm had already passed over the route I needed.

Unfortunately (a bit of an understatement), when I went to the bus station later that afternoon for the 6pm overnight bus to UB, I was told that the road to UB was still shut down and no buses would be leaving until the next day (which didn’t help me since the Eagle Festival was the next day, and I was still 14 hours away from UB). I asked if any mikrs or taxis or anything were heading to UB, but they said the Department of Transportation had blocked all the roads, so no one could come or go.

Later I called the PCV who was organizing the mikr for us to take to the Eagle Festival to see if she had heard anything about the blizzard affecting the schedule (with me hoping they would maybe postpone it until the next day so I–and a ton of other people who were stuck outside of UB–could still go), but the festival was still on for that Saturday. I guess all the eagle hunters had come into UB days ahead of time and so the snowstorm hadn’t affected them.

Buses from Murun started running again the next morning, so I got to spend the whole Saturday that I was supposed to be enjoying with friends at Eagle Fest on a long, boring bus ride with a bunch of strangers.

It sucked 😦

Then I just spent a couple days in UB drowning my sorrows in pizza, Burger King, and Cinnabon, before the flight back to Zavkhan (I had bought a plane ticket ahead of time because I was not taking that long-ass bus ride back to site by myself).

On a much happier note, in just a couple days my sitemate and I are heading back to UB to go on a trip to Japan! It will be the first time either of us have left Mongolia since we arrived almost two years ago, so words can’t express how excited we are to spend 10 days in Japan (with a few days in UB on either end)! This trip is actually the main reason I had had my parents send me the new camera, so as luck would have it, I ended up breaking it right before the trip! I still haven’t decided if I’ll buy a new camera in UB, during our layover in Seoul, or on our first day in Japan, or if I’ll just make do with my iPhone and my older, also-broken-but-still-somewhat-functional camera.

Trip to the Gobi: Camels, Sand Dunes, and Running through the Desert

I finally made it to the Gobi! And it’s all thanks to Peace Corps/Mongolia needing to review the Health and CYD programs here!

Let me back up.

We found out during MST that the Health and CYD sectors here in Mongolia are going to be under review for the next couple of years. Apparently this happens quite often in Peace Corps and is just a chance to determine whether the programs are actually doing what they’re meant to do and to restructure the sectors to make them better for PCVs and the HCAs they work with. The project review won’t affect Health and CYD Volunteers already in country (the M25s and M26s), but for the next 1-2 years, Peace Corps/Mongolia won’t be bringing in new Volunteers for those sectors while they work on revamping them (so the next 1 or 2 PSTs will be solely for TEFL Trainees).

Before we headed back to our sites at the end of MST, we were told that PC staff would be interviewing us current Health and CYD PCVs at some point in the future to get feedback about the sectors. Well, “some point in the future” ended up being less than 2 weeks after we got back to site. Lo and behold, all the Healthies and CYDers got an email from PC saying that we would need to come in to UB a couple weeks later for focus group interviews. Oh darn, looks like another free trip to UB…

So how does the Gobi factor into all this?

During MST, one of the PCVs who lives in Omnogovi aimag discussed his plan to arrange a tour of the Gobi Desert on the weekend of the annual Gobi Marathon. I listened to his plans and considered going, but given how expensive and time-consuming it would be to go from Zavkhan to UB, then UB to Omnogovi, stay the weekend, and then doing it again on the way back, I couldn’t really justify it. But then I got the email from PC about the project review focus groups! Which happened to be scheduled for the Tuesday right after the Gobi Marathon!

Even so, it wouldn’t have worked out had there been seats available on the flight from Zavkhan to UB for the Saturday before the focus group, which is when PC had planned to fly us in (that’s what happens when you wait until 10 days before a flight to try to book seats). Had we flown in on Saturday, I wouldn’t have made it to Omnogovi in time for the tour and marathon. But since there were no seats on the plane, we (that is, me and our M26 CYDer) would have to instead take the bus from Zavkhan to UB.

I’ve already told you about the bus ride from hell that was my first trip on the Zavkhan-UB bus, but since there were no other options, I decided to make the best of the situation by leaving site a few days early and spending a couple vacation days in the Gobi. I would have to pay for the round trip transportation from UB to Omnogovi, but Peace Corps was obviously footing the bill for the bus ride from Zavkhan to UB and the return flight to Zavkhan afterward. And since I had to be in UB anyway for the focus group, I only had to take 2 of my vacation days, as opposed to the 6 or so I would have had to take otherwise.

Anyway, my sitemate and I left at 9am on Thursday morning (new PCVs aren’t allowed to leave site for their first 3 months unless for official PC or medical business, so she obviously couldn’t come with me to the Gobi, but I convinced PC to let her take the earlier bus with me so that she wouldn’t have to take it alone later in the week). Miraculously, this trip to UB ended up only taking 23 hours! For comparison, the previously mentioned bus ride from hell took 35 hours, and even that return trip took 26. So this was a new record for me.

The bus from UB to Dalanzadgad (the capital of Omnogovi) left at 4pm on Friday, so I hung out at the PC office until then while my sitemate went off to the hostel. The second bus ride only took about 9 hours, because even though the physical distance from Dalanzadgad to UB is only a little less than the distance from Uliastai to UB, the entire road to Dalanzadgad is paved and the route doesn’t require going hours out of the way to get around mountain ranges.

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So I arrived in Dalanzadgad a little after 1 in the morning, was picked up by the aforementioned resident M25, and was brought to his ger where the other Gobi adventurers were sleeping. I didn’t get much sleep though, because we were off at 7:30am for the start of our tour!

The 10 of us took a purgon ride out to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the western part of the aimag, where we rode camels:

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I rode the white one!

I rode the white one!

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and climbed to the top of Khongoryn Els, aka the “Singing Sand Dunes:”

The pictures don't capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots are horses

The pictures don’t capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots in the center of the photo are horses

I don’t know how high the specific dune we climbed was, but the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els can get as tall as 300 meters (that’s almost 1,000 feet for my fellow metric-challenged Americans)!

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That dot in the top-left is our purgon

The incline

The incline

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It. Was. So. Freakin’. Exhausting! If you’ve ever walked on sand over even a slight incline, you know how exponentially more difficult it is than walking on dirt or pavement. Now imagine that, but climbing to a height almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Each step required so much effort, but if you stopped to rest for too long, the wind would bury your feet in even more sand, trapping you. But finally, slowly, we made it to the top!

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The other side of the dune we climbed

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Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Then we ran back down the dunes (sadly, we didn’t have anything to slide down on), which took all of 2 minutes compared to the hour or so it took us to climb up:

Hope you're not afraid of heights!

Hope you’re not afraid of heights!

We piled back into the purgon, which took us to a ger camp close to where the Gobi Marathon would be taking place the next day. Luckily, the ger camp had showers, which we all took advantage of since we had sand just about everywhere on our bodies from the dunes.

We woke up super early (again) the next morning to get to the starting location for the Gobi Marathon. It’s hard to really give directions to a specific location in the middle of the desert, so we first went to where we knew the finish line would be: at the Flaming Cliffs, one of the main tourist destinations in Omnogovi and the site of the first dinosaur egg discovery (along with many other dinosaur fossils). Then we just followed the red ribbons that marked the marathon path backwards until we found the start.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m actually a real runner or anything, I must admit that I had no intentions of running the full marathon. Or the half. No, I was running the 16km. The shortest distance was the 10km, but since I had already run one of those before, I decided to up the ante. Never mind that I had gone running exactly twice since being in Mongolia and was hardly in my pre-Peace Corps running shape.

Oh, let's not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

Oh, let’s not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

The Gobi Marathon isn’t exactly a huge event, though a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (and sometimes staff!) do go pretty much every year. It’s organized by a German dude who lives in and runs tours out of UB, and I got the sense that he has the marathon each year simply because he enjoys it (because I can’t imagine it makes him a lot of money). There were only 2 people running the full marathon:

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A handful of people ran or walked the half marathon, including a couple elderly German women who walked with their dog:

Who of course got a racing bib as well

Who of course got a racing bib as well

There were only 2 of us running the 16km: myself and one of the other PCVs. And then another handful of people ran the 10km, including 2 other PCVs (the rest of the PCVs who came were there for encouragement and to help pass out the refreshments every 5km).

The other girl running the 16km was way ahead of me from the start, so I was literally running for 10 miles surrounded by this:

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I managed to keep a steady jogging pace for the first 5km, but after that I had to alternate between jogging and walking for a bit. The last leg of the course was the toughest, requiring getting up a fairly steep hill and then a steady incline to the top of the Flaming Cliffs.

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

After nearly 2 hours, I finally made it to the finish line, where I was greeted by the PCV “support team” and plenty of refreshments. Now I can officially say I came in second place in a 16km race (because is it really that important to mention that there were only 2 people in the race?).

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When the girls running the 10km finished up, we all took plenty of photos of the beautiful scenery:

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And after ensuring that the half-marathon walkers (including the dog!) made it back safely…

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…we piled into the purgon for the ride back to Dalanzadgad. The eventful, exhausting, amazing Gobi weekend came to a close, and I went back up to UB for the project review focus groups.

I won’t bore you with the details of that, but there were focus groups for the M25 Health PCVs, the M25 CYD PCVs, and the M26 Health and CYD groups. Peace Corps had also asked a small group of M25 TEFL PCVs to come in. The focus groups were facilitated by experts from the PC headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Health/CYD Program Managers from other PC countries in the Eastern Europe/Mediterranean/Asia region. We were asked questions like “what is working well for you professionally/culturally,” “what isn’t working well,” “what suggestions do you have to make the program better,” etc.

Our focus group took just 2 hours (though we definitely could have kept the discussion going for a lot longer), and since PC did manage to get us seats on the flight back to Zavkhan (which happens to not be until Saturday), my sitemate and I got a few extra days to hang out in UB. For those counting, that’s 10 days away from site for a 2-hour interview. Such is life in Peace Corps/Mongolia.

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!

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!

The Joys Leading Up To Reindeer Camp

Every summer, a group of PCVs from around Mongolia and a few Mongolian CPs from Huvsgul aimag take a trip up to the taiga in the far north of Huvsgul to visit and hold camps with the reindeer herders who live there. I will talk more about the reindeer herders–known as the Dukha, or the Tsaatan in Mongolian–in my next post.

Anyway, earlier this year, the PCVs in Huvsgul in charge of the Reindeer Camp sent out information and an application to those interested in going to this year’s camp. Reindeer Camp is very competitive. There are 2 “sides” of the taiga where the herders live: East and West. For each side, only 2 TEFL, 2 CYD, and 2 Health Volunteers are selected to go (plus a couple group leaders and Mongolian CPs), in order to prevent the tiny camps the herders live in from being completely overrun with a huge group of foreigners. And the M24s were given precedence since this is obviously their last chance to go before they leave Mongolia. But I applied anyway because I really wanted to see reindeer while I’m in Mongolia (which I’ve discovered is quite complicated) and since the Health sector is the smallest here in Mongolia, I figured I had a better chance of actually being selected.

And selected I was! I’ll be going to the East Taiga very soon! I’m super excited, but the days leading up to my departure have been…stressful, to say the least.

For one thing, Huvsgul aimag is just to the northeast of Zavkhan aimag, where I live:

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So you’d think it would be fairly simple to get from Uliastai, the capital of one aimag, to Murun, the capital of a neighboring aimag. I mean, there’s even a road (unpaved, but still) connecting them!

As my brilliant Microsoft Paint skills highlight here

As my brilliant Microsoft Paint skills highlight here

But of course, nothing is that simple in Mongolia–certainly not when you live in the “black hole.” There isn’t really public transportation from Zavkhan to most of its neighboring aimags, unless you want to pay to charter a car or mikr (microbus) to take you somewhere, but that’s not feasible for one person. Almost everyone told me I would just have to take the bus from Uliastai to UB, and then another bus from UB to Murun. For the record, that’s a 24-30 hour bus ride, followed by another 14 hour bus ride:

Yes, that makes much more sense...

Yes, that makes much more sense…

I knew that bus trip across half the freakin’ country would not be fun, so I enlisted the help of some of my Mongolian friends to try to find a ride to Huvsgul around the time I would be leaving. The teachers from one of Ulaistai’s schools were taking a trip up to Huvsgul, but they were leaving a week before I needed to be up there, so I couldn’t justify being away from work for several days and having to crash at one of the Murun PCV’s homes for that long. Then there was a mikr that would be taking university students up to Huvsgul after their last exams (I assume they are actually from Huvsgul), but it turns out that they were already tying to fit 21 students in there, so there was definitely no room for me.

So I resigned myself to taking the super-long bus trip to UB, as I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on a plane ticket (if there were flights straight from Uliastai to Murun, I probably would have done that, but pretty much all domestic flights in Mongolia are through UB)

So on Monday I bought my bus ticket to UB (my supervisor helped me get a window seat so I could rest my head against it to sleep, and she made sure they wouldn’t put a man in the seat next to me for safety reasons). Monday morning was also when I found out that my khashaa family wanted to take back the wooden floor that my ger is built on (the health department owns my ger but my khashaa family owns the wooden floor) because they want to sell it (I guess they really need money for something because it apparently couldn’t wait a couple weeks until I’m back from the Reindeer Camp).

So I was told I had to pack up all my things in my ger that day so that they could take it down while I’m gone. My supervisor and I went back to my ger to try to pack up all the stuff that actually belongs to me (as opposed to the furniture which is the health department’s) while at the same time trying to figure out what I need for the Reindeer Camp to make sure it didn’t get packed away. Then after lunch we went back with a coworker who has an SUV to take all the boxes to the health department. They put all the stuff I don’t need for the Reindeer Camp into the basement of the health department, and I stayed the night in one of the health department’s “hotel rooms.”

The health department doesn’t have a wooden floor to put my ger on yet, so they’re going to have me come back and stay in the hotel room between when I come back from the Reindeer Camp and when I leave for the second half of PST (which is thankfully only about 8 days), then they’ll hopefully have my ger set back up when I come back to Zavkhan for good at the end of August.

So yeah, that was my excitement the day before heading off to UB. Nothing like coming into work and being told you have to go back home and pack up all your possessions in just a few hours!

Also, when I went to get my bus ticket, I found out that the buses now leave at 2pm instead of 9am, so while that at least gave me time to pack for the trip on Tuesday since I obviously didn’t have time to do that on Monday, it will be cutting it close in terms of arriving in UB to catch the bus to Huvsgul, the last of which leaves at 6pm on Wednesday (and we’re supposed to all be in Murun by Thursday morning).

I will obviously have a nice, long post about the Reindeer Camp when I get back, though that won’t be for about 3 weeks! Wish me luck on my travels!