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.

First Trip Away From Site

This past Wednesday, some of my coworkers at the health department asked me if I wanted to come with them on an overnight trip to one of Zavkhan’s soum hospitals for an inspection.

Now, just the previous weekend, some of the PCVs here in Zavkhan had planned to go to Govi-Altai aimag (which borders Zavkhan to the south) to have an early Thanksgiving get-together with the PCVs there and to go to a camel festival that was happening that Sunday. But Peace Corps has this little policy where new Volunteers aren’t allowed to leave their site for the first 3 months (unless it’s work-related travel with their HCA, official Peace Corps business, or travel for medical reasons). Guess when my cohort’s 3-month mark was? November 17th, the day after the freakin’ camel festival! One of the M24s here in Uliastai even called our Regional Manager to see if she would give us some leeway, but no. The M24s still could have gone without us M25s, but they were nice enough to stay and keep us company, and told us we could try to find another camel festival to go to next spring (when it’s not ridiculously cold). I will ride a camel before I leave Mongolia, dammit!

Anyway, I was pretty bummed about that, so when my coworkers invited me on their little trip, I was all for it! Sure, there wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner or camels, but I would be going on a trip! Woohoo! And they even gave me a full 24 hours notice (yes, we left the day after they invited me).

That Thursday after lunch, the 5 of us (me, the director, 2 health department specialists, and the driver) packed into a Land Cruiser for the 3.5-hour drive to Otgon soum, about 130 km southeast of Uliastai. The drive could best be described as “whiplash-inducing”, especially since I ended up in the back middle seat with no headrest, and to say the road was unpaved would be an understatement. But there was plenty of nice scenery to look at, although the windows were so fogged up that I couldn’t really take pictures. We did stop at one point, and I managed to snap a few photos:

Yes, it's been snowing

Yes, it’s been snowing, even in the technically-desert

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But then, disaster struck! While I was handing my camera to one of my coworkers so she could take a picture of the rest of us, she/I accidentally dropped the camera, which (of course) landed lens-down in a pile of snow-covered dirt. We tried to wipe off as much dirt as we could with the one napkin we had, but decided to try to fix it once we got to our destination.

At about 5:30, we finally arrived at the Otgon hospital:

Or "Health Center" if you want to be all technical

Note: photo taken the next day, as my camera was still out of commission at this point

We were shown to our room, which was a patient room with 4 hospital beds. And considering the “hospital” only had 10 beds in total, we were lucky they didn’t have a bunch of inpatients then. You may remember there being 5 of us, so the driver stayed the night at a friend’s home.

First we were served dinner, which consisted of bread and butter, potatoes, extremely fatty beef ribs, blood-filled intestines, and milk tea. I ate as much bread and potatoes as I could to avoid eating too much of the meat/intestines. I really don’t think I’ll ever get used to traditional Mongolian food.

After dinner, we started the hospital inspection while the driver tried to fix my camera (using a needle to try to get the dirt out from around the lens, and putting those valuable medical supplies to good use).

I followed my coworkers as they went around to all the hospital’s rooms, interviewing patients about the care they received there, inspecting the medical equipment and supplies, etc.

Fun fact: there’s no running water out in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia, even in the hospital. So we, along with all the hospital employees and patients, had to use outhouses behind the hospital, and all the sinks inside were “dry sinks” like the one I have in my ger. So I had one night of sleeping in a room with heating, but still had the joy of running to the outhouse in the freezing cold.

After the inspection, we played the one card game that Mongolians seem to know, called khuzur. I’ve mentioned this game before when we played it after a hike with my coworkers a couple months ago, but never really caught on to how to play. I finally found a blog post that actually describes how to play the game (although my coworkers seem to play a slightly different variation). And this time, my coworkers were willing to actually explain it to me so that now I mostly understand what’s going on.

And of course, one of my coworkers busted out a bottle of vodka. Once they started insisting we had to finish the bottle that night, I finally asked why? I’ve noticed that once a bottle of alcohol is opened, Mongolians never stop drinking it until it’s empty. Apparently it has something to do with luck. So we did finish the bottle, with just a little bit of help from me, because I hate vodka unless it’s in a cocktail.

I didn’t sleep too well that night because my director snores like crazy. In the morning we were served more bread and butter and a kind of porridge, then the 2 specialists went off to meet with the hospital workers to discuss what they found during their inspection and offer suggestions. The driver came back and took the director and I down to the river by town to get a view of Otgontenger, the mountain I’ve mentioned before that is the tallest in Zavkhan (and the Khangai range) and capped with a permanent glacier. The driver had managed to fix my camera, so I was able to get pictures!

Ok, so it's still pretty far away. Despite being located in the Otgon region of Zavkhan, the mountain is still about 70 km away from the Otgon soum

Ok, so it’s still pretty far away. Despite being located in the Otgon region of Zavkhan, the mountain is still about 70 km away from Otgon soum

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

After our little sightseeing detour, we headed back to the hospital and played cards again until lunch. My coworkers started eating the leftovers from dinner the night before (which had just been sitting out in the open since then), so I assumed that was our lunch. They forced me to eat a couple pieces of meat, and then a hospital worker came in with a big bowl of fresh buuz. Good thing I just risked food poisoning thinking no other food was coming…

Then the others went off to another meeting while I took a nap because I was really tired after not getting much sleep and not having any coffee. At about 2:30 that afternoon, we got back into the Land Cruiser, and I assumed we were heading back to Uliastai. But not before a “small meeting” with the soum‘s mayor, which ended up being an hour long.

Then we were really on our way back. We got another view of Otgontenger and some more photos:

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About an hour later, we passed by a huge herd of horses:

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It was impossible to capture just how many horses there were in just a few pictures, as there were a ton more over the next hill

It was impossible to capture just how many horses there were in just a few pictures, as there were a ton more over the next hill

We passed by a herder and our driver stopped to ask how many horses were in his herd: 4,000!!! Four-thousand horses and just 4 herders to keep track of them!

In the freezing cold no less

In the freezing cold no less

The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, outside of the continuing whiplash. It was dark when we finally got back to Uliastai, and it was insanely cold in my ger, but it was good to be home.

Oh, remember how I mentioned food poisoning earlier? Yeah, that’s because I was definitely nauseous and throwing up the next morning. My supervisor asked what I had eaten during the trip and also thought that it was something I ate. Mongolians may be perfectly fine eating approaching-rotten meat because they have iron stomachs, but I cannot without suffering the consequences. So I spent the whole day in bed, but I’m feeling much better now!