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!

IST in UB

If you have no idea what the title of this post means, you clearly haven’t checked out the new page on my blog called “Peace Corps Acronyms,” right there at the top of this screen. Go ahead, give it a look. I can wait.

So, now you know that IST is short for In-Service Training, the week-long PC training each Volunteer cohort has after about 3-4 months at site. And UB is short for Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Because my M25 cohort is much larger than previous Volunteer cohorts to come to Mongolia, they decided to split us up by sector and have two ISTs. TEFL is by far our largest sector, with almost 60 PCVs, so they are having their own IST starting this weekend. But the 10 of us Health PCVs and the 12 remaining CYD Volunteers had our own intimate little IST at the beginning of December.

Because there are only 2 flights a week between Uliastai and UB during the winter–and because of when those flights are relative to when our training days happened to fall–I got to come into UB 2 days before IST and stay 3 days after, giving me plenty of relaxation and shopping time!

And 4 hours of pretending I'm flying over Antarctica

And 4 hours of pretending I’m flying over Antarctica

Each PCV gets to bring one of their Mongolian counterparts with them to IST (so that they can actually be included in what we learn through the training), so I brought my supervisor, with whom I’ve done most of my work so far. Conveniently enough, she has relatives who live in UB, and since Peace Corps only provides us with hotel rooms during the actual training days, we both stayed at her relatives’ apartment during those extra days in UB. (Note: I could have stayed at a one of the many hostels in the city for pretty dang cheap, but free is cheaper than cheap, and includes free breakfast and dinner thanks to good old Mongolian hospitality.) Yes, I did bring her relatives a gift to thank them for letting me crash at their place, and then they proceeded to give me a gift before I left, as if to say, “Thanks for sleeping on our couch, using our water and wifi, and eating our food!” only in a completely sincere, non-sarcastic way (because this hospitality thing is no joke).

Anyway, my supervisor and I spent our first few hours in UB chilling at her relatives’ apartment, watching a terrible Mongolian dub of The Starving Games, a parody of The Hunger Games, because Mongolian television is weird. Then we all went to the home of some other relatives of theirs, whose daughter had recently had a baby. They live in one of the many ger districts that surround the center of UB (over half of the residents of UB live in these ger districts). So one minute we were driving along a major city street, and the next we turned right onto a dirt road lined with hashaas (fenced-in yards with wood houses and/or gers), where the people live without access to running water or the sewage system. It literally looked just like a road in any other town or village in Mongolia, except it was right there next to the huge apartment buildings, shopping centers, and tourist attractions of the center of UB.

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

We spent the next day eating Cinnabon and admiring the Christmas* decorations at the State Department Store, a large, Western-style shopping mall.

Yum!

Yummy!

Pretty!

Pretty!

Then we proceeded to go shop elsewhere, because the State Department Store is one of the more expensive places to shop in UB. We ended up at Sunday Plaza, an insanely crowded, multistory building filled with hundreds of stalls where you can buy all kinds of clothes, accessories, home goods, etc. My supervisor needed a new winter coat and I needed some nice warm fuzzy winter boots, so we spent the better part of the afternoon wandering from stall to stall, trying things on, and realizing that–even at this moderately-priced shopping center–we could not afford much of what UB has to offer. She couldn’t get the coat she really, really liked, and I found out that the fur boots that everybody and their grandmother seems to own cost like 350,000 tugriks (or about $190, aka waaaaay more than I would ever spend on a pair of shoes, even in the US). Turns out they’re made from reindeer skin, hence the hefty price tag. But I did find some cheaper, even furrier boots, so I succeeded in acquiring that staple of the Mongolian wardrobe.

The actual training took place at the Park Hotel, which is super nice (especially by Peace Corps standards; the hotel we stayed at during the summer trainings was not even comparable).

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Is that a freakin' bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Is that a freakin’ bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Each training day consisted of 8-9 hours of various seminars including technical sessions (regarding our respective health or CYD work), Mongolian language classes, cross-culture sessions, and administrative stuff. We went to about half of the sessions with our counterparts, and the other sessions had the PCVs and counterparts separated.

We were provided with 3 meals a day by the hotel: buffet breakfasts and 3-course lunches and dinners. They even had real, non-instant coffee, which does not really exist in Mongolia outside of UB, so of course we proceeded to clean the hotel out, until there was absolutely no coffee left (brewed or instant) in the hotel by our last day. Oh, and I got to have lunch with the US Ambassador in Mongolia one of the days (like, sitting across the table from her) and even got a picture with her, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to post it online so I won’t.

Our evenings were spent exchanging media on our external hard drives, watching movies, playing games, and just chilling out with the people we never get to see anymore because we’re spread across the country.

After all of the seminars were over, we went to the Peace Corps office, where they let us all rummage through huge piles and boxes of office supplies and books donated by the embassy for us to take back to our sites. But because my supervisor and I were flying back to Uliastai (and each passenger is only allowed to take 10kg of luggage on the plane), she decided that we would fill up 2 giant boxes of printer paper, binders, miscellaneous other office supplies, and resource books to take back to our health department, but just put them on a truck heading to Uliastai instead of the plane.

So the next day, with the help of some men from a medical equipment company that my supervisor knows/works with, we went to…uh, I don’t even know what to call it. An enormous “parking lot” where rows and rows of trucks heading out to all the different aimags are loaded up with supplies for the shops in each city/soum. A truck depot, I guess? We found a truck that was leaving for Uliastai later that day and had just enough room left to fit our boxes and excess baggage.

Then we went to the Black Market, which is not the underground market for buying illegal drugs, but is  probably one of (if not the) cheapest place to shop in UB, to get a few more things we wanted. We would have stayed longer, but the cheap prices come with a toll: the entire market is outdoors, so with the stupidly cold Mongolian winter temperatures, it’s difficult to stay there too long before you feel your body screaming for warmth.

For my last full day in UB, we went to Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) to get some pictures with the Chinggis Khaan** statue:

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I'm a true Mongolian now!

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I’m a true Mongolian now!

and the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a famous revolutionary:

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Then we ate lunch at Pizza Hut, because pizza:

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My flight back to Uliastai was the next morning (my supervisor was staying a few more days for a Ministry of Health-sponsored training happening in the city). And luckily I had left my hashaa family a spare key to my ger so that they could light a fire in my stove before I arrived so it wouldn’t be -20 degrees inside (a ger left to itself for 10 days in winter is not something you want to come home to).

*Most Mongolians don’t really celebrate Christmas, but they have adopted a lot of the traditional Christmas decorations of the Western world and use them for Shine Jil, or New Year’s. In fact, Mongolians generally don’t realize that what we call Christmas and New Year’s are two completely different holidays that just happen to fall within the same week. So even though they’re not really celebrating Christmas, Shine Jil in Mongolia is quite a big deal and is almost comparable to Christmas in America (in terms of how many people celebrate it and the extent of commercialization). Look forward to hearing more about Shine Jil after we have our health department’s Shine Jil party in a couple weeks!

**Yes, his name was Chinggis Khaan (pronounced ching-gis haan). The whole Genghis Khan spelling/pronunciation comes from centuries of horrible transcription of the Mongolian language. It doesn’t help that the letter “х” in the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is like a harder, throatier English “h” sound, is generally transliterated into the Latin script as “kh,” which we read and pronounce like an English “k.” So yes, the “k” in his name is silent (or at least not pronounced like the “k” we’re used to).