When Work = Sightseeing

A couple weekends ago, my health department had a bunch of visitors from the Mongolian Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Caritas Czech Republic. A few years ago, the WHO and the Czech NGO had established a series of mobile health clinics in some of the more remote parts of Zavkhan. Now they had come back to check how the clinics (and the Zavkhan health system in general) were doing.

Because of all the fancy, important guests, the health department decided to host a retreat on the Saturday they arrived. And since the retreat was going to be at Khar Nuur (Black Lake), which is something of a hot-spot in Zavkhan, our health department representatives said I could come along. Sure, it was on a Saturday, but I don’t mind doing work-related stuff on the weekend if it involves a free trip to someplace cool! And sure, we had to leave at 5 o’clock in the morning and wouldn’t be getting back until late in the evening, but I could just sleep in the purgon on the way (note: I couldn’t).

The bumpy ride to Khar Nuur only took about 3 hours. For some reason, I had thought Khar Nuur was farther away; if I had known it took such a (comparatively) short time to get there, I probably would have tried to make a trip sooner. I had seen photos from my friends and coworkers, and Zavkhan’s Wikipedia page features a satellite photo of the lake, showing the sand dunes that surround it:

Again, khar means “black” in Mongolian, so someone was clearly drinking a bit too much vodka when they named the lake

Holy crap, was it beautiful! Luckily my coworkers didn’t seem to know where exactly we were supposed to go, so we ended up driving almost halfway around the lake before they figured it out and turned around, letting me see a great deal of scenery.

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Desert sand dunes and snow-capped mountains surround the bizarrely blue lake

The beautiful retreat location

The beautiful retreat location

Our job was to set up the interior of the ger (because of course it was a ger) before the guests arrived and to help with serving the food and drinks during the luncheon (the main course was fresh fish from the lake!). But of course, being a foreigner, everyone outside of my health department coworkers assumed I was a guest from one of the visiting international organizations and kept insisting I sit down and enjoy the luncheon with the others. Eventually my coworkers just told me to join so that I could schmooze with the English-speaking visitors.

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My coworkers hadn’t told me that we were going anywhere else, but sure enough, as soon as lunch was finished, we quickly cleaned up and packed up the supplies before everyone piled back into the vehicles. While the guests went off to visit one of the mobile health clinics in the area, we drove through the mountains for another hour or so until we reached the place where dinner would be at: another of the mobile health clinics, right on the banks of the Mukhart River:

Yep, that's the mobile health clinic

Yep, that’s the mobile health clinic; perfect since gers were originally designed to be portable homes for nomadic herders

And here's the inside

And here’s the inside

We once again helped set up the ger for dinner, which was khorkhog. But the visitors wouldn’t be there until a little later, so I had some time to go exploring! The Mukhart River forms an oasis in the middle of a large sand dune field.

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But the coolest part of the river is its source, which was just a quick hike away. You see, if you continue upstream, you’ll eventually run into a giant, 12-story wall of sand:

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Whoa, let’s get a closer look at that:

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Yep, the source of the Mukhart River is beneath that huge sand dune. The river springs from underground, making the sand dune atop it look like a large dam. You can actually climb to the top of the dune and then slide down into the water below. Unfortunately, since I was technically there for work, I couldn’t just disappear for a couple hours, and it was a bit too cold to be playing in the water anyway (you may have noticed the patches of snow in several of these photos). But I did vow to come back to both the Mukhart River and Khar Nuur with my sitemates next summer (when it is warm enough to play in the water), especially since I know it’s really not that far away.

So it was a fun trip, and it was nice to get to go somewhere that weekend, since it was not only my birthday weekend but the weekend of the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii aimag. I had originally planned to go to the Eagle Festival this year, but of course, Peace Corps decided to schedule their fall site visits such that our Regional Manager would be visiting us in Zavkhan right around that time. I was so mad when I found out the site visit schedule, since this was my one and only chance to see the Eagle Festival during my Peace Corps service (I couldn’t go last year because we had a travel ban for our first 3 months at site, and I can’t go next year because I’ll be back in America by then). Bummer, but that’s why I was glad to get this other trip in as a consolation prize.

About Zavkhan and Uliastai

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

Zavkhan aimag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to the broad steppe of the north:

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

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

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

Who says Mongolia doesn't have white sandy beaches?

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

to the Great Lakes Depression in the far west:

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

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

Uliastai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the Museum of Famous People:

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

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

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

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

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