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.

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The Other Side of PST

Shortly after Naadam, I left my site once again to come to Darkhan for the second half of the M26 cohort’s Pre-Service Training (PST). As I mentioned in a previous post, myself, another M25 Health PCV, and a Mongolian Technical Coordinator were responsible for training the 12 Health Trainees for the remainder of PST. My first day back in Darkhan was a Wednesday, which was the day that our group of Trainees had cross-culture sessions in the afternoon instead of health technical sessions, so I didn’t actually get a chance to meet them that day. But things got off to a great (note heavy sarcasm) start when the other Health trainers and I were informed that one of our Trainees would be leaving to go back to America. So my first session with our Trainees was kicked off with the PST Director announcing to the group that one of their friends was leaving, which set a not-exactly-positive mood for the rest of the session (and PST, to be honest).

Many of our sessions during the second half were joint sessions, with the Trainees and Mongolian counterparts from their practicum sites. These sessions were the most difficult because information and instructions for activities had to be given in both English and Mongolian, so they took longer. The Trainees also had to try to communicate with the counterparts during the activities, which was complicated when different counterparts showed up to each session or didn’t show up at all.

A couple weeks into second half, we lost another one of our Health Trainees, which further dampened the spirits of the remaining 10. I obviously can’t mention details, but let’s just say our group was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Our typical day consisted of going into the PST office at 9am (while the Trainees were in their Mongolian language class) and preparing for that afternoon’s session or whatever else needed to be done. Then after lunch, we would either go to the school in their training community (Mangirt) for technical session, go to the health department for joint session, or divide up to visit the Trainees at their practicum sites. Wednesdays were our “office days,” when we didn’t have to go anywhere in the afternoon because our Trainees had cross-culture sessions with another training team. We usually wrapped up around 5:30pm, though many times we had to stay much later to write up session reports and evaluations. We also had staff meetings every Monday morning.

We usually had weekends free, but sometimes we helped out with other PST activities. For example, our Trainees had a “ger visit” one Saturday, where they all went over to one of the Trainee’s ger so their LCFs and us Resource Volunteers (who both live in gers) could talk about traditions and beliefs Mongolian have regarding gers and how to live in a ger. We also went to their Host Family Appreciation Day, which consisted of a khorkhog by the river. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian dish that is made by taking your skinned sheep or goat…

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Nope, things like this don’t even faze me anymore

…cutting it into pieces…

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…along with the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, etc.)…

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…putting the meat, veggies, stones heated on a fire, some water, and a bit of spices into a large metal container…

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…then closing and sealing the container and leaving it on the fire for about an hour…

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…until it comes out looking like this:

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone (while still burning hot) and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

We also had other food to munch on…

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…gave out certificates to the host families…

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…waded in the river…

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…and made water balloons:

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The last week of PST consisted of Final Center Days and Supervisor’s Conference. All the Trainees came back into Darkhan for their final sessions with Peace Corps staff. On the first day, they finally had their long-awaited site announcements!

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

I had found out through the Peace Corps grapevine that my aimag, Zavkhan, was only getting one new PCV from the M26 group, despite there being 69 of them swearing in and only 21 aimags in Mongolia for them to be sorted into. Only 2 other aimags only got one newbie, and one of those is a tiny aimag with a very small population. Some people say it’s because Zavkhan got 5 volunteers last year, but we’re not the only aimag that got that many last year, and those other ones got more than 1 new volunteer. A few aimags got 6 new volunteers this year, so some aimags have a total of 9 PCVs now!

And only 2 of my M26 Healthies got sent to the western region, so now there’s only 3 Health PCVs in that whole region (including me; yes, I was the only M25 Health PCV sent to the west), which is weird considering there’s now a total of 19 Health Volunteers in Mongolia, only 3 of which are in the west (and there’s only 3 regions, so it would make more sense for there to be like 6 in each region). I mean, the west is the best (our unofficial motto), but it’s also the poorest region with the worst health indicators and could really use more Health Volunteers. But whatever, I won’t pretend I understand the intricacies of the PC site placement process.

Anyway, our new sitemate is a CYD Volunteer who will be working at the school that one of our recently-departed M24 sitemates worked at (although he was a TEFL Volunteer). Originally, PC was going to put another TEFLer in Uliastai, but me and my fellow Zavkhan Resource Volunteer convinced them that our site had a greater need for a CYD Volunteer, since our only one had finished her service this summer. And we apparently (according to the other trainers) got the best of the CYD Trainees, so I guess having one super amazing sitemate is better than a handful of sub-par ones.

The rest of Final Center Days mostly consisted of additional sessions on PC policy, admin stuff, medical, safety and security, etc., some of which myself and the other Resource Volunteers helped out with. Then on Thursday, the supervisors from the HCAs came in to meet their new Volunteers:

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Then there were more sessions, some with the PCTs separate from the supervisors, some with them together.

On Friday after the last session of Final Center Days, we had a rehearsal for the Swearing-In Ceremony. Unlike our PST last year, where we went to UB for our Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, the M26 cohort’s Swearing-In was at the theater in Darkhan. The ceremony itself was on Saturday morning, and it turned out very nicely.

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After a few speeches, the Trainees took the oath of service and officially became Volunteers. Then the Regional Managers handed out certificates to each newly-minted PCV.

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One person from each of the three programs (TEFL, CYD, Health) had been chosen to give a short speech (in Mongolian), and my new sitemate was the representative for CYD (told you she was the best). Then there were a few cultural performances, including a mash-up of the “Cups” song and a Mongolian song that we all learn during PST…

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…a traditional Mongolian dance (bringing back memories from last PST)…

…and a Mongolian song sung by one of the new Volunteers whose voice was so good that some Mongolians in the audience were literally brought to tears:

The ceremony was followed by a reception, lots of photos, and then everyone heading back to the hotel to pack their things and get on the bus to UB to head off to their sites.

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The next day, we had a short debriefing meeting before going to the river once again for a PST staff picnic, which was (of course) another khorkhog, but with a lot more fruit…

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…and failed jumping pictures:

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The next morning, we checked out of our apartment and headed to UB, where I would have my mid-service medical and dental exams before going for our M25 Mid-Service Training (MST).

Project at a Children’s Summer Camp

A couple days after Naadam we were told that we would be going to a children’s summer camp one day next week with our LCFs and our technical session trainers and that we needed to prepare activities for the kids. Well, that sounds like fun, right? Except no one seemed to have any details on how many kids would be there, how old they were, how long we would be there, etc. One person told us there would be over 100 kids, but they still weren’t sure of the ages. So we decided to split the kids into 6 groups and do rotations through 6 different activities, with 2 of us leading each activity. One station would be dancing, one singing, one drawing, one playing games, one playing soccer, and one teaching English. The day before the camp there were still no more details on the number and ages of kids that would be there, but our LCFs told us to be at the school by 8:45 so that we could leave at 9:00 to head to the camp, which they said was about 30 minutes away, and that we would be returning late in the afternoon. So that night I told my host family that I wouldn’t be coming home for lunch the next day because we would be eating at the camp, but that I would be back by late afternoon.

The next morning, we all gathered at the school at the agreed upon time, and they told us that there would actually only be about 30-something kids, so we had to figure out whether to have really small groups or to just cut a couple of the activities. We didn’t leave until after 9:30 because that’s just how things roll in Mongolia, but finally we all packed into a meeker (a Russian van often used for travel here) to head out. After we got out of the city we pulled onto a dirt road and proceeded to go off-roading for another 45-ish minutes (I told you, time is not really an important concept here), surrounded by nothing but grassy fields and rolling hills.

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Once we got closer to the camp, there were also tons of trees, which don’t seem to exist in Darkhan

Once we got closer to the camp, there were also tons of trees, which don’t seem to exist in Darkhan

Our meeker was also a nice fancy one that had a TV screen where they would play music videos, so we got to listen to everything from Mongolian pop to PSY to Pitbull and Kesha.

I don't know what this is, but we watched it

I don’t know what this is, but we watched it

Finally we arrived at the camp!

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The camp staff took us to a large room in one of the dorms and told us to rest for about 45 minutes because the kids weren’t ready for our sessions yet.

Resting...

Resting…

They later came in and told us that we would only have about an hour and a half with the kids before lunch and that we couldn’t do any sessions with them after lunch because there would be other stuff going on. So we decided to only do 3 of our sessions in a rotation with 3 groups based on age (since there were kids ranging in age from 7 to 18): singing, dancing, and games. I was in the singing group, where one of our guys played the ukulele and we taught them a couple American songs:

"Take Me Out to the Ball Game"

“Take Me Out to the Ball Game”

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”

And then the kids tried to teach us the Mongolian version of “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” but our Mongolian language skills were much worse than their English skills, so they at least had fun laughing at us.

Here’s us pretending we know what’s going on

Here’s us pretending we know what’s going on

Since I was busy with the singing group for all 3 rotations, I didn’t get to see the other activities, but they supposedly went pretty well.

We then had lunch in the camp’s cafeteria, which actually was not too bad: vegetable soup, something that looked like huushuur but was apparently some kind of Russian food, bread, and tea. After lunch we were told to take another break, so a couple of us taught our LCFs and a couple other Mongolians how to play UNO. After that break our LCFs gave each of us a sheet of questions that we had to ask to 4 different kids to have us practice our Mongolian. Once that was done, we were given free time with the kids. The boys went off to play soccer while some of us girls played volleyball with a few of the kids. There was one little girl who wanted to play volleyball with us for almost 2 hours, so I got quite a workout from that.

How can you say “no” to that face?

How can you say “no” to that face?

By this point the mayor of Darkhan had also shown up with his family, because apparently he has nothing better to do than hang out with us Peace Corps people. His 2 kids were a couple of the ones we played volleyball with! He had come to prepare dinner for us, which consisted of kebabs and khorkhog, which is a traditional Mongolian meal where pieces of meat (we had mutton, of course), potatoes, and carrots and a bunch of stones heated in a fire are placed in alternating layers in a cooking pot that’s then sealed and regularly shaken while it cooks for about 30 minutes. Then after everything is cooked and taken out of the pot, they pass around the stones (which are still burning hot at this point) for each person to juggle between their hands “for good health” (because nothing says “good health” like 3rd degree burns!). But the food itself was amazing! It’s crazy how just cooking mutton differently can make it taste so much better.

Taking the veggies out

Taking the veggies out

Taking the meat out (those black things are the stones they cooked it with, and what we had to pass around)

Taking the meat out (those black things are the stones they cooked it with, and what we had to pass around)

Before we left the camp, we saw the kids participating in a group dance exercise that they apparently do every morning and evening. It looked like a lot of fun so we joined in!

By this time we were already much later than we had told our host families that we would be, and of course there was no phone reception where we were. But then the mayor wanted to take us to a family’s ranch right next to the camp where they would let us ride one of their horses, and we certainly wanted to do that!

Oh yeah, I could definitely live there!

Oh yeah, I could definitely live there!

It ended up being more of a pony ride, because Peace Corp’s policy is that Trainees and Volunteers must wear a helmet when riding a horse, and since we didn’t have helmets with us, they agreed to just let us sit on the horse while the owner led him around in a circle. It was still lots of fun though, and I got to ride/sit on my first Mongolian horse!

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After everyone got a chance to ride the horse, we finally headed back to Dereven. It was after 9 (and almost dark) when we finally got home, which you may notice is about 4 hours later than we had told our families we would be. They were pretty worried, but it was worth it for all the fun we had at the camp!