The Final Summer

This is it: the final summer. I have less than 1 month left in Mongolia. I have completed my practicum project and submitted all the required documents to my graduate school for me to graduate in August. I’ve bought plane tickets for my COS trip (going back to Japan!) and now know exactly when I’ll be arriving home. It’s slowing dawning on me how much I’ll miss this beautiful place I’ve lived in for the past two years and all the amazing people I’ve met.

But just because it’s summer doesn’t mean things are slowing down (okay, they are a little). A couple of my sitemates and I (as well as a few PCVs from other aimags) put on a five-day leadership camp for 7th and 8th grade students here in Uliastai. We had community members hold workshops on leadership, communication, teamwork, relationships, diversity, and environmental protection.

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And of course we had plenty of games and other activities sprinkled throughout, including a nutrition session involving the students making (and then eating) healthier versions of traditional Mongolian foods:

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and a hike to the river on the last day of the camp, followed by a trash pick-up competition:

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Later in June, the Mongolian national and local elections took place. Obviously as Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re not supposed to really discuss politics beyond very general, nonpartisan topics, such as the voting age (16 in Mongolia) and the campaign process, which in Mongolia is quite different than in America. The entire campaign season is barely three weeks. One weekend I was just walking through town and noticed tons of shops and other buildings were draped with posters and photos of the candidates and flags of their respective political parties.

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There were also an abundance of cars driving around with speakers blaring campaign messages, in addition to the numerous speakers set up outside each of the aforementioned shops-turned-campaign-headquarters. Since the whole process is so short, it makes sense that it would be very high-impact, but I must admit that the music blaring from the shops near my home and the messages from the cars that drove around until well after dark got a little tiring. But voting day was on a Wednesday, so I got the day off from work! On a less happy note, all of the PCVs were on “standfast” (a Peace Corps term meaning we couldn’t leave our sites) for the week or so around the election, since in past years there have been riots and such over election results and PC didn’t want us being outside of our communities if something like that happened this time around.

Then the day before the election, all the posters, flags, and speakers had disappeared. Election day itself was pretty uneventful, which was nice after the stories Peace Corps told us about the 2008 elections that ended in riots, burned buildings, and 5 deaths in Ulaanbaatar.

 

The weather has also turned gorgeous! We took advantage of the nice weather this past weekend and finally hiked all the way to the top of the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai (we had attempted the hike last summer, but only got about 3/4 of the way up before realizing we hadn’t really brought enough water and food to complete the hike without some mild suffering and so turned back). This is also the same mountain I hiked earlier in the year to watch the first sunrise of the new year, but on that occasion we had taken a different route to a lower summit.

It took us about 2.5 hours to get to the top, where we were greeted with fields of wildflowers

and a view of Otgontenger, a sacred mountain and the tallest in Zavkhan and the Khangai range

and a view of Otgontenger, a sacred mountain and the tallest in Zavkhan province and the whole Khangai range

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cool rock formations

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a little shrine

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and views of the town.

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We explored the summit for a couple hours, then made our way back down. And although my legs were sore and I got a bit sunburned (long Mongolian winters spent bundled up in several layers of clothes don’t do much for your skin’s tolerance to sunlight), it was an amazing way to really soak in the beauty of Uliastai before I leave.

A Busy Spring

The weeks since COS Conference have been quite busy, hence the lack of blog posts.

I’ve been working hard to finish up my project for my Master’s International program, which has seen pretty much all the delays since I started the community needs assessment back in February of 2015. But my coworkers and I finally managed to conduct two first aid/CPR trainings for secondary school students in Shine Khoroo, a somewhat removed district of Uliastai where most of the families are herders and the older siblings are left in charge of the younger siblings during the school year. And since unintentional injuries like burns are a huge issue among children here, we thought some basic first aid training was important for students who often care for their little brothers and sisters (and it’s never a bad skill to have regardless).

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The project also focuses on accident prevention, so we designed a survey on household accidents for the parents of kindergarten students (2-5 year olds) to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding childhood accidents, prevention, and first aid. The goal was to have about 350 parents complete the survey, but with all the delays, we ended up not being able to get the surveys printed and to the kindergartens until the last week of school. So we ran out of time and were only about to get 165 surveys completed, but it’s better than nothing. Now I get to analyze the results of all those surveys and use them to inform the preliminary design of future educational activities for parents (which will obviously take place after I’m gone). Then it’s just a matter of finishing up my practicum report and I’m all set to graduate with my master’s degree in August!

Another project I’d been working on was a pilot run of Happy Center, an educational and social integration program for youth with disabilities. The first Happy Center was started in Govi-Altai aimag a couple years ago, and the PCVs who developed that program published a manual detailing how to start the program in other aimags. Our M26 PCV wanted to start it in Uliastai, so she worked with our local Children’s Center to get everything organized. Each session consisted of a reading or math lesson, a life skills lesson, and “friendship time” for playing games together with students without disabilities. We ended up having sessions twice a week for 7 weeks, and it went well enough that the program will probably be continued next school year.

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during Friendship time

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during “friendship time”

 

This year, Peace Corps/Mongolia is celebrating its 25th anniversary! Most of the anniversary events will happen in August after our cohort has already left, but in May PC sponsored a tree-planting event. PC funded the purchase of 25 saplings for each aimag, which we (at least in Zavkhan) planted in conjunction with Mongolia’s national tree-planting day.

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But because spring in Mongolia is capricious to say the least, it managed to snow 3 times within a week or so of the tree planting. Luckily the baby trees survived and are now budding and thriving in the warmer, more agreeable weather.

 

June 1 was Children’s Day in Mongolia. My coworkers brought their children to the health department, where the kids had food and drinks and performed songs and dances.

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This adorable little chunk is my coworker's daughter AND my birthday buddy!

This adorable little chunk is my coworker’s daughter AND my birthday buddy!

After that, I met a couple of my sitemates at the local stadium, where the city-wide festivities were taking place. We wandered around for a bit and said hi to some people we know before grabbing food and calling it a day.

 

That weekend, I got to go on a short trip to UB on Peace Corps’ invitation to meet Secretary of State John Kerry, who just happened to be dropping by Mongolia on his way to China for diplomatic talks. The US embassy wanted to briefly showcase Peace Corps/Mongolia for its 25th anniversary during the event, so PC invited a group of current PCVs and former PCVs still living in Mongolia to come to the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the other PCVs who were invited either live in UB or were already in UB for an event at the M27s’ orientation (yep, our newest group of Trainees just arrived!), so why the hell was I there?

Well, the weekend before that, a US congressional delegation visited UB and PC invited the handful of Volunteers who are from the districts represented by those congressmen to come as well. I was one of those PCVs, but Peace Corps ended up having to retract my invitation. The meeting was scheduled for that Saturday morning, but because of Uliastai’s infrequent flight schedule, PC would have had to flown me in the Tuesday before and flown me back the next Tuesday, and they couldn’t justify bringing me in to UB for a whole week on a account of a 2-hour meeting. So they never explicitly said it, but I’m assuming they invited me to the John Kerry thing to make up for having to miss out on the congressional delegation (which I must say, was a favorable trade).

Anyway, we had to arrive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in the morning and wait for Secretary Kerry and the Mongolian Foreign Minister to arrive. They went away for some private discussions, then came back for a press conference, which we got to attend (but PC was pretty adamant about not having us all whip out our cameras and phones to snap a bunch of photos, but there were plenty enough photographers from news stations and the embassy anyway).

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He even mentioned us (Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers) in his comments, the transcript of which can be found here.

After the press conference, Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister came into the next room to shake all our hands, make a few remarks, and take a group photo:

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Photo With a Group of Former and Current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar 1

Then like that, he was gone. He was only in Mongolia for 6 hours, and he had to get on to other things like lunch with the Mongolian president and some cultural events. But I got to meet a famous person and shake his hand, and got a free trip to UB out of it! I would call that a worthwhile weekend!

COS Conference

The last week of April was my cohort’s Close of Service (COS) Conference–aka the start of the home stretch of our Peace Corps service. It was also (at least for my cohort) the last time we would all be together.

I don’t know how other Peace Corps countries work, but in Mongolia, they typically have each cohort COS over a period of about 3 weeks so as to not have a horde of PCVs descending upon the capital at once and all trying to get their COS appointments and paperwork finished at the same time. And even though my cohort’s official COS date is August 16, 2016 (exactly 2 years after we swore in), Country Directors can move a group’s COS date up by no more than a month, typically to accommodate PCVs who go straight into graduate school at the end of their service.

So the first COS week is the second-to-last week of July, which got further complicated by the fact that Mongolia is hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Conference in the middle of July, and it’s a huge deal! The Heads of State of 60 countries are coming into UB for the conference, pretty much all other transportation into and out of the city won’t be running, and the Mongolian government has kindly asked all UB residents to go out into the countryside for a week or so to stay out of the way. The only transportation that will be running is the train line, so the 18 or so PCVs who live along the train line were told ahead of time that they had to leave during the first COS week. For the rest of us, we had a “lottery” at the beginning of the COS Conference for either the second COS week (the last week of July) or the third COS week (the first week of August), and we could trade dates among ourselves. I drew the third week, which is fine for me since–unlike many other people in my cohort–I don’t have grad school or a job or anything lined up for right when I get back to the US, and I would have traded with someone who needed an earlier date had I drawn the second week anyway. The way I see it, we’re all technically going home early, so I can’t complain about being one of the last to leave.

The conference itself was held at a very nice hotel outside of UB, although it was so far outside of UB that it was in the middle of nowhere.

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Hotel

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere

But the hotel was the nicest that we’ve stayed in for any of our PC conferences, probably because they pull out all the stops for the “survivors” who make it the full two years (about 70% of our cohort). The food was amazing: our first meal when we arrived was hot pot, which is surprisingly uncommon outside of major cities here considering hot pot apparently originated in Mongolia many, many centuries ago. Breakfast and lunch each day was a buffet, and we had 3-course dinners every night. And on a non-food-related note, the hotel even had a sauna, which we obviously took advantage of.

The conference consisted of sessions for reflecting on our PC journey,

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providing feedback about our PC service, looking to the future (e.g., networking, resume writing, job search resources for RPCVs), and learning about the logistics of COS itself (which is three days in the capital packed full of things like closing our Mongolian bank account, having our last medical appointments, turning in our Description of Service [the official record of what we did during PC], and meeting with the Country Director, our Regional Manager, and other admin people). We also had our final LPI to prove how much (or how little) our Mongolian improved ver two years.

On the last day, the US Ambassador to Mongolia came to have lunch with us, and in the afternoon our Country Director handed out certificates of completion to each of us.

I have no idea what I'm looking at...

I have no idea what I’m looking at…

Then we took a group photo, the last one with all of us together:

The Survivors, M25

The Survivors, M25

Our flight back to Uliastai was the next day, but after sitting at the airport for almost five hours because our flight kept getting delayed due to a snowstorm that was right over Zavkhan, the airline finally decided to cancel the flight and have us just come back the next morning. So we spent another night in UB, and even though the same storm came over the city that night, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Zavkhan, so we were able to fly back without any additional problems. Such is life in a place where no month of the year is immune to a random snowstorm messing up your schedule.

I now have a little less than three months left in Mongolia (I can officially leave the country any time after 6pm on August 3). I am excited to go back home, but there’s still a lot for me to do here in Mongolia: I need to finish up my practicum project for my Master’s International program so that I can graduate with my master’s degree in August; I need to write my DOS and update my resume to reflect the work I’ve done in PC; and I need to start focusing on job-hunting and my future career.

Peace Corps gives COSing Volunteers two options for returning home: you can either have Peace Corps purchase a plane ticket for you to send you straight back to your “home of record” (with no input from you regarding dates and airlines) or you can take a flat $1400 and arrange your own way home. I plan to travel some more after I COS, so I decided to take the money and run! Which leaves me with another thing to add to my pre-COS to-do list: planning another trip!

Min (Temporarily) in Japan, Part 2

Onto the second half of our trip to Japan!

Day 6

We spent this day exploring more of Kyoto, starting with Kinkaku-ji, aka the “Golden Pavilion.”

Ooooooh! Aaaaaah!

Ooooooh! Aaaaaah!

Then it was off to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its thousands of bright orange torii gates which form tunnels along the trails up the mountain.

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You could easily spend hours exploring the entire shrine and all the hiking trails, but we had an appointment set up to get rental kimono! Kyoto is one of the places in Japan where it is still extremely common to see people dressed in traditional kimono (mostly groups of young women and couples where it’s clear the woman pestered her boyfriend into dressing up with her), and as such it has hundreds of rental shops where people (both Japanese and foreigners) can change into kimono and have their hair done and go out to explore the town, all for a pretty reasonable price (the place we went to ending up being 3000 yen, or a little less than $30, because we made appointments ahead of time). Basically you go in, pick out a kimono, obi (belt), and bag, grab a pair of tabi (socks) and sandals, have the workers dress you up, and then get your hair done. You leave your original clothes and anything else you don’t want to drag around with you at the shop, go off to explore, and then come back to the shop at the end of the day.

After getting dolled up, we visited Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park and basically did photo shoots for each other. It did feel a little weird at first, since most of the other foreigners who dress up in kimono (at least according to the lady at the rental shop we went to) are Koreans, who don’t stick out quite as much as a couple of blonde white girls. (Luckily being two of only a handful of foreigners in an entire province of Mongolia for two years had already given us more than enough experience with being stared at.) But it ended up being a fun experience and we got some great photos!

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We also walked through the Higashiyama District and saw Yasaka Pagoda.

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There were a few other places we had planned to visit, including Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kodai-ji Temple, Chion-in Temple, and Ginkaku-ji (the “Silver Pavilion”), but most temples tend to close by 4 or 5pm so we ran out of time. Needless to say, Kyoto has more than enough things to see and really is a beautiful place!

That evening we went to a public bathhouse called Funaoka Onsen, which is one of the oldest still-functioning sento in Kyoto and is quite famous, with a variety of indoor and outdoor baths and a sauna. So relaxing!

Day 7

We left Kyoto in the morning and took the bullet train again, stopping for a day in Nagoya on the way back to Tokyo. First we spent a couple hours at the Nagoya City Science Museum. Then it was off to Atsuta Shrine, which has a restaurant on its grounds where we ate kishimen noodles, a Nagoya specialty.

In the evening, we went to a cat cafe. Animal cafes (specializing in cats, rabbits, birds, etc.) are really common in Japan. They let people spend time with animals that they might not be able to own, and enjoy a drink and snack as well.

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Our hostel in Nagoya was extremely nice, with a luxurious bathroom and cute little “pods” for each guest.

Ok, so it looked like a mess after I laid out the bedding and threw all my crap in there, but it was comfy as hell!

Ok, so it looked like a mess after I laid out the bedding and threw all my crap in there, but it was comfy as hell!

Day 8

Before leaving the city, we stopped by Nagoya Castle (my sitemate really wanted to see castles). Then it was back on the bullet train to Tokyo.

Near Tokyo Station is a shop called Kyoto-kan, which (as you might have guessed) specializes in all things Kyoto. I was interested in seeing a tea ceremony while we were in Japan, but in general they’re not exactly cheap to attend, so my research led me to Kyoto-kan, which has a teishu (ceremony host) who offers 20-minute tea ceremonies for only 500 yen (a little less than $5). Because there was just the two of us, the teishu even let us try whisking the matcha (powdered green tea) ourselves.

My sitemate whisking match, but not like an egg, because (as we both learned) that's the wrong way

My sitemate whisking matcha, but not like an egg, because (as we both learned) that’s the wrong way

We had originally intended to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace on this day, but as I found out the week before our trip, you can only visit by applying for a guided tour, which they apparently don’t do on the weekends (and all the tours on the other days we were in Tokyo were already booked). So instead we just wandered along the moat that surrounds the palace and the large garden to the north of it.

Then we walked through Kitanomaru Park, famous for its Chidorigafuchi Moat lined with cherry trees.

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We spent the evening in the Akihabara district, aka “Electric Town,” known for its many electronics stores and anime/manga shops. Needless to say, it was very bright and colorful!

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In Akihabara we had dinner at a “maid cafe,” possibly the most Japanese thing I’ve ever heard of; the servers dress and act like maids and all the food is super cutesy.

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Yes, that is pink curry in the top left corner

It was an interesting experience, and the food was really good!

Day 9

This was our last full day in Japan. In the morning, while walking to our first destination, we stopped by Senso-ji Temple again (this time in the daylight), as well as the Nakamise shopping street in front of the temple, got some photos of the Tokyo Skytree, walked along the Sumida River, and stumbled upon Yokoamicho Park, which houses several memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Tokyo air raids of WWII, and other disasters.

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Then we arrived at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which has many interactive exhibits, English on most of the displays, and various performances if you happen to be there at the right time. I highly recommend it!

Later in the day we went to Ueno Park. As it was the beginning of the cherry blossom season (and the weekend), the park was packed with tons of people holding hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties.

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While at the park we visited Toshogu Shrine, Hanazonoinari Shrine, and Shinobazu Pond.

For our last dinner in Japan, we went to a nice Japanese BBQ restaurant (one where you cook your own meat and vegetables on the grill built into your table) and tried some sake. All very yummy!

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Day 10

We left Japan early in the afternoon, had another long layover at the Incheon International Airport in Seoul, and arrived back in Mongolia late that evening. Like before the trip, we spent a couple days in UB to relax before taking the long bus ride back to site and back to the daily grind.

It was an amazing trip and I really do hope to get a chance to go to Japan again some day! There are just so many things to see that one relatively short trip doesn’t cut it, but it was a very much needed trip. I hadn’t left Mongolia in almost 2 years, so it was nice to get out for a bit and experience a (very) different culture, eat amazing food, and have regular access to running water!

Now there’s less than 4 months left of my Peace Corps service, and my next post will be about my cohort’s COS (Close of Service) Conference coming up soon!

The Nine Nines of Winter

Here in Mongolia, winter is traditionally thought of as nine periods of nine days each, or the “Nine Nines of Winter.” Obviously winter in Mongolia lasts longer than 81 days, but the Nines represent the coldest part of winter. The Nines start on the winter solstice (so they started on December 22 in 2015), and each of the Nines is associated with an event related to how cold it supposedly is:

1st Nine: Mongolian vodka (made from milk) freezes

2nd Nine: Regular vodka freezes

3rd Nine: The horns of 3-year-old bulls freeze and fall off

4th Nine: The horns of 4-year-old bulls freeze and fall off

5th Nine: Boiled rice no longer freezes

6th Nine: Roads start to become visible through the snow

7th Nine: Snow on hill tops begins to melt

8th Nine: The ground becomes damp

9th Nine: Warmer days have arrived

Yes, I know most of you can't read this, but it basically says what I just talked about, and I thought the pictures were cute (from http://news.gogo.mn/r/176271)

Yes, I know most of you can’t read this, but it basically says what I just talked about, and I thought the pictures were cute (from http://news.gogo.mn/r/176271)

Today is the first day of the 6th Nine, and I can say the roads are still very much covered in ice and snow, and likely will be for quite some time. Maybe this system was developed by Mongolians in the Gobi or somewhere else warmer than Zavkhan (okay, everywhere in Mongolia is warmer than Zavkhan, but still…). The idea that “warmer” days will have arrived by the end of the Nines (which will be March 12 this year) is laughable. But I guess it’s all relative, and considering the past few weeks we had, it wouldn’t take much to make it “warmer.”

The 4th and 5th Nines are thought to be the coldest, and that was definitely true this year. There were a couple weeks in mid to late January when it was well into the -30s F (-35 to -40 C) every single night, and never even got close to breaking 0 degrees F (-18 C) during the day.

Courtesy of Saruul Sora on Facebook

Different hemispheres and all, but still (photo credit to Saruul Sora on Facebook)

I’ve been chopping so much wood recently to keep the fire in my stove burning that I was really worried for a bit that I had injured my shoulder (it’s better now because I got a little wood-chopping break thanks to my sitemate).

I spend the first hour or so after I get home from work huddling next to my stove, then slowly start taking the layers off as my ger warms up. Even the nights when it got close to -40, I couldn’t keep a fire going all night because that would have required me to wake up several times during the night (I don’t know if it’s the kind of stove I have or just the fact that my ger is relatively large and therefor has more air to heat, but it is impossible to keep it warm without tending to the fire every hour or so, even when I use coal). So instead of keeping warm that way, I go to bed wearing two layers plus my winter deel, sleep in my Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag (rated to -20 degrees F/-29C!), under my down comforter, along with a winter hat and gloves. Then I wake up in the morning, quickly start a fire, then run back under the covers for another 30-40 minutes until my ger is bearable. Even then, I can still see my breath while getting ready in the morning, and all my toiletries (toothpaste, face wash, moisturizer, etc.) are pretty much frozen (but ice crystals are exfoliating, right?). It’s really cold is what I’m saying.

This was predicted to be a particularly harsh winter, and I can say that it’s definitely much colder than last winter. I can’t even escape the cold at work, since the radiators we have at the health department only provide so much heat unless you’re sitting right next to them. So, most of the time I’m wearing my jacket (and sometimes even gloves) in my office at work.

But, the Nines are over half-way through, and even though what I perceive as winter will continue for 3 or 4 more months, the coming above-zero days will feel like a sauna by comparison!

 

Visiting the Smoggy City

I spent a few days last week in UB for a training (ok, the training was only one day but with Zavkhan’s twice-weekly flight schedule, I got to stick around for a few extra days). It was a seminar regarding PC/Mongolia’s  EAP (Emergency Action Plan), so since it concerns the safety and security of PCVs in-country, I probably shouldn’t really talk about here.

So instead, I’ll discuss just how insanely smoggy UB is, particularly in the winter. I knew UB had an air pollution problem, but I just don’t remember it being so bad the couple of times I was there last winter. I guess I didn’t spend as much time walking around outside during my last winter visit, since all the sessions and meals during our IST last year were held at the same hotel we were staying at.

But this time around, I was walking outside a lot, and my lungs did not appreciate the air quality. It was worst in the evening; every time I went out to dinner with friends, I would step out of the restaurant and immediately start hacking my lungs out.

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There’s been several news articles about UB’s air pollution problem since I’ve been in Mongolia, including:

Not that UB’s smog is a new development. I found articles from 2013 that discuss how UB is the second most polluted city in the world–not exactly what you’d expect of a city in the sparsely-populated, wide-open land of Mongolia. But get nearly half of the country’s population living in one city, and then get half of that group of people living in traditional gers and wooden houses in the “ger districts” of UB, and you’re left with well over 500,000 people who all rely on old-fashioned wood and coal-burning stoves to cook food and not freeze to death during the long, harsh winters.

The coal-fueled power plants and growing number of cars on the streets are certainly also contributing to the air pollution, as is the fact that UB is located in a valley surrounded by mountains that reduce air circulation, but air pollution from household stoves is a somewhat unique contributor that other top air pollution cities don’t really deal with.

ub air pollution

The Mongolian government, as well as several international organizations, have been looking into possible solutions, such as cleaner-burning stoves and continuing to expand the public transportation system, but it looks like for now, I’ll just have to appreciate the fresh mountain air of Uliastai even more.

 

MST, and Other Happenings from the Past Few Weeks

After PST was over and all the new PCVs had gone off to their sites, I went to UB to await my cohort’s Mid-Service Training (MST). There was only a week between the M26s’ PST and our M25 MST, and Peace Corps sure as hell wasn’t going to pay for any of us fly-site people to take a plane trip back to site for a few days just to turn around and head right back again. So I literally hung out in UB for a week. Which sounds great, except I had to foot the bill for almost everything (and staying in UB is expensive!), even though Peace Corps hadn’t really given me any other options. I did get reimbursed for a couple of those days, as I had to be in UB for my mid-service medical and dental exams and could write them off as “medical travel,” but I still ended up having to spend a lot of money to stay at the hostel and buy the overpriced food of the big city. Luckily, I had plenty of money saved up (as there’s not much to buy in a small town in the middle of nowhere), so I decided to take advantage of my free time and go all out!

…By which I mean I went around to a bunch of the touristy sites in and around UB. Yes, I know how to party.

My first stop was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a large Buddhist monastery smack dab in the middle of the city.

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That building on the left houses a statue of the boddhisattva Avalokiteśvara (which likely means nothing to you if you’re not Buddhist), which is apparently the tallest indoor statue in the world, at 87 ft (26.5 m).

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The next day, I went to the southern part of the city to visit the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan and the Zaisan Memorial. The Winter Palace was one of the four residences of the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (spiritual head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism) who later became the emperor of Mongolia (the Bogd Khan) when it declared independence from the Qing dynasty of China in 1911. The Bogd Khan was the theocratic ruler of Mongolia until his death in 1924, after which the communist government of the Mongolian People’s Republic came into power.

Anyway, now the palace is a museum and tourist attraction. I was able to get some pictures of the outside of the buildings, but they had a strict “no photography” policy inside, so I have no photos of all the cool stuff the museum had, like the fancy jeweled decorations worn by the Bogd Khan’s pet elephant (because of course he had a pet elephant).

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On the way to my next stop, I saw a giant Buddha statue…

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…and then made it to the base of the Zaisan Memorial hill. The memorial honors Soviet soldiers killed during World War II, and at the base of the hill is a tank memorial, featuring a Soviet tank sponsored by Mongolia and that participated in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

It even comes with a map of its journey from Moscow to Berlin

It even comes with a map of its journey from Moscow to Berlin

Then I climbed a bunch of steps to the top of the hill, where the main memorial is.

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There’s a circular painting depicting scenes of friendship and support between Mongolia and the Soviet Union:

This scene shows Soviet support for Mongolia's declaration of independence

This scene shows Soviet support for Mongolia’s declaration of independence

Here's the defeat of the Japanese by a joint Mongolian/Soviet effort during a border conflict in 1939

Here’s the defeat of the Japanese by a joint Mongolian/Soviet effort during a border conflict in 1939

And here's the defeat of Nazi Germany

And here’s the defeat of Nazi Germany

and the hill offered a great view of UB:

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There was also a guy with an eagle that you could pay 3,000 tugriks ($1.50) to hold and get pictures taken, so of course I did that:

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The following day, two guys at the hostel and I decided to take a tour to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is one of the most famous and scenic of Mongolia’s national parks. It’s not too far from UB, so it’s a really popular tourist destination. We were only doing a day trip, so we didn’t get to see much of the park (it’s pretty damn big), but we went on a hike up to a monastery, which had an amazing view.

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We ate lunch, then went off to see “Turtle Rock.”

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After our brief trip to the park, we headed to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue (I refuse to spell it your silly, wrong way, Wikipedia).

Which is literally a giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan on a horse

Which is literally a giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan on a horse

You could even go up inside the statue and walk out on the horse’s head, in order to get face-to-face with Chinggis…

He's always watching...

He’s always watching…

Or to look out at the (quite underwhelming, especially after Terelj) surrounding view:

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After checking out the statue and the museum underneath it, we went back to the hostel for a nice rest.

Finally, it was time for MST. It was held at the same resort that the PDM workshop had been held at back in April, about an hour outside of UB. MST was the first time some of us had seen each other in a year, since Health and CYD had a separate IST from the TEFL group. It was a time to reflect on our first year of service and to look ahead and plan for our second year. We also had a few Mongolian language classes, as well as our second Language Proficiency Interview (LPI). Our first LPI–basically a 30-minute discussion with a Mongolian teacher used to rate your level of language proficiency–was at the end of PST last summer. I was pretty nervous about how this LPI would go. I had done well on my first one, but that was after a summer of 4-hour Mongolian classes every weekday. I fell out of the habit of studying soon after I got to site, and even though I obviously have to speak a ton of Mongolian at site, it’s always in the same situations (shopping for groceries, taking a taxi, at work at the health department, etc.), so my vocabulary has probably decreased. In any case, I have one more LPI to look forward to, at our COS conference next spring!

MST was Monday through Friday, and then it was (finally) back to Uliastai on Saturday. My ger had been reconstructed (after it was taken down to replace the wooden floor at the beginning of the summer), but for whatever reason my electricity hadn’t been reconnected, so I without power for the first 4 days I was back. It also rained almost every day that first week back, so I quickly discovered that my ger floods from rainwater seeping in along the floor (an issue which I’m still working to get resolved). And there was the general unpacking of all my belongings that I had to pack up right before they took my ger down. So it’s been kinda stressful.

But the weekend after that stressful week was filled with hanging out with my sitemates, including our new M26. On Friday evening, we got together to make dinner and to discuss our plans for community projects for the next year (community English classes, “Monglish” nights, benefit concert 2.0, and several new projects that are in the works–so stay tuned!).

Then on Saturday we went on our first hike of autumn (though how many more we’ll be able to go on before winter hits is questionable, considering it’s already getting below freezing at night).

Our destination: that cliff

Our destination: that cliff

Why yes, I do live in one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia

Why yes, I do live in one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia

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View of Uliastai

View of Uliastai

The ladies of Zavkhan (photo credit to Travis, who's so lucky to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with us)

The ladies of Zavkhan (photo credit to Travis, who’s so lucky to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with us)

Mongolia Adopts Daylight Saving Time (Again)

Just when I thought I had gotten to a country where I wouldn’t have to deal with changing all the clocks twice a year, the Mongolian government decided just a few weeks ago to adopt daylight saving time (DST).

So, a simplified history of DST in Mongolia:

First they didn’t have it.

Then they did (1960, and changing the time frame in 1985).

Then they didn’t (1999).

Then they did (2001).

Then they didn’t (2005).

Now they do.

At least some people are already on top of things and have changed the map on Wikipedia that shows which countries observe DST (blue), formerly observed DST (orange), and never observed DST (red):

Mongolia would be the big blue patch in the sea of orange that is the rest of Asia ("DaylightSaving-World-Subdivisions" by Paul Eggert - based on Image:BlankMap-World-Subdivisions.PNG, plus the data in the tz database, plus data in the maps on the INMS's Time Zones & Daylight Saving Time page.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DaylightSaving-World-Subdivisions.png#/media/File:DaylightSaving-World-Subdivisions.png)

Mongolia would be the big blue patch in the sea of orange that is the rest of Asia (“DaylightSaving-World-Subdivisions” by Paul Eggert – based on Image:BlankMap-World-Subdivisions.PNG, plus the data in the tz database, plus data in the maps on the INMS’s Time Zones & Daylight Saving Time page.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DaylightSaving-World-Subdivisions.png#/media/File:DaylightSaving-World-Subdivisions.png)

To complicate things, a huge number of people weren’t even aware that the government had decided to begin DST again, so many people didn’t change their clocks. After all, they don’t have the luxury(?) of being used to changing them twice a year. The time change was officially at 2am on Saturday, March 28, but those who weren’t aware of it (read: the vast majority of the parents of our students at the Bookbridge center) showed up an hour late to whatever they had going on. I knew many people would either forget or weren’t aware at all about the time change, so I posted in the Facebook group we made for our adult beginner’s English class to remind them so that they wouldn’t be late for the class I taught yesterday, but we don’t have a way to contact all the middle and high school students who come to our Bookbridge English classes. But hopefully everyone will be on the same page by Monday so I’m not the only one showing up to work on time.

And of course Mongolia’s DST doesn’t correspond with America’s, making it even more difficult to keep track of how many hours ahead I am of my family back home. When I first came to Mongolia, it was DST in America, and I was 12 hours ahead of my family on the east coast. But then when DST ended, I was 13 hours ahead. Then of course daylight saving started again in the US earlier in March. Back to 12 hours. And now daylight saving has started up in Mongolia, bringing it back to 13 hours. And of course DST ends at different times in each country as well (September in Mongolia, November in the US), so I get to deal with it even more in fall!

Maybe I’ll just bookmark this handy little web page that lets me know the official time here in the UB time zone and when the DST changes are for the next few years (unless, of course, the government decides to ditch it again).

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.

Into the Black Hole of Mongolia

The Zavkhan group of M25s (minus one*) left for our sites on Sunday, August 17. Zavkhan is what Peace Corps calls a “fly site,” meaning it’s so far away from the PC office in UB that we have to fly back and forth. There are buses and meekers that regularly go to and from Uliastai, but they can take anywhere from 35 to 60 hours depending on road conditions, and generally any site that’s more than a 12-15 hour bus/meeker ride from UB is considered a fly site.

Which brings me to the question I’m sure you’ve all been asking: “Why did you refer to Zavkhan as the black hole of Mongolia?”

Well, I first heard that nickname from one of the Cross-Cultural Trainers who is a PCV out in Khovd, another one of the far west aimags.

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Interesting side note: Peace Corps no longer sends PCVs to Bayan-Ulgii and Uvs aimags because of how far removed they are from everything, so those of us in Zavkhan, Khovd, and Gobi-Altai are now the farthest away

That Cross-Cultural session was about transportation in Mongolia, and at one point he referred to Zavkhan as “the black hole” because of how difficult the terrain is for vehicles and how the result is that very few people go into or out of the aimag. Zavkhan is very mountainous and there are very few land routes in and out of it, even to the bordering aimags, making flying the best (but also very expensive) option for travel.

So we were of course flying to Zavkhan (yes, Peace Corps paid for our plane tickets as well as our supervisors’). We each had a small mountain of luggage, so it was fun to see our supervisors’ faces when we dragged it all down from the dorms. It wasn’t so fun when, at the airport, we had to stand in line at the baggage check for about an hour because they had never seen so much luggage before and weren’t sure what to do. Luckily the plane we took (a small propeller plane with a max occupancy of about 40 people) was only half full, or else our luggage probably wouldn’t have fit.

We then went out onto the tarmac to board our itty bitty plane (definitely the smallest one I’ve ever been on).

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It was about a 2 hour flight, and I slept or listened to music pretty much the whole time. There were some great views of the landscape down below, and I could have gotten some nice photos if my camera hadn’t been in my bag up in the overhead compartment and I was too lazy to get up.

A couple hours later we landed on the single, unpaved runway of the Donoi Airport (the only airport in the entire aimag).

Walknig over to the itty bitty airport

Walking over to the itty bitty airport

We waited around while everyone’s luggage was unloaded into a small room, and then we went in separate vehicles with our supervisors to our sites (3 of us to Uliastai and 1 to Aldarkhaan soum). My supervisor had arranged for one of the Uliastai hospital’s ambulances to come pick us up, so I got to enjoy the 40-minute drive from the airport to the city in an authentic Mongolian ambulance (I sincerely hope I never need to use one for its intended purpose). During the ride, I got some photos of the countryside:

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As you can see, it's absolutely beautiful, so it's a shame it's so hard to get to

As you can see, it’s absolutely beautiful, so it’s a shame it’s so hard to get to

Finally we arrived in Uliastai:

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We went on to the hashaa where I would be living, and my hashaa family and some people from the health department helped bring all my luggage into my ger.

My home for the next 2 years

My home for the next 2 years

They served me suutei tsai and some soup while they talked in Mongolian over my head. After about an hour they left so that I could start unpacking. I wasn’t able to get everything unpacked that first evening, but I did get some photos of the inside of my ger, even though it was still messy and I have since added some new things.

My sink and toiletry area

My sink and toiletry area

My closet and one of my armchairs

My closet and one of my armchairs

My desk and other armchair

My desk and other armchair

My bed

My bed

Shelves and cupboard for household and kitchen supplies

Shelves and cupboard for household and kitchen supplies

Kitchen table and electric stovetop

Kitchen table and electric stove top

Fridge, water container, trashcan, and broom/dustpan

Fridge, water container, trashcan, and broom/dustpan

My stove and fuel bin (which they filled with tree bark and scrap paper prior to my arrival, but will eventually be filled with wood and coal)

My stove and fuel bin (which they filled with tree bark and scrap paper prior to my arrival, but will eventually be filled with wood and coal)

You may notice that I have a pretty sweet setup (or you may be thinking, jeez, who could live in that dump for 2 years?), but apparently my ger is not only larger than the gers most PCVs live in, but it is very nicely furnished. My ger is actually brand new (the health department built it just for me) and they put a lot of nice furnishings in it I guess because they were so excited to finally have a Volunteer and wanted me to be as comfortable as I possibly can be in a ger. So no, most PCVs living in gers don’t have fridges and plush armchairs, I am just very lucky.

The only downside of my ger is that it is filled with spiders (mostly daddy long legs). Now, anyone who knows me personally knows that I have a deathly fear of spiders. I got over that a little living with my host family during PST because, even though my room didn’t have too many spiders, the outhouse was always full of them. But my ger is like a daddy long leg breeding ground or something. I have to kill at least 20 a day, which is definitely helping me get over my fear little by little (or at least I haven’t run screaming out of my ger or set it on fire to kill them all yet). I know it’s just because the ger isn’t completely sealed up like it will be come winter (there are little holes along the bottom of the walls where bugs can easily crawl inside). But if you happen to have a crippling fear of spiders that you’d like to overcome, may I recommend joining the Peace Corps? (It’s much cheaper than therapy!)

*One of the guys placed in Uliastai actually came into town later with his supervisor and his supervisor’s family, who had decided to make a family road trip out of the whole thing and drove from UB to Uliastai, taking the PCV with them.