First Trip Away From Site

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

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

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

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

Yes, it's been snowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the freezing cold no less

In the freezing cold no less

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

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

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.