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!

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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!

Trip to the Gobi: Camels, Sand Dunes, and Running through the Desert

I finally made it to the Gobi! And it’s all thanks to Peace Corps/Mongolia needing to review the Health and CYD programs here!

Let me back up.

We found out during MST that the Health and CYD sectors here in Mongolia are going to be under review for the next couple of years. Apparently this happens quite often in Peace Corps and is just a chance to determine whether the programs are actually doing what they’re meant to do and to restructure the sectors to make them better for PCVs and the HCAs they work with. The project review won’t affect Health and CYD Volunteers already in country (the M25s and M26s), but for the next 1-2 years, Peace Corps/Mongolia won’t be bringing in new Volunteers for those sectors while they work on revamping them (so the next 1 or 2 PSTs will be solely for TEFL Trainees).

Before we headed back to our sites at the end of MST, we were told that PC staff would be interviewing us current Health and CYD PCVs at some point in the future to get feedback about the sectors. Well, “some point in the future” ended up being less than 2 weeks after we got back to site. Lo and behold, all the Healthies and CYDers got an email from PC saying that we would need to come in to UB a couple weeks later for focus group interviews. Oh darn, looks like another free trip to UB…

So how does the Gobi factor into all this?

During MST, one of the PCVs who lives in Omnogovi aimag discussed his plan to arrange a tour of the Gobi Desert on the weekend of the annual Gobi Marathon. I listened to his plans and considered going, but given how expensive and time-consuming it would be to go from Zavkhan to UB, then UB to Omnogovi, stay the weekend, and then doing it again on the way back, I couldn’t really justify it. But then I got the email from PC about the project review focus groups! Which happened to be scheduled for the Tuesday right after the Gobi Marathon!

Even so, it wouldn’t have worked out had there been seats available on the flight from Zavkhan to UB for the Saturday before the focus group, which is when PC had planned to fly us in (that’s what happens when you wait until 10 days before a flight to try to book seats). Had we flown in on Saturday, I wouldn’t have made it to Omnogovi in time for the tour and marathon. But since there were no seats on the plane, we (that is, me and our M26 CYDer) would have to instead take the bus from Zavkhan to UB.

I’ve already told you about the bus ride from hell that was my first trip on the Zavkhan-UB bus, but since there were no other options, I decided to make the best of the situation by leaving site a few days early and spending a couple vacation days in the Gobi. I would have to pay for the round trip transportation from UB to Omnogovi, but Peace Corps was obviously footing the bill for the bus ride from Zavkhan to UB and the return flight to Zavkhan afterward. And since I had to be in UB anyway for the focus group, I only had to take 2 of my vacation days, as opposed to the 6 or so I would have had to take otherwise.

Anyway, my sitemate and I left at 9am on Thursday morning (new PCVs aren’t allowed to leave site for their first 3 months unless for official PC or medical business, so she obviously couldn’t come with me to the Gobi, but I convinced PC to let her take the earlier bus with me so that she wouldn’t have to take it alone later in the week). Miraculously, this trip to UB ended up only taking 23 hours! For comparison, the previously mentioned bus ride from hell took 35 hours, and even that return trip took 26. So this was a new record for me.

The bus from UB to Dalanzadgad (the capital of Omnogovi) left at 4pm on Friday, so I hung out at the PC office until then while my sitemate went off to the hostel. The second bus ride only took about 9 hours, because even though the physical distance from Dalanzadgad to UB is only a little less than the distance from Uliastai to UB, the entire road to Dalanzadgad is paved and the route doesn’t require going hours out of the way to get around mountain ranges.

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So I arrived in Dalanzadgad a little after 1 in the morning, was picked up by the aforementioned resident M25, and was brought to his ger where the other Gobi adventurers were sleeping. I didn’t get much sleep though, because we were off at 7:30am for the start of our tour!

The 10 of us took a purgon ride out to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the western part of the aimag, where we rode camels:

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I rode the white one!

I rode the white one!

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and climbed to the top of Khongoryn Els, aka the “Singing Sand Dunes:”

The pictures don't capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots are horses

The pictures don’t capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots in the center of the photo are horses

I don’t know how high the specific dune we climbed was, but the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els can get as tall as 300 meters (that’s almost 1,000 feet for my fellow metric-challenged Americans)!

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That dot in the top-left is our purgon

The incline

The incline

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It. Was. So. Freakin’. Exhausting! If you’ve ever walked on sand over even a slight incline, you know how exponentially more difficult it is than walking on dirt or pavement. Now imagine that, but climbing to a height almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Each step required so much effort, but if you stopped to rest for too long, the wind would bury your feet in even more sand, trapping you. But finally, slowly, we made it to the top!

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The other side of the dune we climbed

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Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Then we ran back down the dunes (sadly, we didn’t have anything to slide down on), which took all of 2 minutes compared to the hour or so it took us to climb up:

Hope you're not afraid of heights!

Hope you’re not afraid of heights!

We piled back into the purgon, which took us to a ger camp close to where the Gobi Marathon would be taking place the next day. Luckily, the ger camp had showers, which we all took advantage of since we had sand just about everywhere on our bodies from the dunes.

We woke up super early (again) the next morning to get to the starting location for the Gobi Marathon. It’s hard to really give directions to a specific location in the middle of the desert, so we first went to where we knew the finish line would be: at the Flaming Cliffs, one of the main tourist destinations in Omnogovi and the site of the first dinosaur egg discovery (along with many other dinosaur fossils). Then we just followed the red ribbons that marked the marathon path backwards until we found the start.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m actually a real runner or anything, I must admit that I had no intentions of running the full marathon. Or the half. No, I was running the 16km. The shortest distance was the 10km, but since I had already run one of those before, I decided to up the ante. Never mind that I had gone running exactly twice since being in Mongolia and was hardly in my pre-Peace Corps running shape.

Oh, let's not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

Oh, let’s not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

The Gobi Marathon isn’t exactly a huge event, though a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (and sometimes staff!) do go pretty much every year. It’s organized by a German dude who lives in and runs tours out of UB, and I got the sense that he has the marathon each year simply because he enjoys it (because I can’t imagine it makes him a lot of money). There were only 2 people running the full marathon:

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A handful of people ran or walked the half marathon, including a couple elderly German women who walked with their dog:

Who of course got a racing bib as well

Who of course got a racing bib as well

There were only 2 of us running the 16km: myself and one of the other PCVs. And then another handful of people ran the 10km, including 2 other PCVs (the rest of the PCVs who came were there for encouragement and to help pass out the refreshments every 5km).

The other girl running the 16km was way ahead of me from the start, so I was literally running for 10 miles surrounded by this:

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I managed to keep a steady jogging pace for the first 5km, but after that I had to alternate between jogging and walking for a bit. The last leg of the course was the toughest, requiring getting up a fairly steep hill and then a steady incline to the top of the Flaming Cliffs.

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

After nearly 2 hours, I finally made it to the finish line, where I was greeted by the PCV “support team” and plenty of refreshments. Now I can officially say I came in second place in a 16km race (because is it really that important to mention that there were only 2 people in the race?).

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When the girls running the 10km finished up, we all took plenty of photos of the beautiful scenery:

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And after ensuring that the half-marathon walkers (including the dog!) made it back safely…

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…we piled into the purgon for the ride back to Dalanzadgad. The eventful, exhausting, amazing Gobi weekend came to a close, and I went back up to UB for the project review focus groups.

I won’t bore you with the details of that, but there were focus groups for the M25 Health PCVs, the M25 CYD PCVs, and the M26 Health and CYD groups. Peace Corps had also asked a small group of M25 TEFL PCVs to come in. The focus groups were facilitated by experts from the PC headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Health/CYD Program Managers from other PC countries in the Eastern Europe/Mediterranean/Asia region. We were asked questions like “what is working well for you professionally/culturally,” “what isn’t working well,” “what suggestions do you have to make the program better,” etc.

Our focus group took just 2 hours (though we definitely could have kept the discussion going for a lot longer), and since PC did manage to get us seats on the flight back to Zavkhan (which happens to not be until Saturday), my sitemate and I got a few extra days to hang out in UB. For those counting, that’s 10 days away from site for a 2-hour interview. Such is life in Peace Corps/Mongolia.

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).

Leaving the Taiga

We left the camp bright and early on Saturday morning. Our group leader used the satellite phone to inform Peace Corps staff that we were about to head out on the horse trek, only to have the Director of Programming & Training be rather confused as to why we were leaving 2 days early.

That’s right: somehow we had spent the entire week thinking we were supposed to leave on Saturday, when the plan had actually been all along to leave on Monday. We had put we were leaving on Monday on the Leave Request Forms we had submitted to PC weeks earlier, the other group who went to the West Taiga knew to leave on Monday, but somehow all 8 of us got it stuck in our heads that we were leaving on Saturday. Throughout the week there were times when we would ask each other what the date was, and the answer always seemed too early, considering I knew we were supposed to arrive back in Murun on June 30, but I never gave it much thought, nor did anyone else apparently. To be fair, everyone at the camp (including the CP who we had arranged everything with) also thought we were leaving on Saturday, though they may have gotten that from us. Again, none of us are quite sure how this happened, but both groups had been talking when we were at the ger camp in Tsagaannuur about asking PC if we could stay an extra day at the ger camp when we returned from the reindeer camps (to get some rest between the long horse trek and the longer purgon ride back to Murun). But it seems our group subconsciously was going to make us stay at the ger camp an extra 2 days no matter what.

Anyway, since we were already all packed and the horses and guides were ready to go by the time we found out about our little mistake, PC told us to go ahead and leave anyway. To be honest, I was a little upset about us leaving early, as there were other activities we had wanted to do with the reindeer herders but didn’t have time for (or so we thought), but by that point they were expecting us to leave, so we did.
The horse ride back was significantly faster, partly because it was downhill more of the way but mostly because our guides were eager to get to the drop-off point because they were going to turn around and go back to their camp that same day.

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So we spent a large portion of the trek at a trot or canter, with some of us even galloping at points. Five hours later, we arrived at the drop-off point, but since the driver who was supposed to take us back to Tsagaannuur thought we were arriving Monday afternoon, we had to call him to pick us up (which we had to wait to do since there was no phone reception on the way). He arrived 2 and a half hours later, even though it shouldn’t have taken much more than an hour.

So we were all very tired from waking up super early, horse trekking (quickly) across 55 km of mountains and forests, and waiting in the middle of nowhere for hours. And then on the way back to town, our purgon was stopped at a bridge (a bridge that we had no problem going through on our way to the drop-off point the week before). Our driver got out and talked to the guys manning the gate in front of the bridge, who then came over to us waiting in the purgon and told us we had to pay 12,000 tugriks (about $6) to cross the bridge. He had 2 small pieces of paper with the Mongolian word for “tourist” on them along with  a price of 6,000. We tried to explain to them that we weren’t tourists, that we live and work in Mongolia (I mean, we were speaking to them in Mongolian), but they seemed to think that the Korean-American PCV among us was our Mongolian translator/tour guide and we were tourists. This went on for almost 20 minutes, with us refusing to budge, not so much because of the money (which was a tiny amount when split between the 8 of us) but because we knew they were trying to rip us off. It was especially annoying since our driver was one of the ones who had driven us up from Murun, and he knew we weren’t tourists, but he didn’t say anything to back us up. The bridge trolls finally said they were going into town and would be back in an hour, and we heard them mention the Mongolian word for “police.” We decided we would rather just get our bags out of the purgon and walk the rest of the way than pay the stupid toll, so we got out and asked the driver to let us get our bags out of the back because we were going to walk. He seemed ready to laugh at us, as we were still quite a ways from town and he obviously thought we were joking, but we weren’t playing around. Since he didn’t seem to want to wait around for an hour for the police to show up, he paid another bridge troll the toll (supposedly, though we think it was a front, as it’s not like corruption doesn’t exist here). He told us to get back in the purgon and took us into town. We needed to stop at a store in town for some snacks since we would be staying at the ger camp for 2 days. So we got out and went into a shop, only to come back out and not see our purgon or driver anywhere. We thought he had gone to get the police, but he finally showed up 10 minutes later. He took us to the ger camp, and we thought he was going to try to charge us more than the previously agreed upon 5,000 tugriks each to make us pay for the toll anyway (though, again, we saw him give the guy some money but it definitely wasn’t 12,000 and we do think it was some kind of front), but he didn’t even try that on us, probably because he figured if we were willing to walk with all our shit into town to avoid paying a toll, we were not going to be screwed with by him trying to charge us more for the ride.
The next day, the lady who runs the ger camp had us doing manual labor for most of the day. She wanted rock paths leading from the gers to the dining hall and bathrooms, and we agreed to help out since she’s always been super nice to PCVs: she gives us a discount price for staying at the camp and doesn’t charge us for using the showers or taking the canoes and kayaks out on the lake (which we did later that day). She even let us use the kitchen to cook our own meals, since we had some food left over and not enough money to pay for meals at the camp along with our lodging. A couple groups of tourists stayed at the camp briefly, and she asked us not to talk to them about how much (or little) we paid to stay there (or how we didn’t have to pay for the showers and canoes). We figured it was also nice that those tourists saw us working around the camp in case they found out about how much less we were paying, since we were doing plenty enough work to cover much of our expenses.

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Monday was a very chill day. We all slept in again, the boys finished the little that was left of the rock path, and we waited for the arrival of the PCVs from the West Taiga. They got to the ger camp a little after 7. We ate dinner and then had a meeting to debrief how the trips to both sides had gone.
The 2 purgons came to pick us up the next morning at 9. After packing up, we went into town because most of us needed to take out money from the bank. We finally left Tsagaannuur around 10:30, but one of the purgons kept breaking down. Twice we had to stop for an hour while the drivers tried to fix it up, so the normally 10-hour drive took closer to 13 hours.
The next morning in Murun I did laundry and bought my bus ticket back to UB. Our bus left at around 7 in the evening, so we had the whole night to rest for when we arrived in UB the next morning. Except the woman sitting beside me kept reaching over me and opening the window, so I was awakened by freezing cold air blasting my face throughout the night.

We got into UB earlier than expected (before 9) and spent the morning at the PC office returning the helmets we had borrowed for the horse trek (as per PC requirements), having coffee and chatting with the Country Director, and filling out reimbursement forms for travel costs to and from the reindeer camp (since PC/Mongolia has grant money this summer to reimburse some of the travel costs PCVs incur while working at camps throughout the country). Then I went back to the hostel to take a shower, followed by lunch at a pizza place. I went to the bus station to buy a ticket back to site, but all the seats were sold out until the Monday morning bus, meaning I would be in UB with some other PCVs for 4th of July weekend!
On the evening of the 3rd, we went to watch a fellow PCV and his friend perform at a local bar/cafe. Then on the 4th a few of us who were in town for various reasons went to lunch at a little restaurant popular among expats that was having 4th of July specials, including buy 1 get 1 free hotdogs and good prices on apple pie. While heading back with a few others, we stopped by an art gallery, hung out in Chinggis Square, and had drinks at a bar.

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Then we went our separate ways, with me going back to the hostel, where a larger group of PCVs were busy getting drunk and later going out, while I just chilled out for the rest of the evening (until a couple of the girls dragged me out for a mojito). There were some fireworks that were shot off from the square (which is conveniently half a block from the hostel), so that was a nice end to the 4th.
The next day was my last full day in UB. Most of the others at the hostel headed back to their sites, so I had a day of chilling out and eating in to make up for all the money I’d spent the previous few days.
The bus to Uliastai left at 9 the next morning, and I was at least riding with one of my sitemates. The ride was significantly shorter than the ride from Uliastai to UB I had taken 3 weeks earlier: something about not having the bus break down on a regular basis and not stopping to take breaks every 2 hours do a lot to make a bus ride shorter. The only issue we ran into was that the bus got stuck in sand at like 4 in the morning, so everyone had to get off the bus into the chilly night air while a bunch of people tried to push it out of the sand. But on the plus side, the bridge was fixed so we didn’t have to walk across it in the dead of night while the bus went around. In the end, the bus trip only took 26 hours compared to the 35 hours of before.
Since my ger had been taken down, I was still having to stay at the health department. Which meant all my coworkers knew when I got back and expected me to just hop right back into work, despite getting very little sleep on the bus the night before. But then it was Naadam, which meant several days of vacation. Unfortunately, the entire weekend and into the next week was nothing but chilly, rainy weather. Because the weather was so bad (and because the health department is much further away from the stadium than my khashaa would have been if I was still at my ger), I really only got to see the opening ceremony. But you can check out my post from last year’s Naadam if you really want to see what it’s all about.

Later today I am heading back to Darkhan to begin my stint as a Resource Volunteer for the second half of PST. Let the next adventure begin!

Project Design & Management Seminar

Back in February, the PC/Mongolia training team told all of us PCVs about an upcoming Project Design & Management (PDM) seminar for PCVs and one of their HCA or community counterparts to work on the design and planning of a specific project. In order to be invited to the seminar, we first had to conduct a needs assessment in our community to determine the most pressing issues and then come up with a project idea to address those issues.

So my supervisor and I (who really wanted an excuse to travel out of Zavkhan on Peace Corps’ dime) worked hard to complete a needs assessment before the deadline, which was right after Tsagaan Sar of all times. We reviewed statistics and health indicator reports from the Ministry of Health, along with hospital records and health department reports from here in Zavkhan. We also conducted key informant interviews with the director of the Public Development Division at the Zavkhan Governor’s Office, the treatment director at the Central Hospital, the head doctor and advisor of the Children’s Division at the Central Hospital, and the director of the Children’s Hospital. We conducted informal interviews and discussions with staff members and parents of patients at the Children’s Hospital, and we examined what medical equipment was available both in the Central Hospital and the Children’s Hospital.

Our needs assessment revealed that the infant and under-5 mortality rates are significantly higher in Zavkhan aimag than both the country average (all of Mongolia) and the aimag average (all the aimags minus UB). So basically, lots of babies and little kids die in this part of the country.

Sorry, that was depressing. Please look at this cute Mongolian puppy playing in the snow

Sorry, that was depressing. Please look at this cute Mongolian puppy playing in the snow

This is believed to be due to the fact that there are no emergency facilities for infants and children in Zavkhan. The Central Hospital has an emergency department, but it is not equipped to treat infants and children and is not staffed with pediatricians. So if a parent comes to the ER with a very sick child, they will either have to wait for a busy pediatrician to come there from another part of the hospital (and even then, there will likely not be the necessary medical equipment) or they will be sent to the Children’s Hospital, which is a few blocks away. But the Children’s Hospital does not have an emergency department at all, so even if the parent was able to finally get a pediatrician to look at their child, they wouldn’t have a monitor to see what was wrong with the child, or a respirator to hook the child up to, etc.

Our main project idea is to develop a children’s emergency department at the Children’s Hospital. We have identified 3 rooms on the first floor of the Children’s Hospital that could be converted into a 5-bed ER, and there are 6 doctors and 8 nurses from the Central Hospital that could be transferred to the new department so that it could be staffed 24 hours a day by at least 1 doctor and 1 nurse at all times. There is even a medical engineer at the Central Hospital that could train the staff on how to use the emergency medical equipment.

But what we need is—you know—the actual medical equipment. The Ministry of Health has a list of “hospital standards” that specify what equipment and supplies are deemed necessary for each ward/department of the hospitals. There are sections of that standard for infants and children and for emergency facilities, but of course our facilities don’t have most of that equipment, or the money to get it. I’ve looked into some of the numerous NGOs that collect used hospital equipment from developed nations and donate them to clinics and hospitals in developing nations, but those organizations generally send the medical equipment in those big 40-foot shipping containers to the nearest sea port, and the receiving organization is responsible for getting it the rest of the way. You may recall that Mongolia is a land-locked country, so going through one of those programs would require us to have the container shipped to a port in China, then put on a train on the railroad that comes up to UB, and finally put on a giant truck coming out here to Uliastai. So, just a bit of customs and legal paperwork and crossing our fingers that it wouldn’t just disappear somewhere along the way (as so many care packages do when they’re sent to Mongolia through China). Oh, and somehow paying for the shipping container’s long land-bound journey. So only slightly more complicated than finding a pot of gold to just pay for new medical equipment directly.

Anyway, there’s your background for our project. We and 20 other PCV/counterpart pairs were selected to attend the 3-day PDM seminar, which took place last week. It was held at a “resort” about 30km outside of UB, in a quaint little mountain area that had plenty of what looked like summer vacation homes nearby.

The resort

The resort

The lobby

The lobby

The view

The view

Yeah, Mongolian homes do not look like that

Yeah, Mongolian homes do not look like that

The seminar consisted of sessions on writing goals and objectives, creating a logic model and action plan, identifying resources, monitoring and evaluation, budgeting, and proposal writing. There was also a session on Peace Corps funding resources, which wasn’t as helpful for me and my supervisor because our (admittedly large-scale) project is not eligible for those smaller grants. So my one qualm with the seminar was that they didn’t cover other funding sources. If we do end up going the route of having an NGO ship us a bunch of medical supplies overseas, most of those programs do require a sponsorship fee of up to $25,000. Obviously our hospital does not have that money, so I’m looking into other entities that could help fund the project, but I have no experience with waltzing up to a company and asking them for money, and my counterparts didn’t even think about that as an option, so I’m assuming they don’t have much experience either. But outside of that, the seminar was extremely helpful. There was plenty of time for us to work in our pairs to apply what we learned in the sessions to our own projects. But now there is a lot of work to do to move forward.

According to the seminar schedule, we would be heading back into the city on Saturday morning. But since our flight back to Uliastai was at the ungodly time of 6:50am on Saturday, me, my sitemate, and our counterparts were supposed to be taken back on Friday evening after the last sessions. But then, during the closing session, we were informed that our flight had been delayed until Sunday morning (on account of a snowstorm that had gone through Zavkhan on Friday and was heading toward UB). So we hung around at the resort for another night and left with everyone else Saturday morning, with the snow already coming down.

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But having our flight delayed meant an entire free day to spend in UB! It would have been nicer if that day hadn’t been marred by a snowstorm that I did not have the appropriate clothes for (It’s supposed to be spring! It was in the upper 40s when I left to come to UB!). Nevertheless, I managed to trek to several places, including a yummy café for brunch:

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French toast and a chocolate milkshake (with a shot of espresso)

And several stores that sell stuff you can’t find out in Zavkhan, like cheddar cheese, popcorn, peanut butter, Vanilla Coke, etc., along with American goodies that can only be found in a select few places in UB, like cereal and Kraft mac & cheese. Yes, I managed to find what I’m pretty sure was the last box of mac & cheese in the entire country. I didn’t even know they sold it in UB, and I always get tons of it sent in care packages because I could probably live off the stuff. Then I saw one lone box on a shelf in one of the stores and asked a worker if there were any more. She informed me that there was a currently a shortage of the stuff.

Seriously, a shortage of Kraft mac & cheese in Mongolia.

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I’m not sure if it had something to do with the recent recall by Kraft, though I can’t imagine Mongolia being a place that pays too much attention to things like recalls due to tiny pieces of metal possibly being in processed foods. But I also can’t think of any other reason for the shortage. When I tell Mongolians about macaroni & cheese, they seem to be unfamiliar with the stuff. And I know there are a fair share of expats who live in UB, but unless they’re all my clones, I can’t imagine them eating enough of it to cause a shortage. Anyway, while visiting a few other stores I looked for any more of the blue boxes, with no luck. I was either told about the shortage again or ensured they would be getting more in next week. Thus, I may have gotten the last box of Kraft mac & cheese in Mongolia, and definitely ate it for dinner the day I got back to Uliastai.

After shopping, I headed back to one of the city’s hostels that at any given time are likely to be filled with PCVs.

...and their stuff

…and their stuff

I paid for my bed (the equivalent of about $4) and took advantage of the free wifi until dinner. A group of us went out to a really nice bar & grill, where I got an actual Caesar salad (in a lot of restaurants, even if they have “Caesar salad” on the menu with a picture next to it looking all appetizing, you’ll get…something else…that should be illegal to call a Caesar salad), shared a pizza, and had a tequila sunrise and a B-52 that I didn’t know was really a Flaming B-52 until the waiter came with a lighter to set my shot on fire.

I somehow managed to not catch my face on fire (yeah, I don't drink flaming drinks very often...or any kind of drink...)

I somehow managed to not catch my face on fire (yeah, I don’t drink flaming drinks very often…or any kind of drink…)

After dinner, we went back to the hostel. While others were being sociable, I went to bed to try to get at least a few hours of sleep before I had to wake up to catch my stupidly early flight. But I did spend most of the flight sleeping, and then proceeded to spend a large portion of the rest of the day napping, waking up to get groceries and to eat my mac & cheese dinner. Then it was straight back to a regular ol’ work week.

IST in UB

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

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

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

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

And 4 hours of pretending I'm flying over Antarctica

And 4 hours of pretending I’m flying over Antarctica

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

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

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

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

Yum!

Yummy!

Pretty!

Pretty!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a famous revolutionary:

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Then we ate lunch at Pizza Hut, because pizza:

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

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

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