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.

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The Long Trip to Mongolia

Note: This is another catch-up post from several weeks ago.

We left the hotel for the San Francisco airport at like 5:00am, even though our flight wasn’t until about 11:00am. Apparently trying to herd over 90 people through the airport takes some time. The first leg of our flight was from San Francisco to Seoul, South Korea. I wish I could say the 11-hour flight was bearable, but we were stuck on an old United Airlines plane that didn’t have those cool little personal screens in front of each person so that you can ease the boredom with tons of movies of your choosing. They did have 4 movies over the course of the flight on a few larger screens throughout the cabin, but of course 2 of them were movies that I had just watched on my flight from Atlanta to San Francisco. So instead I tried to sleep as much as possible (I always have trouble sleeping on planes), read a little, and did some word puzzles.

We finally arrived in Seoul for our 4-hour layover. I have to say that the Seoul-Incheon airport may be the nicest I’ve ever been to. They actually have free shower rooms where you can freshen up during your seemingly endless travels, so many of us took advantage of that since we knew showers (at least warm ones) were soon to be scarce in Mongolia.

The flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar (the capital of Mongolia) was the exact opposite of our previous flight. We flew Korean Air, and it was amazing! The plane looked brand new, it had the personal screens so I could watch a movie, and even though our flight was only about 3 hours, they served us a full meal, a snack, and freakin’ wine! Which left us all kinda wondering why we couldn’t have taken Korean Air on both flights (or at least the longer one).

We arrived in Mongolia at around 11pm on I don’t even remember what day they’ve all kind of run together. We are 12 hours ahead of the East Coast, and so we lost half a day in all our travels and are therefore seriously jet-lagged. We got onto buses that took us to a ger camp right outside of Ulaanbaatar where we stayed for the first 2 days in country.