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!

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Training of Trainers

The last 2 weeks of May I spent in Darkhan for Peace Corps’ Training of Trainers (ToT). Earlier in the year, PC staff sent out the trainer application to all the current PCVs who wanted to work during the upcoming PST for our new group of PC/Mongolia Trainees (the M26s). Current Volunteers could apply for trainer positions (or what PC calls “Resource Volunteers”) for each of the 3 technical sectors here in Mongolia (TEFL, CYD, and Health), Cross-Culture, and/or Language. Always looking for a way to travel on Peace Corps’ dime, I applied to be either a Health or Cross-Culture Resource Volunteer for the second half of PST (they split PST into two halves so that the Resource Volunteers aren’t away from their sites for the whole summer).

Then about a month later I found out that I had been selected to be one of two Health Resource Volunteers for the second half! Yay! In previous years the Health and CYD sectors only had one Resource Volunteer each per half of PST, but there are slightly more incoming M26s in both of those sectors (and it’s just a lot of work in general for one person), so this summer they’re having two trainers for each half.

So all the Resource Volunteers (first and second half), along with the LCFs (who teach the daily Mongolian language classes to the Trainees) and the Technical Coordinators (Mongolian professionals who work with the respective Resource Volunteers to facilitate the technical sessions that Trainees attend in the afternoons) gathered in Darkhan for the two-week ToT. Many of the LCFs and Technical Coordinators (TCs) had worked with PC in the past: our Health TC has been a counterpart to two PCVs in the past at the hospital and health department she’s worked at, and one of our LCFs from last summer’s PST is also an LCF for this new group of Health Trainees. Our other LCF from last summer is back again as well, but she’s working with one of the CYD groups this year instead of the Healthies.

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The first week of ToT consisted mainly of long, information-packed sessions, standard at most PC trainings. We discussed PST logistics, policies, trainer facilitation skills and team teaching, lesson planning, etc. while sitting in our groups (based on the site where the new PCTs we would be training would be living throughout the summer). Many things about this year’s PST are different from previous years, including the fact that all the the training sites are either in or close to Darkhan. In past years trainee groups have been sent to Sukhbaatar city up by the Russian border, but this year there are 3 trainee groups in ger districts on the outskirts of Darkhan, and the remaining groups are in soums within about 60km of Darkhan. All the TEFL groups are in the soums, while the 2 CYD groups and the 1 Health group are in the Darkhan ger districts (they need to be closer to the city where there are more places for them to have their summer practicums). My training site from last summer, Dereven, is where one of the CYD groups is staying this summer, along with another ger district next to it. The Healthies this summer will be in Mangirt, a ger district on the opposite side of Darkhan.

The Saturday of our first week of ToT, we had Host Family Orientation to prepare the Mongolian families that would be housing the new Trainees this summer. We Resource Volunteers helped out by answering questions the host families had about American people and culture and by performing skits illustrating some common “issues” that can arise when fresh new American Trainees are suddenly thrown into a new culture and family without being able to speak the language. Some of the families had hosted PCTs before, but many of them were new (as there were new training sites this summer, including our Health training site). There are only going to be 5 Trainees in Dereven this time around (as opposed to the 10 of us last year), so my host family didn’t get another Trainee, but those that did remembered me and Kathy (the other M25 Health Resource Volunteer) and came to chat with us afterwards. Hopefully I’ll be able to visit my host family at some point when I come back for the second half of PST.

We finally had a day off, but then it was back to work on Monday to begin the second week of ToT. We spent each day of the second week working with our training teams to update old session outlines from last year’s PST, create new session outlines for things that have been added to the curriculum, and other sector-specific tasks.

The Health trainers hard at work

The Health trainers hard at work

Our Health training team consists of Doogie (pronounced “daw-gee”), our Technical Coordinator and team lead, and us 4 Resource Volunteers (2 first half, 2 second half). The Health Program Manager for Peace Corps/Mongolia was also there to guide us through the preparations but won’t be working with us on a regular basis during actual PST since she’s also in charge of all the current Health PCVs and those PCVs who live in the central region of Mongolia. And we have our 2 LCFs who will be teaching the Health Trainees, but they were mostly in a separate room doing practice teaching with the other LCFs.

In addition to going through all the session outlines, we had to create a budget for PST, do practice facilitations, find and assign practicum sites (clinics, the hospital, the health department) for the Trainees to work at throughout the summer, arrange locations for joint sessions (where the Trainees and their practicum counterparts attend sessions together), and organize a new peer education program where Trainees will be partnered with peer educators (secondary school students and first-year nursing students) to help them facilitate sexual education lessons. There was a lot to do and it got stressful at times, but we at least got out of the office several times to visit the Darkhan Health Department, several clinics, the Darkhan governor (who remembered us from last year), and our training site, Mangirt. Since it’s a new training site, none of us knew where the Mangirt school was, which is an important place to be able to find since that’s where all the Healthies’ PST sessions would be held.

So after our hard week of getting everything finalized for the newbies, some of us also came into the polytechnic college on Saturday to organize the rooms where Orientation sessions would be taking place and to decorate for their arrival to Darkhan (like our group did last year, the M26s spent a couple days outside of UB before coming to Darkhan for Orientation).

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Oh, and we got to stay in sweet apartments during ToT!

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Granted they shoved 4 people into each apartment, but only for ToT: each apartment had 2 first-half trainers who would stay until Naadam in July, when the 2 second-half trainers would return to the apartment once more. So even though the one-bedroom apartment I shared with 3 other girls only had two small pull-out sofas–meaning we had to take turns sleeping on the floor–the apartment had a hot shower, fancy washing machine, and wifi! The building is also at a prime location right between the Nomin Department Store and the “Orange Market,” a large shopping center where you can get all your groceries and other necessities and also houses a Good Price, a store that offers many foreign goods such as…

This may be all I eat when I come back to Darkhan

This may be all I eat when I come back to Darkhan

Then I went down to UB for a couple days before my flight back to Uliastai. The Monday after ToT was International Children’s Day, which is a big deal here in Mongolia. And since I was in UB that day, some fellow PCVs and I walked around the city to see all the festivities:

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Tomorrow I will fly back to site, where things will return to normal (or as normal as my life can be in Mongolia) for a short time, before my next adventure!