When Work = Sightseeing

A couple weekends ago, my health department had a bunch of visitors from the Mongolian Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization (WHO), and Caritas Czech Republic. A few years ago, the WHO and the Czech NGO had established a series of mobile health clinics in some of the more remote parts of Zavkhan. Now they had come back to check how the clinics (and the Zavkhan health system in general) were doing.

Because of all the fancy, important guests, the health department decided to host a retreat on the Saturday they arrived. And since the retreat was going to be at Khar Nuur (Black Lake), which is something of a hot-spot in Zavkhan, our health department representatives said I could come along. Sure, it was on a Saturday, but I don’t mind doing work-related stuff on the weekend if it involves a free trip to someplace cool! And sure, we had to leave at 5 o’clock in the morning and wouldn’t be getting back until late in the evening, but I could just sleep in the purgon on the way (note: I couldn’t).

The bumpy ride to Khar Nuur only took about 3 hours. For some reason, I had thought Khar Nuur was farther away; if I had known it took such a (comparatively) short time to get there, I probably would have tried to make a trip sooner. I had seen photos from my friends and coworkers, and Zavkhan’s Wikipedia page features a satellite photo of the lake, showing the sand dunes that surround it:

Again, khar means “black” in Mongolian, so someone was clearly drinking a bit too much vodka when they named the lake

Holy crap, was it beautiful! Luckily my coworkers didn’t seem to know where exactly we were supposed to go, so we ended up driving almost halfway around the lake before they figured it out and turned around, letting me see a great deal of scenery.

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Desert sand dunes and snow-capped mountains surround the bizarrely blue lake

The beautiful retreat location

The beautiful retreat location

Our job was to set up the interior of the ger (because of course it was a ger) before the guests arrived and to help with serving the food and drinks during the luncheon (the main course was fresh fish from the lake!). But of course, being a foreigner, everyone outside of my health department coworkers assumed I was a guest from one of the visiting international organizations and kept insisting I sit down and enjoy the luncheon with the others. Eventually my coworkers just told me to join so that I could schmooze with the English-speaking visitors.

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My coworkers hadn’t told me that we were going anywhere else, but sure enough, as soon as lunch was finished, we quickly cleaned up and packed up the supplies before everyone piled back into the vehicles. While the guests went off to visit one of the mobile health clinics in the area, we drove through the mountains for another hour or so until we reached the place where dinner would be at: another of the mobile health clinics, right on the banks of the Mukhart River:

Yep, that's the mobile health clinic

Yep, that’s the mobile health clinic; perfect since gers were originally designed to be portable homes for nomadic herders

And here's the inside

And here’s the inside

We once again helped set up the ger for dinner, which was khorkhog. But the visitors wouldn’t be there until a little later, so I had some time to go exploring! The Mukhart River forms an oasis in the middle of a large sand dune field.

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But the coolest part of the river is its source, which was just a quick hike away. You see, if you continue upstream, you’ll eventually run into a giant, 12-story wall of sand:

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Whoa, let’s get a closer look at that:

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Yep, the source of the Mukhart River is beneath that huge sand dune. The river springs from underground, making the sand dune atop it look like a large dam. You can actually climb to the top of the dune and then slide down into the water below. Unfortunately, since I was technically there for work, I couldn’t just disappear for a couple hours, and it was a bit too cold to be playing in the water anyway (you may have noticed the patches of snow in several of these photos). But I did vow to come back to both the Mukhart River and Khar Nuur with my sitemates next summer (when it is warm enough to play in the water), especially since I know it’s really not that far away.

So it was a fun trip, and it was nice to get to go somewhere that weekend, since it was not only my birthday weekend but the weekend of the Golden Eagle Festival in Bayan-Olgii aimag. I had originally planned to go to the Eagle Festival this year, but of course, Peace Corps decided to schedule their fall site visits such that our Regional Manager would be visiting us in Zavkhan right around that time. I was so mad when I found out the site visit schedule, since this was my one and only chance to see the Eagle Festival during my Peace Corps service (I couldn’t go last year because we had a travel ban for our first 3 months at site, and I can’t go next year because I’ll be back in America by then). Bummer, but that’s why I was glad to get this other trip in as a consolation prize.

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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.

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.