Ice Festival and a Poorly-Timed Blizzard

Every year at the beginning of March, there’s an Ice Festival at Huvsgul Lake (Huvsgul is the aimag northeast of Zavkhan, remember?). It’s the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia (by volume), and in winter it’s completely frozen over several feet deep.

Around the same time, some other PCVs in Mongolia found out that there was going to be an Eagle Festival right outside of UB (every year in October there’s an Eagle Festival way out in Bayan-Ulgii, but the Mongolian government finally decided to have another one closer to the capital so that everyone who doesn’t live in the farthest west corner of Mongolia can experience it). I really wanted to go since it would be my last chance, and I had only used 2 of the 48 vacation days Peace Corps gives us during our service, so I decided to take a week off (since UB isn’t exactly around the corner either) to go to the Eagle Festival with a bunch of other PCVs.

And then I found out that a Mongolian friend of ours was driving up to the Ice Festival with his wife and son and would be able to take me along. And since, if you’ll remember from the nightmarish trip from Uliastai to Huvsgul last summer when I went up for the reindeer camp, the only way to get there is to either take the super long way through UB and then back west again, or go the direct way in a private vehicle. I had no desire to relive the super long way, so the only way I would be able to go to Ice Festival was with this friend. The Ice Festival was scheduled for the first Thursday and Friday of March, while the Eagle Festival was that Saturday. My plan was to take the bus from Huvsgul to UB later that Friday, which would get me into UB early Saturday morning with plenty of time to meet up with the other PCVs to head to the Eagle Festival. But…that’s not exactly what happened.

The trip started out great. We left Uliastai early evening on Tuesday and drove until a little before midnight, when we stopped to sleep at the home of a friend of a friend. Then we drove all day Wednesday and finally arrived in Murun (the capital of Huvsgul), where we stayed with their relatives. The next morning we drove up to the lake for the first day of the festival.

It was ice galore! The festival itself was on the frozen lake:

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there was ice-skating:

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horse-drawn sleds:

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an ice slide:

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and an ice sculpture competition:

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Those gers in the background of the photo above were all places where you could get out of the cold for a bit and have some hot food and milk tea. There was also a large shopping area where people were selling clothes, souvenirs, and everything in between:

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There were various competitions going on throughout the festival as well, but the only one I saw was the horse sled race.

And then the whole walking around on ice with a camera in my hand caught up to me, as I slipped and fell while my camera flew out of my hand and smashed on the ice a good 30 feet away. It was beyond salvation, as the lens had shattered and wouldn’t even retract. It was just a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot, but it was brand new that my parents had send to me from America after my old camera broke during Shine Jil. I was doing so well with cameras in Mongolia until I managed to break two in less than three months. So that put a bit of a damper on the festivities, but luckily I had brought my iPhone and was able to still take some pictures (even if they were poor quality photos since my iPhone is several years old).

By late afternoon, it had started snowing a lot. My Mongolian friends had gone to find a place to stay for the night before they continued their trip up to Russia, and I had met up with a PCV who lives in Murun and another volunteer who works at the Murun Bookbridge center. The snow and wind got so bad that we had to seek shelter in one of the gers until the bus back to Murun would be leaving. Finally making our way back to the bus proved difficult, as it was now a full-on blizzard.

Good luck finding your vehicle in this!

Good luck finding your vehicle in this!

After trudging through the snow, fighting against the wind, and slipping and falling on the ice some more, we finally made it to a bus that was heading to Murun! The blizzard was so bad that the normally 1-1.5 hour ride took about 3.5 hours. You couldn’t see 3 feet in front of you, and snow and ice stuck to the windshield so much that one of the windshield wipers broke, so then we had to stop every 10 minutes or so for the driver to go outside and scrape the windshield clear. But that didn’t improve visibility too much, so then they just left the door open and had another guy hang out of it to look at the road ahead and tell the driver “left” or “right” so he didn’t send us careening off the road.

The worst of it had passed by the time we finally got into Murun that evening, but the next morning we all received a text from PC/Mongolia saying that the snowstorm had spread across a large part of the country and had shut down all transportation into and out of UB. But it was already nice and sunny again in Khuvsgul so I didn’t think there would be issues for long since the storm had already passed over the route I needed.

Unfortunately (a bit of an understatement), when I went to the bus station later that afternoon for the 6pm overnight bus to UB, I was told that the road to UB was still shut down and no buses would be leaving until the next day (which didn’t help me since the Eagle Festival was the next day, and I was still 14 hours away from UB). I asked if any mikrs or taxis or anything were heading to UB, but they said the Department of Transportation had blocked all the roads, so no one could come or go.

Later I called the PCV who was organizing the mikr for us to take to the Eagle Festival to see if she had heard anything about the blizzard affecting the schedule (with me hoping they would maybe postpone it until the next day so I–and a ton of other people who were stuck outside of UB–could still go), but the festival was still on for that Saturday. I guess all the eagle hunters had come into UB days ahead of time and so the snowstorm hadn’t affected them.

Buses from Murun started running again the next morning, so I got to spend the whole Saturday that I was supposed to be enjoying with friends at Eagle Fest on a long, boring bus ride with a bunch of strangers.

It sucked 😦

Then I just spent a couple days in UB drowning my sorrows in pizza, Burger King, and Cinnabon, before the flight back to Zavkhan (I had bought a plane ticket ahead of time because I was not taking that long-ass bus ride back to site by myself).

On a much happier note, in just a couple days my sitemate and I are heading back to UB to go on a trip to Japan! It will be the first time either of us have left Mongolia since we arrived almost two years ago, so words can’t express how excited we are to spend 10 days in Japan (with a few days in UB on either end)! This trip is actually the main reason I had had my parents send me the new camera, so as luck would have it, I ended up breaking it right before the trip! I still haven’t decided if I’ll buy a new camera in UB, during our layover in Seoul, or on our first day in Japan, or if I’ll just make do with my iPhone and my older, also-broken-but-still-somewhat-functional camera.

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A Merry Mongolian Holiday Season, Part 2 (Hiking Through the Snow)

After all the Shine Jil parties, actual New Year’s Day was the following week, and I celebrated by waking up super early to climb a mountain and watch the first sunrise of the new year! Why, you ask? Because I’m crazy!

Or, it’s a tradition in Uliastai for (seriously dedicated) people to hike to the top of the tallest mountain surrounding the town, in the freezing, pitch black, wee hours of the morning to catch the first glimpse of the sun peeking over the horizon to ring in the new year. And I’m crazy.

I remembered some of my coworkers mentioning the event the year before, and me thinking how nice it would be to NOT do that and instead stay bundled up in my warm sleeping bag and down comforter all morning. But this year, I spent almost all of New Year’s Eve trying to decide whether or not to go. It would be my last chance to do so, and I did check the weather to find it was “only” getting down to -5 degrees F (-20 degrees C), which is quite bearable if properly dressed, and nothing like the -20 degrees F (-29 degrees C) it was just a few days before and after.

So I told my supervisor I was gonna go! Originally the plan had been to head to the mountain at 4am, but then it became 6am. Okay, whatever, the sun doesn’t rise here in winter until well after 9am, but I had attempted to climb this mountain with my sitemates back in the summer (when it wasn’t covered in a foot of snow) and had gotten 3/4 of the way up before they insisted that we go back down. I don’t remember how long it took us to get that 3/4 of the way up, but I trusted my Mongolian friends knew how much time it would take.

I was all ready to leave at 6am and headed out of my khashaa to wait for my supervisor and her boyfriend to pick me up. But they were late. I tried calling both of their phones, but got no answer. After 45 minutes, I went back into my ger, stripped off my outerwear, made another fire, and got ready to go back to sleep, thinking that the hike wasn’t gonna happen. Then at around 7:20am, my supervisor called me to say they were heading to my home. I asked her if it was really worth it at this point, if we really had time to make it to the top of the mountain before the sunrise. She insisted we did, so I frantically threw my layers back on and ran out to meet them. Apparently the car hadn’t started, which in winter in Mongolia means you have to blowtorch the engine until it unfreezes. Seriously. That had taken about an hour, but now we were off!

We drove to the base of the mountain, I put on my headlamp so I could see where the heck I was going, and promptly left my supervisor and her boyfriend behind (sorry, but they were going too slow, and I was not gonna miss the sunrise that I woke up early just to see). I soon realized just how much effort it took to trudge uphill through the snow and had to stop for breaks quite often. But because I was racing against the clock, I couldn’t take many real breaks that involved actually sitting down and taking a sip of water; I would get as much ground covered as I felt possible before collapse, then stop (still standing) and take a few deep breaths for maybe 10-15 seconds, then push on again.

Disclaimer: I highly advise against hiking a mountain in this fashion. You should obviously pace yourself and not be a lunatic dead-set on reaching the summit by a certain time.

Who you calling a lunatic?

Who you calling a lunatic?

It started getting light before I reached the top, but the sun rises on the opposite side of the mountain from where we were hiking, so I couldn’t be sure whether I was too late or not until I did get to the top. Which, according to the time stamp my camera has for the first photo I took on the summit, was at 9:10am. So I had somehow made it up in just over 1.5 hours.

Up through that

Up through that

As the following video shows, I originally thought I had missed the sunrise, until everyone else at the top started shouting:

But nope! I had made it just in time!

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There were plenty of other people who had made the hike:

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But my supervisor and her boyfriend didn’t make it to the top until about 20 minutes later, after which we gave milk offerings and took more photos.

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It was obviously very cold and windy on top of the mountain, so after snapping a bunch of photos, eating a snack, and waiting to see if we had won a raffle (we didn’t), it was time to head back down to Uliastai.

Way down there

Way down there

We were one of the last groups to leave, so the path back down was basically deep trenches through the snow, which in some parts were so smooth that it was easier to just sit down and slide than try to walk!

When I finally got home, I was so exhausted I slept for almost 6 hours, but the experience had definitely been worth it!

 

On another note, due to one of sitemates having to go to UB for medical for a few weeks, we had to postpone our Zavkhan Christmas celebration until well into January. Even then, 2 of our sitemates couldn’t come at the last minute due to being sick or transportation issues, but the 4 of us girls enjoyed a day full of watching movies, playing cards, and eating all the good food (cinnamon rolls for breakfast, turkey and stuffing for lunch [turkey courtesy of the US Embassy in UB], and spaghetti and meatballs for dinner). And then the long holiday season was over, only for Tsagaan Sar to be right around the corner in February!

Mid-May Update

The past few weeks have been very busy. I’ve been working a lot on our children’s emergency center project, mainly writing the proposal and looking into potential funding sources. I’ve applied for grants from a few large American foundations (Coca Cola Foundation, Gates Foundation, etc.) but I’m not very optimistic about those as I’m sure they get tons and tons of grant applications from around the world all the time. But there are quite a few Mongolian companies that (at least according to their websites) do the whole “social responsibility/community giving” thing where they support local projects, so at this point approaching those companies is probably our best bet. Unfortunately, my supervisor—the only other person who knows as much about the project as myself—will still be in UB for a couple more weeks, and I need her to, y’know, be Mongolian in order to talk to representatives from the companies.

In other news, despite my announcement in my last post about spring having finally arrived, it totally snowed last Friday. And not just flurries either:

May in Mongolia

May in Mongolia

It had been rainy all day, which was good since we hadn’t had any precipitation in over a month, but then the rain turned to snow and the wind started blowing like crazy. And it kept up for several hours, but once it finally stopped snowing, the accumulated snow melted fairly quickly. The ground is no longer frozen like it was in winter, and during the day the temperature has been well above freezing, so by the next day it was almost all melted.

Last Saturday was fun as our Bookbridge center hosted an English song competition for students from the older grades at each school. We—the American PCVs—were the judges of the students’ ability to pronounce the English lyrics clearly and their overall singing quality.

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Students sang songs by Adele, Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Pink, Kelly Clarkson, Alicia Keys, and tons of other artists.

This kid even danced along to his JT song

This student even danced along to his JBiebs song

The competition was sponsored by a local insurance company, so the winners received small cash prizes along with their certificates.

Later that same day, the Zavkhan PCVs got together to celebrate Virginia’s birthday and to welcome Karen, who was an M23 Volunteer in Uliastai (so she left right before I came to site) and had come back for a two-week visit. We made yummy quesadillas:

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Strawberry margaritas (with some tweaks to account for availability of ingredients, though tequila is sold in one supermarket in town, and split amongst several of us, it wasn’t too expensive):

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And a pumpkin cheesecake (from cream cheese Karen had brought from UB), which we turned into Virginia’s birthday cake:

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Then we spent the evening chatting and playing Cards Against Humanity:

And eating pretzels, and drinking wine…

And eating pretzels, and drinking wine…

The main reason for Karen’s visit was that this was supposed to be the time when a group of dentists from an American NGO was going to come hold a dental clinic for students in Uliastai. Last May, Karen had organized for these dentists to come give dental health education and dental treatment to students who had lots of cavities (based on dental assessments that Karen had done on almost all the 6-8 year olds in Uliastai). But apparently they didn’t really check (or weren’t really told, depending on who you ask) about the Mongolian government’s requirements for bringing in medicines and practicing dentistry in country before they came, because when they arrived in UB, customs seized their boxes of medicines (as they hadn’t gotten medicine licenses from the Ministry of Health to bring them into the country) and they were told that they couldn’t practice dentistry because they hadn’t gotten dental licenses from the government ahead of time. But since they had come all this way, they ended up purchasing the medicines that they needed from a dentist in UB and went to Uliastai to do the dental clinic anyway (and technically illegally).

So that was a huge ordeal last year, but the dentists planned to come again this spring and to actually do it legally by getting all the licenses that the Mongolian government wanted. So since last September, Virginia and I had been working with the health specialist at the Social Development Department of the Zavkhan Governor’s Office, serving as local liaisons between the Mongolian government in UB and the president of this dental NGO. And let me tell you: it was an absolute pain in the ass.

First of all, the woman who is the president of the non-profit is a psychopath. My main job was to help the health specialist translate the emails she received from this woman and to write the reply emails. I have never seen such abhorrent messages from the head of an organization. We were in constant contact with the Ministry of Health and other government agencies in UB (again, we were trying to do this all legally this time around), and every time we let the president know of some information that the Mongolian government needed from the dentists (even something as simple as the expiration dates of the medicines they planned to bring), she would reply with an email full of “we are donating our time, money and talent and we should not have to jump through ridiculous hassles” and “obviously you do not want us to treat your children” and tons of other passive-aggressive or just straight-up aggressive comments.

To be fair, the difficulty of dealing with the bureaucracy that makes up much of the Mongolian government is certainly acknowledged here, and there were some requirements that seemed excessive, but this lady was just so unprofessional in all of her correspondences. I’m sure she’s a wonderful dentist, and I’m sure the non-profit does great work in the other countries they work in (which is why I’m not plastering their name all over this post), but some people just do not have the right personality or tact to be the face of an organization.

Anyway, about a month ago the NGO decided to cancel their trip to Mongolia. The reason(s), again, depend on who you ask, but suffice to say that it was a combination of Mongolian bureaucracy and this non-profit president taking it as a personal affront that the government would dare ask the dentists to provide proof of their credentials (because, you know, Mongolia is a developing country, so they should just be grateful that anyone would want to come provide dental care; after all, only first world countries like the US are allowed to have requirements and restrictions on foreigners coming into the country or what kinds of drugs they bring and administer to the nationals *end sarcasm*).

So even though the dentists weren’t coming, Karen came to do the dental assessments on the local children and to visit all her friends she hadn’t seen in almost a year. And since I’m the resident Health PCV, I’ve spent the past several days working with Karen on the dental assessments. We visited each school and checked the teeth of every 1st-3rd grade student.

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Karen’s method was to divide the mouth into quadrants (bottom left, bottom right, top left, top right). If a student had at least one cavity in each of the four quadrants, they were given a score of 4. If they had at least one cavity in three quadrants, a score of 3, etc.

For example, you can see 2 large cavities in both of the bottom quadrants in this kid

For example, you can see 2 large cavities in both of the bottom quadrants in this kid

Students were also automatically given a score of at least 3 if they had a large cavity in a tooth next to a permanent molar that had come in, as the decay would likely spread to that permanent tooth. In the rare cases where a student didn’t have any cavities, they were given a score of 0.

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We had Mongolian assistants at each school record in Karen’s computer the students’ name, age, score, and whether they had seen a dentist in the past year (so that we could compare results from Karen’s dental assessments last year and for future assessments).

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We also taught each school’s doctor/nurse how to do the assessment so that they can continue monitoring the students’ dental health after we are gone.

Because as every good PCV knows, sustainability is key

Because as every good PCV knows, sustainability is key

And to the surprise of absolutely no one, the vast majority of the students received scores of 3 or 4. Many of them had more than one cavity in each quadrant, and their teeth were so rotted away I don’t know how they can even chew food without being in unbearable pain. I know most kids throughout the world get plenty of cavities, but here in Mongolia there is very little awareness of the importance of dental health. Part of the reason is that just a generation or two ago, your average Mongolian didn’t have access to the tons of candy, soft drinks, and other imported sugar-filled foods that the kids today enjoy. The traditional Mongolian diet consists of meat and dairy products (food not as conducive to developing cavities), so even without access to dental services or even toothpaste, these kids’ parents and grandparents didn’t grow up having to worry about a mouth full of cavities. (This is also why kids who live out in the countryside tend to have much better teeth than those in cities or towns: they don’t have access to–or their families can’t afford–all the sugary imported food and drink, so they just eat meat, dairy, and root vegetables.)

So now these adults don’t know how to take care of their children’s teeth to account for all the sugary food they eat. Some parents don’t even see it as a problem, thinking that cavities in baby teeth aren’t an issue because the teeth will eventually fall out on their own anyway. They don’t realize that cavities in baby teeth can spread to adjacent permanent teeth, or that if the children don’t develop healthy dental habits now, they’re much less likely to take care of their teeth later when they are all permanent teeth.

So even though the dentists aren’t coming to Uliastai this year, next week Karen plans to hold seminars at the schools for the students (and their parents) who received bad scores on the dental assessment, telling the parents the importance of taking care of their children’s teeth and demonstrating how to properly brush their teeth. I would be helping out with that, but for the next two weeks I will be back in Darkhan for the first time in almost 10 months for Training of Trainers. But more on that in the next post!

Spring Has Sprung!

After roughly 7 months of winter, it looks like spring has finally arrived here in Uliastai! And by “arrived,” I mean one week it was still frigid with sub-zero temperatures during the night, and the next I could comfortably walk around town with jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Now I only have to make a small fire in my stove in the morning to get the chill out from the night before and maybe a small fire late in the evening depending on how long I plan to stay up. I somehow still have over half of my firewood left, probably because it was a relatively “mild” winter by Mongolian standards. The sun doesn’t set until almost 10pm, so even accounting for daylight saving time, that’s an extra 3-4 hours of light during the evening. But unfortunately, the warmer weather means my ger spiders have come back. Stupid spiders.

Most of the snow on the surrounding mountains has melted…

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…and some parts of the rivers have completely thawed as well.

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

Although the rivers are still frozen in some parts, given that 2 feet of ice takes a while to melt

The weather was even nice enough yesterday for us to go on our first hike of spring!

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Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

Those white splotches are ice on the still-frozen parts of the rivers

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Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

Top-of-the-mountain photo with perfectly-timed bird soaring behind me

It was a nice little excursion, but I didn’t even think about how my ghost-white skin would react to seeing the sun for the first time in over half a year. I remembered to put sunscreen on my face and neck, but completely forgot about my arms. So now they’re sunburned. 😦

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.

Tsagaan Sar

WARNING: This post is very long.

A couple weeks ago, I was ambushed by my khashaa family as soon as I got home from work and told to come over and help them make bansh (a smaller version of buuz that is boiled instead of steamed) with a bunch of their extended family for Tsagaan Sar.

The unofficial motto of Tsagaan Sar

The unofficial motto of Tsagaan Sar

Just what is Tsagaan Sar, you ask?

Tsagaan Sar translates to “white moon” and is basically the Mongolian celebration of the Lunar New Year. It’s kind of a big deal here.

Tsagaan Sar lasts for an entire month (sar also translates to “month”), but the first 3 days are the most important and the ones that everyone celebrates and gets off work for. The first day’s celebration is typically reserved for family, while the second and third days are spent visiting with friends. Everyone wears their winter deel, boots, and fanciest hats. In cities and towns–even small ones out in the middle of nowhere like here in Uliastai–most people (the biggest exception is older people) don’t wear traditional Mongolian clothes very often. But Tsagaan Sar is when literally everyone wears their deel and traditional Mongolian hats. And you eat all the food–mostly buuz and bansh. Seriously, mutton dumplings for days.

If you want to read more about it, there’s a nice article about some Tsagaan Sar customs here and a cool infographic showing the (massive) expenses that come with the celebration here (for reference, 1 US dollar is equal to approximately 1900 Mongolian tugrik [MNT]).

This year, Tsagaan Sar began on Thursday, February 19th, but all the craziness leading up to it began much earlier. As I already mentioned, my khashaa family started making bansh weeks before the holiday, as many families do. I was there for almost 4 hours and participated in the making of literally hundreds—if not thousands—of bansh. I finally left because it was late, I was tired, and my already inferior bansh were starting to look uglier by the minute. I don’t know how long the rest of them continued at it or how many bansh were ultimately made, but considering we started out with 50 kilos of meat, I’m willing to bet it was a lot.

The Monday before Tsagaan Sar began, the stores and streets were packed with people preparing for the holiday. People were buying food to prepare whatever they had left to make and gifts to give to all their visitors (in the complete opposite fashion of American visiting custom, the host during Tsagaan Sar gives each visitor a gift, instead of the visitors bringing a gift to the host). People left work early to super-clean their homes (like, scrubbing-the-walls clean), and by 2pm on Tuesday I was one of about five people left at the health department (until they were all called back a couple hours later when the director returned from UB and called an impromptu meeting). Before my supervisor left for the day, she told me I didn’t need to come in on Wednesday because pretty much no one else would be anyway. Sweet! All the vacation but none of the housework! (Sorry, but I had no plans of inviting anyone over to my ger as that would require me to actually have a bunch of food prepared, which I cannot afford on my measly PC living allowance. Plus, I would be way too busy visiting everyone else’s homes over Tsagaan Sar to have people come to mine). But since I had the day off, I did do some cleaning anyway. Just in case someone happened to peek into my ger, I didn’t want them to recoil in horror at the lack of sparkling cleanliness (because you can’t start the new year with a dirty home).

Day 1

On the first day of Tsagaan Sar, I woke up at 7:30am to get my fire started and planned to get up and about at 8. I wasn’t sure what time I was supposed to go over to my khashaa family’s home to celebrate, but I wanted to be prepared. But when 8 o’clock rolled around, I remembered how much I love sleep. I set my alarm for 9 and dozed off again, until I was awakened by my khashaa dad calling my name from outside my ger. I jumped out of bed, yelled something in English (my brain can’t do Mongolian as soon as I wake up; and no, my khashaa dad doesn’t understand English), and started getting ready. A few minutes later, he came back to make sure I was actually getting ready (see: doesn’t understand English, above) and told me to put on “nice clothes.” So obviously I put on my winter deel and my new traditional fox fur hat (called a loovuuz).

And wearing my "Mongol smile" (aka, not smiling)

And practicing my “Mongol smile” (aka, not smiling)

Sorry about the fur hat PETA, but it’s tradition, and it’s my job as a Peace Corps Volunteer to share in their culture. At least it’s not the kind with the legs and tail still attached

I finally went over to my khashaa family’s house, where all the extended family was already gathered (it’s called being fashionably late, people). I went around to each person (oldest male first, then down through the rest of the men, then oldest female, down through the rest of the women, and finally children) and gave them the special greeting for Tsagaan Sar, called zolgokh, where both people hold out their arms with the younger placing their arms under the other’s and holding their elbows to show support. Then you say a special greeting and sniff each others’ cheeks. (No, you read that right. It’s just like how in some cultures people greet each other by kissing them on the cheek, only in Mongolia it’s a sniff instead of a kiss.) I’m sure I messed up something, especially since I can’t really tell the ages of Mongolians very well and might have put my arms under those of a guy whose age I did not know but might have been younger than me. Then the men took out their snuff bottles (every Mongolian man has a fancy, expensive snuff bottle), which are called khuurug, and offered them to me. This custom also has a very specific set of rules: you must accept the bottle with your right hand, palm open, and don’t ever put your finger on the top of the cap. You’re not necessarily expected to take any snuff (though you certainly can if you want, especially if you’re a man), so you simply sniff the bottle’s cap (it would have already been opened a little before it was passed to you, but you should not close it before handing it back to the owner).

snuff-bottles

Then I was poured some milk tea and encouraged to eat, uh, everything.

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There was the bansh that we had made a couple weeks before, a giant hunk of sheep, towers of boov (hard cake things) with aaruul on top, potato salad, a giant platter of fruit,  assorted candies, and much more. And of course there was vodka. If you’re not doing shots of vodka before 10 o’clock in the morning, you’re doing Tsagaan Sar wrong.

Then came the gifts. As I mentioned before, the hosts give a gift to each visitor, and once you’ve received your gift, that’s your cue to leave (at least they have a nice way of kicking people out of the house). Older people and special guests often receive a khadag with a fairly large monetary gift. Other guests will receive either money, clothing like socks, nice dishes, or various other things. Children will often receive candy or some kind of snack.

Because I’m immediate family (kind of), I didn’t have to leave after I got my gift. The extended family left, and shortly thereafter, my khashaa parents, their daughter and son-in-law and their baby, and I went to the khashaa next door, which belongs to some of the relatives who had just been over to our place (the celebration starts at the oldest member of the family’s home, and then everyone goes back to their own home to receive guests, occasionally going out to visit other relatives). They also had a huge feast, and I was already getting full. After we received our gifts, we headed back to my khashaa parents’ home. They then went to visit other relatives, but I stayed because I knew my supervisor was going to invite me to her family’s home. Even though the first day of Tsagaan Sar is typically reserved for visiting family members, foreigners are apparently considered honored guests and can visit whoever they please (or they just feel sorry for us because we don’t have our own families here with us). I also needed to scrape snow off the top of my ger because it had snowed again the night before. This is important because if the snow is left on top of the ger, the felt that insulates the ger will freeze, making it super cold(er) inside and possibly leading to water leaking through the felt if it melts.

Ahh, the joys of living in a ger

Ahh, the joys of living in a ger

My supervisor called soon after and told me to come on over. At her home, the whole ritual of formal greetings and snuff bottle passing was repeated. There was yet more food that I was constantly encouraged to eat. I stayed over there for a couple hours, until I received my gift: a chocolate bar and a beautiful framed piece of art showing the 4 positions (goat, camel, sheep, horse) of the shagai (ankle bones) used in many traditional Mongolian games and fortunetelling.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time I got home, and I was quite exhausted. I had no other plans for the day, and my khashaa family was still off visiting other relatives, so I took a nice, long nap. Then I did some reading and finally wrote up this section of this post before I forgot everything.

Day 2

The second day of Tsagaan Sar was pretty chill: not only because I didn’t do as much running around and visiting people, but also because it got crazy cold again (haha, see what I did there?). Just when it had finally started getting a little warmer (as in, slightly above freezing for a few hours during the day), it was suddenly back to sub-zero temperatures. It was hovering right around -3 degrees F (with a -17 degree wind chill!) during the day on Friday and then got down to -33 degrees F at night.

I spent the morning relaxing and uploading photos that I had taken the day before. The week before, one of my coworkers had invited me to her daughter’s hair-cutting ceremony, which was supposed to be on the second day of Tsagaan Sar. But it turned out that she would just be having family over that day, and all the coworkers from the health department would come visit her sometime during the next week.

Later in the day, the other PCVs and I went over to the home of the friend whose son’s hair-cutting ceremony we went to back in the fall. It was a Tsagaan Sar visit but also a goodbye dinner because she and her family were moving to UB soon for her new job.

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I'll miss this cute little ball of energy

I’ll miss this cute little ball of energy

Luckily her apartment is very close to my home or else I would have frozen to death on the way back (see: -33 degrees, above).

Day 3

The lady who runs the Bookbridge Center where we teach English classes for students on Saturdays had earlier invited us to her home on the third day of Tsagaan Sar. But on that morning we found out that she was still out in the khuduu (countryside) with her family and asked to change our visit to another day.

Since I had no other plans for the day, I went with a few of the other PCVs to visit one of their coworker’s home. While walking there with another PCV (who was also wearing her deel and fox fur hat), we were stopped by a Mongolian man speaking perfect English and carrying a really fancy camera. Since that’s not something you come across every day here in Uliastai, we guessed he was a professional photographer from UB or something. Anyway, he asked if he could take a picture of the two of us, and we said sure. So if we end up on the cover of Mongolian Vogue, you’ll know why.

After our first visit of the day, we went to the home of one of our friends from the university who speaks very good English and helps us with our community English classes. Her mom, who works in Ireland of all places, had also come back to Mongolia for vacation to visit her family and friends, so it was interesting to talk to her as well. While we were there, some of their relatives came to visit as well, including an 86-year-old man. Now, people very, very rarely live to be 86 in Mongolia, but here this guy was, and he was absolutely astonished by the two white girls sitting there in traditional Mongolian clothes. Yeah, we’re pretty mind-blowing.

Days 4-5

Even though the official celebration days were now over, there was still excitement to be had. We (the Zavkhan PCVs) had recently met a guy who is starting his own tour company here in Zavkhan. He actually grew up here but had been working in UB as a guide for various films and for other tour companies. He has amazing English skills but had enlisted our help to edit the text (trip itineraries, etc.) for his website for the new company. To thank us for our help, he offered to take us to a horse festival in Tsagaanchuluut soum, about 5 hours to the south of Uliastai and near the border with Govi-Altai aimag. A few of the other PCVs were too busy or otherwise didn’t want to go, but 4 of us did end up going (because free trip).

We traveled via purgon, a type of old Russian military jeep. Not the most comfortable means of transport for the unpaved, mountainous roads of Zavkhan, but such is life in Mongolia. And I only went flying out of my seat and ended up on the floor from a giant bump in the road once, so that’s pretty good.

Traveling in style

Traveling in style

We stopped for lunch at the river near Tsagaankhairkhan soum. The river was–of course–frozen, so we just set up right there on top of the ice.

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Drinking coffee on a carpet on a frozen river

Drinking coffee on a carpet on a frozen river

After lunch we continued on our way, and shortly thereafter our purgon got stuck in the snow, so the boys had to dig it out.

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Once the purgon was freed, we drove on, at one point stopping to do some cross-country skiing. Our guide had brought his cross-country skis and told the other girl she could bring hers (which she has with her in Mongolia). None of the rest of us had ever done cross-country skiing before, but we all tried it out.

Oh yeah, I'm a pro! (actually, all 3 of us who'd never skied before fell at some point during our short runs; I fell literally the second I put my foot in the bindings)

Oh yeah, I’m a pro! (actually, all 3 of us who’d never skied before fell at some point during our short runs; I fell literally the second I put my foot in the bindings)

We finally arrived at Tsagaanchuluut, where we spent the night at our guide’s older sister’s home with her family. Before the sun went down, we ran up the nearby hill to get some pictures with a bunch of Buddhist statues.

And the moon, 'cause it looked awesome

And the moon, ’cause it looked awesome

Then we had dinner and spent the evening playing cards with their family.

The next morning, we went back up the hill to get a few more photos of the soum:

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Pictured: the entire soum

and the Buddhist statues:

Copying mudras (hand gestures) from the statues

Copying mudras (hand gestures) from the statues

Then we set off for the horse festival, which was taking place about 20km to the south of Tsagaanchuluut. On the way, we saw some Mongolian gazelles!

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The festival ended up being delayed a few hours, so we spent that time walking around and taking pictures.

We could see the Altai mountain range (the tallest in Mongolia) over in Govi-Altai

We could see the Altai mountain range (the tallest in Mongolia) over in nearby Govi-Altai aimag

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As the only foreigners, we soon attracted a lot of attention. Herders started chatting with us, giving us the zolgokh greeting and exchanging snuff bottles. They were quite impressed that we could actually speak some Mongolian.

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Younger herders kept asking us to take their picture.

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Finally, the competitions started. For the first event, riders had to reach down–while on their galloping horse–and pick up a blue khadag tied to a small stick that was on the ground, and then pick up their long lasso-pole (called an uurga) that was also on the ground a bit further away.

Pffft, I can totally do that

Pffft, I can totally do that

A rider who successfully picked up his pole-lasso

A rider who successfully picked up his lasso-pole

I even got some video of the event:

The next event consisted of some herders driving a large group of horses through the central area that all the spectators were standing around. The competitor (who was just standing for this event) had to use his lasso-pole to try to catch one of the horses as they ran by.

While trying not to get trampled

While trying not to get trampled

Yeah, let me just run into this herd of stampeding horses and try to catch one with my rope-on-a-stick

Yeah, let me just run into this herd of stampeding horses and try to catch one with my rope-on-a-stick

I also got a video of this event, which proved to be quite a challenge, as only 1 or 2 herders managed to successfully catch a horse. Usually the rope just ended up breaking or coming loose even if they did get it around a horse.

At this point the racers from a race that I didn’t even know had started began arriving. Our guide’s nephew ended up coming in 4th place, but by this point my camera battery had died. Unfortunately, we had to leave soon after this, even though there were still more events (like lassoing on horseback, and breaking a horse) that would be happening later (thanks to the delay of the start of the festival). We had to get back to Uliastai that night, and there were ominous-looking clouds in the distance.

Sure enough, as soon as we got back to Tsagaanchuluut for dinner before heading home, it started to snow. And it continued to snow for the entire 5-hour-drive back, in the dark. Luckily we made it home safely and in good time. It was an amazing trip and a great end to the Tsagaan Sar weekend.

NOTE: I did take many more videos during the horse festival (and a random one of the snow a couple weeks ago) but because I’m too lazy to figure out how to combine all these short little videos into a larger compilation video, I just uploaded them all individually to my YouTube channel. So you can check out the other videos there if you so desire.

First Trip Away From Site

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

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

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

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

Yes, it's been snowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the freezing cold no less

In the freezing cold no less

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

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