Close of Service and Back to America

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun (and busy)! I know I haven’t updated this blog in a couple months, but I’ve been a little wrapped up with COSing, another trip to Japan, and returning home to America!

First up: Close of Service (COS)

Saying goodbye to my coworkers, khashaa family, friends, and sitemates was obviously difficult. Anywhere you live for 2 years will start to feel like home to you, but I can say I felt like it was time to get back to my American home. I really did enjoy my time in the Peace Corps and in Mongolia, and I definitely grew as a person through all the adventures and struggles I experienced, but I was ready to see my family and friends stateside again.

I could go into all the details of my last few weeks in Mongolia, but with all the other things that have already happened since then, this post would never end. I can, however, attest that things stayed interesting up to the very end. The health department had to take down my ger 2 weeks before I was to head to UB to COS (long story), so I ended up living in the health department (again) for my last bit of time.

Apparently it's easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Apparently it’s easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Then, after packing up my bags and saying my goodbyes, it was off to UB for all the fun paperwork, medical stuff, and exit interviews you have to complete before you can leave the country. This takes 3 days, and at the end you “ring out your service,” literally.

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After that, you’re free to leave the country, which for me meant going off to Japan once more for my COS trip (many PCVs travel after they COS before returning home to take advantage of being relatively close to travel destinations). I had really enjoyed the Japan trip my sitemate and I went on back in March and wanted to see more of the country. Plus, I could justify it by the fact that it was technically on the way home, whereas if I ever wanted to go back to Japan in the future, I’d be shelling out close to $2000 to get there and back from the US east coast. I made it slightly less “on the way home” by staying there for almost an entire month, which my family did not exactly appreciate.

Since I'd already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

Since I’d already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

It took me until just over a week ago to finally finish uploading all the numerous photos I took during my trip, so I couldn’t even begin to try to select a few to post here, but I can say it was an amazing trip, and everywhere I visited was absolutely beautiful. After 2 years in frigid, landlocked Mongolia, I really appreciated the ocean and beaches like never before.

Returning to America

Finally, it was time to head home. I flew from Okinawa to Shanghai, then to Los Angeles. But while I was at LAX waiting for the final leg of my flight to Atlanta, I got a great welcome back to America. An armed airport guard came up to our gate and demanded that everyone get up and go back out past the security check. Well, when a guard carrying a rifle tells you to get the heck out of there, you tend to do as they say. Our gate was at the end of the terminal so we had to walk past all the other gates on the way out, which had already been emptied. At the end of the terminal and spilling out of the exit were the hundreds and hundreds of passengers who had been in the terminal before being evacuated. I won’t lie: the first thoughts running through my head at the time were that there was a bomb or a gunman on the loose and that I didn’t want to die when I was so close to finally getting home. No airport officials were telling us anything, so obviously people started taking out their smartphones and looking to see if there was any news about what was going on. We heard reports of an “unconfirmed shooting” that had taken place at the airport, but as we continued to wait around for almost an hour, the news updated to reveal that the whole shooting thing had been a false alarm. Apparently people in another terminal had heard a “loud noise” and thought it was gunfire, leading to panic and people calling 911 to report a shooting at the airport. So obviously the police had to respond to the 911 calls and they ended up searching all the terminals. Oh, and a guy dressed up as Zorro with a plastic sword was involved somehow. The whole fiasco delayed my flight two hours (and all the other flights as well), which caused a lot of people to miss their connections in Atlanta, but all I cared about was that I was home!

My parents were there to pick me up, there may have been tears shed upon seeing them for the first time in over 2 years, and then we went off for breakfast at IHOP (it was early in the morning and I wanted me some stuffed French toast). When I finally got home, I slept for most of the day before we went back out for dinner to eat more food I hadn’t been able to enjoy in Mongolia.

I feel like I had an easier time adjusting to life back in America because I had spent so much time traveling around Japan, which served as a buffer between my vastly different lives in rural Mongolia and suburban America. I was very jet-lagged for quite a few days, it did take some practice to get used to driving again, and all the options available in grocery stores and restaurants was a little overwhelming, but I don’t think I’ve experienced as severe reverse culture shock as many other RPCVs. I’ve spent most of my time so far visiting with family and friends and researching and applying for public health jobs, so it’s been a bit more chill than a lot of my RPCV friends who went straight into grad school or a job as soon as they got home.

I wish I had something more poignant to add about my COS and readjustment. I don’t think this will be my last blog post, but considering how long it took me to get this one out, I can’t say for sure.Ā At any rate, I figured I should get this one posted before another 2 months post-COS have passed me by! And then maybe I’ll be able to collect my thoughts and add a new post later about my reflections on my Peace Corps service!

A Busy Spring

The weeks since COS Conference have been quite busy, hence the lack of blog posts.

I’ve been working hard to finish up my project for my Master’s International program, which has seen pretty much all the delays since I started the community needs assessment back in February of 2015. But my coworkers and I finally managed to conduct two first aid/CPR trainings for secondary school students in Shine Khoroo, a somewhat removed district of Uliastai where most of the families are herders and the older siblings are left in charge of the younger siblings during the school year. And since unintentional injuries like burns are a huge issue among children here, we thought some basic first aid training was important for students who often care for their little brothers and sisters (and it’s never a bad skill to have regardless).

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The project also focuses on accident prevention, so we designed a survey on household accidents for the parents of kindergarten students (2-5 year olds) to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding childhood accidents, prevention, and first aid. The goal was to have about 350 parents complete the survey, but with all the delays, we ended up not being able to get the surveys printed and to the kindergartens until the last week of school. So we ran out of time and were only about to get 165 surveys completed, but it’s better than nothing. Now I get to analyze the results of all those surveys and use them to inform the preliminary design of future educational activities for parents (which will obviously take place after I’m gone). Then it’s just a matter of finishing up my practicum report and I’m all set to graduate with my master’s degree in August!

Another project I’d been working on was a pilot run of Happy Center, an educational and social integration program for youth with disabilities. The first Happy Center was started in Govi-Altai aimag a couple years ago, and the PCVs who developed that program published a manual detailing how to start the program in other aimags. Our M26 PCV wanted to start it in Uliastai, so she worked with our local Children’s Center to get everything organized. Each session consisted of a reading or math lesson, a life skills lesson, and “friendship time” for playing games together with students without disabilities. We ended up having sessions twice a week for 7 weeks, and it went well enough that the program will probably be continued next school year.

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during Friendship time

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during “friendship time”

 

This year, Peace Corps/Mongolia is celebrating its 25th anniversary! Most of the anniversary events will happen in August after our cohort has already left, but in May PC sponsored a tree-planting event. PC funded the purchase of 25 saplings for each aimag, which we (at least in Zavkhan) planted in conjunction with Mongolia’s national tree-planting day.

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But because spring in Mongolia is capricious to say the least, it managed to snow 3 times within a week or so of the tree planting. Luckily the baby trees survived and are now budding and thriving in the warmer, more agreeable weather.

 

June 1 was Children’s Day in Mongolia. My coworkers brought their children to the health department, where the kids had food and drinks and performed songs and dances.

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This adorable little chunk is my coworker's daughter AND my birthday buddy!

This adorable little chunk is my coworker’s daughter AND my birthday buddy!

After that, I met a couple of my sitemates at the local stadium, where the city-wide festivities were taking place. We wandered around for a bit and said hi to some people we know before grabbing food and calling it a day.

 

That weekend, I got to go on a short trip to UB on Peace Corps’ invitation to meet Secretary of State John Kerry, who just happened to be dropping by Mongolia on his way to China for diplomatic talks. The US embassy wanted to briefly showcase Peace Corps/Mongolia for its 25th anniversary during the event, so PC invited a group of current PCVs and former PCVs still living in Mongolia to come to the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the other PCVs who were invited either live in UB or were already in UB for an event at the M27s’ orientation (yep, our newest group of Trainees just arrived!), so why the hell was I there?

Well, the weekend before that, a US congressional delegation visited UB and PC invited the handful of Volunteers who are from the districts represented by those congressmen to come as well. I was one of those PCVs, but Peace Corps ended up having to retract my invitation. The meeting was scheduled for that Saturday morning, but because of Uliastai’s infrequent flight schedule, PC would have had to flown me in the Tuesday before and flown me back the next Tuesday, and they couldn’t justify bringing me in to UB for a whole week on a account of a 2-hour meeting. So they never explicitly said it, but I’m assuming they invited me to the John Kerry thing to make up for having to miss out on the congressional delegation (which I must say, was a favorable trade).

Anyway, we had to arrive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in the morning and wait for Secretary Kerry and the Mongolian Foreign Minister to arrive. They went away for some private discussions, then came back for a press conference, which we got to attend (but PC was pretty adamant about not having us all whip out our cameras and phones to snap a bunch of photos, but there were plenty enough photographers from news stations and the embassy anyway).

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He even mentioned us (Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers) in his comments, the transcript of which can be found here.

After the press conference, Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister came into the next room to shake all our hands, make a few remarks, and take a group photo:

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Photo With a Group of Former and Current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar 1

Then like that, he was gone. He was only in Mongolia for 6 hours, and he had to get on to other things like lunch with the Mongolian president and some cultural events. But I got to meet a famous person and shake his hand, and got a free trip to UB out of it! I would call that a worthwhile weekend!

COS Conference

The last week of April was my cohort’s Close of Service (COS) Conference–aka the start of the home stretch of our Peace Corps service. It was also (at least for my cohort) the last time we would all be together.

I don’t know how other Peace Corps countries work, but in Mongolia, they typically have each cohort COS over a period of about 3 weeks so as to not have a horde of PCVs descending upon the capital at once and all trying to get their COS appointments and paperwork finished at the same time. And even though my cohort’s official COS date is August 16, 2016 (exactly 2 years after we swore in), Country Directors can move a group’s COS date up by no more than a month, typically to accommodate PCVs who go straight into graduate school at the end of their service.

So the first COS week is the second-to-last week of July, which got further complicated by the fact that Mongolia is hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Conference in the middle of July, and it’s a huge deal! The Heads of State of 60 countries are coming into UB for the conference, pretty much all other transportation into and out of the city won’t be running, and the Mongolian government has kindly asked all UB residents to go out into the countryside for a week or so to stay out of the way. The only transportation that will be running is the train line, so the 18 or so PCVs who live along the train line were told ahead of time that they had to leave during the first COS week. For the rest of us, we had a “lottery” at the beginning of the COS Conference for either the second COS week (the last week of July) or the third COS week (the first week of August), and we could trade dates among ourselves. I drew the third week, which is fine for me since–unlike many other people in my cohort–I don’t have grad school or a job or anything lined up for right when I get back to the US, and I would have traded with someone who needed an earlier date had I drawn the second week anyway. The way I see it, we’re all technically going home early, so I can’t complain about being one of the last to leave.

The conference itself was held at a very nice hotel outside of UB, although it was so far outside of UB that it was in the middle of nowhere.

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Hotel

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere

But the hotel was the nicest that we’ve stayed in for any of our PC conferences, probably because they pull out all the stops for the “survivors” who make it the full two years (about 70% of our cohort). The food was amazing: our first meal when we arrived was hot pot, which is surprisingly uncommon outside of major cities here considering hot pot apparently originated in Mongolia many, many centuries ago. Breakfast and lunch each day was a buffet, and we had 3-course dinners every night. And on a non-food-related note, the hotel even had a sauna, which we obviously took advantage of.

The conference consisted of sessions for reflecting on our PC journey,

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providing feedback about our PC service, looking to the future (e.g., networking, resume writing, job search resources for RPCVs), and learning about the logistics of COS itself (which is three days in the capital packed full of things like closing our Mongolian bank account, having our last medical appointments, turning in our Description of Service [the official record of what we did during PC], and meeting with the Country Director, our Regional Manager, and other admin people). We also had our final LPI to prove how much (or how little) our Mongolian improved ver two years.

On the last day, the US Ambassador to Mongolia came to have lunch with us, and in the afternoon our Country Director handed out certificates of completion to each of us.

I have no idea what I'm looking at...

I have no idea what I’m looking at…

Then we took a group photo, the last one with all of us together:

The Survivors, M25

The Survivors, M25

Our flight back to Uliastai was the next day, but after sitting at the airport for almost five hours because our flight kept getting delayed due to a snowstorm that was right over Zavkhan, the airline finally decided to cancel the flight and have us just come back the next morning. So we spent another night in UB, and even though the same storm came over the city that night, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Zavkhan, so we were able to fly back without any additional problems. Such is life in a place where no month of the year is immune to a random snowstorm messing up your schedule.

I now have a little less than three months left in Mongolia (I can officially leave the country any time after 6pm on August 3). I am excited to go back home, but there’s still a lot for me to do here in Mongolia: I need to finish up my practicum project for my Master’s International program so that I can graduate with my master’s degree in August; I need to write my DOS and update my resume to reflect the work I’ve done in PC; and I need to start focusing on job-hunting and my future career.

Peace Corps gives COSing Volunteers two options for returning home: you can either have Peace Corps purchase a plane ticket for you to send you straight back to your “home of record” (with no input from you regarding dates and airlines) or you can take a flat $1400 and arrange your own way home. I plan to travel some more after I COS, so I decided to take the money and run! Which leaves me with another thing to add to my pre-COS to-do list: planning another trip!

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 šŸ˜¦

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.

Visiting the Smoggy City

I spent a few days last week in UB for a training (ok, the training was only one day but with Zavkhan’s twice-weekly flight schedule, I got to stick around for a few extra days). It was a seminar regarding PC/Mongolia’sĀ  EAP (Emergency Action Plan), so since it concerns the safety and security of PCVs in-country, I probably shouldn’t really talk about here.

So instead, I’ll discuss just how insanely smoggy UB is, particularly in the winter. I knew UB had an air pollution problem, but I just don’t remember it being so bad the couple of times I was there last winter. I guess I didn’t spend as much time walking around outside during my last winter visit, since all the sessions and meals during our IST last year were held at the same hotel we were staying at.

But this time around, I was walking outside a lot, and my lungs did not appreciate the air quality. It was worst in the evening; every time I went out to dinner with friends, I would step out of the restaurant and immediately start hacking my lungs out.

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There’s been several news articles about UB’s air pollution problem since I’ve been in Mongolia, including:

Not that UB’s smog is a new development. I found articles from 2013 that discuss how UB is the second most polluted city in the world–not exactly what you’d expect of a city in the sparsely-populated, wide-open land of Mongolia. But get nearly half of the country’s population living in one city, and then get half of that group of people living in traditional gers and wooden houses in the “ger districts” of UB, and you’re left with well over 500,000 people who all rely on old-fashioned wood and coal-burning stoves to cook food and not freeze to death during the long, harsh winters.

The coal-fueled power plants and growing number of cars on the streets are certainly also contributing to the air pollution, as is the fact that UB is located in a valley surrounded by mountains that reduce air circulation, but air pollution from household stoves is a somewhat unique contributor that other top air pollution cities don’t really deal with.

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The Mongolian government, as well as several international organizations, have been looking into possible solutions, such as cleaner-burning stoves and continuing to expand the public transportation system, but it looks like for now, I’ll just have to appreciate the fresh mountain air of Uliastai even more.

 

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.

MST, and Other Happenings from the Past Few Weeks

After PST was over and all the new PCVs had gone off to their sites, I went to UB to await my cohort’s Mid-Service Training (MST). There was only a week between the M26s’ PST and our M25 MST, and Peace Corps sure as hell wasn’t going to pay for any of us fly-site people to take a plane trip back to site for a few days just to turn around and head right back again. So I literally hung out in UB for a week. Which sounds great, except I had to foot the bill for almost everything (and staying in UB is expensive!), even though Peace Corps hadn’t really given me any other options. I did get reimbursed for a couple of those days, as I had to be in UB for my mid-service medical and dental exams and could write them off as “medical travel,” but I still ended up having to spend a lot of money to stay at the hostel and buy the overpriced food of the big city. Luckily, I had plenty of money saved up (as there’s not much to buy in a small town in the middle of nowhere), so I decided to take advantage of my free time and go all out!

…By which I mean I went around to a bunch of the touristy sites in and around UB. Yes, I know how to party.

My first stop was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, a large Buddhist monastery smack dab in the middle of the city.

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That building on the left houses a statue of the boddhisattva Avalokiteśvara (which likely means nothing to you if you’re not Buddhist), which is apparently the tallest indoor statue in the world, at 87 ft (26.5 m).

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The next day, I went to the southern part of the city to visit the Winter Palace of the Bogd Khan and the Zaisan Memorial. The Winter Palace was one of the four residences of the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu (spiritual head of the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism) who later became the emperor of Mongolia (the Bogd Khan) when it declared independence from the Qing dynasty of China in 1911. The Bogd Khan was the theocratic ruler of Mongolia until his death in 1924, after which the communist government of the Mongolian People’s Republic came into power.

Anyway, now the palace is a museum and tourist attraction. I was able to get some pictures of the outside of the buildings, but they had a strict “no photography” policy inside, so I have no photos of all the cool stuff the museum had, like the fancy jeweled decorations worn by the Bogd Khan’s pet elephant (because of course he had a pet elephant).

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On the way to my next stop, I saw a giant Buddha statue…

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…and then made it to the base of the Zaisan Memorial hill. The memorial honors Soviet soldiers killed during World War II, and at the base of the hill is a tank memorial, featuring a Soviet tank sponsored by Mongolia and that participated in the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

It even comes with a map of its journey from Moscow to Berlin

It even comes with a map of its journey from Moscow to Berlin

Then I climbed a bunch of steps to the top of the hill, where the main memorial is.

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There’s a circular painting depicting scenes of friendship and support between Mongolia and the Soviet Union:

This scene shows Soviet support for Mongolia's declaration of independence

This scene shows Soviet support for Mongolia’s declaration of independence

Here's the defeat of the Japanese by a joint Mongolian/Soviet effort during a border conflict in 1939

Here’s the defeat of the Japanese by a joint Mongolian/Soviet effort during a border conflict in 1939

And here's the defeat of Nazi Germany

And here’s the defeat of Nazi Germany

and the hill offered a great view of UB:

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There was also a guy with an eagle that you could pay 3,000 tugriks ($1.50) to hold and get pictures taken, so of course I did that:

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The following day, two guys at the hostel and I decided to take a tour to Gorkhi-Terelj National Park and to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue.

Gorkhi-Terelj National Park is one of the most famous and scenic of Mongolia’s national parks. It’s not too far from UB, so it’s a really popular tourist destination. We were only doing a day trip, so we didn’t get to see much of the park (it’s pretty damn big), but we went on a hike up to a monastery, which had an amazing view.

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We ate lunch, then went off to see “Turtle Rock.”

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After our brief trip to the park, we headed to the Chinggis Khaan Equestrian Statue (I refuse to spell it your silly, wrong way, Wikipedia).

Which is literally a giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan on a horse

Which is literally a giant steel statue of Chinggis Khan on a horse

You could even go up inside the statue and walk out on the horse’s head, in order to get face-to-face with Chinggis…

He's always watching...

He’s always watching…

Or to look out at the (quite underwhelming, especially after Terelj) surrounding view:

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After checking out the statue and the museum underneath it, we went back to the hostel for a nice rest.

Finally, it was time for MST. It was held at the same resort that the PDM workshop had been held at back in April, about an hour outside of UB. MST was the first time some of us had seen each other in a year, since Health and CYD had a separate IST from the TEFL group. It was a time to reflect on our first year of service and to look ahead and plan for our second year. We also had a few Mongolian language classes, as well as our second Language Proficiency Interview (LPI). Our first LPI–basically a 30-minute discussion with a Mongolian teacher used to rate your level of language proficiency–was at the end of PST last summer. I was pretty nervous about how this LPI would go. I had done well on my first one, but that was after a summer of 4-hour Mongolian classes every weekday. I fell out of the habit of studying soon after I got to site, and even though I obviously have to speak a ton of Mongolian at site, it’s always in the same situations (shopping for groceries, taking a taxi, at work at the health department, etc.), so my vocabulary has probably decreased. In any case, I have one more LPI to look forward to, at our COS conference next spring!

MST was Monday through Friday, and then it was (finally) back to Uliastai on Saturday. My ger had been reconstructed (after it was taken down to replace the wooden floor at the beginning of the summer), but for whatever reason my electricity hadn’t been reconnected, so I without power for the first 4 days I was back. It also rained almost every day that first week back, so I quickly discovered that my ger floods from rainwater seeping in along the floor (an issue which I’m still working to get resolved). And there was the general unpacking of all my belongings that I had to pack up right before they took my ger down. So it’s been kinda stressful.

But the weekend after that stressful week was filled with hanging out with my sitemates, including our new M26. On Friday evening, we got together to make dinner and to discuss our plans for community projects for the next year (community English classes, “Monglish” nights, benefit concert 2.0, and several new projects that are in the works–so stay tuned!).

Then on Saturday we went on our first hike of autumn (though how many more we’ll be able to go on before winter hits is questionable, considering it’s already getting below freezing at night).

Our destination: that cliff

Our destination: that cliff

Why yes, I do live in one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia

Why yes, I do live in one of the most beautiful places in Mongolia

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View of Uliastai

View of Uliastai

The ladies of Zavkhan (photo credit to Travis, who's so lucky to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with us)

The ladies of Zavkhan (photo credit to Travis, who’s so lucky to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with us)