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’s  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.

 

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IST in UB

If you have no idea what the title of this post means, you clearly haven’t checked out the new page on my blog called “Peace Corps Acronyms,” right there at the top of this screen. Go ahead, give it a look. I can wait.

So, now you know that IST is short for In-Service Training, the week-long PC training each Volunteer cohort has after about 3-4 months at site. And UB is short for Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia.

Because my M25 cohort is much larger than previous Volunteer cohorts to come to Mongolia, they decided to split us up by sector and have two ISTs. TEFL is by far our largest sector, with almost 60 PCVs, so they are having their own IST starting this weekend. But the 10 of us Health PCVs and the 12 remaining CYD Volunteers had our own intimate little IST at the beginning of December.

Because there are only 2 flights a week between Uliastai and UB during the winter–and because of when those flights are relative to when our training days happened to fall–I got to come into UB 2 days before IST and stay 3 days after, giving me plenty of relaxation and shopping time!

And 4 hours of pretending I'm flying over Antarctica

And 4 hours of pretending I’m flying over Antarctica

Each PCV gets to bring one of their Mongolian counterparts with them to IST (so that they can actually be included in what we learn through the training), so I brought my supervisor, with whom I’ve done most of my work so far. Conveniently enough, she has relatives who live in UB, and since Peace Corps only provides us with hotel rooms during the actual training days, we both stayed at her relatives’ apartment during those extra days in UB. (Note: I could have stayed at a one of the many hostels in the city for pretty dang cheap, but free is cheaper than cheap, and includes free breakfast and dinner thanks to good old Mongolian hospitality.) Yes, I did bring her relatives a gift to thank them for letting me crash at their place, and then they proceeded to give me a gift before I left, as if to say, “Thanks for sleeping on our couch, using our water and wifi, and eating our food!” only in a completely sincere, non-sarcastic way (because this hospitality thing is no joke).

Anyway, my supervisor and I spent our first few hours in UB chilling at her relatives’ apartment, watching a terrible Mongolian dub of The Starving Games, a parody of The Hunger Games, because Mongolian television is weird. Then we all went to the home of some other relatives of theirs, whose daughter had recently had a baby. They live in one of the many ger districts that surround the center of UB (over half of the residents of UB live in these ger districts). So one minute we were driving along a major city street, and the next we turned right onto a dirt road lined with hashaas (fenced-in yards with wood houses and/or gers), where the people live without access to running water or the sewage system. It literally looked just like a road in any other town or village in Mongolia, except it was right there next to the huge apartment buildings, shopping centers, and tourist attractions of the center of UB.

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

Like this, but with less greenery and more snow

We spent the next day eating Cinnabon and admiring the Christmas* decorations at the State Department Store, a large, Western-style shopping mall.

Yum!

Yummy!

Pretty!

Pretty!

Then we proceeded to go shop elsewhere, because the State Department Store is one of the more expensive places to shop in UB. We ended up at Sunday Plaza, an insanely crowded, multistory building filled with hundreds of stalls where you can buy all kinds of clothes, accessories, home goods, etc. My supervisor needed a new winter coat and I needed some nice warm fuzzy winter boots, so we spent the better part of the afternoon wandering from stall to stall, trying things on, and realizing that–even at this moderately-priced shopping center–we could not afford much of what UB has to offer. She couldn’t get the coat she really, really liked, and I found out that the fur boots that everybody and their grandmother seems to own cost like 350,000 tugriks (or about $190, aka waaaaay more than I would ever spend on a pair of shoes, even in the US). Turns out they’re made from reindeer skin, hence the hefty price tag. But I did find some cheaper, even furrier boots, so I succeeded in acquiring that staple of the Mongolian wardrobe.

The actual training took place at the Park Hotel, which is super nice (especially by Peace Corps standards; the hotel we stayed at during the summer trainings was not even comparable).

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Is that a freakin' bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Is that a freakin’ bathtub?! With running hot water?!!

Each training day consisted of 8-9 hours of various seminars including technical sessions (regarding our respective health or CYD work), Mongolian language classes, cross-culture sessions, and administrative stuff. We went to about half of the sessions with our counterparts, and the other sessions had the PCVs and counterparts separated.

We were provided with 3 meals a day by the hotel: buffet breakfasts and 3-course lunches and dinners. They even had real, non-instant coffee, which does not really exist in Mongolia outside of UB, so of course we proceeded to clean the hotel out, until there was absolutely no coffee left (brewed or instant) in the hotel by our last day. Oh, and I got to have lunch with the US Ambassador in Mongolia one of the days (like, sitting across the table from her) and even got a picture with her, but I’m not sure if it’s appropriate to post it online so I won’t.

Our evenings were spent exchanging media on our external hard drives, watching movies, playing games, and just chilling out with the people we never get to see anymore because we’re spread across the country.

After all of the seminars were over, we went to the Peace Corps office, where they let us all rummage through huge piles and boxes of office supplies and books donated by the embassy for us to take back to our sites. But because my supervisor and I were flying back to Uliastai (and each passenger is only allowed to take 10kg of luggage on the plane), she decided that we would fill up 2 giant boxes of printer paper, binders, miscellaneous other office supplies, and resource books to take back to our health department, but just put them on a truck heading to Uliastai instead of the plane.

So the next day, with the help of some men from a medical equipment company that my supervisor knows/works with, we went to…uh, I don’t even know what to call it. An enormous “parking lot” where rows and rows of trucks heading out to all the different aimags are loaded up with supplies for the shops in each city/soum. A truck depot, I guess? We found a truck that was leaving for Uliastai later that day and had just enough room left to fit our boxes and excess baggage.

Then we went to the Black Market, which is not the underground market for buying illegal drugs, but is  probably one of (if not the) cheapest place to shop in UB, to get a few more things we wanted. We would have stayed longer, but the cheap prices come with a toll: the entire market is outdoors, so with the stupidly cold Mongolian winter temperatures, it’s difficult to stay there too long before you feel your body screaming for warmth.

For my last full day in UB, we went to Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) to get some pictures with the Chinggis Khaan** statue:

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I'm a true Mongolian now!

Got my fuzzy hat and furry boots: I’m a true Mongolian now!

and the statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, a famous revolutionary:

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Then we ate lunch at Pizza Hut, because pizza:

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My flight back to Uliastai was the next morning (my supervisor was staying a few more days for a Ministry of Health-sponsored training happening in the city). And luckily I had left my hashaa family a spare key to my ger so that they could light a fire in my stove before I arrived so it wouldn’t be -20 degrees inside (a ger left to itself for 10 days in winter is not something you want to come home to).

*Most Mongolians don’t really celebrate Christmas, but they have adopted a lot of the traditional Christmas decorations of the Western world and use them for Shine Jil, or New Year’s. In fact, Mongolians generally don’t realize that what we call Christmas and New Year’s are two completely different holidays that just happen to fall within the same week. So even though they’re not really celebrating Christmas, Shine Jil in Mongolia is quite a big deal and is almost comparable to Christmas in America (in terms of how many people celebrate it and the extent of commercialization). Look forward to hearing more about Shine Jil after we have our health department’s Shine Jil party in a couple weeks!

**Yes, his name was Chinggis Khaan (pronounced ching-gis haan). The whole Genghis Khan spelling/pronunciation comes from centuries of horrible transcription of the Mongolian language. It doesn’t help that the letter “х” in the Mongolian Cyrillic alphabet, which is like a harder, throatier English “h” sound, is generally transliterated into the Latin script as “kh,” which we read and pronounce like an English “k.” So yes, the “k” in his name is silent (or at least not pronounced like the “k” we’re used to).

 

Swearing-In Ceremony

In Ulaanbaatar (UB), we stayed in university dorms, way up on the 9th and 10th floors, with only one working elevator, making it really fun for all 87 of us PCTs to drag all our luggage (including our winter bags that they decided to give us back at that very moment) to our rooms.

Which at least had a nice view of the city

Which at least had a nice view of the city

Then we split into groups, each lead by one or two current PCVs who knew their way around the city, to go to different restaurants for dinner. My group went to a very yummy Cuban restaurant called Guantanamera. Then we went back to the dorms to try to get some sleep, because we had to wake up early the next morning for the Swearing-In Ceremony.

True to Peace Corps fashion, there was some miscommunication about when exactly we needed to be ready to head over to the PC office, so many of us ended up rushing and not having time to eat breakfast before we had to leave.

Shortly after arriving at the PC office, those of us who were performing dances at the ceremony were taken to the US ambassador’s residence early to prepare. This was the first year the Swearing-In Ceremony was held at the ambassador’s residence, which was a swanky apartment complex with dozens of security guards roaming the premises.

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We had all put on our deels that morning because we assumed there would be time to change into our costumes before we actually performed, since the cultural performances were the last thing on the schedule. But then we were told that we had to go ahead and put on our costumes and wear them during the ceremony. Well, good thing I spent all that money to get a deel made for Swearing-In…

At least we looked snazzy in our costumes as well

At least we looked snazzy in our costumes as well

Then we were shown the “stage” that we would be performing on, which was much smaller than we were told it would be and had several poles holding up the canopy that we had to maneuver around. Well, we would just need to practice on that stage beforehand, right? Except we weren’t allowed to since people were already arriving. Oh well! Well do it live!

The ceremony consisted of speeches by the PC Mongolia Country Director:

(plus translator)

(plus translator)

The US Ambassador in Mongolia:

(plus translator)

(plus translator)

And Mongolia’s Vice Minister of Health:

(plus English translator)

(plus English translator)

Then we said the oath of service (making us official Peace Corps Volunteers!) and were called one by one to go up and receive our certificates. After everyone had been called, the cultural performances began. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get photos or videos of the performances before ours since I had to stay “backstage.” First was another group’s dance:

Well ,here they are before the ceremony

Well, here they are before the ceremony

Then two people sang a Mongolian song. Finally, our group performed our dance. I’m told people got video of all the performances, so I’ll try to snag those when I can. Overall, I think our performance went well, especially considering our lack of practice with the stage we were given (or at least people said we did very well).

After the official ceremony we mingled with our supervisors and the other guests, ate the food being served, and snapped more photos.

Healthies with our certificates

Healthies with our certificates

My director and I

My director and I

I did end up changing back into my deel soon after the performance because I was really hot in the long-sleeve costume and because I bought it for the ceremony dammit!

Oh, and the ceremony was featured on the Mongolian news that evening! And there was also an article about the ceremony on the US Embassy in Mongolia’s website (which is a thing).

Later that day we wandered around UB looking to buy any last minute items we knew we wouldn’t be able to get at our sites. Some people left for their sites that day, but I think most people, including myself, left the next day.

UPDATE: I did finally get a video someone had taken of our dance. It–along with some other videos–are up on my new YouTube channel.

Orientation Continues in Darkhan

Note: More catching up with posts. But my host family just got a modem, so now I have wifi and will hopefully be able to get caught up the rest of the way!

After our few days at the ger camp, we got back on the buses for the 4-hour trip north from Ulaanbaatar to Darkhan, where we would finish our Orientation.

The aimags (provinces) and aimag centers of Mongolia (Darkhan is a city but also it's own aimag, Darkhan-Uul)

The aimags (provinces) and aimag centers of Mongolia (Darkhan is a city but also it’s own aimag, Darkhan-Uul)

During the bus ride, we saw lots of hills and livestock and not much else.

Hills

Hills

More hills

More hills

Cows

Cows

Horses

Horses

 

Guy riding a horse

Guy riding a horse

Sheep and goats

Sheep and goats

You get the idea...

You get the idea…

Finally we arrived in Darkhan…

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…where we were greeted by some of our trainers.

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We stayed at the Darkhan Hotel and had our orientation sessions at a school roughly a 15-minute walk away. Sessions introduced us to Peace Corps medical and safety information, sector (Health, TEFL, or Community & Youth Development) information, and language and cross-cultural classes. We got to see several cultural performances, and I took lots of photos and videos of them, but unfortunately I left the USB cable for my camera at home because I thought, Oh, I can just download images from my camera to my computer using the SD card slot on my laptop. Except the videos won’t transfer that way, so no videos for now! Maybe if I ever get the cable sent to me or get a new one or something I will upload them later. Anyway, there was Mongolian throat singing (khoomei) and playing the horse-head fiddle (morin khuur):

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Contortionists:

Yes, one of them was an adorable little girl

Yes, one of them was an adorable little girl

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Two dance routines (I got videos of them both but only one photo):

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And more singing:

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Sorry, I know still photos don’t really do much justice when it comes to music and dancing, but I promise I will upload the videos once I find a way to get them from my camera to my computer.

We also got to taste some actual Mongolian food, which was a first since the Darkhan Hotel was pretty much just feeding us their interpretation of American food. I didn’t take pictures, but thanks to Google Images I can show you what it was! We had some aaruul (pieces of dried curd):

Yum yum! Salty, curd-y goodness!

Yum yum! Salty, curd-y goodness!

Suutei tsai (milk tea):

Ah, suutei tsai, the Mongolian water

Ah, suutei tsai, the Mongolian water

Boov (deep-fried pastries):

Which is hard as a rock, so you usually have to dip it into something first (usually suttei tsai, because there's always suutei tsai)

Which is hard as a rock, so you usually have to dip it into something first (usually suutei tsai, because there’s always suutei tsai)

Some kind of cheese (byaslag), yogurt (tarag), and sea-buckthorn (chatsargan) juice:

OMG, a fruit native to Mongolia!

OMG, a fruit native to Mongolia!

And of course, sheep’s head, which I will spare you from looking at a picture. If you really want to see what it looks like, you can look it up on your own time, but just imagine a sheep head, shaved and boiled, and you get the picture.

The aaruul and suutei tsai were both extremely salty, the aaruul so much so that I literally could not finish my piece. The cheese was pretty tasteless (it was nothing like the cheese I’m used to). The yogurt was actually okay; mix some fruit, sugar, and/or honey in there, and it would make a decent breakfast. The boov was basically like extremely stale, dense bread, but it was definitely edible. The juice was amazing, and I was very surprised to learn that there’s actually some kind of fruit that grows in Mongolia. And how do you eat sheep’s head, you ask? Take a knife and just slice a sliver of the meat/fat right off the skull. Yum!

During one of our evenings in Darkhan, some of the current PCVs took us to the giant Buddha statue near our hotel.

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It was up on a hill and gave us a great view of the whole city.

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Then we walked back because we were getting eaten by mosquitoes.

UPDATE: So, I ended up just creating a YouTube channel to make it easier to add videos from now on. But you can check out the videos from my Mongolia orientation there.

The Long Trip to Mongolia

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

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

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

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

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