I Swear I Actually Do Work

I’ve become aware that many of my blog posts make it seem like I a) spend a lot of time away from site, or b) do a lot of non work-related stuff at site. But to be honest, that’s all just an illusion formed from my habit of only posting about especially fun/interesting/unusual things (which of course is all relative–my life here in general is probably pretty unusual to most of my readers, but for me the day-to-day stuff has simply become “normal” life for me). The truth is, my primary assignment (working at the Zavkhan health department) mostly consists of work that probably wouldn’t be super exciting to read about every month, since most days I just sit in an office working on various projects, occasionally helping with a training or seminar either at the health department or at local schools, and teaching my coworkers English.

The health department certainly does tons of work throughout the aimag, but most of my involvement is behind the scenes and at the planning stage. Let’s face it: Mongolian is a really difficult language to learn, and I’ve long since accepted that I’ll never be fluent in the language (and the vast majority of people here in Uliastai will never be fluent in English), so for any health-related projects I generally have to have a Mongolian counterpart do all the talking and presenting and facilitating, even if I planned everything. Turns out this is actually the ideal set-up for Health PCVs, since our entire purpose is building the capacity of host country nationals. Our work wouldn’t be very sustainable if we PCVs were always running the show instead of helping our counterparts build their knowledge and skills, though the result is that to an outside observer, it can look like we don’t really do much.

So to sometimes switch things up and convince myself that I’m actually doing something, I work on lots of projects outside of the health department, often with my sitemates. I love working with kids, so sometimes I’m envious of my sitemates who all work in schools and have little fan clubs/armies of adorable children, while I work in a typical office building of 30 some adults. So when my sitemates do projects at their schools or projects for students outside of school, I like to help them out as much as possible. So far, I’ve participated in some capacity in:

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  • community English classes for adults (outside of my health department classes)
  • a week-long art camp for students from herding families during a school break
We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

We even managed to incorporate mini health lessons each day

  • the benefit concert we held back in spring
  • weekly “Mongolish” nights with locals who want to practice speaking English
  • various English competitions (song competition, speaking competition, culture fair, etc.) between students from all the local schools, since I’m the only impartial judge
The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

The Belize team at the culture fair back in January

I also do various things on my own outside of the health department, including:

  • editing the annual reports of the workers at the local World Vision office (World Vision is a US-based NGO, so all their reports have to be submitted in English)
  • teaching English at the Zoonotic Disease Research Center
  • editing the local news that a Mongolian reporter friend of mine translates and presents in English

And of course, I do plenty of work at/with my health department. In the nearly 16 months that I’ve been here in Uliastai, I’ve helped with:

  • making CPR and first aid brochures and planning a training for students of herder families (the parents of which spend the school year out in the countryside, meaning these students live alone in town and are responsible for their younger siblings)
  • a handwashing peer education program for students
  • College Student Health Promotion Day
Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

Folding pamphlets counts as helping in my book

  • our dental screening project for 1st-3rd graders back in May
  • informal computer/software assistance to coworkers as needed
  • program development (needs assessment, writing goals and objectives, monitoring and evaluation, etc.) trainings for coworkers
  • beginner and intermediate level English classes for coworkers
  • accident and injury prevention trainings for parents and kindergarten teachers
     Yes, I've discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country


Yes, I’ve discovered that Mongolian kindergartens are some of the nicest buildings in this country

  • a seminar on dealing with patients with alcohol problems for doctors at the hospital
  • a seminar on maternity care in America for midwives from throughout Zavkhan
The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

The lady with the phone is either recording the information on the slide or recording me because holy crap this white girl is (poorly) speaking Mongolian!

[By the way, the only reason I can keep track of all this stuff is because we have to complete and submit the dreaded VRF (Volunteer Report Form) twice a year, where we list and describe (in detail) all the activities we’ve done as PCVs.]

See, I do stuff, I promise!

When Work = Sightseeing

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beautiful retreat location

The beautiful retreat location

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

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

Yep, that's the mobile health clinic

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

And here's the inside

And here’s the inside

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Other Side of PST

Shortly after Naadam, I left my site once again to come to Darkhan for the second half of the M26 cohort’s Pre-Service Training (PST). As I mentioned in a previous post, myself, another M25 Health PCV, and a Mongolian Technical Coordinator were responsible for training the 12 Health Trainees for the remainder of PST. My first day back in Darkhan was a Wednesday, which was the day that our group of Trainees had cross-culture sessions in the afternoon instead of health technical sessions, so I didn’t actually get a chance to meet them that day. But things got off to a great (note heavy sarcasm) start when the other Health trainers and I were informed that one of our Trainees would be leaving to go back to America. So my first session with our Trainees was kicked off with the PST Director announcing to the group that one of their friends was leaving, which set a not-exactly-positive mood for the rest of the session (and PST, to be honest).

Many of our sessions during the second half were joint sessions, with the Trainees and Mongolian counterparts from their practicum sites. These sessions were the most difficult because information and instructions for activities had to be given in both English and Mongolian, so they took longer. The Trainees also had to try to communicate with the counterparts during the activities, which was complicated when different counterparts showed up to each session or didn’t show up at all.

A couple weeks into second half, we lost another one of our Health Trainees, which further dampened the spirits of the remaining 10. I obviously can’t mention details, but let’s just say our group was…interesting. I’ll leave it at that.

Our typical day consisted of going into the PST office at 9am (while the Trainees were in their Mongolian language class) and preparing for that afternoon’s session or whatever else needed to be done. Then after lunch, we would either go to the school in their training community (Mangirt) for technical session, go to the health department for joint session, or divide up to visit the Trainees at their practicum sites. Wednesdays were our “office days,” when we didn’t have to go anywhere in the afternoon because our Trainees had cross-culture sessions with another training team. We usually wrapped up around 5:30pm, though many times we had to stay much later to write up session reports and evaluations. We also had staff meetings every Monday morning.

We usually had weekends free, but sometimes we helped out with other PST activities. For example, our Trainees had a “ger visit” one Saturday, where they all went over to one of the Trainee’s ger so their LCFs and us Resource Volunteers (who both live in gers) could talk about traditions and beliefs Mongolian have regarding gers and how to live in a ger. We also went to their Host Family Appreciation Day, which consisted of a khorkhog by the river. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, khorkhog is a traditional Mongolian dish that is made by taking your skinned sheep or goat…

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Nope, things like this don’t even faze me anymore

…cutting it into pieces…

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…along with the vegetables (potatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, etc.)…

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…putting the meat, veggies, stones heated on a fire, some water, and a bit of spices into a large metal container…

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…then closing and sealing the container and leaving it on the fire for about an hour…

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…until it comes out looking like this:

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

Note the large stones on the ground. After taking them out of the container, it is tradition to pass them around to everyone (while still burning hot) and toss them between your hands to bring good health.

We also had other food to munch on…

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…gave out certificates to the host families…

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…waded in the river…

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…and made water balloons:

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The last week of PST consisted of Final Center Days and Supervisor’s Conference. All the Trainees came back into Darkhan for their final sessions with Peace Corps staff. On the first day, they finally had their long-awaited site announcements!

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

Which we had to have in a gym instead of at the park as originally intended, since it was about 105 degrees F that day

I had found out through the Peace Corps grapevine that my aimag, Zavkhan, was only getting one new PCV from the M26 group, despite there being 69 of them swearing in and only 21 aimags in Mongolia for them to be sorted into. Only 2 other aimags only got one newbie, and one of those is a tiny aimag with a very small population. Some people say it’s because Zavkhan got 5 volunteers last year, but we’re not the only aimag that got that many last year, and those other ones got more than 1 new volunteer. A few aimags got 6 new volunteers this year, so some aimags have a total of 9 PCVs now!

And only 2 of my M26 Healthies got sent to the western region, so now there’s only 3 Health PCVs in that whole region (including me; yes, I was the only M25 Health PCV sent to the west), which is weird considering there’s now a total of 19 Health Volunteers in Mongolia, only 3 of which are in the west (and there’s only 3 regions, so it would make more sense for there to be like 6 in each region). I mean, the west is the best (our unofficial motto), but it’s also the poorest region with the worst health indicators and could really use more Health Volunteers. But whatever, I won’t pretend I understand the intricacies of the PC site placement process.

Anyway, our new sitemate is a CYD Volunteer who will be working at the school that one of our recently-departed M24 sitemates worked at (although he was a TEFL Volunteer). Originally, PC was going to put another TEFLer in Uliastai, but me and my fellow Zavkhan Resource Volunteer convinced them that our site had a greater need for a CYD Volunteer, since our only one had finished her service this summer. And we apparently (according to the other trainers) got the best of the CYD Trainees, so I guess having one super amazing sitemate is better than a handful of sub-par ones.

The rest of Final Center Days mostly consisted of additional sessions on PC policy, admin stuff, medical, safety and security, etc., some of which myself and the other Resource Volunteers helped out with. Then on Thursday, the supervisors from the HCAs came in to meet their new Volunteers:

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Then there were more sessions, some with the PCTs separate from the supervisors, some with them together.

On Friday after the last session of Final Center Days, we had a rehearsal for the Swearing-In Ceremony. Unlike our PST last year, where we went to UB for our Swearing-In Ceremony at the US ambassador’s residence, the M26 cohort’s Swearing-In was at the theater in Darkhan. The ceremony itself was on Saturday morning, and it turned out very nicely.

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After a few speeches, the Trainees took the oath of service and officially became Volunteers. Then the Regional Managers handed out certificates to each newly-minted PCV.

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One person from each of the three programs (TEFL, CYD, Health) had been chosen to give a short speech (in Mongolian), and my new sitemate was the representative for CYD (told you she was the best). Then there were a few cultural performances, including a mash-up of the “Cups” song and a Mongolian song that we all learn during PST…

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…a traditional Mongolian dance (bringing back memories from last PST)…

…and a Mongolian song sung by one of the new Volunteers whose voice was so good that some Mongolians in the audience were literally brought to tears:

The ceremony was followed by a reception, lots of photos, and then everyone heading back to the hotel to pack their things and get on the bus to UB to head off to their sites.

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The next day, we had a short debriefing meeting before going to the river once again for a PST staff picnic, which was (of course) another khorkhog, but with a lot more fruit…

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…and failed jumping pictures:

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The next morning, we checked out of our apartment and headed to UB, where I would have my mid-service medical and dental exams before going for our M25 Mid-Service Training (MST).

The Joys Leading Up To Reindeer Camp

Every summer, a group of PCVs from around Mongolia and a few Mongolian CPs from Huvsgul aimag take a trip up to the taiga in the far north of Huvsgul to visit and hold camps with the reindeer herders who live there. I will talk more about the reindeer herders–known as the Dukha, or the Tsaatan in Mongolian–in my next post.

Anyway, earlier this year, the PCVs in Huvsgul in charge of the Reindeer Camp sent out information and an application to those interested in going to this year’s camp. Reindeer Camp is very competitive. There are 2 “sides” of the taiga where the herders live: East and West. For each side, only 2 TEFL, 2 CYD, and 2 Health Volunteers are selected to go (plus a couple group leaders and Mongolian CPs), in order to prevent the tiny camps the herders live in from being completely overrun with a huge group of foreigners. And the M24s were given precedence since this is obviously their last chance to go before they leave Mongolia. But I applied anyway because I really wanted to see reindeer while I’m in Mongolia (which I’ve discovered is quite complicated) and since the Health sector is the smallest here in Mongolia, I figured I had a better chance of actually being selected.

And selected I was! I’ll be going to the East Taiga very soon! I’m super excited, but the days leading up to my departure have been…stressful, to say the least.

For one thing, Huvsgul aimag is just to the northeast of Zavkhan aimag, where I live:

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So you’d think it would be fairly simple to get from Uliastai, the capital of one aimag, to Murun, the capital of a neighboring aimag. I mean, there’s even a road (unpaved, but still) connecting them!

As my brilliant Microsoft Paint skills highlight here

As my brilliant Microsoft Paint skills highlight here

But of course, nothing is that simple in Mongolia–certainly not when you live in the “black hole.” There isn’t really public transportation from Zavkhan to most of its neighboring aimags, unless you want to pay to charter a car or mikr (microbus) to take you somewhere, but that’s not feasible for one person. Almost everyone told me I would just have to take the bus from Uliastai to UB, and then another bus from UB to Murun. For the record, that’s a 24-30 hour bus ride, followed by another 14 hour bus ride:

Yes, that makes much more sense...

Yes, that makes much more sense…

I knew that bus trip across half the freakin’ country would not be fun, so I enlisted the help of some of my Mongolian friends to try to find a ride to Huvsgul around the time I would be leaving. The teachers from one of Ulaistai’s schools were taking a trip up to Huvsgul, but they were leaving a week before I needed to be up there, so I couldn’t justify being away from work for several days and having to crash at one of the Murun PCV’s homes for that long. Then there was a mikr that would be taking university students up to Huvsgul after their last exams (I assume they are actually from Huvsgul), but it turns out that they were already tying to fit 21 students in there, so there was definitely no room for me.

So I resigned myself to taking the super-long bus trip to UB, as I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money on a plane ticket (if there were flights straight from Uliastai to Murun, I probably would have done that, but pretty much all domestic flights in Mongolia are through UB)

So on Monday I bought my bus ticket to UB (my supervisor helped me get a window seat so I could rest my head against it to sleep, and she made sure they wouldn’t put a man in the seat next to me for safety reasons). Monday morning was also when I found out that my khashaa family wanted to take back the wooden floor that my ger is built on (the health department owns my ger but my khashaa family owns the wooden floor) because they want to sell it (I guess they really need money for something because it apparently couldn’t wait a couple weeks until I’m back from the Reindeer Camp).

So I was told I had to pack up all my things in my ger that day so that they could take it down while I’m gone. My supervisor and I went back to my ger to try to pack up all the stuff that actually belongs to me (as opposed to the furniture which is the health department’s) while at the same time trying to figure out what I need for the Reindeer Camp to make sure it didn’t get packed away. Then after lunch we went back with a coworker who has an SUV to take all the boxes to the health department. They put all the stuff I don’t need for the Reindeer Camp into the basement of the health department, and I stayed the night in one of the health department’s “hotel rooms.”

The health department doesn’t have a wooden floor to put my ger on yet, so they’re going to have me come back and stay in the hotel room between when I come back from the Reindeer Camp and when I leave for the second half of PST (which is thankfully only about 8 days), then they’ll hopefully have my ger set back up when I come back to Zavkhan for good at the end of August.

So yeah, that was my excitement the day before heading off to UB. Nothing like coming into work and being told you have to go back home and pack up all your possessions in just a few hours!

Also, when I went to get my bus ticket, I found out that the buses now leave at 2pm instead of 9am, so while that at least gave me time to pack for the trip on Tuesday since I obviously didn’t have time to do that on Monday, it will be cutting it close in terms of arriving in UB to catch the bus to Huvsgul, the last of which leaves at 6pm on Wednesday (and we’re supposed to all be in Murun by Thursday morning).

I will obviously have a nice, long post about the Reindeer Camp when I get back, though that won’t be for about 3 weeks! Wish me luck on my travels!

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.

Language IST and Second Site Visit

There had been rumors floating around for a while about a possible Language IST (like the regular IST I talked about a few posts back, but shorter and specifically focusing on Mongolian language) sometime in late winter/early spring, which was exciting because according to the rumors, it was going to be regional, with the PCVs from different regions of Mongolia coming together, and supposedly we Zavkhan PCVs and others in the western region were going to be going to Govi-Altai (the aimag to the south of Zavkhan) for our Language IST. So we would get to travel (on Peace Corps’ dime) and get to see some other Volunteers.

But as is always a risk with the rumor mill, this turned out to be not quite the case. A few weeks ago we finally got an email from Peace Corps confirming that there would be Language ISTs, but a later email with the details revealed that instead of having us congregate at a few regional locations, most of us would just be having our Language ISTs at our own aimag centers. A few of the aimags in the central and eastern regions did get to travel to other sites, but those of us out in the remote West had to stay where we were. And because Uliastai is the aimag center of Zavkhan, I really didn’t get to go anywhere. Our 2 PCVs in soums came into town, but that was the extent of travel here.

To make the whole thing even less exciting, it was scheduled for a Friday through Monday, effectively taking up the entire weekend that all of us use to go grocery shopping and do our chores (living in a ger ain’t no picnic–Sunday is my day for sweeping and other miscellaneous cleaning, fetching water, chopping wood and hauling it into my pin [shed attached to my ger], and hand-washing laundry).

The haul from an average wood-chopping session

The haul from an average wood-chopping session

Peace Corps also decided to go ahead and do our “spring” site visits during this time, so the Assistant Regional Manager for the western region came to check out our homes and HCAs to make sure everything was going well. She was also here to check out potential HCAs for the next batch of Volunteers to come to Mongolia later this year.

So this past Friday morning, instead of going into work at 9 like usual, I had the home portion of my site visit (it was supposed to be at 10am, but the flight from UB was delayed a bit). Then we went to the health department around noon for our first session with the two Mongolian language teachers Peace Corps had sent. This first session was–according to the schedule we had received–supposed to last until 6, but at around 2:30 the teachers told us we were done for the day. Okaaaaay…Well, not gonna argue with that. So we ended up having time to go do our grocery shopping after all.

The next day (Saturday) was tough because we had language class from 9am to 6pm. Luckily it was at the school really close to my home, so I didn’t have to wake up too super early. There are 8 of us PCVs in Zavkhan, but we are all at very different levels regarding our Mongolian language abilities. Obviously the M24 PCVs who have been here for almost two years can speak Mongolian much better than us M25s who have only been here for 9 months. One of the M24s is also one of those language geniuses who can pick up other languages like it’s nothing, so he’s practically fluent. And then a couple of the M25s aren’t super motivated to learn more Mongolian than they need to get by, especially since they’re TEFL Volunteers and mostly work with the English teachers at their schools. And then there are those of us hovering somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. I definitely did learn quite a few new things, but the whole training would have been much better if we were able to split into multiple groups based on ability, which would have been more feasible if larger groups of PCVs congregated in their regions as we originally thought the training would be.

After surviving a day of nothing but Mongolian classes, we got to go to the nice Korean restaurant in town (which is definitely the best/most expensive/only non-Mongolian food-based restaurant in Uliastai). We were treated by a visitor from the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., who is in charge of language training for all the countries Peace Corps operates in. He also happened to be a PCV right here in Uliastai 10 years ago, so since he was in Mongolia anyway for work and had the opportunity to tag along with our Assistant Regional Manager on her sites visits, he obviously took it. So we were treated to a nice meal and got to chat with him about our experiences and how Uliastai has changed over the past 10 years.

On Sunday morning we had more language classes, and according to the schedule, they were to end around 1pm. But then the teachers informed us that they were told to have class until 5pm. But as I mentioned before, those of us who live in gers do all our chores on Sunday, and I needed to chop wood for the coming week (which, no, I can’t do during the work week because I’m literally at work during the only daylight hours, and you’d have to be crazy to chop wood when it’s not only winter in Mongolia, but also dark and therefore even colder than usual). So after lunch I kindly informed the teachers that, sorry, I had to go home and make sure I didn’t freeze to death in the next few days.

Although we didn’t have language classes on Monday (so I went to work as usual), the teachers were still there for individual tutoring, so I got another 2 hours of language learning in. Later in the day the Assistant Regional Manager came to the health department for the HCA portion of her site visit. So we had a meeting with the director, my supervisor, and some of my other CPs to discuss how things were going at work (pretty good, in case you were wondering).

After that, the language IST and site visit were over, and I was extremely exhausted from basically getting no rest over the weekend and then going straight into another full work week. Fun times.

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!

About Zavkhan and Uliastai

I mentioned a while ago that I would talk more about Zavkhan and Uliastai in an upcoming post, and what better time to do that than now?

Zavkhan aimag

Zavkhan is an aimag (province) in the Western part of Mongolia.

Location of Zavkhan (the star represents Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia)

Location of Zavkhan (the star represents Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia)

I previously referred to it as the black hole of Mongolia because of how difficult it is to travel through the region, what with all the mountains and deserts and terribly maintained roads (or lack of roads at all). In fact, the whole Western region of the country is pretty dang remote, so much so that Peace Corps no longer sends Volunteers out to Bayan-Ulgii aimag (the westernmost one) or Uvs aimag (the one to the northwest of Zavkhan) precisely because of how isolated and hard-to-reach PCVs who lived in those provinces before were.

The population of Zavkhan as of 2011 was 65,481, making it the 8th least populous and having the 8th smallest population density (0.79 people/km2) of Mongolia’s 21 aimags (after all those in the Gobi, because who wants to live there?).  Population growth in the aimag actually stopped back in 1994 (at 103,150) and has been steadily decreasing ever since. I guess people don’t like living in a black hole much more than they like living in the Gobi.

It’s a shame really, because Zavkhan is a beautiful place. The terrain ranges from the tall mountains and forests of the Khangai Mountain Range in the east:

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including Otgontenger, the highest peak in the range (4,031 m/13,225 ft) and the only one capped with a permanent glacier:

But it's one of Mongolia's four sacred mountains, so don't even think about climbing it

But it’s one of Mongolia’s three most sacred mountains, so don’t even think about climbing it (seriously, it’s forbidden by law)

to the broad steppe of the north:

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to the sand dunes of the edge of the Gobi desert in the west and southwest:

surrounding giant lakes, because screw the desert (BTW, this is Bayan Nuur, or "Rich Lake")

…surrounding giant lakes, because screw the desert (BTW, this is Bayan Nuur, or “Rich Lake”)

Who says Mongolia doesn't have white sandy beaches?

Who says Mongolia doesn’t have white sandy beaches? (this would be Khar Nuur, or “Black Lake”)

to the Great Lakes Depression in the far west:

Looks like I have a lot of sightseeing to do over the next 2 years!

Zavkhan is often referred to as the coldest aimag in Mongolia, though this is largely due to the fact that it contains a few soums that get much colder than other places. For example, Tosontsengel, the largest soum in Zavkhan after the capital, has recorded temperatures as low as -52.9 degrees C/-63.2 degrees F. And although winters are bitterly cold in Zavkhan, they’re also very dry, so I have very little risk of being buried in a blizzard (freezing to death by other means is still a possibility though).

Uliastai

Uliastai is the aimag center (capital) of Zavkhan. As you can see from this lovely topographic map of Mongolia and all its aimags’ capitals, Uliastai has quite a few mountains surrounding it and between it and Ulaanbaatar (UB):

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I had to look up why Russia was labeled “Russland.” This is apparently a German map.

There are buses and meekers (vans) that regularly travel between UB and Uliastai, but considering that’s over 1000 km on unpaved, poorly maintained, mountainous roads, you’re looking at 40-60 hours of bumpy, crowded travel surrounded by a bunch of strangers who will definitely be staring at you–the foreigner–for the entirety of the trip. And you can have this wonderful experience all for the low low price of 48,000 tugriks (about $27)! Or you can travel via the same method we originally arrived in Uliastai–airplane. The airport is about 45 minutes outside the city (as it’s hard to land airplanes in a small valley literally surrounded by mountains), has one unpaved runway, and only has 3 flights a week during summer (2 a week during winter, or “most of the year”). Flights are only 2 hours long, but all this convenience comes with the hefty price tag of about 240,000 tugriks (about $133) one-way. Now, I realize that may not seem too expensive, but remember, we PCVs don’t really get “paid” so much as we get a “living allowance” to pay our rent and utilities and buy food and other stuff we need to–y’know–live. So when a round-trip plane ticket costs  significantly more money than we get in a single month, it is officially “expensive.” Which really sucks when there are literally only flights between Uliastai and UB; if you want to fly to even a neighboring aimag, you actually have to first fly to UB, and then from UB fly to that other aimag.

But if you’re only going to a neighboring aimag, then just take the bus or a meeker! It’ll be a much shorter trip than the ride to UB, so it can’t be that bad, some of you may be thinking. But that’s the problem: there are very, very few meekers (and no buses) that regularly go to and from other places, so your only option is usually to privately hire a meeker driver to take you to your destination, which is expensive as hell unless you have a bunch of friends going with you on your trip to split the cost with. Most aimag centers in the central and eastern regions of Mongolia have many more transportation options, including a freakin’ train! But not us. Such is life in “the black hole.”

Anyway, Uliastai is a city of 15,460 people (as of 2012). Like the rest of Zavkhan, its population has seen a decline in recent years. Back in 2000 its population was 24,276, making it the 10th most populous city in Mongolia, but yeah, not anymore. Yet for some reason, there are at least 4 new apartment buildings currently under construction in the city, so they’re either expecting a whole lot of new residents, or the city has more money than it knows what to do with.

The city experiences a lovely subarctic climate, with “long, dry, very cold winters and short, warm summers.” Pretty much all the precipitation falls between June and August, and I get to look forward to an average of 5.3 hours of sunlight per day come December! So, yeah, if someone wants to send me one of those “happy lights” for an early Christmas present before I succumb to seasonal affective disorder, it would be much appreciated.

Uliastai is–as I mentioned–surrounded by mountains, and it’s located in a river valley where the Chigestai and Bogdiin Gol rivers converge. It is actually one of the oldest settlements in Mongolia, originally founded in 1733 as a military post by the Manchus during the Qing Dynasty’s rule of Mongolia. And despite its modern reputation as one of the most remote aimag capitals in the country, Uliastai was once an important center of caravan trade.

The city doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions (as it’s not exactly a tourist hotspot; see “black hole” above), but there are two museums: the Zavkhan Aimag History Museum:

Which has a lovely display dedicated to the torture of Mongolians under the Qing Dynasty (yeah, Mongolians really don't like the Chinese_

Which has a lovely exhibit showing the torture of Mongolians under the Qing Dynasty (yeah, Mongolians really don’t like China)

and the Museum of Famous People:

which features such people as the first Zavkhan resident to scale Mt. Everest

which features such people as the first Zavkhan resident to scale Mt. Everest

There’s also a cool pavilion with a bunch of stupas on top of a hill right in the middle of the city, called Javkhlant Tolgoi (literally, “magnificent peak”) that gives a nice view of the city:

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and a small Buddhist temple further down on that same hill:

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Other than that, there’s not much here except lots of hiking. Not that I mind too much. Living in a small, remote aimag capital like this allows me to experience some of the more traditional aspects of Mongolian life while still having some of the luxuries I wouldn’t find in a soum.

What I’ve Been Up To

So, I realize my last post was about me being sick and then I kinda just dropped off the map for a few weeks, but I’m here to tell you that I am alive and well! I actually started feeling 100% again just a few days after my post about being sick, but I haven’t been online much partly because I’ve been pretty busy (but in a good way) and partly because I haven’t been able to connect to my neighbor’s wifi like I was before (and I am not going to go to them and ask them what the deal is, as they’ve graciously allowed me to steal their wifi for over a month now, with no cost to me). I did get a modem (for free, from one of the PCVs who recently left), but unfortunately it happens to be for the service provider with the slowest internet connection in town, but at least I can still get online.

But life in general is going well. Here are some of the things that have been going on the past few weeks:

  • There was a huge, aimag-wide chess competition going on for several days. And I mean huge! There were a total of 9999 students taking place in the competition (so, basically all the students in the aimag), school was cancelled for days, students from all the different soums throughout Zavkhan came into Uliastai for the final rounds of competition, and there was a fancy “closing ceremony” in the brand new stadium here in town.
Complete with a giant chess board no less

Complete with a giant chess board no less

The ceremony included musical performances by a bunch of students playing the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle),

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announcement of the winners in each age and gender group,

Boys...

Boys…

...and girls

…and girls

and an appearance by the president of the World Chess Federation, a Russian man named Kirsan Ilyumzhinov:

He's the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

He’s the one in the traditional Kalmyk outfit, which, you may notice, is influenced by Mongolian clothing

Turns out, he’s kind of a big deal. Along with being the president of the World Chess Federation since 1995, he was the President of the Republic of Kalmykia in Russia from 1993 to 2010 and is a multi-millionaire. So while the whole enormous chess competition thing was pretty amazing by itself, having an important international politician and businessman show up ensured that reporters from all the national news stations in Mongolia were there, which is how I ended up being on Mongolian TV (in the background of course–we just happened to be sitting right behind where the important guy was giving his speech). Oh, and they gave him a horse as a gift, because that’s something that happens in Mongolia.

Did you think I was kidding?

Did you think I was kidding?

  • I went to a concert with some of my coworkers from the health department. The headliner was a relatively famous Mongolian singer, B. Khangal, who also happens to be a doctor, because why the hell not?

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  • I started helping out a couple of the TEFL PCVs here in Uliastai with their English classes for students that take place every Saturday at the local library, which is funded in part by Bookbridge. We have one-hour classes for 3 different age groups (including lots and lots of games), and given the current surge in the number of students coming each week, we may need to create an additional class or two to accommodate all the students.
Notice the kids standing in the back; that's because there were no where near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

Notice the kids standing in the back; that’s because there were nowhere near enough seats for the 50-something kids that showed up to one of the classes

  • My supervisor and I started teaching a seminar on STIs (which are a huge problem in Mongolia) for the high school and college students in Uliastai (ok, she teaches, since it’s all in Mongolian, and I helped plan the seminar, assist with things that don’t require a lot of language skills during the actual seminars, and analyze the results from the pre- and post-tests we give to the students). So far we’ve done the seminar for the college students and high school students from 3 of the 5 schools in the city. The plan is to do this STI seminar at each of the schools, then rotate through the schools again with seminars on other health issues (smoking, alcohol, etc.)
  • I had my first site visit by my Peace Corps Regional Manager. Twice a year, PC staff travel all around the country to visit each and every one of us PCVs to make sure everything is going well with our living conditions and at our HCAs. So the Regional Manager for our good ‘ol Western region came out here to visit each of our homes (note: my ger is still awesome, she informed me) and to sit down and chat with our coworkers at our HCA. Not much else to say about that, since the whole 50-hour work week issue had been resolved already and the people at the health department didn’t appear to be begging her to send a different PCV to replace me, so it was pretty uneventful, but a nice visit nonetheless.
  • Last weekend my site mates, some Mongolian friends, and I celebrated my birthday! On Saturday we taught our regular English classes at the library, followed by some shopping, and then we had “Monglish” night, birthday edition. What is “Monglish” night, you ask? Well, every Saturday evening we PCVs here in Uliastai (and the 2 out in the soums, if they can make it into town) hang out and have dinner with Mongolians we’ve met (whether through our HCA, community projects, or by chance) so that they can practice speaking English with us and we can practice speaking Mongolian with them. So this was another one of those nights, except my supervisor came and brought a birthday cake…
...and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

…and her cute nephew who was eying the cake all evening

A couple of our Mongolian friends also brought a bottle of wine, because we’re classy (and they know I don’t like beer or vodka, which are the only other drinks available here). There was a huge group of kindergarten teachers at the tables next to us, and they, on the other hand, were enjoying a couple (or twelve) bottles of vodka. The restaurant we were at also plays music  later in the evening, and these teachers started going on to the dance floor and dancing the standard awkward Mongolian circle dance (imagine a bunch of preteens at a middle school dance, and you’ve pretty much got the idea). And then they started coming over to our table and literally dragging us onto the dance floor. Eventually we managed to escape, but it was a quite memorable first birthday in Mongolia.

On Sunday, my site mates and I hung out at one girl’s apartment, eating food (including another cake!), drinking more wine, and playing games. Overall, a very good birthday weekend!

Birthday gifts!

Birthday gifts!