Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


Hiking Fiasco, Part III: Ikh Tenger

At long last, the sky began to grey, and then to brighten, and though the trees and mountains blocked direct light as well as any view of the sunrise, we were all awake by dawn. We ate the last of our food and sipped at our precious water reserves, wishing desperately for coffee or hot chocolate, something to banish the chill from our bones.

As we extinguished the last of our fire with yet another chunk of moss, I smiled wryly at the other girls. “Well, I hadn’t expected to teach Wilderness Survival Merit Badge on this hike,” I said, eyeing our shelter through the final wisps of smoke, “but congratulations. You all pass.” They chuckled and finished got to their feet, donning their packs.

We weren’t out of the woods yet, literally or figuratively, but we’d made it through the night. Now we had to get home.

(New to this story? Click back to read Part I and Part II of our rather disastrous hiking trip.)

Unfortunately, getting home was not going to be easy. Though we set off chilled and aching, we hadn’t been walking long before we started stripping off our extra layers as we clambered through field after field of boulders. Dehydrated as we were, and without enough water to remedy the problem, we overheated quickly and stayed that way. The exhaustion of the previous day’s hike and general lack of sleep had taken its toll as well, and our progress toward the distant city we caught in tantalizing glimpses was slow. But we were making progress, at least, and so we trudged onward, making our careful way downhill.

As usual, I’d fallen behind the others during this downhill stretch, and so at first I didn’t see anything different about their having stopped ahead of me; it just looked like  another break. But as I approached, the depressing truth appeared: though compass and city lights told us to keep marching forward, we’d have to disregard their beckoning and turn aside. We’d trudged straight into a barbed-wire fence.

RESTRICTED AREA – DO NOT ENTER, declared the signs posted at regular intervals. Moreover, they said so in English as well as Mongolian, which I found entertaining; very few signs in this country boasted translations. Why bother here, when the barbed wire shouted stay out in a universal language?

Having made extensive use of our guidebooks, we knew where we were now, and it was not where we wanted to be.

Be careful not to drop too soon or you’ll end up at Ikh Tenger, one valley short of Zaisan. Ikh Tenger is where the president lives with machine gun-wielding guards, who will be none to pleased if you drop by unannounced. If you see a barbed-wire fence you are in Ikh Tenger; to get out, just continue west along the fence and over the next ridge.

So we did as the book advised: we turned left and tried our best to follow the fence west. Alas, it mostly didn’t go west – we were forced to backtrack as it turned ever more south, leading us up a ridge and through brambles tore at our hands and arms. We paused as we trudged through to strip them of raspberries and rose hips, exacting our small revenge. Up and back, up and back we climbed single file, warning the others as we encountered bad footing. Despite our care, Krysta and I both slipped and fell into rosebushes, while Valerie went sliding into a brush-filled hole. We took the setbacks as best we could, giggling at the falls and grateful that none of us sustained injury.

At last, we were able to continue northward along the side of the ridge the fence has led us to. Abruptly, we found ourselves out of the woods and in the merciless sun. This ridge was desert-like, covered in gravel and larger stones – the kind of surface that sends you sliding back a step and a half for every two you try to take uphill, or jerks your feet out from under you altogether when you’re waking your way down. We considered our options: up, down, or across? I left the others to make my slow way uphill, but when the long journey up a hundred feet left me far from the top, we decided to try our luck amongst the forested base of the ridge. We could make our way between ridge and woods, we figured, at the border where the brush wasn’t too thick.

We seemed to be in luck. Upon reaching the base of the ridge, we found ourselves upon a path – a path! – that followed a little stream. The barbed wire appeared to have receded back into the woods; there was none in sight, but visibility into the thick tangle was limited. As we followed the path, a ger appeared before us, bringing smiles to our tired faces. At long last, we were nearing civilization.

But as we approached, Ginny noted that it was an awfully nice-looking ger – nicer than you’d expect from a family squatting near the presidential compound. As the ground before us cleared, we found that it had been erected, not on grass, but on astroturf, which I’d seen only once or twice in this country. Sensing that, despite our best intentions, we had found ourselves somewhere we were not supposed to be, we made to turn back to the ridge.

And that was when we saw the man with machine gun.

He’d been walking at an angle to us originally, following a path we couldn’t see, but he stopped when the five of us caught his eye. He looked at us, and we looked at him, and when he started in our direction, the five of us walked to meet him without a word. What else could we do? You don’t run from men with machine guns.

In our limited Mongolian, we apologized. “Passport?” he demanded, though of course none of us had them. I handed over my photocopy, and the others driver’s license or student IDs. He radioed a partner and led us away – where, we didn’t know. He asked if we spoke Mongolian, and I answered, “a little.” But that was the end of the conversation. No questions, no explanations. But at least we weren’t made to enter any of the buildings we past, some of which had no windows.

As we walked, I tried to prepare an explanation despite not knowing any of the key words – hike, trail, lost. The best I could come up with was something like, Yesterday we went to Zun Mod. We saw monastery and then wanted to walk to UB. We saw road and walked and then didn’t see road. So we slept outside. Today we walked to here. We want to go to UB.

We stopped along a road as the guard escorting us waited for another to join us. Despite our exhaustion, we were not allowed to sit, nor did we have the nerve to press the issue. The next guard again asked for our passports, which we once more explained were at home. V produced a business card the new Fulbrighters had been given in case of emergencies, one that said in Mongolian, “Take me to the US Embassy.”

The second guard considered the card and held onto it, leading us to building alongside the main gate. He entered and told us to wait outside, so we took seats along the curb. There was the road to the city – just a few feet away, but separated from us by a tall, spiked fence. Unlike the pack of stray dogs that raced by, we could not simply slip between the black bars that stood between us and our destination.

Finally, they led us into a room with a single couch and told us to sit. It was a tight squeeze for the five of us, but we sank into it gratefully. More waiting ensued. It had been at least an hour since we’d stumbled into the compound, and who knew how many more would pass before we’d be allowed to leave it.

My ringtone broke the silence.

“Hey, what’s up?” my friend asked when I picked up the phone.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, without really answering. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to meet you today.”

“Why’s that?” she asked; I briefly explained where I was. “The president,” she repeated dubiously. “The president of what? of MONGOLIA?!”

I murmured my assent.

“What the F**K, Katelin!” she shouted in my ear.

I winced. “Listen, it’s a long story, but I’d be happy to tell you later – when I’m not, you know, being detained for trespassing on the presidential grounds.”

Another phone rang shortly thereafter. We all exchanged nervous glances when the name came up – it was the Public Affairs Officer for the US Embassy.

Finally, Alisa volunteered to take the call. More explanations of where we were and how we’d gotten there, peppered with frequent apologies. We’d received a call from the Duty Officer night before and had been dismayed that our friends in UB had thought it necessary to call the Embassy; it seemed like overkill. Now, however, we were glad that our friends there had been apprise of our trip and surprise overnight, as it helped them to explain our current predicament to the guards detaining us.

We sat quietly for awhile more after Alisa had finished apologizing to the Embassy folks for the inconvenience we were causing them, but eventually, a guard came in to see us. He demanded our cameras and looked through them to make sure we hadn’t taken pictures of anything we weren’t supposed to. He also examined our bags, confiscating  my pocket knife when he came across it at the bottom of mine.

After another hour of waiting, the Duty Officer finally arrived to pick us up; we weren’t allowed to leave on our own. I asked if I could have my knife back, but was denied – apparently they’re not allowed in restricted areas. I was bitter at the loss; it was a good knife that had served me several years, and it wasn’t like I’d brought in a machete. But I tried to keep it in perspective as we climbed into the Duty Officer’s car and exited those dreadful gates, our adventure coming to a close at long last. No one had been killed or injured; though our hike had taken more than twice as long as the guidebook had indicated, we’d never gotten truly lost; despite wandering into truly forbidden ground, we hadn’t been arrested.

“Well?” I had asked the others over an hour earlier, before we knew when – or if – we’d be allowed to leave. “Would you do it again? Was it worth it?”

“Absolutely,” said Krysta with a smile, while the others nodded in agreement. “But next time, we’ll bring a tent.”


Hiking Fiasco, Part I: Manzushir Khiid

“Hey, what’s up?” my friend asked when I picked up the phone.

“Funny you should ask,” I replied, without really answering. “And I’m sorry, but I’m not sure when I’m going to be able to meet you today.”

“Why’s that?” she asked; I briefly explained where I was. “The president,” she repeated dubiously. “The president of what? of MONGOLIA?!”

I murmured my assent.

“What the F**K, Katelin!” she shouted in my ear.

I winced. “Listen, it’s a long story, but I’d be happy to tell you later – when I’m not, you know, being detained for trespassing on the presidential grounds.”


“We’re going hiking tomorrow if you’d like to join us,” one of the new girls mentioned as sat in their apartment, preparing dinner. So it was that the next morning, I found myself in my hiking gear in a minibus headed to Zuun Mod, provincial capital of Tuv aimag. The plan was to take the one-hour ride down to Zuun Mod, hike the seven kilometers to Manzushir Monastery, and then pick up the trail from there. We were told it was roughly a six-hour hike on a well-marked path, though the guidebook did caution us to come well-supplied and let people know where we were going – the markers were painted only a few years ago, after a foreign tourist got lost and died of exposure. So we left early, with a ton of food, raincoats, and about a liter and a half of water apiece.

We took our time perusing Manzushir first. It had a religious museum with a few lama masks, instruments, and paintings, but most of it was stuff I had seen before. We spent a lot longer in the Nature Museum, asking questions about the various stuffed animals that occupied it – deer, foxes, bears, wolves, vultures. The guide spoke a little English, and between that and my limited Mongolian, we muddled along. We oohed and ahed over some really spectacular paintings (mosaics?) made of sand, bark, moss, and colored sugar and rock salt. I would have liked to climb into the enormous bronze cauldron that sat just outside the door – large enough to boil up to ten sheep at once, according to the sign – but refrained.

Ruins of the old monastery

Ruins of the old monastery

We did, however, make our way up to ruins of the old monastery, a set of tumbled down sandstone walls atop the hill at the back of the clearing. I ran my fingers across the rough surface that had been eroded into rounded shapes by centuries of wind and rain and giggled when Ginny made the discovery that she was just barely short enough to stand upright in the doorways. I’m no giant, but I certainly could not have done so.

We also checked out the first of the cave paintings, which were shielded by be-khadaged walls partway up the mountain.

18th century cave Buddhist cave paintings

18th century cave Buddhist cave paintings

The pigment on these eighteenth-century depictions of Buddha had begun to fade, but the outlines etched into the rock were still clear. We would have liked to see the others as well, but the day was getting away from us and we had at least fifteen kilometers of walking ahead of us, so we settled down to our feast of leftover Indian, pasta, and horse sandwiches. Before heading off, we also purchased an additional three liters of water to replenish our already significantly-depleted supply.

From the beginning of the hike, we could tell this wasn’t going to be as easy as we’d though. For one thing, the directions in the book did not seem to match the actual terrain: we were told to head left when facing the museum, which would take us northwest up the hill and past a stupa. As we climbed, however, we discovered that the stupa topped the opposing hill, to the south; walking towards it would take us away from the city. Confused but not unduly worried, we relied on the compass on Valerie’s iPhone instead, trusting we’d find a second stupa in due time.

Yep, that rock face.

Yep, that rock face.

Instead, we found ourselves scrambling down a steep face of mossy boulders, scooting on our butts when we didn’t trust our footing. I grabbed at a tree or two to steady myself and snatched it back quickly, surprised by spiky spruce needles instead of the soft larch common in Erdenet. Upon closer inspection, I noted a wealth of conifers: not only spruce, but pine and cedar as well. Tuv, it seemed, sported a far more selection of trees than Orkhon.

“Let’s try a bit more to the west,” we said when we reached the base of the rock face; “this surely can’t be the right way.” So over we tramped, Ginny in the lead; Krysta and I, at the rear, joked that at this rate, we’d be out here for days. “Well, at least we’ve got plenty of food,” she said. “And there’s water everywhere,” I added, so that shouldn’t be a problem either.”

She asked if I could make a fire with sticks, and I answered that while I knew the principles, I’d never actually done it. I do know that it’s hard, especially with wood dampened by the wettest summer anyone can remember. We didn’t have any flint, so flint and steel wouldn’t be an option either – a shame, since this method I could manage quite handily. We’d batteries in our flashlights, but not 9-volts (though as we’d no steel wool, it mattered little). Three of us wore glasses, so we might be able to try the magnifying glass method. And, of course, I added as an afterthought, I had a pack of wind- and waterproof matches.

Then, as I paused at a creek to wet my bandanna and tie it about my head, we heard a shout from up ahead. “Yellow marks!” Ginny called back to us. “We found it! We’re not going to die out here!”

We stopped to take pictures, proud of ourselves for having found the thrall despite the terribly misleading directions. It led us along a stream, across a clearing full of echoes, and past a pyramidal ovoo. The path was easy, the trail almost insultingly clearly marked, with yellow blazes to guide us every ten feet or so.

Until suddenly it wasn’t. The trees ended at a hillside dotted with crimson patches of rhubarb, and with them, our trail. We took our time in the ascent, pausing often to collect rhubarb until our arms were overflowing the vermilion stalks, the ground behind us littered with leaves like Christmas-colored flags. At the last clearing, the marks had resumed with the trees, directly across from their endpoint; after an hour of constant easy guidance, we’d no reason to assume the case would be different here.

But it was. We scoured the tree line, our eyes peeled for the tiniest splash of yellow, but to no avail. When we came across a set of tire tracks we followed them instead, thinking they would take us to a path. They too ended just beyond the edge of the trees. But path or no, we’d come this far already and weren’t turning back now, so we took out the compass and forged onward.

The rock scrambles that peppered our forested tramping were fun at at first – I’ve always been a bit of a mountain goat, and I consider leaping from boulder to boulder, picking my way across precarious footing, to be good sport. But as the day wore on and my joints began to complain of the repeated impact, the experience lost some of its novelty. I’d already rolled my ankle several times throughout the day – never seriously, thank heavens, but the repeated strain made it unwilling to bear weight at the awkward angles our scrambles required. Many of the boulders also bore a thick coating of moss, something we blessed and cursed in equal measure: though the extra cushioning was a boon to oft-compressed knees and ankles, its tendency to slide out from under one’s feet made for a few scary slips for all of us.

The water situation didn’t help, either. The sun beat down relentlessly on us all day, and much of our journey had been uphill. Even the downhill stretches often required a degree of leaping and scrabbling that left us all panting and wiping the sweat from our eyes. We’d stopped for frequent water breaks until realizing, around mid-afternoon, that we’d less than a liter and a half between the five of us. While we could fill our bottles in one of the many streams, we’d no way to purify the water, and none of us wished court giardia if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.

But even before our collective realization, I’d known I was in trouble as I watched the contents of my bottle dwindle. Water breaks might have been frequent up to that point, but we’d made only one potty break since our eight a.m. departure, and I’d not felt the need to participate. Sudden movements now sent my head reeling, more than doubling the difficulty presented by the fields of boulders that we seemed to face with increasing frequency – when dehydration hits, my balance is the first thing to go.

We were headed downhill at this point, determined to get off the darn mountain and onto what looked to be clearer ground down in the valley. Between my weakened ankle, blistered heels, and general difficulties with descent, I’d long since begun to lag behind the others, but a rumbling overhead quickened my step. It wasn’t the first I’d heard, but this sounded louder and closer. The rumbling continued to grow louder and more frequent as I caught up to the others. A glance over my shoulder confirmed my suspicions: the clouds behind us were dark, ugly, and coming on fast.

“Is that thunder?” one of the girls asked, and I nodded. “Oh, let’s hurry!” she cried. “I don’t want to be out here if there’s lightning!”

But as we rounded a bend, it became clear that the storm was only the beginning of our problems. There before us lay the city: visible at last, but distant yet. even on the flat, I thought, that would take us nearly two hours to walk, and the light had already begun to wane. That might just be from the storm, whispered a tiny voice in my head. It wasn’t very convincing.

I knew, at that point, what our course of action would have to be, but I kept the thought to myself until we reached the river that ran along the valley floor. We’d thought to follow it down to the city, but we now saw that it ran through yet another field of boulders, this one with no end in sight.

The rocks on the other side were large, reasonably flat, and thick with moss, so I called a halt. “Look,” I said, “we’ve got maybe half an hour of daylight left, and we’re not going to make it to the city in that time. We’re going to have to sleep out here tonight.”

Alisa protested. “But you guys don’t have enough layers! We won’t be warm enough! And we can see the city – we should keep going.”

Valerie shook her head. “It’ll be more dangerous to keep walking after dark. The ground’s too uneven – even with flashlights, someone will break an ankle.”

“Can’t we call someone?” Alisa asked. “I’ve got phone service.”

But the rest of us shook our heads. Yes, we could – and should – call people to let them know we wouldn’t be back tonight. But “in the mountains south of the city” is an awfully vague location, and we’d no way to narrow it down. No one was coming to get us tonight; we were on our own.

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Capital Contentions

Mongolia is very much an “all roads lead to Rome” sort of country, and it isn’t the roads that bring you to its capital city. Ulaanbaatar is the seat of pretty much everything: the government, the postal service, the Embassies to various other countries, and the primary manufacturing facilities are located here, as well as over half the population of the country. And so it was that I found myself on the road to the capital yesterday morning, since its immigration office is the only one that gives residence permits.

The capital city and I have, shall we say, a contentious relationship. I would call it love-hate, except that to do so would imply an equality between the two sentiments that simply isn’t so. Love-hate-hate would perhaps be closer to the truth.

Now, there are certainly some good things to be said of UB. I have a number of friends here, and I am always excited by the opportunity to see them again. Ulaanbaatar also boasts a number of dining an entertainment options that are not available in Erdenet: a movie theater! Indian and Thai food! Beer with actual flavor! A duty-free shop where you can buy whiskey at halfway-reasonable prices! There is also a national opera house, though I have never had the fortune to attend a performance there.

Disconnected as I am from the world of pop culture, the movie theater is not usually at the top of my priorities. I have seen exactly two movies during my time here: a repeat viewing of Dark Knight Rises, when we first arrived in August, and Hotel Transylvania, during my Thanksgiving visit. No, food and friends are definitely much higher on priority list. A trip to the city is incomplete without a visit to one of the nicer bars (Ikh Mongol or MB), the Duty-Free Store, and a restaurant serving cuisine of a persuasion unavailable in Erdenet. (There are many; our line-up features one American bakery, one Italian pizzeria, one Korean restaurant, and two Russian, along with three other restaurants that serve Western food. There are exactly four locations in town that serve non-instant coffee, all of them on the previous list, and for those, we are the envy of Peace Corps Volunteers throughout the country).

When I have time, I also try to visit the miraculous Mercury Market, home to all manner of generally inaccessible foodstuffs. You can’t buy rosemary, cumin, or maple syrup in Erdenet, but they have them at Mercury.

I try hard to remind myself of these advantages anytime life necessitates a trip here. But even so, the truth of the matter is that I avoid the capital city whenever possible.

Erdenet is quiet and welcoming. People say hello to me on the street, and the owners of the delguurs I frequent ask me how I am and how my work is going. Foreigners are seen as rare subjects of interest, rather than rich, exploitative carpetbaggers. And while it’s certainly overstating matters to say that all Ulaanbaatarians resent and hate foreign people, the Nationalist movement is certainly good at getting its message heard. I have gone out with a group of around ten Americans in Erdenet a number of times and never been disturbed; the one time I found myself at a club with a large number of Americans in UB (albeit a much larger one, this group closer to 50), a fight broke out between the Mongolians and the foreigners.

Moreover, I feel safe in Erdenet. A flat 1000 tugriks will get you a taxi ride to anywhere within the city limits, and I have never felt threatened when walking the streets at night. In UB, I have had taxi drivers try to charge me 20,000 tugriks for a ride worth maybe 2000, and it’s a complete crapshoot as to whether walking or taking a taxi alone after dark is more dangerous. I have witnessed exactly one instance of theft in Erdenet, whereas at least three people have attempted to pickpocket me in UB, including one who succeeded. I didn’t lose anything of particular value on that occasion, but several friends have had their phones stolen during trips to UB, including expensive smartphones.

At least the city’s least favorable aspect has mostly abated with the return of warmer weather. I’ve read estimates that as much as 80% of the city’s population lives in its many ger districts, since a pattern of emigration has brought far more people to this city than its limited housing and infrastructure can support. Most of these people burn coal during the winter, as well as rubber tires, trash, and anything else they can find. The city’s heat and electricity are also provided by coal plants. Unsurprisingly, Ulaanbaatar has some of the worst air quality in the world during the winter months, so much so that multiple current and former residents of the city have had doctors interpret the lung damage as the result of lifelong smoking. I roamed the city without wearing a face mask for one day in late December and spent most of that night awake coughing, as my lungs tried to rid themselves of all the pollutants they had acquired over the course of a few hours out of doors; my friend Adam, after a similar level of exposure in November, awoke to find his tongue had turned black.

That’s how bad the air in this city is. Image Credit: UB Air Quality Info Facebook Group

Thankfully, the ger-dwellers only need to light fires for cooking purposes now, so the amount of particulate matter in the air has dropped precipitously. I can breathe easily during my time here – at least literally, if not figuratively.

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Hudoo, Here I Come!

As of the time this entry is published, I’ll have been on the road for over a day. The Embassy arranged an outreach trip for the the Fulbrighters that will take us through Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags. We’re starting in Ulaanbaatar, then heading west to Tsetserleg, Tariat, and Uliastai, looping back up to Tosontsengel, and then making the long trek back to UB.


Our itinerary. Tsetserleg on Monday, Tariat on Tuesday, Uliastai on Thursday, Tosontsengel on Friday. Then two days for our return to the capital.

Our itinerary. Tsetserleg on Monday, Tariat on Tuesday, Uliastai on Thursday, Tosontsengel on Friday. Then two days for our return to the capital.

Google maps puts the trip at around 70 hours, which might be too much, but which also might not be enough. I have no doubt we’ll cut across the country between Tariat and Uliastai instead of going way out of our way to take the actual roads that Google thinks we should – but while that will certainly cut our distance, it might not make the trip much faster. I certainly hope we’ll take the roads back the way we came during our return trip, as driving cross-country is, to put it lightly, a rough experience.

I’ve discussed the difficulties of travel in Mongolia previously, but mostly they boil down to this: nothing in this country is well-made. Cars are usually shoddy imports, shoddily maintained; roads are practically potholed out of existence if they exist at all. The drive from Tariat to Uliastai will probably mean following the tire tracks of those who have driven that way previously; in most of the хөдөө, or countryside, those are what pass for “roads.”

I do not do well when driving through the backcountry even in the states, as my family will readily attest. I can handle hills, or I can handle switchbacks; I can’t handle both at once. The next week is likely to give me plenty of both, probably simultaneously, along with a healthy helping of bumps and jolts from the lack of pavement. I can hardly wait.

To make matters worse, I don’t have any motion-sickness medication. And I can’t buy any, either; apparently it just doesn’t exist in this country. I asked the medical officers from the Peace Corps as well as the ones at the Embassy, and this was the closest thing I got to a helpful answer:

Actually Meclazine should be available but, Valium 5mg tablets one or two tablets every six hours works pretty well. It is the preferred drug of choice for Labrynthitis and I just used some on a patient this week who loved it. I think you can get a prescription for Valium and try it.  Scopolamine is an excellent drug for motion sickness and it is sold as a patch but, I do not think you will that in UB.  But, I am sure you can find Valium and that will help a lot.

Valium? I’ll pass, thanks all the same.

So I’m headed off to the wild this weekend, with only peppermint gum and candied ginger to settle my stomach. But we’ll be giving presentations at schools and playing games and making crafts with kids, which ought to be lots of fun. And apparently there are hot springs somewhere along our trajectory. Now that I am looking forward to.


Travel (is a Pain)

So, I have a friend who lives out in the Gobi. He’s never had a visitor in the year and a half he’s been at his site; I’ve never been to the Gobi and would like to see it. And I have a 3-week semester break in January. So far, the math is pretty simple.

But upon investigating the logistics of thing, I’m beginning to understand why he’s never had a visitor. Govi-Altai, like much of Mongolia, is unreasonably difficult to get to. How far a distance are we talking about, and what makes it “unreasonably difficult?”

My favorite part is the directions.

My favorite part is the directions.

Do note the fun bit to the left: Google can’t calculate directions to Govi-Altai, even from Ulaanbaatar. But that’s not actually all that surprising; Google uses roads to calculate directions and distances, and most of Mongolia doesn’t have roads.

Not kidding. Those yellow lines aren’t just the main roads – they’re more or less the only ones. There’s a paved road from Darkhan to Erdenet that isn’t shown, so you can drive between Mongolia’s three cities pretty easily (yes, there are only three in the entire country). You have to go from Erdenet to UB by way of Darkhan, though; there’s no road straight between the two. But outside of what you see on this map, most roads are just ruts in the ground.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it'll be like in January.

What passes for a road in most of the country. Imagine what it’ll be like in January.

These are not fun to drive, let me tell you. They are wind-y and bumpy and uneven – patently bad news for someone with a long history of car sickness. And driving on such “roads” is excruciatingly slow going. Even in summer, you can’t really go above 20 MPH. This means that Khovsgol, the big lake to the northwest of Erdenet, is a 12-hour drive away from me; Govi-Altai would be at least 24.

To make matters worse, you’re not spending those 12-24 hours in a comfortable vehicle. In all likelihood, you’ll be stuffed into a mikr (Soviet microbus) with almost twice as many people as there are seats. That’s not an exaggeration – they’re built to hold 13-14, and the last time I rode in one, it was with 22 of my new best friends. Or if not “best,” certainly “closest.”

It makes for a journey that is hot, cramped, and loud if there are little kids packed in there with you. All of these exacerbate my car sickness and help to make for a thoroughly miserable journey.

Now, the good news is that Altai has an airport. Two hours in a plane instead of twenty four on the road, not counting the inevitable delays and breakdowns? Done.

… or it would be, if I could actually find any information on ticket costs. Aero Mongolia has a website, and some of it is accessible in English – including a flight schedule (albeit one that differs from the one all the travel websites seem to think it runs on). What it does not have is any information about actual tickets: how much they cost, where you can purchase them, etc. Байхгуй. Ditto for the travel websites. There is a telephone number, but given my nearly-nonexistent Mongolian language skills, that sounds like a good way to waste нэгж (phone credit) without actually accomplishing anything. Time to enlist the help of my Mongolian friends, methinks.

And now y’all know why I haven’t done very much traveling, even though I’ve already been here for four months: it’s complicated. And frustrating. And, above all, time-consuming.


Mongolian Time

When I lived in Ireland, my roommate Celina and I liked to joke that our apartment ran on Mexican time—which is to say that we were always running late. Her family is Mexican, so we could get away with that kind of joke (or at least, she could).

Well, let me tell you: when it comes to being late, Mexicans ain’t got nothin’ on Mongolians.

My brother joined the Marines last November, so I had some time to get accustomed to the “hurry up and wait” way it operates. It’s a good thing, too; otherwise, I might have gone mad here. To come here from America, land of “if you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; if you’re late, don’t bother” takes some getting used to.

My lessons at school, for instance, are scheduled to begin at specific times: 9:30, 11:20, 12:50. In an American school, this would mean arriving in the room as soon as possible after the last class had ended, ideally being ready to teach at the scheduled start time. Here, by contrast, my co-teacher and I leave the teacher’s room when the start bell rings. Once we’ve made it to our scheduled room, we usually spend the first few minutes arguing with someone else who’s trying to use the same room. Sometimes we win, and the other class streams out; others, we’re the ones trooping out in search of a place to hold class. When this happens, we might have to try as many as three rooms before we find one where we can actually teach.

And incredibly, there are still students who walk in after all of this negotiating is over. It’s not uncommon for students in the 9:30 class in particular to show up over half an hour late for an 80-minute class.

Earlier this month, I went to see a play at the Erdenet Children’s Theatre (which is to say, Erdenet’s only theatre; we don’t have a cinema). I arrived at the doors at 5 pm, the scheduled start time, to find that nothing was ready yet. I walked upstairs and socialized with the visiting representatives from the Embassy while we waited for my friends to join us. When they arrived, we talked for a while more before wandering into the theatre, and once seated, we continued to talk and wait. I don’t think the performance actually started until at least 5:45.

When I visited a ger camp with my teachers in September, I was initially told we’d be leaving at four. By the time I left school that day, the departure time had been pushed back to 5:30. Namuunaa and I left the apartment at 5:30, walked the 20 minutes to school, and waited with the rest of the teachers. I think we actually left between 6:30 and 7.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Schedules are a very fluid thing here; start times are guidelines rather than rules.

The easy conclusion to draw would be that Mongolians are a patient people, but anyone who’s seen drivers in Ulaanbaatar will disavow this in a heartbeat. They fly down the roads at unreasonable speeds, driving in the wrong lane (or in the bus lane) to pass those not going fast enough for their liking. They honk at anything or anyone that gets in their way—even if the car they’re honking at is part of a long line and can’t actually go anywhere.

That last “if” should really be a “when” – traffic in UB is terrible, and getting halfway across the city to the train station can take over an hour. It’s really a crapshoot as to whether bussing, taxiing, or just plain hoofing it will be fastest; the buses are fastest in theory, but if people are driving in the bus lanes, a taxi might be faster. But sometimes there are just no taxis to be found, so you end up walking anyway. And then running, and then arriving at the station just in time to watch your train pull away.

Because there is only one thing in this entire country that leaves exactly when it’s supposed to – and that’s the train.

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Last year, I celebrated Thanksgiving twice. I’m hard-pressed to recall the specifics of our big family celebration; we’ve had so many, and they do run together. Last year my dad’s youngest sister and her family hosted one major holiday, and we were late because the pumpkin pie wouldn’t set. My family hosted the other, and we stayed up late talking to the visiting members of the Burke Zoo Northern Branch. I was also serenaded, repeatedly, by my father and uncle with the Evans Sweetheart song, a bit of god-awful sentimentality straight out of the 1950s. But as I had recently started dating an Evans Scholar, an order of which my father and both of his brothers are members, I suppose it was sort of inevitable. My point, I suppose, is that while I do remember scraps of both those holidays, I couldn’t tell you which was Thanksgiving and which was Christmas.

But that was my second Thanksgiving celebration, and I remember the first much better. My roommate and I “pre-gamed” the holiday – not by getting drunk before going out drinking, as the term usually implies, but by celebrating with our friends at school before going home to celebrate with our families. We invited a bunch of our friends over (I think there were around ten of us all told), spent the entire day in the kitchen, and used every casserole dish that kitchen had.

I mean that literally. You can’t even see all the food in this picture.

It was completely worth it. This was my second family we were celebrating with, my home away from home. It wouldn’t have felt right not to celebrate with them in some way. I don’t think we said grace, as is traditional at Thanksgiving dinner, but we certainly felt blessed. To show how blessed, we each took a leaf (I had gathered and pressed a large number of colorful leaves earlier that autumn) and wrote the things we were thankful for upon it. Quite a few of them referred to the family we had created there.

Turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes and apples, cranberry sauce - we even had green bean casserole.

And the food was delicious.

This Thanksgiving, inevitably, has been rather different. Once more, I’ll be celebrating it twice. Round one was last Sunday, when the nine American residents of Erdenet gathered at a Peace Corps Volunteer’s apartment. We had to make do with chicken instead of turkey, but the food was still delicious, and I ate far too much of it.

Still, it wasn’t the same. I managed cranberry sauce of a sort, but it lacked the bite of the real thing. More importantly, the atmosphere was different – companionable, but nowhere near as close-knit. I made friends at Miami whom I counted as sisters; I have yet to find sisters here. And though we had all the trimmings of the traditional dinner, some of the spirit of the holiday was missing. There was no acknowledgement of the things we were thankful for, and I missed that.

In my classes today, I tried to make up for that. I thought about playing “Over the River and Through the Woods” for them, or trying to teach them some Thanksgiving-related vocabulary, but neither would be particularly meaningful to them. So I replicated last Thanksgiving’s leaves: I broke out the construction paper, gave each student a piece, and asked them to write the things they were thankful for upon it. It took some translation to get the message across, but they did it. Some of their responses:

  • I am thankful for family.
  • I am thankful for education.
  • I am thankful for mother, father, brother.
  • I am thankful for Mongolia.
  • I am thankful for horse.
  • I am thankful for sportsman.
  • I am thankful for winter.
  • I am thankful for Chinggis Khan.

Rather a mixed bag, but they clearly understood the point of the exercise. And they didn’t copy the list of examples I’d provided straight off the board, either; I saw them checking through their notes for vocabulary words and asking the other teacher what words were. That’s a lot more engagement and comprehension than they usually show!

As for me, I’m thankful for a lot of things. For my family, even if I can’t go home to celebrate this glorious holiday with them. For the snow and trees and mountains that beautify the earth and the sunny days that make winter bearable. For cats and the way they always make me smile. For living in an apartment where I don’t have to worry about going to the bathroom outdoors in sub-zero weather and can (almost always) take hot showers when I want them.

But the one that hits most urgently this year is that I’m thankful for my friends – for the old friends who’ve kept up with me and supported me through a rough October, and for the new friends I’ve made here. I would probably learn Mongolian faster if I had no one to talk to in English, but I would be awfully lonely in the process. I am incredibly grateful for the Americans here; seeing them at least three times a week, even if two of them are to run English activities for the community, is part of what keeps me sane. I am grateful for the Russian and Mongolian friends who have opened their homes and their hearts to me, and I am deeply indebted to them for helping me with things like navigating the postal service and giving me a place to stay during this weekend’s trip to UB. I would be completely lost here on my own.

Whether you celebrate it or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.