This past Saturday the volunteers in my cohort got up, way before the sun was even thinking about coming up, and got a ride to the airport. The airport is a good 40 minutes from where we are , due to surrounding mountains. We drove up to the two buildings that make up the control tower and the terminal as the sun was starting to glow from behind the surrounding mountains. Now where were we going ? Ulaan Baatar, the one official city of Mongolia. Where 50 percent of the country lives and where most of the countries economy is centered. Of course we were just excited to see our friends and eat good food.
I was only going for a couple days, arriving Saturday for my flu shot and returning back on Tuesday. The others that I was traveling with were going for a couple weeks to assist with a training for the volunteers that had been in the country for 6 months. We all had our respective plans , mine mostly to see other volunteers and obtain more beans and lentils.
Not to say going to UB is the most pleasant experience. UB, when it was founded however many years ago, was originally planned for a city population of 250,000. Now about 1.3 million people live there, and the city goes from a planned center to sprawling ger district that surround it, tall wood fences demarcating yards of people who have left the country side, and moved to UB looking for better opportunities.The dichotomy between city and country side is strong here, but on the outskirts it melds together. These people still live pretty simply, getting water from wells, living in traditional gers and light their stoves with coal. This last part means that in winter the smog accumulates over the city, burning your throat and lungs. We are handed face masks to wear when we come to Ulaan Baatar for trips like this, but I don’t know if they help that much. The unpleasant winter doesn’t stop people from moving here however. Every drive to the city from the airport, I see new buildings being built and never ending construction. Its pretty much the chaotic feel of a boom town from the old west… or how I imagine it must have felt.
While in UB I usually stay at one particular hostel that pretty much caters to Peace Corps volunteers coming into town, especially during the winter months. Very close to the city center and to the PC office, its pretty much an apartment that someone has put bunk beds in. At this point it’s a home away from home, and I usually see many familiar faces when I go there. I arrived, and poached my usual bed by the door and waited to see where the first place we would eat would be. Over the course of three days I ate at Namaste( a fantastic Indian restaurant), Ceylonta ( Sri Lankan), Khan Deli ( a new place that has biscuits and gravy ) , Millies ( an awesome breakfast place) and Roundtable(which is pretty self explanatory) . Which is pretty good haul for 3 days.
We even snuck in a movie, Interstellar, which I loved! I know some people didn’t like it, but goodness it was beautiful. Also now I hear eerie organ music which I’m walking Zavkhan’s snow lined streets, kind of reminiscent of that one ice planet… Don’t know where that comes from 😛 . But maybe the main reason I liked it was being able to get coke with a buttered popcorn.
Reading the above, I have realized that I might have a slight fixation on food.
Nonetheless it was a nice respite from site. I got to see familiar faces – some friends arranged to be in town the same weekend and it was nice catching up , talking about site and how work was going. I also came in right after a training so it was nice to see the new volunteers and see how things were going for them. For such a satisfying trip, it seemed like no time at all that I was getting back on that plane, and heading back to site. The plane landed on a snowy runway, amidst white mountains. It was a refreshing change to see. I prefer the refreshing clean look of fresh snow to accompany the cold rather then drab brown hills. But site does have brisk clean air, which Ulaan Baatar doesn’t even come close to this time of year.
Since coming back, I have had several busy days of work. Put on a spelling bee, assisted with some classes and have some new ideas to apply at site after brainstorming with people back in Ulaan Baatar. The days have been respectively chilly, somewhere around the -20s, and as my teachers have reminded me , it really isn’t winter yet… Winter happens after the winter solstice on the 22nd. I sit at my school wrapped up in my fleece and scarf and my teachers chortle, asking if I’m cold…. Well… I do like to leave people guessing 😛
Hope this finds you warm, where ever you are – V.