Everything is different here and that’s usually a good thing. The following is an account of holiday celebrations, nearly dying in the desert (several times), and getting a root canal.
For Christmas, my sitemates and I got together and basically cooked all day. We made cookies, turkey, pie, stuffing, and fudge. Everything was pretty delicious. We listened to Christmas music until Jessica got tired of it. I shared “Fairytale of New York” with her and Yin.
The Wednesday before started all the New Year celebration. Well, the whole school was decorated the weekend before, but my first party was Wednesday night. All the teachers in the province were in the gym at the Polytechnic College and the place was decked out like prom. Mongolian New Year parties are basically adult prom. All the ladies get dressed up and made up, though some just wear their fanciest work outfits. The guys’ effort runs the gamut from nice sweater with jeans to three piece suit. I had brought a dress just for New Year and I wore more makeup than I have since I’ve been here.
Also, at every New Year party there is a raffle. This time, the prizes consisted of books, home decor, crystal dishware, money, and electronics (including 2 iPhones and a microwave).
The dancing at these parties consists of forming circles during fast songs and pairs waltzing during slow songs.
The second party I went to was for my school, which took place at a cafe across from the theatre uptown. There was of course a raffle there, but they had bought enough items for everyone to win something. It was fun! I won a pink boxcutter! There was lots of food and alcohol, both of which I indulged in moderately. And of course there was dancing. After the main party, we went back to the school, where there was more dancing and eating and drinking.
On December 31st, it was up in the air as to whether my sitemates and I would be travelling that day or the next, but we were definitely going to Dalanzgadad, the provincial capital of Omnogovi aimag. I got a call from Yin that morning that we needed to be at the bus station at 3 or 4pm, an hour before the mikr would arrive from Dundgovi aimag. I threw a complete change of clothes (including three layers for top, bottom, and feet), a couple pairs of underwear, my pillow, and a sleeping bag I inherited from the PCV before me (much more transportable than the monsters they gave us M26s) into my backpack. We waited at the bus station for almost two hours after the mikr was supposed to arrive, which we didn’t realize at the time was a portent. The ride took much longer than it normally does, partly because the driver was slow, partly because we stopped about three-quarters of the way in for the driver and his friend to eat dinner at a random hashaa. No one else got out of the mikr. Jessica and Yin were discussing whether we’d be celebrating the stroke of midnight on the road, with an added bonus (if we did) of taking a photo with the frozen cow’s head that was sitting back in the storage area of the van. Thankfully we got to Elijah’s apartment just before the fireworks started.
The next day we headed down to DZ. When we got there, we visited the Nomin supermarket and I picked up a bottle of Gluhwein and a bag of corn starch. For the three nights I stayed in DZ I stayed with Sam, who lives in a ger. It was neat to see what day-to-day ger life is like (though he is a bit spoiled with his flatscreen and full-size oven), but it definitely made me appreciate my apartment. Our Festivus meal was a decadent feast, with two turkeys, green bean casserole, stuffing, mac’n’cheese, breads, pies, cookies, and much more.
Sam had organized a desert adventure at the behest of Jessica. On January 2nd, 10 Americans piled into a space made for 6 people and we made our way out into the great nothing. It was a very bumpy 5-hour journey that led us to the winter home of a family of camel herders. We ate camel meat, ate camel aaruul (dried cheese), drank camel airag (fermented milk), and got to take pictures with a very fast and beautiful camel. The family were very gracious hosts and the children were adorable.
After the photo session, we piled back into the van to head further into the desert to the dunes. We got stuck in the sand once, but we all shifted our weight back and forth to help. And it did! Once we got to the dune, I raced up the hill. By raced I mean walked as fast as I could up the edge of the dune, lead by two children and followed by the rest of the group. By the time I reached the first peak, I was breathing heavily and my chest was hurting. I took a few minutes to recover while the others continued up to the next peak. Watching them take pictures together, I was a little sad that I couldn’t join in. By the time I got up there, most people were already rolling down another part of the dune. My chest felt like I was being staked and for a moment I thought I might be having a heart attack. Out there, it would mean certain death and I cried, but also thought, what a place to be when it happens. I don’t know what they would have done with my body. Sky burial?
When everyone was off the dunes, we headed back towards DZ and got caught in a blizzard. The journey had been uncomfortable before now, but after we got stuck in the snow that first time, it became dangerous. Everyone hopped out and got behind the van to push. Thankfully there were many of us. Taking in our surroundings, I realized it was probably the most beautiful landscape I had seen here. We piled back into the van and continued on, only to get stuck again a few dozen kilometers later. After almost driving over a dropoff that would have landed us headlights first in the sand and snow, our guide informed us that we needed to make a detour to a village to get gasoline or we would likely run out before we got back to the city. When we got there, no one was manning the station. Of course in a place like that, everyone knows everyone and an attendant quickly responded. We got back to the city very late and had an early bus the next morning.
On our way back through UB, Jessica and I both had medical appointments. One of my teeth had chipped on a pebble in my rice (it happens) and after a few weeks, started to cause me pain when eating. When I walked into the office, which was in an alley behind a shopping center, it looked pretty much the same as a dentist in the US. The machine they used to take the panoramic x-ray of my mouth was very modern. The one, biggest difference about this place was the area where all the work was done. There were three or four chairs, side by side, separated by frosted glass panels that went halfway up to the ceiling. It reminded me of the kind of room in a sci-fi movie where one might be indoctrinated. After shoving a digital x-ray screen down between my tongue and gums about 20 times, the dentist informed me I had a gap under the tooth that was likely infected. I needed a root canal. This meant the Medical Officer had to send the dentist’s report to Washington, DC to get approval to have the root canal done. So, I was in UB for another few days.
I went shopping, saw The Force Awakens at Tengis Theater, bought all the ingredients for Thai spring rolls, took a(nother) hot shower at the guesthouse, and watched a lot of Adventure Time. By Thursday, the approval had come in, but the dentist couldn’t see me until Friday. I went in with only mild apprehension, since I have had so much work done on my teeth in the past. He numbed me up and got to work, drilling down into the nerve of my chipped tooth. There was a slight amount of pain when he got down to the gap and started sticking things into the tooth. I don’t know why dentists do this, but they love to prod. Wishing again that there was a mirror above or some other way I could watch him work, I did my best to breathe though my stuffed nose. There were a couple times where I nearly choked, but thankfully they didn’t coincide with him taking a drill to my tooth. He finished up and told me I couldn’t eat anything for an hour. And also that I had to come in on Monday for a check-up.
The checkup was fine and I made it out of UB alive, but not without a cold exacerbated by heavy pollution. I have to go back on the 22nd for another checkup. In the meantime, I’m planning a writing seminar, watching Steven Universe, playing ukulele, and doing my best to stay warm in this below-freezing weather.