Soundtrack of a bus ride

December 9, 2013

I’d accepted that I wouldn’t go to UB until the COS conference in May. As it turned out, an opportunity to judge an English-speaking competition in UB came along and the coordinators offered to cover transportation and lodging for PCVs. Though my site is 1000km (600miles) from UB, making me a “fly-site” for Peace Corps, if I wanted to participate—and I did!—I’d have to take the bus. Nearly half the road is unpaved, so it takes at least 20 hours. Long-haul bus travel is something I was interested in doing at some point during my time here, since it is quintessentially Mongolian, but if I’d had the choice it would not have been on the cusp of winter.

10:00 is written on the ticket; I am on the bus at 11:00. The friend who helped to purchase my ticket hadn’t been satisfied with the seats available, so she comes on the bus and essentially evicts a girl from her seat—completely unnecessarily, I thought—so that I can have a “good chair.”  12:00 noon is the scheduled departure; we are finally on the road by 12:45. During this wait, several times I hear a classic Mongolian patriotic song as a ringtone.

12:45 As we drive out of Altai, the Mongolian band HURD is playing. You can also see the music videos on the large flat screen tv mounted above the driver. The band members wear all black, have the long hair of early Red Hot Chili Peppers, and they play ballads. I decide I like them.

15:00 “Hool idex uu?,” my neighbor asking me if I will eat when we stop. It seems early to me, but since I am not sure when the next stop will be, I ask “yamar hool?” (what kind of food). There are two options, tsuivan (a noodle dish) or soup. I opt for tsuivan.

15:30 The slurping of soup and tea. The tsuivan is exceptional.

16:00 More music videos. More HURD. Also, some Mongolian long song, which I find beautiful. English songs from a German band, Modern Talking, come on. I’ve never heard of them but their look is exactly that of the 80’s hair bands, yet their music video has 1998 on it so I’m totally confused. The sound of crunching peanuts.

21:30 Spinning wheels in the sand. We all (50-60 people) get off the bus.

22:00 Sounds of shoveling the sand from around the tires. “Neg, hoyeriig, guravaa…” the “one, two, three” before people try to push the bus, to no avail. Sounds of unloading the luggage from underneath the bus. Probably more shoveling sounds and more pushing sounds but by this point I’m stargazing on this moonless night with Florence and the Machine on my MP3 player, moderately concerned about the Return of the Frozen Toes that I am experiencing.

22:30 The sound of silence. We’re back on the bus; awaiting our fate.

01:30 A big truck engine. More shoveling.

02:30 The sound of the earth moving beneath our bus. Repacking the luggage. (Yes, in that order.)

03:00 The sound of people sleeping on a moving bus.

04:45 The beep of a text message received, likely sent 10 hours prior… I’d had no service all that time. Hey, my toes aren’t numb!

08:00 TV’s back on. The sounds of a Mongolian sketch comedy show. Very popular.  The sound of crunching snow underfoot while finding a spot to pee. I realize that men use the right side of the bus, and women use the left side, which means women must cross the road. But, I understand that it gives the women more privacy.

09:00 A crying toddler. The kid was here the whole time, and 20-hours in, I was ready to cry myself. I couldn’t blame her.

11:00 “Hool idex uu?”

12:00 Sounds of lunch.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

Lunch spot. About 6 hours outside of UB.

16:00 People chatting. Ray LaMontagne in the headphones. Phone calls coming in and going out.

18:30 Sounds of UB.


June 19, 2013

There was a shower-house in my training site last summer but, as far as I know, my host family never used it, so I never used it. I learned to bathe in my tumpun and my host-mom or host-sister would help me wash my hair by pouring the warm water over my head while I lathered and rinsed. The bathing and the hair-washing didn’t necessarily coincide. I would bathe every 7-10 days (using baby-wipes in the interim); I’d wash my hair every 5-7 days. Much like clothes washing in the tumpun, tumpun bathing was complicated by the need to carry the one bucket of water to my bedroom, combine in my tumpun with water from the kettle, bathe and then pour from the wide tumpun into the dirty-water bucket—hopefully, executing neither step with excessive spillage—finally, emptying the dirty water into the special pit outside.

With this as my frame of reference, the indoor plumbing at my permanent site made tumpun bathing so much easier, that I didn’t immediately seek out the Altai shower-houses. At site, I could fill (fill=2-3 inches) my tumpun right from the sink and, after washing, pour it right into the toilet. Even better was when the heat came on and my running water wasn’t ice-cold; then, I didn’t need to use the kettle at all. I’d gotten into a routine of upper-body bathing (right from the sink!), lower-body bathing, and hair-washing two days a week. The baby-wipes remain a living-in-Mongolia, must-have item.

I think at this point I should mention that when I lived in the States, my habit was to shower every other day. I’d adopted this schedule when growing up in California, because of “the drought,” and even though I’m sure I was in the minority to skip a day, it stuck with me and I saw no reason to change when I left. Like many routines, it wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule and if I needed/wanted a shower off-schedule, I’d take one. No judgment! 😉

After the new year, I asked my site-mate to show me the shower house. I think it was because the weather was so cold that I wanted that all-over warmth. That first shower in Altai, on January 10th, was gloriously warm. And, I remember thinking, “it’s so pleasurable to wash my hair without bending over.”

There are several shower-houses in Altai, but I’ve only experienced the one. The cost is 1300 togrogs (just under a dollar) for 30 minutes. There are two attendants: one collects the money (from the usage fee and the sale of toiletries) and the other seems to be in charge of throwing a bucket of water on the shower floor in between guests, handing out communal shower slippers and locking you in. Yes, the attendant locks you in, and there is no secondary lock on the inside for the vulnerable person who is naked and preoccupied. There are about 12 rooms and none that I’ve used have been particularly nice, each showing the black of mildew and/or mold. There’s no doubt it wasn’t always a shower-house, though, as the rooms are different configurations and the water comes via PVC pipes literally strung up to the rafters. It turns out, the temps at the shower-house are unpredictable and, for the most part, unadjustable. Regardless, that weekly shower is a treat. When you’re done, you give a knock and the attendant comes and unlocks your door.


Oh, and by the way, it isn’t a lock with a key… just a simple slider. I want to think this is another example of trust built into things in Mongolia, but then I remembered, it’s like showering at a gym or a campground back home. Except for the whole gender-separation thing that is largely ignored here.

frozen toes

December 18, 2012

For the past 12 days I haven’t been able to feel my toes. Okay, that’s somewhat of an exaggeration… they feel swollen even though they look normal sized and touching the toes gives sort of a dull sensation, almost as if Novocain is wearing off, though I can move them normally and walking isn’t a problem.

Here’s what happened: From my Aimag, flights to the capital are only available Tuesdays and Fridays. That meant that I had to arrive in UB Friday for the Peace Corps In-Service Training (IST) for TEFLs, which began the following Monday. (I found the training super informative and I plan to write about it in the next few days.) The background info is that buses in UB are 400 togrogs, whereas a taxi ride from the airport would be at least 15,000. That enormous difference in transportation cost partially explains my decision to brave the bus, but generally speaking, I am a proponent of public transportation and taking taxis is something I seldom do, wherever I happen to be. Additionally, the Mongolian “taxis” are often simply people who own cars… you flag them down and they take you where you want to go and charge you, but there are no regulations. I have no qualms about couchsurfing or hostels, yet I can’t put into words why this car-sharing makes me uncomfortable. Furthermore, my site mate with a year more living-in-Mongolia experience drew me a map with walking directions to the bus stop and assured me it was “the only way to do it.”

The two-hour flight from my Aimag was uneventful and I found the bus stop with little trouble. However, on the ten-minute walk there I could see that I was just missing a bus and found myself waiting in -35°C temps wearing two layers of socks and hiking boots. After about 20 minutes I got on the first bus that came, even though it wasn’t the most direct bus, just to get out of the cold. That ended up not mattering much because, as it turns out, this time of year the UB city buses are equivalent to an ice-box with a sheet of frost on the inside of every window—obscuring the view from all but the windshield. (I thought it curious that they would paint the windows white; it wasn’t until I saw that someone had scraped a treble clef into the frost that I understood what I was looking at.) Unfortunately, there is no picture of this because removing my mittened hands from my pockets, and then removing the hands from the mittens, and then unzipping my coat where my camera was around my neck (to keep it from freezing), and then unzipping the camera case, each seemed either unsafe for my fingers or requiring more finger dexterity than I had.

I like to think of myself as a methodical and reasoning individual, but one trait that surprises even me, and that I continually exhibit, is impulsiveness. On this Friday night it reappeared when I got off the bus because everyone else was getting off the bus. Of course, having gotten off the bus, and not recognizing anything, I then decided that I needed to walk in a random direction in the hopes of seeing something that looked familiar, in a city that accommodates over a million people, in which I had spent only 5 days, three months before. I trudged along with my large suitcase rolling behind me, following a woman who didn’t know she was my guide. It was a good twenty minutes before I reconsidered and turned back to the bus stop, another twenty or so minutes waiting at the bus stop before asking which one gets me to Sukhbaatar Square and being told that I am on the wrong side of the street. Another ride in the ice-box-on-wheels, just 3 or 4 stops, and I was there! Almost. I couldn’t find the hostel, which didn’t matter because we (the entire training site gang) were actually staying somewhere else. A few phone calls made with frozen fingers and someone came to fetch me and take me to the room.

Saturday morning, I was surprised to find my three big toes still numb. After breakfast, I stayed inside a full 30 hours, forgoing the plans I had to see a movie and eat popcorn, willing my feet to thaw.

On Sunday morning, once again I awoke with numb-ish toes. This time, I soaked them in warm water as the medical staff instructed us during summer training. I also rested them against the radiator which felt good but didn’t make a difference. When I did get out in the afternoon, I picked up some camel wool socks since everyone swears by them… while they might keep the cold out, I can tell you they don’t take the cold out once it’s in.

Monday was our first day of IST, which was in a beautiful part of UB—surrounded by pine trees—about 45 minutes from the hustle and bustle of downtown. We would stay for 5 days and 4 nights and with all meals provided there was no reason for me to venture out until Friday afternoon when the buses came to take us back to the city.

Though I’d soaked my feet in the hotel tub a few times, they felt far from normal so many days after exposure that by Wednesday I was concerned enough to ask the medical staff to take a look. They were concerned that my toes looked white, but then I always look more pale than not being one who avoids the sun. With a few pokes, the tiniest bit of color came into the toes. And since I could move them and had sensation when touched, even though it was dull, it was a good indication that, while damage was clearly done, it wouldn’t be permanent.

Today is a full week after that, and still my toes feel thick and dull. I’ve been soaking in warm water once or twice a day for the past 4 days. Yesterday I thought my middle toes were much better, leaving just the two big toes of each foot feeling thick and dull. If I had to quantify it, I’d say maybe 50% sensation in the two big toes, 80% in the middle toes, and the two small toes are 95%.

It was a hard lesson to learn. At so many points I could have turned things around by making better, indeed smarter and safer, decisions. I didn’t know the temperature in UB that Friday night, but I didn’t need to to know what I was feeling in my feet. There is an entire Mongolian winter ahead of me, so perhaps this scare was necessary for me to understand first-hand how easy it is to take such risks. I already know how easy it is to avoid them.