Waiting for Mongolia’s borders to open again

Brand new Monarch butterfly

A new post is long overdue. A lot of things have been happening, and I’ve been having a hard time writing. Between the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the movement that’s responding to George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor’s murder by police in Louisville, and Auhmad Arbery’s murder by racist hoodlums in Georgia, there has been a lot to pay attention to. And amid all this, I moved us out of our house and am in the process of selling it, with the idea that we’ll be able to move back to Mongolia sometime this year. We are now in a one-bedroom apartment a few miles from the house, waiting to see what will happen as Emma finishes up 8th grade at her school here and I finish my online course at Mongolia International University.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about Mongolia’s response to COVID-19, which has successfully kept the virus out. The only cases have been people coming to Mongolia from overseas, mostly on repatriation flights since the country shut down international travel early on in the crisis. Mongolia’s aggressive response to the virus, which began in January with the closing of schools and other measures, is definitely a success story from a public health perspective.

The first confirmed case of the virus in Mongolia was a French national who flew in via Moscow. He was confirmed positive for the virus on March 9, and unfortunately he didn’t self-quarantined. Contact tracing turned up over 100 people who had to be screened for the virus, and fortunately he did not spread the virus among those people. He has since recovered and returned home to France. International flights were suspended, except for government-permitted repatriation flights for small numbers of Mongolian citizens living overseas. There are still about 11,000 waiting to return home. Not to mention foreign residents of Mongolia who are eager to return to their lives there but were overseas when the incoming flights were cancelled. Speculation among the people I’m in contact with there is that it may be impossible for foreigners to come into Mongolia before December, which changes our plans a bit.

Mongolia has not come up in the American media as a “success story” in the COVD-19 pandemic, mainly because so many people are unaware of it, I think. The government took an aggressive public health strategy against the virus, shutting the border, restricting internal travel, and isolating people coming in from the outside. This was considered necessary because the country’s health system is very limited. It’s nearly overrun each winter by influenza outbreaks the annual respiratory illnesses from air pollution, especially among children and elders. In fact, the school closures that started in January were originally to limit the impact of influenza and were extended month by month (until September 1, currently) also to limit the possible spread of COVID-19. Borders were also closed to China and Russia, and exports have ground to a halt.

Many aspects of life have continued almost as usual, though. People wear masks when they go to stores and stores limit the number of people who enter in an effort to keep physical distance (what in the US we’ve been calling “social distancing” but which seems mis-named). But people are going out, getting together, and largely carrying on life as usual (except for educators and students, of course). The government has also provided people with funding for childcare so that they can continue working. But a number of likely far-reaching effects have yet to be felt.

Tourism, which is a large chunk of Mongolia’s income and employment during the summer months, is on hold indefinitely. There will be no tourist season this summer, except for internal travel by Mongolians to visit relatives in the countryside. It seems likely that many small businesses could fold as well. Cashmere exports, another major source of income, are way down, which affects many Mongolians as well. Without normal trade with China, it’s hard to imagine the economy staying afloat for long. On the other hand, with a massive COVID-19 outbreak in Ulaanbaatar, it would also be hard to imagine that.

What’s been toughest for me to think about is the likelihood that the government will not issue new visas for foreigners for quite some time. When we left Mongolia, I didn’t know we’d be returning, and the visa expert at my university had me cancel our visas as required by law so the university wouldn’t get in trouble with Immigration. We had three-year multiple entry visas, so we could have returned on those as soon as they started letting foreigners back in (maybe this summer or fall?). But hindsight is 20-20, and at the time cancelling our visas seemed like the right thing to do. Now, it seems like a big mistake. I wasn’t thinking about it in April and May, because of the big push to empty out my house and get it on the market before the end of May, but now that the house is mostly taken care of, I have more time to worry.

In the grand scheme of things, my troubles are minor. We will be OK if we can’t travel to Mongolia until December. If it goes beyond that, we may have to reassess our plans. The most difficult thing is Emma’s school. She’s due to start 9th grade in the fall, and she was looking forward to returning to her friends at the International School of Ulaanbaatar (ISU), which finished up this school year remotely but seems to be hoping to open up again in September. I’ve already contacted them and submitted what I need to for Emma to attend in the fall. She’s also enrolled in the local public high school here in Carlsbad. But it’s really unclear what will happen. I know that some of the kids and teachers at ISU are currently overseas, and they will face some of the same difficulties returning to Mongolia.

Will we be able to go back before the school year starts? Probably not. And the current situation is that if/when we do enter the country, we’ll have a five-week quarantine: three weeks in a hotel in or outside Ulaabaatar (which we pay for) and two addition weeks at “home” (which we don’t have yet). So it’s really unlikely Emma can start school in September, even if we make it there in August. Our options include having her start 9th grade here and transfer to ISU when we can enter Mongolia, or, if ISU continues online in the fall, have her attend ISU online until we can go. We’ll just have to see.

My own situation is also a little precarious. I have been teaching online for MIU, and I’m on the schedule to teach in the fall, assuming I can get there. I can continue to teach online from here, but I need an American income if we are going to stay much past December. I am applying to local colleges to teach here, but the uncertainty makes that difficult, since I couldn’t just leave mid-semester if we got our Mongolian visas. I have some freelance writing and editing, and I am starting to work on my book again, now that the move isn’t occupying most of my time and all of my energy. We’re lucky compared to a lot of people, because we have a place to live, we managed to move during a pandemic without getting sick, and we are basically OK financially for a little while. So now we just have to wait and see what happens.

But the bottom line is that we both really miss Mongolia. We hope for the best for the people there, but we really want to go back. We talk about it all the time. There’s a lot of commentary coming from people in Mongolia that the government response was short-sighted because they will not be able to keep the virus out forever, and the population hasn’t had a chance to build immunity because they haven’t been exposed. The government’s hope is that Mongolia will avoid the virus until there is a vaccine, and in fact the Prime Minister stated at a meeting that the borders could stay closed until there is a vaccine. This could take a while.

The added twist is that Mongolia is holding parliamentary elections on June 24. There’s also a lot of speculation that things could change after that. Many people—expat and Mongolian alike—feel that things will relax after the election and they will start letting people back in. If that’s the case, it’s possible we could return before December. I’m trying to be optimistic about it. I’m really trying.

When I think about it, I keep going back to the Monarch butterflies we saw in our backyard this spring. We have milkweed bushes in our backyard, the primary food source for Monarch caterpillars. This spring the plants hosted several successive rounds of caterpillars that hatched from eggs laid on the plants’ leaves. We watched the caterpillars grow and grow, eating the leaves of the plants until they were little more than sticks, and then crawling off to make chrysalises and await their transformation. A few weeks later, we’d see the butterflies floating around our yard. Yesterday we went back to the house to do something, and I saw two caterpillars on one bush, one small and one nearly ready to transform. I thought of what this lifecycle entails, and for the migration of the Monarchs from Mexico to the northern US and Canada and back. It is miraculous, but it happens nonetheless. I feel like our apartment is our chrysalis, and when we are allowed to make our migration to Mongolia, it will feel miraculous indeed.

6 thoughts on “Waiting for Mongolia’s borders to open again

  1. Greetings from UB. Indeed the Situation is not very promising here as it looks like the Government really aim to keep the country in lock down for the time being until…yeah, until when? Election is done with the former Government confirmed with big success means that there handling of the situation as well has been positive rated by the population. Even just before the election there have been some releases on Restaurants opening till midnight now plus Museum etc. to reopen yet the biggest challenge are the closed border. Will see in due time what the new decisions towards July are. Wishing you anyway the best and hope for the uncertain times.


    1. Thank you for commenting! Yes, the election results are in and overwhelming. The closed borders are a problem for so many people and businesses. If they are waiting for a vaccine it could be a very long wait, and what happens to the people and the country in the meanwhile? I guess we will see. I’m still hoping to be back in UB, but maybe not till 2021 now…


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