It’s been months since I’ve written regularly for this blog. When I started this (a few weeks ago) I couldn’t even remember the last post I’d written, so I just re-read it. September seems like ages ago. Some things have changed, and some have stayed the same, so here’s an update. The punchline: We’re still in California (though we moved to Bermuda Dunes to save money), and we’re hoping to make it to Mongolia during the summer. But maybe earlier. One of the reasons I haven’t written much for the blog is that I’m still recovering from the mayhem of October and November, which was probably one of the most stressful experiences of my life.
The calm period I wrote about in September seems like a dream now. Fall ended up being completely ridiculous. When I try to put a positive spin on it, I guess it was a dress rehearsal for when we finally get to go to Mongolia. We really thought we were going to get to fly to Ulaanbaatar in October or November. We finally got our Mongolian visas on October 9 (3-year multiple entry, so hooray!) after getting notification from my university’s visa office in mid-September that we would soon be authorized to apply for them. The visa process went relatively smoothly. There was a bit of misinformation, and some ridiculousness involving pre-paid FedEx envelopes that weren’t done correctly by the woman at the Postal Annex who listens to right-wing radio (lots of “China virus” nonsense while I had to wait for her to do things wrong). But the visa person at the Mongolian consulate in San Francisco was very nice and helpful and really wanted us to be able to get on a plane.
At that time, the Mongolian government was scheduling about 10 to 12 flights a month to repatriate Mongolians and some expat workers to Mongolia, mostly from Seoul, Tokyo, Frankfurt, and Istanbul. So to get to Ulaanbaatar, we’d just have to get ourselves to one of these cities to catch the MIAT (Mongolian International Airlines) flight onwards. Seems pretty straightforward, right? Riiiight…
Initially, we thought we might be able to leave from the US on a direct flight to Ulaanbaatar from Seattle. This would have been a dream. There was one of these flights on September 30, and we were told there would be another one at the end of October. So that was the flight we were aiming for, initially. With the mandatory 3-week quarantine in a hotel, followed by a 2-week quarantine at home, Emma would have had two weeks of school (so we thought at the time) before her winter break, and I would have made it for the last week of classes at MIU. I planned everything: How we would get to Seattle, where we would stay for a couple of nights beforehand so we could get the necessary Covid tests, where we would stay in Carlsbad so I could clean out our apartment completely, and vet appointments for the dogs to get their international health certificates. But by the second week on October, I learned that the Seattle flight was cancelled because there weren’t enough Mongolians who wanted to take it.
But at least it had lit a fire under us, and we got rid of everything we weren’t actually using or bringing with us to Mongolia. Our small apartment became a bit more livable as I moved boxes of my parents’ photographs (which I had been hoping to digitize over the summer -ha!) to storage. Then I learned about a flight from Tokyo that the consular officer in San Francisco responsible for repatriating people from the US thought we could get on. But around the same time, the Mongolian consulate sent me a 4-page document in Mongolian that were instructions about bringing our dogs, dated October 2, 2020.
Four pages. In Mongolian.
I sent it to a couple of people at MIU to ask what it said. The first translation I got was that it was mainly about what would happen to the dogs once we got to Mongolia—quarantining at a vet while we quarantined in a hotel for three weeks. I’d have to provide crates and food. OK, sure, no problem. Three weeks apart would be really hard for them, but we’d all manage somehow. The document mentioned an international health certificate, which I took to be the paperwork we’d get here in the US. Also, OK, fine. And a COVID test. Huh. OK, ask the vet.
It was indeed possible to get the dogs COVID-tested for about $400 from the lab our vet used, so I got on it. I also got on a rabies titer (another $700), not required by Mongolia, but required by South Korea, just in case it was necessary for transit, because at this point we were hoping to go through Incheon.
The second translation, which I got a few days later, was a bit more detailed. I would need the COVID test and an export permit (which I correctly decided was the USDA Veterinary Health Certificate), a birth certificate for the dogs (I went with registration, since they were rescues), and other documentation, plus a fee of about $35 USD in Mongolian tugrik, to be sent to the Mongolian national veterinary authority for approval BEFORE we got on the plane. Oh, OK. Hold the phone. That’s a little more complicated. Thankfully, my department secretary at MIU, a wonderful woman named Deegii, agreed to help my by taking everything to them in person, and getting the certificate sent to me. Emma and I drove to Los Angeles to bring the paperwork to the USDA office near LAX, which had a new system because of COVID: drop the paperwork off between 8 and 9 am, and pick up the certificate after 3 pm. We stayed at a hotel nearby for the day, because I didn’t feel safe hanging out at a coffee shop for that many hours. We just lay in bed and watched movies: Pride and Prejudice, and some others I can’t remember.
So, it was a Really Good Thing that the end-of-October Seattle flight was cancelled, because we would have showed up without the necessary paperwork to get the dogs on the plane, because I hadn’t known about it at the time, and we wouldn’t have been able to go. I got everything together in time for a November 18 flight from Seoul to Ulaanbaatar, which is the one I was hoping for. I had given our 30 days notice on the apartment on November 1, so I would only pay November rent. I would need to get another USDA veterinary certificate for the flight, because it needed to be issued within 10 days of the flight, but that was OK. It was another $200 vet visit, $120 for the certificate, plus a drive up to LA and back. No problem. I was hemorrhaging money at this point, anyway.
Oh, and did I mention that I was teaching full time online, and trying to keep Emma going in school this whole time?
Then, during a class, I got a call from the Mongolian consulate in San Francisco, the helpful visa woman, who said she could get us on a November 12 flight from Tokyo. I knew going through Tokyo was difficult (we had explored the option in October and decided it was actually pretty impossible, because you weren’t allowed to spend the night in Narita or leave the airport, and the connecting flights from the US all got in after the flight to Ulaanbaatar left), but for some reason, I said OK, we can try. Mainly because I knew there was a logjam of Mongolians in Seoul, all trying to get to Ulaanbaatar, so getting on a Seoul flight wasn’t easy.
So I tried to get us and the dogs on a flight to Narita to meet the MIAT flight leaving at 3:30 pm. The direct flights to Narita from the US all got in at 4:00 pm or later. There was an Asiana flight from Seoul, but it was a kind of airplane that couldn’t take dogs in cargo. Korean Air had a flight, but they wouldn’t let us take the dogs because there wasn’t enough time in Seoul for them to switch planes. The nice visa lady at the Mongolian consulate told me that MIAT had an agreement with United, so I should just book the United flight. United wasn’t allowing animals because they had laid off their entire ground crew. Also, the United flight got in half an hour after the MIAT flight was supposed to leave, so the MIAT agent in Tokyo told me we could not take the United flight.
Plus, our dogs would need to be Japan-ready even for transit, and that was a process that took six months, according to the USDA website.
So, Tokyo was a bust.
I was really, really hoping for that November 18 flight from Seoul. MIU had written a letter to the Foreign Affairs ministry requesting that we be put on that flight. I was ready to get us on that flight. There were a couple of connecting flights that got into Incheon Airport hours before it. Perfect.
I needed to get another certificate from the USDA office in LA, so I made a plan to drive up there on Wednesday Nov 11, to get it. I got up early and was on the road by 6 am to get there before it opened at 8:00. The traffic was light, and I got there a bit before 8:00. There was one other car sitting in the parking lot with me, and it was a bit after 8 when I started to wonder what was going on. The first time we went, we’d arrived at about the same time, and there had been three or four other cars there, with more arriving. Not this time. Finally, the man who was in the other car walked over and said, “I just realized it’s Veteran’s Day. I wonder if they are closed.”
Well, of course they were. It wasn’t clear from the website, but I called the phone number, and there was a recording that they were closed for Veteran’s Day. I hadn’t even thought about it, because it wasn’t a holiday in Mongolia, where Emma and I had been living in our heads since August. It certainly explained why the traffic had been so light. I told the man what the recording had said, we both had a good laugh, and we drove away.
Also on November 11, someone tested positive for COVID in Ulaanbaatar. They had come across the border from Russia and been in a quarantine facility there for three weeks. They tested negative and were released, but apparently, they came in contact with someone who’d tested positive before they left. They went home to Ulaanbaatar and unwittingly gave COVID to their wife and in-laws and maybe some other people they ran into during the four days they were kicking around UB before they tested positive and were whisked into isolation.
The rest of the flights to UB in November were cancelled, and the city went into a strict lockdown. Not a US-style lockdown where some businesses are closed but people basically do whatever they want otherwise. A lockdown where people were stopped on the street if they weren’t going straight to the supermarket or pharmacy and straight home. A lockdown where almost all businesses and offices were closed, and no one was allowed to drive on the street.
But the main thing was that the flights were cancelled.
Community spread in Mongolia had finally begun. Emma’s school and mine went online (though my classes had been online all along). We wouldn’t be traveling to Mongolia after all, and we had about two and a half weeks to find another place to live.
Well, with my tendency to always have a Plan B, Emma and I had talked about moving out to Palm Desert or that area if we couldn’t get to Mongolia, because it would be a lot cheaper to live there, and it would remove the temptation to socialize with friends during what was looking to be a terrible, deadly winter. Within about a week, I had applied for an apartment in Bermuda Dunes, right next to Palm Desert, that was about $800 a month cheaper than our apartment in Carlsbad. We made plans to move on Thanksgiving weekend, and after a ridiculous weekend of clearing out of the old apartment and driving back and forth to Bermuda Dunes, we were moved into a new apartment.
After we moved in, I had the idea that we were probably not going to be able to move to Mongolia until the summer, but now the charter flights have started up again (there are 12 in March, but we decided March was Too Soon to go through all this again). We might be able to make it there in April or May. So stay tuned…