Back in Mongolia at last

We’re back! We’ve been back about two weeks, and I finally feel settled down enough to write about it. When charter flights to Mongolia started up again in the spring, and we started to feel like we could actually make it back into the country, we settled on May as the month to try. There was a transit flight from Seoul-Incheon scheduled for May 21 that people coming from other countries could catch, so we aimed for that flight. I thought we’d have enough time to get the dog paperwork done and get ourselves together and out of our apartment in Bermuda Dunes. I was still very rattled from what we’d gone through in the fall, and I wasn’t quite ready to do it all again, but we certainly had to try.

This time, the Mongolian government was announcing flights much earlier than they had been, so we found out about the May flight schedule around mid-April, and I felt like that was plenty of time. We could also buy our tickets directly from MIAT Mongolian Airlines instead of having to get approval for a specific flight from the National Emergency Agency, as we’d had to do in the fall. Also, the length of the quarantine was only one week, instead of three, to be spent in a government-approved hotel. So parts of the process were easier. I’d also gone through it all before, so I had a better idea of what was involved. Even so, it was no ordinary trip overseas.

I had already sent money to my university to pay for our tickets and quarantine in the fall, so it was easier to work with MIU’s accountant and my department secretary to arrange the plane ticket and the hotel for quarantine. I’d been directly in touch with the hotel I’d chosen—the ibis Styles Ulaanbaatar Hotel—because we had stayed there on our last night in UB back in 2019, and I wanted to make sure they could do vegetarian meals for us during our one-week quarantine. My work permission also had to be renewed, and the university’s visa lawyer was out on maternity leave. The human resources staff person was now handling visas as well, so I was working with her to make sure all of that was ready. This time, we had to prove we were vaccinated (I’d gotten my two shots in March and April), though children were exempt because at the time there was no vaccine approved for them. I also had to get another HIV test (Mongolia has a very low rate of HIV infection, so foreigners need to get tested before they come, immediately after arrival, and every six months while they are in Mongolia). Finally, I had to have purchased tickets to Korea before we could get the MIAT tickets from Incheon to Ulaanbaatar.

The other thing I had to make sure of was that we could still take the dogs on the MIAT flight. MIAT confirmed that we could, so I requested space for two dogs in cargo when I bought our Korean Air tickets (one of our dogs is light enough to travel in the cabin, but the other one is too heavy, mainly because he eats everything in sight). Once the humans were set to travel, I would work with Deegii, my department’s secretary, to get the approval for the dogs. I got the dogs tested for covid again (they have the distinction of being the only dogs in the practice to be tested for covid-19). I called Korean Air one more time just to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem to transfer the dogs to the MIAT flight. Our layover in Incheon would be around 10 hours, so it made for a very long trip, but there would be enough time to get the dogs from one flight to the next. But of course, we hit a snag.

Korean Air wouldn’t take chihuahuas because they classify them as brachycephalic, or short-nosed dogs (think pug or boxer), and brachycephalic dogs have a greater chance of suffocating on flights and arriving dead. Chihuahuas are not brachycephalic, and our specific dogs are mixed breed and part Russell-type terrier, so they are definitely not brachycephalic. I spent a few days learning everything I could about dog head shapes, measured my dogs’ heads to figure out the ratio of length to width that’s used to determine what manner of cephalic they are, and determined that they are actually dolichocephalic, or long nosed, based on the measurements. I then spent several days calling Korean Air to see if there was a way to get the dogs approved for travel based on their actual heads and not some imaginary idea of what chihuahuas might look like. I also checked with other airlines arriving in Incheon in time for us to catch our MIAT flight. Asiana had the same irrational chihuahua prohibition, and United Airlines wasn’t allowing pets in cargo because of the pandemic (mainly because they had laid off a lot of workers and didn’t have to ground crew to handle live animals). I focused on Korean Air, hoping that photos of the dogs or a veterinarian’s statement would be enough to change their minds.

The last person I spoke with at Korean Air told me that it didn’t matter what breed the dogs actually were or what they actually looked like. It was the breed name that appeared on the paperwork that  mattered. So I had to redo all of the dog paperwork with them listed as Russell terrier mixes instead of chihuahua mixes. When I’d gotten the dogs nine years before, I never thought calling them chihuahuas (clearly the dominant breed, and as I found with subsequent testing, 52% of their genetic make-up) would cause any problems. The problem was, there wouldn’t be enough time to get all the paperwork changed before I had to get the Mongolian Veterinary Authority’s approval to get our dogs on the flight.

So we either had to stay in the US with the dogs, or try to find someone to look after them until we could either come back for them or have them shipped as Russell terrier mixes. I even looked into sending them the other way around the planet, but it would have involved more flights and much more time, so more stress for the dogs. Thankfully, Emerson (Emma is now Emerson, but that’s a topic for a different post) agreed to let them stay behind. So I just had to find someone who could take them. I called my brother in Massachusetts as a back-up plan (he reluctantly agreed, if there were no one else), but then I just started posting on Facebook and calling friends to see if anyone could take the dogs for what would hopefully be only a few months. (We still had and have hope that Mongolia will start international flights over the summer, at least for vaccinated people.)

With some incredible luck, two friends contacted me about their willingness to take the dogs in. One was a college friend in Chicago, but the other was local, someone we knew from Emerson’s Irish dance days that I’d stayed connected to on Facebook. Her daughter, who loved dogs, was living at home and studying at a local college to ride out the pandemic, and she would be able to take care of the dogs until we could somehow get them to Mongolia. We took the dogs over for a visit, and they seemed to feel at ease very quickly. They loved zooming around the back yard, and by the end of the visit, they were happily following Kathleen into the kitchen without me. So we made plans for the dogs to stay there until we can get them. It was hard leaving them behind after having been with them 24/7 for over a year, but they seem to be settling in.

So all that remained was getting out of our apartment and getting ourselves ready to fly. I’ll spare you the tediousness of all that. One other surprise was that the MIAT flight would only allow one suitcase per person. I had planned on two checked bags each and packed accordingly, so we had to pare everything down drastically and leave a lot of stuff behind in storage or at a friend’s house. This is the other reason we are hoping to be able to fly back to the US this summer. We left behind our winter boots, and my textbooks, and a lot of the clothing we were planning to bring. But eventually, we got everything into one suitcase and one carry-on each, plus our knapsacks (though I did end up shipping a final box of stuff that just wouldn’t fit from our hotel near LAX the day before we flew). (As for why we didn’t just ship the stuff to Mongolia, it’s a long story involving several phone calls to different shipping companies, two of which specialize in shipping to Mongolia, and they recommended NOT shipping to Mongolia until the pandemic is over.)

Our last couple of days in the US were spent at a hotel in Carlsbad. We drove over from Palm Desert the Sunday before our Wednesday night flight, arriving at the hotel just in time for Emerson to get ready for school. I dropped the dogs off in their temporary home, for what I’ve been calling their spa vacation. That was very hard. Especially since we had to go back the next day to bring some more of their things that had been buried in the very full back of the car. They were so excited to see us again that it was even more gut-wrenching to leave them. They are well-taken care of, though, and that is a huge relief.

Our days in Carlsbad were packed. We got covid tested just to make sure we were both still negative, our pre-pre-flight covid tests. Emerson was able to get one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which was approved for ages 12 to 15 the week before our flight. I don’t know if they will be able to get the other dose, but it doesn’t seem likely, since they are only vaccinating adults in Mongolia. We also gave our car away, which was more emotional than I would have thought. I’d gotten the car after I came back from my PhD research in Ethiopia in the summer of 2004, a brand-new silver Scion xA that I named Sputnik because it looked like a space pod. This was the car Emerson grew up in. We’d driven across country in Sputnik when Emerson was nearly four, taken several road trips, and spent countless hours driving to and from school and work in that car. He had just over 180,000 miles on the odometer when Rich, our dog-walker, drove him away from us in the hotel parking lot in Carlsbad. I was happy that Sputnik was going to people that we knew (Rich’s wife Jolynn was coming back after nearly two years in India and would need a car); it definitely made the process easier.

On May 18, the day before we flew, our friend Anna picked us up at the hotel to drive us up to Los Angeles. I had booked a night near LAX and made appointments for our covid tests the day before our flight, assuming we would have the dogs and would have to get them to the airport as well. Our Korean Air flight didn’t leave until 11:40 pm on May 19, but I’m the kind of person who needs to feel like they have time to get things done. Our covid tests needed to be within 72 hours of our MIAT flight, and I checked and double checked that out Tuesday afternoon Covid tests would be timed right. We were able to check into our room at the hotel near LAX with plenty of time to catch a shuttle over for our rapid PCR tests in the Bradley terminal. Then Emerson had school again, on our last night in the US.

Reading over this blow-by-blow account of our preparations to travel, it seems like everything was straightforward, but it wasn’t. The experience from last fall was always just under the surface, and I think both of us believed that this time somehow wouldn’t work out either, even up to the moment we boarded the Korean Air flight. Moving out of the apartment brought many flashbacks to November, when I was doing the same exact thing in Carlsbad. Doing all of this while teaching four courses online and ensuring that Emerson could keep up with their schoolwork was also quite a logistical challenge.

This time felt different from the fall, too. It felt more plausible, in some ways, like this time we really could do it. But the separation felt harder, as well. We had moved from a dark, cramped apartment in a city we’d already emotionally said goodbye to months before, to a much nicer place in a town that we both have complex attachments to. Our apartment was less than a mile down the street from where my parents had lived before they died. During our last couple of weeks there, especially while walking the dogs around the apartment complex, or making our weekly run for boba tea in Indio, we talked about how different it felt to be leaving from our new place in Bermuda Dunes than it had felt from Carlsbad. We had felt detached from Carlsbad and ready to leave. Emerson’s only regret then was that the apartment we’d lived in for six months there was finally in walking distance of a place where they could meet up with their friends. It was the first time they’d had that experience since they were a toddler living in the UCSD grad student apartments. But we knew our apartment in UB would be in walking distance of both their school and a good friend in a nearby apartment complex, so there was that to look forward to.

I also still felt a strong attachment to the Palm Desert area. My parents had moved there in the mid-1990s, and I had spent a lot of time there myself, visiting them, and then living with my mother for six months after my father died when Emerson was just a baby. And Emerson and I visited my mother every weekend, driving over from San Diego, until she died two years later, in 2009, a month shy of Emerson’s third birthday. We loved it in Palm Desert, and we visited once or twice a year for a long weekend. Our last visit had been just before the pandemic really hit, for MLK weekend in January 2020, when we scattered my parents’ ashes in the desert. When we moved out there at the end of November, I didn’t reckon how strong my attachment to the place still was. I heard my parents’ voices everywhere, and memories of them would hit me at the strangest times. I think that’s why it had felt like such a refuge when we first got there, after our tumultuous fall in Carlsbad. All of that made it harder to leave.

But here we are in Ulaanbaatar, which feels like another sort of homecoming, after over a year of anticipation. Only half of our family is here. We won’t really be able to relax or feel at home until the dogs get here, but it’s movement forward, at least. Our trip over and arrival in UB are worth their own blog post, as this one is getting rather long, so I will be writing about that next.

2 thoughts on “Back in Mongolia at last

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