To enter Mongolia during the late stage of the pandemic, I had to be vaccinated. And since Emerson could not yet be vaccinated, we would have to quarantine for a week in a hotel, and then Emerson would have to stay home for a week after that. We also needed negative PCR tests within 72 hours of our flight to Ulaanbaatar, which was leaving Incheon, Korea, at 4:20 pm on Friday, May 21.
This was a case where timing was everything. The US approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for ages 12-15 the week before we were leaving. There wasn’t really any way to be sure this would happen when I bought our tickets in April. It would have been nice to delay our departure until Emerson could be fully vaccinated, but we had to stick to our original flight. Once the approval came from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices on Wednesday, May 12, I made an appointment for Emerson to at least get their first shot. Partial immunity was better than no immunity, and we were heading into a situation where there was genuine risk of infection.
Shortly before we left, I also became very paranoid that we would somehow get infected. I made appointments for pre-pre-flight PCR tests on our last full day in Carlsbad, two days before our flight out of LAX, reasoning that if we were positive, we could get tested again to make sure. And save ourselves a trip to LAX if we were. The results were negative, so we headed for LA on Tuesday, May 18, driven by our friend Anna. Our flight didn’t leave until Wednesday night, but I had booked a room in a hotel near LAX assuming we’d have our dogs with us and wanting the time for our final preparations. Unfortunately, we had to leave our dogs behind with friends, but I stuck with the schedule I’d arranged so that we wouldn’t be in a rush the day we flew.
Going to LAX and the Bradley terminal for our rapid PCR tests was helpful because it gave us a chance to scope things out for our departure the next day. As used to traveling as I am, I like to feel like I have time to get where I’m going. Also, after all the buildup, this did not feel like an ordinary trip. It was so different from our last trip to Mongolia in 2018, both because it was more permanent and because I couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling that things would go wrong and we wouldn’t be able to go after all. I didn’t start to feel like it was really going to work out until we were on the MIAT flight to Ulaanbaatar.
We spent our last day in California walking down Century Boulevard, first to ship one more box of stuff that didn’t fit in the suitcases to a friend, and then just to get some exercise before our long trip. Then we hung out in our hotel room watching Jerry Springer for the first time in our lives, until we had to check out. We had our last American meal at a Denny’s, which was somehow fitting. It was our first dine-in meal at a restaurant since February 2020. We hadn’t joined the rush back to “normal” that a lot of Californians were in because we needed those negative covid tests, and Emerson wasn’t vaccinated.
We were the first to check into our Korean Air flight. The kind woman who processed our check in was unhappy that our suitcases were heavy, and I had to explain that while Korean Air allowed two checked bags, MIAT only allowed one, so we had had to condense all our luggage as much as possible, and I knew that our bags were just going to be overweight. In the end, I only had to pay $100 per bag because we could check them all the way through to UB, so we didn’t have to pay an additional $88 that should have gone to MIAT. (Shhh, don’t tell.) I watched our suitcases go away on the conveyor belt, thinking, “Well, at least they are going to Mongolia even if we’re not.” I still had a feeling something would go wrong.
We both had TSA PreCheck, which I had gotten for myself when Emerson was small to make travel easier. But my knapsack was packed so full of electronics that they sent it back and asked me to unpack it anyway. “It’s just black inside,” the security guy said. So we took forever to go through security, but at least we didn’t have to take our shoes off. Then we found our gate, and Emerson settled in to draw while I looked for snacks to bring with us.
Eventually we were on the plane. I fell asleep before we even taxied away from the gate. The woman who checked us in had gotten us seats across the aisle from each other with empty seats on either side, so we each had three seats to ourselves. I woke up when they served us “dinner,” and then went back to sleep again. When I woke up, I saw that Emerson had stretched out across their three seats. I stayed upright but could recline all the way since there was no one behind me. Just having the extra space made the trip more relaxing. We both slept most of the way to Incheon. I had enough time to watch The Secret Garden before we landed (which was very different from how I remembered the book).
Then we were in Incheon, transferring from Terminal 2 to Terminal 1, with 11 hours to go before our MIAT flight. We had to pass through security again, and I had to unpack my laptop, camera, and lenses. They opened my carry-on bag to get out my pencil case which had two small screwdrivers (a flat head and a Phillips head) that had been in my dad’s desk when he died and that I’d carried ever since. They were a bit shorter than the length of a ball-point pen, which was too long for ICN security, so away they went. I inanely told the woman who took them, “They belonged to my dad.” She just shook her head and threw them in a bin under the table. I guess I could have stabbed someone with them if I’d wanted to, but I could also stab someone with one of the pens or pencils in the case, as well.
The airport was nearly empty. I thought it was because it was early (we’d arrived around 4 am), but it stayed that way throughout the day. Terminal 1 wasn’t as fancy as Terminal 2, but it was still nicer than most American airports, and we found a comfortable place to sit. After some time had passed and we noticed some stores were opening up (it was around 7 am), we went in search of breakfast. We found a bakery called Paris Baguette and bought a few pastries, and I got myself a coffee. We located our gate, but since it was all the way at the end of the terminal and downstairs, we decided to stay up where the action was. Or where we thought the action would be. It turns out a lot of places were just closed because of the pandemic; there was a lot less air traffic than usual, so fewer passengers, so less need for shops and restaurants. We tried to find a place that had vegetarian anything for lunch. We both wanted a real meal instead of snacks and pastries. We finally ended up at a place called StrEAT that had salads. I got the hardboiled egg slices and tomatoes from Emerson’s salad, and Emerson got the cucumbers from mine. We knew the MIAT flight wouldn’t serve any food, so we were glad to get some before boarding.
Then it was time to get on the plane. We had assigned seats near the front, but I wanted to get on early to make sure we could get our bags in the overhead bins. While we were waiting in line, a young woman who seemed to be traveling alone came up and asked Emerson, “Don’t you go to ISU?” Emerson kind of recognized her, and another person who was also near us in line. By far most of the people on the flight were Mongolian, but there were a few other foreigners.
When we finally got on the plane, I felt myself relax a bit. It seemed likely that we would make it to Mongolia after all. Unlike the Korean flight, this one was full, and it was a 737, so we were all jammed in together. I was able to get our suitcases in the bin directly over our seats, and my knapsack had to go under Emerson’s middle seat while theirs went under my seat because it was smaller, and the aisle seats had less space in front of them. Emerson slept through most of the flight, and I tried to, but we had paperwork to fill out, including a new form that was specifically about our covid status. They also came through with new masks for us. I threw away my Korean KF94 mask and put on the surgical mask they handed me, but it didn’t feel as secure, so I traded it for a new KF94 mask from my knapsack. Emerson was sound asleep, so they retained their black reusable mask.
Eventually we landed at what used to be Chinggis Khaan International Airport. It’s now called Buyant-Ukhaa, and a new international airport they are finishing up will be called Chinggis Khaan instead. (Buyant-Ukhaa Central Airport was the current airport’s original name when it opened in 1957; it was renamed Chinggis Khaan in 2005.) We were asked to remain seated even after we arrived at the gate. Eventually someone in full PPE came on board and called out several names. A group of people got off the plane. Then someone called another set of names, and ours were among them, so I got our stuff down and we headed out of the plane. Every person we encountered after that was shielded from head to toe. That’s when it became clear we were foreign contaminants.
When we came off the ramp into the terminal, we had to put our carryon bags in a shallow box, where they were sprayed with disinfectant. Then we walked through a misting machine, which I guess was meant to disinfect us. I think the process changed since the fall, when I’d read several social media posts recommending that people wear raincoats or other protective gear because they were being sprayed with disinfectant on arrival. I was expecting that we’d go through something like a car wash, but it was just a dry-ice looking mist. It seemed more like hygiene theater than anything that would actually prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.
We passed through a makeshift immigration and customs set up in the hallway; they took the forms I’d filled out on the plane, stamped our passports, and scanned our luggage. Then we waited with several other people until we were ushered out of the terminal towards a waiting van. I heard the name “ibis” (pronounced with a short “i”) as we were loaded onto the van with three other people who had been on our flight. We drove away from the airport with a police escort, lights flashing, leading us through the Friday evening traffic to our hotel. At that point, we were both too exhausted to notice much, but as we drove down the main road leading to the city, I remembered our first arrival in Mongolia nearly three years ago, and how different it had been. We’d been met by a friendly face from my university and been driven straight there on a sunny summer morning, instead of a chilly spring evening.
When we got to the hotel, the van pulled around behind the building. We entered through a back door and took the service elevator up to our room on the 8th floor. When we stepped out of the elevator, I saw some red signs that said “RED ZONE” in large white letters. There were plastic sheets separating our end of the hallway from the rest of the floor. We were guided to our room by someone covered head to toe in PPE, which became a common sight during our quarantine stay. We stepped into the room that we would occupy for the next seven days.
We had arrived.