It’s Saturday morning in our apartment in Ulaanbaatar, and I’m sitting on our new patio chairs in what I’ve dubbed our sunroom, the enclosed balcony off of my bedroom, which also doubles as a drying room for our laundry. It gets the morning sun (and sunrise is around 4:30 am these days) and stays warmer than the apartment for much of the day. We’ve been in our apartment for three weeks now, and I keep having to double check the calendar because it seems like it should only be two weeks, or much longer. I am finally starting to relax a bit, though months of waiting, being on edge, and having things go wrong have taken their toll.
I’m still catching you up on our arrival in UB, though. One of the advantages of being delayed for over 6 months was that the quarantine period on arrival shrank from three weeks in a hotel and two weeks isolation at home to only one week in a hotel and one week at home—for Emerson, who was only partially vaccinated. Of course, for me, too, as Emerson’s parent. It’s not that the covid situation had improved in Mongolia. Quite the opposite. When we had been hoping to travel here last fall, there had been no community spread of the virus; the only cases were people coming in from outside the country, who were isolated until they tested negative. The first case of community spread in November, which led to all the flights being cancelled, was from a breach in quarantine protocol, and by the time we traveled in May, the daily cases were numbering in the hundreds. I was glad that Emerson had been able to get one Pfizer shot before we left the US.
I had chosen the ibis Styles Ulaanbaatar (the lowercase ‘i’ is intentional; it’s the brand) because we had stayed there on our last night in UB nearly two years ago, and it was not far from the airport, not far from our apartment, and also had decent vegetarian food. When I was arranging everything for our travel here, I emailed the hotel manager mentioning the good food we’d had in the restaurant in 2019, and I expressed the hope that there would be a vegetarian option on the quarantine menu. She emailed me back several days later with a week-long vegetarian menu that looked completely fabulous, for me. For Emerson, I hoped there was enough spaghetti on it. There was also vegetable buuz (steamed dumplings) and khushuur (a kind of Mongolian empanada), and I knew Emerson liked both of those. We left for Mongolia on May 19 looking forward to our one-week stay in the hotel, with nothing to do but school and playing the Supernatural Trivial Pursuit game we were bringing with us.
We arrived on a Friday night, so we had the weekend to relax before we had to be at “school” at 8 am Monday morning. I was glad of that (other flights had been on Wednesdays, and midweek would have been a bit more challenging). I missed two days of classes because of the trip, and Emerson missed two days of school, the first two they had missed all year. We had talked about what an adjustment it would be to go to school in the morning instead of at night, especially for Emerson, whose school day had been ending at 11 pm. We also joked that Emerson would have an easier time with the jet lag than me, because I was going to bed at 10 or 11 pm and getting up at 5 am, while they were up until 3 am and getting up at 1 pm, closer to Mongolian time. It ended up not being true; we both adjusted pretty quickly. A few days of waking up at 2 or 3 am, and then we were pretty much on a normal schedule.
Each day in quarantine was very much like another. It snowed the day after we arrived, at least several inches (Facebook memories reminded me that it had also snowed in May 2019, so it does happen here). But aside from changes in the weather and our school schedules, there was little to remind us of the days. I would look out the window several times each day and remind us, aloud, that we were in Mongolia. “That’s Mongolia out there, Emerson.” After months of trying and waiting and trying, it didn’t seem likely that it was real. Our entertainment, besides the weather, was watching workmen replacing the glass around the edge of a large terrace a few stories below us (we were on the 8th floor, and the terrace was outside the restaurant, which was on the 5th or 6th floor). They were also preparing for the summer season, putting out some cabanas, gas heaters, and chairs and tables for people to sit outside.
Fortunately, the hotel had pretty good WiFi, so we were both able to do our classes at the same time. I was only on Zoom a few hours each day, but Emerson was on for six hours. We had talked about the logistics of both being in class in a hotel room, and I had decided that I would hold my classes in the bathroom so that we wouldn’t disrupt each other too much. It was OK – the toilet lid was comfortable to sit on – but the bathroom would warm up, and by the middle of each class, I was sweating. It was amusing to be listening to student presentations or leading discussions in the bathroom, but I was glad when I didn’t have to anymore.
The other memorable aspect of this time was the food. The hotel provided three meals a day plus tea breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon. This was much better than I’d heard from other quarantine experiences; some people had only gotten one or two meals a day, especially in the earlier days of the pandemic. Of course, we were completely inactive, so we didn’t need to eat much, and by the end of the week, the food service was feeling oppressive. Still, I enjoyed our five-times-a-day visits from the swish-swish man (so named from the sounds his PPE made as he was walking down the hall).
When we arrived that Friday night, in a state of complete exhaustion, the person who greeted us and gave us our room key cards also explained the food service protocols to us. We had a set of dishes in our room, and we would put them on a little table outside our door when the food arrived. Then we’d wash the dishes ourselves in the bathroom sink and have them ready for the next meal service. The system was designed to minimize contact between us (the foreign contaminants) and the hotel staff. There was one person delivering meals, all seven days (I wonder when he got time off). Breakfast was at 9, with a tea break at 11, lunch at 1, another tea break at 4, and dinner at 6. Some of the food was served in plastic containers, which I washed and used for leftovers (and later brought to our apartment, since they were not likely to be reused by the hotel). We had a mini-fridge, plus what I called our second refrigerator, the little alcove where the floor-to-ceiling window was; with the curtains drawn, it retained the cold from the outside pretty well. It came in handy because they served us way too much food.
At first, I was enjoying not having to deal with meal preparation. After over a year of not eating out and having to figure out two meals a day every day (Emerson didn’t eat breakfast for most of that time), and especially have a weird meal schedule during the school year because of Emerson’s schedule, I was happy to not be responsible for procuring and preparing food. The swish-swish man was cheerful, and it was nice to see another human every once in a while. He also helped revive my meager Mongolian language skills, which had languished during our two years in the US.
But as the food piled up in our room, I began to dread his arrival. I even called reception a few times and asked them not to deliver a meal, or to deliver less food, but it didn’t work. I realized we were probably the only vegetarians, so the chef made our food separately, and we had to eat all of it (or throw it away, as I ended up doing with the food we couldn’t possibly consume). And it just kept coming, no matter what. Breakfast was often omelets (with an inexplicable side of hard-boiled eggs), toast, tater tots, and steamed veggies. I was longing for my usual oatmeal, and on the second-to-last day, he showed up with oatmeal in addition to everything else. The morning and afternoon tea breaks usually involved drink boxes, either Bulgarian-style yogurt, flavored milk, or juice, and some gorgeous cake or pastry. We had a kettle in our room, and swish-swish man would periodically replenish our stock of tea bags and instant coffee.
Lunch and dinner were full hot meals. Sometimes we got a sandwich for lunch (which Emerson rejected because they were contaminated with tomatoes), but we often got two large servings of soup with a cooked entrée. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to, but I would stand in the doorway with my mask on, watching the swish-swish man serve the food. He would plate everything with style, from a cart laden with chafing dishes, so I think he didn’t mind the audience. Our food was separate from the meat dishes, and he would try to fit everything onto our plates, but it posed a definite challenge at times. Then I would take the dishes in, and we would eat. The food itself was delicious. There was just way too much of it.
On the fifth day of our quarantine, a woman came to perform our covid tests. It reminded me of the first ones we ever got, the deep plunge with the small, hard swab that left your eyes streaming for a while after. Only she did it very brusquely and quickly, so it was even more of a shock. I got a phone call the next day, Day 6, that the results were negative, and we could leave as soon as the hotel got our paperwork, which would be at around 1 pm on Day 7. I messaged Oyo, my landlady’s sister, who had agreed to pick us up from the hotel and bring us to our apartment, that she could pick us up on Friday at 1 pm.
Day 7, our last day in the hotel, dawned sunny but very windy. The snow that had fallen on our first day was long gone, and it was trying to be spring outside. I had a Zoom meeting with a student scheduled for that morning, and Emerson had school, but I had already informed them that Emerson would miss the last period because we were moving to the apartment, so we had time for packing, as well. We got a call at 11 am that the paperwork had come with the results of our covid test, and we were free to leave the room. I said we’d stay until noon or so, just because I didn’t want to try to reschedule our ride, and we needed the time to finish packing. Even though we just had our carry-ons when we arrived, our stuff had spread out around the room, and somehow cramming it all back in was harder than I thought it would be. Because of the baggage limitations on the charter flight (one checked bag each), our carry-ons and knap sacks were overflowing.
Leaving the hotel was anticlimactic, after the drama of our arrival. We left on our own, found our way out of the Red Zone to the elevator, rode down to an empty service entrance. The chair behind the lone desk was empty. I looked around for someone to give our keycards too, but we didn’t see anyone. We stepped outside, and a security guard ushered us back in, telling us to wait. Another security guard came through a door, and not really knowing what to do, I handed him our keycards. There didn’t seem to be anything else, so we left. I thought surely we should get a receipt or some kind of proof that we had fulfilled our quarantine observations, so we walked around to the front desk. I told the woman there that we were leaving and had given the keycards to the security guard out back, and apparently that was it. We still had about 45 minutes before Oyo was due to arrive, so I thought we could sit outside and enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, after over a week indoors (counting all our time in airports and airplanes as well).
Outside the hotel doors was a drive for guests to be picked up or dropped off, and beyond it were some steps down, with some benches in the sunshine. A couple of them were occupied, but there was an empty one I thought we could sit in. It was windy, but the sunshine was warm, and the fresh air felt wonderful. We hauled our bags across the drive and started down the steps towards the benches.
I heard some sounds like pieces of glass striking the pavement, and I felt rather than saw something hurtling towards us. I looked up and saw something huge and dark flying in our direction. It was impossible in that instant to tell where it would land, and for some reason I threw myself backwards on the steps, I think because I thought it would crash down in front of us. At the last moment, a gust of wind blew it to one side, and it crashed to the pavement just behind us and to one side. Without that wind, it would have landed on top of us. I finally registered what it was—one of the cabanas that was on the hotel terrace some five or six stories above us. It had blown over the edge of the terrace.
Emerson was still standing next to me, but I was now sitting on the steps. In my ridiculous attempt to get out of the way (I remember thinking that I didn’t want to fall down the stairs or knock Emerson over, since I had a 900-pound knap sack full of electronics on my back), all I had really done was just sat down. The people who’d been sitting on one of the benches got up to leave, and a man walked over and held out a hand to help me up. “You were very lucky,” he said. “Very lucky.” The area cleared out, and Emerson and I looked for a safe place to wait. The wind was still blowing, so I no longer wanted to sit on the benches in the path of any more flying cabanas. We looked at what had almost fallen on us. We likely would have been seriously injured, or even killed if one of the metal supports had hit us in the right place.
At that point, some of the hotel staff had come out to see what had happened. A group of men picked up the ruins of the cabana and dragged it around the side of the hotel. Emerson and I leaned up against the building, under an overhang. It was in the shade and a bit cold, but it felt like the safest place to be while we waited for Oyo. By then, we were laughing somewhat hysterically.
The receptionist came out of the hotel and walked towards us. I thought she was going to apologize. Instead, she said, “It wasn’t our fault. It’s very windy today. I saw you take photos”—I had photographed the shattered cabana—“but please don’t post anything or tell anyone. It wasn’t our fault.” Then she went back inside.
All I could think after that was, “Welcome to Mongolia.”