We got back to Ulaanbaatar on Sunday, August 7, on a gorgeous summer evening. The approach to Ulaanbaatar’s new Chinggis Khan International Airport (not to be confused with the old Chinggis Khan International Airport) is stunning on a clear day. The green grass stretches out to the horizon, and as you get lower, you can clearly see animal herds and the iconic white Mongolian gers (yurts). The intense blue sky and fluffy white clouds casting patchwork shadows on the grass add the remaining colors I always associate with the Mongolian countryside in summer.
Arriving at the new airport is quite different from arriving at the old one, which is basically in the city of Ulaanbaatar. From our approach, you couldn’t even see the city, just bucolic countryside stretching for miles. This will change as the area around the new airport is built up, but for now it gives visitors a glimpse of the beauty that’s in store for them, and those returning home a reminder of what they’ve been missing while away. I liked the approach to the old airport as well; you could see the city stretching lengthwise before you, surrounded by the ger areas creeping up the hillsides around it, with the Tuul River snaking through the valley. And the old airport was much more accessible; the new one is about an hour’s drive from the city, and while there are some buses, most people come and go by car or taxi. It requires a bit more planning than the old airport did, but this time I was a bit more awake when we arrived and noticed that there is a transportation counter in the arrival area to help you avoid the dodgy taxi drivers who approach you the moment you walk out of baggage claim.
Devin (formerly Emerson*) and I were lucky to be met by one of the graduates of my department at MIU and her boyfriend, who had kindly offered us a ride. After several minutes of figuring out how to pack our massive amounts of luggage into their relatively small hatchback (it was about the size of my old Scion xA, but those have magical cargo capacities), we were on our way home. It was a beautiful drive into the city, down the gorgeous, still-new highway they built to reach the new airport; as my driver pointed out, “It’s the only road in Mongolia you can speed on.”
We’d been gone for seven weeks, so getting back to the apartment was strange but also familiar. Our dogs weren’t there (they came back from their summer vacation the next day), so the place felt a little empty. At that point, it was nearly 8 pm, and after being up for most of the last “night” (our flight from Los Angeles to Seoul), plus our 11-hour layover before the continuing flight to Ulaanbaatar, we were pretty exhausted, so we went straight to bed.
And woke up at 2 am. We were both feeling energetic, so we unpacked and Devin rearranged their room to accommodate some of the things they brought back from the US. I emptied out our food cabinet and sorted everything into gluten and gluten free piles (I’ll write about why in another post, but, yes, we’ll be two gluten-free vegetarians in Mongolia from now on). Then we were basically waiting for the dogs to get home, which happened at about 3 pm. It was a happy reunion, and the four of us lounged on my bed together. Jet lag hit, and I fell asleep for an hour or so. I woke up to find Devin nodding off, so I got up and made dinner to revive us.
I always find the first day home from traveling to be a special, liminal time, especially if you’re lucky enough to not have to jump right back into work or school. We both have a couple of weeks to ease back in, though I have a lot to do to prepare for the coming school year before classes start on August 29. The first day home, though, usually involves waking up way too early, unpacking (which only happens if there’s no work; coming back from our spring break in Vietnam, it took me about three weeks to unpack because I had to get right back into teaching), making sure everything in the apartment is OK, buying emergency rations from the local market, and generally easing back into normal life. The first day back also passes more slowly, and jetlag doesn’t really hit hard until the second day.
Being back in Ulaanbaatar really does feel like home. It’s been a few days now, and we’re already back into a routine (dog-walking really helps with that). We’re doing a bit of end-or-summer cleaning and reorganizing to get ready for the coming school year, figuring out how to maximize the space in our apartment to accommodate more clothes that we brought back with us (I can’t really buy clothes here because of my size, and Devin’s style has changed a bit since last year).
We’ve also been getting out to look for gluten-free products (teaser for my next post), restock our groceries a bit, and buy some school supplies. Yesterday we walked down Chinggis Avenue to the BSB Megamall, a nine-story building that sells electronics, home appliances, and furniture. We got Devin’s new bed there last year, so we figured it would be a good place to buy a small dresser for their room. They’ve been keeping their clothes in the large wardrobe in my bedroom and have two of the underbed drawers. As they put it, it’s feeling awkward to come into my bedroom to get their clothes when they want to get dressed. Fair enough, a 16-year-old should have their own dresser. There isn’t the space for a wardrobe in their bedroom, but we measured out a spot for a dresser, and it’s getting delivered today. I’m looking forward to the extra storage space in my room, too.
So, life is returning to the ordinary. It’s most welcome, after seven weeks of moving around and living out of suitcases. We’re back to walking the dogs in the big park across the street in the afternoon, and I walk them in the small park right near our apartment in the morning. We’re still getting over jetlag (I crashed for a nap yesterday afternoon after walking to and from the furniture store, about 40 minutes one-way). Devin is doing a lot of drawing, as usual, and I’m trying to catch up on a bit of writing amid working on a long-overdue project for my university department.
It’s still summer here, for a little while, though fall sets in disturbingly early in Mongolia. The first snow can happen in September, and I’ve already spotted some fall colors on my morning dog walk. There’s been plenty of rain (there was flooding in UB over the summer), so everything is gloriously green. The wildflower varieties have changed since mid-June, and little light-purple asters are everywhere. The days are still quite long, with the sun rising at around 5:30 am and setting just after 8 pm. The skies are summer skies – intense blue with big fluffy white clouds and the occasional thunderstorms passing through.
I’m quite sad to have missed most of the summer here in Mongolia. Traveling to the US was necessary for a couple of reasons, and for one big reason (teaser), I’m very glad we went back, but as I wrote in my last post, it felt too soon to return to the US, and much of the trip was emotionally taxing in a way that’s hard to describe, though I will try in another post.
Summertime in Mongolia is glorious. It’s very short (July and August, really), and it’s marked by a national festival called Naadam, which usually falls in early or mid-July. Ulaanbaatar empties out as people head out to the countryside to visit relatives or just travel. Camping is big here, as you might imagine for a nation of nomads. My social media feeds this summer were full of the lush green steppe and sparkling lakes, as well as the dramatic mountains of western Mongolia that I have yet to visit. Mongolian schools start on September 1, and that marks the return of traffic jams that characterize life in Ulaanbaatar for most of the year, but for now the city still feels relatively empty. We’re going to enjoy it as much as we can before Devin goes back to school on August 25.
*For those who just started reading recently, Devin is my agender (nonbinary) teen. They changed their name again over the summer, after a year and a half as Emerson. You can read more about Devin here.