travel diary: selenge

I finally made it out of the city, tagging along on a trip to Selenge, an aimag in the north on the Russian border.  The trip was a site visit for visitors from LGI to explore mechanisms of local governance and financing.

Selenge aimag is about 5 hours north of Ulaanbaatar, on the border with Russia (on a side note, Baikal is about 400 km further north).  It is the agricultural center of Mongolia, reportedly producing up to 70% of Mongolia’s local wheat.  Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean much, when most of the wheat in Mongolia is imported (or rather, flooded from China and Russia).  The government has plans for commercializing agriculture (though there are a number of political obstacles involved), and the progression of that plan will be interesting in the months and years to come.

So we drove up to Sukhbaatar, the aimag center, on Thursday afternoon.  Sukhbaatar is pretty much on the border, and from certain areas around town, you can see Russia.  On the way, we noticed the dry and dusty landscape outside of UB, that turned into pre-spring pasture land.  Eventually, the straight lines of agricultural land appeared, though nothing has been planted yet – the soil has been tilled and treated with fertilizer in preparation.  Just kilometers from Sukhbaatar, pine trees appeared, with struggling forests on the horizon.  Compared to the brown of UB, it was a treat. All along the way, the visitors from Poland and Hungary entertained us, until I could have sworn I was traveling with the Post-Soviet Comedy Club.

I spent Friday in the company of a Peace Corps volunteer, who is in Selenge teaching English.  We chatted a bit about goings-on in Selenge, and about Peace Corps and Mongolia in general.  I met OSF and the visitors for lunch, where we stuffed down khooshur in alarmingly large quantities.  Then some site visits, starting with a food processing factory.  This factory makes dairy products and various bread products and pastries, and the hope is to increase capital to increase production.  At the end, we tasted the treats and drank some vodka with our hosts, thus starting my drinking binge at 2 pm on a Friday afternoon.

Next stop was a fertilizer factory, where I’m not quite sure what kind of fertilizer was being made.  I then met up with  the PCV once again, and we lay out on the roof of his ger and chatted about traveling and crazy adventures in Mongolia (rafting? flying a plane?) while drinking beer.  Then, I met up again with OSF and the aimag administrators, who took us a bit out of town to get a great view of the valley, where multiple rivers merge.  More vodka ensued, as well as smoked fish, which comes from the local rivers.

After that, we had dinner with the new owner of the flour mill, which aims to be back in production by September.  The mill is enormous, and I’m skeptical that the aimag will produce enough wheat for processing.  But when I asked, there was no plan to import raw material from Russia (despite being on the border…?).  Dinner was at the mill, in a ger, where food just kept appearing.  And of course, more vodka.  And beer (Tiger). And wine (Lindemanns).   So, I was good and drunk by the end of dinner.

Of course, the day can’t end like that.  The PCVs in town went clubbing, so I tagged along, with the daughter of the mill owner and my colleague from OSF.  The club – unintentionally ironically named “Collectiv” – looked like what I expected.  It also played techno from about 10 years ago, and about an hour into it, we begged for some American music (we got Britney). Add two more beers.

Like all provincial towns, the club closed at 11:30.

We spent the second day in a soum of Selenge, called Shaamar.  While the visitors met with the government, I wandered around for 2 hours taking pictures of the countryside, trees, farm animals, and houses.  In a way, the landscape reminded me of West Virginia or perhaps the Blue Ridge Mountains.   After that, we headed back to town.

So, 3 days, one province down.  We also stopped briefly in Darkhan, which is an autonomous muncipality (Darkhan-Uul).  So that might count as two.  And course, 4 shots of vodka, 3 beers, and a glass of wine.  Next stop: tomorrow, I head to Ovurkhangai and its aimag center, Arvaikheer, to hang out for a few days.  And then it’s back to work.

I have some ideas now about my research and I hope to develop that more in the next few days as well.

Pictures can be found here!

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