Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia : Part I – The Beginning
Two days prior to departing Nepal I was bestowed an unwanted memento, ‘Delhi Belly’, aka Montezuma’s Revenge or Traveler’s Diarrhea – there’s an oxymoron for you. To think I survived seven weeks in Nepal without any real GI issues but as I was packing to leave… blammo! A slave to the proximity of a reliable toilet.
This is not conducive when you’re flight gets canceled unbeknownst to you and you spend three days in transit battling one befuddled snafu after another as the airlines scramble to get you to your next final destination. It was an exhausting 72 hrs of waiting and confusion, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn. 5 star hotels were picked up by the airlines as well as meals both in Kathmandu and in Bangkok as the air companies passed the buck from one carrier to the other. After two unexpected nights in foreign cities and a 12 hour layover in China, I finally made it to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.
The language barrier here has been the most challenging experience out of all the places I’ve been. It’s either Mongolian or Russian. Even the numbers are in their own language! And the diarrhea continued…
The theoretical plan was to buy a motorcycle and cruise across the barren Mongolian landscape and take advantage of the renown Mongolian hospitality. A few days venturing to dealers on my own, having no ability to ask questions about the vehicles I was looking at had me scrambling for solutions. I hired an ‘interpreter’ from a motorcycling tour company to assist me in my endeavors. Have I mentioned the fact that I never ridden a motorcycle before? Regardless of all efforts made and I’m sure to my parents delight, the 10 day search proved to be futile as all prices were well out of my budget.
Hitchhiking was an option but not a very reliable one since some of the ‘major’ roads may see less than a dozen vehicles a day, and if the rains are bad, which they have been this summer, you may not see a vehicle for days. That and drivers expect payment.
To give you an idea of the geographical size of Mongolia the land mass is the size of Europe with a population of only 2.5 million of which about half of those live within the only city, Ulaanbaatar. It’s a vast barren wilderness of plains and dessert where a third of the population remains ‘nomadic’ for survival. 90% of the roads are unpaved and horses out number the people 10 to 1.
At about ten days into my Mongolian stay, the diarrhea started to subside after taking some Cipro (FYI — in Nepal most medications such as antibiotics can be bought over the counter for pennies a pill. Very convenient.) but I was still having issues. One day while in an internet cafe I noticed a bulging lumpy balloon just above my navel as I was taking notice to some pain I was having in that area. WTF?
A hernia was born and I named it Perry. As I started to manually tuck Perry back in with my finger after my initial finding, I nearly passed out where I sat. Yeah, I’m a wuss but something wasn’t right. I also couldn’t help but to think ‘worst case scenario’. Which no matter how I saw it, it wasn’t going to contribute to the cause.
At this time I had just moved into my fourth hostel/guest house. Mostly due to places being fully booked for Naadam or “the three games of men” – archery, wrestling, horse racing. It’s the largest national festival here commemorating their independence after the 1921 revolution against the Chinese.
Luckily for me, I found a tiny relaxed bed and breakfast-ish house to stay in with plenty of vacancy. I’ve been living with a young Mongolian couple who open up there apartment to travelers. When the three bedroom place is full, the couple, Gana and Haliuna, sleep on couches in the living room.
Haliuna speaks English better than anyone I’ve met here so far. Her father happens to be a doctor. Again, what luck. I tell her of my intestinal problems and she rings her father. The next day she takes me to a clinic where I pay 4000t (1500 = 1$US) and see a general surgeon who refers me down the hall to a GI specialist who doesn’t fell anything since I hadn’t eaten any solid food for 24hrs and tucked the threat back in. She gives me a few Rx, waves me off, and I’m on my way.
As I’m waiting for my Rx to be filled, Haliuna makes a call to her father and tells him what went on. Not satisfied with the examination, he insists on meeting me in his office … which was closed that day. So he calls in a nurse and Haliuna and I make are way to the other side of town to meet them.
We get to the office, he examines me, and suggested I get an IV. (FYI – no one I’ve come in contact with on this day spoke any English… Haliuna was my guardian angel of an interpreter) I said ‘Surrrrre, why not.’ I give him 5000t and he ran off down the street to buy an IV bag from the pharmacy. As I’m waited in his office, another lady comes in. She and the nurse exchange a few words and I’m lead into another room. A few minutes go by and Haliuna and her father return with the IV supplies.
Haliuna tells me the lady I’m now sitting with is the GI specialist… THE specialist of Mongolia. You know, the one that caters to the high ranking govt officials and the social elite. This whole time I’ve been a bit in the dark despite having an interpreter; although Haliuna speaks English better than anyone else I’ve met, don’t mistake to think she is fluent by any stretch of the imagination. So every turn and twist just seems to come as one surprise after another.
The GI doc examines me, finds my hernia, cancels the Rx the first round of doctors prescribed, writes a couple of new ones and informs me I should be able to continue on with my journeys just so long as I take it easy and wear some support (i.e. – an elastic band holding a metal coin over the hole in my gut) to keep a lid on Perry. I get my IV, which falls out as I was trying to take a few photos of my arm… which then had to be restarted… using the SAME needle. Yes! I learned my lesson. On my way out of the office Haliuna’s father gives me one more piece of advice, “And no more Mongolian food. Mongolian food is for Mongolians!”
My total costs for seeing four specialists, having my own nurse, receiving IV fluids and filling a few Rx cost me less then 25$. Sweet.
Since carrying a backpack and spending my days on the unpaved bumpy roads across the desolate landscape without any medical facilities wasn’t a viable option for me with my new friend Perry, I decided to explore my volunteer options sooner than I had expected. Most orphanages (there’s about 8 of them here in the city), surprisingly, are closed during the summer months. So I asked Haliuna about doing something at one of the hospitals and after yet another phone call to her father, I had an appointment to meet with the nursing supervisor at Hospital #2 (there’s an original name for you) the following day.
I have my meeting with my new sidekick/personal assistant Haliuna; we talked about what I was interested in doing. I was asked if I could start right away… ‘Why not.’ I’m then lead up stairs to an English class being taught by the supervisor’s sister for the medical staff, I was introduced, and then asked to teach for the next 30 minutes. Damn, they work fast around here! After class I was then thrown a pair of scrubs and lead to the ICU and worked 4 hours on the floor before the afternoon English session started.
Unfortunately, I was useless on the floor. No one spoke English, and I only spoke three words of Mongolian. So there was just a lot of smiles and pointing exchanged. If there was any dialogue shared I just tilted my head like a confused Labrador and said, ‘I have no idea what your saying to me.’ Invariably, they’d respond in the same head slanting fashion of confusion.
I finally met a young doctor who spoke a little English. During our brief conversation, she asked me if I’d be interested in teaching her staff CPR. One would think that would be a prerequisite for working in a hospital. From what I could gather, it’s the newer staff that needs the training. But I’m not too sure how I’m going to pull this one off with the dramatic language barrier, lack of supplies, no practice dummies… I mean, will I need to purchase stuffed animals for them to practice on?! A life saving class trained on Disney character dolls… somehow I don’t think this is going to be American Heart Association certified.
To be continued…