Sunday, 14 January 2007

Health, Horses

Sunday 14th January 2007
Some revealing articles in the Mongol Messenger last Tuesday. The results of a ‘Health bribery survey’ have been published. The survey covered 1400 people who have used medical services across Mongolia, also 228 medical staff responded to the questions. 68.4% of patients claimed to have given bribes of up to T30,000 (40.8% of respondents earned T50,000 - 100,000 per month). According to the messenger: “Of hospital staff, 48.1% of those who admitted to accepting bribes earned T50,000-100,000 a month; 34.1% earned T100,000 - 200,000; 4.3% earned over T300,00.” The article does not report what percentage of the 228 medical staff admitted to taking bribes - perhaps the meaning is that all these 228 did so. Furthermore, it doesn’t indicated whether the reported earnings are salary or from bribes. However, the article goes on to quote Survey team head M Batbaatar: “In Dornod Aimag [district], the local level of bribery is that a surgical patient should give T20,000 to the surgeon and T5,000 to each nurse. In Ulaanbaatar, with its higher cost of living, people pay more.” The salaries of medical staff are very low, and the bribes are generally referred to by citizens as ‘informal payments.’

Front page news is that Health Minister L Gundalai has been dismissed by the Prime Minister M Enkhbold, because he has been “unable to maintain the principle of cabinet solidarity... operated a mistaken personnel policy... fought with the Environment Minister [literally?]... and displayed an unethical and inappropriate character.” The Health Minister strongly denies these accusations. There is no mention of the bribery survey or the general reported decline in medical services being a factor in his dismissal, although speaking at a public rally, L Gundalai did say “...I was Health Minister for 11 months. The sector... suffer[ed] from corruption and red tape. I have been unable to do much about this because of much pressure.” I do not know what the allegations of an “inappropriate character” specifically refer to. As it happens, I had recently been told a first hand anecdote about a morning meeting somebody had with the minister when said minister was, in the British political euphemism, ‘tired and emotional’ - that is to say ‘tired and emotional as a newt’ - but I am given to understand that this is by no means uncommon here (or Westminster or presumably anywhere else for that matter). It would seem to me, however, that if in a speech at a rally of your supporters after your dismissal that you can say that after 11 months in your job you have been “unable to do much” then it is probably unsurprising that most Ulaanbaatans are less then enthusiastic (and light years from optimistic) on the subject of politics and government.

The subject of air pollution, in the same issue of the Messenger, paints a further grim picture of the health situation in Ulaanbaatar. Head of the Mongolian Green Coalition (founded January 4th), O Bum-Yalagch quotes the Social Health Institute as finding Nitrogen Dioxide to be 1.5 times the safe limit, Carbon Monoxide 4.2 times higher and “dust” 7.8 times. In response the ‘Hydrology, Meteorology and Environment Monitoring Office Air Pollution Quality Department’ said that “at present we have no equipment to detect the six basic pollutants, so we can only measure SO 2 and NO 2 at our four Ulaanbaatar monitoring points.” Presumably there wasn’t much left in the budget after paying to get their letterheads printed. If the government cannot at present actually be bothered to measure the air pollution, any hope that something effective is going to be done about it remains somewhat forlorn.

For myself then, I was very happy this weekend to take an extremely healthy trip out to the Gorkhi Terelj National Park, some 40 km or so East out of UB. The park is a very popular destination in summer, and well served by tourist camps. Mathieu and Francois - the intrepid French travellers I met last week, were heading out there to stay at a ger. Also coming along was their fellow francophone Marie, a Swiss ceramicist currently travelling before taking up a 6 month placement at a Chinese university. The trip was organised through their hostel, the UB Guesthouse ( and there being 4 of us cost a very reasonable $30 a head, which compared favourably to other prices we were quoted. Furthermore the UB Guesthouse seems a pretty decent place to stay, being clean and centrally located, and costing only $5 a night (although it does have a midnight curfew “for the safety of guests”). For that we would get 3 meals, ger accommodation and a 2 hour horse ride.

Our taxi left the hostel some time around 10am. I recognised most of the route from my trip to Baganuur with Tso and Shinee’s family. There seemed to be a little more traffic on the bumpy and icy road. We had to stop here and there to let a herds of goat and cows pass, and at one point our driver executed a quick swerve to avoid a giant lump of coal that dropped off the back of a lorry travelling in the opposite direction and hurtled towards us. In around an hour we were in the Terelj Park. The park is spectacularly beautiful. Anyone who’s mental image of Mongolia consists only of wide empty grasslands would be surprised at the scenery in this region - there are forests and wide (now frozen) rivers, and the rocky crags and outcrops of the hills and mountains are more familiar from images of America’s west. As we stood drinking in the surrounding scenery at our camp, Marie (I think) remarked that in every direction was a different view, something else to stop you and demand your attention.

The park is doubtless beautiful in the green of spring and summer, but has its own appeal under a white winter blanket. Apart from the unearthly beauty is the scarcity of other visitors. There are many tourist camps in the Park and most are deserted for winter. Hoardings alongside the road advertise modern hotels and ‘Western bathrooms’ - we also passed a camp with a football pitch and a basketball court. We didn’t know until we arrived, but our own accommodation was in as single ger next to the ger and winter stables of a herder family, rather than in one of the larger and indeed pleasant but perhaps slightly sterile tourist camps. There was, in fact, a camp consisting of a dozen ger and three or four Swiss chalet just a few hundred metres around the valley’s corner from us, but it may as well have been a hundred miles away, being mostly empty, and hidden from us by a rocky spur of timeworn rocks topped by giant boulders.

The fire was blazing noisily in the rusted stove of our ger when we arrived, each to climb one of the five slightly short and stiff but comfortable enough beds around the walls. With some intuition that our lunch would be a couple of hours away yet, we had a little walk and look around the slopes and boulders surrounding the encampment. Before we were overwhelmed by the tranquility of the scenery, the herders’ children called us over to where they were throwing themselves into a deep drift of snow, and we spent the next hour with them sledging down a near vertical slope, being vigourously attacked and snowballed, until we were able to wearily trudge back to our home - where the fire had faltered but not died, and was quickly revived. Lunch was simple but adequate - a plate of fried meat and vegetables with rice, and also happily with some herbs and so a little more flavour than what I have started to get increasingly picky about eating at the school. Accompanied by a large flask of tea, the meal was followed by a spontaneous and simultaneous 40 winks.

The temperature began to drop threateningly as the fire died again, which woke us all up pretty effectively. We went out and scrounged some more wood for the fire, and 2pm being on us, hung about expectantly for the afternoon’s horse ride to start. Our hosts prepared our horses - very promisingly one had earlier bitten Mathieu and left a sizeable hole in his sheepskin coat. Being on the large side I got the largest horse - which could not have been mistaken for a pony but was obviously short (although extremely stocky) by comparison to the breeds we’re used to calling horses. After the ride, one of our hosts, maybe the senior guy, said the horse was a siberian breed, and cost $5,000. Our horses saddled we mounted them, without any nonsense such as instructions on how to handle our steeds or basic safety - we’d all ridden a horse at least once before in the distant past, so of course that would have been entirely unnecessary. Actually, they proved to be very sensible horses and required very little from us as riders, except not to freeze to death. It was a little on the cold side, I’m thinking probably below -20c. Naturally, we were all wrapped up as much as humanly possible, but after an hour or so it was a challenging environment. The beauty of the scenery entirely made up for any hardship experienced. Personally, I was very happy with my outfitting, and my Mongolian boots certainly did the job they were made for. I would recommend gloves to anyone else giving it a try, however, and regret not replacing mine after losing them a few weeks ago.

As we rode along up and down over small hills in the narrow valley, our guide either helpfully whipped at our horses to encourage them to canter, or sang incredibly lonesome and soulful traditional songs. The sun was disappearing behind the mountains before us when we arrived at our destination, and very grateful dropped off our equally grateful mounts, hitched them to a post and entered a warm and cosy ger I took to be the home of our guide, where his wife had prepared tea and fried dough cakes. The children watched a movie on tv, while we gratefully drank the warm tea and defrosted to the point that the return would be possible.Going back of course, the horses though more tired were easier to encourage to canter, and as the landscape was darkening and our faces were muffled by hats and scarves, as we were jolted up and down or our horses occasionally stumbled in the snow (though they were extremely sure-footed, as you’d expect them to be), it was an exciting ride. I’m aching a little, as I write this now (in my straight backed living room chair - which has proven to be some bizarre soviet or Mongolian concept of a Lazy Boy, having a hidden footrest though still no way of reclining the 90 degree back), but not as sore as I expected to be, and still enchanted by the experience.

Our fire, happily, had been taken care of by our hosts, so we returned to warmth and comfort. The evening meal was buuz (meatballs) followed by booze (vodka), a game involving taking turns trying to guess what each other had drawn, and possibly a degree of banjo playing also. There was much Gallic smoking of cigarettes and conversation that although I couldn’t understand, I could at least follow the gist of - which for me makes a welcome change. We went out to look at the night sky - slightly clouded but still compelling, and were rewarded with two shooting stars - the first being particularly bright and long, and my eyes tricked me into seeing a trail of vapour following it, which I suppose couldn’t have happened. Finally, our wood box stocked and a bucket of coal tipped into the stove, we turned in, probably only around 9.30pm, but surely having had a full day. It was incredibly hot at first, to the extent that breathing was difficult, but naturally the fire cooled down soon enough. Of course we’d been warned by people not to let the fire go out, as however cosy the ger are with the stove burning, the outside temperature is going to quickly make steps to assert itself once the stove goes cold. I first woke around 12, the temperature now extremely pleasant and checked the stove to find the embers still quite fiercely glowing, and so probably unnecessarily loaded up more wood. Woke again at 2, 3 and 7am - when I put the last two sticks onto the fairly sparsely strewn glowing coals. Our cheery guide of the previous evening came in around 8.30 maybe, and it seems he was able to get a new fire started from the ashes of the previous one, so we’d lasted the night pretty well. It was cool now in the ger but not cold - in pretty short order it was a furnace again, making breakfast a little difficult to manage, but welcome all the same.

Got a great deal of satisfaction before leaving from helping our guide to push an unwieldy two-wheeled wooden cart to the well in the outbuildings of the tourist camp. The system for the return was for one of the kids to cling to the top of the barrel to prevent it from slipping or spilling. We got the water back without mishap.

Finally, our taxi arrived and we waved our good byes and returned to the city. All-in-all it had been an unforgettable experience - would have been worth it had it cost more, extremely good value as it was. We left a T20,000 tip when we left, which there had been no prompting at all for and which was surely deserved by these very gracious and hardworking people. I hope to get back out and stay there again some time.

On leaving the park the car was stopped by an ominous array of police and military types. No one could explain at the time - but indicated that we needed to wash our hands, then pass through a green canvas decontamination tent. We were told we wouldn’t need to wear the gas masks waiting on a table outside. After walking across some white chalky substance, we were allowed to get back in our taxi and leave. I assumed it was related to foot and mouth or something - and indeed on our return found a reference in the Messenger to a recent outbreak in livestock of smallpox, and measures being taken to contain it.

Photographs to follow. Meanwhile if you cannot wait, please checkout those posted at