Excerpts from a Mongolian Mission Journal - Part 2

Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010

We flew out of Beijing Capital Airport yesterday morning. I was impressed at the incredible sprawl that has become Beijing, densely packed areas of industrialization, farming and housing all within short random locations scattered every which way.  For reasons unknown, the pilot flew east, then north, then east again, then north and finally more northwest, and so I used the view to try to see if I could identify the Great Wall, but to no avail.  One would think that if the astronauts could see it from space, I should be able to do the same from 36,000 feet.  With no such luck, I’ll look for it again on the way back next week.  Once over the mountains north of Beijing things settle down to lower level grasslands and finally parts of the Gobi desert become apparent.  It is hard for a non-geologist to characterize the Gobi from the Sahara or even the Mojave but there were certainly only a few manmade structures evident, with some roads and little signs of the presence of anything.  Strangely, as we flew north to Mongolia, the sand took on a vaguely green tint, and one could see that there were grasslands below, amid the bareness, and that must be a part of how the nomadic shepherds exist down there.  Again, I’ll see more today, and as we move on.

Flying into UB was fairly straight forward, and I was actually surprised to see how much air traffic there was in the morning.  It was probably about 75F and with a dry hot breeze, felt not so dissimilar from Arizona or New Mexico.  The hills nearby did remind me of areas in Southern Colorado or Sonoma.  Could they grown grapes for wine here?  Anyone for Mongolian Shiraz in a few years?  We were met by the local members of our team, and taken to the VIP lounge, where our passports were collected and baggage retrieved.  For the 15 or so of us, only one bag was missing, it apparently having been sent from Salt Lake City to Paris, rather than to Beijing – go figure.  That poor surgical resident spent yesterday shopping for new clothes for the trip, something that was not particularly onerous, she said.  We headed to the warehouse where the Swanson Foundation has collected a huge assortment of surgical tools, and equipment over the years, and we began to unpack what had been brought new on this trip, and repackage what we need for our current projects.  The Swansons have apparently done a lot of long-term planning (they have been in Mongolia for at least 11 years) and do understand the need to wean the local hospitals off the Swanson largess, and rather have them step up as equal purchasing partners, to help them develop self sufficiency over time.  It is curious to see what had been a very solidly Marxist-Leninist country now move so far towards a free market economy, and to observe, as we have done elsewhere, the growing pains that this entails. Apparently it was a horrible winter last year, and they lost many head of livestock, so the country is now economically stressed in additional ways. How the Swanson venture will work out for hospitals in Mongolia obviously is unknown now, but it seems like a valiant and fruitful effort to accomplish modern economic goals.

Having reassembled the requisite boxes and bags, I walked around UB for the rest of the afternoon, accompanied by a surgical colleague who is also going to Khovd. He is an absolutely delightful 64-year-old gentleman from Parma.  He is a remarkably kind and generous soul and I am sure that we will spend many hours solving the world’s problems together.  He had been to UB last year for a conference on world health, and together we marched around the somewhat dusty streets to the central plaza, where can be found the Parliament building, the museum, and yes, the opera house.  I’d like to visit the latter on my return here next week, and will try to see what is available.  I’m not into the tourist shopping program, but visited several stores selling beautifully made cashmere sweaters, yak wool goods, camel hair blankets – ah, but if I only felt that I “needed” something like that!  I stopped for a glass of KBAC (Cyrillic spelling)- otherwise known as kvass, a fermented cold brew of yeast, sugar and whatever sold from vats on the street.  I know that perhaps I should be more cautious about things like this, but I wanted to taste it and it was fine – no more, no less.  I know that fermented mare’s milk is on the menu once I get to Khovd, so the relative familiarity with yeast, sugar and water will be mild by comparison.  There are still statues of Lenin, but without a doubt Genghis Khan (Chinngis Khann) dominates everything.  While we in the West may have thought about him as a marauder, a dictator or whatever, here he is revered as the father of the country, and his Grandson Kublai Khan set out to create one of the largest empires ever known.  I am sure that I will get more about this as we go on.  It is an issue of looking at both sides, and there really are two sides to this puzzle, at least.

Its now 5:15 AM and I need to be downstairs to get ready to leave for the warehouse and the airport, so I’ll say 73* again, and try to see what I can learn about the next stage of this venture.  Something different.


(to be continued)

* “Best Regards,” per The National Telegraphic Review and Operators’ Guide, first published in April 1857.