Packing can be extremely stressful. It can be even more stressful when you are packing to move to a country for two years and have no idea what your life will look like there. James and I requested to live in a humble ger; we were given a fabulous apartment in a relatively big town. There is no real way of knowing everything you should pack, but that being said, there are things that come in handy no matter what, and you can rely on the suggestions of people who have been there before. We are now the people who have been there before. Future PCVs do not despair! Here we have listed our M.V.T. Awards with the help of our site-mate, Marc, and 20/20 hindsight. This has also been kind of a fun way for us to review what we have actually used this past year. Strap in, this is a long post.
THINGS WE BROUGHT AND ARE HAPPY WE DID
LUCI Light or Headlamp (or both)
Having some kind of dependable light source is essential: whether it is because you need to run to the outhouse in the middle of the night or because the electricity turns off in town for no reason. James and I lived on a sailboat before coming to Mongolia, so we had a good opportunity to test how durable things are. Luci lights are the ultimate solar lanterns. They weigh nothing, and are way tougher than they look. We also brought battery-powered headlamps, which we have both used a lot. Which leads to the next M.V.T.:
You can buy batteries here, but why would you when rechargeables are around. Get some before you leave, and you are set for the rest of your trip.
Not really an “essential” but it has been awesome to have, and 100% deserves an M.V.T. award. Any gathering becomes a party (an easy way to gain popularity during PST), and all our CPs think that we own a magical box. Your speakers don’t have to be particularly powerful to have a big impact. Plus, our winter movie binges have been so much better because of them. We own these ones, that also pass the durability test, but anything you find/have is good.
External Hard Drive (either pre-filled with shows and movies or ready to receive)
Bring at least a 1 terabyte external hard drive either pre-filled with shows and movies or ready to be filled with other people’s shows and movies. There is an extensive rotating library of entertainment we all share and you need a place to store it all when the desktop of your laptop gets too crammed.
Pelican case for the laptop
Or any durable way to transport a laptop. Plenty of PCVs carry around their laptops in thin sleeves in a backpack, but I have found that traveling in Mongolia can be brutal and I am willing to carry around whatever bulky case is necessary to protect my precious laptop (it’s how I watch everything stored on the above mentioned external hard drive after all!)
Plastic wrap, aluminum foil, paper towels, you can just say goodbye to all those luxurious kitchen goods now. One kitchen luxury I have been hoarding since I got here is the Ziploc bags I used to pack some liquids when we came here. They get washed and reused until they disintegrate and even then, I usually try to tape them back together to make them last a while longer because they are that useful.
Good duct tape
Personally when packing, I looked at the giant heavy roll of Gorilla Tape and thought “this can’t be worth the weight it is taking up”. Well it is. For a place that would benefit a lot from the introduction of duct tape, Mongolia has yet to be introduced to it. I know it felt like an unnecessary weight in my bag, but when we really needed duct tape, we have been damned happy to have it.
Preferably bring a multi-tool that has: a saw, a can-opener, a corkscrew, a screwdriver, and an optical screwdriver if you wear glasses.
A sturdy water bottle
Think Nalgene or Camelback. I have slowly started to convince my co-workers to take sips of water from time to time, but hydration is not a high-priority to them, so having my own source of water to drink at all times has been really important, especially when traveling.
A quality double-edged razor
By and large, Mongolian men do not have facial hair, and some work-places will insist that you keep your face clean-shaven. What is available here are cheap bic-style razors and poorly-made double-edged razors that don’t hold the blade correctly and “will cut your face off” (according to the men in the room). By contrast, the replacement razor blades that they sell are of pretty good quality and sold in every store in every town, so that James has been able to use them in his razor that he brought from the states (like this one that comes highly recommended). And the replacement blades are named “Sputnik”, which is pretty cool.
Not every house/ger in Mongolia has a mirror, and almost none of our PST sites did. Shaving without a mirror is apparently extremely difficult, so a small mirror, even if it’s a tiny one attached to a compass, is essential. Also, even though we have emphasized a lot of camping/roughing it related gear, we were still expected to look professional and put-together for classes. People really like to look good here (do not underestimate the power of the Mongolian woman to walk in heels in any condition) and I thought it was really, really nice to have a handheld mirror to make sure my hair wasn’t going crazy in the morning.
Moisturizers and Oils
Real talk: last Fall, my skin was the worst it had ever been in my life, including when I was a teenager, probably thanks to a combination of extremely dry air, pollution, stress, and change in diet. Things are still not great, but they are getting better, and things could have been way worse, had I not followed a previous volunteer’s advice and not brought any skincare with me. Yes, it feels heavy in your luggage, and yes, some people will disagree with me, but my personal top M.V.T. has been the small bottle of avocado oil I brought with me (among other potions) to soothe dry skin. You can get good Korean skincare in UB, but I hardly ever get to go to UB, and the cost for them is steep.
Spot It! and a cribbage board
Everyone loves to play games and they work regardless of language barriers. My host-family and I could barely get a sentence across and yet we still became friends, and I am convinced our endless games of Spot It! were part of the reason for that.
A handheld GPS
We really like to hike and we have used James’ old Garmin (I think this is the latest version of it) quite a bit. A lot of Mongolia is unpaved and poorly mapped, so having it to track our progress while we have travelled has been fun and useful. James calls it nice insurance against getting lost in the steppe, and every driver we have met is in love with it. I wouldn’t recommend buying one, but if you have a handheld GPS, I think it is worth bringing along. If you need accurate maps of Mongolia (which are sometimes hard to find), openstreetmap.org is a good place to start, or just contact us.
An unlocked smartphone
This falls into the category of slightly bougie but SUPER useful. Peace Corps gave us basic phones when we arrived, but having my iphone has been a game-changer. Mongolia by and large skipped the landline phase of development and skipped straight into cellular service, so most Mongolians have smartphones of some sort and aren’t surprised to see us using them. We took the sim card from our Peace Corps issued phones and put them into our phones, then we pay a little extra every month to have some limited internet to use on them. If you do this, make sure your phone is unlocked and download all the apps you want (this is the best Mongolian-English dictionary app I’ve used yet, and here’s a pretty good Mongolian keyboard) before coming because most internet connections won’t be very good.
Not sure if your phone is unlocked? Check here. If your phone is still locked to a carrier, don’t worry! As long as your phone is fully paid for and you’re not on a contract, your carrier is required by law to unlock it for you. Here’s a handy guide. Just make sure to unlock it before coming to Mongolia, and preferably before canceling your service. You see, phone companies are usually more inclined to listen to a customer service call while you’re still a paying customer, and if you think customer service calls are a pain in the ass now, try making one as an international call with a 13 hour time difference.
Look, I get it: “I just like reading from real books.” I also like reading real books when I have the chance.
But here’s the deal: real books are heavy, so unless you want to re-read your favorite novel over and over again for two years, suck it up and stop being such a hipster. Once again, there is a nice library of e-books floating around that you can stock up on too.
This is an obvious one. Mongolia is super pretty, and I have had a great time hiding behind our Pentax capturing it.
THINGS WE DIDN’T BRING BUT WISH WE HAD
Electronic Repair Tool Kit
E-readers are great, but once you shatter the screen, they turn into an expensive paperweight. The same goes for most electronics. However, with the right tools and a bit of knowhow, you can very often get them working again. For instance, you can replace a Kindle screen yourself for about 25 bucks. James had already done it twice before we came to Mongolia. Electronic repair kits are small and easily portable. What were we thinking, leaving it behind? Tiny screwdrivers are not easily found at our open-air market. Let alone “pentalobes”. (Fuck you, Apple).
At some point, you’re going to want to connect your laptop to a projector. If you have a Mac, that means you’ll need something like this. (Again, fuck you, Apple.) You should bring it from the US, because while you can them in UB, they are lousy and break in a matter of months. We didn’t bring ours from home and now have to budget for a new one every time we travel to UB.
We know what you are thinking: Giving up a whole piece of luggage for a musical instrument is S.T.U.P.I.D.
We didn’t bring any of our musical instruments, but we know people who did (looking at you Godwin. This kid brought a ukelele AND a saxophone) and they don’t seem to have any regrets. Meanwhile I’ve spent the winter wishing I had brought my banjo or at least bought something here. Mongolians love music and neighbors don’t tend to complain about noise.
ONE THING WE BROUGHT AND WISH WE HADN’T WASTED THE SPACE ON
Are you an amateur radio enthusiast who’s bummed about the “Don’t-bring-any-transmitters-because-people-will-think-you’re-a-spy” rule? Or maybe you’re worried that you’ll be placed somewhere so remote that a shortwave radio might be your only source of news from the outside world? Well, James was both, and he brought along a compact shortwave receiver. We can now report that after extensive testing, the only shortwave news stations we can reliably receive are the state-run Chinese stations… because the Chinese government actively jams the signals from BBC, Voice of America, and any other reputable news agencies. Maybe we could receive them if we built some sort of elaborate antenna, but we’re trying NOT to look like spies. Also, we have the internet. You probably will too. Leave the radio at home.
Ultimately, the great thing about Peace Corps is you can show up at the airport with your toothbrush and a healthy sense of adventure and be set to go. Seriously, Peace Corps gives you a special passport before you leave, so you don’t even really need that.
So have fun with packing and keep in mind that while yes, you can get most things here (for a price) you may not have the opportunity to get your hands on toothpaste, shampoo, or soap for a couple of weeks so make sure to pack a small amount into a carry-on.
NOTE: This post didn’t mention clothing at all, so stay tuned for a follow-up about our clothing choices!