Being in Mongolia with Coronavirus
From school closures and the cancellation of public events, to limiting road traffic in and out of the provinces during Tsagaan Sar (Lunar New Year), this is what it's really like to be in Mongolia in the midst of a world health crisis.
February 23, 2020

These days it seems as through every time I open my Facebook there's another new warning, another new cancelling of public events, another extension of closures being issued and enforced by the Mongolian government.

I even read one expat say that the government was "fearmongering" the public by issuing all of these statements, being too overly cautious with these closures and restrictions in a country where there hasn't been one case of coronavirus (COVID-19) officially reported... yet. (If you ask me, that comment was more "fearmongering" than anything public officials have done to date - which has been overly cautious, but something that I for one am thankful that they are taking precautions for.)

Overall, people here are scared. There's a shortage of masks. You're not permitted to use public transportation without one. There are signs in almost every restaurant and public bathroom encouraging you to wash your hands.

Quite frankly, the city isn't ready to handle a near pandemic-level virus like coronavirus, despite hospitals operating on a 24 hour state of emergency and 200 beds having been prepared in the National Center for Communicable Disease, 50 beds in the Central Military Hospital and another 65 beds in the State Central First Hospital, should any cases arise.
Overall, people here are scared. There's a shortage of masks. You're not permitted to use public transportation without one. There are signs in almost every restaurant and public bathroom encouraging you to wash your hands.

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
But the precautions being taken are commendable. Early on in the worldwide outbreak the government announced they would be closing the borders to China.

Additionally, MIAT, the national airline of Mongolia, has cancelled flights not only flights between China, but between Hong Kong and Taiwan, and more recently between Tokyo and Bangkok through the end of March.

The Trans-Siberian Railway has been banned from enter Mongolia from China or going into China as well, leaving travelers forced to disembark scrambling to make alternative plans of travel.

This last week it was announced that the quarantine period would be extended through April 1, meaning all schools, universities and kindergartens will remain closed until then, at least.

It was also announced last week that road and rail traffic will be limited from 8:00 am February 23 through 8:00 am February 27, over Tsagaan Sar ("White Moon," or Lunar New Year), one of the most important holidays for Mongolians. During the holiday family members visit their elders, greeting them closely, sharing a meal of dairy, mutton, buuz, and more, and washing it all down with airag (or vodka) before exchanging gifts. The chances of spreading a virus through these visits to those most vulnerable - children and elderly - is extremely high.

Outside of the city, six provinces also announced similar restrictions over the holiday.

Leading up to the holiday the government has been encouraging people to keep their Lunar New Years plans modest and within their own homes. Even encouraging a sort of "social Tsagaan Sar" where family members video call their elders instead of visiting them in person.

Needless to say, all public events around the holiday have been cancelled, including the yearly wrestling tournament, as have all tourism events in March, which includes the Ice Festival on Lake Khovsgol, the Winter Golden Eagle Festival, the camel festival in Umnugobi province and the Nauryz Festival nearer to the end of March.

Basically, everything has been cancelled.
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
So, what has that meant for me?

Well, a lot. But also not a lot.

There is an air of fear each time a person coughs in your close proximity, mask or no mask.

Despite that, restaurants are still open and people still fill the streets on the daily basis, even with -20 C temperatures and several heavy snowfalls. I've been able to find a drink until midnight, typical closing time for my bar of choice anyways. Clubs are all closed.

Food hasn't been in a shortage. Something I was actually concerned for, given the amount of products that are imported from China and abroad. Border restrictions aren't being enforced for truck drivers, which is still allowing for a flow of goods to come into and go out of the country. (The economy overall is seeing a huge impact from the virus, but that's a whole different article.)

My plans to attend the Ice Festival are obviously out the window, but I was still able to make day trips from the city out to both Hustai National Park and Terelj National Park without any issues.

On a separate occasion back from the countryside my temperature was taken at a roadside block to make sure our car wasn't bringing any sign of the virus back to the capital. Which, while I knew I wasn't sick, the thought of Mongolian quarantine did scare me into taking this entire situation a bit more seriously than I had been as a young, ablebodied person with a strong immune system.

Something that I think these precautions have inevitably done for everyone, especially as life tries to continue as normal in the capital.
Update: February 28, 2020

With Tsagaan Sar quieting the city this week, it's been an odd week to be in Ulaanbaatar. Celebrations seemed, from the outside, to have been kept modest for most families, the traffic restrictions on the roads heading in and out of the city hindering movements quite a lot. Walking the streets on Monday and Tuesday, there weren't many people or cars to be seen.

Following the holiday, on Wednesday (February 26) the government announced that the traffic restrictions would continue until March 2. A blow to me as I was planning to head down to the Gobi Desert for the weekend to escape the never ending onslaught of frustrating news around the virus, which has deeply impacted my upcoming travel plans to Iran.

The restrictions would extend to public transportation, which will only run during "peak" hours. It's still possible to grab a taxi on the street.

Gyms have been closed and the few restaurants and bars that remain open are being closed by 10 p.m., putting a sort of unofficial curfew on the city.

Yesterday it was announced that President Battulga was the first foreign representative to visit China since the outbreak began. (A smart, albeit mostly self-serving, move on the politician's part.) As a gesture of solidarity and goodwill, he also gifted China 30,000 sheep. (This has been received with mixed reactions from my local friends - but that's a separate article all together.) The President will self-quarantine himself following the trip.

Today I'm told that smaller hostels and guesthouses have been asked to close their doors until March 30, with inspectors even coming by to ensure that no guests remain on the premises. This is a huge blow to these small, locally-owned businesses as they still have to pay their employees 60% of their salaries during this time and the future even after they reopen is, well, not looking good. The Shangri-La is still open and operating.

I realize I'm one of the few in this boat, but travel advisories typically don't scare me. Mongolia was however today listed as a Level 3 country, meaning the U.S. wants U.S. citizens to "reconsider travel" into the country. With much of the country closed at this time (and I don't know enough to say that April will see the country return to normal, but I have hopes that by May and summer things certainly will), I have to agree that March is not a time to head to Mongolia, that's for sure.

And, if you do still decide to come here in March, you'll be scanned at the airport, asked to self-quarantine or flat-out denied entry if you're been to any of the affected countries in the last few weeks. If you can get a flight, that is. Flights through Istanbul and Moscow seem to be unaffected, but will surely start to see a hike in fare price as these flights are becoming the only viable flights into and out of the country, at least through March.

Additionally, the Peace Corps announced that they would be evacuating their 94 volunteers from Mongolia. But, to put that into perspective, many of the volunteers live outside of the city, in remote regions of the country where health care typically isn't immediately available.

The impact these advisories and restrictions is already starting to have on the population who relies not only on tourism, but on imported goods, is, quite simply, going to be immense. The country will need tourism more than ever this summer, I just hope things calm down soon enough to allow it. There are still 0 official cases in the country.
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