Approach to Ulaanbaatar. Flying is the Easy Part
When I left Mongolia in the middle of July I thought my effort to ward off the legal difficulties of my previous two trips had paid off and that the visa for my return had been arranged. It was, I thought, just a formality to mail my passport to the Mongolian Embassy in Washington DC and, because I was planning to be there in mid-August, walk in and pick it up. I had a letter of recommendation from the US embassy in Ulaanbaatar explaining my situation, recounting a personal conversation about some of the other difficulties that I've had in the past, the most problematic of which was a failure of Mongolian immigration officials to stamp my passport on leaving the country by train. By phone I also had an oral account of the discussion of my case with Mongolian immigration and the, also oral, account of the approval that was sure to be given to my application.
So when I walked up to the counter where my passport was waiting, I was
disapointed to learn that no approval had been given. After checking several times, the Mongolian man behind the desk suggested that I come back the next day, which I did. I came back the day after that as well, with the same result. In the remaining days between returning to Montana and when I thought I would be leaving for Mongolia with Judy, a flurry of emails to the other side of the world both confirmed the fact and denied the responsibility for what had failed to happen. To get to Mongolia, I would be starting over with the visa application process.
With one book on Mongolia under my belt and several months of morin khuur lessons that I'd like to continue, as well as an appearance on national television, several of those who were helping me decided that an S (study and research) visa might be the most promising. So Judy's supervisor at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology found a professor working in their design department who would act as a sponsor. (I will offer help with curriculum and assignments, as well as software instruction and its necessary English vocabulary. And more.) She ran the proposal through her university's upper management, which, even for such a risk-free deal, took weeks. August went by. Meanwhile I got my first HIV test, (first for this trip, at Planned Parenthood in Missoula, the only place that offers this test here,) submitted diplomas for translation, signed a contract for some undetermined but still frightening amount of unpaid labor.
Halfway through September I learned that my case had made it from the desk of the university official to the desk of someone at the Ministry of Education—then a week and a half later, to the Department of Immigration. On the 23rd, an email saying that there would be another email with an approval code. Then, days later, the email with the code. Then a call to the Mongolian Embassy, and surely an end to this process. No, there's a meme that says "wait, there's more." And yes, of course, there is.
The man at the desk of the Embassy assured me that everything was set, that my passport, with visa, would be mailed the next day. Then a phone call that afternoon from a woman at that same embassy. After two checks and three trips in person and many conversations by phone she now informed me that they do not actually accept personal checks, and could I please come in and give her a cashier's check. Explaining that Montana is 4,000 kilometers (2600 miles) away from Washington, I would now need to find a bank and a post office that was open (most near here close at 1:00pm)
By now, not all of my frustrations came from Mongolia. A woman at Flathead Bank in nearby Lakeside explained that because of Homeland Security regulations
they could not exchange $190 in cold, US, cash for a cashier's check unless I had an account with their bank. (My bank, Missoula Federal Credit Union, is 120 miles away in Missoula.) I went across the street to the post office, which sold me a money order, but which could not mail it until the following day. I drove to Kalispell, twenty-five more miles away, and there, sent the money order purchased in Lakeside, by express mail for delivery the next day, or maybe the day after that. (I am really sorry, but I am a librel from the East! I say Ki-O-tee, and we expect more.)
Five more days I waited patiently without word before calling to check on progress. Yes, my passport had been mailed, though several days later than I had hoped. Two days later I had the envelope in my hand. What I discovered when I opened it was that I had been issued a 90 day single-entry visa instead of the 9-month multiple-entry visa that I needed just to satisfy the contract I had signed with the university. "No problem," said the man at the embassy, who I had by now gotten to know. "No problem," said Judy's supervisor by email. They both assured me that it could be fixed once I got to Mongolia, where it was made to seem that anything can be fixed, even if it's not clear to foreigners just how it would be done. So late Thursday afternoon I booked a flight from Missoula for Saturday, and finished packing my bags, and at noon on Saturday Judy's ever gracious father John dropped me off at the airport. "Surely the red tape is behind me," I remember thinking as I stood in line.
It was not.