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'Apocalyptic' - NZ teacher stranded in Mongolia faces uncertain future

New Zealander Mark Chapman, who is in limbo as he awaits a flight out of Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, is trying to stay upbeat despite being uncertain when he will see his family again.

Mark Chapman. Source: Supplied

Chapman is a teacher at the International School in the capital city of Mongolia. He is in his ninth lockdown and separated from his wife and children who are in Aotearoa.

He has weathered a freezing winter with air quality he describes as "apocalyptic" and now he's feeling the pressure: his job ends in mid-June at which point his visa runs out and he loses his apartment - but there are no flights to be had.

Home seems a long way away. He told Saturday Morning that he doesn't know when he will able to fly out of Ulaanbaatar which means he can't provide a date to managed isolation and quarantine in this country so that he can get a voucher.

He knows he is missing out on MIQ places for June and July but he is trying not to worry.

"The nature of things in this part of the world is that sometimes things happen much faster than you expect. You wait and you wait and all of a sudden everything's on."

His contract finishes on June 11 but schools will remain shut during May so foreign teachers may be given permission to leave early.

He is teaching the students at the international school online at present - a familiar format.

Mongolia was already in a semi-lockdown due to an influenza outbreak earlier last year before Covid-19 forced more closures.

"We've done 200 days online and I don't believe there's a school anywhere in the world that's done that."

The family returned to New Zealand last year when his mother-in-law became ill. Both his mother-in-law and father-in-law have since died and with two older children also based in this country his wife decided to remain here.

Chapman said he decided to return to his teaching role because the job situation was unclear in New Zealand as the country coped with the onset of the pandemic.

In the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic Mongolia had another strict lockdown and kept cases to a minimum.

However, a new government elected in June 2020 decided to get business going again and 50 cases in February 2021 soared to 1300 cases a day by mid-April.

His Mongolian friends and colleagues are very angry, he said.

"It's just skyrocketed ...they are going to keep us under lockdown until the situation improves I think. It's just become rampant and it's because they've taken their foot off the accelerator so to speak. The disease just got out there and it's very hard to control."

'Nasty' pollution problem

Most cases are centred in the Ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) district in the northern area of Ulaanbaatar.

Residents there burn a lot of coal and old tyres meaning the air pollution in the city is foul.

"It's apocalyptic. There are some days it's just nasty. You can smell it; you can taste it. Things in the distance disappear because of the yellow haze and in winter you get an inversion layer so the smoke just sits there and it gets worse and worse."

He said the consolation is that once spring comes the air clears, however, the brutal winter season still has its appeal.

"It's minus 40 degrees and life's an adventure every time you leave your apartment... even the moisture up your nose freezes so you come back with icicles inside your nose. It's freezing."

He recognises the privileged lifestyle that people like him enjoy - living in a comfortable apartment with heating paid for by the government in contrast to the poor migrants in areas such as Ger.

While Chapman can't plan his future, thoughts of being reunited with his family keep him going. "There's nothing I can do at the moment so I choose not to reflect on the sadness of my situation."

rnz.co.nz