Our Closing of Service ceremony (COS) at a nice hotel outside of the city felt a lot like having a big party on a Sunday night and then immediately returning back to work on Monday. … More
For Mongolia’s New Year, Tsagaan Sar, I traveled back to Yeruu in northern Mongolia to visit and celebrate with my host family. I hadn’t seen them since we last hugged goodbye in August 2016 when Peace Corps training was finished.
Now flash forward two years and it’s a long trip back. I took a seven-hour bus ride to Ulaanbaatar. Followed by a four-hour bus ride to Darkhan and ending with a one-hour car ride to Yeruu. There are now paved roads that shoot straight to Yeruu. During Peace Corps training, there had been a lot of cross-country driving over bumpy terrain.
I was so happy to see my host family. My host siblings immediately wanted to play and my grandmother was tottering about making sure plenty of food was on the table. This family has been there with me since the very beginning. They were there during all the highs and lows I experienced during that summer. They were witnesses to when I first began learning Mongolian as I tried to (very poorly) make the KUUUHH and x sounds. Despite this, I have the most success understanding and communicating with them. They know we need to speak slowly with each other and we all patiently make huge efforts to make ourselves understood.
During my first night, everyone came to the house – all of my host mom’s brothers and sisters and their children. The kids thankfully haven’t changed much and are still chubby and adorable. Together, we drove to a hill and went sledding.
I felt pathetic as I fell asleep dressed head to toe in under armor underneath three blankets while my host family fell asleep in t-shirts with only one blanket. This was my first visit to the countryside during winter and from now on I will only be visiting in the summer. I was like a cockatiel sitting perched on a stool by the stove where the only source of warmth was coming from.
Friday was the first day of Tsagaan Sar. We were all dressed in our Mongolian deels. Every house we visited had salads and buuz on the table with milk tea and vodka. We stayed at each house for at least an hour. There was a lot of: “Back in the car, Anna!” “ZAAAAA!”
I had to leave Yeruu at 5 AM on Saturday morning. Not a lot of transportation leaving during the New Year and having to leave at that ungodly hour was my only option. However, my trip out of Yeruu felt surreal. It was pitch black and snowing. I was stuffed in the back of a small car between luggage and another girl. ABBA was playing on the radio. We encountered no other cars. These small moments of my time in Mongolia are what I will oddly remember the most.
I hope to visit again in the summer!
This year, me and a friend are Write On’s 2018 National Coordinators. Write On is a creative writing competition held in 20 Peace Corps countries.
Last year, almost 1,000 Mongolian students and adults participated nation-wide.
This year, I held more writing workshops at my school and surprisingly more 6th, 7th, and 8th graders attended. Most of these students ended up writing on competition day! During these workshops, students learnt about characters, settings, plots, and solutions and how to weave all these aspects together into one story.
The most difficult aspect was explaining the differences between a story and an essay. When I was explaining that these stories can be fun, entertaining, and humorous they all had the same expressions on their faces screaming, “But that’s not what we’ve been taught!”
Write On in Arvaikheer was held on February 10th at the Children Center with 75 students attending. There was an equal amount of young and older students. From 9 AM to 2:30 PM, I sat in the Children Center registering students and supervising the event. It got chaotic in the morning but ebbed off in the afternoon.
Once the last 12th grader left, PCVs met at Friend’s Café to score all the stories. Thankfully there were six of us to get the job done sooner.
It was cute when I sent congratulations text messages to all 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place winners telling them to come back to the children center on February 11th for certificates and medals. Responses I got were: “Wow!…Thank you!…How exciting!” My favorite was a student, who after winning first place for his grade, happily said, “I never win anything!”
All seven 1st place winning stories will now precede to the national level in March.
Winter holiday in Japan
Now that I’m back in Mongolia, I’m still in disbelief that I’ve set foot in Japan. Kyoto nonetheless. It doesn’t feel as if the trip happened. I undertook a solo trip to Japan for 9 days. Some people weren’t surprised and others said: “Alone?!?!” “Aren’t you scared?!!?!”
Before my departure, I experienced a hiccup with my flights. The glee I woke up with on Christmas morning evaporated when I checked my emails and saw one from Expedia stating one of my flights had been canceled. I had to restrain myself as I spoke with someone from Expedia (unsuccessful) and a copious amount of phone calls to Mongolian Airlines (unsuccessful; numbers weren’t working). I finally had to call our Peace Corps Director who patched me over to our administrative assistant. She knew a number and had my itinerary changed, confirmed, and sent to me. A great wave of relief. I was finally flying to Japan.
I knew since middle school I wanted to go to Japan. Flash forward 13 years later. It’s 7 AM and I find myself lounging on the second floor in a near-empty Chinggis Khan Airport with my backpack. I flew UB – Seoul – Osaka. I felt buoyant as the plane was flying over the ocean and islands. From Osaka, I had to take a 90-minute train ride from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station and then the subway. My airbnb was in a neighborhood off of the Kitauji stop.
Kyoto is unbelievable. Houses are a combination of modern and traditional. They are narrow at the front and sit so close to each other to almost be touching. The streets are clean and taper down in residential areas.
My airbnb was in Kita Ku. It was a beautiful district of Kyoto! It’s not a crowded area and I gained a great perception of a Japanese locality and every-day local life. My airbnb was tiny but a comfortable apartment. My bed was incredibly soft. Not like my bed in Mongolia where I sleep on top of a piece of concrete and a sleeping bag. There was also a kitchen, bathroom, a washing machine, and a balcony. I was also provided with a pocket wifi. It was a lifesaver.
At the first restaurant I went to for lunch called Kyoto Kairikiya, I was the only obvious foreigner sitting at a long counter; looking at a ramen menu as the sounds of slurps, clicking chopsticks, and the host calling out “Arigatou gozaimasu,” every time someone left, filled my ears.
In order to visit main sites, I rode the subway back and forth from Kyoto Station.
From Kyoto Station, I rode bus 28 to Arashiyama where the Bamboo Grove, a monkey park, Jojakko-Ji and more shrines are. If you walk the main street further up, you’ll arrive at the residential areas with innumerous hidden gems separated from the main tourist area. I had the most fun strolling these streets. Lots of small shrines, cafes, and cute houses.
Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove was a lot smaller than I thought. It’s just a short path that takes you in a circle around the bamboo grove. Afterwards, I found Jojakko-Ji shrine where the trees and the moss were a heavenly shade of bright green. Autumn colors were also still prevalent despite it being January. I’ve been deprived of so much color in my Mongolian town that it was illuminating. Climbing the stone steps took me to the monk’s quarters and the Tahoto Pagoda where there’s a panorama view of all of Arashiyama. I did try to visit the monkey park but was an hour to late. Instead, I walked a road with the mountains on my right and the river stretching alongside my left.
Fishimi Inari-taisha and Gion
Unintentionally, I ended up visiting two of the most famous sites from one of my favorite movies and books, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Upon arrival at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the sky was gray and cloudy with the occasional sprinkle but this type of weather only enhanced the bright red tori path weaving up Mount Inari.
There are a total of 10,000 tori gates. The path is crowded with people at the beginning but thins out the farther up the mountain you walk. There are more trails that divert from the main one leading to smaller shrines and fox statues draped in red. The foxes are the messangers for the God Inari.
After sampling some of the street food – rice cakes followed by a nice and salty fish on a stick – I took the train to Gion, the once-famed Geisha district. It’s extraordinary rare to spot a geisha but you will see plenty of young men and women wearing rented kimonos. A historic tradition that continues today due to young Japanese girls continuing to take interest in all that entails in being a geisha: art, dancing, the clothing and makeup, hosting, maintaining poise, tea pouring, and music. However, some will quit because of separation from family and having to abstain from much of modern life and technology.
I walked up and down narrow roads passing by what were once geisha establishments. Untouched and preserved from the wear of time. As the pavement sloped upwards, I came across a black pagoda where girls holding their selfie sticks and wearing kimonos took selfies together. There were many tourist shops and eateries but they were all replicas of each other, selling the same products and food.
It got dark in Japan by 5:30. As the bus back to Kita-Ku crossed the bridge away from Gion district you will come across the shopping district. A brightly lit H&M sign illuminating red next to a Zara was a sight for sore eyes.
Shrines, shrines, shrines
Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines with over a million throughout the rest of Japan. I visited Rokuon-Ji and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Rojuon-ji, notably known as the Golden Pavillion, sits in the middle of a small lake. The temple is gilded in gold-leaf with a phoenix statue perched on top. The gold and surrounding greenery reflected into the lake creating a mirage of blue, black, yellow, and green. Past the temple is a trail taking you to more sacred spots.
At Kiyomizu-dera the veranda is under renovation but you can still take some good shots alongside the trails without construction interfering.
At these temples and shrines people will wait in long lines to ladle up sacred water to wash their hands in or to swill in their mouths. There are also many tokens to buy for yourself, family, or friends. Tokens symbolizing love, happiness, good luck, having an easy childbirth, plus more.
An unexpected hike
It took a long time but I finally found the bus to Daigoji Temple. I had to find Keihan Hotel where the Yamashina Express stops. I was the only one on this bus.
There are three parts to the temple grounds. First, there’s Sanboin Garden. You can walk around inside an old home. Simplistic and airy with open windows with views of the gardens and ponds.
Next is the main temple complex area where Daigoji Temple sits perched on the edge of a pond with an orange bridge arching over the water. Tranquil, calm, pleasant, soothing, and harmonious. There were scarcely any other people to disrupt my view.
When I walked past the temple, I unexpectedly found myself climbing a steep rocky trail snaking up the mountain. No reasons whatsoever and grateful I was wearing the right shoes, I found myself half way up a forested mountain. My body gets affected by the poor air quality in Mongolia but I felt so sprightly as I trekked upwards. Finally there’s a museum but when I came back down the mountain I was too tired to see it.
It decided to rain when I boarded the train to Himeji and it didn’t stop. Of course I didn’t have an umbrella and had to buy one at Himeji’s train station. The owner of my airbnb will appreciate a second umbrella after I leave.
It takes 90 minutes by train from Kyoto to Himeji.
The main attraction at Himeji is Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s three premier castles and the largest. Five-floors with a white façade, the castle survived the bombings of World War II, while the rest of Himeji was flattened, and an earthquake in 1995.
I was able to explore inside the castle keep, the west bailey, and the castle grounds.
Himeji also has a large thrift-shop mall.
As a day trip, I highly recommend visiting Himeji.
The food I ate in Japan ranged from ramen, rice cakes, sushi, sashimi (cheap if bought from a supermarket), Italian food at Saizeriya Kyoto Shichiku, matcha ice cream, and even crepes from Creperie Garcon near Gion.
Shirakawa-minami Dori is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets. Most of the buildings have been preserved with bridges draping over the canal. What I really appreciate about Kyoto are its quiet spots amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, like little pockets you can hide inside for a moment before stepping back in to the real world.
In the middle of Kyoto Imperial Park is the Imperial Palace. Once the residence of Japan’s imperial family before the capital was moved to Tokyo. Admittance is free but unfortunately two of the buildings were closed due to renovations.
Osaka and Nara
Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, is an hours train ride from Kyoto.
First, I have to mention how often I got lost in train stations. Train stations are huge, clean, and have countless restaurants and cafes, massive shopping malls (Kyoto Station’s shopping mall is calling The Cube), and different sections for what kind of train you need – local, subway, or national. I spent a large chunk of time wandering around aimlessly. It was easy to get distracted. Now back to Osaka…
I took a train to Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, a shopping area in the Minami (Namba) neighborhood. It’s a massive shopping spot with a combination of small stores and prominent, international stores intermingled together. I didn’t have anything in mind to buy but stopped occasionally when a store looked intriguing. It’s easy to spend a fortune in Japan.
Osaka has one of the largest aquariums in the world, Osaka castle, and a Universal Studios but I left the bustling crowd of shoppers behind for the roads selling street food and the solitary, quiet streets. So many nice houses and apartments!
I spent my last day in Japan hanging with the deer in Nara. Nara is famous for its deer. At Nara Park, they approach people hoping to be fed. They are curious, cute, and docile animals. Yet I passed by people screaming as they were feeding the deer. You would think they were feeding lions. Nara Park is home not only to the deer but also temples and shrines, most notably Todaji Temple where there’s a giant Buddha. Just like the fox statues at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the deer are considered in Shinto to be messengers for the gods. Consequently, Nara’s 1,200 deer have become a national treasure.
Back to Mongolia
A cab to take me to Kyoto Station arrived at 5 AM.
I woke up at 5:10.
I was out the door in two minutes.
I had to make the 5:45 train to Kansai Airport and was on it two-minutes before departure. 5,000 yen was enough to pay for the cab and my train tickets. I spent the 90 minute train ride rearranging my bag and brushing my teeth, washing my face, and applying makeup in a small alcove covered by a curtain.
Even in winter, Japan is beautiful. Japan is an efficient and organized country with polite people at every corner. People were always saying thank you and bowing. Language was never a problem. Everyone I met spoke English or understood English. I would go back to Japan in a heartbeat.
A video I made of my trip:
December was a whirlpool of events.
December in UB is also cold.
I took my GRE in the city. I had been studying since September. I was the only person staying in the guesthouse for two nights. It was eerily cool. The bell to the door was never ringing and I had an entire room to myself. The GRE was at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology. An easy walk from the guesthouse but once I was there I realized I didn’t actually know which building I had to go in. I ended up having to call someone who had taken the test earlier in the month and found the place within minutes. I had at least been in the right building but wrong floor. Then someone thought I was a guest speaker and tried to drag me off somewhere else.
It was just me, a Russian woman, and two Mongolians. Other than a 10-minute power outage that occurred in the middle, I finished the test in just under four hours and was relieved to be done. I rushed over to Granville Restaurant where I devoured a cheeseburger and fries.
It has made me so jovial on Sundays when a solid amount of kids come for Sunday’s English club. Usually clubs in Mongolia see a decline from 70 to 12 to 4 students. When I arrive at the Children’s Center I wonder, “Is this the day when kids stop showing up?” But I think I’m doing something right.
This month, kids have been learning Christmas songs. Jingle Bells is popular but I also taught them lesser known songs such as Frosty the Snowman. In addition, they created Christmas word trees and watched the cartoon “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
Christmas was celebrated for the second time away from home. On Saturday prior to Christmas, we had a PCV Christmas dinner with friends from nearby aimags and soums. We finally ate the turkey Peace Corps gives us every year. I was fortuitously not in charge of the bird. I still remember the turkey blood and the breaking of my fridge from last year. On Christmas morning, I opened up the presents I kept hidden away under my bed and then went to school for a few hours. There were Christmas performances at school. All teachers participated in secret Santa. For two-weeks, we had to buy 5 presents for our chosen ones and secretly deliver them. It was arduous work having to sneak into the director’s office when he wasn’t around.
Nation-wide all schools began winter break earlier then expected. Aimags and soums have different reasons. Some say it’s because it’s too cold. Other places because of sickness. The governor issued his statement and students and teachers were told to stay at home. This included the cancellation of other extra curricular activities. So as a result, winter break extended from two-weeks to one month. Despite early closure, my school still had its New Year’s party. I donned a dress I bought in UB.
Happy New Year!
Smiles are the best. With Christmas and New Years swiftly approaching, I miss my home. But seeing students smile at school – (and not immediately bursting into giggles which usually happens after just saying hi) – is a small thing I greatly appreciate.
I will continue my service in Mongolia during my favorite holidays. While family and friends in Chicago are visiting Christkindlmarkt, decorating Christmas trees, and walking along streets illuminated by Christmas lights…I’m on the prowl for bags of frozen strawberries, wearing my mask every evening to ward off air pollution, and googling how to make cinnamon rolls from scratch.
I have done my best to make my home festive. My Christmas stocking is hanging on the door; I have snowflakes and a reindeer dangling from the ceiling; the small doors in my advent calendar are faithfully opened up every morning; lights have been hung over my window; my tiny Swedish tomte sits upon my dresser. It’s the best I can do. A large number of restaurants and stores have also been decorated for Christmas and New Years. When I was in UB earlier for a Peace Corps PAC meeting, I saw the giant Christmas tree in the Shangri La Mall.
What has December been like?
As my bus pulled into my town’s bus station at 2 in the morning, someone had taken one of my bags from above the seats. I was very frustrated as I walked home. Later, I told a friend about my missing bag and she made a post on Facebook about it. That post was shared and read by so many people! Three-hours later, my bag was returned with everything in tact. Then for the next week, I had people asking me at school or sending me text messages: “I’m sorry about your bag.” “Did you get your bag?” and my favorite, “I can’t sleep until your bag is back with you!”
Blistering cold weather but only a little bit of snow.
I finished reading The Mistress of the Art of Death series and have begun reading Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” I couldn’t finish “Anna Karenina” so lets see how long I can last with the “masterpiece of world literature.”
I traveled to UB for a Peace Corps PAC meeting. A few volunteers were asked to discuss about the TEFL (Teach English as a foreign language) program and offered suggestions on how to improve the future of the program. Buses are extremely hot. UB’s temperatures can plummet down to -20 Fahrenheit so you’ve got to dress warmly. However, after just two hours on a bus, I’ve stripped down to my t-shirt.
My friend returned from study abroad in Europe. She had a wistful and dreamy gaze as she recalled her stories about her stay in Luxembourg and her trips to Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. She has taken a piece of the cake and now she wants the whole cake. What’s her next plan? To go to Australia!
Me and another PCV had lunch with someone who served with Peace Corps in Paraguay during the ’90s. It’s fascinating to hear how different Peace Corps was prior to laptops, kindles, and hard drives that we use now.
My door had been receiving a lot of attention from the children in my building. Knocking once a day turned into knocking five-times a day. They always want help with English homework or want to play. I actually began to flinch every time I heard the pounding of tiny fists on my door accompanied by the yells of “Anna teacher! Anna teacher!” Unfortunately, it became a problem and they were told by their grandmother and my counterpart to stop.
I am still lesson planning and team teaching when opportunity presents itself.
I attended a dance performance at the theater with my counterpart’s family. Her daughter was dancing. The theater was packed with people. Children were sitting on top of each other. People were standing in the aisles against the walls. I’m amazed I was saved a seat. The ride home was the best part. 10 people were smushed into a small car. I sat on an 80-year-old woman’s lap with a small child on my lap as my head was crushed against the roof thinking, “This would be an awful time to hit potholes.”
Nevertheless, good things are happening. I will soon take the GRE. My birthday is approaching and I’m going on an exciting vacation in three-weeks.
Eventually during your Peace Corps service (and of course in regular life), you feel drained of all energy and become frustrated and exhausted. Sometimes once. Sometimes more then once.
Some people you work with aren’t motivated and don’t care. You sit in a meeting and end up playing Snake on your phone for the entire duration because nobody tells you what’s happening. You walk to your school wondering, “Will I actually work today?” But you’ve got to power through it despite all the odds stacked up against you.
“You’re allowed to scream, you’re allowed to cry, but do not give up.”
Thankfully, my one bright ray of sunshine comes from my Sunday morning English club with 5th, 6th, and 7th graders. With the help of two Mongolian counterparts, we have been playing various games and activities with over 100 students.
Originally the plan was to have the club at Bookbridge, a smaller learning center, but we didn’t know how many would come. Therefore, we moved it to the larger Children’s Center and we’re relieved we made that decision. We were definitely not expecting over 100 kids to come every Sunday. I’m extremely excited to continue this club every week.
I had a much-needed holiday in November.
I traveled to UB for the weekend where I connected with friends and stuffed myself with food. That’s what I always do when I travel to the city. I try to eat as much food as possible: sushi, Mexican food, chocolate croissants, delicious cheeseburgers with bacon. Plus, I managed to locate Bloody Mary’s and frozen margaritas. I also ventured up to the Blue Sky Lounge for the very first time. Seeing city lights lighting up the night had me longing for the Chicago skyline and the drive down Lakeshore Drive at night.
Furthermore, I began practicing yoga during the break. I bought a yoga mat in UB and have been using it everyday. In America, I had only done yoga a few times, but now yoga has become firmly entrenched into my daily life after a period of negative vibes which I escaped from with the help of friends.
I religiously watch Boho Beautiful’s Youtube channel. I really enjoy all her videos as all her videos are filmed in wonderful and sublime places. Additionally, I’m currenly reading Arianna Franklin’s “Mistress of the Art of Death” series, studied for the GRE, had a new Mongolian jacket made, and made naan bread from scratch.
But naturally something has to go wrong at some point. I have a love/hate relationship with my apartment. Since I’ve arrived, I’ve had my radiators burst three times, it took 15 months to finally get hot water, my roof was leaking during the summer rainstorms, my toilet broke, and water leaks everywhere after taking a shower. This time, I almost had an electrical fire in my kitchen.
At noon when I opened up my fridge, a rotting stench escaped. My fridge wasn’t working and all the ice in the freezer had melted away leaving my food to rot. When I went to check to see if the fridge was properly plugged in, smoke instantly came pouring out from the outlet. Having never dealt with an electrical fire before, I was waving my hands like a maniac to disperse the smoke. I must have resembled a hysteric chicken who’s being lifted for the chop. The near fire left me panicked and I was instantly on the phone talking to a counterpart to get the repair man sent to my home. It had left the wall outlet and the plug to the fridge completely charred. With relief, everything was fixed and I didn’t have to buy a new fridge.
“You’re lucky it happened when it did and not while you were sleeping,” said the repair man, whose visit to my home was probably the 20th time to fix something.
Now my attentions are being turned elsewhere. Me and my friend, Rachel, are the new National Coordinators for Write On, a creative writing competition that happens every year. 12 more Peace Corps countries participate in this event. We will be busy preparing for the event for the next five months.
Kharkhorin, the super-soum north of Arvaikheer, had its first ever Halloween themed race on 14 October 2017. The goal of the race was to raise money for an NGO in UB called Achilles. Achilles raises awareness for people with disabilities. Those with disabilities ran for free while able-bodied paid a small fee. There was a 1k, 3k, and 5k race.
In contrast to the extravagant costumes the young and old create, the door-to-door trick or treating, and the parties that occur in America, Halloween in Mongolia is not as widely celebrated. There are some parties and most Mongolians instantly think of zombies. I told a 12th grade class I was once a penguin for Halloween and they didn’t understand why I would dress up as a penguin, “That’s not scary!”
I wore the wrong boots as I stood out in the governor square at 6:30 in the morning. It was pitch black as I walked the 20 minutes from my home. I also got spooked by a horse that materialized out of nowhere. As I waited for all the kids to arrive and the transportation that would take us to Kharkhorin, I was stomping my feet and curling my toes trying to bring warmth back to them.
Unlike Arvaikheer, Kharkhorin still had snow on the ground and it was a lot colder. After a nauseating 3-hour drive, we arrived just on time for a communication problem. All the kids and adults we brought with us from Arvaikheer were registering for the race inside one building while all the kids and adults from Kharkhorin were registering outside on the other side of town. Phones were ringing, and people were talking simultaneously at each other. In the end, everyone was registered for the race inside a bus in the middle of the race field.
Throughout the day, kids crowded the face painting table as the same short music playlist played on repeat all day. Every song was a remix of the original.
Races finished faster than we anticipated. As we saw runners coming towards the finish line, we had to stand by the banner with small pieces of paper that had the numbers 1, 2, and 3 for first, second, and third place to hand off to the exhausted runners. Medals and certificates were awarded to the top three from each race. I must also add that a Mongolian event would not be complete if there was not a random 5-minute dance party. But I think someone was told, “Quick, stall for time!”
After a quick meal in a woman’s ger, we all drove back to Arvaikheer. A significant amount of money was raised for Achilles and all kids, winners and non-winners, went home happy.
My last year as a TEFL teacher/trainer began on 1 September.
This school year is going to be even better than last year because I know people, I know what to expect, and I’m aware of what can be considered as a helpless cause.
But before the school year began, my Peace Corps group reunited for our mid-service training (MST) at Terelj National Park outside of UB. Unlike our in-service training (IST) in December 2016, where we had to bring our counterparts along, MST was just Peace Corps.
Many of us were unprepared for how cold it was going to be. When we arrived at the park, it was pouring down with rain and we were all running into our little wooden houses. It was cold and there was no heat in any of the buildings. However, our houses had hot showers (!!!!!) and heated floors. Every night, me and my room-mate would lay our sweaters on the ground so they would be warm and toasty in the mornings. The wear was “business causal” but for me, it was wear as many layers as possible.
It’s a beautiful park once the fog and clouds lifted. From 7am to 5:30 we were stuck in sessions but afterwards we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some of us went horse back riding (which left me sore for a week), we hiked up hills, running back down, and we sat around a large bonfire. Unfortunately when we departed, the weather was warm and sunny making me wish we could stay longer.
On the first day of school, my school smelled of fresh paint as balloons and a large banner were hung outside by the front entrance. Students were back in their uniforms. I spent the first two weeks of school waiting for the teachers schedule to be completed. During September and for the duration of October, I’m teaching 5th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders in the morning with lesson planning and teacher development in the afternoon. Besides school, I was busy with Special Olympics and Teachers Day.
This year, Special Olympics was hosted in my aimeg. Teams came from four different regions with one team coming all the way from Khuvsgul. They all arrived on Thursday. Friday consisted of medical screenings and basketball, table tennis, and judo competitions. Saturday was badminton with track and field races held outside. I was asked to take photographs and was kept busy, walking from one spot to the other, snapping away. They were so happy to be competing and racing each other.
Teachers Day is when 12 grade students become teachers for the day while the teachers become the students. This is a holiday 12th graders are very excited about. In the morning, teachers trade places with their students and sit at the desks while a student teaches. We are also given a 12th grader to later exchange gifts with in the evening. My 12th grader took her role very seriously. We met the night before so she could create the perfect lesson plan and she did an amazing job. Last year, my school had a volleyball competition but this year my school had a teachers talent contest.
You can read about teachers day from last year here.
More marvelous things that have since happened:
- I finally have internet. Now I don’t have to walk 20-minutes to a restaurant and order the cheapest item on the menu as I use their internet.
- For a long time, my building’s heating was broken. I was told it wouldn’t be fixed for another two or three weeks making me cry out in anguish. My apartment was so frigid I got sick and shivered myself to sleep. Thankfully, it didn’t take three weeks to fix and now my home is blessedly warm. Why do I make such a big deal out of this? Because in Mongolia, air conditioning doesn’t exist and heating comes from a central system which people can’t control on how hot it gets.
- My aimeg has two new health volunteers. There are now four of us.
- I’m re-watching “The Office” and “Gilmore Girls” thus bringing joy to my life when the language barrier becomes to much or when something breaks in my apartment or even when people hoot and “OY” at me as I’m trying to go about my business.
- There was a silly moment during my school’s track and field day when my name was called and one of the teachers was holding out a medal for me. I thought, “I have done absolutely nothing that warrants a medal but okay…” Conveniently my two counterparts disappeared so I didn’t know what everyone was yelling. But apparently they just wanted me to place the medal around the neck of another teacher. I’m nearly just walked off with the medal.
- I’m eagerly awaiting a box of books for my school I’ve asked an organization in America to send.
- I took a long deep breath and signed up to take the GRE in December.
- We have a new café in town called Friends Café. The woman who owns it went to university in America and used to live in Naperville. Small world!!
- People always ask if I’m cold. They all think I’m to skinny for a Mongolian winter. That I need more meat on my bones.
July was a dull month. When I flew back from Cambodia, all the adrenaline wore off as I took the bus back to my little town. It rained a lot. During the heavy rain storms, some of the rain would find its way through a small crack in my ceiling and slowly filter down my wallpaper. As I read in bed I could see the water stains over the top of my book slowly evaporating to a dark stain, thus making the ugly wallpaper even uglier. July consisted of a plethora amount of baking, watching movies, reading, and spending time with my site mate whose Peace Corps service was coming to a glorious end. The only highlight was wearing my new deel to Naadam where I watched some of the events, wrestling and archery, but that only holds my attention for so long. The whole entire time I was counting down until August.
My parents visited Mongolia!
For two-weeks, I explored the Gobi Desert and Ulaanbaatar with my mom and dad. 14-months was the longest I had gone without seeing them. I was extremely happy to see them and to hear Swedish being spoken again.
My parents visited Mongolia through a travel agency called Nomadic Expeditions. The agency had a two-week travel itinerary planned that took us around the capital city and throughout the Gobi. Our group consisted of only five people: the Buchanan family, a female traveler called Billy, and our tour guide, Tseveen. We had been expecting more people but were delighted with our close-knit group. We even managed to squeeze in some invigorating and competitive games of Heads Up during the evenings.
While in UB, we stayed at the Shangri La. One of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in. I traded the slab of concrete I sleep on for a bed that felt like a cloud, 15-second cold showers for long hot showers, wifi, and I could watch TV, (HBO!!!) I had trouble sleeping my first night because I wasn’t used to the comfort. The hotel also connects to the Shangri La Mall. Without needing to go outside, we wandered over for shopping and the movie theater.
I will first write briefly about what we saw and did in the city.
We visited three temples. The first was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the center of Mongolian Buddhists. There are 150 monks currently residing at the monastery. The second one was Choijin Lama Temple. This temple is situated right in the middle of the city, surrounded by new buildings such as the Shangri La and the Blue Sky. A perfect example of old vs new in UB. When you look upwards, you can see the angles and faded colors of the temple roof alongside the blue glass of the city’s skyscrapers. The third temple was part of the Winter Palace which is also a museum. All the temples are lively with various colors and carvings of faces and animals on the roofs. Furthermore, we visited the National Musuem and an art museum plus the Winter Palace.
Over the Peace Bridge, there is the Zaisan Memorial for Soviet soldiers killed in WWII. At the top, is a panorama view of the whole city. We also met an eagle.
Move activities consisted of cashmere shopping and seeing the National Mongolian Orchestra perform.
We also spent a night at Hustai National Park. Despite the rain, we drove into the park to see Mongolian wild horses also known as Przewalksi’s horse. As we drove, we spotted eagles, falcons, and fat marmots. Our driver had eyes like a hawk because even while driving he spotted the horses in a nanosecond. The first time I couldn’t see the horses even with binoculars but 20-minutes later we came across two-herds grazing near each other upon the hillside. They’re very small and yellow like small smudges. We weren’t allowed to get to close.
We had to leave at 4:30 am for the airport. We flew a small plane for an hour and 20 minutes from UB to Ömnögovi province. I was dozing away for the most part but when I was briefly awake, I could hear English, German, and Japanese being spoken. Two cars met us and for another hour we drove over bumpy grassland to the Three Camel Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world. It is also the most luxurious ger camp in Mongolia. Each ger is named after an animal. I stayed in the Pallas Cat while my parents stayed in the Snow Leopard. In addition, there’s a lounge with a bar, a dining room, an entertainment lounge, and a massage ger. However, there is no internet or cell service. Not too far away from the camp is a watering hole where herds of horses would come stampeding for along with goats, sheep, and the occasional cow. There is absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see. No roads, no telephone lines, no billboards. Just the flat Gobi grasslands stretching all the way to the Altai Mountains.
We did a lot while traversing the desert. While walking, lizards skittered around our feet diving for cover, small gazelles leaped through the grass, and we even spotted a small snake slithering away, (much to the delight of my dad).
On day one, we hiked up to the top of hills and saw petroglyphs. Immediately following the hike, we biked back to the lodge. Due to the bumpy trail, my arms became sore from all the shaking and my fingers were clenched tightly over the handle bars as I fought to make sure I didn’t go flying off.
We didn’t just stay at the Three Camel Lodge. On days two and three, we were driven in a circular route that took us to new sites. The sights were incredible. Sand dunes on one side with the Altai Mountains cresting on the other.
We met a nomadic family. This family we met was even larger than expected because family was visiting from central Mongolia. My parents drank airag for the first time and saw how nomadic families survive by milking their horses and goats, using solar panels for electricity, and using a car battery to watch TV. Mongolian horses are very skittish. This family had a large herd and we watched one of the boys trying to break a new horse but falling in the process.
During the night of day 2, we slept in tents. I was laughing at the image of my mom sleeping in a sleeping bag. The temperature dropped as we were out there and it rained but I thought it was incredibly cozy. Our camels arrived that night.
On day three, we rode camels. I had the largest camel but the saddles aren’t soft. Just pieces of felt layered on top of each other. Me and my camel, Alfonzo, were comfortable walking at a slow gait but the 15-year-old wrangler kept speeding my camel up causing my rear end to be rubbed raw. We spent three hours riding our camels. The camels have a piece of wood through their noses with a rope attached. I think it looks painful but camels have high pain tolerance. For the first hour, we were clumped in a group holding on to each other’s ropes as our camels walked over small sand dunes but then we were left to guide our own camels once we reached flat ground. My lazy camel lumbered behind the others knowing I had absolutely no control over him. Camels are strange animals. They look very smug with their slanted eyes but also look like small giraffes because of their long necks. Then when they turn their heads back to look at you, it’s very snake-like. When we finally stopped three hours later, I had to topple off my camel. I was too sore to lift my leg over the hump. We were asked if we wanted to continue riding after lunch but nobody said yes.
We spent the night at Gobi Erdene, another ger camp. Sort of like the Three Camel Lodge but not as luxurious. This ger camp conserves its electricity all day by only turning it on at 7 pm. As soon as the clock struck 7, it was humorous to watch everyone come walking into the main building to charge their phones and cameras.
On day four, we drove from Gobi Erdene to the Singing Sand Dunes. Ditching our shoes at the base of the 600-foot sand dune, my confident gait up the dune quickly transitioned into a battle-weary crawl on my hands and feet. If it wasn’t for my dad I don’t think I would have made it to the top. Or it would have taken me significantly longer as I had to stop every 10 steps as the dune became steeper to climb and I struggled to breathe. Once at the top, I was happy to just sit upon the spine that ran between the top of the dunes.
I saw enough horses, camels, goats and sheep to last me a lifetime. During day five, at a Naadam festival, which was plopped down in the middle of nowhere, we watched camels being milked, baby horses were being wrangled up, and the sheep were getting their fur sheered. This wasn’t a real Naadam. The contestants were all children who were using this day to practice wrestling, archery, and horse racing. But I’m happy my parents got to see the festival even though it wasn’t a genuine one.
Day six was my favorite day. We walked through a park but I can’t remember the name of it anymore. The park was beautiful. The hills had rocky crags at the tops. Small rivulets of a stream criss-crossed its way through the valley. I gave up on trying to keep my shoes dry every time we had to cross from one side to the other. Small Pikas were running around. They are like a chipmunk/mouse hybrid with large ears who squeak, “Pip pip!” I call them Pikachus.
On our last day in the Gobi, we visited the Flaming Cliffs. So called because when the sun is shining, the cliffs glow red. But it was cloudy as we were there and later we had to leave earlier than expected because of a lightning storm. The Flaming Cliffs is where the world’s first dinosaur eggs were discovered along with many more dinosaur archaeological finds. If you look and dig around closely you can find tiny miniscule pieces of dinosaur eggs.
When we returned back to the city, all our phones dinged with all the messages and emails we couldn’t look at while in the desert.
The trip was for two-weeks but my parents stayed for two extra days. We walked more around UB, went shopping, and saw a film. I was so pleased they came to Mongolia. Visiting via Nomadic Expeditions was perfect because we were comfortable as we traveled and there was something new every day. But what was nice was how the itinerary wasn’t jam-packed with too many activities. We still had plenty of down-time and relaxation. The whole trip was perfect and I came back to my town a few pounds heavier from all the food I devoured.
I hope you can view all the pictures. Internet is very poor where I am.
As someone who dislikes sweat and heat and would rather hibernate during the hot summer months in a cold room, my two-week solo trip to Vietnam and Cambodia went remarkably well despite my 21 hours in layovers. I was anxious about going by myself. Previously, I had only traveled to Norway and Iceland by myself. But now I would be traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Fortunately, I met many solo travelers. I had all my papers to show in the airports for my visas. I didn’t lose anything. I didn’t get lost with my terrible sense of direction and I became a master at retracing my steps and map reading because I’m ridiculous and have no data on my phone.
I had 7 vacation goals:
- Eat as much food as possible. After a year in Mongolia, this was a priority.
- Go shopping.
- Go to a spa.
- Get tan.
- Avoid heat stroke.
- Don’t lose my passport.
- Don’t get kidnapped.
All goals were achieved except #4. Though if anyone wants to lie and say I look tan, I would appreciate that.
After a seven-hour layover in Seoul, I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam where I was instantly enveloped by a hot blanket of heat. A person from the hostel met me at the arrivals gate holding a sign. I gave them Anna Sofia to avoid any mistakes with my last name and the sign said, “Anna So Jia.” I stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel Original, a hostel I would recommend. The hostel provides a free city tour in addition to other tours, free breakfast until 10, and free beer at 18:00.
If I could describe Hanoi, I would say fast, steamy, vibrant, and chaotic. My hostel including every restaurant, store, and market I walked into had fans blowing at high speeds to combat the heat but the heat still had a way of creeping in and clinging to you. Buildings are tall and very narrow but stretch back far while markets are crammed underneath where Vietnamese people are sitting upon their stools inside and out on the pavement. The smell of street food permeates the air. Everywhere on the streets were families grilling various foods and preparing soups with fruit stands and baskets interweaving between. The streets are chaotic but an organized chaos as motorcycles and mopeds outnumber cars. Despite it, I felt strangely calm. I tried an egg coffee which I wouldn’t have again. It was very sweet. I ate a lot of seafood, pineapple, and mango.
During the week, I went on a free city tour. It was on this tour that I met a small group of Canadian med students who adopted me into their group. I also met a Danish girl who everyone thought was my sister.
One day, I took a bus to Vietnam’s old capitol, Hoa Lu, in Ninh Binh Province. Now it is just monasteries. After walking around, I switched over to a bamboo boat. The rowers rowed with their feet while holding umbrellas and fans in their hands. We were rowed past hills that sprouted from the water and through caves when the hills connected. White goats dotted the sheer cliff sides as they munched on the tufts of grass. I also rode a bike throughout the countryside as it poured down with rain.
HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay is beautiful! The weather was perfect and the water was so blue. I went through Lily’s Travel Agency, an agency that provided a one-day tour of the bay at a cheap price. They also do three-day tours. I almost missed this trip because I slept past my alarm and woke up at 7:30 for an 8:00 departure. It was a four-hour drive to Ha Long Bay, also known as Bay of Descending Dragons. On the boat we sailed on, I met students from the University of Bristol where I studied abroad and an Australian mother and daughter. Since I was by myself and the three boys were hilariously stupid, the Australian mother, Karin, took us in as her new silly family during the trip.
Our boat provided us with a seafood lunch and we explored a cave called Thien Cung Grotto where our guide, Lhong, began to mess with us by pointing out animal-shaped rocks that only he could see. “What is that rock?” “I see a rock.” “No, it’s a wolf.”
Note: Americans need an invitation letter to enter. I got mine for $5 from Lily’s Travel Agency. Other places, such as my hostel, charge $25 for the letter.
Vietnam and Cambodia share a border. Despite proximity, I had to fly Hanoi – Bangkok – Phnom Pehn. I spent seven-hours in Bangkok for a flight to Cambodia that was only 50 minutes. I found a comfortable couch in an empty terminal next to a Dairy Queen where I sat reading Hello magazines. I arrived in Phnom Penh at 22:00 and took a tuk tuk to Onderz Hostel. A tuk tuk is my new favorite mode of transportation. Very cheap. A tuk tuk is also the best way to stay cool because of the wind.
Note: Tuk tuk drivers are extremely persistent. After talking to one, he said that there are too many tuk tuk drivers thus making the job very competitive. When coming out of a restaurant, me and another girl said we were going into a store. As I was sitting on a couch, I saw the tuk tuk driver peering at me through the store window waiting for us.
My hostel is next to the Royal Palace, the Night Market, and the river. Phnom Penh had trash littered on the roads causing a terrible smell while riding in a tuk tuk and the nice homes secluded themselves behind high walls and gates. There is a large mall called Aeon Mall where I found delicious $5 sashimi and a Starbucks.
Cambodia has a gloomy and mournful history and too many people remain unaware of this. From 1975 to 1978, the Cambodian Civil War ravaged the country and killed over a million Cambodians constituting as genocide. Phnom Penh is home to the Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek. Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 30 killing fields in Cambodia. Bones and teeth continue being unearthed from mass graves especially during the rainy season. At Choeung Ek, the Khmer Rouge played loud, festive-sounding Cambodian music to drown out the sounds of the murdered. In the center of the killing field is a memorial stupa with hundreds of skulls of dead Cambodians. The skulls at the bottom had colored dots to indicate how the person died. It was either by a machete, a hoe, bamboo sticks, wooden sticks, and anything else that was at hand and convenient for butchering fellow Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge were running out of bullets and didn’t have enough money to buy more. Thus, the brutal way of killing. Read here for more about the Civil War. Even after the war, the western world still acknowledged the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s legitimate government and the response against war criminals took to long.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was first a school that became a building for torture and killing. Blood stains are still darkly visible on the floors next to the torture beds, the only piece of furniture in the rooms. The cells were small and narrow and made entirely of brick. When prisoners arrived, their mugshots were taken. Now, all the pictures are up on display for visitors to gaze into the sorrowful eyes of men and women, young and old, who knew they were going to die. Some women were still holding their babies as their pictures was taken. It was awful.
A bus ride to Siem Reap is approximately five hours. I rode Grand Ibis, a comfortable bus with lots of leg space, air conditioning, and Wi-Fi. On the bus, I met an Australian couple who I ate lunch with. Farther away from the city, houses are held up on high stilts to elevate when the monsoon comes. I stayed at Pool Party Hostel in Siem Reap. The hostel offers free tuk tuk drives to Pub Street every day except Sundays. Pub Street has heaps of restaurants, bars, and food stands with tuk tuk drivers constantly asking if you need a ride, “Lady! Tuk tuk?!?!”. A woman was selling grilled snake and spiders but my stomach is not that adventuresome.
Angkor Wat was incredible! Anyone who visits Cambodia and doesn’t visit Angkor Wat is a fool. I loved my time there even though it was so hot I sweated half my weight off.
Everyone wants to visit the temples at 4:30 in the morning to watch the sunrise but I had no interest. I happily began my journey at 10 after a big breakfast. To enter Angkor Wat, all women must keep their knees and shoulders covered despite the heat.
You can buy a one-day, three-day, or seven-day ticket. There is a short circuit and a long circuit. I bought the one-day for the short circuit that took me eight hours. Both routes include the seven major temples but the longer one also has many smaller temples included on its route. The grounds are so vast. It’s essential to have a tuk tuk driver. You can just tell your hotel or hostel you want to visit Angkor and they will call a tuk tuk for you.
My driver dropped me off at all the temples and patiently waited for me to be done. The temples were built thousands of years ago and most of them are still well-intact with intricate carvings remarkably preserved. You can walk in and around them and climb to the top of the larger temples. Some of the temples you climb don’t have a railing to hold onto, so you are climbing on hands and knees, and when there was one, the metal was too hot from the sun to hold onto. My legs were sore by the end of the day and my clothes were sticking to me like a second skin. Despite being the number one tourist attraction in Cambodia, the only places where I ran into the most people was at Ta Prohm or the “Tomb Raider” temple with the tree and Angkor, the famous temple you see on all the postcards and pictures.
For much of my time, there were very few people and sometimes I was on my own. I saw monkeys with their babies clinging to their stomachs. Along with foreigners and Cambodians were Buddhist monks clad in their orange robes. My favorite temple was The Bayon.
For hundreds of years, Angkor Wat became the lost city that was enveloped by the jungle and forgotten. In fact, Angkor Wat was never lost because the Khmers remained aware of its existence. The Frenchman who “discovered” it spread its existence and popularized it to the western world.
THE FLOATING VILLAGE
The next day after Angkor Wat, I visited the Floating Village. In a van, we drove 40 minutes to a village of homes, schools, and stores built on stilts at least three meters high to keep afloat during the monsoon season. The houses are situated right over the river that opens out into a large lake, the Tonle Sap. Children were splashing and jumping around in the water and while their parents were working on their boats. I walked through the village but spent most of my time on the boat. It’s fascinating to see how other people live. It’s hard for me to believe that soon the land will disappear.
Away from the village and farther down the river are mangroves where you can take a smaller boat into. I remembered Cambodia has snakes and decided to stick with the larger boat. When I stepped onto a another larger boat where a woman was selling mango and pineapples, there were two large cages in the water. One held alligators. The other held a massively long snake that made me glad I didn’t go into the mangroves.
On this tour, I met a Mongolian woman who lives in Australia who is married to a Romanian. She works for an IT company. Her company asked her to move to Australia and she lives happily there. She was very chatty, well-traveled, and continues to visit her family in Ulaanbaatar.
BACK TO MONGOLIA
I took the bus back to Phnom Penh. My flight back to Seoul didn’t leave Cambodia until midnight. I had to check out of my room at noon and spent the whole day and evening wandering around the city. I walked around the Royal Palace to a street with boutiques and the British embassy. The roads by the Royal Palace were closed off to cars making it the only quiet area and no one yelling, “Lady, tuk tuk?” I spent an hour in the National Museum of Cambodia. A small museum with just one floor and a garden in the middle where monks sat under the trees by the ponds. In the evening, I got a two-hour Swedish massage. Heavenly! When it was 21:00, a tuk tuk took me back to the airport.
Due to the two hour time difference, I landed in Seoul at 7 where I had another seven-hours to kill. Exhausted, I fell asleep in the terminal to Astana, Kazakhstan. The flight back to Ulaanbaatar is three-hours from Seoul.
I’m proud of myself for going on this trip on my own. There are trade-offs when traveling by yourself.
Some positive points are:
- You will always meet other people. Southeast Asia has a lot of solo travelers and hostels are fun places to meet people.
- You can do whatever you want without asking someone else what they want.
- You step outside of your comfort zone.
- It’s liberating and exciting!
But the negative points are:
- There’s no one to rally you when you’re tired.
- No one to double check with. You’ve got to make sure you’ve packed everything and have your passport on your own.
- You must deal with and solve your own problems which can also be a positive factor.
The positive points outweigh the negative.