Сайхан шинэлээрэй! 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… More
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.
1 June was Children’s Day in Mongolia, a national holiday.
With no school, children were outside playing and families were in the government square where there were toy cars for kids to drive around in, a swing set, and the museum had free admittance.
1 June is also another significant day for me.
I have been in Mongolia for one-year. I have completed one year of Peace Corps service.
When I looked back on what I have written during my service – (I have written more than 500 uncensored pages of my Peace Corps experiences) – it has been fascinating to see how I have transformed in this country.
Here’s brief one-year summary of my first year. Let us precede down memory lane.
- Arriving in Mongolia with 52 PCVs.
- My Peace Corps training site was in a small soum in northern Mongolia where I lived with a host family and 8 other PCVs.
- Peace Corps training was like a boot camp: early mornings, a nightly curfew, long hours of lessons, and if you screwed up, you were sent home.
- Being hit hard by homesickness, being sick for 3-weeks, and the long hours of language class.
- My first Mongolian sentence I learned was, “I eat egg.”
- I feared the outhouses because I thought I was going to fall through and learned the importance of emptying your pockets.
- Numerous ducky-showers in my blue tumpun.
- The “Where’s Nancy?” moment during ping pong.
- Driving to the Russian border.
- Thunder storms that took out the power.
- Our sacred wifi spot on the 2nd floor in the school hallway.
- Not being able to keep a straight face during mico-teaching or saying/hearing the word, “болох уу.” We were the worst.
- The hottest month of the year.
- Being given a Mongolian name, Анхмаа (Ankmaa).
- Celebrating Naadam in my new summer deel.
- Having our trainer saying she needs to buy somethings before visiting the Mother Tree and coming out with ice cream, “Does the Mother Tree also need some pizza?”
- River day!
- Being told that I didn’t have what it takes to live in Mongolia due to its “rough” nature: “Winters are tough. It’s not for everyone.”
- Getting food poisoning from ice cream.
- Obtaining a closer relationship with my host family.
- Having a mouse infestation in my home.
- Andy: “Everybody, I have an announcement. I’ve decided to resign myself from Peace Corps……Just kidding, tomorrow morning, we’re having a river cleanup day.”
- Karaoke night.
- Exploring Darkhan with Emma and her host sister.
- Host Family Appreciation Party by the river.
- My host mom’s farewell text message after saying goodbye: “Love you my family. Good luck. See you come back soon.”
- Getting my official site placement in western Mongolia.
- Waiting three hours for our food in a Korean restaurant:“This is like prison food.”
- Officially becoming 46 Peace Corps Volunteers during Mongolia’s 25th anniversary.
- Meeting my counterparts and having my first teacher party where they spoke in Mongolian. Not knowing the language, I found myself intensely watching a high jump competition on TV.
- The beginning of the school year.
- Moving Jenni into her new home and having to carry a mattress up the stairs: “Pivot!”
- Walking on the outskirts of the ger district with my site mates.
- Seeing a yellow Labrador.
- Pizza night with the Catholic nuns.
- Receiving the devastating news that Angelina divorced Brad.
- Weekend in Kharkhorin and visiting Erdene Zuu Monastery.
- 25 September was the first snowfall.
- Celebrating Teachers Day.
- Starting our Saturday speaking club, The Chatty Bunch.
- My friend Zulmka getting accepted to study abroad in Luxembourg.
- Buying a bottle of wine and figuring out later, as we took our first sips, that it was brandy.
- Celebrating Halloween with Bookbridge students.
- Celebrating Tuya’s birthday.
- Consolidation day drill: “Happy Drill Day. Hope nobody is illegally traveling.”
- The 20-hour drive to Khentii and the Bookbridge English Festival.
- Seeing the Genghis Khan statue in all its shiny glory.
- Celebrating Friendsgiving twice at home and in Bayanhongor.
- My radiator bursting and leaking water everywhere.
- Almost missing the bus that would take me to IST.
- Seeing everyone again at IST and finally having a hot shower.
- Finally getting internet.
- Walking in -20-degree weather to the Sunday Market.
- The Young Teachers Christmas Party.
- Having a crippling stomach inflammation that kept me bed-ridden for days.
- Having a sleepover on Christmas Eve.
- Having a low-key New Year’s celebration with two of my counterparts.
- Vising the horse statues and having a winter picnic on 1 January.
- Finally buying an oven. Best decision I’ve made.
- Turning 24 years old.
- Having my lowest point of my service when my CP made me cry.
- A three-day language seminar.
- Making my Peace Corps hospitality video.
- Perrin: “You want to eat at the vegetarian restaurant?” Simon: “Pizza chicken?!?!” Perrin: “No….”
- The Write On competition.
- Having Mongolian dance lessons.
- Finding and buying bags of frozen strawberries.
- Celebrating Tsagaan Sar, Mongolia’s New Year in my new winter deel.
- Watching Tuya rain hell on the woman who cheated me out of my internet data.
- Going on a run with Perrin and getting chased by some youths. “Piss off” probably wasn’t the best Peace Corps response to them.
- Telling Adiya I wanted to make some tsuvien but she mistakenly thought I said soybean so she was trying to look up what soybean was.
- Wear your deel to school day.
- Eating fish for the first time in months.
- A massive snow storm that hit us at the end of the month.
- Traveling to UB where I ate so much food and watched “Beauty and the Beast.”
- Having a three-day TedX workshop for 33 students.
- Making pizza with Adiya and her kids.
- Going to the hair salon and having six people watch me as I got my hair cut.
- Uuganaa: “I’m so proud you are here in Mongolia.”
- Teaching the best class all year with my 6th graders.
- Going hiking in the countryside and getting hit by a rain and wind storm.
- The last month of school.
- Arvaikheer’s trash cleanup day.
- Dust storms.
- Inviting all my English teachers to my home for dinner.
- Buying material for my new summer deel.
- Ted X Arvaikheer being a success with 3 students speaking in English.
- Having dinner with people from the US Embassy and Mongolia’s Fulbright candidates.
- Traveling 16 hours to Erdenet for Special Olympics.
One more year!
Moving to a new country has its moments:
It’s exciting. It’s new. There’s an adrenaline rush.
But, it’s also nerve-wrecking and scary.
Unlike America, Mongolia follows its own set of rules. The country is still developing but its culture and traditions have been firmly rooted in Mongolian life for hundreds of years. It has all been a whirl wind for me.
When thrown into a country that is not your own, you will experience:
- A new language that can create excitement when you can understand something or frustrations when you have no idea what is being said.
- A new sense of time. America is a punctual country. More then 5-minutes late and you are questioned or given a warning while you try to put the blame on how bad the traffic was or how the train was delayed. In Mongolia, if you are more then 30-minutes late, no questions are asked. You simply say, “I was at the market,” “I had to go to the bank,” “I had to eat lunch,” or absolutely nothing.
- A new work environment. In Mongolia, classes are run differently and are more teacher focused then student focused. For example, students aren’t asked for their opinion on subject matter and there is a lack of critical thinking. Substitute teachers don’t exist. If a teacher can’t come to school another teacher will cover their classes.
- A lot of staring. Wherever I go, whatever I do, I always get stared at. When I got a haircut, I had 6 people staring unflinchingly at me through the mirror. Many Mongolians have never seen an American before and that I understand, so I say hi to the children or I look straight ahead and ignore it, but I also have moments when I don’t want to leave my home.
- New holidays such as Mongolian New Year, Tsagaan Sar, and Naadam, Mongolia’s summer holiday.
- Different weather. Winter and summer are Mongolia’s dominant seasons. Luckily, I’m from Chicago so the cold winter didn’t throw me off kilter. In the fall, it will start to snow as early as September and in the spring we get wind and dust storms.
- A new diet. Mongolia has no seafood and unless you are in UB, there is no Mexican, Indian, or sushi to be eaten.
But you can also make new friends, eat new food, discover a new talent, explore, make great memories, and become aware of what you are capable of when on your own in a foreign country.
Therefore, it has become essential for me to find ways to relax. To have myself a comfortable alcove where it’s just me and for a few hours the outside world doesn’t exist.
So, what do I do?
I’m trying to live with some “Hygge” in my life – (not to be confused with “lagom” which is something else entirely).
Pronounced “Hoo guh,” hygge is, “A quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”
The key words being cozy and content.
My main ingredients for such a feeling consists of:
- Fuzzy socks
- Comfortable pants
- My kindle, I have already read 25 books, or my hard drive of movies.
- Baked goods that I either buy or bake myself.
- Cat naps as I bask in the sun that shines through my windows.
When something causes me stress or frustration, it’s important that I have a comfortable home away from home to come back to.