Family visits Mongolia

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.

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My counterpart helped me to design my new summer deel.

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.

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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.

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View from my window.

Ulaanbaatar

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.

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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.

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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.

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Gobi Desert

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Our Three Camel Lodge driver changed into his deel during Naadam.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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 I hope you can view all the pictures. Internet is very poor where I am.

Solo trip to Vietnam and Cambodia

 

TRAVEL SOLO

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:

  1. Eat as much food as possible. After a year in Mongolia, this was a priority.
  2. Go shopping.
  3. Go to a spa.
  4. Get tan.
  5. Avoid heat stroke.
  6. Don’t lose my passport.
  7. 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.

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I packed very light. I only had my running shorts, a few t-shirts, toiletries, a book, I pod, and camera.

VIETNAM

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.

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Out on the street were chickens with flowers through their throats waiting to be grilled and eaten.

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.

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I bought a Vietnamese conical hat made from palm leaves, a tree bark, or bamboo.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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Thien Cung Grott

 

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.

CAMBODIA

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.

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Google image.

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.

CAMBODIAN HISTORY

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.

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The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek.

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.

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The grounds of the Tuol Sleng. No pictures were taken inside.

 

SIEM REAP

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

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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.

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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.

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Ta Prohm where the film “Tomb Raider” was filmed.
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The main complex and now the symbol of Cambodia appearing on its flag.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. You will always meet other people. Southeast Asia has a lot of solo travelers and hostels are fun places to meet people.
  2. You can do whatever you want without asking someone else what they want.
  3. You step outside of your comfort zone.
  4. It’s liberating and exciting!

But the negative points are:

  1. There’s no one to rally you when you’re tired.
  2. No one to double check with. You’ve got to make sure you’ve packed everything and have your passport on your own.
  3. You must deal with and solve your own problems which can also be a positive factor.

The positive points outweigh the negative.

One year in Mongolia

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.

June 2016

  • 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.

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July 2016

  • 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.

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August 2016

  • 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.

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September 2016

  • 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.

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October 2016

  • 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.

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November 2016

  • 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.

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December 2016

  • 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.  

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January 2017

  • 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.

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February 2017

  • 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.

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March 2017

  • 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.”

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April 2017

  • 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.

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May 2017

  • 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.

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One more year!

Hygge in Mongolia

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:

  1. A new language that can create excitement when you can understand something or frustrations when you have no idea what is being said.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. New holidays such as Mongolian New Year, Tsagaan Sar, and Naadam, Mongolia’s summer holiday.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:

  • Tea
  • Fuzzy socks
  • Comfortable pants
  • Candles
  • My kindle, I have already read 25 books, or my hard drive of movies.
  • Music
  • 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.

A hike in the countryside

27 April marked the first day since October that I didn’t have to wear my two layer winter coat outside.

However, now that it’s spring, Mongolian weather is experiencing some mood swings as the weather shifts from warm to cold on a day-by-day basis.

One day it’s warm. The next day, there is a dust storm.

One day it’s warm and sunny. The next day, there’s a 30-minute snow storm.

One day the sky is blue. The next day, the sky turns moody and gray and grumbles as another wind storm arrives.

Or all four seasons happen in a single day.

I went on a hike into the countryside with students. A day that started out brilliantly but was eventually thwarted by the weather.

Schools are still taking Olympiad exams. Students compete to place 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in their school subjects. I think the concept is utterly ridiculous as students and even teachers are put under a lot of pressure by administration to compete for the best score.

So, going out on a hike was a perfect diversion to leave school behind.

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There is still snow and ice out in the countryside.
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We had brought a jump rope and a ball to play volleyball and soccer.

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When we set off, it was warm enough for me to take my jacket off and frolic about in short sleeves.

But 30-minutes after we finally found our spot, the sun vanished, it began to rain, and the wind forced us to find shelter against the rocky outcrop of a hill.

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I couldn’t help but laugh as I sat there against the rocks trying to rub life back into my cold fingers. I should have realized that this was going to happen. But as I sat there with Mongolian students ranging from 7th to 11th grade, this had just become another comical moment that I stored away into my memory to reminisce about later in the future.

 

Spring Break in UB

A blizzard hit my aimag on the first day of spring break. It was by no means a gentle snow fall but with the help of strong winds the cold snow was whipped into my face making it impossible to see as I walked. So, I hunkered down in my apartment, holding a mug of hot chocolate while watching cars getting stuck in the snow, motorcyclists walking their bikes, and small children drowning in the snow drifts as their older siblings came to their rescue. Later, when I had to go food shopping, I found myself floundering as the snow came up to my knees in certain places.

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My counterpart, in the red coat, walking across the government square.
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The hill next to my yellow school later became a place for sledding and snowball fights.
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The road from my apartment building to the market and center of town.

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The very weekend the snow storm hit was the weekend me and my site mates were supposed  to go to Ulaanbaatar. Sadly, the storm shut the bus station down for four-days because all the roads were buried in snow. This brings me to the next chapter of my story.

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My counterpart’s daughter making snow angels in front of a ger.

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As the roads were gradually cleared and the bus station opened, luckily, a window of opportunity opened up and I was able to travel to UB. I had to visit the dentist and so I was on medical leave. I traveled without my site mates making this the first time I had to travel in Mongolia by myself. On the morning of my departure, I waited for my driver to take me to the station but he never showed. As if by coincidence, my counterpart came to my home at 7:30 in the morning and walked with me to the bus. The drive to the city took eight-hours. It was slow going driving north as roads were still covered in snow and my bus stopped by a house for 30-minutes without any explanation. The season also transitioned from winter to spring the closer I got to UB. Ironically, as my aimag was getting pounded by snow, UB was getting dazzled by sunshine and clear blue skies.

A lot happened as a PCV, who still has no grasp of the Mongolian language, toured around UB. I miss city life. My aimag has a large market plus a bakery and a coffee shop but I miss seeing buildings and seeing more variety of shops and stores.

I ran into a lot of unexpected people:

While walking to the Peace Corps Office, I ran into my 5th grade student. Her mother bought me a cookie from the café we were standing in front of.

I heard an “Anna?” as I was running late for my dentist appointment. It was Kevin B who was back in Mongolia. I must have had my peripheral vision turned off because I didn’t notice as a 7-ft. man walked right past me.

A Mongolian woman pretended to tie her shoes as she waited for me to catch up to her on the sidewalk. She was eager to talk about America and had never met a “Chicago girl” before. She lives in a soum three-hours away from my aimag.

When I showed up at my hostel, I didn’t know if any PCVs would be there but funnily enough there is always a guarantee there will be some in the city. As I was eating breakfast in the hostel kitchen, my Peace Corps trainer from last summer, Matt, plopped down on the stool in front of me with a, “What’s up, Anna?”

While I was waiting for my bus to leave at the Dragon Center, a man tried to pick pocket me. He probably thought the blonde hair was a dead giveaway for a stupid tourist with open pockets containing an iPhone just ripe for the picking. He wasn’t pleased when I swerved around him as his grubby hand unsuccessfully swiped my jacket followed by my triumphant smirk as I descended down the escalator.

Food, food, food:

I was most excited about eating food in UB. In fact, the only pictures I took while in UB was of food. I ate cheeseburgers at Ruby Room and Granville, a stir-fried dish at a Korean restaurant, had a large popcorn at the movies, munched on various delicacies in a café, and ate a bagel with salmon at Khan Deli.

 

Taxi rides:

After 10 months, my Mongolian is still awful. However, it has made transportation either very amusing or terrifying. When I got off the bus at the Dragon Center, I was swamped by men yelling,

“Taxi?

Taxi!

Taxi?!?!”

Everyone in Mongolia is a cab driver.

The first car I got into, the driver walked away leaving me in it. I quickly got out and  power walked away farther down Peace Avenue. The second car had never heard of Peace Corps and couldn’t understand what I was saying, (I couldn’t blame him though). The office doesn’t exactly have an address so I was saying, “Suhkbataar Square,” and “Coke can.” I just called someone at Peace Corps to talk to him followed by many “ahhhhh, zaa zaa zaa!”

The afternoon when I had to go back to the Dragon Center, I hailed down a driver who didn’t know what the Dragon Center was. The driver was in a good mood and called a friend who speaks English. Apparently, you need to replace the “A” sound in dragon and emphasize more of an “O” sound. For 30 minutes, we combined our minimal English and Mongolian and chatted about the weather, Mongolia, food, and the Chicago Bulls.

I should really improve my language but I still surprisingly get around without the need for fluency.

Finally, *cue the music*…

A tale as old as time:

I grew up watching Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” and just had to watch the live version in IMAX 3D and it was so good! The woman next to me was swiping away tears from under her 3D glasses. Or maybe that was me.

The next time I will be back in the city will be when my parents come to visit in the summer!

Shagai

After the long Tsagaan Sar break, all schools have a “wear your deel to school day.”

A deel, if you remember, is Mongolia’s traditional clothing that is worn in the countryside and during holidays such as Tsagaan Sar during the winter and Nadaam during the summer.

There is nothing more adorable then seeing small children in their deels. At my school, there were more younger students strutting about in their deels then the older high school students.

 

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Group photo with my 5th grade class.

 

Students also played shagai, an ankle bone game.

shagai

When you toss the ankle bones, the four shagai positions are from left to right: camel, horse, sheep, and goat.

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This game is called “Horse Race” and can last for a very long time.

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Another game students played is when you throw an ankle bone into the air and with the same hand try to swipe up as many ankle bones from the floor before you catch the falling ankle bone. If you successfully catch the ankle bone, you keep the ankle bones you swiped.

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Celebrating Tsagaan Sar

Ready…Set…Tsagaan Sar!

Tsagaan Sar felt like a race that began weeks in advance. Stores were being emptied out, I had to wait 30 minutes in a line at the ATM as a dead goat was being shoved into my back, and many folk from the countryside came in for weekend shopping trips. I heard the word “Opoc” (Russia) being whispered as I stealthy weaved through the crowds.   

What is Tsagaan Sar?

Tsagaan Sar is Mongolia’s Lunar New Year.

Because this is a brand new holiday for all of us, Peace Corps prepared us with what to expect and taught us the proper greetings. Below are just three examples:

Сар шинийн мэнд хүргэе! – Happy Tsagaan Sar!

Сайхан шинэлээрэй! – Have a good Tsagaan Sar!

Сар шиндээ сайхан шинж байна уу?  – Are you having a good Tsagaan Sar?

In my new winter deel, I visited five homes where I stuffed myself like a glutton. It was the epitome of being fat and happy.

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Every Mongolian household puts together a display of food on the eve of Tsagaan Sar. The layers of all the bread represent happiness and sadness. Always beginning and ending the year in happiness. On top are white food items such as sugar cubes, aaruul, and white mints. The color white represents the moon. Then there is a massive chunk of beef guests can carve from, fruit, and a bowl of sweets.

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What does Tsagaan Sar entail?

  • Food – So much food! The main entre is buuz. Every family makes over a thousand buuz. There are also more plates of meat with slices of pickles plus chocolate. You can drink milk tea, airag, vodka, beer, and juice.

Two weeks before the holiday, I went to the supermarket. The atmosphere of the supermarket was much like a gladiatorial fight. People were fighting over boxes; straight, organized lines at the cashier no longer existed. People were trying to step in front of each other while old women showed no mercy as they shoved themselves to the very front; the last couple of eggs, bags of bread and apples, and packages of chocolate chip cookies were swiftly scooped up. But before I got caught up in all of it, I promptly made a u-turn and bee- lined it to another less raucous supermarket. Thus, I had to stock my kitchen with food as if the apocalypse was approaching. Later, on 6 March, stores still didn’t have dairy products or bread.

  • Family – Tsagaan Sar is all about visiting family. Depending on how large a family is… and Mongolian families are large…you can spend two-weeks or more visiting each others gers and apartments. Visits can be short or long depending on how busy your day is.

 

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My counterpart Nymdavaa and her husband in their home.

 

  • Winter deels – Tsagaan Sar is a blast to the past honoring Mongolian tradition by wearing a deel. Seamstresses are busy months in advance creating new winter deels for men and women, boys and girls.
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On top of a hill with an ovoo, a sacred stone heap.
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My counterpart’s daughter also wearing a blue deel.
  • Presents – After every visit, Mongolians give presents to every visitor before they leave. It can be a variety of items such as candy, cookies, money, soap, and makeup.

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Some Peace Corps Volunteers have described the holiday as being a lot like Halloween (going out and visiting houses), Thanksgiving (eating a lot of food), and Christmas (giving and receiving presents) all rolled up into one big holiday.

My school also had a ceremony.

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A Buddhist monk attended the ceremony. We were all given three white food items: a wafer, a peppermint, and a sugar cube. As the monk chanted and incense wafted up into the air, we had to circle our hands, while holding the items, when directed by the monk. I was very close to chomping down on the wafer beforehand but quickly stopped myself when I saw no one else was eating.

 

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Me with my school’s English and Russian teachers.

 

Now its Spring!

Tsagaan Sar also symbolizes the end of winter and the beginning of spring. The weather already feels warmer. It won’t be shorts weather until May or June but the sun is shining bright.

Peace Corps challenge: Hospitality

Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.

This year’s Peace Corps’ challenge is highlighting hospitality from countries around the world. For thousands of years, Mongolians have been a hospitable people who has endured to this day.

Before, a person could travel for days without encountering another human being. Therefore, it became important and necessary for ger dwellers to offer their home to travelers and herders. That hospitality was then expected to be reciprocated.

A friend told me that I should give the video challenge a go and voila! After a month of shooting video and editing, I submitted my 2-minute video showing Mongolian hospitality, a country that is so often overlooked but is slowly budding out.

Click on the picture shown below to give my picture and video a Facebook like.

You have until 21 February to vote.

VOTE MONGOLIA!