Road trip to Khentii

I stumbled out of my apartment building Friday morning at 7am, the only source of light being the car’s headlights. Despite the early hour, I managed a cheerful “Сайн байна уу” to the driver to which I only got a grunt in response. With my blue backpacking bag filled with snacks and clothes that was tossed into the trunk, my pillow, and camel blanket, I folded myself into the small car. I was on my way to Khentii, the birthplace of Chinggis Khan, with 20 Bookbridge students and my PCV site mates, Perrin and Jenni, for an English Festival.

It took 18 hours.

          18 hours!

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We left with two cars, the small car I was in and a Russian meeker that had 20 people crammed in. They looked like sad cows going to the slaughter. I thanked my lucky stars that I wasn’t in that meeker with them. My long legs wouldn’t have forgiven me. When we left our aimag, the sun was a red orb rising over the plains like a scene from The Lion King.

It was a tough journey. The drive to UB took nine hours, two hours longer then it would have taken by bus. We kept making stops because of the meeker driver. Nobody knew what his problem was. He was making far too many stops and driving at a sluggish pace. It was an agonizingly slow drive. I munched on peanuts, craisins, and carrots as my IPod played on shuffle.

          “UB is just ahead of us.”

          “I don’t see it.”

That’s because of the great plumes of steam and smoke erupting from chimneys, factory smoke stacks, and the ger district, creating a lovely blanket of smog that caused the city’s skyline to disappear. Transitioning from empty roads we were suddenly hit by a blitzkrieg of bumper-to-bumper heavy traffic. Terrifying when traffic laws are heavily lax here. We were making a left turn when another car thought it was a great idea to push a little harder on his gas pedal nearly crashing into us. But our driver was like, “NOT TODAY!” and stoically evaded the car while I nearly shitted myself in the back seat. I held on a little tighter to my pillow as if that would do something. We made some more stops in the city. Sadly, none of the stops was at a coffee shop and we resumed our journey out of the city and onto Khentii.

During the second part of the drive, it was pitch black with stars guiding our way. Cars in the far distance looked like fireflies as they descended from the hills; their car lights a small bright light in the murky blackness. We arrived in Chinggis Xot at 1 am due to the slow meeker driver. We had to chug behind him at snail’s pace to stay close to the students. At one point, we were driving 25 miles-per-hour.

PCVs stayed with other PCVs in the aimag while Bookbridge students and faculty found their own accommodations. The lovely Phoebe and Mission, the cat, took me in for the weekend. On Day 1 of the English Festival, Bookbridge students from my aimag united with Bookbridge students from Khentii’s aimag. They all took a one-hour test that Jenni, Perrin, and I created for different grade levels. Our tests were vastly different from Mongolian tests because there was more writing and open-ended questions to avoid cheating. More than half did very well. Later in the afternoon, Khentii PCVs organized games for the students and there was an awards ceremony. Students with the top scores received medals, a certificate and an English grammar book. Afterwards, we disbanded. Students were still exhausted from the long drive. During Day 2 of the festival, students played basketball and volleyball in the morning, we went over test corrections in the afternoon, and then watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the evening. 

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Who run the world? Girls!

 

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Test award winners with ages ranging from 10 to 17-years-old.

 

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We didn’t leave Chinggis aimag until Monday morning at 9 am. Before entering UB, we hopped out of the car for a few minutes to gaze upon the enormous Chinggis Khan statue. With daylight we could also see the landscape that escaped us Friday night: flat with small hills and eagles that sat puffed up on the snowy ground. In UB, we had a two hour break and spent it in E-Mart, a Korean superstore. I devoured a large pizza for lunch. The traffic was so bad. It took nearly two hours to get out of the city. We didn’t arrive back home until midnight. Our driver must have been exhausted from driving all day and night. I kept a wary eye out for him just in case.

          “Are you keeping an eye on him?”

          “Yeah, he’s staring straight ahead.”

          “It’s hard to tell if he’s swerving because of all the potholes.”

It was a nerve-wrecking ordeal. Trucks with their headlights blinded our eyes and horses standing at the side of the road wouldn’t materialize until the very last second, including three dead ones. We were all exhausted and I was happy to come back to my apartment. However, I came home to a leaking radiator. More on that thrilling tale to come later.

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Happy Halloween

Happy Halloween!

Happy birthday, Chinggis Khan!!

No school!!!

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There was no school on Halloween which is also Chinggis Khan’s birthday. 12th graders created all the decorations for their spooky Halloween party, baked all the food, and had games to play. They painted their faces, made home-made witch hats, wore creepy masks, and sported cat ears. There was even a live cat meowing constantly behind a curtain.

 

The Chatty Bunch

Peach Oolong, Forest Berry, Jasmine, Organic Spring Jasmine, Vanilla, Green Matcha, Green Tea Tropical, Organic Breakfast, Chamomile, Apricot Green, Ceylon, Mint, Mango Black, and English tea. Anybody who knows me knows that I need a lovely hot cup of tea every day.

Three times a day.

Living in Mongolia is no exception as my kitchen shelf is weighted down by all my bags of teas. Now that it is November and the temperature has significantly dropped, there is nothing I love more than to be done with work and to power walk back to my warm and comfortable apartment where my tea, camel blankets, and Kindle await me.

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It snowed at the beginning of the month.

Note to readers: I have recently finished reading the first two books in a new series called, “The Seven Sisters,” by Lucinda Reily. I’m obsessed. The first book is based in Brazil and the second in Norway. Third book comes out next year. To help ease the long wait, I’m trolling away on Reily’s website.

I don’t get bored here. I’m content. During the week days, I spend long hours at the school with lesson planning, teacher development, co-teaching, and with my speaking club. Many 6th graders come to my club every Tuesday. However, a counter part is unavailable – (or becomes conveniently busy) – so I am left alone to wonder how I can explain instructions and English words to small children. I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter what I say. They just love when I’m rambling away in English and teaching them nursery rhymes and The Beatles’ “Hello, Good Bye.”

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7th graders learn about many hobbies and write what their favorite hobbies are.

 

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11th grade students are learning adjectives. I had them watch a drone video of Chicago so they can practice using adjectives to describe the city.
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8th grade students review who, what, where, and when for asking questions.

 

 On the weekends, I get invited over to my counterpart’s home where they generously feed me.

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We celebrated my counterpart’s daughter’s birthday. She turned 5.

I shop in the markets and explore buildings where sometimes it feels like I’m wandering in a maze. A narrow hallway leads me through a copious amount of clothing stalls that are now overcrowded with puffy winter jackets; cosmetic counters littered with nail polish, Japanese eye shadow, toothbrushes, and small tubs of face whitening cream; food stands of Khuushuur and buuz that have been sitting there dormant for hours; and window displays of stunning winter deels. People push past in these close quarters so I keep my hands firmly in my pockets.  

I also assist with the Speaking Club – The Chatty Bunch –  at Bookbridge Learning Center.  Bookbridge was founded in Germany. Founded by my fellow PCV, Jenni, the goal of our speaking club is to not just be better English speakers but to become confident public speakers. With the help of our fearless leader, Uuganaa, we meet on Saturdays at 10am. We have accumulated a group of 40 students from all four schools.

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My next blog post will be about my trip with Bookbridge students to eastern Mongolia for an English camp.

Teacher’s Day

The role of a teacher in Mongolia is reveled. Students respect their teachers and a teacher’s dedication to their job and hard work is rewarded every year on the first week of October, National Teacher’s Day. This is a week-long celebration. On 30 September, 12th graders became the teachers for the day while teachers took the day off and had sport competitions all day and night.

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12th graders invade the office  as they prepare for the day.

 

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5 of my Mongolian-English counterparts before the Volleyball games.

 

I rocked up to school wearing my sneakers and volleyball outfit. I just love how everyone assumes I’m a volleyball expert because I’m tall. I usually end up kicking the ball. I didn’t know that all the teachers would eventually change into their sport outfits later. So for the first three hours, I felt very much like an awkward kangaroo, just bouncing on my heels waiting for my counterparts to change out of their fancy dresses and high heels.

Volleyball would have fared better if the ball hadn’t been rock-solid. It seemed every time that the ball ricocheted off of an arm an expletive was heard. The entire competition lasted until 2 AM. Nevertheless, we English teachers came in 2nd place and got silver medals for our bruises, sleep deprivation, and sportsmanship. In between games, we played table tennis. Teachers also bought food and drink. I went the lazy route and bought bags of chips while my counterparts make khuushuur, soup, and buuz. A thermos of hot milk tea and bottles of vodka and wine decorated the table but I had to pass on the first two due to it being 9 AM. I definitely would have been awful at volleyball if I had gone down that road.

Like Stanley Stewart wrote in his book “In the Empire of Genghis Khan:” “When Mongolians party the rest of Asia locks its doors.”  I can wearily support this statement.

At 8 PM, the volleyball competition was put on pause and was replaced with an assembly. Teachers rushed to switch outfits. The lights of the gym were dimmed and music that sounded like music from an action movie trailer started to play. All the 12th graders stood in two long lines on both sides of the gym, clapping and cheering for all the teachers as we walked down the middle. It felt like I was being applauded for winning a medal of valor. The director of the school made a speech and there were singing and dancing performances. I managed to not clumsily trip my way through the Mongolian waltz.

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The 12th grade class after the teacher-student gift exchange.

 

On 6 October, teachers from all the schools in the aimeg gathered together in the theater for an awards ceremony. There were many long and tedious Mongolian speeches. I found myself nodding off as unintelligible Mongolian was spoken, awards were awarded and pictures were taken on stage. Thankfully, the award ceremony ended and a concert began. This concert was incredible! It was every tourist’s dream who visits Mongolia. Teachers played various instruments such as the horsehead fiddle. Gorgeous outfits were worn. There was dancing and singing including throat singing. Also, when Mongolians clap, they clap together in unison.

After the concert, everyone scattered to their respected school’s party at a venue. My school’s party was held at the Wedding Palace. Dinner was served while more speeches were made and more teachers won awards. Vodka was being chugged at such as speed that I didn’t think anyone was going to show up to school the next day. The entire week was a whirlwind as I celebrated a new holiday in my new home.  

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Kharkhorin

At 9am on Saturday morning in a private car, me and my site mates left our aimeg for Kharkhorin – a “super” soum lying in northern Övörkhangai Province.

This particular soum is referred to as a “super” soum not just because of its size but because of its tourist appeal. Many tourists come to  Kharkhorin to visit Erdene Zuu Monastery and the famous phallic rock that continues to humorously serve as a reminder for monks to remain celibate but yet also symbolizes fertility. The land had also once been the capital of the Mongol Empire under Ogedei Khan.

During my training, I had gotten used to the bumpy rides over fields and dirt roads. But since arriving in my aimeg back in mid-August, I hadn’t been on a bumpy road trip in two months. There was a moment when I thought I was going to get ill. It was a three-hour drive to the soum. The car rode smoothly on a paved road for 30-minutes until our driver made a left onto a narrow dirt road. For the rest of the ride, we followed this trail that winded its way like a snake over fields, streams and through stunning valleys. The hills are sparse of vegetation. I saw some trees clumped together in pockets between hills or upon the foothills. Their leaves were bright yellow, a cheerful bright color amongst the never-ending shades of greens and browns.

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Kharkhorin is large with roads and sidewalks traversing around its markets, restaurants, schools, gers, and homes. Kharkhorin made itself comfortable on the lower end of the Orkhon River and upon the eastern foothills of the Khangai Mountains. The Orkhon River is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Site Orkhon Valley Cultural Landscape.

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On top of a hill is a massive oovoo surrounded by thin walls depicting the stages of the Mongol Empire.

 

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For centuries, the Orkhon Valley was believed to be the seat of imperial power. Now, the valley continues to support Mongolia’s nomadic traditions.

 

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An abandoned mill house adorns the bank of the river. Now its only visitors are spiders, cobwebs, and birds.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATourists can stay in ger camps that offer beautiful scenery of the river and hills.

Erdene Zuu Monastery survived the communist purge of all Buddhist monasteries in the country. Joseph Stalin ordered for this monastery to remain in tact to show international visitors that there was some toleration of religious freedom.  The monastery is surrounded by a high wall in a square-shape enclosure with 108 stupas sitting on top. Visitors can walk in for free.

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The Temple of Dalai Lama.

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Family, friends, and visitors can spin these canisters to show respect for the dead. They wrap all the way around the monastery.

 

 

Here is a list for more monasteries to visit in Mongolia.

http://mongoliatravel.guide/things_to_do/view/monasteries-temples-in-mongolia/

Winter is coming

On 25 September, the first snow flurries fell from the sky. Never have I seen snow fall this early in the year.

The hills and steppe were covered in a white powder of snow. I was in a car coming back from Kharkhorin when the sky began to piss down with rain. The rain then transformed into snow.

 Luckily, I had forced my winter gear into my suitcase. I have with me my… 

  • Layers of under armor
  • Warm leggings
  • Thick socks
  • Two hats
  • Winter boots
  • Patagonia sweater and jacket

In Mongolia, I have bought warm and comfortable camel socks and two camel blankets for my bed. Camel socks are great because they aren’t itchy. In the future, I hope to obtain a winter deel. Chicago is a cold and windy city. I survived the storm of “Chiberia” in January 2014 and many blizzards. The only difference with Mongolia is how early winter arrives and I still don’t have hot water and heating.

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The sun begins its asscent into the sky at 7:30 am. This picture was taken from my window.

My fridge door is finely decorated with long strips of duct tape. It is the only way to keep my fridge door closed – (If you are a future Peace Corps Volunteer in Mongolia, pack your duct tape!!!) Sometimes my toilet doesn’t fill back up with water so I give it a few slaps and hits. I won’t get hot water and heat until 1 October – a day I have been eagerly awaiting. I also have no internet and must rely on my school’s internet and free Wi-Fi at many hotel restaurants.

Despite my minor problems, my apartment if feeling more like home. When I first arrived, I had nothing. I had two chairs, a small coffee table, and a bed frame. I have slowly been accumulating everything to make my home comfortable and livable. Now all I need is a toaster oven!

So what do I do in my free time? I switch back and forth between watching Law and Order and The Office depending on my mood. I finished reading all eight books in the “Outlander” series. My Kindle has 80 books waiting to be read. I walk around my aimag with my site mates: climbing hills, going on long walks, and meeting new people.

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When traveling through Mongolia, you will very rarely travel by road. You will find youself hoping you don’t break down as your car or bus drives through rivers, navigates around deep holes, slowly groans up hills, and travels over dirt roads or over grass.

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I enjoy teaching at my school. Grade levels range from A to G and I co-teach in a lot of classes. My goal is to help with creative thinking. What can we do to make learning grammar and book work more interactive, engaging, and will allow students to work together as a group? This is what I tackle while lesson planning with my counterparts. Students love playing competitive games, using music as a learning tool, and are obsessed with stickers.

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My 11A class wearing their deels while performing in a play.

School is in session

The students are like chittering little birds when I walk past them in the dimly lit hallways.

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

For most of these students, “Hi,” is the only English word they know. It’s like there’s an ethereal golden light surrounding me as I walk the school hallways. Girls and boys from 5th grade to 12th grade gawk and then proudly say, “Hi!” or say the greeting to show bravery amongst their school friends, like “Yes, I spoke to the American.”

I am serving with Peace Corps Mongolia as a Secondary English Teacher.

For the next two-years, I will help my eight Mongolian counterparts (CPs) to improve their lesson planning, to improve their English speaking in the class room, and to co-teach alongside them. In addition, I will help lead my school’s speaking club. I look forward to the challenge.

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There are four secondary schools in my aimeg. I am teaching at school #4, the newest school.

School began on 1 September. My yellow school was decorated with balloons and banners in honor of the new school year. Chairs were placed outside and students and faculty members sat outside in the sun to listen to speeches made by the  governor, the Director of my school, and student speeches; dances were performed; songs were sung; and achievements accomplished last year were proudly heralded. I wore my summer deel to the occasion.

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English teachers in a classroom that was funded by Singapore’s World Vision.

I’m teaching a variety of grade levels. We sing songs in 5th grade classes. We are learning the ABCs in 6th grade classes. 7th graders excitedly wave their hands in the air so they can write answers on the board. 11th graders are improving their writing and listening skills and we are preparing the 12th graders for the end-of-the-year Concourse Exam. Students can be quiet and stoic. It’s hard to know if they like having me as a new addition to their classroom but my CPs tell me that whenever I’m not there, students ask where I am. I take that as a great sign! There are more girls than boys. There is a heavy dropout rate due to boys leaving to become herdsmen out in the steppes or simply no interest.

My school is only a three minute walk from my apartment building. A distance I will be grateful for during the blustering cold winter months, (rumor is it might snow soon). Despite the twisting road ahead as I navigate myself through a Mongolian school and the high expectations for having a native English speaker in their midst, my goal is to take it nice and slow.

Here are tips for myself:

  1. To take it easy.
  2. To let things go. If one class goes poorly that doesn’t mean the other classes will.
  3. Don’t teach hungry.
  4. To always have stickers. Great for bribing students when the room is awkwardly quiet.
  5. Maintain organized even if everything else is a jumbled mess.
  6. And if everything goes to pot, take action.

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Summer Flashback

Here are pictures that were taken by my Mongolian language teachers.

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Meeting my host family for the first time. Around my neck is a blue Khata, a Mongolian scarf that is presented during special occasions; births, holidays, graduations, ceremonial occasions, and the arrival and departure of guests.
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Group picture after a volleyball competition with our host families.
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Doing our best to learn Mongolian while ignoring the rumbles of hungry stomachs.
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Holding our lovely Mongolian teacher in our classroom on our last day.  
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On the day we left our soum, our host families met us at the border to wish us farewell and to take one last group picture.

Stay tuned for my next blog post:

My first day at my new school and all the victories and defeats I have suffered so far.

 

 

Home Sweet Home

In the early hours of the morning at 6:30am, I sleepily departed my hotel in Ulaanbaatar with all my bags – my large winter and summer bags, my water filter bag, my 2 backpacks, and my enormous sleeping bag. One of my concerns that I voiced to my supervisor was:

“I don’t think all of this will be able to fit onto the bus…”

But at 8am, the bus departed The Dragon Station with everyone and everything on board. It’s a seven-hour bus ride from the capital to my new home in Övörkhangai. With an early start, little leg space due to my bags and having had no breakfast, I slept the entire way as a Mongolian comedy show was playing on a flat screen at the front of the bus.

My counterparts (CPs) met me upon arrival and they helped me move into my apartment. I live right next door to my school. I’m living in a brand new apartment on the outskirts of my aimeg. However, due to it being a brand new building, I have had to do a lot of shopping to furnish it. A lot of tugriks were flushed away in a single day.

My aimeg lies on the northern edge of the Gobi Desert and on the southern tip of the Khangai Mountain Range and it is – according to the packet I got – the fastest developing sector consisting of carpentry, tailoring, auto-repair, houseware goods, and clothing amongst others. My aimeg is a fantastic example of modern-day living intermingling with Mongolia’s traditional past. Men and women, visiting from the countryside, stroll about wearing their vibrant colored deels, glimmering like shiny gemstones amongst more modern outfits.  

“You are now the tallest person in the city.”

It’s a 10 to 15 minute brisk walk from my apartment building to the center of town. Auto shops and karaoke bars line up my little promenade as I plod daily upon a cracked and broken sidewalk. Trucks, cars, and motorcycles speed past me paying no heed to pedestrians. Stray dogs walk amongst humans. Mostly I’m ignored but sometimes my blonde hair will attract a hoot or a holler when they pass on by.

When walking across the government square,  I can hear the excited voices of children as they race around in toy cars and ride their bikes, enjoying the last few days of freedom before school starts. Summer flowers have been planted on the walkway that leads you from the square to the market street. A person can find almost everything here. On the market street, fruit and vegetable sellers sit in their reserved spots where I can buy potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, cucumbers, and much more. Many stands have been selling school supplies and backpacks for the start of the new school year. “Frozen” is popular and I have seen the faces of Anna and Elsa on backpacks, notebooks, pens, caps, and t-shirts. Despite all the food being sold outside, there is no rancid or awful smell you would expect upon a market street.

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The view of my aimeg from the top of a hill.

 

The summer air is fresh and clean. Occasionally, gray storm clouds float overhead, spits the aimeg with rain, and then floats on to shower upon another region of Mongolia. It’s just like good ol’ English weather. The buildings aren’t pretty. They are cracked and run down but are like treasure chests. When you walk inside, you enter a well-stocked supermarket or a clothing store where there are clothing items ranging from Forever 21, H&M, and UNIQLO, to more unknown designers or even a home goods stores where you can buy your pots, pans, kettles, forks, spoons, and bed sheets. In addition, there are many hotels, restaurants, and a bakery selling scrumptious cake.

Surrounding the center of town and stretching all the way to the foothills is the ger district, where houses with their bright rooftops and gers have planted themselves. Steps leading up to the top of a hill brings you to a white deer statue where Mongolians have written their names – amongst other ghastly graffiti – believing that writing their names will bring them luck. At night, the stairs glow with white light.

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It was a wonderful surprise to find a Moomin t-shirt in my aimeg.

 

My CP is trying to get me ready for winter. Snow can come as soon as September. I have been told to buy camel wool socks and a fluffy hat so I don’t fall victim to frost bite.

I am excited for my new home, the new school year, and to see what the fall semester brings.