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.”
A morning’s sunrise.
An evening’s sunset.
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.
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.
My amazing counterpart and friend who has helped me with so much and has accepted me as part of her family.
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 Musuemand 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 to a spa.
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.
The small road where my hostel was. Both motorcyclists, street sellers, and pedestrians shared the narrow road.
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.
Packing for two-years of your life is tough. I can still vividly remember back in May 2016 when I spent all week in my basement attempting to sort out all my stuff. Clothes were strewn everywhere and piles of miscellaneous were scattered all over the place. I even had my mom come down and I would hold up a t-shirt or a dress and ask, “Yes? No? Maybe?” In the airports, people went around me like I was a rock in a stream. No one wanted to mess with me as I struggled with over a hundred pounds.
There is no right or wrong answers when it comes to packing. Bring what you think is necessary and important for you. Packing lists you find online only proved to be a little helpful for me. Thus, you will read a snippet of what I packed to avoid a nervous breakdown.
There is not much out there about Mongolia. When standing in the travel section in a bookstore, there were 30 books about China, 15 about Japan, and 1 – if you’re lucky – about Mongolia. But guess what? Mongolia pretty much has everything! During your first three months of service, you will be under a travel ban but Peace Corps does give permission if you need to go to UB for something crucial such as winter clothes or a broken computer. If you live in a small soum, you can travel to your local aimeg.
Here’s what I brought with me to Mongolia. I will not give quantities because if you want to go ahead and bring 10 black t-shirts or a lot of dresses, bring 10 black t-shirts and a lot of dresses. Pack your style and prepare to be a little scruffy.
Mongolians don’t care if you re-wear the same outfit.
Pack what you can be versatile with. For example, I have a floral dress from Forever 21. I can tuck it into my skirts, I wear long-sleeve under armor underneath when it’s cold, and I can wear it with leggings. Plus, it washes and dries quickly.
More than half of you will be washing your clothes in a bucket so don’t bring material that can easily get destroyed.
Pack an equal amount of professional and casual clothes.
Pack a cardigan. Women in Mongolia don’t show off their shoulders especially at work. Even at parties, most women wear dresses that cover their shoulders. You won’t get arrested for indecency. It’s just how it is and you’ll avoid a light scolding during your first week.
If your computer is over 6 years old, buy a new one but not the latest Apple computer. You will use your computer a lot and you don’t want your computer to suddenly break. I have Microsoft Windows 10.
Height matters. I am 6 feet tall with size 10 feet. Therefore, I had to pack all my shoes: running shoes, walking shoes, flats, sandals, winter boots, and my leather boots. If you are short with small feet, you will be luckier in the clothing and shoe department.
When you land in Mongolia, you will have no time to go shopping. Then when you arrive at your training site, your site might not have what you need. So, pack extra deodorant, a big bottle of lotion, a big tube of toothpaste, underwear, etc..
At your permanent site, your counterparts will take you out shopping for whatever you might need. It’s not necessary to pack pots, pans, forks, spoons, a sewing kit, a tent, etc..
Whatever it is that you absolutely can’t find, your family can send you a package.
What am I most grateful for?
My kindle. Small with a battery that lasts forever, it is my favorite possession.
My hard drive. Pack two – at least 1 TB – and have the other as backup. Upload movies and shows to it. If you don’t know how to do that kind of stuff like me, you can have media exchanges with other volunteers. You will be my best friend if you come with the latest movies and shows. Also, back up your computer.
My pillow and two pillowcases. Mongolians don’t use pillows and if they do, it’s packed with sand or material found in beanie babies. You also can’t find pillow cases.
Special items from home. A family calendar, a small photo album, my Chicago Blackhawks t-shirt, my flannel shirt, a journal, many types of teas, cards friends and family wrote to me, and comfy pants.
My winter gear. I packed my winter coat, a lot of under amour, thick socks, winter boots, and my hat. Winter will hit you fast and you don’t want to be caught off guard without a coat.
My running shorts. Summers get very hot and I wore my shorts every day outside of school during training. Even now when my apartment gets very hot, I wear my shorts.
What do I have that is necessary?
A headlamp. Even though I live in an apartment, I have had power outages.
An external power charger. During the long power outages, you still have something to charge your items with.
Duct tape and clear scotch tape to fix all your problems.
A pocket knife.
Lotion. Lotion is expensive and most lotion has chemicals like bleach in it.
Stickers. Students love stickers! If you have trouble motivating students to do their work, pull out your stickers. I brought stickers for all seasons and holidays.
Extra ear buds.
Spices, especially cinnamon.
What did my parents send in care packages?
School supplies like flash cards, larger notebooks, folders, more pens and pencils, and a map of the United States to show students.
More chapstick, tea, and lotion.
A few more casual t-shirts and comfy pants.
Starbursts, gummy bears, trail mix, and Nature Valley bars.
Extra chargers for when mine mysteriously disappeared or died.
DVDs for fun.
What do I wish I could have packed but had no space for?
A smaller sleeping bag. Peace Corps gives you a sleeping bag but it’s enormous and weighs a ton. It just isn’t possible to lug it around with you when traveling.
More sweaters. I thought, “Hey, I can just buy some,” but that’s not true. Cashmere sweaters – while significantly cheaper in Mongolia compared to in America – are still expensive on a Peace Corps budget and most sweaters I find unflattering.
A more glamorous dress for teacher and holiday parties. At a Christmas party, it felt like I was at my high school prom.
What will Peace Corps give you?
A cell phone.
A sleeping bag.
A plug adapter with six outlets.
A bug net.
A medical kit but I recommend packing extra vitamins and Airborne.
A water filter.
What was I able to buy in Mongolia?
A morning robe.
A wool dress.
A cashmere scarf.
Camel socks and camel leggings.
Don’t change your style while packing. If you prefer dresses over pants, pack your dresses. If you like nail polish, pack your nail polish. Don’t pack what you would never catch yourself wearing in the States. The same for hobbies. If you have never knitted a thing in your life, don’t pack up extra space with items you might never use. If you think you can sacrifice your winter coat for something else more important, go for it. If you have never kept a journal, don’t feel compelled to bring a journal. If you love coffee, bring a french press. If you like wearing high heels, bring your best pair.
So, relax, breathe, and remember, you are all in the same boat. You’ll have funny stories to retail. Most of all, don’t freak out and compare what you are packing to somebody else’s. All will be well.
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
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.
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.
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.
The students are like chittering little birds when I walk past them in the dimly lit hallways.
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.
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.
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:
To take it easy.
To let things go. If one class goes poorly that doesn’t mean the other classes will.
Don’t teach hungry.
To always have stickers. Great for bribing students when the room is awkwardly quiet.
Maintain organized even if everything else is a jumbled mess.
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 ofmy 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.
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.
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.
I can’t remember when I found out about the Peace Corps. Maybe my parents told me about it or mentioned it in passing. Maybe at all the school career fairs, there was always a Peace Corps table. I can’t remember how old I was but I must have been 17 when I announced that I wanted to join the Peace Corps. I can still remember it clearly. My family flew to Sweden for the summer and on our first night while catching up with my grandmother and uncle, I can remember spouting interest in joining the Peace Corps. I love traveling but I was also inspired by my parents. With adventures of their own and a wonderful upbringing, their sense of exploration and discovery seeped into me.
“You’ve got to be a little crazy to join the Peace Corps.”
Now, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer of group M27. This year is also the 25th anniversary of Peace Corps Mongolia. On May 30th, we flew from Seattle with 52 Peace Corps Trainees and on August 13th, 46 were sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar’s pink Opera Theater. Peace Corps Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet and the US Ambassador of Mongolia, Jennifer Zimdahl Galt, were both present. This is the Directors second swearing-in ceremony that she has ever attended. We all looked splendid in our summer deels.
It felt very much like a graduation. We sat alphabetically in chairs as speeches were made by our Country Director, the US Ambassador of Mongolia, the Peace Corps Director, and Mongolia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. We took the oath that all government officials and workers must take followed by the Peace Corps oath. When my name was called, I walked across the stage, shook hands, and then took my seat.
Successfully passing my summer training, not doing anything stupid that would get me sent back to America, repeating both oaths and taking a short stride across the stage, is all that it took to make me a Peace Corps Volunteer.
What is Ulaanbaatar like?
Just like any other city, the outskirts of UB are more rundown with stores cramped together. There are lots of large, shoddy apartment complexes to accommodate the influx of people who are moving in from the countryside. The traffic was bumper to bumper. However, the city transforms when you reach Chinggis Khaan Square, once known as Sukhbaatar Square. Here is where you can see how Mongolia is attempting to become the next up-and-coming city.
There is a fantastic article I read written by Pico Iyer in “Travel + Leisure” that describes the capital as a…
“Love child of Shanghai and Las Vegas. The city’s streets, where only a generation ago wolves and wild dogs roamed, are today clogged with 700,000 cars, inching past glass towers and giant screens projecting footage of runway models.”
A Louis Vuitton sits on the corner of Chinggis Khaan Square. The State Department has an entire floor of gorgeous yet expensive cashmeres. The Shangri La Hotel is connected to another mall and an I-Max theater. More hotels and buildings are erupting in the midst of a budding city. Here the greater population speaks English and restaurants and bars are geared towards tourists and the wider-world. You can find Irish pubs, western restaurants, Indian restaurants, and Mexican restaurants. Despite the city’s push towards a more international stage, Mongolia’s history remains palpable. Similar to the Abraham Lincoln Memorial in D.C., a large Chinggis Khaan sits upon his throne continuing his immortal reign as he watches over his city.