As my school’s very first TEFL volunteer, some ideas are considered to be too radical. Met with indifference or confusion that later get swept away under the rug.
As my second (and last year) was starting in Mongolia, I thought how I wanted to do something at my school so I could end my year with a bang. A high note knowing I’ve accomplished something different and new.
With the help of one counterpart, Adiya, we organized and prepared a weekend-long Girls Empowerment workshop/camp/training/call it what you will that occurred on March 13-15. The second semester of school in Mongolia is thwarted with many long breaks – winter break in January, Tsaagan Sar break in February, and a Spring break in March. Suffice it to say…time was running out and I knew I had to begin early.
Powerpoints and worksheets had to be translated into Mongolian, subtitles added to videos, activities had to be thought of, and what type of topics to be covered during the weekend. I then turned into a part-time health volunteer when an 11th grader said: “We are told we should do something but not told the importance of why we should be doing it.” Thus health was included into the schedule.
What impressed me the most throughout the weekend was the amount of English the girls wanted to use despite the difficulty. They were free to discuss amongst themselves in Mongolian and write in Mongolian but they all wanted to speak and write in English.
Some of the topics and activities we did from Friday to Sunday, 10 AM to 4:30 PM:
Girls learnt about Mongolian and foreign role models. Malala Yousafazai was very popular.
The girls learnt about non-profit organizations and in teams created their own non-profit. The winning team was about human rights while the runner-up was about an environmental issue.
After kicking out the boys who were playing basketball, we did yoga in the gym. For most of them, this was their first time ever doing yoga. Lots of giggles erupted when we were in happy baby pose.
An art project. Girls drew and painted themselves after describing themselves with adjectives and connecting those adjectives to specific colors.
In addition, we talked about the importance of goal setting, stereotypes, leadership qualities, and created bucket lists. An 8th grader said she wanted to visit Genovia and was sad when I told her the country doesn’t exist. While all the girls said they want to travel to another country, goals ranged from the lofty to the simplistic. Having purple hair, wanting to meet Emma Watson, becoming a doctor, learning how to swim and to wanting to walk through a haunted house during Halloween.
This weekend wouldn’t have happened without the incredible help of Adiya. She met with me every week, helped make applications, and did her best to understand everything. As a result, the entire weekend went smoothly and I went home happy.
However, not all projects will have so much preparation time like mine did. You have to judge your school’s vibe. Either you are a very busy PCV or you fall into the same hole as me and your school doesn’t utilize you enough. As a result, I had plenty of time to bring this weekend with Adiya to fruition.
For Mongolia’s New Year, Tsagaan Sar, I traveled back to Yeruu in northern Mongolia to visit and celebrate with my host family. I hadn’t seen them since we last hugged goodbye in August 2016 when Peace Corps training was finished.
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Now flash forward two years and it’s a long trip back. I took a seven-hour bus ride to Ulaanbaatar. Followed by a four-hour bus ride to Darkhan and ending with a one-hour car ride to Yeruu. There are now paved roads that shoot straight to Yeruu. During Peace Corps training, there had been a lot of cross-country driving over bumpy terrain.
I was so happy to see my host family. My host siblings immediately wanted to play and my grandmother was tottering about making sure plenty of food was on the table. This family has been there with me since the very beginning. They were there during all the highs and lows I experienced during that summer. They were witnesses to when I first began learning Mongolian as I tried to (very poorly) make the KUUUHH and x sounds. Despite this, I have the most success understanding and communicating with them. They know we need to speak slowly with each other and we all patiently make huge efforts to make ourselves understood.
During my first night, everyone came to the house – all of my host mom’s brothers and sisters and their children. The kids thankfully haven’t changed much and are still chubby and adorable. Together, we drove to a hill and went sledding.
I felt pathetic as I fell asleep dressed head to toe in under armor underneath three blankets while my host family fell asleep in t-shirts with only one blanket. This was my first visit to the countryside during winter and from now on I will only be visiting in the summer. I was like a cockatiel sitting perched on a stool by the stove where the only source of warmth was coming from.
Friday was the first day of Tsagaan Sar. We were all dressed in our Mongolian deels. Every house we visited had salads and buuz on the table with milk tea and vodka. We stayed at each house for at least an hour. There was a lot of: “Back in the car, Anna!” “ZAAAAA!”
I had to leave Yeruu at 5 AM on Saturday morning. Not a lot of transportation leaving during the New Year and having to leave at that ungodly hour was my only option. However, my trip out of Yeruu felt surreal. It was pitch black and snowing. I was stuffed in the back of a small car between luggage and another girl. ABBA was playing on the radio. We encountered no other cars. These small moments of my time in Mongolia are what I will oddly remember the most.
Now that I’m back in Mongolia, I’m still in disbelief that I’ve set foot in Japan. Kyoto nonetheless. It doesn’t feel as if the trip happened. I undertook a solo trip to Japan for 9 days. Some people weren’t surprised and others said: “Alone?!?!” “Aren’t you scared?!!?!”
Before my departure, I experienced a hiccup with my flights. The glee I woke up with on Christmas morning evaporated when I checked my emails and saw one from Expedia stating one of my flights had been canceled. I had to restrain myself as I spoke with someone from Expedia (unsuccessful) and a copious amount of phone calls to Mongolian Airlines (unsuccessful; numbers weren’t working). I finally had to call our Peace Corps Director who patched me over to our administrative assistant. She knew a number and had my itinerary changed, confirmed, and sent to me. A great wave of relief. I was finally flying to Japan.
I knew since middle school I wanted to go to Japan. Flash forward 13 years later. It’s 7 AM and I find myself lounging on the second floor in a near-empty Chinggis Khan Airport with my backpack. I flew UB – Seoul – Osaka. I felt buoyant as the plane was flying over the ocean and islands. From Osaka, I had to take a 90-minute train ride from Kansai Airport to Kyoto Station and then the subway. My airbnb was in a neighborhood off of the Kitauji stop.
Kyoto is unbelievable. Houses are a combination of modern and traditional. They are narrow at the front and sit so close to each other to almost be touching. The streets are clean and taper down in residential areas.
My airbnb was in Kita Ku. It was a beautiful district of Kyoto! It’s not a crowded area and I gained a great perception of a Japanese locality and every-day local life. My airbnb was tiny but a comfortable apartment. My bed was incredibly soft. Not like my bed in Mongolia where I sleep on top of a piece of concrete and a sleeping bag. There was also a kitchen, bathroom, a washing machine, and a balcony. I was also provided with a pocket wifi. It was a lifesaver.
At the first restaurant I went to for lunch called Kyoto Kairikiya, I was the only obvious foreigner sitting at a long counter; looking at a ramen menu as the sounds of slurps, clicking chopsticks, and the host calling out “Arigatou gozaimasu,” every time someone left, filled my ears.
In order to visit main sites, I rode the subway back and forth from Kyoto Station.
From Kyoto Station, I rode bus 28 to Arashiyama where the Bamboo Grove, a monkey park, Jojakko-Ji and more shrines are. If you walk the main street further up, you’ll arrive at the residential areas with innumerous hidden gems separated from the main tourist area. I had the most fun strolling these streets. Lots of small shrines, cafes, and cute houses.
Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove was a lot smaller than I thought. It’s just a short path that takes you in a circle around the bamboo grove. Afterwards, I found Jojakko-Ji shrine where the trees and the moss were a heavenly shade of bright green. Autumn colors were also still prevalent despite it being January. I’ve been deprived of so much color in my Mongolian town that it was illuminating. Climbing the stone steps took me to the monk’s quarters and the Tahoto Pagoda where there’s a panorama view of all of Arashiyama. I did try to visit the monkey park but was an hour to late. Instead, I walked a road with the mountains on my right and the river stretching alongside my left.
Fishimi Inari-taisha and Gion
Unintentionally, I ended up visiting two of the most famous sites from one of my favorite movies and books, “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Upon arrival at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the sky was gray and cloudy with the occasional sprinkle but this type of weather only enhanced the bright red tori path weaving up Mount Inari.
There are a total of 10,000 tori gates. The path is crowded with people at the beginning but thins out the farther up the mountain you walk. There are more trails that divert from the main one leading to smaller shrines and fox statues draped in red. The foxes are the messangers for the God Inari.
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After sampling some of the street food – rice cakes followed by a nice and salty fish on a stick – I took the train to Gion, the once-famed Geisha district. It’s extraordinary rare to spot a geisha but you will see plenty of young men and women wearing rented kimonos. A historic tradition that continues today due to young Japanese girls continuing to take interest in all that entails in being a geisha: art, dancing, the clothing and makeup, hosting, maintaining poise, tea pouring, and music. However, some will quit because of separation from family and having to abstain from much of modern life and technology.
I walked up and down narrow roads passing by what were once geisha establishments. Untouched and preserved from the wear of time. As the pavement sloped upwards, I came across a black pagoda where girls holding their selfie sticks and wearing kimonos took selfies together. There were many tourist shops and eateries but they were all replicas of each other, selling the same products and food.
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It got dark in Japan by 5:30. As the bus back to Kita-Ku crossed the bridge away from Gion district you will come across the shopping district. A brightly lit H&M sign illuminating red next to a Zara was a sight for sore eyes.
Shrines, shrines, shrines
Kyoto has thousands of temples and shrines with over a million throughout the rest of Japan. I visited Rokuon-Ji and Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Rojuon-ji, notably known as the Golden Pavillion, sits in the middle of a small lake. The temple is gilded in gold-leaf with a phoenix statue perched on top. The gold and surrounding greenery reflected into the lake creating a mirage of blue, black, yellow, and green. Past the temple is a trail taking you to more sacred spots.
At Kiyomizu-dera the veranda is under renovation but you can still take some good shots alongside the trails without construction interfering.
At these temples and shrines people will wait in long lines to ladle up sacred water to wash their hands in or to swill in their mouths. There are also many tokens to buy for yourself, family, or friends. Tokens symbolizing love, happiness, good luck, having an easy childbirth, plus more.
An unexpected hike
It took a long time but I finally found the bus to Daigoji Temple. I had to find Keihan Hotel where the Yamashina Express stops. I was the only one on this bus.
There are three parts to the temple grounds. First, there’s Sanboin Garden. You can walk around inside an old home. Simplistic and airy with open windows with views of the gardens and ponds.
Next is the main temple complex area where Daigoji Temple sits perched on the edge of a pond with an orange bridge arching over the water. Tranquil, calm, pleasant, soothing, and harmonious. There were scarcely any other people to disrupt my view.
When I walked past the temple, I unexpectedly found myself climbing a steep rocky trail snaking up the mountain. No reasons whatsoever and grateful I was wearing the right shoes, I found myself half way up a forested mountain. My body gets affected by the poor air quality in Mongolia but I felt so sprightly as I trekked upwards. Finally there’s a museum but when I came back down the mountain I was too tired to see it.
It decided to rain when I boarded the train to Himeji and it didn’t stop. Of course I didn’t have an umbrella and had to buy one at Himeji’s train station. The owner of my airbnb will appreciate a second umbrella after I leave.
It takes 90 minutes by train from Kyoto to Himeji.
The main attraction at Himeji is Himeji Castle, one of Japan’s three premier castles and the largest. Five-floors with a white façade, the castle survived the bombings of World War II, while the rest of Himeji was flattened, and an earthquake in 1995.
I was able to explore inside the castle keep, the west bailey, and the castle grounds.
Himeji also has a large thrift-shop mall.
As a day trip, I highly recommend visiting Himeji.
The food I ate in Japan ranged from ramen, rice cakes, sushi, sashimi (cheap if bought from a supermarket), Italian food at Saizeriya Kyoto Shichiku, matcha ice cream, and even crepes from Creperie Garcon near Gion.
Shirakawa-minami Dori is one of Kyoto’s most beautiful streets. Most of the buildings have been preserved with bridges draping over the canal. What I really appreciate about Kyoto are its quiet spots amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, like little pockets you can hide inside for a moment before stepping back in to the real world.
In the middle of Kyoto Imperial Park is the Imperial Palace. Once the residence of Japan’s imperial family before the capital was moved to Tokyo. Admittance is free but unfortunately two of the buildings were closed due to renovations.
Osaka and Nara
Osaka, Japan’s second largest city, is an hours train ride from Kyoto.
First, I have to mention how often I got lost in train stations. Train stations are huge, clean, and have countless restaurants and cafes, massive shopping malls (Kyoto Station’s shopping mall is calling The Cube), and different sections for what kind of train you need – local, subway, or national. I spent a large chunk of time wandering around aimlessly. It was easy to get distracted. Now back to Osaka…
I took a train to Shinsaibashi Shopping Arcade, a shopping area in the Minami (Namba) neighborhood. It’s a massive shopping spot with a combination of small stores and prominent, international stores intermingled together. I didn’t have anything in mind to buy but stopped occasionally when a store looked intriguing. It’s easy to spend a fortune in Japan.
Osaka has one of the largest aquariums in the world, Osaka castle, and a Universal Studios but I left the bustling crowd of shoppers behind for the roads selling street food and the solitary, quiet streets. So many nice houses and apartments!
I spent my last day in Japan hanging with the deer in Nara. Nara is famous for its deer. At Nara Park, they approach people hoping to be fed. They are curious, cute, and docile animals. Yet I passed by people screaming as they were feeding the deer. You would think they were feeding lions. Nara Park is home not only to the deer but also temples and shrines, most notably Todaji Temple where there’s a giant Buddha. Just like the fox statues at Fishimi Inari-taisha, the deer are considered in Shinto to be messengers for the gods. Consequently, Nara’s 1,200 deer have become a national treasure.
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Back to Mongolia
A cab to take me to Kyoto Station arrived at 5 AM.
I woke up at 5:10.
I was out the door in two minutes.
I had to make the 5:45 train to Kansai Airport and was on it two-minutes before departure. 5,000 yen was enough to pay for the cab and my train tickets. I spent the 90 minute train ride rearranging my bag and brushing my teeth, washing my face, and applying makeup in a small alcove covered by a curtain.
Even in winter, Japan is beautiful. Japan is an efficient and organized country with polite people at every corner. People were always saying thank you and bowing. Language was never a problem. Everyone I met spoke English or understood English. I would go back to Japan in a heartbeat.
Kharkhorin, the super-soum north of Arvaikheer, had its first ever Halloween themed race on 14 October 2017. The goal of the race was to raise money for an NGO in UB called Achilles. Achilles raises awareness for people with disabilities. Those with disabilities ran for free while able-bodied paid a small fee. There was a 1k, 3k, and 5k race.
In contrast to the extravagant costumes the young and old create, the door-to-door trick or treating, and the parties that occur in America, Halloween in Mongolia is not as widely celebrated. There are some parties and most Mongolians instantly think of zombies. I told a 12th grade class I was once a penguin for Halloween and they didn’t understand why I would dress up as a penguin, “That’s not scary!”
I wore the wrong boots as I stood out in the governor square at 6:30 in the morning. It was pitch black as I walked the 20 minutes from my home. I also got spooked by a horse that materialized out of nowhere. As I waited for all the kids to arrive and the transportation that would take us to Kharkhorin, I was stomping my feet and curling my toes trying to bring warmth back to them.
Unlike Arvaikheer, Kharkhorin still had snow on the ground and it was a lot colder. After a nauseating 3-hour drive, we arrived just on time for a communication problem. All the kids and adults we brought with us from Arvaikheer were registering for the race inside one building while all the kids and adults from Kharkhorin were registering outside on the other side of town. Phones were ringing, and people were talking simultaneously at each other. In the end, everyone was registered for the race inside a bus in the middle of the race field.
Throughout the day, kids crowded the face painting table as the same short music playlist played on repeat all day. Every song was a remix of the original.
Races finished faster than we anticipated. As we saw runners coming towards the finish line, we had to stand by the banner with small pieces of paper that had the numbers 1, 2, and 3 for first, second, and third place to hand off to the exhausted runners. Medals and certificates were awarded to the top three from each race. I must also add that a Mongolian event would not be complete if there was not a random 5-minute dance party. But I think someone was told, “Quick, stall for time!”
After a quick meal in a woman’s ger, we all drove back to Arvaikheer. A significant amount of money was raised for Achilles and all kids, winners and non-winners, went home happy.
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.
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.
If it weren’t for Chinggis Khan and his Golden Horde that took the world by surprise in creating the world’s largest empire, the world might know absolutely nothing about Mongolia. Dwarfed between two colossal sized countries, China and Russia, Mongolia has quietly endured its own ruthless past that came to an end when the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991.
Since arriving in Mongolia in May 2016, I have encountered and participated in many Mongolian traditions and customs such as drinking milk tea, eating Mongolian food, playing shagai, partaking in the Nadaam festival, and buying and owning my own deel.
For this post, I will focus on the Mongolian deel. For centuries, Mongolians have worn deels. With a sheep- wool lining inside, deels have kept Mongolians warm during the harsh winters. Easy to put on, a deel can be pulled over and pulled at the waist using a belt and small clasps on the side. You can find deels in a variety of colors. Most notably are the colors blue, red, yellow, green, and white. Blue represents Mongolia’s blue sky. After all, Mongolia is known as the Land of the Eternal Blue Sky. Red symbolizes fire; white symbolizes milk; green symbolizes the Nine Stones; yellow is a symbol of the Dali Llama’s yellow robes.
The Buddha’s followers compiled his teachings into books – most notably, the Kangyur. In the 1650s, the Mongolian monk, Zanabazar, brought a collection of the Kangyurs into Mongolia from Tibet. Today, 10 different types of Kangyurs are safely preserved in the National Library of Mongolia. One notable copy was written with 9-precious stones: gold, silver, corral, pearl, mother of pearl, turquoise, lapis lazuli, copper, and steel. All stones were crushed into a powder and mixed with water and goat’s milk for ink.
Now in 2016, deels come in an assortment of patterns, some subtle while others can be very eye-catching. Some possess intricate details on the sleeves and collars, can have wide sleeves or thin sleeves, and more colors have been introduced such as purple and pink. Styles have also evolved from the traditional Mongolian deel to a more Chinese inspired deel.
There are many different types of deels distinguished by its cut, color, and trimming. Each ethnic group has their own type of deel. They can be long or short. They can be one piece or two piece and made from different materials. Silk from India, Japan and China are popular. Most notably are the winter and summer deels. Winter deels are thickly padded to keep out the chill.
On the second floor inside an old building in the market, I found Nachagnyam’s deel store. She has been making deels since 1992. She learned the skill from her mother. Beginning first with smaller deels for children, called a баривч (barevch), she has worked herself up to making a variety of deels for everyone. Now she works with a team of young women. When I asked how long it takes to make a deel, she said that it can take one to three days depending on the style. Nachagnyam then said that she wants to see more people wearing deels, most notably the younger population. In a much smaller deel store, Yanjmaa also believes more people should wear deels. She claims they are necessary for survival and a deel belt can keep a person’s stomach and kidney warm.
In Ulaanbaatar, it is seldom when you see a person walking down the street in a deel. Now, it is usually the herders and folk from the county side who wear a deel. With Ulaanbaatar undergoing much construction in becoming a modern city, a gulf has opened between the modern age and the traditional age: from living in gers to moving into houses and apartment buildings. From wearing deels to sporting western clothing. However, Mongolians haven’t entirely severed their ties to their country’s history. During major holidays, such as Naadam and Tsagaan Tsar, Mongolians return to their roots and pay homage by wearing deels while celebrating with friends and family.
My blog post is based on my previous knowledge from what I have read about Mongolia, what I have seen during my stay, and from what I have heard when speaking to Mongolians. This is not intended to be a thoroughly researched article but something that I wanted to do due to my own fascination and interest.
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.
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.
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.
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.