Family visits Mongolia

July was a dull month. When I flew back from Cambodia, all the adrenaline wore off as I took the bus back to my little town. It rained a lot. During the heavy rain storms, some of the rain would find its way through a small crack in my ceiling and slowly filter down my wallpaper. As I read in bed I could see the water stains over the top of my book slowly evaporating to a dark stain, thus making the ugly wallpaper even uglier. July consisted of a plethora amount of baking, watching movies, reading, and spending time with my site mate whose Peace Corps service was coming to a glorious end. The only highlight was wearing my new deel to Naadam where I watched some of the events, wrestling and archery, but that only holds my attention for so long. The whole entire time I was counting down until August.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
My counterpart helped me to design my new summer deel.

My parents visited Mongolia!

For two-weeks, I explored the Gobi Desert and Ulaanbaatar with my mom and dad. 14-months was the longest I had gone without seeing them. I was extremely happy to see them and to hear Swedish being spoken again.

My parents visited Mongolia through a travel agency called Nomadic Expeditions. The agency had a two-week travel itinerary planned that took us around the capital city and throughout the Gobi. Our group consisted of only five people: the Buchanan family, a female traveler called Billy, and our tour guide, Tseveen. We had been expecting more people but were delighted with our close-knit group. We even managed to squeeze in some invigorating and competitive games of Heads Up during the evenings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_5351
View from my window.

Ulaanbaatar

I will first write briefly about what we saw and did in the city.

We visited three temples. The first was Gandantegchinlen Monastery, the center of Mongolian Buddhists. There are 150 monks currently residing at the monastery. The second one was Choijin Lama Temple. This temple is situated right in the middle of the city, surrounded by new buildings such as the Shangri La and the Blue Sky. A perfect example of old vs new in UB. When you look upwards, you can see the angles and faded colors of the temple roof alongside the blue glass of the city’s skyscrapers. The third temple was part of the Winter Palace which is also a museum. All the temples are lively with various colors and carvings of faces and animals on the roofs. Furthermore, we visited the National Musuem and an art museum plus the Winter Palace.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

IMG_5307

Gobi Desert

We had to leave at 4:30 am for the airport. We flew a small plane for an hour and 20 minutes from UB to Ömnögovi province. I was dozing away for the most part but when I was briefly awake, I could hear English, German, and Japanese being spoken. Two cars met us and for another hour we drove over bumpy grassland to the Three Camel Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world. It is also the most luxurious ger camp in Mongolia. Each ger is named after an animal. I stayed in the Pallas Cat while my parents stayed in the Snow Leopard. In addition, there’s a lounge with a bar, a dining room, an entertainment lounge, and a massage ger. However, there is no internet or cell service. Not too far away from the camp is a watering hole where herds of horses would come stampeding for along with goats, sheep, and the occasional cow. There is absolutely nothing as far as the eye can see. No roads, no telephone lines, no billboards. Just the flat Gobi grasslands stretching all the way to the Altai Mountains.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

IMG_5212OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_5102

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

 

IMG_5195
Our Three Camel Lodge driver changed into his deel during Naadam.

 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_5059

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

Solo trip to Vietnam and Cambodia

 

TRAVEL SOLO

As someone who dislikes sweat and heat and would rather hibernate during the hot summer months in a cold room, my two-week solo trip to Vietnam and Cambodia went remarkably well despite my 21 hours in layovers. I was anxious about going by myself. Previously, I had only traveled to Norway and Iceland by myself. But now I would be traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Fortunately, I met many solo travelers. I had all my papers to show in the airports for my visas. I didn’t lose anything. I didn’t get lost with my terrible sense of direction and I became a master at retracing my steps and map reading because I’m ridiculous and have no data on my phone.

I had 7 vacation goals:

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

All goals were achieved except #4. Though if anyone wants to lie and say I look tan, I would appreciate that.

IMG_4592
I packed very light. I only had my running shorts, a few t-shirts, toiletries, a book, I pod, and camera.

VIETNAM

After a seven-hour layover in Seoul, I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam where I was instantly enveloped by a hot blanket of heat. A person from the hostel met me at the arrivals gate holding a sign. I gave them Anna Sofia to avoid any mistakes with my last name and the sign said, “Anna So Jia.” I stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel Original, a hostel I would recommend. The hostel provides a free city tour in addition to other tours, free breakfast until 10, and free beer at 18:00.

If I could describe Hanoi, I would say fast, steamy, vibrant, and chaotic. My hostel including every restaurant, store, and market I walked into had fans blowing at high speeds to combat the heat but the heat still had a way of creeping in and clinging to you. Buildings are tall and very narrow but stretch back far while markets are crammed underneath where Vietnamese people are sitting upon their stools inside and out on the pavement. The smell of street food permeates the air. Everywhere on the streets were families grilling various foods and preparing soups with fruit stands and baskets interweaving between. The streets are chaotic but an organized chaos as motorcycles and mopeds outnumber cars. Despite it, I felt strangely calm. I tried an egg coffee which I wouldn’t have again. It was very sweet. I ate a lot of seafood, pineapple, and mango.

IMG_4605
Out on the street were chickens with flowers through their throats waiting to be grilled and eaten.

During the week, I went on a free city tour. It was on this tour that I met a small group of Canadian med students who adopted me into their group. I also met a Danish girl who everyone thought was my sister.

IMG_4648
I bought a Vietnamese conical hat made from palm leaves, a tree bark, or bamboo.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_4684

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

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.

IMG_4746IMG_4723

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.”

IMG_4740
Thien Cung Grott

 

Note: Americans need an invitation letter to enter. I got mine for $5 from Lily’s Travel Agency. Other places, such as my hostel, charge $25 for the letter.

CAMBODIA

Vietnam and Cambodia share a border. Despite proximity, I had to fly Hanoi – Bangkok – Phnom Pehn. I spent seven-hours in Bangkok for a flight to Cambodia that was only 50 minutes. I found a comfortable couch in an empty terminal next to a Dairy Queen where I sat reading Hello magazines. I arrived in Phnom Penh at 22:00 and took a tuk tuk to Onderz Hostel. A tuk tuk is my new favorite mode of transportation. Very cheap. A tuk tuk is also the best way to stay cool because of the wind.

tuk tuk
Google image.

Note: Tuk tuk drivers are extremely persistent. After talking to one, he said that there are too many tuk tuk drivers thus making the job very competitive. When coming out of a restaurant, me and another girl said we were going into a store. As I was sitting on a couch, I saw the tuk tuk driver peering at me through the store window waiting for us.

My hostel is next to the Royal Palace, the Night Market, and the river. Phnom Penh had trash littered on the roads causing a terrible smell while riding in a tuk tuk and the nice homes secluded themselves behind high walls and gates. There is a large mall called Aeon Mall where I found delicious $5 sashimi and a Starbucks.

CAMBODIAN HISTORY

Cambodia has a gloomy and mournful history and too many people remain unaware of this. From 1975 to 1978, the Cambodian Civil War ravaged the country and killed over a million Cambodians constituting as genocide. Phnom Penh is home to the Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek.  Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 30 killing fields in Cambodia. Bones and teeth continue being unearthed from mass graves especially during the rainy season. At Choeung Ek, the Khmer Rouge played loud, festive-sounding Cambodian music to drown out the sounds of the murdered. In the center of the killing field is a memorial stupa with hundreds of skulls of dead Cambodians. The skulls at the bottom had colored dots to indicate how the person died. It was either by a machete, a hoe, bamboo sticks, wooden sticks, and anything else that was at hand and convenient for butchering fellow Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge were running out of bullets and didn’t have enough money to buy more. Thus, the brutal way of killing. Read here for more about the Civil War. Even after the war, the western world still acknowledged the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s legitimate government and the response against war criminals took to long.

IMG_4763
The memorial stupa at Choeung Ek.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was first a school that became a building for torture and killing. Blood stains are still darkly visible on the floors next to the torture beds, the only piece of furniture in the rooms. The cells were small and narrow and made entirely of brick. When prisoners arrived, their mugshots were taken. Now, all the pictures are up on display for visitors to gaze into the sorrowful eyes of men and women, young and old, who knew they were going to die. Some women were still holding their babies as their pictures was taken. It was awful.

IMG_4765
The grounds of the Tuol Sleng. No pictures were taken inside.

 

SIEM REAP

A bus ride to Siem Reap is approximately five hours. I rode Grand Ibis, a comfortable bus with lots of leg space, air conditioning, and Wi-Fi. On the bus, I met an Australian couple who I ate lunch with. Farther away from the city, houses are held up on high stilts to elevate when the monsoon comes. I stayed at Pool Party Hostel in Siem Reap. The hostel offers free tuk tuk drives to Pub Street every day except Sundays. Pub Street has heaps of restaurants, bars, and food stands with tuk tuk drivers constantly asking if you need a ride, “Lady! Tuk tuk?!?!”. A woman was selling grilled snake and spiders but my stomach is not that adventuresome.

 

ANGKOR WAT

IMG_4903

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_4828
Ta Prohm where the film “Tomb Raider” was filmed.
IMG_4905
The main complex and now the symbol of Cambodia appearing on its flag.

For much of my time, there were very few people and sometimes I was on my own. I saw monkeys with their babies clinging to their stomachs. Along with foreigners and Cambodians were Buddhist monks clad in their orange robes. My favorite temple was The Bayon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG_4893

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

IMG_4940

On this tour, I met a Mongolian woman who lives in Australia who is married to a Romanian. She works for an IT company. Her company asked her to move to Australia and she lives happily there. She was very chatty, well-traveled, and continues to visit her family in Ulaanbaatar.   

 

BACK TO MONGOLIA

I took the bus back to Phnom Penh. My flight back to Seoul didn’t leave Cambodia until midnight. I had to check out of my room at noon and spent the whole day and evening wandering around the city. I walked around the Royal Palace to a street with boutiques and the British embassy. The roads by the Royal Palace were closed off to cars making it the only quiet area and no one yelling, “Lady, tuk tuk?” I spent an hour in the National Museum of Cambodia. A small museum with just one floor and a garden in the middle where monks sat under the trees by the ponds. In the evening, I got a two-hour Swedish massage. Heavenly! When it was 21:00, a tuk tuk took me back to the airport.

Due to the two hour time difference, I landed in Seoul at 7 where I had another seven-hours to kill. Exhausted, I fell asleep in the terminal to Astana, Kazakhstan. The flight back to Ulaanbaatar is three-hours from Seoul.

I’m proud of myself for going on this trip on my own. There are trade-offs when traveling by yourself.

Some positive points are:

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

But the negative points are:

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

The positive points outweigh the negative.

The Chatty Bunch

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

Three times a day.

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

img_2454
It snowed at the beginning of the month.

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

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

img_2538
7th graders learn about many hobbies and write what their favorite hobbies are.

 

img_2563
11th grade students are learning adjectives. I had them watch a drone video of Chicago so they can practice using adjectives to describe the city.
img_2614
8th grade students review who, what, where, and when for asking questions.

 

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

14581463_1833724256914799_2716340470157724635_n

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

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

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

img_2486OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Teacher’s Day

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

img_2346
12th graders invade the office  as they prepare for the day.

 

img_2312
5 of my Mongolian-English counterparts before the Volleyball games.

 

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

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

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

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

img_2371
The 12th grade class after the teacher-student gift exchange.

 

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

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

img_2447

 

Kharkhorin

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

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

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Temple of Dalai Lama.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

 

 

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

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

Winter is coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

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

School is in session

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

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

“Hi!”

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

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

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

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

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

14203322_943129882463691_3985965236263932206_n
English teachers in a classroom that was funded by Singapore’s World Vision.

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

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

Here are tips for myself:

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Summer Flashback

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

13872815_1179649068745702_7458975991189730457_n
Meeting my host family for the first time. Around my neck is a blue Khata, a Mongolian scarf that is presented during special occasions; births, holidays, graduations, ceremonial occasions, and the arrival and departure of guests.
13886310_1179647462079196_6644426219255089866_n
Group picture after a volleyball competition with our host families.
13934889_1179648168745792_5916075966625330003_n
Doing our best to learn Mongolian while ignoring the rumbles of hungry stomachs.
13906887_10208587705362020_2230950890106032694_n
Holding our lovely Mongolian teacher in our classroom on our last day.  
13886300_10208587702841957_2865246534897395763_n
On the day we left our soum, our host families met us at the border to wish us farewell and to take one last group picture.

Stay tuned for my next blog post:

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

 

 

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1977
The view of my aimeg from the top of a hill.

 

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

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

IMG_2011
It was a wonderful surprise to find a Moomin t-shirt in my aimeg.

 

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

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

Is this real life or is this just fantasy?

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.

IMG_1897

IMG_1933
We spent the summer together surviving Peace Corps training and now we stand upon the steps in Chinggis Khaan Square as Peace Corps Volunteers.  

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.

peace corps volunteers

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.

IMG_1935
Chinggis Khaan Square.

 

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.