Spring break wasn’t supposed to begin until the end of March but on 9 March I got a text message from my counterpart: “Do you know? Break has started.”
I was perplexed.
As it turns out, foot and mouth disease has been spreading throughout Mongolia infecting both livestock and people. I had heard about it in northern Mongolia but it had eventually seeped down to my neck of the woods. The governor ordered a shut down of schools and the market. The market was so empty all it needed was tumbleweed. If it had been during my first year I would have been excited for starting break weeks early but it’s my second year and I have a project in the works. Me and my counterpart had a long meeting with my supervisor and so my project was pushed back to mid-April.
So Spring Break or Quarantine Break began early.
Schools were closed yet students and teachers continued to meet informally. In the mornings, I went to help my students for the upcoming Olympiad exams.
I went on a very long hike over the hills. The only person I encountered was an old woman watching over her goat-herd. We chilled together on the rocks and ate pretzels.
When I’m not outside I’ve been doing a lot of yoga. I have been watching all of Boho Beautifuls’ videos but found a new video channel called Yoga with Kassandra. My counterpart came over with her 10-year-old daughter. An endless amount of giggles peeped out from her daughter as she clumsily transitioned from one pose to the next. Falling over like a baby giraffe.
I finished reading “The Great Alone” by Kristin Hannah and “Armageddon” by Leon Uris. Hannah’s book is set in Alaska and had me in tears. I finished it in two days. I highly recommend this book! The other is about the re-birth of Berlin after World War II.
On the other hand, a pipe that connects from my bathroom and into my kitchen has burst in three separate places. The repair man had to turn off the water flowing through it but water is still sprinkling out. So now no hot water, my kitchen has a bucket (probably) permanently leaning against my wall, and I’m back to boiling water and pouring a bucket onto myself. Makes me appreciate what I will soon be going back home too.
The best part of my break was my weekend in Ulaanbaatar. Before leaving town, there were people at the bus station dressed in anti-contamination gear spraying hand sanitizer onto our hands and water into our mouths. There were frequent stops with people out on the road spraying down bus wheels.
I treated myself to a stay in the Shangri La and spent Saturday with my friend whom I’ve been close to since Peace Corps training. We hit all our favorite spots such as Green Zone, Swiss Coffee, an art store, an Indian restaurant, and the movie theater. It was a weekend I really needed to resuscitate myself, but the fairy tale was shattered as soon as I was back at Dragon Center and back on a bus to my town.
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When school begins I’ll be back to preparing for my project. It’s almost April!
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.
As someone who dislikes sweat and heat and would rather hibernate during the hot summer months in a cold room, my two-week solo trip to Vietnam and Cambodia went remarkably well despite my 21 hours in layovers. I was anxious about going by myself. Previously, I had only traveled to Norway and Iceland by myself. But now I would be traveling throughout Southeast Asia. Fortunately, I met many solo travelers. I had all my papers to show in the airports for my visas. I didn’t lose anything. I didn’t get lost with my terrible sense of direction and I became a master at retracing my steps and map reading because I’m ridiculous and have no data on my phone.
I had 7 vacation goals:
Eat as much food as possible. After a year in Mongolia, this was a priority.
Go to a spa.
Avoid heat stroke.
Don’t lose my passport.
Don’t get kidnapped.
All goals were achieved except #4. Though if anyone wants to lie and say I look tan, I would appreciate that.
After a seven-hour layover in Seoul, I landed in Hanoi, Vietnam where I was instantly enveloped by a hot blanket of heat. A person from the hostel met me at the arrivals gate holding a sign. I gave them Anna Sofia to avoid any mistakes with my last name and the sign said, “Anna So Jia.” I stayed at Vietnam Backpackers Hostel Original, a hostel I would recommend. The hostel provides a free city tour in addition to other tours, free breakfast until 10, and free beer at 18:00.
The small road where my hostel was. Both motorcyclists, street sellers, and pedestrians shared the narrow road.
If I could describe Hanoi, I would say fast, steamy, vibrant, and chaotic. My hostel including every restaurant, store, and market I walked into had fans blowing at high speeds to combat the heat but the heat still had a way of creeping in and clinging to you. Buildings are tall and very narrow but stretch back far while markets are crammed underneath where Vietnamese people are sitting upon their stools inside and out on the pavement. The smell of street food permeates the air. Everywhere on the streets were families grilling various foods and preparing soups with fruit stands and baskets interweaving between. The streets are chaotic but an organized chaos as motorcycles and mopeds outnumber cars. Despite it, I felt strangely calm. I tried an egg coffee which I wouldn’t have again. It was very sweet. I ate a lot of seafood, pineapple, and mango.
During the week, I went on a free city tour. It was on this tour that I met a small group of Canadian med students who adopted me into their group. I also met a Danish girl who everyone thought was my sister.
One day, I took a bus to Vietnam’s old capitol, Hoa Lu, in Ninh Binh Province. Now it is just monasteries. After walking around, I switched over to a bamboo boat. The rowers rowed with their feet while holding umbrellas and fans in their hands. We were rowed past hills that sprouted from the water and through caves when the hills connected. White goats dotted the sheer cliff sides as they munched on the tufts of grass. I also rode a bike throughout the countryside as it poured down with rain.
HA LONG BAY
Ha Long Bay is beautiful! The weather was perfect and the water was so blue. I went through Lily’s Travel Agency, an agency that provided a one-day tour of the bay at a cheap price. They also do three-day tours. I almost missed this trip because I slept past my alarm and woke up at 7:30 for an 8:00 departure. It was a four-hour drive to Ha Long Bay, also known as Bay of Descending Dragons. On the boat we sailed on, I met students from the University of Bristol where I studied abroad and an Australian mother and daughter. Since I was by myself and the three boys were hilariously stupid, the Australian mother, Karin, took us in as her new silly family during the trip.
Our boat provided us with a seafood lunch and we explored a cave called Thien Cung Grotto where our guide, Lhong, began to mess with us by pointing out animal-shaped rocks that only he could see. “What is that rock?” “I see a rock.” “No, it’s a wolf.”
Note: Americans need an invitation letter to enter. I got mine for $5 from Lily’s Travel Agency. Other places, such as my hostel, charge $25 for the letter.
Vietnam and Cambodia share a border. Despite proximity, I had to fly Hanoi – Bangkok – Phnom Pehn. I spent seven-hours in Bangkok for a flight to Cambodia that was only 50 minutes. I found a comfortable couch in an empty terminal next to a Dairy Queen where I sat reading Hello magazines. I arrived in Phnom Penh at 22:00 and took a tuk tuk to Onderz Hostel. A tuk tuk is my new favorite mode of transportation. Very cheap. A tuk tuk is also the best way to stay cool because of the wind.
Note: Tuk tuk drivers are extremely persistent. After talking to one, he said that there are too many tuk tuk drivers thus making the job very competitive. When coming out of a restaurant, me and another girl said we were going into a store. As I was sitting on a couch, I saw the tuk tuk driver peering at me through the store window waiting for us.
My hostel is next to the Royal Palace, the Night Market, and the river. Phnom Penh had trash littered on the roads causing a terrible smell while riding in a tuk tuk and the nice homes secluded themselves behind high walls and gates. There is a large mall called Aeon Mall where I found delicious $5 sashimi and a Starbucks.
Cambodia has a gloomy and mournful history and too many people remain unaware of this. From 1975 to 1978, the Cambodian Civil War ravaged the country and killed over a million Cambodians constituting as genocide. Phnom Penh is home to the Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek. Choeung Ek is the most well-known of over 30 killing fields in Cambodia. Bones and teeth continue being unearthed from mass graves especially during the rainy season. At Choeung Ek, the Khmer Rouge played loud, festive-sounding Cambodian music to drown out the sounds of the murdered. In the center of the killing field is a memorial stupa with hundreds of skulls of dead Cambodians. The skulls at the bottom had colored dots to indicate how the person died. It was either by a machete, a hoe, bamboo sticks, wooden sticks, and anything else that was at hand and convenient for butchering fellow Cambodians. The Khmer Rouge were running out of bullets and didn’t have enough money to buy more. Thus, the brutal way of killing. Read here for more about the Civil War. Even after the war, the western world still acknowledged the Khmer Rouge as Cambodia’s legitimate government and the response against war criminals took to long.
Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum was first a school that became a building for torture and killing. Blood stains are still darkly visible on the floors next to the torture beds, the only piece of furniture in the rooms. The cells were small and narrow and made entirely of brick. When prisoners arrived, their mugshots were taken. Now, all the pictures are up on display for visitors to gaze into the sorrowful eyes of men and women, young and old, who knew they were going to die. Some women were still holding their babies as their pictures was taken. It was awful.
A bus ride to Siem Reap is approximately five hours. I rode Grand Ibis, a comfortable bus with lots of leg space, air conditioning, and Wi-Fi. On the bus, I met an Australian couple who I ate lunch with. Farther away from the city, houses are held up on high stilts to elevate when the monsoon comes. I stayed at Pool Party Hostel in Siem Reap. The hostel offers free tuk tuk drives to Pub Street every day except Sundays. Pub Street has heaps of restaurants, bars, and food stands with tuk tuk drivers constantly asking if you need a ride, “Lady! Tuk tuk?!?!”. A woman was selling grilled snake and spiders but my stomach is not that adventuresome.
Angkor Wat was incredible! Anyone who visits Cambodia and doesn’t visit Angkor Wat is a fool. I loved my time there even though it was so hot I sweated half my weight off.
Everyone wants to visit the temples at 4:30 in the morning to watch the sunrise but I had no interest. I happily began my journey at 10 after a big breakfast. To enter Angkor Wat, all women must keep their knees and shoulders covered despite the heat.
You can buy a one-day, three-day, or seven-day ticket. There is a short circuit and a long circuit. I bought the one-day for the short circuit that took me eight hours. Both routes include the seven major temples but the longer one also has many smaller temples included on its route. The grounds are so vast. It’s essential to have a tuk tuk driver. You can just tell your hotel or hostel you want to visit Angkor and they will call a tuk tuk for you.
My driver dropped me off at all the temples and patiently waited for me to be done. The temples were built thousands of years ago and most of them are still well-intact with intricate carvings remarkably preserved. You can walk in and around them and climb to the top of the larger temples. Some of the temples you climb don’t have a railing to hold onto, so you are climbing on hands and knees, and when there was one, the metal was too hot from the sun to hold onto. My legs were sore by the end of the day and my clothes were sticking to me like a second skin. Despite being the number one tourist attraction in Cambodia, the only places where I ran into the most people was at Ta Prohm or the “Tomb Raider” temple with the tree and Angkor, the famous temple you see on all the postcards and pictures.
For much of my time, there were very few people and sometimes I was on my own. I saw monkeys with their babies clinging to their stomachs. Along with foreigners and Cambodians were Buddhist monks clad in their orange robes. My favorite temple was The Bayon.
For hundreds of years, Angkor Wat became the lost city that was enveloped by the jungle and forgotten. In fact, Angkor Wat was never lost because the Khmers remained aware of its existence. The Frenchman who “discovered” it spread its existence and popularized it to the western world.
THE FLOATING VILLAGE
The next day after Angkor Wat, I visited the Floating Village. In a van, we drove 40 minutes to a village of homes, schools, and stores built on stilts at least three meters high to keep afloat during the monsoon season. The houses are situated right over the river that opens out into a large lake, the Tonle Sap. Children were splashing and jumping around in the water and while their parents were working on their boats. I walked through the village but spent most of my time on the boat. It’s fascinating to see how other people live. It’s hard for me to believe that soon the land will disappear.
Away from the village and farther down the river are mangroves where you can take a smaller boat into. I remembered Cambodia has snakes and decided to stick with the larger boat. When I stepped onto a another larger boat where a woman was selling mango and pineapples, there were two large cages in the water. One held alligators. The other held a massively long snake that made me glad I didn’t go into the mangroves.
On this tour, I met a Mongolian woman who lives in Australia who is married to a Romanian. She works for an IT company. Her company asked her to move to Australia and she lives happily there. She was very chatty, well-traveled, and continues to visit her family in Ulaanbaatar.
BACK TO MONGOLIA
I took the bus back to Phnom Penh. My flight back to Seoul didn’t leave Cambodia until midnight. I had to check out of my room at noon and spent the whole day and evening wandering around the city. I walked around the Royal Palace to a street with boutiques and the British embassy. The roads by the Royal Palace were closed off to cars making it the only quiet area and no one yelling, “Lady, tuk tuk?” I spent an hour in the National Museum of Cambodia. A small museum with just one floor and a garden in the middle where monks sat under the trees by the ponds. In the evening, I got a two-hour Swedish massage. Heavenly! When it was 21:00, a tuk tuk took me back to the airport.
Due to the two hour time difference, I landed in Seoul at 7 where I had another seven-hours to kill. Exhausted, I fell asleep in the terminal to Astana, Kazakhstan. The flight back to Ulaanbaatar is three-hours from Seoul.