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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Peace Corps challenge: Hospitality

Hospitality: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.

This year’s Peace Corps’ challenge is highlighting hospitality from countries around the world. For thousands of years, Mongolians have been a hospitable people who has endured to this day.

Before, a person could travel for days without encountering another human being. Therefore, it became important and necessary for ger dwellers to offer their home to travelers and herders. That hospitality was then expected to be reciprocated.

A friend told me that I should give the video challenge a go and voila! After a month of shooting video and editing, I submitted my 2-minute video showing Mongolian hospitality, a country that is so often overlooked but is slowly budding out.

Click on the picture shown below to give my picture and video a Facebook like.

You have until 21 February to vote.

VOTE MONGOLIA!

The Chatty Bunch

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

Three times a day.

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

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It snowed at the beginning of the month.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Kharkhorin

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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The Temple of Dalai Lama.

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

 

 

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

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

Winter is coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Flashback

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

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

Stay tuned for my next blog post:

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

 

 

Home Sweet Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.