Close of Service and Back to America

Wow, time flies when you’re having fun (and busy)! I know I haven’t updated this blog in a couple months, but I’ve been a little wrapped up with COSing, another trip to Japan, and returning home to America!

First up: Close of Service (COS)

Saying goodbye to my coworkers, khashaa family, friends, and sitemates was obviously difficult. Anywhere you live for 2 years will start to feel like home to you, but I can say I felt like it was time to get back to my American home. I really did enjoy my time in the Peace Corps and in Mongolia, and I definitely grew as a person through all the adventures and struggles I experienced, but I was ready to see my family and friends stateside again.

I could go into all the details of my last few weeks in Mongolia, but with all the other things that have already happened since then, this post would never end. I can, however, attest that things stayed interesting up to the very end. The health department had to take down my ger 2 weeks before I was to head to UB to COS (long story), so I ended up living in the health department (again) for my last bit of time.

Apparently it's easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Apparently it’s easier to dismantle a ger and then take the furniture and everything else out afterwards

Then, after packing up my bags and saying my goodbyes, it was off to UB for all the fun paperwork, medical stuff, and exit interviews you have to complete before you can leave the country. This takes 3 days, and at the end you “ring out your service,” literally.

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After that, you’re free to leave the country, which for me meant going off to Japan once more for my COS trip (many PCVs travel after they COS before returning home to take advantage of being relatively close to travel destinations). I had really enjoyed the Japan trip my sitemate and I went on back in March and wanted to see more of the country. Plus, I could justify it by the fact that it was technically on the way home, whereas if I ever wanted to go back to Japan in the future, I’d be shelling out close to $2000 to get there and back from the US east coast. I made it slightly less “on the way home” by staying there for almost an entire month, which my family did not exactly appreciate.

Since I'd already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

Since I’d already been to the big cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.) on my first trip, I decided to explore southern Japan, including Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Takachiho, Kagoshima, Yakushima, and Okinawa

It took me until just over a week ago to finally finish uploading all the numerous photos I took during my trip, so I couldn’t even begin to try to select a few to post here, but I can say it was an amazing trip, and everywhere I visited was absolutely beautiful. After 2 years in frigid, landlocked Mongolia, I really appreciated the ocean and beaches like never before.

Returning to America

Finally, it was time to head home. I flew from Okinawa to Shanghai, then to Los Angeles. But while I was at LAX waiting for the final leg of my flight to Atlanta, I got a great welcome back to America. An armed airport guard came up to our gate and demanded that everyone get up and go back out past the security check. Well, when a guard carrying a rifle tells you to get the heck out of there, you tend to do as they say. Our gate was at the end of the terminal so we had to walk past all the other gates on the way out, which had already been emptied. At the end of the terminal and spilling out of the exit were the hundreds and hundreds of passengers who had been in the terminal before being evacuated. I won’t lie: the first thoughts running through my head at the time were that there was a bomb or a gunman on the loose and that I didn’t want to die when I was so close to finally getting home. No airport officials were telling us anything, so obviously people started taking out their smartphones and looking to see if there was any news about what was going on. We heard reports of an “unconfirmed shooting” that had taken place at the airport, but as we continued to wait around for almost an hour, the news updated to reveal that the whole shooting thing had been a false alarm. Apparently people in another terminal had heard a “loud noise” and thought it was gunfire, leading to panic and people calling 911 to report a shooting at the airport. So obviously the police had to respond to the 911 calls and they ended up searching all the terminals. Oh, and a guy dressed up as Zorro with a plastic sword was involved somehow. The whole fiasco delayed my flight two hours (and all the other flights as well), which caused a lot of people to miss their connections in Atlanta, but all I cared about was that I was home!

My parents were there to pick me up, there may have been tears shed upon seeing them for the first time in over 2 years, and then we went off for breakfast at IHOP (it was early in the morning and I wanted me some stuffed French toast). When I finally got home, I slept for most of the day before we went back out for dinner to eat more food I hadn’t been able to enjoy in Mongolia.

I feel like I had an easier time adjusting to life back in America because I had spent so much time traveling around Japan, which served as a buffer between my vastly different lives in rural Mongolia and suburban America. I was very jet-lagged for quite a few days, it did take some practice to get used to driving again, and all the options available in grocery stores and restaurants was a little overwhelming, but I don’t think I’ve experienced as severe reverse culture shock as many other RPCVs. I’ve spent most of my time so far visiting with family and friends and researching and applying for public health jobs, so it’s been a bit more chill than a lot of my RPCV friends who went straight into grad school or a job as soon as they got home.

I wish I had something more poignant to add about my COS and readjustment. I don’t think this will be my last blog post, but considering how long it took me to get this one out, I can’t say for sure. At any rate, I figured I should get this one posted before another 2 months post-COS have passed me by! And then maybe I’ll be able to collect my thoughts and add a new post later about my reflections on my Peace Corps service!

The Final Summer

This is it: the final summer. I have less than 1 month left in Mongolia. I have completed my practicum project and submitted all the required documents to my graduate school for me to graduate in August. I’ve bought plane tickets for my COS trip (going back to Japan!) and now know exactly when I’ll be arriving home. It’s slowing dawning on me how much I’ll miss this beautiful place I’ve lived in for the past two years and all the amazing people I’ve met.

But just because it’s summer doesn’t mean things are slowing down (okay, they are a little). A couple of my sitemates and I (as well as a few PCVs from other aimags) put on a five-day leadership camp for 7th and 8th grade students here in Uliastai. We had community members hold workshops on leadership, communication, teamwork, relationships, diversity, and environmental protection.

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And of course we had plenty of games and other activities sprinkled throughout, including a nutrition session involving the students making (and then eating) healthier versions of traditional Mongolian foods:

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and a hike to the river on the last day of the camp, followed by a trash pick-up competition:

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Later in June, the Mongolian national and local elections took place. Obviously as Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re not supposed to really discuss politics beyond very general, nonpartisan topics, such as the voting age (16 in Mongolia) and the campaign process, which in Mongolia is quite different than in America. The entire campaign season is barely three weeks. One weekend I was just walking through town and noticed tons of shops and other buildings were draped with posters and photos of the candidates and flags of their respective political parties.

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There were also an abundance of cars driving around with speakers blaring campaign messages, in addition to the numerous speakers set up outside each of the aforementioned shops-turned-campaign-headquarters. Since the whole process is so short, it makes sense that it would be very high-impact, but I must admit that the music blaring from the shops near my home and the messages from the cars that drove around until well after dark got a little tiring. But voting day was on a Wednesday, so I got the day off from work! On a less happy note, all of the PCVs were on “standfast” (a Peace Corps term meaning we couldn’t leave our sites) for the week or so around the election, since in past years there have been riots and such over election results and PC didn’t want us being outside of our communities if something like that happened this time around.

Then the day before the election, all the posters, flags, and speakers had disappeared. Election day itself was pretty uneventful, which was nice after the stories Peace Corps told us about the 2008 elections that ended in riots, burned buildings, and 5 deaths in Ulaanbaatar.

 

The weather has also turned gorgeous! We took advantage of the nice weather this past weekend and finally hiked all the way to the top of the tallest of the mountains surrounding Uliastai (we had attempted the hike last summer, but only got about 3/4 of the way up before realizing we hadn’t really brought enough water and food to complete the hike without some mild suffering and so turned back). This is also the same mountain I hiked earlier in the year to watch the first sunrise of the new year, but on that occasion we had taken a different route to a lower summit.

It took us about 2.5 hours to get to the top, where we were greeted with fields of wildflowers

and a view of Otgontenger, a sacred mountain and the tallest in Zavkhan and the Khangai range

and a view of Otgontenger, a sacred mountain and the tallest in Zavkhan province and the whole Khangai range

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cool rock formations

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a little shrine

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and views of the town.

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We explored the summit for a couple hours, then made our way back down. And although my legs were sore and I got a bit sunburned (long Mongolian winters spent bundled up in several layers of clothes don’t do much for your skin’s tolerance to sunlight), it was an amazing way to really soak in the beauty of Uliastai before I leave.

A Busy Spring

The weeks since COS Conference have been quite busy, hence the lack of blog posts.

I’ve been working hard to finish up my project for my Master’s International program, which has seen pretty much all the delays since I started the community needs assessment back in February of 2015. But my coworkers and I finally managed to conduct two first aid/CPR trainings for secondary school students in Shine Khoroo, a somewhat removed district of Uliastai where most of the families are herders and the older siblings are left in charge of the younger siblings during the school year. And since unintentional injuries like burns are a huge issue among children here, we thought some basic first aid training was important for students who often care for their little brothers and sisters (and it’s never a bad skill to have regardless).

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The project also focuses on accident prevention, so we designed a survey on household accidents for the parents of kindergarten students (2-5 year olds) to assess their knowledge, attitudes, and practices regarding childhood accidents, prevention, and first aid. The goal was to have about 350 parents complete the survey, but with all the delays, we ended up not being able to get the surveys printed and to the kindergartens until the last week of school. So we ran out of time and were only about to get 165 surveys completed, but it’s better than nothing. Now I get to analyze the results of all those surveys and use them to inform the preliminary design of future educational activities for parents (which will obviously take place after I’m gone). Then it’s just a matter of finishing up my practicum report and I’m all set to graduate with my master’s degree in August!

Another project I’d been working on was a pilot run of Happy Center, an educational and social integration program for youth with disabilities. The first Happy Center was started in Govi-Altai aimag a couple years ago, and the PCVs who developed that program published a manual detailing how to start the program in other aimags. Our M26 PCV wanted to start it in Uliastai, so she worked with our local Children’s Center to get everything organized. Each session consisted of a reading or math lesson, a life skills lesson, and “friendship time” for playing games together with students without disabilities. We ended up having sessions twice a week for 7 weeks, and it went well enough that the program will probably be continued next school year.

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Paint-by-numbers math lesson

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during Friendship time

Playing a game similar to duck duck goose during “friendship time”

 

This year, Peace Corps/Mongolia is celebrating its 25th anniversary! Most of the anniversary events will happen in August after our cohort has already left, but in May PC sponsored a tree-planting event. PC funded the purchase of 25 saplings for each aimag, which we (at least in Zavkhan) planted in conjunction with Mongolia’s national tree-planting day.

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But because spring in Mongolia is capricious to say the least, it managed to snow 3 times within a week or so of the tree planting. Luckily the baby trees survived and are now budding and thriving in the warmer, more agreeable weather.

 

June 1 was Children’s Day in Mongolia. My coworkers brought their children to the health department, where the kids had food and drinks and performed songs and dances.

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This adorable little chunk is my coworker's daughter AND my birthday buddy!

This adorable little chunk is my coworker’s daughter AND my birthday buddy!

After that, I met a couple of my sitemates at the local stadium, where the city-wide festivities were taking place. We wandered around for a bit and said hi to some people we know before grabbing food and calling it a day.

 

That weekend, I got to go on a short trip to UB on Peace Corps’ invitation to meet Secretary of State John Kerry, who just happened to be dropping by Mongolia on his way to China for diplomatic talks. The US embassy wanted to briefly showcase Peace Corps/Mongolia for its 25th anniversary during the event, so PC invited a group of current PCVs and former PCVs still living in Mongolia to come to the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. All the other PCVs who were invited either live in UB or were already in UB for an event at the M27s’ orientation (yep, our newest group of Trainees just arrived!), so why the hell was I there?

Well, the weekend before that, a US congressional delegation visited UB and PC invited the handful of Volunteers who are from the districts represented by those congressmen to come as well. I was one of those PCVs, but Peace Corps ended up having to retract my invitation. The meeting was scheduled for that Saturday morning, but because of Uliastai’s infrequent flight schedule, PC would have had to flown me in the Tuesday before and flown me back the next Tuesday, and they couldn’t justify bringing me in to UB for a whole week on a account of a 2-hour meeting. So they never explicitly said it, but I’m assuming they invited me to the John Kerry thing to make up for having to miss out on the congressional delegation (which I must say, was a favorable trade).

Anyway, we had to arrive at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs early in the morning and wait for Secretary Kerry and the Mongolian Foreign Minister to arrive. They went away for some private discussions, then came back for a press conference, which we got to attend (but PC was pretty adamant about not having us all whip out our cameras and phones to snap a bunch of photos, but there were plenty enough photographers from news stations and the embassy anyway).

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He even mentioned us (Mongolia Peace Corps Volunteers) in his comments, the transcript of which can be found here.

After the press conference, Secretary Kerry and the Foreign Minister came into the next room to shake all our hands, make a few remarks, and take a group photo:

Secretary Kerry Poses for a Photo With a Group of Former and Current Peace Corps Volunteers in Ulaanbaatar 1

Then like that, he was gone. He was only in Mongolia for 6 hours, and he had to get on to other things like lunch with the Mongolian president and some cultural events. But I got to meet a famous person and shake his hand, and got a free trip to UB out of it! I would call that a worthwhile weekend!

COS Conference

The last week of April was my cohort’s Close of Service (COS) Conference–aka the start of the home stretch of our Peace Corps service. It was also (at least for my cohort) the last time we would all be together.

I don’t know how other Peace Corps countries work, but in Mongolia, they typically have each cohort COS over a period of about 3 weeks so as to not have a horde of PCVs descending upon the capital at once and all trying to get their COS appointments and paperwork finished at the same time. And even though my cohort’s official COS date is August 16, 2016 (exactly 2 years after we swore in), Country Directors can move a group’s COS date up by no more than a month, typically to accommodate PCVs who go straight into graduate school at the end of their service.

So the first COS week is the second-to-last week of July, which got further complicated by the fact that Mongolia is hosting the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Conference in the middle of July, and it’s a huge deal! The Heads of State of 60 countries are coming into UB for the conference, pretty much all other transportation into and out of the city won’t be running, and the Mongolian government has kindly asked all UB residents to go out into the countryside for a week or so to stay out of the way. The only transportation that will be running is the train line, so the 18 or so PCVs who live along the train line were told ahead of time that they had to leave during the first COS week. For the rest of us, we had a “lottery” at the beginning of the COS Conference for either the second COS week (the last week of July) or the third COS week (the first week of August), and we could trade dates among ourselves. I drew the third week, which is fine for me since–unlike many other people in my cohort–I don’t have grad school or a job or anything lined up for right when I get back to the US, and I would have traded with someone who needed an earlier date had I drawn the second week anyway. The way I see it, we’re all technically going home early, so I can’t complain about being one of the last to leave.

The conference itself was held at a very nice hotel outside of UB, although it was so far outside of UB that it was in the middle of nowhere.

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Hotel

Middle of nowhere

Middle of nowhere

But the hotel was the nicest that we’ve stayed in for any of our PC conferences, probably because they pull out all the stops for the “survivors” who make it the full two years (about 70% of our cohort). The food was amazing: our first meal when we arrived was hot pot, which is surprisingly uncommon outside of major cities here considering hot pot apparently originated in Mongolia many, many centuries ago. Breakfast and lunch each day was a buffet, and we had 3-course dinners every night. And on a non-food-related note, the hotel even had a sauna, which we obviously took advantage of.

The conference consisted of sessions for reflecting on our PC journey,

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providing feedback about our PC service, looking to the future (e.g., networking, resume writing, job search resources for RPCVs), and learning about the logistics of COS itself (which is three days in the capital packed full of things like closing our Mongolian bank account, having our last medical appointments, turning in our Description of Service [the official record of what we did during PC], and meeting with the Country Director, our Regional Manager, and other admin people). We also had our final LPI to prove how much (or how little) our Mongolian improved ver two years.

On the last day, the US Ambassador to Mongolia came to have lunch with us, and in the afternoon our Country Director handed out certificates of completion to each of us.

I have no idea what I'm looking at...

I have no idea what I’m looking at…

Then we took a group photo, the last one with all of us together:

The Survivors, M25

The Survivors, M25

Our flight back to Uliastai was the next day, but after sitting at the airport for almost five hours because our flight kept getting delayed due to a snowstorm that was right over Zavkhan, the airline finally decided to cancel the flight and have us just come back the next morning. So we spent another night in UB, and even though the same storm came over the city that night, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was in Zavkhan, so we were able to fly back without any additional problems. Such is life in a place where no month of the year is immune to a random snowstorm messing up your schedule.

I now have a little less than three months left in Mongolia (I can officially leave the country any time after 6pm on August 3). I am excited to go back home, but there’s still a lot for me to do here in Mongolia: I need to finish up my practicum project for my Master’s International program so that I can graduate with my master’s degree in August; I need to write my DOS and update my resume to reflect the work I’ve done in PC; and I need to start focusing on job-hunting and my future career.

Peace Corps gives COSing Volunteers two options for returning home: you can either have Peace Corps purchase a plane ticket for you to send you straight back to your “home of record” (with no input from you regarding dates and airlines) or you can take a flat $1400 and arrange your own way home. I plan to travel some more after I COS, so I decided to take the money and run! Which leaves me with another thing to add to my pre-COS to-do list: planning another trip!

Min (Temporarily) in Japan, Part 2

Onto the second half of our trip to Japan!

Day 6

We spent this day exploring more of Kyoto, starting with Kinkaku-ji, aka the “Golden Pavilion.”

Ooooooh! Aaaaaah!

Ooooooh! Aaaaaah!

Then it was off to Fushimi Inari Shrine, which is famous for its thousands of bright orange torii gates which form tunnels along the trails up the mountain.

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You could easily spend hours exploring the entire shrine and all the hiking trails, but we had an appointment set up to get rental kimono! Kyoto is one of the places in Japan where it is still extremely common to see people dressed in traditional kimono (mostly groups of young women and couples where it’s clear the woman pestered her boyfriend into dressing up with her), and as such it has hundreds of rental shops where people (both Japanese and foreigners) can change into kimono and have their hair done and go out to explore the town, all for a pretty reasonable price (the place we went to ending up being 3000 yen, or a little less than $30, because we made appointments ahead of time). Basically you go in, pick out a kimono, obi (belt), and bag, grab a pair of tabi (socks) and sandals, have the workers dress you up, and then get your hair done. You leave your original clothes and anything else you don’t want to drag around with you at the shop, go off to explore, and then come back to the shop at the end of the day.

After getting dolled up, we visited Yasaka Shrine and Maruyama Park and basically did photo shoots for each other. It did feel a little weird at first, since most of the other foreigners who dress up in kimono (at least according to the lady at the rental shop we went to) are Koreans, who don’t stick out quite as much as a couple of blonde white girls. (Luckily being two of only a handful of foreigners in an entire province of Mongolia for two years had already given us more than enough experience with being stared at.) But it ended up being a fun experience and we got some great photos!

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We also walked through the Higashiyama District and saw Yasaka Pagoda.

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There were a few other places we had planned to visit, including Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kodai-ji Temple, Chion-in Temple, and Ginkaku-ji (the “Silver Pavilion”), but most temples tend to close by 4 or 5pm so we ran out of time. Needless to say, Kyoto has more than enough things to see and really is a beautiful place!

That evening we went to a public bathhouse called Funaoka Onsen, which is one of the oldest still-functioning sento in Kyoto and is quite famous, with a variety of indoor and outdoor baths and a sauna. So relaxing!

Day 7

We left Kyoto in the morning and took the bullet train again, stopping for a day in Nagoya on the way back to Tokyo. First we spent a couple hours at the Nagoya City Science Museum. Then it was off to Atsuta Shrine, which has a restaurant on its grounds where we ate kishimen noodles, a Nagoya specialty.

In the evening, we went to a cat cafe. Animal cafes (specializing in cats, rabbits, birds, etc.) are really common in Japan. They let people spend time with animals that they might not be able to own, and enjoy a drink and snack as well.

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Our hostel in Nagoya was extremely nice, with a luxurious bathroom and cute little “pods” for each guest.

Ok, so it looked like a mess after I laid out the bedding and threw all my crap in there, but it was comfy as hell!

Ok, so it looked like a mess after I laid out the bedding and threw all my crap in there, but it was comfy as hell!

Day 8

Before leaving the city, we stopped by Nagoya Castle (my sitemate really wanted to see castles). Then it was back on the bullet train to Tokyo.

Near Tokyo Station is a shop called Kyoto-kan, which (as you might have guessed) specializes in all things Kyoto. I was interested in seeing a tea ceremony while we were in Japan, but in general they’re not exactly cheap to attend, so my research led me to Kyoto-kan, which has a teishu (ceremony host) who offers 20-minute tea ceremonies for only 500 yen (a little less than $5). Because there was just the two of us, the teishu even let us try whisking the matcha (powdered green tea) ourselves.

My sitemate whisking match, but not like an egg, because (as we both learned) that's the wrong way

My sitemate whisking matcha, but not like an egg, because (as we both learned) that’s the wrong way

We had originally intended to visit the Tokyo Imperial Palace on this day, but as I found out the week before our trip, you can only visit by applying for a guided tour, which they apparently don’t do on the weekends (and all the tours on the other days we were in Tokyo were already booked). So instead we just wandered along the moat that surrounds the palace and the large garden to the north of it.

Then we walked through Kitanomaru Park, famous for its Chidorigafuchi Moat lined with cherry trees.

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We spent the evening in the Akihabara district, aka “Electric Town,” known for its many electronics stores and anime/manga shops. Needless to say, it was very bright and colorful!

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In Akihabara we had dinner at a “maid cafe,” possibly the most Japanese thing I’ve ever heard of; the servers dress and act like maids and all the food is super cutesy.

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Yes, that is pink curry in the top left corner

It was an interesting experience, and the food was really good!

Day 9

This was our last full day in Japan. In the morning, while walking to our first destination, we stopped by Senso-ji Temple again (this time in the daylight), as well as the Nakamise shopping street in front of the temple, got some photos of the Tokyo Skytree, walked along the Sumida River, and stumbled upon Yokoamicho Park, which houses several memorials and museums dedicated to the victims of the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Tokyo air raids of WWII, and other disasters.

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Then we arrived at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which has many interactive exhibits, English on most of the displays, and various performances if you happen to be there at the right time. I highly recommend it!

Later in the day we went to Ueno Park. As it was the beginning of the cherry blossom season (and the weekend), the park was packed with tons of people holding hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties.

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While at the park we visited Toshogu Shrine, Hanazonoinari Shrine, and Shinobazu Pond.

For our last dinner in Japan, we went to a nice Japanese BBQ restaurant (one where you cook your own meat and vegetables on the grill built into your table) and tried some sake. All very yummy!

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Day 10

We left Japan early in the afternoon, had another long layover at the Incheon International Airport in Seoul, and arrived back in Mongolia late that evening. Like before the trip, we spent a couple days in UB to relax before taking the long bus ride back to site and back to the daily grind.

It was an amazing trip and I really do hope to get a chance to go to Japan again some day! There are just so many things to see that one relatively short trip doesn’t cut it, but it was a very much needed trip. I hadn’t left Mongolia in almost 2 years, so it was nice to get out for a bit and experience a (very) different culture, eat amazing food, and have regular access to running water!

Now there’s less than 4 months left of my Peace Corps service, and my next post will be about my cohort’s COS (Close of Service) Conference coming up soon!

Min (Temporarily) in Japan, Part 1

I mentioned in my last post (which was, yes, quite a while ago) that I would be going on vacation to Japan with one of my sitemates. It was a very much needed break, and after having been back in Mongolia for a couple weeks and (finally) finished uploading a good chunk of the 2000+ photos I took to Facebook, I thought I would share a little about the trip. In order to keep this from becoming a miniature version of my Facebook photo albums, I’ll try to limit the photos but include hyperlinks to information and photos about the places and attractions we visited if you want to learn more.

Pre-Japan

My two sitemates and I (the other was going on a trip to Bali) took the long bus ride from Uliastai to UB a few days before our flight, because no one wants to go from a 20-hour bus ride straight to a red-eye international flight.

Day 1

Our flight from UB to Seoul left just before midnight. All 4 of our flights were on Korean Air, which has the nice personal screens on the back of the seat in front of you, so of course I took advantage of this and watched a movie on every single flight instead of doing something sensible like sleep at 1 o’clock in the morning.

We had a 5-hour layover at the Incheon International Airport, which we mostly spent eating Dunkin’ Donuts and sleeping on the seats at the gate of our next flight. I also bought a new camera at one of their duty free shops once they opened (reminder: I broke the camera I had specifically bought for Japan a week earlier at the Ice Festival). I’ve so far managed to not break this camera, and hopefully it will survive my last few months in Mongolia.

Then we had our flight to Tokyo, arriving at about 11:30am to find it raining. Yay! As the first item on our agenda* was to visit a temple close to the airport, and we didn’t feel like carrying around all our luggage through the rain with just my one umbrella, we decided to skip that and go straight to the National Museum of Japanese History. By the time we got off the train for the museum, it was only barely drizzling, which was nice since we still had to walk a bit to get to the museum.

After the museum, we took the train into Tokyo to check into our hostel. But we were both so tired that we fell asleep and missed our stop. Once we turned around and did get off at the right station, we had trouble actually finding the hostel, until a series of extremely helpful people managed to get the confused tourists to the right place.

*The agenda was my 14-page, extremely detailed schedule of our trip, including a daily itinerary and how to get from place to place. My sitemate got a kick out of it, but I was extremely intimidated by Japan’s massive public transportation system and knew that if we didn’t know where we were going ahead of time and which trains/subways/buses to take and stations to get off at, we would have spent half our time in the country staring confusedly at maps and having the old, “So, what do you want to do now?”, “Eh, I don’t know. Whatever,” conversation 5 times a day. So we figured out which cities we wanted to visit ahead of time and what sites we wanted to see at each place. Then I spent my time at work when I wasn’t actually working on anything mapping out the sites in each city and figuring out the most time-conducive route to seeing as many of them as possible. We obviously (and expectedly) didn’t get around to everything on the list, but I like to think having it helped us see as much as possible.

Day 2

We went to Hakone, a resort town near Mt. Fuji famous for its hot springs and other attractions.

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As it is a resort town, our lodging for the one night we stayed was our splurge and slice of luxury for the trip. We stayed at what is supposedly the only hostel in Japan with an outdoor onsen, or hot spring bath, or this:

Photo credit to K's House Hakone, as I wasn't about to bring my camera into the bath area

Photo credit to K’s House Hakone, as I wasn’t about to bring my camera into the bath area to snap a photo

We had a private Japanese-style tatami room and slept on traditional futons.

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Sleeping on the floor's actually pretty comfy if you do it right

Sleeping on the floor’s actually pretty comfy if you do it right

But before all that, we went on the standard tour of Hakone that is covered by the Hakone Freepass, which included bus rides, crossing Lake Ashi on a sightseeing cruise, taking the ropeway for an aerial view, the cable car, and the local train. Along the way, we visited Hakone Shrine, ate some fried calamari-on-a-stick, walked along “Ancient Cedar Avenue,” and visited Gora Park.

Hakone has tons of places where you can get views of Mt. Fuji, but of course the day we were there it was cloudy and drizzling, so no Mt. Fuji sightings for us! Here’s what it’s supposed to look like though:

Photo credit: JTB Global Marketing & Travel

Featuring the ship that we rode on the sightseeing cruise and part of Hakone Shrine on the right (photo credit: JTB Global Marketing & Travel)

Then we spent the evening relaxing at the hostel and enjoying the hot springs.

Day 3

In the morning we walked to a couple waterfalls nearby (Hien Falls and Tamadare Falls), as well as a shrine between the 2 waterfalls.

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Hakone was one of my favorite parts of the trip, and I definitely recommend visiting (it’s conveniently only 1.5 hours from Tokyo by train).

Then we headed back to Tokyo. In lieu of going to the fairly expensive Tokyo Skytree or Tokyo Tower for views of the city, we went to the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, which was a much more agreeable FREE!

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That big patch of green in the above photo was the location of our next stops: Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine. There just happened to be a wedding at the shrine while we were there, so we got to see a traditional Japanese wedding procession:

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Then we went on to Shibuya Station. Right outside the station is an intersection called Shibuya Crossing, which is supposedly the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing. We got to experience the bustling crowds firsthand and then from above at a cafe.

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For dinner we had an amazing meal at a kaiten, or conveyor belt sushi restaurant, where you grab whichever sushi catches your fancy off the moving conveyor belt, and your bill is calculated based on the stack of color-coded-by-price plates you have left at the end. If you’re into sushi, I definitely recommend one of these restaurants!

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As you can see, the two of us are very much into sushi

As you can see, the two of us are very much into sushi

After dinner we visited the nearby Senso-ji Temple and Asakusa Shrine to see them lit up on the way back to our hostel.

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Day 4

We took the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. We had bought Japan Rail Passes, which are pretty expensive but certainly worth it if you’re going to multiple cities. The JR Pass covers all but the fastest of the Shinkansen trains, and with the time that you save getting to your destination so much quicker (as opposed to taking the regular train or a bus), you get much more time for sightseeing.

After arriving in Kyoto and dropping off our bags, we rented bikes from the hostel and visited Nijo Castle. Then we headed to the Arashiyama area in the western part of the city, which is beautiful and well worth a visit (you could easily spend a whole day just in this area and not run out of things to see). We crossed the Togetsukyo Bridge and hiked up a hill to Monkey Park Iwatayama, where over a hundred Japanese macaques roam freely.

And get nice views of the city!

And get nice views of the city!

There’s also a famous bamboo grove you can wander through, and after all our wandering, we had a nice relaxing foot bath at Randen Arashiyama Station, which is decorated with hundreds of beautiful light poles:

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Then it was back to the “hostel,” which was a preserved 70-year-old Japanese house, so we got to experience some traditional living as well.

Day 5

Day trip to Osaka, which is just a 30-minute train ride from Kyoto. Our first stop was Osaka Castle (ok, our first first stop was Nisinomaru Garden located on the castle grounds).

Where we borrowed traditional umbrellas for photo ops (and because I had forgotten my sunglasses and have very sensitive eyes)

Where we borrowed traditional umbrellas for photo ops (and because I had forgotten my sunglasses and have very sensitive eyes)

We noticed that there were what looked like news crews gathered around a patch of trees and were told by an English-speaking volunteer guide that they were reporting on the opening of the first cherry blossoms on Osaka’s official cherry tree. There are many different kinds of cherry trees that start blooming at different times, but apparently each city in Japan has a couple “official” trees that they base the beginning of cherry blossom season on. Osaka’s trees were in this garden, and the first blooms just happened to open on the day we were visiting.

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The volunteer guide ushered us closer, and then the news crew started sticking a microphone and video camera in our faces and interviewing us about what we thought of Japan and the cherry blossoms. So for all we know there was a blurb of us on the Osaka local news later in the day (we’re…famous?)

After exploring the castle, we (intended) to go on to Shitennoji Temple, but all my careful planning failed me and we ended up walking in the opposite direction and visiting Ikukunitama Shrine instead. I didn’t actually realize we had gone to a different place until we got back to Mongolia and I was uploading my photos to Facebook and labeling where they had been taken. Something did seem off at the time, since most (Buddhist) temples in Japan have an entrance fee (and I knew Shitennoji Temple would have one), but we didn’t have to pay to enter the place we were visiting (most [Shinto] shrines in Japan don’t have entrance fees). So it was a matter of looking at a map after the fact and comparing my photos to photos online of the temples/shrines in the area we had been in.

Then it was on to the bustling Shinsekai district to visit Tsutenkaku Tower and get views of the city.

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Our last stop in Osaka was the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan, which is one of the largest aquariums in the world and was well worth a visit.

That evening we headed back to Kyoto, and our trip was half-way over! I’ll cover the rest of the trip in the next post.

Ice Festival and a Poorly-Timed Blizzard

Every year at the beginning of March, there’s an Ice Festival at Huvsgul Lake (Huvsgul is the aimag northeast of Zavkhan, remember?). It’s the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia (by volume), and in winter it’s completely frozen over several feet deep.

Around the same time, some other PCVs in Mongolia found out that there was going to be an Eagle Festival right outside of UB (every year in October there’s an Eagle Festival way out in Bayan-Ulgii, but the Mongolian government finally decided to have another one closer to the capital so that everyone who doesn’t live in the farthest west corner of Mongolia can experience it). I really wanted to go since it would be my last chance, and I had only used 2 of the 48 vacation days Peace Corps gives us during our service, so I decided to take a week off (since UB isn’t exactly around the corner either) to go to the Eagle Festival with a bunch of other PCVs.

And then I found out that a Mongolian friend of ours was driving up to the Ice Festival with his wife and son and would be able to take me along. And since, if you’ll remember from the nightmarish trip from Uliastai to Huvsgul last summer when I went up for the reindeer camp, the only way to get there is to either take the super long way through UB and then back west again, or go the direct way in a private vehicle. I had no desire to relive the super long way, so the only way I would be able to go to Ice Festival was with this friend. The Ice Festival was scheduled for the first Thursday and Friday of March, while the Eagle Festival was that Saturday. My plan was to take the bus from Huvsgul to UB later that Friday, which would get me into UB early Saturday morning with plenty of time to meet up with the other PCVs to head to the Eagle Festival. But…that’s not exactly what happened.

The trip started out great. We left Uliastai early evening on Tuesday and drove until a little before midnight, when we stopped to sleep at the home of a friend of a friend. Then we drove all day Wednesday and finally arrived in Murun (the capital of Huvsgul), where we stayed with their relatives. The next morning we drove up to the lake for the first day of the festival.

It was ice galore! The festival itself was on the frozen lake:

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there was ice-skating:

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horse-drawn sleds:

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an ice slide:

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and an ice sculpture competition:

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Those gers in the background of the photo above were all places where you could get out of the cold for a bit and have some hot food and milk tea. There was also a large shopping area where people were selling clothes, souvenirs, and everything in between:

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There were various competitions going on throughout the festival as well, but the only one I saw was the horse sled race.

And then the whole walking around on ice with a camera in my hand caught up to me, as I slipped and fell while my camera flew out of my hand and smashed on the ice a good 30 feet away. It was beyond salvation, as the lens had shattered and wouldn’t even retract. It was just a relatively inexpensive point-and-shoot, but it was brand new that my parents had send to me from America after my old camera broke during Shine Jil. I was doing so well with cameras in Mongolia until I managed to break two in less than three months. So that put a bit of a damper on the festivities, but luckily I had brought my iPhone and was able to still take some pictures (even if they were poor quality photos since my iPhone is several years old).

By late afternoon, it had started snowing a lot. My Mongolian friends had gone to find a place to stay for the night before they continued their trip up to Russia, and I had met up with a PCV who lives in Murun and another volunteer who works at the Murun Bookbridge center. The snow and wind got so bad that we had to seek shelter in one of the gers until the bus back to Murun would be leaving. Finally making our way back to the bus proved difficult, as it was now a full-on blizzard.

Good luck finding your vehicle in this!

Good luck finding your vehicle in this!

After trudging through the snow, fighting against the wind, and slipping and falling on the ice some more, we finally made it to a bus that was heading to Murun! The blizzard was so bad that the normally 1-1.5 hour ride took about 3.5 hours. You couldn’t see 3 feet in front of you, and snow and ice stuck to the windshield so much that one of the windshield wipers broke, so then we had to stop every 10 minutes or so for the driver to go outside and scrape the windshield clear. But that didn’t improve visibility too much, so then they just left the door open and had another guy hang out of it to look at the road ahead and tell the driver “left” or “right” so he didn’t send us careening off the road.

The worst of it had passed by the time we finally got into Murun that evening, but the next morning we all received a text from PC/Mongolia saying that the snowstorm had spread across a large part of the country and had shut down all transportation into and out of UB. But it was already nice and sunny again in Khuvsgul so I didn’t think there would be issues for long since the storm had already passed over the route I needed.

Unfortunately (a bit of an understatement), when I went to the bus station later that afternoon for the 6pm overnight bus to UB, I was told that the road to UB was still shut down and no buses would be leaving until the next day (which didn’t help me since the Eagle Festival was the next day, and I was still 14 hours away from UB). I asked if any mikrs or taxis or anything were heading to UB, but they said the Department of Transportation had blocked all the roads, so no one could come or go.

Later I called the PCV who was organizing the mikr for us to take to the Eagle Festival to see if she had heard anything about the blizzard affecting the schedule (with me hoping they would maybe postpone it until the next day so I–and a ton of other people who were stuck outside of UB–could still go), but the festival was still on for that Saturday. I guess all the eagle hunters had come into UB days ahead of time and so the snowstorm hadn’t affected them.

Buses from Murun started running again the next morning, so I got to spend the whole Saturday that I was supposed to be enjoying with friends at Eagle Fest on a long, boring bus ride with a bunch of strangers.

It sucked 😦

Then I just spent a couple days in UB drowning my sorrows in pizza, Burger King, and Cinnabon, before the flight back to Zavkhan (I had bought a plane ticket ahead of time because I was not taking that long-ass bus ride back to site by myself).

On a much happier note, in just a couple days my sitemate and I are heading back to UB to go on a trip to Japan! It will be the first time either of us have left Mongolia since we arrived almost two years ago, so words can’t express how excited we are to spend 10 days in Japan (with a few days in UB on either end)! This trip is actually the main reason I had had my parents send me the new camera, so as luck would have it, I ended up breaking it right before the trip! I still haven’t decided if I’ll buy a new camera in UB, during our layover in Seoul, or on our first day in Japan, or if I’ll just make do with my iPhone and my older, also-broken-but-still-somewhat-functional camera.