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.

12901094_10154264434324238_5937042913045418869_o

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.

12916121_10154263456489238_7537041190546204001_o

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.

12890907_10154264420054238_4620200164609492463_o

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!

12916377_10154266172129238_1774655418460021293_o

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:

12719479_10154266245834238_7082505093958006680_o

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.

12891507_10154266856884238_2919368056620074509_o

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!

12891751_10154266881149238_2773079156281385588_o

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.

12961214_10154266918159238_6286202505246358594_o

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:

12916852_10154272107914238_4215353601883757125_o

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.

12977260_10154274429609238_2864802388366161716_o

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.

12916950_10154277372729238_3462395665919781813_o

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.

Advertisements

Trip to the Gobi: Camels, Sand Dunes, and Running through the Desert

I finally made it to the Gobi! And it’s all thanks to Peace Corps/Mongolia needing to review the Health and CYD programs here!

Let me back up.

We found out during MST that the Health and CYD sectors here in Mongolia are going to be under review for the next couple of years. Apparently this happens quite often in Peace Corps and is just a chance to determine whether the programs are actually doing what they’re meant to do and to restructure the sectors to make them better for PCVs and the HCAs they work with. The project review won’t affect Health and CYD Volunteers already in country (the M25s and M26s), but for the next 1-2 years, Peace Corps/Mongolia won’t be bringing in new Volunteers for those sectors while they work on revamping them (so the next 1 or 2 PSTs will be solely for TEFL Trainees).

Before we headed back to our sites at the end of MST, we were told that PC staff would be interviewing us current Health and CYD PCVs at some point in the future to get feedback about the sectors. Well, “some point in the future” ended up being less than 2 weeks after we got back to site. Lo and behold, all the Healthies and CYDers got an email from PC saying that we would need to come in to UB a couple weeks later for focus group interviews. Oh darn, looks like another free trip to UB…

So how does the Gobi factor into all this?

During MST, one of the PCVs who lives in Omnogovi aimag discussed his plan to arrange a tour of the Gobi Desert on the weekend of the annual Gobi Marathon. I listened to his plans and considered going, but given how expensive and time-consuming it would be to go from Zavkhan to UB, then UB to Omnogovi, stay the weekend, and then doing it again on the way back, I couldn’t really justify it. But then I got the email from PC about the project review focus groups! Which happened to be scheduled for the Tuesday right after the Gobi Marathon!

Even so, it wouldn’t have worked out had there been seats available on the flight from Zavkhan to UB for the Saturday before the focus group, which is when PC had planned to fly us in (that’s what happens when you wait until 10 days before a flight to try to book seats). Had we flown in on Saturday, I wouldn’t have made it to Omnogovi in time for the tour and marathon. But since there were no seats on the plane, we (that is, me and our M26 CYDer) would have to instead take the bus from Zavkhan to UB.

I’ve already told you about the bus ride from hell that was my first trip on the Zavkhan-UB bus, but since there were no other options, I decided to make the best of the situation by leaving site a few days early and spending a couple vacation days in the Gobi. I would have to pay for the round trip transportation from UB to Omnogovi, but Peace Corps was obviously footing the bill for the bus ride from Zavkhan to UB and the return flight to Zavkhan afterward. And since I had to be in UB anyway for the focus group, I only had to take 2 of my vacation days, as opposed to the 6 or so I would have had to take otherwise.

Anyway, my sitemate and I left at 9am on Thursday morning (new PCVs aren’t allowed to leave site for their first 3 months unless for official PC or medical business, so she obviously couldn’t come with me to the Gobi, but I convinced PC to let her take the earlier bus with me so that she wouldn’t have to take it alone later in the week). Miraculously, this trip to UB ended up only taking 23 hours! For comparison, the previously mentioned bus ride from hell took 35 hours, and even that return trip took 26. So this was a new record for me.

The bus from UB to Dalanzadgad (the capital of Omnogovi) left at 4pm on Friday, so I hung out at the PC office until then while my sitemate went off to the hostel. The second bus ride only took about 9 hours, because even though the physical distance from Dalanzadgad to UB is only a little less than the distance from Uliastai to UB, the entire road to Dalanzadgad is paved and the route doesn’t require going hours out of the way to get around mountain ranges.

mg-map

So I arrived in Dalanzadgad a little after 1 in the morning, was picked up by the aforementioned resident M25, and was brought to his ger where the other Gobi adventurers were sleeping. I didn’t get much sleep though, because we were off at 7:30am for the start of our tour!

The 10 of us took a purgon ride out to Gobi Gurvan Saikhan National Park in the western part of the aimag, where we rode camels:

IMG_5190

I rode the white one!

I rode the white one!

IMG_5217

and climbed to the top of Khongoryn Els, aka the “Singing Sand Dunes:”

The pictures don't capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots are horses

The pictures don’t capture just how tall the dunes are; just know that those dots in the center of the photo are horses

I don’t know how high the specific dune we climbed was, but the sand dunes of Khongoryn Els can get as tall as 300 meters (that’s almost 1,000 feet for my fellow metric-challenged Americans)!

IMG_5249

That dot in the top-left is our purgon

The incline

The incline

IMG_5257

It. Was. So. Freakin’. Exhausting! If you’ve ever walked on sand over even a slight incline, you know how exponentially more difficult it is than walking on dirt or pavement. Now imagine that, but climbing to a height almost as tall as the Eiffel Tower. Each step required so much effort, but if you stopped to rest for too long, the wind would bury your feet in even more sand, trapping you. But finally, slowly, we made it to the top!

IMG_5263

IMG_5273

The other side of the dune we climbed

IMG_5280

Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Once again, the photos do not convey just how high up we were

Then we ran back down the dunes (sadly, we didn’t have anything to slide down on), which took all of 2 minutes compared to the hour or so it took us to climb up:

Hope you're not afraid of heights!

Hope you’re not afraid of heights!

We piled back into the purgon, which took us to a ger camp close to where the Gobi Marathon would be taking place the next day. Luckily, the ger camp had showers, which we all took advantage of since we had sand just about everywhere on our bodies from the dunes.

We woke up super early (again) the next morning to get to the starting location for the Gobi Marathon. It’s hard to really give directions to a specific location in the middle of the desert, so we first went to where we knew the finish line would be: at the Flaming Cliffs, one of the main tourist destinations in Omnogovi and the site of the first dinosaur egg discovery (along with many other dinosaur fossils). Then we just followed the red ribbons that marked the marathon path backwards until we found the start.

Now, before you go thinking that I’m actually a real runner or anything, I must admit that I had no intentions of running the full marathon. Or the half. No, I was running the 16km. The shortest distance was the 10km, but since I had already run one of those before, I decided to up the ante. Never mind that I had gone running exactly twice since being in Mongolia and was hardly in my pre-Peace Corps running shape.

Oh, let's not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

Oh, let’s not forget how tired and sore I was from climbing a giant sand dune the day before

The Gobi Marathon isn’t exactly a huge event, though a group of Peace Corps Volunteers (and sometimes staff!) do go pretty much every year. It’s organized by a German dude who lives in and runs tours out of UB, and I got the sense that he has the marathon each year simply because he enjoys it (because I can’t imagine it makes him a lot of money). There were only 2 people running the full marathon:

IMG_5358

A handful of people ran or walked the half marathon, including a couple elderly German women who walked with their dog:

Who of course got a racing bib as well

Who of course got a racing bib as well

There were only 2 of us running the 16km: myself and one of the other PCVs. And then another handful of people ran the 10km, including 2 other PCVs (the rest of the PCVs who came were there for encouragement and to help pass out the refreshments every 5km).

The other girl running the 16km was way ahead of me from the start, so I was literally running for 10 miles surrounded by this:

IMG_5372

IMG_5379

IMG_5383

I managed to keep a steady jogging pace for the first 5km, but after that I had to alternate between jogging and walking for a bit. The last leg of the course was the toughest, requiring getting up a fairly steep hill and then a steady incline to the top of the Flaming Cliffs.

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

The Flaming Cliffs: location of the finish line

After nearly 2 hours, I finally made it to the finish line, where I was greeted by the PCV “support team” and plenty of refreshments. Now I can officially say I came in second place in a 16km race (because is it really that important to mention that there were only 2 people in the race?).

IMG_5415

IMG_5438

When the girls running the 10km finished up, we all took plenty of photos of the beautiful scenery:

IMG_5471

And after ensuring that the half-marathon walkers (including the dog!) made it back safely…

IMG_5489

…we piled into the purgon for the ride back to Dalanzadgad. The eventful, exhausting, amazing Gobi weekend came to a close, and I went back up to UB for the project review focus groups.

I won’t bore you with the details of that, but there were focus groups for the M25 Health PCVs, the M25 CYD PCVs, and the M26 Health and CYD groups. Peace Corps had also asked a small group of M25 TEFL PCVs to come in. The focus groups were facilitated by experts from the PC headquarters in Washington, D.C. and Health/CYD Program Managers from other PC countries in the Eastern Europe/Mediterranean/Asia region. We were asked questions like “what is working well for you professionally/culturally,” “what isn’t working well,” “what suggestions do you have to make the program better,” etc.

Our focus group took just 2 hours (though we definitely could have kept the discussion going for a lot longer), and since PC did manage to get us seats on the flight back to Zavkhan (which happens to not be until Saturday), my sitemate and I got a few extra days to hang out in UB. For those counting, that’s 10 days away from site for a 2-hour interview. Such is life in Peace Corps/Mongolia.

The Long Journey to the Taiga

I am back from my trip to the taiga to visit the reindeer herders, and after uploading several hundred photos, I’m ready to write about the experience. There’s a lot to talk about, so I’m expecting to have 3 posts about the trip. This one will be about the multi-day trip from my site to the camp where we would be staying for the duration of the Reindeer Project (as Peace Corps wants us to call it instead of Reindeer Camp). Since there’s not much else to do on a crazy-long bus ride, I took pretty detailed notes of what was happening as it happened.

As I mentioned in my last post, the bus from Uliastai to UB was supposed to leave at 2pm rather than 9am. Things didn’t get off to a great start as the bus didn’t really leave until a little after 3 because we were waiting for like half the people on the bus to show up. Then we finally started moving around 3:20 only to stop at the first gas station we came across. They filled the bus with gas and apparently discovered some mechanical issue with the bus because we stayed there for almost 30 minutes while a bunch of men went out to mess around with the bus. At 3:45 we finally left the gas station only to stop less than 2 minutes later at a shop for people to get drinks and snacks. Seriously people?! Maybe prepare a little by bringing some damn food and a water bottle with you on a 27-hour bus ride!
We finally got out of Uliastai around 4pm. So we were already 2 hours behind schedule, and I was not too confident that we’d be making it to UB in time to catch the bus to Huvsgul.
Around 6pm, after driving along the river valley that leads to Uliastai and passing tons of gers and herds of animals…

IMG_4207

…we stopped in the middle of nowhere for what I had hoped would be a quick bathroom break but ending up being a 30-minute long sit-around-and-wait break. Around 8:45 we finally passed the first soum, where we took a–thankfully much shorter–bathroom break.
At 9:15 we stopped again to deal with more mechanical issues (which I think had something to do with the rear axle, but I know next to nothing about cars). I decided that there’s no way in hell I’d be making it to UB in time to catch the 6pm bus to Murun the next day, so I called one of the PCVs in charge of the reindeer project to tell her what was going on. She said I could take the 8am bus to Murun the day after, though that would make me miss an entire day of planning and preparing for the trip with the others. We finally started moving again at 10:30.
Just before midnight we arrived in Tosontsengel, where we stopped at a guanz (canteen/cafeteria) to eat. I had already been munching on all the food I had brought throughout the journey and didn’t feel like eating an actual meal at midnight, right before I was hoping to get some sleep. So I just took a bathroom break, ate a small snack, and waited for the other passengers to finish eating.
At 3 o’clock in the goddamn morning we all had to get off the bus and walk across a bridge while the bus went down a different road a bit upriver (something about a new bridge being built and the old bridge not being strong enough to hold a huge bus and all its passengers). I couldn’t see what they were doing by the bus, but it took over 30 minutes before we met back up with it and could get back on (and it wasn’t exactly warm outside). The only benefit was getting a nice view of the starry sky and Milky Way.
Around 6:30am we stopped briefly in a soum where the lady sitting next to me picked up a kid who I assumed was her son and a bunch more luggage. This lady had already been taking up part of my seat, but now that she had an 8-year-old on her lap and was trying to hold onto 3 bags, she was really squeezing me into the window. The joys of public transportation…
At 9:30 we stopped for another bathroom break/fix-the-bus break in Arkhangai aimag, but at least we stopped next to some beautiful scenery:

IMG_4210

IMG_4212
The paved road that they’ve been building for a while from UB out west finally appeared, so the ride was quicker and less bumpy after that. At 11:30 we stopped for another bathroom break and for lunch. I think I slept most of the remainder of the trip, but I know we finally arrived in UB around 1am (which you may notice is 7 hours after the bus I was supposed to take to Huvsgul left, and makes a total of 35 hours on that freakin’ bus).

While I was still on the bus to UB, I had asked another PCV who was taking the later bus to Huvsgul to try to get me a bus ticket. She went to the bus station that evening but apparently they don’t sell tickets past 7:30, although the ticket lady did say there were tickets left. Apparently we didn’t get to the bus station early enough the next morning, because when I went to get my ticket, the lady said they were sold out. I got a ticket for the next bus (3pm) and went to find the other two girls who were taking the 8am bus. The combination of the stress of quickly packing up my ger, being on a bus for 35 hours, and only getting 3 hours of sleep at the hostel caught up to me, and I started crying while the three of us tried to convince the driver to let us squeeze into two seats or begging the passengers already on the bus to switch tickets with me, even offering to throw in some extra money. Either they didn’t understand or didn’t care, but no one took us up on the offer. Maybe the driver felt bad since I was still crying, but he eventually opened up the luggage hatch and let me put my bag in, then led me to a seat in the back of the bus. I don’t know if a passenger just didn’t show up, but I didn’t care and wasn’t going to move now that I was on the bus.
But then a couple hours later during our first rest stop, the driver approached me again and asked for my ticket. He went away with another guy and they both came back saying I needed to pay for my seat since my ticket was for 3pm. Uh, yeah, I thought we had already gone through this back at the bus station. And the driver was the one who had told me to put my luggage on the bus and led me to a seat, but now he was saying I needed to pay the full price of another ticket or wait there until the 3pm bus came by. As I had no desire to stand in the middle of nowhere, alone, for 7 hours, we at least convinced the driver to only make me pay half price. Yay for extortion!
We got into Murun just before 10pm. The other PCVs who were going on the trip had spent the day going over logistics, but those of us who were late were quickly caught up the next morning. We spent that day buying all the food we would need up in the taiga (we would be cooking all our own meals) and organizing and packing the donations we would be giving to the families:

Sorting clothing donations

Sorting clothing donations

The next morning, we packed ourselves and all our luggage into 2 purgons for the bumpy 10-hour ride up to Tsagaannuur, the soum closest to the reindeer herders’ camps.

IMG_4218

The part of northwestern Huvsgul aimag that we were traveling into is in a national Special Protected Area, so we had to get permission beforehand to cross the border.

IMG_4226

That evening we arrived in Tsagaannuur, where we stayed at a ger camp with a great location right on the lake:

IMG_4239

The next morning we divided into our East and West Taiga groups and set off for our respective drop-off points, where each group then took a 6-7-hour horse trek up to their respective camps (as you can’t exactly drive to those remote locations).

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

Our guides getting the pack horses ready

And we're off!

And we’re off!

The view

The view

View during our lunch break

View during our lunch break

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders' camp (we each named our horses)

This is Snapple, the horse I rode to and from the reindeer herders’ camp (we each named our horses)

The guides seemed quite intent on getting to the camp as quickly as possible, so we spent a large portion of the ride trotting rather than walking the horses. Our butts and legs were sore for days afterwards!

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

We had to get off the horses and walk down into the valley where the camp was, since the path was very rocky and dangerous for the horses to go down with riders

While walking down the mountain, we got our first view of the reindeer!

IMG_4296

Once in the valley, we got back on the horses to ride the rest of the way into the camp, where we were greeted by the families and the camp dogs:

IMG_4303

 

Kids coming to greet us

Kids coming to greet us

And that is the tale of our journey to the camp; my next post will be about the week that we spent there living among the reindeer herders. Stay tuned!

An Impromptu Trip (in a Ridiculously Crowded Purgon)

During last Saturday’s “Mongolish” night (which also featured interesting conversations from a random German dude who works at the local polytechnic college and nonchalantly referred to white people as “white noses”) , one of our Mongolian friends mentioned that she was leaving to go to Govi-Altai aimag the next day for a training. One of my M24 sitemates, Virginia, hadn’t been to one of the Gobi aimags yet, and since she’s leaving this summer, she mentioned wanting to go. Our friend said she could come with her and asked if I wanted to go too. So I said, sure, what the heck?

We were supposed to leave at 11 the next morning, but nothing ever happens on time in Mongolia, so we really left closer to 2pm. Virginia and I had gone to our friend’s home to wait for our ride, but when the purgon pulled up, we could see it was already overcrowded. At first Virginia and I thought we wouldn’t be able to go, but the driver managed to rearrange everyone so there was “room” for us. And by “room” I mean whatever miniscule amount of space you have to squeeze your body into when there’s 16 adults and 5 children in 1 van. You may remember the purgon as the vehicle we took on our trip to the horse festival:

This, but filled with 21 people

Like this, but filled with 21 people

Yeah, those things are meant to seat 8-11 people, but they’re a common mode of public transportation here in Mongolia, and obviously the drivers want to make as much money as possible, so they shove as many bodies as they can inside before going anywhere.

So the trip to Altai (the capital of Govi-Altai aimag) was about as fun as you’d expect a 6-hour journey over mountainous, unpaved “roads” in a severely overcrowded vehicle to be.

mongolian_map

After we crossed the Zavkhan River (the border between the two aimags)…

Which is, y'know, still frozen

Which is, y’know, still frozen

…the road immediately turned into a dusty hellhole. We had the windows of the purgon open, as it was hot and stuffy in the van, but this enabled so much sand and dust to blow in that women started wrapping scarves around their faces. We finally arrived in Altai, where Virginia and I went to a local PCV’s home while our friend went with her colleagues to their hotel. Then we ordered a pizza, because they have a place that makes and delivers pizza in their aimag center, lucky bastards.

IMG_3523

Oh, and our PCV friend had a cute kitty:

Chilling on my sleeping bag while I'm trying to go to bed

Chilling on my sleeping bag while I’m trying to go to bed

The next day, we wandered around the city, with all their fancy roads and sidewalks:

IMG_3529

their fancy Youth Center:

IMG_3537

IMG_3538

and their fancy statues:

IMG_3547

We also visited the Govi-Altai Museum, but we weren’t allowed to take our cameras in with us.

IMG_3544

So here’s the outside of the museum!

The next day we walked to a monastery up on a hill.

IMG_3560

IMG_3574

The monastery had a great view of the city…

IMG_3576

…but being up on a hill exacerbated the wind that was already blowing like crazy.

It had been very windy the whole time we were in Altai, and being in the desert meant the wind was blowing up tons of dust and sand. And then later in the day, there was a legit sandstorm where we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us, the wind almost knocked me over quite a few times, and we all ended up with sand and dirt in our eyes, ears, noses, mouths, hair, etc. And then even later, it started to rain, which prevented the sand and dust from being blown around but just turned everything cold and muddy. So while Uliastai might not have as nice infrastructure as Altai and lacks pizza delivery services, I’ll take its beautiful scenery (rivers and mountains within walking distance) over the flat, perpetually brown, sandstorm-prone desert setting any time.

We ended up leaving that Tuesday evening, although we were originally supposed to leave on Thursday. But the purgon driver was going back to Uliastai on Tuesday, and given that there aren’t exactly frequent rides between the two cities, we didn’t really have any other options. Luckily on the ride back, there were only 14 adults and 1 child in the purgon, and a few people were dropped off in soums along the way, so there was considerably more room. We arrived back in Uliastai a little after 1am, I ate a quick meal (we hadn’t eaten dinner, and it’s an unspoken rule that any food you bring onto the purgon is to be shared among all the passengers, so I didn’t bring any food with me), then slept until late morning. The end.

First Trip Away From Site

This past Wednesday, some of my coworkers at the health department asked me if I wanted to come with them on an overnight trip to one of Zavkhan’s soum hospitals for an inspection.

Now, just the previous weekend, some of the PCVs here in Zavkhan had planned to go to Govi-Altai aimag (which borders Zavkhan to the south) to have an early Thanksgiving get-together with the PCVs there and to go to a camel festival that was happening that Sunday. But Peace Corps has this little policy where new Volunteers aren’t allowed to leave their site for the first 3 months (unless it’s work-related travel with their HCA, official Peace Corps business, or travel for medical reasons). Guess when my cohort’s 3-month mark was? November 17th, the day after the freakin’ camel festival! One of the M24s here in Uliastai even called our Regional Manager to see if she would give us some leeway, but no. The M24s still could have gone without us M25s, but they were nice enough to stay and keep us company, and told us we could try to find another camel festival to go to next spring (when it’s not ridiculously cold). I will ride a camel before I leave Mongolia, dammit!

Anyway, I was pretty bummed about that, so when my coworkers invited me on their little trip, I was all for it! Sure, there wouldn’t be Thanksgiving dinner or camels, but I would be going on a trip! Woohoo! And they even gave me a full 24 hours notice (yes, we left the day after they invited me).

That Thursday after lunch, the 5 of us (me, the director, 2 health department specialists, and the driver) packed into a Land Cruiser for the 3.5-hour drive to Otgon soum, about 130 km southeast of Uliastai. The drive could best be described as “whiplash-inducing”, especially since I ended up in the back middle seat with no headrest, and to say the road was unpaved would be an understatement. But there was plenty of nice scenery to look at, although the windows were so fogged up that I couldn’t really take pictures. We did stop at one point, and I managed to snap a few photos:

Yes, it's been snowing

Yes, it’s been snowing, even in the technically-desert

IMG_2291

But then, disaster struck! While I was handing my camera to one of my coworkers so she could take a picture of the rest of us, she/I accidentally dropped the camera, which (of course) landed lens-down in a pile of snow-covered dirt. We tried to wipe off as much dirt as we could with the one napkin we had, but decided to try to fix it once we got to our destination.

At about 5:30, we finally arrived at the Otgon hospital:

Or "Health Center" if you want to be all technical

Note: photo taken the next day, as my camera was still out of commission at this point

We were shown to our room, which was a patient room with 4 hospital beds. And considering the “hospital” only had 10 beds in total, we were lucky they didn’t have a bunch of inpatients then. You may remember there being 5 of us, so the driver stayed the night at a friend’s home.

First we were served dinner, which consisted of bread and butter, potatoes, extremely fatty beef ribs, blood-filled intestines, and milk tea. I ate as much bread and potatoes as I could to avoid eating too much of the meat/intestines. I really don’t think I’ll ever get used to traditional Mongolian food.

After dinner, we started the hospital inspection while the driver tried to fix my camera (using a needle to try to get the dirt out from around the lens, and putting those valuable medical supplies to good use).

I followed my coworkers as they went around to all the hospital’s rooms, interviewing patients about the care they received there, inspecting the medical equipment and supplies, etc.

Fun fact: there’s no running water out in the middle of nowhere, Mongolia, even in the hospital. So we, along with all the hospital employees and patients, had to use outhouses behind the hospital, and all the sinks inside were “dry sinks” like the one I have in my ger. So I had one night of sleeping in a room with heating, but still had the joy of running to the outhouse in the freezing cold.

After the inspection, we played the one card game that Mongolians seem to know, called khuzur. I’ve mentioned this game before when we played it after a hike with my coworkers a couple months ago, but never really caught on to how to play. I finally found a blog post that actually describes how to play the game (although my coworkers seem to play a slightly different variation). And this time, my coworkers were willing to actually explain it to me so that now I mostly understand what’s going on.

And of course, one of my coworkers busted out a bottle of vodka. Once they started insisting we had to finish the bottle that night, I finally asked why? I’ve noticed that once a bottle of alcohol is opened, Mongolians never stop drinking it until it’s empty. Apparently it has something to do with luck. So we did finish the bottle, with just a little bit of help from me, because I hate vodka unless it’s in a cocktail.

I didn’t sleep too well that night because my director snores like crazy. In the morning we were served more bread and butter and a kind of porridge, then the 2 specialists went off to meet with the hospital workers to discuss what they found during their inspection and offer suggestions. The driver came back and took the director and I down to the river by town to get a view of Otgontenger, the mountain I’ve mentioned before that is the tallest in Zavkhan (and the Khangai range) and capped with a permanent glacier. The driver had managed to fix my camera, so I was able to get pictures!

Ok, so it's still pretty far away. Despite being located in the Otgon region of Zavkhan, the mountain is still about 70 km away from the Otgon soum

Ok, so it’s still pretty far away. Despite being located in the Otgon region of Zavkhan, the mountain is still about 70 km away from Otgon soum

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

What a town of less than 3500 looks like

After our little sightseeing detour, we headed back to the hospital and played cards again until lunch. My coworkers started eating the leftovers from dinner the night before (which had just been sitting out in the open since then), so I assumed that was our lunch. They forced me to eat a couple pieces of meat, and then a hospital worker came in with a big bowl of fresh buuz. Good thing I just risked food poisoning thinking no other food was coming…

Then the others went off to another meeting while I took a nap because I was really tired after not getting much sleep and not having any coffee. At about 2:30 that afternoon, we got back into the Land Cruiser, and I assumed we were heading back to Uliastai. But not before a “small meeting” with the soum‘s mayor, which ended up being an hour long.

Then we were really on our way back. We got another view of Otgontenger and some more photos:

IMG_2303

About an hour later, we passed by a huge herd of horses:

IMG_2308

It was impossible to capture just how many horses there were in just a few pictures, as there were a ton more over the next hill

It was impossible to capture just how many horses there were in just a few pictures, as there were a ton more over the next hill

We passed by a herder and our driver stopped to ask how many horses were in his herd: 4,000!!! Four-thousand horses and just 4 herders to keep track of them!

In the freezing cold no less

In the freezing cold no less

The rest of the drive was pretty uneventful, outside of the continuing whiplash. It was dark when we finally got back to Uliastai, and it was insanely cold in my ger, but it was good to be home.

Oh, remember how I mentioned food poisoning earlier? Yeah, that’s because I was definitely nauseous and throwing up the next morning. My supervisor asked what I had eaten during the trip and also thought that it was something I ate. Mongolians may be perfectly fine eating approaching-rotten meat because they have iron stomachs, but I cannot without suffering the consequences. So I spent the whole day in bed, but I’m feeling much better now!

Final Day with My Host Family (and Fun Trip!)

On Friday evening (the same day my host family came back from their long trip) they told me that the next day (the last full day with them) we would be going on a trip up to the Russian border. So the next morning at 9:30 all 7 of us (baby included) crammed into the car to head out. We first stopped at the market to pick up food for the picnics they had planned, and then we proceeded to go back home (apparently they had forgot some things). So around 10:30 we finally left Darkhan and headed north up to Sukhbaatar City. Shortly after leaving we passed Tsagaan Nuur (White Lake), and there were camels! I didn’t think there were camels in Mongolia outside the Gobi Desert, but my host mom told me that at one point there were only 7 camels in the Darkhan-Uul aimag, but since then the population has grown to a few hundred. Of course we passed by before I could snap a photo, and they were gone by the time we came back that evening, but I saw camels!

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Like this, but with dozens more camels

Right before we got into Sukhbaatar, we took a detour to Eej Mod (Mother Tree), which is an important spot among adherents of Shamanism. The large tree was struck by lightning a few years ago, but it is still believed to grant wishes to those who visit it. The tree (and many around it) are covered in tons and tons of khadags (silk scarves), and there are a wide variety of offerings placed around the tree (including bricks of tea, matches and incense, cakes, cartons of milk, and bottles of vodka). There were tons of Mongolians there, and I felt very awkward not knowing what to do. So I followed my host family around while they walked in circles and threw rice and spoonfuls of milk all over the place (which turned out to be what they had forgotten at the house and had to come back for). Unfortunately I didn’t get any good photos because I wasn’t sure if it would be disrespectful to be snapping pictures while people were bowing and praying to the sacred tree, but I later found this post by another blogger who did manage to get some nice pictures if you want to check it out.

Then we got back in the car and headed into Sukhbaatar, where we stopped at a shop to get some special bread that’s apparently only available there. We then drove out of the city and even further north up to the Mongolian-Russian border, to a place called Saikhani Khutul.

IMG_1172

It’s basically a park up on a mountain overlooking the border into Siberia.

IMG_1207

The river down there is

The river down there is Selenge Gol, one of the longest rivers in Mongolia, which eventually flows into a lake in Russia.

We ate lunch at one of the pavilions then went around to the many animal statues at the park.

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa

Boloroo, Suuna, and Ochralaa on a horse

Ochralaa and me

Ochralaa and me on a leopard

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer's leg)

Boloroo, Bakana, Suuna, and Ochralaa (hiding behind the reindeer’s leg)

My host siblings and I even ventured over to an eagle statue that required some treacherous climbing to get to:

IMG_1210

IMG_1195

IMG_1202

Then we went over to the main viewing area for more photo ops:

IMG_1224

IMG_1234

As we headed back to the car, we stopped by one more statue, which I think is supposed to symbolize the friendship between Mongolia and Russia:

IMG_1250

On the way back to Darkhan, we stopped at the Orkhon Gol, the longest river in Mongolia, for another picnic and some card games.

IMG_1269

Some horses even stopped by

Some horses even stopped by

We finally had to head back home so I could finish packing, but it was really amazing to get to spend so much quality time with my amazing host family and to see some great sites!

My Brief (and Completely Unintentional) Visit to Inner Mongolia

A while back I posted about Inner Mongolia, which made me remember a fun little incident that happened when I was studying abroad in China a few summers ago. Some of my classmates and I were taking an overnight train ride to visit Heng Shan (Mount Heng), one of the “Five Great Mountains” of China. We would get off the train in the city of Datong, and then take a bus to the mountain.

Well, the train was supposed to arrive at the Datong stop at, let’s say, 6:30am (I obviously don’t remember the exact time, but it was early in the morning). So we had planned to wake up around 6:00am to have time to rub the sleep out of our eyes and gather our stuff. Which is what we did. We woke up at 6, and then we waited to arrive in Datong. 6:30 passed, and the train still hadn’t stopped. An hour or so later, as we were cursing the inability of Chinese trains to run on time, a voice came over the intercom to announce that we were about to arrive at the Jining South Railway Station.* Now, my Chinese language skills were basically nonexistent at that time, but I definitely noticed that the word “Datong” never featured in that announcement. We were very confused. Where the hell were we?!

Well, shit

Well, shit

Yes, as some others passengers kindly informed us upon seeing/hearing our confusion, we were arriving in Jining District in the city of Ulanqab in–you guessed it!–Inner Mongolia! Apparently the train had arrived at the Datong station way ahead of schedule (at least 30 minutes early, as we had woken up 30 minutes prior to when we were scheduled to arrive), and just kept going on its way with us none the wiser. As we were now 127 miles from where we had planned, our new Chinese friends (a university student and her mother, hereafter referred to as “Awesomely Helpful People” [AHP]) suggested we get off at this station and catch the next train going the other way. As AHP lived in this area and were getting off at this stop anyway, they helped us get new train tickets to head back to Datong.

“Well, that’s a very nice story,” I can hear you saying, “but what does that have to do with the Peace Corps or Mongolia or anything your blog is supposed to be about?”

One word: FOOD.

As our train back to Datong wasn’t arriving for another few hours, AHP invited us to a restaurant to enjoy a traditional Mongolian breakfast!

Giant pot of milk tea

Giant pot of milk tea

Steamed buns and...uh, pretzels?

Steamed buns and…uh, pretzels?

Apparently a Mongolian breakfast consists of steamed meat-filled buns, boortsog (a type of fried dough), and milk tea, or suutei tsai (Mongolians love them some milk tea). I will admit that I don’t really remember what any of this stuff actually was (other than the milk tea; it’s hard to forget what a giant boiling pot of beige liquid is), but that’s my best guess based on the little bit I’ve discovered about Mongolian cuisine at this point. Those big steamed buns up there definitely look like baozi, which is a common Chinese dish, so I’m not sure how “Mongolian” they really are (Wikipedia tells me that the Mongolian equivalent is buuz, but those seem to be more like dumplings rather than buns). And I really have no idea what those little brown sticks are, though the Mongolian boortsog is basically just fried dough, so I’m gonna go with that. And I can’t tell you how any of this stuff tasted (except the steamed buns–those things are delicious!) as this was well over 3 years ago and I never thought I would be eating Mongolian food again. I sure hope milk tea tastes good (or at least tolerable) as I’ll probably be drinking it every day during my 27 months in Mongolia.

So, thanks to a missed train stop and some random strangers, I got my first taste of Mongolian food! (I’ll obviously be posting much more about Mongolian cuisine once I actually get there.)

*For the record, I didn’t remember the name of the city we had been in Inner Mongolia. I had to do a ton of detective work to figure out where we could have been based on which railways run between Beijing, Datong, and a city in Inner Mongolia. I found that the Jingbao Railway starts in Beijing, eventually makes its way to Datong, and the next major station is Jining South. Then I looked up pictures of Jining District in a Google image search to see if it looked familiar, and lo and behold, I came across this photo:

Jining District_Google image search

It did look vaguely familiar, so I went back and looked through my photos from that summer in China, and found this photo that I had taken of the plaza right outside the train station:

Jining District

Notice how the building in the left of the first photo looks an awful lot like the building in the right of my photo below it? Mystery solved!