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.

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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.

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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:

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I rode the white one!

I rode the white one!

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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)!

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That dot in the top-left is our purgon

The incline

The incline

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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!

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The other side of the dune we climbed

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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:

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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:

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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?).

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

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

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…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.