Getting into the swing of things

сайн байна уу! That’s “hello” in Mongolian. You say it, “sain by noh” (sign bye no).

Ulaanbaatar street

Anyway, I promised pictures! Sunday was our first day of class, and we spent it touring Gandan Monastery, one of the most famous monasteries in the country. It was really busy, with lots of monks and locals running around and worshiping, as well as a bunch of tourists wandering aimlessly. We were lead around by professor Benard and one of the monks. The whole complex was very pretty, though most of the religious aspects went over my head. Though I will say it was a seriously different experience than going to synagog in St. Louis. It was much louder, and about 100x more chaotic, though everyone seemed to understand exactly what was going on.

Gandan Monastery

The tour didn’t last very long, and afterwards we were given the afternoon to explore again. I just went to the grocery store and did homework, since I had two papers to finish. The next day we had a more “traditional” class. All of us met up at Lamrim monastery for our first two hour Buddhism class. Class was dull, but prof. Benard clearly knows what she’s talking about, so that was cool. We got an hour and a half to go find lunch wherever we wanted, so Luisa, Annin and I found some tasty traditional food nearby. Afterwards it was back to class, and with full stomachs it was very hard to concentrate.

Classroom at Lamrim Monastery

The next day we went on an adventure to meet Panchen Otrul Rinpoche, a recognized incarnation of something or other. Truthfully, the whole thing went over my head. Anyway, to get there we all had to take taxis. In UB there are no actual cab companies, and no official taxis. What happens is, you stick your arm out, and any random car that feels like it becomes a taxi. Super fun, right? I was really nervous about the whole thing. We divided up into about 6 taxis, each group had either a cell phone with the number of the monastery and the “chaperones” or an actual chaperone. I ended up with Nima, prof. Benard’s husband, who is extremely nice, very slow moving, and a bit difficult to understand (he’s from Tibet). Anyway, we all piled into a car, and spent about 20 minutes trying to find this monastery. We get to a little shop where other Pacrimmers are hanging out, and we get out of the cab. Turns out we had the wrong address, this was a shop run by the charity in the Monastery. Whoops. So then we all had to pile back into cabs, but a few had already left. So I was asked to shove myself into a overly full cab and sit on Allen’s lap in the front seat. Allen is 6’5″. So, we were a bit squished. The cab had 7 people, including the driver. We spent another 20 minutes trying to find the correct place, and after a few panicked moments where we thought the car would break down, we got there. It was a weird experience, but the adventure of it was actually pretty fun. Everyone had a really good attitude, which helped a lot.

Anyway, so we met the Rinpoche, and he told us all about his life. His story is pretty amazing, and he talked about being forced into a Chinese labor camp and then escaping one day, then spending a week trekking through the Himalayas in the dark to get to freedom. I didn’t actually learn this until after he had talked though, because he had a voice that made it almost impossible to concentrate. And I made the mistake of sitting in the back row. So after his talk we ate some weirdly tasty pizza (pineapple pizza exists in Mongolia, and it is not bad) and then had class at the Rinpoche’s monastery, since getting back into cabs and heading home would take too long to still have class. At the end we were all left to find taxis on our own, and Kylie, Monica, Kari and I ended up with a really sweet Mongolian lady who tried her hardest to teach us Mongolian. It was a really fun ride, and I am happy to say the taxis here do not scare me as much anymore. Family, don’t worry, this doesn’t mean I’m going to run around hopping into cars by myself with strangers.

Today we had class in our usual monastery and then spent a few hours in an art museum. It was pretty cool, though sadly I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. Afterwards I wandered with Sarah and Luisa back to the main square, where we saw another wedding. I took the opportunity to snap a few pics of people in traditional Mongolian dress. Very cool, yeah?

Traditional Mongolian Dress

The rest of the day was mostly Luisa and me trying on hats in the SDS, and getting ready for our three night trip to the ancient capital of Kara Korim which we leave for tomorrow. I just got back from a really great vegan meal because my body has been starved for veggies (mutton and starch seem to be the main food groups here). Now I’m off to pack and attend a group meeting. Goodbye for a couple days!

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Welcome to Mongolia

Hello again!

If you’re playing the “where in the world is Jessica?” game, I am currently in the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (known to many as UB). It is the biggest city in Mongolia, and there are around 50,000 people here. Quite a bit different from Seoul…

I’ve been here almost two whole days now, and I think it’s going to be a very interesting month. Everyone’s living in a guest house (fancy name for hostel) now, and there are two bathrooms for the 27 of us, plus an additional 3 boarders. So that’s exciting. I also have 9 lovely roommates for the month in a room smaller than my freshman dorm. Like I said, this year is an adventure.

View of Ulaanbaatar

Anyway, when I got here I was a bit overwhelmed. The city is truly like nothing I’ve ever seen before. And Lisa and Aleisha (the business and health coordinators) gave us some serious warnings about pickpocketing, alcoholism in the city, and a very stern warning about dress code for us ladies. Needless to say, I was a bit scared before I even got here. When I got off the plane we were greeted by the abbot and a few monks from the monastery where we’ll be studying. They gave everyone blessing scarves, which was unexpected and pretty cool. I was feeling a bit better, but then we got in the car. Oh my god, if you thought Boston drivers were crazy, just try crossing the street in UB. Driving is more like a horse race. If a car can get ahead, he will, any way he can. Streets don’t always have lanes, and there don’t seem to be any directions about how to use them if there are. People here also buy cars all over, so they can have steering wheels on either side. The driver of our van frequently ended up on the wrong side of the road, and only moved back when he saw an oncoming car. Not knowing anything about the driving, I had volunteered to sit in the back of the van. Never again.

Eventually we all made it to the guest house in one piece, and we had learned that Mongolian drivers are crazy, but they know what they’re doing. I still don’t want to get back into a car.  We settled into our new lodgings, had a few meetings about buying food, wandering around, and class. I was feeling a bit down, because the whole city feels so incredibly foreign and overwhelming. I went out for dinner with a few people, and the waitresses didn’t speak any English and really didn’t want to serve us. There were also no menus. But we were tired and really hungry, so Sarah eventually got us some food by pointing at what another person was eating. I think this is going to be a normal occurrence here. Anyway, the food turned out to be an amazingly delicious soup, and it made me feel much better. After a good night’s sleep on a bed as stiff as a board (not to mention a top bunk that squeaks and creaks like crazy), I was in a much better place.

Yesterday we had a brief meeting with Professor Benard, who is traveling with us and teaching this month’s course, and then we were free to do whatever we wanted. I went out with a few people and looked at the parliament building, post office, and something called the “half moon building”. The parliament building, as well as the currency and even the side of one mountain, had a huge figure of Genghis Khan. Though here he’s called Chinggis Han (the H being the same noise in hebrew, like in Hanukkah). It was pretty great. Next time I’m out I’ll be sure to get pictures. For now, I’m pulling them from Google (which has reset itself to Mongolian)

Chinggis Han on a mountainside

That’s all for today since I still have a bit of reading to do, and I want to watch movies with the group later. I’ll post up some pictures soon from my first day of “class.”

Seoul

The adventure has officially begun! After a 12 hour plane ride I arrived in Incheon, S. Korea very tired, but also very excited. We stayed in a guest house about 10 minutes from the airport, and I was happy to get to room with Luisa for the first few nights of the trip. We were basically let loose on Korea, with the only instructions being that we had to meet up for dinner Wednesday night. We set out in a huge group, which eventually became Luisa, myself, and Annin. After a very confusing and slightly stressful 2 hour commute from the hotel to center Seoul, we decided to find one of the three palaces in the city.

Subway entrance from Incheon Airport

We found the Western palace, and it was really fun. There were a ton of buildings and the complex seemed to go on forever. We had a good time hanging out in front of some ponds in the shade, because it was pretty hot. After an hour or so we wandered away to look for food, and spent the rest of our time exploring little markets and shops.

Luisa and Me in front of the Palace

On our way back to the hotel we hit a few speed bumps. We got off at the wrong subway stop, almost broke a subway card machine, and then I left my wallet in an airport bathroom (don’t worry, I got it back without incident.) After returning to home base, we went out for Korean BBQ with the whole group, which was pretty good, and then I pretty much fell straight asleep. Jet lag is a huge pain in the butt.

The next day most of the group went to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea, but I opted to explore the city again with a few other people. We walked about 4 miles up a huge hill to get to Seoul Tower. Along the way I accidentally walked into the middle of a tv drama shoot. Whoops.

Korean Drama Shoot?

Once on top of the hill, Luisa and I decided to go to the top of the tower, even though we’re both afraid of heights. It turned out to be totally worth it, as the view was spectacular. For those of you who don’t know much about Seoul, the surrounding area is gorgeous. The city sits int he middle of some amazing mountains, right next to the ocean. It’s quite a sight.

Once firmly on the ground again, we rode the gondola back to the bottom of the hill (for my friends who are Boys Over Flowers fans, yes, the gondola they took!).

We ate some noodles and then Luisa and I split from the group to go find the Hello Kitty Cafe and explore the University district. On our way out of the subway we stopped to ask some Japanese girls for directions, which was exciting for me, because I got to practice my Japanese. I definitely need more practice. Anyway, they started leading us to the Cafe, and along the way we were stopped by a huge crowd in front of a shoe store. Turns out k-pop idol group Miss A were doing a fan meeting. We saw my favorite member, Suzy, and I was super excited! Unfortunately I didn’t get a good picture of her face, but she’s super cute, and unbelievably tiny.

Suzy from Miss A (in blue skirt)

The fan signing got a bit overwhelming, so Luisa and I said goodbye to the Japanese girls and found our way to the Hello Kitty Cafe!

Hello Kitty Cafe!

It was everything we wanted it to be. Pink, cute, tasty, awesome.

We probably spent about an hour there, soaking in the cuteness and taking a breather. Afterwards we wandered a bit more, and hopped back on the subway to head home.

We were too tired to do much of anything else, and so the next morning we boarded our plane to Ulaanbaatar (UB) Mongolia, which is where I’m writing this email. I’ll write about UB a bit later, because I’m still a bit overwhelmed, and it’s almost breakfast time.