China, Rapidfire Tour!

Hello again! My time in Mongolia came to a very appropriate end, with us waiting in the airport for a few hours because, while our flight left at 11am, the airport did not open until 10am. Mongolia doesn’t do early mornings. I seriously missed that this past week.
We landed in Beijing on Tuesday, and it was about as different as you could get from UB. We got straight onto a tour bus with a government-provided guide who gave us all sorts of information about how China is great and powerful and the standard of living is going up. We were all a bit tired and not particularly interested, but the drive through the city was nice. We stayed in a hostel in the 2nd ring of town, which is a very nice district, and were given the night to do whatever we wanted. I went out with Selina, who had lived in Beijing two summers ago, and we went to the night market. The night market is very touristy, and it’s basically a long line of outdoor food stalls. The food ranged from fried noodles to sea slug on a stick, and Selina told us this is not what the locals generally eat, it’s mostly just for show. I opted for some noodles, a few dumplings, and this amazing skewer of sugar-glazed pineapple. It was a fun experience, and afterwards we wandered around the nearby shops. We found a more authentic market nearby, where two guys tried to convince us to go to a pub with them to practice English. It was a bit creepy, and we quickly moved on. I learned later that some other girls on our trip had a similar experience, except they went along with it, and the girls who talked to them ended up scamming a bunch of money out of them by leaving them the bill for some crazy expensive tea. I’m glad to have avoided that. Anyway, we passed a church where a ton of older people were gathered outside doing some sort of aerobic dance. It was pretty funny, and we all jumped in and tried to learn. This younger guy came over and helped teach us, but we found out soon after he only did it to try and get Kari’s number. Poor guy.
The rest of the night was spent wandering around a huge mall, where we found one of my favorite stores, and then we hung out at a small coffee shop. It was a very fun first night.

Sam, Kari, Selina and I at the Night Market

The next day was jammed full of activities, and we were super excited to get a western style breakfast of eggs and bacon. The hostel in mongolia provided breakfast, but it was just a piece of toast (or a regular piece of bread, if the guy was feeling lazy/angry at us) and a bit of yoghurt. So, with full tummies we set off to look at the Ming tombs. These are pretty much what they sound like: Emperors from the Ming Dynasty are buried near each other, each with a large complex and a huge burial mound. It was very pretty, though I think my favorite part was that our guide directed us to the toilets by calling them “happy houses.” Also, the sign on the bathroom door said that the government rated this facility a three star toilet. Personally, I thought it was a bit smelly, but I guess I’m no expert. By the way, in case you didn’t know, Asia is very fond of squat toilets, which are basically a big hole in the floor that flushes. They usually have at least one western style toilet for the tourists though.

Luisa, Annin and me at the Ming Tombs

Anyway, after the tombs we went to a Jade factory, where they told us about different types of jade and how they refine it, but it was basically just an excuse to get us into their shop. These government tours get paid to take the tourists to certain places, whether we want to go or not. Because of this we went to lunch at an “authentic” restaurant, where they separated the Chinese from the westerners, and we had to go through an enamel making demonstration, and of course, we had to leave through the gift shop. I really wanted to buy some beautiful paper cutout art, but it was expensive and I worried about getting it home. Maybe next time.
After lunch we went on to the main attraction of the day: the Great Wall of China! The guide kept telling us we were going to a special part of the wall that wasn’t touristy, but that was a bald faced lie. The road to get up to the chairlift was lined with tons of tourist stalls, and on the wall itself several people had set up shop selling postcards and trinkets. Anyway, touristy or not, the wall was spectacular. The Great Wall stretches a length that’s about equal to the distance East to West of the USA, and was built entirely by man power. Standing on it you can tell it wasn’t meant for the masses, as the sections are all uneven, and some parts are more precarious than others. We took some group pictures, saw a wedding on the wall, and then Luisa and I took off to see how far we could go in the three hours allotted.
We decided to go up, rather than down, and that turned out to be a good decision because this was the way with less people. We set our sites on the highest point we could see, and it was very tough going. Eventually, we made it to the top and felt an enormous sense of accomplishment.

Luisa, Audrey and me as high as we could go!

I wish we’d been given more time on the wall, since it was probably my favorite place on the tour. After the wall we were once again given the night off to do as we pleased. I really wanted to go see the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium at night, but it didn’t work out. Instead I went out to dinner with some of the girls and Nima, Professor Benard’s husband. It was his last night with us for a while, because while we’re in Malaysia, he got permission to return to his home in Tibet. He’s a very quiet guy, and we all like him a lot. It’ll be weird traveling without him.
After dinner we decided to go fancy and hit up a mcdonalds for some mcflurries. I accidentally got a tiramisu flavored one, but it was surprisingly tasty. Then we once again hit up some shopping, and I got myself a very pretty pair of embroidered shoes. We wandered the markets again, finding new alleys and sections, and had a very good time.

Our last night in Beijing was not my favorite. My sore throat reached its peak the night before, and I was trying my hardest to stay excited and happy on about 3 hours of fitful sleep. First, we went to Tianamen Square, where people were lined up as far as the eye could see to pay respects to Mao’s mausoleum (or, as the tour guide kept saying, “Mao-soleum”). It was impressive, but I wasn’t able to appreciate it. Around this time I started feeling the more potent side effects of my malaria meds. That is, I had a wild mood swing that made me almost break down crying in front of the giant picture of Mao. It was really unnerving, since I had no reason to be so upset, and I didn’t realize until later why it was happening. Needless to say, that particular part of our tour wasn’t my favorite.
By the time we reached the Forbidden City I was feeling better, but still not 100%. We were all a bit tired, and they had built in just a bit too much time to wander around looking at the Emperor’s bedroom. We took off on our bus once again, this time for a traditional Chinese Tea Ceremony. Not being a lover of tea, I opted to sleep on the bus while everyone else went inside. It was the best decision I made all day, and I nodded off to the sounds of the bus driver’s radio soaps.

When everyone got back we spent a few hours in the Silk Market, which is basically a big multi level building filled with little stalls of crap. The people are fiercely aggressive in their sales tactics, and it was a bit draining. Tired though I was, I think I ended up improving my bartering skills, and I walked away with a new ring and purse.
Dinner that night was a traditional Peking Duck. They cut the duck up in front of us, and Lisa explained that the reason this dish is so tasty is because they fatten up the duck in a special way, and you only eat the skin. It was very good, but a bit overwhelming. I’m glad I tried it.
That night we took an overnight train to Xian, the ancient capital of China. I really like overnight trains, and I’m glad we’ve had the opportunity to take a few. It was a nice ride, though we were rerouted due to flooding and ended up getting into Xian at 12 instead of 9. Because of this our schedule changed a little bit, and we went straight to a nice buffet lunch, and then on to the Terra Cotta Warriors.
I was really excited for the warriors, and they were quite a sight. There are three excavation pits open to the public, though the first one is by far the most impressive. The story behind them is that the first emperor of China had hundreds of thousands of these warriors made for his tomb, so he would have protection in the afterlife, as well as subjects to rule over. Each warrior is about six feet tall, and every one has a unique face, presumably modeled after his actual army. They were very cool.

Terra Cotta Soldiers

Unfortunately, as with most parts of our tour, they misjudged how much time was appropriate for each place, and we were left to sit and people watch for an hour until it was time to go to the next site. This was ok by me though, as people watching has been one of my favorite things to do this trip. People in China dress very interestingly, and I love it!
Anyway, the last stop of the day was a famous pagoda, the name of which is something like giant goose, and it was pretty cool. We were left to wander for an hour, so I made a circle around the complex and then found a quiet place to sit and think for a minute. Finding alone time on this trip can be hard to do, so I was happy for a few minutes to myself.

Flying Goose Pagoda

That night after dinner we were allowed to go wherever we wanted in Xian, but I was sick and exhausted, so I just watched a movie and went to bed. In the morning we had to leave for Shanghai around 10, and I once again failed to explore the city. I guess I’ll just have to go back another time, because it seemed like a cool place, and most of the people who had been to China before said it was one of their favorite cities.
In Shanghai we went to a circus performance, which was really fun. There were contortionists, a magician, spinning plates, bicycle acrobatics, and some motorcyclists who rode around inside a giant metal cage. It was all very well done, and felt kind of homey to me. Afterward I went back to the hotel and finished my final paper for the Buddhism course, and was really glad to have it done. The next day I went out with Luisa and Sarah to the Oriental Pearl Tower.

Oriental Pearl Tower

The tower was really sweet, and there were some amazing views from the top. Shanghai is such an interesting city. I think I like the skyline better than New York. It is one of China’s most populous cities, and probably its most commercial.
The middle level of the tower had this plexiglass floor from which you could see how far above the ground you were standing. It was terrifying, but I managed to get past my fear and walk on it, and then we even jumped on it. I have some pretty fantastic pictures of Luisa and I trying to perfect our “jumping photo.”

It took us a while to get to the bottom, since we accidentally went down to the arcade level and got distracted by hello kitty phone charms and capsule machines, but eventually we got out.

I couldn’t pass up the Pearl Tower Hello Kitty

Next, Luisa and I took a taxi to the fabric market, and wandered around for a bit. It was a lot like the silk market, but without the constant yelling, which was really nice. I got some good pictures for my independent research project, and then we wandered aimlessly down some streets.

Qipao at the Fabric Market

We passed some local markets, and eventually came to a more touristy area, where we ate lunch and window shopped. Eventually, Luisa decided she wanted to try and find a store she had been to the last time we were here, so we set out to look for the hotel she had stayed in to use as a landmark. We soon realized we had no idea where the hotel was, so I found another hotel to ask directions, and they printed the address out and we took a taxi. We did eventually find the store she wanted, and I got myself a new pair of knockoff converse shoes. It was pretty fun.
We went back to the hotel, watched a movie, and ate some ramen, and generally had a lazy night. The next day was a full day of travel, but it wasn’t terrible. I’m in Malaysia right now, and it is gorgeous. But I’ll save that for another time.

Goodbye Mongolia!

My time in Mongolia is almost officially up! I just finished my Buddhism final exam, and we fly to Beijing tomorrow morning. It has been a very interesting few weeks, and I’m a bit sad to be leaving. We have an end of country party tonight at a restaurant down the street, and then possibly more group karaoke. It sounds like fun, and I just need to make sure I finish my end of course paper beforehand. Fun fun!

To bring everyone up to speed, the past couple of days were pretty awesome. On Thursday we had no afternoon class, so I went out to my favorite vegetarian restaurant nearby, where I met a guy studying abroad from Evergreen College. It’s a very small world. He said he was doing a two and  half year program going everywhere except Africa, and that to cut costs he was now sleeping in a tent. In the middle of UB. It made me very grateful for my program, and put a couple of things into perspective. Anyway, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the history museum, which was cool, and then bought myself a gorgeous cape/poncho thing. I’m sort of sad I can’t wear it the rest of the trip, but oh well.

That night we boarded an overnight train for the Gobi desert. The train was really fun, and everyone was celebrating the end of our first round of classes. I accidentally got stuck sitting in a cabin with Glenn Mullin, one of Professor Benard’s friends and our guest lecturer for the weekend. He’s this older Irish guy who is a bit rotund, and a huge ham, and I wanted to get away, but he kept passing around a fancy bowl of vodka, and made hints that it was bad manners to leave. Ick. Eventually I got away and played cards with some friends, which was much more fun. The train was really comfortable, and we basically had an entire car to ourselves. I slept like a rock, which was fantastic.

In the morning we found ourselves in the middle of the Gobi. It wasn’t exactly what I pictured, but it was very cool. I was expecting enormous dunes for miles, but it was more like endless sand and slight underbrush. The sky went on for miles and miles. We all hopped into a bunch of vans bound for our final ger camp. Driving in the desert is about ten times as crazy as driving in the city, because you get to make your own road! It was pretty exciting, and more fun than scary. We got to our camp and had rice omelets for breakfast, set our stuff down, and headed straight back into the desert.

Our first stop was a monument dedicated to mothers and women in general. They were a giant pair of boobs in the middle of the desert. In Tibettan Buddhist culture, a traditional offering consists of butter in various forms. So people had placed lots of butter on the monument, which meant not only where they cream colored, they smelled like spoiled milk. I was not super impressed, and I ran away the minute I got downwind of them. Everybody paid their respects and we moved on.

Next up was a temple complex that contained Mongolia’s largest stupa. That was very cool, and the temples were really pretty. We learned about the history of the complex, and then headed home. In the middle of the desert, there are these stretches of sand that cars sometimes get stuck in. Every time we approached one, we had to speed up to get over it. On the way back one car didn’t quite make it, and we all had to get out and tow one of our vans. We attached a tow rope to another van, but that ended up breaking, and we had to push the car out of the sand ourselves. All in all, a very eventful afternoon. When we got back it was nap time, though it was really cold, and the gers are not the best at blocking out the wind. We met up again for a lecture by Glenn, and I was completely unable to pay any attention. Luckily nothing he said was on our final, so it worked out.

The Van that Broke Down

Dinner ended up being a bit too mutton filled for me, and I was super exhausted. I went back to my ger pretty soon afterward, but couldn’t go straight to sleep because a group of office workers on a retreat were having a dance party. I eventually got curious and went over to dance for a song or two, but ultimately I was too cold and tired to do much. I went back and attempted to sleep again. In case you didn’t know, the desert gets really cold at night. I was bundled up in about six layers, and I was still too cold to sleep. Luckily, Luisa felt the same way and we piled all of our blankets together, and were very warm.

Sunrise over the Gobi

The next morning we were all supposed to go watch the sun rise from a nearby mountaintop, but Luisa and I were scared awake at 3am by a dog that wandered into camp and got into a fight next to our ger. They passed right by us, and we couldn’t really get back to sleep. Luisa also got really sick, and so we had to leave her behind for our sunrise hike. The view from the mountain was really cool, but I was a little too cold and sleep deprived to truly appreciate it. I also didn’t go all the way to the top, since I got a bit dizzy looking back down the steps we had come up. Luckily, Kristi felt the same way, and we hung out together.

After a few minutes we saw a bunch of goats coming down the mountain. They were really cute, but they smelled terrible! They began eating a bunch of offerings set up on the mountain, and everyone started taking pictures. It was kind of funny.

After the mountain we came back to camp and I was sooooo excited to get fried eggs and potatoes for breakfast. I had been craving them for a while. We went back out into the desert and visited another temple. This one was supposed to be the gateway to shambala, Buddhist paradise. I was a bit underwhelmed, but we laid down on some rocks that were supposed to purify the body, and I ended up falling asleep. Clearly I wasn’t meant to be a Buddhist…

The more exciting part of the day included a trip to some meditation caves, which were interesting, and then we got to look at some pits where tons of dinosaur bones have been found. We even saw some bones ourselves!

Dinosaur bones!

Afterward we went back to the nearby city and went to a museum about a famous monk from the desert. There were some really cool mongolian clothes, but the museum was very small. We had another hour to kill, so most of us hung out in a park and talked to some local kids. It was a lot of fun, and one boy got really excited about my blue eyes, making a hugely surprised face when I took off my sunglasses. I think hanging out in the park was probably my favorite part of the weekend. The desert was fun, but I really like talking to local people and trying to make new friends, and we hadn’t really done that in Mongolia.

Park near the Gobi

After a tasty dinner in a restaurant with very interesting decor, we went back to the train, where my cabin had a sing-a-long with a borrowed guitar, and then we promptly fell asleep. I love sleeping on trains, it’s so nice. The entire next day was spent studying and doing last minute errands.

I never seem to be able to write these blogs in one sitting, so now I’m finishing packing, and we leave for the airport in half an hour. Our goodbye party was very fun, and held at an american-Mongolian restaurant that I’ve been to in St. Louis. That was a very strange experience. They have a lot of the same food, but I don’t remember the st. Louis one offering roasted sheep head (skull and all. I passed on that one). We threw a birthday party for Anna, and said goodbye to all of our Mongolian friends. I’m so excited for China, but I think I will definitely miss Mongolia. It’s been great. If you’re friends with me on facebook, I’m uploading all of my pictures now, and I’ll add pictures to this blog later, but I don’t have time right now.

Nihao, China!

A Meditation Retreat

Hello everyone! I’m feeling a bit sleep deprived this morning, since the entire group was up late last night writing our second paper. Most days this trip feels like vacation, but every once in a while the school bit breaks through. In case you’re wondering, I think the midterm went well, and the paper I just turned in is only a non-graded draft, and I can breathe easy for a few more days.

Picking up where I left off last time, after the midterm everyone enjoyed a bit of time off by going out for karaoke. It was very fun, and my willingness to sing may have been slightly enhanced by the fact that I can legally guy beer here (sort of). It was a lot of fun, and good for group bonding. Also, it was my first time going out so far, so it was long overdue. The next day most of us walked over to the “Black Market” for a bit of shopping. The market is enormous, with stalls for everything from jeans to horse gear, antiques to incense. Luisa, Audrey and I spent a good three or four hours wandering around, and I came away with some really nice loot. My favorite finds are probably my yak hair sweater, poofy blinged out vest, and some bunny leggings that miraculously fit. I spent entirely too much, but when most things are under $10, you tend to forget that it all adds up…

After the market everyone came back and pretty much crashed. I worked on some homework and watched TV, and was very happy not to have an immediate deadline on my hands. After everyone had gone to sleep we were rudely awoken at 4:45am when someone started banging on the hostel door. The banging didn’t stop, and soon the person moved on to the windows. We were all very scared at this point, thinking some drunk man was trying to break into our hostel. As it turns out, after a full half hour of banging on all the doors and windows, we finally heard him say, “could you open please the door?” and we knew it was the German man who was staying down the hall. He had left his luggage here and needed it back as his plane was about to leave (or so we think. His English wasn’t great). Nobody could quite figure out why he was out until 5am, trying to get back, clearly past our 1am curfew, but our business director let him back in, and we all tried our best to go back to sleep. It was a frightening experience, but in the end we can all laugh about it.

Sunday we all loaded onto two rickety vans for our overnight at Terelij, which is a meditation retreat center owned by the abbot of Lamrim, the monastery where we have been taking classes. We were told that we couldn’t have a nice bus like last time because they wouldn’t be able to make it up the mountain roads. So I was a bit nervous heading out, but, as usual, the Mongolian drivers knew what they were doing. After about half an hour we stopped to look at a monument that seemed to have some significance I didn’t catch, but there were several tourists milling around. I was more excited about the fact that there were yaks nearby. They’re really cute! After about twenty minutes of stretching our legs and fawning over the yaks, we got back into the car and made our second stop at a cave where several monks hid during the Soviet occupation. It was kind of slippery, but interesting. Our third stop of the day was my favorite, Turtle rock!

Turtle Rock!
The back side of Turtle Rock

I was excited at how much turtle rock actually does look like a turtle. And it’s situated in the middle of the mountains, so the view wasn’t too shabby either. All of us were given a chance to climb to the top, though Stuart hit his head once he got there. He was absolutely fine after Aleisha wrapped his head up, so no worries.

After turtle rock we made one more pit stop to look at another rock formation, whose name I don’t exactly remember. It looks like a man sitting, and the locals believe it’s an image of the Buddha. The Abbot built his retreat nearby, because he said it was an auspicious sign (Buddhism is all about auspicious signs), and he wanted to share with us. Afterwards we finally made it to the retreat.

Terelij is amazingly beautiful, and we were all very excited to be there. After a bit of nice downtime we were fed, and the Abbot gave us a tour. He began construction on the retreat in the late 90s, and it has come a long way. Every building is pretty, and of course you can’t beat the scenery. He also had an obstacle course bridge which was meant to represent the six perfections to become a bodhisattva, and that was fun. We were sad that the zipline wasn’t ready for us yet, but I was secretly glad: I’m terrified of open heights.

We climbed up to the highest temple, where the Abbot gave us a lecture on Buddhist teachings, and explained his reasons for building the retreat. Everyone was a bit tired, and we had some trouble paying attention. My favorite part was when he told us, “if you weren’t studying Buddhism, I wouldn’t really care so much about helping you.” We weren’t sure if this was a translation thing or not, but we all thought it was great.Most of us took it easy the rest of the evening, and at night we all crowded into one of the temples for a big pacrim slumber party. We had to be careful which direction we slept, because it is a serious sign of disrespect to point your feet at something/someone in Buddhist cultures. Also, your head should never face a door. Anyway, I went out on a night hike with Audrey and Luisa, and we did some moon gazing. It was so bright, we didn’t even need flashlights.In the morning I went on a hike with Sarah, Stuart, and Grace to find some rock paintings. They were really high up, and and the hike was a bit strenuous, but totally worth it. The view from the top was spectacular, though my fear of heights definitely kicked in. Getting down proved much more challenging than going up, and I spent most of the time sliding down the hill on my butt. I’m still picking burrs out of my clothes, but cest la vie.

Once safely back on level ground, a traditional Mongolian barbeque was organized for us. Normally, the meat would be cooked using hot rocks inside a goat skin, but they used a milk can for us. It’s not really what we think of in the US as “Mongolian BBQ,” but it was certainly interesting. At this point I was a bit mutton’d out, so the food was not really my thing, but most people enjoyed it. I had to wander away quickly because the smell was way too much for my stomach (mutton is very very strong).

Afterwards we were once again given free time. Professor Benard was feeling sick, so our scheduled meditation was cancelled, which was fine by me. Instead I sat outside to do some homework, and ended up falling asleep in the sun. Overall, a very pleasant afternoon. We had dinner and once again loaded up the vans. The drive back was much less eventful, and I was happy to get back “home”.

Just a few reminders about the blog: Comments are great, I love them, but keep them either on the blog, or in an email to me. I can’t talk about where I am on facebook, it’s against school security policy. Also, tomorrow is my last day here in Mongolia (it’s taken me almost a whole week to write this post), and from here on out I will probably have less internet access, and therefore, fewer blog entries. I’ve been spoiling you guys so far, and I’ll continue trying to do at least a bi-weekly post, but in Malaysia there are no guarantees

Also, remember, if you want a postcard send me your address! And let me know if you want one from a specific country.

Bayartai! (Goodbye in Mongolian)


A Weekend on the Steppes

Today is Thursday, almost four days after getting back from our field trip. As I mentioned before, we went on a four day trip to the ancient capital of Kara Korum (possibly pronounced Hara Horum), though in the end we only spent one day in the capital. We set out Thursday morning from the monastery where we usually have class and jumped on a very cute red bus that had a pretty purple interior. We were really excited about our purple bus. The night before Professor Benard had told us that her friend, the abbot of Lamrim monastery, wanted us to go say goodbye to the Rinpoche, who was leaving for Ireland. The trip to his center was much easier by bus than by “taxi”. He gave us some travel advice, wished us well, and we were on our way for real.

It felt really good to get out of the city, away from the traffic, but we soon realized that driving in the country required just as much skill as driving in the city. There’s only one road, and it’s not exactly well maintained. We still had to swerve for other cars and dodge potholes and random objects in the road. After the weekend was over, we were all very impressed with our bus driver. Anyway, I slept through the first few hours of the drive, which was great, and when I came to we were definitely in the middle of nowhere. And man, it was beautiful. The mountains here are amazing, and the grasslands spread out forever. Also, everywhere there are herds of horses, cattle, goats, and sheep. You can’t escape them, even in the city. We pulled over for lunch after a few hours, and our kitchen crew had set up a nice picnic for us. The food was good, and it was nice to get out and look at the mountains. Once back on the bus we drove to a place called Sandy Eels, or the Mini Gobi. There were a bunch of sand dunes in the middle of nowhere, for no apparent reason, but it was really cool. As soon as we got out of the bus, a herd of camels and their owners came over to offer us rides. There were probably ten camels, so we all took turns riding around the dunes. They were really cute, though I took care not to get too close to their faces. We all know camels spit.

I'm Riding a Camel!

After playing around in the dunes for about an hour we took off on the bus again and ended up at Old Man’s Monastery, our home for the night. To say it was beautiful is a bit of an understatement. The monastery is nestled in the foothills, and you can see across the whole grasslands.

View of the gers from a nearby hill

We stayed in gers that night, traditional Mongolian nomadic homes. My ger was newer, and more stationary (it was solidly made out of wood instead of having a latticework frame covered with cloth). They’re actually really cute on the inside, and surprisingly comfortable.

Inside the Ger

After dinner we were allowed to do whatever we wanted, so I went out with a group on a night hike. We wandered a bit far from camp, and went up one of the hills to look at the stars. I have never seen a more amazing night sky. With nobody around for miles and miles, there’s no light pollution, and the sky was cloudless. It was breathtaking.

We got a bit lost on the way back from stargazing, but it was alright in the end. We learned that Mongolia gets dark fast. Once back at the ger we all promptly fell asleep after our long day of travel.

In the morning we had a quick breakfast and went to look at the actual monastery, which, as it turns out, was about a ten minute walk away. The temples were not extremely exciting, but their location made them all the more beautiful. Nearby were the ruins of a monastery from the 12th century. We went on an unexpected and fairly strenuous hike up to more ruins shortly after touring the monastery. The hike was, of course, pretty, but what was described as a quick trip to the ruins turned out to be an hour of rigorous hiking. The ruins were less impressive, but they came with a neat story. As the legend goes, when the monks first came to the monastery site, they built a layer of thick rock wall which would become the temple, and then went to bed for the night. When they woke up the next morning, a thin layer of rock had been added to their wall. They were surprised, but kept on working. The next morning they found the exact same thing had happened again. They then knew that the mountain spirits were helping them build their temple, and the process continued until they had finished. I think it’s a nice story.

Old Man's Monastery

Once safely back down the path we got back on our bus. This time we drove to a horse camp. There was a tiny building we all squished into for lunch, and then we made our way over to the ger of one of the horse herders. One thing I learned about Mongolians is that they have an amazing sense of hospitality. Whenever we are invited into a home, we are barraged with treats, food, and the inevitable bowl of airag. Airag is fermented mare’s milk, the Mongolian alcoholic beverage of choice, and it is traditional to offer guests several bowls out of politeness. The guest is then required to drink. It tastes exactly like you’d guess alcoholic milk would taste, and after the first couple of homes we visited, it started to grow on us. Even so, this particular man passed around probably six bowls, and nobody really wanted to drink right after a very filling lunch. We eventually did away with them, but it was a tiny bit awkward.

At the horse camp we watched the men do tricks on the horses, wrestle with the guys on our trip, and then show us how they break a wild horse. It was cool, but a bit tiring, and I was feeling a bit sick. They then let us ride the horses around, which was again, cool, but lasted a bit longer than I would have liked. We were supposed to be at the horse camp for maybe two hours, and ended up staying for six. Like I’ve said before, Mongolia uses “rubber time” where nothing is ever set in stone. Before we could leave, we were all ushered back into the ger where they gave us some very fresh sheep stomach. Now, I had told myself I’d be willing to try almost anything this year, but I had a prime seat to see that what they were cutting up in front of us was clearly a stomach. I couldn’t do it, but neither could a few others, so I didn’t feel too bad. Luckily, we left shortly afterward.

That night we arrived at another ger camp near Kara Korum, and these were fancy: they had electricity! After dinner my ger-mate Annin and I noticed that there was a guy going around lighting fires in the gers, and we went on a fun adventure to get him to warm our ger up too. We think he understood more English than he let on, but in the end we got the fire going and fell asleep nice and toasty. In the morning we spent two hours talking with Prof. Benard’s friend, the abbot of Lamrim monastery, and then took off for the ancient capital and the temple of Erdene Zuu. The temple was really cool, but unfortunately I was quickly realizing that I was without a doubt getting sick. It was very hard to concentrate, and I was glad to get back to the ger camp. Because we had spent longer talking to the abbot than expected, class was cancelled for the day, and we were given the choice between going out to see the post markers of the ancient city or staying at camp. I wanted to go back out, but decided a nap was probably the best idea. When I woke up I found Luisa, who had also been sick, and we had some much needed time to relax.

Kara Korum

That night we saw a cultural performance by what I think was a family band. There were traditional Mongolian instruments, a throat singer, and a contortionist. It was really cool, and our friendly translator Oko helped explain the songs to us. Afterwards we built a bonfire, and the restaurant/reception area near the gers had a disco for us. It was fun, but I quickly realized I was not well enough to dance just yet.

The next day we got back on the bus, ready for a seven hour drive back to the hostel. We had a cute lunch, said thank you and goodbye to our cooking crew, and were well on our way when we drove over something in the middle of the road that sent me flying a good half a foot into the air. The tallest guy in the group actually hit his head on the roof of the bus. So we got out for a while to fix our popped tire. It all went really smoothly, and  within no time we were back on the bus.

Safely back in UB, we said a sad farewell to our translator, and returned to our hostel. It was Sunday night, and we all had papers due the next afternoon. I gave serious thought to starting my paper, but was ultimately too tired. Lucky me, I’m good at getting things together last minute and wrote the whole thing in the morning. Since then, nothing extremely exciting has happened. I have a midterm tomorrow, for which I’m about to go study, and then we have Saturday free. Last night we went to another cultural performance, and there was a whole orchestra. It was really fun. Saturday I’m going to the “black market” to find myself some warm sweaters, but don’t worry, black market is just a name left over from the communist occupation. There’s nothing illegal about it, though we have been warned that there are a lot of pickpockets.

Sorry that this post was super text heavy. I didn’t take many pictures, but I’ll try and filch some from my friends and add them later.

I’m Back!

Hello everyone!

I just returned a few minutes ago from my weekend trip to the Mongolian countryside. We slept in Gers, rode camels and horses, stargazed, hiked, and most of us got sick. Overall, a very fun weekend. I’m happy to be back in UB, though returning to 2 toilets for 30 people is not so fun. I have to go get dinner and then write a paper for tomorrow’s class, but I will write a more detailed update in the next couple of days.