Let the Holidays Begin – Pac Rim Reunion in Saigon!

Alright, time to begin the holiday travel posts! I think I should start by explaining exactly what I had planned for a very extended holiday, one I’m still shocked went off without a hitch.

Hanging out with Lisa and Selina
Hanging out with Lisa and Selina

While I was given the green light to take almost three weeks off to travel, the first few days of my trip were a bit more complicated. From the very beginning of my stay here in Can Tho, I had always planned on spending Christmas Eve in Saigon, where this year’s Pac Rim group (including several staff members from my trip) would be holding their holiday banquet. I was beyond excited to see old friends, meet the new students, and generally wax nostalgic. A few days after the party my friend Annin was going to meet me in Saigon, and we would then travel around Vietnam. Our friends Lisa and Pase, staff for this year’s Pac Rim, would also be joining us for a few days during their holiday. Everything was coming together and it was looking great!

A few weeks before the party, I realized that while I was told I could have time off, my university course’s final exam was scheduled right between the Pac Rim banquet and meeting up with Annin. This meant that my schedule would have to go as follows: Dec 23 – bus up to Saigon and hang out with Pac Rim. Dec 24 – Pac Rim Banquet! Dec 25 – bus back to Can Tho, teach in the evening. Dec 26 – Administer final exam in morning, finish grading all 50 tests in afternoon, and bus back to Saigon at night to hang out with Lisa and check into hotel with Annin.

Yes, it was a bit of a crazy schedule, and yes, grading took far longer than anticipated, but it all worked out fine in the end.

Now, for what you’re really interested in – how was it meeting up with this year’s Pac Rim?

The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima's final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.
The banquet marked the end of Elisabeth and Nima’s final Pac Rim, and a new director will take over for the second semester.

Well, it was great to see old friends and say hi to a few of the students whom I had met back on campus. I spent most of my time running errands with Lisa and Selina and trying to be helpful with party preparations. I loved hanging out with old friends and getting to know the new staff members, but one thing was made abundantly clear: three years is a lot of time, and I am definitely no longer a student. This sounds obvious, but spending time with current students really hit home to me how much I’ve changed over the past three years. And, while I loved my experience and wouldn’t change it for the world, I’m not interested in going backwards. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t have an awesome time seeing everyone.

Realizations aside, I spent a lot of time catching up with Elisabeth and Nima, who had led my trip. This year is Elisabeth’s final year as Pac Rim director, and she and Nima were leaving the trip mid-year to allow a new director to step up. It was great to see them, and we had a wonderful time together. On the second day in Saigon, Selina and I snuck into the Grand Saigon’s breakfast buffet to eat with our friends (and, let’s face it – our hotel’s breakfast was not nearly as nice), and we ended up having a lovely meal with EB and Nima, talking about the highs and lows of this trip, their plans for 2015, and how much I missed non-white bread while in Vietnam. Elisabeth was very cute and surprised Selina and me with a loaf of wheat bread later that night, which was so nice, and much appreciated.

Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!
Thanks for the wheat bread, Elisabeth!

Other highlights from the visit include going out to an American-style BBQ restaurant, where I was super excited to eat ribs, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and beer that wasn’t mostly water (Vietnam is great for many things, but beer is not one of them). Earlier in the day we went out for coffee near the hotel at a famous Vietnamese chain, Trung Nguyen. I was shocked to see that prices in Saigon were basically double what I would normally pay in Can Tho, but I guess that’s how it goes. Strangely, it took around 45 minutes for us to get take away coffee, so these days I’m far less enamoured with this brand of coffee shop (although if I bring anyone back coffee from Vietnam, it will probably be from here – it’s widely known as some of the best quality coffee and it’s very easy to find).

Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!
Dinner at an American-style BBQ joint. The ribs were delicious!

After coffee I set out with Selina and Lisa’s friend Linda to try and find the offices of Saigon Artbook, whom I had read was selling decks of cards printed with illustrations by local artists and representative of Vietnam. It was a bit of a long trek, and once we found the building it was clear that it was not usually used as a storefront – there was no sign, no markers to indicate where to go, and the first floor of the building was a cell phone shop. But in the end we were successful, and everyone bought a beautiful, very unique deck of cards.

The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate :)
The illusive Vietnam card deck! I had been looking for them for almost 2 weeks, and the day I left for Saigon I happened to see a notice that they had a limited printing available. It must have been fate 🙂

Moving on – the actual banquet was lovely. I sat at a table with a few friends, and a student whose parents were both Pac Rim alumni. It was really interesting to hear about both the current trip and his parents’ experience in the 80s. We were also treated to this year’s mid-year video, which I must admit was very well done, and this group was clearly better at remembering to film things… Oh well! After the video the students presented EB and Nima with scrapbooks as a parting gift, and it all got a bit emotional. I started tearing up for sure. All of EB’s students were invited up to give a hug, but Selina and I weren’t sure if we should sit back and let this year’s students do their thing. Eventually we were prodded into going up by our table mates, just in time for the group to start singing a song we absolutely didn’t know. It was a bit awkward, but funny. After hugs, it was time for a dance party, which was a blast, and a fitting way to bid farewell to Elisabeth, who truly shines on the dance floor.

Traffic on Christmas Eve - photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)
Traffic on Christmas Eve – photo taken from the Saigoneer (nothing I actually saw was this bad)

As we all know, after the party comes the afterparty! Selina and I went back to Lisa’s room and played drinking games with the other staff and our friend Jewel, who was the coordinator for the student program assistants in Hanoi, and a surprise party guest. We hadn’t seen her in three years, so it was great to catch up. Once everyone had gathered, we headed out to Saigon’s backpacker district for a few drinks and some dancing. Little did we realize that Christmas Eve is one of the craziest times to be out in Saigon, as traffic was NUTS. Luckily we didn’t have far to go, and when we returned to the hotel around 4am, it was significantly quieter.

Drinks in the backpacker district
Drinks in the backpacker district (photo by Selina)

Anyway, in the end I’m glad everything worked out and that I was able to meet up with the group, if only for a little while. And who knows, maybe I’ll see them again before the year is out – they’re headed to some pretty cool places, and the travel bug hasn’t left me yet 🙂

Elevator selfie!
Elevator selfie! Hanging out with the Pac Rim staff on Christmas Eve

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.

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!

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.”