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!

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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)

~Jessica

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.”