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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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.”