Everywhere But Home

News and musings from wherever my crazy life takes me. My body may be back in Illinois, but at least for now, my mind is still in Mongolia.


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Goodbyes and Shoutouts

It hit with a suddenness that took took my breath away. One minute I was staring eagerly out the window of my second Russian van in as many weeks, excited for the trip to the Gobi that had barely begun, and the next I was slumped against the seat, so exhausted at the prospect of being shaken half to death for the next seven days that I would have given almost anything to be out of that seat and back in the capital city. 

My plans had been ambitious: after my two weeks in Thailand, I’d spend a month in Mongolia that would take me west to the Eagle Festival in Bayan-Ulgii, south to the Gobi, and back up to Erdenet to celebrate my birthday with my friends. Then I’d ship most of my belongings home, joining friends in Vietnam and seeing Angkor Wat in Cambodia before finally returning home for Thanksgiving.

Needless to say, things had not gone as planned. I’d gotten sick upon returning from Thailand, forcing me to move my planned Gobi trip from mid-September to early October. That three-week delay, seemingly so trivial, would force me to register to stay beyond my allotted month, and it would also severely curtail my tour options. Mid-September is still sort of tourist season in Mongolia; October most assuredly is not. The one tour to the Gobi I was able to join left Ulaanbaatar a mere 15 hours after my flight from the west landed. I needed a few days to rest from one trip before beginning another, and I wasn’t going to get them.

And so, in that moment of window-gazing realization, my plans were upended. I knew then that I was simply too tired to continue my intended itinerary. After the Gobi trip, I returned to Ulaanbaatar even more traveled-out than I’d left it. Though the prospect of a beach somewhere in southeast Asia tempted me, given that I’d be headed home into a Chicago winter, I couldn’t quite manage to find it worth the ordeal of getting there. All the itineraries to Bangkok were awful, forcing me to arrive past midnight or spend the night in the Beijing airport. I could have taken the extra-long layover option, using the time to see Beijing itself, but even the thought of seeing the Great Wall paled next to my exhaustion of the thought of more crowds, more customs forms, and another language I didn’t understand.

It was time to go home.

“You know, your cousin in Florida’s having a baby shower the first weekend of November,” said my mother. “Florida has beaches.” And while I know the Thai islands must make Florida’s coastline look like a drab sparrow to its colorful parrot, I decided Florida was enough. Within an hour, we’d booked a flight that would get me home in time for Halloween. I leave tomorrow afternoon, and though I’ve spent the past few days packing and repacking to meet the baggage guidelines, I still can’t quite process that fact.

If you’re dismayed at not yet having heard my stories about the places I’ve been in the past two months, worry not; I have dozens of blog posts about Thailand, Bayan-Ulgii, and the Gobi that are still brewing, and even more on the rest of my time here. My experiences here have given me material to blog about for at least another year, and I fully intend to make use of it. There are lots of tales yet to tell, beginning with the conclusion to the hiking disaster cliffhanger.

But first, I have other matters to attend to. As my nearly fifteen months in Asia draw rapidly to a close, I find myself with a lot of thanks to bestow upon the people who have helped and supported me throughout that time. 

First and foremost, of course, those thanks have to go to Mom and Dad. I can’t begin to quantify all you’ve done for me in the past few months (not to mention my whole life), so I won’t even try. Now you can quit fretting yourself into an ulcer, Mom. Just think – as long as the Grand High Military Masters of Fickleness don’t change their minds at the last minute (as they so often do), you get to have both your chicks home for the holidays!

The second (and equally obvious) recipient is the Fulbright Program that brought me to this fantastic country. Friends who told me, when I was dithering between Mongolia (as a Fulbrighter) and France (with TAPIF), that I’d be nuts to pass up this fantastic opportunity – thanks. You were right. Accepting the Fulbright got me more than a plane ticket across the world and a placement at a school; I can’t begin to count the number of doors it has made available to me. I now have Mongolian pseudo-relatives so determinedly hospitable that they get offended if I don’t let them know when I’m in town or make the time to visit them; I have friends in Ireland, Slovakia, Germany, Spain, and numerous other countries whom I would not have met had I not been in Asia and with whom, I have been strenuously informed, I am to stay should I ever pass through their parts of the world. I have a high-profile program name to put on my resume, and a schnazzy @fulbright.com email address available to me, should I choose to use it. I have connections in the US Department of State (!) and Foreign Service who have been honest and enthusiastic in providing information about those career paths, should I choose to pursue them. I have contacts at the US Embassy in Mongolia who never hesitated to provide assistance in ways far below their job description, whether it was by helping me in my (futile) search for motion-sickness medication or calling my co-teacher to explain what, precisely, she needed to put in that letter I need for my exit visa. Uyangas, you da bomb.

The other Fulbrighters, too, deserve thanks: my own cohort for the great time I had with them, and the new one for folding me into their social group and helping me with the unexpectedly extensive preparations needed before I can leave. Fifteen months in a country leave you with lot of baggage, and though I’ve known them only a few months, they volunteered to help me shoulder it even before I could ask. I’m so glad I stayed on long enough to meet you guys, and I wish our time here overlapped more.

But the biggest thank-you I need to bestow is to a different and less obvious group, and that’s Peace Corps Mongolia. Whereas I was part of only the third group of Fulbright English Teaching Assistants in Mongolia, the new generation of Peace Corps Volunteers is the twenty-fourth to serve in this country. As the more established program, it has far more resources and a much better-developed support system. It was my great fortune to be placed in the same city as six PCVs who, without hesitation, granted me access to both.

My thanks, however, go not just to the organization itself, but to the people who make it up. The greatest part about living with so many PCVs was the way it hooked me into a country-wide network of other PCVs. There are volunteers in just about ever corner of this country, and they are some of the most helpful and welcoming people I have ever known. There is no possible way to thank these people for every individual thing they’ve done for me, but I’d like to mention a few.

Thank you for immediately folding me into your social network, for insisting that I attend early gatherings that I would otherwise have skipped for fear I was imposing. Thank you for including me in your educational endeavors, for providing a teaching environment far more rewarding than the one I was assigned. For your unwavering patience in explaining the bewildering array of acronyms that are an integral part of the Peace Corps patois, and for forgetting at times that I might need such explanations, as though I’d been part of your group from the beginning. Thank you for taking the time to accompany and assist me on errands in the days when even a visit to the post office far exceeded my pathetic language skills. Thank you for providing your expertise on little, everyday matters, even if it meant responding to a text from someone you’d never met. For offering your floors to sleep on, when you had the room to do so, and for throwing out the welcome mat in other ways when you did not. For the open invitation to visit your homes, near or far, and the way it expanded my travel prospects. Thank you for welcoming me, and the rest of the Fulbrighters, to Peace Corps Thanksgiving, for giving us a family with whom to celebrate when our own families were so far away. 

Thank you for accepting me as one of your own. 

The biggest thanks, of course, go to the Erdenet Peace Corps Volunteers, whom I saw nearly every other day during my grant term and without whom I would surely have gone stir-crazy, and to the friend in the Gobi who acted as a much-needed confidante during my difficult winter. I found myself in what ought to have been a Peace Corps placement without the much more extensive Peace Corps training, and without all of your support, I might well have broken my contract and gone home early. I certainly would not have stayed five months after the end of my grant term to experience more of this country and culture. The Fulbright program may have brought me to Mongolia, but it was the Peace Corps Volunteers who made me want to stay.

I can’t thank you enough.

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The Nomadic Life

In lieu of actual content, today I bring you a few pictures from my homestay with a family of nomadic herders in Tuv aimag. The homestay was one of my favorite parts of my own Fulbright orientation, and so I asked if I could join the new Fulbrighters on theirs.  Though cold and very wet, it was amazingly fun.


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Outreach Trip, Part VI: Identity Crisis in Uliastai

It’s amazing how dramatically a few months in another country can alter your perspective. After a few weeks of sub-zero weather (that’s Fahrenheit, not Celsius), a brief venture up to the mid-twenties is a heat wave. You cast aside your down-filled coat and myriad base layers with glee; you float about town on your daily errands, the T-shirt and sweatshirt you have deemed adequate insulation barely heavy enough to keep you on the ground. When the long-anticipated arrival of spring breaks the temperature up to a whopping 50 (that’s 10˚C, for the non-American readers), you gallivant to dance practice in a tank top.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest world capital, it’s true, but obscene cold is not Mongolia’s only claim to fame. With 604,000 square miles (1.5 million km²) and a mere 3.18 million people to its name, it also holds the first-place ranking as the most sparsely-populated country in the world (though that falls to 5th if you count dependent territories). That’s like spreading the population of Chicago across an area the size of Alaska – the city proper, mind you, not including its many suburbs. And once you consider that more than half of these three million people live in the capital city, it’s more like spreading the population of Naperville across the same land area.

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square

Do please note that half the country registers as having less than one person per square kilometer.

Spending time here, unsurprisingly, skews your perceptions of population. I live in the second-largest city in this country – but since there are only three cites, you could just as easily call it the second-smallest. My hometown of 18,000 people is considered a small suburb in Illinois; the next stop on our outreach trip, the comparably-sized Uliastai, is a pretty big town by Mongolian standards. After days of eating lunch at the lone guanz of this or that soum, and attempted stops at those with none, it felt big to us too.

Uliastai from above. Doesn't look like much, but it felt it.

Uliastai from above. Doesn’t look like much, but it felt it.

In keeping with the size of its population, Uliastai boasted an impressive four Peace Corps Volunteers. Bianca, Bill, Brian, and (the sadly non-alliterative) Karen met us at the hotel and then led us to a place called Crystal. We followed them across town, through unmarked doors, and up a flight of stairs to find ourselves in a restaurant with beer (all in cans/bottles, but at least they had Fusion), a dance floor, and a menu that included chicken. Really, what more could we ask for?

It was at this dinner I realized I was suffering something of an identity crisis. Of the eight Fulbright ETAs and Researchers my age, six live in the capital. Consequently, Lauren and I see them but rarely; I had missed Joe’s visit to Erdenet at New Year’s, and so the last time I had seen any of my four travel companions was at Thanksgiving. Nor have I done a particularly good job of keeping in touch with them. I did not know, for instance, that Lucas had started an NGO, or that Eli had become the second ETA to have his appendix removed this year (yikes!) I knew enough about the other ETAs that the standard ground for get-to-know-you smalltalk had already been covered, but so little about their recent lives that the only real questions I could ask were of the vague, “so how have you been?” variety.

Instead, it was the Peace Corps volunteers with whom I connected. The Fulbrighters in UB have access to a large network of expats, but our scope in Erdenet is rather more limited. There are a few older, married Americans here with whom we interact less frequently, but between community English events and weekend gatherings, I see each of the 6 Erdenet PCVs (and Lauren) at least once a week. So unlike the UB Fulbrighters, I spoke the lingo already; I could ask the PCVs we met along the way about their COS dates, what they’d done at IST, and what they thought of their CPs’ English and teaching skills.

One of the things I admire about the Peace Corps is its centralization and the close-knit feeling that follows from it. All the volunteers from each round meet each other and are given phones programmed with the numbers of the other PCVs in the country; the second-year volunteers all come to Thanksgiving in UB, as do most of the first years with the time and money to do so. Even if, as a PCV, you don’t really know a certain other volunteer, you probably have a friend who does.

For those who become topics of discussion by the inevitable gossip mill, this isn’t always ideal; if you want to keep your private life private, don’t date someone in the Peace Corps. But for me, at this table in Uliastai, it meant that even though I had never met any of these people, I still had things to talk about with them. I could ask Bianca about her host mother in Hutuul, whom everyone at the training site had loved; back in Tsetserleg, I had already known the bare bones of a project Bryce was describing because Gracie had talked about picking it up next year. I might not have known these people, but I’d heard stories about them, or about other volunteers whose experiences were more like theirs than my own.

The Peace Corps is a community in a way that the Fulbright is not, and the volunteers in Erdenet adopted Lauren and me into that community when we first arrived at their site. After spending so much time with them, it seems that I identify more strongly with the Peace Corps volunteers than with my fellow Fulbrighters! Several of my travel companions even asked if I had thought about joining the Peace Corps after I finished my grant, since I seemed to like it so much. I haven’t given the possibility much serious though, but I do know this: I would have had a more productive and enjoyable time in Mongolia as a Peace Corps Volunteer than as a Fulbrighter.

Our time in Uliastai also served to demonstrate to me just how much a difference that sort of community can make – just to those who are part of it, but to the larger group it serves. By the time we reached Uliastai, we had been giving presentations for the better part of a week. I was grateful that the others devised a rotation that constantly switched up which presentation we were delivering, and with whom, as it kept the whole thing from getting too tedious. Even so, our visit to Brian’s school the following morning was the third time I had done the Universities in America presentation, and the second time I had done with Joe. But more importantly, it was a first: the first time that any of the students had actually taken the opportunity to ask us questions. Some of the students were even skilled (and brave!) enough to pose their questions to us in English. And even those who stuck to their native language were often asking about programs and scholarships they could use to study in America.

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Uyanga translating for our bravest and most responsive audience (not including Gladys)

Four English speakers together can do what one alone cannot: form a speaking club that exposes learners to authentic spoken English. Offer students multiple people with whom to practice, or incentive to improve their skills until they are comfortable doing so. Form a consistent schedule that doesn’t require events to be rearranged or canceled because one person is sick or swamped with work. Work together to overcome the bureaucratic, linguistic, and logistical obstacles they encounter along the way. Brian’s students, by daring to raise their hands and ask about ways to get themselves to America, showed us just how much more effective English teachers are in groups.

When I returned to Erdenet at the end of the trip and resumed participation in the seminars, conversation nights, and moving screenings my situates (another PC term I’ve adopted) organize, it would be with a renewed sense of appreciation. Neither my students nor my co-teachers are motivated enough to take advantage of these opportunities, but I’m always encouraged to see the number of others who are. I’ve learned songs, games, and teaching methods from assisting at the Peace Corps events, and I know that the folks around me have my back when I need help navigating life with limited language ability. I’m hooked into a network of friendly, skilled, and resourceful people who know what there is to see in their area and how to get there, and who don’t mind visitors crashing on their floors. Most importantly, I’ve got friends with whom to share the crazy, frustrating, amazing experience that is living and teaching in Mongolia.

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Nine Americans, six Mongolians, one Russian. Halloween in Erdenet.


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Outreach Trip, Part III: Tariat

The next stop on our trip was a soum called Tariat.  Tariat itself left very little impression on me – which is unsurprising, considering that we spent approximately fourteen hours there, over half of them asleep. So this post, like my memories of the soum, will be framed by the things that we saw on our way to and from Tariat.

We left Tsetserleg around 4:30 on Monday afternoon. It had already been a long day of presenting and being presented to, so none of us were particularly thrilled about getting back in the cars and driving onwards. But in we got and on we went. The paved road ended abruptly about five minutes out of Tsetserleg, but the gravel that replaced it was reasonably smooth – for the first half of our journey, at least. For that I was most grateful: I was about halfway through the third book in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire at this point and unwilling to put it down. But I was eventually forced to do so, as reading, rough roads, and I are not a good combination. But the scenery was interesting and afforded us plenty to see and talk about.

We had quickly left the mountains surrounding Tsetserleg for the more open steppe that covers much of the country, but there were always more on the horizon, whichever way you looked. Steppe and mountains alike were still the dead, dry brown of winter, but we had blue sky above us and a good road beneath us; not a bad way to watch afternoon fade into evening.

About an hour outside Tariat, a canyon opened on our right, growing larger with every minute we drove. Dashaa carefully maneuvered our car off the road, around the ditches, and through the intervening herd of yaks so that we could pile out for a closer look. The canyon was deep enough that little sunlight reached the base, even during the height of the afternoon. Snow still covered the near bank, reaching all the way up to just below the lip, and the river’s surface was still frozen solid. Some of the ice retained its coating of snow, but green swirled unexpectedly through the the white of the exposed ice. This would be no calm stream come summer.

Чулуут Каньон / Chuluut Canyon

Чулуут Каньон / Chuluut Canyon

The other cars had pulled ahead while we dawdled at the edge of the canyon, but we soon caught up: they too had stopped not far ahead. We jumped out again, to take more pictures. The canyon walls sloped less steeply here, and more trees grew on the banks. I would have loved to see this canyon in September; larch trees  hold their green, needle-like leaves until late in autumn, turning a lovely golden color after aspens have dropped all their leaves, before they too succumb to the cold. But Чулууд, as I learned the canyon was called, had begun to leave the throes of winter behind. A stream of liquid water snaked its way through the ice here, only to be subsumed by it further downstream.

It was past dinnertime when we arrived in Tariat, but we’d had sandwiches and snacks in the car to tide us over. I was glad of my sandwich; I consistently forget that ноготой шөл doesn’t translate to “vegetable soup” so much as “soup with vegetables.” Mutton soup, in other words. I’ve already expressed my general dislike of mutton, and boiled mutton is my least favorite preparation of the meat. The milk tea wasn’t really to my liking either; I’m not generally a fan of the stuff, and this struck me as unusually gamey. I’m glad I at least tried, it though – we later learned that the reason for the unusual taste was that it was made from yak’s milk.

We were joined at dinner by Mike, the PCV at whose school we’d be presenting the following morning. Mike is truly what my friend Eric would call a “hudoo rat” : he’s a ger-dweller as well as a soumer, and his soum is six hours by mikr from the aimag center. Eric has a modem and can sometimes get Internet access in Delger, if he sits in exactly the right place and the Internet gods are willing. But Mike doesn’t get Internet in his soum at all. For him to get online, he has to make the six-hour trip to Tsetserleg. Suffice to say, he doesn’t spend much time on Facebook. The Embassy had provided us with the contact information of the PCVs we’d be meeting along the way, so the Lisas had asked whether any of them wanted goods from the capital. Mike’s requests were simple: baked goods and macaroni and cheese. He got both.

Tumpin: A wide, shallow wash bucket. Photo credit to former PCV Belen Diez.

Mike had plenty of entertaining stories to tell, including several about his dog. Peace Corps pets tend to be adopted/rescued strays, and Mike’s dog was no exception. Her name caused a double-take for a lot of us, though: “you named your dog Tumpin?” But while most PC pets are “rescues” in the sense that the were taken in off of the street, so to speak, Tumpin was truly rescued as a puppy – from an outhouse. In the summer. And then rescued a second time, when she fell in another outhouse after Mike adopted her. Her name, it would seem, is well-earned.

Our one presentation at Mike’s school the next morning flew by, and before we knew it, we were on the road again. But not the road to Tosontsengel – at least, not yet. First, we made a quick side trip to Khorgo.

There aren’t many volcanoes in Mongolia, but Khorgo is one of them. And even though it’s been extinct for seven thousand years, it still sticks out from the surrounding area. The rocks are darker, sharper; the mountain, strangely rounded. There are trees, but they’re sparse and scrawny.

One of these things is not like the others... Can you guess which one is the volcano?

One of these things is not like the others… Can you guess which one is the volcano?

We bounded out of the cars and up the mountainside, ignoring the wind and impending snow. Khorgo is clearly a tourist destination; while it doesn’t have marked trails, like you would find in America, the steeper part of the climb had concrete steps that cut through the strangely-mounded scree. For that, we were all grateful; screes are never fun to climb.

We only had an hour to explore, but we reached the lip of the volcano in far less time. The volcano itself might not have been very tall, but its crater was impressively deep. Phil warned us to stay away from the edge, telling us that the had lost Fulbrighters to volcanoes before. We tittered nervously, waiting for the punchline, but there wasn’t one: two live volcanoes, two lost Fulbrighters. This one, thankfully, wasn’t active, but falling into the crater would certainly result in serious injury at the very least.

Tattered flag atop the volcano's main ovoo. Photo courtesy of Amraa.

Tattered flag atop the volcano’s main ovoo. Photo courtesy of Amraa.

I would have liked to climb higher but was informed that we didn’t have time. So back to the cars we went. We reached the base just as the first flakes of the threatened snow began to fall, and then we were back on the road once more.


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Outreach Trip, Part I: Kharkhorin

My trip to the hudoo was quite an adventure, and it’s going to take some time to chronicle it. So let’s make sure we’ve got the basics down before the tale begins.

Cast: Four Fulbright ETAs (me, Joe, Lisa B, and Lisa D); Amraa, a Mongolian alumnus of an Embassy-run intensive English program in the States; Uyanga E and Uyanga A, our main contacts at the Embassy; Uyanga E’s seeing-eye dog Gladys; Phil, a retired member of the Foreign Service, who’s been acting as Public Affairs Officer for the past four months, since Allyson’s on maternity leave; Phil’s girlfriend Polly, a fellow member of the Foreign Service on vacation from her placement in Hong Kong; Dashaa, Otgoo, and a third driver whose name I never learned.

Setting: Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags, notably Tsetserleg and Uliastai, their respective aimag centers, and Tariat and Tosontsengel soums, as well as innumerable stops along the way.

Actually our route was UB-Kharkhorin-Tsetserleg-Tariat-Tosontsengel-Uliastai-Tosonstengel-somewhere north of Tariat-Kharkhorin-UB. But close enough

Actually our route was UB-Kharkhorin-Tsetserleg-Tariat-Tosontsengel-Uliastai-Tosonstengel-somewhere northeast of Tariat-Kharkhorin-UB. But close enough

Purpose: To give presentations about life and the college experience in America to Mongolian schoolchildren, in hopes of inspiring them to travel there. Also for Phil to meet with members of the local governments to do whatever the PAO does. And, of course, to get the ETAs out of our respective cities in order to see the countryside.

All clear? Excellent! Let the story begin!

Our journey began more smoothly than I’d anticipated, since we were on paved roads the whole first day. I knew that ended at Tsetserleg, though, and I wasn’t looking forward to rough “roads” for the rest of the week without the benefit of motion sickness medications.

While the ETAs in UB had met with the Embassy workers the previous week to discuss the trip specifics, I had only ever received a vague schedule. As such, I knew what presentations we’d be giving and when, but not what else was on our agenda. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that we’d be stopping at Хархорин en route to Tsetserleg.

Хархорин, known to the western world as Kharkhorum, was Chinggis Khaan’s capital and the first city to be built in Mongolia. There’s not much left to look at now; the palace and anything else he built are long since gone. But there is a museum (alas, closed during our visit) and a monastery, and plenty of gift shops and guanzes (the Mongolian equivalent of fast-food restaurants) to service both the tourist industry and the nearby sum.

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The walls of Kharkhorin.

I doubt sincerely that the monastery dates all the way back to the great Khaan, but it was still pretty cool. The tall white walls encircled a rectangular compound containing a number of buildings. We passed a ger from which we heard the low-pitched, sing-song sound of chanting and ran our hands along a line of prayer wheels that creaked as they spun. Some were bronze-colored, and some silver, but all were emblazoned with Tibetan characters and the соёмбо.

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Prayer wheels. Spin to send your prayers heavenward.

Tibetan characters on the left, soyombo on the right.

Tibetan characters on the left, soyombo on the right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the center of the compound stood a white stupa – one far less elaborate than the photos I’ve seen from Thailand, but impressive nonetheless. We paused to take photos of it before circling a small wooden structure covered with khadags. At Uyanga’s instruction, we we each took hold of a length of the blue fabric and whispered our wishes.

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Lots and lots of khadags. A Mongolian wishing well of sorts.

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Stupa in the background; offerings in the foreground.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A column of young monks streamed by us in their flame-colored robes – not changing solemnly, as might be expected, but laughing as they passed a soccer ball between them. I ought not to have been surprised; becoming a lam here does not consign one to a life of somber meditation. One of our Mongolian friends in Erdenet is not only a monk, but a model as well.

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Mongolian soccer-playing monks.

Once we’d bypassed the young monks, none of whom could have been more than fifteen, we headed into the temple itself. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust from the bright sunlight outside, so the first thing to strike me was the smell: the sharp sweetness of burning cedar incense, shadowed by a century of dust and faintly outlined by the musty tang of old dairy products. I inhaled deeply and gradually began to pick out the sources of these scents.

The large golden Buddha along the back wall I had expected, as well as the candles that flickered before it. Their smoke mingled with that of the incense as it swirled upwards. But the large racks we had to pass in order to reach the altar were less familiar, as were the wrapped rectangular packages they bore. it was from these that the must, milky smell seemed to emanate; had I to venture a guess, I’d say they were blocks of cheese. Such an inclusion in a temple would have perplexed me when first I arrived here, but I have since observed that a number of Mongolian religious rituals involve the use of milk. Why not cheese too? It does, after all, have the unquestionable advantage of keeping longer.

Uyanga E had dutifully answered all of our questions thus far, and though she could not actually see the temple, she ventured explanations when we described what we were looking at. Of particular interest to us were the wooden structures along each side wall, close the altar. They contained a hundred wooden cubbies, each about four inches square and arranged in a ten by ten grid. A bundle of orange silk fitted neatly inside each cavity, leaving a tongue of red, yellow, green, and blue silk sticking out. Uyanga told us that these contained prayers and chants, which the monks would read on the appropriate occasions.

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Prayer scrolls.

For a small fee, you can get the monks to chant on your behalf. Wouldn’t that be an experience, to have the monks of Kharkhorin praying for you? But none of us coughed up the fee. I offered my own silent prayers instead, on behalf of a friend whose grandmother recently passed away. A Christian praying on behalf of a Jewish friend in a Buddhist temple – quite the combination!

Eventually, we all had to end our wanderings and head back to the cars. The road had been kind to us so far, but our final destination for the day was still a long way off.


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Hudoo, Here I Come!

As of the time this entry is published, I’ll have been on the road for over a day. The Embassy arranged an outreach trip for the the Fulbrighters that will take us through Arkhangai and Zavkhan aimags. We’re starting in Ulaanbaatar, then heading west to Tsetserleg, Tariat, and Uliastai, looping back up to Tosontsengel, and then making the long trek back to UB.

 

Our itinerary. Tsetserleg on Monday, Tariat on Tuesday, Uliastai on Thursday, Tosontsengel on Friday. Then two days for our return to the capital.

Our itinerary. Tsetserleg on Monday, Tariat on Tuesday, Uliastai on Thursday, Tosontsengel on Friday. Then two days for our return to the capital.

Google maps puts the trip at around 70 hours, which might be too much, but which also might not be enough. I have no doubt we’ll cut across the country between Tariat and Uliastai instead of going way out of our way to take the actual roads that Google thinks we should – but while that will certainly cut our distance, it might not make the trip much faster. I certainly hope we’ll take the roads back the way we came during our return trip, as driving cross-country is, to put it lightly, a rough experience.

I’ve discussed the difficulties of travel in Mongolia previously, but mostly they boil down to this: nothing in this country is well-made. Cars are usually shoddy imports, shoddily maintained; roads are practically potholed out of existence if they exist at all. The drive from Tariat to Uliastai will probably mean following the tire tracks of those who have driven that way previously; in most of the хөдөө, or countryside, those are what pass for “roads.”

I do not do well when driving through the backcountry even in the states, as my family will readily attest. I can handle hills, or I can handle switchbacks; I can’t handle both at once. The next week is likely to give me plenty of both, probably simultaneously, along with a healthy helping of bumps and jolts from the lack of pavement. I can hardly wait.

To make matters worse, I don’t have any motion-sickness medication. And I can’t buy any, either; apparently it just doesn’t exist in this country. I asked the medical officers from the Peace Corps as well as the ones at the Embassy, and this was the closest thing I got to a helpful answer:

Actually Meclazine should be available but, Valium 5mg tablets one or two tablets every six hours works pretty well. It is the preferred drug of choice for Labrynthitis and I just used some on a patient this week who loved it. I think you can get a prescription for Valium and try it.  Scopolamine is an excellent drug for motion sickness and it is sold as a patch but, I do not think you will that in UB.  But, I am sure you can find Valium and that will help a lot.

Valium? I’ll pass, thanks all the same.

So I’m headed off to the wild this weekend, with only peppermint gum and candied ginger to settle my stomach. But we’ll be giving presentations at schools and playing games and making crafts with kids, which ought to be lots of fun. And apparently there are hot springs somewhere along our trajectory. Now that I am looking forward to.