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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Thailand Tuesdays: Sightseeing in Sukhothai

After all the difficulty in getting to Phitsanulok, I was in the city for a remarkably short time. I’d planned on spending a day there before moving on to Sukhothai, but a closer look at the guidebook and the knowledge that I’d lost a day in Lopburi convinced me to skip it. So after a night in an unremarkable hotel, I bought a ticket for the first hour-long bus ride of the morning to Sukhothai.

A kingdom in its own right 150 years before Ayutthaya rose to prominence and a modern UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sukhothai had been on my must-see list from the get-go. Thai children are taught that this is where King Ramkhamhaeng invented the Thai script, though the archaeological record apparently casts some doubt upon this story. Still, I wasn’t about to question the history books (aloud, anyway) in a country where lèse majesté is still an imprisonable offense, and as we’ve established, I’m a sucker for palace and temple ruins. Sukhothai promised both, and plenty of them.

I even found myself a couple of travel companions with whom to visit them. There were two guys in their twenties on the same bus—one from America, the other from France. We introduced ourselves while waiting for the bus and told stories about the other places we’d traveled during the ride. By the time we reached our destination, we’d decided to stick together for the next day or two.

After pooling our resources to “splurge” on an air-conditioned room in a lovely little guesthouse, we took advantage of the free bikes to explore the town. Lacking the river boundaries, Sukhothai has spread quite a bit more than Ayutthaya in the past 700 years. Instead of residing atop its past, New Sukhothai is distinct from Old Sukhothai, and the latter is contained within a historical park.  Since we’d already lost most of the morning, we decided to postpone our visit until the next day and made a haphazard circuit of the city, eventually working our way over to the impressive Phra Mae Ya Shrine. It houses an idol dedicated by King Ramkhamhaeng to his mother—and, according to local belief, the spirit of the great king himself.

As was so often the case in Thailand, the shrine proved too large for me to get a good picture of the whole structure; if I managed to get all five of the towers into the shot, it also included undesirable items like street lights. Happily, our visit to the historical park the next day gave me much more camera fodder!

Wat Mathathat is the largest and most important set of ruins, and also the closest to the park entrance. This “temple of the great relic” was great indeed: the intervening centuries have stripped away the gilt and glitz the buildings must have had when first built, but their scale and grandeur remain undiminished.

Large and imposing as this complex was, however, it was only the beginning of what the park had to offer. While the boys and I opted not to pay the admission fees for any but the central zone, we did rent bikes in order to visit as much of that zone as possible. Sometimes, this meant a long trek around large moats that afforded a spectacular view, while at others, we crossed smaller moats to more intimate-feeling temples like the lovely Wat Sa Si.

What I really appreciated as I wandered through the park was the complexity of the structures it contained and the emotions they evoked. While I wasn’t sufficiently versed in Thai architectural history to know from the shape of a chedi the era in which it was built, even I could see from the many subtle variations in design that they bore witness to the preferences of different time periods and ruling peoples. Nor did I have to know whether a chedi was Lanna, Lanka, etc. to appreciate its many facets. Even the most massive temples boasted intricate adornments not yet lost to the erosion of time. Recent visitors had also added to these monuments in  unexpected ways: not with the offerings I’d grown used to seeing in Mongolia, but with little Buddha figurines tucked into unexpected corners.

Wat Si Sawai

Wat Si Sawai

Just as in the majestic cathedrals of Europe, I found myself in a contemplative state of mind while wandering the park. Even teeming with noisy tourists, there was something meditative about these spaces. You can only witness the silent, stone serenity of so many seated Buddhas before you either grow twitchy with boredom or fall under the spell yourself. And in a place this gorgeous, who could ever be bored?

Sukhothai Historical Park

Many thanks to my mother for post-processing and color correction on all photos in this post!

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Adventures in Ayutthaya

In early September, the sun sets much earlier in Thailand than in Mongolia, and faster; the afternoon comes to a close, and suddenly the sun hurls itself at the horizon, as though it too has tired of the oppressive heat it’s provided all day. As I watched it set on my day in Ayutthaya, I felt cheated; as much as I dislike the heat, I would gladly have borne it for a few more hours of exploration. Alas, it was not to be.

“Ayutthaya very small,” I was told by the staff at my hostel in Bangkok. “Maybe only three hours, you can see.” I probably would have taken the earlier train anyway, but Front Desk Lady urged me to take the 11:00, pointing out that the earlier train cost ten times as much as the later one.

I should have spent the extra $4.50.

I could have spent several days in Ayutthaya and still found things to do. The island is a curious mixture of modern city and ancient ruins, sometimes situated right on top of each other. At one point in the afternoon, for instance, I passed a school built a stone’s throw from some ziggurat-like brick structure. In America, you probably wouldn’t be allowed within thirty feet of something so old, but I saw several small faces peering down from its height, clearly quite pleased with themselves at having found the best part of the playground on which to play tag and hide ‘n’ seek.

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This juxtaposition of current and long past was part of the reason I’d chosen to come here, rather than shooting straight up to Chiang Mai as do so many tourists. I’d done my homework in planning my route through Thailand–at least, to the extent that reading the WikiTravel page counted as homework. The second capital of old Siam (after Sukothai, where I’d stop as I continued north) sounded like a place I wanted to visit, especially now that I knew it had once been the largest city in the world (in 1700, with a population of one million). And it’s a UNESCO Heritage Site, which carried some weight too.

Everything I read recommended seeing the city by bike, so the first thing I did after alighting first from the train and then the ferry across the river was to look over the rental shops thronging the island’s first street. The bicycle I ended up with was a simple fixed gear with a basket on the handlebars–a far cry from the 24-speed I ride at home, but perfectly adequate for this task. It was certainly faster than walking, and that was my primary concern.

Map in hand, I started a course that took me around the periphery of the island, marveling at the existence of ancient ruins on named, signed streets. I’d seen such things in Europe, of course, but Old European Buildings have an entirely different feel to them than Old Asian Buildings, which made this an entirely novel experience. As I meandered from crumbling brick chedi to tall stone tower, I felt constantly as though I’d wandered onto the set of The Jungle Book.

The elephants doing one-block laps were the first I’d seen in the country, but I passed on the the offer to ride them. There would be time for that later, if I found a place I was confident treated its elephants well. I also declined to enter any of the many sites that charged admission. Few charged more than 50 Baht (about $2), but I was reluctant nonetheless. With such a wealth of free sites to see, I reasoned, there wasn’t much point in paying; I had more than I could handle as it was. At Wat Phra Si Sanphet, the largest compound on the island, I made do by taking the best pictures I could from over the walls or through the gates; elsewhere, I simply stopped, observed and appreciated what I could, and moved along.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

At the southern end of the island, my bike and I began to have disagreements. Something in the chain or gears seemed to have gone awry, and I could feel it resisting me as I pedaled. While I’m no cycling guru, I’ve biked a few thousand miles in my life, and putting a derailed chain back in place is well within my limited repair capabilities–except, of course, when the entire mechanism is encased in a metal sheath that prevents you from accessing it at all. I tried, believe you me, but the box, grown hot with the friction of the problem, would not be broached.

So I struggled onward, my gaze now fixed on a tall stone tower to the southeast, on the other side of the river. It was tall, and it was old, and it was accessible to the public, which was all that I and my deep love of high places needed to know. Alas, this was as close as I got.

When the rapidly setting sun eventually forced me to abandon my goal and high-tail it back to the rental shop, I was slightly disappointed, but not for long. My journal contains one paragraph of writing from that day of exploration, hastily scribbled while I waited for the train that would take me on to my hotel in Phitsanulok. It reads as follows:

I have spent the last few hours battling a bicycle that wasn’t particularly inclined to move. I have a large bruise I don’t remember getting on my upper arm and the beginnings of a wicked sunburn on the back of my shoulders. I have entered none of the ruins that required payment, however little; quite possibly I have missed everything of historical import. It has been glorious.

My thanks to my mother for her help retouching my terribly over-exposed photographs of a very sunny place. Had she been there, she would have taken much better pictures!


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Side Trip into Flower Land

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who liked to sing. She liked singing so much that she did it everywhere she went – at home, at church, in the grocery store. She liked to stop by the flower shop on her way home from school or the weekend farmer’s market, and because she was an audacious child, she somehow managed to talk her way into an arrangement whereby she sang for the florists, and they gave her flowers. Nothing too expensive–mostly the flowers that had broken or been cut too short to fit into arrangements–but to her thinking, a good deal nonetheless.

Many years later, she graduated college and needed a part-time job to fill the summer before she left for Mongolia. Unsurprisingly, “I’m only here for the next three months, and also I want to volunteer at camp for a week in July,” was a bit of a hard sell, and most of the local places didn’t bother to call me back. And then, one fine day, I walked back into the flower shop and asked if they were hiring.

“Not really,” said the manager, “but I can take your name and number and call you if anything comes up.”

And then he took a closer look at me, and I watched a grin break across his face as he asked, “Are you the girl who used to come in and sing for us?”

Blushing deeply, I nodded.

“Mother’s Day is next week,” he said. “Want to start tomorrow?”

I spent that summer doing a lot of grunt work: processing and preparing flowers, schlepping stuff from point A to point B, making deliveries. And helping to set up weddings, which doesn’t really count as “grunt” work but almost always happens at odd weekend hours when the regular employees have absolutely no desire to come in. It wasn’t the most consistent or best-paying job out there, but it was fun and allowed me to work on my own terms, which was really all I could ask for at the time.

So when I had yet to find a degree-related job 2.5 months after returning to the US, I decided it was time to visit the flower shop again. Naturally, this decision coincided with the imminent arrival of Valentine’s Day; timing is everything when looking for a job, they say, and while I have no idea what factors might make me more less likely to land this internship or that full-time position, the busy season for flowers is pretty predictable.

Yes, I was told, they did need an extra pair of hand for Valentine’s Day, and how long had I been back in the country? Why hadn’t I come in earlier?

I made these things! I’ve taken a few steps up the ladder, from driver to rose stripper to underling designer. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past three months instead of writing. Or rather, this is:

February 24: Valentine’s Day
March 31-April 4: Supposedly a slow week because of spring break, but in fact, parties and birthdays and mitzvahs up the wazoo and a phone that never stopped ringing.
April 14: Passover
April 20: Easter and Orthodox Easter
April 23: Administrative Professionals’ (*couch* Secretaries’ *cough*) Day
May 11: Mother’s Day
May 17: Prom

April was a busy month – we had at least one holiday or massive party every week, on top of our day-to-day business. And while May’s been much calmer so far, we’ve yet to get through prom.

So I should have a nice, Mongolia-related post out for your reading pleasure in the next week or so. In the meantime, I’ve got boutonnieres to make.

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All Things Mongolian

As a college student more focused on doing well in my studies than what I would do when I finished them, and then a resident of a country in which meeting immediate needs far surpassed the importance of future planning (must wash clothes to wear tomorrow! must go grocery shopping or starve! must get the power turned back on or have nothing to teach in class tomorrow!), networking has always seemed to me to be a supremely abstract concept, the sort of thing dealt with mostly by Professional People wearing suits and meeting by the office water cooler to discuss office politics and resume semantics. Instead, it turns out to be something that really matters to the pre-professional people desperate to find their first full-time jobs so that they can move out of their parents’ houses and feel like real adults.

Since I enjoy my 35 hours/week at the local florist, I would classify myself as anxious rather than desperate–but it is, nonetheless, the latter category with which I identify. Floral design is a fun field in which I get to exercise my oft-neglected creative spirit, but part-time employ at a small business covers neither dental nor vision-related expenses, and as a cavity-prone girl with glasses, I sort of need both. So if any of my readers know of any writing- or language-related job openings in Chicagoland, I would be deeply appreciative of a heads-up!

Weirdly, the upshot of having lived in a little-known country is that I often find myself on the other side of the networking paradigm. Even though I’ve been back in the US for six months, I still find myself getting emails and comments from folks seeking connections in Mongolia. Want advice on when/how to travel the country, how to obtain a bottle of whisky exported only to MGL, or how to get hold of the contacts you need for a research visa? Apparently, I’m the girl to ask! My reach in many of these areas is limited, especially as most of my contacts will return to the US this summer, but I promise you, dear readers, that I will always try my best to connect you to the right people to answer your strange and unforeseen questions. After all, on the grand karmic scale of things, that means that someone out there will eventually help me to find the job I’m seeking, right?

In the meantime, it also means that I find myself CC’d on all things Mongolian that cross my friends’ Facebook feeds. Mongolia has apparently been pretty trendy in the past month, so there have been a lot of these things, and some of them are awfully cool! Because I have been so shamefully bad at posting regularly this month (Mea culpa! Working on your feet for seven hours a day is tiring as all get-out!), please allow me to share a few with you while I work on generating new and interesting stories to tickle your collective fancy. (Holy unintentional euphemisms, Batman!)

FreeCreditScore “Mongolian” Slider

At some point in the last year, Mongolian made an appearance on a freecreditscore.com commercial! I thought it was cool to see this language being recognized in something so high-stakes a a US TV commercial, even if only as a novelty.

I’m afraid I can’t comment on the authenticity of the language, though perhaps some of my readers might be able to. I recognize several of the words, but the accent strikes me as… questionable.

Kazakh Eagle Huntress

BBC recently ran a story about Ashol-Pan, a thirteen-year-old Mongolian Kazakh girl apprenticed in the tradition of eagle hunting. The photos are gorgeous, even if the information is a little skimpy. It looks like I’m going to have to move the story of my own experience with a Kazakh eagle hunter up the queue to rectify this deficit!

A girl and her eagle.

Kazakh Photo Essay

For some basic information, as well as more spectacular photos, check out Christo Geoghegan’s photo essay on western Mongolia’s Kazakh population. Though they make up only a small percentage of the population of Mongolia as a whole, the Kazakh people are the majority in Bayan-Ölgii, the country’s western-most province. I was fortunate enough to visit the province during the Eagle Festival last October, and to stay with several Kazakh families. I have lots of stories to tell about the experience, but my pictures in no way compare to this professional’s! I highly suggest you check out his work.

Just one of many gorgeous photos! Seriously, go check these out.

That’s all for now, folks! Enjoy the pretty pictures while I work on generating some more content while also working and also also job searching.


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Some Observations From My Travels

After all this time without a word from me, you might be expecting some astute, well-worded posts. Surely I’ve had time to put something like that together, after all.

Sorry, folks. No such luck. Mostly I’ve spent the past two weeks in Russian van getting shaken half to death on mostly non-existent roads, which is not conducive to writing, typing, or really anything besides keeping your eyes on the horizon and trying not get sick. But it does give you plenty of time to think, to yourself or to those around you, and here are a few of those thoughts.

  • Desert or no, the Gobi is awfully cold in October. In related news, I’m really glad I brought my deel.
  • The Gobi is not particularly sandy, for the most part. However, the one part that is will kill your camera faster than you can protest.
  • Camels make funny noises. And funny faces. Really, camels are just hilarious creatures.
  • IMG_3014Yaks are, if possible, funnier.
  • There is an enormous difference between long-term travelers and couples on vacation for a month. The former are far more fun to travel with.
  • Kazakh milk tea > Mongolian camel milk tea > Mongolian cow milk tea. However, fermented camel milk < fermented horse milk.
  • Horses are more difficult to milk than cows, and cows are no walk in the park.
  • I miss American autumn. Khovd is well-treed, and the golden leaves everywhere made me amazingly homesick. IMG_3158
  • Kazakh sounds remarkably Slavic. Which is to say that a Slovakian and a Kazakh can have what sounds, to a speaker of neither language, like a conversation, but does not successfully communicate anything.
  • I have misplaced more things in the past month and a half than in the previous twelve combined. Some I have been able to get back; others, alas, are gone for good.
  • Goats have a talent for mischief. Sheep have a talent for poor life choices.
  • Eagles are enormous. And surprisingly heavy. IMG_3044
  • You never really need to pee until the land around you has gone absolutely flat, with no cover to be had. Happily, extended travel makes you and your companions really good at not seeing people in need of privacy.
  • Mongolia is really freaking gorgeous, even when it’s thwarting your need to pee.
  • Sheep have funny butts that bounce when they run.


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Elephants!

More sorry-I-don’t-have-Internet filler, but hey, this is filler has elephants!

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And you know what’s cuter than an elephant? A baby elephant!

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What’s cuter than a baby elephant? A baby elephant on a log.

This little one attempted to climb up, whereupon he discovered that he had misjudged the size of the log - and was stuck.

This little one attempted to climb up, whereupon he discovered that he had misjudged the size of the log – and was stuck.

And that’s about all I’ve got for you today. There will be more elephants, in story and picture form, when I find Internet that will let me upload more than three pictures in an hour.


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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.