“It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for – and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing. It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool – for love – for your dreams – for the adventure of being alive.”-Oriah Mountain Dreamer
It’s been a while since I’ve had time to update the blog. With teaching, report cards, and getting to know Mongolia, I’ve been pretty busy since the day I got here!
Three weeks ago began our fall break. Sure enough, since I can’t seem to sit still, 6am saw me in a taxi on my way to the Dragon bus station, armed only with my backpack and a piece of paper with “I want a bus ticket to Arvaikheer” written in Cyrillic. Most of my travels thus far have been to countries where I’ve either spoken the language, a majority of people speak enough English that we can get by, or the system is western enough that it’s pretty clear what I should be doing. This was a bit different.
I arrived at 6:30. Buses were already lined up in front of the station, and people were rushing in and out. Keeping a hand on my pockets, I entered the station. I tried to buy a ticket from the man at the desk. He just looked at me, annoyed. Another American couple lurked nearby, trying to figure out what to do. We decided to stick together for solidarity. Finally at 7am the ticket counter opened and people began flocking to a line. I waited patiently as people pushed in front of me, and when it came my turn, I handed her the paper and 20,000 Tugrik (about $10). I got my ticket.
From there it was fairly easy to find the bus. I boarded and waited until 8am. A few vendors came on, selling pastries and corndogs, but they didn’t hassle me as they might have in Moz. At 7:30 an older Mongolian woman came to occupy the seat next to me. We nodded at each other. Finally at 8:04, we took off.
The roads were paved, and mostly smooth. As we flew past grass-covered mountains and bare plains with the occasional ger, I drifted to sleep, only reawakening once we got to our halfway rest stop. It was just a strip of shops and restaurants in the middle of nowhere, but I got out to explore the nub of business along the road. When I got back on the bus, the old woman next to me offered me some pine nuts from her bag. Pine nuts are difficult to eat because you have to crack them with your teeth and spit out the shell, and they’re about the size of tic tacs. We sat there in silence for an hour or so just crunching on pine nuts.
Once the bus left again, they began playing Mongolian music videos on the TV screen in front. They were very thematic, often filled with stories of romance, family, and horses. I watched those for the next few hours until we finally arrived at Arvaikheer around 3:00.
Jenni met me at the bus station. Jenni is a Peace Corps Education Volunteer in her 2nd year in Mongolia. We dropped my things off and went for a bit of a walk around the town. Arvaikheer, which is the capital of Ovorkhangai aimag (province) has a very different look from the part of Ulaanbaatar where I live- It is very flat (at least in the direction we were walking) and rather industrial looking. We went to Bookbridge, a program she works with where they teach English to Mongolian kids. The whole building was very impressive, and it even had a library of books in English bigger than my library in Cuamba! We chatted for a bit with one of her counterparts, who was really nice and told me more about the program. Afterwards, we headed back to her apartment and then out to dinner with her sitemates.
Jenni has two sitemates who are both education volunteers in their first year. Sitting together with them at dinner definitely brought back saudades for my two sitemates and the times we would sit and gripe about the problems we were facing in our projects and discuss the things we were excited about. I mostly listened, occasionally offering a story from my Peace Corps experience, and got to know the girls. Afterwards, we met Jenni’s counterpart from before and two Germans who were also helping out with Bookbridge for karaoke. Karaoke seems to be popular here in Mongolia, and we had fun singing old favorites.
The next day, we slept in, went boot shopping, and went to the market. The markets seemed to be more of a series of indoor shops that were set up as market places for different things: dairy, vegetables, meat, etc. A big staple of Mongolia is their dairy products, so in the dairy market there were just vats of yogurt and cream, chunks of butter, and piles of aaruul, which is dried milk curd and a common snack here. Jenni bought some to take back to the states with her for people to try, and we moved on.
We went to another of Jenni’s counterparts’ houses for lunch. She served us a noodle dish with some meat and veggies, as well as traditional milk tea, and cake and biscuits. Afterwards, we sat on the floor and played games with her, her mother, and one of her 5-year-old sons. The game involved rolling 4 sheep anklebones as if they were dice. Each way they could land represented a different animal: the horse, the sheep, the camel, and the goat. The goal was to get a horse, and then you could move your “horse” further along the line of bones until there was finally a winner. Apparently there are a lot of different games you can play with the ankle bones! We played for a bit longer, tried on one of her deels (traditional Mongolian clothing), and headed back to the apartment to make a pizza dinner, in true Peace Corps fashion. When you have cheese…
The next day I went in to Jenni’s school to see her teach. She teaches English to 5th and 6th grade students with a co-teacher and mentors and works with other teachers at the school. Her school is fairly big, with two buildings because a newer one was more recently built. Half the school has class in the morning, the other half in the afternoon. She has about 40 students in her class sitting at long tables. Watching her teach brought me back to my Peace Corps days—she was miming simple actions and teaching them 5 vocabulary phrases at a time. It was pretty cool that she got to work with another teacher—the first time Jenni modeled the lesson and the second lesson her co-teacher took the reins. The students seemed to have about the same level of English as high school students in Mozambique (little to none), but the activities were fun and engaging.
Something that really struck me about the Peace Corps experience, at least here in Arvaikheer, was that the volunteers seem to have more of an impact, or at least more of an ability to get things done. That’s not to say that volunteers in Mozambique didn’t do great things, but there seemed to be a lot more administrative hassles in my experience. Permission had to be asked from the right people at the right time in the right way, oftentimes people wanted to just know where the money would come from, people didn’t follow through or changed their minds about details, the list goes on and on. Here, it seems like the volunteers have an easier time and more support from their schools putting plans into action.
After school, we had dinner at a Mongolian restaurant and went to bed early since I was riding back the next day. I had an effortless ride back to UB and got a night to relax before setting out on the next adventure. I had plans to drive out with two other teachers, one of whom had a car, to Khustai National Park, one of the few places on earth where there are still wild horses, and then on to Kharkhorin, the former capital of Mongolia.
We set out around noon the next day, driving along the same westward road that I had driven the day before with our music blasting and watching the cows pass by. About two hours in we came across a sign that pointed towards the open fields on the left: “Hustai Tourist Camp 13 km.” We turned onto the dirt road and drove off in the direction of the sign. We came across a closed ger camp, which turned out to be the edge of the cell phone service, and kept going slowly along the bumpy dirt roads. Sometimes the road split into 3 tracks and we just picked one to follow. Eventually, we made it to our ger camp around 3pm.
We moved our things into the nicest ger I’ve stayed in yet. It was painted beautifully, and kept very warm by the stove in the middle. We were going to relax for a bit, but the receptionist told us we had better get going if we wanted to see the wild horses that day, so we set off in Maggie’s car. Unfortunately, the road was even worse than the dirt road to the camp. The bumps, ditches, and uneven trails for 10km took us about an hour to navigate in the small Prius. We were about ready to give up when another passing car promised us we would see hundreds of horses if we kept going another 2km. We can do this, we thought.
There were quite a few steep hills, and one really treacherous ditch that we managed to navigate ourselves over. Finally about 3 km later, we came across a herd of something (maybe deer or gazelle) and 3 wild horses off in the distance. We got out, took some pictures, walked around, and enjoyed the beauty, but I for one was rather underwhelmed. We watched a lone horse walk off along the road, then headed back to the car.
A few minutes in, we came back to the treacherous ditch. Coming over, we had managed to navigate the steep hill on one side of the ditch, but coming back we were having trouble. I was sitting outside the window trying to give directions so that we wouldn’t get stuck, but we found ourselves on the brink of tipping over. When one wheel went over the edge and the car dangled slightly, our hearts stopped. No matter which way we turned, it seemed like we would tip over. I decided to get out and brace against the car to add some extra pressure as we drove forward. Turning the wheels up the hill, we slid down a little bit, allowing the car to bypass the hole and drive to safely. It was quite an exhausting moment for all of us, but especially Maggie who was driving.
Another kilometer on, we came across a herd of horses. We finally got to see them (kind of) up close! We approached and took a few pictures, but had to head back before it got dark. We enjoyed a nice dinner and didn’t enjoy so much a boiling night in our ger, and decided to go back to UB the next morning instead of going on.
I was lucky that another group of teachers would be taking a day trip the following day, so I still got to do some more sightseeing in my holiday. We took a bus out to the tallest statue of a man on a horse in the world, a giant statue of Chinggis Khan. We walked through a small museum and then headed up to the top of the horse’s head to see a great view! Afterwards we drove to Terelj National Park and saw Turtle Rock, the rock shaped like a turtle, and a really beautiful monastery. It was a pretty eventful daytrip!
Another blog post is coming soon about other fall adventures and school!
Mongolian Word of the Day: unetei ve? How much is it? This phrase has come in handy