Week 1 in Mongolia

“Walk with the dreamers, the believers, the courageous, the cheerful, the planners, the doers, the successful people with their head in the clouds and their feet on the ground. Let their spirit ignite a fire within you to leave this world better than when you found it.”

Well, I’m in Mongolia! One more country to scratch off my map! My first week here has flown by, with so many adventures already, and I’m really loving it so far.

I arrived around 2am last Friday morning due to a delayed plane. Luckily, our vice principal was up to date with the news and was indeed there to meet me at the airport. After 27 hours of traveling I was exhausted, and there wasn’t much to see in the dark. Upon getting to the apartment building, though, I suddenly found another burst of energy, and of course decided to unpack. Why not?

My apartment is roughly the size of my house in Mozambique (minus Catia’s room). I even have running [hot] water and electricity! But really, I also have wifi, cable TV, a big fridge, an oven (not even a stoven), and a nice big bed that isn’t as comfortable as it looks. It’s quite the step up from Moz. There’s no air conditioning, but the government apparently turns on the heat once it gets cold. So far it’s been chilly at night, but pretty warm during the day, so I just sleep with my windows open. I also have a great view of the Zaisan Monument out my window, which is beautifully lit at night.

My first day in Mongolia was mostly spent setting up my apartment and exploring. There’s a grocery store, a KFC, a Pizza Hut, and a few bars/coffee shops down the street from us, which is very different from the far reaches of the IFP in Cuamba! We also have other shops, restaurants, banks, hotels, and clinics nearby. Walking up the 4 flights of stairs to my apartment upon my return, I met two returning teachers to the school. They invited me out to the nearby ski resort to watch a meteor shower that night, so we piled into the car with a Mongolian boyfriend and friend and drove about 10km out of the city to the mountain. From there we walked to the top, where there was a telescope and some Mongolian students, and sat under the stars, drinking wine and looking for meteors. I felt so lucky to have already found such welcoming people!

The next day I took a chance and headed downtown. I wandered a bit around the Chinggis Khan square (Genghis Khan for the rest of the world), got my phone card set up, and shopped a bit. I walked to and from town, a distance of about 5km, the whole time just amazed by the scenery around me. The mountains kind of surround the town, rising into the distance with the ger camps that are visible from a higher point. The skyscrapers give the feel of a city, but with the mountains all around and the river that passes through, I find myself forgetting that it is a city.

The rest of the week was spent meeting new people, shopping, hosting dinner parties, and with new teacher orientation. There are 12 new teachers at the elementary school, and maybe 6 or 7 at the high school. We’ve mostly had meetings about the culture of Mongolia or things like setting up bank accounts, but they did take us to a Mongolian cultural show that was really cool. They played music with traditional instruments, did some traditional throat singing, danced, and showed off beautiful costumes in bright colors. It was really touristy, but such a cool thing to see! I’ve also been setting up my classroom. It looks like I’ll have about 22 3rd graders, mostly Mongolian. I’m having a lot of fun decorating and deciding how I want my classroom to look. The first day of school is Thursday, so soon!

Today I had another interesting adventure. Joann, the vice principal at the secondary school, offered to take us on a hike to a nearby mountain from which we could see the palace of the president, which is tucked away in a valley. At 9am, a group of 8 of us set off. We walked for a while and eventually got to the trail. At the start of the trail were a bunch of “tents” used by shamans. They were really colorful because of lots of scarves attached. Apparently that is one of the places they have their ceremonies. After taking pictures there, we started climbing. The view was breathtaking, and I couldn’t stop myself from turning around every hundred feet to take a look (and a picture). Behind us, the city rose out of the floodplains and stretched to the ger camps that went up the far mountains. In front of us were these magnificent rolling mountains, light green with grass and sun. On the sides, the mountains rose quickly, partially forested and partially bare, but full of color. The height and the beauty and sun energized me and made the steep climb much easier.

Once we got to the spot we had decided to stop, Joann mentioned that there was another nice spot about 20 minutes onwards. One of the other teachers, her Mongolian friend, and I decided we would continue. We’d come so far it seemed silly not to go another 20 minutes for another great view. We had been following some gatherers who were headed deep into the mountains to collect pine nuts. They told us that if we only continued on a bit, we would come to patches upon patches of juicy, wild berries. Enticed by the idea of raspberries and strawberries, we decided to continue on with them until we reached the berry patch. It’s close, they assured us. Turns out close to Mongolians is similar to close for Mozambicans. We continued on the path that wasn’t really a path but some stomped down grass with trees in the way for another 30-40 minutes. Finally, we came upon a big clearing of boulders stacked on top of boulders. Here we are, they said. Turns out, there were some very delicious red currants and raspberries that we went on to pick. We shared our findings with them, they shared their biscuits with us. Not having planned to be out past lunch, we appreciated the food. They chatted with us (and by us I mean Karey and Anna who actually speak Mongolian) for a while, then left us with a bag of pinecones and went on their way. To get to the pine nuts, you peel back the pointy part and bite off the shell of the nut. They were so fresh!

Around 1:30 we decided we should head back and get some things done. Do we take the path that our guide had pointed us in, saying that it would lead to the road and risk finding ourselves on the president’s property, or should we go back to the path we came on, we debated. We decided that we could probably remember the way and would rather not run into a fence or an armed guard, so we headed back to our original path. Only thing is, we had wandered a bit and weren’t quite able to find the original path. Big piles of rocks don’t look too different from each other, and neither do fallen trees and grasses. We wandered in one direction, stopped to eat some berries and wonder if we were going the right way, wandered in another direction, stopped to eat some berries and wonder if we were going the right way, etc. This brought us way far away from the path and feeling a great deal of confusion. We were also exhausted, as we had run out of water and were climbing over boulders and fallen trees. It was like an obstacle course, climbing over and under and trying to avoid the mole holes.

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After a few hours, we decided to give up on finding that initial clearing and just head north down the mountain. We knew the city was in that direction somewhere, and we wanted to get down, but grew more and more frustrated as we hit more patches of boulders and giant fallen trees. We were also getting further away from signs of civilization. And we’d been walking over 3 hours with only berries as our sustenance. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we heard human voices. We started yelling, and soon spotted two berry pickers in the trees. They offered to lead us back, saying it was only half an hour. What were you going to do if you had to sleep out here, the man wondered. What about the wolves? What about the snakes? What about the two foreigners who got lost and froze to death overnight? He had plenty of stories to try to scare us straight. In the end, it was a bit over an hour back. Turns out, we had wandered so far east that we had actually encircled the original mountain we climbed and ended up on the far end of the mountain to our left when climbing. We came out at the bottom—sweaty, dirty, exhausted, and scratched up—to find that we were on private property of these really fancy homes. Some official came and yelled at us, but let us go (his guard had to drive us out of the complex) once he heard our story. The berry pickers got in trouble for picking berries in the restricted area we thought, but later found out they were construction workers who had left their job at the complex. Either way, they were our heroes of today.

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Those breaks in the trees are where the giant boulders were (one on the right and one on the left). We hit at least 6 on our way down.

Overall, I’m glad I went. 9 hours hiking was neither what I had expected nor prepared for, and I could do without the scare and sore ankles, but it was truly an adventure and bonding experience. I now have a newfound respect for guides and berry pickers (it takes such a long time and effort!) and will not be wandering off trails in the woods for a while.

School starts on Thursday and next weekend we’re going with the school to a ger camp. It’s going to be an exciting week!

Mongolian word of the day: баярлалaa (by-art-la) means thank you

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