Sunday, July 17, 2016

Momgolia Part 5: A Mom in Mongolia (A Guest Blog Post)

Hi all. Below is the final chapter of our Momgolia posts. We thought you might enjoy Mom's reflections of her trip as someone who doesn't live here. Without further ado, here's Mom.

I traveled to Mongolia. Me. Yep….still hard to believe and what a wonderful opportunity and experience.  Mongolia is not a place I learned about in school or elsewhere nor was it ever on my bucket list of places to travel. The main catalyst for the trip was, of course, to visit Sally and Caleb wherever they might have been be it Mongolia or Timbuktu. (Where is that?) In spite of the distance, long flight time, not to mention the time change, Mongolia turned out to be a pleasant and educational experience.

Since Sally and Caleb took on the task of blogging about the specifics of my visit and our travels, I will write about some of my thoughts and observations.

Mom at the top of the Chinggis Khan statue
How wonderful to visit a country not from a tourist standpoint but from a “real” life perspective.  Sally and Caleb planned  a great itinerary and we hit all the points minus one side trip. They navigated the language and the currency, knew the local customs, where and what to eat so I had the luxury to relax and enjoy the experience.

The country of Mongolia is vast and beautiful. Visiting the countryside for the camel rides and the trip to Dadal was beautiful yet I felt at home having lived in rural country areas much of my life.  One very poignant moment was stopping on the way to Dadal and having an impromptu picnic of khuushuur in the car in the middle of the Mongolian Steppe. Nothing to see but grass, hills, sky, and sunset. There were no houses, power lines, or others sign of civilization… nothing. It was quiet except for the sound of the wind and rain…so peaceful.   I remember picturing a satellite image of this moment, our car sitting in the middle of a vast endless land looking out of place and tiny, and I felt very small in comparison. A surreal and memorable moment in time.

The Mongolian Steppe
On the opposite spectrum of my experience was the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. With over 1.5 million people, it is by far the largest city I have ever visited. We walked most everywhere which was fun as I’ve never lived in a place where this was practical. We also took taxis which my feet appreciated.  Mongolian taxis are basically regular cars; there are no meters or lit signs on top of the cars to indicate it’s a taxi. Sometimes you are not sure when a car stops if it’s a taxi or they are just stopping for the traffic. And in UB there are a LOT of cars of which every 3rd or 4th seemed to be a Prius (They are quite roomy actually).  Once in the taxi, there was the anticipation of hearing Caleb’s exchange with the driver. He would lean forward and using his best Mongolian ask the fee, convey our destination, and engage in small talk.  I cannot describe how utterly entertaining this was to witness. Mongolians are very accommodating with these exchanges. Caleb was always eager to practice his Mongolian, and the Mongolians seemed genuinely pleased that he could somewhat speak their language and happy to help him with the correct word or phrase if needed.  There were lots of smiles and head shaking or nodding. Never once did I see a Mongolian lose patience during these exchanges.

View from the Blue Sky Hotel in UB
 If having a picnic in the middle of the Mongolian Steppe was my surreal country moment, my surreal city moment would have to be when we went to a movie theater in UB to see Captain America: Civil War. It was the 3-D American version in English with Mongolian subtitles. I remember thinking how weird that I flew thousands of miles and here I am in Mongolia sitting in a theater just like back home, eating popcorn and watching Captain America. The one difference was not having any ice for my soda. I could only drink bottled water while there so ice was also off limits also.  By the way, it was a good movie…go see it!

I enjoyed all the aspects of my trip. Visiting the birthplace of Chinggis Khan was an epic adventure.  Such beautiful country there and it was kind of neat knowing we were just one mountain range away from Russia. Riding a camel, sleeping in a ger, visiting the Monasteries, shopping at Naran Tuul, experiencing a Khorkhog, discovering Korean, Indian  and other foods were all super fun adventures.  Staying at Sally’s and Caleb’s apartment and seeing what day to day life is like was probably my favorite part of the trip.  It was fun to grocery shop, visit one of their friends who lives in a new apartment building and also visit another who lives in a ger and in general see their city and what life is like there. Another interesting thing is what you don’t see such as fast food restaurants and large malls or stores like Wal Mart.

Narantuul from above
One of the highlights was seeing three different schools where the PCVs work and meeting the teachers they work with.  The atmosphere and smell of the schools were just like schools in the States. High points of this were seeing Caleb’s huge school office, visiting Kyra’s vocational school to purchase some handmade items by the students to bring back home, and meeting with the director of Sally’s school. I believe that was my first ever conversation with someone through an interpreter. I discovered through him and a few others I met that Mongolians like to know what others think of Mongolia. Also they are very hospitable. I left Sally’s school with the gift of a book and handfuls of candy (Mongolians like candy). And at the teachers’ khorkhog I received a nice jewelry set.

Mom wearing her new jewelry
In Chinggis Hot, Sally and Caleb’s city, we ate in a restaurant once and had a traditional Mongolian meal at a friend’s once, but mostly Caleb cooked delicious dinners and Sally made some delicious pies while in their city. Cooking, bathing and washing clothes are all done a little differently but something one adapts to quickly. Sally and Caleb manage it all very well. I did get scolded a few times for forgetting to remove my shoes at the door. This is a custom in Mongolia for apartment and ger living and even at the hostels we stayed in.

Caleb making pizza
All in all, it was a great visit/trip.  I found the Mongolian people I met to be friendly and down to earth. Theirs is  a family oriented society. It was not uncommon to see a Mongolian man pushing a stroller with a very small baby or with one or two young children and no woman in sight.  That is not something I see often in the states and when I do it strikes me as a little odd.  Caleb explained that in Mongolia child care is shared.  

Sally with pie trying to act Korean
It is amazing how much I did and learned in two weeks. This was my first international trip, and while it felt a little strange if not scary to travel alone through and to places that don’t speak English, I came away with the impression that people are just people where ever you go. One such example: some of the taxi drivers would have their wives ride along with them. While I could not understand what they were saying I could read body language and tone. So when I asked Sally “Is she telling him how to drive?” and she answered “yes” it was a little bit amusing but not surprising.

One other side note: Korean Airlines is great! If you ever need to take a long flight and can take KAL I highly recommend it. They are very accommodating and even flying economy class you are pampered and well taken care of.  The Incheon airport in Seoul is top notch.  They offer free showers for international travelers and you can purchase food or other items with American dollars but will get your change in Korean won. Plus they can understand and speak some English.

Mom at the Onon River near Dadal
Thank you Sally and Caleb for inviting me and planning this trip. I enjoyed sharing a little part of your Peace Corp and Mongolian Adventures even if you did make me eat buuz before I left.   It was fun, educational and enriching.

Where to next?? 

~Linda (Mom)

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