My Mongolian Adventure

Mongolia, as a country,  seems to be a destination less travelled. I know only three friends who have been there, but all of them said it was worth their time and money to visit. I had tried to plan a trip during the (Korean) holidays of Buddha’s Birthday and Children’s Day (early May), but things just didn’t work out. Why, you ask? Well, early May is the tail end of Mongolia’s winter and thus riding camels is not an option at that time, not to mention the cold temperatures. Camel riding was one of the main reasons I wanted to go- so I postponed my trip.

Mongolia’s peak tourist season, and for anything requiring one to go outside really, is late May- early Sept, with June & July being the ideal months to visit. Mongolian winters are HARSH, to say the least. Average temperatures drop to -30 C (that’s -22 F)!

As it turned out, one of my close friends was planning a month-long trip to Mongolia for our university’s next break. So, we decided to take the trip together.

For the sake of this blog, I will stick to the highlights, cautions and information only, but let me first put this out there: I couldn’t have done this trip with anyone else except Frances (the woman I went with).

Mongolia is one of those places (and the tours, one of those adventures) that will test the relationship you have with the people you’re traveling with.

I’ll expound more about that in a minute.

  • Tours

I’ll assume you’re taking a tour, as there really isn’t anything else to do there. First, you should travel with someone.Tours are much more expensive when going solo. You can have people you meet in Mongolia join a tour you plan to take, but in my opinion, that’s a big emotional risk- not what I would want to do- for sure.

We booked a 15-day tour through Khongor Expeditions. I can’t say enough (good things) about this company! There are tons of tour companies out there, and almost every guest house organizes tours, but Khongor came highly recommended, has great reviews and simply is the place to book your tour(s). They are slightly more expensive, but rest assured, they are worth it!

We talked with several people while at various sites, and they noted how often their drivers got lost, adding hours and frustration to travel time. Some mentioned that their drivers would drive sleep deprived and drunk from the night before, not to mention the lack of problem-solving skills when faced with flooding, flat tires, sand storms, etc. Fixing a flat in Mongolia We experience flat tires, sand storms and flooding, but with a confident, kind, competent driver and guide. This made our trip!

I will let you go through the different tours available, but here are some general recommendations/musts:

  • Camel riding in the Gobi Desert
  • Horseback riding
  • Sand dunes (Gobi Desert)
  • White Lake
  • Khuvsgul Lake
  • Reindeeer families (Western Mongolia- need at least 2 weeks in Mongolia to do this)
  • Ger stay (you’ll stay in gers every night with Khongor tours)
  • Star gazing (You can do this after the sun goes down. It doesn’t have to be a planned event in your tour. I literally CRIED my first night when I went out to relieve my bladder, looked up & noticed the most brilliant night sky I have ever seen in my life!)

With our 15-day tour, we covered most of Central, Northern and Southern Mongolia. We didn’t go far east or far west, but we happened upon a reindeer family who was traveling for Naadam (see below).

  • Food

2014-07-05 19.42.35The staple food in Mongolia is lamb, potatoes and carrots. Expect this in every meal you have (breakfast is usually an exception to this rule). If you are a vegetarian, vegan, or have special dietary needs, you can ask your tour company to adjust the menu for you, although, it should be noted that you’ll likely not have a lot of variety or choices~ it’s just a part of the adventure. Mongolians tend to eat lots of fat on their meat in order to pad up (insulate themselves) typical meal for winter. If you’re not a big fan of eating hunks of fat, just ask them to remove it for your meals. Additionally, Mongolians eat EVERY part of the animal. Don’t be alarmed though, they realize most foreigners aren’t keen on that and won’t likely serve innards to you. Another great reason to book a reputable tour company: they are used to (and are able to) meeting the needs of tourists.

If you happen to be an adventurous eater, Mongolia provides some great things to try: various forms of camel, sheep and mare milk. 2014-07-12 07.23.14 milk treats

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In particular, their national beverage, Airag-  fermented mare’s milk- should most definitely be sampled.  We had various forms of yogurt, cheese, dried milk treats and even got to observe one of the host families making yogurt.

  • Landscapes  Khuvsgul Lake

The main reason to go to Mongolia is to take in the wide open landscape. While riding in your jeep/van/bus all day, you’ll take in some truly magnificent landscapes. It’s very common not to see anyone else for (literally) almost an livestockentire day. You will get to see plenty of livestock roaming freely, which is a site in and of itself. I had never seen yaks,  kites (I learned that that’s a bird lol), hawks, nor camels freely roaming land before. I had seen a few of those animals in zoos, but not in “real life” in their own natural habitat. WOW!! Riding a camel in the Gobi Dessert was definitely a highlight for me.

 

Nature is also your toilet while you’re in Mongolia. Nicer toilet Some camps have a latrine but you often hope for the wide open landscapes as the heat makes the latrines quite hard on the nose. If you have “stage fright” about doing your business out in the open, you may want to reconsider a trip to Mongolia. The fun part is, you can make some memorable stories! I can now say I have used a YAK as a shield from my fellow travelers’ eyes while doin’ the do outside. hahaha Mongolian adventures, indeed!

  • Naadam

Naadam is Mongolia’s biggest holiday/festival and occurs in the month of July every year. It lands on different dates each year, 2014-07-05 15.00.29so be sure to check the world wide web for specific dates. We happen to be “on the road” (on our tour)  when the capital city of Ulanbaatar (UB) planned to hold the grand “three games of men”: wrestling, horse racing and archery. Fortunately for us, our tour guide and driver helped us find a local festival where we spent a few hours watching the games and enjoying the food.

Naadam in UB is by far the largest celebration of the games, but be careful as it is high time for pickpockets to take advantage of tourists not paying close attention to their belongings.

  • Challenges

Let me try to keep this brief, but you are roughin’ it! Sleeping on hard, lumpy “beds” for most of the tour, with your travel companions 24/7 (or however long your tour lasts- in my case 24/15), and basically are never separated from one another. No, not even to use the restroom. Showers are available about every 5-6 days and the daytime can be quite hot. Roads don’t really exist so you’re on very bumpy terrain for hours at a time, sometimes as much as 13 hours a day. While this makes for really good memorable moments and lots of adventures, it’s not always easy to stay happy and friendly, especially if your personality is not that positive to begin with. lol Fortunately, we (my travel companion and myself) are quite positive people who have mature communication skills. This was key for us staying good friends throughout the trip. I bring this up because it is something you must consider when you’re deciding to go and with whom you’ll go with, especially if you plan to add strangers to your tour group.

What to bring:

  • Wet wipes (enough for the entire tour)
  • snacks (you’ll be limited on what you’ll be able to purchase, and may only stop every 5 days or so)
  • Baby powder (it will keep you feeling fresh and is also a great way to “dry clean” your hair)
  • Warm clothes to sleep in (it gets cold at night)
  • Headlamp
  • Extra batteries (or a charger with adapter) for your camera. Electricity is sparse at best.
  • Small items you can give as gifts to your host families and to your your guide/driver.
  • Sunscreen
  • Travel towel
  • Washcloth (this was a life saver for washing my face)
  • comfortable shoes (for both riding in the car and for hiking)

Hostels

Most hostels are in apartment buildings and it’s quite alarming when you first rock up to them. Don’t worry, most of them are nice inside. I recommend Khongor Guest House, or if you’re looking for more of a lively backpacker vibe, go to Golden Gobi. Both are in a great location and within walking distance to food and shopping in UB.

Lastly, as always, I’ll include a budget guide! These are peak season prices, but it’s likely you won’t go in the winter. What would be the point!?!

Tours- plan for $100/person / day (booking with 2+ people): $1500

Accommodations (when not on tour): $12/night/person

Shopping (souvenirs): $150

Meals (when not on tour): Foreign food ~ $12 per meal, Local food~ $4 per meal.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Volunteering on Vaction

On Christmas Day, I made my way to Chiang Mai, Thailand to begin my volunteering adventure vacation. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACOSA is the organization I decided to become involved with and, after going through the application process, was approved to spend 5 weeks of my winter vacation volunteering at Baan Yuu Suk, their first and primary shelter. [A new location, Baan Yuu Suk 2, is scheduled to open later in the year.] Because of the holiday season, all the girls were off from school and 27 of the 34 girls at the shelter went to spend a week with their families, most of whom live in the Hill Tribe lands of northern Thailand, near the Burma (Myanmar) border, some taking 3 hours to get home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeven girls didn’t have a safe place to visit so they remained at the shelter. Although disappointed that I would miss a week with those 27 girls, I was happy to have the opportunity to learn the names of, and bond with the 7 remaining girls.

For New Year’s Eve, we all settled in one of the four houses on Baan Yuu Suk (BYS) and watched a movie, then chatted around a bon fire.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Just before midnight we lit fireworks, oohing and awwwing at the beautiful colors and crashing sounds of the firecrackers bursting in the air. 2013-12-31 23.23.26 We ushered in the new year by sending lanterns full of wishes into the night sky. It was a great time!

We took the girls ice skating, which was an adventure for all of us. There were only two of us volunteers who had ice skated before (it was only my 4th time) and it was the girls’ first experience on ice. 2013-12-30 20.48.27 What a hoot! I had a minimum of two girls hanging on to me at a time, doing their best to stabilize themselves and find their feet on the ice. It amazed me at how quickly they learned. At different paces, almost every girl went from clinging onto the side wall to standing – and moving- all by herself on the ice rink. Of course, at first, I heard a lot of “I can’t”s. My calm, confident reply, “Yes, you can. I’m right here to help you.” It took some girls longer to trust me than others. Not all of them chose me as their “coach” for the night. Some independently ventured to figure it out themselves, some got aid and instruction from Merry, the other volunteer who had skated before- who actually knew what she was doing on the ice. 2013-12-30 20.16.53Rahtee was fantastic! She worked at it, slowly and steadily, and she eventually skated on her own, without holding onto anyone or anything. Although I did catch a glimpse of her holding another COSA sister every now and again to aid in that sister’s stability. Way to go, Rahtee!

2013-12-30 20.50.35

Gig was my favorite to watch though.  She was super clumsy on the ice and I think she spent more time falling and sitting on the ice than she spent standing on it. She was able to laugh about it and I think she found such joy in the process of it that she didn’t mind all the falling. She is the one girl who got me on the ground. lol She skated right into me, grabbed me with a big hug and fell backwards, unintentionally of course. She just couldn’t seem to keep her balance. We had a good laugh, got up and continued on. Isn’t that how life is, though? We fall down, get back up, and hopefully carry on with joy.

The 27 girls came back after a week’s time and school resumed to a somewhat normal schedule. There were mid-terms for the middle and high school girls so there were always a couple girls here during the day, the schedules were one-on-one-off. 2014-01-12 17.04.27Basically, we volunteers would walk the 12 elementary school girls to school at 7:20am then come back to the shelter and hang out with the girls who were off from school. Playing games, talking, helping them study their English, etc. If no one wanted to hang out, we’d work on projects for the organization. I especially loved our morning walks (to school) with the girls because they usually ended with a dozen hugs! The pick-up walks, at 3:30pm, began with a dozen hugs, so they are also a favorite time for me. lol

2014-01-18 10.03.50

Weekends are the busiest times as we have English lessons for 3 hours (90 minutes for each level, dividing the 5 levels among the volunteers),then a late afternoon activity, usually some kind of arts and crafts. SAM_2018 We made New Year’s Eve hats, friendship bracelets, had manicure parties, and I am hoping for a super bubble activity before I leave. 1528576_10201498072081912_581286986_n

On Children’s Day, which was January 4th, the local school had a celebration that we took the girls to. 2014-01-04 18.47.12The older girls joined and it was a morning of great fun. We had taught the girls a couple dances in English class, and they ended up performing it in front of almost a hundred people at the celebration! BRAVE girls! A few of the girls won prizes in a drawing. 2014-01-17 18.27.07 May won a new bicycle! She kept the plastic on it until it refused to stay attached. She wanted to protect it from scratching. That evening we had an ice cream sundae party.

2014-01-11 19.16.01

The girls got to choose their toppings and boy did they load it on. They sang a bit of karaoke in the soon to open BYS Cafe as well.

I have just one week left at the shelter and it is really gonna be tough to leave.

2014-01-06 15.28.05 2014-01-12 17.09.12

2014-01-06 19.04.06 I have bonded with several of the girls and I feel myself tearing up even now as I think about departing. My plan is to return on my next vacation, just four months from now. Who knows, maybe I can recruit some other people to come with me and share the fun! Are you up for it?! ^^

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Get Involved in the Fight Against Modern Day Slavery

Nestled in rural Chiang Mai (Thailand), not too far from the Tiger Kingdom, is an amazing shelter called Baan Yuu Suk (pronounced bahn yoo sook). BYS1This shelter is home to 34 girls, aged 6-19, who were at great risk (and some rescued from) to become victims of human trafficking. These girls are from the Hill Tribes of northern Thailand, where their existence isn’t really even recognized by the Thai government. Despite being 10th + generation Thailand-born, the government doesn’t provide them with Thai citizenship. Thus, they are stateless. This statelessness causes great obstacles in the areas of education, travel, work, geographic location in general, and whole plethora of other areas. Because these girls essentially don’t exist on paper, it is quite easy for a trafficker to exploit both them and their families.  That’s where COSA comes in…

I “happened” upon an organization called COSA, Children’s Organization of Southeast Asia, while searching for volunteer opportunities in the area of anti human trafficking. COSA seemed to be a perfect fit for the contribution I wanted to make and I started the application process to volunteer on my next vacation.

COSA believes in “Prevention through Education” which basically means that by providing a quality education, not only through high school but in some cases, on into university or vocational training, these girls are given a fighting chance to earn a solid income for themselves and their families. In Thailand, as in many parts of the world, children are expected to contribute to the (financial) betterment of the family. There is MUCH less emphasis on individualism than on family and the group as a whole. This is of particular challenge due to statelessness. Without the documents to prove their rights, these girls are denied an education beyond high school. However, most of them don’t make it past an elementary level due to this need for them to contribute. Girls are often sold into brothels in order fulfill loan obligations her family might have, or simply as a way for the girl to provide additional income for her family. It’s hard for us to even fathom, but this happens every single day, all over the world.  These children must stay in school in order to escape this destiny. Yet another task that this organization takes on, getting proper legal documentation for each girl, so that she can get a proper education and be successful in life.

The girls live, play and learn at Baan Yuu Suk, go to quality schools in the area, and are growing up in a safe, loving environment where they can have opportunities that may not have existed for them if they hadn’t come to COSA.

Volunteering has been a major part of my late teens/adult life. I have been exposed to many different organizations, and have even co-founded a non-profit organization myself. It’s not easy running an organization, nor is everyone really in it for the good of others. In COSA’s case, however, I must say that I have been extremely impressed with the vision, operation and hearts of those involved. If you’re looking for a place to plant some seeds, financial, time, talents, or even literal seeds- they do organic farming too, I would highly recommend this organization! I have spent 4 weeks (so far) here and plan to spend my next vacation volunteering again. You can check out my other entries about my volunteering experience here, but I wanted to dedicate this entry to getting the word out about COSA. Many of my friends have tons of gifts to give and are looking for a place to give them. Might I humbly recommend this place as a place to start!?

For more information, or ways you can become involved/contribute, please check out their website: www.cosasia.org. Together, we CAN make a difference in the fight against modern day slavery!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Home is where the “familiar” is

It has been said that “Home is where the heart is” and I would have to partially agree with that. However, I have recently decided that the feeling of familiarity is also a vital factor. I have lived abroad 6 1/2 years of my life. I feel connected to the countries in which I have resided, and to some that I have only visited. So what exactly makes one feel “at home?” Is it time spent there, connections made, property purchased, or familial ties? Of course, it can be any combination of these things, or then again, none of them at all.

One thing I recognized as a common bond of the places I have referred to as “home” is a sense of familiarity. When I know how to find the things I want to find, get where I want to go, and have some sort of connection to the people and place itself, I tend to call that place home.

I have now lived in three cities in Korea: Ulsan, Seoul and now Gyeongsan/Daegu. Ulsan is what I would consider my Korean hometown. It’s the place I started my Korean life at, the place I know very well, and the place I have several close friends in. It has an extremely special place in my heart, in spite of the mere 12 months living there. Seoul, although I was never “in love” with the city, definitely grew on me and I learned to be very fond of the capital city, for many of the same reasons I mentioned regarding Ulsan. Lastly, I have been in Gyeongsan (just outside of Daegu) for just over 4 months now. I am adjusting to it and find that any discontent, or longing for another city rather,  stems from not yet having a true sense of familiarity.

Last week, I traveled to Seoul and as I saw familiar landmarks from the bus window, I became energized with excitement. It was at that moment that I realized this familiarity was so important to me.

So, if you find yourself in a place that you’d rather not be living, try to get out and familiarize yourself with the local markets, stores, people and activities. You just might find that you’ll be wanting to call that place “home.” Many blessing to you as you find your path that leads you to your home.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Today’s Encouragement Came from AAA Batteries

I bought a new (to me) car a few months ago, a 2010 Chevy Spark. It’s a unique car, fit for my personality, customized in many ways. 2013-08-04 15.33.21 The interior feels like a sexy love motel, in the non sleaziest way possible. lol 2013-08-04 15.33.49 My car has a push-button start. You must have an electronic key in close proximity in order to lock / unlock and start/turn off the car. As a back up, it also has a code you can “knock” on the windshield and unlock the doors. Nice!

Well, today the battery in the electronic key apparently died. I was able to use the knock system once to get me to/from my morning classes, but this afternoon, the car decided the knock system wasn’t gonna work and triggered the alarm. The car alarm is blaring  neeenuuu neeee nuuuuu neeeenuuuuu. I had to get to class so I decided to walk across campus to get to class as that walk is long and time was short.

I make it to class and when it’s complete, walk back to my car. On my way there, I am making phone calls and trying to figure out how I will get my car to the Chevy shop (about a 35-minute drive away). I sit in my car and try to see if my electronic key does, in fact, have a battery somewhere—- Found it!  AAA

Ok, where can I find AAA batteries, within walking distance? I try (on a hunch alone) the office’s restaurant. (Yea, it’s a long shot, but whatever, can’t hurt to try, right?)

Me: Do you have batteries?
Older lady/ clerk: What? Batteries? No, we don’t sell batteries.
Me: hmmmm. ok. *Looking around* Do you know where I can find some?
Clerk: Wait, what’s this? [next to the register, there “happens to be” one pack of AAA batteries] *She has a confused look on her face.*
Me: *smiling, knowing that my needs have been answered* Uh, how much?
Clerk: I don’t know, we don’t sell batteries. How much?
Me: *shrugs*
Clerk: 1,200 won? (about $1)
Me: ok. *handing her the money*

Guess what? It worked, of course!!!

Grateful that what I need is always available to me. I simply have to remain calm, listen to my inner voice and step out in obedient faith, no matter how illogical it seems. It’s something I know in the depths of my being to be true, but I don’t always obey. Who would of thought AAA batteries would encourage me today. Thanks, God! Thanks, universe! Thanks, intuition!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I Became a BIRD!

Ever wonder what a bird feels as it’s soaring through the air? Not a care in the world,  it just enjoying the wind in its wings. I did, well, still do actually. I do believe I came close to finding out though when I took my first plunge out of a helicopter from 10,000feet in the air. That’s right. I went skydiving! IMG_0025

I’ve been wanting to go for quite some time. In fact, my home state, Kansas, has perfect conditions for skydiving: vast open fields, flat lands, little to no wind– oh wait, not that so much. Anyway, I had thought about it when I lived in Kansas but to be honest it was a very fleeting thought as my fears and nay sayers dissuaded me to let it go beyond that- a fleeting thought.

While living in Korea, I have had the privilege of meeting hundreds of very elite, interesting people whose jobs would blow your mind. Obviously that’s not the focus of this particular blog, but a dozen or so of those people happen to be Skydiving Instructors.  2013-09-18 13.02.16I have been trying to get a couple of them, whom I am close with, to take me skydiving for a few of years now, but as circumstances would have it, it just wasn’t possible—- until I randomly saw a friend’s skydiving photo on his social media app and made the comment, “I wanna jump tandem so badly!” (It was a photo he took of someone tandem skydiving.) He informed me that he would be going that very weekend, if I wanted to join! I called him immediately, and basically we sorted it out for a couple weeks later.

The price is a little expensive, compared to other countries, but since I COMPLETELY trust this guy, live here (not in those other, cheaper skydiving locations), and it was imminently possible, I decided to commit my 500,000won (about $475 US) to the adventure.

Me being me, I was concerned about the details of what I was supposed to “do”/ learn. I shouldn’t have been. JongIl, my friend coordinating my skydiving adventure, set my mind at ease early on. He told me that I didn’t need to learn anything. I would have about 10-20 minutes of instruction the day of and that all I needed to do was enjoy the ride.

The day of, I wore comfortable clothing and closed shoes (tennis shoes, in my case). One of my good friends heard that I was skydiving that day (from JongIl) and came up to Seoul with his daughter to surprise and support me. I have the best people in my life! 2013-08-24 11.57.52 I waited my turn, got my instructions — which are super simple– and up we went.  I wasn’t scared at any point. This surprised me because I thought there would be certain points, at the doorway of the helicopter, At the doorwaythe free fall, the spinning, etc that I would be afraid, but I wasn’t! Putting the experience into words is extremely difficult. The best way I can describe the sequence is:

Woooaaahhh—– WOW, so cool— PEEEAAAACCCEEEE.

Falling out of the helicopter was amazing- a total adrenaline rush that I didn’t want to miss even a millisecond of– I consciously reminded myself to try not to blink. We flipped a couple times on the free fall and watching the ground- sky- landscape was fantastic! Then began the free fall. I remember watching my friend “swim” in the sky to position himself for proper photography- I was impressed to say the least at his skills. Me-free fallin I remember trying to smile, keep my eyes open, stay in proper position and enjoy the moment. And in the moment I was. I have heard that living in the moment is its own euphoric feeling. I try to live my life enjoying my present while planning for the future and being grateful for the past. This moment– those couple of minutes of my life in the air- has truly opened my world up. It was a peace beyond description! I have experienced peace. Peace in the presence of God. Peace in meditative states. Peace in my daily life—- but THIS PEACE– it is so far beyond words, I feel at a loss to find an ample word for it. IMG_0046

Needless to say, I am hooked! I MUST do it again. I am not sure if I’ll actually take the time and spend the funds to learn how to skydive alone, although I am told that doing it on your own is 200 times better, but I will definitely “become a bird” again in the near future. In fact, if this is truly how a bird feels when flying, I don’t know why it ever lands!

If you wanna become a bird too, I HIGHLY recommend Seoul Skydiving School. The school’s number is (+82) 02-404-4194.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A blog about NOT blogging

So, for the past (almost) year, my life has been super busy. I could list my excuses why I haven’t properly blogged, but the reality is- YOU MAKE TIME FOR WHAT’s IMPORTANT to YOU… I will try and do better.

I have found that I truly miss blogging and making videos. It is a stress reliever and gives me a sense of accomplishment. I have so many ideas swimming in my head, waiting to get out. Anyway, this blog is short, because, as I mentioned, I am busy! hahaha

Thanks for reading and recommending my blog! I have a blog about my March trip to Boracay (Philippines) coming up someday…. PROMISE~

Much love and light….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment