Category Archives: Travel

Vignettes: Country and city

Photo cred for the eagle hunter visit goes to Michelle Kim; for the Sirgali Lake photos, Tess and Reece Stohr.


“Hi, Baha? I’m Jake’s friend, Michelle. I’m in Bayan-Ulgii with my friend. We want to visit your soum this afternoon.”


“Yes – Jake gave me your number.”


“Great. Do you know a driver who can take us there?”


“I was very surprised by your call,” says Baha as we pile out of the Land Rover into her хашаа; the fenced-in yard contains two houses. She leads us into the street-side house and sits us down at her table, four of us on a long bench: myself; Michelle, a visiting PCV; Michelle’s friend; and my aimag-mate Tess.

Surprised or no, Baha has laid the table with all the delicacies of a formal visit to a Kazakh house: candy, cookies, bread, with a cold noodle salad holding pride of place in the middle. Baha passes us cups of milk tea — Kazakhstan tea steeped in milk, stronger and less salty than its Mongolian equivalent — and plates to serve ourselves from the salad platter.

Baha, my sitemate’s friend and sometime counterpart, teaches English at a soum school near the aimag center. Like many English teachers in our aimag, she does stints as a tour guide, mostly local to her soum. An afternoon chatting in English with some friends of a friend, three of them Peace Corps volunteers and one familiar with Kazakh culture, is an opportunity and not an imposition. We joke in Kazakh with the driver, and Baha offers us fresh cheese and cups of homemade sour yogurt.

Unmprompted, after an hour or so, she asks, “Do you want to meet an eagle hunter?”


The eagle hunter lives about five minutes outside the soum center; his family has not yet moved out into the countryside for the summer herding season. We are greeted by a half-dozen children mostly under the age of thirteen, and a barking guard-puppy-in-training. Baha asks one of the boys where the adults are, and the eldest girl leads us into the ger.

There is a black and white cat sleeping on the bright fabric of one bed — a cat, on the furniture, clean and well-fed and opening one eye to study my offered hand with the insousiance of one who knows her own worth. We sit and take the offered yogurt and bread, and the cat jumps down to accept my affection.

“Most of my students hate cats.”

“People keep them in the countryside to keep away mice.” Michelle’s been in Mongolia a year longer than I have.

01_tess with a baby goat

The younger children have lined up on the other side of the ger and are staring at us. I grin back. “Атыңдер кім?” They push each other, whispering; then give their names, one by one.

“Мысықның аты бар ма?”

“Ие,” says the only girl, and tells me the cat’s name, which I don’t remember half a second after repeating it. A few minutes later the girl vanishes out the door, to sneak back in with a week-old goat that she hides under the bed. Caught out, she presents the goat to us amid much cooing and petting.

02_the wrong way to hold an eagle

The wrong way to hold an eagle.

The eldest boy – the eagle hunter’s grandson, who is himself learning to handle eagles – takes us to where the eagle is tied beside a rock. He lifts the eagle up by the jesses, and amidst a great deal of flapping and flopping gets it onto the glove. Tess attempts the same method, gets a talon in the arm for her pains, and then succeeds much better by coaxing the bird to climb onto her arm from its rock.

03_the right way to hold an eagle

The right way to hold an eagle.

As I take my turn with the bird, the hunter himself arrives – a solemn elderly man in a clean dark suit and galoshes. He puts the bird on my arm by pinning its wings.

04_me holding an eagle


“Do you want to spend the night?” Baha asks, back at her house as we are wrapping up the visit. I will never cease to be impressed by the generosity of the people who open their homes to me here.


Ulaanbaatar is a shock after five months at site: noisy, big, crowded with cars and people. Everywhere crosswalks and restaurants and tourists and so much Mongolian. Within an hour I am dying to catch just a few words of Kazakh from some nameless passerby.

I propose a new drinking game to my sitemates: every time one of us slips up and speaks Kazakh at the next Ulaanbaatar conference, somebody takes a shot. This game is destined to remain an amusing fantasy due to risk of alcohol poisoning.


Walking down the Peace Avenue thoroughfare just after sunset. A boy stands away from his friend on a doorstep, locks eyes with me, walks as if he’s going to slam into me if I don’t back up or step aside. The swagger and the low-pulled baseball cap say be intimidated, but he’s a half-head shorter than me and so stick-skinny he invokes the incongruous urge to laugh.

“Oi,” I say sharply, arm across the open top of my purse.

“Oi,” he echoes.



“Юу хийж байна,” I demand, finally grasping some bit of grammatically confused Mongolian.

“Юу хийж байна,” he mocks with a laugh, then swerves aside at the last second to give me a friendly clap on the shoulder. As if, recognizing him for a pickpocket’s accomplice and not giving way, I’ve earned temporary membership into his private club.


A driver — another friend of a friend — gives me a lift to the airport around midnight. I’m half an hour late for the international flight from Seoul. Still, there aren’t many tourists hanging around the crowded arrivals terminal, so I wait at the gate until a tap on the shoulder makes me jump and grab for my purse.

My brother grins at me, and my father behind his shoulder.


05_purgon cram

I admit that six hours over unpaved roads is a bit of a stretch for a three-day trip, given one purgon, three PCVs, and six visiting family members. But there’s not a whole lot to do in town during the summer, and the next nearest tourist site is a mountain – neither my family nor Tess’s was up for mountain climbing.


Six hours and two pickups from my town, maybe an hour after a rainstorm that necessitated the migration of our camping gear from roof rack to our crowded laps, the purgon parks at a permanent complex just outside Sirgali. Our guide — a teacher from my school who runs his own tour business — collects our passports amid much shifting of luggage to verify our national park passes with the guard.

06_purgon cram plus luggage

“Should we get out?” someone asks, craning to see what Sabit is doing. My seat faces backwards and I’m still half-asleep from the drive.

“I don’t know, it might only be a few minutes…”

“Look,” someone else says after a few minutes, an indignant chuckle bubbling under his voice. “They’re laying down. We should get out.”

We tumble out from under our bags into a cool lakeside afternoon. Sabit and our driver are indeed lounging on the grass. My family and Tess’s stand around, uneasy with puzzlement and inaction; Tess, Alex and I flop back to do some lounging of our own. Waiting in summer sunlight for a bit of bureaucratic processing is positively relaxing, compared to sitting in the teacher’s lounge for a meeting of unspecified purpose that gets canceled forty minutes after it was supposed to start. After twenty minutes or so, the official returns with our passes.


The Sirgali Lakes, called the “earring lakes” in Kazakh for their double teardrop shape, sit nestled in a valley deep in the Altai Mountains, near the Mongolia-China border. The leeward, eastern side of the valley rises in rolling hills, yellow-green-grass-bare-rock-stark like everywhere in the Altais I’ve been so far; but the windward side, the far side, displaces me to Europe. Deep green grass and groves of pine trees skirt chocolate-colored, snow-capped peaks.


We camp for one night on that far side. Next morning I go on a walk with the other PCVs and my brother. Alex takes us to the top of a rise, where we can see the forested foothills fall before us, then climb to where the tree line starves them of earth.

“It smells like pine,” I say gleefully, breathing in.

“I didn’t notice,” my brother remarks.


We spend that first night with a friend of Sabit’s. Three gers are set up in a level dip near the lower edge of the forest; a pen, open and empty for the late afternoon, and a shed half-hidden in the trees suggest that this is the family’s usual summer home.

We are greeted by Sabit’s friend, his extended family (brother, wife, sister-in-law, mother, the usual gaggle of children), and a dog kept close to the campsite by a weight around its neck. Another dog, less friendly, is tied to a stick at the edge of the clearing. At the grandmother’s direction, we troop into one of the gers for milk tea.

Kazakh gers are higher-roofed than Mongolian gers, and huge; too large to be heated in the wintertime. Every inch of the walls is hung with traditional Kazakh embroidery, and the beds that circle the edge of the ger are made up with rich fabrics and curtained into small private cells. We cluster around a table on the far side of the ger, across from the door and behind the central stove.

The countryside guest-table is different from the town’s, a cluster of food made by the host’s own hands instead of a myriad of bought products. We drink tea with cream and butter, eat baursak and three kinds of cheese.

I am sitting at the far end of the group, beside Tess and her mother and far from my own family. Tess’s mother says nervously that she doesn’t want to drink the tea, would that be rude? Tess coaches her to touch the tea to her lips, then put it down, hand over the bowl, to say she’s done. I watch my family for some reaction to this become-familiar custom, but their faces are blank with the polite American’s wish not to offend the unknown.

My father tries dried curd and nearly cracks a tooth, and then we leave to make camp.


Thump. Thump. Thump sliiiiide thump.

I start awake and stare blearily at the wall of the tent, now smeared with mud. “Who did that?”

“I think it was a goat,” Tess says, amid the blaas and sneezes of a herd released from its pen. She adds, “I hit back.”


I’m returning from my morning necessary trip when I spot the friendly dog, the one with the weight around its neck. I stop and click my tongue at it, and the апа — the grandmother and matriarch of this family — spots me standing at the top of the hill. She motions for me to follow her.

I look at the dog. She follows my gaze. “Жақсы ма?” I ask uncertainly, very much wanting a dose of animal affection.

“Жүр,” she says serenely. Come.

I click my tongue at the dog. It half-rises, and the апа drops it with a sharp word.

I follow the апа into her ger.

Alex is already inside, drinking a bowl of milk tea; one of the younger women serves me a bowl as well. I settle in beside him and sip slowly, enjoying the early-morning peace. One of the little babies is still asleep behind parted curtains.

The апа tells us to eat some cheese and baursak. We obey. The апа tells Alex to translate for me, and we assure her that I understand, though I suspect Alex has a better grasp of gum-muffled апа Kazakh than I do. Satisfied, the апа says a few more things, which I recognize as imperative statements and nod knowingly in response to.

I wonder, sometimes, when this ritual became comforting instead of foreign.



The other side of the lake is less lush, but warmer. We lounge with our feet in the water, eating hardboiled eggs; in the evening I hike up a nearby mountain with Alex and my brother. Tumbles of igneous boulders dot the sparse grass, and pine scrub nestles in windward dips. I feel as if I am walking on an alien planet that has just begun to recover from a rain of meteors.


“What’s the plan for today?” my father asks as we disembark from the plane in the capital.

I blink at him, take a breath for patience. I had forgotten how reasonable, how common this question is in a country that takes reliable scheduling for granted. “Haven’t got that far yet. First we check into the hostel.”

“I just don’t want to end up sitting around in the hostel.”

“What’s wrong with sitting around in the hostel?”

My brother, sensing danger, intervenes. “Who cares as long as we’re sitting around with Renee, right?”

I realize that my statement has failed to convey what I want it to, anyway: Doing nothing is relaxing, sometimes. Maybe we’ll be tired later and want to relax. Why should we force ourselves to go-go-go just because we made a schedule that says we should?

Striving for a middle ground, I say, “First we’ll check into the hostel, and I have to deliver this package to Tuul’s son. Then we’ll pick somewhere to eat lunch. After that we can decide what we’ll do for the afternoon. Okay?”

We run out of sightseeing halfway through the last day, and when my father asks, “What now?” at four o’clock I seriously reconsider the advisability of a schedule. Then at least I’d have numbers to point to and show how none of the sights took half as long as I’d intended.


My father leaves at ten-thirty. I go out for one last meal at Burger King, only to find it closed. So are almost all the restaurants on Peace Ave. Ulaanbaatar is a small city in the international scheme of things.


The flight back to my aimag is full, but there are only two or three Mongolians on it: the tourist season has begun in earnest. Everyone is speaking English. I put in headphones and curl up irritably against the window.

There are two others on the flight from my aimag’s small foreigner community, people I haven’t seen since summer dispersed us several weeks ago. Catching up with them, I feel myself slipping back into my skin.

IST Recap

Happy 2016, everyone!

I’m glad December’s over. It was a weird and kind of rocky month, and I’m ready to start fresh.

I spent the bulk of last month in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, for a series of Peace Corps trainings. Because I’m a fly site (Peace Corps buys me plane tickets for official events), because the Bayan-Ulgii flight schedule is a tad bit haphazard, and because my meetings were pretty scattered, I had training for seven days but stayed in the capital for two and a half weeks.

At the beginning of the month I had subwarden training. Every aimag has two safety officers — a subwarden and an alternate — chosen from among its PCVs. In the event of an emergency, the subwarden is responsible for communication between Peace Corps staff in the capital and other PCVs in the aimag; making sure aimag-mates are safe; keeping track of emergency supplies; and generally making sure no one loses their head and runs into a fire. If the subwarden is out of town, the alternate is supposed to take charge.

That training was only a day long, but gave me a whole week to hang out. It was pretty cool, because I got to see people I wouldn’t otherwise have met for months, if ever: Community Youth Development and Health volunteers, who had IST the week before; our M25 TEFL IST trainers; and M25s who’d come in for VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meetings, which happened that week as well. Toward the end of the week TEFL M26s began to filter in — the last two nights before IST, most of my PST sitemates stayed at the same guesthouse as me.

The following week was IST — In-Service Training. Five days of sessions about how to work well at site, specifically tailored to TEFL volunteers. IST is interesting, because everyone brings a Mongolian (or, in my case, Kazakh) counterpart, and the sessions are designed so that you work both with your own counterpart and with other people’s. I found the Experience Sharing session really useful, because it demonstrated for me that (while my school is atypical in a few ways) some of my difficulties at work are shared by many PCVs. We also had a cross-culture session that my counterpart says she found enlightening, but it didn’t benefit me as much. There are some rather pointed differences between Kazakh and Mongolian culture (holidays and drinking culture being major ones), and because of the way our groups were divided, there were no Kazakh CPs in my session.

I walked away from the seminar with some new ideas, but it was also absolutely exhausting. When you put into one hotel 40 Americans who know each other embarrassingly well and have interacted with only a few native English speakers in the last three months…well, I’ll let you imagine the kind of shenanigans that go down. I think we were pretty evenly split between people who threw parties nightly and people who hid in their rooms because the population of the hotel was overwhelming. (I was among the latter, but I did spent a LOT of time making sure I got to see my close friends.)

I’d been having problems with the pollution at site — I’d start to cough whenever I spent more than a few minutes outside without a mask. I had intended to talk to the doctor about it anyway, but the week before IST I stayed in a guesthouse that kept ALL of its windows open. (Central heating in Mongolia is controlled by the government, and some buildings are randomly set to ‘sweltering’.) I’d developed a pretty deep cough, so on Tuesday I booked a few minutes with one of our doctors.

“I cough whenever I go outside,” I said.

“Okay. You should take Vitamin C for your weak immune system.”

Confused, I said, “It’s not a cold. I’m not sick. It’s the pollution.”

“Ah. Then you should exercise to make your lungs stronger.”

It’s a half hour walk from my home to my school, and I spend about an hour a night practicing karate. It was a bit of a sore point that morning, actually, because the night before I’d tried to work out with some other PCVs and started wheezing within fifteen minutes. Biting my tongue on a sharp retort, I said civilly, “I do exercise. Should I exercise when I’m coughing?”

“No. Maybe you are allergic to coal dust. I will also give you Benadryl so you can sleep at night.”

“I don’t have problems sleeping at night,” I said, and gave up, frustrated. In any case, I’d figured out some healthy practices on my own: wear a mask when you go outside and keep the windows closed.

By Wednesday night, however, it got to the point where I couldn’t take a deep breath without coughing. I couldn’t focus in sessions because my chest hurt. I staked out the hotel’s temporary medical office Thursday morning and pounced on the other doctor as soon as he got in. Upon realizing that he couldn’t actually listen to my lungs because I wasn’t capable of taking a deep breath, he brought me into the Peace Corps office proper for a breathing treatment. Afterwards he informed me that my lungs had been spasming and that I was probably developing pre-asthma triggered by the pollution. I received an inhaler, cough syrup, and several extra face masks, and returned to IST much happier and more functional.

The Monday after IST I was invited to the TEFL Project Advisory Committee meeting. The PAC is assembled annually (?) to review how Peace Corps is doing in Mongolia and how the program can improve. I attended with three other M26s, three M25s, two counterparts, the president of the English Language Teacher’s Association of Mongolia, and the Peace Corps staff associated with the TEFL program. In a way I feel like this was the most valuable part of my time in UB — I got to share my experiences as a TEFL volunteer and make suggestions for how the program might be bettered for incoming PCVs. I was also put on committees to compile resource handbooks for PCVs and to help the national education department revise their new textbooks (!!!!!).

All in all, it was a productive, emotional, and ultimately exhausting month, and while it was pretty interesting, I’m glad it’s over. Here’s to everything 2016 will bring.

Xutul meets Zombies

Edit 2016-02-03: Ian has put up his cameras post (“Khutul on Film”) on his blog. Check it out!

Happy holidays, everyone!

December has been a bit crazy with Peace Corps-required trainings and the start of the Mongolian holiday season (Шинэ Жил [Shin Jil], or New Year’s, is at the end of the month). I’ll have posts on both over the course of the next month or so, but right now I need to process and catch up with work.

The nice thing about this madness? I’ve had the opportunity to meet and reconnect with my PST sitemates. The following post was inspired by a discussion with fellow bloggers Ian and Jenni, and should eventually have a companion post (What Cameras Are We?) on Ian’s blog.

So, without further ado:

The city you were visiting became the site of a zombie apocalypse while you were peacefully asleep in a hotel. You wake to find that a zombie has climbed through the window of your very small fourth-story room. The door is locked and the zombie could tackle you before you have time to unlock it. What would you do?[1] Room contents: bed, small table, wooden chair, bookshelf full of paperbacks and heavy ornaments.

Logan: Would beat the zombie to a pulp, no problem, and then spend the rest of the week painfully contemplating the ethical dilemma of (re?)-murdering the undead while on the run from a zombie horde bent on revenge.

Alex: Would have a wacky misadventure that resulted in her dangling halfway between her window and street level, safe from the zombies but not entirely certain how to return to solid ground before nightfall.

Ashleigh: Would be prepared for this eventuality on account of her extensive SFF reading. Having seen signs of the impending apocalypse, she would bring her Anti-Zombie Kit (TM) with her on vacation, with which she would hastily dispatch the zombie.

Elisha: Would loudly exclaim, “WHAT?!?” and demand all of the details of the zombification process, edging toward the doorway as the puzzled zombie paused in front of the window. She would discreetly unlock the door, slip out, and slam it shut on the lunging zombie’s face.

Ian: Would discover that zombies, like Ians, are photo-phobic. The zombie would tumble back out the window in its effort to escape Ian’s lens.

Olivia: Would scream and smash the zombie with the chair, stunning it long enough for her to implement a clever plan involving items on the bookshelf.

Bryan: Would probably get turned into a zombie, but it’d make a good story to tell his fellow sufferers.

Amanda: Would shout at the zombie to get the hell out of her room, how did you even get in here? before waking fully to the realization that it was undead. By then, however, the zombie would already be climbing back out the window in search of a more easily frightened target.

Jenni: Would make a quick call for help. Ian, at the top of her recent call list, would advise her to attempt a picture with her phone camera, and in this way she would frighten the zombie into submission.

Paul: Would affect complete ignorance of the zombie’s change of life and shoot the breeze as if it were perfectly normal to have a shambling corpse trail innards into your room on a Sunday morning. The zombie, confused, would decide he was one of theirs and stumble off to find someone else, pounding on the door and moaning until Paul considerately unlocked it.

Eric: Would loudly proclaim his love for his wife before smashing the zombie with a heavy orb from the bookshelf. The zombie would drop. A slightly puzzled pause would ensue — Eric having of course expected to be slaughtered by the angered undead — and then he and Emily would tiptoe out of the room, settle their bill with the zombified desk clerk, and return to their home city, which would remain unaffected by the scourge.

Nik: Would manage to make the zombie laugh, confounding scientific conclusions on humor as a trait destroyed by the zombification process. He would go on to be elected mayor of the new zombie city, appoint Bryan as Official Liaison Between Undead and Not-Yet-Dead, and issue official pardons to Logan, Olivia, and all other murderers undead or alive, in light of the immense panic caused by the change in state of three-quarters of the city’s population. His twenty-year reign would render him the most popular, if not necessarily the most effective, mayor in the city’s entire history.

Matt: Would calmly and quietly walk from his bed to his table, pick up his key, unlock his door, and leave the hotel.

Xutul and Xutul-friends: What are your thoughts? How close am I to the mark? What do you think I would do?

[1] These are Renee’s guesses. No interviews were performed for the writing of this post.

On Russian jeeps and the Kazakh question particle

Last weekend, at the end of our term break, another PCV and I went to visit a friend in a soum about two hours from the aimag center.

Public transportation is interesting in Mongolia. Although the vast majority of the roads are not paved, there are a bunch of ways to get around.

For long distance:
Planes fly from Ulaanbaatar to some aimag centers. It only takes three hours to fly from Ulaanbaatar to Ulgii center, but it costs about 200,000 tugriks one way — a round trip is more than my monthly stipend. PCVs generally only take plane trips when someone else is paying.
Bus routes run through major population centers and theoretically operate on a regular schedule (though breakdowns are regrettably frequent). Visitors to Bayan-Ulgii take the bus from Ulaanbaatar along the paved road west, which hits most of the southern aimag centers. This is the cheapest way to travel long distances, although for us it would be a two- to three-day trip.

For travel within the aimag, or to nearby aimags, you go to the square where drivers congregate, pick a vehicle you like the look of, and chat with the driver to book a seat. Drivers often have a routine destination and departure time, for which they charge a fixed price, but if you have a big group and are friends with a driver, you can sometimes hire them for special trips.
Mikrs are the most common transport, in most parts of the country, for daylong or weekend trips. The word mikr comes from the Mongolian cognate for microbus. These are vans (usually silver) which seat around 8 people.
– In the west, the roads through the mountains are a little rough, especially in winter. So we have purgons, which are like mikrs except Russian, uncomfortable, and virtually indestructible. Private drivers often own Land Cruisers, and some public drivers use the indestructible equivalent, the Russian jeep.
Taxis are usually used to get around within an aimag center or a city. You can drop by a taxi stand or hail one on the street and pay a couple hundred to a thousand tugriks. People don’t usually take taxis long distances, although it’s theoretically possible.

In my aimag, drivers come to the aimag center around midmorning and leave in the late afternoon. Jake and I agreed to meet at the drivers’ plaza in the market at noon to claim our seats.

When I arrived at the market, Jake was already waiting next to a powder-blue Russian jeep. “I like these,” he said, and since I had no preference I agreed. Jake got the driver’s attention and asked, in Kazakh, when he was leaving. The driver held up — I thought — four fingers.

“Үш,” Jake said. Three.

The driver put down his hand and nodded enthusiastically. Jake checked that the driver charged the usual price, shook hands, and prepared to go.

“Үш ме?” I asked, just to be sure.

The driver nodded again and held up three fingers.

We returned to the plaza at three and, predictably, sat around in the jeep for forty-five minutes. Finally a third passenger embarked and we drove off…only to pull over a one-minute drive down the road, so the driver and the other passenger could spend twenty minutes trying to call people. Finally the other passenger got out, and we left again…only to stop at the supermarket, where he loaded some packages into the trunk of his jeep.

Then he crossed the road, hopped in a taxi, and left us.

Meanwhile, the third passenger returned. He asked Jake[1] where the driver had gone.

“Білмеймін,” Jake said. I don’t know. At the other passenger’s puzzled look he added, “Такси.”

Eventually the driver returned. He pulled a jacket out of the engine of his jeep, which he used to blanket a big chunk of scrap metal that he tied to the back of the vehicle. Then a woman got into the jeep and we were off…to drop the woman off at her home.

Jake asked the other passenger when we were leaving, and the other passenger laughed and said we were sleeping in the aimag center tonight.

We drove to the edge of the city and stopped in front of a хашаа. The driver got out, and Jake asked the other passenger, again, when we were leaving. The passenger looked at his watch and said, “Бір сағат” — in an hour. Then he said, “Сегіз, тоғыз” — eight, nine — and gestured to the seats.

Jake asked, “Төрт, төрт?” and indicated that there would be four people in the front, four in the back.

The man laughed and gestured that there would be people sitting on our laps. “Кем жоқ па?” No big deal?

“Кем жоқ,” Jake affirmed.

We collected a few people from the хашаа, and then the driver stopped at a gas station. He got out, talked to the station operator, then returned to the door and stared at me.

I stared back.

Jake passed over money for both of us.

I had a brief moment of hope that, finally — around 6:00 — we were leaving. But then the driver pulled into another хашаа and loaded up two more people. I was wedged between Jake and the corner of the jeep. And then, at the next хашаа, three more people lined up outside the door.

The driver opened the door and stared at me.

I asked, “Німіне?” even though I knew what was coming.

Jake edged me out of my seat, and, resigned, I sat in his lap.

Finally, at 6:30, well after sunset, we began our trip down an unlit dirt road.

Within fifteen minutes, one of my legs had gone numb. Despite the height of the jeep’s ceiling, I had to bend my head to keep from bumping it, and eventually just rested my chin on the driver’s seat.

“Кем жоқ па?” the third passenger asked Jake after about half an hour of this.

“Кем жоқ,” Jake repeated.

The passenger — who also had somebody on his lap — laughed a little and said, “Маған кем жоқ емес.” It’s not nothing to me.

“Менде,” I muttered. Me neither.

“Сенде кем жоқ емес па?”


The whole jeep started laughing, and everyone brought out their favorite adjective. “Жаксы емес па? Жаман ба? Өте жаксы ма? Тамаша ма?”

“Жоқ! Тамаша емес!” No, it’s not excellent!

Shortly after this, the driver stopped in the middle of the steppe so that we could all stretch our limbs. When we got back in, I arranged myself so that I was fighting to stop my knees from bruising against the door latch instead of fruitlessly attempting to maintain feeling in my legs.

Now, there is a soum approximately halfway between the aimag center and our destination. We knew from our friend that it was not uncommon for people to be dropped off here. I figured that was why there were so many people in the jeep — surely the driver didn’t intend to torture us for two hours straight? — and was excited when we got into cell range and one of the passengers placed a phone call describing his location.

We approached the line of lights that marked the soum’s existence. We drove into the lights. We drove through the lights. We drove over a bridge, and though I strained my eyes, I could see no further lights in the distance.

As the soum receded behind us, I gave up hope of even a moment’s comfort on our journey.

We finally reached our destination around 8:30. Our friend met us at our dropoff point. She’d been worried, since we’d taken five and a half hours to make a two-hour trip and had been out of cell range for the majority of it.

“Oh,” she said when she saw our vehicle. “You took a Russian jeep. You never take the Russian jeep!”

Suffice to say that I had learned my lesson.

[1] Out of those of us working in the Kazakh region, Jake has the best grasp of the language. This is partly because he goes out of his way to make small talk in Kazakh. People mostly addressed him on the trip, rather than me, because he chatted with them and made it clear he understood what was going on.

Final preparations

So what have I been up to these last few months?

Six weeks ago, I quit my day job. I’ve been traveling quite a bit since: one last weekend trip with two of my best friends; a visit to my mom’s family and my sister’s college, ostensibly to see my sister play rugby (I am doomed never to see my sister play rugby); a weeklong trip around New York State and Pennsylvania to visit a fellow writer and my scattered college friends; finally, last week, a relaxing family vacation with my father and brother. (Ask them how well I relaxed.)

I’ve also been shopping. Lots of shopping: I needed a professional mini-wardrobe that wouldn’t get dingy or destroyed by harsh washing, good quality long underwear, luggage I could carry over rough roads, and so on. It cost a lot more than I planned to spend, but that’s because I decided to splurge on quality stuff and a few things I don’t necessarily need to buy.

Then I had to gather together everything I bought with everything I already owned and planned to bring.

Bizarrely, everything fits into one bag:

Mind, I haven’t weighed anything yet. And there are some fairly bulky items I haven’t packed (pillows, a scrapbook, my winter coat). I get two bags that fall within airline restrictions (50 lbs. each, with combined dimensions of 107 linear inches) and my carry-ons. One of my checked bags goes into storage for PST, and I live out of the other bag and my carry-ons throughout the summer. I’m planning to check that duffle and a hiking backpack, and to use my beloved and battered grade-school backpack and a laptop bag as carry-ons.

I have also been working on two projects that will be very important during my early days in Mongolia: a gift for my host family, and a scrapbook of people and places in the U.S.

The host family gift should theoretically be the easier of the two. But I’m very picky about gifts, and I’ve had trouble finding something I’m satisfied with. So far I’ve considered maple syrup (would make an awesome gift, but might cause trouble in customs); maple candies (I plan on bringing some, but I have to find a good-sized box for the whole family); a coffee table book about Buffalo (theoretically nice to show more about my hometown, but I had trouble finding one that had a variety of pictures and not a lot of text). I’m still wavering between the coffee table book and a Buffalo mug full of maple candies.

The scrapbook isn’t as difficult to figure out, but it’s been pretty time-consuming. I’m doing a page for each family member, several for close friends, a few for my house and dog and hometown, and one for each of the community groups that have been important to me (my sorority; my oboe studio in college; my karate dojo). I’ve labeled each one in English and in the best mangled proto-Mongolian I can accomplish. I don’t want to put the whole thing online — it’s a bit personal for that — but here’s a sample spread, the one with my house and dog:

As I write this, about a week in advance, I still have to finish the scrapbook and actually pack; by the time it’s published, I should theoretically be all set for my imminent departure. On Tuesday, May 26th, I travel to San Fransisco, where I will meet my cohort and and attend a two days of orientation.

Then we fly to Mongolia.

Backstory: Travel Bug

I met the couple from San Diego and their Welsh friends at a train station in Naples. I was on my way to Pompeii, not sure I’d found the right platform and confused by the lack of station maps. They were on a cruise and had taken the day to sightsee.

I knew families back home that went on cruises. I’d gone on one myself as a kid. I have vague memories of a February head cold, the book I was reading, jewel-green-blue ocean on all sides. Now I was into my last college semester, spending a week in Rome at a hostel near Termini. I wanted to see the ancient sites. I’d already done the Forum and the Coliseum, Ostia, the Appian Way: Pompeii was my last item before I took a plane back to Norwich and the University of East Anglia.

The cruise ship couples were also confused about the station. We muddled through and found the right tickets, the right platforms. They seemed concerned about my safety, a young woman all alone on a train in Italy. I thought about the women who’d shared a room with me in the hostel: groups, pairs, and, yes, several others alone, on gap year or backpacking through their monthlong vacation. I was paying twenty euros a night to share a six-person room. I’d set up my whole trip by Googling on a university computer.

On a cruise ship, I’d have a room to myself and everything would be taken care of for me. I realized I preferred to meet strangers in a cheap hostel and to spend my afternoons looking for the tastiest gelato in the neighborhood. I liked figuring out how to find exactly what I wanted to see. I wondered when that had changed.

Still in Rome: two nights before. Dinner at the restaurant around the corner, which the hostel had discounted. I had a book. Not long after I sat down, I heard someone nearby give her order in flat American English. I looked up and spotted a woman about my age, alone at her table, dishwater blonde and fair beneath her tan. We established, a bit awkwardly, that we were both American students abroad, both at this restaurant on the hostel’s recommendation. I joined her table. She was from Spokane and spending the semester in Florence. She’d never heard of my college town in northern New York. I told her about UEA in England, its seventies concrete-block architecture and the prestigious creative writing classes I hadn’t gotten into.

Talk turned, inevitably, to what we would do after this final glorious semester. She said she’d thought about applying to the Peace Corps. I’d never heard of it.

“Two years in another country,” she said, “you live like a local, and, you know, you build houses and stuff. I think they’ll take me, because I speak French, and there’s a lot of programs in French-speaking countries in Africa.”

I did not, just then, think to ask any of the usual questions: Do you get paid? Do you choose where you’ll go? Do you have internet, electricity, running water? It was just something she was thinking about — she hadn’t researched it much. A talking point, the same sort of interesting as the roommate who was a travel agent or the one who let strangers couch-surf in her London flat. Something you ended up with after the travel bug bit you.

Naples again, afternoon, hanging around for the train back to Rome. An idea had waited patiently in the back of my brain for two days. Now I was unoccupied, and it demanded my attention.

I could do that. That’s it. That’s what’s next.

I paced around the station for twenty minutes and then sat down to write in my travel journal.

I think I might join the Peace Corps.

I shouldn’t put this into writing — I don’t know enough about it; I might do a bit of research & consign the idea to oblivion.

I am often asked questions about beginnings — Where did you hear about this, when, why, how did you decide? The answer I give depends on how pragmatic I’m feeling. That first entry is full of a self-conscious idealism. I am not adventurous, I always thought, I am not in search of danger, and as for good deeds — well — this is not a feasible option for me so let’s leave the good deeds to people who are capable … And now I’m thinking, Damned if this lark in Rome isn’t an adventure. And, I need to get past this idea that anything is unfeasible just because it’s strange or daunting.

I don’t put it into those terms now. Adventure is a thoroughly impractical reason to dedicate oneself to two years of anything, and the ethics of government-sponsored foreign service projects aren’t as simple as they looked back then. But at the end of the day, this is the moment it began: at a train station in Naples with the aftermath of my undergraduate degree hurtling toward me and a stranger’s words alive in my brain. The sum total of a semester alone on a new continent. One of those moments when my narrative identity was laid out glass-clear and straight, and I was intensely aware of the constructed fragility of it all — that this story I tell myself, doing and being and becoming, is an illusion of coherence my brain imposes on a random and nonsensical world. No story I tell you can approach the complexity of truth.

But, well, it seems to be working out for me so far.