August 2, 2008
Here is the first installment of my Mongolia adventures. For those of you who don't know, I'm going to Mongolia for three weeks. I'm spending two weeks in the capital, Ulan Bator, and traveling around the country for a week. I plan to be cut off from the modern world but I will email every few days so that you know I'm still alive and kicking. If you don't hear from me for three weeks, consider me dead and send out a rescue team!
From the beginning: I took the train from San Diego to LAX. The train was delayed on the tracks for over an hour and all the passengers became increasingly mutinous. I started to panic in typical Sharon fashion but made a concerted effort to calm down and just roll with it. I befriended a girl named Briar who is studying Chinese acupuncture and we shared a few drinks in the cafe cart and commiserated with our fellow passengers. As soon as we arrived at Union Station, everyone started sprinting for taxis. It was complete madness. By the time I arrived at the airport, I had 40 minutes to get on my flight but made it just in the nick of time!
I flew from LAX to Beijing and from Beijing to Ulan Bator. While I stumbled through the Beijing airport, I knew I was beaming from ear to ear like an idiot. I don't know if it was the lack of sleep or my body going into caffeine withdrawal but I felt like uncontrollable joy was seeping out of every pore.
I don't remember much from either flight because I slept through most of it. My second flight was filled with loud Korean tourists and Danish do-gooders in sensible hiking shoes. As we descended upon Mongolia, I saw endless green mountains. There were no carefully marked city grids. From up above, it looked like roads were randomly snaking their way through the country, as if someone had spilled a bunch of yarn onto the ground.
The city is a huge, sprawling mass of buildings. The air quality is extremely poor and no one drives with any regard for traffic safety. In one taxi, the steering wheel was on the right; in the next one, the steering wheel was located on the left. Many buildings were torched by fire in the July 1 election revolts, so things are a bit more run-down than usual.
I'm living in a great apartment in the city with a girl my age. Her name is Nguk Ta or something close to it. We have our own rooms and a tiny kitchen. When Nguk Ta first met me, she said she was disappointed to see that I had an "Asian face." She thought that I'd be a true foreigner! Some of you will laugh when you find out that she tried to feed me a cheese sandwich. (FYI: I'm not the biggest fan of cheese.) A few hours later, she assembled a "real" lunch of boiled vegetables and rice. She wants to feed me sheep intestines and liver later. I told her I'd try it...
We watched MTV for awhile and then a movie called Baby Blues (?). Nguk Ta was surprisingly knowledgeable about American celebrity gossip. Nguk Ta speaks fluent English and we had an interesting discussion about Mongolian politics and Britney Spears. She told me that Mongolians are fascinated by black people and rappers. Although some of her peers live in the capital, most of them moved away after college to Korea, the United States, and Germany.
Many of the Mongolians here speak Mongol and Russian. Mongol sounds like the most bizarre mix of Russian and Korean. Russian and Korean culture have permeated their society. For instance, Nguk Ta works for a Russian construction company. She showed me pictures of their barbeque and the gathering looked like a meeting of the United Nations.
Two other people arrived today, a Belgian dude and a British gal. Our guide picked the three of us up at 2 pm and we roamed the city, stopping at various banks and shops. My favorite stop was the Gandantegchenling Monastery, which has a giant golden statue of Buddha. I've been to many Buddhist temples in my day but this one was so beautiful, it struck me dead in my tracks. Though I've never been religious, I spun the prayer wheels with bated breath and felt that the gesture brought me good luck.
Anyway, I'm about to leave to eat an "authentic" Mongolian dinner and get settled in. Tomorrow, I start work.
The question of the day was "why Mongolia?" The guides asked us this question, we asked each other this question, and I asked myself this question. No one seems satisfied when I joke that it's because I have a strong hankering for mongolian bbq.
Kristin (my younger, wiser sister) advised me not to put too much stock into this trip. Just go with it, she said. As usual, she's right. I'm not searching for a life-changing experience. I'm looking for something beautiful and good, even if it's something as small as making a genuine connection with a stranger on a train because we're both running late. I'm in Mongolia because I am a restless person and because I hope I can find something good for me. I want to embrace the world and to believe that it is still a beautiful place.
I like the idea of a nomadic lifestyle. I like the idea of me in my changing elements, moving forward and sideways across the globe, meeting people, milking yaks, forging chance encounters, and experiencing so many things that I want to know about, even if it seems mundane. A part of me yearns to run away from everything and cultivate a new life without self-imposed restraint, limitations, or obligation.
So thanks for all the well-wishes, quizzical looks, and votes of confidence. It's going to be an interesting adventure. See you soon.