24 hours in the Gobi

Aw guys, thanks for the sympathy.  My finger looks almost normal these days (which is amazing considering how unattached my fingertip was two weeks ago), so let’s move on to other things now that very little evidence remains of my weeklong self-mutilation spree.

Hey look, I went to the desert:

Down there you can see a bunch of teachers and staff from my school, listening to a tour guide talk about a 19th-century monk and his meditation caves and whatever.  I can’t be too sure what exactly it was about because right after I took this picture, I ran back to the microbus and spent the next 20 minutes massaging my frozen toes and shoveling cold trail mix into my maw.  The English teachers were huddling, penguin-like, in the van, too.  They were like “Katie, do you want to go down there and see the…things?” And I was like “Why, do you” and they were all “NO, WE’RE COLD.  Give us your peanuts.”

The trip was put on by the school, and it started the first day of fall break: a 12-hour train to UB, then a 12-hour train to Sainshand, then 24 hours in Sainshand exploring Khamariin Khiid, then a 12-hour train back to UB, and finally a 6-hour bus back to Erdenet.

I found out about the trip in the teachers’ room after eavesdropping on some conversations.  I immediately made somebody explain what they were talking about (“Gobi?  You’re going to the Gobi?  Why?  Am I going too?”) and then I spent a couple days harassing my supervisor about it: When was the trip?  How much would it cost?  When should I give her my money?  Did she ask the director yet if it was okay for me to go? When would we buy the train tickets?  This makes it sound like my teachers were excluding me from plans, and they were, but not deliberately.  It’s weird.  Last year, another volunteer and I discovered a shared phenomenon at our schools: There’s this thing when you’re in the teachers’ room with all the English teachers, and everybody is chatting and getting work done.  You feel all warm and cozy and integrated, sitting there with your pals, lesson planning and shooting the shit.  But then, suddenly, everybody gets up and leaves without saying anything to you.  You think “huh, whatever” and you keep doing whatever you’re doing.  After a while you get hungry, and you head to the cafeteria to find some food, and lo, there are all your teachers eating lunch without you. Because they hate you.

Just kidding!  It’s because you’re a foreigner and basically invisible, get over yourself.

I bring this up — the way I had to burrow my way, hookworm-like, into the trip — because my god, did you read the itinerary I typed out up there?  I mean, when I found out about this, the idea of staying home was unimaginable.  Going on a weekend jaunt to one of the holiest places in the country with your host country pals is, basically, the reason everybody joins the Peace Corps.  But the closer the trip got, the more the idea of going seemed unimaginable: Forty-two hours of travel.  Sixty-eight hours in a row with my coworkers.  Two sleepless nights on overheated trains packed with drunken teachers.  Jesus.

But it was too late, I’d spent a week lobbying for my inclusion and I was going, damn it (and I was also bringing my camera with me, under the directive of the training manager).

So I survived!  And I had fun.  Here are my notes from the bus:

  • Food: Strange vacillation between fasting and gorging.  We’ll go 12, 13, 14 hours without a meal (there is never a plan for breakfast, why doesn’t anybody ever have a plan for breakfast) and then boom: Bag of hushuur, bag of horse meat, candy, coffee, juice, aruul, vodka, wine, more hushuur, strawberry cordial (?)

  • I think, after two nights on the train, I understand what it’s like to be a parent hosting a child’s sleepover party.  The teachers and staff are the children, except with vodka and wine instead of Coke and cheetos; I am the parent, lying blearily in bed as they thunder and gallop around me, baffled by how little sleep they seem to need.  Except I’m not allowed to shush them, and also they have access to me in my bunk and can (and do) grab my feet at 3 am and yell “HI KATIE HI HI HI HAHAHAHA HA”

  • Not one fucking camel!  Can’t believe this shit.
  • This is what you do at Khamariin Khiid:  Get there at sunrise and greet the sun.  Walk three times around a couple of stones, flinging milk and rice.  Drive to a big bell and ring it three times.  Drive out to the old monastery and clear your mind.  Write a wish on a piece of paper and burn it.  Throw more rice, pour some water, lie down on some rocks and absorb their energy.  Hold a blue scarf while you sing a song.

  • The most interesting thing was the tour guide, who went from rock to bell to monastery with us, explaining to everybody the order of things:  What to say when the sun comes up, where to pour the water, how to clear your mind, which song to sing.  Is there anything like this in the Western world?  It was kind of like visiting a cathedral as a devout Catholic, but having a tour guide lead you through the Mass.

  • My first encounter with a mountain that’s off-limits to ladies!  Bummer.  I didn’t know about the lady-restriction beforehand, and had this exchange in English with my teacher at the last plateau we were allowed to stand on:

Okay, let’s go down now.

Okay!  Cool!  I’m just going to run up there and take a picture real quick!

You…will not.

  • Time for another episode of Katie’s Lame Mongolian Jokes: Enablers Edition!

Katie, this is my husband.

I know.  We met last year.

Oh really?  How?

Oh man Tuul’s setting her up so good but can she do it???

Uhhhh…It’s a secret!


(uncomfortable look)

Ryan, I’m sorry you had to find out this way.

Okay gotta pack up and go to UB now.  Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.



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47 responses to “24 hours in the Gobi

  1. Fascinating post with amazing pix, though I have to admit to a morbid curiosity about the self-mutilation spree.

    Must research back-posts…


  2. Wow, liked the pictures. Now I really want to go to the Gobi. That’s in Mongolia right?. Very high on my list of future destinations. What’s it like there in the Winter months?

  3. Nice post and great pics. And you have a great sense of humor. I don’t know if I’d be that adventurous, but that’s why God put people like you here on earth; to share your wonderful experiences with us regular folks.


  4. megemily

    You’re absolutely inspirational. Both my parents were in the Peace Corps, stationed in Swaziland, Africa. Its thanks to people like them and people like you that after I graduate from college, I plan to join, too 🙂

  5. Rae

    Looks like an amazing trip!

  6. A great story and amazing pictures! really enjoyed this blog.

  7. It’s amazing how there is a HUUUUGE bell in the middle of the desert.
    ……commmooooon kids its dinner time…..
    but seriously though, great pictures
    Be A DJ

  8. Love me some Mongolia and some Gobi, and I’ve never been to either one. I have been the foreigner in at least a dozen staff rooms in three countries, though, and yep, the way they all just leave you without explanation is kinda universal.

  9. andreahock

    Amazing photos! Thanks for sharing!

  10. great photos and what an awesome experience!

  11. Gobi is added to my mental list of places to see! (Although sand and winter gear are not clicking in my head) Was there any snow?

  12. great story and amazing pictures! thanks for sharing. i had no idea it was so beautiful!

  13. Love the photos! Very interesting post.

  14. Thanks for the blog. Not sure if you’ve read any of his work, but Owen Lattimore wrote extensively about the region as an intrepid traveller in the 1920’s. You should read, “The Desert Road to Turkistan”. This travelogue awarded him an honoury doctorate from Harvard – am amazing peice of work.

  15. Great writing, gorgeous photos, and lots of laughs! I am thoroughly jealous (and curious). Time to go stalk my way through your previous posts!

    – Meghan

  16. Became curious about that area after reading about Telihard de Chardin. Love the photos.

  17. this is hilariously awesome.

  18. Love a post with pics about places I most likely will never visit.

  19. Ah, the life of a Peace Corp. 😀

  20. nice one, wish i had to Goby to..:)

  21. Holy crap, traffic! Thanks, everybody. You’re too nice.

  22. Den N.Q.

    awesome photos and what an adventure 🙂

  23. “■The most interesting thing was the tour guide, who went from rock to bell to monastery with us, explaining to everybody the order of things: What to say when the sun comes up, where to pour the water, how to clear your mind, which song to sing. Is there anything like this in the Western world? It was kind of like visiting a cathedral as a devout Catholic, but having a tour guide lead you through the Mass.”

    I loved how you described this for us in this manner! Well done. Enjoy your lifetime of an experience trip!

  24. Great Pics. I love seeing new places and traveling. Great sense of humor, I got a good giggle.

  25. Nice…and i wish to visit Gobi someday in my life.

  26. Wow , I don’t know if I ever will get to see it in person but your pictures and writing totally transported me to the place…!

  27. uklotterynews

    Beuatiful imagery! Yet another place on my must visit list 🙂

  28. hi I’m mongolian.So I hope you become to love my country.

  29. It as always been my dream to visit this country but unfortunately i never been there. soon or later the day will come. Do you know the mongolian rock band Altan Urag its really good.
    i am jealous

  30. Wow, incredible pictures – I love the one of the desert between the two pillars. Such a sense of space and beauty.

  31. I recall my old friend from Mongolia, such a nice person but I believe it stemmed from the appreciation of the tough life and climate of his country. Teaching english is a good way to travel and learn about the world. Great stuff.

  32. Gorgeous pictures! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

  33. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your webpage? My blog site is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my visitors would definitely benefit from some of the information you present here. Please let me know if this okay with you. Thanks a lot!

  34. Great Pics! Awesome Info! Looks like you had fun

  35. Very interesting post, I will follow your site from now on to get more.

  36. Incredibly jealous. The seemingly tiresome travelling MUST have been worth it – your shots are awesome. Thanks for sharing the experience

  37. Okay, three things:

    1. Congrats on freshly pressed! Yay for you!
    2. Gorgeous photos. My fave are the first two, but they’re all fantastic.
    3. Is there an age limit for the peace corps? I’m 26 and my husband is 31, and I wonder if we’re too old. I want to do it so badly, though. And force my husband to come with me.
    4. Hope you don’t mind, but I clicked follow.
    5. I’m really bad at math. This is definitely more than three things.

  38. I’m both envious and joyous. What a marvelous trip. Thanks for sharing

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