As you may have noticed, I have moved the site from the domain name to my personal site, kylegifford.com. I will not be updating this blog anymore, but will leave it up indefinitely as a reference for people considering the Peace Corps or want to learn more about Armenia.
That being said, Peace Corps for me was a great experience, but something that is really impossible to document in words and pictures. I would be happy to talk to anyone about my journey that wants to listen. I also encourage anyone who’s considering Peace Corps to go for it; you won’t regret it.
Good luck, and thank you for reading these past two years. Tsesetsyun!
The last few days here in Beijing have been a really great time. Mainly, we have been keeping busy with going to various Olympic games, all of which have been interesting in their own ways. In between, we have been enjoying the delightful cuisine, people and culture that Beijing has to offer.
(This is a somewhat long post, so maybe you can just look at the photos)
On Sunday, our first event wasn’t until late in the evening, so Sarah, Heather and I set out towards to Forbidden City and Tianaman Square, two of Beijing’s most famous landmarks. Unfortunately, we suffered an immediate setback - all of the roads between our Metro stop and the square were closed by the police for the street cycling race. Doh! Sarah and Heather decided to go shopping, and I decided to wind my way through Beijing to get to the other side. I eventually stumbled into Forbidden City nearly by accident, but had a great morning exploring the city. I even was there for the cycling race as it passed right by the square. It was an exhilarating 30 seconds as they passed by.
Sunday night we went to the Men’s 56 kg weightlifting finals. Anyone who knows me knows I’m certainly not into weightlifting, nor had I ever been to a weightlifting competition. Regardless, it was a really interesting experience. The athletes had two lifts to do, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Each of these guys weighed about 120 pounds, and could lift twice as much as I could. Amazing. The most interesting part, aside from the medal ceremony itself, was that a Chinese athlete was the winner, so the crowd went wild.
Tuesday was our day of games. We had more weightlifting tickets in the morning, so we went there for a while, but it was boring the second time, so Sarah and I left to go visit the Lama Temple, which is the most important Chinese Buddhist temple outside of Tibet. It was very interesting, and most notable for it’s world-record-setting 26 meter high Buddah carved out of a single piece of wood!
After that we went to a Beijing duck restaurant, to order the city’s famous “Peking Duck”. I love duck. And this duck really lived up to its name. Highly recommended for anyone going to Beijing. Or PF Chang’s. Their’s is good, too. After that we went up to the Olympic Village, where we had tickets to women’s Handball. For those who don’t know what Handball is (like me, until 2 days ago), it’s a combination of basketball, hockey, and soccer. There are teams of 6+1 goalie, and they must dribble/pass the ball up court, and ultimately throw it into the other team’s goal. It’s very fast paced and was a lot of fun. We watched China vs. Romania, and Russia vs. Sweden. Romania prevailed in a blowout (in some of these events, I think they just give the Chinese a team out of sympathy) but the second game was much closer, with the Ruskies winning by 3. I was slightly disappointed, but congrats to them for a good fight.
Tuesday we parted ways with Beijing and rode the night train to Hong Kong, where I am now. The train was awesome, and even had potted plants! It also had those nice comforters that you get in 4* hotels, A/C, and oddly enough, a squat toilet (the only one we saw on a train the whole way). It was sad to leave China, as the hospitality and everything else was great while we were there. It will be interesting to see how things pan out after the Olympics leaves town, but while we were there we have nothing but glowing things to say about the games, the city and the people.
Tonight we went to an Equestrian event, which are being held in Hong Kong for health reasons. The event was called “Dressage”, which is basially “Horse Ballet.” It was aweful to watch, really. The argument for it being a sport is that it requires an intimate connection between rider and horse, but I don’t think it belongs in the Olympis; it requires no real athletic skill and the horse is doing the work, anyway. Besides, horses were born to run and jump and pull, not prance around. Just my two cents.
Most importantly, tomorrow morning our journey ends, and I fly back to America!! I’m really looking forward to being home. We have about 24 hours in the airplane, and connect in Vancouver, then Denver, then to Kansas City (ugh!). On Saturday I’m leaving to Seattle with my family for a short vacation (as if this wasn’t enough), and will be in Columbia for a week before I move to Dallas on the 28th.
It’s going to be a hectic next few weeks, so I’m not sure when I’ll have a chance to post again, or if I will continue the blog at all. If this is goodbye, then thank you for reading about my journey these past two years. I know my adventures will never stop, no matter where I am, but my two years in Peace Corps will always have a special place in my heart. It’s been my pleasure to keep this web journal, and I hope everyone who’s followed it has learned something about me, or Armenia, or Peace Corps, or just wasted an hour of week at work. Regardless, I encourage everyone to follow their dreams and explore the world - it’s a big one, and will teach you more about yourself (and others) than you can ever get from a book. Good night, and good luck (yes, I ripped that off, too bad).
After surviving Russia, things could only get better on our trip. And they have, as we made our way south through Asia into Mongolia and into China the past few days. We arrived in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, late on the night of the 6th. So, we did not really get to see much of Mongolia, but my impression is that it’s a very interesting and different country from Russia, despite the Soviet influence. The city itself was smaller and very dirty - a lot of dust and older buildings. But, unlike Russia, the people were extremely friendly and helpful, spoke English, and all of the restaurants had English menus. It’s a pity we could not have stayed there longer, as the main highlight is to head into the countryside, ride horses and stay in tents. Always next time…
We hopped on the train the next morning and set off for China. The train was very nice, had air conditioning and a shower car, tvs and headphones in our compartment, and was just comfortable. Crossing the border was easy (for once) and we arrived in Beijing around 2 PM on 08.08.08 - the first day of the OLYMPICS!
I must say, so far Beijing has been extremely impressive. The city is immaculate; all of the buildings and roads are clean, and there are both security officers and volunteers EVERYWHERE. They are very helpful. The public transportation and taxis are well organized and clean, including meters in all the taxis so that there’s not even the option to get ripped off.
Since we arrived on the day of the Opening Ceremonies, and we were too poor to afford the thousand dollar tickets, we went to a park where the Olympics Committee had set up big screen TVs for people to watch. The park was nice and beautifully decorated, and it was a great atmosphere to watch the Opening Ceremonies. The Chinese are very energetic and very proud of hosting the Olympics, and it was a cool experience to watch it with them. The ceremony itself was so impressive, but my favorite part was when all the athletes came into the stadium. In the crowd, there were people from countries all around the world (from Argentina to Australia to Armenia), and when they stood up to cheer on their country, the rest of the crowd applauded for them as well. It was really cool and was a great showcase of the Olympic spirit.
While we came home late, we woke up the next morning early to go to the Great Wall of China, which all the signage continued to remind us is a, “wonder of the world.” We got there early in the morning to avoid the crowds, but it was also very foggy so the wall was harder to see than normal. Regardless, it was beautiful, but also extremely humid, and so we were drenched with sweat by the end of the trip. To get down, they had a toboggan ride, which was a lot of fun! We also read, in a Chinese newspaper, that Chairman Mao once said, “You are not a man until you have climbed the Great Wall.” So, I can add “becoming a man” to my list of accomplishments this trip has helped me accomplish. Sweet.
When we got home, we walked around the Olympic Green and took pictures of the major stadiums from the highway. The environment is electric here and people are really in the spirit of the games.
We’ve been having a great time, and still have three more days here. Today we are going to Tiananmen Square, and then to the Forbidden City. Tonight, we go to our first event, the Men’s 58 kg Weightlifting Finals, which should be exciting (especially to see a medal ceremony). Tomorrow we have handball and more weightlifting tickets, and then we head to Hong Kong (and home!) on the 12th. The Internet is slow here so I will have all my pictures up later today - keep checking.
The most careful readers of my blog may have noticed that I said our Trans-Siberian train traveled from Moscow to Ulan Bator (almost…). Perhaps a better phrasing would have been, “our Trans-Siberian train traveled from Moscow to Ulan Bator, but Kathy, Heather and I were left at the border because of some bad visa advice.” Let me start from the beginning.
We decided to purchase our Russian visas in Armenia, because a) thousands of Armenians go to Russia yearly so it should be easy and b) we were there. After investigating the process online, we realize we need an invitation letter from a hotel we’re staying at. No problem - there are hundreds of sites offering them for cheap online. Just one caveat - the Russia embassy in Yerevan onlyaccepts visa invitations from Levon Travel in Yerevan. So yes, the mafia has even infiltrated the Russian embassy - another example of the underlying corruption that just keeps hurting Armenia’s prospects for growth.
So, we went through the motions, paid the exorbitant fee ($275 - the actual visa fee is $150), and submitted our paperwork for a standard, 30 day tourist visa. We get it back, and our entry date is fine, but our exit date is printed as 31 July. Even a kindergartner knows that July 21-31 is not 30 days. The reason this was a concern is that we left Moscow on the 29th, and the train wouldn’t cross the border until August 2. Leaving us with an expired visa on August 2. Follow??
We immediately point this out, and which point they say, “Well, you can’t change a visa once it’s issued. You must pay for a new one. Regardless, after you get on the train on the 29th, you enter into a free travel zone (like an airplane) and you will be able to cross the border just fine on August 2nd.” We asked, and confirmed this, three times before we left Armenia.
Fast forward to August 2, 2008. After 5 days of train ride, viewing the beautiful countryside and meeting interesting travelers, our trip came to an end with a Russian customs official pronouncing, “You have a bigproblem.” They pulled us off the train with our luggage, took our passports until we paid a fine and the train left, and then instead of sending us out of the country with a lesson learned, they put true Russian bureaucracy back in action. We had to get on a night train, go back to the town of Ulan Ude, Russia, and wait. And wait. And wait. This was Saturday. The visa office wouldn’t open until Monday at 2. We show up early, to be taken to a customs office where an “incident report” was filed against us, fingerprints taken, and a million forms signed. They made nothing easy; the office was in a village about 20 km from the town center; we had to pay our fines at the bank, not in cash to them; and we had to have THREE passport size photos taken at our own expense (in addition to the 3 nights we had to stay at a hotel).
Anyway, finally on Tuesday at 6 PM we got our exit visa, and just today did I sit on a 12 hour bus to Mongolia. So, I’m out of Russia, and I couldn’t be happier for it. The country is ridiculous, the people unfriendly and unhelpful, and NO ONE spoke English in the entire country. There was one consolation to the whole trip, it’s that we got to see what Ulan Ude is truly famous for:
That’s right - the world’s largest Lenin head. Right outside my hotel balcony. Jealous???