I’ll throw a punch.

“Beware Pickpockets.” There are signs all over Ulan Bator. But, I’m a seasoned traveler, I have a system, I’m pretty OCD about how and where I keep my stuff, so I’m good, right? Nope! The other evening, I was walking along a busy street. I had just finished up dinner with friends and I was heading back to my hostel, keeping my naturally brisk pace. It was still plenty light out.

I have an over the shoulder bag, I keep my most important things in it- wallet, passport, phone, and iPad, so I always know where everything is and its with me. Not at the hostel where various people are in and out; I even keep it in my bed at night. I bought that bag way back in January, it fit my iPad perfectly and I knew I’d want something sturdy and over the shoulder. It has a few zip pockets and a place to keep all my little things.

There was a rhythm to my walk the other night. I let my bag shift to my back as its more comfortable and who knows, maybe I’m getting more comfortable… I mean, I’ve been here for almost 6 weeks, I feel like I know the city pretty well and how things operate. As I walked, my bag bounced, off my butt, with every step. Step, bounce, step bounce, you know, like how your ponytail has a certain movement when running on the treadmill, or doing any other type of physical activity! Something, however, felt a little off, my beloved bag and I fell out of sync. There were people buzzing by and I turned to my right. My wallet, which had been zipped inside of my bag, fell to the ground. I saw it but was confused from where, and more so, how! But without hesitation, I quickly squatted to the ground while glancing at the open pocket- two open pockets, in fact. When I stood up (I think it was like a matter of a few seconds for me to realize what was happening), there was a man right by my side. With my wallet in a tight grip, I looked him in the eyes and he dashed away, down into an underpass in fact. My heart was pounding, I was still looking at my wallet, and in my bag, at my phone, iPad… It was all there. I was shaken. I walked for a few minutes with a group of English speaking men and told them what happened. They said it happens all the time here. They stood around me while, once again, I examined all of my belongings, still in shock. I thanked them for their willingness to walk me back to my hostel and we parted ways.

I readjusted the strap of my bag so it would hang under my arm. I kept a tight grip on everything and decompressed at the hostel for the evening, replaying that scene over and over, all the while being grateful I actually had all of my stuff. “How the heck did that happen to me?” I asked myself over and over. But it did. I’m not invincible and I know that, but damn am I lucky! What a wake up call. You can’t be too careful. Now I’ve develop a new level of OCD. I reorganized my stuff, I have a new “system.” I’ve been using the little locker at the hostel and I keep the key with me at all times. If I’m not going to be using it, I leave my iPad, wallet, and passport in it. I keep a few Tugriks in a small pouch and I’ve been wearing my zip up Lululemon jacket. You know why I like that stuff? It has pockets everywhere. My phone and my change purse fits in each one, on the inside of my jacket. If anybody wants my stuff, they will have to slice me with a knife for it.

I tell myself often now if somebody messes with me or my stuff, to stand up for myself, make a scene if need be. But really, I tell myself not to hesitate to punch someone. As I was walking away the other day, a bit of anger came over me and I wanted to go back and find that guy and punch him in the face. Really, I felt that. I know petty crime is common the world over, and I’m lucky, but it would be such a huge inconvenience, hassle, and financial setback if anything got stolen. I will be more vigilant, but I swear, if the wrong person messes with me, I’m going to unleash. I felt it last night. I was walking along, minding my business, and a drunk guy tried to talk to me. “Hello, hello…!” But I don’t want to engage in conversation with a drunk man on the street and I picked up my pace. He turned to follow me. I held out my arm as if to shoo him away. Eventually he got it, but I was feeling defensive. Same thing earlier in the cafe… I sat close to the door, but a street kid walked in asking patrons for money. I can’t deal with those kids, I just want to feed them all, but I don’t trust them either. I picked up all my stuff and went to the back. Someone just told me a story of how a street kid stole someone’s phone off a table at a restaurant. I don’t want to put myself at risk. But I’m not all bad, despite that, I bought food for someone today. I saw a homeless man eating what looked like an old cucumber (or pickle?) out of the dumpster. I immediately went to the mini market and quickly grabbed an apple, a yogurt, and some beef jerky. All strategically selected… I paid and left. The man wasn’t to be found. Yes, I spent the equivalent of $1.50 on food I knew I’d like in case he was already gone.

So, moral of this long story? Watch yourself! And, if you mess with me, I may not hesitate to throw a punch. I want it to be second nature, seriously, instinctual. I’ll repeat my new mantra over and over: I will punch you!

My bag and all my stuff. And just a side note- I have a minor obsession with little spoons. I think I need to keep this one. ?
My bag and all my stuff. And just a side note- I have a minor obsession with little spoons. I think I need to keep this one. ?

A shower in the desert!

Camels and dunes off in the distance.
Camels and dunes off in the distance.

When traveling in developing or underdeveloped countries, you quickly learn to not expect much! Things as common as running water, showers, toilets, laundry, and electricity seem to be luxuries and when you have them, they feel like such a treat! I love picking up my freshly laundered clothes when in Ulaan Baatar and the only reason I don’t do them myself is because I don’t have access to such facilities.

After spending 17 days along a lake in an area without running water, the last place I thought I’d be able to shower was in the Gobi desert. I even brought loads of wet wipes. Much to my surprise, the tourist camp we visited the first night had showers and the best gers I’ve seen yet! After a 9 hour bus ride, a fresh shower seemed like such a treat. Not only that, we had a small vegetable salad with our Mongolian minced mutton meat pancakes, known as khussher, a super popular snack or meal here.

The surprises didn’t end there! Not only are parts of the Gobi Desert beautiful and awe inspiring, we’ve had delicious food (or I was starving), showers at our second ger camp, and cooler weather than expected. I never saw showers like the ones here. It’s in a ger with a concrete floor. There is a container of water outside that leads to a smaller container a over the ger. There is a shower head and when you turn the valve, a low flow of water comes out. ? But it’s water, apparently from a well, and it’s perfect for rinsing off all the dust from the sand dunes. Again, a fresh shower in the desert- what a treat. We’ve had down time to avoid the heat of the day and I even washed my raggedy “Never Give Up” t-shirt. I need to leave that one behind soon. I have way too much stuff as it is and it is thinning and discolored.

The shower ger.
The shower ger.
Inside
Inside

We go on a camel ride soon, followed by dinner, and tomorrow, off to the Flaming Cliffs. The Gobi isn’t as dry as expected. There’s green vegetation all over, with camels, cattle, horses, and goat and sheep, as always, all over the place. The dunes in front of us stretch 185 km east to west, are 7 km wide, and the tallest peak is about 5,020 feet above sea level. To hike up, you only climb about 1,000 feet, but it’s steep, and on soft sand, so don’t be fooled- it’s quite a heart rate raising activity.

Bactrain Camels are the camels with two humps.
Bactrain Camels are the camels with two humps.

While I was more than excited to see the Gobi Desert, my visit was met with some great surprises! I’m glad the little things in life can have such a positive impact and I’m excited to be able to say not only did I have a shower amid the sand but I’m positive my feet were exfoliated while playing in the dunes!

In 1922, dinosaur eggs were found here by an American explorer.
In 1922, dinosaur eggs were found here, at the Flaming Cliffs, by an American explorer.

To compete or not to compete, that is always my question.

August 22, 2106

A year ago today, I stepped on stage for my 3rd body building competition. I competed in the figure category, and as an amateur, did decently overall. I had always wanted to give it a shot, but never felt I’d have the discipline to give up certain foods, never mind burgers and pizza, I didn’t want to say bye to fruit and yogurt!

When my then husband threw in the towel on our marriage, I had to refocus, so I turned to competing. It was July, 2014, and that first competition became my life. I had a coach, I followed her meal plan and exercise guidelines to a T. I leaned out, sculpted my body, and walked on that very intimidating stage. Like most competitors, I was hooked, I knew before that first show, I wanted more… The thought of trying to go pro lingered in my mind. I worked day in and day out to improve my body. For the most part, I ate, drank, and breathed the “contest prep” lifestyle. I looked forward to my workouts. It was usually easy to wake up for morning cardio, whether it was on a machine at the gym or a long jog with my dog. After work, I’d lift weights for about an hour, sometimes more, followed by an evening walk with my faithful companion. I put more competitions on my calendar, with the hopes of doing better and better each time around, and I did. By my third, I had a sponsor and placed in both the open and master’s classes.

Three different figure competitions, side by side "results" of prep.
Three different figure competitions, side by side “results” of prep.

I met many people in the industry, I learned more, I helped other girls get ready for shows while still referring future competitors to others I knew in the business. I felt like I was going places. But at the same time, my mindset was changing. I developed an unhealthy relationship with my body and food. As an RD, I analyzed everything I ate to ensure I would maximize my nutrition, but the reality was, on a contest prep diet, you simply do not eat enough. The calories consumed are used to fuel daily exercise, in my case, two times a day. Other normal life processes and bodily functions took a back seat. My digestive track slowed, my menstrual cycle stopped, early into my training, in fact. Long term, this can be problematic because when the body does not produce enough estrogen, bones do not absorb and utilize calcium properly, leading to early onset osteoporosis. And although I had a lot of friends and support all around, my social life was nearly non-existent. I wouldn’t date, go out, or put myself in an environment surrounded by food. I knew sometimes people thought I was boring, but I had my goals and wanted to stick to them.

Always in the gym, just workin' on my fitness...
Always in the gym, just workin’ on my fitness…

As time went on, not only did I learn to let go of the unhappiness caused by my divorce, but I got a little tired of the “prep” lifestyle. I wanted a break, so while I had big plans after my third show, I took time off. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but I mostly stayed on a strict diet and an even more strict workout regimen. The fear of weight regain was very real, but without a show lined up, the thought of being “judged” on stage helped me to feel better about the body I had worked so hard to improve. I still “needed” something though and I couldn’t quite figure out what it was, until one day…

I woke up and said I wanted to travel. I thought all day about it and eventually devised a plan that would allow me to accomplish just that. It took time, months of saving and planning, but before I knew it, competing was set on the back burner and traveling the world was now on my horizon, my new focus, a lifelong dream. In the works. It grew and grew, eventually I turned in my resignation letter, put my house on the market, sold most of what I owned, and took a long road trip home, from Texas, to visit my family in New Hampshire. We closed on my house 7 days before my departure to China, I had my finances sorted, and I was on my way. A new life, Tiffany the Happy RD/Figure Competitor turned World Traveler. It was crazy to realize what I was doing and how much life had changed. I mentally prepared myself for a long time. My time in the gym would be limited at best, and yes, my body would change. Some days, I cringe, some days, I don’t care, and some days, I just want my clothes to fit.

After voluntarily starving myself for the better part of two years, I still want to eat everything. I love food, I experience life with locals, share meals with them, and want to try whatever new thing I see, whether it’s in somebody’s home, a restaurant, street vendor, or an interesting product at the store. Sometimes, I eat what I’m given because it’s all I have, sometimes I eat a lot because I’m starving, and sometimes, I just eat what I want. When I have the opportunity, I cook healthy meals for myself, but on the road, I take whatever I get. It’s difficult to stay “on track.” I don’t always have access to a gym and I’m not very motivated to do body weight workouts when away from the city. The most portable and available foods are full of carbohydrates and even though Mongolians eat a lot of meat and fat, their meals are often accompanied by large amounts of rice, pasta, and/or potatoes. Only now do I consider potatoes a vegetable, in the remote areas, it’s the main thing you get, aside from a few shaving of carrots and bits of diced onion. I think I’ve had more carbohydrates in the last two months than I did in the last two years combined.

Oh the mounds of carbs I eat these days... If only I could lift heavy everyday I'd gain some serious muscle mass.
Oh the mounds of carbs I eat these days… If only I could lift heavy everyday I’d gain some serious muscle mass.

My body is changing. I look at pictures from the times when I though my body wasn’t good enough, the little things I criticized, now I can’t believe I even looked like that. These days, I eat cookies, and bread, and potatoes, and even drank sugar sweetened coffee until I found one container at one store of an artificial sweetener. BUT today, I hiked up the tallest sand dune in the Gobi Desert in Southern Mongolia. I sit in this ger, writing, looking out at the dunes ahead of me, camels making noises behind me, and sweets on the table left by our guide. Life is amazing, seriously, traveling the world was the best decision I ever made. Of course, competing was a good one too! Accomplishing goals, no matter what they may be, is such a fulfilling feeling.

Perfect ripples in the dunes.
Perfect ripples in the dunes.

So today, a year after what was, or what would be, my last competition, I will eat my favorite Russian wafer cookies with my fellow travelers and Mongolian guides. Maybe take a moment of silence for the body I once had, but to also appreciate the experiences ahead of me, and enjoy this life I’m living and creating for myself. As I hiked up that dune this morning, before the sun rose, I told myself, yes, I will compete again, someday, but only when I’m ready!

Work, work, work…

Some of the staff and I on a cool day!
Some of the staff and I on a cool day!

Or lack thereof, sometimes. By the time I leave Lake Khovsgal on the 14th, I will have spent 17 days here. It was a little longer than planned, but I was offered a great opportunity, so it was worth the stay and it allowed me to keep under budget. With that said, I’m getting excited to leave. The weather is changing and it’s getting much cooler, it’s below 40 F at night. Taking a shower is a chilling experience (even with hot water), and it takes longer for the laundry to air dry. Additionally, as fun as it is to be the unofficial liaison to the English speaking guests, I don’t have a whole lot to do here. I like helping out in the kitchen, but it’s been busy and I don’t like to get in the way so I usually find other things to do. I’ve spent a lot of time with some of the guests, we’ve gone on hikes, shared meals and wine, played card games, and sometimes it’s sad to say goodbye. I always find myself thinking about the people I’ve met on the road.

On a journey like this, everyday is a learning experience- whether about life, or yourself, and sometimes both. I’ve learned I definitely have to do work of some sort. I can’t be idle. Sometimes I space out the few tasks I have so I don’t get everything done in one day. Some days are more busy, but on slow days, I walk over to the other camp to work on English lessons with my first host or simply find something to do. I like having tasks, even if they are simple, such as cleaning the ger or even doing my laundry. I’m curious to see how I will feel with future hosts. What kind of “work” will I have? Will working in an area related to nutrition be more fulfilling? I mean, I like this, don’t get me wrong, but there’s only so much I can do here and ultimately, I have no independence. I love the food served in the restaurant and even some of the staff meals are not bad, but a part of me wants to cook my own meal. Here, we are isolated. There are few shops and they only have basic food items and goods available. There aren’t any vegetables, fruit, or sources of protein available, not even eggs, so it’s not like I can just whip up something for myself when things are slow.

A store in the small village of Khatghal. I unexpectedly went into the little town one afternoon.
A store in the small village of Khatghal. I unexpectedly went into the little town one afternoon.

I’m sure these feelings will be recurring but so far, the experiences and benefits of living this lifestyle outweighs those aspects of life. I know the big city is not for me and I didn’t feel the need to stay in Beijing, but being too isolated also has its downsides. Something in the middle would be ideal, or at least being in an area that has some basics available, like fruit and vegetables, would be nice.

I made this bountiful tuna and veggie salad as soon as I got back to Ulan Bator and went to a grocery store!
I made this bountiful tuna and veggie salad as soon as I got back to Ulan Bator and went to a grocery store!

Being here has been rewarding and educational on so many levels. While I’m not really a marketing director of any sort, I hope I’ve helped generate some interest for the business, or at least, some “likes” on FaceBook! I went from working in a kitchen whose three main cooks made meals to feed over 3,600 people daily to a kitchen that flows smoothly without running water or electricity! While the quantity of meals is less, the quality is outstanding and watching everybody work is fascinating. I will also keep this type of location in mind when choosing future hosts. How isolated do I want to be and for how long? How much independence do I need? I know I will miss things here- the owner, she calls me her sister, the friendly staff who always smile even though I feel like they must be sick of me, my breakfast- an egg on a slice of toast with cheese and sometimes salami or even bacon, and the lake, it’s beauty still captures me! BUT, it’s time to move on and the next place will bring new people, experiences, and memories. Thank you Nature’s Door! Maybe I’ll see you again next summer! ???

Feel free to check out their FaceBook page: Nature’s Door. https://www.facebook.com/Natures-door-258275827573441/

Home Base: Nature’s Door

I’ve been trying to decide what direction to go regarding my blog. I feel like I mostly chronicle my days, but I’m going to try to do some “topic writing.” After two days with my host, I moved down the road to a different camp, Nature’s Door, owned by his sister. They needed help as there are many more guests, so I agreed. It’s basically a full service camp with gers, a lodge, a full restaurant, clean bathrooms, hot showers, and they also have a variety of activities available. My initial job was to take care of three gers and the guests that would inhabit them, but when I saw the restaurant, my wheels started turning. I proposed some ideas to the owner and I suddenly became the marketing director, iPhone photographer, and liaison to the English speaking guests. Long story short- it’s been an incredible experience! I’ve learned where I can help, and when to sit back, (in the kitchen), and the owner encourages me to interact with the guests. I’ve been hiking, jet skiing, boating, and even on a motorcycle ride with different people from all over the world, and sometimes, I have dinner with them. I get ideas, feedback, and recommendations, and before I leave, I need to have a meeting with the owner to share it all.

A camp with great amentities set in a beautiful area.
A camp with great amentities set in a beautiful area.

It has taken some time, but most of the staff has warmed up to me. It’s difficult as most do not speak English and only a few Russian, but we somehow make do, even if it means I’m physically walked somewhere to be shown something. I’m getting really good at charades and I learn a few new Mongolian words everyday. I have a key to the owner’s home, a place to keep my stuff, and after a few days of sleeping in the ger, I moved to the extra bed. After spending two weeks in a ger, it was a readjustment, but it’s nice to have a place to stay for a while and I’m so honored that the staff trust me with these things.

I’m jobless, homeless, and have nothing to give- sounds pretty sad, right?! Everyday, I get something, from having a free place to stay, food to eat, and endless experiences, but I always want to give back. As a “workawayer” and ultimately a backpacker, I’m limited, not only by the amount of actual things that I can carry, but by my budget as well. I wish I had more to offer, but I will set aside some money to give to the waitresses for a lump sum tip before I go. One, my first host’s daughter, is off to college this year, and the other is young too. Often times, they treat me like a guest in the restaurant and I want them to know I appreciate their generosity. There are a few small shops around here, but they all sell the same stuff, and nothing unique, but I need to pick up a few small treats. The owner recently went on a supply run and I gave her some money for fruit. I wanted to share with the kitchen staff as fruit is very expensive so people don’t eat it often. I cut some up the other morning, but today’s loot ended up going to one of the guests- the one who took me on a motorcycle ride, as it was his birthday. I really wanted it for the staff, but I was encouraged to share with the group, it was a funny looking “birthday cake!” A plate with cut fruit dotted with individually wrapped Russian wafer cookies!

I hope David enjoyed his "cake!"
I hope David enjoyed his “cake!”

On the day that I’m writing this, I have 6 nights left. The next few days will be busy, but fun, and I hope to continue to get along well with staff, share some treats, maybe a few laughs because of my horrible Mongolian language skills. If anything, I’m always am a native speaker of English and I don’t mind helping with menial tasks such as drying dishes or peeling potatoes. Lake Khovsgal is beautiful, this experience has already been so rewarding, and I hope I have something I’m bringing to the camp as well.

Like so many of the people I've met in Mongolia, the staff are friendly, helpful, and caring. They are awesome! ?
Like so many of the people I’ve met in Mongolia, the staff are friendly, helpful, and caring. They are awesome! ?

Mongloia, continued.

Mongolia is amazing! I feel like I’m an American ambassador for this country, sharing my stories and letting others know how much I love it here!! The city is good for the amenities- for $7.00/night, I checked in to a hostel for a hot shower and to get some laundry done before I headed north. I didn’t know what awaited me and you can’t beat that deal!! I said goodbye to my first host and got ready for the next leg of my journey. It began at the Dragon Bus Station in UB where my temporary Asian child saga continues. I somehow got next to a 9 year old traveling alone, on a 16 hour bus ride, to Moren. Her mom brought her to the bus and maybe she thought I looked responsible/friendly/motherly, I don’t know, but I signaled to the mom I would watch the girl and that I did. She was the cutest thing and we played charades, games, looked at snpachat, and tried to talk a bit by using my phrase book. We stopped for dinner and I bought her a meal, and then she bought herself an ice cream. Good thing I always have wet wipes here because 9 year olds are messy! Sleeping was tough and I wanted her to be as comfortable as possible, so I basically pulled another all nighter and was pretty wiped, but excited as always, when we got to Moren. The little girl’s grandmother came to get her. It was actually kind of sad to watch her walk away. That 16 hour bus ride really made me think a lot about kids… (And how I don’t have any…)

Bus ride shenanigans!
Bus ride shenanigans!

From Moren I traveled another 60 miles north to Khatghal. I met my new hosts and we all piled into the car. I had no idea what was going on. We traveled along a gravel road for over an hour. But then, I realized what was happening. My host, Bayra, said we were going to their other house, closer to Khovsgal Lake. We came around the corner and there it was! The beautiful lake I’d been waiting to see. I got my own ger and had a few tasks, and my days there would prove to be rewarding, eventful, and busy.

My first task as a workawayer- preparing this little cottage for some furniture at the ger camp.
My first task as a workawayer- preparing this little cottage for some furniture at the ger camp.

I went for a walk and kept following the blue. It seemed the more I went, the more beautiful the scenery became, so I couldn’t turn around. Then I heard someone calling to me in English. They invited me to join and before I knew it, I’d made more new friends and had a dinner invite, but not before I had boiled sheep EVERYTHING with my hosts and their neighbors. Yup, I did it and tried almost everything, it wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated, either! I didn’t have many tasks that first day as a workawayer and returned to visit the group camping along the lake. We played volleyball and they introduced me to some legit Mongolian BBQ. These people are champs, they can eat meat like nobody’s business! They had everything to share, including alcohol, which I hadn’t had in a while. Suffice it to say I had a great night- what I remember of it anyway, and one of those things was taking a refreshing dip in the lake along with the Korean couple I met!

The blue I followed...
The blue I followed…