Monthly Archives: June 2012

Gobii! Part 4 – Well technically Beijing

I figure I’ll finish up the full travel part of my blog before I head into the Leadership portions of it… I hope that’s okay with all of you who are following along!

After a bit of travel we landed in Beijing. I have to admit that Ken and I were thinking it wasn’t likely that we would particularly like Beijing. We were thrilled to  be going but weren’t sure we were going to love it. Upon arrival at the airport we meant our tour guide who affectionately refers to himself as Jimmy. Upon some discussion we found out that Jimmy has had some pretty amazing guests as tourists including the USA Olympic Basketball team including Coach K! I thought that was super cool because I LOVE college basketball and Coach K is absolutely epic! And apparently the Duke basketball team also came to Beijing and Jimmy got to be their tour guide as well. Personally I knew we had to be in really good hands if those guys trusted Jimmy and I certainly wasn’t wrong!

The first day there wasn’t loads of time to do much other than get settled into our hotel room and have some dinner – that said we all were super excited to get a really awesome shower after having been in the Gobi for so long.  I do have to say the Crowne Plaza in Beijing has really great showers! 

The next morning we got up and headed directly to the Great Wall of China. Apparently there are 7 separate sections that you can climb as a tourist. Jimmy very wisely took us there early so we missed the crazy rush of tourists on the way up. It certainly was a LOT of stairs to the top of the area we were at. The stairs were not at all even or standard which made climbing even more interesting. Looking at the Great Wall we all couldn’t help but marvel at the great engineering feat that it was.


Of course it is also a massive graveyard of sorts because when people would die while working on the wall they would simply be buried within the wall.  Not everyone decided to go to the top but those of us who did were rewarded with an incredible view. It was also interesting because a bunch of the teenagers (and some adults too!) wanted to take pictures with us at the top of the Great Wall. I am not sure if they were interested to see Westerners or if it was a joke of sorts – either way it was a bit amusing to us! What an amazing treat to be able to see one of the great wonders of the world!!



After that we headed to a Jade Gallery where we got to see jade being carved and we had an amazing lunch after a bit of jade shopping. It was incredible the things that they have made out of jade!


Then it was off to an elementary school where we did a presentation but we also got treated to performances from the students as well! They honored each of us with a red scarf which is something the students have to earn through hard work.

Then we headed off to see the Olympic Village.  I was especially excited about this because I LOVE the Olympics! As a little girl I remember I used to cry during the Closing Ceremonies because I was so sad it was over and the next one was so far away! I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to the Olympics when they were in Atlanta, Georgia in 1996. My totally awesome Mom took me as a graduation present. How awesome! So it was really neat to get to see such iconic buildings as the Birds Nest and the Water Cube up close and personal. I wish we’d had more time there because I would have loved to have gone into the Water Cube but maybe next time! And I am hoping while in London for our upcoming Mission Discovery that I will get a chance to go see the London Olympic Park!


After Olympic Village we had a little extra time so we headed to a tea room for a traditional tea ceremony where we tried a variety of teas. Yum! Then it was off to a University for another presentation. What great students they were and obviously super excited about space especially because of the impending Chinese launch as well. That was a super full day!

Our last full day in Beijing was another fun filled one of lots of sights! We started off at The Temple of Heaven where many people come for leisure during the mornings once they’ve retired. Hundreds of people do sports or dancing or just hang out and chat or play games. It’s really delightful to see!


We even jumped into the fun and did a bit of dancing – we weren’t very good but we had fun! The Temple itself is quite striking – I really love the colors.


We enjoyed some time there and then headed off for a bit of shopping. Needless to say you can get just about anything you want to buy in China! We also toured a silk shop and saw how silk is made. 

Then Jimmy had a really amazing Szechewan lunch planned for us in a super neat restaurant before we headed to the Lama Temple. The Lama Temple is still an active temple so it was very neat to get to see people there for this reason as well as visiting as tourists. Our last stop on our whirlwind tour of Beijing was to The Forbidden City also known before as The Imperial Palace. The Forbidden City has 9,999 rooms in it and took only 14 years to construct – obviously they had a lot of manpower and motivation to get this huge project done in such time!! It’s an immense place with so much history – you really have to see it to fully appreciate it’s impressiveness!


Ken and I both discovered that we REALLY enjoyed Beijing and would happily return so I can honestly recommend to everyone to go check out Beijing if you get a chance!

We had a fun evening of dinner and a bit of karaoke (nope – no videos!) but then sadly the next day it was time to say good-bye to all of our new friends and head back to home – various places for this group! Before leaving I found out something that was pretty cool though…. I saw Michelle Hynes luggage tags and realized her and I have the same initials. I commented on this and then was shocked to find out her middle name is Lynette – my middle name is Lynn because my Mom’s name is Lynette! Crazy! Then Gillian (Michelle’s sister) mentioned that her middle name is Laureen – I have an Aunt named Laureen (she’s my mom’s sister) – Double crazy! Clearly Gillian, Michelle and I were meant to be friends!

 I can’t wait for the next adventure and I hope some of you will come along with us!!


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Gobi!!!! Part 3

Friday morning we headed off on another 5 hour drive to Karakorum the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire. Since we wouldn’t make it to camp in time for lunch we stopped in the middle of the desert for a picnic! And for the whole trip the drivers were awesome and would stop every hour or so on our drive for pit stops, which were much needed in general. This was not easy driving like one would do on a highway… this was rough, bumpy, swervy overall very taxing driving. But it gave us such a perspective of what the Gobi is really like.

 We checked into our Ger Camp (as per usual) and I was quite amused at the engineering of the locks on the Ger doors… hey it worked so it’s all good!


Then it was off to Erdene Zuu monastery complex, which is probably the most ancient surviving Buddhist monastery in Mogolia. Parts of this are still active while parts of it are merely a “museum” of sorts but the whole thing was beautiful and so peaceful. I won’t get into political commentary (at least not on this ISSET blog!) but I will simply state that the Buddhists seem so peaceful in general – it’s rather refreshing. I was glad we had an official tour guide for a bit because it made us possible to understand more of what we were seeing. 


After touring the monastery we went to the Museum of Mongolian History (at least that’s what I think it’s called) and it was nice to learn more about the history of this amazing country we were all so privileged to be seeing. That evening we had some team tasks and we were all excited because allegedly there was a karaoke machine at the camp. We confirmed there was a karaoke machine and we started plotting the fun to be had with that but sadly we found out the machine was broken – total bummer! (A subset of us made up for it later in the trip though…. More on that later!)

The next day – which would be our last full day in Mongolia – we had an extra special treat. We stopped at a nomadic Mongolian family’s ger to see what they really live like and to ride their horses. This family, while they didn’t have much in Western terms materialistically, had an abundance of hospitality and they were kind enough to invite all 25 of us into their ger for traditional Mongolian foods to be shared. We enjoyed getting to meet them and were very grateful for their hospitality and their willingness to let us ride their horses that are their livelihood in life.


We were all starting to get a little sad that the trip was drawing to a close. We’d enjoyed every moment of the adventure and knew we would be sad to leave our new friends. Some of us were continuing onto Beijing for a few days but not everyone.

We trekked to our last overnight stop near a National Park where the last of the Mongolian Wild Horses roam. While driving through the Gobi you will see lots of wandering horses, cattle, sheep etc. so one might think that they are all wild but they are not. Since food (shrubs, vegetation etc.) and water are scarce all the animals will wander from their homes “out to the pasture” to graze and then return back home after they’ve eaten. It’s really quite amazing because it’s not like they just wander around the corner – they wander pretty darn far!! We drive into the Park and were lucky enough to come across a group of horses which included several foals. The males of the group quickly put themselves in between us and the females and foals and kept moving them further away from us.


We saw lots of marmots scampering about as we were driving but as soon as we would get close they would scatter. I stood very quietly amidst a bunch of their holes hoping one would come out and I could get a picture but no joy – oh well!!! That night we had some amazing presentations (more about that later) and some closing thoughts for the week because the next day it was off to the airport for everyone.

At the airport we said our good-byes to more than half the group who would not be continuing onto Beijing with the 9 of us. Even in saying good-bye I think most of knew that most of us would see each other again someday because the friendships formed this week were amazing!!!!

For example – the Bond trio of Sand Flea, Water Mouse and Mud Bunny were sad to part but they will reunite in a future adventure for sure! (I’ll let you sort out who is who – the answer might surprise some of you!)Image

I’ll pause here in my blog and then continue (tomorrow hopefully but I make no promises!) with either Beijing or the Leadership component….




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Gobi!!!! 2nd installment

After the Transit of Venus it was time to pack up again and hit the road. But first we had lunch, which brings me to a great point – the food in Mongolia was actually quite good. I have to admit I had prepared myself for the worst thinking it was likely stuff I wouldn’t eat but most of it was rather tasty! Generally rice and meat with some fresh veggies – overall good stuff!

We had a fairly long drive again but little did we know how worth it that it would be. We arrive at another ger camp and settled in. Our guides decided we should have dinner before seeing the “main attraction” of the evening. Some of us were skeptical about this plan but we were so wrong to be! During dinner we watched a movie about the area we were in – this area was where archaeologists first found dinosaur eggs! In addition there were many other paleontological discoveries as well.  We were at The Flaming Cliffs that in daylight were absolutely gorgeous but they became even more breathtaking with the sunset – obviously the guides knew what they were talking about! Honestly this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. 

We all wandered around – the teams had a task to work on as well – and I wandered down to check out a lone camel hanging out at the bottom of the cliffs. He was not real sure about me and stood very still as I approached in general but then decided I wasn’t a threat and went back to munching on whatever small vegetation he could find.

We had about an hour and a half to explore but I honestly could have spent all day here – many of the others agreed! However with sunset in progress it wouldn’t be long until we wouldn’t be able to find our way out (remember we are truly in the middle of the Gobi Desert so it’s not like there are a bunch of street lights etc!) so we headed back to camp and hung out for a bit in the dining area where we were treated to some musical entertainment from some of the gals… quality entertainment I must say!!

The next morning guess what we did – if you guessed hopped back in the vehicles to drive to our next destination you are absolutely correct! The next day we headed to the fanciest of all the Ger Camps we stayed at called “The Secret of Ongi.” While there we walked to tour the old Ongi Monastery which is in the process of being rebuilt from when the Russians destroyed the majority of the monasteries in the country during the late 1940s. Even in ruins the monastery and surroundings were absolutely gorgeous and so peaceful and serene. We all couldn’t help but wonder how amazing it would have been had it not been destroyed – and also how the whole area might have prospered as well.

That evening Ken kindly gave us his STS-132 mission presentation, which everyone (including all of our Mongolian drivers) enjoyed immensely. We then spent the rest of the evening hanging out and chatting. By now we had made so many new friends that it felt like we’d all known each other for ages! When it got a bit later Rhodri was kind enough to set up his telescope and we were fortunate enough to be able to see Saturn including its rings!! That was a total bonus for me since I had never actually seen Saturn through a telescope before. Once again – what a treat!!!!

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*Disclaimer – I know I am totally butchering all the names of these places…. Sorry about that for all you purists. 

** Second Disclaimer added a few days into the trip… This is going to be a very long blog because we are truly truly in remote land and have not gone through anywhere to upload a blog! So I’m continuing to keep it and will post all at once when we get back to civilization or maybe I’ll still do it in parts… I’m so decisive today. LOL!

*** Third Disclaimer
(Funny how I keep adding these huh?!) This trip is not only Astronomy Meets Adventure but it is also a Leadership Program. This blog is incredibly long just talking about the sites we are seeing so I’ve decided to do a completely separate blog entry about the Leadership portion of this so stay tuned for that in a few more days. 

Now onto the real stuff…
I must admit I was picturing a plane full of goats and chickens to fly is from Ulanbattar to Dahlanzgad but it was actually a pretty nice Fokker 50 run by Mongolian Air. It was a short 1 hour 13 minute flight and I have to say the pilot was actually decent!

Upon arrival we were met with 5 large all terrain vehicles that will be our transportation for the week. 

We have a fairly large group – 25 including various high school age students from Australia and their principal and teacher (Annecke who was a student at Mission Discovery in Adelaide), some people from the UK, an astronomer from the UK, 4 from the Columbus State University Coca Cola Science Center in Georgia (who we met a few months ago and are so excited to work with!), Chris Barber, myself and Ken. Everyone is fantastic and it’s great to see all sorts of new friendships forming already. 

We pulled into camp which is in the middle of nowhere and there stood 15 gers for us to reside in for the night. 
We did our first bit of leadership work over lunch and then we headed off to Yolyn Am which is translated as Valley of the Eagles or Vultures. This area was nothing of what I expected in the middle of the Gobi – huge rocky hills and glacier type ice!!! Absolutely gorgeous and striking. I can’t wait to post pictures for everyone to see. We hiked an enjoyed the beauty and the serenity of this place. I was very amused by all the small rodents running about – they looked like a cross between a gerbil and a prairie dog. Of course they were very elusive (wouldn’t you be if you were a small animal living in an area called the valley of the vultures?!?) so there may have been a few different kinds of animals. 

We are living on Gers which are similar to yert if you know what those are. Honestly quite comfortable living given that we are in the middle of nowhere! Plenty spacious for 2 people. 

Mary & Me in front of one of the gers

The next day we hopped in the vehicles for a rather long trek to our next destination. It was more than a 5 hour drive and needless to say there aren’t really any roads out here. It’s true off roading and I think we were all a bit shook up when arrived but we all arrived in one piece! This is how each day will go – we will leave the camp we stayed in and then set out for several hours drive to our next location so we can see as much of the Gobi as possible. 

I was extra excited about today because today we get to ride camels!! Some people were a tad bit apprehensive about this but that’s part of what an adventure like this is about – to step out of your comfort zone. These camels were different than the camel that we got to ride in Dubai – these are Bactrine Camels as opposed to Dromedary Camels and they were clearly really working camels instead of “prettified” tourist camels.Some people had camels who were well behaved and responded well to “commands” – I was one of those lucky folks. My camel and I bonded immediately (I named her Priscilla – as in Queen of the Desert) and we helped lead the pack. Several times Ken and his camel attempted to overtake me but their efforts were to no avail. Priscilla nudged them out of the way and we arrived at the sand dune at the front of the pack. I have to say these camels sure are smelly – they fart a lot and have nasty breath! But they are really incredible creatures. 

We all then set off to climb the sand dune and each of us had different goals as to where we wanted to reach on the sand dune. I think many people did not realize how difficult it is to climb up sand but they all persevered and kept at it. I was determined to make it to the top. Climbing the dune reminded me so much of playing at the dunes near Lake Michigan as a child.  Me being the way I am I was bound and determined to get to the top. What a workout!!! I frequently had to stop and catch my breath because every step forward I slipped back about half a step because it was so steep! Two thirds of the way up I realized my plan of attack was not the best given the plants I had hoped would give me more traction didn’t and that area was significantly steeper than the other options. I was certainly huffing and puffing and my legs were tired but I made it and was rewarded with a beautiful view! I was happy that several others were up there with me to see the great views. Coming back down was MUCH easier than going up (obviously!) and we were all sand covered by the time we were done but laughing and smiling! 

After dinner we had a wonderful presentation about the history of the Transit of Venus from Rhodrii an astronomer from Cardiff University. The Transit of Venus has only been viewed a little over a handful of times EVER in the world. 1631 was the first predicted one but it wasn’t seen then. 1639 was the first time it was actually seen and only by 2 people. Since then The Transit of Venus has only happened 5 more times and after tomorrow it won’t happen again for 105 more years!! Oh in case you are still wondering what the heck is the Transit of Venus – its where Venus is going to pass between the Earth and the Sun. 

Transit of Venus Day
We have been a little worried the last couple days because there has been a fair bit of cloud cover which is quite odd and suprising here in the Gobi. (In fact the reasons we picked the Gobi are that it’s one of the few places you can see the entire transit – 7 hours – and there was the least chance of adverse weather.) Upon waking this morning we were disappointed that there was a bit of cloud cover but we kept our spirits up because we just knew good karma would win out and we’d be able to see the transit. Though we missed first contact (the leading edge of Venus at the edge of the sun) the clouds broke shortly after it and there it was!!! While you do have to protect your eyes with special glasses or lens coverings it is possible to see it without the aid of a telescope!!! I am so happy for our friends from Georgia because they are webcasting this event which is absolutely historic!! Certainly we all knew there was a possibility that we might not be able to see the transit at all but of course we would be lying if we said we wouldn’t be disappointed if that were the case. 

I feel so incredibly fortunate to be here in such an amazing place viewing something absolutely unique and historic. What is also so amazing to witness and be a part of is (as Ken so eloquently put it) the human spirit being willing to travel to the ends of the Earth because of a desire to learn and observe an amazing phenomenon. 

As an intermission from the viewings we observed some local wildlife – a hedgehog which in Mongolia is called Zara. What a cutie. Unfortunately Ken wouldn’t let me bring him home with us!

We spent the morning til early afternoon (6am-1pm) watching the Transit off and on. Just as it was about to be over we all waved to Venus and said “Bye Venus” several people commented on how beautiful Venus was and without missing a beat both Michelle (different Michelle than me obviously – she’s also known as Legal Eagle) and I at the same time busted out into “Yeah Baby she’s got it…” from the song Venus. Of course we couldn’t help but bust out laughing as we realized what happened and Ken couldn’t help but shake his head and mutter “Oh my.” 

So far MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! But so much more to come… stay tuned…..

So it begins…

Our first day we spent in Ulaanbator seeing the capital city. Half of the population of Mongolia lives in this city which while very interesting is certainly far from what one would call cosmopolitan. We toured about the city a bit and saw some very interesting buildings. I guess I should have known this would be the case but I didn’t realize how Russian everything would be. We also went to a Mongolian History museum and to a cultural event where they had a show of Mongolian singers and dancers which was really cool. They do this incredible throat singing thing that I have no idea how they do it!!

It was a great first day to break us into being halfway around the world!!

Next… To the desert!

The Adventure Begins

Okay so maybe the beginning so far isn’t the most exciting but it’s an essential part of getting the major part underway! My beginning was a flight from Houston to Washington Dulles (IAD) airport where I had to connect to fly to Beijing. It was a crazy week and honestly one of the more crazy of my life EVER! We had packers and movers at our house all week, all sorts of “good bye” events since when we return from Gobi we will pretty much immediately be moving from Houston to Annapolis, and Ken’s final flight in the T-38 just a half a day before I had to leave. Needless to say by the time I got to the airport Friday (well before the birds woke up) I was worn out! That is actually kind of a nice way to be when you have lots of hours of flying! The first flight was a piece of cake – I amused myself by typing a few emails and reading a few of the many magazines I’d brought along that I hadn’t had time to read. I was a little nervous because it was an extremely tight turn for me at IAD (meaning very short time to get to my next airplane before it left.). Luckily my worries were unnecessary I got there with plenty of time. The next flight was the long one – about 14 hours… Still shorter than my trip to Australia for Mission Discovery in January. I got a bit of sleep in, read some magazines and watched lots of movies. Since I was wore out from the week just “chilling” worked out jut fine without me getting too pensive. Upon landing in Beijing I’ve had a 16 hour layover here so I got a hotel and got some proper sleep. Now I’m awake and headed back to the airport to meet up with most of the rest of the group and head to Mongolia! Ken will meet us a day late in Mongolia due to some obligations back home. I promise the rest of my blogs should be more interesting than this one but I wanted to keep you with me every step of the journey as much as I can. Again my posting will be dependent on ability to do so (in fact I had to wait til I got tothe first hotel in Mongolia to post this one because China doesn’t allow any sort of social media – Faebook is totally blocked as are other social media sites!) but I will do my best I promise! Stay tuned!!!