Article Published + Interview

The latest issue of the ‘Mongolia Today’ magazine, published by the Montsame News Agency, has just come out and features my article about the National University of Mongolia…(link to PDF below)

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…and an interview in which I discuss my impressions of Mongolian music!

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Mongolia Photo Montage

So I thought that I would round off my adventure by putting up the photos which actually have me in them! As I hope you can see from the pics, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring the incredible country of Mongolia.

Thank you to everyone who followed this blog — your encouragement meant a lot to me.

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The Child Smile Foundation

A while back I put up a post about a community outreach project which our journalism volunteer group did. We were helping Davaajargal Makhal, a doctor and single mother, to expand her charity by setting her up with email, Facebook, Twitter, a donation page, a logo, and by making a documentary detailing the hard lives of single mothers with disabled children in Ulaanbaatar, which we screened in the city centre last month. At the event, we also made felt shoes and seat cushions to donate to the children’s daycare centre which Davaa runs entirely out of her own salary. On International Women’s Day, we headed out to the ger district to witness for ourselves the difficult circumstances faced by the single mothers and their families. Here we also visited the daycare centre to meet the staff and children, and to carry out filming for our documentary:

In the Bavangol district alone there are 480 disabled children, 70% of whom live in underprivileged areas with no heating or water system. Of these 480 children, 50% have Cerebral Palsy. Caring for their children’s complex needs places an unrelenting strain on parents, who risk losing their minuscule $21 per month allowance if they go out to work.

The four main aims of the Child Smile Foundation are:

1 – To increase public awareness of the problems faced by single mothers and their disabled children.

2 – To expand the daycare centre and supply it with the appropriate equipment and machines to help the disabled children.

3 – To equip parents with better knowledge of their child’s disability, and also to equip them with the skills needed to gain employment.

4 – To carry out further research and analysis into disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy.

I know that even a single pound would make a huge difference to the very sad lives of the single mothers and their families. If anyone would like to donate, please contact Davaa at thechildsmilefoundation@outlook.com

Article Published! – Ulaanbaatar Through The Eyes Of A Foreigner

My last-but-one article for Montsame News Agency was published in last Friday’s issue of the ‘Mongol Messenger’ newspaper. My final article for the agency is about the National University of Mongolia and will be published in the magazine that comes out in June.

It can be read here: NUM

 

Tomorrow I leave Mongolia to come back to England, so this may be the last post on this blog, although I might put up a little slideshow of photos in a few days time. For now, here are my thoughts on the city of Ulaanbaatar, which I am surely going to miss.

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ULAANBAATAR THROUGH THE EYES OF A FOREIGNER

Expectations Vs. Reality: When I applied for a Projects Abroad internship in Ulaanbaatar, I had no idea what to expect. Booking my plane ticket felt like I was diving blindfolded off a precipice, and my apprehension was compounded by the reactions of my friends and family to the news. Some laughed, some almost choked, some even let out an involuntary gasp of horror. Everyone looked bewildered. “Mongolia?” they would squeel, “Why on earth are you going to Mongolia?” The notion that I would willingly leave Somerset to travel 4,380 miles to what they believed to be a frozen wasteland was completely unfathomable to them. Some refused to believe it entirely, writing ‘good luck’ messages for my trip to Samoa or Thailand. Others tried to convince me that I had embarked on a suicide mission and that I was inevitably going to be kidnapped and exchanged for a yak on the Mongolian steppes. One person even tried to convince me that the Mongolians were cannibals.

But whatever my expectations of Mongolia were, they were demolished within seconds of touching down at Chinggis Khaan Airport. Here I was met by Zulaa, whose big smile made it known to me that the Mongolians are a nation of kind-hearted, sincere and hospitable people. I could not have anticipated the warm welcome I would receive from my host family and from my colleagues at work, who offered me sweets, tea and ‘buuz’ the minute I stepped through the door. (I also did not anticipate the efficiency of Mongolian central-heating systems, as is apparent from my suitcase plump with fur, fleece and thermals. As a consequence, I’ve sat in my apartment every evening feeling hot as a steamed dumpling). I have been humbled by people’s compassion and generosity, and impressed by the pride they demonstrate for their country and their values. All of my anxieties have been dispelled by the knowledge that the Mongolians do not wish to make a foreigner uncomfortable in their country, but to welcome them as a friend.

Comparing Mongolia with England: In some ways, Mongolia and England are not too dissimilar. The skylines of London and Ulaanbaatar are both dominated by glinting glass buildings, and certainly, the Blue Sky Tower bears some resemblance to London’s famous ‘Gherkin’. Also, both nations share a love for tea that is rivalled only by the love one feels for one’s closest family members. Arrive at the door of an English or Mongolian home, and a steaming cup of the brown elixir will be served to you within minutes.

But there the similarities end.

The snow-capped mountains of Mongolia are a far cry from England’s green hills, and certainly, you are unlikely to see soaring eagles in the skies over Derbyshire. You may spot a wren. A chaffinch if you are lucky. The seeming endlessness of the Mongolian countryside was what struck me the most upon arrival here (apart from the traffic, which struck me on the back of the leg as I crossed Peace Avenue). The steppes stretch for miles and miles until they blur into the blue sky they lie so magnificently beneath. Contrastingly, in England the land is divided by hedgerows, fences and country lanes, portioned up into squares of green like patches on a quilt. This is to describe the parts of England which actually are green, for England is a country of towns and cities to a much greater extent than Mongolia, owing of course to the difference in population size between the two countries. Which landscape do I prefer? The verdant valleys of England will forever be my home, but I think a space has opened in my heart for wild Mongolia. Its mountains will loom large in my memory for many years to come.

Of course, the apparent absence of any road rules in Ulaanbaatar was something I couldn’t fail to notice as soon as I arrived, when a car swerved spectacularly in front of us, blaring its horn and missing us by mere centimetres. This erratic swerving to the left and right is less common in England, with the exception perhaps of Swindon on a Friday night. Maybe it is because the English are a nation of people who will apologise profusely even if someone propels them sideways off a pavement that they stop their shuddering cars at the red lights regardless of whether there are pedestrians crossing or not.

Mongolian cuisine is also very different from the British food that I am used to. In England, chicken, steak and bacon is generally preferred to mutton, and the Mongolian ‘buuz’ which I was immediately treated to upon my arrival here was a novelty for me. My surprise at sampling what I thought to be a gherkin that turned out to be a tomato was quite considerable. Do I prefer English food? In actual fact, I do not. Mongolian food has a wholesomeness that you cannot really get from your beer-battered cod and chips, and a mug of warm Mongolian milk beats a cup of semi-skimmed any day.

One final and crucial comparison to make is that between Mongolian and British beds. Perhaps this is a gross generalisation, since I only slept on one bed in Mongolia, but they seem to be a lot harder than British beds. I realised this very soon after arriving at my host family’s apartment where I, an exhausted over-heating traveller laden with heavy luggage, plonked myself down on my new mattress, and in doing so, nearly broke my back in four places.

A newbie in UB: Of course I felt like a foreigner in Ulaanbaatar. I could hardly have looked more Western if I’d draped the Union Jack around my shoulders and launched into a stirring rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’, and everywhere I went I attracted attention. But most glances were of intrigue, not menace, and I’m sure that I too was guilty of a little staring. Feelings of vulnerability were only aroused when I thought about getting a bus or a taxi, which my hosts repeatedly warned me against, or when I visited one of the markets and was advised to hold onto my bag. Walking home late in the evening clutching a pillow was probably not the wisest idea, but I think I already mentioned the bed situation. I felt lost in any part of the city which wasn’t Chinggis Square, and Mongolian money baffled me — I looked painfully English at the bakery in my first week when I handed over two 20,000 Tugrik notes for a sandwich that only cost 6,000 T.

And I did miss England a little. I missed my family and friends for example, and my pet dog and cat. I could have stroked one of the dogs wandering around Ulaanbaatar, but I think this would have been inadvisable, resulting either in mange or the total loss of a forearm. I also missed the colour green. That’s not to say that there isn’t some green in Ulaanbaatar — the ‘Unitel’ sign for example is quite a brilliant lime. But I missed seeing trees bursting with leaves and fields covered in grass. In Ulaanbaatar, I felt like I was living inside a snowglobe — one that had been shaken very vigorously — for often I was walking around completely disorientated.

But my overall impression of the city was a positive one. The lighting-up of Chinggis Square ignited feelings of excitement in me to be in Mongolia, sharing incredible and happy moments with the beautiful Mongolian people. From the vibrant colours of the market-stalls to the pristine whiteness of the snow, from the wild roaring roads to the peaceful hill-top monasteries, Ulaanbaatar is a city which cannot fail to captivate a foreigner’s mind, and I’m glad that I came here.

4 Day Road Trip in Pictures

I wanted to go on one last adventure before I left Mongolia, and so I found myself in a Russian military truck with a Mongolian driver called Ikhee, who wore a leather jacket and promised me that if I couldn’t speak Mongolian now, I would be able to after a bottle of vodka. My first glimpse of him was seeing him staggering down the street carrying an entire crate of cigarettes, which he threw in the back of the truck.

Ikhee was also in charge of buying us provisions for the journey. Breakfast day 2 consisted of a bowl containing cucumber, tomatoes, a slice of cheese still in its plastic, and a hunk of swiss roll.

Also on the trip was a young Dutch couple called Esther and Jordy, who were stopping in Mongolia before continuing on to Beijing with the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Here is a record of the trip in pictures:

DAY 1 – KHARKHORIN

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We stopped here for lunch (‘khuushuur’, or fried dumplings), and so that Ikhee could buy a Coke from that huge Coca Cola lorry in the middle.
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Kharkhorin is the ruined ancient capital of Mongolia

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We couldn’t get this dog off
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Thank you Rabies jabs

We stayed at a ger guesthouse that night, in beds that were 90 years old.

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We climbed up a hill in the evening to watch the sunset.

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Kharkhorin on the right

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DAY 2 – ERDENE ZUU MONASTERY & THE WATERFALL

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This was the last ‘road’ — from then on we were just hurtling over rocks, driving through rivers and over frozen lakes. We were thrown around like laundry in a tumble dryer, and the back right door kept flying open, meaning Jordy ended up on more than one occasion with half his body out of the truck.

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The waterfall was completely frozen except for that bit on the right, which was crashing down onto the ice below.

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DSC01375DSC01376DSC01378DSC01436 (2)Here we stayed the night in a nomad family ger. Jordy put way too much wood on the fire, nearly burning us to a crisp and depleting the Mongolian population even further. The nomad (wearing pin stripe trousers and a golfing sweater) came out of his ger with a cigar between his teeth, laughing like some kind of Bond villain.DSC01440 (2)

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It was a long way to the toilet
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And there were yaks everywhere, which made walking in the dark a bit problematic.

DAY 3 – MINI GOBI

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[Not pictured — Ikhee charging around the field flapping his arms and squarking, in a heroic attempt to make the vultures take off]
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This might be my favourite picture of Mongolia
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Orkhon valley
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This is Mongolia, where you can drive for hours and hours and not see a thing except for animal skeletons and horses.
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Ikhee drove us up a hill and stopped the truck at this monument. It marks the exact centre of Mongolia, so of course we all made sure to stand right in the middle of it.

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Arrived at our final nomad ger
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This gent was brilliant. He took us camel riding and horse riding, and spent the entire time grinning at us, going “Vodka?” and pretending to down a glass. In all, I reckon he repeated this about thirty times.

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The inside of the nomad’s ger
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The inside of our ger

I made friends.

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Outside our ger there was a pen full of lambs and goat kids. The nomad showed me one little goat which he was particularly proud of because its horns were just coming through. He scooped up the little thing and placed him in my arms. I spent a happy evening cuddling the sweet thing.

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Here’s the little fella

In the evening, the nomads got on motorbikes and camels and herded the sheep and goats back into the pen.

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DAY 4 – BACK TO UB

No photos to show for this, it was just a very long 7 hour drive back to the city. One of the nomad’s sons had to go back to school in Ulaanbaatar, and so he jumped in the truck too. 7 hours is a long time to listen to Mongolian radio by the way.

Enkhzul’s Wonderful English Volume II

At the pedestrian crossing – “Ah, it is green man. We are boss of the road for this time.”

“Now I feel like the egg. I feel new and ready for anything.”

Explaining a card game to me – “This card goes to sleep.” (goes to the ‘discard’ pile). “This card eats this card.”

“The doctor is going to give me an infusion.”

“You have tall nose.”

“My stomach is full but my heart is not.”

“I want to be the paper so I can fly. Then I could fly around the home. That would be easier.”

“I feel like the dead person.” – That one literally stopped me in my tracks as we were walking. “Because you are disappearing.” she added.

“Springtime changes people in their hearts.”

Getting Ready To Ger

Just over three weeks until I leave my home in sedated Somerset to face the terrifying unknown of Mongolia. I am imagining myself there now, though this is proving somewhat difficult, mainly because I have a fan heater on next to my desk which is enveloping me in a blissful shroud of warmth and making me feel snug as a tortoise under a UVB bulb.

So yes, preparations for my trip are underway. Mental preparations consist of me softly tapping my head against the door-frame and admonishing myself for ever letting such wild thoughts manifest themselves in my membranes. Physical preparations include having every disease known to man injected into my arm at inconveniently regular intervals. Should I mislay my vaccination card, they need only count the marks on my upper arm which I’m sure, if joined up, spell the word ‘Regret’.

Several shopping trips have taken place, most of them not very fruitful, except for my unearthing an absolute treasure on the ‘sale rail’ of ‘Mole Valley Farm Shop’ – a fluffy zip-up fleece that is extremely cosy with the added benefit of making me look like a sheep. On second thoughts, this might not prove a benefit when I am plucked from a valley by a confused eagle and borne away over the Altai mountains, never to be seen again.

The contents of my suitcase looks like what a field doctor might have taken with him to treat the mortally wounded at the Somme. It is full of saline sachets, gels, creams, pills, and a metre-long roll of plaster. Hopefully I will not sustain enough injuries to warrant the total use of this supply of adhesive, but you never know. I didn’t finish my course of Hepatitis B vaccinations, so I’ve got to be extra careful not to fall on any machetes, or flick the pages of my Lonely Planet phrasebook too quickly against my finger.

Reading this over, I feel I’ve given the impression of being in a state of unadulterated frenzied panic about my impending trip. This is an entirely accurate reflection of my current mood. However, there are some feelings of excitement creeping in as March 2nd rolls closer. I am looking forward to meeting my host family, to starting work on the newspaper, and to learning as much as I possibly can about this land of horse-racers, eagle-hunters and cattle-herders. I am looking forward to witnessing the vast and majestic beauty of the Mongolian landscape, so different from the latticed fields of England. I will discover whether I have a place in the city (I hope I do, or I will have to reapply for accommodation), and what place that city and country may come to occupy on the world stage in the years to come. And though all I can think about at the moment is how incredibly apprehensive I feel, I am sure that I’m in for the adventure of a lifetime.