One of my articles has just been translated and published over in Denmark!
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.
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 email@example.com
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 (including some with me actually in them!) in a few days time. For now, here are my thoughts on the city of Ulaanbaatar, which I am surely going to miss.
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.
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
We stayed at a ger guesthouse that night, in beds that were 90 years old.
We climbed up a hill in the evening to watch the sunset.
DAY 2 – ERDENE ZUU MONASTERY & THE WATERFALL
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.
DAY 3 – MINI GOBI
I made friends.
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.
In the evening, the nomads got on motorbikes and camels and herded the sheep and goats back into the pen.
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.
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.”
My interview with/article about explorer Andrew Lloyd was published in this Friday’s issue of the ‘Mongol Messenger’ newspaper! Andrew is on an expedition from Yakutsk to Darjeeling to raise money for the Gurkha Welfare Trust, and is about to begin his journey through the Gobi desert.
Andrew was an interesting person to interview, and has been a good friend to me for the past two weeks, providing me with some of my funniest memories of Mongolia.
I am also very thankful to him for inviting me to spend yesterday evening with explorer Karl Bushby, who, in three or four years time, all being well, will have become the first person in history to have walked a completely unbroken path around the world.
You can read the article here: ANDREW LLOYD
The full version of my interview with Canadian band ‘Braids’ has also just been uploaded to the Montsame News Agency website:
And my ‘Nomad Spirit’ article from two or three weeks ago can be read here: ‘NOMAD SPIRIT’
I thought I should make a little post about Chinggis Square (formerly Sukhbaatar Square) since I’ve walked across it twice a day for the past five weeks (my workplace is just behind that big black building on the left).
That impressive-looking building in the middle is the Government Palace. Seated in the centre is Genghis Khan, flanked by Ogedei Khan and Kublai Khan.
In the centre of the square stands an equestrian statue of Damdin Sukhbaatar, one of the leaders of Mongolia’s 1921 revolution against the Chinese.
The State Ballet and Opera House is my favourite building, located on the East side of the square. It looks somehow edible…
On the South side of the square is the most useful landmark in Ulaanbaatar – the Blue Sky Tower.
On the West side you have the Golomt Bank, the Mongolian Central Stock Exchange, the Telecommunications building and the Central Post Office.
And of course, you can always see the mountains.
On particularly fine days, there are these tiny colourful cars that parents can rent out for their children to drive around the square in. The true Mini Coopers.
Chinggis Square at night is also pretty impressive. The whole of the Government Palace is lit up, and twinkling string lights are also spiralled around the avenue of trees lining the South side. Oh, and the little cars for the children light up too.
The Winter Palace was built between 1893 and 1903 for Mongolia’s eighth living Buddha and last king, the Bogd Khan. He lived there for 20 years.
Although the Summer Palace was destroyed, the Winter Palace was spared destruction by the Russians. Now it is a museum, and a good one at that.
Amongst the exhibits are a Ger lined with the skin of 150 leopards, a robe made out of 80 foxes, a pair of gold boots gifted by the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, and a parasol gifted by the British and made entirely out of peacock feathers. A tour through the palace brings you into two rooms full of taxidermied animals. These were two of the most amazing rooms I have ever been in! The first was full of exotic birds in every colour of the rainbow – some of them were tiny and beautiful, others were massive and freaky-looking. Toucans and even penguins were amongst the animals brought to the Bogd Khan’s palace. At the back of the second room (filled mostly with reptiles) was an armadillo, a sloth, and, most incredibly, a tiger swinging a bloodied gazelle in its jaws. A pretty surreal place.
You weren’t allowed to take pictures in the museum so I’ve nicked some off the Internet:
It’s fair to say that the Bogd Khan was keen on animals – he had a brown elephant calf walked through the Gobi desert for him to keep at the palace. He was particularly fond of this elephant, and there is a black and white photograph of it in the exhibition. Next to this photograph, in a glass cabinet, you can see the elephant’s red ceremonial hat which it wore on special occasions. My colleague told me that the elephant was cared for by the tallest man in the world at that time — so tall he could reportedly walk along next to the palace walls and pick up people walking on the other side without bending down.
A little further through the exhibition you can see the framed certificate of Mongolia’s Declaration of Independence from China (1911), and then the bedroom of the king and queen. The Bogd Khan and his wife slept separately, in beds surrounded by painted glass. However, the doors of these glass cubes were pointed towards each other, so that the king and queen would see each other when they woke up in the mornings. Also in the bedroom was the Bogd Khan’s musical chair, which I imagine he probably considered throwing out of the ornate window one or two times.
There are six temples in the palace grounds, and most of these are filled with golden bronze and copper bronze statues inlaid with coral and turquoise, as well as richly coloured tapestries and wood carvings. There is a whole room dedicated to paintings of the ‘White Tara’, many of which were painted in a single day.
The Gandan Khiid monastery is an active monastery which stands atop a hill in Ulaanbaatar city. Its full name – Gandantegchinlen – roughly translates as ‘the great place of complete joy’.
The monastery was one of the few to survive the Communist purges of 1937, but was closed in 1938. It was hastily opened again in 1944, when US President Henry Wallace asked to see a monastery during his visit to Mongolia that year. Until 1990, Gandantegchinlen remained a ‘show monastery’ for foreign visitors, distracting from the fact that Prime Minister Choibalsan had laid waste to much of Mongolia’s religious heritage in the first part of that century.
As you enter the monastery’s main attraction, the Migjid Janraisig Sum, you find yourself face to face, or rather, face to base, with a 26m high statue, made of copper with a gilt gold covering and inlaid with 2,236 precious gems. The eighth Bogd Khan commissioned the original statue in 1911, but it was removed by Russia in 1937 and allegedly melted down to make bullets. The new statue was built in 1996 with donations from the Mongolian, Japanese and Nepali people and is said to contain 27 tonnes of medicinal herbs and 334 Sutras (Buddhist scriptures).
As you enter the monastery you see candles and incense burning in front of a kind of altar. People stand in front of this to pray, and use their hands to waft the smoke towards their faces.
All around the room there are gold prayer wheels embossed with religious scripture. The custom is to walk around the whole monastery, turning each wheel with your right hand.
The monastery is part of a complex – you can also see the Ochidara Temple, the two-storey Didan-Lavran Temple, the four colleges of Buddhist philosophy, and the Ondor Gegeen Zanabazar Buddhist University.