Elizabeth Watson - General Business Projects in Mongolia
I would love to say that I had planned my trip to Mongolia for months, but the reality is that I am not that organised, and I actually only applied one month before my trip to Mongolia. However, within a couple of emails to Projects Abroad they had my placement, host family and flights planned.
After telling my friends and family I was travelling to Mongolia, most of their reactions were “Why Mongolia?” I chose this destination as I wanted to do a Business project within Asia. It was also a great chance to work in a city which is growing as rapidly as Ulaanbaatar; it was the perfect choice.
The first weekend in Ulaanbaatar
About 15 hours after leaving London, I was being welcomed at the airport in Ulaanbaatar by one of the Projects Abroad staff. Thankfully, I arrived about 10pm so I was driven straight to my host family’s apartment and after a brief introduction I was left to sleep off my jet lag.
The first morning in Ulaanbaatar I was properly introduced to my host grandmother, mother and sister. Shortly after, I was taken off on my introduction and tour of Ulaanbaatar by one of the Projects Abroad staff. They helped me set up my new Mongolian number, exchange my money for bundle of tögrög notes (also known as tugrik) and gave me a map of Ulaanbaatar; then I was ready for my first weekend.
Thankfully it is quite easy to travel around Ulaanbaatar. If you got lost, you would either search for the main road through the city named Peace Avenue, or look to the skyline for the Blue Sky Tower, which is situated in the very centre of the city. After my first day wandering in the city, alone, I was ready to experience my first Mongolian dinner and join my host family in the living room to watch some Korean soap operas (which apparently is very popular in Mongolia).
My experience in the countryside
On my second day, my host sister invited me on a trip to the countryside with the rest of the family. I had heard so much about the countryside that I jumped at the chance. It is probably worth mentioning that the road conditions in Ulaanbaatar aren't great in summer, as this is the only time of year the weather is good enough to get road-work done.
My first trip to the countryside was quite an experience, with very bumpy roads (and some dirt tracks) and excessive overtaking, I was very thankful that I didn’t get car sick. However, the countryside is definitely worth the ‘bad’ road conditions. I was taken aback by how beautiful Mongolia was with its untouched landscapes for miles. This was also my first chance to visit a traditional Nomadic home called a Ger; which many of those who live in the city move to during the summer months.
My Business project in Mongolia
I was placed at the Credit Guarantee Fund of Mongolia; an NGO which officially started operating in 2013. They focused on helping small to medium enterprises struggling to obtain loans from the bank by providing a guarantee to the repayment of their loan.
During my first week I was placed in the marketing department. Since the organisation is new, they looked at other countries for examples of how to operate credit guarantee schemes. I was given the task of producing a report into how these schemes are run and marketed in the UK. This was not only helpful to them, but it gave me insight into the difference in opportunities for small businesses in a country like my own in comparison to Mongolia.
My remaining weeks were spent working in the international relations department, helping businesses apply for funding from other countries and wrote up reports on recent business trips. I also taught basic English to some of the staff. This was really fun for me; getting to see them so eager to learn a language I take for granted. It gave me a chance to share some information about my culture.
The Mongolian people can be quite shy when it comes to speaking in English, so I think one of my best moments was when one of the men I had taught English had a conversation with me in front of the entire office. On my last day the director of the company even presented me with a goodbye gift and thanked me for my work. It was such a lovely end to my time there and made me realise how a little bit of help can aid these organisations.
Free time in Mongolia
Obviously being in a different country there will be cultural differences, but having the other volunteers who were going through the same experience made it a lot easier. There were a lot of discussions about the food, including some fermented cheese that I will never forget the taste of. Whether it was a pint at Grand Khaans Irish pub, or doing tourist activities on the weekend, it was great sharing our experiences with each other.
I would say our trip to Terelj National Park, about 2 hours east of the city, was one of my best experiences, and I would advise anyone going to Ulaanbaatar to take this trip. Also, for one of my last night’s we had planned a trip up to the Zaisan memorial which was built as a memorial for the soviet soldiers killed in World War II. Armed with some champagne and a watermelon, we made it to the top, after climbing a ridiculous amount of steps to watch the sunset over the city. The view was amazing and such a great way to end my time in Ulaanbaatar.
I have been home for about a month now and I miss the people I met and the country. It’s a beautiful place and the people are incredibly friendly. I would advise anyone considering travelling to Mongolia to definitely do it.