Hannah Wilson - General Care Projects in Mongolia
I spent 5 weeks in Ulaanbaatar following the completion of my university finals. I had studied Russian at university and wanted to escape to a far-off place just once more before I started working. I chose Mongolia as it had a historical connection with Russia, as a former Soviet protectorate. I travelled via Istanbul and Kyrgyzstan, and as the plane began its descent, I had the impression of being totally transported. I am from a small, low-lying island, and so vast expanses of green hills and claw-like valleys are alien.
As we neared UB city, there was an increasing concentration of white circular gers (felt-made traditional dwellings) juxtaposed with heavy industrial equipment. The contrast between the timelessly traditional and the technological contemporary was striking. On the ground, the overwhelming impression was one of dusty, frantic and rapid development, construction and industry. Immediately I sensed a country that was determined to maximise the considerable potential afforded by its natural resources.
As I drove away from the airport, towards the centre of the city, the architecture reflected the melting pot of cultural and economic influences at play. The downtown cityscape was a mixture of the steel and glass ubiquitous in most business districts the world over and trendy South Korean-style eateries and karaoke bars. Further out, legions of down-at-heel blocks of flats, monolithic relics from the Soviet past marched across the skyline. All of these symbols of the twentieth and twenty-first century were intermingled with the ger districts, criss-crossed by alleyways, in which people lived a lifestyle redolent of the nomadic past.
My Care project
My placement was at the Amila Kindergarten Summer School, where I worked as an English teacher for 4-5 year olds and looked after toddlers aged 6 months- 2 years. The full-time teaching staff allowed me to design my own lessons, which was wonderful. Working with babies was often hilarious but could often seem like crisis management - with as many as 16 children and three adults; we were certainly kept on our toes! The main lull of the day occurred following nap time, when the children sat in a circle quietly consuming their daily biscuits and sweetly slurping their tea. Then, it was back to mayhem until their parents came to collect them.
A further reward of working at the kindergarten was interaction with the staff. I was lucky enough to be able to practise my Russian with two of my colleagues, as one was a Kazakh National and the other had learnt Russian at school during childhood. Working at the kindergarten was immensely rewarding and fun. I would recommend such a placement to anyone who needs a career or education break and would like to stretch their people skills in a new direction. Taking care of two-year-olds is also fantastic for developing multi-tasking abilities….
Travelling in Mongolia at the weekends
One of the most incredible experiences I have ever had was the weekend retreat I and some friends organised on the edge of Hustai National Park. We were hosted by a Norwegian lady who had married a Mongolian horse-trekking leader and former miner. We rode on semi-wild horses across the Mongolian steppe in a storm on one day, and up into the alpine scenery of the border with the National Park on the next. The scale and emptiness of the countryside made it seem as though we had returned to the Jurassic period.
On our rides, the Mongolian horsemen wore traditional garb (dels) and galloped ahead of us, wheeling round on their horses and waving their arms. It was refreshing to have a break from the health-and-safety nightmare of Western Europe, as there wasn’t a riding helmet or safety stirrup in sight and it was questionable whether the horses had been fully broken in! In the evenings, we stayed in gers, and also paid a visit to a nomadic family who offered us home-distilled milk vodka to fortify us for our long ride back to base camp. This weekend was the perfect antidote to the dusty bustle of the city and something I shall truly never forget.
I was very fortunate to be spending time in the country during the most important national festival, Naadam, held annually between 11th-13th July. The festival is a celebration not only of the many layers of Mongolian cultural identity, but also of the ‘three manly sports’- horse-racing, wrestling and archery. I watched the opening ceremony courtesy of some black market tickets in the national stadium, seated on the lap of an Australian friend of mine and surrounded on all sides by jostling Mongolian fans in bright national costume. The ceremony was a charivari of vividly dressed herdsmen, riders, acrobats and dancers of all age groups. Shamans in mock-trance appeared wielding drums, small boys dressed in wrestling shorts and leather boots marched across the parade ground along with agile mounted acrobats who could run alongside their horses and re-mount mid-stride as easily as they could do the splits on top of the saddle in mid-gallop. The finale, fittingly, featured a tableau in the shape of the country and hauntingly beautiful strains of folk music played on traditional instruments.
In the second part of the day we managed to hitch a lift with a Kazakh observing Ramadan, who kindly agreed to take us to the Naadam horse race. This was located on the panoramic steppe outside the city. Seemingly in the middle of undulating nothingness, a mini-fairground, tourist gers and a makeshift grandstand had been set up. The holiday atmosphere was palpable with very few foreigners and very many Mongolians, many of whom, even as spectators, attended on horseback. The 45km race involved some 200 child jockeys, most of whom were aged under 6 and were competing for prize money equivalent to $100,000. The jockeys, many of whom were riding bareback, began their race 1 hour’s gallop away and approached the grandstand in an ever-looming column of dust on the horizon. In the meantime, we watched more horse-back gymnastics and a military display involving mounted Chinggis Khan-costumed warriors who displayed, amongst other tricks, the skill of kicking their horses behind the foreleg to get them to play dead. This certainly reinforced the adage that Mongolia was a land of instinctive horsemen.
My time in Mongolia was a fantastic adventure and an escape from the real world. At times, the stunning beauty and emptiness of the country was surreal. I feel privileged to have had a snapshot of it at what could prove to be a crucial time in the development of its twenty-first century identity. It certainly would be interesting to return in a few decades’ time to see exactly what has changed. My only regret is that I did not have time to incorporate my Mongolian travels with the trans-Siberian railway or a trip to mainland China….
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.