Rachel Hardy - General Journalism Projects in Mongolia
Although, at first, there was a little uncertainty as to where my placement would be, my supervisor at Projects Abroad found me an excellent private media and communications company. Whilst there, I was given opportunities that I would never have been given as a graduate back in England, making it overall a hugely valuable experience.
As Assistant Producer, I was able to contribute my thoughts and ideas towards a documentary that was being made by the company about homeless children in Ulaanbaatar. My involvement in this documentary meant that I was often out on location assisting the TV crew, which allowed me to see areas of Ulaanbaatar and remote parts of the countryside that most tourists would never get the opportunity to explore.
One particular excursion saw us driving into the back of beyond in search of historic drawings on rocks that had never been filmed before. With the absence of maps and satellite technology we were, inevitably, unsuccessful in tracing their location. Nevertheless, our day was not ruined as we stumbled upon an elderly grandmother who invited us into her ger for a mug-full of arikh, vodka and some aaruul, dried curd.
The documentary concerning homeless children involved working with three of the most famous pop stars in Mongolia. I, personally, had never heard of them before, however, I was assured that they were almost as legendary as Chinggis Khan, himself. Not only did I get a taste for stardom at work, but I was fortunate enough to be invited to a movie premier, which put red carpet events at Leicester Square to shame. After mingling with the actors and actresses, I stepped into an enormous cinema and was sat directly behind the Prime Minister and his bodyguards – a surreal moment.
The placement also saw me working as a script writer for a travel documentary based in Mongolia, and I was given the responsibility to carry out research for a psychology show, based at Star TV. My placement not only gave me a great insight into the process of television production in a developing country, but it also provided me with the chance to meet ex-pat producers and film directors whose knowledge and guidance about the industry and Mongolia itself, has proven to be invaluable.
My Host Family
Whilst I was a little apprehensive at first about meeting my host-family, in hindsight, I had absolutely no reason to be. My host family was incredible. On my arrival, the eldest son greeted me with the most wonderful smile, and welcomed me into his home to share some home-made talkh, bread and some süütei tsai, milk-based salty tea. Although this was not the most pleasant of drinks to be confronted with having just arrived, exhausted and overwhelmed, but his warmth and gentility made me feel more than comfortable.
He explained, in fairly good English, that I was now part of his family and that his home was now mine too. I shared the one bedroom apartment with his parents, his wife, his two brothers, and his two year old son – a bit of a squeeze, but a fantastic way to experience the Mongolian family culture. Their generosity was unlike anything I had ever come across before.
My host family insisted that I occupied their only bedroom, whilst they all slept in the lounge. They made copious amounts of traditional food, some of which I tried to avoid, in all honesty. Even after two months of living in Mongolia, my stomach still could not quite handle the fatty mutton, sheep brain and tongues that were occasionally put in front of me. My host family respected the fact that I was not particularly fond of the cuisine, and was perfectly happy for me to eat out in restaurants regularly with friends.
They respected my privacy when I required it, and allowed me to come and go as I pleased. On my last day in the country, my host-mother threw me a wonderful farewell party with a delicious meal and a decadent cake. Her friends and family joined us in the celebration and unexpectedly presented me with a gift. I could not have wished to have lived with a more charming family in a country so very different to my own.
Life in Mongolia
Despite the particularly large population of Ulaanbaatar (1.5 million), it is remarkably easy to make friends. The Mongolians are eager to befriend Westerners, partly because they are keen to learn the English language, and partly because they are simply fascinated by the Western appearance – blonde hair and blue eyes are of particular interest. Not only is it easy to make friends with the locals, but it is somewhat impossible not to bump into ex-pats that will welcome you into their community with open arms.
It seemed that the first question when introducing yourselves to each other was, “why Mongolia?” to which almost everyone replied, “why not?” Finding like-minded people was refreshing, and not to mention interesting. Our appetite for adventure led us to explore parts of Mongolia together. A group of us, for example, travelled to Tsonjin Boldog for the day to see the enormous statue of Chinggis Khan and we visited Buddhist temples along the way.
Four of us from Projects Abroad decided to spend five incredible days travelling around the southern Gobi Desert, where we stayed with nomads in their gers, rode across the sand dunes on an old Soviet motorbike, and went camel trekking in -30C. Regardless of temperatures plummeting by December, the spirit among everyone kept life in Mongolia very much alive.
Adjusting to Mongolian culture is by no means straightforward or easy. It is certainly one of the biggest challenges one will face whilst living in the country. Volunteering in a remote, yet rapidly developing part of the world will inevitably test one’s ability to deal with everyday life, but once you have succeeded in adapting to the different people, environments and culture, you will find yourself having deep admiration for The Land of Blue Sky.