Ruth Allerstorfer - General Journalism Projects in Mongolia
I spent 10 weeks in Mongolia volunteering with the Mongol Messenger, a state owned English newspaper. With hindsight it’s hard to believe that it was really that long, as these were 10 of the fastest weeks I’ve experienced: jam-packed with new opportunities, experiences and, above all, friendly and bouncy people - both volunteers and locals.
The first thing to learn about life in Ulaanbaatar (UB) is that there is always something going on (although half the time people have no clue what it actually is you are witnessing), and that no day can ever be the same unless you stay in your bedroom hiding under the covers.
Arriving in Mongolia
I arrived in Mongolia at 8am on a Sunday morning. The first thing that struck me was how deadly quiet everything seemed to be. Arriving on a Sunday also gave me a false impression of the city, as everything was pretty quiet and semi-organised (with hindsight, I can add that this is because people don’t generally make it outside until about 2pm on Sundays).
These misconceptions of a semi-peaceful Asian capital were resoundingly shattered the following morning however, when I beheld UB’s Monday morning rush hour in all its glory. Cars of all shapes and sizes drove haphazardly everywhere, grid-locking Peace Avenue and the other big streets, with a general consensus that traffic rules are more like guidelines anyway. Crossing any major road is an adventure in itself.
Living in Ulaanbaatar
Ulaanbaatar is a far cry from the ‘end of the world’ idea Mongolia is stereotyped as; in my first couple of weeks I managed to locate a French bakery (which does amazing pain au chocolat); a German restaurant and Café with authentic Bratwurst and Apfelstrudel; a vegan restaurant with the best salad in the city, and of course numerous other nice cafes and places to eat.
However when you ask the locals what the best thing to do in UB is, they, without exception, tell you to go to the countryside. I was surprised but heading out of the city is totally worth the effort as you see a completely different side to Mongolia – one with vast open steppes and lots of mountains (and of course fluffy two-humped camels which are incredibly cuddly creatures).
My Journalism placement
My placement was with the Mongol Messenger. I went there up for doing pretty much anything. Consequently I had a great time and was kept pretty busy too, doing things I couldn’t have done back home in Scotland.
Highlights of my work included an expenses paid 2-night trip to Terelj National Park for a huge international ADB Conference, a visit to Hustai National Park to see the wild Przewalski horses with UNDP Administrator Helen Clark, meeting a variety of ambassadors and free entry into all the galleries and concerts in the city if I flashed my press badge and wrote a story about it afterwards. I even got a lift home from an official function in the Canadian Ambassador’s diplomatic car!
Probably the hardest thing to get used to with regard to the placement was the Mongolian sense of time. In Mongolia things are very relaxed and when somebody says “it’ll start at 1.30pm”, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll still be waiting come 2 o’clock. It was really hard to break out of my European time-sense of “better early than on time” and adapt to Mongolia’s “better late than never” approach, which takes the classic saying to new extremes.
My host family
The host family I stayed with was really great – they are proud of Mongolians’ reputation for hospitality and were keen for me to experience this to the full. It was definitely worth getting to know them better as I had a really nice environment to come back to in the evenings if I wanted to just relax with a book, or watch TV.
The local food is great if you like lots of meat, fat, grease and not much fruit or vegetables to speak of. Personally that’s not my ideal meal so I ate at a lot of international restaurants for lunch, kept stocked up on multivitamin tablets and offered to cook for my family occasionally in the evenings. That said, some elements of Mongolian food are really nice (like Huushur and Mongolian fried pancakes); it just gets a bit overwhelming all at once.
Overall I had a super time and really enjoyed being in Mongolia. The people are generally warm and welcoming and it was incredible waking up every day to blue skies and sunshine. For someone from Scotland it was amazing to have had only 3 rainy days in 10 weeks!