Thomas Vanson - General Care Projects in Mongolia
I came to Mongolia because I wanted to experience somewhere completely different and off the beaten track – most people I know couldn’t place it on a map! Instead of flying straight to Mongolia I travelled across Europe and Russia, taking the Trans-Siberian railway from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar which was an adventure in itself! I was fascinated by the history of the Mongol Empire and Genghis Khan and wanted to explore some of the outstanding countryside Mongolia had to offer. I arrived early in the morning by train from Russia and was already struck by the generosity of the people I had met on the train who had shared all of their delicious food with me. I had Bootz for breakfast when I arrived which were amazing and my first experience of traditional Mongolian food. We made Bootz at another volunteer’s host family during my first weekend there.
We went on a day trip to Terelj National Park (approximately 66km from Ulaanbaatar) to see the amazing countryside there and later I managed to spend a weekend with another volunteer staying in a ger with a nomadic family and going horse riding. It was great to get out of the city and smog and to explore the spectacular countryside even if it was -20 degrees! The horses allowed us to get right out into the countryside and explore much more than we would have been able to on foot. The two families we stayed with were incredibly hospitable and made the experience something I will remember forever. They taught us how to play Mongolian card games and even how to milk a cow! Later I went to Kharkhorin for a weekend to see the site of Gengis Khans ancient capital Karakorum and to visit Erdene Zuu Monastery. It was about an 8 hour journey along potholed roads (and in some parts no road at all) in an overcrowded microvan from Ulaanbaatar which was an experience in itself! When I arrived it was very windswept with the temperature below -30!
I spent Christmas in a ger in the countryside with some Australians doing AusAid which was my first white Christmas in the Secret History Ger camp. It was set in amazing countryside 111km outside Ulaanbaatar. I was there for two nights and it was my first Christmas away from home. I was also lucky enough to spend New Year’s Eve in Ulaanbaatar. In Mongolia New Years Eve is a major celebration so I had a special meal with my host family. Afterwards I went to a party and to see the fireworks in Sukhbataar Square which were awesome! This was followed up by going to a night club (called Oasis) and consuming yet more vodka!
My placement involved working in an orphanage, Lotus Children’s Centre, in a ger district in Yarmag on the southern edge of Ulaanbaatar for two months. It was amazing to look out of the window and to see the mountains rising up in the distance. Many of the children there were abandoned as babies at birth, often in stairwells, while others had spent time living on the streets first, leading to some of them having learning and behavioural difficulties. There were around 100 children at the orphanage and they ranged from new born babies to teenagers and they were all really happy and friendly.
There was a primary school and kindergarten on site for the younger children while the older ones went to secondary schools elsewhere. I played football with some of the children and taught English to classes 5 and 6. It was sometimes really challenging as I didn’t speak Mongolian and they could sometimes get a bit out of control. One weekend I helped out with a fundraising event which involved the children performing Bollywood dances and a dinner afterwards. In addition I completed a variety of office based tasks such as completing the end of year newsletter which went out to donors and creating a spreadsheet for recording petty cash transactions.
I found Ulaanbaatar a great place to stay with lots of different bars and cafes. The food served there was amazing and the quality of the meat was superb. I went out often with both other volunteers and expats and with some Mongolian friends I made. There were lots of places to go out at night both for foreigners and where locals go. I was able to go to the ballet for the first time to see Swan Lake which is something I never would have done at home. Crossing the road was a new experience as people just walk out and play "chicken" even when it’s really icy. There were lots of different shops to buy souvenirs and gifts and the Central Market to pick up souvenirs, fake clothes and just about anything you wanted.
It was without doubt the best two months of my life and a truly life changing experience and I met some wonderful people there. Mongolia offered a true sense of adventure and I found Mongolians to be very open, friendly and generous. I had a wonderful time there and would recommend it to anyone – I can’t wait to go back for a holiday!
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.