My name is Anna Henley, I am eighteen years old and I have just returned from a trip to Mongolia as part of my gap year.
Here, I spent five weeks in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar teaching English to intermediate level students at Mongolia's Children's Palace and the Golden Bridge Language Centre.
In my time off, I grew close to my desk officer (I went with a volunteer organisation) and we worked together on a dream outreach project inspired by two orphaned twins who wrote a letter to an NGO detailing how their biggest wish was to open a school to give children like themselves hope. Now in their 20's these twins are shining examples of what even the most deprived children can achieve- one, after attaining a degree, became a school teacher and the other already holds a degree in economics and is currently working whilst studying for a masters. It was their story that inspired our first piece of work in the Lotus Care Centre (above. For more information see My Time in Mongolia). Here, with their assisstance, we held a dream lecture using other volunteers and intergrating artistic activities.
The children got so much out of the lecture, and it was received so well that Zulaa (my desk officer) and I started the proceedings for setting up a charity- and thus, with others, we founded the
Dream Discovery Academy of Mongolia (right: the Dream Discovery Academy of Mongolia team)
Simultaneously to the Dream Outreach work that Zulaa was leading, I was conducting Health and Safety training in my placements as prior to departure, I had been trained by the British Safety Council in London. At Golden Bridge, I trained 50 volunteers from the National University of Mongolia with a view to them teaching in education and care centres. Using contacts from the Projects Abroad Office I set up a link between my school and the volunteer organisation, giving them the tools to make a difference.
Meetings are held every week about the charity with the central commitee (see below) where ways towards achieving our central aims (see Dream Discovery Academy of Mongolia) are discussed. At the moment, the focus is the Summer Camp which is going to be held in the middle of June. This is where Dream Team England come in as it is our job to finance it!
We need to raise £3000 by the beginning of June to send 50 children into the countryside for a three day Dream Outreach activity. They will learn to have hope, key employability skills and, above all, have fun! Many orphans have never left Ulaanbaatar and so a trip to the beautiful Mongolian countryside will be a memorable experience.
Please have a browse of the site, donate if you can and contact me if you want to lend a hand. Keep an eye on the events page and head on over to the About Dream Team England page to see other ways you can help.
Most attractions throughout Ulaanbaatar are historical sites which provide tourists with an understanding of the unique history and culture that exist in Mongolia.
Ulaanbaatar has long held a place of special importance for Buddhists, and the amount of monastries to visit while in the city is without par. The largest and most important monastery in Mongolia is the city’s religious hub, Gandan Monastery (Gandantegchinlen Khiid). The Tibetan-style monastery was once destroyed during the communist campaign in the ‘30s. In 1944 it was reopened, but under the strict supervision of the Communist government. After the fall of the Communists in 1990, Gandan is once again a busy center of Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia’s primary faith.
Gandan houses the tallest Buddha statue in all of Central and East Asia, the Buddha of Future, which was built by donations from the Mongolian people during the 1990s.
Visitors can have panoramic views of Ulaanbaatar, as well as views of the Tuul River, from The Zaisan memorial.
The Zaisan Memorial is a hilltop memorial south of UB that honors Mongolian and Soviet soldiers killed in World War II. It is a typical Communist era memorial and features a circular painting that depicts scenes of cooperation between the Soviet Union and Mongolia.
Another good checklist item of things to do while in Ulaanbaatar is the National History Museum. The Mongolian National Museum was first established in 1924 with the aim of introducing the history, culture, and natural environment of Mongolia to its visitors.
The National Museum of Mongolian History covers the history of Mongolia from ancient prehistory to the end of the 20th century. The museum has several exhibitions with more than 50,000 historical and cultural artifacts, including artifacts of the socialist Mongolia (1921 to 1990) and the democratic Mongolia (post 1990). Here visitors can also learn about Mongolia’s evolving relationships with China and Russia.
Often confused with The National Museum, Natural History Museum is another museum which is also well worth a few hours of your time in the Mongolian capital. Its exhibits feature Mongolia’s flora and fauna, including the requisite section with stuffed and embalmed animals, birds and even fish.
The most impressive section is the Palaeontology Hall and its array of complete dinosaur skeletons, including a 3-meter tall Tarbosaurus. For a bird’s-eye view, visitors can climb up the stairs outside the hall to the gallery on the 3rd floor.
For a more cheerful museum trip, visitors are welcomed to The International Intellectual Museum, or also known as the Mongolian Toy Museum. The museum manufactures and displays an exciting collection of toys including many Mongolian puzzle toys, logic games, hand crafted products and souvenirs.
I kept a blog whilst I was out in Mongolia and I thought I would put them up on here to give you an insight into what life in Ulaanbaatar is like. Nothing could have ever prepared me for the immense cultural differences but I think it is important to know the kind of community you are donating your hard earned money to!
I am in general good health although I woke up this morning with a stinking cold! I know right? TYPICAL. I also had a pretty rough time on the Saturday after only managing about 10 hours sleep over 72hrs? Longest and hardest day of my life Saturday- without com
parison. Felt so so homesick and tired and just generally awful. More than a few tears were shed, I can tell you. All of your lovely cards and letters helped me through though- they are all up on my windowsill and really are making my room feel like my own space :)
(Left: Flying into Mongolia at sunrise)
Today I am feeeling goooddd. Although, I have to admit, a little hungry. Well, actually, VERY hungry. Mongolian food is basically carbs and protein and oil. Although everything they have cooked me tastes good, I can only manage very small portions as it is so so rich! I am coping though and I have changed my money up today so I can get some more food from the hypermarket which is only justtt accross the road :)!! Granny is worried and thought I was on some kind of diet I have eaten so little :L
I have to say, from what I have seen of Mongolian family life however, that it is so fascinating. To give just one example, due to the jet lag and general awfulness that was Saturday, I woke up at one o clock in the afternoon :/. I went in to have breakfast and ended up sharing it with the entire leg of a sheep wrapped in a blanket. In terms of technology etc, everything here is very much western but in terms of culture, it really is so different. They laughed at me as I went "woah" having shuffled in in my sleepy state :P
I start my work placement tomorrow and am working there only three days a week I discovered? Can I hear a woop woop for Mondays and Fridays off?? :P Start 9 and finish at five though. I might try and see if I can set up some extra sessions on those days to deliver my health and safety stuff. I have 50 certificates to distribute after all!
Already, there are social events booked into the calendar which means my time is already divided up- really 5 weeks is noooo time at all!! On the 18th I am going out to the nature reserve of Terelj (?) with other volunteers so see the real mongolia! This is what I have been hoping and waiting for so am so glad that I am going to be a part of that! :D Then, the following Friday, we are going for karaoke- oh yes, karaoke. Apparently a MASSIVE thing here, especially with the volunteers? Looking forward to humiliating myself there also! Lastly, I have also been asked to take part in this Your Voices project which is basically delivering hope to under privileged people and bettering their environment by encouraging aspirations. As a part of this, on the 2nd of April, I am visiting an orphanage where Zulaa is going to be giving a lecture- I will be working closely with her nearer the time to write articles etc for that.
So yes, I think that is basically me up to date. As much as I miss everyone at home, it is remarkable how quickly this is beginning to feel like the norm. I can see the days flying by remarkably quickly from now on. I think also that it has finally hit me that on what scale this really is going to be the adventure of a lifetime. I am well and truly independent here without a doubt and in a strange way, I am enjoying it?
I am saying this, bear in mind, before I have had to do my own washing...
First of all, to get one thing straight, my initial impressions of Mongolia were not influenced by any information I may have gathered before the trip. This is because my research was barely minimal, and my sources were drunken house mates on a Friday night. “Mongolia has loads of yaks right? Can you bring me back a hairy yak please? ” “Every one’s covered in fur over there, and they all look like Genghis Khan.”
From booking the trip one month previous to the night of my departure from England I failed to learn anything about the country I was about to live and work in for two months. To an extent, this was down to pure laziness, and a want to spend as much time with my housemates as I could before I left. However, the main reason is because I like knowing nothing about where I am going. I had no preconceptions- to my credit I was smart enough to take my friends’ nonsensical bantering on their apparent wealth of knowledge on Mongolians with a very big pinch of salt- and this excited me.
I looked up the name of the currency they use here (the tugrik or tögrög, symbol ₮), and the weather forecast. That’s it. Predictably, the weather was wrong anyway. I arrived, rugged up in a scarf, a jumper, two layers of shirts, a jacket, jeans, thick socks, gloves and my warmest shoes. I was expecting sub zero temperatures. I was welcomed instead by infinite blue skies, a sun shining back at me, and crisp air. It was probably- relatively- cold, but psychologically the weather was not making my teeth chatter or my body run for cover. I definitely wasn’t complaining. As an Australian native, I don’t cope well with any sort of draught, and my primary concern for this trip was to keep all ten of my toes. After going on exchange to Canada in my university years, I learned a thing or two about frostbite, and I wasn’t willing to receive further permanent nerve damage to my already traumatised feet.
But anyway, I’ve given myself a week to figure out what this place is doing with itself, and here’s what I’ve come up with. Mongolia, in short and snappy advertisement tag lines is:
- - A post-Soviet communist wasteland with a romantic nomadic twist!
- - Apocalyptic charm under eternal blue skies.
- - Crumbling buildings and wonky pavements, a world of fun on your walk to work.
- - Dust, dust, dust, dust, dust, or tan? No, it’s dust.
- - Majestic mountains, endless steppes, beautiful natives, and Rihanna on the TV
- - Polluted drinking water and crazy drivers equals unsafe drink (and) driving
- - At least the vodka is strong. But drink driving is still bad.
From this satirical take on things, you can see Mongolia has a bit of a way to go before becoming the world’s next superpower. To be fair, the population is sparse: only 1.5 people per km². The country is vast, and the overall head count is only 2.7 million, one million of which reside in Ulaanbaatar.
So, the country is having a hard time deciding what it is since their independence from communist rule in 1990. A democratic, market-based system has fuelled much progress since then, including a resurgence in Buddhist mentality (it was a banned practice under Soviet rule and, as a consequence, thousands of lamas were killed or exiled) and a newfound interest in Western consumerism. These two ideas may seem like polar opposites, but the people of Mongolia have managed to fuse the two together which, in my mind, equals happy, enlightened shoppers.
Regardless of their recently acquired capitalist mind, I still cannot get over the fact that Louis Vuitton has a store here. The equivalent of four hundred Euros a month is considered GOOD pay here. An LV bag costs double that amount, if not triple, if not quadruple. The shop really does look strange next to Destitute Building and Dust Emporium.
Yesterday I saw a bunch of nomads stampede their horses around the block of what would be considered City Hall. Needless to say, a lot of dust flared up, horns honked and horses manured, but I didn’t find it that odd. I think you could say I am well adjusted. Mongolia is another world and like nothing I could expect, if I expected anything in the first place. I’m glad I didn’t, because what I found instead could neither be a let-down, nor better than imagined. It just is…Mongolia. Come here and you will understand.
The red flags should be used on all cars that are not driving school cars though, in my opinion. I'm sure the learners' cars are, by far, the least dangerous vehicles in town. I never cross a street unless I really have to since it's so scary. You have to take one lane at a time, meaning that you have to stand there in the middle of the street with cars whizzing past just centimeters in front of you and behind you. But I should add that since I came here almost three weeks ago, it has actually happened on three occasions that cars have stopped or slowed down to let me cross! The first time I was so surprised that I just stood there staring at the car.
In the countryside you don't have to worry about crossing roads ... They are usually dirt tracks, quite often parallel tracks have developed, as in the picture. If there is no track in sight you can just drive wherever it's possible to get your vehicle to move forward.
This is one of the little princesses where I work - she loves being outdoors, not to mention being on a swing, and lifts her head up towards the sky to really feel the sun and the wind.
I know that today is the last working day for many of you before Easter, so I wish you already now a
Today was my first day at the orphanage. The older children looked at me with their eyes wide open, in total silence. I said hello to them, but no one dared say anything at first. Then finally one of them said, almost whispering, "Sain baina uu".
My job is to help out a little with the small children in the morning. I took a beautiful little autistic girl out for a walk - she loves being outdoors - and we met a puppy, for mutual joy! Somehow the puppy seemed to understand that it mustn't come too close, but it yelped and jumped and hid and ran around, and the girl bubbled with laughter. At lunch I had the task of feeding a very small boy who ate his soup with great appetite, but just before the last spoonful he fell asleep, his head falling down onto the plate ...
So far I haven't published any pictures of gers (yurts) or a village (they are called "sum"), so here are, for you enlightenment, two typical views. Ulaanbaatar is Ulaanbaatar, but the countryside really is Mongolia!
NB the solar panels. The sun shines almost every day, so it's an efficient way of getting energy.
Don't think that there are sums in the Mongolian countryside just as there are villages dotted all over Belgium! Perhaps you pass one or so, or see one in the far distance, in "densely" populated areas ... In other areas, such as the Gobi, you can travel for days without even seeing one single person, let alone a whole sum!
What am I doing? This sentence has been revolving around my head for quite some time. It is not an anxious thought, or an existential crisis question. The thought has more of a surprised feel to it. I am in a happy state of shock at the revelation that my brain can be so comfortable as to decide to go to Mongolia for 2 months with only 30 minutes of ruminations about the practicalities of leaving on such short notice (only 4 weeks until departure). I like my newfound comfort with all things to do with spontaneous travel. So why not do a two month journalism placement in Ulaanbaatar? It is only two months. Back home I would be working in a cafe, going about my daily business, doing nothing out of the ordinary. Here, two months will seem like two years, because my surroundings will stimulate me, I will be doing such different things, in a country I really don't know anything about. The value of time will increase exponentially, and it definitely won't slip by unnoticed.
Yes, I am a little scared, but that comes with arriving by oneself in any country you are not familiar with. I've been here 15 hours now- most of it sleeping off my jet lag- but I can say that I already feel comfortable with my host family. They are 2 sisters, one with a 16 year old girl. One is my age, which is always nice. She has already told me she enjoys clubbing and drinking, and judging by the sheer amount of karaoke bars out there, I'm sure we'll do a lot of the two.
Ulaanbaatar- from what I gathered in the bus from the airport to my host family- is relatively flat, surrounded by four mountains, and the air is crisp. I looked up the weather before I left to come here one night and the forecast stated 'smoke'. I said to my friend, 'What do they mean by smoke?' I was pretty sure there hadn't been fires here recently, but then again I'm not one to read the news, put on the radio, or watch television (bit of a weird quirk in someone so hell bent on being a journalist). So, smoke, eh? Could be pollution. But the crisp, fresh mountain air has me fooled. So, until I see this smoke I'll assume I'm breathing in some super healthy mountainous air.
Jet lag has set in again. I am not surprised considering I decided to stay up all night before leaving England with my housemates. Effectively I have been travelling for almost 24 hours, and not been in a bed for much, much longer. No wonder I found myself being awaken by my neighbours everytime it was mealtime on the planes. They were nice to be concerned about me eating properly.
One last thing. Flying over Russia was really amazing. I couldn't stop looking out the window at the frozen lakes below. Not only were they completely covered with ice, but there were so many! This is a stark contrast to where I'm from in Australia. There are definitely no frozen lakes, and there are, tops, two or three lakes- not hundreds and hundreds- and you probably couldn't see them from the air.
Alright, good night.
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