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Care in Mongolia by Thom Gray

Enjoying the views

The question “why Mongolia?” is one I’ve had to form a practised and often repeated answer to. The real reason is that Mongolia is so different. It is a culture so incredibly alien from the rainy island of Britain, but in some ways so similar that I couldn’t help but explore it. So I did. Two months in the land of (mostly) sun and blue skies. So in late June I set off to work on a care placement in one of the most sparsely populated countries on earth, not that you’d be able to tell.

Landing in Genghis Khan Airport I was greeted by a very stern official who, as soon as he realised I was a volunteer, shone me a huge smile and guided me through customs like a dream. I was greeted by a Projects Abroad staff member and quickly began my journey to the city. As we drove through the outskirts we could saw glimpses of the Ger districts, which are where I also had some of my best times.

The city of Ulaanbaatar (of which, I’ve seen numerous spellings, something you become accustomed to as translations of their Cyrillic alphabet vary) has one million, two hundred thousand descendants of Genghis Khan. There was such variety with the gloriously beautiful central square and a monument of Sükhbaatar (a Mongolian revolutionary leader).

With kids at placement

Soon I was ready to meet the host family I was to live with. The block we pulled up to was, to not put too fine a point on it, definitely built during the communist period. It was built the same as ten others within sight. I climbed the steps with trepidation, but that turned out to be completely misplaced as the welcome I received from the host family was warm (the vodka might have helped, which was an omnipresent item in all Mongolian households).

I was then introduced to my first words of Mongolian. Now, before you get an image of any Chinese sounding language, or anything derived from the U.S.S.R. you must remember that these people have been around long before these ‘superpowers’ were learning to talk. Their language is one of complexity, not only to speak but to read and to understand. If you are willing to have a shot, though, the Mongolians are so receptive that someone is trying to understand and learn a culture which is too often discounted. At the minimum you need hello, goodbye and to ask for things in shops. How to direct a taxi is also fun, as the word for left sounds exactly like saying ‘zoom’ really emphatically. Indeed we were often tempted to take three lefts instead of saying the much more pedestrian ‘barr-ohn’.

So to the bit which will be of real interest to most; my placement. I chose Care because it looked like the project where I could do the most help for the neediest people, and this turned out to be dead on. The Notre Dame Orphanage, which was located in a Ger district and was run by Sister Marie Françoise who was a kind, caring, if occasionally fearsome, nun. It always brought a smile to my day to be able to just text a nun.

Sister Marie Francoise and I

Anyway back to the orphanage; the children were wonderful. There were about twenty four, with a constant stream of babies coming in and out when their mothers were not able to cope for a couple days or a week. I worked in the morning on a new building, doing such basics as helping build a kitchen unit, or fitting shelves along with a few more complex projects. In the afternoon I would help with the children, teaching them football, keeping them occupied or, with the girls, teaching them salsa. If you put the time in for them, they will love you for it and each and every day I grew more and more attached.

They were scamps, as you’d expect, and there was a constant stream of competition for attention as you would expect with that many children, but each one was an angel at heart. The older ones will help you with chores, whether that is pairing socks or helping cook lunch, while the younger ones play with old bikes or kick a ball around.

Names were a struggle for the first month, but I soon got to grips with that and after a few unimpressed looks from the older two boys, they all decided the big Brit was alright after all and I barely had a spare moment.

The orphanage, despite being better than the state orphanages which throw kids out in the minus forty degree winters, was not funded sufficiently. They need anyone who is willing to give a hand with menial tasks, and anyone with any construction experience, whether repairing a seat or cementing a roof, would be such an incredible aid.

At the orphanage

Those with fewer skills in that area will work in the girl’s house, washing, cleaning, preparing activities and often helping with homework. This may sound incredibly stressful but the kids will often sleep after lunch, or be taken by the (few) staff to do homework or learn which gives you a couple of hours to go try the local cuisine.

Mongolian food varies, with Buuz and Khuushuur being well worth a try (dumplings and fried mutton) as Mongolians find 101 different ways to cook mutton and yak. If this doesn’t take your fancy, there are hordes of “Irish Pubs” which serve dishes which resemble those from home. The obsession with Irish Pubs is a strange one as, when questioned, many Mongolians don’t even know what Ireland is, let alone where. Also I defy you to find a single pint of Guinness in the entire city.

The traditional alcoholic drink of Airaag is worth a shot as well, if only a shot. I’ll be kind and let you be prepared that it is in fact fermented horses milk. Not everyone’s cup of tea!

So you’ve seen what the city has to offer. You’ve eaten horse and seen the opera and visited about as many museums as you can contemplate. What else is there on offer?

Mongolia is famous for its steppes, which are rolling hills which go on for a space the size of Eastern Europe. A camping trip was a fun experience as my fellow volunteers and I watched how the Nomads kill and eat a sheep (not for the squeamish), and then relax on the lakeside as the water rushes past, absorbing life in what is truly outer Mongolia.

Local entertainment

There is also the Gobi Desert if that happens to be your thing. I didn’t have time to visit, as I offered to work a lot of my Saturdays because I loved the orphanage so much, but from what I hear it is truly awe inspiring.

There are some downsides to Mongolia. Since the language is difficult it feels so alien in the first few days, and especially because the layout of the city is something you have to get used to. Meet the other volunteers and get the hang of moving around the city and you’ll soon be using the worlds most complicated traffic light system like you invented it! It’s a city to crack, but boy once you do it, you won’t want to leave.

Oh, and one last thing. Don’t eat the fish. The country is landlocked, that fish is NOT fresh. And before you say they could be from the rivers, take a look at the rivers first….

Thom Gray

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