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Volunteering in the Land of the Blue Sky

Sun baked soil billowed around us, thrown up by hundreds of horses’ hooves. As I stepped back to avoid the nomads streaming past on their stocky mounts I could feel dust particles grinding between my teeth and sticking to my skin.

It had been less than two weeks since I had left the British Isles with a group of nine other volunteers to take part in a work and travel scheme in Mongolia working for the Mongolian Youth Development Centre (MYDC) for the summer, but we had been lucky enough to be given a couple of days off for the national Naadam Festival. As one of the most important dates in the national calendar it has been designated an annual holiday, and is celebrated with a national comtest of the ancient nomadic arts of wrestling, archery and horse racing.

We had just arrived at a huge nomadic camp several miles from the capital city Ulaan Baatar. As we passed between the horses we could see the traditional ger (yurt) tents dotting the plain, with their makeshift stalls in the entrances selling airag (the traditional drink) and curds. They reminded me of illustrations I had seen of medieval fairs. As we watched the local people standing around waiting for the race we were dazzled by the rich, exotic silk of their traditional dell costumes, and were reminded that this was half a world away from home.

Picking our way through mazes of guy ropes we hurried as fast as we could to ensure we would see the first tiny jockeys hurtle across the finish line.

The light made all of us squint as we jostled to find a viewpoint amongst the crowds of people who had come to see this prestigious event. We could hear the thunder of the ground as the stocky horses pounded for the finishing stretch, and peering through the umbrellas and hats I just managed to see the first across the line. There was a sense of anti-climax, as a dispute between the boys in the first and second place erupted, we never found out whether it was resolved. However, it was the empty saddles that left ominous questions in my mind. The average age of the riders in the contest was only nine.

The day of the festival had passed quickly and left most of us feeling very over-heated. Even Mongolians around us showed signs of sunburn, which made our rosy faces, arms and shoulders seem less embarrassing, but it had been a relaxing couple of days. We had been working on a children’s summer camp outside the city since we arrived, and were craving a good night out on the town.

Our time up to the festival had been spent knee deep in children,

aged from seven to seventeen, entertaining them and teaching them English. Despite the camp working in a form of organised chaos, most children seemed unbelievably enthusiastic to learn. Mongolian is a particularly difficult language to understand and for this reason we largely depended on occasional bulletins from the teachers running the camp, with large amounts of guesswork to know what we were supposed to be doing. This did hone your abilities in thinking on your toes. I now have no problems in thinking of games to occupy eighty children at two minutes notice!

There were many embarrassing incidents for us reserved Brits; such as running around in the woods covered in grass and mud pretending to be devils, standing on stage in front of two hundred children singing a dire rendition of ‘You are my sunshine’, and the boys from the group being dragged off for football dressed in full make-up and dresses. It was hard work, but seeing children aged ten to seventeen at the end of camp with tears in their eyes waving goodbye to us, was one of the memories of the trip I will carry with me for a very long time.

I had been hoping to see some of my class at the festival, but among so many people I realised this was like searching for a needle in a haystack. As the sun grew lower and redder in the sky, we turned our attention to other matters. In this case – making the most of Mongolian nightlife. Mongolia had more or less become normality for us, in the unnerving way that places do – when home seems too far beyond the grasp of reality. However, this did mean getting used some to the eccentricities of Mongolian social life, including a voracious appetite for vodka (which, incidentally, is dangerously cheap) and a great enthusiasm for strippers. Mind you, once you have consumed a few double vodkas, the rest of the evening will probably blur into hazy memories of dancing in large circles to Enrique Iglesias, while over-enthusiastic Mongolian teenagers break-dance cheered on by friends. The most worrying thing about this is that you know it’s only a matter of time before you are summoned to show that foreigners can dance; and I have to confess that, compared to Mongolians we fared quite badly.

When we had recovered from our excesses of the night before we were plunged into the busy office life of the MYDC. The organisation was established in the late nineties to raise awareness of the problems and issues facing the young people of Mongolia. The centre is now trying to work towards improving conditions and prospects for their young people. This could not be more relevant than it is in a country where forty-seven percent of the population are under the age of twenty. Every year the organisation sets up new initiatives to attack problems facing children in all levels of society. In 2000 they started to work on a programme to investigate and address the problems of child prostitution, and they have also created teaching initiatives in the Centre to educate children in the use and benefits of the Internet. The organisation is based in Ulaan Baatar but its influence extends to aimags (Mongolian states) across the country.

The office work was a contrast to the craziness of our first weeks, as we were now writing and designing the website for the MYDC (which was useful experience for us), but I have to admit that I, personally, missed my army of cheeky children quite badly. While working at the centre we were invited to the initial meeting with girls (aged between twelve and seventeen) on the programme to prevent prostitution. We spent the afternoon playing games with them, and they all seemed happy. However, when you took a step back and watched, many of them had a sadness about them, and you knew it would take much more than five minutes of laughter to erase it. All of us found this difficult, but it was a powerful reminder to us of just how important the work of the centre could be. Urban Mongolia is changing, and is moving on from its Communist past. It is consequently subjected to problems (such as the increase in prostitution) that many developing countries have. It is lucky, however, to have an organisation such as the MYDC to protect the interests of its young with foresight, organising preventative measures.

Our time in the office gave us more free time than camp, and we decided to get acquainted with the capital city, including the famous sites such as Sukhbatar Square, the Winter Palace, Gandan Monastery, and not so famous sites such as our local bar. Eventually the web site began to come together and we were able to begin to plan what we were going to do after our work had finished. We were fortunate because the MYDC was associated with a travel organisation, and were therefore able to organise the hire of a bus, driver, and translator for a fairly reasonable price (relative to everything else we had seen). We completed another two weeks at camp, and although sad, had a sense that there was still a lot to look forward to. Several days, and many trips to local markets later, we were ready to embark on the final stage of our Mongolian journey.

It seemed improbable that our school bus would be able to get us half way across Mongolia, but it proved to be a lot more robust than any of us expected. It has to be said, that unless you spend your entire time in Ulaan Bataar, off-road driving is unavoidable. However, for most of us, driving down thirty-degree gradients in a school bus was initially a slightly bizarre, and rather worrying experience. After three days of bouncing around, sliding off seats and various bus related bruises most of us had got used to the unusual driving. Though there were moments when we were all convinced that the bus was tipping over, most of the time it really didn’t seem to matter as we watched the shadows of distant hills stretch across endless rippling grasslands. All of us finally felt that this was the Mongolia we had imagined.

The most frustrating problem with overland travel in Mongolia is that everything takes a long time, most of the time you are travelling along rutted tracks. If you accept this then you can relax and enjoy the hypnotic affect of the landscape. We travelled for two weeks, mostly camping, with two nights spent in rather expensive tourist ger camps. It is essential to spend at least some time walking, or riding, to truly get a sense of the scale of the country, and understand how it is possible for people to exist in such a grassy desert, navigate, to keep and nurture animals. It is not a country with lots of famous sites, but there are some places that are well worth going to see. We visited Lake Khövsgöl in the north which is huge, and probably the clearest fresh water you are ever likely to come across; on the same trip we managed to see several national parks, stop at a few nomadic gers and the famous monastic site at Erdene Zuu. We had many funny, and worrying moments during our journey, but it seemed an appropriate ending to the whole project, bringing us all together over the clichéd moments toasting imported Russian marshmallows over the campfire, gruesome concoctions from the saucepan, and bouncing off into the sunset on Mongolian horses. It is the occasions when we stopped in the middle of a grassy valley or on dusty roadside and laughed with the nomads, played with their children and drank airag with them that represent Mongolia to me, and of course my bright eyed children at camp. It would never have been possible to experience the country the way we did on a traditional organised tour.

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