Friday, 22 January 2016 17:28

Mongolia – not quite like that postcard

Mongolia isn’t exactly a main stream holiday destination that tourists flock to. Well, some of us do. Zealous traveller that I am, I signed up for a 2 month volunteer program back in 2008 to teach English at a local high school in the capital Ulaanbaatar. 


I had booked a stay with a host family to better get to know the country, that I imagined to be welcoming me with rolling green hills and smiling people in traditional clothes. 


So let me tell you about my Mongolian adventure: Starting with some country facts followed by some details about my host family, Ulaanbaatar,  the school,  the food and the countryside. 


Please keep in mind that this is my personal perception and I do encourage you to go… preferably in summer, as a tourist. 


So before going I did read copious amounts of travel literature and facts. 


Mongolia facts


As we know, Mongolia is a large landlocked country between Russia and China. Ulaanbaatar is in the north and I later took the train to Beijing from here.


Located on mountains and plateaus, Mongolia is one of the world's highest countries, with an average elevation of 1,580 meters. 


The population is 2.8 million of which almost half - 1.3 million - live in Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world!


Languages spoken are: Mongol, Turkic and Russian and religions are Tibetan Buddhism, Lamaism.


The currency used is the Tugrik and the average monthly salary is about 300 Euros. 


The Life Expectancy is 65 years and the literacy rate 99%


The weather


From May to September  temperatures are generally above 18°C reaching the mid-20s in July. From November to February the average daily high is -10°C. The coldest month is January, with an average low of-33°C and high of -19°C.


Mongolia's founding father Genghis Khan


As we also know, Genghis Khan's Mongol horsemen conquered much of Asia and Europe during the 13th century. And as we also know, he didn't do that by peaceful negotiation or diplomacy. The wars led in his name killed some 40 million people - about 10% of the world's population at the time! 

In Mongolia there is no talk of this - he’s the nation’s founding father and their national hero and any mention of numbers by me was always brushed away as coming from erroneous history books. 


Mongolia today 


Today Mongolia is a democracy after abandoning its Soviet-style one-party system in 1990 and its president is  a Harvard-educated, democracy campaigner on his second term. Key issues the country is facing today are the country's faltering economy and concerns over the growing role of foreign investors in its untapped mineral wealth.  40% of the country's workforce is still nomadic, herding livestock in the extensive pasturelands.



Arriving in Mongolia


I got there in April. Spring - or so I thought. I had my first little panic attack on the plane – a rare occurrence as I consider myself a seasoned traveller. 


We were flying over Mongolia and when I could see arid steppe below, I was thinking ‘Oh we must be approaching Ulaanbataar’. But the plane flew and flew and flew and I remember scolding myself  “Mary, what were you thinking?!” as I was looking down onto endless brown land with no visible habitation. 


We obviously did land after what seemed an eternity making me realize, not only how vast Mongolia was, but also how isolated Ulaanbaatar was. 


It was morning. Pick up had been arranged and I was taken to my host family. 


My host family


A single mother with her 7-year old daughter - Erdenechimgeh, was a tough cookie, a clear thinking and positive woman who’d had a chance to study in Rumania.  I was warmly welcomed. In fact little Zula was so excited about my presence, she could not stop sticking her head through the space where the glass panel was missing in the door to the living room - my home for the next 2 months. 


I thus said good-bye to privacy for the next few weeks. But I was comfortable and liked their company. They both spoke very good English as they were a popular host family with the program and I enjoyed the many interesting chats I had with Chimgeh in their tiny kitchen. I can’t really say I liked little Zula’s daily violin practice in the small apartment much, but even that I got used to. 




I guess I had been so focused on seeing those rolling green hills, I had not worried much about the capital. When I arrived, I found it to be a rather unattractive, uninviting town with a distinct Soviet touch and rickety buses filled with the roughest people I have encountered to date. Not unkind, just rough. 


Now they did not mean any harm, in fact they even had this habit of grabbing your hand with both theirs if they had stepped on your foot or bumped into you to apologize. So, basically you were constantly being shoved around and stepped on while someone was grabbing your hand in apology. The fact that I was taller than most of them, did not seem to matter. 


The school


So I took a rickety bus across town to a school about 20 minutes away every morning and even though there were no signs of spring as such, it was near the end of the school year. It turned out a volunteer was considered more as a babysitter rather than a teacher. 


I never knew what age I’d be teaching, but ended up liking the older ones best, as they’d simply put their heads on their desks to take a nap, claiming exhaustion from exams. 


I was always rather relieved when it was time to go home. IF I could make it past the school’s canteen without being dragged in there by its well-meaning staff.


The food


Now the food was another rather challenging factor. I had read that Mongolians liked their meat - preferable fatty mutton - and milky, salted tea. I just couldn’t get used to either one. I felt that no matter where or what you ate - everything tasted like mutton - even in the few Western restaurants the town had. 


In the end I did all my own cooking at my host family’s. If I had managed to dive past the fatty mutton headquarters - the school canteen - where they’d invariable be serving everyone’s favourite traditional food: buuz, a sort of steamed dumpling filled with yes, you guessed it – mutton! Sometimes with some cabbage thrown in for good measure. 


The countryside 


Now, of all those to me not exactly thrilling aspects of Mongolia, the cold and mostly grey and windy weather - and the subsequently non-existent green rolling hills - were my biggest disappointment. 


But: Green or not, I insisted on going to that countryside - to sleep in a traditional yurt - despite Chimgeh’s warning that it would be cold. And so we did. And yes, it was cold and all I remember was staying up all night to keep the wood fire inside the yurt going. 


Leaving Mongolia


Since spring seemed set to never arrive and my students continued their winter slumber, I decided to leave before the end of the school year. I am not even sure if the school noticed. I spent some more time with Zula and Chimgeh - I enjoyed shopping and cooking for them, introducing them to non-muttony foods and did not want to be a burden on their meagre budget. 


And I was giving Zula some extra English practice - if only to get her away from violin practice. Those two brave ladies did make my stay enjoyable. 


I left Ulaanbaatar on the trans-Mongolian train to go to Beijing and still remember my joy of seeing the first green hills - not those of Mongolia but of China. 


But I am sure, if you go in summer, Mongolia will be as lovely as it looks on those postcards.


Mary Anglberger

I’ve been travelling the world for over 20 years teaching English and am now taking time to follow my passion for photography and writing. I want to share all the things, events and people that have inspired and inspire me and spread those positive vibes all around.

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