A couple of weeks ago we ventured a couple of hours north of the city for the final staff weekend away of the year. Wisely, or so I thought, I opted for an earlyish night and only 1 beer but unfortunately due to the fact that Gers have no sound proofing I laid in bed for 4 hours listening to everyone else chatting, singing, drinking and dancing. Rather than waste my time I thought I would contemplate some random thoughts of the last 10 months so here are a few random musings about Mongolia.
-30 is cold, really cold, but strangely if you are dressed in the right attire and the sun is shining, it’s not quite as bad as you would think. It just gets bad when it goes on for days and days and weeks and weeks like it generally does in the Mongolian winter. We had 8 weeks where the temperature didn’t rise above -10, day or night and about 6 of those it didn’t get above -20. Funny to think that we were overjoyed when it finally reached a minus temperature that was only single figures.
I’ve realised how good we are in England at following road traffic rules. Here, anything seems to go. Often when you get in a car the back seat belts are no where to be seen, hidden under some very elaborate seat covers. People seem quite happy to drive whilst on their phone, with babies on their lap and through red lights. Oh and cars are a mixture of left and right hand drive so you can never be too sure of which side to get in the taxi til you peer through their usually tinted windows. Often I choose not to look out the front window as its best not to see what the driver is trying to do. There are often 4 or 5 lanes of traffic on a 3 lane road.
They like to treat important political visitors well – as I’m sure all countries do – but this involves closing all roads on the route from the airport to the dignitaries hotel. That road passes the school and they place policemen every 50m along the route on both sides and down the centre. You are not allowed to cross the road or drive down it and when the politician comes past pedestrians are asked to move, ie hide.
In Mongolia generally you are not meant to put your toilet paper down the loo but instead, in the bin provided. 10 months on it’s a habit I’m struggling to form!
Not only is the weather extremely cold but it’s a huge contrast to the UK. You can get 4 seasons in a day, sun and heat in the morning, snow in the afternoon, wind in the evening and rain and storms at night. The Friday of camp weekend it was 26*c, the Saturday 10*c, the Sunday 24*c. Thankfully the sun shone but during the night we still needed a stove, which I kept going til about 2am – then I ran out of wood and got cold. The air is also very dry, I think I’ve become acclimatised but when I take a rare run down the road, my mouth feels parched within a minute or so of starting as opposed to the 20 mins it takes at home. Your skin is constantly dry and I have used far more moisturiser here in order to combat it.
The country is vast – we have explored only a tiny part of it. Drive 45 minutes out of the city and you begin to notice the sheer size of it. The majority of the countryside is empty, huge grassy valleys with dramatic sweeping cliffs and rock formations and snow capped mountains as far as the eye can see. Mongolians love the countryside. A lot of them clearly yearn for time out of the city and feel more at home when surrounded by nature but they don’t take their litter home which can spoil popular areas.
Mongolians don’t really plan in advance. It’s not unusual to get a party invite on the actual day of the party. 2 days notice is good going – which is what we got for our staff Christmas do. But they certainly know how to party and how to karaoke. I think I’ve done more karaoke in the last 10 months that ever before. Some of it with no drink inside me too!
You can forget you are in a developing country during the week when surrounded by children from wealthy families and when eating in nice restaurants but when visiting a local state hospital we were clearly reminded of it and it made us realise how truly lucky we are to have system in which we can just walk into a hospital and get state of the art treatment. The conditions were hard to witness, upsetting and humbling. It’s hard when you know there are so many places that need your time and money here but you have to start somewhere and hopefully we will build more links next year.
They don’t really use pushchairs here. Babies are carried, wrapped up in big tight bundles of multi-coloured quilted sheets with just a pair of big brown eyes peering out. Oh and before moving here I used to think that 9 o’clock was a late bedtime for young children. My class I’ve discovered often don’t go to bed before 11 or 12 at night – they are 6 years old – and in secondary it’s worse. That’ll be why they fall asleep in lessons then.
I could go on and on waffling about things I’ve noticed and things that make Mongolia so different to anywhere I’ve been before. As a general rule the people are warm and welcoming, they love the children but don’t follow us like a freak circus show as in China. Some of you will know that when I applied to work here I didn’t actually know where Ulaanbaatar – now fondly known as UB – was and I certainly knew very few facts about Mongolia. Despite living here almost a year I still feel that I have only scratched the surface of the real Mongolia. Hopefully I’ve given you an insight into some of the things that make it the vast, beautiful, welcoming country that it is.