Ede & Ravenscroft Prize
Mongolia Report – summer 2004
Ulaan Baatar state children’s shelter
Anna Farrell - Social Sciences
I became fascinated by Mongolia at the age of 14 when I read a book called ‘The Land Of Blue Sky’, attracted by the nomadic lifestyle and the Shamanic religion, I long to visit this land of Chinngis Khan, a place with more horses than people and the worlds lowest population density. This summer finally gave me that opportunity.
Mongolia is a country that long suffered under soviet rule, disrupting the nomadic lifestyle the Soviet regime introduced the concepts of urbanisation and industrialisation. After its fall Mongolia once again became independent- though today it is suffering, the country is broke, the concept of the city has no infrastructure to support it and many of the countries natural resources are being exploited by foreign powers. Pensions no longer exist and the education system is facing increased corruption. Unemployment in the city is high and alcoholism is a growing problem. There are an estimated 5000 street children living in the underground sewers by the hot pipes that line Ulaan Baatar city, the only way to survive in the -35°C winters.
I spent my summer participating in voluntary work In the state Children’s Shelter. This project I arranged through a Mongolian charity called New Choice volunteers; they were a little haphazard to say the least! My placement details stated I would be living in the capital Ulaan Baatar and there would be 15-20 children, this I however discovered was not the case as I was driven into the countryside having left my parents a short e-mail saying I would be out of contact. The 15-20 children then also turned out to be 115! I soon learned that the government shipped the children to the countryside for the summer during the tourist season, so they wouldn’t be seen wandering the streets, initially this horrified me.
My accommodation for the duration of my stay was a wooden hut which I shared with one of the older girls, when the winds blew it was ice cold as the wind howled through the broken windows. As I sat in my 6 blankets unable to get warm I had to remember this was their summer, it got increasingly difficult to convince myself when the temperatures dropped to -5°C in August.
Food was another matter; in Mongolia they have a saying, ‘breakfast keep for yourself, lunch share with your friends and dinner share with your enemies’ to my western pallet the meals blended together, generally a combination of stale mutton, normally in ‘soup’ or combined with potato or rice was standard.
I spent my days helping the kids who wanted to learn English learn some, translations being provided in picture form or by the dictionary as only one child was able to speak any English in the whole camp. In contrast to many children in Britain these children were keen to learn, knowing it will drastically improve their chances of employment. I also spent time doing art with them and going into the forest to pick berries and nuts. For many of the children especially the younger children all the wanted was someone to give them some love and attention.
Many of the children had little contact with their families, or had been abandoned. One older boy Aggy was 19, he had taught himself a little English, he told me about his dreams to become a zoologist, but he also told me about his life. His father had died when he was 7 and his mother had 7 children so was unable to support them, he just got on a bus to the city. He lived on the street till the age of 14 when he went to the shelter, his story was so sad, but before telling me the first thing he said was don’t hate me, that made me so sad. I talked to him a lot about the shelter, he said it was a lot like living on the streets, you had to be able to look after yourself, because you couldn’t rely on anyone, he did however appreciate the importance of education, and that was why he stayed.
Aggy’s story wasn’t uncommon; many families were just unable to support their children, and so left them in the care of the shelter. One girl told me all her 7 brothers and sisters had been adopted and she was the only one left, she had decided it was due to the burn scars that covered her body. That was the reality these children live by, they are practical, kind children, just begging for a chance, they make the most of any opportunities they are offered, and look for the good in every situation, as one boy said ‘when you’ve had nothing everything is something’ surprisingly however many of the children showed no attachment to material possessions.
The children were like any children all over the world, they had vivid imaginations, making tents out of bed posts or using them as stilts, making bows and arrows from wood in the forest. The capacity these children had to play was one of the main things that surprised me as many wouldn’t have grown up in a secure family environment, and therefore I had thought they may have been more withdrawn.
After my placement I spent a couple of weeks travelling in the countryside, camping in empty valleys and wide open steppe, surrounded only by tiny gers that dotted the landscape. I travelled a little west to the ancient capital of Chinngis Khan, visiting the beautiful monasteries, then up north to the Orkhan waterfall and on to stunning lake Khövsgöl. Lake Khövsgöl is an alpine fresh water lake on the Siberian border, surrounded by mountains it’s truly stunning and home to the Tsaatan; the reindeer people. These people still live by shamanic traditions and the shamans are responsible for most policing in the area. (Shamanism is based on a link with the spirits that inhabit the natural environment; shamans are chosen by the spirits and become great elders.) At the lake I participated in a horse trek which was a fantastic way too see the lake, camping along the shore lines, and watching the sun set over the snow capped mountains and crystal clear waters.
I was also lucky enough to arrive during the Naadam festival. This festival celebrates the nomadic Olympics and is a huge event on the Mongolian calendar. The three main sports were wrestling, horse racing and archery, traditional costume was everywhere and the city went crazy, horses galloping along the main roads.
For me Mongolia was a once in a lifetime experience; the diverse landscape consisting of open steppe, mountains, desert, lakes and valleys was remarkably untouched, inhabited only by friendly nomads tending to their animals. Mongolia’s charm is its wide open space, a land without fences, and a magical light- ‘the land of blue sky’. Working in with the street children gave me the opportunity to see the reality of life in this country of extremes, where everyday new wealth in the city is flashed in their faces and the divisions between the wealthy and those of the ger suburbs becomes more extreme. For many of these children their dreams are the same of any child to become doctors, teachers, even a zoologist, but in reality many with continue to suffer the same social exclusion they have faced all their lives. The greatest gift for these children is hope, hope for a secure future. Unfortunately I think Mongolia’s problems will continue to get worse and their nomadic traditions will be lost. Already a law is being introduced so that all land must be purchased, it is hoped to be implemented by 2010, this will drastically alter the lives of those living as nomads, at present no land in Mongolia is privately owned. Mongolia is fast moving into the 21 st century but lacks the basic infrastructure to deal with growing social problems it creates.
My time in Mongolia has led me to appreciate the hardships those in the third world face everyday, and has given me the ability to see things from a cultural perspective other than my own. Development will happen in these countries but the effects can be devastating, decline in the nomadic traditions is almost inevitable, in Mongolia and with this traditional ways of living with the land and the animals will be lost. My lasting impressions of Mongolia will be the sense of space, camping in empty valleys and by magnificent lakes. But also of the children smiling and laughing, hiking through the forests in search of fruit or having water fights. They are the future of Mongolia and implanted in them is the heritage of an extreme country, one of the wilderness areas of the world.