Rosalind Perrett – Journalism in Mongolia
For six weeks in the months of March and April 2017, I lived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, and worked as a reporter for the Mongol Messenger Newspaper. These turned out to be the best six weeks of my life.
First impressions of Mongolia
I can still remember the feeling of awe I experienced as the plane descended through the clouds above Ulaanbaatar. The frosted windows of the plane were blazing gold and all that could be seen for miles around were snow-dusted mountains glowing orange under the morning sun. I was met at Chinggis Khaan International Airport by my Projects Abroad coordinator, Zulaa, who welcomed me as a friend with a huge smile and open arms. I was entranced by the city when I was first driven through it. Towering high-rise blocks stood out against a background of blue snow-capped mountains and enormous icicles cascaded from the rooftops.
My host family
Zulaa drove me to my hosts’ apartment and lugged my suitcase up five flights of stairs (Mongolian women are strong! I was squeezed by one of them at one point and almost suffered a collapsed lung.) Knocking on the door I felt a wave of anxiety, but when it opened, I saw on the doormat my very own pair of rubber slip-on shoes waiting for me, along with two smiling faces. I was welcomed in and was immediately served the salty milk tea I’d been so curious about, along with sweets and a plate of steamed dumplings (buuz). Everything was delicious. My hosts spoke good English and we were soon chattering away like we’d known each other for months. They were two of the loveliest girls I have ever met. Kind-hearted, funny, caring and inquisitive, they took me into their home and treated me like a sister.
I spent a lot of time with them, going on shopping trips, to a Korean restaurant, and to Terelj National Park. I was invited to watch my host in the university arts competition, where students dressed in the traditional deel, played horse-headed fiddles, performed throat singing and the most advanced Gangnam Style I think has ever been witnessed against a background of charging horses. It blew the X-Factor out of the water. I even went to meet my hosts’ parents, where I was taught how to make the different shapes of dumplings, including rose and sheep, although all of mine just looked like they’d been dropped from a great height. Out in the countryside when we stayed in a ger together, they surprised me by singing a song by The Beatles, because I’d told them that they were my favorite band. I will cherish such memories forever.
Throughout the time I was in Mongolia, I was taken care of by Zulaa, whose professionalism and compassion impressed us all. The cultural activities she organized were a lot of fun and the community outreach project, during which we visited a day-care center and a single mother with a disabled child in the ger district, was a fantastic thing for us to get involved in.
My Journalism placement at the Mongol Messenger
Zulaa accompanied me on my first day at work at the Mongol Messenger Newspaper, run by the Montsame News Agency. I’m glad she did, because I could have eaten my own arm out of fear of how I, a little blazer-jacketed Westerner, was going to introduce myself to a room full of professional Mongolian journalists. I need not have worried at all, because I was immediately taken under the wing of everyone at the agency. Before I had been there 10 minutes, one of the young women in the office invited me out to lunch with them at the local bakery that day. For the next six weeks, we had lunch together without fail. Because three of my colleagues were young, in their early twenties, we became something of a gang and spent a lot of time together outside of work.
On my first day, Mara and Ted (his name was Tugsbilig, but he allowed me to call him Ted and thus saved me from numerous verbal garbles) offered to take me for a tour of the city that Saturday. They proudly showed me the Gandan Khiid Monastery and the Winter Palace (an absolute must-see) and then took me back to Mara’s house, where I tried airag (fermented mare’s milk) and aaruul, a kind of hard biscuit which nearly undid fifteen months of orthodontic treatment in one fell swoop. We got on like a ger on fire, and since they worked as translators, their English was impeccable. We shared lots of jokes and had some really interesting discussions.
My placement was a brilliant and worthwhile experience which really helped me to develop my skills as a journalist. I was trusted to use my initiative and write about topics I had chosen myself, as well as to conduct my own interviews. I wrote five articles in total, all of which were published – one on an art exhibition about mining damage, one an interview with a Canadian band, one an article about a British explorer I met in Mongolia, one about being a foreigner in Ulaanbaatar, and one about the National University of Mongolia in which I interviewed my host who is a student there. Since returning home to England, one of my articles has been translated into Danish and has been published in Denmark.
My days in the office were fun. Everyone there was on a Facebook group chat which made communication easy, and my colleagues were ready to answer any of my questions at the drop of a furry hat. My editor was encouraging and gave me lots of praise and helpful direction when I was writing and editing my articles. I am sure that working for the Mongol Messenger will help my future career prospects. It has certainly helped to improve my confidence as a fledgling journalist. My time at the agency ended with hugs and Chinggis beers down at the Bud Pub.
Traveling in Mongolia
Traveling in the Mongolian countryside was a truly unforgettable experience. The first time I ventured out of Ulaanbaatar was with two of the other volunteers. We went on a horse-trek in a snow-cloaked valley under a dazzling deep blue sky. It was breathtakingly beautiful. At one point, a nomad came thundering towards us on a horse and invited us to his ger, where we were served tea and dairy products. On the way back from the trek, we asked our driver to take us to the Genghis Khaan Equestrian Statue – the biggest statue of a man on horseback in the world. We climbed right up to the top for stunning panoramic views of the countryside. The second trip I went on was to Terelj National Park on the edge of Ulaanbaatar where my hosts took me up to a tiny monastery in the cliff face. I joined in with a ceremony that was taking place in the colorful interior and joined the others in walking around the monastery, spinning prayer wheels. The view from the monastery was the best I have ever seen.
In my final week, I booked myself a four-day trip with two people from the Netherlands, during which we stayed at ger camps and with nomads in their own gers. It was a lot of fun driving through the wilderness in a Russian military Jeep with iffy doors that had a habit of flying open at inopportune moments. My favorite bit was just driving for miles and miles without seeing a soul, listening to Mongolian music and seeing cow skeletons and yak skulls lying by the wayside. The first day, we traveled from Ulaanbaatar to the ancient ruined capital, Kharkhorin, where we were given a guided tour of the fascinating Erdene Zuu Monastery. Day two took us over frozen lakes to a frozen waterfall. What would have been a tourist hot-spot in any other country was completely deserted. In the morning, just as the sun was rising, I was able to go and sit at the edge and look out at the mountains. The following day, we went to the Mini Gobi and to another nomad ger, where the nomad living there took us horse and camel riding. The nomads there were brilliant people, who allowed us to cuddle the many baby sheep and goats they kept, and who even came to tuck us into our beds when night fell. Amazing moments like that will be ingrained in my memory forever.
I would recommend a Projects Abroad internship to anyone. It has changed my whole worldview and has made me much more positive about the future. I now know how much there is out there to discover.