When I take groups of Girl Guides abroad, I want to give them the opportunity to visit countries that are outside their comfort zone, and not the ones they would normally go to on family holidays. Mongolia ticked all of these boxes. The variety of culture within the country itself – from urban to rural and modern to traditional – were fascinating research subjects for the girls in preparation for our visit. Not only was our group of eight not disappointed, the reality of our trip to Mongolia surpassed all our expectations.
Arriving in Mongolia
The welcome that we received at the airport (despite our plane being delayed and it being the early hours of the morning) set the tone for the rest of our stay. The people are among the most gentle I have ever experienced in all my years of travelling. They believe in an affinity with nature and not disturbing the harmony of life. Shouting and ill-disciplined children are frowned upon and the emphasis is all about nurturing your fellow human beings. We were shown kindness wherever we went - and we went to so many of places.
The architecture is so mixed, and stunning. It is fascinating to watch the emergence of a city and culture from one regime to another, from communism to democracy. There is a huge amount of construction going on everywhere simultaneously, more than any we have witnessed anywhere else. Something that took us all by surprise was the variety of international cuisine that we enjoyed. If you can imagine a food style, you can find it in Mongolia!
Working at a day care centre in Mongolia
In the mornings, we worked at a day care centre in the slums on the edge of Ulaanbaatar. It has been set up by an extraordinary woman who will take in any children, including a severely disabled boy, to give them the stimulation of activities. This helps give older siblings a break, as it is often the older sisters who have to look after the smaller children, while the mothers go out to work.
Our first day was an interesting one in that although the girls were willing to give us a chance; the boys viewed us with some suspicion. However, within just a few days, all the children were hanging out of the door in the mornings, all smiles, and waving to us in anticipation, and the numbers were growing. Their readiness to embrace ideas, as well as us, was a reflection of their open mindedness and tolerance, a trait we found throughout all the people we met.
We were given a free hand with the planning of our activities, and had done a lot of preparation before we left the UK, and our sessions on Pirates, Space, Sea, Sports, Teddy Bears and Animals were very well received. We gradually built up the decoration in the centre over the fortnight we were there with bunting, cut outs, murals, space bugs, pirate ships and lots more and the children really appreciated having some item each day to take home.
One thing that they particularly enjoyed was when we finished our Teddy Bear session with a teddy bear’s picnic, and they all got to keep the bears we had taken for each of them. Their colouring ability and patience, was outstanding! We also managed to do just a little outside work in the form of rendering (mixing an old bath full of concrete by hand is not easy work but seeing the difference it made to the outside, and knowing we were helping to waterproof the building, made it all so worthwhile).
We were privileged to help distribute some essential foodstuffs to two local families in the slums, and were invited into their homes. By the time we came to the end of our placement it was literally tears all round, even from all the adults. The connections we had made with everyone there were tangible and so rewarding. Moreover, that was without the aid of much shared language!
Teaching students at a Mongolian secondary school
Our afternoon placement brought us into contact with Mongolian teenagers, and how impressed we were! We taught English to older girls at a local secondary school. In many ways, this was a much more challenging prospect – how to make English fun, understandable and useful without a traditional classroom situation (which we did not want). A combination of teams to rival one another with word games, setting a small homework task each night picked at random by everyone, looking at and then talking about our UK photos and a whole variety of other things we came up with helped to make the sessions fun and, we hope, useful.
We culminated our time there by splitting in to two groups, and each performed a short play from fun scripts we had taken with us. We practised during the week and it was so heartening to see the Mongolian girls throw themselves into the activity with huge amounts of enthusiasm. A trait we saw often! Once again, there were tears as we parted, and much swopping of Facebook addresses!
Support from Projects Abroad
The Projects Abroad team met us at the airport at 1:30 am full of smiles and welcome. An incredibly heartening start after a long journey, due to delays. We were taken to a delightful small hostel where we had the whole place to ourselves, which made us feel at home immediately. From the very first day, our support quite literally could not have been better.
Our main Projects Abroad Mongolia contact and our two other support staff, did quite literally absolutely everything they could to make our stay easy, enjoyable, stimulating and any other adjective you can think of! They were wonderful. They took us to eat at a vast variety of places; we went to the amazing Bogd Khan memorial, the Zaisan memorial, a fantastic cultural concert, and karaoke! We visited the magnificent Ghengis Khan memorial; journeyed out to the Terelj National Park and had a picnic by the river, before climbing the Monks Cave, visiting a nomadic horse encampment, and then finally staying overnight in a traditional ger – the Mongolian tents which are beautifully decorated. We even tried fermented mares milk. Delicious! That evening we climbed up through wild flower meadows to the Buddhist monastery and took part in the prayers with all the local people. Just another example of the stupendous contrasts that this country has to offer.
Another highlight for us was visiting the Children’s International Centre, and meeting up with fellow Girl Guides. Projects Abroad facilitated all of this for us. We finished our time there with ice-skating and a visit to a modern shopping centre. We were given a taste of all that Mongolia has to offer by a group of three women with indefatigable energy, patience, kindness and an enthusiasm for life. We could not have asked for more.
Would I do it again? Tomorrow, without a second thought!
This is a personal account of one volunteer’s experience on the project and is a snapshot in time. Your experience may be different, as our projects are constantly adapting to local needs and building on accomplishments. Seasonal weather changes can also have a big impact. To find out more about what you can expect from this project we encourage you to speak to one of our friendly staff.