Thursday, August 11, 2011

Random thoughts from Mongolia

I’m back in Mongolia on a follow up visit to my original coaching assignment last year. This time around I’m working with Scott again and we’re out in the remote western area of the country working with small rural credit unions. Our role is to offer whatever advice we can to assist credit unions and cooperatives in their struggle to lift people out of poverty through the co-operative model.

I’m writing this now (Thursday) but it won’t actually get posted until I’m back in an area with internet access. No such luck here. “Here” is the Soum (small town) of Tsengel, which is a small hamlet of approx 1,000 people in the far western Aimeg (province) of Uglii. I flew into the Aimeg capital of Baya-Uglii on Wednesday on the once weekly flight. Scott and I, our interpreter, a few Mongolians and WAY too many pushy, rude and loud, middle-aged European tourists landed on a dirt strip at a small post-Russian airport only five hours late from UB. The tourists and literally mountains of their hiking gear were whisked away by waiting guides and Scott and I were picked up by our contact in Tsengel and made our way approx 80 klm overland by land cruiser. A very looooong 80 klm on dirt roads that ranged from fairly smooth, to rough, to VERY rough to just two vague outlines in the dirt and grasslands.

Last year I was in a business class hotel in UB for the entire time. This time though, it’s a little different. So far there’s electricity but it’s sporadic and the wiring has a definite ancient Russian flair. I’m staying in what can charitably be called a hotel – at least that’s what the Mongolian sign says – but it feels more like a dilapidated hunting lodge. There are four rooms with four single Russian army cots in each room and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. There’s a small alcove in the hall that has two wash basins but there’s no door for privacy and there’s no running water – just a pot that the cook fills with hot water in the morning. The rest of the “facilities” consist of a VERY basic outhouse out back, but because we’re on the border of Kazakhstan all the toilets are “squat” toilets so the outhouse just has a strip of flooring removed in the middle - no actual commode. Oh well, my legs get a good workout while I’m balancing to.... never mind! Throw in a large communal dining room where we hang out in the evening and the Kazak family (yes, the entire family) that takes care of the kitchen and runs the place and it’s like something out of Three Cups of Tea.

So....... no running water, sporadic electricity, no internet (although all the Mongols and Kazaks are running around with smart phones and seem to have no trouble with cell coverage!) and accommodations that at best can be described as rustic. Pretty crappy, right? I should be hating it, eh? Well, nothing could be further from the truth! Yes, I’d REALLY like an actual toilet and some nice hot water but if this is the price to be paid for seeing some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever experienced, or visiting a far off exotic land I’ve only ever seen in National Geographic, then sign me up!
Dale (left) in a ger with his coaching partner, Scott Hughes

Today we spent the morning in meetings with the chairman of the board of the local co-op. An amazing man doing incredible things for his Soum. The co-op has an education program to teach better land use techniques and is actively pursuing a new crop management and animal husbandry program to increase yields and finally store fodder and grain over the winter so this Soum won’t be devastated by another harsh winter. He’s also running the local credit union, a herdsman co-op and has programs running to test new crops. Amazing. And let’s not forget the hotel – it’s owned and run by the co-op too.

Meeting with the co-operative in Tsengel

In the afternoon we toured a new water irrigation system, looked at his crop management area and then spent an hour with a local Kazak family that’s been hired to maintain one of the crop areas. No tourists, no “put on” hospitality, just a very nice family offering us their home and their hospitality. They’re obviously very poor by our standards but rich beyond measure in so many ways we no longer appreciate or understand. They work hard but their tie to the land, their family and their community sustains and nurtures them and they warmly shared whatever they had available – as is the custom throughout this region. Freshly boiled milk tea, several kinds of cheeses, warm bread and sweets.

I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I arrived. This area borders China and Russia and is only 18 Klm from Kazakhstan. Most of the population is Kazak and Muslim, not Mongolian and Buddhist. No matter what I expected however, what I found were hard working people going about their daily lives. No Muslim extremism here, just quiet reserved people with a smile for a foreigner and warm hospitality for a weary traveller. And as always, I was reminded that no matter how far you travel the people you meet will have far more in common than differences.

-- Dale Boisclair

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