The two-leg flight from Toronto to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
, took us almost a full day. That’s 9,800 kilometres, according to Google
, though I have a hard time making sense of it. What I did know when we arrived was that we hadn’t just come here to stay in the capital city. We had plans to go to the countryside, which a day into our trip went up in the air. Or more appropriately, got grounded.
Without getting into the details, let’s just say our scheduled one-hour flight was not possible. Instead, my photographer, Paul, and my translator, Uelun, chose a different travel itinerary that took us another 20 hours by plane and car to get where we were going: the Zavkhankhangai
community in the western part of the country.
Squint to see the sheep.
Horses are bigger.
Vehicle of choice.
A view of the first village we visited.
After testing our car-sickness vulnerability, we arrived. Over the next three days, we’d spend time with the children and families we had come here to meet.
While we waited for the interview to start in the Pushkin family’s ger, I took a photo of Paul from a low angle, hoping to make him seem gigantic.
When we step inside the Pushkin family’s ger, it’s tidy and organized, despite the presence of a chaos-creating four-year-old, Erdenebayar (he’s actually not that bad, but he is energetic). A Canadian sponsors his 12-year-old brother, Erdenesuren. The boys’ mom, Purevdorj, 37, greets us, offering tea and a type of Mongolian biscuit. Purevdorj’s husband, Bariad, isn’t home; he’s gone to get firewood. The ger has a stove that keeps you warm or sweltering, depending on how many layers of clothing you’re wearing. Yes, unzip that down-filled coat.
I sit across from Purevdorj to chat, and look at family photos and baby pictures that cover the wall. While I ask her questions, Erdenebayar plays on the rug with toy cars.
Purevdorj dresses Erdenebayar, 4, in clothing she has sown.
Erdenesuren, 12, accentuates his brother’s ears.
Erdenebayar is in his second year of preschool. Purevdorj tells me he crawls so much that she has to replace his clothes four times a year. It’s a good thing that she’s a licensed tailor.
Since her eldest son became sponsored, World Vision has supported her with sewing lessons and equipment. She works five days a week, and I easily relate to her when she says, “When I finish sewing a product, I am happy. When I start, I’m restless”—she sounds like a writer, or anyone who is only satisfied after a good day’s work.
Before sponsorship, the family struggled. Both Purevdorj and Bariad were unemployed and didn’t have the training to get work. In 2009, a Canadian started sponsoring Erdenesuren, two years after his parents registered him with World Vision. As part of partnering with World Vision, Erdenesuren’s parents received carpentry and business training. World Vision staff members, explaining the benefits of combining efforts, encouraged Purevdorj and Bariad to create a tailoring business with others in the community. And they did just that. Their group is made up of three tailors, including Purevdorj, an accountant and a carpenter, Bariad. They work at a nearby workspace that the group started renting a couple of years ago.
Uelun gets fitted for a deel. She buys this one for a good deal. (Sorry for the pun ... Okay, not sorry.)
Purevdorj specializes in tailoring a traditional Mongolian dress called a deel that men and women wear. Deels are made from cotton, and depending on the size and cut, Purevdorj takes a couple of days to sew each one. Her group sells them for 80,000 to 90,000 Mongolian tugriks (about CAD$50 to CAD$80).
Outside Purevdorj’s workspace.
Later, Purevdorj takes us to her workspace—a two-room office with three worktables and a surplus of fabrics, materials and threads. The sewing machine makes industrial-strength noise. Our translator, Uelun, tries on a teal-coloured deel. It needs some adjustments, but she buys it.
Before we went with his mom to her workshop, I spoke with Erdenesuren. He smiles easily. Whereas his younger brother is always up to some harmless mischief, Erdenesuren helps his family with chores around the ger. He tells me his interests include basketball—his favourite player is Kobe Byrant—and drawing. The sixth-grader says he likes school, especially math, art and reading; his favourite book is The Golden Key, or the Adventures of Buratino, a Russian-version of the Pinocchio story. Since becoming sponsored, Erdenesuren has been a frequent visitor of a library—one of my favourite childhood hangouts.
At approximately 9 a.m., we meet the first of three groups we’ve planned to visit today. I’m wearing a balaclava—for legitimate reasons: it’s cold; I’m not about to rob a bank. But I might be overdressed, given this morning’s temperature is warmer than I thought it’d be. And as the sun comes out, I realize that I am overdressed.
The family’s ger, with their livestock in the background.
The family we meet is nomadic. Enkhbayar, 40, and Gerelmaa, 36, are father and mother to three daughters and one son. Nandin-Erdene, 12, and Namjilmaa, 10, who are both registered for sponsorship activities, live with their grandparents in town during the school year. Their younger siblings, Oyun-Erdene, 5, and two-year-old brother Munkh-Orgil, live with the family.
The nomadic family members spend half the year living here—a seemingly wide-open field, save for livestock roaming about—and half the year over a mountain. There are, in fact, four families who live here and approximately 600 goats and sheep. When we arrive, the livestock is chilling, doing nothing of note. I make a note of it.
Inside the family’s ger, it’s even warmer and I’m unzipping my coat. The interior is dimly lit and more disorderly, perhaps owing to its impermanence in this place. Upon entering the ger, almost as a reflex, Gerelmaa serves us milk, bread and dried milk curds.
Gerelmaa tells me that Oyun-Erdene has a medical condition, explaining her daughter’s symptoms but leaving the illness unnamed. She does say that it’s been hard for the family to pay for the cost of medical treatment.
The mother of four says that having her older daughters registered in World Vision’s activities has helped. The family joined a project that provided them with 10 sheep and 10 lambs that June. She expects the sheep to give birth next year. When I ask her what that has meant for her family, Gerelmaa says they have used the livestock as a food source, milking and making yogurt. They also sold one kilogram of sheep’s wool for 500 tugriks (about CAD$0.30). Checking with a World Vision staff member, I find out that the family received the livestock because of their commendable work ethic.
Gerelmaa milks one of the family’s yaks.
She’s got milk now. (What did we say about puns?)
So I ask Gerelmaa to describe a typical day, not because I’m judging whether she is hard-working, but because I’m genuinely interested in the life of a nomadic herder. She tells me that, depending on the season, she wakes at five (summer) or seven (winter), then sets a fire and brews tea. After making her family’s beds, she goes out to milk their two cows. She boils the milk and makes breakfast for her family. Because they have no electricity, what seem like simple tasks can appear to happen in slow motion. Around two in the afternoon, Gerelmaa gives water to the family’s livestock. Next, she prepares dinner. The family eats a traditional meal: flour, sheep meat baked or fried (but not what they received from World Vision—the family agreed to not eat or sell the livestock for three years). In the evening, Gerelmaa milks the cows a second time and helps Enkhbayar shepherd the livestock home. By 10 p.m., she is back to bed.
Enkhbayar and his son, Munkh-Orgil.
As for Enkhbayar, his wife tells me his workday includes taking the livestock five kilometres from the home to feed. In the afternoon, he brings them back for water. Then he takes them back to feed. And then? Well, he brings them back in the evening.
Enkhbayar at work.
The part about being a nomadic herder that sticks with me most is that in a couple of weeks, ahead of the first winter snowfall, the family will move five kilometres to a different part of the countryside that Enkhbayar has specifically kept the livestock from grazing upon. What’s so striking? Well, the problem with that part of the countryside is that there’s no access to a river, so the family will have to climb a mountain each day to gather snow that they’ll melt and give to the livestock to drink.
I’m shocked because I could never imagine mountain snow as a source of water, but Gerelmaa mentions it as if it’s nothing special. I’m still shocked. I ask her about being a herder: “It’s hard, but I am used to it. There’s no way to run from it. I’ve become a stronger mom.”
The family’s sheep and goats graze.
We spend almost four hours with the family. Before we leave, Gerelmaa thanks us for how World Vision supporters have helped them, especially her children. But I know that we should thank her for taking advantage of the opportunity and working so hard to do so much with it.
Taking a break.
In my experience up to now I’ve found that when the sun is out, Mongolia is less of a freezing monster than I’d been promised. It’s kind of tame. But when the sun is away, I’m glad to be wearing as many layers as I am. When it comes to my footwear, I’ve chosen insulated hiking boots. Here, they prefer traditional Mongolian boots, which have the fusion fashion look of traditional Russian and Chinese clothing. But, of course, they are all Mongolian in style and construction. They’re hot no matter the season—I mean, they’ll keep you warm.
The next group we meet makes Mongolian boots. It’s a short ride to the home they work from. The group’s leader is 39-year-old Gantur. She tells me how World Vision provided business management training and a machine to help make the boots. Since receiving World Vision’s help, they’ve increased productivity 150 percent. Depending on the season (winter is busier than summer, for obvious reasons), the group earns between one million and 1.5 million tugriks (between about CAD$660 and CAD$990) per month. It takes about three days to make a pair. Gantur says that their boots last for four to five years, which is good for Paul, who buys a pair to take back home for his kids.
After lunch, we visit the home of one more family. The parents of the household are 39-year-old Tsogtbayar and 37-year-old Narantsetseg. The couple’s children are Byambasuren, 14, Khongorzul, 11, and Mungun-Erdene, 2. The two older children are sponsored. Byambasuren is in Grade 9, and Khongorzul is in Grade 5.
From left: Khongorzul, Byambasuren, Tsogtbayar, Mungun-Erdene and Narantsetseg.
Byambasuren says when he finishes school, he would like to become a carpenter like his father. Tsogtbayar has been learning carpentry from his own father, but started a group business after he received business training from World Vision. Before the training, Tsogtbayar and his family lived a different life. They used to be nomadic farmers, but the unusual winter storms of East Asia
in 2009, which climate change
may have contributed to, killed the family’s livestock; they moved to the village later that year. By that time, Byambasuren was sponsored and Tsogtbayar was ready to begin a career in carpentry. The training from World Vision taught the father of three about teamwork and gave him the skills to maintain the carpentry group he formed with his wife, his brother, his brother-in-law and his friend.
Detail of one of Tsogtbayar’s carvings.
Tsogtbayar (left) in his workshop.
Tsogtbayar builds carved wooden gers, complete with furniture, which take six months to complete; wooden gers without furniture take half that time. Every piece of wooden furniture in the family’s home was made by Tsogtbayar. He recalls that the first piece of furniture he made—a chair—came from an idea sparked by looking at a photo of a design that his father-in-law made. Though Tsogtbayar is humble about his skills, his wife and the World Vision staff who know his work say he’s one of the top three carpenters in the village. They show me the awards to prove it. He just smiles.
It’s not often I visit a home that the owner has built from scratch. In fact, this is the first time I can say I ever have. I take the opportunity to ask Tsogtbayar his advice for would-be carpenters. He says, “As long as the person is dedicated to making a good product, and has the motivation to keep learning at the craft, carpentry is possible.”
Before we leave, Tsogtbayar expresses gratitude to Canadians for helping as sponsors: “They give me great motivation to not disappoint. I want to improve and continue to make better products.”
We check out of our hotel and drive back to the main village in the province. Our last day before returning to the capital will be tomorrow.
Scene change: The second village.
Up the mountain, we have a good look at the urban sprawl of the city. Up here, too, is a Buddhist shrine; the province is considered a major Buddhist centre in the country. I ask the Zavkhankhangai community manager, who is with us today, if that’s a problem for World Vision. She says it’s not, given the organization’s core values include the acceptance and respect of different religions.
The morning is crisp and Paul takes some photos before we leave to visit Kindergarten #3.
Kindergarten #3, on the right, is a double ger (its second ger is just visible in the background). Beside #3 is another double-ger kindergarten.
The school opened in 2011. The thing about #3 is that it’s a double-ger kindergarten. It has one ger for its 25 kids to play and learn in and another for the kids’ nap time. World Vision provided the gers, toys and training for teachers, who are paid by the government. Children can enroll from age two. So yes, that’s the other thing about #3—it’s more of a preschool than a traditional kindergarten that you’d find in Canada.
Inside the ger classroom.
World Vision has supported the community’s kindergartens to solve two problems many parents faced—the need for kindergartens in the community and the need for childcare.
Sadly, zero nutritional value.
I meet #3’s two teachers, Munkhbayar and Otgoubileg. When we first stepped inside and donned blue booties on top of our boots, the kids were hyperactive. But by the time we’re leaving, slipping the booties off, we’re slipping away from a group of kids marshalled and attentive to the morning’s lesson.
Before we leave, we attend the performance of children in a non-ger classroom in the school building beside the gers. The children there wanted to present songs they had practised.
The children from the non-ger classroom perform. They are pretty great.
We visit one last “economic solidarity group,” meeting Bopdbaatar, 40, and his wife, Sainaa, 39, who make felt slippers. The couple has three children; two are involved in the sponsorship program. Their group, which includes five families in total, started in 2012, making Mongolian wool socks and shoes—a warm combo. Sainaa and Bopdbaatar used to be herders like Tsogtbayar’s family. The same extreme weather that ended Tsogtbayar’s time as a herder also caused Sainaa and Bopdbaatar to leave that life behind.
Not the ones that caught my eye, but a pretty pair nonetheless.
I look at the wool and shoes in various stages of creation. A green pair catches my eye. A co-worker of mine who’s back in the capital wanted a pair for her baby on the way. I buy the green shoes.
Bopdbaatar stretches the wool.
Our final stop for the day is a music concert at a school. We’re entertained by four horse-string fiddlers, as well as dancers. World Vision supports the children’s dance group. I’m surprised that the music and dance moves are so heavily Western-influenced—except for one of the last performances. A sixth-grader, Nomin-Erdene, who is registered in the sponsorship program and finished fourth in a provincewide traditional dance competition, dances in full Mongolian costume. It’s a sublime performance and I would say a first-place effort.
The next afternoon, we board a plane to fly back to Ulaanbaatar. We leave Zavkhankhangai having met good people carving out—sometimes literally—their livelihoods. We keep the stories they shared and feel privileged to have spent time with them—the only hours that count in the end.
Michael Czobit is the editor of Childview.
Paul Bettings is a photographer whose interest is in exploring and telling social, cultural and geo-political stories through his camera.