First Day in Mongolia: Natalie Shares

DAY 1: Monday, July 3

My first experiences with Mongolia, though I landed at night and couldn’t see much of the city, turned out to be two ever-present characteristics of the country: the potholes and the dust. Dr. Rita Browning, who was kind enough to take my dad to pick me up from the airport (I arrived a few days later than the rest of the group), expertly zigged and zagged her way around them as we headed to the Hotel Ulaanbaatar on a dimly lit road. It was a nice, cool evening, so we had the windows to the van down. Soon I could feel a fine coating of dust on my skin, and started to feel parched. One can only imagine what it’s like to be in Mongolia for a dust storm!

After settling myself into the hotel with Sally, my roommate and the nurse on the medical team, I fell asleep almost as soon as I was in bed. Bright and early, I woke up, posted on of the team’s blog posts, and enjoyed my first breakfast with the rest of the group (who says you can’t eat bok choy and doughnuts for breakfast?).

When we finished eating, we headed out to the front of the hotel, where I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Margie Stone. Margie and Rita work together running The Children’s Place, and both have sons and daughters they have adopted in Mongolia. I can’t even begin to convey how extraordinary these women and their capacity for giving are; one only needs to meet one of their own children, or the extended family of kids that live at The Children’s Place, to know how much love is shared among this group.

We took another sufficiently weaving drive from the hotel to a school where we’d gotten permission to run a mini-soccer camp for the kids each day this week. Margie’s daughter Emily (12, and a big soccer player) let us know the school’s field is one of two turf fields in the city, so the kids were thrilled to be there. With the help of our sweet translator Ana, Justin led the kids through some passing & dribbling drills – I think one of the most popular drills was one for which the prize was Silly Bands! After drills, we all took a break to have a snack. When you’re a hungry, sweaty, thirsty kid, it doesn’t get much better than Pringles, cookies, and water. Even the ones who didn’t necessarily like soccer enjoyed playing catch, blowing bubbles, chasing each other around, and just being silly. After that, there was a scrimmage, which the kids who were more into soccer played in; many of the others shot hoops or played games. Here are tons of shots from that first day (the kids are so cute!).

I made so many little friends within that first day; I was astounded at how much love was oozing out of these little ones. They don’t shy away from hugging you, climbing on you, playing silly games with you, playing with your hair, and just being generally affectionate. I know that Rita, Margie, and all of the wonderful people who work at The Children’s Place hope and pray daily that each one of these special children will find their permanent homes soon; every one of them truly deserves that.

Following the soccer camp, Margie took us on a drive through the ger district so we could understand where many of the children who came to the soccer camp came from. Gers, which are basically yurts, are the traditional home of the nomadic peoples who live in the country. In the past several years, various hardships have pushed many nomadic families to move into the city to try and make a better life for themselves. In certain districts of Ulaan Baatar, groups of gers and shacks have sprung up, and only seem to be expanding. Here’s just a small glimpse of a hill covered with gers and shacks:

Unfortunately, making ends meet is often not easy, and many of the children end up selling wood on the side of the road or working with their parents. Margie actually drove around the district on the first day of the camp, telling kids about the camp and asking them if they wanted to come play too (after getting permission from their parents). On the second day of soccer, one of the kids who was there on the first day didn’t show; another child told us it was because he had to go to work with his parents.

After we got back to the hotel, my jet lag officially set in and I fell asleep probably before my head even hit the pillow. I dragged myself out of bed for dinner, where we ate at a place Paul had found in Lonely Planet that touted itself as a “North Korean” restaurant. Expecting to see pictures of Kim Jong Il everywhere, we were a little disappointed by the lack of propaganda, but pleasantly surprised by the simple, tasty food.

My impression of Mongolia is that it is a land of stark contrasts. Soviet-era concrete buildings are set in a background of rolling green mountains; decrepit structures sit next to spanking-new luxury stores & hotels that are a sign of the economic boost brought by a growing mining industry. There is certainly a big gap between the city’s prosperous and poor. And even though Mongolian citizens fought to be freed of Communism, statues of Lenin and Sukhbaatar, the hero who liberated them from the Chinese (but in turn led them into Soviet occupation), still stand.

Most importantly, though, the people we have become acquainted with are warm and friendly, and the children are loving, lively, and very happy despite what some would consider hard circumstances.

-Natalie Soud

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1 Comment

  1. Jenny Puckett

     /  July 4, 2012

    Wonderful pictures and narrative, Natalie! Can’t wait for your next post, and please give hugs to Steve and Paul.


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