On the way home – 2014 (John)


Telling Jonathan’s story

It has been two years, Jonathan.  First time I went in 2012, I was inspired by your dream and wanted to be part of the team to live it out.  I went without knowing much about this country Mongolia that fascinated you, except that the people are traditionally nomads and their country neighbours my motherland.


2012 Mongolian Team


The kids at Soccer Camp 2012 singing us a naadam song as thanks.



On his way to the naadam horse race (2012).

With Candace’s and the boys’ great emotional support, I packed my bag and went!  I was blown away!!  I went home deeply inspired and touched.  I then understood why you were so fascinated about Mongolia!  The people there are so pure, content, positive, and happy.  Living their simple lives in the endless plains of the Mongolian Steppes, enjoying happy times with their family closely bound by their deep traditions in the warm gers, going through harsh winters with perseverance and strength, without fears… They have so much in common with you!  I was touched by their courage and strength to live… as nomads, as warriors against cancer.  I learnt the love that drives them to go on: the love of lives and nature; the love for their families.  I was moved by the innocent smiles that the Mongols patients had, even when battling life threatening diseases… just like you did.  I was touched by the love that the parents showed by being with them and holding them tightly… just like your parents did.  I learnt fatherhood at a deeper level when Steve was running around collecting Mongolian stones for you, and when he was praying in silence in Karakorum, and him turning your love into helping others.  I was inspired by the love of the doctors and nurses in Mongolia taking care of their little patients, even putting them before their own families… just like your doctors and nurses did.  I got to know two missionary families who went way way way before us to the Land of Blue Sky answering the Lord’s calling, taking care of Mongol children and being living testimonies of Christ’s love.  Two years later, these inspirations didn’t fade a bit; they only grew stronger!


Bone marrow needles used by the hospital in 2012. They now have single-use needles.


A mother holding her child tight.


Visiting with patient and her mother.

Thank you so much, Jonathan.  I would not have the opportunity to learn and experience all these without you.  Thank you for having such wonderful dream and letting us be part of it.  Jonathan, I thank our Father for giving you such a loving heart and being such strong living testimony of His love and sacrifice.  I can tell you that we made many friends in the Mother & Children’s Hospital and we are honoured to partner in battling childhood diseases in the U.S. and in Mongolia.  There are many things that we have learnt from each other.  We are making many changes to take better care of the patients entrusted to us because of you!  Although I may not be able to go back to Mongolia in the near future, I am forever bound with them via the friendship that is beyond time and space, just like ours.


2014 Mongolian Team.

Please continue to watch over us and inspire us.  We are honoured to partner with you to do all these and I will continue to tell these amazing stories… all started by one child’s dream.  The time will come when we meet again and chat and laugh over our little travel stories in person (milk curds in coffee, fly camp, Russian van…), until then, take good care of yourself and your family.

Letters to Jonathan- Day 5: Dinosaurs and Goodbye


Mongolia has approximately three million residents, and one million of them live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. That’s a lot of people for one city. We started this morning by going to a local Buddhist temple. We happened to be there while the lamas (monks) were chanting. They wouldn’t let me take any photos inside but it was an amazing sight to see and hear. There were tons of men and boys talking (or singing?) at the same time. They would intermittently stop to blow trumpets as large as the room, or hit drums above their head with big sticks or play various sort of other instruments. Jenna even caught one of the guys checking out Facebook on his iPhone, which he kept hidden in his robes.  We saw a set of giant golden feet which will eventually be a statue of Buddha bigger than the Statue of Liberty.

You would have loved the Mongolian history museum, it was very weird seeing history told from a perspective other than a European one. It was interesting seeing the Europeans portrayed as the “enemy.” We did see some of Marco Polo whose travels and writing introduced Europe to Mongolia and China (at the time ruled by the Mongolian Kublai Khan.)

One of the coolest things we saw was a dinosaur that the Mongolians had recently recovered. It is a Tarbosaurus bataar which is the Asian cousin of the T. Rex. Apparently, a University of Florida professor stole the fossils from the southern part of Mongolia in the Gobi Desert where lots of dinosaur fossils can be found. After attempting to sell the dinosaur for a million dollars, the US courts were able to return the dinosaur to the people of Mongolia and put the professor in jail.

We only had a few hours left to do some shopping. Dr. Sandler recommended a store called Mary & Martha  which sells crafts to help disadvantaged people (such as prisoners or reformed prostitutes)  to sell crafts so they can help support their families. We also went to the State Store which use to be the only big store and was run by the Russians. It’s now a giant mall with lots of goods. Dr. Gayle found some nice cashmere scarves for his wife, Dr. Abram bought a cool Mongolian mask, Dr. Sandler and Jenna bought a bunch of leather wallets for their family, and I bought some jewelry for my wife and daughter and a cool Mongolian wresting cap for my son. You would have looked good in a wresting cap.

Dr. Sandler had eaten at a North Korean restaurant last year and it was recently recommended by a New York Times article. When we got there we realized it had changed ownership and now served Mongolian food (mutton!) but didn’t bother changing the décor or name. Having had eaten enough Mongolian mutton we decided to check out the Sky Lounge in the Blue Sky Hotel and Tower. This recently finished 5 star hotel is a distinct shape on the landscape, with breathtaking views of the city. The name pays homage to Mongolia’s title as “Land of the Eternal Blue Sky.” Sunset overlooking the top of the city was a perfect way to end our stay in Mongolia.

View from the top of the Blue Sky Tower

View from the top of the Blue Sky Tower

Jonathan, I’m so glad you fell in love with this country. After spending two weeks here, I understand the amazing mixture of unique landscapes, incredible history, and the kind and giving people that makes Mongolia so special. Thanks for being on this journey with me.


Letters to Jonathan- Day 4: Statue and Singing


Today we get to head back to the city. I wanted to climb the mountain by our camp and watch the sunrise but the 5:45am wakeup time, 30 degree temperature, cloudy and rainy weather made me rethink my plans. My bed in the warm toasty ger was too much to give up. I have a feeling that you would have made me get up to enjoy the sunrise though. I did climb the mountain again before we left to get one last look at the countryside. It still took my breath away.


A view I won’t ever forget

On the way back to the big city we stopped so Tsegi and Bazaara could buy some more airag from a local family. Yuck! We were all too scared to get out of the van because we thought they would make us drink some more. Whenever Americans rest somewhere we just lean against a wall, but whenever we see Mongolians resting they seem to squat with their feet flat. OUCH! Today we decided we are gonna try to squat like Mongolians as much as possible, so keep a close eye out for our group squats.

We stopped at the Chinggas Khaan Statue Complex. This 131 ft tall statue of Genghis Khan was amazing. It was very shiny all in silver, with a gold horse whip and gold accents on his belt. It’s reported that Genghis found a golden horse whip in the area and it was an omen signifying his power and importance and foretelling his ultimate rise to power. I’d just be happy to have found something made out of gold. There’s an elevator in the horse’s tail that allows you to ride up inside the statue. You get to stand on top of the horse’s head and get a close up look of the statue. Awesome!


Standing on top of the horse of the Chinggas Statue

While at the Statue Complex we had the opportunity to try on some clothing from the 1300s when Genghis Khan was in power. I think the power in the helmet went to Dr. Abram’s head.

We stopped at a local city for lunch and guess what was on the menu again: MUTTON! We are all so tired of sheep! Dr. Gayle even asked if they had any goat. When they said there wasn’t even any goat Jenna convinced the cook to make us the same meal but to use chicken instead. Our waitress thought we were crazy, but it turned out really good.

The traffic in Ulaanbaatar is insane! Crazy drivers who make up their own lanes is only half the problem. Since they get cars from all over the world the steering wheels could be on either side of the car. It took us several hours to get back to the motel.

Traffic, traffic everywhere!

Traffic, traffic everywhere!

After a quick shower we made it to a traditional Mongolian performance. We got to see their throat singing called Khoomei and some of their musical instruments made with horse hair (I told you, they love their horses!). The best was the contortionist. This girl could rest her chin between her ankles. OUCH!

We ended the evening at a French Restaurant. Dr. Gayle loves French food so he was super excited. We were all happy to have another meal with no mutton.

Dr. Gayle's French restaurant!

Dr. Gayle is so excited for his French restaurant!

We only have one more day in Mongolia. Tomorrow we get to explore the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.


Letters to Jonathan- Day 3: Rafting and Horses


I’m surprised at how peaceful and warm a ger can be at night. I think I slept better in my ger than I did in my motel back in the city. The Mongolian people are traditionally a nomadic people who live in their ger, a sort of tent house, and have up to 300 animals, including horses, sheep, goats, and cows. They will pack up their home and move up to three times a year to find favorable grasslands for the animals or shelter from the winds during the winter. Each ger has a woodstove to help keep the family warm at night. If it gets too cold (down to 40 degrees below zero!) they will sometimes bring the baby animals inside the ger. The gers are tall enough to stand in but the doorway is lower than we are use to, as a result Dr. Abram kept hitting his head on the door frame. You would have found it especially humorous to hear a “thunk” followed by an “OW!” every time the neurologist walks out the door. You would think a doctor of the brain would take better care of his noggin.

We decided to enjoy a morning rafting adventure down the Herlen River, except the doctors only brought dress shoes and sneakers, so they wound up stealing the shower shoes from the bathroom. Tsegi loaded up the raft on top of his van and drove us 7 km up river. As we started to float down the river we discover that our tour guide Bazaara had never been in a raft before! Luckily Dr. Sandler is an old rafting pro who steered us straight, (unless you count all the circles he made us do down the river). The river was very calm and peaceful with no rapids. We passed tons of sheep, goats, cows, and of course horses! It’s reported that there are approximately eight horses for every Mongolian.

In the afternoon we went on a horse ride, which was my first. The Mongolian horses are smaller and sturdier than the ones we see in the states. These are better suited to the altitude and rocky and hilly environment of Mongolia. They also do a constant bobbing thing with their head. Our Neurologist Dr. Abram is convinced they have some sort of brain stem defect from so much head movement. If you want a Mongolian horse to go faster you don’t say “giddy up,” instead you say, “choo choo.” I tried to envision myself as a warrior in Genghis Khan’s army but I felt more like a train conductor yelling “choo choo” across the Mongolian steppes. Since there were only three horses for five riders we were also given a yak cart for the other riders. Upon closer inspection we realized that our “yak” was really just a cow. I won’t admit that it took us 20 minutes to realize they tricked us. The yak cart (cow cart) had a bum wheel that made for a super bumpy ride. Being on the horses even let us get up close to the local equivalent of prairie dogs called marmots. Marmots are supposed to be yummy to eat but we couldn’t talk our guide into catching one for us. I bet if you were here you could catch one for us in no time.

This evening it rained so we lit the wood fire stoves in our gers. Those things sure did an awesome job of keeping our gers warm and toasty. Normally sleeping in a tent in the rain is a cold and wet prospect, but the sound of the rain falling on the sheep skin roof was enough to lull us into a deep sleep.


Letters to Jonathan- Day 2: Nature and History

Jonathan – 

Brrrrrr! It was cold last night! Can you believe that our cabin didn’t have any heat and only one tiny candle? Luckily they gave us some extra blankets. The sun comes up at 6 am so we decided to take a look around Blue Lake.

Our Cabin for the first night

Our Cabin for the first night

We were confused when we saw a series of totem poles. As we got closer, we realized they weren’t totem poles but instead an amazing historical monument made of wooden columns, one for each for each of the Khans of Mongolia. (“Khan” is simply a title of authority similar to king or emperor, but of course you already knew that). At the top of each post is a carved likeness of each Khan. As we read each plaque describing each Khan we realized that being a Khan was not really a position that lends itself to a long life. Some of them only lasted a couple of months before they died or were killed by other family members.

Hanging out with the Khans

Hanging out with the Khans

Dr. Sandler has been reading the guide book about Mongolia. (Between you and me I think he’s memorized most of it. I bet the two of you could have contests to see who could know more about Mongolia.) Dr. Sandler reports that the lake we are camped at is called “Blue Lake by the heart shaped mountains” and is where Temujin called a khuruldai (tribal meeting) and was confirmed as the first ruler of the united tribes of Mongolia and his name was changed to Genghis Khan. It didn’t seem to bother him that his best-friend-turned-arch-enemy, Jamukha, was still in charge of half of the country.


         To be at the site of such a historic event in Mongolian history I expected a giant lake, but it was actually quite small. It was very reflective of the natural landscape and when the beautiful blue sky reflected off the lake you could tell why it was called Blue Lake. All the mountains look alike to me but our driver and tour guide can somehow them apart and get us to where we are going even though they’ve never been here before and they have no road signs or maps. They say the can “just find their way based on the shape of the mountains.”

We had lunch in a local city. Our guide reports the city is near a coal mine, so most of the residents are involved with the mine. We walked into the supermarket and at the back there was a meat market with giant hunks of meat. A lady was cutting up a piece of meat so large it looked like a horse’s rib cage and hind quarters. Definitely not something you’d see at Publix!

My kids asked me to find out about the schools so we took a detour through the city to check out the local school. As luck would have it today was their first day of school. The first day of school is a big deal, even if September 1st falls on a Sunday (which it did this year). The opening festivities were already over but the balloons and banners were still up and there were still some boys playing soccer in the field. The nomadic children from the country side will live in the city during the school year with extended family members or stay in the dorms. The primary school is from age six to age twelve. Could you imagine living away from your family for more than half the year to go to school?

We’ve only known our driver to get lost once, but it worked out awesome. We found ourselves on a precipice overlooking the Herlen River. There was a ger on the top with livestock all around. There were even Mongolians fishing in the river. Dr. Sandler reports this was the most beautiful view of Mongolia he has seen yet. I even contemplated rolling down the hill, if only it weren’t covered in rocks. I think Jenna even broke out in a little rendition of “The Sound of Music.”

The tourist season ends in the middle of September but one our ger camps shut down early so we got to stay two nights at Steppe Nomads located in the Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. This is the best rated ger camp on Trip Advisor and we can see why! Being in a nature preserve, the camp had a big focus on making use of natural resources like solar and wind power. All heat in the ger was provided by wood stove, including the water for showers. Dr. Gayle is just excited that we don’t use dung stoves like some of the ger camps use.
The ger camp is at the base of the Herlen River. It’s very peaceful watching the birds play around in the reeds. While Jenna and Dr. Sandler read by the river, Dr. Gayle, Dr. Abram and I hiked to the top of the highest mountain overlooking the camp. I bet you would have beaten us all up the mountain.

Jenna and Dr. Sandler reading by the Herlen River

Jenna and Dr. Sandler reading by the Herlen River

Dr. Gayle and Dr. Abram at the top of a mountain overlooking the ger camp.

Dr. Gayle and Dr. Abram at the top of a mountain overlooking the ger camp.

Despite all the natural beauty surrounding us we were most amazed at the stars at night. Without any ambient city lights you could see millions of stars. We stole a blanket from the bed and lay out on the grasslands for an hour as we stared up at the universe. We could see the Milky Way and make out individual satellites shooting across the sky as they were orbiting the earth. For me, the most touching moment was when Dr. Gayle saw his first shooting star in over 20 years. You would have loved it.


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