6 Months Down, 3 Bonus Months to Go

A few days back was my 6 month anniversary of being in UB, FUNgolia, and it sort of passed without any explanation. This should be the end of my short-term NetCorps volunteer placement, but earlier in February I put in a request to extend for an extra three months and VSO was happy to have me continue on.

For the most part I am very happy about staying as there are lots of really important projects for me to work on out here, and there are many places around the country that I’d still like to visit. However, looking back on the past 6 months, I can’t say I’m super happy about what I was able to accomplish. If I was going home right away I would feel like my placement failed to make any really important changes even though a lot things got started. So these next few months are a bit of a rescue mission where I hope to tie up any lose ends and finish any projects that have been stalled.

A lot of the time placement descriptions and objectives are purposefully vague and open ended so that, in the very likely event something changes, other projects or needs can be addressed. My main objectives were to build a volunteers’ website for VSO and help with staff IT training, both of which pretty much fell through. The bulk of my time was instead spent helping other volunteers with their host organizations web/IT/networking projects and performing odd jobs around the VSO office. I’m pretty happy with this, though I do feel with a little extra planning and effort my skills could have been put to better use.

Looking back I also feel I may have slipped a little bit into the development worker/volunteer mentality of “relax, don’t take things too seriously it’s only a volunteer gig and there’s only so much you can do in 6 months”. The other self defeating trap that I’ve heard a lot from Mongolians and other people who have been here for a long time is that when something doesn’t work or progress is amazingly slow people just shrug and say “this is Mongolia” as an explanation.

There are many problems with the whole overseas volunteering work concept and there are probably quite a few other ways to work towards the same development goals. Many of which wouldn’t involve bringing in people from the other side of the world to work in a country where they don’t speak the language and only have a year or two to make something happen. But from what I’ve seen out here so far, most people are working as hard as they can and are doing some really good things. A perfect example of a volunteer placement going “right” is Cory, a networking engineer from Ottawa who was here last year for 8 months. He was able to plan a computer network for the main hospital in the city of Darkhan, secure funding from a local gold mining company and setup a well design network with good quality equipment for the hospital. He also setup a training lab and hired a local IT student to perform maintenance and provide technical support. Last week I visited the hospital to check up on the project and make sure all the equipment was functioning and that there were no problems. The response from the doctors and nurses at the hospital was completely positive. Many of the staff had never used a computer or the internet/email before and processed all the hospital’s records by hand on paper. The project was a success because the right need was addressed at the right time, by the right volunteer, and very importantly the money was found to make it happen.

These are the main projects I will be working on over the next three months. I think if they work out moderately successfully I will be quite happy with what I was able to do here:

MOVE.org.mn – This is the first website that I completely planned and developed on my own. It will serve as a bi-lingual information portal for the Mongolian Network of Volunteer Organizations (MOVE stands for Mongolian Organizations for Volunteer Empowerment), which is a group of a dozen or so Mongolian NGOs who work to promote volunteerism within the country. When I say I developed it myself what I really mean is that I organized the webhosting, installed a CMS (Content Management System), slapped on a few plugins and tweaked a template. The content, style and translation were all done by other people, so it’s not as amazing as it sounds. There’s still a lot of work to do on it, but check it out at http://www.move.org.mn/.

Equal Step – Equal Step is a children’s charity which works with ‘street kids’ and other disadvantaged and vulnerable young people from Ulaanbaatar. They work with families and mothers providing skills training and support, plus they have a summer camp and lots of other good stuff. Read more about it on my fellow volunteer Ruth’s blog. The plan is to create a website and database for this group to help with fundraising and management. I’m really stoked to help out with this project, as I think it’s exactly the right way to use technology to empower people. Hopefully, it will workout and I will post a link once things go online.

MWFA – This project is also working with Ruth and will involve setting up a simple information website for the Mongolian Womens Farmers Association to promote their work and advertise for ecotourism at their farms. This group of women agriculturalists works by growing and selling vegetables and eggs in different areas of UB’s poorest ger districts, simultaneously raising income and stabilizing their food supply. In addition, they provide skills training, support for women and have an ecotourism program for people to stay and work at their farm. Please read more about it at Ruth’s blog. This is another example of a grassroots organization working towards their own change, which is always the best way to do things. I hope I can help out by developing a cheap, easy to use website they can update themselves, which will allow them worldwide exposure and increase their access to funding sources. Again I’ll post more in the next few months as we get things developed. (I’m also hoping I can do some “electrical engineering” work by consulting about solar panels and other methods to heat their greenhouses, which should be interesting and a little more my stylo.)

Darkhan Institute – The Institute is a college/secondary school in the second city of Darkhan were VSO Mongolia works by providing language teacher trainers and other teaching methods trainers. I will (hopefully!) be visiting this school in the very near future to consult with them on setting up a computer network and shared internet access for their 800 students. I’m not an expert on networking and the like, but if I do some initial needs assessments, planning and budgeting, it will hopefully lead to a well defined and accurate placement description for another NetCorps IT volunteer to come out in August. There are a few other “consult and plan” type projects at two local hospitals and health districts were I will be able to contribute at least a little bit by offering my free “technical opinion” on things and help the organizations decide on a way forward.

MATA & Mongol Vision – These are both Mongolian health NGOs: MATA focuses on TB prevention and treatment and Mongol Vision works towards promoting better sexual health for men. These groups both would like websites developed to increase peoples’ access to health information and to increase their exposure to potential donors. This project has been stalled for a number of months now, but hopefully can be restarted before I go. Again another case where even if I am unable to do the actual website development, I will still be able to offer advice and get the ball rolling as far as the planning and budgeting is concerned.

So that’s it, sounds ambitious, but working on my current success rate of 33% for getting projects off the ground it shouldn’t be too bad. I definitely feel very lucky to get a chance to help some of these different groups out. I think they are all doing some amazing, cool stuff, and if computers and technology can be a piece of the puzzle that can empower and lower barriers for them, then it is surely worthwhile. A process of continual assessment and objective analysis is needed, however, to make sure the tools stay tools and that technology doesn’t become a burden instead of a blessing.

Eagle Fest

What better way to add some excitement to the painful plodding pace of winter than to throw a good old fashion Kazak Eagle Festival? (Mongolian’s are all about animals and festivals. You name it, camel, yak, reindeer, eagle, antelope, etc., and it’s got its own festival at some point in the year).

Last weekend it was the eagles and their Kazak herders (falconers?), an ethnic minority from the far west of Mongolia (ie. near Kazakstan). Every foreigner in UB and many Mongolians were out for a fun-filled day in Terelj, the national park outside of the capital, featuring low-flying eagles swooping around and attacking anything small, fast, furry, and orange (we were explicitly warned on the ticket not to wear fox colored clothing!); a rousing game of “goat-polo” more or less rugby played with a goat while on a horse; and some actual live animal sacrifice in the form of a few rabbits offered as casual sport to the eagles, something that likely wouldn’t have gone down so smooth in North America.

Unfortunately, standing outside for 4 hours in the -xx°C led—some might say obviously—to some frozen feet, mild hypothermia, and a case of the flu which sort of made the experience less than sweet. But some valuable cold weather lessons were learned: don’t be cocky with the weather, protect the kidneys, I am not as tough as most Mongolians, I have shamefully little body fat. All better now though and a little smarter to boot!

Since I still don’t have a camera, I got all these shots from my roommate Jude. Everybody else with a camera was snapping away all day, so I might put some more pix up from them after a while.

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In the Heart of the Nine Nines

A subject of anthropological and cultural, as well as environmental concern that I’ve yet to fully address is the fact that it is freakin’ cold out here. Not that that should come as a surprise to me or anybody else, and to be honest it’s pretty manageable. In fact I only mention it now because it is apparently colder than normal, and it’s also is an interesting part of the whole ‘experience’.

Continue reading “In the Heart of the Nine Nines”

Beijing: Up & Down

It’s been a while! I just got back from a week and a half in Beijing, so I thought I should break that down for ya. Left on the 20th of December and just got back yesterday; saw some amazing stuff, and definitely gained a lot more insight into the city, the people, and the culture/history. Previously my opinions of China were based on bad Hollywood movies and that one really derogatory Tintin book. Needless to say, I now have a far different view of things! It also has made me a lot more interested in traveling to other areas of this enormous country. Furthermore, it has made Mongolia feel sooo much more like home.

I spent a lot of time documenting this experience with photos and videos; however, as my camera was stolen on the 2nd last day, it was all for naught. The biggest advantage to this is that I’ll need to actually use my memory to remember stuff, which is better in a lot of ways.

Instead of pretending to be some sort of travel writer dude, I’ll just list the good and bad as succinctly as I can. Hopefully, those who have visited the city will be able to relate, those planning to visit will get a wholly inadequate and thoroughly skewed version of things, and those who have no intention of visiting will know what they’re missing. Continue reading “Beijing: Up & Down”

At the Rock Show

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After having missed the biggest Mongolian Hip Hop show of the year in late September and just recently having missed a chance to see the legendary “Chinggis Khaan” (the biggest band in Mongolian for going on 20 years) play live, I got my fix Saturday night at the largest rock concert of the year, Playtime 2007. An evening featuring everything Rawk that Mongolia has to offer, bringing together over 30 bands playing an array of divergent and often conflicting styles all fitting loosely under the superordinate heading “Rock”.

Avid/Livid fans from every dark corner of Mongolia’s music scene came in hoards to rally around their favorite groups and get some well-deserved mashing and head banging in. Pop-punk princess lovers, mixed with indie rock hipsters, mixed with Misfits Fiends; while math-rock nerds found common ground with gangster-metal intellectuals (at least for a short while). Every last shred of black leather, ounce of eye makeup, metal stud, and Nirvana/Maiden/Slipknot band tour t-shirt in Mongolia was put to use for this event. While foot-high Mohawks on 5 foot nothing 18 years olds cut through the crowd like sharks fins.

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The music was largely derivative of North American/European Metal (not exactly my flavor, but still enjoyable), but it was almost exclusively in Mongolian and played with obvious adroitness and amazing enthusiasm. (For the few English covers that were played, a white lyrics sheet was invariably and unabashedly employed. Probably not worth the effort as the guttural screeches and screams were indiscernible to most people anyway).

Each band only had a quick 3 or 4 song set, which kept things moving right along, but the show still lasted over 7 hours (I only made it to the last 3). By the end of the night the metronomic headbanging had taken it’s toll on the crowd and things started to unravel a bit: Mash pit fights reached an imperceptible tipping point and turned into real fights (virtually the same thing), and groups of disenfranchised indie/pop fans staged “sit on the floor and smoke” protests against the hardcore bands currently on stage. Likely the same sort of thing that would happen in Canada or anywhere else in the world.

Despite any small negatives the evening was thoroughly enjoyable and a look into yet another rarely seen sub-culture of UB. It also another example of something I would never do in Canada (I’d be too scared and judgmental of the music), but was able to take a chance and try out while in another country.

Check out the video below or HERE:


Midnight Train to Darkhan

Not exactly riveting stuff, but I took another trip outside the capital last weekend and got to see a few new things and had some interesting experiences. Here’s the report:

This weekend was long due to Mongolian Independence Day on Monday, so me and a few others lost no time in getting out of the busy city for some beautiful, clean countryside air! (Mongolian Independence Day passed without the faintest celebration, at least from what I saw. No one even set off fireworks, which is very strange because normally they’re gleefully letting them off at 10am on weekdays without the slightest provocation.)

We went north to Mongolia’s second largest (74,000) city of Darkhan (“peaceful” or “blacksmith” both apt definitions), which is about 3hrs by car and an unrushed 6 hrs by train from UB. Once a Soviet stronghold and industrial hub, it turned into a bit of a ghost town in the early 90’s after the Russians left. It’s coming back to life now, but is still very quite and slow moving. Cattle graze throughout the city amongst the old soviet apartment blocks, packs of stray dogs jog around aimlessly, and huge vacant lots separate and spread out the city.

There are about 10 or so other VSO volunteers (mainly from the Philippines) stationed in the city and a number of Peace Corps, so that’s mainly why we were visiting. Traveling to Darkhan if you live in UB has the same sort of feel of driving up to Northern Canada—nobody would do it unless they had to. The Lonely Planet describes it as “…Not a place you would rush to see…”, but despite all that it wasn’t a bad spot and I found it quite an interesting forgotten corner of the world.

The train trip out (9:00pm-3:00am) on Friday, was a first for me, and was quite enjoyable. The tracks make up the Mongolian portion of the Trans-Siberian Railway and cut through some beautiful barren steppe. Gives one the impression of what the world-famous TSR must be like. It was dark obviously so there wasn’t much to see, but a little moonlight on the snow covered steppe was quite beautiful.

Most of Saturday was spent visiting the other VSO’s flats, driving around to the main monuments and “attractions” in the city: a frozen river, a statue of Buddha, a Morin Hor (Horse fiddler) monument, and the one and only supermarket. After some kick-ass Filipino food for dinner and some socializing, we embarked en masse to the local disco for a night out. It was pretty much the same as most of the UB discos (of which I’ve become quite a expert), featuring the same bizarre Eastern-European/Russian dance music, dirt cheap bottles of vodka, and fun loving Mongolians. We got there at about 9:00pm and things were well underway; people were already dancing and drunk out of their trees. At the stroke of midnight the music cut-out mid song, the bright house lights came on, and we were promptly presented with our bill. Strange, but that’s just how they roll out here in Darkhan; gave the evening a definite Cinderella feel.

Sunday, morning hangover in-check, we took a walk through the highlight of Darkhan, the children’s park, to the local open air market. The park features plastic and concrete animals of all kinds, many dressed up in warm coats and emitting cheesy Mongolian music from embedded speakers. Again a head-shaker, but good times.

Took a “taxi” (random car and driver) back to UB on Monday. Highlight of the whole trip might have been driving through the sparkling snow-covered steppe in the bright morning sunlight, passing grazing herds and quaint little ger villages. Entered the nebulous, opaque smog of UB about 45mins from home. We will, therein, remain swallowed and wheezing until the next trip.

Check out some clips HERE.


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Some Recent Happenings

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Halloween – After a slow start Halloween turn out alright, 2 weeks ago. Cumulating in two pretty good house parties (one with VSOs and one with PeaceCorps/Americans), a few costumes and even some practical jocularity! Spreading the message of Halloween to the Mongolian population was something I feel pretty good about in general, they didn’t really understand all of it, but it is one of the few shreds of North American (Canadian?) culture that I have to share so I thought I should make an effort.

Sticking Out – I’m actually glad for the bit colder weather (the weather thing in the sidebar isn’t so accurate, btw). I may now employ more full-face and head coverings, there by in increasing my ethic ambiguity (or at least my portentous inconspicuousness). Though I’ve heard Mongolians can pick out a foreigner from across the street simply by the length of his gait and posture. Not entirely sure about this, but I’ve, nonetheless, been working on my walk and trying to emulate the Mongolian guys I see on the street.

Anonymity was something I revelled in during my past life, and it’s definitely something I miss from time to time these days. Not going to lie though, being an obvious foreigner and sticking sorely out in every crowd has some (few and far between) perks such as ease in getting a taxi & more tolerance for being strange and taking pictures of seemingly prosaic everyday things such as people crossing the street or funny English signage. I still even manage to get a half smile from people when I say bayatai (goodbye) when I mean bayarla (thank you), or otherwise butcher the language.

Sweet Del – Went for a fitting for a traditional Mongolian del or deel on Sunday. This is a sort of a long heavy coat tied around the waist with a belt and made of some beautiful colored and patterned fabrics. This is what all the old-timers in the city are rockin’ for day to day wear and most everybody in the countryside. I sort of wussed out with mine and went for a waist length version with some fairly tame colors instead of the traditional flowing ankle length units. I don’t think I’d wear the traditional one that much back in Canada so I decided to compromise and go practical and a little modern.

After the measurements we headed down to the olde Khar Zakh (Black Market) to pick up the materials. I choose I nice patterned black silk for the exterior, gold fabric for the trim, and a thick blue-gray for the interior. All in all, the materials and the tailoring set me back about $35, so not too shabby for a hand made jacket. I’ll post some fashion poses with it on when it’s complete!

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Lenin’s Museum – Finally, I checked out the Political and Cultural Museum (or at least the building formerly known as). If there is another place like this outside of Russia or even within Russia I’d be very surprised, in fact, they are currently dismantling this one so I was lucky enough to at least see some of it before it was gone.

Basically, you walk through the door and are face to face with a two-storey high bust of Lenin with a giant red mosaic behind it (‘Workers of the World Unite!’) and light streaming in through stain glass windows. The building was a formerly a museum completely dedicated to Lenin and contains a bunch of amazing old Soviet art, paintings, and some other bizarre stuff. They are supposedly turning it into a part museum, part shopping center (Lenin is likely rolling around in his glass box!), and the place was full of debris and construction materials. On the second floor they’ve turned one of the main rooms into a pool hall and young kids are hanging out shooting pool under pictures of Lenin and socialist slogans. The basement is a maze of low-ceiling corridors, small shops, a bar, a driving school, a theater, and publishing house.

Not sure what the future holds for this building or the art inside, but I guess it’s hard to justify having such a museum these days. It is definitely an unique relic and a testament to Lenin’s fading legacy in the New Mongolia.

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What is it, exactly, that I do out here?

Bit of a downer last time, but the basic idea is that I’ve been brought over here at great expense and effort. Now I’m living in a comfortable apartment, consuming resources and taking up space. So, what exactly am I doing here? What work am I doing that couldn’t be done by a Mongolian or at least by someone else at a lesser expense? Well I’m happy to report I can sorta answer the first question and hopefully soon the other two will become more clear. I’ve finally turned a corner with my job and I am looking forward to being busier in the future both at work and outside of work.


Here’s what I will be doing for the rest of the month and into the future, in some sort of order and priority:

1) Website updates and design modifications for the Erdene Zuu Buddhist Monastery in Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai Aimag. A volunteer who was working at the monastery promoting its fundraising efforts and other activities is now at the end of her 2 year placement has passed this project on to me. Basically I’ll just be cleaning up the site and adding some updated static content for the next few months until someone else can take over. Check out the site and lemme know if you encounter any problems (I haven’t done anything with it yet!!) Interesting group as well.

2) Computerizing the appointment system and patient records database for Nalakh Health District, a small hospital outside of UB. Mongolia’s health system is still a mystery to me (I hope to learn more soon and report back), but it appears to be a private/public mix and every hospital seems to be on a different page in terms of their resources and informatics. The Nalakh hospital has a very convoluted system for registering patients who come in for appointments, checking their health insurance information, and storing their records, resulting in a lot of manual labor for the staff. As the hospital gets busier this is turning into a serious problem. Another VSO health volunteer who is working with the hospital has asked me to consult on this issue and maybe even help to develop a more streamlined system. Obviously, I don’t know anything about how hospitals operate in general, much less in Mongolia, (other than that their record keeping requirements are pretty intense and security and privacy are huge concerns). However, since for the time being no one else is able to do much for the hospital’s IT needs, I hope I can at least offer a somewhat educated opinion on the best course of action.

Through this project, I had the opportunity to visit UB hospital number 1, the biggest and busiest hospital in the country, last week to observe their methods for processing patients and transferring records between reception, the insurance company’s computers and the individual doctors’ computers. The hospital was quite modern and I was impressed with how well things appeared to be working. The computer systems they were using were quite basic, a database with a user interface for adding records and a network for sharing the information around the hospital, and a lot of things were still being done by hand. Through an interpreter the other health vol and I were able to get a pretty good idea of things were being run. We also got the number for a local Mongolian software company who had developed the database software, and we may be able to use them to develop something similar for the other smaller hospital. All in all the experience was enlightening and I hope to get a chance to help out more with this project, but to address all the issues at the hospital would take a few months of solid work and a lot more money than anyone has, so will see how it goes.

3) Some basic web development training and other IT consulting with the Mongolian Education Alliance (MEA), where yet another VSO Vol is working. I don’t have much info on this as of yet but it should basically entail doing some training and streamlining of MEA’s website updating process and helping out with a few other smaller network problems they are having. Should have more information on this project next week.

4) Working with a Dutch VSO who is a teacher trainer at a construction technology college in UB. This would mainly be setting up an online course system that can be used to deliver training material to students outside the city and provide a way for teachers to more efficiently deliver their course content. Haven’t done anything with this yet, but again I hope to at least consult and help direct the college towards the right resources and local web developers who might be able to help them out.

5) Continue to work with VSO Mongolia to develop a public website in Mongolian and English to help them reach different partners and other International NGOs working in the same areas. This site will also have a private volunteers section where current volunteers can share training documents, forms, ideas and anything else via forums, blogs, wikis and whatever else. I’ve been trying to get this going for a while now, but so far have been frustrated because everything has to go through the VSO UK main office in London for approval which is quite slow. Moreover, VSO UK is reluctant to recede control over country specific websites for fear something will go awry with branding and such. Pretty lame but hopefully will get something going before too long.

6) Any spare time I might have will be spent hacking viruses out of other volunteers’ work PCs or flash disks, painstakingly trying to restore crashed or virus ridden computers, or otherwise fighting the good fight against anarchy, disease, and corruption in the digital world!

This is definitely a good work load going forward and I feel like I shouldn’t have much trouble with most of these things, at least from the technical side. I pretty much only have two gears when it comes to work: Neutral and 5th, so I’m shifting to the latter now and I should start getting better efficiency overall. I’ll give updates on these projects and the many other new ones that will be coming up as they happen.

Missing Missives

Extra-narrative Aside:

Had some site issues last week, for which I apologize. My super-budget Italian web hosting company (“Largo Magnifico“) basically took a little holiday, unbeknownst to me. But were gettin’ her back together, slowly.

While the technical troubles might be excusable my “blogastipation” as of late is largely my own fault. It stems more from an abundance of disjointed thoughts and ideas without a common thread and little motivation to give up my perfectionism and proclivity for logorrhea, than from any real busyness. I hope to address this in the future by picking a specific topic and writing a few choice words (<500) on it along with a few decent pictures. Hopefully, this will be a little easier to digest and make things a little more regular.

Back to the regular:

About two and a half months in now and rolling right along. My job is still a source of major frustration, and I am annoyed here and there by a few minor details of daily life (being foreign, being monolingual, having fewer choices than I’m used to), but overall I have embarrassing little to complain about as a “development volunteer” in the “developing world”. It’s hardly even that cold! October was uncharacteristically mild in UB, and I’ve only needed to bust out the long-johns and gloves a few times so far.

When I was doing my training in Canada, before I knew where I’d be going, there was quite a lot of preparation and discussion about keeping one’s expectations reasonable (i.e. low). It makes some sense as most of the people I was with were planning on living for up to two years in some pretty “intense” locations around the world. I was all like, “Effin’eh, hardcore! I’m going to be doing something really challenging (and hopefully meaningful).” So it is with some disappointment and puzzlement that I’ve found myself living in a comfortable flat with many modern conveniences (no furniture, but c’mon it’s hardly roughing it), working a pretty easy, quaternary sector job far removed from any sort of poverty or disadvantage, and pulling in almost twice the average single income monthly salary (about $200/mo plus another $140 for my share of the rent. The $200 amount is supposed to be proportional to the standard of living and on par with what a Mongolian would make, but I’m really not seeing it).

I guess the overall question with this is “Does it make me a better or worse volunteer?” I obviously could be living in far worse situation, probably in a ger on the outskirts of town with no water and limited electricity (this is the case for some VSOs working with NGOs in the ger districts, and for almost all of the Peace Corps vols, interestingly). Equally possible, I could be living far better than my current middle class lifestyle. What my job is and creating a living situation that commiserates with and is favorable to my activities here while being as modest as possible is really the key issue here. Living in poverty is not cool and electing to live in poverty for the sole purpose of moral atonement or superiority is even less so. I have to keep my needs to a minimum, act in the best interests of my position and ensure that I am doing everything I can to make my time here as worthwhile and fruitful as possible.

Now that every last shred of sympathy and concern for me has been erased from your mind (complaining about having nothing to complain about is rarely easy or helpful), I’ll just say that I probably haven’t seen nothing yet and I hope to keep thinking about this sort of thing and maybe writing it down occasionally.