Mongolia: A Wintery Land of Charm, Hospitality, and Camels

February 14, 2018 | Daria, Masters in Economics, Uniterra Mongolia - Mongolian Chamber of Commerce, Business Development Officer

My name is Daria, I am a master’s student in the economics department; I am currently doing an internship in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in the sphere of business development. Within my internship group, I was the only person to go to Mongolia; others chose more tropical destinations such as Vietnam and Peru. Understandably, the most popular question I would get when I told people I was going to Mongolia was “Why? It’s so cold there!” Of the few things people knew about Mongolia, they knew of the cold and of Ulaanbaatar’s reputation as being the coldest capital on earth (even though Ottawa overtook it right before I left). What most people didn’t know about the country is that it is home to gorgeous mountain ranges, what locals call Lake Baikal’s “Little Sister,” Lake Khuvsgul, the Gobi desert and a rich history of herding and nomadism. And camels, there are also camels here; the two-humped Bactrian variety to be exact. As of yet, I have not yet ridden one, but I made a promise to myself to not leave Mongolia until I have ridden a camel.

My first impression of the capital was that it looked a lot like any ex-USSR major city. Block buildings, cars from Soviet times, furry hats, even the alphabet was the same (although in reality the pronunciation is radically different). Certainly one of the assumptions I had of the people was that, because of the strong Soviet influence, many Mongolians would be fluent in Russian. As it turns out, many people went to Russian high school, or had studied the language at some point in their lives, but have not practiced enough to remember it. Russian here is still very useful, as most of the products in the grocery stores are imported from Russia, and have their descriptions in the language. The Soviet influence is starting to fade, and the magnitude to which Mongolia has embraced change is staggering. New buildings are under construction all around the city, just about every trendy café is owned by a person under the age of 25, and promotions to study abroad (the top destinations for Mongolians are South Korea and Japan) are posted all over the city. Many young people have a good grasp of English, and are eager to make foreign friends.

I think the thing inhibiting most people from visiting Mongolia is the rumors of the bitter cold. Having survived the harshest part of winter, I can say it’s not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. The air is very dry here, and there is very little wind in the city because it is surrounded by mountains, so it actually cancels out some of the severity of the cold. There was only one week when it was cold enough for me to wear sweatpants over my work pants. I still drank iced lattes when it was -31 C outside! A few weeks ago the British embassy commissioned an ice sculpture of The Beatles in the main city square, and it is still there, no signs of weather damage at all! Because of the dry climate, snow is rare, and any that falls just tends to dry out. If the cold is really scary for you, it can get to +30 C in the summer, which is the same time that the biggest festival of the year is held, Nadaam.

My time here hasn’t been all relaxation and café hopping; I came here to work after all. I work at an NGO called Development Solutions, who are a non-profit business consultation agency. They also work to promote gender equality in Mongolia, by dedicating a branch to women’s business; one of their biggest achievements was opening a women’s business incubator centre, which provides tools such as accountancy literacy trainings, sewing machines and kitchens for the business owners to use, and on-site child care, to minimize the double burden still faced by Mongolian women. Another branch of DS is the local division of Youth Business International, an NGO based in London, which seeks to help young entrepreneurs with starting and maintaining their businesses. I translated the Youth Business Mongolia website into Russian, and am currently designing trainings on public speaking, market research and trade and exporting, which will be used a workshop called “Train the Trainers”. The workshop focuses more on the long term approach to development, where we give trainers tools to teach others, and they will in turn give more seminars and train more people.

Overall, I am very happy with the work I am doing here, it has given me a chance to apply my research and teaching skills, as well as learn some practical skills such as adaptability and flexibility. Being here has also challenged some of my views about what development is, and has given me new perspectives on many issues, one of the more pertinent ones being how detached from reality and day-to-day life economics can sometimes be. I very much look forward to the second half of my internship!

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