Describe your program in Mongolia and what led you there.
I was first attracted to the program because it brings together a small group of students from the U.S. and organizes an academic experience with field trips, learning the local language, homestays, etc. Additionally, I was had been very interested in Mongolia ever since I did a research project about traditional Mongolian music as a middle schooler. I made a horse-head musical instrument, which is a traditional instrument in Mongolia, that still sits in my doorway. I also thought the program was a good fit for me because as an Environmental Studies major I am really interested in food and agriculture, and Mongolia is one of the few pastoral nomadic societies in the world. It is a very different way of producing food, which I thought would be interesting to observe.
What was it like to live in Mongolia?
The experience varied a lot based on the location. In the beginning of the program I was based in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where 40 percent of the population lives. So I would wake up around 6:30 a.m., eat a quick breakfast with my host sister, and chat with her in her broken English. Then we both would get public buses. I would usually be standing in the jammed crowd on the bus to go across the town, riding for about an hour for only a three-mile trip because traffic there is really bad. Then I would go to my classes. There were a bunch of lectures and guest speakers coming to visit from local political organizations or parliament. Sometimes we would go to their offices to discuss the country’s most pressing environmental and geopolitical issues.
Watching the milking in Arkhangai Aimag (prefecture), the cow country of Mongolia
What other parts of the country did you visit?
I went to the countryside to live with a herding family for a couple weeks. Traditionally, Mongolians herd five different kinds of livestock, but the family I lived with herded four: sheep, goats, horses, and a kind of cow-yak animal.
Was it challenging to live there?
Yeah, but this was one of the particular experiences I was looking for, so the home-stay was a major draw for me. It was a little confusing at times. I would wake up in the morning and my host mother would tell me to do something in Mongolian, and my Mongolian was only at a beginner’s level. Usually I had an idea of what she said by catching a few key words. I would be like; “Oh so, she said sheep, and moved her arms inwards so maybe she wants me to bring the sheep in.” I would always try to combine the keywords with hand gestures but I still got it wrong half of the time. But in general, I helped my family herd the animals, collect snow to melt for water, etc. I rode horses with my host brother a couple times, even though usually in Mongolia only the men ride the horses.
What is the political scene like in Mongolia?
Karen with her host father
It is pretty corrupt. It was the election season when I was there, so I got to see a campaign speech by one of the political leaders. The big environmental deal was the huge mining boom that was happening. Mongolia was a socialist country until 1990s. There is still the contrast between people wanting support from the government, but also wanting more capitalist, free-market oriented system. There are the existing government regulated mines, and the international ones regulated by Canadian, American, and Chinese mining companies, which would take away all the profits away from the people. Local people were not allowed to work in these companies, so there is tension between these two “regimes.” Overall, the mining system in Mongolia illustrates the political tensions there.
Did you do any independent study?
Yes. At the end of my studies I wrote a paper on community-based pasture management in Mongolia. It was funny because my program coordinator insisted I get a translator for this project, and the translator turned out to have studied at the University of Minnesota, so we bonded over our Minnesota connection. I told her of my interest in studying pasture management in this particular town, and then she told me her relatives were from that area. Mongolia is a really small place, so in some ways it was not very surprising, yet all these coincidences led to our collaboration on this project, which was very exciting. The two of us visited that town, stayed with her cousins, and talked with the government and local herders to discuss certain programs and to determine how effective they were in preventing the degradation of these pastures.
Karen visiting the camel herders in the Gobi desert
What’s your overall assessment of the program?
I think it was a really good program. The staff was supportive and knowledgeable about the country. They provided insightful information about experiencing Mongolia, such as drinking camel milk, exploring the spiritual sites, visiting the Gobi desert, going to a mining city out in the country, etc. Traveling opportunities provided by the program were great, but so too were the opportunities to speak with people doing important things for the development of Mongolia, such as running small political organizations and working for the government.
If I were to visit Mongolia, what culture and social tips would you give me?
Visitor traveling to Mongolia might encounter an anti-foreigner sentiment due to the mining boom. But the Mongolian people are also very welcoming to foreign students. Some cultural norms and traditions you should know about before you travel:
Both Tuesdays or Sundays are considered to be unlucky days to travel, so buses don’t run on those days. If you have to travel then, our program instructors advised us, put your luggage in your car ahead of time to confuse the spirits.
You cannot put your backpack on the floor.
One of my host sisters told me: “If you clip your nails, do so outside and say, ‘I want to be as tall as a camel.’”
You must pass things with your right hand; passing with the left hand is considered rude.
If you walk inside and trip, it is considered good luck. But if you trip outside, it is considered bad luck so you must come inside and step over the entryway.