June 3, 2008

To Darkhan

The morning started with an incredible view of the mountains right outside our ger camp. One hundred yards away there were several horses gathered together grazing under a beautiful blue sky and soft white clouds. That was the first thing I noticed, but then I realized there were no fences anywhere, for miles and miles the horses were free to roam as they pleased. This was a new concept to me, but as the day went on and I saw hundreds and thousands of sheep, goats, cattle and horses running around the countryside I came to understand that this was not a new concept to Mongolians at all. The idea of owning land is a new one in Mongolia, people are able to come and go as they please, just like the animals. If they like a certain area one season and then decide to move on the next season, they don’t have to get permission or buy anything, they just pack up their entire home which takes about an hour and then they move wherever they want to.

After a breakfast of bread and jelly, fruits, pastries and orange juice we all met together in a great ger able to fit one hundred people. Our Country Director Jim and several other staff members introduced themselves to us and summed up our activities over the coming days. We would be traveling from Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, to Darkhan which is the second largest city in the country. Keep in mind that Ulaanbaatar has 1 million people and Darkhan has 70,000. Quite a difference between the largest and second largest city in the country huh?

For lunch, all of us were able to meet with a very important friend of the Peace Corps, Mark, our United States Ambassador to Mongolia. He spoke to us while we ate some incredible soup, a variety of meat-filled pastries, dumplings and other hot pocket-like creations, as well as some fruit juice which I can’t identify but was good. Jonathan will appreciate that I did say “hot pocket” like Jim Gaffigan does and several people knew exactly what I was doing. Mark has been in Mongolia for a year now as Ambassador, having worked in Japan and Korea in the past as a career Foreign Service officer. The rank of Ambassador, I have heard from other Foreign Service officers, is the equivalent of a General in the Armed Forces so that gives you an idea of his role and importance in the embassy. From what I understand it is not uncommon for the Ambassador to visit with Volunteers in the field or invite them into his home on occasion as well. I look forward to working with him in the future and really enjoyed his talk. Most notable to me he said that he felt, “the Peace Corps is the most important we do in Mongolia. It shows the true face of America in a way that not other organization can and coming to welcome you to the country is one of the highlights of my years.” The current Peace Corps Volunteers shared a similar sentiment with us as we met with them that night in Darkhan.

Following lunch we packed up our things, separating our winter items to be left in Peace Corps headquarters during our three months of training, and boarded our buses for the three-hour ride north to Darkhan (pronounced Dar-han). The view on the ride was spectacular, including the incredible tendency of the horses, cattle, goats and sheep to run across the road causing our buses to swerve this way and that. The mountains were astounding, far beyond the ability of my camera to pick up, and the simple beautiful of the country kept my eyes fixed on the window to my side almost the whole ride.

When we arrived at the Darkhan the current Mongolian Volunteers were there again to greet us and take us out to dinner. I ate with Brody, Mike and Philip, all of whom were awesome, and asked Philip about 100 questions about Mongolia, politics, health, the Mongolian people and more. I have a lot to reflect on, including the state of the country’s infrastructure following the move from a communist state to a democratic one, but I have a feeling that is going to be a common theme throughout my two years here.


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