Category Archives: On my journey

Heading for home

Well, my journey is almost over: I head for home early tomorrow morning.  Another 13.5 hours to Toronto, then from there to Ottawa. It’s hard to believe that it is just over a week since I arrived in Mongolia.  I have seen and heard and learned and experienced so much in that very short time that it feels like a lot longer.  I think that’s even more true for the coaches, who were in Mongolia for two full weeks.

We had our final debriefing session today, and I now understand CCA’s decision to hold the meeting in Seoul rather than in Ulaanbaatar.  Being here has given us a bit of distance, an opportunity to detatch ourselves from the Mongolia experience, at least a little.   The coaches summarized their thoughts about the mission, the coaching program, and the future of credit unions in Mongolia.  In the afternoon, we talked about how they will tell their stories upon their return, since coaching volunteers are required to make presentations when they get home.  It was an excellent meeting, and a very good way of wrapping up the mission.

After the meeting, we had a group dinner in a typical Korean BBQ restaurant, which was wonderful. You take off your shoes and sit cross-legged around a low table with a grill in the middle.  The server brings the raw meat — beef and pork, in our case — and cooks it on the grill.  You wrap the cooked meat — with such condiments and side dishes as chili paste, kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage), garlic, mushrooms, and seaweed — in a lettuce leaf and eat it with your hands.  Think Oriental fajitas. There was something particularly appropriate about the communal nature of our last meal together — the Mongolia mission was a shared experience, and it has ended with a shared dinner. We drank lots of light, fizzy Korean beer (luckily, not vodka!), told lots of stories, and laughed a great deal.

After dinner, we walked through Seoul’s bustling entertainment district and found a karaoke bar.  For a small cost, we got a karaoke room all to  ourselves, and spent several hours singing everything from A Hard Day’s Night to I Will Survive to the very timely and appropriate Leaving on a Jet Plane.

A final group picture of the participants in the Mongolia mission.

Korean BBQ

Seoul's entertainment district at night: this is the city that never sleeps!



A little bit of Seoul

Since I hadn’t gotten to bed until after 7 a.m., I woke up at about 1:30 in the afternoon and decided to explore the city.  I was too late for the half-day city tours, so I found my own way to the Namdaemun Market, an enormous open-air market in downtown Seoul.  It was a relatively short walk, but I got a bit of a sense of the city on the way — very modern, very high-tech, very clean and very prosperous; I was surprised at how modern Ulaanbaatar was from the rest of Mongolia, but Seoul is something else altogether.  We’re staying at the Ramada Hotel and Suites, and that was culture shock on its own — not only does my ultra-modern room have a stove, fridge and washer-dryer, but there seem to be high-tech gizmos for just about everything, including for regulating the temperature of the water in the shower!

Downtown Seoul

The market was more traditionally Korean, and it was hive of activity: vendors selling everything from shoes to dresses to ginseng to  pictures of Korean rock idols. And of course, there was food — lots and lots and lots of it.  I hadn’t eaten either breakfast or lunch, so I decided to try out some of the street food the vendors were selling.  The first thing I tried I later found out was fake crab (kamaboko) on a stick surrounded by some kind of soft chewy batter (they were also sellling something similar with sausage instead of crab).  It set me back a grand total of 2,000 won (just under $2) and was absolutely delicious.  I would have eaten another one, but I had seen a stall selling japchae, those wonderful bean-thread noodles I had eaten many times in Korean restaurants in Ottawa.  This japchae was superb –a heaping plate of stirfried noodles with  little bits of oriental vegetables and some kind of meat (probably pork, I think).  The big difference is that while japchae at home is a bit bland, this japchae was cooked with a spicy chili sauce which gave it a real kick.  I polished off my meal with a juicy piece  of honeydew melon, sold on a stick for easier eating.  It was wonderful to see so much fresh fruit after all that tinned fruit salad in Mongolia!

There were lots of vendors selling very nice shoes at reasonable prices, but I restrained myself because I knew I wouldn’t be able to get anything else into my suitcase. So after a good tour of the market, I started walking on the main streets and found myself at Seoul Station – a major railway station and main terminus for the city’s extensive subway system.  Above the station is — not surprisingly — a shopping mall, including an enormous department store.   Like virtually everying else in Seoul, the stores were ultra-modern and well-organized;  I discovered a bookstore within the mall and my eyes quickly landed upon a games section that included a copy of Settlers of Catan in Korean.  I would have bought it, but once again, I would have had problems getting it home.

The market

One of many market food stalls

Eating japchae

Settlers of Korea?

I only wish I had a little more time to explore this city.  Meetings tomorrow — then heading for home on Tuesday.

Last day in Ulaanbaatar

I’m writing this at 6:15 Sunday morning, Korea time, from the Ramada Hotel and Suites in Seoul.  Why am I up at this hour?  Because I haven’t been to bed yet!  Our flight from UB left just before midnight, and with the one-hour time difference, we arrived in Seoul at around 4.  And Incheon Airport is about an hour away from downtown Seoul, so by the time we got here, it was about 5:30.  But since it’s daytime in Canada, I thought I would write about my last day in UB, while the memory is still fresh.

Cafe Amsterdam

Today was a day off, and I decided to spend it a) looking around the city; b) taking photographs, and; c) shopping for gifts to bring back home, since I had done hardly any shopping since I arrived in Mongolia.  It was also a good day to go off on my own — the group is wonderful, but I figured that I would need to be alone if I wanted to get any serious shopping done.

As I was walking down the main boulevard known in English as “Peace Avenue”, I noticed the sign for the Cafe Amsterdam, a place I had read about in the Lonely Planet book.  It’s a popular hangout for North American and European expatriates in UB, and is known for its excellent coffee.  By 11 a.m., the place was pretty crowded; I ordered a cappucino and sat at the only empty table, which was on the patio outside.  Next to my table was a group of 20-something Peace Corps volunteers, and another young man who couldn’t find a seat — 30-something in this case — asked if he could join me at my table.  He was an American named Kyle and was working in Mongolia for USAID, the American version of CIDA, and he had only been in the country for three weeks,  He has a girlfriend from Vancouver who was planning to join him in a few days — she’s a filmmaker and got a job teaching for an organization in UB dedicated to Mongolian press freedom.  We had a great chat about Mongolia and about working in international development.  As I was about to leave, I gave him my Lonely Planet Mongolian phrasebook — the one I had looked so hard for at Chapters — and told him that he will need it more than I will, since I was leaving the country that night.  An interesting encounter, and a reminder that people who work in international development are a special kind of global community.

Kyle from USAID, with Peace Corps volunteers in the background

I still hadn’t bought anything yet, so I headed for the fifth floor of the State Department Store and picked up some things there, then checked out a number of other souvenir shops and other stores selling items that could only be found in Mongolia.  After buying all the gifts for people back home (I won’t say what they are because it would spoil the surprise), I decided to buy something for myself.  I wanted something that would really remind me of my visit, and given my passion for music, I knew it had to be a morin khuur.  I went to the best music store in UB, but they were all very expensive, but I found a smaller version in a souvenir shop for only 39,000 tugriks (about $31).  I bought a case for it for 20,000 tukgriks because I knew that was the only way I would get it on the plane.  Even if I never learn to play it, the horsehead fiddle is extremely decorative, and it is said to be good luck to hang it on a wall.

UB is full of surprises, and one of them was right down the street from the State Department Store. It’s a monument dedicated to The Beatles!  It was erected in 2008 to reflect the group’s popularity among young Mongolians in the 1960s and 70s.  Fascinating.

The Beatles monument

My favourite sign in UB. I had seen equally strange uses of English on signs when I was in Japan 20 years ago, but this one was definitely worth a photo!

Back to the hotel at 5, where we met the MCTIC people, who took us to a performance of the Mongolian National Song and Dance Ensemble. A few of the coaches had seen the same performance when they first arrived in UB, and it came highly recommended.  The show exceeded all expectations — dancers in very elaborate costumes, musicians playing traditional instruments, singers and yet another contortionist (see my previous post).  There were two highlights for me; the first was a dance performance featuring a man dressed as an elderly monk faced by the incarnations of evil — the evil characters looked exactly like those in the tapestries we had seen in the monastery at Kharkhorin, and both their costumes and their dancing were magnificent.  The other came at the end, with an orchestra of some 35 musicians, all playing traditional Mongolian instruments.  The first pieces they played were Mongolian folk songs…but then they played a Strauss Viennese waltz as well, if not better than any western symphony orchestra I had ever heard.  Their final number: “We are the Champions”  – the song made famous by the band Queen.  Traditional instruments or not, these musicians could play just about anything!  I didn’t take any photos of the performance because it cost an extra 6,000 tugrik for the privilege, and I had run out of Mongolian currency.  But Bruno, one of the coaches, paid the surcharge and I will post some of his photos (with proper credit, of course), when he posts them on his own blog.

Only in Mongolia - an Irish pub named after Chinggis Khaan!

We hadn’t yet had dinner, so after the concert, we headed next door to the incongruously-named Grand Khaan Irish Pub.  Yes — you heard that correctly!  It was a pub with an extensive menu, European soccer on the big screen and lots and lots of Chinggis beer, the most popular local brand.  Now, I have a confession to make — I ordered a hamburger and fries!  Stop laughing, I know what I’ve said about North Americans who seek out burgers in foreign countries.  But it was exactly what I had an urge for!  And it was certainly not the McDonald’s variety — an enormous beef patty on a bun with cheese and some kind of vaguely spicy sauce. And crispy, crunchy fries; and a real green salad. Out of this world, and so big I could barely finish it.

After dinner and a few rounds of Chinggis, we piled into a 14-seat van provided by the folks at MCTIC, while our luggage –  lots and lots of it — was carried in a second van behind us.  It was off to the airport, and less than three hours later, we were in Seoul,

Bayaartai (goodbye), Mongolia.  It was a wonderful experience, and I hope I’ll have the opportunity to return someday.

A farewell celebration

We returned to Ulaanbaatar on Thursday night; while I had a wonderful time in the countryside, it was nice to get back to the land of internet access and flush toilets (or even toilets with seats!).  Had dinner in the excellent Indian restaurant in our hotel, followed by a very good sleep.

On Friday morning, the Canadians and representatives of the Mongolian credit unions they had worked with gathered in a meeting room for a debriefing session on the coaching progran.  Many of the Mongolians had travelled from some distance to get to the meeting, and it was interesting to hear their comments on how the coaches had helped their credit union.  After lunch, we were free to do what we wanted; many of the others went shopping, but having not had internet access for three days, I spent most of the time updating the CCA blog, checking my Facebook and e-mail and taking it easy.

Friday's debriefing at the hotel

At 6 p.m., we gathered in the hotel lobby to be taken to the State dining room for the farewell celebration dinner.  The venue was certainly the fanciest we had seen since we arrived in Mongolia – it was clearly a place that was used for official government functions and the like.  The meal was four courses — salad, fish, beef and ice cream — and between courses there were speeches — lots of them — and entertainment.  Gregory Goldhawk, Canada’s ambassador to Mongolia, was there and made a few remarks about co-operatives and Canada-Mongolia co-operation.  All the coaches presented certificates to the credit unions they had worked with, and the Mongolian partner organizations (MCTIC and MOCCU) presented all the Canadians with plaques and cashmere scarves.  I actually got a bit teary-eyed when I saw the plaque acknowledging my “contribution to the development of Mongolia’s credit union sector.”  After all, I didn’t do any actual coaching — I was just here to chronicle the mission (as my colleague David Shanks described it, I was the “embedded journalist”.)  So I really appreciated the fact that they gave me a plaque along with Lydia, Sarah and the coaches.

The entertainment was wonderful — traditional Mongolian singers, musicians and a contortionist — a beautiful woman who could twist her body in every way imaginable.  Apparently, this is an artform that is very popular in Mongolia, and it was a pretty amazing performance.  For me, the highlight was the septet of string players who performed on traditional Mongolian instruments — there were a few regular morin khuurs (horsehead fiddles), a bass morin khuur, Mongolian harps, and an instrument that looked a bit like a banjo but was played with a bow.  A lovely evening, but not our last lovely evening in Mongolia.  But that’s for another post.

The string septet at the celebration dinner

The Mongolian (animal) kingdom

When I was writing my previous post about the prevalence of horses in Mongolian folk songs, I realized I hadn’t talked about any of the animals we saw during our sojourn through the countryside.

In general, animals in Mongolia keep to themselves and don’t seem bothered by either cars or humans.  What is especially interesting is that the animals tend to roam quite freely, even if they are part of a particular herder’s herd.  In the first ger camp I stayed in, I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom (a real flush toilet, a rare commodity in rural Mongolia) and found three horses wandering around amid the gers. Cows can be seen wandering through the streets of just about any villages, and sheep and goats are everywhere. What was really amazing is that we saw two other kinds of animals that usually live in other parts of the country — camels, which are very common in the southern Gobi area, and yaks, which inhabit the mountains further north from where we were.  Here are some of the creatures I caught with my camera along the way:

Sheep and goats tend to hang out together, and take forever to get across the road.

I hear they're easier to ride than the one-hump variety, but I didn't want to try it...

I would have liked to ride one of these, as they're smaller than the horses we usually see in North America

Yak, yak, yak


And here's what one looks like up close!


Kharkhorin: history, art and music

We spent Wednesday, August 17 in Kharkhorin, Chinggis Khaan’s ancient capital.  We had two work-related visits here, but you can find out about them in my other blog (the official CCA one) at  Check it out — there are blog posts not only from me, but from the various credit union coaches I am working with here.  And there are a lot of photos and descriptions of parts of the country I didn’t have an opportunity to visit.

What I want to write about is history, art and music, because although there is little left of the 13th-century capital, there are a number of interesting historical sites.  After our official meetings, we went to visit the Erdene Zuu monastery, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia.  It was founded in 1586 and originally had between 60 and 100 separate temples. Most of them were destroyed during the Communist era, but the ones that survived provide a fascinating look at Mongolian spirituality and art.  The temples are filled with magnificent tapestries, masks and artifacts, reflecting Mongolian, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist traditions.  The script on many of them is Tibetan, and I was surprised to find out that four Dalai Lamas were actually Mongolian.  A young guide with passable English took us on a tour of the temples, explaining the religious significance of the artworks within.  One of the things I  found fascinating is that many of the works depict five skulls, representing the “five bad things” that are the equivalent of Christianity’s “Seven deadly sins”.  I was very pleased to find out that lust was not one of them!  You can learn more about the monastery from its wikipedia entry and related links.

Outside the monastery, a group of young men were showing off their prowess at the Mongolian version of falconry, using eagles rather than falcons. for 2,000 tugriks (less than $2), I got to try it for myself — the bird was heavy, but obviously accustomed to tourists.  And it made for a great photo,

The Erdene Zuu monastery

A closer look at one of the temples

I try my hand at "eaglery"

After stopping at our ger camp (another one) to reserve our gers for the night, we went up hill  to where we could see the whole city of Kharkhorin – and a monument that was built in 2004 to honour the achievements of the Mongol Empire at various times in history.  On each side of the monument is a map showing the extent of the Mongol empire during the Hunnu period (300-200 BC), the Turkic period (600-800 AD) and of course the 13th-century empire of Chinggis Khaan.

View of Kharkhorin from above

The Great Imperial Map Monument

We also went to see two other historical artworks — a stone turtle, one of four marking the boundaries of the ancient capital.  And a stone…well…penis, referred to as the Phallic Rock.  The story goes that the rock was placed there by Buddhist monks as a warning to some of the more libidinous of their number from fraternizing with the local women. Today, married Mongolian women pray for a son at the Phallic Rock…and single women pray for a “fine husband”.  Not surprisingly, you can make the gods listen even harder if you put money in the receptacle provided.

One of the stone turtles

Who would have thought that monks had such a sense of humour!

We returned to the ger camp for a delicious dinner of booz (pronounced “boots”) – steamed mutton-filled dumplings similar to Chinese pot-stickers. After several rounds of vodka (which I didn’t drink, except for a few sips to be hospitable) and beer (which I did), an elderly man resplendant in a traditional Mongolian costume came in carrying a morin khuur (horse fiddle), a Mongolian harp and a wooden flute.  He began to play for the group gathered in the dining hall, which consisted of Canadians, Mongolians (mostly our friends from the local credit union), German tourists and American backpackers.  He told me his name was Baska, and his music was magnificent.  He played all three instruments, and then gave us an exhibition of Mongolian throat-singing, and a percussion solo performed with a piece of wood on various parts of his head.

Baska with his morin khuur

You can tell a lot about a culture from the subject of their folksongs.  Some cultures sing songs about love, others about war…but Mongolian folksongs are mainly about…horses!  The morin khuur sounds a bit like a cello, but in several of the songs, Baska made it sound like trotting,…and neighing…horses. It was amazing!

After Baska’s concert was over, a young Mongolian man with an excellent command of English led the group in a singing of…wait for it…Hey Jude!  It was a remarkable finish to a wonderful day, and a reminder that music is indeed a universal language.

A visit to a herder’s ger

After lunch at the co-op, we piled into the Land Cruiser and followed a car full of co-op members to the ger belonging to Altan, a herder and member of the co-op board. The field in front of his ger was full of beautiful horses, but the first thing I noticed was the solar panel and satellite dish standing right in front of the ger. That’s right — here I am in rural Mongolia visiting a herder…with solar electricity and satellite TV. In a region where I hadn’t seen any technology more advanced than a cellphone, it was a pretty amazing site.What was even stranger was that at the same time, two men stood in Altan’s field using a strange home-made apparatus to soften a cowhide strap that would be used as a horse tether. Dangling from a long horizontal pole was some heavy twined ropes, and at the bottom of the ropes was a tire. You pull the strap through the ropes and the weight of the tire helps soften the leather. A solar panel, a satellite dish, and softening leather using ropes and a tire. In Mongolia, anything can happen!

After all the guests had arrived — mostly the co-op members we had met earlier in the day — we were welcomed into the ger.  This was the first of several gers I would find myself in during this trip, and it was surprizingly spacious and comfortable.  There was a bed, a table, two beautifully decorated boxes which served as a stand for pictures — one of pictures of Altan’s family…and another of what seemed to be religious icons…and a trophy Altan received for his herding prowess.  Above the latter box, medals mounted on red velvet hung from the ceiling…as Altan later explained, they were for horse-racing. And in the corner, a solar battery and TV monitor.  Sarah and I were given the seats of honour – two small stools right in front of the table, while the other guests sat on the floor or stood around the sides. While most gers have a stove in the A big bowl of airag was passed to me, I took a sip, passed it to Sarah, who drank from it and passed it to the next person until it went around the room,  Then Altan’s wife brought out a heaping tray of dairy products — remember we had just eaten lunch at the co-op — and of course, I was obliged to nibble at it.  But it wasn’t until they brought out the big bowl of mutton and potatoes that I realized we were having lunch…again!  I gracefully took a mutton bone and chewed on it; it was actually very good and I finished it even though I was full.  But tht wasn’t the end – the next course was a bowl of delicious mutton soup, passed around the room just like the airag.  And you really can’t say no, lest you insult your host.

But I knew what was coming next, and that was more of a problem,  Altan opened up a bottle of vodka, filled a glass and passed it to me, I took a sip and passed it to Sarah, although I realized everyone expected me to chug it down.  Aware of my stomach’s sensitivity to hard liquor, Sarah did the honours (thank you!) and my moment of shame passed.  But the vodka kept going around until the bottle was gone, and each time, I took a polite sip and passed it on.  Better that than my usual response to too much alcohol.  It may have been discourteous not to empty my glass, but I think it would have been nore discourteous to throw up on the floor of the ger!

A feast inside Altan's ger

During all this, Altan told us (through Tiggy, our interpreter) about his herding — he had won the trophy for having more than 1,000 animals: horses, cows, and sheep. He told us about his racing and his grown son, who had won numerous wrestling competitions and lived in the ger right next door.  His little granddaughter — about 3 or 4 years old — was there too, pretty in pink and sitting at her grandfather’s side.  My fear of vodka notwithstanding, it was a lovely afternoon.

That night, I got an opportunity to fint out for myelf what living in a ger was really like.  We spent thee night at a ger camp, one of many travel camps that can be found  throughout the country.  Sarah and I shared a beautiful ger, with a wood stove and extremely comfortable beds.  But before going to sleep, dinner was waiting for us in the camp’s main building, which also had flush toilets — with seats — the first I’d seen all day. Dinner?  After all that eating?  It was some kind of chicken stew and it was pretty good, but I only managed about a third of it.  I went to bed and slept for about 10 hours…the best sleep I’d had since I arrived.

Into the “real Mongolia”

Back from rural Mongolia after nearly three days without Internet access, so I’m trying to catch up.  This post is from Tuesday, August 16:

“Now you’re going to see the real Mongolia”, Sarah said to me as we left UB for the countryside.  While there are those that would argue that UB is just as “real” as
anywhere else in the country, it is still a large city that is a lot more modern and cosmopolitan than the rest of the country.

Tiggy and Sarah inspect the first of many ovoos we saw along the road.

Of Mongolia’s 3 million citizens, about 1.5 million live in the capital.  The rest are spread out over as territory that is about the size of Alaska, making Mongolia one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.  Once we left the outskirts o UB, we could see why.  Europeans visiting Canada often comment how  much open space we have in our country, but Mongolia makes Canada appear crowded by comparison.   Riding in a Toyota Landcruiser with our interpreter, Tiggy and our driver, Ulzi, we drive for miles and miles seeing nothing but wide open land and the occasional herd of sheep, goats, cows or horses.  Because the dry climate and red, sandy soil sustains little agriculture, there are no  farms – and no trees.  We are surrounded by mountains covered in short brush; the clouds hang so low that they cast shadows on the mountaintops, making them appear black.

What we did see were ovoos, shrines made out of piles of stones festooned with blue ribbons where people stop to pray.  The story goes that if you circle the ovoos three times and throw rocks into it, your prayer will be granted.

Our destination was the Batkhani Uguj co-operative, a co-op which was founded just three months ago in an abandoned building that had been donated by the soum (municipal authority).  The building was in very poor repair, and it was renovated with the help of Australian international development funding.  The co-op as created to provide livelihooods for some of the unemployed women in the community, and to give herders and opportunity to have the products of their livestock processed and sold. Felt is one of the co-ops primary products, since it is used to cover gers (the tents that most herders live in) as well as slippers, bags, jewelry and other items.  The co-op also does weaving, makes items out of horse and camel hair, and even sells such food products as kuuchuur (fried pancakes filled with mutton) and airag (fermented mare’s milk, a very popular drink in rural Mongolia).  It also has a small store which sells basic goods and some vegetables.

In front of the co-op with members and guests from the local government. Tsolmon, the co-op manager, is standing between me and Sarah.

We were welcomed by Tsolmon, the co-op’s manager who explained that she, like many of the members, had been unemployed before starting the co-op. She gave us a tour of the co-op where we learned about the arts of feltmaking and weaving.  Felt is a very important commodity in Mongolia, as it is used to cover gers, the traditional tents in which many Mongolians live .  While we were walking around, a herder came in wearing a del, a traditional costume which is rarely seen in the city, but is quite common in the countryside.  The herder brought in a new supply of of felt for the co-op to turn into ger coverings, slippers and other products.

It was then time for lunch, and we quickly learned that Mongolians are probably the most hospitable people on earth. There were a few special guests, including Ms. Bumbuyan, the vice-governor of the Erdenesant soum, probably the equivalent of a Canadian deputy mayor. The table was laden with all the traditional delicacies I had read about before coming to Mongolia: a platter laid high with various dairy products such as cheeses and dried curds. Kushuur, which were delicious. Rice. And even some vegetables and fruits, which are not that common in rural Mongolia. It was obvious that we were honoured guests, and we enjoyed the meal immensely. There was salty Mongolian milk tea, and my first taste of airag, which actually was better than I had expected, although it was very rich and I could only drink a little. And then the other Mongolian staple, vodka. I took a few sips to show my gratitude for the co-op’s hospitality, and fortunately, they didn’t make me drink any more, given my body’s lack of tolerance for alcohol. After lunch, we all gathered in front of the co-op for photos, then headed off with the entire group to visit Altan, a herder who is a member of the co-op board. A visit to a herder’s ger is always a highlight of travelling in Mongolia, and I was looking forward to this new experience. But that’s for another post….

A credit union, a visit to Parliament, a very full day!

Got up this morning after a much-needed night’s sleep and it was time to get down to work.  The day started with a visit to Moncord Credit Union, Mongolia’s largest credit union based on membership and second-largest based on assets. Mongolia’s credit union movement is very young, and Moncord — created in 1996 by a group of 16 women who were concerned that women were having trouble obtaining loans for their small businesses — was the country’s first.

Batta (right) and Daria at the credit union

It was a visit I was really looking forward to, because it gave me the opportunity to renew my acquaintence with Batta (full name: Battsetseg Togtokh), whom I had met in June when she came to Canada to participate in CCA’s Women’s Mentorship Program, a special training program for women credit union executives from developing countries. She sits on the board of Moncord, and is also the chief executive officer director of MOCCU: the Mongolian Confederation of Credit Unions.  When I first met Batta in Ottawa, I knew I was going on the Mongolia mission, so I peppered her with questions about her country, which she seemed pleased to answer.  She also taught me my first word (two words) of Mongolian: sain banuu(“hello”).

It was wonderful to see her.   There are those that say that Mongolians are shy and reserved by nature, but Batta definitly doesn’t fit that description.  She is outgoing, enthusiastic and articulate — in all four of the languages she speaks (Mongolian, Russian, German and English). She welcomed me and Sarah (my CCA colleague) warmly, as did Daria, the credit union’s chair and another Women’s Mentorship Program alumna. In 2010, two Canadian credit union coaches spent the good part of a week at Moncord, and we were curious to know whether they had made an impact.  Batta and Daria reported that they had already implemented a number of the coaches’ recommendations, including improved security, a new formula for evaluating loan risk and revised loan application forms.  Most importantly, Moncord had incorporated the coaches’ recommendations into the credit union’s business plan.  It’s always wonderful when you can see the tangible results of CCA’s international development program, and Moncord was a good example.

After lunch at the hotel with the board of the Mongolian Cooperative Training and Information Centre (MCTIC — pronunced mick-tick), Sarah went to visit more credit unions, while I accompanied Lydia Phillips, CCA’s regional director for Asia and the Americas, to the Mongolian parliament to meet with Enkhbold Nyamaa, the vice-chairman of the Mongolian parliament (he’s basically the Mongolian equivalent of the Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons). But for us, Enkhbold was not just a politician — for the past two years, he has been president of the Mongolian National Cooperators Association, the country’s umbrella association of co-operatives (basically the Mongolian equivalent of CCA).  An active co-operator in a senior political position?  Wish it could happen in Canada!

Visit to Parliament (l to r): Myagaa, me, Lydia and Enkhbold

Also attending the meeting was Myga, the executive director of MCTIC, and an interpreter named Ganbat.  But we quickly discovered that no interpretation was necessary: Enkhbold’s English was fluent.  It was an excellent meeting.  Enkhbold was very positive about the work CCA has been doing in Mongolia and gave us some useful insights on the challenges facing the Mongolian co-op movement.  And  although we didn’t get to see the parliament in session — as in Canada, they are on summer recess — we did get a good look at the corridors of Mongolian political power.

Detail of the wall in Enhbold's office

Part functional office building, part lavish and ceremonial, I was particularly struck by the beautiful carved wooden doors and, of all things, the  “wallpaper” in Enkhbold’s large office.  The office walls were covered with plaster, with Mongolia’s somewhat complex national symbol carved into the plaster in a repeated pattern.

We had a bit of time after our meeting, so Myga and Ganbat took us down the street to the National Museum of Mongolia, which featured exhibits relating to every period in the country’s history, including a whole section dedicated to…you guessed it…Chinggis Khan.  We only had about an hour there so it was a whirlwind tour, but we learned a great deal about both the ancient and recent history of the country,

The National Museum:a treasure trove of Mongolian history

Met Sarah back at the hotel, then went to the State Department Store.  The store dates back to the Communist era, but looks a lot like a Canadian department store…and is just as expensive.  After that, we went for dinner at one of Mongolia’s more upscale eateries, Monet.  While the food was very good, the main attraction was the view.  Located on the 17th floor of the Central Tower, at one end of Sukhbaatar Square, the restaurant is encircled by windows offering a wonderful view of the entire city.

Tomorrow morning, we head off to the countryside. Don’t know if I’ll find internet access, so my next post may take a few days….but they say there’s an internet cafe in one of the towns we will be visiting, so who knows?

Greetings from Seoul

My journey started at Halifax airport at 6 am Saturday.

I’m sitting in the Korean Air lounge at Incheon Airport in Seoul after a 13.5 hour flight from Toronto…which was preceded by a 2.5-hour flight from Halifax.  Just one more flight to go: Seoul to Ulaanbaatar.  I just had a shower — one of the amenities Incheon offers.  The shower is free, but I paid the equivalent of $21 US to use the lounge, and it was well worth it – an all-you can eat buffet, all you can drink (in my case, Coke Zero, which seems to be more popular than Diet Coke around here) and a nice, spacious place to go online.

As for the flight — it was certainly the longest one I had ever been on, and probably the biggest: nine seats across and more than 50 rows.  When I arrived at my seat, I found a blanket, pillow, paper slippers, bottle of water and real earphones — not those ear buds Air Canada charges $3 apiece for.  We were fed more than once — the first meal was bimbibap — a mixture of beef, rice, shitake mushrooms, cucumbers, and bean sprouts, served with a tube of hot sauce. Delicious.  Later on, there was fish – also very good.  And the flight attendant came around multiple times with water and orange juice.

What does one do on a 13.5 hour flight.  Many people sleep, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t.  So I watched movies — Water for Elephants, Kung Fu Panda II, and one of my all-time favourites, Fiddler on the Roof.  I had to restrain myself from singing along!

Arrived at Incheon pretty tired, and one of the first signs I saw was “showers” (In English, not Korean).  Yes, the Korean Air lounge provides showers and I immediately took advantage of the opportunity to take one – you feel pretty grubby sitting on a plane for more than 13 hours!

Joined my colleague Sarah Feldberg (seen here checking in at the Korean Air desk at Pearson around 10 am Saturday) for the flight from Toronto to Seoul.

The shower was free, but I paid the equivalent of $21 US to use the lounge.  It was well worth it – a buffet which included some excellent bulgoki (Korean beef), egg rolls, dumplings, etc.  And all you could drink, which in my case was Coke Zero, since there was no Diet Coke.

3 p.m. Sunday (!!!): I arrive at Incheon Airport in Seoul, Korea

It’s a cliche to say that something is study in contrasts, but Incheon certainly be described that way.   A “traditional Korean cultural centre” is kitty-corner  to a Starbucks.  Chanel, Gucci and Dior compete with little Korean bookstores and restaurants with pictures of the food in the windows.  Most of the commercial signs…not to mention “showers” are in English, but the electronic departures list is in Korean only so I had to look up my flight number to know if I had the right gate.  Fascinating.

Well, I’m pretty tired and it’s time to start getting ready to board the last and final plane.  Onward and upward…