Thursday, March 27, 2008


I read a UN report today about Mongolia's progress towards its Millenium Development Goals for 2015. The 22 targets are grouped 1) almost achieved, 2) progressing, 3) slow, and 4 ) regressing. In group 3, 'slow', a few stood out to me. Poverty levels, gender ratios in higher education, and access to adequate sanitation facilities I found most relevant. In group 4, 'regressing', poor literacy of youths aged 15-24 seems most immediate and challenging.

I began to draft a mid-term report;

My role as 'architect teacher trainer' in the small peri-urban construction college in Ulaanbaatar, is to develop the architecture staff and curriculum. The work, part of a VSO project to develop secure livelihoods, aims to develop construction jobs, which would help more Mongolians to live above the poverty line. (UNESCO). Mongolia’s economy is developing rapidly, but unemployment, poor literacy, alcohol abuse, and often inadequate sanitation facilities all remain as large problems for the construction sector. Construction professionals and teachers however, seem ill-prepared to tackle these medium and long-term issues.

There are very few resources for architectural education available in the Mongolian language, while literacy problems and poor teaching facilities also provide barriers to teaching. The Russian materials and methods previously commonly used are often outdated, and English and German language materials (Chinese language materials seem to be culturally taboo) are often even more inaccessible, both financially and linguistically. The architectural community of a country which has been in transition from communism since 1992 is also disconnected from world standards and communication. The elusive Arkitektorjdiin Kholboo (Mongolian Association of Architects) is “dormant”.

Yet some of the VSO skill-sharing work I have undertaken has developed the confidence and literacy of architecture teaching staff. Since I have been training, two teachers have moved on to better-paid jobs. A curriculum is rarely consciously employed; although it remains on file “at the Ministry”, teachers apparently measure student progress largely by perseverance. Soon, the first cohort of diploma students will complete their fourth year. Those of the latter I have spoken to do not seem to have been remotely aware of 'the' Mongolian architecture textbook (Bat-Od, 2005, 2007), let alone basic texts used internationally, like FDK Ching’s ‘Form, Space and Order’, the US Architectural Graphic Standards, or Neufert’s ‘Architects’ Data’ (in 18 languages). Building and planning codes may exist, but are almost unknown, and seem to be poorly controlled. Physical accessibility to buildings and streets for people without disabilities is difficult enough, but independent living for people with disabilities is almost unheard-of.

On the other hand, much potential exists for future development in the secondary and tertiary Ger districts, (informal settlements), as well as in the much anticipated new social housing, and in commercial development, so often 'outsourced'. Still, there is life beyond work, and many people seem to enjoy more time with their families and better access to locally grown food than in the UK. Teachers work long hours, but do not seem stressed. They are concerned about air quality - comparable with London's before the Clean Air Act of 1956 - and about transport congestion, in the oversubscribed capital. Many people I meet would like to contribute to Mongolia’s development without having to go abroad, as so many young people and absent fathers have done in order to earn more money. Mongolians love their culture and customs, and many are rediscovering indigenous music, history, arts, medicine and even calligraphy.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


From tramping the dusty streets of the Ger districts, to stepping out on the smooth glossy floor of the Continental Hotel, Ulaanbaatar, I have walked a long way... On the weekend I volunteered as a fashion model for the "Foundation for the Development of Wool and Cashmere Enterprises" annual fashion show, wearing Mongolian fibres like yak, camel, cashmere and sheeps wool. A Mongolian male model, model agent and model-trainer, Uchralt (2nd left, above), gave the inexperienced male models half an hour's training on Friday and we presented eight collections to the industry. Afterwards, besides meeting with critique (on modelling) from MUSTs International Relations manager, I also met the Programme Director of GTZ which is a major supporter of the event. On Saturday, more relaxed with the benefit of experience, we learned a choreographed routine which recieved a good response from a general audience. The male models 'complemented' twice the number of young female Mongolian models and also children wearing the collections. After buying tickets for friends, the remainder of a small fee I received I gave to my poor neighbour, the concierge, (Jijur) who needs medicine for her heart.

Von den staubigen Gaesschen der Gerbezirken entlang gehen, nun zum Auftreten des glatten Marmorbodens des Continental Hotels, Ulaanbaatar, bin ich sehr weit gekommen, oder?... Letztes wochenende schien ich als freiwilligen Model zur "Foundation for the Development of Wool and Cashmere Enterprises" jaerliches Modeschau auf, Mongolische textil aus Yak-, Kamel-, Kashmir- und Shafs-wolle tragend. Der mongolischen Kollege, modell-agentur und modell-trainierer, Uchralt (2 von links, oben), nahm die unerfahrenen am Freitag fuer eine halbe stunde in Unterricht an, und wir stellten danach acht sammlungen an der Textilindustrie vor. Daraufinhin, nach eines kleinen kritik meines Modellkoerperzustandes von jene MUST International Relations managerin, lernte ich auch den Programmdirector des GTZ , hauptunterstuetzer der Veranstaltung, kennen. Samstag dann, enspannter, wegen unsere reichen neuen Erfahrung, lernten wir auch eine choreographie - welche das allegemeine Publikum sehr gut empfing. Die Mann-Modelle fuegten eine doppelfache Zahl schoene junge Mongolinnen zu; Kinder wirkten auch mit. Eine kleine Gebuer dabei verdient habe ich an meine Nachbarin und schlechtverdienende Torwaertin geschenkt, fuer ihre Herzenmedezin.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Soldiers Day

A youth stood by the dirt road this morning, waiting for his friend, as I walked to work through the now familiar ger district. "Hi" he offered. "Hi," I replied. "Whats your name?" he asked, encouraged. "Greg". "Hin?" (what?) "Gregory - Greg, what's yours?" "Gerel.." he said.. "you... Ger? ... Jesus?" He made a cross with his fingers. "Bish.. Bagsh, no, (not a missionary, a) teacher" I muttered, and continued walking. The dirt roads now show few traces of snow or ice that was lying around a week ago. Even the north facing shaded hillsides have thawed. The small black dog corpse I saw freeze last year is lying undecomposed at the roadside as before.

On Tuesday evening, in honour of 'Soldiers Day', the 75th anniversary of establishing the modern Mongolian Army, I met Enkhbaatar, a male languages teacher at MUST, with other teachers. After a beer and chat we were heading home in the same direction and he asked me to stop in to meet his friends, male language workers, with banking and mining, at a bar. I rarely meet Mongolian male English speakers. They sat around the table chatting and quizzing me in the usual way, but in a mix of Mongolian and English. Meanwhile, although I did not want to drink, there were persistent toasts of vodka, Chinggis Black Label, and I was eventually persuaded to participate. The staccato conversation about Mongolia continued, but the vodka part of the culture and of Mongolian mens' relations I struggled with, and subsequently I have been ill for almost a week.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Darkhan Orgoo

The city of Darkhan is 128 miles from Ulaanbaatar. A visit to Darkhan State College had been on mind since meeting Mr Jargal Nurzed, its new director, last December.

As I approached the UB parking lot associated with 'taxis' to Darkhan I was manhandled by several prospective 'drivers' in various directions into a ten year old Hyundai sedan, and then reassured that we would be leaving soon. Only after sufficient passengers filled the vehicle did the actual driver become apparent, and we set off in dusk for the three hour journey, regularly and perilously overtaking lorries and having headlights flashed at us. There was one brief stop for water and WC half way. We were relieved to finally arrive and to be met by Aimee, a Darkhan based VSO teacher trainer.

After a night staying in an absent VSO volunteer's centrally located flat, I crossed the road to the Post Office, where after telephoning a few times, I was met by a teacher from Darkhan Orgoo, the State Technical College in a taxi. I was ushered to the directors office and given a welcome speech. The school's student population of 1130 is largely comprised of orphaned and vulnerable children and youth. I presented the VSO volunteer request form and explained to Mr Nurzed the nature of VSO Mongolia's work for sustainable livelihoods, rather than providing 'aid' or charity. I noted that volunteers try to work alongside teachers rather than replacing them, and that this can be all the more challenging.

Tungaa, a languages teacher, toured me around the mid-century school building, whose facilities, class rooms and workshops were relatively well maintained. Competitions are held for decorating rooms and halls. I was treated to a lunch of buuz in the training canteen, before a farewell speech and return to meet other visiting VSOs in the city centre.

In the afternoon, I visited a German Development Service (DED) volunteer Angelika Krambeer at the Technical and Vocational Training Centre, and the newly established Autodesk-funded AutoCAD training suite. I was impressed to see a well equipped European-style lab (with legitimate software) and met some of the drafting trainees and looked at their drawing work. Finally I was kindly taken for an inspection of the near complete building site of a new SOS Children's Village by the German site architect Matthias Daxl.

Returning in 'lux-coupe' class on an overnight train (for the same price as the taxi) was a delight.

In-country training

Last week with a small team of three we inducted newly arrived VSO Mongolia international volunteers in mainstreaming disability, as part of their In-Country Training (ICT). Nickson Kakiri led the session, making good use of MS powerpoint to outline the situation for People With Disabilities (PWDs) internationally, in the developing world, and in Mongolia. We built on any fragments of existing experience of the volunteers with a discussion about models of development based on one hand, on medical 'defects', and on the other, on social exclusion.

The mainstreaming idea is that disability is integral to all VSO's work on poverty and disadvantage, spanning all our volunteering programmes and internal activities, here and internationally. A Mongolian sign-language interpreter came to assist for the presentation, but although Nickson is deaf and mute he is experienced in communicating fluently with non-signing English-language hearing people. There were some points of sign language clarification between Nickson in American Sign Language and Sainaa in Mongolian Sign Language, and Sophie van den Abeele (a trainer for Mongolian parents of children with disabilities) and I both added our Mongolia experiences to the discussion. The session pointed out the literature in the area and seemed to set a constructive tone for the volunteers.

A week later, I attended my first signing workshop, attended by workers in the deaf community, volunteers, a programme manager and the VSO country director. I learned many sign language terms and greetings, and learned some interesting new things about oralism, gossip, body language and clear communication.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Spring weather here can be 'four seasons in one day'. It was foggy, then snowing yesterday, then sunny, then icy cold. Otherwise, business as usual. Excavation began on site for the basement of the new school building, adjacent to the existing. The ground was frozen, and the digger operator broke the tines on the bucket. Today he and his friend were trying to arc-weld them back in place.

As I was about to leave the apartment, a man came to the door, insisting on spraying a chemical in wet areas. Although he offered no identification, he wore a CXX cap, suggesting he may be city council worker. I acceded, knowing we would be away for a couple of days. He indicated it was a mould inhibitor, but I declined to pay a fee on the spot. Yesterday after my evening Mongolian lesson, I helped a colleague prepare a translation for a Children's charity representative who would lobby a Mongolian MP this morning.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

House in Zuragt - Зурагтад

On Tuesday I visited a typical self-build house in Zuragt, a Ger district (informal settlement) to the north of the city. I went with my colleague and interpreter Ariunaa*, whose sister Namuush lives there with her husband Jadamba, and their grandson. The boy's parents are working in Czechia. The peri-urban settlement is named Zuragt (Television), after the state television complex at its centre, and is one of the primary Ger districts planned for reclamation when the government builds new apartments in place of some informal settlements. Some residents apparently even want to improve their properties, to increase the value of their anticipated compensation payment.

The two storey, five room house is about two years old, and conveniently located next to a water kiosk. Here, the residents only have to carry water for a few minutes, less than 20 metres. The dual fuel heating system is noteworthy, as is the garden or 'hasha' layout, which accommodates a Ger and grows some summer Mongolian fruits such as Chatsargan (Sea Buckthorne).

The self-build construction is inexpensive, predominantly of wood, with calcium silicate block external leaf walls and mostly wooden linings and penetrations. Woodchips are used as a cavity filler with polystyrene insulation, which is far cheaper than wool or mineral fibre. But the rudimentary detailing means there are many points where heat escapes.

The reticulated hot water central heating Jadamba has built is ingenious; the coal stove heats the water for the system, and when the off-peak electricity tariff is available (about a third of the cost - between 9pm and 6am) he switches on an electrical element fitted at the back of the stove. A header tank creates pressure to move the water upstairs to the home made radiators; although the upper level is already warmer from rising air.

Jadamba showed me how, after the land claim and subsequent built development, he took as-built drawings, schedules, and photographs to the land registry, which then registered the real property and issued a certificate.

*Ariunaa wrote the Mongolian version below. Please comment, Mongolians!

Би 4 дөх өдөр орчуулагч Ариунаагийн* хамт хотын хойд хэсэгт орших гэр хорооллуудын нэг болох “ Зурагт” –д байдаг Ариунаагийн хүргэн ах Жадамбынд зочилсон юм. Тэрээр эхнэр Намууш ач хүү Болдын хамт өөрийн гараар барьсан хоёр давхар сууцанд амьдардаг. Ач хүү Болдынх нь аав ээж Чех улсад ажиллаж амьдардаг юм байна.

Энэ хотын захын хорооллын Зурагт радио телевизийн төв цогцолборын нэрээр нэрлэжээ.

Хэдийгээр энэ орчмын газар нь засгийн газрын орон сууцжуулах хөтөлбөрт тусгагдсанаар эхний ээлжинд орох төлөвтэй байгаа боловч оршин суугчид нь нөхөн төлбөрийн хэмжээ өсөх маадлалтай гэж үзэн сууцаа улам сайжруулж нэмж тохижуулж байна.

Эдний байшин таван өрөө бүхий хоёр давхар, худагтаа ойрхон юм. / ойролцоогоор 20 м / Мөн халаалтын хос системтэй байгаа нь анхаарууштай санагдсан юм. Тэдний хашаанд бас нэг гэр байхаас гадна тэднийх хашаандаа үхрийн нүд, чацаргана гэх мэтийн жимсний бут, бага зэрэг хүнсний ногоо тарьдаг.

Өөрөө барьсан энэ сууц нь ихэвчлэн мод, хөнгөн блок банз зэрэг хямд төсөр материалаар хийгдсэн бөгөөд ханын дулаалгыг хөөсөнцөр болон үртсээр чигжиж дулаалжээ. Эдгээр материалууд нь шилэн хөвөн болон бусад сайн чанарын дулаалгын материалуудаас хямд боловч дулааны алдагдал ихтэй санагдсан.

Жадамба гуай нүүрсээр халдаг нам даралтын тогоогоор гэрээ халаадаг ба өвлийн улиралд шөнийн цагаар цахилгааны үнэ хямдарсан үед мөн цахилгаанаар халаадаг байна.

Мөн тэрээр бидэнд газар өмчлөгчийн болон үл хөдлөх хөрөнгийн гэрчилгээнүүдээ үзүүлж сонирхуулсан юм.

* Bayarlalaa Ariunaa ene bijcen - Mogolchudaa, 'comment' messej bijeree!

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Sharing.. skills

Just after midday yesterday I boarded a crowded no.23 bus at the 21st microdistrict bus stop, and immediately regretted my choice; on the step, someone pushed and held me from behind while an accomplice removed my wallet from my front trouser pocket. I struggled to turn and protest. I appealed in vain for help and for the return of the wallet; which contained 15000 togrogs cash (USD15), bank card and ID. The bus driver eventually got tired of my shouting and holding the bus and closed the door. Waiting for another, I realised someone had been watching me some distance before, as I had removed the 200 togrog fare and stowed the wallet. I realised it would have been wiser to take two microbuses or a partial taxi journey, costing about 800-1000 total.

On the next bus, a woman introduced herself as a gynaecologist wishing to learn English; I was not in the mood, but as we came nearer to the University of Science and Technology, I referred her to my interpreter Ariunaa and her nascent 'English training (micro-) centre'.

My 1.20pm lesson at the University of Science and Technology MUST was on 17th century colonies in North America. The students of English language and culture seemed interested, reserved, and underprepared for the subject, which I also had only read only two days prior. I chalked up a rough map of the geography of the New England, Middle, and Southern colonies drew comparison of the various races, languages and cultures converging. My colleague added keywords to the board which I had prepared in coloured pencil on slips of paper. Asked to relate to Mongolia, one student said he was only interested in the (C14) Chinnggis period of Mongolian History - it seems the C17 Manju period is unpopular or tabu. The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 led to a few words of interesting discussion, and on the principal of 'witch hunt' we discussed the Stalin-Choibalsan massacres of 1921-41. They asked about why I had come to Mongolia, and I tried to say something about VSO and global interdependencies.

Kurz nach mittags wollte ich in der 23er linienbus im 21. Bezirk einsteigen, bald danach hatte ich mein wahl bedauert. Auf der Treppe einer hielt mir Fest waehrend seinen Kollegen meinen Geldboerse der vorderen Hosentasche entnahm. Ich drehte schwer um zu protestieren. Erfolglos appelierte ich fuer hilfe und rueckgabe der Geldboerse, mit Inhalt 15000 togrogs (USD15), bankomatkarte und Ausweis. Der Busfahrer wurde von meinem Heulen und aufhalten bald fertig und schliesste der Tuer. Als ich der naechste erwartete, faellt mir ein, bin ich frueher beobachtet worden, als ich 200 togrog entnahm und der boerse einsteckte. Doch waere dass weiser gewesen, zwei microbesse oder zusatztaxifahrt um gesamt 1000 togrog geleistet zu haben.

Im naechsten Bus, eine Frau stellte sich als gerne Englisch-lernende Frauenaerztin vor; ich wurde wenig interessiert, aber als wir den Universitat der Wissenschaft und Techologie (MUST) naeherte, ich bewies ihr auf meine Dolmetscherin Ariunaa und dessen im entwurf befindlichen 'English training (micro-) centre'.

Meine Stunde um 1320 auf der Uni (MUST) bezog sich auf Kolonien der 17. Jahrhunderts im norden Americas. Die Student-innen Englisher Sprache und Kultur scheinten interessiert, zurueckgehalten, und nicht vorbereitet fuer den Fach, den ich auch nur 2 Tage zuvor kannte. Ein grobe landkatre habe ich auf den Schwatrzbrett gezeichnet, die New England, mittel-, und suedlichen Kolonien und das kreuzen den Rassen, Sprachen und Kulturen verglichen. Meine Kollegin fuegte keywords an den Brett zu, die ich farbig auf papierzettel vorbereitet hatte. Nach Mongolei verhaeltnisse gefragt, ein Student sagte, er sei nur an Chinggis geschichte der 14. Jht interessiert - das 17. Jht und Manchu scheint unter diesen unpopulaer, fast Tabu zu sein. Die Hexenprozesse von Salem (1692) brachte einige woerte interesse; dem prinzip der 'witch hunt' bezueglich kamen wir auf den Stalin-Choibalsan massakern, 1921-41. Sie fragten dann warum ich mich in der Mongolei befinde; also versuchte ich dan etwas ueber VSO und globalen abhaengigkeiten (interdependencies) zu erklaeren.