Orkhon Camp is an English Summer camp about 40km out of Ulaanbatar. Through a friend of a friend we got in contact with the school and were able to teach English for 3 weeks at the camp. We only found out that we were definitely going the day before, so with some last minute rushing around we packed up and cycled to the school, where we were able to leave our bikes. We then hopped on a bus with the students and off we went. The road out of UB is fine and then we turned off onto a dirt track that took us out into the countryside, with green hills, mountains all around. It doesn’t take long to escape the city!
After a couple of hours of driving and one bout of travel sickness (poor kid), we approached the camp. I was delighted to see a brand new big building with a welcome banner and colourful bunting greeting us. To the left were 7 gers (yurts) and all around us were hills, wild flowers and forest. What a lovely setting!
Chris and I were given our own ger, with a double bed and a wood burning stove, table and chairs and a dressing table. All very comfortable and fun. Inside the school building there are 2 large classrooms and upstairs is a big space for dining, discos and playing games, as well as a great big terrace area. it is very well equipped and organised. The bedrooms for the kids are in the main building and we did have the option to sleep inside, but opted for the ger, partly for novelty, but also to have our own space and some peace and quiet – kids are noisy, especially en masse!
We divided the kids into groups based on ability and Chris took A1 class, the most advanced, then i took A2 the next level. There were two more groups A3 and A4. Colin, an American film maker and raft guide was the third foreign teacher. Both Chris and Colin have curly hair and the students sometime got them mixed up which was funny!
Then finally Altaa, our lovely Mongolian teacher who we got to know very well and enjoyed spending time with. Not to mention being able to run to her with questions mid lesson when the kids didn’t understand something.
The day starts with morning exercises, breakfast and then lessons start at 9 until 10.30, then 11- 1, lunch break and then final lesson from 2.30-4pm. After that there is some free time before homework and dinner. Each evening we would also run some kind of activity, from talent shows, discos, quizzes and other games, to movie nights, basketball, football and ping pong tournaments. Finally we would fall into bed about 11pm! It is a pretty long day and I really don’t know how anyone is a teacher full time, it’s exhausting!
The students are pretty good and most come from well-off backgrounds, so perhaps not your typical Mongolian kids, in terms of their disposable income and expectations. However, they were all great kids and we got to know them all very well. In my Class I had 4 boys and 2 girls.
I tried to make the lessons as fun as possible and as varied as could be. The middle lesson is quite long and it’s hard to concentrate for 2 hours, so we’d often make them go for a run outside half way through, or do something outside. I’ve come to the conclusion that being in a classroom all day isn’t the best way for some people to learn. That said being city kids, many of them were so distracted and annoyed by the butterflies, insects and bugs outside that lessons could easily disintegrate, despite telling me how much they ‘love the nature’. I tried to use this opportunity to simply speak and talk in English to them.
Despite our perception of Mongolia being traditional, nomadic and remote, like the rest of Asia, the modern world and all it’s technology, is very much alive and well here too. All the kids have mobile phones and cite ‘playing computer games’ as their hobby. There is little mobile signal up in the hills, but one place on the hillside got reception, this was subsequently named ‘Mobi hill’. We realised just how important mobiles were to them when one day, a little girl in floods of tears came to us cos her mobile had stopped working. We tried to help her by looking on the (very slow!) internet at the Samsung website, but no luck. She was so upset that she had to go and lie down for a while! Later that day we saw her with a blackberry type phone, I asked who it belong to, oh it’s mine she replied. Aged 10 – two phones, wow! Maybe we are just behind the times and this is the world kids live in now. Phones became a bit of an issue as time went on with kids sneakily trying to play games in lessons, and during some activities some of the boys were more interested in playing on their phones than the game we had lined up. In lessons we regularly just took the phones away, however during free time it’s hard to stop them and maybe we just have to accept that they will play them, and stop being old fuddy duddies!
We were also surprised at the amount of sweets and crisps and fizzy drinks everyone was eating. Some kids were quite overweight and unfit – a run to the basketball posts was enough to have them puffing and panting, ready to keel over! Which at the age of 10 is a worry! Even though this is growing problem at home and in the US, I don’t think we expected to see it here. However these are the richer kids with more money to buy fast food and sweet things, you don’t really see many poor kids who are overweight in Asia. I try to remember the copious amount of sweets, hula hoops and kit kats I used to eat as a kid and not be too hard on them, however we also ran around outside for hours playing with our friends and messing about. We weren’t sitting still playing on our computers and mobiles phones. Gosh now I do sound old don’t I, “in my day…”!
On the first Sunday we organised team building activities with a spiders web where the whole team has to get through the holes in the web, but you can only use each holes once. Toxic barrel, where you have to find a way to get the ‘barrel’ over the ‘toxic water’ to safety using just two ropes. Trust fall, simple activity where you stand on something with your back to your team, and let yourself fall back, they have to catch you. And finally 3 planks of wood that you have to put together of the ground in such a way that it make a structure strong enough to stand on. This one was by far the hardest and none of the groups were able to do it. During this activity they had to speak English and had points deducted for speaking Mongolia, with the exception of the team captain who was allowed (some of the beginners would have struggled to know what was happening otherwise!). They all seem to enjoy the activities and were quite competitive.
During lessons with my class and some evenings I ran a singing session, teaching songs like Yesterday, Let it be, ABC, She’ll be coming round the mountain, Eidelweiss and ‘I say a boom chicka boom’. This was great fun and I was impressed at how good they sounded as a group, the girls were especially good. Karaoke is huge here in Mongolia and singing is still part of their culture, so everyone is more relaxed about it.
Weekends were always fun and many parents would come to visit, bringing goodies for their kids, and baby brothers and sisters came too.
Dash and his parents come to camp at the weekend too, Dash brings a selections of Mongolian beers for us to try and Saturday night, with a disco for the kids, and some relaxing and socialising for us worked pretty well, especially with a lie in on Sundays! One day they killed a sheep and then cooked it straight away using hot rocks inside a big metal container, on the fire. Once it is ready they take out the hot rocks and pass them round, everyone takes a rock and you rub it in your hands, to soak up the flavour. The rock is covered in the juice and fat from the animal, some of which is used in expensive hand cream apparently. Then the meat comes out and is still on the bone in huge pieces. You simply take a piece and Henry the eighth styley just tuck in, eating it off the bone, or cutting big chunks off with a rather large knife! There are also whole carrots and potatoes that have also been cooked in the pot on the fire. Absolutely delicious! For carnivores like us, Mongolian food is heavenly – so much meat! Dash’s mother said to us – ‘you eat like us, you are like Mongolian, very much’.
The offal and head was also prepared for us eat. I totally agree with using all of the animal that you have killed, so that nothing goes to waste, however my taste buds have other ideas! I am not huge fan of liver, kidney or intestines, but i did try some to see what it was like. It is ok but i wouldn’t order it in a restaurant. The head, well the cheeks of the sheep are pretty tasty and soft. I also got given the palette or roof of the mouth, this is given to the women usually and by eating it you will become a better tailor or good at sewing. it was a bit chewy, but ok in bite size pieces. The rest of the group were entertained watching us try all these different things.
One of my favourite evenings was with all the women, Bianjal, Altaa, the 2 cooks who are both young, the doctor and the lady who does all the cleaning. Only Bianjal and Altaa can speak English, so the other ladies asked lots of questions and Altaa and Bianjal translated. They wanted to know what i thought of Mongolia, what I think of Mongolian women, how i find the children, how i met Chris, my plans for the future, will we have children, how many – all sorts of questions! It was so nice and great to spend time with other women and learn about each others lives. It turns out we are not so different really and I said that I feel the women in Mongolia, and Asia generally, are the back bone of the country, they are the ones that organise everything, that keep the family together and provided for, they seems to make sure everything gets done and maintain some kind of stability. That’s not to say the men don’t pull their weight, but women are more noticeably busy, hard working and caring, keeping the fires going, whilst their husbands are nowhere to be seen. I pretty much got a round of applause and lots of smiles for that observation!!
The location is wonderful and over the time we’ve were there so many wild flowers started to appear as the weather got warmer. I decided to photograph as many as I could as i couldn’t get over the range of flowers just on one hillside. One of my students was keen to come with me and show me the butterflies too, he was telling me about some of the flowers. The red one grows above the red potato and is called something beginning with Tumus which is the word for potato. As we walked, the grasshoppers jumped out of way, as Colin out it in his blog ” walking through the grass here, is like committing grasshopper genocide!” there are hundred and hundreds. If you are quick, you can pick them up and study them closer. There are also huge bees and lots of butterflies everywhere. If you want to see more of the flower photos have a look here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30039940@N03/sets/72157627168555736/
We got to know all the kids so well and know more about their personality. Some were noisy and a handful, others very creative and engaged, other spoke with a natural confidence, some were funny and one student, little Munkh who arrived not knowing any English, improved and learnt so much during his time that we felt he should be given some kind of award. It has been great fun teaching him and his friend Tuggle and they were very funny!
On the last night we had a bbq and a disco. dash arranged for the herdsman to bring over a horse for us to ride, so we had a lovely evening riding around before devouring huge amounts of meat kebabs, which were amazing. The girls got all dresses up in nice dresses, the boys didn’t make quite such effort, and the music started – they all love ‘trance’ (unfortunately) and the three of us did our best to try and educate them with a bit of James brown and other classic rock music, but Basshunter and co won the day, with the exception of Michael Jackson, they all like MJ which provided a bit of light relief. We were all dancing till late and ended up awarding them graduation certificates about midnight! Everyone was sad to be leaving and we said lots of goodbyes to our students.
There is so much more we could tell you about our time at camp, but this post is already pretty long! In short, we had a great time! We also got paid for the work and help with our visa, which will allow us enough time to cycle across Mongolia to the west. On top of all that we’ve made some great friends – Altaa, Dash & Biangal!
For more photos of our time at camp, go to flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/30039940@N03/sets/72157627074239637/