A continuation of “Out into the Countryside.” We’ve been going out of town for the weekends (weekend mornings are the time I have to write these posts), so I haven’t been keeping up. But I wanted to finish the account of our day in Terelj before I write more. I’m keeping a running log of topics, and at some point I’m hoping to have the time to crank out a series of posts to catch up. In the meanwhile…
At the entrance to Terelj, there’s what looks like a small village: a cluster of houses with fenced in yards and a mini-market. These are vacation homes belonging to people from the city; Terelj is close to Ulaanbaatar, so it’s a popular getaway location for urbanites seeking fresh air and peace. (I learned later that this proximity to UB has taken its toll on the park; there are over 3,000 tourist camps in the park, but I will write about that more in a later post. The Mongolian national park system seems quite a bit different than the US one, and I am trying to learn more about it.)
Everyone cheered as the man working the entrance gate waved us through without paying the entrance fee. (Another way this system is different!) We drove along the broad valley of the Tuul River, the same one that flows through UB, and then wound our way up through a mountainous landscape, with patches of remnant snow from the season’s first snowfall scattered about. There were smaller dirt roads branching off, leading to clusters of white gers here and there, the “tourist camps” that fill the national park. There were also a handful of larger buildings, hotels supplementing the more low-impact but also low-amenity ger camps. One large hotel was under construction, and I wondered if there were any regulations controlling the growth of tourism in the area (an answer to this question in my next post). Eventually, our bus turned off onto one of the dirt roads, leading to the Mirage Tourist Camp where we would spend the day.
The Mirage Camp was set back in a little valley, across from another camp, and down the road from yet one more. These tourist camps consist of a cluster of ger (yurts), often laid out in a grid, with a couple of permanent buildings, usually a restaurant and a bath house with toilets and showers. The ger used are the same as the ones nomadic people live in, with brightly painted doors and wooden frames contrasting with the white of the ger material. The interiors are lined with embossed silk, and there is a central window, really a skylight, through which the chimney of the wood stove passes. The skylight and the door are the only sources of natural light, but they are more than enough.
We piled into one ger, while a couple of the students went off to cook lunch. The students had planned the entire day, including activities that were designed for us to get to know each other (there were two new faculty, plus a large freshman class), as well as to just have fun. The first was the classic say three things about yourself, including one lie, and the others have to guess what’s not true. Then we played an interesting number game I hadn’t come across, where every person counts, but for every number containing a 3, 6, or 9, you clap instead of saying the number, and for every number containing two multiples of three (say, 36), you clap twice. It’s easy till you hit the 30s, and then you really have to keep track so when you reach 40 you say it instead of clapping. I think we never made it past the 40s, but it was a lot of fun, and it ended up in a showdown between me and Emma. Emma won, of course; the prize was a mango juice pouch and a bar of chocolate.
This was what made the day special for me: The way everyone was included, even the new professor’s 12-year-old daughter. She fit right in with the students, joining in the games they played between lunch and dinner. It was the first time I remember that happening, Emma coming along with me on what was basically a professional event and not just being completely ignored. I think she was anticipating spending the day just sitting and drawing, but as she told me later, she had more fun with the Media and Communication students than she did with her seventh-grade class. One of the things I really appreciate about Mongolia International University is its ethic of care and inclusion. We are encouraged to get to know our students, and the Membership Training Program was just one form of that.
After the numbers game, we went outside, and Emma and I went off to find the restroom. We were pointed towards a wooden shack off to the side of the ger, and I was somewhat dismayed to see a squat toilet. This is what most people in the world use to go to the bathroom, but I’m less flexible than I used to be, so let’s just say it was a bit of a challenge for me. I told Emma I wasn’t going to drink anything for the rest of the day, and I was only kind of joking. (Later, we discovered the bath house with flush toilets and sinks – phew!)
As we walked down to join the others, I took some photos of the scenery and the fluffy calves that were ambling through the camp. The Mirage was set up against some gently eroding granite rock formations, with a view out across a grass-covered valley lined with low, forested mountains. Many of the trees were green, but the aspens had turned bright gold, giving the place a distinct autumnal feel. Since we’d arrived, the weather had cleared significantly, and the bright blue sky was scattered with white clouds. It had warmed up a bit, too, and we ended up not needing the extra layers I had brought along in anticipation of cold weather. The fresh air was a shock after over a month in the city, and I could understand why so many people came out to Terelj whenever they could.
Soon we were called to lunch in a large dining-ger at the top of the camp. I had told them that I would bring food for me and Emma, in anticipation of the meat-heavy lunch. I’d brought a can of baked beans, as well as some cooked rice (I really hadn’t known what to expect), and there was also green salad. We ate at a long table, with Emma and I sitting at one end with my department chair and the other new instructor, a Mongolian television producer who was teaching the practicum for the junior class. They mostly conversed in Korean (he went to school in South Korea and is fluent).
After lunch, there was horseback riding. Emma had decided to try it, so she went with the first group for a half-hour ride. They just walked down the hill and back, with one of the students leading the horse Emma was on. (Emma used to take riding lessons, for about two years, but then suddenly decided she didn’t want to anymore and stopped. It’s been a few years now, though she went on a mule ride in the Grand Canyon summer before last.) The horses were small and stocky and looked like they’d do just fine in the cold Mongolian winter. As I walked along behind the horses, I had a chance to talk with one of the freshman students from Korea. She’s a bit older than the others, and had lived on a missionary boat for a few years with her parents; she told me about staying off the coast of Alexandria, Egypt, for several months, after we realized we had Egypt in common.
Soon the ride was over. After a bit of down time in the ger, we went over to the camp’s basketball court (this seems to be another standard feature of many tourist camps, along with a playground), and the juniors started organizing people into the games they had planned. One of the games was a race that involved dribbling a basketball through cones, shooting a basket, and then hopping back with the basketball between your knees. Emma joined one of the teams, while I and the other faculty laughed and cheered from the sidelines. Then there was a similar game but with people working in teams of two, with one of their legs tied together. Finally, there was a treasure hunt. In the end, Emma’s team won, and they had an awards ceremony, receiving more candy and a juice pouch. The other team was given a opportunity to earn their prize by dancing to the song “Baby Shark.” Emma came up and whispered to me, “We listened to this in Newer Elementary.” It was pretty hilarious, with some of the students getting really into it and others looking like they’d rather be doing something else. Soon it was over, and they were given their consolation prizes, which were basically the same as what the winning team had gotten.
What I really enjoyed about the games was the camaraderie among the students and the encouragement they gave each other. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and everyone belonged. That is one of the things that makes teaching at MIU such a different experience. As I spend more time here and get to know the people and the place better, there are undercurrents beneath the collegial surface, but there is also a genuine feeling that we are all in this together and should make it the best experience it can be. I had a hard time imagining anything like this at the American universities I’ve spent time at.
We had some free time before dinner, so Emma and I wandered around a bit. Behind the restaurant, we found a dog tied up to a tractor. It was whining and looked very friendly. Emma went over to it, and a love affair ensued. Emma gravitates towards dogs and seems to find dog friends wherever she goes. The dog was more of a puppy, probably less than a year old, and seemed to have a bit of golden retriever to it. She (it turned out) was very friendly indeed, and Emma wanted to spend the rest of the day with the dog. Unfortunately, we were called to dinner.
I hadn’t realized we’d also be staying for dinner, so I hadn’t brought another meal along for us. Fortunately, we were allowed to order off the menu, which had a good-sized vegan section. We had some pasta with delicious vegetables on the side (which Emma was suspicious of, of course), because they were out of the more intriguing-sounding vegetable pancakes. After dinner, there was time for one more play session with the dog, and then we piled on the bus to return to the city, just as the yaks came grazing by.