Bulgan: between Tradition and Modern Spirit

View on Bulgan, Mongolia
View on Bulgan

Cony Fiedler is BOOKBRIDGE fellow in Mongolia. Two months ago, she arrived in the provincial town of Bulgan where she now supports Maralmaa Jargalsaikhan’s learning center. In this blog post she describes her impressions of Bulgan, where modern spirit and tradition overlap.

I’ve been a “Fellow” at the BOOKBRIDGE Learning Center in Bulgan for two months now. The Learning Center located at the city’s Culture House, and consists of a room which is both a library, a classroom and a place for kids and youngsters to meet and learn about language and culture. Maralaa who is running the Learning Center, and her co-workers from the Culture House had been hoping for a volunteer for several years, but it took some time. There aren’t many foreigners moving to Bulgan. Right now there are three – two American girls who are here as Peace Corps volunteers, and me.

Visiting a wedding on the countryside
Visiting a wedding on the countryside

I experience how curious and open people here are. Right from the start I was taken everywhere, and during the past weeks I’ve been to weddings, birthday parties and traditional ceremonies, both at people’s homes and at public places.

Cony is helping to set-up a ger (yurt) in Bulgan, Mongolia
Cony is helping to set-up a ger (yurt)

I got invited to people’s gers, appartments and houses, to co-workers, new friends, institutions and organisations. Together with my colleagues I visited for instance the city government, the agricultural school and the country’s biggest and most secured prison. The people there, both inmates and employees, got to hear a concert with modern and traditional songs, and received book donations which were collected in Bulgan. I was also invited to set up a ger, and was shown how a sheep and a goat were slaughtered and cooked.

The director of the culture center visiting our learning center with lollipop and granddaughter
The director of the culture center visiting our learning center with lollipop and granddaughter

Through these experiences I learned how my new colleagues and people here in general work and live. I quickly realized that there’s no clear difference (yet) between work and private life, job and freetime, the roles of family members, friends and co-workers. People simply are.

Two teenagers between modern spirit and tradition
Two teenagers between modern spirit and tradition

I find the contrasts I’m observing in Bulgan and in Mongolia in general very fascinating. Mongolia is a country between traditional and modern life, between remembering the past and expecting the new. People here are hoping for a future, not being left behind, but they also are deeply rooted in national pride and a consciousness for where they’re coming from. I experienced many moments representing these contrasts: A teenager checks his facebook-account before going to bed in a ger in the remote countryside. The kids of a nomad’s family in South Gobi play Angry Birds while the Milky Way shows up on the nightly sky above their heads. Even though they have modern kitchens in the newly built appartments people still cook on the floor. A boy who’s wearing a traditional Mongolian del over his Adidas-pants is sitting on a stage and waiting for his turn to play the horse-head-violin.

Winners of a horse headed fiddle competition in Bulgan, Mongolia
Winners of a horse headed fiddle competition

The boarders don’t seem to go through different social classes, not between poor and rich, not between the city and the countryside, but right through each and every one of them. Some might experience this as a conflict, others see in it a chance to “mongolize” the modern, Western influences. They modify the new and unite it with the ancient Mongolian culture.

Halloween party at the learning center in Bulgan, Mongolia
Halloween party at the learning center

Ten years ago no-one in Bulgan knew about Halloween. Today the children and youngsters give this holiday a room – and this room is also the BOOKBRIDGE Learning Center and the big hall of the Culture House. Also the boarders between the Learning Center and the rest of the house are open. The young people of Bulgan don’t only use the opportunity to learn English and take part in activities, they also use the rooms for rehearsing with their bands, for activities, parties and celebrations. More than a hundred kids joined the Halloween-party, and they had made costumes, masks and decoration with the help of very simple devices. One might just go to a shop and buy such things in Western countries, but this isn’t possible in Bulgan, yet. It’s most likely just a question of time, though.

Maralmaa and Cony prepare sandwiches with the kids in Bulgan, Mongolia
Maralmaa and Cony prepare sandwiches with the kids

At the Learning Center kids don’t only learn English through books and plain lessons. Maralaa and I try to convey new vocabulary and to practice the spoken language together with the kids by doing various other things, too. We go outside, discover the city and the surrounding, cook something typcial Mongolian or something totally new. For the first time in their lives the kids tried to make a sandwich, which is a rather unusual thing to eat here. Soon it will be Christmas time and then we will bake cookies and gingerbread.

During a cooking workshop at the learning center, children showed how to prepare traditional Buuz
During a cooking workshop at the learning center, children showed how to prepare traditional Buuz

Just like the adults the kids are very interested in foreign recipes and dishes, since the choice withing the Mongolian cuisine is rather limited. They want to know how to make a pizza, bread or pancakes. Still, the Mongolians are eager to teach me how to prepare their dishes, too. Just recently we made buuz, steamed dumplings filled with meat. Three times per week the intermediate class meets at the Learning Center in order to learn English, to try out new things and activities.

Students at the learning center in Bulgan, Mongolia
Students at the learning center
It’s not only the international kitchen that raises the children’s interest in how things are elsewhere, in other countries. Also movies and music give an access to the English language and the rest of the world. Once a week the kids come for the movie-club where they watch films in their original version with subtitles. Every twenty minutes we have a break and answer several quiz-questions together to repeat what we just saw and heard. This makes it easier for those who still have problems understanding the foreign language and the plot. Additionally we increase the vocabulary this way.

Cony with students at the speaking club in Bulgan, Mongolia
Cony with students at the speaking club

Also those who join the reading-club help each other explaining and understanding context and words. Together we’re reading the first volume of the bestseller «Diary of a Wimpy Kid». The 14- to 16-years-old students learn about everyday’s life in the US and realize that a teenager’s problems, joys and passions over there are pretty similar to their own.

English class for the employes of Bulgan's Social Welfare Department
English class for the employes of Bulgan’s Social Welfare Department

In the evenings, after the majority of employees have finished their work, Maralaa and I teach English for adults. Sometimes the lessons take place at the Learning Center, sometimes at other organisations. Just recently we finished a course, and started a new one for the employees of the Social Welfare Service Department of Bulgan. The lessons are different from those with the younger learners, but they usually end the same way – very relaxed and with some laughter.

Going outside hiking - children in Bulgan, Mongolia
Going outside hiking

At the beginning I planned to divide my six months as a Fellow in Mongolia between two different Learning Centers. I enjoy living and working in Bulgan, and I feel welcome. My co-workers asked, if I couldn´t stay here longer, and Maralaa and I realize how much her English skills keep developing. We decided that I would prolong my time here and won´t change to another place, yet.

Sunrise in Bulgan, Mongolia
Sunrise in Bulgan

Bulgan may not be economically rich or very developed from a Western point of view. Few streets and roads are paved, the power supply can be a little shaky at times, and most households don´t have any warm water from the tap – if they have running water at all. Nonetheless, I got the impression that this is one of the richest places where I could land. It´s rich of experiences and impressions, and most of all: rich of interesting and interested people who make the best of their possibilities. They live their lives completly, they share it, and they let me take part in it.

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