Cambodian Country Manager builds a Bridge to Mongolia

Sokhan (center) with a nomad family
Sokhan (center) with a nomad family

This August, Sokhan Khut, our Country Manager for Cambodia, made a trip to Mongolia. The aim was to share his experiences with the BOOKBRIDGE learning centers in Cambodia with his colleagues in Mongolia and to visit the Mongolian learning centers. In this article Sokhan describes what he did/experienced during his trip to Mongolia.

I had a pleasant flight from my home province, Siem Reap, Cambodia, to the capital city of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar (also known as UB). Tunga Munkhjargal, Country Manager Assistent for BOOKBRIDGE Mongolia, warmly welcomed me at the airport. After getting my accommodation settled together with Tunga, I met with Amar, Country Manager for Mongolia, for a welcome dinner and finalizing the plan for the rest of my stay in their country from which it could be described as the following:

A first three days in UB
Tunga took me to visit the Zaisan Memorial Site before going down to the city center where Amar later on gave me a tour around the heart of the city and its landmarks: the Gandan Buddhist Monastery, Sukhabaatar Square (Government place), The Peace Bridge and UB Public Garden. The tour gave me lots of impression about the city, especially the growing of high tall apartment buildings (they are more like a ‘modern mountain range’ to me) and the way gers (a portable, round tent used by Mongolian nomads) are set up around the city. It was a good opportunity to notice a big gap between rich and poor people living in the capital as well as aggressiveness of drivers on the street. Interestingly, I did not see many rubbish on the streets in UB if compare it to the capital city of my country, Phnom Penh.

Getting stuck in a river with your car happens from time to time in rural Mongolia
Getting stuck in a river with your car happens from time to time in rural Mongolia

We three later on held meetings to share experience in managing learning center projects that are being implemented by both BOOKBRIDGE Mongolia and BOOKBRIDGE Cambodia. The meeting allowed me to have a better understanding on the approach being used by my Mongolian colleagues to manage their learning centers as well as ways of getting learning center staff motivated in operating their learning centers. During the course of our discussion, I also realized the differences between learning centers in both country. Unfortunately, we could not go through all the agenda we had planned due to the fact that Amar and Tunga had to reserve their time to prepare for their upcoming “all learning center staff training”. Through social media, I managed to meet Rob van Waardenburg, former BOOKBRIDGE Program Manager and board member of BOOKBRIDGE Mongolia, for dinner and talk about his 9-year living experience in UB.

A short trip to visit Learning Center Dalanzadgad
My new day started with leaving the capital city at dawn to catch a flight to Dalanzadgad, a provincial town of South Gobi Province in Southern Mongolia. Battuul, Head of the Learning Center in Dalanzadgad, and her husband welcomed me at the airport and took me directly to a hotel in their town center and then to the learning center where she offers courses. A nice surprise was the traditional welcoming guest present Battuul gave to me at the learning center – a blue scarf and a bowl of local ‘yogurt’ made of goat milk.

Uuganaa (standing) from Arvaikheer Learning Center during the staff meeting
Uuganaa (standing) from Arvaikheer Learning Center during the staff meeting

After meeting her local team and visiting the center, Battuul organized a talk about Cambodia with her students at the center. The kids had lots of questions about Cambodia as well as the way of life of Cambodian kids. The next day, Battuul took me to play volleyball with her students before traveling to visit the “three beauties” and the red cliff in the countryside of Dalanzadgad. On the way back, I had a chance to visit a nomadic family and I was invited to have dinner together with Battuul’s family, which gave me an understanding of how a nomadic family lives. The steppe we travelled to the red cliff is very impressive to me. Beside vast treeless plains, the way people navigate to reach a certain location is unbelievable and I found it hard to describe. People may have their own way to know which road goes to which destination.

On the way back from Dalanzadgad to UB
Because Battuul and her English teacher had to travel to UB to join the all-staff training, I traveled with them by bus on a 600-km road back to UB and it took us nine hours to reach the capityl. With two bus stops on our half way to UB, I had a good chance to see different town centers as well as the way people in those towns live. The most noticeable thing for me is their public toilet, which looks more the same to what rural Cambodians used to/still have (a hut with two rooms that covers a-few-meter pit and there are two wooden beams you could sit on for urinating or defecating). With support from Battuul I could manage to come back to my hostel in the heart of UB.

Five Remarkable Days in Zavkhan
My second week in Mongolia was very special as it was my first time ever to meet the heads of different BOOKBRIDGE learning centers from different provinces of Mongolia. They participated in the bi-yearly all learning center staff training organized by Amar and Tunga.

On day one we all took a local flight from UB to Uliastaj city in Zavkhan province where the staff training was held. On our way from the airport to a summer ger camp, our Russian model 12-seat mini bus was stuck in the river while we were crossing it. The venue was in an isolated summer ger camp with mixed accommodation: modern house buildings and traditional Mongolian gers. The first night gave me a good experience of living in a ger. It had 6 beds and a stove used for either boiling water or cooking. It was also a chance to see what it means to be with Mongolian meat eaters: we ate marmots cooked the traditional way – putting hot stones inside their body while putting them on a fire.

Sokhan with the Mongolian BOOKBRIDGE staff in front of a ger (yurt)
Sokhan with the Mongolian BOOKBRIDGE staff in front of a ger (yurt)

On day two, we started with the training. After introducing all participants, the Heads of Learning Centers briefly presented their achievements during the last 6 months. I then introduced them to BOOKBRIDGE’s projects in Cambodia. After presenting BOOKBRIDGE’s vision for 2020, Amar and the Heads of Learning Centers shared their lessons learned from their fellows and how to manage them.
My unexpected learnings of this day were washing my body with just a cup of warm water in the morning, having a two-big-dish lunch (soup and rice with fried meat) and collecting a typical wild fruit (local people called it ‘Uhriin nud’ and they believe it is good for health) nearby the river with my Mongolian colleagues.

On day three, Uuganaa from Arvaikheer Learning Center shared her experience with preparing students for the University Entrance Exam. Battuul, Ankhiluun and Ada presented their presentation about BOOKBRIDGE Mongolian and Uuganaa and Battuul talked about risk management learned from scout training. Then, Tunga introduced guidelines to the learning centers on child protection, safety and code of conduct. This was followed by a session of Amar on a student exchange program among the Mongolian learning centers.

The presentations during the staff training took place in a ger (yurt)
The presentations during the staff training took place in a ger (yurt)

The mountain hike in the evening gave an enjoyable view on the rural mountainous landscape around the summer camp. During the following “Cambodian Night” I presented Cambodian traditional ceremonies with a focus on the Cambodian wedding. This allowed me to share Cambodian culture with my Mongolian colleagues.

On day 4 we listened to Uuganaas description of the English Olympic Event she had held in Arvaikheer learning center. This was followed by an introduction to BOOKBRIDGE’s impact measurement by Amar. Ada then talked about the learning center’s financial self-sustainability and what learning center staff needs of it. She draw the conclusion that the centers don’t need to follow the rules of donors and always can say no. She recommended to not let a donor rule your life and to focus on money but to stick to your name.

Afterwards we visited a nomadic family living not far from the ger camp together with a local girl and Munkherdene, English teacher at the learning center in Dalanzadgad. This allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the way Mongolian families lives. It was also the chance to wear a deel, the Mongolian traditional costume, and to taste traditional Mongolian vodka. It was actually more like Cambodian rice wine, but has a milky smell. At night, we all gathered around a pile of fire, sang, had some drinks and a lot of fun together before we broke up to go to bed.

On the last day of the training we visited a government-run learning center in Zavkhan. The Learning Center Zavkhan is located in the compound of a provincial library. Here, we met with the staff. Then we all went to a local market: it was interesting to see how my Mongolian colleagues enjoyed purchasing local products, f.e. Aaruul (dried curds). I also bought one for my family. After visiting a sacred Buddhist place on the summit of a mountain centrally located in town we had a last lunch together as BOOKBRIDGE team. Here, I tasted ‘mini-Khorog’, a Mongolian traditional food, for the first time after being in Mongolia for nearly two weeks.

We then traveled by a made-in-Russian bus to Donoi airport accompanied by Duya, Head of the learning center in Zavkhan. We said good-bye to Duya and took off to the airport to UB. On the way back from the airport, my colleagues staff got off the shuttle bus one after the other which marked the end of the staff training. They returned to their home towns which would take each of them an entire day.

Again Back to UB – Visiting Amar’s Family
After a long sleep, my energy was refilled 🙂 I got a call from Uuggana who asked me to meet her at the UB state department store. Besides meeting her daughter, it was exciting to receive a small gift for my family from her on behalf of the Head of Learning Centers from across Mongolia. The afternoon make even more my day after Amar took me to his apartment. It was great to see his lovely children and be invited to have dinner with his family. It was also a good opportunity to listen to Amar talking about his family and sharing our thoughts on the learning centers.
In the late evening, I joined Amar to manage the book boxes from Germany for the learning center’s libraries: they arrived late at night and so we had to unload them at a warehouse. The books are for Ankhiluun who will manage our future learning center in Chinggis. Although it was a long and tiring evening, it gave me the chance to see the outskirts of UB.

Sokhan (left) with Tunga's and Amar's families in Terelj National Park
Sokhan (left) with Tunga’s and Amar’s families in Terelj National Park

A trip to Terelj National Park
My plans kept changing due to unexpected changes in the working schedule I had with my Mongolian colleagues, but fortunately our trip to beautiful Terelj National Park worked out. The park is just an one-hour drive away from UB. On the way, we stopped to see birds of prey that are ‘displayed’ for travelers. Their owner gave me a close touch to one of them, a 20kg vulture. During the trip, I also saw an impressive huge metallic Chinggis Khan built on a hill. While climbing up the stairs inside of the body, I did not realize that I would see his face while standing on the head of his horse. After a quickly join of our weekly team meeting with our colleagues in Europe, we went on to reach our destination in Terelj and spent a night in a summer ger camp together with Tunga’s and Amar’s families. This gave me the feeling of being part of the so-called “BOOKBRIDGE Family”. During the visit of a temple of meditation not faraway from our ger camp I got interesting insights into how Mongolian Buddhists practice their mantras.

My last day in UB
After returning from Terelj, I only had one afternoon to train Amar in our IT tools Zoom and Teamwork before I had to pack my stuff for my flight back home. Unfortunately, things did not work out as planned since my Mongolian colleague’s virtual meeting took much longer than expected and we had to postpone our IT tool training sessions. However, we could manage to do it during the evening and I even managed to get some souvenirs for my family and have a farewell dinner with Tunga and Amar.
I flew home the next morning and had a safe and sound arrival after a 12-hour journey bringing with me good memories and experiences. Many thanks to Tunga, Amar and Battuul as well as all the people I met for their warm hospitality and friendliness during my stay in their country!

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