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Learning English and Buddhism in Mongolia

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Learning Medical English for doctors, nurses and dentists in Mongolia

Monday, May 27, 2013

NEWS: Small Idea, Big Results: Learning through Soap Operas

Originally posted on Asian Development Bank - Nov 2, 2012

A woman works on her sewing machine in a ger, the traditional Mongolian tent-like dwelling. ADB experts are working with the Government of Mongolia in producing TV dramas that teach poor households the importance of saving and financial planning.

An innovative ADB project in Mongolia aims to teach the most vulnerable in society how to overcome times of financial hardship using simple, effective tools, and a bit of advance planning.

Two years ago, Mongolia’s herders lost millions of livestock in what they call a dzud - a long, severe winter following a dry spell that had destroyed grazing areas. Natural disasters and health emergencies such as the dzud can drive poor households deeper into poverty. Often living in a subsistence economy, the most vulnerable in society may not know there are ways for them to protect themselves.

An innovative ADB project in Mongolia aims to tackle this problem by creative use of mass media. Using TV dramas, ADB experts are working with the government to educate people about their options. Events such as a drought or a period of illness can be overcome using simple, effective tools, and a bit of advance planning. The shows will teach people how.

“What makes the project different is that it will use soap operas to talk about microfinance and financial inclusion. It is a form of infotainment,” says Betty Wilkinson, lead finance specialist at ADB’s East Asia Department.

The power of stories

ADB has used storytelling in the past to help people understand sensitive issues and improve social behavior. For example, ADB supported short radio dramas in Cambodia to promote women in governance. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and Viet Nam, ADB-funded projects used radio dramas and short films to discuss the risks of sexually transmitted infections.

Serial dramas or soap operas attract a wide audience because the stories are based on real-life experiences and tied to the local culture. Viewers are able to identify and learn with the main characters, who gradually evolve in their thinking and behavior as the story unfolds.

Mongolia is one of the largest yet most sparsely populated countries in the world. People live far from each other and nomadic herders move from one place to another. So it would be difficult to organize face-to-face training sessions.

Television makes an ideal medium of instruction in Mongolia. Most households own a television set or watch regularly with friends. “In the middle of the Gobi desert, you will find solar panels installed on gers (a traditional home), and people watching television,” says Wilkinson.

Soap operas are also quite popular in the country. “At least 40% of Mongolia’s population watch one specific Korean soap opera dubbed in Mongolian,” Wilkinson says. “They see on these shows how other families deal with crisis. We will provide a homegrown version.”

Tools for social change

ADB’s project in Mongolia will also make use of mobile phones as an educational tool.

“In Mongolia, the people are early adopters of technology. Most people have cell phones,” says Wilkinson. The TV show will encourage viewers to call or text answers to key questions posed after each episode. The program will also offer callers free cell phone airtime as a reward. She explains that the live call-in will help identify the audience profile and determine if viewers are learning from the show. The script may also be modified based on the audience response. The pilot show will be launched during the winter season, which is when the people spend much time indoors watching TV.

The Government of Mongolia has agreed to continue to fund the TV series if the project proves successful, Wilkinson says.



Word List:
  • innovative: introducing or using new ideas, ways of doing something, etc
  • subsistence: having just enough money or food to stay alive
  • tackle: to make a determined effort to deal with a difficult problem or situation
  • drought: a long period of time when there is little or no rain
  • infotainment: television programmes, etc. that present news and serious subjects in an entertaining way
  • sparsely: only present in small amounts or numbers and often spread over a large area
Pronunciation MP3:
= innovative
= subsistence
= tackle
= drought
= infotainment
= sparsely

Monday, May 20, 2013

NEWS: Is harsh Mongolia ready for winter tourism?

Originally posted on Skift.com - Mar 23, 2013
by Pearly Jacob


Mongolia’s sweeping steppe and nomadic heritage attract tens of thousands of tourists from around the world each summer. Come winter, though, popular tourist spots are eerily deserted; tour operators have traditionally hibernated. But some are starting to ask: ‘are we missing an opportunity?’

Tourist season in Mongolia typically lasts from mid-May to mid-September. Most operators rely on revenue generated during these months to survive for the rest of the year. “No matter how successful you are in summer, winter is a dead season,” said Gereltuv Dashdoorov, director of operations at Nomadic Expeditions, a tour agency. “That’s the same story for most companies.”

The actual drop in tourist numbers between seasons is hard to calculate as official statistics define a tourist as anyone who enters Mongolia on a tourist visa and stays for a minimum of three days. Dashdoorov says the drop in bookings for most agencies is between 85 and 90 percent. Winter visitors are mostly passengers on the Trans-Siberian Railway on a three-day layover in Ulaanbaatar – the world’s coldest capital – between trains.

The government says it wants to augment Mongolia’s mining-dominated economy. In early March, officials pledged to include tourism as a national investment priority at the Mongolian Economic Forum, an annual event co-sponsored by the government. Tourism contributed 5.7 percent of GDP in 2012, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council. The council ranks Mongolia 147th of 184 countries for tourism’s total contribution to GDP.

There are other challenges, besides winter. Mongolia’s tour operators have struggled to compete with the mining industry for trained local staff. And mining-led inflation is making Mongolia an increasingly expensive destination for tourists. But the seasonality of the sector continues to limit growth.

“If we want to try sustainable tourism, we need to have income coming in during all four seasons,” said Khoshartsaga Saraal, the new head of the Department of Tourism Policy Implementation and Coordination at the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Tourism.

To supplement their winter income, some tour operators have started catering to well-off Mongolians wishing to travel abroad in the colder months. “Shopping trips in Spain, beach visits in Thailand. … That’s how tour operators are starting to make money in winter,” said Dashdoorov of Nomadic Expeditions.

Dashdoorov feels Mongolia’s extreme winter temperatures are not the only thing deterring potential visitors. “There’s also a lack of winter tourism products you can offer,” he said.

A handful of companies have been trying to extend the tourist season by collaborating with local communities to organize annual events. In recent years, these have included the Golden Eagle Festival in the western Altai Mountains each October. March events include the Khovsgol Ice Festival, the Thousand Camels Festival in the southern Gobi Desert, and acamel polo tournament near Ulaanbaatar. The festivals have yet to draw high numbers of international tourists, though some have gained a reputation as colorful local affairs, says Dashdoorov, whose company helped kick-start the eagle and camel events.

For organizers, poor infrastructure proves as challenging as the weather. “People come prepared to face the cold. But when you include bad roads and rough travel conditions, it becomes more difficult,” said Enkhbaatar Batbayar, general manger of Active Adventures and Tours, co-organizers of the Khovsgol Ice Festival.

In its 13th year, the festival has evolved from a small rural event to an affair attended by dozens of foreigners and hundreds of domestic tourists. Since 2007, Batbayar’s outfit has joined hands with local organizers to promote the festival on a bigger scale; a job, he says, the government could assist. He points to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculptor Festival across the border in China as an example of good cooperation between officials and tour operators.

“The Chinese local government arranges everything from sculptures to accommodation. The tour agent’s job there is to simply bring the tourists. Until recently we had to organize everything and also try to sell our tours,” he says. This year, 35 foreign tourists booked tour packages for the ice festival directly through the company, a record.

The central government has pledged greater support for the festivals and recognizes their potential to draw visitors. “These can become internationally known events,” Saraal from the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Tourism told EurasiaNet.org.

One unusual sport shows Mongolia could be a hot destination for extreme outdoor winter sports. Joel Rauzy, a French outdoor guide and musher, started offering dogsledding tours in 2003 through his company, Wind of Mongolia. The five-to-nine-day specialized trips are so popular Rauzy says he often has to turn away prospective clients.

Rauzy believes Mongolia’s “unfair reputation” of extremely cold winters and lack of services is hampering the country’s potential to attract winter sports lovers. “I’ve worked in Finland and, believe me, it’s much easier in Mongolia. It’s almost always sunny here and it’s a dry cold that’s very easy to bear,” he said.

Mongolia should work at developing specialized outdoor services tailored for the winter sports market, he said. “You could organize cross-country skiing tours, pull-cart treks across ice, guided snow treks. […] The clients do exist. There is big potential. The problem is how to manage this potential.”



Word List:
  • sweeping: having an important effect on a large part of something
  • hibernated: to spend the winter in a state like deep sleep
  • augment: to increase the amount, value, size, etc. of something
  • deterring: to make somebody decide not to do something or continue doing something, especially by making them understand the difficulties and unpleasant results of their actions
  • draw: to move something/somebody by pulling it or them gently
  • musher: a person who drives a dog sled
  • hampering: to prevent somebody from easily doing or achieving something
  • bear: to be able to accept and deal with something unpleasant
Pronunciation MP3:
= sweep
= hibernate
= deter
= draw
= hamper
= bear

Monday, May 13, 2013

NEWS: Of Baby Animals and Borrowers in Selenge

Originally posted on Kiva.org - April 13, 2013

Spring has arrived in Mongolia! That means warmer weather (afternoons creeping closer and closer to the double digits)… and, of course, baby animals!

I had the opportunity to travel to Selenge aimag (province) last week with XacBank, one of Kiva’s partners in Mongolia. Batzul, the Kiva Coordinator at XacBank, and I had a jam-packed schedule: Do borrower verifications, check client waivers, conduct loan officer training sessions, capture videos, and present certificates to top borrowers. And after two short days, I was proud to say: Mission accomplished!

driving through the Mongolian countryside

After being delayed by the heavy traffic in the capital, we finally left Ulaanbaatar (UB) close to 11am. Sukhbaatar, the capital of Selenge, is about 300km from UB, and it’s just a stone’s throw from the Russian border. The mostly straight road that took us there meanders along wide plains, with mountains looming on either side.

Though the timid round signs along the road try to impose a speed limit of 50km/h, we easily tripled that speed for most of the ride, and at one point our driver, Turaa, maxxed out at 180. While he’s a very experienced driver, the back seats in cars here don’t tend to have seatbelts… so I must say I was quite relieved when we arrived at our destination in one piece.

Tsetsee and the new barn she worked hard to build

The branch in Selenge was bustling with activity when we arrived. After checking loan documents there, Turaa took us 20km out of the town centre to Tsetsee’s farm, where she had built a barn for her animals using her Kiva loan. Tsetsee is a trained veterinarian, so caring for animals is second nature to her. While she still works part-time as a vet to administer vaccines to animals in her community, this entrepreneurial woman had bought a variety of animals in order to start selling organic dairy and meat products. At last count, she had 30 cows, 5 horses, 230 sheep, and 280 goats.

visiting the newborns on Tsetsee’s farm

We couldn’t have had better timing. Her livestock had produced 200 offspring this year. Some had been born two weeks prior, while others were just two days old! The older offspring were keeping warm in the newly built barn, while the littlest ones had their own ger for a nursery. When we arrived, Tsetsee let them all out, and joy and chaos ensued.

We finally dragged ourselves away from all the adorable-ness. Tsetsee welcomed us into her lovely farmhouse for a chat, where she expressed a deep gratitude for her Kiva loan. I was fascinated to learn that all meat and dairy produced in this country (as well as fruit and vegetables) is organic. (While Mongolia’s agricultural climate does not support extensive fruit and vegetable production, it is favourable to the growth of sea buckthorn, of which the country is a large producer).

Another interesting thing I’ve learned is the Mongolian approach to slaughtering animals—particularly when it comes to smaller scale production. For smaller animals such as sheep and goats, an incision is made in the animal’s torso (which causes it relatively little pain). The slaughterer reaches in and gently snaps the spinal artery, and the animal loses consciousness. It’s considered to be a more humane practice than other approaches.

(This may seem strange to foreigners, but then again, most consumers in the West are so far removed from the farms where our food comes from that most of us never really think about how meat ends up on our plates. And these days, it seems, the truth about farming practices in the West are being kept even more tightly under wraps.)

XacBank’s branch office in Sukhbaatar, Selenge

Back at the branch office, with the work day officially over, we found the loan officers still hard at work. But there was Kiva training to be done! One of the main tasks of a Kiva Fellow is to provide support to our field partners and to help them implement Kiva’s policies and procedures effectively. That includes training loan officers on what Kiva is all about. While loan officers disburse Kiva loans on a daily basis, most of them have had little more than a crash course on Kiva from someone at their institution. As Kiva Fellows, we provide them with a better understanding of what we do—especially in a wider, global context.

training the loan officers

Loan officers play an important role in the disbursement of Kiva loans. Together with the Kiva Coordinators, they are the ones who take the photos and write the stories of the borrowers which lenders browse on Kiva’s website. In order to motivate them to create the best borrower profiles they can, I always remind them that they are competing for funds—not only with borrowers at Kiva’s other Mongolian partners, but also with borrowers from all of Kiva’s 192 partners around the world.

These training sessions are quite useful for loan officers as they really get them thinking, often provoking interesting and thoughtful questions. The sessions we ran in Selenge were no exception. Another benefit is that they make the loan officers’ work more meaningful to them, as they understand more clearly how they fit in to the Kiva picture.

The next day, we set out to meet Shurbat, another Kiva borrower. Shurbat is a cobbler and a veteran in the business—she’s been offering her services in Gurvan Mergid market since 1973! She told us she was really thankful for her Kiva loan, which had allowed her to purchase an inventory of soles. Her plan is to start producing winter boots and summer shoes for children.

Shurbat, the proud cobbler

Due to illness, our visit with Shurbat was limited (we weren’t able to see her shop), but she graciously offered us her time and her attention. After chatting with her about her loan, we asked to take her photo, and she and her daughter made a small fuss over her appearance to make sure she looked her very best. She even put on her bright pink hat just for the occasion!

rewarding a borrower through XacBank’s 9% savings incentive program

Back at the branch office again, we did a spot check on client waiver forms—which Kiva clients must sign if they agree to let Kiva post their information on our website—and also handed out some certificates of appreciation to a few borrowers. In order to encourage its Kiva clients to save, XacBank has an incentive program for those borrowers who pay back their loans on time. It deposits 9% of the interest they’ve paid on their loans back into a savings account for them. After all, savings are an important aspect of a household’s financial health.

Finally, it was time for a lunch break, so one of the loan officers took Batzul, Turaa and I out to a nearby restaurant. There, we enjoyed some fresh khuushuur and other Mongolian foods. Afterwards, he took us for a stroll so we could check out the local market. It was every bit as interesting and colourful as the pictures show…

outdoor market in Sukhbaatar, where clothing and other wares are sold

buying smoked fish, a specialty of this province

It was wonderful to experience a part of Mongolia that I might otherwise never have visited. It’s definitely one of the perks of being a Kiva Fellow. After a busy two days, and our confidence fully placed in Turaa’s hands, Batzul and I let the peaceful scenery of the countryside lull us to sleep as we headed home.



Word List:
  • creeping: happening or moving gradually and not easily noticed
  • jam-packed: very full or crowded
  • stone's throw: [idiom] a very short distance away
  • meanders: to curve a lot rather than being in a straight line
  • looming: to appear as a large shape that is not clear, especially in a frightening or threatening way
  • timid: small compared to the surrounding scene
  • maxxed out: the maximum
  • bustling: full of people moving about in a busy way
  • second nature: something that you do very easily and naturally, because it is part of your character or you have done it so many times
  • offspring: the young of an animal or plant
  • chaos ensued: a state of complete confusion and lack of order began
  • torso: the main part of the body, not including the head, arms or legs
  • humane: showing kindness towards people and animals by making sure that they do not suffer more than is necessary
  • under wraps: [idiom] hidden
  • implement: to make something that has been officially decided start to happen or be used
  • cobbler: a person who makes or repairs shoes
  • spot check: a check that is made suddenly and without warning on a few things or people chosen from a group to see that everything is as it should be
  • stroll: to walk somewhere in a slow relaxed way
Pronunciation MP3:
= creep
= jam-packed
= meander
= loom
= timid
= bustling
= offspring
= chaos
= ensue
= torso
= humane
= cobbler
= stroll

Monday, May 6, 2013

NEWS: The riches under Mongolia's Turquoise Hill

Originally posted on BBC - Mar 23, 2013
By Justin Rowlatt


Beneath the Gobi desert lie enormous reserves of gold, silver and copper - but exploiting them is proving to be a tricky balancing act for the Mongolian authorities.

I am sure he would blush at the suggestion, but Samand Sanjdorj is quite possibly the most influential Mongolian since Genghis Khan.

Sanj, as he is known, is from a modest background. Like most Mongolians, he grew up in a ger - one of the round felt tents common in Central Asia. He is from a family of nomadic herders from the west of Mongolia, but he did well at school and managed to wangle himself a place on a geophysics course at a university in Russia.

Now you might imagine the work of a geophysicist would be a bit dull, but I challenge you not to be drawn in by Sanj's story.

In the late 1990s, an international mining company sent him deep into the Gobi desert as part of a team investigating what he described as "an interesting extrusion". To you and me, that is a great fist of rock punching out from the dusty desert scrubland.

Sanj and his fellow geologists were by no means the first prospectors there. The local name for this "extrusion" is Oyu Tolgoi, or Turquoise Hill. The green stains that gave it its name are a clue to the minerals within.

But first the Soviet teams and then, more recently, those Western mining companies that examined it, dismissed the deposit as too small to warrant commercial exploitation.

Sanj's work told a very different story. His results, he says, rapidly suggested a very unusual geological formation.

"Every day our data showed the potential ore body was bigger and bigger," he told me.

"I couldn't wait to get up the next day and explore further. We were pretty confident we'd found something important."

They could hardly have imagined how important it would be. What Sanj and his colleagues had discovered is reckoned to be the greatest unexploited reserve of copper, gold and silver on the planet.

A decade and a half later, Sanj is showing me around the vast, blue processing plant that rises up out of the sand where once he and his fellow geologists camped.

The $6bn (£4bn) that the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto spent building this place was enough to help power Mongolia to the top of the list of the fastest-growing economies on earth.

The company is predicting that the Oyu Tolgoi mine will generate more than $8bn every year for the next 40 or 50 years. It is an astonishing windfall for a country with fewer than three million people.

And it comes at a time when other forces are also reshaping the nation.

Mongolia has always suffered the occasional extreme winter - they are known as dzuds - but local people say they are becoming more frequent. In recent years they have killed many millions of the double-humped Bactrian camels, yaks, sheep, cashmere goats and cows on which the nation's herders depend.

That has helped drive a great exodus of traditional nomads from the countryside and the growth of the most extraordinary shanty town I have ever seen.



The herders have brought their gers - or tents - to town and have set up home in the hills around the capital.

Over the course of a single decade, a quarter of the entire Mongolian population has given up the lifestyle that has sustained their families for millennia and moved to this sprawling slum.

And, of course, everyone who lives here is well aware of Sanj's great discovery down in the Gobi. Naturally enough, they want a share of it.

And that is where the problem lies.

The first ore - a rather modest mound of black powder - was produced during the couple of days I was there earlier this year. In time it should grow into a mountain, but the Mongolian government wants cash now and it is asking Rio Tinto for hundreds of millions of pounds more than was agreed for this year.

The head of the mining company's operations in Mongolia hinted darkly to me that countries that change the rules like this risk killing the goose before it has laid any golden - or, for that matter, copper - eggs.

"Is that a threat?" I asked.

"Oh, no, no, no," he replied.

Yet the two parties have been locked in "discussions" for over a month now.

Back at the mine in the Gobi, however, Sanj seems unperturbed by the dispute.

Samand Sanjdorj's confidence in the geological formation has paid off

One senses he has been in the business long enough to know that squabbles over how the Mongolian government and Rio Tinto divide the spoils may delay the project but it will not end it.

He knows that a prize this valuable will eventually be exploited.

But that leaves the really big question unanswered. Can the government ensure that every Mongolian benefits from Sanj's extraordinary discovery?



Word List:
  • blush: to become red in the face because you are embarrassed or ashamed
  • wangle: to get something that you or another person wants by persuading somebody or by a clever plan
  • reckoned: to calculate an amount, a number, etc
  • squabbles: to argue noisily about something that is not very important
Pronunciation MP3:
= blush
= wangle
= reckon
= squabble