Experiencing Mongolia

By Bill Schlichting, Pilot staff writer October 09, 2012 09:36 pm


Sarah Ziemer, right, and her host sister, Tspea, outside a ger. Photo courtesy Sarah Ziemer
Sarah Ziemer, right, and her host sister, Tspea, outside a ger. Photo courtesy Sarah Ziemer
Visiting Mongolia – the most sparsely populated country in the world – was an experience Sarah Ziemer will not forget.

Ziemer, a 17-year-old senior at Brookings-Harbor High School, said her visit was a culture shock not only in the way Mongolians live, but also what they eat.


She was among 29 high school 4-H students and five chaperones from seven Western states who traveled to the Asian nation in June to participate in a four-week leadership program titled Enhancing Global Perspectives.

Upon arrival to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where the students met their 4-H hosts’ siblings, the 4-H students were treated to a welcoming ceremony where they were served marmot, an animal similar to a prairie dog, Ziemer said. It is illegal to eat the animals, so the welcomers had to ask permission from the government to serve the delicacy.

During the first week, spent in Ulaanbaatar, a city of 1.3 million, the students learned about Mongolian culture, history and had “a crash course in the language,” which Ziemer described as having thick pronunciations, with many sounds coming from the back of the throat.

Although she only learned the basics of the language, enough to get around, she did pick it up well enough that when she came home, without thinking, told someone “thank you” in Mongolian.

On the second and third weeks, the delegates were broken down into four smaller groups, each sent to different areas of the country to live with their host 4-H sibling and family. Ziemer lived with Tspea, a 17-year-old girl, and her parents, both accountants, who live in a five-story apartment building in the town of Öndörkhaan in the Kenthi region, a seven-hour drive east of Ulaanbaatar.

Ziemer said she enjoyed the trip from the capital to her host family’s home.

“Roads, for the most part, are unpaved and travel is slow, which gives plenty of time to see the beauty of the countryside with large herds of horses, cattle, sheep and goats, and rugged mountains,” Ziemer said.

Öndörkhaan is a city of 15,000 – comparable to Brookings-Harbor, Winchuck and Cape Ferrelo areas combined – yet to give an idea of the sparseness of Mongolia’s 2.75 million population, the town is the 18th largest city in the nation, according to Wikepedia.

One thing Ziemer learned about was how Mongolians supply water to their communities.

Öndörkhaan’s water supply comes from a nearby river. Unlike Brookings’ and Harbor’s water intakes on the Chetco River, which are wells dug down to the aquifer below the river, Öndörkhaan pumps its water directly from the river. The water is not treated, Ziemer said.

Mongolians consider rivers to be sacred, therefore the people respect the waterways and leave nothing behind that may cause pollution, Ziemer said.

Although the water is clean, there are different bacteria that the visitors were not used to, causing them to become sick. Ziemer said the students had to kindly tell their host families that, “No, we can’t drink your water.”

 While visiting the Kenthi province, Ziemer said she encountered some strange customs, such as walking into an apartment and seeing a live goat in the living room. The following day the goat was butchered and displayed in the house.

When asked if this was a religious practice, Ziemer said, “I don’t know if it’s a religious ritual, but it was definitely a ritual.”

Mongolians eat a lot of lamb and mutton, but not many vegetables or fruit. Because of the arid landscape, most of the crops grow above ground. She saw a few tomatoes and squash, but she didn’t see a single carrot or many other root vegetables. However, food is abundant in Mongolia.

At first, Ziemer said she would ask what she was eating, which sometimes she would regret learning the answer, beginning with marmot on the first day.

“After awhile, I didn’t ask what it was,” Ziemer said. Some of it was good, some was not. The people are very giving when it comes to food. “They kept serving it even if I didn’t like it.”

She also had to be careful about drinking milk that was unpasteurized. Although she was brave enough to try fermented mare’s (horse) milk.

“It’s not something I would try again,” Ziemer said. “The smell was bad enough.”

On the other beverage extreme, milk tea became one of her favorites.

Mongolia is landlocked between Russia and China and its people are isolated from the rest of the world. Until 20 years ago when a new constitution was introduced, the government was greatly influenced by its neighbors until the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union in 1989.

Because of the historical isolation, Mongolians are a “proud people.” They take pride in their accomplishments and independence, Ziemer said. Much of the time, the people were curious about why non-Mongolians were visiting. The host families would take the students everywhere and would introduce their American guests with pride.

“It was like, look who we are hosting” Ziemer said.

Mongolian teenagers are similar to those in the U.S., Ziemer said, in that they have cell phones, socialize on Facebook and gather for karaoke, which is bringing about change from their isolation.

Each day the team of 4-H students and their host siblings would gather for a different excursion. One of the places Ziemer visited was a monument of Genghis Khan, who is highly respected in the country. The monument of Khan on a horse stood 150 feet tall and included a stairway to his helmet. Khan created an empire that covered most of the Asian continent in the 13th century.

The students also visited an eco-camp to learn about environmental issues, and explored mineral mines – Mongolia’s main source of economy and the cause of the county’s deteriorating environment, Ziemer said. 

They also attended a Mongolian concert with throat singing and horsehead fiddling, planted trees in a local park, visited an orphanage and rode camels and yaks. Ziemer got to ride a Mongolian camel.

On the fourth week of her visit, all the groups returned to Ulaanbaatar where they attended the national festival of Naadam. During the event, the people compete in archery, wrestling and horseback riding.

The exchange program was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and was administered by the University of Wyoming’s  4-H Youth Organization. Oregon State University’s 4-H Youth Development Program is a partner in the program as is the Mongolian 4-H Youth Development Program.

“This was a great trip, an experience I will never forget,” Ziemer said. “I now realize that I took many things for granted – like hot water and paved roads.”

Learning about a new culture by being their made a difference by participating in the Enhancing Global Perspectives program, she said.

“When it comes to enhancing global perspective, I’m very enhanced now.”