Moon Walking in Mongolia

Stephen A. Dutton ’08 discovers Jesuit principles in action on a chance visit to the outskirts of Mongolia’s capital city.

By Stephen A. Dutton '08

In the spring of 2007, I, a bright-eyed and ambitious undergraduate, study abroad student spent my first real travel experience in the frigid city of Beijing. It was the best decision I’ve made in my young adult life, and the experience I had there shifted my life trajectory in a very positive way. Introduced to a love of travel and the pleasures of intercultural discovery, I have since spent my postgraduate life forging this path. But this isn’t a story about my experience in Beijing or even necessarily a promotion for the study abroad program at Holy Cross (although students should do it, if they can); rather, this is less ambitiously the story of a recent stopover to a remote orphanage in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, in early February of 2013, a brief, but uniquely serendipitous experience in a much longer adventure across the Eurasian super-continent.

Ulaanbaatar is the capital city of Mongolia and the first major stop in the trans-Mongolian railroad going north. This track originates in Beijing and blends into the trans-Siberian railroad just north of Mongolia, near the Siberian city of Irkutsk. I was in Beijing and I was going to Russia. But I wanted to see Mongolia.

After weeks of preparation: visas, currency exchanges, itineraries, train tickets, learning how to read Cyrillic (вокзал, “station,” and пиво, “beer,” were especially useful), I hopped the northbound train in Beijing, and two overwhelmingly beautiful days later disembarked on the small, one platform, one building train station in UB, as the city is affectionately known to locals. 

I had booked a reservation at the Lotus Guesthouse, one of the very few hostels in the city, run by a group of Mongolians who use the profits to maintain an orphanage in the countryside outside the city. I had the address and I had prepared a quick map that I could use to navigate the two-mile walk between the station and the city. After some minor difficulties in reading the street signs, I managed to make my way to the hostel door. It was located in a small apartment on a cramped block within an old Soviet-style building and, like all things Soviet in this part of the world, very rundown. To get there, I had to turn off the main road and twist around several alleyways to find the nearly hidden but huge, heavy, metal door with a small sign indicating that this was, in fact, the entrance to the hostel. There was a punch-in code keypad to open the door. And next to the small, discreet sign with the name of the hostel was a smaller, more discreet sign on which the handwritten word “doorbell” was inscribed with an arrow pointing to an empty socket with some screws and frayed wires. There was no doorbell. And since the door led to a shared space and not just the hostel, I had no option but to wait for someone to pass through. But it was quiet. And my Chinese cell phone didn’t work in Mongolia. I just stood there.

Ten minutes later an American woman named Nellika approached the door to find me kicking at it and cursing up at the third floor windows where I could tell the hostel was located. She asked me if I was staying there and was surprised when I said I was and that I even had a reservation, because the owner of the hostel had told her that she and a man from Bangladesh were that day’s only inhabitants. So despite the email confirmation I received directly from the owner in response to a reservation I made only a week ago, I was forgotten. And a good thing Nellika found me, too, because the owner wasn’t around for the rest of the day. I later learned she leaves the hostel to her guests each evening and returns home. I had never been to a hostel without workers.

My new friend let me in and I set up camp in one of the empty beds. Nellika had grown up in Afghanistan where her father had worked. She is a Caucasian woman in her 30s, fluent in Farsi, now living in Brooklyn, and on a business trip to Mongolia to oversee a new project for her work with the Asia Foundation, a group that supports humanity projects around Asia, including Afghanistan and Mongolia. She had been working for three weeks and was taking this last week for some free time to travel. She also told me that the next day, a Monday, was the start of the Mongolian White Moon Festival. Apparently, during this festival, all shops, government buildings, museums, tourist attractions, everything actually, is closed for a week or so. It was rotten timing on my part. However, she told me she was staying with this hostel because she wanted to go out and see the Lotus Children’s Centre, a home for orphaned and at-risk children. The Centre would be celebrating the start of the new year, and since I had no other plans and was not likely able to create any, I said I’d tag along. I was quite excited for it. I figured it would be a great day trip and an authentic way to see Mongolia and learn about the festival.

The White Moon Festival is a traditional holiday that celebrates the beginning of a new cycle in the lunar calendar, much like the Chinese New Year. But in practice, it is a chance for Mongolians to take time off work and visit family. The first night consists of a big feast and is celebrated within the home with your immediate family members. A huge meal is shared and the staple dish is mutton dumplings. They make ul boov, festival cakes of layered loaves of bread, with each layer either signifying happiness or sadness (the cake always has an odd number of layers so that the top and bottom layers are happiness), and the top layer forming a basin filled with candy and other Mongolian sweets, including curd, which I tried … not bad. By tradition, you are supposed to touch the bottom of the cake and take a sweet. The subsequent days of the festival are spent traveling to visit relatives and share a meal of mutton dumplings with them—and to drink a fair amount of Mongolian vodka. The first day is reserved to see grandparents, the other days to visit friends and other family members. As the biggest festival of the year, every Mongolian treats it seriously, and this is why everything was closed the few days I was in UB—And it explains why I was greeted with such quiet streets upon my arrival.

On the day of our trip, I woke up later than I had intended, around half past nine in the morning. I had just gotten out of the shower when a Mongolian woman burst through the hostel door (remember, there were no staff members there—in fact, at this stage, I still hadn’t met anyone I could pay for the room) and she set about scanning every area of the small hostel. Finding only me, she asked if I had seen Nellika. I said no, adding that she had probably gone for coffee. Out of breath and clearly frustrated, she ran into Nellika coming up the steps of the apartment building. They exchanged some words and then the Mongolian woman hurried away. A few moments later, Nellika found me and said in subtle exasperation, “Our cab is waiting.”

So I quickly got dressed, gathered my things and hopped in the cab. We drove for about 30 minutes outside the city and into the surrounding countryside communities. Mongolia feels like the biggest place on the planet—you can see so far off in every direction and, across the horizon, you can see these towering, sugar-coated mountains, something out of Candyland. There is nothing harsh or jagged about the mountains, just tall but sloping, rounded-off hills coated in soft snow, glistening in the sunlight. The plains that stretch to the mountains are so vast they make the country look endless from the ground. UB is a small, dense, pocket-of-a-community located within these plains. It is surreal to see the empty terrain sprawl away from the city limits.

Located in a village in a small valley, the Centre is a collection of buildings spread across a large plot of land, fenced in, on a low slope that meets the side of a mountain. There are dormitories, one kitchen and dining hall, one office/library and one play/meeting hall. We found a bunch of kids out front sledding on one of the hills near the meeting hall. A woman approached us and, correctly assuming we were visitors and probably looking for a woman named Didi, led us into the meeting hall. Didi Ananda Kalika, an Australian, founded the Lotus Children’s Centre more than 15 years ago after coming to UB to teach yoga. She has a full-time staff of about six employees and several volunteers—Mongolians and foreigners, British, French and Dutch, by my count.

As soon as we walked through the door, we were greeted by dozens of screaming Mongolian kids, all of them excited to see us. Every one had sticky fingers and dripping noses and were full of energy. The place was lively. I was immediately approached by a 15-year-old girl named Buren, who taught me some handshakes she knew and showed off some of her taekwondo skills. Then a bunch of the boys tackled me, proving to me they knew how to wrestle. Wrestling is the country’s national sport. All boys learn to wrestle. Culturally speaking, the Mongolian spirit is wild and nomadic, and men tend to have very strong, macho personalities. The boys are like bears. They see you and want to tackle you to the ground—and they know how. Only afterwards do they say hello. Even the little boys clearly knew how to tackle me to the ground properly and would have, if I hadn’t been 12 times their size. In Mongolian wrestling, there are no weight classes and no time limits and no rules. They just sign up and fight until someone loses (by conceding, presumably). It’s beastly and awesome.

So I spent most of the day getting tackled. The kids learn English as a part of their schooling with the help of the foreign staff, which rotates in to the school for a few years at a time. Even the really young children could speak some broken English with me—I was very impressed. We played with them for the rest of the morning and then went to the dining hall to eat. It was a special meal of pasta, potatoes, vegetables, tofu and vegetarian dumplings. (Didi is vegetarian and founded the orphanage on vegetarian principles.) The long, picnic-style tables were uniformly set with plates and cups of berry tea. Some of the children helped serve platters of food.  I was seated at the main table, where the ul boov festival cake was on display.

The kids sang a song, repeating the tune until everyone was finally seated and ready to eat. There were more than 40 kids in the room, so that song went on for awhile. Then we ate. The meal was delicious. Didi had given the cooking staff the day off to be with their families, so the meal was prepared entirely by the kids. A few of them were learning to be cooks, so this was their day to show off the skills they had been acquiring from the full-time staff. They did an excellent job.

After the meal was finished, we all moved into the play hall where gifts were exchanged. Every child received one gift, mailed to the orphanage from sponsors. The sponsor list I was shown had names from all over the world. All the kids received age-appropriate gifts: jewelry, remote control cars, puzzles, dolls, etc. One little girl unwrapped a toy doctor kit, which was quite popular. We had our temperatures taken and heart beats listened to quite a bit. My favorite gift was given to a 12-year-old boy who had earlier told me he loved Michael Jackson and proved it to me by doing the moonwalk. He asked me, “Michael Jackson is from America, right? And he died, right? And his face was black and then it was white, right? I love Michael Jackson,” and then giggling, ran away. He must have also shared this with his sponsor because later, when he opened his gift, he found the DVD version of This Is It, Michael Jackson’s big musical production that was cut short due to his untimely death and later turned into a documentary about his final days. I’ve seen it—it’s good. And he guarded the DVD like it was gold, showing it to everyone and then hugging it close to his heart so that he wouldn’t lose it.

I spent the rest of the day playing with the kids. Later, one of the staff workers, Anna, a young girl from Birmingham, England, helped us find the main road that would get us back to UB. Nellika and I walked through the village, a beautiful place, as the sun was setting over the mountains. The village’s houses were of the quaint and colorful Scandinavian style—strangely not in the Chinese style. There were some gers, the felt-lined tents more commonly known as yurts, and a lot of cows roaming about the hills. We went to the main crossroad in the village and waited for the public bus to take us back into town. I slept the whole ride into the city.

I had not expected to spend my day at an orphanage when I came to UB. But arriving in the city, finding it a ghost town and running into one of only a handful of English-speakers turned out to be incredibly fortunate. I was exposed to an intimate tradition few travelers are able to experience. I made a lasting friendship with Nellika, and hope to be back in UB someday to see the kids, to see how they’ve fared. 

I graduated from Holy Cross six years ago, and from my Jesuit education I recall the mantra, “men and women for others.” I’m discovering that this phrase transcends cultural, religious and ethnic boundaries. I happened upon a beautiful situation in a beautiful place, Jesuit principles in action, and I’ll remember that experience for the rest of my life. Studying abroad is where it all started for me. It was my outlet in seeing this firsthand, and there’s been no looking back. ■


Stephen A. Dutton ’08 was a religious studies major with Chinese language and Naval Science concentrations at Holy Cross. He is currently in Shanghai for a semester, attending Fudan University’s Chinese politics and diplomacy program. He will return to the United States in August to complete his graduate studies in East Asian affairs at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.