On my way to Ulaan Baatar via Beijing, several passengers were carrying shopping bags. China, someone agreed, was a good place to go shopping for ordinary things. “Things are affordable But, Russian things are much better.” I wondered if fidelity to things Russian is something I would come across often in Mongolia, a country making a somewhat rocky transition to a market economy.
The mountains looked formidable outside the window – craggy, stark, white and brown. No settlements that I could see, just barren land. Banking to land, I caught my first glimpse of the city in a valley. It was much larger than I expected. I noticed a thick haze of smog. And, lots of metal glinting in the sun. These turned out to be cars and buildings – factories perhaps.
The airport terminal was small. Nothing compared to the shiny glass and steel in Beijing. Not many flights arriving either. I was greeted by a professional interpreter, Oyut. Twenty something and upbeat, she will be my closest ally on this trip. I will need to understand, through her, the hardship that Mongolian children face, and the importance of our work in this country.
Ulaan Baatar, or UB as the locals call it, looks a bit like Moscow, I imagine. I saw Cyrillic street signs, big Russian jeeps, large, concrete squares at the city centre with people milling about in round, black fur hats. We skirted the Parliament Palace and got to a small hotel, where I left my bags.
I stepped out into the cold for the first time, to walk to the office. It’s in the centre of town – at the Arizona Centre. It was much colder than anything I knew. Way colder than it feels in London in the winter. The temperatures can go down to minus 20 or so. It’s also very, very dry. We walked very rapidly, to stay warm.
The office is in an up market area. We crossed an empty children’s park surrounded by apartment blocks. But Oyut stopped in the middle of it and was peering down a big hole. I thought she’d dropped something in there. I went back to her. It was a manhole. “This is where the street kids sleep to stay warm at night”. Her words, like the cold, cut through me like a knife.
Our staff at the office were very warm and welcoming. They wanted me to go out and see for myself, the work on the ground and suggested I start right away. There was a meeting of young children in the building. They were sitting around a conference table, talking about a Shadow Report on the status of children’s rights in Mongolia, which they will, with our help, hand over to the UN. I was amazed to see how well they conducted the meeting. Maybe they would be part of the UN someday themselves.
I saw a teddy bear with a bandage on the window-sill. It was a very famous teddy bear in Mongolia, the kids said. “You can see him on TV all the time!” I gathered that we produced a TV commercial to help prevent child abuse and this was the teddy bear we used. “We wanted to depict violence, but did not want to show a child,” explained Nara, our communications person. Hence, the teddy bear.
As I unpacked the clothes I brought from India today, wondering what I should order for dinner, I began to think about what those kids in the manhole would be doing for dinner. There was a knock and my soup arrived. “You are from Save the Children?” asked the lady at the door. “Yes. You know Save the Children?” I asked. She did, but only because all our visitors use the same hotel, I thought. I asked her if she knew the commercial with the teddy bear. I got a lovely smile, and a big “Yes.”
I did not feel so bad about tucking into my dinner!