Postcard from… Mongolia

In the latest of our ’Postcard from…’ series, Sarah Henderson shares her experience of life in Mongolia:

I graduated from law school in Ireland last year and have a training contract in London starting next year. I had a year before I needed to start my LPC and I had a desire to spend it doing something useful and different from the norm.

I chose to participate in the VSO Youth for Development program which sends 18-25 years olds from the UK to a developing country to work in with local NGOs. They also pay your expenses which was a huge bonus after finishing university burdened with student loans and overdrafts.

I got posted to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia in October last year for a year as a capacity builder. I work for two local NGO’s – an education NGO where I focus on fundraising and marketing, and a trade union where I focus on developing human rights projects. It is a fantastic experience. For law students struggling to find the elusive training contract a year spent living and working abroad can help you stand out from the crowd and give you plenty of experiences to use for those dreaded competency questions.

Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia, is a city of great contrasts. From Sukhbaatar Square and the parliament buildings built from marble in 2004, to the old soviet style apartment blocks and the ger districts on the outskirts of the city where people have no running water or electricity there are stark differences in the lifestyles of the people living here.

Mongolia has made the UK news recently with labels such as the worlds ugliest city and the coldest capital in the world being used to describe Ulaanbaatar. But Mongolia’s a lot more than just a cold ex-soviet city.  Mongolia’s economy has started to boom due to the discovery of natural resources followed swiftly by the arrival of the international mining companies. This has increased the revenue of the state but very little of this money is making it to those living in poverty.

 Life has been particularly hard for Mongolians this year with a dry summer followed by a very cold, snowy winter, also known as a dzud. Many Mongolians still live the traditional nomadic lifestyle, herding their animals across the steppe and living in circular felt tents called gers. Many of these families have lost animals this winter, and some have lost their entire herds and their livelihood. Despite all this rural families are extremely welcoming. If you visit a rural family you will be warmly invited into their ger, given a place of honour and fed mutton, salty milk tea and fermented mares milk, and as an honoured guest you must at least try everything!

Those of us living in the cities of Mongolia have also faced extreme cold but avoided the harshness of the snow and winds in the countryside. -40 degrees celsius is as cold as it sounds but if you have the right cold weather gear it becomes bearable and we haven’t let it spoil our adventures. Some of us even braved the 24 hour overland journey north to lake Khovsgul (the second largest lake in Asia) in Russian minivans, with temperatures dropping to -50 to attend an ice festival held on the frozen lake.

Now, after six months of temperatures below zero, the snow is melting, the sun is out and we are enjoying the real advantage of living in Mongolia – the beautiful countryside. At the minute it is still pretty barren looking but once the rains start the hills will turn green and the flowers will appear. Most Mongolians escape the city in the summer so ours will be spent hiking, climbing, horse riding, camel riding and just enjoying the peace and tranquility of the beautiful, empty rolling steppe!

The YfD program offers positions that might be of interest to law students including capacity building, advocacy, policy development and many more. Although my projects don’t always relate to legal issues I find myself drafting contracts for funding agreements and partnership agreements as well as reviewing NGO law and carrying out research.

VSO also runs a program for experienced professionals who can volunteer from 6-24 months in a developing country. There are legal positions currently being advertised as well as management and other business related positions. For more information check out www.vso.org.uk