Mission to Mongolia

Mission to Mongolia

Chinese International students see life beyond class, visit a prison and build a ger

The excitement mounted as 15 other students, three teachers and I were about to land at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in Ulan Bator. It was October 17 and it was Project Week at Chinese International School (CIS). This is when students go on overseas trips, not only to enjoy a break from hectic school life, but also to be plunged in a foreign environment. This year, I was lucky to be going to one of the project's most popular places: Mongolia.

We spent the first few days at Gorkhi-Terelj National Park, where we swapped air-conditioned flats for gers - symbols of nomadic life - and T-shirts for winter jackets. Although the temperature dropped to minus 12 degrees Celsius at night (Hong Kong's hot summers now seem welcoming), I harbour only fond memories of my time at the park.

Students at Gorkhi-Terelj Park Photo: Simon Watts

Leaving our IB woes behind us, we crossed rolling hills on horseback and watched the sun rise above snow-glazed slopes, living the nomadic life.

We left the park, sad to leave behind an unforgettable landscape. However, the second half of the trip, during which we worked with Christina Noble's Children Foundation (CNCF), was just as memorable.

We first visited a boys' prison, in which the boys were enrolled in CNCF's re-education programme. Although the guards didn't smile, it was good to see that the inmates were friendly and talented. The classes they were taking will equip them with skills which will help them find work once they're released.

Showcasing their talents, the boys performed Mother in the Dream, a heart-wrenching Mongolian song. For a few moments, they seemed no more than hard-working boys determined to improve their lives.

The next day, we woke to snow-covered streets and falling snowflakes, and visited the Blue Skies ger village, a community shelter in Ulan Bator also set up by CNCF. It was minus 23 degrees, but that didn't keep us from playing football with the children. We sang nursery rhymes with them and taught them Cup, the song from the movie musical Pitch Perfect. It was heart-warming to see these bright and energetic kids paving their way towards a better future.

The gers we'd lived in shrunk in the distance as the bus drove away from Gorkhi-Terelj, but we saw more. Through CNCF's Give a Ger programme, we'd organised a school sleepover and received generous donations from companies before the trip to raise the money needed to buy materials to build a ger.

Students building a ger Photo: Simon Watts

On the second-last day of the trip, we helped to build a ger for a single mother raising five children on a low income. The ger's components - including felt, a door, and latticed wood affixed with camels' knee parts - arrived on the back of a truck. A group of men helped us assemble the ger in four hours; the single mother now has a new home.

Thanks to CNCF, both the prison's re-education programme and the ger village give people ways to improve their futures.

Schoolwork and busy city life can be cluttered; I don't know when I'll next have the chance to stargaze on an open plain or taste salty Mongolian milk tea, but this project gave us a chance to witness Middle Earth-esque scenery and meet inspiring people.

Project Week isn't a "holiday"; whether riding a trotting horse or helping to build a new home for someone, my classmates, teachers and I ventured outside our privileged bubbles, went to Mongolia and learned about the world beyond the classroom. I think we all know how fortunate we are.

Only the cover to go Photo: Angela Yang

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- A former Hong Kong student discarded comfort to learn how Kazakhs live in the Gobi Desert

- The Orochen people are having a hard time settling in villages after generations as hunters so with the help of Chao Hing and his charity Earthpulse, they are restoring their culture one piece at a time



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