Our Man in Mongolia
Musings on Mongolian culture

As I finish my second rotation in Mongolia I’ve finally got round to updating this neglected blog! The topic I’d like to focus on this time is Mongolian culture which I knew very little of when I first left London in January, but have grown to respect over the last few months.

There are four themes I’m going to focus on the first is the importance of respect for elders, you will often see wizened old men and women pottering around the city in their traditional Mongolian dress of long robes, a big fur hat and traditional pointy ugg boots (I’ll have to post a photo!) These elderly people are often accompanied by youngsters, or at least helped onto the bus by the nearest young person. The new year celebration is also focused round a formal greeting which involves the younger person holding the elder persons forearms as a sign of respect. The language also instils this value as younger people are expected to address anyone older than them with a suffix to their name which roughly translates as brother/sister. I doubt there is an geriatric home in the entire country! This respect for elders especially within the family is somewhat lacking within western culture. Whilst I’m all for meritocracy within the work place I think life experience has become a sorely undervalued currency in our culture, and it’s great to experience a culture where it isn’t. It makes getting old something to look forward to!!

The second cultural topic is that of national pride and pride in heritage. This is a topic close to my heart and I touched on it in my previous blog when in Brazil (I’m sure all my loyal readers will remember that hahaha!) but I’d say national pride is even stronger here in Mongolia which is perhaps surprising for a country that gets little attention abroad. Mongolians are fiercely proud, and if there is one thing that makes them most proud it is Chiggis Khan (Gengis for western readers). I’ve not come across a Mongolian who doesn’t have their own interesting fact about the warrior leader. Be it that all Mongolians can directly trace their lineage back to him, or that he set up the greatest empire of all time (more of an opinion than a fact). Almost everything is named after him, from the airport and hotels to beer and vodka. National pride is certainly something Britain struggles with perhaps because of our diversity, but hopefully the Olympics will help the country gel and celebrate Britishness!

The third cultural topic I want to touch on is superstition. My Mongolian friends are all graduates and well educated and well travelled, but that hasn’t stopped them being superstitious. My favourite Mongolian superstition is the belief that if you set on someone’s foot you are both likely to be heading for a fight. In order to prevent that calamity Mongolians will immediately shake the other person’s hand. This takes some getting used to, especially when it happens with a stranger. If you’re sitting at a table it’s not uncommon for someone to just grab your hand and shake it because your feet collided! Mongolians, whatever their religious beliefs all practice a form of nature worship, believing in the power of specific rock outcrops and performing rituals outside their houses to celebrate Mongolian lunar new year. They’ll also aim to give birth in certain auspicious years, the next one being two years away. Some superstitions do have some scientific background such as the practice of drinking water that has been left in a copper cup overnight, this apparently is the secret to Mongolians apparently legendary good health!

The final cultural aspect I’d like to discuss is the celebration of masculinity and femininity. Whilst in the west International Women’s day mostly seems to be the preserve of big corporations trying to tick boxes, here in Mongolia it’s a celebration of womanhood more closely related to Valentines Day. Men buy gifts and roses for the important women in their life, including all the women in their office and just generally spoil and compliment them. However the most interesting fact is that it’s not a celebration of equality and how women can be powerful and successful, which is what western women’s day seems to be about. It is more a celebration of femininity, of beauty and what makes women so specially and wonderful. I think that makes it a much more powerful celebration, than trying to prove women are the same as men or is some way ‘better’. It is good to embrace the differences and celebrate them. A sign of the true equality in Mongolia, that I think the west could learn from is the celebration of men’s day which falls about a month later. When I raise this idea in the UK it is laughed at, ‘every day is men’s day’ is the common retort. What nonsense, if you believe that the we are a long way from equality. Mongolian men’s day originated as Soldiers Day, but has now broadened to include all men. Again the day is a celebration of masculinity in our office the women used the morning safety meeting to tells us about the healing qualities of drinking water from copper cups. They then gave all the men copper cups with the engraving ‘From the Training Department Girls’ and said how lucky the were to have the most handsome men in the company in their office (and even made it sound sincere!) They also put on a pizza lunch (as the boys had for women’s day) and topped it off by making a sideshow in which they’d super imposed our faces onto photos of Mongolian warriors, wrestlers and herders. Mongolian men have a lot of respect for their women, and often the women are better educated and paid, however they still remains an expectation that women should marry and have children in their early twenties, so there’s still room for improvement!

As you can probably tell I have a lot of affection for Mongolian culture and people, it has been an honour to live and work in Mongolia and experience
their culture. My Mongolian friends have been very welcoming and I hope one day to welcome some of them to London. But for now I’m off to experience the delights of Hong Kong and the islands of Thailand with Vanessa, bring on the good times! :)

Here’s a video I made at OT site for my colleagues at Accenture who were back in London celebrating our one year anniversary with the company. It gives you a feel for what the site is like. Best viewed with headphones!

A visit to Oyu Tolgoi

Flying at 37,000 ft over central Siberia with 6 long hours of flight ahead of me it’s time to catch up on my neglected blog. Now I finally have time to jot down my reflections on my first trip to Oyu Tolgoi site, which two weeks ago. I promised to write something for our love themed Accenture community newsletter, so here is a love letter to an awe-inspiring mining project! I’m sure that idea may make you raise an eyebrow , but bare with me!

I’ve already introduced the project in this blog but it’s worth going over the key points before I recount the trip. Oyu Tolgoi, OT to it’s friends, is Mongolia’s biggest ever undertaking. It’s hard to get across just how huge it is. The best statistic I’ve come across is that it is costing $6billion to construct. To put that into context, the entire economy of Mongolia is worth just $3 billion a year. If all Mongolians put in every penny of value they created it would take the whole nation two years to pay for it. This is genuinely a project that, along with others, will transform this sparsely populated nation in a similar way to Dubai and Qatar’s resource transformation.

So what’s it like at this frontier camp? 500km south of Ulaan Baatar in the Gobi desert landing on a gravel runway in a tiny prop plane is the first eye opener. Everyone shuffles out of the plane in their huge down jackets like penguins & make their way to the ‘airport’ which literally consists of several yurts (known as ‘gers’ to the Mongolians). It’s only here that it really hits me that this huge settlement and undertaking, housing more than 14,000 workers is entirely controlled by Oyu Tolgoi LLC. There is not a single person there who isn’t an OT worker or contractor. It’s almost like being in another country, and in some ways has a communist feel to it, in that money is almost never used, unless you’re at the bar, and there is very much a sense of company culture. Although I’d definitely say in this case it’s a good thing as the culture is  one of safety. Safety ‘propaganda posters’, to continue the analogy, covers almost every wall. The culture is so engrained that people here even finish their texts saying ‘have a safe day’. I can already picture many Brits rolling their eyes at this, but in this industry and extreme environment deadly risks and hazards are around every corner. Anyway I digress, all the arriving penguins pick up their bags and get onto a coach, for a surreal 10 minute coach trip on a gravel road through the Gobi desert to the site.

One of the first things that struck me as bizarre was the way all the drivers stopped completely and had a good look around whenever they came to a ‘stop’ sign. Even when you could see clearly and there wasn’t another vehicle in sight, weird at first but just another part of the safety culture. We then arrived and were ferried to a huge ‘mess’ for lunch in which the workers are fed 3 times a day. The mess includes a western and Mongolian queue so you can choose which type of food you feel like. Just before you reach the front of the queue you’re met by a huge tv displaying a safety presentation, generally with pictures of how smashed up cars look at crashes of 30, 40, 50km an hr etc. As you leave after eating you are met by a large sign telling you how many days it’s been since a ‘recordable incident’ (read injury or fatality). Sobering stuff! There is also a big red digital display ticking down the days, hours, minutes and seconds before production is due to begin (mid June this year).

We then attended a safety briefing and headed out to see the site. Rather than describe the entire tour I’ll just mention the highlights including a compound in which the huge trucks and diggers are being assembled. We saw the crusher where the trucks will dump their loads of rock, the 3km conveyor which then transports the rock to the Concentrator. We went down into the open pit, a kilometre wide hole in which diggers are just finishing ‘pre-stripping’ the overlying rock to reach the precious ore.

We also saw ‘Shaft Two’ a vertical shaft that will go down more than 1.3km deep into the ground to reach the underground ore body. This shaft is topped by a 30 story high shaft head. To put that tower into context, the tallest skyscraper in the capital Ulaan Baatar is a mere 12 stories high, making Shaft Two the tallest building in Mongolia.

The final part of the jigsaw is the Concentrator, the vast plant in which the rock will be smashed into powder, mixed with chemicals and water and then dried into a black powder product called Copper Concentrate which will be shipped to shelters in China to be turned into 99.99% pure copper.

Of course there is also the tarmac road to the China boarder under construction and the international standard Tarmac airport, but those almost feel like negligible side projects, such is the scale of the undertaking.

By this time it was time for supper, served at 6-7pm and a tour of the site gym, library, supermarket and bar (open from 6-9pm) one of the few places you will need to use money, and then an early night.

An early flight back to UB the next morning brought an end to the adventure, but I look forward to returning soon to help deliver training with our Mongolian counterparts we have been training. It’s hard to sum up a place like OT, I’ve really never been anywhere in the world in which your life is so entirely controlled by a company, who decide how you drive, when you eat, when you can drink (bringing your own alcohol is strictly forbidden). The only comparisons I could draw would be military or religious institutions. However it didn’t feel like an oppressive atmosphere, admittedly I was there for less than 24hours but there is a definite sense of excitement about the place and of people who know they’re doing ground breaking work in one of the most remote environments in the world. I for one feel honoured to be involved and proud of developing and contributing to world class training and a genuine safety culture.

There is so much I’d like to say about Mongolia a place I’ve genuinely fallen for. I think its rich culture is little known in the west but this post is already ridiculously long so I’ll save that for next time!

Great article with further detail on the mine.

Great video providing some context of the project and background on the Gobi.

Visiting the Soviet Era trains next to the Trans Siberian Railway!

Visiting the Soviet Era trains next to the Trans Siberian Railway!

First impressions

A week ago today I arrived in the coldest, most isolated capital in the world and now it’s time I put finger to keyboard and share my first impressions!

As my plane swooped over endless snow covered mountains my first thoughts were of the sheer remoteness, it was impossible to see any human impact at all, bar the city itself and its two billowing coal power stations. After landing I stepped off the plane into the air bridge and was immediately hit by the bitter cold, similar to climbing into a freezer full of Ben and Berry’s at Tesco’s, but bizarrely I was still inside! Ulaanbaatar International Airport is similar in size to a provincial French airport, no need to consult a monitor to work out which baggage carousel to head to, there’s only one in Mongolia. Leaving the airport was like stepping into another freezer that felt equally colder to than the one I was already in. Slightly bizarre analogy but that’s the best way I can explain it.

During the 20 meter walk to the van you experience a strange effect of the cold and very dry air, the moisture in your nose almost instantly freezes with your first intake of breath, leaving you with a bizarre crusty feeling in your nose… It has to be felt to be believed I think! The other thing that hits you every time you step outside is the air pollution, similar in flavour to constantly standing next to a bonfire. Ulaanbaatar (UB to its friends) is surrounded by mountains and thus doesn’t get much wind, leaving the pollutants from the coal power stations and thousands of traditional yurts to hang around the city for months at a time.

Apart from the alien feeling of a city in which rivers are frozen solid and going for an hours walk is considered a feat of endurance, is the amazing sense of contrast and change. UB is undergoing incredibly rapid development, evidenced by the increasingly wacky skyscrapers and building sites around every corner. Mongolia is discovering it is sitting on some of the world’s finest mineral resources and with a population of less than 3 million there is plenty of scope for a transformation of livelihoods. Working on a huge project that is at the heart of that boom is the most exciting part of being in this city and I look forward to reflecting on that in detail over the next few weeks and months, but for the moment I hope that gives you a taste of life in Mongolia!

Ulaanbaatar Panorama

Ulaanbaatar Panorama