Explore Mongolia from an insider’s perspective, no baggage necessary
A whirlwind seven-day trip to explore Mongolia’s capital, traverse the country’s remote countryside and camp in yurts – or “gers” as they’re called in Mongolian – can seem like quite the adventure for even the most seasoned traveler. .
Now, how about taking this trip without changing your clothes?
That’s exactly what happened to students at the Penn Global Seminar on Mongolian Civilization: Nomadic and Settled, Professor Christopher P. Atwood and his colleague Stephen Garrett when they traveled to Mongolia in May for the first time since before the pandemic. They arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital, on May 12. Their luggage, however, remained in Turkey and only joined them for the last two days of the trip.
“Through this, all the students were just super soldiers,” says Atwood, a Mongolian professor and head of the East Asian Languages and Civilizations Department. “When I saw them joking with each other and asking good questions about Zanabazar and the history of Ulaanbaatar as a city, I kept remembering that some of them were still wearing the same [clothing] they were carrying on the plane.
Most students agree that the missing baggage was just a little extra humor in a unique opportunity to tour Mongolia from an insider’s perspective, thanks to Atwood’s connections and mastery of the language and within reach of Penn Global in the region. However, they ended up stopping at a department store to buy some necessities and Penn Global sent funds so they could buy much-needed cold weather gear for their nights in the countryside where temperatures drop dramatically. after dark.
The group had spent the spring semester exploring how two intertwined ways of life – pastoral nomadism and settlement for religious, educational and economic reasons – shaped Mongolia’s cultural, artistic and intellectual traditions. They studied how the Mongol economy, literature and steppe empires were built on grass and cattle and also learned how the Mongols constantly used the foundations of the empire to build monuments and sedentary buildings, be it funeral complexes, Buddhist monasteries, socialist boarding schools or modern schools. uppercase letters. Then they took this new knowledge on the road with them to Mongolia.
They started in Ulaanbaatar, exploring nightlife and live music, high-end restaurants and museums. Then they jumped into three vans for a long drive into the countryside, where they were stunned by the stark beauty of the grasslands, herds of animals like yaks and camels, and wildlife. They even managed to see Przewalski’s rare horse, the last truly wild horse in the world.
“As we all agreed, driving through the countryside is like an endless movie,” says Atwood.
They stayed in Kharkhorin in the gers, visited local museums and monasteries, and met shepherds to learn about their way of life. Then they returned to Ulaanbaatar to meet local artists, visit a ger neighborhood and learn about the challenges of merging the city’s nomadic and modern lifestyles. They ended with a visit to a jazz club and a visit to the winter palace of a Buddhist monk who became the last emperor of Mongolia.
“People have these ideas about nomadism, that nomads have to be totally isolated from the rest of the world, that it’s completely incompatible with being part of the 21st century,” says Atwood. “I wanted the students to understand that this is not the case; many people in the countryside in Mongolia are nomads, and they also live in the same 21st century as us. They are interested in hip hop, they are interested in studying abroad, they are part of the same world like us.
Azzaya Galsandum, a rising sophomore from Ewing, New Jersey, majoring in linguistics, signed up for the class to learn more about her culture: her parents came to the United States from Mongolia to more than two decades ago, and she had never been there.
“They were excited for me, and my mom was really in tears when I got on the plane,” she says.
For her, the highlight was visiting the countryside, since both of her parents were from nomadic families in that area. She was able to visit her half-siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time.
“I actually got to see the yurt where my mum grew up,” she says, adding that she had brought a bunch of presents for everyone, but they were stuck in her missing luggage.
“It made me realize how my parents lived when they were growing up. My mother’s favorite animals are goats and sheep, and we saw this giant herd of sheep and goats and these little baby goats came running towards us. I understood why my mother likes all this. I feel such a connection with her now.
Galsandum says her classmates surprised her with their enthusiasm for all things Mongolian, and they looked to her cultural expertise and language skills throughout the trip, in restaurants, gift shops, etc., although she was one of the youngest on the trip.
“I know they signed up for the course, but it’s still surprising to see people who are so interested in my culture because where I grew up, I could count on one hand the number of Asians in my school,” she says. “I’m not used to people being interested in my culture, but my classmates were so excited about everything about Mongolia. It was amazing to be able to see people try things that I eat all the time, and they all loved it.
Angela Lao, a rising senior from Macau who is studying neuroscience, says she was drawn to the Penn Global seminar because she always wanted to study abroad but can’t really get off a full semester with her load of pre-medical course. A brief trip in May was ideal, she says, and this course from Mongolia suited her minor and her interests in East Asian studies.
Memorable moments for her were the emergency shopping before the trip to the countryside, having fun in museums, the friendliness of the locals and admiring one of the greatest Buddhas in the world. She also took a free afternoon to write postcards and deliver them to the local post office with Atwood and buy cashmere.
She came up with the idea for her final project based on her experience of traffic jams in Ulaanbaatar.
“It’s something I noticed on the trip that I never would have thought of before going,” she says. “I was actually quite happy to do my final project.”
Lao was also fascinated by visiting a boarding school for children from nomadic families. The government is pushing for universal literacy and universal schooling, so children from herding families now attend these schools away from home. The children showed their art and asked lots of questions.
“These opportunities that Penn Abroad provides for students are truly life changing, and I’m so glad I took advantage of them,” she says.
Alan Burd, a senior international relations and Russian student from Silver Spring, Maryland, says he signed up for the course because it seemed like an opportunity he might never have again in his lifetime, to see Mongolia from these varied and up-close vantage points. points.
He also found the countryside to be a highlight of the trip, visiting monasteries, talking with local shepherds who welcomed them home with open arms, petting goats and sheep and admiring the scenery.
“We arrive at the campsite and we can’t help but stop to watch the sunset. It’s purple, blue, orange, red, all these colors and you see the valleys and the hills. I was just overwhelmed by the scenery,” he says. “It was breathtaking to see this beauty and smell the mountain air. It was almost surreal.
For him it was especially interesting to see all the signs written in Cyrillic, which he could read due to his Russian language skills.
“We had learned during the semester about the historical influence of the Soviet bloc on Mongolia and the country’s many transitions,” he says.
What he learned the most was that the trip was the culmination of everything they learned that semester in the classroom in the form of experiential learning.
“We could go to the historic town square and see the Sukhbaatar statue or go to see Buddhist temples, and that was meaningful. It only made sense because we were working hard throughout the semester, connecting a lot of things we learned in class,” he says. “It’s really amazing the process that happens: you go into a manual; you talk to your teacher; you talk to your class, but then you apply it to the real world around you.
He says he knew it would be rewarding, but all expectations were exceeded.
“You can’t have the course without the trip and you can’t have a journey as meaningful as we had without the course. You need it to go both ways,” Burd says. “I’m very grateful to Penn Global for pulling through, despite the uncertainties along the way. They were adamant from the first few weeks of the semester we were going, and it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.