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Work, Play and Learning in the Gobi Desert

Mongolia, July 9, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Mongolia  </span>
    The meeting venue in Dornogobi aimag. Photo: Mercy Corps Mongolia
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Mercy Corps Mongolia  </span>
    Two colleagues talk outside a colorful ger in the camp where we stayed. Photo: Mercy Corps Mongolia

Late last month, I took a train with my Mercy Corps Mongolia colleagues to Dornogovi for a semi-annual meeting. Dornogovi is an aimag — the Mongolian word for "tribe," which now refers to the country's provinces — in the Gobi Desert with a population of just 57,200 people. It is located in a strategically important location to the south of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia's capital, along a railway line that goes south to China.

Dornogovi aimag is connected to the country's central power grid, which isn't true of all rural areas in Mongolia. There is also a paved road being built — another rarity in the Gobi Desert — to Zamyn-Uud, the border town with China. Partly because of these things, the aimag's population is rising, which is different than other rural aimags where population is decreasing due to the migration of population to Ulaanbaatar.

It took us eight hours to travel the 450 km from Ulaanbaatar to Sainshand, the capital of Dornogovi. We often travel to rural areas, mostly by car, to visit our programs. Compared to our previous trips, this one was much more comfortable.

However, there are always surprises in the Gobi Desert: the searing heat and sand storms made our lives difficult. It was hot in the train but, when we opened the windows, sand would blow in and cover everything — including the passengers.

When our journey from the capital was over, we stayed in a cozy tourist camp about 10 km away from Sainshand. The camp had everything we needed: comfortable gers (traditional Mongolian tent-dwellings), electricity, showers, good food and big rooms for our meetings.

This meeting was organized for Mercy Corps staff from six of Mongolia's eastern and southern aimags: Suhbaatar, Dundgovi, Govi-Sumber, Umnugovi and Uvurhangai. A total of 40 people attended the meeting, which lasted for three days.

It was organized differently than our previous meeting, which were usually for planning our activities. This time we used this opportunity to provide training, team-building and problem solving. The first day our Rural Agricultural Support Program (RASP) held a training for all of us, talking about their activities. The second day our Civil Society team took over and introduced to the participants what civil society projects are doing in the country, as well as what they expect from the rural aimag staff to do. The last day was mostly to hear from our administration, finance and human resource colleagues.

After each working day, we played sports. The aimag teams organized competitions like tug-of-war and volleyball. The Ulaanbaatar team won the tug-of-war by beating the team from Uvurhangai aimag. Volleyball was won by the Umnugovi aimag team, who triumphed over the Ulaanbaatar squad in the final.

It was good to get away for a while to work, play and get to know some of my team members.