Bayarlaala hugshuuns

And so my Mongolian adventure is over… for now. I have been back in Australia for five days. Lots of thoughts, observations, mixed emotions and a sensory overload (I thought my first trip to Woolworths would last about six hours… but after five minutes, I just had to get out of there. Too many bright lights, choice and labels I could actually read… where’s the fun in understanding the hair dye instructions?). Perhaps I’ll share some of those thoughts on Shantasia. Maybe I’ll keep the blog going just long enough for Craig’s return to Australia. Or maybe it’ll live on for a bit longer than that. Who knows. It’s not like I’ve been very dedicated to updating it over the past few months years. Wow, time really does fly when you’re living in Mongolia.

But, in the meantime, I have been asked by a few people to share my farewell speech that I made at my UB party on 19 April. I thought it apt to do so here. As an aside: what a party! I still can’t believe my team sang my personal theme song to me: “Let It Be”. If I can ever track down the video, it’ll be one to share.

But, I digress… here is the speech:

Kai brought me out to Mongolia almost three years to the day. He’d been working here, on a different project, for just under a year, and he wanted me to see the Mongolia he had come to love.

We spent most of the time in the countryside, but ended the trip here in UB, staying at the fine establishment… the Bayangol.

And I remember looking out the window, and I said to him, and this is the censored, PG version: “It’s quite nice, but I couldn’t live here”.

So, two months later, he comes home and says, “yeah, about not living in Mongolia. You’re cool if we do, right? Because I got another job there, and it means we have to live there.”

“Yeah, no”… I told him. Again, censored version.

So then he did this thing that really irritates me. Actually, many of you do it too, and you need to know, it pisses me off: he tried to reason with me. 

“But the people. You’ll love them. And you already have a friend there – Batbold. The land. You’ll love it. It’s a lot like where you grew up in Australia. The cold weather. Ok, so maybe not the cold weather, but after the first winter, it’ll get easier, I promise.”

“The first f&%king winter? How f&%king long are we f&%king staying, Kai?!”

So, after carrying on like a princess for a bit, I packed my bags and over we came. I came here with no real plans. Just see where life would take me.

And this is where life took me. With a retrospective bucket list that is so incredible, that I’m pretty sure people back home won’t believe me.

But I know all of you get it, so here’s just a few of the many, many highlights from my retrospective bucket list from the past 2.5 years:

  • We’ll start with the obvious: Work on a $6.2 billion mine site in the middle of the freaking Gobi Desert. As in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. Check.
  • Fire an RPG and an AK47. Hell yeah, check!
  • Find my one true love in life. No Baika, it’s not you… it’s Prada. Check.
  • Find my second true love in life. Still not you Baika… it’s karaoke. Check.
  • Rescue an abandoned dog from the airport, and still hope to this day that her family wasn’t inside waiting for grandma to come home from Moscow. Check.
  • Hold the world record for the longest notice period after resigning. What can I say? I’m an over achiever. Check.
  • Go to a board meeting with Batman, and… well, anyway, thanks for having my back up there, Batman. Check.
  • Establish a writing club where we drink more than we write. Absolutely we did that. It’s called every day after work, right Dom? Check.
  • Punch… Ivan… in… the… face. Check. (you’re all welcome).

Now, you all know this gunjee (princess – for those playing at home) is rarely wrong. And most of you know that when it comes to Kai, I am almost never wrong. In fact, I can’t think of a time when I have been. So, because Kai isn’t here tonight, and I know I can trust all of you not to tell him… this is going to hurt… he was right.

I do love the people here. You guys. The last 2.5 years. What we’ve shared. The support you’ve given me through the disappointments… the frustrations… the challenges… it’s a list as tall as Plumma. But there’s an even taller list with the triumphs… the wins… the high fives and the hugs we’ve shared. You have all had an extraordinary impact on me. And, as cliché as this sounds, I know that I leave here a better person than what I was 2.5 years to ago… thanks to every one of you… well, maybe not Kern. Anyway, I don’t want to get all sentimental, because I’ve just had my eyelashes done, and as much as you all mean to me, you gotta protect the lashes… right Leah? But I guess all that’s left to say is, from the bottom of my heart:

Bayarlaala hugshuuns

Happy birthday (to me)

Three years ago, I celebrated Shantasia 2010 – a month of celebrations for the 10th anniversary of my 21st birthday – in my comfortable, Brisbane life.

Should you have asked me then if I thought I’d be celebrating my 34th birthday in Mongolia, I suspect I would have said “where?”

Three years on:

  • I can order a beer in Mandarin and Mongolian.
  • I can use the freakin’ nun chuks
  • I have seen the Terracotta Warriors, the caves of Guilin, the ancient ruins of Rome, the Eiffel Tower, and the largest equestrian statue in the world (the Chinggis Khan statue in Terelj).
  • I have taken the train from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, and Ulaanbaatar to Beijing (that’s 60 hours of train travel across landscape that looks like the set of Star Wars).
  • I rescued a puppy, and took her to the US for 6 months, so she can pass Australia’s incredibly strict quarantine laws. And I did this because a life without Craig just doesn’t seem reasonable.
  • I have cried over the stupidest of things (why, corner store, do you not have a tin of tomatoes?) and laughed over the stupidest of things (why, corner store, do you not have a tin of tomatoes?).
  • I have felt my heart sing every single time I fly to the Oyu Tolgoi mine site in the middle of the Gobi desert, because strangely, it feels like home.
  • I have worked my ass off on a project that I believe in, and with a team of people who are some of the most talented and generous I’ve ever met.
  • I have friends who lived through a democratic revolution; who have never seen the ocean; who grew up in a Ger.
  • I have eaten horse meat and drunk horse milk.
  • I have been on the receiving end of (very mild) racism.
  • I know what -40 degrees feels like.
  • I have added to my list of nicknames, quite considerably: Shazbold, Shantsetseg, Shanbat, Shantonio, Shantorini, Princess, Gunjee (Mongolian for princess) and UB Drama Queen.
  • I have met people who have changed my outlook on life, and the way I look inwardly at myself.

I honestly don’t know where I’ll be for my 35th birthday. It’s pretty unlikely it will be Mongolia. And frankly, that isn’t something I can bring myself to think about, just yet.

This might surprise you: change and me, not so much. The unknown is not something I embrace. I know it’s crazy and completely irrational, given that change is the very reason my life is what it is… and I wouldn’t change a thing 😉

Breaker 1-9

This here’s Rubber Duck. You got a copy on me, Big Ben?

The company I work for, the project I’ve been involved in for the past 18 months, shipped (or at least trucked, given we’re in a landlocked country and all) its first product.

Was it a big deal? Yep, it really was.

16 trucks left the gates with the Prime Minister, Mining Minister, a ton of other VIP guests and hundreds of employees waving them off.

About 15 years ago, some Mongolian geologists (who are now rock stars at the company… wow, I’m not even sure that pun was intended) found a massive ore body. Three years ago, construction started on the open pit and concentrator (the kick-ass machine that converts rocks into stuff that sells). Construction on the underground mine continues (for those playing at home, that’s where Craig the hair works). When fully operational, this mine will account for over 30% of Mongolia’s GDP.

Forgetting what this means for the company or even on a larger scale, for Mongolia, on a personal level, this milestone meant I got to work with some pretty awesome people. Even if they do call me UB Drama Queen or Princess, they still make me laugh even when I’m freaking the hell out.

So, while almost four months have passed since the last Shantasia post, know that while I’ve been “head-down bum-up”, I’ve been having a (highly stressful) blast.

Although, one of the things I did fail at is capturing this time on film. I had big visions for a Shantasia spectacular, spectacular! BIG.

Alas! Sometimes the day just takes over. But, thanks to Chinbat Jamiyan, one of the guys I’ve been working with recently, I managed to put together a little something for you to watch. Most of the photos in the video are his.

And Kev and Tim, if you’re reading this, I chose the soundtrack for you guys. Keep on truckin’!

Keep the bugs off your glass and the bears off your… tail. Out.

Safety sells

So, if you haven’t been keeping up, I work as the Internal Communications Manager for a mine in the Gobi Desert (that’s in Mongolia, for those who really haven’t kept up).

A big part of my job is to sell safety. An even bigger part of my job is to sell safety to an audience who might not be overly familiar with safety standards. Now, I have complete empathy, because until 12 months ago I had no idea just how nasty arc flashes could be, I guessed that EWP might stand for “Ewoks wear pants” and that man baskets… well, let’s not go there.

Now I can confidently tell you that the working at heights limit in Mongolia is 1.5m (unlike 1.8m in Australia), and rather than say “Unplug the paper shredder before you stick your fingers in there”, I prefer to say “I suggest you isolate the energy source”. I also realise now that the reason Jilly yelled at me for putting Puddles, our pet poodle, in the dryer all those years ago was because I was putting him in an unisolated, confined space.

I should also point out that:

a) I work with very patient people who have worked in the industry for many years and tolerate my ignorance (Hi Mark, Hi Mahoney, Hi Plumma); and

b) I work with an amazingly talented creative team who tolerate my crazy ideas (For example: Hey Baika, do you think we can give out stubbie coolers at the pub that say “Zero harm means.. drinking responsibly so you’re fit for work the next day”?)

And when you add patient people (thanks for signing off the budget, Mark) with a creative team who rocks, you end up with:

Me escorting one of Mongolia’s most famous boy bands, Negen Zugt, to said mine site in the middle of the Gobi…to appear at the world premiere of the OT safety song… that was written by one of Mongolia’s most famous rappers, Quizza!

Negen Zugt, rocking out in their hi-vis

Hangin' with my homies, Mahoney & Jennie

It was also a chance to see the Bearded Husband

Some of the many people who tolerate my ignorance AND my crazy ideas: Mark, Tsatsaa & Mahoney

Mongolian boy bands ROCK!

That trailer you see in the background... it's a trailer that's a BBQ. You heard me, it's a very large BBQ. Like, all it is is a BBQ. Its primary function is to cook snags and lamb chops.

And here it is, what you’ve all been waiting for: the film clip of the OT safety song, featuring OT employees from across the mine site. So freakin’ awesome!

Farewell Weird Aunt Barb

I love to reflect on my life and be able to identify the people who influenced the person I am today.

I dedicate this post to Weird Aunt Barb, who when she came into my life at 17, taught me that it was completely ok to be quirky and offbeat (I was hardly a conventional teenage girl).

Last week, she lost her battle with cancer.

It’s difficult to define who Weird Aunt Barb is. Sure, you can say she was the wife of the brother of the mother of the family who hosted me as a student in Nebraska in 1997.

But she was so much more than that too. She was a great friend to me, and while we didn’t see each other often, when we did, our time was filled with laughs and deep conversation about books, movies and the challenges of working in communications and PR. We talked a lot about hair styles too. And shoes. And Australian politics. Rupert Murdoch sometimes was the topic. And Sesame Street. She was wonderful, and smart, and funny as hell. I would leave each encounter with Weird Aunt Barb feeling wittier and cleverer, and dedicated to reading more books.

I'll miss you Weird Aunt Barb, love Niece-O

Craig’s day out

A few weeks ago, we took Craig for a drive to the countryside.

We learnt two important lessons that day: 1. She gets carsick. 2. She gets really carsick. Yep, she chucked up twice. Charming. Good thing she’s cute.

Here’s a little video of her fun day out (and don’t worry – I spared you the gory details). Oh, and I tried something new with this video… all thanks to the Bearded Husband for getting me a kick-ass camera for Christmas. Hope you enjoy.

Saikhan shinlereei

Wow, has it really been this long? To say that work has gotten in the way of life in the past couple of months is an understatement.

So, I intended for this to be a Happy New Year video… but now is seems fitting that it is a Happy Year of the Snake video…

I apologise for the length of the video. It seems a little self-indulgent to have a video this long about me… but it’s not just about me. It’s about all the awesome people that made my 2012 such an amazing year. Thank you!

Oh, and saikhan shinlereei, which I think is ‘happy lunar new year’ in Mongolian. Although they do keep laughing at me, which makes me think I am saying ‘my husband is a goat’.

Anyway, go get yourself some popcorn and a bottle of wine… and enjoy!

A Shantasia challenge

I got a text message the other morning from our building manager, saying that an accident had happened at the power plant which meant we had no hot water and no apartment heating. They didn’t know how long it would take to fix, if it could be fixed, so we were looking down the barrel at a very cold winter. It could have been serious. You don’t mess with -45 temperatures. I had visions of me, Kai and Craig (the dog) huddled together in the walk-in robe with all of our clothes piled on us. And that’s how we would sleep for the next 5 months. And then later that day, another message came through saying it had been fixed. And I was happy.

But there are so many in UB who spend their winters cold, and hungry, and I’m sad to say it, some simply don’t make it through.

Take for example the group of people who live right near the dump. They spend their days scavenging for food and materials to survive. They don’t have running water. They don’t have mains power. There is a public shower about an hour’s walk in the next district over, but they’re considered too dirty to use it.

Some of these people have children. If they’re 4 and up, and considered useful, they go to to the dump with them. If they’re not yet crawling and not considered a nuisance, they too go with them. If they’re somewhere in the middle, that is about 12 months – 3 years, they stay at home, sometimes with an older sibling (all of 7) to look after them.

They have no food, no fuel for fire, but somewhere within, these kids still have spirit.

 

Enter stage left: a woman (who I always say I want to be when I grow up) and her husband and some really kick ass people who have thrown themselves full-force at a project that will build a shelter for the kids who are left at home to go to during the day.

Initially, the shelter will look after 40 dump kids. They’ll be warm, they’ll be fed, and they’ll learn to read, and write, and paint, and have some joy and laughter in their day.

This group of people have been fundraising their asses off to get the shelter built. Take for example the husband of the lady who I want to be when I grow up, Chevy. His wife had never known him without a beard. That’s over 30 years of hairy Chevy.

Then he declared the beard would come off for a substantial fee, and hello Denzel Washington!

FYI: the beard is now back and the shelter is almost built.

I might add that it was built by reformed alcoholics who were more than capable people and who turned their lives around but still couldn’t escape the judgements and shadows from their past. So one Mongolian guy took it upon himself to give these guys a job. There shouldn’t be an Aussie reading this who doesn’t love this ‘fair go’ story.

But just because the shelter is almost built, doesn’t mean the story (or the need for money) ends there. There are ongoing costs for food, power, books and other supplies.

So while I don’t ever think I can be as cool or amazing as Julie Veloo, I can at least put this challenge to my Shantasia readers:

For the next month, go without your lattes or your glossy magazines or your Thai take-away, and give the money to the dump children.

I know it’s Christmas, and I know money is tight, but here’s the thing, what I love best about Christmas is the hope and joy it brings to so many children around the world. Could there be a better Christmas present to these kids than a warm place to stay every day of the year? Before you think that your $5 wouldn’t make a difference, trust me, it can. Some guys at the company I work for passed the hat around in their division and their small change added up to a very big donation.

Oh, and all the money you donate goes directly to the project. Like I said, these Veloo people are amazing, and the overhead tab and admin costs of running a charity is picked up by them, out of their own pocket. So rest assured, your $10 will feed a child or keep one of them warm while they’re at the shelter.

So go on, donate online at the Veloo Foundation blog and check out their Facebook page too.

The only other thing I’d ask you to do is to have a safe, warm and merry Christmas!

 

PS. I stole these photos from the Veloo Foundation blog. I’m pretty sure I had permission to do it!

Chinggy’s birthday

Today is a national holiday in Mongolia. It’s to celebrate Chinggis Khan’s 850th birthday. Of course, no one actually knows when he was born (or where he is buried, but that’s another story), so the 14th November seems as good a date as any to start with. This is the first year his birthday has been a national holiday. From next year, the date will be floating, and calculated on the lunar calendar year.

None of us, Mongolian colleagues included, really know what to do or expect from this holiday. Will there be fireworks? Will there be a giant, inflatable Chinggis Khan as part of some spectacular parade? Not sure.

So I thought, at the very least, big Chinggy (as I like to call him) deserves a Shantasia post.

Now, I’m not the first to dedicate something to this Mongolian hero. His name can be seen on beer, vodka, fertiliser and shoe polish (actually, not sure about the last two, but I am sure there are many more products than just beer and vodka with his name on them).

 

There are also monuments galore, including one outside of Parliament House and the biggest equestrian statue in the world.

 

 

And of course his name greets you and farewells you at the airport.

 

There’s a lively debate in the country as to whether his name is being used too much, or more to the point, frivolously. Just as everything in Charters Towers is Gold City, everything in Mongolia is Chinggis Khan.

I guess I don’t really have an opinion either way. But maybe I’m sympathetic to the cause because during the Soviet rule, they were not allowed to even whisper this man’s name without retribution, let alone praise the man publicly. Let’s never take for granted our freedom of thought and speech.

Although, there is that one history class where we learnt about his barbaric military tactics. I suppose you can’t really ignore that, or the fact the the mere mention of his name to the Poles makes them twitch very nervously.

But I guess another way to look at him is he was fearless, and he was a strong leader. It takes a pretty impressive person to unite the nomadic tribes from across North-East Asia, have them put their cultural differences aside, and join a mega army fighting for one cause.  I think what I like best about Chinggy, is that he promoted religious tolerance.

He was an astute businessman, and opened up trade between China and Europe. He introduced a groundbreaking communication method, with a system similar to what we know as the Pony Express. And he was also responsible for developing the Mongolian language.

Not bad for a man who today we would consider uneducated (he was illiterate) and he’d probably never get a job.

Of course, I still wouldn’t have wanted to get on his bad side.

He may not have been as peaceful as Ghandi, or as righteous as Mandella, or as great a cricketer as Don Bradman, but I can understand why he’s considered Mongolia’s founding father (and the founding father of half the world’s population thanks to his insatiable sexual appetite) and a national hero.

Happy birthday Chinggy – you don’t look a day over 850!

UB soundtrack

For this post to make sense, this is what you need to know: Our mode of transport UB is via a carpool service the company provides. Most of the cars are not cars – they’re Ford Transit vans or minibuses, and you share a ride with other people in the company. This is how we get to work, to the grocery shops, to the airport and picked up after dinner or a night at the pub.

When the time comes to leave Mongolia, I won’t necessarily miss this way of getting around. Nothing beats making the decision to go to the shops, and then just getting in your car and going.

But I will miss some of the drivers and their Western music selection. Here’s some of the highlights from their playlists:

 

Seasons in the Sun: Terry Jacks

Apart from this being one of the most depressing, saddest songs ever… it was playing the other morning on the way to work, just as winter was really setting in.

 

Mandy: Barry Manilow

This song, hands down, has the best line of any song, ever written. See if you can guess what line I’m talking about.

 

Rivers of Babylon: Boney M

Personally Rasputin is my favourite Boney M song, but this is a favourite amongst our drivers. Generally after a night at the pub, you can be guaranteed this is playing when they pick you up. Must be their Friday night feel good song.

 

Oh Carol: Smokie

I’ve only ever heard this once on the transport play list, I wish they would play it again. It was a Sunday afternoon in summer. The driver picked me up in the trusty old white transit van, I sat up front with him, windows rolled down, this came on, up went the volume and the two of us sang our hearts out! (it was one of those rare times I wasn’t sharing the van with other expats – shame, they all missed a great show.)

 

I Will Always Love You: Whitney Houston

The day after Whitney died, this was playing in the transit van. The driver sang along with it, and he truly had one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard.

 

Someone Like You: Adele

Adele fever really hit big in Mongolia. Some of the drivers LOVE her. For a few months over summer, you could always count on Adele playing in the tranpsort vehicles. She doesn’t seem as popular now, but she will forever more remind me of Mongolia.