10 things I’m glad I packed for my year in Mongolia
7 October 2019 at 7:30 am
Patrick Gallus recently volunteered for 12 months in Mongolia with the Australian Volunteers Program. Here he shares his top 10 things to pack when you’re heading for an extended stay in the world’s coldest capital city.
1. Warm stuff. But not all the warm stuff.
Australian volunteers are required to research the location of their assignment during the application process. It was during this process that I discovered that Google’s top result for Mongolia’s capital “Ulaanbaatar” is “world’s coldest capital city”.
As a result I became well acquainted with the staff at the outdoor shops near my place and a down jacket, thermals, woollen socks, woollen gloves, woollen jumpers, woollen everything were purchased and packed.
That said, if I had my time again, I’d have packed less. Mongolian people have been living in minus 40 degree temperatures for a very long time, and have adapted their clothing to suit. Affordable jackets, and camel wool socks and leggings (while as prickly as a camel) are extremely warm, and readily available across Mongolia.
2. A head torch
I was lucky to live in a beautiful Soviet-era apartment in the city, with its high ceilings, radiator heaters, and balcony overlooking a lively square. Except, of course, for the occasional blackouts. Turns out that head torches aren’t just for outdoor junkies, they’re also essential equipment for making pasta in a pitch-black apartment.
3. Sriracha hot sauce
From the off-white of suutei tsai (salted milk tea) to the grey of mutton buuz (dumplings) and the browns of boiled, barbecued and roasted mutton – I discovered that most Mongolian dishes are improved by a splash of hot sauce.
Full disclosure – I did eventually learn to really like the food and, even now, cold weather doesn’t feel right without a steaming hot bowl of buuz.
4. Tim Tams
Packing Tim Tams isn’t about curing the occasional bout of snack homesickness (that was reserved for the box of Pizza Shapes I rationed until Christmas). Tim Tams are a core ingredient when embarking on biscuit diplomacy.
When introducing Australian culture to my new Mongolian colleagues, I wanted to give them something they could feel, smell and taste. Tim Tams are light in the suitcase, unmistakably Australian, and extremely delicious. I still get order requests from my Mongolian mates.
5. The lyrics to Back for Good by Take That
Volunteering overseas is by turns exciting, confusing, brilliant and frustrating. The support of those around you on assignment – whether it be your colleagues, local friends, or other Australian volunteers – plays a big part in your experience.
Karaoke became an important part of the bonding experience for me in Mongolia, and kept a group of us close, happy and sane. There’s nothing like blasting a power ballad on a Friday night to help decompress after a long working week.
6. A Kindle
Don’t want to be stuck with the only 10 English books to choose from at the local bookshop? Grab a Kindle and, as long as you’ve got internet, you’ll have access to a world of written entertainment.
An e-reader also makes kicking off a book club much easier, as you don’t all need to share the only tattered copy of Crime and Punishment available in your country. And it’s much lighter than lugging around a chunky travel guide.
7. My partner
Companionship is underrated in a winter that lasts for six months. Fortunately the Australian Volunteers Program offers financial support for family and partners for assignments over 12 months.
My partner and I feel incredibly lucky to have shared some once-in-a-lifetime experiences as a result and it was invaluable to have someone I could trust to debrief and reflect on the experience.
8. One fancy outfit
Boy, do Mongolians know how to dress. It might be the middle of winter, but women will glide down icy city streets with grace in the highest of heels, with ornate dresses hidden beneath fur-collared coats.
Sometimes I needed to scrub up to match them. Thankfully I packed a suit because while there’s few guarantees on assignment, one is that you’ll be called upon to go to a formal event.
9. Spare batteries and a power brick
Taking a photo of the stunning Mongolian winter landscape can become an infuriating lesson in chemistry. You whip your camera out of your pocket, dial it to the correct settings, and go to click, but just like that, your battery is already dead.
For the uninitiated, cold weather and batteries don’t mix. I got used to keeping a spare battery in a pocket next to my chest, or between the layers of my two pairs of gloves (yes, it got that cold).
10. Hiking boots
They’re not just for hiking! Although you would be crazy not to go for a stroll in Mongolia’s jaw-dropping outdoors.
After nearly skittling a few too many times on icy streets on the walk to my office, I ended up adopting them as part of my business attire. Some volunteers even bought boots one size up so they could swaddle their feet in two pairs of camel wool socks without losing all circulation. Genius.