Mongolia mission

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer August 17, 2011 08:42 pm

JADEN BALES, A  4-H AMBASSADOR and FBLA chapter president at Imbler High School uses some of his free time to hike in the country’s rugged outback during his trip to Mongolia. Bales was one of about 30 students from across the western United States who took part in the goodwill tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Submitted photo
JADEN BALES, A 4-H AMBASSADOR and FBLA chapter president at Imbler High School, learned plenty about local culture during his trip to Mongolia. Bales was one of about 30 students from across the western United States who took part in the goodwill tour sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Submitted photo

Teen learns about culture, shares ideas about land reclamation, sustainable environmental practices

Jaden Bales, a 16-year-old 4-H Ambassador and FBLA leader from Imbler, will always cherish the memory of his four-week sojourn in Mongolia.

But looking back on the trip, he believes that the old adage about there being no place like home rings true.

“I learned that just being born in America, you are one of the richest people in the world,” Bales said.

Bales, who is set to begin his junior year at Imbler High School this fall, was among some 30 students from across the western United States chosen by the U.S. State Department for a goodwill trip to the impoverished Asian country. Five chaperones went along as well.

The group left the U.S. June 16 and stayed in Mongolia a month. They were tasked with learning about Mongolian culture while sharing ideas about land reclamation and sustainable environmental practices.

Much time was spent in the country’s outback, but Bales and his cohorts lived the first week in the capital city of Ulaanbataar. They attended training sessions that emphasized language and culture and team building.

In between, there was time to see the sights. Bales said the capital showed some signs of modernity, but also looked to be a place with problems.

“There were skyscrapers they started to build in the 1980s but never finished,” he said.

 He added that a heavy rain hit the city while he was there, exposing problems with drainage. Noticeable also was the lack of a municipal garbage service.

“Water sources were polluted and there was a lot of trash. It was pretty sad to see how much people just chucked aside and didn’t worry about,” he said.

From Ulaanbataar, Bales and a group of students traveled to meet host families in Arkhjangai, a state some 250 miles to the west. The nine-hour drive was a bumpy one, but offered memorable views of life in the agricultural  regions where herding is a way of life.

“You’d be driving and come over a hill, and you’d see a tent, a corral, a motorcycle, a truck and a group riding horses. Horses are the main source of transportation outside the city,” Bales said.

Bales’ group arrived, finally, in Tsetserleg, a town whose name translates as “Garden City.” Bales said it deserves the moniker.

“It was one of the greenest places I saw in Mongolia,” he said.

In Tsetserleg, Bales connected with his host family, a large and extended one that included parents, children and relatives. He was one of 11 people living in a two-story house. Conditions were cramped, he said.

The house did not have running water, and the family spent a part of each day hauling water for everyday needs. About halfway through his stay with the family, Bales opted to go to a hotel and pay two dollars for a shower.

He said that for the most part, Mongolians are a friendly lot but have customs that might be termed rude by people from the west.

There isn’t a word in their language, he said, for “thank you,” and Mongolians think nothing of reaching for a soft drink that belongs to someone else and taking a slug, without permission.

But for all of that, they are an affectionate people.

“When you meet one, he is your friend. They like to be very close and to touch. Girls link arms when they walk together, and so do old people,” he said.

During the visit with the host family, Bales learned to play shagai, a children’s game played with the ankle bones of sheep. He also did a good deal of hiking.

Members of the host family knew little English, and Bales’ knowledge of Mongolian was rudimentary. He said he and his host brother worked hard to overcome the barrier, and had some success.

“He knew his nouns pretty well, so we could communicate,” he said.

Bales’ group traveled one day to a gold mine where a lack of good land reclamation practices was evident. In addition to the land being damaged, the gold mine dominated the local water supply.

Talk at the site centered on how things might be changed for the better. Also in the way of outreach, Bales’ group visited a children’s camp and promoted the idea of environmental awareness.

“I think we had a legitimate impact on kids when we showed them pictures of how things could be in comparison,” he said.

When the Americans returned to the capital city, they attended more training, and heard talks by members of the Peace Corps. “They taught us about the issues that are plaguing Mongolia, and also about issues that plague the United States,” Bales said.

The Americans attended the Nadaam festival, a Mongolian tradition that highlights the three “games of men” — wrestling, horseback riding and archery. “We didn’t see much archery, but we did see horse races and wrestling,” he said.

He said the festival drew about 100,000 people, including many white tourists. The wrestling final turned out to be the most popular event . The stadium was packed, said Bales.

“I guess it’s like their Super Bowl. The guy who won was an under dog and everybody was cheering,” he said.

Bales helped distribute equestrian helmets donated by the 4-H leadership program. Other gifts from Union County included colorfully illustrated children’s books donated by Carol Lauritzen, an education professor at EOU.

The Americans flew home  July 14. Since then, Bales has been working and preparing for the upcoming school year.

He said he thinks the Americans made a good impression in Mongolia, especially among young people.

“All the kids seemed very interested in Americans and our lifestyle,” he said.