Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Mercy Corps and the Mongol Derby

I had previously contacted the NGO (Non Governmental Organisation) Mercy Corps, an international organisation who operate in many developing countries around the world, providing funds and assistance for projects which aid development, to see if there were any projects or events that I could be involved with. I was in luck and the Mongol Derby, the world's longest horse race which emulates Chinggis Khan's communications network and also raises funds for development projects would be happening at the end of my time in Mongolia. I was to be involved with two parts; firstly a visit with some of the Mongol Derby riders to a cooperative in a town a short distance away from Ulaanbaatar to witness the work that Mercy Corps do, and secondly the start of the race, which photographically I was most looking forward to. Unfortunately, due to my visa issues, train issues and other commitments, I was unable to attend the start of the race.

A woman in the workshop.
The morning after I returned from the trip out west I walked to the Mercy Corps office in Ulaanbaatar to catch my ride. We sluggishly crawled through the rush hour traffic, collecting the riders who were staying in a number of hotels in the city. All were very excited to be about to commence on such an adventure, they would be riding 1000km in 10 days through pristine wilderness, and they also had the added exhilaration of meeting new people in a new and exciting place. The minibus was filled with chatter for the journey, particular by the American riders who's enthusiasm for conversation seems to know no bounds.

Everyone except myself seemed to find the ride extremely bumpy, my trip out west had taught me the luxury of paved roads, even if there was the odd pothole. We headed to a small town called Zuunmod Soum, about an hour out of UB. It was a quiet place with children playing in backstreets, and what looked like derelict factories with jagged dark windows on the edges of the settlement. We went into a small and bright, single storey building which was the workshop, known as the Zuluun Suvd Cooperative. It's a small female managed enterprise involved in the production and sale of felt handicraft, and the coop employs people with a disability. Providing disabled access was one of the things that Mercy Corps had previously done. With the help of Mercy Corps the aim was to double the capacity for production and increase sales to meet rising market demand. Money raised by previous Mongol Derbys helped to purchase new processing equipment which would increase production capacity.
The riders are shown the crafts produced in the coop.
A woman prepares animal hairs for making felt.
Working on a loom type machine.
The different fabrics they make.
Everyone seemed to enjoy their job.
The coop felt a very social place.
Making adjustments to a bottle disguised as a camel for one of the riders.
The riders showed curiosity in the production process, some getting involved directly by sitting at the spinning wheel or having a go at brushing the hair which would become the felt. Lunch was offered, mutton and potatoes, and a milk drink was put in front of me. I assumed it was the milk tea I had grown half fond of, but unfortunately for me and my tastebuds it was airag, the fermented mares milk, which I didn't realise until after a gulp. I quietly left my cup on the side.

An American rider getting involved.
Eric, another American rider, attempts to spin some thread.
Mr Ganzorig at work.
I spoke to one gentleman, Mr Ganzorig, through Byambaa my contact from Mercy Corps who acted as my translator. He was quietly sat in a wheelchair weaving a fabric with knitting needles, and it looked like he was making a shawl of some description. Mr Ganzorig had been in a wheelchair all his life. Before the cooperative opened he just stayed at home, as there was no work he could do. There don't seem to be disability rights in Mongolia and disabled access is an extreme rarity. He has worked in the coop since it started, thanks in part to the disabled access provided by Mercy Corps. Before starting he was given training in the crafts and felt products he would be producing, and he told me he is very happy now that he has work, and enjoys his job very much. Without the assistance of NGOs like Mercy Corps, and the finances raised through events such as the Mongol Derby, people like Mr Ganzorig would have no chance of employment in their lives, no opportunities to find a trade and to become more much independent and happy.

Many of the riders bought themselves a souvenir and gifts for loved ones back home, before we were taken to the nearby Manzushir  monastery which had been victim to the Soviets in the early part of the twentieth century, only one building remained. The monastery was fairly interesting, but information is always limited, and so myself and a couple of the other riders climbed the steep hill at the back of the valley which the buildings and ruins are nestled in, for a work-out and a rewarding view. After a rest in the lovely surroundings of the valley floor, we made our way back to UB through crawling and horn-bawling traffic.
Mr Ganzorig's hands at work.
Some of the craft items produced in the coop.
The clothes and fabrics they made. 
The entrance to the monastery.
Ruined by the Russians.
The monastery was nestled in the back of a beautiful valley. 
A Swedish rider enjoys the freedom of the Mongolian countryside.

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