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Safe Gap Year & Mongolia

At Safe Gap Year our personal experience demonstrates how independent travel can change the lives of participants through the perspective it gives us.

This is often best demonstrated by the work or volunteering undertaken and encounters with local people leading to life-long commitments to projects and charities around the world.

These commitments follow very personal decisions made by the individual; those we have chosen to feature or support are as a result of just such experiences:


The Christina Nobel Children’s Foundation

On a trip in 2002 I could not help but be struck by what a challenging country Mongolia is to travel in; not just is there little or no infrastructure but conditions can be incredibly harsh.

The climate even in summer is unpredictable; I experienced extreme temperature variations within a matter of hours; from ‘sunburn’ to ‘frostbite’ conditions on the same day. Taking into account that this was summer, it is difficult to imagine how tough the winter must be; average temperature can fall as low as -30°c.

The diet in Mongolia is also very limited, there is little in the way of fresh fruit or vegetables and the stable diet consists of mutton and yaks milk products, including hard cheese and sour milk; most Mongolians sustain themselves through subsistence ‘farming’ or ‘herding’.

The one product they never seem short of however is airag (the local ‘home-brew’) and vodka (the damaging ‘gift’ the Russians left behind after they pulled out).

The other consequence of the soviet era coming to an end was that financial backing disappeared overnight; the Mongolians were left on their own with little or no funded infrastructure.

This combination of high levels of alcohol abuse and lack of and any kind of welfare state, has left Mongolians with a gap in their society which is simply not being filled.

Walking round Ulaan Baatar (commonly referred to as UB) it is impossible not to notice the number of street children; an estimated 4000 - 5000. Often they have run away from an abusive drunken father or are orphans.

What I found impossible to understand is; if they have no one to turn to for help, how do they survive the winter months?

The answer is that they live in the sewers. Large pipes carry the hot water and steam to heat the city and the street children live and sleep on these to keep out the cold; this often results in them sustaining burns and other serious injuries.

Knowing this, it is easy to understand why some turn to petty crime in order to be arrested and sent to gaol, where they at least have a roof over their heads and one meal a day.

I found it a challenge to travel in the middle of summer and these children have to endure and survive this every day, for years.

Walking round UB I met some of these children, I had my boots polished by them every day, used them as guides and bought many objects which were left behind when I returned home, just so they could earn a few pennies.

We often associate street children with crime, but take the time to meet the street children in Mongolia and my experience is that you will find them friendly, inquisitive and industrious. They just want to earn enough money to eat and will turn their hand to anything to achieve this.

The Christina Noble Children’s Foundation is a charity which works predominantly in Vietnam. However after a visit to Mongolia by Christina in 1997, she set up a number of programmes to help the street children in there.

They do fantastic work helping as many children as they can through a number of projects including ‘child sponsorship’, healthcare assistance, prison education, the ‘give a ger’ campaign and the ‘sunshine ger village’ programme. But as with every charity they can never do as much as they would like and rely of the support and donations they get.

Please visit their website (www.cncf.org). If their work is of interest to you remember even small donations go a very long way in countries like Mongolia; the Mongolian street children deserve everything we can do to help them.

Peter Mayhew – Safe Gap Year, January 2010


Travel is a privilege and sometimes we need to give something back to thank the people whose countries we visit.