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Counting Sheep in Dornod

I flew to Dornod two days ago. It’s at the eastern tip of the country, about equidistant from Russia in the north, and China in the south. There’s only a dusty track from the airport to the city. The highlight here has been my visit to the several kindergartens that we are helping to run.

Mongolian children have to be the very cutest in the whole world! They spend practically the whole day in the kindergarten. So they don’t only play or read, but also, they bathe, eat and nap. I took some lovely photos of them sleeping in neat rows, all lined up in their pyjamas. In one kindergarten, which we’d built to help service a ger district, I was down on the carpet, trying to get a good shot of some little girls standing in a row. Suddenly the kids descended on me. They were poking me, touching my face, my hair, chattering away to me. They appeared to be asking me something. Oyut said, “They want to know what’s wrong with your eyes.”

Earlier today I was on a mission to look for some sheep on the vast, open Mongolian steppe. We went with a shepherd girl, Tumlunzul, whom we’d convinced to stay in school, rather than help her family to herd sheep. I wanted to capture the contrast of her life then and now. But, when we got to her village, the sheep had gone missing! The family wanted to use our cell phone to call their neighbours into action, with their motorbikes. But it was taking too long. We decided to go on the hunt ourselves, and get a few good photos on the way.

I could barely stand straight, let alone walk, it was so cold. The wind was like ice. I didn’t just feel frosty in my fingers – the feeling went all the way up to my shoulder blades. To my dismay, I couldn’t work my camera with my gloves on! We found some sheep, eventually, but Tumlunzul took one look at them and knew they weren’t hers. “How can you tell?” I asked. She shrugged. She does not want to be a shepherdess anymore. “I haven’t decided what to do later on”, she said. “I live in the city, now, with some relatives and only come back on weekends. I like it there.” She was studying at an “Enlightenment” study centre in Dornod and will soon choose from one of many streams of study in an occupational college.

We bumped into Zolgorgal, 17, and his dog. He was surprised to see visitors on the steppe. Like the kids at the kindergarten, he also asked me what was wrong with my eyes. He was happy for us to take his picture. He didn’t study much beyond grade eight. He said there was no point. “A family with a flock like mine can make lots of money at shearing time and I already know this trade. Besides, my parents are getting old, and I need to stay with them and help them out.” I wondered what advice I could offer him that would change his mind. I couldn’t think of much.

I’ve been counting sheep.  One hundred and sixty two. Is Tumunzul really better off than Zolgorgal? Where was I? I’d better sleep on it. One hundred and..

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