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Exploring Mongolia with an insider’s view, no luggage necessary

Aug 14, 2023Aug 14, 2023

Arts, Humanities, & Social Sciences

A whirlwind, seven-day trip exploring the capital of Mongolia, traversing the nation's remote countryside, and camping in yurts—or "gers" as they’re called in Mongolian—might sound like a true adventure to even the most seasoned traveler.

Now, how about doing that trip without a change of clothes?

That's just what happened to students in the Penn Global seminar Mongolian Civilization: Nomadic and Sedentary, professor Christopher P. Atwood and teaching fellow Stephen Garrett when they headed to Mongolia in May for the first time since before the pandemic. They arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, on May 12. Their luggage, however, stayed in Turkey and didn't join them until the final two days of the trip.

"Through it all the students were just super troopers," says Atwood, Mongolian professor and chair of the department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. "When I saw them joking with each other and asking good questions about Zanabazar and the history of Ulaanbaatar as a city, I kept on having to remind myself that some of them were still wearing the same [clothing] they were wearing on the plane."

Most students agree the missing luggage was just an added bit of humor in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Mongolia with an insider's view, thanks to Atwood's connections and language fluency and Penn Global's reach in the region. They did, however, eventually make a stop at a department store for essentials and Penn Global sent along funds so they could purchase much needed cold weather gear for their nights in the countryside where the temperatures drop dramatically after dark.

The group had spent the spring semester exploring how two intertwined ways of life—pastoral nomadism and settling down for religious, educational, and economic reasons—have shaped the cultural, artistic, and intellectual traditions of Mongolia. They studied how the Mongolian economy, literature, and steppe empires were built on grass and livestock and also learned how Mongolians have consistently used the foundations of empire to build sedentary monuments and buildings, whether funerary complexes, Buddhist monasteries, socialist boarding schools, or modern capitals. Then they took that newfound knowledge on the road with them to Mongolia.

They started off in Ulaanbaatar, exploring the nightlife and live music, upscale restaurants, and museums. Then they hopped into three vans for a long journey into the countryside, where they were stunned by the stark beauty of the grasslands, herds of animals like yaks and camels, and wildlife. They even managed to see the rare Przewalski's horse, the last truly wild horse in the world.

"As we all agreed, driving through the countryside is like an unending movie," Atwood says.

They stayed in Kharkhorin in gers, visited local museums and monasteries and met with herders to learn about their way of life. Then they headed back to Ulaanbaatar to meet with local artists, visit a ger district, and learn about the challenges of melding the nomadic and modern city ways of living. They finished with a visit to a jazz club and a tour of the Winter Palace of a Buddhist monk who became the last emperor of Mongolia.

"People have these ideas about nomadism, that nomads must be totally isolated from the rest of the world, that it's completely incompatible with being part of the 21st century," says Atwood. "I wanted the students to have an understanding that's not the case; many people in the countryside in Mongolia are nomads, and they’re also living in the same 21st century that we’re living in. They are interested in hip hop, they’re interested in studying abroad, they are part of the same world as us."

Azzaya Galsandum, a rising sophomore from Ewing, New Jersey, majoring in linguistics, signed up for the course to learn more about her culture: Her parents came to the U.S. from Mongolia more than two decades ago, and she had never visited.

"They were excited for me, and my mom was definitely tearing up when I boarded the plane," she says.

For her, the highlight was visiting the countryside, since both her parents came from nomadic families in that region. She was able to visit her half-siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins for the first time.

"I actually got to see the ger where my mother was raised," she says, adding that she’d brought a bunch of gifts for everyone, but they were stuck in her missing luggage.

"It made me realize how my parents lived when they were growing up. My mom's favorite animals are goats and sheep, and we saw this giant herd of sheep and goats and these little baby goats came running up to us. I understood why my mom loves all this. I feel such a connection to it now."

Galsandum says her classmates surprised her with how excited they were about all things Mongolian, and they turned to her cultural expertise and language skills throughout the trip, at restaurants, gift shops, and more, despite her being one of youngest on the trip.

"I know they signed up for the course, but it's still surprising to see people who are so interested in my culture because where I grew up I could count the number of Asian people in my school on one hand," she says. "I’m not used to people actually being interested in my culture, but my classmates were so excited about all the Mongolian stuff. It was amazing to be able to see people try things that I eat all the time, and they all liked it."

Angela Lao, a rising senior from Macau studying neuroscience, says she was drawn to the Penn Global seminar because she always wanted to study abroad but can't really take off a full semester with her pre-med course load. A brief trip in May was ideal, she says, and this Mongolia course aligned with her East Asian studies minor and interests.

Memorable moments for her were going emergency shopping before the trip to the countryside, having fun in the museums, the kindness of the locals, and gazing amazed at one of the world's tallest Buddhas. She also took a free afternoon to write postcards and deliver them to the local post office with Atwood and shop for some cashmere.

She came up with the idea for her final project based on her experience with traffic congestion in Ulaanbaatar.

"It was something I noticed during the trip and never would have even thought about before going there," she says. "I was actually pretty happy to do my final project."

Lao also was fascinated by a visit to a boarding school for children of nomadic families. The government is pushing for universal literacy and universal schooling, so children of herding families now attend these schools away from home. The kids showed off their art and asked lots of questions.

"These opportunities that Penn Abroad offer students are truly life changing, and I’m so glad I took advantage of it," she says.

Alan Burd, a rising senior studying international relations and Russian from Silver Spring, Maryland, says he signed up for the course because it seemed like an opportunity he might not have again in his lifetime, to see Mongolia from these varied and up-close vantage points.

He also found the countryside to be a highlight of the trip, visiting the monasteries, speaking with local herders who welcomed them into their homes with open arms, petting the goats and sheep, and taking in the landscape.

"We get to the campsite and we can't help but stop to watch the sunset. It's purple, blue, orange, red, all these colors and you see the valleys and the hills. I was just overwhelmed by the scenery," he says. "It was breathtaking to see this beauty and smell the mountain air. It was almost surreal."

For him, it was particularly interesting to see all the signs written in Cyrillic, which he could read because of his Russian language skills

"We had learned over the course of the semester about the historical influence the Soviet bloc had on Mongolia and the country's many transitions," he says.

His biggest takeaway was how the trip was a culmination of all they learned that semester in class in the form of experiential learning.

"We could go to the historic City Square and see Sukhbaatar's statue or go to see Buddhist temples, and it was meaningful. It was only meaningful because we were working hard throughout the semester—connecting a lot of those things that we had learned in class," he says. "It's really amazing the process that happens: You go into a textbook; you talk to your professor; you talk to your class, but then you apply it to the real world around you."

He says he knew it would be rewarding, but all expectations were exceeded.

"You can't have the class without the trip and you can't have as meaningful of a trip as we had without the class. You need it to go both ways," Burd says. "I’m so grateful to Penn Global for pulling this off, despite the uncertainties along the way. They were adamant from the initial weeks in the semester that we would go, and it truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."