Sunday, July 8, 2012

Arrival in Mongolia

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Wow! We are here in Mongolia! We have had so many experiences and impressions since we’ve been here. It’s been a whirlwind of activity plus psychic overload of being in a foreign country, getting acquainted and acclimating ourselves to our new surroundings.

Last day in Salt Lake City. We said goodbye to the Speidels at the Family History Training zone. Elder Speidel, even though mission will be completed in August, offered to Skype with us about New Family Search and computer issues with genealogical research while we are in Mongolia.

We went to the Church History mission and read about the beginnings of the Church in Mongolia. There were approximately 160 interviews, diaries and articles on file. The recollections and interviews with the Church leaders (Elder Maxwell, Elder Brough) require special permission to access and it takes more than a day to do so. We immersed ourselves thoroughly in the process and it took a lot more time than we anticipated. We just scratched the surface. Tawny, your letters you wrote during your mission should be there.

We ended our Family and Church History mission with a meeting with the Zone leaders over the International Zone at the Family History Library and a church staff person. We shared what we had learned about the status of family history work in Mongolia from the Jacksons and gave them copies of what they had done there. They loved getting the information.

We learned they had been contacted that very day by BYU-Idaho and BYU Hawaii about their desire to make their Family History degrees more relevant to actual jobs in Mongolia. We will work in collaboration with them once we are in Mongolia. They considered our visit a Godsend and a place to start in helping move the work along both at the Family History Library and with the two colleges asking for help.

Elder and Sister Koch offered to take us to the airport. Before that, we were invited to their apartment for dinner. It was elegant and wonderful. They were so gracious and helpful. At the airport, we encountered a group of 4 or so missionaries whose flight to the Marshall Islands had been canceled and they were trying to figure out how to get back to Provo. I’m glad we didn’t have that problem.

Darlene was delighted to see our four suitcases weigh in at 52, 52, 51 and 50 lbs respectively. Our scales at the apartment were 2 pounds off. The Delta agent put the luggage through with no extra charges. Darlene had her packing victory.

The flight to Beijing. The flight from L.A. was 12 hours long. It was in a Boeing 777 Dreamliner – a gorgeous aircraft. Our seats however seemed just as tight as any other aircraft. The first class cabin definitely looked “First Class” and luxurious. About 90 % of the passengers were Asian. The cabin was dark most of the flight and my plans for studying Mongolian went down the drain. We did have an incredible choice from about 50 movies or documentaries to watch. We watched a couple of movies and slept the best we could.
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Beijing Airport
The Beijing airport was beautiful and massive. The terminal was all under one big roof. It seemed like the interior was about 4 blocks long. The waiting area at the gate had lounge chairs for exhausted passengers – like us.
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Cleaning crew at Beijing Airport
Arrival in Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia. Parts of Inner Mongolia reminded me of Eastern Colorado or the Nebraska Sandhills dotted with pivot irrigation systems and state-of-the-art wind towers. The towns had red and blue roofs.

I was then transfixed by the Gobi desert from the air. It appeared a light, slightly baked tan with no discernible land features - just flat land with nothing on it. It took at least an hour to fly over it with no signs of human habitation. The closest thing I can compare it to from the air are the most desolate parts of Nevada or Wyoming. There were occasional splotches of color - variations of brown, white or copper – representing alkaline or acidic soils. None of it looked like sand.   

Flying into the bowl of mountains surrounding Ulaan Baatar reminded us of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The hillsides had a velvet green look. This part of Mongolia has had an unusual amount of recent rains and from the air it looked pristine and beautiful. It has rained every afternoon all week. We didn’t bring our umbrellas. The roofs of the city, especially the Ger Districts, were a bright, vivid collage of red, green, blue, and orange colors.   

We breezed through customs with no problems. Sister Clark was there along with Puujee (a different Puujee from the Puujee we met at BYU) and the driver, BatBold. We spend a harrowing drive to the center of town. Drivers are skilled, aggressive, and competitive for every inch of space they can get. I tried to compare the drivers to Mexico City, Tokyo or New York City drivers but the consensus was that Mongolia traffic was about as bad as it gets. When they are blocked they drive on sidewalks.  They avoid potholes by driving into the oncoming lane, and bully their way into tight spaces.

The rules are whoever was there first with the slightest advantage has the right of way.
Pedestrians are at their own risk – all of the time. We were warned that when crossing a street on a green light, the first place you look is behind you to see if you are going to be run down by a car making a free right turn. There is no such thing as pedestrians having the right-of-way

Ulaan Baatar reminded me of Guatemala City the first time I saw it in 1961. It has a Latin American look with run-down buildings, disrepair and repair going on everywhere, garbage and refuse strewn around juxtaposed with the new, modern and gleaming. There is obvious wealth, fancy hotels, fancy stores and modern skyscrapers. Even the center of the city lacked zoning. It is charming in its own way but it is definitely not Prague.

Getting situated. We went first to our apartment where two missionaries helped unload our suitcases. We will describe our apartment and our first two shopping trips in a future post. Sister Clark was vivacious and friendly and took charge of making us feel welcome and comfortable. President Clark couldn’t be there because he had a special 4th of July invitation to the American Embassy to meet the new Ambassador.

At the Church Office Building, we were introduced to the staff and senior couples who were on hand. We will describe each of the couples, their assignments and special relationships in another post.

The five senior couples have one tradition that I will mention. They each take a turn feeding the new couple missionaries dinner the first week.  When the next new couple arrives, we will be in the rotation to take them out so the favors will be repaid. Our first dinner was scheduled that evening with the Clarks.

Sister Clark had us bed down for an afternoon rest (jet lag) in the guest bedroom. I woke up with a start at 6:15 pm and found a note saying the Clarks were involved with emergency transfers and that we were to go out to eat with the Martins, the mission’s medical doctor and his wife. That evening we enjoyed their company and Indian food – delicious. We made arrangements with them to go the next day to the Sky Market in the back of the Ghengis Khan Hotel. The dinner with the Clarks was postponed until Friday.
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Dinner with the Martins
On Thursday, after shopping at the Sky Market (upscale market with premium goods), would you believe it, we got lost. All the apartment buildings looked the same. Try as we might, on a hot day our keys did not work in several doors we felt sure had to be our apartment. Finally we called our new friends and rescuers, the Martins, who told us our address.  It was quite embarrassing. The Russians have favorite comedy where someone from Moscow ends up in St. Petersburg in an identical apartment and address.                     

Later on in the afternoon, we continued to meet more mission personnel including a brief meeting with President Clark. October, a Mongolian sister came with us to our apartment and helped us set up our Internet Service.

That evening President Clark had called a transfer meeting for all the senior couples and missionaries. The events of the past few days were about to be explained.

The Church’s struggle with Mongolian Immigration. Through an interpreter Pres. Clark detailed how five missionaries failed to have their visas renewed and would have to leave in next day to their newly assigned missions. It was mostly the doing to one immigration official who seems to have animosity toward the church and any visa renewals that cross his desk get vetoed. The prospective Mongolian sponsors for English teachers are encouraged to avoid sending their applications for English teachers to this particular individual.

The other situation involved the Elders of violating their visas as English teachers. Some local officials from an outlying province came into the church and took pictures of the elders wearing their name badges and observed them passing the sacrament. They trumped up charges of against them. 

A senior couple, The Gledhills, also had their visa renewal denied because their English Language sponsor passed the couple on to another institution for English teaching. The Immigration Department accused the Gledhills of being here to proselyte instead of blaming their own internal system’s lack of communication and control.

The Gledhills were reassigned to the Malaysian Mission and had left two weeks earlier. They were in charge of providing support to all the English teaching in the mission. Our visas won’t come up for renewal for at least one year. So we have that much time in the Country guaranteed. 

The church appealed the decision regarding the Elders in the Mongolian courts and the Justice department had ruled on the 4th of July in favor of the Immigration Office.  After conferring with the Asian Area Presidency, the church legal department and the missionary department decided not to appeal any further.

Members of the missionary department in Salt Lake City assembled on the Fourth of July to reassign the missionaries. Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve came and the new assignments were made. Two of the missionaries were going to the Oakland, California mission, two were reassigned to the Chicago, Illinois Mission and one Sister was reassigned to the Washington DC South Mission.

President Clark told how a mob had gathered in early June 1829 in Coalsville NY to lynch Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdrey. They were helped to escape through a rear window. A few days later they received the Melchizedek Priesthood. Joseph Smith later apologized that they failed to record the date because they were under so much duress at the time. Pres. Clark’s story illustrated how major blessings come after times of great challenge and hardship.

He talked about the recent elections in Mongolia that was a great victory for the political party wanting more democracy in Mongolia. With this new majority in power, the Church is hoping to get religious visas authorized for missionaries and to drop the English Teaching assignment that gives great power to the Immigration Department.

The missionaries were told of their assignments and then the four Elders and Sister were invited to share their feelings and testimonies. It was incredibly powerful and spiritual. Each professed their love for Mongolia and declared their intentions to return someday. Sister Byrd began her testimony by singing “I Stand All Amazed” in Mongolian and had everyone in tears. After the meeting everyone (about 40 – 50 in attendance) hugged and embraced. Pictures were taken. Mongolians and Americans embraced each other.

What a sad yet inspiring meeting to see these missionaries with their hearts and love for their work in Mongolia abruptly come to an end. Wow, what an introduction to the realities of the mission in Mongolia!    
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Elder Velasco saying goodbye to his Mongolian companion
After the meeting, we went out for a chicken dinner with the Shrobes, a couple assigned as Employment Specialists in the mission. We discussed the events of the day and the recent history of the church in Mongolia. It was good to process what had just happened.   

End of the week. We went on big shopping trip to the Mercouri Market. More about that another time. We learned our English language assignment will be with the big telecommunication company that has all of the land line business in Mongolia. We will meet with them Thursday after Naadam to figure when our classes will start.
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Mercury Market
We had dinner with President Clark and his wife Patricia at a Ukrainian restaurant. We got acquainted and he learned about us. He hasn’t yet decided on a church assignment for us.  Some of their family (two couples and a passel of grandchildren) will be arriving this weekend for a vacation in Mongolia. The Clarks are also entitled to one week vacation in-Country a year. Next week is the week. The work stacks up for them when they do take one. From what we observed this first week, he is one busy man.
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The Clarks and the Farmers
We then went to a baptism service at the Chingeltae Branch. We listened to the two converts bear their testimonies after their baptisms. Very impressive and spiritual. We ended the day by going out to eat with the Richardsons. They chose a restaurant that featured chicken.
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Elder Neuberger from St. Louis is on the far right
Next week is Naadam (Mongolia’s annual 4th of July type celebration). We arrived in time. The week after next is a once a year, 3 day senior couples retreat and tour in the Gobi Desert and other tourist sites. We arrived in time.
Humanitarian Service Project. The Richardsons have the assignment of Humanitarian Service Projects in Mongolia. They had organized a new one for Saturday morning and asked for our help along with the other senior couples. Several Mongolian members were there also to pitch in. We worked from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm assembling 400 drip irrigation systems to be distributed to members throughout Mongolia.  Pictures of the project will follow next week. It was a long but fulfilling day.

The evening ended with dinner with the Richardsons at a Chinese restaurant. Great meal with more leftovers to share! We visited their apartment and they came over to give us some assistance with our Wi-Fi connection.

They filled us in on the missionary rules for Senior couples.  One of the rules is not to wear our names tags in public. They are to be used only at the church. If anyone asks us a gospel oriented question, we can only anwer it if they are willing to step inside our church or if we are invited to their home. Another is not to give money to beggars or give or loan money to church members. Lots of problems come about when that happens. We are to wear our church clothes when out in public.  

Church on Sunday.  We attended the noon church service and met several members. We attended a Family History Sunday School class. Despite all our preparation, we can’t hear the language when they talk fast. They are impressed with our few faltering sentences and attempts to communicate. This will be a challenge – today will be the low point. We hope to be fluent in a year. Darlene hits it off well with the Russian speaking members.

Tonight we went to Hunts, the CES and the Perpetual Education Fund couple. They are known as the “party animals” among the senior couples. Sister Hunt served a delicious meal. We met the Stake President who speaks fluent Russian. We attended a fireside in which about 200 youth showed up to see a video production of themselves reenacting a Mormon Handcart Trek in the middle of the Mongolian wilderness. Look on the cover of this weeks’ Church News to read the story on the Trek and how it was organized.

Almost as amazing as the trek itself was watching a big chapel filled to capacity with happy, excited Mongolian youth. There were youth everywhere and they are loving the gospel. What a sight!    


  1. How interesting that Allen just happened to ask if i'd heard anything about your mission - just now checked and there you are! Looking forward to reading of your impact in the area.

    tauna powell

  2. Mongolia Talent Network is the leading Mongolian recruitment / headhunting agency in Ulaanbaatar. We have a large team of headhunters permanently based in Mongolia working to get you great job options in Mongolia. In addition to our direct clients, we also have over 100 companies using our website to advertise their job positions on our free job board.