Shirley Lu - General Journalism Projects in Mongolia
After graduating with my psychology degree in 2012, I started working full-time straight away in the field of special education. I was in that field for about three years when I started considering journalism as a career. This idea seemed to be out of the blue, an interest in a new career direction; but it wasn’t really. I’ve always been a keen reader and writer and working as a journalist seemed like an exciting and challenging way to make a living from my hobbies. I’ve always been interested in social justice issues, particularly in the areas of mental health, women’s rights, and environmental conservation - working as a journalist seemed like a way to generate changes in those areas.
One day a post by Projects Abroad popped up on my Facebook feed as I was looking into journalism degrees and I noticed they offered journalism placements in Mongolia. I started reading about Mongolia, and became more fascinated by the country. Pico Iyer describes Mongolia as “moving ahead by embracing modernity and rediscovering its own history”; I pictured myself there, and parts of me began to align. I was determined to work as a journalist, there was an itch to ditch full-time work for an adventure and I had a desire to experience the contradictions of Mongolia while fulfilling the need to serve. In June 2015, I started taking the necessary steps to make it happen.
And then it was happening. It was September 2015 and I was on a plane. I was in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. I was being greeted by Zula, my Projects Abroad coordinator. I was in a fifth-floor apartment on Peace Avenue, my home for six weeks. I was being greeted by Erka, my elderly host mother. I was being given a transport card, a SIM card, a map of town. I was eating ‘buuz’ (steamed dumplings filled with meat) with fellow volunteers near Sukhbaatar Square. I was in bed for my first night in Mongolia. It was happening.
My Journalism placement
Work started the very next day. I had organised two part-time placements for myself. One was with NTV, an English- and Mongolian-speaking broadcasting network. The other was with Mongol Messenger, a government-run English newspaper. I decided that I would spend two days at the broadcasting network, which was based in the South-eastern quarter of the city, and three days at the newspaper, which was based in the city centre. Erka’s apartment was exactly halfway between my two placements. Even though I had a transport card, I walked to work and back every day. It was cold. In fact, in the first week of November 2015 (which was my final week in Mongolia), I experienced temperatures of about zero degrees Celsius; locals told me that it was surprisingly warm for that time of year. Still I walked. Ailsa Piper, author of ‘Sinning Across Spain’, said at an author event recently that “the nice thing about walking is that you’re small”. It’s true. I really enjoyed being small in the hustle of Ulaanbaatar. Walking allowed me to notice details that I’d otherwise miss: the peeling paint of the once-vibrant street art on apartment exteriors; the pack of cats that frequented the playground two blocks down from Erka’s apartment; the twenty-or-so children who rode their tricycles around Sukhbaatar Square after school. Honest details, details of daily life in Ulaanbaatar.
My two placements were great. Zula and my two project supervisors took into account the fact that I had minimal journalism experience, but also respected my wishes to be as independent as possible. I felt so empowered by the support and space they gave me. With that support and space I was able to produce content that I’m truly proud of. At NTV I said “yes” when asked to transcribe interviews with survivors of the 2011 earthquakes in Japan and help editors put the footage together. At Mongol Messenger I said “yes” to every event I was asked to cover: first, a conference about human trafficking organised by the International Organisation for Migration; then the release of a report about entrepreneurship by the World Bank; then a photography exhibition about the decline of the nomadic lifestyle. I was also asked to pitch and produce my own stories. This is how I met Zola, the founder of a non-for-profit called Young Women for Change. It is also how I learned about the role of the ‘ger’ (round tents, traditionally made out of camel wool) in treating and rehabilitating people with mental illness.
Travelling around Mongolia
These experiences were some of the reasons why I travelled for two days by bus to Olgii, a town in the mountainous westernmost province of Mongolia. I travelled there for the annual Golden Eagle Festival, which is where I met Ashol-Pan, a 13 year old female eagle hunter and winner of the previous year’s competition. During a break between festival events, I also struggled up a rocky hillside and was helped to the top by three Kazakh children and where I, through immersion and exposure, perfected my pronunciation of, “Bi tany zurgiig avch bolokhuu?” (“Can I take your photograph?”).
When not working, I spent time with Erka. I had dinner with her every weeknight except Fridays. She didn’t speak much English, but we managed to communicate to each other using Google Translate and my Mongolian phrasebook. I learned that she studied in Moscow and was a ballerina for a little while. I accompanied her when she went shopping or when she visited her son and his family. I also socialized with my fellow volunteers when not working. We met on Friday nights and tried restaurants in every quadrant of town. When we were able to, my fellow volunteers and I travelled to one of the many nearby national parks for a weekend. My favorite outing was to Hustai National Park, known for its population of free-roaming ‘takhi’ (Przewalski horses). Two volunteers and I woke up at 3:00am on the morning we were due to leave. We boiled some water, stuffed some teabags into our pockets, put on all our layers, and climbed the hill next to the ger that we were staying in. We sat and watched the sunrise together, silent save for the occasional awe-filled sigh.
When my placement ended, I travelled for another six weeks. When I arrived home in mid-December, I read my journal entries from my time in Mongolia and was overwhelmed. It hit me all at once - the country I had lived in, the people I met, the stories I had heard, and the stories I had told people. All the times I said ‘yes’. All the times I was brave.
There was fear along the way, especially in the planning process. Leaving my job of three years was frightening. Being away from home for such a long time was frightening. Spending so much money at once was frightening. Any time I had second thoughts about the venture, though, I remembered these words, which I have seen attributed to Jack Canfield and to George Addair: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.”