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Thursday 13 December 2012

Cold calling - A Wonga man in Mongolia

The Newsport has a new correspondent thanks to a news article we wrote last month which reported our first identified reader in Mongolia.

It seems that there is a healthy (but cold) Aussie Expat population, many from Far North Queensland including Wonga Beach's Steve McKechnie (pictured), who now call Mongolia home thanks to a burgeoning mining industry.

Steve resides in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar and will give us regular updates exclusive to The Newsport so we can learn more about a country which is a complete mystery to most of us, with a good dose of Aussie humour.

Over to you Steve...

Hello or sain bano from Mongolia!
My name is Steve McKechnie and I have been over here with my wife for about two years now working on a major mining project.

I was home at Wonga Beach for the Eclipse which was a world away from the -25 degrees in Ulaanbaatar when I returned.
Mongolia is a world away from Wonga in more ways than one, but here are a few points that have made an impact on us during our time here.

The Cold

As a long-time resident of Wonga Beach, Mongolia was the last place I expected to be living for the last few years but it has so far been an amazing experience and my wife and I have been blessed to see some amazing places, meet some equally amazing people who have been generous enough to share their homes and culture with us in one of the most remote places on earth.

We had the opportunity to come over to Mongolia to work on a major mining project in the South Gobi desert and make our home in Ulaanbaatar which is the capital city of Mongolia.  

There are over 600 Australians living and working in Mongolia as well as expats from all over the world with quite a few of them working either in the mining industry or supporting the mining industry.

The first thing we noticed when we landed at Ulaanbaatar was it is cold…very cold. Coming from the tropics in December to the middle of a Mongolian winter when it was -42 degrees when we landed was a huge shock.

We laugh about it now we have acclimatised but at the time we were wondering what we had got ourselves into! Our best quality Queensland coats where useless and an upgrade to some more heavy duty cold weather gear was the first job on the agenda.

Ulaanbaatar is officially the coldest capital in the world with an average annual temperature of -2.4 degrees. It sits at 1300m above sea level on the Mongolian Steppe. The winters are long and the winter days short and in the city the pollution is quite bad from the coal that is burned to heat the tradition Gers that surround the city.
Outside of the city the Nomadic herders have a more traditional way of measuring winter and have divided winter into nine stages of nine days which I thought I would share with you.

  • First nine – shimijn arkhi (mild alcoholic beverage made of milk) freezes
  • Second nine – arkhi (vodka) freezes
  • Third nine – tail of three-year-old ox freezes
  • Fourth – horns of four-year-old ox freeze
  • Fifth nine – boiled rice does not congeal any more
  • Sixth nine – roads blacken
  • Seventh nine – hilltops blacken
  • Eighth nine - ground becomes damp
  • Ninth nine – warm days set in

From a Queenslander’s perspective the winter is much longer than this as the first nine is in December and the temperature is well below zero by October and measuring the temperature based on having the tail freeze on your Ox is just wrong!

Summer is warm but very short so most Mongolians take this opportunity to go out to the country and enjoy the warmer weather with their families.

Pictured below: The Chingis Khan Horse statue. I believe it is the biggest Horse statue in the world.

Australian Expats in Mongolia

An expat community is a pretty social bunch and we Australians get together whenever there is a reason such as all the major like the Rugby Grand Final, AFL final and of course the State of Origin games where those of us from North Queensland show no sympathy to our Southern Cockroach neighbours.

There are numerous pubs and bars that stream all the major sporting events live and you will usually find a contingent of Aussies and Kiwi’s at one of these pubs during the footy season.

We also get together for other significant events such as ANZAC day on which we held what we believe to be the first ever Dawn Service in the Gobi. We attempt to pass on a few of the Australian traditions to the Mongolians such as Vegemite (they haven’t really taken to it yet) and Cricket (no threat to either our limited over or test teams just yet).

The Mongolians have trouble with our Australian and particularly Queensland accent and I have been told I talk too fast which is a first for someone from North Queensland!
Living in Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar is the capital and by far the largest city in Mongolia and home to most of the Aussie Expats.

First impressions are that it is a pretty drab city with a lot of pollution and very poor infrastructure (the road from the airport has more pot holes than the CREB track) and peak hour traffic that can back up for hours.

Having said this the improvements I have seen in the two years I have been here are amazing and with the new found wealth coming from the mining boom which is still in its infancy in Mongolia the infrastructure is improving at a rapid pace.
There are numerous four to five star motels in town for visitors and despite the traffic taxis are easy to find and cheap.
One of the first things you realise in Mongolia is that Chingis Khan is everywhere, from when you arrive at the Chingis Khan airport, to the Chingis Khan Irish Pub to have a Grand Khan Burger washed down with a Chingis beer or Chingis Vodka, to the statue of the main man in front of the Parliament building.

I find it amazing that someone as powerful as Chingis who took over most of the known world didn’t keep somewhere a bit warmer and closer to the coast for the capital city.

Shopping is a mixed bag with big centres such as the State department Store or UB Mart where you can buy just about everything you need, from clothing and shoes to a new TV or computer.

Food shopping is a bit more of a challenge so the Expat ladies network comes in handy to find out which supermarket has what in stock. The black markets are a great place to spend a day and a great place to buy traditional Mongolian clothes, boots, hats as well as the usual market fare found anywhere in the world.

"It is also a great place to get pickpocketed. You have to begrudgingly admire the pickpockets because they are very good at their trade!. Keeping your wallet and phone in an inside coat pocket, no back packs, and only taking what you need with you are some good common sense ways to avoid getting relieved of your possessions.

Pictured below: A traditional rider at the Naadam horse races.

A weekend off in Ulaanbaatar usually involves a trip to the country and there are some great tourist destinations such as (surprise surprise!) a giant statue of Ghingis Khan that is a must see.

The Terelg National park is a beautiful place for a day trip to go horse riding on the tough little Mongolian ponies or the Mongolian camels which have a bit more character than the single hump version we have in Australia. They look quite majestic with their full winter coats on.
There are two must see festivals in Mongolia - the first is Nadaam which is in July and celebrates the three traditional Mongolian sports of Mongolian Wrestling, Archery and Horse racing.
The Nadaam Horse racing draws a crowd that would rival the Melbourne Cup and runs over three days. The horses race over 23km for the two year-olds and up to 28kms for the older horses with children as the jockeys, some of whom race bareback.

The horses start at the finish line and then walk back across the plains and hills to the start line where they turn around and race back to the start line.

It is considered very good luck to rub some sweat off the winning horses on your face so the horses are mobbed as soon as they cross the finish line.

The second big festival is Tsagaan Sar or the winter festival which revolves around family and showing respect to the elders. It also involves non-stop eating of traditional Mongolian food at every home you are invited to visit. 

We'll hear more from Steve in 2013.

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Steve McKechnie, Ulaanbaatar, 19-12-12 09:39:
Hi Angie

Merry Xmas to you to, being away from home and our first grandchild for Christmas is a definate down side of this adventurous life we lead. If you follow social media you can keep up with us via Facebook (Stephen Mckechnie)


Steve Mc
Angie Whitburn, Mossman, 17-12-12 12:34:
Hi Steve and Deb, Miss your smiling face around Deb. I bet you can't sunbake over there! Great photo of you both! Didn't even recognise you both (all covered up). Congratulations on becoming Grandparents. I can here Deb saying "Im too young to be a Grandmother".
Hope you both have a wonderful Christmas and an eventful and safe New YEAR.
Cheers -Angie Whitburn (ex Becks)

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