John Flynn is a former Peace Corps volunteer, human rights advocate, and English teacher and has lived in several regions of the world. Here he shares some of his unique insights from his experience residing in Mongolia over the past several years.Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is John Flynn. I’m an American citizen originally from San Francisco, California. I first came to Mongolia in 2008 as a Peace Corps volunteer working in the education sector. I was a teacher trainer in eastern Mongolia for almost 2 years. I had a fantastic, comprehensive introduction to Mongolia: language training, culture training, safety training. So I’m still in Mongolia now; it will be 5 years in June.
What are some of the gest adjustments you have had to make in Mongolia?
I think the U.S. State Department ranks Mongolia as a very difficult country to work in based on 4 criteria: the climate (the long cold winters), the food, the transportation (transportation from the countryside to the capital city can be a 30 to 40 hour ordeal). And then the language is very difficult. I would say that these 4 areas have been very difficult in Mongolia.
How have you been making a living in Mongolia?
As I mentioned, the first two years I was a Peace Corps volunteer. When I finished my Peace Corps service, I came to Ulaanbaatar and worked on a project to prevent and combat human trafficking for 2 years. I also worked for Rio Tinto for two months doing language training.
Is it easy for foreigners to find work in Mongolia? What fields are in the greatest demand for expatriates?
In the capital city, it is relatively easy to find work. In the countryside, it is not. I guess there are volunteer opportunities in the countryside. In the capital city, you always have, of course, English language education. There are many English schools here. And then there is, of course, the mining industry. There are a lot of expats working in mining or mining-related industries. What are some of the responsibilities of Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia?
I would say the number one most important responsibility is to represent the United States of America as a professional volunteer. And that includes physical appearance: grooming habits and cleanliness. How you keep your home. More important are your attitude and behavior. This is very important because for some Mongolians, the Peace Corps volunteer may be the first foreigner they have ever really met or gotten to know. And so that Mongolian person who is working with or interacting with the Peace Corps volunteer is making judgments about the United States of America based on this one person. So it’s very important how they act. I would almost say it’s like being a volunteer ambassador.You have spent a good amount of time in rural Mongolia. What are your impressions of countryside life?
I spent my Peace Corps time in the 4th or 5th largest city in Mongolia, Choibalsan in Dornod province. So it’s not exactly the most rural setting you’ll find. But when I was living and working in Choibalsan, I made several trips working for education in the countryside. Mongolia is still a nomadic culture. It’s changing so fast. It might be 1 in 4 people are still nomadic. Maybe it used to be 1 in 3 or 1 in 2. It’s changing so fast as people move into the capital city. Life in the countryside can be very hard. How are you going to make a living? Traditionally, the main industry has been herding. Herding the 5 national animals in Mongolia: horses, camels, cows, sheep, and goats. There have been a couple of severe winter storms or zuds that have killed off like 20 to 30% of the livestock of Mongolia. We are talking 10 to 12 million animals. And there have been families who have lost their entire livelihood. So a lot of those families have moved to the capital city hoping for a better life. What I saw mostly in the countryside was schools. There is usually a dormitory next to the school. The kids come in quite far from the towns called soums and they live in the dormitories and go to school.
Even though it has a small population, Mongolia is an enormous country. Have you been able to travel to many areas of Mongolia?
Not as much as I would like to. There are 21 provinces and I’ve been to 8 provinces. You’re correct; Mongolia is a very large country. I think it has the lowest population density of any country in the world. It’s like 1.77 Mongolians every square kilometer. Mongolia has many interesting places to visit from dense forests to desert to high mountains. Where would you recommend that foreigners travel in Mongolia?
There are two places most foreigners want to go. One is up north to this beautiful, deep, pure water lake called Huvsgul. And they also want to see the Gobi Desert. And for short day trips around UB, tourists seem to be quite interested in visiting monasteries. There are about a half dozen monasteries. And then there is the western Altai region, where large mountains are located. There is also a population of Kazakh people in west Mongolia, especially the province called Bayan Olgii.
What places in Ulaanbaatar would you suggest visiting that you might not find in a guidebook?
I would recommend visiting the cemetery. It’s the largest cemetery I’ve ever seen. It takes up this entire hillside area. You would need to go there with a Mongolian to get past the guard in the gatehouse. It’s quite interesting to go to this cemetery. But most people don’t go there. Also visit some of the ger districts on the outskirts of the city to see how most Mongolians live. They live in gers and wooden houses. Other than that, there is some very good hiking just south of UB near the Zaisan neighborhood. I think a nice way to balance out a visit to UB is to go hiking up in the mountains where you have really great views of the capital city, fresh air, trees, and peace and quiet. A Russian taxi driver once told me that “people are people.” Now that you have lived in Mongolia for some time, do you believe that Mongolians are unique?
Everybody is unique. One of the unique qualities of Mongolians is that they live in the present moment. So planning is something that Mongolians don’t seem to have a lot of experience in doing and this is, of course, related to the nomadic culture. Mongolians can be very innocent, especially the Mongolians who come to the capital city from the countryside. They may meet a foreigner or a Mongolian who is trying to take advantage of them, but there first instinct might be to trust that person. That person’s a good person.As someone who has lived in Mongolia during a time of major change, can you please share your thoughts about the changes that have taken place?
One of the main changes is the migration of the population. People are moving to the capital city. So when I came here in 2008, the population of Ulaanbaatar was just over a million and now it’s either 1.3 or 1.4 million, which is a change because now we’re talking about 50% of the entire population living in the capital city. And then I can talk about the changes in the capital city. There are two problems people are always talking about: traffic and population. As far as pollution goes, burning cheap quality coal is polluting the air. Then traffic is a problem. There are like 35,000 new cars or cars brought into Mongolia every year and probably most of those are in the capital city so the traffic is just unbearable. I walk everywhere so I don’t deal with this problem, but the smoke problem we all have to deal with. We all breathe the same air.Dornod is one of the largest provinces in Mongolia. Is there a mining boom taking place in Dornod as well?
There is oil in Dornod. When I was there in 2008 and 2009, it was mostly oil exploration. So now I would imagine it has moved beyond exploration. I remember meeting a couple of Canadians who were involved in a Uranium mine in Dornod. And there are a lot of Chinese businesses working in the mining sector in Dornod. Dornod has a large border area with China and Russia. So there is quite a mining boom going on in Dornod province.
The negotiations over Oyu Tolgoi have brought to the public’s attention both good and bad aspects of mining. What do you think are the most positive and negative aspects of mining in Mongolia?
On the positive side, there’s over 1 trillion U.S. dollars of minerals in the ground. If these minerals are recovered and the resources are used in a responsible manner, then this could be a great thing for a country of 2.8 million people. Potentially, everybody could become a millionaire in Mongolia, if the resources were distributed equally and fairly. The potential is to fund one of the most fantastic education systems in the world. Mongolia could have a first class health system and a great transportation system.
I think in the long run Mongolia will do very well, but in the short run we’re going through a boom and bust cycle in Mongolia. And there was a boom two years ago, and now we’re going to see a difficult year. And I think most people agree it’s going to be a difficult year in Mongolia, but we just don’t know how difficult. The number one concern, however, is whether there is enough water for both mining and other economic activities.
You have been involved on a project focusing on human trafficking. How serious of a problem is it in Mongolia?
When we’re talking about trafficking either in Mongolia or worldwide we are talking about young women being exploited for sex and young men being exploited for labor. This has been quite a problem within Mongolia: domestically, with Mongolians exploiting other Mongolians and, internationally, Mongolians have been trafficked to a number of countries.What can be done to protect Mongolians from human trafficking?
The most effective measure for combatting human trafficking is prevention because once a person is trafficked, especially if they are trafficked into a foreign country, it is very difficult to get them back. We can prevent trafficking by teaching young people about what human trafficking is, how it works, and how you can protect yourself against human trafficking. If you do have problems, the best place people can go is non-governmental organizations. Now we have a comprehensive anti-trafficking law to prevent and combat human trafficking that really supports human rights. It really supports the victim.
When you leave Mongolia, what will stand out in your mind about the country?
The rapid changes that are occurring here. It’s hard to know what direction this country is going to take. And, of course, I’m referring in large part to the mining activity. Is Mongolia going to be like this great model of how to use resources wisely and invest in the future like a Norway or is it going to be more like a Nigeria? So many changes are occurring at such a fast rate. Buildings are popping up like weeds growing in the sidewalk. I’ll be curious to come back 10 years later to see how it’s going.
Eric Pohost/Journalism for Development/