One-time B&W writer Natasha Chichilnisky-Heal, rather than starting junior year, lit out for Mongolia. They have investment banks there too!
There’s a common saying in Mongolia: “margash, margash…” Translation: “tomorrow, tomorrow.” Perhaps what amounts to an expression of Mongolian time-dilation explains why I’ve decided to delay my return to Columbia for a year. After all, the yak just don’t roam quite as freely in Manhattan as they do on the steppe, and I don’t think I do either. [At right: River in Baltsengel soum, Arkhangai aimag, Mongolia.]
I came here in June of 2007 with a plan to intern at the first Mongolian investment bank, Mongolia International Capital Corporation, for three months before returning to my junior year at Columbia College. I’d picked my classes, settled my living situation, met a boy, and generally gotten myself pumped for 2007-2008. This year, I thought, would be different. I would dig into my studies, go to my classes, build my resume, and generally be impressive as all hell. Mongolia was supposed to be a an interesting stop along the way from spring to fall, a break from the never-ending pressures of New York and an escape from the US in general.
I arrived at Chinggis Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, at 2:00am after a seven-hour delay in Beijing. My new boss, a Swiss Columbia graduate named Emanuel Steiner, and two of my new Mongolian coworkers (Bayasgalan and Batbayar) picked me up and drove me to my new apartment. I had been warned that it was very “Mongol,” but at the time I’d had no idea how to interpret that modifier. There were no lights. The furniture was monolithic and made of polished wood. I later discovered that all the wiring systems came together under the drainpipe of my kitchen sink, where they daily invited electrical fires. My wall was covered with paintings of the moon rising over silvery lakes and stunted Mongolian horses loping across the empty plains. I almost cried myself to sleep, with no money, phone, or clear expectations.
[Above: Ex Peace Corps volunteer Ryan Finn looks pensively at the structure of Hilary O’Gorman’s ger poles. Kharkhorin, Uvurkhangai aimag, Mongolia]
The next morning another Mongolian coworker (Dulguun), now studying in London, knocked on my door to fetch me to the office. She brought me to an Austrian café on the way to work, and we sat and shared some rolls with butter and coffee. I arrived at the MICC office less than seven hours after my arrival in the country, was given a desk, assigned to work on raising funds for a canned meat company, and soon began to scour my mind for some explanation of what I was doing in Mongolia.
[View across main plaza of Ulaanbaatar, Sukhbaatar Square, including the Parliament building, National Opera house, and gaping Mongolian herders. Ulaanbaatar]
Over the next few months I settled into my Mongol-ed out apartment, dug my heels into my work, grappled a bit with Mongolian (which sounds a little like an animated Englishman speaking backwards), got kidnapped, was hunted down by the American Embassy, fell in with a gang of Peace Corps Volunteers, and ate goat (I’ve been a vegetarian since the age of five). I also managed to fall in love with a country, a boy, and most surprisingly a way of life that involves sheltering in a felt-covered wood-frame tent through -40 degree Celsius winters. Mongolia is a truly unique mixture of Soviet-era consciousness and infrastructure and Chinggis Khan-era lifestyle. The people are loud, pushy, deeply attached to their nomadic and empire-building history, and amazing at coping with adversity.
I realized somewhere along the way that I was here to do what I could for this country, and to see what it could do for me. Simply by virtue of being white and having some experience in the American and European finance worlds, I can be a gateway for foreign investment in Mongolia. I and others in my position are supposed to represent the bridge between the existing Mongolian financial infrastructure and financial institutions in more developed nations. I think it hits me most when I’m bumping along a typical Mongolian “road”, a beaten dirt path initially traveled by cows, in a 20 year old Russian van—one of my favorite clients is a Mongolian road-construction company. Maybe I can help them raise the funds to pave the road to the second-largest city in the country. What would happen then?
[At right: Peace Corps volunteer Robert Shore squatting over goat khorkhog, a traditional Mongolian meal preparation involving a whole, dead goat cooked in a hole full of hot rocks. Arkhangai aimag, Mongolia]
My mother always says happiness is the feeling you get from being useful. Despite the constant frustrations of time, food, weather, and language, I feel I am useful here. The social concerns of the New York City 20-something melt away in a city where most of my friends are either volunteers far from home or middle-aged international financiers, there are two good nightclubs, and the only thing to “do” is drink vodka or fermented mare’s milk in a circle of ten. But even here one finds a blossoming underground cultural movement, and occasionally bumps into student activists and bizarre international film festivals. There’s even a Mongolian Columbia graduate running the hippest art gallery in the country. So life is, of course, different, but the important things remain the same.
Seat of the Mongolian nationalist movement. Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
Sunset on the town of Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of Mongolia.