The following is an extract from the diary of Estelle Kelly chaperoning a small delegation of campers from Australia – a country completely surrounded by water, to Mongolia – a country completely surrounded by land. The group visited Camp Erdenet and International Children’s Center Nairamdal. Erdenet is located near Selenge in the northern part of Mongolia. Nairamdal is located just outside Ulaanbaatar (UB).


DAY 1 – June 29

We had a satisfactory trip from Melbourne and arrived in UB at 5.45 pm. Unfortunately, our luggage did not make the same trip! We recovered 1 sports bag packed with AFL and cricket equipment and then bused to H9 – Hotel Nine.

Day 2 – June 30

Quiet morning around hotel and central square. We met with the Rotary Club Ulaanbaatar, Khulan Dashpuntsag and three Mongolian students who had visited Melbourne in January 2018. Khulan told us that her two children, a twelve-year-old girl and a fourteen-year-old boy will be accompanying us on the train. National Camping Association of Mongolia (NCAM) representative, Byamba Chultem, had been informed of this arrangement but it had not been confirmed.

The three young Mongolian guides helped us purchase sim cards and showed us how to access local currency. We had lunch with the three students on the Terrace Floor restaurant of the State Department Store which still bears the aspect of the Soviet era. Our guides escorted us on a walking tour around the big block back to our hotel.

At 6.00 pm we were picked up by NCAM, taken to Central Station to catch the train to Erdenet, 600 kms north of Ulaanbaatar. Byamba’s niece travelled with us and translated for us when needed. The Central railway station was crowded with kids and suitcases. Byamba had supplied a cold chicken dinner pack for us which we ate in the station foyer. A few local children were interested to speak with our students. Others were more interested in the chicken dinner. We boarded the train and set off at 8:30 PM. The old train was sturdy noisy as it clunked along and made it difficult to sleep. All the compartments, comprising four sleeper beds, were small as four people and our luggage had to be crammed in various locations. There was no privacy.

Day 3 – July 1

Arrived in Erdenet at 7:40 am and were met by NCAM Ivan “Big Man” Jargalsaikhan and Erdenet’s Finance Officer. Once again people and luggage were squeezed into a compact means of transport, this time a bus to take us out to the camp in Selenge. It took an hour and half travel on a bumpy road across the steppes. The paved road was part bitumen, mostly cracked concrete so it was safer to drive off road on the steppes.

We took a late breakfast and then settled into Camp Selenge. The program commenced immediately after breakfast. Our students dived right in without hesitation.

In the late afternoon we were welcomed by the whole camp. Our contingent carried the Australian flag into the compound to the soundtrack of the Australian National Anthem. It was a very proud moment for the girls. Two of the girls gave a brief speech.

In the evening the Camp counsellors presented a concert in the theatre complex.

Day 4 – July 2

The camp day begins with physical exercise at 7:30 AM. This challenged our coordination. Today is mini-sports day.  A round robin event was organised, including chess, basketball, drawing and games One game involved passing a water-filled balloon over the volleyball net using a towel to pass a balloon filled with water over the net to the other side using a towel. The points are awarded to the team who drops and bursts the balloon. Our girls were put out early.

Then Peter and the girls took the opportunity to engage the Mongolian kids in AFL ball play.

After lunch with the help of Mongolian students we built a ger from scratch. The girls were surprised how hard it was to build. Roof spokes would drop out unexpectedly and the centre poles have to be dead straight.

Then it was off to a local herdsman’s family living on the steppes in a 3 ger compound. This herdsman is a dairy farmer. The dairy compound consisted of a mound of dirt with a one rail wooden fence to contain the cows.

At the “dairy”, 20 cows are milked by hand twice a day. Whoever milks the cows sits on a small plastic chair, a bucket between their knees as the only equipment. Production is approximately 40 litres per cow per day. The milk is then supplied to a local cheese factory. Plain yoghurt is eaten in vast quantities in Mongolia. It is quite sweet to taste, not requiring sugar to be added.

Inside the ger, we were invited to tea made with fresh cows’ milk and a snack of dried cream so sweet it reminded us of lollies. The ger had two small beds, one on each side. There was a cat lazing on one of the beds. The kitchen centre in a ger is the stove located in the centre between two vertical poles allowing smoke to exit the hole at the top. The kitchen cupboard is located on the right side of the ger close to the bed. The bed doubles as a lounge chair during the day. There is additional seating on low stools.

This was a great opportunity to learn about nomadic Mongolian life:

  • A family typically packs up and moves to a new location to stop over grazing.
  • As a Mongolian enters a ger the men move to sit on the left and the women the right.
  • It is bad luck to walk through the centre of the ger.
  • If you hit your head exiting a ger, you re-enter and try again to avoid bad luck.

In the evening we went to the disco. Many younger children wanted to know about Australia. Pete and I were the only adults there. Our girls enjoyed the DJ, the dancing and the interaction with the Mongolian campers.

Day 5 – July 3

Physical exercise was cancelled due to rain.  After the first session we walked for half an hour to the entrance of the camp area. A horse and camel were saddled in preparation for rides. Each of our group experienced a ride on a two hump camel and a horse.

In the afternoon we participated in volley ball and tug of war competitions. Those not in a team were free to hang out and play smaller games with the other campers. This was a great opportunity to share small Australian souvenirs (Clip-on koalas, koala key rings and $2 coins).

After dinner the evening activity was country-themed. Our girls supplied transfers of the Australian flag to Mongolian students and camp counsellors. The Australian flag became a banner for our group.  We practiced the Aussie sports chant: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi, Oi, Oi” and discussed Aussie culture. One of the counsellors, Gaz, is a coin collector so we gave him our spare change. Unfortunately, rain arrived so the activity for the night was postponed.

Day 6 – July 4

Wake up physical activity

The morning involved round robin games in the hall: (rolly poly, bum shuffle, up and over, balance activity like a spiders web, bottle flip, balloon games)

During break time Pete got out the football taught the children how to do a drop kick. (They had a habit of throwing the ball up instead of dropping to the foot to kick.) Some went on to learn the torpedo. The Camp fireman and local policeman joined in.

Talent day was finalised with a concert in the theatre complex. The acts involved vocal solos, dance numbers, traditional dance, guitar playing. Veronica performed a tap song using a small water bottle.

We were hosted in a ceremonial ger by the Camp Director for a formal dinner. Pete and I were invited to don some royal robes. We were the ‘King’ and ‘Queen’ on this occasion. The Director welcomed the group; our students responded with a thank you speech and gifts. The Director received the Australian flag, the Camp Specialist an Australian souvenir.

The girls also had a turn trying on the royal robes before we headed down to disco.

Our girls entered as a group. We entered displaying the Australia flag and kangaroo hopping to the sound of the ‘Nutbush’. Ushered to our seats we did the Australian cheer: “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi Oi Oi” twice, as loudly as we could. Some of our girls performed the ‘Nutbush’ for everyone. Our kids mixed around the arena. The little kids loved Pete’s dancing saying they thought he was 20 years old! Estelle was invited to dance by a handsome young Mongolian man. At the end of the night we all join hands and sang a lullaby. Guess who yelled out “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi Oi  Oi Goodnight!”

Countries represented at the disco: India, Russia, America, Japan and Australia.

Day 7 – July 5

Breakfast – Physical Exercise – Pack – Feedback – Lunch – Depart for Erdenet (2:00 PM)

There were many good-bye speeches made with tears in eyes and hugs all round just before hopping on the bus to Erdenet back across the bumpy road to the second biggest city in Mongolia, Erdenet.

The main economic activity around Erdenet is Copper mining run by the Erdenet Corporation, a wholly owned Mongolian entity. We were hosted at an early dinner by Ivan (Big Man) Jargalsaikhan at a restaurant within the Erdenet Corporation building. Around the city we observed many flocks of sheep, goats, cows, horses and one distinctive herd of camels having a very grey tinge to the colour of their coat. The city also boasts a thermal power station.

On the outskirts of the city we went shopping at a carpet factory. The carpets ranged from very traditional Persian designs to modern abstract designs. We saw many small carpet mats in sets of four or six. These are made for sitting around a low table at meal times.

Transfer to train for overnight return to UB. The train departed Erdenet at 6:00 pm. It was a rough overnighter with not much sleep being had by any of us.



DAY 8 – July 6

We arrived back in UB at 6.00 am.  Our camp Counsellor met us at the station. His name is Dulguun (Dug).  We boarded two vans for the journey to Nairamdal. After about a 40-minute drive (27 kms out of UB) we arrived at a beautiful valley surrounded by green hills covered in small pine forests. We were welcomed by the International Cultural Officer, Mandakhaya.

Our rooms weren’t available so our luggage was stored into a ‘ger’ which had beds in it. The girls enjoyed the opportunity to rest.

Later, we were directed to the dining room in the main building. Breakfast was quite different from the previous camp being rice cereal out of a box followed by bread and jam and a cup of tea.

On the tour of the camp and over at the Summer Village we were asked the name of the country each house represented. There were six different architectural styles of each cluster of houses each representing a country/culture e.g. Cuba, Russia, Bulgaria, Japan. The close connection with Communist bloc countries was quite evident.

We moved into our rooms to freshen up before lunch. It was a good down/rest time for the girls. They were invigorated.  The first item on the Counsellor’s agenda was the medical check with the camp doctor. The medical forms from the Australian doctors were handed to the head doctor. Our counsellor Dug asked the doctor’s name. We were told her name is “O” and to remember her face as she is your camp doctor. The medical check: Any medications? Any infectious diseases? The forms are kept at the medical centre until we leave. Peter had his head checked because he had hit it on a ger doorway. (He hit it on the low exit/entry the door)

The children met with Dug to create a group name, a slogan, a dance, a group call and a group song. They then discussed ideas for their skit/movie.

At 5.00 pm the opening ceremony was held in Red Square (Terrace outside the Dining Hall shaped like a giant cruise ship!) It was opened with a military style entrance made by the staff. The Director and guest organisations including RCNB and the Red Cross made welcoming speeches. It was a very proud moment when Eirene marched out with the other flag bearers, they all wore a large red and blue sash and a small red scarf. The flagbearers moved to the row of flagpoles to raise the flag for their country. The countries represented were Mongolia, China, Denmark, America and Australia. Musical performances, dances, and demonstrations of life skills made up the rest of the opening ceremony.

The dining hall is very large and can cater for up to 800 students and staff. It is highly organised, the meals are served buffet style, your entire meal is set out on one tray. As Pete and I were lining up we commented on the efficiency of the service.

Following supper, we moved straight out of the dining room down to another gathering in Red Square. The first song was a lead version was the chicken dance with everyone following their counsellor’s movements. The music quickly moved on from one dance to another. I was intrigued to notice that they played a Wiggles (Australian children’s entertainers) song, ‘My Big Red Car’. Our kids took a little while to get into the mood as it seemed tame compared to the discos at Erdenet camp.

The ended at approximately 9.30 pm. Everyone was ready for an early night.

Day 9 – July 7

Dulguun gathered our girls together and introduced them to their meeting room:  a large ger next door to the hotel. He worked with the girls on five items to present at the Silver Swallow festival to be held in the theatre that night. The festival is a competition encompassing solo and group dance as well as singing. The counsellors perform with their group as the fifth item. In the short time available Dug arranged our girls into some creative performances – especially in dance. Veronica sang solo and won two awards; second for a solo of ‘Riptide’ and a special award for an impersonation of a song by Moana.

Day 10 – July 8

Byamba Chultem is a wonderful person in catering to the needs of foreign visitors to Mongolia especially in catering to the needs of our students. For this day our students experienced the Nairamdal City tour.

Our first stop was at the State Department store. There were six floors of shopping for our girls. Most of us ended up on the sixth floor at the souvenir section. We knew our way around because of our previous visit when we had first arrived in UB.

We had lunch next door at a little coffee shop. Byamba had organised Pizza from Pizza Hut for us!

The National Academic Drama Theatre was our next stop for a 2.00 pm performance. We were late in arriving so our seats were taken by others. Byamba talked our way into a set of seats in the side boxes. The performance was stunning seeing the different musical instruments and the costumes representing the traditional dress of Mongolia. The colours and styles were glorious.

Gobi Cashmere factory outlet is a little way out of town but we had an hour there. The girls enjoyed being able to purchase gloves, scarves and socks for family back home. The store is very well organised and is well staffed.

It was a great day away from camp routines for our girls.

That evening the staff presented a concert in the theatre. Our counsellor, Dug loves dancing and his face lit up each time he was on stage. He is a lovely young man. There was a skit about a man with five daughters who experienced confusion about which daughter should be wearing lipstick. We learnt after the show it is a traditional Russian skit. The audience laughed and laughed and it was so infectious that we all joined in.

Day 11 – July 9

Today is ‘My Choice Day’ at the camp. It was an opportunity for our students to teach Cricket and Australian Football League skills. The whole camp assembled in Red Square.  Peter and our girls demonstrated cricket batting and bowling. They demonstrated AFL handball and kicking.

After the demonstrations, the 800 students were given the freedom to choose any activity, they wished around the camp site. The site is huge and the activity sites were spread out across the campus. Campers could choose from sports such as volleyball, soccer, and footy. Other activities included craft, letter writing, drumming, tattooing (non-permanent!). It was two hours of freedom for the kids and an opportunity for our kids to hang out with Mongolian kids.

At 5.00 pm the closing ceremony commenced. Students were asked earlier in the day who could speak a language other than Mongolian or English. Tilly and Eirene from our group nominated French and Greek respectively. They both spoke at the closing ceremony saying a sentence about friendship. The word Nairamdal means Friendship in Mongolian.

After dinner 800 children attended the bonfire ceremony down at the open pavilion. The entertainment consisted of performers from UB and some traditional dancing. The fire truck arrived at the scene with the siren blaring and lights flashing. Clinging to the sides were the counsellors being delivered to the bonfire party. After the entertainment the children were invited onto the dance floor to disco dance for a while. A few conga lines got going and kids mingled a lot. It was a great way to finish the camp.

Day 12 – July 10

As usual the traffic into UB was very slow and crazy with drivers crossing two lanes and pushing in if there was an inch to spare. The driver of our van became frustrated with the slowness of the journey so took a swift turn left off the main road. We headed down back lanes on a deeply rutted track. The bus bounced along with the girls in the back seat literally flung above their seats. We took a video of it; the girls loved the wild ride. We arrived back in UB by 10.00 am were dropped at our hotel, the Naranbulag situated near Central station. We were met by our tour guide, Ebo, in the lobby. We hopped straight onto the tour bus after putting our cases in our rooms. Ebo took us down to the main square. There were many people milling about in traditional dress. Several gers were set up around the edge of the square. Ebo took us inside to taste mares’ milk, show us how it was made in a goat skin bladder by beating it 6-700 times with a stick. Fermented mares’ milk is called “airag”. It has a sharp taste to it. We tasted biscuits which looked like short bread but were made out of dried milk powder. I wasn’t sure if it was cow, goat or horse milk.

After lunch we walked back to the bus observing horsemen and horsewomen riding through the streets including through the porticos of important buildings. Then began the long drive out to the site of horse racing…