With June approaching quickly and with the weather becoming warmer, the influx of tourists coming to experience the wild nature of Mongolia increases. While tourists contribute to the local economy by spending their hard-earned money in Mongolia, a team of professors and students from Canada’s Laurentian University in Greater Sudbury, Ontario are working to make a bigger impact on the local communities.
A 29-member team headed by Professor Sebastien Nault of the Outdoor Adventure Leadership program at Laurentian is embarking on a 29-day trip in Mongolia. The project is a mountain expedition and community development project for students from the Outdoor Adventure Leadership (ADVL) program and the Health Promotion Without Borders program. As such, the project participants will be divided into two groups, which will work on health education and the promotion of a healthy lifestyle through physical education with residents of Sogoog soum and Dayan soum in Bayan-Ulgii Province.
A container has been shipped from Greater Sudbury, filled with equipment and materials required for the project. As part of their initiative, they will be distributing thousands of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste to teach local residents proper oral hygiene. They are also bringing water pumps for the community and gardening tools.
Professor Nault said that he didn’t want to just go to Mongolia to climb mountains and go back home, he wanted to make an impact. In the end, it seems that the professor and his team have found a perfect balance between making an impact and enjoying themselves, and honing their skills through adventures in the Mongolian wilderness.
Professor Nault is a Master Lecturer at Laurentian University’s School of Human Kinetics. He is also a past graduate of the university’s Outdoor Ad- venture Leadership program. He has been rock and ice climbing for 23 years and has extensive domestic and international outdoor travel experience. He has been certified as an outdoor guide in Hokkaido, Japan. He was a member of the 2002 British Heart of Asia Expedition and summitted Snow Church (4,100 m), which was the unconfirmed first Canadian ascent of the peak. He was the 2007 leader and organizer of the Understanding of Outdoor Life in Mongolia expedition organized for the Hokkaido University of Education Outdoor Life Program.
Nault lived with a nomadic family on the outskirts of Zhunn Mod in the months of July and August in 1999 and 2000. He learned basic Mongolian language skills and customs during his time in Mongolia. He was introduced to the community in Sogoog soum through Source of Steppe Nomads NGO (formerly Kazakh Family Development NGO). He has worked on many research projects focusing on the area. Most recently, Nault was the leader and organizer of a Health Promotion without Borders expedition to Sogoog, carried out in partnership with Source of Steppe Nomads.
The UB Post had a chance to sit down with Professor Nault to discuss the project and how his experiences living in Mongolia have impacted his life and his love for Mongolia and its people.
First off, you’re a Master Lecturer at Laurentian University’s School of Human Kinetics. Can you explain to us exactly what human kinetics is?
The School of Human Kinetics – it used to be called the Department of Physical Education – has changed a little bit. We have six programs within the university, we’re representing two of these programs with this project, one is Health Promotion and the other is Outdoor Adventure Leadership. Within the 29-member team that has come to Mongolia, we have students from both of these programs. The students graduate with a bachelor’s degree in physical and health education, either specialized in Outdoor Adventure Leadership or Health Promotion.
Health promotion is more about promoting healthy lifestyles through physical education and other things. Outdoor Adventure Leadership is similar, in that it has to do with promoting a healthy lifestyle through outdoor programs and leadership development. It is a very unique program in Canada.
I understand that you lived in Mongolia for around two months in 1999. That is almost two decades ago, how has the country changed since you first arrived here?
UB has changed incredibly. When I first arrived here, there were very few tall buildings; the Ulaanbaatar Hotel might have been the tallest building. Now, the traffic is booming. Apart from that, it is good to see the development and that the people have more access to things.
Have you witnessed development outside of Ulaanbaatar, in the rural areas?
I made it out to Bayan-Ulgii Province in 2002, in the same area we will be working in now. A lot of these communities have greenhouses now, they’re growing their own vegetables. The NGO we are working with, Source of Steppe Nomads, they built a kindergarten and were relying on foreign donations for vitamins. Someone had the smart idea to grow their own vegetables and can them; kids can eat them through the winter and get the vitamins they need. These are the types of improvements I have seen.
Your trip to Mongolia in 1999, was it part of a project or was it a personal trip?
It was more of a personal trip. Mongolia had always fascinated me, I read about its history and I thought it was such a great country. I was working in Japan at the time, and I had made the decision to go to Mongolia for my summer vacation. I just bought a plane ticket, I knew no one. I had a friend that had come here before and he referred me to a guide, I ended up connecting with him and traveled to the countryside.
All I wanted to do was go to the countryside and ride a horse. I ended up at this family’s house, it was a strange situation, where they just put us there and I couldn’t communicate with the family. I had set up my tent near their ger, and the family was like, who are these people? The second morning, I woke up from my tent and they were killing a sheep. This is the kind of stuff I do a lot back home; I am a hunter and a trapper. I said, “Oh, I can do that,” and walked over there with my knife, I didn’t say anything and was just about to use my knife when the guy stopped me and said, “No, don’t use your knife.” He showed me how do it, and it was like an instant bond of friendship. We had grown close, and they asked me to stay the whole summer. I ended up staying, and sometimes I wonder if I had overstayed, but it was a great experience.
So, can you tell me about your current project and how you got linked up with the Source of Steppe Nomads NGO?
The NGO is another fascinating story. I’ve had all of these fascinating stories in Mongolia. I used to teach at a university in Hokkaido, Japan, the same program as I do now. I organized an adventure trip here in 2007; I brought three students and one teacher. We visited north of the Onon River, near the Russian border, and we went fishing and went back to UB. Back in UB, my Mongolian friend Ganbat invited me to this party, and at the party I met this American woman. She told me that she had started an NGO for community development in Bayan-Ulgii, and told me that the community wanted to focus on ecotourism. Eco-tourism was my specialty, I finished my master’s degree in eco-tourism. I said I would help, and I went back to Japan, got funds, and came back to the community, and that is how it started.
The project we are currently undertaking is divided into two parts, health promotion and community development. The students wanted to come here to climb the mountains, but because I learned so much in eco-tourism, I didn’t want to just go somewhere and use the mountains and come back. I told my students that I wanted to do something that the local people could benefit from, and the students agreed to do a project. That’s when we reached out to Redpath Mining, they’re contractors for the Oyu Tolgoi mine. They have head offices in Sudbury and I contacted them. They said they would support the project by paying for a container from Sudbury to Ulaanbaatar, taking care of all the logistics. All the students had to do was load up the container with the medical equipment and aid. The container is in UB now and is supposed to leave for Ulgii today.
I wanted to ask you more about the health promotion aspect of your project. If I’m not mistaken, you’re trying to promote a healthy lifestyle to the local population in Bayan-Ulgii. Will you be conducting health education sessions and courses?
It is based more on small communities in Bayan-Ulgii, Sogoog soum and Dayan soum. Yes, we will be conducting courses. In the container, I do not know how many thousands of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste we have. That is one thing we will be doing, teaching proper oral hygiene. One student’s specialty is yoga and she will be teaching yoga and physical education.
It sounds a lot like that saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”.
Exactly, we brought over lots of gardening tools in the container also. There’s a store in Canada called Home Hardware, and they sponsored all of these tools. We will also be setting up a water pump within the greenhouse, so locals do not have to manually water their crops.
Where will your team be staying during the course of your project?
When we are in Sogoog soum, Lena Khazildola, the director of Source of Steppe Nomads NGO has set up gers for us. We will also be staying in the wilderness for around ten days, so everybody is prepared with tents and everything.
Can you tell me more about the community development initiatives of your project?
Source of Steppe Nomads NGO built a kindergarten in a border city in Bayan-Ulgii, but they have no access to water, they have to get water from a nearby river. So, we brought over a water pump and a large water container, so they can pump and store it and have access to water.
Do you have plans for any future projects?
Ginette Michel, the director of the Health Promotion without Borders Program at Laurentian University, wants to come here every two years. I do not know how it will happen, but we are hoping it will continue.
This question is a bit off topic, but I’m sure you have an appreciation for the nomadic lifestyle. What we have witnessed in the last ten years is large-scale rural to urban migration. Do you think it is the responsibility of Mongolians to preserve that nomadic lifestyle?
That is a hard question. My friend, Gantumur, the one I stayed with when I first visited Mongolia – I don’t know when, but probably in 2008, his family used to be herders, and now they’ve moved to the city. His wife works for the Ministry of Transport, and he was not working the last time I saw him. They have left the nomadic lifestyle behind, and at first I was like, “Oh, my god, what happened?” But the other side of me says, being a herdsman is a hard life, and if they can have a better life in UB doing something else, good for them. Our own culture has gone through that. All my grandparents were farmers in Canada, and they moved into town eventually. You can’t force people to live in a museum because you want to see them like that, because you think it’s romantic. It’s a romantic idea and it doesn’t work. I’m glad I had the experience of living with a Mongolian family, because I understood the harsh conditions. It was romantic on the side, but then I saw the other reality, of the kids getting sick. It was okay for me, because I knew, eventually, I would return home.
Is there anything you want to add before we wrap up?
I would like to thank our sponsors and collaborators, Redpath and Source of Steppe Nomads, and their director, Lena Khazildola, who have been so helpful.