The first guest of our UB Expats column is Allyson Seaborn. Our readers most likely know her as the former host of “Talk with Me” talk show on Star TV. Allyson has done interviews with many Mongolian celebrities and interesting personalities — economist and talk show host Jargalsaikhan Defacto, singer Nominjin, pop diva Sarantuya, violinist and judge of “Mongolia’s Got Talent” Deegii, former US Ambassador Piper Campbell, and many more — but not many know that Allyson herself has an extremely compelling story to tell.
Allyson studied law at both Bond University and at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia and has a degree in education from the University of Queensland. Aside from her respectable media career as a producer and TV presenter at Star TV, Allyson has previously done freelance work for the Asia Foundation as well as for Oyu Tolgoi, and worked as a lawyer and was admitted to the High Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of Queensland.
I’ve known Allyson since the time she worked as an editor and feature writer at The UB Post, and I’m proud to say that Allyson considers me one of her first Mongolian friends. And so I was delighted to be invited over to her home in Zaisan to talk to her about her life in Mongolia. She welcomed me warmly, standing at the doorway to her apartment with a bright smile. “You found it!” she exclaimed happily as her small dog, Daisy, trotted at her feet when I arrived late.
Inside, her spacious apartment was adorned with various paintings, souvenirs and artifacts, each of which with their own enthralling tale.
After some refreshments and small talk catching up, Allyson gave me a tour of her home and shared stories about some of the things she has collected – her “treasures” she calls them.
The spear that hung atop a desk in her son’s room, which looked like an authentic Zulu warrior weapon, once belonged to her mother, she says. Allyson eagerly explained that there were some decorations at the base of the spearhead made of human bone, which was removed, and that her mother was given the spear by an admirer who regarded the relic as his most prized possession. She said the spear was passed on to her after her mother passed away, and that she always assumed it belonged to her father who spent time in Egypt, but later discovered that it was actually her mother’s.
I knew from our friendship that Allyson loved arts, but I never realized that she was also an avid collector. The paintings, sketches, and sculptures that decorated her home were by prominent Mongolian and Australian painters — including a painting and sketch by Orkhon Namkhaidagva and an acrylic painting by artist Otgonbayar, who are friends of Allyson’s – as well as some by Allyson herself and her family.
During my perusal, I discovered that Allyson is quite the artist herself. She showed me a jug she made during a pottery class. It was made in the shape of a woman’s torso with the lip hanging where the neck would have been. Rather titillating I thought. Impressed, I asked whether she sculpts regularly, but Allyson said earnestly, “I’m more of a one-hit wonder,” and then laughed cheerily.
From paintings and sculptures, we moved on to her collection of artifacts, specifically Mongolian ones. None of it, Allyson assures me, is of any monetary value but that she just thinks they’re “interesting and beautiful.” From a small wooden chest, she drew out a small chunk of dinosaur fossil the size of a matchbox she found in the Gobi, a meteorite which had a certificate of authenticity, an rusty arrowhead from long ago that had punctured a tire of the car Allyson’s family was traveling in in the Gobi, a balance scale used by Mongolian gold and silver smiths a hundred or so years ago, a snuff bottle purchased from a Tsaatan who made it out of reindeer antler, antlers with carvings depicting the life of the Reindeer people, various stones she collected from places she visited in Mongolia, a broken piece of tile she found lying in dirt in the ruins of old Kharkhorin (the ancient capital of the Mongol Empire), as well as some other artifacts that she collected from various places. Narantuul’s antique’s section is her favorite place to find new “treasures”, but she warned conspiratorially that a lot of the stuff there is fake and that you need a keen eye and knowledge to find the authentic ones.
As she delved into the stories that go with her collection, I realized that she had seen parts of Mongolia that tourists and foreigners hardly ever get to see — things that even I, a native, have yet to see.
From there we moved on to her family. Allyson currently lives in Zaisan with her husband and two children (a girl and a boy).
She told me stories about her French grandmother whom she adoringly calls Tutie, and her other grandmother from Chile, who was raided by the Nazi SS during WWII as they suspected of her being a spy. She also told me about her husband — whom she describes affectionately as an Australian “wild bushman” but has “calmed down now and has a master’s degree” — who grew up like a wild Aborigines and had even been breastfed by an Aboriginal woman who “ate witchetty grub every morning”. She said he grew up in a big buffalo station in the northern territory of Australia where Allyson’s in-laws tended to thousands of buffalo, thousands of kilometers away from people with no neighbors.
When asked what made her choose to stay for the long term in Mongolia, Allyson explained it was because of, “My friendships with Mongolians. Lifelong friends here, the beauty of the countryside, and the fact that every summer there is something new and exciting to do – we’re never bored here. It floors me that Mongolians haven’t seen their own backyard. There’s so much on offer, so much raw adventure. It’s not that sanitized, fake hospitality. No theme parks here – it’s the real thing. I mean look at my treasures, I just found these things. I mean I have a dinosaur bone.”
As for her secret to living so adventurously in Mongolia, she says, “I’m just bloody lucky. [I’m in the] right place at the right time. And a little bit, this is it, spontaneity. I love getting off the beaten track, going without plans, going without an itinerary. Go with the flow.”
Allyson said that since Mongolia has no wars, drugs, weapons and is free of religious extremism, she feels comfortable traveling anywhere in the country without a set plan.
“I went to Ulaangom by myself without an itinerary in November two years ago. And I found the best way to travel in Mongolia is just like that, going with the flow. You buy a ticket and hope there’s someone at the airport who can take you to a hotel. You’re kind of just able to travel like a free spirit.”
“And that Ulaangom Museum is fabulous — amazing. You should go there,” she added
When there were no hotels or tourists camps available, she says she “stayed with herders on the Russian border.”
“It was so freezing, but I didn’t feel it because I was so exhilarated. I herded, rounded up horses with malchin (herders). Spectacular, and there was no itinerary – and you can’t do that in any other country. Just wind up somewhere and meet up a nice local who has a cousin or a friend 200 kilometers north. Next day you’re headed towards the Russian border. It just always works out. But I have slowed down since. I’m taivan (calm).”
To Allyson, the greatest thing about living in Mongolia is the impact it has on her children.
“One of the really cool things about this place is that my children have made friends that they would never make anywhere else in the world. My son’s dearest friend is the daughter of the North Korean ambassador. And they hang out together… Isn’t that cool? He always keeps in contact with her. Who knows – I may also be a grandmother to a Mongolian one day,” Allyson shared, half joking and half hopeful.
She says the things that are “normal” in Mongolia is really incredible and told me about the time her children hang out with Ashol-Pan, the teenage eagle huntress who’s about to have her own Disney movie, in Bayan-Ulgii, and about how she met J.Gurragchaa, the first Mongolian cosmonaut launched to space on a Soviet shuttle, just by dropping by the Astronomy Museum.
“My kids think this is normal. Going to Bayan-Ulgii is normal, mommy finding treasures is normal. They have this really cool outlook on the world. You can’t buy that,” Allyson concluded.