Mongolian photo journal

Introduction

In May 2001 we were commissioned by the Mongolian National Archives to deliver a two day training course on preservation managment. The Archives had received funding from the Mongolian Foundation for Open Society, one of the network of organisations financed by the philanthropist George Soros. We had met Bat-Otgon Khukee, one of the senior staff at the Archives, while teaching at the CEU Summer School in Budapest in July 1999. He expressed interest in our customised training courses and we began to correspond with him and the Director of the National Archives, Mr Batsaikhan, through the winter. It was actually surprisingly easy to organise — the hardest thing was finding a mutually convenient date. We took care of our visas at the Mongolian embassy and collected our plane tickets from the Aeroflot office in London. We left Heathrow on the 21st May. After a 24 hour lay-over in Moscow as transit passengers (an adventure all of its own) and a dawn set-down in Novosibirsk we finally arrived in Ulaan Baatar on Tuesday morning, the 23rd May. Our friend Bat-Otgon was there to meet us in the Archives’ car and we had our first sight of Mongolia.

Touring the National Archives

We were given a lengthy tour of the National Archives on the day we arrived in Ulaan Baatar. Our tour leader was Mr. Gerelbadrakh, the Deputy Director. We were shown the archives of the technical department, which seemed to be mostly bundles of folded plans. We were shown the strong rooms housing paper records dating from 1911 where bowls of water stood at regular and frequent intervals around the stacks. Mongolia has a very dry climate and consequently the atmosphere needs to be humidified for an ideal archive storage environment. We were also shown the older records — some written in the old Mongolian script on cotton. To enter the storage rooms where these were kept we had to don white cotton capes, which made us look like ghosts. Our final stop on the tour was the Audio-Visual Archive which included a 1960’s projection room and a micro-filming lab with equipment exported from Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. The following day, during a break, we were taken to tour the conservation lab. It was very similar to the ones we see in the UK, but the fine Chinese papers did not have nearly as far to travel!

Janet and Tamir in a conservation laboratory
Janet and Tamir in the conservation lab.

Worker in a conservation laboratory
This lady is doing a repair on the conservation lab.

Storage and Preservation Management Archival Seminar: The Programme

Our programme was very simple and consisted of four core sessions which took a half day each. Here is an overview of the course:

  • First Principles: What are Archives?
  • Core Session: Preservation Policy
  • Core Session: Preservation Techniques and Good Practice
  • Core Session: Surrogates: Microfilming; Photography; Photocopying; Digitisation
  • Core Session: Disaster Planning
  • Closing Remarks

The class: notice the lettering on the back wall

Here is a photo showing the beautiful lettering on the back wall of our seminar room. Each letter of the title (which was chosen by the Mongolians) was carefully cut out of thin card and hung on lines of thread. At the front of the class, by the overhead projector, you can see Janet and Tamir, our interpreter.

The Opening Ceremony

The training course was clearly very important to the Mongolian National Archives. There was a formal opening ceremony.

The opening ceremony

Here you can see the opening ceremony. Mr. Batsaikhan is to the left of Janet with the microphone. To his left is the Minister of Justice, and next to him the representative of the Soros Foundation. Margaret is on the far left.

Our Interpreter

We delivered the training in English and we were provided with an interpreter. His name was called Tamir Tornon and he was a self-employed interpreter who had financed a trip to the UK to improve his English. His English was excellent and we admired the professional way he coped with the more obscure archives terminology. He also translated our speaker’s notes.

Our interpreter, Tamir Toron
This is Tamir, in a typical pose, perching on the edge of a table, interpreting our presentations.

The Class

We had 67 participants in the class. When we were planning it we recommended to the Director that the class size should not exceed 25, but the Director had insisted on 50. When we arrived he was apologetic about the large numbers and explained that it had been hard to turn down the extra 17 participants who were very keen to attend.

The class outside the National Archives building
Here is the photo of the whole class standing on the steps of the National Archives building in central Ulaan Baatar

The participants included department heads from the National Archives, heads of the Provincial Archives (Mongolia consists of 18 provinces or Aimags), and other archivists working in government and the military.

The head of the audio-visual department of the National Archives
The man in the centre of this picture is the Head of the Audio-Visual Department of the National Archives.

The participants
Here is another shot of the participants. The lady in the centre is wearing traditional Mongolian dress.

The Teaching

It must be admitted that from any professional educator’s perspective the teaching methods we used were not ideal. We were not able to get a lot of dialogue going with the class because of its great size, but also because working through an interpreter is inhibiting. But we were able to leave full texts of our presentations which we knew would be translated and used. We also left publications from the National Preservation Office, the European Commission on Preservation and Access and the US Northeast Document Conservation Centre. We provided a detailed bibliography and webliography as well. Although there was a constant buzz of murmured conversation around the class the whole time, it was not always the same people talking. They all took copious notes at one time or another during class. We were impressed by their dedication and commitment in what was a less than ideal learning environment.

Janet and Margaret
Here we are a little nervously waiting for class to begin on the first day. Margaret is drinking water, not Mongolian vodka!

Margaret and Tamir in class; Janet in the background
A shot of Margaret in the middle of teaching.

Margaret and the Director before class
An early morning shot of Margaret and the Director before class began.

There were two things in our teaching that the class seemed to particularly enjoy. One was Janet’s presentation on handling and packing which included a mime of how to pack documents into boxes and a demonstration of how not to photocopy archives — carried out with the aid of a book and the overhead projector standing in as the photocopy machine. The other thing that they liked was the National Preservation Office video “When Disaster Strikes”.

The Closing Ceremony

There was a formal closing ceremony at the end of the two days. The Director came in and thanked us formally and then various class members made speeches — and of course we had a chance to say how much we enjoyed our visit — both teaching the class and getting to know the country.

Reading of a poem at the end of the course

The man with the microphone is reciting a poem he had written for us. We did not get the full flavour of it as it was in Mongolian, but the rest of the class loved it and it was possible to tell that the poem had a very nice rhythm.

Around Ulaan Baatar

On Friday, our last day in Mongolia, the Director organised a sight-seeing trip for us. We were accompanied by Zolboo, a young man from the Archives with very good English. We began in Ulaan Baatar where we visited the National Temple. Compared with other Budhist temples I have visited this one was very relaxed. The monks wore their yellow robes over the quilted coats that is traditional Mongolian dress and we didn’t have to remove our shoes before entering the temple.

A monk in front of a temple

We were not sure who this man was, or what rank he held, but it was very clear he was important. He posed happily with young Mongolian women for photos and strode around with a small retinue of saffron-robed monks. He was noteworthy too because he had a beard which is not common in Mongolian men.

We enjoyed wandering around Ulaan Baatar in the evenings on our own. We could walk into the centre from our hotel and on one occasion we found a bar where we could sit outside and watch the traffic — pedestrian as well as vehicular. We were also able to observe the crowds pouring out of the wrestling stadium opposite our chosen watering hole.

Sukhbaatar Square
This square is the centre of Ulaan Baatar and is mostly free from traffic.

We also visited the Zaisan memorial on a hill just outside Ulaan Baatar. It commemorates soldiers who fought in various wars. It is strangely beautiful in spite of the fact it is a piece of social realist art.

The Russian monument
Here is the memorial: you can see Ulaan Baatar in the distance, below the frieze.

Ulaan Baatar from the hills

Ulaan Baatar is very flat and very sprawling — and on the outskirts there are many factories which emit a lot of smoke and steam into the atmosphere. This photo, taken from the top of the memorial hill, shows some of that.

Outside Ulaan Baatar

By late morning on that Friday we had been shown the important sights of Ulann Baatar and we were joined by the Director himself for a trip into the country. We had been chauffeured around the whole week by the Archives driver in the Archives’ car — a dark green vehicle which was in much better condition than many others on the road.

We left the outskirts of Ulaan Baatar behind and found ourselves in a gently rolling landscape with an endless horizon. It was not a fertile land but it was beautiful. We were fascinated to see the small nomadic settlements packing up to move to summer pastures, their possessions lying out on the grass waiting to be packed into carts. We also saw huge flocks of sheep being herded across bridges, but we saw very few cars.

The Mongolian countryside
This is very typical of the scenery with the white felt gers (or yurts) and the dark horses peacefully cropping the sparse vegetation.

More Mongolian countryside
Another small nomadic camp.

An obo
An obo, which is rather like a cairn and has religious significance.

We stopped at an outcrop of rocks to stretch our legs. It was very peaceful, high above a hawk circled and we were all silent enjoying the spring air and scenery. A man appeared with one of the small sturdy horses for which Mongolia is famous.

Janet on horseback
Janet on horseback.

While our hosts were chatting to the horseman we watched a small figure in bright blue gallop his horse across the plain towards us. It turned out to be a small boy, not more than about 6 or 7, clearly curious to see what was going on. He had a dry rusk in his hand and was rather grubby.

Margaret and Janet with a small Mongolian boy
Our small friend suffered himself to be photographed with us.

Later we stopped in a clearing to rest. Zolboo went to sleep while the Director went off to sit in a distant clearing. We sat on the river bank and read the guide book in the drowsy post-lunch calm. The driver drove the car into the ford, took off his shirt and tie and shoes and socks and washed the car. As our hosts drifted back to the little camp two girls appeared on horseback and offered us a ride.

Margaret and Janet on horseback
The two of us on horseback.

Conclusion

Our trip to Mongolia was truly unforgettable. Our hosts treated us like royalty and were very friendly and curious about life in Britain as well as the wider international archives scene. We realised very early on that the training was incredibly important to them and they would get as much benefit from it as possible. It is sometimes still hard to believe that we were fortunate enough to go there. Hopefully we will some day get the chance to go back.

Margaret Crockett, June 2001

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