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Mongolia CAS Week trip

Lindsay Tandy and Alice Gibbons are authors of our English Language and Literature for the IB Diploma textbook and they recently accompanied 39 middle and senior school students to Mongolia for their annual CAS Week trip. Lindsay, Alice and the students took part in two days of Service in a local school on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, insulating and sound-proofing classrooms; visited important cultural, religious and historical sites and museums; watched cultural performances by local school children, teachers and professional singers, musicians and dancers; and stayed in a ger for three days, exploring the surrounding national park by foot and learning about the nomadic lifestyle from nomads in the near vicinity.  During the week, each learner profile attribute was exhibited by everyone - here is a snapshot of Lindsay and Alice’s learner profile blog during this week.  

During the week our curiosity about Mongolian history and culture, past and present, was nurtured by our Mongolian guides and our visits to cultural and natural history museums, cultural shows, nomadic families and local school students.  A particularly memorable moment for both of us was meeting a nomad and having the opportunity to inquire about her lifestyle and taste her food and drink. In answer to our questions, she explained how the best thing about being nomadic was sitting outside her ger in the evenings and star-gazing in a clear sky, and the worst thing about her lifestyle was waking up on a winter’s morning and finding half her livestock literally frozen to death. This certainly brought home to us how hard the nomadic life is and we were full of admiration for our hostess who had spent her lifetime living this lifestyle.  She shared with us bowls of hot milky tea and home-made dried curds and cheese.  Not only was the tea and food delicious, but this traditional Mongolian food and drink are high in protein and the reason, she told us, Mongolians are such successful sumo wrestlers.

Spending a week in Mongolia certainly helped us become more knowledgeable in a range of disciplines.  From being taught traditional Mongolian dance movements by school students to listening to Mongolian throat singing and traditional instruments; from learning about Mongolia’s wealth of natural history including the wonderfully named Tarbosaurus Bataar (alarming lizard hero), T-Rex’s Mongolian cousin, to discovering Mongolia’s more recent cultural, political and social history; from being shown how a traditional ger is made to practising the ancient art of archery; from learning how to insulate a classroom to visiting ancient temples and ovoos. This mural at Zaisan Memorial in Ulaanbaatar is just one of many ways we became knowledgeable about Mongolia’s history.  This is a section of a large circular painting that depicts scenes of friendship and support between Mongolia and the USSR over many years.     
During the week, there were times when we needed to use our critical and creative thinking skills to make reasoned and ethical decisions about our new-found knowledge.  For example, Chinggis Khaan (more commonly known as Genghis Khan or Temüjin) was the founder of the Mongol Empire who created one of the largest empires in history.  He adopted a writing script throughout the Mongolian Empire, rewarded individuals based on merit rather than wealth or social class, held women in high esteem and was tolerant of all religions.  He was clearly a figure who inspired and he united many of the Nomadic tribes in Northeast Asia. However, when we learnt he was responsible for the deaths of up to 40 million people, we needed to think about our own views of him: was he an accomplished leader we should revere and be in awe of or was he a ruthless leader we should be wary of celebrating?
We were able to communicate with the local school children, local guides and nomads in a number of ways: through song and dance, through a translator, through images, through games, through sharing food and drink and through body language.  In this way we were able to collaborate effectively and understand the perspectives and lifestyles of other individuals.  By the end of the week, we agreed with our guide that although we were from different places, we were essentially the same, however, we were also aware that understanding our differences was important in making us stronger and more empathetic of others’ perspectives and lifestyles. The local school children gave us a calligraphy lesson, teaching us how to write our names in the beautiful ancient Mongolian script.  At the end of the lesson, each one of us was presented a handwritten scroll of our name in this traditional Mongolian script. This epitomised for us the importance of communication and how although we may communicate differently depending on time and place, communication is nevertheless essential in bringing us together and forming a bond with one another.
 Principled and open-minded
Being a guest in someone else’s country and culture requires you to be open-minded. However, when some of this country’s beliefs and cultural practices simply don’t align with your principles, then what is the solution? This is a question that we repeatedly returned to throughout the trip as various parts of Mongolian culture (the consumption of huge amounts of red meat and the use of animals in the tourist trade for example) challenged our own preconceived notions of what constitutes the fair and ethical treatment of animals. However, through conversation with our Mongolian guides and the Mongolian people that we met along our journey we were able to open a dialogue to seek and evaluate their opinions regarding these issues and to share our own. For example, we learnt that although consuming vast quantities of red meat often isn’t good for human health or the environment, in Mongolia animals are killed to provide sustenance for one nomadic family, instead of on an industrial scale. Animals also aren’t herded/grazed in inhumane factory-like conditions but are loved by their nomadic keepers and are free to range the open steppe. Although these conversations didn’t mean that either parties completely changed their principles regarding these issues, it did mean that both parties were able to gain a clearer perspective about the opposing viewpoint and even if they didn’t necessarily agree with these viewpoints, they were able to understand and respect them. 
How do you show that you care about and for someone? Why is it important to care for other people? For some, a caring act has to be something that is tangible to the recipient and has to be something that brings gratification to the giver. However, on this trip we learnt that some of the time the most powerful caring acts that you can do can be almost unnoticeable to the beneficiary. Prior to the commencement of the trip, the Mongolia CAS Week team spent a huge amount of time on monotonous administrative tasks that seemed (and were!) arduous and unenjoyable. However, the trip progressed smoothly without, for example, any glitches in paperwork expectations at immigration, without any students being ill-equipped for the weather and activities and, perhaps most importantly, without any health and safety issues. It became clear that by caring enough to complete and fulfil the less enjoyable parts of the preparation for the trip that students and us teachers were able to enjoy the trip as fully as possible. The students had no idea about the hours of work that went into preparing for the trip (and they certainly didn’t know why we carried around such cumbersome medical kits everyday!) but that didn’t mean that the positive effect of our caring act wasn’t important and significant.      
It is all too easy to think of a risk-taker as being someone who takes large risks to challenge themselves and test their levels of determination and resilience.  Of course, every time we travel to a new country, try a new sport, learn a new language or take up a new hobby we are risk-taking, challenging and testing ourselves and, in the process, becoming resilient in the face of change.  However, risk-taking can involve the small things, too: talking to a classmate you have never spoken to before; joining in an impromptu sing-along on a school bus; getting up early to make scrambled eggs for your room-mates; pushing yourself to complete a six-hour hike in the snow; publicly acknowledging something positive you observed a member of your group doing; or, as shown in the photo, trying hot chocolate for the first time!  These were all examples of risk-taking we observed and/or participated in during our Mongolian trip.  
What is ‘balance’? How can ‘balance’ be defined? It is an oft-repeated cliche that ‘balance’ cannot be achieved while in the midst of being busy, that in order to achieve ‘balance’ one must stop their more active tasks - you must slow down, breathe, do yoga or read. However, on this trip we learnt that ‘balance’, if taken to mean achieving wellbeing within ourselves through the balance of the intellectual, physical and emotional aspects of our lives, can be achieved even during our most intense and hectic times. One example of this was witnessing students taking part in a well-strategized snowball fight in the midst of a 20km/7 hour hike or even in the below photo where we took the time to take Instagram-worthy photos while co-ordinating and leading 39 students at the top of a 2000 metre high mountain! We learnt that in order to understand and implement ‘balance’ into your everyday life, there is no need to apply complicated theories or consciously stop and drop your current activity. ‘Balance’ can be achieved organically by simply doing what you enjoy most, even when you are busy or active!      
The process of reflection is often touted as something that must be intentional, that it is something that one must consciously make time for and engage in. However, we found throughout our journey in Mongolia that the most meaningful reflection can often take place spontaneously and organically. On the second-to-last day of our Mongolian adventure we took part in a seven hour hike up a mountain in -8C temperatures which was, to say the least, challenging. However, when we reached the top of the mountain we were rewarded with incredibly beautiful views of the Mongolian steppe reaching from the Terelj National Park all the way back to Ulaanbaatar. As we looked out over the sweeping panoramic view, without even realising it, we started to discuss and reflect upon all that had been achieved over the trip so far. As we descended back down the mountain we had a new appreciation for, and a clearer idea of, all of the successes of the trip and of all of the things that we may have done differently. This reflective session was unplanned and unintentional and, perhaps as a result of that, felt authentic and meaningful. We learnt that the process of reflection needn’t be something that is imposed upon yourself, but can be something that you can naturally and subconsciously gravitate to at the times when it is most needed and will have the most impact.