Before it gets REALLY cold, it snows in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia

4 weeks in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

I’m writing this from ‘my’ apartment in UlaanBaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. I’ve been here a few days over 4 weeks, and plan to be here for another 4 weeks.

How I came to be in Mongolia goes something like this;

The (English — he used to teach in a school somewhere around near where I live in London) headteacher of The English School of Mongolia contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in / able to help bring the schools contemporary adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin to London sometime around June of next year. We discussed it for a while through email. He then told me he’d be in London (during the school summer holidays) and suggested we meet.

We met at a hotel in the centre of London. He put 2 ideas to me; come out here “for a bit” (“how long a bit?” I inquired. ‘About 2 months, from late Oct to the end of term’ he responded) and work at the school, or help from London — both with a financial reward for me.

The invitation to come out here was a shock — after I left the hotel I was in something of a daze and after a few minutes walking I stood in Piccadilly just thinking. After I’d made my way home, told my dad, explored the idea and my concerns with him, my mum and some close friends, I thought about it for the rest of the week and then said “yes please”.

I was asked to help with the musical aspects of a few events at the school.

I’ve also been trying to teach a small (8) class of GCSE music students as well as providing cover for other lessons when required. I never thought of myself as a (classroom) Teacher — although I applied for a PGCE in secondary music around 2007 — and didn’t get a place.

The first few weeks were very challenging — I wanted to come back more than a few times. Working For someone (8 am — 4 pm), not knowing much of the language (I’ve been complimented on my pronunciation of ‘thank you’), my perceived lack of self-confidence. I felt very homesick — family / friends / food / home (what I now think of as) luxuries like being able to go into the garden, cycle into e.g. Kingston, watch TV or go to the 24 hour Tesco…

The temperature (outside) hasn’t been above freezing (too cold outside; too hot inside), snow and ice make it difficult to get around. Dad lent me his ‘Russian’ coat which is quite heavy / warm. I’ve been wearing a t-shirt, shirt, jumper, suit jacket and coat, dads hat, and scarf when necessary, on top on my walk to the school in the mornings. Thermal socks & shoes, long-johns and suit trousers on the bottom. Adjusting to the 7 am rise from the freedom of getting up when I wish is taking some effort. I have to leave by around 07.30 to get to the school for 8. It’s been as cold as minus 23 during that walk so far and I’m expecting it to get colder.

The headteachers wife-and-school/biz-partner asked me how I was doing a week or 2 ago and I told her I was struggling r.e. food, adjusting to the Work schedule after having been unemployed for most of the last 7 years (which I think was a shock to her). Then the head asked me a few days/week later what I wanted to do. He asked if I’d rather be at home, and offered to help me get back. I told him there was a part of me that would rather be at home but that I wanted to complete the term [16th December] as per his invitation/our agreement. So I’m planning to be back in London around the 17th/18th Dec.

2 of the other teachers — both of whom speak fluent English; one Brit who has spent much of his life in Asia, and another who I think is of African heritage, who work at the school live in the same block as me so we sometimes walk to / from school together depending on whether we leave at the same time; It’s nice to have the company.

The first Event I was asked out here to help with was a kind of British Fair at a shopping centre in the centre of town — a celebration of all things British — including the English School of Mongolia where I’m working. Or a diplomatic exercise. We (some of the school) worked a bit in the previous week or 2 to prepare a few performances — including a 4-boys-&-yours-truly-on-keys cover of the Beatles’ I Want To Hold Your Hand as well as a (specially assembled) choir performance of Food, Glorious Food from Oliver Twist.

The Event took place over a Friday and Saturday though these few songs were performed on the Friday. Much of the time I was there I was waiting, walking or standing. So I found it rather boring.

I went again of my own accord in the late afternoon on the Saturday and took a few more pictures. I wondered around the 3 floors of the Shangri-La Mall, watched/listened to a few of the performances/talks and then came back to my apartment.

Every morning at school, there’s a list of ‘cover’ classes — teachers who are away / otherwise engaged, their missed classes (subject / which class / which classroom / which period(s)), and the name of the teacher who IS available/been asked to cover it. I’ve had a number of lessons to cover over the last few weeks. Some I’ve thought I’ve been quite helpful in (e.g. an English class in which the students had been asked to write a Halloween story), one in which I felt a bit out of my depth behavior-management wise, others where students haven’t done anything productive / have done work from a different subject. Usually no more than 1 or 2 Cover lessons in a day — but today and yesterday I’ve had quite full days.

I was also thrown into the (medium) end by being told to teach a year 10/11 [around 15/16 years old] music (IB) GCSE class (of about 8 students) — twice a week — Tuesday after lunch and Friday morning. Having never taught a lesson in my life. I was told they’d had 3 or 4 teachers in the last year so probably haven’t learnt as much as they might have, and to start by getting to know them. The Head told me not to worry too much — ‘I know you’re not a teacher. I don’t expect you to become one overnight’- to do things I was interested in. So I’ve done by best thus far. Lying awake in bed at night thinking of what to do for the next lesson / how to make the lesson more engaging / interesting / exciting for the students is new to me.

Today [Friday 18th Nov 2016] I ‘Taught’ music for periods 1 & 2. This morning there were only 2 students instead of the usual 8 or so, which I hadn’t realised til I got to the classroom; the rest were on a trip. I’d prepared a challenge to put the styles of classical music / dates in the right order, with a few composers/musicians — all printed on paper and cut out. One of the 2 had a go and I helped her a bit.

I then covered for periods 3 & 4, helped with a quick choir rehearsal during break, covered periods 5 & 6, had a break for lunch, was due to cover periods 7 & 8 but another (science) teacher offered to cover the first period of the (science) lesson so I went up for period 8.

Then I left around 5 past 3.

4 weeks down; 4 weeks to go.

The next think I’m charged with assisting with is one or 2 songs for Christmas fair at the school on the 26th Nov. Then a Songs event at a theatre in town on the 1st. For the latter, I’m doing my best to get each class to prepare a Christmas or other song (in English) — which the headteacher wants to whittle down to the best 15 or so the day before. But I have barely had 10 entries so far…

Then there are 1 or 2 things in the last week of term — which may well involve some of the Songs to save on learning new stuff.

It’s been, and continues to be an experience — I may be gaining confidence, and will appreciate home (people, places, clean water, 24 hour supermarkets, gardens, parks, TV, cycling…) so much more when I get back to London.

I’m also planning on getting back into being a Musician in at least one form.

It would be great to keep something of my daily routine up — getting up and going to bed at decent times, as well as getting out most days.

And eat less chocolate…