How do you, the readers of this blog, imagine Mongolia to be? I had fantasised this country to be a wild untamed place of Chinggis Khan heritage with horsemen galloping across the Gobi Desert; gers (those little round white tent-things) dotting the rolling green steppe and rugged mountain peaks forming an imposing backdrop.
Sadly for me, my imagination-bubble burst on our introduction to Ulaanbaatar. This is the capital city of Mongolia with a population of 1.5 million. It is a Soviet built hotch-potch of functional, worn and soul-less apartment blocks, bumpy dusty back streets, chaotic traffic with no recognisable give-way rules and trendy western-dressed young people. Scattered amongst the back streets, or on the city outskirts, sit hundreds of gers on their dusty patches of land. These are home to poor families, often for most of their lifetime. Some gers have solar panels and a satellite dish but their owners have very little else in the way of material possessions.
To be honest, this introduction to Mongolia was quite a disappointment after the intrinsic beauty of Bhutan! However, the whole situation was transformed for us when we met Pastor Puje, his wife Amara and other Christian workers of his far-flung (Lutheran) church. They met us with big smiles – Mongolian people have wonderful embracing smiles! – and showed us tremendous hospitality during our visit. Pr Puje explained to us how Christianity started in Mongolia just some twenty-five years ago. It is, in fact, a very new faith here.
The breath-taking rise of the Christian Church in Mongolia
Until 1990, when the UDSSR collapsed, the Mongolian government under Soviet control was strictly Stalinist (atheist) and kept the country isolated from the rest of the world. With the collapse of communism, the old regime died and Mongolians had their first taste of freedom. This was accompanied by an “ideological vacuum”!
Before long, Christian missionaries from various countries arrived in Mongolia and spread the Gospel. The time was ripe for harvest with the collapse of old values and the willingness and ability of the people to read that newly-introduced book of the Christians - the Bible. After all, thanks to the old Soviet education system, 98% of the population could read and write which was a great help. Currently only 90% of the people are literate. As Pr Puje quipped, “Democracy gives people the right to be stupid.”
Unsurprisingly Christianity took root in the city first, especially among the young, educated professional class, with more and more people embracing Christ. Among them was Pr Puje, one of the first 100 Christians in the country.
He had just graduated from university with a music degree. Friends invited him to a Christian Christmas function in 1991 but he understood little of this new faith. He also said that the King James Version which was used was very difficult for him to follow. However, he agreed to come back and play for some services in January 1992, still dubious and uncommitted. He enjoyed playing and being part of the services. What he experienced there pushed him to research the Bible and search for God. By 28 March 1992, Puje had committed his life to Christ and was part of a mass Baptism where fifty people were baptised in one of the only two swimming pools in Ulaanbataar (and the whole of Mongolia). By June that year, he was a full blown evangelist!
What followed were some of the most amazing years in world Church history - the church simply exploded! New Bible translations were introduced, and people could read The Word for themselves. This, accompanied by signs and wonders just as in the book of Acts, led to rapid church growth nearly unparalleled anywhere else, especially in the 1995-1998 period.
In 1990, Mongolia had no Christian believers, apart from the first few baptisms that year. The numbers grew to a total of 15 - 20 believers in 1991, and then increased exponentially over the next twenty-five years to about 100,000 Christians in the Mongolian church today. This growth is continuing both numerically, and also spiritually as Christians mature in their faith.
Pr Puje above all, is a teacher of the holy Christian Faith. He has guided the fledgling church with solid biblical teaching and instruction for Christian congregations, their lay workers and pastors. Today he heads the country’s leading and most prominent Bible College/Interdenominational Seminary where Lutherans, Baptists etc receive instruction in their particular ‘Denominational
He himself is clearly Lutheran but above all thinks in terms of the Gospel and Christianity in general. He has a broad vision. The Christians of Mongolia are evangelical and work together harmoniously. Norwegian Lutheran Mission (NLM) and AFA continue to provide much needed assistance to the emerging Lutheran Church in this country.
Mongolian Adventure Tourism
Pr Puje and his associate Pr Urnukh also educated us in another way: the Mongolian countryside … and the grassroots reality of life in this country. So began our adventures!
Our first trip was north to Darkhan, a city about 230 kms away, which equated to a four hour trip on a rather rough road. Unlike Bhutan this road was at least flat! Darkhan’s congregation was there to greet us and after singing and prayer, Pr August gave a brief outline of the AFA work around Asia with Pr Puje translating. This was followed by a fascinating visit to the felt slipper factory owned by one of the church members. This factory has grown out of a self-help project initiated years ago by NLM. Hand-making felt slippers is a traditional craft and it actually takes 65 days to complete one pair! The quality of the fine wool used would certainly rival our merino.
The following day, we were taken to visit a traditional herding family out on the steppe. What an isolated and hard life these people lead. They had a small hut that didn’t look anywhere near warm enough for survival in the freezing Mongolian winter where the average daily temperature is -25⁰C but can drop as low as -40⁰C! The young family who we visited owned very little and appeared to be surviving from day to day. By the way, we were only about 100 kms south of Siberia here and it certainly felt like it that day.
Following this visit, we went to find a camel herder. He was to show us his 40 camels. Pr August was quite excited about the prospect as he seems to be rather fond of camels! Well, we drove around and around on sandy rough tracks for about an hour and did not see one single camel. You would think that the camel herding man would have been just a little concerned about the absence of his camels but he didn’t seem to be. Following this fiasco, we got sand-bogged but managed to dig and push our van out; then help some other fellow get his car out of the same bog – Urnukh had warned him! We finally hit a more civilised road, dealt with a flat tyre and eventually made it back to the big, grey city of Ulaanbaatar.
For the following day, Pr Puje had planned a visit to the beautiful National Park just east of the capital. This was indeed a magnificent area with rolling steppe, pine tree forests, rocky outcrops, lots of wildflowers but the most appalling roads that we had been on to date! At one point the road disappeared into the river. As it was quite shallow, we attempted to drive through but couldn’t make it. Along came the cavalry – a beaten up old truck which towed us across, thankfully. Congratulating ourselves on this timely escape, we had driven about 3 kms when the van stopped. Mechanical malfunction. Our hero of the moment was David, one of our group who managed to do a patch-up job on the auto transmission sump. Unfortunately after a lot of hard work, and assistance from Urnukh, the van still didn’t start. So we had to wait for a couple of hours until Pr Puje’s son arrived from Ulaanbaatar with more automatic transmission fluid to finally get us going. Home at 11pm, weary but thankful. What a day!
IN SUMMARY: Our Mongolian trip has been a totally different journey from Bhutan but one of great learning about a country with enormous contrasts. These contrasts are evident in the nature of the people themselves and the geography of their environment. It has been memorable and unforgettable. What a blessing to have experienced it all!
Sarie Kessler, Gold Coast