Up early for visit to Gaachurt. First stop, the Hospital and Health Centre which Asral has been working with for many years. We toured the well-equipped kitchen which Asral provided and met the cooks. A new hospital is in the works, construction to begin next year. The old building to be razed for new modern three-storey hospital.
At present there are 20 patients, 17 beds. Forty to fifty per cent are older people, herders and nomads, located far from the city and coming in for treatment. Mostly heart condition and blood pressure with older people and UTIs and kidney problems with younger, the latter especially when the weather changes. Gaachurt is five degrees colder than Ulaanbaatar and damper, with wind off the mountains and three rivers nearby.
The hospital works with the district health centre, including post-natal care. Up to one year of age, standard vaccinations including TB are given. No natal deaths, most births natural, and most go to the National Maternity Hospital in UB (Ulaanbaatar). There are twenty-two staff – three doctors, three assistant doctors, seven nurses including dental and physiotherapist, four service people – cleaners, pharmacist, records keeper and two drivers.
Rinpoche spoke to patients gathered in another room. He told them that illness is not a choice. Even he gets sick at times. They were fortunate to have treatment at this hospital but they must also take responsibility and pay attention to healthy standards for overcoming illness and staying healthy.
Gaachurt Garden Project
Rinpoche was warmly welcomed by Naraa, the Project Director and her husband, as well as some families and children involved in the project. All were brought into a long room and served fresh yoghurt. A report was given by Naraa.
Five people each year come to train in the growing of vegetables. They train in Gaachurt garden but grow in their own fenced off area. Everyone takes the vegetables they grow home with them. Thirty-five families were given seeds and training in growing their own vegetables with about a fifty per cent focus on potatoes. Six have their own greenhouse and grow hothouse veg for special purposes.
In 2012 English lessons were organized for teen aged students involved in veg growing project. Two girls were introduced who had successfully grown five different kinds of veg and who were also successful in the English course. Vulnerable families are invited to the project – single mothers and disabled. One family is growing fruit trees and black currants.
Lunch meeting downtown with Grand Maitreya Project organisers, a visionary project including a giant statue and stupa taller than Statue of Liberty, 50 km from Ulaanbaatar city. The vast site is to include a colleges of Arts and Science, Monastery, Hospital & Social Services and an Arts Centre. There is a wider plan to include a Buddhist Ecological Community. The land has already been purchased by a German consortium.
Maitreya is the Buddha of the future and they hope to present modern Buddhism to appeal to Mongolian youth – scientific, ecological, artistic, social consciousness and community outreach. They invited Rinpoche to visit the site. It is projected that the construction works will be finished by 2020.
Rinpoche gave a Dharma teaching in the centre. Rinpoche told one girl with lupus that he was familiar with this illness from his student in Ireland. He advised her not to be stressed and to relax, blessed her and said prayers for her. Rinpoche also said prayers for the family and blessed their shrine, then distributed protection cords, cards, books by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and incense.
Long Life Initiation at Gungaachoiling, Gandon Monastery. A big crowd of monks and lay people with more and more arrived. Suutei tsai (milky tea) and blessed biscuits distributed to all.
We set off for the Gobi in two cars. Munkhbaatar drove one car with staff, food supplies, and second-hand and new clothes for distribution. Rinpoche, Valerie, Baara (young monk translator) and Temuujin travelled in style in a huge Hummer jeep driven by Zorig, with traditional Mongolian music on the stereo, herds of horses and sporadic gers on the grassy plains, mountains in the distance, vast blue sky above – altan nytag.
We stopped at Choer for lunch, the last frontier town before the Gobi. Originally a Russian army base in communist times – 50,000 armoured division plus air force – it kept an eye on the Chinese border. Now the only monitoring is of good trains from China. We stopped at the Custom House. Rinpoche met with the staff, gave them ASRAL pamphlets and had photos taken with them.
Rinpoche asked if there was a big monastery in Choer here as that is what the word means in Tibetan. He was told that Zanabazar travelled this way often between Beijing and Orgoo (early Ulaan Baatar) when he was the teacher of the Manchu Khan. There was a very big temple here, also a rock carving of Green Tara in the mountains nearby which are also called Choer. Zanabazar was the renowned artist lama and first Jebtsundamba Khutuktu, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia. This title later became Bogd Khan when the 8th Jebtsundamba Khutuktu became the theocratic ruler of Mongolia in 1911 . Among his many accomplishments, Zanabazar designed Buddha and Tara statues, stupas and the Soyombo script.
Word got out that Rinpoche was in town and people began to arrive. Rinpoche received offerings and khatags and again gave blessings, protection cords, incense and Dharma books.
Back on the road – I should say dirt track – for a long bumpy drive through hot dusty semi-Gobi landscape. We made two brief stops along the way. On second stop Rinpoche went walking down the road for quite a distance. Then he waved the car to pick us up. An excellent bit of exercise in dry clean air fragrant with the scents of wild onion and grasses.
As we neared Undurshil we stopped in a hilly place where Jargalmaa, MIM manager, and staff were waiting to welcome Rinpoche, offering him goat’s milk in a silver bowl presented with a blue khatag, as is tradition. Photos were taken and we drove the final few miles to Undurshil. Arriving at Asral Undurshil we were welcomed by workers and their children and brought into the adjoining ger for suutei tsai, dried curds and sweets.Population 1,600, chiefly herders – 80,000 sheep and goats plus a few cattle, horses and camels.
Rinpoche took a walk around Undurshil. It’s what they call “a one horse town” in America. Dusty unpaved streets, sporadic wooden housing, fencing made from metal sheets used to cover the ground for Russian tanks, a central square with ger temple, small stupa with prayer wheels, and crumbling animal statues from Soviet times, small modern hospital, kindergarten, big brand new school, and a few shops. After several years of tsud (extreme weather conditions) they have lost a lot of animals and suffer poverty
Country people came to see Rinpoche, nomadic herders in brocaded dells (traditional Mongolian coats) and leather belts with silver buckles. They were tall, handsome and proud. There is an air about them as they stride into the ger. Temuujin said, “yes, they are not like city people. Cleaner, fresher, strong, powerful. They are free.”
The hall was packed for Rinpoche’s teaching, young and old and children too, towns people and nomadic herders from the countryside. They chanted for Rinpoche as he sat smiling at the top table up on the stage with his translator monk beside him. As usual mobile phones going off continually throughout. Even the oldest country people have them. No one ever puts them on silent or turns them off and people answer them and talk surreptitiously everywhere – at meals, even during teachings, pujas and initiations.
Then people lined up with their children to give offerings with khatags to Rinpoche and receive blessings from him, plus prayer/mantra cards, incense, books of Dalai Lama. Rinpoche always asked the age of the children and noted if they were too small for their age – most looked healthy. Also asked the country people – you can tell by appearance and clothing (dell, belt, cowboy hat, boots) – how far they had come. Many had come long distances.
Visit to the ger temple which was filled with people chanting one billion om mane padme hums for Rinpoche. Temple had been swept clean with offerings on the shrines and shafts of light falling on the rows of butter lamps, Rinpoche stayed for a time then left for lunch.
The Undurshil hospital was spotless. They have received many awards, including best hospital in the sum and 2nd best in aimag this year. Last year they won best in aimag. We were received by the Director and her staff in a meeting room and given airag, rice and raisins, aarts, milky tea. The Director Erdenejargal is the sole doctor along with a young intern/assistant doctor who spent a year training in Russia.
Zero hospital deaths in 13 years since this doctor/director took over. She is due for retirement, but wants to extend her time. Rinpoche said this would be beneficial for everyone. She looks youthful and healthy. There are eight beds in hospital, only two patients at the moment – a child with respiratory problem and an alcoholic man with cirrhosis of the liver. They receive 300 call-out requests per year. 60% they are able to answer with the director going herself. The hardest time is the winter. At the moment, the ambulance jeep is broken and the driver is trying to fix it. Though Choer is closest centre for such work, they can’t get help from there as it is a different aimag.
Motorcycle accidents are the chief kind of call-out, often when herding but also drunken driving. Common treatments are Injuries from accidents -including brain damage – and respiratory illnesses in winter such as colds and flu’s. Birth rate is 45-60 babies per year, no deaths. “Good reputation,” Rinpoche remarked. By law mothers must come to sum/aimag health centre 10-20 days before they are due to give birth, for pre-natal care.
We toured the hospital. Saw the pre-natal clinic/children’s ward extension built onto the hospital by Asral with help from Irish company ElectrikAid. Also well-equipped physiotherapy room, also provided by Asral, including items personally brought by Rinpoche. Women who want to lose weight come here as well as those needing physiotherapy.
Rinpoche visited the man who was being treated for liver disease due to alcoholism. He had requested to see Rinpoche when he heard a lama was in the hospital. A young man with young wife and two sons not yet in their teens, he was surrounded by family and friends. Rinpoche spoke with him, told him to follow the doctor’s advice and to be mindful of his overall health and standard of living and not to take alcohol. Then Rinpoche blessed all his family and gave out protection cords and incense.
220 children, 24 new ones into 1st grade (kindergartens are separate institutions in the Russian style) 50% come from countryside, i.e. 112 but there are only 80 beds in the hostel for boarders. New hostel to be built next year. Rinpoche asked about the school meals: Lunch consists of salad, sandwich with ham and bread, sometimes fried noodle, sometimes manto. In winter time the children are given camel milk – the school has a contract with nomads to supply. It’s a little more expensive than cow’s milk but better for the immune system vs colds, coughs etc. Otherwise the children receive black tea with every lunch.
There are 21 children in ASRAL food programme. There are English lessons from grade 5 to 9. After regular classes there are free courses in the arts, also 5 or 6 courses in judo, moorinhor playing and long song.
There was talk about the relationship between Bawnboy school near Rinpoche’s centre in Ireland which was originally set up by Caitriona ni Treasaigh. Would it be possible to restore? Originally the Irish children knit scarves for Undurshil children and there was an exchange of artwork and letters. MIM also sent souvenirs to Ireland. Rinpoche said he will try to rejuvenate the relationship.
Later that day, the new governor Munkhtsetseg and Tsolmon the leader of the local government arrived at the MIM ger