It may be one of the most unforgiving environments on the planet, but 10 years ago Mongolia was fertile soil for teachers. Then the Russians pulled out and the country's education system became a wasteland. Nicolas Barnard visited the Gobi after Gorbachev and found some grounds for renewed optimism. Photographs by Rebecca McClelland
Bayarsaikhan hasn't seen her two pupils for several weeks and, with the sun dipping perilously close to the horizon, she fears she may not find them today. Then, 40 miles from the nearest settlement, she strikes lucky. The fourth group of herders she has asked in this Mongolian expanse points to the distance, and after a short drive through the dimming evening light she finds Dashdorj and his family milking their herd of 250 goats outside their tent.
Drought has forced these nomadic families to move south in search of water and fresh pasture for their cattle, and as a result their volunteer teacher has to roam the plains to find them.
In this part of the Gobi desert, chattels - goats, sheep, horses, cows, camels - outnumber humans by 60 to one. The stony ground on this dry, windswept land supports just about enough grass to keep the animals going; they in turn provide just enough milk and meat for the people. The people are few and far between: there are only 2 million in Mongolia, a country three times the size of France.
Outside Dashdorj's tent, as a bitter chill descends, the landscape is flat for as far as the eye can see. A ger, a traditional, round tent, is visible in the distance, the only feature besides the goat herd. There are no fences. Just a bleak silence.
Inside, it is warm, thanks to a powerful stove fuelled by dried dung. Saddles and clothes hang from the wooden lattice supporting the thick white felt covering. When the temperature drops to minus 40C, another two layers of felt will go over.
Hospitality is a Mongolian tradition - a matter of survival in the harsh winters - and Bayarsaikhan is welcomed into the ger. A herder herself, albeit one with a degree in agriculture, Bayarsaikhan joined a Save the Children programme last summer to bring early years education to children in her own community, one of the most remote in the world.
Working through her hand-written exercise book of teaching notes with Dashdorj's daughter Tserenchund, 7, and her mother, Gandulmaa, she is clearly proud of their progress since her last - and, until today, only - visit. "Listen to her recite her alphabet - she's a good student," says Bayarsaikhan.
By the next morning, after a night sharing the floor of the ger, she has gone through a whole new set of exercises for Tserenchund to do by the time she returns, whenever that might be.
The tuition is designed to help the quiet little girl find school easier when she starts formal schooling next year aged eight. It's the age that the communists who created Mongolia's education system from scratch in the 1920s believed that herders' children would be old enough to cope with leaving their families and going to live in dormitories in the towns.
"In the past, when children reached the age for primary school, they would have had just 14 days' training," says Bayarsaikhan as she writes out pages of letters and numbers for the children to copy. "Some of the children would never have used notebooks and pens. They didn't even know how to hold a pencil. It was very difficult to get used to school work after so many years of looking after cattle."
Herders have done well out of the fall of communism just over 10 years ago. They now own the collectivised herds they used to keep. "When the cattle belonged to the government, our salary was very small," Dashdorj says, passing round a cup of sweet vodka while Gandulmaa offers sugared goat's yoghurt, curd pastries and sweet, milky tea. "Now you can manage them however you want and you get all the benefits for yourself. It just depends how good and hard a worker you are."
But the changes were not so kind on the education system. Under 70 years of communist rule, Mongolia achieved a Unesco-recognised basic literacy rate of 98 per cent. (This is why Dashdorj and Gandulmaa can be enlisted to help their daughter learn to read. Even Bayarsaikhan's degree is common - most aid workers have stories of stumbling upon gers in the middle of nowhere to be greeted by herders with PhDs in economics.) Now, however, dropping out in order to work, a situation unknown before 1990, is common. Three of Dashdorj's children left school in their mid-teens to help look after the animals. The family want another to follow - "it's a big herd". Even Bayarsaikhan's son left school at 12.
One factor is the collapse of the education infrastructure. In the old days, pupils would have stayed in dormitories. But these big, brick buildings are expensive to heat in the freezing Mongolian winters and were the first institutions to close when the Russians pulled out overnight - literally - and the economy collapsed. The kindergartens, where they existed (and they were patchy in these parts), didn't last much longer.
A government anti-poverty programme, developed by Save the Children with British university advisers and with education at its heart, is helping to revive both institutions, and extend them into areas not reached before. Pilot schemes are using mobile kindergartens housed in gers. Some pre-schools have been given herds to help feed the pupils and bring in money, as well as travelling teachers, both professional and informal, like Bayarsaikhan. Normally Bayarsaikhan travels by motorbike with the help of an allowance of 10 litres of petrol a month, or on horseback. Her patch is huge, with 25 children in 13 families living - drought notwithstanding - up to 50 kilometres away.
"We're the bridge between the kindergarten and the parents," she says. She was enlisted ("My name was put forward. I knew nothing about it but I agreed. I thought it would be a good thing to do") and trained over the summer in a series of seminars. Her notes from those sessions are her teacher's manual.
"We work with the parents and give them basic advice on preparing their children for school," she says. As well as writing and counting, that includes general child development - social skills, traditional songs and dances, and learning how to ride a horse.
Another reason for the higher drop-out rate is the loss of centralised control. This is a country long used to being ruled by Russia or China. In the communist era, though nominally independent, Mongolia was a satellite state. Busts of Lenin still occupy dusty town squares in the desert, but the roubles that funded the education system disappeared with Mikhail Gorbachev's troops.
In Mandelgov, capital of the Middle Gobi province, education director Tsolman (nobody uses surnames in Mongolia) explains: "Transition caused major problems for our schools. Before, everything was provided by the government. Now it falls on our shoulders. The major problem is funding. We don't have any money."
When the Russians left, all six factories in Mandelgov, which produced vodka, bread and construction materials, shut down. The shops had nothing to sell. For two years there was no electricity. "People didn't understand the market economy. They blamed the government for making them poor. They are starting to understand it better now," says Tsolman, a slight, quiet man who has studied in eastern Europe. "People are starting their own businesses and life is improving."
Nevertheless unemployment remains high - in some towns up to 70 per cent - and in areas where the collectivised herds were divided up between the whole community, many have gone back to the herding life of their parents and grandparents, including teachers.
Even in the more remote Gobi Altai province, the same factors are at play. The communist system enabled 50-year-old Demberel, the child of a herder, to become director of education, one of the most senior officials in his region. This sort of transition used to be common as people were needed to staff the huge bureaucracies the communists created. But those are now in pieces.
An impassive man with piercing blue eyes, Demberel remembers with affection the school he attended from the age of eight. He was homesick at first, "but the one thing that made us survive was our knowledge that the teacher, cook, guard and the president of the herdsmen's collective were doing everything possible for us".
Now he fears universal education may be lost. "Most young parents were school drop-outs themselves and they don't know the importance of education. Some of them don't send their children to school." Other parents just cannot afford it. There is no welfare: they cannot pay contributions for kindergarten meals, they cannot afford exercise books and pens or even the clothes their children need to get to school in winter.
Nevertheless, drop-out rates have fallen from their peak in the mid-Nineties. In the province of Gobi Altai, the number of drop-outs has fallen from 200 four or five years ago to about 35. The anti-poverty drive has helped, but still, Demberel says, "fewer children go to school now than in 1990. Then the proportions of boys and girls in classrooms were equal. Now they are mostly girls."
But back in Mandelgov, in the corner of Tsolman's office, may lie part of the answer, for the herding families at least: there is a Newsnight-style round table, with blinds on the windows and a cardboard pillar stencilled with a logo as a backdrop for a makeshift television studio. From here, Tsolman and his handful of officials broadcast an hour-long programme every Saturday. Most gers have solar-powered electricity and most nomads own a television.
Part of a Danish aid project, the television programme covers educational issues and local news. The idea is to give advice and support to parents to help them teach their own pre-school children. Save the Children is broadcasting similar pilot radio programmes in other parts of Mongolia.
"Most Mongolians didn't fully understand the value of education," Tsolman says. "When there were problems with the schools, a lot of herdsmen just took their children out. When the dormitories had to close, those that really wanted to send their children to school brought their ger to the town. But many didn't come."
Provincial governors, who control their own schools budgets, also needed convincing. And teachers, education officials and agencies such as Save the Children and Voluntary Service Overseas have taken the message to parents through the media and, most importantly, face to face.
Thanks to the anti-poverty programme, two dormitories in Mandelgov have reopened and parents are responding, although there are enough rooms only for about one-fifth of the pupils who want them.
For some, the revival of education cannot come soon enough. After a gruelling 12-hour drive along a dirt track from Dashdorj's ger, we find a two-man tent on a patch of overgrown derelict ground, hidden behind a factory wall near the centre of the country's capital, Ulan Bator. In it are crammed eight homeless children and two social workers. Most of the children plan to sleep there until plunging temperatures and snows force them into apartment entrance halls or underground into the dark, litter-and-sewage-strewn tunnels that carry heating to the capital's buildings.
Their stories are another symptom of transition; they tell the kind of confused, hurt, angry tales told by street children everywhere. During the day, they hang around the bus station, doing nothing. Some of them beg or sing for money. They claim - unconvincingly - that they don't drink. Sometimes they are attacked by adults, by pimps trying to force them into prostitution, or even by the police.
Tsuluuntsetseg, 15, whose father was murdered and who ran away from the home she shared with relatives, is one of the estimated 1,000 children living on the streets of Ulan Bator. Looking frightened but angry, she says she was beaten up by police three days ago. "I was on the street with my friend. We had a fight with another girl; that's why the police arrested us. They took us to the district police station. They made us sleep on the floor with no blankets. The next evening they let us go."
Another girl, Gantsetseg, 13, has been on the streets for a year. "The city people don't like us," she says. "They tell us we should go away. They would be happy if we just disappeared."
These children, along with the vodka drunks and the prostitutes hanging around outside the big hotels, are the most visible sign of the trauma the country has gone through. They are the reason why some feel betrayed by capitalism - though none would seriously return to the old days of communist rule.
"Some problems existed under the socialist regime and socialism hid them," says Tuvshintugs, president of the Mongolian Children's Society. "But there were no street children before. No prostitution. No children drinking alcohol. And no children involved in drugs. There was less juvenile crime, with about 100 juvenile delinquents arrested each year. Now it's up to 2,000.
"One advantage of socialism is that it pays more attention to social life. Education and health services were free. People behaved as part of a community. Now people are afraid of each other instead of being afraid of the dark."
Until the economy picks up, the outlook remains as bleak as the herders' landscape. Capitalism has failed to deliver. After the Russians left, prices went up but teachers' wages stayed the same; sometimes they didn't get paid at all. All the while, they could see others earning much more in the new private sector.
"I have worked in children's organisations for 35 years," says Tuvshintugs. "I am 55 and my living conditions are poorer than ever. I don't have a car. I don't have a mobile telephone and I can't afford to buy a suit, because the price is more than a month's salary."
Even taxi driver Gana, 54, used to be a maths teacher but quit after seven years for want of money. "I liked my job, but the government doesn't pay enough for my family," he says. "I was paid $60 a month - $12 was tax, leaving me $48. But my apartment, heating and telephone were $52 a month. So I stopped teaching." As a taxi driver, he can earn $1,200 a month in the summer.
He is so fed up with transition that when the next election comes, he says won't even bother to vote. "I don't believe in communism or democracy now," he says. "Only in God."