My UNICEF workshop in Mongolia

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“By the way, I’m going to Ulaanbaatar for a workshop in two weeks!” “Wait, what? Are you joking, right?”. Hello, I’m Chiara, I’m second-year SAMBa PhD student and that was my parents’ reaction when I told them I was going to Mongolia. Cue the theme music!

Before the workshop

It all started on February 23rd when I received an invitation to join Susie, Theresa, Teo, and Wilfred on a trip to Mongolia. Specifically, we were invited to take part in the Data Interpretation and Report Compilation Workshop hosted by UNICEF in Ulaanbaatar from March 11th to 15th. I was super thrilled and excited, but there was a hint of nervousness as well. It would be my first time attending a workshop like that and I didn't really know what to expect. Moreover, it would not only be my first travel to Asia, but also outside Europe. (Spoiler alert: I have broken my record for the longest flight three times in a row!). Nonetheless, I was genuinely looking forward to this experience, so you can imagine my delight when I realised it was just around the corner (not literally).

Since our flight was scheduled for early Saturday morning, we opted to spend the night before at a hotel near Heathrow. So, you could say my Mongolian adventure officially kicked off on the afternoon of Friday, the 8th. Despite a few problems with online check-in for some of us, we eventually boarded the plane. Four hours later (first personal record!), we landed at Istanbul airport. After a bit of exploration (let me tell you, that airport is massive!) and grabbing some lunch, it was time for the second part of our journey. So, after a little over 8 hours (second personal record!), we finally arrived to Ulaanbaatar airport at 7:30 am on Sunday. Despite failing miserably at getting any sleep and dealing with a sudden nosebleed, the flight was alright, and I surprisingly didn't feel too exhausted. Plus, with the sun shining down on us and the snowy landscape, I couldnt have asked for a better welcome to Mongolia!

After getting our passports stamped and getting our luggage back, we met Tsogii and Otogo, two academics at the National University of Mongolia, marking the start of our official first day in Ulaanbaatar.
Here are a few noteworthy titbits: traffic is quite intense, and Toyota dominates the streets. Therefore, if you happen to walk around with some probabilists or statisticians, don't be surprised if you catch them playing the Toyota/Lexus stopping time game – counting the number of consecutive Toyotas/Lexuses passing by before a non-Toyota/Lexus appears. As for the weather, March temperatures can be rather chilly, ranging from -15°C to 1°C, but hey, as Tsogii jokingly remarked, youve actually brought some spring, because until last week it was -40°C!.
Now, onto the language and culture front: Mongolian signs and writings predominantly use the Cyrillic alphabet, although there is also the traditional Mongolian alphabet, which is vertically based and definitely distinct from Cyrillic. And if you are up for a bit of historical exploration, dont miss out on the Chinggis Khan Museum. It offers a comprehensive journey through Mongolian history, from the Iron Age to the grandeur of the Mongolian empire, led by Chinggis Khan, right up to the 20th century. And let me tell you, it is an enjoyable experience even after a day and a half of being awake.

The workshop

After having fully recharged with some sleep, we were ready for the workshop the next day.
The Data Interpretation and Report Compilation Workshop took place at the UN building from Monday to Friday. Its primary objective was to unveil the findings from the 2023 Mongolian MICS (Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys), a household survey developed by UNICEF to monitor the well-being of children and families. This survey provides crucial data on health, education, and various other aspects and, as the last Mongolian survey was conducted in 2018, it was time to draft a fresh new report with updated information. Here, we also met Khuggi, who has worked at UNICEF Mongolia for many years. Each day began with a presentation and with several tables regarding a specific topic. After that, there was the group analysis sessions, where we could compare the 2023 data with that of 2018 and spot trends and insights among different demographic groups to share during the subsequent Q&A sessions. Representatives from the National Statistics Office of Mongolia and experts from relevant sectors brought invaluable insight into the numbers and helped raising interesting questions during the discussions.
During the group work session, I have spent some time on reading the questionnaires, and it was unexpectedly cool. While it totally makes sense in order to get clear and unbiased data, I was surprised by the level of details there. As UNICEF people were pointing out, designing good questionnaires does not only concern picking the right questions, but it is also about the language and translations. Similarly, UNICEF employs info-graphics to convey the main interpretations of the survey findings. Here, they don't want to overwhelm the reader with too much information, but to provide easy-to-interpret yet comprehensive information.

Overall, the workshop has been a fascinating new experience. Typically, I swoop in right in the middle of things - after the questionnaires are designed but before the results are examined. This time, I found myself pondering what problems or questions Mongolians were aiming to tackle, rather than which fancy mathematical models we can employ and how we can exploit data to get answers. A similar scenario happened when I joined Susie and Teo in one of their meetings with stakeholders from around the city. Once again, it was about figuring out how to connect with people and what expertise may be useful for fruitful and lasting collaborations with various agencies in Mongolia.

After the workshop

Alright, enough with the serious stuff, lets dive into the fun zone now!
First things first, what better way to toast the official announcement of SAMBa3 than with Mongolian vodka?
And how about celebrating Pi Day by presenting your research at the National University of Mongolia? The icing on the cake/pie was the audiences genuine interest with lots of questions. Plus, there were matrices of sweet little pies, satisfying both the eyes and the belly!

Saturday marked our final full day in Mongolia, and we decided to make it a day packed with countryside exploration. Our adventure kicked off with a visit to the Equestrian statue of Chinggis Khan, proudly holding the title of the biggest equestrian statue in the world. From its lofty vantage point, we were treated to a breathtaking panoramic view—summed up in just four words: snow, snow, and snow!
Next up, we enjoyed an authentic lunch experience inside a Ger, the iconic round tent traditionally used by nomadic people. And lets not forget the highlight: meeting a primadonnacamel for some epic photos! And then, it was time to hop back into the car for reaching the place for dog sledding. But not before engaging in a classic snowball fight, which, I must admit, left me with a couple of surprise snowballs right on the nose!
Quick quiz time: how many PhD-holders or PhD-students does it take to challenge a kid on horseback in a snow battle? Turns out, four is the optimal number. You may not defeat the kid, but hey, at least you can put up a good fight!
Now, onto the dog sledding adventure across a (mostly) frozen river. Yes, most of the river was solid ice, but there was that one (not so tiny) precarious spot where the ice was not thick enough and started to crack beneath our sleds. But fear not (maybe just a bit), our brave canine companions rallied, and with few (several) encouraging commands, we conquered those icy patches again (phew!). I am sure their effort was great, and indeed one of my dogs decided it was time to give up and be passive spectator of life (we have all been there, buddy).
Wrapping up our Mongolian tour, we made a pit stop at Turtle Rock before heading back to the hotel to pack up our bags and memories.

We set off on Sunday morning, and this time I came prepared: I conquered the 9-hour (third personal record!) and the 4-hour flight armed with four films and two power naps of 30 minutes each. By the time I got home, I was practically refreshed and ready to tackle the memories of our absolutely incredible trip to Mongolia!

A massive shutout to SAMBa for granting me the opportunity to attend the UNICEF workshop and funding the travel. Many thanks also to Tsogii, Otogo, and Khuggi for keeping us company, helping us, and satisfying our curiosity with Mongolian facts. Last but not least, a special thanks to Susie, Theresa, Teo, and Wilfred — you truly made this trip unforgettable. It wouldnt have been half as enjoyable without your company!

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