Crossing cultures for Bury students

From Bury to Ulaan Bataar - and the Mongolian Steppe. That was the daunting trip facing 19 Lancashire classmates. Words and pictures by student Nathan Chandler

WITH the sound of French techno music reverberating around the caf� just off Peace Avenue in Ulaan Bataar, and a muttered conversation about the unbearable heat, I sorted through a crumpled ball of banknotes ranging from 10 to 20,000 tugriks, then ordered a cheap and surprisingly good coffee. It was just one of the luxuries we'd had to live without for the duration of our strenuous three-week trek.

Mongolia is a country completely alien to most tourists, and so often overlooked as a holiday destination. However, for 19 Bury Grammar School students (and four staff), the stunning Mongolian steppe became home for a spectacular expedition.

BGS (Boys) had never organised such an expedition, but the enthusiasm of geography teacher Mark Bradley finally brought the project to fruition. It began with a rigorous selection process in October 2006, followed by an 18 month blur of sponsored events, car washes and an armful of vaccinations.

The group was to be accompanied by experienced expedition leaders from World Challenge, who imparted their invaluable knowledge by helping to plan a varied and flexible itinerary. In March, 2008 the BGS team, almost fully prepared for the challenges ahead, embarked a 3-day training exercise in Buxton, during which fellow students battled wind, rain, snow, sleet and worst of all, their own cooking.

For a while the rigours of school life and exams took priority over the upcoming expedition and for most, it seemed as though Mongolia was nothing more than an idea contemplated occasionally. After several lazy weeks of summer holiday, the group arrived at school and said their goodbyes to loved ones and, in some cases, family. As we rolled out our sleeping bags for the final night on home turf, there was a distinct air of excitement mixed with some trepidation.

The BGS expedition to Mongolia was not simply about sight-seeing.

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We spent several days working in orphanages at the beginning of the month in-country. The children had suffered terrible hardship and poverty, but were now being cared for in a safe environment. It was touching to be made to feel so welcome by all of the children who found wearing our sunglasses hilarious, loved to play basketball, and ambushed us with a surprise water fight at any opportunity.

A donation of just �25 from each team member bought a traditional home, a ger, for a homeless family. The ger arrived in pieces on the back of a truck and it was assembled like a huge jigsaw, making an immense difference to this family's life.

The most spectacular sights were to be seen on trek, when experienced guide called Khishig and his team of wranglers led us around the Great White Lake on horseback and on foot. There followed a sequence of new experiences, ranging from many glorious sunsets over the Great White Lake to the sight of stunning open landscapes stretching as far as the eye could see, to the rush of the wind as we galloped across the steppe on our respective horses, including the wonderfully named Mercury, Atlas, Paul and The General.

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