2nd Mongolian International Scout Jamboree from 25 July to 1 August 2016
On an evergreen bench under the sun where the sound of cellphones mixes with voices mixes with the high-pitched shrills of insects and the audible call of an invisible bird, a boy shaves a stick with his pocket knife. His head is tilted just forward with concentration, and with the visor of his cap, it hides his face from view.
He is a scout. If it isn’t obvious by his unlikely actions and his focused demeanor then, his identity is at the very least revealed by the navy blue button-up that he wears with pride, resplendent with officious patches and a slick sash that hangs down from his neck.
Scouts aren’t like normal kids, according to an ex-Mongolian scout leader who asked to be identified as B.
“Scouts are so active. They interest many things. Normal kids so wondering all things,” B. says in broken English that has been slightly revised here for clarity. “I teach something, some survival things: how to make food, how to make a fire. They are wondering why, for what. Normal kids eat prepared food. Scouts make food themselves. That’s the difference.”
The difference is all around us at the end of the range of Khangai Nuruu, long back, mountains. It’s the Mongolian Second International Jamboree, and about a thousand teens from at least six different countries have made Nairamdal, the campsite just an hour’s drive from Ulaanbaatar, their home.
In a grass field all have gathered. It’s the 28th of July, about two weeks too late for the real thing, but here in Scout Land, it’s Naadam, and the atmosphere of anticipation before the games is only amplified by the grandiose music, spectacular parading, and quick traditional dancing that has enlivened the otherwise quite lonely land on the hill.
The athletes, topped with bright yellow shirts and bright orange caps that cover their craniums nourish themselves before their sport with homemade meals of rice, bread, meat, water, and juiceboxes.
The winners are awarded patches for their uniforms, so the competition is far from frivolous.
The wrestling is fast, not like the almost endless matches of the adults whose falls indent the ground of the national stadium. These boys are teens, and with swings and trips and defensive swats, they are a near constant breeze of motion before they reach their victorious eagle dance to the steady beat of the old long song.
Ankhbayar, a 13 year old who is enjoying his first year as a scout, doesn’t participate but watches from the sidelines. Although the wrestlers are mostly Mongolians, Ankhbayar has enjoyed his time here, he says through a translator, because it is his first experience being close with international people.
Erdenebaatar, another spectator who is 18 years old and has been a scout for the past seven years, says that this jamboree is his fifth but his first international one.
“This is more interesting,” he says through a translator. “There’s people from different cultures, so it’s been interesting.”
Almost equally as interesting is a forest full of activities that lies hidden in the upper regions of the camp’s many hills. There are four activity centers, B. explains: one for science education, social education, survival education, and adventure education.
A confusion of trees and tall grass can easily muddle one’s sense of direction in the activity center area, but Gantug, a 15 year old aspiring astronomer who likes breakdancing and is finishing up his first year with the scouts, is as good a guide as any through the jungle of educational activities.
Monkey Bridge: In the forested part of one of the camp’s many hills, a sign is tied up between the branches of two trees. Monkey Bridge, it advertises in English and Mongolian.
Laughs bubble up from the small crowd sat safe among the sticks, dirt, dying grass, and pinecones as the monkey girl with the helmet squawks out subdued bursts of fear, trying to keep her wide-rimmed glasses on the ridge of her nose as her feet move cautiously over the single, white, rope bridge.
“I was a little bit scared, and my legs were a little bit shaky,” the girl, whose 14, says through a translator. “My legs are still shaking.”
Eagle Cave: Four cut branches are jammed into the ground, and above them, a teensy and slightly tilting small platform made of rope and more wood.
Eleven wide-eyed teenagers stand huddled on top like shipwrecked folks afraid to fall from their raft.
Someone stands up. The structure tilts downwards. Game’s over. It’s been said that they once were able to fit 20 people.
“It’s the perfect time to adventure,” a scout says as Gantug leads the way to the next activity.
Beetle: More branches and more rope. They’ve been fashioned into a giant letter A with a little boy in a sports jersey holding on in the middle. He’s moving, walking with wide and purposeful steps like an oppressor with a limp. But the boy with the red shirt is a ruse. His power is invented. He’s a puppet whose masters pull the ropes at his wooden ankles, struggling to keep him afloat on the uneven ripples of the forest floor.
“She’s saying ‘it’s hard, hard, too hard for me,’” Gantug translates for one of the young puppet-mistresses.
Mole: Their bodies move like zombies, herded by the one woman left blind folded, but she is an uncertain blessing. At times, she guides their flailing limbs over the strings that substitute their sight, but she just as readily disturbs the thin source of safety that leads the zombie bodies to their end.
It finishes with groaning as the zombie children reach their mark, a tall and sturdy tree. Removing their red folds in relief, they rejoin the world of the sightseeing.
For the international scouts especially, the activities are just one small part of the fun. Although the scouts have been split into four camps, each named after a season, the fields of Nairamdal have daily been set ablaze like a Russian wildfire with the raging warmth of cross-camp and cross-cultural interactions.
“It’s very good because you can meet a lot of people from different countries,” says Tingyu, a 13 year old from Taiwan who just joined the scouts this past year. “[Mongolians] are very laid back and are very good at singing and dancing.”
“It’s just really cool to see that exchange of cultures that’s going on here. Just like making friends. Like I don’t know. I think I’m gonna be friends with them for life,” says Eric, an 18 year old from Sweden whose been scouting for 12 years.
Aside from the friends, Eric says that one of his favorite parts of the jamboree is the food. “I don’t understand how they can do it with just like meat and flour and make amazing dishes,” he exclaims.
Although Eric and Tingyu both say that the language barrier can be hard to overcome at times, B. says that it’s “not big problem.”
“Opinion and heart is one,” he says. “We are scouts.”
Sometimes, no words are needed. A simple, few finger salute suffices for hello.
Thunder forebodes from the other side of the mountain, but the scouts seem not to notice. They are playing soccer, wrestling, running, and lining up at attention.
Gantug has been working all day, he says. It’s time to take a breather. I wonder whether, after three days, he’s grown tired of his job on the international service team, but my assumption, he quickly points out, is a silly one.
“I like my job,” he says. “Because I’m a scout.”
The lightning flashes like a strobe. It’s there, and then, it isn’t.
The purple, white, and yellow flowers that have sprung up through the summertime grass have had their show stolen by bright flags and big tents of the scout camp, the temporary residence of temporary nomads from England, America, Sweden,Taiwan, Singapore, and Mongolia. The children have become the new flowers of summertime on the shallow slope of the hills.
100 percent of the people interviewed for this story said that they would love to return to the Mongolian scout jamboree, to bloom again like a perennial flower after a long hard winter away. Talks are currently underway for a jamboree 10 times as jam-packed as this one as Mongolia prepares to host the 31st Asia Pacific Regional Scout Jamboree.
This year’s quaint summer garden promises to become a flourishing meadow.
By Alexander Cecil McNab (California, USA)