sunset mongolian nomad horses

Looking back on my first international solo trip to Mongolia: Thoughts on my 17-year-old self & “voluntourism”

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My first international solo trip was to Mongolia in the summer of 2012 . It was the summer before I headed into my senior year of college, and I had spent it in Mongolia for 2 months, initially meant to be 1 month. The program I was on was a “veterinary internship” with the guise of a “volunteering” program. I had intended to go there to “gain experience” in the “veterinary” field. I did not particularly believe I would actually contribute as a volunteer, but was hopeful there was the opportunity to. At the time, 17 year old me, knew very little about the critiques of volunteering abroad, or more officially “voluntourism”.

Definition of “voluntourism”: (noun) a form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity. (Definition from Oxford Languages) –> Just to be clear, I was not volunteering for a charity. I was participating in a veterinary internship under an organization that also planned volunteering programs. I figured I’d consider myself a “voluntourist” purely because of the type of organization I was participating under.

A herd of horses in the Mongolian steppes
A snapshot of the Mongolian countryside

I want to point out what now I am able to critique and question, but at the time may have taken at face value. 17-year-old me may have believed I was embarking on a daring summer adventure and was about to partake in a “real” internship.

Well, soon after actually participating in the internship, I knew that it wasn’t very serious, and what I was doing for the summer was really just…travel and exploring. In this post, I reflect and flesh out a little bit about how I was a “voluntourist” in my first solo international trip abroad and my thoughts about the experience looking back now almost 9 years later.

Asian woman posing next to horses in Mongolia
17-year old me posing with my homestay family’s horses

Why and how did I decide to travel to Mongolia and partake in a “veterinary internship” program?

Horse silhouettes with owner at sunset
Horse care at sunset

There were a couple of reasons why I decided to participate in this program. It was a combination of the following:

  1. I had aspirations to travel to more “off the beaten path” places just because I had romanticized the narrative of “adventure travel”. My classmates and their families flew to beach resorts in Southeast Asia or went skiing in Japan. My family was not able to afford that, so that kind of travel was never an option. Budget adventure travel in less popular countries seemed more accessible and was what I thought was the “cooler” thing to do (you know, part of being in high school and wanting to be different).
  2. Staying in Taipei for an entire summer with my mom was a choice that would have negatively impacted my mental health (I knew this based on previous summer experiences). We probably would have bickered non-stop and it would have just been bad for the both of us.
  3. I had faced pressure to do something the summer before senior year to “boost” my college applications. Internships were looked upon most favorably, with summer classes as a close second. (Yeah, you’d think the pressure to find an internship in college is already enough… interning in high school is not something I think is necessary, but that was the kind of mindset and environment my high school had).
Herd of horses grazing
Meandering grazing horses

Now to elaborate on point 3…

I was attending international high school in Taipei where students are on the whole – privileged, whether it be by nationality or wealth. Most kids held citizenships of a Global North country (e.g. United States, Canada). Actually, you have to hold a foreign passport in order to even attend schools like this. And like most fancy schmancy international schools, students come from wealthy backgrounds, whether it be by Taiwanese or American standards. One thing for sure is that the parents have to be willing to dish out tens of thousand dollars (per year) for tuition at such a school. Though my family could afford my tuition, it was not a comfortable “I can afford this” but rather “this is a huge financial investment that is also a sacrifice, but we will do it so our kids can have better lives and opportunities than we had”. As a result of my background, I was quite class-conscious throughout my days at school, and was therefore sensitive to wealth disparities among our classmates.

Mongolian steppes with goats and horses
From a distance. Yurts, cars, goats, humans, distant hills & steppes

Anyways, getting back to the point… it was popular at the time for students to engage in 3-day volunteering trip to an orphanage in Cambodia (yes, flying from Taiwan) once a year, or maybe it was specific to Junior year – the year people start thinking about college applications. It was common from what I heard at the time for people to use this “volunteering at an orphanage in Cambodia” experience to write about it in their college essays.

I don’t know how a 3-day volunteering trip can be “life changing” beyond the experience of meeting the “Other”, which is essentially people living a less privileged life in many ways (country, standard of living, family, education etc). What can be learned from 3 days beyond the fact that people living underprivileged lives exist? Volunteering for a long weekend is an experience that centers the self-discovery of the students, and does not have the actual positive impact that is easily believed at the surface-level — that these students are positively impacting the orphans for spending time with them for 3 days… No… the orphanage tourism industry is actually quite harmful at the micro and macro scale. I don’t blame the participants for choosing to participate in this type of voluntourism, but instead blame the system that pushes western students to compete for acceptance into higher education by seeing who has done more “good” work in their free time, when the definition of “good” itself is a grey area. Today, I do wonder how many people actually did write about their short term volunteering experience, and how many college essays college admissions had to read that told the same stories.

Mongolian man riding horse slowly
Homestay granddad on a ride

I did not engage in those volunteering/missionary trips mainly because I was not in agreement with the concept back then (and now), and it also did not make financial sense. Not sure if back then, I had realized the extent of how harmful the consequences of volunteering with orphanages is, but I think I did know that it was a surface-level attempt to do something “meaningful”, which now I understand as typical for American and western-educated high schoolers back in the day. East Asians traveled to Southeast Asia while North American kids traveled to Central and Latin America to conduct “charitable work”.

Summer before senior year was rolling around and I had spent my previous summers not doing very much, which meant a lot of time was spent fighting with my mom at home. It was not good. I was ready to do anything to leave home for the summer. My dad wanted me to do something “productive”  because the pressure of college was nearing and they did not shell out their entire life savings for my education, for me to not get into a “good college”.

Herd of goats in Mongolia
Goats!

I had thought I wanted to enter the veterinary field at the time, since I had a strong “passion” for the natural sciences. It was not a passion – I was just better at natural sciences so I thought that meant I had to have a future involving natural sciences. I wanted to see if working with animals was something to consider. I started looking into what programs one could do to “gain experience” as a high schooler. I came across a generic volunteering abroad organization and perused their programs. A veterinary program in Romania had stood out, but that was too far and unfamiliar, my parents thought, so then I looked again and found a “veterinary internship” program in Mongolia. My parents were okay with that because at least it was in Asia, and therefore not very far from Taiwan.

Karakorum / Kharkhorin

The price of the program was not outrageous for spending 4 weeks in Mongolia, but definitely a price that can only be afforded by those from the Global North (“First world”). The cost was comparable to a summer full of classes and tutoring, which was something many of my classmates were doing. Even if my parents did not spend money on this program, there was pressure for me to be doing something and for my parents to be paying for something (because that’s what everyone else was doing).

Mongolian children racing horses
Homestay children racing

I did try very hard to advocate to go on this program because I was willing to do anything to get out of the house to avoid the prospect of my mom and I destroying each other. Another motive that was top of mind for both my dad and I, was that this trip would be a net positive for college applications. (For what it’s worth, I wish we lived in a world where you can just be yourself and live out your high school years without much stress and still get into a college of your liking. Unfortunately, reality is more brutal and much more competitive. There was pressure back in the day to stand out, as there continues to be today).

Horse milking time Mongolia
Horse milking time

I do want to point out that I did end up extending my stay for another 4 weeks, not through the program, but rather traveled on my own. It was much cheaper to travel on my own without the program, and a lot of my learnings came from this time.

Horse prepared for Naadam festival
Horse prepared for Naadam festival

So, that’s the TL;DR  of how I ended up on my first solo international trip. Nothing glamorous or particularly adventurous. Rather, it was an opportunity only possible due to relative privilege and was a decision spurred by the competitive American college application system.

Mongolian yurts or gers
Homestay from a distance

What was the structure of the program (veterinary internship)? What actually happened?

Mongolian eagle or falcon at a tourism spot
A tourist stop to pose with an (or falcon?) on your arm

My program was split into 1 week in the capital, Ulaanbaatar to shadow a local vet (literally, nothing special. It’s the equivalent of your local vet clinic, but just in…another country). And another 2 weeks was to be spent living with a nomad family where I’d observe them prepare their horses for horse racing at a big festival known as Nadaam. Much of what I experienced and was meaningful, had little to do with the internship itself. I vaguely recall seeing puppies and horses get injected with various fluids. That was about it.

Ulaanbaatar lantern festival
We happened to be in Ulaanbaatar during a lantern festival (added some doodled lanterns too)

While I was there, I met quite a large number of people who were there to participate in various programs by the same organization. Fields of study ranged from medicine and healthcare to law, journalism, human rights, and social work. As expected, all of the participants were from a western country, mostly coming from the U.S., Europe, and Australia. I was the only participate at the time coming from another Asian country, and one of like two (?) Asian Americans (or maybe even people of color).

Asian girl posing in green hoodie and denim shorts with camera bag and Doc Martens
At one of the stops we were making as part of an organization activity

The organization had it well planned out for all of us. There was a week of orientation, time spent doing tourist activities like visiting various historical sites and going on multi-day trips. We partook in generic tourism activities, such as holding an eagle or visiting the huge Genghis Khan statue.

Asian girl posing with statue of Genghis Khan
Posing with statue of Genghis Khan (or Chinggis Khan) – Added some illustrations and rosy cheeks

My role as “voluntourist” and more thoughts on “voluntourism” — who does it benefit? Is it harmful?

Mongolian kid having fun horseback riding
One of the kids having fun while horseback riding

It’s clear looking back, and reflecting on “voluntourism” in general that at the end of the day, it is something that benefits the “tourist”, the “foreigner” the most. It’s really an opportunity for people to travel, but perhaps in a slightly longer term way and in a way that contributes to a career path. Instead of passing through on a short trip to do purely touristic activities, voluntourists get to work with locals on something and feel like they are contributing. Maybe some actually are, but I know I for sure did not. I benefitted because I got to learn from others, and in some ways I felt like I was imposing on the families and people I shadowed, but hey, as long as they were compensated.

Dinosaur statues at Gorkhi-Terelj National Park 2012 012
One of the tourist spots had dinosaur statues (lol!) – at Gorkhi-Terelj National Park

Voluntourists end up gaining and benefitting a lot from these experiences because they get to travel and learn about another culture, while also doing something “productive” in their schooling or career. Though it was less impactful for me because I was still in high school, I know some of the others on my program were in university and the summer spent in their programs were useful experiences to put on their resume.

Another tourist stop to ride camels

Is “voluntourism” harmful?

Mongolian homestay yurt ger interior
Interior of my homestay. All the signs are awards around their horses

It depends. I do think the bigger picture system and structure around it is harmful. For example, the organization I did my program through is an American company. They charge hefty fees when the on-the-ground fees are much cheaper. I doubt much of the profits actually make it to the Mongolians working for this company. This is precisely why “voluntourism” is so profitable. Westerners can pay the prices that may seem reasonable for international travel (because the destination country is much cheaper). The locals who work for the organization or sign up to be home stays will make an amount aligned with the average wages in the destination country. That leaves a big sum of money for the organization/company planning these programs, in which most of the companies are headquartered not in the host country.

Horses ready to rest for the evening
Horses & Sunset made for a fun photography project

Voluntourism can also be harmful if it is actually exploiting the locals, whether it is not paying them a livable wage, or artificially creating “need” for voluntourists or western help (like stealing children to fill orphanages). This is not easy to gauge of course, since a lot can happen behind the scenes. At the end of the day “voluntourism” programs are a profitable niche, and when we live in the capitalist world existing today, you’ll know that people will do what they can to create a program desirable for those with the time, interest, and money.

Mongolian horses sunset
Horses resting for the evening

Can “voluntourism” be beneficial? For both visitors and locals?

Cows and horses on Mongolian steppes
Cows and horses grazing along each other

I genuinely think “voluntourism” if done right, can be beneficial for visitors and locals, but it does depend on the program, structure of the program, and the overall system and organization.

I think where voluntourism is beneficial is that it does provide ground for cultural exchange and meeting people from different backgrounds, not just tourist/local, but also tourists/tourists. For example, it was through this experience that I met people from Ireland, Australia, Colombia, the U.S. and got to meet people studying and researching a wide range of topics. It was through this program that I was exposed to people doing really cool things back home. It opened up my perspective to what is out there in the world, what topics are researched, what fields can be studied, and what opportunities lie out in the world beyond school. It’s also inherently a good experience to share our experiences in a new country together, and being open to how differently we are all adapting or responding due to our respective cultural backgrounds and exposures. In a way, I felt like through my experience, I was able to learn about many different cultures, instead of just one culture.

Horse silhouettes at sunset Mongolia
Horse silhouettes at sunset. One of my favorite photos I took that summer

Now, as for the tourist/local dynamic, I think it can be beneficial for both sides, though I think the tourist benefits more. I do think that when the local is paid, it is more fair, and that them being compensated for hosting voluntourists is the right thing to do in the context of these programs. But even when no payment is involved, and the volunteer contributes their labor in exchange for room and board (like WWOOF and Workaway) is beneficial for both sides too. In the Workaway/WWOOF example, locals can gain extra hands for help and not have to pay them, although the labor may not be very skilled. So a lot of educational labor has to come from the host family to educate/re-educate volunteers. I guess that’s why oftentimes this volunteering work is generally accessible for able-bodied folks without specific backgrounds or otherwise the local hosts will seek out people with specific skillsets.

Grazing animals on the Mongolian steppe
Grazing animals on the Mongolian steppe

In the context of a paid voluntourism program though, I think it can be beneficial for both sides in that there is some cultural exchange going on. The hosts may be doing it as extra income, and the voluntourist probably feels entitled to learning new things. I also think that since voluntourists do not have a true skillset, since they might still be a student, and they also lack knowledge of the local government and systems, the voluntourist may not contribute much at all. Instead, they are learning from the local people, like a hands-on study abroad program.

Mongolia underground mole pop it's head out
Another one of my personal favorites. Capturing this little… mole? pop it’s head out

For example, these programs are made for people who might be interested in becoming a doctor, but have not started med school, or people who want to study law, but want exposure to law in a different country. The voluntourist does not have the skills already needed to properly contribute the same way a local medical or law student can, but they can get exposed and learn about a system or place different from their own. The tourist benefits from learning new things and getting exposed to their topic of interest in another country, and the host/local gets compensated for it. This is why it makes sense to me that voluntourism and international internships don’t compensate their participants. It’s because the participant ends up learning more than being able to adequately contribute in the actual job. It’s also why I think it’s justifiable to pay for a voluntourist program, if it IS the right program, or even better; to pay a local tourism organization directly.

Mongolian horses close up
Horses and their dynamic movements

And, that sums up my thoughts on my first solo international trip 9 years ago being a “voluntouristic” trip!

Mongolian couple walking towards horses
Homestay family walking towards the horses

I’ve been wanting to reflect and unpack on my first solo international trip to Mongolia for a while. The trip was indeed life changing, due to a lot of what I mentioned above mentioned — I was expose to new people and new cultures, as well as got to see what life was like in a country considered to be “developing”, while also meeting program participants from other parts of the world, many slightly older than me, which helped me clarify what kind of topics and things people do when in college/university.

Mongolians riding horses

I was grateful I got to learn a lot from my experience, and it’s clear, especially now, that I had benefitted from the trip much more so really, it was like a summer study abroad program except besides the part the program planned for me, I planned for myself (e.g. extending my homestay with the nomad family and volunteering at a horse trekking organization). This experience was the beginning of getting the travel bug for me, and wanting to learn more of other places and people, not solely curious in host countries, but also genuine curiosity in tourism and how cross-cultural learning can be facilitated, and how can it be done well… which is very much what I am continuing to think and write about here at Thoughtful Wanders.

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  1. Thanks for sharing your experience about volunteering in Mongolia (…ish?). It can be so uncomfortable to reflect on past trips and how they weren’t at all what you expected or intended… but I think it takes a certain strength to admit it like you have here. Hopefully it’ll be helpful for other people in the future! On another note—sigh, Mongolia is so beautiful.

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