by Jeffrey Schwab, Educational Programs Coordinator

This year saw the students of Utahloy International School Guangzhou taking risks, pushing their limits, and truly making connections with Mongolian culture. From day 1 Utahloy students were encouraged to get out and interact with local businessmen, passersby, and peers their own age.

The ultimate culmination of cultural exchange occurred when Utahloy visited Jingpeng’s Ethnic Mongolian school. This school, headed by Principal Te, is one that The Hutong has had a relationship with for the past five years. Last year, Utahloy enjoyed their visit and school exchange with the Jingpeng students so much so that they wanted to relive the experience. Principal Te truly went the extra “li” by suggesting that the Utahloy students not only visit their school this year, but they take the school exchange to the next level and visit the grasslands together.

15566067276_eca3bc2ff5_zAfter leaving the small city of Wudan, Utahloy made the long drive to Jingpeng in a caravan of twin buses. Utahloy arrived just prior to lunch. Each Utahloy student departed the bus with a “hada” or Mongolian prayer scarf in hand. The scarves were the color blue, symbolizing “Tenger,” or “Great Sky” worshipped in traditional Mongolian culture. Utahloy students lined up in front of the school’s gate where their Mongolian counterparts waited on the other side of the gate, also with hadas in hand–two armies coming together for the first time, in peace.

To greet a guest by placing a hada over his or her head is the ultimate sign of respect in traditional Mongolian and Tibetan culture. Once the hadas were exchanged the local students led Utahloy into the gymnasium for a performance of singing, dancing, and the horse-head violin. After the short performances, local students took Utahloy students hand-in-hand to the cafeteria for lunch.

Once lunch was finished, Utahloy students loaded back onto the buses, this time preceded by the Mongolian students and Principal Te on their own buses. The students put archery equipment, extra bedding, and wrestling gear onto their buses. Where once there was a caravan of two, now there were four vehicles. The skies clouded over, the temperature dropped, but Tenger did not permit the rain to fall as the caravan made its way towards the volcanic basin lake of Dalinor.

Pulling up close to the Northern shore of Dalinor Lake, the buses finished the hour long ride at the foot of a small hillock with multiple wind turbines. At the bottom of the hill were several yurts where the Utahloy students would be sleeping. As soon as the Mongolian students arrived, they began to pull their equipment off the buses. To the North of the yurts they set up the archery station. Another group of students set up a line of cutting boards, butcher knives, and ingredients for dumplings stuffed with lamb. To the South of the yurts they laid down traditional Mongolian wrestling harnesses, a small poof of dusting rising from the ground when they were set upon the Earth.

15403777547_68d76d0d5d_zAfter students made their respective bathroom breaks at the outhouse, a sort of organic rotation of activities began. In the expansive field to the South of the newly-formed wrestling circle, a group of Mongolian and Utahloy students took a soccer ball and began a game. Other students clumped in groups and began the first and easiest method of communication by taking pictures with their peers from afar. The wrestling circle slowly gathered up momentum and the Mongolians took charge, assigning different participants different numbers so the opponents would be mixed and random. Even the Utahloy teachers joined in the action.

Just as the temperature dropped even more, it was time to eat homemade dinner. With the students working especially hard, the big hit had to be the combination of the beef stew and the lamb dumplings. As heat spread from the stomach to the other extremities, the Sun went down.

14970042883_f2e5c92ccd_zNow it was time for the bonfire. In an outreach of true friendship, the Mongolian students joined Utahloy in building a gigantic bonfire for everyone to gather warmth. When the spark was lit, it didn’t take long for everyone to join in and create a circle, staring at the flames as they licked upwards towards Tenger. As if on cue, the singing began. First the Mongolians sang a song in their native tongue, then it was time for Utahloy, one of The Hutong staff, or even one of the Utahloy teachers to sing. Concentrating on the flames, listening to the melodic notes of a Mongolian folk song, or the words to “Stand by Me,” Utahloy and the Jingpeng Mongolian students joined hand in hand. Afterwards Principal Te took out the stereo system, and it was time for dancing. Forming a ring to symbolize unity and togetherness, students would rush towards the flames and then back again.

In the evening, despite the fact that the Jingpeng students had to return so that they could attend classes the next day, the bonfire continued to burn on. The songs continued and the stars came out. Students sat around the fire until the last dying embers went out. Afterwards they would return to their yurts to bundle up tightly in sleeping groups.

In the morning, Utahloy stayed on this sacred land and ascended the nearby “Anvil Mountain,” named so for its shape. Climbing over volcanic debris, Utahloy reached the top and came face to face with an “aobao,” or sacred rock mound built by locals in the area. It is custom to create an aobao at a high point, and the students each took three stones and added them strategically to the aobao, adding Utahloy’s own culture to the land that now did not seem so foreign and far from their own.