Mongolia…it’s a wrap!

It’s easy to take traveling for granted sometimes, but on this trip, each day we recognized that we were experiencing something truly special. As English-speaking business school students, it takes a lot to takes us out of our comfort zones. But Mongolia, with its signs in Cyrillic alphabet and vast stretches of untamed nature, took us for a wild ride into the unknown.

Our packed itinerary took us to some drastically different places and to meetings with many highly inspirational people. Through this, I’ve assembled a messy collection of trip highlights and lessons learned.

  • Accounting is more important than you think – We were curious as to what it would take to encourage economic growth and diversification in Mongolia, and posed this question to all the investment-minded professionals we met. The perhaps surprising answer? Accounting standards. In the US, we are accustomed to a certain level of trust when it comes to a company’s financial records. However, in Mongolia, it is not uncommon for a business owner to take cash out of the business for personal purposes. Increasing financial accountability education and awareness seems to be the most crucial step in increasing both local and foreign investment. Here’s some key evidence that LIFO and FIFO are still useful after the core.
  • It’s important to wear closed-toe shoes when meeting with the Mongolian President – also the president will offer you Golden Gobi chocolates, they are delicious, take more
  • “From goat to coat” is probably the best slogan for a cashmere company ever
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    “From goat to coat” – Gobi Cashmere
  • Business culture difference still exist – we were all pleasantly surprised at how warm, high energy, and candid the Mongolia professionals we met were, creating a distinctly Mongolian way of doing business that’s built on openness and trust. At Newcom Group, the CEO of EnergyAsia described his experience with the Japanese work culture. “The Mongolians are entrepreneurial problem solvers who want to start doing things right away, whereas the Japanese are more risk-averse and need to see more reports and plans.”
  • Throat singing and contorting are two traditional Mongolian arts that are each hauntingly beautiful in their own way – a contortionist performance is not for the weak of heart or the squeamish
  • Reindeer are real, y’all – I don’t know if you already knew this, but FYI
  • Your classmates will make fun of you for bringing a selfie-stick, but it will be single-handedly the best way to get group pictures so who’s laughing now?
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    Photo via selfie stick
  • Bring plenty of sunscreen, eye drops, moisturizer, and lip balm – it’s dry here! Or you can pick them up at Lhamour
  • Your CBS classmates are some of the most hilarious, inspiring, adventurous, inquisitive, brave, easy-going, and fun people you will ever have the pleasure of taking a trip with – you will still want to be their friend even when you are stuck in the airport together for the 12th hour in a row
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    Playing Codenames at the airport during flight delays

    At our closing dinner, our amazing organizers gave out superlatives for each person on the trip. It’s crazy to think that a week ago, these people had been strangers, and now I can easily identify them by the sound of their voice and can call them my friends.

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Closing dinner at Hazara with our guide, Bolor

I, along with everyone on the trip, are incredibly grateful for the chance to visit Mongolia on such a well-planned journey. Hope to see you soon again, Mongolia!

Arigatou gozaimasu

Looking back on the last week in Japan, I’m most surprised by just how much we were able to do there. We visited –

  • 3 cities: Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo
  • 6 companies: Omron, Suntory, Toyota, Shiseido, Mitsubishi Estate Corporation, 500 Startups
  • 1 school: Hitotsubashi Graduate School of International Corporate Strategy
  • 5 temples and shrines: Shunko-in, Fushimi-inari, Kinkaku-ji, Senso-ji, Meiji Shrine

We sampled ramen, sushi, yakitori, donburi, syabu-syabu, izakaya, tempura, monjayaki, and takoyaki. And we got pretty close as a group through many nights of sake and karaoke—not to mention trying the ryokan together. We learned how to drink tea, meditate, say “thank you” and “excuse me” in Japanese, and navigate the Tokyo subway system.

We wouldn’t have been able to do so much if not for the extensive planning and thoughtfulness of our student organizers but also the amazing variety of Japan itself. So I leave Japan feeling very grateful. Fortunately, “thank you” is one of the few things I can now say in Japanese: arigatou gozaimasu.

Japan collage


A few other surprises we encountered along the way in Japan:

  1. Though you always drive on the left in Japan, pedestrians should keep to the left in Tokyo, but keep to the right in Osaka.
  2. There is no tipping in Japan, and offering a tip can be considered an insult.
  3. There are women-only cars on Japanese subways. The rule only applies during rush hour, but you will be escorted off the train if you attempt to violate it.
  4. Toto seems to have a monopoly on toilets in Japan, and Americans may be surprised by the running water sound effects, heated seats, and multitude of other buttons.
  5. Sleeping on a tatami mat is surprisingly comfortable. Sitting through dinner on a tatami mat, however, requires a bit of flexibility.
  6. Wear nice socks. You will take off your shoes a lot in Japan: before sitting down a for meal, before entering a fitting room, before entering a shrine.
  7. Smoking is allowed in most restaurants. (There are, however, non-smoking rooms or floors in hotels.)
  8. Trashcans are hard to find in Japan. Streets are not lined with trashcans, and you won’t find trashcans in most public places or in lobbies. (Hint: look for recycling bins near vending machines.)
  9. Most people do not speak English. Most restaurants, though, have an English version of their menu and/or use a lot of pictures—pointing came in handy on this trip.

 

– Lauren

Stroll-ia through Mongolia: Hiking, Camping, and Horseback Riding by Lake Khuvsgul

With our business meetings behind us, we shed our professional suits in favor of suits of armor at the 13th century camp, a tour destination where guests can experience life in Mongolia long, long ago.

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A group of Mongolian Warriors

The cons of the 13th century camp? No indoor plumbing. The pros of the 13th century camp? Every. Thing. Else. Our group gleefully dressed up as warriors at the first camp, built to replicate life in the Mongolian army. At the second camp, we learned about life as artisans. At the third, we visited the library and had our names written in Mongolian script. At the fourth, we met a real-life shaman. The fifth and last camp was the royal ger, where we dined like kings and queens on traditional Mongolian cuisine. On the menu was Suutei Tsai, a salted milk tea, Khuushur, a fried meaty empanada, and a slightly gamy but delicious lamb noodle dish. We devoured everything with gusto.

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Khuushur, a fried meaty empanada

The next day, we embarked on the journey to Lake Khuvsgul for some good old outdoor camping. Lake Khuvsgul is the largest freshwater lake in Mongolia by volume, with a surface area of 1,070 square miles. To put that into perspective, it’s a little smaller than the size of Long Island. To get there, we sat through a two hour ride on a shaky small plane, plus another two hour bus ride through bumpy terrain.

The destination was well-worth the rocky journey, for Lake Khuvsgul was truly stunning. We stayed at the Toilogt tourist camp, where we had the choice of living in a ger, a teepee, or a cabin. The gers were heated by a wood-burning stove, and we were surprised to find that 1) the stove was highly effective, when it is on, the ger easily heated to 80 degrees, and that 2) when the fire went out, the 30 degree weather quickly crept in. Thankfully, a team of professional fire makers at the camp came into our tents throughout the night to re-light the fire. I do not recommend anyone trying to light their own stove.

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The gers

The next day, we went off into the mountains in search of the elusive reindeer herders. Reindeers thrive in the cold northern climate where their diet consists mainly of a special type of moss. The herders agreed to come down as south as they will go, but we had to meet them half way. Thus began the steepest hike I had ever been on. For forty minutes, we sweated up the side of a mountain. After twenty minutes, we wondered if the reindeers even existed. How is it that we haven’t seen any signs of them?

It wasn’t until we made it over the ridge that we saw the reindeers. They have large brown eyes and fuzzy antlers. No red noses here. We lined up to nuzzle their adorable faces and pose for photos, then took photos to commemorate this heroic hike.

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Reindeers!

One thing we were surprised to learn is how technologically advanced these reindeer herders are. For people living such a traditional way of life, the herders all had cellphones and immediate recognized the drone that we brought along.

The reindeer visit wasn’t over just yet. The herders trotted out his baby reindeers! These guys were just two days old and were already walking. We weren’t allowed to touch them, but merely seeing them was already a highlight of the trip.

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Day 6, still learning how to hold the flag straight 🙂

After returning to camp and a rowdy game of Mongolia trivia (Team Golden Gobi was robbed!), we geared up for horseback riding around the lake. Mongolian horses are a lot smaller, but still fairly rambunctious. We rode into the grass fields where yaks grazed, and got to experience the life on horseback of a nomad.

On our last night, we built a huge bonfire and gazed up at the perfectly clear night sky. Hello Big Dipper! This total nature immersion was the most incredible way to experience Mongolia. The next day, we would return to Ulaanbaatar and wrap up our week long journey.

Entrepreneurship in Mongolia: Lhamour Organic Skincare

“Basically, everyone thought it was the most stupid idea in the world.” laughed Khulan Davaadorj, the founder of Lhamour organic skincare.

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With a degree from Columbia SIPA and a background in renewable energy managing billion dollar projects, naturally the next step was to start making soap in the kitchen, right? That’s the leap of faith Khulan took when she founded Lhamour organic skincare back in 2014.

The life of an entrepreneur is certainly not easy. But imagine being robbed, losing your Macbook with your business plan and all your paperwork, and having to fire your first three employees because you have no money to make payroll. Then imagine being sued by one of those employees and having to fight the lawsuit in court. Then, imagine all this happening within your first month in business.

Oh, but there’s more. There was the office flood that left her products floating in knee-deep water. Then there was another flood. And one more after that. Throughout all this, she had to move offices four times. Khulan recounted all these obstacles with incredible grace and humor, telling her story with a smile and brushing it off with her signature phrase: “It was all so crazy!”

This makes it all the more amazing to see the business she has built from the ground up not only thrive, but flourish. Lhamour’s revenue has doubled each year, and has significantly increased its exports, tapping into countries such as the US, Singapore, Canada, and Korea. Locally, it is carried at 8 sales points in Ulaanbaatar in additional to the UB airport.

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What’s even more impressive is Khulan’s dedication for creating social impact through her business – not only are her products zero-waste and environmentally friendly, she gives jobs to people who had little professional work experience (including many single mothers and housewives), and she also actively dedicates her time, office space, and energy to mentoring Mongolian youth. As cynical business school students, a few of us couldn’t help but wonder if her social impact efforts were distracting her from the core business. After all, isn’t the whole purpose of private equity to make business lean and focused, to shed all unnecessary operations and maximize efficiency?

Khulan was gracefully unfazed by our cynicism. She told us that to her, social impact is a quintessential part of her business. Her business carries meaning because of the positive impact she is able to impart upon the local community. She looked every bit a proud parent when she raved about her young mentees: “This year, every single one was accepted to university!”

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After the office visit, our group of CBS students toured the Lhamour store at the nearby Shangri-La mall, where we tested the full range of her products. Mongolian pride runs deep through the creation of her products, with traditional Mongolian ingredients such as sea buckthorn and sheep’s tail tallow highlighted as key ingredients. Everything felt incredibly natural and fresh. The brand comes across clearly through the story and the packaging: high-end, yet rustic and lovable without any hint of pretense.

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After hearing Lhamour’s story, many of us have become the biggest fans of Khulan and the company she started from scratch. We are not the first ones who have been impressed by her story. In 2016, NHK World featured Khulan in the “Her Story” documentary series. Take a look if you are interested in Khulan’s story!

Will the real Tokyo please stand up

Tokyo doesn’t just feel like a different world compared to New York, but within Tokyo it feels like there are as many different worlds as there are people.

Today, we visited Meiji shrine, situated directly between Tokyo’s busiest area, Shibuya, and the bustling neighborhood Shinjuku. But walking to Meiji shrine, you find yourself deep in a forest, with centuries-old trees to either side, no road noise, no skyscrapers in sight.

We immediately compared that peaceful and zen-like world to Takeshita Street, home of the Harajuku girls, where teenagers and tourists pack the narrow alley. The shops, hawkers, and sweets are all directly across from Meiji shrine but they feel a world away.

 

That experience of shifting from one version of Tokyo to another so quickly and so absolutely occurs again and again here. We’ve seen the “old Tokyo” neighborhood of Asakusa and the traditional Tsujike fish market but also the high fashion, modern Ginza area. We’ve crossed at Shibuya crossing, the busiest intersection in the world, and then found our inner zen at Happo-en gardens and tea ceremony.

Usually you travel in order to know a place better, but if you think you know Tokyo, I think you just haven’t seen enough of it yet.

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– Lauren

 

The fable of the three blind men, as applied to a factory

In a Buddhist temple, we talked about reality. We learned it’s etymology as we sat on round cushions on the floor with windows to our left looking out onto a garden of raked stones and wet leaves. We heard the fable of the three blind men touching the elephant: the one who touches its tail and believes an elephant is like a snake, the one who touches its leg and thinks it’s like a tree trunk, and the one who touches its ear and thinks it’s like a fan. We define our realities based on limited information, and as we practiced zen meditation we were told to seek out new information through different methods of perceiving, to listen to our bodies and to the ways our minds wander as we control our breathing. We were told to do this without judgment, without judgment for ourselves or based on preconceived notions, and to be flexible, open to the new realities we experience.

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There’s no wine in Mongolia…but there are sour milk curds and Chinggis beer

“What is real Mongolian food like?” we sheepishly wondered as we sat down to dinner on day one. We had previously been warned that Mongolia isn’t a food destination (see my previous post here).  The breakfast at the Best Western Tuushin hotel had been an odd mixture of global continental and Chinese takeout, and now, it was finally time to experience traditional Mongolian cuisine.

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Mongolian Sheep’s Head! Or what’s left of it…

Turns out, it was sheep’s head. And it was delicious. We wolfed down the tenderly braised meat and vegetables along with Buuz, a Mongolian version of xiao long bao, Boortsog, a lightly-sweetened fried dough, and a cumin-laced plate of sizzling beef stir-fry. All washed down with local Mongolian beer. Ahh.

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The Pescatarians of Chazen Mongolia

Our appetite had built up through a jam-packed day of company visits. Starting from morning meetings with SGI Frontier Capital, a private equity fund, to the Central Bank of Mongolia (we got to see the bank’s vault!). We quickly paused for lunch at Khuree, where most of us had our first experience with Aarts, a traditional Mongolian drink made of sour milk curds, served hot. For the uninitiated, Aarts is an acquired taste. I would best describe it as a mixture of hot plain yogurt with a cup of grated parmesan cheese. But you should at least try it once.

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Aarts, not for the faint of heart

In the afternoon, we moved on to Newcom Group, a leading provider of renewable energy, and finally wrapped up with a visit to APU Group, the largest brewer and beverage producer in Mongolia. It’s hard to have a beverage in Mongolia without running across APU – the company encompasses a brewery, a spirits distiller, a vodka plant, a water and soft drinks plant, as well as a dairy processor. You might have noticed that there is no wine. Indeed, the harsh weather system in Mongolia is not very suitable for viticulture. Most of the wine here is imported from Australia, South America, the US, and France.

We walked into APU’s Ulaanbaatar brewery and were promptly issued white lab coats (they were really capes) and blue hairnets. Our guide took us through the brewing process, where a combination of malt, hops, yeast, and water work together to transform simple grains into fizzy beer. Then, it was time for a tasting! We tried the brewer’s signature lager, Нийслэл™. The beer was mild, refreshing, slightly sweet with a hint of citrus.

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APU Group Company Visit

Just when we thought the tasting was over, our guide brought us over to a different area of the building where she broke out two bottles of vodka and a tray of water glasses. Oh boy, we were in for a ride.

Chinggis Khan is APU’s premium vodka, and Eden is a more affordable brand that’s about a quarter the price of the Chinggis Khan. We tasted both and did a side-by-side comparison (does this count as a DiD analysis? Where are my notes from Business Analytics?) Maybe it was psychological, but most of us preferred the Chinggis.

So that brings us to an end of our first beverage-filled day in Mongolia. One last note about a semi-related beverage – coffee. Mongolians still have a fairly strong tea culture, and coffee is a relatively new trend. What this means is that the coffee here is pretty…watery by New York standards (think Blue Java half diluted with water). I hear that you can ask for your coffee to be made stronger, and will be testing out this #protip as we race through another busy day in Ulaanbaatar tomorrow. Stay tuned!