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Retreating in Mongolia

Tony Whitten's picture

Retreat: A withdrawal for prayer and study and meditation; the going backward or receding from something hazardous, formidable, or unpleasant; a place affording peace, quiet, privacy, or security. Some of the ‘retreats’ I’ve been to during my time at the World Bank could also be described as ‘very long and tedious meetings in windowless hotel basements’ not far from the office. But thankfully the one which 46 members of the Mongolia Country Team attended recently in Mongolia was very different. 

It was held at a rather charming ger tent camp on the banks of the Orkhon River not far from Kharkhorin, the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire and part of UNESCO’s Orkhon Valley World Heritage Site. The camp is owned by ‘Asashoryu Akinori’ one of Mongolia’s most famous sumo wrestlers who in 2003 became the first Mongolian to reach sumo's highest rank.

Ger building was among the activities staff participated in.
At the Orkhon retreat there was a lot of sitting around in active discussion (the weather was largely delightful) but there was also time for ger building, hiking, volleyball and horse riding between sessions. These activities revealed some great talents. (I very rarely ride horses nowadays after an accident in NW Mongolia during the preparation of the IFC’s GEF-financed project on the conservation of the taimen, the world’s largest salmon. I was thrown from my horse after it was bitten by another, and dragged and kicked as my foot was caught in the stirrup. Four days later a helicopter came to get me. But that’s another story). Apart from sporting talent, the time together and the structure of the retreat allowed us to discover a host of fascinating facts about our colleagues: one had broken off a promising break-dancing career that was on the edge of leading to Bollywood to become an economist, one had played violin in an orchestra under the baton of Herbert von Karajan, another had wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up, one had been tailed by the KGB in Moscow, one had worked at a nuclear reactor, one lived on a tiny Pacific island for two years, and yet another was an ace at milking cows. There was also some notable late-night carousing in the karaoke room. What is it about karaoke that makes the most unlikely individuals emerge as stars?  

There was a lot of sitting around but also enough time for open and active discussion.
Many retreats seem to make ‘busy time’ but at this one those charged with fixing the agenda had heeded the frequent complaint that there is never enough time for open discussion and one-on-one chats at retreats—it is in the nature of our work and travel that we may go many months without seeing colleagues and it is good to catch up and compare notes. Our working lives are so intense and hectic that we never really get the opportunity to hear what each other is doing, thinking or planning. Whenever space is found to do this, all sorts of synergies and possibilities emerge. We had first-class summaries of the country’s situation and potential and we made honest appraisals of our own effectiveness. And there were no Powerpoint presentations.

When it was over we returned to Ulaanbaatar stopping to see Erdene Zuu and to deal with a burst tire. Soon enough we all found ourselves faced by “something formidable or unpleasant”—impatient emails, documents which hadn’t written themselves, and phone messages wondering whether we’d deserted our responsibilities. Despite this, I for one felt encouraged, informed, and refreshed by this retreat.

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