Living in Mongolia
Trina and Mickey Cofer are missionaries who have spent the last ten years living in Mongolia. Here we hear their story of raising their children in the Land of the Blue Skies both in Trina's words - and in an interview conducted by Maeve. In 2016 they featured on Ben Fogle's New Lives in the Wild TV programme, it's a wonderfully sympathetic view of life in Mongolia and Ben said that it was one of the most wonderful places he has visited. We had the pleasure of 'fixing' this film shoot for the production team.
On the first of September 2003, Mickey and I and our four children, Judah 12, Jonah 10, Jesse 7 and Jaaz 4, kissed our family and friend’s goodbye and left our Blue Ridge Mountain woodland paradise for the unknown city of Ulaanbaatar. Nothing can fully prepare you for how it feels to be a stranger in a faraway land. We were the only foreign family in a sea of unfamiliar faces, with unknown sounds and unaccustomed smells swirling around us. Once we’d made our way through the intimidating process of immigration in a Post-Soviet country, we endured a rough ride over an eroding asphalt road, darting in and out of chaotic traffic, through the smoke-laden, soot-filled city. I held the hands of my youngest tightly as we entered a cold, dilapidated, cinder block apartment block where we laid our exhausted children to rest.
It wasn’t long before our initial trepidation gave way to joy as we began to interact with the strikingly beautiful and passionate people of Mongolia. We dove into our work among their gifted fine artists and skilled craftsmen whose pieces would eventually adorn the shelves and walls of our small art gallery. We spent the first four months weaving in and out of artist studios, basement workshops and University halls, exploring and purchasing a variety of artwork in various mediums. In January 2004, we opened Vessels of Honor Gallery, the first of its kind selling quality decorative and functional handicrafts, sculptures and paintings. It quickly attracted a steady flow of customers looking for unique gifts and home decor. We made a wonderful variety of friends from around the world and within our national community, as we began to find our place in this distant land.
Once our initial work in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar was operating successfully, we set our sights on rural Mongolia. We decided to set up a foundation to aid local artisans in the lakeside National Park tourist town of Khatgal. We purchased a Mongolian ger, a wooden lattice-framed, felt-covered tent that would soon become our new home. We loaded up our 1979 Mercedes Unimog and our young family set out on its first of many panoramic journeys through the legendary steppes and expansive blue skies of Mongolia. Round white tents and simple homesteads dotted the gently sloping hills. Nomads, nobly poised on horseback in robe-like deels, tended their herds of fat-tailed sheep and cashmere goats, long-haired yaks and two-humped wooly camels. Herds of handsome Mongolian horses ran wild over the grassy plains.
In those early days, the intense beauty was matched by the gruelling cross country trek over the deeply furrowed dirt roads, weaving mile after mile through endless mountain passes and boundless plains. After two days of exhilarating and exhausting off-road travelling, we finally crested the hill overlooking our long anticipated destination. The setting sun cast an incredible light over the magnificent landscape. Horses were serenely grazing in the grass along the shore of the crystal clear water of Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia’s beloved Mother Lake. Brightly colored metal-roofed cabins softly glowed in the valley of the charming lakeside village. The moment I arrived in this indescribable place, I drew that long, deep kind of breath that knows you are where you are supposed to be, doing what you were born to do, and exhaled that slow sigh of relief that whispers, “Home sweet home.”
News spread quickly of this strange American family that had requested permission to live in their notoriously cold northern town. But the land was lush with spring and the winter frozen tundra far from our minds. As soon as the Governor granted his approval, we headed to our designated spot just outside of town. Tucked in a small oval clearing in the larch pines, overlooking the sparkling turquoise lake, we erected our traditional Mongolian tents: one for us and one for our language teacher Tungaa and her daughter Lkhamaa.
With the help of our four elated children, the ger building process began by laying out the floorboard sections in puzzle-like fashion on the grass. Once the circle floor was complete, the wooden lattice walls were raised and tied together, with the door facing south east toward the sun. Two beautifully hand-carved pillars, symbolic of the mother and father of the family, were set in the middle to hold up the central frame. A sturdy circular beam held each of the rafter poles that spanned from the center of the ger to the outside walls, like the spokes of a wagon wheel. Then blankets of hand felted sheep wool were draped over the finished structure followed by a water-proof canvas. The final product was held altogether with horse hair ropes wrapped around the belly of the coziest, most lovely living space we had ever seen. The wood stove was set inside and a warm fire built, before the truck was unloaded with our few belongings.
What a monumental night, when we lay down together for the very first time, staring at the exquisitely painted poles and pillars overhead, surrounded by our sleeping young. The star-studded sky danced in the distance casting soft light through the opening at the top of the ger. I felt utterly at home, even though we had travelled literally “…unto the ends of the earth.”
Maeve couldn't resist asking some more questions...
What is your story? How did you come to be in Mongolia?!
Mickey and I were nearly forty years old and deeply immersed in pursuing a lifelong dream of building an off-the-grid homestead and pottery studio in the southern foothills of the Smokey Mountains. Our original plan was to raise our four children to learn the value of living off the land, limiting the influence of our electronic and entertainment-oriented society, modelling a life of serving others and appreciating the natural world around them.
We were several years into clearing our woodland property, sawing our own lumber and building our home, when an Australian Evangelist stood in the pulpit of our small country church and boldly presented the needs of a poverty stricken world against our comfy American lifestyles. His heart-felt challenge made our somewhat self-centered plan for a self-sufficient life begin to lose its splendour. As his finger traced the map he said, “Mongolia. It would take a man to go to Mongolia…”
And that was it. That statement, “it would take a man…” – and Mickey was just that; a man’s man, a simple, hard-working country boy from Appalachia America – is what started our Mongolian journey.
How has it been bringing up 4 kids in Mongolia?
It has been a joy raising our children in Mongolia for them and us. You might think that they would have felt deprived of the luxuries of familiar family and friends, personal comforts and conveniences and all the fun of the fashionable American lifestyle. But though they certainly experienced some losses, they also embraced all they gained in their Mongolian adventure. They became world travelers and tent dwellers in a remote village in northern Mongolia. As they grew, they began to grasp the incredible privilege it has been to meet amazing individuals from every walk of life from every continent around the globe. They have mingled with young people throughout Asia, Europe, Africa, North and South America. Our kids learned to be flexible – to weather difficult circumstances, to endure hard work and harsh climates, to learn a new language along with a deep and genuine appreciation for different cultures. And they have run, played, swam, skated, climbed, ridden horses and driven motorcycles in some of the most beautiful landscapes this world has to offer.
What are the things that you will miss when you come to leave?
We will miss the refreshing sweetness of the Mongolian young people in our village who come to hang out in our home and at the Community Center we have spent the last ten years renovating for them. We will never forget the awe-inspiring scene of Mongolian Shepherds, dressed in their colorfully belted traditional robe-like dells riding on their half wild stallions as they skillfully round up their herds of long haired yaks, fat-tailed sheep, cashmere goats or wooly two-humped camels across the grassy steppes of the matchless Mongolian landscape. Then there is the joy of living on the shores of one of the world’s most pristine mountain lakes (Lake Khovsgol) affectionately referred to as their Mother Lake, or the Blue Pearl of Mongolia. How could we not miss the legendary Mongolian cerulean blue sky with her brilliant star-studded nights? But most of all we will miss the faithful Mongolian brothers and sisters whom we have come to know these last ten years of our ministry.
What have been the biggest challenges/ joys/ surprises?
Throughout the last eleven years that we have lived in Mongolia, the greatest challenges have been the difficulty of cross country travel, the sporadic nature of international communication, the poor condition of the medical facilities and the hazardous sub-zero temperatures of northern Mongolia. We have made many dangerous off-road cross country treks in substandard vans wreaking of gasoline, freezing winds penetrating the doors as we made our way from village to capital city, in temperatures forty degrees below zero. Our vehicle got stuck in a snow-filled ravine for hours with little hope of any help to arrive…
The lack of good medical facilities has also been a huge challenge – especially the night our son Jonah suffered a near fatal horse-riding accident. But some of the greatest joys and simple surprises are found in the midst of the greatest challenges. There is a deep sense of accomplishment to live, minister and travel in areas where few feet have trod. The deep freeze of Lake Khovsgul gives way to a charming ice festival that brings in international visitors, dog sleds, and talented ice sculptors. We love mingling with Mongolians in their gorgeous fur hats and fleece-lined winter dells, skating across the crystal clear ice, riding on horse drawn sleighs, and enjoying the breathtaking mountain lake paradise. The people are warm and their lifestyle endearing in so many ways. This once distant country has found its way into our hearts to forever impact our lives.