From Norfolk to Mongolia

Stephen PullingerWinter temperatures drop to -50C, roads turn into tracks on the edge of the city and life for the poor is so brutal that street children live down manhole covers on warm pipes.Stephen Pullinger

Winter temperatures drop to -50C, roads turn into tracks on the edge of the city and life for the poor is so brutal that street children live down manhole covers on warm pipes.

It is as far removed from Norfolk as you can imagine, and yet Tricia Dickson, who spent the first half century of her life around Norwich, is happy to call Ulaanbataar (UB), the capital of Mongolia, home for the next three years.

When she arrived last August, the first thing she had to come to terms with was the extreme climate, the mercury dramatically plunging from its sweltering 30C summer high.

However, showing the practicality that is a must for an ambassador's wife, Mrs Dickson, 61, quickly invested in a local sheepskin coat and a fur hat.

'A fur hat is something I said I would never buy, but it really is essential when it is so cold in the winter it is dangerous to be outside for longer than 10 minutes,' she said.

Back in Norfolk this month on a three-week break, staying at the home of her younger brother James Daniels in Henstead Road, Hethersett, she said she was struck by 'how green everywhere looks'.

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'When I left to come back there was no greenery in Mongolia. Spring happens almost in one day during May when suddenly there is green everywhere,' she said.

While many might regard Mongolia as the most remote posting you could have, Mrs Dickson said it was positively a home from home compared to the previous overseas assignment she had shared with her husband William, 59, when he was administrator for the British government on the south Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.

She said: 'There, we had only four boats a year bringing in supplies. At least in UB you can go to a market once a week.

'And amazingly, you can generally find most things. Although if you see something you really want - mayonnaise, pasta, even Danish bacon - you are advised to get it because, as likely as not, it won't be there next time you go shopping.'

While there was a ready supply of fresh vegetables, imported from Beijing in China, there was no fresh cream or pasteurised milk.

'Mongolians are big meat eaters - mutton, beef and even horse - but it is very tough and I get steak and lamb brought up from Beijing,' she confessed.

Mrs Dickson was born and brought up near Norwich, the daughter of a wholesale poulterer, and stayed in the area after she married her first husband John Harwood to raise her twin sons Scott and Stuart.

After working as PA to the then town clerk in Norwich she retrained to teach computing at City College. Her overseas adventures began in 1998 after her sons left for university and she applied for a two-year post as business studies advisor for the Department for International Development, in St Helena in the south Atlantic.

She recalled that it was on a flight back to St Helena after a holiday in the UK that she met her second husband on a stop-off in Ascension.

'I had separated from my first husband by then. William and I were the only ex-pats flying on to St Helena. He was the deputy head of overseas territories at the time,' she recalled.

Following their first posting together to Tristan da Cunha at the beginning of the millennium, they were based in London until her husband went on his own to northern Iraq as consul in 2008.

Mongolia is her husband's first posting as ambassador and is considered strategically important as an emerging democracy with major mineral reserves.

While the British ambassador's residence is in a gated community shared with the US and Czech ambassadors, Mrs Dickson said life outside reflected the brutal contrast between 'rich Mongolians driving around in 4x4s and street children living down manhole covers on the hot pipes'.

She said: 'UB is surrounded by mountains and there is serious pollution. In the centre are apartment blocks - many in a terrible state - built by the Russians, and on the outskirts are the gers (traditional tents) in tented villages.'

The harsh winter had seen the population of UB swelled by nomadic herdsmen - making up a third of Mongolia's population - who had lost all their goats and sheep.

Mrs Dickson is an enthusiastic quilter and in her short time in UB has helped to further the ambition of local woman Selenge Tserendash, a trained lawyer, to teach quilting to single mothers as a way of improving their livelihoods.

Working with Selenge at the training centre she established in 2004, she has helped to structure teaching plans and provide marketing expertise to gear them up for the tourism market.

Selenge even flew to England with her and they attended a quilting exhibition in London before going on to an international exposition in Turkey together last week.

Although UB is an involved 10-hour-plus flight from home, Mrs Dickson said it was amazing how small the world now was.

'At one reception I was speaking to someone involved in education and thought I recognised the accent. It turned out he had been responsible for training at Norwich prison,' she said.

'And just before I left, we met Ripley Davenport, an adventurer planning a walk across Mongolia - and it turned out he originally came from Great Yarmouth.'

During her stay in Norfolk she had learned Ripley had suffered equipment failure and returned to his home in Denmark, planning a walk later in the summer.