Irja Halasz
courtesy of Irja Halasz

That Thing that She Does: Multi-linguist, writer, journalist, photographer, artist, animal lover (dogs especially), amateur actress and true wanderer

Irja dreamed of being an explorer when she grew up in a storybook cottage in Rajakyla, a tiny village in the forest near Helsinki, Finland.

She says it was a “mystical and mysterious call” that brought her to Mongolia. “I think it was the utmost isolation of the country, its reclusiveness…the place just became like a large blank area on the map which kept on bothering me, urging me to find more information it, to see it.” But she took the scenic route: she first studied Hungarian in Helsinki, then Hungarian and Mongolian studies in Budapest. When she finally arrived in Mongolia in 1987, she was one of the few foreigners in what was then a closed Communist country. She’s been there ever since — as a student on fellowship studying Mongolian, the Manchu language, and some 13th century Turkish; as a journalist for Reuters (adding yet another language, English, to her ever-growing repertoire); and as a shooter for AP-TV.

On assignment, Irja delves deeper than most: during last winter’s devastating livestock starvation losses, she disappeared into the Mongolian countryside for months while other journalists waited in the city for second- and third-hand reports from aid agencies. But she also takes time to create beautiful watercolors and ink prints and appears in most amateur theatrical productions staged by Ulaanbaatar’s burgeoning expatriate community. With her blond hair, she’ll never blend into the Mongolian population — but she can curse out an errant taxi driver like a native!

Leah Kohlenberg, friend and fellow journalist

Next Stop: Irja is eyeing one of the few closed countries left in the world — North Korea. She courts every North Korean delegate she can find. Don’t know exactly how she’ll make it, but if anyone can get there, it will be Irja. And her route is bound to be as interesting as the destination.

How She Shakes Off A Bad Day: “Go to talk to some animals, they are so much nicer than people, especially on bad days. They usually have so much interest and empathy you just can’t be totally occupied with all bad things in the world, and it is also challenging to tame some of them. Also, if there’s a forest available close by, the best is to wander in there as far as you like, listening to birds and smelling plants and trees, forgetting the big bad world - alone of course and doing a lot of thinking at the same time. Very relaxing!”
In Thailand: “Jump into the sea and float there, thinking of nothing else but the water and sky and the lights on them, until you get too hungry and you feel like going to have some delicious Thai food. And a Singapore Sling.”

In Cold Climes: “Go back to your good old friend The Computer and play Chess with it — and beat it, again, and again, and AGAIN! The trick is to choose the right level. It gives a great satisfaction and makes you feel kind of in control.”

And in Western Taiga: “There is no way to shake off the bad day, it’s impossible. The only comfort is that you’ve got an experience you will never forget, if you ever get out of there.”

Favorite Way to Travel: “By Russian jeep in the Mongolian countryside, train in many parts of the world. As for animals, Bactrian camels are the best, because sitting between their two humps is like rocking in a soft chair.”

Coordinates: Mongolia

Irja Halasz

Renaissance Woman


Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

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