Mongolia on OZ media


Proud People of Mongolia

A proud people embrace democracy and shape a new future for themselves.

Proud People of Mongolia
istock photos
A past rich in culture and a proud future.

Proud People of Mongolia
istock photos
A past rich in culture and a proud future.

I am in the Hangayn Mountains of central Mongolia, and there is no sign of any century except the 13th.

The steady rumble of thousands of hooves is broken only by the shouts of the herdsmen and the crack of their whips. A dozen nomadic families on horseback, with all their possessions loaded on camels, are herding their sheep and goats north across the frozen landscape,following the seasonal ebb and flow of grazing vegetation. Their ancestors have done this for hundreds of years.

This is the Mongolia of my imagination, a place so distant that it is a metaphor for remoteness, sparsely populated by descendants of bloodthirsty barbarians who rampaged across Asia centuries ago. It’s a nation long isolated by its harsh landscape and, in more recent times, held in the grip of the Soviet Union.

I have come at a pivotal time in this nation’s history. Although democracy is still a concept in one neighbour (China) and faltering in another (Russia), Mongolians in 2005 voted in their ninth open, contested election since 1990. Like many Mongolians, my guide Battogtokh, a 52-year-old environmental scientist who has just returned from three years of study in the US, is an ardent supporter of democracy. “Even though many people were better off economically under the Soviets, Mongolians do not want to return to those days,” he tells me.

The transition can be startling: in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, ride-sharing can mean two on a horse, and a home in the suburbs is a ger – a teepee that is the traditional home of nomads. But the fruits of free enterprise are everywhere. At the City Nomad Restaurant in the heart of downtown Ulaanbaatar, there’s a photo of the street outside taken in 1979 that shows not a car in sight. Today the site is boiling with traffic and people. At the State Department Store, shoppers stroll past displays of computers, designer jeans, kitchen gadgets, caviar, champagne and travel guides to Europe and North America.

But how has the rest of the country changed? Is the new spirit of democracy thriving there? And what of the Mongolia of my imagination – the land of steppes, desert and mountains? To find out, I embarked on a 3000km, 12-day journey with Battogtokh as my guide. Our driver is Otko, a former taxi driver who has built a one-man business carrying people around Mongolia in his prized UAZ 469, a rugged jeep originally built for the Russian Army.

Even in mid-June, the air in the Hangayns has some winter in it, and suddenly nature bares its teeth. It begins as gentle rain. Soon snowflakes are descending, then hail batters our jeep’s metal roof. We stop near the top of a mountain and step out. I feel a cold wind cut into me. A thunderstorm rolls in, and fangs of lightning bite at the leaden sky.

We slip and slide down the other side of the mountain before pulling up to a solitary ger. Unannounced, we step through the doorway and are greeted warmly by a man who gives each of us a Mongolian handshake – a grabbing of the elbows.

His name is Tserenkhuu. In the ger we warm our hands by the wood stove as he introduces us to his wife and three daughters. Immediately, we are served tea and hard biscuits. While we munch and talk with Tserenkhuu, his wife takes down a huge slab of raw mutton hanging on the wall and begins chopping it. Soon there’s the aroma of boiled lamb. After dinner, a communal bowl of vodka is passed, and an hour later we are asleep on the carpeted floor. Four other visitors join us in the middle of the night.

In the morning, our hosts give everyone breakfast, and we leave, wished well by their smiles. Hospitality, I quickly learn, is woven deeply into the life of these nomads dwelling in the world’s most sparsely settled country (just 1.4 people per square kilometre) and in one of the world’s harshest climates (long winters with temperatures dropping to -30C, and brief, scorching summers of 40C or more).

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Before 1990, Galaa was a herdsman for a government co-operative, which paid him $8 a month to manage 600 animals. “I felt very pressured, but I had children. There was no choice. Today I can do whatever I want, and what I want to do is open a restaurant.”

He refuses to allow me to photograph him at the construction site. “It would be bad luck,” he explains. With that, he dips the third finger of his right hand into a bowl of vodka three times, flicking liquid to the air, then towards the hearth, then the ground. This is the traditional offering to the spirits of sky, fire and earth.

Such ancient traditions are everywhere in Mongolia. The most tangible manifestation are the ovoos – cairns at crossroads and other important points. These spontaneous shrines began as a shamanistic practice, but the idea was later adopted by Buddhist monks.

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istock photos
A past rich in culture and a proud future.

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istock photos
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They seem to grow organically, like coral, because passers-by are constantly adding to them – scraps of cloth, empty bottles, animal bones, small amounts of money. Some are as high as 15 metres. Most Mongolians believe that adding to an ovoo is a step closer to nirvana; disrespect towards one will lead to death. Although stealing is fairly common, seldom does anyone take cash from an ovoo.

About a week into our journey, we are at the site of the ancient city of Karakorum, centre of the Mongol empire. It was a city so cosmopolitan that both Mongolian and foreign currencies were accepted as legal tender, and so tolerant that 12 religions coexisted within its walls. From here the Mongols forged one of the largest land empires in history, stretching from southern China to the Danube River.

Genghis Khan’s name may epitomise barbarity in much of the world, but modern Mongolians associate him with democratic principles. They are backed by a growing body of scholarship. “The Mongolian people today, having learnt his story from their grandparents, know that he codified the four basic principles that make a country a democracy: participatory government, rule by law, equality under the law and personal freedoms,” says Dr Paula Sabloff of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

“What is even more surprising is that Genghis Khan established these democratic principles nine years before King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the document that initiated British democracy.”

Back in Ulaanbaatar, I go to the National Museum of Mongolian History, where an entire floor is devoted to Genghis Khan and his legacy. The story of Mongol exploits survived almost 70 years of official Soviet disapproval. No longer is it wrong to point out that the Mongols crushed the Russian army and occupied huge parts of Russia for decades. Indeed, the revival of Genghis Khan is everywhere: his name is on postage stamps, currency, vodka, a hotel and a brewery. He is nothing less than a national icon.

On the morning of my departure, I go to the Zaisan Memorial, erected in 1967 in part to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It affords the best view of the city.

Ulaanbaatar is built along the Tuul River and surrounded by majestic mountains that stand out against the ugly Soviet architecture of high-rise concrete. Ger suburbs encircle the city, and residents are beginning to fence off their land as the concept of private property takes hold. The memorial features a large circular mosaic depicting the friendship between the Mongol and Soviet peoples. It has been defaced by a collage of graffiti. The “eternal flame” has been extinguished for several years. Nearby, an ovoo is rising steadily.

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From Reader’s Digest Magazine – Reader’s Digest March 2008

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