Three Days in May in Mongolia

Direct from the Asia Foundation meeting, about 30 of us continued on to Ulaan Baator (“UB”), Mongolia’s modern capital and home to nearly half of its people.

As we approached the grey/brown landscape of central Mongolia by air, the plane took a very wide circle around the city below and eventually landed.  Only a little later did we learn that at this time of year, the winds crossing the single runway are so strong that many landings are aborted for windshear.  One more pass and we would have headed back to Beijing.  “Chinggis Kahn International Airport” in bold letters above the terminal were among the last words in Roman letters we were to see.  A big surprise is that almost everthing is rendered in the Cyrilic alphabet, even signage on major, new buildings.

Russia made Mongolia its first satellite…in 1921…not long after the revolution and imposed its alphabet on the pronunciation of the native Mongolian tongue.  There were other displacements, of course, including the near destruction of Buddhist teachings and all but one or two monasteries.  Among the first, imposing but ugly, things you notice on the very bad road from the airport are several gigantic power plants.  These provide light, and heat, and hot water to the city through a form of physical grid unknown in America, but common in the old Soviet sphere.  Giant pipes bring warm air and hot water to individual buildings throughout the city like a system of capillaries.  One wonders how much of this is an attempt at efficiency in the very cold winter climes of the old Soviet world and how much it served as a method of control and coercion.  We’re of course accustomed to every edifice supplying its own heat and hot water thru small, very local devices…how quaint…how inefficient…but how independent….and how very Mongolian.

The life of the traditional, nomadic herder today is little changed from the days of the great Kahn, except that the ger (we call them “yurts”) now has satellite TV and a small solar panel to power the electronics.  When the herders pick up their complete belongings and move to (literally) greener grass several times a year, their 21st century equipment moves with them. In any event, spring was just beginning to arrive in Mongolia (most, but not all, of the trees were first showing green buds) and the gargantuan urban heating system was undergoing some seasonal readjustment, resulting in unapologetically unreliable access to hot water the first day we were there.

The Ulaan Baator Hotel claims to be UB’s first 5 star hotel.  “First” is an important part of that claim since the place was built in 1961 (Krushchev was still master of the Kremlin then) and the definitions of stardom have no doubt evolved in the intervening half century.  The hotel hasn’t changed much so you can easily imagine a group of commissars making themselves at home, toasting with vodka, singing The Internationale, while they plot their next opportunity to get back west of the Urals.  Our suite (living room, dining room, bedroom, two weird closets, and a bath and a half) was, I imagined, the site of some intrigues over those early years.  Penelope was convinced that there were blood stains on the very old and patched carpet.  There are much nicer and newer hotels in the city, but none with its cachet…or location right at the center of power in Mongolia.

The “5 Star” Ulaan Baator Hotel
Aside from the very new Government House anchoring the main square, the other buildings at this city center (Opera, banks, offices) all seem to date from the ’20′s and look much like the architecture and bear the colors of early Soviet style.  You could imagine yourself in St. Petersburg for a short moment…especially, again, since the script everywhere is Cyrilic.  The Government House is home to both Parliament and the President’s office and, out front, a huge statue of Chinggis Kahn makes it clear where the self-recognized history of the Mongolian people begins.  His visage appears on all the money (tugrics) as well.  The Asia Foundation party spent a lot of time in this part of town, enjoying a reception by the US Ambassador, meetings with members of Parliament, Supreme Court Justices, and a breakfast meeting with President Elbegdorj Takhia.  Elbegdorj was a key revolutionary at the fall of the old Soviet satellite leadership in 1990 and subsequently studied at Harvard before going into domestic Mongolian politics and rising to be head of state of the parliamentary democracy that supplanted the old Communist regime.
Government House, Sukhbaator Square
For its vast size, Mongolia has surprisingly few people…only about 2.7million in the whole country.  That wouldn’t comprise even a middling city in China now.  That stupendous land area…and few people… are landlocked between two even vaster neighbors.  Cultivating good relations with the US, as its “3rd Neighbor”, gives Mongolia an even stronger hand in playing Russia and China off against eachother as the only foreign policy available.  Most countries can take for granted their access to open seas for trade and defense.  Imagine the complications of having to rely on everything coming in or going out over some other country’s land or airspace.  Happily for Mongolia, China’s huge supply of labor and immense appetite for natural resources could rapidly enrich the relatively few native Mongolians…or more likely, in the near term, the Australian and Canadian mining companies now at work extracting coal and copper and rare earths.  For now, however, the people are still “poor”, but not impoverished in spirit.  Each person receives a small, monthly stipend from the government and is entitled to a small plot of free land, enough for a sizable family to assemble a workable homesite and garden.  But, somehow, it seems very inapt to try to endow a many centuries old nomadic people by rooting them to a particular piece of land.

On our way to the Tuul River Lodge, we were able to visit a small herder family, a strong, handsome young man and a beautiful young woman with their rambunctious 6 yr old son.  The boy was just “home” from a long stint at boarding school and a daughter, a little older, was to return to the ger soon.  All Mongolian children must attend school to age 16, most in a boarding situation in town, and spend their summers with their parents and, if herders, their flocks.  That nomadic life must be coming to an end, soon, though.  Our host was one of 11 children, but the only one still living the life of a nomad.  It’s hard to imagine that the boy, now loving his freedom and the very sweet affections of his parents and riding and herding with his father, will ever actually take up that life.  The jobs in the mines or the offices in town will offer too much more comfort and ease.  But not necessarily more wealth.  With hundreds of livestock (horses, goats, sheep, and cows), the father could be considered rich by Mongolian standards…but it is such a hard life…and the long, cold winter is the worst enemy.  We learned how to tell direction from the positions of gers.  The one door always faces south, because the brutal winds tend to come from the north.  Not infrequently, the cold is so deep for so long, the dzud, that virtually all the animals die.

Double E-Ticket in Mongolia-land!
Getting to the Lodge was the greatest adventure of the trip.  I had envisioned a permanent set of buildings…”lodge”…rather it was a temporary, a la nomade, set of gers on the side of a gentle slope looking down on a river meandering among woods and greening fields.  Very pretty.  It was “civilization” after the trip over the mountain to get there.  Normally, getting to the lodge is a matter of taking off-road vehicles around and thru the river after leaving the paved road from UB.  For us, recent rains and the melt of recent snow ruled out that passage.  Instead, in old Russian military vehicles, looking a lot like something out of Mad Max, we went over the mountain, literally, no switch-backs, just straight up one side and straight down the other. We should have had headgear, inside the vehicle!  We dubbed it the “super, double-E ticket in Mongolia-land!”  Getting back, later that night as the sun was setting in a beautiful purple aura, was even more harrowing.  We were in the last vehicle to leave, a long while after others so there was no one ahead…or behind.  As we began the steepest part of the climb, now in total darkness, the engine started to smoke and gave off the smell of burning cables.  The two Mongolian drivers seemed reasonably unperturbed as the six Western passengers shared half-hearted words of encouragement and not very funny jokes about having to spend the night in old Russian hardware before a search party would venture out for us.  Happily, we had thought to bring a spare bottle of wine as a roadie.  After some consultation and Mongolian cursing and, Penelope is convinced, the application of some chewing gum, the old crate lurched back into life.
Outside a ger at Tuul River Lodge
A final note on the contrast between the modern urban environment of UB and the ancient nomadic past:  on one of our evenings in town, there was a reception at the Museum of Contemporary Art, for the who’s who of the capital to honor the Asia Foundation visit.  Many of the women and quite a few of the men were wearing traditionally inspired formal attire and drank good wine and grazed on a broad array of foods and listened to a string quartet playing Mozart, followed by a contemporary Mongolian rock/traditional band.  And the art and photography forming the backdrop was worth the visit in its own right.  Hard to imagine a place further away from the sophisticated cities of the “first world” than Ulaan Baator, but that night, one would have found it hard to tell any real difference.
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