For the first forty years of my life, outer Mongolia was a metaphor for as far away as one could possibly go. What I actually knew about it could have been written on a small postage stamp, which it transpired was as much as most people know about outer Mongolia.
With no expectations but dreading the prospect of a dietary month of salty yaks milk and boiled mutton, in 1997, I flew out of Beijing over inner Mongolia, which is firmly part of China, on the final leg of the journey to Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaataar – ‘UB’ to its residents.
What Mongolia revealed is in fact, an astounding story of an ancient nomadic civilisation made robust and ruddy cheeked on one of the most rudimentary cuisines possible. A Mongolian delicacy is raw fat, eaten in slabs dipped into watery soup -the red meat of a slaughtered beast has the least appeal. Fillet is cheap.
Leaving behind the densely covered Chinese landmass for the aerial view of Mongolia’s vast treeless steppes and their braided network of double tracked road scars, it became obvious why horse, rather than horse-power is the most practical mode of transport. It looked cold and dry down there…… That was then, now I live here and manage an international NGO that works with nomadic herders and makes radio, television and prints magazines on topics from judicial reform to distance education for young marginalised herders.
Emerging from the UB airport terminal is like stepping into a deep freeze. Extreme temperatures, resulting from being so far inland and devoid of moderating sea influence, range from fifty below to twenty above. That, coupled with thousands of years of nomadic life, has limited agricultural activity to the bare essential of wheat – required for the national mind-altering drink - vodka. Rumours of development projects to encourage the planting and consuming of vegetables, have it that Mongols cheerfully learn to plant but often forget to return and harvest crops. This is gradually changing and consequently so is the nomadic lifestyle.
The landscape is sparsely dotted with small mushroom like shapes - the traditional portable round felt tent – ger – that most Mongolians, still live in. Many of these have a large satellite dish next to them - the information society has found its way to outer Mongolia. The strongest signals come in the form of Chinese propaganda or Korean soap operas. For others, radio fills the long winter nights. A legendary local production Herder from the Future features a herder hero who returns from the future to show people how to live a sustainable life and avoid repetition of today’s environmental mistakes. The NGO I work for assists herders into the modern globalsied era where market economies and eating vegetables are givens.
The humidity free Gobi desert has proved to be an abundant storage facility for pristine dinosaur bones. The natural history museum in Ulaanbaatar displays several intact reconstructed dinosaur skeletons and an extraordinary array of fossils.
Mongolia has produced some colourful leaders; Attila the Hun who terrorised central Europe in the dying days of the Roman empire and of course, Chinggis Khan (in English-Genghis Khan), perhaps unfairly known to the western world as the epitome of mercilessness. Mongols revere the same man to this day as the embodiment of strength, unity and order. The ‘Chinggis gene’ has been found in many Mongolians who hold is as proof of their resistance to HIV and other modern ailments. [There are thirty one cases of HIV in Mongolia.] Images of Chinggis abound from 4 story gleaming statues to the cans of energy drinks and beer to every note in the coinless currency.
The twelfth century was the height of the Mongolian empire. Its territory extended east west from Bagdad to Beijing and north south from Moscow to Lhasa in Tibet. Even at the current reduced size, it’s a huge landlocked territory extends across three time zones. Its altitude of 1500 metres makes it one of the world’s highest big sky countries. Mongolia boasts of two hundred and sixty sunny days a year and is justifiably known as ‘Land of Blue Sky’. ‘Oh tingarmen’ is a common expression of joy – it means ‘oh my big sky’.
Only one percent of the country is used for human settlement and crop cultivation. Most of the country is covered by grassland, home to the famed hardy short horses used so successfully by Chinggis Khaan, in his wars of conquest. They are joined by the indigenous two-humped Bactrain camel, yaks, sheep and the countries cash crop – cashmere goats. Market price information distributed by the NGO I work for via cell phone has eradicated exploitation of herders by Chinese traders buying cashmere and other commodities from isolated herders.
The ancient nomadic civilisation has produced unique arts, apparently inspired by the sheer beauty of the countryside. Khoomi singing produces a whole harmonic from deep in the throat, producing more than one note simultaneously. The Xhosa people also practise throat singing. It is said to sound best while galloping on a horse along the steppe, or directed into the wind on top of a mountain. It also sounds pretty good when I practise it in the shower.
Horses are the pride of Mongolia and few nomads have not learnt to ride before they can walk. Very young children are jockeys in the annual festival of horse racing. They canter out into the distance for twenty five kilometres before the race even starts and then race back. The national gait is a bow legged one. The short Mongolian horse provides ideal transport, can endure harsh winters and importantly produces the other much loved Mongolian drink – fermented mare’s milk. With or without the addition of vodka it is not a product that I have taken to.
The urban population of UB led the charge for a change to democracy and the first pro-democracy rally in 1990 was littered with placards saying ‘men and women of Mongolia – mount your horses!’ Relics of communism, such as a monolithically proportioned bust of Lenin loom large in a hall now populated by beer drinking, pool playing youth. Today, nestled between Russia and China, Mongolia is democratically run by the communist party. While retaining many aspects of Soviet socialism, like universal health care, Mongolia and it’s wealth of mineral deposits is galloping towards the market economy and is expected to be a positive example of a transition to democracy. That being said, there is a high degree of corruption, perhaps to be expected amidst such rapid economic growth. Mongolia is not a poor country but it is tired from years of occupation, and disorganised because of lack of experience.
Buddhism is the heartfelt religion of Mongols, in spite of seventy years of repression under a communist regime that apart from ideology wanted to establish a culture of work, procreation and modernisation, none of which it was observed, featured in Lamaism. When the 1921 revolution bought communism to power an uneasy peace existed between Mongolia’s monasteries and the government. The communists realised they were not strong enough to take on the revered religious establishment and waited until the death in 1924 of Mongolia’s leading Lama to begin a systematic dismantling of the church, preserving only a few monasteries as museums of feudalism and religious schools. In a land of nomads, the seven hundred monasteries were the only permanent structures and any semblance of a town centred around them. Ulaanbaataar's pre-revolutionary name Urga meant simply ‘the temple’.
Years later when the spirit of perestroika and glasnost spread to Mongolia, religious worship was permitted again. Wizened, Lamas who had disappeared into humble herder lives re-emerged and began to rebuild the temples. Today Mongolia is a devoutly Buddhist culture and the blue scarves that signify esteem between the giver and the recipient and the beauty of the sky, are found tied by the hundreds not only to statues of Buddha but to anything of beauty – from a tree to a bridge. Every visitor to Mongolia should spend time absorbing the peaceful impact of chanting monks in the textured temple environments. You will be welcome. Listen for the call of the conch shell and follow it.