July 17, 2010 — On Wednesday I returned from a two week journey to Mongolia. I had been planning this trip for months and it proved to be one of the highlights of my entire year in Asia. I have long been fascinated with Mongolia—or, more accurately, with the image I had of Mongolia. To me, it has always seemed like one of the last unspoiled places on earth. It is still one of the most sparsely populated and undeveloped countries in the entire world. Though it is size of Western Europe, it has a population of only 2.7 million—slightly more than a third of Hong Kong’s population. Apart from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, there are almost no real cities in the entire country and very little infrastructure. In fact, there is no inhabited place on earth that I could have visited that would be a greater contrast to what I have experienced in Hong Kong. In the span of a few days I went from one of the most urbanized, technologically advanced, and densely populated places in the world to one of the least.

After a three-day stopover in Beijing, Tricia and I arrived in Ulaanbaatar in the middle of the night. The taxi drove us 17 km from the airport to our hotel in the city. After months of living in Hong Kong, it was a bit eerie to be driving through the night and staring into the pitch darkness of open space on either side of the road. As we approached the city we started to see streetlights along the road and lights from factories and apartment blocks. We checked into the hotel at about 1AM and went straight to bed. The next day we had a chance to explore the city a bit. The weather was wonderful and, for a change, it was actually pleasant to be outside. Warm, dry air and clear blue skies were a welcome departure from the steaming humidity and white haze of Hong Kong followed by the scorching heat and smog of Beijing. It was very much like a perfect Oregon summer day. We began in the middle of the city and worked our way outward. In the center of Ulaanbaatar is Suhkbaatar Square which is surrounded by an impressive parliament building and a few older Russian-built hotels. Further away from the center are a few old Buddhist monasteries. Otherwise the city’s architecture is unremarkable (though I suppose “this is really dull” qualifies as a remark). In any event, it was still nice to walk around town. The city seemed laid-back and unhurried compared to Hong Kong and Beijing and there were plenty of open-air beer gardens in which to relax. It was a good introduction to Mongolia, but of course one day in the middle of a city hardly gives one a sense of a country—especially one whose people are not naturally city-dwellers.

Early in the morning on the second day we met our guide and driver and headed out into the steppes. Our guide, Tsolmon, was a young woman of eighteen about to begin her university studies in the fall. Her English was excellent, and of course this has made her highly desired in the lucrative tourist industry. Hers is a good job since she can work as little or as much as she likes and can set her schedule around her studies. I was really impressed with her poise and maturity and how responsible she was. It is hard to believe that she is younger than my students at Lewis & Clark and HKBU. Our driver, Dembee, was an older man who had retired from a career in the Mongolian army. He spoke only a few words of English, but with Tsolmon as a translator, Tricia and I were able to communicate quite a bit with him.

As we drove eastward away from Ulaanbaatar, we noticed that in many of the residential neighborhoods on the outer edge of the city (not quite suburbs) people still lived in gers rather than buildings. Gers are the traditional nomadic huts that the Mongolian herders have lived in for centuries. The lingering preference for this seemingly primitive type of housing at first made little sense to me, but over the next few days it would become clearer. Once we were out of the city, the scenery quickly transformed into the Mongolia of my imagination (fuelled, admittedly, by countless National Geographic photos spreads and Discovery Channel documentaries). Less than 15 km from the city center the scenery gave way to rolling green plains and distant mountains. The land was completely empty except for herds of horses and sheep and the occasional ger. In the distance we could sometimes see power lines strung across the landscape and tire tracks in the grass, but apart from these there was nothing that made what we saw any different what we might have seen hundreds of years ago. It was breathtakingly beautiful; similar in some ways to the “big sky” country of Montana and Idaho but somehow more impressive.

Our first night was spent in a ger in the Terelj National Park. When we stepped inside, we were amazed at how spacious and comfortable it was. Gers are round huts built around an accordion-like wooden frame and covered with thick felt panels over which are layers of waterproof cloth (see below). They usually have linoleum floors laid over the ground and covered in carpet. In the center is a fuel stove with a pipe leading up through a hole at the top of the ger. Furniture is usually arranged against the wall and occupants can easily stand up and walk around inside. Outside, the round walls help deflect the wind and with a fire going inside the structures are warm and comfortable even in sub-zero temperatures. The best thing about a ger is how highly mobile its occupants can be. Gers can be put up or taken down in less than an hour by people who know what they are doing. Since they are constructed from lightweight materials (no masonry or metal) the parts can be packed onto horses or camels and moved long distances without too much effort. Most Mongolians, even many city dwellers, still live in these structures.

While we were in Terelj we hiked through nearby birch and pine forests to a Buddhist shrine at the top of a mountain. The mix of forest and mountains in Terelj was more like what I have seen in central Oregon than the steppes we drove through on the way there from Ulaanbaatar. After Terelj we continued eastward into a more remote area called Gun Guluut, which is a broad treeless plain with a river winding through it and surround by rolling gray mountains in the distance. The hundreds of square miles that make up Gun Guluut are occupied by what cannot be more than a few dozen people. Once we arrived there we got settled into our ger encampment and the next morning we shifted to horses to continue our journey. It took us the better part of the morning to arrive at the nearest ger, where we were welcomed by the nomad couple living there. Inside the ger we seated according to gender and shown photos of the couple’s children and grandchildren, including a son in India who is undergoing studies to be a Buddhist monk. Their daughter and granddaughter who lived in a nearby ger stopped by to say hello and we were all treated to batch of freshly heated yogurt (delicious) and some hard cheese (vile). We were also able to sample some fermented mare’s milk, a Mongolian favorite (truly foul—to this visitor, at least). Overall our hosts were among the most hospitable and unpretentious people I have ever met. Our guide later explained that Mongolians routinely call upon strangers from whom they can expect food for themselves and their horses. Once they are settled into their gers, they must reciprocate this hospitality to other visitors. This system allows nomadic people to move across the land with minimal supplies and has been practiced for centuries. After saying goodbye to our hosts we continued across the steppe in a circular path back to our camp. At one point the river emptied into a flood plain that had become a grassy marsh. This was an ideal spot for bird watching since marsh protects birds from natural predators and is a good resting place on the migration paths from Siberia to the warm climes of Southeast Asia and back again. We saw a few Siberian cranes and several other smaller birds which I could not identify. We returned to the camp at sunset and then departed by car for Ulaanbaatar the following day.

Throughout our brief time on the steppes I was often dumbstruck by the natural beauty of the land and sky. Mongolia is unlike any place I have ever seen in any of my travels, except perhaps Lakadh in the Indian Himalayas. It really seems like a land that time forgot. I was also impressed by how easy going and friendly were the Mongols that I encountered. It is hard to believe that they are descended from the same people who terrorized half the world in the thirteenth century. Indeed, the history of the Mongol Empire is remarkable considering how remote the nation of Mongolia has become in the modern age. At its height, Genghis Khan’s empire reached across all of Asia and into Europe. From Mongolia it controlled all of Central Asia, Iran and China. It reached into Vietnam, Korea, North India, and all the way to Palestine and Turkey. In Europe it reached the Baltic Sea and the gates of Budapest and Vienna. Mongols and their descendants became emperors in China, Persia, and India as well as the Czars of Russia. The Mongols created the largest land empire in history, but they did not bequeath a legacy comparable to other empires. They left no roads, waterways, or buildings like the Romans did (but they did build quite a few bridges—even nomads could find these useful). Likewise, they lacked the Spanish and Portuguese zeal for conversion or the British genius for civil administration. They never tried to convert anyone to their blend of shamanism and Buddhism, but mostly from indifference rather than a spirit of tolerance. Their administration was never more sophisticated than what could be done from horseback. Mostly their subject peoples were left alone so long as they paid their tribute on time and in full. If they didn’t they were killed in the most brutal ways imaginable (rolled up in carpets and trampled on by horses, boiled or buried alive, etc.) An uncomplicated system of imperial management, when one really thinks about it. Not unlike how Tony Soprano and his crew run things in North Jersey. One can shake one’s head at the brutality, but as empires go is this really worse than the slave ships sailing from West Africa to the Caribbean, the diamond mines at Kimberley, the Belgian ivory trade in the Congo Free State, or the rape of Nanjing?

The most interesting about the Mongol Empire is that nowhere in their vast holdings did they build any cities (though they managed to sack a few—Baghdad in 1258 being the most notable example). Even their own capital, Kharakoram, was composed mostly of gers and wooden structures. Today it is a marginal town, even by Mongolian standards, of interest mostly to tourists and archaeologists. At the height of their power, the Mongols never shed their nomadic instincts. Even Genghis Khan demanded that when the time came his burial would be done in secret and no monument left behind. He did not want his memory to be rooted to one particular place. Even today, Mongols know that he is buried a certain region of the country, but have no idea of the exact spot. It seems that all the blandishments of empire—property and other immovable forms of wealth as well as the ability to spread their culture, religion, and language—were not worth giving up the most prized of their freedoms: mobility. This sensibility is alive and well today among Mongolians who settled down only out of necessity rather than preference. Nearly half of the population is still nomadic and, as mentioned earlier, many of the urban dwellers still choose to live in gers. Even the borders of the nation-state of Mongolia make little sense when one considers how geographical diffused the ethnic Mongolians are today. Many live in Inner Mongolia which is a province of China and others live in an area of Siberia that adjoins Mongolia. Likewise within the western reaches of Mongolia most of the people are ethnic Kazakhs who speak their own language and are Muslims. But national borders matter little to nomads, and the vast and the almost sublime emptiness of that part of the world is nature’s mockery of human attempts to divide and allocate territory. This is hard to describe, but to see it is to sense it instantly.

If the Mongols were unique as conquerors, their history as a subject people is equally interesting. As they declined in power they faced the wrath of some of the same people they had once terrorized. The Chinese who had earlier built a wall to protect themselves from Mongol hordes occasionally sent their armies into Mongolia and eventually annexed half of that territory. Until the twentieth century, the Chinese controlled all but the west of Mongolia. In the nineteenth century, Imperial Russia spread eastward across Siberia to the Pacific in a pattern of conquest not unlike the westward “Manifest Destiny” of the United States across North America. Outer Mongolia, now reduced to a fragment of its historic reach, became a useful buffer zone between rivals Russia and China. It has retained this value into the present day. In 1911, the Bogd Khan, the vassal ruler of Mongolia declared independence from China, but this did not last long. After the Russian Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, Mongolia briefly became a haven for fleeing White Russians. Eventually Mongolia became a satellite state of Moscow, largely as part of a Faustian bargain to keep the Chinese out for good.

The history of communist Mongolia is a curious one. In a sense, the Mongols are well suited for communism since they are among the most naturally communal and least materialistic people in the world. Their notion of collective ownership of land is imprinted into their cultural DNA. It stems from centuries of history and inescapable geographic circumstances, not the forced application of the writings of Marx and Lenin. Yet by the same token, they would seem to be the least amenable to a powerful centralized government known for forced collectivization and paranoid surveillance of the population. Even Genghis Khan spared his conquered subjects this fate, to say nothing of his own people. Sadly, the Russians found willing Mongolian puppets and the country soon experienced one of the most traumatic and destructive transformations in its history. The Bogd Khan was overthrown and Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a former Lamaist monk and convert to communism, took over. He and his successors, following the order of the Comintern, began the collectivization of livestock and liquidated hundreds of monasteries (the only really permanent structures in the country). Recently unearthed Soviet records make clear that their interest in Mongolia was in the land itself; the sparse population was an inconvenience to be dealt with accordingly—not unlike English attitudes toward Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Stalin’s purges of the 1930s were repeated in Mongolia as the government there executed over 30,000 people, mostly monks. The Russians also introduced the Cyrillic script for writing the Mongolian language. This had mixed results. As a cultural intrusion it firmly stamped the country’s status as a satellite of Russia. Yet the unique and beautiful Mongolian script is also a difficult and demanding one that for centuries was the preserve of scholars and monks. Its replacement with the easily-learned Cyrillic alphabet would enable literacy to increase rapidly, eventually leveling off to the rate of 96 percent, which is impressive by any standard. During the Cold War, Mongolia remained firmly in the communist camp and strengthened its ties to Moscow during the Sino-Soviet split. After 1990, like many former Soviet client states Mongolia began the path to democratization and engagement with the West. Today Mongolia is feeling the effects of globalization and is beginning to reap the benefits of its vast and largely untapped oil, coal, and natural gas reserves.

My travels in the steppes of Mongolia confirmed many of the images I had of a romantic and timeless land and culture, but my experience of Ulaanbaatar had the opposite effect and often left me scratching my head. In many ways Ulaanbaatar is an ugly city. This is not surprising since the Mongols have never been builders. The main buildings in town were built by foreigners (in almost all cases Russians) and owe nothing to Mongol culture or aesthetic sensibility. In the center of the city there are the typically stark and brutal Stalinist government buildings (the ministries of this and that) and further out are vast, soul-crushing blocks of Brezhnev-era apartment buildings situated along oversized treeless avenues. The apartments are impressive in size but the crumbling concrete and weathered surfaces are as depressing to look at as they are, I imagine, to live in. It is not hard to see why Mongols, even in the city, still prefer to live in gers. These cozy structures are built on a human scale and reflect distinctly Mongolian artistry as well as being pleasant to live in. The cloth covers often have intricate embroidery and the wooden doors and ceiling beams are lovingly painted in bright floral patterns and heavily lacquered in a way that make them seem more suited to a Bavarian tavern or Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse. Even more beautiful and distinct are Mongolian costumes and jewelry, the best examples of which are found in Ulaanbaatar’s national museum. The artistic genius of Mongolian culture and its best expression has always been reserved for that which is easily portable; thus is it not surprising that architecture is not high on the list. The remaining monasteries not destroyed by the Soviets and their Mongol collaborators stand out as wonderful works of art, but these are few and far between.

Yet, the city of Ulaanbaatar is a much more cosmopolitan capital than I expected. The new money from natural gas, coal, and other resources, in fact, is turning the capital into something of a boomtown. There are glass and steel office towers being completed throughout town and the main thoroughfare, Peace Avenue, boasts dozens of restaurants offering every sort of cuisine. A local wine store offered tastings of some excellent wines from around the world. They even had a 2001 Montecillo gran reserva—a personal favorite from family dinners and which I have only seen in a wine store in West Orange, NJ. Now I know that I can also find it in Outer Mongolia. How convenient. Apparently there is enough disposable wealth to warrant the building of a shiny new shopping mall with Louis Vuitton, Burberry, and Armani outlets as well as breaking ground on an Ikea store on the other side of town. That’s right, an Ikea. Is the arrival of the world’s most famous furniture chain here a sign that the Mongols are finally starting to settle down? Honestly, given the number of times I have moved my own Ikea bed, dresser, and bookshelves around the US since college, I don’t really know if this signals the end of the nomadic life or a further reinforcement of it.

After eight days of experiencing Mongolia, both city and country, Tricia and I left for the airport in the dead of night just as we had arrived. In the days since, I still don’t know what to make of Mongolia. In some ways it reinforced or exceeded my expectations as a land of timeless beauty and a people holding onto a distinct culture and sense of their place in world history. In other ways, it revealed the unstoppable force of globalization and the rising tide of Asian economic power that apparently can reach into the most seemingly inaccessible crevices and remote peripheries. Granted, it is not like anything that I saw in Ulaanbaatar was remarkably different from what I have seen anywhere else. It is that Mongolia has, in my mind at least, always been synonymous with the furthest reaches of the earth, the ultimate in remoteness and isolation from the rest of the world. As with many of the places I have visited, I came away from Mongolia with a lot of preconceptions corrected but with many more questions than when I arrived.

 A ger on the central Mongolia steppe at Gun Guluut, Mongolia, 9 July 2010