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Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2004

Mongolia: Land of yesterday and tomorrow

Special to The Japan Times

ULAN BATOR Mongolia has been called "one of the last unspoiled travel destinations in Asia," and, indeed, the traveler feels not only in another country but in another century.

Three times the size of France, twice that of Texas, Mongolia lies between China and Russia, traditionally an uncomfortable position, subjected as it is to the blandishments and deprivations of both. This was not always so. In the 12th-century the Mongol empire extended to Moscow and Baghdad, to Lhasa, to Korea -- and all the land in between.

In modern times, however, Mongolia was until recently under the suzerainty of the Soviet Union. Now it fears a Chinese economic and political influence that could prove overwhelming. Already Mongolia's cashmere industry has been much damaged by Chinese traders, and last year China accounted for over a third of Mongolian direct investment. In addition, China is quick to offer door-opening aid. Signs at bridges and along roads indicate that the funds came from elsewhere -- China, Japan, Korea. This may make urban Mongolia appear pleasantly international but it also indicates the coming danger of development.

When a country is developed it is always over-developed because there are no limits on this kind of advance. It obliterates what it feeds upon. When this occurs in Mongolia it will be a great loss because this country is now one of the most natural and consequently most beautiful.

Once outside Ulan Bator, the capital, and into the steppes, intrinsic magnificence becomes apparent. Since Mongolia is fairly high (some 1,500 meters in the flatter part of the countryside) the sky is often a deep cobalt blue. Against this stand the other colors -- tan, ocher, shale gray, lichen green -- watercolor shades in a rolling landscape. With trees growing usually only around water courses, the landscape looks like a grassy desert with the verdant dune-like hills stretching into the far distance.

And, as in the desert countries, daytime may be warm but the nights are cool -- a difference of some 30 C in a single day is not unusual. Mongolia can be 40 C in the summer and -40 C in the winter. Blankets are still necessary on an August night.

Between these extremes is a natural land, one seemingly untouched. There are fish roiling in the streams -- trout, pike, perch -- and animals populate the landscapes -- not only familiar beasts as horses, cows, sheep yaks and camels, but also boar, deer, bear, sable, foxes, wolves and lots of marmots.

Mongolia does not, in fact, even now, feel domesticated. Nomad families, tents packed and folded on the backs of their beasts, wander off to better pastures. When they pass, it is as though no one has ever been there, as though we are the first to this lovely land.

The earth looks folded, heaped with low hills, broken with enormous crowns of rock, great stones stacked on one another, each with its skirt of conifers. It does not feel Asian. It is more northern, more elemental. I am reminded of the beauty of the Scottish highlands with their acres of rock-pierced billiard-green. But here the area is immense. It seems to go on forever, and it always looks as though we are the first to see these rolling flanks, these steep rock fists.

This is why Mongolia also looks, so powerfully, so nostalgically, like the past. Watching the slowly moving herds, the nomads following, seeing the shadow of the clouds race across the grassy plains, I feel I am looking into some earlier century. Five hundred years ago must have looked just like this, I imagine. No billboards, no advertisements this far out into the countryside, no power lines, no airplanes, just a simple road and then hundreds of leagues of grassy hills with no one in them.

All the people I do see are on the move. White felt tents (called ger -- no longer called "yurt," a Russian word) are planted for a season and then folded up again. The nomads (who still make up half the population of the country) feed their horses, then milk their mares and drink the milk (it tastes like bovine skimmed milk), or they invent side jobs. We pass herding people also selling heaps of dried sheepskin, or bottles filled with freshly picked blueberries, cranberries, wild strawberries.

Invited into a ger we sit with three small children, their mother and their grandfather, and are given the traditional hospitality of these nomad people. One by one the plates appear. A kind of breaded dumpling, boortsog; squares of curd, called aaruul; bowls of tarag, which is yogurt; and a silver beaker of the highly alcoholic shimee arbhi, cousin to vodka.

Amazing is this hospitality, for Mongolia is, by any standard, among the poorest of countries. I don't know what the wealthier make but a high-school teacher gets about $100 a month and the minimum wage (day laborers, part-timers) is half of that. There is also unemployment, particularly at the upper end: people over-qualified for available work.

This perhaps is because there are over 150 institutions that call themselves universities in Ulan Bator, and it is said some 60,000 students graduating to a dearth of job opportunities. And yet this long and vigorous tradition of hospitality still goes on.

I don't know if the Mongolians are this hospitable to each other. Perhaps, as in Greece, the honorable tradition of hospitality extends mainly to strangers. But I do know that, as a foreigner, I was treated uncommonly well. For example, I much wanted to see Mongolian wrestling but I had missed the annual Naadam festival (of early July), which seems to consist of little else. Then I heard that the wrestling pavilion in the center of the city would be staging bouts. Then I learned that all tickets were sold out. Nonetheless, upon my stating my plea, rules were bent, tickets were produced and there I was in the front row for the daylong event.

Mongolian wrestling is reminiscent of sumo -- indeed, it is a probable ancestor. Considered one of the three "manly" sports -- the other two are archery and horse racing -- it consists of two stout men trying to push each other over. It is, however, much more colorful than is the Japanese sport. There is constant ceremonial music, dances imitating eagles and the like; the costumes are tighter and brighter with little vests and an off-the-shoulder effect; the bodies themselves are different (strong, apparent muscles, under taut, pliant skin); and the bouts are both more protracted and more violent then in sumo. There is also open betting in the stands and a feeling of fun that the stately sumo has now all but eradicated.

A daylong affair, the Mongolian wrestling tournament consists of a large number of seven-round bouts, and the day I saw it the grand prize was given to Sumiyabaazar, younger brother of Dagvador, better-known as Asashiro, the sumo champion. "Sumiya" is an obvious favorite -- the crowd went wild.

But in any event, to look at a Mongolian crowd is to see a bunch of people getting along together. Though the throng at the wrestling pavilion was enormous and the assemblage outside even more dense, there was a feeling of intimacy that suggested family much more than mere mass.

People push their way through other people, individuals turn to talk to apparent strangers, cars honk in friendly fashion and plow on through. The anonymous circumspection of the Japanese crowd is nowhere to be seen. All of these Mongolian people seem in some way related to each other.

Perhaps this is why the capital is so reassuring. It does not feel like a city of a million or so -- half the population of the country. Rather, it feels like a town or even a big village. Nor does Ulan Bator look Asian. Rather, since it is closer to Siberia than it is to China and has a long history closely entwined with that of its northern neighbor, its colors are tan, brown, gray, winter colors in this late summer, broken by the St. Petersburg blue of a lintel, a door, or a the whole front of a house.

There are also small wild spaces between the buildings -- either gardens or empty lots; many houses that look like dashas; big, grand expanses like Sukhbaatar Square; ceremonial structures in the Soviet wedding-cake style; an occasional example of East European modernism -- the bold, jagged Chinggis Khaan Hotel designed by a Yugoslav architect back when there was a Yugoslavia. But with it all is an attractive messiness, an unselfconscious disarray that often means that civic endeavor has a low priority.

Indeed, privatization is a growing fact in modern Mongolia. There are joint ventures (with Japan as well as Russia and China), an unwieldy bureaucracy is being slowly whittled away and individual businesses are appearing everywhere. Farming, for example, is uncollectivized, and produce is produced as needed. This means that vegetables are now everywhere available, and that fresh fruit (expensive, since brought from China) is sold on street corners.

But urban sprawl is also a fact, as well as one of the reasons for the attractively messy aspect of the capital. Along with the permanent Russian-style buildings that give the city its Siberian look, there are also embedded whole ger settlements, towns of traditional tents. These round, felt structures, each with its own chimney, look at home on the steppes, which make up most of Mongolia. Packed into the city no longer nomadic, however, though they may enhance the pleasingly semi-permanent aspect of the place, they aren't very practical in what is, after all, a large and growing urban center.

There is some attempt to preserve native Mongolian culture, and an even stronger impulse to cash in on it. Traditional cashmere is still carded and knitted into luxurious garments available here at a tenth of the price they bring abroad. The enchanting music of Mongolia (including the astonishing delight of khoomi (or "throat singing") is preserved and performed by ensembles that now have their own theater. Religion (Tibetan Buddhism or Lamaist), after enduring terrible purges from the 1920s on, has returned. Around 150 new monasteries have been opened and Ulan Bator's big Gandan Khiid (never closed, kept open as "museum" of the "feudal period") is daily thronged.

Commercial interests also drive this modest retro boom. There are several "Mongolia Lands" in the suburbs of the capital. The one I was taken to had young men employed to stalk around in medieval costumes and have their pictures taken with tourists, foreign and Mongolian alike. In the main ger we were seated on thrones, ate with silver service, and were served a salad of potatoes and cucumbers, something called harshil ("black soup"), which turned out to be bouillon, fried battered beef cutlets and, somewhat incongruously, chocolate ice cream. The meal was dignified by being called "The Ghinggis Khaan Special" and included a trip to the Gift Shop.

Recently, then Mongolian Prime Minister Tsakhiagiyn Elbegdorj told journalist Mark Magnier: "China is becoming sort of an empire. We hope they can become a responsible empire." And he added: "We have no intent to hurt other countries, and we expect the same from our neighbors." This indicates a general feeling that Mongolia alone is not entirely in control of its future. Too much depends on its neighbors. Mongolia had long and deep connections with Tibet and it can now see what has happened to that country. It has been obliterated. It is now a province of China. Tomorrow's Mongolia may well be different.

Right now, however, it is between its past and its future. Probably this wonderfully pastoral civilization cannot continue into this much-vaunted 21st century. But with luck it may transmute into something that contains at least some of these ancient virtues.

At present it is just about the last place in Asia where one may see life as it once was, can partake of it and rejoice in it.

Finding your way there

Visa requirements differ. Some (Americans, Koreans) do not require one; others (Japanese among them) do. In any event it is always wise to contact the local Mongolian Embassy as requirements frequently change.

Mongolia Air operates nonstop flights to Ulan Bator from Narita, Seoul, Moscow and Beijing. There is also an international train service from Beijing and from Moscow.

Though it is possible and quite safe to travel without a guide in Mongolia, there is not much interface to assist those who cannot speak the language. This is particularly true in the more scenically spectacular part of the country to the west. Indeed, only in Ulan Bator are ignorant foreign tourists able to get around by themselves.

Travelers from Japan can arrange their tours locally by contacting the Tobinomiya Co. (Tel: (03) 3274-1105; Fax: (03) 3274-1175). Flights and tours can by locally arranged through Executive Travel (Tel: (03) 3588-0971; Fax: (03) 3588-0953, or e-mail: etjapan@tkk.att.ne.jp

The wise tourist will also bring everything needed in the medical and personal toiletry line. He or she ought also to take along some small, inexpensive gifts with which to offset some of the great obligation incurred through the national passion for hospitality.

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