The Nomad &
Time Catches Up with Mongolia
Excerpt from National Geographic Magazine, February 1985;
by Thomas B. Allen
... The transformation of Mongolia accelerated in 1962 when it became a member of the Communist Bloc’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Other CMEA countries build factories here, train Mongolians to work in them, and, in payment, receive the finished products. The investing country usually bestows a name upon the plant. The Wilhelm Pieck Carpet factory (the name commemorates an East German political hero) typifies many I saw.
In the carpet factory, blond-haired, blue-eyed East German technicians tinkered with looms clanking out cascades of colourful wools and synthetics bearing the whorls and zigzags of traditional Mongolian designs.
More than 80 percent of workers were young women. “There are two shifts,” the factory director said, “each of eight hours, but mothers of small children cannot work the night shift. Workers’ children get free day care or boarding care. The mothers of boarding children bring them in on Monday morning and pick them up on Saturday, after the six-hour shift that ends Mongolia’s standard 46-hour workweek.
As modern Mongolia spreads across the land, factories are becoming magnets for the young. But the city and the factory still cast weak shadows on the land and on the living heritage of nomad and herd, of horse and rider flying like centaurs across the steppes.
Beyond the traffic of Ulaanbaatar, the horse endures. In cities and towns, I saw horses tethered at the doors of apartment houses and trotting past people waiting for buses. Even if horses get crowded out of the city, however, they seem destined to persist, and not just for riding. More horses than people live in Mongolia, because everyone, young and old alike, drinks airag, and there cannot be airag without horses, for the national drink is made from fermented mare’s milk.
Walking to the twilight of a long summer day in Moron, a northern town with a movie theatre, a couple of factories, many new apartments, and no private telephones, I noticed groups of young boys and girls heading from apartment houses toward what looked like a vacant lot. There I found a yellow tank truck surrounded by children with metal pails, getting airag pumped through a hose. Somewhere out on the steppe, a herdsman’s wife was milking mares for people without a herd or a ger.
If the past lives on the steppe and the future in the city, Mongolians are almost perfectly poised between eras. By official figures, half of all Mongolians now live in a town or city.
When the Soviet Union and China were friends, both countries poured men and money into Mongolia. Brigades of Chinese workers in blue uniforms – Mongolians called them blue bees – swarmed through Ulaanbaatar, building a department store, a sports stadium, a hospital, a hotel, housing. Thousands of Chinese settled in the city.
In the 1960s, when the two giants began arguing with each other in public, the Soviet Union emerged as Mongolia’s sole protector, and Chinese residents started a mass exodus. When I was in Mongolia, several thousand Chinese, given the choice of working as farmers or leaving the country, chose to take the train to China.
Mongolia’s connection to the outside world – international mail, phone calls, and cables – is through the Soviet Union. Most of Mongolia’s wool is processed in Soviet-built factories. The Soviet Union also introduced large-scale farming to Mongolia, a nation with no agricultural tradition…
Soviet experts taught Mongolians to irrigate and strip-crop to preserve soil that in places is as rich as the Ukraine’s. The grainfields, broad stripes of vibrant green and dormant brown, stretch mile after mile in an aimag near the Soviet border…
Soviet-bloc capital and Mongolian labour law have built Darkhan, a city where the harvests come from mines and factories. The journey to Darkhan, 190 kilometres north of Ulaanbaatar, is along one of the few black-top roads. A broad dark path through a wilderness, it courses untamed valleys and plains roamed by nomads and their herds.
As soon as the jeep passes through the outskirts of the capital, the land suddenly opens, and, as far as I can see, a realm of greens rises to distant blue mountains – light green, dark green, blue green, shadowed green, sun-bathed green. Sometimes, the greens blend in long, shallow valleys, sometimes in broad meadows, sometimes in rumpled hollows that seem young and restless, not yet deeply rooted to the earth. Close up, I see the brush strokes of many grasses, and the yellows, blues, purples, whites, and reds of wildflowers. And then, as suddenly Ulaanbaatar had disappeared, the smoke-daubed skyline of Darkhan appeared.
Until 1961, this had been a village that happened to be near the railroad the Russians built between the border and the capital. Then planners put a city here and began to fill it with people and factories…
In Darkhan’s oldest neighourhoods, gers squat behind fences on dusty, unpaved streets, Sukhe, one of Darkhan’s founders, now a city official, was my guide, proudly showing off the place he had helped to build. Like our escorts in Ulaanbaatar, he steered me away from the gers and toward the new. “Twenty years ago, people were riding horses here. And now they are operating lathes,” Sukhe said in his farewell speech on the steps of a modern hotel…
The Nomad and the Carpetbagger
by Jill Lawless
The factory owner, tall and alien-thin, swept into his office, flung his cashmere overcoat onto a hook and sat down, levering his stick-insect legs under his big, big desk. He folded his hands and looked at me. “We’ll never solve the world’s economic problems,” he said, “without a third world war.”
I was taken aback by this opener. Jargalsaikhan was one of Mongolia’s most famous capitalists and the owner of Buyan, the country’s largest private cashmere manufacturer. I’d come to discuss the troubled state of the wool industry. I’d yet to open my mouth. Momentarily at a loss, I stared past him out the window to the parking lot, where his black Humvee stood gleaming.
But Jargalsaikhan was not waiting for my questions. “A nuclear war wouldn’t be so bad for Mongolia,” he continued. “For China, yes, but not for Mongolia. We have lots of land and not too many people.” Jargalsaikhan was A Character. Mongolia likes characters, so he got plenty of ink in the newspapers. In addition to being preternaturally tall and gaunt, and driving the rutted streets of Ulaanbaatar in the gargantuan Hummer, he had his own political party, the Republican Party (which failed to win a single seat in the 1996 general election). He has an opinion on everything and was a vociferous, contemptuous critic of Mongolia’s Democratic Coalition government.
”The American Republican Party supports these thieves in the government,” he was telling me now, as the interview spun out of my control. “They are not principled men. They have little culture or education. They only care about money. There’s no democracy in Mongolia because of corruption and nepotism.
An interview with Jargalsaikhan, I discovered, quickly turned into a monologue about his pet hates (U.S. world domination, Chinese expansionism, the government) and his idiosyncratic passions. Chief among the latter seemed to be President Clinton – to whom he had sent several cashmere items via Madeleine Albright during the U.S. Secretary of State’s visit to Mongolia in 1998; he proudly showed me the letter of thanks he had received from the president’s office – and himself. He informed me that he would soon be in Washington and would be dropping in on Bill Clinton for a chat. “Imagine! The son of an ordinary nomad can meet the president of the United States and talk about politics.” He glowed with self-satisfaction.
Jargalsaikhan was one of Mongolia’s new import-export elite. He likes to tell the story of how he’d started out by selling Chinese jeans in Ulaanbaatar markets, though he tended to skimp on the details of how he’d been transformed, within a decade, from market trader to cashmere baron. His story was typical: almost all of Mongolia’s new business barons make their money in “import-export” (the export of raw materials and the import of consumer goods) rather than in manufacturing.
There’s precious little manufacturing in Mongolia these days. Soviet money, Soviet fuel, and Soviet parts built the factories and kept them running; now basic goods that were made in the country until a few years ago, simple things such as matches, must be imported. In 1997, as part of its economic liberalisation policy, the government removed all import duties. The result was a flood of hitherto unavailable luxuries.
I was surprised at how much stuff you could buy in Ulaanbaatar’s shops (for what, by Western standards, were extremely reasonable prices): a Mercedes or a four-wheel drive, a colour TV or electric ice-cream maker, a top-of-the-line laptop or a bottle of expensive French wine.
Clearly, this was all to the good. Clearly, too, there was a widening chasm between the small elite that could afford to buy these luxury items and the majority, who stared through the plate-glass windows of the Sony showroom on Ulaanbaatar’s main drag, Peace Avenue, in wonder.
All of the new businesspeople I met (and they were almost always men) in Ulaanbaatar’s beer bars and offices and conference rooms were, like Jargalsaikhan, bullish and self-confident. They never spoke about the thing that baffled me most – where their start-up capital came from, I don’t know. I do know that, for most of the 1990s, Mongolia’s fledgling commercial banking system was in a state of chaos. Several banks collapsed under the weight of bad loans. A number of bank executives were jailed. In 1998, the government-owned Reconstruction Bank was declared insolvent; millions of dollars in loans it had given were unaccounted for. I also know that, of $190 million in foreign grants and loans received by Mongolia between 1991 and 1996, $15 million was found – by the government’s own audit committee – to have been “improperly used”. Another $11 million was never repaid; millions of dollars more were simply missing.
I toyed with these thoughts as Jargalsaikhan gave me the approved version of his life story.
"I started out by selling copper scrap to Hong Kong,” he said. “Then I sold Chinese clothes and electronics to Russia and in Mongolia. I was testing out what sectors were profitable. Copper and gold have 5 to 10 percent profit margins. With cashmere, it’s 50 percent. Also, it’s an established business, and Mongolia has a lot of raw materials. So I started a cashmere factory.”
Cashmere, the downy-soft wool produced by goats, was a cushion for Mongolia’s economy in a tumultuous decade. The country produces almost a third of the world’s cashmere and is the second-largest global supplier of the wool, after China. Ulaanbaatar-based Gobi Cashmere, still one of the world’s largest cashmere producers, was one of the few state-owned firms to weather the first difficult years of transition…
This is an excerpt from Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia, the recently published travel book by former UB Post editor, Ms. Jill Lawless (Published by ECW Press, Toronto, Canada, 2000).
Religion in Modern Mongolia:
Has Freedom Brought Stronger Religious Beliefs?
Before discussing the state of religion in Mongolia, I think it is important to talk about religious belief. While some people believe religion clouds one’s world outlook, I do not want to dispute with both religious believers and dissenters. Belief itself, like morality or ethics, is based on being human. Man cannot live (relying only on himself) without a belief in something. In that sense, religion is the intellectual (spiritual) need of humans. So, a man without belief is like a monkey lost in the forest. It is very regretful that religion can be abused by certain individuals or groups, departing from its holy spiritual nature. This kind of thing can happen in any country or society. I think it is now time to tackle such trends.
In Mongolia, already ten years have passed since Mongolians were allowed to practice their beliefs freely. The issue of religion, which was a closed topic for 70 years, came into the open, with many Buddhist monasteries, closed in the first years of the Communist Revolution, reviving their activities. Shamanism and other religions also came into the open
Everything has two sides, and those of the religious revival in Mongolia are the bright and shadowy sides.
In a survey taken from 1997 to 1998, a full 60% of Mongolia’s population believe in some type of religion (Sant Maral Foundation). The vast majority, 92%, are Buddhist, 4.5% are Christian, and the rest follow other faiths, including Islam and Shamanism.
The main religion of Mongolia, Buddhism, which enjoys recognition by the Government of Mongolia, is on the edge of ruin at this time.
For Mongolia, it seems very important to revive the national belief in religion in a proper way, because the spiritual needs of religion coincide with the daily habits of Mongolians, as in other Oriental countries. For example, some religious understandings are deeply set in traditional culture and customs. Sometimes, it is unrecognisable whether [a custom] is a tradition or a religion. So religion is the leader of the nation’s culture and tradition.
Also, the spiritual impoverishment and moral failure, prevelant amongst a wide portion of the population, is proof of the need for guidance. (After the collapse of communism, many people felt lost without communism or a religion to give spiritual support. They are lost without cares. Life’s burdens during the hardships of an economic transition are stressful, and drive people to commit crimes.)
But Buddhism is not doing its job. Some Buddhists are worrying that it is losing its position to Christianity. Buddhist leaders are suspicious that Christianity is energetically entering Mongolia. They are not aware of the need for reform in Buddhism to meet today’s demands. Christianity in Mongolia is doing its job. [True,] Christians could tone down their approach, [but] there is economic support for Christianity, while Buddhists are still talking fairy tales and teaching in the same way that they did at the beginning of the twentieth century – without explanation. These days, modern people need to know more, to discover the reasons behind everything. Buddhist teachings seem appealing to those committing swindles or sins (mostly rich ones), who pretend to purify themselves with the help of lamas and consider their sins absolved. In other words, Buddhism is not serving its duty here.
In the last two years, demands have been building for reforms in Buddhism. Of course, it is not the changing of Buddha’s teaching that is demanded. It is a reform of activities, objectives, public advocacy and research by the experts or religious leaders. Ideals or teachings that do not meet the social needs or superstitions will always go out of fashion. Buddhism in Mongolia should stop being beholden to a small coterie of lamas.
In 1921, there were about 700 Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia. The exact figure or how many there are now is unknown. One unofficial study says that there are 150. Some 17 operate in Ulaanbaatar.
Not only the public, but well-educated religious officials have also been critical. The state of Buddhism is unclear. They complain that the law on [“Church and State”] is not clear enough. For example, when the Constitutional Law says “the State will respect religion and religion will respect the State,” it is saying nothing. Some leadership is needed here. Lamas think it a “ball” point of law. If a religion is recognised as the state religion, it should have control over others. Then the Constitutional Law says that it will not discriminate against any religion. Some lamas believe there is a conflict. The law related to the religious issue will be discussed at the Spring Session of the Ikh Khural, Mongolia’s Parliament.
One more reason for considering the issue is the conflict among Buddhists. Last year, the conflict became a big sensation in the media. The two sides of Gandan and Dashchoilon monasteries clashed. One part was trying to cancel the status of Gandan monastery as the centre of Buddhist faith in Mongolia. There was also an argument of misuse of Gandan’s money and the privatisation of monasteries. This quarrel lasted many months, but nobody came out a winner. An outside observer can clearly see that Mongolia’s Buddhist leaders are split into two camps. It seems like a bomb ready to explode, even though on the surface, everything is calm.
How long this silence will last is going to depend on chances to the law and which way the wind is blowing… The fate of Buddhism in Mongolia remains unclear.
Information Superhighway Spans the Steppe
IN 1234, the Mongol Empire set up the world’s most sophisticated postal system. The Urtuu Alba post could take a letter from Karakorum to the Caspian in one week. Those days are gone, but now Mongolia is enjoying a second information boom. The World Wide Web has taken over where the Urtuu Alba left off, bringing information to one of the most remote corners of the earth. The heart and soul of this revolution is the myriad of internet cafés that have sprung up across Ulaanbaatar.
The cafés, which cost about T1000 an hour, make the net affordable for average Mongolians. [Our note: Not really.] A personal subscription to one of the three service providers would cost $50 a month [Our note: Very expensive.].
One of the pioneers in this business was the Epsilon Café, located on the Little Ring Road. On a Thursday afternoon, the place is packed with young people patiently waiting their turn at one of twelve terminals.
A deaf man is researching scholarship opportunities at American universities. A student is looking up information for a report on how to organise a business conference. Three others are getting market statistics for their studies on Asian economics.
”Our teachers advise us to use the internet rather than the library,” said Altantuya while scrolling down the International Monetary Fund web page. “All the newest information is right here.”
Students are also getting involved with extra-curricular web surfing. Of Mongolia’s 230 web sites, the most popular is chat.Mongol.net, which serves as the new mouthpiece for young people.
”The chat room is a good way for young people to express their feelings. We talk about all sorts of things: music, basketball, school, and girls,” said 15-year-old Tsogoo.
Sh. Bayarsaikhan, the manager at Epsilon, said it’s not just students who are surfing. “We get all kinds of customers. Business people are making deals, some people come to get news, and everyone is e-mailing. This kind of communication is a lot cheaper than the telephone,” he said.
Bayarsaikhan said he has not been surfing the web to get ideas for starting his own business. “I’ve been studying the net and I think I want to get involved with recycling or maybe cardboard box production. Opportunities that are not yet in Mongolia,” he said.
Margreet can Doodewaard, a technology consultant for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has a deeper outlook.
”The internet can support democratic governance. Already, there are centres that provide information on government activities. Anyone can research developments in other countries. This allows Mongolians to make well-informed choices with regards to their own government. This is the ultimate free press.”
For those who have not quite gotten the hang of it, aid agencies have been hosting web courses, and universities are offering internet and computer classes as part of their curriculum. A local radio station even broadcasts an Internet Hour, for listeners to call up and ask questions about the web.
The IT revolution is quickly expanding out of the capital. Over the past twelve months, several remote aimags have been wired with a handful of computers (there are just 5.3 PCs per 1000 people). Several centres were donated by the UNDP and the Soros Foundation, putting thousands of previously out-of-touch people in contact with the outside world.
Some have gotten the hang of it. In far-flung Bayan-Olgii, students e-mail their peers at sister schools in Turkey. Kazak, Russian, and Chinese traders check the market prices for cashmere and sheepskin.
Atai, the head of the National Park Office in Bayan-Olgii, says he uses the internet to contact potential tourists in North America and Europe. “It’s a great tool. The internet gives remote places like Olgii the chance to make itself known. It’s going to be the key to our success in tourism.”
But for otheres, the internet is more a novelty than a tool. One Western teacher in Olgii noticed how young people go to the internet café just to sign up for e-mail accounts.
”It’s all they know how to do,” the teacher said. “They sign up for as many accounts as they can, then spend hours on the computer to check their junk mail.”
T. Altansukh, the webmaster at the UNDP in Ulaanbaatar, thinks the naivete will quickly fade. He predicts that Mongolia’s large territory and crumbling infrastructure make it ripe for a giant leap into the cyber-world. Hinting at this forecast is the newly launched e-learning programme, which will provide distance education to children cut off from big city school.
”Distance education is just the start. In less than ten years, nomads will have internet access from their gers. They will be able to receive information on market prices and weather conditions,” said Altansukh. “The web is perfect for Mongolia, because it can by-pass old technology like landlines. Now, it’s just a matter of money and education.”