Journey to Mongolia

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From the window seat on Air China flight #714, I twist and crane as we ascend from Bejing. Where would it appear–on our right or left? Then a line, a crack snaking across the hilltops, emerges. There it is! The only man-made object that can be seen from outer space: the Great Wall of China. And beyond it–the fabled Mongolian hordes and the legendary capital of Genghis Khan.

Having read that moderns likened Mongolia to Montana one hundred years ago, I tingle with anticipation. What will I encounter? Will I meet the challenges presented by this strange land? What will I bring home with me? The “what” I already know won’t be a stuffed and mounted taimen, the world’s largest salmon, known to swallow rats whole. It will, I hope, be something subtler–and more important.

As we approach Ulaan Baatar, we fly low enough to make out the landscape. Undulating, ochre hills roll to the horizon, patterned by restless shadows as the sun moves in and out of cloud formations. I am gliding above the “Land of the Blue Sky,” and it is as empty as the sea.

But Ulaan Baatar itself turns out to be a discordant mix of the traditional and 1950s-style Soviet modernization. Located on a high plateau ringed by mountains, Ulaan Baatar was a quiet Buddhist center until the Soviets tapped it as Mongolia’s new industrial hub in the 1930s. Nomads, living in the traditional way, were herded into the city to labor in the new factories and be housed in the ubiquitous Soviet-style high rises. With the demise of the Mongolian Peoples’ Republic in the early 1990s, 30 percent of the new nation’s GNP disappeared with the snap of Russian fingers. Industries collapsed and unemployment surged upward. By 1996 the banks were in crisis, and soon five major banks failed, largely because of failed loans. Traditional Mongols who had come to the city found themselves with no jobs and no animals to care for. Cheaply-built apartment buildings began crumbling and vast suburbs of gers, the traditional felt tents, grew up around the city.

At the time of my 1998 visit, Ulaan Baatar felt like the old American West, but in unfortunate ways. Glass littered unpaved walkways, rainwater ran in the streets, a man urinated next to a building, a drunk claimed a scarce patch of grass, hot water was available sometimes, and homeless kids ran in packs. Caught in the divide between a Soviet-enforced industrialization that had left its citizens with little, and a traditional way of living that was no longer an option for many, Mongolia was at a crossroads.

Yet, there was a spirituality about the place that was missing in consumer-driven Bejing, where I could find no evidence of any kind of religiosity or personal spirituality, other than as an historical artifact. Buddhism thrummed softly in the veins of Ulaan Baatar. The walled Gandan Monastery filled with Mongols, some wearing the traditional dell, others in modern dress. All day long giant prayer wheels click-clacked, as the big drums were turned by hand after hand earning spiritual credit. Prayer beads were worn and fingered, not just sold to the trickle of western tourists. A trip into the countryside involved one or more stops at ovoos, rock cairns where colorful prayer flags whipped in the wind and each traveler silently placed a stone on the mound to insure a safe journey.

It was this traditional side of Mongolia that called to me and offered different sort of a challenge than I had anticipated. My first response on returning was to paint images of “real” Mongolia: a nomad girl on a short Mongol pony, her hair whipping in the wind; ochre and purple hills rolling to the horizon; the brassy golden cliffs of the Gobi rising above desert scrub; a ger-lined alleyway approaching Gandan Monastery tinted blue with afternoon; the lined, questioning face of a herder in his black work dell and felt hat peering out of a ger door. Hanging on my walls, these places and faces invited me to muse.

At first, I thought the paintings themselves were the point. I recalled the American Romantic painters, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, who brought Easterners images of majestic western landscapes, paintings that inspired awe and eventually helped trigger the purchase of jeweled national parks. But then I reminded myself of what had transpired since those 19th century painters trekked the Rockies. Our American conquest mentality had destroyed much of the very nature they had celebrated; their works are now historical artifacts, rather than icons of a contemporary American ethos.

Lately I’ve been thinking about my Mongolian experience because soon my son returns there to renew his Peace Corps friendships (his service the impetus for my 1998 visit). Wondering what he might find, I did a little research. First, I discovered, he’ll see more prosperity. In 2004 Mongolia’s GDP grew 10.6 percent, largely because of exploitation of its copper and gold resources. The government now actively courts foreign investment, offering exploration licenses for seven years, and mining licenses for 60 years with an automatic right to extend. Taxes are not imposed on imported machinery nor exported mining products. For projects over $2 million, the government offers stability agreements, guaranteeing fiscal stability for 10 to 15 years. (Quite a deal, considering natural resource takeovers by Venezuela and Bolivia.)

Foreign companies now hold more than 51 percent of the total exploration licenses issued, with a Canadian company owning rights to Turquoise Hill in the Gobi Desert, one of the largest gold and copper deposits ever discovered. (Last month 800 people protested government give-aways to the mining industry and shut down one mine’s operations for a day. Meanwhile, the mining industry has been lobbying against a new windfall profits tax.) A British and a Chinese company are developing Mongolia’s oil reserves, with most of the oil going south to China despite the fact that Mongolia must import oil for its domestic market. Thus, it is questionable how far the new prosperity trickles down to the average Mongol.

My son will be traveling in Mongolia’s west, where he’ll encounter evidence of an ecosystem becoming more fragile. Because of its history as a herding culture, Mongolia’s unique ecosystem remains intact, but faces increased threats. As many endangered species can be found in Mongolia, it is an important base from which to insure the conservation of gene pools of species such as the wild camel, Gobi bear, the largest mountain sheep in the world, the black-tailed gazelle, the Asiatic wild ass, and the elegant snow leopard. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Soviet social welfare system, many Mongols must hunt and gather wood in order to survive. Forest and grass fires have grown more frequent and damaging, marginal areas are becoming overgrazed, and coal burning has darkened the urban air. With these changes come further threats to biodiversity.

However, Mongolia has a reputation as one of the most environmentally-conscious nations in Asia. Back in the 13th century, visitor Marco Polo noted that hunting of wild animals was forbidden during their mating and birthing seasons. Then too the mountain associated with Ghengis Khan was set aside as a holy place. Since 1990, the government has made saving the environment a high priority, with a goal of eventually protecting 30 percent of the land—a challenging objective considering the destructive practices involved in open pit mining, as we Minnesotans are well aware. If Mongolia is to successfully negotiate its way through the conflicting demands of development and conservation, other nations must help by offering significant preservation assistance, not just extraction assistance.

Is there hope that Mongolia will be one place where the exploitation of natural resources does not trump conservation? Perhaps. An emerging populist movement demanding that more of the profits from the sale of Mongolia’s resources benefit its citizens is a hopeful sign, as are the concerns expressed by international environmental groups. And it could be that the nation’s heritage of living in harmony with the land and Buddhist environmental ethos will prove more muscular than did American Romanticism.

Looking back, I find my Mongolia trip did test me: I slept in a ger through a pelting rainstorm, rode a yak, drank fermented mare’s milk and came away with a new sense of self. But the most lasting gift of the visit was an opening of my imagination. I found the vast, empty land with its scattering of herders, yaks, short-legged Mongol ponies, and gers with orange, east-facing doors opened up something closed down in myself–something young and soaring for which there is no name but ‘spirit.’ I hope it will be there for future visitors to find.