Fred and Sharon, former diplomats, have never lived in Mongolia. As a long-time repressive client state of the former Soviet Union, the U.S. didn’t even formally recognize the country until the late 1980’s. As a result, there was no U.S. Embassy in Ulaan Baatar (Red Hero) at which they could serve until too late in their careers.
Fast forward into the 21st century, and the country had turned into a multi-party democratic country more quickly AND more peaceably than any other former communist state. Fast becoming a major adventure-tourism destination with its vast steppes, deserts and high mountains, the country also produces fair trade handicrafts of the type sold in our shop.
Couple this with an invitation to visit from a friend working at the American Embassy there, Fred said, Mongolia here I come! Sharon, on the other hand, decided that camping in blizzards on long mountain treks and eating boiled mutton best remain in her past.
Fred spent most of June in Mongolia and was charmed by the quickly westernized, friendly, increasingly English speaking, internet-and-cell-phone wired, basketball loving, yet still nomadic-culture-embracing country of a scant three million people with 30 million horses, camels and yaks.
The contrast between the capital city crammed with half the country’s population and the worst driving habits in the world, and the countryside with almost no roads between towns (linked only by multiple tracks spreading across the steppes) was greater than any other country Fred has visited. The urban-rural contrasts were many, some of which we can describe in later blogs.
The U.S.A. is just about the Mongolians’ favorite country. The U.S. stepped in to assist with food aid during times of hunger and hardship after Russian aid–which had made up 1/3 of their GNP–stopped cold when democracy began. In addition, hundreds of Peace Corps volunteers over more than two decades have taught English in the most far-flung villages across the country. People remember that the U.S. helped them, and now most people under the age of 25 speak English.
Most amazing to see was that in virtually every location with two or more huts or “yurts” (“gers” in Mongolian), there would be a basketball court or half court. Often the hoops had no nets, and the backboard was just rough planks, but kids would be out shooting baskets at all hours.
It seemed that every family living in a ger in the most remote location had a solar panel and a satellite dish. The kids were often watching Sesame Street on Dish TV when you looked inside. In a country where 50 percent of the population is under 35, all this education bodes well for the future.
The country is not without its economic problems. Mongolia only allows western countries to be involved in exploiting their vast natural resources of coal, copper, and other metals from the land.
The Mongolians have, however, sometimes reneged on contracts and tried to re-negotiate with those international companies, causing economic uncertainty.
Climate change and harsh winters have killed vast numbers of livestock and have driven many families into spreading ger camps around the capital, leading to new social problems.
Still, you must admire their spunk. The entire country seems to detest China, for both historic and contemporary reasons. They are gleefully awaiting the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the only independent country that practices Tibetan Buddhism. Proudly noting that the first Dalai Lama cam from Mongolia, and hoping that the next reincarnation might too, everyone seems to revel in the discomfort the Chinese government is exhibiting over the upcoming visit.