In Mongolia today there are reminders everywhere of the nation’s nomadic past. Upon arriving at Chinggis Khaan International Airport – the nation’s only international transit point – visitors are greeted by a statue of the fearless wandering conqueror of yore. Traditional portable homes – gers – dot the outskirts of the capital city of Ulan Bator and fill the landlocked country’s vast steppe, ready to be folded up and carried to better pastures at a moment’s notice. And if you head out beyond the yurts into the hinterlands, three million wild Mongol horses can be seen running free – that’s more than the nation’s human population.
While the itinerant lifestyle still persists in much of the country, today one-third of the population has settled in Ulan Bator – a city where “new buildings are rising all the time and traffic has become a major problem,” Shatra Galbadrah, a resident of Ulan Bator who works as the Mongolian liaison for a 1,000-kilometer horse race called the Mongol Derby, told The Diplomat. (More on the Mongol Derby in the coming days.) Indeed, the city’s skyline has risen over the surrounding steppes to dramatic effect in just over two decades. Galbadrah added, “Because of the mining industry the city is really booming. Now there are also famous brands opening stores.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Ulan Bator’s Sukhbaatar Square – where a bronze statue of Lenin once stood – is now home to a luxury mall featuring outlets for Louis Vuitton, Burberry, Zegna, Emporio Armani and Hugo Boss. The nation has gotten rich quick – well, at least its elite have – because of the vast mineral wealth buried in its ground, comprising deposits of 80 different minerals from coal and copper to gold and uranium. Not to mention oil. And there is plenty of land to explore. Describing the view of Mongolia’s prairieland, which is twice the size of Texas, travel writer Rolf Potts once wrote: “Taking in the Mongolian steppe is like looking at Kansas on steroids — a joyous Wagnerian symphony of blue sky, open spaces and grassy curves stretching out to everywhere.”
The lives of Mongolia’s countryside dwellers offer a stark contrast to the hubbub and runaway growth of Ulan Bator. “People can still be seen wearing deel (traditional garb) and eat mostly meat. There are not many vegetables that can grow in Mongolia due to the extreme winters,” Galbadrah said. “Pretty much everyone lives in gers. They are surprisingly comfortable. And for people who live in the countryside they are homes.”
She touted their “functionality,” adding, “People put beds and other furniture in them and even build fires in the bitterly cold winters (known to drop to minus 40 degrees Celsius).”
The one drawback, she says, is the lack of privacy. “Everyone sleeps in the same space. But the functionality is what matters to people who are often herders and need to move frequently. You can take one down and move within a day. Their lives depend on their animals so they need to move wherever the best grass is. Traditionally, herders move around five to six times per year.” The most common livestock includes horses, cows, sheep, goats, and camels, which are native to the Gobi Desert. A video of nomads moving their ger can be seen here.
The clearly visible divide between Mongolia’s haves and have-nots has arisen only since 1990, when the nation ushered in democracy and bade farewell to 200 years of dominion under China followed by 70 years as a Soviet satellite. Under Soviet rule, economic disparities were not the only aspect of Mongolian life hidden from view. During the Soviet period, Buddhist monks were killed (in the 1930s), temples burned, and mention of the nation’s most iconic figure – Khan himself – was banned and all but snuffed out.
“When I was growing up I didn’t even know who Genghis was,” Galbadrah said. “In schools we learned mainly Russian history, the Russian language. Then, in 1990 when communism fell, there was a period of maybe 10 years when the nation slowly began to reconnect with its past. It didn’t happen at once, but interest in Genghis began to trickle back.”
She added, “Now we have a big Genghis statue at our national airport, you see Genghis pubs (and vodka), Genghis restaurants, streets named after him – Genghis everything. You could definitely say there is a kind of Genghis Khan renaissance that has taken place since around the year 2000.”
For good measure, one of the country’s richest men also built a 131-foot-tall statue of the great Khan on the outskirts of Ulan Bator. It may seem hard to believe that a nation could be forced into a state of amnesia about its most prominent historical figure – a man who practically defines the nation’s identity – but there is one factor that should be considered.
Galbadrah explains, “He (Khan) didn’t leave behind any large monuments or buildings like other great leaders of past civilizations normally do. There’s not that much left due to the fact that Mongolia is traditionally a nomadic culture.”
While Genghis may not have left behind a Forbidden City or Great Pyramid, there is one constant of Mongolian life that has remained unchanged through successive foreign occupations and continues today: horsemanship. Tomorrow we look at the Mongols’ special relationship to the animal that is so integral to both their past and present.
Editor’s note: The text has been updated from the original to reflect the fact that the portable homes referred to as yurts in much of Central Asia are known as gers in Mongolia.