When most people think of Mongolia, they are actually thinking of Inner Mongolia, which is actually part of China. Mongolia is a sovereign nation, bordered by Russia to the north and China to the south. According to Mongolians I’ve spoken to, Inner Mongolia is about as ‘Mongolian’ as a Pizza Hut pizza is Italian, having a majority of Han chinese forming its population, and having the traditional nomadic, common ownership culture of the Mongolians already diluted by the capitalist zeal of the Chinese.
I spent 11 days in Mongolia in July 2011 and it proved to be a complete eye opener. Coming from ultra urban city of Singapore, with a constant shortage of space and being surrounded on all sides by the sea, the landlocked nation of Mongolia, with its vast, vast open spaces and endless steppes was the complete polar opposite. It reminded me greatly of the nation of Rohan, and the Mongolians, the Rohirrim, ‘horse-lords’ from the Lord of the Rings. In fact, I reckon Tolkien modeled his mythical Rohan on Mongolia, with its fabled horsemanship amongst its people and its endless rolling steppes.
I’ve always taken the sea for granted, the beach is never more than a half hour drive from any direction in Singapore, being a small, connected island, imagine my surprise when I learnt that most people in Mongolia have never seen the sea, and hardly anyone knew how to swim. I don’t know why that surprised me, as it is obvious to anyone who looks at the map of Mongolia in relation to its neighbours, the nearest access point to the open sea would be the Bo Hai Sea, past Beijing and to the port city of Tianjin, thousands of kilometers away. Nonetheless, its still such a surprising concept that it took quite a while to sink in.
Most visitors will arrive via Ulaan Baatar, the capital city of Mongolia, which literally mean’s ‘Red Hero’, in honour of Mongolia’s national liberation hero Damdin Sükhbaatar.
Ulaan Baatar is quite a rapidly modernising city, with shiny glass facades of new office blocks standing alongside crumbling Soviet era buildings, and construction going on in many places. Much of the Mongolia economy has in recent years, been propelled by the great surge in mining related revenue, with Mongolia sitting on massive deposits of copper, coal, iron, uranium, zinc and other natural resources, with the world increasingly hungry for natural resources, and the Rio Tintos of the world falling over themselves to set up mines in Mongolia, the economy is set to keep growing. My hope is that the influx of investment and money coming into the country will translate to more favourable socio-economic conditions for the population at large, and not just line the pockets of the dealmakers, and throughout all this development, the traditional nomadic culture of its people will not be lost, replaced by rampant consumerism and Starbucks (which thankfully, hasn’t yet arrived in Mongolia).
Ulaan Baatar is reputed to be the coldest capital city in the world, with the average annual temperature freezing up the mercury at -1.3˚C. I was there in the height of summer so it was rather pleasant, -40˚C in winter would not be my idea of fun.
The capital is a base to get started in the country, but of course, no one comes to Mongolia to hang out in Ulaan Baatar, and it is when you leave the city that the magic begins.