Mongolia. What did I see? A steppeland, ancestor of nomads and conquerors, a country between two superpowers, capital city with a cool name. Actually, these were the images in my mind before visiting the country but more or less it didn´t change during my short stay there. The image started to be enriched in Inner Mongolia, northern province of China. Not because of the name only, the Mongolians and their culture is strongly present in the region.
As a passing visitor you have the chance to notice the food and the language on the streets at least. Not that Chinese don’t have meaty cuisine but the Mongolian lust after meat can’t be beaten. There is mutton in everything, every dumpling was wearing horns and no soup or tea or anything is without fat. I would expect even a chocolate to contain blood drops. Obviously, this comes with the severe landscape and climate where you just can’t go without a fair slice of schnitzel. Nevertheless, I found out about 20 vegetarian or vegan restaurants in Ulaanbaatar which I doubt the locals even know about (even in vocabulary, there is the same word for milk products as for vegetarian food, literally “white food”) but it surprisingly many, I feel like it could compete with Prague and in my eyes it shows that every extreme or force creates a counter force or movement.
The language is so interesting! It’s like mixture of everything. The calligraphy looks like Arabic but it is written vertically, from the top down. The sound of the spoken language hasn’t stopped to amaze me. It sounds like German, than few words like Chinese, some Italian and then suddenly a noise that scares you. One Mongolia friend read the Czech text and Czech names with no problem and even his R was perfect. I was shocked, nobody in the world can pronounce that right! Even some Czechs with our president in the lead. Mongolian has such a broad variety of sounds that all possible organs are used to utter all syllables from all languages, he explained to me. It’s like a computer Unicode, the set of all possible sounds. But it doesn’t sound like cacophony, it’s really pleasure (maybe out of the interest) to listen to, except the noise that is used to express agreement – “yes” is like to hear a person sniffle.
The speech only was I found in the Mongolia itself, for writing the Cyrillic is used nowadays. The Russians came to liberate them from Chinese after the first world war and as they do, they came with many advices and improvements, so the original old Mongolian script is preserved in school books, one newspaper, old books and expats communities (emmigrants always work as a preserver of a culture. I was told I can hear old fashioned Italian words only in the little Italy in New York).
Drinking is really popular, and karaoke is really really popular (I guess if you open a pub without a mic in UB (Ulaanbaatar is just too long, not only for locals (it means “red hero” by the way, another improvement from the Russian liberators) than the only your guests would be foreigners).
Oh, foreigners. Another example of a force and counter force? Tourists in tents I will describe later, first I learned about the foreign investment and nazis. Mongolia is very rich in natural resources. Iron, coal, silver, dinosaurs, if you start digging you will come across something valuable and other countries noticed. So they came to help. Most of the wealth is owned by Canadian companies, or Chinese or other. Mongolians themselves stayed with their tents and cattles, just few bribed politicians who sold the country to foreign lobbyists are living the high life. Earlier this year, only big demonstrations made the government rethink selling another share of the national coal mining industry to the Canadian private company that would have 98% control over the Mongolian coal. I think they made it 50% in the end I’m not sure, but it’s a sweet deal anyway, and not the only one. Sometimes the operation is being done as a development aid. Sure, if money infects the character than it’s better to ship all the wealth away so the natives can stick to their culture and way of life. “Ta ikh tus bolloo” is ‘thanks for helping’ in Mongolian.
The danger of not robbing the natives can be seen in another example. On the way there I was meeting happy tourists in an outdoor jackets in the opposite direction to China (with two goretex jackets on the way to Tibet). They were telling me not to miss the true experience of a Mongolian traditional ger (that’s how the round tent, the yurt is called). But I was not really willing to pay 50$ per day for a trip to the steppe on a jeep and then sleeping in the tent. Later when I was in UB, one guy was telling me how this is tearing apart the souls of the people and how he can see it on his own village in the countryside. Hospitality has been part of the culture as in all Asia but here in the hard environment it was a question of survival and thus letting a stranger into your tent was seen a granted thing you should not be thankful for. It might be rude. But now, all the freaking adventurous westerners are jumping on the trans-siberian train with their jackets and dollars to see the great wall of china and as Mongolia is on the way, why not get out and make one more folder of photos. So these days, knocking on the tent costs around 30€ per night (and you actually pay in euro notes) and the people in the natural parks have two gers for them and their family and six more for Dutch tourists. We tourists hate tourists. It’s just business as usual in the end, nothing unordinary, it’s just I remember the look of the eyes of my friend and his serious concern that those people are not able to move with the animals, nor stay with broader family or friends (who would take the place without paying) and the money made can’t be spent on anything anyway, just better accommodation for the coming tourists and vodka and the people are more and more getting lost.
The government was holding a meeting in the desert at the time I was there to point out how serious the situation is with the Gobi swallowing one mile after another. The desert is advancing in China as well, Beijing is afraid to be in the desert in some years so they are planting tree barrier, green wall of china. The Mongolia is said to be one of the countries most painfully hit by the climate change. The rainfall and seasons change is really important for a country where the sky is the only thing you have besides the dry soil and your moving house and cows.
And then the nazis. When I was buying a watermelon from a Mongolian man in China I told him I’m going to his country and he told me “Watch out, there is a lot of nazis these days”. What the *ck? Yes. There are boys and men all around, you can notice, wearing tattoos with swastikas, freaking hackenkreuz. It’s not just an ordinary symbol and decoration as I got used to in Nepal and India, they are actually hailing and talking about Adolf. What is this guy doing here, I asked. One man told me (I was asking carefully) that they are not that crazy and not that bad. He got my attention. As he said, they are just protecting the country from evil foreigners. He got my attention. He said they act when Koreans are trafficing their women (gorgeous!) or Chinese smuggling and dealing drugs when the police is inactive, otherwise the are cool and calm. Well, I didn’t feel good about it. I actually had a “dialogue” with such a young guy. He wasn’t speaking English, I understood just “Mongolia” and his rings but we managed to part with saying goodbyes and gestures of respect.
Then I left the city and went to that tent in the beautiful mountains and forests. I said I have money for one night only but can help working in exchange of shelter for the following days. It was amazing, just horses running over plains and clouds over the sky. I was walking through wonderful wood, crossing the rivers with shoes in my hand as I had no horse or jeep, hiking in one of the healthiest landscape I’ve seen and walking back to my ger barefoot. And after one day of working I got sick. I eat really funny carrot. It was too funny so I had to spay my days with a stomachache and nights with stove and candles writing letters that were good for the fire only. After that a horse took my across the rivers and I returned to UB to pick up my visa and jump on a train to Russia. Arriving to the city from distance felt like coming to a music festival tent village, low line of tents and houses rises high only in the very center.
I was late and running to the train station. Of course. Goodbye Mongolia. The friend told me there is an archery championship in Hungary and he might come in Mongolian colors. I believe he will make it and bring me a piece of that land in the future.