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The bumpy roads of Mongolia – Historical context

Finally the second part of our report about Mongolia, which we announced in the first part, is finished. Since it entails some China critical lines, we decided to post it after having left China. As you are probably well aware, freedom of speech and information has been radically restricted in the past years, if not to say prohibited. More about that in another article.

If you haven´t read our first post about Mongolia, feel free to read it. It puts the succeeding article more into context.

As we already teased in our last post, a travel report about Mongolia would be incomplete without mentioning a few historical facts and describing some events that let to the Mongolia we are experiencing today. I don´t know what picture you have in mind when thinking about Mongolia, but before coming to this country, we were quite clueless about what to expect. I mean, stuck between two of the worlds biggest and most powerful countries, Mongolia – despite its rapid development over the past two decades, especially in Ulaanbaatar - doesn´t really make it to the top of the news. Reason enough to dig a little bit deeper into the countries history to better understand this beautiful country.

10 years ago, when travelling through Guatemala, I met a guy from Eastern Europe - I think he was from the Czech Republic - who was preparing for a horse track in Mongolia that he let as a guide. Ever since, I pictured Mongolia as a vast unpopulated country consisting mainly of a dry windy desert, where horses serve as the main means of transportation and where you see monks in colorful gowns, following in the footsteps of Gautama Siddhartha, taking care of beautifully decorated monasteries. Well, having travelled for around 3000km through the country, I can say that my imagination wasn´t totally off, but it was still far from the truth. (Actually, I had a pretty similar image of Tibet in my head. Now that we also travelled through the Tibetan areas in the Sichuan province of China, my imagination was faced with reality. However this will be covered in another post.) Anyway, whatever picture you have in mind when thinking about Mongolia, I hope this report inspires you to visit this beautiful country yourself someday.

David between the Goliath twin-brothers

Mongolia only borders with two other countries, Russia in the north and China in the south. What a doom to be stuck between two of the biggest and most influential countries in the world. But we´ll get to that later.

Mongolia, back in the 13thcentury was the superpower of the east. It was the times of Genghis Khan, the most famous Mongol of all times, founder of the nation of Mongolia, arguably celebrated as a hero till this day and the central figure of the country´s history. Due to his and his successors successful and violent conquests, the Mongol territory spread from …. In the east to today´s southern Russia in the north, ….. in the west and China in the south. It was the first and only time in history that China was ruled by a foreign dynasty and lasted merely 100 years before a civil riot ended the ruling of the Mongols and the Ming dynasty gained power. In today´s northern China, there is still a big territory called Inner Mongolia, which was once mainly populated by Mongols but today they constitute the minority (just like the Tibetans in the south west or the Uighurs in the far west). Still with more than 4 Mio. people, there are more Mongols living in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia than in Mongolia itself, which has 3 Mio. inhabitants. Under the Manchu dynasty, which succeeded the Ming dynasty in China in 1644, Mongolia came under Chinese reign. However, the country was never fully integrated into China.

Due to the good relationships between Tibet and Mongolia, the Tibetan Buddhism had a big influence on the Mongolian territories from the beginning of the 16thcentury. Originally, Mongolia is characterized by a shamanic culture believing in ghosts. During a long period of peace in the 18thand 19thcentury and due to the influence of the Tibetan Buddhism, Mongolia became one of the most religious countries on earth counting 700 monasteries at its peak. When the Manchu reign ended at the beginning of the 20thcentury, the Mongolian upper class saw a window of opportunity, declared independence and named the Bogd Khan, a Buddhist reincarnation, the head of state. To secure its newly declared state, Mongolia turned to Russia for assurance. And now this is how the northern neighbor comes into play.

Mongolia´s independence

The czardom guaranteed the autonomy, however not the independence of Mongolia. So officially, Mongolia remained a part of China, but Chinese military and colonists were no longer tolerated on Mongolian territory. So during the 20s of the past century, Mongolia was caught in between its two big neighbors in the south and in the north and ended with the death of the Bogd Khan, which also terminated the theocracy in Mongolia. In 1924, Mongolia was declared a People´s Republic. The newly formed revolutionist peoples party wanted to modernize the country and the only way to achieve this, from their point of view, was through the help of and taking an example of the Soviet Union. However, the Mongols were still one of the most religious people on earth and before all else listened to their religious leaders. After a lot of pressure from Russia, Stalin finally found a man who was willing to liquidate the lamas as a class. Of over 700 monasteries, all were destroyed except a handful and its residents shot. Apparently over 30000 people were killed, which was 5% of the population. Most of the cultural heritage of Mongolia was destroyed. A sad and tragic part of the Mongolian history, which is very important to keep in mind, however, because it had a profound impact on the Mongolia we are seeing and experiencing today.

So how does the country´s history influence the life of Mongols today and how does it become visible when traveling through the country?

Well, the first thing you notice when crossing the border from Russia to Mongolia is that you can still read words as long as you learnt the Cyrillic alphabet while you were in Russia. The Cyrillic alphabet was introduced shortly after the above described blood spill. The old Mongolian alphabet, introduced by Genghis Khan, has not been forgotten, however, and there have been serious attempts, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, to revive not only the language, but the Mongolian traditions and culture in general. The old Mongolian language is even being taught in schools again for some time now.

Nature and gods

So what happened to the once deeply religious country during the decades of northern influence? Despite intense efforts to wipe out religious beliefs, the shamanic traditions survived especially in the rural areas. Due to the harsh and rough living conditions in the country, the Mongols learnt better than anyone else how to live in accordance with the natural cycle of mother earth, which has let to a deep respect towards nature, which can be observed in their behavior towards animals and plants and their agricultural practices till today. In order to manage the unpredictable difficulties that life and nature throw at them, they have always sought the help and benevolence of all kinds of gods. The god of the sky, the god and protector of the herds, the water god and the fire god, to just name a few. When travelling through the country you inevitably cross so-called Ovoos, piles of stones, sometimes decorated with the sacred blue ribbons, usually placed on top of mountains and mountain passes, where faithful Mongols typically walk around clockwise three times and add another stone to the pile, or at least send a small greeting when driving by an Ovoo. Intertwined in their shamanic traditions and their belief in all kinds of gods is a Buddhist way of life routed in Tibetan Buddhism. However, due to the countrywide demolition of monasteries and the execution of the lama class almost 100 years ago, you really have to seek out particular spots if you want to observe practiced Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia.

Leaving religion aside, coming from our industrialized world, where most of us are quite disconnected from and ignorant about nature and its inherent laws, it is quite eye-opening to see that it doesn´t have to be that way and you begin to wish that we as human beings on this earth would collectively remember who we are and where we came from. We are a product of Mother Nature. We are nature. However, it´s by far not all unicorns and rainbows in Mongolia. Industrialization, globalization and digitalization doesn´t make a detour around the least populated country on earth. This becomes especially apparent when you walk around the smoggy, busy capital, Ulaanbaatar, or even when you get closer to one of the few bigger towns. Just a few kilometers from any town, you find a big cloud of smoke in the middle of Mother Earth, where garbage is burnt, mainly plastic, and you see garbage bags and other waste being transported by the wind and decorating bushes and trees. I´m wondering what the fire god has to say to this…

Humans eat meat, animals eat plants

In terms of food, Mongolia is quite a challenge for plant eaters like us. Mongols have two seasons, the meat season in fall and winter and the milk product season in spring and summer. However, the two seasons are not so strictly separated. Vegetables are mainly considered to be animal food and in any way, the harsh weather conditions don´t really allow for large agricultural practices. Contrary to our western consumption of animal products, which seems to have gotten out of control over the past decades, Mongols seem to not exploit nature but take what is given to them by nature. They kill what they eat and they eat what they kill, meaning that they basically eat the entire animal. They leave the milk to the calves and fowls until they are old and strong enough and they acknowledge the bond between a mother and her child. However, we witnessed a few cases where the Mongols didn´t live up to their respectful relationship with other creatures. One picture that is stuck in my head is a horse being transported on the back of a truck. His (new) owner was stopping at the gas station. His head was tied to a bar on the loading area of the truck in a way that he was hardly able to move and unable to balance out the bumpy ride. Blood was running down on the right corner of his mouth. I was standing there for a few minutes, trying to make eye contact with him. He was just sadly starring into the void. I looked at Sanche, our driver. No good, he said. The horses owner came back and the bumpy ride continued.

When we didn´t cook for ourselves, we tried to order something without meat here and there. If the waitress actually understood what we tried to say, she still looked quite confused as if she wanted to say that if we wanted to eat something other than meat we should join the yaks and horses outside and eat some grass…

So we adapted – one of us more than the other J– acknowledged what nature has to offer in this beautiful country and learnt to appreciate their simple dishes, like noodle soup with fatty meat junks or minced meat dumplings.

Nomadic lifestyle

If you´ve never been to a nomadic country, it is difficult to imagine a life where you have to move your home in dependence of the four seasons. The nomadic way of life is deeply routed in the Mongolian culture and contrary to countries like Kirgizstan, where the Soviet Union used force to put an end to the nomadic way of life in order to gain more control, in Mongolia they tried to find solutions, e.g. in terms of health care and education, that left the nomadic way of life in tact. As you can imagine, Mongols consequently posses very few personal things. The few things of worth they have, they proudly display in their gers (yurts).

Mongolia today

Mongolia today is struggling with huge amounts of debt. Due to their dependence on copper export, they were deeply hit by the economic crisis 2008/ 2009. China helped out financially, which let to a sudden boom again, especially in Ulaan Baatar, where one skyscraper and hotel after another was built. The biggest battle ground now and for the next years will be the copper mine Oyu Tolgoi in the Gobi desert, close to the Chinese-Mongolian border. It has one of the biggest copper sources in the world and when it will be fully in production, the mine will contribute with 30% of the Mongolian BIP. So whoever controls the mine controls the country. The biggest market is China. But a one-sided dependence of China is obviously not in the interest of Russia. Even more so not in the interest of Mongols, who seem to be afraid of having to face the same fate as Tibet. (On some Chinese maps the country´s borders actually entail Mongolia.) The current approximation of China and Russia is most certainly looked upon with skepticism by most Mongols. Being stuck between Xi and Putin is definitely not an easy fate. My wish for this beautiful country is that it will remain independent and that it will find its own way into the future at its own pace while reviving and maintaining its culture and traditions and resisting the promises of quick prosperity and wealth coming from north and south, which in most cases lead to a one-sided dependence.

I hope this short report about Mongolia shed some light on this largely unknown nation and maybe even inspired you to visit this beautiful country yourself some day.

Please not that historical information and dates don´t claim to be comprehensive, nor 100% accurate. This report is just an intention to put our travel experience in perspective to Mongolia´s history and culture.

Feel free to drop us comments and question anytime, especially if you are planning a trip to Mongolia yourself!

If you want to see more pictures about our travels in Mongolia, CLICK HERE.

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