So is the past just a portent of Mongolia’s future?
Although I had visited before and fallen in love with the Mongolian people, the country itself was still something of a distant mirage in my mind. My 15 days with the University of Missouri Global Scholars program, however, awakened me to both the reality and dream of the land of Chingaas Khaan.
Much of Mongolia is shockingly bleak. In the drought-stricken Khentii region, finding a live blade of grass took hands-and-knees inspection. The cows, camels, sheep, goats and yaks wandering the steppes did little better with their parched tongues. A precious few herders live the traditional life in felt gers, moving frequently in search of better pastures.
But in Ulaanbaatar, construction cranes rival hood ornaments on upscale new cars. Fashions and hemlines are high. And so is the optimism. Someone is pumping lots of money into this forgotten nation.
Mongolia must be the most overlooked keystone in the global economy. The fact that it is a democratic country nestled between Russia and China is alone enough to raise an eyebrow. But since finding that the hooves of its herds pounded over huge mineral reserves and potential oil fields, Mongolia is poised for another of its many evolutions.
Chingaas Khaan was nothing if not wily. He understood that the best road to success was adaptation. He invented the Mongolian Way – an intensely emotional way of retaining his culture as a spiritual value while absorbing and capitalizing on the attributes of other peoples.
I have no doubt that Mongolia will put its own ancient spin on the 21st century. The gers won’t disappear as nearly half the population moves to the city – but they will likely become as “authentic” as the teepees in the American Southwest.
The potential of wealth for a country of 2.5 million souls evokes visions of Middle East sheikdoms or Latin American banana republics. But I don’t think so. Mongolians are both hard-headed about their independence and loyal to the teachings of Chingaas Khaan. Back in his day, the Great Leader developed a unique method of pillaging – he sent teams of accountants to the vanquished city to catalogue the booty so that it could be doled out to Mongolians in what he considered a just way.
If I wait another six years for a third visit, I have no doubt that I will find another Mongolia. Change is in the dry Mongolian air. While I’ve heard Westerners bemoan the fading of those quaint traditional herders, that’s really a selfish wish for their own entertainment.
Besides, you can count on some Chiingist to erect a “Mongol Land” under the Eternal Blue Sky.