Thursday, 19 May 2011

Dateline Mongolia: Urban Travels in Nomad’s Land

As mentioned in my last entry, the next leg of my journey is Mongolia (also commonly referred to as Outer Mongolia; Inner Mongolia now being a province within China). This is one country that I have always been fascinated with from afar, and I was really looking forward to my trip there. One aspect of this country which has always intrigued me is its conflicting reputation as both an unknown wilderness (typified in its vast expanse of Gobi Desert and native nomadic culture) and a former stronghold of the Soviet Union, as seen in the concrete edifices of its capital city, Ulaanbataar. As such, and because of my fascination with this country, I allocated two books to Mongolia which hopefully capture, between them, these dual aspects. The first of these "Dateline Mongolia" is located mainly in the capital of Ulaanbaatar (with frequent excursions much further afield in the country), and details three years spent in the country by American immigrant Michael Kohn during his stint as editor of the state newspaper, the Mongol Messenger.

Mongolia was obviously one of Kohn’s favourite stops — as Lonely Planet travel guides’ Mongolia man, he speaks the language and has hung out all over that semi-autonomous Northeast Asian region, from the Gobi desert and the Altai mountains to the capital, Ulaanbaatar. He was also the main author for guides to Tibet and Colombia, and helped out compiling info for three more volumes. But his main job for three years was editor of The Mongol Messenger, Mongolia’s state-owned newspaper. So when he claims, for instance, that the government’s new tax on mining companies is making foreign investors in that country nervous, you’d best believe it.

Kohn’s book details what he saw when he arrived in the late ’90s: a country in transition from the traditional, isolated Mongolia of rugged people living in gers (aka yurts) in a wild and beautiful landscape to a place eager to join the world marketplace, where SUVs and the Internet are more important than yaks and camels. In other words, a place like any other — except that it’s situated in one of the most distinctive regions on the planet, the steppes that bred Genghis Khan.

The book highlights Mongolia's transition from the early days of Genghis Khan, to the later days of Communism, and to the current days of the emergence into the Western Culture. It tells of the author's journeys through the country and its cultural milieu, from child jockeys, to falcon poaching to exiled Buddhist leaders and to wars between lamas and shamans.

This is a vivid, informative, and irresistible journey through one of the world's most isolated and mysterious countries. It is a nation where falcon poachers, cattle rustlers, exiled Buddhist monks, death-defying child jockeys, and political assassins can be found in virtually every town. "Dateline Mongolia" is written with a fast-paced, journalistic style offering a unique perspective on a little-known society - from the politicians and businessmen trying to deal with the challenges being thrown up since the country was released from the clutches of Communism in 1990 to the spiritual turf war being waged between lamas, shamans, Mormon elders, and Christian Missionaries. This is a compelling read and more than satisfied my curiosity about the urban aspects of this mysterious land.

As mentioned above, I was also fascinated to visit the ‘other’ Mongolia – the unknown wilderness of the Gobi Desert and its native nomadic culture. For this leg of my journey, I chose the book “Walking the Gobi: 1,600 Mile-trek Across a Desert of Hope and Despair” by Helen Thayer. The Gobi Desert is a barren stretch of Mongolia that runs north of China, south of Russia and far from everything; not an ideal place to visit, except by book! Fortunately, the daring Thayer, age 63, fights nature and common sense for us, a fascinating account of her 1,600 mile journey with her husband, Bill, 74.

As I am already in Mongolia, my journey to this next leg is minimal – and involves a flight from Ulaanbataar in a cramped single engine plane belonging to Chuluu, a Mongolian pilot who dropped off and ferried supplies to the Thayers on their epic trip..

In Thayer’s words: “The crumbling concrete buildings, potholed streets, and crowded markets of Ulaan Baatar dropped away behind us as Chuluu set a southwestern course, which would take us to the far western edge of the desert on the Chinese border” and into "a parched rocky land that showed not a glimmer of welcome”. And so, in this forbidding, yet exciting scenario, I set out in the company of two adventurous pensioners to traverse the Mongolian Gobi – all 1600 miles of it!

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