Selected past blogs

A social enterprise visit to Mongolia

Mongolia is, as you'd expect, an extraordinary place. The first thing that strikes you is the climate - it's right in the middle of the biggest land mass on earth, and it's high too. Ulaan Baatar is just below 5,000 feet, which if you're used to sea level is enough to take your breath away if you run up 2 or 3 flights of stairs (it did mine anyway) - but most of the land around is much higher. Because of this and the nearby Gobi the air is really dry - at first you want to keep drinking water every few minutes, not because you're really thirsty but because your mouth just dries up all the time. Mongolians call their country 'the land of blue sky' because almost every day is cloudless - if they have visited Europe, even the south, the first thing they say about it is: 'Oh! the sky was so grey there'.

As you can imagine this makes for really extreme temperatures, from 40 degrees in summer to -40 in winter - Ulaan Baatar is the coldest capital city in the world - but even more extraordinarly it can go from hot to literally freezing in the same day. There are deep valleys in the countryside where the ice never melts, so you can stand there dripping sweat from your head but freezing from the knees down! We saw something of the summer/winter change (there isn't really any spring or autumn) on the middle weekend of our visit - going from day-time weather much like a British summer day to the middle of snowy January over just one night.

Not much grows well here - there is almost no agriculture. Most of the country is the endless rolling scrubby grasslands of the steppes, with immense distances completely untouched by any kind of development such as roads or permanent buildings. Country people live off their animals. Horses are at the absolute centre of the national culture (yes we ate horse meat and drank airag - fermented mare's milk). They go big on mutton dumplings, and flavour tea with mutton fat too - just think 'cup-a-soup' and it's not so shocking.

A 'ger' in the countrysideA 'ger' in the countrysideBut despite their cuisine the people are as interesting as their weather.*

There are very few of them! - about 3 million in a land area the size of most of western Europe. Before communism in the 1920s this was a largely nomadic subsistence 'society' (obviously not the right word) punctuated by Buddhist monasteries. Each family had a cart pulled by a yak on which they would move their ger (what the Russians call 'yurt') and all its contents at least twice a year, herding lots of sheep, goats, horses - and maybe camels - along with them. Somewhere between half a million and a million people still follow this way of life, and I met no-one more than one gerneration removed from living in a ger. (However, Mongolians call these country people 'herders' not 'nomads', and laugh behind the tourists' backs at the common misunderstanding - the herders do not wander over immense distances but move over a planned rotation of pastures within a known and relatively small area - probably less than 2500 square kilometers.)

From a culture with no idea of private land ownership they went straight to communism - and even since the soviet collapse in the early 1990s they have re-elected the communist party all but once (and now have a hung parliament) - so even now there is little idea of private land ownership in the countryside. Their tourist strap-line is 'visit a land without fences'.

Incidentally, although they are a right old mixture of course, on the average Mongolians are not like the people from the southern and coastal areas of east Asia - they tend to be physically bigger than Chinese or Japanese people, for instance, and ruddier - many really look like 'red indians' - you can imagine them appearing as frightening aliens to the Chinese etc in the days of Chingis Khaan - and the babies have dark patches on their bottoms at birth which apparently links them with indiginous Americans (and also Hungarians, and maybe Fins I think, who also speak related languages) - so maybe there's a cultural link there with stories of American Indians having no concept of land ownership.

Everywhere there are sacred, untidy piles of stones (ovoo) - puzzling until you know that in the days of Chingis, when Mongolian men went away for years to fight, each man would place a stone on a pile, and then pick one up on his return. The stones remaining on the pile were a way of counting the dead; for the families of the lost they became sacred to the memory.

Chingis Khaan looms large in general - representing here not barbarianism but - at the time - the Mongolians' superior technology (the bows, stirrups and other horse tackle) and - especially - far superior horsemanship. A Mongolian boy who starts learning to ride at 3 years old is regarded as a late starter.

Ulaan Baatar is the only real city - nearly half the population live there - and apart from surviving monasteries and enormous recent shanty towns ('ger districts') it was built by the Russians - the centre is actually a really fine example of the soviet style, built on the grand scale, complete with Lenin statue and (as my friend Roger, who lives here, pointed out) a Palace of Culture like the Trajan headquarters from the back page of Look and Learn.

The Mongolians love the Russians (and hate the Chinese). Say the wrong thing (I admit I was moved to slag off Aeroflot during the 2-day delay of our flights home) and you'll be told sternly 'the Russians are our friends'. There is no nationalist problem regarding Inner Mongolia - the bit inside China - because the Mongolians there are regarded as corrupted by the Chinese and now, in effect, a different people. Mongolians do have an identity problem though because they're right in the middle of Asia - Ullan Baatar is further east than Singapore - but in many ways the culture has become quite European - we only ate with chopsticks once, for example.

One of the oddest things about the culture in Ulaan Baatar now - and they talk about this all the time - is that the women have negotiated all the recent changes much better than men - maybe because of the different roles they played in the traditional nomadic lifestyle. Over 80% of students in Ulaan Baatar are women - on our social enterprise course we had 30 participants - 29 women and one man. Male alcoholism and domestic violence are huge issues, maybe because educated successful city women live with men who know all there is to know about horses (and maybe cars) but have little interest in much city life or work. At least a quarter of the NGOs on our course were dealing with various gender issues, especially domestic violence. Nearly all the educated young women we met were looking for foreign husbands. Yes, if you are male, young and single (I failed on 2 counts!) Mongolia is a sexual paradise - inevitably, given that it is also a very poor country, I fear it will drift into sex tourism and no doubt develop its very own 'Natasha' trade.

Ulaan Baatar 'suburb'Ulaan Baatar 'suburb'

Street children live in the city's sewers because its the only place they can survive the winter. You see steam rising from open manholes in the morning cold, and worldly-wise 7-year-olds propped in the openings chatting as if they were on their front doorsteps at home. Which in fact they are. I saw one later in the Gan Dan Khiid asking tourists in perfect English - and as far as I could tell German French and Russian - if they had any foreign coins for his collection, then later approaching others offering a coin from home for Mongolian money at excellent rates; too proud to beg.

You will have heard of 'houmi' - the again completely extraordinary 'thoat' or 'overtone' singng in which sounds are produced both deep down in the throat and in the vocal chords, sounding nothing at all like a human being. Disappointingly, whenever you ask about the words to this or any other kind of folk music (which you would like tell of the ancient, secret truths or life) the answer is always the same - after a long pause they say thoughtfully: 'This is a song about a horse'.

But I do suspect Mongolians live an entirely different reality from us. Even in the city they do not use addresses, or give directions by 'right' and 'left' - they work only by the points of the compass - and just occasionally you seem to catch an indistinct glimpse of a spatial and temporal awareness, maybe a way of thinking the world, that embraces in every moment all the huge landscape and determining weather. Every car is a taxi - you can just hold up your hand and any car will stop. They say somebody walking alone might die when the cold night comes - in the countryside this is true - so of course you give everyone a ride, and everyone pays.

Oddly, the Mongolian word for 'eat' is 'eat'; but my most surprising discovery of all, I think, is that the Mongolian word for a beaver is, in fact, 'minge'.


* Much of the food is of course excellent. It was a bit humbling to find - having been transported half-way around the world to teach social enterprise skills - that (as you always in fact find) they can teach us a thing or two. You know the hullabaloo around Jamie Oliver's restaurant Fifteen? Well the Mongolians did it first with Modern Nomads - go there!