The Land of Khan

Posted: December 24, 2012

Currently on sabbatical leave in Tokyo conducting research on a dying language of New Caledonia, Professor Thierry Boucquey paid Mongolia a visit on behalf of the Scripps College Off-Campus Study Department. His field notes are below:

The first thing confronting a visitor to Mongolia in mid-November is the bone-chilling cold. Its capital, Ulan Bator, lies just 250 miles south of the first Siberian town on the Moscow-to-Beijing Trans-Siberian route, and morning temperatures routinely dip below -13°F. In mid-winter, the mercury will plunge another 40 degrees.

We went far into the countryside on Sunday to visit a traditional nomadic Mongolian village. The people there live in gers (Mongolian for yurt), a round tent/hut with a small wood stove in the middle. They had cows, horses, yaks, and camels — and even offered us a camel ride in the snow. With no bridges, our group traversed three frozen rivers to get there, the two-inch thick ice sheet of one cracking as we crossed. On the way back our jeep started seizing; the driver said he should have filled up with winter diesel, as the summer diesel gas was freezing in the fuel line…

We also had a fascinating visit to a Buddhist temple in Ulan Bator, where more than 80 monks chanted their morning prayers in unison. Prayers were sung in Tibetan even though Tibet is more than 1500 miles to the south. The influence of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia, begun with the building of the Erdene Zuu monastery in 1585, remains strong today in spite of the nearly century-long Soviet repression that ended in 1990.

Another highlight was a chat with Dr. S. Oyun, Mongolian Minister of Nature, Environment, and Green Development. She was whip smart, eloquent, and superbly knowledgeable about world affairs. She received her Ph.D. from Oxford University and got into politics when her brother, Zorig Sanjaasuren, one of the founders of the Democratic Party and later prime minister, was assassinated in 1998. She was a Member of Parliament until the election in June when she became minister.

Her job won’t be easy in a country where gold, silver, copper, and enough coal reserves for 7000 years — yes, 7000! —of domestic consumption have recently been discovered.  Mongolia had 17% growth in GDP in 2011 and is forecasting over 15% each year for the next 10 years. It is currently swarming with Australian, European, and Korean mining engineers and coal industry executives who all want a piece of the pie in a country the size of Alaska for only 2.7 million people. Predictions are that it will be one of the wealthiest countries in the world by 2020.

Photos from Mongolia

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