I’ve been asked countless times about Mongolia, “How was it?” and “What’s it like?” and beyond the overly-generic “great”, to be honest, there is no one-word, easy answer. Did I find the Great Khan? Was I even chasing “him” or was it rather the seeds of my own enigmatic roots that I was after? Who can say? Other questions persist as well. Did I eat too much sheep fat and drink too much goat milk? Probably. Did I manage to gain an understanding of one of the last extant nomadic cultures on earth? I would like to think so, but like the wind that blows the sand storms of the Gobi over the vast steppe, it is a thing that is hard to grasp.
Firstly, beyond being obsessed with the vast emptiness of the central Asia steppes and the wild west feel of dusty, lawless Ulan Bator, where mining czars reign supreme from their Russian built penthouses and where the Japanese send all of the SUVs that Americans no longer buy to languish in traffic upon roads not built for such modern things, the most amazing thing about Mongolia is the lack of property. Except for the somewhat swanky apartment buildings with outrageous rents popping up in the slowly expanding downtown area, there is no private possession of land allowed. The government owns everything. Nomads herd their livestock as they please on land where fences are few and far between. Even in the overpopulated Ger Districts, there is only a small fee to be paid for filing the paperwork necessary to live on any given parcel of open land. First come, first served.
More than that there is hardly any material thing visible within the ubiquitous felt tents (which can be broken down inside and hour and moved) and handmade houses which isn’t immediately practical. If proper sewage treatment, running hot and cold water, and even in some places, electricity aren’t seen as necessary in the daily lives of millions, it isn’t hard to understand why the money or the space for such trivialities as Wal-Mart-oriented plastic-based products doesn’t exist. Though as foreign investment in the burgeoning coal and mineral mining industry soars that looks to quickly change.
Like much of eastern Europe, Mongolia has only been its own country for going on twenty years. Unfortunately, they really don’t have a clue–nor European Union support–in fostering educational as well as economic opportunities for the quickly increasing displaced nomadic victims of mother nature’s drought. As for their eastern cousins, they have a healthy hatred of the Chinese–their long-standing rulers, a begrudging respect for Japanese technology and an ongoing partnership with Korea. In the west, despite Russia exploiting them as merely another region chock full of rich natural resources, the Mongolians revere their onetime Bolshevik playmates, and share their love for the crisp clean taste of a powerful vodka, maybe–also like the Russians–too much. It seems as the elites in both China and Russia abandon ideology for fat bank accounts, they’ve both abandoned the country which at one time connected, yet now divides them, even to the point of different train track gauges.
How did it all come about?
The nexus of Mongolia lies at the heart of three revolutions and the subsequent civil wars, all happening in a small window of time from 1911 to 1949, which reshaped the modern world. The 1911 overthrow of the Qing Dynasty by Chinese revolutionaries (eventually culminating in the establishment of the Mao Zedong led People’s Republic of China in 1949), the subsequent 1911 Mongolian revolt against their weakened Qing rulers, and the 1917 Bolshevik revolution against Nicholas II’s Czarist autocracy (which established the Soviet Union). While western Europe was mired in World War I and St. Petersburg had been taken over by the Lenin-led Bolsheviks, the Russian Civil War raged between the Red and White armies across five time zones and involved the armies of several seemingly disparate countries. The Chinese reemerged in 1919 to wrest back control of Mongolia, only to be ousted by the warlord Roman Nickolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg (what a great name!), a Baltic nobleman who fought for the Russian Czar in World War I and led the remnants of a ragtag White army to -oddly enough- try to reestablish the Qing Dynasty. It’s a long, bloody story.
Imagining himself a new-age Genghis Khan, and equal parts religious mystic and sadistic war criminal, Ungern-Sternberg drove the Chinese out of Mongolia and then forced the Bolsheviks– wary of any White-backed power on their border– to come and take over the once strong country. Despite the Mongolians perpetually fighting the Chinese, James Palmer, author of The Bloody White Baron argues that it was Ungern that made the difference, largely by accident and in doing so, Mongolia missed ending up like Tibet and Xinjiang in 1949, retaken by China.
Under no circumstances do I endorse the majority of the draconian tactics used by megalomaniacal warlords and the former Soviet Union under Stalin nor its overarching tendency toward ideological control of the surrounding satellite states it absorbed after the conclusion of World War II. Yet despite thousands of unnecessary deaths, countless wanton destruction of irreplaceable landmarks and the suppression of indigenous cultures, can it be said that there could be some silver lining to the forty-five year Soviet occupation of Mongolia?
Palmer writes: “Russian rule meant horrendous slaughter and oppression in Mongolia, but the Mongolians always maintained their nominal autonomy. The Chinese, on the other hand, wanted to absorb and settle Mongolia, as they did to Inner Mongolia. The Mongolians are, according to Chinese nationalism, one of the ‘five peoples of China,’ something which most Mongolians–like Tibetans and Uighur–would vigorously contest. They’d be in the same position as Xinjiang or Tibet now, watching Han settlers pour into their lands, and any attempts at revising nationalism or independence would be ruthlessly crushed.”
Treating Tibet as anything other than completely Chinese will land you in a fierce argument with even the most liberally educated of Shanghai locals. And as Palmer goes on to suggest, even mentioning (outer) Mongolia can make an elderly Chinese person wistfully suggest that they are actually one and the same, or should be. The Chinese think, much like Americans, in terms of vastness, so it can be understood that their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. Yet despite the horrors the Mongolians have withstood, and if we count them at all, do we not count the Mongolians among those other lucky survivors of Chinese domination and Soviet totalitarianism, as coming out of it better than Tibet, currently overrun with Han Chinese, did?
I suppose it depends on your point of view. Is it better to idolize statues of dead men and their crusty, impractical ideologies or to sit and break bread with those who still subsist on the fringes of poverty, but are basically free men, have joy in their hearts, and offer what is theirs with an honest smile on their face? As the historian Jack Weatherford points out in the seminal Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, more than the marauding madman he is made out to be, the Great Khan was about bringing cultures together. That is what I take from his legacy and the people who continue to live in his spirit.
Ride on, Khan.