On the cusp of change
Shilijilt or transition may be the buzzword in the world's largest landlocked country, but it still exists across centuries. Impressions ....
ANCIENT AND MODERN: Ulan Bator registers itself as a city of striking contrasts. PHOTOS: MUKUND PADMANABHAN
YOU don't need to be looking up to understand why Mongolia is called the land of the blue skies. Looking down from the heights of a jetliner does just as well. The view is infinite a vast expanse of dun-coloured mountains (that morph into a pale green as the plane descends) and an ocean of air painted nursery blue.
But the weather, in this country on the cusp of change, is capricious. A sudden massing of sinister grey clouds, the swift passing showers in the grasslands, the impulsive dust-storms that coat you with a fine powder and wrap withered leaves about your feet.
Change is a word you hear a lot in Mongolia. Or more accurately, transition (shilijilt in the native tongue). Shilijilt is everywhere. You hear about it in conferences on the country's transition to parliamentary democracy. The media, now increasingly dominated by private newspapers and television channels, is in a state of animated shilijilt. The modern apartment blocks that have sprung up amidst the gers (tents of white felt) in suburban Ulan Bator are symbols of shilijilt in everyday life.
1990 spells transition
On the shop and restaurant-lined Enkh Taivny Orgon Choloo (or more simply, Peace Avenue), two young women with spaghetti strap-tops, their mini-skirts riding tantalisingly high and their hair streaked a bold meretricious purple, stride past a grizzled old man in a traditional hat, deel and boots. It is a reminder that in Mongolia, the shilijilt is actually happening across centuries. But in the mind of Mongolians, transition is associated with 1990. The year when those who controlled the levers of Government influenced by the changes in Soviet policy generated by glasnost and perestroika pledged themselves in favour of economic reform and went on to hold the country's first multi-party election.
The elections in 1990 and in 1992, when Mongolia gave itself a new Constitution, returned the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (MPRP) to power. It was only in 1996 that it lost power, but the Communists who repositioned themselves as social democrats were back in the seat of Government in 2000. A few months ago, the MPRP's candidate, Nambarin Enkhbayar, won 53.4 per cent of the vote in the presidential election, a victory that was widely interpreted as nostalgia, particularly in the pastoral hinterland, for Soviet-era subsidies and communist-era politics.
Potential of tourism
Any country with a land mass (15,66,500 sq. km) about half the size of India and a population (2.8 million) of the size of Jaipur, cannot but stir up visions of the exotic. And Mongolia, where agriculture (including livestock) and mining (mainly coal, copper and gold) contribute two-thirds of the GDP, is aware of the potential of tapping into a potentially huge tourism market. Only 23,000 foreign tourists arrived in the country in 1999, but it is a figure that is rapidly growing and that is reflected by the increasing number of showy shop windows, swanky restaurants and western-style hotels in Ulan Bator (or UB as the expatriate community refers to it.)
Founded 360 years ago, after Kharakhorum was abandoned, UB registers itself in the eye of the visitor as a city of striking contrasts. The city's centre, the vast Sukhbaatar Square, is distinctly East European, ringed by official buildings in grey and salmon pink that seem designed to reek of political authority and power. On the way in from Buyaant-Ukhaa International Airport, the road flanked by tall billboards with advertisements of Japanese-built condominiums, cellular phones and other high-tech gadgetry sweeps past crumbling apartment blocks and two gigantic and aged power plants that belch smoke. Tucked away in the most unexpected places in the haphazard sprawl of semi-modernity are the monasteries and the palaces, crammed with beautiful and intriguing objects related to Mongolia's religious and artistic history. Outside the spread of Ulan Bator situated squarely in the Tuul river basin are the majestic mountains of open and wooded grasslands. They ring the Capital as if they were saying that the real Mongolia the one made up of the secluded valleys, the vast steppes and the desert lies beyond.
The vast Sukhbaatar Square.
"It takes a certain kind of foreigner who wishes to travel or stay in Mongolia," says Liz Strohm, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, who is on a long internship with the Press Institute of Mongolia. "The kind that's somewhat unusual or different." There are a number of people who would fit this description on Thursday evening at "Dave's Place", a café run by an Englishman that looks on to the vast emptiness of Sukhbaatar Square. It's weekly quiz night and there is a motley bunch of white expatriates executives, tour operators, students, and long-stay tourists who are guzzling beer, being loud and exchanging stories.
One slightly inebriated Australian is telling a bunch of Americans about this infuriating Englishman who was hitting on his Dutch ex-girlfriend a narrative that seemed to highlight that Ulan Bator, exotic though it may be, is part of a globalised world after all. There is a clubby feel to the evening as the 40-odd people separate into teams, and jot down their answers as Dave, the quizmaster, shoots questions. Team Pittsburgh loses by one point, but never mind. The last round of beer is on the house.
If Mongolia attracts an unusual kind of person, then Andre Tolme, also at "Dave's Place" that evening, must fit the bill. He is known as the Man Who Golfed Across Mongolia and it takes a while before I realise this is meant literally. Starting at Choibalsan in the East and ending with Khovd in the West, Andre traversed the entire country (2,100 kilometres) hitting golf balls over a period of five months. He says it took him 12,170 strokes ("I only used a 3 iron") and that he lost 509 balls. Why isn't he in the Guinness Book of Records? "Oh, they would have to watch all of that, wouldn't they?" says the Californian who shares his time between the U.S. and Mongolia.
That the grasslands lend themselves naturally to golf courses is evident at the Terelj National Park, just 80 kilometres northeast of UB. As you might expect in a country that toyed with the idea of declaring its entire territory a wilderness area, it is one of many such parks. But it is a particularly good one. The weather is cool, the scenery is magnificent and the pale green of the hills are immensely comforting to the eye.
The park is home to the moose, the brown bear and the weasel, but for reasons I never understood, it is apparently very difficult to spot wildlife in Mongolia despite the wide-open spaces and the unusually long vistas. You can stay in a ger camp here, if you want to live like (you think) the Mongolians do. But it would take an immense gastronomical leap of faith to enjoy home-brewed airag (fermented mare's milk) or aaruul (dried milk curds). I am offered both. I choke on the first and pretend to nibble on the other.
Near one ger camp, there is a cave on top of a hillock. Apparently, it is worth the climb and I am reluctantly persuaded to haul myself up the steep hill face. Having laboured a part of the way, suddenly and most unexpectedly, the heavens open up. A cold and spitting drizzle results in the journey being aborted. It is a reminder that like everything else in Mongolia, the weather is in a state of shilijilt.
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