It’s cold – bitter cold. It’s so cold that after 10 minutes my feet warn of frostbite and I must retreat to the car for Toyota’s finest heat. My skin dry and flakey may be peeled like an orange. The Mongolians are not stupid. They are layered in fashionable warm clothing and no one is wearing bright pink sneakers – not one person (except for this jackass). They are dressed in boots, fur hats, fur coats and cashmere everything. Most of Mongolia is hot in the summer (July & August) and extremely cold in the winter. There are businessmen in Mongolia but no tourists. I have the city to myself! My guide seemed to think I was complaining a bit about the conditions and informed me it gets worse in January and February. I have no intention of staying. I leave Wednesday.
According to some weather website I pulled up, winter averages drop as low as -22 F in the city (colder in other parts) as a result of a cold, heavy, shallow air from Serbia. The annual average temperature in Ulaan Baatar is 32F. Did you read that? This lovely weather makes Ulaan Baatar the world’s coldest city. On a positive note, there are approximately 257 sunny days in Mongolia giving the country the nickname, “Land of blue skies.” I probably should not add this but the blue skies near Ulaan Baatar are filled with pollution at least until the wind whips up some visibility and breathing room around noon. The average life expectancy in Mongolia is 68. I asked my guide why and he said, “All the meat we eat.” I contend it’s probably the poor air quality or life as a nomad.
In spite of the cold, I made the most of my Mongolian history lesson. First up, the Gandan Monastery, Mongolia’s main monastery and also the center of Buddhism. I snapped a picture of the gold-plated Avalokiteshvara and a monk chased me for $5 USD. That was an expensive picture. I hope Buddha will send some positive energy my way. Currently, the Tibetan-style monastery houses 150 monks. I watched about 20 monks praying from ancient scrolls “sutras” and I had forgotten that it is a sign of honor to have your children become monks in some cultures. There were 4-5 kids about age six in this group. I giggled a bit when one of the elder monks glared and flicked his finger no at a youngster goofing off.
In the 1920s, there were about 110,000 monks who lived in Mongolia making up one-third of the male population but in the 1930s Russia’s influence increased and Mongolia’s Communist leader closed an estimated 700 Buddhist monasteries and killed about 30,000 people of which half were monks. Today, fifty-three percent of Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism and the monk population is growing. The rest of Mongolians practice Shamanism (giving nature spiritual power) or Islam. About 95 percent of the country’s population is considered Mongolian and the rest of Turkish origin or Khazakh’s.
After my religion lesson for the day, we walked briskly through Sukhbaatar Square recently renamed Chinggis Khan (apparently Mongolia is once again big on Genghis Khan). I learned the president of Mongolia is simply a figurehead and that this Democratic country utilizes a parliamentary system of government. From 1921-1990, the Mongolian People’s Republic controlled Mongolia as a Communist country. Damdiny Sukhbaatar went to Russia in 1921 to seek their help in defeating the Chinese who were causing problems. Be careful what you ask for – or maybe no good deed goes unpunished because Russia returned the favor by essentially making Mongolia the second Communist country in the world. Mongolia stayed under Russia’s authority and a Communist state until 1990. Sukhbaatar still stands proudly in the city’s square but it seems the people rather celebrate greatness than domination.
Mongolia is the roast beef between the bread – one slice is Russia and the other China and neither can decide who will take the first bite. The Mongolian modern language is Cyrillic and culturally they are more European than Asian. They use silverware, have regular toilets (heated I might add), dress European and their diet is more western than Chinese. Their ancient history has them equally confused. The people have always had one foot on Chinese soil and the other on European.
Mongolians history references a few great leaders but very few expanded their reach like Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. In ancient times, Attila the Hun, the ruler of the Huns from 434 – 453, conquered what is now Southeast Asia and most of Europe through Germany but excluding the Roman and Ottoman Empire (Turkey, Italy, Greece). Attila based his operation in Hungary, which is why many people claim to be relatives of the Hungarian Empire. The most famous commander in Mongolian history is Genghis Khan. Referenced by the Chinese as a barbarian, Genghis unified Mongolia from 1185-1206 and formed the Great Mongol Empire, the largest contiguous land empire in world history. He ruled (Mongolia and China) from 1206 until his death in 1227. For the next 34 years, the sons of Chinggis Khan ruled until Kubilai Khan, the grandson of Chinggis took over in 1261 and conquered China unifying both countries and creating the Yuan Dynasty. Kubilai died in 1294 and the Chinese maintained control over Mongolia during the Ming and Qing dynasties until 1911.
Since Mongolia has been a punching bag over the years, it’s easy to see why the World Bank ranked it a lower middle-income economy. According to their 2011 GDP, 23 percent of their population lives on $1.25 a day. My guide said most people (non-nomads) make $500 a month or $6,000 a year (sometimes an entire family makes $6,000). Russia and China own most of the mining companies and with that Mongolia’s debt. They are heavily invested (and jockeying for control) over Mongolia. Locals maintain China and Russia are just waiting for Mongolia to fail so they can swoop in and control them as in the past. Korea, Australia, Japan, the United States, Germany, Canada and Great Britain are also eager to take advantage (or maybe make use) of Mongolia’s rich resources. Minerals constitute 80 percent of Mongolia’s exports mainly coal, uranium, gold and cooper but Mongolia doesn’t have any refineries so the local people think the foreigners are actually getting a larger take than necessary. An article from 2012 claims the government estimates its mineral reserves to be worth $1.2 trillion and its foreign direct investment $5 billion. Unfortunately, none of this money trickles down to the people. My guide relayed that Mongolia is the second most corrupt country following Liberia. I found one news source that quoted that in 2013.