Friday, 27 July 2007


Thanks to Chris Shannon for sending me a link to an interesting and well informed article from The Times last week about the economic changes taking place in Mongolia. The article focuses on 'Ninja Miners' - Mongolian '49ers risking life, limb and lungs at a number of mining sites/ecological disaster zones throughout the country.

Recent protests held by the Nationalist 'Soyombo' party in Sukhbaatar Square were against contracts granted to the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines Company which, according to opponents, give the foreign company "66% of the sub-soil wealth of Mongolia" (UB Post). There is a general sentiment that foreign investors are securing deals that short-change the Mongolian people via the expediency of bribing key officials.

One reason that Mongolia has such large unexploited natural mineral resources is a very strong tradition holding the land, especially mountains, sacred - a sanctity which specifically prohibited digging the earth in such places, specifically prohibited treating nature as a resource to be exploited. There is, furthermore, a very strong tradition carried since Chinggis' times - and reinforced by some of the higher ideals of communism - that this land belongs to the people as a whole, and is a common wealth to be shared and protected for future generations. Whilst opponents of the current state of affairs mostly do not call for an end to mining in its entirety (although this opinion has been expressed by no small number of people), there is a strong sentiment against the national wealth being squandered by the few, and by foreigners.

Deeper resentments, social division and the uglier face of nationalism will only be fed unless the management of Mongolia's gold and copper is more equably handled in the future. I often find myself coming back to the thought that Mongolia is a large country with such a tiny population - just over two million people - and so it's conceivable that the problems faced here, if there is political will and people of the moral fibre and strength to fit the task, can be resolved.

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Rain Missiles, Miss Mongolia Controversy

Sweltering heat in the capital and the rest of Mongolia this week. We'd had a fair few days of rain before Naadam, which brought some very welcome cool air. I read in today's UB Post that the precipitation was the product of "rain missiles launched from Gachuurt".

There are a number of interesting pieces in the Post this week, which will save me from writing (and you from reading) about the tedious tribulations involved in applying for a spouse's visa from the British Embassy. Headlined "Many Must Have Been Very Disappointed" there's an interview with a runner-up in the recent 'Miss Mongolia' contest full of very pointed questions alleging irregularities in the selection of the winner. The interviewee, one B. Ganbolor, was the popular favourite, for whom the studio audience "had shared the hopes expressed in sections of the mass media" for her to win. Alas, the crown went to a G. Gantuya, of which Ms Ganbolor says in the interview: "When [she] was being crowned there were screams of "Stop this farce!"" Here's the winner and disgruntled runners-up with their striking float at the Naadam opening ceremony:
Miss Mongolia 2007 Float

Sunday, 15 July 2007

Three Manly Games (and Anklebones)

Firstly, definitions. Naadam, which Mongolians call the "world's second oldest Olympics" is a three day festival of competitions in the "Three Manly Games": archery, wrestling and horse racing. Actually, women take part in the archery (possibly for a separate prize) and girls race the horses too. The story behind the traditional chestless jacket worn in the wrestling is that once a jealous woman competed, much to the shame of all the men she defeated, and so steps were taken to prevent this from happening again.

My wife and I had tickets for the two main days of competition (the 11th and 12th - Nadaam is held on the 11th - 13th July every year). She'd made me wait outside the ticket office at the Culture Palace while she bought the tickets in case there was the usual extra charge for foreigners - but for ordinary seats the tickets were a very reasonable 7500T ($7) regardless of nationality, for the whole event.

Wednesday morning was hot, with ominous clouds in the sky. However, rather than dress for rain I was determined to wear the short deel jacket I've recently had made - which put me in the exclusive company of old ladies and other foreigners. The National Stadium isn't far out of the stadium, and the route over broken ground, railway tracks, and beneath insulation-clad pipes was busy and lively. Traders lined the route selling cheap sunglasses, plastic toy guns, kvass and skewers of barbecued meat. Our timing was lucky, as on arrival at the stadium, we just managed to find seats, and didn't have too long to wait for things to get started. The stadium was full, but not overcrowded. I wrote the other day about an opinion piece in the UB Post suggesting that visitor numbers are down this year - whilst many more may well have been drawn by last year's 800th Anniversary of the Mongolian State, I find it hard to believe that there's been a significant fall - maybe there are more tour companies and hostels competing for the business.

The opening ceremony was quite enjoyable: a parade of horses followed by people in the various national costumes of the country. A lot of people bearing brightly coloured banners with swastikas on, too - the swastika being an ancient revered symbol in Mongolia and the personal seal, I'm told, of Genghis Khan. After marching round the stadium a few times there were dances performed - unfortunately, the banner holders were positioned so as to form a wall making it impossible for about an eighth of the stadium,including us, to see much of what was going on.

Eventually, after a rock song or two, speeches from the president, poems and so forth, the wrestling began. To be honest, it didn't really grip me, as I couldn't make out much of what was going on at the distance from our seats. We decided to take a walk around the outside of the stadium. That evening I watched some of the wrestling on TV, which I found much easier to follow.

Outside the stadium, we wandered over to the Archery field and the Anklebone tent. Both these events are unticketed - there's bustling crowds at the entrance to both venues, but inside it was possible to get right up on the action. We were at the Archery just in time to catch President Enkhbayar opening proceedings there. The Archery was very impressive to watch - particularly the way that crowds of judges hung very nonchalantly around the targets 75 metres away, it being presumably unthinkable that a Mongolian archer would miss by as much as a metre and a half.

The Anklebone tent was very crowded, and quite a racket was coming from inside - shouting and laughter, but beneath it all a loud, rising and falling drone, like some kind of meditative chant. Two sheep's anklebones - used for a wide variety of Mongolian games - are set up on a box in front of a black cushion. Some 10 or so metres away, the shooters line up on one knee, whilst squatting along either side towards the target are their team-mates - from whom the droning chant comes. With a powerful flick of their middle finger, and without looking up, the shooter fires a small rectangular puck along a piece of wood they have meticulously lined up to face the target - the object being to knock down both the bones. It doesn't qualify as a Manly Sport, unfortunately, so presumably owes its presence at Nadaam to the fact that it's both skillful and very entertaining.

We left the horse racing for day two. This year the races were taking place at Khui Doloon Khudag, some 40km outside of the city, necessitating a microbus journey. We went to see the Shudlen race - for 3 year-old horses. The aspect of the horse-racing that draws most attention internationally, and no small degree of criticism, is that the jockeys are all children aged from about six to ten years. Understandably, where hundreds of horses take to the field, there have been fatalities over the years. According to the UB Post, this year the children would "have to wear some protective gear" - which seemed to consist of an orange day-glo jacket, although about one child in ten was wearing a helmet. Another child in ten or so was also riding bareback.

There can be no doubt, but life can be hard on children in Mongolia. Many children have to work, and others beg for a living for themselves or their parents. Seeing the children ride, though, I find it very hard not to sympathise with the Mongolian instinct to take deep offense at any suggestion that the Naadam races should be ended. I suppose what becomes a bit uncomfortable is the fact that over the years, the race may well become more and more of a tourist event, and that starts to edge more into an area that I'm far less comfortable with, not least from my own perspective as a foreign spectator.

The race was thrilling and entertaining. It's 15 km in all - the 250 horses and riders competing set off for the start line at the foot of mountains on the horizon. Their return was heralded by a steadily approaching cloud of dust. The leaders came in at a thunderous pace. A fair few horses, understandably, were riderless, although I'm given to believe that there were thankfully no serious injuries this year. It was hard to consider the potential danger as the children were all quite clearly such competent riders. If children are going to ride horses at all, then why shouldn't they race? Well, anyhow, for my sins I enjoyed it. The presence of a very large number of country people on horseback - coming and going, suddenly breaking into a gallop through a crowd of pedestrians - kept the event from feeling like a tourist occasion, however many foreign spectators were around. Also, the fact that the two hundred or so ger selling food seemed to only be cooking the boiled flour and mutton buuz and khorschor was proof enough for me that this is still very much a Mongolian event.

Saturday, 14 July 2007

Naadam: Equine Indifference

From the final horse race (15km, 250 horses, jockeys aged 6 - 10 years). This one wasn't the winner.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Naadam Update

Some photos from day one at my flickr site. I'm afraid I didn't get much closer than a zoom shot to any of the Naadam wrestlers, but managed to get to see some of the archery and the anklebones contest, on which more later. Today we're going to head out of town to the horseraceing, and see what we can in the dust. Incidentally, I suspect that the UB Post piece I referred to in my last posting (on the drop in tourist numbers) may be well off the mark - perhaps there are many more firms competing for the trade, because there certainly seems to be a substantial number of foreigners amongst the crowds.

Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Naadam, Airag, In-Laws

July 11th to 13th is Naadam, the biggest event on the Mongolian calendar. Three days of competitions in three sports: horse-racing, wrestling and archery. We've picked up tickets for the first two days, so I'll submit a report on all the fun in a couple days time.

According to an opinion piece in last week's UB Post, there are significantly fewer tourists here than last year - possibly because people are putting off a Mongolia visit to coincide with next year's Beijing Olympics. The tourist presence is definitely noticeable, but there is general disappointment in the trade. These few weeks are when the many Mongolians who work in the tourism industry expect to make most of their year's salary, so a poor year means that a lot of people will be feeling the bite. I had to diappoint a taxi driver the other day by refusing point blank to pay ten times the correct fare, about which he was most bitter. I could hardly begrudge him his bitterness, as his greed had given me a chance to show off my mastery of Mongolian and meet his outrageous demand with a cry of "Yakshtay!"

However many tourists are here, the festival is a big holiday for everybody in the country. Street vendors selling Kvass are everywhere. Kvass is a Russian drink that has a lot in common with ale, I think, but is very low in alcohol and sweet - it tastes for all the world like a bitter shandy, and I find it really refreshing on a hot day. Most of the bars have now got tables out on the street, and are barbecuing beef or mutton, the smell of which is very enticing, a lot more so than the usual waft of steamed buuz.

Just down the road from my friend Niall's home, there's a ger just set up selling the traditional Mongolian summer drink, Airag- fermented mare's milk - so walking home the other day we popped in to try a bowl. The taste is not much of a surprise - salty and tangy, somewhat like a pro-biotic yoghurt drink. Traditionally, menfolk drink gallons and gallons of the stuff until they vomit (as depicted in Marzan Sharav's picture "The Airag Feast") - particular kudos going to those whose powerful stomach muscles allow them to projectile vomit clean out of the ger door. I quite enjoyed the Airag but didn't feel overly keen to test out my regurgitative prowess. This might not have taken much encouragement though, as I'd just spent the day at a large village outside UB meeting some of my very charming and kind in-laws. My wife's Uncle was fascinated to find out how much vodka a man of my height could drink before getting drunk. The fact is (and it's nothing to boast about, of course) I can put back a considerable amount, providing it's just straight vodka I drink, and that at no time am I required to go out into the fresh air or indeed stand up - both of which prove instantly fatal.

Anyhow, Naadam kicks off tomorrow at 11am, with an opening ceremony at the Central Stadium, and we'll do our best to get down there in time to get a seat. The horse-racing takes place somewhere out past the airport, I think, but we ought to be able to find a bus going there. Apparently you don't see much unless you're chasing the horses by car, but I'd still like to get out there and soak up some of the atmosphere. In the evening there's a free concert at Sukhbaatar Square, which I aim to catch from the terrace of Dave's Place. I might make my own contribution to festivities, as it's wednesdays that I like to go down to the English Pub and play a few banjo tunes (speaking of which - thanks for sending the thumb picks Barry! Golden Gates too, just like I asked for). My wife is trying to teach me to sing a few Mongolian songs, but I'm finding memorising the lyrics a little bit more challenging than the 'Lonesome Road Blues'.

Friday, 6 July 2007

Heroes and Villains

The photo shows a statue which is found at the end of an avenue near my apartment, not far from the Indian Embassy. I had assumed from the uniform and jaunty pose that it was the statue of a hero of Mongolia's war for independence from Manchu China. As I recall from what I read at the National History Museum, Mongolians also fought the White Armies during the Russian Civil War, for which many generals were decorated, and this feller looked a likely candidate to be honoured as such.

Not long after I arrived in Ulaanbaatar, the statue disappeared, leaving an empty plinth. I asked a few teachers at work if they knew what had happened. Most didn't have any idea, but eventually someone told me that it was 'stolen by the Chinese' to be sold as scrap metal. The winter months went by, I used to sit on the marble step to take a cigarette break from school (no longer - I quit again two months ago). I felt some sympathy for the stolen general, the victim, I felt, of an ambivalence towards the heroes of a past regime.

To my surprise, in the late Spring the statue reappeared. It looked different from how I remembered it, but it didn't seem possible that it would have been recast. I asked another teacher what had happened, and was told that the sword arm of the statue had been cut off by someone, presumably for scrap, and so the general had been sent to China to be repaired. I was reminded of the Victorian worthies who disappeared from Princes Avenue, Toxteth, in the Eighties - Florence Nightingale and some chap sticking a needle into a baby's backside? It's a shame Liverpool can't meet UB's turnaround time on repairs - although the Peltier Monument has been doing a worthy job in the meantime.

The general being back, and having decided to commemorate his return with a small post, I asked my wife the name of the General, for the sake of factual accuracy. "That's Choibalsan," she told me.

Choibalsan was a general, who became the ruler of Mongolia after the communist takeover in 1921, until his eventual execution (or 'disappearance', I am not clear which) in Moscow in 1946. I wrote in my previous posting about the Museum of Natural History that Mongolia's limited involvement in the Second World War caused me to question the extent to which Mongolia was under the direct orders of the Kremlin. During Choibalsan's regime he initiated 'purges' to coincide with Stalin's mass-murderings, and consigned 10% of his populace - 100,000 people - to death or the prison camps, at the clear instigation of his master in Moscow - so perhaps there are other reasons for Mongolia's non-involvement in the Western theatre. There is one book in English on the subject of the purges, "Poisoned Arrows", which you can find a few inter3esting reviews of online. A curiosity thrown up by Yahoo was the news that in 2005 a Mausoleum containing the remains of Choibalsan and the much-loved Sukhbaatar was removed from Sukhbaatar Square, and the remains of both cremated in a Buddhist ceremony. Somewhat ironic, to say the least, as Choibalsan was directly responsible for the murder of at least 30,000 Buddhist monks. My wife told me that at school she was taught that Choibalsan was Mongolia's greatest modern ruler, and only learned about the purges at University.

At work today I showed the picture to a colleague who told me that it is not Choibalsan - it's Lhaugvasuren, a general who fought the Japanese in the Second World War. "So is there a statue of Choibalsan?" I asked. Indeed, his statue is in the city centre, half way down the same avenue, behind the Government building. The persecutor of intellectuals stands rather smugly outside the Mongolian National University, and not too far from the monument to the victims of political oppression outside the National History Museum. There's no name on the plinth, just the year (I assume) of his death, 1946.

Thursday, 5 July 2007


Thursday, 5th July
Sweltering heat already at half nine this morning as we made our way to the Mongolian National Citizens Registry Centre, which happens to be fairly close to my apartment, down a ramshackle road lined by car part traders, dark, grimy ironmongers, and battered yellow trailers selling kvass at 150T a cup. We'd done our best to get hitched yesterday afternoon - after a morning of visiting hospitals to pick up paperwork, taking the paperwork to be translated and spending a fruitless hour at the Bureau of Immigration trying to get a certificate that the office no longer issues. Anyhow, the over-worked guy in the office responsible for marriages to non-nationals asked us to come back this morning at ten.

Arriving back at the office good and early, the registrar directed us to the bank next door, to pay the administration fee for the wedding: 1000 Tugrik, about 90p. Back with our receipt at the bare little office we both signed our names in the records, and that was that. With a smile the registrar handed us the card that is our marriage certificate, and we were married. We invited the registrar to join us for lunch, which he politely declined, so Mr and Mrs Ulaanbaanjo left the office and walked back home.