Trip Start Jul 25, 2006
20Trip End Dec 13, 2006
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My fascination with Mongolia has been reasonably long standing, and I think what attracted me most about the place was that it seemed like the edge of the world. I'd traveled to Europe and America a number of times, but they were still "my world", the western world, you know, all born of the same mother if you like. The nomadic existence seemed to me the antithesis of our roaring, plastic, metal, concrete and virtual existence in western cities. It seemed romantic in many ways, being everything that our lives aren't: simple, in harmony with the land, beautiful in the sense that they are always surrounded by untouched landscape, immaterial, in the sense that they can carry all of what they own on the back of the camel and never for practical reasons want much more than that, independent, in the sense that they answer to no one, no bosses, no clients, no suppliers or customers.
When I first got to Mongolia, it was like a dream come true. I think I wrote in my blog that I fell in love with the place. I did. When out west in particular, what I imagined seemed true. The families lived simply, where they lived was stunningly beautiful, the families lived happily in each other's pockets, the people loved their animals and lived off their animals and little else. The sky was blue, the grass was green and it was all very romantic. I even fantasized about marrying a herder (remember, I was offered!) and living happily in a ger for the rest of my life.
Luckily, I was here long enough to enable sufficient reflection on that. I swiftly came to the conclusion that although I admire and in some ways totally envy the simplicity of the nomadic existence, it would be a very rare thing indeed for someone who has lived in the western world to be able to permanently and forever after live as a nomad. Maybe as a year long experiment in the simple life, yes, but even the hardiest of westerners I have met who have lived the life of a nomad have still done it the foreign way if you will, ie still relied on supplies from UB of peanut butter, or eggs, or coke or whatever - and never done it long term. I don't think any westerner has chosen that road permanently. I just think it's too hard to turn your back, once you have known it, on the life we know. Like washing machines, like instant heat. For me personally, even though the open space and silence of the countryside are intoxicating, I definitely need the excitement, the stimulation of living in a city where there are other people and entertainment. I didn't know that before I came here, I used to think I could live in the countryside permanently. There you go, now I know that I should just go there for holidays.
The thing is also this: Mongolia has embraced western ways. Mongolians are moving to the cities in droves, where they live in apartments not gers, drive cars, not horses and eat pre-packaged meat, not the cow they just killed. The proportion of nomads to city dwellers is decreasing each year, and apparently the prime minister announced that it was his goal for every Mongolian to live in a house by 2050. Once Mongolians get a taste for having a car, for having a cell phone, for having a washing machine, for living in a warm apartment, of course they want it. It's pretty abnormal for people to actually want to keep their lives difficult, when they can be easier, which I guess is why the western world has been forever obsessed with making everything easier and quicker and more convenient.
Mongolia wants to become more developed, it wants to become a member of the global village, it wants to be able to trade etc. It wants all the things that western countries have and it doesn't. It wants better roads, it wants big cities, it wants big industries that provide jobs for its people and can pluck them out of a life of poverty which so many herders end up living when the weather is cruel and kills their livestock leaving them with nothing.
I have felt the irony countless times, knowing that western tourists come here because Mongolia has something that we don't have, for a sense of nostalgia for must once have been where we lived but no longer is, for the space, the majesty of the land etc. And the Mongolians who guide us and drive us round their beautiful country - all they dream of is getting a visa to our country where they can make some goddamn money and get ahead in the city! And then, working at World Vision, I have spent a large amount of my time working on "development" projects and debating how best to help the people here "move forward". It's not by the country all moving back to the countryside and living in gers once more, I can tell you that for sure. At the same time, whenever I venture inside a candlelit ger, sipping piping hot milktea with the herder families, falling asleep to the murmerings of goats outside who've cosied up outside their herders' ger I swoon again at the beauty of it. It's difficult envisaging how Mongolia is going to retain its nomadic culture, when the culture is already changing so dramatically in the cities and is only going to change more. It's such a balancing act, retaining a culture, yet embracing change. For a country like Mongolia, it is particularly precarious since the independence and freedom of living the life of a nomad is the antithesis of the interdependence of living in a city.
Having said all that though, I was just speaking to my friend Bulga last night, and we agreed that in spite of being controlled by the Manchu's for over 200 years (who implemented both savage and crafty techniques for changing the Mongolian culture - one, which I find particuarly interesting - was bringing Buddhism to the country, as a means of suppressing the mongolian's aggressian and power which made then such a threat during the mongol empire) and then the Russians for over 70 years, the Mongolians have still managed to retain a incredibly unique culture and sense of themselves, thankfully very different to the russian and chinese populations who sandwich them and have tried so hard to submerge them into their own cultures over the years! I guess you can only hope for the mongols of the future that their culture is both changed and retained in the way they themselves think is best.
Talking It Over, and Love etc by Julian Barnes (my new favourite British Writer)
Bliss, by Peter Carey
Mongolian Folktales, anonymous