Thursday, 16 June 2011

How to describe Mongolia ...

... without using tired cliches?

It's been a while since my last blog post, and as some of you will know, I've been preparing for a long while to visit Mongolia to find out more about the country's traditional medicine.

Now I'm here, in Ulaanbaatar, the country's capital, and wondering how I can give a feel of the place for those of you who have never been.

Westerners who write about the country tend to use a number of very tired, very obvious cliches.

Cliche 1. Ulaanbaatar is a city of contrasts where shining new towers to capitalism rise above broken pavements, and sharp-suited executives pass by penniless herders forced to the city to beg following years of drought and harsh winters ...

... well the penthouse vs pavement analogy has always been overdone. Mongolia is a developing nation, and doesn't have a lot of spare money for infrastructure. While there are indeed contrasts - some of them quite significant - Mongolians on the whole seem quite an egalitarian nation, and where they can, people look after each other more than I've seen in England.

Cliche 2. Ulaanbaatar's potholed roads throng with motor cars, filling the air with a stifling petrol haze, and being driven with a carefree lack of attention to safety that owes more to Mongolia's celebrated passion for horseriding ...

... Mongolians like horses ... now they drive cars like they ride horses ... clever analogy, geddit? No, it's just another cliche. There's certainly a lot of cars, and they do indeed contribute to a lot of pollution in the air. People aren't always able to afford maintain them to standards we might take for granted in NW Europe. Many of the roads are quite potholed - I think it's an unavoidable consequence of damage caused by harsh winters and lack of funds for infrastructure. That means people have to drive quite creatively if they want to preserve their suspension.

Cliche 3. Ulaanbaatar, where the face of Chinggis Khan, who led his people to conquer one of the largest land empires in world history, gazes down from almost every public building and billboard ...

You do see quite a lot of Chinggis Khan in marketing literature, statues and tourist tat. After the end of communist rule in 1990, the government intentionally promoted Chinggis Khan as a figure of national pride and national unity, hence the public statues. It's not surprising there's a lot of tourist tat with him on it - for many people, 'Genghis Khan' is the only thing they know about Mongolia. That, and a strange belief that it's full of yaks (scratches head). However, Brits, of all people should understand the complexities behind any nostalgia for past imperial 'glory'.

So what would I say?

Most of my visit has involved research into Traditional Mongolian Medicine (TMM). I've seen some very knowledgable and helpful people and monastery clinics and the national university. They've been kind enough to give me bags of useful stuff to write up and learn from.

I've done a lot of walking around, since I've not really fancied making use of the ubiquitous informal taxi system in UB. Most places I need are in under 40 mins walking distance, though it can feel like more on a hot day. There's a lot of building works going on throughout, and a lot more businesses have spring up since I was last here in 2004.

There's also a lot of piety for the Buddhist religion, which has been re-emerging following years of state suppression under communism. As a result, there are even chains of vegetarian restaurants starting to spring up around the city (Try out 'Loving Hut' if you're over here at all - tasty, affordable and vegan if that's an issue for you. They make a lot of use of 'mock' meats, but do it quite well. They're funded by one of the Buddhist sects.)

I've not been able to get out of UB this time, which is a shame. The capital hosts about 45% of the country's population, but is only a tiny spec in a vast and varied country. I have a feeling that the hearts and souls of many Mongolians lie outside the city, even if the city is where they live. However, someone wiser than I would need to answer that properly.

One unusual thing for half the time I've been here has been some epic thunderstorms. I know a lot of people have welcomed them, since the country has been suffering from severe drought. Let's hope the weather is starting to take a turn for the better.

I'll write a bit more about the medical side of things when I feel inspired.

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