Mongolia! The land of Genghis Khan and the Mongol Horde. I can now definitively answer the question that many of us have wrestled with throughout our lives: it’s pronounced “Jengis”, with a “J”.
I arrived in Ulaanbaatar from Russia on the Mongolian Express, which is the branch of the Trans Siberian Railway that turns south, down through Mongolia, and on to Beijing, China. The other main branch continues east to Vladivostok, Russia, on the Pacific Ocean. A third, lesser used branch also goes into China, but that one is routed around Mongolia instead of through it.
I’m glad I took this route, because Mongolia is a hoot, y’all. The Mongolians are delightful people; humorous, welcoming, outgoing, and they will party till dawn. This is not a wealthy country, they are trying to achieve first world status after decades of dominance by the Soviets, and before that by the Chinese. More that 40% of the roughly 3 million Mongolians live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar (“UB”), where the standard of living is improving with a growing middle class.
Out in the countryside, which is vast and mostly undeveloped, the people live a traditional nomadic herding lifestyle- one of the few nomadic peoples left on the earth. They live in “Gers”, which we know as “Yurts”, the Russian word for those round white tents, which they can erect in less than an hour. Later this fall the nomads will strike their gers, load them onto the backs of their camels, and move their herds and all of their earthly possessions across the countryside to fresher pastures where they will endure the harsh Mongolian winter, with temperatures between 20 & 30 degrees Celsius BELOW zero. Mongolian nomads herd cattle, sheep, horses, and camels. I’ve seen camel herds of as many as 100. I had the opportunity to have a meal in a nomad’s ger out in the countryside. We dined on fermented horse milk, horse meat, boiled mutton, beef fritters, cucumbers, and milk tea. I passed on the horse meat, explaining that in my home country, back in the land called Texas, it is culturally forbidden to eat horse meat. They said they understood, because they already knew that the Kazak Muslims couldn’t eat pork, and Indians couldn’t eat cow, but that they had never heard of a people who couldn’t eat horse. They expressed pity for me missing out on one of their finest delicacies.
Back in the big city of Ulaanbaatar, the construction industry is booming, with construction cranes across the skyline in every direction. The investment money is all coming from outside Mongolia, almost entirely from… wait for it…. China, of course. However, most of that money is being invested in buildings (which can turn a profit), with very little going into infrastructure like roads, which they need desperately. Traffic in Ulaanbaatar is bad, because they haven’t improved their roads to keep up with growth.
Ulaanbaatar has a vibrant restaurant culture, with both Mongolian food and international restaurants. The building that my apartment was in had a pretty good Indian restaurant on the 2nd floor. KFC was a couple of blocks away.
The Mongols love Genghis Khan. He is their national hero. One Mongol told me that according to his shaman (holy man) the present Dalai Lama is actually the reincarnation of Genghis Khan. If so, then his new manifestation is a hell of a lot more peaceful than his previous one. Genghis and the Mongols didn’t acquire the largest land based empire in all of history by modeling themselves after the Dalai Lama. Never the less, the story of the Mongol Empire is one of history’s greatest. Go read some stories about the Great Khan, or listen to Dan Carlin’s fascinating series on the Mongol Invasions on his excellent podcast “Hardcore History”. For epic historical drama about larger than life characters, the Mongols never disappoint.
My visit to Mongolia certainly didn’t disappoint. Nowadays the Mongols are a really pleasant and enjoyable people. The folks in UB are trying to find their place as a free people in the modern world. And the nomads out in the countryside are simply awesome. I’m glad I got to know them, and I wish them well.