Mongolia holds the promise of the unexpected. That’s one reason I wanted to make the trip. I vaguely remembered from a long ago geography class that there was outer Mongolia, and an inner Mongolia, and that they were two separate entities. I recalled the Gobi desert, Genghis Khan, nomadic people, trained raptors, and throat singers; it was all out there, somewhere in the neighborhood of China.
For me, China has always been pretty much just three cities--Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong--all in the east. Pan west from those three mega-cities, and China is saddle-shaped country. Mongolia, which used to be known as Outer Mongolia, nestles in the seat of the saddle on China’s northern border, fitting for a nation of nomadic cowboys. It is an independent democracy, about twice as big as Texas, but with only three million people. Inner Mongolia, bordering Mongolia to the south, is part of the People’s Republic of China.
There’s really only one city in Mongolia. Ulaanbaatar, the capital. Flying in, you feel like you’re looking down on scores of refinery tanks, like you might see in Midland-Odessa.
Few trees populate the green velvet hills. But there are hundreds of white, round structures dotting the landscape. They aren’t oil tanks, it turns out, but gers, the round tents Mongolians have lived in for centuries.
A ger, (pronounced gehr), more commonly known to westerners by the name ‘yurt’ in neighboring Russia, is the sturdy tent that as many as a third of the country’s residents call home. Fabric is stretched over a wooden lattice for the ger’s walls, and about a hundred wooden slats form a domed ceiling. You enter through a low door.
Inside, the tent opens up, and you can stand upright. There’s a hole in the middle for a potbellied stove, with a stack poking through the hole in the ger ceiling. These wood stoves are used to heat the tents in Mongolia’s bitterly cold winters, and it’s wood smoke that makes Ulaanbaatar (UB as the locals call it) one of the most polluted cities in the world in the winter time.
You see gers in the countryside with motorcycles and even cars parked next to them. What’s stunning is you also see gers right in the middle of UB, a city of a million and a half people, coexisting with skyscrapers and upscale condos. Their residents cook and wash and use outdoor plumbing right next to gated communities. The gers are not connected to sewer systems. You’ll find an Audi dealership down the street from a ger.
This is a culture which has historically lived on horseback and raised livestock to exist. Now it’s on a collision course with urbanization and modernity. Will it be a trainwreck or a smooth transition?