In Chingiss Square in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on any warm weekend afternoon, you’re likely to see several cultures rubbing up against each other. A three story statue of Chingiss Khan, better known to westerners as Genghis Khan, overshadows everything. He conquered a territory larger than the roman empire in the 1200’s with his fearsome army on horseback. Khan is the keystone of the Mongolian identity.
Parents bring their children to play in Chingiss Square. Lots of kids ride around on small rented camels on wheels, toy replicas of the two-humped Bactrian camels that are dear to Mongolians. The camel population numbers in the hundreds of thousands, an integral part of a heritage based on herding. A family’s wealth is its herd of sheep, goats and yaks.
The kids who aren’t riding camels in the Square though are likely to be zipping around in the exact opposite: little electric cars. The kids, cars and camels buzz not only in the shadow of Chingiss Khaan, but the Soviet Union. The square is lined with pastel colored Soviet era buildings, because Russia has a huge influence here, too. It helped Mongolia split from China in 1921, and Mongolia was a communist country for the next sixty-six years. A Mongolian offshoot of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet is still used throughout the country. Mongolia became a democracy in 1990.
Since the turn of this century, the country has been changing so fast a lot of Mongolians can barely keep track. Ulaanbaatar (UB) embodies all of this change.
Skyscrapers sparkle next to tents. Directly and indirectly,the glass and steel is the result of one massive economic development: mining. In 2001, one of the world’s largest copper and gold deposits was discovered in the remote Gobi desert about 400 miles south of UB. The Oyu Tolgoi (OT) mine is the result. Mongolia’s recent fortunes have tracked the development of the mine, with a 10% growth rate in peak years.
Jongu Bataakuu, whose friends call him Jack, grew up in UB. He worked at the OT during the initial boom years.
In 2009, the global financial crisis hit. Mongolia’s economy contracted as demand for copper slumped. By 2010 copper demand had recovered, and with it, Mongolia’s economy. It lurched upward for a couple of years and has now settled back down as China’s appetite for copper has slumped.
Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining company, owns more than half of Oyu Tolgoi through a subsidiary. The Mongolian government owns about a third. The mine, which employs upwards of 7,000 people and includes a reported 125 miles of underground tunnels, has a half century’s worth of copper reserves, Rio Tinto says.
The company manages the mine and spends about a $1 billion a year on salaries, materials and taxes in Mongolia, it says. All of this creates a robust climate for growth.
Adiyabold Namkhai, or Adiya, as he calls himself, started a tourguide business in UB nine years ago. Now he has six people working for him. Adiya has watched small enterprises sprout in the economic shadows of the skyscrapers going up around UB.
With the arrival of democracy came the possibility of free enterprise.
Back in Chingiss Square, the camel kids and the car kids are the symbols of the future.
Who will dominate?
The temptation for Mongolians to leave their camels, horses and herds for the mining propelled urban economy is strong.
Three of every ten people are employed in agriculture, more than any other sector, according to the CIA World Factbook.
Rio Tinto has pledged $126 million to train Mongolian workers and teachers. But even when the economy is stable, resource based mining is volatile.
Jack Bataakuu remembers the last crash. “Most of the folks in UB, I don’t know the percentage, but they sold everything,” he told me. “Sold it and took a risk to become an urban citizen.”
How hard is it for them to adjust?
“I find it’s tough,” he said. And once you come in from the country, he said, you can’t get your herd back.