Mongolian Magic

Despite the hardships, tourists are pouring into newly-independent Mongolia, which offers wide-open spaces, star-filled skies and the foulest alcohol on Earth. Still, what remains of the world's largest empire is mesmerizing (even without the fermented mare's milk).

By Ron Gluckman / Mongolia

THE OLD SCHOOL BUS TUMBLED down the dirt road and skidded to a stop beside a pair of yurts, the traditional round Mongolian tent-like huts. Out piled two dozen western tourists. Cameras clicked. Frisbees flew.

Stepping gingerly to avoid the yak and horse droppings, I surveyed the carpet of lush greenery rolling right up to rocky grey mountains. There was nothing but yurts and yaks and horses in this stunning wilderness for as far as the eyes wandered.

Suddenly, I started humming the theme from the old Marlboro commercial. You know, with the chiseled cowboy riding the range.

Several of my companions started chuckling as others joined in. There was no escaping the fact. Mongolia IS Marlboro country.

With only 2.1 million people in a country larger than Western Europe, Mongolia is also an isolated land that offers some of the last unspoiled adventure travel in the world. Few rafts have skipped the currents of the wild rivers snaking through the largely-unexplored Altai mountains in the western reaches of the country. Archaeologists searching for Genghis Khan's grave in northeastern Mongolia are also digging in virgin territory.

Mongolia is brand-new ballgame. As one American on the first Peace Corps team confided upon his arrival last summer: "When they mentioned Mongolia, I said, 'Sure!' But I had to go home and look it up on the map. I had no idea where Mongolia was."

A year after the Soviets split the scene, tourists were just starting to trickle into Mongolia last summer. They discovered some of the best travel bargains on the planet. How else to explain moonlit trots on Mongolian mounts or camel rides across the virtually uninhabited Gobi Desert, with payment in packs of Marlboros? Or visits to ruins of the few temples that survived first the Chinese, than the communist purges in a land that had thousands of Buddhist temples and shrines? Or hotels for two dollars a night and helicopter rides 800 kilometers roundtrip for the price of a cheeseburger in Japan?

The ridiculous fees are partly due to the insane system of subsidies imposed by the Soviet Union. But they also result from monstrous inflation following radical free market reforms that have had heart-wrenching consequences for the already impoverished Mongolian people.

Still, a visit last summer was a lesson in the unsinkable human spirit. The almost worthless Mongolian Tugrik, valued at three to the dollar only a year before, was officially pegged at 40 to 1 in August, but street changers were offering 100-140. As more and more essential commodities disappeared from store shelves and could only be purchased in hard currency, average Mongolian wages plummeted to less than $1 per week last summer.

Yet, amidst all this chaos and economic ruin, Mongolians showed a tough mettle. Nowhere was there even an inkling of the tragic self-pity sweeping other former Soviet states. Indeed, an earlier tour of East Europe suggested a people emerging from a long prison sentence. Mongolia seemed a new nation, born into the sun.

In Mongolia, second oldest communist country on Earth, there was an overwhelming sense of self-assurance. Mongolians endure winters as cold as -50 C, constant food and fuel shortages, and insufficient infrastructure. There are no paved roads outside of Ulan Bator and few private phones. In a nation where animals outnumber residents by over 12-1, ownership of livestock was not even allowed until 1990.

By the following summer, activity was everywhere. The old Children's Cinema, among scores of stately Soviet structures in the capital city, was undergoing a massive refurbishing to become headquarters of the country's first stock exchange. As the planned opening date passed, nobody seemed daunted by the prospects of attracting investors to a nation that had little to offer outside of Yak futures. Nor could Mongolian optimism be suppressed by the realization that it had not a single stock or financial prospectus to circulate. Or even one stockbroker to shill it.

"What you need to start up a stock market is a building, some desks, a phone line and a blackboard to keep track of trades," commented Susan Selwyn, a Hong Kong consultant to the stock exchange, in a Mongolian supplement to a financial magazine. "Mongolia has these."

Naidansurengiin Zholzhargal, the 27-year-old maverick heading the stock exchange, was even more upbeat. Among the leaders of the new economic reformists, he spearheaded an intensive program to privatize 80 percent of state holdings within two years. The massive giveaway began with the distribution of coupons that citizens could use to bid at auctions of the small business, buy livestock or stock in the new exchange.

"All the capital goods in a communist country constitutionally belong to the people," Zholzhargal explained. "So why should they have to buy them again? Instead, in Mongolia, we are going to give the assets away on an equal opportunity basis. It is much quicker than to sell them and makes more sense rather than trying to attach a value to a centrally-planned enterprise that will exist in a free-market economy."

An American banker and Mongolian expert praised the swift restructuring. "It's too early to assess the success of this great giveaway," he said, "but you have to admire their energy and enthusiasm. This privatization scheme is more radical than anything seen in any of the other former Soviet states."

There is much more to admire about Mongolia, an ancient nation that is only now seizing the reins of its own destiny.

Most visits will begin in Ulan Bator, a stocky, sprawling city in the Soviet design, with huge classically-designed museums and public buildings, and large open central squares. The mountains are visible to the north and a river runs along the southern outskirts, where the city abruptly ends and the emptiness begins. It reminds one of the Siberian cities of Irkutsk or Novosibirsk.

Ulan Bator began its existence as a small settlement of yurts, hence the initial name Urgoo, meaning yurt. It was the center of the independent state proclaimed in 1211. Zanabazar, one of the last great rulers of Mongolia, renamed the place Khuree in 1706. By the early 20th Century, Khuree had over 100 temples and monasteries and a population of 50,000 people.

The city declined in importance under Chinese rule and by the end of the revolution that drove the Chinese out in 1924, when it was renamed Ulaanbaatar, or Red Hero, the population had fallen to 12,000 people. The city now numbers over a half million residents.

The people have returned, but the temples are only starting to be rebuilt. Mongolia once claimed 767 monasteries with more than 5,000 temples and pagodas. Only a dozen remain.

Some of the best examples are in Ulan Bator. The Gandan complex houses excellently preserved and still-functioning temples as well as several exhibit halls detailing the former glories of the Mongolian empire, which once covered half the world and stretched from China into Europe. Examples of Mongolian printing dating to the 10th century are also on display.

Still awaiting restoration is the sprawling old Winter Palace which, after the walled city outside Karakorum, may well be the country's greatest treasure.

A visit to Karakorum is a worthwhile addition to any itinerary. Although only 400 kilometers from Ulan Bator, the trip is a tough 12-hour jeep ride along rutted dirt roads. Better to take one of four weekly flights, two hours by helicopter. Be careful about weather, since service is unreliable in winter and Mongolia outside Ulan Bator can be an unpleasant experience for unexpected and extended visits.

The main attraction in Karakorum is the spectacular holy city of Erdene Zu, a few kilometers to the east. Although only two functioning temples remain from scores that once flourished inside the holy site, the ruins of many others provide picturesque exploration. The wall itself is stunning, with 108 stupas-saburguars, sepulcher shrines pointing to the heavens.

Built in the 13th Century, Karakorum rivaled the world's finest cities. The Palace of Universal Peace boasted silver fountains by Wilhelm of Paris, with four silver lions and snakes that spewed wine, mead and beer from their mouths.

Almost nothing remains of the ancient city of Karakorum, chosen by Genghis Khan as his capital and constructed by Genghis' grandson, Ugedei. The city was sacked many times after the dissolution of the Khan empire and even the ruins of the city were pillaged to construct the temples and walls of Erdene Zu in the 16th Century.

There is a hotspring resort about 50 kilometers from Karakorum, but no public transportation exists and hiring a car can be difficult because of fuel prices and rationing. The resort can be reached by plane from Ulan Bator. As senseless as it sounds, this is often the surest way to reach the resort.

Most package tours to Mongolia will include some stay in the countryside, most likely in Tirelj, about 70 kilometers north of Ulan Bator. This is the Marlboro country to which my busload of tourists were delivered one fine summer day. We reportedly were the first group of independent western tourists to slip into Mongolia, but the routine will likely be the same for the hordes that follow.

Tirelj may not appear luxurious to western eyes, but the charming valley has for decades been the dream vacation or reward for loyal service to millions of party members in Romania, Latvia, Russia and the Ukraine. Dozens of specially-designed tourist camps provide visitors with a rustic, but comfortable experience that includes lodging in a yurt, native meals and the inevitable visit to a Mongolian dude ranch.

When you pose for pictures on top of a yak or sturdy little Mongolian mount, you will be following in the footsteps of the heads of various foreign countries, who are all touted to Tirelj. A standard visit includes tastes of Mongolian cheese, dried in the sun on top of yurts, and koumiss, the famous fermented mare's milk. The highlight of the native experience will often be the barbecue of a goat, which is slaughtered and cooked in front of visitors. The process is most unusual. The goat's head is severed and all innards and bones are pulled through the neck opening. Then, stones heated in the fire are inserted through the neck, which is sewn shut, so it cooks from the inside-out.

A more palatable program might be an evening of native dance and music. Mongolian costumes resemble those found among the Eskimos and other Northern natives, with fur hats and leggings. Instruments include large drums and dance routines involve acrobatics and fire rituals. To these traditional art forms, they have added many Soviet influences, such as the lovely sound of the Russian triangular-shaped guitar, the balalaika.

Such instruments are among the few native souvenirs available in Mongolia. Crafts, rugs and other antiques exist, but are difficult to locate, mainly due to the virtual non-existence of a tourist industry. Visitors in recent years averaged only 10,000 annually, according to Bat-Bold Baljinnian, of the state-run Zuulchin travel agency. The numbers are expected to increase to 100,000 in 1991 with relaxation of restrictions that tended to force travellers into high-priced tours.

Small glass paintings can be purchased for a pittance and Mongolian hats, colorful pointed models or with embroidered flaps that fold down, can be found in the department stores in Ulan Bator for $2-5. Small balalaikas, some with inlaid wood, are also a bargain at $1-5. Gift givers should also consider Mongolian paintings, found at various galleries, for a few dollars. Avoid tourist sites, like museums and temples, where hawks hover outside and sell their wares for 10 times the price.

Food and lodging is also inexpensive in Ulan Bator if one avoids the two state-run hotels, which fall far short of their five-star billing. A room with private bath in the Altai Hotel, for instance, costs under $4.

Mongolia will claim its first true luxury lodging when the Genghis Khan Holiday Inn opens next year. The 800-room hotel will have a convention center seating 2,000 people, bowling alley and 350-seat cinema. Servicing guests will be a challenge for the 400-member hotel staff. "Food will be the big problem," says Bernd Rigger, vice president of operations for Holiday Inn in China. Most supplies will be shipped from Beijing.

Indeed, finding food is one of the toughest tasks facing tourists. Mongolia has no vegetables. Although cattle abound, they end up shipped to slaughterhouses in the Soviet Union, to help offset the expensive oil imports upon which Mongolia is dependent. Restaurants can be creative, listing dumplings, schnitzel, steak or goulash, but invariably, the meat is mutton.

"Mongolia is no place to be self-righteous about your diet," confided American visitor Brian Grossman, a vegetarian for five years, as he stirred through a bowl of mutton soup.

However, this bleak picture is already undergoing revision. Food supplies were hampered by the lack of transportation to landlocked Mongolia. Last June, there was only one flight per week to either Beijing or Moscow, but by the end of summer, four flights weekly were offered to Beijing. China also signed a deal allowing Mongolia to use one of its ports for shipping and train schedules are expected to expand as a result.

Communications to the country once consisted of a single long distance line that funneled all calls through Moscow, resulting in waits of hours, sometimes months. A satellite installed in Ulan Bator now relays calls through Hong Kong, meaning Mongolia has access to telecommunications including fax.

And no matter what happens with the stock exchange, a slight investment in the shop next door will pay delicious dividends. The first donut shop in Mongolia opened last summer, selling a plate of fresh-baked cakes with a bowl of warm milk for 20 cents.

Ron Gluckman is an American journalist based in Hong Kong, who travels widely around the Asian region for a variety of publications, including Hong Kong's the Peak Magazine, which ran this story in 1991. Similar versions of this story, his first from Mongolia, ran in Far East Traveler, Winds and the Toronto Globe and Mail.

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