Thursday, August 25, 2011

Between A Hammer And A Sickle

Heading southeast from UB towards the Chinese border the monotonous landscape is broken by a few small, run-down towns amidst the unending, patchy steppe. (The curious thing about the Mongolian steppe is that, when seen from a distance, it looks lush and green, but up close you discover that there is in fact more barren ground than there is vegetation.) Pretty unassuming and rather boring by and large, although there is a wonderful curiosity just off the main road. Not signposted or marked on any maps and surrounded by a rusting barbed-wire fence some 25km north of the town of Choir are what is left of what was once the largest Soviet airbase. All the jets and really exciting equipment has, of course, been taken away, but the 50 or so domed hangars and slowly crumbling support and command buildings are still there, testament to both the sway that the Soviet Union once held over Mongolia, as well as to the frostiness of relations between the former and the other great Communist power, China. Although the site is abandoned militarily, a handful of families occupy the base with their gers and herds of goats, their only reason for being there to shoo out pesky tourists who come nosing around (why I have no idea). So although I managed to sneak under the barbed wire without much problem and even poked around a few of the hangars I was inevitably caught (ambling around with a 20kg backpack is not particularly stealthy) and politely escorted off. A shame, as there's certainly a business opportunity going begging there.

One of the hangars in the abandoned airforce base outside Choir. Once they housed MiG 25s, now they just house goats.

Mongolia's recent history is dominated by its two giant neighbours, both of whom still determine how Mongolia interacts with the rest of the world. In fact, being completely surrounded by two such overbearing neighbours it's almost a miracle that Mongolia is still a sovereign country (although many would suggest that half of the country has already been annexed by China in the form of Inner Mongolia) whilst many peers succumbed to the expansionist ambitions of the two. And although the two neighbours are similar in many ways, the opinion of the Mongol on the steppe towards them are wildly divergent. Russia is seen as being the benign and friendly big brother. During the Communist period Mongolia was heavily subsidised by the Soviet Union, many Mongolians studied in Russia, and Russian specialists and technicians built up from scratch Mongolia's industry, education sector and civil service. Indeed, it is a little-known fact, that Mongolia was the second Communist country in the world after they staged their very own revolution back in 1921. What is more, Mongolia is the poster-child for how Communism can actually work (more or less). Huge increases in literacy, life expectancy, with commensurate decreases in child mortality and wealth inequality. It helped that the Mongolians are pretty egalitarian people to begin with, but the theocracy that existed before the revolution, where almost a quarter of all males were monks and the rest of the country had to fund their indolence, was barely managing stagnation. And even today, although the country is poor by most standards, I barely saw any grinding poverty, most people have plenty to eat, a place to sleep and are pretty content, and even the least towns are relatively well kept with houses set in tidy hashas (fenced yards).

The Chinese, on the other hand, are at best grudgingly accepted, though generally flat-out detested, by Mongolians. It's hard to pin down the exact reason but there are two general strands to the antipathy. The first is historical, as the Chinese, under the Manchus, conquered and then ruled Mongolia for about two centuries (though when most Mongolians are reminded of the fact that they, under Genghis and Kublai, conquered and then ruled China themselves, they swell up with pride, somehow unable to reverse the perspectives). Then there is the clash of personalities. Mongolians are laid-back, gregarious people who are quite simple in their wants and needs and live very much for the moment; whereas the Chinese are hard-working and driven, eager to seek out an opportunity and prone to Machiavellian machinations. So when Chinese come over to Mongolia to start businesses and do deals many locals are often resentful of these rich, successful interlopers who they see as continuing in their grand scheme of "stealing their country". The contrast between the two peoples can easily be seen when trying to arrange transport. Mongolians would often rather laze around and drink a little than put in a few hours of effort to earn some extra dough (for example by giving a ride on their motorbike), whereas Chinese avarice is legendary. The lack of profit motive can be both refreshing, when you are given an honest price straight away without the need for protracted bargaining, but also very frustrating when no-one will give you a ride, even for decent money, because they just can't be bothered. Still, it's part of the charm of the country and, quite frankly, I wouldn't want it any other way.

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