18 June 2010

Mongolia: The People

(Still having problems posting from China, so no links and photos again)

In his 1987 book “The Iron Rooster”, Paul Theroux describes the Mongols:

“Once these people had lived on the plains and in the mountains. Now they lived in two-room flats in this lifeless and stark city. They were in every sense a subject race, and in this – one of the largest and emptiest countries on earth – they lived cheek by jowl. They lived out of the world, almost totally cut off. It had not made them angry. It had kept them innocent in many ways. There was something very sweet about the Mongolians. Perhaps that was the whole point about Mongolia: that after a Soviet-inspired revolution in which everything was destroyed and swept away – religion, the old ecomony, the army, the social order – the country was so changed that it could not function without Soviet help. The Mongolians had been reduced to a state of infancy. All their old habits and institutions were gone. The Soviets stepped into this vacuum: they brought Soviet building and urban structures, Soviet railways and roads, Soviet schools, and the Soviet ideology displaced Buddhism”.

In some ways it’s difficult to argue with his points. The Mongol people do seem to put up with hardships without complaining about them, and do still seem to be trying to grow up again to become their own mature democracy (it’s been 20 years now).

The all complain about corruption within government, and I do certainly believe it, but it’s back to the old French quote “Every nation has the government it deserves”. People we met here don’t seem to be interested in their politics (except for Dopa, a lady we know who we’ll come to later), but in the good old fashioned pursuit of wealth. To me, it’s the best way of the status quo keeping them from getting involved in politics and upsetting the gravy train (like the owners of our hostel).

During the communist period, the literacy rate increased from less than 5% to 96%, but I still get the feeling that they still have a long way to go. People everywhere use calculators to show prices, which make sense, saves you having to write it out on paper all the time for the foreigners. But I have witnessed a waitress adding 1000 (there are 2000 turgrits to the pound), 1000 and 1000 on a calculator to show me the total, and then using it to work out the change from 10000.

People can also be surprisingly open, by UK standards. For example, it was not uncommon to see women breastfeeding in the middle of the street.

While in Mongolia, we also got to meet up with a family who were friends of someone Audrey knew in London (thanks Einav). Ganbold and (especially) Dopa were a lively couple in their 60s. We went with Ganbold to the wrestling and the black market (where he got his cigarettes nicked). Dopa organised a shamanistic ceremony for us, as well as a trip to a local national park.

They served us dinner at their flat, with a healthy helping of vodka to go with it. They also accidentally found a plastic milk bottle of airag, fermented mare’s milk. Some people may find it tasty, but since it tasted of liquid gorgonzola, I found it pretty repugnant. It was interesting to get a taste of it though, as normally it is only available over the winter, but they’d discovered it a couple of days previous when their grandkid tried to pour some on his cereal. I preferred their vodka.

I’ll go into more about Ganbold and Dofa in the next post.


Ada said...

Pls tell us more about this shamanistic ceremony!?