Across the Mongolian Steppes
ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia—“Before we begin, I’d like to decline two questions,” the National Security Adviser to Mongolia’s president warns me. “One is railroads, the other is Chinese workers.” With those caveats, touches on the two third-rail issues that define her nation’s precarious place in the world.
Sandwiched between Russia and China—both superpowers that, ironically, it once conquered—this tiny nation of almost 2.8 million people sprawls across a territory more than twice the size of France.
And it is trying desperately to find some autonomy in a world that often seems intent only in snagging a slice of its natural resource windfall, which it has only begun to unearth. Mongolia, like a handful of other smaller nations in similar geo-political circumstances, is doing its best to survive, even prosper, against enormous odds. But Mongolia has something else going for it—a patrimony of a scope that all but defies definition.
I’ve been fascinated for years by the plight of small countries trapped between large powers. Two years ago, I chronicled in this space the challenges Bhutan faces, nestled between China and India—struggling, as do a handful of similar nations, to maintain some semblance of national identity and union. In Europe, Africa, and Latin America, there are similar cases of nations searching desperately to develop their own, unique identity. Dominated or overshadowed by powerful neighbors, some of these states date back centuries, others are more recently minted products of a colonial past, but most are saddled with boundaries that bear little resemblance to the realities of tribes, cultures, religions, or ethnicities.
For Mongolia, the challenges are even more profound and pressing. In this era of post-Cold War détente, its actual sovereignty may no longer be in question. Still, there are even larger stakes that bear directly on what remains a latent competition of epic proportions between its larger neighbors. Since the moment of Mongolia’s independence from the Soviet bloc less than a quarter century ago, vast reserves of coal (including the world’s single largest deposit of vital coking coal), oil and gas, copper, gold, uranium, and a host of other valuable minerals have been uncovered. Explorers and prospectors flock to Ulaanbaatar’s handful of western-style hotels. Over lavish buffet breakfasts in the glass-and-steel restaurant of the Ramada, they swap tales of distant strikes and pots of riches just over the horizon, then fan out across the country, hoping to find still more wealth buried beneath the trackless steppes and the endless blue sky.
Down in the street, vast snarls of traffic back up along the capital’s one main thoroughfare—Peace Avenue as it was dubbed by the nation’s Soviet overlords, who also re-named the capital when they took over in 1923. Ulaanbaatar (“Red Hero” in Mongolian) is only one legacy among many that it has not managed to shed from the three quarters of a century of Russian rule.
The Russians did a lot more to Mongolia than simply re-name geography. When the first Bolshevik troops crossed the border from Siberia, they found a primitive people who were an easy conquest.
They quickly began to bend this nation of largely nomadic herders to their own will. First to go was the ancient “vertical script”—a language of runes that the Red Army invaders swapped out for their own Cyrillic alphabet (with a couple of extra letters to facilitate transliteration of a tongue that has little to do with Russian).
When the rail system arrived, it was the wider Russian gauge of 4 feet 11 5/8 inches, designed to make certain that invaders from the west or east, where rails are spaced the standard international width of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, would be unable simply to roll their troop transports to the battlefields. But until 1947, after World War II, there was no railway at all in Mongolia. At first, the Russians liked it that way—it would give them more warning of any approach of Japanese forces. But with the post-war push for self-sufficiency and a desire to use all its satellites to build a Soviet industrial empire, Mongolia was pressed into service, so the railroad arrived.
And pressed is the right word. The Russian occupiers made certain that Mongolia’s leaders would match, even outdo, Joseph Stalin in barbarity and repressiveness. They found willing partners in the early rulers of the Mongolian People’s Republic. First Khorloogiin Choibalsan embarked on a series of vicious purges, destroying any political opposition, then turned to the nation’s passive Buddhist monks, torching monasteries across the country, executing 35,000 lamas, exiling tens of thousands more to Siberia. The vicious Choibalsan was succeeded by Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, who was cut from the same bolt of cloth, and tried repeatedly to bring Mongolia into the Soviet Union as the 16th Republic. He was met with such determined opposition on every side that the Kremlin decided this vast, poor nation wasn’t worth the effort and was content to leave it, as it began, as its first and largest satellite.
Not surprisingly, one of the early initiatives of the post-Soviet government, when it arrived in 1990, was an effort to return to the vertical script. Indeed, our translator, Hashi, an elementary school student during this abortive experiment, was one of those forced to learn the ancient Mongolian alphabet—until the government recognized the enormous cost of converting an entire nation to a new vernacular and killed the idea. Today Mongolia boasts a literacy rate of 97.3 percent—higher even than China at 95.9 percent.
There were other legacies of the Soviet era, which extended from 1923 to 1990. The first industrial plants were constructed in Ulaanbaatar and the northeastern cities of Darkhan and Choibalsan, which since the departure of the Soviets now has the highest unemployment rate in Mongolia. The first milk processing facility was built in the capital. Soviet military installations began springing up across the countryside, with substantial concentrations along the frontier with China.
But perhaps the greatest and least-known legacy was the decision by the Soviets to map Mongolia, not in terms of roads (there was a single paved avenue in the capital and only a network of dirt tracks across the steppes) but rather for minerals. All but unrecognized, even today, is the existence of a detailed geophysical survey of every square kilometer of Mongolian territory—an analysis of its potential mineral-bearing rock formations, the nature of its land and soil. In part, of course, this was in the interest of determining the most advantageous routes for Soviet military machinery—tanks and personnel transports. But the legacy, buried today in government archives, includes a sense of where the most valuable of the nation’s patrimony exists, uncovered, beneath the land. A handful of savvy western prospectors have stumbled on this treasure trove. But it’s believed that much still remains undiscovered.
At the same time, powerful emotions were building during the decades of oppression—perhaps Mongolia’s most complex legacy, fraught with implications for the nation’s place in today’s Asia. “As far as Russia, many Mongolians still keep a certain sympathy inherited from the Soviet era,” smiles Batchimeg as she continues most diplomatically.
“Even some of the younger people would cherish the relationship with Russia, too. We believe this is a very important factor for any bilateral relationship. Mongolian national leaders have to understand the importance of this.”
The Russian legacy, and that nation’s very real contemporary presence, straddles the frontier with Siberia, which we cross on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. An unsmiling set of border patrol officers with sniffing German shepherds board on the Russian side in Naushki in the Buryat Republic. Their Mongolian counterparts jump on the train five miles down the line in Sukhbaatar after we cross the barbed-wire frontier. It is a seamless transition, though, because of the common gauge shared by the Russian and Mongolian mainline rail systems. By contrast, at the Chinese border, a complex maneuver called “changing the bogeys” is necessary. The Russian-Mongolian carriages are lifted off the wheel assemblies in a specially designed shed, the new Chinese-standard gauge carriages slipped beneath each car—passenger and freight alike. Not surprisingly it adds time and money for each pound of freight, or even more importantly, coal and ore, that’s shipped to or from China.
So when it came time to consider a new rail link to the vast southern Mongolian coal, copper, and gold mines that are just now opening for business in the South Gobi, far from the nearest approach to the Trans-Mongolian trunk line, selecting the proper gauge was very much on the minds of the Mongolian parliament. The government is divided, almost equally, between two parties, the MPP or Mongolian People’s Party (the socialist successor to the Soviet-era Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, revolutions now being pretty much a dead letter), and the newly minted Democratic party of the nation’s president. Outside forces are still able to tilt the balance at critical moments.
On this occasion, the Russia weighed in with its heavy thumb on the scale. In a meeting last June with Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin pledged a $1.5 billion investment in new track totaling 2,500 miles for the Mongolian rail network. Then they added a sweetener of $250 million to build a long spur from the Tavan Tolgoi mine to link up with the Trans-Siberian railway and onward to Vladivostok, the nearest Russian seaport to Mongolia. The problem is not the construction, though, it’s the operation. With the Mongolian stretch alone at nearly 600 miles to Choibalsan and then another 900 miles via the Trans-Siberian line to Vladivostok, the World Bank has estimated the transport cost at $75 a ton, compared with $15 a ton via Chinese rail links, barely 100 miles away. If, as the World Bank calculates, the South Gobi mines could be producing 45 million tons of coal a year, much of it for export, the cost of transport to Russia over China suggests a considerable disparity.
Still, in the end, the Mongolian parliament voted to cast its lot with Russia. “The mine operators can always build a little spur into China if they need it eventually,” explains one MPP parliamentarian diplomatically after the vote. “We left that open in the final wording of the legislation.” It was meant to be a Solomonic decision—dividing, or more appropriately parsing, the nation’s loyalties. But the real problem is that not all Mongolians see this as the best way to go.
HATE VS. FEAR
“We hate Russia, but we fear China,” says one young Mongolian who was born in the Soviet era and has visited both nations. He’s speaking in the long, narrow corridor of a Pullman car on the Trans-Mongolian Railway—traveling across the Gobi, one of the world’s largest deserts. Barely 80,000 people live in Mongolia’s forbidding South Gobi province—a territory larger than Bangladesh, which has a population of 170 million—though the World Bank projects South Gobi’s population to double over the next five years with the influx of miners and their families. Indeed, entire new towns are already in place, like the ultra-modern glass and steel dorms and apartments at the Tavan Tolgoi mine that boasts a school run under contract with an elite academy in the nation’s capital 335 miles to the north. First graders in their second week of English classes leap to their feet and, beaming with pride, sing the ABC song to us.
From the train windows, not much changes after crossing the Mongolian-Chinese frontier. It’s the same Gobi landscape—expanding at the rate of 1,400 square miles a year as desertification gobbles up the fertile grasslands that have nourished Mongolian livestock for millennia.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CHINESE
China entered into the Mongolian consciousness far earlier than Russia. As early as 180 A.D., warriors of the Xianbei swept into regions of northern China. A millennium later, Chinggis Khan (known in the West as Genghis Khan) turned toward the warmer climates of the south and extended his rule beyond several small valleys in what is now northeastern Mongolia.
His legions of 95,000 trained warriors (out of a total population of just 400,000) swept across the steppes into China in lightning raids that Hitler studied in preparation for his mechanized blitzkriegs. To give a sense of scale, if the United States were to maintain a standing army of this size, relative to its population, it would have armed forces totaling 73.9 million, compared with 2.3 million actually under arms, including national guard and reserves. Today, Mongolia has just 12,000 men in its military, including a special brigade of 2,500 tapped to serve abroad in the international peacekeeping roles it has embraced.
China, however, deploys vast reserves of military forces and armaments throughout its frontier regions, at the ready for any menace, real or imagined, inside and outside the country. As our train rolls into China, we come across the first example—more than 100 flatcars loaded with tanks and personnel carriers all pointed north toward the frontier of a nation with which it boasts nominally friendly relations.
But within the boundaries of Inner Mongolia lie the seeds of enormous potential unrest. In the 2000 census, there were some 4 million Mongols in the region—nearly double the entire population of the Mongolian Republic itself. Dominated by the Han Chinese, who comprise over three-quarters of the province’s population, they feel discriminated against and oppressed. And they are hardly reluctant to demonstrate these feelings. This year alone, at least three Mongolian herders, protesting the heavy mining trucks that have begun crisscrossing their traditional grazing grounds, have been run down and killed—whether by accident or intentionally is not clear. Each incident, however, has touched off widespread protests in the provincial capital of Hohhot, where authorities have cracked down with massive shows of force and widespread arrests, carting hundreds of demonstrators to so-called black prisons where they have disappeared for days, even weeks.
In Hohhot, we happen upon the wife of a foreign businessman who was herself swept up. Driving near the university, seen by authorities as a hotbed of ethnic Mongolian unrest, she describes how she was in her car, accompanied only by her family’s chauffeur, when she used her iPhone to snap a photo of the massive police presence. “They were right on us,” she begins, still clearly shaken by the experience that had taken place four months earlier. “Plainclothes security men dragged both of us from my car and bundled us into an unmarked car.”
Taken to what was described to her as a “black prison,” their cell phones were confiscated and the contraband photo deleted. “No one will know where you are, we can do with you what we want, we can hold you indefinitely, you will never be found, and we will kill your driver,” she recalls the officers telling them. When she and her driver arrived at their destination with the secret police who’d seized them, she saw several thousand students and others crammed inside the building. She was petrified as they unchained the doors and shoved her into the makeshift facility. Fortunately, her driver had secreted a second cell phone and managed a brief call to her husband, a consultant with a powerfully connected local Chinese factory. Company officials quickly began making calls, though it took hours before she was released.
It’s scarcely surprising that Mongolians fear the Chinese. Mongolians are a fiercely independent people, yet ironically the nation has known barely 12 years of real independence until their final liberation from Soviet rule in 1990. On December 29, 1911, the so-called Outer Mongolians took advantage of the Wuchang Uprising that ended the Qing Dynasty’s rule and declared their own nation’s independence from China. It was but a brief flirtation with freedom, lasting through World War I when both Russia and China were preoccupied with a global conflict, their own internal revolutions, and the civil wars that followed. But by 1923, Mongolia had swapped Chinese rule for full Russian domination.
LIVING THE GER LIFE
Throughout, the Mongolian mentality of fiercely independent herders and horsemen preserved an internal compass that has managed somehow to hold at bay their two, often feuding, superpower neighbors. Maintaining their independence from China, they were drawn into the Russian sphere, managing to escape absorption into the Soviet Union itself—the fate of many of their neighbors across Central Asia. Culturally, the Mongolians are like no other Asian peoples, or indeed like few anywhere in the world. Ethnically they bear a closer resemblance to the Buryats of Siberia than the Han Chinese, with whom they share few traits. They eat little or no rice, their primary diet being mutton, preferably laced with fat—a taste developed from centuries of surviving bitter Mongolian winters that are still defined by the fearsome dzug. These violent blizzards sweep down from the Altai mountains that form a stretch of Mongolia’s western frontier with Kazakhstan, burying cattle, sheep, and humans alike. In the ger districts of Ulaanbaatar, thousands of victims of the dzug have drifted, seeking work, but above all sanctuary, from the harsh life that killed their herds, driving them toward poverty, even starvation.
Five years ago, Zaya came to the Mongolian capital from the remote northwest—bringing along her ger, a flat, round, Mongolian felt tent, from the isolated countryside to the heart of a sprawling slum on the outskirts of this increasingly congested urban landscape. Zaya had lost an entire herd of sheep, cows, and cashmere goats—virtually her entire wealth. Six winters ago, herders in Hovsgol province—an immense tract of high mountains, stunning lakes, and brutal winters—
were the victims of a particularly nasty dzug, sending thousands fleeing to what they hoped would be a land of opportunity in Ulaanbaatar, only to be disappointed. “I could not find any jobs in Hovsgol,” she says. “It’s not just the animals, it’s the dzug. No matter how many animals you have, if there is the dzug it is impossible.”
When she arrived, she found no jobs and few prospects. All around her, however, she could see thousands of Chinese migrant workers moving into Ulaanbaatar, fueling an unparalleled building boom, working for minimal wages and raising tensions in a nation where vast numbers of Mongolians remain jobless. Beyond the railway issue, this is the second subject that sends shivers down the spines of senior Mongolian officials. These Chinese workers have found their way to construction sites where they are welcomed by builders seeking to cash in on the explosive development boom. Certainly there is a desperate need for the skills and willing hands represented by the migrants from south of the border, but Mongolians also need jobs. It has become, as Batchimeg’s reluctance to discuss the subject suggests, an issue of enormous sensitivity.
Eventually, Zaya found a part-time job as a cashier, which requires little more skill than the ability to make change and read numbers, and a husband—a fellow refugee of Hovsgol. But today, she has two children, aged two and four, “so I have to stay home now and care for the baby.”
How is her life now, compared with then? A long pause as she looks off into the distance. “There is no difference,” she sighs. She still lives in a ger. Her husband is a carpenter. “My dream is to have a house,” she continues. But right now, all she has is some electricity—and her dreams.
We’ve come across her, dragging a small, rusting luggage cart and two grimy gasoline cans filled with water that she’s hauling up a steep slope to her ger. There’s no running water in the community.
So each day, she has to walk down to a small, brick building that’s the water source. The city has drilled a well there and for a few togrog (a penny or so), villagers can fill their water jugs. We’re not talking potable water—it must still be boiled before it can be used for human consumption.
Each month, Zaya, her husband and their two children receive a stipend of about $20 from the federal government—a handout engineered by the MPP, which holds a majority of 46 seats out of 76 in the State Great Hural, or parliament. For now, it’s all that stands between Zaya and penury. “It’s 30 percent of our income each month,” she says. “With it, I can buy rice, flour. But we’d rather have the government give my husband some carpentry tools, then perhaps we could make a decent living.” And their lot is better than many of her neighbors in Ulaanbaatar. Only about half have jobs of any sort.
The predicament of Zaya and her husband, and that of dozens of others we talk with during our visit, raises a critical question that is dividing the nation and its leadership—handouts versus infrastructure. “I do not believe that distributing cash can be really helpful for the people, for the country,” both a senior aide to the president and a member of the opposition Democratic Party. “This populist policy actually hurts the economy by generating inflation and creating an additional burden for the private sector, also lessening the people’s need to work.” Still, the handouts are a potent political force that helps keep the MPP in power.
And indeed there are some who still see some progress being made against poverty, even in the most depressed communities of Ulaanbaatar. The United States Ambassador to Mongolia, Jonathan Addleton, measures progress in the ger camps by “the number of bright tin roofs.” The number of these red or blue roofs marking new houses has been increasing with every visit, he says in an interview—
a suggestion of new economic activity. Still, that’s just the sort of house that Zaya and her husband can only dream about. For every new tin roof, it seems there are still more gers, climbing out of the blighted valley into the hills, stretching ever farther from the bright lights and the big jobs downtown—for many a lifetime away, certainly out of sight and for the moment at least, out of grasp.
Indeed, Mongolia is rapidly becoming three nations—the urban poor, the rural poor, and the privileged. The big question is how the government might manage to bridge these gaps—before it is too late. Will the vast sums being lifted from the mines be able to trickle down, spreading outward from the smartly dressed crowds of young people strolling through Sukhbaatar Square in downtown Ulaanbaatar to the misery of the ger camps beyond the ring road and on to the rural herders of the countryside? The aspirations are real, and not yet an overwhelming problem, since the government’s handouts have been able to buy a degree of tranquility. But if commodity prices turn south, anything is possible.
There are those who see the ger itself and all it represents as one of those possible bridges—a central component of Mongolian society at all levels. Even the wealthiest Mongolians maintain their rural gers for sentimental reasons. At the sprawling window and door factory, just one element of the rapidly growing Max Group conglomerate, a huge intricately carved wooden door, wider than it is tall, is in the final stages of production. It’s destined for the ger of the Max co-founder, Ganbaatar Dagvadorj. Indeed, his Ramada hotel is the most advanced in Ulaanbaatar and where Vice President Biden’s advance party booked 100 rooms just after it opened for business.
In many respects, Biden’s visit, a total of six hours from wheels down to wheels up, which did not go unnoticed here, was nevertheless a defining moment for the country. It was the first for an American vice president since Henry Wallace stopped by for two days (truncated from seven) in 1944. That visit was of enormous importance to Mongolian Buddhists. A leading lama at the central Gandan Monastery explains it was Wallace’s request to see a functioning sanctuary that led the nation’s vicious Stalinist leader Choibalsan to order the rapid re-opening of Gandan and the return of a handful of monks and worshippers.
America is central to Mongolia’s search for a reliable third neighbor. A policy that is seen as a guarantee of the nation’s long-term independence. “The third neighbor, as far as I can tell, is not just one country, it is a number of countries,” says Ambassador Addleton. “At one time, soon after I arrived, I talked about the third neighbor being the rest of the world. And the foreign minister said, ‘no it’s not the rest of the world, it’s our fellow democracies.’ So he talked about Korea, Japan, India, Europe, and the United States. The first overseas visit made by President Elbegdorj was actually to India, in some sense reinforcing that particular third neighbor. We also appreciate and empathize with the Mongolian perspective which is that they want a three-dimensional relationship with the world and we are part of that.”
With such membership, however, comes responsibilities. And the United States and a number of other nations seem to be living up to these responsibilities only in the breach. The United States has its own agenda with respect to Mongolia, which is being increasingly perceived by the nation’s leaders and its people as no less pernicious than its superpower neighbors. The Biden six-hour “stop-by” had its own subtext, conveyed in the moments of private time with President Elbegdorj sandwiched between ceremonial horseback riding, archery demonstrations, and a visit to a ger. The United States is pressing Mongolia for two immediate concessions. First, it wants to turn vast stretches of some more remote areas of the Mongolian steppes into a waste dump for nuclear detritus—effectively rendering it permanently uninhabitable or exploitable, especially should vast mineral reserves be discovered deep beneath that territory. In September, however, President Elbegdorj is said to have put that project in the deep freeze and fired the diplomat negotiating it. “The nuclear waste of other countries is a snake grown up in another body,” he told a Mongolian journalist. “Receiving back the nuclear waste … is pressure from foreign superpowers, and we must throw out this delusion.”
Second, and more immediately, Biden was pressing Mongolia to make certain that an American coal producer, Peabody Coal, be among those foreign companies that are part of the concession to develop the vast Tavan Tolgoi deposits.
At the same time Biden was passing through, however, so was the president of South Korea. Two items were said to be high on that agenda—the 33,000 Mongolians working in South Korea, the largest population of Mongolians living abroad, and South Korean participation in the Tavan Tolgoi consortium. Mongolian migrant workers, many living in the all-Mongolian village of JungguÂ in Gwanghui Dong province, are said to be the target of Korea’s crackdown on all varieties of foreign workers. And South Korea is said to be especially anxious to be part of the coal mining consortium since it will also be serving as a significant market for the mine’s output.
In September, Mongolia’s National Security Council sent the entire contract, which did include Peabody, though not South Korea, back to the drawing boards for a complete re-thinking. Two months later, a senior government official emailed “there has [still] not been any substantial progress with the TT coal consortium project.”
Such tortured friendships will only add to the burdens Mongolia is already facing closer to home from Russia and China. Both are also pushing their own agendas, using a host of incentives from political and diplomatic pressure to outright bribery. President Dmitri Medvedev, for instance, is reported to have promised to write off 98 percent of Mongolia’s debt to Russia and provide the country with 375 million rubles ($12.3 million) for livestock vaccination for a substantial stake in a vast uranium mine that the Russians still see as their property. “It is not that logical and fair to link all the benign moves by Russians with their ambitions in uranium,” says Batchimeg, the national security adviser—clear evidence of Mongolia’s efforts at even-handedness in dealing with its immediate neighbors. China is also said to be lusting after the output of these vast uranium projects said to total 25,000 tons, potentially capable of producing upwards of $300 million a year of high-quality ore.
What Mongolia needs especially is selfless friendships with no strings attached from true democracies to which Mongolia looks for partnership and as an example. In turn, Mongolia may serve as an example to other democratic nations that it correctly sees are so important to its survival. Mongolia has truly been free to find its own way in the world for barely a quarter century without others seeking to force on them their own priorities. While the instinct of independence, indeed mastery of others, has been buried in their souls for a millennium, it is only now being tested again in an entirely new and more complex, even vicious contemporary environment. Certainly there are enough who want something from this nation without the democracies who should know better adding to their burdens.
Indeed, Mongolian officials boast proudly of their nation’s leadership, which it assumed in July, of the 25-nation governing council of the Community of Democracies. “We cherish personal freedoms,” concludes Batchimeg. “Our people again feel freedom. It is part of everyday life for every Mongolian. And democracy is a guarantee of our national security.” And, she might add, its place in the world, even in this most fraught neighborhood.