So, how did I end up going to Mongolia, of all places? I signed up for an Earthwatch-sponsored project, “Mongolian Argali” for the spring team in 2005 because I was going to be a mammalogist when I was in junior high, but had bombed high school chemistry, so that was that as far as a science career. However, I’ve maintained my interest in science and Earthwatch has been an excellent opportunity to: study lake ecology in Kenya, work an archaeological dig at a 1st century Roman fort in northern England and help with climate change research up on Hudson’s Bay in Canada. Everything but my first love, mammals. And Mongolia sounded like a intriguing place to visit, Chinggis Khan and all that. Little did I know. And it turned out that “little” was exactly what I knew.
I did some reading before I went and I’ve done a lot more since then. In fact, I’ve ended up trying to collect whatever I can find and own most of the contemporary accounts by people who have been there, either as workers or travelers. I thought that I would share them with you over the next three weeks. They should all be available through Amazon.
So, we’ll start with what is probably the standard history of the Mongols, called, with elegant simplicity, The Mongols. Written by David Morgan and published by Blackwell in 1986, it is part of the publisher’s series on “The Peoples of Europe”. Why the Mongols should be included becomes obvious on page 139, in which the author describes how, in 1241, they invaded Poland and Hungary almost simultaneously in a classic two-pronged attack, crushing both armies of European knights sent against them. Why isn’t eastern Europe Mongol-speaking today? You’ll have to read the book or at least use Teh Googles.
Next up is Hearing Birds Fly, in which the author, Louisa Waugh, tells of her experience in a remote Mongolian village after two years in Ulaanbaatar working at a newspaper called the Ulaanbaatar Post, now known as the UB Post, I believe. Not wanting to go home without living in the countryside that she fell in love with on a previous visit to Mongolia, Louisa takes a teaching job in Tsengal, the most western village in the country, population about 1000. The Peace Corps volunteer who told her about the “opening” recommended that, if she went, “to be sure to bring plenty of food with you, and a stack of books. There won’t be anything to do. Oh, and a toilet paper roll – take lots of that. You know what the countryside is like – they never have that stuff…..Louisa don’t look so worried – I think you’ll have an amazing time.” And she did.
Not surprisingly, some of the best and most interesting books about Mongolia have been written by journalists who were there during the transition from socialism to representative democracy. They were also some of the only foreigners there at the time, other than aid workers. Until the late 1990’s, Mongolia was not a place that one traveled to for a vacation, adventure-style or otherwise, with one exception I’ve found, but that’s for next week.
Jill Lawless arrived in Mongolia to edit the UB Post (It’s a small world over there for westerners, like in many countries with developing or emerging economies. Mongolia falls into the latter category) just in time to experience and document that transition. This is what she found: “Then the Soviet Union collapsed (1990) and with it the supply of money that had amounted to 30% of the country’s GDP. The Russian soldiers and advisors went home. The results were fuel shortages, closed factories, unemployment, scarcity. It has been called the greatest peacetime economic collapse in history……(the international aid community arrives with equal parts money and political advice)…And the Mongols, in their gers and their Soviet-built apartments with the cracks and bad plumbing, looked around, took deep breaths, and plunged in.” In Wild East-Travels in the New Mongolia (ECW Press, 2000), Jill not only covers the big picture of conditions in Mongolia when she got there, but has, by turns; wrenching, amusing and insightful accounts of the Mongolians she meets, works and travels with.
I have to say that my personal favorite “personal account” is Dateline Mongolia–An American Journalist in Nomad’s Land (RDR Books, 2006) by Michael Kohn, who wrote the Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia until last year. He lived in Ulaanbaatar from 1998 until 2000 as editor of a newspaper called the “Mongol Messenger”. One of his adventures involved flying to a dicy border area in Uvs Aimag (an aimag is roughly the same as what we call a “state”) to follow up a story about cross-border (as in the Russian border) cattle theft. Going along to cover the story for a Mongolian radio show that they both did for awhile was….Jill Lawless.
Kohn’s book was the one that had me, page by page, thinking “Yes! That’s the Mongolia I visited!”
In the interests of full disclosure, I must state that Michael Kohn is also a Facebook friend who is still interested in and writing about things Mongolian.