Past and future an uneasy mix


Mongolia: Nomads who move to the cities in search of a better life often find they lose their traditions, their health and their children.

November 26, 1999|By Joshua Kurlantzick | Joshua Kurlantzick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- Inside the traditional tent home, or ger, of Mongolian nomads, the squinting yak herder proffers a bowl of liquid refreshment.

"Vodka," he says.

It hardly looks like vodka, and it proves to be fermented mare's milk, the national drink of Mongolia. Seventy years of Soviet-influenced communism have stamped the language, and Mongolians now use "vodka" as the generic term for any alcoholic beverage.

As his visitor hesitates, the herdsman abruptly turns and grabs a familiar-looking glass bottle out of a box.

"Maybe you want Sprite?"

The traditional and the modern coexist in Mongolia, where children of pastoralists, dressed in knockoffs of the latest Western fashions, dance to Latin pop in Ulan Bator's hyperkinetic discos and teen-agers on horseback flock to watch Mongolian-language gangsta-rap concerts.

But the pace of change is drastically altering the lifestyle of one of the world's oldest nomadic pastoral societies, energizing some Mongolians and disorienting others.

"I cannot think of another place where people were less prepared to jump into the 20th century," says Shel Severinghouse, former head of the Asia Foundation, Mongolia.

Mongolia, as big as Alaska but with just half the population of Maryland, is perhaps the most isolated state on Earth, wedged between Chinese mountains, Siberian forests and the Gobi desert. Blisteringly hot summer days yield to minus-50-degree winter nights.

People survived in this harsh environment by tending yaks, sheep and other livestock, moving frequently in search of pastureland.

Mongolian children learned to ride horses as soon as they could walk -- and to dine on the go. According to legend, Genghis Khan invented plov, a glutinous mixture of rice and mutton fat that could be stored in saddle bags and consumed without preparation, so his soldiers could eat while riding.

Beginning in 1923, the communist government tried to organize herders into collectives, but there was little enforcement of new laws and life changed little until Mongolia's first free elections in 1990.

Privatization and democratization have changed nomadic life far more than communism ever did. The new government is pushing hard to replace traditional barter with a cash economy.

Due to the concentration of wage-earning jobs in cities, nomads are moving en masse to urban areas. There many encounter modern life for the first time.

Ulan Bator, where a third of Mongolia's population of 2.5 million lives, is no longer a sleepy Central Asian backwater. Brightly painted new eight- and 10-story hotels rise among decaying Soviet-era government buildings and low-rise apartment complexes with peeling paint and rusting fire escapes.

Construction crews attack potholed streets, build new roads, remodel the airport. Billboards tout new Mongolian businesses launched with foreign capital.

Khan Brau, a microbrewery named after a famous warlord of the past, is a Mongolian-German joint venture that has become the place for young friends to meet over food and locally made beer. It is always crowded -- even on the outside, where homeless children reach through railings to grab at the food on patrons' plates.

Mongolia's rapid population increase (2.9 percent a year) makes it a young country, and in Ulan Bator more than 50 percent of the people are under 25. This young generation, less rooted in the traditional culture, perhaps more receptive to outside influence, has vigorously embraced modernization.

The prime minister, M. Enksaikhan, was 41 when he took office in 1996. Most successful new enterprises, like the Khan Brau, are managed by men and women no older than 35. In the summer, enterprising teen-agers set up impromptu street-side cafes along Ulan Bator's avenues. These cafes add color to a city dominated by squat, block-like structures.

At night, young Mongolians party heartily at Ulan Bator clubs. Western brand names predominate: Wrangler jeans, Armani shirts, Nike hats, Gucci vests -- and also Russian-mafia suits. The entertainment is Ricky Martin songs, local gangsta-rap acts and after midnight, a strip show.

Many older Mongolians worry that, in this atmosphere of unbounded freedom, the country's youth is too quick to abandon the lifestyle and values that have underpinned this society. Certainly, there is a generation gap.

The parents of these youth have moved to cities, too, looking for work. But they often wind up on the margins of urban society. Businesses are less willing to hire older workers, and the ex-nomads are reluctant to change.

Many set up their gers in tent suburbs and seek to re-create countryside nomadic life. Jobless men and women wander aimlessly as if they still lived on horseback, repeatedly circling through the small suburban areas. They continue to eat the countryside diet -- mutton, cheese and mutton fat -- but no longer lead an active lifestyle. Health deteriorates. Alcoholism is common.

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