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Past and future an uneasy mix

SUN JOURNAL

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

Yet many older Mongolians in these ger districts cannot understand why younger relatives who had grown up in open spaces would want to live in apartments.

"Our children, maybe they can get used to living like pets in small rooms," says Ganbeter, a middle-aged ex-herder who moved to Ulan Bator two years ago. "But for us, we have spent too long riding around, with no boundaries. And here in the towns, all of the tradition of welcoming others is gone. People are cold to each other and even to their families."

In nomadic culture, with its wide-open spaces, etiquette dictated that one herder must always give another wanderer shelter. But now, older Mongolians say, strangers are no longer treated as warmly. Crime, virtually unheard of among herders, has become a problem in the capital.

And families are less closely knit. Human-rights workers estimate that 10,000 abandoned children roam the capital. They go to the streets, says Michael Kohn, editor in chief of the Mongol Messenger, "because of poverty and alcoholic parents."

Severinghouse poses this dynamic: Close families move to the capital, only to find no work for the adults. Embittered, living in ger suburbs, the parents then spend what little money they brought from the countryside on cheap alcohol, leaving their children to fend for themselves. In some cases the mothers move to China to work as prostitutes. The abandoned children play in the sewers of the ger suburbs and gather outside restaurants in Ulan Bator to scrounge for food.

What will the future hold for the descendants of Genghis Khan? Some Mongolians believe that a large portion of their population will continue to live as nomads. Modernization might even lead to a greater appreciation of traditional culture. According to Severing-house, "Some young Mongolians are wearing the traditional costume as a sign of pride."

Other Mongolia scholars, such as Melvyn Goldstein, co-author of "The Changing World of Mongolia's Nomads," think that older herders will retain the traditional lifestyle in the countryside, but that when this generation passes away, Mongolia will lose much of its distinctive nomadic culture.

Or, says one Western scholar, Mongolia might become a country where most people live in the cities, but everyone identifies with the rugged nomad.

"Sort of like Australia," he says.

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