18 October 2006

Memories of Mongolia

061018 1154 Sunbird Digital Relaxation Harbor

I am sitting in the Sunbird Digital Relaxation Harbor on a hard chair but in front of my laptop. Mongolia is now behind me, Bangkok lies ahead, and I relax in the harbor, in limbo between legs of the trip.

When I arrived back in Beijing, I went down to the bottom floor to have some coffee and cake (I ordered a Danish, and got chocolate cake…), a couple of Russians came in to get some food. They conversed haltingly with the Chinese wait staff in English. Proof positive the U.S. won the Cold War; the Chinese and Russians use English to communicate. (In this case, the Chinese far exceeded the Russians in English ability). Cultural issues also arose, as the Russians needed instructions in the use of chopsticks, and asked for "potatoes with no salt in hot water," meaning boiled potatoes, but the poor Chinese could only respond that they had French chips style potatoes.

Mongolia was a very interesting place. (More photos later, as I don't have my connecting cable with me, but left it in the checked luggage.) Ulaan Baatar is neither a Western city nor an Asian city. It is a border, a frontier, a crossroads of culture, commerce, and communication. Whereas major Chinese and South Korean cities, when they were going through their emergence, had very few foreign foodstuffs, Ulaan Baatar has nearly everything any expat could want. There is no reason to feel nostalgic or homesick as long as you can get pretty much any ethnic food on the planet (I even ate at a very nice Indian/Mexican restaurant). In fact, one could even make a visit to the city just for the tour of restaurants, bars and cafes.

This was one of the unexpected parts of the visit. Now, I made sure to have no expectations for this trip; I wanted to be surprised and not jaundice my view before I even arrived. But a cosmopolitan city, one with a bakery run by an Austrian, an Irish pub with its own jazz ensemble, a Cuban/American cafe run by… you guessed it, a Cuban and an American. This was certainly not in even the glimmers of anticipatory mulling. It is a city of dichotomies. It is Asian and Western. It has a big city feel in a small city space. It is fast paced and unhurried. There is modern infrastructure, high-rises, and neighborhoods of Gers. There is anticipation in the air, and little organization to fulfill the promise. It is a place where the revolution against the revolution got halfway accomplished and fizzled out. The Stalin statue is gone, but Lenin's remains.

It is this half resolution, this lack of motivation, that may be the biggest shortcoming. If you talk to the Mongolians in the city, they recognize they have a long way to go. They see the massive wealth gap between the government officials and business moguls and the urban poor. They see corruption, share stories of rumored nepotism and collusion. But they also proudly say there is no homelessness or starvation, despite the massive endemic poverty. This is telling. The lack of starvation and homelessness (assuming it is true) is a reflection of the ability of the traditionally nomadic culture to simply subsist. There are whole neighborhoods of Gers, the felt-covered round houses. They are content to live in them. The food is cheap, people eat. They are comfortable with what they have.

This is admirable, in part. It is good to be satisfied with the simple things. But it also means there is no motivation to learn more, to be more, to do more. Service in Mongolian establishments is spotty. Unlike China or South Korea, there is little competition for the service jobs. So there is little motivation to do better. No one is standing on the street corner waiting to take your job. Even if they don't have a job, they don't seem to be in a big hurry to find one. The contentedness, the complacency, leaves the society as a whole largely unmotivated. And so, while individuals may be strongly motivated, overall there isn't much push internally for improvement. The economic development, the construction, the new businesses, are all foreign investments, foreign operations.

Like the breaking away from Communism, where they joyfully gathered on a cold February day to tear down the statue of Stalin in front of the library but got bored, lost motivation, and never bothered to tear down Lenin over on a different street. This is the way political reform has gone, and domestic economics. And it is holding Mongolia back. This is a nation already constrained by its borders, by being sandwiched between two super powers that don't trust each other, its own borders largely artificial constructs of previous periods. As one student told me, "We used to be dependent upon Russia, now we are dependent upon China," but they don't like or trust either neighbor. But without a strong internal power, three is an acceptance of the reality that Mongolia will always be a vassal, despite its own expansionist history.

That said, the Mongolians are literate, polite and overall very likeable people. They are friendly, they do a better job of speaking their guests' languages than foreigners do of attempting Mongolian. They are open and generous, willing to try new things and new ideas. It is an interesting environment to visit, a very open and welcoming city, with a little something for everyone. And this doesn't even get into the natural beauty of the land just a few kilometers from downtown.

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