"What do you think has changed since your last visit here two years ago?"
Bat-Erdene and Luya, irrespectively of each other, asked the same question yesterday over a couple of Chinggis beer and some 250 grams (25 cl) of vodka, in the Romance Restaurant.
Ulaanbaatar has changed a lot in only two years. One of the more surprising news was that the MPRP, Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, has split in two parts. From the ashes after 1 July 2008 arose a new Phoenix, with a new French inspired flag and new headquarters in Peace Avenue, the Mongolian People’s Party. All party members were not happy with this change. Former PM and ditto President N. Enkbayar chose to form a new party, hence the old MAXH are suddenly two. It is as if the Swedish Social democrats would change their name to Folkdemokraterna (People Democrats) while those voting against the change formed a new party with former PM Göran Persson as their leader.
On our way here we were stuck at the Beijing International for a day, due to an alleged snow storm in Ulaanbaatar. Among the group waiting were two men. A German pianist on leave from touring, going here to work with street children and a man from a big Swedish tools construction company on his way to an Australian gold mine in the Gobi desert. Those two men were probably the very image of Mongolia today. A Mongolia where some people get richer. A Mongolia where Armani and Louis Vuitton have opened shops at the Peace Avenue. (I don’t dare to show a photo here as the latter seem to bring legal actions against anyone using their logo in print…) A Mongolia where the Soviet style 90 year old State Department Store has transformed into a more Western shopping galleria with at glass-roofed well and escalators. Its supermarket packed with goods rarely seen five years ago. The other day we even bought Lambi toilet tissue at the Sky Supermarket.
Having lunch at Millie’s the other day I also noticed the change. Millie’s is an ex-pat place serving burgers, club sandwiches and milkshakes. Two and three years ago the accents in this place differed from RP English, American, Canadian, Swedish, Mongolian and German, customers being a mix of aid workers, journalists and consultants. Now the Australians have arrived, in hordes, e. g. a company of eight women, looking like typical ex-pat wives out for lunch, talking about The Royal Wedding that they were to see on TV on Friday.
Opposite Sukhbaatar Square, where the parliament and government house are situated, the new high rise building in the form of a Tibetan Buddhist lama hat is finally ready to move into. A landmark of downtown
UB that could be seen practically from all parts of town. On the way to the airport the Chinese government has built a new sports arena for all kinds of sports.
Out here in the suburbs on the other side of the river everything looks the same, though. The pavements are still made of packed dirt, the traffic is busier than ever and the houses are the same dull Soviet style buildings, grim on the outside, cosy on the inside.
This is also a Mongolia where the poor get poorer, when the Australian and American fortunes might not trickle down to those at the bottom, but disappear into foreign pockets. The average annual income in Mongolia is about $2 100, a third of that in e. g. Thailand.
In this week’s UB Post I read an article, also published in The Independent, about the new invading hordes in Genghis Kahn’s Mongolia. (This is after all a country where people talk about the big man as if he was still alive.) An American veteran of mine explorations in 56 countries was interview and called Ulaanbaatar “a frontier town” and Mongolia “the place to be”.
Mongolia is the size of Western Europe but with only 2,7 million inhabitants whereof half of them lives in gers herding sheep and horses. I guess it sounds perfect for a mine explorer. How is the herder living with his family in a tent on the steppe, moving with his livestock, going to object when an international company suddenly buys and exploits his ancestral land digging for gold, copper, oil and coal? And in what way will he and his family get part of the fortunes made of those resources.
Maybe the last week’s protests in the Sukhbaatar Square say something about how the herders find Mongolia of today. They have come by horse to protest against the government and claim that they will stay there as long as it takes for the government to resign and the dissolution of the Parliament. Eight gers and 400 horsemen on horseback, some 100 of them from Western Mongolia, like riding through Europe, right outside the Government House. One of them says:
“Our Mongolia’s vast territory is rich with mineral resources like Oyu-Tolgoi and Tavan-Tolgoi on the south, Khusuut on the west, uranium and oil on the east. Now these natural resources are becoming the property of foreigners, our country’s territory is shrinking from all sides and is being ruined everywhere. Social life is dying down entirely, fundamental factors of our nation’s existence are vanishing because of these cheating authorities who are selling national treasures to foreigners. Mongolia is facing serious danger that cannot be fixed. That’s why our Gal Undesten Movement is appealing to all Mongolians to wake up from the dream and save our country and our lives when it is not too late.”
When the Oyu Tolgoi mining exploration project, the largest mining project in the world and bigger than Florida, is finished in about two years from now it will account for more than 30 percent of Mongolia’s economy. Let’s hope those Australians will be keeping the welfare of the Mongolian people in their minds, even those who will never be able to have lunch in Millie’s or shop in the Armani store.
Photos in order: Chinggis beer and, probably, Chinggis vodka, The new Mongolian People's Party headquarters after the MPRP building was burnt down in 2008, New landmark building in domtown UB, Our hood in the suburbs, Street photo of downtown UB