Mongolia — one of the great places on earth. You almost have to use superlatives: largest-ever historic conquest. Greatest unexploited mining wealth. Most pristine wilderness.
Mongolia is Inner (a giant province in, + totally dominated by, China) and Outer (a nation , former Soviet satellite). Below these important historical overlays, Russian vs. Chinese, is Mongolian culture and the incredible land.
Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province (pink on the map) is so dominated, its capital city (Hohhot) isn’t even Mongolian majority. Why? As in Tibet, influx of Chinese people consolidates political control, a struggle thru the dynasties — sometimes Mongolian (the Yuan), sometimes Han Chinese. China may hope to spread its overpopulated people from the heartland. But mainly, it’s the extraordinary mining wealth: coal + those coveted ‘rare-earth’ elements that high-tech mfg requires.
The mines meet the grassland in the least-touristed area, it’s not even online or in books–by Xilinghot, county seat, northeast, where we spent 4 days early last month. It is, per a great Economist story, “no pastoral idyll” — especially not in June, 2011 when violence blew up between put-upon local herders and big, honking mining trucks (and “Mongolia” joined “jasmine revolution” as a banned Chinese search term).
Coal makes Inner Mongolia China’s fastest-growing province. A recent article (also in The Economist) calls the mines “devastation” and a “scar”. Yes. We saw those scars, still small vs. the vastness. But in a pristine ecosystem, their impact bleeds widely outward — in polluted air, water table, land. And in another powerful way, it bleeds the people, creating Mongolian powerlessness and anger, quiet and seething, mostly, as Mongolians’ dispossession grows, as land ownership is gradually transferred.
Already Mongolians are only 1/5 of the population, and if your parents choose Chinese school ingfor you (the only route to a non-herding job) you lost your ancestral language: most have.
The too-familiar plight of indigenous people.
Our young Mongolian guide’s older sister went to Mongolian schools & couldn’t find a job; he took a degree in translation. Angel of a guy, with an endless supply of friends-of-relatives-of-friends, who put us up in their homes (guest yurts — they say “ger,” like girl without the l, ‘Yurt’ is Turkish) over 3 days.
It’s majority Mongolian here; tradition survives, meaning hardship: no refrigeration, a diet of meat and the animals’ milk, horse-back herders, old Tibetan temples on the range.
Now 28, he herded as a child, for his grandparents. At 13, alone, fending off wolves by setting clothing fires and banging pots, he learned English from listening to the BBC. Then drastic legal limits on herd sizes (sheep, cows, goats) -per-land-owned were imposed, so the family’s herd was lost, their income plummeted, and finally they lost their land.
“The Chinese plant–they’re agriculture. We’re herders,” he said. “Then they dig mines, and at last buy your grassland. This is the steps. Because the Mongolian people aren’t easy to unite,” he said. “Now Mongols are weak.”
There are ribbons of fantastic, new, smooth Chinese roads here, making our trip possible so efficiently, so quickly (Outer Mongolia, you’d need 3 days to drive the horrid roads the distance you cover in a few hours on this side). We zoomed through sweeping horizons of incredible Chinese windmill farms (which our guide, BTW, loves).
The Chinese give, and the Chinese take away.
Our young guide: “I am Mongol and my culture is lost, but in my heart, it’s strong. Over 60 years we had great changes here. There were 50 Mongol families in my hometown and only 5 families kept the traditions. The world is eating up ethnic people–the world is like this. It’s hard to keep traditional, to keep the old life.”
He said this as he checked his cell (signal always available, middle of nowhere) to see whether Spain was beating Portugal in the Euro Football semifinals.
“We lost our grassland. Every blade is we love.” He said this stroking a blade. “In Mongolia, you have words you must hide in your heart. There are no people to tell,” he said. “Every 800 years, a hero brings together the Mongolian people,” he said (referring to Genghis Khan).
“You’ll see. A hero is coming soon.”