MONGOLIA LETTER: Mongolia’s fabulous reserves of gold and copper mean it is on the brink of transformation from one of the world’s poorest countries to among the richest, writes CLIFFORD COONAN
TEENAGERS LIKE to hang out at the Zaisan Memorial in Ulan Bator, a monument to Soviet soldiers killed in the second World War that sits on a hill to the south of the Mongolian capital and looks down over this small, fast-growing, desert city.
Waving and smiling, the fashionably dressed young people like to photograph each other and even stage parties beneath the stunning circular mural, which has pictures of Soviet troops helping Mongolia achieve independence from China in 1921, depictions of a decisive tank battle against the Japanese in 1939, and stirring socialist realist scenes of Mongolians and Russians beating the Nazis, or helping with cosmonaut missions.
Driving into town, the whole of Ulan Bator seems like a settlement. It has a temporary feel, until you get downtown and see construction in progress on skyscrapers, and the central Sukhbaatar Square, dominated by a statue of Genghis Khan.
The Great Khan is central to Mongolian life. During their European tour in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Mongols used horsemanship and bowmanship to conquer most of Asia, including the Middle East, and Russia, about 22 per cent of the world’s total land area, killing 40 million people.
Their campaign might even have cooled the planet, marking the first time in history a single culture caused man-made climate change. The Carnegie Institution’s department of global ecology believes the Mongols may have wiped about 700 million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere by killing so many people, as depopulation over such a large area meant that the forests came back to farmland.
Genghis Khan’s name is on everything, from the airport to one of the local beers, and even an Irish pub. He’s also written into a chunk of the genetic code in the region. Chromosome data published in the last few years show that nearly 8 per cent of the men living in the region carry Y-chromosomes that are nearly identical – that’s 0.5 per cent of the male population in the world, or roughly 16 million descendants living today.
Regardless of their DNA, the young people at the memorial are fiercely proud of their heritage. Mongolians have a reputation for a muscular form of nationalism, but changing economic realities mean they are looking forward. The Soviet era, too, is fading quickly into the past.
Since 1990, Mongolia has had a multi-party parliamentary democracy. The prime minister, Sukhbaataryn Batbold, is a businessman, and President Elbegdorj Tsakhia graduated from Harvard University.
Nearly half of Mongolia’s population still live in tents known as gers, and make their living from herding animals. But the country’s fabulous reserves of gold and copper mean it is on the brink of transformation from one of the world’s poorest countries to among the richest.
The Oyu Tolgoi mine is the world’s largest mining exploration project, while Tavan Tolgoi is the world’s second largest coal deposit.
The resources boom tips over into all areas of life. The bourse in Ulan Bator is in a pretty little pink building. Once a children’s theatre, it’s now the world’s smallest stock exchange, but also the fastest growing.
From the top of the mountain you can see the villa developments where those made wealthy by the resources boom will live.
“We are a poor country. What options do we have? We need to do something today, otherwise we have to emigrate,” said one young woman, Bolormaa.
Mongolia is the size of western Europe but it has just three million people, giving it one of the world’s lowest population densities. Mongolians are famously close to nature. There are concerns that the environment could suffer from the sudden arrival of Aussie diggers, British bankers and Canadian geologists. However, the mining sector accounts for 81 per cent of exports, 32 per cent of government revenue and 30 per cent of GDP, and the country’s resources remain largely untapped.
The air can get pretty dirty during the winter, when everyone burns coal, or anything else that comes to hand, to keep warm as the temperature drops to minus 40 degrees. UB, as the hipper locals like to call it, is the coldest capital city in the world.
In recent years the extreme cold on the Steppes has seen mass migration of herdsmen seeking refuge in the city – their animals died from the cold so they had no reason to stay on the grasslands.
At the base of the mountain is a 23m statue of Buddha, looking uneasy. Tetchily poised between China and Russia, Mongolia’s position as a buffer state between two of the world’s biggest and most powerful nations has been problematic for hundreds of years, and continues to be today.
Mongolia was a province of China until 1921. Crucial to future development will be how Mongolians get over their traditional dislike of the Chinese. China is set to be the country’s prime customer for selling resources and Mongolia’s largest trading partner.
There is every sign that the Mongolians are being pragmatic.
Locals are getting used to the side-effects of development. There is still horse manure in the streets, but you can see from the Zaisan Memorial how the Toyota Land Cruisers are backing up UB’s thoroughfares.