Notes From an Expedition: A View From the Square

By David A. Andelman

ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia—The imposing seat of Mongolia’s democratic government dominates the north side of Sukhbaatar Square in the center of the nation’s capital. From the top of the stairs, an enormous statue of Genghis Khan, whose forces at one time controlled much of Asia, half of Europe, and sent chills through the rest, stares down on a gaggle of young brides who gather with their families to celebrate their weddings on this auspicious day.

Among the bridal parties, however, only the grandparents and elder uncles and aunts sport any hint of the brilliant ancestral clothing—the garb of herders, who still form the backbone of this nation poised on the brink of an economic, social, and diplomatic breakthrough. The brides and grooms would hardly be out of place in any western capital. Indeed, much of their clothing might have been purchased at such boutiques as Louis Vuitton and Ermenegildo Zegna which dominate the eastern side of the square—a startling time warp that suggests so many of the forces at work here.

Adjoining the spanking new Ramada Hotel on the fringe of downtown, the Max Mall is in the process of welcoming the boutiques of even more western brands—from Pierre Cardin to Cacharel. Barely open a month, signs indicate they’re en route to filling the few remaining slots. This is where Vice President Joe Biden’s advance party chose to book 100 rooms for a month, a tribute to the Ramada being the first real American brand hostellerie. And it’s likely to be a harbinger of things to come.

Indeed all around tributes to the transition are underway. Construction cranes dominate the horizon. While not (yet) on the scale of Dubai before its bubble burst, there is a spirit of dynamism in the air that belies the poverty still surrounding the capital and out in the countryside. Bubble is certainly in the minds of many of the most astute businessmen and entrepreneurs. Still, they’re confident their nation can avoid a Dubai-style collapse largely because unlike the Arab emirate, the underpinnings of the development are tangible—gold, copper, iron ore, uranium, all in such vast quantities that western interests are vying for the ability to partner up with someone, anyone who might provide a key to the buried treasures.

At the Gandan Monastery, one of the few not destroyed by Soviet occupiers, who installed their first satellite government here in the early 1920s, religious life has resumed after a three-quarter century hiatus. During the regimes of such Stalinesque dictators as Khorloogiin Choibalsan, ironically trained in his youth as a Buddhist lama yet who reigned for more than two bloody decades until his death in 1952, and his successor Yumjaagiin Tsedenbal, whose rule stretched on another 32 years, tens of thousands of lamas were executed, monasteries burned or padlocked, and religion all but expunged. Gandan was turned into a showplace of communist dictators who were intent on demonstrating a hollow tolerance for religions they abhorred and persecuted. Today, Gandan and Buddhism have made a dramatic resurgence. Religion is once again a force of life here.

Most families would ideally like to have one child as a physician, to care for them in their old age, and another a lama to make sure they have a smooth passage to the next life. So, not surprisingly, there is no shortage of young students in the most prominent lamaseries like Gandan. In one classroom, 14 men and two women (Mongolian monasteries are resolutely integrated), are studying Buddhist philosophy, while down the corridor, six men learn English at the hands of an adroit woman instructor, their vocabulary words scrawled on a blackboard as they squat on the floor in front of their desks. For 10,000 tugrik (about $10), an ample Buddhist monk chants an extended prayer for long life, health, and happiness for myself and my son Philip. We hear our names quite clearly as he slowly turns the ancient pages intoning the Tibetan chants in a small, crowded room, gongs echoing in the background. Around the corner, a plaque identifies studios of the monastery’s radio, broadcasting on 97.5 FM.

It is all part of this unique system that is evolving here on the Central Asian steppes—part Western democracy, and part a derivation of the freedom born of herders and nomads who continue as the lifeblood of this nation, a millennium or more after they first appeared.

“We truly believe that the sense of freedom is in our blood,” says a senior Mongolian official, touching her fingers to the artery inside her left elbow. “Just because of our geographical location, we should give the power of freedom to our people, we have to listen to our people. Then no one can truly impose ideas on three million people. But if our president, our prime minister says I have to listen to my voters, what can other countries do with our population? Democracy is a guarantee of national security. So we need this thing called democracy, even if it is very hard, very messy. Still we think we do need this.”


David A. Andelman, editor of World Policy Journal, has just completed the fourth leg of a five-week expedition through Russia, Siberia, Mongolia, and China. Friday morning he heads out into the countryside to explore rural Mongolia.

[Photo: David A. Andelman]

You can read his next dispatch, Across the Mongolian Steppes, here, or visit the Notes From the Expedition homepage here.

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