Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Mongolia: land of the eternal blue sky

Herds of livestock wander through the barren landscape of Khuvsgul
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
Mongolia is unlike any other country I’ve been to. For most of the year it’s a frozen wasteland. Temperatures plunge to minus 35, lakes freeze over and heavy snow piles up across the land. Then, for a few brief months in summer, the snow melts and the country is transformed into a land of wide, open grasslands, sparkling lakes and vast green forests under an endless blue sky. I visited in June, when this transformation was nearly complete. The snow had temporarily retreated to the mountain tops, leaving the land clear for people, animals and vehicles.

I was in Mongolia for three weeks – two in the capital Ulaanbaatar, and one in the remote northern region of Khuvsgul, which borders Siberia. These days, Ulaanbataar is a modern Asian city in the grip of a construction boom. It is centered on Sükhbaatar Square, which is deserted in winter but when I visited in summer was full of children and teenagers running around, playing football and cycling. Parents and grandparents arrived with young children. They climbed the steps of the Parliament building and held the infants up to see the colossal new statue of Chinggis Khan, who sat sternly on a giant throne gazing out across the activity on the square.

Chinggis (formerly known to as Genghis) has had something of a resurrection in Mongolia in the two decades since the end of communism, when he was considered too feudal for Soviet sensibilities. Now, statues of the world conqueror are springing up as fast as those of Lenin and Stalin were taken down. To many Europeans, Chinggis has a violent and bloodthirsty reputation, but to Mongolians he is a figure of justice and enlightened rule. My colleague Byamba explained: “Before Chinggis attacked a city he would say, ‘If you don’t resist, no-one will be harmed. He let conquered people keep their own customs and religion. But if you resisted, that was another matter!”

Election season

Supporters of the President gather in Sükhbaatar Square, opposite the statue of Chinggis Khan
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
The square is also the focus of political activity. I was in Ulaanbaatar during the Presidential election. The weekend before the poll, supporters of the current president, Ts. Elbegdorj, massed in the square to see him speak. They were mostly young and urban, including teenagers carrying Facebook ‘Like’ signs, but there were also a few older voters in traditional Mongolian costume.

At work, I had the chance to meet all three candidates. We took a pledge for children round the Presidential palace and opposition party headquarters and I photographed the signing ceremonies. Mongolia is almost unique in this region in being a fully functioning democracy, with no censorship, military coups or rigged elections. On the same day as the rally, I met the burly candidate for the former communist People’s Party, B. Bat-Erdene, who was also a famous wrestler. “In Mongolia, we have three ‘manly sports’ – wrestling, horse racing and archery,” Byamba said. “Bat-Erdene won the national wrestling championships eleven times.”

Although it was summer, the weather was wild and unpredictable. It could be warm and sunny one moment, then a cold wind would whip up and the sky would cloud over, knocking at least 10 degrees off the temperature. At one point, I was convinced that it was snowing. Then I realized that the air was full of clouds of white blossom, blown in from forests outside the city.

Wild, Wild West

Although Ulaanbaatar was interesting, for me the highlight of Mongolia was undoubtedly Khuvsgul province. I spent seven days with my colleague Byamba and our driver Agi travelling round the province and visiting remote soums (villages) to write stories about UNICEF’s work there for children.
Driving across the open landscape of Khuvsgul
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
On Monday morning, we flew to the provincial capital Murun, and began by driving west to Arbulag soum. We were in a massive SUV with thick tyres that lifted the vehicle high off the ground. The reason for this became clear a few kilometres out of Murun when the road came to an abrupt end. Unperturbed, Agi headed off across the plain, following one of several intersecting sets of tyre tracks. With no roads, there were equally no road signs, but Agi knew the route and navigated using natural landmarks. The ground was dry and dusty, studded with short brown and yellow grass. “The rains are late this year,” Byamba observed. “It should be lush and green by now.”

The landscape was almost empty except for herds of livestock, moving in long lines across dried out valleys between rounded rocky outcrops. Very occasionally, we would see a herder on horseback or motorbike, or a traditional ‘ger’ tent. Once or twice we passed another vehicle. Before the car came into view, you would see a cloud of dust on the horizon thrown up by its wheels. Looking back, I saw a similar cloud trailing along behind us.

On the way, Byamba told me about Mongolian culture and history. He grew up during the transition to democracy in the 1990s. “It was a very difficult time,” he said. “The government gave the Russians 48 hours to leave the country. In some houses, they had left with tea still in the pot. Then the economy collapsed. All the shops had empty shelves and you couldn’t buy anything except salt. It was not so bad for herders, who could live on their own animals, but for those of us in towns and cities it was hard to get enough to eat. I am 10 cm shorter than my brothers, because I grew up during this time.”

The Wild West town of Arbulag soum
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
We arrived in Arbulag soum in the early evening. It was almost exactly like a Wild West town from a John Ford western movie. Log cabin houses were spread out across a shallow basin between the hills, their land marked off by picket fences. The ‘roads’ were just bare earth spaces between the houses. There was a brightly painted billiard hall, a few stores along the main street, and a rudimentary petrol station consisting of a few pumps on the edge of the wilderness. The only signs of modernity were the electricity lines, an occasional motorbike and mobile phones – the latter often in the hands of a herder in traditional costume on horseback.

After meeting local officials, including soum doctor Uyanga, we were taken to our accommodation – a maternity cottage in the grounds of the local health clinic. This was the first of several unusual types of accommodation on the trip. There was a hotel in town but it was not recommended. “You won’t want to stay there,” Uyanga assured us. “This is much nicer.” The cottage was heated by a wood stove that was used for cooking but also pumped hot air into cavities in the walls, keeping the whole place warm throughout the night.

A horse skull overlooking the landscape
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
It was June and the days were long, staying light until around 10pm. Byamba and I had discovered a shared interest in hiking (Agi was more interested in fishing), so after dinner we decided to go for a hike. Outside the village there were no fences or paths – you simply chose a nearby hilltop and started walking. It took us maybe an hour to get to the highest point, with a rocky outcrop overlooking the village below. It was an amazing time to be out, with the sun low in the sky over the mountains on the other side of the valley.

I noticed several horse skulls on the rocks and asked Byamba about them. “The herders know their animals like you know your friends,” he said. “They really love their horses. When their favourite horse dies, they bring the head up to a place like this and leave it looking out over the landscape.”

Picture imperfect

The next day, we interviewed our first family, an all-female household headed by mother Otgontsetseg. She had been helped by the soum government after her husband died in a road accident when she was three months pregnant. The family were left without a breadwinner. Otgontsetseg and her two daughters, Naranzul and Saranzul, moved in with the girls’ grandmother and tried to make ends meet on her pension plus child benefits.

Otgontsetseg with her family outside their home in Arbulag soum
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
“It was a real shock for me when my husband died. It happened so suddenly,” Otgontsetseg told me, her voice trembling as she spoke. “We struggled to buy enough wood, clothes and food. My relatives helped a lot in those difficult days. At first our daughter Naranzul didn’t understand what had happened, but now she is starting to realise. She says ‘my father has turned into a picture’.” 

Otgontsetseg’s family were visited by an assessment team from the soum government, including Uyanga. She noticed that baby Saranzul was very small for her age and found that she was malnourished. She prescribed a course of therapeutic food. Although the family was struggling financially, Uyanga didn’t think this was the main reason for Saranzul’s condition. “I think it was the shock to Otgontsetseg of losing her husband,” she said. “She didn’t pay enough attention to feeding Saranzul in the first few months.”

After interviewing the family, we took them to the clinic to weigh Saranzul and check her progress. I gave her older sister a ride on my shoulders, much to her delight. Naranzul was an active and vocal child, constantly chattering in Mongolian and smiling broadly for photographs. I was expecting the children to be shy of foreigners, as they often are in Thailand, but these kids were completely unperturbed by my presence. If anything, they seemed excited by the novelty.

Before we left, we dropped Naranzul off at her summer kindergarten in the soum centre. She joined an art class with other children and started drawing a picture. “We went to see the forest yesterday,” she told me. “So today I am drawing lots of trees.” I asked Naranzul what she wanted to be when she grew up – a standard question for small children. “When I grow up, I want to go to school,” she said, perhaps misunderstanding my question. “And then my sister Saranzul can go to kindergarten.”

Playing with Naranzul on the way to the health centre
© Andy Brown/2013/Mongolia
In the afternoon we drove back to Murun and prepared for the longest part of our journey. The next day we were due to drive to Tsagaan-Uur soum in the extreme north of the country via Khuvsgul lake, a massive 2,760 square kilometre body of water and one of the oldest lakes in the world. I’ll tell you all about that in part two of this blog.


  1. Awesome place, Andy. It looks so unreal. I hope to spend a night inside a ger one day when I do my Trans Mongolian railway journey. :)

    1. Thanks Gina, that would be an amazing trip to take. Make sure you do it in the summer!

  2. Hello Andy Brown. Thanks for writing about my soum and my friend. It's really interesting . I know She;s very cool , strong woman. She could overcome all that pain . I'm very proud of her. Good luck for you.

    1. You're welcome Otgoo! I very much enjoyed visiting Arbulag soum and meeting Otgontsetseg, Naranzul and the rest of the family. The official UNICEF story is here: http://bit.ly/1keFcDE