Urban Nomads

Christal Whelan

Nomads in Mongolia are increasingly quitting the land and opting for a new life in the country’s capital, Ulaanbaatar. Although the immediate reasons are as numerous as the nomads themselves, the underlying causes are political, economic, legal, and cultural. Following the country’s Democratic Revolution in 1990, subsidies from the Soviet Union ended and the Russian presence waned. The industries that had once thrived during the communist era became privatized yet lacked the capital and the know-how to continue to function with any efficiency. What occurred in the town of Kharkhorum, the ancient capital of the Mongolian Empire, represents a scenario replicated across the whole country: formerly prosperous factories simply shut down and lay abandoned in a barren landscape. This coincided with the fledgling nation’s new Constitution, which revoked a law that had prohibited movement across provinces for over thirty years. Those who had once worked in these rural industries gained a new freedom of mobility and flooded into Ulaanbaatar with the hope of eking out some kind of livelihood. Herders who had lost livestock no longer protected under the safety net of government insurance also sought haven in the capital. In a rapidly changing country, still others who wished to invest in their children came for the nation’s best schools.

Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world. During the long winter months, Mongolians often take to wearing the traditional unisex del, or long wrap-around robe lined with sheepskin finishing in a Manchu collar. The sleeves, like those of Tibetan nomadic dress, may hang as much as a foot beyond the hands in order to double as gloves for a life once spent on horseback. The dress is cinched at the waist with a sash made from yards of brightly-colored silk — tangerine, lime, or fuchsia — or sometimes with an oversized silver buckled-belt. The del is the perfect dress for nomads, since it serves as clothing by day and a blanket at night. With this dress the men wear hats that look like small fur-lined palaces and boots with toes that turn upward as if to salute the eternal blue sky. The women, though, long ago abandoned the wild ram-horn headdress seen now only in traditional entertainment venues. Instead, they wear the del with stylish Russian fur hats and boots made in China.

As capitals go, the city of Ulaanbaatar epitomizes the nation — Mongolia — a land of extremes. Thus, April brings not showers but gusts of wind that come suddenly out of nowhere, toss up clouds of dust and dirt, and spin the particles into whirling spirals. Or sometimes, the winds draw long curtains of fragile topsoil across the sky in a dramatic representation of the land’s growing desertification from the over-breeding of goats for the lucre that cashmere can claim on the global market. No matter how many street sweepers the city employs, the winds are so capricious that their job is never done. Nor does anyone escape the grit between the teeth, the dust that stings the eyes, and dirt in the nose except maybe the few Bactrian camels who have evolved with three sets of eyelids and wander the outskirts of the capital beyond the Tuul River.

Given the seasonal dust storms in spring and autumn, and the bracing cold of winter, only during the short summer months do the sidewalks of Ulaanbaatar come alive in the manner of capital cities the world over. With fuel tanks mounted on two-wheeled chasses, old women in sun-bonnets or young ones in skin-tight slacks, body shirts, and oversized sunglasses sell kvass, a soft drink made from fermented rye bread, a culinary heirloom from the communist era when Russian was also the Mongolia’s second language. Shoe shiners line up their canisters of polish and brushes near amputee beggars while ice-cream vendors stand across from elderly men and women who earn a precarious living with body scales though few people actually stop to get weighed.

A father and son sell pinecones that spill over the rim of a cardboard box. Sticky with resin, the soft-shelled pine nuts loosen easily from the bracts and emit the evergreen fragrance of the northern taiga where miniature reindeer dwell and shamanism remains a living faith. During the summer months, those hardy souls who man the public phones at street corners and kiosks add fungi to their usual repertoire of lollypops and cigarettes sold singly or in packs. Runny-nosed street children wind their way in and out of restaurants and cafes where they hustle Kleenex and Orbit chewing gum at inflated prices while older children seated outside belt out long-songs for euros or tugriks or any currency on the planet.

The smell of mutton is ubiquitous in the city as sheep are the most plentiful livestock inthis landlocked country where the animal population far outnumbers the human. Mongolian fast food joints serve the national favorites — fried dough or steamed dumplings filled with the oily meat — and the restaurant chain “Modern Nomads” boldlyadvertises on its building front: “Animals eat vegetables, humans eat meat.” The localdrinking establishments both exoticise and indigenize the Celts with such names as the “Edinburgh Scottish Pub” and the “Great Khan Irish Pub.” Along the main artery of the city — Peace Avenue — urban nomads sell a light alcoholic drink made from fermented mare’s milk, not to be found in the upscale Korean supermarkets. These establishments cater to a more well-heeled clientele whose purchasing power includes expensive tonics such as black goatelixir, and essence of horse.

With its many Korean enterprises — restaurants, clothing stores, beauty salons, Internet cafes, supermarkets, churches, saunas, hospitals, tourist camps, schools, and the most prosperous university in all of Mongolia — Ulaanbaatar looks moreand more like an outpost of Seoul everyday. In surprisingly few words, a Mongolian elder summed up what he thought had ruined his country: “Democracy and Korean television dramas.”

The representatives of these two cultures are the hundreds of American and South Korean missionaries who actively vie for converts with remarkable entrepreneurial flare offering free English or Korean classes, Christian television programs for children, and employment centers. Demonstrating also a keen awareness of niche markets – at least one missionary converts through hand massage. Koreans and Americans are not the only ones in this tug-of-war for Mongolia’s soul. New religions from India — Sri Sri Ananda Murti and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar exist alongside the Vietnamese Ching Hai Wu Shang Shih – that attract through meditation and vegetarian restaurants. Japan’s Omotokyo, a new religion suppressed twice in its homeland, recently erected a six-story modern building along the desiccated Selbe River.

Come winter, the teeming street life of Ulaanbaatar disappears and the sidewalks become treacherous with black ice and missing manhole covers. Aside from Mongols in colorful dels, the thick haze that hangs over the city also characterizes the coldest season. It is then possible to see from where in Ulaanbaatar’s population of one million most of the street life during the warmer months actually comes. The smoke that hangs in the air spews from the narrow tin chimneys of about 120,000 households on the outskirts of the city. The Mongolians in these districts live in the traditional portable domed dwellings called “gers,” circular to withstand strong winds. Trellises and spokes form the walls and ceiling. Woolen felt with an outer layer of white canvas covers the intricate trelliswork. The inhabitants burn soft coal, tires, old shoes, or anything but the wood they can hardly afford.

Without running water, sanitation, and basic infrastructure, these ger districts expand horizontally and crawl rhizomically up the hillsides so that the newly-arrived nomads reside on the most distant summits. Although the lives of these urban nomads may actually take a downward spiral in their new environment, they are likely to tell people back home how congenial life is in the city. In this way, they foment incessant waves of migration to Ulaanbaatar. “Their pride gets in the way of their survival,” says Badruun Gardi of the Zorig Foundation who monitors the adjustment of nomads to urban life.

To the rear of the Urgoo Movie Theater, which recently hosted a Bollywood film festival, sprawls the ger district of Bayangol. Residents live in houses constructed of woodscrap and metal. Asked about the nomadic life and when they arrived in Ulaanbaatar, three young girls at the gate insisted, “We are city people. We were born here.” In the district of Chingeltei, forty-eight year old Bymba moved his family to Ulaanbaatar ten years ago from Oovds province, 1,500 km distant. His ger lies in an area of dozens of small materials stores specializing in wooden planks and metal sheets for gates and roofing. The pristine white-steepled Catholic church nestled in his neighborhood is a startling sight against a hillside patterned with circular dwellings and sprawling fenced compounds that enclose ger groups composed of kin. Bymba was a herder who lost his two hundred livestock to severe blizzards over a course of two winters. After that, he told his wife, “Now that we’ve lost our livestock our children will have to study in Ulaanbaatar.”

The tenants in the ger districts can neither afford housing in the cities nor is there enough housing to accommodate the increasing number of immigrants from the countryside. The government is currently engaged in building housing projects – modern and affordable apartments – for these nomads who have quit the land in recent years. Much of the Ulaanbaatar landscape already consists of the architectural heritage of more than seventy years of Russian domination that follows a logic of straight lines, squares, and concrete blocks. This angular sensibility seems to contradict the Mongolian preference for circularity as found in the rounded shape of the ger, the cone-shaped offertory stone cairns that cap the summits of hills and mountains, the nested circles of Buddhist mandalas, and the kinesthetics of circumambulatory prayer itself. The windswept curves of the landscape likewise reiterate the motif along with the dome of the sheltering blue sky, the object of highest reverence in Tengerism — Mongolia’s ancient sky religion embraced by Genghis Khan.

Manduul Baasankhuu, Deputy Project Manager of the Ministry of Road, Transport, Construction and Urban Development, offered himself as an example when he stated that urban Mongolians are still nomadic at heart. Although he lives in Ulaanbaatar seasonally, Baasankhuu returns to the countryside during the summer months. “It is a problem of infrastructure,” he said confidently. “If the problem of heat, sewage, and water got resolved, the people in the ger districts would prefer to live in gers.” Although the impact of modernization has curtailed the traditional roaming behaviors, urban intellectuals are also wont to define Mongolian uniqueness in terms of what they refer to as the “nomadic mind,” an entity construed in opposition to the sedentary mind of the country’s closest neighbors – China and Russia. Living on the vast steppes in which every move depends on unpredictable weather and wherever the livestock happens to lead appears to have discouraged anything resembling a five-year-plan mentality. Living also at tremendous distances from one’s nearest neighbor leads to idiosyncratic lifeways. Shared values and collective action become problematic later when nomads are forced to live more closely with their neighbors as is inevitable in Ulaanbaatar.

Former president of Mongolia — Nambaryn Enkhbayar — whose grandparents were nomads (and he a graduate of Oxford University), advocated an end to Mongolia’s nomadism. His vision included developing cities across the whole country in order to urbanize ninety percent of the country’s population. Although Enkhbayar’s solution to redefine Mongolia as a settled nation is radical and without equal precedent, he is not the first Mongol ruler to have struggled with the tension between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles.

Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, was deeply torn between these two contrasting worlds. As the first Mongolian khan to make the transition from nomadic conqueror to the successful ruler of a sedentary society, he had to satisfy both the agricultural Chinese and his nomadic brethren: be both the emperor of China’s Yuan dynasty and the Great Khan of the Mongolian Empire. His decision to transfer the capital of the Mongolian Empire from Kharkhorum, the heartland of Mongolian civilization, to Peking angered Mongol traditionalists who accused him of having capitulated to the sedentary world.

Khubilai Khan’s challenge was to find ways to maintain the delicate balance between ruling the sedentary civilization of China and preserving the cultural identity and values of the Mongols. The same dilemma has been recently reinvented within the context of modernity. How can Mongols maintain their cultural identity and still participate in the larger global system? Nomadic culture has always survived by absorbing the features of settled nations. At present, an affinity seems to exist between nomadic culture and the portable technologies of post-modernity — mobile phones, Internet, MP3 players, and GPS systems. With these devices now an integral part of daily life in Ulaanbaatar, a new kind of Mongolian has emerged -— the urban nomad — who is hardly shy of foreign influence and the technologies that accompany it. The broad sash of habitations that now cinch the capital city is the precarious home to this new kind of citizen who is both modern and Mongolian.

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Christal Whelan

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Photographs by Christal Whelan

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