Mongolian dreams

Some years ago, consumed by a mix of nostalgia and curiosity that followed the reading of a book on Genghis Khan, I developed an urge to visit Mongolia. I knew nothing about the country. The websites I scanned threw up images of a sleepy capital, Ulaanbaatar, surrounded by a vast, cold, and dry desert, dotted with settlements of herders living in gers. It seemed like a place untouched by modernity, a country the world had forgotten. This discovery only increased my curiosity, and when I spoke to Wife about a Mongolian holiday she promptly struck it down, wondering aloud if I next planned to visit the moon. Undeterred, I nurtured the idea for a while, creating imaginary itineraries along the steppes Genghis Khan rode eight centuries ago. Then, like other fantasies, this one too faded under the overpowering glare of daily life.

All this came back to me last week, as I read an article on Mongolia’s resurgence and arrival in the global economic scene. The country, which had opened itself recently to international mining companies eager to tap its prodigious mineral wealth, was no longer what it had been a couple of decades ago. Impressive growth figures promised prosperous times ahead, but I was struck more by the social changes fashioned by all this development:

UB [Ulaanbataar] is a boom town on the frontier of global mining. Hotels are bursting; the Irish pubs, of which there are several, are heaving with foreign miners, investment bankers and young local women with very long legs and very short skirts. French bistros serve steaks the size of tabloid newspapers. Dozens of cranes punctuate the skyline. The streets, empty 20 years ago, are now clogged.

This is a familiar story. Macondo, that doomed fictional town next to a river with a bed of stones that look like prehistoric eggs, meets a similar fate when the railway links the remote town to the rest of the world. In the beginning all manner of curiosities — electric bulbs, cinemas, phonographs, telephones — turn up by rail and invade the town. Soon a banana company is set up, and labourers from all over arrive to work in the plantations nearby:

There was not much time to think about it, however, because the suspicious inhabitants of Macondo barely began to wonder what the devil was going on when the town had already become transformed into an encampment of wooden houses with zinc roofs inhabited by foreigners who arrived on the train from halfway around the world, riding not only on the seats and platforms but even on the roof of the coaches. The gringos, who later on brought their languid wives in muslin dresses and large veiled hats, built a separate town across the railroad tracks with streets lined with palm trees, houses with screened windows, small white tables on the terraces, and fans mounted on the ceilings, and extensive blue lawns with peacocks and quails. The section was surrounded by a metal fence topped with a band of electrified chicken wire which during the cool summer mornings would be black with roasted swallows. No one knew yet what they were after, or whether they were actually nothing but philanthropists, and they had already caused a colossal disturbance, much more than that of the old gypsies, but less transitory and understandable. Endowed with means that had been reserved for Divine Providence in former times, they changed the pattern of the rains, accelerated the cycle of harvests, and moved the river from where it had always been and put it with its white stones and icy currents on the other side of the town, behind the cemetery. It was at that time that they built a fortress of reinforced concrete over the faded tomb of Jose Arcadio so that the corpse’s smell of powder would not contaminate the waters. For the foreigners who arrived without love they converted the street of the loving matrons from France into a more extensive village than it had been, and on one glorious Wednesday they brought in a trainload of strange whores, Babylonish women skilled in age-old methods and in possession of all manner of unguents and devices to stimulate the unaroused, to give courage to the timid, to satiate the voracious, to exalt the modest man, to teach a lesson to repeaters, and to correct solitary people. The Street of the Turks, enriched by well-lit stores with products from abroad, displacing the old bazaars with their bright colors, overflowed on Saturday nights with the crowds of adventurers who bumped into each other among gambling tables, shooting galleries, the alley where the future was guessed and dreams interpreted, and tables of fried food and drinks, and on Sunday mornings there were scattered on the ground bodies that were sometimes those of happy drunkards and more often those of onlookers felled by shots, fists, knives, and bottles during the brawls. It was such a tumultuous and intemperate invasion that during the first days it was impossible to walk through the streets because of the furniture and trunks, and the noise of the carpentry of those who were building their houses in any vacant lot without asking anyone’s permission, and the scandalous behavior of couples who hung their hammocks between the almond trees and made love under the netting in broad daylight and in view of everyone. The only serene corner had been established by peaceful West Indian Negroes, who built a marginal street with wooden houses on piles where they would sit in the doors at dusk singing melancholy hymns in their disordered gabble. So many changes took place in such a short time that eight months after Mr Herbert’s visit the old inhabitants had a hard time recognizing their own town.

“Look at the mess we’ve got ourselves into, “Colonel Aureliano Buendia said at that time, “just because we invited a gringo to eat some bananas.”

The banana company changes everything. Many years later, the inhabitants of Macondo, ever inclined toward nostalgia, contemplate the years before the railway with a sadness seen in grey old men looking back at their colourful past. But the story ultimately reveals that nostalgia is the refuge of those unable to see a future, those who know there isn’t one, or those who do not wish to face it.


The article on Mongolia had left me wondering if development will spare any corner of the earth, if modernity will leave behind any space untouched, but Macondo reminded me that these are questions every generation asks and never finds lasting answers to. The article arrives at a similar conclusion on the matter of home:

Twenty years ago it was hard to meet anyone in UB who identified with the city. Even if they were born there, they saw “home” as the “aimag”, or province, from which their parents came. Now a new generation of city-dwellers feels less attached to the countryside and to nomadic herding traditions. Their numbers are swollen by young people returning from an overseas education to chase the new opportunities the mining boom is throwing up.

Each generation brings with it a different idea of modernity, of development, and of where home is.

This morning, over breakfast, I spoke to Wife about visiting the remaining places untouched by development.

“So your Mongolian dreams are still alive.” she said, avoiding any commitment.

“Yes, but they’re not Mongolian anymore.” I replied. “And if we don’t hurry, there won’t be any place left on earth to see.“

“If all of earth is exhausted, there’s still the moon.”

6 thoughts on “Mongolian dreams

  1. Fascinating, as usual. There are so few unspoiled places left, and I admit I was a bit stunned to read what you quoted about Mongolia — even there? Watching an Icelandic documentary recently, I shuddered when the photographer-narrator spoke about Greenland, their barely-populated neighbor, and how the old Inuit ways and old environment would soon fall victim not only to global warming, but to the exploitation of the vast natural resources that lie under its ice sheet. Nothing is sacred or unreachable, when there’s money to be made. So perhaps I’ll get to Greenland before it’s too late, and you will get to someplace even more remote than Mongolia — in the nick of time — still more feasible than the land of bleu cheese!

  2. what? seriously? and just a month or so back, i was very unhappy to read in a magazine here that Mongolia is last wilderness left in the world. unhappy because it said ‘last’. Now even that is no longer there. and mining is going to destroy that place!!! o dear god.

    and to think that even i have this strong urge to go to Mongolia and travel with the nomads there. one of my mail ids have been taken from their nomadic tribes!

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