SHAUN STANLEY/ Durango Herald
SHAUN STANLEY/ Durango Herald
Today, former Durango High School student Lucas Beard, son of Kim Eisner and Dana Beard, will move to Mongolia on a coveted yearlong Fulbright scholarship to study Chinese immigrants working in mines.
“It’s kind of a Wild West thing,” said Beard, who graduated from George Washington University with honors in 2010.
The flight alone will take more than 30 hours.
Beard, who has spent his last few years working as an Asia expert in New York City and Washington for Kroll, a corporate investigation firm, knows no one there – statistically understandable, as Mongolia is Earth’s most sparsely populated country.
Its capital, Ulaanbaatar, is the coldest capital city on the planet, with an average temperature of 32 degrees.
“I’ve spent a lot of time buying warm clothes,” he said.
Beard’s childhood friend and fellow DHS graduate, Luke Wheeler, said, “a lot of people are flabbergasted that he’s going to Mongolia. He’s always been an adventurous spirit who would just dive into something if he had an inkling it would be interesting to him. Then again, he’s going from Manhattan to Ulaanbaatar – I don’t see how you can get more different.”
Many Americans probably know little about Mongolia, except, perhaps, that in 1206, it was founded by Genghis Kahn, whom scientists suspect was the most prolific impregnator of women in history, with studies estimating that the brutal ruler has 16 million male descendents living today.
Along with South Korea, Japan and India, Mongolia is one of the only legitimate democracies in Asia. Though about 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line – 20 percent on less than $1.25 per day – it’s one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, reporting a 17 percent growth rate in 2011 because of foreign investment and its vast natural resources, leading some to dub the country “Minegolia.”
Outside Ulaanbaatar, there’s almost no transportation, few roads and spotty electricity. Yet Beard hopes to live in Tsetserleg, which is 360 miles southwest of Ulaanbaatar, has a population of fewer than 17,000 and a subarctic climate.
Survival on the steppe
One benefit of going to a small country is being more than a number. When he went to the Mongolian mission in New York City to get his visa, he was greeted with “Mr. Beard, we’ve been expecting you.” In a phone interview, Molor Amar, consulate officer, immediately remembered Beard.
Amar, an Ulaanbataarer, arched a jovial eyebrow at Beard’s plan to live in Tsetserleg.
“Is he a survival expert? ... Outside the city, when we say ‘middle of nowhere,’ it means middle of nowhere,” Amar said.
Beard, who speaks softly and precisely, is fluent in Mandarin and has extensive experience traveling in Asia. While in high school, he spent a year in Taiwan, learning Chinese, as part of the Rotary Club Youth Exchange Program.
In college, he spent every summer in Beijing, including in 2008, when he worked as a tourist guide, leading Olympian families – many related to members of women’s water polo teams – around the city.
Though he doesn’t speak Mongolian, or read Cyrillic, Beard’s flinty curiosity was evident discussing Mongolia’s lack of public transport.
“I think I’ll buy a car – but you’ve got to assume the cars will be older quality,” he said. “So I’ve been trying to figure out if I can fix an old Russian Jeep by practicing at this garage that belongs to family friends – they’re mechanics.
“Also, I’d love to live in a yurt – supposedly you can get one for $300, but there’s very limited information on yurt sales,” he said.
When hearing of this plan, Amar was merrily aghast.
“He doesn’t want to live there. It’s basically a round room, and you have to go to another place to use the restroom and shower. I’m sure he won’t like it,” he said.
Mongolia experts agree Beard’s research topic – Chinese immigrants working in Mongolian mines – is “huge.”
Speaking by phone from Singapore, Edward Elkin, a metals project financier employed by the Asian branch of a prominent U.S. investment bank who is not empowered to speak officially, described thousands of Chinese workers immigrating to Mongolia, both legally and illegally, to work in mines and on construction sites, often confined to camps.
“Mongolians tend to be very inhospitable toward Chinese migrant workers because of the perception that they’re taking jobs, but also, there’s a shortage of skilled labor. It’s a bit like in the USA. People are rude about Mexicans, but you try and get a WASPy American to clean the loo, and it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Elkin cited a recent incident widely repeated among Ulaanbaatar’s English-speaking expatriates, in which a Mongolian crowd allegedly beat up a member of the Indian consulate, believing him to be racially Chinese.
Julian Pearson, deputy British ambassador to Mongolia, said in a phone interview from Ulaanbaatar, “I’m confident there was an assault; the motivation, I wouldn’t have said.” Pearson declined to discuss racial animosity toward the Chinese, the legacy of Chinese imperialism and the effects of mining on Mongolian society, citing these issues’ intractable complexity.
“But obviously, it’s great news this guy got a scholarship,” he said.
Beard said he thought his parents and older brother were excited for him.
“My mom knows that I’ll handle it,” he said.