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A land of contrasts

First impressions from Mongolia’s vast countryside, teeming capital

Mongolia, tucked north of China and south of Russia, is a high alpine steppe with massive open spaces and large mountains – a landscape similar to the San Juan Mountains. Enlarge photo

LUCAS BEARD/Special to the Herald

Mongolia, tucked north of China and south of Russia, is a high alpine steppe with massive open spaces and large mountains – a landscape similar to the San Juan Mountains.

Editor’s note: Lucas Beard is a Durango High School graduate who is traveling in and writing about Mongolia for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.

I looked down at the ceramic bowl filled with steaming liquid milk curds and wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I hadn’t even known that curds could be liquid. For that matter, I’m not sure if growing up in Durango prepared me to understand what milk curds really are.

The drink let off a strong odor of hot yogurt laced with little citrus notes that I assume to be spoilage. With a nod to my hostess, I threw the scalding mixture to the back of my throat. Biting back my body’s rejection to the unfamiliar tastes, I smiled and gave the waiting herder the universal thumbs-up.

In the pastoral nomadic land of Mongolia, dairy and meat are more than food groups: They are a way of life. In the early weeks of my yearlong Fulbright award to Mongolia, I have tried cow and mare’s milk in more ways than I could ever have imagined.

Boiling, drying, salting and fermenting are only a few of the preparatory methods perfected by those who live in the arid steppes around the Gobi Desert. During the colder months, these dairy products are served alongside a multitude of goat, lamb and beef dumplings and stews. Traditional Mongolian cuisine relies heavily on these animal products, relegating vegetables to a category known as “green foods.”

Geographically, Mongolia is a high alpine steppe with large plains and mountains. Similar to the San Juan Mountains, the country receives little precipitation and contains scant tillable land. While hiking in the mountains of the central province, I was struck by the similarities between Southwest Colorado and Mongolia. Half a world away, you could be tricked into thinking you were hiking Purgatory, until realizing that the skiing time-shares had been replaced by felt ger huts.

One of the first weeks in the country, I found myself in the passenger seat of a van driven by a taciturn Mongolian who voraciously chewed gum and drank tea, as the van trundled over a wide plain covered by an impossibly vast sky. I silently wondered how a horizon could feel so immense. Outside of the few major cities, Mongolia doesn’t have roads, but simply steppe: rolling green hills interrupted by the occasional river.

As we approached the swift creek, I could sense that fording it was a bad idea. It was wide, and our van was small. As the water sloshed over the hood of the van, and the engine bellowed with angry resentment, I looked around for any sign of a town or – anything. Surely, we would need help fixing the now smoking engine. But, as the vehicle rolled to a stop, all I could see was steppe and a few grazing animals. We were on our own.

An hour later, after the driver had inexplicably removed several long steel rods from the engine and brutally beat them with between two rocks, we were on our way. The engine’s rhythm had changed from metronomic steadiness to an irregular beat, but it didn’t seem to matter – we were moving. This is a common experience for travelers to Mongolia. The extreme self-sufficiency, the unexpected delays, and the hardy dwellers make the country seem like a time warp.

Nevertheless, I would be doing modern Mongolia a disservice if I only romanticized the countryside existence of the nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples. While a third of the country still moves with the seasons in felt tents, about half of the population lives remarkably cosmopolitan lives in the relatively new city of Ulaanbaatar. This fast-paced metropolis teems with life and swells with rural immigrants living on the surrounding hillsides.

While the countryside is defined by a peaceful connection to the land, Ulaanbaatar distinguishes itself by its constant movement. Mercedes SUVs pass pedestrians in traditional clothing, splashing the sidewalks with waves of muddy water. In my short time in Mongolia, it has become abundantly clear to me that the country is in the middle of an identity crisis, stuck between galloping urban capitalism and pastoral countryside life.

I am living in the fastest growing economy in the world. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, Mongolia’s industry grew by 37.3 percent in 2010, exceeding that of Qatar (second place) by 10 percent. The primary motivator for this extraordinary expansion has been the development of the mining sector in the Gobi Desert, home to an abundance of coal, gold, silver and fluorspar. This growth is rapidly changing many facets of traditional Mongolian society, including transportation and language. Where before herders rode horses to gather their animals, motorcycles now roam the steppe, and in a country where 20 years ago, only a handful of English speakers existed, Ulaanbaatar brims with foreigners and languages.

Yet, as with most rapid economic growth, Mongolia’s natural resource export industry has bestowed vastly unequal benefits of the country. This has contributed to a diverging wealth gap between the country’s rich and poor is growing. Some become fabulously wealthy from joint-venture mining projects, while others receive few benefits from Mongolia’s growth.

Again, I am reminded of Southwest Colorado’s past. Mongolia is a boomtown; it is the Wild West. Mining profits have led the country into a gold rush. There is a tangible energy on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, an indication and symptom of the dynamic change of currently affecting Mongolia’s people and economy.

lucasbeard@gmail.com

Dairy and meat are staples of the Mongolian diet. Traditional cuisine relies heavily on these animal products. Enlarge photo

LUCAS BEARD/Special to the Herald

Dairy and meat are staples of the Mongolian diet. Traditional cuisine relies heavily on these animal products.