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Mongolia by proxy #3

by Bernard H. Wood on February 22, 2013

International generalisations, internal incompatibilities

(Trips and Tales: Part 101)

Brits complain about the weather and seem worn out. Well, so MB tells me, when I force him to generalise. I have to push the issue though, partly for my own amusement. It’s always fun to hear how they see us. At least we seem to have progressed beyond wearing bowler hats and stopping for tea at 4pm. I get the impression that the worn-out part comes from optimistic would-be adventurers stationed abroad who spend their working lives orbiting an office desk. Hardly a good grounding for a trek through the Gobi desert. And sure enough, the budding nomads often return with an exhausting, sunburnt dose of reality. To be fair, MB tells me; the Gobi guidebooks are limited in their availability and scope, so it’s easy to get a rosy idea of what’s waiting for you out there. Perhaps similar to European back-packers who fancy “a quick jaunt” through the Australian outback? I’ve done neither; I’ve just heard the horror stories.

He divides the Japanese into two figurative groups: the quiet, respectable ones, ever polite and prone to swallow down the contents of their plates even if they don’t like the taste, and the loud, boisterous, dog-wrestling party-monsters who quaff the booze and have a whale of a time. Both sound good to be around.

Then there is the German professional tourist: equipped, experienced and ready for the challenge. Oh we could play this game all day: summoning cartoon versions of various races. Perhaps the point is that MB‘s industry demands a versatility and flexibility capable of accommodating a vast amount of differing characters, expectations and levels of ability. No mean feat.

Horse riding in the Mongolian countrysideAdaptability does appear to be a recurring Mongolian theme. Well, they’ve had cause over time it’s true, and since post-Soviet independence, an external modernity has been steadily seeping in. Not to mention the country’s own internal changes.

It may not have made front page news here in the UK but Mongolia suffered a series of brutal winters (even by Mongolian standards) from 1999 to 2001 which decimated the livestock and forced a great many nomads to gravitate to outlying city regions, forming spontaneous Ger districts, favela style.

This survival strategy brought problems of its own, both for the established residents and for the desperate in-comers. Ulaanbaatar, I learn, is surrounded by four mountains, a situation that causes dangerous Ger-district flooding when volumes of mountain run-off heads down-hill. That and the winter smog generated by the coal fires of the arriving steppe refugees. Big problems

MB tells me of attempts to integrate the nomads into city life by offering low-interest loans on apartments but compatibility is key. Perhaps the ability to adapt only goes so far? Being able to modify – to Mongolise – vehicles imported in the recent surge in left/right-hand drive foreign cars is one thing. But just how do you expect a died-in-the-wool nomad to fit into a static concrete shoebox exactly?

With the best intentions in the world, it’s hardly a good match, especially for the older members of the steppe population who have become used to life being a “certain way”. No front porch or communal stairway can surely compare with walking out through your front door to find that your yard is the whole of the Mongolian steppe.

[Photo by stealthtractor]


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