In a brief respite from last week’s authenticity overdose, MB points out that Camp Elstei has succumbed to Western influences to some degree at least, there’ll always be the Brit abroad looking for his fish and chips after all. I may even be one of them. It’s pretty tame though, the western corruption so far; extending to board games, books, DVDs (on the Gobi desert for instance) and a satellite dish to pick up the football. Yes, MB tells me: “Mongolians are keen to catch up on the beer and football.”
Football does appear to be one of Britain’s most successful exports it’s true,with the names of hallowed teams and players dropped enthusiastically in various unlikely corners of the globe. I don’t say that as a fan – I don’t get it at all – but the vast majority do, and good luck to them.
MB tells me that things have changed over the last ten to fifteen years, at the far end of which every Caucasian was considered “an American” and drew interest wherever he or she appeared. That’s predominantly positive interest incidentally, with attempts to communicate across the great language divide, and framed through the lens of Mongolian practicality.
That seems to be an important factor: MB conveys an idea of the kind delights that would pique interest: a decent torch and a damn good raincoat, things of actual use in their lives out on the steppe. So, no interest if you pulled out an iPhone then? MB replies: “Well these days they would probably pull out an iPhone too … it may not be the latest model but…” Yes, we are talking about a process of selective adoption, whilst still retaining an identity. Well, modernity spills outwards from increasingly “developed” towns and cities, tapering off wave-like with distance until it only just washes against the farthest, traditional outposts. Interestingly, MB reveals that the population is divided very roughly into two halves: those within Ulaan Bataar (the capital), and those living everywhere else, so the apparent “back-waters” are still far from being extinct, forgotten or irrelevant.
There are still a multitude of Gers out on the steppe, naturally. But an increasing number are fitted with satellite dishes or miniature wind turbines and solar panels, set to steal useful volts from the elements. Subsequently, the power is captured into car batteries and then spent on hours of jury-rigged TV, or perhaps something more useful. We are now talking about the instantly appealing process whose name translates roughly into “Mongolisation”, MB informs me. What a fantastic idea.
It’s a process of absorbing the gifts of encroaching modernity on Mongolian terms, from the perspective of self sufficiency – and it’s the absolute anti-thesis of our disposable culture. Yes, technology, tools and “gear” may be taken in, their workings understood so that they can subsequently be modified, rigged up and repaired ad-hoc with whatever is to hand. No point in calling out the repairman if you are 250 miles from the nearest town. It’s time to break out the tool box and some common sense, and then fix it yourself. MB tells me of a fellow Mongolian he crossed paths with at Camp Elstei who couldn’t read or write but was an absolute demon at fixing a satellite dish. Yes, life is all about priorities. I learn from MB that “owning a USSR driving licence” – and, by extension, a car – “forced knowledge and self-sufficiency”. Such was the inner resources required to keep a vintage automotive contraption on the road during the Soviet era!
You’ve got to love their attitude: the absolute refusal to be victims of extended warranties, call out charges and hilariously over-priced spare parts – even if they could access any of the above. That’s something we could all learn from in our western incapability and ignorance, where a knock on the door from a service engineer costs 50 GBP before parts, labour and VAT are added. And we just roll over and empty our wallets. Count me out.
More next time.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 101) Mongolia by proxy #3
[Photo by stealthtractor]