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When we think of Mongolia today, we mostly mean the country that’s the People’s Republic of Mongolia. But these terms are confusing when we remember that Mongolia was, at one time, the largest Empire on earth… with dominions and vassal states stretching from the Danube in Europe to Japan and Java. Mongolian power and influence stretched far beyond the boundaries of the country we identify on today’s maps. Even so, the Mongolia of today remains an immense territory, more than five times the size of contemporary Germany… yet with a national population barely larger than that of Dusseldorf, making it one of the most sparsely-populated countries on earth. These statistics are less surprising when we consider that much of the territory of Mongolia has an extreme climate that many peoples would find hard to tolerate – summer high temperatures into the mid-40s Celsius, but winter lows dropping to –45C and below. Mongolia is also home to a huge zone which is famous for its inhospitable climate – the Gobi Desert, which lies entirely within Mongolia’s borders.
A large number of Mongolians – probably a far larger number than the Government would care to admit to – live as nomadic herders on the steppes. The collapse of soviet-style industry has in fact led to people returning to this lifestyle – but more from economic desperation than any liberal-minded search for a sustainable lifestyle. Outside Ulaanbaatar itself, there are very few centres of population which can offer employment to more than a few – mining being the only exception. However, the USSR carefully arranged that copper ore mined in Mongolia was not processed there – but instead trucked by cargo-train across what was then the soviet border, into what is now the independent state of Kazakhstan, where the smelters were located. This sad fact has kept Mongolia poor – the only industry it has capable of producing large-scale profit is limited to selling an unprocessed raw ingredient only – the processors and smelters, located across the border, make the real money.
The major figure in Mongolia’s history is Chingghiskhan, whom westerners know as Genghis Khan (the “g” should be pronounced “dj” to approximate his real Mongolian name). The spectacular success of Genghis’s military campaigns relied on the unique Mongolian method of warfare – lightly-armed cavalry lumbered with almost no armour at all, carrying few provisions and little equipment, and able to cover huge distances at great speed. Critically, the Mongolian Army traveled faster than word of its approach – they arrived before any warning. However, they had a very persuasive recruiting methodology – “join us, or you die”. It’s now thought that the vast bulk of the huge army that followed Genghis into Central Europe weren’t Mongolians at all – they were Asiatic Siberians, Kazakhs, and others who had been collected along the way, and taught the Mongolian method of warfare. Only the commanders and officers were native Mongolians – not that this nuance mattered to their victims. Mongolian military justice was harsh. When they besieged the Central Asian city of Bokhara (at that time a part of the Sogdian civilization) they offered the City Governor a pound of silver coins if he would surrender his city to them. The Governor, of course, refused, but the city was taken in combat. The Mongolians found the Governor afterwards, and told him he could still have his silver, if he wanted it. They heated it until molten and poured into his mouth and eyes.
Chinggiskhan’s name and legacy was utterly forbidden during the periods of Chinese and then Communist Rule. Mongolia had fallen under Chinese control from the C17th onwards, largely because a leadership dispute weakened the Mongolian Empire and it imploded without its enemies needing to do a thing. China simply picked up the reigns of power and took over – an easy thing to achieve, since the “Chinese” leaders of this period were in fact Mongolians anyhow, who had long since “gone native” and established themselves in China. (The typical “pagoda” architecture we associate with Imperial China is in fact a Mongolian import – Beijing itself was a Mongolian settlement originally named Khanbaliq… although official modern Chinese history tries to downplay this story). However, history repeated itself, and the internal disputes in Chinese government in the 1920s gave Mongolia its chance – they appealed for help to their neighbours… and Mongolia only had one neighbour other than China itself… the USSR. But the timing couldn’t have been worse – Lenin was on his deathbed and unable to see anyone or decide anything. Troops were promised in Lenin’s name.. but when they arrived Lenin was dead, and Stalin was directing the operation. Suddenly Mongolia had been invaded by the army it believed was coming to help them remove the Chinese. Within a few short months the major figures in Mongolian leadership – the Bogdo-Khan, the Buddhist leader – and Sukhebaatar, the Revolutionary Leader – had both been killed in “mysterious circumstances” by Stalin’s troops. The close-down of the monasteries, and massacres of the monks, began quickly afterwards.
Mongolia’s emergence from Communism in 1990 was one of the strangest of all. Reading of what was going on with the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the fate of the communist leaders in Central Europe… the Mongolian Communist Party decided to vote itself out of existence. All of its members appeared the next week as newly-converted supporters of democracy – and all kept their jobs, offices, cars, nice apartments etc. The situation has not substantially changed since – although the 2008 Elections provoked some demonstrations that closed the streets for a short time.
Ulaanbaatar (the soviet-era spelling “Ulan-Bator” is now considered incorrect, although most Mongolians will use the slang term “youbee” (ie “U.B”) for their capital city).
1.56 million sq km (603,909 sq miles)
2.7 million (UN, 2007)
Men 64 and women 70
1 Togrog (tugrik) = 100 mongos
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