What's Mongolia Really Like?

Personal essay

By Jonathan Phillips - Peace Corps Volunteer: Mongolia (2003-2005)

No matter how much an outsider researches and studies another country, it's difficult to really understand what's going on there until you're physically present. We can only read books and articles and statistics to try to paint a picture in our minds of what a nation and its people are like and what their issues really are. When I was first told I would be going to Mongolia to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in community and economic development, I immediately immersed myself in as much information as I could get my hands on about the country. After the preliminary research and three months of in-country training in the language, culture, and business sector, I set off to my site in a remote area of western Mongolia with the confidence that I had a good understanding of what the people needed and of the work I would be doing. But it was only then that my eyes really opened and my outsider's assessment slowly began to crumble. I will try to give you snapshots of what exactly exists when one begins to clear away that rubble.

The problems I had heard so much about from my time as an "outsider" included widespread poverty, lack of infrastructure, the decline of the nomadic culture, and an extremely harsh climate. None of these reported problems are false, by any means. An average monthly salary is $50 to $60; there are virtually no paved roads outside the capital; nomadic herders are selling off their animals and urbanizing; and the average temperature for nearly half the year is below freezing, which results in a difficult growing season for crops and loss of livestock in especially difficult winters. The situation for these people looked pretty bleak from my perspective.

But when I realized a pound of potatoes costs about 7 cents and a couple of $70 yaks could feed a family of four for an entire winter, I understood that people can live relatively comfortably and in good health despite the poverty figures. And there is virtually no industry outside the capital and its neighboring cities that are connected by rail, so what is the need for anything much more than the dirt roads that crisscross the vast, sparsely populated countryside? And, sure, the weather's difficult, but the population has been able to adapt to it over millennia. Gradually, I came to understand the people and build a more realistic picture of their situation. Certain issues, such as the declining number of nomadic herders, are not problems at all, but merely reflections of the times.

For me, the diversity of cultures is a major reason our world is such a fascinating place. We all live in different ways with varying values and traditions. In my opinion, it is within everyone's best interest to preserve our distinct cultures for future generations, assuming it can be done without infringing on other people's rights. But in Mongolia, progress and technology are drawing a line between the traditional nomadic culture and the industrial, urbanized Western culture. Various things have been written about how modernization is destroying centuries of tradition in places like Mongolia. But what is really happening in Mongolia is that people are being given a choice of the lifestyle they want to lead.

Mongolia is experiencing an enormous divergence of culture with both the new and traditional styles living healthily and peacefully together. The capital, Ulaanbaatar, is a metropolis of business and activity. People speak foreign languages, wear business suits, trade internationally, live and work in tall buildings, and drink Coca-Cola. The countryside, on the other hand, is a vast expanse of open steppe dotted with occasional white felt tents, or gers. People live off the land and their livestock the same way they did centuries ago. There is no such thing as private land, schools, or even bathrooms. In between these poles are the small towns of the countryside, which usually have anywhere from 1,000 to 15,000 residents. This describes my town of Uliastai, in Zaukhan Province. Certainly we don't have all the comforts and crowds of the capital, but markets, banks, and limited services are usually available.

Children in the deep rural countryside are usually sent to live with family in these small towns for nine months of the year so they can attend school. It is in the small towns and among children at this young age that the two cultures of Mongolia begin to diverge. Some students aspire to do ambitious things and excel in school, while many others are happy with just getting by and eventually going back to the countryside. While many bright students are content with being herders, more and more students are realizing that if they are not content and want to escape the difficult life of the countryside, they need an education.

Before we criticize development and an invasion of foreign culture for destroying the traditional Mongolian culture, we must ask the herders and their children who actually are living the life how they feel. The adults work their whole lives so that the younger generation might be better off. That's not just the American dream, it's the dream here, too. If a better life for the younger generation means abandoning the nomadic ger and moving to the city, then we must respect that. It may be sad for an outsider to see someone leave the lifestyle of their ancestors, but it would be an injustice to hold them back simply for the sake of preserving culture. My job as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to help improve the lives of the people I live with, work with, and educate, so that they might have a broader choice of options in life.

At the moment, capitalism is actually working to keep many people as nomadic herders. Many of these families have herds numbering 250 animals or more. By selling wool, cashmere, dairy products, meat, and hides in the capital and countryside towns, many of these families make much more money than they could ever hope to make working at a job in the capital. Though many herders give up the difficult nomadic life and move to the city, many others are finding the countryside existence more profitable and are subsequently making purchases that make countryside life more pleasurable.

Ironically, these "luxury" purchases by nomadic herders that are enhancing life in the countryside, and that are helping to preserve the nomadic culture, are the product of technology. Sources of sustainable power—affordable machines that capture wind and solar energy and convert it to electricity—are all the rage in the countryside. Many people have televisions and modern appliances in their gers, miles away from any established power grid. Combine this with a satellite dish and it means a nomadic family never has to miss their favorite South Korean soap opera. Yes, these solar panels, wind turbines, and satellite dishes do look slightly out of place beside white felt tents in the middle of nowhere, but that's progress in Mongolia!

When the outsider's perspective eventually melts into the insider's, one looks at issues in a different way. Things are less black and white, and issues become more human. Mongolia is not a country with a dying culture. It's a country of rich history and culture that is merely making a transition in a relationship with the outside world. 

About the author

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in western Mongolia, Jonathan Phillips served as a business and economic development Volunteer.

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