“Tradition,” says Javhlan.
He was everywhere in Mongolia: On the metal light poles in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, amid the chockablock traffic, there were little tourist-friendly posters bearing the radiant, smiling image of Mongolia’s premier folk crooner. You’d stroll past the Lego store, then past Hugo Boss, right into the chic, moneyed core of a nation that is now mining gold, copper and coal for Chinese consumption, and there he was again. Javhlan is 33. On the posters, his cheeks are ruddy, his eyes aglow with health. He seems well fed, and serene and bearish and strong somehow, and his costume carries a stately (if affected) grandeur. He is dressed 13th-century style, in a long flowing robe and a pointy helmetlike cap, as though he were just about to hop on a horse and join the old warlord Genghis Khan in battle out on the steppes.
Javhlan’s music matches his getup. It is plaintive and patriotic, and his deep baritone voice resonates, manly and sodden with pathos, over tinkling electronic background beats. In one song, “Promise,” he apologizes to his ancestors for how Mongolia has sold out to the Chinese and ensures the desecration will stop. “The land was given to us in one piece,” he declares, “so we will protect it. Even if God asks for a piece of it, we won’t give any away.”
In Mongolia, I scarcely ever stepped into a taxi bereft of Javhlan tunes. When I tried to bond with one driver by asking if the singer on the radio was in fact Javhlan, he grew wistful and glassy-eyed, telling me that, like Javhlan, he hailed from the western province of Uvs. “Tiim,” he affirmed, “Javhlan.”
When I was in Mongolia, Javhlan was running for a seat in the Mongolian Parliament as a dark-horse third-party candidate. Though he would eventually lose, he campaigned with celebrity flourish, by giving away 100 tons of hay to the good herders of Uvs. He was earnest with reporters, stressing that it was mining — and its savage effects on the earth — that spurred him into politics. “Foreigners are digging up our land,” he said recently, “and ruining our wintering grazing spots. I had no choice but to run.” He added that he was old-school about child rearing. “My wife and I plan to have 15 kids,” he pronounced. “We are real Mongolians.”
On two separate occasions, I arranged a meeting with Javhlan. But then each time he canceled, last-minute. “Javhlan had to rush to the countryside,” I was told, through his handlers. “It was an emergency.”
It didn’t matter, though, for I already knew that Javhlan was central to a vast social experiment. Mongolia was for centuries made up largely of nomadic herders. Its economy was almost static; in 2011, it achieved a 17.3 percent growth in gross national product. The World Bank has predicted that Mongolia will have one of the planet’s fastest-growing economy over 2013, 2014 and 2015. The nation’s largest mine, Oyu Tolgoi, which just began production in June, is believed to contain 81 billion pounds of copper and 46 million ounces of gold. Nearly all of it will go to China, and on some Chinese maps now, Mongolia is simply rendered as an Alaska-size Chinese province.
Meanwhile, rural Mongolians, enticed by the promise of a richer Ulaanbaatar, are now moving to the capital city, population 1.2 million, at the rate of 50,000 per year, and planting their round herders’ yerts, called gers in Mongolia, willy-nilly on the city’s fringes. The number of cars in UB, as it’s known in Mongolia, has tripled in the past decade. And still a nomad vibe prevails: The city does not have street addresses. Locals navigate somewhat as herders do in the desert, studying the slant of the sun as they search for tall buildings. There aren’t even any crosswalks — residents are obliged to dodge the oncoming cars, even if they just forked out 2.8 million tugriks, about $1,700, for a handbag at Louis Vuitton.
Amid all the newness and chaos, Mongolia is clinging hard to its past. Genghis Khan is resurgent here, and universally beloved. There is a new 131-foot-tall statue of him just outside UB, and the memory of his “Nine White Banners” flag, consisting of nine white horsetail plumes, is newly keen. Nine is a lucky number in Mongolia now.
Even the most avant-garde Mongolians are embracing old traditions. My interpreter, a heavy metal singer named Uugii, was letting his tiny son’s black locks grow long, in anticipation of a lavish hair-cutting ceremony on the boy’s third birthday. And everywhere a question looms: What does Mongolia need now, as it endeavors to step into the global fray, without losing its integrity and its soul?
All I really did, wandering about Mongolia, was ask that one question. I came home with a picture of a charming and fractious country, in the form of eight answers scrawled into my notebooks.
“Coal,” says Shirendev. “Coal is our only option.” Shirendev is 39 and sitting in a fashionable UB cafe. “I thought about it, and I decided, ‘If we want to develop our country, we need to mine. I decided, ‘I will get into this while I’m still young. Then when I’m old I can be proud. I can say, ‘I was there when it started.’ ”
Shirendev (nearly all Mongolians go by a single name) is the community relations manager of a large Mongolian coal extractor, Energy Resources. He is also a Buddhist who, at age 20, went to India for six years to study the roots of his religion. “I wanted to find out the reason of life,” he says. “All I knew is we are here and one day we die. I wondered, ‘Why? For what?’ ” He came back versed in Sanskrit and ancient Tibetan, and these days, on his time off, he leads 10-day meditation classes in Ulaanbaatar. He has the soft lambent skin and the patient eyes of someone enlightened.
I tell him what I saw visiting his company’s mine in the Gobi Desert 350 miles south of UB: a humongous open pit, a mile long and a mile wide; 240-ton coal trucks sputtering about like toys on the moonscape; murky gray dust everywhere; the workers’ once-white gers as black as a smoker’s tobacco-scarred lungs. The mining industry is now carving millions of tons of rock out of Mongolian soil each year, and using Mongolia’s sparse water supplies to process the minerals. In many places throughout Mongolia, the water table is dropping, making it difficult to sustain livestock.
Shirendev acknowledges all this, but still he sees coal as justifiable. “In Buddhism,” he says, “it is wrong to kill an animal for no reason, but if you are killing the animal to survive, that’s another thing. We are helping Mongolia to survive.”
But isn’t Mongolia choking on coal? Locals heat with coal, and in winter, according to the World Health Organization, UB is the second most polluted city in the world.
“There are minerals in the ground here,” Shirendev says. “They’re going to be mined.” For him, the most critical question is who does it.
Foreign prospectors have proved heartless. In 2005, after Robert Friedland, the chief executive of Canada’s Ivanhoe Mines, arrived in Mongolia to develop Oyu Tolgoi, he seemed gleefully wanton. Speaking to a conference for investors, he said: “The nice thing about this, there’s no people around. There’s no NGOs.” He called Oyu Tolgoi a “cash machine” and explained the profit margin thus, “You’re making T-shirts for five bucks and selling them for $100.” Friedland proceeded, in 2009, to strike a deal that saw the Mongolian government ceding Ivanhoe mineral rights in exchange for 34 percent of all profits.
“Mongolians will be working for the Chinese,” says Shirendev in disgust. “It’s like we’re Algeria, like we’re a colony. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Mongolia is an educated country.”
Shirendev joined Energy Resources 18 months ago because, he says, “it’s almost 100 percent Mongolian-owned. It’s a good idea — it’s a company that can help Mongolians believe, ‘We can build this country ourselves.’ ”
“Nothing,” says Tserenbazar. “Nothing can save the real Mongolia. I feel like I want to die.” Tserenbazar, 60, is a herder whose family has for 200 years lived on the patch of Gobi striped by a road that Energy Resources built to connect its plant to China, 150 miles away. He says that the road isn’t working. “The coal trucks are supposed to drive on it,” he says, “but Energy Resources charges the other mining companies a toll. So their drivers travel beside the road, right over the soil. There is dust. The animals cannot breathe. The grass is dirty. If the animals eat it, they get sick — cut open their innards, and they are black. And I am sick, too.”
Tserenbazar is sitting cross-legged on the floor of a friend’s ger. He has a long gray and white beard, and his skin is weathered and red, and so chapped it’s almost a hide. “My lungs,” he says. “The doctor told me I should not smoke.”
Tserenbazar grins now, devilishly, for he is savoring a long loose cigarette rolled in old newsprint. “I should just die,” he says. “I should die now.” He is still smiling even as he says this, and five of his neighbors sit by him in the tent, laughing. Tserenbazar is their mordant old salt comedian. He taps the ash off the tip of his cigarette, slowly, milking dramatic tension out of the pause. “I am already dead now,” he cracks.
Global climate change has dried up the desert. The coal trucks have come rumbling along over the loose soil, and now there are more cars, too, driven by newly moneyed Mongolian coal miners. The South Gobi is suddenly a world of swirling dust.
In January 2012, Tserenbazar, along with 30 other herders, tried to put the brakes on the change. For eight hours, they stood, arms locked, carrying sticks, in a chill 30 degrees below zero Celsius by the side of the road, blocking about 300 coal trucks from traveling over the dirt. The herders wanted local officials to force all truck drivers to stay on the asphalt — and by day’s end the politicians promised that everything would soon be fixed.
“What happened?” I ask.
Tserenbazar shrugs, with comic exaggeration. “Nothing.” He says: “And now I am grazing in a new place 15 kilometers from the road. A very small herd, and the animals are not used to the grasses there. I have to watch them all the time” — he jabs at his eye — “or they wander too far. I cannot do it. I am old. I am done.”
Even as he says this, Tserenbazar is still smirking.
“Class warfare,” says Galsansuh, except that I can hardly hear him as Kreator, a German thrash metal band, is screaming on the stereo of his Land Cruiser as we cut through the streets of UB. Galsansuh, 40, is a self-proclaimed “postmodern Mongolian poet”; the editor of Serious News, a UB broadsheet that rails with anarchist brio against corrupt politicians; and a mogul on UB’s alt-rock scene. It is he who, 15 years ago, gathered the musicians for Nisvanis, a Mongol take on Nirvana. Lean and crew-cut, he speaks in harsh, vitriolic bursts.
“Class warfare,” he says again, en route to a Korean restaurant, and I’m a bit bewildered. The underclass in Mongolia is disparate: 400,000 or so herders speckling the steppes and the desert. No one else I’ll meet will speak of uniting them. But there is something absolute about Galsansuh. Driving through UB, he guns it wherever he can. He slams the brakes in advance of a pothole, then swirls right into a dirt alley to skirt a traffic jam and flies along through a parking lot.
Though he carries himself like a cartoon villain, Galsansuh is powerful, and connected. His good friend Kh. Battulga is a wealthy parliament member, a one-time national judo champion and the lead financier for the gargantuan Genghis statue 35 miles outside town.
“Mongolian national hero,” Galsansuh says of Battulga as we settle into the restaurant. “He has no Chinese blood — he is pure Mongolian. And that statue of Chinggis Khan [Ghengis Khan], it’s a tool we need to keep us from becoming part of China.” Galsansuh laughs — a few bemused snorts — and soon he praises another Battulga scheme: The MP is pushing to build a $10 billion industrial city near Sainshand, a town in the Gobi, to process Mongolian coal and copper. He recently persuaded the Mongolian government to give him $1 million for preliminary planning.
“We need to build that city,” Galsansuh says. Currently, Mongolia is mostly sending raw coal to China. “We have just a few corrupt people getting rich off our minerals. The government guys who made the deal to sell mineral rights to foreigners, a few families in business — that’s about it. They’re giving away $16 a month to every Mongolian, but that does nothing except shut everyone up for a while. Soon people will rise up and overthrow the government. Mongolia will regain its power.”
In the meantime, Galsansuh is fighting. He opens his newspaper up on the table now, and all five guys on the front page look fat and pasty, like boiled fish. They radiate bad karma. I recognize one of the shysters as Mongolia’s most recent ex-president, the imprisoned N. Enkhbayar. While he was in office, Enkhbayar secretly financed the construction of the 25-story Blue Sky Tower, a soulless glass building — blue-tinted and shaped like a sail — that sits in downtown UB, looming above the red-tiled roof of an ancient pagoda.
The Blue Sky Tower is on my Mongolian cellphone — the default screen saver is the glassy and glimmering flank of the tower. I show it to Galsansuh and ask, “Have Mongolians become too enchanted with glitz and material wealth to care?”
He is smoking now and clenching the cigarette in his lips, no fingers. “I don’t have time for such silly questions,” he says.
He snatches the bill and pays. Then we leave.
“Flexibility,” says Ariunaa. “There is this idea that as Mongols we have to be masculine and tough — that history is made by people who ride horses into battle. But we have to enhance our other qualities now.”
Ariunaa Tserenpil is the director of the Arts Council of Mongolia, and a wise and elegant presence. When we meet, she wears a black dress and a silver necklace shaped like a flowing river. She makes references to Picasso and Matisse, and to the documentary films she has produced. All of which makes me feel awkward, for I arrive at her office late and gasping for breath. Flummoxed by the no-street-address thing, I just sprinted to the fourth floor of three adjacent buildings, looking for her. “UB is still a nomadic city,” she says, gently laughing at me. “Many people here drive as they ride horses — if they come upon each other, they’ll square off to see who goes first. There is no sense of the collective. In my apartment building, you can tell when a nomadic family moves in. They just leave their garbage out in the corridor. At first, they don’t even take it out to the bin. But then they adjust. They learn to live with their neighbors. They stop and negotiate out in traffic, saying, ‘You can go first.’
“Mongolians can be flexible. It’s in our genes. If this pasture’s no good, we can just move to the next one. We need to bring such suppleness to the global context. We can’t just say, ‘We’re going to close our border and shut down all the mines.’ That’s not going to work. We need to learn how to be neighbors, and can do that. We’ve done it before.” In the 13th century, Ariunaa stresses, Mongolia was not a brutish power. “We developed the Silk Road,” she says. “We were one of the first nations to have international trade and passports. We weren’t afraid of the Chinese then. We were a strong nation with a diverse economy, and we can get there again, in time.”
“The ger,” says Munkhbayar. “The ger is the answer to all the questions we have.”
I am on an overnight retreat now, an hour outside UB, visiting the country home of the world’s most famous nomad/eco-defender. Munkhbayar, 46, founded the Onggi River Movement a decade ago. The river running through his central Mongolian village dried up then, thanks to gold mining, and children got liver disease as their parents dug new wells into soil contaminated by cyanide leaching. Munkhbayar persuaded the government to impose mining regulations. He brought the river back — and then National Geographic loved him. In 2008, it named Munkhbayar an “emerging explorer,” celebrating him as “an ordinary herdsman” who believed “the environment has no border lines.”
I guess I expected the Dalai Lama with a crooked shepherd’s staff. But no, Munkhbayar has grown a bit fatter since his National Geographic days, and a little sententious. In the dim light of the ger, sitting cross-legged and all but whispering to me (Mongolian is a throaty language) before an altar bedecked with two sacred volumes of Genghis Khan’s wisdoms, his words have an orotund air. “The problem with America,” he says, “is late marriage. Americans should have more children.” When I express shock, he addresses me with stern judgement: “You don’t understand, because you are one of those who is lost. You are part of settled society.”
Munkhbayar’s credo is that all world citizens should live as Mongolia’s remaining nomads do, in collapsible tents, as loyal family units that move nimbly about in tune with the weather, migrating 20 or so miles every season. Never mind that he and I came out here from UB in an SUV piloted by a guy in a Yankees hat, motoring right through the fender-high water of a river. “The life here in the ger is a natural phenomenon,” Munkhbayar says. “We get our water from the river, not from bottles or factories, and a good herder acquires all the knowledge anyone needs. He’s an astronomer; he can tell his location by looking up at the stars. And he is also very good at predicting the weather.”
Munkhbayar is wearing a glimmery gold shepherd’s shirt, and his ger is pristine, devoid of the usual clutter of stereo equipment and muddy water buckets. It’s a dude ger, really. Munkhbayar brings so many foreigners out here that in one cabinet there’s a couple of dozen pairs of loaner sandals. He’s got a practiced spiel, and now he expresses frustration that very few Mongolians share his new passion for traditional garb. “They are lost,” he says, “just like you.”
In 2011, Munkhbayar took vengeance against settled society. He shot at a gold mine security guard, landing himself in jail for three weeks. “Mining has exceeded its limits, and we need to use whatever tools we can to stop it,” he tells me. “I think of Chinggis Khan, of Attila the Hun. They achieved great change, and soon there will be another big change in Mongolia.” The end of modern democracy, he means. “Democracy is based on consumerism, which is the thinking of animals,” he says. “What we need is a leader like Chinggis Khan. Chinggis united the tribes. He was a real Mongolian. ...”
When I step outside, finally — and then leap across a small stream to stroll up into the snowy hills — I feel free, and happy to be released from Munkhbayar’s tent sermon.
“The lights,” says Sansarmunkh. “The lights of Ulaanbaatar.”
Sansarmunkh lives in the Gobi desert, 350 miles south of UB. He is a 29-year-old taxi cab driver and the quintessence of cool. Every time I run into him, no matter the weather, he is wearing a leather jacket with no shirt, a pair of faded jeans cut to capris length, and blue-and-white, high-top wrestling shoes, no socks. He is lean and graceful and vain. He wears the collar on his coat up, and his black hair is spiky. Except for when he is larking about, his demeanor is sullen; he is a Mongolian James Dean.
A few years ago, Sansarmunkh was a herder, and a stud of his realm. He had 500 sheep and goats, and seven horses, and each July, when herders traditionally gather for the Naadam festival, he was a peerless jockey in horse races. But please — by 2008 he’d already he had been to UB several times. He had seen Asian lowriders pimped out with hydraulics and purple running lights on the undercarriage. He sold the last of his animals, and for 5.3 million tugriks (about $3,200) he bought a used Hyundai Accent and a box of small beads, which he used to render (in red, white and blue) the stylized Hyundai H on the cap of his rearview mirror. The vehicle has a miniature steering wheel and, on its windshield, a banner decal on which the word “MONGOLIA” is writ large between a pair of Mongolian flags. It may be the South Gobi’s only lowrider taxi.
Sansarmunkh clears about $650 a month. And like hundreds of thousands of other Mongolians caught up in the tides of prosperity, he doesn’t think about what that cash means, or how Mongolia’s soul can be saved. He just goes to UB. Twenty times a year, for about $9, he makes the 12-hour trip north in a Russian jeep packed with a dozen other riders, everyone’s heads bobbing as they rattle all night over the untracked desert. In UB, he stays with his great-aunt. As we’re driving, I ask him to describe his city adventures, and he says, “Well, one time I was very tired when I arrived, so I went to the sauna and then I called one of my friends and ...”
Someone else in the cab makes a high, mocking noise, insinuating that there were women involved. Feeling shy, Sansarmunkh stops talking. Then there’s a long convivial silence in which he is gamely smiling but saying nothing. I ask him how many girlfriends he has in UB. Sansarmunkh cocks his head back for a second, counting. “Six,” he says after a while. “Well, five or six.”
And what’s your favorite part of going to UB?
“The lights,” he says. “Coming out of the desert and seeing all those bright lights.”
“We need,” says Enerelt, “to sound like ourselves.” It’s a deep quest: Enerelt is the bassist for a UB art rock band, Mohanik , and of late he and his three bandmates (they’re all 24 and just out of college) have been meeting daily in a battered UB warehouse and trying to hone a new Mongolian sound for their second album. “We want to make songs about what it feels like to live in Mongolia,” he says as the band gathers in its industrial cave. “A lot of bands here just copy Americans — sometimes they’re even copying a single artist.”
“We hope to give a new feeling to people,” says the lead guitarist, Tsogt. He is skinny kid, scraggly, with a wrinkled Sex Pistols shirt and an unkempt mop of curly black hair. “In the 13th century, Mongolians used to worship the blue sky and the earth. We still do, but it’s different.”
They have eight new songs, all based in tradition and nature. One, not yet named, evokes what it’s like to ride a horse out into battle. Another song, much softer, is called “Buwei,” which is the word that Mongolian mothers whisper to their children to mean, “Don’t be scared.” Another is just called “Wind.”
“The lyric is like a poem,” says the lead singer, Davaajargal. “Once suddenly I had a feeling like I was flying away. I felt so many things. Do you know how you feel when so much happens to you in such a short time? We hope that our music will have some soul and fly away.”
“But we are not saying that our music is Mongolian,” says Enerelt. “That is up to other people to decide.”
Eventually, they stop talking. Then the room ignites with that archetypal, crackly total-noise sound of a garage band rehearsal. Tsogt, the guitarist, is curled into his instrument now and whaling at it, a small apostrophe of a person hailing us with a flurry of screeches and scratches. Enerelt, the bassist, is stands taller, stiffer — a tense presence on the periphery of the storm — and in time the singer’s words begin: shouts, whispers, a hypnotic whirl over the slam of the drums.
Then Mohanik stops for a second, and Enerelt says, “We don’t know the name of this next song yet, but it’s the heaviest one at the moment.” It’s the battle song, and there is a great crashing of cymbals now, and then the guitars and the bass pile up on each other: a gratifying knot of staticky noise made propulsive by the beat of the drums. I imagine horse hooves pounding the dirt. And soon the singer is just yelling, screaming, with unhinged abandon, not even saying words, for there are as yet no words to this song. There is some Kurt Cobain at work here, and I can hear the wild braying in the songs sung by campfires at Native American powwows.
But I have never heard anything quite like this before, and for a moment I try to add up its constituent elements: Here is the old Mongolia, in the low tribal beat. Here, in the manic guitars, is a whole country frenetically changing. ...
In time, though, I decide: “This is impossible. So much is happening in such a short time.” I give up, and I just let the music wash over me, feeding my blood like an anthem.
Bill Donahue is a writer in Portland, Ore., and a frequent contributor to the Magazine. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.