Sunday, October 2, 2016


Once home to one of the largest empires in the history of the world (second only to the British Empire), the Mongol Empire at its height covered over 16% of the world’s land area. It essentially went from the Korean Peninsula all the way to Poland, Hungary, and other points in central Europe. 

Mongolia means “land of the Mongols,” but it’s unclear of where the term Mongol comes from. Different historical linguists attribute the origin to a variety of meanings, from various clan and regional leaders to land features. One theory is that it’s stemmed from the word “mong,” which means “brave.” And since we’re talking about the name of the country, it’s technically known as Outer Mongolia. Inner Mongolia is a region located within China.

This landlocked country is located in Asia, bordered by China to the south and Russia to the north. However, it’s not that far from the Kazakh border (about 23 miles). It’s known as the “Country of Blue Sky” or sometimes as “Land of Eternal Blue Sky” because of the number of sunny days it enjoys – nearly 250 on average! The land itself varies, from the Gobi Desert in the southern portions of the country to the steppes, which cover the majority of the land. Mongolia is known for their intensely cold winters thanks to a weather pattern called the Siberian Anticyclone (cold, dry air that comes in off of Siberia and freezes everyone alive for half the year). It’s so cold that there are actually places where it gets warmer the higher up the mountains you go. Because of its elevation, Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar is the coldest national capital in the world. 

That is one huge statue.
Cave drawings have shown that people have inhabited this part of the world for tens of thousands of centuries. Agricultural-based settlements have been found that date back to 5000 BC. People were also still quite nomadic at the same time and empires were moving and expanding as well. As they grew, the Chinese (in particular, the Qin Dynasty) began to see them as an imminent threat and built the Great Wall of China. The early 1200s brought along a new change: Genghis Khan. He was responsible for forming the Mongol Empire, growing it to one of the largest empires in the world. It spread roughly from Korea to Siberia to Ukraine to the Gulf of Oman and Vietnam. His grandson, Kublai Khan, set up the capital in Beijing, where it was known as the Yuan Dynasty. He also helped set up one of the first “Pony Express” systems. After a century, they were forced to recede their borders back to their original homeland. Between the 1600s-1900s, many travelers and traders made their way across the Siberian Route or the Tea Road. It was called the Tea Road because much of the tea from China that was being transported to Europe went along this route. Mongolia benefitted immensely from being along this trade route. The country tried to declare its independence from the Bogd Khaan in 1911, but at the same time, China had just re-emerged as the Republic of China, which considered Mongolia as part of their territory. Chinese forces in Mongolia began fighting with Russian troops along the northern borders, and the Russians kicked their butts at Ulaanbaatar. Russia wanted to establish communist ties within Mongolia, and even though they declared their independence again in 1921, they remained closely tied to Russia. Not long afterwards, the Mongolian People’s Republic was established in 1924, and communism would be the word for several decades to come. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Mongolia broke ties with them, too. They realigned their government and economy. It was difficult in the beginning as they made the transition, but they are working to become members in several governmental and economic groups throughout Asia. 

The capital city is Ulaanbaatar (and is sometimes spelled Ulan Bator). It literally means “Red Hero.” It’s the largest city in the country. Although the country is quite old, the city itself (as we know it now) was only established in 1639 (people have been there for much longer before that). It was originally a nomadic Buddhist monastic center. And actually, this village-now-city has went by many names; it’s only been known as Ulaanbaatar since it was named the capital of the Mongolian People’s Republic in 1924. Today, the city is the center of government and commerce. It’s modern and is showing much growth. There are museums, public art, parks, Buddhist monasteries, sports stadiums, theatres, shopping centers, and public markets. 

In the past, Mongolia’s economy was largely based on agriculture and herding. However, there has also been a drive toward extracting and processing certain minerals like gold, tin, copper, coal, molybdenum, and tungsten. Mongolia has a trade connection with China, receiving more than 2/3 of Mongolia’s exports and providing nearly 30% of their imports. Although there is a large portion of Mongolia’s citizens who live on less than $1.25 per day, their increase in mining ventures is positively affecting their economic growth rates. A number of foreign mining companies and investment firms now do a lot of business in Mongolia and with Mongolian companies. It wasn’t until 2011 when Mongolia was listed as an emerging global economy. 

Of the religious people who live in Mongolia, Buddhism accounts for more than half of this population. There are smaller numbers of Muslims and Christians as well as followers of Shamanism. However, what I was surprised at is the number of non-religious people in Mongolia: almost 39% claim to not adhere to any religion in particular. Mongolian Buddhists traditionally follow the Tibetan form of Buddhism. Buddhist monasteries were attacked during the communist years. 

The vast majority of the people speak Mongolian, the official language here. After decades of being influenced by the Russians, the Mongolian language today is written using the Cyrillic script. However, there’s been a push to teach the traditional Mongolian script in schools again. To me, the traditional Mongolian script looks a little like the Bengali script on its side. But what’s interesting is that unlike Chinese or Japanese where the symbols stand for an entire word or perhaps a morpheme, the Mongolian script divides the language into vowels and consonants, functioning more like an alphabet. 

I would've swore this was Utah or Arizona. Nope, it's the Gobi Desert.

There are a number of fascinating things about Mongolia that stands out. Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world: 4.3 people per sq mi. Horses outnumber people 13:1, and sheep outnumber people 35:1. (Good news for introverted farmers and animal lovers.) Bactrian camels and snow leopards are native to Mongolia. There’s also a theory/story that ice cream was created in Mongolia: Mongolian horsemen traveling through the frigid Gobi Desert with containers of milk inadvertently shook up the frozen milk as they were riding, creating a sort of frozen cream. It’s said that Marco Polo interacted with these horsemen and tried it, taking the idea back to Italy with him. In 1924, Mongolia became the 2nd communist country, the same year they introduced the postage stamp. There are a number of other things I found interesting that I’m not sure others would find as interesting that I did. Welcome to my life.

Up next: art and literature

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