Mongolians and horses go together like fish and water. Seriously. For more than five thousand years, Mongolian nomads have been riding from one end of their country to another, across steppes and deserts chasing camels, goats and ostriches. Emperors have come and gone, but the lifestyle has stayed the same. The majority still travels home to their ger at the end of the day, ties up the horse and dines on dried yak meat and fresh yogurt. As if it were 2013 BC ‒ not CE.
It’s not difficult to understand their unwillingness to change. The country is magnificent. Only a few miles outside of Ulaanbaatar, the nature turns pre-historic. Eagles perch on the side of the dirt road. Hundreds of horses chase each other across the plains, free to roam as they want. Cows, goats and sheep follow the scent of the freshest grass, wherever the wind may take them. There are no fences. No one regulates their procreation. Calves and lambs hang out with their parents, siblings and cousins, feeding on their mother’s teats when they are hungry. At night, the herders bring the cattle back to the homestead to make sure none is sick or hurt, and to harvest enough milk to keep the family fed for the next day or two.
In a country as large as Alaska, or five times the size of Germany, the nearly three million inhabitants have the luxury of freedom. With fewer than four people per square mile, no one needs to claim their lands. There is enough for everyone ‒ and more.
The problems start when the new generation of nomads decide to migrate to the city in search for better opportunities. As narrow roads replace endless grasslands, horses are traded for cars. Add pedestrians to the equation, and the chaos is complete. Traffic laws exist, of course, but as in the old joke about getting your license in a cornflakes package, it seems that with some extra cash, the driving test can be bypassed. And it shows.
Crossing the street is not only tricky, but downright dangerous. When the light turns green, you have about twenty seconds to cross. First you must wait for the cars from the left to pass, then the ones from the right. Then you look left-right-left-right, and if enough time remains you start walking. Watch out for the bus running the red light and coming at you at full speed. And for the cars overtaking another on the wrong side of the road. It’s a gamble. More often than not, you’ll just have to wait for the next green light.
Genghis Khan’s descendants are far more successful at driving up their finances. Nicknamed the Asian Wolf, Mongolia is the world’s fastest growing economy. In addition to agriculture and a thriving cashmere production, the country also has the largest copper reserves and second largest coal reserves on the planet. Together with other minerals, mining has become a free card to prosperity for this old-fashioned nation. As long as they manage their resources well and continue to protect their distinctive ecosystem, Mongolia could soon be as modern as South Korea.
But the traditions are what makes Mongolia so charming. Two thirds of the population live in tents in the middle of nowhere. They ride horses for work, fun and in competitions. The more muscular men don tiny briefs and cropped jackets, to compete against each other in wrestling. Influenced for centuries by the Tibetans, Russians, Chinese and Turkic, Mongolians have developed an entirely unique culture which should be preserved and celebrated. There is enormous potential for a tourism boom here.
Now, if only they could learn how to drive.