now for some culture

By Neil Pederson

yesterday was a ‘free’ day in the capitol, Ulaanbaatar. the day started with breakfast at the Amsterdam Cafe near the State Department Store. the cafe is the early morning hangout for tourists and their Mongolian hosts. having an “English breakfast” – eggs, baked beans, tomatoes, bacon and toast, and an assortment of coffees and teas and pastries, it makes it a popular hangout. having free internet must help, too. [btw, i started drinking ‘coffee’, mostly in mocha form]. we came to the cafe yesterday morning to meet a Mongolian artist and her agent; the cafe displays artwork for purchase. from there we went back to the artist’s studio/apartment. i went along because i enjoy meeting Mongolians and seeing different parts of the city.

upon arrival, we were greeted by the artist’s husband and boy. the husband, “Tom” [which means ‘big’ in Mongolian], is young, has a shaved head, is thick and muscular [a typical Mongolian build], a chin curtain with a short braid hanging from his curtain. he is also covered below the knees and from shoulders to his wrists with tattoos – he is a hip, young Mongolian, but would fit in Brooklyn no problem. he gladly showed off his tattoos of Chinggis, other historical Mongolians and scenes. his tats  were made by his wife.

their boy is an excitable young man. he was walking around the apartment with his backpack on. he was excited about his first day of school – kindergarten – on September 1st. all Mongolian students begin school on Sep 1st, from kindergarten to university. it is a big show, esp on the national news. the boy also got excited seeing the pile of US dollars his mother earned yesterday morning! his mom had to catch his hands quick.

Amy & the Artist

The artist is a sweet, quiet and soft spoken woman. her art, like much modern Mongolian art, blends the traditional with the contemporary, often western contemporary. unlike her apparent personality, her artwork is quite bold. some of her paintings are almost as big as she is. much of her artwork is very colorful.

it is exciting to me to see this rise in modern, Mongolian art. when i first came to Mongolia, it was soon after the fall of communism and retreat of the Soviets. Mongolian infrastructure was limited and the white-washing/decimation of Mongolian culture made Mongolia appear like Russia – bland architecture, limited color and drab city life. i recently learned that my first visit came during a period of hunger in Mongolia due to the destruction of farming by the communists earlier in the century and the general dependence on the U.S.S.R and subsequent poverty of Mongolia.

Mongolia, while starving again because of the global economic downturn, is hungry in reestablishing their greatness and heritage. if the words ‘greatness’ and ‘heritage’ regarding Mongolians strikes you as a bit odd, i strongly suggest reading this book by Jack Weatherford. while Chinggis, aka Ghengis in the western world, might bring up ideas of fear, savagery and disgust, it shouldn’t completely. Chinggis was an incredible leader who had the abilities to create one of the largest, diverse and longest-lasting nations in History. he was open-minded, tolerant of culture and religion and valued merit over kinship or religious ties. he was pretty modern. his nation established the pony express. his nation tolerated religion. his nation conducted economic activities at global scales. his nation, the Mongol Empire, triggered widespread use of paper money. his vision of creating a great nation was amazingly modern.

Mongolians have much to be proud of.

and, Weatherford accurately describes the individualistic nature of Mongolians in his book on Chinggis.

it is this individualistic nature that i so love about modern Mongolians. bright, hard-working and fairly creative are some attributes that always strike my mind with thinking about many of the Mongolians i’ve met.

you can see it in their art:

it is this blending of their great heritage with the modern elements that are bleeding into Mongolia that one can see or hear in their art. Altan Urag is a great example of this in new Mongolian music – they use ancient instruments, voices and rhythms and infuse their pieces with contemporary rhythms and themes.

young Mongolians are spirited and hungrily recovering their past while at the same time fusing with with external culture. i would guess it is an amazing time for Mongolian artists.

the artists agent was interesting herself: she spoke good English, dressed like an artist, but spoke of the purity of the Mongolian landscape and water of days past. she recognized, rightly, that Mongolia’s landscape is changing rapidly and severely threatened by international mining interests, internal corruption and global climate change. i fear the coming decades with be exciting, though not in a good way, for Mongolia’s environment.

the picture is symbolic of the change in Mongolia’s landscape. the brown trees are the result of fire. tree mortality across the landscape, from insect outbreaks, drought and fire, seems much greater than what i recall 10-12 yrs ago. the mining in the center right of the image is what is most frightening and what will be long-lasting. regulation is limited and the amount of mining for gold and other minerals is unbelievable. nature recovers fairly well from insects, fire and drought. mineral mining, however, is long-lasting.

the artist’s agent worried about this and talked of education of all Mongolians, especially the children. funny, the more i travel, the more it is obvious we are all the same, even of the descendants of Chinggis.

the ride back to our apartment was illuminating and entertaining. we get in a gypsy cab with the agent and artist. after about 10 minutes, the agent stops the cab and says, “we can find another cab. i hate these aggressive drivers. they are dangerous. why don’t they listen to me?” we found another cab and proceeded back to the city center. the whole time the agent, an artist herself, went on and on about crazy drivers. it reminded us of the our trip to go watch the Naadam horse race in 2009. the rush and jockeying of the drivers delivering spectators to the race, including our driver, was hilarious, dangerous and damn entertaining, perhaps more entertaining than the race itself. it was obvious that the spirit of the great, horseback warriors of the Mongol Empire are still alive today.


post-note:  the remainder of the day was spent in meetings in French and Indian restaurants [which were both fantastic]. if you had visited anytime between 1930 and 1997, you would have found this fantastic! if you had visited Karakorum, the ancient capital of Mongolia from roughly 1250-1270, you would have found this not too unusual. ancient Mongolians under Khubilai might have been the original Cosmopolitans of Asia.


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