Discovering Mongolia: Unique journey with challenges and promise

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By Isaac Green

Isaac interned with our newspaper in the past two weeks and wrote his first impressions about Mongolia. We hope our readers will enjoy reading about what Mongolia is like in his eyes, celebrating Children’s Day in Magic Mongolia NGO and his awe for the architecture through history.

As I found myself 9,600 kilometers away from home, I embarked on an adventure to explore the unique and captivating country of Mongolia. Landing in Ulaanbaatar, I was immediately struck by the breathtaking views of the city nestled amidst beautiful mountains. Mongolia, a destination buzzing with excitement, has a plethora of distinctive features that make it truly one-of-a-kind.

One of the first things that caught my attention was the sight of cars with wheels on both the left and right sides. This unusual phenomenon stems from the country’s history and influence from neighboring countries. Mongolia, situated between China and Russia, has adopted a mixture of right-hand drive and left-hand drive vehicles. It was fascinating to see such a diverse range of vehicles navigating the streets, representing the multicultural influences present in Mongolia.

Another prominent feature of Mongolia is the architectural influence from the communist era. As I strolled through the streets, the old buildings stood as a reminder of the country's past. The utilitarian design and grand facades of these structures added a unique charm to the cityscape, offering glimpses into Mongolia’s history. The blend of Soviet and Mongolian architectural styles created an intriguing juxtaposition, showcasing the country's evolving identity.

These buildings, with their distinct characteristics, serve as witnesses to Mongolia’s socialist era, reflecting the ideals and aspirations of the time. The functionalist approach of the Soviet architectural style is evident in the geometric shapes, large windows, and austere exteriors of many buildings. These features were intended to prioritize efficiency and practicality, emphasizing the collective over the individual.

At the same time, Mongolian architectural elements, rooted in the country’s rich nomadic heritage, add a unique flavor to the cityscape. Traditional Mongolian designs, such as the ornate wood carvings and vibrant colors seen in the intricately decorated temples and monasteries, blend harmoniously with the socialist-era structures. This fusion of styles creates a captivating visual narrative that reflects Mongolia’s complex history and cultural heritage.

Walking through the streets, I couldn’t help but appreciate how these architectural remnants provided a tangible link to the past, allowing me to immerse myself in Mongolia’s story of transformation. The architectural influence from the communist era not only adds character to the city but also serves as a reminder of the challenges and triumphs that shaped the nation. It is a testament to Mongolia’s ability to embrace change while retaining elements of its cultural identity.

As the country moves forward, these buildings offer opportunities for revitalization and repurposing, allowing them to contribute to the modernization efforts while preserving their historical significance. By striking a balance between preserving the architectural heritage and adapting to contemporary needs, Mongolia can create a cityscape that seamlessly merges the past and the present, becoming a living testament to its journey of evolution.

Sukhbaatar Square filled with joyous spirits as Mongolians commemorate Mother and Children’s Day in grand fashion

During my visit, I had the chance to explore the Terelj National Park and stay in a traditional Mongolian dwelling known as a GER. This unique accommodation provided an authentic glimpse into the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolian people. The GER, also known as a yurt, is a circular tent made of felt and wood. It was a peaceful retreat surrounded by stunning landscapes, allowing me to disconnect from the modern world and reconnect with nature. The simplicity and harmony of the ger perfectly encapsulated the beauty of the Mongolian countryside.

Of course, no trip to Mongolia would be complete without indulging in traditional cuisine. I had the opportunity to try traditional dry curd, known as “aaruul” in Mongolian, which is a staple in Mongolian cuisine. Made from dried curdled milk, it had a distinct flavor and texture. The Mongolian diet is also known for its focus on meat, particularly mutton, reflecting the country’s pastoral heritage. From hearty stews to flavorful dumplings, Mongolian cuisine offers a range of dishes that are both delicious and satisfying.

One of the highlights of my trip was experiencing Mongolia's strong equestrian tradition. Riding a horse through the vast Mongolian countryside was an unforgettable experience. It allowed me to immerse myself in the country’s rich nomadic heritage and connect with its natural beauty. Horses have played a vital role in Mongolian culture for centuries, serving as a means of transportation, a source of livelihood, and a symbol of freedom. Exploring the rolling hills and open plains on horseback gave me a profound appreciation for the nomadic way of life.

On June 1, I had an opportunity to witness the vibrant celebration of Mother and Children’s Day in Mongolia. The atmosphere was filled with joy and excitement as families gathered to honor the vital roles of mothers and express their love for children. The streets were adorned with colorful decorations, and various events and activities were organized throughout the city.

Bayankhoshuu in Songinorkhairkhan District transforms into an enchanting wonderland as Magic Mongolia 1 captivates children and parents with a day of unforgettable festivities on June 1

Among the festivities, I decided to visit Magic Mongolia, an inspiring NGO located in the ger district. This organization works tirelessly to bring happiness and support to underprivileged children in the community. Stepping into their center, I was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by the dedicated staff and volunteers. The space was transformed into a haven of creativity and laughter, where children could explore their talents and express themselves through art, music, and play. It was heartwarming to witness the genuine smiles on the faces of the children as they engaged in activities that fostered their personal growth and well-being. Magic Mongolia not only provides a safe and nurturing environment but also offers educational support and health-care initiatives, making a profound impact on the lives of these deserving children.

Despite its many unique and captivating aspects, Mongolia faces several challenges and drawbacks. One notable issue is poor solid waste management, which has congested a significant portion of the city’s natural and artificial drainage systems. The inadequate operation and maintenance of levees and drainage structures, coupled with heavy sedimentation in rivers, further reduce the drainage system’s capacity. As a result, Ulaanbaatar is susceptible to flooding, and historical approaches of expanding flood control measures alone are insufficient to manage the growing risk. High-intensity rainfall, no longer the sole cause of flooding, adds complexity to the situation.

In recent years, climate change has exacerbated the challenges faced by Mongolia’s drainage system. The changing weather patterns and increased frequency of extreme weather events have amplified the risk of flooding in urban areas. While high-intensity rainfall plays a significant role in the increasing flood risk, the accumulation of solid waste exacerbates the problem by obstructing the natural flow of water.

The congestion of drainage systems not only results in flooding but also poses health and environmental concerns. Improperly managed solid waste can contaminate water sources, leading to waterborne diseases and harming ecosystems. Additionally, the stagnant water caused by inadequate drainage becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease-carrying vectors, further threatening public health.

To address these challenges, there is a need for comprehensive and integrated solutions that go beyond expanding flood control measures. Improving solid waste management practices is crucial to mitigate the risk of flooding. This includes implementing effective waste collection, recycling, and disposal systems to prevent waste from clogging drainage infrastructure.

Furthermore, enhancing the maintenance and operation of levees and drainage structures is essential to ensure their optimal functionality. Regular inspections, repairs, and sediment management can help restore the drainage system’s capacity and reduce the vulnerability to flooding. 

In the face of climate change and the increasing complexity of flood risk, adopting innovative and sustainable approaches is crucial. Implementing nature-based solutions, such as green infrastructure and urban water management strategies, can help improve the resilience of cities like Ulaanbaatar. These approaches involve utilizing natural systems, such as wetlands and green spaces, to manage stormwater and enhance flood resilience.

Addressing the challenges of poor solid waste management and urban flooding requires a multi-faceted approach involving collaboration between government agencies, community stakeholders, and international partners. By prioritizing investments in sustainable infrastructure, Mongolia can mitigate the risks associated with flooding and create a more resilient and sustainable city for the future.

Moreover, Mongolia’s heavy reliance on mining as a major contributor to its economy poses various concerns. The tourism industry, which has the potential to contribute significantly to GDP and job creation, has not received enough attention and investment until recently. While mining generates significant revenue for the government, there has been a lack of diversification away from mining income, leading to an imbalance in the country’s economic sectors. Additionally, mining contracts negotiated through the government can be susceptible to corruption, which has tarnished the government’s reputation and eroded public trust.

Mining currently plays a dominant role in the Mongolian economy, and the government's heavy reliance on this sector has hindered efforts to diversify. The gains from mining are not distributed equitably, with marginalized groups such as those living in ger districts and nomadic herders not receiving significant benefits. Foreign corporations often lead mining operations, which can lead to conflicts over land ownership and pose a threat to the health of grasslands, rivers, and wells.

In contrast, the tourism industry has the potential to bring in foreign money and distribute wealth more equitably. As tourism operates primarily in the private sector, it is less susceptible to corruption and can provide employment opportunities for people from various backgrounds. Tourism spending has a broader impact on the local economy, benefiting goods, services, and experiences, and reaching a wider range of sectors compared to mining operations. 

However, the Mongolian government continues to operate at a deficit and holds a low credit rating. Despite these challenges, Mongolia’s journey towards democracy and market-oriented reforms is still relatively young. The transition from a communist regime to a democratic society has brought both opportunities and challenges. Mongolia is navigating the complexities of modernization, with urbanization and shifting demographics influencing its social fabric. As the country continues to evolve, it is crucial to foster a balance between preserving traditional values and embracing the benefits of progress. By addressing these multifaceted issues with a forward-thinking mindset and collaborative efforts, Mongolia can pave the way for a promising future that honors its rich heritage while adapting to the demands of a changing world.

Misheel Lkhasuren