Western Culture Sweeps the Barren Reaches of Mongolia


The music takes on a Latin beat. The dancers glue their bodies together. They are doing--yes, the lambada, the provocative Brazilian dance that is the rage in the West.

The lambada? In Ulan Bator? In Mongolia?

"Why not?" said Suhjargalmaa, a top editor at the official Montsame News Agency. "We knew about the Beatles as soon as they appeared."

Not only the Beatles, but such rock and pop stars as Prince, Pink Floyd, Phil Collins and Paula Abdul have big followings among the hip urban youth of this Communist-ruled nation of shepherds. Tapes are carried in from Eastern Europe, for decades Mongolia's door to the world.

But now, with the Cold War receding into history and Mongolia learning glasnost and perestroika from its Soviet mentor, Mongolians are eager for direct contact with the non-socialist world.

"If you were to stand here and shout out that you are an American, probably a lot of people would crowd around just to see what you are like," said my translator, Orgil, a 27-year-old Foreign Ministry worker who learned his fluent English in Moscow. Like most Mongolians, he uses only one name.

After decades of letting in but a few Western journalists, the Foreign Ministry welcomed dozens early this year to witness Mongolia's first steps toward multiparty elections expected this summer.

It drafted nearly every English speaker in Ulan Bator to serve as translators and set up special phone and telex lines that eased, but did not eliminate, problems in contacting the outside world. It even arranged news conferences with the country's brand-new opposition parties.

Geographically, historically and politically, Mongolia still hovers in uncharted territory between its Stalinist past and hoped-for democratic future. Geographically, it stands along the Chinese-Soviet border where it harbors the Gobi Desert. Long under Chinese influence, it slipped into the Soviet sphere relatively recently. Historic home of the Mongol hordes that swept Europe, it uses the Greek-derived Cyrillic alphabet of the Slavic countries and the Soviet Union. Contradictions abound. They always have.

For example, among our translators were several people identified by their colleagues or opposition party members as having secret police connections.

The words "Long Live the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party," the formal name of the Communists, still dominate a hillside over Ulan Bator in yards-high stone letters--evidence that the party believes in loosening up but not giving up.

The close Soviet Bloc tie is another part of the past that won't easily be erased. It is stamped on the face of Ulan Bator--in the stolid Soviet-style buildings, the central square that imitates Red Square, the Soviet-made Volga and Lada cars.

It was the Soviets who taught Mongolians to eat potatoes and bread and drink vodka with their traditional mutton. Television viewers can pick from Mongolia's one station or the Soviet channel. Almost all trade is with the Soviet Union or its other allies--shops sell Czech beer, Bulgarian pickle relish and East German fashion magazines.

The blond men dancing with the lonely wives of Soviet soldiers in the Hotel Ulan Bator's bar are Polish, Ukrainian and East German black marketeers, profiting from the shortages left by state-planned economies up and down the Trans-Siberian Railroad. They bring Chinese consumer goods to Ulan Bator and Mongolian cashmere to Moscow.

The East Bloc connection has Europeanized urban Mongolians, giving them a cosmopolitan air absent from the neighboring socialist capitals of Beijing and Pyongyang. Nowhere in Beijing is there a bartender like bow-tied Arslan of the Hotel Ulan Bator, who serves up nightly political commentary in English, German, Russian and a little Japanese.

For this European polish, Suhjargalmaa said Mongolians should be grateful to former dictator Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal, who married a Soviet woman and made Mongolian-Soviet friendship a matter of dogma. But hers is a minority view.

My chief concern on the streets was not to be mistaken for a Russian, so as to avoid the cold stares, poor service and hissed obscenities directed at them.

"People are fed up" with everything Soviet, one local resident said. Mongolians are reveling in a new surge of nationalism with Genghis Khan, the 13th-Century warrior king, as their hero.

Two hit rock songs sing the khan's praises. Artists and scholars recently formed a society called "Genghis Khan's Tent" to revive traditional culture. A taxi driver pasted a color picture of Genghis Khan like a holy card on the dashboard of his Soviet sedan.

The party newspaper, Unen, now prints its name in Mongolia's ancient script as well as in the Cyrillic letters forcibly introduced in the 1940s. Schools offer night courses in the old script to young adults raised on Cyrillic.

Some observers wonder if the government is encouraging traditionalism to divert attention from modern problems, such as economic stagnation and rising crime.

A leading economist disclosed in April that more than half of Mongolia's 2 million people earn only the minimum wage of 260 tugriks a month or less--about U.S. $46.

Industrial production fell early in the year as workers took advantage of the political thaw to stage slowdowns and illegal strikes. Housing, consumer goods and even meat, one of Mongolia's chief products, are perennially in short supply.

"Sometimes in summer we can't get meat for two or three weeks," said Orig, a retired teacher in the tiny rural town of Hugar, southwest of Ulan Bator. He said the town hopes to open a free market soon, adding, "This will help solve the shortages."

But even Ulan Bator's twice-weekly free market offers slim pickings to the thousands who visit it. They file hopefully past stalls that display small heaps of salvaged screws and bolts, rusty saws and screwdrivers, homemade picture frames and a broken television valuable for its parts.

Most of the customers come from nearby settlements of shanties and gers --traditional felt tents known better in the West by their Turkish name, yurts. Stark and colorless, the ger- towns stretch across treeless, grassless hills on Ulan Bator's fringes.

Children play ball in the dirt. Residents carry buckets to communal faucets but dig their own toilets--sometimes badly, as small rivulets of leaking sewage testify.

Small wonder that the ger -towns are the cradle of youth gangs with names like the "Gray Wolves," that fight each other and are blamed for a recent surge in muggings and rapes. Foreign Ministry staff members warned me against walking alone at night, even in the city center.

Neither the ruling party nor the half a dozen new opposition groups has offered a practical blueprint for dealing with these economic and social problems.

Political wrangling has absorbed much of their energies. Already, the leading opposition group, the Mongolian Democratic Assn. and its affiliated party, has purged its top ranks twice amid charges of personal ambition.

Rural dwellers make up only 37% of Mongolia's population, but in this summer's legislative elections they will have the decisive say. The ruling party, strongest in the countryside, recently gave them more legislative seats than city dwellers.

How much they understand or care about the recent political changes remains to be seen.

I asked Gonchig, a 61-year-old semi-nomadic herder in rural Uvurhangai province, what he thought of the opposition hunger strike in March that forced the Communists to give up their constitutional hold on power.

"We understood that it wasn't that they didn't have enough to eat, that they were making political demands," Gonchig said chuckling. "Of course, to some extent they are crazy."

He follows developments sketchily via radio reports and copies of Unen delivered to his ger once a week by pony express.

Out in the rolling grasslands, away from Ulan Bator's incessant political debates, it is easy to share Gonchig's priorities.

"The sight of white sheep against the green pasture is really quite lovely," said Orgil, city born and bred.

Indeed it is lovely, even when seen from a Soviet jeep that is hurtling across the open steppe, bumping through ruts and rivers.

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