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Nichols: Traveling to Mongolia is a world away

POSTED: August 1, 2008 5:01 a.m.

When I announced to my friends, associates and relatives that I was going to spend two weeks in Mongolia to be present when my grandson, Mark, marries a beautiful Mongolian named Miigaa, about half of them asked where Mongolia was.

Mongolia borders China to the south and Siberian Russia to the north. It is a landlocked country twice the size of Texas. It is sparsely populated with only 3 million people. One million of them live in the capitol city of Ulaanbaatar (they call it UB).

My grandson and his fiancee were waiting for us at the airport. We were taken directly to the apartment of the bride’s parents, on the fifth floor of an apartment building without an elevator. We made the trip of 88 steps up to the fifth floor. The building was built by the Russians and looked exactly like similar apartments in any Soviet city.

I was given the best seat in the room, served first and treated like somebody extra special. There are three grandparents, but the two Mongolians were only 69 and 78. In Mongolia, it pays to be really old, as in 80.

Mongolia was founded by Genghis Khan (sometimes spelled Chinggis). In 1206, he brought nomadic tribes together and began conquering nearby territories. His grandson, Kublai Khan, conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368). The Mongols pushed their empire westward till it covered lands from Korea to Poland.

The Mongols had control of Russia for nearly 300 years, and introduced money, secret police and control of population by severe methods. Russia’s capital was moved from Kiev to Moscow, which was closer to Mongolia.

The Mongols had the largest empire the world has ever known, but it did not last. Distances were vast and communication slow and difficult. There were many struggles for power among the sons of the Khan when he died.

The Mongols were driven out of China by the Chinese of the Ming dynasty. In 1644, the Mings were overthrown by the Manchus, who also conquered the Mongols and ruled Mongolia as a Chinese province (1691-1911).

In 1921, the Russian Reds followed the Whites into Mongolia from Siberia to the north. The Reds helped the locals kick out the last of the Chinese military and established the Mongolian Peoples Republic in 1924.

Mongolia thus became the very first Communist satellite state way before Eastern European countries, which became satellites after World War II.

Russian influence in Mongolia is everywhere. Mongolian language has its own script, but everything is written in Cyrillic. Many of the downtown older buildings in Ulaanbaatar have tall neon signs in Cyrillic on the roof. Many Mongolian leaders have been educated in Russian universities.

At the edge of town on top of a mountain ridge is a tall monument to the Russian soldiers who protected Mongolia from the Japanese as they occupied Manchuria on Mongolia’s eastern border. Nearby, a Russian tank serves as a reminder of Soviet military exploits.

I had two delightful meals in Russian restaurants featuring Russian cuisine. The owners are Mongolian, but the setting was Russian with paintings, dolls and other mementos.

But politically, Russian influence has fallen. The Communist Party ruled as a single party government from 1924 until the new constitution of 1990 established a multiparty system. The Communist Party is now named the Mongolian Peoples Revolutionary Party and recently governed as a coalition with other parties. The main opposition party is called the Democratic Party.

In the election at the end of June, the MPRP ran ahead and then fell behind in the vote count until about 5 p.m., when it began winning in all districts. Opposition parties asked for a recount. The request was denied. So the people gathered in Sukhbataar Square in the front of the Communist Party headquarters. They began throwing rocks.

Riot squads appeared. Communist officials refused to meet with the protesters. The people then attacked the building and set it on fire. Workers fled out the back door and none were hurt. But at least four of the rioters were killed.

One other building faced with blue glass had windows smashed with rocks. By the time we arrived in Ulaanbaatar a week later, the communist headquarters building appeared to have been abandoned and stood empty with fire and smoke damage at every window.

It seems to me that Russia as a culture and former ally is respected, but the local communists still in charge of the MPRP have lost the support of many local citizens.

I really liked my stay in Mongolia and hope to return to visit with my new relatives there. Everywhere I went I was treated with great consideration.

I am glad our two families are now together. We have much to learn from each other.

Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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