Soviet 'bear hug' of Mongolia creates two cultures in Ulan Bator
Ulan Bator, Mongolia
It's a place where one can go from lamas to Lenin in two minutes and find fur hats more easily than fruit. It's Ulan Bator, the capital of what has long been the euphemism for the end of the earth, outer Mongolia - or more properly the Mongolian People's Republic.Skip to next paragraph
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It's the country whose nomadic warriors unified by the mighty conqueror Genghis Khan stretched its borders as far as Hungary in the 13th century; whose ancient capital, Karakorum, was fabled for its splendor.
Today, there are no visible vestiges of those past glories at least in Ulan Bator, an austere city in winter where temperatures drop to -20 degrees C. Landlocked between the Soviet Union and China, Mongolia is squarely in the Soviet camp: a fact attested to by history, government figures, and simple observation.
In 1911 Mongolian princes declared independence from China with Russian assistance that was further extended to establish the People's Republic in 1924.
Last November the government news agency Montsame reported that 80 percent of Mongolia's exports go to the Soviet Union while Mongolia imports 100 percent of its oil, 50 percent of its consumer goods, and 90 percent of its machinery from the Soviet Union.
The Soviet influence is especially ponderous in Ulan Bator. Oversized buildings of the post-Lenin school of architecture stand solidly along wide boulevards which make the sparsely populated city seem even more empty.
What is uniquely Mongolian is surrounded by unpainted, rickety wooden fences. These are the gers, traditional tentlike dwellings, which are grouped together in compounds. An estimated 50 percent of Ulan Bator's 450,000 residents live in the circular, felt-covered ger, which has a small rooftop opening for ventilation.
Another glimpse of traditional ways is at the Gandan Lamasery, where old people not fully indoctrinated in socialist ways practice the ancient rituals. The monk population, said to have numbered 100,000, has dwindled to fewer than 100. As one steps into the main temple, eyes that have become accustomed to the grayness of the city are assaulted with color. Monks in saffron-colored robes chant sutras against a background of multi-hued tapestries.
A short ride way, it is back to basic gray at the newly opened Lenin museum, a world-class museum in terms of design. There are two massive floors of Lenin memorabilia. The impressive displays there are in stark contrast to the city's three museums that focus on Mongolian history and culture. The Mongolian art museum is rich with exquisite Mongolian appliqued tapestries, but it is especially in need of major repairs.
In any Asian country, Westerners stick out. In Ulan Bator, the Soviet ''advisers'' and those in military uniforms are especially prominent for their numbers, a figure estimated by diplomats to be between 20,000 and 30,000 in the city alone.
At the comfortable but dowdy Ulan Bator Hotel, the capital's best, Soviet guards take their post in the lobby at night. They occasionally poke their heads into the bar to check on patrons, most of whom are Russian men who for lack of women exercise their limbs together to the disco rhythms emanating from the jukebox.
Although the official language is Mongol, all writing is in the Cyrillic alphabet. Russian is now required in primary schools. Billboards proclaim ''friendship and fraternity between the peoples of Mongolia and the Soviet Union.''
To drive home the point for the illiterate or outsiders, there are public posters of Mongolians and Russians, distinguished by their native costumes, embracing or holding hands.
Since the majority of the population derives its livelihood from herding, especially sheep, the Mongolians eat vast amounts of mutton. Even at $2 per kilo , a guide said, the average consumption is ''at the very least'' one kilo per day for a family of our. Mutton alone, then, consumes 20 percent of the combined monthly income of a husband and wife, both of whom generally work for an average monthly income each of 500 tugriks ($145).
In the city, people look well off. Fur hats and stylish leather coats and boots are sported by many of the the sturdy and robust Mongolians.
Although fur is common, fruit is not. An imported item, fresh fruit such as tangerines, which cost the same as mutton, is the real luxury. It sells so quickly that a pre-arrival tip-off by a state-store employee is deemed ''nice to have.''
Another shortage is people. A population of only 1.7 million is spread out over 604,116 square miles. The government offers incentives for couples to have children. For each child, a family receives about $5 per month. After the fourth child, the amount increases and the mother is duly awarded an honorary title by the state.
The government feels the present population growth is not enough to provide the manpower for its industrial development program, a program fueled by Soviet aid. According to Alan Sander, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Western estimates say Mongolia received $590 million from Moscow in 1982, excluding military aid which provides everything but food and lodging for the Mongolian Army.
Mongolia is a partial but strategic buffer between the Soviet Union and China. A Mongolian-based diplomat declined to estimate the number of Soviet and Mongolian troops at the border but said one does see trainloads of young Soviet soldiers headed south.
The Mongolian government's figures say Soviet aid will rise by 40 percent in the period 1981-85. The nonmilitary aid goes primarily for mining.
Although modernization hinges on Soviet aid, Mongolian history and folklore reflect a nomadic, proud, and independent-spirited people. There are telltale signs that the Mongolians are not altogether comfortable with the bear hug of ''elder brother.''
A Western diplomat characterized the relationship as ''no love lost'' between the two sides. On the street, one does see Soviets moving to the front of long bus lines and a young Mongolian woman shoved aside by a Soviet soldier striding out the door.