Sandagdorj Ojunsuren proudly sports a tiny medallion of Genghis Khan, Mongolia's ancient chieftain who once commanded the world's largest empire.
"Genghis Khan founded the Mongolian state. I have heard so many tales about him," says the sunburned camel herder who lives just outside the Gobi Desert's main town. "Most people think [he] protected all of Mongolia from external enemies. Today we feel Mongolia must again be protected."
Mongolia, a vast land of only 2.3 million people, is struggling to rise from centuries of isolation and foreign control and emerge as a modern nation. Six years ago, protesting Mongolians threw off years of Communist rule and embarked on a transition to democracy and market-style reforms.
In another political step in June, they ousted the reconstituted Communists and elected a new generation of youthful democrats. It was only the country's second parliamentary election.
Mongolia, a country more than twice the size of Texas, continues to grapple with the legacy of seven decades of Soviet colonization and economic decay. The end of Russian aid in 1990 thrust it into some of the worst chaos suffered by any country of the collapsed Soviet bloc. Since then, Mongolians have crept back from sharp economic decline and wrestled with the harsh realities of capitalism.
Sandwiched between a churning Russia to the north and a looming China to the south, Mongolia faces an uneasy coexistence. The two giants have long histories of grabbing large chunks of Mongolia, and even today more Mongolians live in Russian and Chinese border regions than in their own country.
Amid new insecurities, Mongolian nationalism has resurged. The main concern is China - where Mongolia's sovereignty is recognized, but some academics insist the small neighbor is rightfully Chinese.
"Mongolia is in a race against time. We need to produce a balancing effect in the region," says Hashbat Hulan, a newly elected politician. "Mongolia is becoming a center of new international geopolitics."
"Mongolia has to get itself on firm footing before China becomes too big and powerful," says a Western diplomat in Beijing who travels frequently to Mongolia.
Animosity toward China is rooted in centuries of Chinese colonial exploitation. As indebtedness to Chinese traders jumped, many Mongolians were forced to abandon the traditional nomadic lifestyle. When China's last dynasty collapsed in the early 20th century, Mongolia became independent, but Inner Mongolia remained part of China and the northern provinces of Tuva and Buryatia went to Russia.
Independence was cut short by a coup that made the country a client state of the Soviet Union. Tens of thousands of people, including most of the country's Buddhist monks, died in the brutal suppression.
As they try out their new political openness, economic difficulties loom largest. After Soviet aid dried up, the standard of living plummeted and Mongolia became one of the world's poorest countries. For many here, the bleakness has been broken by a rising nationalism and a revived cult of Genghis Khan.
Dalai, a historian who like many Mongolians uses only one name, is an active member of the Group of 281, an ultranationalist organization professing allegiance to the ancient patriarch. He has written several books on the Mongolian emperor. For years under the Soviets the name of the Mongolian conqueror could not be mentioned. Now, his latter-day loyalists worry China is trying to usurp their emperor by building a memorial to him in Inner Mongolia. "Of course, we won't revive his empire. We can't, although I do think it would be better if Inner Mongolia could unite with us," Dalai said from his cluttered office.
China equally fears such Mongolian sentiments. Chinese scholars contend Soviet dominance kept Mongolia's much-coveted mineral resources and open spaces out of Chinese reach. Recently, as part of its national "Strike Hard" security campaign, Chinese authorities rounded up scores of activists and intellectuals in Inner Mongolia, fearing nationalist fervor would spread to them from across the border.
Likewise, Mongolians worry about being flattened by China's economic juggernaut and shun its poor-quality goods. "I try to avoid anything Chinese," says Mrs. Ojunsuren, the camel herder. "When we buy, we would rather buy Russian."
"We are sandwiched in between two giants. Geopolitically, how do we develop relations with them? Historically, it has not been easy," says Dashdavaagiin Chuluundorj, a senior Mongolian diplomat. "We have been in this situation for centuries. The question is how to handle it again in the future."