Stopping to smell the grass in Mongolia

Mongolia is rich in copper, coal, and gold. But many Mongolians still see the country's true value in its endless grasslands.

Brendan Smialowski/AP
A view of downtown Ulan Bator is seen on Tuesday, July 10, in Mongolia.

It has been raining – more than somewhat – over the past week or so, and nobody here seems to care.

Indeed many people seem positively delighted, unfazed by the lakes of muddy water that pool in the Mongolian capital’s lamentably maintained streets, making them well nigh impossible to cross in some spots without a small boat.

Deep in the soul of even the most urban Mongolian, it seems, is a herder’s instinctive pleasure at seeing, and feeling, the rain that makes the summer grass grow on the steppe.

A dapper, gray-suited young aide to the politician tipped as Mongolia’s next prime minister was walking with me across Ulaanbaatar’s main square the other day when suddenly the heavens opened.

He disdained my offer of a shared umbrella and did not even quicken his step as his clothes grew ever damper. In fact he danced a little jig and laughed out loud.

“I love the rain,” he exclaimed. “The rain is good.”

A day or so later, a young woman studying economics at Mongolia’s National University was driving me out of the city, accompanying me to one of the shantytowns that ring the capital. Ulaanbaatar is not a large place, and before long we were in open country.

“Can you smell the grass?” she asked, excitedly.

Actually I couldn’t. The exhaust fumes from the traffic weaving its way around the potholes were all I could smell. At the best of times, the only grassy scent that I can identify is freshly cut grass. But my Mongolian friend’s olfactory sense was attuned to the scent of growing grass, which for generation upon generation of nomads has held the promise of fatter sheep, goats, horses, and yaks, and thus prosperity.

Today, the promise of prosperity in Mongolia comes from the earth beneath the grass, where foreign mining companies are about to start digging into massive deposits of gold, copper, and coal. But for many people here, the country’s true wealth still lies in its endless grasslands.

You can take the Mongolian out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the Mongolian.

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