May 31, 2020
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Mongolia Diary

From beer to hotel chains, Brand Genghis rules. Ulaanbaatar has the highest per capita vodka consumption

Mongolia Diary

Spirit of Things

The spanking new Boe­ing 737-800 of Mongolian Airlines is named after Kublai Khan, grandson of legendary Mongol warrior Gen­ghis Khan. Five hours from Hong Kong over China and the Gobi Desert land you at Ulaanbaatar, the world’s coldest capital, and straight into the spirit of things. An old man accosts you outside asking if you’ll give him something, for it’s his birthday. You step back fearing spontaneous combustion, so strong are the vodka fumes. In Ulaanbaatar, a shot of vodka costs less than a cup of coffee.

On arrival, you are greeted and welcomed by—guess who? Genghis Khan himself. From beer to hotel chains, Brand Genghis rules. Though territorially the world’s seventh largest country, more than half of its 3 million people live in Ulaanbaatar, enjoying the highest per capita vodka consumption out of a per capita income of $6,000 and a growth rate that has fluctuated between 13 and 26 per cent.

Mighty Nomads

Consider this. Nine centuries ago, Genghis the Great and his clan carved out the Mongol empire stretching from Siberia to India, Vietnam to Hungary and from Korea to the Balkans. They subjugated more countries in 25 years than the Romans conquered in 400. This was achieved with an army numbering 100,000 (today it numbers 40,000), backed by a population of one million. Naturally, Gross National Pride is visibly high. Today Mongolia is sandwiched between two of its former conquests—Russia and China—with whom relations are frosty and frail. Many Mongols say—“We are landlocked, nuclear-power-locked, nuclear test-site locked—we want to be unlocked.”

Historian Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World is a fascinating account of nomadic warriors who were not as bloodthirsty—or merely that—as legend would have it. The King Khans revolutionised military strategy, governance and, above all, the rule of law, all of which transformed the world. In 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Outlook he had managed to find time to read Weatherford’s book which showed that Genghis Khan was “a great secular leader”. Incidentally, Mongolia is not just about the finest nomadic fighters and rulers, but also about its bewitching queens. A Mongolian beauty, Altan Tuya, recently fell casualty to Malaysia’s high-end politics, not dissimilar to the ancient intrigues along the Mongolian steppes.

Cast in Stone

From the airport, it’s a solitary and potholed road to Ulaanbaatar. Gas pipelines which keep the capital warm criss-cross the out­skirts as do the several chimneys billowing smoke clouds. Traffic lights work and guide us to the oldest, ’60s-vintage five-star Ulaanbaatar hotel in the heart of town. At one time, a number of foreign embassies, including that of India, were lodged here. The centrepoint Sukhbaatar Square nearby has some of the greatest lifelike stone and bronze statues and images of Genghis Khan. The National Archives glorify the Mongol conquests, not the least those of Kublai Khan, who declared himself the Grand Emperor of China which he ruled from the fabled summer palace at Xanadu.

Over time, Mongols, mainly animists, converted to the Yellow sect of Tibetan Buddhism which survived Stalin’s extermination of thousands of monks and 900 monasteries. Our own Rimpoche Kushak Bakula from Ladakh—India’s third ambassador to Mongolia—has built a monastery in the heart of town. A Buddha statue is the central attraction close to what is called the Russian monument. Some 547 steps reach the windswept pinnacle whose conquest by newly-married Mongols, balancing bride and drink, consummate the union. The grandest spectacle of all is the 40-metre high Genghis Khan statue on horseback, 54 km east of Ulaanbaatar in the middle of nowhere.

Common Ground

Mongolia’s been a vibrant dem­oc­racy since 1990, symbolising a mix of unitary and federal structure with dual centres of power: the president and the prime minister. Recently, a former president and former finance minister were jailed for corruption. India and Mongolia have enjoyed excellent relations; it was Delhi that sponsored Mongolia’s membership of the UN in 1961 when Taiwan and later China obs­tru­c­ted its entry. Mongolia returned the favour by becoming the second country after Bhutan to recognise Bangladesh in 1973. What’s bound the two countries together for nearly 3,000 years is Buddhism. Mongols regularly do the Buddhist circuit in India. Hindi films are popular and the TV serial Mahabharat, dubbed in Mongolian, was a hit. Mongols say some people (read China) don’t like our political system. Others (read Russia) don’t like our economic dependence on third neighbours. With such neighbours, who needs enemies!

India’s role as a...

Third neighbour and a spiritual one too is fully acknowledged. My neighbour on the Kublai Khan flight, attired in Buddhist robes, confided that he is purified after notching the Buddhist circuit in India.

Former major general Ashok Mehta anchors Defence Watch on Doordarshan; E-mail your diarist: mehtaashokk AT

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