It is January in the Gobi. The sun shines brightly as only it can in the Gobi. We encounter local people speaking in aphorisms, great Gobi’s brave hearted camel herdsman, and a paleontologist who guards footprints of dinosaurs in Shar Tsav. We hear a tale about a powerful wrestler whose name was Ider Dampil. All these experiences fill me with great joy and satisfaction.
Just more than an hour flight from freezing Ulaanbaatar, we landed in Dalanzadgad. As usual, I cover up in warm clothing, tightening the cords before walking down the stairs of a small airplane. I think about people I will meet, places I will visit, and where I might stay and I forget about the local weather. It gradually comes to my attention that I feel warm. The freezing cold which surrounded me just an hour ago is gone. The Gobi sun’s comforting rays relaxes me. I walk more slowly and realize where I am.
Umnugovi. In the last few years, this area has become synonymous with mining. Our team representing the Development Studio is here to meet local residents to learn about their lives and thoughts. The first person we meet is A.Tsooj, leader of the non-governmental organization Bayan Tuuh, which when translated into English means “rich history.” He is one of the elders who works voluntarily to protect local culture. He is so familiar with local heritage sites that he can provide you with the exact numbers and measurements of cultural monuments and historical remains that are located in Umnugovi province.
One could call him a living oral literature. “There are the remains of more than ten cities, around 20 military barricades, and 300 ancient mounds and tombs from the years between the beginning of the Khunnu Empire and the 12th to 13th centuries. For many centuries, these areas have escaped being plundered. Only a few stones have been disturbed to build barns. But mining has changed all this. At Tomb Khavt, in Gurvantes soum, looters seeking to enrich themselves have dug a hole 10 meters long, 4 meters wide and 2.5 meters deep.
On an ancient Turkic monument in Sevrei soum, ancient runic writings have been erased and looters have etched instead “3rd year of King Bayn. In this place occurred the 8th battle against the Manchu Empire.” He continues, “It`s now clear that our province will become more populous. We want mining which is environmentally friendly, beneficial for local residents, and respectful of our history.” This is what we talked about with Tsooj near the Five Horses Monument. Under the January sun, we sat and talked for more than an hour with this special person who cares so deeply about the history, present and future of his land.
Then we visited the senior center. People were just leaving from a festival where volunteer performers were sharing traditional long songs with local children. This is where Ts. Bat-Ulzii, head of the senior community union of the province, shared with us his thoughts about the changes taking place. “In our childhood, it was customary to honor and respect seniors. Now, the younger generation has adopted the Western view that everyone is equal. Also, every Mongolian family produced everything they needed. For example, people could tan leather themselves. I can tan leather. I also know how to make felt. But young generations don’t seem to have much of an idea about that kind of stuff. These changes are making us a little upset.”
We could feel a chilly breeze with the setting sun as we walked in Dalanzadgad. An upscale tall green hotel building stood out from the other new buildings. It was Gandirs Center. A sign states that it is affiliated with Gandirs Tower Hotel, which is located near the State Department Store in Ulaanbaatar. Affluent people who were born in Umnugobi province are providing contributions to build architectural structures, such as a statue of Ajnai`s horses and the Gandirs Center.
Until quite recently, Umnugobi province was the most sparsely populated region. While most Mongolians are migrating to Ulaanbaatar, Umnugobi province`s population nearly doubled. In 2012, 56,000 inhabitants resided in the province. It is rush hour and there is a traffic jam on the main street. A traffic police officer is attempting to resolve the situation. “You know, we are curious people. Everyone wants their own car,” said Tsooj guai. “I hope it`s changing now,” I say. “It’s getting better, but look at the traffic,” he responds.
We were in a supermarket and a dairy food market. Probably because Tsagaan Sar was soon approaching, both were crowded and products were pricey. Most products seemed to cost the same as UB, but some were as much as 30 percent more expensive. Hoormog, which is a kind of alcoholic tonic made from milk, dried curd and other dairy foods were selling well. We ate dinner at a Chinese hot pot restaurant. Although the variety of vegetables was limited, the meal was still slightly more expensive than UB. Land of aphoristic speakers
At sunrise, we left Dalanzadgad. The first ger we stopped by belonged to Ch. Byambasuren`s family from Khan-Khongor soum. When opening the car door, there was an overpowering smell of a farm. Ch. Byambasuren told us that “Since the boom of mining it`s become a busy place with visitors constantly coming and going. Me personally, I live the same way as before. I still offer tea to visitors.” It seems she`s always entertaining guests.
Ganchimeg, a young mother, was visiting so her baby could breathe fresh air. Before her baby, she worked for Oyu Tolgoi’s camp as a hairdresser. We talked about what life is like for the young in Umnugobi. “It`s true that Oyu Tolgoi increased the number of jobs for the young, but it`s also true that local residents usually work in the service field. I wish Oyu Tolgoi would increase the possibility of finding jobs in professional fields.” She seemed shy when we first started talking, but eventually she relaxed a bit. “Our youths in Umnugov are very spirited people,” she said waving goodbye to us.
We continued on our trip. It was a welcome change to drive by paved road through the boundless steppe. But our driver refused to drive over 80 miles per hour. He said it`s the company`s rule. Beside the paved road, there are endless trucks transporting coal and stirring up dust all around. The paved road`s length is 245 kilometers and continues to the southern border of Mongolia. But only a few companies such as Energy Resource and Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi which pay a toll are able to use this road. Since most vehicles are unable to use the road, an abundance of dust disturbs local residents and animal life. When will the words of A. Tsooj ring true that “Coal must be shipped only by railroad.”
Just before dark, we arrived at the camp of Oyu Tolgoi and spent the night there. We would like to thank Ch. Burenbayar and Ts. Ganzorig on Oyu Tolgoi’s media staff and the Cultural Heritage Project`s staff for supporting our work.
The next morning, we awoke early, and just as the sun was rising, we entered the center of Khanbogd soum. Khanbogd is located in an area directly affected by mining. A mining boom brought many new issues to this soum. As a result, many NGOs were formed to represent the interests of local residents, protecting their rights and encouraging local residents to participate in building responsible governance and mining. Ms. Sandagsuren is the founder and director of one of these NGOs, Oyunii Urguu. She has many years of experience in the fields of education and journalism. She has also traveled to many countries to better understand how to run an NGO. She said people do not pay much attention to the work contract they sign.
They are just thrilled at being offered a job. Unfortunately, they face many obstacles while working. In response to complaints about the company CIS Mongolia, Oyunii Urguu NGO succeeded in changing work contracts so that they are in accordance with Mongolian law. “In addition to standing up for the interests of local residents, we also organize many training programs,” said Sandagsuren. She is very proud that she was born and raised in great Galba`s Gobi and has started writing her memoirs.
The individual who inspired me to think about Gobi’s residents is the “hero of labor,” the state awarded herdsman D. Khuuhenbaatar. As this wise man compares himself to a camel, I think that he is representative of Gobi’s original residents. “The camel is a sensitive animal. It is wrong to think that because an animal is big that it will not die. If a camel is really sick, it can die more easily than other animals. But if it is cared for, it can be one of the most productive and strongest animals,” he said as he drank tea from a silver bowl made by the famous Noyon Sevrei masters. “When I was a little boy there were elders who were very knowledgeable and capable leaders. They also worked harmoniously with one another. There was a lama named Narhajid.
He said the people of Galba`s Gobi have two chests of jewels so that its residents will never be poor. It almost seems like he predicted that mining would arrive here. But I think the mining business is going to take the gold and leave empty chests. For example, the Gobi never had an ample water supply. But mining companies are using groundwater. What water will be left for us?”
In Bayan-Ovoo soum, we met J. Sukhbaatar, who possesses knowledge of a wide array of long songs, which traditionally were sung during festivals and feasts.
The melodies are the same as they were long ago. He was quiet when we first met, but gradually became more at ease. When I said Gobi`s people speak eloquently, he answered that “People from this land are blessed by the temples built by Gobi`s great saint Ravjaa. We like to say we possess an aphoristic talking skill.” There is a statue of a wrestler in the center of the Bayan-Ovoo soum. Sukhbaatar told us an interesting folktale about this locally renowned wrestler, Ider Dampil. Only ger in Shar Tsav
Khan-Bogd, Tsogt-Tsetsii, Bayn-Ovoo have a number of issues to grapple with related to culture and the environment. During my trip, I met with many paleontologists, archeologists and folklorists. In Khan-Bogd soum, we met G. Byambaragchaa and B. Otgonbaatar, who are researchers from the History Institute at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences.
While living with a family in the Gobi, they investigated issues related to history and ethnicity. They met with more than 80 people. “Gobi`s culture is different from other parts of Mongolia. For example, there are linguistic differences from other areas of Mongolia. At times, Gobi residents may sound sarcastic, but it`s amazing to hear how they speak,” they said.
In Khan-Bogd, we met B. Mainbayr, a researcher from the Center for Paleontology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. He was monitoring possible archaeological discoveries during drilling. Mainbayr then served as a guide to Shar Tsav, which is located 80 kilometers from Khan-Bogd soum. Bypassing sand dunes and interesting mound formations covered by exotic plants, we eventually stopped at a lone ger in the Gobi.
Even though it was in the Gobi Desert, I wondered who could survive winter in this poorly insulated ger. Here, where the next ger is located at least 20 kilometers away, lives a young man alone, D.Amarsaikhan, deputy researcher of the Center for Paleontology at the Mongolian Academy of Sciences. Shar Tsav is famous for footprints of five different species of dinosaurs. For thousands of years, these natural historical treasures required no protection, but in the last few years, thanks to more human activity, there has been a need for more conservation efforts. Both non-profit organizations and private corporations, therefore, have been involved in large-scale projects to safeguard the area. When the weather becomes warmer, construction will begin on a tourist complex.
Until then, paleontologists like Amarsaikhan have to care for dinosaur tracks living in a lone ger far away from civilization. When Amarsaihkan learned guests would be arriving, he made plenty of huushuur. Unaware of the young paleontolgist’s situation—only dinosaur tracks and books hung on wooden poles to keep him company—we felt sorry that we did not even bring him bread from the soum`s supermarket. We ate all the huushuur he treated us to while chatting about dinosaurs, the ocean floor and the tourist complex which looms in the future. When it comes time to leave, Amarsaikhan stands outside of his ger waving goodbye to us.
The next day, we return to Dalanzadgad and visit the Museum of the South Gobi Province. With the museum’s director, Ts. Otgontuya, and curator L. Bolormaa, we talked about historical relics, ancient traditions, present day customs, and the local crafts of area residents and how to bestow them to future generations. The museum has educational programs for children that teach them traditional games, customs and other cultural practices. The museum receives about 20 to 30 visitors each day. “We`ll be very grateful if mining companies contribute artifacts as they mine and provide us with funding for our programs,” said Otgontuya. Bolorma taught us alag melhii, a special game using knuckle bones which is played during the Tsagaan Sar.
It came time for us to return to smoky Ulaanbaatar. Small airplanes flew over great Galba`s Gobi. The faces and words of people I recently met clutter my mind. They are all in favor of development. But what kind of development do they want? They want development that is not harmful to their traditional heritage.