Experience #39 - Mongolia



Mongolia was in my list of unmissable countries. It’s hard to tell the reasons, but I had a reference from them as a peaceful people and quite isolated, being a small population dispersed in a piece of land between Russia and China. I could notice this dispersion – they own one of the three lowest demographic density in the world – in the entire train ride from Beijing, where a lot of open pasture and just a few nomad families’ tents (called “ger”) could be seen along the fifteen hours travel (plus thirteen on the Chinese side).


They’ve always been very close to Russia and until 1990 the country was ruled by a socialist authoritarian regime. This came to an end, without violence, in this same year after the revolutions of the Mongolian youth. Their greatest hero until today was Genghis Khan, an emperor from the XIII century responsible for the image of the Mongolian people as strong and dominant. This is because in this period Mongolia came to dominate 22% of the world’s land with approximately 25% of the population (source: Wikipedia). Impressive! I just hope a single country won’t come to own so much the world again, it’s risky…



For what I could talk, this recent market opening for the glorious capitalism brought good and bad things. From the positive side: freedom begun to be valid for everyone as individuals, so more companies, products and options; the people started to see more transparency from the governors, though they are still very corrupted, before they were authoritarian. From the negative side: today there is an unemployment that there wasn’t before; a greater inequality, as there is more richer people and more poorer people; and the public services deteriorated a little as the free and potentially dirty money started to play. I believe that this brief changes explain a lot the difference between this two systems. Nowadays throughout the streets it could be felt that the luxury market is growing, with fancy imported cars, exaggerated shops and makeup showing off. It’s a shame, hopefully they will resist.


From the current system, I met a law that I admired a lot as I believe it would work unbelievably well to fight the multiparty that rules the interest of many politicians in Brazil. In Mongolia, the elected president is obliged to abdicate from its party filiation, just like many other positions of trust in the federal, state and municipal government. It has worked well from what I could talk with the former mayor from Dundgovi, a city with approximately forty thousand inhabitants southwards from the capital – I’ll tell more about this experience later.



The streets of Ulan Bator, the capital, remind me a lot the image I have of Russia from the TV, although I have never been there. Without considering the seasons in the planning, I was lucky by the period we were there, as it was quite warm and I found out that winter there gets to mere minus forty degrees Celsius! Wretches! Now I even want to return to try to survive together… Another weirdness for me is that being north of the hemisphere, the sunset happens only at 9.30 pm. It’s quite a long day!


About the nationality of who is born there is worth clarifying a common joke, even because when I mentioned I was going there I had to listen that “finally I, a Mongol, would meet my people”… – The curious is that they really seemed familiar to me (I’m not kidding). – The misuse of this word was born years after 1958, when the cause of the Down Syndrome was discovered. A physician thought there was a certain facial similarity of his patients with individuals from Mongolia and therefore started to use “mongoloid” as a reference. Years later, with the country’s delegation request it became an agreement from WHO that this name would be abolished to treat this genetic syndrome that, by the way, deserves all our respect!



The truth is that the people I met there were extremely generous, kind and welcoming. In the streets people were as smiley than normal, ok, but I don’t think is fair to characterize them negatively for that, it might be more like an “opening” with strangers and even remnants of the authoritarianism. For the many conversations I had, I learned that the culture is quite individual and rooted in the family, and as a consequence the community sense is not exactly developed. Examples of that are that the cooperatives still don’t work very well there and the most traditional sports are archery, wrestling and horse race. What means each one in his own way.


I had the privilege to stay in an apartment of friends who we met in Laos and they had moved there one month before, Kathleen Kuracina and Simon Steen. Thank you! Therefore the experience started with the positive points for the culture, even though she was Canadian and he Danish.


In the quest to explore the reality we had an enormous help from the universe. During a lunch in which we were exhausted for not been able to find non-touristic ways to go to the countryside, the gentle Tenzin Norbhu and Enkhbolor Gantulga from the table beside started talking to us. – Perhaps for noticing how frustrated we were… – By telling about Think Twice Brasil and what we were looking for, they promptly called a friend who made himself available to help us. He, Enkhjargal Sukhbaatar, invited us for a coffee just afterwards and just there contacted a friend who could take us to show their culture. Munguntsoot Tseieuvadnudi and his wife, Sainbileg Volodya, were our guides in the following three days. Their names are complexes for our Portuguese and I wanted to ensure I mentioned them, once the chain of goodness that briefly happened in two hours made Mongolia even more unforgettable. Thank you my friends!



With this wonderful couple we could visit the Dundgovi region and learn so much, thanks also to the perfect English of Sainbileg who graduated in the language in college. This is the only way we could talk to everyone, as English is not common on the countryside. Way more than the quite small town, we could experience the endless fields around it which margin the great Gobi desert, a tourist destination. Being an inland region most of its population have lived as nomad, including our friends that were born in the fields. I had a vague memory of what I learned from them at school, but I never thought I could meet them.


From all the Mongol population, it’s estimated that 30% still lives effectively as nomads (source: Wikipedia). The concept I saw there is a bit more modern than the format told in the old books, mainly because the globalization is already there. These families live in the middle of the field – what according to my metropolitan standard means in the “middle of nowhere” – at an average distance of thirty kilometres between them. They live in tents and take care of their animals which are the reason for this life style as they provide their income. Each family has approximately a thousand animals, being the most common ones, in this order, sheep, goats, horses, camels, cows and pigs.



This is the main reason that justifies the distance between families, once all these herds need pasture to eat. For who had no reference of quantity, I initially thought that having a thousand animals would guarantee a nice income, but I learned that it’s not really like that. Part of their livelihood comes from selling milk and hide, which don’t have a high value due to the large offer in the region. The other part comes from meat sales which has a higher value, however its pace is slower as a few animals can be slaughtered every year, in order to preserve a good amount. It was possible to see live that raising these animals is a hard work because, besides being so many, it’s a challenge to move them continuously through where there is new pasture to feed them and the difficulty of always having water. This last one is not easy to have access to and many times they depend on wells dug by machines, as they must go each time deeper.


That’s why they are nomads until today, the animals and themselves depend on these natural resources, pasture and water, to survive. The truth is that a few families we visited have even brick house as they have settled there for many years and when they need to move they take only the big traditional Mongolian nomad tent. Another factor that obligates them to move is the winter, as the cold can be very intense there they depend on the help of a mild and wet summer in order to pass through winter nicely. If not, they need to find covered shelters. Imagine the challenge to lead a thousand animals on snow. Admirable!



Due to that, we heard the biggest complaint: the climate change. A few years ago the weather forecast became so unpredictable that many of them suffered several losses. Factors like a late winter ended up not being so good as the animals needed more pasture before the slaughtering time. That happens because they wait the strong winter to kill the animals, therefore the temperature helps to conserve them even under open sky. Due to the geographic reasons the agriculture is not really a habit, what makes them import fruits and vegetables from Russia and China, being those more expensive food.


Even with all these challenges, a great part of these families have a minimum income stable, what enabled technologies to be accessible for them, like motorcycles, trucks, batteries, solar energy, television, mobile phone, among others. This was the first shock for me, as besides the expectation of seeing older things, it got even clearer that what mankind has developed can improve life in many different realities. It’s unarguable that these items have their good and bad sides, the good ones are more obvious for those coming from big cities, but what about the bad ones, can you see any?



It’s ok that I might have some extreme ideas, but one of the biggest impacts came exactly from the television in that humble house and all the thinking that came together about the power of INFORMATION. As soon as we arrived and I mentioned we were Brazilians the family said they knew a lot about us due to the soap opera called “Avenida Brasil”. I found weird, but not so much as we’ve seen in another far away countries and in between of so many conversations this topic got lost. However, in this same night before dinner time at the nomads house in the middle of a pasture where you couldn’t see anything but grass when looking at the 360 degree of the horizon, they had left the TV on and suddenly? Drama… A well-known song starts and at an automatic look at the TV I see some familiar actors. Yes, it was a Brazilian soap opera in a remote Mongolian nomad house.


It was a huge impact, as besides breaking the Mongol cultural experience mood, I saw there that all the and baleful spread that the Brazilian soap opera intentionally promotes for its own population has no geographic, neither linguistic limit… Besides feeling partly accomplice due to the nationality, I felt embarrassed for their suspicion that I could be that same characterless and disrespectful personage that is interpreted making cruelties to others, for examples.



At that moment, it was the greatest evidence that we really need to work on changing and bringing awareness to our media for the enormous planetary irresponsibility that they perform and to ourselves for a wider caution with the information we transmit in each word, comment and sharing…


Now, back to the nomads without television. Anyway it was noticeable that they managed to maintain their own tradition, like drinking fermented mare’s milk called Airag and maintained in a giant bourse of cowhide, cooking with hot stones, drinking well water, using the bush as toilet and eating a lot of the meat they raise. Of course that Gabi and I have to pass through this same procedures for three following days in many tents – I think the stomach is quite calloused, as we did well.



The nomad children also have access to public education, however with this distance between families, during the week they stay in the school dormitory and can only see the family by the weekend or in the vacations. What might be the most challenging of this way of life. Among the questions we made it was unanimous the answer from the adults that their dream is to see their children moving to the city, finding a job and having a life around there. That’s because they are afraid of what the climate will be in the next years and don’t want to see their children’s future at risk.


It was thrilling to hear it and it made me remind one of the first learning of the journey, that independently from intelligence, social level and money every parent has the conscious and focus on the education and future of their children. It’s really a human instinct.



We had the opportunity of participating in ceremonies like dinners with a lot of singing, games made with fingers, marking the family symbol on the young horses’ skin with iron and fire and even the slaughtering and separation of the entire meat of a goat. It was intense and we could feel part of all that for a few hours. Thanks to everyone who made this possible!



Back to Ulan Bator we were able to learn the amazing work that Bill and Irene Manley do in the organization Mary & Martha Mongolia. It’s a social business that supports the development of micro and small indigenous business in Mongolia through the purchase and sale of handcrafts. Besides having received us with extreme kindness and taught us a lot about the reality, it was inspiring to see a work that expresses an ethic, fair and transparent intention. Aware of the sad corruption that still exists there, it was admirable to see that it’s always possible to do business the right way, like they do. In other countries we saw the corruption so rooted that was impossible to get a working permit, for example, without having to pay something else… It’s the risk of having so many people following what the lost common sense dictates nowadays… Be careful!


It was interesting to understand more deeply the conscious practices the use such as collective bonus, when this extra salary is paid according the sales results of the entire group, and the encounters where the artisans meet the saleswoman to create more empathy between them, therefore allowing them to tell the customers about the life of the people who dedicated themselves to make those products with their own hands. It’s a nice practice. They ensure that the saleswomen have a salary at least 50% higher than the official minimum wage which, just like in Brazil, is way lower than the necessary to live.



As I believe that the strategy of the goodwill conscious is the solution, they are a good proof of it, growing from 20 to 30% in the past years and quite certain about growing even more. Congratulations and thanks so much!


Well, that was Mongolia. I started with good energies with so many kindness, living nomad realities with their pattern so different from mine and feeling that sensation of how the tradition can be purer and simpler to live. Then the energy went down with the fear of how information and the television can travel the world without barriers putting at risk our common sense.

Afterwards energy up again when noticing there are people using news and the technologies we created in a fair and necessary way to improve their life. Even higher up was with the hope that only genuinely responsible business will grow and change the world.


Each one with his own secret formula, we just need more magic in the air to protect us from the mundane temptations.


Felipe.