Democracy in the saddle
By Chris Welsch; Staff Writer
The riders first appeared in the distance simply as a movement - small, dark specks crossing the valley floor as steadily as satellites cross the night sky. The plain they rode across was wide and open; ragged, pale blue mountains rose behind them.
The closer they came, the more details emerged: First, a cloud of dust rose up behind each moving speck. Then, the unified silhouette of horse and rider sharpened. Then, the colors and shapes separated and clarified.
The riders were women and girls, sun shining on their satin robes and bright scarves. They were men and boys, wearing wool robes and thigh-high black leather boots.
The horses they rode are the descendants of the tough ponies that carried Genghis Khan's cavalry from the steppes of Asia all the way to the castle walls of Europe. There were black, roan and painted geldings. There were stallions - white with yard-long, uncut manes.
Other riders came from the hills behind our campsite. As they passed our tents, the hooves of their horses made the ground vibrate like a drum skin.
It was election day in Mongolia, and the riders - some of them living 25 miles away - were coming to this place to cast their votes.
Our group of 10 American travelers wasn't there to monitor an election; we were on our way to somewhere else. But that's the natural order of things in Mongolia: In a nation of nomads, everyone is eventually on the way to somewhere else.
We were on an 18-day odyssey through Mongolia organized by Boojum Expeditions of Bozeman, Mont. Kent Madin, co-owner of Boojum, was our American leader. A crew of eight Mongolians, including translators, truck drivers, and situation fixers, did the heavy lifting.
My group had flown from Beijing to Ulan Bator, Mongolia's capital and, with a population of 500,000, its biggest city. We took another flight to the town of Moron (emphasis on the second syllable), then spent two days in a Russian truck, jolting across wide plains between alpine ranges.
We had postponed the start of our horse trek to spend an extra day - July 1 - at this campsite near the Bom District polling station in Rinchinlumbe County, about 60 miles south of the Russian border.
More than simple curiosity lay behind our stop. We had two Mongolian politicians in our number. Our truck driver was the mayor of Rinchinlumbe County and also its election commissioner. The chief of our crew was a major player in the Mongolian National Democratic Party, which was part of the coalition challenging the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party (the former Communists) for the leadership of the country.
None of us complained about the delay. It was a chance to see history made.
Democracy at work
Our campsite was on a rise a quarter mile from the voting place. A river made a wide bend around us to the east and north. To the west, a half mile from our bivouac, was a fishing camp, with a high wooden fence enclosing several small log cabins and a couple of larger log buildings.
By 11 a.m., the fence was lined with hundred horses. A few motorcycles were parked inside the compound. A group of boys was standing in a circle, playing with a volleyball. People sat and stood in small groups, talking.
I walked with Madin and an interpreter to the fishing camp and into the round log building that served as a polling site. It was built in the proportions of a ger, what Americans usually call a yurt, the traditional nomadic dwelling made of wool felt on a wooden frame.
Inside, the only light came through the smoke hole in the roof. An old man in smeared horn-rimmed glasses sat at a table, his elbows on a large hand-written registry, where the voters' names were waiting to be checked off. Our truck-driver/ election commissioner/mayor of the county, Mishig Zhigzhidsuren, also sat at the table, greeting voters by name as they passed through.
The voters, clutching their government identification booklets, hovered around the registrar, waiting their turn.
This election promised to be a turning point for Mongolia. Until five years ago, the country was a Soviet satellite, heavily dependent on Soviet aid and imports and largely at the mercy of Soviet policy. In the first free election after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party had little opposition. It won 71 of 76 seats in the national parliament.
But in the past four years, new political parties had organized and were becoming more strident in insisting that it was time for Mongolia to take a more open, capitalistic direction.
We walked back out into the bright sun. Men sat cross-legged on the ground or leaned on their elbows, smoking pipes. The women sat talking in the shade of the cabins.
We sat down with five men and started asking questions. One man immediately assumed the role of elder statesman.
He took out a long, thin-stemmed pipe, carefully filled the bowl with tobacco and adjusted the brim of his porkpie hat, casting a shadow over his eyes.
"Today's election is very important," he said, pointing at us with the pipe stem. "This year, there is a choice, and many people are coming to ask for what they want. Last time, not so many people came. There weren't many choices."
He said he thought the turnout would exceed 80 percent. (It turned out to be more than 90.)
"What is it that you want?" Madin asked.
"Most of us would like to have our own factories here," he said. "Canning fish or cutting lumber. In a market economy, everyone will have their own things. There'll be less unemployment. Our country will make more contacts with other countries."
A Communist he was not.
At this point, I felt a knee brush my back and a shoulder against mine. We had been encircled by men and women, all crowding around to hear the conversation.
Through the interpreter, we addressed questions to the whole group, but only the smoker would speak. He said he was 55 years old, a herdsman with more than 50 sheep, along with some cattle, goats, and horses.
`Learn from our mistakes'
"What can foreigners do for us? What can you tell us?" he asked.
Madin said, "You can learn from our mistakes." He went on to explain how the American West was divided by fences, and that the nomadic lifestyle of the Mongolians would be threatened if the land was privatized. He talked about the problems caused by material greed in our country, about the wide gap between the very rich and the very poor.
I said I also wondered how Mongolia's traditional culture would fare as modernization inevitably came. Material wealth often comes at the cost of traditional culture and values.
In those categories, Mongolia has a lot at stake. Even after more than 70 years of repressive Communist rule, complete with Stalinesque purges and mass executions of Buddhist monks, much of Mongolia's nomadic culture remains intact.
In these parts of Mongolia, there are no phones, no newspapers, and no roads. Horses are the primary mode of transportation. People still welcome travelers because everyone is a traveler. Everyone relies on that hospitality; in one of the harshest climates in the world, it's more than courtesy. It's a matter of survival.
There is no knocking on the door of a ger in Mongolia. No one has to. It is polite just to walk into any stranger's home and sit down. The owners will immediately put water on the stove at the center of the ger for tea. Food - probably yogurt, dried cheese or fermented mare's milk, will be shared.
The group listened to us talk about the pleasures and pains of life in America. And listened to Kent explain how tourists like us would be coming in greater numbers to fish, ride horses and enjoy the landscape, which, he explained, appealed to us because it's unsullied by telephone lines, concrete or billboards.
The smoker paused to take it all in. "I understand that too much improvement can be a bad thing," he said without irony, taking another pull on his pipe.
How a woman won
The voting provided an excuse for a traditional nomadic gathering, with a civic purpose. All the voters had arrived by midafternoon when a wrestling contest commenced.
The strong young men of the district donned traditional bikini shorts and chestless wrestling vests to commit what one of our guides called Mongolian sumo. The simple goal: Throw the opponent to the ground.
Oyuna Demchiggarav, one of two students from Ulan Bator serving as translators on the trip, pulled me aside and said she didn't much care for the sport, but, "There's a funny story behind that costume."
"A long, long time ago there was a great wrestler who won the Nadaam tournament every year," she began, setting the story at Nadaam, the annual national sports festival, which features the three manly Mongolian sports - wrestling, horse-racing, and archery.
"But one year he got sick, and he couldn't wrestle. He had a sister, though, and she was very strong. She was as big as him and looked like him. So she said she'd go to the tournament for him."
The Nadaam wrestling tournament, like the one going on in the dusty yard of the fishing camp, is single elimination, and it goes on all day, match after match, until there is just one competitor left standing.
"The sister beat every man that day with no trouble. But when she got to the stand to take the trophy of the champion, the judges finally noticed she had . . . [Here Oyuna's hands signaled the shape of the female chest.] And they were shocked that a woman beat all the Mongolian men.
"So they made a rule: From that day on, that the shirts would have no fronts, so a woman couldn't sneak in and beat the men."
I watched the last two wrestlers in a long standoff, head to head, shoulder to shoulder in the hot sun. For 15 minutes, the two wire-thin boys stood locked together, sometimes just leaning on each other, other times tensing in an effort to gain a throw.
Finally, one had a burst of energy. He got his weight under the opponent, lifted him, and fell on top of him in the dust with a loud thud.
A strong man
Batchuluun Sanjaasuren might have been a champion wrestler. Known by the nickname Bagi, he is Madin's Mongolian partner in the travel business. A barrel-chested man with a broad, easy smile, he has a low center of gravity that makes him difficult to spend.
One day, while we were taking a break from riding in the truck, he came up behind me and lifted me as if I were a 20-pound sack of flour. He shook me gently from side to side and put me back down. I weigh 190 pounds. Then he picked up Madin, who outweighs me by a good 30 pounds, and repeated the thoughtful lift, furrowing his brow as he swung Madin from side to side like a doll. Bagi was just curious about which of us weighed more.
His calling, however, was not the ring. For 14 years, he has been a thorn in the side of the Communist Party, doing battle by writing free-market screeds in illegal newsletters. Later, he took his opposition public as an organizer and leader of the Mongolian National Democratic Party.
He is a fervent advocate of capitalism and is taking full advantage of the newly unshackled economy by running the tourism business with Madin.
Bagi said he believes that the former Communists who have run the country the past five years are corrupt, that they have been enriching themselves at the expense of the people and that free enterprise will fill the gap left when the Russians pulled their army and their aid out of Mongolia.
But he's also aware of the potential pitfalls.
"We see the bad things that happen in the Western big cities. Tokyo, London, San Francisco. People killing each other, committing crimes," Bagi said one night at the campfire. "We don't want cabarets, sex shows or motorcycle racing in Mongolia."
Obscenity, I guess, is where you find it.
Shake it in the rain
That night, as the county officials tallied votes in the log ger, our Mongolian crew - mostly city kids from Ulan Bator - tried to lure their country kin into disco dancing.
A light rain was coming down. The fishing camp was empty save for about 25 teenagers, all in their best robes, called dels. They were waiting for the officials to leave so they could have a dance inside the polling place. In the countryside, that means three-stepping to folk tunes.
They settled for dancing in the rain. The cook drove one of our Russian jeeplike vehicles into the compound, opened the doors and put on some disco tunes.
Six crew members and one American journalist gyrated to the music as the country kids clutched each other and laughed nervously.
"Come on and try it," Oyuna said, twitching her hips and snapping her fingers. "Let your body express your feelings."
That statement generated a long burst of laughter, but no dancers. We had no takers until we formed a bunny-hop line. There is anonymity in numbers, and all 25 of the country kids grabbed on. We stayed in a long, snaky line across the yard.
We were soaked by the time the official in horn-rim glasses emerged from the ger, the previous results in a packet under his arm. He handed them to the election commissioner, already astride his motorcycle. He kicked it to a start and rode off into the storm, toward the village of Rinchinlumbe - and the nearest phone - about four hours away.
We went into the ger. One of the boys unwrapped a decrepit boom box rolled up in an old silk rug. He had carried it there on his horse. After much poking and prodding of the tape deck, a Mongolian folk tune croaked unevenly from the speakers.
The boys, too shy to dance so early in the night, sat together on benches by the low wall, smoking cigarettes. The girls danced with each other, as they would at a junior high in the States, gracefully circling the room arm in arm, their leather boots thudding rhythmically across the rough wooden floor.
Sound of victory
I sat straight up in my sleeping bag at the blood-curdling scream.
"We won! We won!"
I looked out the front flap of my tent. It was Bagi, in a T-shirt and underpants. He was embracing Madin and screaming to the sky.
It was at about 9 a.m. The motorcycle had returned with preliminary results. The democratic coalition gained a majority of seats in the Great Hural, or parliament. The Communists were in history.
I climbed out of the tent to shake Bagi's hand.
"I didn't think we'd win," he said. "The Communists promised everything. We promised nothing." In fact, the coalition platform was to speed market reforms and privatization, promising only tougher times in the short term.
"We said, `Nothing for this generation, only for the next.' And we won!" He was beaming.
Pull back the reins
I rode a Mongolian pony for the first time on election day, and the more I think about it, the more appropriate the experience seems in summing up the significance of Mongolia's first real democratic election.
During the course of the day, many visitors on horseback came into our camp - to see our strange tents, our strange clothes, our strange selves.
One old man, bearded, wearing a traditional pointed felt cap, wanted to see an American ride his horse.
Because I was handy, I was elected, reluctantly, to sit in the saddle.
The horse was white, with a long gray mane. Like all Mongolian horses, its head looked a little big on its compact, heavily muscled body.
I was not dressed to ride. I had to squeeze my sandals into the stirrups. Adjusted to their longest length, they still forced my knees up over the horse's withers. I looked as if I was on a tricycle. I kicked the horse into a trot, intending to make a short, gentle circle around our camp.
I leaned back in the saddle and pulled straight back on the reins to slow the horse to a walk. That would have worked at home.
No one told me this in advance, but leaning back in the saddle and pulling straight back on the reins signals one thing to a Mongolian horse: Race.
The white horse took off at a full gallop, with me bouncing out-of-balance on its back. The ground was spinning by underneath us. I was exhilarated and mortally frightened at the same time.
With my sandals stuck in the stirrups, I would be dragged if I fell. But the harder I pulled back, the faster the horse went.
(Madin told me later that the Mongolians wanted to mount up and rescue me, but he assured them I was an experienced horseman who was just having some fun. Then he crossed his fingers.)
A half-mile into the run, we were headed straight for the slough behind the fishing camp. I pulled the reins right, and the horse turned. We came around the fence, spooking the horses tied there. Angry Mongolians waved frantically in the periphery. I circled the horse at a full gallop back toward our camp and its owner.
The horse seemed to recognize the old man and slowed down enough for me to turn it hard, completely around. That produced a full stop, right back where we started.
It was a wild ride, but it got me where I wanted to go. I hoped it would work out the same for the Mongolians.