The birthplace of Genghis “Chinggis” Khan, Mongolia often brings to mind the image of a horde of battle-hardened cavalry. While this may be historically accurate, it is a long way from the modern reality of peaceful; Buddhist people living in harmony with nature. Mongolia is a unique crossroad where the landscape, history, and people intertwine to create a place unlike any other on earth.
Culture and Climate
Mongolia is a landlocked, lower middle-income country located in the heart of Central Asia, between Russia and China. It has a population of 2.8 million people, with approximately 1.1 million living in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar and 59% under age 30. Almost 36.1% of the population lives under the national poverty line and 27% live on less than $1.25 a day. The average life expectancy is 67 years old.
Mongolia has the lowest population density in the world. Mongolia’s capital, Ulaanbaatar, is the coldest capital city in the world. Harsh winter conditions exist where temperatures can reach -40ºC for days at a time. The sustained severe cold causes massive loss of livestock herds almost every year. This very difficult environment requires great strength and deep reserves of will to survive and thrive in. Mongolian people have lived and thrived in this unforgiving environment for many hundreds of years and have a deep enduring fondness for their homeland.
The harsh winter conditions and loss of livestock often results in swells in the urban populations as people seek shelter from the cold. Migrants concentrate in areas surrounding the city, often living in gers. These areas are called “ger districts”. It is estimated that 60% of the Ulaanbaatar population lives in the ger districts. This migration of the rural population to the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar, in search of economic opportunities, has accelerated rapidly since the mid-1990s. The result is a demographic transformation of Ulaanbaatar and some smaller provincial cities. In the years 2005 and 2006, according to the Ulaanbaatar municipal government, 30,000 to 40,000 rural people arrived in the city each year. This is the equivalent of the population of an entire province. Hospitals feel this impact as they are forced to accommodate this surge in health care demands. The National Government of Mongolia and administrations at the municipal, district and sub district levels need help to cope with the migration of the rural poor, which overwhelms social, hospital and primary health services in urban areas.
Mongolia’s rich culture is the result of its environment, heritage, and the resilience of the Mongolian people. Mongolia can claim one of the last truly nomadic cultures on earth, and the people are deeply tied to the land and to their history. With livestock outnumbering people eight to one, an estimated 30% of the population maintains a traditional pastoral nomadic lifestyle, spreading themselves over the 1.62 million square kilometers of land. Nomads live in the traditional round felt tent, known as a yurt or a “ger”. They will move anywhere from four to ten times a year cycling through the same locations each year. The population density in some parts of Mongolia is as low as 1.5 square kilometers per person, making access to health care and other amenities very difficult.
Although ethnic diversity is high in the north and west of the country, 86% of the Mongolian population claims their tribal descent as ‘Khalk’, or from the tribe of Genghis Khan. Other tribes include, but are not limited to Kazakhs, Tuvans, Altai Uriankhai, Buriats, and Dukha.
Mongolia’s culture is inseparable from the horse, and is steeped in a past of nomadic tradition, warrior ancestry, and strong Tibetan Buddhist influence, overlapped by Chinese rule for several hundred years. In the 20th century, Mongolian culture was heavily influenced by Soviet communism, emphasizing a collective society rather than long ingrained self-sufficiency.
Government and Economy
Mongolia is currently a parliamentary republic. In this system, parliamentary representatives are elected by popular vote, then these representatives elect the government. The President is voted in by general election. Two main parties, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP) and the Democratic Party (DP), have been alternately switching, then sharing, government rule for the last 20 years.
The Mongolian economy has traditionally been based on herding livestock, agriculture, and most recently, mining. Copper, gold, coal, molybdenum, tin, and tungsten are the primary mineral resources in Mongolia. Until 1990, one third of the country’s GDP was dependent on the USSR. That economic paradigm ended abruptly in 1990 with the imminent break-up of the Soviet Union. Since that time Mongolia has received generous sums of foreign aid to support its transition to a free market economy. The economic future of Mongolia will depend on its ability to exploit its mineral resources without being itself exploited by multi-national mining interests. The effect of mining income on the general population, specifically the poorest members, has yet to be seen. Currently inflation averages around 18%.
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