Vodka and Politics
They couldn’t have been more different.
Oggie, our driver, a sweaty obese Mongolian with a chesty rasping cough and a penchant for vodka, wearing tracksuit bottoms, fleece jacket and white baseball cap. Ochie, our guide, tall, tanned and weatherbeaten, wearing a traditional brown del with a bright orange sash around his waist.
They were sitting around the stove in the ger (a traditional Mongolian abode) discussing the up-and-coming Mongolian elections. Oggie, drinking shots of vodka, was arguing for the democrats. Ochie, drinking tea, was going to vote for the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party (MPRP), the old Communist Party.
The new and the old. One middle-aged, the other perhaps in his sixties. Both born in the Soviet Era. Each having to deal with the changes that have taken place in the country since the beginning of the nineties when the Soviet Union ended its 70-year hold in almost all aspects of Mongolian life.
They remain, nonetheless, proud of their heritage, particularly of the famous Genghis Khan, a figure whose name was banned during the Soviet Era, but who now appears everywhere. Hotels are named after him, as is a beer and various brands of vodka.
Ah yes, vodka. Drinking copious amounts of cheap Mongolian and Russian vodka has become traditional. Consuming beer in the streets is frowned upon, however, but vodka is acceptable. A day will not pass without seeing a drunk passed out on the pavement, people stepping around him not giving a second thought. Temperatures fall as low as -30° Celsius, but alcoholics are not seasonal. Perhaps the vodka in their veins keeps them warm as they sleep off their inebriations on the icy pavements.
As the political debate continues, it becomes increasingly apparent that there are many things Ochie doesn’t like about the new Mongolia – the lazy city folk in Ulaanbaatar, the young chasing the quick buck. He wants a return to good old fashioned, honest, hard work. He especially dislikes the Chinese. I got the impression that many Mongolians share these sentiments. I sensed a feeling of insecurity. The Chinese invaded Mongolia on numerous occasions, and with a population in the billions, they outnumber Mongolians by a ratio beyond my mathematical skills. Mongolia has a population of little over 2.5 million people, a third of whom live in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, while the rest spread themselves over a vast country three times the size of France.
And spread themselves they do. Mongolia is a country of empty spaces, unfenced and free to all – the “Land of the Blue Sky” as the tourist brochures claim. It certainly is. The sun shines most days, except perhaps during spring where dust storms are common, whipping up the dust and debris in the city streets. It is easy to paint vivid pictures of vast open spaces, contrasting mountain ranges and green pine forests.
Sadly, not all is so picture perfect. There is rubbish everywhere. On too many occasions, I climbed a hill or trekked through a gorgeous forest only to stumble upon empty cans of Korean beer, Russian vodka and water bottles. And this is outside the sooty grime of the city in some of the most remote and beautiful countryside in the world.
We spend the next few days alone with Ochie, riding horseback along the edge of the frozen Khövsgöl Nuur, a huge lake in north central Mongolia. He claims – and we see nothing to doubt his assertion – that he knows the countryside better than anyone. He has lived here most his life, but only lately has he decided to learn English, become a guide, and capitalize on the ever increasing number of tourists arriving in Mongolia since it opened up. Unfortunately, the tourist season is short – starts in late July and ends early October.
Harsh, cold winters are guaranteed. Even in the summer temperatures can drop as low as zero. As a result, the Mongolian government is trying to promote winter tourism and Khövsgöl Nuur is at the centre of these plans. Annual events are now held on the frozen surface of the lake. There is increasing confidence that more and more tourists will come. The future looks good for Oggie and Ochie.