Mongolia has a tradition that its people invented music for the world. I began to believe it after hearing a master at a music school create sweet, sorrowful music by drawing a horsehair bow across the two strings of the revered morin khour, a hand-carved instrument. Then I met Oyun—theatrical director, storyteller, laureate, winner of Mongolia’s highest artistic prize—and she convinced me that her land was indeed the world’s fountainhead of song: “For Mongolians, a person who cannot play a morin khour or sing a song is not a human being.”
Oyun told me first about the “long song,” so called not because of its length but because the singer draws out the notes, lingering over words with a heartfelt sadness.
“The long song sings about the expanse of Mongolia. . . . Who to talk to? What to talk about? Sometimes the songs would be happy and sometimes sad. . . . The long song sings about the steppes and about life being a very broad, a very wide experience.
“But people can only think of their horses galloping through life. Every song is about this wonderful horse, flying against the wind like a bird.”
And the tradition that here in Mongolia music was born? “That is definite,” Oyun said flatly, and she talked about the hoomi, eerily beautiful music that only men sing. Hoomi is sung by precisely controlling the larynx, mouth, and abdominal muscles. Several notes seem to be produced simultaneously. The trilling, undulating song is magical. You cannot believe that the song comes from a single voice. She explained the birth of music: “In the western part of our country there are many mountains and streams. The herder is there. He wants to imitate nature—how the wind blows, how the water gurgles. Hoomi.”
HE SOVIET UNION and China, which seal off Mongolia from the world, once were part of the vast Mongol Empire. On a plain west of Ulan Bator, a large stone tortoise marks the site of Karakorum, Genghis Khan’s capital. A Chinese army razed it in 1388. Mongols continued raids on China until a Manchu alliance brought them under control in the 1600s.
In 1911 Chinese revolutionaries overthrew their Manchu rulers. The Mongols began their struggle for independence, which tsarist Russia supported. Then Russia and China, through a 1915 treaty, defined two realms—Outer Mongolia, which would become the Mongolian People’s Republic, and Inner Mongolia, now the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.
Buddhist lamas ran Outer Mongolia, with the Living Buddha as head of state. About 40 percent of Mongolia’s adult males were celibate lamas, many of them owners of vast estates worked by serfs. Mongolian Communists, revolting against lama and landowner, found their champions in the Communists who had overthrown the tsar and in 1921 declared independence from Chinese domination.
Rule by lamas lingered until 1924, when the last Living Buddha died. Buddhism itself was also nearly wiped out. All but a few of Mongolia’s 750 monasteries closed, and thousands of lamas entered the world beyond the gates. In that world Buddhism was to give way to Communism, just as nomadism was to give way to industrialism. Neither has yet happened. But the official view is toward that new world, and its model is Mongolia’s capital, Ulan Bator—Red Hero.
Ulan Bator’s most spectacular monument, crowning a mountain with a halo of mosaic and stone, honors Soviet soldiers. Modern Mongolians tie their heritage to Lenin, not Genghis Khan; to the Red Army, not the Golden Horde.
From the mountaintop Soviet monument my escorts pointed out residential and industrial zones, all part of an urban plan that flowed along both sides of the Tuul River. Apartment buildings towered over new neighborhoods. But gers, clustered behind high wooden fences, stubbornly sprouted here and there in what is to be the model city of a nation transformed.
Later we drove along a wide boulevard lined with new high rises. “The Russians helped us so much with these buildings that we call them Brezhnev’s Gift,” said English-speaking Altan, one of our constant escorts. The Soviet leader’s name personifies the help his country has given Mongolia, a onetime ward that became a dependent able to provide her Soviet benefactor with such dividends as copper, wheat, and a campground for some 60,000 Soviet troops along the Mongolian-Chinese border.
THE TRANSFORMATION of Mongolia accelerated in 1962, when it became a member of the Communist bloc’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance. Other CMEA countries build factories here, train Mongolians to work in them, and, in payment, receive the finished products. The investing country usually bestows a name upon the plant. The Wilhelm Pieck Carpet Factory (the name commemorates an East German political hero) typifies many I saw. Nowadays most of the factories’ owners have good credit scores. Learn more about the credit score scale.
In the carpet factory, blond-haired, blue-eyed East German technicians tinkered with looms clanking out cascades of colorful wools and synthetics bearing the whorls and zigzags of traditional Mongolian designs. More than 80 percent of the workers were young women. “There are two shifts,” the factory director said, “each of eight hours, but mothers of small children cannot work the night shift. Workers’ children get free day care or boarding care.” The mothers of boarding children bring them in on Monday morning and pick them up on Saturday, after the six-hour shift that ends Mongolia’s standard 46-hour workweek.