restricted access Across the Mongolian Steppes
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Across the Mongolian Steppes
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Photo: United Nations

[End Page 110]

Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia—"Before we begin, I'd like to decline two questions," the National Security Adviser to Mongolia's president warns me. "One is railroads, the other is Chinese workers." With those caveats, Batchimeg Migidorj touches on the two third-rail issues that define her nation's precarious place in the world.

Sandwiched between Russia and China—both superpowers that, ironically, it once conquered—this tiny nation of almost 2.8 million people sprawls across a territory more than twice the size of France. And it is trying desperately to find some autonomy in a world that often seems intent only in snagging a slice of its natural resource windfall, which it has only begun to unearth. Mongolia, like a handful of other smaller nations in similar geo-political circumstances, is doing its best to survive, even prosper, against enormous odds. But Mongolia has something else going for it—a patrimony of a scope that all but defies definition.

I've been fascinated for years by the plight of small countries trapped between large powers. Two years ago, I chronicled in this space the challenges Bhutan faces, nestled between China and India—struggling, [End Page 111] as do a handful of similar nations, to maintain some semblance of national identity and union. In europe, Africa, and Latin America, there are similar cases of nations searching desperately to develop their own, unique identity. Dominated or overshadowed by powerful neighbors, some of these states date back centuries, others are more recently minted products of a colonial past, but most are saddled with boundaries that bear little resemblance to the realities of tribes, cultures, religions, or ethnicities.

For Mongolia, the challenges are even more profound and pressing. In this era of post-Cold War détente, its actual sovereignty may no longer be in question. Still, there are even larger stakes that bear directly on what remains a latent competition of epic proportions between its larger neighbors. Since the moment of Mongolia's independence from the Soviet bloc less than a quarter century ago, vast reserves of coal (including the world's single largest deposit of vital coking coal), oil and gas, copper, gold, uranium, and a host of other valuable minerals have been uncovered. explorers and prospectors flock to Ulaanbaatar's handful of western-style hotels. Over lavish buffet breakfasts in the glass-and-steel restaurant of the Ramada, they swap tales of distant strikes and pots of riches just over the horizon, then fan out across the country, hoping to find still more wealth buried beneath the trackless steppes and the endless blue sky.

Down in the street, vast snarls of traffic back up along the capital's one main thoroughfare—Peace Avenue as it was dubbed by the nation's Soviet overlords, who also re-named the capital when they took over in 1923. Ulaanbaatar ("Red Hero" in Mongolian) is only one legacy among many that it has not managed to shed from the three quarters of a century of Russian rule.

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Russians First

The Russians did a lot more to Mongolia than simply re-name geography. When the first Bolshevik troops crossed the border from Siberia, they found a primitive people who were an easy conquest. They quickly began to bend this nation of largely nomadic herders to their own will. First to go was the ancient "vertical script"—a language of runes that the Red Army invaders swapped out for their own Cyrillic alphabet (with a couple of extra letters to facilitate transliteration of a tongue that has little to do with Russian).

When the rail system arrived, it was the wider Russian gauge of 4 feet 11 5/8 inches, designed to make certain that invaders from the west or east, where rails are spaced the standard international width of 4 feet 8 1/2 inches, would be unable simply to roll their troop transports to the battlefields. But until 1947, after World War II...