Mongolia: Lonely Planet Travel Video
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Mongolia is a landlocked country in East and Central Asia. It borders Russia to the north and the People’s Republic of China to the south, east and west. Although Mongolia does not share a border with Kazakhstan, its western-most point is only 24 miles (38 km) from Kazakhstan’s eastern tip. Ulan Bator, the capital and largest city, is home to about 38% of the population. Mongolia’s political system is a parliamentary republic.
The area of what is now Mongolia has been ruled by various nomadic empires, including the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, the Rouran, the Gökturks, and others. The Mongol Empire was founded by Genghis Khan in 1206. After the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols returned to their earlier patterns. In the 16th and 17th centuries, Mongolia came under the influence of Tibetan Buddhism.
At the end of the 17th century, most of Mongolia had been incorporated into the area ruled by the Qing Dynasty. During the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, Mongolia declared independence, but had to struggle until 1921 to firmly establish de-facto independence, and until 1945 to gain international recognition. As a consequence, it came under strong Russian and Soviet influence: In 1924, the Mongolian People’s Republic was declared, and Mongolian politics began to follow the same patterns as Soviet politics of the time. After the breakdown of communist regimes in Eastern Europe in late 1989, Mongolia saw its own Democratic Revolution in early 1990, which led to a multi-party system, a new constitution in 1992, and the – rather rough – transition to a market economy.
At 1,564,116 square kilometres, Mongolia is the nineteenth largest and the most sparsely populated independent country in the world, with a population of around 2.9 million people. It is also the world’s second-largest landlocked country after Kazakhstan. The country contains very little arable land, as much of its area is covered by steppes, with mountains to the north and west and the Gobi Desert to the south. Approximately 30% of the country’s 2.9 million people are nomadic or semi-nomadic. The predominant religion in Mongolia is Tibetan Buddhism, and the majority of the state’s citizens are of the Mongol ethnicity, though Kazakhs, Tuvans, and other minorities also live in the country, especially in the west. About 20% of the population live off less than US$1.25 per day.
With the fall of the Qing Dynasty, Mongolia under the Bogd Khaan declared independence in 1911. However, the equally newly-established Republic of China claimed Mongolia as part of its own territory. The area controlled by the Bogd Khaan was approximately that of the former Outer Mongolia.
The 49 hoshuns of Inner Mongolia as well as the Mongolians of the Alashan and Qinghai regions expressed their willingness to join the new country, but to no avail. In 1919, after the October Revolution in Russia, Chinese troops led by Xu Shuzheng occupied Mongolia. However, as a result of the Russian Civil War, the White Russian adventurer Baron Ungern led his troops into Mongolia in October 1920, defeating the Chinese in Niislel Khüree (Ulaanbaatar) in early February 1921.
In order to eliminate the threat posed by Ungern, Bolshevik Russia decided to support the establishment of a communist Mongolian government and army. This Mongolian army took the Mongolian part of Kyakhta from the Chinese on March 18th, 1921, and on July 6th Russian and Mongolian troops arrived in Khüree. Mongolia’s independence was declared once again on July 11th, 1921. These events led to Mongolia’s close alignment with the Soviet Union over the next seven decades.
The introduction of perestroika and glasnost in the USSR by Mikhail Gorbachev strongly influenced Mongolian politics leading to the peaceful Democratic Revolution and the introduction of a multi-party system and market economy. A new constitution was introduced in 1992, and the “People’s Republic” was dropped from the country’s name. The transition to market economy was often rocky, the early 1990s saw high inflation and food shortages. The first election wins for non-communist parties came in 1993 (presidential elections) and 1996 (parliamentary elections).
The Trans-Mongolian Railway is the main rail link between Mongolia and its neighbors. It begins at the Trans-Siberian Railway in Russia at the town of Ulan Ude, crosses into Mongolia, runs through Ulaanbaatar, then passes into China where it joins the Chinese railway system in Jining. A separate railroad link connects the eastern city of Choibalsan with the Trans-Siberian Railway; however, that link is closed to passengers after the Mongolian town of Chuluunkhoroot.
Mongolia has a number of domestic airports. The only international airport is the Chinggis Khaan International Airport near Ulaanbaatar. Direct flight connections exist between Mongolia and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and Germany. MIAT is Mongolia’s largest carrier in Mongolia and provides both domestic and international flights.
Most overland roads in Mongolia are only gravel roads or simple cross-country tracks. There are paved roads from Ulaanbaatar to the Russian and Chinese border, and from Darkhan to Bulgan. Some road construction projects are currently underway, for example construction of the east-west so-called Millennium Road.
The official language of Mongolia is Khalkha Mongolian, which uses the Cyrillic alphabet, and is spoken by 90% of the population. A variety of different dialects are spoken across the country. In the west the Kazakh and Tuvan languages, among others, are also spoken.
The Russian language is the most frequently spoken foreign language in Mongolia, followed by English, though English has been gradually replacing Russian as the second language. Korean has gained popularity as tens of thousands of Mongolians work in South Korea. Interest in Chinese, as the language of the other neighbouring power, has been growing. Japanese is also popular among the younger people.
A number of older educated Mongolians speak some German, as they studied in the former East Germany, while a few speak other languages from the former Eastern Bloc. Besides that, many younger Mongolians are fluent in the Western European languages as they study or work in foreign countries including Germany, France and Italy. Mongolian is one of the Mongolic languages. Mongolic is frequently included in the Altaic languages, a group of languages named after the Altay Mountains that also includes the Turkic and Tungusic languages.
According to the CIA World Factbook and the U.S. Department of State, 50% of Mongolia’s population follow the Tibetan Buddhism, 40% are listed as having no religion, 6% are Shamanist and Christian, and 4% are Muslim.
Various forms of Tengriism and Shamanism have been widely practiced throughout the history of what is now modern day Mongolia, as such beliefs were common among nomadic people in Asian history. Such beliefs gradually gave way to Tibetan Buddhism, but Shamanism has left a mark on Mongolian religious culture, and continues to be practiced. Amongst the Mongol elite of the Mongol Empire, Islam was generally favored over other religions, as three of the four major khanates adopted Islam.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, the communist government ensured that the religious practices of the Mongolian people were largely repressed. Khorloogiin Choibalsan complied with the orders of Joseph Stalin, destroying almost all of Mongolia’s over 700 Buddhist monasteries and killing thousands of monks.
The fall of communism in 1991 restored the legality of public religious practice, and Tibetan Buddhism, which had been the predominant religion in the region before the rise of Communism, again rose to become the most widely practiced religion in Mongolia. The end of religious repression in the 1990s also allowed for other religions, such as Islam and Christianity, to spread in the country. According to the Christian missionary group Barnabas Fund, the number of Christians grew from just 4 in 1989 to around 40,000 as of 2008.
The main festival is Naadam, which has been organised for centuries, consists of three Mongolian traditional sports, archery, horse-racing (over long stretches of open country, not the short racing around a track practiced in the West), and wrestling. Nowadays it is held on July 11 to July 13 in the honour of the anniversaries of the National Democratic Revolution and foundation of the Great Mongol State.
Another very popular activity called Shagaa is the “flicking” of sheep ankle bones at a target several feet away, using a flicking motion of the finger to send the small bone flying at targets and trying to knock the target bones off the platform. This contest at Naadam is very popular and develops a serious audience among older Mongolians. In Mongolia, the khoomei, or throat singing, style of music is popular, particularly in parts of Western Mongolia.
The ornate symbol in the leftmost bar of the national flag is a Buddhist icon called Soyombo. It represents the sun, moon, stars, and heavens per standard cosmological symbology abstracted from that seen in traditional thangka paintings.
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