Joshua Bird reviews Ulaanbaatar Beyond Water and Grass by Michael Aldrich
For much of recent Asian history, Mongolia has been an afterthought. An entry point into China, or a convenient stopping point on the Trans-Siberian railway. While hundreds of new books on China and its mega-cities hit the shelves every year, the number of tomes dedicated to its neighbor to the north can be counted on one hand. Even where Mongolia is the primary subject of writing, it is the grasslands and open plains that capture the western imagination. Ulaanbataar (UB), Mongolia’s capital and largest city, where mentioned at all, is depicted as a tainted place that one must escape as quickly as possible on the journey to the “real” Mongolia – compromised, ugly, a foreshadowing of the disappearance of rural Mongolia. It is therefore surprising to find a travel guide dedicated to the city.
However, while ostensibly a travel guide to UB, Ulaanbaatar Beyond Water and Grass: A Guide to the Capital of Mongolia by M.A. Aldrich is more of a historical text peppered with personal reflections. The travel guide format is merely a device used by the author to structure the various tales and observations he wishes to share. In writing the book Aldrich asserts not only that UB is worthy of a few days of your time, but that it matters in the grand scheme of things. It is a city with a fascinating history, a vibrant present and an exciting future. And as much as we might wish to believe otherwise, one cannot fully understand Mongolia without first understanding its capital city.
Originally founded as a monastery town in the 17th century, UB saw its importance grow in the early 18th century as trade with Russia and China flourished. Ensconced between these two civilizational powers, Mongolia has done its best to adapt. Aldrich illustrates this through an analysis of UB’s architecture. On one street it is possible to find a traditional Chinese temple, next to a house topped with Russian cupolas, next to an austere glass high-rise. Chinese, Russian and Mongolian influences also compete in the culinary sphere, with hands, chopsticks, and knife and fork all being used on a daily basis dependent upon circumstance. Even what is generally considered ‘Mongolian’ cuisine is generally recognized as a combination of northern Chinese dishes and Russian condiments.
When it comes to Mongolia’s relationship to China, it is the Manchu who played the first pivotal role – those semi-nomadic people from north-east China who would go on to overthrow the Ming Dynasty and establish the Qing Dynasty. In their journey to power, the Manchus had earlier allied with the neighboring Mongolian khans against the Chinese. In exchange for the recognition of their royal privileges and the promise of military support, the khans accepted Manchu suzerainty over their lands. By 1691, Mongolia was formally incorporated into the Qing Empire as an autonomously governed territory.
Ensconced between these two civilizational powers, Mongolia has done its best to adapt
Mongolia quickly became enmeshed in China’s economic network, acting as a major thoroughfare on the trade routes shipping tea to Russia. Chinese trade brought with it Chinese traders, and their new customs – fenced housing, fixed currency and Chinese cuisine. By the turn of the 19th century, the city boasted a Chinese population of 4,000. A century later, UB’s Chinatown was a self-contained precinct enclosed by a gated wooden palisade. Expansion continued up until the early 20th century, with the addition of a sizeable Confucian temple. These changes did not go unnoticed by the native population. The increase in Chinese traders was met with increased tensions, often spilling over into altercations and violence. The Chinese soon learned to stay behind their walls.
Ironically, for members of the Mongolian nobility China was viewed much more favorably. The Imperial Court in Beijing continued to treat them with lavish events and celebrations in order to ensure their loyalty, and for many China was associated with the best of high culture and refinement. This Sinophilia saw a booming market for high-prestige Chinese goods, and many Chinese artisans moved to Mongolia to take advantage of this appetite.
Mongolia’s status within the empire would go unchanged until 1911 with the demise of the Qing Dynasty. In the absence of Manchu rule, Mongolian elites saw no reason to remain aligned with the new Chinese republic and declared its independence as a theocratic state. This set off a decade of uncertainty, as China and Russia both maneuvered for control of this newly untethered state. The imminent threat of a forced reintegration compelled by Chinese military force led Mongolian authorities to send out a desperate cry for help, ultimately to be answered by the psychopathic Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg. The Baron’s murderous spree through the country was so disruptive that it cleared the stage for the country’s turn towards Soviet rule.
Despite the historical influence of China, the antipathy of the Mongolians towards the Chinese is equally well-established. This antipathy to China is a core theme of modern Mongolian identity. Memories are strong of imperial rule by the Qing and recent efforts to thwart Mongolian independence. This idea of Chinese exploitation is woven into the national narrative. See for example the work of Dasdorjiin Natsagdorj, nationally celebrated founder of modern Mongolian literature and drama, whose works almost all feature unscrupulous Chinese attempting to take advantage of the honorable Mongolian people. In recent years, China’s growing political and economic power has made Mongolia’s historical mistrust of China politically difficult. Yet Mongolians remain anxious, wondering how long the Middle Kingdom will be able to resist the allure of its mineral resources and sparsely populated plains.
Memories are strong of imperial rule by the Qing and recent Chinese efforts to thwart Mongolian independence
That an ostensible travel guide would dedicate such a sizeable chunk on history and culture, rather than the city itself, would normally be odd. However, for a city like UB, which boasts few sights or splendors, it is quite fitting. The book is structured with two clearly divided sections, the first providing a deep historical and cultural analysis of Mongolia, and the second a more personalized introduction to the physical landmarks of UB. At one point Aldrich sharply criticizes the memoirs of another Western writer on Mongolia, Josef Gelata, in which:
“He paints an inexact but generally positive picture of Ulan Bator, though he could never remember the correct names of temples or explain cogently the reasons for local rituals. This imprecision turns his book into a somewhat foggy collection of impressions.”
Aldrich has clearly made an effort to ensure his book is impervious to similar judgement. His attention to detail is impressive, and the text is complemented by modern photos taken by the author, alongside numerous historical photographs and illustrations. In providing thorough detail of the physical layout of sites of interest in the city, the book gives an excellent sense of place, although it could be a little overwhelming for the armchair traveller.
While the first half is a competent introduction to Mongolian history, it is the book’s second half in which the author reveals his strengths. One gets the impression of being taken by the firm hand of a sardonic, yet passionate, tour guide. The reader follows the author as they stroll together through the city – stopping at the foot of a building, temple or public plaza to tell you of its history. Aldrich is unashamedly subjective in his description of the city, and happily inserts himself and his thoughts into the text.
When set against the natural beauty of Mongolia, UB cannot help but disappoint the first-time visitor to the country. Yet Aldrich is determined to muster an argument for looking past the city’s unsightly façade to appreciate Mongolia’s rich history and unique present. While unlikely to sway the casual reader, Ulaanbaatar Beyond Water and Grass makes great progress in asserting the city’s cultural and historical importance for those looking to truly understand Mongolia. ∎