ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — When I told friends that I’d be going to Mongolia to do some stories about the country in advance of President Bush’s visit here Monday, the reaction was almost unanimous:
“Wow! What an adventure!”
No doubt they imagined me in some sort of exotic outpost — the country of Genghis Khan, of lonely nomadic people herding their animals across the vast hillsides, of camel caravans crossing the Gobi Desert.
Mongolia is all those things, but they are only part of the picture in this intensely interesting land. As I traveled, I continually encountered surprises and paradoxes that go a long way to shatter stereotypes about a remarkable country.
Surprise number one:
The Mongolians love Americans.
As we journeyed into remote areas to photograph the way people live — in traditional felt tents called "gers" — nomadic families insisted on inviting us inside and sitting us down for tea and bread. In a land where the average income is only about $500 a year per person, the fact that people would share their food with us was touching.
Surprise number two:
This former communist country now has a freely-elected government and a multi-party system and is an unlikely ally of the United States in places like Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although the Mongolian armed forces are only 11,000 strong, the government has sent several hundred troops to support the United States.
“We are trying to contribute to the global effort to combat terrorism,” said Tsakhia Elbegdorj, Mongolia’s Harvard-educated prime minister. That and self-interest — some commentators believe Mongolia is trying to curry favor with Washington because this landlocked country, sandwiched between China and Russia, needs a powerful “third neighbor.”
The gesture is being reciprocated — the U.S. is helping Mongolia’s military to the tune of $18 million this year, according to the Pentagon, and many of Mongolia’s officers have trained at U.S. bases. Meanwhile, American troops have been assigned to Mongolia to act as advisers.
Which leads to surprise number three:
When we arrived at the Mongolian Army's Five Hills Training Center about 40 miles outside the capital, we encountered U.S. Marine Staff Sergeant Silva Perez.
Perez, originally from Ponce, Puerto Rico (a much warmer place than this), is one of a half-dozen Marines sent to Mongolia to help train local armed forces in marksmanship and other military skills.
As the wind chill factor hovered around the zero mark, Perez talked about the toughness of the Mongolian troops.
“They get up every morning and do P.T. [physical training] in the cold,” he said, noting that when he arrived from Okinawa and didn’t have proper winter equipment the Mongolians generously shared their gear.
“They make sure I’m well fed, that I’m not too cold,” Perez said. “They’re taking good care of me.”
While Mongolia and the United States are forging a close military relationship, not everyone here is happy with involvement in the U.S.-led coalition in the war on terror.
“Our party and myself didn’t think that the war in Iraq was a good idea,” said Oyun Sanjaarsuren, one of five women in the 76-member Mongolian parliament and a leader of one of the opposition parties. “The decision to send troops was not openly discussed with the public.”
Oyun (most Mongolians call her just by her given name) is one of the more fascinating figures in Mongolian politics. A geologist with a PhD from Britain's elite Cambridge University, she is the mother of a young son and has a black belt in karate and is mentioned as a future prospect for the prime minister.
Surprise number four:
The role of women in society. Women make up 60 percent of the college graduates in Mongolia. They also represent 80 percent of the doctors and teachers and more than 70 percent of the judges.
When we asked Oyun why women have more education than men, she smiled. “Maybe they’re better,” she quipped.
Closer to the truth is that 40 percent of Mongolians still follow a nomadic way of life and fathers expect their sons to inherit the flocks of sheep, goats and cows, leading the sons to drop out of school to learn ranching while the girls continue their studies.
Mongolia’s leaders realize, however, that everyone is going to have to be better educated if this country is to compete in the global economy.
Surprise number five:
English is now the official second language, replacing the Russian imposed when the country was a Soviet satellite.
“English makes countries more equal in terms of communication,” said Prime Minister Elbegdorj, whose government has a Web site in both Mongolian and English.
Meanwhile, at a private school in the capital, Ulaanbaatar (formerly Ulan Bator), a boy named Adrya is emphatic: “Without English you can’t live, he said. “Without English, you are nothing.”
What does the future hold?
So, many surprises. And it’ll be interesting to see how this intriguing country fares in the next five or ten years as it endeavors to establish democratic institutions and lift itself out of poverty.
Meanwhile, I find myself rooting for these people and make a promise to return (preferably at a warmer time of the year).
For me, though, the warmth of the Mongolians is always in season.
George Lewis is an NBC News Correspondent who was recently on assignment in Mongolia. Watch more of his reports from there on NBC Nightly News this weekend.