Part Seven: Tourism and the Environment in Mongolia. Land of the blue sky and broken bottles.
An approximate population around 2.5 million people, crammed into 1.5 million square kilometers provides Mongolia with the lowest population density of any country in world. Given that there are more horses in Mongolia than people (LP states a thirteen to one ratio) and that there is really only one ‘urban’ environment (found in UB) the Mongolian environment is extremely clean, especially if one is entering from the Chinese side and has experienced 1.3 billion people utilizing 9 million square kilometers of land (of which much is unusable, for a variety of reasons). I found smog in UB, given its size and growing number of vehicles to be tolerable and on some days non-existent, although I’m told that winter months cast a vile gray blanket over the place. At present, air quality appears to present a minor problem, if any.
No, Mongolia is quite pristine. A land of blue sky, clear waters, forest, dune and range landscapes. Little if any urbanization and agricultural landscapes are limited to discrete regions. While open pit mining is growing and Mongolia is home to one of the largest OP copper mines in the world, I’ve always felt that while exceedingly destructive to the immediate environment, the mining impacts are largely limited spatially, as opposed to oil and gas, whose impacts span massive distances. The Mongolian environment is exceedingly dry and sparse, and while my knowledge of Mongolian mining is very limited, I suspect that many issues that face mining industries in other nations are present in Mongolia in limited forms. Concern arises mostly over quality of the operation, given that many are Soviet relics, although new mines are coming online (many of which are Mongol-Canadian joint ventures). In a country with limited economic opportunity, mining can represent a boom prospect, providing adequate measures are kept to employ Mongolians and retain as much value inside the country (unfortunately, history appears to favor the foreign investors over the local populations).
Parallel with mining, tourism represents what could possibly be the only other economic salvation for Mongolia, given its landlocked and waterless position (key elements for a thriving industrial base). Inverse to Mining, tourism generally spans a larger spatial environment, requiring preservation and quality landscapes, cultural relics and attractions to maintain a income base. Unlikely development partners, mining and tourism.
As with most other countries where tourism constitutes an important component of the economic mosaic, the sector often is at odds with industrial sectors. In regards to Mongolia, I also feel that a significant threat is present to tourism and the environment in the form of the Mongolians themselves. Mongolians have definitely held on to their nomadic roots, and some characteristics of nomadism are not exactly compatible with environmental quality, most specifically the apparent lack of concern regarding white pollution, or trash. Outside of built up areas, items which are no longer of use are just thrown out a window, into a river or into a forest. Places of scenic interest are usually strewn with trash, most of which is from the local population. Trash infrastructure doesn’t exist, but neither does a culture of ‘pack it in, pack it out’. Even after my group had collected our refuse, our driver usually would dispose of it in a hidden spot at night. Currently, the amount is small, and usually limited to areas with high visitation value, but as there is little or no effort made to collect it (that I observed) it will only accumulate, placing stress on the tourism value of the site, thus limiting the high end tourism that every country craves. In addition to this, some areas are (namely sites around Hovsgol Lake National Park) are experiencing significant degradation, the culprits being large numbers of tourists and locals driving and camping any place they choose.
Obviously, tourism represents a natural fit as a development method for Mongolia, especially in regards to cultural and so-called ‘ecotourism’ ventures. In an attempted tourism discussion with a guesthouse owner, I managed to pull out a figure of 20%, representing a guestimate of the importance of tourism to Mongolia’s economy. I would have liked to have further discussed this topic, but I’m finding that my lack of credibility (damn BA and my label as an ESL teacher) and boyish looks (everyone thinks I’m 20 and therefore a fool) are getting me absolutely nowhere in developing my interest in this field.
20%…that’s big, and growing fast. From a budget tourism perspective this place is exploding. Every guesthouse I visited was packed and bursting at the seams and there are travelers all over the streets. The weather is fantastic, and this place could possibly represent an alternative to people looking for a cheap locale, with ample outdoor opportunities without the associated crap that is flowing into the usual backpacking countries (Southeast Asia, and you know what I mean). The isolation filters out certain characters, but also attracts other forms of bad tourists which have created some policy wizards in the government to consider a Bhutan style tourism management system. Such a system restricts travel to high end tourism. Because of the hospitality of the Mongolian people, a number of travelers have morphed into freeloaders, essentially moving throughout the country, from ger to ger, living off the local populations and giving little, if anything in return. Their actions could cause the expulsion of budget travel, which I personally feel is essential to tourism development as it represents the pioneering aspect of tourism creating an important base for further tourism development. Budget travelers generally have the desire to explore and visit difficult areas with little infrastructure, thus laying the ground work for top end safari packages as well as large bus tours, which require more quirks, comforts and transportation network.
Part Eight: Return to UB
By day ten, we had all been reduced to discussing what we would be eating upon reintroduction to society. Food ranged from massive german breakfasts, to fish and chips with plans being laid for Beijing duck, in well, Beijing. The remaining days were spent visiting a rather nice monastery in the north to finishing up the travels with a visit to the Tahki wild horse preserve. Not being a big horse person, I was taking solace in the fact that the LP mentioned that the preserve was home to some nice forested landscapes. Unfortunately, these ‘forested’ landscapes proved to be scrubby birch patches spread throughout the same rolly, dry steppe landscape we had experienced for the past four days. Furthermore, it was during this time I discovered the problem with my return ticket to Beijing, which soured the last day of travel for me. I worry a lot about transportation when I travel, largely because of my experiences in China of being left with out tickets on numerous occasions. My current standing policy is to have an exit ticket in hand ASAP before embarking on any sightseeing, largely because I’m a time bound traveler, and am usually required to be somewhere important at a specific time.
Because of this attitude, I had specifically spent time organizing my return ticket to Beijing as soon as I had an idea of how long my trip would be. The international ticketing office staff speak very basic English and Russian (level unknown) and no Chinese. Like any developing nation, the ticket office was crazy and obtaining a ticket involves pushing your way to the front where you have exactly thirty seconds to state what you want. I explained, using a calendar, the desired date of departure (Aug 28th), upon which I paid and obtained my ticket only to be pushed out of the window box by the next eager customer. Extremely happy that I had my ticket, I was no free to go traveling worry free. My fault was not checking the date on the ticket. I didn’t realize the mistake until the last day of my trip. The ticket date, despite having pointed out on the calendar the 28th and being assured that I was understood, was set for the 21st , and it was now the 27th.
Upon arrival in UB, I went to the ticket office to state my situation where, despite being called the “International Ticket Office”, English levels did not extend beyond buying tickets and I was promptly informed that my ticket was cancelled and I could not get a refund or exchange the ticket, (which I already knew). If this problem had been my problem, I would have sucked it up and taken the twenty seven dollar hit. However, I didn’t believe this to be my problem, as I specifically asked for the 28th, and was given the 21st. I finally found someone who could speak creative English, and was assured that if I returned on Monday, I would be given a refund. Feeling better, I went to the local train station and purchased a ticket to the border, where I could catch a bus across and then take a sleeper bus to Beijing (my original ticket was on the Trans-Siberian direct to Beijing.
Come Monday I returned to the station and went to the office indicated to me by the English speaking fellow. I walked in and was promptly told by the woman at the desk that this ticket was cancelled and that there wasn’t any more seats available on that train for the 28th (so I couldn’t exchange) and that there was nothing they could do. Having been told that I would receive a refund, I was a little mad about this response. Not entirely sure that I was being understood, I carefully explained the situation and in addition, wrote the corresponding dates. Again, I was told there was nothing they could do. I emphasized that this was NOT my mistake, again no bananas. In reality, twenty seven dollars is not a huge lose but because I had been previously told of a refund and that this was not a mistake on my part, I wanted my money. Furthermore, this was not a individual to whom twenty seven dollars would improve their life…this was a government run train that would operate with or without my twenty seven dollars. The impact was insignificant.
When traveling, I am extremely concerned by my behavior and actions and go out of my way to act as an example for all foreigners, carefully avoiding any possible stereotypes the locals may have. However, I’ve learned that there are times when you will be ignored and walked over by people who see your language difficulty and foreign origin as a license to no extend you the same courtesy and help that they would normally give to a local person. Often, such people are unconcerned, and even lazy (especially those in government positions) and often view you as money vault, able to take the abuse of a lost ticket, item or the addition of extra ‘fees’.
Sometimes you have to stand, and there is nothing more uncomfortable in a public environment that a very loud, angry foreigner spewing multitudes of internationally known curse words. I hate putting on such a performance, but sometimes it is warranted, and honestly…it works. After a very loud argument (which brought in security guard) I was told to wait a moment. Ten minutes later I was asked what kind of seat I wanted on the 28th (this after being told that there weren’t any seats available). I just wanted my money, which I received.