For some, a contortionist is nothing more than a freak-show act, doing something unnatural, not a thing of grace or beauty. But in Mongolia, flexing and bending the body into seemingly impossible positions has been perfected into what some call a uniquely Mongolian tradition. And these advocates of the art form are seeking international recognition.
Ochir Damchaa chuckles as he drives his second-hand Toyota sedan through the alleyways of Nalaikh, a ramshackle town 35 kilometers east of Ulaanbaatar: “There’re just two kinds of jobs here: drive a taxi, or dig coal.”
Mongolia’s sweeping steppe and nomadic heritage attract tens of thousands of tourists from around the world each summer. Come winter, though, popular tourist spots are eerily deserted; tour operators have traditionally hibernated. But some are starting to ask: ‘are we missing an opportunity?’
The lumbering and stubborn Bactrian camel might not be an obvious contender in a polo match, but a Mongolian initiative to save the two-humped beasts is taking a traditional sport of the steppes and giving it a new twist.
Foreign donors and the Mongolian government are pumping millions of dollars into cleaning up Ulaanbaatar’s smoggy winter air, which the US Embassy calls one of Mongolia’s most critical environmental concerns. But as yet another relief project draws to a close, the city has little to show but more stubborn gray haze.
Many Mongolians were surprised when, one day in 2004, a corrugated-steel fence suddenly went up around Ulaanbaatar’s 35-acre Children’s Park. They were horrified six years later when only a tiny four-acre fraction of the park reopened to the public, and plans emerged for the construction of a luxury hotel and other private developments on the rest of the area.
On a chilly morning recently, workers in Ulaanbaatar dislodged Mongolia’s last statue of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin from the downtown plinth where it had stood since 1954. A small group watched as the city’s new mayor recalled the repression that marked the communists’ years in power and denounced Lenin and his followers as "murderers.”
Mirage-like, a slinky piece of asphalt appears on the horizon after hours of driving across the dusty Gobi Desert. What’s coming into sight is the only paved surface for miles around. Yet many trucks are driving alongside the new highway, not on it.