|A good friend and famous Mongolian author once said, “As far as bad neighbors are concerned, Mongolia is very fortunate.” Being surrounded by Russia and China can be a very precarious position for any state that seeks political freedom. Mongolia had maintained some small measure of independence into the 20th century with considerable Russian influence and in 1921 became the second communist country in the world following the lead of Russia. Russia dominated the country while sponsoring Mongolia to become a member of the United Nations in 1961. Having an independent country recognized by the UN provided Russia with a protective buffer to China. The Dalai Lama could be a free man living in Lhasa had Tibet done the same thing following the demise of the Ching Dynasty.
In 1990, a group of democratic revolutionaries brought a peaceful end to the single party communist government as Moscow turned a blind eye to the cataclysmic change. Three months of demonstrations led by a handful of young revolutionaries ended some ninety years of Russian dominance. Two of the leaders, Zorig and Elbegdorj, close acquaintances of “yours truly,” are shown on the right side of the picture below.
The Mongolian revolutionaries formed the Mongolian party of Democracy and were invited to attend the 1992 Republican Presidential convention in Houston. For some reason, their Republican handlers asked this Texas oilman to host them which was a personal financial challenge but turned out to be great fun introducing them to margaritas. Most of them became good friends over the ensuing years though Zorig was murdered in an unsolved crime. Elbegdorj served many years as both Prime Minister and President of Mongolia. It was an honor to be presented The Polar Star medal award for contributions to Mongolia by Elbegdorj years later.
We were led to Mongolia by Bill Pentilla, a well-known oil geologist and dear friend, who had studied the geology of Mongolia for years. If Bill believed it, I believed it and we found significant oil some many, long years after the Russians gave up any further exploration in their captive province. Bill and I endured hardships together and he saw his oil dream turn into reality though he died of natural causes on a trip we made to Mongolia some years back. We both appropriately described the well shown below as the best well ever drilled in the history of Mongolia and he picked the location.
We then created a border crossing with China and began exporting oil to China by truck. One of the edgy aspects of Mongolia is their weather. There is a Mongolian saying that they have two seasons - “Nine months cold and three months very cold.” As the image below indicates, at 50 degrees below zero, even champagne freezes. To the right is the U.S. Ambassador Al La Porta and Prime Minister Enkhsaihan, another former democratic revolutionary.
Most likely, our success in Mongolia reflected the close relationships we had with the people. Although we contracted Chinese drilling rigs, they were afraid of the Mongolians given their historical relationships with Genghis Khan and his family. Therefore, they lived unto themselves and we lived with the Mongolians in their gers (mobile tents) shown below.
Given the proximity of the oil fields and the country’s incredible thirst for oil, we ultimately sold them to Petro China. The transaction was relatively painless but the most difficult part was ultimately getting paid once certain performance measures were achieved years later. However, when a Texan comes into a room in Daqing, China and says (albeit through a Chinese translator from Texas): “I have come for my money, all $52,700, 531,” rough talk and lingering consequences sometimes work better than hosts of lawyers and courtroom chatter. However, it was best to decline dinner with the Chinese and head to the airport.
There were many enjoyable aspects of a close involvement in Mongolia, most notably the opening of the first Mongolian Consulate in the U.S. and being able to lend a hand to the country. We developed a reputation for the fastest visa turnaround performance-something about efficiency which is not a customary trait in Mongolia.
Mongolians have traditionally been nomadic herdsmen. Therefore, sheep, cattle, horses and the odd camel are the measure of their wealth. They have a saying about food, “Animals eat vegetables, we eat animals!” Therefore, a vegetarian would quickly starve to death. Boiled mutton aromas used to permeate the halls of their hotels but that has changed over the years. Joey is shown below trying out a Mongolian horse but they only know one speed - flat out. Also, the wooden saddle is woefully uncomfortable so most riders post.
By chance, this Texan got to share some vodka shooters with the leading horse person in Mongolia. Most Mongolians would consider this event the most significant photo op of all the years there.
As this commentary follows several previous ones addressing the lifestyle comment about “living on the edge” - what is so edgy about Mongolia? The “risky part” is the transportation over long distances which are most often in aged Russian helicopters like the one shown below. They are quite handy to transport a couple of sheep in the back or open the door to shoot wolves from the air. However, the passengers were seated surrounded by fuel for the long hauls with fuel tanks both on the inside and outside of the fuselage. Having experienced one crash without a fire, though not in minus 50-degree weather, made the point. Also, having survived a one wheel/one wing Air China touchdown into Ulaan Baatar underscored the need to fly only Miat, the Mongolian airline.
We just renovated our condo in Ulaan Baatar and keep looking for a reason to go see the result. The winters had always been our preferred season to visit the capital given the absence of tourist crowds. On the other hand, it has become very difficult to breathe in the winter given the number of Mongolians who have relocated from the beautiful countryside to the dreary city in search of non-existent jobs. One family moves from the steppe lands and paints false, rosy pictures so they do not look foolish and more people then follow them. At the end of the day, they live in ger camps around the city and are forced to burn coal for heat. In comparison, life on the steppe has many things going for it unless you are a vegetarian and afraid of horses.