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TANA GOLDFIELDS News Reviews Mongolia’s economy is soaring, but at what cost?
The author asked Mongolians, including members of the the art rock group Mohanik, how one of the world’s fastest-growing economies can maintain its soul. (Lauren Knapp)
“Tradition,” says Javhlan.
He was everywhere in Mongolia: On the metal light poles in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, amid the chockablock traffic, there were little tourist-friendly posters bearing the radiant, smiling image of Mongolia’s premier folk crooner. You’d stroll past the Lego store, then past Hugo Boss, right into the chic, moneyed core of a nation that is now mining gold, copper and coal for Chinese consumption, and there he was again. Javhlan is 33. On the posters, his cheeks are ruddy, his eyes aglow with health. He seems well fed, and serene and bearish and strong somehow, and his costume carries a stately (if affected) grandeur. He is dressed 13th-century style, in a long flowing robe and a pointy helmetlike cap, as though he were just about to hop on a horse and join the old warlord Genghis Khan in battle out on the steppes.
Javhlan’s music matches his getup. It is plaintive and patriotic, and his deep baritone voice resonates, manly and sodden with pathos, over tinkling electronic background beats. In one song, “Promise,” he apologizes to his ancestors for how Mongolia has sold out to the Chinese and ensures the desecration will stop. “The land was given to us in one piece,” he declares, “so we will protect it. Even if God asks for a piece of it, we won’t give any away.”
In Mongolia, I scarcely ever stepped into a taxi bereft of Javhlan tunes. When I tried to bond with one driver by asking if the singer on the radio was in fact Javhlan, he grew wistful and glassy-eyed, telling me that, like Javhlan, he hailed from the western province of Uvs. “Tiim,” he affirmed, “Javhlan.”
When I was in Mongolia, Javhlan was running for a seat in the Mongolian Parliament as a dark-horse third-party candidate. Though he would eventually lose, he campaigned with celebrity flourish, by giving away 100 tons of hay to the good herders of Uvs. He was earnest with reporters, stressing that it was mining — and its savage effects on the earth — that spurred him into politics. “Foreigners are digging up our land,” he said recently, “and ruining our wintering grazing spots. I had no choice but to run.” He added that he was old-school about child rearing. “My wife and I plan to have 15 kids,” he pronounced. “We are real Mongolians.”