I have safely arrived at the Beijing International, where I will be for the next 10 hours. My journey began in Minneapolis nearly 24 hours ago, and by the time I reach Ulaanbaatar, I will have been in transit for nearly 33 hours.
That I arrived to Beijing safely and comfortably is a reminder of how efficient international travel has become. The 11-hour layover, on the other hand, is a reminder of how remote Mongolia is. There are only two flights daily to UB from Beijing, one of the few airports with flights to UB.
Landing in Beijing was a bit surreal. There is no rain and the temperature is a mild 65 degrees here, but we could barely see the land below as we made our descent. It appears to be a particularly smoggy day here in one of the world’s most polluted cities. Seeing the thick haze makes me grateful for the mostly pristine environment of Mongolia. Still, the Beijing International Airport is impressive. The airport was one of the results of China’s hosting the summer Olympics in 2008. The Chinese spared no expense to make the port of entry a positive reflection of their country. The lines are organized, the large vaulted ceiling provides a sense of spaciousness, and it seems that everyone speaks English. Of course that shouldn’t be surprising. There are more Chinese who have learned English as a second language than there are native English speakers – a daunting statistic.
FROM CHINA TO MONGOLIA
I was last here in 2007. I flew out of Beijing to Minneapolis after spending a year as an English teacher in Nanjing (formerly Nanking). I had actually just come from a month-long trip in Mongolia. It was my final Asian adventure before returning to the states. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was that trip that would later inspire me to return to Mongolia to study hip-hop and urbanization. After spending a few days in the Gobi Desert in the south, the lush pastures and pine forests of the north, and the stark steppe of the central region, I was sold on this remote and beautiful place. In the four years since that trip, Mongolia has continued to capture my curiosity. And now, I hope to better understand this sparsely populated and country where the 1000 year-old memory of Genghis Khan is still fresh.
Despite their proximity and centuries of political entanglements, China and Mongolia are two extremely different nations. While China’s population is over 1.3 billion, Mongolia boasts being one of the least densely populated countries in the world, with a citizenry of only 3.1 million. As China solidifies its place as a major player in the international marketplace, Mongolia is just now beginning to compete internationally by selling mining rights to its many mineral deposits. Whereas the Chinese government balances capitalism and communism, Mongolia has become one of the most successful of new Democracies. But the differences between the two are deeper than contemporary political economy. The languages are as far apart from each other as they are from English. Mandarin is tonal and written in characters. Mongolian is syllabic and written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Both nations are predominantly Buddhist, yet Mongolia welcomes all religions with a fervor that is unique almost anywhere.
But for me, the most striking difference between the two nations was their relationship with the environment. After living in the over-crowded and hazy city of Nanjing (a medium-sized metropolis of only 8 million people), travelling around the countryside of Mongolia was literally a breath of fresh air. Because of Mongolians’ nomadic heritage, protecting the environment is extremely important and a major concern to the Mongolian government. Sadly, this is not the case for China, whose population and economy are outpacing environmental protection. Although, sitting here in the Beijing airport, I can’t help but wonder what Mongolia’s environmental fate will be in another century.
PREPARING FOR MONGOLIA
In some ways I have spent the last five months preparing for my time in Mongolia. The minute I committed to going, I began searching for a Mongolian tutor and reaching out to anyone that could help me get settled in Ulaanbaatar. I read The Secret History of the Mongols – an account of Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire. I started all of the necessary paperwork. I began compiling a packing list of both AV gear and outdoor gear (you’re welcome, REI). I left my job at the PBS NewsHour in Washington, DC in August and spent the next month and a half with my family and close friends in Minneapolis. I took full advantage of this rejuvenating period of (f)unemployment in the slower-paced suburbs of Minneapolis. I learned Cyrillic and started learning Mongolian. I bought an intervelometer and learned about time-lapse photography. I followed Mongolia in the news everyday.
But despite these efforts, I am still not fully prepared for this adventure. I find it impossible to comprehend what the next nine months will hold. I know there will be moments of loneliness and frustration. I also know there will be moments of kinship and jubilation. I’m standing on the edge of a great unknown, a simultaneously daunting and exhilarating place to be. Professionally, I have never tried to make something as ambitious as a documentary before. I have the tools required but know that this will be a test of my fortitude. Personally, it is always difficult to live in a foreign land, communicate in a language you do not know, and understand a culture that is far removed from your own. But these are good challenges to have. Ultimately, this trip is as much an opportunity for personal growth as it is for professional development, and I have committed to make the most of it.