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Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia: Preserving heritage for the future

By Rosamond Chung 12 November 2020

Mongolia is a country that is known for being the birthplace of a great conqueror and having a passion for a nomadic lifestyle, but the proud and once-glorious nation has been struggling to find a way to hold on to its heritage and making it work in times where battles are fought more on pen and paper than on horseback in an open field. The younger generation in Mongolia is finding ways to preserve local culture while forging their own identity. During a week-long expedition to the capital of Ulaanbaatar, one thing became evident—the country is actively working towards leaving the less-than-stellar aspects of its past behind and blazing the trail towards a brighter future.

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Known as the Land of the Eternal Blue sky, Mongolia and its people hold great pride in their ancestry and heritage. They honour tradition by practising celebrational ceremonies as their former leaders did—with lots and lots of alcohol.

During any celebratory event in the Mongol era, there must always be an abundance of food and drink. Drinking, or perhaps binge drinking, was considered as part of the celebrations. Genghis Khan, the most well-known Mongol, was known to celebrate with large quantities of alcohol after vanquishing his enemies. According to a visitor to Mongolia in the 13th-century, the Mongols had a fountain called the Silver Tree of Karakorum, which flowed and provided alcoholic drinks for the grandsons of Genghis Khan and his guests. This set the scene for the love of alcohol by the general population, which gradually deteriorated into dependence. 

Presently, alcohol has become an indispensable part of local culture, whether it is in celebration or mourning. One of the reasons is the widespread availability of alcohol in the country—most grocery stores have dedicated sections just for vodka, and liquor stores can be found almost on every street corner. High-proof spirits such as vodka are available more readily in the country, and at a significantly cheaper price—costing less than USD 2 for half a pint.

Vodka is the most widely consumed drink in the country, with hundreds of distilleries dedicated to making the spirit. Mongolian vodka brands like Black Chinggis, Gold Chinggis, and Khar Suvd contain about 36 percent alcohol. Many health organisations warn against frequent consumption of high-proof drinks, so recently, there has been a push for the consumption of more traditional alcoholic beverages like Airag.

Airag is the traditional national drink of Mongolia, made by putting fermented mare milk in a cow skin bag and then beating it repeatedly. The drink has a refreshing acidic taste, and contains only two percent alcohol. It is also a good source of vitamins and minerals—one of the few alcoholic beverages in the world that has this trait to boast of, and can even be consumed by people who are lactose-intolerant. This is part of the efforts to shift attitudes towards what it means to preserve history, and at the same time alleviate the challenges the population has been facing as a result of excessive alcohol consumption. 

Fashion became another way for people, women in particular, to reclaim their agency. Charitable organizations like Caritas Women’s Empowerment Centre provide women with employment opportunities, training them to design and handmake traditional Mongolian boots, clothing, and accessories—as part of the visits to these centres, we were taught how to make traditional leather bracelets. A lot of Mongolian women have had to leave abusive marriages or are single mothers, as a result of the high rates of male unemployment, and subsequently, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and crime. These centres provided women with a means to support themselves and gain confidence as well as independence, all while preserving an important part of Mongolia's cultural heritage. 

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Organisations like Verbist Care Centre and Rainbow Centre work with children caught in the crossfire, abandoned by parents who were unable to provide for them—caught in a vicious cycle of alcohol dependency and using yet more alcohol to escape from the problems created by it. The missionaries and staff working at the charities provide the children with access to food, medical attention, as well as much-needed guidance and love. 

The youth in Mongolia has been given an opportunity for a new lease on life, a chance to break free of the downward spiral. Thanks to the help from NGOs and charities, children and young people are being brought up without the negative influence that alcohol represents for their parents' generation, fostering a healthier relationship with their cultural heritage and leaving them free to explore their boundless potentials without being weighed down by the shackles of their fathers and forefathers.

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Growing up in Hong Kong, Rosamond is a recent high school graduate who is in the middle of her gap year. She has always been interested in capturing little moments and stories in the places she goes to. Whether it’s her love for film photography or her obsession with making playlists, you will always see Roz with a camera around her neck and lo-fi bops playing on her headphones. Follow her adventures on Instagram.