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Eugene O'Connor :: Mongolia from Outer Space 15/11/00

Mr Eugene O'Connor gave what was acknowledged to be one of the best talks of the year so far. He combined slides, satellite photographs and dry-humoured dialogue to give a comprehensive and colourful picture of Mongolia today. Let's be honest , what most of us know about Mongolia could go on the back of a postage stamp, so I went along find out, well....what is it like?

Eugene had just returned from a project with the British Geological Survey (BGS). Mongolia, he explained, is a "politically correct country" , so the UK government's International Development Fund is prepared to fund projects there. He went to oversee a cooperative Mongolia -BGS mapping project, with a view to identifying potential mineral resources. Data from a variety of sources are used, on the ground surveys and panning for mineral silts - the oldest technique in the book, together with the latest satellite techniques. Satellite images can be bought for any variety of reasons, (most cheaply at around 200 from the Americans - the French and the Germans are apparently the most expensive, in case you were wanting to buy a picture or 'footprint' of your house) and tracing potential mineral deposits is one of them - if you have the sort of know how Eugene does. He went quite misty-eyed over one slide of a rocky outcrop with black bits in it. " You won't appreciate the significance of this much" he said reverently, "but its really very rare".

Actually Eugene spoke little on matters geological, talking about the impressions gained on a jeep trek around the country, a 'land of blue skies', where dirt tracks linking provincial towns are the only transport routes, and the livestock outnumber the people by nearly ten to one! He threw in a lot of interesting facts: for example, most Mongolians still speak Russian, it has its own stockmarket in the Stalinist Square in Ulan Batar, most women have flowery, feminine names like 'Petal' or 'Apple' and the national sport is wrestling. That Mongolia is developing an economic infrastructure was shown quite clearly in his Ulan Batar slides, but once out of the capital the picture is very different.

Eugene's slides took us on a tour of Mongolia's regions. 60% of the country is mountainous, but in a rolling way, with undulating expanses of grassland. To the south is the arid Gobi Desert. Provincial towns were few and far between. Suffering from a shortage of fuel and general contact with the outside world, they seemed almost like ghost towns. Finding anyone to sell you a can of petrol was a difficult but urgent task - can you imagine running out of petrol 20 hours from the nearest human habitation? Along the 'roads' is nothing but grass - and the odd 'ouvo' ( a wayside traveller's totem , looking like an unlit bonfire from which flags are hung).

The predominant way of lifestyle away from the cities is still that of herdsmen. Eugene recounted how friendly and hospitable the locals were, bringing out their 40% proof vodka and ubiquitous mutton stew for him and his fellow mappers. Most nights were spent in 'gias', the traditional Mongolian tent, where with the stoves on at full blast, Eugene coped with the 25 degree drop in temperature. Even in summer, the nights drop to zero.

What came across strongly in Eugene's talk was his affection for the country and its people. One of his most interesting slides was of him putting in some overtime in the 'gia' with his laptop, surrounded by fascinated herders, who were seeing their grassland homes from a whole new angle! He was pleasantly surprised by the numbers of women taking part in scientific research , with some women on the team, and many more back at the Geological Institute in Ulan Batar.

Since he was so clearly charmed by the beauty and the emptiness of the country, I asked how he felt about the fact that his work would help develop and exploit Mongolia's natural resources. Would this not spoil the place irredeemably? He replied that international companies have learned a little more tact in their 'development', and that most urban Mongolians are keen to see their country develop. Mongolia's development means a better quality of life in the cities at least. How long it will take for this to spread to one of the world's last wildernesses is uncertain. One thing is for sure, the resources are there. It would be a shame to see the grasslands developed, but it is unsure to what extent this would occur. I can't help feeling that if the Mongolians want to bring themselves into the twenty-first century, then that is their inalienable right.

summary by Kate Mulrenan (Nov 00)