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Mongolia: Festival Promotes Culture, Tourism

  • Beatrice Hogan

Land-locked Mongolia, long overshadowed by its powerful neighbors China and Russia, has launched a campaign to boost its profile. A big part of its effort is a summer-long Mongolian cultural festival in New York City. Correspondent Beatrice Hogan reports that Mongolian officials hope that promoting their country will help trigger growth in trade and tourism.

New York, 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Mongolia, a country most often associated with Genghis Khan and the Gobi Desert, is trying to update its public image and emerge from obscurity.

Mongolian officials have chosen New York as their main venue of publicity. For the first time ever, Mongolian culture has received prime booking in the city's cultural calendar. A summer-long festival of Mongolian culture kicked off on May 19 with a "naadam," a festival that showcased traditional sports -- including archery and wrestling -- food, dances, and songs.

Mongolian artwork and dinosaur fossils are on display at New York museums, and a special facility to breed the endangered snow leopard has been constructed at the Bronx Zoo.

Palgi Gyamcho sits on the board of directors of the Mongol-American Cultural Association, a non-profit organization that raised money for the festival. He told RFE/RL that he hopes the festival will raise awareness of his country.

"We want people to understand that Mongolia has a lot to offer in terms of culture, in terms of the environmental awareness that existed for centuries, and also in terms of our artistic and other heritages."

Mongolia, a country of 2.4 million people and 33 million head of livestock, has particular reason this year to want to boost trade. A devastating climate disaster known as a "dzud" -- a drought last summer followed by the coldest winter in 30 years -- has killed more than 2 million head of livestock. An estimated one-fifth of Mongolia's people directly rely on livestock farming, and the massive loss in animals is expected to reduce domestic production and export earnings for several years.

Mongol officials have used the cultural festivities in New York to draw attention to their plight as well as highlight their country as a potential trade hub. The country's ambassador to the United Nations, Jargalsaikhany Enkhsaikhan, told a recent reception that his country is best known for producing cashmere and other textiles.

The ambassador said his country's location between the growing markets of Russia and China could make it a key trade link between Europe and Asia.

"We have just on the other side of our border 55 million Russians and Chinese that are interested in doing business with Mongolia."

Mongolia is also hoping to attract tourists. Dalantai Halilun, director of the Mongolian National Tourism Center, wants to see her country become a destination for international travelers. Some of the attractions include mountaineering, trekking, and horseback riding.

"For us, for Mongols, it's very much important to get acquainted with the rest of the world and certainly to attract more people to our country, and to get known to the rest of the world. We want to be known and we want to be seen."

Mongolians active in the festival say they hope Americans will see Mongolia as a modern nation, not some civilization lost between the old Soviet Union and China. They are proud of their record as hardy survivors.

Mongolia gained independence from centuries of Chinese domination in 1911, but a Soviet-supported revolution 10 years later installed a repressive communist government. The country adopted a new democratic constitution in 1992 and even opened its first stock exchange. But the process of replacing the centralized economy with capitalism has been a slow one.

If the past is any guide, Mongolia could be positioned to once again be a bridge between West and East. Robert McChesney, an expert on Central Asian history at New York University, says that Mongolia's past includes more than just conquest.

"The contributions in various ways that the Mongols made, the impact they had on world history, the spur they may have had to development, the transfer of technology between the Yellow River basins and Mesopotamia, between the Mediterranean and the Western Pacific. There were always sea connections, but the overland connections were probably stimulated tremendously by the Mongols."

Next year's theme at the United Nations is the "Year of Dialogue among Civilizations." With its current outreach, Mongolia has already initiated such a conversation.

(Dosan Baimolda of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)