Country of the Khans

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Ulan Bator wakes to the racket of construction of new Hiltons and Shangri-Las: girders tearing through the shingly ground, cranes swaying over archipelagoes of nomads’ flat felt yurts. Old men in traditional cerulean kaftans with golden tassels, squinting through the smog, are helped over SUV-crammed roads by their children who sport black designer suits. I meet Ankaa, a sarcastic television stand-up comedian (typical joke: at 60 a Mongolian becomes wise; at 61 he dies). He wears drainpipe jeans and a fake Armani jacket, and fiddles with the latest iPhone. We are going to visit his shaman.

We drive out of the downtown and off-road into Ulan Bator’s shantytown, the Gehr district, where almost a quarter of the country’s 2.7 million people have come to look for work. It’s every family for itself: some live in yurts; others build wooden shacks or wobbly brick houses. They burn tires, cow shit, and coal for heat, hook wires to electricity cables for power. We arrive at the shaman’s yurt. He is a 19-year-old with innocent eyes. He lives with his mum. He is playing Grand Theft Auto on PlayStation. He covers the screen with a J-Cloth. Dims the lights. Pulls on wolf furs, bear claws, a mask of eagle feathers. His mother looks on, proud but a little confused: “I grew up during communism. We were taught that shamanism was a lie. But since my son was beaten up a couple of years ago, he has been hearing ‘a voice.’ I was skeptical at first, but he seems so convincing.”...

A shaman craze has been sweeping across the country. Street drunks will tell you they’re channeling the great Genghis Khan himself, the Mongol warrior-ruler who conquered half the known world in the 13th century, terrifying medieval Europe, and whose legacy was repressed under the Soviets for fear of arousing nationalist urges. The Khan’s benevolent, stern face is everywhere you look—on vodka bottles, toilet paper, Irish bars, investment funds. A 30-meter chalk portrait of him is engraved on the hills above the city, like the tattoo of a lover on a sailor’s shoulder. A passing British television crew shooting a series about “history’s great dictators”—Genghis will star alongside Hitler and Stalin—is derided by the locals. “Genghis was actually the father of modernity, the first to create a functional state throughout Eurasia,” insists a hopeful Mongolian film producer, eyes alight. “I’m planning a film that will change the image you people have of him as a blood-soaked tyrant. Can you recommend a scriptwriter?”...wwww

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