With new embassies, new horizons for US and Mongolia
A small horde of diplomats from Mongolia will be arriving in Washington soon to begin final preparations for opening an embassy in this country. The last time a large group of Mongolians came West, their tour guide, Ghengis Khan, liked it so much they stayed for 300 years. With an embassy in Washington, Mongolian diplomats are hoping that American tourists will finally take the chance to return the visit.
Beginning this summer, Americans will be able to apply in the United States for visas to Mongolia. Previously, American tourists had to file visa applications in London, Paris, or one of Mongolia's embassies in Eastern Europe, creating logistical problems for many vacationers.
Until now, Mongolia's official presence in this country has been limited to its United Nations mission in New York, which opened in 1962.
An increase in tourism may be the most visible sign of newly established relations between the Mongolian People's Republic and the US, which began in January 1987. Since then, the two countries have been trying to reach an agreement on an exchange of embassies.
On April 17, two American Foreign Service officers, Victoria Nuland and Steven Mann, finally arrived in Ulan Bator, capital of the fabled land of Kublai Khan, to prepare for the opening of an embassy sometime in May.
The likely choice for US ambassador is Richard L. Williams, a career diplomat currently serving as director of the State Department Office of Chinese and Mongolian affairs. However, the new appointee will be the only US ambassador to be based in Washington and not abroad.
A landlocked nation between the Soviet Union and China, Mongolia has been a Russian protectorate since early in this century. Since the Russian Revolution, the Soviets have maintained a strong presence there. The russification of Mongolia is particularly palpable in Ulan Bator, where thousands of uniformed Soviet advisers roam the streets and Stalinesque architecture abounds.
Although Moscow recently withdrew one of its five divisions, there are still an estimated 40,000 Soviet troops in Mongolia, according to State Department sources.
Currently, only about 500 American tourists visit Mongolia each year, but a State Department spokesman said that number is expected to increase significantly now that official relations have been established. Jamsrangiin Gankhuayg, an attach'e to Mongolia's UN mission, says his country is looking forward to the tourist onslaught.
Louise Menlo, one of the few American tourists to visit Mongolia in the last year, says it was one of the best trips she ever took.
``To see Mongolian horsemen out in the Gobi, or the palaces of the old khans, really gives you a sense of the ages,'' says Menlo, an educator from Austin, Texas, who got her visa in Moscow while on a trip in the Soviet Union. Menlo, and others who have made similar trips, say that the rolling dunes of the southern Gobi Desert or Mongolia's grassy plain more than make up for the sporadic absence of hot water and Western-style toilets.
``We do the Mongolia trip every year and most people just love it,'' says Helen Simonson, an agent for the Manhattan travel firm that arranged Menlo's trip. ``It is kind of strenuous, however, so we don't recommend it to everybody.''
In addition to New York, travel agents in Washington; Topeka, Kan.; Seattle; Arlington, Va.; and Chicago have contracts with the Mongolian tourist agency for trips there.
Among the sights that will be available to a larger number of American travelers beginning this summer are the Bogdo Khan's palace in Ulan Bator; the 13th-century capital of Mongolia at Khara Khorum, and Erdene-Zuu, the first Buddhist monastery.
Mongolia is also famous for its hunting and fishing. The Altai Argali sheep, largest in the world, is native to Mongolia, as are the ibex and black-tailed gazelle. Mongolia's tourist agency, runs year-round hunting trips to many areas.
In addition, the Gobi Desert offers accommodation in traditional Mongolian wood and felt ``gers.'' These tent-like dwellings, which date back to ancient times, can be taken apart in an instant and are still widely used, even in cities.