A new start for a land where Buddha meets Louis Vuitton

by JOHN GARNAUT, Sydney Morning Herald, February 19, 2011

ULAN BATOR, Mongolia -- Weathered old folk in fur hats and goatskin gowns and young couples wearing designer sunglasses are squeezing into Gandan monastery to lay money at the feet of a small and ornate statue of Buddha. The room has the yak butter smell of monasteries in Lhasa but the scene is otherwise more natural, lively and shambolic.

<< Gandan monastery in Ulan Bator, Mongolia ... an overwhelming amount of the country's population is Tibetan Buddhist, yet few can read the scriptures.

Portly old monks in maroon robes are counting bundles of money and child trainees are stifling yawns. They've been sitting and chanting all day and into the night for most of the two-week celebration for Mongolia's lunar new year.

I ask my friend what they are chanting about as he stops my coat from catching fire on the coal stove. ''I don't really know,'' he says. ''Actually, nobody does. It's all in Tibetan - we just have to trust them.''
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Ninety-eight per cent of the country's 2.7 million people count themselves as Tibetan Buddhists, thanks to ties that go back centuries. But only a few hundred trained monks can read the scriptures of their faith. My friend, a Mongolian neighbour from Beijing, has brought me here to pray for good health and fortune in between his meetings about national politics and personal uranium exploration.

He has also been dodging a guy from Goldman Sachs who wants his help in getting in on the next mega-mining float. We push our way out through the in-coming crowd into the central Asian sun.

''Spring is coming,'' he says, as I glance again at the weather gauge on my phone. We resume an old argument about whether minus 27 degrees is ''cold''. Admittedly, it doesn't feel that bad, so long as the sun is shining and the wind doesn't blow.

Tibetan Buddhism is not the only foreign idea that Mongolia has absorbed and adapted in its own idiosyncratic way. Only two decades ago the country flicked a switch from being a dour Marxist-Leninist satellite of the Soviet Union to boisterously democratic market economy.

''We have 17 free-to-air TV stations and 16 cable channels,'' says a market researcher, Andreu Enkhtuvshin. ''And every politician feels they need to own their own newspaper because it's cheaper than advertising.''

He calculates that the entire media market is valued at only $US35 million.

As night falls, down at the main square, the ice rink is filling up with young folk spinning and slipping over to Guns N' Roses and Mongolian hip-hop, while wishing each other ''Happy Valentine's Day''.

The stately little building on the east side of Sukhbaatar Square used to be the old Soviet cinema. It has now been painted pink and revamped as the Mongolian Stock Exchange. It would be wrong to suggest this bourse ranks among the world's cleanest and most efficient but, like most things in Mongolia, it seems to be heading in the right direction.

''Our 344 listed companies have a market capitalisation of about $US2 billion and daily trading volumes of about $200,000,'' says Altai Khangai, the chief executive of the stock exchange. ''It's not the biggest in the world but it has become critical for us to build capacity.''

On the Square's southern edge is an impressive all-glass high-rise in the shape of a sail. I was told it was bought by the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, while he spent a month at the Genghis Khan Hotel. I was also told it was owned by a former Mongolian prime minister, and the South Koreans, and that they were fronting for the Japanese Yakuza, and that it would have to be torn down because it was crooked.

The real and surreal seem happily interchangeable around here. On the west side of the square is the city's tallest building, where three years earlier I had watched Chinese construction workers laying bricks on its second floor. They had been there all year but hadn't once left the site. The first two floors of this now-sparkling 17-floor edifice are occupied by the likes of Ermenegildo Zegna, Montblanc and Louis Vuitton.

''If you want to really see leapfrog development you'll notice we don't have McDonald's or Starbucks but we do have very good French, Japanese and Korean restaurants with international chefs,'' says Ganhuyag Chuluun, another of the country's rising stars, who is the Vice-Minister of Finance. ''Mongolians didn't really shop around for Levi's. We went straight from riding horses to Louis Vuitton.''