What is happening in Mongolia today is a gold rush, literally, as huge deposits of gold, coal, copper, uranium and oil have been discovered underneath the Gobi Desert. Suddenly a country half the area of India, but with only 4 million people, sees itself staring at riches that could make it regain the glory days of Mongolia's most famous son, Genghis Khan.
But for now, even though royalties from the mines have started coming in, Mongolia is still struggling with the transition from communism as a Soviet satellite, and making democracy work in this sparsely-populated land.
They say you can gauge the level of corruption in a country by the size of the potholes on the streets of its capital. If it is any consolation, roads of Ulaanbaatar have even bigger potholes than the ones in Kathmandu. Mongolia's mining industry and Nepal's hydropower sector are similar stories of resources squandered in countries that shouldn't be poor. Politicians in both countries are too narrow-minded and corrupt to make democracy work and distribute income from natural resources equitably.
In Mongolia and Nepal, the democratic transition has lasted more than two decades, and in both countries elected leaders have let their people down because of greed, ambition and a chronic inability to prioritise the national interest.
Just like Nepal has a big potential buyer in India for its water resources, Mongolia has a huge export market in China for its mineral wealth. And in both countries this breeds suspicions of the perceived colonial intentions of the southern neighbour. Despite what Stalin did to erase all memory of Genghis Khan and the Soviet-era pogroms against Tibetan Buddhism, the Mongolians seem to tolerate the Russians more because it provides a counterbalance against
Still, things are moving in Mongolia. Mining contracts have been awarded, there are provisions where every Mongolian has a share in some of the big copper and gold mines. Once a sleepy backwater, today Ulaanbaatar has the look of a boomtown, sleek new high-rises are going up, new highways are being built and the potholes are being filled. There is a reinstatement of Genghis Khan as a national cultural icon and a campaign to change the western image of him as a rapacious looter to a world leader who brought civilisation to Europe (see box).
Last month, Mongolians voted in elections in which money-minded ex-communists battled the democratic parties. After prolonged bargaining, the Democratic Party finally agreed to form a coalition with populist "resource nationalists" who want to reduce the presence of foreigners in the mining sector.
Much in the same way river projects in Nepal become political ping-pong, so it is in Mongolia with its mines. The government will be led by the DP's Norov Altankhuyag, but populist parties like the Mongolian People's Revolutionary Party and Mongolian National Democratic Party will demand their pound of flesh for support. Both want to limit the open-ended contracts that foreign mining companies got under the previous regime, and hope to nationalise the lucrative coal and copper mines. They want an agreement by a previous government with a Canadian-Australian mining giant to exploit the Oyu Tolgoi copper mine to be renegotiated. Sound familiar?
Remnants of a realm
From the moment you land at Genghis Khan International Airport in Ulaanbaatar, the persona and visage of the great conqueror never leaves you. You shop at the Genghis Khan shopping complex, go to a Khan Bank ATM, nibble on Genghis Khan chocolates and buy Genghis Khan vodka at the duty free.
A four-hour drive east of the capital, on the road leading to his birthplace, the Mongolians have erected a 100m high stainless steel statue of Genghis Khan astride a metal stallion (pic, right). You can see it from miles away: a white apparition glinting in the sun. Visitors can go up an elevator and climb on top the horse's head to get a close-up view of Genghis Khan's face as he gazes across the steppes.
In a museum below the structure, you learn about how a herder named Temujin from the edge of Siberia went on to conquer most of Eurasia in the 13th century and ruled an empire that stretched from Korea to Austria, to leave a mark on modern human history.
The Mongolians have always been sensitive about European portrayals of him as a ruthless conqueror who raped and pillaged his way across Asia. Genghis Khan himself was responsible for this terrifying reputation because, as a brilliant tactician, he exaggerated his brutality in psywar.
From his birth in 1162 until he died in 1227, Genghis Khan conquered in 25 years of military campaigns more than the Romans did in 400 years, in what historian Jack Weatherford calls the First Mongol World War. He used the superior horsemanship of his warriors to strike with lightning speed, using pincer movements and outflanking techniques that are still taught in military academies around the world. He adopted the hardware of warfare of the places he conquered to deadly effect, introducing gunpowder and catapults.
He understood the importance of communication, his troops travelled light and rode horses that they ate when the mammals had worn themselves out. They developed cartography into a fine art, and maps made then were used much later on the Silk Route.
After his conquest, Genghis Khan's empire was probably the world's first free trade zone, opening up business between Asia and Europe for the likes of Marco Polo to follow. Mongolians were animists who revered the Eternal Blue Sky and the Earth, yet as they conquered lands with new religions Genghis Khan and his descendants amalgamated them into the empire, fostering harmony and tolerance between beliefs. Much before Europe, the Mongolians practised the separation of state and religion.
The Nepali word "paisa" comes via Persian from the Mongolian "paiza" which was the name for gold and silver medallions worn by traders as an early form of credit cards during transcontinental horseback rides. The Nepali word "khubi" (which means the quality of a person) comes from the Mongolian word for the spoils of war which Genghis Khan's army distributed according to the need of every individual and family. In fact, the Dalai Lama gets his name from the Mongolian word, "dalai", which means ocean of knowledge.
Pax Mongolica introduced not just military hardware, but also spread the use of maps and the compass, developed the first postal system, and was using paper and printing two centuries before Gutenberg. Genghis Khan adopted a universal script for his empire derived from present day Uzbekistan.
Genghis Khan's sons welcomed Tibetan Buddhism, assimilated many of its tenets into their own concept of the Eternal Sky and even introduced the Tibetan script. If the Soviets had not destroyed the Tibetan monasteries here, Mongolia could very well have been called Northern Tibet.
It was the Mongolians who introduced trousers to Europe, and when the army of Genghis Khan's son stopped in Vienna, they found it wasn't worth conquering Europe because it was too poor. Genghis Khan's empire was created by conquest, and a lot of it was brutal, but not any more so than other conquerors before, or after.
At the Hustai National Park in central Mongolia you can look across an endless steppe under an enormous cobalt sky, a landscape almost unchanged in the 800 years since Genghis Khan set forth to end what he saw as internecine fighting between Mongolian tribes, by unifying them.
The Park is home to a herd of the Mongolian wild horse, the takhi, which has been transplanted here from Europe and rescued from the brink of extinction. Like a lot of other things in Mongolia, the horses are just a remnant of a realm that spread across the world and left its mark.