A few weeks ago, a friend told me a preposterous tale: According to him, the Mongolian winter gets so cold that the oil in the engines of the ancient and ubiquitous Russian-built Jeeps freezes. In the far countryside, where many gers lack electricity, the preferred technique for warming up the Jeep is gathering a pile of combustibles, placing it under the engine block, and torching it. The engine defrosts, and the driver starts up the Jeep and cruises away, leaving the bonfire behind. Occasionally, however, the Jeep will explode. The moral of the story was something to the effect that people routinely take what appear to be insane risks when there is no viable alternative.
Today, a local colleague confirmed that this rather extreme form of Mongolian barbecue is real and that Jeep detonation is, in fact, sometimes the result. Assuming he wasn’t pulling the leg of a guileless foreigner who desperately wants the story to be true, you have to admire that kind of courage.
As a metaphor, I kept thinking of the exploding Jeeps at lunch today. My guest was Dr. Sanjaasurengin Oyun, a member of the Great Hural (Mongolia’s parliament), the head of the Civic Will Republican Party, and the younger sister of the late Sanjaasurengin Zorig, one of the heroes of Mongolia’s peaceful democratic revolution. (The two share the same first name because they have the same father. Mongolians use only their one given name, which in formal documents is sometimes accompanied by a patronymic: thus, “Oyun of Sanjaasuren” or, if I were Mongolian, “Andrew of John.”) Oyun is one of the heroes of the current battle against corruption and nepotism and one of the most remarkable political figures I have ever encountered.
Her story begins in 1998 when Zorig, her 36-year-old brother, was assassinated. (A reformed-minded opposition leader in parliament, Zorig had been a top member of the Democratic coalition that in 1996 replaced the Communist government and began to implement a fairly radical program of reform, restructuring, and privatization.) When the Democratic coalition started to fall into disarray and two prime ministers resigned in quick succession, the members asked Zorig to leave his current position as the minister of infrastructure and nominated him to become prime minister. Weeks later, before his appointment had been accepted by Mongolia’s president, Zorig was brutally murdered as he returned home to his apartment. The killers have never been identified, though it is widely held that they acted with a political motive. In the wake of Zorig’s death, Oyun became determined to enter politics to carry on her brother’s legacy; a month later, she was elected to take his seat in parliament.
If ever there was an unlikely politician, it was Oyun. A highly credentialed geologist specializing in isotope geochemistry (she was the first Mongolian to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge), she had been working in Mongolia for a multinational mining company. As a member of parliament, Oyun’s cause has been the fight against corruption and abuse of power. But as one of only four opposition legislators (out of 76 total), she has had no institutional power. The main vehicle for Oyun’s work is the Zorig Foundation, which is dedicated to advancing the cause of political reform. Oyun is currently the head of one of the two main opposition parties that, if they can form a stable coalition, stand a respectable chance of beating the ruling former Communists in next year’s election. Still under 40, she is likely to be a leader of Mongolia’s government at some point in her life and seems a good bet to be its first female prime minister.
On a personal level, Oyun is full of surprises. She is a free spirit with the unforgiving rigor of a scientist; she admires the Dalai Lama, denounces television, and holds a black belt in karate. Perhaps most remarkable is the resolve she displayed in October 1998, as she abandoned the work she loved for the rough and tumble world of politics. Given her credentials, it would have been easy for her to scorn her homeland and build a professionally rewarding life elsewhere. Instead, she now devotes herself to combating corruption and securing the future of her country. Most of the Mongolians I have spoken with in the past week are businesspeople and techies, and most profess disgust with their nation’s politics. Every Mongolian that I have asked about Oyun, however, enthused about her intelligence, integrity, toughness, and good humor.
The steppes, the nomads, the hordes, the khans: Mongolia has inspired a body of what can only be called devotional scholarship. If you scan these books, written mostly by Westerners, you’ll find that the authors make a point of noting how deeply they’ve fallen in love with the place, how profoundly attached they’ve become to its people. I suspect it has something to do with the way the Mongolians have, for millennia, embraced extreme conditions to dwell among each other in this stunningly beautiful land. For me, the stories of S. Oyun and the exploding Jeeps embody the lengths Mongolians are willing to go to for the privilege of being Mongolian.