Two years ago Mongolia celebrated the 800-year anniversary of the founding of the Mongol empire by Genghis Khan of whom many Mongolians remain very proud. More then anything he gave the Mongol people a place in the world's imagination.
Even centuries later, a mention of the warrior Khan brings instant recognition on faces belonging to so many different nationalities. It was that same Khan whose very name was once upon a time spoken through quivering lips from the dusty streets of Baghdad to the glittering palaces of Samarkand and Bukhara.
"We are grandsons, sons and children of this great Khan," says the Mongolian ambassador to London Altangerel Bulgaa. "We are very proud because the great Mongolian empire had a very good input into the world's development and paved the connections between the East and the West. Of course, when I say there was a positive side to the Mongolian empire there are many things, you know... " Indeed not everyone is a fan of the "great Khan", given his ferocious conquests and plunders in the lands of the Persians, Arabs and other inhabitants who were brought, literally to their knees, by his followers.
“Of course Mongolia is a small country today,” adds Bulgaa. Once a vast empire under Genghis Khan, today even the region known as Inner Mongolia is a part of China and the Chinese Mongolians living there are a minority. Further, with a figure close to five million, there are more Mongolians in China than in Mongolia itself, which has a population roughly approaching three million. And if one accepts China to be a multi-ethnic country, so is Mongolia, where roughly five per cent of the population are ethnic Kazakhs. Mongolia's border nearly touches Kazakhstan to the west and otherwise remains landlocked and sandwiched between Russia in the north and China in the south.
Bulgaa is clearly keen to promote his country as a tourist destination. “The untouched land of Mongolia is very popular for tourists you know.” says Ulgaa. “Very nice lakes, mountains, rivers, deserts. The flora and fawn in Mongolia is quite different because it is a big territory... For tourists from developed countries this landscape is very interesting and that is why adventure and eco-tourism are on the rise.”
Britain was the first country in the western world to recognize modern Mongolia.
“For me it is a great honour to be ambassador of Mongolia to the United Kingdom,” says Bulgaa. “We have good relations and are now trying to expand our ties and contacts in many fields. I underline that co-operation in the fields of education, culture and sciences is very important. The English language is now becoming very popular in Mongolia. English really is the first foreign language in Mongolia. Pupils in schools and universities are very much interested in learning English.”
The growing importance of the English language in Mongolia is telling. The ambassador himself speaks Russian, English and Spanish. Russian was once an important foreign language in the country. However today, perhaps in a reflection of Central Asia's tilt towards the West or just an eagerness to catch-up with the global community, English is the language Mongolian youngsters are now clamouring to learn. It was back in 1990 when Mongolia managed to free itself from the yoke of Communism and discovered new found freedoms, both political and religious. “Before the 1990s Buddhism was a very closed religion for Mongolians because during that period Communism was the main ideology and people were supposed to be non-religious. So it was a very difficult time you know.”
The majority religion in Mongolia is Buddhism although, as the ambassador pointed out, a small minority of mostly Kazakhs practice Islam. “After the democratic revolution religion became very open to everybody in Mongolia. Now in every provincial centre, and in every administrative small unit, we have Buddhist monasteries and lama monks.”
Between 1981 and 1985, the Bulgaa worked at the Mongolian embassy in Kabul. "It was a difficult time, civil war. For me, it was an interesting job but the situation was very difficult. No comparison here!"
Still being an ambassador can strike people - especially those not familiar with the diplomatic world - as being a rather glamorous and adventurous, almost romantic, job. Bulgaa says, however, that he has been caught up with meetings and courtesy calls since his arrival in May. “I am a newcomer and first I would like to make new friends,” he says. "You know maybe on the outside it is a very interesting job because there are these receptions and all. However it is a big responsibility because you have to develop relations with receiving countries. It is a difficult task, not just for me, but for all ambassadors."