Genghis day

Observations on Mongolia

Genghis Khan is cutting it fine for his own celebrations next month. In the year that Mongolia marks the 800th anniversary of its unification by the ruthless ruler in 1206, every major project is behind schedule. Ulaanbaatar, in fact, has a bad dose of Wembley Stadium syndrome.

Builders are working round the clock to complete a £300,000 statue in the capital's main square. At Bogd Khan Hill the first stone of a massive relief portrait of the conquerer's noble features has yet to be placed. And work on the Mongolian state history museum in front of the parliament building has stalled, way over budget.

With 400,000 foreign tourists expected to turn up for the occasion, the good news is that rehearsals for the cavalry display by 500 members of the armed forces are proceeding smoothly. Dressed as 13th-century warriors, they will re-enact the exploits of the marauding hordes that created the world's largest-ever empire, which extended from Beijing to Vienna.

And the Naadam festival, the annual summer event which finds the nation's best wrestler, archer and horseman, is guaranteed to produce the goods.

For the older generation who saw their traditional culture slowly crushed and virtually every Buddhist temple destroyed by the old, Soviet-backed regime, the Genghis Khan anniversary has a rich significance. The romance of his achievements helped inspire the freedom movements of the late 1980s, and his stature has grown since independence in 1990.

Younger Mongolians, however, are less enthusiastic. Otgoo, a 23-year-old English teacher, told me: "Genghis Khan means very little to my generation. He was a torturer and that's not the kind of hero I want to have. And he was dreadful towards women. What matters is that my country makes its way in the world as a democracy and free market economy."

That process appears to be under way. A coalition of liberals and former communists, under the presidency of Nambaryn Enkhbayar, is functioning well. It recently introduced a steep windfall tax on profits made from gold and copper extraction, while in foreign policy it is tackling the ancient danger of domination by Russia and China through developing friendships with Japan, South Korea and the west.

With freedom has come allegations of corruption. The British embassy sacked most of its Mongolian staff last month for allegedly taking bribes from locals to forge visa applications to Britain, although the embassy denies that this was the reason. And according to local press reports, when the national airline, MIAT, announces a cut-price flight, staff buy up the tickets and sell them at a profit.

Yet 40 per cent of the population is still nomadic or semi-nomadic, living in circular gers made from sheep felt. It is this lifestyle that enables Mongolia to retain its sense of mystery in the eyes of the outside world. That, and of course the lure of the most famous nomad of them all, Genghis Khan.