chapter  2
Ulaanbaatar, fieldwork and identity
Pages 21

Ulaanbaatar occupies a distinct yet ambivalent position in Mongolia. It is the capital, and the social, intellectual and economic heart of the country. Few who live there would give up the opportunities it offers. Yet Ulaanbaatar is often ignored or downplayed in Western accounts (see, for example, Croner (1999) and Severin (1991); but see Lawless (2000) for a partial exception). Most Westerners who visit Mongolia seem anxious to get out to the countryside, to see the “real” Mongolia of nomads and open spaces. Even Mongols often view the “true” Mongol as the one out on the steppe, rather than living in an apartment in the city. One urban intellectual rather shamefacedly admitted to me in 1993 that she did not know how to ride a horse, as if that somehow cast doubt on her identity as a Mongol. (In much the same vein, four years later, I was jokingly told I couldn’t be a real scholar of Mongolia since I could not ride a horse. This is a deficiency I have since rectified, albeit imperfectly.) Many Mongols, like many Westerners, seem to maintain an uneasy truce with Ulaanbaatar.