An American judge travels to Mongolia to plant the seeds of democracy.
It’s likely I’ll never forget seeing that group of Mongolian horsemen swiftly trotting their ponies across the hardpan graveled steppes of the Gobi Desert, silhouetted by the dawn’s early light. Had I been there 800 years before, they likely would have been a force of Genghis Khan’s warriors leaving their gers (the nomads’ round white felt tents) and traveling west to conquer the world. It’s easy to imagine these modern hunters of the plains to be such warriors, for the landscape and civilization have changed little since Khan’s Mongols swept south and westward out of the Gobi.
The people that Khan united into a single identifiable tribe ruled most of the known world in the 13th and 14th centuries. After 200-plus years of glory, the Mongols lost it all, then lived 220 years in servitude under Manchu-Chinese rule, followed by 70 years under Soviet-style socialism. Now they’re building a democratic state.
Today, Mongolia is reorganizing its government, creating a functional marketplace economy in lieu of one centrally planned and reforming its Soviet-style court system — tasks as difficult as conquering the world once was. In order to begin such reforms, foreign judges, professors and business experts were invited to help organize Mongolia’s march to the future. That’s how I ended up in Mongolia in 2000 and Omnogovi Aimag (South Gobi province) in 2004 as a guest of the Supreme Court of Mongolia.
With the innocence of the ignorant, I had expected to see boundless grassy plains alive with descendants of those fabled warriors trailing their herds. But all I saw from my airplane seat while we descended into the capital of Ulaanbaatar was a desolate, parched wasteland of bone-dry, white-rimmed water holes, along with a few visible trails randomly crossing the land.
The valley in which the city lay was bisected by the greenish-brown river Tuul, alongside which ran pairs of railroad tracks. Two dirty-gray power plants sat along the riverbank, their tall chimneys belching smoke high into the air as small, scattered herds of cattle, sheep and horses torpidly wandered nearby.
Around the city were thousands of gers, but these homes were nestled so near to each other in rows and enclosed by fences, they seemed to be permanently fixed to the land. I was disappointed. What were the once mobile people of a mighty warrior culture, the finest light horse cavalry the world has ever known, doing living like this? And where were the nomads and their herds of animals? Overall, the scene looked like a drab black-and-white photograph from the communist-era, concrete-block culture of the 1940s and ’50s.
Despite the desolation, I was excited to be there: to learn about Mongolia’s history, culture and newly developing democracy. My role would be to help Mongolia reform her judicial system and help judges gain more judicial independence under Mongolian rule of law, an essential pillar supporting democracy.
Looking back after 10 years, I can say that my trips to Mongolia have given me a lifetime of experiences and strong friendships with some of the most gregarious, warmhearted people in the world. The experiences I shared there as well as in Texas have taught me that we are kindred spirits in our outlooks and expectations that the new democratic system will improve the quality of life for Mongolia’s citizens. And, I discovered the abundant natural beauty that is Mongolia when I walked on the land among the nomads of the Gobi.
My travels in Mongolia have been an exciting roller-coaster ride of mapping out new pathways in democracy’s wilderness amid bewildering choices on how to govern a country. In Mongolia, I learned that the country’s real wilderness is not in the topography or nature of the land; it is philosophical and cultural. Mongolia’s leaders are faced with the harsh reality of how to implement the democracy they freely chose, but with no historical basis to know how it is supposed to work. As rulers of 75 percent of the world during the 13th and 14th centuries, they lost those kingdoms. And, sadly, it is true in mankind’s experience that though a people may rule the world at a given point, there is no assurance that their descendants will even have a home.