Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Owen Lattimore Conference

The ACMS, International Association for Mongol Studies, and the National University of Mongolia are organizing a conference on August 20th and 21st with the theme/title of "Owen Lattimore: the Past, Present, and Future of Inner Asian Studies." The conference is intended to be partly academic and partly an opportunity for Mongolian government officials, diplomats, and private citizens to reminisce on Mongolian foreign relations during the 20th century from the perspective of Owen Lattimore and his legacy. Many of the Mongolians who interacted with Owen Lattimore on a personal or professional level are slowly disappearing, and this conference will provide an opportunity to record an oral history of some of the smaller and not widely known events that occurred during the early years of the Socialist Revolution, the Cold War, and the post-1990 democratic transition.

The conference will be free and open to the public, and it will include two special film presentations of documentaries made in 1974-75 by a British film team and Owen Lattimore as commentator on life in Socialist Mongolia. These films were the first foreign documentaries sanctioned by the Mongolian government during the Socialist Era. These presentations will be offered as part of the ACMS's ongoing film series seminar program, which examines cinema related to Mongolia and Inner Asia and offers participants an opportunity to delve deeper into the films via guided discussions and activities. More information about this program is on the ACMS website at the Film Series Seminars page.

The ACMS library is also organizing an exhibit of Owen Lattimore's works which will be on display near the conference venue. The library has collected most of Owen Lattimore's written works for inclusion in the ACMS library, and it is currently working to acquire photographs as well. More information about the ACMS Library is at

The tentative conference schedule and description is now online at the Conference Schedule page. An updated schedule will be available in mid-July, and ACMS members will receive periodic updates about the schedule and events leading up to the conference dates. To become an ACMS member visit the Become a Member page on the ACMS website.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Rivers Have Water

The drought like conditions in Ulaanbaatar are over for the time being. It has been raining for 4 or 5 days now, and the soil is supersaturated with water. The hills are starting to look like they may actually turn green this summer, and the smaller rivers through town are flowing once again. I have even heard from a person who passed through Khentii over the weekend that it is now turning green there as well.

When the ACMS hosted a faculty development tour two weeks ago, the group stayed in a hotel near the Sky Center. Several times I was asked whether the river next to the Sky Center, also known as the Selbe River (Сэлбэ Гол), ever had water in it. The river had been completely dry for about a month, so my response to this question with a yes generally met with somewhat incredulous looks. The photo to the left shows for the record that the Selbe does in fact have water run through it occasionally. This is a day after the peak period of rain, so it is not nearly as full as it was the day before.

Monday, June 23, 2008

ACMS Language Program

The ACMS kicked off its first ever Mongolian language program yesterday. Over the next 7.5 weeks four students will take a semi-intensive intermediate course in colloquial Mongolian. Each student received a fellowship ranging in size of $1,000-$3,000 plus waived tuition to participate in the program, which is part of a much larger ACMS initiative to improve Mongolian language training and to provide (eventually) accredited immersion courses for universities students.

Concurrent with the classes over the summer is a project to put the materials developed for the program up on a dedicated publicly accessible website. The ACMS has adopted an open courseware approach to the program in order to ensure that the materials reach their widest potential audience. More information about this aspect of the project will most likely be available in the fall.

Overall the program has a strong emphasis on the intermediate to advanced levels of training. The ACMS, as well as numerous Mongolian learners, has noticed that the largest proportion of materials available for learning Mongolian focus on the novice to beginner levels. In addition, there is a tendency in books that do focus on higher levels to miss numerous spoken forms of the language that do not necessarily find their way into the written form but are nonetheless extremely relevant in many contexts of conservation. Students who study Mongolian exclusively from the print materials available on the market often find themselves unprepared to effectively communicate when an opportunity finally arises to visit Mongolia. This program is intended to develop well rounded language users.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ulaanbaatar: This Weekend Seattle with Soviet Architecture

It has been raining in Ulaabaatar all weekend, and the streets are beginning to show signs of flooding. It's nothing bad at this point, but the city has taken on a what-if-Seattle-were-a-Soviet-city sort of feel. For those of you unfamiliar with Seattle weather or the Soviet Union, what I am implying is it's dreary upon a backdrop of soulless architecture. But, it is dreary and soulless in a polished sense. Usually Ulaanbaatar projects a drab hue of industrial blackish yellow and concrete gray. It is not pleasant on the eyes. Wash it for several days, as has occurred this weekend, and it takes on a glossy industrial blackish yellow and glossy concrete gray like a wet stone. It looks like a Soviet Seattle. Dreary, yet glossy, and, honestly, still not all that pleasant on the eyes.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Facutly Development Seminar

The ACMS recently hosted a faculty development seminar under the auspices of the Council for International Education and Exchange (CIEE) which included a 4 day excursion to Khentii Aimag. The title of the program was "Mongolia: Empire and Democracy," and the group participated in a series of lectures and field trips to understand Mongolia in historical and contemporary contexts and how they are inextricably linked in many facets of modern Mongolian society.

In order to provide some of the historical perspective, the group did a pilgrimage of sorts through the myth and fact surrounding Temujiin (Chinggis Khaan) and his iconographic manifestations in popular culture. The group went to Khentii in order to visit some of the more important sites identified in the Mongolian Secret History, including the location Borte was kidnapped by the Merkid, Temujiin became Chinggis Khaan, and Temujiin was born (listed in order of visiting-not chronologically). It was truly amazing to stand at some of the sites and contemplate that from such remote and unassuming places the world's largest land empire was born. The ACMS produced a map of the trip using Google Maps API which is available at for those interested in learning more about the sites.

The map provides a good sense of the distances involved in experiencing just one part of the secret history. The group traveled over 800 miles in four days over jeep trail and open steppe. Again, this brought home the extraordinary moment in history the Mongol Empire represented. Travel is difficult enough today with Russian vans designed for off-road travel. Imagine what it was like in the 13th century with ox carts and horses. The vast distances the Mongols covered while at the same time conquering along the way is the pinnacle of human ingenuity, strength, and endurance that is difficult to fully appreciate until one has spent several days trying to travel through only a minute portion of what would eventually be the Great Mongol Empire.

Monday, June 16, 2008

School Year in Mongolia Comes to an End

The school year in Mongolia has finally come to an end. Most students have packed up and moved back home for the summer, and the corridors in the National University of Mongolia are empty and quiet. The ACMS is also quieting down as less and less students from the National University of Mongolia use the reading room to prepare term papers and study for exams. Yet, the number of international scholars visiting the center is on the rise. Summer, after all, is the peak season for international scholars to make excursions into the field. So, although there are fewer Mongolian students to serve, the ACMS staff will remain busy throughout the summer serving the influx of academic adventurers from abroad.

That is not necessarily so for other places on campus and around Ulaanbaatar. It's a good idea to remember that most institutions and the individuals that constitute them take every opportunity to enjoy the warm sun of summer. It is difficult to make appointments during this time of year, so be sure to plan accordingly if you are intending to do work in Mongolia during the summer.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Summer Hours

The Ulaanbaatar office will be closed July 10th to 21st for the Naadam holiday. The office will reopen on the 21st at 9am. Have a wonderful time enjoying the three manly sports.

Khentii Province

The last week of May there was a terrible sand and snow storm in Khentii Province which killed dozens of people and thousands of livestock. Two days ago I returned from a faculty development tour through Khentii in which our group visited some of the more important sites in the life of Temujiin/Chinggis Khaan and the founding of the Great Mongol State. What we found to our surprise was an ecological disaster. Most of the areas we visited looked more like the Gobi than northern Mongolia, a thought driven home by our visit to Khangal Nuur. This is a lake large lake, or at least it was a large lake, running along a narrow valley in the hills. It was completely dry. The picture shows the extent of the disaster. Check out the lake from a satellite image during a good year:
View Larger Map

It has been a relatively dry spring in the area around Ulaanbaatar and Khentii this year. I have heard from two sources, however, that the central part of Mongolia around Arkhangai province are much greener this year than the last few years. In fact, the area has been described as "normal." Traveling around Mongolia one quickly gets the sense how fragile the ecosystem is, and yet one also sees how quickly it can recover given the right conditions.