Archeological digs have uncovered human remains in the Gobi and other regions of Mongolia dating back nearly 500,000 years. Despite Mongolia's short summers, wheat growing has co-existed for thousands of years with nomadic herding, which the Mongols took up after they tamed horses, yaks and camels.

The name 'Mongol' was first recorded by the Chinese during the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD). At that time Mongolia was dominated by a Turkic people called the Uighurs. The Uighurs were influenced by Christianity and, after taking control of Mongolia, went on to save the ailing Tang rulers of China from an internal revolt. The Uighurs controlled most of Mongolia until 840 AD, when they were defeated by the Kyrgyz, who now live in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The Mongols had little inclination to ally with other nomadic peoples of northern Asia. They remained little more than a loose confederation of rival clans until the late 12th century, when a 20 year old Mongol named Temujin emerged and managed to unite most of the Mongol tribes. In 1189 he was given the honorary name of Genghis Khan, meaning 'universal king'. The Genghis Khan imprinted in the memory of the west bears little relation to the Chinggis Khaan revered by Mongolians. Not only is the spelling different: to Europeans, the name epitomizes mercilessness and warmongering; to the Mongolians, it embodies strength, unity, law and order. Genghis set up his capital in present-day Kharkhorin, and launched his important cavalry - built on Mongolia's prized takhi horses - against China and Russia. By the time of his death in 1227, the Mongol empire extended from Beijing to the Caspian Sea.

Genghis' grandson, Kublai Khan (circa 1216-94), completed the subjugation of China, ending the Song dynasty (960-1279) and becoming emperor of China's Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Kublai soon realised, though, that the Mongol empire had reached the limits of its expansion. Instead of looking for more wars to fight, he concentrated on keeping the vast empire together. This was the height of the Mongols' glory: the empire stretched from Korea to Hungary and as far south as Vietnam, making it the largest empire the world has ever known.

After Kublai Khan's death in 1294, the Mongols became increasingly dependent on the people they ruled. They were deeply resented as an elite, privileged class exempt from taxation, and the empire became ridden with factions vying for power. The Mongols were expelled from Beijing by the first emperor of the Ming dynasty in the mid 14th century. The collapse of the Yuan dynasty caused over 60,000 Mongols to return to Mongolia. Their unity dissolved and frequent clan warfare and a long period of decline followed.

Manchu rule over China was reasonably benign until around 1800; thereafter the Qing emperors became increasingly corrupt and despotic. In 1911 China's Qing dynasty crumbled. The Mongols quickly saw their opportunity and independence from China was declared on 1 December 1911, with a theocratic government under the leadership of the 8th Jebtzun Damba (Living Buddha). On 25 May 1915, the Treaty of Kyakhta, which granted Mongolia limited autonomy, was signed by Mongolia, China and Russia.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 shocked Mongolia's aristocracy. Taking advantage of Russia's weakness, a Chinese warlord sent his troops into Mongolia in 1919 and occupied the capital. In early 1921, retreating White Russian anticommunist troops entered Mongolia and expelled the Chinese. The brutality of both the Chinese and Russian forces inflamed the Mongolians' desire for independence. As the Russian Bolsheviks were steadily advancing against the White Russian forces in Siberia, Mongolian nationalists asked the Bolsheviks for help. Together they recaptured Ulaan Baatar in July 1921. The country's Buddhist leader was retained as a figurehead and the newly formed Mongolian People's Party (the first political party in the country's history, and the only one for the next 69 years) took over the government. On 26 November 1924, the Mongolian People's Republic (MPR) was declared and Mongolia became the world's second communist country.

Mongolian communism remained fairly independent of Moscow until Stalin gained absolute power in the late 1920s. The Stalinist purges that followed swept Mongolia into a totalitarian nightmare, with the government's campaign against religion being particularly ruthless. In 1937 a reign of terror was launched against the monasteries in which thousands of monks were executed. It's believed that by 1939 some 27,000 people had been executed, three per cent of Mongolia's population at the time.

As the Soviet regime faltered in the early 1980s, Mongolia came under the leadership of Jambyn Batmonkh, a decentraliser heartened by the Soviet reforms under Mikhail Gorbachev. Batmonkh instigated a cautious attempt at perestroika and glasnost in 1986. By 1989 full diplomatic relations were established with China. The unravelling of the Soviet Union resulted in decolonisation by default. Few in Mongolia were ready for the speed of the collapse or prepared to seize the moment.

In March 1990, large pro-democracy protests erupted in the square in front of the parliament building in Ulaan Baatar and hunger strikes were held. Things then happened quickly: Batmonkh lost power; new political parties sprang up; and hunger strikes and protests continued. In May the government amended the constitution to permit multiparty elections but, ironically, rural areas voted overwhelmingly to stay under the protective shelter of the communist party. The communist party were forced into making concessions that snowballed into the election of the Mongolian Democratic Coalition on 30 June 1996, ending 75 years of unbroken communist rule.

Over the next few years, successive Mongolian governments pursued western-style policies of reform and privatisation and courted foreign investment but by 1998 poverty was still on the rise. Foreign aid relieved some of the economic burden but Mongolia is still struggling with the fiscal implications of its new-found freedom. Mongolia joined the World Trade Organization in 1997 but even this was not enough to avoid wide-scale poverty and famine. A couple of particularly harsh winters impacted badly on the nomadic Mongolian way of life and brought the country to its knees.

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  Information provided by the Ministry of Tourism. Government of Mongolia.


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