Byline: Scott Malone

NEW YORK — It might come as a bit of a surprise that the fashion world, which is generally preoccupied with the carryings-on of the Western world, would be terribly interested in the frigid steppes of a landlocked country in Asia on the Russo-Sino border.
Yet Mongolia has a certain hold on the industry’s imagination.
Over the past few years, designers as varied as Oscar de la Renta, Mary McFadden and even the folks at Lands’ End have tried to capture a little bit of the thousands of years of history and culture behind that nation and its people.
This spring and summer, New Yorkers will get a chance to take a closer look at the appeal of Mongolian life and art at the Festival of Mongolia, a series of events and exhibits being promoted by that nation’s mission in Manhattan.
In a recent interview at the Mongolian embassy, ambassador Enkhsaikhan Jargalsaikhany explained that he decided to support this project because he felt Americans know very little about Mongolia’s traditional nomadic culture.
“There are some civilizations and forms of culture that are not very well known, and one of them is this nomadic way of life,” Jargalsaikhany said. “The nomadic way of life was that you lived in harmony with nature. We don’t burn up the woods because you need the woods and the grasslands, because you go back again and again.”
The centerpiece of the festival is to be a “naadam,” an event that will feature Mongolia’s traditional sports — wrestling and archery — and a musical performance by the Mongolian State Folk Song & Dance Ensemble, to be held in Central Park from May 19 to 21. There will also be an exhibit of Mongolian “gers,” which are portable felt tents that are the traditional dwellings of Mongolia’s nomadic people.
The festival is the brainchild of Aziz Rahman, an architectural photographer who said he’s been interested in Mongolia since his childhood, which he spent in his home country of India.
While museums show artifacts, Rahman wanted to create a live presentation of the sports and music that represent a major part of Mongolian life and culture today.
“One of the great things is that these traditions have survived and still have the status they had in the old days,” he said.
Mongolian wrestling, one of the most popular sports in the country for more than 1,000 years, is similar in form to Sumo wrestling in Japan in that it relies on foot sweeps and throws and ends when one of the competitors is knocked to the ground, Rahman said. But the competitors — while by no means waif-like — aren’t of the gigantic proportions of most Sumos.
As part of the festival, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will unveil an exhibit on April 26 called, “Riding Across Central Asia: Images of the Mongolian Horse in Islamic Art.”
The horse is a powerful symbol in Mongolia and its surrounding areas, since it was the speed of Mongol horses and the skill of its mounted warriors that allowed Genghis Khan — a ruler lovingly remembered as the tolerant Chingiz Khan by Mongolians — to expand his empire from Beijing to the Caspian Sea in the 12th century.
While the primary image of Khan in the Western mind is that of a warrior heading a charge of bloodthirsty horsemen, Mongolians remember him as a fair and tolerant leader, and a unifier of diverse groups. Jargalsaikhany is quick to point out that Khan tolerated multiple religions among his people.
For a look at Mongolia’s modern environment, the Central Park Wildlife Center, operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society, will be exhibiting a selection of 45 photos by renowned naturalist George Schaller.
Across Central Park, the American Museum of Natural History will unveil a number of Mongolian-theme exhibits. The Gobi desert, which occupies the southern third of Mongolia, has been a paleontologists’ heaven for more than a century. Fossils of almost one-fifth of the dinosaur species known today were found there.
On May 19, the museum is to unveil “Fighting Dinosaurs: New Discoveries from Mongolia.” The highlight of the exhibit is a dramatic fossil — never before seen in North America — which features the bones of an aggressive velociraptor and aplant-eating protoceratops, which are believed to have died in combat in Gobi.
The museum will also stage an exhibit of color photographs on modern Mongolian life by Robert Peck and black and white images of a 1920s fossil-hunting expedition by Roy Chapman Andrews. That exhibit is to open May 6.
While the festival focuses on the long tradition of nomadic culture in Mongolia, that lifestyle is far from a relic in Mongolia, Jargalsaikhany noted. Today, close to half the country’s 2.5 million residents migrate with their herds of goats, sheep and horses. Mongolia’s nomadic culture and harsh environment prompted the country to become a pioneer in conservation, he noted. As early as the 13th century, its citizens started to realize that having a growing population in a minimally arable country meant that people would have to consider the effect of their actions on nature.
By the 17th century, Mongolian law had set aside portions of the country for grazing — protecting those areas from hunting, logging and farming.
Today, 13 percent of Mongolia’s surface area is covered by those protections, Jargalsaikhany said, and the country aims to build its protected areas to one-third of Mongolia’s total territory.
That would set aside 200,000 square miles of land where there could be no mining, no non-sustainable logging and no excessive use of water, he said.
The measures may seem dramatic, but Jargalsaikhany sees them as the only way its culture can continue, adding, “We have to have a sustainable way of life.”

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