It's been 20 years since I've been in Mongolia, the large country of high desert plains sandwiched between China and Russia, and much has changed. Some, education and food supply, is for the better, and a lot - including urban sprawl and rising inequality - is for the worse. Much of the change has to do with globalization.
In 1992 Mongolia had just been liberated from communism. The Soviet system provided social services, but eviscerated the traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture and left little room for democratic participation.
At that time democracy was in the air. A dean at the National University of Mongolia asked how American professors elected the presidents of its universities, since they would like to copy the model. Sadly, I had to tell him that US university administrators were appointed, not elected, and he seemed surprised.
Downtown Ulaan Baatar was quiet and staid then. The rows of faceless stolid buildings had a certain socialist institutional charm. The main hotel was a grand affair in Soviet style meant to host visiting dignitaries from Moscow, but a modern hotel was under construction several blocks away. Change was on the way.
Twenty years later, I stayed in that once-new hotel, the Chinggis Khaan, named for the great leader of the vast 13th century Mongol Empire, but it was already looking a bit seedy, its elegance fading. Even the statue of the great Khaan looked a bit worn.
Much can be said of the rest of the city. It's now swelled to twice its size in 1992. Almost a million and a half people live in the crowded valley, and Ulaan Baatar embraces almost half of Mongolia's total population.
Most seem to have cars. The roads are packed, the honking, pushing vehicles edging over streets that appear not to have been maintained since socialist days. Shops have been constructed in front of the Soviet-style apartment buildings, their gaudy signs advertising everything from food marts to massage parlors.
Quite frankly, the city is a mess. The urban sprawl has taken up the surrounding valleys with huge encampments of low-waged workers living in traditional gers, or yurts, with no amenities. The combination of exhaust fumes from the vehicles, woodstoves and billowing smoke of three enormous coal-burning power plants has created among the worst smog in the world.
Mongolia's recent changes are due, in part, to rapid economic development and demographic shifts that affect societies in transition at any time in history. But they're also due to a more recent phenomenon, accelerated globalization.
On the plus side, globalization has raised the living standard of most urban, educated professionals who now live in high-rise apartments with plasma-screen televisions rather than sleeping in the dark in crowded, canvas-draped gers. Cell phones are everywhere. Even in the Gobi desert I saw goat herders and camel drivers chatting away, attempting to round up lost goats, which I regard as a great use of modern technology. College students are addicted to Facebook and Twitter.
A kind of Mongolian pop music combines a modern beat with traditional sounds, along with Justin Bieber. American DVDs are everywhere, and basketball is a national obsession. One sporting goods shop is named for Michael Jordan.
The quality of food has improved enormously. In the early 1990s, offerings were limited to various kinds of meat, usually overcooked mutton - a nightmare for an American vegetarian. The city now has four vegan restaurants, frequented by health-conscious young Mongolians. Vegetables are easily available, although they - like most everything else - are imported from China.