Tavan Tolgoi is an enormous open cast mine. Six billion tonnes of easily accessible coal, in Ömnögovi, the southernmost province in Mongolia. The government has decided to privatise thirty percent of the mining company operating there. Only ten percent of this is being offered to foreign buyers, but giants such as the Chinese Shenhua Energy, a Russian consortium headed by Gazprom and the Australian BHP Billiton are nevertheless interested.
The Chinese border is just 200 kilometres from the mine. All the ingredients exist for making it another 'pearl' in the famous necklace of the Celestial Empire's commercial expansion and, at the same time, for putting some fuel into the engine that drives its industry: investment flowing into Ulan Bator and coal flowing towards Beijing. But this is not to be. The Mongolian parliament has approved a joint railway project with Deutsche Bahn AG for a line from Tavan Tolgoi going 1,100 kilometres north (towards Russia) rather than 200 kilometres south (towards China). Are the Russians paying more? Absolutely not. Other economic reasons? There are some: transport minister Battulga Khaltmaa told EurasiaNet.org that routing the railway through half of Mongolia would add value to local resources.
But the reasons why the rails aren't going to be pointing south are mainly political. Mongolia does not want to be dependent on China. It does not want to become a Chinese subsidiary, with its only attraction being its natural resources. Beijing's criticisms of the Dalai Lama's 2002 visit to Mongolia – a country where the vast majority of people are Lamaists – is just one of the latest episodes in a historical and cultural conflict lasting at least a thousand years.
With the descendants of Genghis khan, the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). The last Chinese dynasty (even though it was Manchu), the Qing Dynasty, returned the favour by ruling Mongolia for about 200 years, right up to its dissolution in 1911. One of the consequences of this historical to-ing and fro-ing is that, still now, the majority of Mongolians live in China, in the 'autonomous' region of Inner Mongolia (about 5 million people), known as "Occupied Mongolia" to glorifiers of the old nomadic empire.
Water under the bridge? Absolutely not. A few years ago, there was a song on everybody's lips in Ulan Bator that went: "Call for the Chinese, call for them, call for them, call for them. And shoot them all, all, all". It was called "Don't cross the limits, Chinese" (Buu Davar Hujiaa Naraa), by rappers 4 Zug. A recent Guardian report told the world about the existence of "White Swastika" (Tsagaan Khass), a surprising Mongolian neo-Nazi organisation with its neighbours on the other side of the Great Wall in its sights.
One of the most popular TV series in the country, called "The Choice" (not by chance), is about a Mongolian girl who has to decide whether to marry a rich Chinese man – old, ugly and bald – to get the money needed to cure her dying mother. The man perfectly represents his country's image in the eyes of the locals and the “choice” of the girl symbolises, in all ways, that of Mongolia.
What lies at the roots of this sinophobia is a fear held by a people of less than three million of the demographic pressure and economic penetration of their one billion three hundred million – now rich – neighbours.
Yet another background factor is the almost genetic difference between the most sedentary people in the world, the Chinese, and the most nomadic, the Mongols.
And so, Russia, and above all Korea – where they want to send some of the Tavan Tolgoi coal to – become the natural alternatives. The immense, sparsely populated, Russian Siberia is less frightening than China. Also, Moscow is four thousand kilometres away, whereas Beijing is less than a thousand. Up to the 1920s, Russia was the protector of Mongolia, and also had a share in its railways. Moreover, the Kremlin and Sukhbaatar Square share the same worries about Chinese economic expansion in southern Asia.
Korea has a cult following in Mongolia, where it known romantically as “Solongos” (rainbow), and there is also a certain ethnic link between the two peoples. When they're not watching "The Choice", Mongolian viewers normally watch Korean TV series.
And so, anything but China. Apart from the fact that, in the end, the railway is being built by none other than the Chinese, experts in rapid, economical, prêt-à-porter solutions. Mongolian coal, destination Russia or Korea, Chinese transport.