In the steppes of Europeans

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 June, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 June, 1998, 12:00am

A MORE beautiful setting would be hard to imagine.

The presidential guesthouse in the Mongolian capital sits at the base of gentle foothills leading to the central Asian steppe while, to the north, the horizon is dominated by the mountains that circle Ulan Bator.

Its buildings, toy-like from a distance, look as if they have just been dropped on the steppe and could be removed at any moment, restoring the land to its pristine grandeur.

The two-storey guesthouse is an attractive, pale yellow building put up by the Soviets in the 1950s. Further up in the foothills is the president's house; before it the orchestra of the national opera plays Mozart and Brahms, while on the lawn guests sip vodka and Coca-Cola and munch meat dumplings and salad.

The occasion is a reception to welcome 500 delegates to a conference aimed at enticing foreigners to invest.

In the eight years since the country slipped the bonds of communism, it has attracted just US$200 million (HK$1.54 billion) and badly needs more.

Our host is Prime Minister Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj, a short man with glasses and a round face, dressed in a cream business suit. Along with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Kiriyenko, the 35-year-old Mr Elbegdorj is one of the world's youngest premiers. He has been in office just two months.

He trained as a journalist at a Soviet military academy in the Ukraine, where he tried to publish an independent newspaper. It was banned, at which point he started to get un-Socialist ideas like the need for political and economic independence.

Like many of the Mongolians at the reception, he spoke Russian and some English. So could the elegant woman I found myself next to, Madame Hulan, a director of a tour company that plans to build a ski and skating resort to attract visitors during the long, bleak winter.

She went to secondary school in Czechoslovakia and university in Russia. 'I was well treated, I made many friends that I write to even today, 10 years later,' she says.

I remark on the fine quality of the music and ask if we are in Europe or Asia. 'Europe,' she replies without hesitation. 'We are like Europeans in the way we talk and act. Asians talk in a roundabout way.

'No,' she stresses, 'do not get confused, we are Europeans.'