Sat, Jul 17, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Ulan Bator pins hopes on trans-Mongolian highway

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICENALAIKH , MONGOLIA

Road crews work at Hentiy Aimak, about 150km east of Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia, on June 1. A 50km stretch of highway is under contruction where horses and sheep once grazed. Canada has the Trans-Canada Highway, Brazil has the Trans-Amazon, Germany has the Autobahn and Russia now has the Trans-Russian. This summer, from westernnmost Tsaganuur to Halhyn Gol in the east, road crews are working to add another to the list: the Mongolian Millennium Highway.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

Canada has the Trans-Canada Highway. Brazil has the Trans-Amazon. Germany has the Auto bahn, and Russia now has the Trans-Russian. This summer, from westernmost Tsaganuur to Halhyn Gol in the east, road crews are working to add another to the list, the Mongolian Millennium Highway.

Long written off as a buffer state between China and Russia, Mongolia, twice the size of Texas but with 13 percent of the population, is embarking on a classic exercise in modern nation building.

"What I understand from reading books and surfing the Internet is that developed countries, like Canada and the United States, greatly spread development through roads," said Manduul Baasankhuu, policy director of Mongolia's Road, Transport and Tourism Department.

Unrolling a glossy map in his office in Ulan Bator, the capital, he traced a finger over a pink line, the east-west route that is to bind this nation together by the end of the decade.

The road is to start in the baking plains of the east, home to thundering herds of Mongolian gazelles. Skirting the Gobi desert landscapes of the new documentary, The Story of the Weeping Camel, the two-lane asphalt runs west over the steppe to snow-capped mountains, home to the famed Kazakh eagle hunters on the Russian border.

"Mongolians say that someone who lifts a stone from a road collects good karma," said Enkhbaatar Dorjkhuu, 40, an engineer working on the road, which will bind together a far-flung population that largely follows Tibetan Buddhism.

Pausing a few miles east of here, he said: "We are doing virtues here. A road is like an artery for human beings. This road we're building will play an important role in transportation, tourism, advancement of our economy."

After four years, one-quarter of its planned 2655km length is paved. But with American and European tourists flocking here this summer, tour operators already are plotting the Mongolian summer road trip, circa 2010.

"It will open up new destinations and decrease the amount of time for people to get to faraway destinations," said Lee Cashell, an American businessman in Ulan Bator, who in the last six months has bought a guest house, opened a resort and started a restaurant, the UB Deli.

Oddly, in the steppe, one lone strip of asphalt can help the environment.

"People already drive across Mongolia," said Darius Teeter, deputy representative here for the Asian Development Bank. "But you can have a valley with 14 parallel dirt tracks, each one becoming rutted in the mud. After the paved road comes through, you can see the dirt tracks start to disappear under the grass."

Mongolia's political opposition says the project is called the Millennium Road because it will take 1,000 years to finish. But it remains highly popular with the public. In opinion polls it trails only the decision to cancel 98 percent of the country's Soviet-era debt.

The project does have its critics, particularly in Ulan Bator, where as many as half of the nation's 2.5 million people now live. In a modern office building there, where air conditioners muffled the din of cars on traffic-choked streets, Chultem Munkhtsetseg spoke for many urbanites when she dismissed the highway as a road linking "nowhere to nowhere."

"Instead of paving roads in deserted places, they should pave streets [in Ulan Bator], where half of the population lives," said Munkhtsetseg, who works for a foreign foundation. "Instead of building roads across the country, it is much better economically for Mongolia to build roads in the cities."

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