Today, former Durango High School student Lucas Beard, son of Kim Eisner and Dana Beard, will move to Mongolia on a coveted yearlong Fulbright scholarship to study Chinese immigrants working in mines.
Its kind of a Wild West thing, said Beard, who graduated from George Washington University with honors in 2010.
The flight alone will take more than 30 hours.
Beard, who has spent his last few years working as an Asia expert in New York City and Washington for Kroll, a corporate investigation firm, knows no one there statistically understandable, as Mongolia is Earths most sparsely populated country.
Its capital, Ulaanbaatar, is the coldest capital city on the planet, with an average temperature of 32 degrees.
Ive spent a lot of time buying warm clothes, he said.
Beards childhood friend and fellow DHS graduate, Luke Wheeler, said, a lot of people are flabbergasted that hes going to Mongolia. Hes always been an adventurous spirit who would just dive into something if he had an inkling it would be interesting to him. Then again, hes going from Manhattan to Ulaanbaatar I dont see how you can get more different.
Many Americans probably know little about Mongolia, except, perhaps, that in 1206, it was founded by Genghis Kahn, whom scientists suspect was the most prolific impregnator of women in history, with studies estimating that the brutal ruler has 16 million male descendents living today.
Along with South Korea, Japan and India, Mongolia is one of the only legitimate democracies in Asia. Though about 40 percent of its population lives below the poverty line 20 percent on less than $1.25 per day its one of the worlds fastest-growing economies, reporting a 17 percent growth rate in 2011 because of foreign investment and its vast natural resources, leading some to dub the country Minegolia.
Outside Ulaanbaatar, theres almost no transportation, few roads and spotty electricity. Yet Beard hopes to live in Tsetserleg, which is 360 miles southwest of Ulaanbaatar, has a population of fewer than 17,000 and a subarctic climate.
Survival on the steppe
One benefit of going to a small country is being more than a number. When he went to the Mongolian mission in New York City to get his visa, he was greeted with Mr. Beard, weve been expecting you. In a phone interview, Molor Amar, consulate officer, immediately remembered Beard.
Amar, an Ulaanbataarer, arched a jovial eyebrow at Beards plan to live in Tsetserleg.
Is he a survival expert? ... Outside the city, when we say middle of nowhere, it means middle of nowhere, Amar said.
Beard, who speaks softly and precisely, is fluent in Mandarin and has extensive experience traveling in Asia. While in high school, he spent a year in Taiwan, learning Chinese, as part of the Rotary Club Youth Exchange Program.
In college, he spent every summer in Beijing, including in 2008, when he worked as a tourist guide, leading Olympian families many related to members of womens water polo teams around the city.
Though he doesnt speak Mongolian, or read Cyrillic, Beards flinty curiosity was evident discussing Mongolias lack of public transport.
I think Ill buy a car but youve got to assume the cars will be older quality, he said. So Ive been trying to figure out if I can fix an old Russian Jeep by practicing at this garage that belongs to family friends theyre mechanics.
Also, Id love to live in a yurt supposedly you can get one for $300, but theres very limited information on yurt sales, he said.
When hearing of this plan, Amar was merrily aghast.
He doesnt want to live there. Its basically a round room, and you have to go to another place to use the restroom and shower. Im sure he wont like it, he said.
Mongolia experts agree Beards research topic Chinese immigrants working in Mongolian mines is huge.
Speaking by phone from Singapore, Edward Elkin, a metals project financier employed by the Asian branch of a prominent U.S. investment bank who is not empowered to speak officially, described thousands of Chinese workers immigrating to Mongolia, both legally and illegally, to work in mines and on construction sites, often confined to camps.
Mongolians tend to be very inhospitable toward Chinese migrant workers because of the perception that theyre taking jobs, but also, theres a shortage of skilled labor. Its a bit like in the USA. People are rude about Mexicans, but you try and get a WASPy American to clean the loo, and its not going to happen, he said.
Elkin cited a recent incident widely repeated among Ulaanbaatars English-speaking expatriates, in which a Mongolian crowd allegedly beat up a member of the Indian consulate, believing him to be racially Chinese.
Julian Pearson, deputy British ambassador to Mongolia, said in a phone interview from Ulaanbaatar, Im confident there was an assault; the motivation, I wouldnt have said. Pearson declined to discuss racial animosity toward the Chinese, the legacy of Chinese imperialism and the effects of mining on Mongolian society, citing these issues intractable complexity.
But obviously, its great news this guy got a scholarship, he said.
Beard said he thought his parents and older brother were excited for him.
My mom knows that Ill handle it, he said.