The 10th International Congress of Mongolists met Aug 9-13 2011 in Ulaanbaatar and I was privileged to have been invited to attend and was able to do so with some help from the Canadian Dept of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.
The fact that I had been invited to participate makes me feel like a bona-fide Mongolist, even though the ride from the airport made it blatantly clear that my Mongolian has deteriorated from the simple conversational level that it had previously achieved. At least, I still seem to be understanding enough snippets of sentences.
First two things to notice about the Congress: a) how international it is, and b) best conference swag ever.
International Mongolian Studies
The conference is somewhat dominated by academic and cultural links to Russia. The organizers very usefully provided a facebook (including a photograph) of participants, and the Russian section was by far the largest.
Many of the affiliations listed there were to various levels of Academies of Science, many of which I have never quite figured out in their meaning (“corresponding member”). Clearly, there are people who specialize in various forms of research on Mongolia throughout Russia and Russian academic institutions. Other languages and countries were also well-represented, however, both European as well as Asian, while the N American contingent is relatively small.
Many N American conferences now give registrants a very cheap briefcase with some kind of logo printed on it. These are generally useless. They are generally cheap and shoddily made so even if you wanted to use them, you couldn’t use them for long, but they are also generally of such a small format that they are not useful (the AAS tote bag is a notable exception).
For the Congress, however, participants have received a beautiful blue leather bag with the logo of the congress hand-embroidered on it. This is a bag that I will be delighted to use as it also seems reasonably well-made.
Focus of Discussions
I was somewhat shocked to find how philological the Congress was. From my perspective, the short walk from the Bayangol Hotel to the National University offers enough topics of pressing importance in contemporary Mongolia to a whole army of dissertation writers. Yet, most presentations at the Congress were either historical or linguistic. I suspect that this is a function of the strong Russian presence and also of the focus of research in the Academies of Science. In the end, this left me somewhat dissatisfied, however. As interesting as especially the early history of Inner Asia is – populated with various kingdoms and peoples that are only known to specialists now -, my interests are focused entirely on contemporary Mongolia and these interests were somewhat underserved by the presentations in the Congress.
The Congress was a tour de force in terms of languages, however. Presentations were given in English, Mongolian, and Russian and these were generally mixed within panels. My non-existent Russian meant that there was at least one presentation per panel that I missed out on entirely. Given the strong Russian flavour, most questions to the Russian presentations came in Russian and I thus lost out on that discussions as well.
Among the presentations on contemporary Mongolia, there was a strong contingent of political economists, political scientists and international relations specialists. Among these, a number were not particularly focused on Mongolia, but instead discussed Northeast Asia more generally, or Asian security relations.
While I did see a number of friends and Mongolia scholars whom I’ve known for longer, there were some individuals and groups that were notably missing, for example the entire Cambridge group.
Best Program Typo Ever
Elizabeth Endicott (Middlebury College) whom I also know through our mutual involvement in the American Center for Mongolian Studies, presented very interesting research on the on-going changes to pastoral herding practices in Mongolia. This presentation was announced in the Congress program as “Pastoral Nomadic Nerding in Twenty-first Century Mongolia”. It’s the nomadic nerding lifestyle that I also aspire to myself. 😉