By: Spencer Haines
Recently, staff and students on the way to their classes at The Australian National University (ANU) were surprised to see that a large white yurt had been mysteriously erected just across from the Chancellery Building. This intricately carved yurt, which would appear more at home on the grassy steppes of Eurasia than on a university campus in the heart of Canberra, was an official gift given to the ANU on behalf of the President of Mongolia, His Excellency Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj. It is also a tangible symbol of the strong relationship that began over a decade ago between the Embassy of Mongolia to Australia and the ANU Mongolia Institute headed by Professor Li Narangoa.
A ‘ger’ (the more accurate Mongolian name for a yurt) is the traditional dwelling used by the pastoral nomads of Eurasia since antiquity. It is a type of tent comprised of an expanding wooden circular frame surrounded by a felt cover, which makes it easy to assemble and transport. The ger is also part of Mongolians’ larger sense of national identity and the traditional craftsmanship of the Mongol Ger and its associated customs has been inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mongolia, Damba Gankhuyag, presented ANU’s ceremonial ger on 24 March 2016 in recognition of the university’s support for the teaching of Mongolian culture and language. It is the first of its kind for a university in Australia.
Australia’s interest in the “Land of the Blue Sky” has increased steadily over the past decade based on Mongolia’s rapidly expanding economy and its solid democratic credentials. As Australia’s leading centre for research on Asia, the ANU actively sought to build links with the Embassy of Mongolia to provide a focus for this growing interest. Beginning in 2010, the ANU was the first Australian university to offer a Mongolian language course. The following year, the Prime Minister of Mongolia Sukhbaataryn Batbold’s visit heralded the official founding of the Mongolian Studies Centre (the precursor to the ANU Mongolia Institute). Since its founding, Professor Li Narangoa has instigated many new initiatives with the active support of a network of interested scholars at the ANU and the Mongolian Ambassadors Ravdan Bold and Batlai Chuluunhuu. This has allowed the scope of the ANU Mongolia Institute to expand dramatically. To date the Institute has hosted three Mongolian Studies open conferences, two Mongolia Updates, as well as popular cultural events including a recent performance by a grand finalist of ‘Asia’s Got Talent,’ the ‘Khusugtun’ ethnic ballad band of Mongolia.
The connection between the Embassy of Mongolia and the ANU continues to be mutually beneficial. The Embassy of Mongolia to Australia has used its “soft diplomacy” to promote Mongolia abroad and strengthen its people-to-people ties, while the ANU Mongolia Institute has in turn become a centre of national pre-eminence. The ANU has also produced a crop of international country experts and helped undergraduates expand their knowledge about this fascinating and important country. The future of this relationship looks bright with multiple upcoming events planned for Ulaanbaatar later this year.
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Spencer Haines is a former diplomat and a current PhD candidate in the School of Culture, History and Language at the Australian National University. He is focusing his research on International Relations and Inner Asian History.