© by Carol Miller April 2006
"The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is organizing a trip to Mongolia in October. You want to go?" My friend Karel was serious. At first I thought she was joking.
It was a warm evening in March. We were having dinner at Crustacean, in Beverly Hills where Karel lives, at a long table. The comment at one end never reached the other, until my friend Saul asked, in passing. "Where's your next trip?"
I looked at Karel, then back at Saul. "It looks like it might be Mongolia," I mused.
"I'm going, too!" He bleated.
"Saul, you are eighty years old," chided his companion, Marsha, as she studied her long, red fingernails. "Are you sure you are up to a trip like this? I pass, I want you to know that," she added, tossing her dyed red hair. Was she really miffed? Or just making a show?
"I also pass," said Tomás, softly. He meant it. After all our long, arduous travel together, I felt betrayed. How could I go on a trip without him? "But you must go. It's all right. I'll keep myself busy." He was in therapy. Maybe my leaving him alone for a month was a good idea.
"Count me out," said Max, Karel's husband. "I only go where there's room service. I don't think there's room service in a Mongolian ger." (The more commonly known term, yurt, is actually a Turkish word, used in western Mongolia and Central Asia to describe sizable round skin- or felt-covered tents with a hole in the roof, to let out the smoke from the stove pipes in the middle of the floor.)
And that is how it all began. Three friends, without their mates, were joined by other friends, to undertake an uncomfortable journey, with apparently no more reward than the novelty of the itinerary. And the freezing cold of the ger.
Tomás and I returned home to Mexico City, among other things to plan and outfit my trip. I needed one suitcase only, not very heavy since I was allowed only twenty kilos, plus one hand bag. Karel eats no meat and I eat little or nothing of anything at all, since I suffer from chronic acidity, so there was much correspondence regarding supplies. And how could we carry food and warm clothes if we were only allowed twenty kilos and a hand bag?
"I planned to have a room of my own," I replied cautiously, emulating Karel's obsession for private quarters.
"Would you give any thought to sharing?" the voice continued.
"It's a completely new idea."
"There's someone who would like to make the trip but she can't afford to pay for a private room. Would you consider having her as a roommate?"
"Who is she?" was the obvious question.
"Her name is Sattireh Farman-Farmaian. She is not Armenian, despite the name. She is Iranian. She wrote a book, which you might enjoy reading, called Daughter of Persia."
"Tell her that in theory I accept her as my roommate, but that I plan to first read her book."
As soon as I hung up I went online and placed the order with Amazon. The book arrived a week later. 'Sati', as she is known, is a Qajar princess who wrote the story of her extended family, and of her life as an emancipated Iranian woman, a teacher, during the reign of the Pahlavi shah. She was later expelled from her country by Khomeini's hardline Islamic revolution in 1979. Though no longer young, she is nevertheless fit and agile, and was indeed a worthy choice of a travel companion. She was the fifth of nine children born to her father's third wife. Eight wives and thirty-six children lived in the same compound - though each family in a separate residence-under house arrest, when the Reza Shah, founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, overthrew the Qajars, and so they remained while her father, obviously an exceptional man, saw to the education and upbringing of every single one of his offspring, including, though non-typically, the girls.
I only met Sati, however, when she crept into our hotel room late one night after just arriving in Seoul, where she landed two days after Karel, Saul and myself. We all departed for Mongolia three days later. Ulaan-Baatar, our first stop, is an orderly, but dusty and windswept, young-looking city, with fifties' and sixties' style buildings surrounded by the bare rocky hills of October, virtually devoid of natural vegetation but gifted with plastic palm trees at the major traffic intersections. Plastic palm trees in the capital of Outer Mongolia. The idea is not without its charm.
We discovered two essential regional delights in the capital city. One: the enchanting silk appliqué, in lieu of painting, on the nineteenth century Buddhist works of art, not only in the art museum but in the monasteries-cum-museum as well. These latter are elaborate architectural works in traditional styles, which include in their compounds literally dozens of chapels and pavilions in varying sizes, all replete with Mongolian Buddhist art in all its forms. The Other: remains of dinosaurs in the natural history wing of the National Museum. More on that later.
The Democratic Republic of Mongolia is a very large country, over a million and a half square kilometers in size - of which nearly one third is represented by the Gobi, the govi or desert-with an average elevation, 1580 meters, that would normally guarantee a year-round springtime; in fact temperatures are erratic and the Arctic winds from the northwest cause sudden drops, especially in the Gobi, where the thermometer can rise to forty degrees centigrade in the daytime, then drop to an equal number of degrees below freezing at night.
The winds of the climate are as capricious as the winds of political change. The Mongolian Empire, a vast extension surviving in part today south of the Gobi inside territorial China, was initially created in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries when Temüjin, "the Blacksmith", who came to be known as Chinggis, Chinghiz ("The Universal"), or in the Persian Genghis Khan ("King of the World and the Universal Ocean"), united disparate tribes of the Altai, the steppes, the desert, mountains and forests, Turks as well as Mongols, and the Merchid, the Tatar, the Naiman, the Kereyid, the Tayichiud, among others, then named them the Yeke Mongol Ulus, the Great Mongol Nation, under his vibrant and visionary leadership.
There is controversy surrounding the point, but Temüjin was born near the Onon River in northeastern Mongolia, either in 1162 or 1167; he was forty before he fulfilled his dream, of gathering together the clans and creating a unified and highly disciplined army, which he considered to be as much a civilizing force as a rampage of conquest, and in fact, over the years of the empire in the hands of his sons and grandsons, the Mongols became law-givers, arbiters of education and the professions, innovators in banking and finance, in calendars and almanacs, in printing and bookbinding, in the use of gunpowder and firearms, in the spread of the compass among other navigational instruments, in effect the precursors of globalization as we know it today, with free trade, open communication, secular politics, religious coexistence, international law, and diplomatic immunity. In 1227, the year of his death, his empire stretched from the Yellow Sea to the Caucasus, yet would reach even greater heights and extension, penetrating into Middle Europe and across Russia, into China, South and Central Asia, and the Near East.
To oversee his vast territories, to guarantee reliable communications and assure the responsible distribution of wealth and tribute, Genghis Khan established nuclei representing the imperial government, that incorporated the talents of an unimaginably diverse range of indigenous peoples, of various professions and religions, abolishing the exclusive reign of kinship in favor of a system of collaborations noted for their loyalty, ability, and personal devotion. He went on to make the best use of their administrative experience, utilizing tribes such as the Uighurs of the Tarim Basin or the Khitans of North China, as the supports on which the empire rested. A courier system further facilitated the transport of goods, the movement of envoys, and the gathering of information.
Much of the Mongols' eventual refinement, according to historians, as well as their stunning cultural heights, can be traced to the Yüan Dynasty, led by Kublai Khan, a grandson of Temüjin, though well before that time the armies and subjects of Genghis Khan had gradually modified their nomadic ways and begun to envelope the trappings of civilization. More impressive than the impact of decades of military victory was their delight in luxury goods, and the spoils of the wars, especially those gleaned from the thirty year campaign against the Jurched of Manchuria, and their Golden Khan.
After his battles on the eastern front Genghis Khan turned west. An offense from the Sultan of the newly formed empire of Khwarizm, only twelve years older than the Mongol Empire, encouraged his Central Asian campaign, heavily fought and hard won, the first incursion of the Mongols into Muslim territories.
Yet it would be Hülegü, that other grandson, known for ferocity and gore, who would again face west, and who would shake the Islamic world to its foundations. The Mongols would then build in his footsteps, and create a regime of progress, of political stability, of irrigation projects and canal systems, new roads and bridges, with expanded trade across Central Asia and Russia, and paper money, as an auxiliary to trade goods and tribute, as well as the art, architecture, literature, gastronomy, medicine and healing, propitiated by all this cosmopolitan cultural advancement.
How did nomadic warriors on horseback - archers and swordsmen of the hills and grasslands, who had never written a book, painted a picture, or raised any structures other than bridges -become the patrons of glorious works of art? In part they owed their success to their army, their invincible archers reinforced by astonishing innovations in military strategy, the whole supported by a siege train. When Hülegü the Tartar devastated the Middle East in A.D. 1256 he took and destroyed among others fifty or more castles of the Assassins [in northern Persia, themselves worthy foes]. The Mongols were not a mere horde without engines of war. They carried out their sieges in a scientific manner, with Chinese engineers, and every appliance, and with special auxiliary troops familiar with countries unknown to themselves. (Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins, 1934).
The people we call Mongol (or Tartar, Tatar, Mughal, Moghul, or Moal) as well as Blue Turks or Black Tatars, initially conformed to scattered lineages and disparate clans, later coalesced into several tribal confederacies, loosely based on kinship ties and headed by a chief, or khan. Of all the steppe tribes, the Mongols' closest relatives were the Tatar and Khitan to the east, the Manchu (Jurched) farther east, and the Turkic tribes of Central Asia to the west. These three ethnic groups shared a common cultural and linguistic heritage with others of the tribes of Siberia, where they possibly all originated.
The Mongols, as it happens, claim an identity distinct from the Turkic and Tatar groups. Though according to myth and legend they originated in the mountain forest when Blue-Gray Wolf mated with Beautiful Red Doe on the shores of a great lake, they officially claim, then as now, to direct descent from the Huns, who founded the first empire on the high northern steppe in the third century. Hun is in fact the Mongolian word for "human being"; the Mongols referred to their ancestors as Hun-nu, "the People of the Sun". In the fourth and fifth centuries, says Jack Weatherford (Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, 2004), the Huns spread out from the Mongolian steppes to conquer nations from India to Rome, but they were unable to sustain contact among the various clans and were quickly assimilated into the cultures they conquered.
The steppe Mongols were devoted to four pursuits, above all others: hunting, trading, herding and fighting. Unlike the other steppe tribes that over time embraced the traditions of Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, the Mongols of Genghis Khan's time remained fervent animists, praying to the spirits around them. They worshipped the Eternal Blue Sky, the Golden Light of the Sun, and the various forces of nature, especially the wind, termed spiritual. They divided the natural world into two parts, earth and sky. Just as the human soul was contained not in the stationary parts of the body but in the moving essences of blood, breath, and aroma, so too, they believed, the world of the earth was contained in its moving water. The rivers flowed through the earth like blood through the body, and three of those rivers began on Mongolia's highest mountain, Burkhan Khaldun, literally "God Mountain", venerated by Genghis Khan himself and considered by him to be the khan of the region, the earthly place closest to the Eternal Blue Sky. As the source of three rivers, the mountain was also the sacred heart of the Mongol world.
For the steppe tribes, political, in effect worldly, power was inseparable from supernatural power, since both sprang from the same source, the One God, that is, the Eternal Blue Sky. In order to find success and to triumph over others, a man must take, or be granted, his supernatural power from the spiritual world. For his Spirit Banner -hair from the horse, that most venerated of animals, bound to his spear, and thus deemed the essence of his soul-to lead him to victory and power, it had first to be infused with supernatural power. Temüjin took his power from the mountain. It was the source of his strength.
After Temüjin's death in 1227 the empire was divided, and his power as Great Khan dispersed, among his four sons. The rule of the eldest, Jochi -- possibly his blood son, possibly a product of his wife's abduction, early in their marriage, by another tribe -- because of his dubious birth was severely disputed. He nonetheless received the territories farthest from the Mongolian homeland, that is, in southern Russia, and the Khwarizm, today's Uzbekistan south of the Aral Sea. There Jochi's sons Batu and Orda established kingdoms that in the fourteenth century merged to become the fabled "Golden Horde".
Second son Chaghatay received Central Asia, where his descendents continued to rule for a century, before their decline. Mongol supremacy was revived and revitalized much later by political emissaries such as Tamerlane (who claimed a Mongol bloodline but was actually the son of a local shepherd, achieving legitimacy by marrying the daughter of the Mongol overlord), through regimes based in Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, and throughout Persia and Afghanistan, until thirteen generations later Babur founded the Moghul line in northern India.
Third and favorite son, Ögödei, was elected his father's successor. He choose a windy site on the Orkhon River in Central Mongolia for his capital, and despite his father's abhorrence of walls and confining structures called it Karakorum ("Black Stone") for the black walls that enclosed it. He ruled there from 1235 to 1260. Within a generation, nonetheless, the title of Great Khan ("King of the World") was passed to descendants of fourth son, Tolui, who according to Mongolian tradition received the heartland of the empire, including his father's birthplace.
Tolui's first son Möngke thoroughly distinguished himself in the intricate Eastern European campaigns (in Georgia, Russia, the Ukraine and in towns and cities throughout the Caucasus, maneuvers ultimately projected by his nephews onto Poland, Germany, the Balkans and Hungary before halting at the gates of Vienna), and later himself became Great Khan; but Qubilay, or Kublai Khan, when he became Great Khan expanded Mongol territories into China, defeating the Southern Sung in 1279 and establishing the incomparable Yüan dynasty. He moved the capital from Karakorum to Khanbalik, "City of the Khan", site of today's Beijing.
To forge control over the western frontier Möngke sent a third brother, Hülegü, across Asia in 1253. He turned into a slow but inexorable force, who overcame the formidable Shi'a Isma'ilis, the sect known as the "Assassins", in northern Persia in 1256; and cruelly, but effectively, routed the Abbasid caliph from Baghdad in 1258. His implacable conquest continued west into Syria, and was only halted by the wily Mamluks of Egypt, many of them originally Slavic and Turkic refugees from prior Mongolian campaigns, who stood against him in Galilee. Hülegü then retreated to Mesopotamia and Persia and his successors, under the title of "ilkhan" or "sub-khan", ruled the lands of western Asia for another century. Having inherited a rich cultural legacy, their contribution to Islamic art was among the greatest, anywhere in territories ever occupied by the Mongols.
Mongol grandeur declined after the death of Kublai Khan in 1294, and with the coming of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, in the mid-fourteenth century, which decimated Eurasian populations and severely curtailed trade and commerce. Leadership grew increasingly dependent on the people ruled, to such an extent that many descendents of the Mongol armies, as was the case with the Hazaras in Afghanistan, were despised and reviled. In China a current of discontent against foreign rule erupted in 1368, when Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Ming emperor, closed Beijing to the Mongols and forced the deportation back to Mongolia of a horde sixty thousand strong, while those Mongols remaining inside China were slaughtered. The formerly remarkable unity of the empire dissolved into clan warfare, with a civil war breaking out between eastern and western groups, beginning in the early fifteenth century.
During the sixteenth century Altan Khan attempted to overpower the Mings and recapture past glory, and though unsuccessful, he was able to march his troops into Tibet, no small undertaking, thus bringing about a peace treaty with China in 157l. A firm mystic and follower of Yellow Lama-ism, as conceived by the monks of Lhasa, he brought the Tibetan religion intact into Mongolia, where it flourished, taking on a subtle identification of its own, still visible, as Karel, Saul, Sati and I witnessed, in the remaining monasteries, or former monasteries transformed into museums.
Meantime, the Manchu - the former Jurched, recovered from the decades of pursuit and destruction by Genghis Khan-- were slowly gaining control over the Ming armies. A new civil war broke out, between the Zungar and Halh groups. The latter appealed to the Manchu emperor for help. As usually happens, the rescue became the offense, and by 1732 all of Mongolia had fallen under Manchu control.
Internal problems in China, however, gave the waiting Mongols a new opportunity; on the first of December, 1911, Mongolia declared its independence from Manchu China, establishing a theocratic government, dominated by Mongolian Buddhists, and led by Bogd Haan. Though the Chinese government refused to recognize Mongolian independence and was preoccupied with its own internal chaos, in 1915 the Treaty of Kyakhta was signed, among Mongolia, Russia and China, to grant Mongolia limited autonomy.
It was during the Russian Revolution, nevertheless, that the Bolsheviks, despite their other concerns, came to the assistance of an independent Mongolia in their battle against the White Russians, that is the anti-communist forces, who had invaded Mongolian territory and established a stronghold there. On July 11, 1921, The People's Republic of Mongolia was declared. The Bogd Haan was retained as a ceremonial figurehead. The newly formed Mongolian People's Party, the first political entity in the country's history and the only one to reign during the next sixty-nine years, took over the government. Thousands of Bolshevik forces poured into Mongolia from across the borders in Siberian Russia. The White Russian forces were defeated in 1922.
Soviet influence persisted in Mongolia, and eventually led to the abolition of the monarchy, considered a direct rival to any attempt at an egalitarian society. The monasteries were also abolished. Institutionalized religion, to the Bolsheviks, was anathema. No one could be loyal to a prevailing religious hegemony, and at the same time to the hierarchical leadership of the State. The People's Republic of Mongolia was therefore ratified in 1924, becoming the world's second ever modern communist regime. Mongolia thus followed Stalin's example, in the creation of "collectivized economies" and by so doing crippled private ownership. The largest private holdings had formerly been the province of the religious establishment, which immediately protested these measures. Just as in the Soviet Union the government launched an anti-religious program, not only against the monasteries as an institution, but against religious leaders as well, resulting in the summary execution of seventeen thousand monks. Tibet looked on with impotent horror.
In 1945, late in the war, Mongolia, now firmly bound to all Soviet policies yet officially in support of western European and U.S. Allies, joined the Soviet Union to declare war on Japan.
During the 1950's and 60's Mongolia enjoyed a period of relative stability and peace, with civic planning and construction, new housing, and road building. Though still retaining control over Inner Mongolia, the Chinese Communist Party recognized the Outer Mongolian People's Republic in 1950. Financial aid arrived from the Soviet Union. In 1961 Mongolia was granted membership in the United Nations. During the Sino-Soviet rupture Mongolia sided with the Soviet Union, which resulted in continuously growing Soviet influence in Mongolia, and a palpable chill from China.
In 1986 Gorbachev nevertheless announced the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the beginning of political and economic reform. The era of Soviet-style totalitarianism ended and the Mongolian constitution was amended, with this permitting a diversification of the party system and a plurality of elections, which were held in June of 1992, despite a number of local protests against the movement toward democracy. The communists in any case won sixty percent of the vote, and took three percent of the parliamentary seats.
Relations with China gradually thawed, and air service between the two countries, which had been suspended since the 1960's, was resumed in 1986. The United States established diplomatic relations with Mongolia in 1987. Full diplomatic relations now exist, as well, with China, Japan and Korea, and this allowed our trip, but our prime interest was not Mongolia's recent political history, but rather Mongol art, and the cultural legacy of Genghis Khan.
Trading on their reputation as "monstrous and inhuman", the Mongols had ruled the world, but while their horses were swift, their archers infallible at full gallop, and their "swords like thunderbolts", they were as brilliant as they were brutal, "not moved by tears nor touched by lamentations"-a fact supported in grandson Hülegü's 1258 sacking and burning of Baghdad in one of the bloodiest conquests of the age-yet they were as discerning of quality and beauty as their more refined victims.
The Turco-Mongolian clan alliance was ruthless and efficient. It went on to produce a century of such reliable peace that unfettered trade linked the Mediterranean to China. Meantime, the Mongolians took on the cultural and religious character of the conquered territories and became patrons of architecture and the arts, commissioning grandiose buildings, to be filled with fine manuscripts, glowing ceramics, exquisite metalware, rich textiles, among other works, from approximately 1250 to 1350, while they fostered the spread of ideas, and became the arbiters of taste, across Eurasia.
We stayed in Ulaan Baatar only a few days, long enough to admire the plastic palm trees and to visit its various museums. From there we took a local turbojet flight on Mongolian Airlines to Karakorum, where we landed on the grassy plain. There is no airport, no control tower, no visible support of any kind for the plane's crew.
Today's factory town, known as Kharkorin, centers around a wheat flour mill, with surrounding housing. Less than auspicious, even considering the great, sprawling monastery complex down the hill, the area was abandoned after the collapse of the Mongol empire, and completely obliterated by the Manchu army in 1388. There nonetheless exists a plan to move the capital of the country here, from Ulaan Baatar, sometime between 2020 and 2030, to commemorate the eight hundred years of past glory.
In 1220, having gathered the clans and tribes under a central administration, Ögödei, Genghis Khan's heir, decided to move his headquarters. He left behind the rich northern valley of the River Onon near the Siberian border, where his father was born in Khentii, and relocated in Karakorum, in Central Mongolia, presently some five hundred kilometers southwest of Ulaan Baatar. Karakorum served as the Mongol's political, cultural and economic core for more than three decades, until Kublai Khan looted and destroyed it, in order to again move the capital, this time to Khanbalik, City of the Khan, known to his Chinese subjects as Dadu, the Great Capital, eventually the modern city of Beijing.
Genghis Khan, a true republican, had devoted his life to abolishing aristocracy and administering the very concept of privilege for the maximum benefit to his Mongol troops and their families. Ögödei, however, when he founded Karakorum reverted to the old ways, and propitiated a new aristocracy. The Mongol nobles inhabited the northern stretches of town, along the banks of the River Orkhon, while subsidiary clusters of dwellings and workshops housed artisans, soldiers, merchants, monks, and immigrants from all over the empire. According to contemporary scribes the city was truly cosmopolitan, and equipped with banking facilities for receiving any coin of the realm. A system of accounting evolved to administer the lavish stream of merchandise, goods and supplies that moved through the city's markets, and lightweight paper money was instituted to replace bulky coin and bullion.
Although not a single stone of the medieval city remains standing, there are still versions left us by the ambassadors, missionaries and travelers, who attest to the importance of this commercial crossroads, enclosed by great walls, with four massive portals which offered admittance to the inner city. A market grew up around each portal, devoted to grains (the eastern gate), goats (the western gate), oxen and carts (the southern gate), and horses (the northern gate). Townspeople lived in the round tents called ger, confected of hides or of felt woven from goats' and camels' hair, raised on stick-and-sapling lattice-like frames.
One missionary, the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck, emissary of King Louis IX of France, after describing the rivalries among the various Christian sects, and other religions at the Mongol court, disdained the city, discarding it as "scarcely the size of the quartier of St. Denis in Paris"; but Giovanni di Plano Carpine (1180-1252), envoy (and spy) of Pope Innocent IV, noted that this was "an impressive metropolis, but distant, at least a year's walk from the center of Rome." He brought correspondence from his mentor, begging the Mongols to "desist from their onslaught on Christian Europe" and asking them to define their intentions. They had none. Booty was slim and beyond the grasslands, where farms and forests began, advancement was hostile to their horses and siege trains. The humidity affected the accuracy of their crossbows and archers. They halted their campaign when they reached the Danube, turned around, and marched home to Mongolia.
Since the toilet was a good three hundred meters from the camp, crossing a bridge over an icy stream, and the night, except for the light from millions of stars, was deep and dark, Sati and I discarded the notion of a trip to the outhouse. The idea of having to dress in the freezing cold, put on boots, scuff through the dirt camp, to find a toilet that was in any case inoperable, and from the modern, urban point of view completely useless, was appalling. I decreed we would urinate in the plastic waste basket courteously left as part of the furnishings in our ger.
And so we did. The fact that it leaked a little only inspired new heights of improvisation: with a bath towel spread out under it the leakage was not only absorbed but provided as well the notion of a cozy bathroom floor. But not before I had dampened my socks, all three superimposed pair.
Sati had actually put on everything she owned. A seasoned camper, hiker and skier, she had often slept out when her father had taken the children on outings in the Alborz behind Teheran, but her experience was sadly wasted here. "I've never been so cold in my life," she confessed much later, back in Los Angeles. "My layers of clothing were ridiculous. And my teeth chattered so badly I couldn't talk. I certainly was unable to help you in your hour of need."
My needs were various. I first needed to open the emergency blanket Karel and brought for me. I had once seen these on the runners after the New York Marathon and thought at the time how stupid and superfluous they must be. Especially in my ignorance. I opened my package and spread out the "plastic blanket", then laid my woolen blankets on top, tried to get into bed, and accomplished only the sounds of crinkles and flapping that further conspired to rob Sati of any hope of sleep. I learned later that the victim of the cold or shock must wrap up tightly inside this sheet of aluminum-colored plastic, as in a cocoon, but that would have been awkward, since I leaped up repeatedly to try to get the fire going. (Local people tromped in and out of our ger throughout the night, lighting and relighting the fire, but the wet, green wood made it impossible to heat the stove.) The fire kept going out, despite quantities of paper and kindling, until there was nothing left of either.
Meantime, I remembered that Tomás had sent me off with a hot water bottle. I pulled it from my bag and filled it eagerly, using the hot water in the Thermos that had been left for our tea. I wrapped the bag lovingly in the blanket provided as a souvenir of Korean Air Lines, and slipped back into bed, then suddenly felt a rush of warmth, "like blood", I thought at the time. A hemorrhorage, perhaps. No, it was the bottle. It had split. The hot water coursed over my blankets, mattress and layers of clothing, which all had to be immediately discarded before they froze. I began again. By chance the ger had come equipped with three beds - sturdy mattresses laid over rustic wooden frames. I dragged my suitcase onto the flooded bed, then reassembled my gear on the previously unused bed, meantime hanging the Korean Air blanket to dry on one of the tent's roof supports.
Before preparing for bed I had washed my own body down with one of those giant "shower and wipe" towels that Karel had bought at Magellan Travel Supply. Five dollars each! I had thought at the time that they were very expensive. Any oversized "wet one" would have done as well, I mused, as I "dressed" for bed. Now I stripped away the dripping garments, resolved -since there was no hope they would dry enough to pack again-to distribute them the following day among the locals. Meantime, grateful for the "shower", I put on the ski suit I had been wearing during the day, followed by a thermal shirt, and all of that over the long silk underwear I had bought at Lotti Department Store in Seoul. I rustled through my luggage once more, looking for the "toe warmers" Karel had bought, but when I read the instructions I realized they were ill-advised. They are for use by mountaineers, as they walk, and are not to be worn during sleep. Ken, the California orthopedist traveling with us, assured me the next day that I had done the right thing. "They can cause gangrene."
I am disheartened by the quantity of urine we have produced. Despite all attempts to reduce liquid intake, the cold has fostered untoward amounts, which threaten to overflow the heavily taxed waste basket. (It later turned out we were the only tent that had one. A Godsend that came in a pink plastic package, out of place perhaps, but most welcome, as we frequently emptied it onto the dirt beyond the door of the ger.)
The wind whistled through the ger's smoke-hole in the open crown. The night waned. I peeked outside. The gers of our companions gushed cheery smoke but it seems their stoves were as cold as ours. The smoke was only the optimistic, and ultimately futile, attempt of paper and kindling to light the wood.
I must have dozed off. The floor is wet. My socks are definitely ruined. My blankets are heaped on the floor. I no doubt thrashed and turned in bed, and dumped them out. Sati is huddling on her side of the tent, her teeth still chattering. I can see the dawn light through the chimney hole in the roof of the ger, and I can hear sounds of scampering outside. Local girls open the door to relight the fire. I have traveled much and spent time and distance in lands whose languages are unintelligible to me, so have learned to communicate in gestures. Yet the reticence of the locals is such that communication here is nil; there is no point explaining that "lighting" and "re-lighting" are not the same and that in any case, the wood is useless. We never had a fire, the tent is cold, and we can only be heartened by thoughts of a warm, cheery breakfast. That, too, is soon dashed. The breakfast of eggs scrambled in mutton fat, now congealed from the cold, is discouraging. I return to my Coast Guard emergency rations and the granola bars I packed to bring with me, which sustain me throughout the trip.
Four giant stone tortoises guard the plain outside the walls of the sixteenth century monastery. They line the limits of the archaeological excavations. As symbols of eternity they were also considered the protectors of Karakorum. They are inscribed and on their backs stand the remains of what were once tall stone stelae, representations of the World Tree.
Marco Polo left us a description of Karakorum, though he was never there in person, when he commented on the religious indulgence of the Mongols: "the Khans with equal tolerance adopted the Buddhist monasteries and the Nestorian churches within their territories"; the latter were imported from Syria. Ögėdei's wife, like Möngke's and Kublai's mother, were in fact Nestorian Christians, and a number of Christian women occupied important positions in the Mongol hierarchy while the men were away fighting.
The center of Karakorum was dominated by the Tumen Amgala, or Royal Fortress, a palace complex covering more than twenty-five hundred square meters, currently in process of exploration. The remains of the old city were utilized in the sixteenth century construction of the Erdene Zuu Khüd monastery, and this in turn was razed during the Soviet anti-religious advance of the 1930's. The great walls, mostly reconstructed, are confected of one hundred and eight stupas at fifteen meter intervals.
Where the interior stupas of the monastery raise their heads to the blue, blue sky, according to the archaeological record of the inner compound, a great fountain once stood, designed in 1253, by the jeweler and sculptor Guillaume Boucher of Paris. He had been captured by the Mongols in Hungary, and according to scribes was taken to Karakorum, while Möngke was Great Khan and bent on expanding and beautifying the city. His contribution included a fountain built in the form of a tree of gold and silver. Instead of sprays of water, fermented mare's milk, known as airak, fell into a lion's jaws, while at the same time golden serpents' heads sprayed three nectars: grape wine, rice wine, and bal, or mead, fermented from grain. An angel posed on the fountain's crown. A special crew of servants regularly pumped the fountain's fluids.
First Ögėdei's, and then Möngke's royal complex, now partly occupied by the monastery, grew up around the palace, which rose on two levels supported by sixty-four pillars, and was dominated by an enormous salon for the reception of foreign ambassadors. The walls were painted, according to all accounts, in bright colors. Green tiles, concealing a heating system, covered the floor. The Chinese style roofs, with tiled borders and raised finials, not unlike the monasteries still visible today, were decorated in alternating rows of red and green. When he received his court the Khan ("Caesar", "Shah" or "Emperor") sat on a throne upholstered in panther skins. One stairway gave access to the throne, another descended on the opposite side.
Erdene Zuu Khüd, "One Hundred (meaning 'numerous') Treasures", was the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia, with construction initiated in 1586 by Abtai Khan. Its edification continued over the next three hundred years, and consisted in at least eighty to one hundred temples, as well as three hundred ger, all installed within the great walls, in order to accommodate about one thousand monks in residence. The monastery, like the capital city and the khan's palace, was abandoned and later vandalized by Manchu invaders. At attempt was made at restoration, first in 1760 and again in 1808, by the Qing Dynasty, under the supervision of celebrated imperial architect Manzshir.
Stalin's pitiless pursuit of secular egalitarianism during the 1930's destroyed what remained of the monastery and disbanded the monks, who largely sought refuge in Siberia, and from there disappeared. Only three temples survived, devoted to the three stages of Buddha's life: his childhood, youth and adulthood. The principal extant temple is known as Zuu Buddha. Deities Gonggor on the left and Bandal Lham on the right guard the entrance, protecting the "Boy Buddha", flanked by Otoch Manal (Buddha of Medicine) and Abida (God of Justice). Inside the temple are found the Niam and the Dabaa, sun and moon, as well as various tsam masks, that have not only survived from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but which withstood as well the Stalinist purges. Other works include sculptures by Mongolia's great Zanabazar, a descendant of Genghis Khan. One figure represents Tsongkhapa, founder of the Yellow Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and another the figure of Janraisig Avalokitsvara, the Boddhisatva of Compassion. The stupa "for the golden prayers" dates from 1799. Next to it stands Erdene Zuu's first temple, famous for the mandala or World Picture on its ceiling.
Another temple, called Dalai Lama Süm, commemorates the official visit in 1675, when the son of Abtai Khan, Altan, received Tibet's then-Dalai Lama. Zanabazar's figures and several seventeenth century thankas adorn the space. Others of the temples still boast their "wheels of eternity" (the eight auspicious symbols), seventeenth and eighteenth century figures, and offerings of wheat dough, decorated with cameos made of goat lard or sheep's fat. Given the climate, they remain intact.
When the monastery was allowed to reopen in 1965, it became, like so many others, not a religious institution but rather a museum, though prayers are still held here, and a modest library still preserves several manuscripts, for the use of the monks. A number of the statues, figures of Buddha, masks and thankas, which were hidden under local houses or in the mountains, were rescued, and are now on display. Their greatest danger is looting, by order of the world's collectors. Each monk or novice on the premises has ostensibly become a guardian of the monastery's patrimony, though in actual fact they appear in droves, with their friends and relatives from town, to lay out souvenirs, handicrafts and small treasures, to entice tourists and visitors. Plastic sheets and wool coverlets, that serve as an improvised bazaar, stretch in single file across the monastery grounds, an uneven row of modest merchandise in the thick mist of morning.
With gestures and mimicry I was able to communicate with the boys of the monastery, but the girls selling their goods in this makeshift market are more reserved. Their faces are rough from the cold, their cheeks burned a bright red. Their lips are chapped. Frost has collected on their straight, black eyelashes. They look so much like the people in parts of Mexico, I am both startled and amused. I could be in a market in Oaxaca.
Everyone wants to look through the binoculars that hang about my neck. What they see produces different reactions: astonishment, curiosity, disbelief, an appetite for more. One young novice is devastated that he has to return them. His companions tease him and they all scamper off, pretending to have binoculars of their own, pushing and shoving, and finally quieting down; they are expected inside the temple for prayers.
I continue to poke through the improvised market, trying to find out what the trinkets represent. A thick, heavy seashell once used as a trumpet. A small, oblong silver box, richly decorated, that contained incense. A diminutive portable altar with thick and clumsy carving: the two halves of the top open to reveal a seated Buddha on the inside of each half, and another Buddha firmly entrenched at the bottom of the box. I buy all of these but the girl has no change. Instead she hands me a bracelet made of tiny, rudely carved stone turtles, and a shy smile with crooked, stubby teeth.
The monastery is currently under repair, to others of its attractions, which include the tombs of Abtai Khan (1554-1588), and his grandson Tüshet Khan Gombodorj, father of the great sculptor Zanabazar. These face the Dalai Lama Süm, with inscriptions in Mongol, Chinese, Tibetan and Arabic. A plaza to the northeast of the complex is dedicated to "Joy and Prosperity", and borders the foundations of the giant ger that in 1639 was to commemorate the birth of Zanabazar. The ger was to measure forty-five meters in height and fifteen meters in diameter, and was to accommodate three hundred of the faithful, seated in its interior. The remains of a cistern stand to one side, site of an altar of assembled stones and paper prayer petitions.
A private flight takes us west out to the heart of the Gobi, a Mongolian word meaning "desert", but in fact these half million square kilometers encompass a wide range of ecosystems. We land directly on the dry October grass, a stubble over the sandy earth, but a real airport, with microwave and control "towers" (elevated cabins), refueling services, satellite dish, toilet and waiting room, receives us.
Our little group advances like the Mongol armies, with baggage and handlers, guides, drivers, and service coordinators. We even bring a load of fruits and vegetables for the hotel, "The Three Camels" - a rather sophisticated lodge perched at the foot of an extinct volcano crater and its scattering of lava, isolated like a flyspeck in the middle of the Gobi's vastness-since the local diet, today as in the past, consists mainly of mare's milk or mutton and its fat. We are now assembled in a little fleet of Russian "Nivas", the Soviet version of a van with four-wheel drive, heading out over the plains. There are no roads, only zig-zagging tracks across the dry grass and sandy spaces, that stretch to the fluted edge of the low-lying Yin Mountains on a distant horizon.
As opposed to the camp in Karakorum, here we find a good administration building which includes clean, modern showers, washbasins and toilets, delightful food, even satellite TV. Our spacious and comfortable ger is charmingly decorated. The beds emulate ancient imperial furnishings once inspired in China, but with modern pillows and blankets. A footrug covers the floor at the side of the bed. The floor is painted red to match the furniture. "The stove works," says Sati, joyfully. It uses a combination of kindling and coal, to preserve the heat.
The "three camels" refer to the Bactrian beasts, soft and furry, tethered at the lodge's entrance, but others roam the expanse of territory beyond, in groups of five or six, even a dozen or two. They crop at the sparse grass remaining before winter sets in. The Gobi occupies one third of Outer Mongolia, extending from the province of Khovd in the southwest as far as the region of Dariganga Sükhbataar, and includes as well a part of northern China, known as "Inner Mongolia". Fossil remains verify that the area was once an inland sea, that slowly dried, leaving stones, rocky knolls, precipices, canyons, scant vegetation, even dunes, but the latter occupy only about three percent of the land. A dune can change places almost before the eyes, and takes over a different spot every year, depending on where the sands build up around rock formations.
The Gobi is known for its extremes, and its varied landscape, at least thirty-three different types of desert. A few lakes survive despite the variations in temperature, over 40°C. in summer, 40° below zero in winter. The region is assaulted by sand and dust storms in February and March, with scant rain in the summer. The grasslands have been degraded by goats, raised by nomadic herders as a source of cashmere wool. Occasional salt pans, small ponds and natural springs help to sustain the local fauna, which includes black-tailed gazelle, marbled polecat, greater plover, khulan or ass, Bactrian camels, the takhi or native horse, antilope known as saiga, and occasionally a snow leopard or unique brown desert bear, with a variety of birds and desert fowl that take refuge in the "forests" of sag or saxoul, that produce a wood so dense it sinks in water. The sky is often crossed by the flight of hawks.
The heavens are perhaps the most outstanding feature. The night, vaster than the landscape, bigger than space or time, is covered by a canopy of stars, each seemingly drawn, neat and sharp, on a velvety canvas, as deep as it is wide. If in Karakorum I was unable to sleep because of the cold and discomfort, in the Gobi I spent the night dazzled by the starry sky, with a ruby Mars, a silver Venus, a Milky Way like veils hurled over a sequined gown, and an array of blue, green and yellow constellations.
The next day after breakfast we explore the volcano, its petroglyphs, the rocky crater and the views across the grasslands, like a golden sea stretching to the infinite. Herds of small horses graze there in the afternoon, but the only visible humans about are ourselves.
The following day we pile into the cars, and our caravan of Nivas crosses and criss-crosses the trackless landscape on the indications of satellite navigation. There are no roads or landmarks. The only tracks are ours. The vehicles, contributing to the degradation of the grasslands, dodge and shift to avoid the dust trail of the car in front. We stop to play on the dunes, then head up a dry wash. A camel skull, bleached and abandoned, is the only sign of habitation of any sort, until we round a knoll to find two felt gers in our path, just gers, confected from goat and camel hair, nothing else around them but cans to hold the mare's milk that sustains the inhabitants. We are not to get out of our vehicles. We are told there are dogs about, but they have rabies. "There is bubonic plague, as well," warns Andy, our guide, in his perfect, street-smart English. His father is a diplomat in New York, he tells us.
One night after dinner in the Three Camels, Andy sets up a screening in the dining room, with a VHS video tape. The film, despite prodigies of restoration, was still badly deteriorated, but served to successfully reconstruct the mesmerizing journey of colorful dinosaur hunter Roy Chapman Andrews (1884-1960), in his 1922 expedition. The American Museum of Natural History in New York, which in time he came to direct, outfitted and dispatched the team to Mongolia. But unlike ourselves Chapman Andrews had no satellite navigational facilities, so tracked and backtracked the vast spaces. He got lost. He got mired down. He suffered sandstorms. He was attacked by a python and by Chinese bandits. The only available vegetation was the sage-green saxoul, the bush with the dense wood erupting from the red earth.
Perhaps the expedition paused, as we did, to take a meal in the forest of bushes, the vehicles left at random, standing where they braked. We had the Three Camels, however, to provide a hot meal, while the dinosaur hunters, according to legend the prototype of "Indiana Jones", had to make do with what their cars and camels could carry. And while the expedition broke down a number of times, our Russian Nivas turned out to be noble and resilient. Except for a snapped radiator band, easily replaced, and poor shock absorbers, we had no problems, crossing silent lands abandoned by time, where God, expressed for the Mongols in the Eternal Blue Sky, showed no mercy, the remotest territory on the planet.
Perhaps not as remote as we think. As soon as the dust trail from the Nivas spread across the landscape a motorcycle appeared. A man and a woman, both locals in sheepskin coats and goggles, got down where we parked, spread their woolen cloths on the ground, and laid out the merchandise: a goatskin wallet, a cigarette case, a toy camel homemade from felt, a rag doll, flashlight batteries, bits of rock, geodes, even scraps of fossils. For this is fossil country. In the shadow of these red rock ridges Roy Chapman Andrews, and those who followed him in the nineties, and those who came last year and this, discovered invaluable dinosaur remains, including whole skeletons of the elusive velociraptor.
Two intact skeletons were in fact trapped in quicksand during a mortal battle, arrested in their rage when the forests were green, and thick with broad-leafed plants, and so they remained, to be unearthed sixty, or a hundred, or a hundred and fifty million years later. They turned out to be specimens of a previously undiscovered specie, the ovaraptor or "egg thief".
A great number of fossilized dinosaur eggs were found at the site. And why the mortal struggle? Was the mother of the eggs surprised by an intruder?
Dinosaurs were a group of prehistoric reptiles. They first appeared on the planet about two hundred and ten million years ago. They lived during the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, a time spanning over one hundred and fifty million years. By the end of the Cretaceous, about sixty-five million years ago, most species of dinosaur had become extinct, but there is considerable evidence to suggest that modern birds are the descendants of one or more dinosaur types.
The name Dinosauria was first proposed by the British scientist Richard Owen in 1842, by combining the Greek words for deinos or "terrible" ("fearfully great") and sauros or "lizard".
Dinosaurs varied in size. The smallest known species were no bigger than a modern chicken, but most were much larger. The biggest were the Sauropoda, the largest land animals ever to live, second in size only to certain species of whale. Other types of reptiles were contemporaries of the dinosaur, but were essentially unrelated. All these animals vanished from the earth at about the same time, ostensibly as a result of a meteorite, though changing climate may have been a factor. Both before and after the Ice Age the parts of the Gobi that were not a prehistoric sea were covered with forests, with lakes and rivers at their feet. Then the winds and storms came. And then came silence.
The intrepid Chapman Andrews, a native of Beloit, Wisconsin, was a naturalist, and an expediter of expeditions, who lived a long series of travels and explorations, while he survived deserted islands, raging seas, remote mountains and cruel deserts. His encounters included confrontations with angry whales and hungry sharks. He was reported dead more than once. He titled his autobiography Under a Lucky Star, and luck played a sizable role in his extraordinary life, but mostly the luck was of his own making. After graduating from college, a less than brilliant student, he took a train to New York where he talked his way into a job with the Natural History Museum, even though no job was available. He volunteered to scrub floors, if necessary. When his prospective employer suggested a college graduate might not find fulfillment scrubbing floors, Andrews countered that he would not scrub just anyfloor, only the museum's. He was hired.
A museum assignment salvaging a whale carcass inspired his interest in cetaceans. He traveled to the Pacific Northwest and later to East Asia to study them. But living creatures inspired him less that the abstract notion of exploration. In 1920, while lunching with his boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, he proposed the museum's most ambitious project, a trek to the Gobi, at the time under Chinese control. And to carry out his plan he set up housekeeping in then-Peking (now-Beijing) with his family. (He had married in 1914 and had two sons. His adventures kept him distanced from his wife and children, who ultimately packed up and moved to England. He and his wife were divorced in 1930 and neither of his sons followed in his celebrated father's footsteps.)
Meantime, Chapman Andrews' first expedition in 1922 was followed by others, in 1923, 1925, 1928 and 1930. On the path of the "missing link" in human evolution, he instead came across a grand largesse of mammal and dinosaur fossils. Using his dinosaur eggs for the pitch, and actually auctioning them off, he generated funds for future expeditions. His success backfired, when word spread across China that his motives were more mercantile than scientific, and doors began to close.
Living at a time of political instability, with warring factions in both China and Mongolia, he flaunted his expeditions in the face of great danger, pushing men and machinery across the punishing climate of the Gobi. He faced not only armed bandits and natural perils but the party was once obliged to destroy forty-seven venomous snakes in a single night, when the vipers took refuge from the cold in the explorers' tents.
The hero of a biography, Dragon Hunter, had hoped to prove that human evolution originated not in Africa but in Asia, yet never found human fossil remains. His expeditions were financed by the likes of J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, and at the time were called failures, yet he influenced both paleontology and anthropology. He also fueled the debate that raged, in his day and ours, between the Biblical and the scientific origins of life.
While Andrews enriched the museum's collections he fostered his own legend, until his status as a celebrity was safely gelled. And like his contemporary, Lawrence of Arabia, he was equally accused of publicity mongering, espionage and money grubbing, all true. Andrews, a complex man, as arrogant as he was impassioned on almost every subject, did actually spy on the Chinese, while he filed his geological and geographical surveys back in the United States.
His great good luck, however, began to run out after the museum convinced him to take over as its director. The Great Depression deprived him of funds and his chaotic personality hardly lent itself to an administrative position. He ultimately resigned, leaving the fossil fields of Mongolia to the Soviets, then remarried, and devoted himself to books for both children and armchair adventurers. In All About Dinosaurs he recounts his team's discoveries, not necessarily with favor: The Brontosaurus has a brain weighing less than a pound. It shows that the creature was just about as stupid as an animal could be and still live.
We are flying west, over the rolling, tobacco-colored landscape, occasionally dotted with bare, cobalt blue lakes. I can scarcely see them. A friend of Saul's is in the seat next to mine, and he keeps the cloth curtains pulled over the window. When I try to slide them open he closes them again. < br>
"I want to see," I tell him.< br>
"There's nothing to see," he replies.
In 1931 the Soviets divided the huge aimag or "province of the west", creating the districts of Khovd, Bayan-Olgii and Uvs. Various lakes, visible from our Russian Antonov, dot the desolate landscape, crossed by the formidable Altai Mountains, a range with rounded, well-worn peaks in excess of four thousand meters and fountain, with its abundant snows, of rivers, rapids, springs and glaciers, that run from the Russian border to the Arctic Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
How could so many different ethnicities have originated in a single corner of the world? The valleys, with their scant vegetation, supported the small communities of nomads with their sheep and camels, along with the regional wildlife: bear, lynx, fox. When the grasslands proved insufficient, the clans moved on.
Although this is unquestionably Mongolia in its political jurisdiction, the ethnic groups of the western ranges are almost entirely Kazakh, with a smattering of Khalkh, Dorvod, Uriankhai, and Khoshuud. Together they form a sampling of the cultural diversity that produced the great migrations of the medieval Turkic-Mongolian groups, that in time populated the areas of the Caspian, the Caucasus, Asia Minor, southern Russia, even the Balkans and Central Europe. This is also home to the Tuva, whose "throat-singing", guttural and double-toned, transformed Mongolian music.
The Kazakh are Muslim, a change from the Buddhists of the eastern groups. We have entered Central Asia.
The Antonov skids along the gravely earth as it lands. The tires are smooth. We have touched down in Bayan-Ölgii. We have been traveling all morning, an hour and a half from the Three-Camel Lodge to the Gobi airport, a three-hour flight to Ölgii, over land that the nomads took months to cover. And as they moved the seasons changed, their lambs were born, their muttons slaughtered, their children grown to form clans of their own.
We will travel again at sundown. This is the last flight of the year. We must be on it. There will be another, but only in six months' time. Winter is setting in. We picnic by the broad Khovd River, with the fringe of ice along its edges. Children from the town, with their stiff boots, play at skimming across the ice on the opposite bank. Will it hold them? We can see them from our perch on the rocks, the snowy Altai in the distance.
We will spend the rest of the day at the museum and the sprawling, open-air street market, while David, our travel coordinator, deals with the matter of his visa. His Kazakh visa is waiting for him in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, where we will spend the night, but he was unprepared for the unscheduled intermediary stop in Ust-Komenagorst, where we landed at one in the morning and where we passed customs and immigration. The local authorities arrested David. The official in charge of visas was out of his office. He had gone to a banquet. It was after two before the official could be located, the matter explained and David released, but by then we had flown on, and he had to stretch out on a bench in the airport. He was put on the 6 a.m. flight and he caught up with us in Almaty while we were having a comfortable breakfast at the Hyatt Hotel.
The museum in Ölgii is a compendium of the cultural assimilation of the nomadic groups. As happened everywhere in the world, the tough, rough people of the deserts and mountains emulated the refinement of those they invaded and conquered, until textiles, painting, jewelry, artifacts and implements, domestic furnishings and appliances, instruments of battle, had all been transformed into portable beauty - culture that could be moved by horse or cart as settlements moved, while new ideas spawned others. Designs of one period, for example, by stencil, could be adapted to the jacquard of the looms, until textiles, easily transportable, readily converted into garments or furnishings, became the arbiter of art and expression. The museum includes a wide selection, ranging from rugs, kilim, cushion covers, saddle trappings and clothing, eclectic but fascinating, but displays as well a sampling of the region's ethnology, paleontology and history.
The real museum, nevertheless, lies outside and down the street. Olguii, until a scant ten years earlier, served as a Soviet base, 1645 kilometers from Ulaan Baatar but only 225 kilometers from the Russian border. The town of about one hundred thousand has since been left to its fate, where hand-cranked cars and dilapidated Russian jeeps share the unpaved street with wandering cattle. The great market-known as a Central Asian bazaarrather than the Mongolian zakh-- supplies the entire region, and is built around whole yards of abandoned shipping containers, bent, rusted, but serviceable as warehouses. Signs are mostly in Cyrillic letters, though English appears as well.
Carrots and cabbages dominate the available vegetables. They are laid out on the dirt street and purchased by the throngs in plastic parkas and boots, their heads covered by motorcycle helmets or cloth scarves or turbans. The young men, as if in uniform, wear long leather coats, or leather jackets and leather caps, goggles pushed up above the brim. Sacks of onions or potatoes, crates of watermelons and beets, red tomatoes and green lemons, piles of kindling, saplings, wool, Chinese packaged candy and snacks, Russian canned goods, instant soups and cookies, are displayed among clothing hanging on racks, fruit now covered with dust, animal skin caps, Soviet medals and decorations, which no one except the old men seem to want.
Kazakh nomads inhabited Central Asia four hundred years before the Soviets, before the Russians called it "Inner Asia". These groups, and others like them, were nomad in name but in actual fact followed the cycle of the growing grass, which fed their flocks. They began to populate the area around Bayan-Olgii beginning in 1840, leaving the valley floor in summer for the high meadows of the mountains. In winter they turned again toward Kazakhstan in the west or Xin-Jiang in the east.
Beginning with the Mongol revolution in 1921 many republics, like Tuva, were banned, and converted into Soviet provinces, while definitive borders were drawn to separate China, Russia and Mongolia. Yet the Kazakhs, like the Masai in Africa, had never known borders, and refused to accept these arbitrary limitations. They preserved their wandering ways until the 1930's. The word Kazakh in fact means "Free Warrior". Their roots date to the Uzbek clan divisions, when the group moved into the vast, rich territory encompassed by modern Kazakhstan, "The Land of the Kazakhs", the land, as well, of oil and natural gas, and therefore much disputed.
Kazakh culture has been preserved in western Mongolia in part because it sidestepped the Soviet influence on the Eastern Republics of the URSS. Of Turkic origin, completely different from the Mongol even to the design of the riding saddle, Kazakh music is sung by wandering troubadours accompanied by a two-stringed lute, called a domba. Here there is no "horsehead fiddle", as in Mongolia, and no "throat-singing", that disquieting rumble that erupts slowly from the diaphragm and overflows the lips, often with two or more simultaneous notes. The Mongol ger is here known as the yurtt. The people are taller, broader, more richly adorned with blankets called tush and felt rugs known as koshma, decorated with stylized animal motifs. Native dress, not so common as in the past, still appears at random on the street or in the market: a long velvet dress for the women, with high collar, hood and head covering. The tribal women wear an embroidered vest, also velvet, with heavy jewelry of gold and silver. The men wear a loose culotte, traditional since Kazakh origins in the fifteenth century, with a fox-skin cap, sleeveless jacket and long coat. The coat is often velvet, worn below the knees and nipped in at the waist, and held by a sash which in the costume's heyday contained a dagger.
Nearly everyone in the market is hesitant, though not adamant, about being photographed, until I show them their picture in the little screen of the digital camera. They go wild, call to their friends, wave to their cohorts. In a matter of minutes I have more "models" than I can handle. They all want their picture taken. Goodbye to the unposed, spontaneous shots of people at random. They scribble their addresses, which I cannot read, their post box numbers and postal codes, even telephone numbers, so I can send them a copy of the picture.
Despite the Soviets, the Kazakhs are still Sunni Muslim, yet not particularly motivated by their faith. One might argue their distance from Islamic heartlands, their taste for vodka, their nomadic tradition, in addition to the repression of the Stalinist years. A mosque nonetheless occupies a place of honor in Olgii and the first pilgrimage to Mecca was organized as recently as 1992. The most celebrated occasion of the year, originally a Persian celebration of the sun originated three thousand years ago, is the festival of Nauruz on March 21, the first day of spring, and since the seventh century the Muslim new year.
Kazakhs speak one of the Turkic languages with a Cyrillic alphabet, similar to Russian but encompassing forty-two letters. In order to ingratiate itself with this rather dominant "minority", and to avoid people returning to Kazakhstan and thus depopulating its western frontier, the Mongolian government permits the teaching of Kazakh in the Olgii schools.