October 11, 2006

in the footsteps of chinggis khan

mongol-couple little-gobi knock-carefully genghis-empire nomad-ger khutai-park

Ulaan Baatar: a godforsaken outpost that time forgot in the middle of Mongolia's squalid, all-but-abandoned wasteland, right?

Guess again. This is a thriving, humming hub of commerce, teeming with German breweries, Korean restaurants, French bakeries, Irish pubs, Hollywood movie theatres, American missionaries, billboards advertising mining equipment and Western cosmetics, horn-honking traffic jams of Hyundais and Mercedes and Land Cruisers, plentiful cheap Internet cafes (600 tögrög/US$.60/hr), new construction everywhere you look, and the Mongols themselves slouching about in laid-back Western-cool brand-name black and denim, tattoos and coloured hair - there's even a goth scene. There's money sloshing all over the place in today's UB. Looks a bit like an overheated bubble economy to me, but what do I know?

the lost boys of ulaan baatar

It's not a pretty city. In fact it's an impressively ugly one. Most of the buildings are still Stalinist blocks. The streets and sidewalks are battered and cracked. The smokestacks of two massive power plants vomit smoke into the air around the clock, and the city is set in a bowl of mountains; the air is thick with smog. Street urchins and beggars are few but remarkably aggressive - they'll grab you, or follow you for blocks, and one (twentysomething) one followed right behind me one night, trying to match my pace while opening the zippers of my daypack. (He failed, and hence did not score the $1 sunglasses I keep in its outer pocket.)

Their aggression is understandable. You see, an amazing network of hot-water pipes bigger than most tree trunks extends from those power plants all through the city, running aboveground at first, along overpasses where they meet roads or rail tracks, and plunging underground when they reach downtown. There are many uncovered manholes, beneath which you can see these water pipes not ten feet below. It's in these passages, in this Dickensian underground labyrinth, that UB's street people live when winter comes and the outside temperatures plunge to -40C. Some are adult alcoholics. Most are orphan children and teenagers, loosely organized into street gangs that emerge by day to scavenge and thieve. Once there were hundreds, but now, apparently, their number is diminishing, as the newfound wealth above trickles slowly into the underworld. But I doubt these lost boys will disappear for a good few years yet, if ever.

the middle of nowhere, the center of the world

Driving out of UB feels like time travel. Ten minutes west of the city's edge, deep in the Mongolian steppe, it's hard to believe that such a thing as a city ever existed. A single road parts an endless sea of rolling hills of golden, treeless grass. Rippled layers of hills and highlands jut from the horizon on all sides, some barren, some snow-capped. Occasional jagged granite spines protrude from the earth like the half-buried remains of some long-vanished race of monsters.

The road continues past, and sometimes through, herds of horses, camels, yaks, sheep, goats, cows. Sometimes the livestock is watched by men or children on horseback. Birds fly low over the road: magpies, crows, kites, buzzards, sometimes vultures. Tiny white discs are visible out on the distant steppe, or the slopes of some hills: gers, aka (in Central Asia) yurts - crosshatched panels of wood lashed into a circle, then topped by a shallow conical roof, all covered by a thick felt covering - home to nomad families who move with their herds from pasture to pasture over summer, and to hillsides to shelter from the bitter winter winds. Less than an hour's drive from the capital, Mongolia's main east-west highway is heavily potholed - for one lengthy stretch it's so bad that all drivers take parallel dirt tracks instead, leaving the tarmac to the animals. There is hardly any traffic. A few vans carrying passengers; articulated trucks, many laden with hay; motorcycles with three or four passengers; and a very few private cars.

The occasional "towns" are single strips of battered, shabby buildings on either side of the road: shops, cafes, gas stations, tire repair. They feel a lot like the Old West, especially since horses are still the primary means of transport for many. But look closely and you'll see that many of these gers have solar panels, wind turbines, and satellite dishes. Mongol's nomads move increasingly by pickup and motorcycle rather than on horseback. They make a pretty good living, if they're good at raising and selling their livestock - after all, they pay no rent.

We overnighted at a tourist camp (a bunch of gers, a bar/restaurant, an ablution block1) beside "the little Gobi," an 80-km-long strip of sand dunes beside the ominously named Strangling Mountains, and went for a long hike. (We won't be going to the Gobi proper except when we take the train through, due to time/cost/end-of-season constraints. Next time.) The next day we went to the Zanabazar Monastery next to the town of Karakorum.

Mongolia is primarily Tibetan Buddhist (of the Yellow Hat sect, same as the Dalai Lama.) The Soviets, as part of their brutal repression of all Mongolian religion and nationalism during their de facto Cold War occupation of the country, razed all but three monasteries and killed some 30,000 monks. The Zanabazar Monastery has since been rebuilt, but its famous 108 stupas surround a mostly empty plain; still, the rebuilt buildings and the surviving paintings and sculptures within are quite striking. Most were hidden for decades by devout families who in doing so risked their livelihoods if not their lives. After the monastery, en route to our second tourist camp, we passed through the small, windswept, desolate near-slums of a town named Karakorum. Its population is maybe 10,000. Locals lead goats down its main streets, and cart wood to the city on foot, in rickety wheelbarrows. Alone in the middle of the vast steppe, a six-hour drive west of Ulaan Baatar, with nothing to signify it but the rebuilt monastery, Karakorum feels very much like the middle of some postapocalyptic nowhere.

But once upon a time, believe it or not, this was the very centre of the world.

You've heard of Genghis Khan, of course. (Actually, "Chinggis," but mistranslated by some Persian.) Leader of the savage Mongol hordes that raged across the world, their vast numbers overwhelming every army that they faced, looting and pillaging, destroying and despoiling civilization wherever they found it, right?

You might not have heard of Genghis Khan as the Great (albeit often brutal) Civilizer - the man who grew up from being an illiterate slave to forge the world's largest empire and make it a shining bastion of meritocracy, religious freedom, sexual near-equality, free trade, and high technology; the man whose dynasty lasted for generations; the man who always offered peace before he made war, whose forces besieged countless fortified cities occupied by professional armies who generally outnumbered the Mongols two or three to one, and generally conquered the cities in a matter of days, not with numbers but with overwhelming superiority in strategy, tactics, and technology. It's a heck of a tale.

Karakorum was for thirty years, seven centuries ago, the capital of that empire, a city that dripped with silk and caviar and Damascus steel, where a huge tree made of gold and silver poured wine and fermented mare's milk from its branches for the guests of the Khan. It was still a long way to come - so long that the Khan rewarded merchants who brought trading caravans there by giving them asking price plus a bonus for all their wares - but it was the capital of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, one that stretched from the Mediterranean to the Pacific to the Indian to the Arctic.

Not sure whether it was also the source of the name for the Karakoram Range and hence the Karakoram Highway - very high on my Places-To-Go list - but that's my suspicion.

Nowadays, almost nothing remains. The lone and unlevel steppe stretches far away.

1though the pipes were frozen - did I mention that it dropped below freezing every night, and we've been snowed on several times here? - and we had to use the "happy house" instead.

home, home on the range, where the yak and the camel herds play

Other stuff: On the way back from Karakorum, we saw some wild horses, re-introduced from European zoos after they went extinct in Mongolia. The national park they were in was lovely. The horses weren't that exciting, but it's an interesting project, and seems to be going well. (The local wolf population is doing quite well off it too; apparently every year they eat half the new foals.) We didn't see any of the plentiful marmots in the area, which is perhaps just as well, as many/most carry bubonic plague.

We also stopped by a nomadic ger to say hi. They were chosen at random by our guide and driver and didn't know any of us from Adam, but apparently nomads welcome visitors at basically any hour. After a quick snack of fried Cheeto-like dough and fermented mare's milk (kinda like yoghurt mixed with millet beer) we exchange pleasantries and wandered off again, taking one of the men to the nearest town.

I don't usually like forced meet-the-locals encounters, but at least this one wasn't preplanned, and while there wasn't much to do but sit around awkwardly, their ger was kind of interesting. None of their herds were visible; the only animals around were their riding horses (not to be confused with their meat/milk horses) hitched to a temporary wooden fence. The first ger had electricity powered by a car battery recharged by a solar panel; the second had a satellite dish too.

Various saddles, tack, plastic jerrycans, debris, etc., were scattered around the gers, but the inside of the one we visited was extremely clean and very cozy. The walls were lined by lacquered orange furniture - beds, sofas, cabinets - all painted with various Tibetan-mandala patterns. To the right There was an iron stove in the middle, from which a pipe periscoped up through the roof. Next to the stove there sat a sheep stomach filled with intestines, and other hunks of meat were hung drying from the ceiling above the stove. Posters hung on the walls, and on the cabinets there were family pictures, a picture of the Dalai Lama, a Buddha sculpture, etc. There were a couple of toddlers, too. (Most nomads have relatives in permanent cities, and send their school-age children to live with them during the school year.) All in all, very comfortable. The lack of running water's a bit of a drag, but if they could solve that problem, I could totally set up shop in a ger.

On Friday the 13th, if our tickets ever arrive (long story), we will take the train through the Gobi to Beijing. Haven't been there since March 1997. I bet it's different now.


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