Upon arriving in the huge, landlocked country of Mongolia—more than seven times larger than Great Britain—you may be taken aback by the runaway developments in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Ever since some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits were discovered, some within 70 miles of the city, Mongolia’s economy has taken off like a rocket. BMWs purr along the broad Soviet boulevards of the capital, past karaoke parlours, sushi bars, stores advertising Burberry and Vuitton and glassy, high-rise office blocks across whose windows flash the latest figures from the Nasdaq index. But then you hear that more than half of the 1.4 million people in the capital still live in settlements dominated by gers (a traditional style of a yurt, like a domed felt tent), sometimes in shockingly simple conditions. You learn that when the global economy sputters, many Mongolians head back into the countryside to become pastoralists again. And you gather that the majority of the country’s paved roads crisscross the capital—which means that everywhere else is startlingly unpaved. As soon as I ventured out of the city and began bumping across the level, otherworldly steppes of Mongolia, in fact, I realised that nothing I’d seen in 40 years of travelling across Asia could compare with its great, heart-clearing stillness. Within 30 minutes of the hyper-malls, herders will welcome you into their gers to share a feast of marmots, roasted sheep and freshly boiled goats’ heads, much as they might have done in the time of Genghis Khan, the warrior who masterminded the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. If the horsemen who rode all the way to Europe to extend that empire were to return to their ancestral spaces next week, they’d feel right at home.
Part of the special beauty of rural Mongolia is that it redefines everything you thought you knew. A road, I realised as soon as I was jouncing past Bronze Age burial mounds, is a red-dirt scratch across the void; a sight is a jeep the size of an ant, inching across the horizon. A town in the steppes could pass for a subway station almost anywhere else; once, after hours of nothingness, I stopped at a ger camp to find that it also served as a meditation space, a car-repair shop and a leather-tanning workshop. No wonder. Gazing out miles and miles in every direction, I could catch nothing but emptiness—vast enough for the mind to go anywhere (or nowhere at all)—and the sound of the wind, whipping in my ears.
I’ve been talking to the Dalai Lama for 44 years now and been lucky enough to witness the massed chants and flickering candles of his tradition everywhere from Lhasa to Ladakh, but I’ve never seen Tibetan Buddhism practised with the rowdy exuberance visible at every turn in Mongolia. For 70 years, under Soviet control, all signs of belief were kept. Literally, undercover—stashed in attics and secret altars. But as soon as the country regained its autonomy in 1990, depictions of Buddhist deities and prayer wheels came bursting out of the shadows. With them came the local alphabet, now taught again in schools, and the natural sophistication that accompanied the largest contiguous land empire ever seen. (As early as the 13th century, European visitors to Mongolia described encountering a Parisian silversmith, a Greek doctor and a man called Basil.) It was the Mongols, I was constantly reminded, who conceived of the title Dalai Lama (dalai being the Mongolian word for “ocean”). When the Dalai Lama visits these days, his bodyguards tell me, scores of burly Mongolians throng around him, eager to press his flesh, get his blessing, lay hands on the man whose tradition is imperilled at home.
My days in Mongolia were wild with elemental intensity. Along with a local guide and a Kalmyk-Mongolian businessman I know from New Jersey, I drove across the Gobi Desert for hours on end, passing almost nothing but the occasional upland buzzard, a sudden clutch of Bactrian camels, a shaman stone under colour-field canvases of turquoise and gold. Once, when we stopped, we found ourselves next to a leather-skinned old woman herding a hundred horses in the middle of nowhere. Rivers are sacred here; our guide said because they are home to spirit-filled fish. In the rural area where he grew up, squirrels are taken to be “really honest and loyal disciples of the Buddha” because their paws, when they’re eating, seem to be joined in prayer. This sense of being intertwined with an all-pervading natural network is—not surprisingly—everywhere in a land said to have emerged from a liaison between a blue wolf and a fallow doe. One day, as the morning’s first colours, seeped across the horizon, my guide and I drove through a narrow box canyon and, when the road gave out, scrambled up on foot to an unworldly silence. On two crags, local herders had devoted years of time and money to erect a retreat space for a lama, from which he could look out across the emptiness and root himself in the truths of wind and sand. “You aren’t worried that all of this will get lost amidst the $2 million condos and fashion shoots?” I asked my new friend as we stared out across the openness. He wasn’t. “In Genghis Khan’s time,” he said, “all the goods were coming from Europe and Asia, and Mongolia was the thoroughfare.” His country, in short, had long known how to take in foreign influences without losing its soul. The Silk Road, he went on, was “the New York Stock Exchange of the 13th century.” Even the most modern developments, for him, were simply part of a country that might have coined the term global nomad eight centuries ago.
I remembered then how, near the great collection of temples at Erdene Zuu, we’d bounced down from another lonely meditation hut up in the hills and seen stones on the ground marking out a sacred space. “A taboo is better than a rule,” said the young, English-fluent lama who’d been showing us his retreat. “Because people will listen to spirits more than to government officials.” By the time I returned to the capital, and the copies of Kardashian Konfidential on sale in the State Department store, I realised that part of what makes Mongolia so distinctive is that its new is so much newer than in most places, and its old much older. Driving across Patagonia or Namibia or Wyoming, I’d felt I was moving into a past where nature was sovereign and people were almost incidental; in Mongolia, there’s no doubting that its sumo-champion citizens know how to live with the whims of the “eternal blue sky” they’ve long worshiped, adjusting to droughts and following the seasons, even now, every two months.
And as I’ve watched, over the past 30 years, South Korea, Taiwan and China enjoying furious economic development, I’ve often wondered whether they’re losing their deepest inheritance. In Mongolia, this is seldom in doubt, as a hardy people used to outliving most of history’s bumps stands ready, at every moment, to leave a city still governed by a huge image of Genghis Khan etched into its hills and returned to the traditions their leader stood for. Mongolia haunts a visitor as few other destinations can. After I’d returned home, the power of stepping out of my luxury ger in the Gobi to be met by a 74 million-year-old volcanic outcropping, the eeriness of knowing that dinosaur bones were all around, had gotten inside of me, like a shared dream I couldn’t shake. In a world flooded with distractions, Mongolia returns one to something ancestral. The clock has little meaning here. Days turn into an ageless cycle of random moments, scanning of the heavens, simple meals, long journeys. Often I didn’t know whether I was travelling into the past or the future. I could simply tell that this was a place that everybody would recognise if only because it’s somewhere lost inside most of us, lodged like the people we once were and might one day again become.
Credit: Pico Iyer for The Wall Street Journal, 27 February 2018.