Much like Tibet, Mongolia was an ecclesiastical state—indeed, it was the 16th-century Mongolian ruler Altan Khan who inaugurated the lineage of the Dalai Lama (Dalai is a Mongolian word meaning "ocean"). In the pre-Communist era, almost every family sent a boy to the local monastery to be trained as a monk. But two generations of Mongolians lived without any experience of their traditional religion.
Since 1990, more than 100 monasteries have reopened, and the number of monks is rising. The Tibet Foundation is only one of the many organizations working to promote Mongolia’s traditional religion. One afternoon I visited the Ganden monastery, which now has more than 500 monks.
Inside Migjid Janraisig Sum, the main temple in the monastery complex, middle-class pilgrims bowed before the new 85-foot-high gilded statue of Avalokiteswara, a replacement of the statue removed by Communists in 1937 and taken to St. Petersburg. The chief abbot, Venerable Baasanswren, a large, jolly-faced Buddhist clutching a mobile phone, told me that the first novice monks after Communism had to travel to Buddhist monasteries in India—a journey that parallels one made by the great medieval figures of Mongolian Buddhism. Some even went to Tibetan masters living in Europe and America. The first of these monks were just now returning, and training others. They were also learning the traditional Buddhist art of thangka painting.
The abbot would pause now and then in the conversation to help himself to snuff, which he kept in a Kodak film container. Speaking of the Christian missionaries, he became visibly angry, and I noticed the translating monk hesitate, leaving out the more un-Buddhist sentiments from his leader’s outburst. The missionaries, the abbot said, gave free computer education, clothes, and food to Mongolians in an attempt to bribe them into their alien religion.
But what he didn’t tell me was that the Buddhist monks who controlled Mongolia before the Communists had hardly set a high moral example. Monasteries were centers of corruption, and the clergy was widely hated by Mongolians. I was not surprised to learn that Choybalsan, one of Mongolia’s more repressive Stalinist leaders, had spent his childhood unhappily in a monastery.
For years, I had thrilled at the mention of the word Karakorum, and it was to this ancient capital, now called Kharkovin, that I now set off.
Unfortunately, the only practical vehicle on Mongolian roads is the environmentally challenged SUV. But I had reason to feel grateful for it as we left the city’s industrial suburbs and moved into the countryside. The road, uneven at best, often disappeared, and then the knuckles of my Mongolian driver, gripping the steering wheel, would go as white as the dust kicked up by our car.
Occasionally, small hills appeared in the distance. Their smooth sides showed pointillist dark and white spots, which would then reveal themselves as gers surrounded by herds of sheep and horses, often supervised by handsome men with weather-beaten faces and lassos. But for many miles on the long straight road there was no vehicle or human being in sight, and the sky, streaked white by jet planes, seemed more eventful than the undulating grassland.
Such a total absence of the known world and its familiar features is initially oppressive. But it can be soothing once you get used to it. For a few hours that day I felt that nothing mattered; all ambition, vanities, and egotisms faded, and the sense of smallness and insignificance imposed by the vast blank landscape seemed utterly natural and true.
It was early afternoon when we drew into a ger camp. The white tents lay next to a bright icy stream, where a raw wind made it clear why Mongolia is considered colder than neighboring Siberia. But it was remarkably warm inside my ger, once the brazier was lit, and the adjustable flap sealed the top of the felt tent. Inside the ger that served as the local restaurant, I surprised a couple of middle-class English ladies sniffing at a Mongolian lunch. Mongolian cuisine, usually mutton in watery gravy, is not the most distinguished feature of the country, and I stuck with the processed cheese and crackers I had bought in China.