Somewhat fortified, I ventured late that afternoon to Erdene Zuu Khiid, a 16th-century monastery. The oldest monastery in Mongolia, it was originally built out of the ruins of the capital and has been destroyed and rebuilt many times. When I walked through the gates with their floating Chinese eaves, there was hardly anyone in its vast walled compound. The chapels housing the statues of the Buddhas were under lock and key, and the shadows of temples lay sharp on the ground. I saw a young monk in the distance, trying to ride a bicycle, and his exuberance only seemed to add to the solitude of the monastery.
Beyond the monastery to the east lies the ancient capital of Karakorum, built by Genghis Khan’s son and successor, Ögödei, its boundaries marked by four turtle-shaped rocks. The city was abandoned after Kublai Khan decided in the late 13th century to move the capital to what is now Beijing. But its fame lasted long enough to reach the ears of Marco Polo, who mentioned the city in an account of his travels through Asia. In 1254, William of Rubruck, a Franciscan monk sent by Louis IX to meet the Mongol Khan and make an alliance against Muslims, became the first European to visit the city.
What he saw didn’t impress him much. The Mongol nomads did not produce great architects. But there was no mistaking the extraordinary power that radiated from Karakorum—the power that spread and made Karakorum a household name in places as far away as Iran and India.
To leave the monastery compound and reenter the unfenced expanses of Mongolia; to be told by the Mongolian hawkers selling fake archaeological finds and trinkets that the dusty land of scrub and wild grass where I stood was indeed Karakorum, with no distinguishing sign except for the remaining turtle-shaped rock; to remember that this was once the center of the world, was to be given a unique historical lesson.
Encircled and diminished by Russian and Chinese powers, and waiting now for Western tourists and investors, modern Mongolia seems very far from its adventurous past. No longer the originator of earthshaking events, or even a valued pawn in the Cold War, it faces the uncertain future of small countries without modern economic bases everywhere. Grappling with inequality, pollution, and political instability, it may look to Genghis Khan’s exploits for emotional succor. But nationalism based upon a memory of the past rather than achievements in the present is usually shallow. Sooner or later, Mongolia will have to make its peace with—and learn to depend upon—China.
This is not as humiliating as it sounds: the American economy, after all, also depends on China. I thought again of the faded grandeur of the Mongols a few weeks after leaving Karakorum when I read the surprising news that President George W. Bush, who is not known for his frequent-flier mileage, had visited Mongolia, mostly to thank the country for its contribution to the war effort in Iraq.
In a speech at Ulaanbaatar, President Bush offered the curious theory that Mongolians were like Americans: hardy frontier people. It wasn’t clear whom the President’s speechwriter had wished to compliment—the Mongolian hosts, whose ancestors had once known "full spectrum dominance," or the powerful visitors, who were aspiring to it. For the Mongolians’ frontier days were long past, and if the memory of their extraordinary conquests spoke of anything now, it was of the transience of nations and empires, and the impermanence of human glory—the melancholy but important truth that Mongolia’s great emptiness still holds.