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The Open Spaces of Mongolia

I'd heard of the Mongolian reindeer people, the shamanist Tsaatan, and had always wanted to meet some. The 500-odd members of this race tend to keep far from the beaten path; anthropologists and devoted travelers often have to ride three or four days through the woods northwest of the park to find them. We were in luck, however; a Tsaatan child had spent the night nearby, and he agreed to lead us to his cousins. We were told it was an hour's drive and then a three-mile walk. We had not fully understood that it was a three-mile vertical walk, but we climbed gamely with our seven-year-old guide and a few relations he had gathered in the valley--assimilationists who had turned to goat herding. We followed the course of a mountain stream that runs into the lake. As we ascended, the view opened up behind us. From time to time the boy would point out a bear's cave, or an eagle, or a deer.

After about three hours of hiking we found ourselves above the tree line, and on the crest of the mountain we could just make out a tepee and a herd of animals. Soon we were at the encampment of the reindeer people. In their dwelling we were given the usual warm welcome, reindeer-milk tea, some nasty cheese, and fried biscuits. ("Done in reindeer fat?" I asked the oldest woman. She reached behind a cabinet. "We prefer sunflower oil these days," she said, showing the bottle.) Along the side of the tepee were various practical hooks made from antlers, and a few reindeer-skin bags. We asked about a small bundle, hanging opposite the door, of feathers, ribbons, dried flowers, a duck foot, and part of an antler. We were told that it was a magical device, and it was made clear that further questions about it were not welcome. The boy who had brought us said that his mother was a shaman.

Then we went outside to see the animals: three snow-white reindeer and 27 brown ones. I'd always thought of reindeer as inhabiting an eternal December; these had shed their heavy winter coats and seemed happy with the afternoon sun. They came over to rub their noses and heads against us: their antlers were furry and sensitive, and we soon discovered that they loved to have them scratched. The father in the Tsaatan family saddled one up and let me try it out. I found that reindeer are very difficult to ride. They prefer that you not grab their antlers when their swaying trot threatens to pitch you off their backs.

The next morning, back in the valley, we rode horses. Given a choice between Mongolian and Russian saddles, we chose Russian--the Mongolian wooden saddles look about as comfortable as rocks. We rode along the lakeshore, and then through the pine woods, which, carpeted in close-grazed grass, resembled groves rather than the forest primeval. It was a protective landscape and they were beautiful horses, and the smell of wildflowers was with us all the time. When we finally came back, saddlesore but contented, to a dinner of roast lamb, we felt we had earned our supper in the most pleasurable way possible.

I WAS GLAD TO RETURN TO ULAANBAATAR, WHICH IS A FUNNY, mixed-up city, with grand Neoclassical Russian buildings, one of the world's most important Buddhist monasteries, and grim housing from the Communist era. The "four-star" hotels, however undeserving they were of such status, were a welcome comfort after our stay in the countryside. There were several pleasant restaurants, and a pretty park with elk in it behind the president's house. We saw an exhibition of avant-garde Mongolian art and walked around the ger settlements, where almost half the city's residents live. The expat community in UB (as Ulaanbaatar is commonly called by foreigners) has its own meeting spots--the weekly cocktail parties in the British ambassador's back yard, and Millie's Espresso, owned by the wife of an American businessman. It's a perfect place for a slice of quiche and a glass of white wine, and not a drop of airag! The Westerners who live in UB are economists, diplomats, a few artists, lawyers, businessmen, and sociologists--and all adventurers.

Many of the Mongolians in UB are elegantly dressed, often in Western clothing, occasionally in hip, updated forms of Mongolian garb. They often carry cellular phones. There's quite a scene at the big disco in the center of town, where young couples dance until dawn.

We went to the Hustain Nuruu National Reserve, outside town, to see the wild horses. We visited the National Museum of Mongolian History, whose astonishing displays of historic costumes and jewelry and wigs make the Paris runways look tame. We bought antiques; the authorized shops sell them with export papers, and you can buy fantastic objects for almost no money.

Throughout the city, there's an amused, ironic view of the Cold War government, whose monuments are all over; in the former Lenin's Museum, a Turkish restaurant has opened under the 80-foot-high mosaic of Lenin. When I walked in, I saw two signs: one on the wall that said, WORKERS OF THE WORLD, UNITE! and the other on a freshly whitewashed stand that said, DRINKS HALF PRICE BEFORE 6:00! UB is not really a commercial city, but it is lively, changing, aware of the modernity that the rest of the country appears to have escaped.

In 1931, a third of Mongolia's male population lived in monasteries, and the nation's wealth was concentrated in Buddhist holy places. Stalin's thugs destroyed almost all of these, but a few remain. The most splendid is the Gandan Monastery in UB, the biggest monastery in Mongolia, at the center of which is a Buddha almost 100 feet tall, enclosed in a tight-fitting pagoda. Dozens of monks in long robes offer prayers inside and outside, and the aura of peace is strong even with the crowds of noisy tourists shoving through. I ran into my friend the monk from the Beijing train, and he greeted me with warm smiles and talked excitedly about his family.

We had also visited the great monastery in Kharkhorin, named Erdene Zuu. Aside from Gandan, Erdene Zuu is the most spectacular and holy monastery in Mongolia, and it felt more ancient, less touristed, more hallowed. The monks there, ranging in age from 6 to 90, strolled through the unkempt courtyards in long red robes; inside the temples others chanted prayers, beat drums, and lit candles in front of golden Buddhas carved by Mongolia's great 17th-century king and sculptor, Zanabazar. Worshipers made offerings and pressed their foreheads to images of the divine, then turned the prayer wheels. For $2, you could get the monks to offer special prayers for you and your livestock.

I loved each of the places I went in Mongolia, but I think the essence of the country is far more important than the sights; it doesn't matter where you go. Anywhere in Mongolia (outside UB) you can see what you need to see, which is an innocent landscape and an immutable culture. Afterward, if you especially want to explore the Gobi or Khovsgol or find some yaks, you can go ahead and do that too. In China, the people take a curious nationalist pride in the idea that no one else will ever penetrate the complexity of their society. Russians believe that their despair is a state no Westerner can attain or affect. Mongolians, however, seem gloriously clear about their place in the world and are delighted if you want to join them there. You get a feeling in Mongolia not simply of history, but of eternity.

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