Why Mongolia's Moment Is Now
Frederic Lagrange
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Why Mongolia's Moment Is Now

"If Buddha were living now, I think he would use social media,” said Baasan Lama, the fresh-faced abbot of Erdene Zuu, Mongolia’s oldest monastery. He flashed a luminous smile. “I already have a Facebook page.” From the folds of his thick red-and-gold robes, he pulled a small book he had published four months earlier that offers 108 tips for right action in a scattered world. “Short,” he told me, in no-nonsense English. “People don’t like to read long books these days!”

Visitors from Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s boomtown capital, kept bundling into the small room where I was sitting with the Hamba Lama Baasansuren, as he is officially known, to receive his blessings and teachings. Not many minutes earlier, in the 17th-century whitewashed prayer hall next door, I’d listened to him lead chants while younger monks pounded drums. The bulging-eyed black demons on the walls, the red-and-gold benches, the fragrance of juniper incense, and the flickering rows of candles and butter lamps all made me feel as if I were in Tibet.

The complex contained temples that looked Chinese and gers (the domed white felt huts also known as yurts) with chapels inside. A brick wall surrounded it, mounted with 108 tall, white stupas that seemed to ward off the emptiness of the Orkhon Valley, once the center of the Turkic, Uighur, and Mongol empires and now a unesco World Heritage site. Erdene Zuu, locals had told me, stands on the ruins of Karakorum, the city that Genghis Khan’s son Ögödei built in 1235. Driving here across unending grassland, I’d seen only a handful of lonely white gers against the wide horizon and a few crop-circle gatherings of goats beside Bronze Age burial mounds.

Grass blowing in Mongolia
The outer wall of Erdene Zuu, in central Mongolia, thought to be the country's oldest Buddhist monastery. Frederic Lagrange

Though Baasan Lama is only 37, he has spent the past 24 years in the temple, having taken on robes after his country emerged from 70 years of Soviet-imposed atheism. Now the strapping lama was presenting me with a sleekly produced CD he’d released to go with his book, featuring sing-along Buddhist chants that had become instant hits with the iPhone-tapping, Lexus-driving, sushi-and-Gucci movers of Ulaanbaatar. As two “monklets” offered us cups of fermented mare’s milk and bowls of noodles with thick beef, the lama continued his impromptu discourse. “I’ve read the Bible,” he said. “And the Koran. I think that if Jesus and Mohammed and the Buddha were alive now, they would be good friends.

This was music to my ears. I’d come to Mongolia to see how its fervent, sometimes boisterous brand of Himalayan Buddhism is bursting into fresh life, in contrast to the steadier and more sober variants I have witnessed in Tibet and Bhutan and Ladakh and have come to know during more than four decades of talking and traveling with the 14th Dalai Lama. I also wanted to see how traditional Mongolian culture had been surviving the country’s furious development since the discovery of vast copper and gold reserves. Without realizing it, the monk was addressing both my interests—his country’s changeless nomadism and its homegrown globalism.

After lunch, Baasan Lama took me, in a friend’s car, on a jouncing, 45-minute drive up into the mountains. Near the top, on a crag overlooking the spacious folds of the valley, we came to a simple two-room retreat he’d built. Its stucco walls had been licked bare by animals hungry for salt. We sat on the floor and he whipped out a purple iPod and a Bluetooth speaker, then asked me what kind of meditation I favored. Unfazed by my silence, he chose one from the dozens he knows. After leading me in chants, he delivered a brief talk on the necessity of saying thank you to life.

To get to Erdene Zuu, one has to pass through Ulaanbaatar, a high-rise metropolis that sits incongruously within an encircling nothingness, like Lower Manhattan surrounded by South Dakota. Half of Mongolia’s 3 million inhabitants live in and around the city, the other half in the almost unchanged countryside. As I left Chinggis Khaan International Airport, I saw matrons throwing milk to the heavens, the traditional gesture of thanking the gods for a trip safely completed. As we drove past gaudy shopping malls and construction sites, my guide, Baatarnyam Navaansharav, who calls himself Baagi, explained that the country’s largest gold reserve, the source of its latest hopes and luxuries, had been discovered near a place long honored by Buddhists as an energy center. I stepped through the scented lobby of the 21-story Shangri-La Hotel, which opened last June, and ascended to my sleek room, where I could see quiet, dusty Chojin Lama Temple far below, hidden among skyscrapers like a grandmother’s amulet dropped among boulders.

Mongolia
A nomad near Uureg Lake, in western Mongolia; the view of the Choijin Lama Temple from the new Shangri-La Hotel in Ulaanbaatar. Frederic Lagrange

Mongolia today seems to be looking forward and backward at the same time. Since the country gained its freedom in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has embraced globalism, while also rediscovering its pastoral culture. Ancestral traditions, Buddhism in particular, came back into the open after having been sustained mostly in secret for the better part of a century. In the past decade the explosion of the mining industry has resulted in one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world. Parts of Ulaanbaatar now look like the love child of Shanghai and Las Vegas. The city’s streets, where only a generation ago wolves and wild dogs roamed, are today clogged with 700,000 cars, inching past glass towers and giant screens projecting footage of runway models.

My first night, I came upon a Louis Vuitton outlet amid the ghostly Soviet monuments of the central square. Nearby, numbers from the New York Stock Exchange flashed across several stories of a high-rise. I’d heard that on the day the store opened, in 2009, it had moved a dozen $94,000 steamer trunks. As I ventured on, I passed places actually called Rich Centre and Million Dollar Club. Teenagers, sporting earbuds and shades, listened to the thumping rhythms of Gee, a local hip-hop star. When I watched the astonishing throat singers and contortionists of the Mongolian National Song & Dance Ensemble, I was only half taken aback to hear an orchestral version of Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”

Mongolia
The lobby of the new Shangri-La Hotel in Ulaanbaatar; a monk at Bulgan Temple, a Buddhist retreat in the Gobi Desert. Frederic Lagrange

One afternoon I was lucky enough to get a private viewing of the treasure room of the National Library, a reminder of the cosmopolitanism that has distinguished Mongolia for centuries. Its rulers once conquered more than twice as many people as any other empire in history, bringing the treasures of everywhere back to their landlocked home: Sutras written in gold leaf. Astronomical charts from before the time of Gutenberg. Sacred texts composed by the fifth Dalai Lama. A “family tree” in the form of an exploding star, with Genghis Khan at its red-hot center. Hours later, I returned to the 21st-century version of the empire: a stylish new development in the affluent Zaisan district known as Buddha Vista, before crossing the street to enjoy a remarkably tasty “Tex-Mex” pizza at the rooftop restaurant Terrazza Zaisan.

Despite Ulaanbaatar’s runaway development, more than half its residents live in very basic gers surrounding it, as if the grasslands were waiting to swallow up the blue-tinted towers. In the old Soviet-built State Department Store, I saw pieces of jewelry selling for $45,000 (five years’ salary for a typical Mongolian). I learned also that as the Soviet influence fades, the elegant Mongolian script used for centuries is coming back into schools, replacing Cyrillic. Somehow, modernity and tradition have found a way to sustain one another.

Less than an hour after leaving Ulaanbaatar, accompanied by Baagi, his boss, and a driver, I was looking upon great swaths of pure color, sometimes lavender, sometimes topaz. We stopped and got out of the car amid a ringing, pulsing silence. I walked past sheep skulls, trampled prayer flags, and ceremonial blue scarves marking out Har Bulch, or “Black Bull’s ruin,” an eighth-century Uighur Buddhist temple. Wind whipped across the ruins as upland buzzards perched on shaman stones. In the distance, pastures shimmered like salt flats. Beyond lay nothing but blue-black peaks.

Mongolia
Horses near the village of Bulgan; teenagers in Mongolia's thriving capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Frederic Lagrange

It is hard to appreciate, before arriving, just how silent and empty Mongolia is. You may learn that a population the size of greater San Diego is scattered across an area the size of Western Europe. But you have to go there to feel the absences. You may hear that more people visit Kyoto in a day than come to Mongolia in a year. But you don’t know what quiet is until you’ve realized it’s more shocking to see another car than to come upon 90 Bactrian camels sitting placidly in your red-dirt track. One member of my party told me that, in his language, there are hundreds of words for the coloring of horses. Another remarked that a herd of 250,000 gazelles had been spotted here not long before.

It is Mongolia’s rare fortune to suggest another planet tucked within our own. Bird-watchers come for the falcons, white herons, black storks, and cranes that suddenly take flight over noiseless rivers. Others come during the first weekend in October for the golden eagle festival in the west, at which traditional Kazakh hunters demonstrate the hunting abilities of their great birds. Some fish for taimen in the north. For me, it was enough just to bump for hours through a Rothko landscape with black kites winging through the sharp blue skies, the expanse of green in every direction broken only by an occasional single white droplet in the distance—a ger with a solar panel, a satellite dish, and a white Toyota beside it.

Some people in the interior, my guides told me, had only recently seen a banana, and could hardly imagine anyone consuming chicken or fish (“insects,” as they see them), let alone vegetables. (“Our animals eat grass,” they’re liable to say, “and we eat our animals.”) Bubonic plague is still known in some parts. (“If you see a dying marmot,” my Bradt guidebook alerted me, “steer away.”) Yet the ingenuity that once allowed Mongolia to seize every land from the Pacific to the Mediterranean is everywhere apparent. Nomads make satellite dishes out of old CDs. When cell-phone reception comes to certain mountaintop areas, locals are known to push send, fling their devices up to catch the signal, and then grab them as they come down again.

Finally, we came to Ongiin Hiid. Once a monastic city with a four-figure population, it was devastated by the Soviet purges of the 1930s. Only a few traces remain, surrounded by the Ongiin Nuuts Ger Camp. A lama invited us into his ger among the broken stones and passed out some snuff, then strips of raw meat from a large white basin. In a few minutes, he told us, he was expecting an important group of lamas—a sign, perhaps, that the monastery might be headed for a resurgence.

We drove on, into the Gobi Desert, our Land Cruiser throwing up clouds of dust as we listened to Ulaanbaatar rap and Soviet-era rock ’n’ roll. Above us were squid-ink mountains and puffy clouds the size of towns. We had entered a world of shadow and light, horizon and sun. All sense of time and space fell away. Was it yesterday we’d passed the 13-year-old sheepherder in a thick woolen robe? Had we traveled 30 miles today, or not moved at all? It was easy to understand why for millennia nomads have worshipped the “eternal blue sky” as a sovereign presence upon which everything depends.

As we drove, I couldn’t help thinking of the rock formations of Monument Valley or the Australian outback, though here the land has been ironed into something flatter and less varied. “Sometimes I just like to look at rocks, the patterns they make,” said Baagi, who grew up with the Darkhad tribe in the north but now spends most of the year in the capital. “Better than any designer! When we were kids, we used rocks to play games. We pretended they were sheep or goats, sometimes tanks. We used them to play cowboys and Indians. Everyone wanted to be an Indian.”

Mongolia
The view of the steppes from Three Camel Lodge, a luxury resort in the Gobi Desert; camels in the Gobi. Frederic Lagrange

At last, we arrived at a small gathering of gers against a rock. This was the Three Camel Lodge, a place that could be called the Pearl of the Gobi. It is the creation of Jalsa Urubshurow, a spirited, enterprising, Kalmyk-Mongolian from New Jersey who saw a chance, after Mongolia opened up, to introduce the beauties of his ancestral home to the rest of the world. Four young staffers ran out to greet us, bearing chilled towels and cool glasses of sea-buckthorn juice. One whole section of my three-ger suite was a luxurious bathroom, complete with a rainforest shower and L’Occitane toiletries. Soon we settled in for a dinner of broccoli soup, Gobi-style mac and cheese, and the lightest pumpkin pie I’d ever tasted.

The next morning, in the heart-clearing stillness, Baagi and I woke early and drove out into the pink and golden silence that follows sunrise. We passed into a box canyon beneath a kind of cloud formation that Mongols liken to a dragon delivering a warning. Two ibex suddenly vaulted away from us. Clambering up to a ridge when the road gave out, we found ourselves at a little pavilion with an ancient bell in it. Beyond that was a nine-foot-tall White Tara statue. From the porch of a nearby meditation hut we looked out on endless valleys that made us feel as small as dust balls. The bell sang occasionally in the wind. This center of absolute quiet was Bulgan Temple, the retreat of a local teacher called the Buyan Lama. Baagi told me that it had been completed two years earlier. Local herders had provided the funds and even helped carry the two-ton statue up the hill. “It’s so moving to me,” my friend said, “to see Buddhism rising out of the dust like a phoenix.”

I understood better now why Baasan Lama had fashioned his rough retreat in the mountains above the Orkhon Valley. It was a symbol of the almost shattered heritage he was helping to reconstruct. On a day trip out of Erdene Zuu, Baagi and I had come upon an earlier such retreat in the remote site of Tuvkhun. There, we climbed for two miles amid Siberian larches and pines to the place where Zanabazar, the first of Mongolia’s ruling Bogda Lamas—and its greatest Buddhist artist—is believed to have constructed his own meditation space around 360 years ago. The site was marked out, hauntingly, by blue scarves tied around the trees. At the top, we came to the spot where Zanabazar is said to have carved 21 Tara statues while completing one of his great works of philosophy.

Such places exist in Tibet, but they’re difficult to find and are usually under surveillance. Here, I saw visitors from Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia, unable to practice Buddhism freely at home, walking around statues of the Buddha and pictures of the Dalai Lama with tears in their eyes. “We are the only free northern Buddhist country in the world,” Baagi said with pride.

Mongolia
The Flaming Cliffs of the Gobi Desert, a site of many important fossil discoveries. Frederic Lagrange

The next evening, Jalsa drove me through the scrubland, rich with sweet-smelling chives, to the Flaming Cliffs, 40 minutes away. This is where, in 1923, Roy Chapman Andrews, later the director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, made the world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs. As we strolled along the red ridges, ablaze in the day’s last light, Jalsa pointed out pieces of fossilized dinosaur eggs almost everywhere we stepped. One guest, he said, had recently stumbled upon the first juvenile duck-billed dinosaur skeleton ever found in Mongolia.

We slid down a long sandy slope and came out in a quiet space between the rocks where the Three Camel Lodge staff had set up a pavilion for us to eat in as the moon rose and the sky filled with stars. Beside us, local teenagers sang about the open spaces around us, accompanying themselves on a two-string horse-head fiddle.

In keeping with Mongolia’s bipolar changes of pace, after leaving Three Camel Lodge I drove to a tiny airport in the Gobi so that I could fly back to the go-go capital—where it seemed almost too perfect that there was a dinosaur skeleton on display in the brand-new Hunnu Mall. The mix of fast-moving capitalism and 14th-century pastoralism, on the same morning, was startling.

But then I remembered what Baagi had said as we walked among the stupas of Erdene Zuu, the wind whistling in our ears. The Mongol Empire, he reminded me, was famous for incorporating and adapting the trends of Russia and China and Persia. “But,” he added, “the largest empire Genghis Khan built was in Mongolian hearts.” For him the flash and swagger in the capital were less a repudiation of his proud country’s past than simply its latest expression.

When I’d sat with Baasan Lama beside his Tibetan chapel, he’d pointed out that even the Buddha had grown up in a king’s palace. Affluence is not necessarily the enemy of mindfulness. “It’s good to be a little rich,” he’d said, measuring his words with care, but delivering them with confidence. “You need to be a little bit rich to have enough food and shelter, education. Then, once you have those things, you can turn to your spiritual life.”

The Details: What to Do in Mongolia

Getting There

Fly to Ulaanbaatar via a connection in Europe, Beijing, Seoul, or Moscow. Travelers who fly through China can apply at the airport for a 72-hour transit-visa exemption to eliminate the hassle of having to obtain a Chinese visa. Carry proof of an onward ticket, which is necessary to board a Chinese connecting flight in both Ulaanbaatar and Beijing.

Tour Operator

Nomadic Expeditions: Writer Pico Iyer traveled with this operator, which offers multiple itineraries in the country, like the central and southern Mongolia trip, which includes monastery visits, two days with Baasan Lama, and a stay at Three Camel Lodge. nomadicexpeditions.com

Accomodations

Munkh Tenger: A simple camp with a pleasant deck where you can take in the sunset before a hearty, well-cooked meal. Kharkhorin; munkh-tenger.com; gers from $43.

Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar: Each room in this centrally located hotel offers views of either Great Chinggis Khaan Square or Nayramdal Park. shangri-la.com; doubles from $280.

Three Camel Lodge: Find luxury ger lodging and inventive food at one of the most stylish retreats in Mongolia. Havsgait; threecamellodge.com; doubles from $710.

Restaurants

Asiana Buddha Vista: This Asian-fusion spot serves Chinese, Japanese, and Mongolian food in tatami rooms. Buddha Vista Mall; 976-7715-1010; entrées $15–$25.

Hazara: A colorfully curtained Indian restaurant that has been a go-to place for nearly 20 years. hazara.mn; entrées $12–$25.

Terrazza Zaisan: This rooftop restaurant in the trendy Zaisan district offers tasty Italian dishes and views of the surrounding hills. Zaisan Square Center, 7th floor; 976-7710-2992; entrées $13–$65.

Zen: A Japanese restaurant in the Blue Sky Hotel & Tower serving what many residents swear is the best sushi in Ulaanbaatar. hotelbluesky.mn; entrées $12–$25.

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