Arriving in Mongolia on the Trans-Siberian Express from Beijing, I wondered where everyone was. In China, there had been crowds everywhere, the dense human mass overwhelming even to someone from India. But just miles after we crossed the border with China, an eerie void defined Mongolia.
This shouldn’t have been so strange—after all, the Gobi Desert covers much of southern Mongolia. But when I thought of Mongolia I pictured the multitudes of horsemen that swept across Central Asia and Russia in the 13th century, all the way to Central Europe, creating the greatest land empire the world has ever seen.
All through that cold morning, pastureland rolled past my train window. I saw an occasional ger—the white circular tent that is the Mongolian version of the Central Asian yurt—and horses accompanied by a cowboy with an uurga, the Mongolian lasso. And then there was emptiness for hours on end.
The blank landscape seemed to have subdued the Chinese attendants in my coach. Huddled with their pals over beers in the dining car, as the Trans-Siberian Express began its long journey from Beijing to Siberia via the Gobi Desert, they had barely glanced up as I stumbled through my phrasebook-aided request for hot water. In the bright Mongolian morning, they seemed withdrawn.
The Russian couple in the compartment next to mine also looked sullen. They’d had a terrible night. At the border crossing the night before, the Mongolian immigration officer had told them that their visas had expired and had threatened to throw them off the train into what seemed, literally, the middle of nowhere. Sitting in my compartment, I had heard their tearful pleadings. Then, even the Chinese attendants looked sympathetic.
It had finally been sorted out, after a delay of almost two hours. The Mongolian officer relented and gave new visas to the Russians. He may have been bluffing after all. The Chinese attendants looked relieved, the Russians grateful, if worn out by their ordeal.
It was an odd scene—the assertive Mongolians, the subdued Chinese, and the terrified Russians. It hinted at great historical shifts and ironies: the hierarchies of the Cold War, when Mongolia was a satellite state of the Soviet Union, had been overturned. But it was after a few days in Mongolia, with a greater understanding of what it meant to be a modern Mongolian, living in a country sandwiched between Russia and China, that the fuller meaning of what I had witnessed would become clear.
Though surrounded by giants, Mongolia itself is no slouch. It is twice the size of Texas, but with a population of fewer than 3 million people—it has the lowest population density in the world. More than a third of Mongolians reside in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar, which lies on a plateau surrounded by high mountains. It was only late September when I arrived, but it felt like December in the Himalayas, the air full of the smell of snow. Temperatures can drop by 55 degrees in a single day.
I would soon leave Ulaanbaatar for the northern borderlands, where the Mongolian steppes yield to the Siberian taiga, into a purer void than I had seen from my train. But the city, I discovered, holds plenty of surprises for the flaneur. I had imagined something more Chinese, or Asian: a staging-post or a market town, with nomads on horseback and crimson-robed monks in its narrow alleys. In 1924 Mongolia had been only the second country in the world after the Soviet Union to go Communist. If I was unprepared for the Soviet, faux-European architecture of Ulaanbaatar, and the signs in Cyrillic everywhere, I was even less ready for the gridlock traffic on broad avenues, the new cafés, beer bars, beauty salons, and discos packed with both expatriates and trendy Mongolian youth, or the cranes everywhere, one of them constructing Mongolia’s first five-star hotel. Being a vegetarian, I had prepared for the austerity of Mongolia, stocking up on processed cheese and crackers in Beijing. I realized I had wasted my time when I found myself on Peace Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare, surrounded by multiethnic cuisine and fusion restaurants and department stores and supermarkets.
These images of luxury seemed far away when I woke up every morning in my room at the Ulaanbaatar Hotel and saw a statue of Lenin dominating the view from my window. With its high ceilings, chandeliers, marble staircases, and generally unresponsive staff, the hotel itself seemed to conform to a Soviet idea of luxury. Neoclassical buildings ringed the massive Sukhbaatar Square, a wilderness of cement named after the Mongolian nationalist who rid his country of Chinese influence in 1921, only to saddle it with the Soviets. One building in garish pink stood out in particular. This was the State Opera and Ballet Theater, which wouldn’t have looked out of place in St. Petersburg, part of a Russian fantasy of Europeanness.
Much of this, I learned, was the work of the Mongolian Communist Yumjaagiyn Tsedenbal and his Russian wife, Anastasya Filatova, who together ruled the country from 1952 to 1984, consolidating Soviet influence with an iron fist, especially in the Communist-style command economy where the government owned all the means of production and restricted private business. They further cleansed Ulaanbaatar of Chinese influence.
Even before their reign, the Soviet Union had cast a dark shadow on Mongolia—Communism had managed to re-create here the cruelties and absurdities it had inflicted on people in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. One afternoon in Ulaanbaatar I wandered into the Memorial Museum of Victims of Political Persecution. It had been set up soon after 1990, when Mongolia rid itself of Communism and embraced democracy. I was shown around by Bekhbat Sodnom, the director of the museum, who turned out to be the grandson of Peljidiyn Genden, Mongolia’s prime minister in the early 1930’s.
Genden was shot dead on Stalin’s orders after he repeatedly defied the Soviet dictator’s orders to purge Mongolia of allegedly anti-Communist and rightist elements, such as the Buddhist clergy. More Mongolian leaders would be executed before Stalin found those who were prepared to follow his instructions. The museum contained much evidence of the terror Mongolia had known in the 1930’s. The first floor had photos of some of the thousands of Mongolians killed during that time. On the second floor I was abruptly confronted by a display case housing a pile of skulls pierced with bullet holes. I winced; my host looked unperturbed.
Sodnom felt, he told me later, that visitors needed to face the true scale of the tragedy inflicted on Mongolia’s Buddhist culture and identity by the Soviet Union and its Mongolian allies. Death squads traveling around the country had executed more than 20,000 monks and destroyed more than 700 monasteries. They had also wiped out the country’s entire fledgling intelligentsia.
Given that almost every other ethnic nationality between Russia and China—Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tibetans, Uygurs—was absorbed into one of the two Communist empires, Mongolia’s uninterrupted existence as an independent state cannot but be considered an achievement. Still, walking around Ulaanbaatar, I marveled at the evidence of an extraordinary historical reversal: how Russia, which once feared the Mongol hordes, had later managed to completely dominate Mongolia.
The Mongols, known to the Russians as Tartars, either ruled or threatened Russia for much of the second millennium. Mongols lived in many Russian towns and intermarried with Russians. Many famous Russians, such as Boris Godunov, Gogol, even apparently Lenin, were said to have Mongol blood. The Russian state itself, as it began to develop in the 16th century, was a successor to the empire created by Genghis Khan’s conquests. (Soviet Communists and their Mongolian supporters reviled the great Mongolian hero.)
Since the collapse of Communism, Genghis Khan has made a triumphant comeback. Many statues of Lenin and Stalin have been taken down, and Genghis Khan now stands everywhere in Ulaanbaatar; his bearded face is on currency, billboards, matchboxes, and shop signs.
I was in Ulaanbaatar when Mongolia’s president spoke at the UN General Assembly in New York, upholding Genghis Khan as a model of efficient and humane governance. As I read the speech in the UB Post, Mongolia’s English-language weekly, I imagined representatives of the Central Asian republics, as well as Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, rising in protest and reciting the names of cities—Samarkand, Herat, Kandahar, Nishapur—devastated by the Mongols.
But the revisionists have been at work on Genghis Khan. The modern version of the legend of the man now comes to us expunged of its extreme cruelties. Certainly, the mass murders committed by Stalin and Hitler in the 20th century have made Genghis Khan appear a moderate.
This may come as a relief to Mongolians. For certifiable heroes such as Genghis Khan seem to act as glue for a national identity that has fragmented since 1990. Poverty and deprivation during the Communist era had united Mongolia; stagnation had ensured a degree of stability. But, as in Russia, the transition to a free-market economy since 1990 has caused much confusion and distress.
According to the foremost American scholar of Mongolia, Morris Rossabi, the country may have had a successful transition to multiparty rule, but economic disparities continue to widen between those few who can take advantage of the foreign presence in Mongolia and the many more who can’t. The crime rate has tripled since 1990 in Ulaanbaatar, and pawnshops have flourished.
In the suburbs, former employees of state enterprises languish in dingy Soviet-era apartment blocks, or, even worse, in gers without running water or sanitation. Ulaanbaatar’s smog, which I had attributed to rapid industrial growth, is largely the result of the coal-burning stoves of the suburbs.
It is hard to see how things could improve soon. The country’s economy is still heavily dependent on foreign aid and investment—which is why it chose to send its troops to the U.S.-led coalition in distant Iraq. And it needs even more foreign assistance in order to exploit its apparently large deposits of coal, iron, tin, copper, gold, and silver. Mongolia’s neighbor China, which is perennially in need of raw materials, could help, but relations between the two countries remain cool.
In recent years a mini gold rush has attracted foreign businessmen and adventurers; it has also excited some local greed. A Buddhist monk I was introduced to turned out to be a gold miner. Since 1990, Mongolia has also hosted the kind of foreigner who offers economic sustenance as well as cultural identity: the Christian missionary from the United States. I had been reading about the American churches that, denied the opportunity to evangelize in populous but rigidly closed China, have turned their attention to other parts of East and Central Asia, particularly Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Almost all the major denominations and sects are represented in Mongolia, and, although no reliable census figures are available, they have apparently found many "rice Christians" among the Mongolians—people eager to convert in exchange for food and shelter and the possibility of travel to the West.
Agizul Sosor, program manager of the Tibet Foundation, which works for the revival of Buddhism in Mongolia, told me that "the new generation of Mongolians is very consumeristic. They want cars, jeans, stereo systems, and satellite TV’s, and they will go to whoever gives it to them. But very few people can have these things; the rest can only watch with envy and malice."
One Sunday morning I went to a service at a Mormon temple on the outskirts of Ulaanbaatar—one of many in the city. The temple’s white steeples rose cleanly out of the usual roadside cluster of apartment blocks streaming with clotheslines. Mongolians wearing fake brand-name jeans, sneakers, and anoraks filled the austere chapel. "They are good kids," one of the very young Americans sporting a crew cut and an extremely earnest expression informed me.
It turned out that he was from Utah and had just returned from two years in the Mongolian countryside—"without heating," he added. The other American Mormons there seemed equally virtuous. They denied that they were in Mongolia to convert people; they were there rather to educate and train Mongolians into economic self-sufficiency. The Mormon Elder, a bald, severe-looking man, complained that their church often got a bad name because of the Seventh-day Adventists and Baptists, who use cash inducements to convert Mongolians to Christianity.
Buddhism, which encourages a suspicion of desire, might seem the perfect antidote to such materialistic practices, particularly because it was once woven into the fabric of everyday life in Mongolia, its rituals and mantras ever present during marriages and funerals.
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.
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.
WHEN TO GO
July through September are the most pleasant months to visit, but come prepared for cold at any time of the year. Avoid mid-October through April, when temperatures remain below zero and sudden snowstorms are frequent.
HOW TO GET THERE
Most travelers fly in from Beijing, Berlin, or Moscow, but there are also nonstops from Osaka and Seoul. Ulaanbaatar’s Chinggis Khaan International Airport is the only international hub in the country. MIAT (Mongolian Airlines), Air China, Aeroflot, and Korean Air fly to the capital city.
Visas are not needed for U.S. citizens to visit Mongolia.
WHERE TO STAY
14 Sukhbaatar Square; 976-11/320-320; www.ubhotel.mn; doubles from $90.
Three Camel Lodge
Perched in the foothills of the Gobi Gurvan Sayan Mountains, this desert camp of 46 gers (nomadic tents of felt and wood) is the area’s only luxury accommodation.
800/998-6634; www.threecamellodge.com; doubles from $140.
Offers five trips (as well as private tours) that extend from the Gobi desert to forested Lake Khövsgöl in the north.
800/777-8183 or 415/922-0448; www.geoex.com; 16-day trips from $3,995 per person, double.
Mountain Travel Sobek
Leads a moderate to difficult 17-day hiking trip through the Altay Mountains.
888/687-6235 or 510/594-6000; www.mtsobek.com; from $5,690.
Founded in 1990 by Jalsa Urubshurow, a Mongolian-American, the travel operator offers more than two dozen culture and adventure trips.
800/998-6634 or 609/860-9008;www.nomadicexpeditions.com; trips from $2,125.