By Andrea Oschetti
With its vast swathe of rolling grassland bounded by mountains to the west and north, and the Gobi Desert to the south, Mongolia calls to all latter-day nomads and seekers of wilderness. Here you can find space in abundance and inspiration in every fold in the land.
FOR THE TIME BEING (1999) BY ANNIE DILLARD
Negotiating the desert is not simply a physical endeavour: the open environment forces the adventurer into a parallel journey of introspection. In this book, Dillard meditates on life, death, birth, good and evil, inspired by particular places and people. She follows, among others, the travels of French palaeontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin in China and Mongolia. She recounts his month spent in the emptiness of the Ordos desert in August 1923, where he found the proof of the Palaeolithic age, so demonstrating the existence of a pre-biblical earth. Having found evidence that ought to undermine his belief in the Church’s doctrine, how could Teilhard reconcile his faith with his dedication to science?
The capital apart, emptiness is rarely far away in Mongolia. Ask your operator to arrange a stay with nomads, or for the more intrepid, pack supplies on a horse or bike, and venture out alone.
WOLF TOTEM (2004) BY JIANG RONG
During China’s Cultural Revolution, Chen Zhen voluntarily goes for re-education to the countryside, choosing as his destination the steppes of Inner and Outer Mongolia. He is exposed, for a decade, to nomadic life and its relationship with nature, reshaping his urban identity as he is mesmerised by the grasslands and the spirituality of the herdsmen. He sees how the beauty of the wilderness is threatened by the impact of Han colonisation and witnesses the interrelationship between Mongolian-ness and Han Chinese-ness which exposes the dichotomy between progress and tradition, and the urban versus the rural world.
The wolf’s role in the nomads’ life is at the centre of the narrative with pages of description of attacks on gazelles and horses, reciprocated by the nomads’ wolf hunts, all vivid with blood. Wolves are not just a threat, but also sacred to the Mongols as messengers from the gods. They are admired for their fighting prowess, hunting abilities, and spirit of brotherhood.
The nomads’ fight for survival on the wild steppe is a call for sustainability. Their customs dictate they take from a captured herd of gazelle only what they need, leaving the rest for the wolves to help them also to survive the harsh winter.
This semi-autobiographical book ends on a sad note as the centuries-old sustainable way of life is broken by human greed, leading to the disappearance of the grasslands and the wolves.
Wolf hunting is a national institution and now some adventure operators offer organised hunts too. With high-powered, sighted rifles and vehicles, these have little in common with the true heritage of the steppes, regardless of marketing claims.
BEASTS, MEN AND GODS (1921) BY FERDINAND OSSENDOWSKI
A literary sensation, this book attracted admiration and criticism in equal measure. In 1922, The New York Times Book Review wrote that it was “a book of astounding, breathtaking, enthralling adventure, an odyssey whose narrator encountered more perils and marvels than did Ulysses himself.”
Ossendowski’s story is of his escape from the Bolshevik revolution, his life in the Siberian wilderness and his arrival in Mongolia during the troubled period of China’s rule. It was a dangerous time, with local Buddhist leaders, loyal tsarist Russians and Bolshevik troops all seeking control and influence in the country. His adventures are also dense with encounters with the country’s myths, legends and religious fervour, still a significant aspect of today’s Mongolia and key to understanding the country. One example is the author’s experience with the mythical and feared Tushegoun Lama.
Ossendowski wrote: “He is a Russian Kalmuck, who . . . escaped to Mongolia and at once attained to great influence among the Mongols. It was no wonder, for he was a close friend and pupil of the Dalai Lama in Potala (Lhasa), was the most learned among the Lamites, a famous thaumaturgist and doctor . . .
His influence was irresistible, based as it was on his great control of mysterious science, as he expressed it; but I was also told that it has its foundation largely in the panicky fear which he could produce in the Mongols. Everyone who disobeyed his orders perished. Such a one never knew the day or the hour when, in his yurta or beside his galloping horse on the plains, the strange and powerful friend of the Dalai Lama would appear. The stroke of a knife, a bullet or strong fingers strangling the neck like a vise accomplished the justice of the plans of this miracle worker.”
The Communists destroyed almost all the Buddhist monasteries in the country, killing thousands of lamas. For many years, Gandantegchinlen Khiid monastery in Ulaanbaatar was the only functioning monastery, but since the end of Marxism in Mongolia in 1990, others have reopened. Erdene Zuu, near the city of Kharkhorin, is probably the oldest and contains a museum as well as being an active centre of worship once more.
DRAGON HUNTER: ROY CHAPMAN ANDREWS AND THE CENTRAL ASIATIC EXPEDITIONS (2001) BY CHARLES GALLENKAMP
Explorer and zoologist Roy Chapman Andrews is rumoured to have inspired George Lucas’ Indiana Jones. In the 1920s he persuaded J. P. Morgan Jr to finance his expeditions in the Gobi Desert, still unmapped, to test the theory that the origins of mankind were to be found there. Andrews did not find what he was looking for but came back with specimens of dinosaurs, including an egg, a collection later hailed as “one of the most important moments in the history of palaeontology”.
Gallenkamp’s biography is indeed reminiscent of an Indiana Jones movie as Andrews faces shipwrecks, a den of poisonous snakes, head hunters, extreme temperatures and uncharted territories, always getting out of trouble with charm and wit. He nevertheless emerges as an explorer motivated by science as well as personal glory.
The Flaming Cliffs, in the Gobi Desert, were one of Chapman’s sites and have yielded many spectacular finds, including dinosaur eggs and specimens of Velociraptor.
EAGLE DREAMS: SEARCHING FOR LEGENDS IN WILD MONGOLIA (2003) BY STEPHEN J. BODIO
In the remote province of Bayan-Ölgii, in Western Mongolia, among the Altai mountains, live the celebrated eagle hunters. Bodio provides a captivating insight into their way of life, still accessible to today’s traveller.
The Altai Tavan Bogd National Park is home to many of the remaining hunters. The easiest way to meet them is to visit during the Golden Eagle Festival, held every October.