July 25 – August 11 2008 / Mongolia: Vast Sky, Vast Land
To the Independent Republic of Mongolia (not Inner Mongolia, a part of China) for a total solar eclipse
And so we are sucked up into the weird controlled maelstrom of international air travel. That we can go in this way to such a place as Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, halfway around the world, in a matter of really only a few hours, surely counts as a miracle. Or they would have thought so a thousand years ago. I guess I think so, too. I know computers are thought to be the great invention—but hasn't our ability to lay our eyes on the Other, the other people, the other landscape, so very easily—hasn't that formed our concept of this earth so much more profoundly?
At any rate, the next fresh air I breathe will be in Seoul, South Korea.
The little wait in South Korea was easy and of course I hardly felt I was there. One of the disadvantages of being such an experienced traveler is that you know so much about how everything works that nothing is surprising. I managed of course to get ice cream; it's my favorite pleasure in transit lounges around the world.
Because of coming to the eclipse, I think, many people on the flight to Mongolia were Westerners, and surely many of them will be part in our group. Though I don't care to find out, much; my hope is to slip between the people and be invisible.
No lights to be seen on the long approach to UB. Deeply dark, even near the airport. Then the landing, very smooth. Chinggis Khaan airport, small but fairly modern. My first smell of Mongolian air: something quite new, something like animals, in the night air. I asked the guide. Only two animals, he said, Cows and sheep. Sheep, I said. It wasn't a farm smell, at least not one familiar to me, but just something of animals. Otherwise, mildly sweet, very soft limpid air. Dry.
Heat lightning accompanied us in, and played across the sky in the dark while we waited for the others to gather from customs. Jagging from cloud to cloud. The passport control people smiled at us. In some places they do and some they don't. I am happy—very tired, but very happy. Long, long have I wanted to come to this place.
So then it was this morning. I slept very well, I guess we both did. It is very quiet here. There are cars, but not a huge number of them. I don't think there is anyone staying in this hotel but the odd one hundred of us and another tour group. We went to breakfast. I am not sure about the food. On the Korean plane the food had a nasty smell—I guess it was the fermented stuff they eat—and I skipped two meals, so I was pretty hungry.
We called Alyson, at home, from halfway around the world. Hello, Als, here we are in Mongolia. Our words travel back and forth through the air, bringing home to us and us to home.
After breakfast we walked a bit down the main street on which this hotel is. Next door to the hotel are two burned-out buildings, set afire by rioters only a few weeks ago, in protest of contested elections to the legislature. One of the buildings, the intended target, was the former communist party headquarters; the other, burned by accident, was an art museum, and many precious items were destroyed. Mongolia has been a democracy only since 1990, and they don't quite yet have the hang of it. I asked our young Mongolian guide if he thought the complaints of the rioters were justified, and he said he thought so, maybe. Ballot-box stuffing, voting dead people—the usual.
I knew about the riots, of course, but I did not know these buildings had been burned, and certainly not that they were right next to the hotel. Wilderness Travel [our tour company] must have been very nervous. But things have quieted down now.
This city is like so many others that we have been in, over the years—its shabbiness, unfinished or slightly falling-down quality, attempts at weird new buildings (there is one just down the street, as yet unfinished, that looks like a big blue glass crescent), horrendous uncontrolled traffic, billboards for strange things, shops closed and some open, people in mostly cheapish western dress and a very few in more traditional dress.
So we were walking to the State Department Store. The streets are shabby in the way of third world countries, with broken bricks and tiles, eroded curbings, and free-wheeling car traffic. In our materials we are told to be careful as the pedestrian has no rights. I wonder what that means, that in the West the pedestrian –well, at least in the US—the pedestrian has all rights and in the rest of the world, none. Why would that be??
It is windy and there is some light rain. There are a few beggars, some shoeshine entrepreneurs with a little ledge of a few bricks, a brush, a cloth, and a couple of colors of polish. A person with a scales, selling the opportunity to find out your weight. Someone selling cell phone calls. A few stands with women selling nicely-packaged arrays of very good-looking fruit. People do not stare at us—they look, some of them, but they don't stare.
People are decently dressed, and nice looking. Small, dark. I like the way they carry themselves. There's a nice confidence, a kind of forward look. And I love it that they pay little if any attention to us. That is dignified, confident behavior.
There are lots of touristic places on this big avenue: cafes of various sorts, tour and guest house establishments, camera stores, souvenir places. There are the usual heroic soviet style buildings, left over from when they ruled the Mongols (what a comedown!), and some pretty colored and ornamented 19th century style Russian buildings, for the opera and so on.
The department store has five floors. The first floor is all cosmetics and perfume and looks just like a nice upscale department store at home, with sleek and tightly dressed girls behind the counters, Mary Kay Cosmetics for heaven's sake.
Above are clothes, housewares, electronics. I look at the cashmere things, wanting to get Zan and maybe me something, but the prices, while not as high as at home, are more than I want to pay now.
Some Japanese tourists are taking pictures of each other holding Mongol swords.
There are some absolutely gigantic cooking pots for sale, enough to cook a dozen lobsters in. I would like to know about them.
I bought a papier mache mask of a demon who will, in the dance, scare away devils. Also two tiny watercolors, and a T shirt for Als and one for me.
After a nap we went in two buses to visit first the square next door, with big beautiful sculptures of Chinggis and two other khans—more of these big empty heroic communist spaces. Wind blew fiercely across the open space and dark clouds hung low.
The buses take us a short distance out of town to a huge golden
Buddha, erected four years ago for the 800th anniversary of the founding of the Great Mongolian Empire, the largest empire of contiguous lands the world has ever known. In the pastoral setting the Buddha is stunning, but then he is always stunning. People circumambulate [walk around] him, little kids, old people in traditional dress (del), young families, teenagers even. Me too. There were a bell and a drum, and you could sound them and circumambulate them. I loved to see people doing that. There were sky blue kata scarves [a Buddhist ceremonial silk cloth] everywhere (that is the color used here, for the great sky like a precious stone). The communists tried so hard to eradicate religion in their various countries, but it just didn't work.
Everywhere, on bushes, spindly trees, on lightpoles, even, are katas, frayed and bleached from long exposure to wind and sun. I love the glories of this religion. In fact, all the religions except for Judaism seem to specialize in glories appealing to one or more senses. Perhaps I just do not know about Judaism.
Then on to a high promontory, with a big soviet WWII memorial on it, swathed in sky-blue Buddhist katas. Here are heroic paintings of the soviet big brothers liberating their little Mongolian brothers first from the Manchurians, then the Japanese and then from the Nazis or threats therefrom. Then, of course, in 1990, the Mongolians liberated themselves from the soviets.
The view from up there is fine--a green hillside with a little playground at the bottom, and beyond it the city with its modest high-rises. Down the back side of the promontory lies a sparse settlement of gers [Mongolian yurts], the land neatly enclosed in fences, within each enclosure a ger or two, and a rectangular building, and perhaps an outhouse. A car or two. Past the gers, where I want to go, folded small green hills with a light, almost invisible veiling of trees. It's that landscape I've come here to see. That one that fills the space. Fills the eye or the mind, the mind's eye. No, it fills the eye.
A couple is selling camel rides, a two-humped camel. The three of them, the two people and the camel, wait patiently on the hillside below the soviet monument, and now and then someone comes to see the camel, and is sold a ride on him.
As always, in these things, I am off-balance and kind of not here yet. But I'll get here.
The sound of crows or ravens echoes in the quiet morning soundscape just now as I am writing. The pervasive odor of mutton all over the hotel—our room, the hallways. I think it is staff food though.
At meals, our group is getting to know each other, via eclipse tales and travel competition. I enter into it a bit, going on at dinner about China, how I think they will either explode or implode, and about their sad rape of their landscape. This morning one man who was at the table during my rant says how much he enjoyed hearing my opinions and that he agreed with me, "Especially about plants," he says. Re plants: this morning out in front of the hotel, a woman, possibly not in our group, has a small bouquet of grasses she has picked from the driveway. She and I admire them together. We get in buses and go to the national historical museum. There are exhibits of wonderful clothing, tools, weapons, household items, ornaments. It seems that women of some ethnic groups wear their hair completely uncut, fanning it out from their heads contained in elaborate clips, then braided and the braids enclosed in covers. Heavy, heavy jewelry of silver, coral, turquoise. Weighed down.
At the end of the display rooms, the modern era. The soviet time. When they came, in 1921, literacy was only 2%, but they raised it into the 90's—and introduced and enforced the use of the cyrillic alphabet. It is indeed strange to see this alphabet in everything written. There is an old Mongolian alphabet, derived from the Uyghurs, and our guide tells me that he can kind of read it, and furthermore that it is, amazingly, taught in the schools. But I think only set-pieces in the old script.
Anyhow, by 1990, as told in these museum rooms, the younger people rose up against the soviets, the Russians, and in the square right next to the hotel there were hunger strikes, riots, protests of all kinds. Very like Tiananmen Square. Only, it seems, soldiers did not murder the protestors, but rather, amazingly, the government acquiesced, and amazingly, the communists were thrown out and Mongolia became not the people's republic, but MONGOLIA, and their new flag, a beautiful sky blue and red, with a gold device, dropped the soviet star. All very heartening. I ask our guide if the change was hard for people of his father's or grandfather's generation. Yes, he says, but he means financially, for they have made a transition, are making a transition, from the vast majority of work being for the central government (like Cuba) to most of it being private. People get crushed in the process.
In this museum display is a telling exhibit: a row of Mongolian passports, and the text tells how the people are free to travel anywhere, and our guide Sangay tells us that sure, he can live anywhere he wants though he does have to register when he moves to a new place. But he can go anywhere.
How my precious friend in Cuba, Jorge, would envy that...
Our guide says, when I ask him if he was involved in 1990--he would have been quite young--he says that everybody talks politics, he and his friends, he with his father. You go, Mongolians!
Now to the Gandan Monastery, where in the old days there were 2000 monks, and which the communists attempted to destroy. It is crowded. We enter a temple. That peculiar organic smell, of what? In China it was yak butter. I don't know what it is here. Inside amid the glorious visual cacophony of RED PINK GOLD ORANGE YELLOW GREEN BLUE IMAGES FLOWERS SCROLLS CUPS OF FIRE OFFERINGS BLUE KATAS is a towering golden Buddha robed in silken cloth and jewels, his very foot as big as this room I am writing in. The exuberance of it all makes my knees weak and draws the breath from me. A room-sized kaleidoscope.
Our small group walks slowly clockwise past the high shelves of images of the Buddhas, each meticulously clothed and resting in a glass case. Some have offerings in front of them—bits of food, money.. Part of the line of us is broken by some worshippers, a family I think, carrying several large boxes labeled "chocolate." Small women stop at different Buddhas, touch their foreheads to the shelf, make namaste gestures, leave money wedged into the glass case.
I can hardly leave. I wish I could take pictures. But it is not allowed. In another temple there are young monks chanting, melodious voices overlaying each other. They sit in low choir stalls and most of them are reading from narrow rectangular texts as they chant. The chant comes to an abrupt end, there is a pause and another begins. Their saffron and crimson robes—these colors—seem in some way powerfully alive. I don't know how else to put it.
Next door in the training school for the young monks there are some young kids, jeans beneath their crimson robes, having fun polishing the large wooden floor by running along crabwise, rumps in the air, pushing rags. There is that same sweetness among them that I remember from the monastery in west China.
What is it that is so compelling about the expression of the religion in these places? It seems so very other, yet compelling. Along with others, I walked along two rows of brass prayer wheels, that completely surrounded, in a double decker row, two of the temples. I had no idea what I was praying for, but I thought I should. Actually one is not praying FOR something, or perhaps even praying, but only sending positive energy into the world.
Into our buses for the last time and to the winter palace of the last Khan, built at the end of the 19th century, in part by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. It's stuffed with fantastical religious objects, garments, stuffed animals and birds from all over the world given as gifts. In the complex there are buildings elegant in their long low rectangular forms, nearly hidden by overgrown walls of shrubs; this sight reminded me of that wonderful iconic scene, in the film Dr. Zhivago, in which first the small house to which they fled, in winter, is filled with frost, then they clear a tiny peephole through the frosted window and lo! outside is the field of spring daffodils. Part of that long low Russian building in that movie was wildly overgrown by tall shrubs—and yet it was a sanctuary. This image came to my mind when I saw this sight here in Mongolia, and when I think about it, yes, the same origin of the building: Russia.
Soft green walls, every wooden surface covered with red, green, blue, with scrolls and flowers. After the day's touring we all go to dinner to a Mongolian restaurant where we sit in wildly uncomfortable chairs, and have a performance by a wonderfully young troupe of musicians and throat singers, a dancer and a tiny girl dressed in silver spangles who is a contortionist. The throat singing is astonishing. Guttural, wavering, trilling—two sounds at once from one voice, remarkable to hear these sounds coming from the throat of an otherwise undistinguished young man. The best part is that these are really just kids, and here they are doing their country's traditional arts.
Tomorrow our group flies to eclipse camp, in the far west, only a few miles from Khazakstan.