Character # II
Tuva Tengel (1901-1985)
Letters from Mongolia
Tuva Tengel (1901-1985), desert traveller, author and photographer, travels in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia from 1927 to 1937. Previously, the expedition of Roy Chapman Andrews with his wife Yvette as photographer, had sought the Origin of Man in that desert, hoping to find the Garden of Eden, on their 5-year odyssey:
SCIENTIST SEEK MAN’S BIRTHPLACE – Roy Chapman Andrews Sailing for Mongolia Again. READY TO SEARCH DESERT OF GOBI. Hopes to Find Garden of Eden in 5 Year Trip.
These stories evoked restlessness in Tuva; she wants to see the Gobi Desert herself. She brings her camera and notebook and travels south towards the sun. She enters Unknown Territory.
Tuva is driven by her adventurous spirit and innate power: at times haunted, at times condescending, at times ruthless. Yet, she is surprisingly prescient, honest and ahead of her time as she accounts her experiences in the Gobi desert and Ulaanbaatar.
In an era affected by turmoil and conflict, Tuva encounters peace and harmony in the desert. She spends the winter among the nomads, and takes part in a life lived in a landscape where life and landscape are seemingly unchanged by the passage of time. A feeling of being too late, yet just in time, is a feeling that survives in this place, across time. The nomadic pride has been a conserving force for the landscape. Through the preservation of a nomadic lifestyle, the people also cherish the superiority of nature. Pride stands strong in the desert.
I had arrived in Ulaanbaatar for the first time. I lingered by the shore of Khatun Tuul – the River of the Queen. It was springtime and the riverbanks were green. I gazed towards the city opposite. An eagle sailed above me. As my eyes followed its wings, I turned my back to the river and the surrounding settlement. I beheld a landscape very different from the rest of the valley. Trees seemingly reached up towards the sky. On the journey I had encountered trees that mirrored the struggle against a harsh climate with crooked branches and low, sunken canopies. Here, birch and shrub rose – effortlessly – towards the sun. The birds sang. Not a single drop of rain had fallen in the last forty days.
Through the branches I get a glimpse of a palace. As I approach the closed main gates I encounter lamas in radiant red robes and yellow hats as they carry buckets of water. Lamas high in rank tend to a worldly garden. The garden belongs to the Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan, or rather, the remnants of what used to be a divine park. Exhausted pilgrims crawl the last few yards, until they fall to their knees. Near death from exhaustion and hunger, or perhaps rather in a religious trance, they linger by the gates for days.
What I witnessed this spring day caused me to embark on a journey with an open heart, although still a sense of restlessness panged my body. As a crawling pilgrim I reached the gates of the land of eternal plains with a sense of arriving too late. Although it was too late to experience the Princes’ great dynasty, I came in time to experience a dynasty in transition. Lamas wandered, enveloped in yellow and red robes. Princesses rode through the city dressed in deels with half-meter too long sleeves puffed at their shoulders, their heads crowned with coral treasures from oceans far away. What I left behind in Ulaanbaatar that spring was left behind forever.
Bogd Khaan’s Garden
The Winter Palace of Bogd Khaan and its surrounding properties do not only emphasize the Bogd’s death; they show a fallen kingdom. Bogd Khaan tended a zoo with an impressive collection of exotic creatures from all over the world: Pelicans, panthers, lions, monkeys, lemurs and parrots. A lonely elephant was walked all the way from India to become a part of Khaan’s collection.
Neither lion, nor parrot, nor pelican, did settle comfortably on the palace grounds. Even the local species – two thousand white ponies and a thousand white camels – perished in the enormous park. The vast numbers and their rare and outstanding shades of colour were perhaps only rumours, but I have encountered several carcasses of both ponies and camels.
Even though it seemed like the Khaan wanted to convey that he lived in the Garden of Eden - as a Buddhist he would call it an earthly Nirvana - the park could not escape its own surroundings. Harsh climate makes its mark on Mongolian plains, mountains and deserts year-round.
Feathers in various colours lay scattered across the bleak, frosty grass. Heavy, furred animals dozed in the dust, beneath a stinging sun. One after another the animals succumbed of unbearable heat, severe cold, blizzards, clouds of swirling sand, waves of heat, droughts or malnutrition. Eventually, they all became victims of taxidermy – and parts of the somewhat morbid mausoleum, a private exhibition of stuffed animals. As the garden was emptied of grassing animals, the rooms of the palace filled with trophies in the art of taxidermy.
Surprisingly enough, the elephant was resilient in the harsh climate. She outlived native Bactrian camels as well as the eight Bogd Gegeen. Due to the local extinction of the other species, there was no room for a stuffed elephant in the crowded mausoleum. She was left unattended in the garden, as a gigantic, grey obelisk. At first she was terminally ill, then dead, yet preserved by the dry, bitter cold.
In the nearby palace, the Bogd himself was ill and bedridden. Ultimately this became his deathbed. He gazed out the window from time to time, observing the elephant, wondering about their parallel destinies. His once-holy radiance faded with bodily decay. As the Bogd drew his last breath, everyone forgot about the once-so-grand body in the park outside. There was one exception – a small lama. He tried to save the elephant’s life when there was still hope. He only had one wish: to have the honour of bringing the elephant back to her homeland. No one dared ask the Great Lama for the key to the main gate, through which the elephant had to be escorted. Not even his closest servants would have dared ask him to give away a single animal from his collection. Thus, all the little lama could do was watch the ill-fated elephant in vain. The elephant became the last sacrifice to the Bogd’s ailing power.
This morning I wandered with the lama through what used to be a park. The restoration of the palace was in full swing. It shall become a museum. The garden is all forgotten, however. Mongols do not bury the dead in the ground: neither humans nor animals. They transport the carcasses past the city gate. In wilderness the bodies are left for vultures and wolves. Pieces of bone, licked white by animals, mark the wander of souls towards the next life. Remnants of bones from the elephant shine iridescent white against the brown sand.
The lama hands me the anklebone of the perished elephant. He wishes that the memory of the elephant, and with it the memory of what once was, would flourish outside the borders of Mongolia and the iron grip that clamps the country from every direction. He wraps the white piece of bone in paper marked with beautiful characters – blessings and wishes for the elephant’s transmigration and the journey towards a new life.
I shudder at the thought of leaving the palace grounds with an elephant’s anklebone, and I start thinking of the only book I have read about a European woman’s adventures in this country as far from the Seven Seas as one can be. Miss Beatrix Bulstrode - Mrs Gull by marriage - rode in these areas when the Bogd was still the Great Bogd. Just outside the city, whose name was then Urga, not Ulaanbaatar as now, she found a whitewashed human cranium. She set herself the task of bringing her findings back to The Ethnography Collection in London. Thus she rode back to the cabin where she was lodged, with a skull dangling from a steel string on one of her bags.
Back to her lodgings – and very pleased – she showed her findings to her travel companions. They all seemed sceptical and disgusted. They advised her – probably after an attempt to persuade her to be rid of it – to dip the skull in alcohol to avoid diseases and bacteria that could have caused the death of the lately beheaded.
When the departure from Urga was near, Miss Bulstrode inspected the skull in the bucket of liquor and discovered - to her great consternation - that the cranium was not as sterile as she had thought. Visible remnants of brain were still left within the skull. She did not dare to describe this in anatomical fashion. As I recall, she referred to it as “remnants”, as I do. No one wanted to assist her in the removal of the leftovers of dead, rotten life. So Miss Bulstrode emptied the bucket in her host’s backyard.
The host, quite understandably, felt deeply insulted by this act and the fact that he now had a human skull in his backyard. The lady picked one of her English newspapers from her saddle bag, wrapped the skull in it, crammed the whole package back into the bag and left town with a revealing bulk protruding on one side of her saddle. As she passeed the gates of Urga she tosses both cranium and wrapping into a parched bush.
The borders of the city have been stretched to such an extent the last decade that I keep wondering if anyone ever stumbled across a cranium wrapped in a foreign newspaper, and if that possibly happened, what that person might have thought. Miss Bulstrode herself worried about the possible discovery of a Sherlock Holmes. I’d rather put my bet on a recent nomad, just escaped from the dry plains, or in the worst case a Chinese or Russian officer, whom of which depending on the number of years elapsed before rediscovery. Perhaps it became a shelter for one of the town’s many marmots.
As I left the palace this late afternoon and headed home under the scarlet sun, I found comfort in the fact that I had a Lama’s blessing. The bone I bore with me was not a human bone, neither was it wrapped in a European newspaper, rather in a local monk’s blessing words. However, I must admit that I admire Miss Beatrix Bulstrode, and apologetically I think that only the recent fall of the colonial powers could make us Europeans see the country with the kind of eyes that I let rest on the horizon that particular night.
The Gift and the Pathfinder
On the fifth day in Ulaanbaatar an older gentleman dressed in a traditional deel approached me. He led his camel through the narrow streets between the gers. Two figures in the shades of dust and sand approached me, their motions synchronised.
The man’s left hand held tight an object, visible as black among the brown skin, fur and weathered clothes. The peculiar object looked like half a pair of binoculars. He handed it to me as the questioning look on his face folded out to a kind smile. I let go of my Kodak, and left it dangling on the strap around my neck. I noticed the other part of what once was a pair of binoculars– now parted into two halves – was camouflaged in brown dust, on a strap similar to the one on my camera, around the man’s neck. I accepted, still a bit surprised. It was really half a binocular, meticulously sawn in two. The Nomad’s gesture was a request of friendship, which I accepted as I accepted my half of the symbolic, useful object.
The man pressed a rough right palm toward his chest and said: “Nergü”. I did the same and pronounced my name as clearly as I could. I thought my first name appropriate given the situation: Mongolians have last names neither of origin nor of heritage.
Nergü placed his palm lightly on my shoulder and lead his camel and me further down the street that had no paving stones. It looked like the streets had paved themselves with hard, yellow sand. We passed naked toddlers, goats and large felt covers that were left to dry on the wooden fences. It smelled intensely of damp camel’s wool. At the far end of the road I glimpsed a temple, with roof tiles in various colours and glimmering gemstones in the afternoon sun.
Nergü’s ger lay behind one of the fences, and was one of two small gers at the property. The two gers were the monastery’s closest neighbours. Both doors were orange, decorated in the particular pattern of that family. Goats and dogs apparently lived in harmony at the tiny piazza between the two houses – with one exception – a dog affected with rabies that was fastened by a thick rope to an even thicker pole. I was led into the ger to the right. Nergü held his hand gently just above my head and pointed towards the doorstep. I had read that I should under no circumstance ever tread on that piece of wood. It made me so nervous that I almost stumbled across it. Nergü just smiled forgivingly, or perhaps overbearingly.
Inside the ger I was served fermented goat’s milk – called airag – and sun-dried brown goat’s cheese, by an elderly woman. I was not aware that geitost, or brown goat cheese, was served in any other place than the Norwegian countryside. It tasted like pure divinity! I wondered if they were always as well prepared for visitors. I sent a smile towards Nergü. He nodded towards his wife, who sat with her legs crossed on the floor, straight across from my own long, clumsy limbs. “Bolormaa,” she said, with her hand resting on her heart. I started to worry about further communication. Now we knew each other’s names. Our names were the only words in our very limited shared vocabulary. As this struck me, and before I had to worry about the limits of communication any longer, the smiling face of a young man appeared in the small door.
Batu was the son of Nergü and Bolormaa. To my great surprise, he addressed me in English: a halting kind of English, yet with hints of broad American accent. “I used to be the caravan leader for Roy Chapman Andrews’ expedition in the Gobi a couple of years back” he said when he noticed my questioning gaze, combined with a mouth not-so-elegantly half open. I had communicated through mimicry, nodding, head-shaking and finger-moving for so many weeks that I was dumbfounded as I wondered if I actually heard what I just heard.
Batu was wondering even more: “And may I ask what brings you here?”
“I wish to travel to Bayanzag.” I said.
I gave him no clues of what originally made me dream of that site, my business there, the purpose of my travel, or how I should ever get even close to that mythic scenery. Originally, I had a kind of expectation of meeting some adventurous expedition leader in desperate need for a last member to his party, preferably a person with experience within field photography. I kept that explanation to myself, as I realised how naïve it might sound. Ulaanbaatar was more of a vast tent camp and less of a city than I had imagined. I had not encountered any Englishman, nor Frenchman or American, since my arrival five days ago.
“I can take you there,” said Batu.
Thus, all of a sudden, adventure and opportunity had presented themselves.
It was decided. I was ready to leave the last frontier of civilisation – Ulaanbaatar. Batu was to be my guide through plains, steppe and desert. It had started with a chance encounter, and was to be propelled by the Mongolian’s beautiful, hospitable tradition: willingness to offer strangers the very best.
Not a shred is wasted in a Mongolian household, least of all water. I, on the other hand, wash to realise guiltily that I am even dirtier when the evening comes. I sip water greedily, only to feel how salty sweat makes the face dry and eyes to sting after a few minutes under the relentless sun. If I ever want to return from this journey alive, I am in need of a pathfinder who knows how to survive and find resources.
Picnic in the Wilderness
We have left civilisation. This morning Batu came towards me leading a caravan of seven camels. Five of them were packed to the brim with equipment. I must admit I was quite surprised, or, rather, frightened. I inspected the wooden structures, the bulky woollen blankets and textiles felted of stiff camel hair. Looking more closely I found straps and some pieces of wood that looked very much like a dismantled bed. The bed was painted orange, with stylised flowers in green and red, similar to the doors I had seen at the family’s ger two weeks earlier.
After that first encounter, Nergü and Bolormaa had mysteriously found me in the streets again and again, each time hurling me back to their ger for a meal and a warm bed right next to the fireplace.
“How on earth will all this become useful?” I thought in despair, back to the reality of dismantled beds and other knick-knacks.
One day I brag about my friend’s nomadic thrift as a key to survival in the hostile environments of the desert. And the very next day he comes with the largest loads I’ve ever seen. Batu was probably not short of words of explanation, but he found it best to meet my despaired expression with a smile.
“She will get it eventually,” he probably thought, sympathetic as always.
Nomads never travel far without their home, their ger. In fact the big load consisted of the whole ger that once stood next to Nergü’s. I had seen a model of such a simple hut at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, with its realistic materials and explanatory cross-section display. I thought, quite relieved, that this could come in handy when the ger was supposed to be mounted and dismounted with every camp – basically every day.
After ten long hours on a slightly too broad camel’s back, I felt seasick. Yes, it feels like seasickness. I thought I was hallucinating when I saw a table, two chairs and a stove with its chimney, standing in the midst of the eternal, rolling plain. The orange wood almost merged with the countless red, yellow and brown stones that stretched miles into the haze ahead of us. These pieces of furniture belonged to Batu, left behind at the site of his summer place last year. This was the first stop on our journey south towards the Gobi Desert. Batu found his furniture where he had left it, in a landscape seemingly identical for miles and miles in every direction. I have no idea how he managed. There are no roads in the desert. Paths are rarely established.
I will end this evening with Batu’s own words:
“The Sun, the four directions and the predictions are every pathfinder’s companions”.
The Predictions of Bones
The notebook rests slightly unsteady on the hard mattress. I write in the light of a single candle stub. Back and shoulders have to be pushed upwards, as my left arm press the book down. The handwriting gradually becomes unrecognisable. It gets a charming touch of an adventurer’s handwriting. The stove in the middle of the tent is fuelled with dry desert plants and camel dung.
The grimy stove hatch is opened and closed, day in and day out, first by a mother, then her daughter and her daughter’s daughter. Through endless repetition, its resting position has migrated, little by little, through imperceptible displacements. Now it is framed crookedly by small wedges of light. The ravages of time have produced useful illumination. As the candle burns out, they seem increasingly intense. In the end I write in the light of these refugee flames alone.
My eyes sting from the harsh shifts in light reflected in the sand. Today’s journey was perhaps the most radiant we have had until now. The high summer of the desert is closing in. Batu says it will arrive in two days. He rests, drowsy, on the mattress on the opposite side of the stove. Now and then his hand rises slowly. He seeks our shared destiny in the predictions of white ankle bones. Carcasses become intact skulls, spines, hipbones, and in the end, only shards of bones. Ankle bones are picked up and retained, from meals and from wanderings in the desert.
With a well-practiced cast, Batu’s right hand throws the ankle bones across the hard sand, with the same familiarity as if he was combing his hair. First each bone lands with a thump, then it finds its position, and thereby several bones combined grant us stories of a possible future. It all comes down to throwing with that skilled cast, with an underlying humble respect for what once was. Batu’s hand has made these movements since being the hand of a child. Now it is tanned and sinewy, and its movements are made with an assertiveness that can only be achieved through long repetition. One of the cracks in the stove casts a beam of light on the otherwise black floor. Batu’s eyes glance over the positioned anklebones resting in front of the mattress. An anklebone has four possible landing orientations, each representing an animal: camel, horse, goat and sheep.
On one of the first days of this journey I tried to throw shagai myself. All the bones landed in their flattest manner, representing the animal lowest in rank: the sheep. I did not get even a single goat, only four sheep, over and over. Batu laughed of the predictions of my miserable thrown ankle bones and thereby my even more miserable fortune. He convinced me to give it a third shot, and later a fourth. When the two latter throws turned out with as hopeless predictions as the two preceding them, he glanced at me, quite startled. He had never experienced this before. If it had been about my non-existing skills, or the fact that the snap of the wrist did not even come close to a proper cast, chance might as well have given me at least one goat with a little luck and happiness among all the sad sheep. An untrained hand alone could not be responsible for predictions of such an unfortunate future. Therefore, I am forbidden to throw a single bone tonight. Batu throws. He defines which part of our journey he wants to predict the fortune of before each throw. He has been going for a couple of hours, a throw, a chain of thoughts, a subsequent fortune, a phase of rest and reflection and finally a new throw with possibilities for a new tale.
It is as solid black in the ger as the day is stinging bright white. Here, in complete darkness, future life is read from bright, white ankle bones.
My notes will need to be revised tomorrow morning, so that they are readable once I am back to civilisation.
Nergü leads me over the endless plain, under the radiant blue sky. Like a ship she slides towards the horizon. It glows white as zinc, slender and as a constant unit that escapes us as we move closer. Sweat is running, it dries and turns into white, stinging salt. My lips get dry and chapped. We find ourselves as far from the Seven Seas as it is possible to get. In fact, this journey will lead us even further away. The closest water hole is many days’ journey behind us. Our caravan takes us away from these oases and their muddy waters. Sand and dust lurk between clothes and skin, seal every small gap. Despite the overwhelmingly harsh climate, Nergü keeps her gaze towards the horizon. Dust hits her face, only to be filtered away by long, dense eyelashes. This is the climate she was created for. She is at the heart of her own territory.
Nergü’s body seems to thrive here. As she inhales the body extracts the moisture she breathed out just a moment earlier. A lifesaving system of circulation; she can survive on the same water for four days, while still doing her job – carrying us safely to Bayanzag. A harsh winter has eaten into the fat reserves of her humps. They roll in the rhythm of her hips’ movement. Five long days with me on her back have not treated the reserves too well. Her humps are even harder to cling to than they were as we left Urga. I keep myself safe on her back by clinging to some dangling pieces of skin and leftover winter fur. I depend on her. I try to not be disgusted as tallow, sand and strands of hair come off in lumps grasped between my sweaty fingers.
Despite her dehydration, Nergü is not exactly a lightweight animal. When one of her species catches up with us, they often bump into her sideways, and thereby I feel the pressure of two heavy bodies against my tired calf. Yesterday, just as we stopped to camp, she spread herself flaton the ground as I was dismantling her. It seemed like she had lost her consciousness, until she slowly raised her head minutely to inspect something on the ground. With lazy movements her mouth snapped some dust from a withered plant. The dust was salty, but she seemed to hydrate from it. My camel is a supreme desert queen. She was born and lived her first few years as an untamed animal in the wilderness. She still has the capability of drinking salt water, or rather a sort of salt porridge that the tame camels cannot make any use of. It turns out that the other camels are not quite of her sort after all. She is something unto herself, born a wild Bactrian camel of the Southern Gobi, tamed to be part of a caravan rather than her flock.
Her name Nergü means “no name”. Batu has given the female camel the same name as his father. A name that is given to boy or girl, human or animal, to mislead evil spirits.
My greatest fear right now is to run out of film. As an attempt to avoid it, I dig into my notebook and use the pen as a remedy against the ever-growing eagerness of photographing everything. Perhaps I will end up with a handful of red stones, some pieces of bone and hundreds of photographs of empty landscapes, only to discover a stunning subject through my binoculars when all the films are exposed with scenes that probably seem unbearably mundaneby that time.
Photographer is what I should have been by profession. Leading cars or huge caravans of camels loaded with equipment and eager assistants. I seek my subject as an eagle hunts an innocent lamb. Speaking of hunting: before the departure from Ulaanbaatar I was gifted with a rifle and a fur coat. I dare not ask of possible situations where these belongings might become useful or - perhaps rather - necessary. The rifle and the fur coat would be lifesaving in any encounter with a wolf. Batu could have the rifle and fire some warning shots. Meanwhile, I can hide under the fur coat. I prefer to lie low and keep myself hidden, rather than risk a battle the superior steppe wolf.
Hand me a rifle and my knees get weak and I get pale around the gills. Throw me into a treacherously risky situations that could possibly be turned into a good photograph and my cheeks turn red and I plunge in without thought of consequence. I do not spend too much time worrying about water or food rations; rather, I spend time worrying about the decreasing numbers of Kodak film rolls. I also fear that Batu will lead me in the right direction, but simultaneously lead me away from scenes that I might stumble across had I been whirling around here on my own. I would honestly prefer if our caravan made many long detours until it dropped, than a safe passage direct to destination, if the former lead to an outstanding photograph in previously-unrecorded terrain. I put others as well as myself in danger, also in part as I find things so dull back home – boring and trivial to be more specific. It all could have been even worse, if I did it all for money or fame.
And one last, well-kept, secret: the so-called rifle – our protection against wolf, Gobi bear, snow leopard and other creatures that might consider attacking us – is a pre-historic matchlock musket. It seems quite unmanageable for daily use, so I keep my fingers crossed that there will be no need to open fire. I keep a flare gun myself, for warning shots towards a rutting ibex or for a last plea for help from civilisation. Although I must admit, the latter seems unlikely here on an eternal and deserted desert plain.
Batu does not know the age or origin of the musket. It has been handed down for generations. In Europe they were introduced around the sixteenth century and replaced by rifles near the beginning of the nineteenth. That’s about how far my knowledge on rifles, muskets and guns goes. Just enough to know for sure that the weapon might be somewhat out-dated and moreover too time demanding in situations where one is running out of time. At least it is stylish and still functioning. Batu has demonstrated the musket with lighted wick! So – I have a fur coat and a musket in disguise among the load.
I did not wake up this morning, because I had not slept. I rolled out of the hard bed and placed my left foot on the cold, hard-packed sand floor, very similar to the eternal, never-ending ground that awaits us outside, enveloping us from all directions.
I started this wrong-footed morning complaining to Batu about the annoying dogs that made such frantic noises all night long. “Were there really that many stray dogs this far from any town?”
“They were wolf”, Batu said, as if it were a matter of course.
I must have misunderstood, I thought. When his American accent slips, he sometimes skips several vowels in a row. The word “wolf” is quite hard-sounding. It was just that – wolf. Welcome to the wilderness, nature untouched, to desert and plains where the supremacy of the human being fails.
Now I get why Mongolians prefer to bring their house, on wheels or wrapped up, rather than to sleep in a small tent of simple canvas and stick-like poles. Behind such a curtain, I am sure I could have heard the wolf breathe. The wolf could have smelt the fresh meat. What you don’t know won’t hurt you: for both the wolf and for me.
However, I had certain concerns begging resolution when it came to the relationship between the wolf and Tuva, before we left this safe haven in the shape of a lonely ger located on the last frontier of sparse, scorched grass…
We had left Batu’s ger at its regular summer place, where there was enough grass to pasture a few goats and sheep. Hospitable nomads have lodged us in their lonely gers along the road. Endless, dry desert plains gradually swallow civilisation. The distance between every ger and every herd of grazing livestock becomes larger the further south we travel. And for every mile south, the blades of grass get dryer, smaller and sparser.
The family that hosts us on the last nomadic frontier, which moves a bit every year, depending on where the grass shows up, seems wild, although kind. Now it is time to sleep under a canvas, with possible wolf lurking outside… If there was really any risk of ambush at all, I preferred to stay behind here and get to know this family better, as a matter of fact at least almost indefinitely. I could even consider wintering here.
During breakfast, which consisted of a handful of boiled rice poured into some greasy goat milk made tasty with a block of Chinese caravan tea, I tried to rephrase my grave concerns into a somewhat mild question.
“Where there is sheep there is goat. Where there is no sheep there is no wolf. There are only camels. The wolf will not attack camels,” Batu said.
I swallowed the sweet, filling gruel which reminded me of something between porridge, tea and soup – not as tasty as any of the latter – in large gulps. Batu’s re-assuring words were more than enough to prefer unknown territory to this last and all too sad final frontier of civilisation.
A Vehicle far away from home
The telegraph line cuts through the desert. Poles of Siberian Pine in regular monotony in the midst of the endless plain, with no trees alive. Lines of stretched wire between neatly placed poles of timber. If you follow the line, you follow the only trail of civilisation in this hostile landscape. Many a wanderer has seen mirages of vertical logs of timber: trickery in horizontal eternity. Our pathfinder’s journey runs along a different line, a line shaped by memory. This morning our route southwards ran parallel to the telegraph line for a short while. I would not call it a highway, though. We only met one other caravan:
We stopped our own caravan for a refreshment break. As we were busy putting up some tent poles and a simple canvas as shelter from the sun, we noticed a dot on the horizon. It quickly approached our simple shelter. Was this an attack? Should we keep the musket ready? I admit that I was quite expectant of a scene, and perhaps even more, the anecdote that often follows such an event. The wilderness triggered some childish courage and adventurous spirit in me, to such an extent that my knees did not shake in the slightest underneath my khaki’s and knee-high hiking boots.
This time it was definitely not necessary to take up arms. The creature coming towards us in a somewhat creative caravan seemed completely harmless. The caravan, or rather the vehicle at the rear end of the caravan, deserves a great part of the honour for the sight that we beheld; a very entertaining performance, with the desert as backdrop. Two horses with solid harnesses, strapped to two heavy timber logs, oversized even for pulling a plough. The horses were equipped with blinders. I have no idea what sights needed to be shielded from them in this quiet, peaceful landscape. They were probably installed quite early in the jouney and later forgotten.
What a vehicle it was: the timber logs were fastened to an automobile! As for now, it was neither auto, nor mobile. At best the automobile functioned as a wagon or a hull, at worsst as an unbearably heavy load. Considering the speed of the party, it seemed more like the latter. It seemed to move even slower than it did as a dot on the horizon about an hour earlier. Two nomads had been given the nigh-impossible task of seizing, riding, and forcing a thoroughbred takhi to move forward. It was hard to decide whether these men or their horses were the most exhausted and annoyed. The horses were perhaps suffering the most from weary limbs. The men were annoyed by the seemingly meaningless assignment. The vehicle they were securing the progress of displayed three flags: French, Russian and British. Each flag symbolised protection from that country’s embassy and government.
Numerous crates were stashed among seats, doors, gearshift and hand brake. On the only available seat - the spacious front seat - sat a gentleman with moustache, glasses and Stanley hat.
The man behind the wheel was European, the first of his kind our caravan observed since the start of our journey across the plains, towards the distant Gobi desert and the flaming cliffs of Bayanzag. We had observed the master and his servants through the binoculars for about an hour. Meanwhile we had consumed a simple meal consisting of a sparse selection of canned edibles. Today on the menu were peas and beans. The meal was perhaps not characterised by abundance, but was richly seasoned with entertainment – an unforgettable sight! After a while we considered continuing with tea, but we thought it polite to wait for the stranger.
Batu re-assured me several times: this could not be a native man, neither a resident. The man corresponded with Batu’s understanding of a European in every way. He had been told about the grand, perfectly decorated villas with thousands of valuable objects that you hardly could find any use for – although their main purpose was to reflect beauty and prosperity. This European gentleman had thought that he might as well bring his entire estate on the journey, or at least, a great deal of the interior of his decorated ballrooms. And what else could one expect from a man from the heart of the European continent?
Monsieur Jacques Stéphane Passet, the nephew of the famous travel photographer Stéphane Passet originated from the even more famous city of Paris. I had heard of neither the Senior nor Junior in the Passet family until today around noon. Although they might not be that important from a global perspective, it seems to me that the younger Monsieur Passet considers the task he has set himself important enough to justify leaving his rural mansion, which according to Passet, was located right next to Marseilles. Indeed, he considered the quest so utterly important that he sought recognition from three countries, of whom two were great colonial powers, recognition proved by the three flags on his automobile. Thus Monsieur Stéphane Passet Jr.’s undertaking was protected and secured thrice. This strategy originally belonged to Monsieur Stéphane Passet Senior, although he only had double protection on his two journeys in Mongolia.
Monseieur Passet expounded his crown protection in quite some detail. “It is utterly important that the countries are kept unaware of each other’s protection. My uncle stressed the importance that each of the involved parties thinks of itself as the superior protector in the reports sent to its main quarter. Then it will retain its recognition in unfortunate circumstances, such as if the traveller became subject to an accident. My servants are instructed to remove a flag or two if we come across travellers from these countries. Honestly, Mademoiselle Tengel, we thought you were part of a caravan of native Mongolians. This conclusion was based on your equipment and costumes. Nowit strikes me, however, that you might as well be a French woman. But not in my wildest imagination did I expect to encounter an English-speaking European woman out here.”
As he sipped his coffee, Monsieur Passet scrutinised each camel and piece of furniture, seemingly in mild bewilderment. After the Frenchman admitted his original assumptions concerning my country of origin, the conversation stalled. As if on command, Monsieur Passet rose from his seat. The small orange chair overturned and landed on the ground. Without even looking at the overturned chair, Passet strode towards his automobile. He pointed to the passenger seat and thereby at his helpers, one after the other. One of them went quietly towards the vehicle, slightly annoyed, and hurled out the box that his superior Monsieur had pointed out. Monsieur shook his head, and pointed toward another box, that was squeezed between three other pieces of luggage in the overloaded back seat. His most loyal servant was definitely annoyed and his appearance took on a flushed crimson aspect in hisanger. Despite, or perhaps due to, his loss of temper, he managed to fling three loads away in a single throw, to reach a fourth one quite effectively.
“Attention!!” the Frenchman spat.
He turned towards me, slightly apologetic “Il est autochrome”.
He had brought along a small archive of autochrome photographs. It made me wonder which other artefacts were hidden in the twenty-something cargo boxes. Eager, yet with a fastidious and theatrical carefulness, Monsieur Passet unwrapped twelve small original glass plates.
The photographs had been exposed in Mongolia, about twenty years ago, by his uncle Monsieur Stéphane Passet. One of the plates held a picture of a Mongolian princess in a colourful costume and headpieces studded with corals and gemstones. Worthy, yet still adorable, mounted on her magnificent horse. Rider as well as horse had faces revealing strong character.
One of the other plates was a photograph of a criminal. He carried the burden of his immoral acts, and simultaneously his own prison cell, around his neck, in the form of a heavy piece of wood. A heavy burden that seemed both humiliating and physically unbearable. The crimes the nomad had committed were described in two rows of characters on the woodblock. Faced from the front, the story started on the left side of the man’s head and ended on the far right. One would have to encircle him to get his entire criminal record.
I was impressed by the variety of the small image archive, and wondered if Monsieur Passet ever feared that any of these valuable plates, these unique moments, should break into pieces and get destroyed on this strenuous, bumpy journey across plains and dunes. The Frenchman embarked on a long road of explanations about how his uncle never had any children, and that he himself was his favourite. Apparently he thought that this story would defend his actions and justify the choices that led him to visit the famous photographic Archive of the Planet in the capital of France one dark winter’s night and remove twelve carefully selected plates from a collection of tens of thousands of moments exposed with autochrome technique onto fragile glass plates. It did not seem to bother him that some of the plates could be reported as missing and possibly land him in trouble. His plan was to return with something even greater – even more outstanding photographs – and thereby save the reputation of the Archive, as well as its economy.
Like his uncle, Passet brought with him a portable darkroom, a tent with several rooms for himself to stay in and a selection of small single-roomed tents. He would share his bedroom with neither travel companions nor photographic equipment. His travel wardrobe held a large variety of clothing and costumes, among others a dinner jacket with matching bow tie, an opera shawl, a jacket matching the shawl in colour and style, patent leather shoes, a selection of hats to be used as protection against the sun,a veil in case of combustion, vests and shirts of all description, and all the varieties of Khaki imaginable. He had also brought tea sets of finest china, silverware, typewriter, radio, umbrella and walking stick – the latter two with identical, custom-made silver handles.
Every object bore Passet’s emblem, or rather, that of his uncle and greatest role model Monsieur Passet Sr.: SB. It makes me wonder whether the uncle and predecessor was a tiny bit more adventurous, or if he too wanted to remain enveloped in homely wealth while leading his expedition. I prefer being mistaken for a local and choose to take that as a compliment, although I am quite certain it was not intended as one.
As the time came to conclude this fascinating interlude, I bid Monsieur Jacques Stéphane Passet au revoir.
Elevations rise from flat plains. Imperceptible at first, they are as if the hard sand was moved by the wind at a time when it was softer. Rock formations create crowns, cast like strong, meandering spines across the ridges. These two elements of landscape do not fit together. It is impossible for plain and peak to exist in complete harmony. They are life and death. The risen formations are slowly crushed and strewn into unbroken hard surfaces of sand. The spine is left behind without body. It cannot support itself forever. Pieces break loose and become blocks beneath the summits. The footing is only temporary. The same process washes out the foundation, until only remnants of an overhanging crown stay behind.
The eagle nests in the middle of the tower, where only she can reach. Humans can only wander to the top if there is a back road. The mid-section of the wall belongs to the eagle. The humans bring their dead to the peak. The eagle in the nest underneath rises and encircles the mountain.
When I wandered to the top, I got the feeling of not belonging.
I am standing above the eagle’s nest. There are not any eggs, so I am alone. Pieces of bone lie in a stone circle here beside me – remnants of a human being. As I look through the camera I notice scattered bone pieces from hundreds of animals in the valley below, as white irregularities in an eternal landscape. As I press the shutter, I sense how it feels hard under my index finger. An image will show the view, not the vibrations of the air, the vigilance of both animal and human. The eagle sails mid-air, out of reach. The camera ruled by the movement of the hand is always too late.
Wars have long been fought between humans, eagles, wolves and weather. A peak enveloped in the blizzard rises above a protected valley. Sheep and goat have been easy prey. Camels have been ailing. Horses have succumbed never to rise again. Spines and femora washed white. The remnants of a horse’s head with no mandible, resting with front teeth towards crushed rocks. Emaciated horses lick salt crystals from an almost-evaporated salt lake – soon to become an eternal flat, white and pink surface that will reflect the sun. The horses are drowsy from cold, thirst and starvation.
Camel, goat and sheep stay together as one herd. The survivors.
A young boy rides tall, with his gaze fixed on the horizon. The face of a child ages quicker through, looks wiser at the end of, such a harsh winter. The skin across his cheeks gets lines, as on the face of someone much older. Eyes are sharpened, stinging, restless; they always keep watch. The boy rises above the herd with his urga. He keeps the animals gathered and in controlled pace, constant movement, towards the next tufts of grass, the next water hole. The dung is gathered when the animals have moved forward. Dung in the oven as fuel and gives heat for tea, food and aching bones.
The landscape holds its own fragile harmony. Under the sky the soul can depart the body, as the vulture eats every piece of red meat and sinewy beige and black intestine until the bones are left white. At the ledges below me, the eagle awaits. The wolf lurks in the pass further down, on his way towards the nomad’s winter home. In the summer the humans move to the plains further away from the animal’s territory. It is not summer yet. I can hear the wolf every night, although he is always out of sight.
Deep down here the presence of the eagle is sensed as wings spanning beneath a blue sky. They watch me. I am unaware of them. Sometimes I get a glimpse, black feathers pointing directions on a blue sky. The boy’s eyes are still attentively watching over intruders in his territory. The frontiers are fragile and in eternal negotiation.
The presence of the dead – death comes to life – is such an evident part of life.
Death with life.
Daughter of the Lama
Bogd Khaan was the emperor of Mongolia as well as the people’s spiritual leader. On one hand he was encouraged to marry and get an heir. On the other hand he was the Buddhist spiritual leader. Strictly speaking he should have lived his life in celibacy. The Mongols are convinced: their Bogd could not do any wrong. They never question his two roles and the double life that follows. It seems less peculiar to them than to me. I’ve kept wondering ever since I heard that the Bogd has a son: Who is considered his rightful descendant?
About a week ago I realised that the recently deceased Bogd was not the only one who lived a double life. The exception does not only apply to the upper social strata, but also to the lamas in far more modest temples. Temples scattered through the landscape. I would not even consider these places as communities, rather small clusters of houses in the middle of the desolate wilderness. Here, far away from every potential new student, it hardly helps that half of the sons of Mongolia are chosen to follow the Buddhist monasticism. If the Lama chooses a life in celibacy, the monastery’s traditions may die with him. If he chooses to have children, preferably sons, he will let the traditions of the cloister be passed on to yet another generation.
In Northern Gobi I met a Lama who had three children. The two eldest were boys. His youngest child was a girl, but not less loved in any way. It seemed like the Lama had forgotten his original intention of marriage and offspring: to raise young monks to become the next Lamas. The daughter was his treasure and blessed child, drifting between prayer wheels and ceremonial tents, exempt from the many burdens and tasks of an ordinary daughter of the Mongolian plains. Her two brothers seemed light-hearted and joyous, with plenty of time to play between studies of the holy curriculum. It would not surprise anyone if they choose the life of their father. If one of them wishes to leave the temples behind some day, that would also be a respected choice, the smiling Lama - proud father of the two yellow-hat monks dressed in what is called embryo - reassures me. The dress and its name suits the two small, slender bodies rather well, with their clean-cut hair at the top of their proportionally large heads. “But why should they do such a thing?” he adds in well-spoken English. Families from nearby and visiting pilgrims provide them with food. A monk cannot claim life, nor cause life. In Mongolia they permit the latter. All of a sudden, monasticism seems more joyous and alluring.
Fronts of formations spread out just above the horizon. I have photographed the storms from a distance. They resemble the endless mountain range of Altai in winter, reflected into restless sea.
There is no such thing as sea here. To reach the closest sea I would first need to make the pilgrimage across endless mountain chains, ascending hundreds of peaks, moving through countless passes. Finally, after reaching the holy city of Lhasa, the long stretch south to Calcutta or Rangoon would follow, until I finally would reach the shore at the Bay of Bengal. Nergü could perhaps have survived if she had taken her time. No man that I am aware of has made this journey, either by walking or by riding between the humps of a Bactrian camel. I dare say no woman has ever dared try.
The hovering heat vibrates and the sun stings. The winter is, like the sea, as far away as it can ever be. As I gaze towards the movement within the white dust cloud, the swirling starts to remind me of mountain peaks dipped in whipped cream. They re-form quicker than other forms of clouds. Enormous mass and power is moved between every time I capture a transiting formation to film. I have been spending many afternoons in this desert. It has always been just a matter of time before I should find myself in the very centre of these powers.
From the centre, the clouds no longer seem white. At first they look heavier, more closed and grey. As they approach they become masses of brown dust. They tumble and swallow everything, like the throat of a ravenous beast. Every pocket of air is filled with sand that suffocates, abrades skin and wears holes in clothes and felt covers. Nergü’s last tufts of winter fur are torn off. The storm gulps, swallows and spits. It claims you and the ones you care for, shakes and overturns whatever gets in its way, before they reappear in new form on the other side. It is as if the storm wants to turn the physical world, with all its loose objects, upside down. This goes for every sandstorm. A nomad experiences this power regularly. All his possessions are moveable. Very little is vital.
A horse and a camel survive if they gather as allies. The nomad does not consider the storm more dramatic than a heavy shower of rain. Rain on the contrary, is a huge event, often lifesaving, and seldom foreseen.
First, sand found its way behind my eyes. Then into the camera: in small gaps between screws, wheels, coils, prisms and glass, despite that I kept the Kodak Vest Pocket on a cord and against my chest, behind the deel and blouse. As Danish adventurer and dairy farmer Henning Haslund described the picture of himself posing with deel and musket: acclimatised. I have both deel and musket. I have also started to enjoy Chinese caravan tea, which is why had a heavy heart as I watched our teapot collection tumble in the swirling air towards the mountains, which were days and weeks away.
The wind would whirl worse! It ripped the lid off one of the shipping boxes and took hold of some of the rolls of film. I still have no estimate of the number of films that disappeared. The box with the plates that were already exposed with a different, heavier camera, rolled in its entirety out from under the felt covers, as we tried to keep the covers nailed to the ground with our bare hands and whatever else we had: ropes and tent poles, elbows, knees, fingers and teeth. It was all in vain.
The felt covers flapped and tore as if they were small prayer shawls of frayed silk. I got a glimpse of the box as the lid was ripped off. It looked as if a piece of the very storm itself was caught within the box. The air spat out all the glass plates. They pulverised as they reached the ground. The shards had barely reached the ground, if they ever did, before they were turned into sand and scattered into the desert, whose existence was based upon other stones and objects themselves turned into sand once upon a time. Experiences and moments were thus returned to the desert from whence they had come. Memories engraved onto fragile glass were passed on, sent away. Sand in sand.
When I finally could let go of the felt cover and fix my gaze towards the horizon without filling my eyes, mouth and lungs with sand, I saw a rolling, uneven ball, like a haystack, turning with the wind and departing along with some of the pulverised moments of mine. For Nergü it was a relief to get rid of the last strands of warm, wiry winter fur. Tufts of her fur rolled out into the endless desert, where they were enveloped, embraced by other rolling residues, twigs and shrubs. An occasional dead marmot was baked into the organic mass too.
Two full days after the storm, I still met swaying clumps of fur, twigs and shards, first broken up by the ravages of wind, then gathered into tumbling coherence. Some bushes are ripped up with their short, wide roots. They go where the wind blows. They seek ground some place new. Even plants lead nomadic lives in the hostile harshness of desert.
Bayanzag – The Flaming Cliffs
The landscape is similar in all directions. Days and weeks become one. Camp, eat, break camp, watch the horizon on swaying camelback, only to camp again putting up a simple tarpaulin tent or finding a spot on the floor to sleep from one of the few families in one of the rare gers.
They don’t utter much, even if Batu can speak their common mother tongue. It has been a while –so long – since last they met a traveller, another human. For the cubs, the young ones, it is their very first encounter with a stranger. Their eyes look into mine: honest, red and veiled by too much sunlight, wise and mature, as if age does not matter, friendly at times, filled with fierce temperament at others. Their eyelids and lashes flicker. Perhaps these eyes are just wild, untamed, honest – a mirror – yes precisely, a mirror of the heart. I photograph some faces, expressions.
I clench the rolls of film tight and put them in boxes, which are packed in larger, more reliable shipping crates. The photographed faces achieve a more passionate and yet controlled character, as they transform into images. Faces that flare up as volatile, shimmering memories are more honest – as the gazes themselves. Many more are kept within a guarded chamber: an invisible amulet the shape and size of a heart, consisting as memories of pure honesty. Carried therein, they create an epicentre of experience and adventure that gradually enlargens. Deep inside, the landscape surrounding me will also have its place.
Faces, landscapes and moments should not be watched and analysed by others than me. I could not bear them be looked upon in retrospect by the colonising gaze of a European.
After days on a warm camelback under a scorching sun, and nights in raw air under a thin tarpaulin I sense a transition in the colours against the horizon. A deep red, elongated shape breaks the eternal plain of maroon sand. Bayanzag – the flaming cliffs. This night is pink. The tops of the spires illuminate as gold.
As an island in the middle of an ocean, the cliff towers from the flat, hard desert floor. At first it acts like a giant, resting animal body, then more like an ark filled with unknown, mythical species. Limbs extend, spread wide like roots of a colossal tree. Spires rise up, stretching like long necks. Heads masked with expressions balance on top. Some necks scare me in their resemblance to animals about to attack. Other necks arch and bend with graceful ease and concentration, as if seeking the foothills below, but with no intention to strike. In some places sharp teeth jut forward: pre-historic predator hunting innocent prey, stopped in the most dramatic moment of motion. The cliff is like skin, flesh and blood covered by a thick layer of dust, in the glory of the golden evening sun. If you scrape away the first segment of ancient, shrivelled mud, you would find mythical creatures from far bygone times, as in hibernation, during whose slumber the landscape surrounding has changed so dramatically as to preclude their ever being able to walk the earth again. A fire has swept over the land. First all green perished. The red, as an antithesis, as fire itself, remained.
As the ground beneath them melted, the dinosaur creatures lost to greater forces. They fought each other to the last breath. The fire never ended: it smoulders on, peaking briefly every dusk as an eruption of colour. An eternal fire.
Amid the cliffs, I found four fossilised dinosaur eggs. First I wanted to take them all, though I realised it was better to take only one. The rest I left behind, waiting for more experienced palaeontologists to arrive. Roy Chapman Andrews had been here already. Would I tell the world about this if I should be the first from the outside to encounter it? The nomads arrived first. They have known about the red mountain of the dragons since their ancestors rocked the cradle of civilisation. They have discovered fossils, graciously left them where they found them, without considering the goods and gold they could have claimed for their findings. Who needs gold at the summit of a flaming cliff?
Now, my task is to document this mythical cliff in all its grandeur. I have been given the opportunity to bring the glowing, resplendent beauty of nature to those who will never find themselves at the foot of this cliff. Or should I allow this buttress stopped in motion, frozen in time, to remain unseen and so unmolested? I’ll sleep on it.
A Spiritual Oasis
As I crawled out from beneath the tarpaulin this morning, the bright light dazzled me. The rays were not from the glaring white sun, but from the reflection of it in the cliff facing me. The gold from the top of the spires spilled down along faces and necks and left the cliff yellow.
Roy Chapman Andrews sought the Garden of Eden and found colossal pre-historic creatures. I seek amazing photographs and have found my own paradise - earthly, yet divine. I cannot stop taking photographs of the cliff. But this vision, this play of light and shadow, cannot be captured onto film. It is like trying to retain the pure, original rays of light within a photograph.
A week in a landscape with only tiny shifts in the unbroken line in front of me, the journey of the sun across the horizon from east to west as the only parameters for measuring the passage of time and the movement of the caravan, creates a feeling like Bayanzag. A feeling that cannot be transferred to words in ink on paper. It can hardly be retold, passed from one person to another. Tears well up as I know I will have to carry these experiences in complete solitude: endless repetition that never seems monotonous. The tears halt long before they run down my cheek. Salty crystals beneath my sore eyes.
After countless lurching camel steps, at times my body was so dehydrated - withered - that hallucinations manifested themselves as eagerly-awaited variations in the steaming horizon. Perhaps they were mirages of concrete form. Sometimes Batu and I saw the same things. Our bodies where synchronised, after days in the most even-surfaced landscape on earth, making similar movements timed within the same rhythm, without any wave or swell as variations or awakeners. Sweat dries up. Tears feel cold as my salty, chapped cheeks absorb them. I wonder if Batu cries too.
Every rider in a caravan obtains a photographers gaze, as his eyes hunt the play of light and shadow across the landscape. Memory becomes the camera of his body. As a result, the body becomes tensed, aware of every small variation. The eyes reflect something wild, untamed from the inside. One develops the wild, focused gaze of a nomad. It was with such a gaze that I watched the cliffs for the first time. I do not miss staring at other people’s faces anymore, as I can instead hunt the light as it swipes across the cliff. I wish to find myself here for such a long time that I absorb enough of the landscape to lose the need to share it with anyone else. The view should be preserved rather than shared. I know it - there are so many good reasons - and it is only my ego that makes me doubt, that speaks up for sharing and the potential fame that may follow.
As of tonight I let the pen and camera rest. For now, I want to let this place sink into the deepest chambers of my heart, so I can carry it with me forever. As of tonight, this is just The Dragon Mountain of the wise nomads. Batu spends time in prayer and meditation.
I strive to be a nomad wandering in a landscape where time ceases to pass, where monolith stops time, a landscape I experienced in time – an oasis of time within a sea of desert.
Human beings in open landscapes, as sudden irregularities of the horizon, as a sister ship discovered at sea after seven days sailing in complete solitude.
Despite my longing for solitude, I realise humans may constitute a spiritual oasis. Midsummer has arrived, and I have decided to spend the winter among the nomads. I want to explore Bayanzag and its sister cliffs during the cold season. One day, probably when least expected, the first frost will lay its translucent, white veil over the desert plain. Still it seems distant now, during the Naadam festival. The feast is as solid and as constitutional a part of the landscape as the flaming red cliffs. Naadam has been celebrated midsummer for at least five thousand years. The competitors will be trialled in archery and horseback riding. In earlier times the challenge was to do both at once. Chinggis Khaan introduced wrestling and thereby the triple competition of modern times: archery, horseback riding and wrestling. In Ulaanbaatar, the Naadam Festival has turned into a celebration of the fragile independence of Mongolia. Among the nomads of Gobi, Naadam is a celebration of an athletic population and their indomitable pride that preserves their own traditions.
A lama enveloped in a deel with several layers of fine yellow silk rides a magnificent white horse. Hundreds of takhi – tamed Mongolian wild horses - form a row behind him. Remnants of earlier life in freedom echo from the bottom of their eyes. Above their eyes wave their gleaming manes. Brown horses dominate the enormous flock, but there are also some lighter and some black patches to be seen in the fields of fur. The clothing of the riders is like a mirage of a flowery meadow hovering above the scorched steppe, shimmering in red, orange, royal blue, turquoise and yellow, crowned by suntanned faces, like flowering Stipa Gobica in the eternal desiccated desert. The glowing facial skin is encircled by thick hair of raven black, and crowned by elaborate headdresses. Eyes light up in pairs. Sharp contrasts spread across the almost floral scene, giving it an intricate character, and the eyes of the riders bear a striking resemblance to the eyes of the animals below them. I sense the wild; yet strength and control dominates their gazes as they fix upon the horizon. A sudden small movement begins to spread through the mass. The flowers appear to straighten: at first one, then another until all the children in the sea of colour have straightened into riding position.
Deep notes roll through the children’s throats, out of open mouths. It's as if the sound has more resonance than the small bodies can accommodate. Energy spreads like wildfire on a day of turning winds, flames licking from the centre out in all directions.
This surplus of children's power descends to transfix the blank, tame gaze of the horses as if by a spell. The wildness comes into sudden focus towards the horizon. The Lama leads the flock in curved procession, tracing a perfect circle. Then, brutally and synchronously, the circle is broken. All horses gallop off into the empty, misty landscape beyond, young children half standing, half sitting across the broad, muscular backs. Flexible human spine and horseback come into horizontal alignment. All eyes fix upon the same point on an eternal horizon. Bodies, movements and plains all parallel, the small riders merge very quickly into invisiblity in the landscape that surrounds them.
In the clearing dust remains only the mounted Lama, in his yellow deel, holding a pennant lowered to the ground. Only now do I realise this was the signal. As the pennant, attached to a long silver lance, hit the ground, it was time to ride. The Lama descends from his white horse. He wanders out of the cluster of spectators, makes a few strides to the left and thrusts the pennant down into a hard, surface of stone and sand about seven steps from the outer part of the crowd. As if on command, the cluster of spectators dressed in long deels, most with half a pair of binoculars resting in their palms, splits into smaller groups. Some stride in the direction taken by the riders who appear by now just a vague mirage, a desert illusion on the hazy horizon.
The dust from the hooves is still hanging in the air. Elderly men watch the horizon in the opposite direction of where the riders left, to where the flag marks the finish line of their round trip. The far-away dust cloud seems to signal the battles of the thirty-kilometre journey. Signs and signals I can neither perceive, nor comprehend. Now as the horses are long gone, I think of the young riders, children between four and ten years old. They looked as if they were born on horseback, resting yet alert, focused, and of solidly cast physique. Many of the boys have black, long hair - like the horses - and ride barefoot, dressed in soft silk. Their faces are of almost the same colour as the horses’ skin. But I wonder at two braids I thought I saw under a shielding headgear.
Batu asks me if I noticed the girls with their braids, braided by their mothers. The girls ride like boys from ger to ger, through the landscape, herding from their horses, watching their flocks of sheep, goat, camel and other horses. A father never refuses his daughter to ride like his son, if she senses the lure of the steppe and horizon more strongly than her brothers. However, the wrestling of the gladiators is a different matter, as it is performed in costumes resembling pieces of outgrown garment, with open jackets, so that the chest is exposed during parade, fight and the final ceremonial eagle dance. A legend from the times of Chenggis Khaan tells that the costume was introduced after a woman won all her matches. She was crowned as the great master of the tournament. That she was a woman - her female body hidden beneath the heavy garments - was revealed only later.
I think to myself that if I had grown up in Mongolia, the dreams of the horizon would have awoken the desire to ride far, far away, further and further every day. When it comes to wrestling, it seems no more of a temptation to enter the ring with bare fists than to ride the battlefields with the ancient musket or a shiny new Zeiss rifle.
The brightness of young girls far exceeds the imagination of men. Every legend that suggested that horseback riding is not suited for girls, has long vanished from the Mongolian plains– and perhaps never even saw the light of day.
Two young boys practise their skills in an improvised private tournament. They stand with their arms against each other, their eyes fixed on the other wrestler, who returns the gaze. They push each other hard, more so in mental strength than in physical strength. One of the boys, the tallest, makes a sudden move and the other is tilted easily into a horizontal position. The boy hovering with his back arched just above the ground tries to rise, but in vain. The fight against the more muscular body pushing his chest from above, and the hard sand threatening from below, does not last for long. His back is arched more and bent, as his head and tailbone hit the ground simultaneously. The pointed composite shoe-caps hang mid-air in floating dust, calves tensed, eyes blinking. In a moment, the pointed boots succumb to gravity. The match is over.
The expression of the taller boy becomes more gentle, as he walks towards his comrade with two confidently long strides, the movement alone an expression of the assertiveness the young boy holds at this moment of conquest. His gentle gaze crowns the moment with respect, while the offering of his hand to help the younger boy back to his feet, and the movement of his fingers as they tie the rope keeping the younger boy’s tiny jacket in place as well as brushing the sand off his back, show the sensitivity of the ritual. The two of them stride towards proud grandfathers who clutch their deels, as well as one round hat. The winner receives the hat, and both the young wrestlers are enveloped in a deel. As I notice the four sinewy calves in the two pairs of wide boots, I hope that it will be at least a couple of years until they enter the ring for real.
On the horizon there seems to be something moving in our direction. At first I think it is a mirage. The boys eagerly continue their fight behind me, and I turn back just in time to witness the joyful sight of the youngest, the boy who was defeated by his slightly bigger cousin just a moment ago, now striking a real victory, in the role as David in David and Goliath. He breaks into the eagle dance for his cheering grandfather who looks like a Lama, enveloped in red and yellow robes. Today even the youngest gladiator got to perform the steps of victory and try on his dashing hat.
Batu greats the proud grandfather “San Banuu”. They exchange smiles, short phrases and affirmative nods. Batu returns to me and relates, obviously impressed, that the youngest gladiator, Togtoh, is eight years old and will represent his family in the official tournaments next year. His cousin Baatar is a year older and will fight as a real gladiator later this afternoon. He is by far the youngest, and his competitors exceed him by at least one year of age, and thereby one more year of experience in the ring and one more year of rice, mare’s milk, meat and growth. Baatar is the only debutant this year. This means he will not have to wrestle preliminary matches against the Goliath-sized competitors first to qualify.
Togtoh, the tiny sinewy boy, may not be built for wrestling – yet – but he is already an excellent rider and talented archer. He will not compete in the horse race this year, but won last year. The ger is still represented, this year by his sister, Tsendmaa. She rides to defend the title. Togtoh wants to do well in archery this year. The lineage has talented athletes in all three branches. The family hopes that Togtoh will be the great champion gladiator who best masters all three exercises in a few years. I nod approvingly to the proud grandfather. He smiles, with humbleness glimmering behind the blankness that always occurs in the eyes of old men of the Gobi; he raises his binoculars and looks towards the horizon.
Vibrations from hundreds of horse hooves signal to the waiting hand and agile gaze. Binoculars are raised, eyes pressed intently to them for a moment, then lowered for perhaps thirty seconds, until all are raised again simultaneously. The grandfather finds his son and grandson in the crowd. He gives the youngest his half of a binocular. A smile spread across the face of the elder, tears welling up in his eyes, then his smile spreads to his son and grandsons. The youngest, Togtoh, burst out in eagle dance, almost dancing himself out of his big boots. The front buttons of his deel pop open, transforming it into a floating, flying red cape.
Then I notice her. Riding at full gallop on a dark brown stallion. A real Daughter of Chinggis Khaan: his greatest disappointment in life was his sons, his biggest pride was his daughters.
At the end of sixteenth century, a new conqueror arose from the steppes. Manduhai, The Wise Queen, rode the battlefields and united scattered tribes into a new nation. She fought even as twins were growing in her womb.
Mongolian women have been riding like men at all times. It is not only accepted; it is expected of them, or at least very much appreciated. Mongolians are eagerly awaiting the new Manduhai. Any grandfather is assured that the fufilment of his dreams rests with his granddaughter: the apple of his eye, in a desert where apples are sparse.
Two long braids flanked with red ribbon, a lovely riding suit in orange silk waving in the wind. Weathered cheeks, stretched, arched toes, heels squeezed against the colossal body of her horse and their four eyes focused beyond the finish line. Her face blooms: red cheeks, sparkling eyes and white teeth. After crossing, she calms the horse with gentle, appreciative pats on his mane. She stays mounted, proud and worthy, until her last and perhaps her youngest competitor, hurls his exhausted horse and his own crooked back between the two red flags that mark the end of the race. Exhausted, but still relieved – he has finished his first real race!
Tsendmaa, the once-so-energetic girl, is seemingly drained of her strength, it having welled out of her, first from her throat, and then transmitted to the horse as they rode through the eternity of desert. Her energy has been exchanged for pride and happiness, barely visible behind her exhausted smile, but clearly visible in her grandfather’s weary face. Finally she can approach him and her brother Togtoh, her father, her cousin. She greets them on horseback, waiting for the ceremony. Togtoh, who won the race last year, blesses his sister’s horse by pouringmare’s milk on his mane and buttocks. One of the great throat singers of the Gobi will sing to bless the destiny of every horse present, the winner as well as the oldest horse and youngest colt. Togtoh spills the thick milk on all the other horses, a log row, all the way to the youngest colt with the youngest rider, his cheeks still red from the strenuous ride just completed. As the milk drips down his horse’s rear and from its mane down to his chubby fingers, he bursts into a smile: proud, relieved and amused by the seemingly unorthodox blessing.
Every horse has received his blessing, the drops of mares’ milk. Each competitor, still mounted, leads their horse towards their assigned spot. A long row of wooden racks has been prepared, to force the horses to stand up, so they will not lie down and stiffen before the competition or lie down not to rise again after the long ride.
Eager fathers, grandfathers and siblings come forth to assist tired riders down from sunken horsebacks. Finally Tsendmaa can walk on her own feet, though not entirely freely; everyone wants to congratulate her. They smile, holding their palms facing each other, as they bow to the girl with the beautiful braids. Many children are already mounted on horseback again, ready for the long journey home. The horses look like they are lagging behind their own, stiff legs, as they sliver off with young riders half asleep on their backs. It is said that Mongols can sleep while mounted on a horse. I can confirm that they can slumber lightly. Indeed, I saw one or two heads tilting forwards in the afternoon sun, as the rider longed for his bed and fireplace far away on the steppes.
Traces of blood stain the snow; animals become scavengers as hunger drives them to fighting and desperation. A lonely wolf at the steppe never takes an animal by the throat without proceeding to gulp the remains down as if it was his last meal. If hunger has driven him to famine and he comes across a cadaver, he licks the carcass until only white bones remain. In winter the wolves hunt strategically in packs. The wolves slink; somewhere in the lee of the mountain they wait for the blizzard to blow from the right direction, so they can encircle the pray unawares: half the pack going against the wind, half the pack sheltered by a mountain. The sheep and goats are grazing on the sparse tufts of grass. The wolves come. It is hopeless to run and impossible to stay put – unless in pure resignation.
The life of winter, the task of surviving winter, revolves around a ger, placed in a protective cluster of a total of four felt tents, deep in a valley. Mountains to the north and south shelter the campsite. The harsh, biting wind sweeps across the desert from east to west, with snow stinging like an endless blast of tiny glass pieces. We are caught in a ger with four layers of felt between us and nothingness.
As the ravages of storm subside, we must tend to the animals throngingin perpetual circular motion to keep warm, behind a low stone fence. The horses' fur is frosted. Blood and mucus flow from snorting horse muzzles. Goats and sheep are brought in and heated by the fireplace. Lambs that were born a little late last spring succumb first. One horse loses his battle to greater forces. The next night, only lambs sleep. Three mornings after, all three gers are in mourning. The harsh winter had brought Tsendmaa's winning horse to its knees. It did not rise again.
Tsendmaa gazes steadfastly towards the horizon. Her otherwise red cheeks have faded and her bluish lower lip trembles slightly. Not a single tear is shed among the rest of us. I hear her silent sobs at night. This is the harsh reality of the desert. People must protect people and horses must protect themselves through the toughest winter nights. In the Gobi, blizzards take lives. It does not discriminate between fola Dobbin and the winning horse. The ones last born suffer the most, but strength and vitality make no warranty.
The merciless storms also have a warmer side. The people who come through the winter are ready to meet the spring together; they and I have been cast into a solid ‘we’.
A human saw his final dawn on the last and most rigorous day of winter. It was as if the winds of Gobi wanted to purge away all the rest of winter in one devastating blow.
He was the oldest nomad in our human herd, and died of old age. There is no room for resignation and tears, only for work and love. His body was carried up the mountain to the north, with his feet towards Lhasa. The sun appeared from behind the clouds. We could face the spring. For the first time this winter I took up my pen. There has been no room for sentimentality and reflection. I watched the widow from behind, preparing rice tea, tears dripping down her neck. Her hands were steady. My fingers tremble as they clutch the pen.
A nomad winter is sometimes wordless and rigorous, yet boundlessly beautiful, wild and white. Tears run down cheeks as soon as one is alone. We spend the time together.
The last Khaan
I stand by the riverside and observe the river one last time. I see the scorched trees on the opposite bank. Bogd Uul, the mountain of the gods, is visible behind the trees. The clouds are like an elevated crown, a protective sanctuary. The piercing rays of the constantly travelling sun herald a new era. An eagle’s outstretched wings trace a protective circle around the mountain's peak. Some things are as they used to be, and as they always will be.
Once, lush forests were flourishing with life here. No one could dig into the soil, fell trees or hunt for the well-fed animals. No one could claim lives in the divine landscape. The land at the foot of Bogd Uul was the home and holy garden of Bogd Khaan, the sacred ruler. He lived protected in his earthly Garden of Eden. It now reads like a tale of a bygone era. This earthly paradise was first marred nineteen years ago, eleven years before I came to Ulaanbaatar for the first time.
The sacred mountain has been here for so long that the lamas have legends about it in holy books.
The Bogd’s Paradise lay at the foot of the mountain for only eight years. In the summer of 1911- in the wake of the Qing Dynasty - the princes of Khalkha met. They declared an independent Mongolian state with Bogd Khaan as both head of state and head of Buddhism. With aspiration for freedom and greatness, the Mongol Khanate envisaged a country with the power and greatness of Chinggis Khaan's Mongol Empire rising and expanding from the desert plains once again.
However, there were serpents in this worldly Garden of Eden. Powerful forces exerted pressure from all sides. The Russian Empire desired power in Mongolia, but also autonomy of Mongolia from China. The Chinese, on the other hand, wished to suppress Mongolian autonomy and restore their former autocracy in the area. The two serpents continue to fight, with prey weakened and bound to succumb, attacked first by one serpent one day, then taunted by the other the next. The Khaan himself is far from innocent. The drama of his morbid zoo that began this series of letters from Mongolia's harsh desert and resilient civilisation is only the last page in a series of unfortunate tales.
The Chinese invaded Mongolia in 1919. Two years later they were driven away by Baron Ungern-Sternberg, born in Austria of noble Baltic lineage. With the appropriate and somewhat morbid middle name Maximilian, his indomitable faith in the monarchy and his White Army, he wanted to free the Bogd Khaan from Chinese captivity and give him back the power of Mongolia. The Baron gave the Bogd his title Khaan.
Some believed Ungern-Sternberg was the reincarnation of a little-known Buddhist god “God of War”. Others went so far as to laud him as a reincarnation of Chinggis Khaan –who the Baron truly believed himself to be.. The Baron's dramatic entry and appearance led to Mongolia’s declaration of its independence from China.
The Baron never established himself as much more than an historical curiosity. The seemingly heroic acts of the White Army deteriorated into preposterous vandalism. “The White” gained a reputation as the bandits of the steppe. Support from the people over time turned into hatred. The Baron was eventually handed over to the Soviet Union and sentenced to death. The White continued their barbaric ravages on the steppes without the baron as their leader. They slaughtered nomads and monks. The Red Army, led by the Mongolian national hero Sukhbataar, finally defeated the last White soldier in 1922. The heroic Sukhbataar died the following year, at thirty-three years old.
The eighth reincarnation of Bogd Gegeen died in 1924, three years after Baron Ungern-Sternberg reinstated him.
Bogd Khaan, the eighth reincarnation of Jebtzun Damba, was the third most important Buddhist figure after Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama. He was simultaneously the Mongols' religious leader and secular head of state, though in the end he was an ailing shadow of himself. His influence had withered to a handful of personal servants and a collection of dying and dead animals.
Three years after his death, I arrived in his earthly Eden for the first time. With the greatest reverence, numerousLamas dressed in red robes watered the large property as they had done every day since the Bogd arrived from Tibet as a young boy. Red silk moved swiftly and silently between green foliage. Hands caressed every living leaf.
When I returned to Ulaanbaatar after two winters in the desert, I looked forward to resting my eyes upon a green and vibrant landscape once again. But the leaves were scorched. There was a lone red silk robe enmeshed in cut branches on the ground. The monks no longer had a legitimate and prominent belonging in the park. No gentle fingers cared for the trees any more. It was as if the monks' fervent faith was what had nourished the prolific bloom of the garden’s plants. The death of the Bogd was perhaps the first sign of the downfall. However, it was the unexplained demise of the little Lama that had forced the landscape to dress in mourning gown. I never saw the young Lama again.
The nomads experienced a country in transition. Riding the steppes they would have come across the same as I did: a monastery in ruins, where red robes surrounding white bones were the only remaining vestiges of life lived. Lamas have suffered damage from those they thought were friends, from the enemies of their friends, from the friends of their enemies.
Sukhbaatar and Bogd Khaan sustained the country, with different means, in different ways. They both were held in the part of the Mongol heart that beat in the hope of a new Chinggis Khaan. Neither hero nor holy man managed to live up to these hopes.
The independent Mongolia did not last for long. Lenin's Soviet Union offered a helping hand to this brother in need, but the revolutionary Mongolians did not see the dagger that this gesture concealed. Neither monks nor princes and princesses of the small Aimags were to be left safe.
From the mid-1920s, the government refused to bend to Soviet demands to attack the monks. During my first winter in Mongolia I noticed major changes in attitude. Properties were confiscated and given to monks if they chose to give up monastery life. Lamas stayed put; patient, strong and stubborn, they continued their tranquil, spiritual way of life. After several years, some lamas reached breaking point. They led a counter-revolutionary rebellion, which unfortunately was defeated bloodily and brutally.
Nomads with livestock, as well as farmers, were forced into collectivisation. A mass slaughter of millions of animals was one of the means to force people to join. Together with a tough winter, this led to food shortages and famine.
A few Danish dairy farmers who had sought luck in a life far from home, were deported from the Soviet Union - this land suddenly being part of it - to secure the Soviets’ own butter production. The three Danes were departing for a long journey home, and asked me to join. The country was on the brink of a bloody civil war, they said. There were too many opposing forces and too much injustice at play. "The country is godforsaken." Said the elder Danish farmer. He was right - many an Aimag was marked by bloody riots the winter of 1931-32.
Monks of low rank are forced to work for the army now. Little boys brought up with Buddhist values ??to never take life, are forced to kill. Their teachers - higher Lamas - are sent to prison camps. Their superiors, the wise Yellow Hat Monks dressed in purple robes - lamas of the highest rank - are killed.
Separation of church and state is engrained of Mongolia's constitution now. Teaching religious values ??is banned in schools. It is illegal to recruit young boys to the monasteries.
In 1933 Mongolia and the Soviet Union signed an agreement to give mutual assistance in Japan's invasion of Outer Mongolia, hardening the grip of the Soviet Union on the steppes and monasteries. In 1935 the signed agreement was invoked by the Soviets, as they once again sent troops into Mongolia in connection with Japanese espionage on the border between Mongolia and Manchuria. That same year, the act stating that monks must "work for the community" was set into force. The Soviets paved roads, established airports and expanded the railway network. Miles of peeled Siberian pines and telegraph lines were set up in the spotless desert landscape. I've seen it myself; the new timber jars with the treeless landscape. Still, if any of the interference can be seen as good, it must be the possibility to communicate with the world outside the desert.
Recently, riots in one monastery led to the closing of sixty other monasteries with immediate effect. Thousands of senior monks will be executed and imprisoned if nothing is changed.
A commission to fight so-called espionage and counter-revolution has been established, led by the interior minister Khorloogiin Choibalsan. They examine an unknown number of cases, where most will end with the death sentence. Until now, only one man has been acquitted. It's not easy for a Mongolian to follow the government's requests. What is right one day, is reviewed and outlawed the next. Ministers are dismissed and their disciples follow soon after. People send friends to death in exchange for their own promotion.
At the moment, free trade and industry is banned. Collective farming has been implemented, but is in the process of being abandoned. It was unsuccessful with larger agricultural areas in the barren landscape.
When Bogd Khaan died the Soviet-friendly government forbade lamas to seek the ninth reincarnation of Jebtzun Damba.
The theocratic power in Mongolia is perhaps merely symbolic by now, yet still the Soviet-supported government fears it. Any resistance, any voice considered to speak for the Lamas and Buddhism is cut off by means of grotesque slaughter. I say this with no doubt; every force resisting the revolution is treated with a brutality that surpasses what we could ever have predicted. It was foreseen in the black fortune laid forth by the positioned anklebones: already brewing at the time, but the worst blood-spurting storm came years later.
Among the ruins of burnt-down monasteries, I´ve seen robes cloaking whitewashed bones as the only remaining testimony of life. There is no end to this bloodshed. The sparsely populated steppes are pinched between Lenin and Mao. Here, the blood flows far more copiously than water. Chinggis Khaan can no longer help his faithful soldiers in their felt tents.
The ninth incarnation of Jebtzun Damba does not seem as powerful as the eight before him, because he is not even allowed to exist. I heard rumours from friends in Mongolia that he was found in Tibet last year. I do not know his name, or where he is. I know that he lives in exile. When Bogd Khaan died, Mongolia's spiritual roots and historical thread unravelled like a fragile tapestry.
Pride is the only thing that can gather the steppes and their nomads and horsemen once again. They must guard their borders well - to the east as well as the north. In the southern and southwestern territories the Gobi is still their great protector. She can take out an entire army with her capricious winds and bone-dry dunes. One must show vigilance; Gobi does not spare her own. Every bone may dry.