The Lost World of Genghis Khan
For weeks, the heat has been building across central Asia. The days smoulder like a wet fuse. Desert mirages send distant mountains airborne, and form phantom lakes amid the Gobi bleakness. There’s something in the air now, some threat that drives the grey cranes south and sets the Buddhist prayer flags riffling. August has turned to September in Mongolia, and the great wheels of nature are in motion.
And one million Mongolian herders — one of the world’s largest remaining nomadic groups — are also on the move. They’re leaving their mountain pastures in the face of autumnal Siberian winds.
Directly below me lies Karakorum. Eight hundred years ago, under the rule of Mongolian hero Genghis Khan, it was the capital of the largest empire the world has ever seen. But standing here in the September twilight, I can look down onto Karakorum, and count exactly 38 lights in the valley below.
The fabled city — with its palaces, gardens, universities, and temples — has vanished into legend. The only evidence of the most unstoppable force in human history is the nomads I’m passing among. They are descendants of the armed Mongol legions. And they tell me their existence, like that of Karakorum itself, may not survive the gathering storms of change.
By late afternoon the following day, it’s clear trouble is about to arrive. An armada of thunderheads has sent the cranes south and chased myself and my driving companions into the seeming safety of the mountain-surrounded Tsenkher Valley where a tourist gher (yurt) camp might offer protection from the storm front. Along the creek that flows through the valley, several nomad families still linger at their summer pastures. Their round, canvas-and-felt yurts protrude like puffball mushrooms from well-grazed fields, and issue curls of smoke from their stove-pipe chimneys. Beside each yurt is, incongruously, a satellite TV dish, powered by an array of solar panels that sit on the yurt’s roof amid trays of drying curds and goat cheeses.
My observations are interrupted by the appearance of roiling clouds over a nearby ridge and the cannonade of thunder. The wind gusts in the larch forest. Lightning cracks. Pastured horses stampede. The clouds spill downhill in an airborne avalanche of ferocious wind and inky scud. The rain then hits in a veritable Niagara. Then: hailstones the size of golf balls begin falling. Within a half hour, the afternoon’s emerald landscape is buried in ice. But, when I look out from my yurt later that evening, the sky’s clear, and the Milky Way runs like the memory of lost love across the darkness of time.
West of Karakorum, the roads of Mongolia unravel like the thoughts of a madman. The map shows red lines that would appear to link outpost to outpost, but in a central Asian country the size of Western Europe — with a population primarily of clueless sheep and goats — the reality on the ground is the lines indicate only the possibility of things — like reports of Sasquatch or alien abductions. There are, in fact, no roads. There are, instead, tendencies — a half-dozen or a hundred semi-parallel, corrugated dirt tracks, as each driver seeks his own route amid the rolling grasslands, bogs, and panicky livestock.
It’s clear in the days ahead that autumn’s tumultuous arrival has added urgency to the nomads’ inclination to move. Loaded, yak-drawn carts with stupendous wooden wheels rumble across the treeless steppes, the animals’ breath steaming in the morning air. Silhouetted camel trains pass on the horizon, almost dreamlike, as if conjured by Scheherazade. The people tell me they move with the seasons, driving their animals, following the new grass, travelling 30 km. one time, or 300 km. another, year after year.
On some nights we camp at lonely oases and share our site with camels and a thousand stars. On other nights, exhausted from 10 hours of bone-rattling driving, we flop into $4-a-night truck-stop beds, and confront the fact that, today, no place — even the Gobi Desert — is beyond the reach of the global amoeba. On Mongolian TV, a scantily clad blond is singing in Russian the words of ‘Flashdance’ while I slurp my Japanese noodles and inhale the smoke of my neighbours’ Bulgarian cigarettes.
For two days we work our way upward into the seldom visited 4000 m.-high Khukh Serhiyn Mountains that lie along Mongolia’s western border with China. This is Kazakh country, occupied by fiercely independent Moslem nomads whose Kashmiri goats are the source of cashmere. Here near the end of one of the last dirt tracks in Mongolia I arrive at a cluster of six yurts, their chimney smoke horizontal in the north wind. Drawn to one yurt by a cluster of children, I’m soon introduced to 24 year-old Tolshoi, his wife Altanshosh, their daughter, and several curious adults for whom the arrival of Jeep-bound strangers is cause for amazement.
The interior walls of the yurt are hung with vibrant embroidered tapestries, full of orange, blue, chartreuse, pink, and yellow mystical motifs. They are Altanshosh’s handiwork. An entire eviscerated goat hangs by the doorway — with a pail beneath to collect the dripping blood. While his wife chops a chunk of pressed tea and stirs it into the steaming yak milk on the stove, Tolshoi explains the terrible dilemma of nomadic life today. “I was born here,” he says of this desolate mountain valley. “My father was born here. My grandfather was born here. My great-grandfather was born here. It is our world.”
“But?” I ask.
“But I want to see other things… ” and his voice trails off.
“You’d quit the nomadic life?”
In a few days, Tolshoi tells me, he and his relatives will disassemble their yurts — just as their ancestors have done for millennia. They’ll then load their few belongings onto their camels, and descend to the winter camp, while some of the men, riding horseback, will drive the families’ 2000 goats downhill along the tracks I have just ascended. Soon, snow will come, and a Siberian cold will settle over the land. As these Mongolian horsemen know — for they are the descendants of Genghis Khan — seasons and civilizations come and go. And what once was will not always be.