by Tobias Thornes
The winter’s freeze was beginning to thaw as I made my way south: into the Heart of Asia. This was the land where Russia and China meet: a large, land-locked expanse surrounded by its powerful neighbours, the mythical heart of an infamous ancient Empire that was the largest contiguous power the world has ever seen.
I had discovered the hidden ambrosia of Mongolia. At the outset I found it cold and somewhat bleak, the bare, broken mountain slopes lifting their lofty stores of sparkling snow on either side like slumbering giant guardians of a forgotten paradise. But as the rails rolled me down from these Northern heights, the lively breath of spring began to shake the trees and grasslands from their slumber, and there rose in me a strong desire to desert the air-conditioned discomfort of my Trans-Siberian carriage and venture into the vast, enticing wilderness that seemed to rise about me like a rediscovered Eden.
Mongolia is a land of many contrasts. It shivers under freezing winters in the grip of anticyclonic Siberian air, then bakes in sweltering summers brought on by its continental shelter and so many sunny days. As I set out on foot, leaving the plush modernity of the railway station behind me, I stepped into a world that felt somehow out of touch with the past few hundred years. This was still a largely nomadic country, of isolated rural dwellings and wide pastures. Trusting, perhaps recklessly, to fortune, I turned myself vaguely south, and strode into the crisp spring morning, my lungs brought alive by the sweet, clean air.
I confess that I was somewhat trepidatious, a foreign traveller speaking a foreign tongue, that my wandering would be greeted with bemusement – or even hostility – by those whose lands I trespassed upon. It wasn’t long, after leaving the town by the first rugged trail I found, before I came upon my first ‘ger’ settlement: half-a-dozen traditional, moveable tents of wood and white wool-felt huddled lightly upon the hillside.
Some cattle were grazing idly nearby, and in the glittering sunshine the sight seemed somewhat idyllic; almost I could forget the modern worries of climatic change, pollution, squalor and destruction that hung like heavy burdens on my heart; almost, this place seemed like an escape from the mess of modernity itself.
The old woman who, I suddenly realised, had marked my approach and was watching me still, spoke in words whose precise meaning I could not know but whose sentiment it was easy to fathom from her tone and gesture: words of welcome, not of suspicion. Eagerly she offered me refreshment, the first of many such acts of kindly hospitality which I witnessed or was myself blessed to experience on my slow journey southwards.
Though they may not have received many foreign visitors on foot, this travelling people was certainly accustomed to migration. Most of them retained a nomadic, horse- and cattle-culture lifestyle that had survived for centuries, fading into anachronism as the world changed about them while the long years stretched by.
It is a long time since Genghis Khan brought this people greatness in war and this land dominated the Eastern world. Now, peace is their practice. There was a long tradition of Buddhism here, and I perceived an abundance of great love alike for man, bird and beast, as well as for the living hills, fields and flora upon which they depend. These people cared deeply for the animals they exploited: not for them any outsourcing to factory farms or wasteful over-indulgence at their beasts’ expense.
They took with gratitude, and consciously acknowledged the need to protect and preserve their precious environment throughout all aspects of life. As I moved on through wood and plain, a combination of gestured directions and their willingness to share Nature’s gifts of sustenance and shelter brought me safely through this corner of splendour, seemingly unspoiled by modern industry and the love of money.
But, inevitably, modernity must come calling, and after not many days I returned, reluctantly, to urban habitation. Picking up the slithering trail of the Russia-China railway, I set about learning the reality behind the beautiful veneer. In truth, many of these people were under strain: I could see it in their very faces.
For all I had enjoyed it, this landscape was, I was warned, far from unthreatened. Mongolia had borne already an unfairly heavy share of the burden of the global warming that others have produced. Its temperature had already risen, on average, by over two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrial times, and the country was just emerging from another devastating ‘dzud’ – an especially hot summer followed by a particularly cold winter – something that used to be rare but was becoming alarmingly frequent.
Such conditions kill cattle, frazzle grassland and drive herdsmen out of their rural heartlands. In the worst-hit places, piles of animal carcasses still littered the countryside. The autumn, with its renewing rains, had all but disappeared entirely between these vying extremes.
Already nearly half the country’s population had congregated at the capital Ulaanbaatar, my next stop, setting up makeshift suburbs with streets of their moveable habitations carried in from the plains. A dirty cloud of smog surrounded the city as the train pulled in, produced by thousands of families burning rubbish to keep warm.
Although this migration was provoked by natural disaster, it would be a mistake to blame only foreign climatic factors. It seems that Siberian air is not the only chill to have extended its cold fingers from the North. From 1924, Mongolia was one of the Soviet Union’s satellite states, and under its cruel influence Buddhism was repressed, its adherents rooted out and sometimes killed and its seven-hundred monasteries nearly all destroyed. Meanwhile, many of the ancient forests were logged, a lack of trees and emphasis on increased production saw soils erode and mining was begun.
1990 saw the end of Russian influence, but in some ways the new democratic government made things worse, with its focus on capital and economic growth. Gone are the communal distributions of fodder to ease the dzuds. Gone are the restrictions on animal numbers that prevented overgrazing and, inadvertently, capped methane emissions whilst keeping up animal welfare standards relative to overpopulated farms.
I found, to my deep distress, a happy and sustainable way of life dying out, needlessly, amidst a storm of many throes, and a people bitterly mourning its passing. The people missed a countryside where all was freely given by Nature and shared according to need, now trapped in a growing city whose main focus is money. As I reached, at last, a whole year since I had first set out on my slow travel to witness for myself the world’s woes, it was, perhaps, the most harrowing sight of all to see such a society crumbling before my eyes.