Glimpsing warrior culture in Mongolia
Mongolia: a land of ancient people, remnants of a culture that by all rights should have vanished along with most of the earth's wild places.
It was our third day in Mongolia. We were just setting out on a trail ride across the hills — a lazy, ambling exercise designed for children and grandparents — when we witnessed our teenage guide turn into ... well, I don't know how else to describe it. A spirit.
One of his family's horses had gotten loose, jerking the heavy wooden pole he was tethered to out of the earth and barreling in terror through a wire fence. This was shocking enough, but what happened after that was almost supernatural: The boy leapt onto his own horse and became a streak of color. He could not possibly have paused long enough to make a decision.
There were a handful of moments like that during our weeklong vacation in Mongolia, when we caught glimpses of an ancient people, remnants of a culture that by all rights should have vanished along with most of the earth's wild places.
One day we were tooling around when we came across a horse race — three riders screaming at a high, warbling pitch as they thundered across the steppe, a cloud of dust rising up behind them. For a second or two we could understand the awe that greeted the Mongol armies as they descended on Russia's princedoms in the 13th century. Were they even human?
We hadn't actually gone out in search of adventure. Our party included my two daughters, aged 11 months and 3 years, so we travel with vast stockpiles of Cheerios and moist towelettes. Also along were my parents, who, at 75 and 76, had announced they were traveling by train from Beijing, where they were visiting, to Moscow, where we live. A tent camp in the Mongolian mountains emerged as the logical site for a midroute family reunion — or so my father endeavored to persuade me. The proposal was so ridiculous that we found it impossible to refuse.
The funny thing is, some part of it felt familiar. Mongolia is one of the world's most sparsely populated countries, with 2.8 million people scattered over an area the size of Western Europe. It has the flavor of a frontier, and the frontier strikes a chord in an American.
We had just hauled our suitcases into our ger — the cylindrical tent also known as a yurt — when hooves pounded on the other side of the thick felt wall. Our hosts were driving their small herd of horses home from the pasture. My mother had worked as a hand at a dude ranch in Montana in the 1950s, and she felt right at home; Mongolia, she said, reminded her of Big Sky.
It is not unusual for well-off Mongolian families to vacation in tents in the mountains, and we could understand why. Hearty meals — warm beef salad, savory egg drop soup with pickles, liver with a haystack of French fries — were served three times a day in a central building. Our ger, its floor lined with vinyl mats, had the fresh smell of earth after rain; when thunderstorms rolled through the valley we sat in our "little round house," as my daughter called it, and listened to rain thrumming on the roof.
At dusk, the valley grew dark except for the lights from a few ger camps glowing like strings of pearls. We walked to the top of a ridge near our camp and came upon shaggy Bactrian camels grazing in the moonlight. At bedtime our hosts built fires in the wood stove at the center of the ger, and we laid on our backs watching golden light playing on the striated ceiling above us.
But even in the middle of all that summer ease, there were whiffs of something dangerous. We kept stumbling across the bleached skulls of animals that had not survived the winter. In the worst times, when temperatures can fall to 40 below zero, livestock in Mongolia sometimes freeze to death in a standing position; the herders' families then tramp through the snow and gather the bodies together into a miserable heap.
There is a word for this kind of disaster — dzud. A white dzud buries the life-giving grass under heavy snows; an iron dzud seals it under a glaze of ice. The snows continue until April, when the animals are so weakened by their ordeal that they shudder in the wind and stop searching for grass. A black dzud comes after a dry summer, when the ground is scoured bare and winter means slow starvation.
I brought the subject up with Tumuruu, a jovial and mostly toothless herdsman who, on the afternoon we visited, was monitoring his yaks through high-resolution binoculars. Tumuruu had been serving us green tea with yak milk so rich that chunks of cream floated on the surface. When I asked about the dzud it was if a curtain came down over his face.
"It's not a thing people like to talk about," he said. "Springtime is the most dangerous. That's when people get lost and die. In the morning they think the weather is nice."
That was all he wanted to say about it.
It was a conversation that could have occurred in this century, or in the 19th or 18th. Tumuruu has awakened at 6 a.m. every day of his adult life to oversee milking before 7, when the flies come out. Between a third and a half of Mongolia's population is still nomadic, living more or less the way their ancestors did, down to the prescribed arrangement of vermilion lacquered furniture inside their gers. They live without bank accounts — for that matter, without money. The herd is the source of everything that matters.
Tumuruu's grandchildren will not keep animals, he told us with some satisfaction, as he set my daughter on top of a yak. There are several reasons Mongolia's nomadic tradition may be on the wane, not least that the country is on the brink of a monster boom. It sits on huge reserves of copper, gold, uranium and coal, and Chinese demand is fueling major mining projects. The gold-rush environment of the capital city of Ulan Bator has attracted such local color as Burberry, Hugo Boss and Emporio Armani.
Some of this was going through my mind that afternoon when I watched the young boy ride headlong after a fear-mad horse.
With the tall wooden pole bouncing behind him, the horse blew through the wire fence as if it were made of tissue and headed for a wooded area. The animal was in such a desperate state that it seemed it might kill itself in the next few minutes by lodging the pole between trees and breaking its leg or neck. We set off in nervous silence — especially my ranch-hand mother — wondering how the rider would get close enough to calm the horse without endangering his own life.
I had arrived in Mongolia with a mystery lodged in the back of my mind: how this apparently peace-loving people had taken Baghdad and Beijing and Moscow, the fortress city where I now live.
I found some technical answers. The horsemen protected themselves by wearing silk underwear, which snagged the tips of arrows as they pierced the body. Leather armor was lacquered with fish glue, so that it was impenetrable but light.
What must have been most terrifying to their Western adversaries was the way Mongolian warriors stood in their stirrups at a full gallop, their upper bodies perfectly steady so they could aim with extraordinary precision. They would release their arrows in the fraction of a second when all four of the horse's hooves were in the air.
But the best answer came when our teenage guide trotted up behind us, now riding the rogue dun-colored horse we had seen streaking into the woods. The boy looked like a mortal again in his polyester track pants and baseball cap. The horse looked as if it had been hypnotized.
I can't say that the secrets of one of human history's largest empires were revealed that afternoon. But I felt lucky to get a glimpse of them just once in my life.