Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Entry 8: Ulanbaatar, Mongolia - Horses, Zuuds, Ghengis Khan

Hopefully, Neal will have found gentle horses that won’t try to throw us every time we mount, but not so gentle that they don’t want to walk across the country. There will be a bit of training involved (Janusz has been watching horse training videos on youtube at night), to get the semi-wild horses to be rideable, to follow and to stay within the confounds of an electric fence we plan to set up each night.

Finding suitable horses will be extra difficult since Mongolia has just experienced back to back the worst zuuds in living memory. A zuud is a combination of blizzard and bitter cold, preceded by drought. This winter, over 8 million cows, yaks, camels, horses, goats, and sheep died, over 17% of the coutnry’s livestock. The horses we saw from the train ride from China that weren’t rotting caraccess strewn around the tracks were very skinny. We planned to buy our horses in the East improving our chances where Neale reported the other day that the horses are bigger and healthier as this region’s zuud is least harsh and spring grass is most lush.

The planned start for our ride is Nomrog, a strictly protected area, a landscape of virgin fields (the world’s largest last uncultivated grassland) and pine forests untouched by livestock and humans. In addition to our visa extension, we are also waiting for the special permits to allow us pass checkpoints to visit this area. After three days of not hearing from our lead scout Neale, he called yesterday morning to let us know his attempt to enter this region failed. After being turned back by the border patrol, he was escorted to a special “hotel” room with a guard standing at the front door (aka jail) for a day and a half.

Aside from bandits, our horses running off with all our food, gear, and water, rabid dog and wolf attacks, by far our biggest concern will be finding water. As we will be crossing some very dry areas after two zuuds. We track down a map with all the known springs and wells in the country, but do they have water?

Mongolians, unlike other civilizations, never felt the need to build monuments to their greatness. The so called “great” civilizations are really just testimonies to plunder egotism and greed built with slave labor. The great pyramids, the great wall of china, Inca Aztec and Mayan temples, even the taj mahal (the girls so easily buy into the notion was supposedly built out of love) and all the other pompous European landmarks tourists flock to and try to find special meaning in today.

What we have heard about Mongolians (if anything) is the worst rap a culture ever got. If human “nature” is any indication, we need to be suspect when we hear such trash talk since it’s almost always short-sighted people talking poorly of what they envy or fear. As a side note, what does nature have to do with our own misgivings? Contrary to the accusations of our language, nature is definitely not a teacher of idiotic ideas to humans. Since the Mongols were first encountered, not one good word was written, their leader being accused as being the devil himself. Could all this be because Mongols live in such close proximity to nature? More recently, people with the terrible, genetic disorder of Down syndrome have been collectively referred to as Mongoloids, coined by a medical doctor in 1866 and still in use. Before I tell you how beautiful the people and their customs really are, I first want to say a bit about their infamous leader, Genghis Khan from the eleven hundreds.

When the Spanish conquistadors eradicated South American civilizations, keep in mind these people really believed in everlasting damnation. Believing that the Mayans were worshiping the devil, if they couldn’t be made to submit by force, then just maybe in their last dying breath they would surrender to Jesus and be saved by a fate even worse than death? Maybe in the same spirit Genghis Khan emancipated people from cities. In his younger years, he was a captive of city people and held in their prison. He observed how city people lived and saw them as no better than caged animals compared to the freedom of living the nomadic lifestyle. When it came time for payback, Genghis burnt cities to the ground, maybe with the same genuine hope, like the conquistadores, that people would be saved and the place would revert back to grassland and freedom.

Genghis’ culture was largely influenced by shamanism. Mongolian shamans have taught (thousands of years before ecology was even a western concept) that the land should in no way be altered, a hard lesson we ourselves will be learning in many generations to come. If a post is required to tie up a horse, that post hole needs to be covered as soon as it is removed. Even Mongolian boots are designed in such a way with the toes turned up, so that soil isn’t inadvertently kicked when walking.

Seems these ideas that have lasted thousands of years are quickly giving way to the all-enticing ways of the west. Now all one sees here in the capitol city are Mongolian girls strutting around in the highest of heels. In my engineering pavement design class, we learned that women’s high heels are some of the largest and most damaging forces pavement will ever experience, much larger than even truck tires!

After viewing a Mongolian shaman ceremony, a tourist from England let the shaman know that English shamans instead conduct their rituals differently, with the aid of tea and leaves of some sort. The shaman was quick to point out that the method the Englishman spoke of doesn’t work for if it did, if shamans in England had any power, they would not have let their natural world go to waste. Thus, Mongolian culture, a leave no trace culture has nothing to show from its plunder, being at its peak the largest civilization the world has ever known.

Genghis Khan invited everyone, even the poor to live within the confounds of his tent, encouraged religious freedom (inviting faiths from around the world to have open dialogue with him each week), was first to institute the practice of diplomatic immunity and was quoted as saying “to conquer the world is of no great consequence, but to gain the heart of a man, is to conquer the world.” From the standpoint of people that have something to lose (the status quo) and the people that whose jobs depend on the status quo (the historians), it’s no very hard to see why such a person as Genghis Khan and the entire mongol world would get such a bad rap.

Understandably, we are anxious to get out to the countryside after being with the converted city folk for almost 3 weeks now. Sony and I went to the only strip bar (topless only) last night and the girls are as every bit beautiful naked as they look on the street. Their faces are as Asian looking as any face in China, but their large bodies and breasts and long legs seem more Caucasian than Chinese. We expect even greater natural beauty of the country people. It is Mongolian countryside custom to enter a home without knocking and if no one is there to feel free to eat and put fuel on the fire. A western horse traveler I read about feared he would run out of food. Instead, he found that he could barely travel a few miles before the next ger (Mongolian home) made him stop to share in their food and drink. Some of our route will be in the vicinity of herders, however much of it will be in un-grazed lands.

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