What I Meant to Tell You About Mongolia
Hello friends and family–
Chapter 1: Mongolia.
After waiting in Beijing Capital Airport October 1 for 18 hours for a flight to Outer Mongolia, and having been bumped again from another Mongolian Airlines flight that actually did fly and told to come back at 3 AM to find out whether the Ulan Bator shuttle which was supposed to arrive 24 hours earlier at dawn might finally show up — my friend Lona O’Connor and I decided to call it quits.
Tomorrow is another day, we said to ourselves, exhausted and cognizant that if we waited until 3 AM, another flight might arrive. Or it might not.
We shrugged and headed for the taxi stand. Our booking agent in Ulan Bator told us she’d have to check at 9 AM on the morrow to see if we could rebook. By now we realized that even with rebooking, we had already lost 36 hours of our planned 6 day Genghis Khan Glorious Reunion Tour to the frontier, and would lose another day or so before we could get there.
I felt despondent. Lona had flown all this way from Palm Beach, Florida to see the wilds of Mongolia. We had planned to take a 1000 kilometer overland jeep tour to Bayangobi, to see the Hoyor Zagel Ger camp and to ride horses on the steppes, the dunes and mountains. We were then headed to Erdene Zuu monastery in Kharakorum, in the middle of the steppes, to see their collection of the most remarkable Buddhist paintings and religious objects in Mongolia. And we would finish in Khustai National Park…to see the wild horses and enjoy the feeling of understanding what Genghis Khan’s birthplace was all about.
No dice. The weather was against us. The travel agency couldn’t rebook the flight for some reason mainly because, I think, we hadn’t bribed the airline agents to let us on. And there was no one at the Mongolian Airlines office on a Sunday. And the computers were either non-existent or stopped working. The travel agency, very strangely, refunded our money rather than trying to rebook our trip.
And that flight at 3 AM ended by showing up near dawn. So, if I had been more patient, and willing to wait out the full 24 hours at the airport, we would have gotten to Ulan Bator after all.
Suddenly I remembered a little episode in Southern Taiwan 37 years ago, when my friend Melinda Liu, who later became the China Newsweek correspondent (she is still reporting from Beijing after all these years, and I am having dinner with her tonight) told me we had to stuff ourselves into a bus to get to the Southernmost tip of the island. Otherwise we would be stranded on a dirt road in the jungle with night about to fall.
At the time, surveying the Taiwanese country bodies hanging out the windows of the little yellow school bus, I said, “There’s got to be another bus. Or we can take a taxi. This can’t be the last bus.”
“This is the last bus,” Melinda said. “Get on.” She shoved and I moved. People were getting on the bus by climbing into the windows and jumping on the top. There were geese and ducks in cages and kids without bottoms on. We squished and stood for about two hours with one foot on the bus floor and another atop our suitcases.
We ended up having the time of our lives on that trip. We took tours through the jungles where the ‘7 pacer’ snakes slinked in the bush and drank Coca Colas with children without bottoms on who set up a lemonade stand in the red clay flats only 100 meters from land’s end. At night, at our little hotel, we climbed on the roof and saw the claw of Scorpio dipping a golden arrow into the Pacific. The ocean caught all the light of the stars, and I remember looking southward toward the dark spit of land, the South China Sea on our right, the Philippine Sea to our left. I could reach up and touch the planets and stars in the dome, so bright. To this day, I dream of stars that bright and touchable.
But I had forgotten her lesson. “For these people, this is the last bus.” And now I kicked myself for it…I’ve never waited for the last bus. I’ve been a Mexican jumping bean. Melinda did, and that’s one of the reasons she’s at Newsweek and I’m at the International College of Beijing teaching journalism to Chinese kids!
Anyway, we never made it to Ulan Bator. But something else happened. Once again, my opera singer friend, Hasegaowa (see post below, “Close Encounters”)– part Mongolian, part Manchurian, part bologna and cheese, and her artist husband, Liu Ya Jiang, one of the most gifted artists I have met thus far — rescued us. “We’ll drive you to Mongolia,” they said.
And they did.
Though we didn’t reach Outer Mongolia, we did get within ten miles of it, traveling through the unbelievably huge grasslands of Inner Mongolia.
Now Inner Mongolia is a part of China. Mr. Liu Ya Jiang tells me, confidentially, that Outer Mongolia is a pretty dangerous place to be. If you don’t bribe everyone you meet, you are likely to get your things stolen or perhaps your head or your legs will be exchanged for a horse’s. Or you just won’t come back from that long jeep ride of yours. Outer Mongolia, now an independent country, is still trying to ‘find itself.’ Apparently it is drifting between hyperinflation and Mr. Liu’s hyperbole. It is still the land of Genghis Khan, Liu tells me, but it must solve huge economic problems that come with independence following decades of Soviet corruption and repression.
As I learned, Inner Mongolia has fewer problems. It is becoming richer (and more polluted) with mining, which casts a gray shadow over the otherwise sparking and treeless Soviet-style cities. People from Outer Mongolia frequently cross the border to shop in the towns of Inner Mongolia, where foods and other goods are still more affordable. Nonetheless, some of the people of Inner Mongolia are still facing grinding poverty — sometimes from a sudden loss of herds (freezing storms that kill whole herds at a time), sometimes from other personal misfortunes. I had an opportunity to encounter some of these people on the trip Hasegaowa strategically arranged.
The Lius picked us up on a Wednesday morning in the sunlight which is so rare for Beijing and we headed in their rented SUV northwest to their suburban home of Yanjing, about 130 kilometers northwest of the city. Yanjing is a gorgeous farming town set on the border of mountains; it is not that far from Badaling, one of the restored sections of the Great Wall. We skirted the Great Wall which I saw on the mountaintops above us, then we drove along highway G7 through the mountains and lakes toward the tip of the Guanjing Reservoir, a big and lovely body of water in unspoiled areas that reminded me of the drive in Colorado toward Breckenridge.
We stopped along the way to see a Buddhist festival (with touches of native Taoist traditions) on a mountain top; this particular day, townspeople were remembering and sacrificing to Mothers. Chinese opera singers were hamming it up on stage, and the towns people dressed in woolen caps and pullovers were sitting enjoying themselves in an openair ampitheatre. Just past the ampitheatre, I saw little temple courtyards with cheesy statues of Buddhist and Taoist gods and goddesses, including Matsu, the goddess of the sea (one statue has a baby sucking her nipple). People were burning sacrifices of sausages, fruits, red pieces of paper, cigarettes, and other goodies on coal fires. It was festive, and in the parking lot a group of ambitious farmers was decapitating a sheep, thankfully already dead (I tried not to look, but I couldn’t help myself).
We stayed the first night at Hasegaowa and Liu’s beautiful traditional Chinese home in Yanjing, were treated to her marvelous meals and fresh European coffee and juices, and finally got to see Liu’s painting studio, where he is assembling a series of heroic oil portraits of the Mongolian women he has grown to love in many trips to the countryside there.
Lona and I stayed in the studio and though there was no heat, the Liu’s have KANGS, so they can put hot coals in a pot beneath their elevated bed and stay warm and toasty at night.
Hasegaowa, with her unbelievable powerful party connections, arranged FREE hotel lodging for us and free feasts (including a high definition TV set which was turned on in every hotel banquet hall) in the Mongolian steppe throughout out trip there. We stayed in the cities of Xi Ling Hao Te, a large, expansive Soviet-style stronghold on the grasslands, not a tree in site, with a gorgeous museum filled with Genghis Kahn and other archaeological memorabilia.
Unfortunately, it was closed the day we got there, perhaps for the October 1-10 Autumn Festival. As we headed toward the grasslands, we stayed in smaller cities: Ou li ya si tai (also known in Chinese as Dong wu qi) and Xi Wu Qi. The accommodations got a bit more modest as we headed along, but every hotel was at least three stars, the food was marvelous, and at Dong Wu Qi we were treated to a feast and entertainment with four Mongolian girls that I can best describe as “wards” of Hasegaowa, Liu, and a group of private citizens who are trying to help them with their schooling and heating bills.
Three of the girls are sisters. Their mother died tragically from an illness a few years ago and their father is confined to a wheelchair after a car accident. The girls are 19, 18, and 12, one more gorgeous than the next; the middle child, Chaolumen Ge Ri La, has served as model for Liu’s paintings of strong Mongolian women (she and my Uncle Don look alike, which again makes me think we have a Mongolian connection somewhere in our medieval past as horse thieves).
The girls sang traditional songs of Mother’s Love and Father’s Bravery for us (I am checking their names before I include them). I will post their songs on audio files on my blog if I can ever get access to it again. All of them wore rich quilted traditional Mongolian costumes of brilliant colors: reds, blue, and green. The little one, who lost her mother at a very young age, greets Hasegaowa with kisses; she’s like favored daughter. The little one got the courage to sing for us; as she sang, her reedy voice grew louder and more confident; she was brilliant.
The fourth girl, whose parents are both alive, is an especially fine student (although all the girls are hard at work in school; the older two are planning on university with the help of private citizens who contribute). She danced for us, but no longer can afford a dancing dress since she has outgrown the other. We visited their homes after the feast.
The three sisters belong to a proud herding family and their home in the grasslands, which we later visited, is now closed shut. The family lives in a barebones apartment on the fourth floor of a city tenement. Fortunately, this apartment has heat (the last one didn’t), and the girls like it better. The older is like a mother to the other two. Her cousin, a young man of about 15, sang for us and his songs brought tears to my eyes. They are happy and hardworking kids…I wish I knew more, but I don’t. I gave the kids some scholarship money to continue their studies. If they don’t finish, their options are very limited, and Hasegaowa and Liu told me the upsurge of capitalism in China doesn’t permit much government aid to these people. The mother of the fine student girl hugged me when I gave the young girl some money to put away for her dancing dress.
During the day we went to the grasslands and visited the 49 year old mother of Saihaqi-ma-ge, another 18 year old dancer so talented she is now studying at a university in Xilinhaote, Mongolia. The mother and father live year-round in a GER, a traditional tent, and the mother invited us in for tea and snacks with the father’s younger sister’s husband in attendance (the Dad, unfortunately, was on herding duties). The GER is about 15 feet in diameter; it has decorative wallpaper and a stove in the middle. The mud floors are covered with rugs and pillows. I imagine they can keep warm in the winter, barely. The mother looks worn, about 70 years old, but not unhappy. The daughter hopes to become a dance teacher.
My friend, Lona, a journalist, doubtless took better notes than I did, and I’m anxious to read her account of those days on the steppes. I can tell you that Hasegaowa could easily become a public relations manager for Premier Wen Jia Bao of the Communist Party, or Paris Hilton, or the Inner Mongolian government. She can finesse anything and anyone. At one point, when Lona and I were thrown into a police car by a seemingly tipsy town manager at Xi lin hao te, a “da ge” (big brother) of the Lius, she popped into the car with us, convinced him to hold us ransom only for a dinner, and then let us go on our way.
During that drunken feast Big Brother, a staunch Communist apparachik who reminded me of a character from Dr. Zhivago, drank so much liquor I thought I’d have to personally pump his stomach. No matter, I tried to emulate Hasegaowa’s charm (not easy for me), fed him with my chopsticks, flirted a little, and was happy when his anger at my memory of Taiwan abated (I said only that I had learned Chinese there more than 30 years ago — his response, a growl, was that “Taiwan belongs to China.”).
In our final day on the grasslands we met a rich family of herders who guided their horses and sheep with motorcycles rather than riding on horseback themselves. The handsome father, Er deng bat te, and his wife, Duo dea Mugin, live 900 kilometers in the grassland from DongWu Qi near the Outer Mongolian border.
They have an adorable motormouth of a five year old, Gom Batu, who is incredibly smart, runs back and forth to Hasegaowa hugging her, and mastered my camera in about 5 minutes. The boy eats everything in sight. He is already learning his Mongolian and Mandarin characters at kindergarten. He has to live with his grandfather in order to go to school, but neither he nor the parents seem to mind it much. All of them dressed in their blue quilted Mongolian outfits to greet us; and their house had many rooms, parquet floors, an entertainment system, and soft couches. What a contrast to the gers and tenements of the days before! They seemed to enjoy their life; and Er Deng Batte particularly enjoyed a feast of MACDONALD’s hamburgers that Hasegaowa brought him from Beijing. In turn he gave us roasted meat and yogurt. I think we got the better part of the exchange, although some things on that party platter that resembled organs from a med school’s cadaver lab. I’m glad he didn’t force us to eat them.
Visiting this last family was in some ways, the highlight of the trip. I think Lona got to see enough that she was satisfied there was so much more to see. We wandered across the steppes, now brown and rolling as Iowa in winter. We took pictures. Hasegaowa’s talented son, Michael, and his friend Jason, took lots of photos of us. It was sunny, and the wind was not too fierce. I understood how and why a woman like me, living near Chadds Ford PA and loving the Wyeth artistic tradition, could end up in Mongolia with a family that also loves the Wyeth tradition. We were entirely lucky to visit these people, and I look forward to the day I can go back in July and August, when Mongolia turns green and purple with rain and flowers. This is the Mongolia Liu paints; although I love the barrenness of the place, I want to see it again in the sunlight when the men go shirtless and ride their horses in competitions to see who is the strongest and best.
Liu, I think, will one day come to the States and see our grasslands of Iowa. Hopefully, I will help him exhibit his paintings of strong Mongolian women in the Brandywine museum, next to his muse.