The Mongolia Obsession

Imperial Bones
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Sept. 26 2008 7:08 AM

The Mongolia Obsession

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In deep Mongolia there are bones, and lots of them. The sheep, horses, and camels wandering around die occasionally and become skeletons. There isn't anyone to get rid of the bones, so they remain like fallen trees in a redwood forest, forming part of the landscape and slowly dissolving into it. Sometimes, there are so many skulls lying around that you feel you're on a film set.

I had thought that the process by which a dead animal becomes a skeleton might be gradual and dignified, but no, sir. Early one morning, I noticed a horse had died not far from camp. A flock of vultures were flapping around pulling strips of bloody meat off the carcass. As I watched, a pack of nasty-looking dogs arrived, chased away the vultures, and began to tear the horse into pieces.

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While watching, I had the horrible realization that were I to be thrown off my horse later that day, I would be the subject of the feeding frenzy. I pictured my arms and legs being dragged off for later consumption. I saw loyal Miki jumping off her horse to fight a growling dog for my left leg, while a vulture pecked its way through the tattoo on my left arm. Though perhaps it should be obvious, I suddenly understood why we bury dead people or throw them on the fire: It's so they don't become dog food. In less than two hours, a recognizable horse carcass had become a scattered pile of white bones.      

Bones, and scattered ones at that, are all that is left of the Mongolian empire, once the mightiest on earth. After being picked and pulled apart, it has faded back into the landscape, leaving almost nothing behind. What's left behind for the visitor is one big question: How did a country resembling a less-developed version of Wyoming conquer and run a gigantic empire reaching from China through the Middle East in the first place? Realizing that this nation of yak- and sheep-herders was for a time the world's greatest military power is a little like finding out that the local convenience store clerk was once a ninja assassin.

If you look carefully, there are little signs. The Mongolians walk or ride around like lords of the earth, which, in the Mongolian countryside, they are. Rural Mongolians spend a good amount of time on horseback, suggesting that a cavalry could be raised very quickly. Genghis Khan's face appears on the national vodka brand—perhaps he would leap out of the bottle if you rubbed it the right way. The empire might be just resting: After the nuclear holocaust, the Mongolian hordes will emerge from their gers and retake the world.

For Mongolians, what really rankles is the whole China thing. Rural Mongolians may not care much about the rest of the world, but the exception is China, which everyone seems to hate, as you will discover from even a short conversation. To be fair, it must be kind of annoying to have the country you used to run trying to boss you around. (How England puts up with this kind of thing from its former American colonies is a total mystery.) Yet since many of Mongolia's imported goods come from China, the Chinese can—and do—block the borders and drive up Mongolian prices, almost at will. Because of that, they feel they have the right to boss Mongolia around.

Worse, about half of the Mongolian nation is under Chinese rule, in what the Chinese call "Inner Mongolia." Many Mongolians think of Inner Mongolia as a colony or occupied territory, like Tibet (though, to be fair, control of the territory has shifted back and forth over the centuries). There is even an Inner Mongolian independence party, which is probably as popular in Beijing as the Dalai Lama's speaking tour.

After what felt like a new childhood, the trip was coming to its end. I began to wonder what the Mongolians, the great empire of the 13th century, think about America, the power of the 21st. Sitting in a ger back at the mountain plateau, I remembering asking some new friends which Americans they knew of. There was a long, empty pause.

"Schwarzenegger."

It is moments like these that create the Mongolia obsession.

Back in Ulan Bator, we ate the last of the mutton in Bimba's apartment, where, chatting with Tula, I noticed that my German was the best it had been in years. We said goodbye to the blue jeep, Miki lugging a large yak skull she had found somewhere along the way.

I left feeling that Mongolians, especially in the countryside, had adjusted well to their transition from the world's greatest power to the world's toughest sheep herders. The best explanation of their attitude I have heard came from Bill Siemering, who was NPR's first program director. They ruled the world and left their mark everywhere. But now, he says, "Mongolians live in the present."

Tim Wu is a Slate contributing writer and has rated the world's airports.

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