is known as the Land of Blue Heaven. Blue is its most sacred colour.
On every dirt track (asphalt is as rare as lettuce), and from
every hilltop, stone pyramids topped with hadag, blue
scarves, and littered with shattered vodka bottles appease local
spirits and bring luck for the road. To nomads of the steppe,
the sea must seem like the skies of the mythical Buddhist kingdom
On the way to the great lake of
Khovsgol in the north, we were invited to a farm for the day.
We rode horses across the steppe. Swathes of purple willow herb
echoed the smoky greys of the distant mountain ranges. Herds
of tan horses and coveys of white gers punctuated the
horizons. Black and white sheep and goats moved across the plain
like speeded-up chess pieces. We attempted to laugh off the
pain of riding with only a thin matt between us and the bony
back of the pony-sized animals.
Inside, we were invited to sit
on nursery-size stools, then loaded with dumplings and urged
to drink large amounts of airag, which was served in
pot-bellied china bowls. Airag is to the Mongolians what tea
and biscuits are to English country parsons. It is a mildly
alcoholic fermented mare's milk, and tastes sour and fizzy.
Mongolians only endure their frost-bitten winter months with
the promise of airag by the vat in the summer.
Step into a ger and
you enter a Tardis - but not just any time machine.
The ger's felt- and canvas-covered skeleton feels like a womb.
It envelops you in a muffled embrace, sheathing you from the
steppe's Siberian winters and the searing summer sun. Its profile
punctures the never-never-ending undulating plains of this lost
country. Turned on its side, it even looks like a pregnant belly.
There are no windows, only a dwarf door, and a cartwheel-sized
opening in the roof, the tonoo. Its two supporting posts symbolise
the link with heaven. Assembled in under three hours, and able
to rebuff the buran, the white winds of winter that course the
plains of Central Asia, this summer's British festival-goers
would do well to look into its design.
Erden Zu is the country's
second tourist pull. Built from the ruins of Karakorum, Chinggis
Khan's palace, it was once the epicentre of the largest land
empire the world has ever seen. The Chinese general who destroyed
Kublai Khan's Xanadu later turned his attention west, and effectively
annihilated with avenging fury the Far Asian home of the Golden
Today, only a metre-high, two-metre
long stone turtle - symbol of longevity, but hardly the stuff
to inspire Coleridge - remains. The turtle squats a ten-minute
walk from the monastery's imposing white walls with their 108
stupa towers, halfway to the spaghetti junction of the local
electricity grid. Close-by, people from the shabby town sell
tired-looking souvenirs laid out on bits of cloth.
In 1254, nearly 20 years before
Marco Polo embarked on his odyssey, King Louis IX of France
sent the Franciscan monk William of Rubruck to convert Mangu
Khan and enlist Mongol support against the Saracens. The brother
compared Karakorum, unfavourably, to St Denis. He seemed more
impressed with an ingenious drinking device. Created entirely
of silver, from its branches the cocktail cabinet tree he describes
dispensed rice wine, honey mead and mare's milk.
Unfortunately, the monk's interpreter
lacked his barefoot resolve, and it seems Rubruk's efforts to
convert the Khan, and thus save the Holy Land from the Infidel,
were largely thwarted by his interpreter's inebriated state,
though Mangu's retort "God has given you the Scriptures,
and you do not observe them; whereas he has given us soothsayers,
and we do as they tell us and live in peace," doesn't sound
like a man on the cusp of conversion. William noted, cattily,
"He drank four times, I think, before he finished his speech."
dim penumbra, a shiny kettle wheezes on a battered stove. My hostess,
Ayurza, on the Zimmer side of seventy, squats on a small chair.
She counts the names of her grandchildren on her fingers, looking
up to the tonoo now and again for inspiration.
"Sixteen," she finally concludes with a chuckle.
A good number of her clan smile
out from the two large photo frames which take pride of place
on the dresser to my left. Next to them lies an array of Buddhist
paraphernalia. Around the wooden trellis walls, reins and bridles,
household im plements, the odd piece of clothing and a plastic
pink toothbrush holder. Everything wooden is painted in garish
hues of orange, blue, red, pink and green. The tent was a wedding
present from Ayurza's brother. Its paint has faded and worn
like, I imagine, her love for her husband. But it's still standing,
sixty years on.