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From The Independent on Sunday and New Law Journal

Mongolia 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 of Shambala.

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 Horde.

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."


In the 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.

     

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