Mongolia: Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 August, 2010, 12:00am


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Mongolia: Nomad Empire of Eternal Blue Sky
by Carl Robinson
Odyssey Books HK$231

Until the revolution of 1990, Mongolia was virtually off-limits to travellers outside the communist bloc. Since then, it has attracted visitors from around the world with its spectacular landscapes, open spaces, warm hospitality and distinctive history and culture.

The overthrow of communism and embrace of private enterprise has transformed its tourism sector, adding new hotels, restaurants, destinations and services. But it is unlikely to become a mass tourism destination because of its remoteness and long winters - for eight months of the year, the average temperature is below freezing. It has great appeal for those who love the outdoors - anglers, trekkers, by horse or foot, mountain climbers, campers and hunters.

An American, Carl Robinson came to Hong Kong as a student in 1963 and spent a dozen years in Vietnam as an aid worker and journalist. In 2005, he moved to Brisbane, where he writes, travels and runs tours to Vietnam. This book was born from a two-month visit to Mongolia in May and June 2008, covering 20,000 km.

The comprehensive guide has sections on history, people, culture, advice for travellers and a detailed introduction to Ulan Bator and other parts of the country. The excellent photographs capture the landscape, the flora and fauna: 40 per cent of the population of three million are nomads who make their living from rearing 42 million horses, sheep, goats, cattle and camels - 'the five snouts'.

Visitors will find many traces of Mongolia's history. In 1279, it controlled the largest land empire, stretching from the Asian coastline to Persia and Iraq, Ukraine and much of the Balkans. In the 17th century it became a vassal of Beijing, signing away its southern territory, which became Inner Mongolia.

From 1924 to 1990, it was the 'sixteenth republic' of the Soviet Union, suffering terrible purges that killed up to four per cent of its population.

Worst hit were the Buddhist monks who in 1900 accounted for 100,000 out of the male population of 700,000. The capital was a centre of learning and pilgrimage comparable to Lhasa. The communists destroyed all but a handful of the country's 700 monasteries and temples and killed more than 10,000 lamas.

The visitor can see what has survived of this Buddhist glory - the Gandan monastery in Ulan Bator, the largest in Mongolia, with 60,000 volumes in Tibetan and Mongolian and a Buddhist university. There are the palaces of former Buddhist rulers, who ranked third in the Tibetan hierarchy after the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.

The book also contains a detailed guide for those with the time and interest to travel and explore outside the capital - such as the Eagle-Hunting festival in the far west in early October, practised by Muslim Kazakhs. It is the country's most spectacular annual event.