I looked around me as I bumped and lurched along a rough, red-dirt track between shaman stones and Bronze Age burial mounds, and realised that I could see what looked to be 60-plus kilometres in every direction.
The day’s protagonist, at every moment, was the sky. In the distance there seemed to be great panels, as on a Rothko canvas, of green and gold and blue. A faraway droplet turned out to be a solitary ger – a domed felt tent – in front of which a leather-skinned woman was driving along 100 horses. Everywhere else was emptiness – vast enough for the mind to go anywhere (or nowhere) – and the sound of the wind, whipping in my ears.
I’d been travelling in Asia for more than 40 years by the time I set foot in Mongolia, and knew that nothing I had seen in Tibet or Ladakh, and nothing I’d known in China or Bhutan, could compare with this great, heart-clearing stillness.
I’d watched the countries around me race into the 21st century, in a spirit of headlong excitement, and then lose their way and wonder where their past had gone. Not so in Mongolia. There are luxury-brand malls and giant screens projecting runway footage on the broad and trendy streets of the capital, Ulan Bator, but 30 minutes outside it, herders are living much as they would have done in the time of Genghis Khan.
“The mind is like the wind,” said my new Mongolian friend Baagi, calmly, as he led me around a museum in the capital. “You have to bring it back and focus. Otherwise, it will whirl around and around.”
Baagi was a deeply sophisticated soul, fluent in English, able to talk about Mormonism and Al Pacino movies and to liken Genghis Khan to the World Trade Organisation, and a stirrup to an F-16. But he had grown up in the countryside, which meant he would tell me that he’d been raised to think of squirrels as “really honest and loyal disciples of the Buddha. Because when they eat, their hands are joined as if in prayer.”
“In shamanism,” he told me, as we ventured out into his country’s humbling expanses, “nature is the temple.”
I’d been thinking about how to sustain something ancestral and misplaced within us and I’d been talking to the XIVth Dalai Lama for 41 years by the time I set foot in Chinggis Khan Airport (outside which women along the airport road were throwing milk into the heavens to thank the gods for a safe arrival). But I’d never seen Tibetan Buddhism practised with the boisterous exuberance and sense of liberation I found all across Mongolia.
For 70 years, under Soviet domination, it had been kept under cover, and when the country regained autonomy, in 1990, the religion it observes with such proud intensity came bursting out of the shadows, along with the local alphabet and indigenous customs and the natural sophistication that came with having created the largest contiguous land empire ever seen (even in 1246, a Parisian silversmith, a Greek doctor and a man called Basil were to be encountered in the then Mongolian capital, Karakorum).
It was the Mongols, I was constantly reminded, who initiated both the title and the idea of the Dalai Lama (dalai being the Mongolian word for “ocean”). When the Dalai Lama visits these days, his bodyguards told me, scores of burly Mongolians throng around him, eager to press his flesh, get his blessing, lay hands on the man whose tradition is as imperilled at home as it is bursting into fresh life across the steppes.
My days in Mongolia were wild and vivid and elemental. I and two Mongolian friends drove across the Gobi for hours on end, pulling up to packs of Bactrian camels seated placidly on the road before us; listening to the strains of Kalmyk rock ’n’ roll and Ulan Bator rap in our Land Cruiser; talking about how rivers are regarded as sacred here, because they are home to spirit-filled fish, and how the aunt of one of my friends used to tell her little charge, “You cut a tree, and you’re cutting someone’s arm.”
This sense of a visceral connection with nature is – not surprisingly – everywhere in this land of earth and sky: one day, as the morning’s first colours seeped across the horizon, we drove through a narrow box canyon, where ibexes vaulted up slopes and white barn owls peered out at us, and then scrambled on foot up a hill to an unworldly stillness. There, some villagers had built a new retreat for a lama, so that he – like centuries of Mongolian monks before him – could contemplate the emptiness and root himself, as few people can do nowadays, in the truths of wind and sand.
Sometimes we bounced across a desert that covers a third of the country, thinking of how the land was said to have been the product of a liaison between a blue wolf and a fallow doe. I heard stories of how Genghis Khan and his horsemen had cooked inside the carcasses of animals, using river stones, and turned the pelts of dead marmots into bags.
I was reminded of how they had created their own kind of Federal Express, devising a relay system of couriers that, Marco Polo reported, could carry a message from Karakorum to Hungary in a matter of weeks. I noticed how people still walked with a warrior’s short-armed swagger, how my guidebook had reported outbreaks of plague not long ago.
In a glossy in-flight magazine, even now, the address of one of the most popular restaurants in Ulan Bator was given as “Behind Wrestling Palace, Peace Avenue, 13th Micro District”.
Yet it was only when I returned home after my trip that I truly came to see how Mongolia had left its mark. It stayed with me as few destinations have, and haunted me. It felt as if the silence of those great spaces, the sense of stepping out of my luxury ger in the Gobi and just feeling the ancientness of the rocks all around, the uncanny time travel that comes when you’re juddering amid people living an almost changeless 14th-century lifestyle, had got inside me, like a shared dream I couldn’t shake.
Then I turned to my colleague Frédéric Lagrange’s photographs, and I was back along those golden slopes still littered with dinosaur bones. Here was the place that had so penetrated my being, but laid open – illuminated – by someone who has been coming here, again and again for closing in on two decades.
I had been following Frédéric’s work in Asia and around the planet for many years before our sights converged in Mongolia; once, we’d even found ourselves the stars of a series of ads that CNN screened for a campaign presenting “Incredible India” to the world. But when I looked at the images collected here, at once otherworldly and gritty, I bowed before someone who has had Mongolia in his veins, his past, his viewfinder for years, while I was only watching movies about weeping camels, or reading about incarnate lamas from the grasslands.
Mongolia, by Frédéric Lagrange, is published by Damiani. For details, go to fredericlagrange-mongolia.com.