When I first saw Mongolia from the windows of the Trans-Siberian Express, I felt I had been waiting for it, not for the five days it had taken rattling across the train lines of an apparently endless Russia, but for a lifetime. Between the claustrophobic forests of Siberia and the dense paddy fields of China, the steppes were a revelation.
From the train Mongolia looked like God’s preliminary sketch for Earth, not so much a landscape as the ingredients out of which landscapes are made – grass, rock, water, wind. The horizons, tipping away into grassy infinities, were as simple as drawn lines. The emptiness was thrilling. Mongolia made the sky, with its baroque clouds, seem crowded and fussy.
For miles, I saw no towns, no roads, no fences. Through the carriage window, I would glimpse clusters of tents, the round white tents of Central Asia, known in Mongolia as gers, which seemed to sprout in these virginal grasslands as suddenly and mysteriously as mushrooms. One evening, towards dusk, I saw three horsemen. Silhouetted on a skyline, they seemed to gaze down at the train with disinterest, before wheeling their mounts and galloping away into their limitless world. For me, Mongolia was love at first sight, and glimpsing it from a train was never going to be enough.
It was some years before I got back to her. Other destinations intervened. But when I did finally return to Mongolia, it was to cross the country by horse, a thousand mile journey from Bayan Olgii in the west to Dadal, the birthplace of Genghis Khan in the east. I travelled alone with only a translator as companion, using local guides and relays of local horses, like the messengers of the Great Khan eight centuries before at the height of the Mongol Empire.
The descendants of the Mongol Hordes – a people who had once been a byword for ferocious attack as they created an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Mediterranean — proved to be shy, gentle, hospitable shepherds. From one end of Mongolia to the other I was welcomed, warmed, and fed by complete strangers who saw nothing remarkable in their own generosity.
It was the best of journeys. On those first days, riding across thyme-scented pastures, I realised this was the kind of journey that I had dreamt about as a child — a journey by horse, in an unfettered world of nomads and tents and vast spaces. It carried the sweet illusion of freedom. This was a landscape whose open spaces were wedded to movement, to migration. It felt restless and marvellous. I loved the idea that when the nomads struck their tents and gathered their flocks, there was nothing to record their passage bar the pale circles on the grass where their gers had stood, and which in a month would have vanished.
But Mongolia taught me more complex truths. The romance of movement, the idea of unfettered journeys, was my own. I remember a young man in the central steppes asking why I had come to Mongolia. I tried to explain my pleasure in the landscape, the joy of travelling. I said that I was fascinated by nomadic life.
‘What is interesting about nomads?’ he asked. His questions were polite but pointed. I replied that I enjoyed their preference for fresh geography over stale history, that lives lived as a series of journeys was exciting to anyone who was a traveller.
‘But the movement,’ the young man said, ‘it is only physical.’ He looked towards a bare slope were sheep were grazing. ‘Nothing changes here.’
He was right, of course. It is the irony of nomads, people whose lives are wedded to movement, that their world is so static. Theirs is a society that lacks diversity and ferment. They adhere to a way of life that has hardly changed in a millennia or more. The restless notions of change and rebellion, the shifting perspectives so central to the creative energies of cities, were absent here.
Riding between Chulutt and Tsetserleg, I fell in with an elderly gentleman. His name was Balginnyam, and he was over seventy years of age. With his ruddy face and his bowlegged gait and his shy country accent, he reminded me of my own Irish uncles. His hat seemed to belong to another era. It was a battered trilby with an upturned brim as if he hoped to catch the rain. He had eyes the colour of tea, pale tufts of hair on his upper cheeks, and traditional Mongolian boots with curved elfin toes.
By late afternoon we had reached a long autumnal valley where a small group of gers trailed long vertical lines of smoke into an ash-coloured sky. We camped next to a narrow stream beneath a slope of pine trees, made a fire and cooked a meal of mutton. From the deepening gloom of the woods above us tumbled the hollow notes of cuckoos.
Over dinner Balginnyam talked gently about the infirmities of age, his weakening eyesight, his stiff knees, his cold feet at night. They were not complaints, merely observations. ‘I am loosening my hold on the world’ he said, smiling slightly and unclenching his hand in a gesture of release. ‘I do not worry about dying,’ he said. ‘My grandchildren are my eternity.’
Night was falling and the features of the old man’s face retreated in the firelight. In the thickening dark he looked insubstantial, almost spectral. The cuckoos in the woods had been succeeded by owls hooting, like watchmen marking the passage of the night.
‘There is a liberation in age,’ he said. ‘I look at the world as if I am no longer a part of it. I have become a spectator.’ He looked at me across the fire. His eyes were pools of shadow. ‘Like you,’ he said.
‘Like me?’ I said.
‘You are the badachir,’ the old man said, using a word that meant a lone itinerant. ‘You are a wanderer. You are searching for things. That’s why you have come to Mongolia. To be a wanderer, an outsider, in your own country is difficult. To be a wanderer in someone else’s land is more comfortable.’
And of course he was right. It was the final irony of Mongolia. I had been lulled by the romance of a fluid Arcadia located among migrating herdsmen, of a freewheeling nomadic consciousness, unfettered by walls and the unyielding demands of the soil. But these ideals belonged not to Mongolia but to my own aspirations. Camped in this high valley of tents and horses, the old man could see that, whatever I had been looking for in Mongolia, was really only a reflection of my own desires, my own dreams.
In five months crossing the steppes by horse, I learnt a great deal about Mongolia. But the real revelations of the journey – as about any journey — were about myself.
Stanley Stewart is the author of three highly acclaimed travel books and several-hundred articles based on journeys across five continents, for which he has won numerous journalism awards. He is a contributing editor of Condé Nast Traveller and his work appears regularly in the Sunday Times. He has also contributed to the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent and the Times. He writes for the National Geographic Traveler in the US, the Sunday Times in South Africa and the Australian.