This was music to my ears. I’d come to Mongolia to see how its fervent, sometimes boisterous brand of Himalayan Buddhism is bursting into fresh life, in contrast to the steadier and more sober variants I have witnessed in Tibet and Bhutan and Ladakh and have come to know during more than four decades of talking and travelling with the 14th Dalai Lama. I also wanted to see how traditional Mongolian culture had been surviving the country’s furious development since the discovery of vast copper and gold reserves. Without realising it, the monk was addressing both my interests — his country’s changeless nomadism and its homegrown globalism.
After lunch, Baasan Lama took me, in a friend’s car, on a jouncing, 45-minute drive up into the mountains. Near the top, on a crag overlooking the spacious folds of the valley, we came to a simple two-room retreat he’d built. Its stucco walls had been licked bare by animals hungry for salt. We sat on the floor and he whipped out a purple iPod and a Bluetooth speaker, then asked me what kind of meditation I favoured. Unfazed by my silence, he chose one from the dozens he knows. After leading me in chants, he delivered a brief talk on the necessity of saying thank you to life.
“Ulaanbaatar is a metropolis that sits incongruously within an encircling nothingness”
To get to Erdene Zuu, one has to pass through Ulaanbaatar, a high-rise metropolis that sits incongruously within an encircling nothingness, like Lower Manhattan surrounded by South Dakota.
Half of Mongolia’s 3 million inhabitants live in and around the city, the other half in the almost unchanged countryside. As I left Chinggis Khaan International Airport, I saw matrons throwing milk to the heavens, the
traditional gesture of thanking the gods for a trip safely completed. As we drove past gaudy shopping malls and construction sites, my guide, Baatarnyam Navaansharav, who calls himself Baagi, explained that the country’s largest gold reserve, the source of its latest hopes and luxuries, had been discovered near a place long honoured by Buddhists as an energy centre. I stepped through the scented lobby of the 21-story Shangri-La Hotel, which opened last June, and ascended to my sleek room, where I could see quiet, dusty Chojin Lama Temple far below, hidden among skyscrapers like a grandmother’s amulet dropped among boulders.
Mongolia today seems to be looking forward and backward at the same time. Since the country gained its freedom in 1990, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has embraced globalism, while also rediscovering its pastoral culture. Ancestral traditions, Buddhism in particular, came back into the open after having been sustained mostly in secret for the better part of a century. In the past decade, the explosion of the mining industry has resulted in one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world. Parts of Ulaanbaatar now look like the love child of Shanghai and Las Vegas. The city’s streets, where only a generation ago wolves and wild dogs roamed, are today clogged with 7,00,000 cars, inching past glass towers and giant screens projecting footage of runway models.