Less than an hour after leaving Ulaanbaatar, accompanied by Baagi, his boss, and a driver, I was looking upon great swaths of pure colour, sometimes lavender, sometimes topaz. We stopped and got out of the car amid a ringing, pulsing silence. I walked past sheep skulls, trampled prayer flags, and ceremonial blue scarves marking out Har Bulch, or ‘Black Bull’s ruin,’ an eighth-century Uighur Buddhist temple. Wind whipped across the ruins as upland buzzards perched on shaman stones. In the distance, pastures shimmered like salt flats. Beyond lay nothing but blue-black peaks.
It is hard to appreciate, before arriving, just how silent and empty Mongolia is. You may learn that a population the size of greater San Diego is scattered across an area the size of Western Europe. But you have to go there to feel the absences. You may hear that more people visit Kyoto in a day than come to Mongolia in a year. But you don’t know what quiet is until you’ve realised it’s more shocking to see another car than to come upon 90 Bactrian camels sitting placidly in your red-dirt track. One member of my party told me that, in his language, there are hundreds of words for the colouring of horses.
Another remarked that a herd of 250,000 gazelles had been spotted here not long before.
It is Mongolia’s rare fortune to suggest another planet tucked within our own. Bird-watchers come for the falcons, white herons, black storks, and cranes that suddenly take flight over noiseless rivers.
Others come during the first weekend in October for the golden eagle festival in the west, at which traditional Kazakh hunters demonstrate the hunting abilities of their great birds. Some fish for taimen in the north. For me, it was enough just to bump for hours through a Rothko landscape with black kites winging through the sharp blue skies, the expanse of green in every direction broken only by an occasional single white droplet in the distance—a ger with a solar panel, a satellite dish, and a white Toyota beside it.