Some people in the interior, my guides told me, had only recently seen a banana, and could hardly imagine anyone consuming chicken or fish (‘insects,’ as they see them), let alone vegetables. (“Our animals eat grass,” they’re liable to say, “and we eat our animals.”) Bubonic plague is still known in some parts. (“If you see a dying marmot,” my Bradt guidebook alerted me, “steer away.”) Yet the ingenuity that once allowed Mongolia to seize every land from the Pacific to the Mediterranean is everywhere apparent. Nomads make satellite dishes out of old CDs. When cell-phone reception comes to certain mountaintop areas, locals are known to push SEND, fling their devices up to catch the signal, and then grab them as they come down again.
Finally, we came to Ongiin Hiid. Once a monastic city with a four- figure population, it was devastated by the Soviet purges of the 1930s. Only a few traces remain, surrounded by the Ongiin Nuuts Ger Camp.
A lama invited us into his ger among the broken stones and passed out some snuff, then strips of raw meat from a large white basin. In a few minutes, he told us, he was expecting an important group of lamas— a sign, perhaps, that the monastery might be headed for a resurgence.
“We had entered a world of shadow and light, horizon and sun”
We drove on, into the Gobi Desert, our Land Cruiser throwing up clouds of dust as we listened to Ulaanbaatar rap and Soviet-era rock ‘n’ roll.
Above us were squid-ink mountains and puffy clouds the size of towns. We had entered a world of shadow and light, horizon and sun. All sense of time and space fell away. Was it yesterday we’d passed the 13-year-old sheepherder in a thick woollen robe? Had we travelled 30 miles today, or not moved at all? It was easy to understand why for millennia nomads have worshipped the ‘eternal blue sky’ as a sovereign presence upon which everything depends.