As we drove, I couldn’t help thinking of the rock formations of Monument Valley or the Australian outback, though here the land has been ironed into something flatter and less varied. “Sometimes I just like to look at rocks, the patterns they make,” said Baagi, who grew up with the Darkhad tribe in the north but now spends most of the year in the capital. “Better than any designer! When we were kids, we used rocks to play games. We pretended they were sheep or goats, sometimes tanks. We used them to play cowboys and Indians. Everyone wanted to be an Indian.”
At last, we arrived at a small gathering of gers against a rock. This was the Three Camel Lodge, a place that could be called the Pearl of the Gobi. It is the creation of Jalsa Urubshurow, a spirited, enterprising, Kalmyk-Mongolian from New Jersey who saw a chance, after Mongolia opened up, to introduce the beauties of his ancestral home to the rest of the world. Four young staffers ran out to greet us, bearing chilled towels and cool glasses of sea-buckthorn juice. One whole section of my three-ger suite was a luxurious bathroom, complete with a rainforest shower and L’Occitane toiletries. Soon we settled in for a dinner of broccoli soup, Gobi-style mac and cheese, and the lightest pumpkin pie I’d ever tasted.
The next morning, in the heart-clearing stillness, Baagi and I woke early and drove out into the pink and golden silence that follows sunrise. We passed into a box canyon beneath a kind of cloud formation that Mongols liken to a dragon delivering a warning. Two ibex suddenly vaulted away from us. Clambering up to a ridge when the road gave out, we found ourselves at a little pavilion with an ancient bell in it. Beyond that was a nine-foot-tall White Tara statue. From the porch of a nearby meditation hut we looked out on endless valleys that made us feel as small as dust balls. The bell sang occasionally in the wind. This centre of absolute quiet was Bulgan Temple, the retreat of a local teacher called the Buyan Lama. Baagi told me that it had been completed two years earlier. Local herders had provided the funds and even helped carry the two-tonne statue up the hill. “It’s so moving to me” my friend said, “to see Buddhism rising out of the dust like a phoenix.”