I understood better now why Baasan Lama had fashioned his rough retreat in the mountains above the Orkhon Valley. It was a symbol of the almost shattered heritage he was helping to reconstruct. On a day trip out of Erdene Zuu, Baagi and I had come upon an earlier such retreat in the remote site of Tuvkhun. There, we climbed for two miles amid Siberian larches and pines to the place where Zanabazar, the first of Mongolia’s ruling Bogda Lamas—and its greatest Buddhist artist—is believed to have constructed his own meditation space around 360 years ago. The site was marked out, hauntingly, by blue scarves tied around the trees. At the top, we came to the spot where Zanabazar is said to have carved 21 Tara statues while completing one of his great works of philosophy.
Such places exist in Tibet, but they’re difficult to find and are usually under surveillance. Here, I saw visitors from Chinese-controlled Inner Mongolia, unable to practice Buddhism freely at home, walking around statues of the Buddha and pictures of the Dalai Lama with tears in their eyes. “We are the only free northern Buddhist country in the world,” Baagi said with pride.
The next evening, Jalsa drove me through the scrubland, rich with sweet-smelling chives, to the Flaming Cliffs, 40 minutes away. This is where, in 1923, Roy Chapman Andrews, later the director of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, made the world’s first discovery of dinosaur eggs. As we strolled along the red ridges, ablaze in the day’s last light, Jalsa pointed out pieces of fossilised dinosaur eggs almost everywhere we stepped. One guest, he said, had recently stumbled upon the first juvenile duck-billed dinosaur skeleton ever found in Mongolia.
We slid down a long sandy slope and came out in a quiet space between the rocks where the Three Camel Lodge staff had set up a pavilion for us to eat in as the moon rose and the sky filled with stars. Beside us, local teenagers sang about the open spaces around us, accompanying themselves on a two-string horse- head fiddle.
In keeping with Mongolia’s bipolar changes of pace, after leaving Three Camel Lodge I drove to a tiny airport in the Gobi so that I could flyback to the go-go capital — where it seemed almost too perfect that there was a dinosaur skeleton on display in the brand-new Hunnu Mall. The mix of fast-moving capitalism and 14th-century pastoralism, on the same morning, was startling.
“The Mongol Empire, he reminded me, was famous for incorporating and adapting the trends of Russia and China and Persia”
But then I remembered what Baagi had said as we walked among the stupas of Erdene Zuu, the wind whistling in out’ ears. The Mongol Empire, he reminded me, was famous for incorporating and adapting the trends of Russia and China and Persia. “But,” he added, “the largest empire Genghis Khan built was in Mongolian hearts.” For him the flash and swagger in the capital were less a repudiation of his proud country’s past than simply its latest expression.
When I’d sat with Baasan Lama beside his Tibetan chapel, he’d pointed out that even the Buddha had grown up in a king’s palace. Affluence is not necessarily the enemy of mindfulness. “It’s good to be a little rich,” he’d said, measuring his words with care, but delivering them with confidence. “You need to be a little bit rich to have enough food and shelter, education. Then, once you have those tilings, you can turn to your spiritual life.”