[Originally published in The Earth, December, 1994]

THE ORDOS

Changing Land of Inner Mongolia

by Pamela Logan

Dalad Banner trees
Trees in Ordos Desert (click to enlarge)

"Storm coming," Jirimotu says tersely as he scans the horizon. "We'd better hurry." He was born here on the Ordos--a part of Inner Mongolia that lies between China's Yellow River and its Great Wall--and has an uncanny sense of its moods. But this oncoming sandstorm is so obvious that even I can see it: a great roiling yellow-white cloud hurrying towards us from the north.

We have been walking for an hour over sand dunes and dry scrub, heading toward a hill that is the highest point for many miles around. On its summit is an obo--a sacred stone cairn. But it looks like our outing will be cut short, for already the sky is darkening, and the wind is rising ominously. We quickly traverse the remaining distance and climb to the great stone pile.

The author at Mongolian Obo (click to enlarge)

My companion Jirimotu (the name means "idea" in Mongolian) is a fervent Buddhist; I accompany him in the ritual of pacing the path that encircles the obo. Then he again checks the progress of the oncoming storm. It is advancing rapidly, a churning cloud of airborne sand that seems to devour the land as it approaches. "No time to make it back to my house. Let's go down there," he says, pointing to a house below us on the slope, half a kilometer away. I nod in agreement. Though I have only been four weeks on the Ordos, I have already experienced enough sandstorms to know I don't want to be caught in one. We set off quickly.

As we walk the air turns cold, and the wind blows harder, driving a load of stinging sand that feels like a flurry of insects biting my skin. The sharp flakes penetrate into my eyes, nose, and ears. Just as the storm reaches its full fury we reach the house. Outside, a few sheep and goats huddle miserably in the lee of some low bushes. Without pausing to knock (for Mongolians will always welcome visitors seeking shelter from a storm) we burst through the door and in. A short time later we are sipping salty Mongolian tea as we sprawl on a kang--a heated brick bed used throughout northern China. The wind outside pounds the house mightily, like ocean waves crashing over a breaker.

Such windstorms are a regular feature of springtime in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China. In desert areas like the Ordos these harsh and relentless gales create a living hell. Sometimes the storms last for days, fading at sunset and resuming again in mid-morning. But the Mongolian herders here have long grown used to this and other trials. Indeed; when the time comes for Jirimotu and I to leave, the storm has scarcely abated, but he plods through the blinding sand cyclone with dull indifference, somehow finding his way among the many dunes and canyons. Meanwhile I stagger along blindly behind, the fine sand sucking at my feet with every step. Everyone tells me: "This is not a good time to come to visit the Ordos; bad weather, not much milk or meat. You should come in summer when the grass is knee-high and animals are fat." As I scan the dry, desolate landscape I try to imagine the sand covered with a carpet of green. Yes, in summer this place must be a veritable paradise. But by coming here now, during the cruelest season, I can clearly see how slender life is here on the Gobi.

The lesson is brought home with force when I go snooping in Jirimotu's family's storeroom. It is full of provisions stockpiled the previous season: home-dried meat and cheese; flour, rice, and pickles purchased with the proceeds of the family's herds. A line of meat strips hanging from a pole speaks eloquently about life on the Gobi : this puny amount of protein must sustain five adults and four children until slaughtering season begins in mid-summer. Will it be enough? What if one of these sandstorms wipes out the young lambs; what will they do next year? This scanty supply of meat, more than anything else I have seen in the Ordos, symbolizes the essence of the herdsman's life.

Jirimotu, who is twenty-five, is living in a world much different from his grandfather 's, for even remote areas of the Ordos have felt the force of the twentieth century. His people no longer live in yurts--the circular, felt-covered tents used by nomadic herders across central Asia--but in stout brick houses. Although Jirimotu's family is not wealthy, their home is elegantly furnished with heavy wood cabinets and rich carpets. A wind-generator outside supplies power to their television and cassette-player. They have not yet purchased a motorcycle, but more and more of their neighbors are doing so. Yet all the gadgets in the world won't help them if, through mismanagement or bad luck, their herds dwindle and die. Their livelihood still depends on intimate knowledge of their grasslands environment: wisdom passed down from their nomadic forebears.

I have traveled far to come to Jirimotu's home: from the capital of Otog Banner it was 50 kilometers over tortuous dirt roads, then 10 more on a trail better suited to horses or camels than to wheeled vehicles. But despite their isolation, these people are far from being the scruffy, dust-streaked bumpkins that I expected to find out here. Their clothes are clean, their hair fashionably-cut, and they are soft-spoken, educated, and intelligent. Jirimotu is at home here on the grasslands, but his world reaches far beyond these dunes and pastures. As a child he attended boarding school where he learned fluent Chinese; since then he has worked as a railroad laborer and a postal clerk, and he dreams of going to Hohhot, the Inner Mongolian capital, to further his education. But his dreams will have to wait. "I am under a lot of pressure," he says. "I can't just do whatever I want; I have to think of my four younger brothers and sisters." Most likely he will stay here on the grasslands.

These days many young people are escaping the monotony of a herdsman's life by fleeing to the cities. Opportunities especially abound for young Mongolian women, who are famous for their sweet singing voices and are consequently much in demand as entertainers in restaurants. But in every family at least one sibling remains behind to manage the family's herds. Yet even those who have lived an urban lifestyle for many years, some of whom no longer believe in Buddhism and speak Chinese more often than Mongolian--they still feel strong ties to the wide open spaces of their ancestral homeland.

Buhe Temor is a spry 56-year-old father of eight who manages a hotel and restaurant in a small town. On his motorcycle, it takes only an hour to travel the 30 kilometers to the ranch where his aged parents and two of his sons live on the grasslands. There he proudly shows me their groves of trees, two springs gushing sweet clean water, and a menagerie of sheep, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, pigs, dogs and chickens. Inside the house I find on the wall a photograph showing him sitting in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in a large group that includes Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang. It's another instance of how Mongolian life has expanded far beyond its traditional domain.

The Ordos, also called Yike Zhao ("Big Temple") League, lies at the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. It is divided into seven banners, of which Otog Banner is one. The western Ordos is largely pasture: grass and chaparral growing indomitably from soil that is almost pure sand. On this forage live sheep and goats; the people also keep small numbers of other animals. In the southern Ordos, due to chronic overgrazing, the sand has been stripped of its protective grass cover. Sand dunes--beautiful but deadly--move with the winds, engulfing what was once fertile pastureland. The government is well aware of this problem, and long ago started a widespread tree-planting program, which may stabilize the sand enough to compensate for the excess of animals.

In the eastern Ordos, the land has been eroded into a spectacular network of canyons, at the bottom of which farmers grow vegetables and millet, which is roasted and then eaten as a crunchy snack or mixed with Mongolian-style tea. Occasionally dinosaur bones and other prehistoric artifacts are also harvested from the many-layered soil. But the most fertile part of the Ordos lies in the north, along the banks of the Yellow River, whose waters make it possible to grow a huge variety of grains and vegetables. The Ordos also contains rich mineral reserves, particularly coal, lime, and gypsum. Groves of carefully -tended willows and poplars provide the people with beams for their houses. Thus, in essentials like food, wool, building material, and fuel, the Ordos is virtually self-sufficient.

Jungar Zhao, a Buddhist Monastery in Jungar Banner, is one place where the Ordos's rich spiritual heritage is preserved. This institution, like virtually all monasteries in Inner Mongolia, belongs to the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which was imported into Inner Mongolia during Kubilai Khan's time. At its peak during the Qing Dynasty, Jungar Monastery housed two thousand monks; but now there are only thirteen, none of them less than fifty years old. "During the Cultural Revolution all the lamas were driven out of the monastery," says Radana Dadza, one of the few who returned. "There used to be thirty-six temples here, but most of them were destroyed." "How many are there now?" I ask. He hesitates, then answers: "around eleven."

In the morning, when I go exploring, I see the reason for his uncertainty: most of the structures are in ruins. The government, perhaps to atone for its past misdeeds, supplied funding to restore the main chanting hall, a palatial Chinese-style temple with several courtyards and many rooms. It's grand and imposing, but with so few inhabitants the place seems cold and lifeless. The few monks I see are all occupied with maintaining the grounds. The monks also farm some land donated by the village; the income thus derived supplements their monthly government stipend of 40 yuan (about US$7). As I watch the head lama sweeping dust, sand, and crumbling stone from one of the many courtyards, I wonder: when do they have time for religion? Nowadays young Mongolians, who are educated and worldly compared to their parents, are little interested in the incantations of old men. When ask about personal beliefs, my guide, a young man from the city of Dongsheng, answers succinctly: "I believe in reality." Despite modest government support, Buddhism here seems to be waning in influence--

--But it is not quite dead. In Otog Banner, at the end of a tortuous, 26-kilometer dirt road I come to Xinzhao Monastery. It consists only of one plain brick building, a replacement for older, more opulent structures lost during the Cultural Revolution; and it is only four years old. But inside this humble place is bursting with spiritual fervor, for the inhabitants are in the middle of a three-week marathon of chanting. Every day, for eight or more hours a day, lamas great and small gather here-- the old ones to intone the ancient words of wisdom passed down from their spiritual forefathers in Tibet and India, the young ones to listen and learn. And there are young ones here--about one for ever four of the seniors, a small but gladdening sign that Buddhism will not die in Inner Mongolia.

But Buddhism is not the only religion in the Ordos; there is another: Jenghis Khan. This is a completely different sort of creed, for Jenghis Khan was a man who cared nothing for Buddhism's spirit of loving compassion; he was interested only in conquest. He was a man who believed that the greatest happiness is "to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet--to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women." [Harold Lamb, Genghis Khan: The Emperor of All Men, Robert McBride & Co., 1927 pp. 106-107] And he put this philosophy to good practical use, conquering cities across China, Central Asia, and Europe, leaving a trail of obliteration in his wake. And Mongolians, who virtually all subscribe in some degree to the cult of Jenghis, have faith that their hero will some day rise again.

In a peaceful, verdant valley called Ejen Horo the cult finds its focal point, for here is a monument erected around the yurt that houses the Khan's crypt. The Seven Banners of the Ordos are traditionally charged with the responsibility of guarding this sacred sanctuary. This came about because it is said that one day the great Mongolian warrior was riding with his men through this valley, and was so struck by its beauty that he proclaimed he should like to make it his final resting place. Although most experts agree that the Great Khan's actual remains are not here, but in a still-secret burial ground somewhere in Outer Mongolia, the monument at Ejen Horo (the name means "Enclosure of the Lord") stands as a symbol of the Mongolian juggernaut that swept across Asia, striking terror and--inevitably--submission in all who lay on his path. That Jenghis Khan lived and died more than 700 years ago is unimportant to the thousands of Mongolians who come to worship at the shrine of their most famous ancestor.

I have arrived just in time to see this cult reach its climax, for on the twenty-first day of the third moon of the lunar calendar keepers of the sanctuary hold the Great Spring Sacrifice. Early in the morning I climb the nine sets of nine steps (nine is considered a magic number by Mongolians) to a great pavilion. Already crowds are beginning to gather before the three great domes that enclose the Khan's shrine. Groups of pilgrims make their way inside; they have come for an imperial audience with their leader. Owen Lattimore, an American who traveled extensively in Inner and Outer Mongolia in the 1940s, participated in the ceremony. He later wrote: "First we stood in line, then fell to both knees. Three of the sponsors were in line with us, while two went forward as heralds to announce us. When one of these came back and 'invited' us we rose, went forward, each carrying on his outstretched hands a flimsy silk khatagh or scarf of honor, crowded, stooping, through the door, knelt on both knees and three times prostrated ourselves, with hands and foreheads to the ground." [Owen Lattimore, Mongol Journeys, p. 36]

As the ritual continues, more offerings are made: a butter-lamp, cups of wine, and finally the carcass of a sheep, all presented along with prostrations and singsong chants intoned by a herald.

Lattimore's visit was fifty years ago, but the ritual has hardly changed. Perhaps the only difference is that now most of the visitors are dressed in western-style suits, not silken Mongolian robes. But whatever their dress, class, or occupation, all faces here show solemn reverence.

The Ordos lies at the very edge of the Mongolian ethnic domain. Ruled by China and squashed up against a great mass of ethnic Chinese, pressure to assimilate is strong. Before I arrived I wondered if there would be anything left to see of authentic Mongolian culture. But by the time I departed the Ordos I knew that, despite modernization and every-increasing foreign influence, Mongolians are hanging on tightly to their heritage.


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