Tuesday, September 4, 2012


“They have circular houses made of wood and covered with felt, which they carry about with them…wherever they go.  For the framework of rods is so neatly and carefully constructed that it is light to carry.  And every time they unfold their house and set it up, the door is always facing south…They live on meat and milk and game and on Pharaoh’s rats, which are abundant everywhere on the steppes.  You should know that they drink mare’s milk; but they subject it to a process that makes it like white wine and very good to drink and they call it koumiss.  They rely mainly on their bows, for they are excellent archers.  They are stout fighters, excelling in courage and hardihood.  Their horses, meanwhile, support themselves by grazing, so that there is no need to carry barley or straw.”  Marco Polo
This is a ger, the same kind of circular house Marco Polo describes above
This is the door facing south.  (Click each photo to enlarge)

To me, one of the best parts about writing nonfiction is the travel. I’ll go just about anywhere to dig up research for true stories from history, and this summer, I got lucky and discovered a goldmine. 

How cool would it be to physically fly back in time for hundreds or even thousands of years? If you could journey through some ancient, distant land, what would its crystal clear lakes and road-less mountain passes and sinuous sand dunes and unpolluted star-filled night skies look like? And better yet, what if you could meet people who were living in much the same way they have lived for uncountable generations?  

Minus watching costumed actors in a movie or conjuring up a fictional time machine, is it possible to visit such places in real time?  It is.  With a few caveats (off-road vehicles and small planes, for example), that’s exactly what I did this summer during an expedition to photograph vanishing cultures in Mongolia.  

The magnificent country of Mongolia is sandwiched between Russia to the north and China to the south, and it is enormous—larger even than India, which is packed to the gills with over a billion people. Yet outside of Mongolia’s booming capital city of Ulaanbaatar (where over one out of every three citizens lives in the midst of ancient monasteries, ultramodern glass skyscrapers, heavy traffic, and unremarkable Soviet-style concrete buildings) lies this surprise:  An endless sweeping landscape almost devoid of human beings.  

A young monk in a monastery in  Mongolia's capital city of Ulaanbaatar

A performer from the Mongolian Opera in Ulaanbaatar
Mongolia’s entire total population is barely over 3 million people, and its population density is a mere 4.7 people per square mile, by far the lowest in the world except for the tiny Falkland Islands.  This means that you can fly across the steppes or over the Altai Mountains or the Gobi Desert for hours at a time without seeing one single hint of civilization.                                                     
See what I mean?

Scattered throughout this land are a nomadic people whose babies learn to ride horses bareback before they can even walk, and whose families live in portable gers built exactly the same way as the ones Marco Polo described in the 13th century.  It’s so cold during the winter that temperatures regularly plummet to 50 degrees below zero and the families have to migrate to somewhat warmer territory along with their herds of horses and goats and cattle, often battling with wolves that attack the livestock along the way. 

So for fun during the brief balmy summertime, they don brightly colored silk robes or barely-there fighting gear or ornate boots with turned-up toes or elegant hats from ages past to celebrate at festivals in which muscular men with enormous thighs wrestle, small children between the ages of 5 and 11 race horses 12 miles across the steppes at breakneck speed, archers of all ages hold archery contests, and men somehow gallop bareback to scoop long poles or small rocks off of the ground without ever falling off their steeds. Their intricate ancient music and dance, often haunting and even more often high-spirited, spans the centuries. Elsewhere, Animist shamans go into trances before a smoky fire and beat their drums. 

Winning wrestlers are crowned at a festival

Young riders race across the steppe
Yet despite the ancient ways of life that still persist, this is not at all an intellectually backward nation. Mongolia's national literacy rate is 97%, perhaps the highest in the world and certainly higher than our own.  For many Mongolians, this is their life of choice.

A camel caravan in the Gobi Desert sand dunes
An archer shoots a typical Mongolian bow.  Everyone is deadly accurate from years of practice
The scenery in Mongolia looks like it came straight out of an air-brushed fantasy travel catalog that has been cut and pasted to hide all the buildings and traffic (only these perfectly uncluttered views are for real). There are mountainsides covered waist deep with wildflowers and overlooking gigantic icy blue lakes.  There are camel caravans crossing sculpted dunes or canyon lands, and when you hike, you might smell the scent of herbs crushed beneath your feet or get a pungent whiff of onions from the crunchy onion grass in the Gobi Desert. And the sky. You can see the weather for miles and miles around.

Welcome back to INK, everybody.  Now to write the book.  Stay tuned…

Sundown looks just like this every day


Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Gorgeous photos, Roz! Can I assume that Marco Polo will play a big role in this new project?

Unknown said...

Brings up my own wanderlust!! There is no better way to travel than to learn for a project. I envy you this one!

Susan E. Goodman said...

Well, Roz, this is a dream come true.

Myra Zarnowski said...

How fascinating. Thanks for this glimpse. I am eager to read the book.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thanks everyone - and Marfe,I'll let you know.....!!

Susan Kuklin said...

Oh, Roz, what an exciting experience. Stunning photographs! I'm drooling over the sky-to-earth colors. And now you have the pleasure reliving it as you write what I expect will be a fabulous book. Congratulations!

What a wonderful way to start the INK season.

Unknown said...

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