Worldwide with Wee-Cheng #61: In Search of the Furry Mongolian Groundhog – Karakorum, Mongolia

#60: In Search of the Furry Mongolian Groundhog

2 October 2002
“Autumn is the time for delicious tarveg,” said Aldraa, the petite Mongolian girl with golden cheeks. Aldraa is the Mongolian colleague of Kenneth, my good friend in London, a fellow Singaporean who has temporarily traded his oil company executive city suits for a six-month volunteer stint in Mongolia.

The tarveg is the Mongol word for marmot, the furry groundhog found across the Mongolian plains.

Having tried (perhaps most politically incorrect but certainly in accordance to time-honoured Asian tradition – while ensuring that it was legal to do so) numerous wildlife ranging from the Amazon tortoise to Greenlandic seal and Peruvian guinea pig in the past 12 months, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the Mongolian marmot. And so off we went in a jeep in search of this creature unknown to the Southeast Asian gastronomical adventurer.

Mongolia – This is one of the most sparsely populated nations in the world, with 2 million people across 1.5 million square kilometers. Seemingly empty and endless steppes of rolling grass stretch all the way to Ukraine. Brown hills shine in the shadow of eternally snowcapped mountains. The land contrasts from the fine sands of the golden Gobi, to the deep green forests of the North.

The Mongols are a feared race in world history. They revolutionised cavalry warfare under the leadership of Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khaan or “Universal King” to the Mongols), who not only united the Mongol tribes but also turned the entire nation into a war machine. The Mongol ger, their white felt tent quickly became the symbol of their armies of destruction. Nations that surrendered fast were treated with some benevolence, while those that resisted were wiped off the face of the Earth as examples for others. Countless great cities disappeared this way – from Baghdad (will a new Chinggis destroy the city in yet another round?) to Merv and Samarkand.

Under the banner of the blue wolf, the Mongols set up the greatest land empire in history, stretching from Hungary and Poland at the heart of Europe, to Korea at the eastern end of Asia; and from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the north to Java, Indonesia, to the south. The Mongol khan sees himself as the King of the World – all lands not conquered by him are territories in a temporary state of rebellion. When the envoy of the King of France came for a visit, the Mongols demanded unpaid tributes and back taxes.

The Mongols reserved particular contempt for the Chinese – Chinggis Khaan required his attendants to remind him daily that that contemptible land of vegetable eaters remained on his southern borders. Only the meat eaters and free nomadic riders deserved to rule the world. Today, most rural Mongolians eat nothing but mutton and dairy products. Vegetables are for the wimps.

It was certainly easier to set up an empire on horseback than to govern one on horseback. The empire did not last more than a few generations, and soon fell apart as rival princes struggled for land and loot. The efficient trading and postal network (the world’s first common market and trade organisation of this scale) fell apart as warfare once again took over the lands. The brutal subjugation of conquered lands eventually led to massive rebellions that destroyed the empire. Even Mongolia proper was eventually divided by its two powerful neighbours, Russia and China. Today, there are about 7 million Mongols worldwide – 4 million in China, 1 million in Russia and only 2 million in Mongolia.

I arrived by train from Russia two weeks ago. The friendly Mongolian border officials greeted me warmly. “Welcome to Mongolia!” they said as my passport was examined and stamped. This contrasted amazingly with the rude, monolingual Russian officials who regarded tourists as unnecessary hassles, perhaps even as unwelcomed potential spies, terrorists and criminals who should not have been in the Motherland in the first place. I felt liberated in Mongolia, no longer shouted at by police officers who interrogated and treated me as a potential criminal on a daily basis. Many of my fellow passengers have horror stories to tell. Some were accused of the most bizarre crimes and others had all their cash (running into$3,000 in one particular case I heard) confiscated merely because they were not given customs declaration forms when they first entered Russia.

Kenneth picked me up at the train station and before long we, together with Aldraa and Gana, our jeep driver, were out on the rolling plains of western Mongolia.

Over a few days we were out in the hauntingly beautiful steppes of central Mongolia. We passed by countless ovoos, piles of stones set up at holy sites, together with offerings of vodka, cash and shreds of bright blue cloth – these are manifestation of the revival of Mongolia’s ancient religion, shamanism.

On the eve of the most auspicious day of the year, we witnessed a ceremony at a new ovoo, where lamas of Mongolia’s Tibetan Buddhist faith chanted scriptures while shamans performed rites of offerings – in this timeless land, one can hardly tell whether one is Shamanist or Buddhist – the tolerant traditions of the East means that all merges to form a seamless whole. Local faithful, mostly nomadic herdsmen who had arrived on their horses and, yes, motorcycles, kneeled in front of smaller ovoos surrounding the main one – each representing a different animal of the set of 12, under full moon and cloudless skies. It was a magical moment. Home is near and my journey is approaching an end in a month or so. Who knows what lies beyond ?

We spent the night in a dodgy hotel in the dusty, windswept village of Karakorum. Here, the inhabitants live in wooden shacks and tin roofed houses, but set up gers anyway in their backyard. The memories of the free nomad persists. Despite enforced collectivisation and urbanisation by the Communists, it has never disappeared, merely becoming part of the modern reality. As democracy emerges after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, old traditions are reviving with a vengeance in this ancient land.

Day light emerged quietly like a late churchgoer entering a church. I looked out of my window to find the rays of Apollo playing on the 108 white stupas of the Erdene Zuu Khiid, Mongolia’s premier monastery. Is Nirvana just beyond those magnificent walls ?

Karakorum was the ancient capital of the Mongols, before Chinngis Khaan’s grandson, Kublai Khaan, moved the capital to Dadu, now as Beijing, after the conquest of China – a move that the Mongols never forgave him for, as many Mongolians had felt, it entrenched the influence of Chinse culture on many aspects of Mongolian culture today, from architecture to food (not that they have learned a great deal in this aspect though…).

In its hey days, Karakorum was a cosmopolitan city of great and small gers. Diplomats and traders – not just Marco Polo, who was more interested in prices of local women in his famous travel accounts – arrived from far corners of the world, while priests and holymen of all religions competed for the souls of the Great Khaan and his subjects. As the imperial fortunes collapsed, Karakorum suffered the fate that befell many of the Mongols’ earlier victims.

In 1388, army of China’s Ming Dynasty, which overthrew Mongol power in China, marched to Karakorum, and destroyed the city in a way that left no stone unturned. Two hundred years after that, the great monastery of Erdene Zuu Khiid was built here, over the ruins of the old capital.

Today, as prayer flags beat over the dusty plains, the fortress monastery and its white stupas stood out on the pastures like lonely witnesses to the ravages of history. I remembered the magnificent but sad facades of the mausoleum of Sultan Sanjar at Merv, Turkmenistan, where I visited less than 2 months ago, the last remains of once-magnificent Merv, destroyed by the vengeful armies of the Mongols. How often history repeats itself. I watched the gathering duststorm to the west, and thought about the events unflowing along the Tigris. Historians call that the march of folly.