In the Shadow of Chinggis Khan: Some Geographical Lessons While Tenting in Mongolia

By McColl, R. W. | Focus, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

In the Shadow of Chinggis Khan: Some Geographical Lessons While Tenting in Mongolia


McColl, R. W., Focus


"Saim banu? (Good are you?) "Saim. Ta, saimbanuu?" (Good. You, good are?) With these traditional Mongol greetings, I had returned for my fourth trip to this once-mysterious country now so open to scholars, scientists and even tourists. It was a happy occasion for us all. I really like the openness and honesty of these people; it was time to renew old friendships and make many new ones.

I was in Mongolia to take part in an international scientific field trip to the famous (among earthquake geologists at any rate) Bulgan-Mogod and Gobi Altai earthquake ruptures. The trip was an opportunity to visit often-inaccessible parts of Mongolia, to actually walk the landscape, to see and listen to the environment and to scientists and people with very different perspectives from my own. As it turned out, it also was a chance to gain a sense of the same physical environments that Chinggis Khan had used in his creation of the Mongol Empire in its earliest stages - as he formed and forged alliances among the various tribes and regions of what is today Mongolia. Our 600-km trip would take us northwest from Ulaanbaatar to Bulgan Province and then southwest across the Hangay Mountains and the Mongolian Plateau, through grassland that became increasingly arid as we came to the edges of the Gobi Desert in Ovorhangay (South Hangay) and Bayanhongor provinces.

Our group consisted of nine Americans, three Israelis, one Dutchman, four Frenchmen and one Argentinean - most being geologists. Because I am a cultural geographer, I was not sure how I would fit in, but this apparently strange combination in fact worked very well, at least for me. It was a real pleasure to camp and trek with field geologists. My main regret is that most geographers do not do this kind of field work today. There is a lot more to see and learn by walking, comparing notes and thinking than by flying, driving, or computer simulation and data-base library research. When walking, there is time to truly absorb the landscape and its fabric. On this trip, it was a way for me to "see" and understand the interplay of humans with Mongolia's numerous ecological niches. The Chinese have a nice way of putting it. When you say you "see" something, you kanjian (see and comprehend - you must complete the verb to actually "see"). If you are only "looking" or browsing, then you say kan-i-kan ("lookee look" in pidgin English). This trip was definitely KANJIAN.

First stop, Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar, the modern capital of Mongolia, was neither capital nor even an encampment under the Mongol Empire of Chinggis Khan. This city began life as Urga, but following the Communist Revolution in 1921, its name was changed to "Red Hero" - Ulaanbaatar or, in Soviet usage, Ulan Batar. We will use the Mongolian spelling; most often Ulaanbaatar is referred to simply as "UB" by foreigners. It is a city that is a mixture of traditional and socialist, with insets of very modern architecture. It is sited on the only north-south rail line linking this landlocked country to the outside world (see box, "The State of Mongolia"). We are told that its greater administrative area holds a population of 575,000 as of 1992, roughly one-quarter of Mongolia's total population of more than two million people. This is hard to believe because one sees very few people on the streets. However, if you should ride the almost free buses, it is fully believable. In fact, it sometimes seems that the entire urban population is on the same bus as you.

For historians and tourists, the primary sights in UB are the Gandan Hiid Temple and the Bogd Khan Palace and Museum. The museum has become all the more attractive since the discovery of the world's first known dinosaur eggs by Roy Chapman Andrews' Third Asiatic Expedition in the early 1920s and in light of the current popularity of dinosaurs. Once these are visited, the objective is to get out of the city and kanjian Mongolia and the Mongols. We, geographer and geologists, were no different. …

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