genghis-khan-documentary

[Photo: BBC]

GENGHIS KHAN AND THE QUEST FOR GOD: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom by Jack Weatherford completely revises our concept of Genghis Khan. Outside Mongolia (where he is venerated), he’s viewed as murderous, merciless, a monstrously insane warrior king who conquered the largest empire in history.

But Weatherford – a bestselling Macalester College anthropologist – finds Khan was a key influence on Thomas Jefferson and American religious freedom. Here is Simon Winchester (one of David’s favorite writers on China) in a book review last month:

“Though godless himself, [Genghis Khan] favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions, of many different faiths…[who should] ‘live together in a cohesive society under one government.’ …The Great Khan’s ecumenism has as its legacy the very same rigid separation of church and state that underpins no less than the American idea itself. The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment is, at its root, an originally Mongol notion…Many might think this eccentric in the extreme, until we learn that a runaway 18th-century best seller in the American colonies was in fact a history of “Genghizcan the Great,” by a Frenchman, Pétis de la Croix, and that it was a book devoured by both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson.”

grasslands-yurts-clouds

We’ve written here about Chinese (Inner) Mongolia (2012, the time of these photos). The haunting music, devastating impact of mining, the demeaning commercial imagery.

grasslands-temple-exterior

The author Weatherford, a hero in Mongolia, lives there half the year with his wife, who is apparently quite paralyzed by MS. I was touched, in an interview he gave, his description of how she is received there:

“In Mongolia there are no special facilities for disabled people; the streets and sidewalks are a jumble of broken cement and open holes. Yet when we step out of our building, hands always appear. No one says, “May I help you?” They simply do it and disappear, expecting no thanks. I never have to ask for help. Every week a few musicians come by to play the horse-head fiddle and sing for Walker, in the belief that music is the best medicine. Pop singers and hip-hop groups have come for the same purpose, saying that it will keep our home warm. People from all over the countryside send us dairy products. Our kitchen is usually full of yogurt, hard cream, curds, mare’s milk, mutton, horse ribs, and wild berries. Lamas, shamans, and healers come by to offer prayers, incense, herbal teas, chants, massage, and other forms of traditional treatments. Even strangers send camel wool or cashmere blankets, shawls, and socks to keep Walker warm. Mongolia has welcomed us with a care and warmth I can scarcely comprehend.”

 

 

Soulful Mongolian Horsehead Fiddle

Mongolian horse head fiddle

We saw Arga Bileg perform — a Mongolian orchestra fused with piano jazz — at the Asia Society last night. The orchestra included three horse head fiddles (above), a magical instrument that emits a horse’s cry.

Legend says a shepherd once received a flying horse he rode each night to his lover. But a jealous rival cut off the horse’s wings. After  it died, in his grief, the shepherd made the first horsehead fiddle in its honor, and all day and night, played poignant songs about — not the lover he wouldn’t be able to see, but his horse. Another fiddle legend says a wicked overlord killed a little boy’s favorite white horse. The white horse’s spirit then appears in the boy’s dream, telling him, ‘Make an instrument out of my body so we’ll always be together.’ And he does.

In both stories, the fiddle sound box is stretched with horse’s skin, its strings are made from horse hair, and horse bones become the fiddle neck. And of course, the scroll is the beloved horse’s head. I’m not an expert, but there are such lutes, of trapezoidal sound box, all around Central Asian steppes – Tuvan, Kazakh, Kyrgyz.

Our guide in Innner Mongolia played it, and also played horse head fiddle on mP3. Talk about great driving music. It is hauntingly beautiful. But only last night did I hear horsehead fiddle accompanied by throat singing. That’s when the singer attains two tones at once – a sound that seems to come from another planet. Imagine that under an uninterrupted bowl of stars on the empty steppes.

In China, we heard another artist perform Mongolian fusion: Sa Ding Ding, a half-Mongolian pop star they call “the Bjork of Asia.’ She acvtually shared the bill with the Black Eyed Peas at a U.S.-China friendship concert the embassy sponsored. She also sings in Tibetan and Sanskrit.

Sa Ding Ding, Chinese ethnic pop influenced by Tibetan Buddhism.

Mongolian folk rock is kind of hip in Beijing. (Someone called it “Chinagrass” i.e. bluegrass, in English). We heard some at an outdoor Beijing indie music festival. Hanggai may be the biggest group; apparently they were Beijing punk rockers who heard throat singing one day, sparking an interest in their (mostly lost) Mongolian heritage.  Now Mongo-rock is part of the scene. Like the folk music we heard in Mongolia, like the Mongolian-jazz fusion we heard last night, Hanggai is also often mournful, open-sky plaintive. This is Hanggai. And this is their best known song, I believe an updated folk song, “Xiger, Xiger.” It’s also here. Like many Mongolian songs we’ve heard, it alternates between fast and slow. When the tempo picks up, a horse begins to gallop.

There is loss and longing here. After witnessing the desecration of the grasslands in Inner Mongolia, the ever-worsening disappearance of language and culture as resource-rich area is mined and settled and overtaken, it’s impossible not to read that into this music.

Being global, it wasn’t only Mongolians in NYC giving a hollering standing ovation to Arga Bileg last night, but a typically varied NYC audience, appreciating the sounds of one of history’s greatest peoples, keeping its culture alive.

NOTE: Thanks for the horse head fiddle pic to an English teacher in Mongolia called “Jim” who writes the Wandering the World blog.  The instrument is found elsewhere (like E. Europe); in Mongolian it’s called morin khuur. In Chinese, matouqin – 马头琴.

One of Earth’s Holiest Spots

Why do we go out questing for certain hard-to-reach places? And when it seems worth it afterwards, as this time did, even then it’s hard to say why we did it.  Maybe the power came because we were close to leaving China. Maybe the spirituality was infectious knowing this is to be a more-than-usually religious year for us, ahead of Kenny’s bar mitzvah. Maybe it was just the density of chanting we came upon, unexpectedly, in this magical place.


It was unforgettable witnessing thousands of Mongolian, Chinese, and Tibetans monk and nuns chanting outdoors at one of the main temples of Wutaishan, the Buddhist holy mountain in north-central China (English: Mount Wutai). In China, where so few monasteries seem to be active, where holy mountains are thronged by tourists not pilgrims, this was a moving exception. The spirituality was contagious.

The architecture spans the centuries. The wild, empty heights are inspiring. We even said a few (Hebrew) prayers ourselves. It was unlike anything we saw in China.

At its heart is the valley made by 5 (wu) mountains. Scattered around are 100+ Tibetan Buddhist temples, built by China’s rulers over centuries–Mongolian (Yuan), Han (Ming), Manchurian (Qing), each of which which served, in its opulence, for each dynasty, to legitimize their rule. And to knit the disparate, diverse, tension-riddled, far-flung empire made of so many different groups, all together by the magnetic pull of the bodhisattva who once lived here.

For nearly a millennium, the powerful staked their claim, got a foothold in paradise, sought virtue and enlightenment, and made alliances with enemies, by building exquisite temples, pagodas and stupas here.

Why here? Because here once lived a real, historic bodhisattva, ‘wisdom being,’ an enlightened one who compassionately doesn’t enter nirvana, to save others. His name was Manjusri. In China, they call him Wenshu.

This sacred place, for Zen, for Chinese, for Lamaist Buddhists, kind of in the middle of nowhere, highest peaks reaching 9,000′, the  was once off limits to all but the emperor. Now Wutaishan, Manjusri’s earthly abode, is a powerful, inspiring, uncrowded place of Buddhist pilgrimage, its monasteries home to perhaps thousands of monks and nuns.

You’ll see, in towering Manjusri statues, he rides a lion or tiger–symbolizing the taming of the ferocious mind. He also holds a sword, to cuts through ignorance and illusion. Manjusri is the deity of wisdom, worshipped from Indonesia to Nepal to Japan. He is featured in many sutras (scripture) and is one of the oldest, most important deities. He’s especially important to the Gelug Tibetan line (the Dalai Lama’s school), who descend from his teachings.

The presence of so much Tibetan Buddhism here made us feel like somehow Tibet had broken off and landed in north-central China, in Shanxi province, one of the poorer areas (coal, over-farmed steep terraces) where 30,000 people still live in caves.

There were almost no tourists in these small alleys and steep stairways, just one bus of Chinese during our late-June stay (I’ve read it does fill up, but we didn’t see that). Decent tourism facilities are almost zero (people sleep in the temples), train and bus connections are terrible, and high altitude makes the roads impassable in winter; they call it “the roof of north China.” I totally didn’t want to go. But Kenny insisted it was the most important place, moreso than Wu Dang Shan (the Taoist holy mountain where Jackie Chan takes Jaden Smith in the “Karate Kid” remake).

Visiting looked unlikely when I discovered the train into the nearest town an hour away (Shahe) arrived at 2 am and there were no hotels there.* But when I discovered the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art in NY had held an exhibition on Wutaishan, devoted a conference to it, and published a book, which we read aloud together, I decided (once again) he was right.

You can feel the history, the cultural richness, the power of devotion here.

The Rubin exhibition (now online) features a 6-foot wide “map” of the site, a fanciful, amazing painting done by a Mongolian monk. His vision doesn’t look anything like Wutaishan really looks, but those kind of hard- to-find places that mysteriously ignite the imagination–they rarely do.

NOTE ONLY FOR TRAVELERS TO WUTAISHAN:

*There’s no good Wutaishan travel info online in English. I really hope this blog helps. I reluctantly recommend what we did: book a Chinese tour–ours was 1- or 2-star, terrible food & lodging, disorganized, they even left us behind once at an outlying monastery (someone did come back for us after an hour, during which time I cried). To be fair, we were warned it wouldn’t be international standards. In fact it was below bad youth hostel. But so what. We got there. My student helped us book, through an agency in Chaoyang. It was hard locating the tour representative at the crowded Beijing West train station, but when seats were sold out, they managed to get tickets. They’d put us on the slow Beijing-Taiyuan train (a good thing: being slow, it arrived in the normal morning, not 2 am, so you could sleep). We didn’t find the Wutaishan tour we’d paid for waiting to meet us..a long dull story. Suffice to say, we caught a different tour bus ride to Wutaishan, 4ish hours, for no additional money, and once we were there, we were there! We figured it out on our own, with the Rubin catalog, and an excellent UNESCO guide online. Actually that link is Wikitravel, quite useful, but here is the even-more-useful UNESCO World Heritage Site guide. UNESCO wisely included it in 2009. We also got the stupid, disorganized, obnoxious, confusing bus back to Taiyuan on the third day.

The other option would be a private car/driver, out of Taiyuan (wrap it in with a trip to Pingyao and/or Datong, which is amazing) — but that was beyond our budget.

Grasslands of Chinese (Inner) Mongolia

Wish my lawn looked like this.

Mongolia — one of the great places on earth. You almost have to use superlatives: largest-ever historic conquest. Greatest unexploited mining wealth. Most pristine wilderness.

Mongolia is Inner (a giant province in, + totally dominated by, China) and Outer (a nation , former Soviet satellite). Below these important historical overlays, Russian vs. Chinese, is Mongolian culture and the incredible land.

Inner Mongolia, the Chinese province (pink on the map) is so dominated, its capital city (Hohhot) isn’t even Mongolian majority. Why? As in Tibet, influx of Chinese people consolidates political control, a struggle thru the dynasties — sometimes Mongolian (the Yuan), sometimes Han Chinese. China may hope to spread its overpopulated people from the heartland. But mainly, it’s the extraordinary mining wealth: coal + those coveted ‘rare-earth’ elements that high-tech mfg requires.

KFC, Inner Mongolia (Xilinghot)

The mines meet the grassland in the least-touristed area, it’s not even online or in books–by Xilinghot, county seat, northeast, where we spent 4 days early last month. It is, per a great Economist story, “no pastoral idyll” — especially not in June, 2011 when violence blew up between put-upon local herders and big, honking mining trucks (and “Mongolia” joined “jasmine revolution” as a banned Chinese search term).

Coal makes Inner Mongolia China’s fastest-growing province. A recent article (also in The Economist) calls the mines “devastation” and a “scar”. Yes. We saw those scars, still small vs. the vastness. But in a pristine ecosystem, their impact bleeds widely outward — in polluted air, water table, land. And in another powerful way, it bleeds the people, creating Mongolian powerlessness and anger, quiet and seething, mostly, as Mongolians’ dispossession grows, as land ownership is gradually transferred.

Already Mongolians are only 1/5 of the population, and if your parents choose Chinese school ingfor you (the only route to a non-herding job) you lost your ancestral language: most have.

The too-familiar plight of indigenous people.

Around Xilinghot city — where soldiers amassed last year — and its mines and trucks and railroads, spreads the Xilingole grasslands, the hugest lawn imaginable.

Our young Mongolian guide’s older sister went to Mongolian schools & couldn’t find a job; he took a degree in translation. Angel of a guy, with an endless supply of friends-of-relatives-of-friends, who put us up in their homes (guest yurts — they say “ger,” like girl without the l, ‘Yurt’ is  Turkish) over 3 days.

It’s majority Mongolian here; tradition survives, meaning hardship: no refrigeration, a diet of meat and the animals’ milk, horse-back herders, old Tibetan temples on the range.

Now 28, he herded as a child, for his grandparents. At 13, alone, fending off wolves by setting clothing fires and banging pots, he learned English from listening to the BBC. Then drastic legal limits on herd sizes (sheep, cows, goats) -per-land-owned were imposed, so the family’s herd was lost, their income plummeted, and finally they lost their land.

“The Chinese plant–they’re agriculture. We’re herders,” he said. “Then they dig mines, and at last buy your grassland. This is the steps. Because the Mongolian people aren’t easy to unite,” he said. “Now Mongols are weak.”

Guest yurt, with sink.

There are ribbons of fantastic, new, smooth Chinese roads here, making our trip possible so efficiently, so quickly (Outer Mongolia, you’d need 3 days to drive the horrid roads the distance you cover in a few hours on this side). We zoomed through sweeping horizons of incredible Chinese windmill farms (which our guide, BTW, loves).

We had hot pot in a beautiful, clean provincial capital city, Xilinhot, with a giant well-preserved Beize Tibetan Buddhist temple complex (Mongolians follow the Tibetan brand of Buddhism).

The Chinese give, and the Chinese take away.

Our young guide: “I am Mongol and my culture is lost, but in my heart, it’s strong. Over 60 years we had great changes here. There were 50 Mongol families in my hometown and only 5 families kept the traditions. The world is eating up ethnic people–the world is like this. It’s hard to keep traditional, to keep the old life.”

He said this as he checked his cell (signal always available, middle of nowhere) to see whether Spain was beating Portugal in the Euro Football semifinals.

“We lost our grassland. Every blade is we love.” He said this stroking a blade. “In Mongolia, you have words you must hide in your heart. There are no people to tell,” he said. “Every 800 years, a hero brings together the Mongolian people,” he said (referring to Genghis Khan).

“You’ll see. A hero is coming soon.”

Xilingole: Industry vs. Grassland

A Mongolian Views America

Hillside, Ulanbaataar, Mongolia

It’s always us doing the observing, judging, describing. Time to turn the tables. Just back from dusty Ulanbaataar, Mongolia. Instead of my impressions (later), here is Boston — through the eyes of a Mongolian food-safety expert. (Pix are my snaps from Mongolia.) I must be as inaccurate on China as she is on America.

by Dr. H. Jambalma, in current issue of MIAT magazine

“In America, freedom means people deal properly with everything, in accordance with the rules and laws, which apply to everyone on an equal basis. People get on with eachother with friendliness and with a smile.”

“It is impossible to distinguish the rich and poor Americans by the clothes they wear and the food they consume. I had a chance to visit [a Rockefeller descendant’s] house. She has a medium-sized private house, by American standards, near Harvard. She passes the summer in the state Maine. In other words, they live like other common people.”

Gandan temple (Mongolians practice Tibetan Buddhism)


“The advantage in American society is that the entire population, the rich and poor, are supplied with safe food. There are no apples intended for the rich, or for the poor. It is an individual’s choice to consumer organic food or produced food. The essence of the Americans’ freedom seems to be this availability, the possibility of choice.”

Socialist realism mural, UB city library


“In Mongolia, there is little competition, the people are too peaceful. America exists due to competition. Even the secondary school children compete. They compete to gain knowledge and skills, not to get high marks. When American university students begin to study a subject, they have to read numerous books to be able to distinguish the old from the recent findings to draw a conclusion.”

Mongolia, one of earth’s last wild places


“Boston is famous for its universities… I read in a newspaper some scientists from MIT were planning to visit Mongolia. Brandeis, where I work, was established by Louis Brandeis in 1948. He is one of the top lawyers in America. He is a Jew. He founded Brandeis to compete with Harvard, because there had been a quota for Jewish young people to enroll at Harvard.”

Vista over hills, Ulanbaataar (that trap the smog)


“During graduation, the universities invite successful graduates in different fields to address the new graduates, such as world-renowned politicians, scholars or composers. Mr. Bill Clinton and the Dalai Lama visited our university. The famous violinist YoYo Ma came to Brandeis and gave us valuable advice.”

Suhbataar Sq., Government House


“Boston is not short of athletic teams compared with other cities in America. On the contrary, it exceeds them. There is a baseball team, “Red Sox,” a basketball team, “Celtics,” and a football team, “Patriots.” The Bostoners like to wear a hat with a picture of red socks, and a green shirt.”

Traditional masks, 1 of many echoes for me of Alaska


“The winter in Boston is not cold.* Usually it doesn’t snow too much. Occasionally, a lot of snow falls all of a sudden here. Cars weigh down with snow. Then the snow melts and black ice is formed on the car. The first year we were not experienced and our car weighted down with ice.”

The ger (yurt) can be seen even in the capital.


*Note that Mongolian winters are routinely 40 below zero, and it gets colder.