Daily Archives: 26 October 2021

Nights in Mongolian Yurts

From The Amur River: Between Russia and China, by Colin Thubron (Harper, 2021), Kindle pp. 24-25:

The Onon flows in an arc of light to our north, and we are crossing a land unfamiliar even to Batmonkh. Overnight we find simple hikers’ camps, but there are no hikers. In the guest gers the walls are of beaten felt, thick and warm, and breakfast, if we are lucky, includes fried dumplings and home-made yoghurt. One night some weathered herdsmen vacate a family ger for us, its walls weighted with logs against the wind. Inside, the nomad furnishings are still in place. Its willow framework radiates down from a circular smoke-hole, and a stove on the floor sends a rusted pipe skyward. The household altar no longer harbours photographs of Party leaders, but has returned to older sanctities. Crude paintings of Tibetan Buddhist deities and protectors – the benign White Tara and the fearsome Black Mahakala – are propped on a tin of Imperial Best Quality Biscuits. Beneath them, beside a miniature prayer wheel, some juniper seeds are burning, while behind hangs a bundle of dried curds for sacrifice to the local mountain spirit. The family gives us a dish of cold mutton bones, then leaves us to sleep: I on the only bed, while Batmonkh and Tochtor lie among blankets on the floor.

These mobile dwellings, and the fragile villages that absorb them, seem natural to the Buryat Mongols who inhabit this region. Their recent past is dark with flight and persecution. Early in the last century, with revolution and civil war engulfing their Russian homeland, they fled south into a more tranquil Mongolia. But already the country was sliding under Russia’s shadow, and soon Stalin’s flail fell on them at the hands of Khorloogiin Choibalsan, a Mongolian despot as ruthless as his Soviet mentor. Through the 1930s night-time arrests took away thousands of Buryats for execution or the labour camps. They were charged with pan-Mongol conspiracies or with spying for a newly aggressive Japan. In an age of fear, they were judged fatally different. Between 1937 and ’38, at the height of the bloodbath, half Mongolia’s intelligentsia was purged, along with 17,000 monks.

Yet the Buryats remain settled in a deep band south of the Russian border. At 42,000 people, they number less than 2 per cent of Mongolia’s population; but their talents have won them unequal influence and resentment, and it is they who occupy the watershed of the sacred Onon river from its source in the Khenti mountains to its departure over the Siberian frontier to our east.

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