An empty and timeless landscape
Anna Faherty goes in search of the wide open spaces and ancient markers of Mongolia’s remote hinterland.
Mongolia is officially the least densely-populated nation in the world. When I asked a visiting US archaeologist what he found most striking about his work there, he talked about the ‘absence’ of many things. This, to most people, is the key attraction of this central-Asian republic whose vast landscapes house a limited number of paved roads and few people. There are also no direct flights from Western Europe or the US. Landing in the urban sprawl that is Ulaan Baatar (UB, as the locals call it) could therefore be something of a disappointment. The drive in from the airport is long and busy, with too many vehicles attempting to navigate the pot-holed road. My taxi crawled past industrial power-plants belching out smoke in the middle of residential districts, giant exposed water-pipes snaking over streams, and half-finished constructions towering over soulless apartment blocks.
Yet this absence of effective urban planning gives UB a distinct charm. As a Londoner accustomed to eclectic architecture, I enjoyed the constant patchwork of imposing Soviet-era buildings, modern skyscrapers, and early 20th-century Buddhist temples. Like the rest of the country, however, there is little architectural evidence here of pre-19th-century history – Mongolia’s most impressive ancient monument is the 16th-century UNESCO World Heritage Site at Erdene Zuu, over 300km (186 miles) to the west of the capital. But the region’s fascinating and complex backstory is brought to life in a number of good-quality museums. The best of these was just a short stroll from my hotel, across the starkly flat main square where local toddlers get a feel for Mongolian-style driving as their parents race them around in remote-controlled toy cars. Mongolia’s empire once stretched from the River Danube to the Sea of Japan, and its National Museum presents a chronological overview of the region from 100,000 BC to the present-day State of Mongolia, declared just over a decade ago.
After a couple of days in the hubbub, I wanted to go in search of the emptiness for which Mongolia is famed. Public transport is something else that is largely absent here, but the well-organised and – in first-class at least – comfortable railway is an exception. I boarded the train and headed south-east to the semi-desert, about halfway between the capital and the Chinese border.
The nothingness, when it came, was striking and hypnotic. No houses, no roads, no walls or fences, no electricity pylons, no farmland. Nothing. Just rolling green hills that were soon transformed into never-ending grasslands. Of course, much of this space is inhabited – by nomads who regularly move their felt-covered gers, or yurts, to find fresh pasture for herds of goats, sheep, cows, or horses. And, as highlighted in the National Museum, there is plenty of archaeological evidence of human habitation in even the most remote and inhospitable reaches of this seemingly untouched country.
Seven or so hours of nothingness later, followed by a bumpy ride in a utilitarian battleship-grey ‘Russian van’ with tyres the size of a juggernaut, I finally reached my ultimate destination: Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Dornogobi province. Set up in 1996 to protect one of the world’s last populations of Argali mountain sheep, this area about the size of Exmoor National Park is currently being surveyed by a team of archaeologists from the US and Mongolia. Once an ancient seabed, the landscape looks a little like the plains of Africa or the deserts of the southern USA – scrubby flatlands punctuated by heavily weathered giant granite outcrops, all overarched by skies as deep blue as the open ocean. Though this is not the Gobi Desert proper, the air is so dry that body-sweat instantly vaporises, and any trace of rain rapidly disappears beneath the earth. I was advised to avoid dehydration by carrying two litres of water every time I went anywhere – along with waterproofs and woolly layers, since
the weather can change at the drop of a hat.
This exposed and disorientating landscape, along with its intense dry heat and piercing north wind (exacerbated in winter by temperatures of −25∞C) make this seem an unlikely home for either endangered Argali sheep or humans. Yet Ikh Nart is a treasure trove of cultural heritage. As the visiting archaeologist had said, there is an absence of domestic structures, large ceramics, and other artefacts associated with permanent settlement. But there is plenty of evidence of habitation reaching back to the Palaeolithic, including eight different types of rock burial. Thanks to the absence of development, there is also no need to dig through feet of strata to find older artefacts. Instead, everything is on the surface – prompting one of the US professionals to describe the area as ‘Disneyland for archaeologists’. With the help of more-expert eyes than my own, it did not take long to spot Neolithic chert blade cores, a basalt grinding stone, and a quartzite blade knife, all lying in the parched open air.
The archaeological work at Ikh Nart is overseen by a partnership between the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. The team’s overall aim is to identify sites of cultural importance, and ultimately preserve the area’s cultural landscape. Fieldwalking in randomly selected locations, along with a small number of surface excavations, have so far turned-up Bronze Age and Iron Age ceramics, whistling arrowheads, Manchu coins (demonstrating that trading took place in this far-flung location) and Buddhist ovoos (sacred piles of rocks). But the main attraction has to be the Bronze Age khirigsuur burial mounds that crop up everywhere – permanent markers in the landscape created by people who, ironically, never settled permanently during their lifetimes. There are also prehistoric rock-art panels and the Bicight Khad or ‘writing rock’, which – like the history of Mongolia itself – is a hotchpotch of Neolithic petroglyphs, carved Buddhist mantras, and painted Cyrillic graffiti, all wandered over by herds of domesticated goats.
At first glance, Ikh Nart’s beautiful wilderness landscape certainly delivers the ‘absence’ most visitors to Mongolia seek out. But it also provides a wild and largely unexplored collection of archaeological sites and finds. In this part of the world, absence, it seems, is a relative term.