For the final installment of my list of “must” reads for anyone interested in Mongolia, I offer three books: One about a place and two about people.
The word “Gobi” is a byword for dry/arid/trackless/endless desert. In fact, there is a saying, “Dry as the Gobi”, to describe an extreme lack of moisture. Would it surprise you to know that the best, sweetest vegetables grown in Mongolia come from the Gobi? Or that snow leopards live there? Or that there is a forest with trees that have wood so dense that a piece of it sinks when thrown in water? Author John Man realized his dream of traveling to the Gobi (which is the word for “desert” in Mongolian) and then wrote this excellent book, Gobi, published in 1997, about his journey there, along with lots of excellent information on the human history, natural history, geology and paleontology of this remote and fascinating part of the world.
“We stopped to confer, and I unfolded the map on the bonnet. The Flaming Cliffs were definitely west, they had to be…..In the distance, a ger appeared, standing out of the desert as clear as a mushroom on the moon….Inside, the woman of the ger was distilling camel’s milk, boiling it in an immense pot, capturing the essence as it condensed, drop by drop. We received tokens of hospitality: camel’s curd, hard and sharp as parmesan, and a dish of distilled camel’s milk. It was a nectar of transparent purity, like vodka to look at, but with its alcohol content disguised bya smooth and subtle texture.”
This was one of the first books I read after my first trip to Mongolia in 2005 and it was, in part, the inspiration for my own trip to the Gobi in 2006. Re-acquainting myself with it for this review, I saw in the Acknowledgements two familiar names: wildlife artist Simon Combes, who Man encountered in the Altai Mountains when Combes was there gathering snow leopard information for his Great Cats series of paintings and Dr. Richard Reading, who was the scientist in charge of the Earthwatch project, Mongolian Argali, that was my means of getting to Mongolia the first time in spring of 2005. You’ll be hearing more about Dr. Reading in the not-to-distant future.
Gobi by John Man, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 1997
Every Westerner who goes to the Gobi is, to some extent, traveling in the footsteps of Roy Chapman Andrews, who organized and carried out his series of five Central Asiatic Expeditions from 1922 to 1930. Andrews was about as close to a real life Indiana Jones as one is likely to find. Dragon Hunter, by Charles Gallenkamp, tells the story of Andrews’ life and his amazing adventures. He made his reputation at The Flaming Cliffs in the Gobi, where he and his fellow scientists found some of the most important fossils in the history of paleontology. Which was ironic, because Andrews was in Mongolia on a mission laid out by his boss at the American Museum of Natural History in New York to find evidence that man had originated in Asia, not Africa; a goal tinged with more than a bit of racism.
“It was agreed by everyone that the primary objective of the 1923 expedition should be The Flaming Cliffs. Shackelford’s unidentified dinosaur skull, the egg-like fragment found by Granger, and prolific array of bleached bones littering the ground and eroding out of the sculptured formations offered an irresistable lure.”
You can see my photo of The Flaming Cliffs at sunset and Mongolian dinosaur fossils on my website under “Mongolia/Mongolia 2006 photos/items 4 and 1
Dragon Hunter by Charles Gallenkamp, Viking 2001
Women of Mongolia is a truly wonderful collection of first person narratives that introduce us to women from every part of Mongolian society: city and countryside, professionals and laborers. I was struck by their strength, practicality and resourcefulness, all of which were necessary for them and their families to survive the transition from socialism to a market economy. The photos in the book may make them seem distant and exotic, but once you start reading, you realize how much we have in common even though the details of their lives are very different from the average American.
A herder woman: “What do I do all day? There’s plenty to do! First I get up at around six o’clock in the morning to milk the cows. My daughter helps me. We have nineteen cows to milk, so it takes around one hour. After that I do various other jobs. I go to bed around ten or eleven in evening. We make everything here. Yes, the wheels of the carts outside are an example. My husband makes them, out of wood. We use the carts to move the ger and our belongings. They are pulled by oxen. I make all the ropes out of horsehair – you can see them on the outside of the ger, holding down the felt.”
An anthropologist: “I recently founded a new Department at the University, so right now I am rather busy. I’m head of the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the Academy of Sciences, and also head of the new Department of Anthropology at the National University…The focus of my own work has been craniological study…..How did I get started in this work? I graduated from the Moscow State University in anthropology because that is what the government told me to study.”
Women of Mongolia by Martha Avery, Asian Art and Archaeology/University of Washington Press 1996
And, on a different note: join Lonely Planet Mongolia author Michael Kohn as he takes the train from Ulaanbaatar to Beijing and beyond.