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The Gobi : Searching the sands of the Mongolian People's Republic for spirit of 13th-Century conqueror Genghis Khan

September 03, 1989|KITTY BAKER | Baker is a free-lance writer living in Newtown, Pa .

LAN BATOR, Mongolian People's Republic — The Mongolian plane's wheels bounced three times on the Gobi Desert gravel, sending up a cloud of red sand and stones. Droning as it taxied a short distance, the propjet stopped at a compound of yurts.

Minutes before, from the air, the campsite had looked like a collection of white pinheads stuck into a vast burnt sienna wasteland.

Now, at ground level, a capricious wind welcomed us to the Mongolian People's Republic, also called Outer Mongolia, where the pebbly terrain stretched to a green ribbon in the sky at the horizon.

I felt a rush of excitement, hoping that in this seemingly barren desert I would find traces of Genghis Khan's hordes from the 13th Century.

A Kirghiz--squarely built woman--wearing traditional boots and a dusty del (robe) greeted us with a white-toothed smile and started to make a fire in the wood stove sitting in the middle of our large dome-shaped yurt.

Although it was a windy 50 degrees, I said: " Nyet, spahsebah ." (No, thank you.) Somehow, the thought of a fire in June on the Gobi was not appealing.

My daughter, Donna, and I tossed our few possessions onto two of the yurt's four beds (our luggage had been left at the hotel in Ulan Bator to lighten the plane's load).

We examined the cheerful interior of our circular 20-foot diameter yurt, and checked to make sure the door faced south, as all proper yurts since Genghis Khan's time have done to protect against evil spirits and the north wind.

Donna decided to sleep on the left side, traditionally the woman's; I took the right. Had Zhuulchin, Mongolia's travel agency, abided by ancient laws, a Buddhist altar would have stood opposite the door. Instead, there was a red wooden table and a mirror.

The room was a kaleidoscope of color: Everything--stools, storage compartments, beds and 82 slender spokes supporting the felt roof--was meticulously painted with warm colors in small, graceful scrolls.

A cotton fabric of green patterns lined the inside bottom section of the yurt, hiding an expandable wood lattice framework covered with two layers of thick pressed-felt pads. On the outside, a white canvas cover served as protection against sand and wind. In winter, three more felt layers would be added for warmth.

The yurt was a replica of those used in the 13th Century when the Mongols swept over Asia, conquering half of the known world from the China Sea to the Danube.

Our yurt was different in two significant ways: It would never be pulled on a wide-wheeled cart by 100 yoked oxen, as ancient yurts had been, and an electric bulb hung on a wire from the roof's stove-pipe opening.

As far as the eye could see to the Gurvan Saikhan foothills, there seemed to be no habitation other than in our ail (compound) of 40 yurts for nomadic tourists, small stone buildings for showers (cold), toilets (clean), a dining hall, a store housed in a trailer, 10 workers' small wood houses and a tiny generating plant.

After the plane took off in another long stream of dust, the only sound in the vast solitude was that of wind blowing in my ears.

When I walked away from the compound to explore the Gobi, I had to lean into the wind, turned turbulent, sweeping out of China 100 miles south.

I listened for the spirits in the wind calling my name as they had called to the khans and to Marco Polo when he crossed the Gobi on his way to China.

He wrote about hearing the spirits talking: "And sometimes you shall hear the sound of musical instruments, and the sound of drums." On the vast steppe I thought it would not be unnatural to hear spirits in the wind. And who is to say that I did not hear a yatza and limbe (Mongolian harp and flute)? Or was the sound still in my head from music I had heard the night before in Ulan Bator?

Although the sun was reassuring I felt a sense of loneliness, but adjusted to it by observing small details that revealed surprises among grass so fine and sparse that I hesitated to walk on the blades.

Scattered like miniature amethyst jewels, wild irises nodded against the wind amid a litter of limestone, crystal, basalt and jasper gravel on the desert floor. Bleached animal skulls and bones every 10th mile or so reminded me that 35 miles away, in the Altai foothills, dinosaur bones and eggs had been discovered in 1922.

Knowing nothing about paleontology, I guessed that the weathered bones I found were unlikely to be 75 million years old. I came to a rutted track obviously made by modern vehicles. Had it also been used centuries ago by Genghis Khan's couriers?

It faded in the gullies and hillocks in the direction of the Great Wall of China at Pa-ta-ling, north of Beijing, causing me to summon a vision of long caravans on an ancient route carrying silk, gold, spices, ivory and silver from Cathay's merchants to czarist Russia.

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