First, geography and history lessons. Meng is Mongolia. Temujin who became the Great (Genghis) Khan was voracious in his conquest of territories in Central Asia, the Far East, and Europe. In his time, talks between Mongols and Europe (Crusaders) to form an alliance against the Muslims were in progress. It did not materialize.
Genghis Khan, in spite of his violent reputation because of the manner he and his forces conducted conquest, was incredibly tolerant of religious diversity in his time. He did not establish a state religion, and religion was not a reason for political conflict. The Mongols later embraced non-violent Tibetan Buddhism.
Before then, one of Genghis Khan's grandsons went knocking on Western Europe's door but Temujin's death sent everyone back home in a scramble for power. Though the Great Khan divided up his empire into Khanates to minimize infighting among members of his family, a power vacuum ensued.
His progeny eight centuries later joined Inner Mongolia (Nei Menggu) to China's body politic, while Outer Mongolia (Wei Menggu), declaring independence after the collapse of the Qing dynasty and becoming a protectorate of Russia following the Bolshevik revolution, finally had its independence internationally recognized in 1954. In 1992, it became a multi-party republic.
As the sun rose on our rail trek From Mukden to Manzhouli, we woke up to the wide expanse of thinning forest and large tracts of farms. Foothills undulated with rapeseed cover, not unlike the flatter terrain of Illinois and Iowa. Sunflowers rivaled cornfields, but huge tracts of potatoes mimicked Idaho fields. A fog in the early morn that was thicker than mist nestled close to the ground, but we noticed a faint coloration that can only be the result of smog.
The forested terrain one normally finds in Manchuria began to slowly give way to birches and then fir, finally, to Bonzai-looking shrubs. Soon it was all grazing grass as far as the eyes can see. The landscape turned into wide open ranchland reminiscent of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, and as the train hied to the capital of Hulanbier Prefecture, Hailar, herds of cattle and sheep were clustered along green grass and watering holes.
A dream of the grassland is a common theme of Mongolian art and music.
The dark carbon-mixed fog made the smog a strange apparition in the steppes of Inner Mongolia. But the 21st century barrels down the road as lonely trucks on long hauls in long-stretched single-lane country roads bring food and material commodities to what was once a desolate, treeless ground of the yurt-dwelling nomadic Mongols, as well as carry manufactured products from the coal-fired factories that dot the landscape.
The sun showed up by the time we got to Ya Ke Shi (shi+city), a domain that seems to reach back to Kiev and St. Petersburg in Russia. This part of the Mongol empire was once a part of Manchuria where the Russians vied for territory against the Manchus, and later, losing to the Japanese. But the train that took Slavic architecture to Harbin, to be known as the Moscow of the Far East, left a decidedly Byzantine trail on the terrain leading all the way to Dalian at the southern tip of Liaoning.
I once jokingly asked a student from Inner Mongolia if she grew up in a yurt, (made a mistake in the '60s of asking a Native American if he grew up in a teepee). The student was amused at my image of Inner Mongolia, a product of historical romanticism rather than reality on the ground. It was like my days in Dallas asking my roommate if we could watch a cattle drive to the stockyards. And contemporary Nei Menggu is hardly Mongol anymore, never mind that Termujin the Great Khan (Genghis) is enshrined in Ulan Batur as the father of Mongolia and the Mongol people.
There was a cluster of yurts (bao) along the rail line, though looking more glorified for visiting tourists than shelter to the horsemen of the steppes. Indeed, Inner Mongolia is now 80 percent Han, which is like the Midwest being predominantly Caucasian as its history included the driving of Native Americans into reservations and their extinction.
Gov. Ben Fitial's plaintive speech on being a Refaluwasch to the climate change symposium held at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. struck a needed cord.
Beyond Uncle Ben's genial reminder to the feds for consultation, especially as the melting of the polar ice threaten sea level rise, the Refaluwasch might want to be more assertive in the radical transformation of its own self-understanding (culture does not stand still), particularly in the area of political decision-making. The Mongolians have abandoned the role of the great one (Ghengis), and from what I gathered in conversation with Lino Olopai, the Refaluwasch need to democratize its own highly stratified social structure.
The Mongolians thrive in the metaphor of the open grasslands; the Refaluwasch in the open seas. Opening up the strictures of culture is itself a culturally appropriate and timely methodology. The planet longs for open minds, open hearts, and open doors!
Jaime R. Vergara (email@example.com) is a former PSS teacher and is currently writing from the campus of Shenyang Aerospace University in China.