Saturday, December 3, 2011

Mongolia: Aesthetics of Decay

Words and Photos by Greg

There was a timelessness that crept into my feelings about Mongolia as we pedaled across its wide spaces. A sense that life there has continued to be very much as it has been. That the grass, the horses, sheep, goats and yaks remain. That herders still follow cycles of seasons. That lives both cling to and thrive on traditions that have rolled forward out of a dark past, through waves of glory, through times of obscurity, through hardship and plenty. Through growth and decay.

I saw shadows of decay that led me to believe more deeply in this long continuity. Hide and bone. Wood and straw. These discards of life traced an arc within the cycle. Sun whitened bone becomes dust becomes grass becomes horse becomes bare bone again, bleaching under the sun.

There were shadows, too, of spiritual worlds. Sacred places, high places, peaks and passes were marked with ovoo, heaps of rocks or sticks, perhaps littered with decaying offerings, small bills or coins, trinkets, bones, glass, liquor, and usually fluttering with strips of blue sky silk. These reached upward and backward through time to deep connections with shamanistic worship of those high places and the wide sky. And Buddhist temples, built, perhaps, to house a sense of the eternal, were decaying beautifully.

Many of the more recent ambitions for improving upon the nomadic life are already falling into ruin. Roads and bridges. Rail cars and industrial buildings. The roughly constructed basketball hoops that stand against the dreams of the youth. The plastic, glass and aluminum from the products of better lives lay heaped and decaying, scattered over the steppe. There is a catch. The bones and hides and fat of sheep may rot within the life of a man or woman. But plastic, glass and aluminum will not be turned so quickly. The arc of their decay reaches far into an unknown future.

The country strives to change, to move "forward". There have been and there will be improvements. And there have been and there will be failures. As in my own country, the results of many of those attempts lay crumbling and bleaching under the sun.

Offerings of blue sky silk connect with a long history of shamanism.

Temples I saw were decaying with grace.

Basketball hoops sprouted from many ger camps. This dilapidated one was near an abandoned camp.

Bridges seem necessary only for cars, trucks and motorcycles. Herds and herders do well without for all but the largest rivers.

Industry in Mongolia seems to have arrived in fits and starts. In the country and small towns, I saw much more falling into ruin than productive in any obvious way.

Hot stones filled a lamb carcass as a means of cooking it. The discarded heap will easily return to the earth.

Discards from more modern feasting will linger.


  1. Those flowers in the last picture look very much like the flowers found in our mountains.

    Thanks for more Mongolia fare.


  2. Ed:

    Very true. Many of the flowers, like these asters, were very similar -- or visually identical, to my non-botanist eye -- to the mountain flowers of the North American West.

    Stay tuned for an upcoming Mongolia "flora" post.