Sunday Morning


Upon arriving in the huge, landlocked country of Mongolia—more than seven times larger than Great Britain—you may be taken aback by the runaway developments in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. Ever since some of the world’s largest gold and copper deposits were discovered, some within 70 miles of the city, Mongolia’s economy has taken off like a rocket…But then you hear that more than half of the 1.4 million people in the capital still live in settlements dominated by gers (a traditional style of yurt, like a domed felt tent), sometimes in shockingly simple conditions…

As soon as I ventured out of the city and began bumping across the level, otherworldly steppes of Mongolia, in fact, I realized that nothing I’d seen in 40 years of traveling across Asia could compare with its great, heart-clearing stillness. Within 30 minutes of the hyper-malls, herders will welcome you into their gers to share a feast of marmots, roasted sheep and freshly boiled goats’ heads, much as they might have done in the time of Genghis Khan, the warrior who masterminded the Mongol Empire in the 13th century. If the horsemen who rode all the way to Europe to extend that empire were to return to their ancestral spaces next week, they’d feel right at home.

Part of the special beauty of rural Mongolia is that it redefines everything you thought you knew. A road, I realized as soon as I was jouncing past Bronze Age burial mounds, is a red-dirt scratch across the void; a sight is a jeep the size of an ant, inching across the horizon. A town in the steppes could pass for a subway station almost anywhere else; once, after hours of nothingness, I stopped at a ger camp to find that it also served as a meditation space, a car-repair shop and a leather-tanning workshop. No wonder. Gazing out miles and miles in every direction, I could catch nothing but emptiness—vast enough for the mind to go anywhere (or nowhere at all)—and the sound of the wind, whipping in my ears…

Mongolia haunts a visitor as few other destinations can. After I’d returned home, the power of stepping out of my luxury ger in the Gobi to be met by a 74 million–year-old volcanic outcropping, the eeriness of knowing that dinosaur bones were all around, had gotten inside of me, like a shared dream I couldn’t shake.

In a world flooded with distractions, Mongolia returns one to something ancestral. The clock has little meaning here. Days turn into an ageless cycle of random moments, scanning of the heavens, simple meals, long journeys. Often I didn’t know whether I was traveling into the past or the future. I could simply tell that this was a place that everybody would recognize, if only because it’s somewhere lost inside most of us, lodged like the people we once were and might one day again become.

~ Pico Iyer, excerpts from The Heart-Clearing Stillness of the Mongolian Countryside (wsj.com, February 27, 2018)


Notes:

  • Inspired by Maggie O’Farrell in “I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death“: “When Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was read to me and Alice sighs, “Oh, how I long to run away from normal days! I want to run wild with my imagination,” I remember rising up from my pillow and thinking, yes, yes, that’s it exactly. The school trip showed me that it was possible to ease this longing, to sate it. All I had to do was travel. After he had sailed around the Mediterranean in 1869, Mark Twain said that travel was “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Neuroscientists have been trying for years to pin down what it is about travel that alters us, how it effects mental change. Neural pathways become ingrained, automatic, if they operate only by habit. They are highly attuned to alterations, to novelty. New sights, sounds, languages, tastes, smells stimulate different synapses in the brain, different message routes, different webs of connection, increasing our neuroplasticity…I sensed this, at an instinctive level, at age seventeen. That unassailable flood of novelty, the stimulus of uncharted territory, the overload of the unfamiliar, with all synapses firing, connecting, signalling, burning new pathways. I have never forgotten that bus ride from the airport into the centre of Rome, my first sighting of the city. And I have never lost the thrill of travel. I still crave the mental and physical jolt of being somewhere new, of descending aeroplane steps into a different climate, different faces, different languages. It’s the only thing, besides writing, that can meet and relieve my ever-simmering, ever-present restlessness. If I have been too long at home, stuck in the routine of school-runs, packed lunches, swimming lessons, laundry, tidying, I begin to pace the house in the evenings. I might start to cook something complicated very late at night. I might rearrange my collections of Scandinavian glass. I will scan the bookshelves, sighing, searching for something I haven’t yet read. I will start sorting through my clothes, deciding on impulse to take armfuls to the charity shop. I am desperate for change, endlessly seeking novelty, wherever I can find it. My husband might return from an evening out to discover that I have moved all the furniture in the living room. I am not, at times like this, easy to live with. He will raise his eyebrows as I single-handedly shove the sofa towards the opposite wall, just to see how it might look. “Maybe,” he will say, as he unlaces his shoes, “we should book a holiday.”
  • Photo: Frederic LaGrange – “Still Waters.” A full moon rises over a pond near Buir Lake in eastern Mongolia, near the Chinese border.

Comments

  1. Wow. What a mesmerizing description. I could feel the pull of the place in every sentence…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Nice, but what does a vegan live on?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautifully captured piece. And what a great photo!
    New horizons and nature’s expanse draws me in.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds like a nice place to visit and enjoy some goat’s head soup.
    How’s the wi-fi there?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Nice thoughts to wake up to … “In a world flooded with distractions, Mongolia returns one to something ancestral. The clock has little meaning here. Days turn into an ageless cycle of random moments, scanning of the heavens, simple meals, long journeys.”
    … take me there!!

    Like

  6. something about the landscape there seems almost otherworldly. have the seen the film, ‘the eagle huntress?’ – a beautiful documentary that takes place there.

    Like

  7. I’m so not surprised it’s Pico Iyer. Mr Silence.
    Thank you for sharing your inspirational quote. Now I know what’s wrong with me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sitting still with his aged Japanese friend, sipping Courvoisier, and listening to the crickets deep into the night, was the closest he’d come to finding lasting happiness, the kind that doesn’t change even when life throws up one of its regular challenges and disruptions.

      “Nothing touches it,” Cohen said, as the light came into the cabin, of sitting still… Going nowhere, as Cohen described it, was the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.

      We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off — our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

      Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

      It’s only by taking myself away from clutter and distraction that I can begin to hear something out of earshot and recall that listening is much more invigorating than giving voice to all the thoughts and prejudices that anyway keep me company twenty-four hours a day. And it’s only by going nowhere — by sitting still or letting my mind relax — that I find that the thoughts that come to me unbidden are far fresher and more imaginative than the ones I consciously seek out.

      ~Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere ( Simon & Schuster/ TED; November 4, 2014)

      Liked by 3 people

    • We have to earn silence, then, to work for it: to make it not an absence but a presence; not emptiness but repletion. Silence is something more than just a pause; it is that enchanted place where space is cleared and time is stayed and the horizon itself expands. In silence, we often say, we can hear ourselves think; but what is truer to say is that in silence we can hear ourselves not think, and so sink below our selves into a place far deeper than mere thought allows. In silence, we might better say, we can hear someone else think. […]

      So it is that we might almost say silence is the tribute we pay to holiness; we slip off words when we enter a sacred space, just as we slip off shoes. A “moment of silence” is the highest honor we can pay someone; it is the point at which the mind stops and something else takes over (words run out when feelings rush in). A “vow of silence” is for holy men the highest devotional act. We hold our breath, we hold our words; we suspend our chattering selves and let ourselves “fall silent,” and fall into the highest place of all.

      ~ Pico Iyer, The Eloquent Sounds of Silence (Time, June 24, 2001)

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yet Mongolia took him to what he called, “The heart clearing stillness.” A newer and more profound stillness to him. Thank you for sharing, David!

        Liked by 2 people

  8. Wow. Just. Wow.
    Now I have a new Place to add to my “to-visit”… though something tells me that will not happen in the near future.
    What a beautiful piece of writing from both!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Absolutely exquisite. I may not get here (or I may–you never know!) but your description and picture really brings it alive!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Silence is required if one is to listen…whether to a friend, a stranger, your child, your loved one, to God, to Source. Oherwise, one leads maybe a lonely, maybe an unsatisfied, maybe a jangled…life.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Now, this is a real Sunday contribution 🙂 Never knew anyhing much about MOngolia but this is mesmerizing. Those texts! That photo! And a new instalment of ‘my Maggie’…. Thanks a bunch David – I’m totally calm now and very still.
    (I dare even confessing that after 20yrs of mariage I no longer mind that we virtually never have the radio on, at the beginning I couldn’t even go to the bathroom w/o having a radio station on and now it’s mostly ‘only’ Hero Husband playing the piano, ‘disturbing’ the silence).

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Christie says:

    Pico Iyer, ventured into the gift of beautiful expanse …and I think of perspective and of his words…”after hours of nothingness” ” I could catch nothing but emptiness—vast enough for the mind to go anywhere (or nowhere at all)—and the sound of the wind, whipping in my ears…”
    What he encountered touched inward, reconnecting his heart to a depth of innate need…I think of migration across the vast expansive of Mongolia, the landscape that support much Life… in some areas, the landscape is changing, being encroached upon, negatively impacted by present day mining operations and how it impacts the Life of the herds of animals and the nomadic people of Mongolia, heartbreaking…How Pico Iyer traversed, the vast I don’t know. I haven’t read the book…did he walk or dare, I assume travel easily by bike, motorcycle or 4 wheeler Suv as compared to one’s two feet or horseback as the nomadic people rely on…I think of the expansive Continent of America and how first the Fur Trappers explored, then the Army Scout…Soon the Pioneer’s began the migration westward crossing, vast and varied landscape, mighty rivers, prairie grasslands, mountain ranges, canyons, desserts, more mountain ranges, valleys, almost to the Blue Pacific…the venture so grueling that countless pioneers lost sight of God’s beautiful creation of the world right in front of their eyes and under their feet…travel by trains soon followed, conquering the difficult migration and thus people could reflect upon the beauty out the train windows, leisurely…I further think of Perspective and an individual’s situations and I do remember the first time I saw the expanse of desserts and then the prairies of the mid-west …the beauty, the color, the way the light laid across the land, the sound of silence, the movement caused by the stir of the wind, the dry sage, intoxicating, tingling my nose, the sound that reached my ears, buffeting my hair, assaulting my tender, soft skin on my face and stinging my eyes…thankful that I engaged and gained much… my perspective, was a wondrous realization of being truly, myself breathing deeply inwardly, clearly seeing…appreciating Life and its Beauty, among the great expanse…that reaches, Opening Soul…

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Christie says:

    Kiki, thank you for honoring me…I am humbled…I count my blessings…one is having eye sight, a precious gift for anyone…being diabetic I could lose that gift…each breath is a gift…

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Christie says:

    Dave, thank you…Pico Iyer’s world, my world, your world, everyone’s world has a constant that I should have included in my above thoughts is the Vast Sky…Mongolia, USA, all of the blue planet resides under the heavenly sky, the Heaven’s Celestial planets, stars, a sextant, gps,, etc …help us navigate in our world, on the sea, in the air and in the atmosphere of space, all rely on the sky above…(the shepherds, the three wise men, Mary and Joesph, Jesus and all since the dawn of time, take their first breath, reach milestones and live, leaving their Life’s legacy, all under the Vast Sky…and depending on the location and the season of the year the Sky might appear the same, while in reality the sky is fluid, every changing…in my area the sky can rapidly change, just this morning it was sunny, then the fog moved in and now it is sunny…often in the late fall and winter the clouds and fog obscure the sun, at times up to ten days in a row…this might explain why I take photos of the clouds 🙂 …

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Beautiful…

    Like

  16. Love Iyer. And that photograph!

    Liked by 1 person

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