Winds of Change and Tradition
`STORM coming,'' Jirimotu says tersely as he scans the horizon. ``We'd better hurry.'' He was born here on the Ordos - a part of Inner Mongolia between China's Yellow River and the Great Wall - and has an uncanny sense of its moods. But this sandstorm is so obvious that even I can see it: a great roiling yellow-white cloud hurrying toward us from the north.Skip to next paragraph
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We have been walking for an hour over sand dunes and dry scrub, heading toward a prominent hill. On its summit is an obo - a sacred stone cairn. But it looks like our outing will be cut short, for already the sky is darkening and the wind is rising ominously. We quickly traverse the remaining distance and climb to the great stone pile.
MY companion Jirimotu is a fervent Buddhist; I accompany him in the ritual of pacing the path that circles the obo. Then he checks the oncoming storm. It is advancing rapidly, a churning cloud that seems to devour the land as it approaches. ``No time to make it back to my house. Let's go down there,'' he says, pointing to a home a few hundred yards below us on the slope. We set off quickly.
As we walk the air turns cold, and the wind blows harder, driving a flurry of biting sand. The sharp flakes dig into my eyes, nose, and ears. Just as the storm reaches its full fury, we reach the house. Outside, a few sheep and goats huddle in the lee of some low bushes. Without pausing to knock (Mongolians will always welcome visitors seeking shelter from a storm), we burst in through the door. A short time later we are sprawling on a kang (a heated brick bed) as we sip salty Mongolian tea. Outside, the wind pounds like ocean waves crashing over a breaker.
Such windstorms are a regular feature of springtime in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China. In desert areas like the Ordos, these harsh and relentless gales create a living hell. Some storms last for days, fading at sunset and resuming again in midmorning. But Mongolian herders have long grown used to this and other trials. Indeed, when the time comes for Jirimotu and me to leave, the storm has scarcely abated, yet he plods through the cyclone with casual indifference, somehow finding his way among the dunes and can-yons. Meanwhile, I stagger along behind, the fine sand sucking at my every step.
Everyone has told me: ``This is not a good time to come to visit the Ordos; bad weather, not much milk or meat. You should come in summer when the grass is knee-high and animals are fat.'' Yes, I believe that in summer this place is a veritable paradise. But by coming now, during the cruelest season, I see clearly how tenuous life is here on the Gobi.
Jirimotu, who is 25, is living in a world much different from his grandfather's. His people no longer live in yurts - the circular, felt-covered tents used by nomadic herders across central Asia - but in stout brick houses. Although Jirimotu's family is not wealthy, their home is elegantly furnished with heavy wood cabinets and rich carpets. A wind-generator outside supplies power to their television and cassette-player. Yet all the gadgets in the world won't help them if, through mismanagement or misfortune, their herds dwindle and die. Their livelihood still depends on intimate knowledge of their grasslands environment: wisdom passed down from their nomadic forebears.
I have traveled far to come to Jirimotu's home: From the capital of Otog Banner, it was 30 miles over tortuous dirt roads, then six more on a trail better suited to camels that to wheeled vehicles. But despite their isolation, these people are far from being the scruffy, dust-streaked bumpkins that I expected to find out here. Their clothes are clean, their hair fashionably cut, and they are soft-spoken, educated, and intelligent.