Winds of Change and Tradition
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Jirimotu is at home here on the grasslands, but his world reaches far beyond these dunes and pastures. As a child, he attended boarding school where he learned fluent Chinese; since then, he has worked as a railroad laborer and a postal clerk, and he dreams of going to Hohhot, the Inner Mongolian capital, to further his education. But his dreams will have to wait. ``I am under a lot of pressure,'' he says. ``I can't just do whatever I want; I have to think of my four younger brothers and sisters.'' Most likely, he will stay on the grasslands.Skip to next paragraph
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These days, many young people are escaping the monotony of a herdman's life by fleeing to the cities. Opportunities abound especially for young Mongolian women, who are famous for their sweet singing voices and can easily find work as entertainers in restaurants. Yet even those who have been city dwellers for years -
some of whom no longer believe in Buddhism and speak Chinese more often that Mongolian - still feel strong ties to the wide open spaces of their ancestral homeland.
Buhe Temor is a spry father of eight who manages a hotel and restaurant in a small town. On his motorcycle, it takes only an hour to reach the ranch where his aged parents and two of his sons live on the grasslands. There he proudly shows me their groves of trees, two springs gushing sweet clean water, and a menagerie of animals. Inside the house, I find a photograph showing him in Beijing's Great Hall of the People with a large group that includes Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang. It's another instance of how Mongolian life has expanded far beyond its traditional domain.
THE Ordos, also called Yike Zhao (``Big Temple'') League, lies at the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. It is divided into seven banners, of which Otog Banner is one. The western Ordos is largely pasture: grass and chaparral growing indomitably from soil that is pure sand. Sheep and goats forage on this; the people also keep small numbers of other animals.
In the southern Ordos, due to chronic overgrazing, the sand has been stripped of its protective grass cover. Sand dunes - beautiful but deadly - move with the winds, engulfing what was once fertile pastureland. The Chinese government is well aware of this problem, and long ago started a widespread tree-planting program, which may stabilize the sand enough to compensate for the excess of animals.
In Jungar Banner, I visit Jungar Monastery - one place where the Ordos's rich spiritual heritage is preserved. This institution belongs to the Gelupga Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which was imported into Inner Mongolia during Kublai Khan's time. At its peak, Jungar Monastery housed 2,000 monks; but now there are only 13, none of them younger than 50. ``During the Cultural Revolution, all the lamas were driven out of the monastery,'' says Radana Dadza, one of the few who returned. ``There used to be 36 temples here, but most of them were destroyed.'' ``How many are there now?'' I ask. He hesitates, then answers: ``around 11.''
When I go exploring, I see the reason for his uncertainty: Most of the structures are in ruins. The government, perhaps to atone for its past misdeeds, funded restoration of the main chanting hall, a partial Chinese-style temple with several courtyards and many rooms.