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Winds of Change and Tradition

(Page 3 of 3)

It's grand and imposing, but with so few inhabitants the place seems lifeless. The few monks I see are all occupied with maintaining the grounds. Nowadays, young Mongolians, who are educated and worldly compared to their parents, have little interest in ancient incantations. When I ask my guide about his personal beliefs, he answers succinctly: ``I believe in reality.''

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DESPITE modest government support, Buddhism seems to be waning in influence. But it is not quite dead. In Otog Banner, at the end of a torturous, 16-mile dirt road, I come to Xinzhao Monastery. It consists only of one plain brick building, a replacement for more opulent structures lost during the Cultural Revolution. But this humble place is bursting with religious fervor, for the inhabitants are conducting a three-week prayer marathon. Every day, lamas great and small gather here - old ones to intone the sutras passed down from their spiritual forefathers, and a handful of young ones to listen and learn.

But Buddhism is not the only religion in the Ordos; there is another: Genghis Khan. This is a completely different sort of creed, for Genghis Khan was a man who cared nothing for Buddhism's spirit of loving compassion; he was interested only in conquest. He was a man who believed that the greatest happiness is ``to crush your enemies, to see them fall at your feet - to take their horses and goods and hear the lamentation of their women.'' He put this philosophy to practical use, conquering cities across Eurasia, leaving a trail of obliteration in his wake. And even modern Mongolians, many of whom subscribe to the cult of Genghis, have faith that their hero will someday rise again.

In a peaceful, verdant valley called Ejen Horo, the cult finds its focal point, for here is a monument housing the Khan's crypt. The seven banners of the Ordos are traditionally charged with guarding this sacred sanctuary. This came about because it is said that one day the great Mongolian warrior was riding through the valley, and was so struck with its beauty that he proclaimed that it would be his final resting place. Although most experts agree that the Great Khan's actual remains are not here, but in a still-secret burial ground somewhere in outer Mongolia, the monument at Ejen Horo stands as a symbol of the Mongolian juggernaut that struck terror across the continent. That Genghis Khan died more than 700 years ago is unimportant to the thousands of Mongolians who come to worship at the shrine of their most famous ancestor.

ON the 21st day of the third moon, the activities of the cult reach a climax, for at this time the Great Spring Sacrifice is held. Early in the morning, crowds begin to gather on the vast pavilion. Groups of pilgrims make their way inside; they have come for an audience with their leader.

They approach the altar, then fall to their knees. Rising again, they walk forward carrying a silk katagh, or scarf of honor, in their outstretched hands.

As the ritual continues, more offerings are made: a butter-lamp, cups of wine, and finally the carcass of a sheep, all presented with prostrations and singsong chants. Many visitors are dressed in Western-style suits - not silken Mongolian robes - but whatever their dress, class, or occupation, all faces show solemn reverence.

The Ordos is ruled by China and surrounded by a great mass of ethnic Chinese, so pressure on Mongolians to assimilate is strong. Before I arrived, I wondered if I would find anything left of authentic Mongolian culture. By the time I departed, I knew that Mongolians are preserving their heritage.