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Feature Story July 25, 2002
Missing the Mongols
By John Dolan Browse author Email
Page 4 of 4

But it's foolish, I guess, whining about the extinction of the Mongols, when all the warrior peoples are being phased out, along with the big cats and other remaining predators. In the cubicle world, no predators are allowed--not without ties'n'smiles. Dress code.

But don't worry, we'll mourn'em as we kill them off. Just like the Brits mourned the Highlanders, once they were wiped out. Just like the Americans mourned the Sioux once they were erased. Just as, when the last wolf in the lower 48 was shot, wolf posters started appearing in every sensitive kid's bedroom. The wolf-cult is big now; CDs of wolf-howls sell almost as big as humpback whale songs, and there's a whole subgenre of New Age music in which wolf howls are tracked over bad jazz, for meditation soundtracks. We love 'em, once they're gone.

That's why the camera crews are fanning out across the steppes right now, along with the missionaries. The missionaries are the kill-teams; the moviemakers are there to make videos of the death, like the ones perky office-workers with colon cancer make of their last weeks on Earth, the kind shown at those new-style cheery funerals so popular these days.

Julia Roberts just did a documentary about her stay with a family of Mongol herders, who were presented as friendly, kindly, and a bit dim. Nothing to fear, or interest, any one.

The Russians go a little further, of course, toward the thing we really like about Mongols: so, in the quasi-Russian film Urga, a poor Mongol herder dreams he meets Genghiz Khan, the "Oceanic Ruler," himself. The modern Mongol comes face to face with the Khan's entourage, and is ashamed to be seen as he is: unarmed, harmless, ripe for infection with the Christian virus.

The modern Mongol, dim and affable--nobody except the missionaries really wants THAT Mongol. What the rest of us dream of is the Khan's horde: the black arrow that swept across Eurasia like a hundred-mile wide cropduster, leaving utter silence in its wake. Every boy who came on the Mongols in the "M" volume of the encyclopedia slobbered over those black arrows on the map, placed the flat of his hand over them and moved it forward following the path of the Horde, making little hissing noises as he imagined the progress of Death incarnate.

For centuries the wilder Europeans have been making the black pilgrimage to Central Asia, trying to find THOSE Mongols. They never find anything but the shy, polite herders--Julia Roberts' gracious hosts.

Last year I saw a five-hour documentary by some German woman who followed a group of yak-herders around the steppes. The Mongols were very quiet: the only sound for most of the five hours was the yak-bells clanging. The herders smiled embarrassedly, aware that they were somehow unsatisfactory. There was a festival with wrestling, and long shots of people crunching in frozen mud--but the Mongols we all want to see were not in evidence.

And they're not to be found. The Western Khanates were absorbed by the Islam they had done so much to destroy, and subsided into feebleness, so that their Russian vassals began pushing south and east, taking back what had been lost and more. The herders, and their decadent little rulers, were all there was to be found. No one to hold to account; no one who even remembered the days before these beings who had been something more, less, other than human became mere people.

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