“‘We few, we happy few, are gathered here, the descendants of Chinggis Khan’s golden lineage. We, the scions of his personal guard, the Hishigten Army . . . ‘ Shaman Dulaan Boshgot paused, his granite-like eyes narrowing as he looked into the distance towards the ruins of Kharakorum, the once great capital lying in the vast Orkhon Valley of Central Mongolia. A sea of green velvety grassland was bathed in the golden rays of the rising sun. A smell of earth and horse sweat enveloped him. Behind him, he could hear his white stallion pawing at the stony steppe.”
So begins The Green-Eyed Lama: Love and Betrayal in Mongolia by Oyungerel Tsedevdamba and Jeffrey L. Falt. It is an epic work of historical fiction which brings alive the nomadic Mongol way of life.
An Editor’s Life
Revising and restructuring a manuscript is generally done sitting behind the computer screen using Microsoft Word’s handy editing tool, ‘track changes’, and drawing on over 20 years of experience in book publishing. So when I was emailed by the late Ariane Fasquelle in Paris, on 2 July, 2014, I had no idea that I would end up going on the ultimate road trip a year later, taking in the wilds of northern Outer Mongolia with the authors of The Green-Eyed Lama, and their entourage.
Editing with Oyuna and Jeff kicked off 10 months after Ariane’s first email. To ‘translate’ a culture, way of life and overlooked chapter of history for Western readers; offset universal themes and similarities of the human condition against local detail and differences; and ensure the book reads like a good work of historical fiction, is a fine balancing act. I’d revise 3 or 4 chapters and email them to the authors, who’d make comments and revisions in turn. We had face-to-face sessions once a week via Skype. A constructive relationship blossomed along with their novel, so we agreed that a visit would be a perfect finale.
To get a feel for the land of Chinggis Khan, see some of the few remaining Buddhist temples, savour the northern steppes, and meet Oyuna’s relatives descended from the herder families in her novel would give added detail and depth to the final draft due for delivery to Grasset & Fasquelle in Paris. Ariane was arranging for the book to be translated into French, for publication in 2017.
The Land of the Camel
Ask a Westerner about Mongolia and generally the response you get involves Chinggis Khan and the ‘Mongol Horde’, Tibetan Buddhism, Shamans and wild camels in the Gobi desert. I had a bit of a head start, thanks to my late godmother, the writer and traveller, Lesley Blanch. She had journeyed to Siberia and Outer Mongolia in 1962. Her Siberian Shaman’s wand in her little house in Garavan on the French-Italian border was beautiful and bewitching in its simplicity. I had some of her books by Charles Bawden, Emeritus Professor of Mongolian in the University of London, and Through Russian Central Asia (Macmillan, 1916) by British travel writer and journalist, Stephen Graham, to get me into the right frame of mind. He was a favourite of hers and rightly so − With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem is a neglected classic. Michael Hughes, biographer of this forgotten adventurer-journalist, writes: “Stephen Graham lived in Russia in the turbulent years before the 1917 Revolution. He served in the trenches in northern France in 1918. In the 1920s he became friends with literary figures ranging from H.G. Wells to Ernest Hemingway. He spent much of the 1930s in Yugoslavia − living and writing in the Julian Alps – although in Belgrade he was widely believed to be a British spy. And then in the Second World War he worked for the BBC, broadcasting to Yugoslavia, both when it was occupied by the Germans and ‘liberated’ by Stalin’s Red Army.”
Mongolia’s velvet revolution
The first 25 years of democracy were being celebrated when I was in Mongolia. It certainly made a positive change to hear about a successful ‘massacre-free’ revolution! The pro-democratic movements of 1989 coalesced into forming the Mongolian Democratic Union. Having endured decades of one-party rule, Mongolians were sick of being part of the Socialist Block led by the Soviet Union. They wanted sovereignty, (which had a familiar ring to it). Protests for social reform, democracy and human rights led to the first ever free democratic election being held in July 1990. It heralded the end of The Mongolian People’s Republic in existence since 1924, and the irreversible transition to democracy and a market economy.
The Green-Eyed Lama: Love and Betrayal in Mongolia
Oyungerel Tsedevdamba is an impressive woman and wears her well-earned success lightly, and with much charm. A Member of Parliament of Mongolia, she has served as the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism; as president of the Democratic Women’s Union of Mongolia; and non-staff advisor to Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia.
Her husband, Jeff Falt, “had a Tom Sawyer childhood hiking and horseback riding in the hills above my home town of San Carlos, California,” as he likes to put it, before getting a B.A. (history) J.D and M.A. (Asian Studies) at U.C Berkeley. As a human rights lawyer he has worked as a Regional Program Officer for Law and Human Rights at the Asia Foundation; consulted with numerous projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America − particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations chiefly with disenfranchised groups; and has observed elections in Cambodia, Liberia and Sri Lanka.
Their co-authored novel, The Green-Eyed Lama, depicts the power struggle between the communists and the nomadic herders and Buddhist clergy in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Very few people in West know about the genocide of the lamas (monks) and destruction of Mongolia’s religious temples. Khorloogiin Choibalsan’s religious purges destroyed a centuries-old nomadic way of life and Buddhist society. Members of the Buryat and Kazak ethnic groups who had fled the Soviet Union’s Red revolution were also targeted. This period forms the setting for a great story of unrequited love between Lama Baasan and Sendmaa, who was Oyuna’s grandmother.
Who better than Oyuna to organise the ultimate road trip?
“The best road to progress is freedom’s road” [JFK]
Mongolia is the most sparsely populated country in the world (2.6 million people; 603,909 sq mi). However it is mineral-rich and the influx of investors has turned the capital, Ulaanbaatar, (literally “Red Hero”), on the Tuul River, into a boom town. By Spring 2012 the government of Mongolia had issued 3,000 mining licenses; copper, coal, gold, silver and uranium are expected to notch up to 95% of the nation’s exports. A copper-and-gold mine being developed by British and Canadian companies in Oyu Tolgoi, in the Gobi Desert, is expected to account for one-third of Mongolia’s GDP by 2020. The world’s largest untapped coal deposit, in Tavan Tolgoi, is attracting the interest of companies based in the U.S., Switzerland, Luxembourg, China, South Korea, Japan, Russia and Brazil.
Herders often leave the lands of their ancestors to work in the mines. About 30% of the population live below the poverty line. Grassroots Human Rights advocates are working hard to promote sustainable development to ensure that Mongolia’s mining boom does not destroy ecosystems and the lives of nomadic herders.
Arriving in UB, I was whisked to the theatre to see some spectacular music and dance courtesy of The Mongolian National Song and Dance Academic Ensemble; followed by dumplings and bed. We would leave early in the morning and head north west towards the Russian border, to Erdenet − which has the fourth largest copper mine in the world − and enjoy lunch with the local Governor, a former school friend of Oyuna’s. In the 1990s, 90% of the Mongolian government’s budget came from Erdenet; now it’s about 40%. The Erdenet Mining Corporation is a joint Mongolian-Russian venture. Tony Blair has a company based there which advises people on mining in Mongolia. So much for striking gold in mineral-rich Central Asia!
© Georgia de Chamberet for The BookBlast Diary, 2016 c/o BookBlast Ltd, London. All rights reserved.
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I was introduced to Sue Byrne, a passionate advocate for Buddhist traditions in Mongolia, at the birthday party and book launch for the late Anthony Aris held in March 2015. She recommended Buddhism in Mongolian History, Culture and Society edited by Vesna Wallace, (OUP, 2015) and Christopher Kaplonski’s The Lama Question: Violence, Sovereignty, and Exception in Early Socialist Mongolia, (University of Hawai’i Press, 2014).