I have a clear memory of my first experience of Mongolia. It wasn’t actually in Mongolia itself; I was in the waiting room of the Mongolian embassy in Hanoi, Vietnam.
I’d been traveling through Southeast Asia for months, and the constant rush of mopeds and people and sound was making me yearn for silence, for wide-open spaces, for cold air.
I didn’t find any of that in the waiting room. But I did find a massive photograph, stretching across a whole wall, of a white-crowned Mongolian mountain range rising from the green steppe towards dark and stormy clouds.
image from remoteland.com
I stared at the photo for a long time, swept up in its drama, before the woman behind the desk sharply told me that they’d be unable to process my visa application. (I eventually made it to Mongolia, which you can read about in my book about traveling from Australia to Switzerland without flying).
This memory resonated in my mind during the opening sequence of Robert Lieberman’s new film, Echoes of the Empire. Horses trundle across a wooden bridge, past a lake on the grasslands, and suddenly the camera rises higher to take the mighty vastness of Mongolia and paint it across the screen.
It was a powerful beginning to what turned out to be an insightful and inspirational film.
Lieberman starts by chronicling the life of Genghis Khan, from his beginnings as an outcast to his brutal conquests to his empire’s pioneering of religious freedom, women’s education, international law, diplomatic immunity, and more.
The film then draws ‘echoes’ to the modern-day. As one example, Mongolian women remain more educated than Mongolian men, who are traditionally expected to look after livestock while the women go and study.
Anecdotally, this was the practice of a Tsaatan family I once stayed with; in winter, the boys helped their fathers move the reindeer herds north while the girls stayed behind to go to school in a nearby village.
Then the film moves past Genghis and into modern nomadic life. It covers Bhankars, huge shaggy dogs that play a vital role in maintaining steppe ecosystems; the cultural importance of ‘long song’ singing and the landscape sounds of Mongolian music; the genesis of communism, its tragic effects on Mongolia’s cultural history, and its demise in 1990; Russia’s influence on Mongolian society; and more.
The film doesn’t shy away from Mongolia’s problems. It shows rising inequality in UB and the difficulties of life in the ger districts, including the notorious pollution problem and its effect on children's lungs.
But it has a hopeful note. It looks at how people are reinventing the ger to make a version that’s more suitable for city life. It speaks to the uniqueness of Mongolian democracy. It talks about art and music.
Finally, it returns to the wild places with panoramic shots that never fail to impress. “It’s one of the only countries left in the world where you can leave the city and within half an hour, you’re in the countryside,” D. Gereltuv, the director of Mongolia Quest, says.
“You can hike anywhere you want, camp anywhere you want, live anywhere you want.”
I’m not Mongolian, but I think that freedom, that sense of being in a wild place, is the gravity that keeps me grounded to the country.
It pushed me to write about my own experience riding a motorcycle across Mongolia, living in its landscapes, its rhythms.
But maybe there’s something more.
At one point, Allen MacNeil, a biologist at Cornell, comes on screen. He talks about how an unusual marker on the human Y chromosome, which is passed unaltered from father to son, can be found right across Eurasia.
“Almost by accident, it was discovered that there’s a pattern to a particular marker,” he says. “If you overlay the map of that marker onto a map of the conquests of Genghis Khan, the maps are identical. What we’re really saying is, genes from the Mongolian ancestors have spread through all these places.
“But the folk way of saying that is: people have Mongol blood.”
Lieberman’s film is about the echoes of Mongolia’s old ways in the country’s modern life. But for me, it also creates a deeper, more primal echo - one that almost feels genetic.
Maybe it will for you too.
To view a trailer of our new film opening soon go to: “Echoes Of The Empire: Beyond Genghis Khan” https://www.echoesoftheempire.com/
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