Steppe Country; Notes from Mongolia


Mongolia: a place you either love or detest. Anthropologist and cultural explorer Tjalling Halbertsma loves this ancient country with its eventful history and remarkable inhabitants, and has committed his fascination for it to paper in a heartfelt declaration of that love: Steppe Country.

Mongolia is three times the size of France, but has only 2.6 million inhabitants. Under the heirs of Genghis Khan, this vast expanse was the seat of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Mongolia is hard to get to, hard to travel through and, for spoiled Westerners, the winters with their Siberian temperatures are hard to live through. Yet it is also one of the most fascinating travel destinations imaginable.

During the past four years, Halbertsma served as personal adviser to the prime minister of Mongolia. That enabled him to visit the most remote corners of the country, and meet some very unique characters: the country’s supreme Buddhist cleric, a gold seeker, a Mafia-style smuggler, a marmot hunter, General Kosmos (Mongolia’s only astronaut), and the hardy nomads of the minuscule Reindeer People, the Dukha, whose existence depends entirely on the fate of that one particular species. Halbertsma also takes us out hunting with a falconer and his eagle, and spends a bizarre night with a cheerful and penniless former NASA scientist, whose preaching of God’s word has failed to take root in Mongolia’s stony soil.

On the immense steppes of the Gobi, Halbertsma becomes acquainted with the nomads’ hospitality, customs and hardships. Their ger (felt tents) are always open to those in need of food or a place to sleep. But as Mongolia becomes integrated into the global market, their traditional herding society seems doomed to extinction. Steppe Country is therefore also an homage to an ancient society that may soon disappear entirely.

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Leap to the West; on the desert trail of the Chinese discoverer of Europe

(Sprong naar het Westen)

The idea that Europe was ‘discovered’ by a Chinese man sounds so strange to our Eurocentric ears that we instinctively disbelieve it. Yet it is true, and we have cultural explorer and anthropologist Tjalling Halbertsma to thank for unearthing this deeply buried story.

The West had Marco Polo to discover the East and the East had Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk. But unlike Polo’s The Description of the World, Sauma’s 725-year-old account is uncontested, with scholars agreeing that the journey of the ‘Chinese discoverer of Europe’, undertaken at the same time as Marco Polo’s arrival in Asia, really did take place.

Halbertsma throws new light on Sauma’s ancient account, now buried in the vaults of the British Museum in London. He stumbled across Sauma’s legacy more than once while writing an earlier book, The Lost Lotus Crosses, a remarkable history of the Nestorians (early Christians) of China and Mongolia. InLeap to the West he follows the desert trail of a man who felt compelled to set off for the Promised Land and ended up in Europe.

Halbertsma covers the 7,000 kilometres from Beijing, formerly Khan Balek, to Kashgar in the far west of China like a modern pilgrim, searching for traces of Sauma and his travelling companion Mar Markos. Like Sauma, Halbertsma is repeatedly mocked by fate. For the time being his leap westwards will take him no further than the western border of China, where the conflict in Iraq forces him to retrace his steps.

As he travels through China, Halbertsma describes relics of a faded past as well as the far-reaching, sometimes tempestuous changes taking place today in the immense interior of the country. Western China is a repressed and therefore little visited region, but this does not deter Halbertsma, as he lurches and rattles along in his unreliable Beijing Jeep, exploring a virtually forgotten part of the world. He stops to investigate grave-robbers in Mongolia, a mausoleum for Genghis Khan, some possible descendants of Roman prisoners of war, an oil town in the middle of the Taklamakan desert and much more besides.

Throughout his account of his own journey into the world of Sauma and Markos, Halbertsma provides revealing images of continuing Chinese oppression of Mongols and Uighurs, along with marvellous descriptions of two Asians’ historic exploration of the unknown West.

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Early Christian Remains of Inner Mongolia: Discovery, Reconstruction and Appropriation

The early Christian presence in Inner Mongolia forms the subject of this book. These Nestorian remains must primarily be attributed to the Öngüt, a Turkic people closely allied to the Mongols. Writing in Syriac, Uighur and Chinese scripts and languages, the Nestorian Öngüt drew upon a variety of religions and cultures to decorate their gravestones with crosses rising from lotus flowers, dragons and Taoist imagery. This heritage also portrays designs found in the Islamic world. Taking a closer look at the discovery of this material and its significance for the study of the early Church of the East under the Mongols, the author reconstructs the Nestorian culture of the Öngüt. The reader will find many newly discovered objects not published before. At the same time this study demonstrates how many remaining objects were appropriated and, in many cases, vanished after their discovery.

Tjalling Halbertsma, Ph.D. (2007) in the Arts, University of Leiden, has worked as an advisor to the President of Mongolia. His documentation of Nestorian objects from Inner Mongolia has been published by Monumenta Serica.

  • English
  • ISBN 978 90 04 16708 7
  • 400 pp.
  • illustrated/hardback
  • Koninklijke Brill, Sinica Leidensia, 88
  • 2008