`STORM coming,'' Jirimotu says tersely as he scans the horizon. ``We'd better hurry.'' He was born here on the Ordos - a part of Inner Mongolia between China's Yellow River and the Great Wall - and has an uncanny sense of its moods. But this sandstorm is so obvious that even I can see it: a great roiling yellow-white cloud hurrying toward us from the north.
We have been walking for an hour over sand dunes and dry scrub, heading toward a prominent hill. On its summit is an obo - a sacred stone cairn. But it looks like our outing will be cut short, for already the sky is darkening and the wind is rising ominously. We quickly traverse the remaining distance and climb to the great stone pile.
MY companion Jirimotu is a fervent Buddhist; I accompany him in the ritual of pacing the path that circles the obo. Then he checks the oncoming storm. It is advancing rapidly, a churning cloud that seems to devour the land as it approaches. ``No time to make it back to my house. Let's go down there,'' he says, pointing to a home a few hundred yards below us on the slope. We set off quickly.
As we walk the air turns cold, and the wind blows harder, driving a flurry of biting sand. The sharp flakes dig into my eyes, nose, and ears. Just as the storm reaches its full fury, we reach the house. Outside, a few sheep and goats huddle in the lee of some low bushes. Without pausing to knock (Mongolians will always welcome visitors seeking shelter from a storm), we burst in through the door. A short time later we are sprawling on a kang (a heated brick bed) as we sip salty Mongolian tea. Outside, the wind pounds like ocean waves crashing over a breaker.
Such windstorms are a regular feature of springtime in Inner Mongolia, an autonomous region of China. In desert areas like the Ordos, these harsh and relentless gales create a living hell. Some storms last for days, fading at sunset and resuming again in midmorning. But Mongolian herders have long grown used to this and other trials. Indeed, when the time comes for Jirimotu and me to leave, the storm has scarcely abated, yet he plods through the cyclone with casual indifference, somehow finding his way among the dunes and can-yons. Meanwhile, I stagger along behind, the fine sand sucking at my every step.
Everyone has told me: ``This is not a good time to come to visit the Ordos; bad weather, not much milk or meat. You should come in summer when the grass is knee-high and animals are fat.'' Yes, I believe that in summer this place is a veritable paradise. But by coming now, during the cruelest season, I see clearly how tenuous life is here on the Gobi.
Jirimotu, who is 25, is living in a world much different from his grandfather's. His people no longer live in yurts - the circular, felt-covered tents used by nomadic herders across central Asia - but in stout brick houses. Although Jirimotu's family is not wealthy, their home is elegantly furnished with heavy wood cabinets and rich carpets. A wind-generator outside supplies power to their television and cassette-player. Yet all the gadgets in the world won't help them if, through mismanagement or misfortune, their herds dwindle and die. Their livelihood still depends on intimate knowledge of their grasslands environment: wisdom passed down from their nomadic forebears.
I have traveled far to come to Jirimotu's home: From the capital of Otog Banner, it was 30 miles over tortuous dirt roads, then six more on a trail better suited to camels that to wheeled vehicles. But despite their isolation, these people are far from being the scruffy, dust-streaked bumpkins that I expected to find out here. Their clothes are clean, their hair fashionably cut, and they are soft-spoken, educated, and intelligent.
Jirimotu is at home here on the grasslands, but his world reaches far beyond these dunes and pastures. As a child, he attended boarding school where he learned fluent Chinese; since then, he has worked as a railroad laborer and a postal clerk, and he dreams of going to Hohhot, the Inner Mongolian capital, to further his education. But his dreams will have to wait. ``I am under a lot of pressure,'' he says. ``I can't just do whatever I want; I have to think of my four younger brothers and sisters.'' Most likely, he will stay on the grasslands.
These days, many young people are escaping the monotony of a herdman's life by fleeing to the cities. Opportunities abound especially for young Mongolian women, who are famous for their sweet singing voices and can easily find work as entertainers in restaurants. Yet even those who have been city dwellers for years -
some of whom no longer believe in Buddhism and speak Chinese more often that Mongolian - still feel strong ties to the wide open spaces of their ancestral homeland.
Buhe Temor is a spry father of eight who manages a hotel and restaurant in a small town. On his motorcycle, it takes only an hour to reach the ranch where his aged parents and two of his sons live on the grasslands. There he proudly shows me their groves of trees, two springs gushing sweet clean water, and a menagerie of animals. Inside the house, I find a photograph showing him in Beijing's Great Hall of the People with a large group that includes Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang. It's another instance of how Mongolian life has expanded far beyond its traditional domain.
THE Ordos, also called Yike Zhao (``Big Temple'') League, lies at the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. It is divided into seven banners, of which Otog Banner is one. The western Ordos is largely pasture: grass and chaparral growing indomitably from soil that is pure sand. Sheep and goats forage on this; the people also keep small numbers of other animals.
In the southern Ordos, due to chronic overgrazing, the sand has been stripped of its protective grass cover. Sand dunes - beautiful but deadly - move with the winds, engulfing what was once fertile pastureland. The Chinese government is well aware of this problem, and long ago started a widespread tree-planting program, which may stabilize the sand enough to compensate for the excess of animals.
In Jungar Banner, I visit Jungar Monastery - one place where the Ordos's rich spiritual heritage is preserved. This institution belongs to the Gelupga Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which was imported into Inner Mongolia during Kublai Khan's time. At its peak, Jungar Monastery housed 2,000 monks; but now there are only 13, none of them younger than 50. ``During the Cultural Revolution, all the lamas were driven out of the monastery,'' says Radana Dadza, one of the few who returned. ``There used to be 36 temples here, but most of them were destroyed.'' ``How many are there now?'' I ask. He hesitates, then answers: ``around 11.''
When I go exploring, I see the reason for his uncertainty: Most of the structures are in ruins. The government, perhaps to atone for its past misdeeds, funded restoration of the main chanting hall, a partial Chinese-style temple with several courtyards and many rooms.
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.''
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.