Yurts between the blocks and obo in the steppe

The locals invited her to a roast ram, which first had hot stones pulled from its belly. They were passed from hand to hand. Everyone was given one such stone to hold. "It was impossible to refuse, the codes of conduct had to be grabbed on the fly," says Magdalena Wolnik.

Shamans, ancestral spirits, the power of khans and the mysterious skills of lamas, the mythical gold of Baron von Ungern and age-old yurts that not even the communist economy has destroyed. And then there is the 'Benedict and John's Unheard-of Expedition', the country from which the Tartar hordes set out centuries ago to conquer Europe.

Now, almost unexpectedly, Pope Francis has set off for Mongolia, and of course the question arises as to whether he is even slightly familiar with that unheard-of expedition from the mid-13th century. After all, it was also sent by Pope Innocent IV, who was concerned that the fearsome and destructive Tartar armies were advancing as far as Vienna and attacking Croatia and Dalmatia.

In the space of a day, the Mongol army was able to move over 100 km! Its ominous fame grew, Christianity may not have wavered, but it was not easy. Suffice it to mention the Battle of Legnica, which all of us were - and still are - taught about at school. Then, in 1241, the Christian knighthood, including the Teutonic Knights, the Knights of St John and the Knights Templar, not to mention the Polish banners, was blown to pieces. Seven thousand knights were left on the battlefield, including Duke Henry II the Pious, the hope of the Polish state, which had been split into districts.

Benedict and John at the Khan's house

Europe knew nothing about the Mongols and, moreover, was unable to agree on them. No wonder, then, that, impatient, the next Pope decided in 1245 that the matter needed to be investigated and, at the very least, contacts established leading perhaps to the Christianisation of the savage people. And he decided to send out an expedition - very cleverly constructed: in four teams of two people each and on four routes, with the assumption that at least one of the teams would succeed after all. He chose people who were not only trustworthy, but who had been brought up in obedience - in other words, monks from the most important orders at the time. Two teams - missions or ministries, as you may read - consisted of Franciscans, two of Dominicans. Both already had their monasteries in Poland, hence the presence of Benedictus Polonus (Benedict Pole), OFM, in one of the teams.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Benedict was a monk in a monastery in Wroclaw, from where John of Pian del Carpini took him on an expedition - a mission to the Khan. "In the thirteenth century, when everyone trembled with fear at the mere sound of the word 'Tartars' (this was how the Mongols were called at the time, and the word meant 'people from hell'), there were two daredevils who ventured beyond the edge of the known world to meet an alien civilisation. How brave they must have been! Fearless! Who were they? Adventurers? Warriors? Conquerors? No! John and Benedict were humble Franciscans," says Łukasz Wierzbicki on his website, who was so fascinated by their lives that he decided to bring them closer to children, and not just Polish ones, as the book has already been translated into several languages.

The crux, however, is that of the four teams sent out, only this one reached its destination and faced the Khan in July 1246. More than a year later, in November 1247, he returned unharmed - though I don't know if healthy - to Lyon, where Pope Innocent IV was waiting. Benedict immediately sat down to work, and his work 'De Itinere Fratrum Minorum ad Tartaros' was the first European description of the Mongol Empire. Marco Polo only set out on his journey a dozen years later.
In 1241, at Legnica, the European knighthood was blown to pieces, as shown in a 1630 copperplate engraving by Matthäus Merian the Elder entitled 'The great defeat of the Christians beaten by the Tartars'. Photo: Wikimedia
That is, we have our own links with Mongolia. Then again, the Tartar invasions also tied us to this country, albeit rather one-sidedly... But no cruel jokes, because the piles of human bones left on burnt European soil by the Tartars were a fact - and a terrible warning.

The success of Benedict's and John's expedition was enormous, although the Khan had no intention of opening up to Christianity, even writing back to the Pope in a rather harsh tone that it was to him - the Khan - that the whole world should turn.

Nambaryn Enchabajar, former president of Mongolia (from 2005-09) and previously prime minister, told the American magazine "National Cataholic Register" about this unheard-of trip. It was he who visited the Vatican a year ago and invited the Pope to visit his country. He has now stressed that the Franciscans left behind records and it shows that Mongolia at the time was characterised by religious tolerance, where "different religions coexisted peacefully". This is fine diplomacy, but after all, the great khan Güjük (c. 1206-48) - the third great khan of Mongolia, son of Ugedej and grandson of Genghis Khan, as the former president dutifully calculated - had rejected the pope's proposal.

But, as Lukasz Wierzbicki writes, the two monks "had a wonderful adventure, made friends, saw a lot of the world and accomplished something unique - they came into contact with people of a different race, speaking a different language, practising a different religion".

Through a land of men, animals and gods

Which is not to say that this contact worked and paid off. Mongolia had no intention of opening up; it lived in its own, perhaps not hermetically sealed, but nevertheless closed world, squeezed between Russia and China - and had to cope. This was the state the legendary writer and traveller Ferdynand Antoni Ossendowski found and described - in his novel, not reportage "Through the land of men, animals and gods" - when he fled through Siberia and Mongolia towards the Pacific from Bolshevik-occupied Russia, and slowly from Mongolia as well. He wandered and fled, alone or in a precarious company, fed on hunted animals, slept in forest burrows, bought the kindness of lamas by treating their wives, looked up to shamans, and finally colluded with the white baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg.

"1,740 kilometres across the snowy steppes, over the mountains and through the Gobi desert we travelled in 48 days!" - he announces in his sensational book (published within two years - from 1923 - in a dozen languages), and still little known in our country because it was completely banned until 1989. Like most of Ossendowski's books, mainly because of his biography 'Lenin', ruthless towards the leader of the bloody turmoil later called the Revolution. I will not summarise Ossendowski's fate, I will only cite one of the descriptions.

"At the very beginning of the steep path lay a pile of large stones with a disorderly pile of dry branches folded over them. 'Obo' is a Lamaic sacred sign that Lama monks place in dangerous places. "Obo" - is an altar in honour of evil demons, the rulers of these dangerous places. Passing Mongols and Soyots make their humble supplication or thanksgiving offerings here, hanging on the branches of the "obo" rags, strands of hair torn from a horse's mane or "khat", i.e. long strands of blue silk cloth, which they give as gifts to clergymen or elders. Sometimes they put bowls of millet, with broad beans or salt," writes Ossendowski.

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It was 1920 or already 1921 - no one had yet imagined the terrible devastation that the Bolshevik revolution, and later Soviet domination, would wreak on Mongolia. It would ravage the monasteries, slash the lamas and their disciples to pieces, collectivize the herds, number the yurts.

Surprising friends from Poland

In 1978, the Scientific Club of Young Naturalists of the University of Warsaw goes to Mongolia - then the Mongolian People's Republic - taking advantage of the agreements in force in the Moscow camp, on a student expedition. The students dream not only of researching Mongolian flora and fauna, but also of climbing in the Altai Mountains. Their supervisor and at the same time expedition leader is the young doctor Anna Kalinowska, later to become a prominent ecologist and founder of the University's Centre for Research on the Environment and Sustainable Development, associated with Solidarity and the martial law underground. In her book "Beautiful mafioso from the Central Committee and other stories of a traveller in the countries of the bloc", published a few months ago, she humorously describes that expedition, which she told me about personally at the time, although not all the nuances were revealed.

So the scientific club is already in the steppe and carrying out its work. The supervisor from the Mongolian university, Dr Ulik P., turns out to be of Kazakh origin, not necessarily enthusiastic about socialist reality, although he does not demonstrate this. He takes the Pole deep into the steppe, to an old hunter, to show her his collection, maybe the old man will sell something.

"I don't know how in this steppe without any special signs Ulik P. found his way. Without hesitation, he headed straight for the hunter's yurt, without turning and wandering. After a few quarters of a ride (on horseback - editor's note), he unexpectedly turned. We arrived at a small upland with a pile of stones piled on top. We dismounted from our horses to add our two pebbles to this mound, and Ulik tied a piece of coloured tape to a stick stuck to the top of the mound, on which narrow cloths were hanging. The kind we used in research to mark the test site. He explained that it was for the success of our mission, because this hill called "obo" is a magical place, a kind of lamaic, or perhaps rather shamanic shrine, where it is good to make an offering just in case. Every wanderer can contribute something here - a pebble, a bottle, or preferably a narrow strip of cloth. He winked in agreement that it was better not to mention this to anyone, as the authorities severely exterminate such superstition and religious obscurity. As a result, almost the entire country is atheist. He then went around the 'obo' twice.

The hunter turned out to be such a surprise that the young researcher's breath was taken away.

"When Ulik introduced me as a visitor from distant Poland I did not think the hunter had even the faintest idea that there was such a country, especially where it lay. To my surprise, the old man quickly remembered that long ago he had known such a single brave man who was Polish. He remembered - his name was Ferdinand. He often mentioned his homeland, because, having recently been liberated from the Tsar, it, like Mongolia then, had to resist the Bolshevik troops. He remembers him well, this Ferdinand. They showed up here together with the commander of the Whites, Baron Ungern, I think he was even his advisor. Ferdinand spoke Mongolian well,' Anka Kalinowska describes in her volume.

And you should know that the author grew up in Podkowa Leśna, and since childhood she used to go for walks with her father in the direction of Żółwin, where her father used to show from afar the house in which he lived ... Ferdynand A. Ossendowski. And she used to visit his grave in Milanówek, and she knew the story of his death two weeks before the Soviets entered, who immediately came to arrest him, and on learning that he was dead, dug up his grave. And she knew from home his books with the 'Mongolian' on top of them....

"I was completely distracted. What a coincidence! The old hunter, on the other hand, gave the impression that he did not recognise such a thing as coincidences," writes the author.
In addition, Kalinowska had had another meeting, fruitful for the academic club, at the Polish People's Republic embassy in Ulan-Bator, where she and her students had gone when it turned out that no one was waiting for them at the university, no one knew anything, the doorman was asleep and the dormitories were closed. At the embassy, which they reached after a long search - and she had also been warned of their arrival - they were greeted by a man with a somewhat familiar face, that is, familiar as if from somewhere else, because not from a personal relationship. It was only when he made a mistake and said "at our place in Munich" that the students caught on: it was "himself", Captain Andrzej Czechowicz, the conqueror of Radio Free Europe, driven like a monkey in a cage across the country to numerous meetings and lectures, while the common man laughed out loud at these quasi-revelations.

Let him now learn about the old hunter and his respect for the communist-hated writer. He would no longer be moved by the thunderous - and in the subtext mocking - chants of the students: "Andrzej Czechowicz Mata Hari of the Ministry of the Interior/ he worked out radio station RFE/ in capitalist Munich/ his fame is great/ Glory glory Hallelujah".

With a camera among the people

Magda Wolnik was not yet born. She arrived in Mongolia in 2001, still a postgraduate student of journalism at the University of Warsaw, but already in search of an expressive path.

For her final exam she did an interview with Anna Pietraszek, not only an author of television reports, but also a Himalayan mountaineer and therefore an expert on Asian climates. After this interview, she invited Magda Wolnik, an interesting student, to join the team preparing a film for TVP 2 about the aid organised by Caritas Poland in Mongolia after the drought disaster, coordinating the work of Caritas Internationalis. And there Magda caught the bug, because today she is a well-known - although not in Poland - and recognised author of exceptional film reports on the situation of Christians in the world, also in countries that have not yet emerged from totalitarian oppression. Her films, and she has made close to 80 of them, which are commissioned by the Headquarters of the Pontifical Association Kirche in Not/Assistance to the Church in Need, are screened in many countries around the world, although not in Poland.
"But I did not go to Mongolia again" she says. "Into that incomprehensible space of the Mongolian steppe, where people live in a traditional way, among their herd and follow it.Of course I was aware of the great unknown culture and extensive traditions that we have to learn so as not to offend our hosts, but I immediately had the feeling that more unites us than divides us", she stresses.

She recalls a yurt whose inhabitants, out of gratitude for the help they received - and there was a terrible cattle plague at the time because of the drought - invited a Caritas and TVP crew to a roast ram, which first had hot stones taken out of its belly and passed from hand to hand, everyone getting one to hold. "You couldn't refuse, the codes of conduct had to be grabbed on the fly," says the director. Maybe the 'obo' wasn't there, but the living tradition definitely was.

The streets mixed post-Soviet, typical communist blocks of flats with yurts that the locals had erected between the buildings in which they suffocated. And among the people there was a mix of a tiny Catholic community and a huge, oversized Mongolian interior. - Even then, there was an unusual international company," Magda tells TVP Weekly. - A Filipino priest just happened to be bishop, there was a missionary couple from Poland, a missionary sister from the Congregation of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, nuns from Asia. The universality of the Church on a daily basis, without boasting, colourful in the literal sense. Our Polish nun told me at the time, and I remember it to this day, that their presence is quite ordinary, and the most important thing is that "people see that we belong to Christ", says the director.

But how do they see? How do they know? - Because they ask," says Magda with experience of not just Mongolia anymore, but of dozens of countries she has visited with her camera. - They ask: "why are you doing this? Why are you helping us? Are you teaching our children to read and write? ' And then the missionaries, lay and otherwise, say why and for what reason.

Now, ahead of the Pope's arrival, Catholic missionary Father Ernesto Viscardi of the Congregation of the Missionaries of Our Lady of Consolation, in Mongolia for 19 years, says in an interview with Catholic News Agency (KAI): "being a missionary here means having to have a lot of patience, listening, humility of learning. We have practically no influence on the local society. We do not play a special role, but witnessing is very important".

Especially when there are only 1,500 Catholics, fewer than in many a Polish parish. An old hunter from the yurt also told the story.

– Barbara Sułek-Kowalska

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: A Mongolian company of honour in costumes from the era of Genghis Khan greets Vladimir Putin, who has arrived in Ulan Bator for a visit in 2019. Photo: Kremlin Pool / Russian Look / Forum
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