Manhaisan hops up the stairs two at a time and pokes his wool hat, uneven bangs, and bright squirrel eyes out of the manhole. There’s nobody in the street, nobody watching from the windows of the aging gray Soviet-style apartment buildings, nobody in the small pools of light that spill from the streetlamps onto the sidewalk. He stretches out his small arms to lift the heavy metal lid and drags it across the asphalt half a meter closer, trying not to make any noise. Soso has explained it all carefully: he should leave a gap small enough so that nobody will be able to come in without sliding back the cover. That way, if anybody comes when they’re sleeping, the noise of the metal scraping on asphalt will warn them. But the gap should also be wide enough that they can escape quickly if they hear footsteps approaching. Manhaisan picks up two damp pieces of cardboard and sets up his bed on the widest pipe. He curls into a fetal position, trying not to roll off onto the wet floor, and squeezes his eyes shut, determined not to open them again until the first light of dawn illuminates their den. It’s no fun being the scaredy-cat of the gang, but he can’t keep himself from asking his friend Soso, as he does almost every night, if they’re going to come tonight. Soso, annoyed, answers with his usual indifference: “How should I know? Do you think I know everything?”
Mainhaisan means “eternal beauty”; Batmonh, “always strong”; Erdenechimeg, “precious jewel”; Saibatar, “valiant hero”; ijilbatar, “same hero”; Ysuntai, “abundance”; and Jebe, “arrowhead.” Mongolians give their children what may be the most beautiful names in the world, but only once the children are two or three years old and seem to be here to stay—once Tengri, the Mongolians’ sky god, has accepted them as his own. Manhaisan doesn’t remember it, but it must have been hard for his mother to contain her joy when she saw him emerge from her belly with his round, rosy cheeks. As she pushed him out into the world, fearing that evil spirits might carry him off into the world of shadows, she probably shouted insults at him the way only birthing mothers on the Mongolian steppes know how, pretending that her tears were tears of sadness, her eyes full of disdain, trying to make the spirits believe that the child was ugly and not worth stealing.
Manhaisan was born on camel skins in a yurt, the portable home of the nomads, in a nameless place in the middle of nowhere, a place where some say the Gobi Desert begins and others say it ends. His father moved the tent across the prairies according to whether they were blanketed with frost or with flowers. Seven years ago, everything was frost: winter stretched into April, and the family couldn’t find the oceans of green grasses that had once intoxicated the hordes of the emperor Genghis Khan as he made his way to those nations fated to fall to his army. The horses died, food grew scarce, and there wasn’t any milk for Manhaisan—or if there was milk for him, there wasn’t any for his two siblings. The family gathered in the tent and decided that their only way out was to leave for the city.
But there was nothing for the Mongolian nomad in the city.
Manhaisan’s family set up the tent on the outskirts of Ulan Bator with other nomads who had come from every corner of Mongolia looking for opportunities. Without work, food, or aid, the situation grew worse, and in the end Manhaisan’s parents packed up their belongings again and headed back to the steppes. But they left their son behind. He had become a burden, so they left him in front of the Ministry of Social Affairs, hoping that some bureaucrat would help him, take him to an orphanage, and understand that his parents had committed an act not of cruelty but of love. That night, Manhaisan, only six years old, slept in the heating tunnels under the city for the first time.
I first heard about Mongolia’s underground children from the American photographer Paula Bronstein, whom I’d met during the destruction of East Timor by indonesian troops in 1999. One of the images Paula captured was of a boy sleeping beside a manhole, huddled in the middle of the night a few degrees below freezing, too exhausted to reach his companions. Some children die like that: they fall asleep from alcohol, glue-sniffing, fatigue, hunger, or all of the above, and are found the next morning lifeless, frozen, in the same position. The story behind Paula’s photograph crept inside me, and I knew that, as on other occasions in the past, I’d carry it in my head, pricking me like a thorn, until the day I could share it.
To my surprise, they’re waiting for me in the Ulan Bator airport.
“You were lucky,” says a hunched, gangly youth in the arrivals lounge, offering to take me to the hotel for ten dollars. “We’re having very good weather this week.”
It’s seventeen degrees below zero, but it’s been a few days since it’s snowed. Chinzorig is right: it’s pretty good weather for the world’s most inhospitable capital. Chinzorig is fond of this old airport where flights sometimes take off days or even weeks late because of snowstorms and maintenance problems with the Mongolian Airlines planes. His parents live nearby, and whenever he goes to visit them, he strolls through the arrivals lounge, waves to his old workmates, and looks around for a customer so he can earn a few dollars. Chinzorig has an advantage over the other taxi drivers because he’s worked as an air traffic controller and knows the schedules and circumstances: he has only to look at the amount of snow on the roads or calculate the wind speed to know whether a flight will land or take off that day. One day, tired of watching government officials divvy up the flyover rights for Mongolia while workers like him took home a pitiful salary of a hundred dollars a month, he quit. He was just over twenty years old, with a job that anyone else would have envied, but in the control tower he felt like a stallion corralled in its pen.
“And what are you going to do now?” his boss asked, convinced that only a crazy person would give up the security of a steady paycheck in such a broken country.
“Lots of things,” said Chinzorig.
The first of those things was to buy a used car with the money he’d saved and start working as a taxi driver and tourist guide.
Chinzorig offers to take me to the underground children. “During the day, they work in the train station,” he says. When we get there, dozens of little porters are awaiting the train’s arrival beside the tracks, eager to transport the luggage of the disembarking passengers on their improvised wooden carts. The tallest are at an advantage because they can stretch their necks above the crowd and see who is getting out of the cars first. The smallest are able to dart among the others with their little carts. Everyone wants to get to the foreign tourists first. It’s said they come from places where there is no cold, winter, or snow, places where people live in large houses and drive six-wheeled cars and, of course, have so much money that a dollar tip is no skin off their backs.
The Trans-Mongolian is coming in from Moscow this morning before heading on to Beijing, leaving the Gobi behind and winding through the mountains, valleys, and deserts that Genghis Khan traveled in 1214 on his way to the gates of what was then Zhongdu. The Mongolian Wolf met no resistance at the time because the Chinese emperor, Xuanzong, who had heard tales of the ferocity of the khan’s warriors, appeased the visitors with carts full of treasure and a beautiful princess accompanied by five hundred servants who joined the invader’s manacled army. The khan showed his gratitude by coming back three years later and destroying Zhongdu anyway. One of the witnesses to the fall of the city of Bukhara summed it up best, describing Genghis Khan and his men’s approach to war in a single sentence: “They came, they sapped, they burned, they slew, they plundered, and they departed.”
The Mongolian warriors, under the orders of the Oceanic Emperor and later those of his descendants, conquered everything in their path in the thirteenth century, sacking and subjugating peoples from the Black Sea to the Pacific Ocean, raising the largest empire that man has ever known and leaving in their wake a wave of destruction and death that would not be seen again until the Second World War. The Emperor of the Steppes, who had once declared that one of the great pleasures of life was “to scatter your enemy, to drive him before you, to see his cities reduced to ashes, to see those who love him shrouded in tears, and to gather into your bosom his wives and daughters,” did not live to see the destruction of the empire he’d built. He would have been humiliated to witness how over the years it would be Mongolian women who were clasped against the chests of, first, Chinese invaders; later, Russians; and today, anyone with five dollars in his pocket. The young women on the dance floor at the Ulan Bator Hotel save up their money so that two or three times a year they can make the same journey that Genghis Khan did, to Zhongdu. They board the Trans-Mongolian, leaving the Gobi behind, and wind through the mountains, valleys, and deserts until they arrive at Maggie’s, a small pub next to Beijing’s Workers Stadium. There, you can see them dancing and approaching customers at the bar to whisper in their ear that a piece of the legend of Mongolia is for rent tonight.
On freezing Ulan Bator nights, when Chinzorig takes me to the nightclub at the Ulan Bator Hotel so I can see “the most beautiful women on earth,” Mongolia seems to me like a man sitting alone in the corner of a bar, longing for a past that will never return and signaling for another round so he can forget about the present, which gets more painful with every sip. The melancholy of the Mongolian people is palpable in every one of the bars we visit, in the Genghis Khan Hotel, in the bottles of Genghis Khan vodka plastered with a portrait of the emperor, in the packs of Genghis Khan cigarettes, in the money printed with Genghis Khan’s face, and in Ulan Bator’s wide Genghis Khan Avenue, which we fly down at top speed. Mongolians, drunk with nostalgia, live in hope that the legend will become reality, that Genghis Khan will reappear, reincarnated in a little boy born on camel skins, a boy like Manhaisan, perhaps, who will be charged with returning this land to the splendor of days gone by.