Somewhere in the world, there is a gold rush.
Somewhere else, there is an oil boom.
Here in this particular Mongolian prairie, there is neither gold nor oil. But there is a rush and a boom.
Precious stones. That's what abounds on this specific spot in the middle of nowhere out in the countryside. They are raw, amorphous, dull and covered in dust, as if to discourage their human predators; as if saying, look, we are not all that pretty, just leave us alone. But they are beautiful and so rare is the light trapped within them and so spectacular their colors that Chinese artisans have their eyes set on this very patch. Why the Chinese and not the Mongolians? Expertise and access to the global market are the answer, but mainly globalization. China buys cheap from those who can't afford to haggle, like Mongolians, then sells cheap to the rest of the world.
According to the local interpretation of Buddhism, humans are not to profit from the gifts that nature has to offer. Removing these semi-precious gems from the ground is, for all intents and purposes, the same as stealing from nature. Bad karma. And if to this transgression you add financial gain, then you are in the red. Super, duper bad karma.
Yet, there is hunger and the pervasive need to put food on the table. Whole families arrive in beat-up cars and motorcycles, bags of decapitated water bottles in tow, rolled cigarettes ready to be turned into smoke, padded clothing and fleece hoodies set to be zipped up and tied. They get to work. The fill the plastic water bottles with semi-precious gems, a process which requires a lot more expertise than I realize. I squat next to Bata-So and let him teach me to sort the good gems from the not-even-worth-looking-at ones. Caught up in a moment of childish wonderment, I go for bright and shiny. Wrong gems. Shiny doesn't count as all the gems will be polished and shone in China. Bright doesn't cut it either. The true color of the stone is inside it, their spectral purity reveals itself only to the gem cutter. In China.
And so the families fill their plastic bottles with these semiprecious gems. Drive hundreds of miles to Ulan Bataar, the capital. Locate the black market of Chinese artisans (whose location varies as the transaction is illegal in Mongolia). Sell each bottle for a couple of dollars (about 3000 Tugriks). And by the time the stone foragers make it back to their nomadic campsites, you and I and everyone I know, will have worn a charms bracelet, or bought an exotic-looking necklace, or given someone a pair of earrings with their birth stones in them, or considered buying one of those fashionable double-finger rings. Their tags will say Made in China, but we already know that their souls are from Mongolia; souls kept alive through the backbreaking work of whole families like the one in the photograph.
Although I'm a purist when it comes to international music and I frown upon any attempt to "westernize" other people's music, I have long forgiven two bands: Deep Forest and Enigma. Here is an example of what Enigma did with one beautiful piece of Mongolian music. Enkhjargal will grab you by your throat at the 45th second, will hold you there for a few minutes, and will spit out your heart toward the end while he takes you on a furious gallop with his incandescent instrument, the morin khuur. Be patient. Stay with him and he'll show you what a man can do with his throat.
Enigma's synthesized version is not too shabby either.