After my first Genghis Khan Wall expedition in August 2011, my team returned to the Mongolian capital city of Ulaanbaatar. For a couple of days we could shower off the gobi dust, eat and drink in cafes and soak up some of the local culture. In the city’s main art gallery was a temporary exhibition of works that depicted the Mongolian landscape, people and culture by an artist and explorer whom I’d never heard of — a Russian by the name of Nicholas Roerich.
His painting were colorful, striking, simple and stimulating. One in particular showed a Central Asian landscape, with a lone traveller within sight of mountain abode. As I stood in front of the painting I found myself thinking what hopes and fears, anxieties and apprehensions that lonely traveller, a foreigner in a distant land, a local from somewhere who wasn’t a local anymore. The sky looked dark and foreboding, bad weather was blowing in, dusk was falling. It would soon be dark, cold. The traveler would surely be hungry, tired. And what reception might he receive from someone, a family, lord of the village? What apprehensions might they have at the sight of this approaching stranger?
I loved the painting, and others alongside it. I noted down the artists name. Miraculously, once back in Beijing, I found the note, and looked him up, discovering he was a culture vulture, more than a traveller, more of a archeologist and anthropologist and explorer, who traveled on foot and horseback and upon camels with his wife and their sons, across central Asia, China and as far south as India.
The chance of making further connections with this artist and his story materialized once our trip to Moscow came into being. Roerich was Russian, born in St. Petersburg, and a much collected artist. One auctioneer in London had sold one of his paintings for a staggering 7.9 million pounds, a record sale for a work of a Russian artist!
With great excitement we made our way to the Roerich Museum in central Moscow. To my utter astonishment I was ‘greeted’ in the courtyard of the museum with a poster showing Roerich’s painting of the Great Wall!
Inside, several halls were stacked with Roerich’s colorful and naturally uplifting artworks. Here were places I’d been, seen, imagined, and wished to visit, in colours that inspired. Display cases also showed that Roerich was an enthusiastic collector of all kind of things that he found, saw or purchased, all in order to learn more about the foreign lands he passed through. He wrote: ‘Culture is the accumulation of highest bliss, highest beauty, highest knowledge.’
ox of crayons
An added and unexpected bonus of the visit to this museum was the collection of expedition equipment used by Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena and their sons, who in turn travelled and explored the Central Asian region extensively. Things that caught my eye were a portable coffee maker, a tiny camping stove and solid-fuel pellets, a bulletproof vest, a shovel, compass, knapsack, billycan, camp cutlery, typewriter, maps, binoculars, whistle, axe and tinned powdered coffee by Nescafé.
I didn’t see the painting that had made such an impression upon me in Mongolia, but as I sat down and absorbed a wider perspective of Nicholas Roerich’s life, works and philosophy, I realize why that painting attracted me. I many ways I could see myself in the frame. I have, for much of my life, been a traveller, far from home, tired, hungry, lonely and uncertain about many things unknown on the rough roads ahead, but always harbouring hope an faith that someone in the village, where light shone in a room, where smoke puffed out of chimney, was there and willing to open the door, invite me in, give me a drink and a place to rest.