Say to someone that you are crossing Inner Mongolia and Mongolia by car and they look at you with astonishment. Mongolia fires imaginations, creates awe and a little fear and conjures something spiritual, fundamental, in the soul.
But if you ask that person what Mongolia is, where it came from and how it got here you get blank stares all round. So let me try to help.
The history of Mongolia is about Money and Fear. Money because Mongolia was part of the silk route controlling the trade in tea, silk and spices from China into Europe and the Middle East. Fear because of the legacy of Genghis Khan and the Mongol invaders who at one time controlled Europe up to the Polish border and most of China - a wound the Chinese never forget.
Today's independent and democratic Mongolia arose from the wreckage of the old Soviet Union of which it had been a satellite state. Until the trans Mongolian railway was built in the late 1800s there were hugely wealthy towns along the Russo-Mongolian border living off the camel caravans loaded with tea.
For the Russians to control Mongolia was a delicious victory in a war that started with Genghis Khan's incredible empire following his coronation as Khan (or King) in 1206. Although the empire splintered after his death the Mongols, known variously as the Golden Hoard and the Tartars, continued to dominate Siberia and China for centuries slowly being pushed back until Mongolia fell to the Chinese in the 18th century. When the Chinese Qing dynasty started to collapse in the early 1900s the Mongolians rebelled with Russian backing and in 1924 Mongolia became an independent communist state.
Today it's a vast and largely uninhabited wilderness. But not for long - Mongolia has the largest iron ore deposits in the world and in theory Mongolia could be the wealthiest country on the planet per head of population.