Name three famous Mongolians. The first two are easy enough: Genghis Khan – arguably the most important man of the last millennium – and then his grandson Kublai Khan, but who else? Into this biographical void comes American journalist Michael Kohn’s Lama of the Gobi, bringing to life an extraordinary figure from the nineteenth century: Danzan Ravjaa. He was the fifth reincarnate Lama of the Gobi (officially known as the Noyon Hutagt – a minor Mongolian version of the Dalai Lamas in Tibet). Danzan Ravjaa was also a literary genius and a notorious drinker with a fondness for women. In short, he’s a fantastic subject for a biography.

Lama of the Gobi is a book with a great creation story. (As it would probably need: a work on a nineteenth-century Mongolian monastic and literary figure is never likely to sell well.) Michael Kohn first came across Danzan Ravjaa in the late 1990s when he was living in the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bator. Kohn was editor of the Mongol Messenger, Mongolia’s sole English-language weekly newspaper. The position sounds grander than the reality; he was pretty much a one-man newspaper operation struggling to keep the small-circulation paper alive. Kohn ran an article on Danzan Ravjaa – though unknown in the West, a household name in Mongolia – and was intrigued. On a subsequent trip to China aboard the Trans-Mongolian Railway, Kohn stopped off in the dusty town of Sainshand to visit a new museum devoted to the unconventional lama. Describing his trip to the museum, Kohn writes:

While sifting through all this history was a fascinating experience, much of it was lost on me as there was precious little written about Danzan Ravjaa in the English language. Any research done in Mongolian seemed either too fanciful or too academic. I struggled to make sense of all that lay before me. I guessed that other foreign visitors to the museum would be equally baffled and decided to help out by creating an information pamphlet in English. That initial pamphlet seemed to grow by the day as I kept stumbling over new sources of information. At some point my short essay had morphed into the book you are holding.

Ravjaa was born into an impoverished family in 1803; his mother died when he was two, and his father was a wandering bard and beggar. Discovered when he was seven years old, “the peasant boy who had once begged for scraps of food was elevated to a status higher than any other in the desert and revered as His Holiness the Princely Saint, Lord of the Gobi.”

Young Ravjaa began a new regimented life in a monastery. Although his studies were frequently interrupted by him running away to spend time with herdsmen, he proved a talented student with a gift for language. By the time of his mysterious death in 1856, he had become an acclaimed mystic poet, playwright, composer of operas, and was the author of treatises on religion and medicine among other subjects.

Ravjaa’s works, especially in later years, were often political, “filled with scathing and negative commentary about people in power.” Mongolia was, as part of the massive Qing Empire, under the rule of the Manchus. Kohn quotes a Mongolian researcher:

“Ravjaa was relentless in his attack on societal wrongs and the Manchus, but not directly. He was a master at concealing his humor and ideas but by the end of the performance most of the audience should feel shame. He criticized religion, the rich, the poor, the powerful, unfaithful women and charlatan monks. He had a real sense of society.”

Communist purges in the 1930s decimated Buddhism in Mongolia (then an independent nation in name but in reality a puppet state of the Soviet Union). Monasteries were destroyed, religion outlawed, and tens of thousands of lamas killed. In the following half-century, Marxist propaganda rewrote history and religious figures such as Ravjaa were vilified as enemies of the people. His libertine ways were exaggerated and he was remembered as little more than a drunken womanizer.

The winds of change that swept across the Soviet Union in 1989 brought democracy to Mongolia in 1990. A renaissance of Buddhism and Mongolian culture soon blossomed. Important religious treasures that had been buried in the desert in the 1930s were now recovered. And so it was with Ravjaa’s material legacy; boxes containing priceless manuscripts, books, artworks, ceremonial costumes, and theater props were dug up by a descendant called Altangerel and placed in the Sainshand museum that Kohn later visited.

Speaking of deserts, much as I enjoyed Lama of the Gobi, there was one minor annoyance: the book’s subtitle, How Mongolia’s Mystic Monk Spread Tibetan Buddhism in the World’s Harshest Desert. The Gobi is harsh but not the world’s harshest desert, and the settings of the Ravjaa story – such as Khamaryn monastery near Sainshand – are for the most part semi-desert, and not in the heart of the Gobi; imagine arid steppe rather than a barren wasteland of sand dunes and rocks.

I recommend Lama of the Gobi to anyone interested in Mongolia, Buddhism, or the arts. The material is new and fresh, the writing intelligent and readable, and the Ravjaa story is a fascinating one connecting the nineteenth century to modern-day Mongolia. Great credit also goes to Pete Spurrier of Blacksmith Books for publishing a niche work like this.

As well as being author/co-author of countless Lonely Planet travel guides, including the one for Mongolia, Michael Kohn has also written the excellent Dateline Mongolia, (originally published in 2006, a second edition is due to be released in February 2017).

Lama of the Gobi is available from Blacksmith Books and Amazon.