By Philip Pullella
ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) -Pope Francis headed to Mongolia on Thursday, a predominantly Buddhist country with just 1,450 Catholics which the Vatican hopes can act as a facilitator to improve difficult relations with China.
Visiting places where Catholics are a minority is part of Francis's policy of drawing attention to people and problems in what he has called the peripheries of society and of the world. He has not visited most of the capitals of Western Europe.
"Going to Mongolia means going to (visit) a small population in a large country. Mongolia seems endless and it has few inhabitants, a small population but with great culture," Francis told journalists flying with him.
He said the country needed to be experienced "with the senses", rather than with the mind.
The 86-year-old pontiff, whose health has become more frail in recent years, looked relatively fit and in good spirits as he walked around the plane using a cane. On other occasions, he often uses a wheelchair.
The papal flight was due to fly over China before crossing into landlocked Mongolia, and following the custom of greeting the heads of state of every country he flies over, Francis was set to send a message to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The messages are pro-forma, usually invoking God's blessings on a country and its people, but in the case of China they are more closely watched given the Vatican's difficult relations with Beijing.
INTERMEDIARY WITH CHINA
Mongolia was part of China until 1921 and has close political and economic ties with Beijing. Diplomats say it could be used as an intermediary with China.
It was not clear if any Catholics from mainland China would cross the border to see the pope.
Francis's chartered ITA Airways plane, also carrying his entourage and accompanying reporters, took off from Rome at around 6.40 p.m. (1640 GMT) for the 9-hour, 30-minute flight to Ulaanbaatar.
The first event in the capital for Francis is on Saturday, when he addresses government leaders and the diplomatic corps.
"The pope's visit shows the world that contemporary Mongolia is continuing to accept the freedom of religion and coexistence, peacefully, of religion in Mongolia," its ambassador to the Vatican Gerelmaa Davaasuren, who is based in Geneva, told Reuters in Ulaanbaatar.
Francis is due to attend an inter-religious meeting on Sunday.
CLIMATE CHANGE, POLLUTION
One of the topics he is expected to address during the trip is protection of the environment.
Mongolia is one of the countries most affected by climate change, with average temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius since 1940.
With rainfall in long-term decline, around three-quarters of Mongolia's land is blighted by desertification and drought, and more than 200 small lakes have dried up since 1980.
Ecological problems have been aggravated by overgrazing, with around 80 million animals now trying to survive on land that can sustain only half that number, according to government figures.
The exploitation of mineral resources, seen as one of the only ways to grow the economy, has also put pressure on scarce water supplies.
Ulaanbaatar is one of the most polluted cities in the world, largely as a result of coal burning.
Francis announced on Wednesday that he will release a new document on the protection of nature to update his landmark 2015 encyclical.
Mongolia has seen a revival of Tibetan Buddhism since the collapse of the Soviet-backed Communist government in 1990 and the Dalai Lama is regarded as its main spiritual leader.
However, China has repeatedly put pressure on Mongolia not to allow the 88-year-old exiled Tibetan leader to visit, branding him a dangerous separatist.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell in Ulaanbaatar and David Stanway in Singapore; Additional writing by Alvise Armellini; Editing by Janet Lawrence, Susan Fenton and Nick Macfie)