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Mongolian Winter

Idre knew the old nomads living in the ger between the mountains, so the idea of dropping in for a visit seemed reasonable. But locating just where, exactly, they encamped was more of a game of trial and error. He plowed the Land Cruiser through the snowfields, vast plains of white powder stretching to the horizon and beyond. In the back seat, my view was unobstructed, taking it all in, the wide open nothingness of the Mongolian winter. Our tires drew tracks in lightly trodden snow. People in America buy Toyota Land Cruisers and keep them parked in the suburbs. People in Mongolia buy them and take them off road. We lost the paved road hours before we reached the ger.

A ger is a felt tent used by the nomadic peoples of Siberia. (The term yurt is synonymous and can be attributed correctly as the tentlike dwelling of the nomadic peoples of central Asia.). People hunted wolves in the distance. We were out in the wilds. It became clear to me as we drove across the endless snow that Idre had no clue where we were going.

‘Didn’t you say you knew them?’ I asked.

‘They’re nomads, man. They move around.’

It took us a while to find the nomadic family living in the ger at the end of the world. There were three of them: an old man, an old woman, and a little girl. The generations in between had relocated to the nearest town for work, I’m told, with Idre translating. This family and one other are the only people settled in a 40km radius. The family herds goats. Horses too, but most were stolen a month ago by bandits, apparently. The old lady gave us hot cups of salty green tea brewed with goat’s milk over a wood burning stove in the middle of the ger. I played with her young granddaughter, we drew pictures with broken crayons. For lunch, we ate stewed horse off the bone with potatoes. We ate with our fingers. The old man went to work on a jointed section of horse bone with a pocket knife, scraping every greasy morsel of meat and fat and cartilage off the yellowed bone and into his mouth, his thin, weather-worn body soaking up all the sustenance it might.

Vegetarianism, barring instances when practiced as part of religion, is an absolute luxury. I cannot imagine how anyone could be in a felt tent in the middle of winter in outer Siberia and be offered a hot, sustaining meal comprised of scarce of food, given by people with so little to offer, and think to decline such a great offering on terms of moral higher ground.

After lunch we sat, feeling fat and content.

Bellies full, bodies warm, I boarded the white Land Cruiser with Idre and traveled back west towards Gorkhi-Terelj national park. When we arrived the whole scene was covered by snow and evergreen trees. Idre stopped next to a large rock formation that resembled a turtle. We got out, our feet crunching on virgin snow.

He pointed to the hillside in the distance. ‘You see there, the monastery in the hills?’

I squint against the light. It’s visible, a lonely edifice upon the rock.

‘You walk there. See great Mongolian natural beauty.’

‘How long will it take?’

‘You are young and fit. Should not take you two hours.’ Idre got back into the vehicle, with its heated air and soft leather seats. ‘Meet you there!’ he called out as he drove away into nature.

I made the trek. Everything was quiet. There were wild mountain goats. Cabins and tea shops—all abandoned for the offseason—peppered the scene. I walked on. At one point I realized I was utterly alone. I could feel it coming on, The Fear – deranged thoughts about bears or feral packs of wolves attacking. I began to wish I had a gun or at least a large stick. The snow made the hike up to the temple difficult. I had to follow Idre’s tire tracks to make sure I didn’t lose the trail and fall into a crevasse or something equally fatal. But in the end, way up at the top of the monastery on the hillside, my award was a grand view of the snowy valley below. The monastery was abandoned as well, gates to the inner temple locked with deadbolt and chain. I sat alone on the steps high above and meditated on the nature of it all.

Back on earth I climbed into the SUV and settled in for the long return journey to the capital, Ulaanbaatar

At Irde’s Guesthouse (where I was the only guest, what with it being -30 C and about five calendar pages away from the summer tourist trail heating up) I had a nap and freshened myself before going out to see Ulaanbaatar at night. I was still full from the horse stew and wasn’t really looking for a meal but more for something to bide my time with. I found a place called AMERICA BAR DETROIT and went in to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I was largely underdressed and mostly ignored by everyone inside.

I listened to all the noise people made around me. Mongolian, as a language, sounds more light and flowery than you’d expect a from a language written in the hard case of Cyrillic. But the complex contortions of the tongue used to agglutinate the language give its speakers the characteristic of not ever having swallowed all the spit in their mouths. Like they’re all chewing on mouthfuls of flowers and sucking on the juices that come out as they move their mandibles about. Maybe that’s how it sounds, Mongolian.

From my barstool I watched Chinese professional basketball on CCTV, which is as about exciting as American high school basketball, except in high school ball it’s implicitly understood why the kids sometimes throw an air-ball — they’re just kids after all. The Chinese professionals threw more air-balls than they scored points. I’ll never know why I stayed until the end of the fourth quarter. Nobody in the bar even seemed to notice that the Shanghai Sharks bested the Peking Ducks. Nobody even seemed to notice me—I had complete anonymity. Which I think is one of the most conflicting feelings a traveler can have when they’re out there all alone with the world. 





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