Finding Nemo

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Landing in Mongolia

Sardines on wheat toast and pickles!
The happy couple stared at me intently.  I stared intently at the tin they had offered me.  Inside swam a glob of fishy-looking things drowning in oil.  They motioned for me to put the fishy things onto the dark bread.

I dug in, plopped a few on a bit of bread, and hesitantly took a bite.  It was ... delicious!  It turned out that the little fishies were smoked, and the dark bread was a revelation after the noodle kingdom I had just left to the south.  They then proffered a jar of pickles.  Pickles!  Such an odd item for an Asian country.  I happily crunched away.

Only a few hours ago I had been in China, the food as Asian as can be.  And now, just a hop across the fence, I was tucking into very European fare: sardines, dark bread, and pickles.  It is astonishing how radically things can change in such a short distance.

Goodbye Beijing Smog!  Waking up to the blue and green
Mongolia is such a fascinating place.  It is sandwiched between two major world powers, and inevitably, it has been strongly influenced by both.  But the balance swings more to Russia.  The Mongolians really don't like the Chinese too much, and to be honest you can't blame them.  The Chinese call the country Outer Mongolia, as if its somehow still a part of China!  (Typical Chinese view on the world.)  They will (only half-jokingly) call Mongolia the northern province, which is absolutely hysterical considering that it was China that was conquered and ruled by the Mongol king Genghis Khan, founder of the Yuan dynasty.

So, the Mongolians turned to their northern neighbor, and Russia more than happily obliged.  Mongolian "roads" are roamed by Russian Furgans, indestructible metal coffin mini-buses outfitted with huge mud-tires.  In the far provinces, tour operators use enormous old Russian military transports to get around, and after seeing some of the car-sucking swamps on horse-back, I can't blame them.  But perhaps most jarring is to see a group of Asian faces speaking a language that sounds remarkably like Russian.  And of couse, Cyrillic is a Western alphabet.  But I'm not complaining, Cyrillic is a piece of cake compared to trying to memorize thousands of Chinese kanji.  Then again, the Russians also brought in alcoholism in the form of vodka and slapped up a lot of horrible communist buildings around the capital.  The purges of Stalin eventually reached Mongolia and many monasteries were destroyed during the climax from 1937-1939.

Mongolia's Abraham Lincoln
Chinggis (don't call him Genghis here) adorns everything, from the money to the vodka to the much-larger-than-life statue in the center of UB (Ulaanbaatar).  A great story (perhaps myth) is that when he was buried, the 2000 funeral attendees were slaughtered by 800 soldiers, who were in turn killed themselves!  And to this very day, the grave of Chinggis remains a secret.  Huge sums have been spent trying to locate the site, which is rumored to be filled with huge amounts of gold and other precious items--some have estimated it may contain up to a billion dollars of treasure!!

Cruising the high country
But to me, the great lure of the Land of Blue Sky is this simple statistic: the lowest population density in the world at 4 people per square mile!  Horses and camels outnumber the people by 13-to-1.  And get this: there is no (official) private ownership of land to this very day.  Which means that when two families want to graze their animals on the same piece of land, instead of building a fence they will have to sit down and discuss a sharing arrangement over milk tea.  This lack of fences, combined with the legendary hospitality of the rural nomads, makes Mongolia one of the best places on Earth to just go.

Get a compass and a good map, maybe buy a horse, and just go.  Doesn't really matter where, it will be an adventure.  That's precisely what I intend to do.

No comments:

Post a Comment