Finding Nemo

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lake of Purity

Days 8 and 9: Saridag Inn to Inspiration River


Heading Home
During the entire Nadaam festivities, I had been mulling over a big decision.  I was supposed to keep trekking up north to visit the reindeer people.  On paper it had sounded great, a real adventure.  But reflecting on the first week of my trip gave me pause.  The biggest problem was a matter of survival: I had crappy gear.  My tent leaked like a fish-net and my sleeping bag was too thin.  But on top of this, there were other big problems.  My guide didn’t speak any English.  I hadn’t minded at first, it was an opportunity to learn Mongolian.  But I wasn’t taking a language course in the cushy city, latte in hand.  We were out in the wild, horse trekking, and things needed to be done, all day every day.  The language barrier was turning into a nightmare.  Then, there was my “saddle,” which was basically a wire bar with a pad on top, and my twig and berries still hadn’t recovered from last week’s beating.  Finally, my ride was slower than a ’77 Pinto and I was bored of walking all day every day, nose to rump, breathing horse farts.

Going to the reindeer people should only take 4 days from [loogie]-thoomp, but at the rate we were going it would take 5 or 6.  And that meant 5 or 6 days back.  In other words, I was looking at another week and a half of misery.  So I made the only decision I could.  I decided to turn back and end this fiasco.  And heading back early had a bonus: it gave me more time back in UB to live my original dream: to buy my own horse and head out by myself.  Free from any guide, free to trot or gallop whenever I wanted, to camp where I wanted, to do what I wanted.  And it would also be a real adventure, a real challenge.  If I screwed up, it could be disaster.  There would be no one to bail me out.  It was a challenge I wanted.

Earning my Tea

I told my guide I wanted to take it slow on the way back so we could just enjoy the trek.  That ended up earning a few forehead slaps.  I had forgotten how slow Toroo liked to go when we were in a hurry, so this was like telling him to lay on the beach and pass out.  We stopped for tea early, after only an hour.  Toroo told the man of the ger I played guitar, and next thing I knew the whole family and kids assembled before me.  Toroo handed me the guitar case.  Doh.  I took it out and sang the only song I don’t usually screw up: “Hope of Deliverance” by Paul McCartney.  Surprisingly, they applauded happily at the end and waited expectantly for the next song.

Evening Feast  (note giant horsefly above, more protein for me)
Now, unlike some friends I have back home, I am crap on guitar and I never play in public.  Which means I get nervous playing in front of others.  Which means I tend to forget songs in the middle of playing them.  But it was clear from the faces in front of me that a strange hairy man playing guitar, an instrument you very rarely see in Mongolia, was too much fun for them.  Against my gut feeling I decided to launch into “Brown-Eyed Girl.”  I screwed up about 6 times, but after the 2nd time I realized they would have no idea if I was playing it right or not.  So I relaxed, and just tried to have fun with it.  Mongolians don’t applaud much, but after the song the loud hand-clapping and huge smiles made me realize I had done OK.

As all gers do, they generously poured me more butter tea and fed me enough khoshers and yogurt to make my belt a little tighter.  This time, I had at least offered something in return.  It felt good.

Naked Swimming

Last rays
The next day the flies were out in force, it was hot, and Misery rode along for company.  We stopped early for camp by the riverbank.  It was a luxury, actually, stopping early in the day and having some free time after sorting the horses and dinner.  And sitting there in the hot sun, swatting demon-spawn, there was only one thing to do really.  So I found a little swimming hole and put in my hands.  It was ice-cold.  Perfect.  I stripped naked and jumped in.  Jumping into ice-cold water has two main effects.  The first is to prevent you from being able to properly breathe.  Apparently this is called the Mammalian Diving Reflex.  In theory it’s supposed to prevent you from drowning, but since you are gasping for breath it seems to me the other way around!  The second is that the blast of cold to your brain makes you forget about anything else in the world, including blood-sucking flies, heat, and smashed nuts.  The adrenalin fills your entire body like a bolt of electricity, you just feel ALIVE.

Waking the Muse

Writing silly songs
In the perfect twilight moment where the cold has banished the flies but the sun is still casting its rays on the meadow, I lay in the pleasant grass.  Guitar in one hand, notebook in the other, a song started percolating in my brain.  It had been floating around up there for a couple days I suppose.  And that night I wrote it down.  It was kind of weird.  I had never written a song before in my life.  I had just assumed songs were these weird things “talented” people wrote, something that would always be beyond my grasp.  But it came easy and free.  And I realized a song is just an idea inside that you feel like sharing.  It’s not so hard to write a song after all, really.  That realization made me think that perhaps I had a few other songs inside.

Of course, writing a good song that people actually want to listen to is another matter entirely.  Perhaps that actually does take some talent.  But like anything, talent is really just another word for hard-won experience.  And there is no way to get experience without starting somewhere.  So, enjoy my first comedic attempts at song-writing <will post link soon>.  I don’t expect anyone to actually think they are good.  They were just fun to write, and that is good enough for me.


Rollin rollin rollin
Day 10: Inspiration River to Lake of Purity

A Cool Breeze

The Lake Awaits!
The next afternoon, we crested a low pass with an ovoo.  At that instant, a refreshing cool breeze hit our faces and the flies started to disappear.  I squinted into the sunlight.  And there it was.  The horizon between the hills was a slightly different shade of blue than the sky.  It could only be Khovsgol Nuur, the most famous lake in Monogolia.

Violet meadows
Khovsgol is not just any lake.  It is surrounded on all sides by 2000m peaks, (Monk Saridag to the north is 3500m) and is very deep (262m).  It holds about 2% of the world’s fresh water, is home to large fish such as sturgeon, and in the surrounding wild roam bear and elk.  The landscape is full of pristine pine forests and meadows, and I had even been told by a Swiss guy I met in Khumbe that he drank straight from the lake for 3 days!  But for me, the best part of all was the cool breeze blowing away all the heat and flies.

We rode quickly down the pass and by early afternoon reached the lake-side metropolis of Jig-Lig, which consisted of a dilapidated fence and an empty shack.  Fish swam in the cold crystal clear water.  Flowers carpeted the shore-line.  In the next meadow two large black-banded storks walked around on stilts.   But the best sight was above us in a nearby tree.  Perched atop a massive nest 2 huge eagles stretched enormous wings.  They were raptor-sauruses.  I couldn’t believe it.

Packaged Salvation

Al Qaeda horse, ready for martyr-dom
Jig-Lig serves as a lunch-time picnic spot for tour groups, and tour groups there were.  Unlike our lonely trek through the mountains, the lake-shore was prime horse-trekking country.  We had already passed two large expeditions.  Toroo and I laughed as we watched the inexperienced tourists bumping atop their horses trying to hold on.  One group we met had only two tourists supported by an army of two guides, 4 wranglers, and 4 pack horses.  There were 12 horses in total.  It was hilarious.

Fields of Gold

We pushed on and the scenery truly became spectacular.  I recognized the spines of the tall mountains we had tackled last week, but we were now staring at their backs.  The profusion of flowers in the forested meadows were splashed about with abandon; and on our left stretched the blue of the deepest lake in Central Asia.

Purple mountains
As the afternoon deepened, I noticed a change above.  High white clouds began streaming over the mountains.  The wind picked up a slight chill.  I recognized this pattern; it was exactly what had occurred the night I nearly got frost-bite.  The high clouds would soon be followed by thick cumulus, and then it would be upon us.  At least here there was shelter from the wind, but I wanted no part of another soaked sleepless cold night.  It was getting late and we would have to stop.  As I resigned myself to a night of cursing, we rounded a final bend and spied the large packaged group with 12 horses.  They had set up a huge dining tent and were comfortably cooking dinner.  I looked up and mouthed “Thank You” to our Great Alien Overlords.

Sure enough, no sooner had we setup camp than it started raining, and no sooner did it start raining than my death trap started leaking.  I hauled everything into the dining tent; their guides laughed and made space for my pathetic wet mess of junk.

I thought back on how smug I had felt when this group had passed us earlier.  And I resolved never again to laugh at a large tourist expedition.  When idiots like me screw up, it’s these folks with their 8 spare horses and arugula who are there to bail us out.

Days 11 and 12: Lake of Purity to “Progress”

A Good Place

The next morning was my favorite of the entire trip.  In the rush to avoid the rain, I hadn’t really taken much of a look at our campsite.  During the course of our trek, Toroo hadn’t exactly picked his sleep spots for their beauty.  Or their water.  Or for any logical reason as far as I could gather except to inflict pain.  I had been used to waking up in whatever random nook we had fallen into the night before.

Glow from below
And so to wake up to this place was a revelation.  It was a cozy meadow tucked into the pine forest next to a pleasant pebbly beach.  As light poked above the lake to the East, the rays lit up the Colors of Mongolia.  Dense patches of violets and pinks, thick fields of orange poppies, yellows and golds, mystery red balls danced above pink onion blooms, pale Edelweiss sprouted between our tents.  Above, tall green peaks rose with granite teeth.  I turned to greet the sun; it warmed my face as it melted above the silver glass of Khovsgol.  Birds called hello to the morning; hidden fish broke the mirror.  I took a deep breath of contentment; my nose filled with the sweet smell of pine.

Rainbows after the storm
In the east, faint pinks still lit the morning sky.

I wanted to shout “woooooooo!!!!” but instead I just let the shout ring inside.

No one else was awake yet.  It was all mine.

The Storm

That morning I filled my bottle from the lake and took a deep drink.  If I got sick, well it would be too bad.  But I had to taste the lake without the contamination of iodine or chlorine.  I tilted it back and took deep gulps.  It is hard to describe the taste of truly pure water.  Its not something we drink anymore, really.  Once it’s put into a plastic bottle for a few days, it doesn’t matter where it came from.  I guess I will just say it tasted clean, cold, delicious, almost sweet.  In this modern over-populated world, how rare is the pleasure of drinking directly from a lake?

Red Moon Rising
We rode fairly close to the other group most of the day in case it rained again.  And sure enough, on cue that evening thick clouds again piled up over the mountains.  For a brief moment, a blood-red moon rose above the lake, then quickly vanished into the storm.  As we sat in the dining tent that night, we watched with awe as crackling bolts blasted directly into the lake, booming into our ears and flooding the land with daylight.

There is an odd happiness that creeps over me in these storms.  Somehow it takes me back to a bedroom on a farm in Ohio, curled inside cozy blankets as lightning raged outside.  On those muggy summer nights, the cool of the storm was refreshment and the boom of thunder made my imagination run wild.  I realized how much I missed thunderstorms.  Southern California has almost everything, but it doesn’t have this.

Colors of Mongolia
A Scar in the Earth

Tourist gers on concrete: neon orange is a nice touch
That afternoon we came upon an odd sight.  There were foreign tourists standing on the lakeshore.  But they had no back-packs, no horses.  They looked freshly showered, wore clean clothes.  And then, I saw something that made me ill.  It was a shiny new SUV.  How had it come here, in the middle of pristine Khovsgol?  As we drew nearer, we saw the answer.  A new gravel road ended at this spot.  We were still a day and a half from Khatgal, and we were already cursed with this scar.

It was Saturday, and over the next day we saw car after car, spilling out drunken Mongolian party after party.  Disco blared, men and women sang off-key, trash lay scattered everywhere, bodies lay passed out alongside the road.  And then, something even worse.  We ran into a large ranch of garish bright orange gers.  They were on poured concrete foundations, which when you think about it defeats the whole purpose of having a mobile ger.  A sign welcomed tourists in English: “Khovsgol Tourist Ger Camp Number 2!”  Immediately following this lay another camp.  And beyond, another.  I looked down the shore-line, and realized with despair that tourist ger camps were packed nose to elbow as far as the eye could see.

The forests had been cut down.  The painted meadows had been grazed to oblivion by herds of yak and sheep or been covered in tire tracks.  Cars kicked up clouds of dust as they carried their payloads of tourists back and forth to the lake.  Toroo and I plodded alongside the road, slowly, wearily.  We were an anachronism at this modern circus.  Mongolians stared at us as they gunned past.  One van of weekenders pulled up and started pointing and staring at me like I was an escaped hairy monkey.  Fortunately I have plenty of practice being an escaped hairy monkey.  They began asking questions to Toroo.  He replied “Amerikh.”  They “ooh’ed” and took pictures of the monkey and drove off.

Horses were not needed here.  Where there are roads, cars rule the earth.  Horses must scatter off to the side and choke on the dust, their eyes wild with fear.

My trek was over.  Now, we were just trying to get off the ride.

Saying goodbye to Khovsgol and Toroo's family before heading back to the city

Monday, September 5, 2011

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Three Manly Sports

Large men in tights
The Rush of Combat

Coming soon to a nightclub near you
I stared up nervously at the huge tree trunks stomping by.  The bottom of each pair of trees was adorned with garishly painted leather boots, the toes curling up like a gnome.  Where the trunks merged a bright blue, red, or sometimes pink Mongolian speedo was camped out, smuggling berries.  Above: thick muscles, no neck, and the fat mean-looking head of a fighter.

These were the Mongol wrestlers of Nadaam.  And one of these oxen would be my opponent.  In Mongolian wrestling, there are no weight classes and some of these guys were pushing 250 pounds.  I slapped my forehead.

The parade of beef in speedos wearing spiky hats was only part of the opening ceremony for Nadaam, the biggest festival in Mongolia.  I had ridden 5 days on horseback to reach the town of Renchilkhumbe in time for this event.  I could have watched the massive one in UB held in a huge stadium, but the thought of being bussed in, frisked by security, and standing nose to elbow in a mob hundreds of feet from the action didn’t sound like fun.

Parade of treasured white horses
Instead, I was in this remote town, part of a small colorful crowd of locals doing their own version of Nadaam.  When the wrestlers stomped by within a foot of my camera, I knew I had made the right decision.  A parade of treasured white horses circled the little infield, the lead rider holding up my new favorite banner, the unique flag of Mongolia.

And then, the “music” started.  Mongolians, like the Chinese, love the sound of a woman screeching like a starved feral cat.  This of course is put to Soviet-style military anthems, which seem to be recorded on 8-tracks from 1964.  The static-filled screeching was abruptly halted in mid-song for a dance number.  Little kids rushed out in an odd-lots assortment of white shirts and red shorts.  Then, incredibly, Wonder Girls came on, with their one-hit wonder "Nobody".  The youngest kids in front tried their best to imitate a 2nd-grade play where everyone just bumbles around on stage randomly.  It was cute and hilarious, especially with the Wonder Girls singing about how there was Nobody but You.

Nobody but you

After some more “singing” from a lady dressed all in fancy white, who was apparently representing the reindeer people, the flag was hoisted.  Comically, it only made it halfway up the pole.  Apparently the rope didn’t reach the top, but no one seemed to mind.  The flag at half-mast was a perfect symbol for the chaotic and colorful feel of this small-town party.

"Put your left foot in and you shake it all around ..."
The first event was Round 1 of the wrestling so I had no time to contemplate my stupidity.  The event begins with the biggest oxen heading out into the ring.  There is an awesome amount of ritual leading up to the actual match, which is almost anticlimactic in comparison.  First, the men run out to the referees / coaches / guardians.  These refs are dressed in long ceremonial deels of either red or blue.  The combatants walk back and forth three times, holding onto the ref, and then they bow down as the ref removes their spikey hat.  Next, the men all run up to an ovoo-thing covered in flags.  This is where the good part begins.  The men slap their thighs, then their ass, and their thighs once again to show how macho they are.  But immediately after, they run around like chickens flapping their arms!  It is supposed to be the graceful Eagle dance, but when you see a 240 pound man in pink underwear running around flapping his arms Eagle isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

Lastly, they return to the ref.  And then they just start wrestling.  There isn’t any signal or anything, they just grab each other and go.  It’s all very informal.

The big dogs, as the finalists from the previous year, get a first-round “bye” in the form of a kid.  These kids try their best, but the kahunas kind of just pick them up and drop them down.  In Mongolian wrestling, as soon as someone touches a knee, butt, or back, the match is over.

This ceremonial first round went on for a bit, and I was looking forward to actually wrestling a kid to warm-up.  At least I wouldn’t break my neck right away.  Soon enough Guy, the Israeli who had entered with me, was called up on the loudspeaker.  His opponent lined up across the way.  But it wasn’t any kid.  It was full-grown Mongolian, complete with tough weather-beaten face and bright red underwear.  I saw Guy’s expression change just a bit.  When his turn came he ran out and did his ass-slaps and hilariously attempted an eagle dance.  The crowd laughed appreciatively.  Then he lined up to his guy and was promptly tossed to the ground.  He came up limping and smiling, got his ceremonial ass-slap from the winner, and wandered back over.

“Didn’t last too long,” he said sheepishly.

“Well your ass-slaps and eagle dance were spot on.  Must’ve been the lack of bright underwear that jinxed it,” I replied.

“Couldn’t have been the wrestling…?”

“No way, dude.  That’s much less important than a good ass-slap during your pre-game!”

Awaiting my fate
I waited, and waited.  Then my name came up.  A cute guide who spoke a little English had adopted me at this point and ushered me over to the “Red” side.  I looked across at my blue opponent, he was a wiry tough-looking guy in pink underwear, but wasn’t too big.  I decided I could take him; after all, I had done a bit of wrestling growing up.  But before I could run out to do my ass-slaps and eagle dance, another huge wrestler pushed in ahead of me.  I was confused.  Was it really my turn?  When the other wrestlers ran out, I ran out.  They did the ass slaps and eagle dance, I stood there looking stupid.  Then the pink underwear guy came over and assumed a wrestling stance in front of me.  This was my opponent.

I was crushed.  I had missed the whole pre-game ritual.  I hadn’t slapped my ass or eagled danced or anything!!  Stupid fat wrestler who cut in front and threw me off!  It was a bad omen.

Pink underwear beware
But I was ready to go.  I charged and put him in a head-lock right off the bat.  He fell backwards and almost stumbled, then as he pushed back I knew what to do.  I ducked his left arm and chucked it over me, then reached for his heel for a trip.  He started falling and was toast, we both knew it.  But as I was tossing him to the ground, the refs came over and stopped the match.  They announced him as the winner.  That was when I noticed my knee was touching.  And that was that.

Walk of shame
When I got off, the guide came over and confided, “He was really scared of you.  You did good!  The crowd was impressed.”  Judging from the reaction Guy and I got, the crowd probably would have loved watching a foreigner spice things up a bit.  After all, there was no way I could beat out any of the big guys and we wouldn’t have ruined the party.

But at least I had wrestled in an official Nadaam match, and had even held my own a bit.  I suppose not everyone can claim that.

Survivor: Horse Episode

The ball of dust at the end of the horizon imperceptibly grew closer.  I squinted, and thought maybe I could make out a few horses.  But they were only trees.  After a few minutes, more and more people started joining me at the finish.  Then the trickle became a flood, motorbikes and people on horseback all began cruising over to watch the horse race finale.  I had a great spot right at the line, and my mob-training in China was paying off: I held firm as kids, women and drunken men tried to squeeze in around and under me.

Coming home

The ball of dust grew closer and closer.  Finally, individual riders could be seen galloping along the plain.  There was a pack of 3 riders out front; one of them would be the winner.  They whipped their horses mercilessly, but the horses were well past the point of any jockey whip making a difference.  They were running on sheer fear and adrenalin, and only the strongest would win.

These horses had started an hour ago, and had been galloping non-stop for 15 kilometers!  Mongolian horse-racing was absolutely nothing like horse-racing in the west.  Out here, it was survival of the fittest.  And I use the word ‘survival’ quite seriously.  Some horses come in without a rider.  Some cross the finish line and collapse and die immediately.  As the horses grew closer, one notices a few surprising details.  The horses look quite young.  In this particular race, the horses were 1-year olds, just mature enough to have been broken in for riding.  And atop them, bouncing along without any saddle, are 12-year old boys.  If a jockey falls and breaks an arm or a neck (which apparently happens every year), it’s a little kid.

Marathon winners
As the horses approached, the crowd started cheering louder and louder.  Finally, one of the 3 leaders pulled ahead at the last minute and crossed the finish line.  The crowd yelled and whistled and "choo choo'ed".  The little horses were drenched in sweat, eyes wild, the kid riders’ faces sunburned and covered in dust.  Instantly, men near the finish line caught up to the race-horses and ran alongside them to calm them down.  The race-horses at this point are so frantic that I guess it takes quite a long time to get them to walk normally.

Race-horsing takes only a close 2nd to the wrestling in terms of prestige at Nadaam.  If a horse finishes without a jockey it can still win.  At the awards ceremony, the medals don’t go around the poor jockey, they go around the horse!

Khoshers and Kholkog

Whole Hog
At a ball-park in the USA, one knows exactly what to do when hunger strikes.  One walks down to the concession stand and orders $8 nachos with yellow glue (cheese) and a $5 hot-dog.  At Nadaam, it actually isn’t all that different.  One just walks into a ger and orders khoshers.  Khoshers are pretty much like tacos without any cheese or vegetables or hot sauce.  You know, stuff that isn’t one of the 3 Mongolian food groups.  Basically the women of the ger take some dough, add in some yak (beef if you are lucky), then fold it over on itself and drop it in boiling oil.  Three of these will fill you up, and will set you back 1 or 2 dollars at most.  I found myself drowning them in ketchup in order to get a few drops of Vitamin C, but the locals frown on that “vegetable-stuff.”

Me Eat Meat!
Kholkhog, on the other hand, is one of the greatest things on earth.  My Israeli friend Guy and I ordered a sheep kholkhog and were told it would take 6 hours.  We said no problem.  6 hours later, we came back and were told it would take 2 more hours.  Since it was Mongolia, this meant they were on-time so we were pleased to hear it.  3 hours later we returned and were told it was just about ready, we should stick around.
Kholkhog is pronounced just like “whole-hog.”  And that is pretty much what it is.  Basically, they take a sheep carcass, and replace the stomach and intestines with hot volcanic stones and chuck in into a cauldron for most of the day.  The heat from the stones cooks the meat and the cauldron keeps in all the juices.  At a fancy restaurant they might add exotica like onions and peppers, but at [Loogie]-thoomp it was pretty much just meat and rocks and sheep-juice.

Finally it was ready and they hauled out the pot onto our picnic table.  There were certainly no forks or napkins or anything un-macho like that.  Instead, they passed out some huge knives and told us to dig in.  Guy and I looked at each other and laughed.  We each picked up a huge chunk of sheep, me a leg and haunch and Guy a rib-cage.  Between my teeth, hands, and the knife, I managed to pull off huge chunks of meat from the bones.  Despite the occasional teeth-snapping bits of rock, it tasted awesome.

With meat juice spilling all over my beard and face and knife-sword spearing a thigh, I announced, “Nemo like meat!  Nemo eat.  Bwah hahaha!!!!”
Sunset riders