Finding Nemo

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Part I

The Saga of Nemo and His Not-Quite-So-Loyal Steed, Fighting Crime Together in the Wilderness

(Just kidding we didn't fight any crime, but that would have been totally awesome)

NOTE 1: Apologize for lack of pics... they are lost forever. *sob*
NOTE 2: This story will be posted in parts over the next couple weeks ... keep checking back for titillating updates!!

Abandon Hope

Part I: Peering into Darkness

So here I am. Alone. In the middle of Where-the-hell?, Mongolia.Well, its actually northern Terelj, and its safe to say I am at the last outpost of civilization. I am sitting on the lawn of the Hotel with No Name, of which I seem to be the only customer, staring across the grass at a chestnut brown horse. This unwitting soul will be my partner in crime this week. Beyond this hotel are wild uncaring mountains, impenetrable swamps likely filled with buzzing blood-suckers, raging rivers and muddy streams to cross, and the Great Unknown. I faced some of this before only a week ago, but that time I had a guide. And I still almost lost my fingertips. This time, I only have a compass, a set of carefully taped topographic maps, and a vague feeling that can be described most poetically as "what the f---".

Fear and excitement are the two primary emotions contesting for my brain's attention, mixed in with the surprisingly sudden need to go to the toilet. Also, somewhere in there is a niggling feeling that can only be called Dread. Because, it turns out, I may have lost my passport. Since my passport has an irreplaceable onward visa to Russia, this would turn out to be event of such catastrophic proportions that its best not to really think about it. Thus, at the moment it remains only a distant odd buzzing sensation. Or perhaps that is the small squadron of horseflies that has decided to join the expedition.

Tomorrow, for better or worse or probably much much worse, I will head into the wilderness with my horse. Yes, I said my horse. You didn't think I would do it, did you? Actually I too find myself constantly surprised to be staring at this animal I purchased. He looks even more surprised than me at the whole concept. Luckily, he doesn't know yet that I am a complete imbecile when it comes to horses, or he would probably be gnawing off his halter in terror.

Part II: Horse Torture Devices

I'm fairly certain I look just like Alexander here when I ride up
The first task after purchasing a horse and associated gear (which is itself a fairly interesting tale I will get to in a moment) is coming up with a name. Every famous mount in history has had an appropriately grand moniker. Alexander the Great rode Bucephalus, Zorro rode Toronado, and on my last trip to Baja I drove the legendary El Burrito. (What, you haven't heard of El Burrito?!)

Before introducing his name, I must give a little background. You see, I didn't ride my horse to this frontier village from the breeder's ranch. I rode in a truck. Which means that my horse had to be loaded up into a horribly-designed torture cage with wheels. You may have passed by one of these contraptions on the freeway and idly thought, hmmm, wow, those horses look pretty comfy. Perhaps you might even think they have a flat-screen in the front and are contentedly watching The Black Stallion, and were so eager to get on board they just leaped in on their own.

In Mongolia, it turns out things don't work quite this way.

In Mongolia, horses ride around on flat-bed tow-trucks designed for cars
First of all, the trailer is on wheels, which means that it is about 3 feet off the ground. How does one get a horse, which can spook at things you cannot even hear, to leave the firm comfortable earth it knows and loves and jump into a steel cage? Excellent question. In Mongolia, the solution is to back the trailer up next to a steep hill. Then, one person whom the horse knows and trusts pulls the horse down the hill into the trailer, while another man gets out the whip and cracks a few on the horse's rump. The person who is leading the horse, who is at this point trapped inside with a large terrified animal, then prays to the local deity that they will not be bitten, crushed, or pooped on in the process.

The previous owner of the horse was not with us when the trailer arrived so I was a little mystified who would be picked to pull the horse in. I mean, the horse didn't know any of us, and we could tell he was already starting to get those wide eyes that say, "don't even think about it dude." Mendee, my local fixer, stared at me and pointed to the trailer. "You will go. It is your horse now." Gulp. I gave him a "Ha ha you are so funny Mendee! You really had me there buddy!" look. He didn't smile back. Ruh roh. A leaden feeling started to rise in my legs, and it was at that moment that the reality of owning a horse finally hit me. For the first time in this whole fiasco, I would have to start taking charge of an animal I knew less about than the 37 mysterious ingredients of a Twinkie.

Doesn't sodium acid pyrophospate sound like an explosive? 
I grabbed the lead rope gingerly with two fingers like it was a deadly snake. After a few seconds of hesitation, I again looked hopefully over at Mendee. The only time I saw a look of more disgust was when as a boy I was eating spilled candy off the dirty floor of a Kroger's and looked up to see a horrified mother with her baby. (Checking the floor around Kroger's candy vending machines was one of the true pleasures of my formative years.) I dutifully began tugging at the rope, leading my horse with no name to his fate. Of course, even with the genius plan of backing the truck onto a hill there was still a sizable 2 foot gap between the earth and the metal floor of the flatbed. The horse balked. I climbed onto the truck bed and pulled harder. But, as anyone knows who has ever worked with horses, they happen to be ridiculously stronger than wimpy humans. If they really don't want to do something, well, good luck. The horse leaned back and looked at me like I was stupid. Mendee got out the whip, and, my eyes nearly closed, bracing for impact, I watched as he gave a little crack. The horse lifted up his front legs, threatening to rear and yank me off the ground while letting out a terrifying neigh.

My general reaction to horse screaming
I had taken a crash-course in horse-riding before I left. So I thought I knew my horse noises. But to my disbelief, when a horse wants to, it can scream. And when it does it in your face, it is unnerving. Before I could think, Mendee gave a harder crack of the whip. Suddenly the horse leapt up with its front legs, slipped madly on the slick metal, and crashed down on its shins on the tail of the truck, then slid back off the truck. Frantic, it tried to pull free. I leaned back with all my weight, Mendee gave another whip, and then it leapt up again screaming in terror. This time as its front hooves slid around it jumped up with the back legs, landed on its chest, scrambled around, managed to get up, nearly slid back off, then was aboard. I tightened my grip, pulled up the slack in the lead, and walked the sweating horse forward to the front of the bed. His eyes were wide in panic, legs shivering.

We did a damage assessment. No one was hurt. Most importantly, perhaps, the horse didn't seem to break anything during that horrible fall onto its shins.

At this point, I mostly just held the horse while the truck driver came up and secured it. This involved tying a thick rubber band across the back, holding the horse's rear in place and preventing it from falling out. Then, the head was secured high by shortening the lead to only a few inches, and hitching it to a bar across the top of the cab. I mostly just sat there making soft "woah" noises to the horse (which probably means "roll over!" in Mongolian) and petting the shoulder in an effort to calm it down. This complete, we got off the truck.

The first meeting of my new crime partner had gotten off to a very rocky start. He barely knew me and now I was associated with banging his shins on metal, getting whipped in the ass, and being generally scared to death.

Not pictured: hoof in face security system. Like all car security systems, its easy to accidentally trigger
The drive was better. But with nothing on the floor of the truck, every once in awhile the horse would slip around. I looked out the back window, and right there was the horse staring back at me. When we looked at each other he seemed to calm down a bit, as if happy to not be forgotten. After a long slow drive through the countryside, we arrived at Terelj national park, a popular tourist ger camp close to Ulaanbaatar. But this developed area wasn't what I was looking for. I needed something wilder. So we drove through the park, passing tourists posing with 2-humped camels, getting photos with the enormous hunting eagles, and the helmeted clueless bouncing around on supervised horse rides. At first I felt smug, but as the safe fun park passed and we headed further afield, it was soon replaced with something else: an uneasy sense of loneliness. I was, after all was said and done, also just another rich tourist passing through this poor beautiful country. Now I was leaving my tribe behind. As Moses once said, I had become a stranger in a strange land.

Ger Camp in the granite hills of Terelj
And Terelj is beautiful. A scenic river, the Tuul Gol, flows through gorgeous green fields broken up by large granite hills. Huge boulders lie at the foot of the cliffs, some taking on interesting formations such as Turtle Rock.

We passed through it all, leaving behind the fake tourist gers with their concrete foundations, road-side vendors selling souvenir schlock, and grandmongol mommas hawking mare's milk. We went up over a high pass, the little Korean truck struggling mightily, and finally descended into the little frontier outpost of Terelj village.

Iconic turtle rock
Here, the unkown awaited.

Part III: Making friends

We rolled up into the town, looking for a place that might be friendly to a random foreign invader. First we stopped in at the little market. There was a parking lot with two spaces. More interestingly, there were six hitching posts. In other words, they expected more customers by hoof than wheel. This raised my spirits--we were in the right place.

Horse parking
My driver spoke no English, I spoke no Mongolian, and so armed we confidently walked into the store to ask directions. I will say, after spending 6 weeks in China a man can get pretty good at the universal language of hand signals. Asking for a hotel is easily done by pointing at yourself, and then putting your hands together and leaning your head against them. Asking for food is done by making a shoveling motion with your hands into your mouth, which is pretty much how I eat anyway. Drinks are simple: tilt back your head and hold an imaginary bottle. And asking for the toilet is, well, trust me they usually get the message immediately when I make the signal. (Of course, there was that one time in Malaysia where I didn't quite have the hang of it yet. After looking at me grabbing myself, the store owner picked up the phone and I heard something that sounded like "police".)

The owner pointed back the way we came and spoke Klingon with my driver for a few moments. He listened and then nodded and said something like HIja' (this is actually the real Klingon word for "yes".) After picking up a few supplies for my trip, we rode back up the hill the way we came and soon arrived at a pleasantly run-down hotel sprawled on an overgrown field. It looked clean, cheap, and built for Mongolians. Perfect.

We parked the truck and walked inside, and my prayers were answered. The hotel owner spoke English, and when I informed him of my plan to ride off "north somewhere," he took a long look at me, shook his head, sighed, and then said I could camp on the lawn for $5. And even better, he even said I could keep the horse inside the grounds so it wouldn't be stolen. Now, keeping a horse inside the grounds of a hotel was quite a gracious move on his part, because horses tend to eat a lot of grass, and then that grass tends to come out the other end. A lot. I thanked him profusely, I couldn't have had better luck to start things off.

Lucky owner. My horse's back-side seemed to be open 24/7
Woo-hoo!! I had a safe place to camp the first night, and even had a local to ask questions about the trip.

Next, we unloaded the horse without any terrible mishap (they are pretty happy to be led out of the trailer it turns out) and I even managed to tie him up to the fence with a decent hitch knot. My half-baked horse boot camp up north was already paying off. My driver looked me over and frowned, waved goodbye, and drove off. It was getting dark and cold. I looked at the horse. He softly whinnied, "What now, boss?"

I only replied, "Sorry buddy, I don't know."

Sadly, I was starting to convince myself I could speak horse.

Now we were truly alone.


Which brings me to the present moment, writing in my new cheap Chinese Oh-Lord-Please-be-Waterproof-I'll-Do-Anything-Please-Please tent I bought in the Ulaanbaatar black market.

Outside, I hear him munching away. He seems OK, remarkably, considering the day's trauma.

I take a final look at the gear. Maps, water tablets, a small stock of food, knife, saddle and ropes, headlamp. It makes such a small pile.

Tomorrow we leave mankind.

Interactive Map of Alone on the Steppe:

View Alone on the Steppe in a larger map


Part I: Who's the Boss?

Its midnight. And someone outside is screaming. I bolt upright, peer out my tent with my headlamp. In the distance I notice a single eye shining back at me. It is my horse, and he screams again. Well, perhaps screaming is the wrong word because it tends to evoke a human noise. But if a horse could scream, this is what it would sound like. It is a high-pitched, nervous whinny. And it is very loud. I cringe, thinking of the extremely generous hotel owner, how he let me camp on his property, how he let my horse eat his grass and crap on his lawn. And now I am repaying him by awaking all 3 of his other guests. I get up, grab my horse-brush, run a few steps, and then stop myself. It's better if I walk over carefully. He still hasn't decided if I am a threat or friend I suspect, and I don't want to get bitten or kicked on the first day of my trip.

The rare crazy chicken horse. I admit, this has nothing to do with my story
He has every right to scream, I suppose. After all, 2 days ago he was happily wandering around on the ranch where he was born and raised, surrounded by friends and family, dreaming of that hot young filly across the yard. Then I showed up, yanked him to a new ranch, whipped him up into a metal box, drove a world away, and dumped him alone and scared on what might as well have been the moon. His screams for family and friends back home were unanswered, and the only person he knew was the clueless chump writing this diary.

I turn off the headlamp when I get closer to not blind him, letting my eyes adjust. And then, carefully, I walk up and look him over. His ears are forward, his eyes watch me closely. Not mad, but not relaxed. Of course, this is a wild guess, I really can't speak horse yet. I carefully pet his left side. He lets me. I get the brush and begin brushing his flank, then legs, and very carefully walk around to the other side. Horses generally don't like people on their right side. It makes them nervous. You approach, put on the tack, mount, dismount, remove the tack, and walk away from the left side. That's how its done, and that's what the horse knows and expects. Even walking over from the left to right side of a horse must be done cautiously and using soft noises to let the horse know what you are doing.

Blissfully happy or ... plotting evil?!
I finish brushing his other side, then inspect him. He looks ok I suppose, but I really don't know. Reading a horse's mood is a black hole to me. I'd be better at guessing what the Mona Lisa is thinking. (Clearly she is bemused by the crowd of 50 people stomping and shoving each other out of the way to take a picture which will inevitably be obscured by the glare off the bulletproof glass, tilted 20 degrees, and have a smiling Japanese head in the corner throwing up their mandatory peace-sign.) There are experienced horse wranglers out there that can take one look and instantly know if a horse is hungry or excited or tired or pregnant or are thinking of investing in AAPL. I usually wait until it pees or poops and then knowingly remark, "That one looks a little lighter on its feet." For some reason this hasn't gained me much ranch-cred yet.

I look around and notice that most of the grass within reach of his rope has been munched. Hmm. Perhaps he's just hungry! I unhitch him, and then try to lead him to a new batch of grass. He steps on the rope which I have carelessly not coiled up and almost trips. I walk over, then push him a little to get his foot off the rope. He doesn't budge. I push harder. Then, he picks up his hoof and steps on my foot.

Horse psychology
Katarina can also whisper to reindeer
Doh! Now, luckily, thanks to an enlightened girl I met, I knew exactly what the horse was doing. It was all psychological warfare. First of all, I knew it wasn't an accident. If horses know anything, they know where they are stepping. He had stomped my foot on purpose. But, he hadn't intended to really hurt me. He was just testing to see who was the leader of our little gang. Like all pack animals, horses are very hierarchical. There is an alpha, a beta, and so on, until you get to the gimpy old horse whose days until the glue factory are numbered. (This horse always seems to be named Pokey or Dumpy.) The only reason I knew any of this was during my previous horse trek up north I happened to run into the Horse Whisperer. Her name was Katarina, and she was cute, blond, freshly sunburned, and happily disheveled in a cool bohemian way. She surely had a story to tell.

I was sitting over at the next table in the hostel, when I overhead "You bought your own horse?" from an incredulous man. A little bolt of excitement hit me. This girl, obviously traveling alone, had already accomplished the very thing that I was still scared to do. I looked again. She seemed to be radiating a halo of power. Perhaps she was a horse goddess. Or perhaps I had just put too much hot sauce onto my spaghetti and was hallucinating.

As soon as the other man left, I found myself getting up, walking over, and sitting down across from her without quite realizing what was happening.

My mouth started talking.

"Um, hi. Hey. Yeah."

"Hello." She had some kind of lilting European accent I couldn't identify.

Awkward pause.

"Yeah. Um, sorry to bother you, but I thought I overhead that you bought your own horse? Is that true?"

"Yes. Actually I bought two horses."

I tilted my head and looked her over again. Who was this wild child traveling alone in northern Mongolia?

My lips flapped open. "Wow that's amazing actually I'm hoping to do the same thing this is pretty cool I can't wait to hear your story who are you how did you do it?!!!"

She blinked. But instead of smacking me in the face, she smiled and said, "Well, actually I bought both horses right here in Khatgal. I just spent the last couple weeks riding in the hills northeast of here, and just got back today."

Over some hot coffee, which in this part of the world consists of boiled lake water and powdered Nescafe, she told me her tale.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sitting on a Coke Bottle at 40mph

Aussie: "Wooo! 6th of July mate!" Me: "Sure!"
Here's what not to do after celebrating the 4th of July with 5 Australians and 3 guys named Jim and Jack and Johnny: ride for 2.5 hours in a Russian minibus across mud-covered boulders, with an infant spitting up in your lap while you are simultaneously returning the favor.

Allow me to explain.

Mongols invented passenger air travel by strapping themselves to tiny jets
I had just made the mistake of taking a plane into the town of Moron to avoid a 20 hour bus ride. (Which I found later is well worth avoiding even if it requires selling your first-born son.) The mistake was going anywhere called Moron of course. Because to get from there to my destination of Lake Khatgal (pronounced like <spit up a loogie>-Gal), there was nothing but countryside. I had two interesting options: ride a horse for 4 days, or jump in a Furgan for 2 hours. Since I was going to Khatgal to ride horses for an extended period, it seemed prudent to avoid any unnecessary hind-quarter trauma beforehand.

 RAF-2203, ready for West Coast Customs
A Furgan is an interesting vehicle. Russians introduced many evils to Mongolia, including bad vodka and communism, but the Furgan might rank at the top. It was mass-produced in Soviet factories in the 60's as the RAF-977, and soon replaced with the newer RAF-2203 (which looks like something that must come with factory-installed shag carpeting), but what to do with the thousands of old chummy 977s? Well, the answer can be found in Mexico. Of course, the 977s never ended up in Mexico. But anyone from the US who has been south of the border, and suddenly finds themselves surrounded by rusty 1973 AMC Gremlins, cannot help but go, "Ah hah! This is where they all ended up!"

The same is true of the relationship between Russia and Mongolia.

(Full disclosure: I was forced to drive a 1973 AMC Gremlin to high school, which might partially explain why I'm still single.)

So, I dutifully boarded the 10-passenger vehicle along with 20 other Moronians and found myself sitting on a crate of Coke bottles. It turns out that this particular Furgan had its seats removed for more space, which any clever business-man quickly realized could be utilized for cargo. Thus, the cargo was loaded in rows, and then a crushing mass of unwashed humanity was loaded on top of the cargo. And I was quite happy to sit on a crate of coke bottles, because my unfortunate neighbor was sitting on a cage of 3 live chickens.

Chickens are fascinating animals. If they are clutched by their owners, as I learned in the Philippines, they are amazingly docile animals. During a long bus ride through the hills, I witnessed the owner of one chicken puke repeatedly into a plastic bag, and then a bit on the chicken itself, and the chicken happily absorbed the whole thing without a peep. But woe to those who are forced to sit atop a cage of strange chickens. I have never seen a bigger commotion of flying bird beaks and poo then on that ride to Khatgal, all underneath a poor agonized man's bottom.

Did I mention that it was the day after the 4th of July, that great American holiday that I discovered no one outside of the US knows anything about? My best new Australian friends that I will never see again treated me to quite a party, and I was feeling similar to a stir-fried cow patty.

I tried my best to look out the window, but that was difficult since my face was obscured by the very large matron in front of me holding a pair of squealing Mongolettes. Something began rumbling in my stomach, and my brain began to slosh around in my skull. After the Furgan bounced over each boulder, I was reminded in a traumatic manner that I was, in fact, sitting on a crate of pointy coke bottles. I found if I held onto the arm of the woman next to me, and kind of leaned over on one bum-cheek, I avoided any unfortunate, um, pressure points. The woman didn't seem to mind. In fact, perhaps she took this as an attempt at marriage, because soon she decided I was the father of her newborn baby. As she dozed off, the baby in her arms somehow ended up in my lap.

Now, I have only held a baby once in my life, and I'm not sure if it was more terrifying for the baby, me, or the mother. Its still unclear to me if you supposed to hold them by a leg or by the neck like a cat. So, to find a baby Mongolian staring up at me with expectant eyes while its poor mother dozed off against a window was a little shocking.

I had absolutely no idea what to do. I smiled at it. It smiled back. This was a good start. I crossed my eyes and said "Doo doo doo!" It laughed and kept smiling. This was easy. I got cocky and put my finger up my nose and wiggled my ears. The baby suddenly looked terrified and began clawing for its mother. Uh oh. I pulled a little on the mother's arm, which I was already holding onto, and tried to give away my only child. She looked over, smiled at me, and went back to sleep. The baby looked at me excitedly, and then something traumatic happened. It started coughing, and something slimy came out of its mouth. Was it dying!!??? I looked around frantically but everyone else was lolling their heads on sausages or cartons of milk.

Something about the sight of baby puke, and my current condition, triggered a reaction. I felt my stomach start to move in that way that signals it has decided to mutiny and reverse the ship. And I realized I was about to puke on a puking baby.

Well, in the end I managed to hold it all in until the halfway point, where I chucked the baby back into its mother's arms, staggered to a nearby bush, and baptized the beautiful Land of Blue Sky.

Hey, it was my first ever visit to the Mongolian countryside. A man has to leave a legacy somehow.

Mongolian Hell Bus

Another gorgeous bus journey
Buses and I don't like each other.  I've waxed on and on about how I love trains, and how buses ought to be relagated to the dark ages as a medieval torture device.  And I thought I'd endured the lowest forms of bus hell on the ride through the mud in Yunnan, or the Tibetan driver who loved chomping chicken-feet as he plunged off cliffs, or that contagious puking festival on a bus in the Philippines.  But Mongolia has taught me that, as Dante described, hell goes quite deep.  In Mongolia, I found the very bottom of the Abyss and it is inhabited by the Dark Lord Himself.

Excuse me, can you drool a little higher so at least my shirt soaks it up? Sweet
At 3am, on a dark "road" that resembled a backyard moto-cross event, I found myself sandwiched between a Mongol wrestler and a girl.  One had decided that my bony shoulders looked like soft pillows, the other preferred snoring into my chest. Every time the bus bounced, their large heads slammed into me.  How this didn't cause them pain was a Mongolian medical mystery that I find fascinating.  The man ahead of me apparently had a condition that involved methane and sulfur leaking profusely out of various orifices.  The driver was cursing because he was lost, which was understandable because there were at least 5 or 6 mud-tracks going off in all directions in the pitch dark. He enjoyed turning around and reversing direction every 30 minutes or so.

Oh yeah, ... and I had to pee so bad that my vision was turning yellow.  Every time the bus bounced, my bladder squealed in pain. 11 hours in, only 9 more to go.  For the 2nd time in 2 weeks, I felt the overwhelming need to pray.

How had this happened?  After my previous year away, and innumerable bus rides of pain and loathing, I had made a new rule.  No bus rides over 8 hours.  Period.  That was when it was time to suck it up and buy a flight.  But it turns out that in Mongolia flights are priced triple for tourists.  My flight up to Khatgal had cost me nearly $300!!  (Locals paid about $100.)
I took this great pic of a Stupid Tourist paying inflated prices

I have one rule that trumps all other rules: and that is never allow yourself to get totally screwed over just because you are a traveler and not a local.  Every time an ignorant tourist pays 10 times the actual price for a souvenir, a meal, or transportation, it causes two problems.  First, it emboldens the locals to jack up prices even further, and pushes local consumers out of the area.  The result is a tourist desert, where everything becomes artifical, expensive, and local flavor is extinct.  Second, even 2-tiered schemes like this one were problematic:  It forced budget travelers out of the market.  Only deep-pocketed tourists could afford it, and deep-pocketed tourists are those that tend to favor horrible sterile hotels and posh comfort even if it destroys the aesthetic of a place.  It is all part of the Tragedy of the Traveler, and I wanted no part of it.

Thus, I decided to break my rule and take the bus.  Even though it was 20 hours.  Even though I knew there were no real roads.  Even though I knew there was no toilet.  Even though there was the chance I would be sitting on a coke bottle again.  Part of me wondered if I could take it.  After all, I had never done a bus like this.  Maybe it would toughen me up, make me more of a warrior traveler.  I mean, let's face it, the manliest thing I have ever done is eat an evil 20-pound Santa Claus made out of solid chocolate one night at 3am. And even that required the help of 3 much more manly siblings. I started to look forward to the challenge of a 20-hour hell bus.

Russian Furgan: proof that the only reliable 4WD in Mongolia eats grass
Things started well.  Too well.  There are 3 options for country transport in Mongolia.  There are the Furgans: Russian micro-bus coffins with huge mud wheels.  They apparently are the best because they don't bounce around as much as the big buses, but the driver wanted 45,000 Tookirig because I didn't speak Mongolian.  The locals were paying 30,000.  Then there are these deluxe coaches that are fairly new to the scene.  I saw this nice blue coach sitting in the lot in Moron (yes Moron, Mongolia is a real place), but I didn't bother asking the price.  I knew it would be too much.  Then I noticed an old metal school-bus in a separate yard.  It looked cheap.  "Only 25,000 Tookirig, good price my friend."  Perfect!

We got on, my seat was in the very back.  There was no leg-room at all, my knees were popping over the rail in front of me.  Doh.  There was no way I could take 20 hours in this position.  I pointed out my predicament to my smaller Mongolian seat-mates, they let me take the middle.  I couldn't believe it, the middle seat had nothing in front of it.  I stretched my legs out, luxury!  With a smile I realized this might be alright after all.
The bus started up, we started cruising out of town.  Suddenly, right before we hit the open steppe, the bus stopped.  A car pulled up and out came a large Mongol wrestler.  He got on.  I chuckled at the situation, after all, the bus was completely full!  This poor guy would have to stand or sit in the aisle.  That's what you get for being late, my naiz (friend in Klingon, er, Mongolian).

The driver brought the man to the back of the bus, and then, incredibly, motioned for me to scoot over.  I looked around.  There were 5 back seats, all occupied.  If I scooted over, we would all be crushed for the whole trip.  I knew what was going on.  The driver thought because I was a tourist that he could take advantage of me.  I usually don't pick these fights, but this one was too important.  I shook my head and said firmly "No!" in Mongolian.  I motioned that I had paid for this seat, and everyone else had paid.  No way was he taking my seat.  The driver became mad and started yelling at me, I stood my ground and shook my head.  The wrestler looked at us, then abruptly stepped forward and sat his 200 pounds right on my stomach.

The wind was knocked out of me. I gasped for air. The wrestler stared straight ahead.  The driver smiled, then happily turned away, started the bus, and we were off.  I had lost the argument to a new wrestling move: the Mongol butt-blaster.

I had no choice.  Eventually I squeezed over into a contorted position with my legs in the aisle, knees on the rail, ass partly on the middle seat, and elbows in the girl's face next to me.  He wiggled and wedged his ass into the gap with a plop.  Things couldn't get any worse.

But of course, it is never ever wise to even think such a thing.  Anyone who has ever ridden a school-bus knows that the back of the bus moves the most when you hit a bump.  Imagine a pyschopathic Mongolian bus driver fueled on red-bull, screaming along a moto-cross mud track at 70 mph.  At one point, I am pretty sure he tried to a pull a triple-jump.  You know, when the guy on the motorbike hits the first jump, sails over the middle, and then lands on the 3rd.  Except, the school bus didn't quite make it.  As we hit and bounced all of us sailed violently into the air.  Luckily I already had my hand on the roof to brace for impact.  The wrestler wasn't so lucky.  Thump! went his skull.  We all looked at him as he rubbed his noodle, cowering in fear that he might decide to crush one of us. Then, I started laughing. I don't know why. I couldn't help myself, as I watched this big man rub his head in confusion. He stared at me for a moment, and then started laughing too.  We were all in this together after all.

But then something disturbing began to happen.  Each time we went over a little bump, the wrestler subtly pushed his butt against mine.  At first I just took it for a new Mongolian salutation, perhaps this was how he liked to shake hands. Or maybe if I was lucky he was trying to pick me up. But then it dawned on me that it he wasn't doing it to get my number. Slowly but surely, I was being pushed out of the precious middle seat with its leg-room.  He knew what he was doing.  It was a genius move.  I started to push back with my butt on the bumps, but I realized with dismay that the bus was generally riding on the right side of the road, so that the bus was tilted my way.  Gravity was helping him.  It wasn't fair, but he was winning.  Our ass-on-ass war continued for about 20 minutes, but then I was exhausted.  I stopped resisting, and on the next bump, he pushed me clear of the aisle. I had been defeated in Bun Battle.

I brought my knees up in a fetal position, shins pushing against the metal rail in front of me, in pain.  Each bump brought misery.  When I get home, I will recommend travelers to Mongolia bring soccer-style shin-guards.  When I get weird looks, I will just lean forward and say in a low voice, "Trust me."

The girl next to me said in perfect English, "Sorry about all that."  I was a little dumb-founded.  First of all, I was surprised she wasn't mad at me for repeatedly smacking her lips with my elbow.  Second, I couldn't believe she could speak English,  let alone fluently.  It turned out her name was Zara, she had studied medicine in Europe and was coming home to be doctor.  And she wasn't bad looking either.  I explained that the only way we could both be comfortable is if I put my arm around her and she put her head on my chest.  It was either that or I keep knocking her in the face.  She agreed.  Suddenly things were a bit more comfortable, and in particular I noticed with happy surprise that my right hand was resting on something soft, warm, and … bosomy.  I almost started drifting off, despite the bar slamming into my shin-bones and the occasional hang-time when the driver decided to launch the bus into orbit.

But suddenly I woke.  Something was terribly wrong.  It was a smell.  I looked at Zara, and decided it wasn't her.  The wrestler seemed alright too.  No, it was the odd-looking man in front of us.  Something had crawled into his ass and died.  And it was aimed square in my face.  I waited patiently.  The smell didn't fade.  It seemed that the man had somehow achieved a kind of static equilibrium with the steady flow of volcanic gas leaking from his crater.

Then, on the next bump, something pounded into my left shoulder.  It was the wrestler's head.  He had fallen asleep on my bony shoulder.  Each bump sent it banging into me, which not only failed to wake him, but apparently made him so comfortable he began snoring into my ear with a wooden creaking noise.  The circle of death was almost complete.  There was only thing missing.  I began to realize I had to pee.  Very very badly.

It was at this point I made the biggest mistake of the night. I began checking my watch. It said 3:00am. I waited, and dozed, and listened as my bladder made noises similar to that of a clown turning a balloon into a poodle. After what surely must have been an hour, I re-checked my watch. It said 3:05am. I stared at the two black blobs of hair on my shoulders and almost cried tears of pure pee.

Somehow, miraculously, time marches on when we feel that it must have stopped.  The next day we arrived in a downpour.  Soaking wet, sitting on the bus back into town, I realized I had forgotten to get Zara’s number. Goodbye forever soft warm friendly Mongol doctor babe.

Back in the hostel I met a tourist who had made the rookie mistake of taking the deluxe blue coach.  She had arrived hours ago, before the rain, and looked refreshed.  She said it was really nice, the seats quite comfy.  

Still traumatized, brain in a fog, with dry-mouth and bloodshot eyes, I managed to ask her how much it cost.

She had paid 20,000 Tookirig.

5,000 less than me.

But I will say it was almost all worth it, because there is no feeling closer to pure ecstasy than releasing pee from your bladder for 2 solid minutes.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Blog is Back!! Woo-hoo!!!

So faithful blog readers (all 3 of you!), you may have been wondering what the hell happened to the blog. Or more likely, you were too busy watching the Amazingly Gay Wedding of England (full disclosure: I watched the whole 800-hour thing from a tinny TV set under a palm tree in a little island in the Philippines gathered around 40 extended family members. They loved it. It was all very scary.)

The HMS Boozy
The truth is that I had about 30 posts all ready to go, chock full of hilarity, sex, and adventure, when I got my laptop stolen in Croatia off my sailboat. Well, it wasn't exactly a sailboat. I mean, it had sails. But they were never used, mostly because they prevented maximization of tanning zones above deck. The stereo, card table, and on-board beer taps on the other hand were used extensively by all 20 of us. You see, this was really a booze cruise along the Dalmatian coast, and about the only thing I remember is at one point I jumped 20 feet off a stone boardwalk onto a water taxi, splitting my ass-bone into 7 pieces, for nothing more than to impress a girl who had already started making out with someone else.

On average, we "sailed" with about 4 other boats, which meant that on any given night about eighty to a hundred 20-year-olds (and "Resurrection Jesus", yes that was me) stormed each tiny island much like Vikings used to storm random restaurants in the old Capital One commercials. So as you can imagine, it was probably fairly easy for a thief to wait for the Inebriation Armada to arrive to his island, then waltz on-board and start nicking laptops.

I had a foolproof plan to back everything up. You see, I had purchased a stack of 16GB memory sticks that I would store in a separate place from my laptop. Genius, when you think about it. But, unfortunately, this plan required me to actually spend quite a lot of time copying files which I sort of never got around to. The problem turned out to be that I was too busy getting assaulted on Russian dance floors by tall models that said things like "wodka," and getting lost in Polish alleyways with a 2-foot kielbasa in hand instead of a map.

So, on that fateful night in Korcula, I lost it all. And I mean that literally. You see, even if you have only traveled on weekend jaunts to Tahiti, you may have experienced that utter black despair which occurs when you realize you have lost all of your photos.  You may have planned months for that Tahiti trip, and the memories may have been priceless, once-in-a-lifetime moments, and now they are gone except for a few already fading memories between your remaining brain cells.

Crazy Nemo! be very afraid
Now, imagine instead you planned your trip for 5 years, researched 30 books, invested all of your savings, and even quit your job and said goodbye to everyone you've ever known. And then, after taking the greatest photos of your life while galloping alone in stunning Mongolia, or running naked along a crumbling lonely portion of the Great Wall (ok perhaps those photos won't be missed), you realize you will never see any of them again. Ever.

And they can never be re-created.

I spent the night going through all 72 stages of grief. I am ashamed to say in anger I broke some onboard items, in denial I pounded the sides of the boat at 3am until I woke everyone up, and in acceptance I sobbed like a little girl for about 20 minutes. It was too much to take. My whole life up to this point was simply a preparation for this trip, in my frame of mind. And now, everything I had ever worked for was gone forever. At least, that was the sort of dark place I found myself in at the time.

Time is truly a funny thing. It does heal even the deepest wounds. Well, perhaps healing is the wrong word. But, instead of fresh pain, I think its safe to say there is now a scar.

It took me about a week before I could even think to lift my camera. What was the point, if these memories too might be taken from me? Slowly, I found myself clicking the button out of instinct. It took until Turkey a few weeks later before I remembered the pleasure of capturing something wonderful in an image.

The task of re-creating the blog was even more daunting. I had lost weeks of original writing, fresh memories that now I could only vaguely recall. I could never re-create it quite the same. And on top of that, by the time I could bring myself to write again, I found myself 3 months behind, and busy with new input from the sensory overload of the Middle East.

So, you can perhaps begin to understand why, in January 2012, you are finally reading the events of July 2011.

I hope you like it! There are fantastic, aromatic, squishy, and best of all, extremely embarrassing things ahead to enjoy.... happy reading!