Finding Nemo

Friday, November 30, 2012

Alone on the Steppe, Chapter 9

Click to read Chapters 123, 4567, or 8

The Storm

Where o where are you, Barun Gol valley?
Once the French group was long gone and Rocky seemed himself, we got underway again. I used my maps, the compass, and the sun, but could only stare in bewilderment at the numerous small valleys appearing in the northern hills. I was looking for a river, but I knew from my trek in the north that not all rivers have water in them. Any valley could be the right valley. Then, far in the distance, I spotted a line of trees on the plain. The line went north and disappeared around a bend. Water.

At least, that is what I hoped. I descended from my high single track on the hills and returned to the main trail on the valley floor. As we approached the line of trees, a fresh breeze kicked up. A wall of clouds was approaching from the northwest. Boroo. I was cursed. It had not rained once while I stayed in the comfortable hostels of Ulaanbaatar. Yet the moment I got on horseback, rain seemed to attach itself to my left buttock. Hopefully it was still far off, and similar to yesterday’s on-off light drizzle.

We grew closer to the trees, and then finally a stream appeared. The water was translucent, tumbling over smooth stones. On all sides sprouted up lush thick green grass. I glanced at Rocky's mouth to see if he was drooling. We forded the stream and found ourselves on a long thin island. On the far side a much larger stream appeared. Perhaps this was the Barun Gol?!

Pretty much how I eat cookies too
The sun was high overhead; I didn’t need to check my watch to know that it was time for our lunch. I hitched Rocky with a long lead, and before I had even removed his saddle he began ripping off huge chunks of the juicy filet mig-grass. I heard a giggle, and realized it was me. Only a night before, I’d cluelessly tied up Rocky in the middle of a desert. And now we had stumbled upon a horsey candy store. Rocky mawed the grass like the cookie monster. 1 bite, 2, 3, 4, then a quick breath, then 5,6, and finally 7 incredible bites, *rip* *rip* *rip*. After realizing he couldn’t possibly hold anymore he lifted his head and began to munch. Green juice dripped out of his mouth. I thought of Augustus Gloop, the fat kid in Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, face covered in gooey goodies.

Every day I'm just a gloop-a-lin'
I peeled off my deel and used it to make a picnic blanket. Then I settled down, pulled out my big knife (because when you are trekking alone you must have a giant Crocodile Dundee knife), carved open a sardine tin, and ripped off a hunk of bread. Just as I was about to join Rocky in a tasty lunch, a fat drop of water splatted on my nose. Once again, I had miserably failed at pleasing the spirits. Anger flickered briefly, but... after a moment I just relaxed, leaned back and opened my mouth. If you can’t beat ‘em... 

But after a quick mouthful of raindrops, it began to pour. I crawled under a tree, wolfing down food with one hand as I slipped my other arm back into the warm deel. Rocky busily munched away, getting soaked. He seemed to be enjoying the shower. He needed no deel, or boots, or hat. He was supremely adapted to his natural environment  Waterproof. Fast. Strong. Able to eat anywhere, at anytime. How frail and weak was I compared to this magnificent animal.

Hobbes sprung to my mind. His characterization of the primitive, lawless man, who lived in "...continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Of course in the modern world, things were upside-down. It wasn't man who lived in continual fear of violent death, with all our comforts and technologies. It was, and always has been, the prey animal. Just like my horse.

It's a lot different when you meet them outside the zoo
Once, on safari in Africa, the cold reality that we are helpless bags of meat became apparent when I was nearly eaten in my tent by a large wild animal. In the light of the next day, glad to be alive, it occurred to me that even the silly Ostrich, with it's massive 3 inch toe-claw, could easily disembowel me.

Yes, modern man is superior and elevated above the Hobbesian state of the animal. But, ironically, this separation from the earth has made us even weaker and more pathetic than the primitive man Hobbes loathed. Our complete lack of basic survival knowledge, our soft frail bodies, our love of bad Tyler Perry movies. In our quest to elevate and inoculate ourselves against nature, we have become more vulnerable than ever to it.

If things went bad on this trip, if I became lost in the wilderness or snapped my arm or got a serious illness, Rocky would almost certainly outlive me. He was like a duck in water out here. I was more like Donald Duck walking around without any pants.

Big Poppa

By the time everything was buttoned down and ready to go, the drizzle had increased to a solid rain. I got aboard and we began following the river north. The sky grew dark, and then the dam burst. Water deluged me as if I was standing under a waterfall. I could hardly see where I was going. I hunched over in my saddle against the driving wind, hat drooping over my head, body drooping over my horse. I had purchased my deel because I wanted to look cool. You know, like a “Mongol.” Little did I know how glad I would be of my vanity at this moment. The long sleeves of the deel enveloped my rein hand and protected it. The overlapping folds prevented the wind and water from penetrating, and sent the rain down over my boots and off my body.

Most important by far, my underwear seemed to be staying dry. It was a simple design. And it worked.

Then, between curtains of rain, I saw a shadow ahead. As we grew closer it emerged: a run-down barn. Faded flecks of red paint adorned the walls, rusted broken aluminum sheets served as a roof. Next to it a wooden shack, perhaps someone’s house. Whoever lived here had either been gone for a long time or was not doing well. They would not be happy to see strangers. I contemplated breaking into the barn to get out of the rain, but the place was spooky. I pressed on, unsure, following the rising creek north.

After another half hour in this downpour, my thin tourist deel had finally succumbed. I was soaked through to my shirt, pants, and yes, I realized even my underwear was beginning to get wet. It wasn’t the coldest day, but even so my hands were going numb. I switched the reins from right to left to warm them up as best I could.

Ahead, more shadows emerged. A camp of gers, smoke pouring out of the top of the central one. After spending more than a few nights camped inside them, I had come to appreciate the design of the ger. They were much more spacious than a teepee, with their walled circular design on the bottom. And they could be amazingly warm inside due to the heaps of valuable felt insulation between the outside skin and structure. In the center there would be a wood-fired stove radiating heat to the occupants, and atop the stove a cauldron of the most horrible drink in the world: disgusting yak-butter “tea.”

I rode up to the dilapidated fence marking the camp boundary, and hitched Rocky to one of the few solid pieces. And then stood, nervous, hesitant. Who was inside that ger? Would they be scared of a filthy bearded foreigner? Worse, would they be thieves?

I thought of the rancher from the morning, how he had seemed to bid me good luck. And the happy faces of the children at the shrine. And of course, the incredibly helpful hotel owner who had let Rocky poop all over the place.

So I strode up the ger and knocked on the brightly painted orange door. Tap tap. And waited. Shuffling and low voices. I waited another moment, feeling the strong urge to do some aimless whistling. Then, the door creaked open and a small face peered out, eyes wide.

I greeted them, “Hello? Sain bain uu?”

The little face ogled back, then disappeared and the door shut. More shuffling and low voices. Then, the door re-opened and an elderly wrinkled woman appeared. Grand-mongol smiled with toothless gums and held up a hand, indicating that I should wait. Then she bent under the door, shuffled out, and walked off to an adjacent ger. I waited more. The little girl’s face reappeared, this time with her little sister. Their heads were stacked in the gap of the open door like pumpkins at a market. They gawked, and then vanished again.

From the other ger a large man emerged. Big Poppa. He strode over in the rain, grandmongol in tow, followed by two younger boys. Big and strong, he would have made a good wrestler. Yet his face was less tanned and wrinkled than most men of the countryside. His clothes, clean and fresh, were too nice to be that of a rancher.

“Hello,” he said in very good English. “Come inside.” The tone and manner were gentler than the hardened cowboy who had woken me that morning.

Making butter tea over the central furnace
Single-file, we all stooped under the door and entered. The women sat on the right, the boys on the left, Big Poppa sat in the middle. He motioned I sit on his right hand in the place of honor next to the boys. The grandmongol quickly pulled out a hot pot of yak-butter tea and poured a bowl for me. Being offered tsai, or tea, always came first. Smiling and pretending to be grateful about this vile drink was always second.

“Bayarlaa,” I said softly and nodded. Surprisingly, this tea actually looked like… tea. Yes, it was milky, but for once it didn’t have the texture or smell of rancid yak barf. I took a sip, and was shocked to find it actually tasted something like tea. It was warm and invigorating. Before I could take another sip, grandmongol handed me a plate of warm flatbread and sweet curd biscuits. They were delicious. But they weren’t done--next was a cup of strange red berries. I had never been offered these before.

“From forest this morning. Eat! Good,” said Big Poppa. I tossed a small handful in my mouth and chewed. They were marvelous, exploding with flavors of tart cranberry and sweet pomegranate. I savored the experience, not able to remember the last time I had eaten fresh fruit. I often wonder how Mongols do not suffer from scurvy with their diet of meat and milk washed down with more meat and milk. Clearly, I was close to coming down with it myself from the way my body soaked up the berry juice like Pamela Anderson soaks up silicon.

Woo-hoo! Another Pamela Anderson analogy... 
Smiling, I sat back, took another sip of tea, and collected myself in the warm air of the ger. Mongolian hospitality was supposed to be legendary, but after getting robbed in the city and hearing story after story of theft, I had become dubious. Yet this experience had proved the legend was still real. In ancient Greece there was a concept called Xenia (which my tornado-attracting hometown in Ohio was named after). The idea was that strange travelers must be treated well: given food, drink, a place to stay. Because you never knew if that wanderer might be Zeus in disguise. Treat a traveler ill and you invite the gods’ wrath, as Sisyphus famously discovered. (King Sisyphus apparently took pleasure in killing travelers that called upon his city.)

The massive 1974 Xenia F5 tornado. Definitely Zeus' fault.
But this concept is not limited to ancient Greece. It can be found in cultures throughout the world in various forms, from the Bedouins of the Middle East to Pashtuns to Indians and even the Celtics. And here in Mongolia, it was apparently alive and well.

Where did this idea of hospitality come from? Customs often take their authority from gods and myth, but today it's pretty clear that gods and myths come after the fact. There must be a social reason that it exists. In other words, it must somehow benefit the host, even though he is forced to give away some of his limited possessions.

The brief summers in Mongolia were beautiful and pleasant. But the winters could be hell on earth. Temperatures can plummet to -50 deg C (-60 deg F) as the arctic winds rip down from Siberia and snow buries entire valleys. In such conditions, a traveler cannot survive without the generosity of the occasional ger family. Thus, although the host must house the traveler, he is rewarded with news of the world and the knowledge that he himself can travel without fear if needed. The system allows commerce and trade to continue despite the environment-- society as a whole benefits. And it would seem that the harsher the climate, the stronger such a system would be. Thus the Bedouins, for instance.

Perhaps that is why there was such an abundance of petty crime in the city. But not just in Ulaanbaatar. This idea could be extended to any big city in the world. In the city, lengthy, dangerous trips are not required. Not when you have a 7-11 on every corner full of 4-day old hot dogs. Hence, the system of helping one another breaks down. There is no need of it. It was only out here in the remote countryside that the spirit of Xenia was still thriving. It was only here that I would have an encounter such as this one.

Big Poppa spoke. “I am doctor in the city. This is my family.” He spread his hands. “This place is … summer house.”

He paused, and then looked at the boys next to me. “My sons study in England!” This was clearly a proud fact for him, as it should be. I couldn’t imagine the wealth needed for a Mongolian to send his kids to an English boarding school. “Manchester.”

I turned to the boys. “You study in Manchester?”

“Yes. I have been going 2 years,” the eldest said in a perfect London accent. It was beyond odd to hear posh English coming from this rosy-cheeked Mongol kid in the middle of nowhere. Clearly he had a London teacher. A Manchester accent is hard to understand by day, and descends into drunken gibberish at night.

I said the only thing I could think of. “Do you like Manchester United?”

“Oh yeah! They're brilliant,” his eyes shone. “I really like Rooney.” The younger boy nodded his head vigorously. “Rooney!”

The world loves them some Rooney
There are two things that unite the world. The 2nd of these is English football. (I'll get to the first in a moment.) I have found Red Devil jerseys in almost every country I’ve ever been, from Indonesia to Nepal to Tanzania to Guatemala.

Then came a question that I always hear when traveling. “What do you think of our country? Do you like Mongolia?” I responded without the slightest hesitation and spoke from the heart. “You are a very lucky people. Your country is beautiful. I love the green hills, the mountains, the clear blue sky. I love that a person can ride for days on horseback without seeing a fence, that people live in harmony with the land, that a foreigner is welcomed in such a warm manner by people like you.” The boys translated as I spoke, and from their expressions they were pleased with what I said.

“Why are you alone?” burst out the youngest boy. There was a pause, and then I laughed. Soon everyone joined me in laughing. But the question remained. I explained to them that I wanted to see if I could do it. Could I go riding by myself out in the countryside? Could I make fire, protect myself, navigate, take care of the horse, and make it back again? I wanted the challenge of going alone. Big Poppa looked thoughtful. Then he nodded and said, “Hmmp. This is good thing.”

One of the more attractive women, which in Mongolia is a relative term, asked something. The eldest son translated, “She wants to know, are you married, and how many children?”

I looked at her and all the women giggled. “No, I am not married. I have no children.”

They looked shocked by my response. I knew what was coming next.

“Do you have girlfriend?”

“Nope, no girlfriend.”

This seemed to make them dumbfounded. Big doc poppa asked, “Why do you not have wife, girlfriend?” As I have learned, in most cultures outside the West having a wife is actually something of a status symbol. It says you have your stuff together, that you can afford to take care of her. In some places, having two or three is even better. And without exception, in every place I’ve ever been on this planet, having children is considered the greatest blessing in life. A home with piles of manic offspring running around rampant means the gods have favored you highly. Yet here I was, obviously wealthy enough to travel the world, of marrying age, without a wife or spawn. It was unthinkable.

I considered. But instead of explaining how industrializing nations with increased wealth and leisure time when combined with the education of women result in large demographic shifts that delay marriage, I simply said: “America! It is a crazy place.” And threw up my hands.

They all laughed heartily. Making America the butt of a joke never fails. That, my readers, is the first thing that unites all the world.

We made some small talk, the boys asking where I was from, how long I was in Mongolia, where I was headed, and then translating everything to the rest of the family. Which was nice, because then I had time to sneak in a few more delicious biscuits and berries. When they heard I was from California, their eyes widened in wonder. They were extremely disappointed to hear I had not met Pamela Anderson. (I'm honestly not making this up. Baywatch might be the 3rd thing that unites the world.)

Note how the PFDs are well-placed. She naturally floats on her back
Big Poppa interrupted. “You go to Gunjin Suum? I have been.”

This was very exciting news. I was supposed to take a river north away from the Tuul Gol into the mountains, then at some point go left into yet another valley. This was probably supposed to turn back north again. But the guide from Terelj and my friendly hotel owner could not agree on exactly where I was supposed to turn left, which valley was which, or where the monastery was at all. It turns out I really had no clue where the hell I was supposed to go.

This of course had been good enough for me to buy a horse and ride off into the wilderness.

“Ah! Is this river,” I motioned to the river outside along the camp, “is it Barun Bayansuun Gol?” spitting up in my mouth heartily to make myself understood. Apparently that meant Blue Rock River in Klingon.

He pointed where I was headed, and said “Yes, this way.” He thought for a moment, then, “I think … not today. There is big … wet ground.” He made a motion of pulling hard to get his foot off the ground.

“You mean shawaa?! Yes, I have heard of this. In English, we call it swamp.”

“Shawaa, yes. Swaaam. There is much swaam.” He cocked his head at me.

Perfect. This man was confirming my worst fear. A long treacherous swamp would have to be crossed. I looked at the boys and asked them to translate for me as I tried to ask detailed directions. After the obligatory 30 minutes of getting vague answers, I ascertained that I should stay on the main trail when it turned left. Which I already knew. But at least I was headed in the right direction.

The drumming of the rain began to lessen. I peeked outside. It wasn’t quite clearing, but I was anxious to get going and make as much ground as possible. With a strong hearty handshake that lasted five very long seconds, Big Poppa bade me farewell and asked that I stop by on my return. It was a welcome gesture and I said I would be happy to. I wished I had something to offer him in thanks, but he was a rich man and didn’t need simple things like matches or cigarettes. Instead I had the boys translate to everyone that I was very thankful and happy to have met such kind people. The women smiled, grandmongol so much that I got a nice glimpse of her gums again, and they all nodded.

It had been a good visit.

I strode outside into the rain again, reflecting on this land of big sky and even bigger hearts.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Alone on the Steppe, Chapter 8

Click to read Chapters 123, 456, or 7


DAY 3: Camp Wet Leg to Lesbo Junction

The Lone Rancher

Recurring dreams are supposed to mean something. Me no like this one.
I was flapping my arms as hard as I could, flying. But the cloud of volcanic ash was too fast. The rumbling grew louder.

My eyes snapped opened. It was light outside, my watch said 8 am. The rumbling grew louder and abruptly stopped right outside my tent. I tumbled outside in my underwear, half asleep, and looked up. Silhouetted against the sun, a large confident Mongolian atop a large horse stared back down. He wore traditional dress, but it wasn’t the fancy kind. The deel was worn from the sun and rain, his curly-toed boots creased and beaten as his face. Sprawled on the ground half-naked, I watched as my dignity ran off into the bushes.

He dismounted in a fluid motion and surveyed the scene. One small horse munching away, one flimsy Chinese tent, and one muddy, wild-haired bearded white man in his underwear. My fists clenched, and I prepared for the worst.

It looked exactly like this when we shook hands. Really!
He walked up to me, grabbed my hand very firmly, and began to shake it. And shook it some more. And a bit more for good measure. Mongolians will do this. They rarely shake hands in greeting. But if they in any way make you uncomfortable, they will shake your hand until you feel they are about to propose marriage. Or perhaps he thought I would be dead tomorrow and wanted to say (in George Takei voice) “Goodbye white man! Oh myyyy, you're so silly.”

I grabbed the phrase book from my tent, worked up the requisite saliva in my mouth, and then attempted to slurp, “Thank you I sleep land your ranch.” (Mongolian involves choking up and slurping down lots of spit.) Or possibly I said, “Thank you I sleep your sheep tonight.”

His expression went from stoic to puzzled. Quickly, I changed the subject. “Minii ner Nemo,” pointing at myself.

He didn’t smile. “NiiNii Moo-moo.” Good enough. I pointed towards the hill I planned to climb and asked, “Gunjin Sum?” His eyes flashed recognition. “Tiim, blarg blarg slurp blook,” and he raised one finger. Yes, it is a day away. At this news I suddenly perked up. Perhaps I had covered more ground than I realized.

Both realized it was useless to attempt more small talk. I waved goodbye. And then, even though I knew that manly Mongols don’t say thanks to each other unless there is a good reason, I said it. “Bayar-laa.”

He jumped back on his horse, waved to me, then turned and rode off without another word.

Bobbling bonnets
The abrupt encounter had lifted my spirits. For most Mongolians, tourists were clueless herds that hopped straight off their incoming flights and onto pre-arranged guided horse treks, bright blue helmets snugly attached. The locals must chortle at the sight of these bobbling bonnets, bouncing awkwardly as their owners attempt to stay upright. So it must have struck the rancher curious that a tourist would actually try to go it alone. His expression seemed to indicate a touch of respect. Dubious respect, yes, but respect nonetheless. At least that is what I told myself as I merrily packed up camp.

Capturing A Treasure

We headed north, to high ground. Before, the thought of riding on the high plain made me feel naked and exposed. But my brilliant plan of sneaking around in the forest had ended in disaster. We had splooged through hoof-sucking swamps, skidded across rock-filled streams, and been terrified by large horny beasts. And in the end, I’d spent the whole night worrying about thieves anyway!

My feelings towards the locals had warmed after the friendly encounter with the rancher. Upon exiting the forest a broad green plain came into view, good for riding. Above, the unbroken expanse of that indescribable Mongol blue sky. A smile tugged at my lips. Behind was misery. Ahead lay horse-trekking pleasure.

I looked to the left and noticed a smoking set of gers and a fence full of horses. The home of my morning companion. We walked past; I eyed the life of a simple family in a simple country. This was the way of hard work, small reward, constant worry. And yet, it was also the way of strong family, connectedness to the earth, and the deep contentment that comes from manual labor. Suddenly I was a little boy again on the farm in Ohio. Filthy, clothed in ragged hand-me-downs, running happily barefoot over the soft dirt. The dogs ran free chasing squirrels, my brothers and I stalked each other in a cornfield labyrinth. Trees begged to be climbed and creeks beckoned cool relief. We made lemonade from actual lemons, baked pies from fruit picked on the farm. Stifling sweaty evening air would suddenly be flung aside by a stiff cool breeze. Thundering lightning storms crashed and turned night into day. Snuggled in bed, hairs on end, I felt terrified and incredibly alive at the same time.

Ahh, growing up on the farm.
It was an age ago. Today I live in a mega-city where the weather never changes. My feet are encased in shoes; I shuffle atop concrete instead of running in dirt. Tiny dogs are leashed and live in tiny houses, lemonade comes in a can and tastes of chemicals. And the only corn I ever see is a topping on my Chipotle burrito. The old memories of the farm are swathed in light; golden rays cloaking the bad times and gilding the good. As the Mongol farm grew smaller, I thought of its inhabitants. They knew not what they were missing, and perhaps were the better for it.

Ahead lay a parallel set of tracks in the earth. Surprised, I realized it was a road. Or at least, a Mongol version of it. We stepped onto it, and the footing was even better than before. “Chooo!!!” I yelled, kicking poor Rocky in the flanks, and we were off in a trot. This was trekking! Now we were making real time. We rode higher, and I turned around and looked where we had come. Below the forest sprawled into an enormous valley. Off in the distance, the far side rose up into a set of peaks. These then opened again and I realized I was looking at the confluence of the Terelj and mighty Tuul Gol. Where they met was far away. If I had attempted to ride to that point, it would have been another half day of confusing, difficult riding. Instead, I was now on a good road trotting along with a clear view. I had been such an idiot.

We crested the hill and stopped. It was a stupendous view. Both river valleys were visible, stretching out to the horizon. Ahead a short distance lay an ovoo. It was time for my next visit with the spirits. I coaxed Rocky into a run down the gentle slope. What a wonderful feeling it is to have the fresh breeze on your face, the warm sun on your back, your horse gliding along underneath in such a place!

As the ovoo grew closer, I noticed small pink dots bobbing about. I neared and smiling faces appeared, giggling laughter floated towards me on the wind. It was a group of 3 girls playing, probably sisters. They wore bright pink home-made sweaters, their long black hair whipping on the breeze as they ran among the stones playing hide-and-seek. I pulled up and dismounted. When they saw I was a long-haired bearded foreigner, the laughter stopped. The littlest one hid behind a stone bench, the other two huddled against each other. I tied Rocky up the shrine’s hitching post, then walked up with a big smile. And then I did what I always do when I come upon a group of wary strangers in a poor country. I pulled out my camera and took some pictures, but not of them. The girls grew curious. I knelt down and showed them the pictures, and they crowded around with excitement. I motioned that I would take pictures of them. “OK?” I asked. They giggled nervously and then huddled together and smiled. I took a picture and pronounced “Sain!” Good!

They ran over and crowded around as I showed them the picture, and burst out laughing upon seeing themselves, pointing at each other. I knew instantly it was one of those pictures that I would always treasure, something truly unique. The pinks and blacks of the shy girls, faces covered in dirt, posing against the crumbly white of the shrine. The greens and blues of the countryside beyond.

Ko Phi Phi
Once, when I was watching an incredible sunset in Ko Phi Phi, the entire visible sky blazed with the most incredible golds, purples, and pinks I had ever seen. To top it off, it was perfectly reflected in the low-tide lagoon which stretched out to the horizon. Everyone on the beach stood in unison, mouths open in awe. It was a once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece. I dutifully took dozens of pictures, making sure to stop every once in a while to look upon it with my own eyes. Next to me, another backpacker gazed in stillness, with a faint smile on his face. I asked him why he didn’t take a picture.

“Even if I took a picture, my friends back home would never truly understand what it was like.” He tapped his temple with a finger. “This is for me. I will always have it, up here.”

I looked at my camera and felt foolish. I put it away, and together we watched in silence.

Today, when I think of that sunset, at first all I can remember is a faint smear of purples and pinks. So I go to my old pictures on my hard drive, pull it up, and look. And it all floods back. The blazing sky, the people around me, that guy next to me who was desperately trying to photograph it with his brain. The thatched huts, the little blond Swedish boys collecting jellyfish, the crystal clear water.

The picture is very good. Of course, it’s not even close to capturing the experience I had that evening. That moment had raised the hairs on my neck and made me reconsider the existence of a higher power. But without it, all I would have is that faint smear of purple and pink. With it, I can forever re-create that moment in all its clarity.

So today I feel sorry for that backpacker. And when I think of that picture of the smiling girls on that hill next to the shrine, I feel a deep sorrow for myself. Because those pictures are forever lost to a thief in Croatia. All except one:

Me and Rocky, impressing the local girls. Or... not.
Spirits of the Hills

But I didn’t know any of that at the moment. The biggest girl walked over to my horse and looked back at me. I nodded. She patted its side, smiled, and then quickly walked back to her sisters. Then they held hands and began skipping back down the hill to a set of far-away gers smoking along the edge of the forest. I smiled. Another friendly encounter.

Stupa + ovoo from Ottsworld
By myself again, I eyed the shrine. One part was a white-washed pile of rocks topped by a little stupa. A colorful set of blue and yellow swirls ran about the top. This was Buddhist. About 20 yards away stood a teepee-shaped pile of long thick sticks. This was shaman. Here they sat like old friends, chatting away about their contradictory beliefs. Yes, those of us in the West who study Buddhism will say that it is a philosophy, not a religion. Therefore, there is no reason it can’t coexist with another set of beliefs that governs the realm of the dead and the spirits. But in Asia, Buddhism is much more than a philosophy. It is a religion. There are all sorts of magical characters roaming around, from glowing long-haired gurus called boddhisattvas to grisly fanged demons. Walk into any temple in Tibet or Nepal and you will likely come face-to-face with a horrific mandala of human bodies being burned in flames and ripped to pieces by a fanged Mara and her demon dogs. Buddhism governs both life and the afterlife.

Yet, so does Shamanism.

Mara, having a bad hair-full-o-skulls day
Somehow the Mongolians have kept the latter while embracing the former. But, of course, this was nothing new really. Christianity absorbed pagan holidays in Europe such as Easter. Central Americans still celebrate their Day of the Dead as they always have, except that now there are crucifixes and glittery Virgin Mary’s in the parades. How exactly things have melded in Mongolia I won’t pretend to know. All I could tell is that it seemed mostly Buddhist in the city, mostly Shaman in the country. And then there were a few spots like this that either couldn’t make up their mind or decided it was safest to cover all the bases.

I eyed the ovoo nervously. My last visit had been awkward, and afterwards I’d been cursed with a miserable day and night. But today things seemed to be brightening. I simply walked between the two structures, bowed in silence, and thought, “Thank you for this day.” I'll let the boddhisattvas and nature spirits duke it out for that little prayer.

I saddled back up and began to ride again, looking out over the valley of the Tuul Gol. Below lay the broad plain, sprinkled with the occasional smoking ger, then the forest line. Somewhere in there was the river. On the far side rose up another set of mountains, fluffy clouds dotting the ridges. For the next few hours I enjoyed riding upon the high ground, surrounded by pleasant views.

Losing Control

Below on the main trail and just coming into sight I noticed a large caravan of riders, horses, and laden pack-horses. Even from this distance I could hear the jangling of pots and pans as the pack-horses bumped along the trail with their loads. Looking over my map, I realized that at some point I would have to turn left into the mountains, following another stream. But there were many little valleys appearing in the foothills. Would I miss it? I needed directions.

“Choo!” Rocky took off as we ran down the hill towards the group. Now, running a horse downhill was discouraged when I took my horse boot camp back in California. It puts a lot of pressure on the horses’ front legs and they are more likely to stumble. But worse, if they stumble there is a good chance you will be superman’ing (bad metaphor, I know) off head first into a rock. Mongolians, on the other hand, had none of these qualms and ran their horses uphill, downhill, sideways, in circles, and sometimes backwards downhill circles. I couldn’t help myself anyway; it was simply too much fun. I sat up in the stirrups off the horse, shortened the reins, and leaned like a jockey, allowing the horses’ back and head to move freely. Rocky got up to a nice canter, I gave him a good kick and a louder “Choooooo!!!!!” and he took off. We were in a full gallop, flying down the mountain. The awkward up-down motion of the trot-trot-trot was long gone. Now, I was nearly motionless as strong muscles smoothly pushed and pulled beneath me. My ride had transformed from a pottering old farm tractor to a racing machine. My hat flew off, my hair whipped, my eyes began to water, my long beard tugged on my chin. The ground was a blur.

“Wooooo-hoooooo!!!!!” I yelled to the mountains and sky.

Nemo of the Hill-People, in full gallop (self-portrait doodle)
The group below came closer. Then I noticed a few strange things about them. Some wore helmets, some had colorful jackets that looked Western. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was a large tour group, complete with several guides and a half-dozen pack-horses. What on earth were these interlopers doing up here? I had thought I was striking out on my own, into the wild. At that moment it felt like finding a mob of Japanese in matching hats and shirts in the middle of the Amazon.

Disappointed, but needing directions, I rode up to the group. As I approached, I noticed every tourist had their lenses trained on me and were busy snapping pics. I considered my entrance. Here they had been plodding along on their packaged tour, when suddenly a lone Western horseman had come galloping down upon them from the hill, with wild hair and beard, covered in mud and dirt, clothed in traditional Mongol dress. Between snapping pics, they stared at me with what appeared to be wonder. At that moment, I admit I felt pretty damn cool.

I eyed the tour group with amusement. They were far away from any city or town on what they probably thought was a pretty adventurous expedition. But they would never need to worry about thieves, or food, or directions, or gear, or finding water, or figuring out good grass from bad. They didn’t have to know how to hitch a horse to a tree or how to double-check the girth after a few minutes of riding to make sure it hadn’t loosened. In short, they were weekend hikers on a packaged tour with a ridiculous over-abundance of support staff, gear, and porters. They weren’t horseman, they just happened to be atop horses. I realize it was a condescending judgment. After all, they were probably having the trip of their lifetimes and had paid a fat bag of Tookirig to do it. But that was how I felt at the moment. And that is probably how the Mongols viewed almost every tourist. In fact, it occurs to me now, writing this on a train in Sibera, that tourists such as myself are generally judged as privileged, pampered ignoramuses by the locals the world over. So it was with great relish and pride that, for once, I felt like a grizzled travel veteran.

We eyed each other up for a bit and then I asked “Hello! Where are you from?” to one of the tourists. She responded in a thick accent, “We ahhre from Frahnz. Ahnd yoo?”

“California,” which was my standard reply.

If I said “American” I would have to deal with the all the baggage that word brought on the road. Saying “LA” was not a better choice. After all, it was known throughout backpacking circles, rightfully so, as an unpleasant destination. (Endless sprawl, nonexistent public transit, and tacky Hollywood boulevard, anyone?) Thus my response, which invariably resulted in smiles. “California,” you see, was all the good parts. You know, wine, surf, sun, and Pamela Andersons, which everyone in the world knows can be found jiggling on our beaches.

All California beaches come standard with factory boob 12-pack
The Frenchies raised eyebrows and murmured in appreciation. “Ahnd doo yoo live here, with zeez Mongoli-ahns?”

I laughed. “No! No no. I’m just trekking. I’m a tourist.” Rocky stamped his feet, neighed loudly, and tried to walk. I held him in check and shortened the rein. Perhaps he didn’t like strange horses.

They looked confused.

“Ahnd where is your guide?”

I explained to them that this was my horse, that I was trekking alone. They looked incredulous. I felt very cool.

I looked to their guide and asked, “I am heading to Gunjin Sum. Am I headed the right way?” He nodded, then pointed far up the valley.

“This way.”

“And where do I turn North? Where is the river valley?” He looked and pointed the exact same way and said, “This way.”

Snooki in a rare moment of diginity
I was learning that asking detailed directions from a Mongolian was a bit like having Snooki teach Math.
Useless perhaps, but entertaining in a tragic way.

I looked in the distance. Perhaps there was a valley that turned north, perhaps not. And that was all I would get from him.

I said my “Bayarlaa” and prepared to head off, when I noticed Rocky acting very strange. His eyes widened, the nostrils flared, his ears pricked up and then went back. The pack-horses were catching up with the riders. Jangling noises came our way. Then suddenly, without warning, Rocky began walking. Sideways. I tightened the rein even more. “Wooooah….. woooooah…” I coaxed softly. He began to trot in a bizarre sideways manner, lifting his front legs off the ground, nearly bucking, then an ear-splitting psychotic neigh. I could do nothing, he was out of control. And then he began to run sideways.

Not as funny if you are on it at the time
Once, when I was a teenager in high school, I went to my first ever party that had beer. It tasted disgusting, but I forced it down. And then I drank another. My brain buzzed and tingled, it felt fantastic. I felt fantastic! Things wound down and everyone decided to go to the next party. I got behind the wheel of my 1979 baby-puke green Dodge Duster and got on the highway. I was driving fine. And then, for no apparent reason, the left wheels decided to drift onto the grass median. The next moment is forever burned in my brain. The car dropped off the road, down into the median, and shot back up into the opposite lanes. The car spun around once, then twice, wheels squeeling, my brain shocked into blankness. I had lost control. And then it stopped.

My car had to come to rest on the shoulder, perfectly facing the correct direction as if I’d simply pulled over to take a leak. It was late at night, there had been no cars coming the opposite direction or surely I would now be dead. You see, it was 1991 and wearing seat belts was still optional in Ohio, which meant no one wore them. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. But I had never experienced absolute, total terror like that moment. The feeling of losing control, knowing your life is on the line, is a terrible one.

Rocky continued to twist and run in a wild manner, bouncing me on the saddle. I had lost control, my car was sliding beneath me. People became paralyzed, or worse, from horse-riding accidents. I kept the reins back, and desperately tried to stay atop as he ran in that strange, jolting, sideways lope. After a few hundred yards of panic, he abruptly stopped and I nearly flew off. He breathed heavy, sweating. One foot had come out of the stirrup, I had only managed to hang on by grabbing his mane. We were now a good distance up the hill from the pack horses. Slowly, he began to calm down. I stroked his neck and continued to say “Wooooah” in a soft voice. Part of it was to calm him down, part of it was to calm myself.

I had been spared.

My brain began to work again. I looked down at the tourists. They squinted back up at me for a moment, and then they continued on their way. “He zeemed such an interesting man. It iz a shame he is just another stupid American,” I thought I heard them say.

I no longer felt cool. Or like a grizzled travel veteran. I only felt like a lost boy in the middle of nowhere. Lucky to be alive, in spite of myself.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Alone on the Steppe, Chapter 7

Click to read Chapters 123, 45, or 6

Chapter 7: The Grass is Not Always Greener

Tummy filled, I set about getting the nest in order. I spread out the damp sleeping bag and inflated the pillow, but there was nothing that could be done about the fragrant smell of horse-sweat still steaming off the tack. Oddly, however, I found it much less annoying tonight. When I was growing up on a farm in Ohio, the spring brought wonderful smells. Blossoms on the fruit trees, flowers in the forest, and the delightful scent of fresh manure on the fields. Over the years I became accustomed to it. And when you think about it, cows and horses aren’t eating all the disgusting garbage humans put in their mouths. (Did you know that the Twinkie has 37 ingredients? Nom-nommm, Twinkies…) So if all you eat is grass, what comes out the back-end is about as natural as it gets. Perhaps horse-sweat and I were coming to a similar understanding.

Don't worry fat Americans, McDonald's isn't going anywhere
But something was wrong. It was too quiet. I looked up, and realized that for the entire time I had been busy feeding myself, Rocky had just stood there, motionless, tied to his tree. Last night at the hotel he had been busily munching all through the night. What was going on?

As I watched he walked a few feet, pawed the ground, then looked over at me. This was followed by an extremely loud, nervous neigh.

Another scream.

“Hey! Marshmellow brains! You really screwed me over this time.”

And then, incredibly, he sat down. By sitting down, I mean that he lowered himself onto all of his forelegs and dropped his head on the ground. If you ever spend time with horses, you realize that this position is very unusual. Something was definitely wrong. As I walked over he didn't even bother looking up.

My eyes looked him over carefully. He seemed OK enough, but then again I’m about as useful examining a horse as I am translating Egyptian hieroglyphics into Chinese.

Perhaps … well, perhaps he was just depressed. I mean, after all, over the last 3 days he’d been ripped from his family and home and crudely shipped off into the outback, then forced to run around in circles by a doofus. All while being completely overloaded. I had to cheer him up. I retrieved my brush and he dutifully stood back up to receive a little grooming. Afterwards he continued to blankly look at me. Katarina the horse-whisperer had warned me: horses can’t speak. When something is wrong, you must be a detective.

I stared at his nice tree in the middle of his nice clearing full of nice green food. Perhaps a little walk would perk him. I untied him and began leading him around a bit. As soon as we had left the clearing, he leaned forward and grabbed a big bite of grass. Hmm. But it was only a handful of bites and no more. We walked a bit further. Suddenly he took a few more bites. We continued to walk, and on his next snack I noticed something. He was only eating a particular kind of grass. Longer, thicker, and darker green than any of its surroundings, it could only be described as lush. I looked around with new eyes. Most of the “grass” in the area was actually cropped close to the ground and coarse looking. And in the clearing, which I assumed was the horse version of a Vegas-style Grand Buffet, there was not a single blade of the good stuff. Then it hit me: we were on a ranch, where almost all the good grass had been grazed awayAfter his long hard day, I had rewarded Rocky by tying him up in the middle of the desert.

A Horny Night

I bolted upright in the flimsy Chinese tent I’d bought from the black market. Thank Buddha it was actually protecting me the never-ending rain. I pricked my ears like a horse and waited. Then it happened again. *SNAP*. *CRACKLE*. *POP*. What on earth could it be?! I was already sleeping on knife edge, worried sick about horse thieves after realizing I was camping in the middle of a ranch. I remembered Katarina telling me how she had slept between her horses every night. After re-staking Rocky up next to the river’s edge, where the lush green grass he loved grew in abundance, I had moved my camp next to him out of fear.


After some frantic fumbling, I managed to turn on my headlamp. Where the hell was the tent zipper?! Half-asleep, disoriented, I grabbed at the zipper and yanked. It caught on something. Shit, Rocky! I turned over, my sleeping bag wrapped around me like a straightjacket, and managed to rrrrrrrrrrrip down the zipper on the other side. I spilled outside into the dewy night grass, stood up, and flashed the light over in Rocky’s direction.

A solitary eyeball reflected back.

Phew. But it didn’t answer the mystery. After walking over to Rocky and re-staking him to a fresh patch, I returned to the tent.

*POP*. *POP POP*. I turned the headlight onto the tent fabric. Little black dots were banging against the canvas. What the hell? I tumbled back outside and surveyed the scene. Before, half-asleep, I had missed the show. I took a step, and as my foot hit the earth a cloud of crickets exploded outwards. Another step, another explosion. Then I turned my flashlight back around, and noticed the little critters were so eager to hop about that the flung themselves with abandon into my tent.

I exhaled. It wasn’t a horse thief snooping about after all. It actually was turning out to be quite enjoyable walking among the cricket swarm. If I ran fast, the waves of flying insects grew so thick it felt like I was tramping in a cricket river. I hopped around, watching the waves of chirpers ripple outwards. I was their Cricket Overlord, their puppeteer. Flee before me and weep, pitiful insects!!! Bah ha ha ha!!!

See, look at his eyes. He needs his precious!
Growing bored of my new powers, I considered the situation. There were two threats, really. Like the previous night at the hotel, Rocky had enjoyed screaming at random intervals to attract as much attention as possible. This had undoubtedly alerted the nearby ranch to our presence. Horse thievery was common enough, but a creampuff tourist lost in the woods with a horse would be easier to steal from than candy from a sleeping baby drugged on cough syrup. And nobody wants to drug a sleeping baby. I mean, it's already asleep so why waste good cough syrup?

Are You Truly Any Different?

Since getting robbed by the police in Ulaanbaatar (a story I will tell soon), the problem of petty thievery had been knocking around in my brain. In the black market I had watched in disbelief as my friend was pick-pocketed right in front of me (luckily they picked an empty pocket). Every tourist you meet in UB has either been robbed or has a story of someone they met being robbed. It was ubiquitous in the city to the point of absurdity. And the problem extended into the countryside with the stealing of horses. Horses were almost never stolen if you traveled with a local guide, however. It was the solitary Western traveler who was a target.

I thought back to my time in India and Thailand. Scams are so common in these places, especially Delhi and Bangkok, that a traveler should always assume every taxi driver or “guide” is out for your money until proven otherwise. On a particular taxi ride in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, my driver happened to speak good English. We chatted about his job and family; he seemed an honest hard-working man. I asked him why he thought there were so many scams of tourists.

" <Indian head bobbling…> …. Yes sir. I do see these things happening all the time. These are very bad people."

“Why do they all think it's OK to steal money from the tourists?” I was a poor backpacker after all. My clothes were tattered, my beard thick and dusty. I needed every nickel I had. Yet for some reason, every Indian I met apparently thought I shat gold bricks. (Which I can do, but it's just too painful.)

I hate being made of money. I'm always shedding
The cabbie was silent, his head bobbling grew more pronounced. Then: “Many of these tourists are having a lot of money. You know, many people here make very little. Maybe 50, 100 rupees in a day sir. Many people they are having no money at all. The tourists they are having so much I think the people believe that taking a little is not a bad thing.”

50 rupees was less than a dollar. Out of sheer dumb luck, the being called Nemo Taylor happened to be born among the 10% of the earth’s fortunate souls living in the Western world. You know, the countries in which white people, armed with superior technology and diseases of mass destruction, amassed empires of wealth by forcefully taking whatever they wanted from the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Thanks to the extermination of Native Americans by my ancestors, I sat at this moment in the back of this cab in India armed with a plastic ATM card that made me one of the wealthiest people in the country.

Yes, of course, I did study hard in college, and I did work fairly hard at my job to get enough money to travel. But the opportunity itself to go to an engineering school is something unimaginable to the filthy street urchins I saw climbing among the garbage out the cab window. You could argue they were already working harder, in more difficult conditions at 8 years old than I ever will. Yet here I sit, and there they dig.

As I have written about before, it is White Man’s Guilt. With the passage of time, I no longer hate those thieves who stole my money and left me stranded without a penny in Costa Rica. If not for the charity of a local who gave me $20 for food and a place to stay, I would have slept hungry in the street. The experience of not having that magic plastic card that separated me from all of the poverty-stricken locals made me appreciate my good fortune vividly. (Especially once I was able to buy Imperials again.)

Who is to say what would have happened to me if I had been born poor, without any chance for education, without any opportunity to live a comfortable life? Would I have been driven to steal? I would like to say 

“Never. I know who I am. I believe in living a moral life.”

But that is a dangerous assumption. During the Holocaust most “good” people went along with the regime out of fear. Anyone familiar with the Milgram experiment or the lurid story of the Donner Party, where the majority of survivors resorted to cannibalism, will know that each person possesses the capacity for evil, and that the context one is placed is usually more powerful than a person’s inherent character. Only the rare person is the exception. David Sloan Wilson's great book Darwin's Cathedral explains through group selection why all humans possess both altruistic (good) and violent (evil) aspects, (shout-out to my brother Nathan for recommending it).

As the Mighty Mighty Bosstone lyric says,

I'm not a coward,
I've just never been tested
I'd like to think that if I was, I would pass …
I'm afraid of what I might find out”

So when I thought of the pick-pockets roaming Ulaanbaatar and the horse thieves creeping around the countryside, I didn’t necessarily blame them. But those thoughts didn’t help me sleep either.

All through the cold black-as-ink night, yaks and cows bawled, twigs snapped, hooves thumped, and the swarm of crickets “Pop pop pop!”-ed into the canvas. Each time, I bolted upright, fumbled with the zipper, checked for Rocky’s shiny eyeball. And laid blearily back down.

Another sleepless night in Mongolia. On the bright side, at least my fingers weren’t about to freeze off. With that comforting thought, I lay eyes wide shut, nerves frayed like a badly knitted sock.

In the Mongolian summer, dawn comes too early and too late. You want the night to end so you can stop worrying about thieves and set off. But when the sky starts to lighten at 4am, you are too tired and cold to do anything but stay socked in your sleeping bag. Checking your watch every few moments seems to have the interesting effect of slowing down, and possibly reversing the earth’s rotation. There were a few times I was sure the sneaky minute hand had snuck backwards.

Flying in dreams is hard, because I have to flap my arms
The earth shook. I was flying above a smoke-belching volcano. It rumbled again, and an enormous cloud of gray ash began to rise and grow until it was larger than the volcano below. I was a speck of life before the irresistible force of death. The cloud, which had seemed to move so slowly before, was suddenly hurtling towards me at an impossible speed. I flapped my arms and tried to fly away but it was faster. And faster. It grew dark. And then, right before I was incinerated, I was sitting up in my tent.

The rumbling continued. Leaves rustled, brush snapped. Then a soft maaaaa-ooooo-eeh. It was sort of like a moo, if the cow had swallowed a cat in heat. I spilled out of the tent into the darkness. When my eyes adjusted, I realized I was nose-to-nose with a massive horned Yak bull. A large booger hung from a nostril. It was almost pretty, shining in the moonlight. He grunted and breath steamed out of his nose onto my face. Despite the fact that I was paralyzed in fear, I noticed that he had likely been eating wild onions.

I froze. He tilted his head so that he could get a better look. Then, after a beat, he turned away and started munching on the ground. My right leg was wet. I had peed myself.

Now, in my defense, my bladder was quite full at that point and an 800 pound animal had just about wiped its nose on my forehead. I hadn’t peed my pants since I was 5 years old. And technically, I suppose that was still true since I wasn’t wearing any pants at that moment. I looked around and noticed that an entire herd of animals was now grazing the clearing. Yaks and cows munched the top of the grass, followed by a parade of goats and sheep nibbling the stalks to the nub. They were a machine, a wall of teeth before which no blade of grass survived. No wonder poor Rocky hadn’t been able to find a single mouthful around here.

I watched nervously as the animals came right towards my tent, then parted as they streamed around both sides. In a few moments, they were gone, mowing down whatever was left in the forest beyond.

“How about that Rocky? You weren’t scared in the slightest, were you?” He leaned forward a bit, then began gushing out a volume of pee that only horses are capable of doing. He also had a full bladder, and clearly, he wanted to show that at least one of us was potty-trained.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 6

Click to read Parts IIIIII, IV, or V

Chapter 6: Wanders with Beef

We got back underway, following the narrow trail. At every opportunity where it widened, I urged Rocky into a trot. Walking is not only slow, but boring. Trotting is making real progress. But soon the trees grew closer and thicker. Riding fast in a forest is very dangerous. The horse won’t run into a tree, but he doesn't mind if you get smacked across the lips with a thick branch and back-flip onto the ground. And a horse knows exactly how wide he is, but he doesn't quite seem to realize that your legs and the saddlebags make him wider than usual. Thus, to avoid getting your kneecaps removed from your legs, its best to make a nice wide berth around trees.

Which was becoming more and more difficult. Eventually, I gave up and resigned ourselves to a slow walk. Looking around through the trees, I realized I had lost the main river. We were somewhere between it and the foothills above to the north. I knew from the topo map that this was generally the right direction, but the going was not how I imagined. Instead of strolling along a happy burbling river among tall shady trunks, we were walking through a thicket of young dense trees and brush under the hot sun. It was slow going.

Ahead, a large gully appeared. As we approached, the path disappeared below. At the bottom lay a wide deep stream. I was not about to flood my boots again, and urged Rocky across. He balked. I gave him a good kick and a loud “Choooo!” He gingerly stepped into the water, and immediately slipped on the smooth rocks. He lowered his head to see his feet, slowly stepping across. He slipped again, dropping his front quarters, and I nearly fell off over his head. What the heck was going on? I had crossed water before on Toroo’s horse a few weeks ago. But Rocky was having a lot of trouble. Perhaps he was overburdened? Perhaps he had poor sight? Perhaps one of his feet or hooves was bruised, and he couldn't tolerate the rocks? Probably all of the above, but it didn't matter. I had about as much clue as Carl Pilkington in An Idiot Abroad. The water became deeper; I lifted my legs up off the stirrups and balanced on my butt. Eventually we made it, Rocky scrambled up the opposite bank, and we were back on the trail. But it was disturbing.

The awesome Idiot Abroad

After a short ride, another stream. Another round of slipping and tripping. And then a 3rd stream! This was becoming a nightmare. Rocky was struggling, I decided to get off and lead him again. The trail meandered through the forest. I had been riding for 5 hours, about the most you want tire the horse on any given day. It was getting late. A cold breeze hit the back of my neck and the sunshine disappeared. I looked up. Storm clouds! Drops began coming down. I looked at my cheap black market Chinese tent and a knot formed in stomach. Please work tent. But then, just as I feared it might become another Doom Mountain, the clouds pulled back again. I was safe for a moment.

Where the hell was I? I had hoped to make it to the river leading north into the mountains by the end of the day, but I hadn't made it to the Tuul Gol yet. Ahead, the trail opened into a large meadow. As we rode into open space, the mountains finally reappeared to the north and south. Far away, I saw the mountains bend and gap open to the south. The Tuul Gol! Incredibly I was still far away. I couldn't believe how little ground I had covered. My plan had simply been to follow the Terelj river to the Tuul, but it was becoming clear that this would be difficult. Streams were appearing all over the place. I was starting to realize the confluence of these two rivers was actually a huge network of hundreds of branches all twisting and turning in different directions.  It was more like a massive delta. I got off, hitched Rocky, and sat on a stump. What to do?! I wasn't lost technically, but it felt that way. I had no idea which way to go. The sun grew low in the sky, the shadows of distant trees played across the field. Getting to the confluence of the rivers would be difficult. The delta was very large, and it was out of the way really.

Much friendlier after they become steaks
I continued riding across the meadow, through a thin band of trees, then suddenly emerged into a much larger field. Not five feet in front of me was an enormous bull with huge horns. It was startled and looked up. Rocky and I were even more startled. Rocky slammed on the brakes and I almost fell off forward. His head came up ramrod straight, eyes wide, ears pulled back tight like a bowstring. I thought for a moment he would spook and I would be bouncing atop the crazy cart. After a few blinks, the ungulate stand-off ended and the massive bull slowly lowered his head and began munching grass. Rocky relaxed. I looked down at my hands and realized I was gripping the reins tight enough to make them go white.

I surveyed the field. There were yaks and cows scattered everywhere. We had stumbled onto a ranch. This, of course, meant men were nearby. And possibly, thieves.

I couldn't go forward through this morass of rivlets and swamp. I couldn't stay near the herds. Dispirited, realizing I’d lost hours going the wrong way, I turned Rocky around and headed back north. Back to the foothills and high ground.

The fields faded behind as we re-entered the quickly darkening forest. Finally, through a small band of trees the foothills rose. But then a troubling sight. Smoke, rising up above the trees. I hitched Rocky and walked forward alone, peering through the brush. Ahead, a camp of 3 large gers, surrounded by a set of fences. A small herd of horses and cows lay inside the enclosures. It was the ranch.

I was out of time, it would be too dark soon to set up camp, and Rocky and I were both exhausted from the hard day’s slog. Suddenly, I heard a pattering sound on my hat. I looked up and got nailed in the eye by a fat raindrop. Perfect timing, rain. You really know when to strike.

After a short ride north the trees, I spotted an opening. Just to the right lay a large clearing, full of grass for Rocky to eat. It was protectively enveloped by a bend in the nearby stream, and cloaked by tall hedges. In the center of the clearing stood a thick tree. It was actually a perfect campsite. I would just have to risk the proximity to the ranch.

I hitched Rocky, pitched the tent under a tree partly out of the rain, and threw my pack inside. Then I set about the task of breaking down Rocky, removing the saddle, pads, pulling out the bit (much easier than putting it in!), and brushing him down. Then it was off to the stream for him to drink, and finally back to the tree. Horse sorted, I set about looking for 3 large stones, as I had been taught by Toroo. The stream provided my needs, and I found a somewhat protected patch of grass under a tree to place them. Then it was off to find tinder. I looked around the few pines, and found a few low-hanging dead branches. They were partially wet, but it was the best I could find. I worked them free of their parents and carried the load of off-the-ground pine tinder back to the rock tripod. I stared dubiously at my damp fuel.

My preferred method for starting a campfire
Starting a nomad fire, unfortunately, does not involve spraying a large bottle of kerosene onto a giant pile of wood. I am actually very fond of this method, and secretly enjoy replacing the kerosene with gasoline. Makes for a much more satisfying explosion. However, some advice: if you use gasoline, you should make a long trail of gas away from the fire, perhaps 30 feet. Then light it up, watch the trail burn and get ready for BA-DOOOM!!! You can star in your own Hollywood movie and burn off your nose-hairs at the same time. Not to mention, it really impresses your friends.

Nomad fires, on the other hand, require taking your knife and slicing off tiny little bits of wood from the driest branch you can find. This is tedious under good conditions. When it is getting dark and you are hungry and getting wetter by the minute, it feels a bit like trying to force out a turd when you are stopped up. Painful, slow, and even when you do make some progress it’s not very satisfying.

Finally I had a nice little pile of tiny dry-ish pine twig bits. I stacked them in a little Tee-Pee, layering slightly bigger sticks on top. Any boy scout would have been proud. Out came the Mongol matches. I like to have fun picking on all the slightly inadequate things in the 3rd world, but Mongol matches are actually pretty macho. They only come in one variety: big sticks and big heads, much like little lollipops.

Still, fat rain-drops were dripping through the canopy. Now was the moment of truth: could I, Nemo the Nomad wannabee, start a fire out here, on my own, in the rain?!  Was I worthy? I struck a match, and instantly the cold wind blew it out. I struck another, trying to shield it with my other hand. It wavered mightily, and then it was gone in a puff of smoke. Flashbacks of the North came. That night on Doom Mountain, with the gale-force winds and freezing sheets of rain, Toroo attempted to light one match after another after another. He went through one box. A second box. After the 3rd, he looked at me and shook his head. There would be no fire tonight, no food, no warmth, no evening yak tea (thank the Shaman Spirits on that last one.) We had failed.

About halfway through the box, I began to fear the worst. Then, for a brief moment, the wind stopped. I quickly lit another, held it under the shavings and twigs, and suddenly, like a miracle, the pine sap caught and flared up. Protecting my newborn with both hands, I waited patiently for the little shavings to catch something more substantial. The little flames began to die, and then, they were gone. But wait! One of the bigger twigs had a spark on it. I blew. It grew lighter. I exhaled slowly, patiently, until my head was spinning. Then, a flicker of flame. It crept up the twig, and like magic, slowly, over the next few minutes, more twigs caught. 

The orange and yellow tendrils began to climb and merge.

In every nomad fire the beginning is tense, or my case, filled with dread. Your entire night hangs on the balance of a few breaths or the whims of nature. And then there is a moment of realization that it might actually survive. No, it WILL survive! It has been given life. I stared in happy disbelief at this light of creation, made from nothing but wet twigs and the magic of the match. Of all the defeats and set-backs of the last few days, at least I had achieved this one victory.

For those who might be reading this on a comfortable chair back in civilization, latte in hand, let me assure you of one thing. When you are alone, cold, wet, and miserable, and the nearest sauna is hundreds of miles away by horse, there is nothing more gratifying to the soul than bringing a warm bowl of food off your own fire and into your hands.