Finding Nemo

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.


  1. Enjoying the steppe posts. Sounds like one of the highlights of the trip.

    1. Thanks... just tip of iceberg. So many great stories yet to post...