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.

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