Finding Nemo

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Alone on the Steppe, Part III

Click here to read Part I or Part II

Part III: Pack Leader

Back in Terelj village, it is cold and dark under a brilliant milky way. For some reason, I’ve always noticed the brighter the night sky, the colder it will be.

My horse just stomped on my foot. But I knew it wasn’t an accident. Horses are very sure-footed, and they know exactly where they are placing their hooves. Katarina’s words came back to me. Horses will always test themselves against you. They are pack animals, and every pack must have a hierarchy. My horse realized if we were going to be together, it would test me to see who was the higher in the pecking order. And woe to me if I failed the test. He would be cool David Letterman, and I would be bald Paul, his dopey band-leader. And my life over the next few days would be hell.

Always bring a spare gas tank on a long road trip
So, just as Katarina instructed, I immediately push as hard as I could on the horse’s side. It takes a lot of strength but eventually he backs off a step. I win round one I suppose. Eventually I manage to re-hitch him to a different area with fresh grass and out of his own droppings. He starts munching away, seemingly content. Perhaps now I will finally get some sleep.

But just as I start drifting off again, he begins his screaming anew. It will be a long night.


In the morning light, I unzip my tent and peer out upon fresh dewy grass, sparkling in the new sun. The sky is crisp and brilliant blue. I will never forget this Mongolian air. Like the mountains of the Himalaya, or the pines of the Sierra, there is a crispness, an addictive purity, to such air. I am greedy, I suck it down.

Not far away, there he stands, dozing while standing in that odd way that only 4-legged prey animals can do. I envy it, that ability. How I would love to be able to fall asleep while standing! How useful that would be while waiting endlessly in line for Coachella tickets or a nice fat Chipotle burrito!

Yo Adrian, this schmoe named his horse after me.
I muse on the last few days, how rocky the relationship has started with this poor unfortunate horse. How he was struggling to adjust to all the changes and trying to figure out if I was worthy to ride him. And that’s when it clicked. He was a good horse, I could tell already. He followed me around, had let me approach him and handle him without any fuss. But he was a tough horse, and wasn’t going to put up with any crap.
He will be named Rocky.

I look at Rocky and recall the champ's smooth pick-up lines to Adrian: "I think we make a real sharp couple of coconuts - I'm dumb, you're shy, whaddaya think, huh?" Rocky didn't even bother to stop munching at my joke. Ah well, whadda you know anyway, ya dumb horse!

There is something about naming an animal that makes your relationship with it official. When someone adopts a dog, it isn’t really theirs until they carefully bestow a moniker. That is the moment when the bond forms, that is the moment when one recognizes it is their dog, their responsibility, and they will be together for better or worse. And so it is with Rocky.

I walk back to the hotel. The owner who was so kind to let me camp on the lawn has taken pity on me, and has arranged for a person from town to look over my maps and give me better guidance. It is a godsend. We sit down at the hotel. I bring my carefully taped topographic maps and lay them down on the table. The owner and the townie stare at them with a puzzled expression. Uh oh.

Unnamed rivers, mountains, swamp, plus directions in Cyrillic! sweet
I point to a lake nestled in a forest over a ridge of mountains: Khar Nuur. It is deep in the middle of nowhere, the distance about 50 kilometers from Terelj village as the crow flies. If something happened to me out there, there would be no one to help. That it would be dangerous, there could be no doubt.

A worthy challenge.

I point to a large river, the Tuul Gol, which ran around the ring of mountains. Once around the peaks, I would hopefully be fortunate enough to find the trail through the forest to the hidden lake. There, I pictured myself swimming naked and alone in absolute feral wildness for a couple days before heading back. (Sorry. I will stop making painful naked visuals.)

The townie knows of the lake and nods his head. It could be done. The two men then take the map and study it. They turn it 90 degrees, arguing loudly in Klingon, then after about 20 minutes turn it 180 degrees the other way. After more arguing and map-spinning, I realize they were looking at it upside-down. Inside, I laugh and cry at the same time.

These simple folk probably could not read any map, let alone a complicated topographic one. After 30 minutes of this, I take the map and give them a blank sheet of paper from my journal and a pen. Perhaps our guide could draw us a simple map, which I could then compare to my topographic one?

This is the masterpiece that results:

Um. So I go straight, right at the round squiggly, then under the hot-dog-thing. Got it!

I raise my hand to slap my forehead, barely stopping myself in time. We will just have to wing it. After a few games of charades, during which at one point I find myself making horse noises and galloping around the room, the guide realizes I have been dropped on my head as a child more than once. Also, he manages to comprehend that I intend to take the river route most of the way. He shakes his head. The hotel owner translates, “There is much swamp along the river. Not good. Very difficult.” And, yes, after looking more carefully at the map, it did indeed indicate long stretches of swamp along the river route. I had completely missed it! The blind dumb luck of falling into the hands of this guide was proving invaluable. I think back to the Swamp of Mordor I had survived in the north, minus a few pints of blood. The thought of more Mongolian swamp and its insatiable buzzing demon-spawn makes me shudder.

“Also, the summertime rains have flooded the river and the trails will be muddy and perhaps underwater.” Again, the memories of the swamp nightmare came back. Each step the horses took was a gamble. An overburdened horse could sink completely into that bottomless mud. The vision of me alone, with my panicked horse struggling in vain to free itself, miles from help, is a nightmare scenario.

The guide finishes talking. “He says you must take the mountain pass.” We look again at the map. About 10 miles east of the village, another small river, the барун ваянаиин гол (blue "vayunaiin" river) came down from the mountains to join the mighty Tuul. This path led into the heart of the ring of mountains. Following this path north up the correct river valley led up through the mountains. Beyond, the trail reconnected with the Tuul on the other side, and not much further lay the side trail to the secret lake.

But, I fear this path even more. The most terrifying moment I had experienced in the north was a night of freezing rain, gale-force winds, flash-flooding, and snow on Mount Doom. I had nearly lost my fingers that night. It is all too fresh. But the guide insists that it is the only safe way, and in fact much faster than the river route. I consider. Perhaps it is OK. After all, I have with me a brand new $30 Chinese tent from the black market. It might actually be waterproof!

But the guide isn’t finished. He points to large areas south and north of the pass and says “shavaa.” Could it be? I looked more closely at the map. The lush green areas I had assumed to be grassland had those cursed wavy ripple marks on them. Crap.

Swamp. Lots and lots of swamp.

And the bad news doesn’t stop there. “He says that this lake and the forest around it are filled with many …. Bzzzzz...” He makes a pinching motion on his forearm. Oh dear Buddha. The idea of my midnight birthday suit swims in the wild pure secret lake were dead. Instead I would be running full speed, twig and berries a-bouncing, chased by a black angry mob of buzzing mosquitos.

The ride will take 3 days one way, if all goes well, which I know it will not. That means it will probably take 4 days, with a day or two of rest, and 3-4 days back. A total of about 10 days. My food supplies will last perhaps 6 or 7 days. I cannot take more due to my lack of a pack horse, a decision that seems more boneheaded each day.

I sit back on the couch. What am I really doing this for? Yes, I wanted to “measure” myself, to get out there Into the Wild. To find myself in that most primitive state of man, alone against the elements, armed only with Chinese tents and cans of pickled sardines on wheat toast. (It’s amazing, but just writing that right now makes me hungry. I spent a little too much time alone with those sardines.)

But I don’t want to be absolutely miserable the entire time. I want to gallop under the blue sky along firm ground, camping under the stars! Not sweating every footfall through endless globs of black watery gloop, the blood inexorably being drained from myself and my horse by the plagues of Pharaoh.

The hotel owner looks at my expression of resignation. He looks thoughtful.

“There is another place. Do you know of the hidden monastery?”

Hidden monastery???!! This sounds promising. I sit back up.

“There is a monastery somewhere up in these mountains. However, even though it was far from the city, the government still found it. It was burned to the ground. But, they say it is still a beautiful place.”

I knew instantly what he was talking about. To maintain control in Soviet Russia, and perhaps partly due to his well-known paranoia, Stalin instituted a campaign of terror and mass murder upon his own population that made the French Reign of Terror look tame. The Great Purge reached its height in 1937-1938, when 1,000 people a day, on average, were either sent to Gulags or executed and thrown in mass graves. The orthodox clergy was almost wiped off the earth. Quotas were handed down such that the police were forced to simply round up people from the streets. The total body count exceeded a mind-numbing 1.5 million. The Terror, as it was known in the West, was not limited to Russia. Agents were sent into Mongolia and even communist-controlled portions of China. And once there, like a cancer, it destroyed from within.

In Mongolia, from 1937-1939, the Buddhist monk-hood was annihilated. Nearly 20,000 monks were murdered, almost every monastery in the country was burned to the ground. Nothing was spared in the destruction. Not even, apparently, a modest temple hidden away in the local mountains, far from civilization, reachable only by horse. I imagined it. Defenseless monks going about their business that day, only to be suddenly interrupted by government troops armed with guns and burning torches. Why?

Yet, this evil was only a stopping off point in mankind's capacity to do the unthinkable. Only 10 years later, the Holocaust. 10 years after that, Mao's Cultural Revolution, in which more people died, perhaps up to 20 million, than any other man-made atrocity in human history.

Destruction so complete, so zealous, that it seemed something that could only arise from a religious cult. And yet, Hitler was atheist. The communists, godless.

Hitchens was wrong. Evil is not limited to the religious. Instead, apparently, it is what makes us human. We are not creatures of the light. We are creatures of the possible, from the highest to the lowest imaginable. And lower still.

This burned monastery is a place that I must see with my own eyes.

Fill an NFL stadium in the US to capacity. Kill everyone in the stadium. Then, do it again, and again, and again, until you've done it 15 times. That's a single drop on this chart.

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