Finding Nemo

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 13

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678910, 11, or 12

The Black Market of UlaanBaatar

Entrance to the Naruun Tuul, the black market

You hear about the market long before you actually visit it. It is spoken about with ominous fascination. “You went to the black market?! Wow.” And the next question, invariably, is “So… did you get robbed?”

Every person who has been to the market has a story. Either they got robbed or they know someone who did. Sometimes it happens on the way to the market. Tourists, flush with cash tucked into a neck pouch, take the minibus marked 'Зах' (it's pronounced by coughing up some phelgm while saying "zacht") from Peace Square in the center of town. A short ride later, they emerge at the market realizing their neck pouch is still there, yet missing the money! It’s magical, really. How did they do it? Pick-pocketing in Ulaanbaatar is so ubiquitous that it has even inspired “How To Get Pick-Pocketed” step-by-step guides, such as this one.

When Mendee asked if I had a saddle, I responded with a blank stare. Instead of saying, “Yes. A saddle. s-a-d-d-l-e. It’s what you put on the horse you just bought,” he just remarked, “No problem. We will go to the black market.”

The black market! It was exciting and scary at the same time. I was actually going into the hive of scum and villainy itself! (Apologies to Tatooine, but Mongolia is weirder.) With all the stories I’d heard, I devised a plan not even a mother would love. I would hide some money in one sock at the bottom of my shoe, more in the other shoe, and some in my underwear. Together, these wads would be sufficient to buy all the gear I needed. Bwah-ha-ha, my money was impervious! It was genius.

"We don't serve their kind in here" (Tatooine cantina bar)
The first thing you come across upon entering the market are 4 ATM machines in a little shed. Also in this shed was an assortment of various shady characters. The first hid beneath a cowboy hat, the 2nd behind dark sunglasses, and the 3rd under the Mongolian equivalent of a trench coat. I looked them over and decided if I wanted a super-awesome pick-pocketing outfit, I could combine all three items together. Two other foreigners who also needed tack had come with me. They spied the machines and walked right up to get out gobs of cash. I decided against putting a sign on their back that said, “please rob me.” I mean, if the sign was in English it wouldn’t work anyway.

Black market grounds. Photo by Peter Menzel
We then entered the sprawling grounds of the market proper. The other two guys were going on very ambitious treks, over a month. It was actually fascinating hearing about their plans, going over their maps, listening to their fears and excitement. To be honest, I was secretly jealous. Yes, perhaps my beard was thicker and fuller than theirs, but these men were attempting to be Men. Theirs is a story that deserves its own blog post later. Anyway, they had to pick up all sorts of camping gear, and so it was a relief when we finally reached the Department of Horsey Stuff.

Pretty. Pretty damn uncomfortable for your jibblies
This little corner consisted of a few worn tents draped in colorful equine decoration of every kind imaginable. There were bright red and green tassels, gold-fringed bridle pieces, tan straps, silvery bits, bronze rings, and a host of other odd items whose purpose I could only guess was horse body-piercing. Next door were piles of sewing gear, heaps of raw leather, and stacks of colorful saddles of all designs. There were a few worn Western saddles that actually looked comfortable, Russian saddles that looked cheap and painful, and plenty of fresh new Mongolian saddles purposely designed to bash a man’s bits into fine powder. Squatting around within was also a small tribe of chain-smoking wrinkled old women. Their gnarled hands were busy hand-sewing giant needles though thick pieces of leather to create new straps and ropes.

I had absolutely no idea what a fair price was for a saddle, or girths, or saddle-bags. Or for that matter, pretty red and gold tassels which I hoped were not screaming that my horse was gay. Mendee was not only there to negotiate for us, but also make sure we had everything we needed. He was our Mongolian fixer, worth every penny. We agreed on a “Russian” saddle that had pretty green embroidery, complete with Buddhist-style knot designs on the leg fenders. I was surprised to find the girths were made of horse hair. It looked soft and comfortable compared to the hard straps that were used on my horse-trekking up north. So resourceful, these nomads! Re-using horse hair. Brilliant. Why didn’t all the ranchers use it?! Instead of this setting off alarm bells, it made me feel smug that my horse would be the most comfortable one out there. Mendee nodded his approval, and the stupidest decision of my trip was locked in.

Meat section. That ain't filet mignon (by Tim Corrigan)
Finally we settled on a price for everything. They all turned and looked at me expectantly. I smiled nervously and removed my shoes. Then I removed my socks, which I noted with interest had begun to sweat profusely in the hot summer sun. Out came my wads of slightly damp cash, which after counting came up a bit short. I handed it to Mendee, who put out his arm and held it as far from his nose as possible. It is difficult for me as a Westerner to read emotions in Asians, often their faces appear inscrutable. But there was no mistaking the vendor’s look of disbelief at what was occurring. I then proceeded to put my hand down my pants and start feeling around. To my dismay, some my 3rd stash had apparently drifted out of my underwear and down my pant legs. I cleared my throat, and then began undoing my belt. The vendor eyes began to widen further, and reached what I am sure is the limit for a person of Asian descent. As I contemplated Eastern society and the importance placed on propriety, I unzipped my pants. After a moment, my arm found the rest of the cash. I plunked this sweet-smelling addition on top of the sweaty feet cash already in Mendee’s hand.

The super awesome 500 Tookirig bill. Ball sweat not included
“OK, … 200,000 Tookirig, you can count it."

No response.

" … Uh, what’s the problem fellas?”

One of the highlights of the market was the long aisles of traditional clothes. There were brightly colored vests, Mongol long-sleeve shirts, caps, and pants. But the highlight and our reason for coming to this section were the deels: the long cloaks that are the standard outer-wear for both men and women in the country-side. Most rural families make their own plain ones of thick cotton and burlap and no ger is complete without a sewing machine. But here in the city, there were thin light deels of synthetic materials, silks, thin soft cottons, all intricately decorated with gold and silver thread patterns. It was fancy and upscale. Browns, greens, whites, oranges, and even purples and pinks made it clear that this was an item of high fashion. I wasn’t looking for such a deel, however. After my experience freezing in the north, I wanted something thick and warm, something ordinary-looking that would help me blend in. Earth tones would be nice; after all, it would likely be covered in mud and horse-poop by the time I returned. I settled on a burnt orange-brown deel with little decoration. However, I allowed myself to pick out a fairly bright golden-orange sash.
I look so Mongolian it's scary.

“How do I look?” I asked my fellow Westerners, who were also rummaging for outfits.

Brad replied, “Brown and orange. Like a Buddhist monk.”


I glanced down at my battered sneakers which had endured Tokyo asphalt, Philippine skinny-dipping, Chinesecave mud-bathing, and several weeks hiking, um, er… donkey-riding, in Nepal. Perhaps these were not the best choice for horse trekking. Mendee steered me down an alley and around a corner I nearly fell into a bin. Behind it were two more, each stuffed with used black boots of all shapes and sizes, heaped upon each other in piles that came up to my waist. After looking through them I realized the workmanship was about on par with Masai flip-flops. (I realize this comment might not resonate for many, but Masai flip-flops are made by cutting off a piece of car tire and tying them to your feet with a string.)

Believe it or not, they ran a marathon in these shoes made of tires
These Mongol boots consisted of leather nailed onto a block of wood. But then again, I would be riding, not walking. And for that, the high-topped boots were just what I needed to avoid chafing my legs. I haggled the price down to a reasonable US$10 and pulled out another wad of stinky Tookirig from my sock. Feeling quite satisfied with this transaction, I thought, “What could go wrong with these sweet babies?” Such was the incredible naivety of my happy shopping trip on that bright sunny day.

It had been a very successful trip to the black market. In fact, on our way out I smiled to myself at how worried I’d been about thieves. At that very moment, two large men appeared out of nowhere and bumped into our friend Pete. He was stopped in his tracks. The men looked like they didn’t see my friend, even though they were obviously blocking him. At that moment, from behind him another smaller man walked up and, so quick I barely noticed, quickly put his hand into my friend’s back pocket and walked away. He disappeared into the crowd before I realized what happened, and when I turned around the big men who had blocked were also gone in the crowd. Pete turned around, startled.

“Did you see that? What just happened?”

“Dude. It all happened so fast, but some guy picked your back pocket. I think. I mean, I’m not 100% sure.”

“Yeah, I felt that too!" But then he laughed. "You know what? All I had back there was a piece of paper! I had left it there on purpose. They got nothing. Ha ha!”

“Oh man, you should’ve wrote something on it, like: "Congratulations! You came all the way to the black market and all you pick-pocketed was this piece of lint.’”

“Yeah! Or how about: ‘This quality piece of paper is worth more than a 100 Tookirig bill. Well played.’”

A hundred Tookirig was worth about 1 cent.

“Ha ha ha!!! Oh man, that is f-ing hilarious!! Nice one.”

They got nothing. You would have to be pretty dumb to put money in your back pocket in a place like this. But then again, I had noticed plenty of clueless Western tourists in the city. Many more than I expected, to be honest. Mongolia, or at least the 3 day packaged-tour version of it, was definitely on the map. We were all a little shaken up by this and quickly made our way back to the car.

Just another day in the Land of Blue Sky.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 12

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678910, or 11

DAY 4: The Monastery

Shavaa, We Meet Again

Gourmet grinds around here ...Note Mongolian writing
In the morning, I awoke before the girls and re-started the embers to make a morning pot of instant Nescafe. (Nescafe is gourmet coffee in the countryside, mostly because it's the only one without dirt.) Sitting in the happy silence of the morning, I watched the pale rays of our sun saunter up the hills. Even the horses were still half-asleep. They would stand, slack-jawed, heads drooped, only rarely waking up to take a bite. I looked for Rocky. Oddly, he wasn’t there. Fresh caffeine in my veins, I bolted up and ran to the meadow to get a clear view. Ah, there he was, standing on a distant hill. Wait, what?! How was he so far away? I slowly approached, and when I neared I noticed his long rope. It drug behind him, and finally ended at an uprooted stake.

I thought back on the previous night, how easily I had managed to pound the stake into the soft ground, still wet from rain. I had congratulated myself on how quickly I had setup camp. Now, I slapped my forehead in self-disgust and relief. (For the people who follow my blog, I believe I am now up to 17 forehead slaps. Makes me wonder how I'm still traveling and not in a Chinese prison.) How lucky it was that Rocky, after realizing he could wander free, decided to stay close. Perhaps it was the company of other horses. Perhaps we were finally becoming broskis. Either way, I was glad to see the ol’ boy. I took a little extra time brushing him down.

The guide had arrived in the meantime. With quick efficiency he broke down camp and had the horses ready. We rode up to the trail and past the (thankfully) empty tourist ger camp. As we rounded the bend and headed north again, our eyes beheld a majestic view. Tall granite bluffs rose on each side of the narrow valley. Piles of big boulders sat below in perfect heaps as if they had been carefully placed by an obsessive-compulsive giant. The cliffs took on the shapes of animals, and at one point I was sure I was looking at an Easter Island head. Alpine forests dotted the hills, and in the distance great mountains towered over all. Above the bluff, a bird of prey spread its huge wings, then lazily floated in circles without a single flap. I watched in fascination. It would occasionally scan the ground for a meal. But mostly it seemed to enjoy showing off that it could just as easily be sitting on a couch watching Seinfeld.

The horses seemed eager, and we made good time. The morning sun warmed our backs from it's blue perch. We entered a small grove of cedar and the breeze took on the faint scent of pine. And then, without warning, we emerged into a blinding meadow. Thousands, no, millions of large yellow flowered rods rose in a thick meadow along both sides of the trail. The sunlight hit the still fresh dew on their petals and lit them on fire. In a moment we were enveloped by a dazzling gold blanket.

I laughed and turned to find the blonde looking back at me with a goofy expression of wonder. Even the grumpy Butch couldn’t keep her frown on. It is difficult to take pictures while riding but I had gotten decent at it during my previous trekking, and managed to fire off a few. The trick of course is to not only stop the horse, but keep him stopped while you fumble with the camera with your free hand. This is not easy when he wants to keep up with his buddies. After a moment I put down the camera to let my eyes see it.

This is actually not far off. Just swap in some mongol horses and lesbians. -foto by Janet Dickens
At length, we found ourselves overlooking a broad treeless flat plain, inhabited only by scrub and tall reeds. Far in the distance, the plain ended in a cul-de-sac of tall mountains. A dead end. We must be getting close. We descended to the bottom, where the trail quickly narrowed to a single dark track. The guide stopped us, then said, “Swamp. Behind me, follow, slowly slowly.”

So this was the dreaded swamp! I looked around at the tall mountains on all sides. Any water that drained from them would end up here, in this low depression. No wonder. The guide tried his best to walk us around the worst of the bogs. But after the 3rd time his horses’ forelegs disappeared beneath the muck, and his horse thrashing in terror, I began to choose my own path. To be honest, navigating a swamp is mostly intuition and luck. It all looks the same, and you never know what will be firm and what will suck your wheels into the depths.

Pretty much what was going on in my imagination
I thought back to the hell-on-earth experience up north, surrounded by blood-sucking insects and watery black quicksand. It was a ride of pain and fear. I prepared myself mentally for the challenge. But … as we marched forward, … the bug armadas never came. And, to my surprise, the bogs were short and infrequent. Between them was firm ground. It was difficult going, without doubt. But compared to what I’d experienced before, it was nothing.

After all the planning, all the worry about this trip, the fear of the swamp, the desire to truly challenge myself…  I found myself, well, … I suppose I was disappointed.

It was all simply too easy.

Ghosts in the Woods

Presently the ground lifted and became firm. Tall trees formed rank around us. After only a short ride, I noticed a few blue and white ribbons around a tall tree. Then more ribbons. Finally at the top of a rise, it appeared. A large wall of stones, overgrown by moss and trees disappeared into the brush. Heaps of blue and white ribbons fluttered in the light breeze from nearby trees. This, then, was the hidden monastery.

Little remained of the outside but the wall. Beyond the entrance, a smaller stone chamber formed a gloomy space where the inner temple had stood. I walked in. Mongolian graffiti covered the dark walls. Most of it seemed to be names and dates, marking perhaps where little Odoo and Jinba had snuck in and kissed. I looked closer, and realized it wasn’t just dark. It was soot ... so thick you could you could still rub your finger on it and have it come away black. At one time a high pagoda of wood must have risen here. At the end of long solitary trail, tucked into a picturesque forest clearing, had lain this gem. It must have been an impressive sight to the visiting pilgrim.

Now all that remained was rubble.

The symbolism was powerful. It was hard to fathom, the great lengths the communist destroyers had come on their quest to eradicate all traces of religion. This remote monastery was miles from any road, surrounded by mountains, defended by swamp. I imagined the peaceful monks going about their routine. One day, soldiers appeared. And then burned the place to the ground.

That beard is in full revolution
Karl Marx had a simple idea. He wanted to end the suffering of the working class and poor. Yet here I stood, half a world away, next to a monument where the poor and defenseless had been attacked. It is one of the great ironies of history. Communism had been proven to be a failed ideology not just because the economics didn't work. The biggest problem was that its utopian ideal of equality had an unforeseen side-effect. The revolution created a vacuum of power that was filled by the power-hungry. These leaders, elected by no one and answerable to no one, raised in a world of tsars and emperors, were inevitably corrupted. (Especially the Soviet version and it's cult of personality.) Ultimately, it led to atrocities beyond imagination. This one little temple was only a footnote.

And then I noticed a single solitary chapel. It was set off from the main entrance, recently built and brightly decorated. Recent offerings of melted candles, incense, and flowers clumped around the small image of a puckish Chinese Buddha. He seemed quite content considering the surroundings.

It was a seed of hope, sprouting up quite nicely.

Failure is an option

Nearby was a pleasant clearing where a table of sorts had been created out of massive cedar logs. Carved stumps made chairs. We settled among them, nestled under sprawling tree limbs, surrounded by natural beauty. We just needed a few hobbits to come join us.

Afterwards, the guide informed me that their group would be heading back a different way, and that I should return on my own. I was surprised and a little sad at this expulsion. It had been so much more enjoyable riding free and light. Perhaps the guide hadn’t liked my slow pace, or more likely, perhaps the butch hadn’t liked the competition for the blonde’s attention. Either way, I was forced to load my pack, tent, and ropes onto Rocky once more. I set off down the hill and within a few hours had re-crossed the swamp.

Ahead of me, the road split. One single track continued along the cliff, a larger path went up the hill. I realized that after I’d joined the group I’d stopped paying close attention to the terrain, and wasn’t sure which way to continue. But I was pretty sure we’d stayed on the larger trail, and continued up the hill. About 30 minutes later, at the top, I noticed the girls and the guide arrive at the fork below. They continued straight along the cliff. I stopped in confusion.

Perhaps the single track had been right. I backtracked down the hill once more, and began to follow the other group. But after only a few hundred yards, the trail narrowed further and we were walking through grass under cliffs I know I had not seen before. On my own not more than a few hours, and already I was completely lost! I slapped my forehead extra hard (18 and counting...), got off my horse, and trudged back through grass and shrubs and forest to the top of the hill once more.

Late in the afternoon I finally reach the gers and our camp from the previous night. We needed to make time so I urged Rocky back to a trot. After two steps the saddle suddenly slipped to the left and I nearly tumbled to the ground head-first. At the last instant I managed to grab onto the mane, visions of a wheel-chair bound existence in my head. And there I clung, ass bouncing in the air, while Rocky continued his trot. He nonchalantly looked back over his shoulder at me, apparently curious as to what trick-riding stunt I would attempt next. Finally I hauled myself back on top and stopped him.

Once back on solid ground I found my legs were shaking. I sat down, took in some deep breaths, and went to my happy place. For some reason, this time it had nothing to do with Pam-zilla smashing Tokyo with her bolt-ons. Instead, I thought of Mr. Rogers putting on some loafers. You know it's a close call when you are summoning the pure tranquility of the Neighborhood. But it had been the 3rd time in 2 days I’d nearly been thrown, and the idea of getting seriously injured alone in the wilderness wasn’t getting any more fun.

It's funny because today you can just wear loafers to work
After a minute I got to my feet and looked under the horse to find the front girth dangling in two pieces. It had snapped. Actually, it had snapped again. The girth had already come apart two earlier times, luckily only resulting in a loose saddle. Mongolians use a double-girth, and the rear one had held up. Fortunately, or perhaps by design, the girth had been much longer than necessary so I could repair it by simply tying it back together with knots. But after two of these repairs, there was now just enough left for one more knot. I fixed and re-tightened the saddle. And then I just stood there.

If I got back on, maybe the saddle would hold, and maybe it wouldn’t. If that girth broke one more time, not only was the horse useless, but I would be stuck with a big pile of gear miles from help. I raised my hand to slap my forehead, but this screw-up was too big. I wanted to put both my hands to my head and scream. But I couldn’t even do that, because poor Rocky might decide to bolt. So I just sat down and started punching the dirt, over and over until my fists hurt, sulking.

You see, I had purchased this saddle in the infamous UB black market. I have waxed on eloquently about the virtues of the Mongol saddle, such as how it manages to simultaneously give you hemorrhoids while smashing your balls, which is quite a feat when you think about it. So I had decided to upgrade to what the Mongols call a “Russian” saddle. Mongol saddles consist of a loose pad over a bent iron bar, and have a raised front end perfectly designed to smack you in the jibblies. The upscale “Russian” model replaced the pad with leather, lowered the jibbly-smacking front-end, and used two planks of wood. In other words, instead of my weight driving narrow iron bars into the poor horse’s back, now it was comfortably grinding two hard wooden planks into its back. Much better.

My saddle was pretty fancy, really. It had nice smelly new leather and bright green-and-gold embroidered leg pads (“fenders”) dangling on either side, covered in cool Mongol symbol things. And when I saw the beautiful girths made of actual horse hair, I thought, “By George's jibblies! Tickle my crumpets! They actually reuse the horse hair and integrate it into the saddle! These Mongols are top of the pop. Geniuses, really!” And I happily handed over my Tookirig to the smirking saddle schlepper.

This was what I pondered as I lay on my back, looking up at the knotted and mangled girth of ridiculous horse-hair.

But before I continue my story, I have to say a few more words about that black market. Obi Wan has never seen such a hive of scum and villany.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 11

Click to read Chapters 123, 456789, or 10

Fear of the Other

I took some small pride in the fact that I broke down my horse and watered and staked him without any help from the guide. He was plenty busy with the four horses in his own group and I was happy not to be a burden. I quickly had my tent pitched and walked with my food to the side of the brook. Here I was pleased to be greeted by a pile of nomad fire stones. These stones were often left at good camping grounds and their presence saved the time and effort of gathering new ones. But it was more than that. To me, they were a greeting: “This is a safe place to camp, weary traveler. Welcome.

As I was about to light up a fire, I glanced up to notice our guide had finished with all the horses save his own. He lifted his saddle and an incredible sight was uncovered. His gorgeous black stallion had a horrific saddle sore, the size of a small dinner plate, pink and oozing blood and pus. I was shocked and disgusted. In the western world, even a small patch of worn hair and scarred skin under the saddle is cause for alarm. The horse must be rested and allowed to heal. To allow a saddle sore to progress to this point was simply unthinkable.

A bad saddle sore. At least this horse is seeing a vet
I thought back on the pace of this group, how the guide probably had to be back soon to meet the next tourist group. He had worked this horse day after day after day, never allowing it to heal. For Mongols, animals are simply a source of income. They are a commodity. When that commodity no longer produces, they are discarded. To allow the horse to heal would probably cost the guide more money in lost revenue than to work it death and buy a new one.

I tried to look away but could not. It was incongruent, this beautiful strong animal and its gaping wound. The guide obviously did not share my concern, and quickly broke it down with practiced efficiency.

I busied myself with collecting wood and lighting a fire, taking my mind off the horse. With little problem it was lit and my meal was cooking. I offered the fire to the guide, but he shook his head. Without another word, he re-saddled his commodity and rode off to the gers. Presently the girls finished with their tent and joined me. I mentioned the guide had left.

“Oh, that’s what he did last night,” said the blonde. “He’s going off to get drunk with his pals.”

I nodded. I suppose this wasn’t a surprise, really. I finished boiling my pot of water and offered the fire but the girls also declined. Damn. My one chance to offer something to the group had been a complete Fail. Instead, the grumpy Butch pulled out some plastic containers and proceeded to mix together various colorful tubes with a white paste. Upon finishing, they both tucked in with some spoons and made happy “mmmm-nnnmm” noises.

“This hummus is delicious! I can’t believe you managed to bring basil into Mongolia,” purred the blonde. 

“Yep ... *nosh* ... didya know the hummus is pesticide-free too,” replied the Butch. “We’re safe from the horde! Ha ha ha *snort*!!!” Apparently this was a very clever joke.

They giggled at their ingenuity in avoiding any chance of contamination from local food. I had to bite my lip to not burst out with incredulous laughter. Holy shit! I thought. They were f-ing vegetarians. And they had come to Mongolia, of all places! The land of meat, milk, and more meat and milk. I secretly prayed that they ran out of pesticide-free organic hummus and sun-dried vegan tomato paste, and I would have the pleasure of watching them force down dried yak.

I admit, I do like the thrill of sipping on the occasional snake blood cocktail or munching down a fried cockroach. But its much more than that. The whole point of getting your feet blistered, your nails dirty, and your hair twisted into a bird’s nest half-way across the world is to experience something different! It’s about seeing what those strange faces on the Discovery channel actually do for fun when the camera's off. It’s about the sudden realization that the tired old man plowing the rice paddy with his water buffalo, covered in muck and burnt under the sun, wants nothing more at the end of the day than to drink a beer and fart on the couch. Which is pretty much what I like to do.

It's one thing if you are stuck in your little pretentious bubble-world of organic hummus and kale smoothies at home. (Full disclosure: I love hummus and kale is strangely growing on me.) But it's quite another to take your bubble with you halfway around the world. How the hell are you supposed to reach out and make a meaningful connection to the local people if you are hiding in a tour bus? Well... you won't. It's not enough to walk in another man's shoes. If you want to understand another culture, you have to eat like them, drink like them, and yes, sometimes you have to squat above a slippery Chinese cliff and take a doodee.

For most people on a short trip, I understand it's not easy. They are there for the beautiful scenery. They aren't there to see how the locals live or, God forbid, make a connection. So I realize I'm ranting a bit. But it's a damn shame, really. I mean, going local is a total blast! You get to try new languages that make your mouth hurt, wear ridiculous clothes, slap new handshakes and bob new greetings, shout new drinking salutes, and perhaps most importantly, chow down on weird foods that somehow all taste a bit like chicken. The weirder the better in my opinion. There is nothing more fun than tucking into a revolting plate of “ants climbing trees” and being pleasantly surprised to find it tastes a like delicious soy-drenched Portobello.... mixed with chicken.

"Ants Climbing Trees." Yes it's real. Real good.
The people of Earth are full of wonders. Yet, we choose to remain divided. So few attempt even a small step across the gaps.

So, when I wanted my new lesbian friends to be forced to gnaw on dried yak, it was partly out of the knowledge that such a traumatic experience would become the best story of their trip to their horrified tofu-munching friends back home. But mostly, I just wanted to watch some vegans squirm as they ate meat.

As soon as they were finished, the Butch escorted her femme back to their tent. My hope of having pleasant conversation in real red-blooded American for the first time since I could remember quickly ended in disappointment. Once again, I was on my own for the night. I broke down the cooking fire to make a new bed of embers, and then plunked down a nice fat log. Just as the evening chill began to set in, the fire grew and the warmth from the flames began to pleasantly spill onto my face and arms.

I was alone, but it was a contented loneliness.

Fire Song

I pull out my tattered journal. The coarse, beautiful Nepalese home-made paper is golden yellow in the light. I am here, now. The rain has passed. Cold drifts near, it settles close to me. Hello bonfire! Ahh. Such a perfect companion you are on this crisp night. I write, my fingers and toes warm.

The stars yawn, stretch, and light. How I miss these stars! It has been too long.

The sky becomes ink. So black and clear that I can see deep into infinity, into formless void itself. Somewhere in there, beyond my human sight, all creation arose. The stars burn so bright and clear I can see their hidden colors. One reddish, one tinged with blue. A cup of silver glitter is spilled across the ceiling: the milky way. I greet the big dipper, the north star, and the summer triangle. (Or summer Dorito, as I prefer to think of it.) My oldest friends, from hazy summer memories when I was only a ball of dirt and snot, chasing fireflies, tumbling on the dewy night grass of the farm. You are still with me, after all these years.

Old friends, hello.

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson was asked by a reader of TIME magazine, "What is the most astounding fact you can share with us about the Universe?" This is his answer.

And now, a horrible poem. A-hem ... ok, ready. Here we go:

Fire Song
Dancing flame, fingers smoke
Burning keys they play
A billion stars on purple cloud
Body sagging, warming rays

The stream softly sings
Tinkling liquid, dark
Munch, munch the horses
Harmonies their part

So far away from
things I thought I knew.
Now, I am connected
To something strange and new

FIRE! Wild you are
Wild like we were
Today we all are caged
So together let us burn

(Wasn't that painful was it? OK, OK, maybe it was. Just wait until I put music to it...)

The last time I saw a sky this bright was under the shadow of the north face of Everest. But even that awestruck night did not have the warmth of the fire or the music of the stream.

Ahh! The troubles of traveling, the freezing rain, the horrible endless cramped buses, the lack of sleep, the dirty noisy dorms, the soul-ripping pain of being robbed.

All is made up for and more by these rare, heart-breaking moments of beauty. It is that unique and most treasured gift.

It is Traveler’s Zen.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 10

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678, or 9

The Wraith

I reluctantly left Happy Ger Camp and headed off in the light misty rain north, following the river into the valley. We rode up and up, crossing a rock-strewn dry bed where as usual I got off and walked to lighten the load. Smaller valleys ran off into the hills. I took out my map and tried to see if any of them were the ones I was supposed to take. Big Poppa had made it clear that I should stay on the main trail all the way. Very unsure of myself, I kept going.

So left at the 3rd hill, 4 blocks past the bush. Got it!
My backback began to wear on me. Rocky of course was overloaded, but so was I. It turns out wearing a backpack of food while horseback riding becomes extremely uncomfortable after a few hours. Yesterday it hadn’t bothered me too much, but today I began to curse my lack of a pack horse. I just wanted to cover enough ground to get the riding for the day over with and camp. I attempted to get Rocky to trot, but he was very reluctant. Perhaps he was tired; after all, we were heading uphill the entire time.

So, I took turns riding and then getting off to walk. I tried not to think about what this would mean for my feet wearing these Mongol boots o' nails. Up ahead I finally saw another settlement, consisting of a run-down shack and some piles of scrap. No ger in sight, which was odd. But I was getting anxious about my bearings, and decided to say hello. As I neared a large Mongolian dog came out barking frantically. Mongols love them and in the city you may come across expensive pure-bred Dobermans, German Shepherds, and other “power” dogs. But increasingly rare are pure-bred Mongol breeds. I had seen similar animals in Tibet, which are greatly treasured. These are large, muscular sheep-dogs with comically long hair like a Yak. But when one comes up to you growling and barking and snipping at your horse’s heels it is not nearly as funny. I stole a quick look at Rocky to see if he was spooked, but surprisingly he seemed completely relaxed. Perhaps he had grown up around them.

The awesome Tibetan mastiff. Native mongol breeds are similar
Reassured, I rode up near the shack and dismounted. However, as I was about to hitch Rocky I heard a commotion. Out from the door burst an apparition, which I can only describe as a wicked witch. Her clothing was a colorless gray ragged wool cloak, her hair was a bird’s nest of gray tendrils that could almost be called post-modern art. Kind of like those sculptures made from used diapers and hub-cabs that are found in all modern hotel lobbies. From a face that had seen too much suffering in one life, she screamed and spat in a broken voice. “ZAIIILLTHFFF!!! HUUUUTTZZZ!!!” With great arm motions she waved me away. Then a teenage boy emerged from the shack, banging on a pot with a metal stick. He also began screaming at me to leave.

“OK, OK, I’m leaving!” I said pointing at myself and then away with my arm. This did not seem to calm them. The wraith howled and spat, the man banged, the massive yak-dog barked. We retreated quickly, the dog nipping and growling at poor Rocky for a half-mile before finally turning around satisfied.

I was a little bit shocked at what had just happened. Especially after the wonderful encounters I’d experienced since the morning, each progressively better than before. What had I done wrong? Only much later did I put myself in the old woman’s shoes. (Or lack thereof.) She was clearly on her own, as it is usually the man’s duty to greet visitors. She was left alone to raise her son in the wilderness. Clearly, something bad had happened to her husband and family. Perhaps visitors had accosted her. Perhaps she had gone mad. No matter what the reason, I felt only sorrow. No one in the world should be left to raise a child as a widow.

Yak cart
I felt relief as we escaped the dog, but suddenly Rocky’s ears pricked and his nostrils flared. His head bolted upright, and then, without warning he began that horrible sideways walk. I felt sick as I pulled the reins tight and looked around frantically for the source. On the main trail coming down from the mountains, a pair of yaks was pulling a cart. As they walked downhill, the bells around their necks clinged and clanged. Apparently this combination must have appeared as some strange musical monster to Rocky. Thank Buddha we were still far enough away that Rocky didn’t lose it completely. I steered him in a very wide berth around the yak cart, and only after it was safely in the distance did I dare return to the main trail. It had been a close call. Twice now in the same day I had been atop a spooked horse, and I did not want to experience a 3rd.

Trash of the Elite

We rode onwards and upwards. My back grew increasingly sore. I perversely began to look forward to running out of food if only to lighten my backpack. After rounding a corner, we reached an overlook of a large flat valley. A line of beautiful trees meandered through the plain. Red, pink, and purple flowers sprouted everywhere. On both sides rose large green foothills. Between the trees flowed the crystal clear Blue Rock River, crossing from one side of the valley to the other. At that moment, I suddenly felt light and warmth on my face. The clouds peeled away as the sun blossomed in a vivid blue sky. Never are colors brighter and more beautiful than when dark clouds are contrasted with sunny earth, and suddenly the land was painted in saturation. The hair rose on the back of my neck, a warm tingle crept up my spine. This was one of those moments I had waited for, back in my cubicle. This very instant. Though I was still cold and wet from the morning storm, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing. My eyes lingered over the scene.

Not found in cubicles
We made our way down to the river, and as usual I dismounted to cross. On the other side an impossible scene greeted us. I could not believe my eyes. A cluster of shiny sport utility vehicles sprawled around a small field. They spilled open with coolers of food and liquor. A large boombox blasted the worst kind of Asian techno-pop you can imagine. (Remember, these are the people who still, to this day, flock to see Bon Jovi. For a sample of brain-dissolving K-pop, which has spread like cancer throughout Asia, click here. You are warned…)

Garbage littered the ground. Empty beer cans lay in piles in the grass. Plastic bags blew away in the breeze. I knew it was my Western sensibilities at work, but the sight of this trash desecrating the land of Mongolia made me ill.

Nemo's heirarchy of needs
They didn’t know any better, though, and I could not blame them. A society where basic needs are met was rare in the part of the world where I was currently tromping. In Maslow's heirarchy, environmentalism pretty much doesn't make the cut.

A crowd of “big-boned” Mongol teens and their equally large girlfriends hooted, stumbled, and sang along to a tune that combined Flock of Seagulls synth beats with style of rapping that would make your pet hamster commit suicide. How on God’s green earth had these vehicles made it out here? There was no road to speak of, and the crossing over the rocky streams would claw out the transmission from most cars. The closest village, Terelj, had a population of 100 people and 101 horses. I had not seen a single motorized vehicle.

And these were nice trucks—there was a Mercedes and a BMW in the mix.

There was only one explanation. These were rich kids from UB, and they were on a mission to get as far from their parents as possible to get as fucked up as possible. My guard raised to DEFCON 2. (Movies and pop culture always get the DEFCON scale wrong. DEFCON 5 is low alert, DEFCON 1 = nuclear war. Then again, perhaps the backwards scale says more about our military than the general public.)

I began to steer Rocky off the main trail into the lumpy plain, when a pair of obliterated fat Mongol teens, arm-in-arm, called out to me.

“Hello! Hello! Come talk to uzzz…!” they slurred in fairly good English. One raised a bottle of vodka in offering. The proclivity of Rocky to spook around strange noises was the only thing on my mind as I quickly prodded him further away and we soon were a good distance from the party. The disappointed women stopped and finally turned back. We also stopped and I took stock. They were just kids having a good time. Harmless. In fact, in different circumstances, it could have been a wonderful encounter. These kids spoke English, they were rich and probably well educated, and they were in a great mood. They would have likely enjoyed talking with an American, traveling solo on horseback. And I could have asked so many questions, about what they thought of the modernization of Ulaanbaatar, where they thought Mongolia was headed, the rise in crime in the city, what city kids thought about the cowboy life of the country. All while drinking Mongolian gasoline, arm in arm with the happiest, fattest, drunkest Asians of Asia. But… there was no chance of this. Rocky wouldn’t last a minute with that dying-cats techno in the background. And so with reluctance I continued onward.

Lesbo Junction

Rocky continued to resist my attempts to get him to trot. He was simply over it. Even worse, my saddle had gotten a bit loose. So, with great annoyance, I realized I would have to take a break and redo everything. I removed his saddle and put everything on the ground. My sore back needed the break anyway, and so, holding the lead, I simply sat down and rested for a bit a little ways off the road.

We were making very slow progress. The whole concept of horse trekking was questionable. I mean, a walking horse doesn’t go much faster than a person, and then there is all the overhead. The setting up and breaking down of tack, the watering, the feeding, the constant worry. I mean, I would make better time walking with a backpack when all was said and done! What was the point?!

With these dark thoughts in mind, a trio of riders apparated in the distance. (Yes, I used a Harry Potter verb.) The lead rider saw me, and he left the trail to approach.  He was a Mongol riding a beautiful black horse, towing a huge muscular pack horse that was obviously European. Two 30-something women (I'll give them a puma rating) completed the group. One was fairly attractive and thin with long blond hair, the other stockier with a square jaw and thick close-cropped black hair. We examined one another without saying anything.

Beautiful black mongol horse. Photo by kayellaneza
The guide asked me if everything was alright. From his perspective he saw a solo rider stranded in the middle of a field. I told him I was fine, just taking a rest. After explaining I was heading to the monastery, he stated in broken English that he was leading this group to the same place. He looked over my pile of gear and backpack and my smallish horse, then frowned.

He motioned that I put my extra stuff on his giant pack horse. “You come with us.” It was a generous offer, and made even more so by the fact that he made it without even consulting his guests. My eyes widened at the thought. How wonderful it would be to throw my excess gear on the pack horse, and to be able to ride light and free! How much better it would be for Rocky! I quickly agreed and transferred the extra gear to his large horse, which would clearly have no problem with the extra weight.

I do like the Mongolian horses. They are tough and fast, and their smaller size has its advantages. They are easy to mount and handle, and the smaller legs means their trot has a faster beat which is a little smoother than the jolting Western trot. (Riding a trotting donkey, an even smaller animal, is even that much more comfortable. But … what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.) In terms of carrying capacity, however, nothing beats the strength of a large Western horse.

I re-saddled Rocky, we headed back to the main trail together and off we rode. The guide led his horse into a trot, which the girls’ horses immediately matched. I prodded Rocky and he also took off in a trot, a little easier than before. This was very encouraging. Soon we were making great progress. But no sooner had we got going than we had to cross Blue Rock River yet again. Knowing Rocky, I got off and crossed slowly, while the other horses went ahead and were soon out of sight. This was not good. If I couldn’t keep up I would be a burden. As soon as I made it over I mounted up and urged Rocky to go fast. But, it turns out that Rocky simply wasn’t a very fast horse. Even unburdened, I had some difficulty in catching back up to the group. The guide went at a fast trot, almost a run, covering ground very quickly. Mongols always choose the best horses as their own, and his beautiful jet-black gelding looked strong and fit and muscular. I found myself more than a little jealous. Poor Rocky was a dumpy plain Jane compared to this supermodel. Finally, I had no alternative and forced Rocky into a run. At length we rejoined the group. The guide looked over at me with a frown. Perhaps he was regretting his offer of help.

I was surprised at his hurry. Most guided treks I’d witnessed were slow walking affairs, ambling along as if the guides were paid by the hour and wanted to maximize their profit. In fact, for longer guided treks that may have been the case. But this trek to the monastery was probably advertised as a 3-day, 2-night trip and the guide had a schedule to keep. Perhaps more guests were waiting upon his return. For him, time was money.

It was disappointing to realize this. My dreams of trekking alone had been fading with each person I met, and were shattered after the encounter with the drunken SUV party. But to know that my quest to find the secret monastery could be arranged as a tour was even worse. I consoled myself with the fact that at least I was keeping up. Barely.

Horses are herd animals. They like to be around their own kind, and there is nothing they like more on a trek than to bury their nose in the horses’ ass in front of them. This allows them to turn off their brains and slip into cruise control. And it was good for me to. I didn’t have to constantly steer Rocky or prod him to keep up; once he realized this was his new pack, he was happy to revert to a sheep. But more than anything, the gift of meeting this group was that suddenly I no longer needed to concern myself with where I was headed. The greatest stress in solo trekking, it turns out, is the constant worry of becoming lost. This gorilla was now lifted from my shoulders.

As we rode along, I finally had the chance to say my hellos to the girls. The blonde had an easy smile and chatted happily. They were from Colorado on a girl’s adventure weekend. It made me smile when she said that. There are basically three types of fellow Yanks that you meet backpacking: New Yorkers, Californians, and Coloradans. New Yorkers are well-versed in Europe and can often be found saying things such as "I'm so over Prague, soooo touristy, nothing like when I visited back in <insert year they visited, even if it's last year>. Budapest is where it's at, man. It's so authentic." Californians are found throughout Australia and the Southeast Asia circuit, and are easily distinguished by their sparkling new didgeridoo they have no idea how to play. (I'm sure I have one somewhere in my backpack.)

Slater + Didge. Mick Fanning's face is priceless: "Shit. Which end do I shove in my face?"
Coloradans, on the other hand, will pop up in the oddest places. I have found them anywhere from Argentina to Africa, and now here was a pair in Mongolia. They seem to be the most adventurous of the lot. The funny part is that there seem to be very few exceptions to this 3-regions rule. And you know what: I was perfectly happy with that. Yes there will always be fat obnoxious Americans from Texas and Ohio traveling to hotels throughout the world, but there are these types of tourists from every country. Backpackers, though, are a different breed. They tend to go out of their way to mingle with the locals and seek out areas that have not yet been spoiled. They are the vanguard, and therefore make the first impressions upon a local populace. If our most important ambassadors were from these select spots, then the US was representin' just fine.

I smiled at the short-haired jock. She scowled back. Interesting. As we trotted along, I did my best to post a little. (Posting is pushing up on the stirrups every other beat, which makes trotting somewhat bearable for a man’s walnuts.) The blonde, however, had a very different technique. She let the horse bounce her in the air at every beat, which resulted in her lady-parts getting smashed into the saddle like a jack-hammer. She practically squealed with delight at this, and was so happy she had difficulty concentrating on our talk. The jock was a novice rider as well but could at least ride without getting bounced. She looked over at us from time to time to frown.

No doubt about it: riding is much easier on women
And then the light-bulb went off. This was more than a girl’s adventure weekend. This was a date. It couldn’t have been more obvious: the cute femme, the stern butch, and duh! horse-riding. Butch wasn’t happy because she was jealous. Not only was the horse pleasing her lover a little too easily, she now had to deal with a strange guy tagging along as well. Poor Butch. Being the man in the relationship, she may have paid for the whole thing.

We cruised along matching our guide’s fast trot, chewing up huge chunks of distance in short order. Rocky was now unburdened, and without my backpack I felt light and free. The horses pumped forward in rhythm, the land slipped away. We flew over the green fields, blooms of flowers splashing their colors. Even the mighty distant mountains slowly slid past. So this was horse trekking!! Compared to the grueling forest plod of yesterday, I felt like Iron Man in flight. (I even had a couple of girls along, just like Iron Man.) Never again would I doubt the importance of the pack horse.

Ahead the trail split in two, the path more traveled leading to the left. This then was the turn to the west on my map. The sun was low in the sky at this point, but we continued on. At length, we saw a set of well-kept gers tucked under a rocky hill in the distance. Our guide stopped the caravan, and then he turned his horse in a circle, looking around intently. My hopes of spending the night in a comfy ger were dashed when he motioned us off the path down to a valley. Across a small meadow, we came upon a babbling brook protected by tall brush. Water. Shelter from the wind.

Satisified, he said “Camp,” and dismounted.

I followed suit, and stood contemplating this latest turn of events. Not a few hours before, I had sat on the ground in defeat, tack in disarray, humbled. When out of thin air appeared my very own guide and pack horse, with a bonus pair of lesbians thrown in.

Today's moral: If you ever have the chance to pray at an ovoo, DO IT.