Finding Nemo

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.

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