Finding Nemo

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ultimate Cowboy

The official membership of the United Airag League

I was comfortably settled back in UB, post-tank concussion, nearly fully recovered from my hangover. My Russian visa would start in a couple days. But something was missing, and I knew exactly what it was.

I had experienced brief thrills galloping free, but they had been too fleeting. Most of both horse treks had been spent in a slow walk, worrying about gear, directions, thieves, and accidentally eating flies. Mendee, my fixer, had a ranch outside of the city where tourists could stay for as long as they like and ride any of his horses. It was where I'd bought my horse, and where Pete and Brad had prepared for their grueling 6 week solo adventures.

Shanties of UB. Pic by Daniel Leu
And so that was that. Mendee picked me up in town and off we went. UB is a bizarre city. In the very center are some glittering half-finished hotels and polished government buildings and monuments. But just outside this area are potted roads, shady alleys, and swarms of the poor attempting to make a buck. Travel just a bit further and suddenly you are in the shanty-towns. An army of gers sprouts up around the city on all sides, disappearing into the hills. These are the truly destitute. They traded a free life in the country for ... what, exactly?

Then, just a bit further and suddenly you pop out of a wormhole, surrounded by nothingness. Nothing but the sprawl of that beautiful green Mongolian plain. Distant wood-covered hills, endless blue sky. The transition is so abrupt that it leaves your head spinning.

We turned the corner and the last vestige of the modern world, the train tracks, vanished. And only 20 minutes later, we pulled off the dirt "highway" and cruised up a grass-covered road to the ranch. A few smoking gers appeared with their colorful painted doors. Young foals and their mothers whinnied at our car. At the crest of the hill a free-roaming herd of horses raised their heads to inspect us.

I can think of no place in the world where a drive of 20 minutes can transport you between such distant universes. Here, away from the city, was the real Mongolia.

Airag Run #1

In the afternoon Pete announced he was going for an airag run. The Dutch couple agreed: this was a wonderful idea. And I still hadn't sold Rocky yet so I also had a set of wheels. We saddled up, Pete circled his horse back to make sure we looked OK. And then, without warning he kicked his horse and took off down the hill. The Dutch guy whooped and took off followed by his girlfriend. I was left in the dust, but wasted no time in giving chase.

We ran down the firm hill, Pete galloping at full speed. I kicked and choo'ed Rocky, trying to get him to keep up. But within a few minutes it was clear that my horse was no race-car. Pete and the Dutch couple grew further and further ahead, running towards a ger in the valley below. I saw them all arrive, hitch-up, and begin stretching their legs. Finally I got there, Rocky huffing and puffing. No one said anything impolite about my pokey ride, but it was pretty clear I had been so slow that they'd been forced to wait on me. Damn.

We knocked on the door and were invited in. As guests we sat on the left (right-hand of the father). The whole family had arrived to greet us: Paw, Maw, uncles, aunts, a couple sons, and 3 daughters. Let's call the daughters slim, not-so-slim, and beef-cake. With so much family piled on the same side, it was a bit of tight squeeze, especially when beef-cake arrived. The others tried in vain to make room for her, but eventually she just picked a spot and "floomp", she plunged in.

Surprisingly one of the girls of the family spoke German. The Dutch guy also spoke German and soon was explaining that we wanted some airag. It was pretty funny to be honest. We all conversed in English, gave our decision to a Dutch guy who communicated it in German, and then the girl translated this to the rest of the family in Mongolian. And then it would all go in reverse.

Airag fermenting in a cow stomach. Yum!!
Well, if there is one thing that is found a-plenty in every ger in Mongolia, it is fermented mare's milk. And within moments our plastic water bottles had been taken away to be filled. After a bit we each had our warm beers (of milk) and we began the toasts. A bottle of vodka was passed around. As the last to arrive, it came to me first. I had nearly completely forgotten the vodka ritual, and began to dip my pinky into the shot glass when everyone called out "Ugui!!!" "No!" This was followed by laughter and Pete reminded me to use the ring-finger of my right hand. There is an old legend of a Mongol lord, Yadama, who had been invited by the Manchus (northern Chinese) to a feast. The Manchus intended to poison Yadama with the vodka. Yadama was clever, however, and dipped his silver ring on his finger into the glass. When the silver ring darkened, he realized it was poison and was saved.

After dipping the finger, you then offer the vodka to the Blue Sky spirit (by flicking a drop above), to the Wind spirit (flick a drop to the side), and to the Earth spirit (flick a drop to the floor). And then, of course, you are expected to drink the shot! Supposedly it's also OK to touch your forehead with the finger instead of drinking, but then the Mongolians think you are a wimp.

So the bottle was passed around and the ritual was repeated, to much laughter from our hosts as we kept screwing it up. Dried yogurt and cookies were also passed around, as our Dutch friend continued to explain who we were and where we were all from. After a bit of this there was a bunch of giggling from the women. My Dutch friend turned to me and said, "She thinks you are cute." Then he indicated beef-cake.

Ah, em. Huh. I smiled politely. She grew very red and asked the Dutch boy a question.

"Are you married?" I knew where this was headed. In a few moments I patiently explained I was single, had no children, yes I had a job, I wasn't crazy, I just hadn't met the right woman, etc. etc. to fascination from the entire family. Beef-cake was clearly a bit uncomfortable with her seat and so got up and attempted to sit on another piece of the bench. As she sat down, it collapsed with a loud "Crack!" and all the women tumbled onto the floor in a pile of clothes and flesh.

Silence. Then, Paw began laughing hysterically. I felt horrible for beef-cake but I couldn't help myself. I was drunk, it was hilarious, and I was biting my lip trying to hold back. I was not alone, it was the same for the everyone in the ger. Ah, poor beef-cake. Well, there are plenty of fish in the sea, or perhaps I should say yaks in the field.

We finally emerged from the ger to a sun setting atop the hills. The air was crisp, we were giddy and drunk, and we knew we were about to race. The great thing about drinking and riding is that you could be blitzed, but the horse is still sober. You never have to worry about a designated driver. After a short bit of trotting, everyone took off across the field and back up the hill. Rocky tried his best but it wasn't long before he fell back to a trot, and then a walk. I arrived alone and in the dark.

Home on the Range

Mendee's dad entertains us with magic tricks.
Over the next few days the routine was the same. In the afternoon we would ride atop the ridge, spot a ger miles away, and then gallop our hearts out across the fields to find airag. After getting tipsy, we ran home, up and down the mountains, through fields of flowers, across rivers, up and down gullies, wherever our hearts desired. We were as free as birds. In the evening Pete and I would take turns having fun with Mendee's kids, wrestling the Mongol boys, playing guitar, poring over his topographic maps, and swapping travel tales. And at night we turned in to our comfortable gers. It was paradise, and I never wanted it to end.

Pete borrows my Mongol guitar and manages to coax a respectable Dave Matthews song out of it
On the 3rd day I explained to Mendee that I would like to try a "fast horse." He nodded, and yelled to one of his ranchers. In a few moments the rancher came back with a beautiful strong horse. He was a bright copper brown, with the usual short mohawk of a mane, but with long bangs. The long hair practically made him a hippie around here. "This is rancher horse. Very best horse, very fast." Then he paused for emphasis. "You must ride careful."

I couldn't believe it. I was getting the chance to ride a rancher's horse. The cream of the cream. I nodded, "Thanks Mendee! I'll be careful." Sweeeeeeet!

It was my final day. Pete had just left for his adventure, and so I was alone with the Dutch couple. We saddled up, and began climbing the ridge to pick out our destination for the day. Immediately I noticed a huge difference. Rocky would always lag behind, and took a lot of encouragement to get going. But not this horse. Without a word or kick, as soon as I pushed up to trot the horse took off in a trot. We went straight up the mountain at a fast clip, and soon I was in the lead. My Dutch friend tried to catch up, but my horse sped up as well. I quickly realized that my horse liked to be in front.

This was going to be awesome.

We reached the crest and spotted a ger far in the distance. We began our descent, and when we reached the plain we all began to run. But my horse didn't just run. As soon as I picked my butt up out of the saddle and leaned, it took off like a bolt of lightning. HOLY SHIT!! I thought as my hat flew off and my eyes teared. This was a fast horse! For the first time in the month I'd been in Mongolia, not only was I riding atop a galloping horse, but I was racing neck and neck with 2 other horses. It was an absolute adrenalin rush. We raced across the plain, and soon found ourselves in a vast field of white flowers. They flew past, blurring into one another. It was unreal.

After a short rest, I told the gang that we should get some video. So I took out my camera and began filming, and once again we took off through the field of white flowers. Like all my pictures and footage from this part of my trip, the clip is lost along with my laptop to thief in Croatia. But I will describe it as best I can. Imagine a video where you see the ground blurring past, bouncing up and down, then the camera turns and films the Dutch couple, also racing by, huge sloppy grins on their faces. The white flowers fly past, giving the video a dream-like quality. The sky is perfect blue as always. And then the camera is turned to me, hat barely hanging onto my head, long hair and beard flapping about, goofy smile ear-to-ear. The hat has comically caught air and looks like a balloon bouncing on my head, then it flies off. And then I begin whooping like a little boy. It is hard to explain how silly and happy I look in that clip, but every time I've shown it to anyone, from Russian soldiers to Romanian villagers, they have all laughed their heads off. The joy and pure thrill of the experience just comes through in the goofiest way possible. Of all that I lost, it is without doubt the single clip that I miss the most. In that one moment, it encapsulates everything about why travel is the greatest thing on earth.

Late that afternoon, I wandered up the ridge by myself to enjoy a few last moments here. A storm began to roll in, and soon the landscape took on an incredible color. Dark skies above, evening sunshine below. It was that rare light of Mongolia that makes everything pop. The wind came up, chilling and refreshing. Clouds rolled by, making shapes of dragons and monkeys.

The incredible colors of cloud and sun. Only in Mongolia

Mongolia, land of imagination, I will be back someday.

Mendee's Tours and Horse-Riding:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Tank Boy

Tank Boy

My Mongolian phone kept ringing. And my head kept pounding. What the hell was this?

"Hello," I croaked into the phone.

"Good morning Mr Nemo! Are you ready to drive tank today?" chirped the voice on the other end.

Oh shit. I looked at the clock on the phone. 8:01am. Yesterday, after arriving back in the city the first thing I did was eagerly sign up for Bolod's Tank Driving and RPG Day of AWESOME!! (I'm not sure if that's the official title.) I then proceeded to go out clubbing until 5am to celebrate my return to civilization.

Now, 3 hours after passing out, I was faced with an awful choice. Miss the 2nd greatest boy-hood fantasy of all time, driving and shooting a tank? (Of course #1 is jumping into a rocket and playing astronaut. Which I still intend to do at some point.) Or, drag my carcass into a tank and risk puking all over it?

My brain tried to compute these options.

"Hello??! Hello Mr Nemo? We are leaving now please."

Of course, there really was no choice. We were talking about driving a freaking tank.

"Yes, I'll be downstairs in just a minute." And with that, one of the greatest and worst days of my life began.

Mr Bolod

Mr Bolod
Mr Bolod is what you would call a character. He speaks Mongolian of course. He also speaks Russian, English, Italian, and French. He has lived everywhere from the former Soviet Union to California where, of all things, he worked as a representative of an Irish moving company. His enthusiasm for Mongolia, tanks, and blowing up cows with RPGs is infectious. As we got into the microbus to ride out to the ranch, he chatted away excitedly about the days events.

"So... first we will drive tank. You will drive tank! Very exciting, yes? And then, we will shoot RPG. One time, guest shot RPG and didn't blow up. We were all very surprised. Then, just as I began walking to target, it blew up BOOOOOM!!! <waves arms to show how big the explosion was> and I fell down! It was very cool!"

I nodded, trying not to vomit on myself as the bus lurched over the potholes.

Mr Bolod enjoys taking "snow-baths" in -35 deg C temps
Behind me was a lovely Russian newlywed couple on their honeymoon. Viktor, clad in the requisite Adidas tracksuit and matching sneakers, sported a factory-issued Russian buzzcut and scowl. His smoking wife Inna was probably 20 years younger than him. She wore bouncy cleavage busting out of a tight red top and a painted-on animal-print miniskirt. Her purple and black Adidas sneakers matched her husband. She smiled at me. Viktor noticed and his scowl grew deeper.

"Nice to meet you guys. Where in Russia do you live?" I asked politely.

Russian Adidas wedding
Viktor scowled some more, then growled something at Bolod in Russian, nodding towards me.

Bolod answered back smiling and looking apologetic. Then Inna piped in and Viktor grew quiet. Inna turned to me. "Don't worry Nemo. My husband vas hoping for private tour but iz no problem." Damn, she was hot when leaned forward and apologized for her husband. It took every ounce of willpower in my body not to stare at her breasts in front of Viktor. "Eyes Nemo! Look at her eyes!" I screamed at my brain.

Later when I asked Bolod, he told me that Viktor apparently didn't like that I was American. "But don't worry, I told him you are very much same. Both Americans and Russians love shooting guns and bombing small countries! Ha ha ha ha! Don't worry, it will be very fun day!"

Finally, thank God, we arrived at the ranch. I opened the door, jogged about 10 feet, and got on my knees. And up came the entire water bottle I had just drank, along with some bits that looked like Campbell's vegetable soup. I pondered the resemblance, because vegetables don't really exist in Mongolia.

After wiping the tears from my face and vomit from my beard, I looked up. Two soldiers in full dress camouflage were staring back down at me, armed with rifles. They were not pleased. Apparently we had arrived on an official Army base, and the first thing I had done was to puke all over it in front of the guards. This was starting off nicely.

The Tank

Bolod must have made a funny joke because soon they were laughing at me and negotiating a price. Bolod forked over some wads of Tookirig and one of the men disappeared. Soon after we heard a huge roar, and a giant cloud of dust and smoke bellowed from around the corner. And a few seconds later, like a shining star upon a hill (well, it may have been the stars I was seeing from dehydration), appeared a real, honest to God ... holy shit that's a tank.

Ladies and Gentlemen: the awesome Russian T55!! (1950's era)
Aboard was another soldier. Apparently this whole operation of letting tourists pay a small fee to shoot the hell out of the place is completely sanctioned by Mongolia's Ministry of Defense. It gave me an idea. What if this sort of thing was allowed by the US Army? Listen up Pentagon. I really think you guys should consider this approach. I mean, if a Backstreet boy pays $20 mil to go to space, won't Joe Schmoe happily pay a few G's to ride around in a stealth fighter? This could solve our debt problem, boys.

The tank pulled up in a roar of exhaust and dust and then stopped. The engine still sputtered along though, the whole thing creaking and jiggling. The thing was a beast. A gloriously noisy, metallic, diesel-fumed beast.

Viktor's scowl had vanished. He hooted and we high-fived. Inna looked a little wide-eyed. We crawled onto the deck above the treads and the thing suddenly jerked forward and took off down the road. It moved surprisingly fast, and I had to hang on for dear life to avoid getting tossed overboard. Inna clung to Viktor, her boobs jiggling like jello the entire time. Not only were Viktor and I enjoying this, but the soldier had noticed as well. Ah, to be a wealthy Russian man.

After we had reached an open area, the driver crawled out of the cockpit and the soldier pointed at me. "You drive!" Ummm... did you not forget that I had just recently anointed your army base with vegetable soup spew? My head still hurt and I was feeling weak, but what was the worst that could happen? We were in an open field.

So I climbed down into the pit. Everything was bare bones, just metal and wires. As I sat in the chair my ass began vibrating along with the engine. It stunk of a peculiar smell. I decided it was a mix of diesel and sweaty socks. Not the most pleasant thing to encounter when you are trying to not to puke. On the floor were 3 pedals, and near my hands were 3 levers. The soldier pointed at the pedals. "Like car! Gas! Brake. Clutch." Then he pointed at the twin levers on either side. He motioned pulling the right one. "Go right!" Then the left. "Go left!" And then he pointed at the 3rd lever. "Gears. OK, now try!"

Getting my license to drive a car when I was 16 involved months of training and a difficult written exam. Getting the OK to drive a tank apparently took 30 seconds of broken English.

I pushed on the clutch with my left foot. It didn't budge. I leaned forward using my bodyweight and finally it depressed. Then I pushed the tank into gear, and revving the gas (how much do I rev??!!) until I heard the engine whining, I let up on the clutch. The tank lurched forward so fast I banged my head on the turret hard. And it hurt, like when you accidentally fall on concrete hurt. Owwwwwww. Seeing stars, I quickly realized I couldn't see much out of the little forward viewing slot and had no idea where the hell we were going.

Suddenly, the soldier yelled, "Left!" Shit. I pulled the left lever until it clanked something into place and suddenly the tank was spinning to the left. I had just disengaged the left tread. "Right!" he yelled. I pulled the right lever and suddenly we were stopped. Both treads were disengaged. I pushed the left forward and we started swinging back to the right. "Straight!" I pushed the right lever and we lurched forward again.

Holy shit!!! I was driving a tank! It was kind of like a blind man driving a car. A hungover blind man with a concussion. Too soon, my turn was over. As soon I climbed out, I jumped off the tank (which is quite high off the ground), nearly twisted my ankle, and began vomiting again. At this point it was only dry heaves. Feeling shaky, I managed to crawl back aboard. The soldiers had a good laugh at this. Inna looked like she wanted to give me a big bosomy hug.

Viktor was next up, jerking the tank all over the place while I clung to consciousness. But it didn't matter. I had just driven a freaking tank. This was the greatest day of my life.

This genius allows the tank to run over him


Shortly after we were back at the base, and Bolod led us over to the shooting range, which was basically a few concrete blocks. The soldiers produced a metal pipe, then proceeded to shove a rocket into the end of it. I looked at the now-armed RPG held nonchalantly by the soldier. It all seemed incredibly dangerous, and I didn't believe a few concrete blocks on the ground would protect any of us from anything.

This was the ubiquitous Russian-made RPG-7, like the tank also from the WWII era. RPG's are incredibly simple devices. The rocket slides into a hollow launch-tube, and then the trigger ignites a charge on the back of the rocket. It's basically a hand-held mortar system.

The soldier knelt down, took aim, and PFFFT!! SSSSSSSS!! the rocket disappeared behind a jet of white smoke.

It made an evil hissing sound as it flew, and a fraction of a second later the hillside exploded in a cloud of grey dirt and smoke. CRACK!! The boom echoed around the hills.


That was scary as hell. And totally AWESOME. In a minute it was my turn. I took the firing position and was handed a fully loaded RPG. My hands were already sweating from the lack of sleep and Mongolian vodka, and now they were sweating even more. I was scared poopless. If I dropped this thing there was a very good chance we would all look like swiss-cheese zombies.

I knelt down and aimed at the the wooden planks that served as a target a few hundred yards away. The soldier checked me out and then said "OK. Fire."

It's impossible not to laugh like Dr Evil afterwards

Adrenalin pumping, mind blank, I squeezed the trigger. Surprisingly there wasn't much recoil. The rocket disappeared SSSSSSSSS!!! and then CRACK! The ground exploded about 80 yards in front of me. I had missed horrendously low. Viktor started laughing crazily. Then I realized that I was laughing crazily too. This was the most fun I'd had since I'd jumped off that skyscraper in Macau. No, scratch that. This was more fun. Afterwards, I began humming the theme for "America! Fuck Yeah!" except that I changed to "Mongol-i-uh! Fuck Yeah!"

"America! Fuck Yeah!"

If you are ever in Mongolia, whatever else you do, make sure you call one Mr Bolod. It will be most totally awesome thing you'll ever do.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Last Ride on Rocky

I awoke in the tent. Upon hearing the tent zipper, Rocky neighed a soft good morning. Today the horse truck would come and I would head back to civilization. I walked over to my horse, gave him a brush. He rubbed his nose on my body as he always did.

Over breakfast I contemplated this relationship. The horse has been a partner of man for 5000 years, placing it 3rd in our most important companions behind the dog (15,000 years) and cat (10,000 years). And now I had experienced it for a brief time. It would be hard to say goodbye to my new pal, who felt like an old pal. But change is the only thing permanent.

I decided I would have to have one last ride on Rocky here to the town center. I could leave off all my gear, Rocky would be unburdened like horse-riding was meant to be. So we saddled up and out the gate we went. I could tell instantly Rocky felt lighter on his feet.

We reached the road to town, and on the uphill side a large firm grassy bank flanked the road. This was perfect. We crossed and I urged Rocky forward to a trot. But this was not enough. It was our last ride, I wanted to open Rocky up and fly down the hill in full gallop! I urged him faster, and as soon as he began to run, I urged him even faster, with kicks and loud “Choooo!”’s. And that did it. Rocky broke open like a racecar bursting free from its governor. We flew down the hill at a speed that I had never experienced before on horseback. Eyes teared, hair flew, the ground was a blur. I yelled my barbaric “Yaaaawwp!” across the rooftops of the town.

Now, during my horse-training crash-course, at some point it is very possible that I was told with wagging finger to never force a horse from a walk directly to a gallop. In my excitement to turn Rocky into a Porsche, it turns out this was exactly what I had just done. You see, horses are herd animals. When one horse quickly stops what they are doing and starts running, it is a danger signal. Quickly every other horse will also bolt. Unless the horse is trained for racing, you are supposed to do the following: 1) walk, wait a bit, 2) trot, wait a bit, 3) canter, wait a bit, and only when the horse is ready, and only for a short time, 4) gallop. And then you are supposed to do things in the reverse. This procedure keeps the horse calm and lets them realize that there is not, in fact, a pack of wolves nipping at their heels.

So, there I was, galloping down the hill at Warp 6, when suddenly I saw a girl I had met back in UB. What on earth was she doing here?! I pulled the brakes. Rocky stopped so quickly my eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. Huh. That was weird. I looked down and I could see that Rocky was absolutely terrified, huffing and sweating, eyes rolling about. Suddenly he started that crazy sideways trot, out of control.

Oh no.

“Hello! Nice to see you! Shit, um, goodbye!” I yelled to the girl as Rocky took me helplessly off into the nearby forest.

Once again, my attempt to impress atop my horse had gone about as well as Octomom’s marriage. Nice move Lone Ranger. After Rocky finally calmed down, I took my free hand and did what needed to be done. A nice long face-palm.

Unfortunately, my troubles were not finished yet. I walked Rocky the rest of the way into town, and after a few purchases at a store, began my return trip. Suddenly I heard the sound of laughing kids from behind. I turned and realized they were pointing at me. One of them mimicked de-pantsing his buddy, which set them all off in hysterics. I turned and look at my bottom. Over the course of the past week my thin travel pants had begun to seriously wear out, a fact I had apparently forgotten. My goodbye gallop had been the last straw. The seat had completely ripped off, exposing my underwear clad ass. I had walked into town, bought my items of convenience, and then  marched back out showing the entire local populace Nemo’s New Moon.

Asses whistling in the breeze together, Rocky and I began the long walk back to the hotel.

The truck to pick up Rocky could not come soon enough.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Alone on the Step: Final Chapter

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678910, 1112, 13, or 14

Day 5: Return to Nowhere

A Rare Light

In the morning as dawn broke I quickly packed, saddled up, prepared to ride off. Just as I got in the saddle, the door of the ger swung open and a little girl’s face poked out. Then another face poked out on top of the first. They looked at me, curious and unsure. I smiled at them, lifted my hat and gave Rocky a little kick. They smiled back and the littlest one waved. There is perhaps nothing more uplifting to the human soul than to have someone to wave goodbye as you set forth into the world. And so it was that I set off happy on that final day.

The air was clear, the grass damp from the overnight rain and dew. The morning sun reached out long golden fingers onto the wet hills, sparkling greens mixed with shadow. A great morning to be alive. And here I was, quite alive, and in Mongolia! In fact, I was even astride my own horse. I laughed at the thought. Last year, I was sitting at a desk, unsure of my health, my job, my life. Here I was now, in an alien world.

The sad remnants of my horse-hair girth seemed to be holding themselves together as we ambled along the trail. Gaining confidence, I picked up to a trot and we began making decent time. I took the high road, which was a narrow track in the hills far above the valley floor. From here, the little smoking gers and ranches on the river’s edge looked like props from a Western. A low rumbling began, the sound of distant thunder. I glanced first at the clear sky before spotting a large herd of horses galloping along the plain. Why were they running? Then, out of the dust in the back emerged two riders. They rode swiftly and surely, darting among the stragglers, rounding them up and sending them back into the pack. It was an amazing spectacle watching the skill and speed of these ranchers. They would suddenly slow, wheel around left or right, and then just as quickly burst back to a gallop. All the while they held the reins with only one hand, the other casually flicking a long rod like a whip. One of them stopped and pulled off for a moment, then raised the reins to his mouth. Even from this distance, it was clear he was taking a drag from a cigarette. Not only were they rounding up horses on the run, but this man had somehow managed to keep a cigarette lit in his fingers.

That wasn’t impressive. It was unbelievable.

I shook my head and we continued on. As the sun rose high above my head, a prick of white appeared, and then grew into a stupa. It was the same one I had encountered a few days ago with the young girls. But today I would have no such company. We arrived and again I tied Rocky off to the hitching post.

We were at the top of a hill that surveyed the junction of the mighty Tuul Gol and the Terelj river. Above the vast forested flood-plain, a wall of low mountains sprouted on the far side. The Tuul, ever winding its way south to Ulaanbaatar disappeared into a notch in the wall. It was in this very forest where, on my first eager day of the trip, I had accidentally filled my boots with water, been lost in swamp, had not one, but two Mexican yak bull stand-offs, and been awoken in my underwear by a tough cowboy. All because I wanted to be clever and hide from imaginary thieves. Sitting up here in the bright sun, the firm straight road home before me, I couldn't help but laugh.

Behind me a new crop of rain clouds had snuck up, spilling curtains of rain onto the valley. Yet, it was one of the odd days when the sun was also out, and I watched in fascination as the rain lit up with the sun’s reflection. Any photographer will know that nature provides many types of light conditions. There is the harsh light of a noon-day sun, the soft warmth of sunrise, the ever-changing palette of a sunset. But perhaps the most remarkable, and rare, light of all was the scene before me. There is something unreal about cloud, rain, and sunshine all combining at once upon a natural landscape. The colors pop out in such a vivid way that it’s almost as if Nature has turned the world into an Instagram filter. The greens of the plain were greener, the ger tent skins creamier, the horses browner, the rain a sparkling silver. I sat alone at the shrines, eyes open, mind empty. Watching. Breathing.

But the rain was getting too close for comfort, and the meditation did not last long. I began my descent down and turned for home.

Cowboy Nemo

We were walking and trotting at a decent pace, when I noticed I had company. Far behind me was another rider. He was herding a cow and a calf. Now, I do believe that if I was herding a cow and calf, I would certainly not be able to catch up to another rider. But, slowly, surely, he gained ground. Perhaps it was all that time spent jockeying on the LA freeways, or perhaps it was that competitive streak of growing up with 10 siblings. But I felt a little miffed at this and hurried Rocky more. “Choo! C’mon old boy, we can’t let this local yokel and his cows catch up to Cowboy Nemo and his legendary steed Rocky! Choo I say!” Rocky apparently hadn’t herd of Cowboy Nemo, and his new legendary status did not seem to excite him either. We lost more ground, and soon the rancher was almost upon us. It was clear I’d have to let him pass.

I glanced over as he came abreast, and I was surprised to find it was only a teenager. Slouched low in the saddle, under a worn baseball cap, he looked at me with obvious curiosity. Like all country kids, although his face was tanned and weathered, the cheeks somehow remained rosy. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the face of the Nepalese and Tibetan kids I’d met in my travels. So similar these races were.

His main charge, the big cow, plodded head-down along the trail. But the skittish calf darted constantly about, clearly bewildered by this forced march away from  home. With a practiced hand, the boy moved his horse constantly about to herd the calf back in line, cracking his lead rope like a whip. And he didn’t just crack it for the noise. The calf was taking a beating, bleating in fear. First it would run back to its mother, but was so scared it couldn’t help but continue to run off.

I pitied the calf, but such was life in the country. The boy was just doing his job. After saying hellos, I pointed where we were going and asked “Terelj?” He nodded “tiim” and pointed at the cow. And then I noticed something horrible. The cow’s right rear flank had a large palm-sized wound, yellow and red from disease and blood. What looked like black broccoli was sprouting from the edges. It looked like a horrendous staph infection. When I looked closer, I saw that the cow was doing very badly. Other black spots had sprouted up apart from the main infection. The eyes were red instead of white, the nose was running with thick fluid. This cow was probably not going to make it. But the rancher’s family was clearly trying to do what it could by taking it into town. The calf had no choice but to come along with its mother, running scared, constantly whipped.

Suddenly the calf darted across my path, so that I was now blocking the boy from herding it. There was only one thing to do, really. I turned my horse to chase after the calf. I managed to get to the far side, and attempted to crack my rope at it. The rope flew back and cracked next to my eyeball instead. I had nearly blinded myself. Nice. I yelled at the calf, “Go! Go!” The calf turned around and ran behind me. I turned as well to find the boy laughing. In a moment he had the calf back on the path. I shook my head and laughed back. After a moment, I had a 2nd chance as the calf ran off my way again. This time, I took a wider berth to get to its right, then without using the rope or yelling, steered it back to the trail. The calf ran back to its mother. Success! This herding thing wasn’t so hard after all. The boy gave a little cheer.

We rode together for a bit, herding the calf as a team. It was a fantastic feeling. Here I was, rolling, rolling, rolling, keeping them doggies rolling. Almost a real fake cowboy. The herding was so easy for him that he never dropped his cigarette, and yet it was almost comically impossible for me. The calf would turn and dart behind me, then when I turned around it would run back in front. I always seemed to turn the wrong way. Finally, after about 10 attempts at whipping the lead, a satisfying “crack!” came off the end. The boy exclaimed something like “Good!” in Mongolian approvingly. Ah! I was a natural at this. And then, as will happen, I failed to reproduce it on the next 30 attempts to more laughter from the boy.

I took out my phrasebook and managed to ask his age (14), where he lived (behind us somewhere), and his name (which I didn't quite understand). I pointed at myself and said, “Nemo.”


“Ugui,” I shook my head. “Neee-moe.”


Well, it was what I deserved. I had already learned that my name was impossible to pronounce in this country. It didn’t have what in Mongolian is called ‘vowel harmony,’ where only certain combinations of vowels are allowed in the same word.

I sighed and nodded. “Tiim, nee-nee.”

“Nee-nee!” he beamed back.

But, the day was growing late, and I was determined to reach my old hotel stomping grounds before it was dark. I bade farewell to my new friend, and with a kick and a “Chooo!” we were off. Soon we were running, and with a wistful thrill I realized that this was perhaps my last ride on ol’ Rocky. So we ran for a long way, longer than I'd done on the entire trip.

Ahead was the forest that marked the entrance to the Terelj outskirts. Civilization.

After entering the forest, we encountered a shack built of wood. A permanent structure. Not long after that, fences. And then, a loud roar was heard. It was a big SUV, bounding along the muddy track at speeds that were not compatible with reaching old age. I quickly got off the trail to let it pass.

It was far too soon. My trip was over.


After mis-judging where to cross the river and getting my boots filled with water, running from dogs, and dodging SUVs apparently hell-bent on splattering a horse on their grill, I finally reached the friendly Mongol hotel. The beginning. The owner who had taken pity on me wasn’t home, but after some extended games of charades I managed to convince the person in charge to let me spend a final night on their lawn. Or, perhaps he was just nodding politely to get a wild filthy foreigner back outside of the hotel. I’m still not sure which it was to this day.

At any rate, after getting the horse and gear sorted for the night, I actually had a moment to myself in the fading sunlight.

I pulled off my boots, then my filthy wet socks and set them out to dry. And stared at what remained of my feet. The monster blister covering my entire heel had burst and was partially torn off. The one covering my big toe had turned a black reddish color. My face was burnt, my neck fried, my left knee throbbing, my back was in need of three simultaneous Swedish masseuses, my golf balls were numb, and my ass was chapped like it’d been attacked by a dominatrix. My poor jeans were 2 threads shy of being ripped completely apart down the ass. I looked at the single flip-flop I'd kept. Yes, I kept it. Yes, it would get me about as far as a 1-legged chicken.

And yet … here I was, a fresh plate of delicious goulash in my stomach, a cold beer in my hand. Contemplating the experience. The stress of planning the trip, buying horses and gear, being lost, worrying about thieves, equipment breaking, … these were all now in the past. For the first time in two weeks, a surprising thing began to happen. As the sun warmed my feet, I sagged back in a chair and drifted off. Could it be? I believe I was starting to relax.

The Ouroboros

The Ouroboros
It is night in my tent. Snuggled in my sleeping bag, headlamp on, pen in hand. From beyond the Chinese canvas comes the pleasant sounds of Rocky happily munching away. I chuckle at the memories of my first night in this same spot, Rocky screaming as I suddenly realized I had no idea what the hell I was doing.

Pen meets rough Tibetan paper and I scrawl some final musings in this beautiful hand-made journal.

“I have discovered 3 things:

1)  I’m no horse whisperer and never will be. No amount of Mongolian boot camp can replace a lifetime of experience. 

2) It is possible to have a dream solely about pizza. Cold beer is incredibly delicious. And, big baby Jesus, I really really miss good espresso.

3) I will never, ever, do this again. (Did I tell you my ass feels like it was attacked by a galactic death ray?) God help the poor souls I’d met back at Mendee’s camp who were headed out on 6 week solo treks.

Oh, and Tim Cope (who re-traced Genghis Khan's journey from Mongolia to Europe), you are a freaking masochistic legend.”


I stop for a moment, happy with the snarky ending to my tale. But, the pen doesn’t drop. I guess I’m not done? And then I realize there is a final confession to make.

Tomorrow I would be selling Rocky, like he was a used car. And it makes me feel odd. A bond is being broken. I suppose it’s like you saying goodbye to your dog, except that in this case, you depended on your dog for your actual well-being. Rocky wasn’t just a “pet,” he was, as Walt Whitman put it, a comerado.

Goodbye Rocky. I wish you well. And I hope your next owner will name you something awesome like “Gambler” or “Pilgrim.” But, your likely fate is known to me. You’ll end up a tuk-tuk for tourists. Slogging mile after mile for a buck, whipped, abused, and then jettisoned like the Mongolian tool you were born to be.

I stop to think.

It’s not just Rocky’s fate that has me in this strange state. I think about the modern world, and what place Mongolia has within it. Our race is nothing more than warring tribes of chimps. Man kills and enslaves man. Forests are burned, rare animals poached and forever lost. And yet we spread, and burn, and build, and spread, and today, even the Earth itself is but another form of Rocky. A tool to be used and discarded. For what?

Why does Mongolia sing for so many of us in the West? Why do we come here, of all places, to seek answers? I unzip my tent, and look up into the night. Above is the naked blinding light of all creation. The fresh smell of dewy grass swims in the dark. It is the world as it was. Spilling out endless in all directions, wild, free.


So little is still like this place. One day, soon, even this Land of Blue Sky will be nothing but fences and smoke.

I look at my backpack. I could have stuck with my boring job; I could be sipping a nice glass of wine on the couch. But, what do you know, backpack ol’ boy? I chose you. Tonight, I know in my bones, it was the best decision of my life.


Monday, January 7, 2013

Alone on the Steppe: Chapter 14

Click to read Chapters 123, 45678910, 1112, or 13

The Longest Day

After some sweat I managed to retie the broken girth. Barely. I had re-tied it so many times that all the extra length was now gone. I took everything off, put it back on, re-cinched, and wondered what to do next. Riding any further would be a huge gamble. If the girth snapped again, I would be hard-pressed to even walk back because of the difficulty in keeping the saddle on top of Rocky. On the other hand, I didn’t have an unlimited amount of food. I had to get back before too long.

I should've bought the traditional boots. Not only more comfortable, but way better for the disco. (Photo by MykReeve)
For now, I took the cautious route and decided to hoof it. My boots-o-torture had long ago begun to rip apart my feet. I sucked it up and took off down the trail. Ka-lump, ka-lump. This was the sound of my heel hitting the dirt, then my foot sliding forward into the toe of my over-sized boot. Ka-lump, ka-lump. Ka-lump, ka-lump. And on and on. After covering no more than a half-mile, I collapsed in a pile. My feet were the burning hells. I removed my boots to find blisters bigger than I realized were possible on a human foot. The largest of these was on my left heel, wrapping upwards around my Achilles and down into the arch of my foot. It measured about 2 inches in diameter. I pressed it in fascination, watching the outer skin ripple like a waterbed. I took out my camera and took some photos which I planned to show my doctor friend back home, hoping he would co-sponser it as an entry in Guinness World Records. Sadly, this photo is gone. It is a loss not just for you, loyal readers, but for Science.

I couldn’t walk, not with Mongol death-boots at any rate. Then a spark o’ genius appeared. Rummaging around in the backpack revealed my worn, comfortable flip-flops. Heaven! I began to wince forward on the flops, slowly. The sun continued plodding across the sky without any regard. My goal was, at a minimum, to reach my old friends at Happy Ger Camp. The taste of those tangy fresh-picked berries! Real tea! Voices in English! I resolved to make it.

After rounding a corner I saw a slightly downhill stretch of firm ground. This was a chance. The boots were thrown back on, the flops stashed under a piece of rope, and “Choooo!!!!” off we went. The misery of the day quickly vanished as we galloped along, the wind in my face. So good to be riding again! The miles began to fly by.

Suddenly I noticed a strange sound. Or actually, an absence of it. At first there had been a flap-flap as we galloped, but it vanished. I hurriedly stopped, turned in my saddle, and realized the flip-flops were missing. The most important rule of horse-trekking is that everything must be tied down securely. EVERYTHING. And in my hurry to ride, I had simply stuffed the flops under a rope like an imbecile. Now they were gone.

Chacos aren't chacos without an anklet
It is hard to explain the emotion I felt at this loss. When you are back-packing for an extended time, you become very attached to your flip-flops. There are a couple reasons for this. First, footwear is of utmost importance. You are constantly on your feet, hiking or exploring cities or running to catch a bus, all day every day. The right flip-flop that doesn’t kill your feet is critical. Yes, I know many a backpacker who prefer Chacos or some other sophisticated strappy open air shoe, but let’s face it--nothing beats the simple on-off ease of a flop.

The air-cushion sole is a wise choice
Now, most knowledgeable Californians will agree that the greatest flip-flop on the planet is made by Reef. Reef is found in good surf stores, which stock flip-flops vastly superior to anything you can find in a department store or mall. They are high quality, and some of the better Reef versions feature good arch support and thick air- or gel-cushioned soles. When you lose them, as is inevitable when you are tramping through poor countries with small mobs of street urchins, it is not just depressing. There is also the realization that your comfortable high-tech flip-flops are irreplaceable in a 3rd-world country. The only thing you can buy are plastic pieces of crap which cut into your skin and are about the thickness of a piece of cardboard. Each time I lost them, I searched diligently in foreign shopping malls for something, anything, that looked like it wasn’t slapped together with glue and straws. My last pair was discovered in a high-end mall in Beijing. It didn’t matter that they looked like something that might be worn by the pink Power Ranger. They were comfortable, and I was happy.
Snoopy flops are sweet but no match for Reef

So, you can start to understand why, upon realizing the flops had vanished, I yelled aloud and slapped my forehead as hard as I could. Which I instantly regretted, because now I had a headache as well.

They could be anywhere.

I removed my boots and began limping back the way I had just come in such a hurry.

Barefoot and pissed.

After only a few hundred yards, I found the first flop, lying right on the trail. Heaven. The second flop couldn’t be far. I searched the area carefully, but there was no trace. Perhaps it had fallen a bit further up the trail. I kept walking and scanning, pulling Rocky along. I looked and looked and looked some more. But it was not to be. The other flop had been plucked out of this dimension by Mister Mxyzpltk.

I realized this was not the first time, or the last time, that this sort of thing happens to us humans. It is one of the great laws of Murphy that when a person requires a pair of items, invariably that person will lose one, and only one, of said pair. Thus rendering the remaining half of the pair not only useless, but a cursed relic which mercilessly taunts the person: “Look at me!!" says the flop. "I'm so useful looking, and yet so worthless! Bwah ha ha ha!!!”

In a spate of hopeful madness, I even put the single flop on my foot. Thus, I limped, flopped, and cursed back up the trail.

After a few miles, or perhaps more, it is actually a blur in my memory, I stopped and simply sat down. My mind was darkness. I took a few breaths, and as the air was exhaled, atom by atom, the storm inside was also exhaled. And then, it was calm. Blank. The only thing in my mind was that I was tired. I looked to the east, and there was the river, and near it was the lush green grass of Mongolia.

Without conscious thought or motive, I rose and moved towards the water. The river was broken into many streamlets. Across the first of these lay a small island filled with lush grass. As we crossed the slippery stones, my blistered bare feet were soothed by the cold water. Rocky set right to work. Huge juicy mouthfuls disappeared into his mouth. I lay my sore back on this delicious bed. Soft. Above, pure blue. A few cream-filled clouds wandered about, in no particular hurry to be anywhere.

"What's your rush?" they asked.

The trees rustled in agreement. Rocky seemed to nod at this wisdom as well. He munched on, delighted at this unexpected buffet.  After a moment, all the grass within Rocky’s lead was shorn. Instead of getting up to head back to the road, I simply moved ourselves to a fresh patch and lay back down. Perhaps that ambling cloud was right. What was there to worry about, after all? I wasn’t lost in the wilderness with no food or water, was I? I was just going slower than expected. And to be honest, even if I had to walk, it was no more than 2 days to get back. I would be fine.

I sat up and considered my situation. As much as I had needed and enjoyed this little moment of Zen, there was the little matter of figuring out where I would sleep. I looked a bit more around the little island, realizing that it provided water, grass, and the small brush would hide my tent from any baddies. But as I crawled around, I quickly realized that the brush was too thick. A breeze began to stir, and a thick band of dark clouds began nosing their way across the hills. It was rain. The grass was wet, in fact, too wet. Rain would flood this spot and I would wake up in the middle of the night floating down the river.

Reluctantly, we headed back to the road and began walking once again. Despite the blisters and the imminent soaking, I suddenly felt light-hearted and free. It was a bizarre unexpected feeling. It was all so very perfect, this bit of suffering! Why had I traveled all this way after all?! Wasn’t it to have a little adventure? And so here I was, finally having one.

Channeling Gene Autry
With that, I began tramping forward, bare feet on the earth, dark skies above, and broke out with a tuneless rendition of “Home on the Range.” Happy.

The rain began to fall, but it was only a light mist really, nothing my deel couldn’t handle. As the evening deepened, we passed the spot where Rocky had freaked out at the ox pulling the cart, and then the place where I had been angrily chased away by the old witch and her dog-zilla. Down and down we traveled, over the hills, through the valleys of yak and cow and sheep, across boulder-strewn riverbeds, until finally, in the dark twilight, it appeared.

Happy Ger Camp.

This time I didn’t hesitate. A quick knock on the door and in moments I was once again happily in the sumptuous warm ger, surrounded by what felt like old friends. But this time it was late and after my fill of delicious tea, berries, curd, and sweet biscuits, I took my leave. They allowed me to set up my tent inside their fence for protection, for which I was grateful. I brought Rocky across the river to a nice patch of grass on an island. The patch was surrounded by trees and Rocky would be safely out of sight.

After my tent was sorted in the rain, I crawled inside and prepared to tuck into some cold peanut butter and jelly. But then I heard a “Hello!” from a women’s voice outside. Surprised, I opened my tent and peered out to see the doctor’s wife holding a steaming pot of water. “Hot!” she said and then motioned eating. She had not only re-stoked the fire and heated up water for me, but then come outside in the dark and rain to my tent to offer it. It was one of those selfless acts of human kindness that catch a person off-guard. I just stared back dumb-founded for a moment before managing a smile and nodding a “Bayarlaa. Bayarlaa.” She smiled back and vanished in the dark.

Minutes later I was sucking down a hot bowl of spicy noodles, letting the delicious heat spread out from my belly. A few hours before I was literally at the end of my horse-hair rope. And now ... I was home. I curled up in my cocoon, the rain pitter-pattering on the tent. It was the white noise of the womb. My eyes closed, the world disintegrated. And an old dream returned.

Once again, I was in Tokyo watching Pam-zilla smash apart the city with her massive chest-mounted wrecking balls.

Bumbles at Midnight

I bolted upright in my tent. Something was wrong, but I was too bleary to figure out quite what. After a moment, I heard it. Rocky was neighing. It was still raining, it was the deepest hours of the night, but none of this mattered. A kid had to be looked after, and I was the parent.

I struggled into my deel and boots, grabbed my headlight, and peered out of the tent across to the island. No eyeball reflected back. This was not good. I jumped out of the tent and hurried across the water. More neighing, this time to my right. It came from the trees. I looked over, and beheld a sight of comedy that I will never forget.

I had attached his rope to a tree at the edge of a large clearing. This clearing had been full of nice grass for Rocky to chew on, and I didn’t worry much more about it as I went off to bed. I now examined the rope. It went from the original tree to another, around it, and through a magic trick that impresses me to this day, went over a large branch that came up to my head, then down around a third tree. Rocky had then managed to wrap the rope around all 4 legs in what looked like a passable figure-8 knot. The fact that the poor horse had managed to hog-tie himself and yet stay standing was more unbelievable than watching UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon attempt Psy's gangnam style dance.

Nice moves
Rocky had a frantic expression on his long face, trying to move but nearly falling over with each attempt. He gave up, looked at me, and gave a soft hopeless neigh. I burst out laughing, feeling guilty at the same time. This was, of course, all my fault. I should never have tied him up next to a thicket of trees. Of course he ate everything in his reach. Of course he saw the tasty grass still in the forest and went after it.

I carefully untied him, and re-staked him down in the middle of the clearing, away from obstacles. “Sorry old pal. I promise, I’ll never do this again.” He replied by blowing air out of his nose. Hmmph.

 This is why I’m never having kids. I would make a horrible parent.