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.
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.
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.