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:

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