Two things were clear as soon as the Transiberian reached Ulan Bataar. I needed to get out of that city and quickly. Ulan Bataar is without a doubt the most chaotic place I have ever visited. Its streets are crowded with peddlers, beggars, pot holes and gazillions of pedestrians. I'm not a city person, especially when this person is visiting a city completely oppressed by a thick layer of grey smog, a chunk of which managed to lodge in my throat as soon as I set foot outside the hotel.
So we arranged to get out of Ulan Bataar within hours of our arrival. The travel agency promised to send us the best tour guide and driver Mongolia had seen. Of course.
The following day, we were deep in the magnificent Gobi desert; a large barren expanse of gravel plains and rocky outcrops covering much of the Southern part of Mongolia. The sky was cloudless and the weather dry and pleasant when we arrived at the first ovoo or Buddhist shrine, an impressive mound of stones, prosperity scarves and offerings to different entities left by devout travelers. Next to the ovoo and under a shade was a prayer wheel with the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum written in Sanskrit on the outside of it. I'm neither superstitious nor fond of rituals, but there was something divine in the air, something intrinsically holy that made me spin the wheel clockwise, as the direction in which the mantras are written is that of the movement of the sun across the sky, with a gentle rhythm and a quiet mind. And I wished with all my heart that this turning of the wheel would enhance my limited allocation of wisdom, compassion and surrender parts of me for the benefit of other beings.
It was a great moment for this shabby Buddhist and tireless traveler. Almost perfect until it dawned on me that I was about to make it across Mongolia confined to a small 4x4 in the company of three men and zero privacy. Suddenly, I came out of my deeply spiritual bubble more worried about my own nature calls than my karma. We would be camping out, sleeping with nomadic families in yurts and tents; we would be cooking on kerosene stoves and always on the move in the vast, barren, treeless, rather flat Gobi desert. I looked around for Mooggie, our guide; surely he'd share some restroom tricks with this silly Latina. And there he was, squatting on the prairie, in all his glory. Pants around his ankles, his left hand holding a cigarette and the right hand a yard of toilet paper. I saw the whole thing. I didn't look away. It was important that I saw what he did with his hands next because as it turned out, he was also our cook.