Our driver's name is Bata-so. He was a gentle, soft spoken, modest Mongolian man. He kept his nature calls to himself, washed his hands with a soap bar out of his own toiletries, brushed his teeth in the morning and before going to bed, chewed his food slowly, noiselessly, mindfully with his mouth modestly closed. And because of his qualities, I called him Beauty. Mooggie, our guide? He was definitely The Beast.
Moogie was a wrestling legend in his own village. A Mongolian man built like a wrestler, who walked like a wrestler, read wrestling news online wherever we found an internet cafe, and who more than once trapped poor Bata-so in a playful front headlock. And whenever he let out one of his noisy belches, or assaulted his fried eggs without cutlery until there was yolk running down his chin and arms, whenever he devoured his food noisily, his mouth open wide, or before and after his seven daily "pee-pee" trips which he announced by rolling yards of toilet paper around his right wrist and concluded with an exaggerated tremor that said Man, oh man, that was a good one, which confirmed that his visits were not exactly "pee-pee" ones, even when he started peeling potatoes and rolling Mongolian sushi without washing his hands, I knew that he was a good man. A man with his heart in the right place. A wrestler who never tired of telling us that his job was to feed us, to make us happy, and to protect us even if he had to risk his own life.
I knew he meant every word.
The first thing we noticed as we left Ulan Bator--a chaotic city that seems to be either under construction or under demolition, with heavily congested and minimally signposted roads--was that Mongolia didn't have a road network. I repeat, no road network. Bata-so followed faint tracks in the dust, mud and sand; he stopped numerous times, binoculars in hand, to assess our location and with no other traffic to follow, it was only natural that he'd get lost a few times. Without a GPS or not even mobile phone coverage for most of the trip, there was nothing we could do but look out the window and take Mongolia in.
Water: How do you survive out in the Mongolian wilderness without water? Easily, as long as you are willing to stop at each settlement and pump water straight out of a fresh water aquifer or take turns with herds of two-humped bactrian camels across the Gobi desert. The water is cold and crystalline but not potable. And it is scarce for the wrong reasons. Oyu Tolgoi is one of the largest copper deposits in the world and has attracted major investors (according to Mooggie, Buddhism makes taking natural resources for profit taboo, bad karma; therefore, the Mongolian government has given the exploitation of its gold and copper to foreign investors) who are rapidly depleting the Southern Gobi aquifers. This area is home to 150,000 residents and 3.8 million camels, horses, cows, sheep and goats. While the consumption of water per day in this area is estimated at 10,000 cubic meters for humans and 31,600 cubic meters for the animals, the mining industry at Oyu Tolgoi uses approximately 67,000 cubic meters a day. Unless additional sources are located or the mining water usage is capped ,World Bank researchers estimate that current known water resources could last just 10 years. TEN YEARS.
This is the Gobi Desert. A place of savage beauty. A place for the hardy and the adroit. A vast countryside whose people thrive in spite of its brutal winters, scorching summers and endless droughts. A place where regardless of the season or the socioeconomic status of a family, little girls go to school dressed to kill, in impeccable uniforms that resemble our Western idea of the stereotypical French Maid, with colorful tights and big white hair bows, all of which they wear with the poise of beauty queens. Boys are proud too. The wear ties and suits from kindergarten all the way to high school. This is the place where my mom's philosophy about cleanliness is applied to full extent: "poverty doesn't mean sloppiness," my mom used to say.
Not to be harsh but I don't think Mooggie got the memo.