Somewhere in the world, there is a gold rush.
Somewhere else, there is an oil boom.
Here in this particular Mongolian prairie, there is neither gold nor oil. But there is a rush and a boom.
Precious stones. That's what abounds on this specific spot in the middle of nowhere out in the countryside. They are raw, amorphous, dull and covered in dust, as if to discourage their human predators; as if saying, look, we are not all that pretty, just leave us alone. But they are beautiful and so rare is the light trapped within them and so spectacular their colors that Chinese artisans have their eyes set on this very patch. Why the Chinese and not the Mongolians? Expertise and access to the global market are the answer, but mainly globalization. China buys cheap from those who can't afford to haggle, like Mongolians, then sells cheap to the rest of the world.
According to the local interpretation of Buddhism, humans are not to profit from the gifts that nature has to offer. Removing these semi-precious gems from the ground is, for all intents and purposes, the same as stealing from nature. Bad karma. And if to this transgression you add financial gain, then you are in the red. Super, duper bad karma.
Yet, there is hunger and the pervasive need to put food on the table. Whole families arrive in beat-up cars and motorcycles, bags of decapitated water bottles in tow, rolled cigarettes ready to be turned into smoke, padded clothing and fleece hoodies set to be zipped up and tied. They get to work. The fill the plastic water bottles with semi-precious gems, a process which requires a lot more expertise than I realize. I squat next to Bata-So and let him teach me to sort the good gems from the not-even-worth-looking-at ones. Caught up in a moment of childish wonderment, I go for bright and shiny. Wrong gems. Shiny doesn't count as all the gems will be polished and shone in China. Bright doesn't cut it either. The true color of the stone is inside it, their spectral purity reveals itself only to the gem cutter. In China.
And so the families fill their plastic bottles with these semiprecious gems. Drive hundreds of miles to Ulan Bataar, the capital. Locate the black market of Chinese artisans (whose location varies as the transaction is illegal in Mongolia). Sell each bottle for a couple of dollars (about 3000 Tugriks). And by the time the stone foragers make it back to their nomadic campsites, you and I and everyone I know, will have worn a charms bracelet, or bought an exotic-looking necklace, or given someone a pair of earrings with their birth stones in them, or considered buying one of those fashionable double-finger rings. Their tags will say Made in China, but we already know that their souls are from Mongolia; souls kept alive through the backbreaking work of whole families like the one in the photograph.
Although I'm a purist when it comes to international music and I frown upon any attempt to "westernize" other people's music, I have long forgiven two bands: Deep Forest and Enigma. Here is an example of what Enigma did with one beautiful piece of Mongolian music. Enkhjargal will grab you by your throat at the 45th second, will hold you there for a few minutes, and will spit out your heart toward the end while he takes you on a furious gallop with his incandescent instrument, the morin khuur. Be patient. Stay with him and he'll show you what a man can do with his throat.
Enigma's synthesized version is not too shabby either.
Here, bs is gold. Literally. It gives you warmth (if dry), it acts as a great caulking substance (if wet), it is smokeless, odorless and it costs you nothing.
Someone has to collect it. Someone has to walk behind the camels gathering their dung all day long. Someone grabs, bare-handedly, each pile of fresh bs that falls to the ground, puts it into tightly woven burlap sacks, and carries it home, fully aware that his family depends on this bs for survival.
At home, someone makes patty cakes with it, arranges these into piles outside the yurt, and lets the piles of bs dry in the sun. When they are ready for use, they are brought into the yurt, placed into the fire stove, and lit with a match. Within seconds, the near-freezing yurt is transformed into a near-sauna. No wires or outlets needed. No prohibitive electricity bills at the end of a brutal winter. No negative impact on the environment. Nothing. It is, as far as I can see, the most effective and the purest source of heat. Then again, someone has to manipulate it, which we did without a hint of repulsion. But as luck would have it, as soon as our gracious hosts retired, so did the fire in our stove. And that's when we discovered the extent of our inadequacy. Apparently, throwing a lit match into the urn of bs is not enough to get it going. Suffice to say that we ran out of matches and ended up using a camping stove and starter blocks.
When I told a friend that I was going to Mongolia, all she wanted to know was why. Why? Why? of all places. This picture is the answer. He is a Mongolian shepherd through and through, herds his family camels and sheep like his ancestors did, and he does all of this with a few modern twists. There he is in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia, inside his yurt (the motorcycle he uses for herding is parked outside by the door), talking to a fellow shepherd over his mobile phone. In front of him hang the tails of the animals he has sold. For good karma. So that the spirit of the animal can come back home whenever it feels the tug; so that the exchange of a sentient being for money doesn't become a curse; so that animal and shepherd reincarnate in higher forms; so that they can recognize, acknowledge and cherish each other again and again.
Here is how you throw a party in Mongolia: Give your tourists a couple of bottles of vodka so that they can entertain themselves while you get together with other guides and drivers, jump in a couple of jeeps and go visit friends in the area. Drink copious amounts of airaag, and just when the tourists are ready to retire, drive back to the campsite, barge in the communal yurt, bring more vodka (the good stuff as well as the distilled horse milk) and summon them to stay for the party.
Explain that everyone is expected to sing a song from their country and start passing the distilled milk around. Do not forget to hang to dry the horse meat; it will be nice and crunchy tomorrow for the tourists. Start singing a song about horses. Clap enthusiastically when the other guides sing longer versions of the same song. Insist that X sings the Mongolian national anthem, it's so beautiful and so appropriate for a party. Get some good old national pride and sing the really long version of the anthem. Nod approvingly when one tourist sings Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and secretly wonder why tourists always sing that song. Drink more airaag. Get all sentimental when your friend sings about the three beautiful Mongolian mountains and insist that she sings the really, really long version of it. Don't feel insulted when Mr. Hotshot from Europe, who is drunk and thinks himself hilarious, does a terrible throat singing meant to mock your culture. Stomp your feet along and tell him that he sounds like a true Mongolian.
And when this Colombian tourist and her Scottish husband sing Yesterday, join in. Sing along, all of you. "All my troubles seemed so Far Awayyyyy," pull out your iPhone and show them how much you love The Beatles. Ringo Star? The best! Paul McCartney? Number One! John Lennon? Nice, nice! Sure, everybody knows Yesterday, but do they know A Hard Day's Night? huh? and how about Helter Skelter, In My Life, Help and Julia? You downloaded all the videos from YouTube and have been saving them for a special occasion like tonight. Yes, sure you also love Michael Jackson and ok. Jennifer Lopez too (chuckle, chuckle), but The Beatles? Everybody knows this in Mongolia: The Beatles are the best. They are Number One!
Besides being a cook and a guide, Mooggie was also our DJ, a job he took very seriously, withdrawing, turning over, and pushing back into the stereo slot the only cassette they brought for our cross country trip. With such limited selection of music (no radio stations out in the country) we expected long periods of silence. But as I said, Mooggie was a diligent DJ and he kept playing that cassette as if his life depended on hearing the same songs over and over again.
Every waking minute.
Every driven mile.
About ten times a day.
Side A and side B.
No skipping songs, because apparently they were all really good. The fifteen of them. The cassette was by a Mongolian singer by the name of Boldbaatar, a mixture of Pavarotti, Freddy Mercury, and Michael Jackson, with bits of good old throat singing and something close to yodeling. Fantastic!
Faced with the impossibility of ever finding out the names of the songs or their lyrics, I contented myself with reading Mooggie and Bata-So’s reactions every time a song came on. There was a funny one. And I know it was a funny song because every single time the song was played, they looked at each other and burst out laughing.
“What’s the song about?” I asked Mooggie after hearing the song for the umpteenth time.
“Love,” he said.
“Why is it funny?”
“Because man love girl, but girl funny.”
There were also songs praising the beauty of Mongolian landscapes, especially the three major mountain ranges.
“Which mountains are those?” I asked Mooggie. He looked around and pointed at the first thing that looked like three hills.
“Those over there. Left, Right and Middle Mongolian mountains.”
I suspected foul play when later on, my husband asked Mooggie the same question.
“Three beautiful mountains,” he said. “Big mountain, little mountain and middle mountain.”
Many of the songs were about horses—they had introductory galloping sounds and background neighing noises that were half endearing and half puzzling.
This incessant repetition of music made me move through phases very quickly: from amused, to annoyed, to curious, back to annoyed, back to amused, to thoroughly excited every time I predicted correctly what the next song was. The funny one. The one about three beautiful mountains. The bluegrass-sounding one about horses, etc.
Anyway, long story short, I fell in love with Boldbaatar’s songs (the only 15 I knew) and as soon as we went back to Ulan Bataar, we went looking for his music. It was easy to find. Apparently many of his songs were in the coveted Top 20 in Mongolia. Here is my favorite by Boldbaatar and the not-so spectacular Mooggie’s renditions of it after too many bowls of distilled horse milk (very shaky, shaky).
Hint: Climax at the 55th second.
Title: Uguilj yaviya negniigee
Sixty million years ago, this part of the Gobi desert called
Yet, I love these two tiny words: Flame and Cliff.
Both so inherently dangerous.
Flame conjures up images of things set ablaze, things that burst into strident blasts of angry red and hues of passionate orange.
The word flame makes me think of my middle school years when girls used to remove the hair on their arms by passing a candle rapidly over them. They burned the hair off their arms to make them caressable, to offer them naked and soft to boys with clumsy hands and sticky fingers. They singed the fuzz on their arms out of love. So that they were welcomed and accepted and kept.
But only little girls do such silly things. When they grow up so do their pain, the caliber of their offerings, and their boldness. Some of them favor self-immolation over singeing. They offer themselves in sacrifice by setting their whole bodies ablaze. They do it as a form of protest, of martyrdom, out of scorn. They sacrifice their flesh and bones in the name of love. Afghan women wishing to escape abusive marriages, Tibetan nuns protesting Chinese rule, Indian widows seeking eternal love throw themselves into their husbands’ funeral pyres.
Think heat, your skin peeling off, first crispy then waxy like a candle left out in the sun. Think pain, the fat of your body coloring the flames with traces of bleeding green and tender yellow, turning your midriff into a volcanic blow torch.
Flames. Kisses. Passion. That short-of-breathness, the giddiness of a torrid affair, the first love, the first kiss, the first time. Consuming flames that devour and destroy, leaving nothing behind but a mound of smoldering twigs.
I once loved a boy who loved alcohol more than he loved me.
“Why do you drink so much?” I asked him one day.
“Because I like how it burns my throat,” he said. “It’s like a flame rushing down my windpipe all the way to my belly. You wouldn’t understand.”
Cliff. That's the word that comes to my mind when I think of roller coasters, paragliding, bungee-jumping, sky-diving and gravity-defying stunts, a list that comprises my worst fears. I’m afraid of free-falls, of losing control, of letting myself go. I imagine how splendidly irrevocable the pull of gravity must be as one goes off a cliff. The word cliff evokes memories of that last scene in the movie Thelma and Louise when the women are cornered by police only 100 yards from the edge of the Grand Canyon. They weigh out their options and rather than to be captured and spend the rest of their lives in jail they decide to keep going. Thelma steps on the accelerator and drives the 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible over the cliff.
I once loved a boy who loved his mother very much. On one mother’s day, after a weekend out in the country with pals and cheap booze, he drove to his mother's house. He was too drunk and drove too fast. He missed a bend and his car flew off a cliff. It was a difficult rescue, the firefighters later said. The boy was tall and skinny, he wasn’t wearing a seat belt; the car catapulted his body into the air first, and later into the belly of the cliff.
The casket was sealed.
No one was allowed to see his mangled body.
A gaping abysm swallowed him whole.
Within walking distance from the Erdene Zuu Monastery is the Kharkhorin Rock, a.k.a. the Phallic Rock. It is a 24-inch long penis raised on a concrete platform on the steppe. The question of course is: Why would anyone erect a penis just outside a Buddhist monastery? The answer comes in the form of a legend. Rumor has it that a long time ago, a monk broke his vow of celibacy with local women. The naughty monk became some sort of Mongolian Priapus who put little effort into hiding his philandering. As a consequence and to make an example of the monk, the elders castrated him to remind the monks of their vows of celibacy. And just in case the monks at the monastery failed to read the snip-snip memo, a rock in the shape of a penis was prominently engraved as a stone phallus; a reminder that they should keep things tucked under the monastic robe. No hall passes.
Mooggie, being the gentleman he is, chose not to tell me the sordid version of the penis. He favored the more mystical reason for its existence: a superstition that has to do with valleys, the mount of venus, and babies. He had me at valley. According to Mooggie, the penis points erotically to a small valley in the shape of a woman's parts. Barren women straddle the penis facing the "V-Slope," leave offerings in a little receptacle strategically located under the head of the phallus, place blue scarves on the shrine, et voila. Nine months later, they give birth to a beautiful baby.
This is how Mooggie explained it to me:
I knew I was having, or about to have, a moment of transcendence the second I spotted her braids. I didn't know who she was; all I knew was that she wore an aquamarine muumuu-like dress and had black braids that fell way past her hips, all of this against the backdrop of the ruggedest stretch in the Altay mountains. Her presence was too surreal to be an everyday thing, so it had to be a life-changing event, one of those once-in-a-lifetime awakenings to new possibilities.
She quickened her pace. I quickened mine.
A sense of urgency seized me. I felt it under my skin as I chased her down the Mongolian canyon. This mysterious woman with braids, I thought, will most likely take me to a cave deep in the Altay mountains where she'll make me solve a few riddles before sending me on a quest to find two shiny feathers from long extinct birds. And only after proving myself worthy of her wisdom, will she teach me how to walk on fire, relieve me of my life-long fears and without saying a word, magically and effortlessly, she will set me free and I will walk out of the cave ready to re-create my life anew.
I snapped a few pictures before she disappeared on a bend of the rugged canyon.
"Did you see her?" I asked my husband.
"The woman with long braids," I said.
He gave me a sideways look that said: What in the world are you talking about? I didn't elaborate. I decided this was my spiritual quest. Mine and mine alone. That is why only I see the apparition, I reasoned. Maybe Western men don't have spiritual awakenings while vacationing in Mongolia.
I adopted a light trot.
If it's true that transcendence ranges from that of a spiritual experience to that of a cognitive realization and everything in between, this was my moment of transcendence.
As I negotiated my way forward trying not to sprain my ankles on this wildly rugged terrain, I thought about different words to describe what I was about to experience. Redemption, Grace, Revelation.
I caught up with Mooggie. "Have you seen a woman walk by?" I asked.
"Here?" he asked back pointing at the ground.
"Yes," I said. "Here and here and here." I pointed behind, beside and ahead of me.
"No, no ooman," he said.
Maybe that's how Grace works, I thought. It requires one's complicity; It's only revealed to a willing soul and right there and then my heart was cracked wide open, fractured by the need to be transformed. Why not? Even Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" has a moment of transcendence. He is given a second chance and when he awakes on Christmas morning his past actions no longer affect future outcomes. Scrooge is free. He is allowed to begin anew.
I chased after the woman with braids hard.
And there she was, sitting by an ovoo shrine, pretending that she had been there all day long. Strewn in front of her, on the gravel, was an array of wooden knickknacks, some misshapen dolls made out of felt, and a few blue khadag (the ceremonial silk scarves symbolic of the open sky and the sky spirit) covered in dust. All for sale.
Was I disappointed? Of course.
Did I feel cheated? No, why? She didn't set me up.
She spotted a tourist; I spotted a soothsayer.
She ran because she had a shop to open for business. I ran because I needed transcendence.
Did either of us get anything out of this? Yes. I got a wooden spoon shaped like the head of a horse, I think. She got ten bucks.
And that is what happens when you live your life waiting to exhale.
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Oh, where was Maslow when I needed him?
After ten hours of driving on the treacherous Gobi terrain, we spotted the first nomadic family campsite. The solar panel and the TV dish outside the yurt held promises of hot showers and SNL reruns. Mooggie and Bata-so exchanged pleasantries with the host who invited us inside his yurt for a drink. And while I amused myself with thoughts of chilled Riesling and icy G&Ts, the head of household poured us bowls of fresh camel's milk. I’ve never been squeamish; trying new food has always been an important part of each travel adventure, so I took small precautionary sips of the milk, and guess what? It wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. It tasted like cultured milk, which I quite like.
And what about the bed and the shower? After drinking two bowls of camel's milk, Mooggie translated that we couldn't stay at this campsite. We would have to get back on the car and look for another campsite. The family didn't have an extra yurt for guests and as it turned out, nor did they have a shower.
As we drove off, Mooggie pointed at a zinc can good 20 yards away from the yurt.
"Very good Mongolian toilet," he said.
Right before the sun disappeared behind the Altay Mountains, we found a nomadic family with a spare yurt for two weary travelers. The family was on the last day of a five-day long wedding celebration, which meant that our host had been drinking for straight four days. He smelled of vodka, but walked straight and since I don’t speak Mongolian, it was hard to tell whether he was slurring his words.
We shared cups of black coffee with the host who sat cross-legged on the gravel and carried on a lively conversation with Bata-so and Mooggie. While they talked, I took note of the host’s amazing face: sunburned and leathery-looking, eyes that disappeared under a set of heavy eyelids, an uneven mustache, two big parentheses of saggy skin framing his mouth and a vast forehead full of deep wrinkles like stab marks. He was in his early forties but looked older. His face epitomized the alien beauty of his nomadic culture. Mooggie translated parts of the conversation. Our host’s son was the groom and since that was the last day of the celebration, we were invited to partake in the party. It would be rude to turn him down, Mooggie, said, very rude.
A few hours later, we walked into the wedding yurt. There was the host, dressed in his best Mongolian attire, cleaned up and ready to celebrate. I expected more guests, but I quickly realized that it was only the four of us, the host, the groom and the bride, although the bride was busy in one corner of the yurt and kept herself out of sight.
First came the khoorog. Following Mongolian tradition, our host shared his best snuff with his guests. He took out his snuff bottle and passed it around to each of the guests, holding it in his right hand and extending it out to Mooggie as if to shake hands, left hand holding up the right elbow. Mooggie received the bottle in the same manner, opened it, took a whiff of the snuff inside, admired its aroma, removed the cap with a tiny spoon attached, scooping out a small amount of snuff, sprinkled it on the side of his hand then snuffed it into the nose. He put the cap back on and passed to Bata-so who repeated the ritual. Then, Bata-so passed it to me and I replicated their actions all the way until the inhaling bit. No siree. Not me.
Then came the milk. No biggie, I thought. I tried that earlier today and I liked it. WRONG! This was not camel’s milk. This was a different type of milk, milk for special celebrations: mare’s milk. But again, I’m all for trying new foods. I held the rather large bowl in my hands and the moment I smelled horse, I had second thoughts. "Can I share it with my husband?" I asked Mooggie. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. No, of course not. This was Airag, the Mongolian national drink, a very special gift from the host to us, not to be shared. As his guests, we were expected to drink his Airag and give him the silver bowl back only when empty.
I held my breath and drank the whole thing.
Airag is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting raw unpasteurized mare's milk over the course of days. The bacteria formed during the fermentation process acidifies the milk, and the yeasts turn it first, into a carbonated drink and second, into an alcoholic concoction.
It would be a lie to say that it had a lovely flavor, or that I liked it, or that I wanted to buy some and take it home with me. Let’s just say that it was salty milk, with a hint of bleach, a touch of vinegar, a note of moldy cheese, and an aftertaste to die for. Literally.
The party went on. Mooggie and Bata-so sang heart-felt songs about Mongolia and just before the host sang, his son brought out the good stuff: Distilled Airag, a.k.a Mongolian vodka, the Magnum Grey Goose of the nomads. And because it was the good stuff, and because we were special guests, and because we were celebrating a wedding, we had to drink this distilled Airag in a special silver bowl. And by special I mean gigantic.
Having been raised in South America, I have biased and stubborn taste buds, and whatever my opinion on Airag is, distilled or not, holds no water whatsoever. But, I’ll say this: Airag is an acquired taste. One that I did not acquire that night. Not even after several bowls of it.
"When does the party end?" I asked Moogie after the third round of songs. He gave me one of his mischievous smirks. "When we drunk. When we tipsy, tipsy, shaky, shaky, the host very happy."
No sooner had we finished our last bowl of airag than the host pulled out a bottle of real vodka. "No way Jose," I whispered to my husband. "Yes way," he replied, sounding very tipsy and very shaky. Sure enough, before I knew it, I had a bowl of real vodka in my hands. Warm, neat vodka, which to be honest, tasted like heaven after an overdose of airag.
The host and Beauty and the Beast sang some more. We had a few more rounds of fresh mare's milk, airag, and neat vodka, in that order, then they sang some more. I hope we made the host happy because we felt spectacularly shaky.
Before we left, the host's wife came into the yurt with yet another special treat: Homemade candy-like morsels called aruul. They looked delicious and saccharine, the perfect dessert. Just what the doctor had ordered to cleanse my mouth and mare-detox my pasty tongue. I plopped one in my mouth with gusto, but hard as I tried, I couldn't moisten the thing. The candy was hard, caulky and sour in a mouth-contorting kind of way. Aruul is curdled milk, dehydrated and thoroughly dried in the sun. Yet, it tasted familiar, like something that I was intimately acquainted with.
"You like?" Mooggie asked.
"It's very interesting," I said. "What is it?"
"Curd," he said. "Curdled mare's milk."
...and then, it all made sense.
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.
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.
Just because we are politically incorrect, lame and ethnocentric, we decided that the name of our car attendant was Olga. And Olga liked my husband, a lot. And Olga peeked in our little cabin at will, day or night, and not once did she acknowledge me, probably because she had those splendid blue eyes set on Tom. And Olga pretended not to speak English when I asked her where the shower was. Oh, but she understood just fine when Tom asked the same question. Her ridiculously beautiful eyes mellowed and a girly smirk made its way across her pudgy face. No, no shower. Not in first class, not anywhere on the train. We will have to do without a shower for a whole, long week. And her announcement was followed by what I'm sure was a wink directed straight at my husband's eyes, which were by now ready to pop out of their sockets. No Shower? We had no option. We would have to practice some serious acrobatics in the airplane-size lavatory whenever we could not stand our own body odors. This Transiberian journey from Russia to Mongolia was going to be rough. Just the way I like it.
We scrambled for food like starving foragers. We ate broccoli, chives, and pickle-flavored potato chips. We downed them with cheap red wine and lukewarm beers followed by oodles of snickers bars for dessert. We bought expensive bananas, drank salty bottled water, and ate some delicious pastries baked on the train and delivered to our cabin by no other than giggly Olga. With such few food options on board, we decided to eat whatever the local vendors came to offer at each train station. Alas, fish was not only their main source of sustenance, but also the local specialty, and apparently the only real food available at all. Now, I'm not stranger to dry fish--my mother fed us copious amounts of it when I was growing up-- but bringing this fishy morsel into a tiny cabin after a week of not taking showers was not something I was willing to endure. So we bought the first bird we found. It looked like a human fetus, and because we were starving and had no morals, we found the sight irresistible. So we ate its wonderfully smoked flesh not knowing whether we were eating duck, chicken, turkey or some other winged creature. And it was delicious.