Wide Open Spaces: Room To Make Mistake/Eat A Camel

Trip Start Mar 11, 2006
Trip End Aug 01, 2006

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Flag of Mongolia  ,
Thursday, March 23, 2006

I'll start with a list of adjectives each partially describing the Gobi Desert: arid, barren, cold, dry, empty, flat, grand, hot, immense, and with all the fixings of a windy, edible zoo. I do this because I'll disclose straightaway that there's no way this entry or attached pictures are near going to do the Gobi justice. I hated as a kid, and still do now, people telling me "oh, you just won't understand" but really folks the only way to really get a good feel for the place is to be there. But, as the tickets to Mongolia aren't selling like hotcakes quite yet, I'll do my best!
Groggy and sluggish from the night before, we met up to set off with our fellow travellers: Alex and Nicole, a young Brit- and Chinese-Canadian couple who run Betty's Bar in Toronto, Ivo the rail-thin-and-tell physical therapist from Netherlands, and Yaron the recently discharged Israeli intelligence officer. To guide us and make sure that we'd not join the Gobi's collection of bleached ribs and skulls were Davaa our young Mongolian interpreter and Erkhemee, the driver who will henceforth be referred to as Van-baatar, or just VB, not to be confused with UB (see last post for clues as to the meaning).
After a stop in the state department store to pick up lunch vittles for the trip (score on apples, brown bread, cheese, chocolate, and 2 kinds of sausage, normal creamy for me and gnarly chunky for Ryan), we began the first in a series of 6-hour drives. Our noble steed was an absolutely indestructible Russian van/tank whose deluxe features included an engine that can be accessed and tuned from the front seat while driving, the ability to transverse any terrain milder than an 80 degree slope mogul/mine field, and a radiator built to melt the shoes of the residents of the front row, making bartering one's way into the back seats an attractive and sensible option and making Ryan's shoes no longer whole or waterproof.
Though we'd be staying in Mongolian family gers most of the trip, the first night was meant to acclimate us to non-UB housing, finding us at a small hotel that necessarily had to run prior by the KGB (the "karaoke rooms" were a euphemism for torture chambers is the guess) (actually, that's not so far from the case anywhere you go huh). Once settled, we enjoyed a solid night of dumpling and steak dinner (good cut of meat and mashed taters for a buck and 2 bits!), corncob pipes, snooker dominated by Nic and myself (insert sarcastic font there), and Alex getting to snuggle up good with VB.
The next day's marathon drive revealed more of the Gobi, as much as you could care to see but couldn't in less than 6 turning eyefulls. I really mean nothing out there, but so much of it. It's a bit jarring at first to just pick one set of the parallel tire tracks in the dirt as the highway (only the first 5km of the tour and just 1500km total in Mongolia are paved, most in UB), but after 6 days it was an equal shock to return to non-bumpy driving and traffic lights, even as little meaning as they carry in UB. It was also odd to find in the Gobi small patches of snow scattered amongst large ones, desert, stones, dirt, short dead-looking shrubs, the occasional above-ground animal ossuary, and modern conveniences where you'd least expect them. Finding another store in a small town we passed (BBQ sauce was my most clutch purchase ever and Ryan even found a Heineken!) and even grabbing a public shower except for Ryan who thinks he smells like lilac vanilla, we joined out first family over antelope dumplings that evening.
The natural features are the real draw out in the badlands and we soon got to venture into the much-anticipated ice canyon. The temperature swings quite a bit in the country (down to -40 the week before we were there!), but the shade of the canyon walls leave the river some sort of frozen in perpetuity. Of course, it being spring and we being paranoid of falling through into the freezing river, it felt less thick than the 3m we were promised, the large cracks forming and fresh water spurting out from them giving credence to our wariness. Definitely difficult to make it back uphill in the ice, especially once it became covered by a fine layer of falling snow, and it was good to get back in the van. Soon though we were in for the roller coaster ride, coming soon to Six Flags, called VB Drives Like A Maniac And Makes Us Keep Cramming On One Side Or The Other So The Van Doesn't Flip. Of course he's in front laughing, smoking, and making fun of us in Mongolian. Through that harrowing several hours, we went from the ice to the sand, arriving at one of the largest and most visually striking sand dunes around. Loads of fun playing in it/rolling down/posing for silly photos later, we returned to the 2-ger household.
At the gers VB finally took me up on my offer to school him in Mongolian wrestling (see video once I load up from my camera). Quite a serious sport in the country, VB looked as though he'd put down a few challengers in his day and my build endows me with a center of gravity that his can put into orbit. Nonetheless, I had to live up to all the smack I'd been talking about how he'd be lucky to escape with his life and a funny match and 1 deposed and sandy Misha later, I still maintain that VB was lucky to see the rising of another sun.
Actually VB was the consummate Mongolian man's man and it was hilarious watching this legend at work: he smokes like a chimney and will down a bottle of the harshest vodka you've ever been near before fixing the engine with one hand while driving, walking into each ger like he owns it (feeling free to put up his feet, change the radio station, and lie in their bed), and opening a can of corn with a blunt knife while the rest of us searched for a wussy can-opener. He also never has to sit out in cards because we're afraid to tell him that he lost, mostly says "yeah!", rocks out his beret, snuff bottle, and pipe, eats candy but no fruit and a plate of noodles in 2.6 seconds, all while possessing the incongruously disarming voice of a nightingale. We learned a lot of things from VB, the main one being that- much like Chuck Norris- none of us is VB.
The next family we stayed with subsisted mainly on the goats and sheep that they raised and we got to frolic amongst the herd (especially the little poop-covered ones that we know Ivo was just picturing as pre-dumplings). When Ryan was missing at dinner, we found him 20 minutes later outside valiantly defending the beer against the 2 billys that kept trying to make off with the bottles. The dinner of sheep-stomach dumplings was interesting (I know what mine last ate!) and the little girl of the house was rocking out on a straight raw bloody sheep stomach until we couldn't watch any more fresh tendons of it dangle from her teeth to stain her chin and gave her some balloons, candy, coloring books, and colored pencils to keep her otherwise occupied. That night was Mongolian "cultural night fun" with Davaa and VB teaching us the finger game, baby camel song, card game called "stupid", and Davaa getting sloppy enough that we knew she couldn't explain away her next-morning hangover as a "fever" like she claimed :)
Since I did this for Japan, here's a partial list of awesome delicacies we got to sample in the Gobi: dried yoghurt, camel everything, sheep-stomach/antelope/horse/goat dumplings, "cheese" that really expanded my worldview of what could qualify in that category, no fiber or veggies till cabbage the last night in dumplings, lots of fried dough, and more that I could ever want of very salty milk tea to wash it all down with: no good with sugar, occasionally with some dumpling grease for body, and one time with an embryo floating in Ryan's. Mmm!
The talk of food and eating does bring to mind the flip side of that process, if you'll indulge a bit of coarseness for a moment. I know it's gross, but an explanation of Mongolia would not be complete without this. The WCs, as we expected, were different in the Gobi. What perhaps still caught us unprepared was the range of excremental experiences that one could have. One common option that I shied away from but that Ryan and the others seemed to relish was the corrugated metal lean-to outhouses that provided some shade and all the odor-retention to 2 pieces of wood framing a hopefully deep-enough hole containing a just-so-perfectly-shaped (and rapidly rising) pucky pyramid. The pee stops were frequent enough as you might expect from a van of 8, especially when one particular driver (not to name names here) felt unilateral urges to relieve himself of the most recent bottle of vodka. These "road"-side open-air pit stops, while not unusual even for a road trip in the States, got us excited for the next stage in our crapping careers: defecating ... in the round. And seriously folks, not that I recommend this for many open public spaces in the US (though if you hear this fall that someone dropped one in Boston Common you probably know who to thank), you haven't lived until you've had to pop a squat atop a hill with a 360 degree view of the world around you, the wind rustling through your hair, and the resultant feeling of near-omnipotence infusing your being. You can only thing, I bet this is how birds feel ... as they light up your car.
It was time again soon for another of Mongolia's famed natural features, and next on the docket were the red rock formations that strike the eye and cough up extremely well-preserved and accessible dinosaur fossils on a fairly regular basis. You can tell a genuine fossil because it will really stick to your tongue if authentic, like the cold bar on the ski lift. Proving that a little knowledge can be a dangerous and rather not tasty thing, I scampered about putting all manners of vile things into my mouth in the hopes that one of the rocks/clods of dirt would stick. Resorting, once my stomach began protesting, to just taking pictures pretending that Ryan and I were famous paleontologists, we returned empty-handed back to the van. VB, sensing our dismay, grunted and inexplicably drove the van down the walls of a canyon. Getting out, clutching his screwdriver, and sniffing the air a few times, he stalked over to a rock he'd spotted, jabbed at it for a bit with the philips-head, and produced small chips of white rock that, lo and behold, exhibited magic tongue-clinging powers!
After a stop to pick up a brick of Mongolian pipe tobacco and play football (American and otherwise) with some kids, we rolled up to our next family, who were gracious enough to let us ride a few of their camels. I named mine Oscar. To be sure, most of the camels had seen better days, but with a few helpful kicks, yells of "chou, chou!", and peer pressure of the other camels running, we were all soon off to the races. While Oscar had not the most exceptional physical camel skills, he more than made up for it with heart and we finished a comfortable and respectable middle of the pack as we raced into the splendid desert sunset. We ate camel later. If it was Os... well, I guess I'd feel guilty for a second ...
I have a great tendency to lose things while travelling, Ryan's kept a running list that is consistent through Nepal so far and Mongolia was no exception. While the thing I lost was annoying (left my pack towel in the hostel after using it the night before we left), it could have been much much more troublesome. I realized soon after riding the camels that I was no longer in possession of my American Express credit card, Citibank debit card, and my fat (only because Mongolian bills are worth so little) wad of cash. Racing outside to try to recover my loot by aid of my little flashlight, and trying somehow to retrace the steps of our long camel ride, I came back disappointed but hopeful that the next morning would bring light and luck. Those hopes were dimmed as I stepped outside of the ger just before going to bed to be struck with the beauty of the bounteous night sky entirely undimmed by artificial light as well as the cold bitter wind kicking up a fierce sandstorm and likely sending my cards and cash well into the next postal code (and in Mongolia you know that ain't close!). As dumb luck would have it though, when the next morning showed its light and I stepped outside to brush my teeth, I came- not 10 meters from the ger- across the beautiful sight of the glint from the sun off card-card-cash lying side-by-side on the desert floor just lightly covered with sand. Not to worry, I've since lost my Citibank card twice more ... no lessons learned at this inn!
Davaa got sloppy again (we were bad influences I guess) and started gossiping about the old woman who owned the next place and how she was so nice to tourists but really mean to the guides and just wanted more money all the time. When Greedy Granny walked in later, it was all we could do to suppress a giggle at the way Davaa was eyeing her.
Delicious dumplings over a camel-poo fire later, we set out for the long drive back to UB. On the way Davaa asked us if we'd like to stop and meet her nomad family to which we replied of course! She muttered something to VB, they stopped and discussed while pointing at the horizon for a spell, and we headed straight off the road for a bit, up a canyon, down a hill, and around the 3rd bush on the left till the 3-ger homestead popped into view.
Davaa's family was lovely, we told her we couldn't understand how exactly she turned out so miserable. Her grandpa was especially cool to share a pipe and grunt at each other with, and my prayers to go horse-riding were finally answered when Davaa told me that her brother would take me out for a short bit. Odd to me at the time, no one else was interested. She looked concerned that I was boarding a non-tourist horse but I assured her with a straight face that I was Bay Area Junior National Horse Champion 2 years running, which is technically true if you substitute most of the words between "I" and "2" with "went to Plantation Farm Summer Camp and occasionally rode a pony 10 years ago". Though I managed to got atop the beast easily (not hard as neither the Mongols nor their horses are very large) and uncomfortably wiggle around on the saddle (extremely hard as it was made of freaking polished wood, which is a rather unforgiving material especially 2 sizes too small), when Davaa's bro yelled YA! and we rode off into the sunset it only took her 2 seconds of observing my wild flails to hang on before wide-eyed turning back to the group and exclaiming, "Was Misha lie?!" What seemed like eons of bouncy and tender minutes later, with my mad laughing (the only way to proper deal with the onslaught) seeming only to egg on bro and horse and bro's horse, I got the job of scaring the bulls away from the water as the horses drank before an equally if-only-this-was-numbing-the-longer-it-continues ride back.
All it took was my worn smile upon dismounting to set everyone in stitches back on the ranch and we set off for the final push to UB. Only moment of excitement left came when we passed a motorcycle that looked wrecked before it was righted, a guy flagging us down desperately, and his homeboy off the side stone dead with a little blood creeping out from under his beanie. A hush fell over the van as VB and the fella still standing conversed for a few minutes and as we drove away it was a few minutes before I finally asked Davaa quietly, "Uh, Davaa, was that other guy ... (gulp) ... dead?" Only a look of annoyance at the fools crossed her face as she mock scolded, "No he was the drunk and fell off the bike like this and the other guy wanted a cigarette."
Relieved to not have been witness to accident or foul play as well as relieved in an odd way to get back onto paved road as we cruised into the capitol again, the curtain closed on our Gobi Adventure. And I didn't even have to punch a horse to death for food.

Moral of the story: VB is the new pink. Real men are VB.
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