Luoyang, China. 22:20. 24 August, 2006
Extended travel is a fickle thing. There comes a point where Adventure loses its appeal, where yet another X, Y, or Z just doesn`t do it for you, where whatever "Local Culture" there may be loses its charm, novelty, or what have you. Unfortunately, this moment came upon me in Mongolia. Mongolia. One of the last open ranges in the world. Mongolia, a vast nation of unadulturated beauty and nascent tourist industry. Mongolia, a country I failed to appreciate or even really to see. Mongolia for me was just another stop on the road, and a visit to an acquaintence I spent a few hours with at the Great Wall and Ming Tombs in China, a couple years ago.
Mongolia is eminently easy to explore. Given one month and a small budget, one could explore nearly all its diversity and wander with safety through its rugged wilderness. Everywhere there are tourist camps where one can stay in Gers (not yurts, yurts, apparently are Teepees, and what we call yurts are gers...) go horseback riding, fish, and generally appreciate nature. One does not go to Mongolia to in habit the cities. Which, of course, is what I did.
I took the train into Ulaan Baatar from Irkutsk. 36 hours or so, including a tedious six hour crossing of the border. No drama, just long waits with nothing happening. The train arrives at the Russian side, the onward cars are decoupled, and there they sit for two hours. Eventually the passport control officials arrive and check everyone`s documents. Then more waiting, then the cars (two in this case) are coupled to a locomotive which hauls them across the border, customs inspectors thoroughly check every movable panel, the undercarriage, and spot check luggage for goods being smuggled out of Russia for whatever reason, then the Mongolians make a show of checking for goods being smuggled into Mongolia (though you can see they`re only doing it so as not to be outdone by the Russians), then the cars are again decoupled, wait for an hour, then are tacked on to the end of the onward train to UB. Then some more waiting. So that six hours pass for no discernable reason which prior planning could not avoid. But, in all, no drama, except for the tourists who bought beer on the platform opened them, started drinking, only to be detained by the police and fined for public drinking... I was not in their number. Something suggested that I be more discrete. So, another night passed, and the train made its ridiculously slow journey into Ulaan Baatar. Its three hours from Darhan to UB by car. The train finally arrived in Darhan at 11pm, but did not get to UB until 8 the following morning. I`m sure they have their reasons. Among them no doubt, the substandard condition of the railway infrastructure which will not permit the train to exceed 50 or 60 km/h. But we`re not in a hurry or else we`d be flying, yes?
Arriving in UB, I had copied a map from the Lonely Planet into my notebook, and opted to walk into the center of town, and from there to look for Nassan Guest house. My sketch not being quite to scale, I was walking for some time through the less desireable section of town. Or so I thought. But it turned out that pretty much the whole of Ulaan Baatar is the "less desireable" part. The roads are not quite paved yet, the sidewalks not yet in place, the buildings mostly unfinished, and vacant lots still sport nomadic Gers. The whole city gives the impression of being something of a surprise to the local nomad, as if he woke up one morning to find it emerging from the soil, like some weed or emergent volcanic dome that came just came up unexpectedly overnight. Where other developing nations seem to be fighting to lay down and keep down the tarmac on their roads, Ulaan Baatar`s roads seem to be weathering out from the soil for complex reasons. The open space between buildings is almost completely left to God to landscape. There are no groundskeepers employed by the city, or even by the private landowners, it seems. The buildings seem to be popping up amidst the herders fences, and one expects to find Gers on the roofs, caught unawares and carried aloft in the sudden eruption of modernization. Museums and government buildings if not governance and indeed rule of law seem to be some Kafkaesque Trial the Mongols find themselves suddenly beholden to. In short, the Soviet system seems to have imposed an alien presence, upon the populace. Though their language has no commonality with Russian, it is written in the Cyrillic; and the alternative largely unused native script was itself only the brainchild of a government official in the 1650s.
Mongol history is painfully straightforward. Somewhere about 65 million years ago there were tens of thousands of dinosaurs about the size of large armadillos or racoons. They had a cute helmet-like head, and apparently vast numbers. There were several other species as well, of course, but these were the dominant, and are found in the fossil record in abundance. There were proto-chickens, and some diminuitve cousins of Tyranosaurus. And then there was Chinghis Khan, or King Genghis if you prefer, around 1206. In the next hundred years he and his cronies would kill 40-80 million people, and call whatever remained an Empire. His son would move the capital to Beijing where it would become China and Chinese. Little more was heard from the Mongols until, like this year, when they`re celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Mongol nation. In the meantime, they built a bunch of monestaries, but the Soviets took care of that, and dynamited the majority of them, summarily executing thousands of Monks, and leaving a handfull, perhaps twelve or fifteen monestaries scattered throughout the backwaters of the country, a country that to be fair, is itself a backwater... only lacking water.
Well, actually to be fair, there are many many lakes, in fact. Half of them salty, for the watershed is inadequate to shed the water into the out-flowing riveres. Most of the rivers flowing east through Mongolia from the Altay mountains terminate in the middle nowhere in vast salt lakes, those in the Central North do find their way into Lake Baikal, but those in the south, just flow into the Gobi to no avail. Consequently, in the north, there are trees, in the center, grasses and high planes; some areas having enough groundwater to support abundant grazing, and the south, well, the south is a very impressive desert. There are hills here and there, but there are also sections near the border with China where you can see nothing but flat sandy desert thinly adorned with desert scrub grasses and, in the season I was there, pretty white flowers, over a flatness extending from horizon to horizon. Dust is the operative word. After a night on the train, I nearly had dreadlocks again.
The extreme west of the country I do regret not seeing. The Altay mountain rise to 4300 meters at Tavan Bogd, which is apparently not a overly difficult climb since the week before I arrived the president of the country, along with vetrans of the first ascent 25 years ago, climbed it. So if geriatric climbers can make it, I`m sure you can, too. There are real, serious glaciers (at least for now; glaciers everywhere are still receeding), and the lower slopes are tree covered. These mountians do back up onto Russia and China, still, albeit briefly, but I imagine you`d be able to at least see Kazakstan from the top. It is recommended by everyone that you fly into the far west, though for the obstinate, it is possible to take a "bus," or 4 wheel drive jeep approximately three days of hard riding over dirt roads to get there. And that`s at least a thousand miles of poorly maintained dirt roads to contend with. Both ways. (next time...)
And there are also hypothetical border crossing from Russian Tuva into the Mongolian far east that are shown on my map... but, you know, good luck with that.
But in the center of the country is a small range of mountains, above which is Lake Huvzgul, variously spelt. This is Baikal`s little cousin, same ecology more or less, same freshness, and impressive depth. The central mountains (Hangayn Nuruu) propose a wonderful circumambulation, where one could fly into UB, and head south to the desert, up into the central highlands, and then west to Hovsgol and finally south to UB. Or vice-versa. There are dozens and dozens of tour companies that would be delighted to organize this for you, all you have to do is show up with a wallet, and off you go on a 20 day safari through some of the most beautiful landscape in god`s brownish-green earth. You could break up the 4x4 van safari with several days on horseback around the lake, visiting the Reindeer herders in the extreme North who live out of Yurts (teepees) and ride reindeer in lieu of horses. But, as I said at the beginning, my taste for adventure had waned, and I did nothing but survey the land for future travels. Saving it for next time.
What I did do was take a trip up to Darhan to visit Ulzii. Ulzii`s an interesting girl. Of course she lives with her parents, or her mom at least. Her father works as a Construction Inspector for the State in UB. She`s for some reason converted to Christianity. I think one of the only Christian Converts I`ve ever actually met apart from the Mormons in Serbia whom I met through the missionaries. Only she wasn`t this or that sect of Christian, just Christian... It kinda held up a mirror to my calling myself a "Buddhist," whatever that means. Where we write on our calenders and walls and posters "Om mane padme hum" or such, she has "God bless you" and "Praise be to god" on hers. In all, it was an interesting tit-for-tat. Both of us felt uncomfortable enough about the subject that we just didn`t discuss it. But in any case I`m several years past any form of evangelicism on my part.
The other interesting feature to my visit was that she had left the hospital for me. But she was in the hospital for hay fever of all things. Okay, so she was getting shots as treatment, daily, but on an inpatient basis. Apparently they require her to stay in the hospital for this. Again, curious. So the first night I stayed with her family, she stayed in the hospital.
Also, she`s 21 and single. But she used to work at an orphanage, where she met a cute little boy whom her mother decided to adopt. So she has a 3 year old brother, as well as two older siblings whom I didn`t meet. But living in a small apartment with her grandmother, mother, her, and a three year old, as well as a couple other undetermined relations a cousin, and a 14 month old who was around for the days, was quite a window on Life in mongolia. But I should say a word about Darhan.
Imagine a place that would be improved by strip malls. This is Darhan. Built by the Soviets to relieve the developmental pressure on UB, or, to put it another way, to provide a SECOND city for the country, Darhan was sorta built from nothing near the soviet border. 50 years ago there was a train stop, but that`s about it. So they built dozens and dozens of soviet block apartments, the completely unadorned cement buildings, simply painted, and a few roads, and called it a city. The roads are indeed few, and most of the secondary streets are still dirt, but with curbs. On the few paved roads, on the first floors of the apartment buildings, there are a few restaurants, so to speak, and a supermarket or two. But this is about it. The whole place feels planned, but planned from Moscow, and with the planners having no intention ever to set foot in the city. Its a city of about 70,000 and outside of the Apartment blocks there are a few detatched houses, but basically, its a town without a center, with a couple hotels, a couple government buildings, and I think a cement factory and a powerplant. Still, somehow it gives the impression of portability, as if one day it could all be packed up and carried away to more verdant pastures.
This is the second city of Mongolia. At night there are no streetlights. The edge of town is visible from wherever you happen to be standing. The steps rise to hills, and along a nearby river there are trees, but the hills are bare and rolling. But what is cruelest is that even in this arid region they are plagued by mosquitos, which seems utterly unfair. I`m sure that`s just an anomaly of the season in which I was visiting, though.
And everyone I met seems to like it. Most people had lived there their entire life. Everyone knew everyone, and at dusk the "streets" bustled with activity, people sitting on the front stoops chatting, children running around screaming, as children are wont to do, teenagers loitered, housewives, presumably, gossipped. In short, It is a livelier urban nightlife than most of the midwestern towns which would be the closest analogy. Of course these would be those that stayed that I met. A more comprehensive survey would have to include the expatraits to Ulaan Baator, which would be the majority of the twentysomething set, from how Ulzii described her social set.
After two nights in Darhan, I headed back to UB to wait for my Chinese visa. I spent most of my time in the hotel. I visited the sad/kitch natural history museum, which although had a pretty good dinosaur fossil collection. I caught a computer virus and rebuilt my box with almost no loss of data (go go gadget geekdom) and I ate the local food, which is... well... filling. There is also a very large Maitriya Buddha temple, the Standing Buddha, the future buddha, in town. Which is worth seeing, but the courtyard leading to this was still under construction. Basically, UB is still under construction. It`ll need another ten years foreign investment until its really ready. But the countryside has a good 20 until it can even begin to be ruined by tourism. They simply do not have the tax base necessary to build and maintain all the roads, care for all the landscaping, and staff all the needed offices. There are only 3 million mongolians or less in a vast, vast territory.
So, while I cannot claim to have seen Mongolia, I did pass through, and I did get a taste for Mongolian life. But the ultimate truth of the matter, and the falacy of my judgement is that I am tired. I`ve come so far and just getting here constitutes doing so much that I can`t be bothered with going out of my way for further adventure. I`m to the point of travel where its merely persistance and obstinance that keep me going. I have reached the ultimate goal of extended travel, in my opinion. I am at the stage where "place" falls away and "pleasure" dissolves into mere abiding in the sway. I have travelled far enough now that I can finally, finally see "home" wherever it may be, for what it is. Home is... and I could make a heart-rending list of everything I lack at this moment... But home is... and home is... And its still impossible for you to see my heart and feel my intent at this moment. Months of solitude and gratuitious foreigness leads to a place as indescribable as Love or Childbirth or Orgasm, yet as alien from these things as it is from happiness and fulfillment and pleasure. And why would one want to put themself in this situation... yet again and again! no less? Its a fair question, one I still ask myself. My only answer is that this is the cost of Truth; one effective way to strip away the veil of illusion. Until you have been deprived of something, you cannot appreciate having it. This applies to breath, food, and shelter, communication, friendship, society, and culture. You cannot see your home until you are homeless.