Aug 27, 2013

Thoughts on Mongolia

My boots are full of mud and my sandals are full of shit. Mongolia will have it no other way. It is a country that dares you to enter its borders. Why is it a dare? The people of Mongolia live in ways unique to any country we've ever travelled to. Their steadfast desire to honor the country's nomadic heritage dictates the customs and traditions that define not only what it means to be Mongolian, but what it means to be a tourist in Mongolia. Still a fledging democracy, modern Mongolia has stretched this ancient fabric over the post-communist requirements such as healthcare, schools, and other necessities. Despite families relocating their home and herds 2-4 times per year, children still receive schooling by living in dorms located next to their schools during the winter months. Even though Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, cell phone coverage blankets nearly the entire country keeping even the most remote family in contact with the modernizing world around them.

Tonight as I type I am lying on a mattress on the floor in what is likely the master bedroom of a farm house. We were brought here by the driver we have hired to show us Mongolia. He grew up in this house and his sister lives here watching his two sons for the summer while he works. As this is Mongolia, hospitality is a quality deeply ingrained into every family and every individual. This is why his sister now sleeps on the floor in the family room while Amanda and I take her bedroom for the night. We've been told that the origins of this openess and willingness to share was born not so much from kindness but from neccessity. When travelling in Mongollia, especially by horse as was the custom just a few years ago, distances are too great to carry provisions. Therefore every ger and every home has an open door with an open invitation to dine for anyone who enters. This tradition has continued in the age of private vehicles and tourism.

We are in the heart of the Gobi Desert. If I were to walk outside, the faint hint of a setting sun would illuminate the land just enough to see the jagged mountain range stretching from East to West in front of us. Between this particular home and those mountains, a thin ribbon of sand dunes cuts across the dramatic landscape. A long sloping grassland slowly rolls into those dunes in front of me. Behind me is a dry canyon bed with red hills dotted with dinosaur bones and other treasures.

We are lucky to be here. There are walls, windows, and electricity that is generated from the small solar array and a homemade wind-turbine connected to a half-dozen car batteries and a converter. Like most of the gers and houses we have slept in for this journey, the bathroom is a small shack straddling a ten foot hole 50 yards away from the house. There is no running water but there does appear to be central heating in the form of pipes that pump water made hot by the wood/dung burning stove. Of course, we are visiting Mongolia during one of the few months where heat is not required. The kitchen is outside in a separate ger. Like most nights, we are sleeping in our sleeping bags. The cousins, three boys and three girls who live here during the summer, were absolutely thrilled to see us. We are Mogi's (our driver) first ever tour group. He runs a business in the capital and doesn't get to see his boys very often. This made today special for all parties, ourselves included. These six kids were genuinely enthralled by our sudden and unexpected arrival.

Amanda and I played frisbee, soccer, basketball, chess, checkers, and rode bikes. After dinner the three oldest kids took us on a sort of backyard exploration. We saw their garden and explored the red cliffs of the canyon next door. We sang songs to each other and went fossil hunting.

Sounds weird doesn't it? Yes, the highlight of our day was playing with a 12 year old and two 9 year olds that we were unable to communicate with. But Mongolia would have it no other way. Mongolia is the furthest thing from a relaxing vacation one can possibly imagine. We've showered twice in twelve days and we're running low on wet wipes. Finding an outlet to charge a camera is nearly impossible. My neck is sore everyday from the whiplash I get on the “roads” we've travelled hundreds of miles over. But somehow, this is really enjoyable.

I have a feeling that Mongolia is the kind of place that we will only truly appreciate once we have left. When we are here, the sheer lack of a single western comfort can be an overwhelming distraction from what Mongolia does have: pure untouched beauty, a culture still living as their ancient ancestors did, and an overwhelming sense of hospitality to strangers and family alike. These simple qualities will forever be engraved in my memory. I will soon forget my frustration with squat-shitting in a hole for two weeks.

Amanda and I sat on the tailgate of the Landcruiser tonight staring at the rising moon above those jagged mountains. As darkness slowly set in, we contemplated how quiet and incredible this place is. Thirty feet away our driver drained the intestines of the goat he had just slaughtered. Not even the overpowering aroma could ruin our moment with Mongolia. I have a feeling that it only enhanced it.

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