Mongolia: So Far From God, So Close to China

As the plane is landing at Chinggis Khan International Airport in Ulaan Bator, I look down at the dirt tracks swirling through the pastures surrounding the runway.  They look something like a beginner’s guide to chaos theory, the likely paths and the harder ones, converging and re-converging according to some logic or design.  I figure this must somehow be the map to the Mongolian persona if not history.  I mean, you’ve gotta’ give these guys a lotta’ credit, not just for conquering half the known world of the time, but for somehow getting out of China’s grip in the end.  No other of China’s conquerors ever accomplished that; just ask the Manchus, who lost their own country in the process, just like all the others, including the Khitans who gave us “Cathay.”  Of course the Mongols had some help from neighboring big brother Russia, who took a piece herself in the process; I believe the teeth-marks are still visible on the map.


Not knowing what kind of place or where my hostel will be, I booked an airport pickup to facilitate things.  Last time I did that, I got shanghaied in Nairobi.  I wonder if this time I’ll get nairobied in Shanghai.  I don’t see my name anywhere at first glance, but then I see a young kid listlessly holding up a sign with my name in one hand, an iPhone in the other, head buried in it.  That’s my guy.  He leads me out to the van.  There’s a tire iron in the front seat.  I’m home… for a day or two at least… but no more than that.  I’ve got five days in Mongolia and I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit in the city the whole time, so I’ve already booked onward trans for the next day to Tsetserleg, where there’s not only an English guesthouse, but it’s supposed to be one of the nicer of the provincial capitals.  Sounds chahming, dahling. 


The bus terminal is not much more than a parking lot, but at least they do have a ticket office.  The road itself is another matter.  We break down before we barely reach the edge of town.  That eats up almost an hour, listening to the eponymous noises of tools and tire irons clanging and clattering in hidden compartments.  In the Old West somebody always rode shotgun.  Here in the Old East I guess somebody rides tire iron.  Flat tires are common, as are other roadside maladies and challenges to a vehicle’s mortal soul.  You could count distances by the number of potholes.  Sometimes it feels like we’re going to leave an axle behind.  Sometimes the adjacent pasture is preferable to the road itself, so the driver just goes off the side and keeps going. 


About every hour or so, the bus stops so that everybody can get off to go peepee and poopoo, right there on the side of the road, every man pissing to the wild blue yonder, every mother trying to get her kids to get it all out while the getttin’s good, because the green pasture is certainly preferable to the actual mid-point lunch break.  Think you’ve seen some primitive loos before?  Here it’s a little row of cordoned off stalls, each wide enough for three planks, with the middle one missing.  That’s where you send your deposit off to the fetid swamp that lies twenty feet below.  It’s big enough for a child to fall through… or a laptop computer, too, for that matter.  I get dizzy thinking about it, and almost can’t urinate.  Camp Kickapoo was a party poop compared to this chasm of filth and chaos.


I count several dead horses along the side of the road, no telling how many die off in the pasture.  They’ve got plenty.  Livestock far outnumber people in Mongolia, some herds reminding me of the great migrations of wildebeest in Africa, at least when they cross the road.  But these are not wild.  These are all stock, great herds of cattle and goats and sheep and horses, the ponies for which Mongolia is famous, the ponies that conquered the world, but failed to conquer the selectively-bred alfalfa-fed monsters that some of their more creative enemies—Parthians I believe—came up with to respond to the challenge.  Such is the history of Mongolia, and they’re quite proud of it.  I can see why.  The green rolling fields are as beautiful as anything I’ve ever seen, if not so spectacular, just going on forever.  Gers (yurts) dot the landscape, the traditional homes of a traditional people, nomadic by nature, moving with the seasons and pastures.  They seem a cross between Dine’ (Navajo) hogans, igloos, and Playmate picnic coolers.  I suppose that’s how they work, too, a few layers of insulation between the inner fire and the outer cold.


Sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind me of where I am.  I’m in freaking Mongolia, man!  That’s almost Siberia!  It may be as close as I ever get, in fact.  At one point a little finger of the Gobi Desert kisses the road we’re on, with the requisite Bactrian camels and desert-dressed countryman, but mostly it’s green pastures and ponies, though motorized vehicles—especially motorbikes—are obviously making major inroads, pun intended.  I guess they can round up herds as well as any pony.  It reminds me more of Bolivia than anything I’ve seen before, both the people and the landscape, vast and desolate, but not desperate.  If those two peoples are not related somehow, then they’re certainly missing a good opportunity.  Of course the Mongol physical features resemble their Chinese neighbors in many ways, though there is no obvious cultural connection beyond the couple hundred years that the Mongols ruled China.  Linguistically they’re closer to distant Istanbul than Beijing.  But physical types (so-called “races”) must predate language by many millennia. 


When we finally get into Tsetserleg, it’s still light out, not hard up here at almost fifty degrees north in the summer, about the same latitude as the US-Canada border.  Travel the same distance north as we’ve just traveled west and you’d be at Lake Baikal in Russia, Ulan Ade in fact.  So there’s the connection between Russia and Mongolia, the sharing of this region and mutual relatives, maybe not as obvious as with China, but still there.  And Russia has a long history both with and against Turkic peoples, the Mongols’ close relatives.  This is where much history was made in an earlier era, and that included Russian-related Indo-European speakers, too, long before Russia itself made the great migration eastward. 


But Tsetserleg itself is no great shakes, though pleasant enough, I guess, something of a crossroads out here in the outback.  I’m almost the only guest the first night, but the crowds roll in the second, Europeans on motorcycles even, just in time for the rain.  That’s okay, as there wasn’t a whole lot to do anyway, except walk around town and environs.  I did stroll the market, though, which ruined any desire I might have had to try the local food, since the market and vegetables on display are filthy and disgusting.  I don’t think veggies play much of a role in the local cuisine.  Nutella and thick Russian brown breads will have to suffice.  


I worry that the road may wash out for my trip back, which I barely got on anyway, seat number forty-five at the very back.  But the road is okay except when we have to turn off of it.  At one stretch we must go for five or ten miles in water-soaked pasture adjacent to the distressed road.  It’s stressful, but we finally make it through.  Somehow we always do.  So I guess I’ll get my full day in Ulan Bator after all.  And it’s nice enough, if nothing spectacular.  My favorite part is the Buddhist temple a short hike up the road where I’m staying.  It’s almost a little copy of the Potala in Tibet, with which it shares a sect if not sects.  They even sell Dalai Lama calendars here.  Somehow that seems appropriate, though it’s only been the case for a few hundred years.  It’s oddly compelling, though, I’ll have to admit. 


I’ve been Buddhist philosophically for many years, without ever feeling the compulsion to kneel and pray and make wishes to the four winds.  But listening to the monks recite their prayers is effective.  I know it’s just ritual, endless repetitions of the same incantations, but the effect is transcendent and I feel myself being swept up in it, the recitations more than the sum of their particular words.  There may be something here for me.  I spend hours looking through the nearby shops full of Buddhist adornments and accessories, even buying a couple for myself.  Mongolians mostly shop in the “State Department Store,” though, a throwback to the Communist era.  But whereas before, that might’ve meant shoddy merchandise on scarce shelves and long lines and little fulfillment, today it’s a dizzying array of dazzling displays and more clichés than I have to describe it, a paradigm shift of cosmic proportions.


Mongolia, too, is more than the sum of its individual parts.  In a way, I wish I had more than five days to spend here, but I’m not sure what I’d do with them.  I guess I’ll have to come back.  On the other hand I could die right here right now with few regrets.  If I were to go to heaven, then I wouldn’t have far to go.  It’s not that the people are especially warm, because they’re not.  Nor is it that the land is especially inviting, because it’s not, either.  Both seem as brutal and challenging as they are warm and inviting.  But somehow that seems appropriate, a blank page on which to write something besides my name, rank, and serial number.  I’m sure I could think of something to write, though I have no idea how the end result would turn out.  It all depends on how it starts.  That’s how chaos theory works.

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