This post is over 9000 words (literally), so I don’t mind if you don’t read it all. Or even if you don’t read any of it. WARNING: F-bombs and S-bombs are dropped. If that will bother you, do not read. You should at least skim through and look at the pictures (click to enlarge). Read the words if you want to know about my experience in Mongolia. When I felt like something was entertaining or important, I would write it down in my journal. Thus I’m calling this: “Mongolia: Snapshots.” There was a lot that I thought was interesting.
7/2 – Introduction
It’s Thursday. I’m sitting in Mongolia’s “first Irish pub,” established 2005. I notice a group of 20 and 30 something’s sitting to my right taking glances at me, whispering things. I turn and smile (as I do when I notice people looking at me) and they ALL BURST OUT LAUGHING like I’ve just told a joke. They’ve ordered a round of beers and I flag down the waitress who’s just served them. I order chicken soup and French fries. “I’m sorry, the first thing you order is not the right time.” Oh, maybe it was a lunch meal. I glance at my watch. It’s NINE-THIRTY in the evening. It does not feel like it because the sun is still up and shining. Also my body doesn’t feel tired even though I’m running on 5 hours of sleep and have been traveling all day. Perhaps it was the tea on the flight? I order French fries and water and eat both quietly while watching wrestling on the pub TV and wondering if the Mongolians to the right of me will talk to me or just sit and watch.
7/3 – UB to Gobi
Looking out at the yellow hills and mountains of Mongolian countryside outside UB (Ulaanbaatar), it’s easy to react in the way hardwired into human behavior: compare, contrast, categorize, label… It looks a bit like Montana in the fall. The brown grass. The smooth hills. But it’s not quite that brown. And the grass is shorter and sparser here… Enter the Gobi Desert. It reminds me a bit of Kenya, with the goats and sheep and cows roaming around and providing some vital nutrients to the nomadic families. But there aren’t really any predators here. And they also graze horses…
7/3 – It Wasn’t a Cookie
I thought it was a piece of bread or something like it. Maybe a cookie. It was round like a cookie. Hard like cookies can be. But I bit into it and it was the strongest, saltiest, hardest cheese I’d ever placed in my mouth. I washed it down with a large gulp of fresh goat milk tea.
Marco, Anne, and Lukas – my German tour companions – and Tembra and Hero – our tour guide and driver – sat around one side of the yurt while our hosts – an old, tan-skinned, skeletal man and his plump, short-haired wife – passed around the treats. I’ve made a huge mistake. I don’t even like the MILDEST of cheese in the U.S., but on the Mongolian countryside I had a JUMBO GOAT CHEESE SLAB to eat or else it would look rude. I handlessly plug my nose and alternated big bites of cheese with large swigs of milk tea. I thoroughly enjoyed the milk tea. Tembra and Hero made small talk with our hosts. The man had long black hair, tight black jeans, tattoos, and a black t-shirt with the Nazi Reichsadler on it. (More on this later. Keep reading or skip ahead to 7/12 – Temple Walk). Tembra told us he’s in a band, which I fully believe given his alternative dress. His wife only had a few teeth, and when she smiled, I too smiled. I finished my cheese and said a little prayer of thanks that I didn’t vomit in their yurt. Tembra and Hero began to prepare dinner so in the interim Marco and I went on a picture walk.
Back at the homestead, dinner was not yet ready. The old woman was milking her goats. I started taking pictures of her doing it and then she invited me to milk some too. It was embarrassing. When she pulled her clenched hand down an utter, it looked like whole cups of milk came out. Whereas when Marco or I squeezed, it was like, maybe a teaspoon. Practice makes perfect. Maybe I ought to have stayed at that first homestead with the best toilet of the whole trip (it had a seat! It wasn’t just to planks of wood above a hole!), and I could’ve gotten used to the strong cheese, and I could’ve drank goat milk tea all day every day.
7/4 – Morning
I’m sitting propped up against our sturdy, industrial Russian van watching the sun rise higher in the sky and the goats from another family graze the grass surrounding our outhouse. Bleating, bird chirps, and the wind are the only sounds. The herd of goats steadily moves east. Every once in a while one of them will bump into the metallic walls of the outhouse and they’ll all freeze at attention for a moment before resuming their activities.
Mostly eating, but a few small ones are fighting. Nothing intense, but like wrestling with their heads. A few try to mount each other. A man on a motorcycle two kilometers away is herding a group of horses out way. The goats all stop what they’re doing as the motorcycle sound gets louder. Then, all at once, they sprint away, eastward; and silently save for the little ones in back bleating: “Slow down! Wait! What’s going on! Wait!” But none stop or slow down for them, so they turn and stand around the pen enclosing the goats of our host. Bika, the old man, steps out to pee. Then he addresses the issue of the three little goats hanging around his pen. He literally grabs one of them by its hind legs and shoves it away from the pen. Then he grabs a stick and chases them back to their herd. All the while the goats bleat: “Ma! Ma!”
7/4 – Squatting, Part 1
Squatting in the sandy dirt. Two hundred meters behind me, a road – the only road – stretches kilometers to opposite sides of the horizon. Four hundred meters in front of me, a pack of camels. Three hundred meters to my right, the van and my fellow travelers. If I stand up, they can see me; when squatting, a slightly elevated area of land conceals me.
Peeing out here isn’t so bad. Obviously men have it easy, but I’d still rather be a woman. But human females also do this thing where they “need” to bleed every month so their uteri are clean and ready for a baby. So managing that while out here can be challenging. With my knees in the dirt, I exchange my used tampon for a new one and wish I had a menstrual cup. That would have it’s own challenges too, but waste disposal would be no problem. I’m sure some detrivores would like the minerals in my blood. I’ll put this on my to-do list. Meanwhile, I bury the used tampon in the dirt and hope they like cotton too.
7/4 – Burial
Overcast sky and the water vapor can’t take it anymore. The tiniest rain droplets give up and fall, moistening the dry ground. Marcos and Lukas use this opportunity to “take a shower” standing outside the yurt in their underwear, rubbing the dirt off with the minute drops. I join them in my Patagonia shorts and Target sports bra. There’s really not enough water to actually get clean, and soon enough the guys go back inside the yurt. But I can’t. I’ve suddenly got all this energy. The wind has picked up, blow-drying my moist skin, making me cold. But I still don’t want to go inside the yurt. I want to heat my body with my muscles and run at the bare horizon. Nothing but red brown dirt and patches of scrub grass for kilometers, like being on a ship and looking out over the ocean. The landscape screams: “GO!” so I start walking. But not aimlessly. I have a purpose: to walk. I look down at the ground as I go, hoping to find some bones. But I think the young boy who lives here has probably taken all of them already. I keep walking, looking for anything to catch my eye, but mostly just walking.
A red stone, just like all the other red stones – but somehow a bit different because I’ve decided to pick it up – catches my eye. I keep walking, turning it over in my hands. I don’t have glasses on, but I see a large white mass off in the distance. I think it might be bones, but when I come closer, I see it’s just a large white rock. I keep walking. I come to a dirt road and look both ways entirely by muscle memory because my conscious mind knows that no cars are coming. Not a car for kilometers.
I start walking even faster now. So much energy. Pent up. Months of work. Months in a tiny apartment. Months on a dense island. Months of smog. Months of children constantly asking questions and complaining and wanting things from you. Months of learning. Months of new. Months of hearing car horns and scooters and words I can’t understand. And now this. Just the sound of wind, and rocks crunching under my feet. Just kilometers of “nothing.”
I come upon another white blob in the dirt. This time it’s several translucent white rocks arranged in a semi-circle. I decided THIS is a grave. Something ought to be buried here. I pick up a palm-sized white rock and dig in the center of the semicircle. I place the small red rock in the grave. This rock is all the things in myself I dislike. My fears that lead to inaction and anxiety. I slide dirt over the stone and put the white doffing stone on top. The energy is still in me, but I feel light. I job the distance back to the yurts, looking both ways again when I cross the dirt road. But I don’t look back at the white gravestones.
7/4 – Mongo
Sitting in the passenger side of a truck, while Mongo, the 5-year-old boy who lives on this yurt homestead drives off to oblivion. He guns the accelerator and my back smashes into the seat. A hard turn and I grab the door handle for stability. Slam on the breaks and my head bangs into the dashboard.
This is all make-believe. The keys are in the ignition, but Mongo wouldn’t dare turn them. He sees his grandmother walking outside and ducks down below the windshield. “What are you doing? Are we not supposed to be here? Mongo, am I gonna get in trouble?” He gives me the “shh!” gesture and smiles suspiciously. The grandma goes back to her yurt and we continue out Fury Road-esque epic. Mongo is the director and I am merely an actor in his fantasy.
He hops out of the truck and we play a little game of chase around it before he runs for a livestock pen 50 meter away. He goes inside and I ask, while gesturing, if I am supposed to join him. He doesn’t respond, just looks like he’s pretending to be a dinosaur. I circle the pen and watch him until he motions for me to join him. I still have no idea what I’m supposed to do until he binds my hands behind my back and I realize I’m supposed to be a prisoner. We escape our jail cell moments later and go running from our captors. Mongo starts shooting over his shoulder and I do the same. “Fire the bomb!” I mime shooting an RPG. Mongo picks up a rock and throws it in the direction of the pen. “BOOM!”
We run to a spot with largish rocks and some old plastic items (like a computer mouse). Mongo arranges the rocks in a row and starts playing with the items as if they’re toy cars. I tell him maybe I should go. I begin walking away. He picks up a rusted piece of a bicycle and points it at me as if it’s a gun. I stick my hands up in the air. “Don’t shoot Mongo! Don’t shoot!” He comes up to my back and pulls my hands down, pretending to fasten them only to let me free. I run and pick up a rusted bike piece of my own. We have a good ole fashion Mexican standoff and then I shoot him. He goes down. I rush over and I pick him up. “No! Mongo! Why’d we have to resort to violence to solve our problems?!” I put him down and resuscitate him. He stumbles back up and trudges along zombie-like. “Are you a zombie?” He motions for me to shoot him in the head, so I do. He becomes human-like and we continue like this several times: he shoots me, I die, he pours some potion into my mouth, and I’m alive again. He shoots me AGAIN, this time in the uterus and I’m like “hell no, this proto-misogyny will not stand,” so I get up without waiting for a potion and pummel him with bullets. Then I heal him and explain that I should go.
As I’m walking away, he climbs on my back and I give him a piggyback ride. Mongo stops me at a pile of glass bottles, mostly broken but some still intact. He grabs an intact one, places it on the ground, picks up a rock, and throws it at the bottle. He misses wide. Mongo hits the bottle a few more times before handing a rock to me. “Are you sure we should be doing this? Will your Grandma be mad?” He just motions for me to throw the rock. I place a rock under the bottle and wind up big like a baseball pitcher. My rock misses wide.
I watch Mongo break a few more bottles before saying “goodbye,” waving to him, and turning to go. This time, he doesn’t shoot me. I return to my yurt and play cards with my tour companions.
7/5 – Another Morning
No sounds. No motors. No electric hum. Only the sound of human ventilation (another type of motor, I suppose) and then the sound of my sleeping back zipper as I climb out of bed. And then, the sound of my feet tiptoeing across the yurt floor. Outside, wind, distant bird chirps, and the occasional goat snort create a minimalist soundtrack. These goats, unlike yesterday’s goats, are all mostly sitting and resting. They haven’t yet started their day’s grazing. They’re still waking up.
7/5 – Squatting, Part 2
Wall sitting against a power line pole. Fifty meters in front of me, the paved road we’ve turned off of in order to cook and eat lunch. One hundred meters behind me, the van and my fellow travelers. All around me, this fine grey/brown dirt with scattered patches of green scrub grass. I try remembering a marine training song I learned from one of my swim coaches as I squat against this pole peeing out the excess fluids I’ve consumed the past few hours, but none come to mind. My legs aren’t tired, I’m just worried I’ll slip and my butt will be covered in dirt and pee. A red SUV drives by, slowly. I try to see if anyone’s looking at me out of their windows, but they’re tinted so I can’t tell. But I imagine that would be a wonderful picture. Black girl, shorts around her knees, leaning against an electrical pole, against the backdrop of a spectacular mountain range.
7/5 – Sitting On a Horse in Gobi Gurvansaikhan National Park
Why the fuck am I sitting on a horse? When in Mongolia I suppose. Everyone asked me, when I told them I was coming here, “will you ride a horse?” I wasn’t planning on it. But when the opportunity arose and Anne asked if we wanted to I said yes because why not. As soon as I got on the horse, I felt like I was going to fall off. That feeling persisted throughout a majority of the ride. I was being led through this gorgeous green valley with steep rock cliff faces by an 11-year-old boy who insisted on maintaining a stern face, even as I joked and laughed with him. Eventually it still felt like I would fall of the horse, but I knew I wouldn’t, so my mind relaxed, although my legs and ass were tense. Birds of prey circled up in the sky. Cow mice darted between shelter rocks and holes in the ground as horses came stomping along. I really wanted a picture of one of these rodents, but the horse made it difficult.
Towards the end of the ride, my guide gave the guide rope of my horse to Lukas and we proceeded to get tangled almost instantly. For a moment, I feared we would fall over, but my guide returned and untangled him while mutter something to himself. I can only assume he was cursing all the dumb tourists he has to deal with. Meanwhile, I apologized while smiling and laughing at how absurd all this is.
7/6 – Middle of Nowhere
In a wide, flat valley between two mountain ranges, a red Hondo motorbike stands straight up on its kickstand. There is no person in sight. How did you get there, motorbike? Where is your human?
In a wide, flat valley between two mountain ranges, a cow lies on its side, drying out dead in the sun. The brown hide sunken, clinging to its familial bones. In several months, all will be consumed by detritivores except the sun-bleached bones. And then those too will be gone, picked up by young children for games, or by tourists for souvenirs.
7/6 – Sand Dunes
Forty minutes up. Ten minutes down. Twenty thousand, one hundred, and sixty minutes until the last grain of sand will leave my tight Afro curls.
7/7 – Squatting, Part 3
Squatting in a valley behind a hill. On the other side of the hill, the driver replaces a flat tire and my German tour companions converse with another group of German tourists whose driver has stopped to help ours. I finish peeing, pull up my pants and turn to see one of the other Germans is at the top of the hill peering down. Probably saw my naked ass. “Sorry,” I half-shout, embarrassed. I have no idea if I’ve been heard or if the winds taken the apology away. I also have no idea why I apologized.
7/7 – Kids Are Always the Most Fun
The others have gone for showers and a cold beer at the “yurt resort” one kilometer away. But I’m sitting in the shade of an old car filling a used plastic bottle with sand. This is of my own volition although not my own design. The young children (two boys and a girl) of the family we’re staying with tonight are playing “fill these empty bottles with sand,” and since I wanted to (play with them; observe them; get to know them), I will do this too.
We can’t communicate with words, but I think initially they think: why is she here? But as I continue to follow their lead, they seem at least indifferent to my presence. Every once in a while they’ll say a word in Mongolian and gesture for me to repeat. I do, to the best of my ability, and they seem pleased with my efforts. I have no idea what words I’m saying.
They all have short hair and fly bites they’ve picked at. They’re all incredibly cute.
The boys finish filling their bottles and place them on a bench. They take off their shirts and tie them like capes around their necks. I joke with them; one of the boys – the taller one – was wearing a Spiderman shirt and I say: “are you Spiderman?” He jumps and kicks in the air. I continue helping the girl fill her bottle. She has a large clay rock that she’s filing particles off of and into the bottle with a flat piece of metal. It’s a horribly slow and inefficient process. My German companions would say: “we can optimize it!” But that’s not the point of this game. I think there is no point because she takes one of the bottles from the boys’ bench and uses it to help fill her bottle.
The boys don’t mind. They’re running around playing with each other and somehow I become involved. Maybe the little boy poked me or something. I’m happy to play the part of the villain, the “sleeping giant” awakened by precocious children. I start chasing him, but his shoes come off. He doesn’t mine, but I do, recalling the shards of glass and rusted cans I’ve seen around most yurt homesteads. I pick up his shoes and wave them at him, but he still thinks I’m chasing so he giggles and runs on.
“Stop! You need your shoes!” I can just imagine having to carry the boy, his foot sliced, into his mother’s yurt. “Damn tourist,” Mom would say. Getting a gash in the suburbs of Chicago, not a big deal. Getting a gash out in the middle of nowhere, bigger deal.
“I can’t chase you if you don’t have your shoes on!” I put them down in the dirt and back away. “Put on your shoes.” I point to them and he does. Then he runs at me. I start to tickle him and he immediately slumps to the ground. He’s shirtless, so I worry about him getting cut up from rocks and other particles underneath him. I pick him up and twirl him around. We continue to play like this. Every once in a while I return to the girl and the seemingly never-ending task of filling the bottle with sand. I give the boys piggyback rides, sprinting and twirling them fast. The bigger one hits me like I’m a horse. They both scream something when I spin them, but I don’t know what their saying. The old sister – Azzaya – comes out and I ask her. “Stop,” she says. But they were smiling and giggling! The kind of stole like when you’re on a rollercoaster. Stop but actually keep going.
The older sister helps the younger girl finish filling the bottle. I don’t see what happens with it because the little boy has already started prodding me again. I give chase. Inevitably he loses his shoes. This time I help him put them on so they’ll stay. The other boy runs to me and requests I pick him up. They both want me to pick them up. So I have them grab my arms and lift them a bit off the ground and run. I only get about five meters before setting them both down. But they enjoy it, so I do it again. And again. The bigger boy keeps losing his grip on my arm and falling early. But we’re all smiles and giggles.
The Mom comes out and makes the kids thank me. I don’t know if she realizes I want to be here with them. The boys bow and say “bayartalaa” (“thank you” in Mongolian). I do the same. Then I go and have a shower and a beer at the yurt resort.
Dusk, on the way back to our yurts, the mosquitoes zero in on us. No mosquitoes this whole trip, but now swarms of them. I understand now why the kids had all these bites. Before, when the wind was blowing hard, the mosquitoes were hiding. But now, in the stillness, they’re free to bite the mammals. To spawn in the nearby mud lake. To be squished against my thigh by my hand.
The kids are out playing by their yurt with a pot of smoking coals beside them to keep the mosquitoes away. Meanwhile I retreat to my yurt, spray DEET over my exposed skin, and zip myself into my Coleman mummy sack. I hear the kids’ giggles and squeals well until midnight.
7/3-7/9 – Travelers Encountered
My 3 German tour companions Anne, Lukas, and Marco.
Belgian man who will be teaching in China next year.
An Asian-American woman. “I was thinking I probably wouldn’t see any Americans here, they’re probably all staying in the U.S. for the 4th of July. What brings you to Mongolia?” “I’ve been travelling all year.”
British “maths” Professor at George Mason University whose goal is to expose the fallacies of modern economics.
Two Dutch women.
An Asian-American couple from Atlanta. “I didn’t think I’d see any Americans here, what with it being the Fourth of July weekend.” “Yeah, we’ve been travelling for months. We just came here from Tanzania.”
French fossil hunter illegally digging at The Flaming Cliffs geological site.
7/9 – Exiting Gobi
We drive all day. Exiting the Gobi Desert, entering the countryside outside UB, entering UB. As we drive, I look out the window and all previous attempts at comparing and contrasting slide out of my mind. This landscape is decidedly Mongolian. Obviously there are advantages to drawing or trying to draw parallels between things, but seven days out here and my mind has built enough of a context around Mongolian nomad life and Mongolian Gobi desert ecology that is no longer has to rely on comparisons, contrasts, and faulty labels.
7/9 – A Bad Night Out in UB
What’s the point of a plan or a rule if it’s not followed? It does nothing but mock you as you veer off course.
I went out to eat with Lukas and Anne. Afterwards we walked around a bit, rode a triple-seater bike, got some ice cream, got a beer at a large karaoke beer hall. It was fun. But all the while, as it got darker, I kept thinking: I probably should’ve started walking back by now.
“I think it’s quite safe here,” they replied when I mentioned at 10:30 that I should get going. So I stayed because of the 0.0001 N*m^2 units of peer pressure to be social and do things and not be a lame-o. It gets dark late here, so normal people and families stay out very late. I’d had about 2.4-3 standard drinks over the course of 3 hours. Any amount of alcoholic haze I may have felt evaporated when I began walking back to the hostel at 11:30. Be aware of surroundings. Stay on bright or heavy traffic roads. I hoped to find the landmarks I was familiar with on the major roads and then follow them back to the hostel. I knew I had to go right, but there were no traffic light aided pedestrian crossings. So I kept going straight. Until I gave up and crossed the local way – go halfway across the street and hang out on the double yellow lines until it’s clear to cross the while way. There were no bright cross streets on which I could’ve turned right before coming to a bridge. Peace Bridge. I had no idea where it was relative to my hostel. On the bridge, I decided to check Google Maps, which told me to take a left after crossing the bridge. Umm… what?
By this point, I’ve already begun to tear up. It’s my natural response when I’m frustrated and alone. In the past, I’ve started tearing up if I just misplace something in my room for a few minutes. But it doesn’t last if I can convince myself everything’s O.K.
Towards the end of the bridge, I notice a short, skinny man behind me. As he passed me he mumbled something, like “huh.” I kept walking and didn’t look at him. He pauses. As I pass him, he looks again and says: “Huh.” Again. “Huh!” I gave no response (because also, what are you supposed to say to something that is not even a sentence?). I gave no recognition that he existed. I walked tall and confident. He stopped and turned to go down stairs going to the street below the bridge. I kept walking. Behind me, I heard: “HUH!” I turned and saw him spring at me. A fake out, because he stopped well before getting to me, but I respond: “Can you just stop talking to me!” When he turned and began descending the stairs, I turned around and kept walking.
I kind of wish I’d escalated it. I know that sounds crazy, you shouldn’t escalate altercations because that’s how people get killed. But I wish I could’ve beaten him up. I just think, this guy will continue being a drunken asshole to women. But if some woman beats him the fuck up ONCE, maybe he’ll think twice about getting off on terrorizing women.
There were less and less people walking around on the street after the bridge. I stopped two women, handed them a card with my hostel address on it and asked which way. They pointed right and I was so happy I asked before following Google to my left. The sidewalk curved and there was a street going right but it was dark. I kept going straight, but it was also dark. I was walking by a park and I heard a dog bark and I started running. A car stopped beside me. I stopped running and walked. I assumed the driver was asking me if I wanted a ride. I wave him on. The taxis here look just like normal cars with drivers. Why would I get in some randos car? No. I’m not that dumb. Obviously I’m pretty dumb because I’m in this situation, but not that dumb. I would make it home. I knew I would. I kept walking.
I passed a woman walking with a bag of groceries. I kept walking. I passed two large men, one of them wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey. I kept walking. I passed two young children playing in a dark playground. I kept walking.
I felt a wet droplet on my arm and shirt, looked to the rode, and saw a man leaning out a truck window staring at me. It wasn’t raining. WHAT. THE. FUCK. Either he intentionally spit on me or he spit and then realized he hit me and was staring at me to make sure I was OK. Whatever. I kept walking.
FUCK. THIS. SHIT. FUCK THIS SHIT. FUCK THIS SHIT. (x27)
I came to a stretch of road that was fairly populated. Three women came laughing out of a restaurant. One of them was sipping a can of Coke through a straw. I went up to them, showed them the hostel address, and asked if I would have to go straight and then right. One woman spoke good English and translated to the other women. The larger woman, who introduced herself as Mama Sun, tried calling the hostel, while the other two conversed with each other. I began to tear up (embarrassment? relief? frustration?) and looked away hoping the breeze would help dry my eyes. No one picked up at the hostel.
“Can I walk?” I asked.
“It’s too far. It’s not safe. You take a taxi with us.”
“Where are you from?”
“You’re alone? One person?”
“Yes, just me.”
“Oh! We don’t walk at night. We think it is dangerous.”
We walked a short distance to a taxi stand. Mama Sun negotiated with a driver and got in the front seat. The English-speaking woman, Nata, and the Coke-sipper (her name was Tibetan and very difficult to pronounce) got in the taxi first, then me. As it pulled away from the curb, I asked how much it would be and offered to pay for their ride.
“No, no, no, no, no,” they all said shaking their heads and waving their hands.
“Okay,” I replied and put away my wallet.
We drove a bit further and things started to look familiar. Nata told me the driver studied in Russia so he can speak good Russian. I told her she spoke very good English.
“You’re very brave.” She said. I thought: Brave and dumb are two sides of the same coin. If it works out, you’re brave. If it doesn’t, you’re dumb.
Within ten minutes we pulled up to my hostel. Mama Sun handed me back the address card and I handed her 1000 tugrik (~50 US cents). “No, no, no, no, no.” They all shook their heads again. They looked at the money like it was cursed.
“Please, take it,” I said. Tears were welling in my eyes and my throat was tightening, forcing my pitch lower and strained. They all looked horrified for me. “Take it, you saved me.” I smiled to ease their concern. “Thank you,” I said climbing out of the taxi. They still looked worried as I shut the car door. The taxi stayed there as I walked to my hostel door. It was locked. I rang the bell. A woman came to the door and opened it. I greeted her with a smile and turned around, waving goodbye to my saviors of the night.
In my hostel dorm room, all six beds were empty. The women were all still out. I took the opportunity to cry a little (relief? frustration? embarrassment?). I think if my Dad were to read this (which he probably won’t because no one reads this) he would be upset I put myself through this. But he’s told me stories where shit’s gone horrible wrong for him. Like when he first same to the U.S. and the man he was staying with pulled a gun on him. But I guess in that instance he had a plan and stuck to it, but the plan ended up being shitty. In my case, I abandon my rule; it got dark and I didn’t head back. My Dad also says after my sisters or I make a mistake or have accidents – “what did you learn?” Follow your own rules (you get to make them!) or they’ll mock your incompetence and disregard with spit and tears and dog barks and drunks who are all bark and no bite.
7/10 – Cinnabon
What Cinnabon doesn’t have cinnamon rolls ready for consumption at 9 AM? The Cinnabon on the top floor of the State Department Store, Ulaanbaatar.
7/10 – Family Life
I have a friend in Chicago who is from Mongolia. I probably never would have thought to visit Mongolia if it weren’t for her. And when I told her I was going, she put me in touch with her family in Ulaanbaatar. I wasn’t expecting much; just maybe see them once for dinner or something. I was pleasantly surprised when Helen – Jessie’s older sister – called me and gave me a run down of her plans for me: dinner tonight, Naadam the next day, and the National Park the day after that. At dinner, I ate authentic buuz (dumpling with lamb meat), chatted with Helen, and looking at photo albums of their family. Helen kept apologizing for the heat and the horse flies flying about because the windows were open because it was so hot. I said don’t worry about it! For one thing, the Mongolia heat was nothing compared to what I had just come from in Taiwan, where all I have to do is stand outside and it’s like I just took a shower in my own sweat. Frankly, it was nice to just sit on the couch and hang out in this apartment, observing Helen and her sisters and their children all buzzing about cooking or cleaning something or running out to get more food. As a traveler, it’s hard to see these occurrences.
After dinner we drove out to the country to bring Jessie’s mom to her sister’s house. As we drove, apartment buildings gave way to yurts and houses; paved roads turned into dirt and dust kicked up around us as we drove.
The house was one room, with two beds, a stove, and a flat screen TV Jessie had sent from the U.S. The toilet was a squatter-style outhouse. As the purpose of going to the countryside was because Jessie’s mom wasn’t feeling very well, I wondered how this would be more comfortable for her. For on, the air is better out here than in UB. There are no stairs to go up and down like in the apartment building. Also, you have your sister right there to take care of you as needed. And there’s a TV with satellite, so what else could you really need. I would probably include running water in my desired “bare essentials,” but elsewise, this house would be perfect. Just everything you need and nothing else.
7/11 – Naadam
The next morning, we drove out to Helen’s company’s Naadam festival opening ceremony. In Taiwan, I’d gotten used to being the only foreign face at certain events (marathon, open water swim), but here in Mongolia I had always been around tourists until this event. Again, it’s nice to see a side of things most visitors don’t see. Naadam is the festival of the three manly sports (wrestling, archery, and horseback riding). It’s one of two major holidays, the other being the lunar New Year in the winter. Even though it’s called the festival of the three many sports, women participate in the archery and the horseback riding. Actually, no, women don’t participate. GIRLS participate. This surprised me also. The horseback riding competition – which starts early in the morning because the race is ~20 kilometers – is for children only. Only men are allowed to participate in the wrestling, which gets televised (does this have to do with gender politics?).
Helen’s company is the largest Mongolian company in Mongolia. They do things with concrete, including creating this nice oasis out in the countryside with tents and yurts and a stage to celebrate the beginning of the Naadam festival. I played with Jessie’s nieces Michelle, the mischievous 3-year-old, and Tsevilma, the demure 11-year-old, as we waited for the festivities to begin.
There was traditional folk music and singing, in addition to dancing and a circus routine. At one point, we could see the horse racing competitors gallop by off in the distance.
They served us food, which was delicious. I even drank fermented horse milk, which was no delicious, but interesting!
The only thing I disliked was this: There was a tent set up outside with nice couches and food. All the other seats outside were in the hot sun, so obviously I was eyeing this tent wishing I could be a VIP. I noticed they were all men. I figured it was the bosses of each department, so that’s annoying on one level (no female bosses). But I asked Helen and she said there were women higher-ups, but they didn’t participate in the VIP schmoozing. I guess it wouldn’t seem appropriate. Internally, I thought: what is this bullshit? There was a child, the grandson of the owner of the company, he was allowed to be a VIP. But a woman who’s actually a boss in the company wouldn’t feel comfortable. It’s a shame…
7/11 – A Good Night Out in UB
As I was walking back to my hostel in the evening, I ran into Sam, the talkative British woman in the bunk below mine. She was with a group from the hostel. They were celebrating a Dutch Woman’s (I don’t remember her name) birthday. There was an Italian man (Alessio), a Japanese Man (I don’t remember his name), an Australian couple (Laura and Judy), and a German Man (Hans). We decided we were pretty much the United Nations.
At first I was hesitant to join them. I had plans to hang out in the hostel alone and do some writing. But I think I was starved for peer group interaction, because I decided to turn on my heels and head out with them back downtown. YOU ONLY TURN 16 ONCE! They were in search of a cake for the Dutch Woman and found one little place with an open-air patio where we could get dried slices of chocolate and fruitcake. We got Tiger beers to go with the cake. The German ran into a French couple (I do not remember their names). They sat next to me, and I noticed the French Man had socks and sandals on, so I made a joke asking if he was part German because I had recently been informed by my German tour companions that wearing socks with sandals is a VERY German thing to do. They laughed and I learned he spent some time in Chicago. “Great place, right?”
It turns out the Dutch Woman was turning 22, and I was like: WHA?!? Because she seemed so much more mature than me. I guess I am only 23. I thought: wow, to travel alone; but then I reminded myself that I too was traveling alone. Yeah, but to go out and be social with all these random people? And I reminded myself that I too was out with people, being social, and making jokes about socks and sandals. But still, I couldn’t imagine doing this at 22…
We went to another place to get more beer because the café we were in was closing. A Spanish-speaking couple (I do not remember their names) joined us. They had met the others in my group the previous night. The Spanish Woman looked EXACTLY (same bone structure, face shape) as a friend of mine of Indian descent. It was eerie. And then the Colombian Man looked EXACTLY LIKE a skinny, very bearded Antonio Banderas. The Spanish Woman was eating seeds so I joined in as it was something to do to occupy the mouth in lieu of always feeling the need to talk for fear of awkward silences. That and continue sipping beer.
I was a bit buzzed and Sam asked: “What do you think of the men here? Or the women?” I don’t know what you…”
I’m not sure how she finished that question. I was buzzed and also somewhat shocked. Most people are just so heteronormative, which leads to doing the easiest thing, replying in the easiest way, which ends up being a half-truth or a half-lie depending on how you see it. But maybe because I was a little buzzed? Or because I paused? Because to me, if you pause and have to think for a while when given a relatively easy question like that (DUH you should know if you’re attracted to Mongolians or not) then you have to answer honestly. And why did it matter. I met this woman two days ago, and in another two days I would never see her again. Once I left Mongolia, I would never see ANY of the people in this pub again. There was no reason to try to make something up.
I wish I had a recording of my response so I could analyze it. I can’t remember it specifically, but I know I must’ve said many filler phrases like “umm…; you know; I mean; like; yeah…”
“I mean… yeah… they’re OK.”
She clearly noticed my bizarreness and launched into her own answer. “I think they are much more attractive than the men in Vietnam. They’re a bit taller.”
“Yeah, I mean, the men and woman here, I mean, like, they’re both good.”
Maybe I also paused because in all honestly, I didn’t find Mongolian men or women particularly attractive. Obviously there are attractive individuals in every ethnic group, but on the whole, it was Western faces I missed, the majority of faces I’d grown up with having been shaped by Western and Eastern European environmental factors.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a few good looking people,” I said, to close out the conversation and then I just kept sipping my beer.
More beer and more conversation flowed. It was a fun night. Surprisingly, I didn’t feel embarrassed by my dopey response. Possibly because I was buzzed? I have a tendency to dwell on moments were I was awkward or weird and obsess over them and think about how awkward and weird I am. But this did not happen with this interaction. And the next day, with no buzz to protect me, I thought back on the moment and still felt alright. Maybe it’s because I’m 23 now, not 22…
7/12 – Borte
Off in the distance is a giant statue of Chinggis Khan riding a horse. It’s the largest equestrian statue in the world. Chinggis is looking east, towards his hypothetical birthplace.
Chinggis is looking east, but Borte is looking west, towards her husband. Borte was Chinggis Khan’s first, and head, wife. Someone started building a statue of her probably to serve as a companion to the Chinggis one only a kilometer or two away.
Around and within Chinggis are tourists snapping pictures and buying souvenirs, but there is nothing surrounding Borte but a construction fence, broken rubble, and rocks. It seems they gave up developing the monument and withdrew everything, all construction machines or materials, but what they had already completed. Which is just Borte, standing there, looking at her husband.
7/12 – Temple Walk
There’s a temple in the National Park with these aphorisms. At least a hundred aphorisms lining the path to the temple, which is on the side of a mountain. Here are some of my favorites:
The temple is active, as in, people went there to pray. Tourists pay extra to help subsidize local fees. While exiting, I saw this man wearing a bright orange t-shirt with the Nazi Reichsadler on it.
My German tour companions told me that the symbol (not the swastika, which is used in Buddhist things all over Asia, but specifically the Nazi Imperial Eagle) is used as an anti-immigrant symbol in Mongolia, worn by members of xenophobic groups who oppose Chinese and Koreans. I do not know more than that, but I think it’s quite interesting. I’ve written a blog post about seeing the cultural appropriation where I talk about my reactions to seeing the swastika in Taiwan with regards to Buddhist things. I can’t imagine the Mongolians wearing this t-shirt know of the horror associated with this symbol. I just don’t know why you would want to associate yourself with such a thing. I like to pretend it’s like the kids here in Taiwan who wear shirts that say “FUCK” or “HEROIN” on them, like, maybe they just don’t know any better? But like I said, I really don’t know…
7/12-7/13 – Where Am I?
When I got back to the hostel, I saw a handful of Mediterranean-looking men and women chilling in the outer smoking patio. Then inside, one of them was in an argument with the hostel owner: “See, that’s me and I had asked for rooms for my friends.”
Inside, at least a dozen more sat around in the common area. There were people watching Into the Wild on the common room TV. I sat down at the table and began working on a story while silently observing what was going on around me. The man sitting next to me had dark hair and a full beard. He scribbled curling characters in his notebook. Is he writing Mongolian? Every once in a while someone from his group would walk by and talk to him. It wasn’t Spanish. Not French. Maybe Italian? Or Portuguese? I looked again at his notebook and notice he was writing weird. Is he left-handed? No. He’s writing from right to left. Oh! They’re from Israel!
Somehow I asked him what he was writing – he was journaling, same as me – and we started a little conversation. A few other Israelis joined us. It turns out the hostel double-booked their first night so they would have to sleep in their sleeping bags in the common room that night.
They were coming from China where they didn’t really like the attitudes of the Chinese people.
“Too rude,” one woman said. “I mean, we Israelis are rude too, but the Chinese…”
I asked her what they did that was rude.
“Even if they know English, they don’t speak it. You try to ask someone a question and they run away they’re so afraid to speak English.”
Later, I asked: “What do you think of Taglit?”
The woman was a soldier on a Taglit trip and had a good experience. She said it presented balanced information, not just propaganda. But that it depends. Another man said his sister’s group was horribly biased against the left. So I guess it does depend.
They brought out jugs of beer (large bottles of beer from convenience stores is served in plastic jugs here) and started speaking in Hebrew. I took this as a good time to exit. They stayed up drinking and talking until 6 AM.
The next day, I returned to my hostel at 5 PM after an afternoon in UB. The entire hostel was the group from Israel. I was the sole non-Israeli in the bunch. An entire group had moved into the beds of my dorm room that had been rendered vacant this morning. They’re camping gear was all over the room, and one woman was sitting on my bed, looking at her phone.
“Oh… umm… I’ve been sleeping up there,” I said.
“Oh, sorry.” She unplugs her phone from the socket beside my pillow.
“It’s okay. You can keep charging your phone. I just want to let you know I plan to sleep there tonight.”
“No, it’s fine.” She says and climbs off the bunk bed.
The rest of the evening, I had to keep reminding myself I was in Mongolia, not Israel.
7/9-7/13 – Daylight on the UB Streets
A teenage boy teaches a teenage girl to ride a bike. The couple looks “fresh to death” in denim and black.
A drunk stumbles in the middle of the road while a car swerves around him.
Four men walking your way. Think nothing of it as they begin passing you with no issues BUT THEN you feel one of them brush your upper arm with your fingers. Did that just happen? Turn around and see them laughing to each other. What the fuck?
A grandma pushing a stroller is looking at me from across the street. We’re both waiting to cross the cross walk. She baby talks with her stroller occupant, then it’s green. She’s sneaking glances at me. As we cross in the middle of the road, I smile big at her and she smiles even bigger back.
The wind whips bullets of sand onto your skin – thighs, arms, face. With eyes like slits you walk down the street before ducking into a café for dinner.
“Hey!” Pretend like he didn’t say anything to me. Keep walking. He reaches out and wipes his greasy hand on my backpack. Is this just a standard thing that happens to people and/or women here? Keep walking, but turn around and point a “don’t fucking mess with me” finger in his direction.
A tall tourist with hipster glasses walks with his eyes glued to his iPhone and almost collides with a young girl on her new pink roller blades.
A young girl stares at me. I smile and her eyes widen like “OH SHIT SHE SAW ME,” but she almost immediately starts giggling and looks up at her mom with a mix of excitement and joy.
7/13 – Tupperware
I didn’t know how to say “Thank You” to Helen and the rest of her family for being so kind to me. I really felt like a part of their family and wanted to give them some gift to say thank you. Generally, I like to write people nice cards telling them how much I appreciated whatever they did, but I also wanted to give them something material. I opted for something educational: some puzzle workbooks and English books for the kids. If there was one thing I observed in my few days with them, it was how much they loved their kids and wanted them to succeed. So I figured this would be a better gift than some fruit or wine. But also, I did give them some cookies because I think kids like cookies too.
It was my last day in Mongolia. I was in my dorm room in the hostel, packing my bag and listening to Hebrew dialogues, when I heard Helen in the foyer. I grabbed my gift – horribly wrapped in just a department store plastic bag – and joined Helen and Tsevilma outside. We exchanged gifts and hugs and waves goodbye.
Back inside the hostel, I began packing some of the gifts she gave me to bring to Jessie. Shit! I thought when I realized I did not give her back her Tupperware! She had given me some leftover pizza to eat while I was at the hostel, and I hadn’t returned the Tupperware!
I called her on the phone, but she didn’t answer. With no shoes on, I ran past the group of Israeli’s smoking on the porch, hoping to catch Helen before she got in her car. I didn’t see her car or her initially. But then I turned and saw that Helen and Tsevilma were just a hundred meters away on the sidewalk. Helen was reading my card.
So I walked quickly, trying to look where I was going so as not to step on any glass. I gave her back the Tupperware. She thanked me and gave me another hug. Then we said goodbye again, but not for the last time because I would like to go back and see more, especially up North.
But for now I could leave Mongolia with a clear head knowing I had returned the Tupperware.