By John Holland
Rural Mongolia can be more modern than one might expect. Although ancient images of Chinggis Khaan, yurts, grasslands, horses, nomads, and herding come to many as no surprise, contemporary features like cars, motorbikes, television, and telephones might shock.
I and five other volunteers had arranged to take a group tour to the Mongolian Gobi desert. For me, the excursion would check off everything on my to-do list for the countryside: see the beauty of the grasslands, feel the heat of the desert, enjoy the serenity of the valleys, and ride on the humps of a camel, to name a few. I looked forward to the adventure, as well as sending pictures to friends curious about my travels.
On an early Friday morning, we set off from Ulaanbaatar in our van and headed south on the Mandalgovi Road for Mongolia’s southern province of Umnugovi, right in the heart of the Gobi Desert. It is an over 600-kilometer ride, and will take till evening to arrive at our first lodging point. Altogether we are a tour group of six, along with our tour guide/ interpreter and driver. Through the windows of our van, I can see the cattle grazing, the sun shining, and mountains beckoning. Such a setting would characterize most of our day.
By nightfall, however, the scenery has changed. Our only background is darkness, and instead of cruising along paved highway, we are bumping along dirt road and grass. There are no lights, no signs, and no addresses. After our driver stopped to ask directions several times from local herdsmen he sees, we finally reach our destination.
Our group enters a ger (the Mongolian term for yurt)—the portable round tent of the Central Asian nomads. We sit on the floor. I am already taken aback at what I see. To my left is a television, and solar powered black battery on the floor. It is also not hard to spot electrical wires running in various places. On the wall, there is a picture of Chinggis Khaan, bizarrely placed right beside a picture of Minnie Mouse jumping rope. Our host is a grandfather. His grandchild is in his arms. He offers us goats milk, cookies, and snuff (to smell). Our group does not have much opportunity to ask questions, but we see the traditional culture around us. On the floor are traditional carpets; hanging on the wall inside is dried meat. Outside of the ger are sheep, goats, and horses, along with vast steppes and a rickety old outhouse. To my dismay, I am told there is no wifi; yet, why should I be surprised? After dinner, we go and sleep in separate gers, allocated especially for our group. Apart from the television and battery, the design of our dwelling, the grunting of the livestock, and of course the lush pastures all give us the true rustic impression of the ancient Mongolian countryside.
The next morning, we drive to another set of gers. This time, we also find camels and sand dunes in the distance. Our hostess is an elderly woman in her deel—the traditional style of dress. As we begin to ask her questions, I am intrigued by what I hear. We had just traveled on dirt road for two hours—nothing in site but sun, sky, grass, and dust. Until now, “remote” was quite the apt description. Yet, as I listen to this lady’s answers, I realize my erstwhile impressions growing more and more askew.
One question I ask is what happens if someone gets injured, that is, gravely. I had not seen a hospital since leaving Ulaanbaatar, and I could not imagine how anyone could give directions to an ambulance in this steppe, particularly at night when there is no light for miles but those shining from one’s car. In truth, when I broached the possibility of a heart attack earlier, one paramedic in our group stated facetiously, “You die.”
I listen intently to our hostess give her answer. All herdsmen are registered with a local town. Drivers from the hospital know the land—they do not need road signs. Herdsmen also know first aid (an essential skill where they live I would say); so, friends and family can provide basic care until more professional help arrives. Another question is whether she and her family get lonely. After all, I thought, there are no other humans in site, beyond family and guests at her gers. She says that, although she was lonely at first, now, however, with telephones and modern transportation, she is not so lonely. Though acquiring phones only four or five years before, I am told, communication for them now is akin to a talk with my kin while growing up in suburban America.
Other questions had to do more with personal habits and lifestyle. I inquired about herdsmens’ diet, and whether they really did mostly consume meat and animal milk. I was told, “Yes,” and not much fruit or vegetables. Personally, I would miss the latter, but, nevertheless, could certainly survive on just the former. A third member of our tour was curious as to where people found their personal space. The reply was they didn’t need any.
I had wanted to ask more questions, but our hostess was busy with her family accommodating more guests. I did make a list, though, of what I wanted to ask:
How do children here go to school?
How do you get the news?
Don’t young people want entertainment and internet?
What are your experiences with foreign tourists? Do you learn anything from them?
Can herdsmen afford to travel?
What are your favorite and least favorite other countries?
What do you hope your children and grandchildren will become?
What sports do herdsmen’s children do?
As one can see, most of these questions are based on some assumptions. One of them is this: You don’t have the same options in the countryside that I have in the city.
In truth, as I had lain on the bed earlier inside our ger, with no air conditioning, no electrical outlet, no shower, no plumbing, and no wifi, listening solely to the bellows of camels, I felt quite removed from my rushed, high-tech 21st century lifestyle. I was part of the exotic, the alluring and the bizarre, the fascinations one typically found in a travel magazine. Though, now having learned more and more from our hostess, and also from our tour guide, I found that this apparently Bedouin lifestyle of the patriarchs was actually not that far removed from what I could find in my own country. As of this year, almost 11.5 percent of all Americans are still not connected to the internet (the number is 64.4 percent for Mongolians). Indeed, on the day we were preparing to leave, I asked my tour guide how these herdsmen got their news (I was thinking of newspapers and had forgotten about the television). She responded, rather cholericly, that we now have globalization, and technology has spread everywhere, and herdsmen have everything. She was not totally accurate, of course, but she had a point. Life on the Steppes is not as it seems, and travel advertisements paint a shallow—indeed, even a skewed—picture of what herdsmen really have and don’t. I had that same skewed picture in my mind before the travel. All through our journey, I was hoping for wifi, while, ironically, surprised to find any television set. Is life as a herdsman completely as it is in the big city? Of course not. Yet, it is also not as it was when Chinggis Khaan himself walked these same steppes. In many ways, the Mongolian countryside may seem totally unplugged from the developed world; though somehow, the battery of life is fully charged, and keeps on running.