By Alexander McNab
From the backseat, John keeps on asking anxious questions, but it is useless to wonder “when will we get there” when in a place that is settled in timelessness. On the way to the Gobi, there is an oasis of endlessness, interrupted only on occasion by a lonely yurt or camels grazing in the grass.
At the Petrovis gas station in Umnugovi: There are horses and a barefoot toddler on the back of a motorbike.
Mongolian music makes sense in the South Gobi. The land is dramatic like the long song.
It is a vast and Bedouin sunset, a nightfall made even more Arabian by the camel humps that curve a foreground to our star. Everyone sticks their cameras out of the open windows. I stick out my head, but the wind whips too hard in my hair as we zoom through the emptiness of a perfect road in the middle of nowhere, looking to any outside observer like a car commercial. I pick up my pen instead. The orange orb is performing its final crescendo. “It’s on the ground,” says Selenge, our guide. “Sun should be on the sky, but this time, it’s falling down.” It has fallen. As I write, I reflect on the poetic irony of the end of this day marking the beginning of our entrance into a true Gobi adventure. The mountains look like Mordor. We leave a storm of dust behind us.
In the ger: Carpets hang like portraits on the felt walls. Minnie Mouse is portrayed next to Chinggis Khaan. A cross-eyed baby with Buddha cheeks eyes us curiously with a cock-backed head. We drink koumiss and eat chicken soup cooked over fire on dung.
The curvature of the earth is a felt experience. The silence is sobering, strengthened by the hushed lightning that strobes off in the stratosphere.
I write I wait for the sun to rise on August 6th out here on the southern end of the Gobi Desert. I sit with my bare hands chilled from a cool desert morning breeze hardly able to keep my fingers wrapped around my pen. The goats bleat. The birds chirp. Feet shuffle. I sniffle. A camera clicks, and a motorcycle drives by on the dirt road below. I sit beside an ovoo, a remnant of an olden day. The rocks piled up here are homages to the spirit of this land. My words feel weak and fleeting in comparison to the mound of boulders I sit beside, but my purpose is the same: tribute to the land I travel.
The Manliest Moment. There is a small yurt, south in the Gobi Desert. Outside the goats’ hooves sound like rainfall on windows and the camels wail to the soft wind, but inside, it’s warm. The fire heats the food and its posse of me, our driver, a nomad man, and our guide. Selenge, the only woman in the group, cooks soup. I chop up pieces of goat’s hip meat while its belly organs pass from a pot, to a hand, to my hand, to my mouth. The nomad man invites me closer to the pot full of meat, using a Mongolian word that Selenge tells me means friend. I sweat from the fire’s calefaction. Two meat-covered, left hand fingers scratch at the bottom of my beard.
We make a sniffling white noise: comfortable, breathing, asleep and silent, restrained from the outside with a thick layer of sheep’s wool and wood like odd cosmonauts protected from the universe. The space is unnerving. The door opens and the wind makes ominous noises around my ears. The bizarre and lonely resoluteness of the others’ yurts, cars, barrels, and tin structures suggest the one-time presence of other intelligent life, but I feel alone in this world with its watching mountains and dunes of sands and the surreal Bactrians and bearded Lucifer kin that make small noises and kick up the dust in the wind. The sun hangs low and softened by clouds. There’s a small, white shack that looks like it should belong to the man on the moon. It’s morning, but the mood feels like twilight. I pee into the depth of a pit as the white-washed outhouse door creaks, unsteady on its shaky hinges.
I take off my hat and shirt. If I can absorb this landscape with my body, I can internalize it with my soul.
I’ve brought my book, but I don’t read it. Books transport me to another world, and I’m happy at the place I’m in.
My right shoe is half-covered with the earthy green of fresh camel dung, dried and stuck in the cool movement of the desert air. There is a natural whistling through the open top of my water bottle. I sit on a schoolboy’s chair. My eyebrows are knitted. Lips pursed, I give the next yurt and desert shrubs a conquistador’s icy stare, the confident gaze of Walter White looking east into the distance of desert hills.
The land here is confused. To the south, the tails of pensive horses blow before great sand dunes. To the north, camels pass in the grassy, pastoral distance defined by the banks of a shallow stream. I bathe in it: an African-American mammal taking a mud bath. When the wind has dried me, I hang my damp underwear off of my left hip like a bandana. My body looks gray and cracked like a deathly, white, old man. I pee behind a hiccup of a hill. The after drops drip down onto my big toe, washing away to my real skin.
These words are windswept as are my face, body, hair, and the blown together mountain I sit upon. A bug lives here, and he traverses the slope like I did, all limbs grasping for support in the sinking sand. I turn my page to the side to toss the worn off rocks away from my pen. The view is the tale of an epic journey, a landscape ready for adventure. They call me a tourist, and I know that I am, but in my head, I was Pi sailing solitarily on a raft of flesh and bone through an oceanic expanse of sand. It whips me now, striking chastisements against my bare back, reminding me of my humanity. Up here, it is hard to feel anything but only human. The sand has jammed my pen.
The wind makes patterns in the sand. It dances like happy souls arising.
The setting sun is a hellish orange. The brightness on the dunes is dimmed. The wind feels colder now. There is the sense that it is going to be another Arabian night.
I see the long depth of the empty, green plain like I’m looking through fish eye. My stomach hugs the grainy earth, and my head is titled up as my body slopes downwards towards its long descent. I move like a useless-legged Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Revenant”, propelled by the strength of my dark and dirtied arms as my lower body lags behind me like a burden. The dune mountain releases a deep, bass vibration. My body causes miniature avalanches of sand with every inch forward. The dune’s soft surface combs the hair on my belly.
I have been baptized by the earth. Dried mud refines my toenails and curls. Sand sits in my ears and eyes. My face has been spattered with wind, my shoes dipped in camel dung, my pants and back dunked in water. The hairs on my chest have been smoothed slick by sand dunes. It feels natural, not dirty. Now on the morning of the day after, much of the mud is gone. I’ve carefully taken out the grains from around the curvature of my lobes, the trappings of my eyelids. My face has been washed and rested, shoes cleaned, water dried, the hairs on my chest disheveled again. I have risen from the tub and removed the holy water, but the blessing has sunk down to my spirit. My natural pathway to an earthly heaven is assured. On the way back down a dune, Selenge, the woman named after a river, leads me in a Khalkha dance. The sharp, upward movements of our arms look like an obeisance to the sun.
Camel bones are strewn like Easter eggs in a sanctum of short, tan slopes and saxaul trees. The hip bone I picked up rests in a space between car seats, wrapped up in black plastic. It is nice this view of the camel boneyard. The living peruse thirstily by a muddy puddle before it. The wind is milder here. The flies are too. Someone plays a simple tune on what sounds like slightly parted lips or a wooden flute from one of the yurts behind me.
I found the fresh fossils of a shrew mouse, but the dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs eluded us. We befriended young goats, whose heads looked low to the ground for food as ours searched for crystals and pretty stones. We leave as the fire is still being kindled over coals. The sun’s rays are visible. Biblically, they cast cool light down onto the empty land. Someone has drawn a star in the dirt. I pick up a stone, a natural pen for natural paper. Copying from a trinket in my pocket, I sketch a quick soyombo. Above it in Cyrillic, I write “Mongolia”.
We stop by the side of the road in the first soum we see. The path is paved again thank goodness. It’s just gotten dark, and I’m sure we smell at least as ragged as we look. A public shower house is our release from the unpleasant aesthetic of a weary traveler. I get a good look at my face for the first time in a couple of days. It’s blacker than I remembered it. I walk out to the trusty car, parked beneath a streetlight and crescent moon in the turquoise sky. I feel rebirthed by the water, a sensation not dissimilar to when I bathed in the sand just 24 hours before.
I’ve walked on from the car and into the darkness as we wait for Selenge to finish her shower. It’s something about the woman and child walking into the wilderness of wooden ger district fences, the young boys riding freely on the road with their bikes, the smoke coming up from the pipe stack of some brick building and the light that’s in its window, the dogs, the cars, and the red sign of Petrovis. It makes me sing alone to the sky: gospel songs and Stevie Wonder.
I write from inside a bit too balmy hotel room in a place called Dalanzadgad. I am ending an adventure that I only now have the Internet to tell you about. Fear not. We will play catch up in the next few emails, taking a trip back into the past. In this one, I’ll take you no further than a few hours when homeless, hungry, and thirsty our ragged band drove around the desert like Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in Nazarene. We have found our manger in this town: the hotel, the mini market next to the wash house, and the restaurant that reopened just for us. Some in my group bemoan the unprofessionalism of a lost in the desert type of day. “Why wasn’t food and accommodation taken care of beforehand,” they wonder, but for me, it is one of the reasons why I travel. The thrill of the unknown, even if it be the less cinematic concerns of how far the next mini market is or which hotel will have a vacancy, is what drives the true adventurers to explore even further, pushing the limits of comfort to the point where the comfortable is considered cultureless and a restaurant in the middle of a vast desert plain is posh and below our rugged standards. In an age where comfort is easy, even in a place as desolate as this one, my travels consist of a lot of playing make-believe, but on days like today when the thirst is real, my adrenaline is pushed up even higher.
Being here has taught me that Ulaanbaatar is a tragic city that thrives on loss. I have traveled to the lands beyond its ever-burgeoning borders. In this space, there is culture, tradition, and peace but no jobs. The land is beautiful but unemployable, and so it has been left to be lived in by a dwindling number of herders and looked at by the passing eyes of curious travelers.
My writing may sound fragmented. If so, it mirrors my experiences in this country. Here, I have found that Mongolia is a land of many worlds. The Gobi is only one. On our first night, I asked a nomad where was home for him. “Anywhere the grass is green,” he replied. As I write, I am far from my home, but a piece of me, perhaps one more primal and buried, knows that, in some way, here I belong.
The Bogd Khan Mountains are a welcome sight. It is cloudy here in the capital city, cold like when we left it. I look hard at the landscape as the pastoralism becomes urbanized, small fences putting borders around the wild green. As the high rise thickets of Ulaanbaatar envelop us, who knows when I’ll see this again? Strangely enough, the ger districts on the northern hills and the cranes that pull up on the built city feel like home. A part of me is happy to have returned.