“How lost do you think we are?” whispered Marie.
I stared out the window at vast emptiness in all directions. We weren’t driving on a road, exactly – more like faint tire tracks in the scrubby grass, regularly crisscrossed by other faint tracks that faded into the horizon. There wasn’t a single person or building in sight, or anything else man-made. “Maybe only a little lost,” I said quietly, forcing the optimism.
Our driver, Tog Toh, was born and raised in the Gobi, but we were still far north of the area he knew well. Tog Toh spoke no English, but we suspected he understood much more than he let on. He wore a sky blue Nike track jacket and almost never changed his expression. The black Toyota Land Cruiser 4WD we were riding in was his baby, although he also had a three-week-old human baby back with his wife in Dalanzadgad.
Riding shotgun was Bold, our guide, who spoke excellent English. “Let’s hit the road!” he yelled when we’d met him in Ulaanbaatar that morning, his casual use of idiom making it clear that communication would be easy during our nine-day tour of southern and central Mongolia. Bold grew up in the western part of the country before moving to Ulaanbaatar, getting married, having a kid, and getting divorced. Later we learned that back in 2005 a young Bold spent several months in Oakland, where he delivered Red Boy pizzas and drove a stretch limo.
The distinctive white shape of a ger came into view. Tog Toh went entirely off-road and pulled right up to the ger’s door, where a Mongolian nomad sat on his motorcycle. In response to Tog Toh’s question, the nomad pointed back in the direction we’d just come from.
Bold sneezed and coughed. “OK, we go back that way!” Over the next few days Bold would sneeze and cough more than anyone I’d ever heard. Whatever bug he had was stubborn and nasty.
Marie and I were worried about Bold, and not just because he kept touching our food after coughing into his hands. He was a little pushy. Our first destination that day had been the ruins of the Manzushir Monastery, just south of Ulaanbaatar, where Bold asked if I wanted my picture taken with Marie. “No thanks,” I said. “I don’t like to be in photos.”
“Really, no thanks.”
“Oh, come on,” said Bold, literally grabbing my camera from my hands. I posed for the shot, but resolved that he wouldn’t catch me by surprise again.
As it turned out I posed for another photo not 30 minutes later, although this time it was because a group of Mongolian grandmothers demanded that I join them for a group shot, and I was happy to comply. Marie had already been similarly enlisted for a photo with a woman and her baby.
After one more stop to ask for directions we crested a low hill and finally caught a glimpse of the ger camp we planned to stay at that night. Tourist season hadn’t quite started yet in Mongolia. Daka – the woman who’d organized our tour – said, “I told the ger camps that two Americans were coming, and they said, ‘OK then, we will open up!’”
Gers, also called yurts, are round tents that have been used by nomads on the steppe for over a thousand years. They can be set up or taken down in a little over an hour. Their skeleton is wood, with long spokes radiating down from a small circular center-point into lattice-like walls. On top of the skeleton rests a thick blanket of insulating animal-fur felt, and covering that – in modern times, at least – is a waterproof shell and a white tarp. A metal stove, fueled by wood, coal, or animal dung, sits in the middle of the ger, its exhaust pipe poking up through a hole in the roof. And a single, hobbit-sized door always opens out to the south, which helps protect the ger from wind.
“Does anyone ever buck convention and make a ger with a door that doesn’t face south?” I asked Bold.
He laughed uncomfortably and looked a little confused. “I never thought about that before… Why would anyone do that?”
Over time we began to appreciate how strongly gers are governed by tradition, both religious and secular. Beds are always oriented so that sleeping heads point north, which – according to Mongolian Buddhism – helps recharge spiritual energy. Small family altars, likewise, are set up at the north end of the ger. Guests are usually seated on the west side of the ger, while the family takes the east side. The shape of the ger – a circle – is associated with the mandala, a symbol of wholeness. In the past the use of gers was so widespread among steppe nomads that one of Genghis Khan’s early titles was “ruler of all who live in felt tents.”
Ger camps – essentially just hotels that use gers instead of traditional buildings – only began appearing after communism fell in the early 1990s and Mongolia opened up to the outside world. Now there are ger camps all over the country.
Marie and I had never stayed in a ger before and we were excited when we pulled into the camp. A couple of workers grabbed our bags and led us to our home for the night. Marie jumped on the bed and immediately burst out laughing.
“Come feel this!”
The mattress might as well have been a sheet draped over wooden boards. “Good for our backs,” I said.
For lunch that day we’d stopped at a small-town restaurant that served meat dumplings in bowls of milk tea. Based on what we’d read before the trip, Marie and I were less than enthusiastic about the prospect of Mongolian cuisine, which sounded heavy on intestines and fermented mare’s milk. But so far we’d enjoyed everything we’d tried – primarily meat (beef, mutton, goat) and dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt). Vegetables like potatoes and carrots were usually cut up and drowned in mayonnaise. Fat is a coveted ingredient among a population that has historically burned a lot of calories. As Bold put it, “My body is like a Russian engine – big input, big output.”
Over the next nine days we ate every meal with our guide and driver, an overwhelming dose of togetherness for people who’d just met. And within a day or two Bold and Tog Toh had seen enough to be disappointed with our eating abilities. Typically Marie and I would only make it through about half our food, which Bold and Tog Toh would then finish after clearing their own plates. “You eat small,” Bold said, shaking his head.
That night at dinner, interrupted by sneezes and coughs, Bold told us he used to be “a fighting man” (which we later understood was a reference to one of the past lives he believes he led), but that he’d begun studying Buddhism and now considered himself “mostly Buddhist.” After praising Buddhism’s non-evangelical nature, Bold then kicked off what turned out to be a relentless effort to convince us that Buddhism was the best and only true religion. And not just Buddhism, but Mahayana Buddhism as practiced in Mongolia. “Theravada Buddhism is naïve, lower-level Buddhism,” Bold said as if it was a well-understood fact.
“How about Zen Buddhism?” I asked.
Bold dismissed it as irrelevant. “Much too focused on the senses,” he said disdainfully.
Buddhist shamans, Bold assured us, can view the future and past, control the minds of their adversaries, and see into the spirit world. He shared some examples from personal experience and hinted that he was beginning to acquire special powers himself.
Marie and I slept pretty well in the ger, and after breakfast the next morning we rode out to explore Baga Gazriin Chuluu, the “Small Ground Rocks” that cover the region’s low sloping hills. It felt like someone had sanded down the mountains of Nevada and dropped us in the emptiest part of the state.
It didn’t take long to appreciate why the ancient Mongolians worshipped Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky. On the rolling, endless steppe the immense sky is the dominant feature – a constant, almost palpable presence. If I looked up too long I felt dizzy. (Or maybe that was from the mayonnaise I’d eaten.)
At the ger camp that morning we’d agreed to give one of the workers a ride to a hospital in a nearby town. The woman’s daughter had burned her hand and the wound hadn’t improved overnight. “What would she have done if we hadn’t come along?” I asked.
“She would have waited for another ride,” Bold said matter-of-factly. It’s tough to imagine living in that kind of isolation, thirty miles away from even a small town, with intermittent power, spotty cell coverage, and no transportation of your own.
Mongolia’s total population only recently topped three million, about the same as a single U.S. city like Seattle. And half of those three million are concentrated in and around Ulaanbaatar, the capital, which means the rest of the country – roughly the size of Western Europe – has one of the lowest population densities on the planet. It’s practically empty.
The main highway from Ulaanbaatar to Dalanzadgad, the largest city in the southern Gobi, only has two lanes and wasn’t paved until a few years ago. The vast majority of the roads we used on our trip were unpaved, some rougher than others. Almost constantly we were thrown from side to side. Tog Toh – a highly competent, safe driver – was constitutionally averse to coasting, so when we approached an obstacle he accelerated until the last possible moment and then broke hard, flinging us forward. After a few hours of driving we were happy to get out of the car.
The destination for our second night was a ger camp near Tsagaan Suvarga, a distinctive line of sandstone cliffs sometimes called The White Stupa. We reached the camp in the mid-afternoon and went right out to explore the cliffs.
Asleep in our ger that night I felt something run across my legs. Bolting upright, I grabbed my flashlight and scanned the room. Nothing under or around the bed. Did I imagine it? No, it was still on the bed, right at Marie’s feet: a stout, Mongolian-sized mouse. My flashlight didn’t trouble it in the least. The mouse – kind of cute, actually – just looked at me like it wondered what all the fuss was about.
When Marie woke up I braced myself for a very, very loud reaction. “Oh, a mouse,” she said casually.
I tried shooing it away with my hand. No response. “This guy doesn’t seem to be scared of us at all.” Finally I slammed my palm on the bed next to it and the mouse decided to move on. It hopped down to the floor and strolled leisurely out of the ger through a hole by the door.
The next morning we told Bold our mouse story. “That doesn’t sound like a regular mouse,” Bold told us. “Mice here are quite small. I think it was a local ghost who wanted to take a closer look at you.” Ghost or not, we’d scored our first points with Bold. He was impressed.
Good food, beautifully desolate landscapes, and a ghost mouse. Our trip was off to a promising start!
(If you’re interested in visiting Mongolia and want some help planning your trip, I can highly recommend Daka Nyamdorj, who runs Happy Mongolia tours. Let me know if you’d like me to connect you.)