Mongolians must love basketball. At virtually every community and ger camp, no matter how small, we found a rickety backboard rising from a lonely field. But not once in all our time in the Gobi did we see anyone actually playing.
Our final stop before leaving the Gobi was at the ruins of Ongiin Khiid, a pair of Buddhist monasteries that had once been among the country’s largest. But – like so many other religious institutions in Mongolia – it was destroyed during Stalin’s purges in the 1930s. All of Ongiin’s buildings were torn down and over 200 lamas (the Buddhist teachers, not the animals) were executed.
After checking into our ger camp we wandered through the ruins and saw the small temple where a new generation of monks has restarted the Ongiin traditions.
Driving northwest from Ongin we left the Gobi and crossed back into central Mongolia. For lunch we stopped at a small roadside restaurant run out of a ger by a pair of energetic grandmothers. I frantically shuttled between two photo-worthy scenes – one inside the ger, where the grandmothers were busy preparing our food, and another outside, where several birds of prey were competing with local dogs for the entrails of a dead sheep lying by the side of the road.
We rarely went far without passing an animal carcass in some state of decomposition. It heightened the forlorn mood of the treeless, barren landscape and served as a reminder that life on the steppe is a constant struggle.
That afternoon we arrived in Kharkhorin (also written Karakorum), once the capital of the Mongol empire. Kharkhorin’s time in the spotlight lasted for about 40 years, until Kublai Khan moved the capital to the city that became Beijing. When the Mongol empire collapsed Kharkhorin was abandoned and then destroyed by Manchurians looking for payback.
Today the city only has about 8,000 people, and the draw for tourists – other than the history – is Erdene Zuu Khiid, the first Buddhist monastery in Mongolia. It was mostly demolished during the Stalinist purges, but some artifacts and structures survived and religious activities resumed after communism fell in the 1990s.
That night was our last with Bold and Tog Toh, and the conversation was appropriately memorable. Before dinner I showed Bold and Tog Toh some photos I’d taken of the southwestern United States. After browsing through them Tog Toh mumbled something to Bold.
“Tog Toh and I are both thinking the same thing,” Bold announced. “If your country has such beautiful places, why do you have to come all the way over here?”
As we ate dinner Marie brought up yetis. Inside a temple at Erdene Zuu Khiid she’d noticed a painting of a yeti, and we asked Bold if he believed in them.
“Oh yes, there are yetis.” As evidence, Bold related the story of a female yeti that kidnapped a Mongolian man and kept him captive. At night the yeti would stroke the man’s back, which caused long yeti hair to grow there. After a while the yeti gave birth to a baby, but that didn’t make the man any happier with his situation, and one day he managed to escape by swimming to the other side of a river that the yeti couldn’t cross. Realizing he was about to get away, the yeti lifted their baby into the air for the man to see and then ripped it in half. The man returned to his village and eventually married, but his wife threw him out after discovering his long yeti hair. The entire community ostracized him and he was forced back into the wild.
Bold told a second story with a similar theme, where a male yeti kidnapped a Mongolian woman and held her captive. The woman made a daring escape and ran back to her village, only to be killed by her family for being “contaminated.”
“So you see there must be yetis,” Bold concluded. “Otherwise how would we get such stories?” True or not, the xenophobic Mongolian yeti stories had endings worthy of George R.R. Martin.
After proving that yetis exist, Bold offered Marie some life coaching. Earlier in the day while I was out taking photos Marie had streamed an episode of Fear the Walking Dead on her phone. Bold, who noticed everything, grew concerned when he saw zombies on the screen.
“Marie, you seem like a very nice person,” he began. “But I am worried about you.” Bold explained that viewing images of monsters and demons taints you with some of their darkness, which could lead to spiritual backsliding. If Marie continued to watch zombie shows she risked being reborn not as a human but as a horse, dog, monkey or frog.
“What if I don’t believe in any of that?” Marie asked.
Bold adopted a look of weary patience. “I am only offering you my suggestion,” he said. Marie threw salt in the wound by pointing out that she works for a video game company that makes all kinds of games with zombies, demons, and other monsters. Bold winced as if she’d hit him.
Later Bold reiterated his concern to me. He was confident my next reincarnation would be an enlightened one – thanks, I think, to the fact that I’d shown some knowledge of Buddhism, mostly when I interrupted Bold’s lectures to suggest he might be overly wrapped up in dogma – but Marie was in real danger. He believed the three of us had known each other in our past lives, and he seemed to feel that his spiritual development would be advanced if he could set Marie and me on the right path.
“Sorry to break it to you Bold, but I don’t think Marie is going to quit her job or give up Fear the Walking Dead.”
“That is a shame.”
“She watches the original Walking Dead series too,” I added helpfully.
The next morning we drove to Khustain National Park, home to some of the only wild horses in the world. I hadn’t realized that what we call wild horses in the United States – formerly domesticated horses that have gone feral – are an entirely different species than truly wild horses that have never been domesticated. Called takhi in Mongolia and also known as Przewalski’s horse, wild horses vanished from the steppe in the 1960s but have recently been reintroduced to their native habitat in Khustain, where there are now over 200 of them.
From Khustain we drove straight back to Ulaanbaatar and ended our amazing tour of southern and central Mongolia. Bold and Tog Toh had been fantastic. We were really fortunate to have a guide who spoke such fluent English and a driver who was so helpful and competent. But it was a relief to be on our own again, even just for a night. It’s never easy to spend that much continuous time with someone you just met, and Bold in particular wore me down. I’m overly sensitive to certain noises, and Bold’s constant food smacking and sinus-clearing snot-sucking was tougher for me to take than nine days of nails on a chalkboard.
That night Marie and I did our best to rest up. The next morning we would head right out again for a horse trek in Gorkhi-Terelj National Park.
(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.)