It began with a drive in the dark. For the first time in a day the streets were empty. So we ran the lights. All of them. We passed by self-declared luxury housing developments with delusions of grandeur: Dreamland, Time Square, English Gardens. Frumpy, deteriorating housing complexes beside an ‘American FastCook’ and numerous windows shouting ‘PIZZA!’.
We arrived at Chinggis Khaan International Airport in one third of the time than the journey the day prior. On the prop plane, I fell asleep immediately and dreamt that the old man in a newsboy cap declared ‘We will be there in one mile!’ and I raised my fist in solidarity.
Bound for Dayan Lake, Mongolia 2016 I awoke two hours later with a burdening sense that the propeller out my window would be hovering in the depthless white clouds forever. At the brink of hopelessness, the sky opened up to a smooth suede mountain range engraved with a silverback river.
// For days we passed over mountains – passing on barely visible paths into valleys formed by ancient glaciers, over white sand and cracking earth, wading through rivers that met the sideview mirrors. The sun which beamed from the blue sky was no match for the Siberian wind. Winter crept in during the night, engulfing the surrounding land – forming a circle of white. Our plot of land was left untouched, like a lone tree that survived a tornado’s path. Inside our spackled dwelling, the pelts of four wolves hung from a wall layered with crooked vinyl flooring. A stack of bananas, fried donuts, smokey dense air. A stubble-haired man held his shotgun nonchalantly as if it were a titled tea cup. He kills wolves as a hobby during the winter, a bounty hunter to the “neighboring” families during winter (read: 10 miles away on roadless terrain).
Outside I quickly gave up my attempt not to step in shit while searching for a place to go to the bathroom. Pellets layered the ground as snow does in the surrounding high country.
// We kept driving, scratching our way along the range. Columns of dung remained where families had left their summer properties and retreated for their winter bases. Erie scarecrows dotted the hillside, loose borders speckled the ground around the remaining gers, idling dogs barked – an attempted protection from the roving wolves.
Hundreds of sheep watched patiently, their eyes blank, unwavering. Only the rushing sound of the icy water and occasionally the flap of a bird’s wing broke the silence. Along a river, we spat out watermelon seeds staring at the orange and yellows of one of the few forests. The limbs parted, materializing a border controlman on horseback. He jostled over, asking for our permits to be in the preserve. A surreal, outlandish plot. True travel. The unknown around every corner, no map, no building, no expectations. Wide open earth.
// In the Mongolian countryside there are only two cooking techniques, pan-frying or boiling, and there is only one seasoning: salt. The spread and dishes are invariable, yet expected with anticipation. Bowls of cream, butter, fried bread, dried curds, and a platter of sheep pasta to be washed down with milk tea.
As far as I’m concerned, breakfast without coffee is not breakfast and a cold meal is not a meal in Mongolia. No matter the outside elements – skirting a rocky mountain top, bouncing through the snow, toppling around a wind tunnel – a meal could be prepped. If a yurt was in sight when hunger called, we would drive up to the front door, ask if we could cook, and intrude with five cardboard boxes of food stuffs, pots and pans, a plastic folding table chair set, and a butane stove.
Sometimes we would stay the night – in which case there would inevitably be at least one child, a baby, three adults plus our party of three in the yurt (‘ger’). The combined noises were raucous. If that weren’t enough, one night I lay awake grimacing from an overwhelming nauseating smell. I thought of plugging my nose with my earplugs and, if it wasn’t for the human symphony, I would have succumbed. Fidgeting, I tried to jam my backpack under the cot but something was preventing it from fitting. I leaned over with my flashlight, buckets of dismembered, skinned sheep. Oh, so that’s the smell. The smell of rotting blood.
If you go:
UB (Ulaanbaatar) :
1 – Naran Tuul: Get seedy in the black market. The sheer amount of Chinese knock-offs is impressive.
2 – Mongolian National Art Gallery: spectacular collection and they have interesting contemporary openings.
3 – Choiijin Lama Temple Museum: Unique art and artifacts, I’ve never seen anything like it.
4 – Bogs Khan Summer Palace
5 – The Zaisan Monument – climb here at night.
6 – Gandantegchinlen Monastery
Bayan-Oogli: Do not spend more than 36 hours here. You’ll probably wind up eating at one of the only restaurants, the Turkish joint.
Altai Mountains: The best time to go is before October. Once October hits, the weather is unpredictable and can throw a hatchet in your plans to hike to the Glacier (Tavan Bogd).