The Steppe and the Desert

Before we jump all the way to Ulaanbaatar, I want to spend a few moments at the Dakgalbi and Makguksu Festival. This was the last interesting thing I did in Korea. Chuncheon, about 40 minutes away from Sachangni and the birthplace of both dakgalbi (chicken stir-fry stuff) and makguksu (cold buckwheat noodles with vegetables and stuff), puts on a festival to honor them every year. You might wonder what kind of events there could be at a festival designed specifically to honor just two foods. Well, the answer is Korean ingenuity, which figured out quite a few things to do, most of them only tangentially related to dakgalbi or makguksu. There was the chicken fight, for instance. Two contestants, chosen from a crowd, stand in a big kiddie pool maybe fifteen feet in diameter. They each put on a ridiculous chicken hat, stand on one leg (the other leg maybe looks like a chicken wing?), and run into each other repeatedly to knock the other one over.

Or alternatively, there’s the South American music show, which has nothing to do with anything, but there it was. There were four guys who I think were all from Ecuador, with flutes and panpipes and face paint, and they played native-style music. I met one of them, Crístian, and also the Korean manager of the act, Diego, before they started playing. So I spoke a bunch of Spanish, which I wasn’t expecting, and it was a mind-bender after turning all my thought patterns backwards for the past year. Crístian only spoke Spanish and I think some English, but Diego spoke Korean, Spanish (on account of working in an almond factory in Guatemala for about two years), and English (once you’ve learned one language, the rest come easily…), and we talked in all three, and I got all confused in the most interesting-feeling way. We talked a lot about the stuff we’ve done and the stuff we’re going to do. And Crístian gave me a totem for my journeys. It’s a little clay ocarina that plays seven notes of a major scale; it’s turtle-shaped and two inches long and has a hand-painted sun on it, and goes on a cord around my neck.

I wore it every day for several days, then left it behind at a hostel, but now I’ve got it again. I wore it to the airport in Seoul, though I put it in my shoe while I slept on a wooden bench near the food court the night before my flight left. And I put it on the next morning when I took my flights to China and to Ulaanbaatar. As the plane came down toward the city, I could see through the clear sky of the day to what I was going to be getting into. I liked it immediately: the Mongolian countryside was endless, fenceless, and empty except for haphazardly laid roads and scatterings of gers. When we’d gotten pretty close, I managed to make out a herd of sheep. What a country.

Ulaanbaatar, though, seemed a bit less appealing. The main thing I saw when we were coming in was a giant power plant with a smokestack probably hundreds of feet high. The airport seemed like the kind of place that’s only open once or twice a week, when someone calls in to the manager on his home phone and tells him that some foreigners are coming and they can’t figure out how to land the plane on the empty steppe. I regretfully had to leave behind a group of Spanish biologists I’d met in Beijing, who were going to the wilderness to study bears and wolves and leopards (snow leopards?) and seemed extremely jolly and hardy, because they were going to be away for an entire month.

So I got myself a taxi to town. The taxi driver kind of ripped me off, I think, but it was okay, because on the way he handed me a little 50mL bottle of something called arkhi, which turned out to be a lot like whisky, and pretty enjoyable; I was encouraged to take a swig in the car. We passed lots of billboards for mining equipment and investment in mining. And also a little herd of cows by the side of the road, along with their herder. Just kind of casually grazing.

My guesthouse was down a back alley and had graffiti on the walls, but inside it was welcoming enough, if not exactly luxurious. The couch in the common room takes up half its floor space. Mongolia is a land of wide open spaces, but not inside Ulaanbaatar. I didn’t dwell much on it, though, because I had an appointment to keep: I was visiting Lauren Knapp, who graduated from Grinnell a few years ago and then came to Ulaanbaatar on a Fulbright Scholarship to write about Mongolian contemporary music. As such, we were meeting at Ikh Mongol (“Great Mongol”), a classy restaurant near the State Department Store. I had a few extra minutes, so I stepped inside the State Department Store to look around. I only looked at the first floor, but it’s a weird place. It’s like a mall, except all shuffled together. You enter through what looks like a JCPenney, but then if you keep going straight there’s a little stairway and a swinging gate and you’re in a grocery store section. Next to the grocery store, just through a doorway, is something that seems like the kitchenware section of Walmart. When I got back out again, it was raining and I was late, so I jogged to Ikh Mongol.

Lauren had along two friends—another Grinnellian from her year or so, and a girl she’d met somewhere else. That girl, Sarah, turned out to be from Cincinnati, which blew us both away. We all talked a bunch about Mongolia and the weird circumstances that brought us all here. Then the band got ready to play. They’re Lauren’s favorite and one of the most popular in the country: Altan Urag (“Golden Generation”). She explained them to us: they play traditional Mongolian instruments, like a two-string horsehead fiddle (instead of the traditional horse’s head carving, they opted for alien heads), and something that looks like a clarinet but sounds like a frantic trumpet, and something else that looks like a hammer dulcimer. Their backup singer does throat singing. But they play it all in a totally modernized way. They started playing. It was the Pirates of the Caribbean theme—yet, instead of being cheesy, it was amazing, because of the sheer hard energy they put into it, and because the Mongolian instruments made it sound like nothing I’ve heard before, and because they’re just an incredible band. The next song was the best one, and I have it on video and I’ll put it up someday, though I’d wager Lauren also has it on her site somewhere (but I don’t know its name). The throat singer sang the whole thing, and when he sang the wordless melody, I couldn’t explain how he made it sound like his voice was whistling. I’d forgotten what music could sound like when it had spirit. This was a hell of a good reintroduction.

Lauren was leaving soon and she’d just had a going-away party, so she was exhausted and left me to my own devices for the rest of the night while she and the other two went elsewhere. So I headed to my hostel and slept. The next day I woke up and commenced not knowing what to do. Ulaanbaatar is Earth’s local franchise of purgatory. You can’t really do independent traveling in Mongolia like you can in other countries, because there’s not really such a thing as public transportation. What you have to do is rent a van, and also a driver, and since that’s a lot of money, you also need a few other people to split it among. So you have to go around all the guesthouses and check their bulletin boards and email people and hang out in the common rooms. I did this for a day and a half, and if I hadn’t realized that I needed to be more proactive, it could’ve easily ballooned to three or four. Karine, a French girl who put me in touch with the people I’d eventually go on a tour with, wasn’t very proactive, and I think she ended up staying in Ulaanbaatar the entire time she was in Mongolia. It’s a hard place to get out of. And all you do there is waste time, because there’s not much to see. A nice square, a few monasteries and monuments, and then you’re pretty much done with Ulaanbaatar.

I met a Polish-British guy named Kyle and we found the traveling group that Karine had mentioned to me, which was: John and Crystal, an Australian couple (John reminds me of Uncle Dan in his ability to call things like they are and put up with no bullshit but in a funny way); Audrey, an Australian who does ballet and is also more stressed than she realizes; Jenna, a Canadian who was quiet for several days but then started reading her journal entries to us, which revealed that her degree in writing was well earned; Kyle, who’s goofy and highly sarcastic and livens things up; and Rüdiger, a German guy who said he understood about 20% of what we were saying, but managed to be hilarious whenever he chimed in (perhaps because of the accent) and served as a sort of conversation redirector, who would occasionally take a topic that had been going on too long, misunderstand what we were saying about it, and route it into a new topic. The guesthouse we were using set us up with a driver named Jackie, but his van crapped out about a half hour into the trip, just as we had gotten outside the city. So we looked at the thick brown envelope of smog we’d all been living in for the last few days (it was unbelievable) until another van arrived. Jackie couldn’t drive this one because it belonged not to the guesthouse but to its driver, named Boogii (pronounced like “bawg-ee”, not “boogie”). He didn’t speak fluent English (neither did Jackie), but he spoke plenty enough to get by, and we had some interesting conversations with him all during the trip. And so, with our complement of seven and Boogii, we headed out into the steppe.

There are a few things that make the steppe the steppe. The first one, and the most salient one, is its infinitude. For practical purposes, Mongolia has one city, Ulaanbaatar where 70 percent of the population lives, and everywhere outside of that is empty. Once you get outside the city, and you can no longer see the disgusting brown haze that completely envelops it, you can stand anywhere, turn 360 degrees, and see nothing but horizon. There are no trees, no bushes taller than your knee, in many places no hills or deviations from complete flatness, and quite often no buildings. Though there is actually not too bad a chance that somewhere before the horizon you’ll see a ger. They seem less like buildings and more like natural growths of the landscape, like the spores on a fern frond. I believe looking that far and seeing nothing was completely new for me. I can’t think of where I might have done it before. Now I could do it for horizon after horizon. The only things in sight were the road, the inside of the van, and mile after mile of tufts of grass and other plants no more ambitious than ankle level. If there was a ger, perhaps it would be accompanied by a herd of cows, or horses, or sheep, or goats. That’s it.

But the vastness is the thing you’d already be expecting, going out into country Mongolia for the first time. Not that it wouldn’t still surprise you, because even though you’d know it’s vast, you couldn’t be prepared for just how vast. But there are other things you wouldn’t even have guessed at. One is the smell. The first time the van stopped, I stepped out into a stiff wind and took a deep breath, and there was an unmistakable scent to it, surprisingly definite, not like a vague, shifting collection of faint smells, more like something you’d drink as an herbal tea. For the first few days of the trip into the steppe, I looked around for the plant that was responsible. I don’t know why it took me so long, since the stuff is actually everywhere, but I finally found it. It has lacy triangle-inspired leaves and hard stalks that sprout out yellow ball-shaped flowers. I asked Boogii what it was called, and he thought for a moment and told me: агь (pronounced “aig”). This turns out to be wormwood, the same stuff they use to make absinthe. It’s hard to describe a smell, but maybe you could say it’s somewhere between chamomile and cilantro. Every time I was outside, it was there to greet me. It was interesting to realize that the steppe must have smelled like this for millions of years. An eternal smell.

And another thing you don’t know about beforehand is the strange distortion of time that happens there. Boogii told us that in the city, and in other countries, there are twenty-four hours, but in the Mongolian countryside, there are two: morning, and afternoon. Night doesn’t count as a third hour, because everyone’s asleep. When you do run into people out there, they are supremely unhurried people. Nomadic Mongolians must have more free time than practically anyone else on the planet. What is there to do? Have a bit of breakfast. Get on your horse and herd some animals around, if they need herding. Make some lunch. Sit around and talk. Watch the clouds, because you probably don’t have a TV, or even electricity. Make some dinner. As a consequence, the pace of our trip was something that took some getting used to. Our first lunch was at a square building, near a few gers but otherwise completely alone in an expanse of nowhere, and we were a bit surprised to find out that it would take an hour for the food to be ready. That turned out to be one of our quicker meals, actually. I think it might have been a bit ahead of schedule. Most of the meals took more like an hour and a half. We got used to this.

The culture has come to perfectly fit itself to the pace of the steppe. On our second, or maybe third, day, Boogii got lost, understandable given the complete lack of landmarks, aside from the occasional rock cairn draped with strips of blue cloth, Buddhist prayer flags. He turned off the dirt road we were on and started driving across the trackless flatness in search of anyone. After a while, he found a guy on horseback, wearing a traditional Mongolian deel coat and herding around his other horses, and he drove up to him to ask where to go. On a city street this would be as brief as possible: “How do you get to Battery Park?” “Go that way on this street until it ends, turn right, then turn left again at Hudson.” But out in the steppe, quite sensibly, it became a leisurely sort of abbreviated version of a home visit. I couldn’t understand the Mongolian they were speaking, but the way it sounded, Boogii asked how the guy was doing, and if his horses were getting along well, and the guy told him yes, everything was going pretty well, though it might be nice if there were a little rain, and Boogii said of course, and asked how his family was, and the guy said they were all doing alright, and his daughter would be visiting next month, and Boogii said that was nice, and by the way, how do you get to the little town nearby with the old ruined monasteries by it? and the guy said you just drive southwest a bit and you’ll find another driving path and that’ll take you there, and Boogii said that’s nice of you, thanks, and is your daughter bringing her boyfriend when she comes over, or doesn’t she have one? and they continued in this way for several minutes.

Since visits are so few and far between, any visit is occasion for a long chat and asking for any news there might be from other parts. And it’s unthinkable to refuse a visit. There’s a hard rule of country Mongolia, and it’s that if anyone stops by your ger and needs dinner and a place to sleep, you can’t refuse them. Every ger is a potential motel and restaurant. If you have horses, you make airag (fermented mare’s milk, about 3 percent alcohol), and keep a stock of it ready for anyone who happens by for a visit. If you pass a ger, without even knowing the person who lives there, you can just stop and ask for a bit of airag and a chat, and you’ll get it. This happened to us on one of our days, actually; Boogii saw some horses and asked if we’d like to try airag, and so he called in on an old lady and a young lady who lived there, and we all sat in their ger while they smiled and poured a bowl for Boogii, a bowl that we all shared sips from, and then another bowl for Boogii.

Shortly after this, Crystal was sick behind a nearby smaller, ancillary ger. We found this pretty funny. Then as we drove on toward our next destination, she told us there was more going on than just that. Her eyelids were swelling up, and her throat was slowly closing. We had Boogii stop and let her try to get it out of her system, but she couldn’t throw up any more, and Boogii cottoned on that she had an allergy and offered to take us to a hospital. Excellent idea. The hospital was about 20km away, but the steppe magnifies all distances. You can only drive very slowly here through all the pits and bumps in the roadway—there are hardly any paved roads in this whole country, only dirt tire tracks smoothed out a little bit by frequent use. There were two or three valleys between us and the hospital, so we couldn’t see it while we went through these valleys, and it seemed like it could be imaginary. After all, how could Boogii know there was a hospital there? We hadn’t seen a hospital all trip long. Meanwhile Crystal’s eyes had swollen completely shut, her face was ballooning, and her throat was closing more and more, never less like we kept hoping, and no amount of water that John told her to keep drinking would help. He was terrific in the circumstances, asking her about her throat and everything to monitor the reaction and keep her in the moment. Boogii was absolutely intent. Those minutes were more intense and suspenseful than any action movie.

The town of Khujirt appeared, the biggest town we’d seen all trip by far, and within minutes we got to their clean, more or less modern hospital and they took care of her and gave her IV drips and pills and everything. The whole thing took two hours and the rest of us had drinks at a cafe that called itself a pub but had no beer, and we just kind of slowly let all the pressure lift itself off us.

But this has all been general stuff, mixed with a few little anecdotes. I meant to tell you one story, so I’m going to finally get around to that. This is the story of the fourth day, which I think was easily the best day. Boogii got us up in the morning and we had our standard breakfast of coffee, bread, jam, and whatever else he’d scrounged up at the latest food store, maybe pâté or sausage. Then we drove, but for far less time than we had on previous days, when we mostly got up in the morning and reached our destination around dinnertime, leaving little time to do much exploring or spending time seeing the sights we’d come to see. On this day we arrived at about 2:00 to a collection of gers out in the desert. In most places, the Gobi isn’t like the sort of desert you’d picture, shifting sand dunes and expanses of nothing but sand. There are plants in the Gobi, though low-growing ones, and it’s also almost completely flat everywhere. But here it looked a bit more like the Sahara sort of image you get when you think “desert”. These gers were sitting at the bottom of a big dune, not right up next to it, but about a camel ride’s distance away. And coincidentally, there were also a bunch of camels there. This was our agenda for the afternoon.

Audrey had ridden a camel before and didn’t like it, so she went to the dune solo on foot, but the rest of us each picked out a camel from a group that a hardy old lady led over to us. The camels all dutifully sat down and let us get on, and the man of the ger, Nyamka, chained them all together using camel-hair ropes fastened to homemade wooden bits pierced through their noses. His own camel was in front. Crystal and Jenna got camels that could walk on their own, which was nice for them because they didn’t have to worry about getting their left legs covered with the shit of the camel in front of them like I did, although Crystal was a bit less excited about it when her camel decided following the other camels was boring and it would be much more fun to stop and eat some plants. Nyamka always made sure hers caught up, though. Riding a camel was completely new for me. I don’t even remember when I’d ridden a horse before this day, and that’s way more normal. Camels are bigger and have more flexible necks and more alarming mouths, and they have humps. I was sitting between the two humps. People give camel riding a bad rap for its discomfort, but I actually thought it was pretty nice. So all the camels plodded along, up and down with each pace, and occasionally scratching their noses on the pants of the person on the next camel in front, or shitting lavishly. To run the risk of stating the obvious, they were so much more alive than anything else I’d ridden, since I’d only ever ridden machines. I can see how, doing this, you’d get a real sense of kinship with the animals. I didn’t, as such, since I was more concerned with avoiding camel shit on the left and camel snot on the right (avoiding these turned out to be impossible), but I got a feel of it, and I liked it.

Nyamka dropped us off at the very foot of the dune. It was cold: we were in the shade, and nighttime was coming on, and it’s getting to be fall in Mongolia, land of some of the harshest winters around. (Ulaanbaatar is the coldest capital city in the world.) But here we were at this sand dune, and what else was there to do but climb up it? Everyone gave it a go. The dune was way taller than it looked. Not only the steppe magnifies distance—the dunes do too. And also, sand isn’t good for climbing. It causes you to slip backward half a step for each step you take. We all took several breaks for catching our breath and swearing vividly. Crystal and John turned back partway up, figuring they’d gotten the idea. That left me, Kyle, Jenna, and Rüdiger to claim the top. So we powered on, and claim it we did.

The wind was beyond anything I think I’ve known before. Maybe it wasn’t actually the fastest I’ve felt, but what it was was full of sand. All of it blowing in hard swirls and eddies that all seemed to direct themselves right into my face. I squinted out at the other side: dunes, dunes, dunes, all of them smaller than the one I was on, but stretching out, as so many things do in this country, to the edge of vision. Kyle and Rüdiger showed up and looked out, and so did Jenna, but none of us said much because sand would have gotten in our mouths. Then we universally agreed that it was time to climb down.

Jenna and Rüdiger took the safe way, switchbacking down the way we’d come up, approximately. Kyle and I went directly for the steepest section, pitched at some absurd angle like sixty degrees. At this angle, every step was as good as three or four, or maybe ten. There was the initial step, and then there was the sand giving way for several feet underneath that step, until I had dug in deep enough to stop. Apparently, when people dream of flying they dream it in several different ways; John and Jenna and I found this out one night while we were talking. John has certain places in the world where he can fly, and Jenna can fly by jumping off of high places. But when I fly, it’s by running faster and faster until I take off. Each pace gets longer and longer until I’m in the air for several seconds at a time, dozens of feet per stride, and finally I realize I don’t need to touch the ground after all. Running down the sand dune was the only time I’ve felt like that was happening in real life.

Once I woke up by hitting the bottom of the dune and walking back to camp thoroughly exhausted, I found there was yet more in store for us tonight. For one thing, tonight, Nyamka would be branding a few of this year’s foals that he hadn’t branded yet. He did this before dinnertime and we all came out to watch. All the foals were tied up to a rope strung between two short logs hammered into the ground; so were their mothers, I think. He picked out the smallest foal first, and Boogii came over to help him. Nyamka grabbed the foal by its neck and wrestled it for a while, then got the right grip on it—right hand around its neck, left hand grabbing onto some skin on its belly—and then he lifted the whole foal off the ground, turned it over in mid-air, and landed it in a lying-down position on the ground. Now he kept a leg on it so it couldn’t get up, and he and Boogii tied its strong, flailing legs all together with a piece of rope, hobbling it. What an utter mass of muscle Nyamka was. And he was middle-aged. With that foal stabilized, he picked out a bigger one and wrestled it down the same way. Meanwhile, the hardy old lady from before had been heating the brand in a pile of dried horse dung, and by now it was good and hot. Nyamka got a mouthful of water from a dirty bucket and took the brand over to the first foal. Carefully, he chose a spot and pressed the brand deliberately against the foal’s skin for several seconds, then took it off and spat the cold water all over the burn. The foal hardly even flinched. I was amazed. He branded the second foal, then untied them both, and neither one went on a kicking rampage. They were calm, almost, no different except that they were sporting a new design on their flanks. (Picture this shape, all connected together, and turned 90 degrees clockwise so the flat side is pointed up: D-[.)

He branded one more the same way, and then it was time to make dinner. The first step to that was to kill the goat. I didn’t realize a goat was being killed until some of the others came in and told me Nyamka had just killed it, but I came right away outside and saw John helping Nyamka carry it over to his ger. John and I both helped him cut it up. John stabilized it for a little while at the beginning while Nyamka cut its skin away, but I spent a bit longer, holding onto its front legs while he cut it open and pulled out each of its organs. The stomach was enormous, probably accounted for half the volume of its innards. Maybe that’s to do with how it’s a grass-eater. The cavity started filling with blood, which he scooped up with a bowl and emptied into a bigger bowl in order to make blood sausages later. After he got each piece of meat off, he laid it on top of his ger. He was highly efficient. While he was cutting it apart, I thought I could feel its nerves still humming under my fingers. It was weird, unforgettable.

Nyamka kept most of the meat, since a whole goat is a bit much for all of us for one night. But we did have some of its ribs in our soup that night. It was pretty much the shortest supply chain that any food I’ve eaten has ever had. I went to bed feeling highly satisfied with the day.

There are other stories, but I’m coming to realize that if I try to tell all my stories here, I’ll spend half my journey blogging. This blog is the result of hours and hours on hostel computers, and keep in mind that’s in a city that’s Purgatory on Earth, where I often have nothing to do for hours. Since the trip I’ve taken a 2½-day walking trip where I stayed on my own with genuine nomadic families not pimped by any tourism agency, and been given absolutely fresh milk, yogurt, and butter by them. Tomorrow I intend to get on the train to Irkutsk, or head north somehow or other. And so I’ll continue. I’ll update again whenever I have a chance, but I can’t guarantee anything. That’s just how I like it.

File under: Year of Adventure, interesting people · Places: Mongolia, Korea

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Amazing! I am in awe. What an adventure. I am no longer jealous, because of your stories. I feel like I have been there. You had my full attention and then some. I really look forward to seeing you in Lisbon. Save a couple of really good stories for then. Enjoy. Grandpa




What Grandpa said. It is like being there. We want more, more. But we can wait until Lisbon. Please do take care of yourself. You've now seen firsthand that things can head south quickly when someone discovers an allergy in the middle of nowhere. I'm glad she did OK for long enough to get to the hospital. Grandma




What an amazing trip you are making. Your independent spirit is an inspiration and your writing brings it to us beautifully. Thank you for sharing it this way.

Aunt E.




Glad you're enjoying the dispatches. Here's an update to my current status: I spent most of yesterday and today reading in my hostel, and now I'm off to catch the 1:50 train to Irkutsk. From there I'll check out Lake Baikal a couple days, and then I'm on to Moscow and then the rest of Europe. Here I go.

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Great to hear your having such an amazing time. Sounds like you've really come into your element. You were made for this shit. Some really great vagabonding tales. You put my small rushed blogs to shame. We're heading into Laos tomorrow. The adventure continues. Keep doing what you do.

Best of luck in Europe.


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Sounds like the desert, what is the steppe like? Are you too far away to see the transition? I think you'll spend a few years here in the long run.


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