Genghis Khan Has Just Left the Building

Can’t really put my finger on it… nervousness, excitement, adrenaline rush, a bit of fear. We feel like we’re about to pass an important exam. It’s Mongolia. It opens up ahead like a huge mass of oblivion that can swallow you into its deceptively beautiful guts. It dares you to leave the Man’s world behind, and step into a ruleless, wilder universe. It can make you feel this way. Small, under its impossibly wide sky. Big, ’cause you’re the master of its empty land. Few souls – fewer than in Namibia even – roam this place. Showing us the way, a solitary fat rainbow shines through.

Mongolia meets Kazakhstan and Russia at a dead angle, so one must cross the border either from Russia, or China. At the Russian checkpoint the evergreen taiga mellows down into the verticalness of the steppe. Hoisting us forward, the all hell of rain and thunder breaks loose. Cold drops slice into skin, loud roar shatters the silence of the empty village we pass by. We rarely indulge in a brief stop to gaze at the eerie light piercing through a dense mass of cloud.

While I make a u-turn to search for my lost exhaust silencer (and I will return empty-handed), Ana parks next to the village latrine to chat some curious strangers.

The tar ends in front of a locked fence. There’s a board that says that the checkpoint is open daily from 9 to 18, with a luck break between 1 and 2 p.m. It’s already 19.05, which means we’ll only be in Mongolia proper tomorrow. The village must have less than 40 homes scattered about, 2 coffee places and a couple of grocery shacks. After shopping for apples and a banana, we knock at the door at the only caffe that is still open. Two charming sisters are booing soup and tea. The younger one pours us a cuppa and solves our overnight dilemma. We need not pitch in the cold, as a few meters back, in the lovely compound of a Kazakh family, there’s a cheap guesthouse. So it goes that less than a half an hour later the merry lights of a wood fire dance on the walls of our room.

I fill up a kettle for tea and I spare some of the hot water for washing. The rain is taking a breather, so Ana steps into her jogging shoes for a quick run uphill. It only takes 15 minutes for the rain to resume and for Ana to return. She resigns to the comfort of laundry, while I change a fuse. We end our evening browsing tracks on the Montana GPS under the warm blanket, with a cup of milk tea in hand. Plan is to wake up with the dawn and to cross early. Fingers crossed that the border officers will not ask about the visa registration, which we have none of (note: only a few weeks later in Ulaanbaatar we will learn that under the new rules most nationalities – Romanian citizens included – are no longer required to register in Russia).

Indeed, shortly after 6 a.m. the sun is so bright that we cannot linger in bed.

The light is thick, shadows cut with surgical precision. Ana makes a second attempt to jogging, but again, she resigns crippled by the morning frost. We fix our breakfast of oats and tea. The lady of the house comes by for hello. She is charmed by our strange origin, she says, and she wants to give a gift of cheese. Kurut, the slightly sour Kazakh dairy that we noticed maturing in the back of the yard.

The conversation revolves around the usual: family, route… we struggle with our ridiculously limited Russian to sustain a minimal dialogue. But one thing has changed since May: if we left with a few prejudices against Russian and the Russians, now the few words we master melt on our tongue like honey, making us smell back the Volga and the Altai, the hefty meatballs of an Ossetian mother or the vodka poured by an Afghani truck driver. Russia is so much more than the sum of its oh so diverse parts. There are surely the Bolsheviks, the Karamazovs and the Gagarins, as there are the unnamed who pepper the cultural soup. Well, it’s been nice meeting you, but I gotta go to work, says Natalia. Ready my kids for school and stuff. Where is that? asks Ana. The elementary school is right here, in the village. For secondary courses and high school we send the kids to Novosibirsk. My eldest daughter is studying medicine there. How can she get there? Bus or taxi, says Natalia, leaving at 6.30 a.m. and arriving by 8 a.m. the next day. Far, I say, yeah, far, Natalia replies.

Border formalities are easy, if a tad slow. After the barrier we are having a laugh when a stocky man proposes the purchase of road insurance against ten dollars. “The land is tough, the sky is far” says a Mongol proverb. It’s time to test its veridicity.

Mongolia quickly makes us think of Namibia. Devoid of people, roads uncovered in tar, uninterrupted freedom of sky and treeless fields unraveling in the wind a technicolor of green. This barren yet rich landscape pushes us forward. A ditch or a pile of boulders are no obstacles. One can simply ride around them, into the dozens of deviations, or carve their own path to whatever cardinal destination the heart desires. It’s a rider’s fantasy come true: limitless expanse of empty fields with even emptier hills looming beyond the horizon. Watch out for Mongolia, our friend Carmen had said in Dushanbe. They got no roads out there, people are driving across the steppe like Genghis Khan has just left the building. Truth is they do, and for god reason. They’ve only recently stepped off their horses directly into cars, and they continue to roam as they been doing for generations, guided by the stars and the ovoos, to their distant destinations.

In the first village we dare to ask about a tea house. Evidently, there is none of that in Tsagaannuur. A youngster happens to overhear our plea and comes forward. In broken English she invites us to her place, where we could drink tea together. Janka’s home is charmingly agglomerated with memorabilia of an entire generation: silky carpets with shaman symbols, plastic medals from her school competitions of all sorts, ageing photos of grand grandparents adorned in heavy traditional garb and with a eerie smile on sunburnt visages. Janka lays the table with raisins and homemade cookies of lard and flour, and small bawls of a mysterious watery liquid the colour of chlorine. A fatty brew of milk and water, barely infused with a dash of leafy infusion and seasoned with a sprinkle of salt. If this was breakfast, a dollop of butter would have melted inside. This is the Mongolian tsai, and for a while we will have to do with it. We drink our tea and giggle. From our own food offering – pickled sardines from Russia, some bread and Natalia’s kurut, Janka is only interested in the cheese. Later we’ll learn that the Mongols have their own, not much dissimilar to the Kazakh version. We talk food. Janka pulls out a ridiculously large chunk of sheep from the freezer. My favourite food, she says. How do you cook it? we ask. I boil it, she says. What condiments? She hesitates. Err… maybe… salt.

Again, Ana’s babble make people pull out photo albums from shelves. Janka proudly shows us her graduation pics, a glamorous selection of Mongolian students dressed and photoshopped into western characters with porcelain complexion and curls. Do you want me to take some photos of you? I ask her, but in the end Janka will only like the pic where her face is serious, frozen, unbroken by smile. As we chat, Janka sees Ana taking notes, so she starts tutoring us more words in Mongolian: bread, milk, an invitation for tea… Family members come and go: her mum, Aynuur, then Manka, a younger sister who has just turned 12, and finally the jokester of the clan, a brother. I’m Jupar-Rapuj, he says, and everybody brakes into laughter.

On the way to Olgii aimag we encounter massive road works. Giant deceptions manned by scarfed creatures scar the land, mix gravel and cement and pour asphalt. Seemingly oblivious of the mayhem, a group of herders are sorting nearby through fresh wool piled high. Perhaps sooner than one year from today Chinese tar will have covered the trail. Some will say it’s for the best. Trucks loaded with western goods and fuel will roll from the border to the other side of the country. Isolated communities will be reached by Coca Cola, but also by medical care and the world wide web. On the other hand, some will say that Mongolia will inevitably have lost it s soul, tamed and consumed by the eventual appetite for development that has already levelled so many other cultures across the world. But not yet. The Kazakh enclave of Olgii with its abundant market, its ATMs and decent streets is still the last frontier of civilisation until Ulaanbaatar.

We leave it behind, bikes refuelled and north-east-bound

We put a good few hours trailing along a mosquito infested river. The water is clear, surging against a flat bank populated with shade. Trees, a rare site. It could make for a comfortable campsite, but not on the insatiable insects’ watch. The mosquitos herd us up the hills. Our tent can barely stand in the wind, but still the damn insect don’t let go. We indulge only in a brief Jaegermeister toast to a motorcyclist friend from back home, and we seek cover.

Bushcamp on mosquito kingdom

We wake up to a world of empty trails laying still under an assembly of restless clouds.

A few hours into the game, our wheels hit sand. Lots of it.

This is a typical Mongolian road junction.

I’d say the sign is redundant :D

On the edge of a lake where we have planned to take a shower and to do some laundry, we bump into a strange community. Five yurts pitched a fee steps from the stinky water. The Mongols call them her – which is actually the word for “home”. The inhabitants pour out: red-eyed gawking adults and kids, many many kids, screaming and jumping right in front of our wheels. On soft sand, avoiding disaster take a bit of a sweat, but the kids are hysterical and neither revving the bikes, nor horning or shouting would deter them from jumping un us like flies on a corpse. I pass second, and a couple of children grab my spare tires and pull. I stay vertical, but now my blood has started to boil. Whats up with these people? The parents keep on staring wordless, and none bothers to reply to our hello. We are in no mood to linger to socialise, or to take a dip in this dirty lake. To our hearts content, the trails ahead are more peaceful and fun:

A dot on the horizon grows larger, until it metamorphosis into Yuri, a Russian biker from Yoshar-Ola. On his two week solo journey he has been exploring the dirt backroads of northern Mongolia, taking plenty of awesome pics. We discuss routes, we debate the future of Mongolian off-road and we part ways smiling.

As Yuri has warned, the desert lasts for another good stretch. Our water reserves have long dried out and the sun is criminal. When I spot what could be a well we are almost delirious with thirst, but in this heat our water consumption has risen to ridiculous levels. We drink up. Nothing beats water, it’s the best. Bottles refilled, confidence restored, we pick up from where we have left. Bold sand suddenly allows brittle shrubs, then the land is conquered by grass and prickly plants. We are nearing another lake.

In stretches from one side of the valley to the other, a beautiful mirror for the eerie world above. Smoke comes out the chimneys of a handful of yurts installed by the water rim. A group of people gather someplace, their parked jeep embellished with the logo of a tour operator from Ulaanbaatar. Tourists. The yurts belong to a small Kazakh community who is organising off-season performances of bird-hunting for visitors who are willing to witness this age-old tradition. Our presence does not remain unnoticed. A shirtless and clearly inebriated man jumps on his moped and chases us for an up-close inspection. He’s gesticulating that we should do a swap: one of our bikes for his. As tempting as the offer may be, we each keep our original wheels, and wheel off.

Not much further we meet a second overland, and American. Jacob has been cycling and ham mocking for over six months from Portugal, across Europe and Russia, and now Mongolia. AS our encounter develops into a lengthy conversation, more curious Mongols arrive. Our bikes draw all the attention. The men kick into our back and front tires, pull every identifiable bit and give us pats on the shoulder that almost knock Ana over. They try to push the dashboard buttons and to sit on the bikes. Their enthusiasm is so hard to contain that one of them bursts into a song. He takes rhythmic sips from the vodka bottle hidden under his silk deel and he tries to make us drink, but we all refuse vigorosly.

Beyond this scene, the valley is flooded in green and the sun lays soft shadows like in a computer wallpaper.

We descend into the valley, only to climb back where a shamanic altar lies. An ovoo. In this country of few verticals, sacred places where rock is piled or precious wood is tied in blue prayer scarves serve both for spiritual recollection and for orientation. On top of a largely featureless geography people have built another, at the same time symbolical and functional. No vehicle would be driven past without the passengers and driver stepping out to walk around the ovoo, to scatter food and sprinkle liquid for the gods and to murmur a prayer of some sort.

Tonight we ask some locals for a refill of water. Only a grandmother is home with kids of two families. They have two gets installed in the vicinity of a well, and soon we decide to spend the night together.

We are quickly involved in house chores. Ana is milking her first cow, under direct supervision of 16 years old Urt-Nasaan, draped in an impossibly elegant blue deel. My task is to entertain the boys, who are playing hard to get.

The brutality of this world is evident. Few words are spoken between the family, words that sound like they contain no vowels, and that end in something almost inaudible, a vibration of the lips. To our untrained ears this language resembles the harsh weather that stops trees from growing across the steppe. Greetings and polities are useless. What one needs, one takes. Even the way kids play is raw and physical. A teenager pulls a lasso and throws it at his youngest brother, who bites the dust with a bang, but can’t stop laughing. It must hurt, but being hurt must also be so much part of these kids’ life that they know how to take pleasure from it. They are reared to put up with extremes of weather and hard tempered parents, to carry heavy loads of dung, or wool, or water. To herd powerful beasts to jai loos and back without getting lost in a vast land.

Nenkh-Bayr who is 12 years old insists I should meet his horse. As I print out the photo of his favourite animal and companion the boy can hardly contain his happiness and pride. These people love their cattle tremendously. There is a word for each age of the maturing cow in the Mongolian language and many more for the yaks, the horses and the camels, and for such a spartan language it says a lot.

We pitch our home next to the home of the Mongolian nomads. Fierce wind makes the temperature drop to almost freezing levels. But under the dying sun the steppe is magical.

Jacob, the American cyclist from earlier, has rejoined us. We had discussed to try to meet and bivouac together, and we tempted him here as soon as we’ve spotted him pedalling past. next to our tent he unwraps a bivy, then we all disappear inside the guts of a yurt, for tea with our hosts.

Next to the usual Mongolian concoction of butter milk and salty water we are offered a tasty platter of the house cheese: hard, matured kurut cut in rectangular pieces that remind us of an unsalted parmesan, and soft cheese generously sweetened and cut in the shape of a star. Our favourite variety turns out to be Korkhoi Aaruul, some sort of confectionary made from sweet cheese poured in strings and left to dry into a crumbly, crunchy delight. Too bad for the disgusting tea.

For breakfast we repeat the ritual, plus a bawl of fatty yoghurt seasoned with a layer of sugar. The grandmother is watching us eat, while smoking and tending to the distillery of the house. In the middle of the ger a huge pot sealed with dough is bubbling on the fire. She is making arkhi and she has us sampling the product. We try to keep face as we sip as little as humanly possible of the sour liquor that smells of milk and sheep. In the meantime the youngest toddler, my playmate from the day before, is sleeping under a sheep carcass.

The yurt of the Mongols are deceptively simple constructions. Very portable, it can be installed by a skilled man in a few hours. A latticed structure supports the weight of the roof and is wrapped in many layers of wool on the inside, and of white fabric on the outside. There is much exuberance in the Mongol home: everything is colour, furniture and door painted with shamanistic symbols place strategically in the way of malevolent spirits. Light pours into this world through a round skylight. A watchful eye open to the outside, a gesture of control of how much of what cannot be controlled will be allowed into the intimacy of the home.

For now we are still struggling to understand what these Mongols are about. We observe, we try not to jump any conclusions, not to buy into what others have said, and what many keep saying. The alcoholic binges, the garbage, the brutal social manners, the apparent lack of respect for someone else’s propriety or level of comfort. Not unlike Kazakhstan, Mongolia is one of the new kids on the block of industrial revolution. Until recently there wasn’t much need to communicate or to socialise, to congregate or to team up. Not outside strict family necessities in any case. Why wonder then that when Ana forgot her sunglasses in a grocery shop a man took them and that minutes later when she returned to recover them the man would not easily let them go? Why wonder that the shop owner or the village audience watched the entire scene without a sound? Let’s keep quiet and keep rolling across the horse-bound nation, and surely we’ll figure something out.

Vizualizaţi 2013 – Mongolia pe o hartă mai mare