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Steppe Flowers

August in Mongolia. As the summer heat settles in, the landscape is overflown with colour. The steppe is in full swing, desert flowers unfold, slim grasses thrust through the mould the colour of cappuccino. A few hours after dawn, perched on a steep hill of 45 degree cheeks, our light green tent is whining under the punitive rain.

Since days back, a dense hue of grey has conquered the sky that, pale as a cadaver, can’t stop crying. Water surges across the land – in swollen rivers and ponds where hail beads linger, in soft drizzles and merciless downpours that echo the winter storms to come. Around the tent delicate stems of edelweiss flowers balance their white furry bracts. This discreet presence softens up the harshness of our bivouac. We are cold in the tent and we silently eat our morning oats. We are in no mood to gear back into suits and boots dampened by the capricious weather. We peek through the zipper cracked open: the valley makes for a terrible sight, deserted, clogged in fog, rivers of mud stemming in all directions.

Mud and tears, even if they are borne not in our eyes, but in the clouds, are part of adventure. They crawl under gear, creep into the soul. The flesh must submit to the punishment of rain before it’ll be allowed the prize of flowers. So we do what we have to do.

Our household folded back into Enduristans, we roll to where we came from. Over the night the field soaked in water, and the road and its many deviations are now useless, except for few patches that appear to have been miraculously spared.

We are slowly advancing, following a cardinal direction more than a coherent track. From afar our silhouettes must resemble treasure hunters digging for some strange gold.

We are no longer alone on the road. Expensive 4x4s carrying Mongol tourists draped in nylon have joined the convoy. This week the whole of Mongolia is celebrating Naadam, the national holiday. In Ulaanbaatar the stadium is filled to capacity; people from all corners have gathered to watch renditions of their nation’s nomadic past: equestrian races, archery and wrestling. The wealthier Ulaanbaataris have taken off to the countryside, to visit relatives, picnic, drink vodka, and conveniently discard their garbage into what should be world’s most unpolluted place. So ubiquitous and representative of the Mongolian landscape they are, that we start to believe that soon the plastic bag and the empty vodka bottle will end up on the national flag. Alcoholism is not confined to the male community; the effects are from hilarious, to tragic: chaotic driving, obesity, domestic violence.

While fathers are “absent”, the burden of household chores lay on the fragile shoulders of daughters and wives. Children herd and milk the cattle. Mothers process the milk, separate whey from curd and make kefir, cut the cheese and put it out for the wind to dry. Grandmothers, even when they are a bit inebriated, tend for the meats and distill the whey into the sour Mongolian liquor. Women’s hands are rusty and worn out from work. Their coats aren’t cute and girly, but lined with heavy fur to protect their slim figures from cold. Their hair, dark as oblivion, is seldom wrapped in scarves – the only spark of colour that interrupts the monotony of their strictly functional world. They are Mongolia’s flowers, resilient, quiet, beautiful steppe flowers. In Numrog, in a decrepit shack, we stumble upon yet another couple.

Impossibly charming with their porcelain complexion and their pink outfits, the sisters are watching cartoons, while their dad dozes next to a pot of instant noodles and a shelf of beer. We ask for a hot meal, and the man points to the sad display of non-food. On the screen, Jerry is walking back into the tin can from where he has escaped a minute earlier and while being closely watched by Tom and a fellow cat, rolls back the metal cover over himself and up to the neck. We cannot help but follow his example and return empty-handed to our bikes, after relinquishing an edelweiss to the girls.
Downtown Numrog there’s a chance we’ll not go hungry today. An impressive supermarket is the envy of the village, but shelves are lined with more of the same: chocolates, booze and crackers. In the back of the shop Ana finds a few mouldy onions and a big bag of potatoes. In a place where everybody produces their staples (basic dairy and meat), shops are designed to provide a bit of sweet indulgence. The hell with diabetes and tooth decay.

My girlfriend emerges from the supermarket with a bag of pickled beetroot from Poland, tea from Sri Lanka and rusks from Russia.

She starts crossing the street, but she stops mid-distance, leaning forward to inspect something on the floor. The dismantled body of a doll. Ana picks up the pink-haired head and adds it to her tank-bag collection of oddities that contains the oversized seed of a mysterious plant, a vulture’s feather and an edelweiss. Memories of Mongolia. A little boy takes notice, and moments later returns with another doll head in hand. This one has a blond coif. All these talismans at our disposal, I am hoping that the gods will stop punishing us with rain.

The voodoo seems to work: mud turns to moist hard-packed.

And tracks clear off, until the sky timidly promises a glimpse of its forgotten blue.

When we arrive in Tosutingel to fuel at the first proper gas station since Olgii, a classic steppe rainbow is spanning the wide heavens atop white stuppas.

The town is nothing to write home about. The main street is lined with hideous buildings, mostly supermarkets with the odd restaurant in between.

We search for a tasty bite and we find bitter berries sold by women with sunburnt cheeks and a crowded food joint where a bus full of vacationing students has just pulled over. It takes a good half an hour to persuade the waitresses to spare us two plates of sheep stew, rice and two spoonfuls of carrot salad. Believe me, it sounds worlds tastier than it is, but at under 3 euros a head it’s cheap.

 


Vizualizaţi 2013 – Mongolia pe o hartă mai mare

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