To enter the red door in the alleyway you first have to press the “2” and “5” on the keypad and hold for three seconds. You climb five levels of concrete steps in a darkened stairwell to a blue metal door with a Russian-era keyhole and no handle. Behind this door is a one bedroom apartment moonlighting as a hostel with yellow painted walls and, though it is mid-afternoon, a duet of snores rumbling from the bedroom.
It was May when my boyfriend, Nathan, and I flew from San Francisco to Beijing where we caught an irregularly-scheduled, very small and very old plane to Ulaanbaatar.
Mongolia seems to exist in the American subconscious as a faraway mythical place, like Timbuktu or the Bermuda Triangle. Many people gulp and say “no way” when the country comes up in conversation, which is immediately followed by the question, “why Mongolia?” Nathan had received a fellowship to spend the summer writing poetry in Greece and I had a friend named Ciarra who was serving in the Peace Corps as an English language teacher and program developer in the Mongolian town Tsetserleg. We thought we’d never have a better guide or excuse to visit the country. Why not?
In the morning light I saw thickly furred cattle grazing on the brown grass outside the Chinggis Khaan International Airport windows. My 60-liter backpack, equipped with essentials for backcountry adventuring, had been rerouted in Beijing. The airport personnel did not know when or if the bag would arrive; the scheduled planes may or may not come to Mongolia. We had planned to leave for Tsetserleg the next morning, but had to extend our capital stay for a few waiting-days. Days that were stocked with meals at international restaurants, visits to cultural landmarks, and an unexpected performance in the square beneath our hostel window featuring an eclectic collection of gymnasts, hip-hop dancers, and electric guitarists. Necessities were purchased during daily visits to the ikh delguur (“big shop” or State Department Store) where I bought crackers, sea buckthorn juice, and Italian-made underwear. On the third day my pack arrived.
The travelers began gathering at 7 in the morning, piling bulging plastic bags, small suitcases, wrapped boxes, and backpacks into the bus’s cargo storage compartments. It was a large passenger bus with royal purple tasseled curtains, threadbare cloth seats, and a flat screen television playing Mongolian folk music videos mounted above the driver’s head.
For eight hours we drove into the measureless steppes of central Mongolia destined for Tsetserleg. During the drive, impromptu stops were made for passengers to exit the bus, stretch their legs, and relieve their bladders. The men stood in a line with their backs to the bus windows and long skirted women squatted off to the side, alone or in small clusters, pitching their skirts into tents for privacy.
We drove on a dirt road that seemed to stretch so far into the horizon that it began to curve on the hip of the earth. We drove through a flock of sheep and, also, herds of goats, yaks, and wild horses. We drove past young Mongolian boys racing on ponies, each with an arm in the air, circling as if a lasso was in hand. In Tsetserleg we stumbled down the bus steps, gathered our bags, and walked into town, into the blue of the sky.
Mongolia is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world with a land mass approximately three times the size of France and a population hovering around three million. Though nomadic living is not as often practiced as it once was, property laws are indistinct and hashas (homesteads) are loosely fenced. In one of these hashas, Ciarra lived in a ger (yurt) while her host family lived in a house with plumbing for sink and shower; they shared an outhouse. When we met Ciarra’s hasha-mom, Gana, she invited us for a home cooked Mongolian dinner and we promised to visit that night.
Her young son and daughter were playing badminton in the waning light when we arrived. Inside a television showed the animated movie “Chicken Run.” We pulled out a bottle of Italian red wine with a label sighing, “for the relaxing moments in life” and Gana ushered us into large stuffed chairs. She moved quickly and gracefully from the kitchen to the coffee table with dishes of dense donut-like breads, small wheels of hardened cheese, thin brittle-crunch candies, and a tray of matching silver engraved goblets from Russia. We shared rounds of wine and when Gana offered us food we received it right handed with sleeves down, as Ciarra had instructed us.
Perched on the floor with folded legs, Gana asked how we liked her country and if she could give us Mongolian names. We nodded and she sat back, thinking, and said I was del goon, which Ciarra translated to calm peace, and Nathan would be saixan-aa, beautiful. She asked us to call each other these names when we returned to America and we said that we would. For dinner we ate fried pastry pockets called huushuur, filled with spices, potatoes, and mutton.
The wine diminished and the stars brightened. Because Gana’s husband was sleeping we went to Ciarra’s ger and lit a fire. Gana played folk songs on her guitar. One began “I am a true Mongolian of the savage brutal countryside” and another was about a family that beat each other with a fire poker and threw white food on the ground. She played and sang beautifully with the resonance of an ancient matriarchy in her voice; and as suddenly as she began she smiled and ducked out the door into the glimmering night.
The clouds drifted overhead as though late but unconcerned. We walked through town to Ciarra’s school. It was a multi-story wood building painted white. The wooden floors were chafed and worn by thousands of small feet. The children giggled, shyly looked away, and then yelled, “Hello. How are you,” before darting around corners. Rooms softly lit with morning sun lined the corridors. Entering Ciarra’s homeroom, I saw the same neat little desks ordered in rows as I remembered from school. The walls were lined with half a dozen bulky computer screens and heavy processors.
I shuffled through flashcards in Ciarra’s handwriting that asked “If you could have a superpower what would it be?” “If you could have a meal with Chinggis Khaan, what would you do?” She was also collecting bottle caps to makeshift round pieces of plastic into lettered tiles for playing Scrabble. “I’m starting on my second set now,” she said before leaving for a meeting with the other language teachers. Nathan and I stayed in the classroom; I sat in the second row and took down notes in my journal. It was strange to me how little was said between the Mongolians we met and us, but how much was still communicated through tone, gestures, and facial expressions.
The door opened often, someone poking their head in for a word, or maybe it was for a look; the kids smirked, the adults looked startled.
Monks dressed in orange and yellow robes circled the room in clockwise motion, spinning small prayer wheels as they went. Practitioners bowed and touched their heads to a table bearing the weight of a Buddha statue. The silence seemed to deepen with Mongolian whisperings, the whir of prayers, and slow shuffle of feet.
Snow had drifted down in the night, freezing the ground. As we picked our way back toward the apartment where we were staying, we stepped into a temple that had been burned during the Soviet Russian occupation. Only the frame and a few chunks of wall still stood. Inside: a few corpses of the ubiquitous puppies, Cyrillic graffiti, broken vodka bottles and trash.
I read in our Lonely Planet guidebook: “Buddhism in Mongolia was nearly destroyed in 1937 when the young communist government, fearing competition, launched a purge that wiped out nearly all of the country’s 700 monasteries. Up to 30,000 monks were massacred and thousands more sent to Siberian labour camps.” I thought of the wise and peaceful monks we had just seen praying with their neighbors.
We would have to climb in order to lighten the weight of our hearts. Above Galdan Zuu Temple rose the rocky hill called Bulgan Uul. As we walked, Deek, Ciarra’s hasha dog, galloped ahead—the protectoress. Our daypacks were stocked with paprika-sprinkled potato chips, peanut butter sandwiches with black currant jam, and cans of Hite stout beer. The stones buoyed and climbed under our feet like the ocean waves of a Japanese painting. In a flat spot was a shrine built of a 14’ vertical log topped with a still coarsely furred horse skull. Blue, red, yellow, green, and white scarves circled the site and were tied loosely to the log, fluttering in the wind. We picked up stones, walked around clockwise three times and tossed our stones, now weighted with wishes, into the circle.
When we returned to Ciarra’s ger and shared our hike, Gana said God was up there; we should not have gone.
There is a Mongolian proverb that says, “A man without a horse is like a bird without wings.” With this in mind we met Geitch at Fairfield, a guesthouse geared toward western travelers. He was a sinuous and strong man who wore loose fitting jeans, tall black riding boots, a red fleece sweater, and a blue Billabong baseball cap. A third of his face was heavily scarred, as though from a burn during childhood, but he had a clever, confident air that was charming and handsome. We drove to his hasha in a purple sedan and were met by a woman offering warm cups of suutei tsai (salty milk tea) and thick slices of heavily buttered bread.
We were the first travelers to visit Geitch that year, and the horses had not been saddled or ridden since the previous autumn. While we waited for Geitch to catch the horses we read the obligatory paper, “Advise [sic] for Horse Riders in Mongolia,” which began “Like the Mongolian countryside, the horses of Mongolian [sic] are largely wild and untamed. So we would like to give you some advice for your safety and increased enjoyment of your horse trekking time in Arhangai.”
We rode on western style, wood-framed saddles covered in leather and finished with iron stirrups. The clouds became thick and bulbous on the horizon. We rode for Taikhar Chuluu, the Big Rock of Legends, 13.5 miles east of town. The legend says that Baator, which translates to hero, crushed a serpent with this rock. It seemed a sensible hypothesis, given that the mass rose solitarily and brazenly tall out of the surrounding steppes. Geitch said if you throw a small rock to the top of Big Rock and it stays up there, you will have good luck. We hurriedly collected and threw a flurry of pebbles, but only Geitch’s did not continue its projection to the far side. His had stayed where belief had asked, or knew, that it would.
Our two week stay passed all too quickly and it was as if everything had been a dream: skewed and gorgeous, strange yet familiar, blurred in memory as with the lines of a landscape watercolor. The final day we found that crossing streets was, indeed, one of the more dangerous things to be done in Ulaanbaatar; we filled our bags with miniature felt gers, wool earrings, and small Mongolian nature paintings; and we very nearly missed our flight out of the country due to unpredictable bus schedules and pickup locations. As the plane engines warmed up and the speakers crackled with the confident voice of an airline professional, I was sad to leave the wild place on the other side of the small rectangular window; there was still a great amount of exploring to be done.
In a fortune cookie at the Beijing airport I read “Anything is possible with a willing heart.” I gave this slip of paper to Nathan before we kissed and turned our backs to one another for the walks to separate airport terminals. He was bound for a summer of sea and poems in Greece and me, I was heading west for home, with a heart drumming both bittersweet and exhilarated.
Aschley Humphrey lives and works as a trails technician in the High Sierras of Northern California. When not in the woods she can be found practicing banjo rolls and experimenting with vegan cuisine. She writes a weekly column on hiking for the local paper and studies literature of the American West.