Go Away, far
Chu!I reach my heel back, swift kick to the rockhard gut Chu! Then airborne, squinting through approaching twilight, searching for marmot holes in the impossibly mottled grass. I will never ride as the Mongols do. There is something about being raised on horseback, coming from the greatest horse-people in the world, gyroscopic blood. Raised Wooden saddles, floating inches above the horseback; short stirrups, tied together beneath the belly, that would make our knees lock and scream. They fly in frozen standing stance, slouched to one side, pole-lasso in hand, poised in galloped rhythm — familiar as their own pulse.
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate”. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again” to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
Pico Iyer, Why We Travel: A Love Affair With the World
“What a fucking ridiculous place”
Flip through the study-abroad brochures advertising semesters in Prague, Vienna, Amsterdam. Flip to the next page.
Now you are in the Exotic section. Beijing, Hangzhou, Dakar, Yaoundé. Wish you hadn’t dropped Chinese. It couldn’t have been that bad.
The Dark Continent and the Exotic East, like two stepchildren. Appreciated intellectually, but when it comes down to the wire, people’s loyalties reveal themselves, and align conveniently with the flows of capital and genealogy.
You have narrowed your selection to two choices: Vietnam or Mongolia. Or Nepal. But you eliminate that because you’ve been, if only briefly. Feel bad for not wanting more to go to Africa. You must be an Orientalist asshole, or something. Make a note to work on that.
Vietnam, home of rice paddies and shards of American shrapnel embedded in jungle soil.
Mongolia is nowhere, nothing. Marco Polo and Chinggis Khaan. He is still Genghis to you.
Mongolia gives new weight to the phrase “Golden Years”. Nostalgia on a new plane.
But now’s your chance to see Vietnam. Before it develops they say.
Realize there is something morbidly fascinating about (post)-communism.
Choose Mongolia because you get to spend two weeks herding sheep and goats, and living in a _ger_in the countryside.
To lands returned
To realms uncharted.
Develop some stock answers to the question, Why Mongolia?
You become a minor celebrity in certain circles. Your mom’s email list. Your sister’s friends. Relatives. No-one at your school cares, or they hide it well. It is likely they resent you for out-exoticizing-internationalizing them. This makes you happy.
Go away–far, far away. You are tired of living comfortable. Which is ironic, since for a rich white male, you’ve had it less than easy. Then again, that’s not saying much. You long for culture shock. To be hung by your feet and shaken until everything falls from your pockets.
You want to make sure your Mongolian language skills reach a decent level. Find one of the five Mongolians in Boston and organize private language lessons for th etwo weeks before you leave.
Buy “Colloquial Mongolian” by Alan J. K. Saunders and Jansangiin Batereedüi.
Six months later, the most played track in your iTunesÂ® will still be “Lesson 1, Dialogue 2–Fast”.
Have a sinking feeling halfway thorugh track 2 on the cd. Sample words: Sandal, Kharandaa, Tom, Jijig, Gobi. Goiv? Gobi. Figure it must be a mistake or typo. How can Gobi become.. well the G is swallowed, and calls up from the bottom of your throat, leading to a slippery o that somehow terminates in a soft V. Realize you won’t be learning this language from a book. You need corroboration for these crimes against reason. Wish you hadn’t dropped Chinese.
Enjoy thinking about how you must appear, Mongolian phrases emanating from your throat as you practice to the recordings on your daily commute on the wonderful MBTA.
Be glad you dropped Chinese.
Try not to think about how knowing this language will help you later in life. Fill your head with lots of liberal-arts learn for its own sake bullshit.
Mongolia is fucking awesome, that’s why.
Mongolia—vast in her emptiness, tragic in her exile from sea and arable land, breathtaking in her humble beauty.
But don’t go for the food
Ode to Pepto
O Pepto, how gracious thou art
Calming the stomach’s sea
Thy fair complexion glows as a rose in Spring
Thy taste, as sweet as the finest chalk.
All romance is dashed,
Upon that first encounter with the infamous phantom
That is Montezuma’s Revenge.
Or the sting of your hands,
As they freeze one morning
In Mongolia, vegetable soup consists of:
In Mongolia, the girls walk home to their slums wearing fake designer jeans and faux-fur-trimmed coats.
In Mongolia, Dogs are not man’s best friend.
In Mongolia, Chinggis Khaan is the God of Gods.
In Mongolia, marmots steal frisbees and other bright white, fast-moving objects.
In Mongolia, your cab fare is computed using a simple formula:
(distancekm*300) / (mongolian language ability) / (number of mongolians with you) + 500 \* (number of gringos) + random \* 100
Big Brother is watching, don’t say the
Wrong thing, look the
Traditional systems dis-
Integrate. Morals, ethics, freedoms and structures of life on the steppe.Such as traditional land use practices, and the freedom to migrate where one wants.
Yet what happens when Big Brother falls?
The veil is lifted, euphoria blossoms;
The image of the Tiger mesmerizes,
Nurtured by romancing Western winds.Reference to the assurances from Western advisors that their policies would lead Mongolia to become the next ‘Asian Tiger’.
I gingerly held on to my seat as we bounced through marmot holes and over patches of grass, feet perched solidly on the footrests of my host father’s motorcycle as we sped through the night. The cool air soothed my skin, each molecule a reminder of the authenticity of the moment, and my very mortality. The motorcycle’s lone headlight danced its way across the steppe; I leaned back, resting my hands on my knees, and gazed up at the endless starry dark. My stomach full of Ð±Ð¾Ð¾Ð´Ð¾Ð³ (boodog, Mongolian roasted goat), ÑÒ¯Ò¯Ñ‚ÑÐ¹ Ñ†Ð°Ð¹ (suutei tsai, milky tea), Ð°Ð¹Ñ€Ð°Ð³ (airag, fermented mare’s milk) and Ð°Ñ€Ñ…Ð¸ (arhi, vodka), I smiled at the uniqueness and beauty of this experience, and drank in the Mongolian night.
Yet change proves illusory, as do the goods
That once lined the oppressive shelves of state-owned stores.
A dissatisfied electorate speaks with their vote;
Old are replaced by new: the heroic Democrats
With the suavity of a toddler’s first step, they apply the shock;
Sparks fly, illuminating their fresh faces frozen in naÃ¯veté and terror.
With the ferocity of a dead fish the Mongolian economy coughs,
Collapsing into torpor.
I took what must have been my 100th lap around the ger–I had struck a rhythm; long underwear snapping against the canvas roof to the beat of my stilted step. My right foot always hitting harder as it centripetally held me in an orbit–clockwise of course, even when committing flyicide.
31 August, Afternoon
Flies are everywhere. On my arm.
Fuck these godforsaken fucking flies. Wow, I sound angry, no?
31 August, 5:30pm
Now Lkhakvasuren is running around the ger rambo-style with a towel in one hand, and my pillow in the other, windmilling her arms.
4 September, 3:55pm
Midday is definitely the worst time of day. It’s hot, and there’s nothing to do. My [host] father usually naps or watches TV, or both, while I make flashcards or do homework. Meanwhile, the flies go beserk. There’s no point in even trying to wave them away.
Right now the only sound is of flies swarming above and around me. A chorus that ebbs and flows to its own chaotic pulse. Usually, I get up every ten minutes or so to clear my side of the ger, if only to lessen the number in my immediate vicinity, for a few moments of relative peace.
It sorta works. At least I don’t feel helpless. My [host] father is going to tend to the sheep now…
8 September, 3:47pm
When this baby screams, it’s like the sun is shattering, screeching-swerving through space. Except less cosmic, graceful, grandiose, or poetic. The shit is just LOUD and SHRILL.
It’s also the witching hour. Or hours. WHen the flies all take their afternoon dose of speed and then go Bat-Shit-Insane all over the ger. Todo: Become zen so I don’t care
9 September, 3:00pm
…they joked that I should give them burzag blah blah, that I was a poor host –pause to kill some flies–
9 September, 3:55pm
Phew. There were 100’s, now there are, like, 20. The war is un-winnable, but I figure I can win a few battles to make their level at least tolerable. And strike some fear into their grimy hearts.
One mass, assembled
A stream of fleece
Flowing, bound by ground
Horse and voice
Ger An architecture whose elegance Could only emerge from Time’s Eternal forge, casting Function, form, philosophy. Swarms of flies, driven mad by midday sun Melt silence into winged static. Timelessness embodied in wooden chests, The malchins’ mournful voice serenades his herd; A wood-framed home in a woodless land.
Learn that everything extracted from, or grown in Mongolia goes to China; that everything that can be bought is made in China, perhaps from Mongolian materials. Which you hadn’t dropped Chinese.
We are walking down the main drag, heading to or from a bar. A man is standing by the roadside. he is a dark shape revealed only in the passing slices of headlights, wearing a shirt that was once white, but is now streaked with red. Presumably blood. His face, also revealed by the headlights is similarly painted — and wears a timid grimace.
He is trying to get home; with one hand struggling to pathetically hail a passing car, as he hunches over into himself.
Don’t go to Mongolia for the food. Unless you like three things: Mutton, Salt and Fat. Then you should rather enjoy the cuisine.
The American doctor at the local Korean Christian hospital thinks Mongolians have high rates of kidney disease from not drinking any water. In the countryside, they drink suutei tsai (literally, tea with milk). Perhaps a more apt name would be davstai tsai (tea with salt). It is the beverage of choice when you’re not drinking airag (fermented mare’s milk, or koumiss), and can be conveniently used as broth for any soup or noodles.
You have the infamous buuz. Buuz are like Tibetan momos — little mutton-filled boiled dumplings. Except momos are smaller, and have spices and vegetables. Buuz have four ingredients: Mutton, Mutton Fat, Salt, and Onions. For cultures from the colder regions, the highest of culinary achievement is glorious lard.
Put the onions, mutton and fat in a dumpling wrapper. Make into dumpling. Boil. Eat with suutei tsai. Your first bite may be dangerous, you bite into the familiar dumpling shell only to receive an onslaught of flooding ”juice“. Your mouth fills with mutton grease and the uniquely pungent taste of mutton itself.
Mutton is a uniquely fatty red meat, so bad for you that the Mongolian government runs a health campaign, promoting BEEF as the heart-healthy ”other red meat“!
Up next, khuushuur. These are like hot pockets (maybe the calzones), but filled with one thing: mutton — and then fried to oblivion.
Tsuivan. This was my staple dish when eating at the only restaurants that exist outside the city (the capitol). Zoogiin Gazar, Buuz-eria, ”Mongolian National Fast Food“. they serve several dishes, most which are randomly sold out at any particular moment.
I always order Tsuivan. it’s a simple dish — a safe choice mostly, though a few times I was served it with ketchup. Which threw me off a bit. Essentially it’s Mongolian lo mein. take flat wheat noodles, fry lightly with a generous amount of oil, slivers of mutton, and maybe a few veggies. even the noodles will take on the pungence of mutton, absorbed into the oils.
I arrived in Mongolia approximately August 23rd.
On August 29th, I recorded in my journal that ”maybe I just don’t like mutton“.
I had just finished my first week.
First of fourteen.
One would think, given the number of livestock (35 million) and their centrality to Mongolian culture and lifestyle, and that all the main livestock varieties produce milk fit for the purpose (sheep, goats and cows) that Mongolia would have developed a robust cheese-making tradition. But no. There are two types of Mongolian cheese: aaruul and ”Mongolian Cheese“. Aaruul is the traditional cheese made in the countryside and dried for weeks in the sun on the roof of the ger. It is hard. As a soft stone. Sure, you could bite it, but you’d be risking a ticket to both the dentist and world of pain. one of my buddies’ host mothers made this mistake. She must’ve been lving in the city so long she lost touch with the culture and forgot how to eat aaruul. Though city dwellers don’t drink as much cuutei tsai so maybe she was calcium deficient (thus the broken tooth).
So aaruul is a hard and very strong-tasting cheese. very salty.
Cheese #2/2 is textured pleasantly, between mozzarella and cheddar. It’s a bit rubbery. looks delicious until you take a bite. And realize it has no taste. Who knew it possible to make cheese with utterly no taste? i always figured cheese got most of its flavor from the cheesiness. y’know, milk (ie. goat vs. sheep vs. cow… all the cheese taste different) and the cultures…
But here was proof of the futility of my self-delusions. Stark in its blandness. My host family laughed when i bought some, and referred to it as davsgui byslag — cheese with no salt. So the one place I would gladly have welcomed a bit of salty tang, of course it is utterly absent.
The one thing that is wrong with all Mongolian Pizza is the cheese — and understandably so. When mozzarella is $15/lb, and you earn $400/month if you’re rich, then Pizza just ain’t gonna be the same.
Not that they don’t try… (Pizza King… )
I stared at the metal bowl placed unceremoniously before us. It was a matte-gray metal pot — like a wash bin – the standard vessel for all cooking outside the ”apartmented gentry“.
I only got sick once in Mongolia. No, twice. Neither were especially severe – as in, long lasting – but rendered me physically weak, emotionally drained, and gastrointestinally anarchic.
Sickness, such as this reminds you of how connected and unified your GI tract really is. We tend to separate at the stomach. The top is for eating, the bottom for pooping. Yet once food passes the halfway mark, it falls under the realm of the nearest escape route. So on that fateful day when I drank a glass of Mongolian Coca-Cola with breakfast (my host father later told me my illness must have been due to that) the contents of my GI tract decided to riot and collectively exited my body.
Luckily (or unluckily, depends who you ask) I never experienced a majestic GI phenomenon known as the Wind Tunnel. When both sides of one’s GI tract decide to exit simultaneously, one is left in an interesting logistical quagmire. Then, a state of vacuum is created in the center of the body as you spew digested and undigested food simultaneously into the nearest drainally-able vessel.
It took me two weeks to learn how to get to school. Every school day we went the same way. From our rooms at the top of the student hostel, we descended to the increasingly frigid streets of UB. A short walk and a wait later, we were aboard a Korean trolley bus, creaking our way down Peace Ave. I still don’t past the east crossroads is a long stretch of empty road, only one stop or its 2.5 km. Then the trolley arrived at the end of the line, the war memorial. That’s what we called it.
Mongolia, land of the clear blue sky, transforms at night; her blue skies fade to reveal the blackness of empty space, overwhelmed by a silent swarm of stars, frozen in a distant dance. The moon, if she is out, burns with epic brightness, casting a cool glow across the shuffling herd, who peer at me with amazingly complete incomprehension.
(I stood outside the doorway to our ger, toothbrush hanging from my mouth. Gazing at the chaotic swarm of stars blanketing the night’s black. Mongolia, land of the clear blue sky, transforms at night; her blue skies fade to reveal the blackness of empty space, punctuated by the glow of distant stars.)
Bring lots of energy bars. Lots.
If, at any point, you manage to perform an act of explosive and/or otherwise notable bowel movement–be sure to proudly proclaim so to your travelling companions. If they fail to recognize you for your achievements (i.e. survival), realize they don’t get it (yet) and have faith that their time will come. Or find new travelling companions.
Develop some form of superstitious logic to explain how best to preserve your gastrointestinal health–if only to maintain some semblance of composure (sanity). The mind does not take well to dreading diarrhea after every meal, arbitrarily.
Halfway home, the bus breathes its last breath. It’s really more of a wheeze. Watch the driver frantically fan at the flames peeking out of a hole in the bus’ side panel as you walk away.