Mongolia is a nation of disorienting distance. Hundreds of kilometers can separate one person from the next. The population density of Omnogovi, a region of the Gobi in southern Mongolia, barely touches just 0.2 people per square kilometer. This is why the term ‘family’ has unique, more profound meaning in the Land of Khan. The average nomadic Mongolian family has four children; a woman who has five or more is referred to as ‘Honored Mother’. The larger the group, the more manpower you have to efficiently herd your livestock and reap the necessities from the valuable sheep or camel: wool, meat, and bones. Anklebones, specifically, to play games with. The more hands you have, the faster you can deconstruct and erect your ger in times of adversity of the climate sort. The more bodies you have, the warmer it is when kilos of snow mercilessly cloak the steppe and summer nights take a numbing turn. They are your support in all dimensions, the most precious aspects in your life, and in many cases, the source of your sanity. Collectivism prevails, or else you die. A simpler fact seldom comes along.
This Kazakh family I stayed with, this brilliant dynamic of a family, lived by Terelj National Park, a few hours outside of Ulaanbaator. When I say there is no infrastructure in Mongolia, I mean there is no infrastructure in Mongolia. I’ve never experienced a freedom like that before; to be faced with a vast open landscape with no markings or indications that someone has been there following prehistory, to not be bound by roads that may ironically lead you astray. They are more like dirt suggestions where other vehicles have passed before, and you could benefit from mimicking their path, but inherent dependence can also be a serious detriment. The dirt roads are often filled with voids and fissures that don’t do a service to the van’s stiff suspension or the breakable bodies riding within. You might be better off avoiding the beaten path altogether because the weight of trucks and vans compact the soft earth at every bump and turbulence, often worsening the road by creating holes so deep you can’t see the bottoms of them and speed bumps so steep and immediate that there is no telling what is there to greet you on the other side. A truth about life extends to a truth about Mongolian driving: any moment can be your last. You’re just more aware of it. This is all a roundabout way of saying that even small distances in Mongolia will take hours; it is a certainty that your mode of transportation will break down; the journey will hurt and it depends on your company whether you’ll look back on it fondly or venomously. The extreme isolation offers liberties previously unknown to a girl from the tri-state area. You can do anything you want, but someone who’s smart wouldn’t abuse this too much. Self-reliance finds new meaning here.
When you reach the vulture carcass, continue a few kilometers northwest and then make a right. You can’t miss it.
The Kazakhs regularly took in visitors; it’s a reliable source of extra income for nomads and settlers alike. When arriving to a new family, they usually herd you to the center of the ger in which you’ll be sleeping, and they lay out butter, sugar, sweet breads, and always salted tea. Adding salt and milk to black tea may seem backwards at first thought, but I assure you, it’s delicious. My comrades didn’t harbor similar sentiments, but they drank it anyway because Mongolian culture has certain inexorable rules. And we’re polite people.
The time is yours to deplete in any way you want. If I wasn’t aimlessly wandering around the steppe and taking pictures, I would be playing with the kids: three young boys and their loveable yet obnoxious sister. The little girl would cry when given the chance, which was all the time. She would happily follow her brothers around and steal their sources of entertainment – their bike, their deflated soccer ball, anything that would shift attention to her. She was a demon of sorts. I liked her from the beginning because she reminded me of myself when I was her age. She was loud, vivacious, moody, and bossy but I would commend all these qualities in someone over the alternatives, which would be silence, meekness, passiveness, and indifference. She was a character, and I need characters for my stories.
The brothers shocked me. They dealt with their sister’s bullshit with grace and maturity that even some adults have failed to scrape away from their experience. They consoled her when she sobbed, even when it was for a stupid or nonexistent reason. When she would steal their soccer ball and run off with it, they never grew angry or impatient. They were composed and understanding, doing their best to maintain harmony. They understood that family takes precedence before everything else; selfishness of any kind was not tolerated. Coming from America where various acts of selfishness are expected from the individual and where greed more or less commands society, this phenomenon was enlightening and refreshing to observe. They had little but they had enough, and they were happy in consequence. It was a place where priorities and perspective was of abundance. This was a beautiful thing to behold.
Our time there was short, but it was educational, light-hearted, merry, and all other positive adjectives. We were lucky in another sense, too. The Kazakh family happened to acquire a new motorcycle while we were there, and this was cause for celebration. A new motorcycle meant new availabilities, new productivities, an immediate and substantial upgrade in their standard of living. We joined them inside their toasty ger, along with their whole extended family, for food and vodka. These proved to be proliferous and they cannot be refused, not that I would have ever wanted to.
The night ended with tea, incessant laughter, and an impromptu concert. My friend Misha made a good call and pulled out his camera. If I’m ever sad, I watch this video to take me back to the Land of Khan.
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I used to think the hardest part about travel was choosing a destination. This is a lie. The hardest part is stopping. You go back to some familiar unromantic place and thoughts like these run through your head: What a place Mongolia is! What an artful mosaic of beauty and simplicity! I left something important there and the only way to retrieve it is to go back. Simply thinking and writing about it doesn’t help, of course. Nothing I’ve said about it does it justice, except maybe this: leaving that place was the most irresponsible thing I’ve ever done.