Monday, October 07, 2019

Disseminating Tracks VI: Desert to Steppe

 The sun rises on us, its warmth creeping across our little plateau, moving from ger to ger.  It isn't long before the trucks are ready to go, and we pull away from one of the most remote places on earth.

It proves difficult to route-find in the glare of the rising sun. For the first time our drivers need to rely on "Mongolian GPS," stopping at a lonely ger to ask directions.  There are hundreds of sheep and one little girl, maybe two-years old, eating from what looks like a bag of marshmallows.  

We move steadily toward a wall of mountains to the north, which marks the provincial border.  Just before reaching them, we follow the windy, roller-coaster like road across the conical hilltips. Then we drop again, racing along a dry riverbed. We come finally to the wall, and amazingly the drivers know the way, turning right.  With a bit of winding around, we find our way through.

A series of rock canyons have sandy bottomed beds and boulders piled up as if they were assembled there.   We speed past a small abandoned camp, abandoned for the time being anyway.  It has a couple of large corrals, some overturned water troughs, and a few baobab trees. A pair of ovoo still remain up on the hills above.  The gods will keep watch.

Then long flatlands, with not a thing on the horizon, even more sparse than yesterday, which at least had small blooms of shrubs.  Long triangular hills appear in the far distance.
The eye tries to make sense of the empty landscape, placing in it things it is familiar with.  I begin to see what I consider prehistoric rock formations, ancient, spiritual places, but in those are just the things that the earth has offered up.  My eyes are used to traversing the deserts of New Mexico, and perceive where I expect there to be towns.  But of course here there are none, simply pools of haze in low lying valleys.

And then some small shrubs begin to arise, and with them camels.  They are the tallest things on the landscape, although their shadows make them appear even taller.  To the west, a shimmering mirage reflects the peak of Ikh Bodg.  Then we roar down into the town of Bayanig at high speed, a banner of dust trails trailing behind.  To a person watching in the town, this would have looked reminiscent of the approach of invading horsemen of days old. 

We stop to allow our drivers to refuel, and poke around the town's sole shop.  I'm delighted to find what is labelled as Craft Beer (but later on I can barely drink it, for god knows how long it has sat moldering on the shelf).  A pair of big motorcycles are in front of a restaurant next door.  The riders are Dutch, and are intending to cut their trip short as they are finding they have the wrong bikes, too heavy for these dirt roads.  I decide to rewatch Ewen MacGregor's trips when I get home.

Our camp is not far out of town, sitting alone at the base of the nearby mountains.  It is a small camp, and there are no other guests.  After the obligatory afternoon rest, we set off after the day sheds her heat.  We are in search of ibexes, but find none.  Instead it is we who scramble up and down the jagged rocks. We sit a long while here, gazing out over the land, and spilling out stories when they occur to us.   It has been a magnificent day, moving through a constantly changing landscape, as if someone is flicking through a photographic album, turning the page every fifteen or twenty minutes.   The magic of the land seems to have won us over, and we are no hurry to move.

When we do, it is to al fresco dining, the evening far too pleasant for us to wrap ourselves in the felt walls of the dining ger.  When the stars come out they are of a number I've never seen, and the magic takes another form.  There are constellations, satellites, and few planes.  Most of all there are the meteors.  There is also a sudden bright flash, which both puzzles and dazzles.  It is a night of which myths are born.

In the morning, we again squeeze our way through what appears from afar to be a solid wall of rock. Into the flatland of the other side.  The highest thing on the landscape is a dead camel.  Our vehicles race one another along parallel tracks,  another Mongolian superhighway.  They shift and swerve from one to another in a beautifully choreographed dance of steel and dust.

The landscape has changed again, to that of Arizona;  boulder-filled valleys and mountains jagged like the Superstitions.  But I am returned to the present by the ovoo, many are just off road, in line with a distant peak.  A truck carrying the broken-down components of a ger overtakes an ancient Lada. A traffic jam is caused by thick flocks of sheep, a dog acting a traffic cop.   Stones line the hilltops, and mice race across the tarmac made hot by the noonday sun.  Horses shade themselves under a bridge. 

Just outside of Arvaikheer (which I jokingly pronounce as I hear it:  "Ah Fuckit!") we stop at a horse monument, which is a ring of tall concrete horses standing before a shrine decorated with Buddhist deities. Nearly out of sight behind is a long line of horse skulls leading to an ovoo.  There are a number of people here, families, dressed up for photos on the kid's first day of school.  

Then into the city proper, and in a city, lunch can only be hot pot.  Later, as we walk through town to the hotel I feel people staring, which could be because I'm foreign, or it could because I'm absolutely coated in dust. Tonight will be the first time in over a week that we'll sleep in something not circular (provided we don't drink too much). The room is lavish, probably built for high-ranking party members back in the Soviet days, the furniture garish and too many in number.  The feeling of style over substance continues at dinner, taken at what is called an Irish pub.  There is no Guinness, but there is an German Bock, welcome after a week of light (though tasty) pilsners.  Our meal is taking far too much time, so we cancel half of it.  

We'll take a night stroll through town, over to the central square (there's always one) which is rife with young people just hanging around, and little children proving a hazard in their funky little motorized cars.  Tulga treats us to a quad-bicycle ride around the square, so LYL and I take a lap, trying not to run over any of the little daredevils.  We'd earlier seen families dressed up to celebrate the new school year, and the night has just that feel, the hint of cool in the air dictating summer's end.

On the turntable:  Bob Marley and the Wailers, "Exodus" 


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