I read an excellent book about Mongolia a couple weeks ago by Jasper Becker, called “Mongolia: Travels in the Untamed Land.” Becker was a Western journalist based in Beijing, and one of the first to cross the border from China when Mongolian communism fell apart in 1991.
The book covers many aspects of Mongolia, from obscure bits of history to the observations of other earlier travelers, but for me the greatest thing was the memories it brought back.
Becker’s writing is fresh and his descriptions of landscape are vivid. It seemed like many of the places he wrote about hadn’t changed at all from the time of his visit to the month I spent traveling the country in 2002. It remains one of the best places I’ve ever been, and I still dream of going back.
I still remember the way salty tea soaked life back into our wilted bodies after half a day’s drive in the jeep. The mutton smell inside a ger [Mongolian felt tent]. The perpetual dust cough we all had from breathing in the roads and jeep tracks. And the taste of mutton, which was all we had to eat.
Back in Ulan Baator, I ate most of my meals at a guanz close to the apartment where I’d rented a room.
The menu was all Cyrillic, but there really wasn’t much to choose from. I remember the first time I went in there with my friends Therese and Katarina. We stood at the counter scratching our heads until a fat Mongolian babushka rose from a nearby table and offered to interpret.
I pointed at the first item.
“That is meat and rice,” she said in a thick Russian-sounding accent.
“That is meat and potatoes and rice.”
“And that one?”
“That is meat.”
I pointed at the last item.
She shook her head, slow and sad. “You can’t eat that.”
“To drink? Mongolian tea?”
And then she thrust a chubby finger at each of the Swedes and shouted, “And you? And you?”
Mongolian food has the dubious reputation of being among the world’s worst cuisines. Not because it tastes foul, but because most people find it incredibly bland. There just aren’t a lot of choices. Milky salty tea with floating chunks of mutton fat and hair. Mutton cooked in five variations: soup, a greasy pancake, greasy dumplings, with greasy flour noodles, or with rice (also greasy). Potatoes or cabbage were the only vegetables I ever saw.
I loved it from the beginning. Where else would you find cigarettes and chewing gum on every restaurant menu? And meat salad, whatever the hell that was?
On one excursion into the countryside, Becker writes: “During the whole week of traveling, I never tired of just looking. The landscape changed with every mile, the pure bright light caught, twisted and refracted an almost theatrical display turning rocks and lakes a thousand hues.”
And that was one of my favourite memories of the country. It’s a place where the only possible answer to “where are you going” is “…over there.”
I lost all track of time as our jeep bounced across the countryside. Mongolia unrolled outside the window. I watched it roll past. I smelled it through the triangle window. I was happy.
Driving in Mongolia was an approximation. Distances were huge. The map was a work of fiction that bore little relation to reality. And the “roads” — jeep tracks worn into the earth by the passage of previous vehicles — were so bad it could take all day to go twenty kilometers.
Such a place was sure to infuriate “sightseers” with a list to check off, a detailed itinerary of lunch breaks and dinner breaks and knowledge of where one would sleep that night, and even an accurate knowledge of where one was most of the time. Don’t go to Mongolia if you expect those things, or if you need to be entertained.
Mongolia is what you experience along the way.
In a section about the Gobi, Becker quotes American explorer Roy Chapman Andrews: “Below us lay that stupendous relief map of ravines and gorges; in front was a limitless stretch of undulating plain. I knew then that I really stood upon the edge of the greatest plateau in all the world and that it could only be Mongolia.”
Andrews’s quote brought back so much. I remember very clearly the moment we reached the desert.
My friend Therese and I climbed to a high point on the rocky mountainside behind our tents to watch the sunset. After two long days of driving, we were on the edge of the true Gobi. It stretched out flat to the south and west as far as I could see, and its emptiness was so vast that I couldn’t believe it was not the entire world.
The great orange ball of the sunk sank into the desert and was gone. As darkness fell, the pinprick lights of the little town we had passed through came on in the distance to the north. A dozen flickering lights at the base of a low line of hills. That was the only trace of man in this landscape.
And then the generator of the little town gave one last cough and went out, and the lights faded into silence and were gone.