Friday, June 11, 2010

On a Dark Desert Highway

From On a dark desert highway

Though we had arrived in Mongolia at a time when the nights were still frozen, the path in front of us now shimmered with heat and there was definitely no cool wind in my hair. We were pushing hard over corrugations and sandy stretches to reach our imagined oasis of a hotel on the shores of a large salt lake – Hyargas Nuur - some 5 days after our last solid bed.


This semi-arid desert appeared empty and threatening at first, but after a congenial and informative visit by a local nomadic herder to our tent we didn’t feel so remote. With only minimal ability in the Mongolian language, we form many of our connections and impressions of the people we encounter by observation and through gesture. No doubt these are coloured by the environment and conditions that surrounds us – often harsh but beautiful – and may lack veracity. The casual friendliness of the roadside conversation with male herders can appear to transform into a barely masked forlornness beneath the brusque routine of a longer interaction with the women inside their gers.

The previous day we had come across a guanz – admittedly one that we knew was lurking out here somewhere – and had stocked up on salty tea and tsuivan. We could hardly fathom that anyone would live out here in the rocky and hazy plains, let alone be at home and waiting to cook us lunch. But we had a series of numbers in the form of GPS coordinates which gave us a dot on a map where our intended lunch stop would be. As we approached the spot, to my surprise a small building and then a ger did indeed emerge ever so slowly from behind a mound of sand.

The resident women brought us tea as we let our sweat congeal a little. She had a 4 month old baby, whom she whisked onto a rug on the floor with one arm, the other bearing the scars and deformity of a trauma some years before. A second woman peeled potatoes and whisked flies off the gurgling baby’s bare bottom. Cooking inside a felt tent in summer is a hot task indeed, and the women went about the process with little interest in these foreign cyclists. They put on a cassette of Mongolian pop music and sang sotto voce to themselves, rewinding when it was done. Only one question was sent our way, which I much later figured out was: ‘Is it still cold in Ulaanbaatar?’

This day seemed to go on forever. Riding for 75km on terrible roads is definitely a long day but we had some motivation, or so we thought. Finally, in a small bay, tucked underneath a cliff-face sat the concrete hulk of a hotel, Har Temes. The basketball court was a ring short. The grounds were deserted and the doors closed. The mural gracing the fa├žade was now a faint, blurred reminder of better years. Plastic pierced with holes was replacing several of the glass windows. By a ger perched outside the grounds was a middle-aged Mongolian lady. It didn’t require much broken conversation before it became clear that Har Temes would not be hosting us tonight.

Opportunistically, she clasped a chain of rusty Mongolian keys and led me down to some lake-front shacks. She was quiet and I was tired. My brief Mongolian explanation to our being here was duly noted, but not explored. From afar, they looked lovely. Wooden cabins with still water views. I romanticized spending a day reading, relaxing and recharging. Of course, I as neared these truck-stop abodes that house the late night Mongolian long haul drivers, I saw that the cottages were piecemeal structures. Beds were broken springs on tree trunks. Windows were open spaces and curtains would have been a luxury. I declined the exorbitantly priced beach cabins and we set up camp by the shore.


It wasn’t long before sitting in the diminishing light of this stocky woman’s dusty ger I was sipping salty tea, witnessing her commence the task that seemed like a well learned reflex rather than a conscious series of movements. I had ventured away from the lapping lake waves with an empty bowl and emptier stomach to placed the invited request for tsuivan to take away. The central fire was fuelled with large pieces of dried camel dung which were regularly arranged within the stove. Her movements were measured. No haste. In the corner of the ger crouched a slightly disheveled man with a large dressing covering his left cheek. He spoke at the women in sharp, rough bursts. She rarely replied. Water was boiled and flavoured to create another batch of Mongol tea. She ladled out a portion to taste, and satisfied with the salinity, poured it into a pot before heating more water with basic spices from her bare cupboards. Soon she was kneading dough to create noodles. Her purposeful movements carried an air of sorrow. The shrine in the ger housed an old photo of a proud woman, maybe a mother, and pictures of a young girl riding a horse. Was this her in happier days, a daughter now left for the city or a loved one that had passed leaving behind a sad void? The dough was set aside, the broth tasted and flavoured, and the fire stoked.

I soon exhausted my conversational Mongolian and sat in silence. They didn’t care for small talk and weren’t interested in who we were or why we came. As the man lit a long pipe he crept back to the shadowy ger-side and lit a candle. He pulled out a notebook and scribbled my name and destination. What was hiding beneath the dressing? The aftermath of trauma? An infection racing out of control? A terminal growth?

The sad woman pulled open her rickety orange cupboard. She negotiated the broken door without glancing at it. Reaching into the sparse shelves she retrieved a wooden board and rolling pin. With brisk, meticulous strokes she commenced rolling the dough. The circular flour and water mix was turned around the wooden board until the edges just overlapped and a small cut was placed in the centre. Then in a swift manoevre the dough was tossed over the metal covering the broth. The fine slit fell directly over the handle and the dough draped the lid perfectly. The man continued to ramble. The woman continued to not reply. The ger grew dark. The candle flickered and I sipped my salty tea.

In the morning we lazed by the shore of the salt lake, pretending we were on a beach holiday. Before leaving for our next camping spot, we went back to the ger for another two bowls of tsuivan. In the daylight, the woman’s face was much browner than I had realized. She sat by the side of her husband’s bed as he dozed under a once-white quilt, lazily brushing away flies. The routine was the same – tasting the liquid at the same point, cutting the noodles with the same precision. She only detoured to clean up the small amount of detritus around his bedside, quietly placing his pipe on the pillow beside him. As we ate she went to the shelves beneath the shrine, took out a small diary, carefully removed a piece of paper and proceeded to make a few notes and placed it in her pocket.
After we had reached the bottom of our bowls, she fumbled in her pocket for the note and presented us with the bill for two meals. ’80000’, it read. Figuring on an extra ‘0’, I handed her a 10,000 tugrug note whereupon she looked momentarily flustered. The only time we saw her smile, briefly, was when we told her she should keep the change. We asked when the hotel would be open – 10 days she said. So close, apparently, and yet it also seemed implausible. After a brief and awkward goodbye we pushed off onto the road for another day of corrugations, another night of camping and another broken glimpse of remote Mongolian survival.

On a dark desert highway

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