“Wandering re-establishes the original harmony which once existed between man and the universe.” – Anatole France
Our train stopped at the Mongolian border in the dead of night. Each car was separated, lifted off the track and wheels replaced (the gages are different sizes) while we all sat quietly aboard for hours. This is called the “bogie exchange,” and is a remnant of a past security system used to ward of potential invading armies.
We spent a few dreary days in Ulaanbatar and wondered when we stepped outside if we would be pelted with snow or freezing rain as we jumped over giant puddles that flooded the roads. UB is a strange city. Old soviet era architecture mixed with a thriving music scene and international cuisine – one night we even went to the opera. It’s a modern city in the midst of an unforgiving climate.
The last of the world’s wild horses, the Takhi.
Being fiscally responsible (I prefer this to cheap) and refusing to be on another tour, we jumped on a bus south towards the Gobi desert. The roads quickly disappeared and it was the first of many off-roading experiences in a rickety old bus. I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy and laugh as sand splashed up over the windows in waves, and camels stood by witnessing the spectacle that for them is common place. Once in town we met up with a driver and tried to chicken scratch out a plan for the next couple days. With minimal understanding of what we agreed to, our guy came over early in the morning and walked into our room without knocking (it’s a mongolian thing – one custom that I never got used to). He doubled the price and was as drunk as a skunk. At one point he picked up an empty beer can and shook it, presumably looking for a rogue swig. The guy was harmless, but needless to say, we decided to thank him and pass on his service! Long story short we ended up finding a great driver who took us to stay in gers and explore the Gobi in all its glory – sand dunes, dinosaur fossils and an ice-filled gorge. We even tried camel’s milk, which was very sour.
Back to “off-roading” on a bus heading north now to Khovsgol lake. I’d like to mention on our way we found an overturned SUV at dawn, in literally the middle of nowhere. Every single male on the bus (including proudly smiling children) got off and collectively pushed and heaved and righted the massive vehicle. Then hopped back on and away we go. Just another overnight bus in Mongolia – no big deal.
We ventured on a 6 day horseback trip around Khovsgol lake, otherwise known as “the Blue Pearl.” My horse had two speeds: painfully slow and stopped. Being in a national park, a guide was obligatory, and our Mongolian was better than his English. Trust me, this does not mean much. Mostly his communication was to say ” yum yum” every time my horse refused to lift his head from the grass, he’d grab the reigns and pull us forward. My horse would just as soon this annoying foreigner get off his back so he could resume his “yum yums.” As the snow turned to freezing rain the riding became a bit miserable. Being a nomadic culture, many gers were not set up for the season and so camping at some places was our only option. Our guide brought only a couple bags of biscuits and an extra coat. We gave him our extra blanket and would joke at every meal, “what will he have for lunch today?” And invariably we knew it would be our food or a dry biscuit.
We celebrated our return to town with a few australians and a guy named Serge who drove down from Russia on an ATV. We drank vodka from glasses balanced on the crook of our arm and followed it up with many pickles. We never did determine what Serge was doing there, because he spoke to us in Russian, and spoke to us like we all understood Russian. We had long conversations with him where not a single word was understood on either side, that is, until Ezra finally broke out Google Translate. It was a fantastic way to return to civilization.
At the airport I felt ready to leave. I was a bit tired of being cold after all these months and was anxious for some warmth. But it wouldn’t have been Mongolia if leaving was so simple. Waiting for our flight a woman confirmed my name and asked me to follow her – down, down, we go into the depths of the baggage claim. Some serious-looking men with their serious-looking dogs pointed at my bag and ordered me to unpack it. At the bottom was our Buddha. I was then led to an office where I was told over and over it was impossible for me to leave with the statue. I didn’t have a receipt proving where we had bought it and I didn’t have a license proving that we didn’t buy/sell this Buddha in Mongolia. In hind sight, it really was time for me to leave Asia as I later realized I was bribing and arguing with the very people who had the power to let me leave their country. I offered to “buy” a license and frustratingly raised my voice and said “the Tibetan print (on the newspaper it was wrapped in) was my receipt!” Just as I was starting to lose my cool I was told once again it was impossible and I was sent on my way. Meanwhile a few floors up Ezra was worried. I was gone a long time and our flight was leaving. I was telling Ez what happened and he mentioned this was a good lesson in unattatchment. I was trying to remember equanimity but my heart was still racing. I can be so ridiculous – the whole point of having the Buddha was to remind me to work on my afflictive emotions. At that moment, the original woman reappears, I get rushed back downstairs, and a higher authority gave me the Buddha back. All of a sudden everyone became very apologetic. I was sweating and flushed as I raced to stuff everything back in to my already overly-stuffed bag, and ran back upstairs barely making the flight.
I don’t know why they gave it back, maybe being a Buddhist country themselves they were worried about collecting bad merit. It definitely was not from my skills of negotiation. But I realized it didn’t matter and I would be surprised if I got him home anyway. We had yet to go through borders in the Middle East and still get him through US customs – which would probably be the most difficult.