30.09.2019 - 09.10.2019 0 °C
Halfway across Mongolia I found myself in Murun, which feels like an old New England town in a lot of ways. There are few paved roads, as well as no running water or sewer, but there are colorful wood houses and streetlights down every dirt road. In another life I could have been posted in a place like this, if I had been invited to Peace Corps Mongolia instead of China. I like it, but two years would have been a very long time to be here.
There are plenty of people, and the mountains are close, but that’s about it. Even the road from Ulaanbaatar to here was mostly dirt, and at least once the bus driver just left the tread marks carved into the steppe and just drove through the scrub and bushes. There has been a running joke for a while about Posh Corps China, where every comfort can be found, but I never really noticed before coming here.
The bathroom has been closed because the pipes have begun to freeze, so we drained it like we would the summer homes in New York when I worked there. Nothing really seems to dry, but it also doesn’t quite freeze. It’s definitely fall here, and everything I saw went from green to yellow to brown in about a week and a half. It feels like California, but far colder and we use wood fired stoves to keep everything warm.
I was only in Murun for a couple days before heading to the far north, eight hours through muddy back roads to a village in Khovsgul. It was beautiful, and for me had that New England feel to it, especially on the last day when an icy mist covered the village. The amazing thing about Mongolia is that it feels safe enough that seeing a shadow walk through the mist with an axe wasn’t really scary.
The next day I took a car and a horse to the reindeer tribe in Khovsgul Aimag through what was closer to being marsh than anything else. It snowed, then melted, and the horse was stepping to its knees into the mud at times. I’m too big for the reindeer, and on that land I’m too big for the horse too. The flat lands were okay, but on the downhill it stumbled and I was thrown off. The good thing is that it was a soft landing, easier than most I have taken in Kungfu.
It was a beautiful valley, far away from everything. The food was simple but good, bread and meat or rice and meat, but that seems to be the standard for Mongolia. Their milk tea is weak and a little salty, but perfect for the weather we had. Cold days, colder nights, and a bit of snow and rain. I wish I could say I discovered something there, but it was just a place where people live. No more magic than anywhere else I have been, but stark and beautiful as the winter began. At night after dark the husband and wife I was staying with read to each other and the animals wandered around outside.
The animals were more fascinating to me. Reindeer grunt. The small ones sound like pugs, snorting around the ground looking for food and licking my hands for the salt on my skin. The big ones sound like someone fighting to start a gas powered chainsaw. They move more like dogs too, snuffling the ground, moving like a dog hunting. I had always imagined them more like cows, but that part of me comes from a different world. So many of the animals in the US are domesticated or living off our scraps, so seeing animals this close to being wild is fascinating. It was the same with the goats and sheep for me, sprinting across the steppe whenever a car came close. The sheep still look like orbs with skinny legs, but they run like dogs. It’s almost comical, but I also realize that everything I have seen has been so deeply influenced by the developed world, that I don’t really know what the world could be without us.
Mongolia is wild, and somehow deeply uncomplicated. Things are functional, practical, and without a lot of fuss. That is what I noticed about the Reindeer tribe, that they were so similar to the people living in the cities. People setting up a yurt in their yard, and that is just where someone lives now. Cooking everything over the same stove that keeps the house warm at night. Simple wood highlighted by vivid colors. People without fear, even when it comes to speaking a new language. The children here can get shy, but most of the time they just speak as much or as little as they can.
In a lot of ways, I wish I had spent the two years here, living in a place that really feels wild, but I know that part of that is just because it is so different from what I have known. There are so many things here that feel familiar, but somehow I think that familiarity is hiding what is truly Mongolian. Like so many of the buildings here that look Russian, Chinese, or western, with yurts scattered throughout the towns and cities. It would be easy to think that true Mongolian architecture was non-existent, but truly it is just hidden.
But I think the one thing I wonder about the most is how to really understand a culture as it is, but with such a short time to really understand it. To see the superstition, the language, the history, and the behavior and try to put together a cohesive idea of what a place is seems impossible. Like so many things, I don’t think I can really explain the place so much as I can explain who I become when I am a part of this place. I want to see the world, but in so many ways the world is just a mirror.