A Hiker’s Guide to Mongolia Part 2

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This is the second and final part of the story, which was published in Pilcrow & Dagger this spring.

The man turns around and motions for me to follow. He keeps glancing over his shoulder to glare at me, giving the impression that he could whirl around and shoot me in an instant. He leads me along a winding path to a small wooden shack by the road, built on posts above a steep ravine. It looks like the perfect sort of place to be tortured, killed and discarded. I picture a trapdoor in the floor, convenient to dump bodies into the ravine. I try to maintain a positive attitude. I do not try to pet the German Shepard, even though it’s now wagging its tail and whimpering. The soldier knocks on the door and a tall man with a thick mustache and a brown uniform, fancier than my guard’s, answers. This man scratches the dog on the forehead, and it thumps its tail in pleasure. The two men talk for a while in Mongolian, then the soldier and the dog walk back to their post.

The tall man motions me inside, where a short, squat man with a round, stern face and a blue uniform sits behind a rusty metal desk. Both men have pistols belted to their waists. The two converse, then point toward an ancient, filthy couch. I sit down, sinking into the worn out springs. The tall man reaches out his hand and says, Passport. Fortunately, I carry mine in a pouch around my neck, and I hand it over to him. He also points to my camera, and I reluctantly give him that, too. As far as I can remember I don’t have any pictures of sensitive military areas, but that doesn’t stop my hands from shaking.

There’s not much else in the room– a filing cabinet, an electric teakettle and hot plate, untidy stacks of papers, a telephone. I don’t see any trapdoor, although there is a faded rug that might cover it. The short, blue-uniformed man goes to the phone and makes a call, glaring at me the whole time, while the other looks at my passport, and at the pictures on the digital camera. Mostly there are pictures of Chinese gardens, or palaces, or mountains– I had recently taken the train from Beijing. There’s an analog clock on the wall, and I watch the second hand moving around and around in slow motion. The short man gets off the phone and the two discuss whatever orders have been given about me. The tall man shows the other my passport, and the two of them laugh. I smile, although I’m not sure if I ought to be offended that they think my picture looks funny. The tall man puts the passport in a drawer, and the camera slyly in his pocket– I have a feeling that he’s planning to sell it in the city’s black market bazaar.

The Tall man sits on the edge of the desk and says, Now, we wait. They to decide what will do to you.

The do “to” me sounds ominous, but I hope it’s just a translation problem. Then, pointing at me and talking in Mongolian to his counterpart, Tall Brown starts to open a filing cabinet drawer. There are no files visible, and I wonder if it’s instead full of rubber hoses and thumbscrews. Short Blue says something back sharply and Tall Brown closes the cabinet without removing anything. Short Blue then points at me, and seems to give Tall Brown some exasperated orders.

Tall Brown holds up both hands, as if to say, all right, all right, and, adopting the stern look of his superior, asks me in broken English what I’m doing here, wandering through their restricted area. I tell him that I was just out for a hike, but I don’t think he knows that word. Nevertheless, I think I get the point across that I’m not a spy of any kind. I do not use the word spy, in case there’s any misunderstanding. He asks a few more questions– why am I in Mongolia, for how long, where am I going from here. I tell him I’m a tourist, which is true, but I don’t answer the rest of the truth– that I don’t really know why I’m here. Is it to climb mountains? To be intrigued by stone lions with meat in their teeth, or depressed by another humdrum city? To sit uncomfortably with these two men, in their little shack on the edge of nowhere?

Before long Tall Brown runs out of questions to ask, and the two of them idly chat, as far as I can tell, and ignore me on the couch. I go back to watching the clock, whose minute hand has now made a complete circuit. My empty stomach is making a lot of noise, but my captors don’t seem to notice. Finally the phone rings. Tall Brown answers it and listens for a bit, then hangs up. He relays the message to his partner, then says to me, We wait longer.

The two talk some more, pointing at me, and at the filing cabinet drawer. They seem to be having an animated discussion, but then they both nod, and I can tell an agreement has been reached. Suddenly they’re walking toward me from across the room. Tall Brown sits on my right, uncomfortably close, while Short Blue fishes something out of the filing cabinet. My muscles tense, although I don’t know what I could do if there’s trouble– there are two of them, they have guns, and who knows how many soldiers are within shouting distance. I picture bolting for the door, jumping recklessly down into the ravine, and scrambling through the brush toward the big river– but if they don’t shoot me, they’d be sure to track me with the dog. And if I somehow manage to get away alive, what would I do then, with no passport, the whole Mongolian military looking for me? Could I wander into the steppes, find some nomadic family with a ger, and live in hiding with them? Could I tend their cattle and sheep, riding my horse along the windswept plains?

Out of the cabinet Short Blue pulls a bottle of clear liquid and three small, dirty glasses, and with relief and a little wistfulness my fantasy evaporates. He sits on my other side and pours the vodka into the glasses, all three in one hand, without spilling any. He gives two to me, and I pass a glass on to Tall Brown. We raise our drinks, clink them together, and they say Tulgatsgaaya, so I say Tulgatsgaaya. Following their lead, I drink the shot in one gulp. On my empty stomach the liquor burns my throat and goes straight to my head, but Short Blue is already pouring another round, and we repeat the ritual.

Short Blue puts the bottle down and pulls out a photograph from his pocket. It’s a picture of two young, pretty Mongolian girls, both smiling happily at the camera. One of them looks like a perfect angel, but the other has a mischievous gleam in her eye. Short Blue points at the picture and at himself, and I don’t need Tall Brown saying, He daughters, to know who they are. I smile and nod, and Short Blue and I shake hands. I ask Tall Brown for my camera, which he reluctantly takes out of his pocket and passes back. I scroll through the memory and find a picture of me and my girlfriend, the one I took on a mountaintop with my arm stretched before us. Our hair is blowing in the wind, especially her long, dirty blonde waves; and her warm smile and bright eyes– her unforgettably beautiful face–­ (along with the vodka) makes me get a bit misty. Tall Brown asks if this is my wife, and I say yes– to keep it simple– and the two of them pat me on the back, and we drink another round to her.

I then look to Tall Brown, who tells me a little wistfully that he is a bachelor, but you never know, maybe he’ll get married one day. Then he tells me that he wants to go to America, to New York City, and Los Angeles– he has seen these cities on TV. He wants to find a job and work in the U.S., where you make a lot of money, and when he comes home he will be rich and important, and can buy all the things he wants. I try to answer his questions about the States, using gestures as much as words. It’s a broken conversation, but we find a way to communicate. Tall brown says it’s lucky I’m an American, because “George Bush is a very great man.” I had never particularly thought so, but I agree now, and we drink to the U.S. president, who I find out later had recently approved an aid package to Mongolia.

The hands on the clock keep moving and evening is coming on. The three of us drink several more little glasses of vodka. Short Blue relaxes his stern look, and his eyes twinkle. Tall Brown begins to stroke his mustache, and talks animatedly about getting married– I assure him it will happen soon. The more I drink, the more I appreciate the fact that I’m sitting down. We all smile at each other and break into laughter for almost no reason.

Then we hear the sound of a car engine, and the two officers quickly stand up and clear away the bottle and glasses. I’m impressed with how they immediately appear to be completely sober– Short Blue has reapplied his perpetual scowl. Tall Brown motions for me to put my camera away, and I place it in my pocket. He doesn’t say, but I think he wants to be sure it’s not confiscated. Short Blue goes back to his chair behind the desk, and Tall Brown waits by the door.

There is a knock, and without waiting a man in a black suit walks into the building. The three of them speak together for a little while, and they hand him my passport. This man escorts me toward the door, and although I stumble a little, I don’t fall down. On the way out I turn my head to smile and wave at the men who opened themselves to me. They nod, and smile briefly, so that their superior will not see, and I walk out the door with him.

The man in the suit sits with me in the back seat of a black Chevy car. There’s another man at the wheel, and he starts the engine and drives down the dirt road. The suited man speaks better English than Tall Brown, and he briskly asks me the same questions about my trip to Mongolia. I answer, a bit absently, and note as we pass a ridge, a ravine, another ridge and ravine, and then the trail that I had started hiking up hours ago. The sheep and goats are no longer wandering around, although I spy a few gazelles on the hillside, eating grass. Before long we reach the bridge, and in a few minutes we’re back in downtown Ulaanbaatar. The man in the suit tells me that he will need to photocopy my passport, then I’ll be free to go. He takes me inside a large brick building to perform this task, and once again I wonder if anything bad might happen to me. But minutes later I’m back out on the street, just in time to see the sun setting over the hills to the east.

This is a part of the city I haven’t seen before, a large central square that is clean and new and fairly good-looking. The whole city looks much nicer right now, with the golden light of sunset making even the squat apartment buildings seem soft and vibrant. I pass a vendor selling skewers of roasted meat and buy 6 of them for 400 tögrög, and wolf down the hot, delicious food. Everyone I pass seems to be smiling at me, although I could be imagining things. I decide that tomorrow I will find the vendor again, and buy a few skewers to feed to the stone lions at the temple; it feels right to give an offering of thanks– to the universe, the local gods, and George Bush– for coming through the day.

I walk back toward my hostel, where perhaps I’ll chat idly with other tourists from the U.K., Switzerland, or Australia. Mostly I’ll want to get online and write to my girlfriend, to tell her about my adventure, and how much I miss her. Oddly, I feel closer to her now than I can remember feeling, and it strikes me how natural it was calling her my wife.

I think over the day’s events– the hike, the views, the scary descent, the fear of being shot, or tortured, or detained indefinitely. Then I think of Short Blue and Tall Brown, my captors and drinking buddies whose real names I never thought to ask. Although today has not been the easiest of days, I’m glad that I met those two, and shared the afternoon with them.

I picture Tall Brown finding work in New York or D.C. as a police interrogator– the job won’t last long, because he’s so bad at it– but he’ll find some other employment, and when he returns to Ulaanbaatar he’ll be wealthy and popular, and it’ll be easy to find a wife. I see him retired from the army, happily married with a big family, running a profitable business in cheap vodka and stolen cameras. And he’s adopted the German Sheppard, who never wanted to be a guard dog in the first place, and now gets to run free and happy through the steppes, and eat all the roasted meat it might desire.

I imagine Short Blue’s impressively stern face takes him up through the ranks until he’s wearing a black suit, and gets to be driven around in a black car, and to work in the big government building downtown instead of a shack in the woods. But at home with his family he is relaxed and happy, with twinkling eyes, especially after 8 or 9 small shots of vodka. I see him living like a good, modest citizen in one of the ugly apartment buildings; but with his two crazy daughters he loves so much running around, always causing trouble (it turns out the angelic one is really the instigator), the place is full of color and life– in fact, in its own way, it’s beautiful.


A Hiker’s Guide to Mongolia, Part 1

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This story was published this spring in the journal Pilcrow & Dagger. Part 2 will follow next week.

Ulaanbaatar is not a beautiful city by any means, although the large Buddhist temple on the hill, with its intricately carved gods, demons and prayer wheels draws the eye. Guarding this edifice are hulking stone lions with curly hair, whose gaping mouths are stuffed with real roasted meat on sticks.

Mostly what I notice about Mongolia’s capital are the squat, drab, communist style buildings that uglify the earth from East Asia through Central Europe. Blocs of these are randomly interspersed with traditional Mongolian gers– cylindrical felt tents that, surrounded by picket fences and resting on wooden platforms, yards full of bicycles, TV antennas and household debris, no longer seem like portable dwellings meant to follow animal migration. The streets are dusty and clogged with traffic, although the litter-strewn sidewalks are not overly crowded. People walking by a solitary foreign tourist rarely nod or smile, and any further communication seems impossible through the barriers of language and culture. Nobody knows me here, and I don’t know anybody. I’m a stranger.

It’s 2007, before I become what I later become. I’ve always wanted to travel around the world, and this city is a stop on the train that takes me there. I have friends, family, a girlfriend, but they all seem so far away– not merely 10,000 miles, but as if they live on another planet or in another century. I don’t miss my life back in the States, but that may be because I can’t remember it clearly– I can grasp the general idea, but the details are vague. Even my girlfriend’s face is now hard to picture.

Just outside of the dingy, unwelcoming city there are mountains, and my eyes are drawn toward them as if by gravitational pull. They begin as rolling, grassy hills, then rise steeply up ridges and ravines to evergreen-forested summits with rocky outcroppings. This foreign mountain range at the far end of the world looks like it could be in familiar Montana, and I feel compelled to seek it out, to rise above the smog and clutter of the city, lift free from the weight of uncaring, incomprehensible humanity. Mountains– lofty sublimity, elemental beauty, raw isolation– that’s what it’s all about, right?

I walk forever through the run-down outskirts beyond the train tracks– through smelly alleys, past abandoned warehouses, and, instead of the boxy concrete of downtown, rickety, unpainted wooden houses and shacks. The closer I get to the hills, the more gers I see–out here there are fenced in areas that have nothing but the traditional tents, sectioned off like trailer parks outside American cities. I encounter few people, but those I see stare at me in silence.

Eventually I cross a bridge over a swiftly flowing river, turn left on a dirt road, and find a track that heads up the mountain slope. On this side of the river, it’s like the city wasn’t there at all– just winter-browned grasslands and forest, crowded only by occasional herds of sheep or goats. I walk up the steep path past vibrant early spring flowers, and several shrines surrounded by prayer flags. It occurs to me that in practically every culture the mountains are where you go to worship, because that’s where the gods live. My breath comes heavy, my heartbeat accelerates, I break into a sweat– but I feel good. I look down on Ulaanbaatar, still ugly, but from a new perspective. I see the wide river valley, every acre on the north side covered with uncoordinated sprawl. Directly across from me, maybe 5 or 6 miles away at the height of land, is the stone-lion temple.

I quickly surpass the distant temple’s elevation, and move into tall, scattered pinewoods. The air is clean and fresh and cold up here, and now I can see more mountains surrounding the town in every direction. The higher I climb, the closer in the trees become, although there’s still plenty of room to walk among them. The path has dwindled almost to nothing, and I’m not sure it’s anything more than an animal trail now. I work my way up the steep ridge, a shoulder of the mountain range that narrows until there are sharp, rocky drops on either side of me. Finally I reach the top of the main ridge, and find a ledge that overlooks the view away from the city. I stare out at a sweeping plain, free of buildings, or roads, or other human artifacts, except for what I imagine to be an occasional ger far below me, so distant that I can’t be sure. This grassy landscape goes on all the way to the bright, cloudless sky, which goes on forever. I feel exhilarated, triumphant, alive. I feel lonely and small and helpless. Also hungry. I remember the fat, satiated lions back at the temple and wish I’d thought to pack a lunch. I take some pictures of the view, although I know the camera lens will never quite capture what I see, smell, feel, and think about this particular place and time.

Despite my hunger, I sit and enjoy the view, and somehow manage to nod off. I awake icy cold and disoriented, a little panicked, wondering where on earth I could possibly be. I remember, and decide that not too much time has passed– the sun is still fairly high. Not that far away along the path, there is a brown and white gazelle, which stares at me for a long time and slowly walks away. I reassure myself that gazelles, like deer or elk, are probably vegetarians.

Although I ought to go back the way I came, I feel like exploring some more. There is a path of sorts along the top of the ridge, and I decide to take it, heading east. I figure that since there are many rocky shoulders descending back toward the river valley, there surely must be another trail to take down.

It’s beautiful and quiet along the forested ridge– up here there are a kind of spruce or fir trees rather than the pines farther down. I find more occasional views both north and south– mountain-surrounded city or endless plain. I sometimes have to scramble up or down large boulder piles. I pass one descending ridge that has no path, and neither does the second one. This shoulder, however, is covered with a series of cliffs and rock formations, and I think I may be able to make my way down on top of these.

The descent is not easy– I have to leap from rock to rock, sometimes over 30 foot drops, scamper down loose scree fields, and climb backwards down nearly sheer cliffs. I cut my leg, and I’m getting very thirsty. Finally, I find a way off the cliffs, down into a ravine between two ridges, full of birch trees and brambles. There is a creek here that I would be desperate enough to drink from, regardless of the risk of giardia or other bacterial diseases, but the sunless valley is still filled with snow. I eat some of this, but it doesn’t satisfy my thirst, or hunger. I frustratingly hear running water beneath the snow.

At first I post-hole, further cutting up my legs, but the lower I go the less snow there is, until there’s just an icy layer covering the stream. It’s now late afternoon and I haven’t eaten since breakfast, and my throat is dry. I scratch myself on pricker bushes as I walk. The ghostly white birches make me think of bones.

At the bottom of the valley I sense that I must be near the dirt road that winds back toward the river bridge and the city. The stream seems to be almost unfrozen, and I envision leaning down and gulping the icy water. But I don’t see the road, and before I can take a drink, I notice a series of brown wooden buildings topped by satellite dishes of various sizes, the whole area surrounded by a razor wire fence– it looks suspiciously like some kind of military complex. This makes sense. Along with gods, mountain areas are often home to secret military bases. Standing at the back of the fence, facing my ravine, is a uniformed man with a Kalashnikov on his shoulder and a chained German Sheppard at his feet. He hasn’t seen me yet, but I don’t think it would be a good idea to slink back into the bushes, unobtrusive-like. So I walk right up to him, and nod and smile, as if meeting him on a country lane. He doesn’t nod or smile. He holds up a hand to say, Stop! and lowers the rifle at me. The dog is also not happy to see me– it bares its teeth and growls. I wish that I had some roasted meat on a stick to share with it, but all I have is my camera, and what I hope is a friendly, innocent smile.

To be continued…