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…