“On the steppe there is no time.”
Who knows if the Japanese, a fanatically punctual people who appreciate and respect those who respect time, came up with the phrase, Time is Money (Toki wa kane nari), as some claim. But being five minutes late to a meeting can damage reputations more than consistently mediocre performance. Despite begrudgingly inheriting the Japanese obsession with promptness, my frustrations with tardiness have long since evaporated during the course of The Trip, largely due to arranging visas for and traveling through China. The Chinese are nothing if not patient, and they have to be, for the bureaucracy in which they’ve tangled themselves can be dealt with little more than pure misty mountaintop Confucian tranquility (and maybe a bribe or two).
It could be a quote from the typical traveler’s reference material found in any backpacker’s rucksack, “Beware: Mongolians are notorious for their lateness.” It’s close to the truth, as true as any sweeping generalization about an entire nationality can be, but there’s a reason why, which I was soon to experience firsthand from Sumya, the good-natured young chemical engineer who agreed to take me out on to the steppe, to stay with his wife’s family, who still live as nomads practicing animal husbandry in the same way that their ancestors have for centuries. We would first have to travel north to Erdenet, where Sumya worked at the site of one of the world’s largest open pit copper mines and is alternatively known as the second largest or the second smallest city in Mongolia (which depends on your worldview, as there are only three cities total). After some initial trouble getting overnight train tickets, Sumya arranged for us to ride with his boss, who had hired a truck to drive him back to the mine. We agreed to meet at Sükhbator Square in the center of Ulan Bator at two pm and leave soon thereafter.
Whereas the Mongolians are extremely hospitable, they are not bureaucratic, political or apologetic about much of anything. Such was the case when, after three pm, Sumya arrived at the statue of the revolutionary hero Damdin Sükhbator on his horse (built on the site where said horse auspiciously urinated 90 years ago), casually chewing some sunflower seeds, telling me we would wait another half hour, then walk to where the truck would be waiting to take us five hours north near the Russian border. As time passed Sumya, goatlike, chewed on his seeds, spitting the shells in a semicircle around us while I stared at the crowd ebbing and flowing like the oceans’ tides at the behest of the pull of the moon. In front of us stood the government palace with its massive statue of a seated Genghis Khan and to the east the Lenin Club building with a statue of the portly proletariat proselytizing. In between the two stands the new Louis Vuitton store. The irony that the majority of the illegal Chinese construction workers who had built it could never go in, and those onetime venerable men whose statues surrounded it would have likely stood against the very idea of the incongruous edifice was not lost on me, but Sumya didn’t get it and certainly didn’t know anything about Lenin. As Dali suggested, Time Persists. All Lenin represents now is his literal statuesque form and not much more. The Marxists lost. Money won. Move on.
And even Lenin would agree that moving at speeds of more than 150 kmph in the quiet comfort of a plush Toyota Range Rover on pot-holed and uneven roads constructed by the Soviets more than twenty years ago sure does beat the bus or worse, the hard seat of the crowded overnight train. It was supposed to be a five hour drive, but with no speed limit and little traffic (notwithstanding the imminent danger of herds of livestock suddenly crossing roads) our driver gets us to Erdenet in a little over four hours time, just as the sun is setting and a vicious wind is blowing what appear to be storm clouds overhead. Walking into Sumya’s ger I am greeted by his lovely wife and three energetic children and immediately served a big bowl of Tsuivan stew with dried mutton and rice and a mug of Süütei Tsai, the ubiquitous hot milk tea you find people drinking everywhere. After eating I take a quick walk outside to look at the stars, the brightest I have seen in all of Asia, and set up my tripod for a long exposure. I will have to rise before sunup to close the shutter, so once I head inside, beds are quickly made up and I share a part of the floor with the six year-old boy, who quickly curls up next to me, sharing my heat in instinctual preparation of the long, cold night ahead.
Awaking in a ger is anti-climactic: it’s cold. Snow still on the ground from last night’s blizzard, and the pre-dawn air is well enough below freezing to make one wish there was still dung in the basket to start a fire. “Be a man. Act like you deserve the hair on your face!” I think as I toss the rough hewn sheepskin cover off of myself. “Not much choice there.” I laugh, eliciting a smile no one will ever see. I’m up before the sun or anyone really ever should be, so I try to minimize noise while stumbling into my shoes, though soon this small felt tent will turn into a hive of voracious activity. The faintest of blues seeps in through the circular skylight overhead and I knew five minutes ago I should’ve been outside to close the shutter on the pinhole camera aiming at the stars I set up some five hours ago.
As I reach the door I turn back and can trace the outlines of eight other bodies, the eldest of which is stirring even now to get up and begin the day’s work, though the rest–ranging from age two to fifty–still slumber soundly. Standing there I can feel the current of chilled air flowing past me through the cracks in the jamb and door, “The inevitable passage of time will claim us all, ” I mutter non-sequitoriously, breathlessly chilled to the bone, as I ease the creak-prone half-door open, feel the whoosh of cold air break into the vacuum of the warm ger and edge out into the opalescent Mongolian morning.
I unzip and wait to evacuate my bladder of goat’s milk tea until the icy wind coming off the distant foothills sweeping through the valley dies down, but it doesn’t, making me wish I had a dele- the traditional Mongolian sheepskin outerwear developed centuries ago to deal with the harsh life of the steppe. Finally my steaming stream emerges, giving me pause to gaze at the coming rays of sun as they tumble over low-lying foothills running from black to tan up through the pasture land the family I’m staying with has their spring ger set up. “Spring,” I breathe to no one but the sheep and the goats, “has yet to arrive.” I shake, shiver and sneak up to close the shutter of my 6 x 9 pinhole camera, which I had initially pointed straight up at the Big Dipper yet now stares up at the soft clouds moving rapidly overhead. Not that a few seconds of my shadow could drastically affect what could turn out to be either a masterpiece or a failure. Smiling at the rising sun, I lean toward the former, knowing that for now, with the exposure time irrevocably set in film, I’m content with whatever turns out during the few hours of sleep I managed.
With noisy bangs and no concern for his sleeping family, suddenly the father is up and out the door, saddling his horse and opening the gate for the goats and sheep, who alternate bleating and farting into the rising sun as they race toward the hilly grasslands, while the cows scratch their heads and necks against the pen posts surrounding the sequestered lambs and kids mewling like milk-starved runts. I wander through the slowly dispersing grazers for an hour, them eying me not so dissimilarly to the locals themselves, which my brain gives voice to in a redneck accent, as usual, “What in hell you doing here, honkey?!”
I take the hint and head for the hills to the northeast, directly into the wind, hoping to catch the sun and warm up as well as taking advantage of the altitude to get a better view of my surroundings. I reach the top and trace the crest to the next connecting peak and find the perfect place to leave my mark. Squatting down, it is only after the few wonderful minutes of solipsistically examining my spoor that downwind, I notice a band of horses regarding me, much more intelligently so, though in the same questioning manner as the ruminating bovine: where in hell did my white ass think I was shitting?
Having gotten mad-dogged by the locals, and after a stimulating morning of gathering cow dung for the day’s fires, lunching on a stew of dried mutton, rice and fresh cow’s milk, I rambled off into the hills to sip on my flask (full of the last of my good Japanese ricewine) and make some notes when suddenly Sumya appears out of nowhere screaming into the wind, “You come and we meet the neighbors now, yes!”
“Sure,” I said, pocketing the flask, “are we walking?”
“In countryside, walking too far. No, we drive. I do now. Come back time, you do. Stick ok?” he said jostling an imaginary manual gearshift in midair as we approached his circus-y red and green painted Mitsubishi 4WD van.
“No problem.” I smiled, feeling a bit apprehensive about “meeting the neighbors”, which I felt could be a setup to marry off the fat daughter from the wrestling leper’s colony to the “rich, hairy” American. My squeamish reverie was interrupted by the engine cutting off and Sumya saying, “Ok, we go inside now.” We had driven less than five minutes, yet upon opening my door the landscape had changed from barren pastureland dotted with cow patties to where we sat in the still gesticulating van: a muddy parking area in front of a dilapidated one-room farmhouse behind which sat a disused barn littered with a perimeter of rusting machinery, myriad car parts, stacks of rotten wood, and other bits of antique esoterica American junk collectors would have a field day with.
We walk in the door, propped open with a piece of kindling, to find an eight by ten room with two beds opposite each other, a built-in cement stove with a chimney stack running up along the wall and through the ceiling boasting a roaring cowdung fire despite its crumbling state, a nightstand, a chair and a table, upon which sits a 750ml bottle of Xapaa Vodka (pronounced Kharaa) that the six grown men sitting cross-legged on the floor are all staring at. Or it could be me. One or the other. The six of them, all in their well-worn dung-colored deles on an ornate wool rug smoking cheap hand rolled tobacco rolled in old newspaper, nod after I’m introduced by Sumya and after offering their hands to me, they turn back to their conversation.
It was then that a seventh man walked in, toothless and smiling, not shocked at all to see my face, but immediately offering his hand saying, “Hello, goodbye,” and enigmatically adding, “I feel fine.” I wrote it off as the esoteric ramblings of the subpar English language education he likely received as he reached for the bottle of vodka in response to one of the men’s shouts. The man in the center opened the bottle with a crack, poured a shot in a small jigger, dipped his finger and touched it to his forehead, and after mouthing some mysterious benediction to the the sky, knocked it back in one sip, poured another and passed it to his left. As each man took his drink, all leaving a bit in the bottom of the small shot glass, they handed it back to the first man with their right hands while placing their left hand on their right elbows, in effect holding the wide sleeves of their deles from touching anything, a sign of respect. In this fashion we finished six rounds until the bottle was done. As another bottle miraculously appeared from under the bed, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
“In my life,” It was the toothless man. He repeated the phrase again and again, eventually singing it. It was then I recognized the refrain to the Rubber Soul classic and smiled. He continued, segueing easily into A Hard Day’s Night‘s “…can’t buy me love…” before erupting into a throaty Mongolian tirade the only discernible part of which were the names of the “Fab Four from Liverpool!” before ending with a mumbling “Hey Jude” I thought could give Paul a run for his money.
The man called Sumya over to him to translate while I turned back to the vodka. Seven, eight, nine shots.
Another tap on the shoulder and “Baby, You’re a Rich Man. Help!”
Ten, eleven, twelve.
I walk outside to find a toilet, only realizing I had done so a few moments after the fact. The inevitable vodka mind-lag had taken affect. Looking up I say, “It’s so bright out here. So much sky…” and then looking down, “…but there’s so much schhit everywhere!” mouthing the expletive like a swollen-tongued lisper. On my way through the junkheaps of mangled machinery I hear the faint chorus of “Hey Jude” wafting out behind me. Smiling, I makeway out to the pasture where hundreds of sheep, goats, cows, yaks and horses are grazing. Making water amidst livestock seems to be a recurring motif of late, though the added bonus of a bellyful of crisp, clean Mongolian vodka has thus far been a pleasure unknown to me. Lolling my head in lazy Saturday afternoon fashion (in truth I have no idea what day it is) I notice a foal walking unsteadily around around its mother. I get within ten meters before the dark brown mare turns to me with blazing black eyes warning me in not so many words to back off or else, but it’s too late, click, the photograph is mine.
It’s back to the shed where we finish off the last few shots of vodka (thirteen, fourteen, fifteen) and despite my muscle control being completely impaired, I feel surprisingly clear-headed. It is then the fifth Mongolian Beatle approaches me and starts spewing his guttural Mongolian gesturing with imaginary guns toward far off targets. Sumya comes over to translate.
“He was without mother and father, how do you say, orphan, yes, he was orphan, so Russian government takes him and he becomes sniper in Soviet army, kills many Afghanistan peoples, Chechnya peoples, Georgia peoples, so good is he with gun, famous in Russia. Then Russia leaves Mongolia and he comes back, works this poor farm for another family, has no money. What to do?”
Pointing to himself and then holding his hand out to me, “Back in the USSR! Mongolia Eight Days a Week. Hard Day’s Night. Money? Ticket to Ride?”
So startled at this unbelievable display, and so talented is he that his pleas almost work, but then I remember I don’t actually have any money to give him, nor if I did would it be anywhere near enough to make any difference in his life. All I can offer, before hopping into the van’s driver seat, is a bit of advice I came up with on the spot:
“Happiness is a warm gun. Let it be, nowhere man.”
The fact that there are ruts, but no roads on the steppe and very little, if any traffic eased my negative Pavlovian response to being asked to operate heavy machinery while under the influence of alcohol. After the first few tentative moments (I haven’t actually driven legally since 2007), and after the initial blurriness passed, the vodka relaxing me just as the sun and bright blue sky emerged from behind cloud cover, I “let go” so to speak and went with the flow, letting the van going where it wanted to while Sumya snored away in the passenger seat. Bounding over the hilly steppe and honking livestock out of my our path, gravity felt like a bad rumor started by illiterate punks, and not applicable in the hidden valleys of northern Mongolia. The higher we launched off of the many dirt mounds the louder the snores from Sumya. It took either three or thirty minutes to get back to the family ger, and just as soon as I expertly parked the car and woke Sumya, the blood rushing around my belly, trying to compensate for the dying adrenaline surge brought on by grain alcohol produced excitement, screamed for more vodka. Within five minutes our prayers were answered as two of the men came (without Beatlemania), much like us, bouncing over the hills in a brokedown mid-80s Korean coupe, shouting that we all needed to get back in the van (now a proper party van) and head up into the hills to try to get a mobile phone signal and make some calls. I jumped back into the driver’s seat, pointed the angling van toward the sun and drove off with four vodka-soaked Mongolian herdsmen glistening and glassy-eyed in their sheepskin deles.
Finding a hill with an automotively ascendable altitude and reaching its summit, making sure to set the parking brake, we all poured out of the van and plopped down in the dirt rolling cigarettes. A bottle of Chingis Khan vodka appeared from one of the shepherd’s sleeves and the rounds started anew. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, shot after shot we shared in the nonlinguistic, gesture-heavy communication that is drunkenry (drunken revelry), while the men passed around their mobile phone trying to catch the invisible connections floating around us. The thought crossed my mind that even nomads have mobiles these days, but no toilets, showers or electricity. One wonders what the roaming charges must be.
A light snow began falling from behind us and Sumya babbling, “Hurry, we clean the sheep sheet!”
“Hurry?” I questioned as we rushed to the van, hoping vainly to get down and finish our chores before the storm set in. This was the first time I had heard that word in months and, in light of the day’s events, it made no sense. After descending the hill like bubbles in the wind, dispersing herds of animals with equal honks from the van’s horn and madcap Mongolian laughter, the sun disappeared behind the thick gray cumulonimbus surging in over the softly rolling hills digressing into velvety blackness. I parked and picking up a shovel, smiled and headed for the sheep and goat’s pen. Knowing, thankfully so, my work was not over, dinner still far off. I grinned through my beard and shook my head as the snow began falling heavily. I tossed shovelfuls of sheep shit into the rusty metal sled, thanking the Mongolian spirits for slowing everything down and somehow distilling in me the essence of the Great Khan.