The phrase, 'screaming bloody murder' has new meaning to me now. 3 AM or so, at my chosen guesthouse in Ulaanbaatar. A 60-year-old American man comes back to the hostel, pounding on the door and screaming 'Wake up! Police! Wake Up! I'm an American citizen! You can't do this to me!" and proceeding to lay a variety of threats on Mongolia and this hostel in particular. The fellow even claimed to know the American ambassador... I was half-asleep and already I had no sympathy for the imperious brat (actually an old man). The story later came out that he felt he'd been cheated by his taxi driver--and may even have cheated the taxi driver himself. An insane response--particularly towards the hostel, which was doing everything it could to calm him and respond to his panic in a reasonable way... while also trying to get him a bit quieter so that the rest of us could sleep.
The next morning (morning proper, that is, with a risen sun and no psychotic old coots giving Americans a bad name) we met our driver, a quiet older fellow named Ganba, and our guide, a spunky young woman named Zolaa (pronounced a bit like Szoot-luh). With little ado (and only a short stopover at a net cafe) we were off on our way to the southern wastelands.
The road into the Gobi turned out not to be any proper road at all. While the Mongolians have a few two-lane highways that extend from the capital, Ulaanbaatar, these peter out rapidly. Then the real fun begins, as a multitude of dirt tracks expand across the open steppe. These tracks are left behind by SUVS, old pickup trucks, cars, horses, various herd beasts, and motorcycles. There seem to be no rules or limits on where the tracks may range, although the rainy season (late July through September) bogs down quite a few modern caravans in the depths of sudden quagmires.
Much like Montana, the landscape seemed fixed just a short step below the sky. Great burls of cloud let down rain, greening the wild grasslands as they passed by. Rocky spines intruded on our periphery. Herds of sheep, goats, and horses scattered about in search of food; great eagles stood watch, talons digging into the turf as they eyed their fleecy prey. Stately cranes stalked the grasslands too. I was hoping for more cryptozoological sightings. I had read in a local (English-language) paper that a British expedition was then using explosives in the southern Gobi to search for a creature known as the "Mongolian Death Worm". This death worm could shoot lightning from its anus and spit toxin from its mouth. It was also apparently attracted to seismic disturbances, hence the use of explosives as a sort of mating call to find it. Certainly this creature must make any must-see list (just below the slightly less rare, but rather more beautiful, snow leopard) of Mongolian creatures to sight... from a safe distance.
The lands grew more arid as we go (the opposite of the effect we observed coming up from Beijing), the grasses more yellowed. The passing rainstorms brought out vivid greens amid the yellow, though; rainfall set the dust ablaze with ruddy color. Wind-scarred rocks crept like gnarled goblins around the desolate remains of ruinous monasteries. The sun was low in the sky as we came to one such, a place known as Ikh Gazrin Chuluu. A Buddhist monastery was once sited there, before the Mongolian communists slaughtered the monks and toppled its stones. The remnants stand in a sheltered ravine carved from the bulbous surrounding ridges. The only trees to be found for miles are hidden away within the cleft, one reason this place is said to be a nexus of unseen powers, perhaps a locus on some Mongolian ley line. The ruins were peaceful, anyway, and one could see why monks would choose to meditate amongst the desolate beauty surrounding it.
Stone piles (called ovoo, a tactile form of prayer) trapped small offerings of food and money. Passing pilgrims bound the trunks of the lithe aspens with blue and gold scarves. The former monastery had not been forgotten by the locals. More eerily, cairns were scattered upon the ridge above--reminding me of 'Pet Sematary'. Do gruesome semblances of once-living dogs, children, and yaks prowl the steppe there at night? We didn't stay to find out.
A little girl--her hair shaven so short we first took her to be a little boy--greeted us as we ended the first day of our journey. The Mongolians consider it lucky to keep the hair short until about the age of four. We were welcomed into the gers of a nomad family. They shared their fresh yoghurt--so sour it could make a lemon cry for mercy--and a bit of soup with us as we sat with them around an iron stove. As we got to know one another, they showed us a bit of Mongolian humor as well: they told us they would give each of us a Mongolian name. The girls were given nice enough names, 'Adimii', 'Chitske', and 'Tuya', with meanings like 'apple' or 'sunshine'. Then the old men took a good look at me. Zolaa almost fell over laughing as she translated their naming of me: "We think you look like a Russian! So we want to give you a Russian name: Lenin or Putin."
That night, a man, recently rechristened "Putin" by a band of Mongolian nomads, dreamed sweet dreams of spreading tyranny and mayhem across Eurasia.