Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mongolian Adventures 4: The Dune Sea

August 1st:

In our ger, we learned how to play a traditional Mongolian game. The game is played with the vertebrae of goats or sheep. Each vertebra represents one of four common Mongolian herd animals, depending on how it falls on the ground. Each base (the side that stacks on top of another vertebra to make up a spinal cord) has a convex and a concave side. Each side (perpendicular to the fatter 'base') also has a concave and a convex side. Concave base = camel, convex base = horse, concave side = goat, convex side = sheep. So when we throw the vertebrae on the ground, we have camels, horses, goats, and sheep. The person who cast the die, so to speak, gets to flick one bone at a time, trying to make it touch another vertebra of its type. Only one hand can be used to flick, and you can not touch any of the other vertebra as you do so (either you or the vertebra you flick). If successful, grab one of the pair that touched, with the non-flicking hand. The strategy is in choosing which of the pair seems easiest to use to flick yet another vertebra of like kind. When only three vertebra total are left on a throw-down, and if all come up the same or different (no like types or all the same type), all players are allowed to grab for as many of the remaining vertebra as they can grab.

Most of that afternoon, we skirted a great dune sea. The dune sea's edge looms above the flat hardpan like pancake batter spilled upon a stove. Its edge is luminous with reflected light; a phantasm creeping over scoured gravel. By early evening we arrive at a ger camp near the base of the dunes. Between the camp and the dunes lies a wet place, a true oasis. Hummocks of grass and brush contrast so green against the face of the dune. A rivulet of water snakes between these verdigris humps. Camels, with humps of their own, and horses wander freely in this sheltered place. Why is it that such an oasis exists just within the shadow of sandy annihilation, when there is a whole dessicated plain beyond it begging for its water?

As the sun sets, we plan our ascent of the dune face. The face is quite sheer in most places, but dimples and rumpled edges (like an unruly blanket remaining as a child departs bed for school) seem ripe for our ascension. Zoola, however, tempts us with a delicious Mongolian supper: goat fried with peppers and onions on a bed of rice. Our ascent, then, takes a nasty turn as our full stomachs and the strain of climbing upon a curtain of sand bring nausea. The moon rises, full, above the knife edge where the face of the dune meets the sky. We plan to try once more tomorrow, and we descend.

On the threshold of our ger, a little goat lays his head. Not a grown goat--just a kid, really--the creature is obviously sick, dying. My companions named him Jesus.

August 2nd:

Jesus is dead. Thus spake Nietzsche, as if he could see how the Mongolian nomad lady grabbed that little goat by the horns, pulled him up from our doorstop, and tossed him into the shade in a dusty corner of the encampment. Hours later, he breathed no more.

In the late morning we went camel-riding below the dunes. Truly evil beasts, they are, as texts since the dawn of time have attested. If not for their unique adaptations to desert life which in turn make possible human habitation of the deserts, they would have long since been hunted into extinction for their tough meat, and in retaliation for their bad manners. We decided to name our camels after prominent dictators. I named mine Mugabe. The name helped add to my delight in whipping him with a ragged rubber goad, onwards across the burning sands.

I spent most of the day sketching in my ger, waiting for the heat to pass.

As evening fell, we climbed the great dune's face once again. I left my shoes at the base, as they tended to fill with sand and hinder my attempted ascent. Sometimes soft enough for feet to sink into, sometimes a hard crust, hard enough that feet skid and skitter towards the knife's edge of a wrinkle in the dune face, and the abyss beyond. I felt such terror, I never could have imagined, from climbing at the edge of such sandy cliffs. When the ground beneath your feet is so uncertain, and the gulf of air beyond is so certain, it must be sheer hubris to tread in such a place. I often scrambled on all fours, discovering that this provided a more secure feeling (four pods planted in the sand) and on steep ascents, more stability. I developed a rhythm, climbing the 60 degree incline like a steam-powered greater ape. Thirty meters, we ascended like that. And Bina, my Danish companion on that stretch, was about to give up. She had a fear of heights which to her credit she had sought to defy in climbing this monstrous sand mountain. But I suggested that we must be at least 1/3rd to 1/2 the way up of the sheer part of the face. Not a time to give up! So she steamed ahead of me at that point, and we learned that in fact we had been about 90% of the way up that sheer face. Distances can be deceiving when measuring an angle of sand against the night sky. 

So at last I straddled the dune's peak, a knife's edge that stretched away for kilometers. On one side, hardtack gravel in complete darkness. On the other side, twilight still smoldered above a dune sea doing battle with itself--its crests and troughs much lower than this vanguard. And then, descent. The depths of the sand gave off a deep drumming sound, a thrumming that vibrated the entire dune face, as we pushed the sand ahead of us in our long slide into the gloom. The sand speaks. Eerie.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Mongolian Adventures (3): Enter the Gobi

July 30th --

We woke to discover that a jerboa had drowned in the goat's trough during the night. Silly kangaroo-hamster.

Had I written that the lands we passed through the previous day were desolate? The Gobi soon taught me the definition of that word. Jouncing over ground that became steadily drier, the grasses of the steppe around us turned yellow and brittle as the morning hours passed. Then the grasses became mere tufts, like the feathers of a leprous vulture's pate. Then the beds of gravel that had once peeked between grass tresses became entirely predominant.

We rolled into Mandalgov, the capital of Middle Gobi sum (province) sometime mid-morning. The sun had already become an angry, white tyrant by that point. Only 14,000 unfortunate souls lived in that collection of sand-worn shacks and gers, the desert sands blowing in from all sides. No proper roads could be seen there (as I recall), only patches of bald wasteland left undeveloped between the cowering dwelling-places. Was this the setting of a spaghetti-western or post-apocalyptic civilization? The shy youngsters who played football in its streets didn't seem to mind their surrounds, however. Eden is not needed for a youngster's happiness, I suspect.

Our shock-absorbers, unfortunately, were not so forgiving of the surrounds. We found ourselves waiting at a mechanic's garage for an hour or so, while "new" shock absorbers were cobbled together out of spare parts and welded into some semblance of utility next to us. I attempted a few conversations in Mongolian with the ladies who were crushing piles of plastic Sprite bottles into bales for recycling, practicing such basic pleasantries as 'What's your name?', 'Where are you from?', and 'Are your livestock doing well?' A quick look at the dessicated hillsides would seem to suggest "no".

I also passed the time asking Zolaa about the relationship between Mongolia and China. The short answer is "bad". The Mongolians have a bit of a chip on their shoulder when it comes to the Chinese. The long history of rampage and conquest that goes both ways between these two ancient cultures underpins the dislike, but modern justifications exist as well. Illegal Chinese immigrants are a problem in Mongolia, and Chinese businessmen are distrusted--building contractors came in for particular scorn from the Mongolians I talked to. More recently, a Chinese businessman shot a Mongolian. A country-wide purge of Chinese expats (legal or otherwise) followed. I was left wondering whether getting a tourist visa for Kiera would be a problem.

Beyond the grim oasis that is Mandalgov, our van passed deeper into the wasteland. Little tufts of onion-grass sprouted from kitty-litter gravel. Among them could be found small lizards, so lazy in the heat of the sun that I could easily catch them and hold them in the palm of my hand. Bulbous beetles trailed wet ovipositors through the gravel, sheathed in exoskeletons as verdant in green as the wasteland was not. Our stop for a lunch of sandwiches revealed that even the vast litter box was filled with life.

The Gobi is not kind to intruders. Once again that day, our van failed us. The radiator overheated, and we were forced to stop at the top of a dune, the van turned crossways into the wind in an attempt to maximize its cooling. I could only think how horrid it would be, to be stranded here in the midst of nothing. There was, after all, not even a proper highway with the eventual certainty of other caravans passing along our particular path in the desert. There was well and truly nothing... to all horizons.

Of course our van did eventually start up, and we did eventually come to another small town carved from the sand and grit. A herd of camels groaned and moaned. A small shop sold us aloe juice, Turkish cookies, and pickles. That night the pickles were positively devoured by myself and the American girl, Stephanie.

July 31st

Around noon we reached Dalanzagad, another major outpost in the midst of the Gobi. We ate sushi for lunch, at least a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, in the midst of a waterless hardpan. Is this irony? Perhaps only by Alanis's definition, but in fact our small rolls of seaweed, rice, and veggies only represented a miraculous and strange juxtaposition.

The land over which we bounced, jounced, and skidded became increasingly rumpled and wrinkled as the day wore on. Perhaps in the midst of summer there was no obvious culprit for the rapid multiplication of ravines we passed over, but I could imagine that this sere desert is carved and torn whenever water does pass down over its bald hills. The distant crags--and crags these are, the very definition of, with ravenous raptors perched upon their clefts and spires--are our destination for this today. We seek the place known ominously as "The Vulture's Mouth".

The Vultures Mouth is a gorge set in a range of crags, set in the middle of the Gobi desert. This gorge is so deep that even in the midst of summer, shards of ice still sleep unmelted in the depths of its gullet. This gorge is so treacherous that the Argali sheep, ibex, and antelope that graze on its upper slopes routinely fall to their deaths upon the jagged rocks within, a daily feast for vultures and other carrion eaters. Hence the name.

We also quickly discovered that the gorge is a most hospitable home for a legion of pikas--cute little rodents somewhere between a hamster and a rabbit in both size and appearance. The pikas chirp merrily as the vultures circle above. Evergreen shrubs scent the air with hints of allspice (perhaps it was?). We do indeed come upon both remnant ice and an antelope fallen to its death. We are somewhat disappointed that the only wild ungulate we come across is the dead one, its stomach busted upon a rock. There is no better place in which to see that the Gobi's cruelty and generosity are one and the same.