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.
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.