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.

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