We said 'Bayartai' (goodbye) to the children of the nomads. As a parting gift, I left them with some Disney stickers I had bought for the purpose of distributing just so. That seemed to break the ice a bit, so one young boy decided to practice his English with me. I showed him my notebook with its sketches of ruined monasteries, dunes, wastelands, and the sour mare's milk contraption I'd shared the ger with that previous night. Amusingly, the boy told me his tow-headed little sister was really a Russian, and her name was "Jenny". His father was less amused with the jest. As it turns out, many Mongolian children have blond hair which gradually darkens to hickory as they get older. I suppose this is a remnant strain of Caucasian blood from the days when the horde raided Russia and Europe, bringing back concubines for the Khans.
The grasses were again green and thick by this point in our journey. But as the day progressed, the land around us stretched itself, shrugging up mountains from the rolling hillsides. Pine forests hugged the southward faces of the higher slopes. Yaks and yak-cow hybrids grazed the lower meadows.
We stopped for lunch on a steep hillside overlooking a broad valley, and the river winding through it. A couple Kazakh men had arranged a ger at the roadside, with a golden eagle and bows to entice any tourists who happened along. Although later we did try the bows (I didn't do too badly with mine--thank you Camp Au Sable!), for the moment we were more interested in our bowls of stir-fry with pasta. So was a hungry goat who wandered away from his herd and across the asphalt to join us. More welcome to join us in our prandial gorging, an orange butterfly. The goat was discouraged after we shoved him away from our food a few times. The butterfly, meanwhile, alighted on a cup of our heavily-sugared tea. Tea had become something of an indulgence, with our small traveling group devouring box after box of the stuff each day.
That afternoon we journeyed half the length of a broad valley. Ragged upthrusts of volcanic stone bespoke a violent past for serene valley. Our encampment sat on an embankment; the stream below wound through a gorge engraved into the valley floor. A pair of swans swam circles in stately grace within its rocky parenthesis. Periodically, yaks nudged the side of our ger, calling us outside to play.
Mongolian horses are half-wild, so our Mongolian horsemen tell us just before we jump up into the saddle. They look it--with their shaggy hair, angry eyes, and the way the Mongolian horses will buck their heads rapidly up and down when tethered as if they are headbanging at a rock concert.
Our quest is for the Orkhon Khukhree, a waterfall somewhere in the valley not far from our encampment. The guide then lets me (or more specifically, my horse) guide the way. I don't know the way, and my horse seems more intent on finding himself a nice grassy lunch. My companions, however, are having even more trouble with their half-wild mounts.
Eagles, vultures, falcons and hawks have spotted prey, somewhere ahead of us. The usual description is to say that these raptors "circle", but when these hungry birds form a certain density, what they really become is a cyclone. The waterfall is somewhere beneath them, and we dismount accordingly. Forsaking the waterfall for a moment, however, we search for the fount of these carrion birds and find a cow, its ribs picked clean.
The Orkhon Khukhree waterfall was formed--like the valley itself--by volcanic action. A pit falls in the middle of an otherwise flat valley floor, then trails off downstream in the shape of a comma. The water thunders down over the edge of this hole. Forest grows thick within the rift. We descend via a treacherous crack in the rift's wall, dodging a never ending stream of ascending tourists wearing their florescent tour-caps. When the noon-day tumult of tourists depart, we have the thundering falls, the icy pool beneath it, and the tranquil forest to ourselves. I sketch the mossy forest floor as the sun sketches ruddy fire onto my skin.
After leaving the waterfall, I was ready to nurse my badly sun-burned arms in the cool depths of our ger; our guide had one last surprise in store for us, however. Upstream from the waterfall, a small waterfall (more properly a rapids) sent spray up towards the blue Mongolian skies. What was our purpose in being here? we wondered. The guide pointed to the falls and told us to look more carefully.
Then I saw it. A dark shape darting amid the falling water. And another. And downstream my eyes suddenly perceived differences of depth amongst what had previously seemed nothing but stony shallows. Fish were jumping upstream. Taimen, perhaps?
Later, I found my island of solitude further away from camp. Upstream. I explored an ancient sandbar with rocky margins. A pine tree, scarred from fire or lightning, stood sentinel. Although I wasn't really very far from camp, I could feel the silence and tranquility of nature. But then nature called with its forceful urgency, reminding me that tranquility is just a title we bestow upon it out of nostalgia or misconception. I had a choice. Did I wish to return to the encampment with its smelly outhouse--nothing but a hut placed over a pit of piss and shit, a few boards and a gap between them functioning as the commode? Or should I find a more natural solution? I have to come clean, the main argument in my mind against the latter was the issue of how to come clean. Leaves are never satisfactory. But there is this pristine, crystal clear stream....
* * *
I looked around me and saw none to see; clothes were lain upon the bleached river boulders; I jumped into icy waters that scoured my skin. I've never felt cleaner in my life than when I emerged from that Mongolian creek.
Later, returning to camp, I would tell my companions that the waters were warm enough to swim in. Was that mischief on my part?