The scenery has taken a big change. For our first few days in Mongolia, the steppe was a smooth, barren landscape. What was once ankle high scrub gave way to hills, gullies and glens spotted with small trees. During our drive, we were 4 wheel creeping over lava flows, and insolent river crossings, which turned sanguine in our rearview mirror. By late afternoon, we were in the mountain steppe, with strange coniferous trees that had yellow pine needles which I’d never seen before.
The father of our Ger camp was ‘Gala’, and soon after meeting us, his young grandchildren chased Ava around the camp. All together, there were four families (Gala’s children) and their children living here and up till now, we had never come upon a group with such an extended family living together. The adults were the quietest family we had met. I would later learn why.
The Lovely Bones
We loaded up on horses and took off on an 8 kilometer horse ride, down to a local waterfall. The horses would favor the trails but mix it up by forging their own trails on the perfectly manicured grass. As we rode on, I noticed bones everywhere. Not covering the entire landscape, but everywhere you seemed to look, there they were- here and there, bleached white, stark against the sparse vegetation and grey volcanic rock. These signs of death were everywhere in Mongolia and I wondered if remains were from a wolf kill or from a local family who had simply thrown the scraps out. I always expected a bone to announce a nearby carcass, but I never saw one. Top echelon predators undoubtedly take the largest piece they can to their den and kin, and down the line with scavengers lining up and even the smallest of decomposers and detritivores getting their meager, but ample sized scraps. This tug of war over rotting limbs leaves no discernible epicenter of the creature’s last breath as pieces are separated, thinned and turned back into earth.
Horses are just like people, they like to go home. After a short rest at a local water fall, we mounted up and the horses started out with a trot, no doubt eager to get home to their pasture lands.
Erdene Zu Monestary
We left the valley camp homestay with a long goodbye the next morning. Saagii had given the mother a long, tearful goodbye, and I sensed something was amiss. During the embrace, Saagii whispered words into the mother’s ear and the mother nodded back, appreciatively tears streaming down her face. We would later learn that our host family had suffered a terrible tragedy only 2 weeks ago when their 19 year old son was unexpectedly killed in an accident. Instantly, I hated myself for being there and having this wonderful family take care of us and force smiles in the face of such agonizing grief.
We drove to the ancient capital of ‘Karakorum’ and walked around the Erdene Zu Monastery. This was the center of Mongolia in its golden years when it housed tens of thousands and was a premier destination on the silk road. As the Mongol empire spread, Kublai khan moved the capital city to Beijing to be a better location from which to run the empire and Karakorum began its slow but steady demise.
In Search of ‘The Real’
I always keep my eyes open for ‘The Real’ side of a place. The gritty. The sad. The overlooked.
This isn’t readily apparent to me when I touch down right after landing. It takes time to see past the guidebook and trip advisor recommendations, but when I see it and am in the ‘moment’, I know that’s the thing I’ll miss most about a destination. Waterfalls and scenic visits are just too easy.
Our last night in Ulanbatur, we went for Indian food. Tugsuu brought his son and he and Ava played ‘Shagai’ a local game played with 4-5 goat ankle bones. The strategy is to keep as many of your bones without losing them to the other player. Each bone has a distinct different feature depending on how it lands, and how it pairs with other bones, gives you more ‘livestock’ or opens you up to having them taken away from you. Lisa, Saagaai, Tugsuu and I were enjoying our last night together with great food, laughs and beer. The kids were entertaining themselves without a lick of English between them. We stuffed ourselves, and reminisced on stories of the last week.
And that was the moment.