Lonely, windswept, and stunningly beautiful western Mongolia. To think such a place even exists on today’s Earth…
They called her the General. Timeworn, with a face that had seen several winters too many, she ruled her family with little more than a few sparse words and some well-aimed side-eye. In the short time we spent with her, a small platoon of children attended to a hundred tasks at her command. Stoke the fire and milk the cows; herd the goats and churn the yoghurt; care for the smallest child, a baby who not only can’t sit up but, seemingly more importantly, can’t yet work. One day the four oldest children labour outside the yurt, raising its long chimney pipe like US Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi.
We were in Western Mongolia at the tail end of the summer just gone. When you think of Mongolia, what comes to mind? Riders on slow horses, six tourists in line? Dodging drunkards on the streets of Ulan Baator? Trying to sleep in a lakeside ger camp while young Euros run an all night bonfire party ten meters from your yurt? This is not that Mongolia, though we’ve been there too. No, this was sweeping grassy plains, lined with crystal rivers and corrugated by bareheaded mountain ranges, here and there a stand of tall fir. This was a lost, lonely, remote world quietly tucked away between Russia and China. Almost everyone who lives there is ethnically Kazakh. Apart from a handful of young trekkers at the basecamp by Potani Glacier, we scarcely saw a single outsider. In fact, we hardly saw a soul at all, and those we met were among the hardiest.
The freshening breeze washes away the last splutter of diesel fumes as two young lads about eight and six arrive at our riverside picnic spot with their sister, younger still. They solemnly offer up a small milk can. I look inside. It’s creamy, pure white, and thick, the first time in a long time that milk has looked so healthy. One of us takes it from them in exchange for a fair price and we gather up some apples for the kids, and a few biscuits. For the girl, we also find a soft-pack of fruit juice. They accept all this with continued solemnity, and make their retreat. I feel guilty for a moment, for the sugary fruit juice, then reason it’s far less frequent and no worse than what they give kids at pre-school back home. When she thinks she’s far enough away, she holds the juice up towards her siblings, and her face lights up.
Bayan-Ölgii is Mongolia’s western-most province, far from Ulan Baator and a long way northwest of the Gobi Desert. It’s not enormous, roughly the size of Denmark. But it feels huge, with a big, big sky and no roads – no really, there are just about no roads. To get anywhere at all takes the whole day and just driving along is an experience. You never build up much speed, nor travel in a straight line, so the landscape slowly reveals itself to you at the pace of an old slide show, one vibrant Kodachrome after another. A sparkling stream here, a wide green field there, and far beyond, the silhouette of twin humped Bactrian camels walking line ahead like dreadnoughts off Jutland, the mythical “ships of the land”.
Those stunning landscapes would be enough on their own, but when you pull up and camp, this mysterious place comes alive. Out of nowhere, someone arrives at your tent to catch up with your guide and driver. Offer them tea and a share of your dinner, and listen to the latest family gossip, or find out how the grass-cutting has gone this summer. Shepherds, grass-cutters, and journeymen all say hello, and sometimes seek help (several times our Landcruiser helped others out of a failed river crossing). So far from anywhere, the only way to survive is to trust your fellow humans, let them help you, and help others later in return. For now, it works, though we heard dark rumours of a shameless competition run by young backpackers from one particular country to see who could travel the country cheapest, essentially abusing this system by offering nothing in return.
The throat singer puts on his traditional cloak as his children play behind him. Our guide translates: “This song is about horses”. So many of them are. The swift hoofbeat rhythm from the strings of his morin khuur and his mysterious, deep voiced lyrics give way suddenly to that otherworldly wail, the secret vocal technique handed from father to son and to his son again. The walls of the humble cottage peel away, the bright sky turns black and we leave this world and find ourselves back out there. Out there, by a fire on the steppe, talking to other herders about the prospects for grazing over the next range and the portents in that dark cloud brewing on the horizon. Out where the sky is so black and the stars so bright that your screen-depleted eyes hurt and your city-sedated brain doesn’t believe them anyway. Out where the promise of tomorrow is more valuable than the promise of next year.
On our last day, we drop off our cook, a jovial guy our own kid called “Uncle Jingz”. For eight days he has prepared good, hearty food for us, and played with our little kid to help her feel at home. We drive down a tight alley in Olgii, and pull up outside his place. Over my shoulder, I see his two children run towards him, tears of happiness streaming down their faces. Jingz crouches down to embrace them; I hold my own daughter’s hand. I don’t need to speak Kazakh to know what they say, in this land where family ties are so important and such a deep part of the cultural identity. Because finally, after ten days of letting their dad give my little family one of its best trips ever, they have him all to themselves. “Daddy, oh Daddy, you’re home!”