Mongolia, Part 2: Adapting
I’m really glad I splurged for the waterproof shoes, I thought as we slid from one glacial patch to the next, streams of icy water trickling beneath and beside us under broken blocks of ice. Save for the symphony of flowing ice, the gorge was silent. Completely still.
My phone was on airplane mode, even though I had just slid a functioning SIM card into it the day before to check in with family and friends. I had already forgotten the PIN code for the SIM card, but I didn’t care.
Each step between towering crags on either side of me took me one step farther from my life back in Barcelona. Well-aware that this wouldn’t be the kind of relaxing trip that most people long for, I was willing to accept what would be a handful of unforeseen obstacles during the next seven days of our journey. If anything, it would provide adequate distraction from my everyday life and nagging thoughts that I couldn’t shake until I was face to face with multiple flat tires in the desert, overheating vans that required more-than-frequent pit stops, and a Bactrian camel who would continuously wipe his nose on my leg during the hour-long trek to the sand dunes.
After packing up our gear and hitting the road once again, we eventually came across a nomadic family so, naturally, we stopped to chat. We Westerners were unaware of the conversation topic, but after just a few exchanges, we learned that we would be camping near their temporary home that night.
We followed their moped that carried all three of them through the sandy yet rocky terrain before stopping to set up camp about 100 yards from their home. They welcomed us in for Mongolian tea (green tea with sheep’s milk, most likely from the few dozen goats that were perched on the hill above our campsite, who glared down at us as we set up our bright yellow North Face tents).
The “partially temporary home” (according to our guide) consisted of one room, a rug-covered floor, and one stove that generated more than enough heat to warm the small space, about the size of two of my studio apartments in Barcelona. Cushions and beds were pushed into the corner, which I assume were pulled out and used at bedtime.
Our guide served to translate during our time with the man of the family. He sat on the floor while we sat on wooden stools, sharing tea, cookies, and traditional Mongolian snuff, and one by one, he asked us where we were from and what we did for work. He jokingly referred to himself as a “professional nomad” but the awards and medals on the back wall of the rectangular house had us all wondering otherwise. He eventually (shyly) admitted that he was a horse trainer, and our guide added that he was quite well-know and well-respected in this part of Mongolia. “Half the horse population in Mongolia is wild, so the other half must be trained,” our guide said. His awards for training horses decorated almost the entire wall, and paintings and tapestries of horses covered the others. Mongolians have deep connections with horses, often learning to ride at the age of 3.
The man and woman were grandparents to a 6-year-old boy, who examined us sheepishly then excitedly accepted our gifts of chocolate and books before crawling to sit in front of the TV, yet another feature of this temporary home that surprised us. We learned that they had access to 59 satellite channels in multiple languages, mostly Russian.
The boy was staying with his grandparents for the summer, but would go back to his village and his parents in the fall for school. His excitement in seeing people other than his grandparents carried over into the morning when he joined us for breakfast where he was most likely confused by some of the fruits he tried that he probably had never seen before. He even helped us fold up our tents and pack the vans for our departure, eagerly riding his pink bicycle between our camp and his home to fetch tools like hammers, trailed by a black-and-white sheepdog that was the size of a Bernese mountain dog—big, fluffy, and barking.
That morning I attempted my first “desert shower”, which involved wiping myself down with wet wipes and changing into a fresh set of clothes. I had anticipated the inability for hair washing during the seven days, but this wasn’t as big of a deal to me as I only washed it once per week anyway. We all accepted the fact that we would reek for the next week. We would have bigger problems to face…