This was 13 years, 9 months, 5 days ago

The thing that strikes me lately about me is how incapable I am of believing that I have been anywhere else than where I am currently, and how incapable I am of really foreseeing that I will be anywhere but where I am currently. I don't mean that I'm oblivious to my travel schedule, of course, or that I don't imagine things to be different. Rather, it's that when I'm someplace I'm so very there, so very in the presently there that I find it hard to imagine myself as anywhere but there. This is troublesome when buying gifts or souvenirs, for example, because once I'm there I look at small trinkets that say MOCKBA and think "why would I get that? I could get it some other time.." and pass it on. Later, of course, these baubles hold value regardless, their value comes in their separation from their element, valence from having-been-displaced, but it's as if I can't realize that in the moment, I'm not displaced from myself currently. I can't foresee myself being there, looking back at me having-been here. As such, I really haven't bought anything from Moscow, a few things from Mongolia. What I do have are the receipts, the cast-off residues of plastic bags and scraps of signed paper that mean so little but are so very rare, unobtainable. How else would I find a Russian receipt from a decrepit corner store in Irkutsk, now that I'm in China? When I'll be in Korea, Japan, New York?

Back to this sense of displacement -- I can think of cases when I moved or traveled from place to place, and having-just-arrived would walk around for a week in a daze, thinking: 'I am not there? I am not there.' Eventually things would set in, and I would walk around being present. In my skin. Maybe it's the train that makes these transitions so graceful, so natural. Maybe.

Currently the train is at the Mongolia-China border, on the China side. We've been here for a few hours, now, changing the gauge of the trains, as the Mongolian/Russian train axle width and the Chinese axle widths are different. It's quite the complicated operation, separating the train into two, then separating each car from each other, lifting each train car up in the air, pushing all of the axles/carriages out of the way, bringing new carriages in, lowering each suspended car back down, and then finally connecting all the cars together. Everyone's been peering out of windows, craning their necks, taking photos. It's a fun sight to see a car full of people hovering six feet above the ground.

This car is full of tourists, about 80% tourists maybe. It makes sense, as it's relatively expensive and time-consuming -- I think there's a cheaper way that costs about 50 USD (a fourth of the price) that involves taking multiple trains and buses across the border. Or, if you're adventurous, you can hitchhike part of the way. Anyways, not surprisingly, my willingness to talk to people/other tourists is inversely proportional to the amount of tourists on the train. Moscow-Irkutsk was fun, because there was about one tourist per twenty locals, but this is a little different, feels a little bit contrived, maybe. Or maybe it's that going from car to car saying "where are you from?" gets tiring when there's about 40 groups of people all doing their own thing. Again, not surprising, but it makes me turn more inward, be more content with reading, typing, thinking. There are two groups of people on the train, though, A and P, and J and E, both from the Irkutsk - Ulaanbataar train, and so I've been wandering around and having beers with the former, playing cards with the latter. It's nice to have these points of contact, they're there if I want to, and they're all wonderful people. At the same time, of course, it's good to have my own time. And so I do, because time's all there is..

The train started from Ulaanbataar and made its way down south-east towards the Mongolian-Chinese border. We passed through (or skirted) the Gobi, which was miles and miles of sandy grass, or grassy sand, as far as the eye could see. After this axle-changing operation we'll keep on going a bit more eastward. Apparently, a few hours before Beijing, we'll get an engine attached at the rear that will push the train up and down steep hills, and we might get a sight of the Great Wall, which will be fun.

So, Mongolia.

Mongolia was interesting, in that I had too little time there, and I feel like I would need maybe two more weeks to get a better grasp of the country; one more week to see the place, another to understand it a bit more.

From the train from Irkutsk to Ulaanbataar I I got into the station at 6:30 am, in the early morning. There were throngs of people milling around asking for the usual taxi rides and offering tours, pushing cards into my hands. I didn't have any reservations, and had figured that I'd play it by ear when I arrived, and would probably have walked to one of the guesthouses that I had looked up. A and P were staying at a guesthouse, through, and there's nothing like a personal recommendation, so I tagged along on the van that came to pick them up (how convenient!) and got to the guesthouse that way.

Idre's guest house was okay, located on the side of a dusty road, and the atmosphere was a little funny, as if Idre himself was a businessman, rather than a hotel owner, but it was fine and friendly and worked out okay. I dropped my bags, and asked him for any tours; he thought a bit and told me that there was a tour going for two days and three nights, leaving in an hour at 7:30. After mulling it over I said sure, so I repacked my bag and left my large backpack in the storage room, checked my email, sent out some urgent replies, and by then it was time to go. I didn't take a shower though, but I should have. (So, it turns out, email takes precedence over personal hygiene)

By the time the van jumped on the roads heading out of Ulaanbataar, there was an woman in her 60s from Holland, who seemed reservedly excited and amused, and a very friendly guy in his early 20s from Kentucky with bushy eyebrows, a monkey printed on his tshirt, and jeans that were in danger of becoming shorts. After talking a bit (she's a sculptor/interior designer, he's an English teacher in Korea), everyone sort of fell quiet as we watched the dusty and trafficky roads of UB slide away to the outskirts of the city, then less dusty fields, then grassy fields, then grassy fields with mountains, blue skies, and herds of horses, sheep, camels, cows. None of us had really seen anything like this before, and so we spent most of the ride looking at things, craning our necks, turning around, left, right, peering out of windows, looking out at the sky, and so on.

Interestingly enough, the outskirts of the city had a poor-ish area, where people lived crowded together in yurt/gers. It's interesting how gers are traditional and absolutely practical nomadic housing systems, and at the same time within the setting of an urban 'slum' operate as cheap semi-permanent housing. To my understanding, a ger in its nomadic usage (just under half of the country is still nomadic) is moved around about four times a year, and it'd be impractical to use anything other than a ger on the plains. Practicality aside, it's very traditional, operates as a symbol of Mongolia, and I imagine there's a certain degree of 'respect' or esteem accorded to the ger in its nomadic usage. At the same time, in a urban setting, a semi-slum, with tiny yards cordoned off with panels, the ger operates as cheap housing, is belittled, almost. It's strange to have this conflation of traditional-nomadic-ger and cheap-housing-system align together: in one setting, it's a wonderful system of living; in another, it's a poor city dwelling. Or is it? And it's all too easy to read into this a narrative of 'the nomad, chained at home, loses some sense of 'nobility', tradition', etc. Part of me wonders if this story isn't the conflict in Mongolia's economic and social growth in general, and part of me is so very aware of the dangers inherent in generating this sort of narrative, of treating this country as an aesthetic object that loses some of its charm in progress, and so on.

And that's what I mean by wanting to have more time to grasp an understanding of the country. There was a surprising amount of underpinning conflict that I felt about the country, or how things operated, and I wanted to know more, but it was just too quick, too short, to know anything but the most superficial of tastes, a quick bite, a short taste test. Mongolia's appeal for outsiders is its vastness, the traditional nomadic life, supposedly, but at the same time on the other side of the see-saw of this this appeal lies a lack of infrastructure, few paved roads, and so on. There's very little production that happens there; in a supermarket I saw tissues(!) imported from Germany, for example. There's a rich, rich history that Mongolia lives in the shadow of -- when I went to a temple that was the biggest temple of its time in the 13th century, everything felt a little worn, a little weary, as if the palace walls were ready to say "well, come on, let's try something new." But then, see, here I am again, reading into things. What I mean to say is that there's a lot going on here, a lot of tension, a lot of concerns, a lot of interesting things at play.

For example: what to do with a country trying to modernize itself, that knows that its appeal for outsiders is its untouched vastness? Or is this at all a conflict? Now, herders use motorcycles, have cell phones, use solar panels and have satellite TV (sometimes). It's tempting to think of this as somehow incongruous with the idea of herdsmen, still herding on horses, milking cows and horses, drinking airag (fermented mare's milk), dealing without refrigeration. Or maybe it's not, and it's a productive and positive syncretism. And to continue this syncretism further -- what is it to be a modern nomad? Is nomadism compatible with modern progress? And what will 'modern progress' be for Mongolia? The nomad system is both a lifestyle and an economic process -- but the process is undeniably economically 'inefficient' (compared to the horrific meat farms of the US), while the lifestyle is traditional, cherished, respected. How to deal with these two sides of being a nomad? How to channel the economic process into a powerful force for Mongolia -- yet at the same time continue to uphold or support the lifestyle that also provides a great draw for tourism? Mongolia must be aware of its projected image of nomads living under a large blue sky, herding livestock in peace and wonder, and to know that the attractiveness of this image is synonymous with a 'lack' that is also romanticized by more developed countries... Lack of hurry, lack of social constraints, lack of property, lack of hierarchy, and all of these combining to create a dream of independent, 'simple' living...

After five hours of a jittery, jumping, bucking, rocking car ride, the unpaved dirt roads gave way to unpaved grassy roads, and we traveled like that, through the countryside, like in a car commercial: suspensions-a-working, cylinders-a-firing. Plumes of dust billowing out from behind the car, bouncing up and down. Eventually we rode up to a ger, and we met two friendly French girls from Paris, had lunch, chatted a bit. And there it turned out that everyone (except for me) was going on a eight-day tour of Mongolia, and realized that this two night, three day tour of mine was a little bit non-existent.

Before I could really ask the guide about this all, though, I was whisked onto a camel ride about five minutes after finishing lunch, so everyone clambered out of the ger and watched people to try to get the camel to sit. The camel kept on spitting rudely (and very deliberately) and being very obstinate, which fulfilled all of my stereotypes about camel personalities, and I found myself liking the idea of a domesticated animal (with a steel rod piercing its nose) being feisty and independent enough to resist all attempts to make it behave. Eventually, after enough tries, and this girl walked off into the distance to a camel herd about five minutes away to swap camels. Ten minutes later, she came back with the herder, who brought a different camel -- but instead to everyone's amusement the original camel sat down quite promptly at his urging.

I got the new camel, anyways, and hopped on. (Camels have two stages of movement when getting up: the back legs, which tumbles you forward, and then the front legs straighten, which rights you again.) This girl, Soda, led me around, and in the barest of English we talked and I learned that she was fifteen, played volleyball, her boyfriend was seventeen and drove a motorbike, she goes back to school in Ulaanbataar in the fall, and she asked me questions likewise. All in all, though, I was content to walk on sand dunes and cross small rivers, and was really very content just feeling the gait of the camel, being grateful to it, and having the world pass me by.

By the time we circled around to the gers, about an hour had passed, and none of the other travelers were there. They offered me a giant bowl of mare's milk, which was sour and sour and milky. Not really pleasant at first taste, but interesting indeed, and out of politeness I tried to down the whole thing -- until I realized that I didn't have to, that the bowl wasn't 'my own serving' but simply a way to drink. Another calibration, readjustment here: bowls not necessarily as individual servings but as simply mechanisms of serving, and I read into this (only slightly) the family-oriented culture of Mongolian life.

And then just as soon as I put down my bowl a van pulled up. I hopped in, and for another hour: dirt roads, unpaved, rocky movement, green grass, a blue sky, unyielding sun: and I inevitably fell fast asleep to the rocking motion of the world.

After that ride, I joined onto the last day of a four-day tour with some other people.

My new tour-mates were four friends from Switzerland, and I won't talk about them too much save to say that they were certainly friendly but mostly aloof, and altogether too close-minded for anything to be of any interest to them. I felt a little bit sorry and mostly exasperated at their limpid presence, their insolent gaze, and I couldn't stop but think inwardly: why are you traveling? I wonder what it must be like, to travel so clustered, so helplessly and desperately together. The world sliding away underneath, maybe. They told me that they'd been to Iran a bit before last year, and I couldn't really believe it, wondered if they went out of a flippant whim, clambered up into the simulation chamber titled 'Iran' and watched the world projected onto all six walls/floors/ceilings, and walked out after the credits. They didn't eat milk, cheese, didn't like yogurt, and that's pretty devastating in Mongolia, especially. They ate everything Mongolian with a grimace and the barest amount of gratitude. It turns out that the tour guide also does all the cooking on any of these tours, and most anyone I care to be friends with has more thankfulness towards a waiter than they had towards the guide who stayed with them, slept nearby, and cooked the food for seven people herself. But they would wait impatiently for the food, then eat half-heartedly with forks dangling from their fingers as if the food had been sitting on the table all along, sit back, and would wait for the next thing to happen.

Here's an anecdote: we were in a temple, and the local guide was explaining to us the history of a few paintings, eight or so, painted in the eighteenth century with natural colors, depicting different deities. Ornately decorated, deliberate palette of colors, fantastically detailed. And one of them steps forward, and with a pretty shitty streak of mischievousness, says in front of the local guide, in a temple that's the pride of the country: "Ah, it's ugly!" And right then, I knew that the day would not be fun. Later that day, we had some boiled milk for the dinner's dessert, which turned to take the shape of a semi-solid pancake. The four kids ventured in with pronounced grimaces, and it tasted like sweet (and very goaty) goat cheese, but nothing completely out of the blue. No-one else liked it, and that's fine, but one of them said (after much grimacing and laughing at the food) "I'm not used to eating things like this," and I snapped back, "well, that's why you travel in the first place." I think food pickiness gets at me more than an anything, that and music pickiness, when people can have the gall to look at each other and say, "this music is so weird", 'this is so bad'. It made me want to punch them in the face, right then and there.

But really, I got the sense that this all happened out of a certain... passivity, more than anything. One goes, and one sees things. There's the travel where you're the intact self and you go to see things, monuments, landmarks; and then there's the travel where you manage to let the world in and you talk to people, find out what they're like. They were headed to Russia, and secretly I hoped that they would find it hard, impenetrable, that they would encounter interactions that they found rude -- more than anything because those interactions would be punctures in the little enclave of their moving zeppelin, detached, hovering above travel and movement and actually being anywhere. I have this image of them slowly crashing to the ground and emerging, dazed, with a few skid marks here and there, eventually having to deal with real people. Reprimanded, lost, frowned at, stabbing at maps, finally asking people, learning how to use the language, approaching the world with a little bit less of a sneer. Maybe.

I say passivity because they were passive, yes, but also because maybe the origin of the sneer is an over-solidity of self, a too-sureness of the relation of things in the world ('they eat dog, they eat snails, they will eat everything, can you believe that, they eat things which are not food', as if 'food' is not one of the most fluidly bounded definitions ever, etc) and comes from an unwillingness to participate in the creation of the self actively, maybe. Or, maybe I have to check myself to make sure I'm not just laughing at provinciality, their not being-used-to not-being-used-to things, and maybe I'm the one who's used to things enough that I can comfortably be used to these things because they're not that new. Maybe. Maybe not.

On a completely different note, I have this sudden image of wandering in Chinatown in NYC, somewhere around Grand and Chrystie, buying fish and greens, everyone gazing at piles of greens, iced styrofoam boxes piled with fish, and that image feels like home.

With the aforementioned group we went to a dusty temple, walked around for a little bit, went back to the ger camp. There were other tourists there, and I was glad to go and talk and meet other people, walk around. I talked to two Mongolian guides who were practicing on a Mongolian harp-like instrument with a local musician. They were 22 and 24, and were working as guides during the summer, having studied English and tourism in university in Ulaanbataar. I watched two cats play with each other, mother and kitten, walked around and found a makeshift basketball hoop, watched the sun set.

After dinner we piled into a ger with everyone else at the ger camp and listened to the musician play; he was a former air traffic controller who became devoted to traditional Mongolian music, he said. Part salesman, part musician, he started playing, and it was actually quite nice to have this end my first night in Mongolia, a little bit of the horse-hair fiddle, a little bit of throat singing, a little bit touristy but necessary and nice nonetheless. After we clapped and said our thank-yous I went back to the ger, brushed my teeth and went to bed, trembling in the cold.

The next day we were all slated to head back to Ulaanbataar, which would have meant a very uneventful one-night trip for me (especially since the drive was six bumpy hours both ways), so I asked Alta, the guide, if she could call Idre and explain the situation. She did, and after a few calls, she told me that I could stay at a nomadic family's ger; however, they didn't usually receive visitors, and I wouldn't have a guide, so would be on my own! She was very very apologetic, while I was more than delighted.

After breakfast we drove to the ger, about two hours away. We stopped here and there to ask people for directions -- more accurately, we stopped to ask nearby people if they knew the ___ family, and each time they would either shrug or point to a group of gers far in the distance. Eventually we found our way, pulled up. Alta (our guide) started cooking us lunch, and I dropped off my stuff. After a quick hike to a nearby mountain and down, lunch was ready, and we ate. Alta then worriedly wrote me a list of Mongolian words, gave me her cell number, and then they all left (the four friends, Alta, and the driver) and I was on my own.

The family I was staying with was friendly, but reserved, as they normally didn't really receive any guests. In fact, as it turned out, I was sleeping in their own ger, and so pushed out by me, the mother and the daughter had to sleep in the kitchen ger, which I felt supremely apologetic for. The daughter spoke a bit of English, and she asked me if I wanted to ride horses? And for how long? And I said yes, sure, for however long. So the son rode off on a horse, brought a horse back from the herd, and saddled it up for me, then gestured, 'hop on'. No lesson, or guide, or anything.

Hoping that the experience would be like the only other time I had ridden horses (in Iceland; and there, they were very docile and patient) I got on, and immediately the horse started almost-galloping. "Whoa!" I yelped automatically, but of course that didn't work, as horses aren't trained to 'stop' in Mongolian, only to go ("Chu!"), and so I scrambled at the reins and pulled the horse in, and turned around. I got the horse to trot along, but the horse would stop and start at its own accord, move around, and was a little obstinate. Here and there it would bend down to eat some grass. Eventually I got the right mix of tension and distance on the reins, and found a better balance on the saddle, and all was well. I felt that I had reached an understanding with the horse. It's kind of a strange wonder to ride a horse, to know that you're sitting on an intelligent animal, that avoids holes, steps around obstacles, is surefooted and aware. Initially I kept on trying to micro-steer the horse, but then I realized -- it knows the vague direction in which I want to go; I'll leave part of the path to it, and everything was fine. And I found myself enjoying everything hugely.

More to come, later. We are in the mountains of China, two hours away from Beijing. August 1st, 12:16pm.