In the Gobi

The Gobi is the metaphorical place you go when you have not had sex for a month. So you say, if you are in this position (so to speak), “I am in the Gobi”. Extensions on the metaphor have you going deeper and deeper into the desert the longer your perdition lasts.

A friend of mine came up with this metaphor. We are trying to spread it around the world, so that one day someone will say it it her, and she will be able to laugh and say “I made that up” and no one will believe her.

So it was with thoughts of sex in my mind that I leapt inside our jeep on a seven day tour of the desert. Actually mostly it would turn out not to be a tour of the desert, since we went from Ulaan Baatar and it takes two days to get there and two to get home. But no matter. In our minds we were already there. And unsure what to expect.

Because there is always that question lurking in the back of your mind. Why would I want to go to the Gobi? In my normal life, the Gobi (see metaphor above) is something vaguely unpleasant, to be avoided if possible and laughed at if necesssary. And, so far as I can understand it, there is nothing much there anyway (although the tour does talk about rivers of ice, and flaming cliffs, and immense sand dunes).

But perhaps that is the point. You go because there is nothing. Because your normal life is always the search for something. And seldom are you completely surrounded by emptiness. And because there are people there are who so different from you. Who are always surrounded by nothingness and you wonder whether they miss or yearn for the somethings that we have everyday or whether they don’t.

Or maybe you go because you have met some good people to hang out with, seven days camping with a four-wheel drive sounds like fun, and the vodka is cheap.

Perhaps we should have taken a warning from the fact that our jeep broke down about a kilometre from the supermarket (or about 1500m from where we started our journey). Perhaps we were overly optimistic in seeing this first hour long delay as a once off. But then hindsight is everything. And we are but humans. And liberal, sympathetic, inclined to forgive humans at that.

Only an hour out of UB (that is what the cool kids – and even the locals – call it) and we break down again. Same problem. New location. Far more interesting than the bustling main street. A treeless, flatish, monocolour steppe. Stretching off to the horizon in every direction. A warm wind is blowing. The silence is amazing. There are no fences (mostly they aren’t needed, since there is no private land ownership in Mongolia and animals are smart enough not to stray too far from home). A yurt or two off in the distance. The dirt highways pointing the way forward, and the way back.

Every now and again there is a road sign at an intersection. Well, at a place where a four wheel drive track veers off the path. But mostly you are on your own. GPS. Map. Compass. Sun. Stars. Asking anyone you see. Sense of smell. This is your navigational toolbox. Our drivers opts for the last two. His sense of smell turns out to be very acute. Just as well. Without him, we could die out here.

After seven hours or so (and a flat tyre) we camp beside a little lake. Mudskippers at the edges all day. Cows coming to drink in the morning. Looks like it is shrinking as the summer takes hold. Not a place to swim. But pleasant to see the pinkening of the water in the dying of the light all the same.

Camping is not a very clean thing. I really like cooking in the dark, eating in the dark, and not looking into the pot for fear of seeing something you do not want transferred into your digestive tract. Insects, a bit of dirt, the wrong end of the cucumber. That kind of stuff. Reusing the knife, last person eats from the pot, nothing is ever very clean (oops, we forgot to buy a dish scrubber).

But other people are different. And so this makes me think about hygiene. Because it is clear to me that hygiene standards vary wildly between different people, different countries, in different situations at different times. What is acceptable to me beside the side of the road in Mongolia is not something I would accept from my favourite cafe in Wellington.

There seems to be some connection between hygiene and being healthy. I mean there is at least circumstantial evidence that people in the western world live the longest, and they spend the most time and effort and money on making sure things are clean.

But how strong is the connection? I mean if we reused the jam knife in the butter, no one is going to die earlier. If the last person always ate from the pot (to save on dishes) there will be no increase in cholera or typhoid (although there would be an increase in burns cases when you are really hungry, I suspect).

This makes me think that mostly these things come down to habit rather than hygiene. They are learned and instilled and practiced your whole life long. And they are very hard to change. But there is no particular logic behind them. They just are.

Funny the thoughts that come to you in the middle of the night, by a lake, in a tent, in Mongolia.

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