A long way from nowhere

A sunny morning. A remote gas station. Light breeze from the north. Cloudless sky, bluer than blue. The silence broken only by hints of Simon and Garfunkel and the accompaniment of a creaking door.

This place probably has a name. Most towns do, even those really tragic Trans-Siberian places that are named only for their distance from the nearest town that is big enough to be on a map. Pevetsk 57. Pevetsk 71.
The scenery continues unrelentingly open. Not so green today. Getting yellower as we progress south. Sandier, perhaps, not that the Gobi is renknowned as a sandy desert. Far from it. More scrubby. Dry. Desolate, uncivilised, remorseless.

Details catch the eye. Wandering camels, horses, sheep and goats. The odd marmot. A mouse. An eagle or two, clumsy in takeoff but majestic and vaguely menacing in flight.

I wonder if these animals know where they are. I often wonder that. I think not.

I wonder if the woman who owns and works at this gas station knows what she is missing out on. What else there is in the rest of the world that she is choosing not to go check out. I think not too.

Later on in the trip we discover that in every ger families have a shrine opposite the door (just about everything about the layout inside gers is traditionally regimented – door faces south, guests at the back on the left, men to the left, women to the right).

On the shrine, as well as some religious items (pictures of the Dalai Lama make great presents here) will be photos of the family trip to Ulaan Baatar. An unsmiling family (no one smiles in photos here), out of their element in front of the horseman in Sukhbaator Square, or squinting into the sun before the State Department Store.

This trip is the epitome of the grand tour for a normal Mongolian (and just a mildly interesting break in the journey for many Trans-Siberian travellers bound for China). Mongolians don’t leave their country. They mostly don’t even leave their aimag (region). A trip to the aimag capital is an uncommon event.

Strange that for gas station woman, this town is the centre of her universe. Paris, London, New York, even Beijing and Ulaan Baatar are a world away. Home is a town in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Mongolia (which is itself pretty much nowhere, landlocked between an unfashionable part of northern China and the southern steppes of Siberia).

And the opposite is true for me. Europe, America, other places seem closer, more familiar, more comprehensible than here. Coming here is temporary, a sojourn, a holiday, some time off from the real world. Is this less real therefore?

Mongolians build ovoo (“cairns” would be the best translation) at the high points in roads, on the tops of hills, and at mountain passes. Since most of their country is unrelentingly low and flat, sometimes you come across ovoo at just a rise in the track. A pile of rocks, some bits of wood, blue ribbons attached to the top. And often less traditional items, rubbish, empty vodka bottles. The tradition is to walk three times clockwise around them and leave a small donation in the box for luck. The unsuperstitious might consider it an easy way to pick up small change.

It is very difficult to photograph the isolation. A lack of perspective to capture the size of this land without landmarks. Anything that is visible, like those yurts 5 or 6kms away, are so small in the camera as to be invisible. I spent each stop trying to frame a shot with the jeep in it, just so the scale of the emptiness would be more obvious.

The end of our second day sees at the Flaming Cliffs (say it with an intonation similar to Vessini – “The Cliffs of Insanity!”). The Mongolian name is something to do with the prolixity of a local plant. Some European came by and dreamed up the far more poetic title that now graces this place. And not without reason, in the light at the end of the day the cliffs in the distance are indeed a striking shade of red.

This place could also have been named for its windyness, based on my experience. Or for the number of dinosaurs that have apparently been discovered nearby.

The plant is indeed everywhere around here. I wandered among the cliffs a little (although they were more like mounds than the bigger versions over there). Insects digging holes (perhaps they were looking for dinosaurs also). I watched them dig for a while, but I could not figure out why they were doing it. Eventually large beetles crawling up my feet got the better of me. Ants are one thing. Big, black beetles with nasty looking mandibles are another.

We are guests at a ger camp. By the look of it (clean, freshly painted, comfortable inside, a special guest ger, good food) the tourist trade is helping these people out, even if prices remain absurdly low. Just now our hostess is studying English, although the Lonely Planet Mongolian phrase book might not be the most sympathetic of teachers. Her daughter is in on the game. She already knows her vowels (and she can’t be more than two and a half). Intellectual curiosity could be her opportunity to leave the Flaming Cliffs behind perhaps.

I can now report than camel milk is better than horse (but not cow or goat). Horse milk is called “airag” here, but this does not make it taste much better than kymis in Central Asia. Although I must admit it does taste a little bit better. Maybe. It is still undrinkable. And the cheese is no better, even if mixed with tomato.

I can also report, from my experience of gers and yurts (which is growing more extensive by the day) that they always have a barking dog.